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Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review: Song for the Unraveling of the World

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Sometimes you hear a writer's name over and over and know you should check out their work, but with the deluge of books on the market, they can get lost in the shuffle. One writer I heard a lot of talk about but never really read any of their work was Brian Evenson. Then one day I ran across his short story A Seaside Town, in the anthology Year’s Best Weird Fiction vol 3. It blew me away. A perfect mix of nebulous dread and ambiguity. Then I ran across his collection A Collapse of Horses at a local bookstore. That collection left me unnerved and confused in the best possible way. I would say I enjoyed reading A Collapse of Horses as much as my first readings of Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco or Kiernan’s The Ammonite Violin. Which my constant readers can tell you that is of the highest praise from me. Well, Evenson has dropped another collection upon an unsuspecting public. Song for the Unraveling of the World just came out and I rushed to get a copy. I was not disappointed. Evenson is a writer who writes in many different genres, but for me, I prefer his work that is more dedicated horror. And in terms of horror, A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World are companion pieces and the most direct examples of his darker work. They both mix and match genres and influences, but both are top tier works of hallucinogenic horror. 

A Collapse of Horses was a pandora's box of unsetting work. It showcased his use of genre to set up expectations in the reader that he had no intention of fulfilling, instead taking a left turn into absolute insanity. For instance, you would start a story that seemed like a horror-flavored western, only to leave the story not even sure what you just read, or if you had actually had some kind of aneurysm and hallucinated the entire reading experience. A Collapse of Horses is an absolute attack on the reader. Bodies that should be dead are talking to you, horses are neither alive nor dead, dark shapes lurk in the trees or across the street always just past direct sight, people blend and blur their personalities, reading Evenson is like being on the verge of having a post-acid trip anxiety attack. I have a lot of favorites in this collection, but the one that left the most striking impression on me was the title story A Collapse of Horses, I actually had to take a break after reading it, the sense of a menacing delirium that engulfed me after reading that story was overwhelming. 

Evenson’s new collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, has a more scifi/speculative flavor. Whereas in A Collapse of Horses, which focused more on stories that took place in a more realistic and current setting, only to twist what you thought was familiar in unsettlingly surreal ways, to explore the unknowable nature of reality, Song for the Unraveling of the World focuses on the interchangeable nature of appearances and the skin, often in more fictional worlds or far future settings. Skins are discarded, exchanged, and worn throughout this collection. It certainly adds a more body horror flavor to this one. There is also some more pulpy scifi and even some nods to Lovecraft, which makes for a wonderful variance in the stories. But to me, his strongest work again is his most mind-twisting work. My personal favorite may be Born Stillborn, a noxious tale of a man who sees a therapist in the daytime, and the therapist who visits him in his room at night. They may be the same therapist, or they may not. They may have his best intentions at heart, or they may not.

I feel that A Collapse of Horses may be the greatest horror collection of the past ten years. So the expectations were ridiculously high for his new one. I was not disappointed. Different enough to feel fresh, but still everything that I look for in a collection from Evenson. I highly recommend you don’t be like me and wait on reading his work. He is at the prime of his talents and may just be the most important horror writer working today.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Interview: Brendan Vidito

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Today I would like to welcome Brendan Vidito to the Plutonian! An exciting new voice on the scene, he has recently dropped his short story collection Nightmares in Ecstasy on an unsuspecting public. Nightmares in Ecstasy is packed full of bizarre sex, mutant body parts, strange encounters, and doomed protagonists. Highly recommended! And Brendan has a new story entitled Walking in Ash that will be coming out in Plutonian Press’s new collection Pluto in Furs in August!

Thank you very much for having me!

In Nightmares in Ecstasy, there is this great mix of surrealism, body horror, and bizarre humor. What genre do you see your work as falling into? Horror? Weird Horror? Bizarro? And where do you see your writing going/evolving?

I think my editors at Clash Books—Christoph Paul and Leza Cantoral—gave the most accurate description of my work. They categorized it as literary hardcore horror fiction, which speaks to my intention to balance somewhat poetic prose with transgressive subject matter. Many of my stories also fit comfortably in the erotic horror mold.
As for where I see my writing going, I noticed that many of my recent stories have dialed back on the sexual themes and so-called “hardcore” elements in favor of a more psychological approach. I’m still very much interested in body horror and surrealism, but I’m also eager to explore different regions of the horror genre. It’s hard to say for sure, but I have a feeling my future works, though linked by some common threads, will each be distinctive in their own way.

I think in the horror genre, it is essential to have a sense of danger. A feeling that you do not know what the writer has in store for you and maybe, just maybe, it will be too much for you to handle. But I think in the current horror scene, that sense of danger is missing. I just can’t see a truly transgressive style of horror thriving in the current environment. But this I feel is one of the things I most enjoyed about Nightmares in Ecstasy. Your collection is full of these kinds of surreal scenarios and nightmarish imagery that challenge the reader. It has this willingness to push at the reader, to say I am going to put down on paper exactly whatever bizarre or pervy idea and run with it. Do you actively try to challenge the reader? Is there ever moments where you think maybe it would be better not to put a certain story you wrote or idea you had out into the world?

This is a huge compliment. Thank you. I’m glad to know my stories are able to pack that transgressive punch. To answer your question, it’s definitely a goal of mine to challenge the reader. Like you said, a sense of danger is essential to crafting an effective and engaging piece of horror fiction. That’s one of the reasons why my stories aren’t exactly set in the “real world”. From the opening paragraphs, reality is already unstable and dreamlike, reinforcing that sense of unpredictability and danger. Above all else, though, I like to challenge myself as a writer. I have a relatively short attention span when it comes to my own work, so I always try to keep myself engaged. And that usually means writing the weirdest, most confrontational shit I can imagine.
As for the second question, despite the extreme nature of my stories, my intention is never simply to shock the reader. There has to be something more going on (subtext, metaphor, social commentary) to justify the transgressive subject matter. I try to make that assessment before I even set the idea down on paper. There’s a difference between provocative art and art that merely provokes, and it’s my goal to, hopefully, create stories that earn a place in the former category.

Your work has this kind of hazy dreamlike feel to it. It’s like having a window into someone’s dreams, unfiltered and raw. Sometimes a writer’s work may act as a kind of archive of their own obsessions and desires. Examples I would use would be, say, JG Ballard’s Crash or Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets. Would you say that is accurate? What is the importance of having this kind of dream life? And what is the importance of a writer sharing their obsessions or dreams with others through their writing?

My writing is more reflective of my obsessions rather than my desires. And those obsessions take the form of fears and anxiety. To be honest, I have a tendency to be paranoid and I often find myself trapped in cycles of catastrophic thinking, where my mind conjures all kinds of awful worst-case scenarios. I blame this on the fact that, when I was fifteen years old, I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus. It’s an autoimmune disorder where your body essentially rebels against you. Throughout this ordeal, I was forced to contend with hallucinations, delusions, migraines, chronic fatigue, joint pain, and a host of major surgeries. For example, I had both my hips replaced before I turned twenty due to some complications with my drug treatment. These experiences undoubtedly left me with a negative perception of my own body. I was basically living through my own personal tale of body horror. And, in many ways, I’ve been obsessively working through those experiences in my writing. I definitely believe in the cathartic potential of horror fiction, and for me that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, even vital, to share your trauma through the veil of storytelling. You never know when your stories might resonate on a subconscious level with a reader who underwent similar experiences.

A lot of your stories blend this kind of surreal body horror with a deep thread of black humor running through it. Can you talk about your use of humor in your work?

Recently, a good friend of mine read through my collection and we sat down for drinks afterward. I asked him what he thought. He paused for a moment, a smirk forming on his lips and said, “I thought it was hilarious. But then again there might be something wrong with me.” I feel like that sentiment perfectly illustrates the function of humor in my stories. It’s meant to be uncomfortable and disarming.
At a glance, the plots of my stories are rather outlandish and ridiculous: a couple becomes physically attached at the waist; a man reaches the height of sexual pleasure when a worm gives him a blowjob; a grieving husband grows a copy of his dead wife using her placenta. And because of the inherent absurdity of these concepts, it’s natural for some humor to leak through the cracks. I also like to think of each story in my collection as a short cult horror film. And, for me, cult cinema is basically a collage of many strange and unorthodox elements. These films consistently demand your attention because there’s always something unexpected happening onscreen, and humor is often one of those elements.

What is it about sex and eroticism that make them such fertile subjects for writers? And why do you think writing or talking about sex and eroticism is so taboo in our culture?

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, sex and eroticism are appealing because they’re such fundamental parts of being human. I like to approach sex in my work the same way other horror writers tackle the idea of a haunted house. You take the family home, which is meant to evoke feelings of comfort and security, and transform it into an unfamiliar and hostile environment. I do the same with sex, an act that’s meant to be fun and passionate, and turn it into something nightmarish. It’s an easy target because most of us, no matter our age, can relate to sex on one level or another. It’s naturally attractive, so when you render it uncanny, it’s easy for readers to sympathize with the experiences of the characters. I guess that’s the purpose of a lot of horror fiction, it’s a deliberate perversion of the familiar.
As for why I think sex is taboo in our culture, I suspect that religion and the conservative nature of western society are two of the biggest culprits.

What would you say are some formative works in literature or film that inspired you or gave you something to model your own work after?

My gateway drug was William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I read it in high school and it changed my perception of what fiction could achieve. I was like: “Oh man, you can do that?” So, in a way, it opened the floodgates for me in terms of creative potential. Around the same time, I started watching the films of Lynch and Cronenberg, the most influential being Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Shivers, and Videodrome. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were an absolute revelation for me. I love his style of writing—the rich, ornate prose—and the almost obsessive level of detail he provides when describing something outside of reality. He’s the Bosch of literature, and no one can match him when it comes to dark fantasy fiction. Kathe Koja’s The Cipher was another formative work, along with the entire output of Ryu Murakami. J.G. Ballard also had a huge impact on me with High Rise, Crash, and Kingdom Come. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the stories of Robert Aickman. I absolutely love ambiguity in horror—the cardinal sin for me in a horror book or movie is when the writer feels the need to over explain the agent of chaos plaguing the characters—and Aickman’s fiction is as ambiguous as it gets. My weirdest inspiration, by far, is the pornographic director Stephen Sayadian, also known as Rinse Dream (I can’t even type that with a straight face). He directed the cult hit CafĂ© Flesh and, my personal favorite, Nightdreams. He’s such an oddity in the arena of film as well as pornography, and I admire his audacity to make these weird little fuck films.

When did you start writing? At what point in your life did you decide you were going to take a serious stab at making a name for yourself as a writer?

I started writing when I was eight. My first story was a fifty-page fantasy called The Egg and the Eye. I don’t remember much about it, but I do recall a scene featuring a creature—imagine a cross between a velociraptor and a clown—that stalked the protagonists through the ruin of a theme park. I didn’t start taking a serious jab at writing until 2014. It all started when I signed up for one of John Skipp’s classes on Litreactor. It was called Lean, Mean, Writing Machine. He liked my work—at the time I’d written both Fuck Shock and The Androgyne—and he introduced me to Jack Bantry, the creator of Splatterpunk Zine, who purchased both stories. Not long after that, I met the folks at Clash Books and I’ve been plowing forward ever since.
What kind of effect do you hope your collection Nightmares in Ecstasy has on its readers?

I hope readers are unsettled, disoriented, aroused, disturbed, amused, and ultimately horrified. I’m immensely humbled at the reception it has received so far. It’s always nice to see readers understanding and appreciating your work. And I’m especially grateful that the book isn’t simply being dismissed as a collection of gross-out stories, because there is so much more at play under all that weirdness and viscera.
If you had the power to claim any writers work ( living, dead, current, classic ) and add it to your bibliography as your own, totally free and clear with no one the wiser, what three short stories would you plunder?

The Whimper of Whipped Dogs by Harlan Ellison, In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, and A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.

So what is next? Any new projects coming up you would like to talk about?

I’m currently in the final stages of my first novel. It’s an idea that’s been percolating for over a decade and I’m both nervous and excited to share it with the world. It borrows some familiar elements from Nightmares in Ecstasy—surrealism and body horror—but it also attempts to do something different. I’ve always had a hard time pinning it down. It’s kind of all over the place genre-wise. At its core, though, it’s a social horror story (with elements of the drug novel) that combines real-life tragedy with fictional horror.
I’m also co-editing an anthology called The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg with Sam Richard of Weird Punk Books. We’re accepting submissions until the end of March, so send us your best body horror stories!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Infinite Mutability of the Flesh: Some thoughts on David Lynch and Thomas Ligotti.

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I have long held the maxim, if you would like to know me better, I would suggest a viewing of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead or a reading of one of what are my two favorite Thomas Ligotti collections, Grimscribe or Teatro Grottesco. What is it about these works that I find such a deep connection with? They certainly are not for everyone’s tastes. I think if you lent one of these to most of your friends, they would come back with a dismissive “ What the hell was that? That was just weird… “ reaction, usually accompanied with a look of disgust. I think these are works best enjoyed in seclusion. These are works I find too deep and too honest, so far away from the banal superhero blockbusters and the life-affirming novels of mainstream culture. Unlike whatever film everyone is talking about on the news and is playing at all the theaters, these works speak to me, and the existence and experience I live. They talk about truths no one wants to think about in their wage slave day to day lives, and presented with a pessimistic humor that is not at all funny.

The illusion of normal society. The horror of existence and consciousness. The utter fraud of social norms. These are some of the issues that both Lynch and Ligotti both keep interrogating again and again in their work. Ask anyone what they plan for their lives to be like. Most people will respond with what most would consider to be the healthiest and sanest answers. Go to college. Marry. Have kids. Retire. Maybe join the military. Help out at church. These people view mankind as the creation of a loving God. And they see the universe as one where everyone has a pre-planned destiny that they are meant to fulfill. But for a small minority, they see life in a very different light. They wake to find themselves existing in a bizarre sack of flesh, always on the verge of madness or injury. We move around to satisfy desires and impulses that seem alien to us, certainly not of our own making. We live just long enough to watch our bodies rot and our minds falter. And to see people finding an intelligent design or a heartwarming meaning in this hideous obscenity of existence, is the height of comedy.

In Eraserhead we find a man and a woman trying, or are trapped into trying, to create what is called a family. Except for the whole notion of birthing some screaming thing into the world is nightmarish. Carrying around some alien thing in your body, a parasite, and then thrusting it into the world covered in blood and placenta, and how most people see this as the holiest of acts, is the height of absurd comedy. Eraserhead is a feverscape of rusted industrial parts that belong to no known machine and swampy terrain of reproductive organs. Our bodies reveal their own strangeness with every abhorrent birth. Midnight desires result in these strange mutants things emerging from our wombs. In Lynch’s world, sex is never erotic. It is baffling and uncomfortable. But decaying factories, figures half seen in smoke and shadow, the aberrations of the body, are of the highest rank of eroticism.

In Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, we find a small town as dissected corpse. Boy scouts falling into sadistic sexual games with mysterious women. The undeniable pull of the perverse on the seemingly wholesome and moral townsfolk. And the underbelly of insectile urges and the all-encompassing drive to self-destruction. The social contract that we believe is there, a need to better ourselves as a community, the basic kindness of mankind, the safety net of our police forces, are seen for what they are, comfortable illusions against the darkness just underneath the surface. As the film’s demented Frank Booth says, “ Don’t be a good neighbor to her!! “.

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In Ligotti’s chilling short story Our Temporary Supervisor, we find a factory wage slave slowly falling apart working day after day. Until one day he comes into work and finds there is a new manager. Only this manager only lurks behind the office door. The manager is seen as a vague dark ripple. It may have arm protrusions and head parts. But it is definitely not human. With the new manager comes new nonsensical work requirements and longer hours. And if an employee even thinks about leaving, the new manager makes it known the nightmarish consequences that would befall on one who tried to leave. Definitely one of my favorite short stories. And the thing that makes it even more disturbing? How far away from the reality of working life is this? At most jobs, your boss might as well be some inhuman entity, and what they ask from you is just you work yourself to death. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just not afford to pay your rent or be able to afford groceries. The idea of a career for most people is more disturbing than what most horror stories are able to convey.

In The Last Feast of Harlequin, Ligotti has his fictional agents of nightmare dress up as hideous clowns, a perfect metaphor for his view of existence. But also, like in most Ligotti stories, darkness covers even deeper darkness. It is revealed that the ridiculous clown makeup is only covering another mask. In the downtrodden ending, when these clowns mutate and bodily descend into these humanoid worms, belonging to some ancient cult that worships non-existence, the disguise rots away, revealing yet another, even more, hideous disguise. The worm behind the clown makeup may be a perfect symbol of the Ligottian “ normal productive citizen “.  

      We find in their own ways, I think both Ligotti and Lynch share a similar worldview, but from different angles. Lynch see this world of mutant bodies lost in smoke and shadow in an extremely optimistic way. He is fascinated by this world and uses his art to delve into the furthest limits. He sees beauty where others would only see disgust. Lynch fully engages in existence. Ligotti, on the other hand, is extremely pessimistic. He sees existence as something to escape from. He uses his art to wrap the world in a veil of nightmare, to make slow self-destruction the highest art. Ligotti, in discussing Lovecraft, wrote about how “ the great dream of supernatural literature is to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare. “ I think this is one of the most profound statements on horror fiction I have ever heard. When you ask most people what the value of horror is, you get the same tired and untrue statements like, “ it’s a preparation for being able to deal with bad times, it’s a rollercoaster ride, it’s to speak on social issues that are taboo “. Sure those are parts of it. But I think the main purpose of horror is to take the abject things, the horrible parts of life, and create a poetry of them. Ligotti in his pessimism and Lynch in his optimism, complete the duality of horror. To take the mystery and ultimate unknowableness of life and make it an object of worship. To take the nightmare, and enchant you with it. To descend into black depths, far beyond all light, and sing.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Announcement! New Horror Anthology From Plutonian Press!! PLUTO IN FURS.

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I have a super secret project to announce! The next book from Plutonian Press! Coming in August 2019…. Pluto in Furs! An anthology of the darkly erotic and the seductively nightmarish! A collection of short stories for those horror obsessives who need to plunge into the macabre and the unearthly again and again. What is this need to dream of unspeakable horrors? Is it some strange masochism? And why do we keep going back for more? In these pages, you will find desire and dread, interchangeable. From your most cherished nightmares to your most perverse dreams, Pluto in Furs will serve as your guide to the twilight nether regions of the unreal. If you enjoyed our first anthology, Phantasm/Chimera, I promise you that this one is going to blow your mind! Cover art and ordering info to be revealed later, but today I have the official table of contents to unveil! In no specific order:

An Abysmal Masochism ( An Introduction ) - by Scott Dwyer
The Tangible Universe - by Jeffrey Thomas
The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler - by Devora Gray
Other Yseut and Romance Tristan - by Adam Golaski
Dermatology, Eschatology - by Kurt Fawver
Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad - by Richard Gavin
It’s Hard to be Me - by John Claude Smith
The Gutter at the Bottom of the World - by David Peak
Tender is the Tether - by Rhys Hughes
With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes - by Mike Allen
Stygian Chambers - by Orrin Grey
Behemoth - by Clint Smith
Worm Moon - by Gemma Files
The Silvering - by Thana Niveau
Walking in Ash - by Brendan Vidito