I wrote this to work out some ideas and feel through some approaches I’d been wanting to try, and figured I’d throw it up here, see what people think. Read it below and enjoy, lemme know what you think. Continue reading
On Halloween, we watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House on Netflix, starring Ruth Wilson. It’s written and directed by Oz Perkins, about a hospice care nurse who moves into a famous crime/horror author’s home to care for the ailing bed-bound old woman. The nurse, Lily, and the author, Iris Blum, are alone in the home, though Lily begins to suspect that the house itself is haunted, and that one of Blum’s books about a murdered woman shut up in a wall by her husband might be both true and connected to the house.
The thing that sticks out to me is how much Iris Blum feels like a stand-in for Shirley Jackson, the author of works like the story “The Lottery,” the novels We Have Always Lived In the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, and others. The fact that Ruth Franklin’s biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life, came out this year, is a nice little bonus to connect to Jackson’s impact and influence. To be fair, there are a few key differences here between the real Jackson and the fictional Blum, such as the fact that Blum is depicted as having no family and Jackson having been married and a mother. However, the idea of a woman who wrote prolifically about horrific things (Lily is open about being a complete coward in the film, which creates a slightly hilarious back-and-forth in the minimalistic sense of the film’s aesthetic overall.
I Am the Pretty Thing… follows the (arguably excellent) trend of modern horror drawing on arthouse and minimalist film styles to use mood, silence, and (alternately) intense volume/sound building to create intense anxiety, and using (what I thought was brilliant) background visual tricks to give you serious “WHAT THE FUCK” moments. There’s an upside-down chair hanging in the kitchen in this film that no one discusses or acknowledges and until I figured out that the chair is being hung from a peg on the wall, it seemed like a Poltergeist moment of shifted furniture that genuinely confused and frightened me. The main character pacing the kitchen as the sound and tension swells and then the simple but oh-my-god visual of the phone cord being lifted…and lifted…and lifted…
It was horrifying.
I’ve taught Jackson’s story “The Lottery” every chance I’ve gotten throughout the years, having fallen in love with it in high school. It’s a wonderful work for teaching symbolism, for discussing simple horror, and for introducing the concept of modern American literature’s attempts to come to terms with the bloody bones the nation is built on.
Older students tend to catch on quick, though they’re still horrified by the whole thing (a current student introduced the idea of corruption being a part of the life of “The Lottery”, which is fascinating and not something I’d through about before). Younger students are confused until you get the ball rolling about the whole thing and what the various elements CAN really mean (because Jackson was notorious about refusing to elaborate on her work, which I find delightful). Shirley Jackson as a woman who wrote in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and in particular wrote what we’d commonly consider horror fiction, is such a fascinating figure. She’s one of my favorite authors period, and it’s because of her voice in horror that I say that. Her voice gives us something that we see and take for granted in anything horrific or supernatural. We wouldn’t have Twin Peaks without her, something seen as almost the “beginning” of the whole small-town-hiding-horrors trope.
Her voice is the voice that I saw visualized in I Am the Pretty Thing… on the screen, where bucolic Americana is a prison, bright sunlight streaming through windows a painful and hot bar in a window that keeps you penned inside. There are a lot of elements implied here as well in terms of women who are trying to write with what are seen as masculine framing, as well as how women who don’t like that are supposed to respond to it. More than that though was how Lily tries to justify the house to herself before suspecting that there might be more there. The lack of ghosts for the most part, relying instead of the fears that many of us definitely have about empty houses, paranoia, and the dark when we turns our backs. I think it’s in this that the film is most immediately relatable to Jackson, in seizing upon real human fears and hatreds, with a sense of a possible supernatural twist in there.
That ultimately is what makes Jackson’s work so great, and it’s what makes really good horror work. Real fear is in the mutation of what we genuinely can’t wait to get away from fast enough, what we couldn’t shake off no matter how much we try.
I spent one Halloween night going to see a big-screen showing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It was great, and at that size the film’s overall atmosphere really works. It worked to the point that my paranoia about empty rooms made me turn on all the lights and check every room and closet through my house, opting to stay awake and order pizza instead of going to sleep.
It was the stupidest thing to be fearful of or feel scared about, honestly. I was 27, I lived with someone else with a dog and a baseball bat, but the paranoia of dark open doorways and what was there when I turned my back was so great that it affected how I spent my night. This film seizes on that in the same way that Jackson seized on those for her writing, seizing on paranoias and fears we didn’t realize had such deep and dark holds on us, and slowly reeling them up from the depths into the light and exposing us to their true horror.
The awful root of “The Lottery” isn’t the violence, it’s the corruption of community, especially when the other side of the “close-knit community” coin is “isolated from escape and privacy.” There’s no escaping the lottery in Jackson’s story, because it’s a very real and unavoidable horror, one that like empty doorways full of dark in a house when the sun has gone down, you just don’t want to turn your back on no matter how often you tell yourself it’s not going to come for you. In the same fashion, the real horror of I Am The Pretty Thing… isn’t that the house is haunted, it’s that the ghost was killed for being beautiful, that Iris Blum’s mind has gone as she sits alone with a ghost trying to reach out to her to talk, and that Lily is caught between it all, surrounded by empty doorways.
Ultimately the film’s not perfect, mostly because the last fifteen minutes tend to meander a bit, though you could also compare that to a more literal vs. filmatic ending, with the cliche of the last scare visual being thrown in there to emphasize the subtle horror aspects of the film (if that makes sense).
It’s very much a horror movie not just WITH women in it, but ABOUT the women in it, in a very visual/abstract sense. And I’m pretty cool with it.
Halloween is closing in, so in celebration of the spooky holiday season, my favorite, I threw this little chapbook together with some of my short horror stories, something for your ‘zine bookshelf or while you’re watching horror movies this excellent October season.
BURIED: Short Stories contains three shorts, one of which has appeared in the newsletter and on here, with the other two being new originals. You can get BURIED with my stories “The Iron Space,” “The Photo,” and “Cigs” for less than $4 in print (with a free digital download) or digital-only for $0.99.
I’m using Magcloud to publish BURIED, so shipping is a little pricey (it’ll be about $3, but that covers the printing/material costs basically).
Anyway, check it out, get a copy, spread the word, enjoy some written horror and support an indie self-publishing writer like myself!
This piece at Gizmodo* about the implosion of ITT Tech and the comments to the article is fascinating in not only getting to a lot of the core elements of the controversy, but also in catching a lot of the culture of what it was like at being in a slowly-dying but still big-name for-profit college.
Most of my early teaching was done at for-profit colleges, something that I think doesn’t get brought up a lot in education. We talk about the shitty stuff adjuncts and young teachers have to do to survive like balancing a too-heavy workload or getting second non-teaching jobs to pay the bills, but I’m struggling to think about admitting that a lot of people who really do care about teaching end up teaching at for-profit colleges.
In 2011, when I’d moved to Columbus OH for a few years from New York, I ended up as an adjunct faculty member at the ITT campus in a suburb of Columbus, about thirty minutes from the city where I was living at the time. It was officially the third college I’d ever taught at, and the first time that I was dealing with a full teaching load of very-full classes. It was also the first time in my short teaching career I got to shift towards teaching during daylight hours, since everyone knows young adjuncts will take ANYTHING, and early on got all the late-night sections of general ed requirements no one else wanted to take or teach unless they had to. The two micro-semesters (more like trimesters really) I ended teaching there until the spring of 2012 were where I really cut my teeth teaching-wise, and I honestly have non-terrible memories of that period of my career. The classes were full, occasionally rowdy, and mostly made up of older students (a few younger though) that were from a vastly-different world than I was, which isn’t hard to do, considering I’m a bearded and be speckled godless East Coast liberal elite.
It was hard. It was hard for a reason, balancing a full load between there and another smaller for-profit school, while also struggling to understand a college campus culture that was somewhat intensely-defined through corporate calls, from an office in a building in another goddamn state. Discourage dropping out. Encourage them to stay in school and come to class regularly for the whole time (we’re talking 3+ hour classes with a smoke break factored in halfway-through. I couldn’t let them leave early (or rather leave too early) because so much of the day-to-day operations of the campus dictated we had to keep them in class for specific amounts of hours per day or lose money, which meant I was basically forced to learn how to fill hours of class time. I remember at one point giving up and just showing TED talks about “communications” for the writing classes I was doing because I’d literally run out of material for the week. We were encouraged to both somehow act like “real” professors and remind students of our qualifications, but at the same time treat it as a business focusing on maintaining a certain quality to be able to maintain our accreditation at the state and federal level.
At the time I didn’t understand a lot of it, and honestly despite going into teaching didn’t know or think too much of the larger corporate culture I was a part of at the time. I was just glad to have a job that paid, a job that involved teaching, and a job that kept me out of the house for a few hours a day as the relationship I was in at the time was slowly falling apart. Now obviously, I have a much broader read of what was going on, and how I was, in a weird way, part of a larger thing that really fucked a lot of people over.
I should be ashamed of it, and in a way I am, because I don’t really tell too many people (though it’s in my CV, so it’s not really a secret per se), but at the same time I’m not, and I don’t know how to feel about it, because as much as it sucked for so many people (to put it lightly), it was a good time for me.
*) I have complicated feelings about the (now-former) Gawker Media offshoots, mostly as they continue to exist and Gawker no longer does. As much as I didn’t like Gawker, A) What happened to it at the hands of Thiel is intensely fucked-up, and B) the offshoots like io9, Kotaku, Gizmodo, and Deadspin all have done and still do some interesting work I enjoy, so I’m working hard on suspending my dislike of a larger collective whole for the sake of quality work.
The Washington Post and VICE are two similar places where I struggle with shitty corporate behavior and cultures that still have great stuff going on (in particular Vice Gaming has been doing some really interesting video game writing and commentary, and Michael Cavna and Alyssa Rosenberg at the Post are wonderful) so I sometimes will suspend morality for the sake of great nonfiction.
When I was in high school we had a chain of stores in New York called Coconut’s. It was a pretty typical chain of the model of Virgin records, with bright-eyed young people in polo t-shirts with the company logo and an ID tag on a lanyard around their necks, asking you if you were looking for something in particular. They sold CDs, they sold cassettes and posters, did giveaways and pre-sales of concert tickets, and of course, they sold DVDs. It was a good place to stop in for a bit as a high schooler with twenty bucks to burn, or just browse until one of the managers would ask you if you were actually going to buy something. For the most part the employees were completely fine with teenagers wandering and browsing for an hour straight, then buying ONE used CD a cassette or some disc cleaners to justify being in there for so long looking like a thief.
For some absolutely bizarre but magical reason, the Coconut’s in my old neighborhood in Queens would have, hidden in random slots alongside with all the “radio rock” and pop music, the most absolutely amazing punk and metal records, just squirreled away. Black Flag. The Bad Brains. Minutemen. The Descendents. A ton of then-obscure thrash and heavy metal like Stormtroopers of Death and the first few Mastodon records. For a young kid whose punk tastes were slowly burgeoning out from just the same three or four skatepunk/obnoxious three-piece acts that littered independent music in the 1990s and had a bit of awareness now of not just the older acts but also the more obscure ones, that place was Heaven.
Even better? They had awesome fucking movies.
Besides the obvious semi-hidden porno display at the very back, and the even-less hidden display of the cartoon pornography (“You know, that anime ‘hentai’ tentacle stuff, man!”), there was a whole one side of the long room that was nothing but movies, just rows upon rows of DVDs, by both genre and alphabetically.
College and a job in a cubicle (with access to the Internet almost all day), combined with an unhealthy obsession with horror movies and trashy pulp led me of course to Hammer, to Troma, and to all the offshoots of those infamous names that were re-packaging and redistributing old grindhouse and bad horror knockoff films. This was the early days of Netflix and after I’d exhausted most of the truly weird and good stuff at the local Blockbuster, which a few years later withered and died into…whatever it is now. When Netflix (and later on the very early version of Hulu) were snatching up the rental/distirbution rights to almost anything they could get their hands on, from obscure anime to old horror movies and stuff that was basically light/fake snuff and softcore pornography disguised as horror and cult/arthouse, it was a boon to someone like me.
This was also right after we got cable for the first time after the 9/11/01 attacks in New York City, and my parents decided we needed Internet and cable to be able to escape the horrific drone of nothing on TV but the news. Hence…TV channels like IFC and later on, horror-exclusive stuff like Chiller, which would spew forth even more names and titles for me to look for and, later on, straight-up hunt for.
Coconut’s had so many movies, at one point (partially through being in collusion with one of the employees there) I got my hands on a non-American version of the Hammer film The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (released in the US as The Seven Brothers and their One Sister Meet Dracula, for some reason). Eventually because I couldn’t keep everything at home due to space, I was buying DVDs and returning them for cash at the buyback counter with something like a 25% loss, resulting in what I look back on in a stupid-but-fond way as a “fucked up rental fee.”
The week that the store was closing (an inevitability as music/movie downloading and cheap movie rentals online started to put huge dents in with insane deals to just get rid of stuff, I went in with half a paycheck in cash and just went nuts, with everything half-off. Obscure Japanese movies, a few Hammer titles I didn’t have but really wanted to fill in my Dracula collection, and a box set proclaiming itself as “The 30 (or was it 50?) Greatest Lost Classics Of Horror In One Place!”, a box of slim DVDs that was $20 for what turned out to be ten straight hours of awful, two hours of 70’s smut masquerading as slapstick horror, and the rest was maybe salvageable.
I think that box set is still in my parents’ basement.
Most of those movies are gone, as are a lot of other things that got sold/donated later on or lost in a shuffle of several moves after then. I couldn’t tell you the plots to most of the movies I watched in that “era” of my life outside of the big name titles/critically-acclaimed titles, because now with the hindsight of age, I can tell you how awful most of them were. All those remastered and re-released “grindhouse classics” and “spotlights of foreign horror mastery” were, for very good reasons, forgettable.
No one outside of New York (and sometimes New Jersey) really remembers Coconut’s, and I still think about it every time I think about my early weird film education, in those really formative years when I started college and threw myself into pulp and Korean horror and old films that I managed to find as box sets or rereleases in the shelves and sales bins of this store that’s now a bank, one I still walk by and look at every time I’m in the area visiting family.
I work really hard to not allow myself to be so entirely nostalgic, but I will totally be nostalgic for a place like Coconut’s. In its own unmeaning way, a place like that can be a real oasis for a brain like mine that was craving more and more weirdness to keep up with it, which it did, in leaps and bounds limited pretty much only by work, school, sleep, and my wallet. If there was any time and place I’d go back to to, honestly, it’d be then.
Mostly because now that I’m older I’d know better what to get and what to look for.
A quick Twitter exchange got me thinking about (well, continuing to think about) horror genres, and body horror in particular. I’d been listening to an audio horror podcast, and as soon as one of the stories started to turn into body horror, I tuned out.
Clive Barker and the Hellraiser franchise are, as far as I’m concerned, a gold standard in a genre of horror that’s fairly popular, and for good reason. However, I can’t really bring myself to appreciate and enjoy what we’d call modern “body horror” anymore, primarily because the focus is almost entirely on the “ick factor” elements, rather than the deeper reasons for those feeling of uncomfortableness that gross visuals bring up.*
In comparison, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to the unexplained, not necessarily horror in a conventionally-paranormal ghost sense, but rather abstract existential horror (“Lovecraftian” for a lack of a better term, though Machen is arguably almost superior). What terrifies me, rather than grosses me out, is a sense of realization of the grander chain of things, that I’m not only not at the top of the food chain, but I’m not even at the top of the intelligence chain. Also, the chance that it’s not even a chain or a ladder with a semblance of order, but a wild and ever-changing, unknowable web, makes me fear in a deep part of my gut. I can’t come to a conclusion, I can’t learn anything about it beyond what I experience, and what I experience is so beyond my comprehension at the time I can only hope to survive, or at best, be ignored by it.
Sean T. Collins touched on some of the really interesting bits here how this is applicable to the religion of the Iron Islands in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire books (the Game of Thrones series)
Because Martin is not just the child of Tolkien. […]
Martin is the child of Howard.
This is Howard’s world. A world of so many bizarre and terrifying ruins that they can’t possibly be reconciled, a world where there are as many mind-warping remnants of impossible architectures as there are stars in the sky.
And this is, in many ways as it turns out, the World of Ice and Fire. The world of the Basilisk Isles, of Sothoryos, of Yeen, of Hyrkoon, of Yi Ti, of Leng, of Asshai. As with Howard, the point is not aligning all phenomena in an intelligible system, but in suggesting that the system is beyond intelligence. (It’s not for nothing that Howard and Lovecraft were close friends and correspondents, often riffing on one another’s science-fantasy-horror concepts within their own work.) The world through which Conan wanders, or about which Maester Yandel writes, is in a very important way just a series of trapdoors that drop you directly into nightmare after nightmare. The drop is the point, not the floor that connects them.
The idea of Howard being a major influence (as much as Lovecraft) in the early creation myths of Westerns (moreso than Lovecraft arguably) is such a fascinating idea, and it certainly ties into this idea of something truly horrifying being that which we can’t be codified in any sort of large-scale creation myth or pantheon. Howard, as Collins is touching on, created a world (the world of “Conan the Barbarian”) where dueling creation myths, unexplainable phenomena, and remands of former inhabitants and civilizations exist in some sort of paradoxical state of the world as it is for the character(s). There is no real overlapping reason, Collins argues, because there doesn’t need to be one. That lack of codification of the world for Conan the Barbarian is what makes Howard’s world so intensely dangerous and horrifying.
This is, to Collins, the appeal of the “magical” elements of the world of Westerns in Martin’s books, because while the danger of diving too deep into history and expository work to explain the history and mechanics is that it ultimately strips the story down to explanation. It’s why so many of Howard’s elemental world of barbarians and monsters work. They’re meant to be reminders of
Now, this brings us to the ultimate flaw of modern body horror, which is that its focus on exquisite and intensely-intrinsic (physiologically) mutilation and mutation of the form, the root of body horror (the fear of an unknown invasion of the familiar and personal) is changed into something else (the horror of grossness), ultimately turning what I’d consider an interesting subgenre into just another hack-fest.
However, this does lead into something interesting, which is just why I can’t keep up. It’s not that I don’t like gory grossness (I mean, the fact that I advocate for 1980’s trash-bag gloriousness Motel Hell constantly should be evidence of it). However, it’s interesting that I just don’t find it scary. It’s fun and cool and schlocky, it’s just not scary. What’s scary to me is far different. What’s scary to me is what I genuinely don’t know.
I don’t know what’s out there beyond my field of view. I find myself genuinely concerned when I can’t track or predict a story, or when I find stories that deal with that same level of non-understanding. Howard’s Conan fights beasts on instinct, from forgotten folds of history that he can’t think of, because if he does it could destroy his mind. Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown (arguably the intense root of his xenophobia and racism) is in the idea that, at the dawn of a new century, exploration by bolder souls will show us a horrific truth, that we’re not at the top of the food chain.
I’m scared of finding out that no matter what, all of what I know is pointless, especially against the larger strength and knowledge of the void. Some things just happen and I can’t understand them.
Fuck, I hate the void.
*) Of course, there are obvious clashes with this thesis, in particular and idea that came to me while I was doing some deep thinking (scrambling some eggs for lunch). A major one (that I’d hope to eventually be able to dedicate some serious brainpower to) is the idea that are my own feelings about abstract Lovecraftian horror rooted in my male cisgendered heterosexuality, considering the intensely feminist leanings and implications of good body horror, which is more aptly-describable as “body/invasion horror,” which is rooted so deeply in the ultimate threat against women, the violation of space…but that’s another rambling I’ll get to.
The field was overflowing by the time I hit graduate school, and I was beginning to become more and more critical of the fandom, with its cultural fetishism, sexism, and weird obsessions with surefire crowdpleasers like hypersexualitzation, fanservice imagery, Nazi iconography, and of course, casual racism. I’ve since started to slowly float back to the field, and of course the good stuff that floated to the surface has always stayed on my DVD shelves and in my personal mental lists of great TV and movies. It’s hard to stay so attached to something though, when your primary problem is with the idea of that attachment.
I wrote a little bit about how I got into writing and why I write for the “Professor’s Corner” segment of the Monroe Art Collaborative, the fledgling writing/art club we’re trying to get going at one of the colleges I teach at.
I’m an adjunct faculty member at Monroe College, and this collaborative/club is something I thought about getting going as part of an effort to get .
It’s hard. When I freelanced in college I made very little money doing it, and nowadays, there’s even less money in it. Too often I worked for recommendations, for copies of the magazines I appeared in, for copies of records or books I reviewed. Once I got paid in comic books, and another time an editor dropped me from a publication for questioning why we were being cut to less than minimum wage, again.
You should check the whole thing out (it’s also on Facebook), we’re trying to get the students writing and publishing and getting their work out there (as well as slowly getting writing workshopping, learning about the submission process, and editing basics going on). I’m excited to see where it goes and what students get out of it.
So I decided to revive my serialized PI story, Black Ink, starring Ben Miles, haphazard private eye and part-time bail bondsman. It’s back! And…if you’ve never read it or heard of it before, it’s new!
Manta Books brings in not-that-efficient PI/part-time bondsman Ben Miles to track down a missing piece of art, a seemingly-simple job involving newspaper cartoons and digging through boxes of paper. But nothing is what it seems when it comes to a Ben Miles case, and more than likely, he’s gonna end up getting his ass kicked over a comic book.
I initially was writing and publishing Black Ink chapter by chapter through 2013 and 2014, but time and teaching obligations meant I had to basically leave it by the wayside, which sucked. Ben Miles is the character I invented for my short story collection RUNNING THE TRAIN…AND OTHER STORIES, and I’ve used him in one or two other stories for other stuff since then.
If you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, I’ll be re-posting and re-sharing the chapters of the story (which I know are all up, I know…) from the start, on a regular basis before we get to new chapters to wrap this story up, and see what happens with Ben Miles, his usual motley friends (including the far-more proficient Kalli Kiliaris), and…a comic strip.
I found out that Richard Thompson died yesterday, from Parkinson’s complications.
I don’t really know what to say or what to write, and I re-did this over and over a few times. Suffice to say, one email, a “thanks!” on the cover of the TCDS “Favorites” ‘zine was as close as I got. He wasn’t a friend, more a friend of a few casual acquaintances. But his work was amazing and wonderful and brilliant and so intensely inspirational. If you’ve never read any of his work, seriously, look some up and just be prepared to waste a whole day marveling at his lines, inks, color usage. I can’t really adequately describe just how amazing his work was to me or how it impacted my writing and my cartooning (when I did draw comics), but it is, and it did.
Being a part of the Team Cul De Sac book was the biggest thing publishing-wise that I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m incredibly grateful I was allowed to participate in the book, the ‘zine, and that my work was not only picked for the book part of the project, but also got auctioned off to raise money for TEAMFOX and Parkinson’s research.
I’m just bummed. We’ll miss you Richard, and we miss Alice.