Halloween Season and WFC 2018

Greetings, all you ghouls! Here’s hoping your Halloween Season has been as creepy and disturbing as mine… I’ve been reading Orrin Grey‘s Guignol and Other Sardonic Tales lately, along with watching things like Night Tide (1961), Hocus Pocus (1993), and other dark delights. So, actually, a little more witchy-ghosty than stabby-despairy (those are the official horror taxonomies, don’t you know?).

Late summer/early autumn has seen the release of a number of publications including my work. For all that I’ve only completed a few new pieces this year, it’s been a bumper crop the last month or so…

  • book coversAs I wrote previously, volume one of The Silent Garden, a new annual publication from Undertow, contains an essay by yours truly (“Translating the Ritual”) about the move of Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual from page to screen.
  • This year’s edition of Nightscript (volume four) contains my “There Has Never Been Anyone Here,” a semi-epistolary story that goes down as probably the most complicated story I’ve ever written, from research to formatting. My thanks to Nightscript editor C.M. Muller for doing such a lovely job in retaining my intentions for the final version.
  • My first peer-reviewed piece of literary scholarship has now been published in Sean Moreland’s New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature: The Critical Influence of H. P. Lovecraft. “Reception Claims in Supernatural Horror in Literature and the Course of Weird Fiction” took some time to get right, and I’m proud of it. (Please note that this volume is priced for the academic market, and you might want to consider suggesting your local/institutional library purchase a copy.)

In the next month or so, I’ll have work in Dead Reckonings and a reprint in Pseudopod. A few other things floating around out there might yet appear before 2019.

Last but definitely not least, I’ll be at World Fantasy in Baltimore this year! I’m attending with both my writer and my librarian hats on, so I’ll be swanning around and doubtless asking questions about writers’ research practices. I’m delighted to say that I’m scheduled to read on Thursday, November 1, at 5:30 p.m. in room Federal Hill. Please come to witness the spectacle of…

Terror in Glover-o-Vision!

Well, perhaps not quite all that, but I do loathe a dull reading! Hopefully attendees will be at least entertained, and perhaps even encounter a bit of pleasing terror on the journey…

A Few of My Favorite Things, May 2018 Edition

What’s good? Many things, new and old, that I’ve gotten to so far this year. Not pictured are:

  • The Ritual, which I liked and thought interesting enough to write an essay about for the forthcoming first issue of The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism.
  • Many works that The Internet Writ Large seemed to dislike, and which I’ve found at least readable or watchable. 2012’s Solomon Kane, for instance, about which I’d previously only heard complaints. I thought it delightful, in something of the way that Constantine (2005) was delightful.
  • All things Mike Mignola. One of his works is below, but I’m trying to read the bulk of his Hellboy/Mignolaverse work this year, with others added as I’m able. No particular reason for that, other than that I’ve really enjoyed it in past, but only read snatches. I’ve spent the last few years (for one reason and another) reading a host of things that seemed a good idea to read, or people suggested I read, or I was required to read. 2018 struck me as a good year for reading both more overall and more intensively the things I enjoy.

On to the recs…

Books

Movies

Television

Comics

 

The Crone and the Hyena

Last night we watched The Flowering of the Crone: Leonora Carrington, Another Reality. It was weird and good! Interesting blend of archival interview footage, history, and adaptation of one of her stories. It feels older than it is, with some graphical effects that seemed oddly 1990s for a 2009 production. The only complaint I have is that the version we watched (on Kanopy, a streaming platform specializing in art, world, documentary , etc. film) didn’t offer closed captioning, which I almost always use these days. 4/5 girl-faced hyenas.

If you want to know more about Carrington, a multi-faceted artist, there are plenty of image galleries and articles floating around online. Selena Chambers has also just finished a series of read-throughs of Carrington’s short fiction over at Weird Fiction Review, which is worth a gander. My exposure to the female Surrealists has included a swathe of Leonor Fini’s work, with a side order of Tanning, but both the documentary and Selena’s read-though have inspired me (finally) to take in some more Carrington.

Anthropocene Ghosts and Other Collateral Damage in Moldova (Spectral, 2016)

poster for spectralThe Moldova of Nic Mathieu’s 2016 directorial debut, Spectral, is a blasted, destroyed landscape, full of war and refugees without end. Everyone in this film is displaced to one extent or another by ongoing political instability, from the civilians hunkered down in bunkers to protagonist Mark Clyne, a DARPA researcher played by James Badge Dale who is sent from Virginia to Eastern Europe to troubleshoot a possible technology malfunction on-site. Whether it’s set in the present day or the near future is unclear, although the technology on gleaming, fetishistic display is far enough advanced to suggest the latter, even if it springs from some projects currently in development, like quadrupedal robots. If you decide to take the 107 minutes to watch this (on Netflix, where it was released), you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at machines, as well as the people who operate them.

The film’s beats are familiar to any viewer who has seen Aliens (1986), Starship Troopers (1997), or similar military science fiction stories, from the orphaned waif with secret knowledge to effects-heavy firefight sequences that only resolve after a targeted strike. Added supernatural frisson comes from the film’s titular antagonists: hyperspectrals, murderous entities of unknown origin that are visible only via the use of advanced optical devices fielded by Delta Force teams. The pacing and shots, however, tell a clear genre story, as it lacks almost entirely the jump scares of many contemporary horror films, or the slow-building dread of classics like The Haunting (1963) or Alien (1975).

If you’re looking for a decent action flick to watch over the holidays, you could do a lot worse than Spectral. Lacking the R rating of bug-hunts like Aliens, this PG-13 film is low on gore, and the many deaths on screen are largely bloodless. The fatigue and street battle action all feel plausible, with none of the hyper-masculine banter and action the genre often features. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, few female characters with audience rooting interest. Emily Mortimer gets plenty of screen time in her co-lead role as CIA officer Fran Madison, and she has a significant role in the narrative’s unfolding, but for most of the film she serves as a foil and aid to Clyne, moving in and out of her role as CIA “mission control” as the plot demands. The actors who played the various Delta Force soldiers all do serviceable jobs, though their mortality rate and a largely undistinguished script caused them to blur together for me. Bruce Greenwood gives a decent, if slightly reserved, performance as General Orland, leader of the U.S. troops deployed to the area. Elsewhere I’ve said Spectral ranks “three specters out of five,” and that’s where I land, review-wise. From this point on we enter spoiler territory.

As Netflix has shrunk their catalogue in order to focus on producing original shows, increasingly their streaming options have included one-star stinkers that lack the charm of VHS-era direct-to-video. Spectral, originally slated for a theater release by Legendary Pictures,  is more engaging than said one-star snoozes, as well as many other good military SF films, and certainly more so than big budget disasters like 2013’s inexplicably and unforgivably boring Ender’s Game. This stems from many things, but none more than its nuanced treatment of environments subjected to human reshaping and degradation. That the characters are aware of these processes is clear, though they rarely interrogate them, and instead seem to take it for granted as the price that is necessary for states to operate, whether controlling internal conflict, or projecting global force.

Spectral shows off landscapes ruined by humans from the outset, and for the most part doesn’t show anything like pristine spaces. The opening sequence follows a Delta Force veteran, cut off from his comrades and in need of evac. En route to his fatal encounter, where we get our first glimpse of a hyperspectral, he crosses shattered, rubble-choked spaces and rooms, a built landscape undone by some unknown conflict, the precise nature of which is ultimately irrelevant to the film.

This theme of damaged landscape carries through into the next scene, where we meet Clyne, hunting through a Virginia junkyard for a difficult-to-obtain toxic chemical. Current government regulations, including those which surround the DARPA lab where he works, render legitimate access problematic, but as a cynical and knowledgable scientist, Clyne is aware that regulatory loopholes have allowed 1990s-era cartridges containing said material to go unnoticed in the middle of a space designated for ruination.

Even the “clean” spaces of the movie, labs and modular command posts, are shown in aging, time-worn contexts, not the gleaming, technophilic aura that surrounds Tony Stark’s primary bases of operation in Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), etc.  Toward the conclusion, during a retreat from a (human) attack on Orland’s base to a civilian refugee bunker, Osprey helicopters bring giant crates of useful, still-intact supplies and land these gleaming, metallic arks on piles of mounds of dirt and rubble. Anything safe, hygienic, or useful exists in a protected space, subject to pollution once the seals are broken, whether that pollution is noxious gas or decays of protocol.

While an early red herring suggests that the hyperspectrals may be “aratare,” ghosts of war raised by the suffering of war’s victims, the enemies on screen are all human or man-made. They are, it develops, 3D-printed ghosts that were formed out of Bose-Einstein condensate in the heart of a power plant that is the setting for the climax. Here Clyne and Madison make their way through a corpse-laden research  facility to discover the origin of and destroy the enemy. They find, however, that these weaponized specters are on the loose due to a disaster, that freed many of their number from the holding cells where half of their number still rage. Along with these cells, our protagonists find that these manufactured ghosts are controlled by intact human nervous systems extracted from bodies and imprisoned in coffin-like structures where they are kept in a constant state of pain. Ending the menace involves a struggle to decouple various tubes and clamps giant, with no clear understanding of what side-effects may arise from the systems’ destruction, and no possible salvation for the population of imprisoned and tormented undead cyborgs.

Meanwhile, Delta Force is busy waging an all-out assault on the hyperspectrals outside of the plant. The creation of the guns they use is a MacGyver-like feat of engineering  by Clyne, and in keeping with his junkyard opening, these weapons are unclean. What exactly goes into them, we don’t know, but each gun uses a large cartridge (battery? chemical?), and each shot releases a roiling cloud of dark, opaque smoke. The gunners all wear not merely heavy gear, but masks clearly designed to protect them from the weapons’ effluent. They are fighting hard-to-see monsters that rise like noxious gas from the earth, an environmental danger that they cannot combat with conventional armaments, the merely human soldiers powerless against their foes, like doughboys unequipped to face chemical weapons. Ultimately the U.S. forces beat the hyperspectrals with toxic pulse rifles that leave behind gases of unknown danger and duration, presumably somewhere on the spectrum between land mines in Cambodia and depleted uranium in Iraq.

Spectral is an imperfect film, with science, engineering, and physics that even Baron von Frankenstein would look askance at, but the running motif of interaction of technology and environment is thoughtfully embedded throughout, in ways large and small. The camera’s fetishistic languor when it comes to gear—weapons tests, modifying cameras, assembling guns, destroying laboratories—goes beyond signature cinematic parallels from Aliens or Commando (1985), and instead recalls the constant study, selection, and upgrading of technology embedded in shooter and other video games. Given Spectral‘s heavy use of CGI, as well as floating camera shots of battle scenes, this is perhaps not a surprise. Clyne boards a plane out of Moldova at the end, having navigated ruined environments that could have been lifted right out of either the Call of Duty franchise or the civilian-centered This War of Mine (2014). The war of Spectral is ongoing, and not won by film’s end, so Clyne’s departure doesn’t signal victory for the “good guys,” so much as it indicates that a dangerous obstacle has been removed, an environmental conflict ingeniously managed, and conflict can now proceed as usual. The film ends with Clyne swallowed up in the belly of an Osprey, ready to be transported from the field of combat back to Virginia, where he will presumably return to the lab, and resume development of new technologies.

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.

Strange Love

Presumably most true Aickman-o-philes have seen this documentary already, but if you are one of his readers who have not, then enjoy.

I watched this tonight and enjoyed it, though I feel the film is probably most intelligible to those who are already deeply enough engaged with the dark and fantastic that Robert Aickman is not an unknown quantity. He is, in the U.S., at least, somewhere between an influential mid-century author of horror fiction and a cult author with a beyond-cult following. His work is refined and unusual, not well imitated, though some have walked in his footsteps. If you wind up in a conversation where people are talking about “strange stories,” Aickman is watching from a corner of the room.

Much about the documentary struck me, particularly the section discussing his personality: the “grit in the oyster” comment. So often excellent authors (or artists generally) are at heart awkward, rude, mean, or actually monsters. That tends to be less visible today, or perhaps such authors don’t have as easy a time of it, but it still astonishes me how much hue and cry a writer’s misstep engenders in “the writing community,” despite the vast, well-documented literature of creative people being sometimes outrageously disruptive and unpleasant. Aickman seems to have been on the benign end of that scale, but I don’t think he would fare well if he were around and trying to get started these days. His politics wouldn’t suit a lot of readers, and his manner suggests that he would be a disaster on, say, Facebook.

This film is a nice look at an author who lived in the days before Google, BookScan, the Wayback Machine, and constant surveillance and sousveillance. He was probably the happier for it, and perhaps a more interesting—and more enigmatic—figure than he would otherwise be today. Fortunately for his readers.