Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the Straight and Narrow: The Platypus Reads Part LXXI

 It's not often that we get to enjoy two Hellboy volumes released within six months of each other.  After the groundbreaking "Wild Hunt," however, it's hard not to imagine a short stories volume being something of a let down.  I was very much pleased, then, to find that "The Crooked Man and Others" holds its own.  There are only four stories in this volume, but each one is a masterpiece of the "wierd tales" genre while also deepening our apreciation of Hellboy and his journey as a character.

*Caution: Spoilers Ahead*

The most important short-story in the volume is the one from which the collection takes its name: "The Crooked Man."  In "The Crooked Man" Mignola again reminds us just how much folklore there is to explore in the world by setting the tale in the back-woods of Appalachia.  After a long string of stories featuring Hellboy in Europe, Africa, and England, the return to America and American Folklore is welcome change.  While the story is unmistakably "Hellboy," the new setting gives the whole tale a distinct flavor from other works thus far.

The defining characteristic is that "The Crooked Man" is the most openly Christian of any of the Hellboy Tales.  This is all the more interesting because I found it also to contain some of the most overtly disturbing images in Mignola's world.  In "The Crooked Man," we find evil shown plainly for what it is; a bending and perverting of the good.  The central image of evil is one that could be drawn out straight out of C.S. Lewis: the devil as the "crooked" or "bent" man (Remember "Out of the Silent Planet).  The temptations that the Crooked Man offers are all plain and practical as a Medieval morality play: money, sex, and power.  All of these things are goods, but the Crooked Man offers them at a "discount" or in ways or quantities that are not good.  He bends them.  As Hellboy and the ensemble each reject the temptations thrown at them, they are immediately unmasked and shown to be the "bent" and ugly things they are.  More importantly, we see these evils being resisted by the minister in the story with direct quotation of scripture and testaments to God's provision and faithfulness.

The greatest Christian moment in the story is the "eucatastrophe."  The Crooked Man demands that one of the characters surrender himself and the magical cat bone that he was given in exchange for selling his soul as a youth.  All hope seems lost as the Crooked Man uses this persistent taint of sin to launch continual assaults on the protagonists in a way reminiscent of Psuedo-Dionysius.  It looks as though the only way to save the others is for the man to surrender himself.  When all hope seems lost, the minister seizes the cat bone, the instrument of evil, and calls out to the Holy Spirit to break its power.  Not only is the power of the cat bone broken, it is infused with Holiness and with it the minster inscribes the cross on a shovel which Hellboy uses to defeat the Crooked Man.  With the villain on the run, Hellboy and the former witch walk back to the Crooked Man's house where he now appears as he truly is: pathetic and broken.  The protagonists return to the Crooked Man the now Holiness-infused bone destroying him completely.  Thus, God not only wins in the end but is shown to have power over the tools of the devil to straighten them out and use them to achieve good (think of the Cross).

The only marred aspect of the story (and given its place in the overall narrative, this may be not a blot but an intentional and thought provoking) is that Hellboy and the former witch are not mature enough to extend grace to the Crooked Man's human minion who is left old and broken when her master is overthrown.  They instead punish and shame her for the great evil she had perpetrated over the course of the tale.  This is odd, considering that they have earlier helped another witch to repentance and seen the salvation of her soul even when her body is destroyed by the vengeful forces of darkness.  One wonders if they have ever heard the parable of the unmerciful servant.  Still, given that this story takes place early in Hellboy's career, Mignola may intentionally structured the ending in this way so as to highlight the log in the protagonists eye that he will some day have to confront.

All in all, the "Crooked Man" is an extremely dark, but masterful tale of Christ's power to rescue even worst of sinners even at the last possible moment. 

Coming Soon: a review of another short story from this volume, "The Chapel of Moloch."

In the House at Redlands: Platypus vs. Yog Sothoth

We discovered Thursday evening that out garbage disposal was home to an inter-dimensional horror of Lovecraftian proportions!

It soon became clear to us who the culprit was behind this non-Euclidian invasion: C'thulhu!

Braving the sanity-threatening forces of the elder gods, the Platypus was able to drive back the trans-cosmic horrors and ensure the safety of earth.  For now...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Scholarly Responsibility: The Platypus Reads Part LXX

As usual, my summer reading plan has taken a bit of a detour.  While waiting for some of the other books to come in, I picked up Verlyn Flieger's "Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World."  I'm not all the way through it yet, but I am frankly bothered by what I've read.  As a seeming result of her commitment to the philosophy of Owen Barfield, Flieger casts Tolkien's work as essentially dualistic and rooted in Barfield's idea of the fragmentation of meaning.  The problem here is twofold: 1.) though Barfield was a fellow inkling, Flieger thus far has failed to make the case that his thought was as influential on Tolkien as Flieger claims (what precisely Flieger is claiming is often hard to ascertain), 2.)Flieger attempts to cast Tolkien's imaginative project as essentially dualist, a claim that Tolkien the Catholic would have flatly denied.  Such claims demand real and painstakingly collected evidence that is carefully argued and respectfully responds to opposing theses.  Flieger spends precious little time doing either.  By chapter 6 of the work, one feels that "Splintered Light" is really two books: 1.) that seeks to argue for that the "Silmaillion" is central, rather that peripheral to understanding Tolkien's literary project, 2.) an attempt to raise the prestige of Barfield's thought by asserting that it is central to Tolkien's legendarium.  The first seems laudable and properly academic to me.  The second seems like special pleading and at points outright hijacking; both of which have no place in academia.

In all scholarly pursuits, authors ought to be engaged on the merit of their works, not co-opted to serve the commentator's particular philosophical agenda.  Has anyone else read this book?  Flieger is a force to be reckoned with it Tolkien studies and I would like to believe that the book gets better, or else that I have misunderstood her project.  If you can, please set me straight.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part IV

Character Killing

It's a rule of storytelling that killing off a likable character (all else being equal) deepens audience commitment to the story.

As we've discussed earlier, technological advances during the early and mid-nineties allowed video game designers to create narrative driven games.  Squaresoft led the way with its landmark Final Fantasy series.  However, at that time, video game designers creating products for Nintendo had to work within the parameters of the company's ethics code.  This code was meant to ensure that Nintendo products were child-friendly; children being the target audience for video games during this time period.  This meant that story elements like permanent character death that could be traumatizing to young children were frowned upon or disallowed.  Final Fantasy II went out of its way, as a matter of fact, to bring back characters from otherwise fatal situations (falling out of an airship and being turned to stone come to mind.  Rydia's resurrection was supposedly left out due to sheer lack of production time).  Final Fantasy III was groundbreaking, then, in allowing the player's decisions to result in the death of at least four characters; two playable and two NPCs (Mog and Shadow, and Cid and the wounded soldier).  Because mistakes could be made and cast members could die, Final Fantasy III's narrative became that much more interesting.  Player decisions had actual consequences, and thus overall player commitment to the story increased  making Final Fantasty III one of the most beloved RPGs of all time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part LXIX

Summer is finally here, and with it the Summer Reading List.

This year's anticipated titles include:

1. "Education for Human Flourishing" by Paul Spears
2. "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft
3. "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien (Again)
4. "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis (Again)
5. "Hellboy Vol. 10" by Mignola et al.
6. "She" by Rider Haggard

As usual, I'll be keeping you all posted as I work my way through.

Putting the Platypus to the Test

My doctors have finally decided that the super-meds I'm on aren't working so I'm up for a round of tests this month.  I just got finished with a PH probe; a wire running through my nose and down my throat to the top of my stomach (it feels like having a really bad cold).  Next week, I get to have a scope put down my throat and a tracking pill left in my stomach to record the acid levels.  Fun, fun, fun.  The goal is to find out if anything is agitating the hernia and causing it to over-react.  If they can't find anything, we go to surgery, but that's looking unlikely in the short-term due to some insurance problems (not the company's fault; it's a complex issue).