Book Review: Stephen Andrew Lee’s Tales from Sanctuary: The Vampire Sex Bar

I’m trying to figure out how to begin this. Originally, I was going to talk about this book on Amazon but–back in the day–it had no entry to make a review about. This book is out-of-print. Its publisher Spitfire Books doesn’t seem to exist anymore and the author didn’t seem to have written any other books after this one.

For a book I didn’t even know existed up until four summers ago, it impacted me a lot and carries more resonance than I think most people in Toronto realize. First, before I go on let me give you some background. Sanctuary The Vampire Sex Bar is, as the name of an old Goth nightclub, a misnomer. From what I could tell, no sex happened in the club at all: though it was one of the first Goth nightclubs in Toronto. It was opened by Lance Goth in 1992 and it closed in 2000. The Club itself divided into the Bar above and the Catacombs, fittingly and sensibly enough, in the basement where it was apparently an all-ages space.

This was a time when Goth Nights and indeed the whole subculture was at its peak in Toronto: specifically in the Queen Street West area. There was a very interesting Goth fashion store in that area called Siren and a whole other series of clubs, but Sanctuary lasted for a very long time until its last location became a Starbucks. Sanctuary’s time was also a time of Buffy, the Toronto-based Forever Night series and the old World of Darkness’ Vampire the Masquerade: which I mention to create a little more ambiance before I go on.

Now, as for Tales From Sanctuary: The Vampire Sex Bar the book, it was created in 1997 by Lance Goth: also known as Stephen Andrew Lee. Like I said, I had no idea who he even was or what this book was up until four years ago. I only periodically went downtown in my teen years–to places like the Vatikan or Velvet Underground, even the Bovine Sex Club (another aptly named place, I wonder if anyone will or has written a book on that)–and when I moved out to live on York residence I went to the Neutral Lounge about once a week every Friday for their Goth Night.

So I came into all of this at the remnants of the tail-end of this whole time. Then one day a friend let me read her copy of this book. Apparently, during the late 90s when it came out it was easy to get copies of the thing but now it has become very difficult to do so. So here is my challenge: I want to talk about this book and not give away spoilers on the off-chance that someone can access a copy, yet I also want to give people enough information as to what I’m actually talking about and I feel kind of foolish reviewing a book that people most likely haven’t–or will never–read. But I will do my best.

Tales from Sanctuary is a collection of stories. Each story starts off with a quote of some kind that fits its tone. There is no Table of Contents so you just have to read through them really. I read most of the first story, “The Wind-Walkers” at my friend’s place before I actually ordered my own copy of the book from Alibris.

“Wind-Walkers” is the story of two last remaining members of a long-lived winged humanoid race that fed off of human blood and flesh. They once ruled a kingdom of human worshipers which was betrayed to the Roman Empire by someone they trusted. After being violated, and one of them also mutilated, the two hide for millennia until one day they find Sanctuary and learn to trust again. This story dominates a good seventy-eight pages of the book and it is not without its flaws. The grammar is atrocious. I recall there even being a few spelling mistakes as well. In addition–in the long scene where you see a flashback into the Wind Walkers’ past–they speak far too anachronistically. At the very least, some attempt to make the speech sound more formal or archaic could have gone a long way to suspend that portion of the necessary disbelief I needed to think I was looking at ancient vampiric rulers of Nabatea.

Yet we begin to see here an interesting concept: that beings with monstrous appetites can be sympathetic, even pitied, or emphasized with. Lee actually makes thinking and feeling characters of these Wind-Walkers and I know I wanted to be happy for them. It made me think that they weren’t human and it was not completely fair to hold them to human standards, but at the same time it showed that there was some pain and some compassion and understanding that transcended all of that. It was a bit awkward even there, but through them you begin to experience the club of Sanctuary: that strange dark place of mysteries and humanity where you feel with them as they actually feel like they fit in somewhere in human society after millennia on the run.

At the very back of the book, Lee explains all of his inspirations and some of his methods in crafting these stories. What is fascinating for me is how he crafts a mythological Sanctuary. It is obviously based off of his Club–under his persona of Lance Goth–and perhaps even people he knew or knew of. He plays with the idea of someone from the Goth subculture not feeling like they belong and that Sanctuary is not only a place for them, but also a place for supernatural beings–sometimes understated ones–that feel the exact same way. Lee mentions that when crafting the scenes that lead up to each character going to Sanctuary in each story, he actually amalgamates places from other cities into the background: adding to Toronto’s geography in that way. I don’t know how I feel about that because I hadn’t lived in Toronto city that long and I was–and am–still discovering a lot about it. But he does begin to capture a certain kind of spirit, if you will in that first story and in how he writes this.

So then I got my own copy of the book and proceeded to read through the rest at a relentless pace. In “The Cold Ones,” we see a story about another vampiric group: specifically three sisters that seem to frequent a dark corner of the club and come from a mysterious place with a cab fare of $14.95. Now, this story is from the point of a view of an ordinary person and apparent-staff member of the Bar who gets drawn into the world of these sisters’ and actually is called upon to help them. Again, there was something awkward about this story and while I know that revealing all of “the monster’s” background might be considered “info-dumping,” there were references made such as “the Weir” that in retrospect I kind of get (a thing that traps something) but I wasn’t sure at the time. Also, I’m not a geographical expert but I would assume that Mount Pleasant Cemetery is much farther from Queen Street West than the book portrayed. Still, there was something very compelling in this story in how something can be horrifying, and beautiful, and relatable while still very much a mystery.

I really liked the story “Lillith” which actually has references and a list to various kinds of plants … some of them potentially poisonous. It is about a young woman living downtown who feels awkward in her skin and is terrified of physical and emotional danger. Then something really bad happens to her and she eventually finds she has a problem: a very real and human problem. It’s only at Sanctuary: at a place of seemingly strange people and monsters that she finds a place where she actually feels like she actually belongs and feels safe. There is a bit of a crossover here with characters from an earlier story too and I was glad she got to meet them under those circumstances: and that it let me know what happened to those characters in the meantime.

I related to “The Elixir of Love” in a somewhat different way. It actually comes after “Pins and Needles,” but I wanted to mention it because it was a nice contrast to “Lillith.” It was a story about a young man who thinks he finds love and gets introduced to an eerie and then rather heart-breaking reality: where even if you support the idea that there are different rules for different beings, it isn’t just humans that can be shallow “douchey” people. The last is rather banal, but makes it no less painful for it. In this story, Sanctuary is less of a place where he belongs, and more the site of a humiliation and that sense of cognitive dissonance where you think you have found happiness but it is really the loneliness of a gritty past 4 am downtown night. It was somewhat unsettling, but captured what a friend of mine calls “moments of painful clarity” rather well. Both Lillith and Jayson are very self-conscious characters full of real fear and desire–that do not feel like they fit in–and when they find Sanctuary they meet two entirely different ends.

“Pins and Needles” was a disturbing story, but the build-up of the main character’s development into a self-proclaimed “doctor of bad blood,” is well done and is a nice study into morbidity and “a certain point of view.” Finally, there is “Ricky Las Vegas”: a story about a talented musician that only vaguely wonders why his bands keep disbanding, his friends disappearing, and why Lance won’t let him sing at his Club. It is only towards the end of this really short story that Ricky realizes what he is and what he will do from there. I really liked this story in particular because it deals with psychic vampirism and creativity and how they can be related.

Throughout all of these stories is the presence of a fictional Lance Goth who seems to have some mysteries abilities to sense people in his Club and even come on them without being detected. He is usually the catalyst for the characters wanting to tell their stories or find some information that is integral to us for the plot in some of the stories. He usually takes some small mementos from each person he tells things to, or has told to him. It took me a while to realize that Lance actually existed, and that he was actually Stephen Andrew Lee because I can be dim like that.

All and all, Tales from Sanctuary was not the best-written book or series of stories I’ve ever read. I had immense trouble suspending disbelief for “Wind-Walkers,” no matter how fascinating an idea it was. However, this book did something to me. It is hard to explain, but if I had to put it in writing I would say that it showed me the spirit of the Toronto Goth Nights that once existed or wanted to exist: a night that once flourished until morning came yet still existing somewhere in the city’s cracks. It showed me magic in an urban place that I lived in and in that way it did change me.

For one thing, it made me begin to write about Toronto. I confess I actually wrote three stories based on Tales from Sanctuary–The Wrong Club, To the New Millennium, and Another Time–and I wish I could locate Lee to thank him for making these. I bought a copy of the book for a friend that lost her own years before and it was worth it too to share even some of that understanding. If you are keen on reading a copy and you don’t have a friend with access to it, there are some that were being sold as Used on Alibris and Abebooks. Amazon itself is even advertising a seller that will sell a copy for $998.00, but personally I would check those other Used Book Places first or wait.

For all of its idiosyncrasies, I think that Tales from Sanctuary is an important part of Toronto’s subcultural history that now lost place where as the back cover tells you, “You can hunt, but you cannot feed.”

I give this strange book a three out of five.

The Galvanizing of Creative Cuttings, Writing Perfectionism, Amazon, and Art Coming Soon

It seems I’ve been writing more reviews than creative insights lately: which is fine. The fact of the matter is that everything I review on here inspires me–or informs me–in some way to become a better writer. I keep building from that.

But when all that’s all said and done, it’s always good to sit back and look at exactly what it is I’m trying to do.

There have been two or three things on my mind lately to that regard. The first is that I finished writing another Miracleman/Marvelman fanfic tribute, but I don’t quite like how it came out. There were a lot of things I wanted to say in it–as well as display with a very neat and clean narrative perspective–but it didn’t quite get there. I got all my ideas down and some really good lines but I feel like the overall story is a little blurred.

It is frustrating to have a story stuck in your head for a while and then–when you finally get it out to free up your mind for other works–it isn’t quite as clear or “as good” as you wanted it to be. Of course, the natural solution to this would be for me to type it out and rewrite it. They say that a large part of writing is rewriting and that is true even when you write it out right the first time around.

I also wrote out an original story that I had in my head almost as long as the other one: one I wrote a great many notes for. Of course, one of the pieces of paper where I wrote out this really beautiful quote–in my own opinion anyway–got lost. Yet the story still wanted to be written down. You see, unlike that TED Lecture where Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a genius-spirit flowing through you, I think that I create my works not unlike Victor Frankenstein in a hopefully more intelligent way: I get the genius in me, but it comes in pieces sometimes and then I have to grow these “organic pieces” into something whole. Sometimes they do it almost on their own and it can be a wonderful, smooth ride, but other times I have to guide and manipulate them.

Sometimes the spark or the current is easy to translate into words on paper, or on a screen, while other times I have to do my research and add and take things away as I go. So yes, I guess in a way I fulfilled my childhood dream of being a mad scientist.

I guess that’s a nice analogy because this Blog was started as–and is still–one great experiment for me. I can see the cuttings of the things that I say and write continuing to coalesce into an overarching creature. Aside from the different energies and perspectives I put into creative works, or journal entries I make them more or less the same way.

In other news, I am still continuing this Blog experiment. I have smartened up a bit and I am now scheduling some posts in advance: just so that if I run out of things to say or think about I will have something on here for everyone to read while I figure things out or do something else in the meantime. I was told that I should pace myself out and that it is good advice and that is exactly what I am going to do.

Also, I did end up–as the title above suggests–affiliating myself with Amazon Associates. I haven’t put up any banners as of yet, but I have been linking to products being sold by Amazon. The fact is, and I will be honest, I could use the money (don’t we all): so if you want to buy one of the books or things I talk about in some of those reviews, or even want to get something else I would appreciate you getting something through one of these links. Perhaps at some point, I can even change this Blog into matthewkirshenblatt.com this way or even one day sell a book I create through Amazon. So whatever help you can give me I would greatly appreciate.

Lastly, I believe I will be part of a new creative collaboration soon. Do not be surprised if you see samples of said collaboration at some point in the future or–as I said elsewhere–I might be making Art again: sooner than you think.

Take care everyone.

Comics Review: Miracleman: The Making of and the Human in a Superhero Utopia

There have been a lot of articles and discussion on this matter. J.C. Maçek III gives a very in-depth background into the history of the creative and legal controversies behind Marvel/Miracleman and his comics, while Julian Darius talks about why Miracleman Matters and how it is a prime example of the Comics Revisionism happening in the 80s. I kid neither myself nor you in that there is a lot more out there: more than the actual comic itself.

I find it amazing how much one superhero and his comic can complicate things. I personally think it is ridiculous and a crime against humanity that the Miracleman series has not been published in ages. In fact, it is patently ridiculous that it still isn’t out yet and it’s been this way for decades. The only way you can even get hard-copies nowadays is to find the single issues at certain comic book stories, or ebay, and be prepared to spend a lot of your hard-earned money: anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. I really wish I was making this up. It is a bloody crime and I hope that any legal bullshit that still exists is rectified at least in my lifetime.

But I’m not here to rant about creative legalities. Rather, I want to talk about this series because I read it and I have a few thoughts on the matter that I really want to get out there. They will probably not be as detailed as those in the above links, but I will do my best as always.

Essentially, without giving much away, Miracleman is about a superhero that finds out–after years of forgetfulness caused by trauma–that he is a lot more than he appears to be: and I don’t mean that he realizes he is a superhero. That last is the least of it. Alan Moore revised this character from the hero’s comics Golden Age days when he was Marvelman and part of the Marvel Family: the latter of which he also revised too.

What can I really say without spoiling it on the off-chance that you might read it one day: or at least not spoiling it too much? Alan Moore takes the archetypal building blocks of this super-hero and to say he revises him and his world is an understatement. It is more like Moore rips into the spine and gives us a “behind the scenes” look at a two-dimensional plane to reveal a gritty, grandiose third-dimensional reality that blows your mind. The comics of Marvelman become a mask for a much larger world.

It is a story about a man who finds himself and does not realize what he has found. It is about a relationship that changes. It is about how a human being would really deal with super-heroism and what that is. It is about a former ally becoming your worst enemy, and showing the world just how horrifying a madman with super-powers truly is. It is about finding out that your old arch-nemesis is your creator and needing to surpass that. It is about Project Zarathustra, the Spookshow, comic books as mythology, and saving people’s lives for “their own good,” and the potential consequences thereof.

To say that Miracleman is a critique of the superhero is another awful understatement. All I can say is imagine Watchmen and what it does to the masked hero and his or her superhero successor, and then imagine a series that is somewhat “broken” (in the sense of it sometimes having gaps but also being insanely powerful) and goes an entirely different route from apocalypse and dystopia.

I was first re-introduced to Miracleman through an article I found in my own Master’s researches into mythic world-building called “What if the Apocalypse Never Happens: Evolutionary Narratives in Contemporary Comics” by Abraham Kawa in a volume entitled Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Aside from it also talking about Alan Moore’s proposed “Twilight of the Heroes” which is a very fascinating concept in itself, it deals with how humanity would handle the world being saved after becoming so reconciled to its ending.

That is the challenge that Alan Moore leaves Neil Gaiman as he finished his run of the Miracleman series. Some people apparently this was really cruel of Moore. I mean: where do you go from such a seemingly close-ended conclusion? Where do you go from up? How does humanity deal with a utopia on Earth crafted with the best of intentions? Just how does humanity survive perceived perfection?

And that was Neil’s creative challenge to answer. Darius, along with a few others, says that Neil Gaiman’s writing and concepts in his Miracleman run were not on par with Alan Moore’s. However, I disagree. I think that Neil was given an incredible challenge, but one that his mind worked with. Think about it: Alan Moore created a background and a world. He crafted and borrowed and mythologically re-adapted the main players. He set certain events in motion.

But what I think Neil did was that then he looked at the other half of the equation as it were. In his Miracleman: Golden Age run, Neil looks at how ordinary people like you or I would interact with this utopia that Moore left in his wake. They are still human beings and still have their strengths, their weaknesses, and their differences. It is still a physical world. Yet Neil also taps into that great mythological well and he plays with the form of the comic to an awesome degree. Miracleman # 20 was by far one of my favourite stories: reminiscent of Stardust and yet so different. It crafted to look like a children’s story, but it is a children’s story about a very different kind of child and a very different reality where the stars are dangerous but also wonderful. He tells a grown-up and a child’s story. I think it was one of his best works and it is a damned shame that it is not accessible. As far as I am considered, that comic alone demonstrated what great mastery truly is.

Also, Issue 22–with the Carnival celebrating life and death, and the balloons in the sky– actually made me cry because it was that fucking beautiful, and I use my profanity here for tremendous emphasis. Some of the earlier issues were a little awkward, but they definitely hit their stride and there is a lot of innovation but always that human element. Even Darius mentions in the above article that there is some considerable nuance in Neil’s Miracleman stories. Alan Moore can obviously utilize the human element, but he tends to be more grandiose and ideological I find: while Neil always finds the mystery and the human and he shows you that the story never ends where you think it will.

And he could have ended Miracleman after The Golden Age, but he went on to a Silver Age that … never ended because it was unfortunately never continued. Miracleman is almost a lost, and incomplete masterpiece made by two mythopoeic genii. It makes me sad to think about it, but I’m glad I did manage to read this and I feel so much better as a reader and writer for it.

I would give Miracleman five out of five. It may be broken. It may have its issues and some plot gaps, and some copyright issues by having visual references to both Marvel and DC in it, but it was well worth reading and its worth as a story far outweighs its legend as the unfinished, ligated product that people still talk about and wait for. As for me, I earnestly look forward to the day when I can link to it here, and when I can buy copies for myself to hold in my own two hands.

Kimota, ladies and gentlemen.

Book Review: Understanding Hermann Hesse’s Glass-Bead Game

This review probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to those of you who read my entry “The State of my Blog.” You see? This is where digressions and tangents can lead you: to more book reviews!

I’d heard of Hermann Hesse in passing from a former coworker of mine before ever I picked up a copy of The Glass-Bead Game (or Magister Ludi as it is called in some translations). But it wasn’t until I found a copy of the book that someone was reading at a friend’s house that I actually looked through it and was fascinated by what I saw.

Imagine a game of Tetris that uses all of the world’s culminated and sum total of knowledge to create intricate and wonderful patterns of word, song, and image. That is what I first thought that the Glass-Bead Game–created and practiced by the Castalian Order–actually was. To be honest, we never really get a straight answer as to what the particulars of the Game actually are, but a whole lot of tantalizing generalizations do occur.

I suppose I will talk about the generalizations further before going into the characters. This story apparently takes place in the future–where wars have stalled for a while–and there seems to be a measure of global peace. A potent group of abstract scholars called Castalians have formed and “rediscovering the lost mysteries of the ancients,” gradually created the Glass-Bead Game: the ultimate in interdisciplinary reference-making. Again, that last statement is my opinion but it’s one that I wanted to make now before I make my other one.

Essentially, if you are a Humanities student or a University student of the Arts, this book will have some very eerie parallels to what is probably going on in your life right now. It also deals with a lot of issues as to what the importance of knowledge is to the world and how involved scholars should be in the world. It looks at that line between the university as a place to preserve knowledge, and as a place that shapes others to change the world.

But there are more personal connotations here than the age-old issue of knowledge and scholarship becoming stagnant or running the risk of becoming “corrupted by worldly politics.” There are three characters to consider: Joseph Knecht the protagonist, his teacher the Music Master and his rival Plinio Designori. Joseph starts out as a child chosen to become part of the Order and you get to watch as he has to wrestle with maintaining the code of his Order while alternatively having to challenge it within himself. You begin to see him grow as a person and as scholar into the Magister Ludi: or the Game Master and leader of the Order.

Plinio Designori, on the other hand, exists as an aristocrat student outside of the Order who still gets training by them because of his rank. He challenges Knecht’s potential orthodoxy at every turn with his knowledge and experiences of the outside world. At the same time, when his education is complete, Designori finds himself in a world that does not understand what he has learned, or care about the ideals he has argued with his friend and rival. In the end, his life becomes difficult as he is torn between two worlds: of ideology and reality.

Then you have the Music Master. He is one of the Order’s Masters that tests and ultimately mentors Knecht. He is a wise and serene old man–and much is made about him later being potentially a “Castalian saint”–but he was not always that way. There are four pages where the Music Master tells Knecht about his student days that are so reminiscent of how I felt doing my Master’s work at times that I almost cried: especially when he talked about suffering from a lack of focus and envying animals for simply being animals and not complicated human beings doing Master’s work. If it hadn’t been four pages long, I would have copied and pasted it for future reference as I read it over last summer when I was still doing my work.

This was an excellent book, but I’m not sure if it really could stand against the test of time. The Castalian Order is an all-male celibate order of intellectuals. There is no action in the narrative save for a whole lot of interesting philosophical debates with vague descriptions of the Game that can get confusing after a while. It was written in the 1930s and published in 1943 during a time of immense turmoil in Europe and when a lot of our contemporary institutions didn’t quite exist in the way that we recognize them now: an ironic statement to make because the book itself begins with its own historical digression on how the world and its perceptions have changed long after Knecht’s tenure as Magister Ludi. And it is long. It is very long to read and might not hold everyone’s attention.

It might not translate well as a film even though there are a lot of cinematic descriptions throughout the narrative: especially that very first scene where the old Music Master tests Knecht, as a young boy, on scale and the piano. Of course, I could be wrong. Films like Pride and Prejudice–based on their novels–do not have very many action scenes in them but can be excellent with expert cinematics and good acting. Certainly, a detailed display of scenery and the complex interplay between characters with good British actors like Derek Jacobi who plays as one of the characters in the radio play would make all the difference.

Yet I will say that as the winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature, this book was–and is–a masterpiece. It is a long one, but if you have a lot of time to read something and you find philosophical discussions interesting, this book is definitely one for you.

I think I will end this off by stating that Castalia is actually an ancient Greek name for a nymph that was changed into a fountain of pure inspiration. The thing to understand about a fountain though is that it has to keep flowing in order to remain one. For me, that is a pretty good warning against a place of learning, or a mentality of learning becoming too insular and specialized to the point where it has no relevance at all on the outside world.

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind no matter where you might find yourself. I’d give this book a four out of five.

The Source and Its Creative Feelings

A little while ago–most likely in my article “The Onus of Creativity,” I made reference to the age-old question of where writers get their inspiration from. Or what specifically is the nature of the energy that powers a creator to make a work of any kind, and can you actually sense that energy?

I believe you can sense that energy behind someone’s act of creation. As to where I get my inspiration from and what the nature of that energy is for me, the answer is really one and the same. In X-Men: First Class, Professor Xavier is attempting to guide Magneto into–not only to using but–mastering his powers. He tells Magneto to envision moments of greatest joy and the most horrendous pain. By combining these feelings, by drawing from the well of passion and clarity that they both come from, Magneto is able–for the first time in his life–to consciously and concisely access the full range of his powers.

The point is: the place that Magneto draws from is love and hate; joy and sadness; serenity and power. One of my Creative Writing teachers once said to us that when we write, we should always write from a place of calm and detachment but–while I agree with a lot of that in principle–that is just not how humanity nature, or its art works: at least not in their entirety.

One way you can look at it if you’d like is that emotion and sentiment–even interest–begins the impetus for, and the creation of structure and clarity. Viewing emotions in a calmer retrospect has its advantages. Yet art is also about expressing yourself: even with violent splashes of paint across a canvass. I believe that there is that “knife’s edge,” that X-Men: First Class, among other creative places makes reference to: that tenuous ground between elements and emotions that is a whole other mindset in itself.

It is also not a precise science. Sometimes you feel more than you think, or you are more sad than angry, or more angry than happy. There are different mixtures of all emotions, impulses and thoughts: known more kindly, again, as human nature. People always tell you when you feel conflicted to “express it” or to even “write it down.” Sometimes the process is calming, other times cathartic, removed, continuous and nagging, and whole other kinds of varieties thereof. And that knife’s edge can slip from one direction to another: or even become a sundial whose shadow is determined by the outer world and the place you choose to find yourself situated on.

But whatever it is, it is unique and not the ultimate thing. Those energies will always be there by virtue of what you are as a person, but it is the vessel that matters more. It is the thing to maintain and focus so that you can use those energies to make whatever you want or need. That vessel, of course, is you and it is a task that is easier said than done.

It is easier said, but it is necessary.