Another New Story in August: “Insect Song” in Weirdbook #36

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Though I’m currently hard at work on the first draft of my first novel (which I hope to have done by the end of the year), that doesn’t mean I haven’t still had time to work on a few short stories here and there. Some of them I’ve even managed to trick people into believing are good enough for publication!

A few weeks ago, I revealed that my story “Reset” is set to be a part of the Terror in 16-Bits anthology being released in August by Muzzleland Press. Today, I’m happy to officially announce another story of mine, titled “Insect Song,” is also due out in August, in issue #36 of Weirdbook Magazine.

First debuting in 1969, Weirdbook has a rich, long-running legacy that I am overjoyed to become a part of, even if it’s only a small part. A fan myself, over the years I’ve collected almost every issue from both the mag’s original run and its recent revival from Wildside Press. More than a few authors I look up to have contributed to Weirdbook’s history, from Brian Lumley and William Scott Home to Gary A. Braunbeck and Garrett Cook. Having the chance to contribute to that history myself is a gift.

That the story I get to contribute to said history is the aforementioned “Insect Song” makes the whole thing all the more special. I’m not shy about admitting that this story means a lot to me. In lieu of spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that “Insect Song” deals with themes and issues that are very close to my heart. I worked very hard to get it right, and while I still fear I’ve come up short, I hope I managed to do the subject matter at least some justice.

On that note, I owe a special debt to my beta readers for helping me stumble through several early drafts before settling on the one that will soon see print. In particular, a good friend of mine, Dee Culp, provided extremely thoughtful feedback that helped to mold the narrative in drastic but very important ways. I could not have done it without her.

Anyway, be sure to pick this one up when it comes out next month.

Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.

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Achievement Unlocked: New Story “Reset” to be Published in August!

terrorin16bits

Remember the first time you walked down that hall in Resident Evil and, SMASH, a pair of rabid hellhounds came flying through the window howling for your blood?

Or maybe you recall the first time you thought you’d scored an easy armor pick-up in Doom, only to unleash a monster-closet full of fireball-chucking imps and slobbering Pinky demons?

Or, hell, how about the first time you simply looked up in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and saw that awful skull-face grinning madly at you as it hurtled down from the sky?

If you do indeed remember, and remember fondly, then boy-oh-boy have I got something cool in store for you.

Today, I’m excited to share with you the official cover art and release details for Terror in 16-Bits, an upcoming anthology of all-new original fiction inspired by the classic horror video games we grew up with. From Splatterhouse to Silent Hill, Terror in 16-Bits pays tribute to all manner of pixelated ghosts ‘n’ goblins, and I’m very happy to report that a short story of mine, “Reset,” will be a part of it.

A Muzzleland Press publication, Terror in 16-Bits will debut at this year’s NecronomiCon Providence in August, before going on sale to the general public in both paperback and ebook form via the usual online marketplaces shortly thereafter. Until then, feel free to salivate over the table of contents below. It’s like a character select screen bringing together all the best fighters from a dozen different 2-D brawlers for one ultimate next-level deathmatch.

Time to dust off your Power Gloves and blow on your cartridge ports, boils and ghouls. We’re playing on hard mode now!

16bitstoc

Five of My Favorite Non-Horror Novels

A while back, I rattled off a list of five of my favorite horror novels of all time. But because no one should restrict their literary diet to any one genre (not even someone as tunnel-visioned as yours truly) today I thought I’d recommend five of my favorite non-horror novels of all time.

mdMoby-Dick: or, The Whale

by Herman Melville

I almost didn’t want to include Moby-Dick on this list because, just like Frankenstein last time, this is one of those books whose status as a towering classic is such that it feels a bit silly to “recommend” it. Recommending Moby-Dick is like recommending food or shelter or oxygen. Nonetheless, if I’m going to be listing my own personal favorite novels of all time, I can’t avoid including it.

It was in high school that I first read Herman Melville’s timeless tale of a vengeance-crazed captain hunting down the titular white whale. I had no interest, really, only giving it a shot because it was one of the titles on a required reading list I was given for English class, and because I found a battered copy for pocket change at a thrift shop. Of course, my English teacher never actually tested the class or asked us to write any papers proving we had read any of books from that list, but my effort wasn’t for naught. In spite of myself, and completely independent of its iconic reputation, I fell in love with Melville’s masterpiece. It’s not hard to see why, with its epic action, character-driven narrative, vivid language, and ambitious integration of both Christian mythology and Shakespearean dramatics. Much like with Frankenstein, though, what captivates me most to this day is Moby-Dick‘s thematic resonance, that multi-layered depth which lends itself to academic study and perpetual reinterpretation. It ensures that, no matter how ingrained in pop culture the images of Ahab and Ishmael and that monstrous whale might be, Melville’s book endures. Always relevant, never hackneyed, this one’s a “classic” in the truest sense.

451Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

Look at that, a Ray Bradbury book made my previous list, and another one is making this list. It speaks to Bradbury’s range, consistency, and ability that he produced not just one but two prime examples of what I would consider some of the best novels ever written. And in two different genres to boot! Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 may not technically qualify as a horror novel, but as a reader it has much the same effect on me. Being a very, very vocal advocate for my beloved horror genre, I often get asked what the scariest book I’ve ever read is. Without any hesitation, my go-to answer has always been Bradbury’s tale of a future society in which censorship is official policy and government-employed “firemen” burn books by the thousands.

See, vampires and werewolves don’t really scare me. You know what does? Apathy. Illiteracy. Anti-intellectualism. I’m scared of the status quo. I’m scared of a system designed specifically to deny marginalized people a voice. I’m scared of cultural infantilization, of uniformity and nationalism and political correctness. I’m scared of forces that suppress diversity and creativity, forces that uphold an obsolete establishment to the detriment of growth and progress. I’m scared of those who are willing to neither learn from the past nor contribute to the coming future. I’m scared of someone else deciding what I should or shouldn’t see, read, think, and say. More than anything, I’m scared of how, with each day, the society of Fahrenheit 451 feels less like a fictional dystopia and more like an emerging reality.

sadeJustine; or The Misfortunes of Virtue

&

Juliette; or Vice Amply Rewarded

by the Marquis de Sade

What’s this? Two for the price of one? Oh yes, if I mention one of these books I certainly can’t omit the other. With this duo, the Marquis de Sade gave birth to a pair of twins, sister novels that are the yin to each other’s yang, sparring partners who continuously pose and answer questions to and from one another. In doing so, they deliver something that is itself greater than the sum of its parts. First, there’s Justine, the titular protagonist a naive and uncompromising idealist whose pride and sense of moral superiority offer little protection from the perverse cruelties of the real world. Juliette‘s, meanwhile, embraces the idea that humankind is just another animal, and an imperfect one at that. A libertine who indulges all of her appetites, no matter how extreme, she ultimately finds a life of fulfillment and peace.

Similar to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, and Pauline Reage’s Story of O, Sade’s salacious sisters are dark, debauched, boundary-pushing works, driven as much by philosophy as by sexuality. Together they perfectly embody the Sadean school of thought. Their characters are less living people and more exaggerated metaphors, anthropomorphic symbols fashioned to explore such controversial topics as man’s state of nature, the blurry dividing line between sex and violence, and the hypocrisy of socially acceptable morality. Not at all for squeamish readers, Justine and Juliette may be cruel, nihilistic, blasphemous screeds of unabashed pornography, but they are also astoundingly ahead of their time, precursors of a sort to the later works of Frederick Nietzsche and Thomas Ligotti. And, hell, what’s wrong with a little porn and nihilism anyway?

flatFlatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

by Edwin A. Abbott

I often credit horror giant H.P. Lovecraft for opening my eyes to the possibility of worlds beyond human understanding, but the truth is that Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland had just as much an impact on me, although through a slightly more circuitous route. Before I ever read Flatland itself, and long before I read Lovecraft at all, I grew up reading superhero comics. I also grew up broke, so my childhood funny-book collection was a patchwork of whatever off-brand back issues I could find for cheap. That’s how I chanced upon a somewhat obscure series called 1963, an Alan Moore project published by Image in the early 90s that parodied Silver Age capes-and-tights books. One of the issues featured a Green Lantern-esque hero fighting a villain he could only barely perceive, a villain who hailed from a higher dimension. In the resulting adventure, Moore subtly name-dropped Abbott’s book, and my imagination was blown wide open.

When I finally discovered Flatland myself years later, I found a high-concept corker set in a two-dimensional space occupied by sentient geometric shapes. The protagonist? A literal square, one whose entire understanding of reality is challenged when he is visited by a sphere from three-dimensional space. Though originally intended as a satire of social class hierarchies (and, sure, it still works well in that regard), Flatland‘s most remarkable contribution is the way it encourages readers to seriously consider the probability of worlds beyond humanity’s own limited perceptions. After all, if a two-dimensional being would be oblivious to the existence of a third dimension, doesn’t it follow that a three-dimensional being would be oblivious to a fourth dimension, or a fifth, or a sixth, and so on? Keep in mind that Flatland was published in 1884, more than 30 years before Albert Einstein put forth his theory of relativity. Today, the idea that there is more to reality than the five physical senses and three or four dimensions that mankind perceives has become central to not only my own fiction writing, but to my very philosophy of life. And while Moore may have first planted the seed in my head, and Lovecraft later helped it bloom, it is ultimately Abbott that laid the groundwork before anyone else.

I’m Goin’ Nuts!

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Here’s a very cool bit of news. As of today, it’s my pleasure to announce that yours truly has joined the staff of The Ginger Nuts of Horror, the UK’s largest independent horror website.

A die-hard supporter of all things macabre, GNoH has long provided the internet’s genre fiction community with thoughtful and enthusiastic book and movie reviews, author interviews, and more. For years, I have been a regular GNoH reader. Now, I’m proud to say I’m a GNoH contributor as well.

My first review, of Andrew J. Stone’s morbid bizarro fairy-tale The Mortuary Monster, from StrangeHouse Books, is up now. Check it out!

Roots Run Deep: Why this Spoopy Tree Matters

wfa

My favorite writer is H.P. Lovecraft.

I can remember a time when saying that garnered quizzical looks from most people, and the familiar owl-song of “Who?” Nowadays, being a lover of weird fiction and saying you venerate Lovecraft is like being in a metal band and citing Black Sabbath as an influence. It’s so much a given it’s virtually meaningless. For me, though, Lovecraft’s impact is not limited to a superficial aesthetic focused on tentacles, mystical tomes, and malevolent alien gods. For me, Lovecraft’s impact, though based in fiction, is evident not just in my creative endeavors, but in the very fundamentals of my worldview, the way I understand reality.

It was Lovecraft who introduced me to the idea of humanity’s ultimate insignificance in the grand scope of the universe, as well as the idea that the five senses and three spatial dimensions mankind can perceive are far from the limits of possible existence. Cosmicism. Atheism. Mechanistic materialism. These were radical concepts when I was still a kid reading Goosebumps books, rifling through paperbacks at a yard sale and fatefully finding an anthology of stories by Machen, Blackwood, LeFanu, and, yes, Lovecraft. In many ways, he helped make me who I am today.

Please keep that in mind when I say the following:

H.P. Lovecraft was an awful fucking person.

As a reader and wanna-be writer, I deeply respect Lovecraft’s work. I think he was brilliant, an artist misunderstood in his own time and often misunderstood still today. And there are many details of his life that are pitiable, unfair, and deserving of sympathy. Still, human beings don’t come in simple binary terms, just good or just bad, but rather shades of both. In many ways, Lovecraft was a good person. In just as many ways, though, he was an awful one. It is up to each of us, as individuals, to weigh his sins and virtues and come to our own judgements about whether he was one more than the other. But you cannot deny that he was awful in certain ways. And, my oh my, we’re not talking about bad hygiene here. We’re talking about racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism.

It doesn’t matter if Lovecraft “softened his more extreme views later in life” or if he “was just a product of his time.” It doesn’t matter that he eventually married a Jewish woman or befriended a gay man. He still penned poems about how grotesque and subhuman people of color were. He still supported Hitler, for fuck’s sake. No matter how much we hem and haw and try to undersell the contemptibility of it, the fact remains: Lovecraft is on the wrong side of history.

Separating the art from the artist will only get you so far here, because a huge and important dimension of Lovecraft’s fiction derives specifically from despicable prejudices. His fiction brims with subtext about the “purity” of races and the “horror of miscegenation.” Even his less overtly bigotry-laden pieces are affected by it (and, as depressing as it may be to acknowledge, they arguably even benefit from it). They all express a shrill, hysterical dread of “the Other,” a fear Lovecraft was able to write about like no one else before or since.

Of course, Lovecraft is hardly alone in his awfulness. Any writer dead long enough for his or her work to be considered “classic” has more than a few skeletons in the closet: Rudyard Kipling was racist, Norman Mailer was homophobic, Charles Bukowski was sexist, Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic, and so on and so on. The ugliness of an artist’s beliefs does nothing to diminish the importance of their art, but the importance of their art does nothing to diminish the ugliness of their beliefs either. Just as people are so complicated and multifaceted that we cannot simply boil them all down to just “good” or “bad,” our approach to thinking about the authors who came before us must likewise be complicated and multifaceted.

As much as we want things to be simplified, nothing is ever truly simple. We can put Lovecraft on a pedestal for his contributions to storytelling while also taking him down a peg or two for the prejudices which directly led to those very contributions. That’s not contradictory or hypocritical. It’s just complex. It requires nuance, but it’s the same as the ability to be happy with the person you are now while still regretting the mistakes you made in the past that hurt others. We can do both. We have to do both.

See, progress is not made from simply recognizing the errors of history and that’s it. We have to learn from them, too. You are happy with the person you are not just because you are aware that you once did wrong, but because you regret those wrongs and have vowed to not repeat them. You have become a better person. You have changed. Progress comes from change; change is necessary.

Which brings me to the reason I sat down at my laptop just now: The World Fantasy Awards.

I know, I know. This is old news. The debate over Lovecraft’s racism and the WFA bust has been beaten into the dirt by now and the last thing the world needs is one more jabroni jumping in to regurgitate a bunch of opinions that plenty of other people have already stated and that even more people have viciously ripped apart. But, fuck it, this is my blog and I haven’t had my say yet. I may be a nobody with (at the time of this writing) naught but a handful of small-press publications to my name, which may mean that no one gives a good goddamn about which side of the fence I’m even on. Nevertheless, it’s the year 2017 and that means every over-opinionated loudmouth with an internet connection on Earth gets to at least pretend someone out there is listening.

Well, I’m over-opinionated. I’m a loudmouth. I’ve got an internet connection. And I live on the planet Earth. So, here we go. Let’s pretend.

First a quick recap, for all you nonexistent hypothetical readers who actually give a crap but who somehow don’t already know the details: For years, the World Fantasy Award has been shaped like H.P. Lovecraft’s lantern-jawed noggin. In recent years, a campaign kicked off with an eye toward changing the award to something that, y’know, doesn’t perpetuate casual acceptance of institutionalized racism. This resulted in a schism between those in favor of the proposal and those against it. Eventually, the World Fantasy Convention, which oversees the WFAs, announced they would change the award. There was some more outrage, but the pro and anti camps gradually stopped squabbling as the memory of the whole thing faded into the background. Because, hey, there’s other bullshit going on.

Then, the day came. Just recently, the new WFA was finally unveiled and it was…

A tree.

A spoopy tree, with a moon behind it.

Obviously something to lose your shit over, right? I mean, it’s not like the U.S. president just bombed the ever-lovin’ hell out of Syria and Afghanistan, is it? This is wayyyy worse.

In any case, the WFA is back in the limelight again and the pro and anti crowds are squabblin’ anew. Ah, just like old times.

For what it’s worth I personally like the WFA’s new look. I think it’s a lot of things: simple, elegant, timeless, primordial, atmospheric, evocative. Others say it’s meaningless, or that it looks like a cheap Halloween knick-knack. Whatever. At least it’s not a pewter dragon. Evaluating the aesthetic quality of the sculpture ultimately comes down to personal taste, and thus is an entirely pointless debate to have. There’s no reason to complain, unless you’re a whiny, Lovecraft-obsessed, fedora-tippin’ douche bag who thinks it’s an utter travesty that ol’ Howie got shown the door in favor of a piece of kindling. Boo. Fucking. Hoo.

By my tone here, I’m assuming you can tell where I stand on this whole thing.

Remember what I said about change and how important it is for progress? The WFA is a perfect example of that kind of change. It’s not just a shrugging compromise to them goshdarn politically correct snowflakes. I’ve made my feelings on this subject known before: I hate political correctness. Meaningful, respectful change made in the name of progress, inclusion, and justice, however? That I like.

Listen, making the award a bust of a single author was pretty dumb to begin with, regardless of why it was done (and, yes, believe it or not there is a decent justification for it beyond just “We loves us some Lovecraft”; just ask Gahan Wilson, the guy who designed it).

Besides the potential PR blunder of accidentally picking a vile goddamn racist, such an award becomes a celebration of the author it depicts more than the one receiving it (remember this point, we’ll come back to it later). What if the winner doesn’t like Lovecraft? Has never read Lovecraft? Is not influenced by him? Is completely ignorant of him? How does that honor Lovecraft or the award-winner?

What if the vein of fiction the winner works in has little to no connection to Lovecraft’s work? After all, “fantasy” is a pretty broad category. The idea that Lovecraft would be an appropriate representation of all possibilities that the word could convey is obviously ridiculous. It would necessitate someone asserting that Lovecraft embodies the entire spectrum of fantastic fiction on a fundamental level to such a degree that no living writer could ever not in some way be a reflection of him. And even I, the guy who attributes his entire understanding of his place in the cosmos to Lovecraft, won’t go that far.

“But what about the Oscars or the Grammys?” you say. “No one ever thinks changing them would be a good idea.” That’s true. Except the Oscar is a bald, naked knight and the Grammy is a friggin’ phonograph. Neither, you’ll note, are responsible for a poem called “On the Creation of Niggers.” Nor did either, to my knowledge, ever called homosexuality “repugnant” or refer to homosexuals as “damned sissies” and “cake-eaters.”

And don’t come at me with that “B-b-but the Hugos” claptrap; it was dumb naming them after some guy, too. Besides, the Hugos got all kinds of problems of their own.

Those of you who don’t know what it’s like, try this: Check your privilege for a second and put yourself in the shoes of someone who deals with racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia in a very real, painful way… every… single… day. Imagine that in spite of the systemic prejudices working against you, you accomplish something so extraordinary that it merits a prestigious award. Now imagine you get the award, and it’s shaped like the face of someone who famously, unabashedly derided you, and everyone like you, as repellent and barely human, and who advocated Nazi-esque eugenics as a way of purging your kind from existence. Imagine being asked to pose with that award and smile. Imagine being asked to put that award on your shelf and have it look down on you every day of your life, a reminder of just what kind of legacy you labor in the shadow of.

One last thing: Imagine being told that your feelings on this matter are irrelevant, that you should be grateful to get this much, because the integrity of a fucking paperweight is more important than your integrity as a person.

Tell me, would you feel celebrated? Would you feel respected? Would you feel honored?

That’s what an award is supposed to do, honor its recipients (see, I told you we’d come back to this).

If you want to honor Lovecraft, build a fuckin’ statue in your backyard. Do anything you want, that’s all about you. But awards are not about you. They’re not about famous dead guys either, I don’t give a shit how important they are. Awards are about the people who win them, period. They are about the present and the future, not the past. They’re not memorials. Making an annual award into such a thing, at the expense of the people living in the here and now, is indulgent, morbid, and gross. It’s a neverending act of masturbation, like an ouroboros circle-jerk.

Granted, some will say it’s not about honoring just Lovecraft, but rather the values Lovecraft symbolizes, i.e. the values that the aforementioned Gahan Wilson cited when explaining why he chose ol’ Howard’s ugly mug in the first place. Wilson said: “The point of the awards was, is, and hopefully shall be to give a visible, potentially usable sign of appreciation to writers working in the area of fantastic literature, an area too often distinguished by low financial remuneration and indifference.”

Notice how he said “hopefully” there? That’s because things change, even the meanings of symbols. Don’t believe me? Ask the swastika. Nowadays, Lovecraft’s face has a lot in common with a swastika in some circles, whether we like it or not. Them’s the breaks. Adapt or die.

Seriously, do you want to be a dinosaur when that inevitable meteor called progress comes hurtling towards this hunk of rock we call home? Do you want to be on the wrong side of history like your homeboy Howie was?

Time marches on. Change is vital for the betterment of culture. That’s not to say legacies don’t remain important, but not to a degree where we should cling to them to the detriment of evolving paradigms. If anyone should understand this, it’s people who work in the arts. The best art has always been about shaking up the status quo. Lovecraft himself did this, in his own way, by subverting humanity’s egoism and superstitious mysticism with his philosophy of cosmicism and tales of sanity-shattering extradimensional malignance.

Believe it or not, change does not automatically delete the past from existence. Making the new WFA into a spoopy tree doesn’t send a ripple back through time transforming the previous years’ awards into spoopy trees too. Nor does it erase all those contributions to genre fiction Lovecraft is responsible for. It’s just like a Hollywood remake of a beloved classic; stupid people will bitch and moan, but the original is still available on DVD, just as good as it ever was. Nothing is “ruined.” No one’s talking about wiping Lovecraft’s name from the history books, denying his influence, or revoking his “Inner Circle of Literary Icons” membership card. All anyone wants is to promote a more nuanced understanding of what Lovecraft represents in his totality, not just the parts we want him to represent. Understanding is more meaningful than unquestioning reverence, don’t ya think?

At the end of the day, as I said before, the WFA is a fucking paperweight. Is it really worth getting bent of shape over? Is it really worth alienating already marginalized sectors of the literary community?

Even Lovecraft knew the final truth: Humanity is but a dust mote lost in sprawling, indifferent universe. The entirety of Earth’s history adds up to little more than a fraction of a split-severed second when contrasted against the vastness of infinity. Our differences are trivial, and we ourselves are trivialities.

It’s not important. You only think it is.

Get over it.

My Top Ten Favorite Vampire Movies (+1)

So a bunch of us horror-scribblin’ nerds on Facebook have been sharing our top 10 favorite vampires movies as of late. Like the good conformist that I am, I thought I’d throw my two cents in. And since it’s been more than a month since my last blog post (sorry kiddos, I’ve been distracted hammering away on a couple new story ideas), I figured instead of just doing a list on social media I’d write a little about each of my picks here to tell you why I love them so.

I’ll make the same disclaimer I always do when ranking any of my favorite anything: Remember that this is not a list of what I consider the “best” vampire movies of all time. These are simply my personal favorites. There are a whole bunch of reasons to like a movie other than just technical accomplishment, most of which are subjective, such as nostalgia or other biases. Nothing wrong with that. So just keep it in mind before you ask me why your favorite vampire movie didn’t make my list, or how in the hell I could’ve possibly liked that piece of crap, or whatever.

And, yeah, I cheated. I was able to narrow my list of favorites down to 11 but couldn’t bear to cut even one more after that. So fuck it. This is my website, not yours. Bite me.

Without further ado, in no particular order, here are my Top 10 Favorite Vampire Movies (+1)…

nos

Nosferatu

No, not the bloated, overcooked Warner Herzog remake. F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic is a moody, stylish chiller. Despite being a lawsuit-worthy copycat of Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel Dracula, I’d argue it’s actually superior to any “official” adaptation to come after. Yes, that even goes for the Bela Lugosi one. Murnau’s twisted, otherworldly visuals exemplify how black-and-white filmmaking can utilize light and shadow to get under a viewer’s skin skin better than any color picture ever could, and actor Max Schreck’s performance as the gnarled, inhuman Count Orlok is genuinely unnerving. Nosferatu’s vision of the vampire as a loathsome, plague-carrying parasite remains to this day the prototype for every bloodsucker story more interested in being scary than in portraying the undead as misunderstood heartthrobs.

marMartin

If you only know George Romero as “that guy who makes all those zombie movies,” you’re missing out. Chief among the overlooked gems in the man’s filmography is 1978’s Martin, an inspired low-budget masterpiece that brilliantly deconstructs vampire tropes. The film’s namesake sanguinarian believes himself a centuries-old creature of the night, but is he? He can’t suck blood, so he slashes his prey with a razor. He can’t hypnotize his victims, so he knocks them out with a syringe full of sedatives. He has visions of a life lived hundreds of years ago, but are they memories or just fantasies? Martin informs everyone who will listen that much of the vampire myth is just that: Myth. Yet he still claims to be one. When you strip the vampire of all its supernatural trappings, what’s left? Is there really anything to it but outright lunacy? And, in the end, what’s more dangerous, the reality or the myth? The answer might surprise you.

letLet the Right One In

Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindquist, this Swedish film (skip the American remake; it’s redundant at best) is a bittersweet portrait of loneliness and unlikely friendship, every bit as alternately delicate and deadly as its frozen setting. It introduces us to Oskar, a 12-year-old outcast who spends his time trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube and daydreaming about murdering the bullies who torment him, and Eli, a girl (or is she?) about the same age (or is she?) who lives a sheltered, secretive existence in the apartment next door. They soon find kinship in their shared isolation and hidden darkness, but when the man Eli lives with is caught while attempting a murder meant to feed Eli’s bloodlust, she is forced to reveal her true nature to Oskar. With its methodical pacing, haunting atmosphere, tender performances, and powerful themes of love, morality, adolescence, and alienation, Let the Right One In is undoubtedly one of the best vampire moves in recent memory.

froFrom Dusk till Dawn

This is one of those movies I can watch over and over and over. From Dusk till Dawn was directed by Robert Rodriguez, written by Quentin Tarantino, based on an idea by K.N.B. EFX co-founder Robert Kurtzman, and flaunts a cast featuring Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo, Juliette Lewis, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Michael Parks, and Cheech Marin. What more could you want? Telling the story of the most out-of-control barroom brawl in recorded history, this gory grindhouse throwback pits a pair of psychopathic bank-robbers and a faithless preacher against a whole army of vamps in a slimy Mexican strip club called The Titty Twister. It’s a real special effects pigout, taking inspiration from the mythological associations bloodsuckers have with such cuddly critters as bats, rats, and snakes to unleash some of the gnarliest, nastiest fangbangers you’ve ever seen slither across a screen. Without a doubt the raunchiest, rockingest entry on this list, turn off your brain for this one, kids, and turn up the volume.

refThe Reflecting Skin

I’m probably going to catch some flak for this one, as it’s debatable if The Reflecting Skin has any actual vampires in it at all (although, the same could be said of the previously mentioned Martin). But that ambiguity is one of the things that endears me so much to this oft-forgotten, art-horror masterwork. Told from the perspective of Seth Dove, a troubled young boy trapped in the endless wheat-gold wasteland of 1950s Midwest America, his reality becomes our reality. It doesn’t matter that enigmatic widow Dolphin Blue likely shuns the rest of the world and dresses only in black simply because she’s never gotten over her lost husband; to Seth, it’s obvious she’s a vampire. Nor does it matter that Seth’s older brother, Cameron, just returned home from being stationed in the Pacific, where he helped test atomic bombs; the reason he’s wasting away isn’t radiation sickness, it’s because he’s the vampire’s latest victim. A grim reminder of how scary this big ol’ world is when you’re young enough to still believe in monsters, mysteries, and miracles, The Reflecting Skin is a brooding, surreal, and, at times, blackly comic meditation on the meaning of “American Gothic.”

cirVampire Circus

Honestly, if I didn’t have more self-control, this list could have easily been populated with nothing but Hammer films. From the classic Christopher Lee Dracula series to the carnal Karnstein trilogy to the end-of-the-line oddities that were Captain Kronos and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, undead bloodsuckers were always Hammer’s bread and butter, and they did ‘em better than everybody else. Vampire Circus is one of those Hammer offering skewing closer to the “oddities” end of the spectrum, chock-full of gypsy bloodsuckers, animal shapeshifters, body-painted babes, and harlequin dwarfs. It’s also one hell of a piece of eye candy, with its lush, psychedelic visuals. Plus, as a barnburner of a tale about an ancient curse being fulfilled in a plague-ravaged Serbian village by a bunch of undead Cirque du Soleil rejects, it’s a pitch-perfect snapshot of Hammer at its over-the-top, baroque best. Need I say more?

lesVampyros Lesbos

The quintessential lesbian vampire film (a subgenre I’m so enamored with that I may have to do a whole ‘nother top 10 list someday), Vampyros Lesbos is one of Spanish director Jess Franco’s all-time best. Franco is one of those rare filmmakers capable of hybridizing the pinnacle of high-art pretension with the nadir of low-brow schlock. I say that as a compliment. As with all Franco films, the story is secondary here, boiling down to little more than “Um, there’s this hot countess who lives on an island and hates wearing clothes, and there’s this lawyer lady who visits the island on business, Jonathan Harker-style, and she falls under the countess’ sexy spell and becomes infatuated with her, which her boyfriend is none too pleased about; gratuitous nudity and blood-drinking ensues.” What elevates this lurid, languid Eurotrash into something as equally mesmerizing as it is sleazy is the icy beauty of lead actress Soledad Miranda, a riotous jazz soundtrack, and Franco’s signature trippy, arthouse aesthetic.

nearNear Dark

The dirty, RV-driving, leather jacket-clad, ex-Confederate Army vampires of Near Dark are a far cry from the elegant pomp of Bela Lugosi, Tom Cruise, or even Robert Pattinson. These freaks? These are my kind of vampires. Feral and nihilistic, these fangbangers care about only two things: Blood and fun. Written by Eric Red (who gave us the similarly awesome cult classic The Hitcher the year before), Near Dark fuses the horror film with the western to undeniable effect. It vacillates effortlessly between sunburnt honky-tonk hellraising and trance-inducing moonlit ruminations on the implications of an endless, ageless existence spent entirely in the shadows. It also sports a scintillating synth score from Tangerine Dream, and boasts a stellar cast which includes Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, and, most memorably, the recently departed Bill Paxton. Rest in Peace, Bill. Thanks for the memories.

lettLet’s Scare Jessica to Death

Most vampires are content to simply drain you of your blood. The one in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, meanwhile, wants something else too. She wants to steal your sanity. Enter poor titular Jessica, freshly released from a mental institution. She needs to get away, so she and her husband move out to a quiet farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Too bad everyone in town is so hostile to outsiders. And they all have strange wounds on their necks. Weird. Then there’s that drifter they met, Emily. She’s been getting a little too cozy with Jessica’s husband. As Jessica begins hearing voices and discovers a local legend of a drowned vampire temptress roaming the countryside, more questions arise. The audience is left to guessing just like the characters onscreen as to how much of what’s happening is real and how much is imagined. More suggestive and subtle than out-and-out horrific, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is psychological chiller that works terrible wonders from out of the corner of your eye.

lairThe Lair of the White Worm

If you’re familiar with director Ken Russell, you know that when his name is attached to project, you best expect some epic crazy. He is, after all, the same man who gave us Altered States, The Devils, and Gothic. Sure enough, The Lair of the White Worm has got crazy to spare. Don’t kid yourself, this flick was never going to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Bram Stoker novel from whence it takes its name. Starring a young Hugh Grant (of all people) and the seductive Amanda Donohoe, Lair of the White Worm recasts its vampires as the venom-spitting, serpentine servants of a subterranean snake god. The plot is serviceable, but what really stands out here are the visuals. The best word I can use to describe them is “hallucinogenic.” Campy, sacrilegious, and psychosexual, this isn’t so much a movie as it is a weapons-grade hit of LSD in celluloid form.

cronCronos

If you haven’t noticed already, I tend to gravitate towards stories that take a less than traditional stab at the sanguinarian undead. Of the movies listed here, however, Guillermo Del Toro’s feature film debut, Cronos, might just take the cake in terms of depicting a completely unique kind of vampire. It comes in the form of a golden, clockwork insect invented by a 16th century alchemist as a means of attaining eternal life. Chanced upon by an elderly antiques dealer, that’s exactly what it does. But it comes with a price. It mutates the old man, turning his flesh marble-white and imbuing him with (surprise, surprise) a hunger for blood. From there, things don’t quite go where you’d expect, with a dying millionaire soon entering the picture, ready to do anything for a new lease on life. Despite all the supernatural intrigue, the emotional core of the film turns out to be the relationship between the old man and his granddaughter, who never stops loving her pop-pop no matter how inhuman he becomes. A deceptively sweet story influenced as much by fairy tales as the horror canon, Cronos remains one of the best entries in Del Toro’s long and outstanding career.

vamVampyr

We started with a silent film, and now we’re ending with a silent film. Kind of. It’s technically a talkie, but, being Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound production, the furtive filmmaker relied almost entirely on static title cards in place of spoken dialogue. The film’s bare-bones narrative, about an occult investigator trying to lift the vampiric curse that’s befallen a mysterious village, is little more than a patchwork of moments pilfered piecemeal from Sheridan Le Fanu, existing mainly as a framework from which Dreyer could hang this dreamy, depressive tone-poem drudged up from the darkest parts of the unconscious mind. It’s noteworthy how utterly reviled Vampyr was upon initial release, even instigating a riot at one screening. Fast forward to present day, and the film has finally found its audience, even earning a coveted spot in the vaunted Criterion Collection. I guess that’s what happens when you make something ahead of its time. Today, Vampyr stands as an awe-inspiring opus, a nightmare-logic phantasmagoria of morbid, mythic imagery.

Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 2)

garth

A couple weeks ago, I acknowledged some of the debate that had been going on in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction community about allegations of social justice-imposed censorship (my findings: it largely doesn’t exist) and the notion that transgressive genre fiction is either dead or dying (my findings: read on and find out, I’m not going to spoil it for you so soon!). Since I already tackled the whole “boo hoo, SJW’s don’t like me” bullshit last time, now I think we’re about due to take down that “R.I.P. genre fiction” crap too. And considering it’s the start of a brand new year, I can think of no better time to look back at all that 2016 gave us, and to look ahead at all that 2017 promises.

Full disclosure: I originally planned to write this follow-up within a week after the first post. I don’t know what madness compelled me to try that right before the holidays. Suffice to say, between making plans, seeing old friends, avoiding Trump-supporting family members, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, giving gifts, and, best of all, getting gifts, while simultaneously trying to finish drafts of a couple short stories I needed to have finished before the end of the year, it’s hardly surprising that I’m only now getting the chance. Sorry for the wait.

“He said, as if anyone actually cared.”

Moving on!

Anyway, we currently live in an era where such writers as Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Joe Pulver, Simon Strantzas, Nick Mamatas, Grady Hendrix, Matthew Bartlett, C.V. Hunt, Tiffany Scandal, Garrett Cook, and M.P. Johnson have all more or less blossomed into their prime at roughly the same time. And that’s to say nothing of publishing houses like Deadite Press, ChiZine Publications, Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, Necro Publications, Lazy Fascist Press, Bizarro Pulp Press, DynaTox Ministries, Muzzleland Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Sinister Grin Press, and Hippocampus Press, all of whom are pumping out a constant and consistent conga-line of books that are alternately breathtaking, brutal, beautiful, and bizarre.

On top of all that, we also live in an era where self-publishing and self-promotion are easier and more accessible than ever before. Thus, there are virtually no limits for anyone to be able to read or write something that exactly matches their tastes, no matter how out-of-left-field those tastes may be.

Things aren’t on the wane. If anything, we’re in a goddamn golden age!

I know, I know. For some, it’s not enough that contemporary genre fiction is incredibly dark, thoughtful, and well-crafted. Some of us need our horror to be hardcore, dirty, and gruesome, full of excessive violence, graphic sex, and creative uses of bodily fluids. Well, if that’s you, fret not; we got you covered. The last year or so has seen such releases as The Train Derails in Boston by Jessica McHugh, Reincarnage by Jason Taverner and Ryan Harding, A God of Hungry Walls by Garrett Cook, The Complex by Brian Keene, Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt, The Con Season by Adam Cesare, and Mayan Blue by the self-proclaimed “sisters of slaughter” Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason.

And these are just the standouts!

Likewise, Splatterpunk Zine, Comet Press, and the aforementioned Necro Publications have all put out anthologies specifically focused on envelope-pushing extreme horror: Comet makes no bones about where their bread is buttered with such releases as Stiff Things: The Splatterporn Anthology and the debut of their annual Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series. The rich mythos of Gerard Houarner’s landmark 1996 erotic-horror collection Painfreak was revisited in Necro Publications’ exhaustive Into Painfreak anthology, edited by Houarner himself, which saw everyone from Wrath James White to Monica O’Rourke to Jordan Krall to Edward Lee, the reigning king of literary gore, delving into the most wretched red depths of flesh and blood. And, hell, no one spelled it out more clearly than Splatterpunk, who released the perfectly titled Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, featuring stellar stories by the likes of Shane McKenzie, Paul Essig, and Jeff Strand.

Maybe you’re more a fan of bizarro fiction, though. Maybe you’re more interested in the so-called literary equivalent of the cult section of your local video store. Is that what you want? Truly outlandish stories that combine the absurdity and reality-warping rules of Saturday Morning cartoons and unrepentant strangeness of Salvador Dali with the scatological, satirical, intentionally offensive humor of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman and the out-of-control violence of splatterpunk?

Well, guess what; this last year was a damn good year for bizarro too. We got Puppetskin by Danger Slater, Shit Luck by Tiffany Scandal, Bacon Fried Bastard by David W. Barbee, Governor of the Homeless by G. Arthur Brown, Berzerkoids by M.P. Johnson, and Very True Stories Starring Jeff O’Brien by, uh, Jeff O’Brien. Genre workhorses like Carlton Mellick III and D. Harlan Wilson continued to release new works even after nearly two decades of exemplifying the best the movement has to offer, still at the top of their games. And Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series turned another year older, still furthering its altruistic goal of seeking out and exposing the world to fresh, young authors who will go on to be the Mellicks and Wilsons of tomorrow.

Tell me, do you know what the most important thing that all these horror and bizarro books I just mentioned have in common is? Sure, they’re all as gleefully confrontational as they are controversial, chock full of murder, dismemberment, self-mutilation, rape, necrophilia, beastiality, cannibalism, abortion, puke, piss, cum, and gore. But, even better, so so many of them are also witty and intelligent and richly thematic on a level that those looking at genre fiction from outside it would likely never imagine, a level that probably too few readers within the genre fully appreciate.

The truth is, today’s hardcore horror and bizarro are as twisted and gratuitous as they’ve ever been. But they’re also a whole lot smarter than they’ve been in years. The widespread and progressive aspect of that intellectual element is a hundred times more meaningful than all the chainsaw gutsfucks in the history of literature; the brains actually enhance the blood and guts. The substance is just as shocking as the superficial. That’s punk as fuck!

I ask you, how much more “alive” could these genres be?

Saying that hardcore horror is dying is like saying that horror in general is dying, and saying that horror is dying is like saying that fear is dying. Fear is a fundamental part of the human experience, one that, no matter how civilized and sophisticated we become, we will always have a need to indulge and thereby purge. And hardcore horror? Well, that’s nothing more than a logical extension of general horror, one that delights especially in the related realms of shock, decadence, and revulsion. All equally fundamental parts of the human experience. Suffice to say, if horror isn’t dying, then hardcore horror isn’t either. As long as there are people who like being scared, there will be people who like being grossed out and disturbed.

Bizarro, meanwhile, is a relatively new genre. So maybe it is just a fad, a flash in the pan doomed to be snuffed out as its 15 minutes of fame comes to an end. Me? I reject that notion, and I do it by rejecting that bizarro is new at all. As a named, codified thing separate from other strains of surrealistic and experimental literature, yes, it’s still just a baby. But bizarro did not just emerge out of a vacuum. It has a long line of precursors that fulfilled our ancestors’ own inherent appetite for the strange and unusual. I’m talking not just about the classical outrageous fiction of William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, but also the do-it-yourself middle-finger of punk rock and no-wave, the ero-guro madness of artists Toshio Saeki and Junji Ito, the “you won’t believe your eyes” showmanship and deformity of P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows, and the brain-melting comic-book psychedelia of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

In my view, while these things may not all be classifiable as pure bizarro, they are absolutely a part of the long-standing tradition that we are now only just beginning to give the name “bizarro.” Therefore, bizarro has always been here. And if it’s always been here, well, I have a hard time imagining it going anywhere.

Still, what about the argument being made that, since so few authors are able to make a steady living creating this kind of stuff, then that alone is proof of genre fiction’s decline? Well the truth is, that has nothing to do with genres, nor quality, nor content. It’s no secret that traditional publishing across the board has struggled to evolve in a way that is sustainable in the 21st century. Without getting too deep into things, I can’t ignore that a perfect storm of rising production costs, falling digital sales prices, oversaturated markets, audience distractions, online piracy, and the popularity of ebooks has shaken the publishing world to its core. There’s a riotous mix of good and bad going on here, and sometimes the two are hard to distinguish from one another. Hell, sometimes they’re actually both simultaneously.

Outside of the “big five” mainstream publishing juggernauts, outside your New York Times Bestseller shoe-ins, your Stephen Kings and your J.K. Rowlings, the reality is that authors who are able to make a comfortable living off of writing and only writing are few and far between, and those that do exist can never rest on their laurels. It’s all about the hustle, y’know? But this goes for every genre, not just the niche worlds of horror and bizarro, or even fantasy and sci-fi for that matter.

Do me a favor. Next time you pick up a book by an author you admire, one who is maybe frequently critically lauded, one who you probably think “Yeah, he or she definitely has it made,” let me suggest you turn to the bio at the back of the book. Notice how many author bios make mention of the writers being teachers or editors themselves? The reason for that isn’t just because they’re so passionate about the English language (or another subject, perhaps) that they take on side-careers out of the goodness of their hearts. No. Passion is part of it, but a bigger part of it is that they need to make money. The vast majority of fiction authors have day jobs. Fact.

What’s more, this isn’t even anything new. As much as the publishing world has taken hits from the mutating landscape of modern media, in all the centuries of its history, writing fiction has only intermittently been a widely profitable profession. Simply put, if you’re looking for a steady job, you’re sniffing up the wrong tree. Only the most cynical among us get into writing with the intention of defining their success or failure solely by their profitability. That’s certainly not why I’m here. After all, I’m broke as fuck.

Then again, I’m pretty much nobody, so take that with a grain of salt.

Joking aside, art is not an ATM. It’s a vehicle for self-expression. The fact that so many of us have conned our way into getting people to pay us for it whatsoever is a goddamn gift. So, okay, if you’re still pining for the lightning-in-a-bottle days of the ’80s paperback horror boom, maybe then you have a small point when you say that genre fiction isn’the doing so hot, but only in that specific context. And if you’re doing that, then, damn, you are seriously out of touch with reality and just plain deluding yourself. Worse yet, you’re valuing the wrong things. The truth is that there is more high-quality weird fiction, horror fiction, and bizarro fiction out on the market right now than there has been at any other single period in my entire lifetime. If anything, there’s too much awesome stuff out there!

Sometimes I look at my ever-lengthening to-read and to-buy lists and feel anxiety grip me, worrying how in the hell I’m going to find the time to buy and read all this stuff and still have any kind of life of my own. As far as problems go, though, as a lover of genre fiction, it’s a very good dilemma to have. And that’s the only perspective we should be coming to the table here with: that of lovers, readers, fans.

Anyone who says that horror sucks these days, that the current sociopolitical zeitgeist has had a chilling effect on genre fiction, or that dark, extreme, or transgressive literature is on the wane in any meaningful way whatsoever is clearly not paying attention. With how robust and diverse the current offerings on the market are these days, the only motivations I can imagine a fellow writer having to grumble come from a place of selfishness, a fear of getting overshadowed or lost in the shuffle. Because it’s easier to be a big fish when the waters run shallow, right? When they’re deeper, when there’s a lot more room for other fish, that’s better for everyone. Except for the little minnows who don’t get to act like sharks anymore.

In the end, if you’re looking at a horror or bizarro bookseller’s catalog right now, at the dawn of 2017, and you don’t find anything that you think qualifies as legitimately great and/or boundary-pushing, then, simply put, you need to get your eyes checked.