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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Review: The Skeleton Melodies by Clint Smith

 The Skeleton Melodies: Smith, Clint, Golaski, Adam: 9781614982869 ...

With Clint Smith’s first collection Ghouljaw and Other Stories, a new exciting voice emerged on the horror scene. From bizarre body horror to tales of creeping dread, it was evident that Clint was a dedicated student of the horror story. And now with Clint’s new collection The Skeleton Melodies, he has returned as a master of the form, showing himself to one of the most important writers working today. His collection Ghouljaw was a mixed bag, it had some masterful stories that showed Clint’s potential, but it did also have some works that I don’t think showed Clint at his best. So his follow up collection has been eagerly awaited, to see if Clint comes through on the promise of his strongest works, or if it will be another mixed bag like his first collection. And I am happy to say that this is the collection we horror fans have been waiting for from Clint. A wide range of styles and subject matter, stories like Animalhouse are good old fashioned monster pulp goodness, The Rive is like the prologue to some strange 1970’s science fiction film, Fiending Apophenia is a drug saturated fever dream, and Her Laugh is a creeping and disturbing variation on the ghost story. But for my tastes, the two best stories in this collection are The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein and Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow. But before I talk a bit about my favorite works, let me talk a bit about where Clint Smith sits in the horror literature tradition. 

I think one of the differences between classical horror and the modern era of horror is in its view of the nature of reality. In classical horror, the author is trying to upset your notions of a safe and relatable reality. In modern horror, day to day reality is uncertain and surreal. In classic horror, something from outside attempts to destroy your sense of self. In modern horror, the self is already corrupted and unknowable. Writers like Ray Bradbury or H.P. Lovecraft wrote tales of imagination. Their works took place in this personal dream space and were written down as personal visions. In the current era, we find ourselves in, personal space and media space no longer has the hard boundaries that made it easy to tell fiction from reality. Writers now must navigate a terrain that intermingles personal space as public and public space as personal. With the advent of social media and lifestyles that are lived mainly in the digital world, personal space has been seamlessly intertwined with constant media involvement. Public space has lost its “otherness” and now is an arena to engage and pursue one’s deepest fantasies and desires, transforming the “outside” to just another area of one’s personal space. 

This brings us to one of the major developments in modern era horror literature. An offshoot trope that now is where maybe some of the most important work in horror fiction is being done. The literature of delirium. A view of reality as this hallucinatory dreamscape where meaning and identity slide and mutate. There is no normal to defend or return to, in this delirious literature, it is more a matter of how to live, how to navigate this new terrain we find ourselves in. Some of the hallmarks of this branch of horror are, its intentionally perverse use of genre tropes, the absence of a “base” reality for the characters, “shock” endings that further transform the narrative into something completely different then the reader was expecting, and the use of surrealist imagery and concepts. You may ask, how is this different than say, classical avant-garde methods of attack or say, writers like William Burroughs or Roland Torpor? The difference is, writers like Burroughs and Torpor used unreality to attack the social norms of society, to attack the status quo. By mutating and transgressing social boundaries and taboos they hoped to change, or even destroy, "normal" society. This new era of writer, which I take Clint Smith to be a part of, finds that the “normal” has disappeared, and is using surrealism, horror tropes, and avant-garde techniques… to try to find a level ground, a steady reality. If everything is “hyperreal”, how do you attack the status quo? How do you attack the reader's sense of normalcy? What is transgressive in this modern era? The literature of delirium primarily functions as a kind of exploration of transgression and notions of reality in a world where clips from shows on Adult Swim rest beside Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou on YouTube. 

Some of the masterworks of “literature of delirium”, mainly collections of short stories since it seems the best format of fiction to best explore these concepts are in the short story, are Adam Golaski’s Worse Than Myself, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, and Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark. I think Clint Smith, at his best, fits into this school of horror literature. Clint Smith is a master of the literature of delirium. His tales unnerve you and inconvenience you. He takes what you thought you were familiar with, like your body or your day to day life, and renders them new and strange. In an ever more uncertain reality that we find ourselves in, Clint Smith’s work is almost prophetic. Now let me talk about what I feel are his best works from The Skeleton Melodies. 

The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein is, in my opinion, one of the great stories of the post 2000 era. In this one we find Clint Smith firing on all cylinders. The story centers on Gwen, who is driving down to the beach to take a vacation along with her two kids and her mother. Her children keep seeing news of recent shark attacks on television and social media, which may lend to news-driven hysteria, or it may be that for some strange reason, shark attacks have increased to an alarming rate. So there is this kind of overlaying anxiety about the dangers of the ocean. Also Gwen’s mother Kathy has been having an increasing number of disturbing nightmares about her dead husband. So, they arrive down to the beach to take a relaxing break from their stresses. But with all the underlying fears of shark attacks and nightmares of dead spouses, there is this haunting atmosphere of dread that lingers over the narrative. It is vague and undefined, but increasing as the story unfolds. And when they just start to relax and enjoy some swimming, one of the great scenes in horror literature erupts. There is a scene, a visual, that like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, is a thing that could never be visualized. It could be one thing, or another thing, or both combined. It is a moment of shock, of surreality, and of utter doom. It is one of those stories that sticks with you in the best horror tradition, leaving a nice scar on your psyche, both pleasurable and painful. 

Details That Would Be Otherwise Lost to Shadow is another destabilizing masterpiece. The story focuses on Tara, a woman happily married and luckily employed in her desired profession, interior design. They have a daughter and just recently moved from Chicago to the outskirts of Detroit. While settling in, Tara notices this strange house nearby, a house built for some reason with different sections of the house using different architectural styles and different building materials. Brick, cobblestone, wood planking, tile, all mixed together. She never sees anywhere come or go from that house and she becomes fascinated, wanting to discover who, if anyone, lives there, and what the inside of the house looks like. One day, intent on acting like she was just making a social call, she goes over to the strange house and tries the door. No one home. She looks around and finds a back door and decides to take a chance and enter the house. The inside is just as puzzling and intriguing as the outside. While looking around she hears a car door slam, scaring her. She runs over to the upstairs window and looks across to her house, where her husband and child are exiting the car, with a woman who looks just like Tara. There is this great nebulous quality about this story, where nothing really comes clear. This story resembles the strangely put together house of the story. Like the different segments of the house, this story is a puzzle made up of pieces that all fit together but you don’t understand how they all fit together, only that is some underlying meaning and purpose to it that is not clear, and it is up to you to decide what the puzzle means. There are strange doppelgangers, shadowy strangers, and implications of nightmarish connections. 

I highly recommend this book, Clint Smith is a rising star of horror literature who has now made a permanent place for himself with The Skeleton Melodies. I fully expect even more brilliant and challenging works in the future coming from Clint. Combining a poetic sense of prose with a delight of horror literature that shows him to be a true connoisseur of the genre, Clint Smith is helping keep the long and important tradition of taboo-breaking, idea-driven, horror fiction relevant and essential. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Interview: Keri Toye of Sound VVitch.

I had the pleasure to see this wonderful solo act Sound VVitch live TWICE and really felt I was witnessing the start of the career of a brilliant new young musician. Sinister, erotic, seductive, and evil, Sound VVitch is this combination of ritualistic dark gothic, bleak electronic noise, and gorgeous trance-inducing violin. She has this alluring voice where you are not sure if she is an angel or demon, and before the show is over, you no longer care, you willingly go wherever she is leading you. The woman behind Sound VVitch is Keri Toye, and I think you will be hearing a lot from her in the future. She has a new album out called Becoming which I can not recommend strongly enough! I had the pleasure of getting to interview Keri:

Hello and welcome to The Plutonian! Thanks for coming on! Let’s start with your project’s name. How did you come up with Sound VVitch and what does it mean to you?

Sound VVitch came about when I first started reading about witchcraft and began exploring outside the world of classical violin (somewhere around 2015-16). I could never really get into playing the violin the way it was intended, it always felt like such a chore. When I first discovered that I could play the electric violin through guitar pedals, I found a new love for the instrument as well as new forms of music. It was the first real love I had for something. Looking back at it now, it was probably the beginning of finding a more authentic version of myself, as well as a newfound appreciation for sound and the noises I could create from just a single violin. Now I use my abilities to produce sounds in a way that intends to induce a state of change in the mind and body. I think that is what is most important to me now; being able to tap into an ethereal realm. Thus, Sound VVitch.

I have seen Sound VVitch play live twice. And each time there was this wonderful sense of something dark and mysterious being evoked. I had this feeling of being entranced, of being put into this kind of somnambulist state. Your music is just so perfectly suited for live performance. Can you talk about what playing live means to you and what effect you are hoping to have on your audience during a live performance?

Like I mentioned in the previous answer, it’s all about that state change. As important as it is for me to produce that state change for myself, it is equally as important for me to help build the foundation to help my audience achieve that state as well, whether that’s a similar feeling in them, or something completely new. I think I try to produce that feeling in all of my art. It’s one of my favorite parts about being alive, getting to experience that sort of collective consciousness through art. There is so much for us to be able to discover about ourselves. Overall, I’d like to help both myself and my audience feel a sense of power in our own individual energies along with the power of our combined energies in the same room, all held up by the same foundation, creating an experience you can receive only from going to live shows. 

There is this very exquisite dark eroticism in your music that is mixed with this kind of deep longing and a definite willingness to attack the listener. Shades of gothic folk, noise, metal, and dark ambient intertwine in your music. What inspired you to make the kind of music you make? Maybe in terms of what you emotionally get out of creating it?

The curiosity of finding new sounds helps me hold new excitement about the world and living in this body. I never really felt like someone who could properly articulate my emotions with words, so music helps me capture a moment in time, a feeling in time. To be able to connect with other humans living in their bodies and with their feelings. It’s all a language, a connection; one that most can understand. 

Your lyrics combine the beautiful and the grotesque. Can you talk about your writing process? And what comes first, the lyrics or the music?

Thank you, what a beautiful way to describe my lyrics, I love that! I think it's mostly about following a feeling without end. Sometimes it feels like an out of body experience where I'm almost not in control. Of course, like everyone else, I still have those moments of frustration that can feel overwhelming where it’s not always an easy process. However, I try not to get in my own way (as difficult as that may be sometimes). I want to create things that I think are cool and not always what is expected of people. So to answer your questions, I try not to force anything when I'm attempting to write. I like things to happen organically, so I go with the flow in terms of whatever comes up first. For example, for my last song on Becoming, “The Sun Will Rust Your Bones,” the lyrics were written almost a year before the music was written. The song wasn't completely finalized until I got to the studio, and it still can’t even be labeled as finalized because I will still be playing it differently moving forward. That goes for all my songs. Both me and everything around me is always changing, and nothing is permanent, so I like to keep that in mind while I write, it helps me loosen up. 

There are so many wells of music that you seem to draw inspiration from. I could see everyone from Coil and Death in June fans, to Aghast and Chelsea Wolfe fans, to Atrax Morgue and Brighter Death Now fans loving your work. What are some of your pivotal musical influences?

I get compared to Chelsea Wolfe a fair amount, and it’s definitely not something I shy away from, she has absolutely been a pivotal influence for me. Beyond Chelsea Wolfe, however, I would say some key influences have been Bjork, Portishead, OM, Jenny Hval, Warpaint, Lykke, Li, Billie Holiday, Nine Inch Nails, CocoRosie, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Phemale, Lingua Ignota, Eartheater, The Body, Jex Toth, Thou, Poppy, Julie Christmas, Sunn 0))), HIDE, King Woman/Miserable/NGHTCRWLR, Phamakon. I am also a product of where I grew up going to shows, and the local music projects that influenced me in different ways have been: Matthew Mast, AngelForm, Voyager, Waking Judea, Ulna, I Can Dream, Sharptooth, Sunrot, Dia, Ex Astra, Temple Ov Saturn, Sun Voyager, Outlier, Caitlin Baucom and all of the noise community from Ithaca, NY to NYC. 

Do you believe in witchcraft, and/or associate yourself with any kind of say, pagan, esoteric, or occult beliefs?

I try not to confine or define myself as one thing. I understand myself to be forever changing and growing. So sometimes I feel weird about calling myself a witch. Or maybe sometimes I feel like I don't deserve the title. However I do believe in witchcraft. I believe in natural medicines and the power that comes with nature. For me, witchcraft has a lot to do with introspection and helping me with my mental health. It’s the first spiritual practice I have found that doesn't try to tell me what to do. Of course there are certain ways to practice in order to help bring more power to the spell or ritual, however I gravitate more towards the witchcraft that encourages me to take the reigns because we all have our own experiences and everyone accepts and reacts to everything differently. Witchcraft helps me feel like I have control over myself unlike anything else has before. The project is called Sound VVitch because I believe in the power of music as a collective and I believe it can be a form of healing. Live settings are even more powerful because of all the energies in one room feeling all the same vibrations. The name also originated, made sense to me and stuck when I began to do sound/drone meditations/rituals with myself. I'm not sure if any “qualified” witches would claim that as witchcraft but I don't believe it needs to be confirmed by others to be deemed authentic to me. 

How has it been touring? What kind of reactions do you get to your performances?

I’ve only had the pleasure of touring once with The Russian White during the summer of 2018. It was a life changing experience and I was able to ask myself if touring was something that I would want to do for a while or even forever and the answer was yes. After that tour I set up my own little weekend tour in November of 2018. That made me realize it was going to be difficult to do all of this by myself, which led me to start the search for finding band members. 

Are you into horror fiction at all? Or horror cinema? And if so, what would be some of your recommendations/favorites?

Horror is absolutely my favorite genre. Always specifically looking out for a good score and for good visuals in horror cinema. I wish I could say I read more horror fiction but I just can’t get into reading much fiction in general. I’m open to recommendations though! So some of my favorite horror films are: Nosferatu (1979), Hellraiser, The VVitch, Under The Skin, Blue Velvet, Suspiria, The Void, Images, The Shining, All The Colors of the Dark, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Nightmare Castle, Event Horizon, Eyes of Fire, Midsommar…...

I hear you have gone from a solo act to including some other members into your musical project. A bassist and a drummer right? What brought that about and how has that been going?

That weekend tour in 2018 that I mentioned earlier was definitely an eye opener for me. I realized how difficult and lonely it is doing everything by myself. Sure, there are a lot of benefits to having a solo music project, however, beyond feeling lonely, I also felt that the songs deserved more in a live setting. I can now have all of the tones I was looking for. Miles (drums) and Justin (bass) bring so much to this project. They are both wonderful and talented in their own ways. Not only did I gain band members but I have also gained two really great friends, which I think is important for artistic endeavors. One of the reasons why I even entertained the idea was because Miles and Justin had both been persistent in asking me if I was looking for members, and that they would be willing should I ever decide. That was the main reason why I wanted to take them in. They wanted to be there, they showed initiative and they showed me that they understood my vision and my needs, even when those needs might have been cloudy for me. Not to mention they both have a wide range of talents, Miles created our website with his coding skills (soundvvitch.com), and Justin has printed a lot of our newest merch which you can also find through our website. I could probably do an entire interview gushing about both of them, but I’ll stop myself here. 

You have a new album out, Becoming! It has been on constant repeat at my house! Can you talk about your new album and what inspired you to create it?

I’m so glad you're liking it and I'm so grateful to have your support. Thank you for reaching out to me for this interview. The first thing that I would like to mention is the order of the tracks on the album. They are placed in the order in which they were created/written. I did that in order to capture the feeling of taking a journey with me in hopes that the listener can apply it to themselves or attempt to empathize. That is how most of us take in media anyways, isn't it? The foundation of the meaning of the album (and the title) rests on the idea of working through my own forms of trauma, and doing my best to continue to learn about oppression in all of its forms. Furthermore, it’s about coming to terms with all of those experiences, and coping with both loneliness and death in the face of such trauma. Facing mortality is to face an inevitable loneliness, and that is what we are all “Becoming.” 

So, what is next for Sound VVitch? What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Currently working on a stop motion music video for Bed Bugs, the first song on the record. It's been a long process in the making, and hopefully I will have it done while it is still relevant to people. I am also putting together some things that can go on our merch table when we can play shows again, whenever that may be. During quarantine I've been working on some new songs that I will probably release on my own so they won't have the same production power as “Becoming,” because i'm not a master audio engineer like my friend Brendan Williams, who recorded, produced and mixed “Becoming.” But they will be strange and they will be authentic and it is just an attempt to capture some of my raw feelings during a wild, uncertain and historical time. You can also expect some releases of remixes I did for some of my friends: The Russian White, Angel Form and STCLVR, TBA.

You can check out her music here: https://soundvvitch.bandcamp.com/

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Article: The Nebulous Dreams of Mike Allen

Aftermath of an Industrial Accident: Stories by Mike Allen ...

So I have just read the new collection from Mike Allen, entitled Aftermath of an Industrial Accident. As a long time fan of his work, I have to just come out and say this. I don’t think Mike Allen is actually human. Honestly, I am not at all sure what he could be. I do know that he is a writer of exquisite dreamlike and surreal poetry and prose. And like clockwork you can count on a new Mike Allen story or poem or book, sure to be full of vertiginous landscapes and strangely changing characters, arriving at a pace that surely can not be human. There just seems to be some kind of dark intellect behind these “dream transmissions”. And that must be what these are. Dream transmissions from some hidden and unseen entity that goes by the name Mike Allen. Sometimes I think he is some kind of bizarre dream machine, locked away in some derelict factory’s sub-basement, churning out mad book after mad book. Sometimes I think he is some kind of nightmare octopus, sending its sickly, corrupting tentacles out in the form of ink and paper. But I guess it really does not matter what he is, does it? What matters is these strange books that keep appearing on my bookshelf, and the ominous and wonderful dreams that are contained within. 

Out of all of the outlets of Mike’s works, poetry collections, novels, I think my favorites are his short story collections. I don’t see his various story collections as individual works neatly divided into different subject matter, but as transmissions of whatever dream space Mike is exploring recently. He creates these short story collections that seem like they are transported directly out of one of Mike’s dreams. He reminds me a bit of Clark Ashton Smith or Ray Bradbury, in the freedom he takes in using different writing genres as if they were different paints to be used, and for his ability to put his imagination directly on paper, deeply personal and deeply obscure. Mike’s work engages all the various genres of imaginative fiction, weird sci-fi, fantasy, magic realism, etc. But most of Mike’s work tends to skew more towards the horror end of the genre spectrum, but Mike is rarely pessimistic in his writing, no matter how surreal or bizarre his stories get, you can feel the creator in the background absolutely loving what he is writing, and Mike’s love of horror and fantasy is infectious. This is horror written out of joy, out of love. 

Throughout Mike’s career, he has written many tales which to me are just essential. In his first collection, Unseaming, it contains some of the absolute masterworks of contemporary weird horror. In Her Acres of Pastoral Playground, a man and his wife are trying to survive in this Lovecraftian post-apocalyptic world. He is trying to keep the day to day life he loves going, but strange ruptures in reality keep twisting and mutilating reality and his wife's body. In The Button Bin, you have a tale of incestuous relations, corruptions of the body, strange parasitic entities, and mysterious boxes of buttons. The story is about this missing girl, the victim of a car crash and an abduction. But she is not really present in the story, it more revolves around the men who desire her, and who wish her harm. One of the men knew her physically in the most forbidden of fashions, the other man broke down her body and absorbed her into himself, thereby, perversely, knowing her inside and out. The two men end up meeting in this tale of obsession and jealousy. By centering the story on the men, it finds a kind of troubling understanding of their motivations, and a deeper view into their grotesque desires. And the story has this ending that brings their obscene longings closer together, physically enveloping each other in a finale straight out of the darkest regions of nightmare. The story of The Button Bin continues and enlarges in scale and disturbing imagery in its sequels The Quiltmaker, also found in Unseaming, and in The Comforter, which can be found in the short novel/novella omnibus A Sinister Quartet. The Button Bin, The Quiltmaker, and The Comforter make for one of the most bizarre and epic trilogies in the history of horror literature. The “Button Bin” trilogy centers on these creatures which are made up of humans enveloped in humans enveloped in humans, to the point where they are no longer human, “Buttoning” them together in what must be one of the most striking concepts I have ever read. It has this kind of fairy tale heart but is full-on body horror and walks the line between mind-bending horror and dark fantasy tale. With work this original, you are kind of taken aback, you read along, no idea where the story is leading, and ending up in a place you could not have predicted. In another of my favorites tales from Unseaming, The Blessed Days, every human wakes up covered in blood, every, single, day. This is another story that operates in this kind of hazy dream logic. Mayan mythology, dreams of other dimensions, and strange worm hydras intertwine in this tale of the absolute best kind of nightmare horror fiction. Unseaming is one of the masterworks of modern horror, in turns bizarre, macabre, and unsettling. 

In his follow up collection The Spider Tapestries, Mike serves us with a more delirious collection, certainly a bit more in the realm of fantasy than his previous collection Unseaming. In the self-titled story The Spider Tapestries we find a non-human world of spiders and their drug-induced dreamings. In Twa Sisters, Mike explores modeling and the imagery of the human body by exploding it into 1,000 different strange and new forms. I think if Unseaming was a collection of dread-inducing nightmares, The Spider Tapestries is a delirium machine, seeking to show with each strange new marvel how erotic and delightfully unsettling the transforming of reality can be. 

Now with Mike’s new collection, Aftermath of an Industrial Accident, he brings these two approaches to dreamlike prose together. It’s a wonderful collection of poetry and short stories that run the gamut from his most fantastic work to his most disturbing work. In this collection, you will find some of the most innovative and groundbreaking fiction being written today. In With Shining Gifts that Took All Eyes, you have this young couple and this peculiar plant the boyfriend took home after a day of hiking. While he is in the other room seemingly preoccupied, the woman finds herself mystified and alarmed by the sound of boys screaming her name from outside her windows, where night is falling and a hazy fog obscures sight. Meanwhile, something seems to be stalking her inside the house, something that may have to do with the plant that they recently brought into the house. Overshadowing all this there is a strange sexual tension and a sinister atmosphere of obscurity that is palpable. This is one of the great works of horror fiction of the past twenty years. My description does not do justice to the tenebrous strangeness of this work. And now to look at another one of my favorites from this collection, have you ever just caught a glimpse of a film on television, some scene that just transfixes you to the screen, and you obsess over what that film was and make it a mission to track that film down? His story Tardigrade is just like that. It seems to be the middle of a scene of some murky narrative. A woman is trapped in a room that is being observed and possibly recorded by some kind of outside intellect, that may or may not be human. She is compelled to watch on a computer screen a video recording of her husband being forced to undergo some kind of metamorphosis brought upon him by a shadowy figure who may be a human woman, she delivers what is seemingly a kind of parasite through her mouth and into his body, changing him utterly. Answers are not readily available, but you will be thinking of this story long after you put the book down. 

Mike Allen may be the premier poet of this era of weird horror and surrealist fantasy. His work is completely fearless. He takes no genre boundaries as sacred. He writes in whatever mode best suits his vision. His writing style is instantly recognizable but what you will be getting from a new work from Mike is far from known, he changes subject matter and method of attack with every work. Be Mike Allen an infernal dream machine, a phantasmic octopus, or a regular human being, I don’t think matters at this point, my brain is so saturated with his infectious nightmare visions, that I can no longer tell the difference between the three anymore.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why Horror? A personal exploration.

As a lifelong horror fanatic, a question I ask myself all the time is, why horror? I don’t mean as a casual fan, I mean as a life long obsessive. I mainly watch horror when I go to the cinema. My home library is pretty much all horror fiction or non-fiction about the horror genre. I pointedly study horror cinema from every country I can find it. I watch horror films from the dawn of cinema to the most recent releases. I make top ten lists of my favorite authors and I am always on the hunt for what is next in the horror genre. Which is all just symptoms of an obsession, but goes a little way to explain, I have pretty much centered my life around this. I don’t mean in a nerdy fanish Star Trek way, but as I view the world through a lens informed by Kafka and Lovecraft and Ligotti and Cronenberg and Kiernan and Koja. My horror obsession does not need other fans to validate it, I have lived most of my life without knowing anyone really read Ligotti or watched Eraserhead. With the advent of social media, I have met a lot of like-minded people. But if social media went away tomorrow, I would still be the same horror obsessive I am today. When I view a great horror film or read a great horror short story, I feel like life is worth living, and everyday life becomes interesting for a brief time. Horror obsession is a very personal thing that is hard to talk about. How do you explain why you like horror and what it means to you personally? Well, I guess let’s have a go at it, shall we? First I shall talk of some of the pleasures I get out of horror, then I shall talk about the basic relationship I feel with the horror genre. And let me also say, this is a personal trip down my obsession with horror, you may have a different relationship or viewpoint, there is nothing more personal than one's obsessions after all. 

What draws me to horror? Well, I think it comes down to two things. The first is, society is full of lies. Mainstream cinema is trying to sell you a message. Religion is trying to sell you a message. Our educational system is trying to sell you a message. Work, marry, reproduce, die. Keep your head down and be obedient sheep. I honestly don’t understand what people get out of say, Marvel superhero films or say, the pride of working two jobs and having no time left, a life only consisting of sleep and brainless work as if that is a goal one would want to achieve. It all just seems so banal and brainless. Modern culture and its entertainments are just so… empty. As a kid growing up dirt poor with no kind of hope for the future, I felt that only the horror genre spoke to me in a real and honest way about how life was. Reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and it’s breakdown of how absolutely nightmarish work life and family life can be, really hit home to me in a way that popular culture could just never do. Watching Fulci’s The Gates of Hell, someone understood the vertigo and panic of existing, recreating the anxiety of life through over the top surreal and horrific shocking imagery and subject matter. Eraserhead showed me that someone understood the horror of the body and its functions and de Sade showed me the horror that underlies the desires of others and the absolute void of meaning surrounding us. Finding that others shared a similar experience as me, and can honestly explore it, is a huge reason why I love horror. 

The second is that the horror genre is one of the only places that is not ashamed to show beauty and pleasure in a way that showed no shame or fear. The longing for a way past the crushing banality of everyday life, the sadness of our attempts at love, the desire for perversion and damnation, of Kiernan’s fiction really spoke to me. The pleasurable poisonous mindfucks of Cronenberg’s films. The delicate creeping dread featured in the fiction of Aickman and Campbell. Ligotti’s bleak nightmare commentaries of existence. The inhuman desires and sensual otherness of the creature from Alien thrills us in ways that the typical Hollywood science fiction film can not even grasp. These landscapes of decay, of death, of nightmare, are in the best sense of the word, erotic. In horror, we can talk openly how lonely we are, how desperate we are for some kind of connection, how life is not at all what we were promised as kids. In the horror genre, there is an honesty about how horrible things are, but there is also room for an honest discussion about the pleasures of life, however dark and taboo some may find them. I find a kind of rapturous beauty in the horror genre. 

So now we arrive at the crux of the issue. What is the core pleasure of horror and why do we crave it? Is it some kind of awe as a lot of people claim? I have seen many, many statements of that kind, that the greatest horror achieves a sense of awe. The common notion of finding “awe” in horror is I feel misplaced. I think saying “awe” is a safe way of describing the pleasures of horror in a very dishonest way. As if the experience of say, a horror film, is the same experience as seeing the Grand Canyon. Is it not what you are looking for in horror, that feeling of supreme delirium and creeping dread, deeply desired, wanting to be consumed by it, something almost orgasmic in its effect? Is this a better way of describing what you seek from the horror genre? Or is it really...awe? Now let’s look at another common statement about why we like horror. Horror is a way to deal with our fears. Is horror really a way to deal with our fears? Seeing images of killing and death prepare you for the inevitable end? Wouldn’t a viewing of an autopsy video be more effective at confronting your fears then say, watching Argento’s Suspiria? After a close relative dies, do you seek comfort in a horror film? I don’t. Does a horror film make you feel better about plague? About war and death? Safely confronting fears is not at all what the horror genre is about. This is pretty close to the argument saying that horror is like a rollercoaster ride. You get your thrills in a safe manner and then go home.  I think this may be true for the more casual fans of horror, and certainly does come closer, but does not yet explain the obsession people have with horror. No, I don’t think we are quite there yet. Let’s examine it a little more closely. You sit and watch a horror film, waiting for it to hit those notes you keep coming back for, those moments of exquisite dread and delirium. The bleakness of the end of Night of the Living Dead. The mindblowing surrealism of Videodrome. You seek these moments of horror, over and over again. And after the film, you obsess over it. You read articles on it and discuss it with your friends. Or you quietly think of it, knowing your friends would never understand what you get out of them, what you get out of a viewing of Repulsion or Persona. You keep it inside, a burning obsession you can not share. Horror is the most obsessive of genres. In fact, I would say that the direct sibling to horror is not fantasy, is not scifi, but erotica. You can’t describe what you like, you just know it when you see it. When it hits all the right notes, for that moment, it's transcendental. Both horror and erotica are the most poetic forms of genre. Horror is a way of taking the rotting corpse, the vast dark of the night sky, the seething desires of all living things, and making poetry out of it. It takes what destroys us, and makes it beautiful. Horror at its heart is a form of willful masochism. What do I mean by this? Masochism is taking what ravages you and worshiping it. It takes what you find to be beautiful, and gives it a whip. Masochism deals only with the unreal, it has no desire for the actual. Ligotti has this wonderful quote from talking about Lovecraft's work: “ Lovecraft dreamed the great dream of supernatural literature - to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare.” This, right here I think sums everything up nicely. Horror is a vision of the universe as a nightmare. Nightmares are based in unreality. And they probe our deepest fears. But a bleakness and a horribleness are not enough. The nightmare must also be… enchanting. Seductive. Erotic. Horror is the art of enchanting nightmares. Of desired dooms. Horror is where the darkly unreal and the dreadfully erotic merge. And we obsess over horror like the good masochists we are. Always awaiting our next unreal doom with eager anticipation. Elsewhere I have named this an “Abysmal Masochism”. A masochism to the bleak nightmares of the abyss we call existence? Yes, I think that is what I get out of horror. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review: The Untamed.

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In Amat Escalante’s erotic sci-fi horror film The Untamed, there are a couple scenes of the main characters looking off into the sky, with a look of wonder and longing on their face. But as this film eventually shows, human wonder and longing is no innocent thing. The beginning scenes of The Untamed show a slow-motion asteroid on its way from the mind breakingly far away and abysmal places of the dark Universe, on its way to fall onto an unsuspecting Earth. Then the film cuts to a young girl named Veronica being sexually ravaged by some strange tentacled.. thing. The main focus of the film centers on four people: Alejandra and Angel, a young married couple with kids, Alejandra’s cute and successful brother Fabian, and a young mysterious woman named Veronica. Alejandra is detached and distant from her husband and from her day to day life. Unknown to Alejandra, her seemingly homophobic husband Angel is having an affair with her brother Fabian. Alejandra has a well-regulated life, she works all day at a candy factory and takes care of her two children. And while her husband is out at night secretly fucking her brother, she sits at home with her own secret and perverse desires. And then out of the blue, like she senses a rift in Alejandra‘s and Angel’s relationship, Veronica slithers her way into all their lives, befriending first Fabian, and then Alejandra, eventually leading the both of them, one by one, to a strange cabin, into a dark room with a old dingy mattress laying on the dusty floor, where in the corner lurks this strange alien being, Veronica promises them that what they are about to meet is maybe the most beautiful thing on Earth, maybe even the Universe, something that will free them from their lives of entrapment and thwarted desires, she brings them to feel its alien caress.

All the characters in The Untamed walk around like if in a dream. They do everything normal responsible citizens do, except for Veronica, they take care of the kids, go to work, pay the rent. In most scenes, their faces read like a blank slate, maybe with a hint of exhaustion from work or a bit of repressed anger in their eyes when they stare off into the distance. They are somnambulists, just sleepwalking through their lives. But underneath, they want to break free. To escape the trap life has set for them. They dream and they desire. They are bored with life and want to find meaning in sex and perversion. They want to fuck. All the characters freely fuck throughout the whole film, with the exception of Alejandra, who is too busy with kids or work to do anything but lazily lay beneath her husband while he fucks her. But after Alejandra meets Veronica, that will all change. Veronica is a bit of a naive character. She is awkward in social situations. She just says what she feels and does not care what people think of her. She uses her youthful sexuality to make her way through life, to get what she wants. She is a bit adrift in the world, with no family, no job, and no partner. But she has found something that she feels she wants to belong to. She is addicted to the thing in the cabin. To the point that it may destroy her. The alien thing arrived on the asteroid seen at the beginning of the film and has been hidden away in a cabin by an old married couple, a retired scientist and his wife. They look after it and they bring it what it wants, they fulfill its strange desires. They introduced Veronica to the thing, and she found meaning through it. But it has started to become abusive to Veronica, apparently, the more you copulate with it, the more violent it becomes in its lovemaking, and she agrees with the married couple to find it new lovers. So she first brings Fabian, and after Fabian is destroyed by the creature, she brings it his sister Alejandra. 

The thing in the cabin is a strange mess of tentacled horror and alien anatomy, completely nonhuman and abjectly disturbing. Something about being in its presence, makes everything living, animals, people, want to fuck. It kind of centers them, allows their most hidden away selves to emerge. It fucks you and enters you, running its tentacles over all your bodies and your various holes, taking you over with its own desire, its all-encompassing penetration. From the hidden away cabin, the alien corrupts all the characters, and everything it comes into contact with, for good, or for ill. When they leave the cabin, the characters feel unfulfilled with their regular lives, their work lives, their family lives, after knowing such a rapture, all other pleasures in life are found to be lacking. Veronica tries, reluctantly, to get away from it before it destroys her, but Alejandra has found new meaning in life, committing herself fully to her alien lover.  For the first time in a long time, she is truly happy, no matter what the outcome may be. By the end of the film, you understand why the characters keep looking up to the sky in wonder. If this thing came from the stars is representative of what lurks out in the outer dark, does the entire Universe just seethe and roil with creatures fucking? Is that the secret purpose of life? To penetrate and be penetrated? 

In terms of where this film stands in modern horror cinema, it obviously is some distant cousin to Zulawski’s Possession. The Untamed is certainly a more subtle and quiet film whereas Possession is more loud and in your face. But The Untamed does have several moments of strange beauty and dream images. This is a coldly gorgeous film. It shares with Cronenberg’s film Crash a boldness in directly representing sex as plot. In showing humans to be sexual beings in a very taboo-shattering way. I think that The Untamed would make a great double bill with Glazer’s Under the Skin, both coldly poetic films that explore the alien and the feminine in sexual/gothic terms. Also, this film has some of the most startlingly unnerving dreamlike imagery since von Trier’s Antichrist. There are images that will stick with you for the rest of your life in this film. The Untamed continues the new wave of arthouse horror films that take inspiration from directors like Cronenberg and Tarkovsky. Modern horror cinema is releasing some of the best work the genre has seen since the 1970s, and I think The Untamed continues that trend, being one of the best films to have come out recently, being both challenging and provocative in an era of cookie-cutter megaplex blockbusters.  An under talked about, under viewed masterpiece. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Review: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma.

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I wish I had read this collection sooner. It came out in 2018 and has been on my to-read list for far too long. I finally took the plunge and let me tell you, Priya Sharma’s All the Fabulous Beasts is an absolute masterpiece of strange eroticism and dark fantasy. On the outskirts of horror, comes this book of gentle nightmares, of loving tortures, and of bone-deep longings. Beings lost in a world of disappointment, desperately seeking some kind of sense of self, a feeling of belonging, some kind of transcendence. The works in this collection are inspired by myth, fairy tale, and urban legend. Shapeshifers, bizarre combinations of human and animal, people with hidden identities, all roam these pages, but, they are no different than you or me. What defines who we are? Are other people not as strange to us as a mermaid or a snake woman would be? And when we look in the mirror, do we not see some unknown chimera staring back at us? These tales of fantasy are presented with a strict realism, an attention to the nuances of characterization, these are real living and breathing people, not one-dimensional fantasy tropes. The themes of transformation and rebirth run throughout her fiction here, but her stories are not the usual horror trappings about ordinary people suffering hideous transformations. Her stories are about beings trapped in lives they know they were never meant to have, and finally escaping their traps or at least longing to. Sometimes what traps us are things like family, love, or career. And sometimes we are trapped by what we thought we were, by what we were told we are. Yes, they may change in horrific ways, change into something alien to them and us, but at least it’s change, at least they are free to be who they really are. There is this recurring love of the outsider, and a fear of settling down, of compromising. These stories are hymns to loneliness, to secret desires, to those who chose to walk down the shadowy path far away from the sun. All written in this quietly poetic, understated yet powerful prose.

There is a lot of great work here. Some stories I would like to single out are:
The Crow Palace: A woman is forced to return to her old family home after her father's death, emotionally detached from years of being away and secretly haunted by deeply buried shame. She finds a landscape of skies filled with black crows and a shocking secret long hidden away. 
The Anatomist’s Mnemonic: A wonderfully many-layered exploration of fetishism and loneliness. It balances a tightrope between erotic thrills and a surgical coldness that only a master storyteller could accomplish. 
The Sunflower Seed Man: Maybe the most “horror” centered tale in the collection. It’s one of those stories where you are reading it, wondering if the author is really going to go there. And when she actually does go there, it’s just wonderfully macabre and amazing. 
A Son of the Sea: A tale of a man who feels this longing for something he can not define. A tale of loneliness and the mysterious depths of both the ocean and the human heart. And when he does what he has been seeking, it is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and surreal endings in all of horror fiction. 
The Nature of Bees: A true chimera of a tale, where most would find horror in a strange tale about a woman, alone and longing for physical pleasures, and the strange cult-like group of beekeepers she encounters, here we find unbridled eroticism and an escape from social mores.

I could go on talking about all the stories I love in this, it is such a breathtakingly beautiful collection. It shares some of the quiet tenebrous subtlety of the films of Val Lewton. And those who love the work of Angela Carter and Caitlin Kiernan will love the heady mixing of eroticism, myth, and cynicism in her work. Through the use of fantasy and horror, Priya Sharma shows us we are all strange unique beasts, and all the more fabulous for it. Highly recommended! 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: In Fabric

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Peter Strickland, director of Berberian Sound Studio, a meta-fictional romp about a sound designer working on an Italian horror film slowly going unhinged or is it the film that is going unhinged, and The Duke of Burgundy, a poetic study of masochism and power dynamics, is a director who exemplifies the notion of the director as artist, the auteur. His films are so deeply personal, so explicitly obsessive, they are at once almost completely unassessable and completely alluring in their fetishism and necessity. He clearly needs to create these films, and we are the better for them. He is one of the few modern masters of cinema, and his newest film, In Fabric, may just be his greatest creation yet.

One of the hardest things to do when you review a film is to attempt to pick apart the film, to understand it so you can explain it to the people reading the review. But, as a film lover, you don’t really want to know a film inside and out. You want to live inside it, to submit to its strange rhythms and textures. In Fabric is a film that almost defies one's ability to review. It is this phantasmic collage of different horror tropes, all perfectly assembled without the slightest stitchers seam to see how he put it together. 

Inside this strangely disorientating clothing store, sinister whisperings can be heard. A cabal of seemingly witchlike retail workers enchant customers into buying their wares. Their sales pitches are almost spell-like, absurd poems of sinister salespeak. This beautiful score, something that sounds like it came from the heyday of the European horror film, envelops everything in its sensual embrace. One of the customers, going out on a date with a man she met on a dating site, buys a dress, something to help her hopefully catch a new man. But, this is no ordinary dress. It is this creeping, dread-inducing thing, a haunted, or maybe cursed, thing that lurks, silently floating in the dark. Meanwhile, this strange clothing store, sends out these television commercials, maybe diabolic transmissions would be a better name, a cancerous technology, dangerous to view, infecting the late-night stations. 

In Fabric is this weird mix of the old school ghost story like The Innocents, shades of elegant Euro-horror films like Suspiria and Daughters of Darkness, the Cronenbergian techno-panic of Videodrome, a strong dose of the schizo drug-induced humor of Adult Swim programming, and the experiments in terror of the 90’s Japanese horror film like Ringu and Kairo. And it plays as this aggressively surrealist satire. Meant more to disturb than make light, but without losing sight of the humor of its disturbing subject matter. Like Eraserhead, you could watch it one day and laugh your ass off, then watch it again the next day in anxious silence. And somehow this all works, and it works perfectly. I was amazed at how this film is all of this and absolutely uniquely its own thing. It just may be the greatest horror film of the 2010s. Its only competition being Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution and Eggers’s The Witch.  I have the feeling that I will be watching this one over and over and over again, a contagious film fetish captured on celluloid.