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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. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Review: The Skeleton Melodies by Clint Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Interview: Keri Toye of Sound VVitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Article: The Nebulous Dreams of Mike Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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