To Pierce the Chancre of Darkness out of Time and Space

cover of I Am ProvidenceNick Mamatas is to blame for many things: on that I think we can all agree. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s also to be praised. If there were not a Nick, he would have to be invented. That’s part of the theme of his latest book, I Am Providence [Powell’s|Amazon|B&N], wherein characters careen madly around Providence at the Summer Tentacular convention in the wake of Panos Panossian’s murder. They’re all busy creating themselves, their arch-enemies, and their hothouse-nuthouse social milieu. Toward the end of the book we’re treated to an extended eulogy for and fight over Panossian, and here we come to the meat of the matter. Following Panossian’s circumlocutory lead, however, let’s pause a moment

I Am Providence is a literary murder-mystery, stamped with “Horror” on the spine, that you’ll maybe find on the Fantasy & Science Fiction shelf, maybe in the General Fiction. It’s always one thing at the same time as something else—whodunit and fan culture send-up, meditation on mortality and gonzo thrill-ride—all welded together to form a living, breathing work of fiction. The strengths that will keep this book alive for years to come are its sharply, mercilessly honest observations of human behavior, combined with the cold ratiocination of a mind fading into darkness. It’s fundamentally Lovecraftian and Ligottian, and it is disquieting.  Praise or blame for how well it hews to the conventions of mystery, or horror, or whatever are almost beside the point: it is a Nick Mamatas novel.

This book is also, as you probably already know, a roman a clef: a satire of the community of fans, readers, writers, scholars, and hangers-on who school around things Lovecraftian, Cthulhoid, etc. Recognizable caricatures of well-known Lovecraftians fill the book, as well as composite characters and versions of generic types. It’s the funniest thing I can remember having read in years: embarrass-yourself-while-reading-it-in-public funny. Gales of laughter. My wife repeatedly came to check on me from the other room to make sure I was OK when reading at home. If laughter’s the best medicine, I just added a couple years to my life.

While I hate (I mean really fucking hate, will-cross-you-off-my-decent-human-list hate) being told that’s there’s anything I simply have to read… you have to read this book. And you have to read it now. If you are even vaguely in, around, near, tangent to, or participating in the eternally brewing celebration/maelstrom/shitstorm that is the Lovecraftian community, this book will make you laugh like hell, but mark my words: for all that it’s a good book, the roman a clef aspects of it have a shelf date. Yes, they will still be funny in five years, but people will fade from the scene, eventually Facebook will vanish, the archives of Usenet will disappear, and so on. While bits and pieces of that which is being mocked here will remain, you won’t be able to click twice and find a two-month-old fight on the web between characters in the book.

Which brings me to the point that this book is hilarious not only because it’s funny, but because the fanfic is already out there in the form of crazed screeds and ridiculous Twitter spats. The I Am Providence reading experience, if you are not yet acquainted with the principles and their conflicts, can continue through days and weeks of voyeuristic Googling. Get it while the getting is not merely good, but actually uproarious.

Some reviewers have taken this book to task for being too hard on geeks, and that’s simply not true. This book is kind of like reading the mean girls’ secret yearbook notes, true, but it’s only so mean, and it’s certainly no worse than anything you can find said by most of the principles in this book.  One reviewer described it as “loving,” and I think that’s actually not far off the mark, given how much nastier this book could be. The Fangoria review is much better, and worth a look. Now… I say all this not having seen myself in the book. I imagine that some people out there are decidedly not amused, and are stopped from bringing the lawsuits they have already contemplated primarily by the embarrassment that would be necessitated by having to prove in court that they have been unfairly slandered. And are not, in fact,  as loco, snooty, self-important, racist, sexist, megalomaniacal, deluded, or fundamentally creepy as they are portrayed in the book.

The one negative review I’ve read that makes sense to me is the one review I’ve seen that names some names. I disagree about the overall quality of the book, but there is some truth to the charge that, well, it’s not piercing enough. Many of the recognizables in this book are utterly, entirely ripe for skewering and petard-hoisting, and really they don’t come off all that badly. The same could perhaps also be said for the protagonst, Colleen Danzig, and the saner characters, all of whom get off easy… though I have seen none of them engaged in the displays of mouth-frothing, poo-smearing social maladaptation that lend this book its side-splitting humor.

Thing is? I don’t know when this novel was submitted for publication, but Yog-Sothoth knows the last two years have been full of tempests, including people in every sociopolitical corner of Lovecraftville behaving in crazed and (dare I say it) at times deplorable ways. There have been Lovecraftian dust-ups before and there will be Lovecraftian dust-ups again, but I cannot remember events as public as the recent year or so’s brouhahas that have made it to the mainstream media. And, of course, if you read this book and find yourself wondering why the man who wrote Insults Every Man Should Know did not write an even meaner book, remember that he of necessity bears some love for things Lovecraftian. However well we think of ourselves, however dramatically we may roll our eyes, we can all catch a glimpse of Asparagus Head if we look in the mirror on the right day.

Now go buy I Am Providence.

When Profit Is Not Enough

The Witch still image

Wouldst thou profit… reasonably?

Lately I’ve been watching more films, a large portion of them horror (classic and modern), and some big budget tentpoles. Months after watching, they blend into the overall stew of stories, with some standing out more than others. Star Wars: the Force Awakens was a delight to watch, and I’m so glad to have seen it in the theater. It made me very happy to watch, but it wasn’t better than The Witch, which was tremendously effective, and about which I’m still thinking.

There are a number of articles going around lately about how profitable horror movies are, and it’s not news that horror is generally cheaper to produce than blockbusters. Unfortunately, however, solidly, reasonably, or even outstandingly profitable films are not particularly meaningful to studios if they don’t have the potential for shareholder-exciting, Star Wars-level success. This comes at the expense of thousands of lost opportunities for brave, exciting, new stories that are flushed down the toilet.

cover for paranormal activity

“That door! It cost 1/345 what a Star Wars door costs!”

The Witch, in spite of slow pacing that drove nimrods to wonder whether it could even be called a horror movie (“Bro, do you even scare?”), has made back its budget more than ten times over. The original Paranormal Activity made back its budget at roughly a zillion percent. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in the ballpark of the same rate of return as The Witch, and will presumably pass that, if it hasn’t already. Those sexy, sexy returns are huge for Star Wars, though, in ways The Witch can’t match, but for every Star Wars there’s a dozen failed reboots or lackluster big movies.

This post could also be titled “What’s Wrong With America, Part [X],” given how widely this tiresome, destructive phenomenon repeats itself. Folks in the worlds of horror and speculative fiction publishing have been talking about the lawsuit Hachette has brought against the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for failing to deliver on his next novel. So many problems there, but in the theme of this post, consider how many books could have received modest advances, instead of millions of dollars pumped in the direction of a gimmick, in hopes of massive profits. I don’t begrudge the author his awesome contract, but as part of the general scheme of huge money driving out adventurous, or even modestly successful, money, it’s unfortunate.

There are workarounds, fortunately: sometimes it’s Indiegogo, sometimes self-publishing, sometimes Vimeo. I just wish the natural rate of have/have-not in the arts weren’t being exacerbated simply in order to placate shareholders. Lots of people hustle hard just to get the word out about projects so that they can see the light of day, let alone make a buck. To wit, congratulations to Orrin Grey, whose Kickstarter for a deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil funded yesterday. Whatever the market looks like, art finds a way.

Finding Women in Horror and Weird Fiction

Lately I’ve seen lots of “there are no women in horror”/”why are there no women in horror?”/”go read women in horror” around social media, and I thought that I would engage in serious mansplaining offer some tips on finding historical and current horror/weird fiction by female authors. Helping people find information is the sort of thing I do all day long, specifically helping people conduct research in the humanities, so hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there. I’ve divided it up into “Basic” and “Advanced” sections, to help people who are new to researching authors and to help people who are somewhat experienced in researching authors.

Basic

Women are often absent from “best of” lists in horror fiction, or only present in small numbers. I am writing this post with you in mind, to help you locate more female authors & their works. Most any book listed below you can find at your library, on Amazon, or via used book dealers/sites like Abebooks. Please note that, over the years, many kinds of language have been used to describe this literature: Gothic, horror, weird, supernatural, etc.

the weird by the vandermeersRead anthologies. Anthologies are collections of stories by multiple authors, although some lists and stores will actually class single-author short story collections as “anthologies.” Some large anthologies, like Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, contain a wide range of authors from a broad span of time, giving you a taste of authors you might not otherwise have read, like Margaret Irwin, Leonora Carrington, or Jamaica Kincaid. Anthology editors assemble their books carefully, and if they found an author worth reprinting, it’s usually worth your time to find other stories by the same author. Sometimes an author writes only one or two horror stories, but usually… where there’s one, there’s more.

cover of aickman's heirsRead themed anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of stories on a theme, like cats or tarot cards or a beloved author (“tribute anthologies”). A few recent examples of these are Aickman’s Heirs, Shadows over Main Street, or Tales of Jack the Ripper, all of which contain stories by female authors.

cover queering stoker's draculaOther themed anthologies are arranged according to the writers included: race, sexuality, or some other aspect of identity as the unifying factor. Recent examples include Dreams from the Witch House, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, or Suffered from the Night: Queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bonus: be on the lookout for special issues of short fiction magazines that focus on female authors.

year's best weird fiction 2Read best-of anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of selections from a given year’s stories, published in magazines or single-author collections. Some series only last a few years, others go on for decades. The Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are some of the most well-known, but there are many out there.

Look at lists available online. There are often lists available on sites like Wikipedia that will be of some help, though they can be very long, and they are usually put together as labors of love. Because this topic (“women in horror”) is one that is important to many people, many articles have been written on the subject in recent years (like “Top 25 Women Horror Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of (But Should Know)“) . You can also find a lot of information about many authors at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).

Women in Horror Month. Women in Horror Month is February. It’s designed to celebrate women involved with the field of horror, and I urge you to go read all about it.

Ask an expert. Your local public librarian or bookseller has more advice for you! If you walk in the door and say you want to read “horror by women authors,” or something like that, they will happily help you find new things to read. These people are paid to help you find things to read, so don’t be shy.

Advanced

This section is aimed at readers who already do all of the above. When you want more information and know the field, sometimes you can get help by asking around on social media or in conversation for ideas, but this has some challenges.

We’re social animals, and we tend to recommend based on personal biases and preferences. Writers, publishers, editors, etc. want to make money, and they have to get the word out about their stuff, so there’s a lot of actual signal out there before you even hit noise. People also tend to recommend books they’ve read recently and/or that jump to mind. That tends to mean the stuff that’s available, and the market inevitably pushes older books out of sight, so finding any of the thousands of horror novels or stories written more than a decade or so ago takes effort.

gina wisker horror fictionRead surveys and studies of the field. Think you know horror? Maybe you do, but the odds are pretty good if you’re reading this that you don’t have a Ph.D. focusing on horror literature, or have otherwise acquired systematic knowledge of horror literature. Try a book like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction: An Introduction to get a look at the breadth of the field. Have you read Vernon Lee (AKA Violet Paget)? May Sinclair? Fay Weldon? If not, check it out and see what else you’re missing, or books like Danse Macabre, etc.

cover of encyclopedia of fantasy and horrorUse encyclopedias and other reference books. Once upon a time, libraries almost always had robust reference sections, with many specialized works that helped locate, describe, define, and index information. A lot of those are gone now, replaced by the internet and Google, but some are still in libraries’ reference sections, or are still published and you can check them out. Representative titles include Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, or the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction.

spratford book coverUse tools that librarians use. On the one hand, there are books specifically designed to get librarians some familiarity with a field, reader’s advisory guides like The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. Such books are one of the many tools librarians use to become familiar with fields they may not themselves read in for their own pleasure.

On the other hand, when you’re using library catalogs, look at the catalog record for the novels, anthologies, and short story collections you are reading. They often will have descriptors, tags, or subject headings to find related works, if the library uses such tools to collocate fiction. Not bulletproof, because many libraries don’t really do this for fiction, but it’s worth checking. Sometimes you’ll a helpful Library of Congress heading, such as “Ghost stories.”

kelly linkRead what your heroes have read or are reading. Not everyone leaves behind a treatise like “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to articulate what they’ve read and/or consider important for the field, but authors and editors regularly give interviews or lectures, or are profiled. They will often list or discuss what they’re reading, and women generally talk more often in equal or greater numbers about female authors than men do. Currently I’m reading short stories by Joan Aiken, based on the recommendation of Kelly Link in a talk I saw her give earlier this year. I probably would not have sought out Joan Aiken without Kelly Link’s advice to do so. I’m grateful for it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part One: I appreciate your reading this far. If you find this post useful, please consider reposting, RTing, or sharing it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part Two: If you feel more materially grateful, as in “wow, this was really useful, and I’d like to do something to show my support,” please purchase one or more books by or featuring a living female author of horror or weird fiction. And if you like it? Tell someone about it.

Cheers.

Updates, Honorable Mentions, and the Warping of Young Minds

richmond young writers logoThis summer marked the first time I taught (twice, even!) creative writing for young writers. I was delighted to serve as guest author for the good folks at Richmond Young Writers, and had the pleasure of working with Julie Geen, whom I’ve known for a couple years now, at VCU and from around town, James River Writers, etc. The kids were great, it all seemed to work out well, and I’d love to do it again one day.

Photo of H.P. LovecraftThis autumn I’m going to be presenting some of my Lovecraft scholarship in an academic venue. More details on that down the road, but I’m darn excited. My other scholarship on literary horror, HPL, and weird fiction continues apace.

In a not unrelated vein, I’m excited for the publication of “His Knife, Her Shadow,” in the second issue of Thinking Horror this autumn. My piece is a confessional memoir of sorts, all about how I came to horror as a child in the early 1980s. Writing it proved unexpectedly harrowing, and I hope it’s of interest to the readers of Thinking Horror.

Finally, in further exciting news, I was delighted and honored that Ellen Datlow noted two of my short stories for her long list of Honorable Mentions for Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 8:

“Hunger Full and Lean,” The Lovecraft eZine 34 [free online]
“Mercy’s Armistice,” Big Bad II [$2.99 on Kindle]

Grotesquely, Capriciously Depraved

matthew bartlett's gateways to abominationMatthew Bartlett has gotten heavy praise from many corners of the horror and weird fiction worlds. This is primarily associated with Gateways to Abomination, his self-published 2014 short fiction collection [Amazon|Goodreads], which I just finished reading the other day. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a nice guy (via social media at least; perhaps a strangler in person, though I hear good things), easy to get along with, and thinks interesting thoughts. One instinctively wants him to do well, being the nice fellow that he is, and so I decided to give his book a shot. As I read, my eyebrows rose, with shock and admiration.

Reader, Gateways to Abomination is a strange book. It’s not Strange, or Weird, though it may partake in dashes of various aesthetics, nor is it Decadent or Grand Guignol. Even calling it “truly fucked up” doesn’t quite get it. “Singularly odd” isn’t far off the mark.

Horror is an expansive genre, and I can see this book fitting on a horror bookshelf well enough, but honestly? Not many people write this kind of stuff. Really. It’s like Sprenger and Kramer went over to the Devil and were reborn for the sole purpose of creating a concept album out of Les Fleurs du mal, inexplicably setting it in Massachusetts. The subtitle, “Collected Short Fiction,” is not technically inaccurate, but it’s also… different than most other collections. The book is thematically unified, with various recurring motifs, characters, etc., and I think it’s a real rarity: a book that, with time and luck, could become a cult classic. People throw that term around way too often, but I could see it working here.

Why do I add my voice to the many praising this book? For the simple reason that it’s something that I would like more people to have a chance to enjoy. If you read a lot of horror, you’ve probably heard of this book (I suspect). If you don’t, you might like it if you enjoy William S. Burroughs; grotesque things; David Lynch; visceral footage; Joris-Karl Huysmans. This is a book worth your time if any of that resonates with your literary or artistic sensibilities, and he has other work out there as well, including a 2016 collection entitled Creeping Waves.

A Pagan Suckled in a Creed Outworn

flowers in landscapeFor the last couple months I’ve been on social media very little. This was on account of sundry deadlines, projects, and all the other reasons people typically get offline. I’ve been happier and measurably healthier since then, albeit missing the connection. The horrors of this past week have spurred me to political participation, but not to dwell constantly on injustice, and I’m so glad not to be as much in places where the parade of atrocities never ends. I still hew to Wordsworth’s famous formulation, and I’m endeavoring to live for the things I care about most.

cover of forthcoming Valancourt anthologyAt times when the world does press in, I think it’s important to remember the things that don’t. This week I was talking with James Jenkins of Valancourt Books about the merits of reading classic (or simply older) fiction, and I don’t think it can be overstated. One of the best things I’ve done for myself as a reader or writer in the last year was read all of M.R. James‘ tales, of which I’d previously read some, but not all. No one asked me to do so; as a rule, dead authors are not particularly demanding. Still, the desire was there in me, and it led in a roundabout way to my writing “En Plein Air,” a short story that will appear this October in volume two of Nightscript, and which I think is one of the most effective things I’ve written to date.

Last week I placed an order for a small pile of books, using some of the earnings from my Richmond Young Writers gig, recent things that I’ve read from the library or about which I’ve heard really excellent advance praise. What I also look forward to reading are the things that nobody is urging me to read. Part of that involves plumbing bibliographies and reference books, part of it involves finding reprints, and part of it involves hewing to the titular requirement of this post.

Egyptian_-_Gnostic_Gem_with_Scarab_-_Walters_42872_-_ReverseThe survival of work from the past can be a chancy thing, and what is saved is not necessarily good, and what is lost is sometimes better forgotten. The finding of it, however, is part of a quiet and almost Gnostic kind of quest that demands nothing. It is the sort of thing that many authors have engaged in over the years, and which cannot—perhaps should not—always be repackaged for the demands of social media. Some quests are public, some private, but either way, I think that we forget our quests at the peril of our lives, to say nothing of our art.

A HEX on Richmond!

IMG_2796Yesterday was a bad (or was it good?) day for witches in Richmond. Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt came through town on his U.S. tour, which included a talk and signing at the ever-excellent Fountain Bookstore. If you weren’t able to make his reading last night, Fountain does have on hand for you signed copies of his first novel translated into English: Hex.

I’ve been enjoying reading Thomas’ novel from the library, and I was delighted to pick up my own copy last night. It has appealed to many readers, including Stephen King. It’s a witch tale for the 21st century that will appeal to anyone who likes haunts mashed up with YouTube, The Cabin in the Woods, or the like:

Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened or the consequences will be too terrible to bear.

The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past.

 

eye-sewing kit

“Just squint. This won’t hurt a bit.”

If you were able to attend the reading in person, you got the pleasure of receiving a creepy little giveaway that Thomas prepared with the help of some friends: an eye-sewing kit. Why, pray tell, would you sew eyes? Read the book to learn more, naturally.

My wife and I had the pleasure of showing Thomas around the city during the day, and we visited various places apropos for a horror writer, including the Poe Museum and Hollywood Cemetery, among others. Richmond, which has lately been burning up all those 10-best-cities-for-whatever lists, has a vibrant arts and literary scene and history, which we talked about all day, from Poe to murals. We can’t wait to see Thomas again, hopefully on his next visit to Richmond.

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

Is Thomas Olde Heuvelt coming to your neck of the woods? Maybe: he’s on a six-week tour, the longest ever by a Dutch author, and he’s going to be visiting many places. Check it out, and check his website for updates:

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