Poe Vs. Lovecraft Panel at FanExpo Toronto 2015

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don't you think?

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don’t you think?

Sean Moreland will be joining influential Canadian writers/editors/anthologists Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles on a panel at this year’s FanExpo Canada to talk about the relative scary-merits of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft (the panel may also be joined by a special guest, known for his screen embodiment of both writers’ fictions.)  It’ll be a feast of insidious intent, hideous argument, and debatable putridities as we discuss the legacy and influence of these two titans of terror, considering who is finally more frightening, and why….

The panel is scheduled to take place on Saturday September 5 at 545. I’ll post any changes or details here. If you are at this year’s expo, we hope to see you there!

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Necro(nomiCon)scopy

necronomicon-2015

I spent last weekend down in the lovely Providence, RI, for the 2015 edition of NecronomiCon, a festival that celebrates the legacy and achievement of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the broader field of the weird in literature, art, and popular culture.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

Having been an avid reader of Lovecraft since the age of 11, I first went to the Con in 2013 in a purely recreational capacity, enjoyed it immensely, and found that it renewed my interest in researching and writing critically on Lovecraft and his legacy (the forthcoming collections I’m editing, The Lovecraftian Poe and The Call of Cosmic Panic, not to mention my return to Lovecraft via the interest he and Poe shared in materialist/atomist philosophy, all came about in part because of the impetus NecronomiCon 2013 provided.)

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library.

This year, I attended as part of the Armitage Symposium, a series of academic panels and talks co-organized by Niels Hobbs and Dennis Quinn. I participated specifically in a panel on the importance of ancient Rome and Roman writers for Lovecraft, drawing on a book-length study I’m slowly working on (tentatively titled Repulsive Influences) that charts the vestiges and influence of 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in/on Poe and Lovecraft. and through them, contemporary cosmic horror.

NecronomiCon 2015 was both fun and thought-provoking; it is, in many ways, a unique and wonderful convention, and this year’s was more ambitious and multi-faceted than its 2013 iteration had been. It was also much more unsettling.

ABOUT THE ‘CON

If you don’t know anything about the Con, it straddles the boundaries between pop-culture fandom and academic conference. It features gaming, cosplay, a bizarre bazaar offering everything from Cthulhu plushies to rare and first-edition books to contemporary weird and horror fiction titles (by indie and major publishers) and films, to on-site film screenings, podcasts, live theatrical performances, and….well, you get the idea.

It is, on the one hand, an unprecedented celebration of a single writer’s massive popular-cultural legacy (even Lovecraft’s beloved “God of Fiction” Poe, or his contemporary popular descendent Stephen King, doesn’t have anything comparable). On the other, it also strives to be a locus of weird/horror fiction more broadly, showcasing the work of many subsequent creators who work in Lovecraft’s shadow, or with the materials he helped shape into their modern forms.

These contradictions are part of what make the convention so singular, and so engaging. They are also, of course, what make it so profoundly problematic. Consider my phrasing, above, about contemporary creators of the weird working “in Lovecraft’s shadow,” and you may already get a sense of part of the problem, as Nnedi Okorafor famously did when she won the World Fantasy Award a few years back.

LOVECRAFT AND RACISM

Knowing I was at the Con, a friend shared a link to this Atlantic Monthly article about Lovecraft’s popular resurgence, and its relation to his more troubling social, and especially racial, views. The article’s aptness was highlighted for me by a number of things that happened at the Con.

On the one hand, there was a lot more open, critical dialogue about this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing and legacy than at the previous NecronomiCon, including a well-selected and attended panel on Lovecraft and racism. I didn’t make it to that one in person, but have watched it since – you can view it here.

Lovecraft’s xenophobic and racial views are hard to overlook (I would say impossible, if so many of his readers, imitators, and commentators had not tried, with varying degrees of success, to overlook them for so many decades), and this makes his celebrated status as a literary and pop-cult icon especially problematic.

These views are hardly incidental to Lovecraft’s writing, fiction or otherwise. In terms of his fictions, his anxious racial attitudes pervasively inflect his tales, becoming most overt in stories written during his time in New York city, including the spasmodic, gibbering tirades against urban ethnic hybridity which are “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook.” But they hardly disappear from the later fiction; like the invective that peppers his letters, they just become more understated once he returns to the relative ethnic and linguistic homogeneity of Providence.

In terms of his critical writings, Lovecraft even tended to assimilate weird fiction to his own racial typography, associating different strains of it with different aspects of his racial imaginary. In one example, from the first chapter of Supernatural Horror in Literature, he claimed that:

“In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, where the mystical Teuton had come down from his black Boreal forests and the Celt remembered strange sacrifices in Druidic groves, it assumed a terribly intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-hinted horror.”

Virtually every aspect of Lovecraft’s thought and writing is in some way coloured by his ideas about race and the relationship between genetics and culture, from his affectionate writings about cats to his readings of philosophical and historical works. As my ancient Rome co-panelists Dennis Quinn and Byron Nakamura both aptly stated during the panel on Lovecraft and ancient Rome, even Lovecraft’s identification with Roman writers is inflected by a tendency to align his contemporary white-Anglo-Saxon-Atheistical-Protestantism with both 18th century England and Republican Rome (an identification that echoes that made by Edward Gibbon and other 18th century British writers.)

Are these racial views ostensibly the reason most contemporary readers/writers are fascinated with Lovecraft’s stories? Of course not.  One of the participants on the panel, Mexican-born Canadian author, editor and publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in her own reflections on the 2015 Con, writes:

“I’ve been asked (over and over again) why I’m interested in Lovecraft since he is so problematic. Nick Mamatas pretty much nails the answer in his essay “Why Write Lovecraftian Fiction?” which concludes:

“We read Lovecraft’s work and write Lovecraftian fiction, but we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.”

That’s my reaction, too.

Lovecraft was almost pathologically racist, brimming with biological anxieties which found their way into his stories. Even when he’s not afraid of other races, I would say he is afraid of genetic inferiors, constantly consumed with thoughts about degeneration, about lineages and disease.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Moreno-Garcia here.)

Also among the panelists was Canadian novelist and journalist David Nickle, who notes:

“there are other things going on in Lovecraft too: there’s the bestiary/pantheon of fantastically alien gods and monsters; that overheated prose that veers so easily between the sublime and the leaden; his fearful, bookish characters. But those are characteristics, aesthetics; not fundamentals. They are not the agenda.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Nickle here.)

Both are surely right that the vast majority of Lovecraft’s readers, myself included, are drawn to Lovecraft’s fiction by things other than his racist views. But critically, Lovecraft’s racism is, in certain respects, finally inseparable from his aesthetics, and Lovecraft scholarship has only recently began to examine the degree to which they are imbricated, and what the effects of this imbrication are.

Of course, the same is true for the history of Western aesthetics in general. Consider, for example, Plato’s foundational remarks on the beauty of whiteness (so aptly parodied by another dead-white-great American weird fictionist, Melville, in Moby-Dick). Or consider Edmund Burke’s comments on, and supposedly empirical evidence for, the natural repulsion “we” feel when faced with black skin, in his Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a text which informed much of Lovecraft’s thought (like that of over a century of Gothic writers preceding him), and seems to have particularly inspired the opening sentence of Supernatural Horror: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

In Lovecraft’s case, these imbrications are particularly vivid, and therefore can be especially illuminating. Weird fiction titan China Mieville and scholar Jeffrey Weinstock are among those who have recently, and  persuasively, argued that the intensity of Lovecraft’s racialized anxieties contribute to the potency of his fictions. Some of Moreno-Garcia’s and Nickle’s comments, as well as their fictions, suggest that they think similarly.

In his Aug 25, 2014 blog post, “Don’t Mention the War,” Nickle observed:

“In a perverse way, Lovecraft’s retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature… not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we’ve been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods.”

Nickle explores Lovecraft’s racial imaginary, alongside that of his North American historical context, effectively in his novel Eutopia, as well as in many of his critical commentaries. Moreno-Garcia does so not only through her own fiction and her editorial and curatorial work, but also through her academic graduate work on Lovecraft and the American eugenics movement of his day.

These are tremendously valuable forays into an unpleasant, unsettling, but very necessary frontier; Lovecraft’s racism (and that of his contemporaries, and that of our contemporaries, and, ultimately, that we ourselves may experience and/or unwittingly propagate) needs to be not only openly acknowledged and discussed but studied, and re-examined not only through academic, but also through creative, lenses.

Doing so is not only necessary for developing our understanding of Lovecraft’s work, and its relationship to the history of racism in the 20th century. More importantly, it is vital for developing our understanding of the pervasive and persistent tendency to view alterity as a source of anxiety, and a site of exclusion and abjection. Lovecraft’s fiction is particularly apt in this respect, because it offers such a vivid and stark imagining of this tendency.

As Robin Wood pointed out in his classic essay “The American Nightmare” over 30 years ago, and as many theorists and writers have noted since, alterity forms much of the conceptual basis, and visceral appeal, of much, if not all, horror and weird fiction (hell, of human literature and culture tout court!). This is one of the things that led to Stephen  King’s pithy remark in Danse Macabre that horror writers are as  Republican as “a banker in a three-piece suit.”

THE PRICE DEBACLE

That brings me to the titanic “other hand -” the less positive way in which this NecronomiCon was a more unsettling experience.

Even though he wasn’t wearing a three-piece suit at the time, Robert M. Price rather embodied King’s stereotype during the Con. This is not only true of his controversial remarks during the opening ceremonies (here is a link to the video recording of them, Price’s speech beginning about 50 minutes in, with his “real life ‘Horror at Red Hook’ quip kicking up near the hour mark.) It was also evident during the short fiction reading he gave on Saturday, a Holocaust-exploitation story titled “It Came from the Ovens.”  In a nutshell, the story re-invents Lovecraft’s character, Herbert West, Reanimator, by having him working alongside Josef Mengele’s Nazi doctors in a concentration camp, focusing in pulpy, sensational detail on the torture of Jewish prisoners, from whom he learns the secrets of the Kabbalah. After describing the sofas he assembled from the excised faces of prisoners and similar atrocities, the story goes on to portray West’s creation of a Golem which, in typical revenge-film fashion, then smashes up a bunch of Nazi guards before destroying the animating sigil on its forehead, returning itself to ashes.

Price likely had satirical intentions with the story. In a recent blog post aimed at critics of circumcision, he wrote:

“This is a terrible time for Jews. Vocal and virulent anti-Semitism is on the rise in once-civilized Europe. But of course it was cultured, enlightened Europeans who sent Jews to the gas chambers, wasn’t it? And it was effete, ever-optimistic, naïve Europeans who allowed the annihilation of Jews because they could not believe “Mister Hitler” could actually be such a medieval barbarian as he proved to be. Today things are no different. Bubble-headed Presidents and Secretaries of State assure us that Iran is just kidding when they repeatedly announce their intent to wipe out Israel in a repeat of the Holocaust they disingenuously claim never happened. What happened to “Never again!”? More like “Ever again!”

Price’s politics and his fiction feature some pretty crassly co-ordinated fear-mongering. His reading felt to me like a piece of tasteless and opportunistic provocation, especially when taken in light of his remarks at the opening ceremony, that contemporary North America is facing a real-life “Horror at Red Hook.”

As Niels Hobbs commented during the panel on Lovecraft and Racism, perhaps Price has performed a sort of service by throwing into such high relief what a continuing concern Lovecraft’s worst ideological aspects remain for contemporary readers. Certainly, it shook me out of my complacent tendency to treat many of Lovecraft’s racial and ideological views as essentially historical and textual concerns, and served to remind me that they continue to have a potentially toxic cultural and polemical afterlife of their own.

THE WEIRD – LOVECRAFT = ?

What does all of this mean, however, for the present, and future, of those literary registers in which Lovecraft worked? The deleterious consequences of the popular (con)fusion of Lovecraft with the broad spectrum of the weird is one that has been pointed out many times, and that many writers, editors and commentators have tried to clarify, notably including Ann and Jeff VanderMeer with their seminal anthology, The Weird. Their introduction to that collection makes the point succinctly:

“The Lovecraft Circle is represented in the early pages of this volume, but not to the exclusion of all else. Why? Because in other places a similar impulse was arising. At roughly the same time Lovecraft penned tales like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Jean Ray, in a Belgian prison, wrote stunning and sophisticated stories like “The Shadowy Street” and “The Mainz Psalter,” Japanese poet Hagiwara Sakutoro composed the hallucinogenic strangeness that is “The Town of Cats,” and Polish writer Bruno Schulz mythologized his childhood in weird stories like “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.

These non-Anglo versions of The Weird were not aberrations. In the 1910s, Ryunosuke Akutagawa published the Japanese contes cruel “The Hell Screen” and Franz Kafka, still to remain relatively unknown for decades, wrote the classic of weird ritual “In the Penal Colony,” while in India Rabindrath Tagore wrote his most supernatural tale, “The Hungry Stones” and in Italy Luigi Ugolini penned “The Vegetable Man,” a tale of weird transformation.”

Certainly, I think the organizers of NecronomiCon are making efforts to make the event more balanced and inclusive, and I suspect Price’s antics may be part of a reaction against that.

These efforts, however, need to go a lot further. In his recent reflections on NecronomiCon 2015, Nickle wrote:

“But you know something about all those talks? With a few exceptions, they were all conversations among white, privileged people in the U.S. and Northern Europe, about the extreme racism and xenophobia of a dead white writer. They were conversations that may not have consciously excluded the people of colour who Lovecraft so consistently libelled, but nonetheless didn’t really manage include them.”

Moreno-Garcia also emphasizes this situation, and has offered a few Con-specific suggestions for improving it; you can read her blog post here.

TWEIRD KEWTSCH?

On a less serious note, I’d like to ponder what all of this recognition of politicization means for not only Lovecraft’s monsters, but also the profusion of “innocent” Lovecraftian kewtsch they’ve inspired.

Nested in Chloe Buckley’s recent review of Datlow’s collection, Lovecraft’s Monsters are some striking meditations on the cola-dark sea of Lovecraftian paraphernalia on which we are adrift:

“To Lovecraft literature scholars, the very idea of a cuddly Cthulhu might suggest the pernicious effects of late consumer capitalism on what was once a truly subversive modernist literature. S. T. Joshi, for example, decries the decline of Weird fiction, stating that ‘the amount of meritorious weird fiction being written today is in exactly inverse proportion to its quantity’ (2001, 1). Alternatively, to die-hard Lovecraft fans, the appearance of Cthulhu in children’s cartoons is an example of the inevitable “gushing up” to the mainstream of subcultural production. However, this polemic of radical art vs. conservative commodity, or, differently configured, transgressive subcultural form versus mainstream pop cultural work has always been to some extent resisted by the Weird tale and the Weird monster. Lovecraft’s work is neither properly modernist, nor properly post-modern; it is originally a pulp fiction that has accrued a (sub)cultural status, equated by some critics with outsider art; it is also deeply embedded in the highly commodified ‘geek culture’ that continues to become more and more mainstream.”

Innocuous octopi...or something far more sinister?

Innocuous octopi…or something far more sinister?

My thoughts about “tweird” HPL bric-a-brac went down a different track after David Nickle struck me with one of his characteristically incisive comments during a brief in-transit conversation at the Con. He suggested that sporting a Lovecraftian icon (say, a Miskatonic University t-shirt, or a plush shoggoth doll, or a Cthulhu-fish decal) could be perceived as a little like hanging a confederate flag above one’s mantelpiece.

Is it possible that, in the years to come, people are going to look back on the current Lovecraft craze, and its volcanic eruption of kewtsch, with the kind of fascinated horror with which most of us regard wooden cigar store Indians or those classic Disney cartoons from the 1930s, with the Bat Bandit, Chinky the Cook, and similar characters?

bATbANDIT

Is my six-year-old-daughter going to drag the pink-and-blue hand-knit Cthulhu we gave her in 2013 out of her closet in fifteen years, and groan, “DAMN, DAD, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING WITH ALL THIS LOVECRAFT CRAP?”

Somewhat more seriously, given the degree to which the monsters of our cultural imaginaries through the course of history are inflected by our own social and psychological anxieties and epistemological limitations, what might these mean for alterity-inflected monsters whose racialized context is a little less obvious?

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner's novel.

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner’s 1971 novel.

In any case, while I don’t think there is anything to be gained by denying Lovecraft’s importance, influence, or continuing power to fascinate (or in trying to quell the generative memetic quality his creatures have for cutesy caricature) the continued tendency to treat Lovecraft as a metonym, a personalized fetish, for the broad, dimly-lit, transnational, and even transhuman, field of the weird is disastrously misleading.

To awkwardly paraphrase Poe, “if in many of our productions weirdness has been the thesis, we maintain that weirdness is not of Lovecraft, but of the soul.”

Sean Moreland

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BOOK REVIEW: A POE TRIFECTA! nEvermore: TALES OF MURDER, MYSTERY & THE MACABRE (2015) POE (2009), CHILDREN OF POE (2008)

Over the more than 150 years since Poe’s untimely demise, there have been many anthologies themed around his life and writings, of widely varying emphasis and quality. While a few have focused on Poe’s legacy in terms of detective fiction, science fiction, or poetry, the vast majority have emphasized Poe as the grand-pappy of, and a marketing locus for, modern horror fiction.

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Two notable earlier 21st century examples are Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Peter Straub (Anchor Books, 2008) and Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (Solaris, 2009), edited by Ellen Datlow. Both these earlier collections hold a place of importance in terms of Poe’s continuing popular association with literary horror, but in very different ways. Straub’s anthology is a monumental tome containing over 600 pages of haunting stories by some of the late 20th/early 21st century’s most influential dark fictionists. The anthology’s title and subtitle, however, are probably the weakest thing about it. They clash misleadingly for a number of reasons.

PoesChildrenCover

First, the word “new:” the careers of several of the writers whose work this anthology showcases, including Straub himself and the omni-prevalent Stephen King (whose story “Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is more reminiscent of one of Poe’s satiric extravaganzas than one of his horror tales) date back to the 1970s. Referring to Straub and King (and even Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti) as “new horror” in 2008 gives an inaccurate impression of what the anthology is all about. In fact, because I am a crabby pedant who is also tired of seeing Stephen King yarns that I’ve had in paperback since 1985 repackaged alongside new fiction, this almost prevented me from buying the book in the first place.

Rather than the showcase for new and cutting edge horror its title suggests, the anthology is more about rehearsing a lineage that supposedly runs from Poe through King and Straub to writers as diverse as Thomas Ligotti, Elizabeth Hand and Glen Hirshberg (an in-store perusal of the stories by these writers, by the way, was what persuaded me to buy the book after all.) The logic runs, I suppose, that they are all “new” in relation to Poe. What, then, about all those writers from 1849 to the 1970s, including, say, Shirley Jackson, or H.P. Lovecraft? They don’t feature in this lineage?

Second, the subtitle is misleading because many of the stories it includes don’t fit readily under the umbrella label “horror.” This tonal and thematic range, however, is one of the anthology’s greatest strengths. In terms of its more recent contributors, it covers a large, dimly-lit field, running from Ligotti’s “Notes on the Writing of Horror” (particularly Poesque in its fusion of cruel critical alacrity and cold, creeping dread) to Glen Hirshberg’s heartbreakingly poignant (but not, by most standards, “horror”) story “The Two Sams” (this collection actually served as my introduction to Hirshberg’s fiction, so was worth the purchase for that alone.)

My third objection to the anthology’s titular concatenation is that, despite its deft use of the uncanny and its powerful tone of “mournful and never-ending remembrance,” there is very little Poe-esque about Hirshberg’s story, and this is also true for a number of the other fictions in the anthology, including Straub’s own contribution. Perhaps the subsuming of a wide range of modern dark fiction to Poe’s supposed legacy may have had some marketing utility, but, despite the great strength of the individual stories it contains, it is ultimately for me the reason why, as a book, particularly one supposedly themed on Poe, Straub’s anthology falls a little flat.

Despite his extensive knowledge of literary horror and his admirable continuing attention to the emergence of new writers and new styles in the field, this is where Straub is sometimes lacking as an editor/anthologist, or as a critic and genre historian: his need to situate the work his anthologies assemble in terms of the late 20th century, quasi-realist New England dark fabulism he shares with Stephen King, and his need to fulfill the obligations of mass-market publishing. Ah well. Poe understood what bizarre bedfellows literary criticism and commercialism make better than most.

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Datlow’s Poe-themed anthology, on the other hand, would have been better served by the sub-title “the new horror,” as it showcases an array of newer work, much of it technically ambitious, delightfully transgressive, and thought, as well as sensation, provoking. It doesn’t vie for mainstream, mass-market appeal by the inclusion of “blockbuster” fiction, or make a somewhat fusty case for itself as “serious literature” the way Children of Poe does.

It is also not a collection of reprint-fiction gathered together under Poe’s umbrella, but a collection of original fiction, commissioned just for the occasion. Each story is directly occasioned by some piece of Poe’s writing, and is followed by an authorial commentary that reinforces the connection between the new story and one of Poe’s writings. It includes some of the finest examples of how overt pastiche, allusion, and homage can become transmuted by the right authorial hands into something amazing, unsettling and perversely new in its own right – and this, really, is what Poe himself did best in tales like “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Three of the best examples from the collection include John Langan’s perversely pedagogical “Masque of the Red Death” revision, “Technicolor,” Kim Newman’s brain-clawing corporate horror tale, “Illimitable Domain,” and Kaaron Warren’s Poe-tourism inspired “The Tell.”

NevrmoreCover

In many respects, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles’ recent nEvermore (Edge Publishing, 2015) taps a similar vein to that of Datlow’s Poe, and it does it with admirable deftness. The book identifies itself as “Neo-Gothic Fiction Inspired by the Imagination” of Poe. It features 22 stories, each of them explicitly inspired by and responding to one or more pieces of Poe’s corpus, and each prefaced by a brief comment from the author(s) indicating its point de depart in Poe.

One way in which the collection departs from Datlow’s is that the stories are usually shorter, and tend (with a couple of notable exceptions) toward the pulpier end of the Poe spectrum – they emphasize sensation rather than subtlety.

Another is that, rather than aiming for the kind of atmospheric horror that predominates in Poe, many illustrate Poe’s fusion of various literary modes with a very modern sort of horror. The introduction by Uwe Sommerlad stresses Poe’s “genre crossing” tendencies, emphasizing the close relationship between Poe’s hyperbolic hoaxes (“The Balloon Hoax,” “Mesmeric Revelation,”) and his absurd extravaganzas (“The Scythe of Time,” “The Man Who Was Used Up’”) his tales of adventure (“The Gold Bug,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), and those of detection (“The Purloined Letter,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), his tales of compulsive confession (“The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and his Gothic fantasies (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

Poe’s tendency to fuse these modes is something many of his readers fail to note (even one so acute and devoted as Lovecraft, who praised Poe’s “cosmic horror” while denigrating his satiric tales, failing to realize how intrinsically tied the two modes were for Poe, and how important this was for Poe’s proto-absurdist achievement), but many of the stories that comprise nEvermore adopt a similar tendency with a manic mixture of grue and glee.

Certainly, straight-no-chaser horror stories are abundantly represented. Christopher Rice’s “Naomi” is a chilling twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart” whose violent terror erupts from its hard-eyed portrayal of homophobia. Lisa Morton’s “Finding Ulalume” uses Poe’s “ghoul-haunted” musical poem to springboard a fast-paced piece of barrel-down horror. Richard Christian Matheson’s staccato “133” rebounds, ellipsis-struck, like a bullet off the side of Poe’s sepulchred “Ligeia.” Carol Weekes and Michael Kelly’s collaboration “The Ravens of Consequence” mirrors the cumulative effect of its source poem, building a textured eeriness that would make it at home amongst the stories in the Datlow collection.

Probably the most formally ambitious story in the collection is “Afterlife,” a collaboration between William F. Nolan, Jason V. Brock and Sunni Brock, which synthesizes aspects of Poe’s legend and biography with his late cosmogonic poem Eureka, putting the results under a kind of amnesiac erasure. The oddest inclusion in the collection is without a doubt a previously unpublished piece of Poe-inspired juvenilia by none other than Margaret Atwood, interesting more for its glimpse into the formation of one of Canada’s most important living writers than as a fiction in itself (for my money, Tennessee Williams’s teenaged weird tales were a lot more interesting.)

In terms of its resonant terror and linguistic control, nothing else in the collection can compete with Tanith Lee’s “The Return of Berenice.” Like one of Poe’s deceptively essayistic tales (“The Imp of the Perverse,” or “Murders in the Rue Morgue,”) it begins more as a periphrastic exposition of “Berenice” than a story itself. Following its recounting of that tale’s events, however, it builds upon them in describing the fate that awaited the unfortunate Egaeus after the end of Poe’s narrative. It is an apt sequel to what may well be Poe’s most horrific tale, and a worthy testament to the career of a writer of tremendous insight and power. Lee did much to open and explore the mythic and lyrical possibilities of fantasy and horror fiction, and deserves a “mournful and never-ending remembrance” of her own. In that spirit, I’ll close by quoting the last line of Lee’s story:

“Creatures of air and wind, we: vehicles, playthings of the gods.”

Tanith-Lee

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Film Review: Felt (2014)

feltcover

I made it out to Ottawa’s gorgeously storied Mayfair Theatre a couple of weeks back (something I don’t do nearly enough) to see Jason Banker’s latest film, Felt, because I admired his earlier Toad Road (2012).

My Mayfair viewing experiences are always slightly skewed by the feeling that this phallus-headed Geigerspawn is watching me.

My Mayfair viewing experiences are always slightly skewed by the feeling that this phallus-headed Geigerspawn is watching me.

I was glad I did. While it finally fails to “work” both as a horror film and as an artistic manifesto, its uneasy fusion of these modes succeeds in other ways. Felt made me acutely uncomfortable, and the discomfort it engendered kept me thinking long after leaving the theatre.

Felt is the result of an unusual collaboration between director Jason Banker and artist/co-writer/lead actor Amy Everson. Banker’s only previous feature Toad Road is a slow-burn exercise in gutter-cosmic horror (to borrow an apt term from writer Nicole Cushing) reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly re-imagined by Harmony Korine. A hypnotic trip down an acid-burn rabbit hole, Toad Road has earned its cult status, a status sadly inflected by the early death of its lead actor Sara Anne Jones not long after the film’s release.

Toad-Road-FRONT-COVER

Like Toad Road, Felt aggressively perforates the skin that separates documentary from fictional horror, and does so in ways worlds apart from the found-footage format that has come to dominate so many contemporary horror films. In Felt, Everson portrays Amy, an artist who tries to use her creations to cope with, and overcome, her trauma as the survivor of unspecified sexual assault(s) that occurred prior to the film’s opening. Felt is remarkable in its refusal to frame the sexual abuse that Amy suffered onscreen. In this, it resists the easy aestheticization of sexualized violence that so many thrillers and horror films exploit, and deviates from the rape-revenge films it, in other respects, invokes.

Like Everson herself, Amy creates sculptures, costumes, and found-object installations, most of them grotesquely exaggerated genitalia and/or satirical emblems of traditional gender roles (it is worth pointing out that the film’s title is a double entendre also reflected in the title of the website Everson runs with her partner Michael Lovan; ifeltyourpenis.com offers clients made-to-order felt penis replicas.) The film often seems to want to be a documentary about Everson and her art, and in one sense, it might have been more effective if it had been allowed to become such, rather than adopting the basic narrative structure of a rape-revenge film. Still, Felt achieves some powerful effects by uneasily fusing Everson’s activist art with Banker’s fascination for exploitation horror.

Felt explores Amy’s struggles through desultory scenes, contrasting her troubled interpersonal relationships with the meaning and security she finds in her creations. The most unforgettable scenes in the film are those depicting Amy’s solitary burlesques, as she sheds her anxiety, her awkwardness, her self by becoming the costumes she has created. She lopes predatorily through a forest wearing a coarse mask, skin-tight white catsuit and heavily dangling belted dildo; she poses on a hilltop before a stunning San Francisco sunset, flexing her massive prosthetic biceps, rotating her masked head until the sun silhouettes her Schwarzeneggeresque profile. Such scenes are made more effective by the subdued, almost Debussyan score that accompanies them.

FeltPose

On the other hand, those scenes in which Amy interacts with other characters are often painfully awkward, involving jarring cuts, pore-popping close-ups, and grating non-sequiturs. This contrast illuminates the power of the mask-uline identity Amy armours herself with, as opposed to the fear and frustration of her thwarted attempts to find intimacy and trust.

In terms of its plot, Felt finally holds few surprises; it is obvious from the outset that Amy will inevitably propagate the violence she’s experienced. Spoiler warnings about the film’s conclusion seem pointless, since its sever-and-spurt climax is so obviously foreshadowed. Equally pointless, it seems to me, are complaints about how unrealistic its final act of violence looks; by its closing scenes, Felt burlesques the rape-revenge films it critiques. Like its protagonist, it sheds its nuance as it loses itself in a grotesque caricature, failing to fulfill its possibilities by crawling inside a generic prosthesis.

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Our Midsummer Metamorphosis

Illustration by James Greatrex

Illustration by James Greatrex

Dear readers: Postscripts to Darkness is undergoing change. A sublimation, if you will, passing from a solid to a translucently gaseous state. In the spirit of spectrality, we’re shedding our bulky paper body and becoming a disembodied, internet-only presence. Our sixth volume, published this spring, marks the final iteration of our print series. All volumes remain available for purchase through our online store (if you don’t own a copy yet of all six, complete your collection!).

Moving forward, we will continue to unsettle readers with new web features roughly every two months, alternating between the extensive author retrospectives for which we are already known (featuring David Nickle, Glen Hirshberg, Nicole Cushing, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Michael Rowe among others), original fiction features, and poetry features. Each new feature will be accompanied by a commissioned illustration by a mind-warpingly talented visual artist, and will offer an insightful commentary from/interview with the featured author.

With this new format we are moving, for the foreseeable future, to an invitation-only model for fiction and poetry, and thus we will be closed to submissions from writers. Sean Moreland will curate new and reprinted fiction (with occasional guest-edited contributions), while Dominik Parisien will continue his fine work as our poetry editor.

Keep your eyes on this space for announcements about our next featured writers/illustrators….

Your affectionate editorial fiend,

Sean Moreland

Postscripts to Darkness Volume 6 Launch(es)!

We’re pleased to announce the upcoming launch events for our much-anticipated sixth volume!

Cover art by MANDEM

Cover art by MANDEM

The first will be in our hometown of Ottawa, at Raw Sugar Café at 7pm on Friday, May 8th. Prepare yourself for some PstD-style literary fun, food, and drinks. The evening will feature readings by two talented Ottawa writers of dark speculative fiction who both have work in our sixth volume: Kate Heartfield and Robin Riopelle. There will also be short readings by James K. Moran and Matt Moore. Some of our gifted artist/illustrators will be on hand to promote, sell, and sign their work. We’ll have our customary trivia contest, with many a weird prize to be won, so come with your skull swollen with horror and weird factoids. And, of course, there will be the delicious food and drink for which Raw Sugar is famous… If you are in or near the Ottawa area, we hope to see you there!

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The second event will be in Toronto  as part of ChiSeries Toronto on May 20th at 8pm the ROUND venue. This event will feature a trove of gruesome literary treasures and special featured guests. They will be joined by four contributors to PstD 6: the volume’s featured poet, the incomparable Sandra Kasturi, as well as creators of dark fiction Tonya Liburd, Christine Miscione, and Lisa de Nikolits. As if that isn’t enough, ChiSeries Toronto bard/chanteuse extraordinaire Kari Maaren will liven things up with some music. If you are anywhere in the GTA, we hope you will come out and join us!

Volume 6 Contributors

Artwork by Gregory St. John

Artwork by Gregory St. John

Seven pounds is something nurses scream when hospital scales ladle newborns. Seven pounds of ground kidney for the meat pies, seven pounds of Christmas pudding made by Grandma Marg. Seven pounds was not the amount Dolores Nather hoped to gain over the yuletide season. Three days after champagne and New Year wishes, Dolores’s bare feet un-stick sadly from the bathroom scale. The last few weeks rush back: seven pounds of innards dredged from the cavity of a Christmas turkey. Seven pounds of over-seasoned stuffing pushed back in. Seven pounds of shortbread cookies and mincemeat pie. Seven pounds of gingerbread decorated with seven pounds of snowflake confetti and snowmen jujubes. Seven pounds of festivities, of Christmas tinsel hanging precariously around her stomach, and not even the prunes of seven pounds of sugarplums can expunge what she’s amassed. —From “Halloumi Detox” by Christine Miscione

Here’s who you’ll find in Volume 6, coming spring 2015:

Robin Riopelle (ill. Tomasz Wieja)

Alexandra Seidel (ill. Rob Thompson)

Tonya Liburd (ill. Alyssa Cooper)

Silvia Morena-Garcia (ill. Carrion House)

Lisa de Nikolits (ill. Mariel Kelly)

Christine Miscione (ill. Gregory St. John)

Arley Sorg (ill. Carrion House)

Samuel Marzioli (ill. Joel G.)

Bruce Meyer (ill. Alyssa Cooper)

Gwynne Garfinkle (ill. James Greatrex)

Kate Heartfield (ill. Alis Kellar)

Nicole Cushing (ill. James Greatrex)

Sara Puls (ill. M. Belvin)

This issue also features poetry by Sandra Kasturi and cover art by MANDEM.

Manifestations, by David Nickle

MANIFESTATIONS

The car came before the night. It drove too fast along the dirt road, spitting gravel when it took the bend before Miller’s house. Miller watched from the porch and hefted his hunting rifle onto his lap.

The car slowed some once off the road, wobbling over the potholes that Miller’s pickup crossed every day without so much as a shudder. It crunched to a stop and the driver’s window came down.

“You Quentin Miller?”

Miller nodded. He was careful to nod very slowly and not move any other part of his body. Even his hand sat still on the rifle stock.

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Interview with David Nickle

David Nickle is the Stoker-award winning author whose most recent novel, The 'Geisters, and most recent collection, Knife Fight and Other Struggles, are available from ChiZine.

David Nickle is the Stoker award-winning author whose The ‘Geisters and Knife Fight and Other Struggles are available from ChiZine.

My introduction to David Nickle’s fiction came a little over a decade ago when I borrowed a friend’s copy of the classic Canadian horror journal Northern Frights. I rediscovered Nickle’s work with ChiZine’s publication of his first short story collection, Monstrous Affections, a few years ago, and I loved these insidious, unsettling stories so much I quickly indulged a completist impulse and sought out the rest of Nickle’s books. Reading his fictions, I was often surprised but never disappointed. Nickle’s work is transgeneric, energetic, measured and inventive; it wears its many literary ancestors proudly, while at the same time relentlessly pushing beyond them into new speculative territory. –Sean Moreland

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Like Lick ‘Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey, by Glen Hirshberg

psd-like-sk2b (1)

 

Under the heat there’s a coldness, and even the coldness can’t be pinned down… His fleeting pleasures and undeniable pain aren’t so much depthless as unfathomable.”

Robert Christgau on George Jones in Growing Up All Wrong

 

“Take the goddamn gun out of your mouth and give me a Juicy Fruit.”

Sophie leans back her head with the barrel on her tongue and the sea wind whipping through the trees, through the car window into her bobbing blond hair. The road rolls on before them through the Georgia pines, and the headlights play across it like stones they’re skipping.

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