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Friday, October 21, 2022

Guest Review: The Whip and the Body by Brian O' Connell


Why do we enjoy horror stories? There have been a million attempted answers to the question, and almost none of them are satisfying—or entirely satisfying, at any rate. A common view holds that exposing ourselves to our deepest fears in a safe and artificial environment helps us prepare ourselves for and cope with them when they arrive in the real world, but this seems to fall apart with even the merest scrutiny: watching Antichrist would not seem to ease the pain of losing a child, for example, nor am I likely to recommend Audition to someone with a fear of needles. Stephen King, who once proposed this view in his 1981 survey of the genre Danse Macabre, has alternately contended that watching horror movies allows us to satiate our deepest, darkest instincts and thus to keep them at bay, but again, this suggestion fails to account for so much; when I walk out of an especially traumatic or upsetting picture, I don’t feel that anything has been “purged” from me, I feel worse. Ligotti perhaps strikes closer to the mark when he argues that horror is the best genre for reflecting the eternal agony and absurdity of the mortal human consciousness, but I don’t think we can assume this holds true for a huge portion of the audience for horror movies, either. In each case the proposed answer seems either too trite, beholden to fundamentally conservative notions of art as serving some redemptive social or psychological function, or too specific, expressing a highly individual philosophy of life and existence that doesn’t adequately account for the genre’s popular appeal.

Without hazarding a guess of my own, I’d like to examine another response to this perennial question, a response suggested by the great horror auteur Mario Bava in his 1963 Gothic chiller The Whip and the Body. Unlike the above proposed explanations, The Whip and the Body almost radically centers a very simple and uncomplicated experience at the locus of the horror genre: that of pleasure. A strange kind of pleasure, to be sure, that derives itself from immersion in negative emotions, from scenes of death and degradation, from abject misery and anguish—but pleasure all the same. In short, the pleasures of masochism, that curious disposition that finds gratification and fulfillment in the darkest of places.

Masochism is, indeed, what this suggestively titled picture has been most remembered for, owing to the numerous cuts demanded upon its release by various censorship boards in multiple nations. Its unsubtle allusions to “degenerations and anomalies of sexual life,” as a Roman court declared in 1963, occasioned the butchering of the 91-minute film into a nearly incomprehensible 77-minute international cut, released in the United States with the fittingly perplexing new title of What!. The furor was mostly due to an early scene in which the female protagonist Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) submits to an erotically charged lashing from her former paramour, the imperious Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee). This brief sequence, in combination with its winking title, accounts for The Whip and the Body’s reputation as a playfully kinky, if otherwise fairly standard and by-the-numbers, Italian Gothic of the early sixties. It’s not received nearly as much discussion as the consensus-held masterpieces of Bava’s oeuvre (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Bay of Blood, and Black Sabbath among them), and when it does, the sexual current of the film is spoken of mostly as if it were a gimmick, teased at in a few superficially titillating scenes but overall subordinate to the director’s stylishly gloomy atmospherics.

It’s true that the slight scenes of masochism in The Whip and the Body are quite tame by today’s standards, hitting nowhere near the level of explicitness or perversity that would come to be regular fare in exploitation films only a few years later. Indeed, following that initial whipping scene, Nevenka’s sexual proclivities are hardly ever addressed—or at least directly represented—again, outside of a few scant moments and mentions. It’s presumably this reticence, or even potential disinterest, in probing the extremes of its implications that has led many critics to ignore or significantly downplay the sexual tensions of the film, instead preferring to situate it within Bava’s overall oeuvre by addressing its familiar motifs. But to do so is to fail to recognize that masochism is integral to the very texture of the film: that in truth it is the film’s principle subject, in ways far more fundamental and interesting than the mere surface play of its meager erotic scenes.

The narrative of The Whip and the Body is very simple. Kurt, the eldest son of the Count Menliff (Gustavo de Nardo), has been exiled for his entanglement with the servant girl Tania, a dismal affair that ended in the girl’s suicide. Kurt had been engaged to the beautiful Nevenka; in his absence, she marries his younger brother Christian (Tony Kendall) instead. One dark night Kurt returns, distressing the entire family, most especially the mother of the servant girl (Harriet Medin), who longs for Kurt’s death. He coldly offers his congratulations to Nevenka and Christian, but he obviously wishes to reassert his place in both the nobility and Nevenka’s heart. On a dusky beach, he reignites their sadomasochistic entanglement, flogging her with a riding crop, reigniting in her a confused disorder of passions she had hoped to leave behind. But that very night, in a highly oblique and mysterious series of events, Kurt is murdered by an unknown culprit. Quite shortly after his death, his ghost begins to stalk the castle, leading Christian to investigate the mysterious circumstances of his murder and ultimately culminating in tragedy for Nevenka.

On the surface, this reads like a stock Gothic plot, with only the barest hint of sexual sleaze to differentiate it from any other number of lurid Italian productions of the day. And it’s true that the plot is probably the very least interesting thing about The Whip and the Body, the element that feels the most underdeveloped and unrealized. At times, when it focuses on Christian’s quest to determine the murderer, it can even feel downright laborious, merely a series of ponderously paced generic machinations to provide a flimsy canvas for Bava’s lush aestheticism. It’s hard to fault those who take issue with the somnambulant slowness of such predictable and well-worn genre clichés. The beauty and subtlety of the visual craft do not extend to the details of the screenplay.

But the film nonetheless finds an emotional and thematic key in the personage of Daliah Lavi. Her performance as Nevenka is so completely absorbing that she even manages to upstage the great Christopher Lee, who by comparison comes off as stodgy and wooden. (In all fairness, the horrendous dubbing endemic to Italian films of the period can’t be helping.) In a production full of cardboard cut-out horror movie stereotypes, the psychological intensity and uneasy ambiguity of Lavi’s role emerges with startling force. It is in her that the film locates its dark core.

For even though it is only overtly addressed in the early scene on the beach, the performance makes it clear that Nevenka’s masochism permeates every aspect of her being. Her reaction to the haunting has a troubling ambivalence unfamiliar to the Gothic heroine of more conventional stories. Lavi intentionally acts in a manner that blurs the distinction between gasps of fright and moans of pleasure; when she shivers, it’s uncertain whether it’s out of fear or exhilaration. Terrified glances become indistinguishable from desirous ones. This is The Whip and the Body’s real surprise: not the shallow tease of skin, but the sense that the horror is not inimical to, and perhaps even willed by, the person who we assumed was its victim.

Consider the film’s most frightening scene, a nocturnal visitation from Menliff’s ghost to Lavi’s bedchamber. After an extended period of excruciating build-up, during which the doorknob gradually turns at the touch of an unseen hand and Menliff’s silhouette (bearing the same riding crop) looms before the window, we are jolted by the terrifying image of his hand slowly extending toward her—toward us—out of the darkness. She screams, but instead of running away, she rolls onto her back, an identical posture to that attitude of eager submission in the beach scene. The hand caresses her cruelly, commandingly, before tearing her nightgown open. These are the gestures of sadomasochistic theater as much as they are thrills in a horror set-piece. The fact that this sequence acts as a double of the earlier erotic encounter on the beach points to the dissolution of boundaries between death and desire, pain and pleasure, horror and fascination that the film will affect even further in subsequent scenes. 

The truth is that Nevenka does seem to feel fear at all in response to Kurt’s return from the grave—or more accurately that her fear is indissoluble from, indeed synonymous with, her happiness. For her, the haunting is not a curse or a nightmare, but a state of sexual fulfillment; the horror movie villain is not an antagonist, but the enforcer of her repressed desires. Over time, we come to see Kurt as servicing Nevenka rather than terrorizing her. Certainly, he seems to at least understand her more than the supposedly virtuous Christian, who Nevenka witnesses engaging in an adulterous rendezvous with another woman. Heartbroken by his hypocrisy as much as his betrayal, she flees to a private room, where Menliff’s specter appears next to her in a mirror. She cowers and falls on the bed, where he whips her once more, more brutal than ever; but despite her theatrical protestations, she is quite discernibly and unequivocally moaning in sexual ecstasy, even smiling. “I’ve come for you,” Menliff tells her, in another telling double entendre. Quite contrary to the menacing threat we might typically interpret in such a statement, the implication is almost poignantly romantic. He has come for her, for her benefit, to serve her, because he knows this will make her happy, happier than she could ever be with the dull and proper Christian. For her dread and pain are inseparable from joy and eroticism: Kurt’s aggressive resurrection, by which he can exert total terror and dominance over her, thus presents the most complete realization of the masochistic scenario possible. And it is my contention that this masochism implicitly doubles and illuminates the pleasure we as audiences often take in horror as a genre: we are drawn to these macabre scenes and ghastly experiences for themselves, not in spite of their negative emotions but because of them, because we find in them a pure and indefinable gratification loosely analogous to the sexual titillation the masochist takes in pain.

For clarity’s sake, it might be worth briefly contrasting this with a diametrically opposed but curiously complementary philosophy explored in another film: Michael Haneke’s infamous home invasion experiment Funny Games (1997). The young torturers in Funny Games have also come “for us”, the audience: the horrific violence they enact upon an unsuspecting bourgeois family is for our entertainment as viewers, an awareness rendered chillingly clear through a number of Brechtian fourth wall breaks. In this way, Haneke aims to expose, explore, and critique what he understands as the audience’s sadistic voyeurism, evidently the underlying fantasy not only of many a horror film but of numerous forms of media consumption relating to images of violence. But what we find in The Whip and the Body seems to suggest that this claim is limited, at least when it comes to the horror genre. Bava instead proposes a masochistic understanding of spectatorship, predicated on identification with the victim rather than with the killer. We come not to terrorize, but to be terrorized; our pleasure is not derived from the thought of inflicting violence on others, but from experiencing the fear and agony of being subjected to violence at a physical remove. We do not align ourselves with the hollow coldness of the sadistic Menliff, who doesn’t even have enough personality to securely latch onto, but with Nevenka’s dark and heated passions, her inexplicable lust for pain. The terror she experiences is a crucial part of the thrill, the central and consensual term both of her unspoken contract with Menliff and our contract as viewers with a filmmaker: she wants this, and so do we.

Viewed through this lens, the whole of Bava’s filmic style takes on an almost subversive new meaning. The creaky trappings of old dark house pictures are reframed as the fetishistic signifiers of a totalized perverse fantasy: the fluttering curtains that bind and strangle Menliff before his death; the sinuous hanging branches that grope and choke the shadowy mise-en-scène of the ancestral vault; the darkened passageways, sliced by slats of icy light, that come to resemble the internal passageways of the human body. The more her madness progresses, the more Nevenka herself seems to merge with this environment, which comes to feel closer to a fearsome emanation of her ghastly desires than anything else. When Christian discovers her swooning in Menliff’s crypt late in the film, the panting sighs she emits as she languishes on the stone floor are more suggestive of necrophiliac euphoria than the shock of a kidnapping victim. The men are baffled, try to impose explanations, but she remains steadfast in her solitary quest. And Bava recognizes that, at least in art, this obscene pursuit has an inevitably suicidal terminus. The ending, which goes so far as to suggest that the ghost may have been a hallucinatory manifestation of Nevenka’s desires the entire time—not that the difference ultimately matters—finds her plunging a dagger into her breast to Christian’s great horror. But this penetration is also a consummation, and she expires with the stamp of contentment on her face. “Let’s hope she’s free of him forever,” Christian mournfully remarks, but the final shot of hellish flames blazing over the smoldering remains of the riding crop suggests that her violent delights may not be extinguished even in death.

An exemplary early sequence, just as the haunting is beginning, shows Nevenka wandering the midnight corridors of the castle, drawn by an unusual sound to a heavy wooden door at the end of the hall. Bava intercuts between shots of the door and ever-intensifying close-ups of Lavi’s face as she approaches. Light and shadow play so delicately across her features that we’re unable to clearly identify her expression. We hear her quick, short pants of agitation, but it is impossible to tell if her mouth is curling in a grimace or a smile, if her widened eyes suggest building anxiety or yearning anticipation. By the time she is turning the handle the tension has reached an almost unbearable pitch, but, as any horror fan knows, the sickening frisson of suspense is also a source of ardent excitement. What lies beyond that door? Her worst nightmare? Or her darkest desire? The singular pleasure of The Whip and the Body is to suggest that there is no difference.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Review: Anders Fager's Swedish Cults

In the next couple of months, I will be featuring books from one of my favorite presses, Valancourt Books. Valancourt is an amazing small press that specializes in reprinting mostly rare or out-of-print genre fiction with a focus on horror. They also publish a wide assortment of classic horror from around the world. They are truly one of the greats working today and are just doing amazing work. Their catalog of obscure classics and offbeat masterpieces is amazing and highly recommended. They have recently published a series of anthologies that attempt to showcase the best in short horror fiction from non English speaking countries, namely The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories vol 1 and 2. And now the success of that series has resulted in some collections of some of those authors' works being translated by Valancourt and seeing release in late 2022. The three anthologies I’m referring to being released are Anders Fager’s Swedish Cults ( from Sweden ), Attila Veres’s The Black Maybe ( from Hungary ), and Luigi Musolino’s A Different Darkness ( from Italy ). All three of these authors made a huge impression with their works in The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories vol 1. And I will be reviewing all three of these as they come out. 

The first book I will be reviewing is Anders Fager’s Swedish Cults. Fager’s story in the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories vol 1, titled Backstairs, shocked me with how good it was. Both a deliciously slow burn and a rare example of erotic horror done correctly. Backstairs is just a complete masterpiece of a short story, with perfect pitch, suspenseful, and an ending that will leave your jaw on the floor.  So I was very excited to see Valancourt was translating and releasing this collection, Fager’s first. A critical success in Europe and almost completely unknown in the United States. It was with huge anticipation that I opened Swedish Cults and dug in, and I am glad to say I was not disappointed. In Swedish cults, Fager writes about our current society with very familiar characters, who end up coming face to face with some kind of hideous evil or some kind of cosmic horror. Some of these stories make explicit references to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, while others are a bit more oblique. I would say the work in Swedish Cults is an intentional homage and update to the Cthulhu Mythos. But Anders makes it personal by going heavy in kink and featuring some very questionable protagonists. Social media-addicted schoolgirls, opportunistic social climbers, and oversexed bosses, all fighting against some nameless cosmic horror. Anders has an amazing grasp on characterization, but he also knows how to create a weird and disturbing atmosphere. In his updating and reinvention of the Cthulhu Mythos, Anders makes it his own, paying homage to past masters while creating his own dark fictive universe. His main characters tend to be selfish, promiscuous females, a breed rarely seen in mass-market paperbacks or even in Lovecraft’s own fiction. His work is kink heavy and often will turn a corner into the cruel and harsh. His female characters almost seem to have been brought out of some underground erotic comic book, so fully sexual and self-actualized. But these girls are far more fleshed out and alive than the cardboard bimbos of comic books. Depraved desires abound in these tales, a sexuality rarely found in horror literature and found in full effect here. Comparisons to Clive Barker and Caitlin Kiernan are fully earned. This book is a refreshing blast of Swedish air, reinvigorating the horror genre while also bringing classic tropes into a new era. 

Cruel, sexual women facing against nameless abominations and body snatching others. Sexuality is celebrated, Ander’s sexual main characters aren't really shown in a negative light, sometimes they courted the darkness and almost get ruined by it, but there is always something in the darkness they want, that they desire, the darkness is never fully unbidden. I would say Fager is very sex-positive in this collection and he makes some really interesting choices on who to feature as main characters for these stories. These characters are dark, they are perverted, they are outside of what society would consider healthy, but each one is happy with themselves and you don’t feel any condensation from the author, more that he sympathizes with them. In most modern horror, the horror comes from some dark place in the psyche of the protagonist. The horror is often directly related to the subconscious of the main character, some buried guilt or unresolved anxiety. In these tales, the characters have darkness in them, but the horrors seem to stem from outside themselves. A different darkness to try to overshadow their own darkness. These are very self-actualized women. The girls are in consensual kink-driven relationships for the most part. One is a trophy wife, not having to work and able to live a life better than most of her peers, and she loves it. One is a boss of an assistant she slaps around and degrades and they both enjoy it. These are not the innocent victims of classic horror literature, nor the good academic men of the classic Lovecraft mode. 

The first story tells of a group of barely legal schoolgirls who like to do schoolgirl things, talk on the phone, post on social media, buy cute outfits, and seduce older men and lure them to their deaths for the pleasure of some ancient monstrosity that lives in the swamplands outside of town. It’s like taking a YA novel about high school girls, perving it up, and then subjecting the girls to Lovecraftian horrors. Another story is about a woman dating a well-to-do businessman who may just be on the move to becoming rich. She desires a man to take care of her, both financially and emotionally,  and her man is more than happy to have such a pretty girl in his life he can take care of. After returning back from a business trip, something has happened to him, something changes, and he comes back sickly and different. When he gets home he lays in bed, wasting away, becoming more and more skeletal each night. But, he now has a raging erection that will not stop, and he now has certain different tastes and certain different desires. The last story is about an artist and gallery owner who is always seeking what’s new and how to maintain being relevant. She has a kinky relationship with her female secretary, with whom she lives a kind of sadomasochistic fantasy life with. Then one day someone enters her life wanting to fund a new art project. Someone rich and wanting something new and transgressive. Something that will break the minds of all involved.

This is a major work, and its translation to English is a major event. This is a must-read for any horror fan. For anyone who is interested in Lovecraft or erotic horror, this is an auto-include on your bookshelf. For fans of writers like Livia Llewellyn, Caitlin Kiernan, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert Bloch. Equal parts erotic, pulpy, bleak, and playful. You will be hearing more from this author.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Review: Pornography for the End of the World by Brendan Vidito


What purpose does horror literature serve? To frighten, to make you turn on the lights and shiver at what could be waiting in the shadows outside? To make you wonder at what sort of strange beings may exist out there in the limitless dark of the universe? To make you look at your own body and feel a sense of vertigo at how alien, how removed you really are from your flesh? Yes and yes and yes. But also horror literature serves as a kind of celebration of the dark, a sort of eroticism of the inhuman and the unnerving. And I do fully mean it when I say eroticism. Are Sacher-Masoch and George Bataille so far removed from H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti? Is the exploration of the strange skeletal womb of the derelict spaceship in Alien so far removed from the exploration of so many spread legs of countless pornographic films? 

And with this, we come to the intertwined connection of eroticism and horror. And we come to Brendan Vidito’s new collection of horror tales aptly named Pornography for the End of the World. Brendan is a up and coming talent in the horror literature scene. This is his second collection after the also aptly named Nightmares in Ecstasy. Brendan is a connoisseur, and his fiction reads as love letters to the genre he is obsessed with: Horror. You can see all kinds of influences that he unabashedly plays with and explores. Silent Hill. Junji Ito. Hellraiser. David Cronenberg. Ramsey Campbell. All fetishistic names and titles in Brendan’s world. In this way, Brendan follows in a tradition established by such writers as Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Karl Edward Wager, in experimenting with forms and genres, paying homage and using influence to further the genre, and most of all showing an absolute delight in the pleasures and possibilities of fantasy and horror. 

Pornography for the End of the World is a collection of what I can only take to be, Brendan's own cherished nightmares. From the body-changing carnal desires of The Chimera Season with its hints of polyamory and sexual swinging, Mother’s Mark with its exploration of objectification of sexual partners, and Walking in Ash with its fantasies of seeing the death of your loved one, Brendan is not afraid to use the horror genre to explore taboo areas of sex and hunger. Also contained in Pornography for the End of the World are tales of a more dark and pessimistic tone. Apate’s Children focuses on abuse and the ramifications of being an abuser and Glitterati Guignol is a survival horror epic of desperation and fear. And I think the two masterpieces of the collection are The Living Column, an absolute masterpiece of cosmic horror, worm-infested body horror, and an ecstatic delving into perversion, and The Human Clay, a surreal mixture of cum soaked technology and aberrant flesh. This is a pornography of horror in all the best ways. Brendan is fetishistic and obsessive with his love of horror, and I think the brave reader will delight in getting lost in the psychosexual landscapes of Pornography for the End of the World. 

Like Max Renn falling through the endless depths of Videodrome, Brendan Vidito takes the reader on his own explorations of hallucinatory and erotic horror. Like Max Renn, you will be confused at first, but then after a while, you will enjoy the pleasures of trying new things. I fully feel that Pornography for the End of the World is one of the best collections to have come out recently and fully expect Brendan to keep cultivating and producing these most elegant and delightful of nightmares. Encore Brendan… encore…

Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: North American Lake Monsters

Let me just say this right up front. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the greatest horror collections ever published. An absolutely unique voice, deeply fleshed-out characters, and plot lines that will both break your heart and shock you. Nathan’s focus is on the regular 9-5 “common person” trying to get by. One of the major themes of the collection is characters who are trying to find some kind of compromise. Things are never gonna be great, but is there a way to make life worth living, and what price do you have to pay? To learn to live with compromise, to take what you can get, to learn to be happy with the only choices you have, to live with the decisions you make, is the crux of many of these tales. Also, a major theme in this collection is failure. When confronted with the supernatural, with malignant evil or forces beyond your control, human beings… fail. They cry and they beg and they run. And somehow Nathan manages to mix such bleak themes with a poetic beauty, these are gorgeous stories of heartbreak and ruin. 

Nathan reminds us that the horror tale is not just one of cultivating fear or providing the reader with a fun rollercoaster ride of adrenaline. Here the horror tale explores the ways we are transformed by the dark, by the strange horrors we can find ourselves lost in. How dark can things get and still be able to find a way to live with it. There is a strong feeling of despair to these stories, things will never be what you had hoped they would be. His writing is a prose of pain, of emotion. Of rending hearts and silent cries alone in the night. His mastery of character is so rare in horror fiction. Breaking from the tradition of Lovecraft and Ligotti, his stories revolve around the characters. They are absolutely real, as you read his work you feel like one of these characters could have been someone you worked with or had talked to briefly at the bus stop. 

Nathan is a master of the elliptical tale. His stories in this are never what you think they will be about from a brief plot description or the beginning pages of the tale. He is not interested much in big exciting set pieces here. Here he delves into the most private thoughts of his characters, the secrets that they will tell no one, the shames and the regrets that fester in their soul. These are explorations of humanity, raw and unfiltered. You see yourself, in your most private and exposed moments here, facing the dark and the uncertainty of existence. Because you become so connected to the characters, because you understand their plight, the horrors in the tales are just that much more hard-hitting.

Some brief descriptions of the tales contained within:

You Go Where It Takes You. The perfect story to open up the collection on. And also one of the rare stories that actually emotionally messed me up when I finished it. It is a real sucker punch to the face. Absolutely heartbreaking and disturbing in equal measure. A strange man walks into a single mom’s life. He meets her at her waitress job at this run-down diner. This story of the vortex of darkness one can find oneself in, brought into your life by some strange yet intriguing man who promises to help you, reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story, but with a denouncement so bleak that Bradbury wouldn't have dared. When life has failed you, will you take a chance at a new beginning, no matter what the cost? 

Wild Acre. A tale of beasts and how we live with traumatic events we are forced to live through and how they affect us in the long term. When our lives are on the line, when our friends are in danger, how will we react? And is surviving no matter what worth it?

S.S. A young man trapped in a life of embarrassment and despair. When he sees a lifeline out, a monstrous path he could take, but one that is better than the life he is living now, is it right to take that path? A tale that is genius in the way it shifts in and out from harsh realism to subtle and surreal dream imagery

The Crevasse. A bleak tale set in Antarctica. An expedition team has to bring an injured man back to basecamp, but then encounter a strange hole in the ice, a hole that has held a secret for eons. The sounds of whimpering dogs lost in the eternal night. A homage to classic cosmic horror tales but one only Ballingrud could have written.

Monsters of Heaven. A tale of strange beings falling from the sky. Beings strange, silent, and... sexual. People kidnap these things, injured from their descent from the sky, and hide them in their homes. Some people even call these alien things... "angels".

Sunbleached. The lure of the dark and seductive and the price you pay when you get what you want. A classic vampire story told in a unique way.

North American Lake Monsters. We kill what we don’t understand. And sometimes we are the monsters of the story. A mood piece and an examination of how we react to the strangeness of our lives.

The Way Station. We live lives unknowable to others. And our private hurts and fears can shape our world in very real ways. 

The Good Husband. A tale that shows how bleak a horror story can be. It reminds me a lot of Bob Clark’s film Deathdream. Maybe a hint of Eyes Without A Face? A story that does not look away from pain but explores it to its limit. A real test of endurance, how much misery can a reader handle?

The world we inhabit is a bleak one. A vast infinite black emptiness hangs over our heads, and we scavenge on this cold dark earth for whatever pleasures we can grab before we die. But all the same, we try to love, to give, to nurture, to try to hang on to some small glimmer of hope. Even in the darkest of times. What hope can be born from the repulsive, the abhorrent? What faith can we find in this weak and failing flesh? What compromises must we make and what long-standing dreams must we leave behind to find some kind of happiness? These are the questions Nathan’s stories in North American Lake Monsters ask. His monsters are beautiful in their cruelty and loving in their malice. They represent something beyond the day-to-day life, the banal work days and lonely nights. They represent mystery and transgression. Something to long for and desire even as it ruins you. Smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky, desiring the shadowy and the inhuman, the poisonous things we do to make life livable. These beautifully rendered visions of a compromised hope, of a longing for more in a world of dirt and failure. There is an honesty to horror, an acknowledgment that the world is a harsh, cruel, and bizarrely unknowable place. Yet beauty can still be found. And hope, even in the darkest of places.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Review: Men

Men, directed by Alex Garland, seemingly came out of nowhere, a bit of a teaser trailer but that’s it really for promotion. His previous films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, showed promise as a director of real vision, an intellectual director with things to say. And now his new film Men is out, and I think with Men he has delivered his most personal and most accomplished film yet. There are also virtuoso acting performances from Jessie Buckley playing Harper and Rory Kinnear playing every man in the film, and a genius soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The film centers on Harper, a woman hurting from a recent disastrous breakup with her husband. He threatens to kill himself after she tells him she wants a divorce. He then seemingly falls ( he may have purposely jumped ) out of a window above her apartment, landing on a fence, splitting his arm in two, and bleeds to death right there on the sidewalk. An emotionally wounded Harper rents a house in a small out of the way village to get some air and some mental space. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by a vast forest and beautiful countryside. But while she is trying to get some distance from the trauma of the breakup she keeps running into these strange random men. They start off lurking around her, in the background, but then they start to assert themselves more and more into her life. They seem to hold some kind of bias against her, they all want to either want to degrade her or imply that she was at fault for her ex-husband's death, even though she has never met them before and they really shouldn’t know anything about her. They range from openly accusatory, to insultingly dismissive of her. And the threat of the men just keeps increasing to the point of them stalking her at her house and then trying to break in. The first half of the film is a masterwork of tension and slow-building dread. Then in the second half, the film escalates into just insane body horror and maybe even a nebulous undercurrent of cosmic horror. A lot of films falter at such a transition but the film’s logic is solid and earns it. What follows is a closer look at the film and does contain spoilers. 

All the men in the film are played by Rory Kinnear, all of them insidiously threatening to Harper and somehow all related in their disdain of her. Having the same actor play all the men certainly adds a subtle hallucinatory quality to the film that just increases its nightmarish feeling. From implying that she should have just given her ex-husband a chance to apologize after he was physically abusive to her and, that it may in fact have been her fault he died, to policemen dismissing her as paranoid when she complains of a naked man stalking her outside her rental. The men are an utter delirium of toxic masculinity. Towards the end they start to seem to have a joint purpose and even share the same wound after Harper cuts one down the length of its arm, splitting the arm in two, which is also the same type of wound her ex-husband died from. All the scenes of the men subjecting themselves on Harper have this creeping intensity and are just dread-inducing sequences. 

The film overtly is about the horrors of relationships and desire, after all, what is more strange than the person sleeping in bed with you? Seemingly a nightmare of brutish men that seek to control and manipulate in the name of love. While toxic masculinity is one of the main themes of the film there is an undercurrent of a differing interpretation. There are underlying hints, easily missed, that there may be another side to the story. Is Harper as innocent as she seems? Between subtle lies she tells to the pointed avoidance of any details of her and her husband's relationship before the breakup, the film pointedly does not fully back up the men as monsters thread, not fully anyway. What if the recurring men of the title actually are externalized figures of her subconscious? The film is both so allusive with its intentions and so over the top with its aggressive imagery you could make the case that maybe Harper is an unreliable narrator and the film is shown from some dark side of her perspective. Maybe she had actually wanted her ex-husband to die and the film is a projection of her tormented psyche? If you said that the film is actually about Harper in some way intentionally killing her husband, and the film centers on her fleeing from the externalized regret and guilt, personified as the monstrous, nothing about the film would have to be changed. The film allows both a reading of a woman tormented by a corrupting masculine force, but also hints that a woman's sexuality can torment and manipulate a man, to the brink of destruction and breakdown. Where the film shines is in its examination of human relationships and interactions, at their most nightmarish, and is brave enough to be unsparing in its focus. 

At the end, the men are shown to actually be pathetic and degraded, pleading with Harper to take him/it back. The men/thing seems powerless before her sexuality. The men develop female sex organs and start birthing and rebirthing themselves over and over. All the while begging for her to accept it back into her life. A filmic moment as powerful as similar scenes in Society and Eraserhead, likewise delving deep into a Beckettian horror of the body and its functions. The ending is just genius filmmaking, in the best traditions of surrealist horror, searing images into your brain that will live in your nightmares for years. Then the film ends on this extremely ambiguous note. Does Harper take him back? Or does she kill him and end this horror? The film refuses to say. It may read as a transgressive subversion of the “final girl” trope. You expect a badass girl power moment in the end, for the disgusting and abusive men to be defeated by a justified and therapeutic act of vengeance from Harper. But that is not what we get, which leaves one in a state of confusion. Is this film not what we were led to believe? Men ends not in predictable stereotypical cliches but in utter mystery.

Men stands as a new classic of horror cinema. A part of a new canon of classics alongside such films as Under the Skin, The Witch, Hereditary, The Untamed, Evolution, and The Neon Demon. With themes of dehumanization, the breakdown of a classical sense of reality, the collapse of the family unit, a revitalized focus on the female protagonist alongside the failure of the male hero, and a sense of an unrelenting future coming of failure and ruin. These films guide us into this strange new century as guideposts of where we are at and examinations of what is to come. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Review: Richard Gavin's Grotesquerie

What does grotesque mean? A radical departure from the natural, the expected, or the typical. Absurdly incongruous. Fanciful, bizarre. In Richard Gavin’s new collection Grotesquerie, the book certainly lives up to the name. In this collection Gavin plunges deep into grotesquery, there is a radical deformation of reality in each story. He sets out to corrupt our safe worldview in each story, every time in new and ever more unsettling ways. Characters find out how close pure nightmare is to their day-to-day lives, one wrong step, one horrible decision, meeting the wrong person, and you may wind up in this place of profound dark reality. These are diseased stories, some kind of decay slowly, subtly rising up and by the end, the rot has completely taken over. I would also say this is Gavin at his most murky, and by that I mean these stories feel like drowning in some fetid swamp, water black with lichen and fungus, a swamp that has never seen the light from the sun. Meanings are vague and the stories kind of shift around in unexpected ways. These stories are abstract, diseased, surreal, and disturbing. This collection finds Gavin really going for the throat of his readers, these stories are meant to disturb and to make the reader uneasy. While in past collections his influences may have been more Blackwood and Machen, in this one his influences seem to be more Ligotti and Aickman, There is an insidious underside to these tales. A willful descent into delirium. Desired dooms and erotic anxiety. There is a sexual edge to some of these stories, a descent into perversity and the darker realms of fetish. This is certainly a more edgy Gavin, more of a drive to transgression and perversity than we are used to seeing from him. Grotesquerie may be his most horrific collection yet. 

These are tales with ideas behind them, this is intellectual horror in the best of ways. Gavin is exploring a certain worldview. Maybe he is also seeking a kind of salvation in darkness? His dedication to craft and his love for the genre is apparent in each of these tales. What his characters endure, live through, and survive may be dark and horrendous but there is revelation there for those who seek it. There are lessons to be learned, wherever in the lowest pits of hell or in the darkest of abysses, there is knowledge waiting for the adventurous. Gavin is one of the great names in horror fiction today, an absolute master of the literature and a student of the field. And Grotesquerie stands as one of the great works of our era. Here I will touch a little on some of my favorite works of the collection:

Banishments: which opens the collection, is a legitimate descent into nightmare. As the tale goes on it goes deeper and more intently into the realm of the surreal and the nebulous. This story never allows you to gain your footing and just when you think you know where the story is heading, Gavin twists the narrative again, leaving you lost in shadow and darkness. This is a tale of a coffin. A coffin containing a decayed and diseased form floating in a post-disaster flooded river.. The coffin lands on the black earth. The inverse of birth. A strange new kind of emergence presents itself. 

Neithernor: One of the weirdest stories I have ever read. A tale of a man looking for a present for his wife and the strange art… and artist he discovers. Written for a Robert Aickman tribute anthology, this tale shares Aickman’s reluctance to make his subject matter obvious while also taking Aickman’s subtle perversities and amping them up. One of the things the stories delight in, in Grotesque, is leaving the reader in darkness and confusion by the end, and this tale shares that perversity. 

Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty: an absolutely delicious tale of torture devices, bondage and discipline, and desperation, all told in a subdued way, undercutting the debased subject matter. A rare horror tale that actually succeeded in pushing the edge and is genuinely shocking. This story stands out from the collection also for being a non-supernatural tale, almost a conte cruel of fetishistic dark erotica. 

After the Final: One of the greatest “tribute” stories I have ever read. This one was written for the Grimscribe’s Puppets anthology dedicated to the master of the horror tale, Thomas Ligotti. And I would be hard-pressed to think of another tale that so delves into a writer's work and works as this obsessive and dark love letter to the work of Ligotti. Full of subtle homages and directly engaging with many of the themes you would find in Ligotti’s work, Gavin is obviously a student and a fan of his and you can tell with the love and the care that went into crafting this tale. Just an amazing story.

The Sullied Plane: Horror erotica at its finest. Imagine Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, in its sexual frankness, meets Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, in its atmosphere of weird tentacled beings, things made of shadow, lurking just out of sight… but told in a whisper. Strange and secret couplings may or may not be happening behind the scenes of a family New Year's Eve party. 

Crawl Space Oracle: A tale of users and being used. Also, there is a slight hint of cuckoldry hidden in the background. A tale of a woman who connects with an old friend to try to get some financial advice, only to have the tables turned and for her to be the one to be of use. 

I highly recommend Grotesquerie to anyone who loves great horror fiction. Grotesquerie both pays homage to the long tradition of horror fiction and blazes new trails, creates new forms and new directions for horror to take. I would say this volume stands with the best works to have come out in this new era of horror. Grotesquerie, alongside Brian Evenson’s The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, Adam Nevill’s Wyrd and Other Derelections, Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark, and Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, all stand as a new corpus of horror literature for the 21st century. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Guest review: Antichrist by Brian O' Connell

      If we are to believe its director, the 2009 horror film Antichrist arose from the heavy miasma of a profound, debilitating depression. “There was no pleasure in doing this film,” he admits in an interview shortly following the film’s scandalous debut at Cannes. He speaks of having to force himself to write ten pages every day just to complete the project, of filming at half his ordinary capacity, of the whole experience being “a kind of hell”. And yet, he insists, the film is by far his “most important”, “made from what I would call a pure heart”. The apparent significance of this deeply personal background for him encourages an understanding of the film as atypically candid, indeed as confessional, as, in a word, honest.

Of course, there has long been a widespread, not entirely unjustified reluctance to take Lars von Trier at his word. His nearly thirty-year reputation as, variously, malevolent prankster, canny showman, sadistic misogynist, wannabe Nazi, visionary genius, shallow provocateur, and above all else—in an endlessly, tediously re-invoked cliché—cinematic “enfant terrible” has more than invited a certain degree of skepticism (to say the very least) as regards his intentions and means of achieving them. Antichrist has stoked this sort of controversy perhaps more than any of his other films. Featuring (we may as well get these things out of the way now) an infamous CGI fox who intones pronouncements of doom, explicit shots of unsimulated penetration and fake blood spurting out of a cock, and, of course, what else, that ghastly, wince-inducing close-up of a self-performed clitorectomy responsible for one of the most stunned silences in Cannes history, the film offers a veritable buffet of what many consider to be the very worst tendencies in von Trier’s filmography. Moreover, the central thematic strand of Antichrist’s second-half—an eyebrow-raising evocation of the age-old association between the feminine and the Satanic—openly courts the accusations of misogyny that have dogged von Trier since his 1996 melodrama Breaking the Waves. Was this not yet another cynical charade, a calculated provocation, even, to quote British TERF Julie Bindel, “the sickest general release in the history of cinema”?

Well. Without personally offering an overall verdict on von Trier in general—an issue on which, both as a great admirer of his movies and an individual troubled by his worst behaviors and tendencies, I remain as divided as anyone else—I would like to venture that, at least with this film, he has been almost totally sincere. There’s no doubt the man is a troll, and even Antichrist is laced with a tremendous amount of sneering irony and black humor, but watching the film, his insistence that it was created in a place of genuine suffering and apathy rings true. For better or worse, the fogginess of Antichrist’s narrative, its ambiguous characterizations and sometimes inscrutable abstractions, the knotty tangle of troubling themes, repulsive imagery, and leaden, joyless despair with which every moment is weighted: all resonate with the absolutely draining and abject experience of serious depression, regardless of whether it makes compelling viewing or not. And feminist or anti-feminist, it’s fairly obvious that the mingled anxiety about and fascination with female sexuality and violence against women on display here is clearly something extremely personal to von Trier. Antichrist is one big, disgusting, indigestible outpouring of its filmmaker’s many hang-ups and neuroses, so naked and unprocessed that it’s almost unintelligible: and consequently, depending on your personal position, is either intolerable or utterly fascinating.

         For a tale so steeped in ugliness, the film opens with an astonishing flourish of visual beauty. Like its sister sequence in the subsequent Melancholia, the prologue to Antichrist presents a painstaking sequence of slow-motion images that evoke, to borrow a phrase from critic Michael Sicinski, “the exquisite, agonizing beauty of stasis”. Facing each other in the shower, the all-too self-consciously archetypal She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) initiate a frenzy of copulation drained of its delirium by the solemnity with which it is shot. The molasses-slow movements and luminous black-and-white simultaneously evoke a sort of sustained paradisiacal ecstasy and an atmosphere of morbid, icy decay, nowhere more apparent than in the close-ups of Gainsbourg, whose wracked expressions convey a marked ambiguity between pleasure and pain. The couple fucks in a matrix of water and snow, the various scenographic accouterments (first a heater, then a washing machine, further on a tumbling glass bottle) acquiring a slightly absurd tinge as the sequence progresses. These devices serve a twofold purpose: to conjure an almost tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of soon-to-be-broken cosmic harmony, and to succinctly establish the domestic sphere which will prove to serve as the locus of horror and cruelty.

As He and She tumble from room to room, their erotic bliss seemingly unbound by rules of spatial consistency, their toddler Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm) wanders from his pen, observing his parents’ copulation with an unsettlingly wry smile on his face. Shortly thereafter he is standing before the bright open window, seemingly drawn forward by flakes drifted in from the wind; inevitably, he slips and falls, his terminal drop intercut with a close-up of his mother as her head kicks back in orgasm. The body hits the pavement, kicking up a funereal cloud of snow; her eyes gleam in release; the washing machine’s cycle finishes, signaling the end of this exquisite aestheticism and expelling us into the horrors of the narrative proper.

What does this alluring, impossibly macabre opening offer us? Grief, yes (probably the defining element Antichrist’s many “elevated horror” descendants have borrowed from it), but also the seductive danger of the natural world, the erotic thrill of death, and a perverse portrait of the nuclear family. There is, moreover, a gruesomely literalized allusion to the Biblical Fall of Man: and in Nic himself, one might well perceive the Antichrist of the movie’s title, an innocent son whose death brings about utter damnation and disaster instead of salvation.

These five strands—grief, nature, sex, gender, and religion—become intertwined in maddeningly complicated and often outright baffling ways throughout the subsequent scenes. It’s this murky, portentous meshing of unpleasant themes and ideas (which, I maintain, rings true to the muddled, gloomy mindset induced by depression) that has led some to dismiss Antichrist as incoherent. But to search for one clear throughline or allegory here is a mistake. Antichrist is instead a remarkably open and wide-ranging text, untied to any one single narrative or thematic strain: a horror movie whose simple set-up allows its filmmaker to hold a nightmarish mirror up to all manner of cultural myth-making surrounding human relationships and our place in the world.


        Take the words of the aforementioned talking fox as its basic thesis. “Chaos reigns,” it tells Dafoe, who has happened upon it consuming its own entrails. It’s the ultimate image of the film’s understanding of nature: a sadomasochistic hellscape ruled by a suicidal law of self-cannibalization. von Trier drives home this idea repeatedly in some of the most unsettling images in his entire oeuvre. There is the fawn with a stillborn fetus dangling from its sex, the baby bird that tumbles out of a nest only to be swarmed by ants, the acorns that ceaselessly fall on the roof of the cabin in an eerie echo of Nic’s death. “Now I heard what I couldn’t hear before,” says She of their pitiless nocturnal rhythm. “The cry of all the things that are to die.” Contrary to its (increasingly dwindling) popular conception as a self-sustaining ecosystem, nature in Antichrist is bent on a perpetual destruction that turns ever more inward, devouring its young, mutilating itself. It’s a law the characters themselves will eventually internalize as their sex grows more brutal and their acts more violent: a backdrop against which the gruesome destruction of their genitals, organs of pleasure and propagation, seems an almost obvious final consequence of a world in which birth only means death.

He seems to be disturbed less by the fox’s unnatural capacity for speech and more by the import of his words. He is, after all, a psychologist, a rationalist, a bastion of civilization in the primeval hell he has confidently taken his wife to. But just what civilization, what rational order is he working to defend? We see glimpses in the film’s opening act, before the couple arrives in the woodland that will prove the site of their annihilation. Taking his wife out of the care of medical professionals (a scene punctuated by a telling close-up of severed plant roots in a vase of water), arrogantly confident in his own ability to treat her without medication, we observe the mechanics of a callous and heartless oppression masquerading as marital love and care. During one of her early panic attacks, when she fumbles for sex in an attempt to escape her terror, he pushes her away, then clamps his hand over her mouth and places his heavy thigh over her stomach. His words are in the soothing, even tone of a therapist, but his body language emphasizes a violent domination. The implication is even more explicit in the sequence following her halfhearted suicide attempt over a toilet bowl, following which he drags her away and immediately starts fucking her on their bed, a cruel reversal of her desire in the preceding scene, and a contemporary resurrection of the horrific psychiatric history of inducing orgasms in mentally ill or “hysterical” women. Wheezing in agony, she vanishes beneath his heavy body, his pale buttocks thrusting into her in as unpleasant a depiction of heterosexual intercourse as I’ve yet seen in cinema.

The cruelty is not only physical but psychological. Repressing his own grief—we only see it visibly once, in the tears on his face at the funeral—he trivializes his wife’s by treating it in the cold, impersonal language of a scientist. She observes, in one of the film’s more melodramatic sequences, that he has only ever interested her as a specimen, that he is indifferent to his child’s death. He doesn’t respond to these provocations, his face composed and impassive, masking his feelings with a supposed neutrality that, in truth, is simple inhumanity. To cap it off, in a remark that seems to have been the most personally hurtful to her, She accuses him of having said, or at least implied, that the subject of her abandoned thesis was “glib”. Though he denies the accusation and the question is never returned to, his indifference and dismissal will give rise to his own undoing.

        The subject of that thesis, which we don’t find out until a marvelously-constructed “discovery in the attic” sequence in the third chapter, lays bare what is really at stake in his conception of civilization. The “civilizing”, “rationalizing” arrogance of patriarchal society has resulted in nothing but mounds of murdered women: a legacy documented in the innumerable woodcuts of witch burnings pasted all over her research space, and summed up by She in the simple, awful word gynocide. It becomes clear that He is a mere contemporary extension of this order, one which violently subjugates women to their role as wives and mothers and exterminates any deviation. The domestic paradise of the prologue becomes loaded with sinister meanings, an entire machinery of oppression manifested in the banal appliances of the household. We understand that She has lived with an awareness of, and possibly experienced (if only psychologically), the violence of this tradition long before her son’s birth. She is afraid of her husband—an abject terror hauntingly expressed in the film’s most iconic image, when He and She have sex at the base of a tree whose roots intertwine with pale, cadaverous hands. Here is the most succinct and searing illustration of the film’s understanding of the heterosexual relationship under patriarchy: it is to be fucked atop a mountain of corpses. And if her response is madness, is the deformation and possible murder of her child, it is only a product of the impossible double-bind between her existence as an individual (who loves and truly grieves her son) and her existence as “Woman” (with the consequent awareness of both her son and her husband as emblems of the patriarchal regime that tortures her). Torn between guilt, desire, rage, and fear, it is no wonder (by allegorical logic, anyway) that she ultimately self-destructs and conforms to history’s ghastly portrait of femininity, a hysterical, murderous witch who enacts a sexual terrorism upon the illusory order of Man.

It’s a doomed endeavor, of course. At the climax of the film, He overcomes his pain and strangles her against the wall of the cabin. The outcome is obvious from the moment he wraps his hands against her neck, and after only a brief, bitter struggle, She is finished. Watching this scene with a group, I was horrified to hear one of my male friends sighing with relief. It would seem that, by appealing to the outrageous, cartoonish violence of misogynistic stereotypes, von Trier has successfully created a scenario that can bait a male audience member into cheering on the murder of a woman. It’s a trap, of course. For what we witness is not so much the victory of one man over the forces that would destroy him as the brutal, barbaric reassertion of a rule infinitely more destructive and evil than anything She could manage individually. He burns her corpse like a witch’s on a stake, and the earth dissolves to reveal a multitude of naked bodies beneath the soil, the victims of a trans-historical campaign of murder in which She is now only one inconsequential chapter. The epilogue returns to the glowing black-and-white of the prologue, finding the man picking berries at the top of a great hill, feeding off the nature he strives to destroy. But his security is offset by what is the perhaps most intensely surreal stroke in a film full of them: the sight of thousands of faceless women, approaching from all sides, converging upon him. They are the manifestation of the sorrow, the pain, the fury of the many millions of women subjected to the brutal dominance of male hegemony over the centuries. It’s an image that’s terrifying, overpoweringly emotional, and weirdly funny in equal measure, a perfect summation of the film’s bizarre tonal contortions as well as its thematic concerns.

Against my better judgment, I have attempted to extract one possible reading of Antichrist in this piece. But I wish to stress how much of this film eludes my language—a difficulty that should be clear given how much of it I haven’t talked about—and how little it can be domesticated into a clear-cut metaphor for one thing or the other (least of all a cogent commentary on gender relations!). Most of its strength derives from its lack of clarity, its unpredictable digressions, and the troubling sense that it may be leading us toward some very dark territories indeed. Are we seriously being asked to contemplate the idea that female sexuality is evil? That nature itself is evil? That men and women are locked in an eternal, foredoomed battle? You could think about these questions for hours if you’re so inclined, and they certainly represent some of the more complex territory horror films are capable of exploring (though they’re usually all too reticent to: those descendants I mentioned earlier mostly lack even a fraction of this film’s bravery and weirdness), besides simply being part and parcel of the guaranteed Lars provocation package. But they’re ultimately less important than the rattle of those acorns on the roof, the fog that rolls across the dirt, the gothic glow of the camerawork, the morbid intensity of both Gainsbourg and Dafoe as they each move toward a confrontation with their worst selves. Fittingly for a project conceived out of depression, Antichrist first and foremost functions as an emotional (and sickeningly visceral) experience rather than one to be definitively understood or broken down. By that metric, it is one of the most remarkably effective and profound horror films I’ve ever seen.

Stepping back from all of the analyses, I’m attracted to the simplicity of Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic response, a response that hinged upon the simple idea, scrapped from von Trier’s original screenplay, of an earth created by the Devil instead of God. It is a “mirror world”, a world in which everything is wrong. A paradise that is hell. Sex that births death. Nature that destroys. Love that is hate. A lonely, disordered wasteland of pain, marked solely by agony and futility, through which Man and Woman wander burdened by the damnation of their knowledge, one an impotent monster of unfeeling sterility, the other a nightmarish wellspring of frenzied sexuality and despair. Trapped forever in the torment of their accursed Eden: a new creation myth for Satan’s church.