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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Brian Catling's Earwig


If horror is an unknown figure cloaked in shadow whispering mysteries, then fantasy is a chimera, delighting in transformation and delirium. The ever mutation of previously known forms, the infinite variations of the flesh, and the venturing through different landscapes of the imagination. To take the familiar and make it strange, and to take the strange and make it familiar, this is what fantasy does best. Horror is a genre of a kind of dark revelation, the unknowability of the world and ourselves and the dark secret that lay at the heart of our existence. Fantasy is a genre of travel and voyage, of seeing ourselves reflected in the other and reveling in the infinite possibilities of existence. 

Brian Catling’s short novel Earwig is about a little girl who has no teeth and has had an artificial apparatus installed in her jaw to allow her to wear teeth made of ice, which every couple of hours needs to be replaced with fresh ice teeth. She is overseen by a brutish and dispassionate man, who was contracted to be her live-in guardian in an isolated apartment. Her parents are mysteriously absent and he is locked in with her for most of the day, rarely venturing out for necessities. Into their lives enters a strange being with otherworldly powers and an uninvited cat. This plot summary can not hope to contain all the twists and turns this narrative has in store for its readers. Earwig is written in gorgeous prose, has all these wonderful diversions that the book goes on, and has the bravery to go into both taboo and delirious territory.  It is an overused cliche, but Earwig reads like an extended dream, characters floating in and out of the narrative, abrupt changes in location and time, the unreal and the real melting into each other. 

Earwig has something of the strangeness of middle and eastern European fiction like Grabinski and Schulz, it also shares some genes with southern American writers like Cortazar and Carrington. But this is not to say in any way Earwig is old-fashioned or is in any way a work of homage or nostalgia, Earwig is a shockingly original and modern book. I think some would try to place Earwig in the same category as the urban fantasy works of Mieville and Gaiman, but I think that would be a hideous misinterpretation, while they may have similar sources of inspiration, Earwig is just better written and more honestly creative. Catling is an absolute master of prose and just seeing his choice of words and the interplay of sentences is a delight. Earwig is a very poetic book and should be savored. I would not consider Earwig to be a work of horror fiction, but I do feel it certainly will be something that adventurous horror fans would enjoy. Inside this work of fantasy lurks a very dark heart. Sinister figures, disfigured beauties, bizarre creatures, and a subtle layer of violence and sexuality. 

Predatory Mouth: Thoughts on Under The Skin

She is charming, funny, and a great flirt, when she is seeking to trap her prey, the young men of Scotland. But when she is alone, when she is not hunting, she is not able to talk, hold a conversation, or communicate with those around her. She is mute, confused, and bewildered by all the people around her. She has been created to hunt and harvest humans. Outside of her predatory role, she is truly alien. She seems to have been created, a thing made for a purpose. To mimic humans. But maybe the programming went too far and she started desiring to feel what humans feel, to blend in and become one of them. At that point, she had stopped being useful. Already separated by her base natural from everything natural on Earth, now she is also separated from those who created her. On a mission on a strange alien planet, she loses her way. 

Look around. You, as a human are accepted into culture by your usefulness. And everyone around you has strange motivations and unknowable thoughts. Humans are as alien to each other as much as any creature born on a different planet. You eat, you fuck, you defend yourself from others, violently if need be. Looking around at the landscapes that surround you, you feel like you don’t belong here. 

Her crime is in becoming too good at her job. As she infiltrates human society and struggles to seem “normal”, she inadvertently becomes too human. The character is a blank slate to the viewer, unknowable. But she seems to have made some kind of moral decision, she walks away from her mission and loses herself, escaping away and at first attempts to try to engage in what she perceives as normal human activity. Eating, fucking, seeking companionship. But that all is beyond her, she, at the most inner level, is just not in any way… human. She then attempts to run off to seek solitude. 

The film seeks to pull at the heartstring of the viewer, offering commentary on human relationships, desires, and longings. Only to pull the run under any such notions and show all of these normal activities as largely strange and unknowable even to us humans. The alien in the film can not reconcile human nature and behaviors, and neither can we. 

Her behavior mirrors the experiences of early adulthood. The strangeness of sex, the experience of going out to dinner by yourself, the desperate attempts at forming friendships. Again, these mirror our own experiences. But what is “alien” about her is her motivations. The strange black pool in her abode. The slow breakdown of the human bodies trapped in a kind of floating purgatory. The strange conveyor belt feeding the bits of flesh into a glowing red hole. 

She has one or two “wardens” who watch her from afar, presumably to make sure she does what she has been tasked to do. In their treatments of her, it seems like she is not one of them. She is a tool to be deployed for a mission to be completed. It would seem that she is not of the alien race she serves, but a tool formed of biological parts. And her wardens seem to also be humanoid, it can be assumed they are also tools of their masters. Some serve by hunting/trapping, some serve by being overseers of the whole enterprise. It is interesting that the tool the alien masters use for their hunters is… human femininity. Like a Venus Flytrap, she seduces her victims with sweetness and traps them in some indescribable trap. One would assume that the alien masterminds would want the most efficient and effective methods used in their mission. Classic alien invasion tropes like full-on attacks using devastating alien weaponry, mind control, body snatching, etc are not used. Feminine seduction is the tool they use to accomplish their goals. 

So again, we have a film that distorts what we take as everyday human behavior and makes it strange and unfamiliar. Seduction and production are seen through an unhuman lens. The underlying motivations of society are called into question. Again, she is alien to us, but so is everyone who surrounds us. Your friend's and your family's desires are just as strange and disturbing as any alien being. Science fictional tales of alien invasion and intrusion provide a mirror more clear and reflective than any so-called realist work. 

Alejandra and the Alien: More Thoughts on The Untamed


The bedroom is reeking. Some kind of mix of rot, old blood, saltwater permeates the air. The sheets are moist and dirty. The bed is a symbol of safety and rest. Of an everlasting place of refuge and security that one can always return to. But what happens when the bed is befouled? What once was pure now corrupted? When one’s trusted partner brings another into what once was just shared by just the two of you? Clean sheets spoiled by other bodies, other lusts. 

In Amal Escalante’s film The Untamed, the main protagonist is Alejandra, a mother who longs for a life beyond her kids and her abusive lover. We also have Fabian, her brother who seeks forbidden pleasure beyond the norms of society, there is Angel, her lover who has a dark secret, and there is Veronica who is lost in the world until she finds something so extraordinary that it makes everything outside it unwanted and unlivable. All these characters are seeking something, they feel a call, a subconscious pull for something more. They go to work, take care of the kids, cook, clean, make love to the same person day after day, do what is expected of them socially, they keep a veneer of normality to keep them going, yet they seek something, no matter the cost, that will allow them to feel alive, to feel pleasure in an existence of drudgery and banality. The Untamed is a cold film, a film where it seems love has died unnoticed some time ago. 

Yet, out of the black nothingness of outer space, an asteroid slowly comes to Earth, crashing into some remote part of the woods. And in this asteroid lay some kind of… thing. A thing more pure and focused than the confused people of the earth. It brings a carnality, unrefined. The animals flock to the impact site of the asteroid... and fuck over it. Reptiles, mammals, birds, all are affected by the atmosphere of flesh and desire that the alien thing brings. Sometime later, a couple finds the thing and hides it out in their secluded cabin. They bring it...lovers. Veronica is the latest girl that the couple has brought to the alien. In it, she has finally found something that is worth dedicating herself to, something that brings her pleasure and engagement like no other lover has ever done for her. But the thing is starting to grow violent in its lovemaking with Veronica, the couple urges her to stop, to prevent this from growing more and more dangerous, and to find it another lover. She finds Alejandra and sees the longing for something more in him and brings him to the alien. Then later on Veronica sees the troubles behind Fabian’s eyes, and brings her to the thing. 

And what is this thing? A tentacled delirium lurking in the shadowy corners of a farmhouse. A thing hidden away inside an asteroid from the furthest reaches of space. The lover that is kept secret from your partner. An object of obsession and lust. A reason to wake up in the morning and continue to draw breath. It is a nightmare of tentacles and a face with no eyes. It is snakes and worms and everything that crawls and is animated by filthy desire. It is the thing inside caves and subterranean tunnels, it is the thing inside asteroids and sunless moons, it is the thing inside vaginas and the womb. 

Everyone who meets the alien is irrevocably changed by the encounter. Their lives are simplified, their desires cemented. They know a happiness that before was unknown to them. Yet the thing is growing more violent in its lovemaking, causing puncture wounds and bruises. But it is never said it is angry or behaving in a different manner. Maybe, violence is tied into, in a fundamental way, desire and sexuality? Maybe we can’t fully love something unless it has the capacity to hurt us? All the characters in The Untamed have problematic relationships. Alejandra’s passionless partnership with Angel, Angel and Fabian’s secret shame-ridden affair, Veronica’s desperate seeking for anything that can match her addiction to the alien. Hurt and loneliness are a fact in all these relationships. What the alien offers is the ability to go beyond, to transcend the disappointments of life. After the alien the kids are neglected, jobs left dangling, relationships forgotten. The last scene is Ajejandra’s son pointing out a mysterious stain on her shirt as she picks him up from school, an obvious stain left there from lovemaking with the alien thing. She feels no shame or guilt, taking care of her children is just something she must do in between rounds of seeing her alien lover. 

It would seem that horror films that deal with eroticism in a serious way is a minor thread in the cinematic tradition of horror cinema, but certainly one the most interesting. The closest film to The Untamed would have to be Zulawski’s Possession, a film about a relationship that is falling apart and the strange grotesquery that Anna takes as a lover as she cuckolds her husband Mark. I wonder what other films would fall into a “female desire of the monstrous'' subgenre if we consider this as such.  I think of Julia in Hellraiser and Hellraiser 2 seeking monstrous revelation and finding it, I think of Thomasin’s deliverance in The Witch through a horned man and a book signed in blood, I think of Antichrist with a grieving mother finding her true self in chaos and evil. I think of how Ripley keeps going back to the Xenomorph in Alien. It seems to be a rare thing, the horror film about women and their secrets lusts, with a decidedly unsympathetic stance against the male point of view. These women desire the rotten, the corrupted, the evil, and the disgraced. The view of woman as home keeper, child raiser, devoted wife, is taken to with a wrecking ball with these films. The plunge into the abject, the worship of what destroys you, is at the heart of this subgenre. In The Untamed, love is a lie, inside we are all alien things that desire and lust after what can never be had, until death do us part. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Films of David Cronenberg: A Troubling Joy.


            Is David Cronenberg a cinematic masochist? A fear of penetration, either viral, technological, or pharmaceutical runs through his films, or is it something other than fear? He creates films that obsess over bodily contamination, the penetration of our psyches, the corruption of our physical structures. Sometimes in his films, it is an unwanted violation, sometimes it is desired, sometimes it’s a bit ambivalent. Cronenberg presents these men ( I don’t think it would be out of line to say Cronenberg’s films are pretty much all internal explorations of himself ) whose very sense of self is consistently in danger of being lost or taken over by outside influences. In Videodrome by a malevolent electronic signal, in Dead Ringers by drugs and desire, and in Crash by our cold technological landscape and our need for a transcendent perversity. Their bodies and boundaries are in a state of constant cross-contamination, where they end and the outside begins is questioned. Issues of identity and individuality are deconstructed and examined. His landscapes are cold and sterile, a strong but subtle hint of science fiction to them. The future seems not to be a fertile one, but one that is born dead, one that must be somehow overcome if we are to survive, met head-on by taking our collective blinders off and realizing just how strange all this is, the body, the earth, our very existence. His cinema is one of metamorphosis, his characters never end the film the same as when they began. I think that Cronenberg shares a lot of philosophical concerns with some early Modernist writers along with the more Post-Modernist influence that has been associated with Cronenberg, like Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. Like Sacher-Masoch, Cronenberg finds a kind of salvation in coldness, sterility, passivity. Like Kafka, Cronenberg sees the self as unknowable and unstable, always changing and never certain where the self begins and the self ends. In a certain way, Cronenberg welds a kind of Eastern European bleak and masochistic existentialism with a surreal and transgressive science-fictional obsessiveness with the body and reality.

        Cronenberg’s films seem to go back and forth between a pessimism about where humanity is headed and a kind of perverse optimism of the new possibilities that the changing face of humanity brings. Personally, I find his more optimistic transgressive horror films to be more interesting, this exploration of deep penetration and viral contamination which finds a kind of troubling joy. This optimism of his can be seen in films like Scanners, Videodrome, Crash, Shivers, and Existenz. I think his more bleak and pessimistic films like Rabid, The Brood, The Fly, and Dead Ringers, tend to revert back to more normal horror tropes, a kind of standard fear of death and the body. In Rabid the protagonist becomes host to a blood-thirsty parasite and is fated to destroy all that she loves. In The Brood strange new forms of reproduction and motherhood are explored, resulting in a young girl being trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse. In Dead Ringers, the Mantle twins, to their horror, have to come to terms that they are in fact separate people with their own inescapable destinies. This brings a profound confusion, The Mantle brothers feel that they are connected in a way beyond brotherhood, they feel that their literal nervous systems are connected. So, when one of them falls in love and their paths start separating, they are faced with the horrible truth that they are in fact, separate people. They find that they are actually both alone on this earth. So one brother falls into drugs, sex, and delusion. The Mantle twins are famed gynecologists, but in their growing paranoia and psychosis, the female body, their chosen subject of study, has become strange and seemingly mutated. The insides of women no longer make sense. What they understood with a medical exactness now has become completely unknown. And when they look at each other, there is a gulf between them farther than galaxies. In The Fly, Seth, while trying to better mankind and advance science, unwittingly becomes something other than human and dooms himself. These films end in ruin and death. But as we shall see in some of Cronenberg’s other films, sometimes out of delirium and bodily corruption comes… weird salvation.

        Cronenberg’s films typically focus on a solitary figure trying to comprehend and engage with a world that is strange to him but also a world that seems like a kind of mirror to his fractured existence. A major theme of something alien infiltrating you and changing you fundamentally seems to obsess Cronenberg. To assume you have control over your mind and body is a fatal miscalculation. To accept the unknown, entering you and mutating your very essence, seems to be a path to freedom, or maybe a path to truth. In his works it seems there is freedom in abandoning yourself and accepting the strange and the perverse into your life, to see yourself as strange and perverse. The desperate holding on to our notions of boundaries is what imprisons us. To let go, to understand how alien we are and how strange everything is, and to finally and fully let go, seems to be Cronenberg’s mission. And this change comes to his characters in many forms. Usually, the corruptor wears the face of seduction in Cronenberg’s universe, luring the protagonist to sometimes ruin, sometimes self-discovery, sometimes both at the same time. Nicki Brand lures Max Renn in with kinky sex, then to full-on penetration of his psyche and the destruction of his physical body. But is this doom, or liberation? In Crash, Vaughan brings James into an erotic world of twisted auto accidents and bodily trauma. The excitements of a future psychology, a future of coldness, perversion, and technological disaster are eagerly awaited and desired. Some innate human wish has been unlocked in our environment of unreality, technology, and the death of emotion. Both ruin and transcendence await you in the crashing of motor vehicles. A kind of troubling joy, a finding of meaning in ruin. The woman in Shivers is a carrier, her body teeming with sexual parasites, bringing a kind of apocalypse of carnal pleasure. Is this apocalypse one to be feared or desired? One of the things that I love about Cronenberg’s films is that there is no right answer, no correct viewpoint. Meaning is subjective, and the body is porous.

Cronenberg’s films disturb because they are not about some evil trying to break into our comfortable middle-class lives. They are not about good vs bad. They are not about the outsider vs the normal. Cronenberg’s films are more concerned with ambiguity and the erosion of boundaries. They posit that we are not what we want to believe we are. We are not stable solid entities. We are more like sentient living bodies of water, oceans full of things entering and leaving, things filling us and exiting out of us. We are some sort of mixture of fungus, bacteria, and mud, walking around infecting each other. There is no eternal “I'', there is only the “I” of right now, which may be a completely different thing tomorrow. What is sex, what most would consider the ultimate joy, but contamination and penetration? To be entered by outside entities, other lives, and have bodily fluids mingle with your inner body, absorbing them. In Shivers, Cronenberg talks about how humans see and engage with reality through a sexual lens. Television is sex. Video Games are sex. Parasitism is sex. Death is sex. It all contaminants and penetrates our existence. Actual, “healthy” reproductive sex as portrayed in most mainstream cinema is a fairytale, a sort of calming lie, the reality of sex far more dangerous and subversive. Cronenberg is the poet of Eros. Strange, dirty, all-consuming Eros. An Eros for the twenty-first century, cold and barren. It is a reproductive urge finding itself at a dead end. We have come to the end of human history, and it is a very strange place we find ourselves. The old ways are just not working anymore, and we don’t know the way forward. We look around at the Earth and feel like strangers here, not connected in any way to nature and what we would naively call the natural. But Cronenberg seeks the positive in all this. His films find joy in ruin and alienation, sometimes a most strange and uncomfortable pleasure. We are alien to each other and to ourselves. The future is dead. We are not what we had assumed. But, for the brave, there is pleasure and freedom to be explored here at the end of times.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Guest Review: Mona Swan LeSueur on The Witch Who Came From The Sea


                “Do you shave with straight razors? Or is this all going to be agonizingly slow?”

Matt Cimber’s “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” (1976) feels like a movie that shouldn’t have existed when it did. Released amongst a slew of exploitation films(and eventually marketed and edited down to resemble one), this transgressive character study was both out of place and in the wrong time.

The story starts out simple enough. Molly (played by Millie Perkins) is out at the beach with her two nephews. While sitting in the sand, Molly observes a few muscle-bound bodybuilders exercising in the distance. One does reps and borderline gymnastics on a pull-up bar. Another lifts heavy weights. A third does leg swings while hanging from hoops. The camera lingers on their chests and colorful speedo crotches. This sensual observation suddenly turns to death fantasy as we see them die one by one. The one doing arm pull-ups falls to the sand, his mouth covered in blood. The one doing leg swings hangs by the chains, his throat veins bulging. We see rotoscoped blood squirt out of the eyes of the weight lifter. The fantasy is then interrupted when one of the nephews asks Molly about their grandfather. Specifically, they ask if there was treasure on his ship when he went down at sea. Molly clarifies that he was “lost at sea”, and insists that he will one day return (despite it having been fifteen years since he was “lost at sea”). They leave the beach and, after a bizarre run-in with a tattooed man (whose name we later learn is the equally bizarre Jack Dracula), they return to Molly’s sister's place to watch TV. Molly loves TV. She reminds us of this several times throughout the film. She frequently talks about TV actors, film actors, football players, you name it.

Molly is also an alcoholic. We see her down a few half tall glasses of straight vodka on multiple occasions throughout the film. The first time we see her drink, she is mid-argument with her sister about their abusive father. The film starts to look dreamy, with the audio distorted and it cuts to: Molly in a bedroom with two meaty football players she saw on TV. It starts out like a sweet and playful kink scene. The three share some weed, have a few laughs, and then she ties them up. One of them promptly passes out from the weed. The other is still lucid enough for fun and conversation. Molly stands on the edge of the bed and teases him, demanding he try to do something with the leg she has yet to tie.  He gently lifts up his leg and places his foot on her chest. She smiles. She grabs onto his foot, gently at first, and then begins to dig her fingers in harder and harder. Things take a dark turn here. She talks about shaving him and bursts into a stoned rendition of the 1880’s sea shanty “Sailing, Sailing”. She retrieves a razor from the bathroom and we see jump cuts of what appears to be her castrating him just out of frame. It cuts away from there. Molly then finds out on the TV that the football players were found murdered. She is heartbroken. Particularly because her nephews were so fond of them. She then goes to serve drinks at the bar she works at/lives in with her boss/lover, Long John, as if nothing has happened.

“The Witch Who Came from The Sea” was written by Robert Thom (Millie Perkins’ then-husband). He was struggling to pay the hospital bills at the time, so he wrote the screenplay (which includes various elements from his and Millie Perkins’ life). The script is filled with all sorts of oddball dialogue from characters whose names almost sound like comic book characters. Take for example, an exchange between Molly and a tattoo artist named Jack Dracula. While getting a tattoo of a mermaid on her torso, she recalls a nickname she once had when she was younger, and compares her name to his. Jack Dracula responds by simply affirming that Jack Dracula happens to be his real name. Or, another example: Molly goes to dinner with her boss Long John, the TV actor, and the TV actor’s girlfriend. Molly openly flirts with the TV actor and suggests that, since they are not officially an item, his girlfriend should be shipped off to China. The next day, after Molly has slept with the TV actor, the former girlfriend storms up to his big mansion with a revolver and starts shooting at both him and his car. She shouts that she is not going to be shipped off to China. I like to imagine what could have inspired some of these scenes and characters.

As the film progresses, we see the line between fantasy and reality blur more and more. She waxes deliriously about getting “lost last at sea” and refers to the men she is seeing as being part of her crew. At one point while working at the bar, she starts to hallucinate during a shaving advert featuring the TV she just slept with. The ad starts normally, but then he starts to address Molly directly through the TV. He cuts his neck and chest with the razor while describing what he wants her to do to him (this bit feels like it could have been lifted straight from a Nightmare on Elm Street film). At another point, we see her on a wooden raft at sea. She is clinging to the sail and cackling. She is surrounded by the members of her “crew”. All of them have been butchered.

For most of the film, the palette is fairly (and I think deliberately) drab in color. Lots of greys and browns. However, not long after the bloody shaving advertisement, she hooks up with the TV actor again. Only this time, she slices him up and down in his rich, Hollywood bathroom covered in blue. Just like he asked her to on TV. The red blood particularly pops in this scene. She finishes him off with a charged castration. There are a few instances of castration throughout the film. Some literal. Some less so. Muscular, conventionally attractive men all fall victim to Molly’s drunken wrath (and razors). The only man we see her have a seemingly normal relationship with is Long John, who is middle-aged, scruffy, and gentle. There are a few moments where we see them in bed together, in each other's arms, watching TV. A stark contrast to her violent and angry encounters with the men on the TV.

Despite the odd balance of eccentric characters and hallucinatory sequences, the movie manages to feel grounded with the way it portrays Molly’s experiences. In a scene shortly after the football players are murdered, she goes to a party hosted by film actor Billy Batt (a different actor than the TV actor). They discuss the Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. She is fascinated and saddened by the tale of Venus coming out of the sea. He changes the subject and suggests they go have some fun. Any room. Doesn’t particularly matter where. She responds and says: “I think you’re too gentle for me”. Billy, with a single expression and stance shift, becomes the second most terrifying figure we see in the film. They do go off to his bedroom. They start to get intimate. She bites his hand. He slaps her and knocks her over to the other side of the bed. She climbs back up, shouts at him, curls her hands like talons, and leaps off the bed. She bites his ear. He then knocks her on the floor outside of his bedroom. The other party-goers completely dismiss Billy and make sure that Molly is alright. Most other films would portray the party guests rushing over to Billy to make sure he is alright. Not this film. Or take for example, the ending. After coming to terms that she has been murdering people, she rushes over to her boss/lover Long John and a regular, Doris, to confess her crimes. The police are on their way. Now, you might expect a film from this era to show her friends trying to restrain her and prevent her escape, which then leads to a dramatic apprehension sequence, followed by a sneak peek at her stay in an asylum. Not this film. Instead, she asks to see her nephews one last time. Then, surrounded by the people she loves, she takes a large amount of painkillers and slowly drifts off to an eternal slumber. Perhaps this is why, despite all of its idiosyncrasies, that it feels so lived in. Or perhaps it is because of those idiosyncrasies?

This film also has a particularly noteworthy stamp of disapproval. It was one of the original 72 video nasties (though it was not prosecuted). I suspect its inclusion was not solely due to the castration and blood sprinkled throughout. Those elements are fairly tame compared to other entries on that list. But rather, I believe it was included due to the portrayals of child abuse laid bare through flashbacks to times we learn Molly refers to as being “lost at sea”. “We were lost at sea so many times”, she recalls in the ending scene. 

There were few films at the time that truly recognized women’s suffering without being exploitive, yet this film (which I must reiterate was written and released in the 1970’s) respectfully tackles this subject in a tasteful and frank manner. The only other film that even comes close to accomplishing what this film does would have to be David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992), and that film was greeted with lines upon lines of women at the cinemas when it was released in Japan. Sadly, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” never received such a treatment upon its initial release (even after they issued the lurid poster featuring a nearly nude Molly raising a dagger in one hand, while also sporting a dripping severed head in the other). The film was censored to varying degrees in its initial theatrical release and remained relatively obscure until a number of uncut theatrical and home media releases started cropping up in the last couple of decades.

“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” might not be the first film that comes to mind when you read the words inspiring cinema, especially considering it is a sad horror film that deals with alcoholism and child abuse, but having watched it twice in one week (the second time with a friend who expressed a similar sentiment), I can say with certainty that this low-budget feature inspires and instills hope in struggling creatives due to what it achieved with so little. This refreshing gem of a film is finally getting the due it deserved so many decades ago.

As of this writing, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, as well as the Arrow Video Channel on Apple TV. It is also available from Arrow Video on Blu-Ray/DVD for you collector types out there. Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main…

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Review: The Age of Decayed Futurity.


One of the books I was most excited about in 2020 when it was announced was the Mark Samuels best-of collection The Age of Decayed Futurity. For years Mark has been a master of horror fiction producing some of the most mind-bending and beautiful works of this era. And let me say this collection exceeded expectations. The stories in The Age of Decayed Futurity, at their best, have this darkly ecstatic pleasure coursing through them. Tales of corrupting language viruses, possessing fungi, and horror fiction as a kind of alien invasion, are just so bleakly fun. Don't get me wrong, they are deadly serious, these are not tales written to joke, but for anyone who loves horror, this is quality stuff. I would compare his work to other great pulpy yet pessimistic tales like Karl Edward Wagner’s Sticks or Lovecraft’s The Hound, completely serious love letters to the genre, full of drive and passion. In the best sense, the prose in these works is erotic, plunging headfirst into private obsessions and subliminal desires. Tale after tale of bodily corruption, alien possession, and the disintegration of reality by invading realms of nightmare, read like a horror masochist’s private book of fetishistic dreams. And to further the analogy, there are some works that attempt a deep dive to explore the core issues at the heart of desire and sexuality, taking a more abstract and distanced approach to the material. Then there are works that play at a more surface level, playing with the forms and tropes, taking pleasure in the different ways of the telling and engaging with the material on a personal level, The Age of Decayed Futurity is of the second type. 

Mark plays these kinds of metagames with his fiction. A lot of his stories are about the horror genre itself and its influence on the reader. He asks in his work, what if horror actually did have some kind of damaging effect on its readership? A worse writer would take this as a start of a parody or a social commentary, but Mark’s work betrays this kind of longing for horror to actually be... sinister and damaging. If I can put some kind of historical context for new readers I would say: In a general sense, Poe wrote about the combination of love and death, Lovecraft wrote about the self as alien, Ligotti wrote about life as inescapable nightmare, and Samuels writes about disease and contamination of the mind and body. The intermixing of the self and the other. Language as disease. Fiction as disease. A lot of his work acts as a subtle meta also on the writing and of weird horror fiction. There are also heavy doses of weird scifi in his work. His writing is in constant dialogue with the classics of the field. Samuels may be the greatest of what I think of as the “ Ligotti circle “, writers influenced and inspired by Ligotti, sort of like all the writers who came out around the time of Lovecraft and shortly after, like Smith, Leiber, Bloch, etc. One criticism I would have with most of Mark’s collections would be that they would contain maybe half fantastic stories and the rest would be rather lackluster or uninspired, at least to this reader. So when it was announced that a best-of was coming out, I thought Mark would definitely be a writer who would benefit from such a collection. So having a greatest hits collection is a gift and a revelation for the horror literature community. If you have not had a chance to check out his writing or were not completely satisfied with one of his collections, I would suggest The Age of Decayed Futurity is the one to get. He writes tales of urban decay and mind-twisting horror as well as Campbell, Ligotti, or Lane. Protagonists find something rotting at the core of existence, and you can tell the author takes great pleasure in detailing the exact measure of the decay of existence, all wrapped in beautiful prose. There is a genuine passion behind his writing. 

Some of my favorite tales in The Age of Decayed Futurity would be: Ghorla, which starts off as a black comedy about obsessive horror fiction fans and small presses and turns sharply into just what the hell happened territory. Vrolyck, a tale of late-night book readings in diners and the dangers of how a horror tale might just infect/affect you. Mannequins in Aspects of Terror, which hands down has to be one of the most frightening horror tales ever written. My World Has No Memories, surreal and strange, it plays out in the imagination like the greatest obscure and mind-bending 1970’s horror film never made. And not finally since I could name many more, but Court of Midnight, which is this gorgeous vision of all of existence falling into disease and corruption. I really think The Age of Decayed Futurity is one of the greatest collections ever created, and I envy your first infection from, oh wait I mean first reading of this book! 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Some thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft


I think, when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft a couple statements can safely be made. 1. Lovecraft is one of the most influential and important horror writers of all time. 2. Lovecraft is both vilified and acclaimed in equal measure. 3. Lovecraft as a person had some deeply problematic views. I think some commonly held notions of Lovecraft have been undeservedly cemented in critical thought and I would like to offer some divergent viewpoints to the debate. 

Writing in the early twentieth century, Lovecraft was a very well-read person who seems to have had some personal demons and emotional damage, he had a passion for science, namely astronomy, and was a rabid reader of genre fiction. Lovecraft as a writer took what I would call almost proto horror, gothic fiction, the ghost story, the early science fiction tale, and transformed them into what I would call the first self-aware horror fiction as its own genre, which Lovecraft would call weird fiction. Arguably Lovecraft’s greatest strength as a writer was in the horror tradition, his small number of fantasy pieces are very minor and uninspired works. But he will be known as long as horror fiction is being read as one of the great horror writers. 

It has been said that Lovecraft’s most important achievement was the invention of ‘cosmic horror’ or horror that shows mankind to be insignificant in the face of the black nothingness of outer space. I don’t know how much I buy into that notion. Lovecraft is not any more “cosmic” than Machen, and I think Well’s is certainly more deserving of recognition of a kind of cosmic horror. Here let me present my view of Lovecraft’s place in the tradition of horror fiction. I would place Poe as the progenitor of the horror genre, the father of the literature of bleak and beautiful corruptions. Poe, in my view, took the things which assailed him, the blackness of life, the death of loved ones, madness and drunkenness, guilt and sin, and made a poetry of them. He made a poetry of the things toxic and destructive in his life. A poet of the things that were killing him. Lovecraft, on the other hand, seemed to be interested, maybe even obsessed, in the notion that the self is unknowable and alien to oneself. He was interested in the secret self, the inner subconscious, and what lurks under our masks. In story after story, Lovecraft writes of secret ancestries, malevolent undead forefathers, secret human/nonhuman matings, civilizations deep under the black earth that predate mankind. His stories are just full of subversions of the self. The very notion of what is human is questioned. I guess maybe the dark and unknowable cosmos is discovered in Lovecraft to lay at the heart of what is called human. Lovecraft looked at the human heart with as much or maybe more horror than the outmost tenebrous and unknown worlds. 

It is also interesting how closely Lovecraft’s work reads like some strange cousin to Noir fiction. Both show the world as shadowy with deeply hidden secrets that usually destroy the protagonists when the reveal hits. Both are certainly focused on the inner world of the author. Full of barely subconscious paranoias and fears. But while most classic Noir fiction focuses on a kind of sexual paranoia, a world full of gorgeous but duplicitous femme fatales who lead you on with sexual desire and passion, only to destroy you utterly. In Lovecraft’s work, there is a kind of racial and antisocial fear being explored in a lot of his work. Now to be clear, certainly not all his work, but it is a major theme in his writings. He seems to fear that the supposed upward trajectory of the human race is an illusion and that there is an inescapable savagery and trend toward unreason that lay at the heart of the human race that will be its undoing. And unfortunately, he seems to feel that is based in racial terms. Upper-middle-class white culture as the thing that should be seen as the goal and every other culture as something deviant and dangerous to the status quo. It would seem that Lovecraft believed that belief in and the enforcement of polite culture, in civility, should take precedence over any kind of close examination of the actual human condition. Lovecraft believed that humans, at heart, were dark and dangerous things. I don’t think Lovecraft was a hateful racist, as much as he was fearful of the human race, and anything outside of proper white culture was teetering on the edge of corruption and baselessness. But he also felt that white culture could also easily devolve into darkness and ruin. His notions of race and culture are wildly unfounded and sometimes just plain ignorant. But a lot of this was Lovecraft projecting onto the outer world thoughts and feeling he secretly harbored about himself. And his brilliance was in basing his writing on an exploration of these fears he did not want to face up to consciously. He explored his inner fears and self-doubts in his horror fiction. 

Lovecraft’s work seems to have three phases. And I know I am in the minority in liking his early and middle-period works over his more famous late works. Why Lovecraft’s critics focus on his most hackneyed works while ignoring his most innovative and poetic work baffles me. Stories like The Music of Erich Zann, He, The Hound, The Festival, and The Haunter of the Dark all have surprising depth, a deft poetic touch, and offer the reader many different interpretations and readings. Lovecraft set the groundwork for future cutting edge horror writers like Ligotti or Evenson, who themselves are innovating and changing the face of horror literature. Lovecraft’s best work seems to be overlooked while his most uninspired work gets all the acclaim from fans and all the mockery from his detractors. Stories like The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow out of Time have brilliant structures and start off strongly but fall into repetition and self-parody. In his first phase, you see a writer struggling with finding his own voice. You see imitations, sometimes rather able ones, of Poe, Machen, and Blackwood, but you also see some of Lovecraft’s most personal and daring work. His early work was full of enthusiasm for the genre, you could just feel the fun he was having writing these works. These stories were strongly modeled after works that Lovecraft admired, but I don’t think that is a negative. By using some already formed notions of plot and style it allowed him to freely delve into his imagination and come up with such dark wonders. His middle period, which I mark as the works he made after he moved to New York City are extremely problematic and extremely interesting. He had learned to write in his own style, and his New York City stories are full of paranoia, disgust, disappointment, and fear. This was in a lot of ways, his purest writing. Like some of the greatest works of horror fiction, Lovecraft’s New York City stories are Lovecraft trying to express and explore deep seeded internal problems and ideas he was struggling with. His place in society, what exactly is society, the nature of marriage, the needs of the body both his own and others and how he compares in the competition of life. Then in his third phase, you see a writer question himself, after some hardships financially and socially, Lovecraft tries to be more marketable, writing some of his most acclaimed writing of his career, but also some of his least inspired and formalistic. These later stories are works he wrote in a concentrated effort to make a name for himself and prove after the disastrous New York City experience that the writer's life he chose for himself was a correct decision. These stories tended to have high concept plots, with tons of fan service thrown in to please the magazine editors he was submitting to. Lots of repetitive references to the Necronomicon, the naming of various fan-favorite monsters in every story like Shub-Niggurath and Cthulhu, all become a bit too much in these late stories. These are the works Lovecraft wrote after returning to his home of Providence Rhode Island after deserting his botched New York City attempt at branching out with his then wife. While a lot of these stories have interesting ideas, they tend to be overwritten, long, and repetitive. His early work was just so full of vitol, full of excitement, full of an earned poetic vision. For instance, The Shadow Out of Time starts off actually pretty dread-inducing, with its notions of alien mind control and the taking over of one’s body. Like a lot of later Lovecraft works, it starts off as a full-on horror story but then decides mid telling to turn into some febrile science fiction fantasy story. It’s like he wants to write it as a horror tale but knows it has a better chance at being sold if it lightens up and becomes more watered down light fantasy. The Shadow Out of Time starts off menacingly and with a deep-seeded feeling of nebulous dread, but then it shifts into just badly written science fantasy with references to the Cthulhu Mythos for no good reason, it is a huge disappointment to such a strong opening. It’s like he started with a great idea, went to write it, then got nervous about selling it. He would take the story and just write it to death and throw as many fan-pleasing references as he could. He stopped writing for himself and started writing for his editors and his fan base, which is always death to any author. Now I don’t want to seem too harsh about his late work, there are a couple which I do feel are masterpieces, I do love The Shadow over Innsmouth and I also love The Haunter of the Dark. But while these stories are great, they do lack the poetic simplicity and transparent joy in writing genre work that his early works effortlessly have. 

But is Lovecraft’s work racist, would be the next question wouldn’t it? I don’t believe it is. I think he explores racial themes in his work. But I think he explores such themes in mostly good taste and genuine interest. Now obviously Lovecraft had infamously written some private works that are unabashedly racist, and those works are not worthy of being read or remembered. But in his public work, I feel he does explore racial issues from all angles, sometimes, he actually wrote against himself and explored what it was to be the “other”. To be clear, in my opinion, Lovecraft was a man with some deeply racist views, alongside other fears and phobias that made him an inwardly damaged man. And none of this made him happy. I think besides his obvious love of horror literature, he saw it as a means to explore his own private demons in an honest way. He had some horrible beliefs, but I think he knew that and wished he was not so damaged and scared. Now I don’t know any of this as concrete fact, and I may well be off base. But this is the impression I get from his writings. And I think the personal world he reveals in his fiction may actually speak louder to the type of person he was then some of his more public statements. A lot of time, how we really are isn't something we broadcast out into the world. All of us have secret fears, secret hurts, and I think the horror genre should be a safe place to explore fears, obsessions, phobias, desires, and things that are taboo in our everyday lives. It must be said, there is a difference between honest exploration in art and actual racism. An example of a story that I hold to be actually disgustingly racist would be H.G. Wells’s story The Lord of the Dynamos. In this story, a black man comes to England to work as a stoker at a power station. While there he comes to believe that the Dynamo that runs the station is an actual god, and goes to worship it, and ends up killing for it. This story is frankly disgusting and almost wholly of virulent racism. The difference between Lovecraft’s and Wells’s approach? Lovecraft is exploring his own racial phobias, Wells’s is expressly stating racial phobias as fact. What does Lovecraft’s work have to offer on modern-day issues of racism and prejudice? Honestly, I don’t think he has much to offer. His work is so personal and internalized, he is dealing with dream worlds and personal obsessions, not social issues. 

What makes Lovecraft still talked about and relevant today? He basically defined modern horror literature. Horror fiction is the literature of exploring one's inner secrets and hurts. Horror fiction deals with the socially taboo and the personally harmful. Horror literature is a poetry of the abject and the fearfully unknown. Horror fiction is a realist fiction that deals with truths other modes of literature simply can not deal with in such an honest and direct manner. Poe laid the groundwork for what horror fiction was to become, but Lovecraft gave it focus and intent. Lovecraft was extremely experimental with the different tropes and styles he used to tell his tales. He was an explorer in the inner realms, his work often mirrored what the Surrealists were doing at the time. Plunging into the darkest wells of the inner mind. From first-person accounts of the unnameable to full-on horror show with inhuman daemons and intelligences from other universes, to sinister dark magic and family curses, to paranoia ridden tales of city life, to strange fantasies of inner turmoil and dread, from those who desire damnation to those who are fated to it, Lovecraft’s work would influence horror fiction from his immediate successors to modern-day authors. The shadow of Lovecraft is still felt to this day.