Trends can’t always be trusted. Take the subject of my latest article for The Spectator – DVDs. All of the trend-lines show that DVDs are on the way out, to be replaced by downloads and streaming. And yet, thanks to the efforts of wonderful distributors such as Arrow, Eureka and Second Run, they’re on the way in-in-in to my over-stuffed folders of discs. As I write in the article:

Strangely, the decline of physical media is helping to sustain these distributors. There was a time — sometimes referred to as ‘the Golden Age of DVD’ by weirdos like me, who have collected thousands of discs — when the big studios brought their archives to home-video wholesale. Universal Pictures released dozens of old science-fiction movies, right down to Monsters on the Campus (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960). Warner Bros. printed box set after box set of films noirs. Fox went all out on Charlie Chan. But then the economics changed. The studios are now concentrating on digital, and leaving their archives to the specialist DVD publishers.

A case in point is Arrow Video’s forthcoming edition of The Thing (1982). Several years ago, Universal wouldn’t have dared to loosen its grip on one of John Carpenter’s most popular films. Now it is allowing a boutique British label to release a new restoration on Blu-ray, and collectors are shivering with anticipation. Arrow is known for the care that it puts into its releases. Its edition of The Thing is overflowing with behind-the-scenes material and has sublimely illustrated packaging. There’s a sense of luxury about it, as though the Golden Age has become the Platinum Age.

All proceeds from the article will go towards funding my habit.

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Happy Halloween! And an especially happy one for me, as I’ve just had my first article for The Paris Review published. It’s on a suitably spooky subject: the literary past of the Ghost Club, which counts Dickens and Yeats among its former members.

My favourite part of the article isn’t actually something that I wrote. It’s a quotation from Brenda Maddox’s very fine book Yeats’s Ghosts, which I included in this paragraph:

Yeats’s contributions to the Ghost Club are connected, in some intriguing ways, to his poetry. During the years of his membership, and with the help of his wife Georgiana, he redoubled his experiments in automatic writing. She would hold a pencil to a piece of paper and, while in a semiconscious state, scrawl down the words of invisible messengers. At first, she did this as a trick on her husband (as Brenda Maddox observes in Yeats’s Ghosts, “the messengers seemed at times to have been reading Marie Stopes’s Married Love, a highly popular book that stressed the husband’s duty to give his wife sexual satisfaction”). Later, she would claim, she did it sincerely. Yeats ended up telling the Ghost Club of the “lessons in Philosophy he had received from a group of beings on the other side.”

You can read the whole article here.

Since it’s Halloween, and since I’m linking to my stuff, you might also care to read this old Spectator piece of mine on horror movies.

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I enjoy gaming because, well, I enjoy gaming. But I also enjoy it because, as a relatively young art form, it’s constantly defining and redefining itself. Other art forms do this too, of course – but the pace and extent of gaming’s self-discovery is hard to match.

I’ve written about one aspect of this self-discovery for The Spectator. The short version is that gaming is taking greater care of its own history. Whether it’s the release of retro consoles such as the SNES Classic Mini, or of remastered, revamped titles such as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, gaming’s past is no longer fading away with each successive console generation.

This is a very good development, but it could have some tricky ramifications. To discover what they are, you’ll just have to read the article, dammit. You can do so by clicking here.

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My first piece for the TLS was about Fighting Fantasy. My second piece is about Jack Kirby, on the occasion of his centenary. This, my marketing team would tell me, if I had a marketing team, is me remaining firmly on brand. After I went through the taste-acquiring phase that many people seem to have with his work, and after I read his Fourth World saga, Kirby became one of my greatest heroes. He should be one of yours too.

I’ll be writing more about Kirby and his comics in the not-too-distant, on this very website. In the meantime, here’s a thought from my TLS article:

No one can match Kirby, and, in a sense, no one should try. According to his biographer and friend, Mark Evanier, Kirby didn’t have much sympathy for artists who hoped to continue comic-book titles in his tradition. ‘The Kirby tradition’, he would say, ‘is to create a new comic.’ That is how he ought to be remembered, 100 hundred years after his birth: as an artist who always wanted to go beyond.

Or you can just read it all.

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I’ve been thinking and writing a bit about nostalgia recently. And then – whaddyaknow? – the world conspires to give me a massive hit of the stuff. It turns out that this year is the 35th anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was a huge part of my diet when I was younger. Not only that; one of the series’ founders, Ian Livingstone, has written a new book, The Port of Peril, to mark the occasion. I felt that old yearning to be the hero, all over again.

And so I devoured The Port of Peril. And then I wrote about it, and gamebooks in general, for the Times Literary Supplement. The TLS! It’s my first ever piece for them, so I’m kinda excited. You can read it here, but here’s a taster:

Potted histories of gamebooks tend to mention, for example, B. F. Skinner’s investigations into linear programming, or the birth of the Oulipo group in 1960s France – and not without reason. After all, one of the principal texts of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, is a collection of ten sonnets that allows readers to interchange the lines, allowing for a hundred thousand billion combinations. Which is to say, you are the poet.

There is also something Oulipian about the way in which Fighting Fantasy authors write within a set of self-imposed constraints. According to Livingstone, the main challenge is ensuring that all the winding paths don’t wind so much that they become closed loops, and that they reunite with each other when necessary. But there are also a hundred other considerations: ‘You’ve got to do the gameplay balancing, so that the monsters aren’t so tough that readers can’t get past them. You’ve got to make sure the economy is right, so there are enough gold coins, but not so many that readers can just buy their way through the adventure’.

To which I would add: go buy some Fighting Fantasy books, whether for your kids or for yourself. Alongside The Port of Peril, Scholastic are republishing some of the classics – and they all show how a normal book, a collection of pages between two covers, can be turned into something strange and wonderful.

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Remember my preview of the new Twin Peaks for The Spectator? That article stuck a fork into the wonderful, multilayered cake of nostalgia that was the original series, but I hadn’t yet seen the new stuff. Now I have – or at least the first two episodes. All my usual bedtime rules were broken so that I could tune in at 0200 on 22 May on Sky Atlantic, and then write a review for The Spectator‘s arts blog. That review concludes:

As one character put it, ‘Is it future or is it past?’ The third series of Twin Peaks is a juxtaposition of new and old – and perhaps that’s the point. Can the latter survive the former? Can a mountain town isolate itself from whatever came out of that box in New York? Can the next 16 episodes maintain the brilliant standard of the first two? My coffee pot and I are in it for the long haul.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing here.

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It is, the adverts tell me, happening again – and I couldn’t be more pleased. The return of Twin Peaks isn’t just the return of one of my favourite teevee shows, not just a major work by one of the major film artists, but also what the culture needs right now. Why so? As I explain in a feature for this week’s issue of The Spectator, there’s a lot of lazy nostalgia for the 1990s around at the moment:

‘Take Jurassic World. This wasn’t just a jacked-up repeat of Jurassic Park (1993); it also toyed with our memories of the earlier film. At one point, its obligatory nerd character explains why he’s wearing a T-shirt with the original park’s logo on the front. ‘I got it on eBay,’ he says. ‘That first park was legit.’ For viewers who were children when the first film was released, and who might have owned similar T-shirts back then, it was like being force-fed Proust’s madeleines until you were sick.’

But Twin Peaks, although it originated in the 1990s, is anything but lazy nostalgia. In fact, it was a full-blown study of nostalgia, its good and its bad sides:

Twin Peaks was more than just cherry pies and cherry-red lipstick. It realised that there was sadness in nostalgia itself — what Svetlana Boym describes, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, as ‘a sentiment of loss and displacement’.

That’s why the relationship between Catherine and Pete Martell, which plays like a subplot, is more important than it first appears. ‘Somewhere under all that scar tissue, there’s the faintest flicker of what we used to feel for each other,’ she tells him during the final episode of the first series. ‘I’m asking you to feel it now.’ But she’s only asking it to take advantage of the poor guy. Those good times you used to have? They’re lost.

You can read the whole article here.

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All the hubbub about whether Matt Damon is – y’know – too white to play the lead in a film set in medieval China has obscured an important fact about The Great Wall: it’s part of a massive cultural change. Over recent years, we’ve grown used to seeing Hollywood producers trying to wring money out of the increasingly open Chinese market. But now, as The Great Wall demonstrates, Chinese producers are trying to wring money out of Hollywood and the rest of the world. It’s a change that raises some pretty big questions about the business of cinema, as I write in the latest issue of The Spectator:

Above it all hangs the question of whether the two film industries are cooperating for mutual gain or for competitive advantage. Last year, Chinese box-office takings ($6.6 billion) were second only — albeit by some distance — to America’s ($11.4 billion). Is Hollywood piggybacking on China to maintain its privileged ranking? Or is China piggybacking on Hollywood in order to surpass it? The implications in either case are not just financial. Cinema, even when it’s not twisted into propaganda, is a medium through which people see the world. What will we see through it in the decades to come?

For the full story – or as full as 1,100 words will allow – you can read my article here.

Oh, and I also blogged some of the numbers here.

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