horror

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I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.

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Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children

Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.

In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.

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Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928)..
Listen online: Pseudopod #331. (Or read online here.)

Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.

Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,

“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”

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Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329

This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapesWhen the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.

* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.18.2012
Book from: Library. Lovecraft’s works are also available online in various archives, such as hplovecraft.com.

Last Halloween I realized I hadn’t really read any Lovecraft since high school, and set out to rectify that by picking up a couple collections from the library.

This one had a cover that I would class as “moderately metal” –

book wakingup

 

– and contained the following stories: Cool Air, The Hound, The Lurking Fear, The Terrible Old Man, The Unnamable, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, The Outsider, Herbert West – Reanimator, Arthur Jermyn, The Moon-Bog, The Temple, Dagon, From Beyond, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Assorted thoughts on some of those:

  • “The Hound” – Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi suggests that Lovecraft deliberately, (self-)parodically overheated the language in this Gothickest of Gothic tales, wherein two Decadents struck by “devastating ennui” stray from Baudelaire and Huysmans, and into the accursed pages of the Necronomicon. Unsurprisingly, it’s long been one of my favorites. It’s so ripely morbid and hysteria-stricken. I also have a fondness for doggish ghouls, and the one summoned in this story is pretty kingly.

(Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin, who provided a brief foreword for this collection, turned up the decadence of “The Hound” another couple of notches in his amply homoerotic Louisana Gothic retelling “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood,” which I remember reading with fierce delight in high school.)

  • “The Lurking Fear” boasted by far the best and most B-movie-worthy back-of-cover blurb for this collection – “An upstate New York clan degenerates into thunder-crazed mole like creatures with a taste for human flesh[!!!!!!!!!!!!]” – as well as, I think, the highest concentration of of delightfully absurd Lovecraftiness. Behold:

“With what manner of far-reaching tentacles did it prey?”

“Then, as I playfully shook him and turned him around, I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time.”

“But that fright was so mixed with wonder and alluring grotesqueness, that it was almost a pleasant sensation. Sometimes, in the throes of a nightmare when unseen powers whirl one over the roofs of strange dead cities toward the grinning chasm of Nis, it is a relief and even a delight to shriek wildly and throw oneself voluntarily along with the hideous vortex of dream-doom into whatever bottomless gulf may yawn.”

Abysms!!! Dream-doom!!!!!! That Thing about the Gryphons, too, hails from these parts.

  • “The Terrible Old Man” is a fable about the triumph of xenophobia. Hooray! It’s funny that Lovecraft attributes the same kind of thuggish, bestial degeneracy to non-WASP immigrants as he does to the ancient-monster-interbred New Englanders in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and to miscegenators in general (see also “Arthur Jermyn”). One imagines his ideal man as a skinny white fellow valiantly sandwiched between the forces of ancient evil and the rising, filthy tide of new immigrants. The taste of his neuroses – the smell of sheer fearfulness – is frequently almost overwhelming.
  • “The Unnamable” is striking in that Lovecraft seems to be having a conversation with some of his literary detractors in it, yet turns it into an earnest philosophical assertion rather than simply a cheeky comeback, as I’d initially assumed it might be. (Though there is an element of wishfully vengeful thinking to it, too, in the tradition of Poe.)

The narrator is an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft himself, and debates with a friend who “object[ed] to my preoccupation with the mystical and the unexplained; for although believing in the supernatural much more fully than I, he would not admit that it is sufficiently commonplace for literary treatment. … With him all things and feelings had fixed dimensions, properties, causes, and effects; and although he vaguely knew that the mind sometimes holds visions and sensations of far less geometrical, classifiable, and workable nature, he believed himself justified in drawing an arbitrary line and ruling out of court all that cannot be experienced and understood by the average citizen. Besides, he was almost sure that nothing can be really ‘unnamable’. It didn’t sound sensible to him.”

Of course, matters pan out such that the skeptical friend, too, is forced into a sense of cosmic and epistemological abjection. A lot of my thinking about life, the universe, and everything Unnamable has, in fact, been flavored by Lovecraftian cosmicism in the past few years – mostly instigated by Caitlín Kiernan‘s science fiction – so I was inclined to offer plauditory fingersnaps at the end of it.

Go to:
H. P. Lovecraft: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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…of extremely serious writers.

Made my day. Click for mostly deadpan photos of Sontag, Hemingway, Proust, et al. wearing animal costumes, kicking stuff, and hugging Muppets, among other august pursuits.

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Unrelatedly – I’d seen a few of early 20th-century artist Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s tales before, but never all of them in one place. Check out this post at illustration blog 50 Watts to see high-resolution scans of his terrifying, Beardsleyesque, immensely powerful work. Clarke uses black to evoke dread and suspense like no other, and his characters’ Rasputin-like eyes alone are arresting. But my favorite might be this stunning, nearly abstract piece for “A Descent into the Maelström.”

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

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Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

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I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

– E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: April 2011
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is a mostly-rant entry.

From the Magazine of F & SF, April 1987:

  • “Olida,” Bob Leman: Lovecraftian romp with undercurrents of class conflict. A representative of the local (Southern?) gentry faces off against ancient, sluggish Evil in the ancestral home of an unsavory backwoods clan. Both surprisingly creepy and surprisingly funny; the closing note of horror is amusingly prim.
  • “The Thunderer,” Alan Dean Foster: Variation #1098018 on “sneering (or wide-eyed and lib’rul, but still condescending) white people with guns and SCIENCE encounter terrifying supernatural force while venturing into uncharted territory” – in this case the Louisiana bayou – “against the advice of superstitious Native Folk.” Yawn. Useless except as an introduction to the eponymous folkoric figure, which I hadn’t heard of before. There’s probably a TVtrope for this kind of thing, but I’m too lazy to go digging for an exact match.
  • “Agents,” Paul di Filippo: If this is at all representative of di Filippo’s work I can’t say I’m much interested in following up. Characters are hastily erected scaffolds on which he hangs his wannabe-cyber-thriller plot; I found his depiction of a disabled character particularly odious. The speculative elements are consequently the only ones of interest: di Filippo posits an Internet only navigable by means of expensive virtual “agents;” this limit on access to information and computing erects an almost insurmountable barrier between rich and poor, which works well enough nowadays as an allegory for the social effects of il/literacy and access to resources, technological or otherwise. And then a hacked agent is accidentally set loose and ohnoes rogue AI on the run and the story ends with an ellipsis…!

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men

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2010 Shirley Jackson award nominees are out – which I’m selfishly extra-excited to see this year because Kakaner and I have scheduled a week this summer to go gallivanting off to Readercon, where the awards are presented. Awwww yeah. (This will be my first-ever con, for the record.)

Dribs and drabs of thought –

  • More title synchronicity (“A / Dark Matter”) – as with “Palimpsest” for the 2010 Hugo noms.
  • Joey Comeau!! Did not expect to see him there. (He’s better known as the word-provider for A Softer World, though Kakaner and I have been sorta following his standalone prose since he started with Lockpick Pornography back around… 2005?)
  • Clearly I really need to pick up Haunted Legends, though I’ve kind of spiralled out of my horror anthology phase.
  • I also need to look into Karen Joy Fowler at some point. See her name everywhere, know nothing about her work.

– E

Go to:

Shirley Jackson

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Date Read: 11.11.10

Book From: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Ugh. Father and son try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world that is apparently strewn with limbs, covered with ash, and– just in case we didn’t catch it the first 50 times on the first page– one that is repeatedly described as “bleak” and “gray”. The Road was highly unimaginative, riddled with stilted dialogue, contained no real character development, and lacked true substantive merit. Having never read Cormac McCarthy before (my only exposure being a viewing of No Country for Old Men), I was expecting an epic survival story in the ranks of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead or something along the lines of Y: The Last Man. Nothing happens. The writing is wholly unspectacular, and the greatest annoyance was McCarthy’s inability to come up with new phrases to describe (in all fairness) a neverchanging landscape. Particular pet peeves were “smoothed his dirty/filthy hair”, “the landscape was dark/bleak/gray”, “there was ash everywhere”, and ending every. single. conversation with “Okay”. This next bit is mildly spoilerish, but for a novel all about the depravity of mankind once the restraints of society have been lifted, the ending is frustratingly inappropriate– almost a “deus ex machina” resolution. I will, however, grant that The Road was extremely cathartic in that I felt personally choked with raw suffering and despair after only 15 pages. But that alone was definitely not enough to save the book, and it was simply more of the same overbearing emotion for the next 150 pages. In conclusion, hype is a cruel thing and The Road was a waste of time.

Go To:

Cormac McCarthy: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 8.24.10
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

In brief:  ZOMBIE OUTBREAK etc. Global pandemonium ensues.

So I assumed at first that this was in novel form, and was mildly intrigued since I’d never read a novel-length zombie survival story. (ETA: Oh wait, I have: Warm Bodies.) Turns out it’s actually in the format of interviews with various survivors of “World War Z:” soldiers, community leaders, doctors, lone survivalists, a feral child, etc., brought to you by the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. Most of it is schlock, especially any part of it that aspires to any emotional or philosophical depth and the so-called “satire,” which amounts to making very obvious fun of Corrupt Politicians, Shallow American Suburban Housewives, and so on. (Also, I must salute Brooks for his incredibly creative choices in making two of the three or four total Asian characters, respectively, a blind samurai zombie-whacker and a former otaku turned “warrior monk” (barf).)

But what fun schlock it is! The interview format gives Brooks an excuse to play out as many obsessively detailed scenarios as his zombie-nerd brain can churn out, from panics fueled by the failure of a fraudulent zombie-virus vaccine, to reappropriated medieval castles under siege, to all the intricacies of anti-zombie warfare and weapon design. (Possibly my favorite section: a long interview regarding the training of military dogs to track, and sometimes lure, zombies. It tickles the part of me that insisted on using attack dogs when playing Red Alert against my brother.) There are also numerous satisfyingly suspenseful episodes and creepy moments: the narrative of an American soldier who is ejected from a damaged plane and lost, alone, in a zombie-infested forest; the realization of a submarine crew that that odd sound is the clawing of dozens of submerged zombies that have surrounded their vessel. (Brooks’ zombies survive drowning, and can re-reanimate if thawed after being frozen, which leads to the fabulously grisly image of a world with its polar regions abandoned to hordes of half-frozen zombies.)

All in all, World War Z made for some great summer reading. I suppose it’s a little late to be reporting that, but there’s always room for a little brainless (pun?) entertainment. If you’ve ever discussed zombie outbreak contingency plans with friends, you’ll likely enjoy this.

Go to:
Max Brooks: bio and works reviewed

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