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Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Horror Films and Books of 2019!


2019 was a fantastic year for horror in film and literature. The trend of small film studios producing sophisticated horror films for the art-house theater crowd is still going full force. The weird horror boom in the small presses also continues to pick up steam. And these are trends that we need to support and to advocate, in a time of the death of the indie movie theater and the destruction of the local book store, the fact that there is actually an increasing amount of great works being produced outside the major companies is actually astonishing. Streaming services and cheaper film equipment certainly helps the independent filmmaker and the ease of use of print-on-demand services and the ability to create your own websites to host your publishing business helps create a viable alternative to big business models. So in review, I was blown away by the works that came out this year. Just some absolute masterpieces came out in 2019. I would say a theme of 2019 was the foundation of a new canon of horror filmmakers. We have a new group of Romeros, Cronenbergs, Carpenters. Some new or first-time directors really cemented themselves as masters of the form, and some already established writers took their work to new levels of greatness. So let’s get down to the best of 2019 lists!

Best Horror Films of 2019

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1. In Fabric - Directed by Peter Strickland 

Going into 2019 my most anticipated film was Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. I was left absolutely stunned and awed by his first film The Witch, a film I consider to be one of my all-time favorite films. I absolutely loved his follow up film The Lighthouse, which I will be talking about more in a bit. Then in late November, I caught a screening of Peter Strickland’s new film In Fabric. And within 10 minutes I knew I was witnessing greatness.  In Fabric blew me away, destroyed me for all time, reassembled me, and sent me on my way. I was a huge fan of Strickland’s previous films, the wonderfully weird Berberian Sound Studio and charmingly perverse The Duke of Burgundy, which I thought were both great films, but I was not prepared for how masterful and original In Fabric is. A blend of mind-breaking surreal corporate satire, creeping ghost film, an exploration of toxic media, and an elegant gothic horror, this film came almost out of nowhere to capture my vote for best horror film of 2019. 

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2. The Lighthouse - Directed by Robert Eggers

As I said above, I think my most anticipated film going into 2019 was Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a tale of madness and protean things from the depths of the ocean. His followup to his diabolic masterpiece The Witch, I could not be more hyped for a film, I was worried that my expectations may actually be too high. Well, The Lighthouse actually managed to exceed my expectations. What Eggers delivered was an honest to goodness Midnight Movie, a film that drew inspiration from ancient myths and the silent horror film, but filtered through a lens made from classic horror tales written by the likes of Blackwood, Machen, and Hodgson. Reminiscent of the classic late-night drug-fueled insanity of cult classic films like Eraserhead, Begotten, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man and the way they infused German Expressionism and a more current fractured sense of reality and meaning. The Lighthouse is soaked in tension, malignity surreal, and bizarrely humorous, I really can’t believe Eggers got the funding to produce this film. If In Fabric took the top slot in this year’s best of, it is only by the smallest of margins. 

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2. Wounds - Directed by Babak Anvari

Wounds, adapted by the great short story by Nathan Ballingrud and directed by Babak Anvari, had a small release, mainly viewable on the streaming service Hulu. Which is a shame since I would love to see this one in a theater. A more traditional horror film than the others on this list, this one builds on using traditional tropes to create a tension-filled experience, before blowing all the hinges off for a mind-shattering end that I actually had to rewind and watch a couple times because I could not believe what I was seeing. Wounds is a bit of a fusion between the creeping dread of 1990’s era Japanese horror films and the more postmodern era of fractured narratives. This one just gets right down to it, it wants to get under your skin and actually creep you out. It is perfect viewing for a late-night scare. 



Best Horror Books of 2019

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1. Song for the Unraveling of the World - Written by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson has been writing horror for many years now and is an established master. But I really feel that he has entered this new phase in his work and is creating the best work of his career. His previous collection, A Collapse of Horses, literally broke me, it has this just virulent creepiness, this sense of his work not being safe to read. A Collapse of Horses stands up there with the best of Poe, Lovecraft, Aickman, Oates, and Ligotti. Then a new collection was announced. Song for the Unraveling of the World. I can’t describe how hyped I was for this book. I was worried that I was just setting myself for a letdown. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. This collection kind of serves as a follow-up or a sequel to his A Collapse of Horses. Some of the pieces kind of work with or advance some of the themes of his previous collection, and some use different genre tropes such as the outer space story or the body-snatching alien to take different approaches to the material. I think the 1-2 combination of A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World may be the supreme accomplishment of the horror genre for this decade, 2010 - 2019. 


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2. The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute David Cronenberg - Edited by Sam Richard and Brendan Vidito   
The New Flesh is an anthology that pays homage to the weird body horror of David Cronenberg. It is just filled to the brim with squirm-inducing medical procedures, bizarrely erotic transformations of the flesh, and mind-blowing breakings of reality. There were some really stand out stories in this from writers like Brian Evenson, Sara Century, Mona Swan LeSueur, Fiona Maeve Geist, and Gwendolyn Kiste. The New Flesh serves as this view back on one of the founding figures of the current horror field and a look forward at where weird horror is and where it is going. Essential. 

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3. Wounds - Written by Nathan Ballingrud

Despite hearing the name for years, I am a bit of a latecomer to Nathan Ballingrud’s work. With the upcoming film adaptation of one of his stories and from just having heard his name so much, I decided it was far past time for me to take a deep plunge into his work. And I must say, his collection Wounds was amazingly good. He somehow mixes the heartbreaking with the diabolical, the surreal with the commonplace. His work in Wounds reminds me a bit of Clive Barker, but with a lot more emotional heft. This collection is a bit of a blend, some of the works are more of the malignantly surreal postmodern horror tale and some are more of a take on dark fantasy with a bit of a Satanic flavor. And let me say, it is quite brilliant how Nathan updates and personalizes the figure of Satan for a new generation of horror readers. From his shockingly surreal The Visible Filth to the heart-rending sadness and desperate love of The Maw, Nathan finds the depths of human love and longings in the darkest and bleakest regions of the horror field.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Review: The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature by Christopher Slatsky


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The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is horror writer Christopher Slatsky’s new collection, due out at the end of January 2020. It is his eagerly awaited followup to his cult favorite first collection Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. Alectryomancer was an astonishing debut, featuring a new distinct voice and some incredible work. His story from that collection, A Plague of Naked Movie Stars, still unsettles me every time I think about it. What an incredibly bizarre work. Upon news of this next book, the question was, can Slatsky deliver on the promise of his first book? Will it show an author maturing and refining their work? I can confidently say that the answer is yes, this new collection takes what was so amazing about his first book and furthers the themes and sharpens his prose. 

The stories in The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature are mainly these extremely interior explorations of tragedy and ruin, and of the beauty that can be found within the horrific. Slatsky’s universe is one where a loved one, a sibling, a parent, can be lost, suddenly, into something that is unexplainable, some hole in reality or perception. But also, everyday life can be just as bad, or in some cases, even more horrible, then the darkest imaginings of a horror writer, which is a theme that is just as strong in his work. Many stories actually combine the two themes, the nightmarish and the everyday tragic, to horrifying effect. In our lives, there are mysterious forces at work that devour our loved ones, and take them into some outer darkness, some of these forces you can name monster, and some are named illness or accident. Is there really that much of a difference between some otherworldly horror and cancer? In Slatsky’s work, he takes these moments of breakdown, and perverts them, makes them into this kind of strange walking poetry, a misbegotten thing, a hymn to what destroys us. What his characters have lost are transformed, horrifically changed in ways that stager understanding, and brought back to bring a strange revelation or a final devastation. His narrators come to realize, their eyes now open, to the fact that the entire universe has been changed into the image of a horrific transformation, a horrible loss. The universe has become a monstrous mirror to the narrator's most private hurts. The world, a reflection of the most inner wounds. They come to realize there is no “outside” there is only inside, and everything inside is corrupt. His stories like Engines of the Ocean, The Figurine, or The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature, are these mood poems, views into the darkest parts of the authors being, the rotten and corrupt thoughts made real. 

In the best of Slatsky’s work, his stories delve deep into very personal fears and anxieties. The loss of children is a huge theme for him. At the center of a lot of his stories are these surreal and troubling images, these images born out of some deep sunless part of Slatsky’s mind. These images are chimeras of both his fears and this paradoxical nightmarish beauty and are genuinely disturbing and beautifully malignant, like poisoned candy or diseased sex. After reading stories like Phantom Airfields or The Carcass of the Lion, which to me are some of the best horror fiction currently being written, you have to put the book down, kind of let what you just experienced soak in, come to terms with what you just read and try to understand the strange feelings you just had overwhelm you. But be warned, when one of Slatsky’s walking terrors enters your psyche, it burrows so deep that it will be with you for the rest of your days.

Slatsky has two modes of writing, the confidant intellectual writer exploring some newfound interest, and the artist lost in his own obsessions, trying desperately to record down in prose his more taboo and disturbing thoughts. Slatsky is one of the only true surrealists working today in the horror field. He takes two disparate ideas, say the love for a young child, and the cold terrors of outer space, and combines them into a unique new form. Slatsky also may be the greatest visual stylist that horror fiction has ever known. He creates these perfect paragraphs, these incredible tableaus, of just mind-shattering power. He reminds me, in turns, of Magritte, of Witkin, of Lynch. His prose is akin to the new wave 1970’s science fiction writers, and then out of nowhere, it’s like Slatsky channels say, Lautreamont or Francis Bacon, and just attacks with some scene or image that shakes you, that challenges you, that unnerves you. 

In terms of criticism, there are a couple. I do think the collection suffers from the current trend of publishers kind of just putting every story a writer has recently written into the book to make the biggest collection possible. I think the book would have benefitted from maybe 3 or 4 of the weaker stories being trimmed. Also, there is one nonfiction essay, and one kind of metafiction/nonfiction essay, I feel if you are gonna have a blend of fiction and nonfiction in a collection, then there should be at least a couple nonfiction works in it. Just having one feels a bit off to this reader. I think maybe to the already established fan of Slatsky’s work, this criticism is not so much of a big deal, the more the merrier. But to the new reader of his work, a more focused, more tight collection would come off better, allowing the author to showcase his best works. But all in all, these are slight problems. The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is sure to be one of the most important horror collections of 2020. Christopher Slatsky is one of the most important names in contemporary horror and I am truly excited to see what he does next. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Article: Reading Against Oneself.



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I think that there is an importance in reading horror fiction to seek out work that actually challenges you as a reader, and not just read work that is pleasantly affirming of your pre-established beliefs. Part of the greatness of horror as a genre is its ability to challenge your views and make you reassess notions that you take for granted. Reading horror that just reaffirms your already held political beliefs or moral beliefs is a bit beside the point. And this also goes for writers of horror fiction. If you do not feel challenged by what you are writing, if what you are creating does not personally unnerve you or call you to question your viewpoint, are you really creating vital work in the horror genre?
Take for instance the fiction of Thomas Ligotti. His work is extremely nihilistic, gorgeous and bleak. The unrelenting doom-laden prose certainly can disturb one's sleep. But, as much as I love his work, I have to say that Ligotti’s fiction is comforting to me, I already pretty much feel the same way he does. It feels like he is clearly stating what I have always thought but never knew how to put into words. And that is a wonderful thing. But I don’t think it would be correct for me to stop there with my reading. Now let’s take another writer who I am a constant reader of. The Marquis de Sade. I find every time I read de Sade’s fiction, it forces me to reassess what I believe and also more fully understand what I find to be abhorrent about his work. I love the inferno of sexual freedom that he revels in, but his fascistic leanings, his belief in his absolute right to torture and enslave, his dismissal of the rights of others to their own personal freedoms, I find repulsive. But his striving for absolute individual freedom, and his advocacy for the doing away of sexual taboos I find inspiring. So how does a writer I find so much inspiration from also go so horribly wrong? That is the challenge of his work. For the reader to both identify with the writer, and also be repulsed by the writer, is to look in a kind of distorted mirror, and see oneself in a strange new light. This is how you come to understand yourself better, both the good and the bad in you. 

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Well if I am advocating reading writers that push the limits, are there no limits? I actually do think there are limits. I think a writer exploring taboo or transgressive themes are acceptable, but writers seeking to actually advocate repugnant views are not. For instance, I find most religious fiction or extremist political fiction to be superficial and its basic level, ignorant. These are works where the writer is not struggling to come to a better understanding of oneself but is convinced that they are right and are seeking to convert the reader to their viewpoint. Most christian fiction, or say the work of Ayn Rand, would fall into this category. But let’s take the case of H.P. Lovecraft, who notoriously held some very unpleasant views. Is his work worth reading? I would say yes, in his fiction you see someone struggling to understand themselves and the world they live in. For a writer who was so repulsed by the other and the different, his fictional world pretty much exclusively deals with the other and the different, and you can see him trying to come to terms with why he is so affected by those different them himself, why he is so horrified by the chaotic nature of life and mankind. He fully exposes himself to that which most frightens him in his fiction, and he also puts himself in the place of what he most fears. A writer who was just trying to express racist ideas would not have written The Shadow over Innsmouth, which ends with the main character joining with the monstrous, and realizing that he was always one of them.

Horror mainly traffics in the areas we have not come to terms with yet. Horror is not a safe space, but a space to face our most bleak and terrible fears, and try to come to an understanding of them. Horror is the genre of the taboo and the hidden. It needs to be an area where both writers and readers can safely have a dialogue, rather than letting these hidden emotions and thoughts fester unspoken inside us. There is a good side and a dark side to each of us. And to come to know both sides is one of the missions of horror fiction. Reading, and writing, against ourselves, is vital. Sometimes it’s only when we are lost in the dark that we truly come to find ourselves. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: The New Flesh A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg



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David Cronenberg is a giant in the realm of horror cinema. He has produced some of the greatest works of this era and is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers working today. From the grungy and ragged body horror of Rabid to the mindblowing subversive surrealism of Videodrome, it is not an understatement to say that Cronenberg changed the face of horror cinema forever. His work is bold, actually subversive, and always challenging. But not only has the world of film been changed by his ideas, but also the world of horror literature. A lot of the newest writers in the horror fiction scene you can tell grew up on Cronenberg’s films. From Cronenberg’s critiques of media to his questioning of bodily autonomy, his ideas are years ahead of their time and are as relevant today as they were when Cronenberg originally blew our minds with them. So the idea of a tribute anthology from the cutting edge of the weird horror fiction scene is due and was only a matter of time. And now editors Sam Richard and Brendan Vidito bring us The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg. And this book certainly has some strange sights to show you.

In a tribute anthology, there are typically three types of stories. You have stories that seek to be original and try to match the level of quality of the artist’s work that the book is in tribute of, you have stories that play in the world of the artist and attempts to bring new ideas or new ways of approaching the material, and then you have stories that name drop familiar themes and characters from the artist's work, using the coolness factor and/or nostalgia of the persons art to try to mask that there is nothing new going on in the story. And pretty much every tribute anthology is going to have these three types of stories. The only question is, how much of each? Luckily, The New Flesh: A Tribute to David Cronenberg, is pretty much all thriller and almost no filler. 

This book is an absolute explosion of body horror, poetically transgressive prose, and strange science fiction concepts. And it is quite a blast to read, especially if you are a Cronenberg fan, but the book works just as well if you have no idea who Cronenberg is. Most of the stories stand on their own. And there are a couple genuine masterworks in here. In terms of negatives, I think my main criticism is, I think too many of the stories use Cronenberg’s trope of a “disease gun”. I would say in about 4 or 5 of the stories, someone comes out with a disease gun, and after that happens for the 3rd or 4th time, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Seemingly a lot of the stories are takes on Videodrome, and they pretty much all are great, but the ones towards the end of the book suffer from reader exhaustion after having already read a couple set in that world. There are a couple stories where you are not sure what Cronenberg trope they are riffing on until near the end, and those stories are great fun when the reveal hits. I would have loved to see a story do a riff on Crash, which I think is the only major Cronenberg film to not see any representation in these stories. 

My favorite stories in The New Flesh are: A Bad Patch by Brian Evenson, this one is just brilliant, a vertiginous tale of invading bodies and dread-inducing hospitals. A classic Evenson story aimed straight at the reader's sense of comfort in their own body and mind. Red Lips in a Blue Light by Sara Century is this beautiful and mysterious tale of a bizarre television program and the haunting nature of genetics. Just a genius story, one of the highlights of the anthology. Genital Freak by Katy Michelle Quinn is a fantastic and perverse psychosexual tale of gender and surgery. Really pushes boundaries and in terms of a homage, this one may be the most clever about it. Elk: An Oral History of an Abandoned Film (1987) by Jack Lothian is a restrained story about a strange film and the even stranger events behind the scenes. Masterfully written. Her Taint is Saintly with Her Welcome by Mona Swan LeSueur and Fiona Maeve Geist is a full out gonzo explosion of deviant energy and exploding bodies. One of the only stories I have ever read that actually captures both the frenetic speed and the gorgeous body shredding surrealism of something like Tetsuo The Iron Man.  Maybe this is a homage to Cronenberg via his influence on Japanese cinema? Also, there is a definite Burroughs influence here. This story is basically like a bed that has been ejaculated on by Cronenberg, Tsukamoto, and Burroughs, and maybe a couple other people, just an oozing mattress of mixed influence. Loved it. I think all of these works would be ideal for a Cronenberg adaptation. 

And pretty much every other story is damn good. It’s a “if I had to pick my favorites” kind of situation, and since this is a review, I actually do. But almost all of the stories are well written and a lot of fun to read. Hekati Yoga by Max D. Stanton is a fun and clever take on self-help practices, Convex by Emma Alice Johnson is a great Videodrome homage in that it really nails the ontological confusion of the film, Seminar by Cody Goodfellow and Limbs by Alex Smith are both fantastic stories taking on the themes of parasitism and the merging of alien beings, and A New Mother’s Guide to Raising an Abomination by Gwendolyn Kiste is a kind of darkly poetic take on the theme of strange offspring. There were only two stories I have any kind of real criticism for. For one, I don’t understand the inclusion of the story Emergence by Bruno Lombardi. It is a kind of fantasy involving giant spiders and gateways to other worlds. What this has to do with a Cronenberg tribute anthology, I am not sure. It is a fine story, just seems out of place and a bit jarring. On the other hand, A Future of Violence by Charles Austin Muir, just missed me. It seemed to be that story that throws a bunch of names out of Cronenberg’s films out at you and winks. I thought it just wasn't as strong as the other stories in the anthology and maybe it’s just not my thing. But, every anthology by their nature is gonna have a story or two not to the reader's liking. Mileage may vary.

Overall, this is an exciting, vibrant, anthology. Not only a worthy tribute to master filmmaker David Cronenberg, it is also a vital collection of weird sci-fi and poetic transgression. It is full of late-night pervy dreams, of strange couplings, of paranoid thoughts. And I can’t not mention the fantastic cover art from Michael Bukowski! Highly, highly recommended. Just don’t be surprised if you see your copy start throbbing and pulsating on your bookcase, that just means it has more to show you…..


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Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Beyond by Lucio Fulci



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In room 36 ( 3 plus 6 is 9 ), unused furniture lay in dust and shadow. A terrible secret is kept in room 36, and its malignant tendrils are spilling out into the life of Liza Merrill, a woman who has not yet found a place for herself in the world and is hoping that running a hotel will change her fortunes. The Seven Doors Hotel, located in Louisiana, she inherits from her parents. She starts having the closed hotel renovated, she by chance meets a handsome doctor who seems to take an interest in her, and her life looks to be starting to settle down for her. To finally be happy after years of wandering from job to job in New York. She traveled across the country for this chance, and she means to take it.


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But this is not to be her fate. There is an inescapable past waiting in the dark rooms of the Seven Doors Hotel. A secret that can not be kept secret any longer. The barren rooms hold a form of dead life. A dead life that is starting to rise and emerge. The basement, full of moldy and moist holes, hides rotting limbs that thrust out to main and mutilate any who go near. Cadaverous beings emerge from murky watery abysses, bathtubs and pools of basement water. These creatures shamble in a sleep-like state, like somnambulists not yet woken into our reality. She turns to the doctor to help, because she feels like she is falling into a nightmare that can not be real. People keep disappearing in her hotel and blood leaks from the walls. But the doctor is sterile, he is not able to help or rescue anyone. His bullets are ineffective and his choices only end up damning the both of them. The dead take over the living, and the landscape of Hell is revealed to be limitless in its horrors. 

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In all this surrealism and terror, what is The Beyond really about? It seems to be haunted by a fear of dead things in wet decaying holes, about impotence, about those things that wish to be born even though they are dead and damned. There can be no escape in The Beyond. You were already born doomed. Is Liza already in Hell when the film starts? The gateway to Hell is opened up by a painter named Schweick, a creator of nightmares, a father to the horrors. Was he real, or is he a symbolic figure in the nightmare world of Liza? Is this all a dream/nightmare of miscarriage or abortion? The Beyond is this delirium of empty rooms and dead things crawling out of damp cavities in the body of the hotel, hollow with the rot of the dead who wish to corrupt and deface the living, to rip their flesh and tear out their internal organs. In room 36, the corruption of secrets and regrets seep out into the world. In 9 months a human is born. In 9 months a gateway to Hell may be opened in one's own mind. In 9 months the dead may be born inside the living, only to kill the mother. 

“ And you will face the sea of Darkness, and all therein that may be explored. “

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows by Sam Richard.



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I would like to introduce a newer writer on the horror scene who I am sure will be making quite the impact, Sam Richard. He has recently released a collection of his short fiction and it is certainly a breath of fresh air in a growingly stagnant and inbred horror literature scene. A much-needed sense of transgression and real importance informs Sam’s work. This book is a testament to how horror fiction can engage in a real and honest way with real-life trauma and grief. When most more traditional fiction falls into condescending falsehoods and feel good fallacies, horror can be truthful, can convey feelings of deep hurt and shame, can explore secret thoughts and hidden wounds. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows serves to author Sam Richard as an inner diary of his trying to cope and deal with the real-life loss of his wife Maureen Richard. It is full of self-destructive dreams and a terrifying longing that goes beyond the dark at the end of life. It is shockingly transgressive, a kind of self-inflicted sadism against the author. When you read about Baudelaire and Nietzche talking about writers who bleed out their prose, this is a perfect example of that. Each story is like a bone in a cage made of his dead love's body, trapping him inside. Wonderful and terrible Batailleian visions of diseased sex and universe destroying despair. 

To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows, at its best, is a series of feverish dreams and tormenting nightmares all centered around the death of a loved one, almost all the stories in this collection serve as a kind of self therapy through horror. The collection is a deep delve into the inner life of writer Sam Richard. It has an intimacy that balances with the horrors. Certainly not a light read. In some ways, I would compare this book to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. It is completely an obsessional book, personal in nature, and an attack on anyone who opens its pages. 

It is hard to criticize such a personal book, but there are some criticisms that must be made. There are two stories that seem out of place in the collection. The Verdant Holocaust written for a Misfits tribute anthology, about strange rites and monstrous religions, is pretty over the top and kind of just meanders. The Prince of Mars was written for a Williams Burroughs tribute anthology, and again is an example of over the top writing, it may be of interest to those looking for more Burroughs homages, but to me, it just didn’t capture my imagination. And the first story, the title story To Wallow in Ash, is maybe too autobiographical, it seems that Sam is writing a memoir about his lost love, and then, in the end, it starts turning into a fictional story. Which sometimes may work, but the problem here is that the story never has time to seduce the reader into its fictional world, never allows a sense of its own reality, never allows an atmosphere to develop or allows the reader to enter the dreamworld space of a short story. We Feed This Muddy Creek starts off promisingly, but takes this unconvincing turn with super unrealistic characters and kind of random over the top violence. If you like the more goth punk early work of Caitlin Kiernan or the more Bizarro style of writing you may enjoy these works, but for me, they didn’t really work.

On the other hand, there are some masterful works in here. Love Like Blood is an absolutely nightmarish delirium of doppelgangers and longing. There are also shades of the films Ringu and Lost Highway in this tale. A powerful story that in itself makes this book a must buy. I Know Not the Names of the Gods to Whom I Prey is a descent into an inferno of self-loathing and self-destructive desire. It has this perverse sadomasochism that is so truthful and painfully, it’s like Sam Richards put his most hurtful thoughts directly on paper, I wish Clive Barker in his writings was so honest. Nature Unveiled, a type of end of the world story, is gleefully and unapologetically a revenge story in honor of the main characters lost love. Deathlike Love is a masterpiece of diseased desires and shame-filled infidelities, a story both erotic and horrific in the best possible way.

So overall To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is a book that is both a loss filled dirge for those we most care for ripped away from us too soon and a celebration of the possibilities of horror fiction and how it can explore deeply personal horrors. I do think the book would have fared better if it just focused on the main theme, making the book a series of repeated nightmares of loss and guilt. The great stories in here kind of overshadow the others which don’t quite rise up to their level. But this is a minor quibble. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is one of the most original collections to have come out in years, it will arouse you, bring you to tears, and shock you, sometimes all at once. Life is usually a confusing affair, full of conflicting emotions and disturbing thoughts you would never share. But that is the stuff that weaves through this book like a burning contagion through your heart, flaring and destroying all at once. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Guest Writer Brian O'Connell: This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster's Films



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This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster’s Films

Spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar below.
Ari Aster does not want to be known as a political director.
“I’m sort of loathe to expound openly about these things,” he said in a July Forbes interview, “because I’m not making a polemic.” In another piece posted on Inverse, he elaborated: “I know that I never want to make message movies. But a movie doesn’t need to have a concrete message to make a deep and meaningful impact…If the movie’s agenda is transparent, that makes me resist. A question well-articulated is so much stronger (and more trustworthy) than an answer firmly stated.”
Aster’s films certainly pose questions. Debuting with the critically acclaimed possession movie Hereditary in 2018 and following it up just one year later with the surreal folk horror of Midsommar, he’s quickly established himself as one of the most interesting and innovative directors working in genre filmmaking. Taken together these films paint agonized portraits of isolated, troubled people beset by terrifying phenomena: a grief-stricken Utah family in Hereditary, a dysfunctional millennial couple in Midsommar. Unbearable loss is the driving current in both, incited by sickeningly extreme tragedies early on in the runtime. The central conflict, then—witches and pagan cultists aside—is how the characters cope, or fail to cope, with this loss.
Aster has stated that the appeal of making genre films, at least for him, is having “the scope of a story match whatever the characters are feeling” (linking them to the tradition of melodrama). His primary goal is to express the individual emotions and lived realities of his characters, a feat he pulls off admirably. Hereditary’s Paimon, a demon passed down from generation to generation by an insidious coven of witches, functions as a powerful metaphor for the horrors of inherited mental illness. And the pagan cult at the center of Midsommar, which seduces Dani (Florence Pugh) into its perverse rites with promises of empathy and affection, disturbingly echoes her unhappy, codependent relationship with manipulative grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). But the metaphors of these films aren’t purely psychological. On another level, they are also stories of people inescapably trapped by sinister social orders beyond their control.
Hereditary, for example, is at least in part about the constricting power of gender roles: particularly societal expectations for women, and the imposition of outside agendas upon their bodies. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), our protagonist, did not choose to be a mother. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, she dreams a conversation with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), giving voice to her unspoken thoughts: “I never wanted to be your mother,” she confesses. “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.” The “she” Annie alludes to is her sinister, domineering mother Ellen, who dies shortly before the advent of the film but continues to hold the household in her vise-like grip. The major twist of the film is that Ellen, unbeknownst to Annie, was the leader of a coven of witches, and that their designs have been on Peter—not Annie—all along. The entire plot has been an elaborate ritual intended to place the masculine demon Paimon, formerly trapped in the body of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), into Peter’s more fitting male form.
All this is primarily meant to symbolize the passage of mental illness down through the generations, but it also has relatively self-evident gendered connotations that come into sharp focus when looked at through the right lens. Ellen forces her daughter into family life and reduces her daughter’s womb and her grandchildren’s bodies to chattel for the coven’s purposes. She’s a stand-in for a wider patriarchal society that pressures women to rear children and fit in their socially-ordained identities. Significantly, Paimon’s influence is transmitted through conventional moments of motherhood: we see photos and dioramas of Ellen's breast- and bottle-feeding Charlie, implied to be part of the long-running ritual carried out in the film. Motherhood, especially compulsory motherhood, is here depicted as a kind of unspeakable curse, part of a wider societal plan that does not have women’s best interests at heart. (In this sense, the film’s sizable lineage from Rosemary’s Baby is starkly apparent.)
The elevation of the very male Paimon as the object of worship here is also significant. Paimon, we discover, specifically desires a masculine body for possession, and becomes “livid and vengeful when offered a female host”. Charlie’s female body, his original home, is thus deemed insufficient, and her brutal death is engineered to place Paimon in Peter. Annie is similarly sacrificed, turned into a satanic puppet who saws off her own head in a grisly act of occult reverence. But Peter, far from a willing vessel, is also victimized by this design. He is deemed a suitable vessel not only for being male but being “vulnerable”: permanently scarred by his sister’s death, he is an ostensibly emotionally “weak” boy, evicted from his body to provide room for a more powerful entity. As in our own society, masculinity “is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others” (to quote a Michael Ian Black piece for The New York Times).
The twisted vision of a nuclear family we see in Hereditary, and the controlling faction that breaks their minds and bodies, is a distorted reflection of our own society’s conventional “family values” and oppressive institutions. (The fact that the coven is led by women—Ellen and Joan, played by Ann Dowd—has an eerie resonance of internalized misogyny in a time where 51% of white women voted for Trump.) The film upsettingly concludes with three generations of Graham women decapitated, their ambulatory corpses bowing to a ceremonially crowned Peter, himself nothing but a hollowed-out shell. Aster may be adding distinctly supernatural flourishes here, but the banal horrors of patriarchy are far from the stuff of fiction.
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The cult or coven, as we see in Hereditary, will always function on some level as a metaphor for a predatory and warped social unit. This idea is amplified in Midsommar. Though Aster is hardly explicit about it, Midsommar is more overtly political than Hereditary: appropriately, since it’s a folk horror film, and folk horror almost always derives its terrors from the barbaric cruelties people enact on each other, generally in the service of some groundless and nonsensical belief. In Midsommar, the beliefs are those of Hårga, a seemingly ancient pagan cult living in the wilds of Hälsingland, Sweden. A group of college students, including self-satisfied anthropology major Christian, journey there to see a special iteration of Hårga’s midsummer festival, which only occurs once every ninety years. The trip is complicated, though, by the fractious and crumbling relationship between Christian and his girlfriend, Dani: an anxious, withdrawn psychology major who is still grieving the tragic loss of her family in a murder-suicide. As the cult’s ceremonies grow more and more extreme, so too does the couple’s bond decline, till both ultimately intersect in a fiery, overwhelming ending.
Much of the politically oriented discussion surrounding Midsommar has centered around the portrayal of Christian and his male friends. And indeed, a large part of the film’s emotional honesty and potency is how mercilessly it skewers the brand of shallow, bro-dude masculinity espoused by the grad students. As well as functioning as a metaphorical depiction of the “apocalyptic breakup” Aster hoped to convey, the cathartic ending has been convincingly read as a feminist triumph over toxically masculine victimizers. But Midsommar’s other dimension is one common to many folk horror films: that of race. From the moment the students arrive at the commune and the camera smoothly pans over the idyllic landscape, taking in a panorama of abstracted buildings and frolicking Swedish youth, one fact is blatantly unavoidable: Hårga’s (literally) glaring whiteness.
Contemporary paganism has always had a troubling relationship with fascism, and Midsommar drives home this relationship more than perhaps any other folk horror film. Hårga espouses a return to ancient traditions, an emphasis on “preserved bloodlines”, and specific ties to the land: ideas common to most fascist and ethnonationalist ideologies. Their primary colors are blue and yellow, echoing the Swedish flag, “to make the point of how wrong nationalism is,” production designer Henrik Svensson says. Their community, while seemingly utopic, is founded on brutish acts of euthanasia and human sacrifice—but, as Jenna Wortham writes in her insightful piece for The New York Times, Hårga never sees anything remotely wrong with their behavior. “[N]othing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.”
There are three people of color in the film: Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of the grad students joining Christian; and a London couple brought separately to the commune, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia). The latter are the first to realize something is wrong, but their voices are ignored. After witnessing a gruesome ättestupa, wherein two elder cult members commit ritual suicide to the joy of the commune (echoing the cult of death, another component of fascist ideology), they immediately pack their things and attempt to leave, but individually disappear. Connie’s screams are heard echoing around the commune, and Mark (Will Poulter) even comments that he’d seen her running for the trees, but, pointedly, none of the white protagonists do much in response. Josh later disappears as well; not only do the remaining characters not seem to care, but the oafish Christian even sells him out to the cult elders and insists “we don’t associate with him in any way”.
The film hints at these tendencies with little Easter eggs and details that might be missed on a first viewing. On Josh’s coffee table in the pre-Sweden scenes, we see a bright yellow book titled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark, an iteration of the runic alphabet. (In the director’s cut, this is even more explicit: during the car-ride to the commune, we see the cover, which features a large swastika encircled by a sea of runes.) Also on the car-ride, the students pass under a large banner, which, when translated from the Swedish, complains of “mass immigration to Hälsingland”, and urges the reader to “vote Free North this fall”—an obvious allusion to Brexit, and more generally to the anti-immigrant movements presently springing up across Europe and the world.
Before leaving off, it would be wrong not comment on Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith), the cult’s disabled oracle, who has drawn considerable commentary. A member intentionally bred of incest to write Hårga’s scripture, the character has been accused of ableism and insensitivity—but this seems to miss the point. Ruben is not an object of horror, but a victim of the cult’s purposes. He is an individual subjected to traumatic rites he does not fully understand (he is present during the sex ritual late in the film), born only to continue Hårga’s holy text, which the elders dictatorially interpret in any way that suits their motivations. Additionally, Ruben’s presence stresses Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” bloodlines, which ultimately extend to the point of inbreeding.
Even Aster, cryptic about it though he may be, acknowledges these aspects of Midsommar. From the interview cited at the top of the article, he explains: “if you also consider Swedish history, it is a very closed society and what does that really mean? There are things happening in Sweden right now that are echo[e]s of things that happened in the Second World War.” When discussing his own work, Svensson is even more direct: “[the sets are] pumped up, fascist architecture-style. I find it historically and traditionally oppressive, and this place breathes with it…It’s important to note that just because Sweden was neutral in World War II, that doesn't erase the fact that there were strong Nazi sympathizers at the time, from the people on the street all the way to the king. This is still in some extreme way[s] relevant in today’s Swedish political climate, unfortunately.”
It would be wrong to call Hereditary and Midsommar political movies, and equally wrong to call Aster a political director. Nonetheless, social messages seep in. No film exists in a vacuum, and in the stressful and intense atmosphere of the past several years, it’s inevitable that the spirit of times will be expressed in horror movies. It is easy to feel like we are all pawns in one horrible, hopeless machine: controlled by our government, our social standing, our cultural values. One doubts, based on his comments, that Aster will ever be an explicitly political filmmaker. But the peculiarly fatalistic attitudes of his debut features speak to the moment all on their own.