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a review of the A Midnight Visit immersive theatre experience, staged by Broad Encounters/Groundswell Productions

We were not to speak. The undertaker made that abundantly clear. As a reminder, black surgical masks were distributed, which most of the audience donned immediately. Together with the waivers we had signed and the gleaming coffins on display in the black-draped room, the atmosphere was pleasingly charged.

To the final movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, we were divided into groups and assigned a door. This choice was, however, a mere subdivision of SLEEP.

A Midnight Visit is an immersive theatrical production inspired by the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe. Developed by the innovators at Broad Encounters and Groundswell Productions, and directed by Danielle Harvey, it is an astonishing piece of work. From the initial conceit of entering a writer's dreaming mind (properly flagged as a little slice of death), it adumbrates fictional work and biographical detail in a series of stunning tableaux and ingenious installations, through which the audience wanders more or less at will.

An old furniture store on King Street has been repurposed with acres of velvet, rooms seemingly transferred whole from old churches and manor houses, hospital wards and flights of sheer, gothic fantasy—I particularly enjoyed the Dressing Room and the Balloon Hoax. The black half-masks co-opt the audience into the spectacle, which is by turns ghoulish, seductive and hilarious. Especially when the others joined us.

Grieving Widows and Actresses ring bells and take curtain calls, while Edgar and Virginia play out their tragedy with the aid of stranger entities, some of whom invite individual audience members to become more closely involved. While avoiding spoilers, I think I may single out the following for high praise.

 

In which martial harmony is disrupted (by coughin').

 

In which the nurse recommends complete bed rest.

 

In which the cat cannot be kept off the table (or out of the cellar).

 

In which there is laughter in the nursery (and upon every tongue).

 

In which the usher becomes the live act.

 

In which the Raven holds court, before admiring eyes.

 

The skill with which these vignettes are fused into a coherent theatrical experience, that still might differ for every participant, is remarkable. Part of it, obviously, depends upon what piques the individual's curiosity. Do they chose to follow the silent, lace-draped figure passing along the corridor, or follow the sound of ranting into an enclosed chamber? What about that thudding which seems to come from beneath the floor boards? The peep show presentation of some scenes dares the audience: are we here for an immersive experience or not? Such little transgressions are often rewarded with secrets, although these must sometimes be accessed on hands and knees.

But there is also a steady escalation of intensity of image and emotion - from drops of blood to an entire, ensanguined room - controlled by the move from downstairs to up and further, by what doors are opened and rooms revealed by the characters, initially to a select few. There are such contortions! Such whispering and serenades! Nothing feels rushed or—the primary danger at all such events—crowded. There is ample time to explore, to partake, before the characters again snare our attention and gently draw all towards a climax about which I can only, possibly say;

 

“That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

“And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”

 

Or possibly, death, where is thy sting?

Solidly constructed, superbly polished and drenched in style, I savoured every moment of this production. Aware I had only begun to plumb its depths, I was reluctant and yet, oddly relieved to be shepherded through the portal labelled WAKE. But, as this led to the on-site bar, even this offered a double meaning, and a chance to reflect and extend one's meditations. Veteran though I am of role-playing events and immersive theatre (on both sides of the intangible line), few have impressed me as much as this, or granted so much with which to dream.

 

 

A Midnight Visit runs till December 9, at 655 King Street, Newtown. Tickets are $45, available here.

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Another publication! This time it's a poem, "Revenants of the Antipodes", that was selected for the HWA Poetry Showcase Volume V.

I've been an active (professional) member of the HWA for five years now, and even though not living in the USA limits my involvement some, I participate in online discussions, avidly follow the Stoker Awards, and got to hang out with members during a meet up at San Diego Comic Con in 2016. Now I've made one of their members only anthologies, meaning my poem is in excellent company.

"Revenants" is one of two poems that have come to me in a dream, more or less complete (the other is the much-reprinted "Mary"). I dreamed I was at a writing workshop at the NSW Writers Centre, woke up and it was all still there, in fairly good unrhymed iambic pentameter. I wrote it down and polished it up. Where the topical inspiration came from, I can't point to anything in particular. Perhaps it is a long-delayed reaction all that stuff by Lawson and Patterson I studied at school.  But there it is. I hope that you enjoy this snippet!

"Each sunset, now inverted Autumn lies

as red and cold as murder on the fields,

the hoary squatter rides the bleeding trails.

His shapeless hat hides eyes like empty pits,

or so they say: his ancient duster sags

like blowfly strike across his horse's rump.

No dog for years, yet into night he rides,

beneath the old wind pump's abscissional blades..."



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by Laura E. Goodin, Odyssey Books, 2016

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

After The Bloodwood Staff, by Laura E. Goodin
"All those writers who had churned out book after book, breathless adventure after breathless adventure, jungles, deserts, idols, treasures, long-lost relatives--they'd been cheats and frauds and cowards, unable or simply afraid to imagine what it would actually be like to live through something like this.

"He realised who would be next, and began to tremble."

The gap between the fictional and the real holds endless possibility. Crossing it is fraught with peril, but never more so as when you're on the trail of an evil artefact that creates heroes--yes, an evil artefact. Because, as Goodin's first novel makes clear, those square-jawed fellows who box their way through the works of Mundy and Haggard are the last thing the world needs, especially in multiples.

Hoyle Marchand is an insurance claims assessor and vintage book hound, content to live vicariously through his favourite authors. When this insulation is ripped away (in a sequence meriting a trigger warning for bibliophiles), he takes the obvious course: travel halfway round the world with a strange woman to discover if the clues in one such volume point to something real. Although their progress bears an uneasy resemblance to the beats of an adventure novel (joining forces with the plucky urchin, capture by the tribe of savages), the constant intrusion of niggling, practical details, exhaustion and embarrassment leaves him feeling ever more inadequate… and thus vulnerable to the temptation of always being strong, always being confident, never having to take advice, feel remorse, rest, eat, sleep...

This kind of thing has been done before, of course. Joel Rosenberg's The Sleeping Dragon drops a group of RPG players into the fantasy realm they've been harrowing, and Austen's Northanger Abbey provides a withering satire of the gothic. But After The Bloodwood Staff is distinguished not only by its take on a foundation genre, but by the craft with which it conveys its central premise. A delight to read, with crisp, clear prose and a wry sense of humour, it posits that empathy and trust, as well as being among humanity's greatest terrors, are our only salvation..

To read the full review, please go here.

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by Kaaron Warren, Omnium Gatherum, 2018

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

Tide of Stone, by Kaaron Warren
"There's one thing out there... you'll need to look for it. You'll know it when you find it."

"Don't let boredom eat away at you."

"Be careful. Look after yourself. Think of the future. Don't be too curious. Don't think you need to explore everything. Don't go too far down."

Phillipa Muskett, appointed as Keeper for 2014, receives all sorts of advice. She herself has been preparing her whole life, in various ways, for the year she will spend in the Time Ball Tower, tending to those imprisoned there. The experience either makes a person or breaks them irrecoverably, and she is determined to be among those who succeed.

Part personal horror, part Stanford prison experiment, part sheer poetry, Tide of Stone is a masterpiece. Never afraid to ask the big questions or to place evil under her literary microscope, in this, her fifth novel, Warren opens with the question of what is normal and abnormal, and what depends on the segregation of the two. Normal prisoners are not kept in the Tower; this is a fate reserved for "The heinous, the unrepentant, the undeniably guilty." Those for whom no amount of suffering could possibly be enough. Since the institution of the Tower and the Treatment in 1869, there have been those who have disagreed with the consensus, but in Tempustown, they are never many. "We're keeping society safe, Phillipa," her grandmother tells her. "Don't ever forget the importance of what you're doing."

Since 1869. The reader will glimpse every single year.

To read the complete review, please go here.

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by Christian Read, Gestalt Publishing, 2017

a review by Kyla Lee Ward



Nil-Pray,
"No Skin Land" (poor Aingelish translation).

The Great War began when an Archduke was assassinated by a minor death cultist. What gave the Aingelish the advantage that eventually saw them the victors was their embrace of Science--only the hopelessly parochial call it magic any more. But it is now 1925 and the consequences of creating werewolfen and binding asuras are starting to come home. Destruction on such an unprecedented scale has caught the attention of the Mortis Kings of Nil-Pray and for the first time, the ancient city of the Dead has accepted a Quick ambassador.

Richly inventive and wickedly cynical, this is a City narrative of sublime effect. As the young necromancer, Edmund Carver, and Shen, his suspiciously efficient batman, negotiate the Coriaceous Way through layer after layer of plots, assassins, bizarre rituals and downright disturbing architecture, they are forced to interrogate their own convictions, alongside the universals of power, difference and hatred.

"Nil Pray was a peculiar place to hate in. It was a refuge where the Dead found a queer felicity but, for all that, often kept habitudes from their Quick days. It was harder to hate for race when most skins had faded to leather brown or illness grey. Harder still when the skin had faded to muscle and bone. Often, gender was equally flimsy a foundation for bias, Breasts sagged to nothing. Penises rotted. Scrotums burst…. There was one simple divide immediate to all. The Carnal remained embodied and incarnate and the Spectral did not."

It is difficult for either kind to damage the other. But Lord Stricken of the Carnal and the Geistenrex of the Spectral have not only remembered war, they have discovered technology..

To read the full review, please go here.

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By Kaaron Warren, IFWG Publishing Australia, 2016

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

"Each monster has only one way to die. There are no rules. You need to know the monster to kill it…"

At age twenty-four, Theresa was a social worker, helping women to escape abuse. She was described as "a born counsellor", "Saint Theresa". But then she made the decision that landed her in hospital and a client in the morgue. Guilt chases her from her task, because like the protagonist of Warren's first novel, Slights (Angry Robot, 2009), Theresa is haunted, but not by the ghosts of the dead. Cruelly, she sees the ghosts of those who are not yet dead, whom she may be able to save.

The burden of talent is a strong theme throughout this book. The way the Sight manifests amongst the women of Theresa's family has fractured it, erecting walls where understanding and acceptance were required. But her cousin Amber was an artistic genius, able to express the inner soul of a subject in her paintings. When Theresa goes to work for her uncle, seeking a way to heal, she discovers that the talent that should have brought Amber fame instead brought her to the attention of a predator, a collector with a ghastly gift of his own.

Warren's talent as a writer involves twists of perception. She evokes the utterly familiar and ordinary, even the pleasant, then reveals the horror which was always there, only you could not see it. Or refused to, like the people on the street outside the shelter, as Theresa was stabbed and bashed. Theresa's refusal to look away is driven by an older, worse guilt and possibly by something else--the something that sees her brooding over news clippings of accidents and hideous crimes. If she goes up against this monster, does she risk becoming another victim or something worse?

"They need help and you are the best monster to help them...

To read the full review, please go here.
 

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by Cat Sparks, Talos Press 2017
a review by Kyla Lee Ward

cover art Lotus Blue Cat Sparks

Dear legislators, bioengineers, and the team who built that robot leopard;

Please, please don't make the mistakes your counterparts did in Lotus Blue. Although a solid read, evoking wonder and excitement, it presents an appalling future where all our ingenuity has run amok in the name of war.

In Lotus Blue, most of the world has been reduced to toxic ruin, inhabited only by such plants and animals as were genetically modified for use as guards, and semi-sentient tankers, preying upon each other for spare parts. Few still comprehend what brought humanity to this pass—all has become myth, dictating the ritual use of unreliable technological relics. Such as Quarrel.

I'm certain that creating cyborg soldiers with superhuman strength and endurance may seem a wonderful idea. But consider them lingering on, centuries after the conflict they were designed for. Quarrel makes for a brilliant character, as prickly as he is driven, but the pathos of his situation is well-nigh unbearable. Above all else, never, ever create an "Old Blue"--a Lotus General.

If left to themselves, the remnants of humanity may indeed adapt to this situation. They may become warlords, carving out their petty fiefdoms along the Great Sand Road or they may become traders, driving caravans along its length. Healers and shamans may come to fill the needs formerly addressed by doctors and priests. But "Old Blue" filled a different kind of need, and leaving humanity to itself is not part of the plan...

To read the full review, please go here.

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