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Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Horror Films and Books of 2019!

2019 was a fantastic year for horror in film and literature. The trend of small film studios producing sophisticated horror films for the art-house theater crowd is still going full force. The weird horror boom in the small presses also continues to pick up steam. And these are trends that we need to support and to advocate, in a time of the death of the indie movie theater and the destruction of the local book store, the fact that there is actually an increasing amount of great works being produced outside the major companies is actually astonishing. Streaming services and cheaper film equipment certainly helps the independent filmmaker and the ease of use of print-on-demand services and the ability to create your own websites to host your publishing business helps create a viable alternative to big business models. So in review, I was blown away by the works that came out this year. Just some absolute masterpieces came out in 2019. I would say a theme of 2019 was the foundation of a new canon of horror filmmakers. We have a new group of Romeros, Cronenbergs, Carpenters. Some new or first-time directors really cemented themselves as masters of the form, and some already established writers took their work to new levels of greatness. So let’s get down to the best of 2019 lists!

Best Horror Films of 2019

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1. In Fabric - Directed by Peter Strickland 

Going into 2019 my most anticipated film was Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. I was left absolutely stunned and awed by his first film The Witch, a film I consider to be one of my all-time favorite films. I absolutely loved his follow up film The Lighthouse, which I will be talking about more in a bit. Then in late November, I caught a screening of Peter Strickland’s new film In Fabric. And within 10 minutes I knew I was witnessing greatness.  In Fabric blew me away, destroyed me for all time, reassembled me, and sent me on my way. I was a huge fan of Strickland’s previous films, the wonderfully weird Berberian Sound Studio and charmingly perverse The Duke of Burgundy, which I thought were both great films, but I was not prepared for how masterful and original In Fabric is. A blend of mind-breaking surreal corporate satire, creeping ghost film, an exploration of toxic media, and an elegant gothic horror, this film came almost out of nowhere to capture my vote for best horror film of 2019. 

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2. The Lighthouse - Directed by Robert Eggers

As I said above, I think my most anticipated film going into 2019 was Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a tale of madness and protean things from the depths of the ocean. His followup to his diabolic masterpiece The Witch, I could not be more hyped for a film, I was worried that my expectations may actually be too high. Well, The Lighthouse actually managed to exceed my expectations. What Eggers delivered was an honest to goodness Midnight Movie, a film that drew inspiration from ancient myths and the silent horror film, but filtered through a lens made from classic horror tales written by the likes of Blackwood, Machen, and Hodgson. Reminiscent of the classic late-night drug-fueled insanity of cult classic films like Eraserhead, Begotten, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man and the way they infused German Expressionism and a more current fractured sense of reality and meaning. The Lighthouse is soaked in tension, malignity surreal, and bizarrely humorous, I really can’t believe Eggers got the funding to produce this film. If In Fabric took the top slot in this year’s best of, it is only by the smallest of margins. 

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2. Wounds - Directed by Babak Anvari

Wounds, adapted by the great short story by Nathan Ballingrud and directed by Babak Anvari, had a small release, mainly viewable on the streaming service Hulu. Which is a shame since I would love to see this one in a theater. A more traditional horror film than the others on this list, this one builds on using traditional tropes to create a tension-filled experience, before blowing all the hinges off for a mind-shattering end that I actually had to rewind and watch a couple times because I could not believe what I was seeing. Wounds is a bit of a fusion between the creeping dread of 1990’s era Japanese horror films and the more postmodern era of fractured narratives. This one just gets right down to it, it wants to get under your skin and actually creep you out. It is perfect viewing for a late-night scare. 

Best Horror Books of 2019

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1. Song for the Unraveling of the World - Written by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson has been writing horror for many years now and is an established master. But I really feel that he has entered this new phase in his work and is creating the best work of his career. His previous collection, A Collapse of Horses, literally broke me, it has this just virulent creepiness, this sense of his work not being safe to read. A Collapse of Horses stands up there with the best of Poe, Lovecraft, Aickman, Oates, and Ligotti. Then a new collection was announced. Song for the Unraveling of the World. I can’t describe how hyped I was for this book. I was worried that I was just setting myself for a letdown. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. This collection kind of serves as a follow-up or a sequel to his A Collapse of Horses. Some of the pieces kind of work with or advance some of the themes of his previous collection, and some use different genre tropes such as the outer space story or the body-snatching alien to take different approaches to the material. I think the 1-2 combination of A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World may be the supreme accomplishment of the horror genre for this decade, 2010 - 2019. 

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2. The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute David Cronenberg - Edited by Sam Richard and Brendan Vidito   
The New Flesh is an anthology that pays homage to the weird body horror of David Cronenberg. It is just filled to the brim with squirm-inducing medical procedures, bizarrely erotic transformations of the flesh, and mind-blowing breakings of reality. There were some really stand out stories in this from writers like Brian Evenson, Sara Century, Mona Swan LeSueur, Fiona Maeve Geist, and Gwendolyn Kiste. The New Flesh serves as this view back on one of the founding figures of the current horror field and a look forward at where weird horror is and where it is going. Essential. 

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3. Wounds - Written by Nathan Ballingrud

Despite hearing the name for years, I am a bit of a latecomer to Nathan Ballingrud’s work. With the upcoming film adaptation of one of his stories and from just having heard his name so much, I decided it was far past time for me to take a deep plunge into his work. And I must say, his collection Wounds was amazingly good. He somehow mixes the heartbreaking with the diabolical, the surreal with the commonplace. His work in Wounds reminds me a bit of Clive Barker, but with a lot more emotional heft. This collection is a bit of a blend, some of the works are more of the malignantly surreal postmodern horror tale and some are more of a take on dark fantasy with a bit of a Satanic flavor. And let me say, it is quite brilliant how Nathan updates and personalizes the figure of Satan for a new generation of horror readers. From his shockingly surreal The Visible Filth to the heart-rending sadness and desperate love of The Maw, Nathan finds the depths of human love and longings in the darkest and bleakest regions of the horror field.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Review: The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature by Christopher Slatsky

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The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is horror writer Christopher Slatsky’s new collection, due out at the end of January 2020. It is his eagerly awaited followup to his cult favorite first collection Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. Alectryomancer was an astonishing debut, featuring a new distinct voice and some incredible work. His story from that collection, A Plague of Naked Movie Stars, still unsettles me every time I think about it. What an incredibly bizarre work. Upon news of this next book, the question was, can Slatsky deliver on the promise of his first book? Will it show an author maturing and refining their work? I can confidently say that the answer is yes, this new collection takes what was so amazing about his first book and furthers the themes and sharpens his prose. 

The stories in The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature are mainly these extremely interior explorations of tragedy and ruin, and of the beauty that can be found within the horrific. Slatsky’s universe is one where a loved one, a sibling, a parent, can be lost, suddenly, into something that is unexplainable, some hole in reality or perception. But also, everyday life can be just as bad, or in some cases, even more horrible, then the darkest imaginings of a horror writer, which is a theme that is just as strong in his work. Many stories actually combine the two themes, the nightmarish and the everyday tragic, to horrifying effect. In our lives, there are mysterious forces at work that devour our loved ones, and take them into some outer darkness, some of these forces you can name monster, and some are named illness or accident. Is there really that much of a difference between some otherworldly horror and cancer? In Slatsky’s work, he takes these moments of breakdown, and perverts them, makes them into this kind of strange walking poetry, a misbegotten thing, a hymn to what destroys us. What his characters have lost are transformed, horrifically changed in ways that stager understanding, and brought back to bring a strange revelation or a final devastation. His narrators come to realize, their eyes now open, to the fact that the entire universe has been changed into the image of a horrific transformation, a horrible loss. The universe has become a monstrous mirror to the narrator's most private hurts. The world, a reflection of the most inner wounds. They come to realize there is no “outside” there is only inside, and everything inside is corrupt. His stories like Engines of the Ocean, The Figurine, or The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature, are these mood poems, views into the darkest parts of the authors being, the rotten and corrupt thoughts made real. 

In the best of Slatsky’s work, his stories delve deep into very personal fears and anxieties. The loss of children is a huge theme for him. At the center of a lot of his stories are these surreal and troubling images, these images born out of some deep sunless part of Slatsky’s mind. These images are chimeras of both his fears and this paradoxical nightmarish beauty and are genuinely disturbing and beautifully malignant, like poisoned candy or diseased sex. After reading stories like Phantom Airfields or The Carcass of the Lion, which to me are some of the best horror fiction currently being written, you have to put the book down, kind of let what you just experienced soak in, come to terms with what you just read and try to understand the strange feelings you just had overwhelm you. But be warned, when one of Slatsky’s walking terrors enters your psyche, it burrows so deep that it will be with you for the rest of your days.

Slatsky has two modes of writing, the confidant intellectual writer exploring some newfound interest, and the artist lost in his own obsessions, trying desperately to record down in prose his more taboo and disturbing thoughts. Slatsky is one of the only true surrealists working today in the horror field. He takes two disparate ideas, say the love for a young child, and the cold terrors of outer space, and combines them into a unique new form. Slatsky also may be the greatest visual stylist that horror fiction has ever known. He creates these perfect paragraphs, these incredible tableaus, of just mind-shattering power. He reminds me, in turns, of Magritte, of Witkin, of Lynch. His prose is akin to the new wave 1970’s science fiction writers, and then out of nowhere, it’s like Slatsky channels say, Lautreamont or Francis Bacon, and just attacks with some scene or image that shakes you, that challenges you, that unnerves you. 

In terms of criticism, there are a couple. I do think the collection suffers from the current trend of publishers kind of just putting every story a writer has recently written into the book to make the biggest collection possible. I think the book would have benefitted from maybe 3 or 4 of the weaker stories being trimmed. Also, there is one nonfiction essay, and one kind of metafiction/nonfiction essay, I feel if you are gonna have a blend of fiction and nonfiction in a collection, then there should be at least a couple nonfiction works in it. Just having one feels a bit off to this reader. I think maybe to the already established fan of Slatsky’s work, this criticism is not so much of a big deal, the more the merrier. But to the new reader of his work, a more focused, more tight collection would come off better, allowing the author to showcase his best works. But all in all, these are slight problems. The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is sure to be one of the most important horror collections of 2020. Christopher Slatsky is one of the most important names in contemporary horror and I am truly excited to see what he does next.