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Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt.

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Sometimes the greatest of reading experiences kind of come out of nowhere. After reading all the books your friends recommend and just feeling cold to them, all the masterpieces that you could not get past ten pages into, sometimes you just pick up a book that you had maybe heard one or two reviews, maybe mentioned once on social media, you pick it up, take it home, and within a couple pages, you know you are in the hands of a master, after a couple stories, you know you are reading a new all-time favorite. I just had that experience reading The Dark Dark, a collection of short work from Samantha Hunt. I knew next to nothing about this book and was completely unfamiliar with the author. Now, as it stands, The Dark Dark is one of my favorite books. 

I think one of my favorite things that art can do, whatever film, literature, etc, is, as David Lynch puts it, “ leave you room to dream “. Samantha Hunt creates these seductive mysteries of narrative, these little shards of dreamlike delirium, always grounded in reality, grounded in people you know and maybe, just maybe, are just like you, and with just the slightest touch, a seeping unreality slowly creeps in, coloring everything with an impenetrable haze. You think you are reading one kind of story only to end up someplace strange and unexpected. I think to give an idea of what her work is like, you would take the extreme ambiguity of Aickman, then take the willfully corrupted narratives of Evenson, and add a pinch of the playful meta-narratives of Calvino. Which is to say, Samantha Hunt’s work here is challenging and thought-provoking to say the least. These stories are kind of like some strange creature, recombined from familiar animals into something strange and compelling, like a chimera or a manticore. You think you know what you are seeing, then the landscape of skin and flesh changes, and you wind up in the dark, entangled in strange limbs and just falling into darkness.

To give an example of the stories in The Dark Dark, one of the tales, All Hands, concerns a coast guard officer inspecting a cargo ship in the Gulf of Mexico. One night while on duty, he falls overboard into the black ocean, almost getting trapped under the ship. All around him, deep in the water, are thousands of abandoned holes, former oil wells. He is later visited by his lover, a teacher at a grade school. She just got done with a meeting with some students and the principal of the school. Apparently, there has been an unexplained outbreak of teenage pregnancies. At the school, there are over a dozen girls pregnant, all seemingly impregnated at the same time. It’s also hinted at, that there may be a widespread epidemic of unexplained pregnancy, reaching maybe into the thousands. But all of this comes in underplayed plot points and hints. The story focuses on the inner life of the two main characters, their frustrations and worries, their desires and longings, you could almost miss the underlying themes. And what is this story about? What links these two themes, the abandoned holes in the ocean floor and the inexplicable pregnancies? There seems to be some subterranean meaning buried in the narrative, and you can’t help but keep going back, thinking about this story. Pretty much every story in this collection had me thinking about what I just read, hours later, days later, trying to figure out the mystery, trying to see through the fog and the obscuring gloom of the stories to discover just how deep they go, what meaning I can take from them. These aren’t just random exercises in surrealism, to be clear. These are heart-rending, subtle, powerful examinations of the human condition, at turns melancholy, despairing, cynical, or painfully hopeful. These are characters lost in the darkness of an unknowable world, but there is someplace even worse they find, the dark dark inside themselves.  

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Top Ten Horror Films of the 2010s.

The horror film scene of the 2010s were this mix of post-Anti-Christ art-house horror, post-Ringu/Kairo creeping dread, post-Existenz/Crash Cronenbergian body horror, and post-Adult Swim bizzaro acid humor. Adult swim and streaming services like Netflix have acted like this decades midnight movie experience, bringing all the subversive pleasures of cult cinema to your television. And I think that horror cinema is actually in a great place right now. In a way that no one seemed to notice, while everyone seemed to be talking about remakes and franchises, we may have had the most vital decade for the horror film since the 1970s. While the 1970’s horror film subverted reality by exploring strange dream states and nightmares made reality, the 2010’s horror film dealt with a reality that has disappeared, a world of simulation and unrealities made normal. Central themes of this new era of horror filmmaking seem to be trying to find some semblance of the real or the human inside the labyrinth of unreality that we are trapped in, and the having to deal with an actual political and environmental nightmare unfolding every day on social media and the nightly news. And can we comment on what an amazing job independent film company A24 is doing? Almost half the films on this list were produced by them. All in all a very interesting period for the horror film. Here is my pick for the ten best horror films of the 2010s.

1. In Fabric ( Strickland, 2019 )
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2. Evolution ( Hadzihalilovic, 2015 )
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3. The Witch ( Eggers, 2015 )
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4. Under the Skin ( Glazer, 2013 )
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5. The Neon Demon ( Refn, 2016 )
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6. The Lighthouse ( Eggers, 2019 )
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7. Hereditary ( Aster, 2018 )
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8. Enemy ( Villeneuve, 2013 )
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9. 10 Cloverfield Lane ( Trachtenberg, 2016 )
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10. The Human Centipede 2 ( Six, 2011 )
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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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