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?

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Brief Elegy for Dr. Spengler

Egon Spengler is dead. The man who built proton packs and told us to not cross the streams, the man whose only hobby was collecting spores, molds, and fungus, the man who would tell us about the Twinkie -- he's dead. And so, too, begins the long, slow death of my childhood, the dissolution of those small flashes of nostalgia that remind me of a time when maybe the world was no more innocent than it is now, but I was.

I'm part of a generation between generations, an interstitial collective of people who don't quite revere Joy Division or sarcasm as much as their older siblings, but who also can't name a single member of the Rugrats or say we never lived in a house without a computer. We're not Gen X and we're not Millenials; we're Gen Y, pre-Millenial, babies of the Reagan 80s. People talk about us like we might be part of Gen X, but that's a falsehood -- I did not even exist as a cellular cluster during the 1970s and I think you really had to experience at least a glancing blow of that dark decade in order to be called a Gen X'er. But I'm not a Millenial, either -- I never won awards solely for participation and I do not rank Miley Cyrus amongst my contemporaries. No, I'm part of a lost generation that falls between the cracks, a generation typified by anomie.

But there are a few cultural touchstones that always let me know whether or not you're a part of my generation: singing the entirety of the Ducktales theme song, knowing what will happen when this baby hits 88mph, having recurring nightmares of David Bowie as a dark elven lord, caulking your wagon to float it across the Platte River even if you know you'll lose two days, and, perhaps above all else, understanding that bustin' makes you feel good.

Ghostbusters has been with me since I can remember. I was three years old when the movie was first released and there seems to be no era of my life that wasn't influenced in some way by its quartet of scientist superheroes -- Venkman, Stantz, Zeddmore, and Spengler (okay... Winston wasn't a scientist, but he was one of the team). When I was really little, they made me feel that even the scariest monster could be wrestled to the ground and defeated, imprisoned in a big red container where it might never frighten me again. If THEY could bust a ghost, then so could I. If THEY could beat demon dogs and androgyne gods, then what chance did the creeps in the shadows by my bed stand?

As I grew older, I wanted to BE the Ghostbusters. I wanted to fight the evils that lurked in the closets of the universe; I wanted to learn as much as I could about ghost and ghouls, aliens and cryptids. Tobin or not, I wanted to write a spirit guide and explore the unknown. Ghostbusters fostered in me an interest in both science and all those things science cannot explain. It made me believe in the power of technology and the infinite possibilities of the paranormal. It helped mold me into a person who believes that the boundaries between the empirical and the supernatural are much, much thinner than we might like to admit.

As a teenager, I lost a bit of the sense of adventure that swirled around the Ghostbusters but gained the sense of humor that tinted their world. I got the joke -- the ridiculousness of their entire endeavor, the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of their "science," the reverential parody of all things horror and dark fantasy. And, again, Ghostbusters took on a new meaning for me, became a more interesting, more multifacted idol of my cultural history. Thus it's remained for the past 15-ish years.

Ghostbusters is a comedy of horrors and a sci-fi adventure. It's a gleeful celebration of technology and spirituality. It doesn't ask you to not laugh at its ghosts, but it also doesn't try to make them cute or cuddly; it's not a didact that tries to make you worship at the altar of skepticism any more than it is an evangelist of the supernatural. It's a movie that defies static identity, that defies being just one genre or taking just one ontological stance. And that's why it's the perfect movie for an interstitial generation, for people who just don't quite fit anywhere, either.

And now a part of that is gone. A little thread of my non-generation's loosely woven identity just unraveled. A little totem of my childhood just cracked and fell to the earth. In some ways, Egon will live forever, yes. But today he's a reminder of how my generation still can't seem to define itself by anything other than the tracings of popular culture and how my childhood -- all our childhoods -- are growing more faded, more frayed, day by day. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Vandermeer's Annihilation and the Sublime

So... I finished Annihilation -- the first of Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy novels -- last night and I'm extremely impressed and excited for the next chapter. Why? Because the novel partakes, quite expertly, in an aesthetic tradition that I'm indebted to in my own writing and in my academic work: the sublime.

Let me take a brief aside here to explain what I mean by "the sublime." I wrote my doctoral thesis on this subject and it's one I find particularly germane to speculative fiction. The sublime, as an aesthetic concept, has a long and involved history. It's been variously explained as a rhetorical sleight of hand that overrides logic (the Longinian sublime), an indicator of the limits of human imagination (the Kantian sublime), and, most pertinent to my interests, as a hybrid feeling of terror and wonder (the Burkean sublime). When I say "the sublime," I'm talking about this dualistic feeling and the objects that evoke it. (If you want more on the sublime, check out my dissertation -- a book unto itself -- here.)

That being said, the overarching aesthetic at work within Vandermeer's Annihilation is precisely a combination of wonder and terror. At no point in the novel are we ever so privy to logic or reason that we can feel safe or secure in the world of Area X -- the strange, overgrown wildland that the characters of Annihilation are tasked with exploring. Vandermeer shades every scene with a sense of foreboding, with an implication that some reality-altering force or knowledge slouches just beyond our reach (our Southern reach, perhaps?!). On one hand, this force/knowledge is terrifying; it causes people to lose their minds, to commit acts of violence against one another, to mutate and dissolve and -- without giving too much away -- become literal shadows of themselves. It should evoke within its reader a sense of unease with both the world of the novel and reality writ large (and this, I believe, is why so many readers are calling the novel "Lovecraftian" even though Vandermeer is an avowed non-disciple of Lovecraft). At the same time, however, the force that operates within Area X is wondrous. It allows near-magical forms of life to evolve, creates a complex, self-sustaining ecosystem for the area, and causes changes within people that may, sometimes, be quite beneficial -- even salvatory -- for those individuals (as is the case for the novel's primary protagonist).

It is this dichotomy at work within Annihilation's Area X that makes me salivate. Area X is a sublime world, both menacing and glorious. It has equal power to build and destroy. Whatever forces galvanize Area X, they are laced with infinite possibility and, as is the nature with such expansive possibility, sometimes the manifestation of those possibilities is beautiful, mesmerizing, and life-affirming while, other times, it is horrible, grotesque, and death-dealing. Annihilation plunges us into the vastness of an unknown sphere of potentiality and refuses to let us come up for air. Rather, it holds us under, grants us the opportunity to see the universe as a place of terrible metamorphoses and wondrous revelations, and forces us to realize that, sometimes, great changes require great sacrifices.

Of course, there's plenty more going on in Annihilation than just aesthetic promulgation. There's the metaphorization of relationships and interpersonal alienation as a journey into strange, dark, fantastical lands. There's the celebration of nature as a sublime force in and of itself. And there's the implicit condemnation of science as an incomplete tool for exploration -- especially where matters of self and matters of the heart are concerned.

In Annihilation, Vandermeer pours the foundation for what could become a classic of weird literature and I hope that with the next two volumes of the trilogy, he expands on that foundation in a way that adds additional complexity and nuance to the ideas that gird this first book of the series.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Impossibility and Inevitability of Escapism in Speculative Fiction

For decades, speculative fiction – which encompasses the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction (and their subsets) – has been subject to the dismissive presumption that it is somehow sub-literary and, therefore, not quite deserving of full scholarly attention or serious merit. Though rarely articulated in contemporary criticism, this supposition remains an insidious inference throughout the “elite” literary community. Consider: how many writers of speculative fiction have won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize? How many works of adult speculative fiction have garnered a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize? It's not hyperbole to say that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror remain chained in the dungeon of the literary meritocracy. Speculative fiction is caught in what Marleen Barr, in her essay “Textism – An Emancipation Proclamation,” calls “a discriminatory evaluation system in which all literature relegated to a so-called subliterary genre, regardless of its individual merits, is automatically defined as inferior, separate, and unequal.” But why? Why is speculative fiction considered inferior or unequal?

The problem lies in perception. Since the 1920s and 1930s – an era of “pulp fiction” which saw speculative works largely relegated to the pages of sensationalist and, oftentimes, amateurish magazines – much sci-fi, fantasy, and horror has been regarded as escapism, with its primary function being to provide readers with release from the real, phenomenal world. Such escapism, some would contend, does not allow speculative fiction to tackle contemporary issues and to deal with prescient social, cultural, or political concerns – all of which “serious” literature is supposed to do. Rather, speculative fiction, due to its supposedly escapist nature, is often considered little more than an adolescent flight of fancy with no interest in exploring or resolving the problems of practical life. There is little argument against the idea that speculative fiction does tend to transport its readers to fictional, constructed realities separate from the contemporary world. However, this transportational tendency is inherent in every work of fiction, regardless of whether it is genred or non-genred. From Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Achebe's Things Fall Apart to Dick's A Scanner Darkly and Gaiman's American Gods, all fiction – to varying degrees – extricates its readers from certain aspects of contemporaneity and, therefore, allows for a level of escapism. More concisely stated, all fiction is ultimately escapist. The difference between speculative fiction and academically lauded literature, then, is only one of reading and interpretation. How one approaches works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror is the determining factor as to whether they are conceived of as pointless, immature tales or complex, intellectually stimulating texts. Therefore, escapism becomes simultaneously the core element of speculative fiction and an impossibility; dependent solely on the manner of reading, it can be, and is, either.

Fiction, by its very definition, is a construct of unreal events, unreal individuals, and unreal places. While these fictive elements can be realistic, and can even be based upon real people, places, and events, they can never be (nor have they ever been) phenomenologically real; if they were, the work of which they were a part would no longer be fiction – it would, instead, be a form of non-fiction. Therefore, any work of fiction must transport its reader to a world that, however similar to reality, is not reality. A disengagement from contemporary, phenomenal reality and all of its concomitant dilemmas and issues is necessary in order to enter and fully engage with a fictional text.

When a reader engages a work of literature, Dickens' Oliver Twist, for example, there is a clear divide between contemporary, phenomenal reality and textual reality. Oliver Twist takes place in 19th century London and follows the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of its eponymous central character through his childhood in orphanages and workhouses. Though it may seem obvious, contemporary literary critics do not live in the 19th century, nor do most (or, more likely, any) have a true conception of what it may have been like to live in a dank, pre-Victorian orphanage. Therefore, the world that Oliver Twist creates for its contemporary readership is an entirely separate sphere of existence; it is an imagined space largely dissimilar from the reader's “real world.” When a reader delves into the novel, he or she disengages with his or her contemporary reality and enters a construction of early 19th century England. Yes, this construction is based upon history. Yes, it is based upon real living and working conditions of that particular time. But it is, still, a different world than that of the contemporary reader. The reader is, essentially, escaping contemporary, phenomenal reality and entering the fictive universe of the text. Some issues within this fictive universe – child labor and class discrimination, for instance – are applicable to both spheres of reality, but the political, social, and cultural mores of the textual world (not to mention minutiae such as city layout, clothing styles, and colloquial language) are, nonetheless, quite different from those of the contemporary, phenomenal world of the reader.

This escape into the underbelly of 19th century London is no different from entering into a textual world that is set in the distant future or in an blatantly alternate reality. A work of speculative fiction such as China Mieville's Perdido Street Station also creates a world separate and distinct from contemporary reality, albeit more blatantly. Perdido Street Station is, for example, set in a massive city called New Crobuzon – an entirely fantastical realm that is inhabited by races of humans, insectoids, bird-people, interdimensional spider demigods and sentient robots. In New Crobuzon it is also possible to utilize magic as well as Victorian industrial and scientific techniques. Obviously, this is a universe that includes few of the surface trappings of 21st century Earth. So, when a reader engages with the text, he or she is transported to a reality quite distinct and separate from his or her own. In this regard, Perdido Street Station, like much speculative fiction, is extremely escapist; it does, in fact, allow its reader to visit a place utterly foreign and outside the purview of contemporary life. A reader can simply wallow in the thrill of the fantastic and a sense of defamiliarization, if he or she chooses. At the same time, however, the text incorporates thoughtful commentary and critiques of contemporary issues such as drug abuse, racism, and censorship – all of which will be ignored by the reader who is concentrating solely on the elements of escapism. While these contemporary concerns may be significantly more metaphorized or more deeply embedded within a work of speculative fiction than within non-genre fiction, they are, in fact, still present.

There simply is no difference between the transportation of a reader to a far-flung fantasy land and the transportation of a reader to the dank workhouses and orphanages of 19th century England. Both Oliver Twist and Perdido Street Station grant their readers escape from the phenomenological world, as neither pre-Victorian England nor New Crobuzon are a contemporary reader's phenomenological reality; therefore, narratives set in these places can only be entered as fictive constructs. A reader can no more authentically experience 19th century London than New Crobuzon, a fact which leads to the conclusion that Dickensian London is, in actuality, as much a fantasy land as Mievillian New Crobuzon.

One could conceivably argue that the London of Oliver Twist did, however, exist at one time and can be recovered through historical, autobiographical, and other non-fictional texts while Perdido Street Station's New Crobuzon cannot. This is a loaded assumption. Simply because a reader is given more specific information and details of places, times, and events does not make them more phenomenologically real or rescue them from the purportedly evil clutches of escapism. If this were the case, then the world of Star Trek, with its ornate and embellished human and alien histories, meticulously crafted technical manuals for technologies that do not exist, and dictionaries for languages that are not spoken outside the Trek universe, would be more “real” than the bulk of human history. Pre-Victorian England remains, even with tomes of non-fiction declaring its once-existence and providing additional details to its being, a world that cannot be experienced or entered, except through fictional narrative. The pages of Oliver Twist are, therefore, a place of escape from reality and the novel could be, quite rightly, qualified as escapist. However, few literary scholars would admit – or perhaps even consider – as much. That speculative fiction can be read as escapist is a tired truth. It is now time to acknowledge the same possible escapism in non-genre fiction.

If both speculative fiction and mainstream fiction are, as sources of a constructed, non-phenomenological reality, open to escapist readings, then a hypocrisy begins to emerge. The bulk of literary critics and scholars shrug off speculative fiction as mere entertainment, as a group of texts that grant readers the opportunity to forget about pragmatic living and practical social, cultural, and political concerns. Yet, this is precisely how any work of fiction can be read. However, non-genre fiction is not subject to the same automatic dismissal that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror endure.

Non-genre fiction receives privileged treatment within the "elite" literary community; it is always read with an eye toward its potential merits and its value to current critical discourse. It could be read as escapist entertainment, but it rarely, if ever, actually is. When literary scholars approach a non-genre work of fiction, the escapist elements of the text are pushed aside and intellectual engagement is allowed to thrive. Literary critics do not, after all, assert that they read the works of Toni Morrison for their transportive abilities or entertainment value; they read Morrison due to the racial, gender, spiritual, and political issues her novels address. Regardless, either way of reading Morrison, and non-genre fiction as a whole, is entirely possible. Yet only one – the route of serious discursive inquiry and rigorous textual exploration – is routinely utilized. Despite the fact that it could be read as escapism, non-genre fiction is perpetually approached as “serious” literature and, therefore, can be read as such. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, is approached as escapist and, because it, too, can be read as escapism, it is shrugged off as entirely expected juvenile frivolity. The complexity and intellectual depth of speculative fiction goes unrecognized because many literary scholars simply do not read such texts properly – i.e., with openness toward potential literary worth. Rather than approaching speculative fiction with the intent to glean valuable insights into current issues or even the general human condition, a vast percentage of the literary elite take up a work of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror with the preconception that it will be simplistic entertainment. It fulfills these preconceptions due to the fact that it, like all other fiction, is, on its shallowest level, precisely that: a story, an series of imagined events intended, in its basest function, to evoke pleasure and interest – to entertain. So if, as a reader, one enters the text with the notion that it is just a rollicking adventure or a spine-chilling thriller, then those escapist characteristics will naturally dominate all other possible interpretive gleanings. But, as mentioned before, speculative fiction, in this regard, is no different than non-genre fiction; both, by virtue of being fiction, are able to be read – on the most surface level – as nothing more than transportive tales. However, this does not mean that speculative fiction or non-genre fiction is nothing more than escapism; significant elements of high literature do exist in both speculative fiction and non-genre fiction, although these elements may be in comparatively short supply.

Indeed, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writer Theodore Sturgeon once famously remarked that “90% of science fiction [is] trash,” but “the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” This could not be more true. Much speculative fiction will not stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and will, in fact, easily fall into the categories of pulp fiction, juvenalia, or tired pastiche. However, just as much non-genre fiction will suffer the same fate. So much of everything is disposable. And yet, the meritorious ten percent of non-genre fiction is what constitutes the bulk of “serious” literature, while the equally worthy ten percent of speculative fiction is largely perceived as a little more than a mildly interesting diversion.

The problem of escapism as a criticism of speculative fiction, then, lies solely in reception and methodology of interpretation. Unless literary scholars are prepared to initially approach all fiction as escapism, no written work must be regarded on its face as such. Every individual text must be approached as if it were worthy of in-depth critical study and, if it is not, only an unbiased reading, free from preconception based on genre prejudice, should determine that fact. Escapism – or lack thereof – should not be the quality that a reader automatically seeks to discern; rather, a reader should engage speculative fiction (and, in fact, all fiction) with an critical eye toward elucidating its merits, not dwelling upon its supposed faults.

Ultimately, the genred nature of a text is irrelevant; all that truly matters is the way in which it is read. Escapism is not a valid criticism of speculative fiction simply because escape is part of the very act of reading fiction. It is only because speculative fiction is perceived as a "lesser" literary genre, as a puerile divergence from reality, that it becomes so; if literary critics and scholars (the guiding “literati” of the world) gave speculative fiction the same attention and care that they lavish upon non-genre fiction, it would be quite apparent that "escape" into a fantastical fictional world is only the preoccupation of unfounded elitist preconceptions – a preoccupation which occludes valuable and often profound literary works from becoming part of the recognized body of complex, serious literature.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Year-End Best of Everything Ever Made in the Entire Multiverse

So... here we go, the first post on this blog. A beginning. A prologue. A brief exposition of the author's mysterious history. But also an ending, a summation, a signpost pointing to locales more vibrant than those the author inhabits. I've decided to open the blog with a year-end list of the best books I've read this past solar cycle and the best movies I've seen that might be labeled horror, SF, or fantasy (and keep in mind, not all of it was released in 2013 -- what I'm about to list is what I encountered for the first time in 2013; some of it was, indeed, released this past year, but some of it wasn't).

In explaining why I love what I loved from the past year, I hope this post will provide a little foregrounding about myself, my tastes, and my personality, thus marking it as a serviceable introduction to the blog. After all, what are any of us but collections of individually revered texts, endlessly merging and intertwining, recycling and recombining? By that same token, though, I want this post to direct attention to those specific texts that have become inscribed upon me in the last year. I want to offer up an esteemed pantheon of writers and directors to the gods of aesthetic glory so that they might live forever in the souls of new found readers, viewers, and listeners.

Without further ado, then, let's get to it.

My 2013 BOOKS FOR THE AGES (in no particular order):

Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth - Stephen Graham Jones:

Everyone knows SGJ is maniacally prolific. It's as though he writes a short story with every blink of his eye and births a novel every time he visits the bathroom. I honestly believe he's either in possession of time-travel technology or isn't a real person, but a writing collective. In any case, however he does it, SGJ constantly produces some of the most genre-bending, gleefully outrageous, disturbingly rendered, self-aware mayhem in the literary world. Zombie Sharks is that mayhem condensed into a series of deliciously horrific bites. Just when you think you're reading a bizarro or comedic piece (and a character uses kittens as meat grenades against zombie hordes, for instance), SGJ turns the narrative inside out and forces you to realize what underscores the absurdity -- a horrifying, twisted moral compass or a horrifying, twisted universe. Tremendously inventive and demented, SGJ can do it all.

At Fear's Altar - Richard Gavin:

I've read Gavin's other collections multiple times, but this was my first go-round with At Fear's Altar. I was not disappointed in anything other than my own inability to fit it into my reading pile sooner. In this collection, Richard Gavin does what Richard Gavin does -- that is, use his daemonic pen to open slits in our reality, slits from which pour great wonders as well as uncontrollable horrors. The guy just keeps getting better and better. His prose, when hitting its highest gears, reads like a more lucid, concise Lovecraft and his themes explore the outre realms of being and existence, religious experience, and individual identity which most people are afraid to acknowledge, let alone plumb. In that way, he's like a shadow philosopher or a displaced mystic from the middle ages. Cerebral, challenging, impeccably crafted horror here.

The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All - Laird Barron:

Everyone in the horror/weird fiction world knows who Laird Barron is and everyone has read him. So when he releases a new collection, of course everyone's going to sit up and watch. And here's the deal: Barron rarely disappoints. I adore Occultation and love The Imago Sequence and The Light is the Darkness. So, odds were, I was going to like A Beautiful Thing. Well, don't bet against the odds, because this is another fine addition to Barron's canon. While I do feel that this collection is a bit more uneven than his previous two, when Barron brings the goods practically no one in the field can match him for sheer leering, unsettling cosmic terror. Sometimes you taste flavors of Blackwood or Machen; sometimes you catch a whiff of Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard -- whatever the recipe for his writing, it's entirely Barron's own delectable melange. When critics and reviewers and fans call him an "emerging master," that's not hyperbole. He is.

Every House is Haunted - Ian Rogers:

This is the first book from Rogers that I've ever read, and I reveled in it. I've mentioned this collection on FB before, so let me reiterate what I said there: "A bunch of the stories in Every House is Haunted include a shadowy investigative organization mythos that I've never seen before. Those are, without a doubt, my favorites from the collection because they add even more menace to the weird and inexplicable events at the center of the tales. A hidden consortium or agency or bureaucracy heightens the stakes of the strange or supernatural plot; it implies that we're not just victims of big, bad, unknown forces in the universe but that we're caught in the middle of a conflict between those forces and some other equally unknown human device. Completely awesome." My point stands. In weird tales, we're so often immersed in reading or writing the big bad supernatural or cosmic entity that we forget humanity can construct just as much paranoia and Kafkaesque menace on its own side. Rogers doesn't let us forget that and we're better for it.

Nightingale Songs - Simon Strantzas:

I know... I'm way behind on this one, but at least I finally caught up. Strantzas is truly the heir to Robert Aickman. In what other speculative fiction writer's work do you find this same sense of purposeful ambiguity and irresolution? No one's. And Strantzas makes it work. In a lesser writer's hands, these stories would fall flat at the end, deflated by a lack of poignancy. But none of them do. In fact, they're strengthened by the rich ambiguity. Lovecraft's old adage about the oldest fear being the fear of the unknown is aptly deployed for Nightingale Songs (and all of Strantzas' other collections, too); that uncanny and bizarre incidents continue to mount throughout his stories without any clear explanation serves to make them more unsettling, more uncertain of the universe around us and the laws which supposedly govern it. Indeed, Strantzas is, I think, more a writer of terror than horror (which I believe is the higher aspiration). He doesn't scare you with beasties or blood, causing you to recoil in fear; rather, he scares you with the absolute unknown, causing you to fidget nervously in the dark, wondering just how much of this whole "reality" thing can be trusted.

North American Lake Monsters - Nathan Ballingrud:

Ballingrud is a new entry into my coterie of "must read" authors. His prose is concise, muscular, and direct, and his protagonists often reverberate with those same qualities. With grit and gusto, he writes about blue-collar men and women, trapped not only in their work, in their economic or social strata, but in the terror and uncertainty of existence. Desperation reaches out from these pages and wrings your throat. When I first read NALM, I thought "Wow... this is Steinbeck under the influence of Lovecraft," and I haven't wavered from that position. These stories are socially conscious, aware of the foibles of the human heart, and yet indebted to the tradition of cosmic otherness.

Immobility - Brian Evenson:

I never know what to think of Evenson. Is he a mainstream literary author, the kind of guy who publishes in places like Granta and Ploughshares and The Atlantic? Or is he a weird fiction writer, the type who delivers stories about cabals of amputees and phenomenologically interstitial windows? The answer, I think, is yes to both. Evenson is a Pushcart Prize kind of writer who journeys into the weird, the gothic, and even SF in order to utilize their unique tropes. Immobility is one of those latter jaunts. It's post-apocalyptic SF over which hangs a gray haze of ambiguity, a disjointed quality which is quite appropriate for a narrative in which the hero is a psychologically fragmented paraplegic. I don't want to give away too much of this novel, so I'll just say that Evenson's primary concerns within it are the nature of religion and other cultural power structures (something he tends to explore in other works, too). Immobility a bleak tale and, by its close, you might wonder if the world would be a better place if we were all just mindless drones.

"Final Exam" - Megan Arkenberg:

 I know, I know. It's a short story, not a book. But this story has stuck with me as much as any full book since I first read it early this year (in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year Vol. 5). First off, it plays with form (the entire story is a multiple choice and short answer test), which I adore. Second, it provides no easy answers (pun intended) to its kinda, sorta, maybe apocalyptic narrative. Third, at its center lies not just horror but a deep well of emotion and a surprisingly astute examination of romantic relationships. Very interesting story. I hope Ms. Arkenberg continues to write.

My 2013 MOVIES FOR THE AGES (in no particular order):

The World's End:

As I become hoary and gray (well... as I speed closer to hoary and gray), I find it more and more difficult to make new friends and to maintain relationships with my old friends. I see a certain nostalgia in the "good old days" of late high school and college, in hanging out and having few responsibilities that actually meant anything. I understand the romance of youthful hedonism, of fucking up yourself and your life in service of adventure and experience and pleasure. And I've certainly experienced the automation of adulthood and the slow withering of expectations and hopes that is too often coterminous with aging. All of which is why I loved this movie. It deals with those weighty issues with panache and levity, tying them into extraterrestrial robot invasion -- the perfect metaphor for alienation from one's peers, one's history, and one's former, youthful self.

Escape from Tomorrow:

It was a pretty ballsy move to film a movie in Disney World without Disney's permission. For that alone, you have to give this movie some credit. But then what it does with that backdrop is insane -- and I mean insane in all the best of ways. The narrative framework sets you up to think this is going to be a film about mid-life crises and the search for youthful exuberance... and it is. But it's also a horror movie about a strange cat virus, a SF movie about the  Baudrillardian properties of identity in a mass mediated world, and a haunting vision of marriage and parental responsibility. And it's all wrapped up in imagery that would feel at home in a David Lynch film. At times it's a little sloppy, yeah. At times it wanders a bit. But this movie is probably the strangest piece of art or entertainment I've engaged with all year.


A psychotic orca, deranged through torturous living conditions. An evil, monolithic corporate entity that victimizes human and beast alike. An implicit condemnation of our near-religious culture of spectatorship and capitalistic subjugation of the natural world. An ambiguous conclusion in which nothing is resolved, the dead are still quite dead, the monster is still loose, and the forces that created it remain active and in power. Documentary? Yes. Horror movie? You bet.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

I just lost my underground credibility, didn't I? Well, so be it. These are fine movies and the novels are pretty decent, too. Sure, there are flaws in both, but for a YA series to feature a relatively interesting dystopian world and a fully fleshed, badass heroine is a miracle. Plus, I think there's more going on here than most people realize. The series isn't so much about the evils of government or the tyranny of the wealthy few, but the nature of power, in general -- the ways in which it corrupts with a subtle blade and the ways in which it can be concentrated and held (namely, in the HG world, through aesthetic manipulation).

V/H/S 2:

I like the first one better. That being said, this is still a decent compilation of found-footage shorts all mashed up into one film. Like its predecessor, it shows that there's still life left in that format and, if done well, it can still be a quite effective tool for horror. This was worth my time for Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" segment, alone (in which evil cults, mass suicide, and dimensional doorways feature heavily).
This is the End

It's ridiculous. It's apocalyptic. It's self-referential and self-aware. And it includes a cameo from the Backstreet Boys apropos of nothing. What's not to like?