Suspiria 2018: New Blood in Nightmares of Power

Dario Argento has said in several interviews, including the one I had with him, that he saw no need for a remake of Suspiria (1977) and was generally opposed to the idea. I’m generally in favor of remakes of films I like, but I took Argento’s point. Remakes can’t harm their sources, and they might do impressive things with already-proven concepts—however, I assumed that a remake of Suspiria would suck. Argento’s Suspiria doesn’t offer much in terms of story or character to work with; in its greatest moments, it is almost pure style. In remaking such a film I saw a strong temptation to imitate, but I saw little room for productive play. In other words, I didn’t see where a remake could go, so I expected it wouldn’t go very far or accomplish very much.

I am happy to say I was wrong about Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018), which manages excellence by straying far from its namesake in some respects while staying tethered at key points. The look, sound, and pacing demonstrate the relationship succinctly. In place of Argento’s shocking palette of primary colors and assaultive sounds by the prog-rock band Goblin, the new Suspiria offers hypnotically drab greys and browns and the lulling experimental tones of Thom Yorke. The two approaches are almost inversions of one another, but they both result in dream-like atmospheres, in nightmarish worlds where witches seem likely to lurk.

 

Attached to Argento’s assaultive aesthetic is a tendency to pile one bizarre or violent set-piece onto another, leaving little room (or need) for character and story and allowing the film to come in at a tight 98 minutes. Guadagnino’s more meditative approach is almost an hour longer, 152 minutes, and it uses that time to provide what the earlier film denies. The new film uses the older film’s characters’ names and gives many of them the same or similar roles in a famous Dance Academy, but for a setting it trades in Freiburg and the fairy-tale-archetype-filled Black Forest for 1977 Berlin, which has a hard and specific reality underscored by news reports about terrorism and many lingering shots of the Wall. In their new setting, characters start over, developing backstories and nuanced emotional relationships that their more archetypal counterparts wouldn’t recognize. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is still an American newcomer to the Academy, but now she’s an untrained former Mennonite from Ohio who has issues with her mother that inform several dimensions of the film. Her backstory is perhaps especially important to her relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), still the functional leader of the Academy and now a dark maternal figure for Susie. No longer campy and two-dimensional, Madame Blanc is prominent in the post-World-War-II dance world, having given the definitive performance of Volk (“people,” a politically suggestive title if there ever was one) in 1948. She treats Susie at times as a daughter and at times an apprentice, grooming her to take the role she once defined on stage and preparing her for a different role in a witches’ conspiracy.

Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc

 

What the witches—the teachers who run the Academy— are conspiring about is exceptionally vague in Argento’s film. Argento keeps their meetings offscreen (we overhear bits), but Guadagnino shows the coven in session, casting votes and revealing divisions as they choose either Madame Blanc or Helena Markos (also Tilda Swinton), the unquestioned head in Argento’s version, to go on as leader. Guadagnino’s witches are searching for a young woman to play a part in a ritual that somehow sustains the coven, which in turn sustains the women within it (the coven has protected the women through World War II and other catastrophes). The exact nature of the ritual is mysterious at first, but it does become clear. If, as several critics have argued, the earlier film’s coven provides a murky view of authoritarian power and violence, the new film imagines such power wielded by and for women who have specific goals—but their power is unstable. Resolving this instability becomes a major motivator for the plot and allows for multiple conflicts to unwind at the conclusion, providing an ending far grander in scope than the earlier film’s.

 

A central question for any viewer coming from the graphic violence of the 1977 Suspiria is likely, How does the witches’ power look on screen? The infamous opening sequence of Argento’s film, which culminates in the gruesome deaths of two young women in glorious Technicolor, is gone, but the 2018 Suspiria is anything but tame in its depictions of violence. Whereas Argento relies on camera movements and editing to suggest magic, Guadagnino exploits his source material—dance—and makes physical movement the stuff of spellcasting. Thus in one of the film’s most memorable and cringe-inducing sequences, Susie tries dancing the role Madame Blanc defined in Volk, and, as she channels the witches’ will, each of her jerky motions results in violent bends and breaks in another young woman’s body.

Dance works dark magic

At other moments, touching and hand motions pull off magical feats—bones shatter, arteries explode. While not as vibrant or elaborate, the violence of the 2018 film is just as extreme, and it’s located at the heart of the women’s profession, linking their physical power to their supernatural power. In this version, then, witches’ power—and perhaps women’s power—is deeply embodied, and their politics are literally and figuratively a dance that can break bodies apart. The breaking of bodies recurs in the setting, a broken Berlin, and makes resolving instability in the coven (and the larger political world) more urgent. The film’s trajectory drives toward a unity and stability whose cost is purification through violence, a heavy imprint of the fascism that the coven’s exercise of power ultimately reflects.

The dance troupe–a vision of unity through violence?

 

If the power the witches wield is ultimately fascistic, it is a sublime alternative to the power on offer by the patriarchy. Men get little representation in the 2018 Suspiria. Two police detectives stop by the Academy to investigate and get completely brain-wiped by the witches (who stop to fiddle with one of their absurd-looking penises just for kicks)—these men are a joke. The important male character is Dr. Klemperer (also played by Tilda Swinton), a psychoanalyst who makes the mistake of dismissing Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student who flees the Academy and its witches at the beginning of the film, as delusional. Years earlier, he also dismissed concerns about Nazis pressed by his lover Anke (Jessica Harper, who plays Susie in Argento’s film), which caused him to lose her. He sets off on parallel investigations, searching for Patricia and Anke, and as a result he gets caught up in the witches’ conspiracy, taking on a role that demonstrates the relative weakness of psychoanalysis and male judgment before the power of the women who lure him into their rites. Suspiria (1977) and Suspiria (2018) are nightmares about witches, and thus they are nightmares about powerful women. The more recent film uses Dr. Klemperer to show how utterly a man might be diminished by the consolidation of a nightmarish form of female power, diminished not just in the present but in the revelation of a lifetime of impotence.

Tilda Swinton as Doctor Klemperer

 

On the surface, Guadagnino’s Suspiria looks and sounds almost unrelated to Argento’s, and a viewer looking for a repeat of Argento’s masterful sensual assault will leave the new film disappointed. What I found in the 2018 version is a film invested in the earlier version’s DNA—nightmarish reflections on power—combined with characters and storylines well-worth following. In addition to not wanting a remake of Suspiria, Argento has expressed dissatisfaction with contemporary horror. I don’t know if he has seen Suspiria 2018 or gone on record about it, but I think if it were a film of a different name, he might like it. It takes the art of horror film seriously, and it gets impressive results. That’s Argento’s legacy, and Guadagnino’s film, for all its deviation from Argento’s templates, fits perfectly.

The Positive of Power-Through Thinking

At times I don’t know where I should begin,

Whether to make someone scream loud or grin,

But I have set my brain on the matter

And found that readers grow sick of splatter,

So I need some new approaches to win.

 

A problem with being a… distinct… messed up… take your pick… individual lies in finding people who are like-minded, and after forty years on the planet, I have reached the conclusion that not enough like-minded people exist to be found.

Yes, I have found like-minded people through artworks, signs of lives and experiences like my own. Throughout the years I have been able to cobble together enough media from the “popular” culture to sustain me, but I never gave enough thought to why everything I liked got labeled with terms such as “alternative,” “fringe,” and “cult.” Actually, I gave a ton of thought to such labeling, writing an undergraduate thesis about the marginalization of popular forms in comparison to “high” or sanctioned-by-the-rich culture and then writing a dissertation about horror fiction, the bastard stepchild of literature, a genre that virtually all the greats have dipped toes in but no one wants to own as part of the mainstream’s backbone. I taught college classes on the alternative, the fringe, and the cult, showing mainstream students what’s going on out in the weird edges of their universes, and people usually (not always) rolled with what I sent their way, as college is a time for experimentation, after all. But what never quite sunk in for me, through all my research, teaching, and publication about the weird stuff, is that the weird is weird primarily because of a numbers game: it’s outsider art because not enough people want it on the inside, and the weirder it is, the fewer people want to deal with it.

Maybe in a few centuries, people will look back on some of the weird stuff as great, but in the moment, most weird stuff isn’t the charming, middle-of-the-road stuff that the middle of the bell curve embraces. Normal people, which is the vast majority (by definition!), don’t want the abnormal stuff, and I have finally begun to understand that. To produce stuff people want, I have to stop assuming people want what I want. I’ve got to temper my wild weirdness with a heavy dose of the normal. All great artists know they must cave to conformity—or they do it instinctively, as the mainstream is in their bloodstream. I’m not saying I’m great, but I’d like to be better, and what might have been missing from my oddball art all these years might have been a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing. Instead of poo-pooing the crowd-pleasing tidiness and happiness that define mainstream narrative, maybe I should have been including more of it, as there just isn’t enough crowd out there that isn’t looking to get pleased.

I am not lamenting. In fact, although I have yet to see whether it’s going to go belly-up or go through the process of fetching an agent, publisher, and a mainstream audience, I not-too-long-ago finished my first novel with the philosophy of trying to please crowds who don’t all share my own particular mindset. The novel is called The Vengeance of Galatea Starcrusher, and though it has some horrific elements (from the first paragraph, my prettier protagonist identifies herself with Frankenstein’s Creature) it’s my first effort in many years that is pretty unequivocally not a horror novel. It’s science fiction, or more precisely science fantasy, and a lot of it is downright silly, going for absurd levity in places where before I might have sought a grotesque sucker-punch. I don’t think I’m as funny as Douglas Adams, but at times his ilk is the inspiration, and otherwise I’m riffing on space opera adventure from TV and movies circa Star Wars and beyond as my heroine kicks lots of butt on her way to hunting down and taking vengeance on her slimy, no-good creator. There are explosions. Lots of explosions. There’s chemistry with sidekicks. There’s a romantic subplot. Did I mention the explosions?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s soothing motto is key to its enduring popularity.

If people see in their heads anything like what I saw in mine, they’ll have a righteous adventure. They’ll have fun. They’ll SMILE all the way through one tidy happy scene after another. One or two scenes might make them gasp in horror, but they’ll come back to the adventure all the readier for the next tidy-up, which I do indeed provide. The writing experience was a blast; I hope the reading experience is, too. As I wrote, I imagined not what my ideal audience would want to read, but what general audiences might want to read. I didn’t always spit out exactly what I thought the normals would want. I’m still me, and the book is definitely a product of my warped imagination. But what produced it was an imaginary negotiation between me, sitting out on the edge of the bell curve, and other people I don’t know too well, sitting up high in the fat bell’s curvy center. If we can all get along, I’ll have a successful book of a sort very different from everything I’ve ever published.

That’s the hope, anyway. I can’t just flip a switch and become normal, nor would I want to, nor would readers be likely to respond well if I did. People don’t pick up novels to experience pure normality: they want to experience something, well, novel. The art of writing fiction is an act of balancing the outré with the familiar, titillating with the former and soothing with the latter, so that the people in the center of the bell curve feel like they’re glimpsing the outer edges, and the people further out feel like they’re being served, too. A good book needs extremes, but the extremes shouldn’t point all one way to suit most readers. An extreme of despair should have at least a glimmer of extreme hope. A younger me never would have admitted that, but my current thinking—thinking that powers through the aching desire to believe a critical mass of readers might just like to stew in darkness for 100,000 words—recognizes that people read to get away from the grinding conditions of lives that can often seem more than dark enough. Even dispositions that embrace the dark side need perks. Mine does. The artist’s job is to meet the needs people seek to have fulfilled through art, and heck if those needs don’t include a lift up more often than not. A long-time devotee of the arts of horror and dark fantasy finds that a tough pill, but then again, even most horror stories have marginally happy endings. I guess we know why that is. People’s need for those stories includes need for those endings.

Stephen King got most of his darkest stories out of his system when he was young: the bleakness of Carrie and Pet Sematary, hits certainly, hasn’t shown up as much since he got sober and became America’s perennial bestseller with a tendency to write about magic children saving the day. Writers in the grip of mental illness who described the world as the horror they saw—such as Poe and Lovecraft—did not come to good ends. The positive of powering through the realization that writing is a compromise not with the artist’s audience of choice but with The Mainstream is, quite simply, survival. King’s gift is that he can figure out what the mainstream is, what its tolerances are. I don’t know if I have that gift, but the challenge of trying seems worthwhile—for me as well as for any other author who wants to communicate a vision to minds outside the narrow band defined as being like her or his own.

Wording with Thorns

Only the fiction of my horror stories is exaggerated. The supernatural is mostly metaphor and code. The horror is real.

A lot of people—especially people with majority privilege—like to complain about political correctness. Think about this. Think about lying in your loved one’s arms at home at night, sleeping soundly. You wake up because so many arms have grabbed you that you can’t move. You get one more glimpse of your lover—you know instantly that she or he is going to be dead soon. Next, you’re tied to a stake, and bundles of burning sticks are being thrown at your feet just often enough to keep the agony high. These bundles are called “faggots.” You’re called a faggot, too, because your life is worth no more than tinder because of those you love. Watching you die is someone’s entertainment.

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If you think you have a right to complain about political correctness, and you have a shred of decency, you may not realize that there’s no exaggeration in the previous paragraph. More often than not in the name of Jesus Christ, people brutally and LEGALLY murdered their neighbors who expressed same-sex attraction from medieval times through the Holocaust (we wore pink triangles in the concentration camps, lest you forget). In the year 2016, homosexuality is still punishable by death in the Muslim world, not just in Iran (where the method of choice is live burial, like in the Edgar Allan Poe stories), but in nations the U.S. calls allies.

buriedalive

After the U.S. stopped putting homosexuals in prison, it still locked us up in mental institutions, using electro-shock and other methods to “cure” us that would likely be considered violations of the 8th Amendment and the Geneva Convention (remember American Horror Story: Asylum?). True story: homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness in the U.S. until the 1970s, and a lot of people in the U.S. still act like it is. Read the news about which minorities are a plague this week. When people treat you like you’re an illness, they want to cure you. What do people do with illnesses? Eliminate them. Hitler had a final solution. Do you?

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The world really is that bad. So when you worry about political correctness as a Great Satan, I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. If you want to complain about idiots who try to use political correctness as an excuse to censor art, please be my guest. I gladly say fuck those motherfuckers: I hope their intestines spontaneously explode from their bodies and form a slide for them to ride straight to hell.

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I gladly say inappropriate things and create some of the most incorrect characters imaginable in my fiction. Some people who are fighting against political correctness feel that free speech is under threat, and to the extent that they’re right, I’m with them, but political correctness should be about acknowledging the power of language, which is something every good writer (and, in my opinion, good human being) should reckon with. So, fellow language-users, consider these two critical points:

  • Hate speech is a clear and present danger. If you’re arguing about limits on your free speech, remember that there already is one: you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Why? Because that’s an instance of speech that threatens the safety of a group of people. Dictionary.com defines hate speech as “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability”. “Faggot” devalues the lives of gay people and encourages murders like that famous murder of Matthew Shepard. Likewise—more on this in a moment—when a group of people on Facebook attacked me by using the words “handicapped” and “bipolar” as insults, it clearly fit the definition of hate speech related to disability and therefore did not qualify for protection under the first amendment.normalboring
  • “Use” and “mention” of words are distinct. I have mentioned the word “faggot” many times here. I have referred to its history of hatred, but I have not used that history or used the word to apply to a specific human being. This distinction is subtle and difficult for many people. So is the distinction between in-group use and out-of-group use. Language is about contexts. Political correctness helps people less familiar with contexts to navigate them. Unless you’ve known me for a good long time, you’re better off not using the word “faggot” in my presence. I’m bipolar and I’m gay. A really close friend might call me a crazy fag, but the probability that you’re that person is close to zero.

So I referred to a recent experience with hate speech related to disability. Despite the persistence of ex-gay camps and such that insist on trying to “cure” homosexuality, the mainstream no longer treats it as an illness, which is good, because it seems like a fine thing to me. I can’t say the same about the other stigmatized category I’m in. So people feel much more justified in treating me like I’m an illness to be eliminated. Take your meds. Wipe yourself into an oblivion where you won’t bother us anymore.

butimacheerleadernewdirections

When people make fun of us, I really just want to point out to you normals that you’re literally incapable of fathoming how un-fun it is. Unless you have my mental condition, your brain is not equipped to handle what mine processes. I am THAT different from you. But if I say that, people will think it’s some sort of arrogance or exaggeration. But it’s biochemical certainty. Part of what I try to do with my horror fiction is give you people glimpses. Edgar Allan Poe did that, too. Word is he was bipolar, and having read all of his work, I feel fairly confident his diagnoses would have had much in common with mine (never been an alcoholic, though). Lots of you have some hero-worship for him… mine’s a little different. I think he was in my club. Chances are, you’re not. Bipolar pride. Woo-hoo. Now turn down the fucking lights and remember we’re all going to die.

walkitoff

For the last few election cycles, gay people were the favorite category to pick on. This time it’s the mentally ill, as we’re clearly the cause of all the shootings and such (nevermind that all the stats show we’re far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crimes, thanks in part due to asshole horror writers who don’t do research). Seems I can’t get a break. Like it or not, the zeitgeist is with me, and I am with you. My recent bouts with illness have left me feeling too in touch with contemporary psych, but a little bit of Freud stands strong: the repressed shall always return…

Which reminds me, when you call something “exemplary,” you mean it stands as an example of your highest values. The person who led the mob that used hate speech against me was called “exemplary” by an organization specifically for his behavior on Facebook, I put myself in reach of this bigot because of his high standing in the organization, yet the organization (which has a sordid history with alleged racists and rapists) refuses to act at all. I suppose I AM crazy to think “sane” people would see that “political correctness” is about decency, and, to quote a popular writer, “We endorse things by our participation in them.” People in the organization are hypocritical enough to dismiss me as too touchy and therefore not worth considering as yet another crazy “victim” of their membership’s hate.

Perhaps decency is just too damned rare. My mania is quixotic.

donquixote

 

UPDATE: The “organization” referred to in this blog post is the Horror Writers’ Association. When the recipient of the HWA’s President’s Award, given for his “exemplary” achievement not in literature but in the FACEBOOK COMMUNITY, encouraged a mob to attack me with hate speech on Facebook, I reported the incident to the President and Vice-President of the HWA. I was informed that the HWA “would never tell any member or any of our volunteers what they can say on their own page.” This echo of the HWA’s doomed position in an earlier incident chilled me. I’ll borrow from Brian Keene. In a “statement regarding their decision to allow an avowed white supremacist and fascist serve as a Bram Stoker Award Juror” they tried to defend themselves by citing a “principle of supporting and practicing freedom of expression.” Of course they backpedaled when they realized that being a horror writer isn’t an excuse for lacking human decency… but I’m concerned that Keene is right about history repeating itself, and although I may not be one of the HWA’s greatest victims, they’re standing fast by a bigot who’s proud of hate speech against people with mental disabilities. They stand by calling him “exemplary.”

TOP RESPONSES FROM HWA

“I would never tell any member or any of our volunteers what they can say on their own page.” (The HWA President, Lisa Morton, who gave the President’s Award to Patrick Freivald for his “exemplary” standing in the horror community due to his work on Facebook–she is therefore the person most directly responsible for representing the HWA in endorsing his Facebook values, which demonstrably include supporting hate speech against the disabled)

“You’re not a special snowflake. Sorry. [You are] Using Bipolar disorder for excusing passive aggressive behavior.” (The Vice President, on why HWA won’t act in response to my complaints about hate speech–he later berated me aggressively, all on record)

Several other HWA “luminaries” have read the hate on Freivald’s page and assented to the party line that I “overreacted to something that never happened in the first place.” Lisa Morton angrily severed contact–as if she had been wronged–when I alluded to a film about rape, but whether she likes it or not, her methods are tried and true for squashing rape victims. Nope, I’m not as bad off as such victims in this case, not by a long shot, but I’m sick of HWA grabbing at any excuse to shut down dialogue that points out what everyone knows: they’ve got deep, deep problems.

Leaping Under the Covers of the Peritoneum

Extreme, often intimate stories–horrific, bizarre, scary, offensive, funny, absurd, disturbing, or just plain WTF–in turns or all at the same time–when am I going to produce a by-the-rules book that will lure in readers by targeting their comfort zones with words that don’t explode? Not any time soon…

2016-SSP-005.Peritoneum Cover.indd

As I write this post, the first goal of which is to show off amazing cover art by Aaron Drown Design, I am getting ready to travel to Las Vegas for StokerCon, the Horror Writers’ Association’s major convention, where I will see print copies of my new short story collection Peritoneum as well as new editions of Leaping at Thorns and Reel Dark for the first time. (For more about the new Reel Dark, see “REEL DARK in the Spotlight,” and for even more about Peritoneum, see “Inside the Peritoneum.”)

 

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As I’ve already posted, Reel Dark has new stories by Michael West and Alexander S. Brown, and since the book’s first edition had very limited exposure, all of it is new to almost everyone, so I’m excited about it. The collection of award-winning authors as well as newer voices spinning tales of movie mayhem is destined to please lovers of dark fiction. Yes, I’ve got a story in it, but unlike the other two books I’m talking about here, this one ain’t about me. I’m showing off a collection of other people’s work, stories and poems I really like, and I’m darned proud of it.

 

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Like the new edition of Reel Dark, the second edition of Leaping at Thorns is bigger than the first, with one tale added in each of the three sections. (Unlike Reel Dark, these stories are all me.) To the “Complicity” section I’ve added “Silence,” about a woman who keeps losing people, literally, after she has a surreal experience in an abandoned house. To “Entrapment,” I’ve added “House of Butterflies,” in which flesh does more than crawl–it flies. To “Conspiracy,” I’ve added “Kindertotenlieder,” about a twentieth-century Pied Piper whose storybook vengeance is even more horrific than the worst version you’ve read. With these additions, the book provides an even better view of the self-obliterating drive toward darkness that binds all the stories together. With the stunning new cover and support from Seventh Star Press–and with the first edition’s enthusiastic reviews–I’m looking forward to Leaping at Thorns freaking out a larger audience.

So what, then, of the newest addition to the bunch–the one with the guts on the cover and the hard-to-pronounce title, Peritoneum? It’s a different kind of animal. In a very small circle of friends I’ve been calling it a Winesburg, Ohio on acid, not because it’s about small-town life (although a significant number of stories focuses on a suburban house… especially its basement) but because the stories share characters and inform one another. In fact, although I published a few stories separately, and a few stories only relate to the whole tangentially, I wrote the vast majority of these tales to stand alongside the other tales. That design makes this book very different from Leaping at Thorns, which has some interrelated stories that nevertheless stand alone. In Peritoneum, I hope you’ll enjoy reading stories individually, but you’ll get a lot more out of them if you read them together. The volume starts with “The Family Pet” and “Blood and Feathers” because they introduce elements that run throughout the book, and it ends with “The Birds of St. Francis” and “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies” because they tie a lot of those elements together.

Don’t let me mislead you. I don’t promise that the stories make sense when you read them all together. Sure, they make more sense. Some of the WTFs in “The Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion” get answered in the next tale, “TR4B,” and even the comical scenario of “DNA” gets backstory work in “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies.” HOWEVER–my goal is to offer little eddies of revelation in a greater sea of insanity, where sense and reason fail more often than they succeed. Lots of horror stories have endings that explain the horrors and box them away. Many of them are good. Few of them scare me.

What scares me is the breakdown of sense, the failure of perception. As a result, my stories and the perceptions inside of them tend to break down. Sometimes, I couch the breakdown overtly in terms of the supernatural and/or mental illness and/or drugs (especially in “Patrick’s Luck,” “The Road Thief,” “The Long Flight of Charlotte Radcliffe,” and “Door Poison”), and sometimes I just let them unwind by their own devices. My hope is that the stories, while not always conventionally satisfying, will disturb you on some level–move you to feel afraid, amused, bewildered, and so on–and result in entertainment, albeit of a brooding and uncomfortable sort.

Oh, I worry about things. “Blood and Feathers” has two endings, neither of which is a resolution… “Year of the Wolf” pivots around quotes from an obscure World War Two documentary as well as a scientific curiosity… “Juicy the Liar” opens with a line about eating pussy… I thought of “Bubble Girl” as YA until readers started seeing all kinds of crazy sex stuff in it that I thought was buried well under the surface… “The Broom Closet” goes beyond nasty… much could go wrong in the reading of Peritoneum. But without that possibility, I’m not sure it could really go right, either.

Southern Haunts 3: Fantastic Flights, Historic Hurlyburly

Southern Haunts 3: Magick Beneath the Moonlight is a short-fiction anthology that delivers a delectable range of witch-tastic events and images, successfully indulging fantasies of magical power and a fetish for the history of things weird. [For the rest of my review, keep reading, or for an interview with the book’s co-editor Alexander S. Brown, go here.]

Leaving the most familiar questions about whether so-and-so is or isn’t a witch in the background, and saving the typical witch-hunts for Yankee territory, the stories in Southern Haunts 3 presume the existence of magic and focus on the power’s whats and whens. From these whats and whens readers get a sense of a where, the American South, which is both horrific and mystical. As a result, this collection of stories stands apart from typical witch-horror while affirming, in the Southern Gothic tradition, that regular old “realistic” storytelling doesn’t quite get one of the U.S.’s most culturally diverse and historically troubled regions.

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While I’m conflating all the mystic goings-on in Southern Haunts 3 as witchery, the collection’s editors and authors are careful to distinguish among types of magic and related spiritual traditions, naming the book’s primary whats distinctly as voodoo, hoodoo, and witchcraft. “The Apartment House,” for instance, provides a series of bizarre and violent tableaux—death by books is my favorite, but a detailed flaying deserves mention—and ties them together with a lesson on the laws for practicing voodoo the right way. In “La Voyante,” a knowing character explains to a writer looking for a new creative outlet that voodoo isn’t the only game in town:

“No, we talkin’ ’bout Hoodoo. Between the ‘hoo’ an’ the ‘voo,’ there’s a worl’ of difference… though we do tend t’ use a bit of both in these parts.”

Often gesturing toward the diasporic and creolized origins of so-called “pagan” spiritualities tied to hoodoo and voodoo, the stories in Southern Haunts 3 provide a nuanced enough view to add an S to the K in the subtitle, making it a less elegant MagickS Beneath the Moonlight (not a suggestion—the actual title is much better!). Indeed, as the main character of “In the Dark” learns, some magic needs to be practiced only in the day, so “moonlight” isn’t even a consistent feature of proper witchery. Magic refuses easy limits, and while it can be as elegant as the kindly title character of “Granny Wise,” it can also be as ugly as characters’ habits in “Dances with Witches.” The collection tells us that all these magics might fit in a book, and they all show up in the South, but they won’t all fit in a proverbial box. The box mentioned in the title “The Priestess’s Trunk,” then, provides an apt metaphor: you might try to contain and understand mystical forces, but magic will always find a way to push beyond easy categories and simple expectations.

Despite the diversity of magical types in Southern Haunts 3, magical power almost always serves one end: payback. While the book draws its power from many veins, it directs that power primarily toward fulfilling fantasies of justice and vengeance (for comments on this focus from one of the book’s editors, see the interview). The first tale, “Granny Wise,” based on a historical figure, sets the mold: a witch serves locals as a healer, but the price of her services includes righting wrongs. In most tales that follow, witchcraft, as a means for payback, either doles out a kind of cosmic justice against evildoers (as, for example, in “Live Big”) or serves as means for a witch to get some vengeance on (as in “Vengeance,” “The Jar,” “Tell Me Where He Lies,” and “Without Xango there is No Oxalla”). The most salient motive for mystical vengeance in Southern Haunts 3 relates to the South’s legacies of racism, slavery, and lynching. In “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous,” searching for the story behind cursed woods leads the would-be storyteller into a cosmic trap forged from these legacies. “Cursed,” set in the 1920s, takes a more direct look at magic providing justice for a lynching that earthly courts would ignore, and “The Shadows” answers a nineteenth-century slave-master’s murder of an innocent man with a curse that takes “life for a life.” While magical means of achieving racial justice help to advance the book’s Southern identity, magic also serves as an equalizer for women who suffer under the arbitrary rule of despicable men. The mystic in “Secrets of the Heart” learns that her husband’s religious hypocrisy too easily stands in the way of his devotion to her, a betrayal she does not suffer lightly; likewise, when a violent husband crosses “The Bone Picker Witch,” he opens the door for some of the book’s nastiest moments. In most cases, mystical vengeance is overwhelming and horrific, but the justification that goes with it makes rooting for magical victory a source of grim pleasure.

While the fantasy of supernatural justice is fun to indulge, it recurs a little too often within the selection of tales, and the stories that rely on it less end up being my favorites in the book. “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes” shrouds its title figure in mystery, making her more like a force of nature than a person practicing a secret art. Going further with an interest in storytelling that runs through “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous” and several other tales in Southern Haunts 3, “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes” opens with an interrupted story that persists in the narrator’s imagination “like a hollow, unformed thing” alongside

“a boy missing from everyone’s memory”

Broken stories and memory gaps make magic powerful enough to reshape thought and perception, reweaving reality’s fabric; as a result, this tale can explore fresh and compelling territory. Likewise, “In the Dark” focuses on the perils of exploring the unknown. A bit rambling in structure, this tale brings its unwise protagonist in contact with strange verse, talking birds, and a host of disturbing images—my favorite is a buck with centipedes pouring from its mouth—that again signal a link between magic and distorted perception that can change the rules for what a story can do. Fans of more transgressive and gruesome horror fiction will likely count “In the Dark” and “The Bone Picker Witch” as favorites along with “Docta Bones,” in which the title character inverts Granny Wise’s benevolence by requiring much harsher payment for the gods’ services, and “Dances with Witches,” which places a human appetite for evil in parallel with a bewitched landscape’s. Chilling acts and images become the main products of witchery: questions of justice and the natural order become secondary to experiencing the full horror of the weird.

A volume about magic and the South invites thinking about cultural and regional history, and with stories set in (or focused on rediscovering) the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, Southern Haunts 3 does a great job of putting together views of the past (and thus it meets its goals–see the interview). As a Southerner, I wonder about the present. Where is witchcraft in the contemporary South? How do hoodoo and voodoo continue to inform life not just in old New Orleans, but also present-day Atlanta, Richmond, and cities in between with “modern” feels that contrast with the antiquarian interests that dominate this book? The book covers solid ground, but by sticking mainly to historical subjects, it might miss some opportunities for innovation.

The opportunities included, however, add up to a satisfying read. Moody, atmospheric, and drenched in regional detail, Southern Haunts 3 gives readers an entryway to the South’s mystic history, places and times to explore with equal amounts of dread and delight.

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Southern Haunts 3: Magick Beneath the Moonlight,

Table of Contents

  1. “Granny Wise,” by H. David Blalock
  2. “Live Big,” by Tom Lucas
  3. “The Priestess’s Trunk,” by C.G. Bush
  4. “The Witch of Honey, Kudzu, and Coyotes,” by Diane Ward
  5. “The Untold Tale of Wiccademous,” by J.L. Mulvihill
  6. “Vengeance,” by Linda DeLeon
  7. “The Jar,” by Robert McGough
  8. “La Voyante,” by Elizabeth Allen
  9. “Cursed,” by Melodie Romeo
  10. “Secrets of the Heart,” by Louise Myers
  11. “Tell Me Where He Lies,” by Greg McWhorter
  12. “Shadows,” by Kalila Smith
  13. “Docta Bones,” by Melissa Robinson
  14. “In the Dark,” by Jonnie Sorrow
  15. “The Apartment House,” by Della West
  16. “Without Xango There is No Oxalla,” by John E. Hesselberg
  17. “The Bone Picker Witch,” by Angela Lucius
  18. “Dances with Witches,” by Alexander S. Brown