Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best Reads of the Year

It's a rare complaint that there's simply TOO MUCH good writing on one's plate, but that's the case this year. 2015 was filled with too many excellent releases. So many, in fact, that I find myself struggling to pare down the selections into something resembling a "Best of" list. However, what I present to you here is my attempt at just that -- a paring down, a tightening up, a creaming of the crop (which sounds as messy as it is). Undoubtedly, given the quality of releases this year, I've probably forgotten several worthy books that could have (or should have) made the list and, as always, I still have a tower of books on my "to-be-read" pile -- a pile that threatens to crush me flat if it ever topples. So this is not necessarily a comprehensive list; it's a list of books I've managed to get to and can readily recall that made an impact on me this year. Without further ado, then...

My 2015 Best Reads from Everywhere in the Multiverse (in no particular order)

A Quartet of Fine Chaps (the chapbook resurrection is upon us! long live the chapbook resurrection!):

"These Last Embers" - Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Classic Strantzas here. A deliciously ambiguous and unsettling (and in that sense Aickmanesque) fairy tale of loss, separation, and rediscovery. It proves that we CAN go home again, but what we find there may be far from what we expected. Buy it... well... on ebay maybe? It was a limited run, so if you get your hands on one, you're a lucky devil.

"The Visible Filth" - Nate Ballingrud (This is Horror)

Everything you've come to expect and love from Ballingrud. It's visceral, gritty, and unremittingly bleak without losing sight of the common humanity of even the most morally fallible characters, which makes it doubly disconcerting. Buy it here.

"X's for Eyes" - Laird Barron (Journalstone)

Barron Gone Wild. There's no other way to describe this. It's parts gleeful bizarro and cosmic horror that feels as though Barron uncorked the champagne bottle of ideas in his head and let them fly to tremendous effect. Buy it here.

"After" - Scott Nicolay (Dim Shores)

The weight of this novella will crush you in all the best ways. The monstrosity of domestic abuse meets the monstrosity of the unknown in a deeply disturbing tale that forces us to consider whether we accept monsters of all variety a bit too easily. Buy it... well... um... this one's sold out, too. TWICE. Which should tell you how good it is and why you want to track down a copy.


Sing Me Your Scars - Damien Angelica Walters (Apex Publications)

Imagine a glowing, opalescent rose sprouting from a bush of bloodstained razorwire. That's Walters' writing. It's an electric amalgam of visceral imagery, beautiful wordplay, and feminine empowerment, and every one of the tales in this collection showcases it. There's a bladed edge to these stories, a bite that's infectious, but also a strong, beating heart of survival and perseverance in the face of terror and oppression. Buy it here.

The End of the End of Everything - Dale Bailey (Arche Press)

Bailey's collection presents us with the personal and ultimately haunting side of apocalypse in its many forms. The stories herein conjure innumerable dark clouds of gloom and terror but also reveal a silver lining -- however dim or obscured it may be -- within each and every one. It's rare to find stories that are cognizant of the full scope of horror's effect, but Bailey's manage to do exactly that. Buy it here.

Head Full of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay (William Morrow)

Novels need to be pretty special to hook me (which is why there are only three on this list), and so it is with Tremblay's apparent channeling of Shirley Jackson in HFoG, a subtle and unnerving soon-to-be classic exploration of possession, psychosis, the nature and role of family, the haunting power of our own pasts, and the exploitation of it all. Remarkable in every way. Buy it here.

Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales - Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

I've said elsewhere that I believe Slatsky's work is some of the most singularly weird fiction I've encountered in the field, and I stand by that statement. By mining the outer limits of science and the occult to craft for us strange puzzle boxes of stories that make our heads spin and send us to other realms of reality, he cranks the weirdness knob to 11 without ever wandering into absurdity or bizarro territory. An astonishing feat. Buy it here.

Voices in the Night - Steven Millhauser (Knopf)

The Master releases another superb collection of tales that alternately challenges our conceptions of middle class normalcy and conjures up contemporary myths and legends. As always with Millhauser, there's a deep sense of unease and melancholy here, permeated with bursts of revelation and insights into the nature of humankind. Superb in every way. Buy it here.

Aickman's Heirs - Ed. Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Two anthologies blew me away this year, and here's the first. A tribute to a writer who's still relatively overlooked by the general public, all the stories in here pay respect to Robert Aickman's signature ambiguity and slowly building dread and disquiet without ever falling into pastiche or parody. A superb assemblage by Strantzas and a remarkable consistency by the authors that would make Aickman proud. Buy it here.

Nightscript Vol. 1 - ed. C.M. Muller

Here's the deal: Muller's anthology is Shadows & Tall Trees volume 7 without being Shadows & Tall Trees. Yes, it's that good. Just as as S&TT showcased some of the absolute best weird fiction and quiet horror in the biz, so too does Nightscript. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see a couple of the stories in here picked up by Year's Best editors. Get on board with Nightscript now, because it's sure to be a flagship publication for horror and the weird in years to come. Buy it here.

Let Me Tell You - Shirley Jackson (Random House)

Maybe not the best work Jackson ever produced, but this collection is worth reading for its first section -- Sudden and Unusual Things Have Happened -- alone. Those 150 or so pages contain plenty of Jackson's signature quiet weirdness to make it worth your time and your money. I shouldn't have to say more. Buy it here.

Vermilion - Molly Tanzer (Word Horde)

Supernatural Western is one of those subgenres that usually presses the right buttons for me, and Tanzer's steampunky romp certainly does the deed. As with all good alt-history novels, Tanzer builds a subtly off-kilter world we'd love to further explore and populates it with intriguing characters crying out for further adventures. A delight you'll want to revisit for certain. Buy it here.

Neil Spring - The Watchers (Quercus)

I'm also a sucker for sci-fi horror, and when it's wrapped up in an X-Files-ish, folkloric conspiracy narrative, I'm totally on board -- which is exactly why Spring's novel is here. An interesting and engaging amalgam of paranormal phenomena and high strangeness a la John Keel or Jacques Vallee, the story spins out somewhere between weird tale and traditional mystery all tinged by a goodly amount of dread. Buy it here.

Skein and Bone - V.H. Leslie (Undertow Publications)

Leslie's stories are the contemporary echo of the great ghost story tellers of old (the Jameses, the Bensons) as viewed through a blood-stained lens. Built of fluid, muscular prose, they contain the same tension-building and malign supernaturality all wrapped up in a slightly more violent and more compact package than that of her venerable elders. A magnificent debut collection. Buy it here.

The Sea of Blood - Reggie Oliver (Dark Renaissance)

This is mostly a "Best of" collection, but there are a few new offerings mixed among the already well-polished gems. Any excuse to revisit Oliver is a good one and this collection proves why: rich and foreboding atmosphere, bibliophilia and occult religion as oft-centralizing themes, and prose that's as melodious as it is intricate. Oliver collections are pure literary sustenance, and here we're treated to a feast. Buy it here.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti (Penguin)

It's a reissue of two classic collections, I know, so it doesn't really count as "new," per se, but given the rarity of SoaDD and Grimscribe, a reissue was welcome and necessary so that new readers might have a chance to experience the greatness of Ligotti. Cosmic despair and existential horror at its best. Buy it here

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is a Progressive Horror Possible?

The underlying nature of the horror narrative is indebted to the conservative. This seems an odd statement, given the great wealth of authors who work in the genre that identify as "liberal" or "progressive," but it's nonetheless true. Horror is, by its very nature, a conservative mode of writing. Now, I'm not speaking in terms of contemporary politics here or the social schema that is popularly represented in the media as "conservative," but in a more expansive philosophical sense. When stripped of whatever political machinations are made synonymous with it in any given era, the fundamental idea of conservativism remains the same across all times and places in that it is, ultimately, the maintenance of a status quo, a way things "are." Whether this status quo consists of a set of cultural mores, a political agenda, or a belief structure, conservativism holds that the "old," "static," and "known" are positive values to be favored over the "new," "dynamic," and "unknown" -- with these latter values forming the underpinnings of conservativism's dialectical opposite, progressivism. The idea of conservativism thus revolves around the notion that what is "tried and true" -- i.e., a preexisting state of being or thought or action -- is categorically better than any alternatives to that preexisting state. So why is this a central concept for horror narrative? Because, in order to frighten, horror requires a status quo, a static, preexisting state with which its reader identifies if not outright supports.

The central property of the horror story is the violation of an established order or norm. Such orders and norms can be based in any arena of existence but tend to be grouped into the major categories of perception, knowledge, and being. In order to accomplish violation, a horror story must first find within one of these categories a foundation that its reader will accept as "true" or valid. A story like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, violates the supposedly conventional knowledge that a mere place lacks the capacity for sentience or action or moral character; it undermines a certainty, a status quo, to which the reader had previously adhered -- namely, that inanimate objects and spaces cannot be "alive." Much of the horror of Jackson's novel arises because Hill House does appear to possess malign intentions and is able to exert physical force upon its inhabitants in pursuit of these intentions. The implication in the story is that the house might be, in some alien way, alive and sentient. If a reader finds the thought of an "evil" house disturbing, it is due to the violation of the presupposition that houses are nothing but lifeless wood and inorganic stone. A reader is suddenly shaken in his or her belief that a house cannot be a thinking being capable of action. The question "what if?" enters his or her mind and undermines a fundamental order that he or she had previously relied upon. "What if a house COULD possess emotion? Or thought? What if it could DO things to me?" the reader muses in various degrees of seriousness and sincerity, at some level worried that nice, static, safe state that he or she had believed existed might be false or illusory. The fictional representation of a threat to the status quo, to the security of the "known" and the "way things are" frightens the reader. And herein lies the reason horror narrative is conservative by definition: in order to function as horror, to cause fright or dread, the horror narrative must violate a preexisting state, a status quo, and cause that violation to be read as fear-inducing, thus (and perhaps inadvertently) reinforcing the positive nature of the particular preexisting state being violated.

In my above-mentioned example, very little horror could be generated by the narrative if one already honestly believed houses were capable of destructive thought, emotion, and action. In such a scenario, the house would simply be doing what some "bad" houses do -- possessing people, eroding minds, killing its dwellers. The narrative would be less a tale that focuses on abrogation of norms than a reinforcement of the sorry condition of "bad" houses; indeed, if one were to truly perceive houses in this manner, The Haunting of Hill House would be more social or cultural critique (what can we do to prevent this senseless house-on-human violence? from whence does it arise?) than a horror story. It is only because readers do NOT believe in the animation of the inanimate that the novel is "scary." To remain a horror story, the status quo as represented within the story must remain the status quo to the reader; as soon as a reader no longer accepts that status quo, the story, at least in its effect, slides from the horror genre into some other literary realm (perhaps weird fiction? perhaps dark fantasy?), as the tale will fail to generate any meaningful violation and, therefore, fail to frighten. Horror scares (i.e., IS horror) because it breaks the stasis of its reader -- a stasis the reader must value in order to be scared of that breaking. The narrative of horror qua horror relies upon a conservative way of being or thinking or doing that must be held in the reader's mind as valuable for its stability and/or safety. Once that preexisting way of thinking/being/doing is shattered, once the status quo is erased, no more fear can be generated from a violation of that status quo because it will, after all, no longer BE the status quo.

Now, does this mean that horror cannot be used toward philosophically (and potentially culturally, socially, and poltically) progressive ends, even if the narrative itself must rely upon the conservative for its thrust? Not at all. If an author's intention is to utilize horror to cause a reader to question various fundamentally held "truths" and values, then it is entirely capable of this task. After all, the big "WHAT IF?" that horror generates in violating a norm causes the reader to put less stock in that norm, to imagine what might happen if that norm were to disintegrate. Horror can crack gaping fissures in the supposedly stable fabric of our world and point out the disjunctures of our patchwork status quo; it can make a reader realize lies, illusions, and injustices within the fabric of the "way things are." However, when a reader becomes comfortable with the existence of those fissues and disjunctures, when a reader accepts that those lies, illusions, and injustices exist, the horror of the horror story will fall away, to be replaced with other, potentially more complex, cognitive and emotional responses. Thus it is that the horror story becomes less horror in effect than horror in theory, and this "horror in theory" -- a horror that does not frighten but utilizes the genre conventions and structures to explore the need to disrupt or dissolve various status quos -- might be what could be termed a progressive horror.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year's End Best of Everything in the Multiverse - The Written Word Edition

Here we have a shortlist (neither numerical nor in any semblance of order) of the books that I count among my favorite reads this year. One thing that's surprisingly not on the list is Ligotti's The Spectral Link. Why? Because one short story was vintage Ligotti and the other was... not (and 50/50 doesn't cut it on this list!). So have a gander. Maybe you'll see something you haven't read. Maybe you'll see something you were on the fence about. Maybe you'll just see reiteration of what dozens of other people have said before. Regardless, here they are, my....

Books of the Year!

2014 releases:

The Lord Came at Twilight - Daniel Mills: You know that feeling you get when a sordid fact about a beloved historical figure comes to light? Like when you first found out your favorite dead writer was a horrible misogynist or when the human rights leader you idolized as a teenager was revealed to be a serial adulterer? Yeah that feeling -- the feeling of realizing history isn't a shiny marble monument, but a weathered rock under which hides innumerable many-legged nameless things. Well, The Lord Came at Twilight is rife with this feeling. Mills manages to take snippets of American history and thoroughly cast them in deepest shadow. And the style? Neo-Hawthorne, Post-Poe, Modern Melville. This collection is a revival of Dark Romanticism melded with cosmic horror and the weird, and it's glorious.

The Three - Sarah Lotz: I adore fictional non-fiction. I adore apocalyptic fiction. If you combine the two, you're already more than halfway to a book that I'll enjoy. Lotz writes exactly that sort of novel and she writes it well, documenting four simultaneous plane crashes each with its own sole survivor. The book moves into the social and cultural ramifications of such a seemingly inexplicable scenario: particularly, the eschatological narratives and doomsday movements that might erupt in its wake. There's also a heavy dose of weird, cosmic terror in the novel (as perhaps the apocalyptic doomsayers aren't entirely crazy) as well as solid critiques of organized religion and mass media. Apparently Lotz is writing a sequel and, though I usually have my doubts about the necessity of sequels, I'll eagerly anticipate this one.

Burnt Black Suns - Simon Strantzas: I love Strantzas' last two collections (and, someday, will find a copy of his first within my modest budget), so it wasn't much of a surprise that I loved this one, too. The usual Strantzas flourishes are here -- delicious Aickman-esque ambiguity, a focus on terror over horror, just barely glimpsed reveals of deep time and cosmic otherness -- and they're all working at the highest literary levels, but in this collection Strantzas provides something that we haven't seen much of from him: longer, near-novella length stories that provide slower, dread-inducing burns rather than quick slices to our throats. It's a slightly different direction from Cold to the Touch and Nightingale Songs, but one that works masterfully.      

The Wanderer - This is as close to the novel that Thomas Ligotti would write if Thomas Ligotti ever wrote a novel. Okay... if that doesn't explain why this book is on the list, then let me elucidate. What you have here is, ostensibly, a collection of short stories all bound up together with an overarching plot. Each story provides a different take on the myriad unnamed horrors of the universe and helps weave an apocalyptic tapestry that's gradually revealed over the course of the umbrella narrative. The writing is dense and amorphous, like an near-impenetrable fog, and helps to further the atmosphere of uncertainty and looming threat that pervades each story and the novel as a whole. Great stuff.

Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer: First off, I have to say that the entire Southern Reach trilogy (of which this is the first book) was the most ambitious literary project in the speculative fiction world this year and, from my humble perspective, it was a success. Though I do have some issues with the conclusion of the trilogy (which I can further elaborate upon if you ask me), the entire trio of books help move weird fiction further into the vernacular of mainstream literary culture and rightfully so. Ranging from horror and adventure to spy procedural and existential meditation, the three books present a vivid narrative of the unknown as it bumps up against our staid, supposedly civilized world. Book one -- Annihilation -- is the most tightly written and terrifying of the trilogy. It's also the most ambiguous and provides a most sublime vision of the unknown. For those reasons it's the gem of the trio.

The Children of Old Leech - Various, ed. Ross E. Lockhart & Justin Steele: This is the best non-"Best of" anthology this year. Every single story in here is engaging and disturbing and all of them take off on distinctly different variations of the "carnivorous cosmos" theme. It's a tribute anthology, yes, but it's much more than that: it's also a sampler of some of the best writers working today in the horror and weird fiction world. Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, people will look back on this and say it was a landmark anthology that captured the zeitgeist of the era.

We are All Completely Fine - Daryl Gregory: The premise of this novel (novella? it's length is somewhere in between) is that a group of survivors from various horror scenarios come together to form a support group to discuss their issues and heal some psychic wounds. It plays on my predilection for stories-within-stories, as each member of the support group's background is it's own encapsulated narrative that furthers the overarching plot. Beyond the structural appeal, you have a solid tale of horror populated with interesting characters and underlined with a message that perhaps some psychological traumas lend us invaluable experience, attributes, and strength of will -- even as they ultimately destroy us.

Ghouljaw - Clint Smith: This was a year of promising and exciting debuts, and Smith's collection fits that mold. In here, you'll find contemporary, gritty reworkings of Poe and Lovecraft garnished with hints of Straub and Aickman. There seems to be no subgenre that Smith can't tackle, as he transitions easily between weird cosmicism to classical ghost story in an instant. It's that range which excites me most and should keep Smith on your radar well into the future.

Ana Kai Tangata - Scott Nicolay: Another in the line of promising and exciting debuts, we have the much discussed and somewhat controversial first collection from Nicolay. What you have here are several novella (even novel) length pieces that adeptly explore the weird and embody the inexplicable. Yes, most of them are pretty long and slow-burning, but the project here isn't to punch you in the mouth; it's to lull you into normalcy so that when terrors softly creep up beside you and lay a clawed hand on your shoulder, you don't quite expect it. In this way, the weird enters as a greater violation of the conventional order of things. Add to that the fact that Nicolay is masterful at creating place and building character, and you have a fine debut, no controversy needed.

Non-2014 releases:

The Desert Places - Amber Sparks & Robert Kloss: This is a very small book (both in length and in physical dimensions), but, like the deepest, darkest, tiniest black hole, this little tome has intense crushing power. Mythical and phantasmagorical, Desert Places is a brief history of evil from before time to the present, as related through the eyes of evil. It's visceral, it's got cosmic overtones, and it's pretty damn grim, but it's also mellifluous and a second cousin to epic poetry. Brilliant work.

An Emporium of Automata - D.P. Watt: Watt had another collection come out this year that I haven't yet read, but it was this one that I dipped into and fell in love with. The word that comes to mind most frequently when I think about the stories in here is "understated." Everything about Watt's writing is controlled, intricate, and precise without being stark or minimalistic. You'll think the stories in this collection are merely strange, but work through them a few more pages, and you realize you're deeply embedded in a bizarre, if not implicitly terrifying narratives. There's also a latent arcane quality to many of Watt's stories and some undercurrents of steampunk. Close to a blend between Ligotti and Aickman, Watt's work is not quite like anything else out there right now. Definitely worth your time.

Engines of Desire - Livia Llewellyn: I'm really late coming to this one, too, but I'm glad I finally did. After reading -- and loving -- individual Llewellyn stories in various anthologies for a couple years, I snagged this and was blown away. The stories in this collection are dark and sinewy; they slither into your mind like oil-slicked vipers seeking a warm den in which to devour their prey. Llewellyn's lush prose lulls you into a seemingly safe, beautiful space and it's from this false haven that she shreds you with grim, near nihilistic pronouncements of motherhood, love, sex, the unforgiving cosmos, and human nature in general. Astounding in every sense of the word.

We Others - Steven Millhauser: This was the year I discovered Millhauser and he's vaulted into my list of top contemporary mainstream authors. I could've listed any of his collections here (I read four of them this year), but since this is a retrospective, I thought it fit best. My favorite Millhauser tales are those in which the narrator is a strangely universal "we," and there are several in this book. This particular volume is worth its purchase price for the opening story, "The Slap," alone (and it's one of those "we" stories). A tale of how unexpected violence impacts our lives and our perspective on the world, "The Slap" is equally bizarre, mysterious, foreboding, and poignant -- descriptors that could be mentioned in relation to most of Millhauser's work. Genius stuff here, people. Genius stuff.

The Blue Fox - Sjon: This was also the year I discovered Sjon, but I'll keep this one brief, because Sjon would appreciate it, I think. Take Cormac McCarthy. Add magic realism and fabulist tendencies. Set in Iceland and utilize Icelandic myth as the ink for your quill. Alternately mystical and visceral, beautiful and grim, this novella (as well as the novels From the Whale's Mouth and The Whispering Muse, which also could have been listed here) are dark Icelandiana.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Weird Fiction By Any Other Name?

A recent post by Simon Strantzas in Nightmare Magazine's H-Word feature and then a retort to that post by A.W. Henry led me to consider whether there's a substantial difference between the categories of "weird fiction" and "strange fiction." Strantzas contends that revelation of a cosmic variety functions as weird fiction's hallmark while microcosmic implication of otherworldliness stands as strange fiction's defining characteristic. I think he points to an intriguing division in the genre -- one we should certainly explore further. But I wonder: is this division truly one of qualitative difference between subgenres or might it be one of quantitative difference within the genre of weird fiction itself?

Consider: a writer like Robert Aickman -- potentially an author of "strange fiction" is clearly utilizing a subtle, nuanced hand in stories like "The Hospice" or "The Cicerones." He's not trying to blow you away with monstrosities of epic proportion nor is he explicitly laying bare any new ontological precepts. Unlike Lovecraft or Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith or any number of the other writers who are usually mentioned as weird tale practitioners, Aickman does not present his reader with a reality that is mind-bogglingly unorthodox. Yes, some weird things happen, but the whole of the universe isn't depicted as a hostile or uncaring place, as it often is in the work of Lovecraft and cosmicist fictioneers of his ilk. Instead, Aickman localizes the weird. He sets it within a specific personage or a discrete physical edifice or a singular event and then shapes the remainder of the narrative as a working through of that weirdness. Do Aickman characters end up in the throes of existential revelation as a result of their glancing acquaintance with the outre? No. They have no great epiphanies nor do they launch into any grandiloquent or disturbing summations of humanity's place in the celestial dance. Instead, Aickman's characters are unsettled -- they now know that something in their conventional conception of reality is faulty, but what that something is remains unknown and out of reach. The framework of reality is shown to have substantial cracks running through its beams, but the entire structure has not yet collapsed in upon itself.

With this in mind, I'd contend that Aickman and "strange" writers are engaged in the same project as Lovecraft and "weird" writers: they're all attempting to show us that reality is not as it appears to be or as we normally perceive it. They're all rebel angels taking up arms against prevailing modes of thought and understanding. It just happens that the Aickman lot -- the "strange" lot -- does so on a more microcosmic stage. These writers don't explicitly extend their weird fiction into the stars or to other dimensions, but the implication is clear that the events of their stories may, indeed, have significance as staggeringly monumental for the nature of reality as any event in a cosmic weird tale.

Thus it is that I believe the "strange" is a quantitative rather than qualitative difference of "weirdness." I think the strange tale is the weird tale, but on a smaller, more self-contained scale. Where weird uses 300 foot-tall space monsters, strange uses isolated motels where no one acts quite the way they should. Where weird uses futurescapes populated by beings entirely alien from humanity in every conceivable way, strange uses run-down carnival booths where we might catch a glimpse of something beyond our understanding. Both want to burst the bubble of epistemological and phenomenological orthodoxy -- one just happens to do it with a grenade while the other does it with a pinprick.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

21 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century


1. The Cabin in the Woods - A metahorror deconstruction of the genre with some nods to Bataille's theories of human sacrifice and a fair dash of humor. A carnivalesque celebration of destruction and bloodletting. A condemnation of humanity for its love of that very same destruction and bloodletting in the arts. A wink to just about every horror film of the past 40 years. People talk about Scream as the great postmodern, self-aware horror movie, but Cabin does it all better.

Quotable moment: "These fucking zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?"

2. The Mothman Prophecies - This is what we strive for when we write weird fiction and cosmic horror: a generally incomprehensible and potentially menacing universe chock full of forces that exist far beyond the control of mere human beings. Mothman fully realizes such a universe and then sets us spinning within it, wondering just how very small and limited we truly are.

Quotable moment: John Klein: "I think we can assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don't they just come right out and tell us what's on their minds?"
Alexander Leek: "You're more advanced than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?"

3. Session 9 - Is this a haunted asylum movie or a study in cinematic atmospherics? Is this a film that involves demonic possession or the slow erosion of a man's mind to its basest frustration and rage? The answer is, "yes," and it's glorious. Some might say the real star is the abandoned asylum where the film was shot, and I wouldn't necessarily argue that point.

Quotable momentDoctor: "And where do you live, Simon?"
Mary Hobbes: "I live in the weak and the wounded... Doc."

4. Pontypool - Probably the smartest zombie film you'll ever see. Hanging its hat on semiotic theory, it asks us to consider whether we make language or language makes us. It considers the ways we make meaning and whether something insidious could take up residence in that matrix. And if none of that sells you, well, Stephen McHattie's performance as a bombastic DJ is mind-blowing.

Quoteable moment: "Ok, kill isn't kill. Sydney, kill isn't kill. It isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Kill isn't kill. Oh, god. I don't know, I don't know. I don't know. Uh, uh, ok. Kill is blue. Kill is wonderful. Kill is loving. Kill is baby. Kill is Manet's Garden. Kill is a beautiful morning. Kill is everything you ever wanted. Kill is, kill is, uh, kill is kiss."

5. Antichrist - The yin and the yang. Chaos and order. Nature and civilization. Female and male. This is a film that tries to interrogate some of the classical binaries of our existence and the conflicts that ensue when these binaries merge. If you think that sounds esoteric, it is. But it's also graphic and horrifying and might explain some of the eternal violence in our world.

Quotable moment: "Nature is Satan's church."

6. The Mist - An adaptation of a Stephen King movie that doesn't suck! I know, it's rare, but here you have it. The Mist takes Lovecraftian horror and pushes it to its nihilistic extreme -- the universe wants to eat you, people want to beat you into the ground, and hope? Well, that's a cute concept. Oh... and it all works pretty well as an extended metaphor for depression, too.

Quotable moment: "As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?"

7. The Ring - Many people prefer the original Japanese Ringu, but I like the American remake for its pacing. Through a relatively simple ghost story, here's a movie that critiques mass media, social media, and our impending future of irrevocable interconnectedness. It's even more prescient now than it was twelve years ago. And don't tell me that Samara creeping through the tv in herks and jerks isn't creepy as hell.

Quotable moment: "See, when you live on an island you catch a cold, it's everybody's cold."

8. Pulse (Kairo) - As opposed to The Ring, here I think the original is far superior to the American remake. Once again, we're dealing with technology and the spectral, only in this film the plot takes a turn toward cosmic horror and the apocalyptic.

Quotable moment: "Death was... eternal loneliness."

9. The Strangers - Is anything more unnerving than a knock on the door in the middle of the night? The Strangers answers emphatically, "NO." A parable of sorts, here's a movie that isn't going to mince morality, largely because it presents us with a world where morality has no place and random violence -- inescapable, ever-lurking, and probably right outside your door -- is the natural order. But it's just a movie... right?

Quotable moment: Kristen: "Why are you doing this to us?"
Dollface: "Because you were home."

10. The Descent - Few movies are capable of capturing the sheer terror of claustrophobia. This one does. A katabatic journey into the domain of flesh-eating mutants and natural pitfalls (like hundred-foot drops and unforgiving granite walls), here's a film that's guaranteed to make you forever wary of descending into even your basement.

Quotable moment: "I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider."

11. Let the Right One In - Just LOOK at this movie. Its cinematography is beautiful, catching the starkness of Scandinavian winter perfectly. And the narrative? It feels like something Hans Christian Anderson might have co-written with Edgar Allan Poe. It's probably the only "tender" movie on this list, but make no mistake -- even in striking beauty and heart-rending innocence there lies monsters, as this film is keen to show us.

Quotable moment: "I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time."

12. Mama - A dark, dark, dark (have I mentioned dark?) fairy tale, like the Grimm Bros. at their grimmest. Perhaps the ultimate warning against helicopter parenting, this one deals in the power of motherhood -- both biological and adopted -- and the inability to let go (of your children, of your parents, of the past).

Quotable moment: "A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again."

13. 1408 - Holy shit. A second Stephen King adaptation that worked? No way. 1408 is remarkable because does two things simultaneously -- it shrinks the haunted house setting to a single room while expanding the haunted house narrative beyond the bounds of temporal restriction (in other words, there was no "incident" that created this haunted place and no exorcism that might foreseeably end the haunting). What you have is insular, inescapable, infinite torture. 

Quotable moment: "There's a sofa, a writing desk, faux antique armoire, floral wallpaper. Carpet's unremarkable except for a stain beneath a thrift-store painting of a schooner lost at sea. The work is done in the predictably dull fashion of Currier and Ives. The second painting is of an old woman reading bedtime stories - a Whistler knockoff - to a group of deranged children while another Madonna and child watch from the background. It does have the vague air of menace. The third and final, painfully dull painting, the ever popular "The Hunt". Horses, hounds and constipated British lords. Some smartass spoke about the banality of evil. If that's true, then we're in the 7th circle of hell. It does have its charms."

14. Inside - Here again we have a shout out to the horrors (see also, insanity) of maternity. How far would YOU go to protect your child, avenge your child, or simply have your child? The answer for most people might well veer into disturbing, nigh unthinkable, territory. As such, here's a film that challenges you to consider whether parenthood is just a half-step away from psychosis. A disclaimer: this one is extremely graphic, but if you can reach past the gore, you'll find a movie more deeply unsettling than viscerally shocking. 

Quotable moment: "My child. My baby. Finally inside me. No one will take him from me. No one can hurt him now. No one."

15. Detention - Oh, metahorror, how I love thee. Here we have... well... the plot is almost impossible to summarize. A group of high schoolers -- many of whom are aware of their narrative place and chararacterization in a (sort of) horror movie -- are stalked by a slasher-type killer who's emulating a slasher from a fictional movie within the movie. Got that? Okay. Now add time travel. Good? Now include some alien interventions, which include genetic splicing. Still with me? Now dash with hyperkinetic editing and add pop culture references from the 80s and 90s. That's Detention. It's about as close to bizarro as you're likely to see on film. (And don't let Dane Cook scare you away -- he's actually tolerable in his role.)

Quotable moment: Americans hate chickens. For example, KFC serves popcorn chicken to assure to their customers that the chicken was blown to bits... Americans want chickens to die!

16. Lake Mungo -A girl drowns in a lake. Then her family begins experiencing strange phenomena. Okay... so you suspect this is going to be a simple ghost story, right? Wrong. Lake Mungo takes you to a much more amorphous place. Shot in documentary style, the film's atmosphere skirts the surreal, at times entering almost Silent Hill-like territory while its narrative would feel right at home as a Twin Peaks spinoff. All of which is to say: this is not just a ghost story -- it's a study in the many ways death unsettles us.

Quotable moment: "Alice kept secrets.She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."

17. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon - Another metahorror film, this one deconstructs the slasher subgenre and tries to answer all those burning questions you've always had about your favorite masked murderers (like how do they seem to be able to move with preternatural speed even though it appears that they mostly just saunter along?) Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, it's equally comfortable critiquing and parodying slasher flicks as it is hacking up its own victims.

Quotable moment: "I'll tell you: never hang out with a virgin. You got a virgin in your crew, either get somebody in her pants or get the hell away from her."

18. Teeth - And speaking of gleefully tongue-in-cheek, we have Teeth, an homage to the mythical vagina dentata. At its base, the film tackles issues of female sexuality, patriarchal domination, and the coming-of-age of young women writ large. Teetering precariously between these serious issues and a seemingly absurd premise, Teeth manages a highwire act, both promoting the empowerment of women and serving as a unique monster movie.

Quotable moment: "The toothed vagina appears in the mythology of many and diverse cultures all over the world. In these myths, the story is always the same. The hero must do battle with the woman. The toothed creature can break her power."

19. Spiral (Uzumaki) - Weird. Weird weird weird. Not David Lynch weird. Not Alejandro Jodorowsky weird. But weird, nonetheless. Classical weird. Cosmic horror weird. This is a movie about a town that becomes obsessed with spirals. Though that may seem a relatively innocuous (even banal) premise, the atmosphere the film builds is all menace and otherworldliness. And the culmination of the obsession? Well... let's just say it fits the subject matter of the film.

Quotable moment: "A vortex is the highest form of art."

20. Suicide Club (Jisatsu s√Ękuru) - Another Japanese film that warns against the power of technology and, more specifically, social media, as teens begin to commit suicide en mass. Although it's potentially a representation of the adolescent mind as fearfully glimpsed by adults, what really makes this one stand out is its unspoken apocalyptic undertone and its ultimate ambiguity -- and perhaps those qualities are precisely what being a teenager is all about.

Quotable moment: "Because the dead shine all night long."

21. Slither - I'm a sucker for sci-fi horror. You combine some body horror with Lovecraftian cosmicism (hmmm... sounds like The Thing here) and infuse it with humor (okay, Thing comparisons stop there) and a dash of 50s sci-fi kitsch, and you have Slither. 

Quotable moment:  "I've been around a million years! You think you can fuck with me?"

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Holiday Treat for Your Stocking

Do You Hear What I Hear?
by Kurt Fawver
     “Will the Carolers come tonight?”
     My daughter's question flickers across the room like dying firelight from the hearth. I hand her the noise-canceling ear defenders, sparkly red and green for the holidays, and shrug.
     “They might,” I say, too tight. “But they might not. It's better not to take chances.”
     She scratches at her ears, already annoyed with the extra obligations of the season.
     “Has anyone ever heard them?” she asks, the same as she asks every year.
     I dig in the closet for my own defenders and come up with more tinsel, more burned out lights. A bead of sweat pops upon my brow. “The only people that have heard them are the people they take,” I say, “the people who are listening.”
     I throw boxes from the closet and rummage beneath the past year's detritus. My daughter finds some bauble rolled free of the mess and begins playing catch with it.
     “And where do those people go? Where do the Carolers take them?”
     “No one knows,” I mutter, “but they never come back. Now put on those defenders like I told you to.”
     She does, then yells, “I think the Carolers take people into the sky and turn them into snow. That's why it snows so much after Christmas.”
     I can't find my defenders. They're not here. Oh my god. Oh my god. I shouldn't have waited until the last minute to prepare. I should have planned better. But don't I say the same thing every year? And every year, doesn't it all work out, anyway?
     My daughter points to the window and screams, “See? It's starting!”
     There, twirling in the wind, are tiny, icy flakes.
     I run to the bathroom and consider tissues, consider cotton balls, consider ramming the tweezers deep into my aural canals until blood flows and silence reigns.
     But no. No. They might not come tonight. We’ve had plenty of Christmas Eves free from their sinister melodies. My hands tremble, my forehead drips fear, but they might not come.
     In the living room, under the multi-hued twinkle of the tree, my daughter shouts, “I wonder what they sound like. I bet it’s so beautiful that it makes people’s hearts beat super fast, and then their hearts get huge and explode and the Carolers suck up all the little bits because it’s like candy canes to them.”
She giggles.
     I walk back into the living room and lift two pillows off the couch.  
     I press them hard against the sides of my head. My daughter regards me with curiosity then breaks into laughter, which, both fortunately and unfortunately, I can still hear.
You look like a sandwich,” she says. “My dad is a sandwich.”
And she laughs harder.
I toss the pillows back onto the couch and swallow both a curse and the acids that are creeping upward from my stomach. I have to find something to muffle the sound. I have to block it out, somehow.
I leap upstairs to my bedroom, grab my phone and earbuds off the nightstand, and jam them into my ears as far as they’ll go. They’re not noise-canceling, but maybe if I crank the volume of a rock playlist high enough, it will drown out everything else. Maybe. Hopefully.
This is not how I wanted to die.
Downstairs, my daughter is singing the refrain of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but replacing the words “Santa Claus is” with “the Carolers are.”
I head back down to her. She’s picking up the presents her grandparents left under the tree this afternoon and shaking them to hear the rattles and thuds from the opposite side of their mystery. She wants to know, so desperately she wants to know. But she shouldn’t know. No one should.
I sneak up behind her and lift her into the air. She squeals and drops a box from her hands. I set her down and shake my head “no.”
She laughs and runs off, into the kitchen, probably to smuggle away another cookie. I glance at a clock and wring my hands. There’s too much time left in this night. Too much room for disaster and unhappy endings.
And my daughter returns, her mouth stuffed full of something I can only presume is sweet and buttery.
I set my phone’s volume as high as it will go, select some post-metal albums, and hit “Play.” Bass rumble explodes beneath my skull and I stagger backward, flopping onto the couch. My daughter shouts something, but I can’t hear it – blissfully, graciously, I can’t hear it at all. Though my tympanic membranes are straining under the pressure, though my brain is suffering seismic damage, I smile, because this is Christmas and Christmas is a time of joy and I’ll have my daughter believe nothing else.
I pat the couch cushion beside me and motion for her to sit. She doesn’t. Instead, she prances around the tree, performing faux jetes like an exhausted ballerina. Behind her, through a window, I swear I catch a glimpse of something long, dark, and sinewy slash through the snowfall veil.
My daughter stops in front of me, pirouettes, and bows. Another song, more raw, more jagged, begins playing. I wince, but I also clap and blow a kiss to my tiny dancer, hoping she didn’t notice my pain.
She bows again and yells, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I can hear her. The music has stopped.
In a rush, I grab my phone and tap the dimmed screen. No response. I mash the icon for the audio player, but nothing happens. It’s all frozen, frozen as the evening sky, frozen as the dead, lying wholly alone and uncelebrated below the wintry ground.
Damn it,” I whisper, teeth suddenly chattering, pulse pounding at my throat.
I hold the power button until the screen goes black. The phone should restart in a minute. I should be fine. This is just a minor setback, a bump in the road. I’m sure I’ll be fine. We’re simply having a wonderful Christmas time, and terrible things are frightened by the dulcet glow of wonderful Christmases. Aren’t they?
I pound the couch and jiggle the phone, croaking, “Come on, come on.”
My daughter leaps onto my lap and, assuming I’ve muted her along with the rest of the world, screams into my ear, “Why are you on your phone? Why are you not wearing your defenders?”
My hands are too sweaty. Just as I see the screen light up again, I bobble the phone and it falls to the floor, my earbuds popping out, trailing a comet tail behind the reanimated device.
I set my daughter to the side and lunge after the whole tangle of electronics, ending up on the floor, on my knees. And that’s when I hear it, in the seconds between contentment and disaster, in the blink that separates happiness from tragedy.
     Though it is hollow, distant, and undercut with something like the sound of a thousand centuries of static, a verse of “Winter Wonderland” hisses into my brain. Outside, the dark, elongated form whips past the window again.
     My daughter pats me on the shoulder and offers me a contraband cookie from her pocket, but I don’t notice or care, much though I might want to. The twisted, down-tuned chorus beyond my door replaces the spark between my neurons and the warmth within my blood. It settles in my bones, turns the glitter on the tree to rust and scabs over the wrapping paper on the presents. It moves my soul, but not in the direction of joy.
     My little girl was right from the beginning – the melody is beautiful, so beautiful. It is also horrible, so horrible.
I rise to my feet, not of my own accord, but to lift my spirit into the melody of the carol.
Daddy?” I hear under it all, as though from across the universe. “Dad? Where are you going? Dad?”
I march toward the door, feet shuffling with the rhythm of the song. A tug on my hand. I can only hope she doesn't take off her defenders. Let that be my present this year. Please. Let that be my last present.
I throw open the door and watch a vortex of snowflakes spin and drift in its wake. At its eye flickers a darkness, an oblong darkness, like the slit of a lizard's eye. It colors the falling snow, rendering the world in glittering shades of ash.
My body moves to the music, impels me to take the next step. The final step, perhaps.
I don't want to walk outside.
I must walk outside.
I don't want to leave my daughter.
I must leave my daughter.
I don't want to be whisked away, forgotten amongst the twinkling lights of the season or the twinkling stars in the sky.
But I must, as all things must.
The Carolers are on the stoop, waiting, and this night their chorale is for me.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lovecraft or Bust?

Recently, there's been a renewed discussion concerning cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's avowed racism and xenophobia. For those of you in the genre writing community, you know what I'm talking about. However, if you're not "in the know," here's a brief summary:

The World Fantasy Award (one of speculative fiction's premier awards) is presented to its winners as an outrageously bug-eyed bust of Lovecraft. Due to Lovecraft's fear of -- and occasional outright hatred for -- people of non-WASP persuasions, numerous writers have thoughtfully commented on the potential impropriety of using his visage as the visual representation of world fantasy. Over the past few months there's been an increased push to change the World Fantasy Award from Lovecraft's creepy maw to something less fraught with racial insensitivity -- namely, a bust of Octavia Butler, an African-American SF/F author who might more fully embody the diversity of the contemporary fantasy community. This proposal has, of course, ignited a debate over Lovecraft's place in the horror/fantasy/SF world, what constitutes an excusable personal flaw for a legendary writer, and the appropriate representation of "world fantasy."

After digesting the opinions of various writers, editors, and critics on the issue, I think a great number of people are forgetting one of the central tenets of dark speculative fiction, a tenet Lovecraft held dear: that one of the most profound and acute senses of fear is fear of the unknown. I don't excuse Lovecraft's racism and I don't condone it. One should not be exclusionary on the basis of racial, cultural, or ethnic persuasion. But the foundation for his xenophobia -- that he feared those practices and people that were foreign to him and, thus, unknown to his experience -- is a foundation for literature that we shouldn't outright dismiss. After all, a wealth of horror fiction and film, dark fantasy, and weird fiction is indebted to this same fear of the unknown.

Sure, the weird-looking extradimensional being that's stalking you might be friendly; it might want to bring you love and peace and hugs aplenty. But it also might want to use your body as a food source for its eggs or shackle you and take you to its home where it will pin you to a wall and display you like a butterfly for all eternity. Most stories of terror -- in which we don't actually see horrible things that happen, but only anticipate them, feel their borders, and guess at their nature -- operate on the "fear of the unknown" conceit. Ghost stories find foundation in fear of the unknown, as returned specters function as avatars of the death realm, which is the ultimate unknown. Ghosts are frightening because we don't know what they want, why they're here, what powers they may wield, or what it's like to be dead; they are harbingers of a void we cannot penetrate, and, thus, remains unknown and potentially threatening. Weird fiction operates on a similar principle. The outre -- all those "weird" elements beyond the normal ken of human experience -- is a source of menace because it lies at the very peripherals (or entirely off the grid) of our current understanding. When a sequence of seemingly indecipherable and inexplicable events occurs in a weird fiction tale, their cumulative effect is to instill terror and disorientation because there is no way integrate those events with our current sphere of knowledge, understanding, and experience. The "weird" of the weird tale therefore resides in the vast fog of the unknown.

The bold move Lovecraft made was to apply this fear of the unknown to people, and herein lies the problem. It isn't that Lovecraft was wrong in saying people are potentially threatening unknowns. Certainly, they are. Anyone could be thinking or doing or hiding anything at any time. We cannot know what is going in inside another person. Hence, every individual is an endlessly deep well of the threatening unknown. Everyone is potentially a terrifying cultist, ushering in the destruction of humanity; everyone is potentially a psychopathic genetic throwback, just waiting to crush your skull and eat your brain. The problem -- the big problem -- with Lovecraft is that he relegates this "unknownness" to specific racial, ethnic, and cultural groups rather than recognizing that it exists in every single person on earth. Someone like Thomas Ligotti is entirely closer to expressing this all-pervasive fear of the unknown in other people than Lovecraft ever was. So what does that mean? It means that, yes, Lovecraft was a racist and we can dislike the guy for it even as we adore other overarching ideas within his work. Lovecraft knew horror and terror and literature, and he made a move to internalize within the human form the "unknownness" that fuels a sizable portion of those aforementioned fields. It's truly unfortunate that he couldn't see past the bigotry of his time and place to make that "unknownness" more complete and less racially motivated than he did.

That said, the World Fantasy Award is supposed to represent all fantasy, from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Lovecraft wasn't willing to take that step in his own fiction -- to own up to the notion that maybe, just maybe, his glorious white New Englander brethren might also be monsters and write the whole of humanity as one seething mass of untold horrors. So he doesn't fit the parameters the award is supposed to represent. Lovecraft's gotta go.

That doesn't mean Octavia Butler should be the replacement, though. I admire her Bloodchild and Other Stories, but she doesn't represent the holistic nature of "world fantasy," either. No one person does. In the same way Lovecraft couldn't see the whole of humanity as horrifying "others," no individual author can fully encompass in their oeuvre the sense of "everything" that makes up the fantastical. Thus it's impossible for an individual to embody the principles of "allness" and totality concomitant with world fantasy without beginning to venture into the territory of religious semiology. Any one author picked to be the (quite literal) "head" of fantasy would be merely a popular choice based on prevailing cultural and political climate. The WFA would be far better served to do away with notions of authors as avatars of fantasy and focus on images from fantasy. For instance, I've thought that a group of multiracial children holding hands and gleefully dancing around some sort of amorphous, looming presence would be a perfect statuette. Something like this

but with an awe-inspiring or monstrous THING in place of the alligator. Now that would be an award that we can all be disturbed by. And isn't that what's most important?