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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 BOOK REVIEW: SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS AND AICKMAN’S HEIRS

Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications, 2015.)

She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015.)

Holy A’Hallows, Happy Hallowe’en, scary-sacred Samhain, and joyous Great Pumpkin Flyby day, dear readers. Since it is Halloween weekend, and since this weekend also sees the convention on Canadian Speculative Fiction, CanCon, coming to Ottawa, this seems an opportune time to share with you a two-pronged pitchfork of eerie book reviews. Both are seasonally creepy, and, while including work from many international writers, both are from Canadian publishers and editors.

While any publisher or literary agent will tell you that, from a careerist perspective, a great short story is a business card to try to sell your novel (or a gateway drug to get readers to try it), the short story remains, in my books, probably the most aesthetically and conceptually important form for the literary exploration of the weird, the horrific, the strange, and the unsettling.

The combination of concentration the form requires, and authorial imaginative power it enables, means a gifted writer can conjure and sustain an affective intensity with a short story that is more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain over the multiple interrupted reading periods required by a novel.

Insofar as horror and the weird are literary modes directly linked to an occurrent emotional response, then, the short story is particularly well suited to their expression. Closely related to this is the maintenance of epistemological uncertainty, the cultivation of the uncanny, the unknown and the unstable, that is so often central to the effects of good horror and weird fiction. A work of short weird fiction can, to mangle some metaphors, fly in below the radar of readerly skepticism more quickly, crossing the blood-brain barrier of the imagination rapidly and delivering its effect before the reader’s rational resistances are fully mustered and the white blood cells of disbelief and disengagement are unleashed.

But this efficient invasion of the reader’s mind is just the beginning. Once it gets in there, a great work of short weird or horrific fiction is just getting started. Really great stories are virulent and insidious, and the initial emotional intensity is just the first symptom of an acute infection that is already becoming chronic.

While the affective state the story conjures, the mood it immerses the reader in, is ephemeral, it leaves behind a lasting impression, a psychic residue. It causes a cognitive or perceptual shift that, however minor, however subtle, however (in some cases) subliminal, continues to haunt the reader long after the story has been read and set aside, the book closed, the device (and perhaps the reader) put to sleep.

As Gemma Files so aptly puts it, great horror and weird fiction should leave a scar.

To wit, two recent short story collections whose contents have lately been scanned, felt, pondered, and put aside by me, only to have my mind return, unbidden, to them:

The first is Aickman’s Heirs.

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As the title suggests, the collection offers a selection of fictions that in some way bear the influence of Robert Aickman, a British writer who specialized in unsettling narratives (what he himself called “strange stories;” Matt Seidel makes some telling remarks about Aickman’s fiction here. )

The volume’s cover image is by Yaroslav Gerzhedovich. With its silent, misty scenery and distant, alienated figures, it is a striking evocation of the spirit of a writer Fritz Leiber described as “a weatherman of the subconscious.” Aickman was famed for his use of precisely controlled language and vivid characterization in creating an unease irreducible to the seemingly supernatural phenomena that occur in some of his tales (many, indeed, bear none of the more conventional stigma of horror or supernatural fiction at all.)

Strantzas’ introduction stresses that the book is not “merely a collection of writers doing their best to reproduce something so uniquely Aickman,” but rather a sampling of how Aickman’s fiction “has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers.” The collection demonstrates the power of Strantzas’ editorial vision. Rather than a clutch of stylistic pastiches, it showcases a number of writers working from diverse approaches, moving through manifold modes, and yet all somehow converging in a vague and anxious shared space that is acutely Aickmanic (I will hereafter resist my temptation to unleash a series of bad puns based on the name, I promise, much as my vulgar palate is tickled by the prospects of Aickmannerist, Aickmantic, etc.)

The line-up of represented writers represents some of the most vital and insistent voices in weird fiction, dark fantasy, and horror today, and many of them will certainly be familiar to PstD readers: Helen Marshall, (our featured poet from PstD 4), David Nickle (read his PstD interview here,)  Michael Cisco (read his PstD interview here,) John Langan (look for his author feature in the coming weeks) are among the contributors.

While heterogeneous in style and approach, the stories are consistently fascinating and effective at generating tension and planting seeds of lingering doubt and dread. Among my favourites is Richard Gavin’s “Neithernor,” which takes a fundamental aesthetic concept from the British artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare as its inspiration, using the disintegrating consciousness of a desperate narrator to suggest to the reader a strange shape, forming ominously beyond the figures drawn by a neurotic artist, beyond the figures of the words on the page. Michael Cisco uses his clinical linguistic precision and suggestive perceptual fragmentation to shattering effect in “Infestations,” a tale of urban identity crisis (and public transportation). In John Langan’s “Underground Economy,” a woman’s troubled recollections suggest the omnipresence of a threat she, and we, can never quite identify. Archaeology and the compulsive power of the past forms the basis for Helen Marshall’s “The Vault of Heaven.” Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is among the most direct in its response to Aickman’s influence, forming a critical dialogue with one of his better known, and more overtly supernatural (or is it?) stories, “Ringing the Changes,” while conjuring up its own unique cold hand to clamp the reader’s.

Aickman’s Heirs is a fascinating selection, and a must-have not only for admirers of Aickman’s fiction, but also for all lovers of uncanny literature.

Now, for the second anthology whose dim-litten praises I wish to sing: She Walks in Shadows.

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This volume is also (at least in one sense) an author-homage inspired collection. In this case, the author in question is the ubiquitous Mr. Lovecraft, as She Walks showcases Lovecraftian fiction by (and featuring) women. The tenor of this volume’s paean to Lovecraft is rather one of critical provocation than respectful admiration; it is a tenor that proves just as productive for the contributing writers, who use it as a base note in synthesizing a string of discordant, haunting, harrowing, and sometimes also hilarious little symphonies in the key of HPL.

The anthology is in part an acknowledged, and much-needed, response to what the editors aptly call “a paucity of women in Lovecraft’s tales. Kezia, Lavinia and Asenath are his most notable women, even if they never take center stage.” It is also a potent provocation to the masculinist bias that operates in much contemporary weird/horror fiction and in the minds of some contemporary Lovecraft fans. The editors explain that “the first spark was the notion, among some fans of the Lovecraft Mythos, that women do not like to write in this category, that they can’t write in this category.”

That may have been the spark, but the volume itself is an inferno. My reservations before reading She Walks stemmed rather from a personal lack of interest in too-overtly “Mythos” fiction. I tend to be drawn to work that explores the Lovecraftian terrain of the weird and the cosmic without the tired tropisms of tentacled Yog-Sothothery. Or so I keep telling myself, before once again being knocked down by the originality and power one or another recent writer manages to inject into one of Lovecraft’s Mythos-fixtures. She Walks presents a surging slew of cases in point. It is a cornucopia of imaginative force and literary talent, and each of the fictions it contains works, in some way, to simultaneously expand and interrogate the limits of what “Lovecraftian” can mean.

The mingling of the gorgeous with the grotesque that characterizes the cover image by Sarah K. Diesel is a perfect visual prelude for the fictions (and poems, in the case of Anne K. Schwader‘s lyrical opening, and illustrations, as She Walks also compiles many stunning pieces of black and white interior images, which don’t illustrate individual stories so much as play off some of the same Lovecraftian themes and images that the stories do) that follow. Unlike those in Aickman’s Heirs, these stories generally involve aspects of overt pastiche or parody. However, their more explicit allusions to Lovecraft’s fictions (or his biography or family history, as in the case of one of my favourites, Penelope Love’s “Turn Out the Light,”) provide the skeletons over which most of the stories manage to spread strange, startling new flesh. Among the most seductively lyrical and simultaneously repulsive examples is Gemma Files‘ “Hairworks” 

While so many of the stories in She Walks merit admiration and analysis,  I’m going to limit myself now to spilling a few words of praise particularly for the one writer whose fictions are included both here and in Aickman’s Heirs. Nadia Bulkin‘s name was, up until this point, relatively unknown to me, but it is a name I will continue to seek out. Her story from Heirs, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is a fantastic example of how the most lucid and finical use of language can accumulatively create an Aickmaniacally (so sue me) vague sense of disturbance that persists long after the story’s words fade from conscious memory. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” weaves together a curious children’s game, a small community’s only slightly skewed version of Christian faith, and the recognition that we can never really leave our childhood beliefs behind, creating a startlingly short but complex narrative whose apocalyptic consequences continue to accrue after its conclusion.

Her story from She Walks, “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” uses as its skeleton a pastiche of Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space,” (including an admirably over-the-top port-manteau’ing of Ammi Pierce with Ambrose Bierce) but shoots off into a critical meditation on genetically modified farming, the cellular and micro-organismal roots of our (or its?) identity and humanity and…. well, other abstruse truths which cannot be named.

So, in closing, readers, you should all rush out and buy these tomes, immediately. Waiting until Monday may prove too late.

After all, if the Great Pumpkin veers from its course,  the cosmic dark will come down for us all, before you’ve read the warnings these stories might provide.

And thanks, Strantzas, Moreno-Garcia and Stiles, and your contributors, for the apocalyptic preoccupations, for the cognitive and perceptual stains you’ve left me with.

I don’t suppose you’d like to pay my post-Hallows psychic laundry bill?

Yours,

Sean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanith-Lee

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Film Review: Felt (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Lords of Salem

A new review by James K. Moran

A new review by James K. Moran

While House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects had interesting things to say about killer maniacs and their hapless victims, Rob Zombie’s latest effort, The Lords of Salem, fails on nearly all fronts to do justice to its subject: the eruption of old-school Salem witchcraft into the contemporary world. Salem features Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, a talk-radio DJ whose work, with the help of her colleagues, consists mainly of deriding and ridiculing guests on her show. When she starts listening to a mysterious record left at the radio station — a scene that echoes the emergence of Black Sabbath and other “music of the devil” bands — Heidi drops into a trance and becomes vulnerable to satanic forces.

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Review: Shadows & Tall Trees 5

A new review by Sean Moreland

A new review by Sean Moreland

Do you enjoy fiction that creates an atmosphere of terror and wonder through subtle, suggestive, and insidious means? Do you believe that horror and dark fantastic fiction can (and should, and perhaps even must) rise above pulp stereotypes and genre conventions, finding ways to unsettle readers through psychological acuity and literary finesse? Are you interested in short stories that will get under your skin, invade your dreams and waking thoughts, and give you glimpses of strange worlds inseparably interwoven with our own? If you answered yes to any of these questions and you have not yet acquired all available issues of Michael Kelly’s literary journal Shadows & Tall Trees (S&TT), then you have done yourself a great disservice.

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Review: The Conjuring

A new review by Murray Leeder

A new review by Murray Leeder

From time to time, we’ll post film and book reviews by and for aficionados of horror and the weird.  Our friend Murray Leeder’s review of The Conjuring, now playing, is our inaugural entry. Enjoy, and stay tuned. — Sean Moreland 

James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), it’s now whispered, will become the most profitable horror film of all time. It’s nice to see cinematic horror in such a healthy condition, but it’s a mixed blessing that this unexceptional film should benefit so strongly. On one hand The Conjuring should be praised for its commitment to a slow, tension-building setup, strong acting and an overall sense of craft and care. On the other, it’s marred by derivative storytelling, a disappointing third act and an almost infantile reliance on Manichean categories of good and evil.

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