This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here. Five years ago, I wrote a piece about Interstellar and the death of the astronaut myth. […]
Presented without additional commentary because when it comes to Alasdair’s writing, it truthfully doesn’t require any.
I somehow managed to miss this post about the evolution of the astronaut mythos in book and film when it was originally posted last month, but for all NASA kids who grew up in the shadow of the Saturn V, the Marshall Spaceflight Center, who know their grandparents laid hands on the science that got us to the stars, it’s required reading.
The car gathers speed. The sirens fall away and another sound comes; a strengthening growl high above. I can picture the swollen metal bellies of the Heinkel bombers, stuffed with high explosives. With the motion of the car, I feel the ancient metal disc move on its chain beneath my shirt. Vincent’s penny; maybe it can bring me luck again.
“You can let me go. Who will ever know?”
“Why would we do that?”
“If you let Vincent do this, who will stop him doing worse in the future?”
The car stops, doors open and close. As they lead me away from the car a succession of explosions in the distance makes me flinch. A sound like a giant striding towards us, wading through houses and shops.
The hood is snatched away, revealing a large empty space, an abandoned warehouse. A table and three chairs in the centre of the room.
I know I will never leave this place.
famous last words
Anyway, in summary:
What’s it about? Sebastian is a boy plucked from a life of poverty and abuse by Vincent, a mysterious and powerful stranger, and is groomed for the sort of greatness that powerful men seek to pass on to their proteges. (Greatness in this context comes in such exciting flavours as ‘murder with impunity,’ ‘body-snatching,’ and ‘immortality.’) Over the centuries, Sebastian reaps the rewards of being within Vincent’s inner circle, but cannot escape his own conscience. A confrontation as well as a reckoning is inevitable.
What’s so good about it? You know what “they” say about bad pennies, but what is Chris Barnham saying about them? Possibly that there’s more than one, and whether or not that penny is ‘bad’ or or ‘good’ or bound to turn up again is entirely up to the reader. Sebastian is the lens through which we experience both the horror of a child’s abuse by his father, his serendipitous rescue by a stranger, and his gradual transformation into a man with more in common with his monstrous mentor than he is prepared to admit to himself.
I enjoy any story that makes me struggle to find an appropriate genre label for it. This one spans genres, being equal parts historical fiction and fantasy (hence its appearance on PodCastle), but I’d stretch it further and categorize it as a piece of horror fiction, too. The horror is slow to approach, and subtly written, but it will slam into you like a freight train if you pick the story up for a second time and re-read it from the beginning.
Where can I find it? You can find the full text of “Vincent’s Penny” over here at PodCastle, and I would strongly recommend reading along with the story as you listen to Matt Dovey’s A+ narration. It’s well worth your time.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Please be mindful that, while episode 81 of the Magnus Archives, “A Guest for Mr. Spider,” is the focus of this article, I may reference specific events or information from later episodes in passing. This is not a spoiler-free zone, apologies!
I will gamely admit that I currently view all creative works I encounter through a Magnus Archivesconversion lens, as I’ve spent the last three months thoroughly marinating myself in all existing episodes and as much sweet, sweet fan-created content as I can get my greedy little hands on. My obsession also means that I’m spotting connections and parallels to the show’s motifs everywhere, including innocent bystander blog posts that turn up on WordPress Reader. Which is where I spotted Dim But Bright Poetry‘s charmingly illustrated “Spider Sense,” now featured at the top of this post. Almost immediately after reading it I thought of “A Guest for Mr. Spider,” and could not stop thinking about it.
A quick note before I get started: spiders in the Magnusverse serve several specific narrative functions, and I have every intention of giving discussing these functions and plotty labyrinths in more detail at a later date–but, I’m not going to get into them in detail today. Today I just want to write about spiders, I guess.
Is there enough collective cultural knowledge behind the verse, “along came a spider,” to transform it into a literary conceit? I think there must be, otherwise spiders and their webs and the sorts of spidery characters who crouch at their centres–or find themselves tangled up within them–wouldn’t be such a mainstay of literature. Specifically children’s literature, where the spider as a character is nearly always sly and clever and unambiguously up to no good, and therefore a reliable source of dramatic tension in a story or poem. When the spider comes along in a children’s tale, its arrival signals to a young reader that someone in the story is in danger, whether that someone is Mary Howitt’s Fly or, as is probably the case in “Spider Sense,” some unknown person’s socked foot. (Or the spider itself. One small spider vs. one large foot? Odds aren’t looking good for you, little spider.)
This brings us to The Magnus Archives, an audio drama horror podcast produced by The Rusty Quill that is intended for older audiences and so lacks on its surface anything to do with children’s literature. But Episode 81 is transparently about childhood, grounded in the recollection of narrator and central protagonist Jonathan Sims’ childhood trauma as he records his statement for the Magnus Institute.
The object at the centre of his trauma is a book–a children’s book, at first blush–called “A Guest for Mr. Spider.” And this book, more than any of the other nightmarish tomes in the series–which are all capable of scarring minds, ruining lives, and dispensing horror after horror upon anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon one–is the one book that feels the most fundamentally evil to me as a listener. I suspect it feels that way because it is the only one whose very design preys upon the trust of children and their engagement with stories.
Three half-men in a lifeboat drifted on the methane sea. Her ship’s name, Night Marie, was written on the stern like a tombstone. The ship, along with the rest of her crew, had sunk thirty hours before sunset. Sparks, the ship’s half-boy, crouched in the bows, his ears still ringing with the sound of screams, though the sea had long since swallowed them up. Hobb, the mate, lit the lanterns. Beyond their circle of light, the darkness was total, as though they sat inside a bubble in a well of ink.
“Well,” Hobb said, at length. “We shouldn’t have thrown old Creeping Jack overboard, that’s what I say.”
There are people in this haunting nautical nightmare who should have been thrown overboard, of course, but their presence is inferred rather than overt. The company, and the company men, who built the bodies the half-men wear and designed them to be disposable. Consumable.
But of course they’re absent until it doesn’t matter anymore, because their presence would shatter our suspension of belief. Why would they be present to witness the brutal consequences of their mindless pursuit of profit?
Yesterday’s poem from Dim But Bright Poetry seems apt, somehow.
Doesn’t matter the material composition of the skull, or whether the skin was yours through birth or artificial construction, or whether the thoughts course through circuits or synapses. Some things are yours, and are not capital, no matter what a shareholder says.
Scrap metal lived in the belly of the company ship. Sparks lay strewn about and shuddered by engines. He felt like a star in the dark.
I trust you’ll burn them all to ashes one day, Sparks. That’s what stars do.
Truthfully I don’t have the time or the bandwidth to write in-depth commentary on all the stuff that has snagged my interest, and I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that my tiny cohort of readers also don’t have the time or bandwidth to devote to one blogger’s commentary. But I want to write about stuff I like! And the stuff I like is pretty cool.
Hence, new category: quick picks.
“Hello, Hello,” by Seanan McGuire
What is it? A podcast version of the short story “Hello, Hello,” originally published in Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. What’s it about? Language, communication, parenthood–and birds. A computational linguist is befuddled by the speech, appearance, and uncanny behaviour of an unknown woman’s avatar on the neural network system she uses to communicate with her sister, Tasha. What’s so good about it? Beautiful authorial voice and exploration of both animal and human behaviour. Where can I find it? Lightspeed Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine.
Huntsvillain, by John O’Brien
What is it? An extremely well-researched and outrageously funny history blog about the state of Alabama. What’s it about? In the author’s own words, “short bursts of hilarity from Alabama’s otherwise miserable history.” What’s so good about it? In addition to being written by a very good friend, Huntsvillain is an honest and unapologetic look at the history of my home town and home state. It will gift you with more knowledge than you ever realized you wanted about what marriage and divorce looked like during the 1800s, and a scholarly examination of just what lead John B. Haynes to rip apart a local silversmith’s cabin, log by log, with his bare hands. Where can I find it? Right here–> Huntsvillain
ReviewSunless Skies, and soon. But just to give you a taste of what’s to come:
listen, some things are just on brand for me, and Failbetter Games’ most recent release just tops that list. And I’m going to stop myself there for now and come back to this when I’ve had more time to let things percolate.