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?"