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Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Infinite Mutability of the Flesh: Some thoughts on David Lynch and Thomas Ligotti.

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I have long held the maxim, if you would like to know me better, I would suggest a viewing of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead or a reading of one of what are my two favorite Thomas Ligotti collections, Grimscribe or Teatro Grottesco. What is it about these works that I find such a deep connection with? They certainly are not for everyone’s tastes. I think if you lent one of these to most of your friends, they would come back with a dismissive “ What the hell was that? That was just weird… “ reaction, usually accompanied with a look of disgust. I think these are works best enjoyed in seclusion. These are works I find too deep and too honest, so far away from the banal superhero blockbusters and the life-affirming novels of mainstream culture. Unlike whatever film everyone is talking about on the news and is playing at all the theaters, these works speak to me, and the existence and experience I live. They talk about truths no one wants to think about in their wage slave day to day lives, and presented with a pessimistic humor that is not at all funny.

The illusion of normal society. The horror of existence and consciousness. The utter fraud of social norms. These are some of the issues that both Lynch and Ligotti both keep interrogating again and again in their work. Ask anyone what they plan for their lives to be like. Most people will respond with what most would consider to be the healthiest and sanest answers. Go to college. Marry. Have kids. Retire. Maybe join the military. Help out at church. These people view mankind as the creation of a loving God. And they see the universe as one where everyone has a pre-planned destiny that they are meant to fulfill. But for a small minority, they see life in a very different light. They wake to find themselves existing in a bizarre sack of flesh, always on the verge of madness or injury. We move around to satisfy desires and impulses that seem alien to us, certainly not of our own making. We live just long enough to watch our bodies rot and our minds falter. And to see people finding an intelligent design or a heartwarming meaning in this hideous obscenity of existence, is the height of comedy.

In Eraserhead we find a man and a woman trying, or are trapped into trying, to create what is called a family. Except for the whole notion of birthing some screaming thing into the world is nightmarish. Carrying around some alien thing in your body, a parasite, and then thrusting it into the world covered in blood and placenta, and how most people see this as the holiest of acts, is the height of absurd comedy. Eraserhead is a feverscape of rusted industrial parts that belong to no known machine and swampy terrain of reproductive organs. Our bodies reveal their own strangeness with every abhorrent birth. Midnight desires result in these strange mutants things emerging from our wombs. In Lynch’s world, sex is never erotic. It is baffling and uncomfortable. But decaying factories, figures half seen in smoke and shadow, the aberrations of the body, are of the highest rank of eroticism.

In Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, we find a small town as dissected corpse. Boy scouts falling into sadistic sexual games with mysterious women. The undeniable pull of the perverse on the seemingly wholesome and moral townsfolk. And the underbelly of insectile urges and the all-encompassing drive to self-destruction. The social contract that we believe is there, a need to better ourselves as a community, the basic kindness of mankind, the safety net of our police forces, are seen for what they are, comfortable illusions against the darkness just underneath the surface. As the film’s demented Frank Booth says, “ Don’t be a good neighbor to her!! “.

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In Ligotti’s chilling short story Our Temporary Supervisor, we find a factory wage slave slowly falling apart working day after day. Until one day he comes into work and finds there is a new manager. Only this manager only lurks behind the office door. The manager is seen as a vague dark ripple. It may have arm protrusions and head parts. But it is definitely not human. With the new manager comes new nonsensical work requirements and longer hours. And if an employee even thinks about leaving, the new manager makes it known the nightmarish consequences that would befall on one who tried to leave. Definitely one of my favorite short stories. And the thing that makes it even more disturbing? How far away from the reality of working life is this? At most jobs, your boss might as well be some inhuman entity, and what they ask from you is just you work yourself to death. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just not afford to pay your rent or be able to afford groceries. The idea of a career for most people is more disturbing than what most horror stories are able to convey.

In The Last Feast of Harlequin, Ligotti has his fictional agents of nightmare dress up as hideous clowns, a perfect metaphor for his view of existence. But also, like in most Ligotti stories, darkness covers even deeper darkness. It is revealed that the ridiculous clown makeup is only covering another mask. In the downtrodden ending, when these clowns mutate and bodily descend into these humanoid worms, belonging to some ancient cult that worships non-existence, the disguise rots away, revealing yet another, even more, hideous disguise. The worm behind the clown makeup may be a perfect symbol of the Ligottian “ normal productive citizen “.  

      We find in their own ways, I think both Ligotti and Lynch share a similar worldview, but from different angles. Lynch see this world of mutant bodies lost in smoke and shadow in an extremely optimistic way. He is fascinated by this world and uses his art to delve into the furthest limits. He sees beauty where others would only see disgust. Lynch fully engages in existence. Ligotti, on the other hand, is extremely pessimistic. He sees existence as something to escape from. He uses his art to wrap the world in a veil of nightmare, to make slow self-destruction the highest art. Ligotti, in discussing Lovecraft, wrote about how “ the great dream of supernatural literature is to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare. “ I think this is one of the most profound statements on horror fiction I have ever heard. When you ask most people what the value of horror is, you get the same tired and untrue statements like, “ it’s a preparation for being able to deal with bad times, it’s a rollercoaster ride, it’s to speak on social issues that are taboo “. Sure those are parts of it. But I think the main purpose of horror is to take the abject things, the horrible parts of life, and create a poetry of them. Ligotti in his pessimism and Lynch in his optimism, complete the duality of horror. To take the mystery and ultimate unknowableness of life and make it an object of worship. To take the nightmare, and enchant you with it. To descend into black depths, far beyond all light, and sing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Announcement! New Horror Anthology From Plutonian Press!! PLUTO IN FURS.

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I have a super secret project to announce! The next book from Plutonian Press! Coming in August 2019…. Pluto in Furs! An anthology of the darkly erotic and the seductively nightmarish! A collection of short stories for those horror obsessives who need to plunge into the macabre and the unearthly again and again. What is this need to dream of unspeakable horrors? Is it some strange masochism? And why do we keep going back for more? In these pages, you will find desire and dread, interchangeable. From your most cherished nightmares to your most perverse dreams, Pluto in Furs will serve as your guide to the twilight nether regions of the unreal. If you enjoyed our first anthology, Phantasm/Chimera, I promise you that this one is going to blow your mind! Cover art and ordering info to be revealed later, but today I have the official table of contents to unveil! In no specific order:

An Abysmal Masochism ( An Introduction ) - by Scott Dwyer
The Tangible Universe - by Jeffrey Thomas
The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler - by Devora Gray
Other Yseut and Romance Tristan - by Adam Golaski
Dermatology, Eschatology - by Kurt Fawver
Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad - by Richard Gavin
It’s Hard to be Me - by John Claude Smith
The Gutter at the Bottom of the World - by David Peak
Tender is the Tether - by Rhys Hughes
With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes - by Mike Allen
Stygian Chambers - by Orrin Grey
Behemoth - by Clint Smith
Worm Moon - by Gemma Files
The Silvering - by Thana Niveau
Walking in Ash - by Brendan Vidito

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: The Dissolution of Small Worlds by Kurt Fawver

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Kurt Fawver is on a mission to disassemble the world. Wait. That is not quite right. Let me up it another way. Kurt Fawver’s latest collection The Dissolution of Small Worlds is trying to break down how you view the world. After reading his collection, I am not sure what I mean anymore...

Each story in this collection takes the entire world and shreds it to bits. He then reassembles it in strange new ways. I think it would be a mistake for the reader to pick up this collection expecting a collection of standard weird horror tales. To me, Kurt Fawver stands more in the tradition of Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. He employs the tools of science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy to tell a darkly hypothetical tale, to talk about aspects of culture and existence that most may not be comfortable with bringing to light. What would life be like if this strange thing happened and how would we retain our humanity? Most of his tales start in the realistic but then end up in the completely fantastic. He does have a couple of quiet and low key stories that lean more towards the horrific, which may be my favorites in the collection since I’m biased towards more subtle horror fiction in general. I think the horror genre is more properly defined by its exhalation of Mystery, the erotics of the unhuman. I think Kurt’s work is more defined by Speculation, His stories are probes. They are examinations of the raw matter of existence, perverting and twisting it to find out its core essence. His work would be right at home in Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthology. What does it mean to be human in the face of an unknowable and ever-changing existence is the key question of this collection.

My personal favorite tale in this collection may just be The Convexity of Our Youth. A story that both attacks the reader with its surreal premise, but also has a bit of fun with the pulpy conceit of its plot. The Convexity of Our Youth showcases a town recovering from an unexpected tragedy. A mysterious orange ball has been appearing in towns at random, somehow instigating a strange outbreak of mutations. The orange ball envelopes this tale in a shadow of the abstractly alien as much as the monolith does in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trust I know how that sounds, you will just have to read for yourself, it really does come off as that bizarre and strange to the reader. The orange ball appears silently and suddenly, affecting only children who have the misfortune to come into contact with it. After a short period, a matter of days in most cases, the affected children undergo a horrific and painful metamorphosis into a literal orange bouncy ball. Their internal organs evaporating into nothing, their humanity lost. This is one of the strangest and most downtrodden stories you will ever read. It examines with microscopic detail the real grief and feelings of guilt that parents suffer when they lose a child. The whole story has this wonderfully bleak and apocalyptic feel. But thankfully, Fawver never loses sight that the story, at its core, is a story about kids turning into bouncy balls, and winks at the reader with dabs of macabre humor and some wonderfully delirious set pieces. The story is a master class in tone, taking an absurd premise and totally committing to it, going all the way with it until it becomes the stuff of existential fright.

I highly recommend The Dissolution of Small Worlds to adventurous horror readers and fans of the darker sides of science fiction and fantasy. Just try not to be alarmed if when you look up from reading the book, the world looks a bit… fractured.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Interview: C.M. Muller

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Welcome to the Plutonian! Your yearly anthology series Nightscript has been a favorite of mine since issue one. For my money, it may be the best yearly weird horror anthology around. What was the genesis behind you creating Nightscript?

Its an honor to be here, and I am heartened by your kind words. Thank you. As to the genesis of the anthology, there are, oddly enough, two points-of-origin. Back in the late 80s, during my junior year of high school, I produced a staple-bound horror anthology called (yes, you guessed it) Nightscriptas a young kid, I was extremely proud to have fashioned this catchy compound word. The first issue contained half a dozen stories and was produced at the print shop where I worked. This was my last job before venturing off to college where my love of horror fiction and the anthology I had once been so proud of quickly washed down the academic drain. Flash forward to 2012, or thereabouts, and I found myself returning to horror fiction, though more so on the writing side of things. I worked hard for a couple of years, trying to improve my style and occasionally submitting pieces to prospective markets. There was zero success, but with a bit of persistence and luck I finally found a home for a short piece entitled Vrangr.And what a home it turned out to be: Michael Kellys Shadows & Tall Trees. I mention this because I dont believe Nightscript would have been reincarnated had not this seminal event in my writerly life occurredfor when the unfortunate news hit (about a year after my story acceptance) that S&TT would be entering a state of indefinite hiatus, I was saddened to imagine the possibility that such a unique and seminal publication might never again see the light of day. So, all of my old experience from that long-ago print shop anthology returned and I thought why not give it a go. I was confident I had the technical expertise, though remained skeptical about the publications reception, i.e. how to market it. But sometimes, as we all know, we just have to trust our intuition. To paraphrase the immortal words of Ray Bradbury: I threw myself, idea in hand, over the cliff and built my wings on the way down. And what a ride it has been!

Nightscript has this nice blend of different genres, like weird horror, dark fantasy, and ghostly fiction. What is the missionof Nightscript? What kind of impact do you wish it to have? What kind of work are you trying to champion?

I originally envisioned a much smaller publication that would have included no more than a dozen stories, all in the mode of Robert Aickman. My intent, from the outset, was to focus exclusively on quiet horror.After putting the call out for stories, however, my perspective on the enterprise shifted considerably. I realized that limiting the type and quantity of fiction I was looking to include was not really the route I wanted to take. Im not afraid to admit that for the entirety of the year that the first volume was in production, I was anxious to the Nth degree. While I knew there was enthusiasm in the community, I had no idea that the project would eventually be so well-received. Indeed, no less than Ellen Datlow called it a very promising debut anthologyin her Best Horror of the Year. Readers also seemed to like the aesthetics I was going for, and so I felt encouraged to expand the project outward. Hard to believe that I will soon be reading for Volume 5! I think my main goal of the anthology has always been to promote exceptional writing and stories that resonate. And just what is exceptionalwriting? Well, for Nightscript I would say that a potential entry needs first and foremost to be dreamlike, in the sense that the writing (the content and the style) must lull me into an experience that is both emotional and new. Sure, there is always the entertainment side of the reading experience, but there needs to be something more. Des Lewis, in his Real-Time Reviews, summed the anthology up best: Weirdness with truth at its heart.

Your Chthonic Matter Press was a huge influence on me to start my own little micro publishing press, Plutonian Press, and publish my own anthology, Phantasm/Chimera. What are your thoughts on the micro/small press publishing world?

You know, that is so fantastic to hear. It really is. One of my goals/hopes at the outset was to encourage/inspire others to step into the role of editor/anthologist. For me, there is no better feeling than knowing that Ive in some way inspired others to create. While there are many benefits to be had in regard to publishing an anthology, I would say that this, as well as the discovery of new talent, are the most rewarding. My thoughts on the micro/small press scene are simple to summarize: This is where its at, people. This is where some of the best writing can be found. Sturgeons Law, right? Ninety percent of everything is crap. Well, Id say that the majority of that exceptional ten percent can be found in the micro/small press sphere. I guess it all boils down to what excites and inspires you. For me, a lot of the work being published in this underground networkis the stuff that will be around for some time to come. Perhaps this is because we have for the most part distanced ourselves from the big business publishing model, where sales are more important than substance. Theres an energy and originality that exists here that I simply do not find in the upper echelons of the publishing biz. There are exceptions, of course, but overall I would say that I am inspired almost exclusively by the Davidsin this Goliath story.

You also are a masterful writer of quiet horror fiction. What is the seduction of the creepy and the unnerving to you?

Id ask that you redact masterfuland replace it with middling,but I sure do appreciate such a kind classification! You know, I wish I could give you a more proper explanation about the seductionthat this type of fiction affords, but it really is a difficult question to answer. I guess we all consume stories for different reasons and in different ways, whether we are a Writer, Reader, Anthologist, or a combination of all three. We draw forth technical things, emotional things, things which enlighten us, things which explicate the joys and horrors and mysteries of the human condition. Ah, the hell with itlets just keep the Mystery of it all intact and enjoy it while it lasts.

If you were to publish an anthology of your all-time favorite horror short stories, what are some of the stories you would choose?

Well, I could certainly fill dozens of volumes, but I will limit myself to ten:

Lisa Tuttles Bug House
Jason A. Wyckoffs Knotts Letter
Shirley Jacksons The Summer People
Terry Lamsleys Walking the Dog
Jerome Bixbys Its a Good Life
Mike Conners Stillborn
Clive Barkers Coming to Grief
Flannery OConnors Good Country People
David J. Schows Not From Around Here
Brian Evensons Windeye

With Halloween just around the corner, I would be remiss to not ask you, what are you favorite go to horror films to watch in October?

The one which readily comes to mind (largely because I just acquired a VHS copy at Goodwill last week) is Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. This is always a fun one to immerse yourself in. (And, bonus, the storyline does not include that creep, Michael Myers!) Im also curious about the new Haunting of Hill House remake currently playing on Netflix. Another film I might mention is Philip Ridleys The Reflecting Skin. If there is a Nightscript story which could be said to have been translated to the silver screen, this might very well be it. Such a brilliant movie, on so many levels. One of my absolute favorites.

You have a new anthology coming out in 2019, Twice Told: A Collection of Doubles. I do believe that the book is themed around Doppelgangers? What drew you to this theme? And are we going to be seeing more stand-alone anthologies from Chthonic Matter Press?

Yes, I am extremely excited about this project. The contents (22 stories) are absolutely incredible, and I think readers will be pleased with the unique approaches each writer has taken in regards to the theme. As far as what drew me to such subject matter: Hey, whats not to like about coming face-to-face with a duplicate of yourself? Theres something unnerving and delightful about the idea. What I was hoping to achieve with this stand-alone anthology, however, was to avoid, as much as possible, the traditional route of the doppelgänger, and for the most part, I think I have succeeded. I will be curious to see how it is received. And, yes, I have a number of ideas for similar stand-alone anthologies in the coming years. I cant speak of anything definitive as yet, but if things go well with Twice-Told, Id say that there is a strong likelihood that other themed anthologies will be born. Ive also been tinkering with the idea of starting another non-themed anthology, a sort of sister publication to Nightscript, though something a bit more SF-oriented, à la Black Mirror. Given the current environment in which we live, this seems like a pertinent and exciting avenue to explore. I feel that there might be a good bit of crossover from the weird fiction community, and so perhaps the time is right to take yet another plunge from Bradbury Heights.

What can we expect next from C.M. Muller and Chthonic Matter Press?
First off, Id like to thank you for providing this platform, and for your unflagging encouragement these past few years. I have four stories that should see print relatively soon. They are slated to appear in Vasterian, Weirdbook, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, and the Stefan Grabinski-inspired anthology In Stefans House edited by Jordan Krall. Im super excited to be included in these publications. Im also planning to release my debut story collection later this year, entitled Hidden Folk, which will contain twelve or so previously published tales. And, last but not least, there is the continuing dark saga that is Nightscript: Ill be open to submissions for Volume 5 this January. I have a feeling that 2019 is going to be an insanely busy but incredibly inspiring year. Onward!

Buy Nightscript 4 here: