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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Brian Catling's Earwig


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

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

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

Predatory Mouth: Thoughts on Under The Skin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alejandra and the Alien: More Thoughts on The Untamed


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Films of David Cronenberg: A Troubling Joy.


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

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

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

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