REEL DARK in the Spotlight

Have you ever been afraid of the movies? Not afraid AT the movies–any good horror film should give you chills–but scared that the movies themselves could somehow darken your world?

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Get ready to be shocked out of your seat. After a limited release in 2015, Reel Dark is back in 2016 with this stunning new cover by Aaron Drown Design and two new tales, Michael West’s sojourn into apocalyptic soundscapes “Ave Satani” and Alexander S. Brown’s love-song to late-night horror-hosts “Grotessa.” In all, it’s a collection of twenty authors who in prose and poetry combine elements from across genres–horror, sci-fi, and noir, of course, but also the western, comedy, and others–in order to show us the mayhem the movies might work on the world.

Here’s the lineup:

Russ Bickerstaff, “24 per second: Persistence of Fission”

Hal Bodner, “Whatever Happened to Peggy… Who?”

Alexander S. Brown, “Grotessa”

James Chambers, “The Monster with My Fist for Its Head”

L. Andrew Cooper, “Leer Reel”

James Dorr, “Marcie and Her Sisters”

Sean Eads, “The Dreamist”

JG Faherty, “Things Forgotten”

Amy Grech, “Dead Eye”

Jude-Marie Green, “The Queen of the Death Scenes”

Karen Head, “Amnesia”

Jay Seate, “It’s a Wrap”

Caroline Shriner-Wunn, “Confessions of a Lady of a Certain Age” and more poetry throughout the book!

Rose Streif, “Caligarisme”

Sean Taylor, “And So She Asked Again,”

Pamela Turner, “Rival”

Jason S. Walters, “Low Midnight”

Mike Watt, “Copper Slips Between the Frames”

Michael West, “Ave Satani”

Jay Wilburn, “Cigarette Burns”

This house makes strange noises

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This house makes strange noises when I’m alone,

And when the wind blows it chills skin and bone.

I may be six-one with Y chromosome;

That won’t stop murder from haunting my home.

Big men, too, are easy prey when they’re prone.

 

An old foundation will happen to groan

But not with such purpose, not at a drone,

Not as if counting by some metronome:

This house makes strange noises.

 

I can’t escape the dark, nor the unknown,

Nor the ways loneliness the senses hone

As through my memory harsh spirits comb

Brandishing sins with hot vengeful aplomb,

Calling to me with my flesh to atone—

This house makes strange noises.

Trouble Where Arthouse Meets Megaplex

Recent articles have lauded the movie The Witch for flying from the festival circuit to grace the mainstream’s megaplexes with its arthouse horror presence. I’m a snob about snobbery: while some arthouse fare is brilliant, a lot of it is pretentious crap. Please don’t misunderstand me. A lot of films in general are crap. I just prefer crap to be unpretentious. Otherwise, arthouse films have as much of a chance at being brilliant as other kinds of films, and that’s what irks me about critics getting in a twist over The Witch because it’s an arthouse film errantly appearing at a theater near you. The unstated assumption is that because of its origins, it has a better chance of being brilliant, and what’s more, there’s something unusual about brilliance being near you.

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largeThis blog isn’t about The Witch, so before I go on: The Witch is good, not particularly pretentious and only a little artsy. Not in my top five similarly-themed films (maybe Suspiria, Antichrist, Haxan, Inferno, Rosemary’s Baby); perhaps top ten.

So then, I’m talking about that familiar opposition between arthouse and mainstream, an opposition that usually valorizes the arthouse as good for you and therefore good. Also, there’s a sense that arthouse is not your house, at least if “you” are of the masses. Art opposes product, mass production and mass consumption, things for and by the masses. Art is, in a word, elite, and therefore it stinks of elitism. Art is art in part because it excludes masses.

But wait! Here’s the problem. Art comes from an art-ist. It comes from an individual, whereas mass production comes from a production company, a corporation. By opposing product, art also opposes the economy of scale that makes masses faceless.

I am not interested in theorizing art or artists here, but I am interested in a difficulty I feel, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling, when I try to take a stand against arthouse snobs. “Arthouse” seems anti-democratic because it’s exclusive, but it seems democratic because it’s humanizing.

First, I’ve got to say that people who think indie/arthouse/festival-born films are automatically better than big-production studio pedigrees likely have not been to many film festivals. Imagine that actor you hate—you know the one—who seems to have a new movie out every time you turn around. Now imagine you’ve gone into one of that actor’s movies, except it’s not that actor, it’s someone just as annoying who reminds you of him, and no one else in the movie can act, either, and the sets are really fake, and the camera is off-center. And you’ve just noticed that one of the other leads is in the theater sitting next to you. And your seat is really uncomfortable. And the sound is a little tinny. No, not all, not even most indie/arthouse/festival movies are like that. But some of them are.

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However, then you go next door, and you see this film directed by this woman you’ve never heard of starring this other guy who’s totally awesome with this girl who’s clearly going to be a star, and you think you should be going to film festivals every weekend. You settle in and have your brain massaged for about two hours, and when you’re done you feel edified and refreshed, the intellectual version of someone in a soft drink commercial, colored by your emotion of choice: fear, longing, joy, passion, sadness, rage. Your average indie/arthouse/festival experience doesn’t offer very many chances of getting off like that, but it might offer a few.

Sometimes the goods get you, but sometimes you do get the goods. Spitting on the arthouse snobs may reject one form of elitism, but too-copious spitting risks rejecting artists who do good work, artists who can’t help that ultimately, their work, too, has become a differently-branded form of product that carries its own advantages and disadvantages in different markets. Tempting as rough shaming may be, we must work to educate the ignorant snobs who think the origin of a thing (or a person) necessarily relates to its quality. Yes, some firmness of hand may at times keep them from forcing terrible films and the like down our throats. Otherwise, they can help to promote good ones, such as The Witch (and the others on my list of witch-y favorites) and study hard to learn that the claim to be acclaimed need not be self-fulfilling.

Fractured Brain Bogey Boogie

ImpofthePerversePoeMy personal Imp of the Perverse likes to make me a liar when I talk about writing. For instance, in a recent interview, I mentioned that I almost never write about real people, at least not people I’m on good terms with, because my fiction mostly focuses on bad, horrific things. Naturally, within weeks of the interview, a project I was working on decided to include some of the people I care about most. Nothing bad happens to them, I promise! Well, nothing permanent. In fact, the project, The Great Sonnet Plot of Anton Tick, combines nostalgia and good feelings with horror and depression in ways I’ve never explored before… but I think one of the reasons it uses both me and people I know, by name, no less, is because the Imp likes making me a big fat liar. So note: I do write about people I know, and quite directly, and sometimes to express love and praise as well as to spew vitriol. Go figure. The Imp did not ask me first.

A tick. Not Anton Tick, but a tick, all the same

A tick. Not Anton Tick, but a tick, all the same.

 

The Imp also did not ask before landing me in my current predicament. I’ve always been a One-Man-One-Book kind of writer, which is to say, I might have a story or an article on the side, little flings, but I’ve kept myself steady with one major project at a time. That way, when a block of hours for writing presents itself, I always know where my mind is going, be it into fact or into fiction. When I was writing my non-fiction book Dario Argento, I got out my notes on Dario’s wonderful movies and went into analysis mode. When I was writing my novel Descending Lines, I thought about doomed couple Megan and Carter Anderson and charted the next step downward on their descent. Having a stable place for the mind to go keeps the project focused, keeps it going, and keeps me sane, as I can always escape into it when I need something to think about other than whatever annoying thing is present to my consciousness at any given time. Annoyed by tax forms? Think about the zany bugs in Argento’s Phenomena. Annoyed by self-sustaining interpersonal conflicts? Think about the next scene of slaughter that will ruin Megan Anderson’s day. Simple psychological shelters!

Jennifer Connelly isn’t the only one who loves Argento’s zany bugs.

Jennifer Connelly isn’t the only one who loves Argento’s zany bugs.

 

Having a home base for the brain keeps it whole, in a way, which is why—one reason why, at least—right now Writer Me feels like a box of Mini-Wheats, lots of little squares, each with two sides arguing about the virtues of frosting.

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Don’t get me wrong. I lurve aspects of my fractured brain-home predicament, which began, I dunno, six months ago, when I up and started the strangest book I’ve yet written, Manufacturing Miracles, the novel that picks up where my novel Burning the Middle Ground left off. Faster plotting, more characters, and more settings than my previous work, with the bizarreness quotient ratcheted up considerably—great good fun, but also difficult. Work on that got waylaid, however, when I made the fantastic deal with Seventh Star Press for new editions of Reel Dark and Leaping at Thorns as well as my next collection of short stories, Peritoneum, all of which are slated for release in April/May 2016. Naturally, work on these three books needed (and continues to need) to intrude on Manufacturing Miracles for awhile. NOT complaining—good, lurvable stuff—but factors in the fracturing of my brain home. I should also mention that during all of this action another factor, also exciting and good, in the form of a book called The Blue Jacket Conspiracy—a dark mainstream thriller—has been going through the process of settling in with an agent, going to market, and hunting a home. So instead of one book on home base, that’s… five, at various states from just-started to almost-published.

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Then the Imp gets really crazed and has me start writing poetry, which I haven’t taken seriously, at least not with myself as author, since college. I start counting the syllables in everything and rhyming accidentally. I write a few sonnets, and next thing you know, I’m working on the aforementioned 100-poem cycle The Great Sonnet Plot, followed by “Villanelles of Villainy” and “Rondeaux of Indifference,” as I am a junkie for difficult, exacting forms and, contrary to the dominant fads of the last century, really like meter and rhyme. So as of this month, I have a book of poetry to polish and try to publish.

Manufacturing Miracles, still in the first third of its daunting outline, is jealous.

So today, when sitting down to write, I tinkered with a poem, tinkered with a novel, and was then reminded by Facebook that I haven’t posted on my author page in—gasp!—NINE DAYS. I love you all, I really do, so my Imp, my fractured brain, and I aren’t doing anything about any of the six books I’m worrying about and are instead writing this piece. Of. Reflection on writing.

Lies? Blogs about writing are supposed to contain bulleted advice. Somewhat clueless, I offer the following for when you find your brain facing the bogey of fragmentation:

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  • Drink espresso. After a trip to Italy, I returned to the States still fond of American coffee but somewhat ruined for it. What better way to Power Through than a little high-test, eh? It may not help with that fractured feeling—it may increase it, in fact—but if I need to flit like a mosquito from this to that, molto bene!
  • Triage. I say “triage” rather than “prioritize.” In emergency rooms as on the battlefield, aid workers must assess not only who has the greatest need for care, but who will benefit most from care, as some people are goners, and he who howls the most (Manufacturing Miracles is a howler) is not always in the greatest need. Deadlines (get it? “dead” “lines”) are useful triage guides, but so are supplies. I had a sudden, inexplicable supply of meter and rhyme, so The Great Sonnet Plot was going to benefit most from available care. Others, without immediate deadlines, weren’t going to die from waiting for better supplies to arrive… so they waited.
  • Connect. This one is tricky because it gets really confusing really fast, but all six of the projects I’m working on right now have relationships with and references to one another. Heck, The Great Sonnet Plot even refers to Argento. At times, these connections create an illusion of wholeness—I’m really working on one great big project!—and at other times, I just forget what I’m doing, and I step back, like The Stepfather, and ask, “Who am I here?” Still, an illusion of wholeness can redouble a sense of purpose, and that’s, uh, good.

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  • Visualize. If you learned from The Classics first, think Cicero and Quintilian, or if you’re like me, think Hannibal Lecter: either way, think of the Memory Palace, the idea that your mind is a big ol’ house full of many rooms, and each room contains one of your projects. If you’re stuck on Connect, put all the rooms in the same wing of the house, connected by the same hallway, maybe painted the same color. Anyway, in each room, the project’s characters (or, in the case of something like Dario Argento, I’d say the movies, or in another type of non-fiction, I’d say the major events I was writing about, or whatever) are waiting. They may or may not be patient, but they’re waiting every time you go into the room. Enter, talk to them, get them going, and while you’re there, write. When you’re done, you can leave, and you go to another room that day or any other day, and you can come back whenever you want. This method will help you keep the projects sorted and On Call in your brain, which, thanks to your architectural maneuvering, is more partitioned than fragged.
  • Drink. Face it. The people in all those rooms are not patient. There’s a reason why writers and bottles, historically, get along well. I am not advising you to violate your belief system. But I believe you got to shut those people up somehow, sometime, ’cuz otherwise, that whole damned house is gonna burn, and you ain’t saving none of those patients.

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Christmas Dystopia: The Real Season of Fear

‘Tis the season to be afraid.

No, I’m not confusing the Holiday Season—fuck it, I mean the Christmas Season—with Halloween. I mean the real season of horror, the one when the days are shortest, when Winter is not only Coming but finally Gets Here. The one when if, at least in some parts of the world, you’re kept out of the inn, you might freeze to death… if the creatures of the long night don’t rip you and your newborn to pieces first.

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Winter is here: Jasen Dixon of Ohio anticipates the Resurrection as a symbol of changing seasons with a zombie nativity scene.

If you pay attention to, well, people who know things, you know that the Jesus Christ of the Bible wasn’t born in late December but likely in April, but the Catholic Church decided many moons ago that timing His birthday around big pagan party time, already existing Solstice celebrations, would lubricate conversion. Christmas goes hand in hand with Easter: the coming and going of the cold months, the hard months—the birth, death, and resurrection of the Savior—fit neatly together, becoming a package of holidays to celebrate light at the beginning and end of the year’s greatest darkness (at least in the globe’s northern hemisphere).

My point is that historically, Christmas Day itself is a symbol of light deliberately placed in the middle of great darkness, and as such it calls attention to the dark mire it would illuminate. And for many of us in the Christmas Belt, an accessory that holds up much of the world’s economy around this time of year, it does. I paraphrase a line from the Christmas horror film—one of many—Gremlins (1984), which made a deep impression on me as a child: commenting that “the suicide rate’s always the highest around the holidays,” a character remarks of some unhappy people, “While everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.”

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I suppose seasonal affective disorders (the SADs!) could explain a lot of the suicides, as well as the popularity of my genre around this time—more about that in a moment—but I think not, and I don’t think many of you readers would let me go with such a facile explanation, either, because if you’re a grown-up who finds the idea of a strange man invading your house via chimney more terrifying than otherwise, you know that this time of “magic” has a lot to do with the Dark Side of the Force.

Let us consider, then, five reasons beyond seasonal affect why this season is one of darkness and doom. Afterwards, I’ll close with something less depressing, but first, I’ll note that all five of these reasons are major themes of everyone’s favorite Christmas horror story—not the one about putting an eye out, which is horrific enough—but Charles Dickens’s story about ghosts that gleefully torture an old man, “A Christmas Carol:” dickenschristmascarol

  1. Money. This year, like every year recently, I tuned into news on Black Friday and heard both stories: first, retailers were disappointed by people not spending enough, and second, retailers were beset by outrageous violence committed by people too desperate to spend. ‘Tis the season to spend on yourself, on others, and there’s never enough. You never get enough or give enough, and in the process of being inadequate, you do damage to yourself and others. You feel your inadequacy and the damage you do, and do you feel good about giving and receiving? Of course not. You feel like the shit of the capitalist world.
  2. Charity. Santas and others ring bells outside grocery stores and everywhere else, trying to guilt people into giving to strangers while they’re trying to stretch their budgets far enough to accommodate everyone on their lists. Let’s face it, the world is falling apart. It needs people to be charitable, and we all know, as Bernie Sanders keeps reminding us, that most of the wealth is going into the pockets of 1/10 of 1% of the population and just disappearing there, so the rest of us are supposed to sustain the exploding population with the scraps, but we… can’t… do it. So, defeated, most of us don’t even try very hard, or at all. And we just feel shitty about it, because shitty feelings are really all we have to spare.
  3. Love. Speaking of things we all want but don’t get enough of, what but pictures of beautiful people enjoying each other’s fond company as they revel in gifts can remind us better of what we don’t have? More poignant than the missing presents is the missing people, and for every person who’s happy in love, you can find two who have lost each other, or who have each other but have lost whatever brought them together, or who never found one another to begin with. As the nights get longer, people get lonelier, and the illusion that everyone is celebrating togetherness underscores loneliness like nothing else can.
  4. Age and Death. People have more to lose than romance. Christmas magic, if it worked for you at all, probably worked for that short span of years when your brain was underdeveloped and you could actually believe in flying mammals with glowing noses. Your childhood is gone. What did you lose with it? Who used to be with you on these holidays who isn’t now? For many of us, this is a season of remembering, and remembering ain’t always a happy act.
  5. Family. Those who don’t have family, mourn, and those who do—well, those who do aren’t necessarily happy, either, because with all the other crap happening, families are seldom at their best when they finally all gather ’round that tree or sacrificed feast animal or whatever it is that brings them all to one place to judge one another and seethe. For many, Christmas is the time to peel away scabs or simply reopen old wounds. Have some more nog and let loose on those weaknesses only you know about, push those buttons only you can—you’re family.

Now that I’ve argued that pretty much everything good is bad, you might think I’m advocating for the Gremlins-described suicide solution or at the very least for cancelling Christmas, but far from it. Although it’s not my favorite holiday, I like Christmas and have, in fact, already told you why: it is the light placed here to remind us of all this darkness, and as a sort of memento mori, Christmas deserves acknowledgment for what it is, a fuzzy center in a hole of suck.

OtrantoThanks to Charles Dickens, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, and everything from the original Dec. 24, 1764 Gothic novel Castle of Otranto to the present-day Krampus, our popular culture has served up a large vein within the horror genre to slice into as a means of exploring the suckhole of Christmas, not as a religious holiday but as a cultural phenomenon that combines the best and worst of humanity in a colorful package with a bow on top. These fictions of fear can displace all the terrors of our lives’ vacancies onto monsters we can see and maybe even fight and destroy. We can’t easily solve the problem of who’s not with us by the tree this year, but we sure can imagine using simple sunlight to beat back the tide of gremlins, and hey, maybe all it takes to make charity work is to show the most monstrous of the 1% a few well-timed ghosts.

KrampusThe fantasies are simple on the surface, yes, but so are the illusions of childhood, and come Christmas time, don’t we all deserve a little bit of simple? The problems with which they help us to cope are about as hard as problems come, so maybe some simple is what we need to crawl out of the suckhole, at least for a day.