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Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Caitlin Kiernan's Metamorphosis A


    In life, there are two kinds of places. The places of everyday life. The apartment. The workplace. The hospital. The marketplace. These are the locations of normal reality. Where our everyday dramas and tragedies take place in the light. Careers and relationships. Social standings and money making. But then there is another place. A dark place of occulted knowledge. In the unseen places. Tunnels, lakes, ocean floors, old houses, and dark planets. Places where things creep, decay, survive, desire, and most of all… change. This is the country of madmen and poets. And from this place is where Caitlín Kiernan whispers their stories.

    Caitlín Kiernan is one of the premier writers of fiction working today. Their work includes collections like The Ammonite Violin and Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart and novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl. Their work is a blend of the weird, sci-fi, erotica, and horror genres. Their work explores the strange existence of creatures of flesh and bone living in a world where change and perversion is the norm. In their work, the dark touch is desired not feared.

    This world is a bleak place to live. The sun is too bright and our time is limited. Kiernan’s characters know this all too well. They are wounded, sad, and disenfranchised. And any salvation is better than the slow rot we have to us. In most horror, something invades our happy homes. Something seeks to destroy or subvert the status quo and the monstrous is a horrible thing that can happen even to the innocent. In Kiernan’s work, everyday life is a horrible thing. And we can only wish that there are “dark powers” to find.

    In their story “Metamorphosis A,” we find a woman waiting for her lover to return to their apartment. There has been some kind of intrusion upon the world by an alien force. A creature has arisen that lives deep in the earth that offers change to any who come to her. And her lover has gone down to receive that change. Seeking a dark salvation, she comes home bearing a mark of penetration that marks her as a recipient of the dark gift from the “being” and a cylinder containing a transforming disease, which you need to be marked to be able to have the disease affect you.

     "Your bare feet are black with soot or dirt or whatever filth you’ve tracked back up from the deep places below the city. There are long scrapes on your legs, like maybe you ran into a patch of brambles along the way. And then I notice the welt beneath your chin, flesh gone puffy and purple and already turning necrotic. I might think it was only a bad spider bite, if I didn’t know the better. If I didn’t know about the stingers and the venom, the kiss of Athena to switch off your immune system. To make you receptive to what’s still to come."

    These are horrors of watching your loved ones change and the loss of being left behind. And as with all journeys, the outcome is uncertain. Her lover has decided to accept a chance to become something… other. And the main character was scared to go with her and is scared of what is going to happen. One significant hurdle facing doctors is the apparent willingness of many people to be infected, despite these horrific consequences. Her lover lies on their bed and opens the canister and begins the change. The narrator passes out. Dreams of the dark places fill her head. An underground sea and a disease-birthing mother. And they do their dark work on her lover.

     "How many countless generations were conceived while I slept in my chair and dreamed of that black lake? How many were born and nurtured deep within the hive of you and how many billions must have done their determined, busy work and perished when their time was done?"

    The nature of this change is mysterious. But the desperation of the unhappy is not. Thomas Ligotti said in his story “Vastarien,” “The only value of this world lay in its power – at certain times – to suggest another world.” Anything would be better than this world of rain and rot. We only wish dread Cthulhu lay dreaming under the sea. Mystery and darkness comfort us. In a sequence that reads like Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs, writing a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the lover is changed into a tentacled horror seething and writhing in their bed.

    "And I’m on my knees then, as if I’d worship what they have made of you, as you must have worshipped in those secret underground temples, offering your grace of this change, praying to shed your furtive prayers and supplications to ancient bacterial gods for the unwanted and unyielding humanity."

    The universe is ruled by chaos and breakdown. And these are the only gods who answer. These are the only gods who are in plain sight. And the only salvation is a dark one.

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Desire for Dark Powers

I think for a lot of us, it could be safe to say… life is oftentimes pretty miserable. We head to jobs we hate to pay for bills we would rather not pay. We search for love and get crushed beneath the wheels of desire. We eat, we sleep, and we watch our bodies break down. For some of us, we wish there was more. More fantasy, more magic, more to desire, more to indulge in. The dark paths tempt us. Sex and sin are preferred over working yourself to death. We wish we could sell ourselves to the dark powers. If Satan really existed, Cthulhu, whatever, we would pledge ourselves to their teachings. The Earth is so banal and full of drudgery and toil. Whatever moments of pleasure and magic are too fast and fleeting. The blackest of gods, the most sinister of evil, would provide our lives with a source of enchantment, of magic. And to be clear, when we speak of dark gods and evil, we are talking about an escape from day-to-day life. Real-life evil is what we are escaping from. The evils of miserable men and petty humanity. We seek an elevation from the mundane. To sign one's name in a book of blood, to convort with slimy tentacled creatures from the sunless depths of the ocean, to rut and writhe in the dark soil with horned gods, and to offer up one’s body to extraterrestrial doppelgangers, we would give anything to be able to live such magic. 

When we talk about the horror genre you hear a couple different explanations for why people gravitate to it. Everything from a fun rollercoaster ride being scared to horror providing a sense of awe or a sense of something larger than oneself. But one I don’t see talked about nearly enough is the desire for dark powers to really exist and the attraction that horror has for an escape from the banal. I find this longing most clearly articulated in works such as Robert Egger’s film The Witch, Caitlin Kiernan’s short fiction, Thomas Ligotti’s short fiction, and Tim Lucas’s novel Throat Sprockets. We will explore the longing to escape life and what happens when you find your desire. These works act as a celebration of getting lost in the dark, of a sinister sensuality, of an escape through the monstrous and the perverted. 

In Ligotti’s work, in his nightmare towns, creeping unseen managers, malignant puppets, and art exhibitions of the icy bleakness of things, he shows that horror literature and its enchantments, even at its most disturbing, are still more desired than this crumby banal life of decay and disappointment. Ligotti’s work is full of an all-encompassing pessimism. But yet, there is an enjoyment in the defiling of what we see as the things that make life worth living. Ligotti attacks all our pretenses of bodily integrity, our notions of achievement and upward mobility, and our conception of self-identity. But his prose and his method of attack are almost erotic, the sentences alluring and the choice of words intoxicating. Ligotti’s work is this kind of private exploration of the anxieties and desires that Ligotti has shared through his brilliant prose. The crooked small towns and plagues of nightmarish organisms provide an escape from the horrors of existence. 


     One of the great novels of obsession and dark desire is Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets: The hope, the wanted allure of maybe catching some unknown film halfway through on late-night television, or picking up some random DVD from the video store because of some intriguing cover art, and finding a life-changing experience unfold before you is examined here. One of those midnight movies that seem made just for you, showing you the world as you had thought only you see it. The images, the sound design, and the characters become like a second dream life. And your waking thoughts keep returning to the unspooling film, permanently playing in your dreams. Pornos, horror films, noir, whatever it may be, are all viewed best late at night by yourself. A celebration of obsession. Sitting by yourself at the local movie theater, you get to get away from your day-to-day life and escape into a wholly different world. The shock of seeing something you maybe didn’t mean to expose yourself to, and finding the experience delicious. Or seeing your most secret thoughts explored on the big screen. You have finally found someone who understands your innermost desires. In Throat Sprockets the erotic potential of bare necks, piercing the skin, and bloodletting is loveling exalted. You go to work and try your best to keep your head above water, but deep down you have this secret life, of secret passions and desires. And sometimes you find something, a film or maybe a novel, that understands what you crave, and helps you sate those hungers. 

Caitlin Kiernan is one of the modern masters of the dark and weird tale. In many stories, Kiernan illustrates characters who long for the unknown, no matter what the risk. Whatever it be in Metamorphosis A where a woman is fated to watch as her girlfriend is lured into the underground dark to take benediction from some subterranean plague goddess, or Houses Under the Sea, where a man watches his lover, a head of a bizarre oceanic cult, called down with her followers into the subterranean depths of the ocean, to strange and inhuman things awaiting them. Kiernan’s fiction sometimes shows the lover watching as the loved one follows a dark path toward self-destruction and a kind of painful liberation. Sometimes Kiernan's fiction shows the narrator longing for an abysmal transcendence they can't seem to find. The interplay between what dark path you must take to save yourself, and what selfsame path leads to your self-destruction is a major trope of Kiernan’s fiction. 

In The Witch, the dark powers come for a young girl named Thomasin. After all else has failed her. Her family. Her religion. Satan comes and lifts her from the dirt and gives her new life and new purpose. Thomasin grew up in colonial New England living in a stifling home ruled by religion and work. In The Witch, Thomasin watches as her life is destroyed and all lay in ruin, yet she is offered a new path, a left-hand path that leads into a beautiful darkness. Tomasin was both accused and shamed by her family, overlooked and undervalued by those who were her loved ones. But one comes from the dark, Satan, who sees her worth and her value. He presents her with a book. With a space for her to sign her name in blood. 

There is a kind of person, a group of people that I include myself in, that I call horror obsessives. These are people who live and die for the art of horror. And not horror in a traditional sense but in an expanded sense, in art house films, poetry, essays, art, music, etc. Wherever one finds their fix. It exemplifies a certain kind of mindset. A certain way of looking at the world. It goes beyond mere fandom into a philosophy of living. A never-ending search for fragile beauty, for certain flowers that can only bloom at night. Horror speaks of a certain longing, for magic that life rarely provides. Where one finds fantasy to be a lie, where realism just depresses, there is a literature, a cinema, waiting for those who are lost and broken. Horror speaks to those who have no safe home. And understands the desire for darkness and corruption. 

Saturday, April 1, 2023

H.P. Lovecraft and his Subterranean Desires

The writer of erotica and H.P. Lovecraft share very similar methods and goals. Both have a favored scene or scenario they return to again and again. For this essay, we shall examine Lovecraft's many stories focused on subterranean locations. Cemeteries, dark tunnels built by no human hand, and cavernous swamps, are all places that feature strongly in Lovecraft’s work. For Lovecraft, the underground places are not just places where things rot and decay, but places where secret knowledge may be found. A kind of hideous revelation awaits those who plunge down into the lightless depths. Lovecraft repeatedly proclaims his love for a civil culture, the culture of gentlemen, of a society dedicated to learning and the humanities, of politeness and distance. Yet his writing reveals a seething undercurrent to his personality. One obsessed with bodily decay, with the infinite mutations of the physical form, of landscapes of disease and abnormalities. A wonderland of plague pits and decomposing corpses, Lovecraft describes them as a pornographer would describe an orgy of young nubile vixens. Lovecraft kept returning and returning to the lightless abysses of the earth beneath our feet. Graveyards, grottos, underground lakes, and sacred chambers bring Lovecraft returning again and again. The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, The Festival, The Hound, The Horror at Red Hook, and others all fetishistically return to the sunless depths.

Some of Lovecraft’s more harsh critics describe Lovecraft’s writing as overwrought and too adjective filled. But when Lovecraft enters these abysmal depths, he enters into a kind of ecstasy, shown through language, a literary delirium of nightmare and panic. Why did Lovecraft enter into these states when describing inhuman abominations and bleak landscapes of bones and rot? These places to him were…erotic. He would return again and again to the fetishized place of secret inner pleasure. His narrators all plead how such knowledge of such places must be withheld, how just knowing about these whispered secrets was enough to damn a person who looked too deep into the mysteries. His characters flee in horror from half-human creatures and alien shapes barely seen in the shadows. But the secret here, the final mystery of all of Lovecraft’s mysteries, is that he desires the darkness, the nightmare, the other, to penetrate him to the core. He plays a game with the reader, and with himself. To protest at the awfulness of it all, all the while taking one more peek closer, one more touch of the strange, one more visit into the unutterable realms of derangement. 

In The Shadow over Innsmouth, the narrator after fleeing for most of the tale actually becomes one of the half-human half-fish hybrids. In The Haunter of the Dark, Robert Blake keeps returning to the ancient church and, against all reason, seems to desire to want to be absorbed by the shadowy presence in the steeple. And The Music of Erich Zann haunts the dreams and inner life of the student whose life forever changed after he first heard the mad viol player in the dark of night, the student finds himself trying to discover his way back to the music and the viol player. This desire for a cherished doom is hinted at, not in every story, but in enough that it colors his entire oeuvre. This desire seems to be not a conscious problem Lovecraft is trying to work out, but it does seem to… reveal itself in his work and maybe is a secret he has not come to terms with, It is in his more interesting work, where the evil is not to be banished, it is realized that it is a desired thing, something to transform the banality of life with, to allow yourself to be corrupted by, to be forever altered, that Lovecraft is at his best and his work is most revealing. 

Black-clad men and women in leather, whips and shackles, the smell of sweat and semen. These are the archetypal images of the pornographer. In Lovecraft, the dream imagery is extremely worked out and personal to him. Strange flesh quivering in the shadows, figures wearing masks resembling human faces to hide the unknown horror beneath, landscapes of bone both human and inhuman, underground lakes that have never seen the sun surrounded by fungal shores lined with lichen and slime. These are the dreamlands Lovecraft fantasies in. A kind of charnel paradise he escapes to in his dreams. Or maybe a uterine fantasy? The underground as womb? A birthing ground of horror? The horrors of the body and of the crowds terrify him. So in his dreams he perverts the body and the crowds, he corrupts and disfigures them. The once familiar body becomes a monstrous other, unknowable and alien. The crowd becomes an infestation, overtaking and altering landscapes into their own image. Everything familiar is put at a distance and made strange. Your body, your home, and your loved ones, all become alien and sinister. Lovecraft recreates the universe in his own image of self-disgust and panic. In a sense, Lovecraft sees himself as alien, as abhorrent, his characters are not fleeing from some menace from beyond space, they are fleeing from themselves. There is this really interesting interplay between sadism and masochism in his works. In some of his stories, he favors the unutterable monstrosity, in some he favors the weak-willed victim. Both are roles Lovecraft relishes playing in his perverse psychodramas of horror and the other.

Why do Lovecraft’s characters return again and again to the abysmal darkness? Why tease out the eons cursed abominations, flee for safety, only to retreat back, playing a kind of game with them? Why does Lovecraft himself obsessively return to the rotten earth riddled with wormholes and fetid underground swamps of his literary world? The same reason de Sade returns to the hidden chateau's where one can hear the cracks of whips in the air and the screams of young maidens. The same reason Sacher-Masoch returns to the bottom of his mistress's heel. The same reason Bataille returns to kisses that taste of rat and his dying goddesses. But both horror and the erotic, are not meant to be explained. They are meant to be cherished, to be enjoyed, in secrecy, in darkness. So let us end this essay by saying for those who enjoy Lovecraft's work, Ligotti's work, Campbell's work, Tuttle's work, I would recommend trying your hand at Mirbeau's The Torture Garden, Reage's The Story of O, or Robbe-Grillet's A Sentimental Novel, and see if you don't find a similar pleasure in their darknesses.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Review: The Black Maybe by Attila Veres

Continuing our focus on Valancourt Press and their line of international horror literature, we now come to Attila Veres’s The Black Maybe: Liminal Tales. Another collection that sprung from the success of the first volume of Valancourt’s Book of World Horror Stories and the brilliant tale from Veres that was contained within, The Time Remaining. Valancourt has been releasing some major collections making their English language debut, and The Black Maybe is deserving of being called a major event. 

In The Black Maybe there is a mix of some genuinely creepy horror tales and stories that lean into more dark fantasy. His stories mix this chilly folkish rural feeling with a hint of post-Soviet occupation paranoia. His prose is crisp and elegant. His characters are fleshed out and believable. And his horrors are the kind that doesn't go away at the coming of dawn. His stories take place in this kind of dark eastern European country of horrors. A land of strange growths in the fields and lurking shadows in the corners of your bedroom. For his characters, a kind of dark knowledge awaits to be discovered, or relearned, by them. There is a realization of the hidden traumas the character was overlooking. Things will not turn out how you think they will. You don’t realize the pain and the darkness hidden by your seemingly happy life. And all these hidden traumas erupt into the character's reality, disrupting their lives and corrupting them forever. 

I do confess a bias towards a more realistic form of horror than the more fantastic/fantasy forms of horror fiction. And this collection seems to be split about half and half between realism and fantasy. And what I mean by these terms is in realistic horror, the story takes place in a world we identify as our own, and something infiltrates or contaminates the protagonist's reality, whereas horror in a more fantasy vein takes place in a world that is not ours and follows rules that are not the rules that govern our day to day world. I do feel his realistic horror is his strongest ( and don’t let me misrepresent these tales, even his realist works end up in some very strange places indeed ) but for lovers of more abstract or fantastic horror, this book is very much for you. His horror fantasy tales are gorgeous and surreal and are at the forefront of such work being done today. A mix of folk horror and fantasy, these are strange stories that have few relatives in English horror literature but are deeply rooted in central and eastern European fantastic literature. I would say his realistic horror does show some influence of Campbell and Ligotti, both of whom also drew influence from eastern European literature. 

The story that wowed readers in the Valancourt Book of World Horror is The Time Remaining. And it remains just as strong on a reread. The Time Remaining is a tale of creeping dread with a whiplash kind of ending. A mom gaslighting her child into believing his dolls are dying, with the intention of getting her kid to get rid of such silly toys so he can grow up to be a more mature young man. So the young boy starts seeing his dolls actually becoming sick and falling apart. He tries his best to fix them, becoming an expert in doll surgery. Yet his mother has more revelations in store for him. In the Snow, Sleeping is a tale about a couple that goes on a vacation, meaning to get some rest and enjoy each other's company. What happens is a descent into pure nightmare. Fears of commitment and intimacy follow them on their vacation, and outside forces come to show the true blackened heart of their relationship. To Bite a Dog may be his best work. It's the work that is most restrained, and it may be his most idea-driven. Something, or someone, is attacking dogs at the local park. And a man strangely comes to suspect his lover may have some kind of knowledge of what is happening. And again here we have a strange kind of revelation in store for the main character. To Bite a Dog is a very unique tale, a story that raises some interesting questions and has really fascinating character dynamics

The second half of the book falls more into a dark fantasy direction. Strange beings and weird small-town rituals, these stories are like perverted fairy tales. Here his prose is sharp, characters realistic, in contrast to the dive into delirium and strange realities these tales take the reader on. Post-soviet era towns, dark impenetrable forests, a feeling of underlying paranoia, and a seething nightmare world found to be hiding behind what we complacently call the normal world. In stories like Return to the Midnight School and The Black Maybe, something rotten has taken root in the soil. A past that can not be hidden in the closet. Something that infects life. The corruption has not gone away, it has just been hidden, waiting to erupt. He draws on strange myths and the darker side of classic fantasy tales, yet has a very modern writing style and purpose to his fiction. Here his characters dwell in this place of diseased fantasies, a kind of putrid never-never land.

The Black Maybe and its author Attila Veres bring an exciting new voice to the horror field. Seeing both the homegrown horrors of his native country and the subtle influence of western horror literature makes for a fascinating read. He shows new paths for horror to take while furthering the tradition of horror in literature. This is a remarkable achievement and another example of the great work Valancourt is doing in bringing these important and remarkable non-English works to an English-speaking audience. 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Review: Hellraiser 2022

Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 are titans in horror cinema. Absolutely game changing and taboo breaking. Dealing head on with a abysmal sexuality, the desire for the grotesque and the forbidden, and the masochistic love of what harms us, Hellraiser has never really been equaled since its release. But unfortunately there have been years and years of bad direct to video sequels that are just literally worthless. So when news of a new Hellraiser was announced, with a promise to try to be a worthy film that would stand with the first two, fans were understandably excited. Fans have long been eager for a Hellraiser to return to its proper form, rescued from low budget quick cash ins of the franishise. The announcement of a new Hellraiser, one helmed by David Bruckner, who seemed to have a lot of respect for the material, and the teaser trailers quickly spread all over social media. The question then arises… is this new Hellraiser a worthy extension of the series? The short and quick answer is regrettably, no, but not for lack of trying. 

This new Hellraiser focuses on Riley, a young troubled girl who juggles a drug addiction with asperations to try to better her life. In a little scheme to steal some rich persons stored away treasures she comes across a mysterious puzzle box, and is lead down some dark paths. The film features schemes within schemes involving a reclusive billionaire collector and a shady bad boy boyfriend, and its up to Riley to solve all the puzzles and survive the traps set for her. One of my first criticisms of this film, is how much the main character just is not entertwined with the box, all she wants is to get away from it and free her loved ones from ir. In the original Hellraiser and Hellbound, the siren call of the box kept bringing the characters back. All the characters, even if they didnt fully want to come to acknowledge to themselves, secretly or not so secretly, desired the perverse touch of the Cenobites. In this new one, the Cenobites are just monsters to escape from, nothing more. 

And therein lay one of the problems of this film. It is almost presented as a caper that went wrong, with the characters trying to get out of the bind that they find themselves in. In the original Hellraiser the film focused on a family and the diseased desires that lurked underneath the fake smiles of family life. It dealt with disappointment, suppressed desire, and the urge to escape the vapid day to day life of its protagonists. In this new film it makes a big deal of the main character being a drug addict. But then does nothing with that plot thread and just kind of forgets about it. It would have been an interesting film to deal with the desire to escape through drugs and how that relates to the desire to escape through sex and perversion. How the Cenobites would have zeroed in on her addictions and made her explore the pleasures and pains of addiction and delirium. But that is not the film we get. It is like they only gave her “issues” to make the audience feel for her, which just does not work and isn't needed. The film develops characters for about ten minutes then turns into a figure out how to escape the monsters thriller. And it all just feels flat. And the ending is kind of laughable. Riley just… chooses to walk away? That’s it? In the original films, once a boundary has been crossed there is no going back to normalcy, there is a price to pay for transgression. Here you get to pick your prize, or just leave. 

Well if the plot in unengaging what about the stars of the show? The Cenobites? Sadly they are a bit underwhelming. You can see that the creators of the film tried to create something that could stand next to the wonderfully perverse designs of the original Cenobties. Except these new Cenobites seem to be both so exaggerated to be too unrealistic to affect the audience and also wooden and just with no life in the actual execution of the look of the Cenobites. The makeup and costumes the actors wear just seem strangely plastic and fake. The designs of them are actually a bit interesting, but unfortunately fake and unconvincing. And the director really does nothing to set up the Cenobites, no operatic entrance like the grand appearance of the Cenobites to Kirsty in the original film. They just kind of… show up. I remember watching Barker’s Hellraiser and being wowed by the Cenobites, and wondering what dark tortures they had went through, what diseased perversions run through their blood, and what designs they had for the solvers of the box they took across the divide with them. The new Cenobites? Oh hey they are kind of cool I guess, and then literally forget about them as soon as the film is over. 

Other problems. The score has occasional rifts on Christopher Young’s score but never does anything to assert itself. There are multiple plot points that are just laughable. Anti-Cenobite fence? Yes that is really a thing in this film. The unasked for overhaul of the mythos. They portray the Cenobites as kind of game show hosts, presenting different prizes to choose from for who ever solves the puzzle box, is interesting if this was a different film, but does not quite work for the Hellraiser mythos. I feel the original’s notion with the Cenobites as explorers and experimentors in flesh and desire, and when you summon them, you have no choice but to go over the divide and taste their pleasures, opening the puzzle box a willful act of submission to outer powers, is much more evocative. And most fatally, the film is just not erotic or pervy, the kiss of death to a film that wears the Hellraiser moniker. The film is dry and bizarrely undaring. There are no taboos explored, no edges being crossed. 

This new Hellraiser does have a couple good points, the recasting of Pinhead, performed with a subtle menace and a sadistic glee by Jamie Clayton is a stand out performance. You can tell the creators do respect what Clive Barker created and tried their hands at creating a interesting extension of the Hellraiser mythos, but it just honestly missed the mark. Its a brave failure. It is faint praise to say this is the third best Hellraiser film after the original Hellraiser and Hellbound, but it does not really have any competition. Barker’s Hellraiser and Hellbound were dirty fairy tales, fairy tales about fucking and the shedding of skins revealing the meat and sinew underneath the surface. Obsessive and daring, those films left a rather pleasant scar on its audience, luring them to return again and again to its self created mythos. This new Hellraiser, despite its best intentions, it just another Hollywood style horror thrilride, sometimes enjoyable while you are on the ride, but instantly forgotten as soon as you get off.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Review: Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Earwig


Let me just say it, Lucile Hadzihalilovic is a vastly underappreciated director. She is a true heir to Lynch, Cronenberg, and Kubrick in this era of corporate fast-food cinema. Hadzihalilovic should be in the same standing with horror fans as Eggers, Aster, and Garland. But for whatever reason, her work is completely under the radar. Innocence, Evolution, and her new film Earwig are future cult classics that have not found their cult yet. As original and personal as Strickland’s or von Trier’s films, it’s only a matter of time before filmgoers catch up to this brilliant filmmaker. 

Lucile has a new film out called Earwig, that has been doing the film festival circuit and is now available for viewing on some streaming platforms but unfortunately has yet to have an official release on physical media. Earwig is maybe her most abstract work. A master of the slow burn, Lucile’s films trade in mystery and a kind of forever-delayed suspense. Earwig is also her most painterly film, the still cinematography, and silent film bodily expressions are just breathtaking in their beauty. Nothing is ever fully explained in her films, yet the implications are so enticing. As each new film comes out it seems the existential dread increases and increases. Her first film, Innocence, had this kind of dread just simmering in the background. A film that also worked as a subtle form of allegory, societal and gender roles were examined within the maze-like walls of a foster home. In her next film, Evolution, the dread is more in the foreground. A film of body horror, strange births, and hints at some kind of oceanic influence on the human reproductive system. Weird sci-fi mixed with Lovecraftian themes all told in a whisper in a seaside village. In Earwig the dread suffocates everyone and everything. Seemingly influenced by Eastern European film, the film is reticent in its agenda and a certain malignant air hangs over the broken-down post-world war landscape. Also, attention must be given to the score. A gorgeous and hypnotic score by Augustin Viard quietly lurks in the background, enchanting and sublime. 

Seemingly set after one of the World Wars, which one is not clear, the film centers on a man, Albert Scellinc, who has been entrusted to take care of a little girl named Mia. Mia is a recluse, living a solitary life with Albert. She has problems with her teeth, a strange kind of contraption creates ice dentures for her, and she never leaves the cavernous house they both occupy. Mia is seemingly lost in dreams, playing with trash and insects, wondering at the suggestive paintings in the house. Albert is a quiet man, who goes through the functions of his duties with quiet resignation. But under the calm, good worker surface, his mind is shadowed by secrets and confusion. Past traumas and private regrets haunt him. He keeps his demons calm by keeping himself busy working and once in a while sneaking down to the local pub to have some drinks while Mia is home passed out asleep. But his secret history ends up coming calling to Albert, and the past and present become confused, and the film starts to loop in on itself, ending in delirium and disorientation. Uncanny strangers and silent watchers haunt a depopulated landscape. The doppelganger and the cuckoo are quietly hinted at. To watch Earwig is to drown into a black abyss of phantastical cinema.

It’s hard to describe a film like Earwig. Its primary concerns are not in plotting and narrative twists but in mood, atmosphere, and ideas. It falls into a tradition of films like Black Moon, Messiah of Evil, and The Tenant, films that are slow burns, that exist in a sort of haze, that star sleepwalkers, and feature deep dives into surrealism and nightmare. A late-night film, perfect for viewing while falling into and out of dream states. All her films are ambiguous, with a certain hallucinatory background noise humming in the background. A cinema for somnambulists. The feeling there is a secret message behind the film that you just can't quite grasp, so you return over and over, obsessed with the mystery. Here is to directors still making difficult work, long may difficult and dreamy cinema live on. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Ten short story recommendations for October reading.


    Here is a list of ten tales, these I feel are some of the best short horror stories ever written, definite personal favorites, and perfect for a dark chilly October night. In order of publication:

1. The Black Seal by Arthur Machen: A folk tale that delves deep into secret cults, strange survivals, and what the dark woods may hide. A slow burn that definitely delivers. Up there with The Great God Pan in terms of Machen's best works.

2. The Room in the Tower by E. F. Benson: A surprisingly horrific tale for the time period. A wonderful mix of the ghost story and the vampire tale. A definite highlight in what many would consider to be the golden age of horror fiction. Its power to unnerve remains unblemished. 

3. The Music of Erich Zann by H. P. Lovecraft: One of the master's best works. A tale of a strange town and the creeping darkness that engulfs a mad violinist and his seemingly innocent yet maybe not-so-innocent visitor. A work that shows Lovecraft's best work usually fell outside his vaunted Cthulhu mythos stories. Up there with The Hound and The Festival for his best works. 

4. Skeleton by Ray Bradbury: Almost a basic primer for what would become body horror. With dark carnival atmospheres and creepy doctor's offices, this story shows Bradbury in his horrific prime. Equal parts black comedy and grotesque horror, a tale that dares to reveal what your skin tries to hide. 

5. Passengers by Robert Silverberg: Proto-scifi horror. A gloomy tale of an alien invasion that has already been won. People try to go on with their lives, but a shadowy alien menace hovers over all. The invaders not only took over people's nations and communities, but their bodies too. Perverse and heartbreaking. 

6. The Brood by Ramsey Campbell: A chilling tale of streetlight-lit bodies cast in deep shadow. Mysterious dark streets and long-abandoned houses hide weird and disturbing nighttime happenings. And then this story hits you with an ending that should not be read before bed if you need to actually sleep that night. Only Campbell can mix body horror and creeping dread like this. Nightmarish. 

7. The Troubles of Dr. Thoss by Thomas Ligotti: One of the most disturbing stories ever written. Strange beings who visit at night and local rumors mix in this delirious blend of surreal horror. After many rereads it's still hard to pinpoint why this story is so disturbing, but it never fails at its mission. 

8. The Road of Pins by Caitlin Kiernan: A master storyteller at the peak of their craft, The Road of Pins is just astonishing in its effectiveness. With sensuous prose mixed with superbly realized characters, you just want to drown in Kiernan's fiction. Strange films, fairy tales, and a monstrous killer merge in this delicious yet disturbing tale.

9. Born Stillborn by Brian Evenson:  Mind fuckery at its finest. A man is seeing a psychiatrist during the day, yet a different psychiatrist may also be visiting him at night. Or are they the same person? A masterwork of delirium and confusion. 

10. The Tangible Universe by Jeffrey Thomas: One of the masterpieces of the current era. A perfect mix of the abject and the beautiful. This is one of those rare stories where you really don't know how you should feel after reading it. Should you go scrub yourself clean in the shower or pick up the story and read it again, this time just allowing yourself to completely let yourself fall deeply under its subversive and corrupting spell. Absolutely unique and absolutely unforgettable.