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Sunday, November 24, 2019

Article: Reading Against Oneself.

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: The New Flesh A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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