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Monday, December 25, 2023

Review: Beau is Afraid.

    Ari Aster made a huge splash in cinema with two of the greatest horror films made in the last fifteen years. Hereditary and Midsommar. Both are brilliant films that mix classic horror tropes with art-house style. Now we come to his third film, a film that seems to be his more experimental, maybe more daring project to date. Beau is Afraid. The film starts off interesting, its atmospheres of paranoia and creeping violence laced through the narrative. But the film does not seem to be interested in restraint, and Beau is Afraid becomes too abstract and occasionally the worst sin of all…  just boring. The film tries to come off as daringly transgressive with its meta-narrative asides and random explosions of cruelty. But neither really hit the viewer, the film just has no punch. The viewer starts the film with goodwill, wanting to see where the director goes, but the journey just isn't worth the voyage. One of the strengths of his previous films is that they were anchored by using the basic framework of classic horror genre tropes which allowed him to play and expand on the themes of the horror film, in Beau is Afraid the film has no real depth and kind of gets lost in its own pretensions. The unease of the film is diluted by the winks and nods the film makes to the audience.

    Beau is Afraid is Ari Aster saying, look how awful life can be, what if all your paranoid thoughts were real? But it is all played as farce and an elbow to the ribs. There is no anger, no resentment, no actual emotions ever enter into it. The film would have been much better served by a more realistic tone. Compare this film to the completely unpredictable end of Enemy or the mindfuckery of The Tenant. Both films have a realistic tone where surrealism and horror lurk around the edges of the film. The acting in phenomenal. But anytime the film seems about to go somewhere challenging and interesting, it just falls back on its own wankery. It’s like the film does not know if it wants to be a horror film in the style of Polanski or Lynch, or some parody slash social commentary like Brazil or Mother!. While I do feel that the film was a brave direction for the director to go, the film itself doesn't have the courage of its own convictions. The oh-so-shocking monster in the attic, because of course there is a monster, at the end is shown to an audience tired of the abstraction of this three-hour film and the monster just lands to no effect. Beau is Afraid i will give credit for its experimental style and for its attempt at broadening of what genre films can do, but it just doesn't work. Not a horrible film just a film that is not effective. With this out of his system let's see what Ari Aster has in store for us next.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: Messiah of Evil

A new Blu-Ray of the wonderfully obscure and strange 1970s horror film Messiah of Evil recently dropped and I will never stop being a huge champion of this gem. This new transfer is a cult horror fan's dream. After having first experienced this film, having never heard of it or had any idea what it was, on one of those dvds with 20 badly transferred films on it, where all the films seem like they were recovered from a decade spent at the bottom of a swamp, seeing this film restored and in high definition is actually mind-blowing. The Bava/Argento influence is even more apparent, the hyperreal colors deep and clear. The hypnotic synth soundtrack hovers over everything, the restoration of the audio tracks is nothing short of amazing. 

Messiah of Evil, for my money, is an absolute top-five 70’s horror film. It’s a truly liminal film. Strange areas of modern life not often explored in the horror film provide the background of Messiah of Evil.. Isolated gas stations lit by fluorescent lights lost in huge oceans of darkness. The unnerving quiet of empty grocery stores. Streets empty and full of closed stores. I think the only film from that era that can compete with the strange midnight atmospherics of Messiah of Evil may be Phantasm. Both films are completely devoted to their surrealist logic and lack of explanation. 

Messiah of Evil is like a nightmare of horror films. Messiah of Evil is every half-remembered horror film you caught late at night and passed out halfway through. The next day when you think of the film, you can not figure out what was the actual film and what was your dream of the film That is Messiah of Evil. It is like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, it assimilates the best parts of other horror films and stories and makes something new and strange out of them. It is a precursor to Dawn of the Dead and its tying of capitalism to undead flesh eaters. It pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his cured seaside towns and protagonists who start to lose their grip on reality. The fog and gothic atmosphere of Dark Shadows is also here. The demonic possession as a virus or infection from Evil Dead runs through this film. A subplot recalls the southern gothic of Night of the Hunter. The hysteric female survivor of some nightmare recalls Shock Waves and Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. Somehow it references the horror genre yet feels so fresh and innovative. Messiah of Evil is an absolute classic of the horror genre and the new Blu-Ray from Radience Films is a must-buy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

A Pleasing Terror: Unease and the Ghost Tale

What is it that creeps in the night? The shadow, the strange sound in the distance? The feeling of unease, of terror tingling up your spine? What is it that provokes these feelings in us? And why do some of us find this sensation so appealing? The slow creeping shadow, you look away, but you know in the back of your mind if you look back, it will still be there. The thing that should not be there, the uncanny, the abject. Ghosts and phantoms exist in candlelight and in our modern technology. In our mythologies, in our books, and in our films they lurk. Thanks to writers like M.R. James, Fritz Leiber, Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, and Ramsey Campbell, the literary ghost story has grown and evolved, but it is also a form as old as literature. In films like The Haunting, The Innocents, Kairo, and The Others, the art form of the ghost story has chilled audiences, either in dark movie theaters or late at night on the television, for over a century. But what is this art of unease?

We all have experienced a fear of the unknown, a fear of what may lurk in the shadows. And maybe the ghost story says, what if what you fear… actually is real? What if a monster actually is hiding in the corner, or that sound was some inhuman thing? What if the worst-case scenario was not only real but worse than you thought? We go through our lives assuming things are safe and sane, but in the shadowy parts of the world, something nightmarish uncoils in the dark. Why does it hide? Why does it stay unseen, rarely making its presence felt? Maybe it's the tease, the slow revealing of itself that it cherishes? I think, deep down, we are aware of our tenuous place in existence. We live in a fathomless void. Surrounded by eons of death. Yet we try to live our lives to the best of our ability. Go to work. Enjoy a delicious dinner. Find love. But in the background, the darkness still lurks. I think the creepy and the eerie in horror serve as a reminder of something we repress. That nightmare is where we come from and from where we are damned to return. Is the darkness sentient? Were we created from its abyssal womb? We shamble in the eternal night, our rotting flesh carrying us under a sky of limitless nothingness. A universe of ghosts and absences. We are the dead. We are the ghosts of the universe. We haunt ourselves. Doppelgangers, specters, strange sounds in the night. Maybe these are all reflections. We see ourselves in the nothingness of the night sky. Under the skin hides a corpse. And sometimes, we can enjoy the deliciousness of our damnation. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A list: My thirteen favorite works of fiction.

Here is a list of what I would name as my top thirteen favorite books of fiction. Novels and short story collections, in no particular order. I have tried to stay away from large best-of collections, I like a more minimalist form of book editing. Shorter books with all meat and no filler. With every list like this must come the disclaimer… this is my list for today, tomorrow the list may be completely different. The immeasurable pleasure these books, among others, have given me and my existence on this earth is something I will always cherish. I hope like-minded people will find similar pleasure in these selections and also maybe encouragement to form their own lists. So for both new readers and readers already in love, I dedicate this to you. 

Cold Print/Ramsey Campbell. I just love the whole package of this book. The amazing cover. The gorgeous interior illustrations from J.K. Potter. The first half with a young Campbell playing in the Lovecraft mythos is fun, but certainly not his best work. But then we get to the second half of this collection and Campbell just goes off. I can’t think of a four-story stretch in any collection that can compete with these: Cold Print, Before the Storm, The Faces at Pine Dunes, and The Tugging. Apocalyptic, perverse, and beautifully written. Campbell may be one the greatest writers the horror genre has ever produced. A master of both the whispered, creeping tale and the mind-bendingly horrific. His works can produce a real vertigo in the reader, an actual unease after finishing one of his tales. There are a couple other Campbell collections that could have taken this spot: Demons by Daylight, The Height of the Scream, and Scared Stiff being my other favorites. 

Teatro Grottesco/Thomas Ligotti. For my money, this just may be the most brilliant collection of horror fiction ever printed. There is a certain air of sinister delirium that hangs over this book sitting on the bookshelf. A collection of stories that can only be characterized as malignant and bleak. From the abstract horrors of The Red Tower, the strange almost diseased folk horror of In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land, the meta nightmare of The Bungalow House, to the body horror of Severini, if ever a book earned the right to be called a collection of nightmares, this is the one. I would also include that Ligotti’s collection Grimscribe was close to taking this spot. 

Dark Entries/Robert Aickman. In terms of whispering horror, has anyone ever come close to Aickman? Most of the time, you finish a tale of his feeling completely unnerved, and you have literally no idea why. There are these dark undercurrents to his work hidden in the text, a background of strangeness only hinted at. Sometimes it's hard to even remember what you just read, like trying to find direction in a fog bank.

Scarlet Nights/Juan Muntaner. A collection of the most exquisite erotica. Sometimes dark and disturbing, sometimes willingly transgressing taboos, sometimes playful and teasing. Each and every story is surprising and never what you think it's going to be. Lustful, decadent, and titillating. This collection really is the final word on erotica as a legitimate branch of literature. 

The Torture Garden/Octave Mirbeau. Mirbeau mixes the beautiful and the deadly in this intoxication in book form. The dark, the horrible, the worst parts of humanity he makes beautiful and desirable. The main seductress of the tale, Clara, is something out of myth, maybe a reincarnation of Lilith, or Kali? There is an aura around her of the other, like she just stepped out of a dream. The seductress that will lead you, willingly, to your demise. 

Tender is the Flesh/Agustina Bazterrica. A dystopian novel that holds nothing back. This book holds a mirror to our society and shows it for what it is, a dying, starving, desperate beast. Underneath the fake veneer that holds our society together, there is a serious rot, a corrupting force that is destroying us. The writing here is wonderfully crisp and poetic. Both a bleak nightmare of society and a poem to degradation. 

Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart/Caitlin Kiernan. There has never been a writer that has combined the melancholy of desire, and the desire for the dark, like Kiernan has. Heartbreak, longing, and despair combine with a desire for the mysterious and the nebulous. Tales of soul-crushing otherness combine with the secret longing to be other than what one is. Kiernan at their best is writing the most beautiful prose being written today. I would add that Kiernan’s collection The Ammonite Violin also was a contender for this spot.

Crash/J.G. Ballard. Science as pornography. Or pornography as science fiction. I don’t feel that any writer has come as close to anticipating the strange reality we live in as Ballard did in the 1970’s. The unreal is taking over the media landscape that has replaced ‘the real’. Our newfound freedom to explore our own obsessions ruthlessly. Crash is a bomb thrown into our discourse, shattering all pretenses. Car crashes and bodily injury as sources of sexual pleasure. The drive to death is secretly entangled in our notions of technological progress. This book is still way beyond acceptance. This book is both a seduction and a warning. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition also could have been in this spot.

Earwig/Brian Catling. The book that forces me to like fantasy. A strange labyrinth of scenes and journeys. A delirium of secrets, doppelgangers, sinister presences, and innocence corrupted. Reading Earwig is like taking a long train journey into lands you never knew existed. Full of foreign sights and smells. All the while having no idea where the train is heading or what the final results of this journey will be. This is a book to get lost in. 

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories/Arthur Machen. Maybe the grand poet of the horror genre? While protesting sin and darkness and the monstrous, was there any writer who did more to celebrate the darkness than Machen did with his stories? From the nightmare of sex that is The Great God Pan, the reality-smashing mystery of The Novel of the Black Seal, to the seductive enchantments of The White People, these works laid the groundwork for what was to soon become the horror genre. Horror as enchanting nightmare, dark prose that flirts with the sexual, horror as secrets and whispers in the night, all come fully formed in the work of Machen. 

Fur/Liliane Giraudon. A tome of perverse fairy tales. Short and bizarre tales of strange encounters, with lovers who are unknowable and flesh that changes form. This is a book to be shared with lovers and one-night stands. This book feels like the author is telling you secrets, but they are weird and rooted in the author's lusts and dreams. A feverish book of desire and fantasy.

Wyrd and Other Derelictions/Adam Nevill. A book devoid of any characters. Or at least any recognizable human characters. A book of ruined landscapes. A literary tour of atrocity and collapse. These are tales of what happens when the worst possible scenario happens, when the monster at the end of the book wins, and what the world looks like afterward. 

Throat Sprockets/Tim Lucas. Finally, a book that understands the fetishism and obsession of genre. A love letter to strange films and midnight viewings. This is a book that understands how a film, a book, or art in general, can change your entire life. The way you view reality and the way you live your life can be altered by a chance viewing of a film in a rundown movie theater or on television late at night. Anyone who has obsessed over a cult film or an underread book will find a kindred spirit here. Erotic and obsessive, this book just absolutely unrepentantly throbs with passion and lust for cult films and secret vices. 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Review: The Boogeyman

Ulli Lommel’s 1980 cult horror film The Boogeyman is the kind of film you see mentioned here and there, but never really see any reason to check it out. It just kind of lives on the periphery of cult horror fandom. Not really famous in slasher film circles and not really well regarded as a supernatural horror film, it has yet to really make a name for itself. Sitting around the house I saw that it was available on streaming services and decided to give it a go. And let me tell you, after about five minutes into the film I was hooked. I am not sure if The Boogeyman is the best worst movie or the worst best movie, but I loved it. An insane brew of haunted house scares, possession, slasher killings, and very very very strange humor. The Boogeyman is ripe for rediscovery for anyone who loves that sort of 1970’s early 1980’s low-budget horror vibe. This film precedes in this kind of narcotic haze, everything is just a little off-kilter. The acting is subtlety strange, kind of like the cast is working through the film in a state of hypnosis. I would say Kubrick's The Shining drew influence from this film, and its underlying uncanniness if they hadn”t been released in the same year. And there is this strain of meta-comedy in The Boogeyman that parodies and comments on slasher film tropes that show yet again how non-revolutionary Craven’s film Scream really was. 

This film deserves to be mentioned in the same category as Messiah of Evil, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Lemora: A Childs Tale of the Supernatural, The Child, and Phantasm. The non-sequitur hilarious non-comedy and the icy chill of the somniloquist actors going through the scenes make this such an unpredictable viewing experience. How this film slipped under my radar for so long is beyond me. Combining the last of the 70’s weird esthetics with the bizarre meta-camp of the 80’s, this film is both a wonderful accumulation of those films and a singular experience in its own right. Any self-respecting fan of cult horror needs to add this one to their collection. 

Friday, August 18, 2023

Review: New Religon

A strange electronic voice. A missing girl. Chaos erupting in the streets. Metamorphosis. A man who wants to be a moth, tells you what you want to hear. Random violence spreads. After the disappearance of her daughter a grieving mother starts working at an escort agency. A girl she works with goes on a killing spree and is killed in the process. Then she gets that girl’s client, the client she was with last before she went on her rampage. He is a strange man, cancer ravaging his vocal cords so he uses an electronic voice box. He is obsessed with the metamorphoses of moths. He is a photographer of body parts. He also seems to be a harbinger of doom. Those he interacts with and studies change, becoming passively violent, like murderous somnambulists. 

New Religion, a new Japanese film directed by Keishi Kondo, is draped in the abstraction of Under the Skin and the creeping dread of Kairo. It could be a sci-fi film, or just as easily a film about a supernatural entity. New Religion follows in the arthouse/elevated new wave of horror filmmaking. Quiet, abstract, mysterious. There are no answers, and a logic crafted in nightmare. A cold unnerving electronic score compliments the cold sterile cinematography. The themes of New Religion whisper themselves, intangible and elusive. The main antagonist is an unknown, his aims secret. What dark agenda is he following? What bizarre goal is he driving towards? Dive deep into the nebulous signals and hints of New Religion, and welcome a new important voice to modern horror filmmaking.

Friday, June 30, 2023

A Brief Reading List: The Different Eras of the Horror Genre

        A brief reading list for those interested in the history of the horror genre in literature. The time periods and the overviews are meant as a quick tutorial on the authors and the stories of that time. Nothing is set in stone and art and culture are fluid. So let this serve as a brief guided tour that is meant to inspire more deep dives into horror as literature.

1890-1925 Decadence and Innovation

This era of horror, in some circles seen as the golden age of horror literature, was the foundation of what would later be referred to as the horror genre. Horror has always been present in our literature. Since at least as early as the classic Greek plays to Shakespeare and Dante. But as a genre, it was not seen as a separate thing until around this time. Its roots are the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Gothic writers like Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, and also a huge influence came from the Decadent writers from France such as Jean Lorrain and Octave Mirbeau. From these writers was drawn a darker sensibility. A preference for decay and doom. A willingness to push boundaries and the reader's comfort level. This was new fertile ground. The area was clear for innovation, and the horror genre was not yet a thing, so these writers were free to explore the themes and ideas in their stories. A subtle shadow can also be felt in these works, with the coming of the first world war on the horizon. 

The Yellow Sign - Robert W. Chambers (1895)

The Novel of the Black Seal - Arthur Machen (1895)

The Spider - Hanns Heinz Ewers (1908)

The Room in the Tower - E. F. Benson (1912)

Fumes - Stefan Grabinski (1913)

1925-1965 War and Darkness

These works came from readers who grew up with the “golden age” of horror. This is the era that shaped and defined horror as a literary genre. With the foundations of the genre firmly in place, these writers sought to refine and go further with what horror can do. Also over these works can be felt the fallout of two world wars. A pessimism and a breakdown of trust in the established morality of civilization lurk in the pages of these works. 

The Caterpillar - Edogawa Ranpo (1929)

The Shadow over Innsmouth - H.P. Lovecraft (1936)

Skeleton - Ray Bradbury (1945)

Bianca’s Hands - Theodore Sturgeon (1947)

Pillar of Salt - Shirley Jackson (1948)

1965-2000 Genre and Change

This era sees the horror genre become mainstream. With a well-set tradition of horror in literature and film, these writers grew up with horror as a viable literary choice. In these works, we see an exploration of a more liberal society. Sexual themes are discussed openly, and gender and race struggles are examined. Authors felt free to be more challenging with their work. Both subtlety and explicitness were taken to new levels. The oblique and the nebulous were championed alongside sexual themes and the rise of body horror.  

The Cellars - Ramsey Campbell (1967)

Ravissante - Robert Aickman (1968)

The Nighthawk - Dennis Etchison (1978)

Replacements - Lisa Tuttle (1992)

The Bungalow House - Thomas Ligotti (1995)

2000-2035 New Realities and Anxieties 

In a sense, you can call this era the post-horror era. Now authors are trying to subvert the traditions and tropes of the established horror genre. The history and expectations of horror as a genre are seen more and more as an obstacle to innovation. Also, this era is dealing with the sudden invasion of technology into everyone's personal lives. The ever-present shadow of the internet and social media has led to a distorted and unclear view of what constitutes reality. In this new era, our interpersonal relationships with others have irrevocably changed. We are both almost competently alienated from others while in a neverending connection with literally everyone all at once. So in this era, subversion and anxieties about technology and reality are at the forefront of the horror genre. This can only be an incomplete list since we are just beginning this era, and the future of horror is both unknown and exciting. Horror as a genre has thrived since its beginnings and is a vital and important part of our culture and literature.

The Animal Aspect of the Movement - Adam Golaski (2008)

The Road of Pins - Caitlin Kiernan (2013)

My World Has No Memories - Mark Samuels (2014)

Born Stillborn - Brian Evenson (2015)

Mare’s Nest - Richard Gavin (2016)

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review: Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird

From Agustina Bazterrica, the author of the new classic Tender is the Flesh, comes her new short story collection, Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird. At turns playfully experimental and at times seeking to refine classic genre tropes, this book succeeds in fulfilling the promise of Tender is the Flesh. Taking inspiration from such masters of the short story as Jackson, Ligotti, Tuttle, and Borges, this is a heady stew of delirium and darkness. Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird is continuing the trend of new translations of amazing foreign horror, introducing English-speaking countries to all kinds of new and innovative writing. From Valancourt’s steady streams of translations of essential collections like Swedish Cults and The Black Maybe, to other collections getting critical acclaim like Bora Chung's Cursed Bunny, we are seeing a golden era of translations of the cutting edge of horror and dark literature. There are clear influences on this new era of world horror, from cinema, you can see the influence of films like Anti-Christ, Under the Skin, and Kairo. The long shadow of masters of horror literature such as Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft is also felt. But make no mistake, these new works are speaking on our new realities and are saying things that are so needed right now. I feel we are seeing the start of a new era of horror literature.

Agustina’s work is poetic and lush. It is a delight to read her prose. And the gorgeousness of her work only makes the deep dark hole you find yourself in at the end of one of her stories even more unsettling. Her work recalls the intense subjective tales of Borges, where instead of his making the everyday and normal into something divine or otherworldly, Agustina makes the everyday malignant and corrupting. The use of confusion and mystery, and the undertone of a sinister darkness or malignant influence is one of the macabre pleasures to be found in her writing. 

Tender is the Flesh was a book that reveled in the corrupt nature of humanity. We devour each other both physically and emotionally. The things we mistake for tenderness and love are actually hunger and lust. Social constructs hide the animalistic nature of ourselves. Now with Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, her new collection of short stories, Agustina has not brightened her view of humanity, instead, she goes further, and explores the darkness in all its facets. From mind-bending surrealist tales to inner explorations of a diseased human psyche, each story in this collection is varied and unique. Her palette is wide and the places she brings the reader are different maps, outlining the wounds inflicted on her characters. Her examinations of human cruelty recall Jackson, and her revealing the corrupting darkness that lies at the heart of humanity recalls Ligotti. But in terms of prose style and practice, she recalls Borges and Calvino. The reader is left confused yet fascinated at the end of one of her stories. And the mystery calls us to go further.

The first story in the book, A Light, Swift, and Monsterous Sound, absolutely makes a statement as the first tale and is one of those rare stories that can be said to be something only the author could have written. Unique and mind-bending, there is really nothing else like this tale. I also really loved Roberto, a surreal tale of genitals, strange physiologies, and what may lay hidden underneath our clothes. When I reached her story Elena-Marie Sandoz in the collection is when I was convinced this collection was a masterpiece. A bleak tale of identity in crises, this one stands alongside such masters as Ligotti and Borges with its oroborosian logic. And the final tale in the collection, The Solitary Ones, reads like a classic of horror fiction, probably the most straightforward horror tale in the collection, but in a collection this weird and experimental, the more traditional stance this tale takes reads seems challenging, especially coming at the end of the stories. 

Agustina Bazterrica is a groundbreaking new voice in literature. Her novel Tender is the Flesh deserves to be seen as one of the all-time great dystopian novels, and her collection Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird deserves to be recognized as one of the great horror collections of our time. Essential, innovative, deeply personal, and stunningly poetic. Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird is a must-read. The comparisons I have made to her work and Ligotti, Borges, Orwell, and Jackson are deserved. With only two books of hers in English translation, she has already cemented her place among the very best of literature. More, more...

Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Caitlin Kiernan's Metamorphosis A


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Desire for Dark Powers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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