Author Archives: pstdarkness

The Downward Spiral: Thoughts on Lovecraftian Spirality and Ito’s Uzumaki

By Sean Moreland

This informal and image-driven essay is loosely based on two closely related conference papers. The first was given as part of the academic track of NecronomiCon, in Providence, RI, August 2017. The second was delivered as part of the Visual & Performing Arts & Audiences Division at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in March, 2018. I further develop my analysis of the relationship between Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” and the aesthetics of the sublime in the essay “The Birth of Cosmic Horror from the S(ub)lime of Lucretius,” in New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature. My analysis of the significance of spiral motifs in Lovecraft, and especially in his writings up to 1927, is developed in the article “Stages of The Spiral: Lovecraft’s Descent into the Maelstrom,” which will appear in the collection Lovecraftian Proceedings Volume 3, forthcoming summer 2019 from Hippocampus Press. Eventually, these ideas will be more fully developed as a chapter in my book-in-progress, Repulsive Influences: A Historical Poetics of Atomic Horror.

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Asked in an interview about the influences on his magnum opus of comic-cosmic horror, Uzumaki, renowned mangaka Junji Ito replied that the “different stages of the spiral” visualized by the book “were definitely inspired from the mysterious novels of H.P. Lovecraft.”

As Ito’s remark suggests, Uzumaki responds to and adapts Lovecraft’s spirals as figurations of cosmic horror, figurations profoundly influenced by Lovecraft’s own historical, cultural, and scientific context.

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HPL ala Ito

 

 

In Lovecraft’s writings, spirals initially figure visible cosmic order and scientific discovery, as suggested by his excited responses to early photographic images of the spiral nebula. In 1917, Lovecraft wrote:

 

 

 

“A recent discovery of immense importance to our knowledge of the structure of the universe is that of the incredibly rapid rotation of certain large spiral nebulae… how rudimentary is our present information regarding the larger outlines of the visible creation wherein we dwell.”

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G.W. Ritchey’s 1910 photoplate of the M51 spiral nebula

 


In Lovecraft’s writings as of 1918, however, beginning with “The Poe-et’s Nightmare,” spirals increasingly come to figure disorder and chaos, an association intensified by Lovecraft’s gradual acceptance of the cosmic consequences of the second law of thermodynamics, contemporaneously with what he called the “maelstrom” of the First World War’s chaotic violence. As Lovecraft puts it in a 1923 letter to Frank Belknap Long:

“In art there is no use in heeding the chaos of the universe. I can conceive of no true image of the pattern of life and cosmic force, unless it be a jumble of mean dots arrang’d in directionless spirals.” It is a remark Lovecraft makes by way of criticizing the “chaotic” work created by Modernist and surrealist writers and artists, which (futilely, to his mind) attempts to reflect the (dis)order of existence by eschewing traditional formal structures.

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1923 spiral photograph by Man Ray

 

Without explicitly referring to Lovecraft, Uzumaki  provides a powerful realization of how spirals in his writing figure at once an ordered, mechanistic and predictably determinate universe, and a chaotic and unknowable one. I take Ito’s acknowledgement of Lovecraft’s influence as a license to frame Uzumaki (perhaps perversely) in terms of the context of Lovecraft’s work, although this necessarily means  tearing it from the context of Japanese cultural, narrative and visual traditions in the late 20th century. Largely excluded from my discussion, for example, are Uzumaki’s connections to Ero-Guro-Nansensu, the spiral patterns of Hokusai’s ukiyo-e, Ito’s parodying of conventions of popular romance manga, or his homages to fellow horror mangaka Kazuo Umezu.

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Katsushika Hokusai’s ukiyo-e often feature spiral motifs, including many of his “laughing demon” images and the better-known Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Similarly, I don’t explore the topic of Lovecraft’s wider cultural reception in Japan. Readers interested in this topic should see Hisadome Kenji, “The Cthulhu Mythos in Japan,” trans. Edward Lipsett, Night Voices, Night Journeys Volume One: Lairs of the Hidden Gods, edited by Asamatsu Ken (Fukuoka: Kurodahan, 2005), 339-352,. Those interested in HPL’s pervasive influence in manga and anime could start with Jason Thompson’s NSFW piece here.

Unlike artists Osamu Tezuka, Richard Corben, John Coulthard, or Ian Culbard, Ito has never produced a literal adaptation of Lovecraft’s stories. Unlike Alan Moore, he is not known for his re-imaginings of Lovecraft’s characters or plots; nevertheless, Ito is among the most important visual interpreters of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and Uzumaki is his greatest expression of it to date. Ito is open about Lovecraft’s influence; he remarks, with apposite vagueness, that Lovecraft’s expressionism with regard to atmosphere greatly inspires my creative impulse.” Ito’s characterization of Lovecraft echoes Lovecraft’s own definition of weird fiction in Supernatural Horror in Literature, which emphasizes “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” and “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

Uzumaki provides such a suspension by visualizing the gradual speiromorphosis of a coastal Japanese town, portraying an ensemble cast of ill-fated characters while often focusing on the futile escape attempts of two students, Kirie Goshima and Shuichi Saito. Uzumaki offers a few implicit homages to Lovecraft’s stories, particularly with the chapter “The Medusa,” reminiscent of Lovecraft’s collaboration, “Medusa’s Coil” (minus the viciously racializing subtext.)

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

However, Ito’s interest in the epistemological and aesthetic roots of Lovecraft’s spiral obsession is most evident in the “lost” chapter of Uzumaki, making it an effective bridge between the early 20th century astronomical context of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the turbulent transfigurations of Uzumaki as a whole.

Called “Galaxies,” this chapter is disconnected from the rest of the arc, appearing in the VIZ omnibus edition as a sort of postscript. “Galaxies” introduces the spiral as an alien astronomical phenomenon.

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

It begins with Shuichi telling Kirie that he has discovered a galaxy that “isn’t listed in any book,” insisting she look through his telescope to see for herself. Kirie is the visual focus of the opening panels; the reader looks at her. With the fourth panel, we see the spiral phenomenon for the first time through her eyes, a traditional suturing technique in both comics and film.

We see the human locus of our identification, then we see the supernatural threat through their eyes, then we see their reaction to it, and so on. Inside the panel’s square borders is a circular secondary border representing the telescopic lens. Inside that, a twisting spiral stellar formation, strongly reminiscent of early photographs of the spiral nebulae.

The next page shifts scenes and elides time, showing Kirie at school, telling her science teacher about the discovery. While skeptical, he agrees to ask his friend, “an armchair astronomer” to verify Shuichi’s find. Another turn of the page brings the reader to that night, and the home of Torino, struck with manic elation when he sees the spiral galaxy for himself (617). The discovery leads to “a sudden astronomy boom” in Kirie’s school, the “new” galaxy becoming an object of community-wide obsession. This obsession is especially powerful for Shuichi and Torino, who both experience “radio waves”  emanating from “some entity” in the spiral galaxy, an echo of the interstellar telepathic communication practiced by many of Lovecraft’s alien entities.

Shuichi is desperate to escape this nefarious astral influence, while Torino wants to use it to glorify himself. He tells Shuichi that he must kill him, in order to get credit for the discovery. Eventually, more new galaxies are discovered, emerging as if in correspondence with the individual subjectivities of the town’s residents, beckoning each of them to their own particular sidereal dissolution, a conceit closely related to that at the heart of Ito’s manga, The Enigma of Amigara Fault. Delirium and violence ensue, culminating in Torino’s attempts to kill Kirie, who objects to his taking credit for Shuichi’s discovery:

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As he overpowers her, the sky behind him erupts into a swirling mass of stellar spirals. Kirie is spared as Torino shouts up to the swirling mass of stars, demanding they acknowledge him as their discoverer; he is then swept up in a cosmic whirlwind, his head twisting into a nested series of spirals, until it explodes outwards and up, turning into a small galaxy and surging up to the heavens.  “Galaxies” is a grotesque mockery of the anthropocentric hubris of the romantic sublime, in which the object is observed, absorbed, and used to stabilize and elevate human subjectivity. Instead of this stabilization, Torino is translated into an astronomical object himself, displaying what Vivian Ralickas, with reference to Lovecraft’s stories, calls an “inherent, anti-humanist critique of sublimity.” Ito follows Lovecraft in revealing the pseudo-apotheosis of religious and romantic sublimes to be ridiculous, while expressing this absurdity in images that are themselves sublime; stellar nebulae, hurricanes, whirlpools, cyclopean subterranean structures.

Uzumaki proper opens very differently, with an establishing full-bleed splash: Kirie stands atop a hill, her back to the reader, looking out over the town and toward a misty grey sea, distant black lighthouse and scuttling clouds.

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

This composition is in many ways a traditional Rückenfigur, echoing a painting long associated with Romantic sublimity, Kaspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (1818).

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Kaspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (1818).

Friedrich’s painting puts viewers in the position of witnessing the encounter between human subject and sublime landscape, inviting them to revel in this figure’s mastery of nature. The Wanderer’s position conceals his face, universalizing the encounter between spectator and spectacle while inviting disinterested reflection by preventing the emotional contagion of a facial close-up. An elevated, masculine figure, Friedrich’s Wanderer is an emblem for the mastery of nature by a transcendental aspect of human subjectivity, whether it is understood to be sensibility (as in Ann Radcliffe’s novels) or moral reason and a sensus communis (as in the Kantian version of the sublime encounter.)

The Wanderer’s placement is paralleled by Kirie’s, but with a number of significant differences. Where the Wanderer’s stance bespeaks strength and mastery, his arms cocked confidently as he leans on his cane, Kirie’s bespeaks apprehension and vulnerability. One hand clenches the handle of a schoolbag, its pinkish colour linking it to the roofs of the tidy houses below; her feet, close together, point directly toward the gathering storm visible on the horizon, the line of her narrow shadow stretching behind her, suggesting her inexorable movement toward it. Subtly, this signals the agency of the spiral itself, an agency to which Kirie and the other human characters can only passively respond. Kirie’s other hand hangs half-curled at her side in a nervous clench, index finger slightly open, as though she is about to point the storm out to the viewer who lurks, unseen, behind her. Where the Wanderer surmounts his environment and is fully centred, Kirie is offset. Despite her elevated vantage above the town and sea, she is askew, displaced. Where the Wanderer seems implacable, Kirie is buffeted by unseen powers.

The horizon, fog and wind in Friedrich’s painting are soft, nebulous, edgeless in contrast to the Wanderer, who is as solid as the indomitable rocky promontory on which he stands; contrastively, the dark density of the lighthouse in Ito’s image draws both Kirie and the reader’s eyes, underlining the stormy sky’s surge of black lines. In three places, these lines converge into whirlwinds. These whorls are echoed by a series of tiny spiralling plants emerging from the clutch of wild grasses visible between Kirie and the town. These green fuses appear innocuous here, but their presence on this page crucially distinguishes its introduction of speiromorphism from that in “Galaxies” by portraying it not as an extra-planetary, alien force, but as an elemental principle, already diffusely present in the earth and its diverse life.

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

When readers turn to the second page, the small spirals on the opening splash are supplanted by a single, brush-stroked, vaporous spiral, extending to the edges of the full-bleed two-page spread that follows.  Kirie’s apprehensive face stares off the facing page, where presumably the clouds still swirl ominously. Opposite her, beneath the line of her gaze, past the grass, more of which now coils, the town sprawls. Friedrich created space for disinterested contemplation by putting the Wanderer between viewer and landscape and excluding his face from the image. While this effect is echoed by Uzumaki’s opening page, it is shattered here, as the reader comes face-to-face with Kirie’s wide-eyed visage. It is a jarring transition, especially because the swerve of perspective that produces it means readers have executed a spiral in relation to Kirie’s position, curving ahead of and moving menacingly toward her.

From its outset, Uzumaki uses its visual style and structure to aggressively undermine the privileging of the human figure in images informed by Romantic capitulations of the sublime encounter. It also subtly sutures the reader’s perspective, but not to Kirie (as the more traditionally structured “Galaxies” does). In these opening pages, we are invited to watch Kirie, rather than identify with her, while our perspective is sutured instead to the invasive swerves of the spiral. Thus Ito visually realizes Lovecraft’s dictum that the “true ‘hero’” in weird fiction is a “set of phenomena”:

“Individuals and their fortunes within natural law move me very little. They are all momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another common nothingness. Only the cosmic framework itself—or such individuals as symbolize principles (or defiances of principles) of the cosmic framework—can gain a deep grip on my imagination and set it to work creating. In other words, the only “heroes” I can write about are phenomena.”

While its presentation varies widely from episode to episode, the phenomenon at Uzumaki’s core is, effectively, the idea that under a certain set of unexplained conditions, at certain times, every object and entity in the vicinity of Kurozo-Cho becomes subject to a perverse version of fluid mechanics, spontaneously beginning a gradual transition from a laminar to a turbulent flow regime, assuming the form of a vortex or eddying whirl. This transition is signalled by Ito’s visual references to Harry Clarke’s illustration of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”:

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Clarke’s 1919 illustration for Poe’s tale

Poe’s description of the marine vortex in “Maelstrom,” deeply influenced by his interest in 19th century mathematics and astronomy, has been held up by some physicists as uncannily anticipating contemporary research into the dynamics of marine and astronomical vortices, leading some contemporary physicists to use it as verbal demonstration of the mechanics of a Lagrangian vortex, arguing that it “resonates with our intuition for black holes in cosmology.”Untitled

The whirled horizon on Uzumaki’s opening page also suggests a second visual parallel, this time to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This parallel becomes more evident as Uzumaki unfolds.

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Vincent Van Gogh, “The Starry Night,” 1889.

In Uzumaki’s opening splash, the too-close vertical shape of the poplar trees in “Starry Night” is paralleled by Kirie’s figure, and where the emerging spire of a church punctures Van Gogh’s town, it is the distant, but darkly prominent, image of the lighthouse that punctures Ito’s.

Later in Uzumaki, the lighthouse assumes the position of Van Gogh’s poplars, uncannily underlining the unruly animation of an architectural object that is itself subject to seemingly undirected, turbulent transformation. Ito and Lovecraft’s shared fascination for vortices also accounts for Uzumaki’s many visual allusions to Van Gogh’s paintings, which have fascinated modern physicists by their detailed visual representations of turbulent flow.

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010) a caption

 

Ito excels at creating awe-inspiring and horrifying effects through his curvilinear visual designs and narrative structure. His detailed, dynamic depictions of turbulent matter lend a realism to Uzumaki that make a suspension of disbelief possible even during its most outré episodes. His line-work serves a purpose similar to the gradual accumulation of physical detail that shores up Lovecraft’s greatest works of mature cosmic horror, “At the Mountains of Madness,” The Colour out of Space,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

Ito’s vortical techniques create unforgettably inventive grotesques. Their cumulative effect is a distortion, and eventually an erasure, of the human figure, one first made explicit by the fate of Shuichi’s father:

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You and me…. or proto-maki? Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

Uzumaki‘s third chapter introduces Azami, a new student at Kirie’s school. A visual echo of Ito’s earlier manga character Tomie, Azami has a small crescent-shaped scar on her forehead, which she claims typically makes her irresistibly attractive. Under Uzumaki’s turbulent regime, however, the scar rapidly transmutes from a charming crescent into a spiral, continually increasing its dimensions by drawing more and more material into its involutions, absorbing first the majority of Azami’s face, and then objects and characters in her vicinity.

During this episode, a series of panels focused on Azami’s face forces readers to follow the course her eye takes as it spirals into the vortex most of her visage has become, finally receding into the depths of the panel and disappearing. By forcing readers to follow Azami’s displaced eye down a vortex into subliminal oblivion, this page provides a disturbing metonymy of Uzumaki’s suturing of the reader’s gaze to spirality itself:

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

Uzumaki uses its weird regime of turbulent flow to birth numerous grotesques, torquing human forms over and over again into spiral mutations in a relentless visual erasure of the anthropic that is, arguably at least, more “Lovecraftian” than anything Uncle Theobald himself ever wrote.

The manga is at its most Lovecraftian during Kirie and Shuichi’s descent into the subterranean mega-spiral structures that turn  below the transfigured town. This brief procession of panels in particular echoes the “palaeogean megalopolis” discovered by Danforth, Dyer and co. in At the Mountains of Madness.

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Junj Ito, Uzumaki, trans. Yuji Oniki (San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2010)

Appropriately enough, it is in Mountains that the tension between the spiral as chaotic emblem of undirected mutation and the spiral as emblem of harmonious order becomes most evident.  Here, the admirable (for HPL, in any case) civilization of the Elder Things is embodied in their architectural art, oriented around a “spiral band of heroic proportions,” while the revolting, destructive power of the shoggoth is likewise figured by the spiral waves of force that surge before its protoplasmic bulk.

Ultimately, however, Ito draws his readers into cosmic horror with a rather unLovecraftian comical twist. Much as “Galaxies” humorously subverts the lofty aspirations of the cosmic sublime, Uzumaki romantically subverts Lovecraft’s grimdarkest reaches with a dark grin.

Its final, and strangely sweet, visualization of speiranthropy occurs with the culmination of Kirie and Shuichi’s star-crossed romance. The beset teens finally share an embrace that leads to their coiling around one another in a serpentine double-helical structure. In these panels, speiranthrôpos marries the microcosmic spirals of DNA to the macrocosmic mega-spiral that absorbs the entire town into its unity on the pages that follow. 

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This is the last glimpse Uzumaki offers readers of an anthropic form. The remaining panels provide interior images of the mega-spiral’s self-completion as vast, conjoined symmetrical speiromorphs interlink and twist. The panel borders fragment these massive forms, a Piranesian effect that amplifies their alien majesty. The relationship between panel-to-panel movement and narrative time is ambiguated; there is no narration, the images overlaid instead by sibilant, inhuman onomatopoeia that intersects the images it overlays in a disorienting, and literally posthuman, montage.

Until the reader turns to the last page, that is… But that’s another conversation.

 

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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, and potentially disturbing images from, both. 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.” My 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 mark out both the terms “madness” and “mental illness” (which often mean very different things) in quotation marks. 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 terms 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. When we discussed it after the fact, we both used the words “deeply disturbing” and “powerful” to describe it.

These pre-panic symptoms, 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 the Grahams 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; the entire conversation only expresses their thoughts and feelings insofar as it foreshadows the plot and structure of the film. This is technically impressive. It is also part of the film’s deliberate erasure of any agency its characters may, at first, appear to have.

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, much of which tends to break down into highly polarized comments such as, “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 writer’s 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 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. As I detail in the article “Ancestral Piles: Poe’s Gothic Materials,” Poe lifted elements from a hundred prior sources for it, many of them Gothic fictions; including 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? To 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 (many members of) its audience. 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, 2017.)

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 repeatedly 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, which seems to be on the wane in contemporary psychiatry, 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 cultivating a Kingly expansivity quite removed from Jackson, 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 some 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; I had to do that while watching Flanagan’s earlier film Hush, which came close to causing me a panic attack.)

All of these moments in the series 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 (skillfully portrayed by Victoria Pedretti as an adult, and Violet McGraw as a child) 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, although the series resists the almost Tolkien-esque moral ontology that informs much of his supernatural fiction. In the series, as in It, love has a redemptive power. 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. More things, and more hungrily dangerous things. “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.) The series arguably culminates in a supernatural reification of this theory, as it is by first maddening mothers that the hungry house is able to claim many of its victims (most of whom are women.)

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, despite my reservations.

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 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 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.

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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.

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Ry Graham is an Ottawa based illustrator.
@rygraham1138

 

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.

***

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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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

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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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NecronomiCon, here we come…

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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.

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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.