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Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: The Beyond by Lucio Fulci

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In room 36 ( 3 plus 6 is 9 ), unused furniture lay in dust and shadow. A terrible secret is kept in room 36, and its malignant tendrils are spilling out into the life of Liza Merrill, a woman who has not yet found a place for herself in the world and is hoping that running a hotel will change her fortunes. The Seven Doors Hotel, located in Louisiana, she inherits from her parents. She starts having the closed hotel renovated, she by chance meets a handsome doctor who seems to take an interest in her, and her life looks to be starting to settle down for her. To finally be happy after years of wandering from job to job in New York. She traveled across the country for this chance, and she means to take it.

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But this is not to be her fate. There is an inescapable past waiting in the dark rooms of the Seven Doors Hotel. A secret that can not be kept secret any longer. The barren rooms hold a form of dead life. A dead life that is starting to rise and emerge. The basement, full of moldy and moist holes, hides rotting limbs that thrust out to main and mutilate any who go near. Cadaverous beings emerge from murky watery abysses, bathtubs and pools of basement water. These creatures shamble in a sleep-like state, like somnambulists not yet woken into our reality. She turns to the doctor to help, because she feels like she is falling into a nightmare that can not be real. People keep disappearing in her hotel and blood leaks from the walls. But the doctor is sterile, he is not able to help or rescue anyone. His bullets are ineffective and his choices only end up damning the both of them. The dead take over the living, and the landscape of Hell is revealed to be limitless in its horrors. 

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In all this surrealism and terror, what is The Beyond really about? It seems to be haunted by a fear of dead things in wet decaying holes, about impotence, about those things that wish to be born even though they are dead and damned. There can be no escape in The Beyond. You were already born doomed. Is Liza already in Hell when the film starts? The gateway to Hell is opened up by a painter named Schweick, a creator of nightmares, a father to the horrors. Was he real, or is he a symbolic figure in the nightmare world of Liza? Is this all a dream/nightmare of miscarriage or abortion? The Beyond is this delirium of empty rooms and dead things crawling out of damp cavities in the body of the hotel, hollow with the rot of the dead who wish to corrupt and deface the living, to rip their flesh and tear out their internal organs. In room 36, the corruption of secrets and regrets seep out into the world. In 9 months a human is born. In 9 months a gateway to Hell may be opened in one's own mind. In 9 months the dead may be born inside the living, only to kill the mother. 

“ And you will face the sea of Darkness, and all therein that may be explored. “

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows by Sam Richard.

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I would like to introduce a newer writer on the horror scene who I am sure will be making quite the impact, Sam Richard. He has recently released a collection of his short fiction and it is certainly a breath of fresh air in a growingly stagnant and inbred horror literature scene. A much-needed sense of transgression and real importance informs Sam’s work. This book is a testament to how horror fiction can engage in a real and honest way with real-life trauma and grief. When most more traditional fiction falls into condescending falsehoods and feel good fallacies, horror can be truthful, can convey feelings of deep hurt and shame, can explore secret thoughts and hidden wounds. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows serves to author Sam Richard as an inner diary of his trying to cope and deal with the real-life loss of his wife Maureen Richard. It is full of self-destructive dreams and a terrifying longing that goes beyond the dark at the end of life. It is shockingly transgressive, a kind of self-inflicted sadism against the author. When you read about Baudelaire and Nietzche talking about writers who bleed out their prose, this is a perfect example of that. Each story is like a bone in a cage made of his dead love's body, trapping him inside. Wonderful and terrible Batailleian visions of diseased sex and universe destroying despair. 

To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows, at its best, is a series of feverish dreams and tormenting nightmares all centered around the death of a loved one, almost all the stories in this collection serve as a kind of self therapy through horror. The collection is a deep delve into the inner life of writer Sam Richard. It has an intimacy that balances with the horrors. Certainly not a light read. In some ways, I would compare this book to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. It is completely an obsessional book, personal in nature, and an attack on anyone who opens its pages. 

It is hard to criticize such a personal book, but there are some criticisms that must be made. There are two stories that seem out of place in the collection. The Verdant Holocaust written for a Misfits tribute anthology, about strange rites and monstrous religions, is pretty over the top and kind of just meanders. The Prince of Mars was written for a Williams Burroughs tribute anthology, and again is an example of over the top writing, it may be of interest to those looking for more Burroughs homages, but to me, it just didn’t capture my imagination. And the first story, the title story To Wallow in Ash, is maybe too autobiographical, it seems that Sam is writing a memoir about his lost love, and then, in the end, it starts turning into a fictional story. Which sometimes may work, but the problem here is that the story never has time to seduce the reader into its fictional world, never allows a sense of its own reality, never allows an atmosphere to develop or allows the reader to enter the dreamworld space of a short story. We Feed This Muddy Creek starts off promisingly, but takes this unconvincing turn with super unrealistic characters and kind of random over the top violence. If you like the more goth punk early work of Caitlin Kiernan or the more Bizarro style of writing you may enjoy these works, but for me, they didn’t really work.

On the other hand, there are some masterful works in here. Love Like Blood is an absolutely nightmarish delirium of doppelgangers and longing. There are also shades of the films Ringu and Lost Highway in this tale. A powerful story that in itself makes this book a must buy. I Know Not the Names of the Gods to Whom I Prey is a descent into an inferno of self-loathing and self-destructive desire. It has this perverse sadomasochism that is so truthful and painfully, it’s like Sam Richards put his most hurtful thoughts directly on paper, I wish Clive Barker in his writings was so honest. Nature Unveiled, a type of end of the world story, is gleefully and unapologetically a revenge story in honor of the main characters lost love. Deathlike Love is a masterpiece of diseased desires and shame-filled infidelities, a story both erotic and horrific in the best possible way.

So overall To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is a book that is both a loss filled dirge for those we most care for ripped away from us too soon and a celebration of the possibilities of horror fiction and how it can explore deeply personal horrors. I do think the book would have fared better if it just focused on the main theme, making the book a series of repeated nightmares of loss and guilt. The great stories in here kind of overshadow the others which don’t quite rise up to their level. But this is a minor quibble. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is one of the most original collections to have come out in years, it will arouse you, bring you to tears, and shock you, sometimes all at once. Life is usually a confusing affair, full of conflicting emotions and disturbing thoughts you would never share. But that is the stuff that weaves through this book like a burning contagion through your heart, flaring and destroying all at once. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Guest Writer Brian O'Connell: This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster's Films

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This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster’s Films

Spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar below.
Ari Aster does not want to be known as a political director.
“I’m sort of loathe to expound openly about these things,” he said in a July Forbes interview, “because I’m not making a polemic.” In another piece posted on Inverse, he elaborated: “I know that I never want to make message movies. But a movie doesn’t need to have a concrete message to make a deep and meaningful impact…If the movie’s agenda is transparent, that makes me resist. A question well-articulated is so much stronger (and more trustworthy) than an answer firmly stated.”
Aster’s films certainly pose questions. Debuting with the critically acclaimed possession movie Hereditary in 2018 and following it up just one year later with the surreal folk horror of Midsommar, he’s quickly established himself as one of the most interesting and innovative directors working in genre filmmaking. Taken together these films paint agonized portraits of isolated, troubled people beset by terrifying phenomena: a grief-stricken Utah family in Hereditary, a dysfunctional millennial couple in Midsommar. Unbearable loss is the driving current in both, incited by sickeningly extreme tragedies early on in the runtime. The central conflict, then—witches and pagan cultists aside—is how the characters cope, or fail to cope, with this loss.
Aster has stated that the appeal of making genre films, at least for him, is having “the scope of a story match whatever the characters are feeling” (linking them to the tradition of melodrama). His primary goal is to express the individual emotions and lived realities of his characters, a feat he pulls off admirably. Hereditary’s Paimon, a demon passed down from generation to generation by an insidious coven of witches, functions as a powerful metaphor for the horrors of inherited mental illness. And the pagan cult at the center of Midsommar, which seduces Dani (Florence Pugh) into its perverse rites with promises of empathy and affection, disturbingly echoes her unhappy, codependent relationship with manipulative grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). But the metaphors of these films aren’t purely psychological. On another level, they are also stories of people inescapably trapped by sinister social orders beyond their control.
Hereditary, for example, is at least in part about the constricting power of gender roles: particularly societal expectations for women, and the imposition of outside agendas upon their bodies. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), our protagonist, did not choose to be a mother. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, she dreams a conversation with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), giving voice to her unspoken thoughts: “I never wanted to be your mother,” she confesses. “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.” The “she” Annie alludes to is her sinister, domineering mother Ellen, who dies shortly before the advent of the film but continues to hold the household in her vise-like grip. The major twist of the film is that Ellen, unbeknownst to Annie, was the leader of a coven of witches, and that their designs have been on Peter—not Annie—all along. The entire plot has been an elaborate ritual intended to place the masculine demon Paimon, formerly trapped in the body of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), into Peter’s more fitting male form.
All this is primarily meant to symbolize the passage of mental illness down through the generations, but it also has relatively self-evident gendered connotations that come into sharp focus when looked at through the right lens. Ellen forces her daughter into family life and reduces her daughter’s womb and her grandchildren’s bodies to chattel for the coven’s purposes. She’s a stand-in for a wider patriarchal society that pressures women to rear children and fit in their socially-ordained identities. Significantly, Paimon’s influence is transmitted through conventional moments of motherhood: we see photos and dioramas of Ellen's breast- and bottle-feeding Charlie, implied to be part of the long-running ritual carried out in the film. Motherhood, especially compulsory motherhood, is here depicted as a kind of unspeakable curse, part of a wider societal plan that does not have women’s best interests at heart. (In this sense, the film’s sizable lineage from Rosemary’s Baby is starkly apparent.)
The elevation of the very male Paimon as the object of worship here is also significant. Paimon, we discover, specifically desires a masculine body for possession, and becomes “livid and vengeful when offered a female host”. Charlie’s female body, his original home, is thus deemed insufficient, and her brutal death is engineered to place Paimon in Peter. Annie is similarly sacrificed, turned into a satanic puppet who saws off her own head in a grisly act of occult reverence. But Peter, far from a willing vessel, is also victimized by this design. He is deemed a suitable vessel not only for being male but being “vulnerable”: permanently scarred by his sister’s death, he is an ostensibly emotionally “weak” boy, evicted from his body to provide room for a more powerful entity. As in our own society, masculinity “is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others” (to quote a Michael Ian Black piece for The New York Times).
The twisted vision of a nuclear family we see in Hereditary, and the controlling faction that breaks their minds and bodies, is a distorted reflection of our own society’s conventional “family values” and oppressive institutions. (The fact that the coven is led by women—Ellen and Joan, played by Ann Dowd—has an eerie resonance of internalized misogyny in a time where 51% of white women voted for Trump.) The film upsettingly concludes with three generations of Graham women decapitated, their ambulatory corpses bowing to a ceremonially crowned Peter, himself nothing but a hollowed-out shell. Aster may be adding distinctly supernatural flourishes here, but the banal horrors of patriarchy are far from the stuff of fiction.
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The cult or coven, as we see in Hereditary, will always function on some level as a metaphor for a predatory and warped social unit. This idea is amplified in Midsommar. Though Aster is hardly explicit about it, Midsommar is more overtly political than Hereditary: appropriately, since it’s a folk horror film, and folk horror almost always derives its terrors from the barbaric cruelties people enact on each other, generally in the service of some groundless and nonsensical belief. In Midsommar, the beliefs are those of Hårga, a seemingly ancient pagan cult living in the wilds of Hälsingland, Sweden. A group of college students, including self-satisfied anthropology major Christian, journey there to see a special iteration of Hårga’s midsummer festival, which only occurs once every ninety years. The trip is complicated, though, by the fractious and crumbling relationship between Christian and his girlfriend, Dani: an anxious, withdrawn psychology major who is still grieving the tragic loss of her family in a murder-suicide. As the cult’s ceremonies grow more and more extreme, so too does the couple’s bond decline, till both ultimately intersect in a fiery, overwhelming ending.
Much of the politically oriented discussion surrounding Midsommar has centered around the portrayal of Christian and his male friends. And indeed, a large part of the film’s emotional honesty and potency is how mercilessly it skewers the brand of shallow, bro-dude masculinity espoused by the grad students. As well as functioning as a metaphorical depiction of the “apocalyptic breakup” Aster hoped to convey, the cathartic ending has been convincingly read as a feminist triumph over toxically masculine victimizers. But Midsommar’s other dimension is one common to many folk horror films: that of race. From the moment the students arrive at the commune and the camera smoothly pans over the idyllic landscape, taking in a panorama of abstracted buildings and frolicking Swedish youth, one fact is blatantly unavoidable: Hårga’s (literally) glaring whiteness.
Contemporary paganism has always had a troubling relationship with fascism, and Midsommar drives home this relationship more than perhaps any other folk horror film. Hårga espouses a return to ancient traditions, an emphasis on “preserved bloodlines”, and specific ties to the land: ideas common to most fascist and ethnonationalist ideologies. Their primary colors are blue and yellow, echoing the Swedish flag, “to make the point of how wrong nationalism is,” production designer Henrik Svensson says. Their community, while seemingly utopic, is founded on brutish acts of euthanasia and human sacrifice—but, as Jenna Wortham writes in her insightful piece for The New York Times, Hårga never sees anything remotely wrong with their behavior. “[N]othing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.”
There are three people of color in the film: Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of the grad students joining Christian; and a London couple brought separately to the commune, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia). The latter are the first to realize something is wrong, but their voices are ignored. After witnessing a gruesome ättestupa, wherein two elder cult members commit ritual suicide to the joy of the commune (echoing the cult of death, another component of fascist ideology), they immediately pack their things and attempt to leave, but individually disappear. Connie’s screams are heard echoing around the commune, and Mark (Will Poulter) even comments that he’d seen her running for the trees, but, pointedly, none of the white protagonists do much in response. Josh later disappears as well; not only do the remaining characters not seem to care, but the oafish Christian even sells him out to the cult elders and insists “we don’t associate with him in any way”.
The film hints at these tendencies with little Easter eggs and details that might be missed on a first viewing. On Josh’s coffee table in the pre-Sweden scenes, we see a bright yellow book titled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark, an iteration of the runic alphabet. (In the director’s cut, this is even more explicit: during the car-ride to the commune, we see the cover, which features a large swastika encircled by a sea of runes.) Also on the car-ride, the students pass under a large banner, which, when translated from the Swedish, complains of “mass immigration to Hälsingland”, and urges the reader to “vote Free North this fall”—an obvious allusion to Brexit, and more generally to the anti-immigrant movements presently springing up across Europe and the world.
Before leaving off, it would be wrong not comment on Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith), the cult’s disabled oracle, who has drawn considerable commentary. A member intentionally bred of incest to write Hårga’s scripture, the character has been accused of ableism and insensitivity—but this seems to miss the point. Ruben is not an object of horror, but a victim of the cult’s purposes. He is an individual subjected to traumatic rites he does not fully understand (he is present during the sex ritual late in the film), born only to continue Hårga’s holy text, which the elders dictatorially interpret in any way that suits their motivations. Additionally, Ruben’s presence stresses Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” bloodlines, which ultimately extend to the point of inbreeding.
Even Aster, cryptic about it though he may be, acknowledges these aspects of Midsommar. From the interview cited at the top of the article, he explains: “if you also consider Swedish history, it is a very closed society and what does that really mean? There are things happening in Sweden right now that are echo[e]s of things that happened in the Second World War.” When discussing his own work, Svensson is even more direct: “[the sets are] pumped up, fascist architecture-style. I find it historically and traditionally oppressive, and this place breathes with it…It’s important to note that just because Sweden was neutral in World War II, that doesn't erase the fact that there were strong Nazi sympathizers at the time, from the people on the street all the way to the king. This is still in some extreme way[s] relevant in today’s Swedish political climate, unfortunately.”
It would be wrong to call Hereditary and Midsommar political movies, and equally wrong to call Aster a political director. Nonetheless, social messages seep in. No film exists in a vacuum, and in the stressful and intense atmosphere of the past several years, it’s inevitable that the spirit of times will be expressed in horror movies. It is easy to feel like we are all pawns in one horrible, hopeless machine: controlled by our government, our social standing, our cultural values. One doubts, based on his comments, that Aster will ever be an explicitly political filmmaker. But the peculiarly fatalistic attitudes of his debut features speak to the moment all on their own.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

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One of the aspects of dreams that horror films always seem to get wrong is that dreams are intensely personal to the dreamer. If one was able to watch someone else's dream, you would almost always find the dream to be completely incoherent with no understandable narrative. But to the dreamer, the dream is a deep delve into the most personal domains of hurt and desire. 

One horror film franchise that is deeply involved in the explorations of dreams and how we view them is the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Like most franchise horror films that spawned a seemingly unending number of sequels, the quality of each film varies from almost achieving greatness to utter stupidity. Growing up I must have seen most of these films dozens of times, except for one, which as a teen I found to be confusing and seemingly out of place in the series. That film would be A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Well, after recently rewatching that film, I now think it may be the best Nightmare on Elm Street, beating out my old favorite of Part 3: The Dream Warriors. 

Part 2 opens up to a new family, the Walsh’s, moving into the former home of Nancy Thompson, some years after her family and friends were destroyed by dream stalker Freddy Krueger. The film centers on Jesse Walsh, a teenage boy who is seemingly popular at school but has some deeply hidden insecurities and confusions. Jesse starts to dream of a hideously burned man with a glove fitted with razors on each finger. This burned man, Freddy Krueger, has sinister intentions for Jesse. Freddy wants to take over Jesse’s body, so he can bring his nightmare world of murder into the sunlit real world. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street takes the central conceit of the first film, that Freddy stalks teenagers in their sleep and makes their nightmares real, and inverts it. In Part 2, Freddy wants to enter the real world and make everyday life into a nightmare. It makes Freddy into this kind of vortex of unreality. He seeks to subvert the normality of reality that we take for granted and twist it into something malevolent and delirious, to make the whole universe a nightmare. It’s actually a quite brilliant idea and one that I missed on my first viewings. One just assumes that Freddy attacks teens in their nightmares, so I was confused why people were getting killed in real life, I didn’t get the inversion of the premise. 

In the first two films of the series, the nightmares are deeply personal, completely intertwined with the main characters. Nancy’s visions of Freddy had to do with her shame and hurt over her feelings of parental abandonment and the fear of losing her friends. Jesse’s dealings with Freddy centered on his fear of his body changing into some unknowable thing, and his deeply repressed needs and desires that felt alien to his concept of who he was. The visual style changes from the first to the second film to capture this change in focus. A Nightmare on Elm Street has these creeping phantasms of Nancy’s friends in body bags, visions of opened bodies and the stuff that leaks out, whether ropy innards or slimy crawling things. Part 2 has these Cronenbergian visions of discarded husks and bodies emerging from bodies, all underscored by this subdued homoerotic tension. 

How great would it have been if the A Nightmare on Elm Street series had kept going with the premise that Part 2 brought? That Freddy, and the actual framework of the film, was actually shaped by the fears and secret desires of the main protagonist. Instead, we got a wise-cracking anti-hero that spewed one-liners while finding new and ever more over the top ways to kill teenagers. There is a seriousness to the first two films that gets lost along the way. Freddy is more malicious, he isn’t saddled down by the ridiculous expectations of the later films. He is allowed to actually be scary. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street had a brilliant idea with the killer who stalks you in your nightmares, but was hampered by Wes Craven's directing style. While a lot of the imagery was beautifully surreal and disturbing, the pacing and the editing was just too fast, the film never allowed any kind of dream-like atmosphere to emerge. Anytime a scene started to get interesting, he would immediately turn it into a chase scene, killing the mood. Part 2 fixes the problems of the first one. This one has atmosphere to burn. The scene of Jesse sneaking into his sister's room, possessed by Freddy, only to see his sister jump roping in slow motion singing, 1... 2... Freddy’s Coming For You…, and the look of utter horror on his face is simply devastating. 

I think that like Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, this one is due for a rediscovery by horror fans. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is a film that showed how much could have been done with the series. It pushed the boundaries of the franchise while also blazing its own trail. The film is both a vital part of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and completely capable of standing on its own. 9...10… Never Sleep Again...

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review: Song for the Unraveling of the World

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Sometimes you hear a writer's name over and over and know you should check out their work, but with the deluge of books on the market, they can get lost in the shuffle. One writer I heard a lot of talk about but never really read any of their work was Brian Evenson. Then one day I ran across his short story A Seaside Town, in the anthology Year’s Best Weird Fiction vol 3. It blew me away. A perfect mix of nebulous dread and ambiguity. Then I ran across his collection A Collapse of Horses at a local bookstore. That collection left me unnerved and confused in the best possible way. I would say I enjoyed reading A Collapse of Horses as much as my first readings of Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco or Kiernan’s The Ammonite Violin. Which my constant readers can tell you that is of the highest praise from me. Well, Evenson has dropped another collection upon an unsuspecting public. Song for the Unraveling of the World just came out and I rushed to get a copy. I was not disappointed. Evenson is a writer who writes in many different genres, but for me, I prefer his work that is more dedicated horror. And in terms of horror, A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World are companion pieces and the most direct examples of his darker work. They both mix and match genres and influences, but both are top tier works of hallucinogenic horror. 

A Collapse of Horses was a pandora's box of unsetting work. It showcased his use of genre to set up expectations in the reader that he had no intention of fulfilling, instead taking a left turn into absolute insanity. For instance, you would start a story that seemed like a horror-flavored western, only to leave the story not even sure what you just read, or if you had actually had some kind of aneurysm and hallucinated the entire reading experience. A Collapse of Horses is an absolute attack on the reader. Bodies that should be dead are talking to you, horses are neither alive nor dead, dark shapes lurk in the trees or across the street always just past direct sight, people blend and blur their personalities, reading Evenson is like being on the verge of having a post-acid trip anxiety attack. I have a lot of favorites in this collection, but the one that left the most striking impression on me was the title story A Collapse of Horses, I actually had to take a break after reading it, the sense of a menacing delirium that engulfed me after reading that story was overwhelming. 

Evenson’s new collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, has a more scifi/speculative flavor. Whereas in A Collapse of Horses, which focused more on stories that took place in a more realistic and current setting, only to twist what you thought was familiar in unsettlingly surreal ways, to explore the unknowable nature of reality, Song for the Unraveling of the World focuses on the interchangeable nature of appearances and the skin, often in more fictional worlds or far future settings. Skins are discarded, exchanged, and worn throughout this collection. It certainly adds a more body horror flavor to this one. There is also some more pulpy scifi and even some nods to Lovecraft, which makes for a wonderful variance in the stories. But to me, his strongest work again is his most mind-twisting work. My personal favorite may be Born Stillborn, a noxious tale of a man who sees a therapist in the daytime, and the therapist who visits him in his room at night. They may be the same therapist, or they may not. They may have his best intentions at heart, or they may not.

I feel that A Collapse of Horses may be the greatest horror collection of the past ten years. So the expectations were ridiculously high for his new one. I was not disappointed. Different enough to feel fresh, but still everything that I look for in a collection from Evenson. I highly recommend you don’t be like me and wait on reading his work. He is at the prime of his talents and may just be the most important horror writer working today.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Interview: Brendan Vidito

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Today I would like to welcome Brendan Vidito to the Plutonian! An exciting new voice on the scene, he has recently dropped his short story collection Nightmares in Ecstasy on an unsuspecting public. Nightmares in Ecstasy is packed full of bizarre sex, mutant body parts, strange encounters, and doomed protagonists. Highly recommended! And Brendan has a new story entitled Walking in Ash that will be coming out in Plutonian Press’s new collection Pluto in Furs in August!

Thank you very much for having me!

In Nightmares in Ecstasy, there is this great mix of surrealism, body horror, and bizarre humor. What genre do you see your work as falling into? Horror? Weird Horror? Bizarro? And where do you see your writing going/evolving?

I think my editors at Clash Books—Christoph Paul and Leza Cantoral—gave the most accurate description of my work. They categorized it as literary hardcore horror fiction, which speaks to my intention to balance somewhat poetic prose with transgressive subject matter. Many of my stories also fit comfortably in the erotic horror mold.
As for where I see my writing going, I noticed that many of my recent stories have dialed back on the sexual themes and so-called “hardcore” elements in favor of a more psychological approach. I’m still very much interested in body horror and surrealism, but I’m also eager to explore different regions of the horror genre. It’s hard to say for sure, but I have a feeling my future works, though linked by some common threads, will each be distinctive in their own way.

I think in the horror genre, it is essential to have a sense of danger. A feeling that you do not know what the writer has in store for you and maybe, just maybe, it will be too much for you to handle. But I think in the current horror scene, that sense of danger is missing. I just can’t see a truly transgressive style of horror thriving in the current environment. But this I feel is one of the things I most enjoyed about Nightmares in Ecstasy. Your collection is full of these kinds of surreal scenarios and nightmarish imagery that challenge the reader. It has this willingness to push at the reader, to say I am going to put down on paper exactly whatever bizarre or pervy idea and run with it. Do you actively try to challenge the reader? Is there ever moments where you think maybe it would be better not to put a certain story you wrote or idea you had out into the world?

This is a huge compliment. Thank you. I’m glad to know my stories are able to pack that transgressive punch. To answer your question, it’s definitely a goal of mine to challenge the reader. Like you said, a sense of danger is essential to crafting an effective and engaging piece of horror fiction. That’s one of the reasons why my stories aren’t exactly set in the “real world”. From the opening paragraphs, reality is already unstable and dreamlike, reinforcing that sense of unpredictability and danger. Above all else, though, I like to challenge myself as a writer. I have a relatively short attention span when it comes to my own work, so I always try to keep myself engaged. And that usually means writing the weirdest, most confrontational shit I can imagine.
As for the second question, despite the extreme nature of my stories, my intention is never simply to shock the reader. There has to be something more going on (subtext, metaphor, social commentary) to justify the transgressive subject matter. I try to make that assessment before I even set the idea down on paper. There’s a difference between provocative art and art that merely provokes, and it’s my goal to, hopefully, create stories that earn a place in the former category.

Your work has this kind of hazy dreamlike feel to it. It’s like having a window into someone’s dreams, unfiltered and raw. Sometimes a writer’s work may act as a kind of archive of their own obsessions and desires. Examples I would use would be, say, JG Ballard’s Crash or Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets. Would you say that is accurate? What is the importance of having this kind of dream life? And what is the importance of a writer sharing their obsessions or dreams with others through their writing?

My writing is more reflective of my obsessions rather than my desires. And those obsessions take the form of fears and anxiety. To be honest, I have a tendency to be paranoid and I often find myself trapped in cycles of catastrophic thinking, where my mind conjures all kinds of awful worst-case scenarios. I blame this on the fact that, when I was fifteen years old, I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus. It’s an autoimmune disorder where your body essentially rebels against you. Throughout this ordeal, I was forced to contend with hallucinations, delusions, migraines, chronic fatigue, joint pain, and a host of major surgeries. For example, I had both my hips replaced before I turned twenty due to some complications with my drug treatment. These experiences undoubtedly left me with a negative perception of my own body. I was basically living through my own personal tale of body horror. And, in many ways, I’ve been obsessively working through those experiences in my writing. I definitely believe in the cathartic potential of horror fiction, and for me that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, even vital, to share your trauma through the veil of storytelling. You never know when your stories might resonate on a subconscious level with a reader who underwent similar experiences.

A lot of your stories blend this kind of surreal body horror with a deep thread of black humor running through it. Can you talk about your use of humor in your work?

Recently, a good friend of mine read through my collection and we sat down for drinks afterward. I asked him what he thought. He paused for a moment, a smirk forming on his lips and said, “I thought it was hilarious. But then again there might be something wrong with me.” I feel like that sentiment perfectly illustrates the function of humor in my stories. It’s meant to be uncomfortable and disarming.
At a glance, the plots of my stories are rather outlandish and ridiculous: a couple becomes physically attached at the waist; a man reaches the height of sexual pleasure when a worm gives him a blowjob; a grieving husband grows a copy of his dead wife using her placenta. And because of the inherent absurdity of these concepts, it’s natural for some humor to leak through the cracks. I also like to think of each story in my collection as a short cult horror film. And, for me, cult cinema is basically a collage of many strange and unorthodox elements. These films consistently demand your attention because there’s always something unexpected happening onscreen, and humor is often one of those elements.

What is it about sex and eroticism that make them such fertile subjects for writers? And why do you think writing or talking about sex and eroticism is so taboo in our culture?

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, sex and eroticism are appealing because they’re such fundamental parts of being human. I like to approach sex in my work the same way other horror writers tackle the idea of a haunted house. You take the family home, which is meant to evoke feelings of comfort and security, and transform it into an unfamiliar and hostile environment. I do the same with sex, an act that’s meant to be fun and passionate, and turn it into something nightmarish. It’s an easy target because most of us, no matter our age, can relate to sex on one level or another. It’s naturally attractive, so when you render it uncanny, it’s easy for readers to sympathize with the experiences of the characters. I guess that’s the purpose of a lot of horror fiction, it’s a deliberate perversion of the familiar.
As for why I think sex is taboo in our culture, I suspect that religion and the conservative nature of western society are two of the biggest culprits.

What would you say are some formative works in literature or film that inspired you or gave you something to model your own work after?

My gateway drug was William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I read it in high school and it changed my perception of what fiction could achieve. I was like: “Oh man, you can do that?” So, in a way, it opened the floodgates for me in terms of creative potential. Around the same time, I started watching the films of Lynch and Cronenberg, the most influential being Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Shivers, and Videodrome. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were an absolute revelation for me. I love his style of writing—the rich, ornate prose—and the almost obsessive level of detail he provides when describing something outside of reality. He’s the Bosch of literature, and no one can match him when it comes to dark fantasy fiction. Kathe Koja’s The Cipher was another formative work, along with the entire output of Ryu Murakami. J.G. Ballard also had a huge impact on me with High Rise, Crash, and Kingdom Come. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the stories of Robert Aickman. I absolutely love ambiguity in horror—the cardinal sin for me in a horror book or movie is when the writer feels the need to over explain the agent of chaos plaguing the characters—and Aickman’s fiction is as ambiguous as it gets. My weirdest inspiration, by far, is the pornographic director Stephen Sayadian, also known as Rinse Dream (I can’t even type that with a straight face). He directed the cult hit Café Flesh and, my personal favorite, Nightdreams. He’s such an oddity in the arena of film as well as pornography, and I admire his audacity to make these weird little fuck films.

When did you start writing? At what point in your life did you decide you were going to take a serious stab at making a name for yourself as a writer?

I started writing when I was eight. My first story was a fifty-page fantasy called The Egg and the Eye. I don’t remember much about it, but I do recall a scene featuring a creature—imagine a cross between a velociraptor and a clown—that stalked the protagonists through the ruin of a theme park. I didn’t start taking a serious jab at writing until 2014. It all started when I signed up for one of John Skipp’s classes on Litreactor. It was called Lean, Mean, Writing Machine. He liked my work—at the time I’d written both Fuck Shock and The Androgyne—and he introduced me to Jack Bantry, the creator of Splatterpunk Zine, who purchased both stories. Not long after that, I met the folks at Clash Books and I’ve been plowing forward ever since.
What kind of effect do you hope your collection Nightmares in Ecstasy has on its readers?

I hope readers are unsettled, disoriented, aroused, disturbed, amused, and ultimately horrified. I’m immensely humbled at the reception it has received so far. It’s always nice to see readers understanding and appreciating your work. And I’m especially grateful that the book isn’t simply being dismissed as a collection of gross-out stories, because there is so much more at play under all that weirdness and viscera.
If you had the power to claim any writers work ( living, dead, current, classic ) and add it to your bibliography as your own, totally free and clear with no one the wiser, what three short stories would you plunder?

The Whimper of Whipped Dogs by Harlan Ellison, In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, and A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.

So what is next? Any new projects coming up you would like to talk about?

I’m currently in the final stages of my first novel. It’s an idea that’s been percolating for over a decade and I’m both nervous and excited to share it with the world. It borrows some familiar elements from Nightmares in Ecstasy—surrealism and body horror—but it also attempts to do something different. I’ve always had a hard time pinning it down. It’s kind of all over the place genre-wise. At its core, though, it’s a social horror story (with elements of the drug novel) that combines real-life tragedy with fictional horror.
I’m also co-editing an anthology called The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg with Sam Richard of Weird Punk Books. We’re accepting submissions until the end of March, so send us your best body horror stories!