Unhinging Horror: An Anxious Response to the “madness” of Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

By Sean Moreland

This post is, in part, a personal and very tendentious review of Ari Aster’s film Hereditary, and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. As such, it contains a number of spoilers for both, so caveat lector.

My response to both is shaped by broader concerns with the long and troubling history of representations of “madness” and “mental illness” in popular horror fictions (literary, cinematic, and televisual). In this respect, it is motivated in part by a panel I recently participated in at CanCon 2018, Ottawa’s s annual speculative fiction convention, titled “Horror and the Problematic Portrayal of Madness.”   On this note, keep your eyes on this space for a forthcoming continuation of that discussion with my co-panelists, Nathan Caro FréchetteTonya LiburdDavid Nickle, and Derek Newman-Stille.

This post is also in part a personal discussion of the relationship between anxiety, depression, grief, and the pleasures and problems of horror spectatorship from the point of view of a lifelong “horror fan” whose fandom (or, to use my colleague Aalya Ahmad’s preferred term, “fan(g)dom”) has, for better or worse, shaped my work and interests as a literature and film scholar, professional educator, and occasional writer of poetry and fiction.

It should be noted that throughout this piece, I bracket both the terms “madness” and “mental illness” (which often mean very different things). In doing so, I do not intend to erase the realities, struggles, joys, sufferings, or triumphs of those who identify with these terms, or who have had these terms forced upon them. Rather, to mis-paraphrase a silly song, I want to hold these closely in quotation marks, while signalling that they do not, and probably cannot, have a neutral, transparent, cross-cultural or trans-historical meaning.

First, Hereditary.

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I saw the film during its theatrical run with my wife and a friend. My wife enjoyed it, jumped at the jump-scary scenes, and was untroubled by it otherwise. It was, in her estimation, a “good horror film,” although not a great or especially original one. My friend and I, on the other hand, who both live with levels of anxiety that sometimes become difficult to manage (or function socially and professionally through) and who both consider ourselves to be horror film “connoisseurs,” began having the prodromal symptoms of an impending panic attack by the mid-point of the film.

These, for me, peaked during the family dinner scene. The tense, unbearably emotionally fraught conflict between the members of the Graham family too closely resembled and amplified some of the most painful and confusing conversations I’ve had with family and loved ones over the years.

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The guilt, resentment, helplessness, and next to total breakdown of effective communication between them massively spiked my anxiety. In light of the film’s conclusion, it becomes clear that none of the characters are talking about primarily what they think they are talking about during this scene. This retrospective dramatic irony encapsulates how Hereditary ultimately unhinges its own apparent representations of “mental illness,” an unhinging echoed by much of the critical conversation around the film (i.e, “it’s ridiculous to criticize a film’s representation of mental illness when it is ultimately about demonic possession!” or “to say anything positive about this film is literally to attack and erase those who live with mental illness!”)

During this scene, I was on the verge of having to walk out of the film to try to get my heart-rate down, my circulation to extremities going again, and my mind from buzzing with a shit-tonne of awful anxious ideation.

Shortly after this scene, things started to slide seamlessly into spectacular and undeniable malevolent supernaturalism. Corpses in the attic becoming re-animate, spontaneous human combustion, menacing apparitions blossoming like spring flowers, acephalic ritualistic tableaux… an eruption of Grand Guignol that gave me a crashing, cathartic sensation of relief as my panic transmuted into a far more pleasurable feeling of weird familiarity – “right, I’m watching an over-the-top supernatural horror film, OK, I can just enjoy this for the delirious spectacle that it is becoming,” and my desire to walk out of the theatre ended.

That feeling is pretty much what I experience any time I am able to re-direct my rising anxiety and evade an impending panic attack (by vigorous exercise, long walks, meditation, pet-bonding, self-medication, absorbing my attention in a film sufficiently to ease the circulation of my thoughts around the painful rapid pace of my heart and strain of my breathing, or some other means.) As my heart-rate lowers, warmth returns to my extremities and my vision stops whiting out at the edges, a kind of quiet elation sets in; some kind of psychic disaster has been averted. My reaction to Hereditary emphasized for me that part of my life-long attraction to horror films stems from their ability to create this kind of catharsis, which, when it works, is hugely helpful to me in managing and transmuting my anxiety. Indeed, one blogger has written of understanding the film as being “about” anxiety itself, and therefore useful in understanding their own experiences living with it.

Because of the degree to which the first half of the film, with its cultivation of the “horrors” of “mental illness,” emotional trauma, and excruciatingly dysfunctional family relationships generated anxiety for me, its sudden and inevitable slide into flamboyant supernaturalism was anxiolytic. For many viewers, however, the moment this kind of dread dissipates is the moment the film either loses much of its power, or becomes unforgivably problematic. It has elicited what I think are some of the most incisive criticisms of the film. As one blogger puts it, Hereditary

“is ugly. At its core is a journey of abuse, grief and mental illness which posits that there is no good way to cope when one’s world is torn apart by any of these things. And as it goes on it morphs into a visceral, soul-crushing experience merged with  bits of genre conventions that will have horror geeks patting themselves on the back  while others will be left unsure how to feel about the whole thing.”

There is some truth in this assessment of the film. Given how heavily reliant, and lovingly referential, Hereditary is toward its horror-cinematic and literary inspirations (as opposed to the lives and fate of its characters) there is something to the idea that it fetishizes its conventions at the expense of its characters.  However, I’m troubled by this writers’ characterization of the film’s reception being polarized between “horror geeks” (there is a long history of pathologizing Gothic and horror fictions, and those who create or consume them, in particularly gendered and classist ways that lurks behind a statement like this) and the rest of humanity (who are, presumably, more “humane,” or “sensitive,” or “sane” than those “geeks.”)

Lena Wilson puts it in a way that doesn’t automatically pathologize anybody who enjoyed or appreciated the film, while still underlining its most crucial problem:

“The literal destruction of their grieving family unfolds with dreadful inevitability, as both Annie and Peter ultimately die by their own hands. Their deaths, despite paranormal influences, can be interpreted as suicide, in light of the film’s overt references to mental illness. Despite ever-evolving diagnoses and new forms of therapy, the stigmatization of mental illness in our society is alive and well.”

Many critics have responded to the commercial success of and considerable critical praise for Hereditary by pointing out its lack of “originality.” As a review in The Economist puts it,

“Viewers may not guess every specific—because the specifics are wonderfully bizarre—but the sinister conspiracy plot is far less surprising than the one in “Get Out”, for instance. It is less original and resonant, too. The film sometimes pretends to be a classical tragedy about bereavement, motherhood and mental illness, but with its regular scares and its rudimentary plotting, “Hereditary” is fundamentally a hokey Halloween haunted-house chiller, complete with spooks, séances and people who are foolish enough to run upstairs rather than out of the door when they’re being chased.”

I wouldn’t argue with the claim that Hereditary is less original than Jordan Peele’s Get Out (that masterful film sets a tremendously high bar!) On the contrary, I think its relative lack of originality is part of what makes it so disturbing; it uses its generic precursors to produce a sense of fatalistic inevitability. That’s one aspect of Freud’s otherwise-superseded theory of the uncanny I think still holds water – that the feeling of the uncanny is always rooted in a disturbing familiarity.

Often the most disturbing films are the ones that do all-too-familiar things, just a little differently. I didn’t find Hereditary especially “original,” but I sure didn’t find it “hokey.” Had more of its audience felt this way, it would surely have disturbed, unsettled, or disgusted far fewer of them, myself included, and would clearly be a less divisive topic for discussion.

But it is certainly much more concerned with using its narrative and effects to create a sense of dreadful fatalism than in exploring in an open-ended and psychologically dynamic way the lives of its characters. The unfortunate members of the Graham family are all, ultimately, revealed to be little cogs in a massive sensory-affective machine designed to do nothing so much as generate a feeling of inescapable doom. This unflinching, relentless focus makes it both a powerful horror narrative, and a dangerous and distressing (non)portrayal of “mental illness.”

Nor does Hereditary “pretend” to be a “classical tragedy.” It’s pre-texts are not primarily Oedipus Rex or The Bacchae. They are, rather, classic psychological Gothic tales, from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Maupassant’s “L’Horla,” through to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In each of these fictions, a particular psychological disposition or state is inextricably linked to the inevitable destruction of a character or characters. In short, Hereditary‘s strengths, like its “sins,” are practically constitutive of this mode of horror.

Poe’s  “Usher” is, I think, an especially apt point of comparison for Hereditary. It is a story that literally incorporates many phrases and images and ideas from earlier work, using them to create a sense of excessive familiarity and mechanistic inevitability. It banks on its readers’ prior familiarity with the conspicuous tropes of Gothic fiction  to achieve its effects. The crumbling ancestral mansion, which will collapse at the conclusion, in an obvious echo of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, as the “crack” emphasized throughout the tale reminds its readers, bringing the Usher family, prey to neurotic afflictions and phobias, crashing down with it.  The symbolism in Poe’s tale between the haunted house, cracked and irreversibly collapsing, and the “mad” mind is forceful, and intricately interwoven into every sentence of the story, each element setting up the inevitable doom of its conclusion. Its “human” characters are automata, parts of its fatal machinery.

Given the massive scope of the tale’s influence, “Usher” is a crucial text for any consideration of the role “madness” plays in modern horror, and its influence is in no way limited by the lack of originality in its elements. For “Usher” is a Frankenstein’s monster of  stitched-together parts. Poe lifted elements from a hundred prior sources for it, many of them Gothic fictions; Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (which similarly marries “madness” to both heredity and fate), Sir Walter Scott’s translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat,” the structure and conclusion of the Grandfather of the Gothic, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and even Mary Shelley’s novel itself. The work he designed this re-organized engine to perform is the production of a singular effect; a powerful, intricate sense of passive wonder and horror in the face of inevitable doom.

Richard Ingram, who is credited with coining the term “Mad Studies,” writes that “mad studies–written in the lower case–has existed in many different times and places. For example, I see Nietzsche as a forerunner of Mad Studies. I think he was one of the people who was continuously writing about his own struggle with madness in his philosophy, before eventually being psychiatrized.”

The same could certainly be said (and has been said) of Poe, who was posthumously translated into a “madman” by Rufus Grisworld, romantically valourized as a martyr of madness by Baudelaire, and treated as a posthumous subject for literary-clinical investigation by Freud’s pupil Marie Bonaparte, among countless others. To what extent did Poe’s tales “problematically appropriate” the “madness” of others for commercial exploitation? Do what extent did they codify and propagate the proto-clinical ideas of James Cowles Pritchard and other Victorian psychologists by embedding them in a hugely influential and highly compressed literary form, casting even contemporary mad-perceived or mad-identified folks (including viewers of Hereditary) under the vampiric shadow of long dead physician-philosophers? And to what extent are they, instead, in Ingram’s words, products of and testaments to Poe’s own “struggle with madness” (which need not mean Poe’s struggle with “insanity,” or with “mental illness,” or with “latent dementia praecox,” or “sublimated psychopathy” resulting from “sexual inversion.”)

Hereditary similarly exploits its own generic over-saturation to generate and/or discharge tension in audiences. Like “Usher,” it synthesizes this generic determinism (the tendency that unifies all of its cinematic influences and conventions) with the idea that “madness” is a fatal sentence (whether it is understood through the lens of “mental illness”, or fatal supernatural machinery.)

Horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who often works in this mode, has described his own fictions as “a matter of personal pathology,” expressive of, and possibly therapeutically related to, his own lifelong experience of debilitating depression and anxiety. He describes this mode in his essay, “Consolations of Horror.” Speaking of “Usher,” he asks, “Did you ever wonder how a Gothic story like Poe’s masterpiece can be so great without enlisting the reader’s care for its characters’ doom?”

Ligotti contradicts analyses that cast empathy and emotional mirroring as the primary basis for horror fiction’s appeal – such fictions “work,” some would have it, because we “identify with” and “believe in,” and therefore feel alongside, their characters (for elucidations of this idea, see, for example, Noel Carroll’s classic study The Philosophy of Horror, 1990, and more recently, Mathias Clasen’s evolutionary psychological account of horror’s appeal in Why Horror Seduces, 2016.)

Ligotti proposes instead, “Unlike a horror story whose effect depends on reader sympathy with its fictional victims, this one doesn’t want us to get involved with the characters in that way. Our fear does not derive from theirs.” Despite its fundamental violation of this widely touted explanation of horror’s appeal (has any reader, with the exception of Antonin Artaud, strongly identified with and seen themselves accurately  reflected in one of Usher’s characters?) “Usher” is widely recognized as among the most effective and influential horror tales ever written.

Ligotti suggests that “Usher” is so effective because:

“we don’t look over any character’s shoulder but have our attention distributed god-wise into every corner of a foul factory which manufactures only one product: total and inescapable doom. Whether a given proper noun escapes this doom or is caught by it is beside the point. Poe’s is a world created with built-in obsolescence, and to appreciate fully this downrunning cosmos one must take the perspective of its creator, which is all perspectives without getting sidetracked into a single one.”

Why are readers (at least, readers like Ligotti, and to some extent myself) drawn back to Poe’s tale, then? What kind of “pleasure” does it offer? Ligotti claims “the consolation” that “Usher” offers readers “is that we are supremely removed from the maddeningly tragic viewpoint of the human.”

This was also a large part of the weird aesthetic and emotional catharsis of Hereditary for me. At a certain point, I was freed from identifying with its human characters, their traumas, griefs, emotional sufferings too recognizably close to my own, and therefore generative of almost-unbearable anxiety.

Perhaps this sort of pleasure is more likely to be experienced by those with certain depressive and/or anxious tendencies?  While I’ve never been labelled with a clinical diagnosis beyond depression and general anxiety,  I experience many of the tendencies associated with a schizoid personality ( as a therapist once pointed out to me, though “a personality style and a personality disorder are not the same thing.”). So, seemingly, do most of the strange, nebulous personalities that narrate Ligotti’s fictions. So do many of Shirley Jackson’s literary characters, including Eleanor of Hill House, with whom I have closely identified since first reading the novel at the age of 12.

Both Ligotti’s fictions and Hereditary seem to offer particularly schizoid resolutions to the anxieties of trying to negotiate emotional suffering through the fraught and confusing complexities of too-intimate interpersonal relationships.

Are these tendencies in me part of what made Hereditary‘s hinge so anxiolytic? Might it make sense to talk about such fictions as “schizoid horror” (extracting that term from its more restricted clinical use, while questioning the authority and consistency of its clinical conceptions themselves)? Or is this instinct to label and categorize likely to tend back toward pathologization?

Some viewers didn’t think Hereditary “owned” or “earned” the hinge whereby its “madness” swung from “mental illness” to “demonic occultism.”  I think, narratively and structurally, it did.  Nevertheless, Hereditary‘s hinge, its shift from “a family history of mental illness,” “DID,” “schizophrenia,” and “trauma” to “PAIMON!” and Phallocentric Goetic theurgy involves a very literal erasure of “mental illness,” along with the (illusory) psychological autonomy of its characters.

This is especially troubling to me because that hinge was the one on which my anxiolytic catharsis (as opposed to my appreciation for its ability to build and maintain anxiety and grief) depended. But I’ve been, in part, conditioned by many prior fictions to recognize, and appreciate, the smooth swing of that hinge, for it is hardly unique to Hereditary.

It is closely paralleled by many films that “bait” the audience with apparent representations of psychological alienation, and then switch them out for a paranormal reality, whether wonderful, horrible, or somewhere in between (from The Return to Oz through The Sixth Sense to Donnie Darko, it’s a common device.)

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Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House series uses a similar hinge, although to different effect.

I have a lot of admiration for Flanagan’s series in general; it is in so many ways a beautiful, aptly haunting thing. Where Aster’s film is a love-letter to many different horror films (probably none more so than Polanski’s  Rosemary’s Baby, however), Haunting is clearly a loving email (a sometimes meandering and sentimental one) to both Shirley Jackson herself, and to Stephen King (whose own early literary tributes to Jackson are marked by similar meandering and sentimental tendencies.)

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It resects and re-stitches aspects of Jackson’s novel in fascinating ways. It also, ingeniously and defiantly, uses the expectations of viewers (like myself) who know and love the novel to mislead and re-direct attention. Where Hereditary uses its allusions to foreshadow and reinforce its viciously fatalistic vision, Hill House uses them to expand upon while departing from its source material. Their respective temporal structures emphasize this difference. Hereditary traps viewers claustrophobically in the present perception of the Graham family, while revealing that present to be merely an illusionary ignorance of how the past has already determined the future.

Hill House draws heavily on the analeptic structure King is so fond of using to explore the relationship between “adult” and “childhood” experience. It’s a structure especially evident in his novel It, which seems an important source for Flanagan’s series. The series uses this structure, entirely different from that of Jackson’s novel, to distance itself from the plot of the novel, and to displace its chilling conclusion, even while having Steven Crain’s (the homophony is no coincidence) character directly quote from it. In the series, the unhinging of the main characters from mental illness, and their suspension instead from the supernatural threat represented by the house (a threat redolent of King’s revision of Jackson via Lovecraft in Salem’s Lot and The Shining,) contains at least the possibility of freedom. Heredity, here, either familial or generic, need not be fatal.

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Initially, the series’ nominal echoes of, but characterization and structural departures from, the novel bothered me. But it unfolds its differences from the novel with increasing fluency and impact as it proceeds, opening spaces clearly suggested by many of Jackson’s writings (and, of course, King’s). For example, one of the scenes that initially irritated me involved Eleanor’s famous “cup of stars” dialogue being transposed so that Mrs. Dudley delivers it to Nell, who is still a child. Up to that point, Mrs. Dudley (portrayed with impressive rigidity, which even more impressively dissolves later in the series, by Annabeth Gish) has seemed very much like the character of the same name in the novel, and it made no sense to me to place that quintessential speech in her mouth. But, like all the characters in the series, Mrs. Dudley is a far cry (in the night, in the dark) from herself in the novel, and the series eventually “earns” this transposition in a very poignant way.

However, as well as Kingly meandering, the series strays too far into soap operatic, gothic melodrama for my tastes.  So many scenes of women in long, flowing night-gowns wandering, imperilled, through the palatial house at night! Daphne du Maurier, get thee behind me!

Yes, there is an aspect of that in Jackson’s novel (and yes, it was amplified by the novel’s marketing and most of its covers in the 60s and 70s) but part of what makes her novel stunning is its stark paring-back and exposure of the underlying psychological mechanisms of the gothic romance.

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The Internet is rife with responses to the series that emphasize, earnestly or otherwise, its fright-factor, ability to induce fainting, vomiting, etc. Some of these seem more like a William Castle-esque viral campaign than “authentic” self-reported responses to the series, but I have no doubt that many viewers were truly disturbed or triggered by some of its scenes.

I didn’t do any of those things (although I did cry a few times, and got a few solid startles.) But there were a few moments in the series that had my anxiety rising into concerning territory (one advantage to Netflix being that I can turn the thing off and come back to it when I’m calmer.)

All of these moments centred around Nell’s character. As I’ve already said, I’ve felt a kinship with the novel’s Nell, a lonely, longing, somewhat schizoid and Quixotic character since childhood. Her counterpart in the series (portrayed by Victoria Pedretti) really resonated with me.  Her distraught phone calls to her family the night of her death, their belated realization that they weren’t there for her when she called, their guilt that they didn’t do enough to help her…. I had trouble sitting through that. It’s the kind of thing I dread having to face on a daily basis.

Strangely, though, it was the series’ portrayal of Nell’s sleep paralysis that most disturbed me.  Those scenes very closely resembled by own experiences of sleep paralysis, particularly those that occurred when I was in my teens, before I had any idea what I was experiencing. I was terrified to talk about those experiences with anybody, because I was convinced they were indicative of either impending death or “going crazy.”

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I experienced such “hag attacks” occasionally for many years, generally during periods of acute anxiety. The first episode occurred when I was 17. It wasn’t until I took an undergrad psych course 2 years later that I read about the phenomenon.  The relief was overwhelming. “O THANK THE GODS, IT’S JUST SOME KIND OF MINOR NERVOUS SYSTEM GLITCH, I’M NOT EXPERIENCING DEMONIC OPPRESSION OR HAVING A SERIES OF STROKES OR DEVELOPING A PSYCHOSIS!”

The scene in which Nell describes her symptoms to a sleep technician, who later becomes her husband, who reassures her that they are normal, and normally harmless, really resonated with the relief I found at that revelation.

Sometimes, I take comfort in thinking about my nervous system, and my personality, as simpler and more mechanically reducible things than they are, things that could be “fixed” by some kind of minor “tweak” (thus my fondness for claiming that my most cherished literary works “pare back and expose” various “underlying psychological mechanisms,” a phrasing grounded in a particularly functionalist, and therefore probably ableist, conception of the mind, and one I often find it difficult to think outside of.)

But I want to come back to that narrative mechanism, that structural hinge, whereby throughout the series, most of the characters (and to a lesser extent, the audience) are led to believe their strange and tragic experiences result from a familial tangle of, probably hereditary, “mental illness,” “cognitive disorder,” or “emotional dysfunction…” all of which is ultimately explained by the cosmic threat presented by the soul-hungry house they had the misfortune of moving into (at least it isn’t a giant child-eating space-spider.)

Where in Hereditary, this hinge swings into a closing scene of delirious grotesquerie, in Hill House it opens the door on a curiously triumphant celebration of love’s posthumous persistence that clashes sharply with the resounding final paragraph of Jackson’s novel: “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

King’s voice rings clearly in Flanagan’s revision. In the series, none of the Crains are, ultimately, alone, and none of the Crains are, ultimately, “mentally ill.” The narrative reinforces their father’s insistence that what they had come to believe were delusions, hallucinations, and paranoiac invasive thoughts were merely mis-interpretations of their relationship with a reality in which there are “more things than are dreamt of” in bio-medical psychiatry. “Mental illness” ceases to exist; the only “madness” was in denying that such preternatural (to use Steven Crain’s preferred word) threats were real.

Despite this supernatural King-ification, there’s a way in which this is also a response to the role of “madness” in Jackson’s work itself.

There are many distinct parallels between Jackson’s textual representations of psychological alienation and the ideas of contemporaneous anti-psychiatric writers including R.D. Laing. Laing interpreted a wide variety of conditions, including notably schizophrenia, as being caused by social (and, with typical casual misogyny, especially maternal) influence. To reductively simplify, Laing thought insanity was a sane response to insane social pressures, including those imposed by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. This is a concept evident throughout Jackson’s work, and that of many of her horror-writing contemporaries, including Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Charles Beaumont (“Miss Gentilbelle.”) Laing’s views have been largely rejected by neurobiological psychiatry, although some of his therapeutic experiments arguably influenced contemporary socialization-focused approaches. But they were influential in Jackson’s time, and probably inform the way that both mother-figures and traditional societal influences function as an external menace, very much like a supernatural threat, in so many of her stories (as, certainly, does her own troubled relationship with both her mother and husband.)

This leads me to the importance of sociologist Kathryn Church‘s caveat that “Mad studies doesn’t reject medical models of madness [but it puts] them into a historical trajectory, one that shows that psychiatry isn’t an absolute interpretation of human mental states.”

I think fiction can play an important role in delineating those trajectories, and that the way “madness” functions in the work of particular writers, film-makers, and artists (often quite removed from any supposed clinical or psychiatric “reality”) can be very revealing of this.

But it is unclear to me where fantastic, and especially horrific, fictions that darkly mirror certain “human mental states” fit into this crucially important historical and political examination. Is transforming the phenomenology of a deeply troubling “human mental state” into a fictional world in which it is the expression of very different conditions and physical laws ever NOT troubling, and potentially dangerous? Is it potentially a useful way of challenging the de-historicized absolutism of medico-psychiatric diagnosis? Are these prospects always, or ever, mutually exclusive?

Hill House’s closing scenes were, for me, hugely cathartic, but in an entirely different way from Hereditary‘s. The latter left me giddy and disturbed. The former left me crying, but somehow comforted.

Hill House is “sad horror,” surely, but also loving, humane, hopeful horror. My experience of it, my appreciation for it, is no doubt in part because I’m grieving the sudden loss, a couple of months ago, of my mother, who first invited me in to Jackson’s Hill House.*

The feeling of loss, and of the felt presence of an absent, and much-missed, loved one (unmoored from any religious or metaphysical belief in an afterlife) is fertile ground in which the desire for the supernatural can grow. It’s a large part of my emotional reality these days, and may have made me especially responsive to the series. Hill House gave me an aesthetic outlet for grief, one intensified somehow by transient fright. But does that change its troubling transfiguration of “mental illness” into supernatural menace?  Does that unhinge it in a potentially revelatory way? Does that necessarily make it less effective as a work of “horror?”

These are, at least to me, open questions, open doors, and I’m not even clear what kind of hinges their answers might swing on.

 

 

* I was about 12 years old when I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its high praise for Jackson’s novel. I was talking to my mother about it, and she realized she owned a copy as part of the abridged Reader’s Digest book series she subscribed to, which we both read and talked about, so the novel is caught up in my memories of my Mother in stark contrast to the way Eleanor’s, and Jackson’s, mother’s shadow hangs over the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PSTD REPRINT FICTION: “TARDIGRADE” BY MIKE ALLEN

 

Gunshots in the dark. One, two, three, four, five.

In the abyss, a flatscreen monitor lights, as if awakened by the noise.

From the computer, loud chimes play “Turkey in the Straw” as a creature dances on the monitor, a bear-like thing with chitin for skin and a circular sucking mouth in place of a face. Needles protrude and retract from the orifice in time with the music.

Shuffling in the dark. Bare feet descending stairs. One, two, three, four, more.

A ghost appears, a woman in a pale night robe, trembling all over, pistol clenched in one hand, a snub-nosed, square device. Her wide eyes are moons, her breath coming in half-sobs.

Black stains spatter the belly of her robe. She stares at the monitor. One of the stains is moving, separating from the rest, inching up a fold of cloth over her ribs. She doesn’t notice, but we do.

Hand shaking, she taps a key. The screen changes.

A window opens on a murky video. Voices speak in soft tones, a couple talking quietly, near-whispers, yet the playback is loud.

I think you need to look at this, the man says.

The woman replies, I could lose my job. Hell, both of us could lose our jobs.

The woman in the night robe sucks in air through her teeth. She flips on the desk lamp. The room she is standing in is the room shown in the video. She is the woman who whispers in the video.

The man in the video says, Muriel, please, look.

We shouldn’t be talking about this here.

What, the man says, it’s not like they’d bug our house.

Watching the video, our Muriel barks a loud, bitter laugh, then another, then a gale of them. She steps away and flips on the overhead light while the video keeps playing. The room is large, contains two utilitarian matching desks with matching monitors atop them, both stacked with printouts, neither desk noticeably neater than the other. The video our masters made plays on the monitor closest to the window, which doubles as our vantage point, just as it was when the recording was made.

How did you get this? says Muriel in the video.

They sent it through my secure protocol just like any other document.

Why did you read it?

There’s nothing there instructing me not to. Then, voice higher, more defensive, They’re the ones who gave it that funny name.

Our Muriel’s pupils are pinholes in glistening gray eyes. In full illumination, her gown is a gentle turquoise defiled with dark red stains. The moving blotch we noticed earlier has crawled out of view.

She advances toward the window, guided by the angle seen in the video. Her face looms into close-up as she paws and pounds around the window frame. Where are you? she says, Where the fuck are you? Talking over the voices from the recording.

Do you believe that? the man says. Do you think this is real, what’s in this write-up here?

In the video, Muriel says, Are you sure our client sent that?

Her husband clicks on the keyboard. No, I’m not. I don’t know who did.

Delete it, now. We have to forget we ever saw it.

Our Muriel, intent on finding the camera, doesn’t notice when the video changes, until muffled cries emit from the computer speakers.

There’s motion on the screen, but when our Muriel returns to her computer the scene contained in the new window that has opened is frozen and veiled behind a large button that reads

click to play

Muriel does, releasing the video to keep playing.

In this video, a woman slumps in a chair, her wrists tied, a hood over her head. She’s wearing jeans and a tank top. The quality of the recording saps the scene of all color.

We hope Muriel understands the transition, though if she recognizes this bound woman, she offers no sign, only watches without blinking as the subject twitches her head, jerks her shoulders. She might be mumbling: it’s hard to decipher the sounds she makes within the unfiltered hiss of the soundtrack. A banner has appeared, blocking the captive’s face:

click to make full screen.

Muriel clicks. Larger proves blurrier. Metal shelves surround this woman. They hold spray cans and bottles of blue cleaner, image too grainy to make the labels decipherable. She lifts her chin. Something dark moves down the taut skin of her throat, oozing like blood, sidewinding like a snake. The image pauses just as the camera moves closer.

We apologize for the poor quality. This was our first try. Click to see our new video!

Muriel’s laugh could double for a sob. But she takes the bait and clicks.

The room full of metal shelves reappears with new occupants. Bright light, harsh light, washes out the faces of the couple kissing. It’s impossible to tell, honestly, if the woman is the same seen in the video previous. She’s in a black T-shirt that exposes her midriff, has short dark hair, her face obscured. A head taller, the man in the denim jacket bends his neck at a right angle to keep his mouth in contact with hers.

He clutches at her. In their passion they lean too hard into a shelf. Bottles scatter and clang on the unseen floor. Glass smashes. The pair stays lip-locked.

They spin as if dancing, carom into another shelf. They appear to be pushing against one another, he shoving at her shoulders, she slapping at his chest. Their kiss never breaks. They lurch forward and jostle the camera, which falls, clatters on the floor, and ends up aimed at an out of focus gray object, perhaps one of the bottles.

Just before the video ends its runtime the camera view shifts, rolls toward what appears to be a face in close-up, the motion too quick to display clear details. The final pause obliterated by a new banner:

click to replay

Fuck this bullshit, our Muriel says. Fuck it. But she clicks.

The last half-second plays again in excruciating slow motion. The rolling camera pans across a chin, a mouth hanging open, seen in three quarter profile, perhaps a glimpse of a person on all fours. A thin black tongue protrudes from between front teeth. A second tongue curls out at the corner of the lips. That there are two tongues can’t be mistaken, as the movie becomes a still, held for a full second before the message appears:

see what you did

Fuck you! I didn’t do this! Muriel shouts, and she’s in close-up again, pounding on the wall, trying to find our recording device. She backs toward the door, picks up the gun on her desk. Her eyes scan for the source of our vantage, and the muzzle of the pistol waves back and forth in synchronicity. Neither eyes nor gun find a point of purchase.

I had nothing to do with that project, she says, more calmly. Once I knew about it, I wanted to stop it. I did stuff to try to stop it, stuff you didn’t see. You’ve done this— her face screws up, her voice cracks — you’ve done this to us for nothing!

A new video starts automatically. Again, the view is familiar: this same room, the home office, at an earlier time, lit by daylight streamed through the unseen window.

Our Muriel’s husband can be heard, somewhere beyond the open door, his voice raised, though he falls silent without the shouted words ever becoming intelligible.

He comes into the room, followed by a figure clad in back, face hidden under a dark balaclava. The figure is smaller than Muriel’s tall, lanky husband, but carries a pistol.

Quiet, the husband activates his computer. Our Muriel, back to watching, puts a hand over her mouth as he begins transcribing from a piece of paper, typing the words into a chat window and sending the message. The messaged person responds. The figure in black, pistol pressed to the back of the husband’s head, mutters, Answer her like you always would.

Muriel screams into her cupped hand. Now a dark blotch crawls on the shoulder of her robe.

Muriel’s husband sounds like he’s quietly hyperventilating as he types, watches the responses, types back.

Muriel keeps keening into her hands. The black clad figure seems to look right at her, mask stretching in what might be a veiled smile, one eyelid descending in a wink — though in truth the intruder must have been looking right at the recording device mounted in the window, able to see exactly where it was. As Muriel realizes this, she dashes back to us, pounding furiously on the window frame, still keening. We get a good look at the thing crawling in her hair, our brave, beautiful child.

She doesn’t see how the black clad figure injects her husband — that must be what she’s doing, and yes, now you can tell, in profile, the figure is a she. There’s a needle protruding from between her fingers into her victim’s neck, though there’s no hypodermic visible. She flexes her hand and the needle withdraws as if it were a tongue.

There’s no way to tell if she’s the same woman from the earlier video. Even we can’t be sure.

Open wide, the figure says, then puts something in the husband’s mouth.

Muriel misses all of this. She howls in frustration as she beats her fists on the window frame. Then she leaves the room. She misses all the minutes of footage that follow, what happens to her husband after he’s been injected and then forced to swallow the thing his captor brought. We don’t pay much attention. We watched his twitchy, drooling transcendence the first time it happened, we don’t need to see it again. But we watch the door. We want to know where Muriel went.

She misses the best part, when the woman in black returns to the room, calms the tendrils wriggling between the husband’s teeth, and explains to him what must come next. She misses the kiss full of interlocking twig-like limbs that follows.

Untitled_Artwork

Illustration by Ry Graham.

Muriel comes back, doesn’t even look at her monitor despite the sounds coming from it, fiddles with the back of her husband’s computer where we can’t see what she’s doing. Then she sets a jar down beside his monitor. Inside it our beloved child wriggles and twists. It keeps trying to escape as she sits at her husband’s keyboard as if she’s up in the early morning hours trying to beat a deadline, her fingers clacking at keys, her gaze focused on the rapidly changing screen that we wish we could read. She ignores the form the size of a thumb leaping against the glass on its many legs, making the jar clink and shift.

Audible from the video on our Muriel’s computer, her husband calling out, Oh, hello, sweetie pie, how was school? Then after an indistinct answer, Now, I need you to be my best little girl, just like you would for mommy. We have a visitor and I think you’re going to like her.

A growling starts in Muriel’s throat, as if there’s a wolf spirit hidden somewhere in her lungs. Our precious child keeps trying, maybe meaning to knock the jar over so it rolls, hits the floor and breaks, but it’s too heavy and our child is too small. We don’t dare intervene.

Muriel leaves off what she’s doing to grab the cord of her computer’s power strip and jerk it out of the wall. Of course, her computer continues to play the video. Our masters anticipated such a move. But she disappoints us by taking the jar, setting it on the floor where we can’t see it, and resuming whatever she’s started on her husband’s computer.

She doesn’t even react to the distant sounds of her daughter’s transformation, no louder than whispers on our recording.

She turns her husband’s monitor to face us. I know who you are, she says. She unplugs a tablet from her husband’s computer, placed where we couldn’t see it all this time, collects her gun and leaves the room. We listen, but she must be moving so quietly.

She reappears, dressed in jeans and a sweater, black hair tied up in a ponytail. She picks the jar off the floor, and we learn it has a small hole in the lid as she sets it on the desk again and pours bleach into it.

Our child pumps legs wildly, slashes with the spines that sprout from its back, stabs with its mouth needles, leaps and leaps. Our child is doomed.

Her husband’s monitor displays a woman’s picture. We recognize her but we’re disappointed in Muriel. She is correct. The woman on the screen is the woman who visited her house. But she is not who we are. Her assumptions about her enemy are as false as her claim that she had nothing to do with Project Tardigrade.

I know who you are, Muriel repeats, as our child screams and dies. I know where you are. And this is the last time you’ll know where I am.

And she leaves. Some part of us may have reason to fear her. For now, we all mourn.

With Muriel and her rage out of range, we dare to detach ourselves from the window frame. We are still recording what we see in this room, but we are much more than the task appointed by our masters.

We descend to the floor and circle around the jar where our child lies murdered, partially intact spines floating atop liquefied remains.

Muriel’s computer is still playing the message our petty creators made for her. We alter it; change the sound it makes to one that is both a cry of grief and a call to the other children placed in the house.

After a few minutes, there’s movement, stumbling, shuffling, from the upper floor. The sound of a heavy body dragging itself down a staircase, across a carpet.

Muriel’s husband pulls himself through the doorway. His legs are not working. His bare torso is riddled with holes, the ones in his back larger than the ones in front. Even we can see his spine is severed. It will be hard for him to do what he must do for us.

New blood from his mouth and nostrils joins the tributaries already dried there. He grimaces each time he puts weight on his elbows and pulls himself forward. Each time he grimaces, our children flick their antennae from between his teeth.

As he struggles to position himself in his chair, we can see there are only four holes. Their absence is explained when the remaining child, our child and Muriel’s child, joins us.

If only Muriel had waited. She would have seen that there’s no cause for vengeance. What she believes lost, what she believes she was forced to do — none of it is true.

Muriel’s husband slowly, painfully uses the crippled flesh of his first body to navigate his own computer. He must tell us, if he can, what Muriel found out, where she might be going. He glances once at his daughter, whose pink pajamas are bloodied by the debris from the single wound in her forehead. She smiles back, several of her baby teeth dropping free to make room for the antennae snaking out between them.

Her gaze moves from his to ours, and her smile widens.

We soar close to deliver a loving kiss.

# # #

Read the interview with Mike Allen that accompanies this story here.

###

Ry Graham is an Ottawa based illustrator.
@rygraham1138

 

GABBEH, BY GEMMA FILES

You can read the interview that accompanies this fiction reprint here.

***

The thing everyone who came by Ashad’s already knew was that Ashad’s Mumma was crazy, or getting there at least, so close she could probably kiss crazy as it went by.

Ashad’s family had been big once, back in Shah times. They’d come over to Toronto after the Revolution and spun one store into three, then ten. But last month the original store had finally closed, after a solid year of Going Out of Business sales. Condo people didn’t want rugs anymore—not gabbeh, not kilim. Not without a million assurances they weren’t supporting child wage-slavery, or that every fibre wasn’t somehow soaked in blood.

“But it is!” Ashad’s Mumma would put in, however—with a horrid sort of cheer—whenever Ashad’s Dad complained around the dinner table. Which was yet one more way you could tell how fast the old lady was going off, sitting there smiling so pleasantly with her filmy eyes half-closed, an elegant set of bones covered in fine lace wrinkles, ricepaper skin and a long silk dress, her silver hair still painstakingly pin-curled in the height of 1950s fashion. God knew what she did all day, up there in her room. The only person who could so much as have a conversation with her, far as Nazneen could see, was the cleaning lady-cum-attendant Ashad’s Dad paid to come in, Shecilia.

“Why yah got that rug up on the wall, nah the floor?” Shecilia demanded. “Jus’ look at the dust on it! Pitiful, how yah treat an heirloom like that; thing fallin’ to flinders almost, that’s a fact. You need tah let me take it down, run the vacuum over it a time ah two, ‘fore it draw moths.”

But Ashad’s Mumma just shook her head. “Out of the question,” she said. “It is not to be touched—everyone here knows so.”

The rug in question was a gabbeh, thick and coarse-woven, probably almost an inch in depth, ninety by one hundred fifty centimetres. Its pattern was mainly grey on green on brown, squares on rectangles on stepped diamonds, with small, intensely red blocks and triangles scattered throughout—oddly drab yet strangely natural, its variegated colours breaking up in sub-textures like skin or sand, even the veins of dry-crisped autumn leaves. And while Nazneen thought it unlikely Ashad’s Mumma had had anything to do with its actual manufacture, she still had to give the old lady props for interesting taste.

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“Gabbeh,” illustration by Carrion House

 

“Why for nah, yah crazy old hen?” Shecilia demanded. At which Ashad’s Mumma’s eyes just narrowed further, an odd sort of cunning creeping in, and wouldn’t say, at first. Not with Shecilia around.

“Can you keep secrets, Indian?” she asked Nazneen, in a whisper, after pulling her aside into her room.

Nazneen’s parents were from Pakistan, but she didn’t see the point in correcting someone this old, let alone this crazy. “Depends,” she replied, instead.

“Well, it makes no matter, probably; I must tell, before I die.”

The upshot was—and Nazneen couldn’t believe she was even telling Ashad this, later on—that the reason the gabbeh had to stay on the wall, potential moth damage notwithstanding, was that if you put it on the floor, you might step onto it (duh). And if you stepped onto it… you fell in.

“In where?” Ashad asked, eyebrows hiking.

“Oh God, I don’t even… the Zagros Mountains, maybe? Or somewhere near Shahr-e Sukhteh, the Burnt City?”

“Those places are nowhere near each other, Naz.”

“Look, I don’t know. Besides which, apparently you end up sometime else, not just someplace. This day back whenever, when a whole village was wiped out.” She nodded at the gabbeh. “That’s the grey and green, in case you’re wondering.”

“How can you even tell?”

“You can’t—everything has to be done all geometric because no representation, right? I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff.” As Ashad shrugged: “Point is, if you know what the gabbeh’s theme is, you can sort of work out the story. Better yet, you have your Mumma to explain it to me, so there you go.”

Ashad peered at the gabbeh, not quite close enough for contact. “Dad says Baba ran off with a loose woman after the third store opened, because Mumma was so hard to live with. He says his friends saw them out in Mississauga at some fancy nightclub that doesn’t exist anymore, eating pork and drinking.”

“Yeah? Well, she says he’s that little red blotch, there. The one that doesn’t look like a triangle or a square.” Ashad did, frowning. “Says he must’ve fell right in the thick of it, and how that would’ve been a real bad day to be on the ground, because that was the day your family came in and killed everybody over—salt, or something. Something like that.”

“Salt was probably worth a lot, back then,” Ashad said. “Still is, right now.”

“In Iran?”

“Lots of places.”

“Okay, anyhow: They killed everybody, and then I guess they felt bad, and somebody made a rug out of it. And the rug eats people. So that’s why it stays up.”

“Yeah, well—not for long.”

Ashad knew lots of people, one of whom claimed to be an antiques appraiser with a specialty in fabrics, and he’d already made it clear he didn’t intend to wait for whatever portion was coming his way from the family’s corporate dissolution proceedings—fine with Nazneen, since part of his immediate need for money involved the two of them disappearing off to someplace her own family wouldn’t be able to easily locate them. Still, the less said about that, the better.

So they waited until his Dad had taken Mumma off to her monthly glaucoma check-up, when no one but Shecilia was supposed to be home. As perhaps the single most pragmatic person in the mix these days, she hadn’t put up much protest when approached; simply named the size of cut she wanted to let them in, and to run interference should the older generation happen to get back early. Ashad saw bribing her as an investment, and Nazneen had no real proof he wasn’t right; people were like that, she’d found. Mostly.

Which was why it made for somewhat of a surprise when Shecilia didn’t answer the door on the first ring, or the tenth.

“’Round the back,” Ashad said. “There’s an extra key, unless Dad’s moved it.”

He hadn’t.

Upstairs in Mumma’s room, all they found was the rug on the floor and the brand-new Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner just sitting there, half on top of it and half off, still plugged in, and roaring. “Shecilia?” Nazneen called, looking around.

Nothing.

Ashad shrugged, checking his watch. Remarked: “She had the right idea, at least…”

…and, picking up the vacuum’s pipe-shaft, took two brisk steps over the gabbeh’s thin, blood-colored border-band. His shoes came down silent, one, two: “Don’t!” Nazneen warned, automatically—

—and found herself, abruptly, all the more doubly alone, letting the last part of the word trail away into empty air. The vacuum fallen, in a new place on the rug, still roaring.

No way of telling how long she stood there, vaulted instinctively back, to hug the wall; her eyes felt fixed, distended and dry, pupils pin-point. What she would remember, for years after, was how she only jolted awake again when, below, the doorbell rang once more.

The appraiser, a brisk lady all done up in taupe, seemed a bit taken aback when Nazneen answered. “I’m… here to see Ashad?” she said, trying to stare around her.

Good luck with that, Nazneen thought. Hearing herself reply, at the same time: “Oh, he’s just—up… there—”

But the appraiser was already shrugging her way towards the stairs, taking them two at a time. “Oh, never mind,” she called down, “I think I see… is this it?”

Yes, Nazneen felt her lips shape. Then, quickly: But no, don’t, I really wouldn’t, wait

But nothing more followed—not a scream, not a thud, nothing. The vacuum roared on. And then she was sliding down the door-frame with the filmy back of her hijab knocking and rucking itself along the wood-grain: Slack all over and slumped into herself, too weak to peel herself free, even to raise her hands far enough to cover her own eyes.

It didn’t matter. The gabbeh’s pattern hung in the air in front of her, pulsing: A blotch for Ashad’s Baba, another for the appraiser. Another for Ashad himself.

Rout and fire, mayhem and chaos, blood for salt reduced to a cool, grey-green-brown tangle of geometric shapes inside a thin red edging. A square of guilt, pure and thick and hungry, always hungry. Always, and forever.

Ashad’s Dad had to force the door to get in, sending Nazneen toppling onto her side, curled foetally. When he saw her, he took off running, following almost the same path everyone else had. Except that he must’ve stopped just short of the rug itself, because when he began to wail, it cut through Nazneen like a knife.

Ashad’s Mumma, meanwhile, surprised Nazneen by lowering herself just far enough to stroke the hump of Nazneen’s shoulders, as though gentling a horse. “There, there,” she said. “You see, Indian? Did I lie? This has happened before, so many times. It will happen again, surely, just as many.”

“You should burn it,” Nazneen whispered, into the floorboards. And felt the old lady sigh, her fingers thin and sharp as bird-bones.

“But it is ours,” was all she said, finally. And to this, even as Ashad’s Dad cried on, striking his forehead over and over against the hardwood floor of the corridor outside his mother’s room—

—there really could be no possible reply.

E N D

 

Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.

Original illustration by Luke Spooner, AKA Carrion House.

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Necro(nomiCon)scopy 2017

NecronomiCon-Providence-Convention-August-17-20-2017

What follows are a few fairly scattered observations from my recent trip down to New England with friends Derek Newman-Stille and Bob D. to attend NecronomiCon 2017 in Providence, after a brief foray in Salem.

I want to start by thanking and congratulating Niels Hobbs, s.j. bagley, Farah R. Smith and the many other folks involved in organizing and evolving NecronomiCon.  They had (and continue to have) daunting, precarious, practically endless, and hugely significant work to do in putting this epic event together, in enabling it to grow, and in making it appealing, and more importantly, accessible, to those whose interest in the weird involves more than a fetishistic and apologetic adoration for HPL, a figure in many ways as influential, difficult and divisive as his at-one-time-more-famous contemporary, Ezra Pound.

Organizing any convention on this scale is a cyclopean achievement, but NecronomiCon presents particular difficulties, given the controversial nature of Lovecraft’s xenophobic views and their connection to his widespread popular influence,. This is further complicated by the ardent desire of some  fans and disciples to write only hagiographically about Lovecraft, or to make him an icon of alt-right white nationalism.

I’ve attended NecronomiCon at each of its bi-annual iterations since it was revamped in 2013, and this year’s Con has been, to my mind, the best so far. I never dreamed I’d find writer Nnedi Okorafor and film-maker Richard Stanley as guests of honour at the same convention, and their shared presence here speaks volumes about the multiple directions the Con has taken in recent years. Also improving with each iteration is the scope and quality of the Henry Armitage academic panel sessions. NecronomiCon has become a rare site of fusion between popular convention and academic conference.

(You can read my thoughts on the 2015 NecronomiCon,  the difficulties posed by reconciling Lovecraft with weird fiction understood inclusively and internationally, and the appeal of cutesy and tweird collectibles here. For a fictionalized, pointedly satirical, and unsettlingly comical roman-a-clef account of the 2015 ‘Con thinly veiled as a metafuzzical-murder-mystery, read Nick Mamatas’s novel, I Am Providence, and for a gorgeously written, compelling fictive glimpse into the erotics, obsessions, and proprietary politics that characterize some strains of Lovecraft fandom and scholarship alike, I highly recommend Paul LaFarge’s novel The Night Ocean,.

IT’S ALIVE!

We drove down to Salem on Wednesday, spending some time amongst the wonderful waxworks and props at Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery and devoting a squeeful, gawping couple of hours to exploring It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection at the Peabody-Essex Museum. Hammett may well be the most deep-pocketed and ambitious collector of horror and sci-fi paraphernalia in the world, and the tip-of-the-iceberg selection of items included in this beautifully curated exhibition are truly impressive.

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The exhibition aims to center attention on the artists and designers who created these seminal images; despite the influence they’ve had on 20th century popular culture, the names of these creators are often all-but-forgotten.  It pays close attention to lighting and placement, augmenting the impression created by these artefacts, and inviting visitors to see themselves in and through the installation.

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Zapped like a bug, paradoxically paralyzed and unnaturally animated. Photo courtesy Derek Newman-Stille

As curator Daniel Finamore writes, the exhibit takes a “tripartite perspective,” framing these artefacts “as the creations of artists engaged in the promotion of an industry, as the catalysts for the physiological activity and heightened mental state that occurs in response to the monsters they offer up, and as a wellspring of creative inspiration for Kirk Hammett, a contemporary musician whose own artistic contributions explore the relevancy of the horror genre in modern culture” (It’s Alive, 16-17.)

 

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For your consideration, this epic standing lobby card for King Kong (1933), vortically chiaroscuro’ed

 

 

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A few of the custom classic horror-inspired guitars from Hammett’s huge collection

While the exhibit puts understandable emphasis on Hammett’s musical career and his personal and inspirational investment in these artefacts, you don’t have to be a Metallica fan to appreciate the power of the collection and curation.

MY TIME AT NECRONOMICON

Friday morning saw me on a panel, conceived and orchestrated by Farah R. Smith, called “Mesmerism and Machinations” along with Anya Martin, Steven Mariconda, Leslie Klinger, Jon Padgett, and Michael Cisco.  It was a huge topic, meant to highlight some of the under-recognized central European influences on horror and weird fiction from the Romantic to the Modern period, and a wide-ranging discussion; we were only able to briefly touch on some of the more pertinent examples, from Hoffmann and von Hofmansthal through Huysmans and Lautreamont to Kafka, Schulz and Ewers, with a constellation of figures between. I left feeling under-read, excited, and with a long list of writers whose work I’d like to get to know better.

This panel exemplified the direction I hope the Con continues to take – a spiralling-outward from Lovecraft and the Anglo-American pulp tradition he sprang from to include numerous literary and artistic movements from throughout history and across the world.

GETTING DUSTY IN THE HAY

Friday afternoon, I fled to spend a few hours in the John Hay Library, where I explored the Library’s two new exhibitions. The first, Greetings & Salutations : Lovecraft on the Road, focuses on Lovecraft’s bus trip from Providence, Rhode Island to DeLand, Florida between April and August, 1934, where he travelled primarily to visit his young friend and correspondent, R.H. Barlow. Their relationship is the subject of a fascinating New Yorker essay by Paul LaFarge, and gets a queer (meta)fictional re-imagining in his novel The Night Ocean. The connection Barlow forms between Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs, at the heart of the novel,  has been factually and critically explored by Michael Cisco’s essay “Re-Animator and Exterminator,” All of these connections sprang vividly to mind as I browsed the exhibit.

The other, The Caitlín R. Kiernan Papers @ Brown University Library, is presented as “a mid-career review highlighting Kiernan’s recent gift of her personal and professional archives.”

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The Caitlín R. Kiernan Papers @ Brown University Library – books and award-busts

It includes a wide array of documents and objects, from first draft copies of some of Kiernan’s earliest writings (both fictional and non-, going right back to her primary school days), panel sketches from her work in comics, including Alabaster and The Dreaming, and one of Michael Zulli’s original paintings (as Philip Saltonstall) for The Drowning Girl. The Kiernan papers, I was told, should be archived and available to the public within six months, and I’m hoping I can make it down to Providence next summer to spent some time with them, as well as finally dipping in to the Lovecraft archives. My article on Poe and Lovecraft in The Drowning Girl is finally out there, but it feels to me like the beginning of a larger study of Kiernan’s fiction, and access to Kiernan’s notes is especially important to the article on her comics-script work for The Dreaming I plan to write once I meet a few other essaying and editing commitments.

While at the Hay, I went all Wilbur Whateley and spent some time reading the 1813 translation of De Rerum Natura by composer and musicologist Thomas Busby (an edition that has proven very difficult to find; while Queens University’s Jordan Collection has one, they are missing the second volume of the book.) I was startled to discover the book’s pages remain largely uncut, and it hasn’t been consulted at all since 1960.

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Busby’s Lucretius, a dusty versiform beast

Where my article on Poe and Lucretius focuses on the John Mason Good translation and commentaries, Busby’s rhymed translation was also influential on both the English Romantics (Byron in particular) and writers of the American Renaissance (T. W. White praised it ardently in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1842, making it likely Poe also knew it.)

This translation is proving important to my research on Romantic and Modern reception and adaptations of Lucretius (you can read my essay on Lovecraft’s uses and abuses of Lucretius as part of the volume Lovecraftian Proceedings Volume 2) and to my interest in how Epicurean materialism shaped the development of the Gothic and modern horror.

I returned in time to catch the readings in support of Michael Kelly’s much-anticipated Shadows and Tall Trees Volume Seven.

seven-600x600While the entire run of S&TT is excellent, and a must-read for those who enjoy quiet, creeping and artfully insidious horror and weirdness, this volume covers a wider range of voice and tone than its predecessors. Robert Levy, Simon Strantzas and Steve Rasnic Tem read excerpts from their contributions. It was Tem’s story, “The Erased,” that haunted me the most; it is a powerful study of the loss of self and world, a dispersion of identity and memory closely akin to dementia.

 

RICHARD STANLEY MAKES HORROR PINK AGAIN

Saturday saw me, even more out of my depth, on a panel called “Lovecraft in Context,” alongside novelists Peter Rawlik and Paul LaFarge, renowned professional annotator Leslie Klinger, and Lovecraft scholar Steven Mariconda, discussing the importance of various specific references, allusions, and intimations in Lovecraft’s work. The session ended with both panelists and audience members sharing detailed speculations about the origins of particular details in some of Lovecraft’s writings. Like that of Joyce, Nabokov, and Poe, Lovecraft’s work attracts a particular kind of obsessive blend of fandom and scholarship, study and identification; the solid attendance and preponderance of highly detailed speculations presented by both panelists and audience here really drove that home. I was glad Paul LaFarge was among the panelists, as I think his novel The Night Ocean represents both the erotics and the power dynamics of this brilliantly. See also the social power dynamics of performing knowledge in fandom analyzed by Matt Hill in  The Pleasures of Horror (2005). Hell, somebody should do a doctoral dissertation using Hills’ analysis to break down the social power dynamics on display at any given Lovecraft-themed panel at any convention, ever.

The same afternoon brought what for me was one of the highlights of the weekend –   Richard Stanley’s presentation on his film adaptation of The Colour Out of Space.  The presentation was apparently a last minute addition to the schedule, as Stanley had just gotten further funding and casting confirmations a few days before the Con started (he said he couldn’t reveal any of the casting decisions yet.) Elijah Wood’s company SpectreVision is producing the film, which Stanley’s been working on getting made for the last five years or so.

I’ve admired Stanley’s films immensely since having my fifteen-year-old brain electrified by the fusion of slasher-horror, cyberpunk music video, and dystopian art fugue that is Hardware (1990), which served as my introduction not only to Stanley’s films but to Ministry’s music and Survival Research Labs’ performance art, not to mention 2000AD magazine. I gained a new appreciation for him after watching the documentaries L’Autre Monde (2012), Lost Soul (2014), and Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014), not to mention his supremely creepy short film adaptation of Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads.” To learn he’s finally filming Lovecraft’s most effective tale of cosmic terror, and to get a sneak peek of some of the promotional art and plot and character outlines for the film was a real treat.

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Richard Stanley as neither a Moreau Dog-man nor a Dagon fish-man.

Stanley talked about the departures the script took from the original story, including the addition of a teenaged daughter to the Gardner clan (and the momentary comedic reprieve that will be provided by her ill-fated attempts to stop the spread of the Colour using spells from Simon’s faux Necronomicon), his intention to rely primarily on practical effects, his desire to break from the tendency many contemporary horror films have to work with a stark or muted palette, his admiration for the lurid, saturated colours used, however differently,  by Roger Corman and Dario Argento and his desire to create a psychedelic experience with the film, which will, he declared, change the world’s perception of bright pink forever. You can get a sense of this already from an early pre-production teaser trailer from 2013, prior to SpectreVision picking it up.  Mike Davis of Lovecraft eZine expressed understandable reservations about the direction the film was taking back when Stanley first pitched, but my enthusiasm was fired hearing Stanley talk about the project. It’s going to be idiosyncratic and bizarre, I’m sure, but perhaps the better for it.

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I asked about his initial preference for adapting The Dunwich Horror rather than Colour (more monsters, less abstraction; it has shoggoths, and the 70s version is so bad somebody needs to do a better one) and he spoke at length about the dearth of cosmic horror in the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s works thus far, including in Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2000; a film he otherwise much admires and played a small role in) and in contemporary horror films generally, repeating his oft-stated admiration for both the original Alien film (which, he pointed out, was due more to Dan O’Bannon’s vision than Ridley Scott’s) and Carpenter’s The Thing as rare exceptions.

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Stanley pointed out that the animal face in the background is a mutated llama. The film’s Gardners are llama farmers.

BEHIND LOVECRAFT’S BACK

Another major highlight for me was getting to hear Nnedi Okorafor read from her work once more (the first time being her GoH stint at ICFA a couple of years back.)

In this case, she read short excerpts from both her novels Binti and Lagoon. Okorafor is a singularly charismatic and versatile reader – never pass up a chance to hear her.

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Nnedi Okorafor reads from Lagoon.

In both her statements during the Con and even moreso via social media, with her characteristic incisiveness, frankness, and humour, Okorafor raised pointed questions about Lovecraft’s place in modern weird fiction, highlighting the perverse (but perhaps necessary, given that Providence’s primary tie to weird fiction is via Lovecraft?) paradox faced by NecronomiCon, as it tries to, on the one hand, transcend Lovecraft’s xenophobia and showcase a multiplicity of diverse voices of the weird, while on the other hand risking a kind of re-colonization of these voices, by linking them to Lovecraft and his work, suggesting Lovecraft has some kind of influence over them. In Okorafor’s memorable words, while what she writes is “probably considered Weird Fiction,” (and Gary Wolfe makes a strong case for this in his essay “The Queen of Future Weird”)  it has an “ancestral bloodline *separate* from Lovecraft. My tentacles are African.”

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ARS NECRONOMICA

Sunday morning brought my third and final speaking engagement, as I gave a brief talk as part of the Armitage academic-track panel “Emanations of Abominations.” My focus was on some of the ways horror mangaka Junji Ito’s work responds to Lovecraft’s theories of weird and cosmic fiction. In particular, Ito has credited his use of the spiral motif throughout his magnum opus Uzumaki to Lovecraft’s nefarious influence, and I sought to elucidate some of the ways this Ito adapted Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic horror via his relentless transfigurations and transvaluations of spirality.

Following that, we headed over to RISD’s Woods-Gerry Gallery to glom about in the exhibit Wonders of the Visible Weird, which “features paintings, prints, sculptures, and illustrations by more than seventy contemporary artists who explore the themes of weird fiction and cosmic horror, inspired by the works of Providence-born writer H. P. Lovecraft and other authors and artists of Weird. The exhibit showcases new and upcoming artists as well as new or rarely seen works by many of the established artists who have put form to the unnameable and indescribable for decades.”

There were a lot of beautiful, strange, hideous, and ineffably-effed-up creations on display; the array of fantastic visual art and crafts are another of the things that make NecronomiCon unique. For example, this modest little specimen that numbers among my favourites, “Mother, Mother Ocean” by Karen Main:

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It seemed strikingly apropos when, during our drive back to Canada Monday morning, the brief eclipse temporarily translated the world into a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, and when, Tuesday morning, I awoke to a tornado watch for the Southeastern Ontario region. I knew those impetuous invocations to Yog-Sothoth during Sunday night’s performance of the Dunwich Horror Picture Show were a terrible bloody idea.

 

 

 

 

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MR. GAUNT BY JOHN LANGAN

I

It was not until five weeks after his father’s funeral that Henry Farange was able to remove the white plastic milk crate containing the old man’s final effects from the garage.  His reticence was a surprise:  his father had been sick—dying, really—for the better part of two years and Henry had known it, had known of the enlarged heart, the failing kidneys, the brain jolted by mini-strokes.  He had known it was, in the nursing home doctor’s favorite cliché, only a matter of time, and if there were moments Henry could not believe the old man had held on for as long or as well as he had, that didn’t mean he expected his father to walk out of the institution to which his steadily-declining health had consigned him.  For all that, the inevitable phone call, the one telling him that his father had suffered what appeared to be a heart attack, caught him off-guard, and when his father’s nurse had approached him at the gravesite, her short arms cradling the milk crate into which the few items the old man had taken with him to the nursing home had been deposited, Henry’s chest had tightened, his eyes filled with burning tears.  Upon his return home from the post-funeral brunch, he had removed the crate from his backseat and carried it into the garage, where he set it atop his workbench, telling himself he couldn’t face what it contained today, but would see to it tomorrow.

Tomorrow, though, turned into the day after tomorrow, which became the day after that, and then the following day, and so on, until a two week period passed during which Henry didn’t think of the white plastic milk crate at all, and was only reminded of it when a broken cabinet hinge necessitated his sliding up the garage door.  The sight of the milk crate was a reproach, and in a sudden burst of repentance he rushed up to it, hauled it off the workbench, and ran into the house with it as if it were a pot of boiling water and he without gloves.  He half-dropped it onto the kitchen table and stood over it, panting.  Now that he let his gaze wander over the crate’s contents, he could see that it was not as full as he had feared.  A dozen hardcover books:  his father’s favorite Henry James novels, which, he had claimed, were all that he wanted to read in his remaining time.  Henry lifted them from the crate one by one, glancing at their titles.  The AmbassadorsThe Wings of the DoveThe Golden Bowl The Turn of the ScrewWhat Maisie Knew.  He recognized that last one:  the old man had tried twice to convince him to read it, sending him a copy when he was at college, and again a couple of years ago, a month or two before he entered the nursing home.  It was his father’s favorite book of his favorite writer, and, although he was no English scholar, Henry had done his best, both times, to read it.  But he rapidly became lost in the labyrinth of the book’s prose, in sentences that wound on for what felt like days, so that by the time you arrived at the end, you had forgotten the beginning and had to start over again.  He hadn’t finished What Maisie Knew, had given up the attempt after chapter one the first time, chapter three the second, and had had to admit his failures to his father.  He had blamed his failures on other obligations, on school and work, promising he would give the book another try when he was less busy.  He might make good his promise yet:  there might be a third attempt, possibly even success, but when he was done, his father would not be waiting to discuss it with him.  Henry removed the rest of the books from the crate rapidly.

Here was a framed photo of him receiving his MBA, a smaller black and white picture of a man and woman he recognized as his grandparents tucked into its lower right corner.  Here was a gray cardboard shoebox filled with assorted snapshots that appeared to stretch back over his father’s lifetime, as well as four old letters folded in their original envelopes.  Here was a postcard showing the view up the High Street to Edinburgh Castle.  Here was the undersized saltire, the blue and white flag of Scotland, he had bought for his father when he had stopped off for a weekend in Edinburgh on his way home from Frankfurt, just last summer.  Here was a cassette tape wrapped in a piece of ruled notebook paper bound to it by a thick rubber band, his name written on the paper in his father’s rolling hand.

His heart leapt, and Henry slid the rubber band from the around the paper with fingers suddenly dumb.  There was more writing on the other side of the paper, a brief note.  He read, “Dear Son, I’m making this tape just in case.  Listen to it as soon as possible.  It’s all true.  Love, Dad.”  That was all.  He turned the tape over:  it was plain and black, no label on either side.  Leaving the note on the table, he carried the tape into the living room, to the stereo.  He slid the tape into the deck, pushed PLAY, adjusted the volume, and stood back, arms crossed.

For a moment, there was only the hum of blank tape, then a loud snap and clatter and the sound of his father’s voice, low, resonant, and slightly graveled, the way it sounded when he was tired.  His father said, “I think I have this thing working.  Yes, that’s it.”  He cleared his throat.  “Hello, Henry, it’s your father.  If you’re listening to this, then I’m gone.  I realize this may seem strange, but there are facts of which you need to be aware, and I’m concerned I don’t have much time to tell you them.  I’ve tried to write it all down for you, but my hand’s shaking so badly I can’t make any progress.  To tell the truth, I don’t know if the matter’s sufficiently clear in my head for me to write it.  So, I’ve borrowed this machine from the night-duty nurse.  I suppose I should have told you all this—oh, years ago, but I didn’t, because—well, let’s get to what I have to say first.  I can fill in my motivations along the way.  I hope you have the time to listen to this all at once, because I don’t think it’ll make much sense in bits and pieces.  I’m not sure it makes much sense all together.

“The other night, I saw your uncle on television:  not David, your mother’s brother, but George, my brother.  I’m sure you won’t remember him:  the last and only time you saw him, you were four.  I saw him, and I saw his butler.  You know how little I sleep these days, no matter, it seems, how tired I am.  Much of the time between sunset and sunrise I pass reading—re-reading James, and watching more television than I should.  Last night, unable to concentrate on What Maisie Knew any longer, I found myself watching a documentary about Edinburgh on public television.  If I watch PBS, I can convince myself I’m being mildly virtuous, and I was eager to see one of my favorite cities, if only on the screen.  It’s the city my parents came from; I know you know that.  Sadly, the documentary was a failure, so spectacularly insipid that it almost succeeded in delivering me to sleep a good three hours ahead of schedule.  Then I saw George walk across the screen.  The shot was of Prince’s Street during the Edinburgh festival.  The street was crowded, but I recognized my brother.  He was slightly stooped, his hair and beard bone-white, though his step was still lively.  He was followed by his butler, who stood as tall and unbending as ever.  Just as he was about to walk off the screen, George stopped, turned his head to the camera, and winked, slowly and deliberately.

“From the edge of sleep, I was wide awake, filled with such fear my shaking hands fumbled the remote control onto the floor.  I couldn’t muster the courage to retrieve it, and it lay there until the morning nurse picked it up.  I didn’t sleep:  I couldn’t.  Your uncle kept walking across that screen, his butler close behind.  Though I hadn’t heard the news of his death, I had assumed he must be gone by now.  More than assumed:  I had hoped it.  I should have guessed, however, that George would not have slipped so gently into that good night; indeed, although he’s just this side of ninety, I now suspect he’ll be around for quite some time to come.

“Seeing him—does it sound too mad to say that I half-think he saw me?  More than half-think:  I know he saw me.  Seeing my not-dead older brother walk across the screen, to say nothing of his butler, I became obsessed with the thought of you.  Your uncle may try to contact you, especially once I‘m gone, which I have the most unreasonable premonition may be sooner rather than later. Before he does, you must know about him.  You must know who, and what, he is.  You must know his history, and you must know about his butler, about that…monster.  For reasons you’ll understand later, I can’t simply tell you what I have to tell you, or perhaps I should say I can’t tell you what I have to tell you simply.  If I were to come right out with it in two sentences, you wouldn’t believe me; you’d think I had suffered one TIA too many.  I can’t warn you to stay away from your uncle and leave it at that:  I know you, and I know the effect such prohibitions have on you; I’ve no desire to arouse your famous curiosity.  So I’m going to ask you to bear with me, to let me tell you about my brother I what I think is the manner best-suited to it.  Indulge me, Henry, indulge your old father.”

Henry paused the tape.  He walked out of the living room back into the kitchen, where he rummaged the refrigerator for a beer while his father’s words echoed in his ears.  The old man knew him, all right:  his “famous” curiosity was aroused, enough that he would sit down and listen to the rest of the tape now, in one sitting.  His dinner date was not for another hour and a half, and, even if he were a few minutes late, that wouldn’t be a problem.  He smiled, thinking that despite his father’s protestations of fear, once the old man warmed up to talking, you could hear the James scholar taking over, his words, his phrasing, his sentences, bearing subtle witness to a lifetime spent with the writer he had called “the Master.”  Henry pried the cap off the beer, checked to be sure answering machine was on, switched the phone’s ringer off, and returned to the living room, where he released the PAUSE button and settled himself on the couch.

His father’s voice returned.

II

Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived with his father and his father’s butler in a very large house.  As the boy’s father was frequently away, and often for long periods of time, he was left alone in the large house with the butler, whose name was Mr. Gaunt.  While he was away, the boy’s father allowed him to roam through every room in the house except one.  He could run through the kitchen; he could bounce on his father’s bed; he could leap from the tall chairs in the living room.  But he must never, ever, under any circumstances, go into his father’s study.  His father was most insistent on this point.  If the boy entered the study…his father refused to say what would happen, but the tone of his voice and the look on his face hinted that it would be something terrible.

That was how the story used to begin, as if it were a fairy tale that someone else had written and I just happened to remember.  I suppose it sounds generic enough:  the traditional, almost incantatory, beginning; the nondescript boy, father, butler, and house.  Do you remember the first time I told it to you?  I don’t imagine so:  you were five, although you were precocious, which was what necessitated the tale in the first place.  You were staying with me for the summer—your mother and her second husband were in Greece—in the house in Highland.  That house! all those rooms, the high ceilings, the porch with its view of the Hudson:  how I wish you didn’t have to sell it to afford the cost of putting me in this place.  I had hoped you might choose to live there.  Ah well, as you yourself said, what use is a house of that size to you, with no wife or family?  Another regret…

But I was talking about the story, and the first time you heard it.  Like some second-rate Bluebeard, I had permitted you free access to every room in the house save one:  my study, which contained not the head of my previous wife (if only! sorry, I know she’s your mother), but extensive notes, four years’ worth of notes towards the book I was about to write on Henry James’s portrayal of family relations.  Yes, yes, I should have known that declaring it forbidden would only pique your interest; it’s one of those mistakes you not only can’t believe you made, but that seems so fundamentally obvious you doubt whether in fact it occurred.  The room was kept locked when I wasn’t working in it, and I believed it secure.  All this time later, I have yet to discover how you broke into it.  I can see you sitting in the middle of the hardwood floor, four years’ work scattered and shredded around you, a look of the most intense concentration upon your face as you dragged a pen across my first edition of The Wings of the Dove.  I’m not sure how, but I remained calm, if not quite cheerful, as I escorted you from my study up the stairs to your bedroom.  I sat you on the bed and told you I had a story for you.  You were very excited:  you loved it when I told you stories.  Was it another one about Hercules?  No, it wasn’t; it was another kind of story.  It was the story of a little boy just about your age, a little boy who had opened a door he was not supposed to.

Then and there, my brain racing, I told you the story of Mr. Gaunt and his terrible secret, speaking slowly, deliberately, so that I would have time to shape the next event.  Does it surprise you to hear that the story has no written antecedent?  It became such a part of our lives after that.  It frightened you out of my study for the rest of that summer; you avoided that entire side of the house.  Then the next summer, when your friend Brad came to stay for the weekend and the three of us stayed up late while I told you stories, you actually requested it.  “Tell about Mr. Gaunt,” you said.  I can’t tell you how shocked I was.  I was shocked that you remembered:  children forget much, and it’s difficult to predict what will lodge in their minds; plus you had been with your mother and husband number two without interruption for almost nine months.  I was shocked, too, that you would want to hear a narrative expressly crafted to frighten you.  It frightened poor Brad; we had to leave the light on for him, which you treated with a bit more contempt than really was fair.

After that:  how many times did I tell you that story?  Several that same summer, and several every summer for the next six or seven years.  Even when you were a teenager, and grew your hair long and refused to remove that denim jacket that you wore down to an indistinct shade of pale, even then you requested the story, albeit with less frequency.  It’s never gone that far from us, has it?  At dinner, the visit before last, we talked about it.  Strange that in all this time you never asked me how I came by it, in what volume I first read it.  Perhaps you’re used to my having an esoteric source for everything and assume this to be the case here.  Or perhaps you don’t want to know:  you find it adds to the story not to know its origin.  Or perhaps you’re just not interested:  literary scholarship never has been your strong point.  That’s not a reproach:  investment banking has been very good for and to you, and you know how proud I am of you.

There is more to the story, though:  there is more to every story.  You can always work your way down, peel back the layers ‘til you discover, as it were, the skull beneath the skin.  Whatever you thought about the story’s roots, whatever you would answer if I were to ask you where you thought I had plucked it from, I’m sure you never guessed that it grew out of an event that occurred in our family.  That donnee, as James would’ve called it, involved George, George and his butler and Peter, George’s son and your cousin.  Yes, you haven’t heard of Peter before:  I haven’t ever mentioned his name to you.  He’s been dead a long time now.

You met George when you were four, at the house in Highland.  I had just moved into it from the apartment in Huguenot I occupied after your mother and I separated.  George was in Manhattan for a couple of days, doing research at one of the museums, and took the train up to spend the afternoon with us.  He was short, stocky verging on portly, and he kept his beard trimmed in a Vandyke, which combined with his deep-set eyes and sharp nose lent him rather a Satanic appearance:  the effect, I’m sure, intended.  He wore a vest and a pocket watch with which you were fascinated, not having seen a pocket watch before.  Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, you kept asking George what time it was.  He responded to each question by slowly withdrawing the watch from his pocket by its chain, popping open its cover, carefully scrutinizing its face, and announcing, “Why, Hank,” (he insisted on calling you Hank; he appeared to find it most amusing), “it’s three o’clock.”  He was patient with you; I will grant him that.

After I put you to bed, he and I sat on the back porch looking at the Hudson, drinking Scotch, and talking, the end result of which was that he made a confession—confession! it was more of a boast!—and I demanded he leave the house, leave it then and there and never return, never speak to me or communicate in any way with me again.  He didn’t believe I was serious, but he went.  I’ve no idea how or if he made his train.  I haven’t heard from him since, all these years, nor have I have heard of him, until last night.

But this is all out of order.  You don’t know anything about your uncle.  I’ve been careful not to mention his name lest I arouse that curiosity of yours.  Indeed, maybe I shouldn’t be doing so now.  That’s assuming, of course, that you’ll take any of the story I’m going to relate seriously, that you won’t think I’ve confused my Henry James with M.R. James, or, worse, think it a sign of mental or emotional decay, the first hint of senility or depression.  The more I insist on the truth of what I tell, the more shrill and empty my voice will sound; I know the scenario well.  I  risk, then, a story that might be taken as little more than a prolonged symptom of mental impairment or illness; though really, how interesting is that?  In any event, it’s not as if I have to worry about you putting me in a home.  Yes, I know you had no choice.  Let’s start with the background, the condensed information the author delivers, after an interesting opening, in one or two well-written chapters.

George was ten years older than I, the child of what in those days was considered our parents’ middle age, as I was the child of their old age.  This is to say that Mother was thirty-five when George was born, and forty-five when I was.  Father was close to fifty at my birth, about the same age I was when you were born.  Funny—as a boy and a young man, I used to swear that, if I was to have children, I would not wait until I was old enough to be their grandfather, and despite those vows that was exactly what I did.  Do you suppose that’s why you haven’t married yet?  We like to think we’re masters of our own fates, but the fact is, our parents’ examples exert far more influence on us than we realize or are prepared to realize.  I like to think I was a much more youthful father to you than my father was to me, but in all fairness, fifty was a different age for me than it was for him.  For me, fifty was the age of my maturity, a time of  ripeness, a balance point between youth and old age; for Father, fifty was a room with an unsettlingly clear view of the grave.  He died when I was fifteen, you know, while here I am, thanks to a daily assortment of colored pills closer to eighty than anyone in my family before me, with the exception, of course, of my brother.

I have few childhood memories of George:  an unusually intelligent student, he left the house and the country for Oxford at the age of fifteen.  Particularly gifted in foreign languages, he achieved minor fame for his translation and commentary on Les mysteres du ver, a fifteenth century French translation of a much older Latin work.  England suited him well; he returned to see us in Poughkeepsie infrequently.  He did, however, visit our parents’ brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunts, in and around Edinburgh on holidays, which appeared to mollify Father and Mother. (Their trips back to Scotland were fewer than George’s trips back to them.)  My brother also voyaged to the Continent:  France, first, which irritated Father (he was possessed by an almost pathological hatred of all things French, whose cause I never could discover, since our name is French; you can be sure, he would not have read my book on Flaubert); then Italy, which worried Mother (she was afraid the Catholics would have him); then beyond, on to those countries that for the greater part of my life were known as Yugoslavia:  Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and past them to the nations bordering the Black Sea.  He made this trip and others like it, to Finland, to Turkey, to Persia as it was then called, often enough.  I have no idea how he afforded any of it.  Our parents sent him little enough money, and his scholarship was no source of wealth.  I have no idea, either, of the purpose of these trips; when I asked him, George answered, “Research,” and said no more.  He wrote once a month, never more and occasionally less, short letters in which a single nugget of information was buried beneath layers of formality and pleasantry; not like those letters I wrote to you while you were at Harvard.  It was in such a letter that he told us he was engaged to be married.

Aside from the fact that it lasted barely two years, the most remarkable thing about your uncle’s marriage was your cousin, Peter, who was born seven months after it.  Mother’s face wore a suspicious frown for several days after the news of his birth reached us (I think it came by telegram; your grandparents were very late installing a phone); Father was too excited by the birth of his first grandson to care.  I didn’t feel much except a kind of disinterested curiosity.  I was an uncle, but I was thirteen, so the role didn’t have the significance for me it might have had I been only a few years older.  The chances of my seeing my nephew any time in the near future were sufficiently slim to justify my reserve; as it happened, however, my brother and his wife, whose name was Clarissa, visited us the following summer with Peter.  Clarissa was quite wealthy; she was also, I believe, quite a bit older than George, though by how much I couldn’t say.  Even now, after a lifetime’s practice, I’m not much good at deciphering people’s ages, which causes me no end of trouble, I can assure you.  Their visit went smoothly enough, though your grandparents showed, I noticed, the razor edge of uneasiness with their new daughter-in-law’s crisp accent and equally crisp manners.  Your grandmother used her wedding china every night, while your grandfather, whose speech usually was peppered with Scots words and expressions, spoke what my mother used to call “the King’s English.”  Their working class origins, I suspect, rising up to haunt them.

Peter was fat and blond, a pleasant child who appeared to enjoy his place on your grandmother’s hip, which from the moment he arrived was where he spent most of his days.  Any reservations Mother might have had concerning the circumstances of his birth were wiped away at the sight of him.  When he returned from work, Father had a privileged place for his grandson on his knee:  holding each of the baby’s hands in his hands, Father sat Peter upright on his knee, then jiggled his leg up and down, bouncing Peter as if he were riding a horse, all the while singing a string of nonsense syllables:  “a leedle lidel leedle lidel leedle lidel lum.”  It was something Father did with any baby who entered the house; he must have done it with me, and with George.  I tried it with you, but you were less than amused by it.  After what appeared to be some initial doubt at his grandfather’s behavior, when he rode up and down with an almost tragic expression on his face, Peter quickly came to enjoy and even anticipate it, and when he saw his grandfather walk in the door, the baby’s face would break into an enormous grin, and he waved his arms furiously.  Clarissa was good with her son, handling him with more confidence than you might expect from a new mother; George largely ignored Peter, passing him to Clarissa, Mother, Father, or me whenever he could manage it.  Much of his days George spent sequestered in his room, working, he said, on a new translation.  Of what he did not specify, only that the book was very old, much older than Les mysteres du ver.  He kept the door to the room locked, which I discovered, of course, trying to open it.

The three of them stayed a month, leaving with promises to write on both sides, and although it was more than a year later, it seemed the next thing anyone heard or knew Clarissa had filed for divorce.  Your grandparents were stunned.  They refused to tell me the grounds for Clarissa’s action, but when I lay awake at night I heard them discussing it downstairs in the living room, their voices faint and indistinguishable except when one or the other of them became agitated and shouted, “It isn’t true, for God’s sake, it can’t be true!  We didn’t raise him like that!”  Clarissa sued for custody of Peter, and somewhat to our parents’ surprise, I think, George counter-sued.  It was not only that he did not appear possessed of sufficient funds; he did not appear possessed of sufficient interest.  The litigation was interminable and bitter.  Your grandfather died before it was through, struck dead in the street as we were walking back from Sunday services by a stroke whose cause, I was and am sure, was his elder son’s divorce.  George did not return for the funeral; he phoned to say it was absolutely impossible for him to attend—the case and all—he was sure Father would have understood.  The divorce and custody battle were not settled for another year after that.  When they were, George was triumphant.

I don’t know if you remember the opening lines of What Maisie Knew.  The book begins with a particularly messy divorce and custody fight, in which the father, though “bespattered from head to foot,” initially succeeds.  The reason, James tells us, is “not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.” I can recall reading those lines for the first time:  I was a senior in high school, and a jolt of recognition shot up my spine as I recognized George and Clarissa, whose final blows against one another had been struck the previous fall.  I think that’s when I first had an inclination I might study old James.  Unlike James’s novel, in which the custody of Maisie is eventually divided between her parents, George won full possession of Peter, which he refused to share in the slightest way with Clarissa.  I imagine she must have been devastated.  George packed his and Peter’s bags and moved north, to Edinburgh, where he purchased a large house on the High Street and engaged the services of a manservant, Mr. Gaunt.

Oh yes, Mr. Gaunt was an actual person.  Are you surprised to hear that?  I suppose he did seem rather a fantastic creation, didn’t he?  I can’t think of him with anything less than complete revulsion, revulsion and fear, more fear than I wish I felt.  I met him when I was in Edinburgh doing research on Stevenson and called on my brother, who had returned from the Shetlands that morning and was preparing to leave for Belgium later that same night.  The butler was exactly as I described him to you in the story, only more so.

Mr. Gaunt never said a word.  He was very tall, and very thin, and his skin was very white and very tight, as if he were wearing a suit that was too small.  He had a long face and long, lank, thin, colorless hair, and a big, thick jaw, and tiny eyes that peered out at you from the deep caverns under his brows.  He did not smile, but kept his mouth in a perpetual pucker.  He wore a black coat with tails, a gray vest and gray pants, and a white shirt with a gray cravat.  He was most quiet, and if you were standing in the kitchen or the living room and did not hear anything behind you, you could expect to turn around and find Mr. Gaunt standing there.

Mr. Gaunt served the meals, though he himself never ate that the boy saw, and escorted visitors to and from the boy’s father when the boy’s father was home, and, on nights when he was not home, Mr. Gaunt unlocked the door of the forbidden study at precisely nine o’clock and went into it, closing the door behind him.  He remained there for an hour.  The boy did not know what the butler did in that room, nor was he all that interested in finding out, but he was desperate for a look at his father’s study.

Your uncle claimed to have contracted Gaunt’s service during one of his many trips, and explained that the reason Gaunt never spoke was a thick accent—I believe George said it was Belgian—that marred his speech and caused him excruciating embarrassment.  As Gaunt served us tea and shortbread, I remember thinking that something about him suggested greed, deep and profound:  his hands, whose movements were precise yet eager; his eyes, which remained fixed on the food, and us; his back, which was slightly bent, inclining him towards us but having the opposite effect, making him seem as if he were straining upright, resisting a powerful downward pull.  No doubt it was the combination of these things.  Whatever the source, I was noticeably glad to see him exit the room; although, after he had left, I had the distinct impression he was listening at the door, hunched down, still greedy.

As you must have guessed, the boy in our fairy tale was Peter, your cousin.  He was fourteen when he had his run in with Mr. Gaunt, older, perhaps, than you had imagined him; the children in fairy tales are always young children, aren’t they?  I should also say more about the large house in which he lived.  It was a seventeenth century mansion located on the High Street in Edinburgh, across the street and a few doors down from St. Giles’s Cathedral.  Its inhabitants had included John Jackson, a rather notorious character from the early nineteenth century.  There’s a mention of him in James’s notebooks:  he heard Jackson’s story while out to dinner in Poughkeepsie, believe it or not, and considered treating it in a story before rejecting it as, “too lurid, too absolutely over the top.”  The popular legend, of whose origins I’m unsure, is that Jackson, a defrocked Anglican priest, had truck with infernal powers.  Robed and hooded men were seen exiting his house who had not been seen entering it.  Lights glowed in windows, strange cries and laughter sounded, late at night.  A woman who claimed to have worked as Jackson’s chambermaid swore there was a door to Hell in a room deep under the basement.  He was suspected in the vanishings of several local children, but nothing was proved against him.  He died mysteriously, found, as I recall, at the foot of a flight of stairs, apparently having tumbled down them.  His ghost, its neck still broken, was sighted walking in front of the house, looking over at St. Giles and grinning; about what, I’ve never heard.

Most of this information about the house I had from George during my visit; it was one of the few subjects about which I ever saw him enthused.  I don’t know how much if any of it your cousin knew; though I suspect his father would have told him all.  Despite the picture its history conjures, the house was actually quite pleasant:  five stories high including the attic, full of surprisingly large and well-lit rooms, decorated with a taste I wouldn’t have believed George possessed.  There was indeed a locked study:  it composed the entirety of the attic.  I saw the great dark oaken door to it when your uncle took me on a tour of the house:  we walked up the flight of stairs to the attic landing and there was the entrance to the study.  George did not open it.  I asked him if this was where he kept the bodies, and although he cheerfully replied that no, no, that was what the cellar was for, his eyes registered a momentary flash of something that was panic or annoyance.  I did not ask him to open the door, in which there was a keyhole of sufficient diameter to afford a good look into the room beyond.  Had my visit been longer, had I been his guest overnight, I might have stolen back up to that landing to peak at whatever it was my brother did not wish me to see.  Curiosity, it would appear, does not just run in our family:  it gallops.

Peter lived in this place, his father’s locked secret above him, his only visitors his tutors, his only companion the silent butler.  That’s a bit much, isn’t it?  During our final conversation, George told me that Peter had been a friendless boy, but I doubt he knew his son well enough to render such a verdict with either accuracy or authority.  Peter didn’t know many, if any, other children, but I like to think of your cousin having friends in the various little shops that line the High Street.  You know where I’m talking about, the cobbled street that runs in a straight line up to the Castle.  You remember those little shops with their flimsy t-shirts, their campy postcards, their overpriced souvenirs.  We bought the replica of the Castle that used to sit on the mantelpiece at one of them, along with a rather expensive pin for that girl you were involved with at the time.  (What was her name? Jane?)  I like to think of Peter, out for a walk, stopping in several shops along the way, chatting with the old men and women behind the counter when business was slow.  He was a fine conversationalist for his age, your cousin.

I had met him again, you see, when he was thirteen, the year before the events I’m relating occurred.  George was going to be away for the entire summer, so Peter came on his own to stay with your grandmother.  I was living in Manhattan—actually, I was living in a cheap apartment across the river in New Jersey and taking the ferry to Manhattan each morning.  My days I split teaching and writing my dissertation, which was on the then-relatively-fresh topic of James’s later novels, particularly The Golden Bowl, and their modes of narration. Every other week, more often when I could manage it, I took the train up to your grandmother’s to spend the day and have dinner with her.  This was not as great a kindness as I would like it to seem:  my social life was nonexistent, and I was desperately lonely.   Thus, I visited Peter several times throughout June, July, and August.

At our first meeting he was unsure what to make of me, spending most of the meal silently staring down at his plate, and asking to be excused as soon as he had finished his dessert.  Over subsequent visits, however, our relationship progressed.  By our last dinner he was speaking with me freely, shaking my hand vigorously when it was time for me to leave for my bus and telling me that he had greatly enjoyed making my acquaintance.  What did he look like?  Funny:  I don’t think I have a picture of him; not from that visit, anyway.  He wasn’t especially tall; if he was due an adolescent growth-spurt, it had yet to arrive.  His hair, while not the same gold color it had been when he was a baby, still was blond, slightly curled, and his eyes were dark brown.  His face, well, as is true with all children, his face blended both his parents’, although in his case the blend was particularly fine.  What I mean is, unlike you, whose eyes and forehead have always been identifiably mine and whose nose and chin have always been identifiably your mother’s, Peter’s face, depending on the angle and lighting, appeared to be either all his father or all his mother.  Even looking at him directly, you could see both faces simultaneously.  He spoke with an Edinburgh accent, crisp and clear, and when he was excited or enthusiastic about a subject, his words would stretch out:  “That’s maaaarvelous.”  He told your grandmother her accent hadn’t slipped in the least, and she smiled for the rest of the day.

He was extremely bright, and extremely interested in ancient Egypt, about which his father had provided him with several surprisingly good books.  He could not decide whether to be a philologist, like his father, or an Egyptologist, which sounded more interesting; he inclined to Egyptology, but thought his father would appreciate him following his path.  Surprising and heartbreaking—horrifying—as it seems in retrospect, Peter loved and missed his father.  He was very proud of George:  he knew of and appreciated George’s translations, and confided in us his hope that one day he might achieve something comparable. “My father’s a genius,” I can hear him saying, almost defiantly.  We were sitting at your grandmother’s dining room table.  I can’t remember how we had arrived at the subject of George, but he went on, “Aye, a genius.  None of his teachers were ever as smart as him.  None of them could make head nor tail of Les mysteres du ver, and my father translated the whole thing, on his own.  There was this one teacher who thought he was something, and he was pretty smart, but my father was smarter; he showed him.”

“Of course he’s smart, dear,” your grandmother said.  “He’s a Farange.  Just like you and your uncle.”

“And your Granny,” I said.

“Oh, go on, you,” she said.

“He’s translated things that no one’s even heard of,” Peter went on.  “He’s translated pre-dynastic Egyptian writing.  That’s from before the pyramids, even.  That’s fifty-five centuries ago. Most folk don’t even know it exists.”

“Has he let you see any of it?” I asked.

“No,” Peter said glumly.  “He says I’m not ready yet.  I have to master Latin and Greek before I can move on to just hieroglyphics.”

“I’m sure you will,” your grandmother said, and we moved on to some other topic.  Later, after Peter was asleep, she said to me, “He’s a lovely boy, our Peter, a lovely boy.  So polite and well-mannered.  But he seems awfully lonely to me.  Always with his nose in a book:  I don’t think his father spends nearly enough time with him.”

Peter did not speak of his mother.

He knew ancient Egypt as if he had lived in it:  your grandmother and I spent more than one dinner listening to your cousin narrate such events as the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the factual accuracy of which I couldn’t verify but whose telling kept me enthralled.  Peter was a born raconteur:  as he narrated his history, he would assume the voices of the different figures in it, from Pharaoh to slave.  “The Great Pyramid,” he would say, addressing the two of us as if we were a crowd at a lecture hall, “was built for the Pharaoh Khufu.  The Greeks called him Cheops. He lived during the Fourth Dynasty, which was about four and half thousand years ago.  The moment he became Pharaoh, Khufu started planning his pyramid, because, really, it was the most important thing he was ever going to build.  The Egyptians were terribly concerned with death, and spent much of their lives preparing for it.  He picked a site on the western bank of the Nile.  The Egyptians thought the western bank was a special place because the sun set in the west.  The west was the place of the dead, if you like, the right place to build your tomb.  That’s all it was, after all, a pyramid.  Not that you’d know that from the name:  it’s a Greek word, ‘pyramid;’ it comes from ‘wheat cake.’  The Greeks thought the pyramids looked like giant pointy wheat cakes.  We get a lot of names for Egyptian things from the Greeks:  like ‘pharaoh,’ which they adapted from an Egyptian word that meant ‘great house.’  And ‘sarcophagus,’ that comes from the Greek for ‘flesh-eating.’  Why they called funeral vaults flesh-eaters I’ll never know.”    And so on.  He did love a good digression, your cousin:  he would have made a fine college professor.

So you see, all this is why I dispute your uncle’s claim that he was friendless, solitary:  given the right set of circumstances, Peter could be positively garrulous.  I have little trouble picturing him keeping the proprietor of a small bookshop, say, entertained with the story of the Pharaoh—I can’t remember his name—who angered his people so that after his death his statues and monuments were destroyed and he was not buried in his own tomb; no one knew what had become of his body.  No one knew what happened to his son either.  I planned to take Peter to the Met, to see their Egyptian collection, but for reasons I can’t recall we never went.  At our final visit, he suggested we write.  Initially, I demurred:  I was buried in the last chapter of my dissertation, which I had expected to be forty pages I could write in a month but which rapidly had swelled to eighty-five pages that would consume my every waking moment for the next four months.  We could write when I was finished, I explained.  Peter pleaded with me, though, and in the end I agreed.  We didn’t write much, just four letters from him and three replies from me.

I found myself leafing through Peter’s letters the winter after his visit, when your uncle telephoned your grandmother to inform her that your cousin was missing:  he had run away from home and no one knew where he was.  Your grandmother was distraught; I was, too, when she called me with the news of Peter’s vanishing.  She was upset at George, who apparently had shown only the faintest trace of emotion while delivering to her what she rightly regarded as terrible information.  He was sure Peter would turn up, George said, boys will be boys and all that, what can you do?  Lack of proper family feeling in anyone bothered your grandmother; it was her pet peeve; and she found it a particularly egregious fault in one of her own, raised to know better.  “It’s a good thing your father isn’t alive to see this,” she said to me, and I was unsure whether she referred to Peter’s running away or George’s understated reaction to it.

At the time, I suspected Peter might be making his way to his mother’s, and went so far as to contact Clarissa myself, but if such was her son’s plan she knew nothing about it.  Through her manners I could hear the distress straining her voice, and another thing, a reserve I initially  could not understand.  Granted that speaking to your former brother-in-law is bound to be awkward, Clarissa’s reticence was still in excess of any such awkwardness.  Gradually, as we stumbled our way through a conversation composed of half-starts and long pauses, I understood that she was possessed by a mixture of fear and loathing:  fear, because she suspected me of acting in concert with my brother to trick and trap her (though what more she had left to lose at that point I didn’t and don’t know; her pride, I suppose); loathing, because she thought that I was cut from the same cloth as George.  Whatever George had done to prompt her to seek divorce a dozen years before, her memory and repugnance of it remained sufficiently fresh to make talking to me a considerable effort.

Peter didn’t appear at his mother’s, or any other relative’s, nor did he return to his father’s house.  Against George’s wishes, I’m sure, Clarissa involved the police almost immediately.  Because of her social standing and the social standing of her family, I’m equally sure, they brought all their resources to bear on Peter’s disappearance.  The case achieved a notoriety that briefly extended across the Atlantic, scandalizing your grandmother; though I’m not aware that anyone ever connected George to us.  Suspecting the worst, the police focused their attentions on George, bringing him in for repeated and intense questioning, investigating his trips abroad, ransacking his house.  Strangely, in the midst of all this, Gaunt apparently went unnoticed.  After subjecting George to close scrutiny for several weeks—which yielded no clue to where Peter might be or what might have happened to him—the detective in charge of the investigation fell dead of a heart attack while talking to your uncle on the telephone.  As the man was no more than thirty, this was a surprise.  His replacement was more kindly disposed to George, judging  that he had underwent enough and concentrating the police’s attentions elsewhere.  Your cousin was not found; he was never found.  Though your grandmother continued to hold out hope that he was alive until literally the day she died, thinking he might have found his way to Egypt, I didn’t share her optimism, and reluctantly concluded that Peter had met his end.

I was correct, though I had no way of knowing how horrible that end had been.  What happened to Peter took place while his father was out of the house; in Finland, he said.  It was late winter; when Scotland has yet to free itself from its long nights and the sky is dark for much of the day.  Peter had been living with his father’s locked study for eleven years.  So far as I know, he had shown no interest in the room in the past, which strikes me as a bit unusual, although I judge all other children’s curiosity against yours, an unfair comparison.  Perhaps George had told his own cautionary tale.  There was no reason to expect Peter’s interest to awaken at that moment, but it did.  He became increasingly intrigued by that heavy door and what it concealed.  I know this, you see, because it was in the first letter he sent to me, which arrived less than a month after his return home.  He decided to confide in me, and I was flattered.  Though he didn’t write this to me, I believe he must have associated his father’s study with those Egyptian tombs he’d been reading about; he must have convinced himself of a parallel between him entering that room and Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb.  His father provided him a generous allowance, so I know he wasn’t interested in money, as he himself was quick to reassure me in that same letter.  He didn’t want me to suspect his motives:  he was after knowledge; he wanted to see what was hidden behind the dark door.  Exactly how long that desire burned in him I can’t say; he admitted that while he’d been wandering the woods behind your grandmother’s house, he’d been envisioning himself walking through that room in his father’s house, imagining its contents.  He didn’t specify what he thought those contents might be, and I wonder how accurate his imagination was.  Did he picture the squat bookcases overstuffed with books, scrolls, and even stone tablets; the long tables heaped with goblets, boxes, candles, jars; the walls hung with paintings and drawings; the floor chalked with elaborate symbols?  (I describe it well, don’t I?  I’ve seen it—but that must wait.)

It was with his second letter that Peter first disclosed his plans to satisfy his curiosity; plans I encouraged, if only mildly, when at last I sent him a reply.  He would have to be careful, I wrote, if he were caught, I had no doubt the consequences would be severe.  I didn’t believe they actually would be, but I enjoyed participating in what I knew was, for your cousin, a great adventure.  I suggested that he take things in stages, that he try a brief trip up to the attic stairs first and see how that went.  What length of time was required for him to amass sufficient daring to venture the narrow flight of stairs to the attic landing I can’t say.  Perhaps he climbed a few of the warped, creaking stairs one day, before his nerve broke and he bolted down them back to his room; then a few more the next day; another the day after that; and so on, adding a stair or two a day until at last he stood at the landing.  Or perhaps he rushed up the staircase all at once, his heart pounding, his stomach weak, taking the stairs two and three at a time, at the great dark door almost before he knew it.  Having reached the landing, was he satisfied with his accomplishment? or were his eyes drawn to the door, to the wide keyhole that offered a view of the room beyond?  We hadn’t discussed that:  did it seem too much, a kind of quantum leap from what he had risked scaling the stairs? or did it seem the next logical step:  in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were?  Once he stood outside the door, he couldn’t have waited very long to lower his eye to the keyhole.  When he did, his mouth dry, his hands shaking slightly, expecting to hear either his father of Mr. Gaunt behind him at every moment, he was disappointed:  the windows in the room were heavily curtained, the lights extinguished, leaving it dim to the point of darkness on even the brightest day, the objects inside no more than confused shadows.

Peter boiled down all of this to two lines in his third letter, which I received inside a Christmas card.  “I finally went to the door,” he wrote, “and even looked in the keyhole!  But everything was dark, and I couldn’t see at all.”  Well, I suggested in my response, he would need to spy through the door when the study was occupied.  Why not focus on Mr. Gaunt and his nine o’clock visitations?  His father’s returns home were too infrequent and erratic to be depended upon, and I judged the consequences of discovery by his father to be far in excess of those of discovery by the butler.  (If I’d known….)  Peter felt none of my unease around Mr. Gaunt, which was understandable, given that the butler had been a fixture in his home and life for more than a decade.  In his fourth and final letter, Peter thanked me for my suggestion.  He had been pondering a means to pilfer Gaunt’s key to the room, only to decide that, for the moment, such an enterprise involved a degree of risk whatever was in the room might not be worth.  I had the right idea:  best to survey the attic clearly, then plan his next step.  He would wait until his father was going to be away for a good couple of week, which wouldn’t be until February.  In the meantime, he was trying to decipher the sounds of Mr. Gaunt’s nightly hour in the study:  the two heavy clumps, the faint slithering, the staccato clicks like someone walking across the floor wearing tap shoes.  I replied that it could be the butler was practicing his dancing, which I thought was much funnier at the time than I realize now it was, but that it seemed more likely what Peter was hearing was some sort of cleaning procedure.  He should be careful, I wrote, obviously, the butler knew Peter wasn’t supposed to be at the study, and if he caught him there, he might very well become quite upset, as George could hold him responsible for Peter’s trespass.

I didn’t hear from Peter again.  For a time, I assumed this was because his enterprise had been discovered and him punished by his father.  Then I thought it must be because he was burdened with too much schoolwork:  the tutors his father had brought to the house for him, he had revealed in his second letter, were most demanding.  I intended to write to him, to inquire after the status of our plan, but whenever I remembered my intention I was in the middle of something else that absolutely had to be finished and couldn’t be interrupted, or so it seemed, and I never managed even to begin a letter.  Then George called your grandmother, to tell her Peter was gone.

It was more than a quarter-century until I learned Peter’s fate.  Sitting there on the back porch of the house in Highland, I heard it all from my older brother who, in turn, had had it from Gaunt.  Oh yes, from Mr. Gaunt:  our story, you see, was never that far from the truth.  Indeed, it was closer, much closer, than I wish it were.

George left Scotland for an extended trip to Finland the first week in February.  He would be away, he told Peter, for at least two weeks, and possibly a third if the manuscripts he was going to view were as extensive as he hoped.  Peter wore an appropriately glum face at his father’s departure, which pleased George, who had no idea of his son’s secret ambition.  For the first week after his father left, Peter maintained his daily routine.  When at last the appointed date for his adventure arrived, though, he spent it in a state of almost unbearable anticipation, barely able to maintain conversation with any of his shopkeeper friends, inattentive to his tutors, uninterested in his meals.  This last would not have escaped Mr. Gaunt’s notice.

After spending the late afternoon and early evening roaming through the first three floors of the house, leafing through the library, practicing his shots at the pool table, spinning the antique globe in the living room, Peter declared he was going to make an early night of it, which also would have caught the butler’s attention.  From first-hand experience, I can tell you that Peter was something of a night owl, retiring to bed only when your grandmother insisted and called him by his full name, and even then reading under the sheets with a flashlight.  Gaunt may have suspected your cousin’s intentions; I daresay he must have.  This would explain why, an hour and a half after Peter said he was turning in, when his bedroom door softly creaked open and Peter, still fully dressed, crept out and slowly climbed the narrow staircase to the attic landing, he found the door to the study standing wide open.  It could also be that the butler had grown careless, but that strikes me as unlikely.  Whatever Mr. Gaunt was, he was most attentive.

Your cousin stood there at the top of the stairs, gazing at the room that stretched out like a hall and was lit by globed lights dangling from the slanting ceiling.  He saw the overstuffed bookcases.  He saw the tables heaped high with assorted objects.  He saw the paintings crowding the walls, the chalked symbols swarming over the floor.  If there was sufficient time for him to study anything in detail, he may have noticed the small Bosch painting, The Alchemical Wedding, hanging across from him.  It was—and still is—thought lost. It’s the typical Bosch scene, crowded with all manner of people and creatures real and fantastic, most of them merrily dancing around the central figures, a man in red robes and a skeleton holding a rose being married by a figure combining features of a man and an eagle.  The nearest table displayed a row of jars, each of them filled with pale, cloudy fluid in which floated a single, pink, misshapen fetus; approaching to examine them, he would have been startled to see the eyes of all the tiny forms open and stare at him.  If any object caught his attention, it would have been the great stone sarcophagus leaning against the wall to his left, its carved face not the placid mask familiar to him from photos and drawings, but vivid and angry, its eyes glaring, its nostrils flaring, its mouth open wide and ringed with teeth.  That would have chased any fear of discovery from his mind and brought him boldly into the study.

It could be, of course, that Peter’s gaze, like the boy in our story’s, was immediately captured by what was hanging on the antique coat-stand across from him.

At first, the boy thought it was a coat, for that is, after all, what you expect to find on a coat-stand.  He assumed it must be Mr. Gaunt’s coat, which the butler must have taken off and hung up when he entered the study.  Why the butler should have been wearing a coat as long as this one, and with a hood and gloves attached, inside the house, the boy could not say.  The more the boy studied it, however, the more he thought that it was a very strange coat indeed:  for one thing, it was not so much that the coat was long as that there appeared to be a pair of pants attached to it, and, for another, its hood and gloves were unlike any he had seen before.  Where the coat was black, the hood was a pale color that seemed familiar but that the boy could not immediately place.  What was more, the hood seemed to be hairy, at least the back of it did, while the front contained a number of holes whose purpose the boy could not fathom.  The gloves were of the same familiar color as the hood.

The boy stood gazing at the strange coat until he heard a noise coming from the other end of the study.  He looked toward it, but saw nothing:  just a tall skeleton dangling in front of another bookcase.  He looked away and the noise repeated, a sound like a baby’s rattle, only louder.  The boy looked again and again saw nothing, only the bookcase and, in front of it, the skeleton.  It took a moment for the boy to recognize that the skeleton was not dangling, but standing.  As he watched, its bare, grinning skull turned toward him, and something in the tilt of its head, the crook of its spine, sent the boy’s eyes darting back to the odd coat.  Now, he saw that it was a coat, and pants, and hands, and a face:  Mr. Gaunt’s hands and face.  Which must mean, he realized, that the skeleton at the other end of the room, which replaced the book it had been holding on top of the bookcase and stepped in his direction, was Mr. Gaunt.  The boy stared at the skeleton slowly walking across the room, still far but drawing closer, its blank eyes fixed on him, and, with a scream, ran back down the stairs.  Behind him, he heard the rattle of the skeleton’s pursuit.

There in his father’s study, your cousin Peter saw a human skeleton, Mr. Gaunt’s skeleton—or the skeleton that was Gaunt—rush toward him from the other side of the room.  The skeleton was tall, slightly stooped, and when it moved, its dull yellow bones clicked against each other like a chorus of baby rattles.  Peter screamed, then bolted the room.  He leapt down the attic stairs two and three at a time, pausing at the fourth floor landing long enough to throw closed the door to the stairs and grasp at the key that usually rested in its lock but now was gone, taken, he understood, by Mr. Gaunt.  Peter ran down the long hallway to the third floor stairs and half-leapt down them.  He didn’t bother with the door at the third floor landing:  he could hear that chorus of rattles clattering down the stairs, too close already.  He raced through the three rooms that lay between the third floor landing and the stairway to the second floor, hearing Gaunt at his back as he hurdled beds, chairs, couches; ducked drapes; rounded corners.  A glance over his shoulder showed the skeleton running after him like some great awkward bird, its head bobbing, its knees raised high.  He must have been terrified; there would have been no way for him not to have been terrified.  Imagine your own response to such a thing.  I wouldn’t have been able to run; I would have been paralyzed, as much by amazement as by fear.  As it was, Gaunt almost had him when Peter tipped over a globe in his path and he fell crashing behind him.  With a final burst of speed, Peter descended the last flight of stairs and made the front door, which he heaved open and dashed through into the street.

Between Peter’s house and the house to its left as you stood looking out the front door was a close, an alley.  Peter rushed to and down it.  It could be that panic drove him, or that he meant to evade Gaunt by taking a route he thought unknown to the butler.  If the latter was the case, the sound of bones rattling across the cobblestones, a look back at the naked grin and the arm grasping at him, would have revealed his error instantly, with no way for him to double-back safely.  I suspect the skeleton did something to herd Peter to that alley, out of sight of any people who might be on the street; I mean it worked a spell of some kind.  The alley sloped down, gradually at first, then steeply, ending at the top of a series of flights of stone stairs descending the steep hillside to Market Street below.  From Market Street, it’s not that far to the train station, which may have been Peter’s ultimate destination.  His heart pounding, his breath rushing in and out, he sped down the hill, taking the stairs two, three, four at a time, his shoes snapping loudly on the stone, the skeleton close, swiping at him with a claw that tugged the collar of his sweater but failed to hold it.

Halfway down the stairs, not yet to safety but in sight of it, Peter’s left foot caught his right foot, tripping and tumbling him down the remaining stairs to the landing below, where he smashed into the bars of an iron guardrail.  Suddenly, there was no air in his lungs.  As he lay sprawled on his back, trying to breathe, the skeleton was on him, descending like a hawk on a mouse.  He cried out, covering his eyes.  Seizing him by the sweater front, Gaunt hauled Peter to his feet.  For a second that seemed to take years, that fleshless smile was inches from his face, as if it were subjecting him to the most intense scrutiny.  He could smell it:  an odor of thick dust, with something faintly rancid beneath it, that brought the bile to his throat.  He heard a sound like the whisper of sand blowing across a stone floor, and realized it was the skeleton speaking, bringing speech from across what seemed a great distance.  It spoke one word, “Yes,” drawing it out into a long sigh that did not stop so much as fade away:  Yyyeeeeeessssssss….  Then it jerked its head away, and began pulling him back up the stairs, to the house and, he knew, the study.  When, all at once, his lungs inflated and he could breathe again, Peter tried to scream.  The skeleton slapped its free hand across his mouth, digging the sharp ends of its fingers and thumb into his cheeks, and Peter desisted.  They reached the top of the stairs and made their way up the close.  How no one could have noticed them, I can’t say, though I suspect the skeleton had done something to insure their invisibility; yes, more magic.  At the front door, Peter broke Gaunt’s grip and attempted to run, but he had not taken two steps before he was caught by the hair, yanked off his feet, and his head was slammed against the pavement.  His vision swimming, the back of his head a knot of agony, Peter was led into the house.  His knee cracked on an end-table; his shoulder struck a doorframe.  As he was dragged to the study, did he speak to the creature whose claw clenched his arm?  A strange question, perhaps, but since first I heard this story myself I have wondered it.  Your cousin had a short time left to live, which he may have suspected; even if he did not, he must have known that what awaited him in the study would not be pleasant, to say the least.  Did he apologize for his intrusion?  Did he try to reason with his captor, promise his secrecy?  Or did he threaten it, invoke his father’s wrath on his return?  Was he quiet, stoic or stunned?  Was his mind buzzing with plans of last minute escape, or had it accepted that such plans were beyond him?

There are moments when the sheer unreality of an event proves overwhelming, when, all at once, the mind can’t embrace the situation unfolding around it and refuses to do so, withholding its belief.  Do you know what I mean?  When your grandfather died, later that same afternoon I can remember feeling that his death was not yet permanent, that there was some means still available by which I could change it, and although I didn’t know what that means was, I could feel it trembling on the tip of my brain.  When your mother told me that she was leaving me for husband number two, that they already had booked a flight together for the Virgin Islands, even as I thought, Well it’s about time:  I wondered how long it would take this to arrive, I also was thinking, This is not happening:  this is a joke:  this is some kind of elaborate prank she’s worked up, most likely with someone else, someone at the school, probably one of my colleagues; let’s see, who loves practical jokes?  While she explained the way my faults as a husband had led her to her decision, I was trying to analyze her sentence structure, word choice, to help me determine who in the department had helped her script her lines.  A few years later, when she called to tell me about husband number three, I was much more receptive.  All of which is to say that, if it was difficult for me to accommodate events that occur on a daily basis, how much more difficult would it have been for your cousin to accept being dragged to his father’s study by a living skeleton?

Once they were in the study, Gaunt wasted no time, making straight for the great stone sarcophagus.  Peter screamed with all the force he could muster, calling for help from anyone who could hear him, then wailing in pure animal terror.  The skeleton made no effort to silence him.  At the sarcophagus with its furious visage, Gaunt brought his stark face down to Peter’s a second time, as if for a last look at him.  He heard that faint whisper again, what sounded like the driest of chuckles.  Then it reached out and slid the massive stone lid open with one spindly arm.  The odor of decay, the ripe stench of a dead deer left at the side of the road for too many hot days, filled the room.  Gagging, Peter saw that the interior of the sarcophagus was curiously rough, not with the roughness of, say, sandstone,  but with a deliberate roughness, as if the stone had been painstakingly carved into row upon row of small sharp points, like teeth.  The skeleton flung him into that smell, against those points.  Before he could make a final, futile gesture of escape, the lid closed and Peter was in darkness, swathed in the thick smell of rot, his last sight the skeleton’s idiot grin.  Nor was that the worst.  He had been in the stone box only a few seconds, though doubtless it seemed an eternity, when the stone against which he was leaning grew warm.  As it warmed, it shifted, the way the hide of an animal awakening from a deep sleep twitches.  Peter jerked away from the rough stone, his heart in his throat as movement rippled through the coffin’s interior.  If he could have been fortunate, his terror would have jolted him into unconsciousness, but I know this was not the case.  If he was unlucky, as I know he was, he felt the sides of the sarcophagus abruptly swell toward him, felt the rows of sharp points press against him, lightly at first, then more insistently, then more insistently still, until—

Rob_image

Illustration by Rob Thompson.

I’ve mentioned the root of the word “sarcophagus;” it was Peter, ironically enough, who told it to me.  It’s Greek:  it means “flesh eating.”  Exactly how that word came to be applied to large stone coffins I’m unsure, but in this case it was quite literally true.  Peter was enclosed within a kind of mouth, a great stone mouth, and it…consumed him.  The process was not quick.  By the time George returned to the house almost a week and a half later, however, it was complete.  Sometime in the long excruciation before that point, Peter must have realized that his father was implicated in what was happening to him.  It was impossible for him not to be.  His father had brought Mr. Gaunt into the house, and then left Peter at his mercy.  His beloved father had failed, and his failure was Peter’s death.

It took George longer than I would have expected, almost two full days, to discover Peter’s fate, and to discern the butler’s role in it.  When he did so, he punished, as he put it, Mr. Gaunt suitably. He did not tell me what such punishment involved, but he did assure me that it was thorough.  Peter’s running away was, obviously, the ruse invented by George to hide his son’s actual fate.

By the time your uncle told me the story I’ve told you, Clarissa had been dead for several years.  I hadn’t spoken to her since our phone conversation when Peter first vanished, and, I must confess, she had been absent from my thoughts for quite some time when I stumbled across her obituary on the opposite side of an article a friend in London had clipped and sent me.  The obituary stated that she had never recovered from the disappearance of her only son almost two decades prior, and hinted, if I understood its inference, that she had been addicted to antidepressants; although the writer hastened to add that the cause of death had been ruled natural and was under no suspicion from the police.

If George heard the news of his former wife’s death, which I assume he must have, he made no mention of it to me, not even during that last conversation, when so much else was said.  Although I hadn’t planned it, we both became quite intoxicated, making our way through the better part of a bottle of Lagavulin after I had put you to bed.  The closer I approach to complete intoxication, the nearer I draw to maudlin sentimentality, and it wasn’t long, as I sat beside my older brother looking across the Hudson to Poughkeepsie, the place where we had been born and raised and where our parents were buried, I say it wasn’t long before I told George to stay where he was, I had something for him.  Swaying like a sailor on a ship in a heavy sea, I made my way into the house and to my study, where I located the shoebox in which I keep those things that have some measure of sentimental value to me, pictures, mostly, but also the letters that your cousin had sent me, tucked in their envelopes.  Returning to the porch, I walked over to George and held them out to him, saying, “Here, take them.”

He did so, a look that was half-bemusement, half-curiosity on his face.  “All right,” he said.  “What are they?”

“Letters,” I declared.

“I can see that, old man,” he said.  “Letters from whom?”

“From Peter,” I said.  “From your son.  You should have them.  I want you to have them.”

“Letters from Peter,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, nodding vigorously.

“I was unaware the two of you had maintained a correspondence.”

“It was after the summer he came to stay with Mother.  The two of us hit it off, you know, quite well.”

“As a matter of fact,” George said, “I didn’t know.”  He continued to hold the letters out before him, as if he were weighing them.  The look on his face had slid into something else.

Inspired by the Scotch, I found the nerve to ask George what I had wanted to ask him for so long:  if he ever had received any word, any kind of hint, as to what had become of Peter?  His already flushed face reddened more, as if he were embarrassed, caught off-guard, then he laughed and said he knew exactly what had happened to his son.  “Exactly,” he repeated, letting the letters fall from his hand like so many pieces of paper.

Despite the alcohol in which I was swimming, I was shocked, which I’m sure my face must have shown.  All at once, I wanted to tell George not to say anything more, because I had intuited that I was standing at the doorway to a room I did not wish to enter, for, once I stood within it, I would discover my older brother to be someone—something—I would be unable to bear sitting beside.  We were not and had never been as close as popular sentiment tells us siblings should be; we were more friendly acquaintances.  It was an acquaintance, however, I had increasingly enjoyed as I grew older, and I believe George’s feelings may have been similar.  But my tongue was thick and sluggish in my mouth, and so, as we sat on the back porch, George related the circumstances of his son’s death to me.  I listened to him as evening dimmed to night, making no move to switch on the outside lights, holding onto my empty glass as if it were a life-preserver.  As his tale progressed, my first thought was that he was indulging in a bizarre joke whose tastelessness was appalling; the more he spoke, however, the more I understood that he believed what he was telling me, and I feared he might be delusional if not outright mad; by the story’s conclusion, I was no longer sure he was mad, and worried that I might be.  I was unsure when he stopped talking:  his words continued to sound in my ears, overlapping each other.  A long interval elapsed during which neither of us spoke and the sound of the crickets was thunderous.  At last George said, “Well?”

“Gaunt,” I said.  “Who is he?”  It was the first thing to leap to mind.

“Gaunt,” he said.  “Gaunt was my teacher.  I met him when I went to Oxford; the circumstances are not important.  He was my master.  Once, I should have called him my father.”  I can not tell you what the tone of his voice was.  “We had a disagreement, which grew into an… altercation, which ended with him inside the stone sarcophagus that had Peter, though not for as long, of course.  I released him while there was still enough left to be of service to me.  I thought him defeated, no threat to either me or mine, and, I will admit, it amused me to keep him around.  I had set what I judged sufficient safeguards against him in place, but he found a way to circumvent them, which I had not thought possible without a tongue.  I was in error.”

“Why Peter?” I asked.

“To strike at me, obviously.  He had been planning something for quite a length of time.  I  had some idea of the depth of his hate for me, but I had no idea his determination ran to similar depths.  His delight at what Peter had suffered was inestimable.  He had written a rather extended description of it, which I believe he thought I would find distressing to read.  The stone teeth relentlessly pressing every square inch of flesh, until the skin burst and blood poured out; the agony as the teeth continued through into the muscle, organ, and, eventually, bone; the horror at finding oneself still alive, unable to die even after so much pain:  he related all of this with great gusto.

“The sarcophagus, in case you’re interested, I found in eastern Turkey, not, as you might think, Egypt; though I suspect it has its origins there  I first read about it in Les mysteres du ver, though the references were highly elliptical, to say the least.  It took years, and a small fortune, to locate it.  Actually, it’s a rather amusing story:  it was being employed as a table by a bookseller, if you can believe it,  who had received it as payment for a debt owed him by a local banker, who in turn…”

I listened to George’s account of the sarcophagus’s history, all the while thinking of poor Peter trapped inside it, wrapped in claustrophobic darkness, screaming and pounding on the lid as—what?  Although, as I have said, I half-believed the fantastic tale George had told, my belief was only partial.  It seemed more likely Peter had suffocated inside the coffin, then Gaunt disposed of the body in such a way that very little, if any, of it remained.  When George was done talking,  I asked, “What about Peter?”

“What about him?” George answered.  “Why, ‘What about Peter’?  I’ve already told you, it was too late for me to be able to do anything, even to provide him the kind of half-life Gaunt has, much less successfully restore him.  What the sarcophagus takes, it does surrender.”

“He was your son,” I said.

“Yes,” George said.  “And?”

“’And’?  My God, man, he was your son, and whatever did happen to him, he’s dead and you were responsible for his death, if not directly then through negligence.  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“No,” George said, his voice growing brittle.  “As I have said, Peter’s death, while unfortunate, was unintentional.”

“But,” I went on, less and less able, it seemed, to match thought to word with any proficiency, “but he was your son.”

“So?” George said.  “Am I supposed to be wracked by guilt, afflicted with remorse?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, you are.”

“I’m not, though.  When all is said and done, Peter was more trouble than he was worth.  A man in my position—and though you might not believe it, my position is considerable—doing my kind of work, can’t always be worrying about someone else, especially a child.  I should have foreseen that when I divorced Clarissa, and let her have him, but I was too concerned with her absolute defeat to make such a rational decision.  Even after I knew the depth of my mistake, I  balked at surrendering Peter to her because I knew the satisfaction such an admission on my part would give Clarissa.  I simply could not bear that.  For a time, I deluded myself that Peter would be my apprentice, despite numerous clear indications that he possessed no aptitude of any kind for my art.  He was…temperamentally unsuited.  It is a shame:  there would have been a certain amount of pleasure in passing on my knowledge to my son, to someone of my own blood.  That has always been my problem:  too sentimental, too emotional.  Nonetheless, while I would not have done anything to him myself, I am forced to admit that Peter’s removal from my life has been to the good.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“I am.”

“Then you’re a monster.”

“To you, perhaps,” he said.

“You’re mad,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” he said, and from the sharp tone of his voice, I could tell I had touched a nerve, so I repeated myself, adding, “Do you honestly believe you’re some kind of great and powerful magician? or do you prefer to be called a sorcerer?  Perhaps you’re a wizard?  a warlock? an alchemist?  No, they worked with chemicals; I don’t suppose that would be you.  Do you really expect me to accept that tall butler as some kind of supernatural creature, an animated skeleton?  I won’t ask where you obtained his face and hands:  I’m sure Jenner’s has a special section for the black arts.”  I went on like this for several minutes, pouring out my scorn on George, feeling the anger radiating from him.  I did not care:  I was angry myself, furious, filled with more rage than ever before or ever after, for that matter.

When I was through, or when I had paused, anyway, George asked, “Could you fetch me a glass of water?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

He repeated his request:  “Could I have a glass of water?” explaining, “All this conversation has left my throat somewhat parched.”

Your grandmother’s emphasis on good manners, no matter what the situation, caught me off guard, and despite myself I heard my voice saying, “Of course,” as I set down my glass, stood, and made my way across the unlit porch to the back door.  “Can I get you anything else?” I added, trying to sound as scornful as I felt.
“The water will be fine.”

I opened the back door, stepped into the house, and was someplace else.  Instead of the kitchen, I was standing at one end of a long room lit by globed lights depending from a slanted ceiling.  Short bookcases filled to bursting with books, scrolls, and an occasional stone tablet jostled with one another for space along the walls, while tables piled high with goblets, candles, boxes, rows of jars, models, took up the floor.  I saw paintings crowding the walls, including the Bosch I described to you, and elaborate symbols drawn on the floor.  At the other end of the room, a bulky stone sarcophagus with a fierce face reclined against a wall.  Behind me, through the open door whose handle I still grasped, I could hear the crickets; in front of me, through the room’s curtained windows, I could hear the sound of distant traffic, of brakes squealing and horns blowing.  I stood gazing at the room I understood to be my brother’s study, and then I felt the hand on my shoulder.  Initially, I thought it was George, but when he called, “Is my water coming?” I realized he had not left his seat.  Through my shirt, the hand felt wrong:  at once too light and too hard, more like wood than flesh.  The faintest odor of dust, and beneath it, something foul, filled my nostrils; the sound of a baby’s rattle being turned, slowly, filled my ears.  I heard another sound, the whisper of sand blowing across a stone floor, and realized it was whatever was behind me—but I knew what it was—speaking, bringing speech  from across what seemed a great distance.  It spoke one word, “Yes,” drawing it out into a long sigh that did not stop so much as fade away:  Yyyeeeeeessssssss….

“I say,” George said, “where’s my water?”

Inhaling deeply—the hand tightening on my shoulder as I did—I said, “Tell him—tell it to remove its hand from me.”

“Him?  It?  Whatever are you referring to?”

“Gaunt,” I answered.  “Tell Gaunt to release my shoulder.”

“Gaunt?” George cried, his voice alive with malicious amusement, “Why, Gaunt’s on the other side of the ocean.”

“This is not entertaining,” I said, willing myself to remain where I was.

“You’re right,” George said.  “In fact, it’s deeply worrying.  Are you certain you’re feeling all right?  Did you have too much to drink?  Or are you, perhaps, not in your right mind?  Are you mad, dear brother?”

“Not in the least,” I replied.  “Nor, it would seem, are you.”
“Ahh,” George said.  “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am sure.”  I might have added, “To my profound regret,” but I had no wish to antagonize him any further.

“In that case,” George said, and the hand left my shoulder.  I heard rattling, as if someone were walking away from me across the porch in tapshoes, followed by silence.  “Now that I think on it,” George said, “I needn’t bother you for that glass of water, after all.  Why don’t you rejoin me?”

I did as he instructed, closing the door tightly.  I walked to George and said, in a voice whose shaking I could not master, “It is time for you to go.”

After a pause, George said, “Yes, I suppose it is, isn’t it?”

“I will not be asking you back,” I said.

“No, I don’t suppose you will.  I could just appear, you know.”

“You will not,” I said, vehemently.  “You will never come here again.  I forbid you.”
“You forbid me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I find that most entertaining, as you say.  However, I shall respect your wishes, lest it be said I lack fraternal affection.  It’s a pity:  that time you came to visit me after Peter’s death, I thought you might be my apprentice, and the notion has never vanished from my mind.  It generally surfaces when I’m feeling mawkish.  I suppose there’s no chance–”

“None,” I said, “now or ever.”  You have Satan’s nerve, I thought.

“Yes, of course,” George said.  “I knew what your reply would be:  I merely had to hear you say it.  When all is said and done, I don’t suppose you have the necessary…temperament either.  No matter:  there are others, one of them closer than you think.”

That was his final remark.  George had brought no luggage with him:  he stepped off the porch into the night and was gone.  I stood staring out into the darkness, listening for I am not sure what, that rattling, perhaps, before rushing to the kitchen door.  Gripping the doorknob, I uttered a brief, barely coherent prayer, then opened the door.  The kitchen confronted me with its rows of hanging pots and pans, its magnetic knife rack, its sink full of dishes awaiting washing.  I raced through it, up the stairs to your room, where I found you asleep, one arm around Mr. James, your bear, the other thrown across your face as if you were seeking to hide your eyes from something.  My legs went weak, and I seated myself on your bed, a flood of hot tears rolling down my face.  I sat up in your room for the rest of that night, and for a week or so after I slept in it with you.  The following morning, I returned to the back porch to retrieve your cousin’s letters, which I replaced in the shoebox.

I have not heard from George since, all these years.

When I sat you on your bed after having found you surrounded by the shreds of my work, this was what shaped itself into my cautionary tale.  It had been festering in my brain ever since George had told me it.  Carrying George’s words with me had left me feeling tainted, as if having heard of Peter’s end had made me complicit in it in a manner beyond my ability to articulate.  In giving that story voice, I sought to exorcise it from me.  I recognize the irony of my situation:  rather than expunging the story, telling it once led to it being told over and over again, until it had achieved almost the status of ritual.  Your subsequent delight in the story did mitigate my guilt somewhat, tempting me to remark that a story’s reception may redeem its inception; that, however, would be just a bit too much, too absolutely over the top, as James would put it.   I remain incredulous at myself for having told you even the highly edited version you heard.  It occurs to me that, if it is a wonder our children survive the mistakes we make with them, it is no less astounding that we are not done in by them ourselves; those of us with any conscience, I should add.

Something else:  how much you remember of the literature classes you sat through in college I don’t know;  I realize you took them to please me.  I’m sure, however, that enough of the lectures you actually attended has remained with you for you to be capable of at least a rudimentary analysis of our story.  In such an analysis, you would treat the figure of the skeleton as a symbol.  I can imagine, for example, a psychoanalytic interpretation such as are so often applied to fairy tales.  It would judge our particular story to be a cleverly disguised if overly Oedipal allegory in which the locked room would be equated with the secret of sexuality, jealously guarded by the father against the son, and the butler/skeleton with the father’s double, an image of death there to punish the boy for his transgression.  If you preferred to steer closer to history, you might postulate the skeleton as a representation of an event:  say, Mr. Gaunt and your uncle caught in an embrace, another kind of forbidden knowledge.  Neither these nor any other interpretations are correct:  the skeleton is not a substitution for something else but in fact real; I must insist, even if in doing so I seem to depart plausibility for fantasy, if not dementia.  It could be that I protest too much, that you aren’t the rigid realist I’m construing you to be.  Perhaps you know how easy it is to find yourself on the other side of the looking glass.

No doubt, you’ll wonder why I’ve waited until now to disclose this information to you, when you’ve been old enough to have heard it for years.  I’d like to attribute my reticence solely to concern for you, to worry that, listening to this outrageous tale, you would lose no time setting out to verify it, which might result in your actually making contact with your uncle, and then God only knows what else.  I am anxious for you, but, to be honest, more of my hesitation than I want to admit arises from dread at appearing ridiculous in your eyes, of seeing your face fill with pity at the thought that the old man has plunged over the edge at last.  I suppose that’s why I’m recording this, when I know it would be easy enough to pick up the phone and give you a call.

I can’t believe I could be of any interest to George at this late date (so I tell myself), but I’m  less sure about you.  Sitting up in my bed last night, not watching the remainder of the documentary, I heard your uncle tell me that there were others to serve as his apprentice, one of them closer than I thought.  These words ringing in my ears, I thought of that Ouija board you used to play with in college, the tarot card program you bought for your computer.  I understand the Ouija board was because of that girl you were seeing, and I know the computer program is just for fun, but either might be sufficient for George.  Your uncle is old, and if he hasn’t yet found an apprentice—

However belated, this, then, all of this tangled testament, is my warning to you about your uncle, as well as a remembrance of a kind of your cousin, whom you never knew.  If you believe me—and you must, Henry, you must—you’ll take heed of my warning.  If you don’t believe me, and I suppose that is a possibility, at least I may have entertained you one last time.  All that remains now is for me to tell you I love you, son, I love you and please, please, please be careful Henry:  be careful.

III

With a snap, the stereo reached the end of the tape.  Henry Farange released a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding and slumped back on the couch.  His beer and the pleasant lassitude it had brought were long gone; briefly, he contemplated going to the refrigerator for another bottle, and possibly the rest of the six-pack while he was at it.  Heaving himself to his feet and shaking his head, he murmured, “God.”

To say he didn’t know what to think was the proverbial understatement.  As his father had feared, his initial impression was that the old man had lost it there at the end, that he had, in his own words, suffered one mini-stroke too many.  But—what?  What else was there to say?  That he had felt some measure of truth in his father’s words?  That—mad, yes, as it sounded—a deeper part of him, a much deeper part, a half-fossilized fragment buried far beneath his reflexive disbelief, accepted what the old man had been telling him?

Well, actually, that was it exactly, thank you for asking.  Laughable as it seemed; and he did laugh, a humorless bark; Henry couldn’t bring himself to discount completely his father’s words.  There had been something—no single detail; rather, a quality in the old man’s voice—that had affected him, had unearthed that half-ossified part of him, had insinuated itself into his listening until, in the end, he found himself believing there was more to this tape than simple dementia.  When Henry had been a child, his father had possessed the unfailing ability to tell when he was lying, or so it seemed; even when there was no obvious evidence of his dishonesty, somehow, the old man had known.  Asked the source of this mysterious and frustrating power, his father had shrugged and said, “It’s in your voice,” as if this were the most obvious of explanations.  Now, hearing those words echoing in his mind, Henry thought, It’s in his voice.

But—a living skeleton?  An uncle who was a black magician?  A cousin he’d never heard of devoured by a coffin made of living stone?  He shook his head again, sighing:  there was some truth here, but it was cloaked in metaphor.  It had to be.  He walked over to the stereo, popped open the tape deck, slid out the tape, and stood with it in his hand, feeling it still warm.  His father’s voice….Although the old man had quoted their story’s beginning and middle, he had not recited its end.  The words rose unbidden to Henry’s lips:  “Slowly, the skeleton carried the screaming boy up the stairs to his father’s study.  It walked through the open doorway, closing the door behind it with a solid click.  For a long time, that door stayed closed.  When at last it opened again, Mr. Gaunt, looking more pleased with himself than anyone in that house ever had seen him, stepped out and made his way down the stairs, rubbing his hands together briskly.  As for the boy who had opened the door he was forbidden to open:  he was never seen again.  What happened to him, I cannot say, but I can assure you, it was terrible.”

The phone rang, and he jumped, fumbling the tape onto the floor.  Hadn’t he switched that off?  Leaving the cassette where it lay, he ran into the kitchen, catching the phone on the third ring and calling, “Hello.”

His Uncle George said, “Hello, Henry.”

“Uncle George!” he answered, a smile breaking over his face.

“How is everything?” his uncle asked.

“Fine, fine,” he said.  “I was just getting ready to call you.”

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah, it looks like I’m going to be a few minutes late to dinner.”

“Can you still make it?  Should we wait for another night?”

“No, no,” Henry said, “there’s no need to reschedule.  I was just listening to something, a tape; I got kind of caught up in it, lost track of time.”

“Music?”

“No, something my father left me.  Actually, I was kind of hoping we could talk about it.”

“Of course.  What is it?”

“I’d rather wait until we see each other, if that’s all right with you.  Listen:  can you call the restaurant, tell them we’re running about fifteen minutes late?”

“Certainly.  Will that be enough time for you?”

“I can be very fast when I need to be; you’d be amazed.  Do you have their number?”

“I believe so.  If not, I can look it up.”

“Great, great.  Okay.  Let me run and get ready, and I’ll see you shortly.”

“Excellent.  I’m looking forward to this, Henry.  I haven’t seen you in—well, to tell you the truth, I can’t remember how long, which means it’s been too long.”

“Here here,” he said.  “I’m looking forward to it too.  There’s a lot I want to ask you.”

“I’m glad to hear it, son:  there’s much I have to tell you.”

“I’m sure you do.  I can’t wait to hear it.”

“Well, this should be a fine, if melancholic, occasion.  A Farange family reunion:  there haven’t been too many of those, I can assure you.  What a pity your poor father can’t join us.  Oh, and Henry? one more thing?”

“What is it?”

“Would it be too much trouble if my butler joined us for dinner?”  As Henry’s stomach squeezed his uncle went on, “I’m embarrassed to ask, but I’m afraid I am getting on in years a bit, and I find I can’t do much without his help these days.  The joys of aging!  He’s a very quiet chap, though:  won’t say two words all evening.  I hate to impose when we haven’t seen each other…”

His mouth dry, Henry stuttered, “Your butler?”

“Yes,” his uncle said.  “Butler, manservant:  ‘personal assistant,’ I suppose you would call him.  If it’s going to be an intrusion–”

Recovering himself, Henry swallowed and said, “Nonsense, it’s no trouble at all.  I’ll be happy to have him there.”

“Splendid.  To tell the truth, he doesn’t get out much any more:  he’ll be most pleased.”

“I’ll see you there.”

Henry replaced the phone in its cradle, and hurried to the shower.  As he stood with the hot water streaming down on him, his uncle’s voice in one ear, his father’s voice in the other, he had a vision, both sudden and intense.  He saw a boy, dressed in brown slacks and a brown sweater a half-size too big for him, standing at a landing at the top of a flight of stairs.  In front of him was a great oaken door, open the slightest hairsbreath.  The boy stood looking at the door, at the wedge of yellow light spilling out from whatever lay on the other side of it.  The light was the color of old bones, and it seemed to form an arrow, pointing the boy forward.

 ***

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (Word Horde 2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections,The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (Hippocampus 2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008).  With Paul Tremblay, he has co-edited Creatures:  Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011).  He is one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which he served as a juror for their first three years.  Forthcoming in later 2016 is his third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals (Hippocampus).  Currently, he is reviewing horror and dark fiction for Locus magazine.  He lives in upstate New York with his wife, younger son, and he can’t remember how many animals.

Rob Thompson is an idiosyncrat and visual artist. His mouth + speech + time = tragedy.

 

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THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HORROR FICTION by John Glover

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In the world of horror fiction, through the booms and busts, writer, scholar and librarian John Glover meditates on a perennial question….

The idea that publication of horror fiction follows boom and bust cycles is common among the people who make up the field, from writers to readers, from publishers to critics. It’s easy to understand why this view persists, given the rise and fall of the Gothic, the penny dreadful, the pulps, and the horror boom that lasted roughly from 1970 to 1995. Readers and aficionados of the genre are accustomed to saying that all of the above are the same thing, just wearing different masks. While this is true in the sense that similar subject matter and tropes recur through the decades, increasingly I’m coming to question whether horror will survive as a formulation for the literature that most of us recognize under that name, whether Dracula, Psycho, or The Drowning Girl.

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Caitlin R. Kiernan has long contested the value of the term “horror” as a generic label.

 

If it weren’t for the rise of the web and its capacity to perpetuate both communities and content, the term “horror” would largely have fallen out of use by now to describe the genre. As things stand, however, I feel that we’re currently in the middle of two waves of fiction that could rightly be called “horror,” each as similar and distinct as the Gothic and the pulps. One of these waves is essentially the long tail of the last boom, and the other is a new formation built from literary fiction, a new attention to sociocultural concerns, and explicit engagement with the genre’s history. The coexistence of these two waves has caused anxiety in the field, not least because the word “horror” itself became anathema after the market crash of the mid-1990s. Many authors working today take a nuanced approach to writing horror—heavily informed by the lessons of the boom.

One of 2015’s most successful horror novels was, on many counts, Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. This elegant tour de force is graced with both literary style and genuine unease, revolving around a case of suspected possession and a family forced to turn their lives into a media spectacle in the hope of saving their daughter. It quite clearly belongs to horror, drawing on such sources as The Exorcist and the reflexive frights of Scream, featuring a narrative self-awareness based out of reality television and social media that can stand comfortably with literary conceits stretching back through the history of narrative. The fabric of the book is woven from after-action discussions between the protagonist and her literary documentarian, and blog posts analyzing the abortive documentary filmed during the events around which the novel centers. The novel shifts easily back and forth between exposition, recollection, and introspection. These many layers are critical to the book’s success, and leading it to be described in one review as “smartly, viscerally [exposing] the way mass media, the Internet and pop culture have transformed our experience of that primal human impulse, horror” (Heller).

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How else can we tell that A Head Full of Ghosts is a horror novel? As of this writing it is a candidate for a Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, for Superior Achievement in a Novel. Users of the social reading website Goodreads identified the novel as “horror” more frequently than any other genre. Finally, none other than Stephen King said that it “scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” Awards, readership, and influential voices all indicate that this novel belongs to the horror field.

All of that said, A Head Full of Ghosts was published by William Morrow, a HarperCollins literary imprint. While this high-visibility publication has been cause for celebration among horror writers who aspire to broadly successful authorial careers, HarperCollins has avoided the H-word in describing it (though the imprint does in fact publish works it categorizes as horror). What does it mean for a novel to succeed in a genre to which its publisher does not necessarily feel it belongs? Tremblay himself has diverse interests and a genial social media presence that connects with longtime horror authors and professionals… as well as musicians, educators, literary authors, and all manner of people involved in the book trade. He does not seem to me to resemble the bulk of authors prominent during the boom, who in profiles and interviews were likely to cite a narrower set of influences and interests: Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and so on.

Authors continually remix literary genres, of course, and genres go in and out of fashion, but both Tremblay and his Head Full of Ghosts exist in two (or more) separate spheres of horror. A quarter century after the boom, one might expect to see a resurgence of horror in a new generic formation. That has happened in the guise of things like “zombie fiction,” and a healthy stripe of dark YA, and horror novels that fly under different colors for any number of reasons, but it has also not happened, insofar as substantial numbers of people still read, write, and talk about “horror.” Here I will leave Paul Tremblay as case study, but it seems worth saying that he has good company in the sundry contemporary authors who exist in a state not entirely unlike that of Schrödinger’s Cat, being both horror authors and not-horror authors.

If there’s something distinctive about the horror genre, starting around 1970 and ending in the mid-1990s, it seems useful to discuss that time frame. Various books have been associated with the start of the boom: Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, The Exorcist in 1971, Carrie in 1974. All make reasonable candidates for signposts, and certainly there was a market for short horror fiction at the time, including men’s magazines and fantasy and science fiction publications that occasionally published horror.

What is somewhat harder to pin down is precisely when the idea of a “horror author” or “horror writer” emerged. While many authors wrote horror stories of one kind or another prior to 1970, the concept of an author who was segregated from others by the adjective was not common. I’m not going to say that no one called herself a horror writer prior to any particular date, as that would require exhaustive searching to prove a fairly small point. I do think it’s notable, however, that the MLA International Bibliography, WorldCat, and Google Books include virtually no mention of a “horror writer” or “horror author” prior to 1960, and barely any prior to 1970. None of those sources are without their problems, but for all that we have supposedly always had horror fiction, it’s interesting to me that we have not always had horror authors. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s do we really see the idea gain traction, coinciding with the rise of postmodernity in the U.S., the consequent broadening of the canon, and the mass market success of horror fiction.

The end of the boom has been discussed by countless writers, editors, and anthologists, from the end of Zebra Books to the glut of vampire fiction, and I see no need to cover it again here. Scholarly work in this area, however, has been limited. The best study thus far published about the horror boom as a phenomenon unto itself is Steffen Hantke’s 2008 article about Dell’s Abyss imprint and the decline of literary horror in the 1990s. By focusing his work on an imprint exceptional in its time, publishing substantial numbers of female horror authors who wrote in anything but demotic style, Hantke anticipates concerns and disputes that have taken on greater resonance than ever in recent years (64).

In an essay based on a speech he delivered at the 1998 Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Banquet, Douglas E. Winter discussed at length the rise and fall of the category of “horror” publishing, and how such authors as William Peter Blatty or Jack Williamson did not write books that went under that name. He called this kind of writing “a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times,” and claimed that “[w]hat we are witnessing, then, is not the ‘death of horror,’ but the death of a short-lived marketing construct that, although it wore the name of “horror,” represented but a sideshow in the history of the literature” (Winter).

Can we really call “short-lived” a period of vigorous literary productivity that lasted at least a quarter of a century? I don’t think so, and I think it becomes more problematic if you start from the position that there are meaningful differences between Gothics, Victorian ghost stories, pulps, the mid-century fiction of Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, and so on. To say that it’s “all horror” makes some sense to me as a reader, because it’s what I personally seek out, and this is supported on some level by books like Becky Siegel Spratford’s The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, one of a class of tools designed to help librarians understand genres and make recommendations for library patrons looking for something to read. The same is true of surveys of the genre like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction, which seek less to parse out than to provide a rich overview of the full progression of the literature of fear in its different phases. Useful rubrics for broad understanding or guides for literary taste, however, will not necessarily provide the best guide for periodization.Spratford

A significant turning point in the horror boom was the formation of a professional organization devoted to writing horror. The Horror Writers Association met for the first time in 1985, spurred by a sense of shared interests and a need for a professional organization, among other things. The story of its founding, originally as the Horror and Occult Writers League, has been documented many places, but the timing generally seems to come in for little discussion (perhaps a mercy, given what was to follow). Not many years after the field started taking on the trappings of other popular genres like fantasy and science fiction, romance, and mystery, the market started to wane. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen totally, but this newly organized group of professionals was to some extent deprived of their newly catalyzed profession. Notables like Ellen Datlow, Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Peter Straub were able to persevere, but countless others changed genres, switched to other kinds of writing, or left the field.

What happened after that was predictable in some ways, less so in others. Writers who wanted to write fear-inducing fiction found other niches where they could do that. Sometimes that meant small press and markets paying well below professional rates, if they were free to write at that level or driven to it by their own natures. Others found welcome audiences in other genres for darker spins on the thriller or fantasy novel. Small presses variously endured, failed, or appeared, and the last decade has seen a surge in new markets for dark fiction. The Stoker Awards given by the HWA did not vanish with the mass market, and neither did World Horror conventions. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who in 1988 launched their summative anthology series, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, did not call a halt when the field was in a down-swing. Datlow currently edits The Best Horror of the Year, a summative anthology that she launched solo in 2009 after the final volume of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and her work has been joined over the years by similar volumes focusing on horror, dark fantasy, weird fiction, and so on.

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What also happened after the boom was that many of the people who were part of it, both the professionals and the readers, stayed together in various ways. Some of that resembled historical activities of fans in other genres, such as fanzines and letter-writing, but some of it was not as readily possible after previous literary markets waned. Many members of the horror community stayed connected online via Usenet, chat rooms, message boards, blogging platforms, and all of the social media that have come since. Even with the most powerful signifier of the time, the word “horror,” largely erased from the market, it was possible for the people of horror to stick together as never before. This reaffirmed the existence of both their community and the horror field, even when that field at times looked very sparse.

Earlier I claimed that there are two separate waves of horror fiction ongoing today. The more recent one is characterized by authors like Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, Caitlín R. Kiernan, John Langan, Livia Llewellyn, Nick Mamatas, Helen Marshall, Simon Strantzas, or Paul Tremblay. These authors have by and large been heavily influenced by mainstream literary or academic writing cultures, are socio-politically aware in ways that carry over to their fiction, business practices, or both, and occasionally write metafictional or otherwise highly reflexive stories that engage with the genre’s history.

The other wave, the long tail of the boom, is visible in many places. Publishers like Centipede, Subterranean, and Valancourt are reissuing work from the boom, sometimes in revised or expanded versions. In other cases they are releasing sequels to or alternate versions of decade-old horror novels that have enough of a potential readership that publishers can afford to invest in sometimes lavish editions. Even allowing for the vagaries of memory and searching on the Web, it is easier than in decades past to dive into the memorabilia, fan reports, photographs, and retrospectives associated with the boom. This sustaining of the aesthetic of the boom undoubtedly has fed into the success of any number of recent publications, from presses large and small or authors who self-publish.

Is this a genuine continuation of the boom, or just an outsized case of nostalgia? I’m not sure, but there is a wider range of awards for the horror field these days, and it often seems like significantly different groups of authors and kinds of fiction are associated with different gatherings, whether it be World Horror, Readercon, NecronomiCon, or Necon. In future, I would like to examine more thoroughly the awards, nominees, and guests at such events, and attempt to map the different spheres of the genre, associated with the boom or otherwise.

In a nice irony, the thriving Nightmare Magazine regularly runs a column entitled The H-Word. It consistently features thoughtful commentary from authors across the spectrum of horror. Explicit engagement by professionals writing today under a column bearing a title that was at one point a joke is perhaps indicative of the field’s ability to cope with an ongoing state of flux better than during past publishing cycles.

Where does that leave us? On the one hand, it’s easy to locate published fiction that rests comfortably cheek by jowl with the horror of the boom, whether in anthologies, magazines, or novels. On the other, it’s also easy to locate anthologies, magazines, or novels that partake of horror while eschewing the H-word, whether as prominent as a novel like A Head Full of Ghosts or otherwise. The rise of transmedia spectacles like The Walking Dead lies in this camp to some extent, insofar as one can spend hours trawling through reviews and critical articles describing it as “dark drama” or the like, before getting to anything that will call it without adjective or concession simply “horror.” Whether this reflects actual animus against horror is difficult to say, but it does confirm that some people perceive one term as significantly more useful than another, decades after the boom.

If my portrayal of this situation of two ongoing waves of horror fiction is accurate, are they going to end? Can we still talk at this point about the cyclical nature of the field, in a world where micro-presses, boutique presses, Kindle, and other means can keep a genre rolling along in some capacity as long as there are customers ready to buy? It may be that we are not, as many have argued, in any sort of golden age or temporary efflorescence, but have actually entered something like a steady state where nothing ever dies.

If I were to point to a marker indicating anything like relative ill health in horror fiction, I might point to changes in the scholarship. A recent Call for Papers that went out on academic discussion lists for a “monster studies” conference session did not use the word horror at all. Likewise, the Horror Literature section of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts is smaller than it used to be, partly because some members of the association choose to talk in other genre contexts about subject matter that many have seen as belonging to horror. The existence of scholarship is, of course, not a precondition for the existence of the fiction it treats, but it is part of the swirl of the literary ecosystem—reviews, criticism, fandoms, and so on—that reflects the life of fiction once it has left the bookstore or library.

In 2015 I attended the World Horror Convention, still one of the major gatherings for professionals in the field. Panel discussions were vigorous, energetic, and spoke to ongoing engagement with horror and serious questions about what horror is or is not, should be or should not be. This gathering seems to me to be in relatively good health, although the impact of this year’s division of the event into an awards weekend in Atlanta and a convention in Las Vegas, held within days of each other, is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, I recently ended a two year term on the Board of Directors of James River Writers, a thriving literary organization based in central Virginia. In that time, never once did I hear attendees discuss horror fiction at our events, which include a sizeable annual conference that actively works to accommodate writers of YA, erotica, romance, other genres not always welcome in “serious” literary circles. On those occasions when I talked with members of the organization or visitors about what I write, the conversational ground inevitably became shaky the moment I trotted out the H-word. In the most memorable of these interactions, the woman I was speaking with said that her daughter liked Twilight and vampire books. I said that I could appreciate that, because I wrote horror. She hesitated for a long time, but eventually she said that she didn’t usually think about people writing horror, and that you usually thought about horror movies. While this conversation may simply reflect lack of awareness, it suggests to me the possibility that for some people, from experienced readers to novice authors, the subject matter of horror exists, but not necessarily a living genre entirely devoted to ghosts, zombies, vampires, werewolves, serial killers, haunted houses, the occult, and so on.

At the end of the day, I’m not suggesting that we should attempt to rename the genre or the study of its literature. I do, however, think that we should be cognizant of the extent to which the horror boom shaped the way that we consider, write, and write about horror fiction. While I am not prepared to say that M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson did not write horror fiction, I am coming to believe that it’s anachronistic to talk about any of them as being horror writers. Our tendency to do so is a byproduct of our own moment in the history of the literature of fear.

Acknowledgments

I presented an earlier version of this at ICFA 37 as “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom,” where the audience had many helpful comments and useful queries. I am grateful for criticism from Lindsay Chudzik, Mark Meier, and Sean Moreland, all of which helped to strengthen the work, and to s.j. bagley for many thought-provoking conversations about the boom. Finally, I am grateful for the support of my employer, VCU Libraries, in pursuing my scholarly interests.

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Thinking Horror, volume 1, edited by s.j. bagley and Simon Strantzas

 

John Glover is a librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he supports humanities research and instruction, contributes to various digital humanities projects, and studies quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. He has chapters forthcoming on Supernatural Horror in Literature and Laird Barron’s Old Leech stories. He also studies the research practices of writers, and last year he co-taught “Writing Researched Fiction” in VCU’s Department of English. He publishes fiction and literary essays as “J. T. Glover,” and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pseudopod, Thinking Horror, The Lovecraft eZine, and Nightscript, among other venues.

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John (aka J.T.) Glover

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DREAMS IN THE BITCH HOUSE BY MADELINE ASHBY

“So why do you think there are fewer women in STEM?”

This was how my admission to Aldwych House began. I’d rehearsed some answers, beforehand. I had them printed on flashcards. Actual cards with actual paper. I laminated them, trimming off every ribbon of transparent film like a jellyfish hangnail. But the moment that door opened for me — opened by itself, before I could even knock — I’d been off my game. And my sense of foreboding only grew as the lights in the hall pointed the way into the grand old sitting room where the interview now took place.

“I think there are a lot of answers to that question,” I said, finally. “I think there are as many reasons for women leaving science and technology fields as there are women leaving. Everyone has stories.”

The other girls nodded to themselves under their hoods. Some of the hoods gleamed with photonic crystal thread. Others appeared to be folded from paper. In the dimness, they looked like a coven of witches. Above, I thought I saw a cherub on the embossed copper ceiling unfurl its wings and settle in, as though it too were listening to our conversation.

“So what’s yours?”

She spoke from the shadows of a wing-backed chair at the edge of the room. Her hood was clone fur. White tiger. Maybe New England meant old money, after all.

“What’s my what?”

“Your story.” She pushed back her hood and shook free a cap of lilac curls. “Why did you leave California?”

“I needed a change. The SilValley culture has infected the feeder labs, and it’s created a toxic learning environment that’s more focused on acquiring VCs than learning the basics.” I tried making eye contact with the other members of the sisterhood. “Besides, this campus is one of the few that facilitates this kind of community. I think tech-savvy sororities are a great idea. I think we’d see more women stay in the field if they had this kind of support, and I think it presents opportunities for future advancement among legacy sisters.”

“We hear that answer a lot.” I couldn’t remember her name. It started with an M. A man’s name. Madison? Morgan? “But this isn’t rush season, and we’re not even supposed to be thinking about taking in someone new. Why did you really leave?”

I looked at the other sisters. They all looked away. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but do you not believe the answer I gave you?”

“No. I don’t.”

I sat back in my chair. The chair wriggled around me. “Well, I’m sorry it wasn’t good enough for you, but it’s the truth.”

“It’s not your truth, though, is it?” Slowly, she wove between sectionals and end tables. The other sisters tucked in their feet as she passed. “We’re a family, here. We’re sisters. We can’t trust you if you can’t share your truth with us.”

They knew. They knew the whole thing. These were the women of Aldwych House. They could doxx anybody.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was raped. No, no one did anything about it. It went into mediation. Nothing happened. The end.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

“That’s why.” Now I met Mason’s gaze. Her eyes were almost colourless and curiously flat, like they secretly belonged on a fish. She was a beautiful girl by any standard, but her eyes didn’t match her face. They were the one piece missing. “Are we done?”

“Yes.” She beamed, and opened her arms. “Welcome!”

#

I thought about leaving. They’d invaded my privacy. But they were offering me a place in their house. Aldwych House. Every woman who was any woman in tech had lived under its gabled roof, behind its leaded windows. It was the golden ticket to internships, to capital, to respect. And so I stayed.

They stuck me in the basement. It was an enviable space: my own bathroom with my own shower, the same floor as the laundry room, even a little sitting area complete with futon. The girl who lived there before me had moved out unexpectedly. After I moved in, I finally understood why. It was just as low and dim as any other basement in a heritage Victorian house, but the presence of a root cellar behind the bedroom wall meant that winter’s chill leaked in despite my best efforts.

And then there were the dreams.

In the first dream my mouth was hangover dry. My eyelids gummed together. I felt my throat turn to leather, and then to cobwebs. I felt my cuticles pull back. I could almost hear it happening, the dry withering of my skin, my synapses firing ever more slowly.

Finally I peeled back the covers. They felt stiff with frost. To access the stairs up into the kitchen, I had to pass through the common area. But in the winter darkness of three a.m., I couldn’t find the door.

I leaned heavily against the wall. Its smooth expanse felt warmer than the air of my new space. I ran my arms across it, making a drywall angel. No door. No hinges. No lip of wood. Was there moulding around the door? I couldn’t remember. Maybe it had never been there. Maybe I was wrong. In the rush of moving in, maybe I had seen things differently than they actually were.

Obviously, what I had to do was go outside, and get to the kitchen through the front door.

I shuffled through snow. It clung to my feet. I had slippers, somewhere. In one of the bins. Or a bag. Not on my feet. The narrow strip of concrete between the house and the sagging chain-link fence stood piled thick with snow. It felt light. Like packing peanuts. Finally I understood the Yankee contempt for Californian comfort. I was soft, before. Coddled. That was my problem. That was why everything had happened. Because I was weak.

The house loomed high above the street. Higher, it seemed, than the bare birches and empty maples throwing their supplicant arms to the night sky. A single light burned in the attic. Mason’s room.

I looked down into my trembling hands and saw no keys.

I woke up in bed the next morning, and screamed at the white mounds of pillows that surrounded me.

#

In the next dream, my bedroom door opened directly into the root cellar. My fingers trailed over brick walls. My toes scraped over earthen floor. It should have been a small room, but in the dream it went on forever, and I kept walking into deeper and deeper darkness until the light from my bedroom door became an arrow-slit in the dusty black. And the longer I walked the closer the walls got, until the bricks scraped my shoulders and the roots tickled my scalp.

Then a hand grabbed mine and pulled it hard.

After that I dreamed that my bathroom door led only to a storage closet. Maybe the house was like clockwork, I thought, and all I had to do was wait for the hour to change and the gears to shift. I lay down in the bathtub and drew the curtain behind me. Sounds echoed up from the drain. Voices. A deep one, and a more lilting one. Chiding, almost. Girlish.

“…all the data!”

“…forward…report.”

“An experiment…” I thought I had kept the thought inside my head, but the shower walls echoed my relief back to me. The voices died.

#

When I told the other women at Aldwych House about my dreams, they all shrugged. “That happens, sometimes,” a girl called Beth told me. Beth worked at the fabshop. Her hair smelled like burning plastic. “It’s a new house dream,” she said. “Everyone has them, when they move in.”

“I had them, too, when I moved here.” Cheyenne was working on the sustainable engineering degree. “I think it’s because of history of the place.”

“Yeah, just knowing how many other women have started out right here.” Deepa was working on a departmental honours thesis on the use of vagus nerve implants in juvenile diabetes patients. “There’s a legacy to live up to.”

“Like living in a haunted house.” Cheyenne let the statement hang, then followed it with a nervous little giggle when no one agreed.

“Cheyenne thinks the house is haunted.” Deepa rolled her eyes.

“My things kept moving! I’d leave something in one place in my room in the morning, and then it would be clear across the room when I came back.”

“You were taking Adderall.” Deepa got back to work on her motherboard.

“Only to get through finals.” Cheyenne drew her knees to her chest. “I don’t screw around with that kind of thing, any more. I don’t take anything artificial.”

Beth groaned. “Everything’s artificial.” She knocked on the mantlepiece. “This isn’t even real wood. You know that, right? It’s all programmable materials. They had to code it all back in, after the fire.”

“What fire?” I asked.

They turned to me, then back to their projects. “It was a while ago,” Deepa said.

“Where is Mason?” Cheyenne asked.

“Upstairs, in the attic, like usual,” Deepa said. “I’m surprised she even comes downstairs to eat. She has the best room in the whole house.”

“That view.” Beth sounded wistful. “That bay window.”

“She won it fair and square in the hackathon.” Deepa pointed with her soldering pencil. “She used to have your room, you know. The basement. But then she designed the best locking mechanism for the toolshed.”

“A keypad wasn’t good enough?”

As one, the sisters all sighed. “Yeah, if you want your stuff stolen,” Beth said. “Mason’s security system is bioresponsive. It’s…alive.”

“Alive.”

“For lack of a better term. Her research is on programmable matter. So of course that’s what it is. Haven’t you gone to the toolshed?”

“My tools are still in California. Most of them, anyway.”

“Well, take a look. See if you can find the door.”

The sisters all snorted. Then they looked up at each other quickly, as though surprised and embarrassed by their shared bitterness. It was like the house itself, I realized. The whole structure made all of them uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to do anything about it.

“In my dream, I saw Mason’s light on.”

Under the coffee table, Cheyenne’s hand closed around my ankle. She squeezed it hard. I glanced at her, but her gaze remained fixed on Deepa’s soldering pencil. It smoked and hissed as it met metal.

“You should take pictures,” Beth said. “Of your room. In case you have that dream, again. So you’ll know exactly what it looks like. Then you can re-assure yourself, when you wake up.”

“That’s what I did,” Deepa said, “when I had those dreams.”

#

My visit to the toolshed was uneventful. Mostly because I couldn’t actually get in. The building had no doors. No windows. It appeared to be made of wood, but the texture of it was velvet under my fingers. It hummed gently as I ran a hand over it. Haptic. Responsive. Alive. And it didn’t like me. It didn’t want to let me in.

What was she building, in there?

The thing about historic New England universities is they get off on keeping every scrap of paper they’ve ever generated. It’s a sickness. A disease. A compulsion. They simply can’t let anything go.

Which makes it easy to retrieve things like the original blueprints of buildings like Aldwych House.

There was indeed a fire in Aldwych House. The campus paper characterized it as a minor indiscretion gone very wrong — a girl named Gilman, a Bunsen burner, a moment’s inattention. Exhaustion, her parents said. The stress of being a small-town overachiever finally meeting her betters, her classmates said. She took a semester off and never came back.

The fire started in the root cellar. Why Gilman chose to run her experiment there, and not the toolshed, was never explained. But for some reason, she felt secure doing it there. Gilman herself lived in the attic bedroom. The one with the view. The one Mason had taken “fair and square.”

It spread up and out, encompassing the whole basement before licking up into the living room. The stone foundations remained intact, but the wood and plaster went up like a prayer. Only the university’s heritage preservation society — the very one whose little museum, complete with gift shop, hosted my frantic research — could muster the funds from alumni and private donors to create a perfect replica of the lost rooms. One very generous donation came from an alumnus at Nahab, Inc., a design firm born from a thesis project at the university. Mr. Nahab had a double degree — materials science and architecture. His donation to the refurbishing project was to “grow” the rooms back to their former glory.

“We’ve always thought of smart sand as a fix for the robotics space,” Mr. Nahab said, in at the ribbon-cutting. “But given the right feedback mechanism, we can do almost anything with it.”

Nahab’s materials needed a few things. A steady power source. A complete picture of the thing they were building. And constant feedback, to let them know they were finished. You could rig the house to do that, of course — just like rigging the fridge to tell the cupboard it needed new baking soda. But they responded better — more organically — to data from implants. You needed a person there, to patrol the space and read temperature and humidity. You needed the input from their fingers and shoes. Someone to clean up, if the house spontaneously corrupted.

“An angel in the house,” as Nahab described it.

Then he thanked everyone at his company for all their help. Even the interns, who’d helped with the testing and prototyping. Even the single high school senior who’d won a competition for her spot. Her hair was longer then, and a different shade of purple. But I still knew her. Still recognized that smile that never quite met her flat, fishy eyes.

Mason.

#

 

sean1

“Dreams in the Bitch House” sculptural illustration by Derek Newman-Stille. Photograph by Aaron Goldman.

 

Deepa was wrong. I didn’t need to take pictures. Not with the devices at my disposal. As I told the admissions department in my personal essay, at heart I’ve always been a gadget queen. Girls and their toys, right?

I call them RATS: Re-Active Tactile Systems. I only made up the acronym because the machines ended up looking a little bit like rats: soft little warm bodies covered in delicate sensor fur, stinger tails that sent the charge across whatever material I told them to. Originally, I designed them to sniff out poor signal latency in ambient networks. What they really are is a series of small joybuzzers that detect shifts in electric current in smart materials, and disrupt them.

First I let the RATS out of their box, stroking them to wake them up. Slowly they emerged, sniffing around the basement, tails twitching, fur pointing. They squeaked and chimed to each other as they crawled up and down the walls and along the baseboards. For the first time since joining Aldwych, I slept soundly.

The screeching woke me two hours later. The wall before me was glitched out. It hung, pixellated and half formed, stretching over my bed like a jagged impression of a hand. It smelled like burning sugar, but looked like ancient earth. The rats had it pinned: the wall flickered and so did they, sending sharp little shocks to arrest its growth.

A seam opened in the opposite wall. My ears popped. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

Mason stepped through the seam. One of my rats raced up to stop the movement of the wall, and she snatched it in her fist. It buzzed in her hand, tail lashing out.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “All I wanted to was to join your fucking sorority! Is this some kind of hazing thing?”

Mason snorted. “Hazing? Bitch, please.” She opened her fist. The rat crawled up her arm. “I just wanted one of these. I knew you’d use them, eventually.”

“You mean it’s why Nahab wants them,” I said. “Right?”

She smirked. “Maybe. But what’s a little corporate espionage between sisters, you know?” She pointed. “You have no business complaining, anyway. Why do you think we admitted you? We didn’t have to. It was fucking January. I’m the one who bumped your application to the top of the pile. Me. The others just wanted to stick to the rules.”

For a moment, my focus faltered. “But… Why were you such a bitch to me in my interview?”

“Covering my tracks, obviously. But Nahab just had to have you.” She watched the rats pulsing along the walls and wrinkled her nose. “Or your research, anyway. Such as it is.”

“What’s he giving you in exchange? Another internship? A job? His dick?”

Mason pouted. “Don’t be vulgar,” she said. “I’m not like that.”

“Oh, no, you’d never sell out the sisterhood for your defence contractor crush.”

She had the grace to blush. “It’s not like that,” she said. “Really.”

I didn’t care how it was, honestly. Whatever awful bargain she’d made was her own business. What I wanted was to distract her somehow. “I would have shared this with you,” I said quickly. “You didn’t have to bully me into it. The code for these is open source. You could have downloaded it yourself.”

“But then I wouldn’t have a working prototype,” she said, watching the rat crawl along her other arm. “I’d have to build one from scratch. And there’s really no reason to do all that work.”

I gestured at the rats to change their pulse. I held them in readiness. We watched each other. She moved, and the walls moved. They sparked. They…rippled. Suddenly the dimensions of the room were changing. This was how she’d done it, how she’d changed the location of the doors. I was the one with the rats, but she was the one designing the maze. She grinned. For once, it reached her lifeless eyes. For a moment I saw a door behind her, a door with a curious shape, a door like none I’d ever seen. And I gestured at the rats again, and the one in Mason’s hand shrieked with power. The air filled with the smell of burning skin.

And then she was on the floor.

The walls began to melt. The floor went slick. I struggled to keep my balance. The floor pooled up around my ankles like quicksand. I jumped on the bed and it sank and I fell to my knees. The sudden charge must have fried Mason’s connection to the house. Whether it was implants or smart skin or whatever, she was the real foundation of the building. And now that foundation was crumbling.

“Help me,” Mason groaned. The floor was swallowing her. The walls jumped back and forth, as though uncertain which era to choose. Doors opened. Doors closed. One moment I saw the stairs to the kitchen, and the next they were obscured behind a thin skin of wall.

“Fuck you,” I said, and leapt for the nearest opening.

#

You’re probably wondering why I would share all of this with you. After all, I’ve just confessed to a crime. Not a crime anyone can ever prove, but still, a crime. I wish I could tell you it still haunts me, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. I think of her buried under the layers of her own deception and I feel nothing. At least, I feel nothing but good. I feel only relief. It’s the same relief I felt when I realized she was dead.

We always hope that the people who wrong us will be consumed with guilt. That it will follow them every day. That they’ll someday feel shame for having done it, or having gotten away with it. I used to believe that. But now I know differently. Every day, I wake up happy and free. I’m not afraid. I know nothing can hold me back, any longer. Nothing can stop me.

Nothing can stop us. Not unless we let it.

I just want you to know that, if we’re going to be sisters.

After all, it’s important that we share our truth.

Welcome.

###

About the Author

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty series of novels, as well as Company Town, from Tor Books. She also writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has developed science fiction prototypes for organizations including the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, the Atlantic Council, and others. You can find her at madelineashby.com or on Twitter @MadelineAshby

7P2ZYeHF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Illustrator

Derek Newman-Stille is a visual artist, writer and PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues. He runs the multi-Aurora-winning website Speculating Canada, and you can view more of his visual art here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” by Jason Philip Wierzba

  1. Andy

Andy had to go pick Elizabeth up from school halfway through the day, turning off the 2:00 weepie on the new plasma and letting the dog kvetch in its way. The dog wanted to go for a car ride. A ‘c-a-r-r-i-d-e’ as his June Bug had recently gotten the damn kids chanting as well, now, whenever they were going somewhere, though they were fooling no one, least of all Buster. Hoisting the little fellow (that goddamn d-o-g) humanely aside with his foot as it tried to proactively pin the loafers in the corner of the nook next to the screen door, hungry for attention, Andy exited the Deck House he’d handbuilt over the eleven preceding summers, damn near in condemnable shape already as it was, and proceeded to take the weatherworn red Honda to go get little Lizzy.

I am Andy, he said to himself, driving past the scenic lookout. I am a gentle creature. Deep breaths, he reminded himself out loud. The man on the radio spoke about the Grand Opening of The Celebrity Gap. Andy breathed deeply into his diaphragm and held it there, one breath then another, and so forth, a little dizzy, ignoring the man on the radio, until he was parked in the Joyce Nübklinker School for Gifted Girls lot, not a lick less nervous for all the yogic breathing nonsense, nor a smidgen removed from a particularly nasty case of what June Bug would no doubt have called the ‘grumpies.’

Fuck breathing.

He popped some Pepto B chewables sitting loose in the cup holder and decamped for the front office with one of his shoes untied, sockless in his indigo bathrobe, tiny French swimming trunks underneath.

  1. Elizabeth

All he knew was that something had happened between Elizabeth and the Chemistry Teacher, another altercation of some kind. Frankly, Andy couldn’t blame the kid. He’d met Mr. Ivor at parent-teacher interview night, the only one he’d ever yet had to attend, being as he had been in the shithouse that week as far as June Bug was concerned, no excuses this time. Andy didn’t have to talk to the guy more than five seconds before he wanted to sock Mr. Ivor one himself.

Walking back out to the car twenty minutes later, and still straining to locate himself with his nervous system, Andy looked down at his daughter, suddenly realizing that she was clutching a number of his deathly fingers with her pudgy fist. Though little Liz clearly had been crying – most of her face splotched red like a rash with the evidence – at this particular moment she was looking like she might kinda be … no, in fact she was indeed actually laughing, now, even her eyes joining in.

– What is it kiddo? What’s so funny, hunh?

– Oh, Andy …

– Call me daddy, please, sweetheart.

– I am so proud of you, daddy. You were so wonderful in there. I tell you Andy … if you were forty years younger … (!) … when you called him Strangefinger I nearly pissed my Strawberry Shortcakes.

Shocked at not having been chastened, as would be customary, for her full-frontal effrontery, Elizabeth spun around to see her father standing motionless a few paces behind where she’d inadvertently left him at ‘wonderful in there.’ Little Lizzy could see that he was muttering to himself.

–Wo, daddy! she exclaimed, ahead of herself. Then: what’s that you’re saying, daddy?

She ran back to him, nearly tripping up on those ballerina slippers she never took off, having no way of knowing that her words had stopped him cold as a petrified redwood not because of their brazen invocation of some seriously insidious taboo shit. After all it was typical of the girl, wasn’t it? She was kind of bratty, only performing like this in public places with nosy strangers around to stare disapprovingly. It never surprised Andy who once read a book by Doctor Spock. Children crave attention and will do pretty much anything to go about getting it. That’s about the size of it. A couple more synapses fired back up like the old oil tank at the old family farm. Thinking about the place made Andy want to go back there and have an Orangeade watching it burn to moldering toothpicks.

– You’re a real pisscutter, daddy. What’s gotten into you? approaching closer. Hey! DADDY! Elizabeth shook her father’s sleeve in a frustration of inarticulable need. Inarticulable even if the little whippersnapper is a genius, some science and dance protégé of the highest supposed order, squealing in high-pitched multi-climaxes of divine right.

Elizabeth, even had she not been sounding the high alarms, would never have been able to hear her father muttering: I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am a gentle creature.

  1. Bug Bug

When he opened the back door of the Honda to throw Elizabeth’s Yo-Yo Ma knapsack in with the fast food wrappers and old newspapers, Andy did not expect to see the teenager in there with that strange anorexic girlfriend of his. Wazzername.

– Jesus, kid. What the … how did you …(?)…

– Dad. You OK?

– I …

– You are giving us that lift, remember? said the wazzername coldly, not even bothering to lift her eyes from her BlackBerry.

– Bug Bug! said Elizabeth, seeing her fraternal counterpart, running up and trying to wrap arms around his scrawny shoulders through the open window like a midget vaudevillean.

The foursome (actually a fivesome – somehow the dog had gotten in despite the Deck House chastening) drove for boysenberry Ice Cream. Andy could not remember who had requested the Ice Cream but was sure that some sort of instant consensus had been reached. He was right now now fully committed to remembering where each of the nearby Ice Cream parlors was located, the distance between himself and the various establishments, the relative quality of each menu, the basic equation. Normally he would have had the daughter figure it all out with her wireless connection and Texas Instruments, but she appeared to be in no mood to shut up at that particular moment. It struck Andy now that she probably had the opportunity to sneak a couple cups of coffee whilst waiting outside the principle’s office in her cone of silence. June Bug had told him: no more coffee for the kid. Andy forgets.

Ethics are instant-to-instant and microscopic.

It was June Bug’s own money that she accused him of stashing in his sock drawer. June Bug forgets too.

– Neurosis is a dysfunction of the active faculty of forgetting, says the kid, as though possessed of some kind of daddy radar. Redeyed Bug Bug looking stoned and bugeyed and his saucy wazzername in the backseat making dirty needle tattoos. Dirty needle piercings. Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply, his vision presently growing blurry.

It was not the rearview. He was certain.

Couldn’t quite see. Keep your eyes on the road, Andy.

“Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply…” Illustration by Sebyth.

  1. June Bug

Andy was telling himself he was a soldier for himself. He was doing it over and over, a gentle creature. Preoccupied as he was, it was of course Elizabeth who first noticed that they were being followed by his wife or whatever she was now. It was, of course, June Bug and the notorious newsman, her new beau, who brought along with him a documentary camera crew and some busybody libertines with clipboards. It was a large van. Andy, alerted to its presence, noted the largeness of the van, cataloguing its human cargo, fingering the abacus of his instincts, palms growing sweaty on the wheel, the vehicle in high gear. Andy heard police helicopters.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, disappointed. The teenagers pierced each others’ noses, to all appearances indifferent.

  1. Euphrates

Andy did not know how he escaped his pursuers, only that he had been forced to jettison his two children and the dog at Hannigan’s Ice Cream Parlor to fend for themselves. He realized as he did it that it had finally come to him sacrificing his children to his wife and her hangers-on in the State Legislature. Bug Bug’s solemn girlfriend was still in the back of the Honda, not being of any value as a potential sacrifice to June Bug. The girl was attending to the bullet wounds sustained by the hitchhiker Andy could not remember picking up. The girl referred to him as their ‘first hostage,’ and the pathetic state of the fellow clearly brought out her mothering side. Andy himself had been grazed by a bullet, though he was not yet aware that this was the case.

He parked the car and the dead man in the shop at the girl’s parents’ rural getaway, where he discovered amongst the half-disassembled detritus with which her father casually tinkered, that the maudlin young vixen who thrilled in crudely tattooing squiggly skater death’s-heads on his son’s biceps with a dirty needle went by the name of Euphrades. Andy entreated Euphrades to assist him in emptying the bullet-riddled car of its more dangerous glass shards and to help cover up the conspicuous blood stains from the dead hitchhiker or whatever he was who was now resting in a horse trough in the corner with his blue tongue hanging out.

As they stepped out of the shop into the harsh sunlight, Andy became aware of the bullet burn on his neck and became somewhat delirious. Images flooded his mind. Images of the mangled bodies stowed beneath the Deck House. The eleven years worth of bodies, the length of his divorce. The length of his project. Images of the dead principle, Mr. Ivor the Chemistry Teacher’s head breaking apart with the last blow, Elizabeth waiting in the hall where he had had the sense, though on autopilot as he was just then, to lead her to await his return before revisiting the office himself to resettle their hash for good.

Stumbling around outside the shop in this delirium he set off an animal trap with his pantleg and did a funny jig of incomprehension before falling unconscious to the earth. He came to, gauzed and numb, in a most pleasant solarium with Euphrades attending to the minor wound on his neck. Leaning over him she exposed a lingering flash of her most supple and enticing breast. She has a silver salamander on the chain around her neck. Andy reminded himself that he was a soldier for himself, a gentle creature. He allowed it as the girl began slowly massaging his manhood until he was as stiff as a shower rod to the touch. She giggled nervously, then, and unleashed his purpling member as though shocked to find it suddenly there in her skeletal hand – as though her encountering it in the first had been but an act of nervous automatism – and retreated to the kitchen where she explained that she had made them Virgin Daiquiris in a blender with some fruit juice and her father’s hidden stash of crushed ice.

– Tell me Andy, pleaded the frail teenager handing him his drink, why am I so drawn to you? Why do I use your son to get close to you?

Andy paused thoughtfully before he spoke:

– I am a soldier in a deep forbidding jungle, he began. But I am a gentle creature. My wife doesn’t understand me. June Bug. She is in her defiance, you understand. She won’t listen to herself, has no perineum, won’t open up. It is true that I am difficult. I warned her of that on the carousel on our first date. I bought her The Dead Zone by Stephen King. She regurgitated a corn dog on my khakis and you can’t get that out of khaki. Like when you fart but there’s some shit. You just cannot get that out of khaki. I can’t. And my wife – June Bug – she just doesn’t understand. I knew it was over. She quit doing the laundry. Took up with a kindly priest, subsequently defrocked. We did a couple’s group in Florence but only she spoke Italian and I could tell everybody was laughing at me. I made a great big stink and had to hide at the American Embassy in Rome. I have done many things of which I am not proud. I don’t want to bring you into this Euphrades. You deserve to soar like a pterodactyl, flying with those disturbing fingers curled up beneath you. You really should try to eat some food. Look at you, Euphrades, nothing but skin and bone. You are very special to me and I am dangerous. This is what draws us like moths, you know. We are drawn to something unspoken, sublime as the gaping heavens, capable of explosive fission.

– Oh Andy, said the girl, swooning.

They made love in a fortress of frilly pink pillows, he holding her like a precious pocket watch inherited from a favorite uncle. As he mounted the teenager, youth returned to Andy like a pestilence. Euphrades was truly pliant, if a little circumspect, as her too-eager humping gave way to an arousing lifelessness. She got up and disappeared to the bathroom. Having quickly pulled the French swimming trunks over his exposed shame, Andy flung the bathrobe like an indigo prayer shawl over his paunchy frame and spoke to his beloved, whom he could no longer see, over the sound of running bathwater.

– To me you are a reassurance of Spring in deepest Winter as with an old Chinese haiku read against the gray light of a yielding glacier. You are the very brail of my newfound touch. I touch you to awaken the most sacred languages of our forefathers, imprinted there upon the snowwhite of you with the magma of our earth’s core as it pulses with hunger for what you conceal …

Andy thought he heard Euphrades say that that was nice and call him dear. The bathwater made it hard to hear.

Andy continued in his romantic musing:

– June Bug, bless her litigious heart, never understood. She was not a soldier for herself. She was mean for no reason …

The bathwater stopped running. Just then a man came out of the bathroom covered in blood. It was Andy. Andy looked confused.

  1. Matt Damon

The bathwater was maroon and Euphrades was not responding to his hostile caresses. Panic!

Andy ran to the barn. He stole an Arabian colt and fine English saddle. He stole some fine leather straps from Argentina. Almost weeping, he rode towards town, leaping the white picket fences, the bloody bandage now dangling from his injured neck.

There was a major fracas in the center of the small New Mexican city in which Andy and the colt presently found themselves.

He approached the milling crowds astride the handsome beast, thirsty for water and whatever contact high he might find amidst his people.

The largest mass of gawkers seemed to be gathering outside a large anachronistic building that looked something like an old Western saloon. The building had a vaguely irreligious quality to it. Stepping off his horse, Andy slowly approached the teaming mob, which quickly parted for him, a commotion now rising up above the general din.

– It’s that Andy character, he heard somebody say.

An old lady with rickets swatted at him with a half-deployed umbrella.

– Some nerve, showing up for the Grand Opening.

– And in broad daylight, too.

Somebody was alerting the police on their mobile. Andy didn’t care. He could not take his eyes off the huge banner which awed him. It was not, in fact, a banner, he noticed, but rather a giant mayoral sash, Crown Royal purple, that wrapped around the entire building.

CELEBRITY GAP – GRAND OPENING read the sash.

In the display case windows were large portraits of celebrities wearing Gap clothing. Julia Roberts was sneaking a cigarette down in the arroyo. She was sporting some fetching Banana Republic number. The Olsen Twins in a provocative Adam and Eve tableau. Truman Capote in a smart sweater vest. The biggest portrait of all featured Matt Damon in aviator goggles, his jowly face comically stretched back by G-Force.

As a cavalcade of police cars arrived upon the scene, Andy entered the commercial palace, tears in his eyes. At first the lights from the documentary film crew blinded him, but slowly the scene integrated before him. In the center of the room, amidst the rows of sensible and inexpensive clothing hung or neatly folded by collegiate failures, sat his darling little Lizzy with a half-eaten waffle cone, the genius, on Matt Damon’s lap like he were Santa Clause, June Bug and the new beau next to them, beaming before the cameras, the son pouting alone way over by the cash, a primarily Hispanic film crew.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, as though embarrassed to be caught in this awkward moment of celebrity worship. I would have seen it on TV anyway, thought Andy. Eventually. Some genius she is.

Andy wanted to strike somebody but held it in. He held it in his perineum.

There followed a silence which seemed to last an eternity. Finally Matt Damon spoke, breaking the ice:

– I cannot say you surprise us Andy, began the beatific movie star. I suppose we knew deep down that you had to make an appearance. I must say you have held us all in suspense, wondering what you might think of next you crazy bugger you. But I am drawn to you Andy. We are drawn to you. We are all drawn to you. Your story has captivated millions. The world hungers after you. Andy. Our earth’s very core pulses with hunger for you. For what you conceal. The … project. Look at your wife. See how she blushes so sincerely to see you here this moment. She loves you Andy, your June Bug. Sure she does. She can’t hide it, Andy, and hiding is what she does. See how she loves you. See?

Andy stood weeping as his one true love approached him, also weeping, a humbleness about her. They embraced.

– That’s it Andy, that’s it, said Matt Damon, much satisfaction writ upon his brow. The cameras circling, ever closer, the resurrected couple. The first canister of tear gas spiralling through the saloon door.


Jason Philip Wierzba is a writer and occasional musician from the Canadian prairie. He has a Master’s Degree in Film Studies from Carleton University. His previous story “Priority: Murder Kill” was published in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 3 and ten of his poems have been published online by Ditch. He is currently working frontline with the homeless in Calgary.

This story is accompanied by an extensive interview conducted by Sean Moreland which you can read here.

Sebyth exists. Probably. @Sebyth.

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PSTD POETRY REPRINT: “DEARLY BELOVED” BY MIKE ALLEN

This poem first appeared in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 5. Read the interview with Mike Allen that accompanies this reprint here.

 
andante maestoso
Long before the partiers arrive, the Arborists
form the ballroom, standing in a dolmen circle,
stretching their many arms until vine-fingers
meet and entwine, bloodflow causing all
their leaves to fan out in rosy canopy,
transparent teeth unsheathed in long smiles
that serve for windows.

allegretto con grazia
From opposite corners, they play
a game, a duet. Xora unfolds hir head
so its branches uncurl, fork heavenward,
a radial candelabra, inverse chandelier,
each stalk tipped with a gorgeous gold eye,
succulent fruit encircling light.
Danyel’s neck, sleek and black,
stretches across the room, supporting
hir porcelain face. Ze winds hir neck
through the spires of Xora’s cranium,
speaks to the rest through lips that don’t move,
declaring hirself serpent in the tree,
calling for guesses as to which temptations
ze offers. A dance, someone chitters,
and X and D both kneel, elongated neck
that bridged the ballroom now a line
for us to limbo beneath. R tries first,
barely clears as ze bends sculpted legs
beneath hir custom body with its wings
and gables. The little dolls that hold
hir consciousness cheer from hir windows
as ze stands. F cheats, hir entire shape
unraveling in sea-snake tendrils
before ze undulates under the bar
in an hieroglyphic wave. We delight
in our clowning, how it rearranges us
through the room, each of us a work of art,
each random pattern a new curation.
M can’t dance this game at all.
Ze towers above us, hir upper half
a stack of vertical diadem membranes
stretched over crossed bones, soaked
with shifting colors. Ze cannot flex
as we. Yet get hir out onto the plain
outside the Hierophant’s city,
where ze can unspool all hir kites
from hir belly, let them swoop defiance
against the evergrey sky.

adagio
The gathered separate
into those with heads
and those without.
The headless more numerous,
their torsos replaced altogether
with cages of whistling,
musical bone, or deft
bonsai sculptures,
or miniature castles
populated by mechamenageries.
Those who’ve retained faces,
hewn more closely
to antiquated physiology
in their self-selected designs,
kneel ballroom center,
allow the headless
to place the maidenbox
restraints around them,
clamp them shut.
The prisoners bow their heads,
swivel gazes to the floor.
The headless dance,
weaving between them
in peacock display.
All are silent.
Only those few gluttons
for history can guess
at what the game means.

allegro con molto spirito
A whisper flitters ear to ear:
The Aesthetes are marching past.
D snakes hir head
to a windowsmile, confirms.
Even in this now
fashion has trends to defile.
The Aesthetes have all kept torsos,
disposed of their legs,
replaced them with outsized monkeybar skirts,
pyramid scaffolds two stories high,
their trunks crowning the points,
their unmodified arms outstretched.
Their tiny clones support their frames,
hordes of identical homunculi
marching beneath each one,
a laborphalanx of Atlases
holding up their parent bodies
on bulging shoulders.
They move forward in spirals.
Slow architectural dervishes.
Their discomfort is evident.
Deliberate.
It’s true, M sings, peering through
the highest window. They’ve heads,
but no mouths or ears or eyes.
Now they all watch.
The Aesthetes believe, it’s said,
existence without sleep or thought,
surrender to void and pain,
for long enough duration,
will inspire their bodies
of their own to birth
the next evolution
sans any surgery.
The partygoers silently will
this dream come true,
pray the moment arrives in front of them,
this spontaneous transcendence
something they all long to see.

###

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PSTD AUTHOR INTERVIEW: MIKE ALLEN

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Read the reprint of Mike Allen’s story, “Tardigrade,” and poem “Dearly Beloved”, accompanying this interview.

Hello Mike, and thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions as part of our PstD author feature. To start off, can you tell our readers a little about who you are, what you do, what you’ve written, what you’re writing, what you’ve edited, what you’re editing?

What counts as a little? I can try for a little of each.

Let’s see. By day I work as a newspaper reporter. (Yes, newspapers still exist! And do excellent, necessary work.) In my spare time I write, edit and publish science fiction, fantasy and horror. I’m almost 50 years old. I grew up in a couple of out of the way places and still live in a (slightly larger) out of the way place, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. I married my best friend, Anita, a little over 26 years ago.

I had interests in many different kinds of art as a kid — drawing, music, poetry, fiction, acting — and not much else, which put me at odds at times with my farmhand-turned-college professor-turned-computer programmer father as I got older, right up until I landed the newspaper job.

But since I was small, my greatest aesthetic interest has been the literature of the fantastic: reading it, writing it and eventually even publishing it. Like everyone else in the biz, I’m always grabbing at the next highest rung on the ladder, but I feel incredibly lucky to have pulled off the stunts I’ve managed so far.

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I sold my first story in 1992 to a long-forgotten pay-in-copy zine. In the first two decades of my sci-fi career, I plunged really deep into speculative poetry. There are three big fat (for collections of poetry) books that hold the bulk of those adventures (though not all of them!), containing about 60 poems each: Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (2006), The Journey to Kailash (2008) and Hungry Constellations (2014). Hungry Constellations deserves a little extra explanation: Dominik Parisien edited that one, selecting what he thought were the strongest pieces from Strange Wisdoms and Journey to Kailash, then adding a section of new stuff.

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All along, I wrote more short stories, but I produced them less frequently than the poems and sold them even less frequently, so it took a while for them to build into a body of work. I had my first breakthrough of a sort in 2005, when a wacky novelette I co-wrote with Ian Watson, “Dee-Dee and the Dumpy Dancers,” appeared in Interzone, and a bigger one three years later when my horror story “The Button Bin” became a Nebula finalist. Still, when my stories appeared they never tended to attract much attention, so when my debut collection, Unseaming, came out, and it ended up being a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and selling several thousand copies, no one was more surprised than me! My followup collection, The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories (weird sci-fi and fantasy rather than horror) didn’t make as much noise.

I’ve had one novel published, The Black Fire Concerto (Haunted Stars, 2013). It’s a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy with music, magic, flying horses made of wood and hordes of ravenous undead, and I’m personally quite proud of it, but few people know it exists. I have another dark fantasy novel that’s currently seeking a home, cross fingers. A completed first draft of a sequel to Black Fire Concerto rests on a back burner. I’m in the foothills of another novel set in the present day that I think of as Lovecraftian noir. I’m  also assembling a horror story collection that’s a follow-up to Unseaming, working title Aftermath of an Industrial Accident.

Though I’ve made inroads as a fiction writer, I think more people still know me as a poet or as an editor. (A fact that can make me gnash my teeth sometimes, heh.) I never dreamed, as a kid, of being an editor, how that came about would double the length of this already long answer.

My editing career has three major threads. There’s the anthologies, the highest profile of which is the Clockwork Phoenix series, intended as a home for difficult to classify stories with sci-fi, fantasy and/or horror elements. The first three volumes were originally published by Norilana Books, but I have all the rights to those now, and I edited and published the fourth and fifth volumes myself. Several stories from those books have been Nebula, Shirley Jackson and WSFA Small Press Award finalists and the most recent volume, Clockwork Phoenix 5, was a World Fantasy Award finalist last year.61l90Oo-gjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Then there’s the magazines. The obvious one to mention here is Mythic Delirium, which I started in 1998 as a biannual all-poetry journal. Eventually I switched from print-only to digital-only and started including short stories.  This year, we published the 50th issue of Mythic Delirium, which also happened to be the 20th anniversary issue, and with that I put the zine on hiatus.

The third thread is books. I’ve dabbled in editing and publishing books by other authors for years — the first one was The Lexicographer’s Love Song, a poetry collection by Ian Watson, put out by DNA Publications in 2001. Things got a bit more serious when Anita and I decided to release Bone Swans, a collection of five novellas from C. S. E. Cooney, through our Mythic Delirium Books imprint, and even more serious when Bone Swans won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. (We were there at the ceremony, and so was Claire Cooney, the announcement that she had won was a wonderful surprise.) The current project on deck is Latchkey, a novel by Nicole Kornher-Stace that’s sequel to her YA debut Archivist Wasp. Officially that launches July 10, 2018. There’s a couple more in the works I’m not ready to go public with yet.

Whether they are historical or contemporary, who are some of the writers whose work has been most influential on, or important to, your own, and what have you taken from their writing?

I think it all boils down to Poe and Tolkien, the first is probably kind of obvious, the second I imagine less so for any readers out there that might know me only through my creative work.

Those two writers set me on the path. A well-meaning third grade teacher read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” to our class for Halloween, and while the other kids just giggled it away I was traumatized, with night terrors that lasted for years. Yet instead of staying away from all things horror, I became consumed with morbid curiosity, constantly coming back to this type of story-telling that held so much power over me, leading me to devour stuff by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker.

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Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” inspired “night terrors that lasted for years.” (Harry Clarke’s 1919 illustration.)

With Barker, my favorite writer when I was in my teens, I experienced a paradigm change. I became a gleeful participant in the land of imaginary horrors, rather than a frightened victim. I ended up consuming so much horror that I essentially inoculated myself from the night terrors.

I would bet the idea that I’m best known for horror stories would be a big shock to 10-year-old me. Around 4th grade or so my dad made me read The Lord of the Rings, because he thought it was the greatest novel ever written and because he was sure I would like it. On that second part, absolutely, he was right. Maybe the first one, too? But anyway, I developed this hunger for all things Tolkien. We lived at the time in Wise, Virginia, a coal town high in the Appalachians. There was no bookstore. There were a couple of other kids who liked fantasy, but didn’t share my obsessive need for it, or at least not my precise interests — as I recall, one buddy was a huge Larry Niven fan.

There was no fandom community in Wise. My parents enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy but were not particularly knowledgeable about what was out there. So I was on my own figuring out how to find other books for that fix.

The library in Wise became the center of my world. I got my mom to mail order a book of essays on Tolkien, and I’d track down the books mentioned there. My parents gave me a book that was essentially lists of recommended reading for teenagers, and I ignored everything except the chapter on science fiction and fantasy in the very back. Those two sources led me to C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Susan Cooper, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Anne MacCaffrey, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Michael Moorcock, and led me to do things like read Le Morte d’Arthur.

I imagine 10-year-old me would have expected 45-year-old me to be writing epic fantasy instead of body horror. As an adult, though, the writers who have been real revelations to me, who’ve stirred primal surges of imagination — Thomas Ligotti, Brian McNaughton, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn — have all tended to lean toward horror. I started at some point to find epic fantasy tiresome. I blame Robert Jordan.

Generally speaking, in my own writing, I try to emulate what inspires me. When I was writing The Black Fire Concerto for Haunted Stars, I made a deliberate choice to aim for the kind of wild, gonzo, big-scale surreal events found in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Rod Belcher, a.k.a. dark fantasy novelist R.S. Belcher, who also lives here in Roanoke, read Black Fire Concerto and correctly deduced that there’s a huge slab of Zelazny slathered in there too. 51UT0Rh9qxL

I’ll slip direct homages in too. My short story “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” from the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology contains a huge shout out to Thomas Ligotti’s “The Cocoons,” though when Tom read it himself, he didn’t notice. (I couldn’t resist pointing it out to him.)

Right out of the gates, then, you were drawn to the “literature of the fantastic,” and both your writing and editing has circulated through this broad field. Yet, as you suggest, to the probable surprise of your young epic-fantasy-fanatical self, much of your prose fiction could be, and often has been, described somewhat more narrowly as “horror.” The label is especially often applied to your 2014 collection Unseaming, which deservedly earned rave reviews in venues including Rue Morgue Magazine, where it was favourably compared to Clive Barker’s short fiction. In his introduction to Unseaming, Laird Barron locates your work at “the forefront of a ‘New New Wave'” of horror.

It was awful nice of Laird to write that!

What importance does the term “horror” have for you? Do you find this to be a congenial way to describe some, or all of your writing? What are some of the (dis)advantages of being perceived, or self-representing, as a horror writer?

I love horror. Left to my own devices, my first choice for entertainment will usually be a a collection of horror stories or a horror film. (You wouldn’t necessarily glean that from the stories I gravitate toward as an editor, which tend towards the ornate and surreal. It’s a quirk even I don’t completely understand. Though my favorite films of all time aren’t horror films: Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Wild Bunch.)

I suppose horror permeates a lot of my writing, even when I don’t intend it deliberately. I’m drawn to the downbeat, to impossible choices, irreparable damage and mortifying fates. Those moves are more conventional in horror, though sf and fantasy stories, especially short stories, definitely sport their share. (Some of the short stories I encountered as a kid that really stuck in my craw, like “Descending” by Thomas M. Disch or “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” by Shirley Jackson, feel like horror stories even if they don’t read like them in the conventional sense.)

I’m not shy about calling myself a horror writer, because people grasp what that is, and I believe, though you don’t find horror sections in bookstores anymore, it’s become a much more acceptable thing to trumpet in this pop-culture saturated 21st century. I spent more than a decade trying to explain to people what a “science fiction poet” is — compared to that, saying “I write horror” goes down pretty smooth.

As you note above, your 2016 story collection, The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories instead collects fiction oriented more toward sci-fi and fantasy. Perhaps as a result, it doesn’t have the same tonal and thematic concentration that marks Unseaming. In her introduction to the collection, Nicole Kornher-Stace portrays this as the “throwing down of a gauntlet to anyone who so much as thinks of pigeonholing the versatile body of work of which Mike Allen is capable.” Was that a gesture you were consciously making? What effect do you think it had on the book’s reception, or your perception by readers who knew your name mainly through Unseaming?51kys+sHfgL._UY250_

The lesson I learned with The Spider Tapestries is that readers who buy horror want more horror. I’m not a complete fool, though: I never expected a slender volume of intensely surreal science fantasy works to keep pace with Unseaming, where the weirdness all falls within horror parameters. (I’d be a liar, though, if I claimed I wasn’t hoping for it!)

What Nicole wrote (again, super-kind words) about me throwing down a gauntlet was true in the creation of the individual stories, not as much in the assembly of the book. For example, the ending of my novelette “Sleepless, Burning Life,” in which (spoiler alert?) I run through all the possible consequences of Jyshiu’s next, story-concluding choice, then don’t tell the reader what she did, was 100% deliberate author malfeasance. In “Twa Sisters” I set out to see how far I could push treating science fiction prose like concrete poetry. (In that sense it’s an homage to Harlan Ellison’s “The Region Between,” at least in execution if not in subject matter.)

The base raison d’etre for the book might seem pretty dull: I felt I needed an additional reward option for the Clockwork Phoenix 5 Kickstarter campaign, and it occurred to me these stories left out of Unseaming might work well together.

An aside: I’d been playing with and shopping around various versions of Unseaming for years. Anita, who has for many years organized the contents of our zine issues and anthologies so that they have a thematic flow, also organized Unseaming. Laird once suggested to me that I should be willing to toss in stories from other genres (see his own sf story “Ears Prick Up” in his collection Swift to Chase) but Anita felt the book should hew consistently toward horror, and I must admit I’m grateful for her instincts.

But with any luck, readers will continue to discover The Spider Tapestries and be surprised by the things I spring on them.

Kornher-Stace’s calling your body of work “versatile” is, if anything, an understatement. Having read a broad swath of your published writing at this point, I’m awed by the range of voices, modes, forms that comprise your corpus. There are a couple of things, however, that seem to me quintessentially “Mike Allenesque” characteristics, and I’d like to ask your thoughts on these.

The first is a fascinated, and fascinating, emphasis on visceral metamorphoses, one that sometimes causes your work to swing close toward what I would describe as  “body horror” and the grotesque. Amal el-Mohtar’s introduction to Hungry Constellations phrases this in a particularly vivid way when she writes that Mike Allen “is a man who delights in breaking bodies: butchering, splitting, splaying, dismembering, then seeding landscapes with viscera until they too become bodies—bodies invaded, bodies studied, bodies contaminated. This is a man who carves words into and out of bodies, be they skin or sapphire, corpses or constellations. But somehow Allen skirts gore and clinical detachment both: there is a precision and an economy to his horror that’s reminiscent of clockwork, architecture, astronomy.”

There is something in her characterization of a precision that is more aesthetic than clinical, a grotesquerie that is more architectural than, to paraphrase Stephen King, “going for the gross out,” that cuts to the heart of your work, I think.

 What do you think of this characterization? Why do you think you “delight in breaking bodies” in these ways?

I’ll admit, I was taken aback at first by Amal’s description, but after some contemplation I had to concede it was a fair cop. It’s there in my earliest published work, back in the 1990s.

My best guess: it’s an accumulation of factors. My father taught biology at the University of Guam and later at Clinch Valley College in Wise, and I remember, on visiting his offices and classrooms, being fascinated by the large plastic anatomy models — you could open them and remove the internal organs, the pieces of the brain, the eyes, you could open the heart up and look inside it. Also all the strange creatures from many phyla floating in formaldehyde, and the even weirder invertebrates described in textbooks. I never did get to see the biology department’s cadaver, but I knew it was there inside its coffin-shaped tank. Somehow, though, none of these things ever scared me the way Poe or Lovecraft did.

And yet, I would have these astonishing nightmares, incredibly vivid, where streets would be lined with veins and intestines and people would suffer gory fates worthy of the grossest splatter films — which I had never watched! As a kid, when something too scary came on the television, I’d flee the room. Those dreams, I’m certain, guide my aesthetic as an adult.

I mentioned Barker sparking my own transformation. I think The Books of Blood connected parts of my mind that weren’t consciously working together, the part fascinated with the wilds of biology and the part terrified of but unable to look away from the body under the sheet (as King so eloquently described the love of horror in Night Shift.) Movies like Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Reanimator served the same purpose in a much cruder way. And of course there was Carpenter’s The Thing.

Those sources have a lot of literal partitioning and repurposing of flesh. Once you venture into poetry, though, where the metamorphoses can be simultaneously literal and metaphorical, things really get fun. From there, I guess that’s how I get to stories like “Monster,” where you have a serial killer who’s also a math equation.

The second, and closely related “Mike Allenesque” characteristic that threads through most of your work, even at its darkest, its most violent, and grotesque, is a certain celebratory quality, a rapt reveling, an almost rhapsodic delight in the linguistic expression of entity and being, no matter how agonized, entropic, or abject.  I wonder if this delight is related to what Thomas Ligotti has characterized as the  “fun” underlying your writing. In his words, “ not ‘good’ fun, and certainly not ‘good clean’ fun,” but “laughter in the dark—unnerving, serious laughter.” 

What, for you, is “fun” about your work?  What is serious? What’s the difference?

This is really challenging to answer — but thank you for asking!

All of it has to be fun to some degree, or why do it?

At my littlest, way back in the haze of the first things I remember, my favorite toys were letters of the alphabet. I think that continues in a love I have for wordplay. I often end up pruning back that tendency in the finished product so it doesn’t distract from the narrative, though I can’t resist leaving alliteration and internal rhymes here and there.

The notion that “demented” and “entertaining” can be synonyms arose in my teen years. There were all those 1980s horror movies that were both scary and funny. Those were also the years, much to the chagrin of my parents, that I discovered my love of heavy metal. For some, these teen passions fade, but for me, this particular one never has. The music could trigger these crazy fugues of imagery that spouted from a similar vein (so to speak) as those super-intense nightmares I had when I was younger. My story “Let There Be Darkness” is basically a transcription of one of those fugues, inspired by Slayer’s “South of Heaven.”

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“Let There Be Darkness” is inspired by Slayer’s “South of Heaven.”

The story in Unseaming that is pure fun-for-fun’s-sake is “An Invitation via E-mail,” which has occasionally been dinged for being shallow and mean-spirited compared to the other stories. So be it, it’s short and fun to read aloud.

Beyond “demented,” there’s “disturbing.” My favorite novels when I was young tended to be books like The Lord of the Rings and later The Chronicles of Amber, that swept me up in the grandeur of their inventions. The short stories that stuck with me the longest, though, were the ones that disturbed me, like “Pickman’s Model” or “Descending” or “I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream.” So when I am writing, I have this real Imp of the Perverse impulse to aim at recreating those experiences for whomever ends up being my reader. I can even experience a kind of “Eureka!” glee when I sense that I’m on track toward that goal. I think Tom was able to peer with laser precision through the words and perceive the Imp at work.

All the above makes it sound like none of this is serious for me, but there are things I’m deadly serious about. My anecdotal sense of the world we live in is that we humans lie to ourselves all the time about how good we supposedly are, that we’ve constructed a society that at best pays mere lip service to what’s good and at worst actively punishes the selfless while rewarding the selfish. These notions, and the anger they inspire, also inform my writing, though not in a way that’s intended to convey a prescriptive message.

While we are back on the subject of Ligotti, you’ve mentioned your admiration for, and an homage to, his work above. Can you elaborate about your reception of his work? What aspects of it have influenced your writing, and how? How did Ligotti come to read and review your collection Unseaming?

I’m not 100% certain whether the first thing I read by Tom was “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” in David Hartwell’s Foundations of Fear anthology or whether it was Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I recall finding Grimscribe in a bookstore (it had a blurb comparing him to Barker, an instant hook for me), then soon after special ordering Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

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A Clive Barker blurb atop a portrait of Megatherion introduced Ligotti’s oneiric entropy to some…

His stories have a dreamlike quality that hit me where it hurts so good. By the time I encountered Ligotti’s works, I was a huge fan of all things with a Lovecraftian echo, and I appreciated how he shifted cosmic horror into psychological and metaphysical realms. Grimscribe is full of spectacularly creepy stories, like “Nethescurial,” which features an ending that’s both terrifying and darkly hilarious. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, my poem “No One” sincerely flatters that story.

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The late, lamented David G. Hartwell’s seminal collection introduced it to many others….

I think my world view might be at heart just as dark as his, but whereas his is articulately thought out, mine is more of a gut reaction, or a reaction involving guts, perhaps?

The short answer to why he wrote me a blurb: I screwed up my courage and asked him. Longer context: from 1999ish to 2005, I was a volunteer editor with DNA Publications after they moved from Massachusetts to Floyd, Virginia. Publisher Warren Lapine made my poetry zine, Mythic Delirium, part of the DNA stable, which meant it became a sister magazine to Weird Tales, which at the time was regularly publishing new Ligotti tales. (Including one of my absolute favorites, “Purity.”) Generally speaking, at DNA I learned that getting “name” authors to participate in things really involved pulling one’s grownup pants on and asking, because they’re not necessarily going to say no. (Though if they do, don’t argue, take no for an answer.) Specifically, I first reached out to Tom to see if he’d contribute to a project, and though he declined, I shared my poems with him and he had nice things to say. I was grateful to find the door still open as Unseaming came together.

Back in 2014, while PstD was still a paper journal and Dominik Parisien was our poetry editor, your poem “Dearly Beloved” was the featured poem in our 5th volume. I’m curious, first, about why you enlisted Dominik to curate and edit the selection in Hungry Constellations. In her introduction to the collection, Amal el-Mohtar characterizes him as more of a collaborator than editor – is that a fair assessment? What was that process like?

Dom had made the mistake of telling me how much he admired my poetry, and demonstrating some familiarity with it beyond just stumbling across a poem or two on a website hither and yon. A dangerous thing to do!

Like The Spider Tapestries, Hungry Constellations has mundane origins. When I ran the Mythic Delirium Kickstarter in 2013, I offered as one of the rewards an omnibus collecting all of my poems. When it came time to put that together I had second thoughts. We writers love all our babies to some degree, but some of my published poems I’m just not super-excited about including in a book intended as a showcase.

I selected and ordered all the poems in my previous big collections, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead and The Journey to Kailash. It occurred to me that making this next book a “new and selected poems”-type volume would add esthetic value, but that would require enlisting someone else’s editorial vision. Though his super-successful editing collaborations with Navah Wolfe were still in the future, Dom’s interests in and knowledge of poetry and weird fiction generally and in my work in particular suggested to me he’d be a good choice, and bless him, he was willing to do it. (Worth noting, also, Dom had previously done editorial work for the Ann VanderMeer incarnation of Weird Tales, where “An Invitation via E-mail” appeared.)

I guess you’ll have to judge whether this sounds like collaboration. Essentially, I presented my entire twenty-odd-year accumulation of poetic work to him and asked him to decide what formed a coherent book. (Piece of cake, right?) I’m thrilled with the job he did. There are poems that I would have included if left to my own devices that he didn’t, and vice versa. Even at the very end, when I decided to make a couple additions to the “New and Uncollected Poems” section, I cleared them with Dom first and asked for his guidance as to where to put them. A fascinating final bit came when Amal was reading the book for her introduction and she and Dom discussed his choices, with me carbon copied on the messages. Amal recognized that Hungry Constellations was very much Dom’s creation, with me having provided the clay.

Hungry Constellations also fills what I perceived as a void: it’s my only poetry collection available in e-book form.

In the PstD 5 introduction to “Dearly Beloved,” you cite “the photographic montages of Italian artist Allesandro Bavari” as the inspiration for the universe that poem shared with your Locus-recommended stories “Twa Sisters” and Still-Life with Skull,” both of which were subsequently  reprinted in The Spider Tapestries. Can you tell us about the genesis and development of the world these fictions share? Is it a world to which you return, or will return, in more recent work?

My friend Patty Templeton came across Bavari’s work on an art blog she followed and shared it with me. I’ve never met or corresponded with Bavari so I doubt he knows what a debt I owe him, but his twisted photo collages were like slides from my most intense nightmares. He’s made short films, too, that are just as wild.

Nicole Kornher-Stace had issued me a challenge to write a short story the way I wrote poetry. She had use of language in mind, but I decided to bend those rules and take a stab at a story that imagined the surreal Boschian landscapes in Bavari’s images as real places, a technique I had used in a series of poems about 20th century artists called “Disturbing Muses.” That story became “Twa Sisters.” The story uses some concrete poetry techniques, too, which made it really hard to find a publisher, heh. (Bless you, Not One of Us!) I took a second stab at working in that bizarre world without the visual prose tricks, which became “Still Life With Skull.”

The series by Bavari that inspired me most bears the title “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Despite the elements of horror in some of those works, there’s also an anarchic pansexual delight that I fully incorporated into these stories, where sex, gender and physiognomy can be switched like jackets, so the notion that someone would be judged by their sexual orientation or appearance has become alien as the void. On the downside, I suppose, I also imagine this world as a place where all the constant, invasive surveillance we fret about here in the U.S. via NSA collusion with Google, Facebook, etc. is something that most everyone simply accepts as being as inevitable as death and taxes.

I’ve got a novelette sitting on the back burner, “The Threefold Feather,” that will probably be my final venture into this world. The first draft is finished. Someday, I’ll get back to it…

 In the same introduction you describe Bavari’s work as “visual speculative fiction masquerading as fine art.”  I love the characterization; can you say a little more about what you think constitutes visual speculative art? What is it about Bavari’s images that inspired this characterization? Who are some other artists whose work you’d align with the same category?

It’s part of what attracted me so much to his work: to me, regarding the photos in his “Sodom and Gomorrah” series seem very much like peering into a parallel word, where the rules of existence must be quite different from ours, and yet it’s easy to imagine that there are rules of existence, that these aren’t just abstract doodles.

Even as a kid I was drawn to art that had this feel. I frequently checked out a book on Salvador Dali from the Wise library for that reason. I’ve never based any of my own writings on his work, though — maybe it feels like too obvious a thing to do?

The works of Remedios Varo absolutely have that feel for me — somebody I may try writing a “Disturbing Muses” piece about her. I also had that feel attending the Wassily Kandinksy exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2009, which eventually begat the poem “Kandinsky’s Galaxy.” Through my day job as an arts columnist I from time to time encountered works by contemporary artists that also, to my mind, have this feel, such as painter Bill Rutherfoord or textile artist Beverly Semmes, whose photographs were the inspiration for the antagonist in my short story “Longsleeves.”

Also on the topic of inter-influence between visual and literary speculative art, your wife Anita, whose influence on your writing you often acknowledge, is an accomplished visual artist. Can you (and perhaps Anita herself) tell us more about the relationship between her art and yours? Some of the ways they feed into, and off of, one another?

I just discussed this with Anita a little bit. She can write, but prefers to draw. I can draw, but prefer to write. We definite can work together in a symbiotic way when the need requires. Most important of all, we get each other.

Anita is definitely an artist whose work can have that “view into another world” feel. Her one and only solo show to date, “Beyond the Borders,” held in 2015 at a gallery here in Roanoke, was a gathering of fanciful creatures and monsters, some small as your fist, others so big and heavy it took four people to carry them from the truck to the gallery. Her own background in biology, specifically horticulture, played into it. (You can see some of the creatures from that show on the covers of Mythic Delirium 1.3  and 2.3.)

And, much like writing and editing, the visual arts require lots of icky self-promotion and the willingness to keep wading forward through avalanches of rejection, and Anita’s not super-thrilled at the prospect of either, so she’s never pushed her art to the degree I’ve pushed my writing. In her own words, Anita gets weirded out by the prospect of the limelight and prefers the shadows. Even so, she’s pulled off some really cool things, like that solo show, and I’m hugely proud of her for it.

She has a painting called “The Forest Lord,” of a mythical deer with antlers like clusters of tree branches crowning its head, that really resonates with me on a level I can’t explain. A character inspired by that image appears in The Black Fire Concerto and then reappears in somewhat different form in “Longsleeves.” They’re not the exact same character; those fictional universes aren’t connected, at least not yet, but clearly they’re linked on some other level. “Longsleeves” is almost like a funhouse mirror inversion of Black Fire Concerto, and the reappearance of the Antlered Man is a big part of what makes that so.

As I formulated the first questions for this interview, I was a little shocked to learn that your zine, Mythic Delirium, was going on hiatus after having been a vital touchstone in the world of indie weird and fantasy writing for the course of its 20 year career. Can you tell us more about the origins and history of the zine, and, especially, why you’ve decided to shelve it right now?

First, thank you for the kind words!

I explained both the history and the decision in some detail in the editorial for the final issue, it’s tempting to cut-and-paste, but that would double the length of this interview. I’ll attempt the Cliff’s Notes version.

When I decided to start Mythic Delirium, I’d already done two projects as an editor, the anthology New Dominions: Fantasy Stories by Virginia Writers (1995) and the e-zine Event Horizon (1997-98), which nowadays is mainly remembered as a footnote to Ellen Datlow’s e-zine of the same name. I was interested in continuing my editing ventures but I wanted to do it in a way that I could afford in terms of both money and time, and I didn’t want to answer to anyone but myself. My idea for how to do this was to put out a biannual poetry zine, and those were the mundane origins of Mythic Delirium. I mentioned earlier that once I was with DNA, Warren Lapine offered to take over the publishing end, which is how Mythic Delirium became a sister zine of Weird Tales. So far as I know, Mythic Delirium was the only genre poetry zine ever to be in a position like that — it wasn’t distributed on newsstands, but it was advertised in magazines that were, and included in subscription packages. It helped the zine build up a large enough base that when we parted from DNA in 2005 (and Warren generously let us keep our subscribers), we were able to keep going on our own for a pretty long time.

Fast forward to post-2013, when we reinvented Mythic Delirium as a webzine that included fiction as well as poetry. I am as proud of this chapter of the zine’s life as I am of everything that came before. However, the zine made very little money on its own — the bulk of the support it got was essentially a side effect of the Clockwork Phoenix Kickstarter campaigns. My sense is that the field appreciated Mythic Delirium, but it was a passive appreciation; there were no flurries of social media excitement when new issues came out, and reviewers would for the most part ignore it. I was putting a lot of time into editing and formatting, and creating all those different e-book formats drained away time I could use for my own writing; there were nowhere near enough subscription purchases to justify paying someone else to do that labor. I had to coldly consider ratios of work invested vs. reward, and I concluded that, barring some miracle, I would end the zine in Spring 2018, giving it a classy farewell instead of just shutting off the hose. I at least got enough support to make that possible.

If I remember right, I reached that decision in 2016, and even before then it had loomed as a possibility.

Funny thing about me: I’m an agnostic, but I believe, perhaps irrationally, in guidance offered by serendipity. There were times, earlier in Mythic Delirium’s history, when I considered shutting it down, but something always happened that convinced me the time wasn’t right. This time it worked the opposite way: things that might have made me reconsider resoundingly did not happen. There were other things that happened, though–I’ll keep those details private–that made me happy I didn’t have much longer to go.

That knowledge also made me work even harder to make the final run of issues special. So I have no regrets.

We’re reprinting your short story, “Tardigrade,” as part of the feature. Can you provide us with a little context for the story – its inspiration, when and how you wrote it, what it is about the story you continue to find most effective or interesting, its prior publication history?

I started “Tardigrade” as a lark back in late 2013. At first, it was just a vignette meant to scare a friend of mine who I thought might squirm while reading about bad things happening to teeth, and who has a phobia of slugs. (The original title was “We Make Holes in Teeth,” the Cavity Creeps chant from the old Crest commercial.) That friend is pretty unflappable, and to this day I don’t know if they found that vignette the least bit scary, as I didn’t hear back after I sent it.

I love visual experiments in text, and in its first form the story was just descriptions of creepy Internet videos and the commands to activate them, though the notion that the things depicted were connected wasn’t as clear as I would have liked it to have been. The story want on the back burner for several months while I drafted The Ghoulmaker’s Aria (the sequel to The Black Fire Concerto) and when I came back to it I decided that for it to really work, we needed to see the person watching the videos. At that point it started to morph into “Tardigrade.” A couple months later I received an unexpected invitation from Jason V. Brock to contribute to his anthology A Darke Phantastique, if I could turn something around within a week (!!!) — I finished up “Tardigrade,” Jason loved it, and before the end of the year it was out in print, one of the few times I’ve had something snap together that fast.

Where else can our readers find your work (both online and in print) and, for those who are just beginning to explore it, where would you suggest they start?

If I might indulge in a radio show-style deep cut: if you’re interested in a varied sampling of my poetry, you can go to descentintolight.com and check out this entry, which links  to a series of posts I did for National Poetry Month in 2011 in which I reprinted 13 of the poems collected in The Journey to Kailash, and discussed in detail how and why I wrote them. I also did audio readings of each poem, which you can listen to if you enable Adobe Flash.

If you want more free samples, a number of my stories have been reprinted online or adapted into podcasts. Apex Magazine reprinted both my Nebula-nominated story “The Button Bin” and its novella-length sequel “The Quiltmaker.”  Wilson Fowlie’s reading of “The Button Bin”  at Pseudopod has been praised as one of the site’s best podcasts, period.  StarShipSofa has a reading I recorded of “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground”  that incorporates sound effects. Tales to Terrify has a great reading by C. S. E. Cooney of “The Red Empress,” the first chapter in The Black Fire Concerto. Setsu Uzume made a delightful recording at Podcastle of my new-ish story “The Cruelest Team Will Win.”

And there’s plenty more out there. Most of the books that I’ve mentioned remain in print and available through online retailers. The Mythic Delirium Books website  has links to most of the ones actively available, and my author home page has links to a few more.

Thanks, Mike, for sharing these generous responses, and this wealth of resources, with our readers!

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PSTD AUTHOR INTERVIEW: GEMMA FILES

Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.

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Gemma Files

 

You can read the reprint of her story “Gabbeh” that accompanies this interview here.

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On the subject of Shirley Jackson, can you talk about the importance of her work to your own writing?

I don’t know any female horror writer who doesn’t acknowledge they owe a pretty huge debt to Shirley Jackson, even if they’ve only encountered her work as that section of The Haunting of Hill House quoted by Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. (This is, oddly enough, exactly where I first encountered her. I then went on to read Richard Matheson’s Hell House before I actually read Hill House, which is a little like watching the porno version of a movie before you watch the movie it’s parodying.) I think I reacted a bit badly to her shorter work when I was younger, because so much of it appeared to be about social anxiety and I was like: “Fuck that crap! I don’t care what anybody thinks about me!”

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1972 Bantam cover of Matheson’s Hell House. The “porno version?”

Then I got older and realized that, heigh-ho, the expectations of others could indeed be indeed kind of horrifying, especially if what you were socially anxious about was the possibility that your friends, neighbours and family might stone you to death if you drew the black spot in your town’s annual Lottery. But the true lesson Shirley Jackson is her absolute mastery of the unreliable narrative voice and her ability to render the domestic/familiar uncanny—she was both witch and homemaker, in that respect. Those are definitely two things I’ve tried to incorporate into my own work.

Can you talk about some of your favourite Jackson fictions and why they continue to fascinate?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle remains a startlingly accurate portrait of a female sociopath, which is always appealing for me—Merricat Blackwood is a person whose patterns of thinking are literally magical, who lives her life by a set of OCD superstitions that remind me of the work of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine—derail her rituals, puncture or threaten her world-view, and she’ll slip you a poison mushroom without thinking twice. Her sister Constance, on the other hand, has convinced herself that the best thing she can do for Merricat is to take responsibility for her actions, which is a beautiful example of toxic femininity at work. Hill House remains my favourite of her novels, though, which is why when I accepted my award for Experimental Film, I told the audience that I, like the little girl Eleanor observes on her way to the titular haunted mansion, had finally gotten “[my] cup of stars.”

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Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; a “startlingly accurate portrait of a female sociopath.”

Any thoughts on the greater recognition and visibility Jackson’s work has been getting in the last few years? The previous or forthcoming film/TV adaptations of her work? The homage paid to it by the Canadian Netflix-original film, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I was inclined to like Oz Perkins’s work from the get-go, considering my youthful obsession with his father Anthony and my love of his brother Elvis’s music, so it’s no surprise I find I Am The Pretty Thing fascinating on a bunch of levels—I like its formalism, its slow burn, its oddity, not to mention Ruth Wilson’s and Paula Prentiss’s central performances. I also very much look forward to Mike Flanagan’s version of Hill House, since I love his stuff generally; I have no doubt that no matter what he does or doesn’t do with it, it’ll be a great adaptation.

That said, I think that in a way, Shirley Jackson is finally having her Sylvia Plath moment—the recent biography A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin reveals the way she was consistently undercut by her mother, how she battled depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction, raising her kids virtually alone in the boring, annoying wilds of small town Vermont while juggling her Bennington professor husband’s academic pomposity and constant infidelity. In a lot of ways, she’s a cautionary tale from the very beginning of Betty Friedan-style feminism, so this is a perfect post-Weinstein moment for current horror fans and writers to rediscover her, whether female or not. But she remains a classic, either way.

Like much of your work, Experimental Film plays powerfully with myth and folklore in creating a world of wonder and terror. In this case, the folklore of Lady Midday plays an especially predominant role. How did this folkloric figure come to your attention, and how did she come to play such a central role in the novel?


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Experimental Film won the 2015 Shirley Jackson award.

I’ve always loved creepy fairytales, which would be a lot of them, at least in their earliest and purest forms. I particularly love a sub-set of fairytales involving authoritarian female mentor/witchy godmother figures like Mother Holle, Mrs Gertrude and (of course) Baba Yaga—they set our protagonists impossible tasks, demand complete obedience and politeness no matter how badly they treat them, then reward or punish them according to their own spiteful, inhuman standards. So when I accidentally tripped across Lady Midday while Googling obscure demons, I immediately became obsessed with making her the monster in the middle of Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb’s mental maze.

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Ivan Biblin’s 1932 illustration of King Frost from Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book

What I liked about her immediately is that she seemed like the inverse of King Frost, another wonderful figure I first discovered in Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book, a Victorian collection of fairytales from around the world; King Frost is a Russian winter-spirit who demands polite lies from the people he’s essentially freezing to death, mockingly asking them over and over: Are you warm, maiden? Are you warm?, to which the maiden in question must always answer: I am very comfortable, King Frost, or suffer the consequences.

So the first part of Experimental Film I ever wrote was the fairytale starring Lady Midday, which I got to make exactly as creepy as I wanted; instead of cold, she’s all about heat, a stark and terrible light, the smell of burning blood. I still love the idea of her appearing only “between the minute and the hour,” at the very crack of noon, having such an incredibly tiny window of opportunity but ruling it so completely…and naturally, I was also very energized by the idea of her carrying these sharp blades, a pair of scissors or a brazen angel’s sword, with which she snips off the heads of all those who dare to disrespect her. It’s everything I like best, ie exactly what scares me most.

While I knew on first reading Experimental Film that the novel’s narrator Lois, shares a great deal of biographical material in common with you, her author, it wasn’t until I listened to this epic audio interview for the This is Horror podcast  that I realized how extensive some of the parallels were. Is it safe to say this is the most autobiographical piece of fiction you’ve ever written?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I’ll ever write any other character who’s as close to me as Lois Cairns is. I mean, even though the book I’m working on right now—Nightcrawling—also comes directly out of personal experience, I’m trying my best to distinguish my protagonist/narrator from both her and myself as much as I can: instead of it being a story told from the POV of someone who’s a version of me, it’s a story told from the POV of someone my current age who’s obsessed with the disappearance of a person she knew in university who’s a younger version of me, who in turn was once toxic best friends back in elementary school with another person who’s an even younger version of me, who also disappeared. Which I guess sounds kind of Gillian Flynn, but don’t worry, there’s a fair amount of supernatural shit in it too…ghosts, evil Narnia portal dimensions, etc. It’s complicated and kicking my ass right now, but I have high hopes it’ll turn out well.

In the same interview, you describe Lois Cairns as being “yourself at your worst.” Are you worried about your readers’ perception of you being distorted by reading the novel?

Well, I must admit that I never exactly assumed my readers thought I was a nice person, so.;) On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot about Lois being boring, whiny, self-obsessed, unkind, etc., as well as a lot of: “Holy shit, exactly how much talk about Canadian and experimental film does she expect us to sit still for?” (Half a chapter/roughly ten pages out of roughly 300, in case you’re wondering.) One reviewer said he didn’t believe anybody could live with the sort of insomnia and chronic pain problems she has and still be functional, which made me laugh because those are very much my own insomnia and chronic pain problems, and I kind of played them down. Another reviewer complained that he actually wanted more obscure experimental film references, and also accused me of writing about film “like a film reviewer,” to which I can only say: hey, guess what? There’s a reason for that. Dislikers gonna dislike, in other words.

What were some of the (dis)advantages you encountered writing a character who is in many ways so close to yourself? What were some of the most emotionally difficult scenes or moments in the novel for you to write? 

I said things about Lois’s Mom that I knew were going to piss my Mom off, and did. But universally, the hardest stuff to write was the stuff about Lois’s son Clark, who is at best a very pointed sketch of my son Cal at a much earlier stage in his development. He’s thirteen now (wow!), and while he still twiddles things in front of his eyes, sings almost constantly and likes to watch YouTube while jumping around in his underwear, you can have a genuine conversation with him, and I don’t doubt that he loves me. The stuff about Clark is from the part of my life where that wasn’t quite as clear, and it was hard to write, because it was stuff I felt ashamed of ever having thought or felt. That story I tell about sitting in a coffee shop writing the first pass through Chapter One and crying while I did it is absolutely true. And even now, I mean…I love Cal desperately, he’s quite literally the love of my life, but man, he’s a lot of work. And on good days I like that, but on bad days, it’s still kind of hard to take.

Have you gotten any notable responses (praise, criticism, or otherwise) from readers regarding Experimental Film’s portrayal of Lois’s autistic son, or her relationship with him?

I got a very interesting review from Ada Hoffman’s site Autistic Book Party, here ( that refers to Lois as “an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.” (They talk a lot about her internalized ableism being at the root of her difficulties with Clark, which is a bit painful, but pretty much a fair cop.) What was particularly interesting about it was that I’d been increasingly flirting with the idea of identifying myself as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, because I truly believe that if the adults around me had been looking for that in A) kids and B) girls when I was between nine and eleven years old—the hands-down worst part of my life—then I would have gotten a diagnosis, because back then I fit the established range of symptoms for Asperger’s so closely that just looking at a list of those symptoms was startling to me.

Of course, that was before I was socialized to behave as much as I could like the people around me, or at least to stop myself from behaving the way I actually wanted to, as happens to most women who fit that profile. It also doesn’t help that Asperger’s only became a standard diagnosis in 1992, when I was already out of university, and was folded back into the Autism spectrum by 2013. These days I test about two points out from a diagnosis, though it’s well-known that 20% of people with Asperger’s may not meet the diagnostic criteria by adulthood, even when some social and communication difficulties may persist. So to be recognized like that by a bunch of (other) autistic people as “oh well, yes, of course she reads as autistic”…that meant a lot. I’ve also gotten a lot of very moving responses from other parents of autistic children, who often say they recognize some version of themselves or their own situation in Lois and Clark, which makes me happy.

Again in the This is Horror interview, you speak critically about the kinds of tropes that popular fiction often imposes on autistic characters. Were you worried about doing this yourself in Experimental Film given the ways the novel weaves Lois’s and her son’s respective neurodivergences into the supernatural framework of the story?

There were three big things I didn’t want to do in Experimental Film, and the first was that I didn’t want Clark’s autism to destroy his parents’ relationship with each other—I wanted Simon, Lois’s husband, to both stick around and be extremely supportive, because the opposite happens all too often in horror (and in real life, sadly). Secondly, I didn’t want to treat Clark as some sort of “magical autistic kid”…I didn’t want him to be a savant on the one hand, because most of us just aren’t, but I also didn’t want to treat him like a ghost-whispering human ouija board, either.

The third thing I didn’t want to do, meanwhile, was treat Clark being potentially “cured” as a happy ending, because I don’t think of neurodivergence as any more of a disease than, say, having brown eyes or being tall. My own son’s neurodivergence, like mine, is a foundational element of his entire being; make him suddenly neurotypical, and he wouldn’t be him anymore. So if that opportunity came up, I wanted Lois to utterly reject it, no matter how much “easier” it might supposedly make life for either of them—and (spoiler alert) she does. One reviewer apparently thought that wasn’t enough of a climax, but seriously, screw that dude.

You’ve often spoken about the importance of fanfiction, and the role it played in your development as a writer. What is it about fanfic that makes it so important?  

Fanfiction taught me to write a chaptered narrative, which was very useful when I finally decided to make the jump from short fiction to novels—how to chunk a long-form story into roughly 5,000-word sections and let each lead into the next, creating an overall pattern of constant forward motion. This may seem pretty rudimentary, but when you’re faced with producing a 100,000-word document, it’s really important to realize that you can break it into bite-sized pieces without scuttling it.

But better yet, I think that writing fanfic teaches you that even your most specific obsessions are valid rather than weird and unpalatable—that whatever happens to come out of your id is entirely fine to concentrate on for as long as you need to in order to groom it into a story other people could respond to with equal enthusiasm, without censoring it or disguising it. I mean, when I was a kid I would literally tell myself stories in which I reduced the love interest’s pronoun to “e” so that people wouldn’t be able to tell I was thinking about two dudes together—and thanks to fanfic, those days are long gone.

I also like the fact that you can use fanfic logic to jump-start an idea: cast the premise with characters or actors you like, rough out the central relationships, mix and match in terms of plot, style, etcetera. Remix culture is wonderful for that sort of creative short-handing, and it works just as well for fiction as for fic (so long as you always remember to file off those pesky serial numbers, that is).

Can you talk about any of your fanfic pieces that evolved directly into pro work you later published? 

All the 3:10 to Yuma (the James Mangold remake, not the original) fanfic I wrote over the year Cal was diagnosed led directly into the dynamics of the Hexslinger series, so if you want to think of Chess Pargeter as a version of Charlie Prince who actually knows he’s gay, then feel free. A lot of the research I did for writing Gangs of New York fic was also very useful, because it was set in roughly the same era. And back in the day I wrote a lot of fic for HBO’s Oz (the prison show), which informed stuff like my neo-Nazi shapeshifter Queer Fear story “Bear-Shirt.” But there’s also a lot of stuff I wrote instead of writing fic, and I guess you might be able to trace those patterns if you tried—my story “When I’m Armoring My Belly” is about Renfields in general and that harbinger guy from 30 Days of Night in specific; my Hammer Pirates story-cycle (“Trap-Weed,” “Two Captains,” “The Salt Wedding” and “Drawn Up From Deep Places”) is literally called that because it grew in part out of my desire to see Peter Cushing, Sir Christopher Lee and Tia Dalma from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies interact. I like to think they stand on their own, though.

 

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3:10 to Yuma, dir. James Mangold.

Any pieces of your own fanfic that you are particularly fond of?

I’ve written two incredibly long pieces of fic that apparently managed to convince people who’d never thought too much about it of the viability of Beecher/Schillinger (from Oz) and The Governor/Rick Grimes (from The Walking Dead) as actual ships, so that makes me happy. The titles in question are “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “This Old Death,” and they’re both up at Archive of Our Own under the name handful_ofdust.

 

Your extensive knowledge of horror film and your insightfully broad taste in genre pictures make you a regular go-to for me in terms of film recommendations. Do you have any thoughts on how horror films in Canada have evolved since the “Tax Haven nasties” of the 70s and 80s?

Well…the cycle that’s developed that used to sustain production companies like New Line and now sustains ones like Blumhouse is one that Canadian directors would seem particularly qualified to take advantage of—horror movies tend to work best when made on really low budgets, mostly because that allows them to reap big box office for not a lot of outlay, like flipping a house. Unfortunately, however, they still tend to be assessed by their ability to perform within our own comparatively tiny box office, which essentially consigns them to making films to prove they can make TV. (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers totally monopolized the Canadian box office the year it was released, making just over $30 million; if that had been the way the world reckoned his professional worth, he’d never have been able to make Return of the King.)

So if you sometimes wonder where all those great Canadian horror directors go, it’s often to working on runaway TV productions—people like Vincenzo (Splice, Cube, Haunter) Natali, for example, who did most of the second season of Hannibal, or John (Ginger Snaps) Fawcett, who co-created Orphan Black. Back in the 1980s, people like David Cronenberg were making the very conscious decision not to go to Hollywood—he shot The Dead Zone and The Fly with American stars and money, then made Videodrome and watched those deals collapse, fairly happily; he’s never really wanted to make movies with much bigger budgets than Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, and it’s easier for him to get that money from the U.K. and/or France, just like David Lynch. Bruce (Pontypool) MacDonald seems to operate in much the same way, and while Quebec is the one place in Canada that has a truly self-sufficient film industry, they don’t seem all too interested in making horror films.

What we need overall is a better delivery system—multi-platform releases would work really well, just like they do in tiny markets like Japan, with an emphasis on streaming. Of course, we also either need film quota legislation like the kind that revived the South Korean film industry and keeps the French and U.K. film industries alive, or we need to accept that if the government won’t fund genre films on bullshit moral grounds then the best way to get what we want done is to make co-production deals with corporations like Netflix, who already fund and host horror films from South America, Japan and India, apparently without requiring them to pretend they were shot in the U.S.

Any films from this period that have continued resonance for you, decades later?

I’ve become really fond of Black Christmas, not least because an argument could be made for it being the first slasher film to use maniac’s-eye-view steadicam shots—it pre-dates Halloween, after all. And I love all of Cronenberg’s tax shelter films, especially The Brood and Scanners. They remind me of my childhood, particularly the night that Michael Ironside came over and changed my fuses after the power went out in my house (he’d been attending a class with my Mom, also a Canadian actor).

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Cronenberg’s sci-fi/horror classic, Scanners, reminds Files of Michael Ironside’s late-night electrical assistance.

Are there any recent horror films you’d especially recommend to our readers?  

Stuff I’ve seen and loved this year includes Julia Decourneau’s Raw, It: Chapter One (obviously), and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I loved Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, but it’s basically a fable rather than a horror film per se—kind of an anti-Lovecraftian vision of self-definition through literally loving the alien. I also really liked The Void, which apparently puts me in opposition to a lot of people I respect, and I finally saw Marcin Wrona’s brilliant last film Demon, in which the true horror is about otherwise “good” people’s willingness to forgive and forget little things like genocide. It’s really neat to see politics seeping back into horror, especially when it comes to intersectional issues; given the way things are going, social commentary is rapidly becoming a necessity, if horror is to remain relevant.

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Loving the alien – del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017).

 

(How) Did your own experiences as a writer of screenplays/teleplays affect your approach in Experimental Film? How did it shape your fiction in more general terms?

 

Film hangs over a lot of my stories, either overtly or covertly. I’m fond of tricks like wipes, dissolves, cuts to, switches in perspective; I like to start things in media res, to come in late and leave early. But then again, I also just like to talk about how film shapes our own perspective on things, how it can give us the impression we’ve already had experiences we’ve really only seen cinematic versions of. I think it’s all part and parcel of the fact that contemporary horror writers don’t live in a vacuum; we’re just as much a part of the larger spread of horror culture as anyone else, as much fans as we are creators—it helps us to not stay static, to continue to grow, to cobble together a lingua franca of references we (hopefully) share with our readers.

Of your numerous stories, are there any that you’d especially like to see adapted for film or TV? Any directors, screenwriters or actors you’d especially love to work with (even if in the realms of pure wish-fulfillment fantasy!)?

My experiences on The Hunger were A) nearly twenty years ago and B) interesting but not entirely satisfying, so yeah, I’d love to see other stuff of mine adapted to the screen, be it big or small. Filmmakers I’d love to work with include Floria Sigismondi, Kathryn Bigelow, Mike Flanagan, Guillermo del Toro, Mary Harron, Sarah Polley and Karyn Kusama.

As part of our author feature, we’re reprinting your short story “Gabbeh” on the site. Can you tell us a little about the story’s origins, inspiration and publication history?

When I was a film critic I reviewed a 1997 Mohsen Makmalbaf film called Gabbeh that’s a fable about the story told by the pattern on an extremely non-representational kind of rug; it’s meditative and romantic and odd, full of primal colour, driven by the struggle between faith and desire. One thing I took away from it was an enduring interest in iconoclasm, the idea of making up a sort of geometric visual code that would allow you to make pictures of things without offending God. So when I was asked to contribute a story to the 2012 World Fantasy Convention Programme Book by Barbara Roden, I spun the theme of Toronto Urban Fantasy into a tale I thought might somewhat represent the level of inherent diversity and multiculturalism that I’ve always loved about my home city. Haunted objects are also very much my jam, and I’d never seen a story featuring a haunted rug before. So there you go: one from column A, one from column B—it really does work, at least for 2,000 words.

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Mohsen Makmalbaf’s Gabbeh  (1997)

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NecronomiCon, here we come…

NecronomiCon-Providence-Convention-August-17-20-2017

 

Dear PstD readers – I’ll be travelling down to Providence, RI this week to participate in Necronomicon 2017 (after a brief stop in Salem, MA, always hard to resist, especially as I’m keen to see Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s collection of pulp sf/horror art at the Peabody Essex Museum, on display until November 26.)

The organizers have outdone themselves this year in putting together a wide variety of events and a diverse array of presenters, and I’m looking forward to the broader and less exclusively Lovecraft-centric focus on the weird than previous years have seen (and I say this as one invested in studying HPL, his sources, and his influence.)

I’m presenting a talk as part of the Armitage academic track on Sunday morning, (8/20) 10:00-11:15, in the Bristol-Kent Room, Omni Hotel, 3rd Floor. The session is ominously titled  “Emanations of Abominations: Lovecraft Around the Globe.”

My talk is titled “Shadows Out of Space, Colours Out of Time,” and is based on one section of my chapter contribution for the essay collection, The Call of Cosmic Panic: New Essays on Supernatural Horror in Literature (while the peer-review process always makes publication dates tricky to predict, the collection should appear in late 2018.)

The chapter examines how Lovecraft’s ideas of weird fiction and cosmic horror are uniquely suited to both being incorporated in and critically appreciating the formal  and conceptual possibilities of comics as a medium. It considers the centrality of modes of representing temporal and spatial relationships to Lovecraft’s theories of weird fiction and cosmic horror, and how these have been adapted to comics by a variety of writers and artists, including Junji Ito, Charles Burns, and Alan Moore.

The talk (while still absurdly broad) is considerably more circumscribed, and focuses on how mangaka Junji Ito adapts the image/symbol of the spiral from Lovecraft’s work, using it in his magnum opus Uzumaki to unsettle and transfigure perceptions of the human body, space and time.

Uzumaki (1)

Making subversive use of fascinatingly detailed line-work and the relationship between panels and inter-panel gutters, Uzumaki provides a momentary disruption of “the galling limitations of space and time,” a trait Lovecraft viewed as the central goal of cosmic weird fiction.

I’ll be one of the panelists for “Machinations and Mesmerism”: How Middle European Fantasists & Romanticists informed Modern Horror” Friday (8/18) morning 1030 – 1145 in the Grand Ballroom, Biltmore 17th Floor. The description reads:
“Modern weird fiction is rooted in countless literary genres. The fantastical works of many Middle-European authors (Goethe, Meyrink, Hoffmann, Kubin, Schulz, Tieck, etc.), both notable and obscure, are often overlooked as a strong source of influence to both general horror and modern Weird fiction. Join us for a discussion that will touch upon the worth of these narratives as sources, the themes that share a common thread with the modern weird, authors who may not be thought of immediately when one thinks of current dark literature, and how one might look upon the literary genre critically as forerunners to the present dark literary landscape.”

I’ll also be one of the panelists for “Lovecraft in Context” on Saturday (8/19) 430-545 PM, Newport-Washington, Omni 3rd Floor. The panel description reads:
“Lovecraft in context, more than just a quick annotation, some of Lovecraft’s most obscure references are links to other stories, secret crossovers, and in-jokes to the well-read. Find out what you are missing out by not delving into the details of that off-handed remark.”

I’m in some intimidating company for this one – Leslie Klinger, Paul LaFarge, Steve Mariconda, J.M. Rajala, and Peter Rawlik. These are all scholars/writers I admire, but I’m especially thrilled to be sharing space with Paul LaFarge, whose magnificent novel, The Night Ocean, is one of the most queerly fascinating things I’ve read in recent years.  A sort of multiply-nested piece of vampiric biography, it out-Pale Fire-s Nabokov, examining identity, obsession, fandom, and the will to believe, ingeniously threading Lovecraft and W. S. Burroughs together via R.H. Barlow. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (Douglas Wynne has written a sharp review of it for the Lovecraft eZine here .

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The cover of La Farge’s novel, with its aptly vortical spirals.

Speaking of scholarship on weird fiction and Lovecraftiana, my latest foray into scholarly non-fiction to make it into print came out back in June. The Lovecraftian Poe: Essays on Influence, Reception, Interpretation and Transformation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) is a peer-reviewed essay collection that I edited, introduced, and contributed a chapter to; it examines the complex relationship between these seminal writers from multiple points of view, and at a length and level of detail that has never been done before. For the time being at least, you can read the entirety of both S.T. Joshi’s foreword and my introduction to the book here. This project, like most academic collections, was a long time coming together, and had its conceptual genesis in the wake of the first NecronomiCon I attended back in 2013, so it seems appropriate to mention it here.

In September, look  for a longer post about The Lovecraftian Poe, including the table of contents, chapter abstracts, excerpts, links to recent work by the contributors, and some praise from reviewers.

Look, too, for a new Necro(nomicon)scopy, debriefing some of the highlights of this year’s ‘Con,  and an update and schedule for my participation in CanCon 2017, Ottawa’s fantastic annual speculative fiction convention, coming up so-so-happily-soon in October 13-15.

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PSTD BOOK REVIEW: REVENGE OF THE VAMPIR KING

by Lydia Peever

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Those who devour vampire fiction will be familiar with Nancy Kilpatrick. With hundreds of credits to her name, and having complied The Goth Bible, she has become irrevocably fused with the genre. Considering her contributions, that is a wonderful thing.

Her latest foray into endless night is an epic series, projected at over a half dozen books, entitled ‘Thrones of Blood.’ Revenge of the Vampir King is the first volume in this series, released by Crossroad Press in ebook format on February 1, 2017, with the paperback to follow. Judging by the elastic length of the electronic version, this will be a thick volume at nearly 300 pages, giving lovers of meaty series that drip blood from every page one to sink their teeth into. Within the first chapter, however, it will have sunk its teeth into you, for better or worse.

Kilpatrick has decades of expertise on vampires; books about them could be considered her legacy. Scounds of short stories spatter her bibliography. She has curated anthologies of sanguine sagas as editor of Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, and the follow-up Evolve: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead. Her collections, like Vampyric Variations and the appropriately titled The Vampire Stories of Nancy Kilpatrick, and a number of novels, both under her name and her pseudonym Amarantha Knight, capture the immortal imagination–Dracul, Bloodlover, and Child of the Night–to name a few.

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With the cyclical popularity of long and involved series resurgent lately, it seems like perfect timing for a writer so at home with these nocturnal fascinations. There are other fascinations to be had in her writing, too. Whip cracks of erotica, flirting with exploitative porn and hard-line kink, may make some readers flinch… or beg for mercy. Those with a bookshelf full of non-fiction kink or erotic horror with a stomach for sexual violence may relish the experience.

Those who come to the horror genre seeking more than one kind of release may very well find it here. On top of that, the exploits of vampir King Moarte and his reluctant captor-cum-bride Valada go from a master and slave dynamic to a travelling and plotting duo, as the story morphs between fantasy fiction and espionage tale, slippery with deceit and betrayal.

Revenge of the Vampir King may seem to have something for everyone and appear vastly inclusive at first glance; however, upon inspection, you can see how the audience may shrink. Regency vampires, sword and sorcery, plus the highly sexualized nature of these beasts may appeal to a only a few clans in the horde of vampire fans, since there are so many incarnations of the blood-drinkers to be drawn to. If you have an affinity for modern speech and balk at the fantasy genre’s penchant for flowery and dramatic dialogue, then you may fall out of the net here. The harder division line comes with the fusion of violence and sexuality, as noted earlier, and some may not be able to see past the submissive nature or the brutal treatment of some characters.

Where the words slave and master will thrill some readers, they could drive others away.

All in all, it is brave piece of fiction for readers seeking a deep plunge into sex, swords and sanguine sensuality.


Lydia Peever is a horror author and journalist from Ontario, Canada. She is a big fan of horror music, books and film–so anywhere there is blood, you will probably find her lurking somewhere in the corner.

Her short stories have appeared in Postscripts To Darkness, Dark Moon Digest, For When The Veil Drops and her small collection, Pray Lied Eve and its sequel Pray Lied Eve 2. The follow up to her first novel Nightface has also been written.

In her spare time, she helps update the new releases section of the Horror Writers Association website, photographs zombie walks or bloody punk rock bands, and records a few podcasts.

You can read her earlier in-depth PstD interview with Nancy Kilpatrick here.

 

 

2 POEMS BY GWYNNE GARFINKLE

People Change: A Love Story

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

he’s secretly in love with her
alas he only tells her

when they’re about to be replaced

by emotionless imposters

and love is about to be

eradicated from the planet



timing is everything

  1. The Fly (1986)

they fall in love


then he gets jealous

of her ex-boyfriend

gets sloshed on champagne

and morphs into a giant insect


(sometimes I just watch the first half

of the film, pretend it’s only

the sweet romance between

a scientist and a reporter

they live happily ever after

nothing disintegrates)

  1. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

they’re happily married

sex becomes newly interesting at first

as he roams the increasingly

vast expanse of her body

he continues to diminish

until even the cat wields

more power than him


still he grows more minuscule

until his wife can no longer see him

or hear him calling her name

garfinkle

Illustration by Carrion House



Linda Blair Pantoum

I cut her photo from Famous Monsters       

the makeup-caked demon’s gleeful grimace

I haven’t seen the movie yet

her picture is everywhere


the makeup-caked demon’s gleeful grimace

possessed girl with bad skin and matted hair

her picture is everywhere

“that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter”


possessed girl with bad skin, in a shaking bed

twelve year old spitting out expletives

“that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter”

shock of her whisky-and-nicotine voice

twelve year old spitting out expletives

Sarah T. the teenage alcoholic

shock of Mercedes McCambridge’s voice

born innocent babe in juvie


Sarah T. the teenage alcoholic

sweet hostage in Martin Sheen’s speeding car

born innocent babe on TV

I approach adolescence, looking for signposts

sweet hostage in Martin Sheen’s speeding car

I haven’t seen the movie yet

as I approach adolescence, looking for signposts

I cut her photo from Famous Monsters

Gwynne Garfinkle (poetry) lives in Los Angeles. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Interfictions, Apex, Mythic Delirium, Lackington’s, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Through the Gate, inkscrawl, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

Carrion House (artwork) currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.

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