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nicolas cage, cthulhu, and the internet

kat kourbeti
kat kourbeti
welcome back to honest to blog (working title), a hopefully-weekly newsletter with thoughts about writing, movies, music, science fiction and fantasy stories, and general creative process blah.

it's a weird, wild world out there...
this week’s a little different, and a bit long; i come to you with a film review, some of my thoughts on lovecraft and the cthulhu mythos (and how bizarre the world we live in actually is, tentacle monsters and all), some media i’ve been enjoying, and some teensy weensy writing updates.
first, let’s talk cosmic terror.
my introduction to the cthulhu mythos actually came from tabletop gaming, rather than reading the work that inspired it. i spent my gap year between school and uni nerding out with friends in my hometown, and a big part of that was my introduction to - and subsequent obsession with—dungeons & dragons (3.5 ed, obviously), white wolf’s world of darkness extended game universe, several GURPS campaigns including a fantasy pirate one (because of course), live-action roleplaying of some of the above (mainly WoD), and of course, call of cthulhu.
in call of cthulhu you make a character who lives in early 20th century new england, who will come in contact with something so strange and terrifying—ancient gods, sea monsters, weird monstro-human hybrids, dream demons, and cosmic fungal spores among other things (i may or may not be speaking from experience here)—that their brain can’t comprehend the magnitude and horror of it all, and eventually either lose their sanity to some extent, or die a horrific, mind-boggling, gruesome, and undignified death.
(i can feel your glee at reading that paragraph. you should probably be playing call of cthulhu… or! actually! if you like anime/mechas/hybrid things, you should be playing cthulhuTech, which is probably one of my favourite games of all time: you ride neon genesis evangelion-style mechas that contain the organic matter of mythos-based monsters, in order to fight invading Old Ones and/or their loyal cultists. oh yes. it’s so good.)
anyway, all of this to say, i didn’t really read much lovecraft as a young’un. hell, i still haven’t, and at this point i’m not particularly fussed, because (a) there’s better weird fiction out there right now that i’d rather be reading, and (b) the games are actually better than the stories, imo. controversial, i know, don’t @ me.
one thing i’ll give to ol’ howard, though: he popularised the trope of not showing the thing that’s scariest (technically a combination of tropes under the umbrella rule of scary; no, i’m not sorry for linking you to tv tropes). basically, the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps left by the words that are too limited to accurately describe the sheer horror of the thing. it’s just best left implied, hinted at, teased until the reader’s spine is tingling. different things scare different people, and this ensures everyone’s thoroughly creeped out.
and here lies the rub (and the film review).
i went to see color out of space, a new film starring nicolas cage that is based on the eponymous h.p. lovecraft short story. nowadays, the premise of the film may sound kind of old and tired: a meteorite hits a farm, carrying with it some weird alien thing—a colour so otherwordly it cannot be described—that begins to change the environment around it, and one by one all the members of the family that own the farm start to go insane and/or die.
yee, classic howard. go on my dude.
the film more or less retains the original plot, whereas other adaptations that have come before this one have been looser, and made the ‘colour’ into something else entirely.
a few key things are changed to bring the story forward into the 2020s:
  • nic cage’s character nathan has a daughter, lavinia (played brilliantly by madeleine arthur), who is into wicca and carries around a copy of the necronomicon; a sneaky little way to throw in some more lovecraft references, but also a great narrative device, as lavinia’s greatest desire is to leave this farm/town, and while she hopes her magick will help her achieve this, the weird colour that lands in their front yard has other plans.
  • there are alpacas. as my partner called them, ‘chekhov’s alpacas’. you know when you see them that something nasty is gonna come for them. it’s no surprise when it does; if anything, it’s bloody spectacular (pun intended).
  • there’s an interesting thread that’s gently followed through, of nathan’s wife theresa (joely richardson) recovering from cancer, and how their marriage is holding up in the aftermath. of course, the pink fumes from space have their own agenda for her, and some of it ties into the cancer plot, and honestly it’s much deeper i thought this movie would get. it also helps that cage and richardson actually have pretty good chemistry.
  • the narrator, hydrologist ward phillips, working on a study for miskatonic university, here to investigate whether the local dam has affected the quality of the water around the farm—is played by a black actor, elliot knight, who does pretty well in the face of unspeakable cosmic weirdness. lovecraft was a known racist, and that’s the biggest issue most of us fans of the genre have with his stories, but this film attacks that head on, and does so well.
    tired: making a lovecraft adaptation film that’s period-accurate.wired: making it modern, and casting a black guy as the narrator. in your face, howard! ha!!
seriously. great job, elliot.
seriously. great job, elliot.
the aesthetic of the film, as you can see from the screenshots, is very neon 80s, which is peak trendy right now. it looks fantastic throughout, with the otherworldly pink slowly tinging the environment until it overpowers everything; flora, fauna, humans, cats, alpacas…the score is much the same—lots of 80s inspired synths paired with discordant screeching violins over dark ambient/drone basslines, very up my street tbh. it works like a dream in setting an eerie tone that escalates to positively horrifying.
needless to say, nic cage SMASHES IT as amateur farmer/alpaca enthusiast/capital-d Dad nathan gardner. this is the sort of role he’s made for; his general… nic-cage-ness fits the part perfectly. we all lowkey suspected it when the film was announced, but to see him Lose It on the big screen (“they’re alpacas!! ALPACAS!!” he yells at one point, beautifully) is truly magnificent. if you’ve seen mandy, i’m told the vibe is very much the same—after all, both films are produced by elijah wood’s horror film production company, spectrevision.
unfortunately, it succumbs to an issue that permeates lovecraftian adaptations, in that film doesn’t really allow for such a thing as a colour that can’t be understood. it’s, uh, pink. it’s very pink. sometime it’s purply, sure, but on the whole… no one could ever say that it falls outside the realm of human eyesight. that means the horror often falls flat when it comes to the alien stuff, and actually feels strongest when it hinges on the characters’ inner flaws.
briefly at the beginning, each of the five members of the family are affected by the colour in different ways: the little boy goes deaf, nathan is overwhelmed by a strange nasty smell, theresa loses feeling in her limbs, lavinia is on the brink of throwing up, and the oldest brother blacks out at one point. i thought ooh! each of them has a different sense taken out, alright! except that’s never really followed through, and that’s a shame. they really could’ve brought it home, but alas.
overall it’s a darn fun film, with a lot more dark comedy moments than i was expecting, that feels authentically lovecraftian down to the epilogue (“we’ll never understand what happened here,” ward says, looking pensively into the water and smoking a cigarette), and absolutely worth a viewing. i can see it becoming a cult classic, fit for quote-along screenings where the food is all coloured pink and there’s dark drone music playing in the foyer.
… nobody steal that idea, i’m calling it now.
a tentacled tangent on copied content, original work, and money
as i was first sitting down to write the review above, a weird thing happened, and it kind of set me off on a wee rant… it started off in one place and quickly morphed into something deeper and uglier. thread time!
kat kourbeti 🔜 FIYAHcon 🔥
i'm writing a piece on #ColorOutOfSpace, and came across one of those data-mined, plagiarised articles AND its legitimate counterpart. this is wild. (thread!) 1/?

for reference, the original: a nice lil roundup on lovecraft's influence on horror films https://t.co/DbLuXDwqqw
kat kourbeti 🔜 FIYAHcon 🔥
but see, i didn't find that article first. what i found was the knock-off, on a website that looks legit for all intents and purposes, down to having writer bios with headshots... except something was off throughout, like the words just didn't add up. even in the writer bios. 2/ https://t.co/aWts36qvUM
kat kourbeti 🔜 FIYAHcon 🔥
then there's the weirdness of the article itself. at first i was like, maybe english is their second language...?

except it's written very competently, with words here and there replaced with ones just near-enough the same meaning, but used wrongly. uncanny valley stuff. 4/ https://t.co/c3vLx3kyoC
kat kourbeti 🔜 FIYAHcon 🔥
i definitely was aware that there are websites that auto-copy others for advertiser $$ - i forget where but i recently read sth about it - but coming across one myself, and being able to track down the original @collider article by @startthemachine, made it somehow more real. 5/
kat kourbeti 🔜 FIYAHcon 🔥
tl;dr the internet is a weird wild west of no regulations, people are finding all sorts of cheap ways to make a buck, while creators are out here writing original content for free, struggling to monetise + feeling like we're not worth $$ (damn impostor syndrome!!). love it!! 🙃🔚
to elaborate on that last tweet: i’ve long and often struggled with the idea of asking for money for my writing. for years i wrote for film websites, putting real work hours into going to press screenings, interviews, film festivals, red carpet premieres, and writing up reviews, recording podcasts, and making youtube videos—all for absolutely no moolah at all. the very idea of getting paid seemed ludicrous. was i qualified to ask to be paid, not having a journalism or a film degree? i had no editorial oversight or feedback, so was my work even any good? who was i, a young nerd with no pedigree, to demand a fair wage for content made out of love - and what even is a fair wage in this industry?
(that’s still an ongoing conversation in the film writing community, by the way, though the field is beginning to change as more and more people are speaking up against this exploitative tactic, and film blogs are listening and starting to pay them. maybe we’ll have some sort of standard emerge soon. maybe not. time will tell.)
then comes my fiction writing, which i’ve been working on for years, also of course unpaid—because to publish a book, you need to first finish it. so all the work hours going into research, drafting, editing (and in my case, doing that five times over)… none of it’s ever going to be paid. if and when i get a book deal, i don’t expect to make nearly enough on any advances that will cover the work i’ve done over the course of eight years. it’s just the way things are.
(there’s a whole class-based argument around who can afford to write long projects like this for no money, obviously, but this newsletter’s already getting long, so i’ll leave it for another time.)
to see entire websites/businesses built on stealing people’s hard work for clicks and cookie revenue (which i’m ashamed to have contributed to; don’t click the first google results kids!!)… it brings up all sorts of complicated feelings, and it downright makes me furious. there’s no way to get sites like these booted off the internet, none that i know anyway. every time one makes something, writes a post, makes a video—the risk exists that someone else will try and make money off it, instead of you. it’s garbage.
i love the internet, but also sometimes i hate it. ya feel?
let me know your thoughts on this, as i’m sure a few of you are creatives with this same struggle. do you monetise your creative work? how and when did you go about it? and if you faced this sort of inner block, how did you overcome it? i’d love to know <3
links and recs for the curious
  • monday just past saw our AGM at my writers’ group, spectrum; thanks to all the lovely people who came and brought their ideas and motivation to the meeting. we’re blessed to be surrounded by each other’s talent and community spirit, and i feel so excited to be a part of this group now more than ever. here’s to a creative and successful writing year to all :)
we’re working on revamping the group twitter at the moment, so if you’re keen to keep up with what we’ll be up to coming up, give us a follow—though i’ll also be covering any big news here, of course.
  • some stuff i’ve been enjoying this week media-wise:
    1. locke & key on netflix; a modern fantasy series about a family with a magical secret, based on a comic book written by joe hill (aka stephen king’s son, who has a cameo at one point). i didn’t think it’d like it as much as i did. it touches on themes/issues you wouldn’t expect—grief, alcoholism, family and identity, the dangers of taking the very concept of fear entirely out of your brain—and it does so in a sensitive and well-thought-out manner. performances are, on the whole, pretty good, and you might find this bit amusing (i know i did): the town it’s set in was originally called lovecraft, massachussetts in the comic. (they change it to matheson for the show, which is a bummer.) reading a bit about the comic, i’m thinking there is a stronger connection to the mythos that the show lets on, perhaps to make it less niche and more accessible to the wider netflix viewership. fair, but also, boo. if they do more seasons, i hope we get to see more of this unfold.
    2. this pop punk’s not dead playlist on spotify, because the genre is very much still alive, and we all need some boppy rock tunes to make it through this crazy time we’re living in right now. just good vibes, ya know? (also, did you know blink 182 are back? because they’re back, and they still sound the same, and i love them.)
    3. the screwtape letters, a short book by c.s. lewis, which i’m currently reading for book research: a demon high up in the Infernal Civil Service sends letters to his subordinate with tips on how to tempt a human and guide him toward ‘Our Father Below’, and away from ‘The Enemy’. it’s hilarious in its mundanity and scathing in its commentary of 1940s england, and a funny way to look at Hell as a bureucratic organisation with appraisals and colleagues and reports. “make him think about the ordinariness of things,” screwtape insists at one point, and damn, i felt that. so far i’ve giggled a lot as i make my way through it.
lastly, as a motivational kick, i’ve signed up for camp nanowrimo this april. camp nano is much like normal nano, except you set your own goals and they can stretch or fold as you see fit. i’m using it to start a new short story, and begin work on draft 5 of The Book. if you’re working on something too, feel free to add me as your writing buddy, and let’s cheer each other on!
that’s it from me this week! looks like i had a lot to say about a bunch of things and words got away from me… oops? hope you enjoyed at least some of it, and please feel free to share your responses by twitteremail, or invisible octopoid.
you may of course forward this email if you found it interesting or amusing, and if you ever feel like tossing a coin my way, you can do so by buying me a coffee.
stay creative and speak soon,
xK
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kat kourbeti
kat kourbeti @darthjuno

writing, media and arts commentary from a queer g(r)eek writer of science fiction and fantasy works.

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