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?

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