Mother's Day has come and gone, but motherhood is forever. And forever is a long time. Long enough, surely, to drive some people crazy. Chances are your mother was pretty cool, generally speaking. Not everyone's so lucky. For us, celebrating Mother's Day with a list like this one is just what the counselor ordered. Here are...
Hello again, dear reader. Last time we were together I wrote about writer's block, a subject near, if not dear, to my heart. As you can tell from the length of time between posts, its something with which I have continued to tussle over the last month or so.
The reasons why are myriad and personal, and are certainly too boring to do more than hint at here; suffice it to say that my living situation has changed recently, and I don't do change well.
But thinking about writer's block, and the way in which writer's block is treated in the horror (or horror-adjacent) genre has made me think about writer's block's equally evil twin, the perfidious bitch known as "inspiration".
Here is Merriam Webster's definition of inspiration: "a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation". I am using this definition, where the word denotes a kind of almost mind-altering transportation. Not merely a good idea, but an idea which will not be denied. If you are a writer, you know the feeling. It is electric.
This kind of inspiration might seem like the opposite of writer's block but it is more accurate to say they are in league. What is writer's block, after all, but the absence of inspiration?
But there's the rub. Most of the stories I've ever written have been composed in a fit of something like inspiration. Suddenly, like a flash in the night, an idea would occur to me, and I'd chase it down and try to capture it. If I was lucky, the feeling would last long enough for me to get the whole thing out and I'd be left, after a few hours, with something nearing completeness.
The problem, though, is when inspiration fails to materialize. When you are hungry for it, but it's not there. It is in times like those that inspiration most resembles drug use. If you have ever had a relationship with a favorite drug (and I think the word relationship is apropos -- drugs are often replacements for people, and can be starkly intimate with their users) then you probably know the feeling of "jonesing" for it. And, too, the accompanying despair of uncertainty when you don't know where your next fix is coming from.
Not to belabor the drug metaphor, but when it comes to inspiration you're dealing (or at least I am) with an inconstant, very unreliable dealer. As a rule, whenever you want to reach him, he's nowhere to be found. And no matter how long you sit in his living room watching him play FIFA on PS2 or compliment his taste in incense, you're still waiting for him to just fucking deliver.
Though I don't want this to turn into an anti-drug screed, it might bear pointing out that your humble writer is, even now, trying to give up my favorite substance. And that, furthermore, I have often relied on said substance to deliver inspiration. So, like, bear with me, dude.
But enough about me. Lets look at a horror (or horror-adjacent) films that deals with drugs, but we'll read those scenes as if they are really about inspiration. Which in some sense they are.
To begin, put this in your pipe and smoke it:
In Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg's hallucinatory anti-adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel, Bill Lee (Peter Weller, playing a stand in for Burroughs himself) meets his new "case officer", an insectoid typewriter with strange appetites. Lee is to instructed to make "reports" on the instrument while the bug, trembling under his touch, moans in ecstatic pleasure. But before he'll cooperate, he needs just a little taste of the poisonous "bug powder". Bill, an exterminator by trade and an addict by occupation, obliges, causing more rapturous gibbering from the bug.
Bill is told that he is to use the bug to type reports which will in turn be forwarded to Bill's "controller". We never know for sure who the "controller" is, we are probably safe in assuming that the "controller" is heroin itself, under which control Bill spends most of the film.
Bill's creative impulses are, in fact, profoundly mediated by things which, far from being under his control, actually control him.
Eventually, Bill's bug is broken when another writer dashes it to bits. Bill is told by a friend and fellow addict to take it to an artisan which will forge the tool anew. Now his new and improved typewriter takes the shape of a "mug wump" head, an alien-like creature that dispenses its own intoxicant from phallic tubes protruding from his head.
"Not bad, not bad," Bill says in admiration after a few minutes with his new machine. Its very much like the old one, only instead of having to get it high, it now gets him high. Here, too, is the erotic undertone (or maybe undertone implies a degree of subtlety not applicable in this case) as the mug wump's phallic head growth secretes a squirt of seminal ooze.
And, just in case the sexual subtext is still lost on you, here's one more typewriter scene, in which Bill and a woman who looks much like his dead wife try out an Arabic typewriter:
Because, really, there is something erotic about giving in to inspiration, just as surrendering to an addiction has a hedonic, sexual component.
None of this is to suggest that inspiration is bad. Nor is it to suggest that its bad if you like to partake in something now and then. Life is tough, and we all need a balm now and then. But in my own experience, relying on inspiration has done nothing to improve my own writer's block. The trick must be to work through it, rather than wait for it to (maybe) come. Again, this is doubly not to suggest that, should inspiration come you ignore it. If inspiration comes, I implore you to rub its glands with bug powder and put your hands inside it's keyboard-sac.
But when its not there, don't pine for it. Don't lie in bed wishing it would come. Don't call your dealer and ask for just a little bit, come on, just to get you through.
David Lynch is America's best purveyor of films which are at once scary, funny, and trippy. He is the man responsible for some of the scariest films ever made, even if they are not typical horror films. Surely Lynch needs drugs to think up scenes like the one below, right?
But in fact Lynch is not a drug user. In Catching the Big Fish, his appropriately strange little memoir of his experiences with transcendental meditation, he writes,
"We all want expanded consciousness and bliss. It's a natural, human desire. And a lot of people look for it in drugs. But the problem is that the body, the physiology, takes a hard hit on drugs. Drugs injure the nervous system, so they just make it harder to get those experiences on your own. I have smoked marijuana, but I no longer do. I went to art school in the 1960s, so you can imagine what was going on. Yet my friends were the ones who said, "No, no, no, David, don't you take those drugs." I was pretty lucky. Besides, far more profound experiences are available naturally. When your consciousness stars expanding, those experiences are there. All those things can be seen. It's just a matter of expanding that ball of consciousness. And the ball of consciousness can expand to be infinite and unbounded. It's totality. You can have totality. So all those experiences are there for you, without the side effects of drugs."
The same is true of writing. Though it can be hard to remember from the depths of a nasty block, the kind of flashy, transporting inspiration that we desire is not what we need. As intoxicating as such experiences are, they are all too few and far between. We can't rely on them any more than we can rely on a drug dealer to just give us the shit without making us watch ESPN with them.
So stay clean, friends. Or if you can't stay clean, keep writing.
Though a lot of folks smarter than myself have argued, one way or the other, as to whether or not "writer's block" actually exists, I tend to think it does. Not the least before I periodically suffer long fits of it several times a year.
Its the kind of thing that makes you feel some real ennui, because I'm the kind of person who has said, aloud if not to a person, that all I really want to do is be allowed to write. If its true that we're all given one thing at which we're better than everything else, I think mine would be writing. This is not to say, of course, that I'm better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Nabokov, or you, or R.L. Stine, or anyone at all. Its only to say that of all the things I try to do (sleep, occasionally exercise, talk to people, do math, balance my checkbook, connect with someone or something), writing is the one which I do with the most success, which is: maybe a little.
Why then, do I find it so easy not to write? Why am I so good at finding other things to do? Why have I spent over four hours trying to beat a boss on "Bloodborne" this week, but hardly any on writing?
Part of it is, and I don't think this gets said enough, that writing is miserable work. Its scant rewards -- a moment of inspiration, a nicely tuned sentence, a bright idea -- are easily overshadowed by its terror, boredom, and loneliness. The writer can easily lapse back into a middle-school version of themselves, wondering why no one understands them. It might be better, which is to say less risky and less painful, to simply not write.
As ever, I turn to the wisdom and succor offered by horror films and novels, where writer's block is as sure a recipe for death as teen sex is in a slasher. In many of these movies, writing is the only way to survive.
Consider The Shining, the Kubrick film rather than King's novel. Both concern a writer trying to write something important, but the act of writing is better depicted as a scary act in the film. It the novel Jack abandons his play, an artsy slice of life about a boy's school, and begins to write a sprawling non-fiction book about The Overlook Hotel and all the bad history that went on there. In the film we are never exactly sure what it is Jack is trying to write, only that he has failed big-time. We get the sense it might be a novel, but Jack is pretty vague about it. Nevertheless, we see that he has produced a nice stack of pages, enough to merit pride in any writer. But then it turns out that maybe, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, CA, "there's no there there":
This is surely one of the scariest scenes ever set to film, especially for writers. Because what it captures so well is the moment when you realize that what you've written is complete shit. Of course, what makes this particular scene so queasily powerful is that Kubrick's Shining gives that discovery to Wendy Torrance, Jack's wife. As we all know, the only thing worse than the stomach sinking feeling of knowing that something we've worked hard on has not turned out well is the doubly stomach sinking feeling of someone else realizing it for you. The film is not just the story of a "family going insane together", as Kubrick once said, but also the story of a man realizing that he's not cut out to be a writer, and that the best career option still open to him is to become the flesh avatar of a bunch of vengeful spirits, some of which are themselves probably failed writers.
I think it partially explains why he is so easily distracted from his writing, and so eager to take on his new role as family murderer. Its the same reason why some small, perverse part of me hopes that we do end up going to World War III with North Korea, China and Russia. Because if we did, I would very probably be off the hook for not having written a great novel by now. After all, writers like Norman Maclean only got their first book out at seventy or so, and had we not suffered the onset of nuclear apocalypse, well, I might have actually done it. Its not my fault, I could then say, it is world history's fault.
These are themes that the almost scarily prolific King works with reasonably often in his stuff; see also Secret Window (the film, especially), Misery, 1408, and Bag of Bones. They variously explore what it would be like to not be able to write, to be forced to write something you're just not that in to, finding out that the premise under which you have written for years is false, and suffering severe writer's block while missing the significant other, now dead, who served as a kind of muse for you. That King himself is one of the most successful writers of all time seems not to have blunted his anxieties in this regard.
But my favorite horror movie about writer's block isn't a horror movie at all. Not exactly, anyway.
In the Coen brothers' 1991 comedy nightmare Barton Fink the titular character played by John Turturro, a nebbishy writer of "important" literature about salt-of-the-earth types in late 1930s New York City is recruited by Hollywood to become a studio scenarist. When he arrives he finds that has been contracted to write a run of the mill wrestling film, something about which he knows nothing, despite his best intentions of representing the common man onscreen. He checks into a large, rundown hotel in LA and begins to (try to) write, with the help of his next-door neighbor, a gregarious salesman who used to wrestle and who turns out, in the end, to be a serial killing yokel named Madman Mundt. Along the way he finds a foil in a Faulkner-esque novelist himself afflicted with writer's block, whose authorship of his own works comes into question. It is, above all, a story about writers who, like Jack Torrance, seem to think and talk about writing more than they actually do it.
Check out these two scenes. In the first, Fink tries to explain, in very patronizing terms, what he wants to write about. In the second, Goodman's Madman Mundt, a distorted mirror of the "common man" Fink purports to want to represent in his writing, reveals his true nature, and Fink's failure to understand his subjects.
In the second, Goodman's Madman Mundt, a distorted mirror of the "common man" Fink purports to want to represent in his writing, reveals his true nature, and Fink's failure to understand his subjects.
Note the not-particularly-subtle infernal subtext, which seems to suggest that writing (or more specifically, trying to write) is a species of Hell.
Jack Torrance and Barton Fink are two cautionary tales about how shitty is is to be a writer. The first captures the feeling of realizing that your text is nonsense, and the latter captures the feeling when you realize that your whole project is maybe better suited to someone else. Both are feelings that anyone who has ever seriously or semi-seriously tried to write will no doubt find familiar.
It seems significant that there are so many horror (or, in the very least, horrific) films about being a writer. Certainly more than are about painters, musicians, milkmen, insurance agents, or video store clerks. In fact, if horror films are to be believed, writers have casualty or insanity rates only slightly lower than, say, vampire hunters or Vatican-dispatched exorcists.
This may not be helpful to most people, but I tend to manage my anxieties with the help of horror films and books. And it is both comforting and terrible to know that even the Stephen Kings and Coen Brothers of the world are, if not struck with them, are still concerned with the same anxieties as experiences as those of us who struggle just to put pen on page.
And remember too that it could always be worse. Writer's block, however miserable, can be overcome. But when you start considering killing your family, don't listen to the voices urging you to pick up that axe or take a slug of ghost booze. Seek help instead.
Having come down with a nasty cold the last few days, I did what I always do when I feel like total shit, and tucked into the biggest, thickest, most difficult books that I could reach without having to get out of my chair. In this case they were Susanna Clarke's magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Alan Moore's almost appallingly excellent From Hell.
Truth be told, I was already most of the way through Strange & Norell by the time I took sick, and so it only took a day and a half, about 12 aspirin, and several wet handfuls of kleenexes to finish the giant novel, which in my mass-market paperback edition tips the scale at 1006 pages. Its the kind of book which, by virtue of its length and its wealth of detail, the reader more properly inhabits more than simply read. Insofar as something so intricate can be synopsized in a sentence, here it is: the novel takes place in an alternate history of England which was once saturated with magic but in which magic has more or less disappeared by the early 19th century, until two frenemies, the titular characters of the novel, begin to bring it back, for better or worse. Its almost overwhelming novel, exhaustively researched and steeped in period references. You put it down feeling like you've spent some real time in the year 1814, except, of course, not quite the real one.
Next up I took a miserable trip to the grocery store for Dayquil and Nyquil, which I mixed into a cocktail and sipped while reading From Hell. Much like Strange & Norrell, its another novel (albeit graphic) that is very much predicated on the reader's familiarity with, or at least willingness to become familiar with the time in which it takes place. While spanning centuries in a kind of lunatic way, it focuses on the high Victorian era of 1888, particularly the fearful early Autumn reign of Jack the Ripper. Unlike so many other pieces of Ripper fiction, it is not so much a mystery (the murderer is revealed in chapter 2) as an autopsy of the culture that produced him and the culture that continues to obsess over him. It is not, moreover, what you would call a pleasant read.
I've always thought the best movies to watch when you're sick are the original Star Wars movies, or the Indiana Jones movies (excluding the fourth, though that goes without saying), or Back to the Future, etc. Broadly speaking, these are all tales that you can wrap yourself up in like a blanket, although in the case of From Hell its a nasty threadbare blanket that barely keeps out the cold.
One thing that unites all of those narratives is that they take place in history. And lest you argue that Star Wars doesn't fit the bill, let me remind you that it is set "a long, long time ago", and that its space opera aesthetic isn't so much futuristic as retro-futuristic.
My point, which I am only arriving at now, is that at least for me, these kinds of, hmmm, lets call them speculative history are comforting enough to me that I choose to read them when I feel terrible. They allow us to feel like we're taking in an entire world, seeing them with a clarity we could never bring to our own, fragmented times.
I would argue that almost any novel, film, or video game that takes place in history is already a piece of speculative fiction. It remixes history, which we can never really recover from the past, only get little glimpses of from contemporary accounts. I guess I'm suggesting that, just as any story about the future is automatically a speculative fiction, even if it contains minimal horror or fantasy elements, any story about history is likewise automatically speculative fiction.
In fact, most of fantasy literature until at least the 1980s and 90s with the arrival of the "New Weird" is predicated on pseudo-historical worlds that are medieval-with-a-difference. Tolkien is of course the most obvious example, with Middle-Earth being an evocation of the high middle ages of chivalry mixed with the more brutal mythology of Anglo-Saxon and Norse Europe. But there are earlier examples as well, such as George Macdonald's allegorical fairy tales and Lord Dunsany's strange tales of Kings and Queens and other worlds. But they are all similar in that they are idealized versions of history mixed with elements of mythology.
Even a novel that is now about history but which was written in the time in which it was set -- I'm thinking here of Thomas Hardy novels, or Jane Austen -- have become speculative history for us now because we as people separated in time from those stories still cannot help but read them as describing other worlds. In other words, for those of us living in post-modernity, history is mythology.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters only make explicit something which is usually latent in our reading. Why, after all, shouldn't Abraham Lincoln be a vampire slayer, or Anna Karenina a partial robot? Those figures, freed from the temporal now, have become whatever we want them to be.
While it can sometimes be difficult to see our own times as containing infinite possibilities, resonances and adventures, tales of history can comfort us in our shared illness of banal "now-ness". We turn to them because their worlds are beautiful, or scary, or strange, and most importantly, we choose them because they are not our own. Even if, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and From Hell, they comment on our own.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to crush up some ibuprofen, pour them into a bowl of chicken soup, and hope that the fact that the chicken appears to be winking lasciviously at me is only a happy byproduct of all the Robitussin.
Eyes of My Mother is 76 minutes long, but you feel every minute as if they've been crammed down your throat. It has pretentions to artistry and pathos. It is filmed in black and white, lavished on long static shots of its character's face. Long, static shots of a woman, bound in chains, shuffling out of the barn in which she has been prisoner. Long, long static shots of body parts arranged on a counter, shrink-wrapped, waiting to be stowed in the freezer. Its fairly boiler-plate horror content, different from less ambitious horror flicks only in the presentation.
Its the kind of stuff that would be too horrific to consume in most any other context: incest, prolonged torture, sexual assault, cannibalism, etc. The stuff of horror, yes, but rarely is it played for pathos outside of the genre I'll call "rural family horror".
"Rural family horror" probably had its genesis in the twisted family trees of Faulkner, or further back, with tales of ghosts moving between trees sheeted with spanish moss. But in terms of cinema, its earliest antecedent is probably 1962's Two Thousand Maniacs!
Directed by the original gore shlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, Two Thousand Maniacs! tells the tasteless story of some unwitting tourists who are chopped and slashed to bloody bits after visiting a Southern town on the the anniversary of the Union destroying the town during the civil war. The town, naturally, is possessed by bloodthirsty Confederate ghosts. I don't think I'm breaking any new ground when I speculate that the horrors of the Civil War -- on both sides -- have very much informed the genre.
Dumb as it is, Two Thousand Maniacs! points to later, more respectable examples of the genre, like Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Consider Deliverance, infamous for the truly disturbing "squeal like a pig" scene, which did for hicks what Jaws did for sharks, or The Day After did for the bomb. Even though we loathe the hicks and react as surely as Pavlov's dogs to the sound of "Dueling Banjos", our sympathies are at least a little divided in the film. On some level the audience tends to think the four urbanites taking a canoe trip down the Georgia River deserve it, even if we are not conscious of our feelings. Like the Union soldiers that burned the town, thus inciting the titular Two Thousand Maniacs!, the middle-aged tourists are encroaching on territory in which they are not welcome.
If you switch the narrative's poles, that is, have avowed Southerners become the fish out of waters, the story is no longer horror. For instance, no version of The Beverly Hillbillies has the rural family terrorized by Californians. As much as I might like to see The Beverly Hillbillies Meets the Manson Family, no such story exists. When Southerners visit the north, the resulting pop culture story may be cute, or funny, or patronizing but it is rarely scary.
So horror films about the South seem to suggest that there's the south, and then there's the South. The south is merely directional, a point on the compass rose. But the South is a place removed, a band apart. In the former you might find some good barbecue, or some bluegrass music. In the latter, you get killed, raped, and/or eaten by cannibals.
How about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I seem unable to go a week without mentioning in this column. In TCM, the victims are also southerners, but not of the capital S variety. They're former Texans on a road trip, trying to find the homestead that they were able, years ago, to escape. Their mistake, then, is in returning to the site of "Rural Family Horror". They're no longer true Southerners and, once again, we are made to understand that they don't, or no longer, belong here.
And again, when they are trussed up, butchered and served to a grotesque perversion of the American nuclear family, we understand that the young victims should never have come this far, or this deep South even if they are former southerners themselves. But think of how different a story it would be if, instead of a bunch of kids piling into a van, heading south, and accidentally meeting the Sawyer family, the Sawyer family themselves piled into a van and headed north to, say, North Dakota. All of a sudden, what was horror becomes (dark) comedy: Fargo meets Deliverance.
Eyes of My Mother, with its repulsive content and focus on a grotesque family situation, is at play with the same deep crimson finger-paints as Texas Chainsaw and Deliverance. Aside from its nominally more "artistic" presentation, it isn't doing anything new. If anything, the "Rural Family Values Horror Film" has become a genre as recognizable with as easily defined tropes as stories of nuclear energy raising giant bugs, or ghosts spooking around gothic castles. And like those stories, they happen to tell us something about ourselves.
What they are is a counter-narrative to the American Dream, in which the bonds of family and region can easily rot and become toxic. Where the roots we put down can poison us, if they are not attended to.
We understand, of course, that the real south has problems. We understand that certain parts of the south have resisted the expansion of civil rights, and that a small but vocal minority of southerners have allowed hatred and xenophobia to hold sway.
We also understand, intellectually, that many southerners are as progressive as anyone north of the Mason Dixon; that they have fought for the rights of African Americans, and that they adamantly oppose the butchering and consumption of tourists.
But the South of our dreams, or more accurately, our nightmares, lives on in films like Eyes of My Mother. Its a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.
About 4/5 of the way through A Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski’s nearly two and a half hour long horror epic, it becomes clear that there will not be a satisfactory resolution to the many threads and set ups teased earlier in the film. Certainly, the film is beautiful looking, in an ugly kind of way. But amidst a miasmatic soup of sea greens and handsomely framed, symmetrical shots, the film seemingly becomes bored with its own mysteries. Eventually, it wanders into another story entirely. What had been a psychological horror mystery about a mysterious clinic offering obscure treatments develops into the territory of rote gothic horror.
It is an endemic problem for horror narratives; just look at Stephen King.
First of all, I love the guy. I tried for years to dislike him, but it’s a fool’s errand. He’s a sweetie-pie, supportive of less famous horror writers, generous, gregarious, and at his best, highly imaginative. But his narratives have a tendency to get ahead of themselves, setting up more than can possibly be delivered in the final act. Part of it is his abiding affection for his own characters. Sure, he’s willing to sacrifice a few of them in gruesome ways, but when push comes to shove you have a pretty good idea who is going to emerge unscathed and who will be killed.
Generally speaking, if there is a little kid, he or she will survive (The Shining, the loser’s club in It, Desperation, Doctor Sleep, Firestarter, Salem’s Lot, etc). Their guardians might get a little beat up, but they will probably make it too. The evil force, typically, will be soundly defeated (It, Salem’s Lot, Misery, The Shining, The Stand, etc). Part of this is what makes him so appealing to the general public – the sense of being lead through his story’s dangers in relative safety – but it is also what hampers some of his work from being truly effective. Some of his strongest work bucks that trend, which makes them genuinely scary (Pet Sematary springs to mind as an example in which both the characters you are sure won’t die, including the little kid, do die, and the evil force persists).
I’ve never read "The Langoliers", one of the novellas collected in Four Past Midnight, but I have seen the truly dreadful mid-90s miniseries adaptation. Again, for 4/5 of its length, it sets up exciting, pulpy mysteries. What are the titular langoliers, which look like Pac-Man mixed with rabid tribbles? Why does the soda in the airport not fizz? Just where have the passengers of the airliner found themselves? And then it spends the final act coming up with hurried, silly, too-pat resolutions that feel, ultimately, like a betrayal. Many of his novels follow the same unfortunate formula.
Consider J. J. Abram’s Lost, perhaps the most extended shit ever taken on a narrative. The first season is must-view television for sci-fi geeks. It feels as if it is constantly on the verge of giving up some cosmic secret. You feel led, inexorably, towards revelation. But the many mysteries the show sets up, like what is the hatch, why are their polar bears, who are the others, what does Hurley’s number mean, are either resolved in insultingly obvious ways or forgotten. In the end (spoiler alert), they’re dead. The show, which owes quite a bit to King’s work, ends just like the worst of the masters’ stuff: by fizzling out with a sputter.
The problem might be that these stories, like A Cure for Wellness, aren’t saying anything in and of themselves. There are exceptions. I forgive the ludicrous ending of Stephen King’s gigantic It because it is so successful at capturing a feeling of mid-century American childhood in all its joys and trials. The Shining’s sappy feel-good conclusion is alright because it has been such a great portrait of a family that is barely held together by love, and nearly torn apart by substance abuse and isolation. Thank God they had something to say, or else they would have felt like junk food full of so many empty calories.
There are several ways of solving this problem. One is to not resolve anything at all, the frequent modus operandi of cosmic horror. Lovecraft never sees fit to let his characters (which, come to think of it, are less characters than ciphers) escape unscathed. Instead he punishes them for their curiosity; they may get some answers to the mysteries they set out to solve, but lose their minds in the bargain.
While Stephen King’s endings occasionally fail to satisfy, Lovecraft’s do because they confirm that the stakes were high all along. The wages of knowledge are death, or insanity. But if, in It, a handful of kids can defeat cosmic evil by holding hands, being friends, and staging an orgy (one of King’s most coke-addled creative decisions ever), than the evil space-clown-insect must not have been that powerful in the first place. Again: I love It, but not because of its surreal, literally touchy-feely ending. The real triumphs of imagination in the novel come from King’s evocation of a time and place, and of the inherent creepiness of being an unpopular kid against the world.
To a certain extent, all horror narratives are subject to these problems. Where other stories might make you yearn for happy endings, horror as a genre relies on generating fear and unease. Just as it might be strange if, after however many seasons of Friends all five of the titular friends were roasted alive and eaten by cannibals, it feels somehow wrong when a horror narrative which has promised that its characters are in for it ends up with them all making it out. I suspect this is why so many horror films try to have it both ways: the surviving good guys defeat evil in order to please the crowd, but a final image (the most cliché example of which is a hand shooting out of the grave) shows that evil hasn’t been defeated at all, but has only been momentarily set back.
Maybe I’m a depressive monster who is only happy when I’m unhappy. But for me, the horror film ending par excellence is Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Sally Hardesty, the so-called “final girl” of the story, manages to escape the cannibal family (without killing a single one of them!) by climbing into a passing motorist’s truck, leaving the psychotic, mentally-challenged Leatherface in her dust. Leatherface engages in a kind of dance of frustration, swinging his chainsaw around in the dawn sunlight. Sally, covered in blood, has just lost her brother, her friends, and almost certainly all her future comfort and peace of mind, but she’s safe. She watches Leatherface’s mute frustration, and laughs. Not a ‘haha, I did it’ laugh, but a laugh which asks the viewer what the cost of her victory has been.
It’s basically the same emotional beat as the finest noir film ever made, Chinatown. It flirts with the same despair and paranoia that fuels the best horror films, ends with private detective Jake Gittes solving the case, but having to watch as his love interest is murdered by her own father and her daughter stolen away by her incestuously minded grandfather/father. Jake, this hard-boiled, seen-it-all kind of gumshoe, is so shocked and horrified by what he’s seen that he cannot form a coherent sentence. Now that’s horror.
I am not saying that all horror has to end with misery and despair. Horror/comedies like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead should probably be allowed their happy endings (although, of course, Shaun of the Dead has one of its heroes die). So too with family horror movies like Paranorman or Poltergeist, both of which are really more adventures mixed with horror elements.
But horror narratives that insist that the stakes are high and that the horror is hopeless should remember to avoid the King conundrum and remember two cardinal rules:
1.) Don’t write checks you can’t afford. At some point, you should stop setting up more and more mysteries, and figure out a satisfying way to answer them. This does not mean that the ending should be happy, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should die either. Look at The Babadook, which manages to have the main characters defeat the villain, but in a way which makes sense considering the larger themes of the work. For your reader's sake, don't over-explain the mysteries -- it might be better to leave them mysterious.
2.) And remember that if you have been promising that the evil forces arrayed against the protagonists are terrifyingly powerful, then they should be terrifyingly powerful to the last. Avoid pat resolutions in which little kids, for instance, defeat cosmic gods with slingshots.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. And when you do bite, bite hard.
In author Sharma Shield's The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, an American family are touched in surprising, tragic and often poignant ways by their connection with a large upright bipedal ape named, improbably, Mr. Krantz. Mr. Krantz can talk - well enough, in fact, to seduce a woman named Agnes away from her husband and son. Her son, a sensitive boy named Eli, even meets Mr. Krantz, stuffed into a too-small suit, with tufts of thick and gnarled hair betraying his animal nature, before his mother leaves to begin a new life in the woods with her lover. The event is a catalyst of "high strangeness" which affects generations of his family in various ways.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, famed investigator of the unexplained and anomalous, coined the phrase “high strangeness” and defined it as “a measure of the number of information bits the [UFO or Bigfoot, or whatever] report contains, each of which is difficult to explain in common-sense terms”. In less pedantic terms, it means that some people have reported some truly strange things. And even in some otherwise "predictable" encounters with the inexplicable, there are sudden left turns into the absurd or bizarre.
To wit: consider the variety of weird shit people have reported. There have been Versailles time shifts, flying red-eyed humanoids that famously prophecy destruction, and a 1924 siege of demi-apes on the cabin-full of frightened hunters, all of which are strange enough to merit "high strangeness" as a descriptor.
But the case of high strangeness par excellence is the case, beginning in 1930, of Gef the talking mongoose. Gef (read Jeff) could not only speak to the UK family whose house he lived in (largely unseen), but had a real way with words as well. His first recorded words were to call the man of the house a "fat-headed gnome". He was a self-proclaimed "extra, extra clever mongoose" who told the world "I'll split the atom! I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!" The whole tale has a sort of dream logic to it - it doesn't make any rational sense, and yet it couldn't have been any other way.
The case of Gef the mongoose was never definitively resolved because it cannot be explained. Sure, you could say that it never happened, or it was a lie. Even so, a whole family, father James, mother Margaret and daughter Voirrey, claimed to have seen and communicated with him, and whether or not they were lying, disturbed, or deluded, Gef left a mongoose-sized imprint on UK popular culture. Talk about "high strangeness".
Each chapter of The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is a discrete story in time, sometimes following Eli as he becomes a dentist, family man and professional Sasquatch hunter, sometimes following some member of his family as they ride the riptides left in his wake. The chapter titles are most often accompanied by parenthesized dates, beginning in 1943 and concluding either in 2006 or entirely outside of space and time, depending on your viewpoint. "Hunter's Almanac" resists easy summary. It is at once a novel of family romance (in the Freudian sense, not the Flowers in the Attic sense), a tale of the uncanny, and, necessarily, a story about a haunted man's search for meaning. Like many cases of "high strangeness", it is both funny and oddly humane.
Not every chapter is as uniformly compelling and odd as the novel is when it is at its best, but even at its weakest it has more imagination than many works of more mainstream speculative fiction. And like the most famous cases of Forteana and the unknown, it coheres, not because it makes sense, but because it seems to confirm that the world never made sense in the first place - at least not the sense we arrogantly insist that it make for us. In The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac the emotions of its characters, whether a neglected housewife who finds comfort - and later, horror - in the form of an magic, threadbare skull cap, or the inscrutable but not altogether inhuman Mr. Krantz himself, feel realistic even if the events of the plot are far from it.
Though UFOs and monsters pervade the realm of speculative fiction, they are all too often of a kind of humdrum sort, all little grey big-eyed (or worse, insectoid) aliens and bloodthirsty monsters. "High strangeness" is rare. But like oft-told or well-worn tales of the uncanny, "high strangeness" often seems to contain an illogical, but terribly human aspect which could and probably should complement more works of science fiction, horror and fantasy, if not literature itself.
Sharma Shields has accomplished exactly that with The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, a novel which knows that the North American ape is inherently weird, silly and improbable, but which nevertheless takes it as seriously as Kafka did cockroaches. As deadly serious, if inexplicable, as Gef the talking mongoose.
But then, as Shields and Gef show us, not everything should or can be explained away. In fact, if you're anything like me, huge chunks of life are unfathomable, impenetrable, and ludicrous. I always hope to find art that reflects that. Call it the new new weird.
Media has always been a little scary. It started way before Trump’s constant attack on the “unfair” or “fake” news, before the internet, even before the word media connoted some form of published communication. It probably started with grimoires, arcane texts full of spells and esoterica, prized by magicians and alchemists, decried by the medieval Catholic church.
But this, you understand, was before horror was a genre. Horror as we know it didn’t exist until some folks in the 18th and 19th century had sufficient privilege and leisure to amuse themselves, and then us, by writing ghastly stories. Before that, horror was merely the way things are.
With horror, the grimoire undergoes a sea-change. Where before they were assumed to be real and to have actual utility, it enters the realm of the purely symbolic. The best example (although purists might say that “A King in Yellow” is even better) is probably H.P. Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon”, a kind of insane (anti)religious text written by the “mad Arab Alhazred”. Its contents were so shocking that they would drive the reader out of their mind. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft, the “Necronomicon” told the story of how the Great Old Ones and others, inscrutable extra-terrestrial creatures that resemble a pantheon of Gods, shall inherit the earth.
But while Lovecraft’s mythos has grown promiscuous tendrils of its own, the specific influence of the “Necronomicon” is in what I call the “evil text”. Here I am using text in the pretentious academic sense, so that films, videos, records, songs, and video games all apply. The “evil text” breaks the rules of media. We’re supposed to read a book and be effected by it, but a book is not supposed to alter our reality. But the “evil text” does. It reaches out and does bad things to you and those around you, simply by being read or watched or listened to; but you’re safe if you don’t look. It’s your own curiosity, or worse, your voyeurism, that gets you.
The “evil text”, as a horror symbol, seems to represent the fear that some knowledge isn’t good, closely related to the symbol of the apple in the garden.
I’m writing this a few hours after seeing Rings, the third in the American iteration of the Ringu series. I’m ashamed to say that I have never seen the Japanese original, or any of the sequels, or read the book they’re based on. This is not a review of Rings, although if you want one I’ll indulge you now: it sucked.
But I do love the original movie. It affects me in the same queasy way that a good piece of creepypasta does. Especially at the time, it struck a nerve with me because it came out during the twilight of the VHS tape, and I was the kind of kid who spent too much time hanging around pawn shops wasting what money I had on cheap movies. Many times, I didn’t know what the movie was, but I bought it in the hope that it’d have some gore, or nudity, or some other desired forbiddance. Always, there was some anxiety involved. Millennials may not understand this (or they may understand it better than me), but before the internet connected every thought and desire to every possibly immediate satisfaction, there was some mystery and danger to seeking out new forms of media. I remember being vaguely anxious that I would see something that would really fuck me up somehow.
If you look at it that way, the “evil text” might be a species of wish-fulfillment kissed by death-drive. The “Necronomicon” is the ultimate horror book, a story so scary it scares you to death. The Ring is the same thing for short form visuals, like really creepy a You-tube video. Stay Alive, a 2006 horror movie you probably forgot before you even watched it (starring Frankie Muniz, no less), contains a video game as “evil text”. Speaking of Creepypasta, the classic post about “Candy Cove” is a children’s TV show as evil media. And here’s a deeper cut: “Cigarette Burns”, the Masters of Horror episode directed by John Carpenter, is about a movie so shocking you lose your mind and etc., etc., etc. See also Brainscan, Videodrome, Strange Days (sort of), The Pulse, and many more that I'm sure I'm forgetting but that you may remember. In every case, the calculus is the same. They tell us that maybe the price for your entertainment isn’t just time and money, but your life, and maybe your soul.
But the strangest iteration of the “evil text” is when the snake swallows its own tale and reenters pop culture as a modern grimoire, a song or book or film which may just forfeit your soul. As in the middle ages, the fear is still being propagated by certain religious groups. Consider for instance the Harry Potter novels, which riveted many (confession, I’ve never read them), but for others produced a tidy yet vocal hysteria over its supposedly demonic content.
The Satanic panic of the 80s went hand in hand with fears of heavy metal albums containing secret messages from the Devil. In fact, such rumors were not limited just to heavy metal. Even bands as middle-of-the-road as The Eagles were implicated; “Hotel California” is supposed to contain the phrase “Yes, the devil organized his own religion”. Other pronouncements were less mundane and more impressionistic, like a line supposedly recorded, in reverse, into Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”: “There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”.
Of course, millions of people have listened to “Hotel California”, most of them over and over and against their will, and not lost their minds. There have, however, been examples of teens supposedly driven to suicide by the alleged Satanic messages. In 1985, two young men walked to a playground and shot themselves in the face with a .12 gauge shotgun. One died immediately, but the other survived for a few years before succumbing to complications arising from his injuries. Jack Vance, the survivor, and his family sued Judas Priest, alleging that they were entranced by secret messages urging them to kill themselves. He said “We had been programmed. I knew I was going to do it. I was afraid. I didn’t want to die. It’s just as if I had no choice”.
Maybe the next time you reach for the ominous that book bound in human flesh, or watch a VHS tape marked only “WATCH ME!!!”, or God forbid, click that link, you should take pause. Take a deep breath and determine the stakes. How likely are they to be some quantity of your flowing blood? The cohesion of your fleshy bits? Your immortal soul? How much are you willing to put up, for that knowledge and diversion?
Then, and only then, should you choose, pick it up.
There has been some recent furor, understandably, over the sudden coining of the term "alternative facts". It startles, not because of what it seems to say about our relationship to "truth", but it has never before been put so concisely. There have always been examples of "alternative facts", but there has never been a term for it that didn't sound ugly, like "conspiracy theory", or "lie".
Here is an "alternative fact", by which I mean a statement that is maybe not be true -- "they" say isn't true -- but which you and I, wink wink, "know" is true anyway: there's something fishy about the JFK assassination.
The official story, of course, the fact, is that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered the President on 11/22/63. But the "alternative fact" is that Oswald was set up, or had help, and that the real party responsible for JFK's murder was the Mafia/CIA/Communists/aliens/time-travelers/etc. This "alternative fact" has had an effect on reality, or in the very least in our experience of reality.
So many novels, television shows, films, and other media have some stake in the alternative fact that the "truth" -- it was just one scrawny little guy acting alone -- almost seems like the more lunatic idea.
Here's another fact, a real bummer. Humans occupy, or fly over, or peer through satellites at even the most remote areas of the North American continent. The country is much surveilled. We have probably discovered all of the larger flora and fauna long ago. Related to this fact is another: those few remaining pristine areas are few, and at constant environmental risk
But here's the "alternative fact", which seems to speak to us from another, truer world: our planet's haunted forests still crawl with monsters and strange beasts, flagrantly unconcerned with tourists and cameras. Bigfoot, when he thinks we're not looking, hollers eerily and covers big swaths of forest with great big bounds. As a Montanan, I can't help when I see the mountains to hope, fervently, that he really is up there somewhere, a hairy Thoreau roughing it for all us sinners.
There are others, too. The Loch Ness Monster, of course, and Mothman, and the Jersey Devil, and the Ozark Howler, who is sometimes heard, I'll let you guess doing what, in Oklahoma.
And there's the Owlman, and the Sea Monk, and the Thunderbird, not to mention the Man-Eating Tree.
And for all of them, there's someone on the Earth, and often quite a few someones, who believes intently that the whatsit exists. This is the distinction between a lie and an "alternative fact". A lie is told consciously. If the Lutz family fabricated the their stories of violent and disturbing hauntings in their Amityville home, it was pure invention, a lie. But to walk by the house, Google it, or see it in one of the many films and say "you know, that place was haunted" is to cite an "alternative fact".
And anyone who has ever been a kid knows (which is most of us, anyway) know that our childhood houses, maybe even our childhoods themselves, are monster-ridden. My own was a very tall, very old woman who stared at me from in between the slats in the closet. The only way I knew to keep her at bay was an arbitrary ritual of yelling and running. I was loudest when I was most at risk; going up the stairs, the darkness reaching up after me. Once up in the bedroom, only marginally safer in bed, I would lie very still, covers pulled over my head. I intuited that it would all be alright if she didn't see me move, but that if she knew I had caught her staring at me, something awful, I'm not sure what, would happen. I knew, with a certainty and intensity that I left in the past, that she was there. Something tells me that this might sound familiar to you.
One more, to demonstrate their awesome power. The fact is that we are a tiny island light-years away from anything, surrounded by a sea of nothing. The human race shouts itself hoarse in the dark.
The "alternative fact", a lot more fun, is that the skies are positively lousy with spaceships: UFOs have been visiting us consistently since at least the mid 20th century, if not way way before. They may have built the pyramids, the sphinx, Stonehenge, the ancient city of Teotihuacan and everything else. One night in the late 1940s, they even crashed into the desert, and were subsequently covered up, metaphorically if not literally, by weather balloons.
So many of the American 20th and, so far, 21st centuries' stories have seen their genesis in "alternative facts" that they've coined their own oxymoronic phrases to describe them. One of those phrases is "science fiction".
I would encourage you, therefore, to take a moment to celebrate that cherished nonsense, our "alternative facts", at least once a day, preferably at night. Take a long, nervous moment and look at the black tangle of the treeline, if there is one. If not, look warily to the sky.
Look until your senses leave you and, if only for a moment, you truly expect something wonderful and irrational to appear.
So. We need to talk about a moment in recent American pop culture. It's so graphic its hard to watch, but it's more than that too. Spoilers you've already heard about or seen directly ahead.
Maybe you've already seen it, and can't face it again, or you don't want to. Don’t worry, I'll summarize. The scene is spectacularly horrific, at least partially because it is so vividly realized. A man has his head beaten to literal pulp in front of his crying wife. After a heavy blow, Negan pauses so that the man can attempt to speak. He mutters incomprehensibly, eye bulging out of the socket. Finally, he is able to assemble a phrase we can understand: "I will find you." Then he takes blow after blow until there is nothing left of his head except a pile of mush with, improbably, an intact eye goggling up from the gore.
I don't know about you, but I was livid when I saw this.
It's not the gore, but the storytelling that pisses me off. Its the utter, wanton disregard for the viewer that the character of Negan and the scene epitomize, as well as how lazily mean it is for no particular reason other than to satisfy the expectation that The Walking Dead has to be continually outdoing itself with ever more cruel and repulsive bad guys.
To assure you that it is not the gore, lets watch together one of the best moments of horror cinema ever, from director David Cronenberg's Scanners. Cronenberg is one of the genre's greatest practitioners of story-driven gore. I think that is is hard to argue that this moment isn't just as gory, if not gorier. It's definitely more satisfying either way.
Terrific, isn't it?
I love gore, and I love villains. I am sometimes tempted to see things their way. Every kid who comes of age with Star Wars will sometimes watch it secretly hoping that Darth Vader will win this time. As a first or second grader, I thought that Scar was the hero of The Lion King. While the upstart prince was off sitting atop a living tower of African animals and belting out songs about how soon he would have power, Scar was off belting out songs full of good advice like "be prepared." And I always felt a little bad for Jafar, who, despite the best laid plans of parrots and viziers, is denied the throne by a kid with a monkey only because they're the ones that happened to weaponize a quipping genie.
You ought to be able to sympathize, at least a little, with the villain. Sometimes the villain is motivated by something elemental that you can understand, like revenge or ancient love, or in order to regain something they lost long ago. This category would therefore include great villains like Dracula, Khan Noonien Singh, Voldemort, even Freddy Krueger. I am not saying that these guys are likable, but you can see, with a little effort, what the world might look like to them. They demonstrate human traits, however pitiful or unpleasant. Other villains are motivated by the sheer joy of doing their jobs, like Emperor Palpatine or Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter. Palpatine is so joyfully evil that you kind of imagine that even signing Empire paperwork reduces him to cackling shambles. Lecter, at least in The Silence of the Lambs, is having no less fun. He grins and mugs, gleefully dissembling the solution to the case in order to manipulate Clarice Starling. And as you know if you've read the Thomas Harris novels the films are based on, Starling finds Hannibal interesting and empathetic enough to run off with him at the end of the novels.
Negan, however, is the end of villainy and the beginning of something else, something altogether dumber. The Negan/Glenn/Lucille scene goes beyond mere sadism. It’s a character who is so impossibly evil that he lacks anything interesting or compelling about him. Why wouldn't one of his followers just blow him away when he turns around?
A large part of the problem is that as a villain follows the Governor, who was a far more successful bad guy. We understood through him how an ordinary guy, one who had perhaps always harbored violent and secret fantasies but who would never act on them in daily life, could become a monster of exceptional sadism and cruelty. In the name of order and control, he sacrificed any remnant of his humanity, symbolized in the comic by his regularly losing limbs and eyes.
The Governor is the perfect villain for The Walking Dead, a show which is obsessed with the relentless and joylessly grim. Again and again, Rick and his band of survivors are made to do terrible dehumanizing things in order to keep living. It was thrilling once, or twice, but it grows repetitive – but we understand that if Rick is not careful, the Governor is what he could become in five, maybe ten more years of continuing to meet bad people and finding himself obliged to do bad things in order to escape them.
But how do you come up with a new villain after you've already dispatched with your ultimate villain? It’s a problem that plagues TV shows, comic books, and many other indefinitely extended pieces of speculative fiction. For those of you who watch Sherlock, you recognize the same thing at work in the fourth season finale with the reveal of the season's overarching villain: an EVEN smarter and EVEN more evil shade of Moriarty, but less interesting.
Negan is obviously the Governor only way more so. His sadism and abuse of power, though, are out of proportion to reality. As a character utterly devoid of anything humane, compelling, or interesting, he is a complete cipher. Certainly Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him with something approaching smarmy charm, but even that is alienating in that not even beating a man's head in right in front of his wife and friends gets him worked up. He is able to do this horrible thing without even breaking his "evil Fonz" persona. What is there here to be interested in? He has no discernable character traits aside from sadism, cruelty, and an unflappably unfunny sense of humor.
Rather than think of a new kind of villain, Negan is what happens when an indefinitely sustained narrative tries to continually outdo itself, in this case via shock and horror, until it overruns itself and sacrifices story for cheap stunts. With Negan, you can see the storytelling strings that suspend him. He is so self-evidently a character designed to cash in on and amplify the already proven traits of the Governor that he is not even, really, a character. He is the equivalent of the terror plot in Team America: World Police, described, in a scale which so beggars the mind that it loses any identification, as "9/11 x 1000".
That Glenn's murder is an almost unbearably drawn out scene of violence directed against one of the only likable characters of the show is also worth noting. A lot of the considerable sadism on display is really directed at YOU, since you probably liked the character a lot. I, for one, liked him a lot better than Rick, whose righteous speeches and stalwart unshaven-ness bore me. Glen and Maggie were at least likable because they represent the only chance of civilization ever returning to the world of The Walking Dead. To kill him in front of her, is to affirm that there is no hope, which may be what Kirkman and the show were going for anyway. But to kill him in such a graphic, prolonged, and yet un-heroic way is to say "fuck you" to an audience that is invested in him and what he represents. The Walking Dead, even more so than Game of Thrones, a show that wears its supposed nihilism on its sleeve, is unconcerned with the "good" part of "good vs evil." Instead of being an impediment to good, the character of Negan can only degrade and insult good.
So if the Governor were Captain Hook, Negan would be Captain Sawblade, who, instead of a hook for a hand, has a saw for all four of his limbs and one of his eyes. He's not the villain of a show for regular people who might happen to enjoy some zombie gore, he's the protagonist of a show for maniacs.
And if they ever kill him, what kind of villain could possibly succeed him? If the show can think of a scene which tops the killing of Glenn in sadism and pain, who would possibly want to watch it?
I hate to play the fanboy, but I would like to point out that the oft-reviled Kylo Ren is a more successful kind of new villain. He is reminscent of Darth Vader, clearly the series's best and most memorable villain, in a variety of ways. He dresses similarly. His voice is similarly altered by his costume. But the more we find out about Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, the more we find that the shades of Darth Vader are Ren's way of covering up for all the ways that he is different than his grandfather. Vader remained pretty cool (at least in the original trilogy) while choking underlings, rarely getting angry or showing much emotion. Ren, however, lashes out like an immature jerk, slashing a console to bits with his lightsaber. He is unable to read Rey's mind, and that makes him angry too. At one point, he prays for the moral turpitude to be as evil as he wants to be. So far at least, Ren is an ironic mirror of Vader, not an amplification.
Instead, Negan is such a clumsily and totally cruel character that the show says nothing about the nature of evil, only wallows in it happily like a pig in bloody mud. Negan the character and the death of Glenn as plot point is the point at which The Walking Dead has refuted its humanity altogether. Its also the point where the show, which has always tended towards boredom, embraces it completely.
You now what might greatly improve the show? Literally renouncing humanity. Imagine it: having dispatched with the violent deaths of Rick, his son, and everyone who's left, the show could finally realize its true potential. What if, instead of bickering humans headed towards inevitable confrontations with increasingly fucked up dictators and assholes, The Walking Dead just showed zombies? What if it were just an hour, every week, of the undead shuffling around: moaning, stumbling, rotting, falling from heights, staring vacantly into the camera? That way it could be just as gory, and it might result in some accidental poignance now and then.
Redbox Horror Theater: Rob Zombie's 31 as gross and greasy as ever.
Let's play a game of "who wrote it". Here's the line:
Life is nothing but a stinky and filthy boneyard of death and rotten tramps.
You might be forgiven for thinking its 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, of the Decadent movement. But it's not. Its late 20th and early 21st century poet Rob Zombie, of the "try not to puke" movement, culled from an uncommonly philosophical moment in his latest film, 31.
Unlike many of the entries in Redbox, therefore, 31 is the work of an auteur. To call Zombie anything less would be unfair. Because love or hate him, you've got to admit that the man has something almost like an artistic vision, even if that vision is to apotheosize white trash, gore, and profanity. All of his movies have roughly the same aesthetic.
First, every line of dialogue contains at least two and maybe three uses of "fuck". Whether the characters are good or bad, young or old, in danger or in safety, they all hold forth with an effusion of salty language for its own sake. I'm not saying this is bad, necessarily. But making a drinking game out of it would be a good way to get your stomach pumped.
Second, all of the characters have to be a little gross. It's not enough that they be mere teenagers, tourists or other horror movie victims. They have to be covered in a sheen of thick grease (later obscured by blood) or Zombie thinks you haven't gotten your money's worth. They're greasy gas station attendants, or greasy serial killers, or greasy radio DJs, or greasy carnies. Zombie has not, of yet, made any movies where the characters work at non-profits, or are Michelin- starred chefs, but if he did you could be sure those characters would have long, stringy hair, and thick coats of grease.
In 31, our protagonists are sideshow performers in a troupe apparently called Venus Virgo's Happy Time Fun Show. They stop on a dusty road to get gas (in horror-film-world, no one should ever get gas; if the victims rode bicycles they'd presumably be fine, arriving at their destinations with all their flesh intact and killer quads to boot). At the creepy gas station, complete with unexplained creepy puppet show, they are sized up by some of their eventual harassers. By the end of the night they have been kidnapped, tied up and subjected to a sadistic game called 31 by the colorfully named Father Napoleon Horatio Silas Murder (Malcolm McDowell). Did Mr. Murder legally change his name, or is his real name something mundane like Pete? You'll probably have to wait for the sequel, presumably to be called 62, to find out.
The title, 31, refers to the date on which our protagonists are captured, which is Halloween. We only know this because there are some Halloween decorations up at the gas station. Father N. H. S. Murder never says why they play 31 on Halloween, except that its creepy. Maybe it is the only time that he is able to clear his schedule because the rest of the time he is too buys working as a Michelin-rated chef at a non-profit for it to work out.
Father Murder is joined by a handful of very Rob Zombie-esque killers, including Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Doom-Head, and, with a Freudian flourish, the loving couple comprised of Sex-Head and Death-Head, who like to sing together in German. And let me not move on without mentioning Sick-Head. Sick-Head is a little person who likes to dress as Adolf Hitler and has a big black swastika painted on his chest. If it is too politically incorrect to call the little fellow a Nazi, I think we can be safe saying that he is a member of the "alt-right". This should provide a clue to the degree of nuance Zombie brings to 31.
Our protagonists are given 12 hours to survive the game after having their odds of doing so calculated by Father N. H. S. Murder. None of their odds are particularly good; they are variously stabbed, chainsawed, cannibalized and stabbed again until only one of them is left. I'll leave it to you to guess who survives, but I'll remind you that Sheri Moon Zombie, Mr. Zombie's wife, recieves top billing. One way or the other, this is Zombie's take on The Running Man but filtered, as always for Zombie, through Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It's hard not to write about the film with a degree of sarcasm, so let me just come out and say it. At times I really did enjoy it. For one thing, Zombie really is a compelling visual filmmaker. Though some shots seem hurried, others are lavished with attention and border on the disgustingly beautiful. Harsh sunlight pours through the slats of a dusty shack. Red illuminates the baroque highlights of Father Murder's mansion (or wherever it is he enjoys the game at, because the movie never explains how he is able to follow the events considering they never show him or his friends watching video monitors). A grungy door leads to a makeshift shrine to Hitler complete with Christmas lights and velvet. Like his previous effort, Lords of Salem, Zombie has managed, at least at times, to make a quite interesting looking film. At other times, mere ugliness holds sway.
Rob Zombie has always felt like Quentin Tarantino's bratty younger brother. He too affectionately rehashes the exploitation films of yesteryear while giving them his own not-quite-unique stamp. But unlike Tarantino, Zombie does not seem to labor under the delusion that his films mean anything. He is simply making what he likes. If he has never had any real mainstream success it is because his vision is too outre and, well, greasy to appeal to the average person. But the clarity of his vision also ensures that he will always have an audience in those who share his bizarre preoccupations. And, God help me, I might be one of them. His dreadful (and most mainstream films) Halloween and Halloween II aside, his body of work has made me cringe and laugh with their sheer audacity for more than a decade, and though 31 is mostly middling, its few moments of true creativity make up for the occasional sense that Zombie has done all this before with the same ingredients.
Not only is it the very definition of a guilty pleasure, its also a greasy pleasure.
And so, this reviewer, your humble correspondent, gives this film THREE CORNDOGS, and a TALLBOY of BUDWEISER CLAMATO CHELADA.
There has always been a clear connection between Christmas (or the holiday season) and horror. The greatest Christmas story ever written, The Christmas Carol, is a ghost story that obsesses luxuriously about death, in which a young boy almost starves and Scrooge’s servants squabble over who gets to pawn his stuff. In fact, the original original Christmas story is at least a little dark; you might recall that it eventually revolves around the threat of infanticide.
Santa has also been a mainstay of horror. There’s the murderous guy dressed as Santa in Silent Night Deadly Night and Black Christmas, and then of course there’s Krampus and other evil-twin derivatives of Santa like Belsnickel, Pere Fouettard, and Hans Trapp.
But the truth is that we don't need Krampus and his ilk; Santa Claus is scary enough as it is, although the most insidious union of Santa and genre is with science fiction, not horror. A little analysis reveals that the cheesy studio Santa comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s, notably The Santa Claus and Elf, have surreptitiously revealed the true parameters of the Santa story are dystopic.
In The Santa Clause the elves fly around in jet packs and work in a workshop to rival any James Bond villain's. This is the birth of Santa Claus as techno-oligarch. See below a scene that inadvertently explores the disturbing political repercussions that such advanced elves might injudiciously wield as an apparently paramilitary posse of "Santa's little helpers", complete with armbands, harass and otherwise abuse an official of the law.
Keep in mind that these elves are serving a new Santa (Tim Allen), who is replacing the old Santa, dead as a result of a treacherously ice roof. In this way The Santa Clause examines the transfer of power, peaceful or otherwise, from the regime of one Santa to the next. The Santa Clause series in general is the Brave New World or 1984 of Santa-related stories -- the tale of a technocratic regime consolidating its power through careful application of consumer goods.
Elf, however, goes even farther. In a key sequence, the elves are assembled (in uniform) to work on "the latest in extreme graphic chipset processors", they are forced to recite the "code of the elves". Firstly, "extreme graphic chipset processors" are already produced by companies like Intel, Radeon and NVidia. Santa's efforts to produce these consumer goods and distribute them for free is almost certainly a bid to destabilize the tech-market. If Santa did not enjoy a privileged status as a beloved seasonal imp, his subversive attacks would not be tolerated. The "code of the elves", moreover, is rife with Orwellian applications. See below.
The "code of the elves" is here revealed as a rigidly dogmatic hermeneutic designed, as so many dystopian and totalitarian creeds are, with an eye towards fostering an environment that admits no critical analysis. "Every day" is to be treated like Christmas, and "singing loud for all to hear", a clear reference to the kinds of propaganda historically circulated by the Soviet Glavlit or the American "Committee on Public Information" during WWI.
But Santa's goals are not merely economic, but are sometimes outright colonial, as in the inflammatory masterpiece Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Please note: the film is not called Santa Claus Makes Friends with the Martians, or Santa Claus Learns To Be More Diverse from the Martians. The operative word here is "conquers".
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians also hinges on questions of propaganda and groupthink. It begins with Martian children watching the broadcast of an interview with Santa from their planet, which eventually results in the "kidnapping" of Santa by Martian politicos, though it can be read as Santa arranging his own kidnapping. Santa then sets up a second workshop on the red planet, and recruits Martians to work for him. It even results in the creation of a second, Martian Santa, who continues his work in his stead. What is this if not the creation of a dummy state, a colony, to be administrated under the shiny leather jackboot of Santa himself?
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has what is ostensibly a happy ending, with the "good" children of Mars getting their own presents -- but this also means that they have become the recipients of Santa's relentless economic destabilization of the market. At the end of the film, we are made to ask how long it will be before Santa broadcasts his "code of the elves" from loudspeakers on the Martian surface? In fact, how long before Santa has forced his techno-oligarchy on all the planets in the solar system, and beyond?
We do not have space here to examine all of the dystopic applications of Santa Claus, and there are many. There is the question of whether Santa's totalitarian dictate that we provide him with milk and cookies represents collusion between Santa's workshop and the junkfood-industrial complex, and furthermore, whether the Keebler elves are in on it or not. There is also the issue of how Santa manages to have access to everyone's homes through what he euphemistically refers to as "the chimney". And make sure not to forget that Santa's whole intelligence apparatus, which "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake", is transparently sinister even without the added creepiness of having a voyeuristic elf watch every move you make from the vantage of a shelf.
The question we must ask ourselves, then, is "qui bono?" Why would Santa want to distribute free plastic crap to children, save for that they possess the most malleable minds and are most open to dramatic restructurings of society and economy?
I'll leave you with one final thought. What happens with Santa comes to collect? What will we be asked to relinquish when the day comes that Santa is here, not to give, but to take? When he demands, not just a plate of cookies, some milk, and our undying belief in him, but our veneration, our labor, and even perhaps our flesh itself?
Then, there will be only one holiday commandment: do what Santa wilt shall be the whole of the law.
2 stars out of 4
As I mentioned in last week’s column, I make a concerted effort to see any movie with a Satanic theme because I spent a lot of my childhood scared shitless of the devil. Not only does this make the movies a bit scarier for me because of some vestigial terror, but it does double duty as a bit of therapy.
But it can have a negative effect too, because I am more disappointed by a bad movie about the devil than I am any other kind of horror film. Can’t they see what makes him so scary? Why can’t they all be as complex and disturbing as, say, Robert Eggers’s fascinating The Witch? As audacious in their casting as Constantine (a seriously underappreciated action horror film; watch it again for the great Tilda Swinton as a gender-swapped Gabriel and Peter Stormare as a literally unctuous Satan)? As literary in its pretentions as The Ninth Gate? As just-plain-wacky as The Devil’s Advocate?
How come they’re so often as dull as The Incarnation? Is it one of Old Scratch's evil plans to bore us so?
You can tell how rote Incarnate will be from the first five minutes. A young boy with the requisite bowl haircut (the haircut of horror movie children, boys and girls alike, since at least Danny from Kubrick's Shining adaptation, if not before) is menaced by a growling homeless woman as he and his mother, played by Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten, enter their apartment building. This is a misstep; the film seems to think that a homeless woman with mental health issues is an appropriate first scare, and it is not. From a liberal perspective, class- and mental-health shaming are cheaply offensive, and from the horror fanatic’s view, there has only ever been one scary homeless person in the history of horror film, and it was in Hellraiser. Two, if you count the dwarf from Don’t Look Now, although I cannot recall from that film whether she owns a home, rents, or has another arrangement.
At any rate, the snarling-homeless-person is a trope that has been used so often that its inclusion in a contemporary horror film feels like it should be a red herring, a distraction from something more sophisticated and less obvious. Not so in Incarnate, which has, moments later, the homeless woman dropping from the ceiling onto the aforementioned Bowl Haircut Boy, possessing him.
We know this because he spends the remainder of the film sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, staring. We are invited to shiver with fear at the sight of a boy sitting quietly. I am not a parent, but I have worked in retail for a long time and there are times when a child’s bawling mixes perfectly with the awful pop song playing with tinny cheeriness over the store’s speakers. Perhaps the song is "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, one of the worst songs ever written, and one which plays constantly at every place I have ever worked. In such moments I like to thank God that the kids are not sitting quietly, possessed. But personal experience ought not to effect critical acumen. The actor playing Bowl Haircut Boy, it must be noted, is very good at remaining still.
The movie also stars Aaron Eckhart as a someone who is not an exorcist (“Let’s get one thing straight,” he growls early on. “I’m not an exorcist). He is, instead, an evictor. He goes into the heads of people who are possessed and evicts the demon, although the specifics of this are vague and largely cobbled together out of more memorable films. There are story and character beats collected here as cheaply as if they fell out the back of a truck. Think Inception, The Matrix, The Shining and The Omen all boiled together, after the English style, until they lose all flavor and shape.
At one point Bowl Haircut Boy kills a man by lifting him into the air and then dropping him from a height of about seven feet. Now, malnutrition and a lack of exercise have rendered me nearly as fragile as a fat little dauphin, but I think that even I could survive a fall like that. But in the film the descent is fatal. Perhaps there is a subplot somewhere on the cutting room floor in which they reveal that the man has glass bones, or is allergic to the floor.
Since Aaron Eckhart the evictor must go into people’s minds, the viewer is forgiven for hoping that there’ll be some trippy shit once they go into Bowl Haircut Boy’s demonic dream. Not so. The boy dreams that he is in a public park and then later a carnival. It is as if Inception took place in Norman Rockwell’s afternoon catnap.
The Arch-Demon, when we meet her, is in the guise of (surprise) a scary old lady who mutters mock-demonic gibberish about torturing everyone the Evictor loves. This occurs for no reason. The demon has no reason to dislike him, except that it gives the movie a reason to start and, by extension, eventually and mercifully end.
Things would be whole plots in other movies are dispensed with in one or two lines of dialogue so vague as to be funny. At one point, Eckhart the Evictor tells us his origin story.
“When I was 29, I discovered I could enter into the dreams of people possessed by the devil.”
How was this discovery made? This seems like the kind of thing that would be difficult to accidentally discover. Did he work at a day care for possessed kids at nap time? Was it maybe on a long flight? I assume that might have been an interesting story for us to hear, but the movie, maybe because it is bored with itself, keeps it to itself.
I cannot say anything more about the movie because it was instantly forgettable, and so I have already forgotten all but the broadest strokes. There was something about a capsule of blood harvested from a Vatican exorcist, I think. There was also something about a car crash, which I think was supposed to be tragic. Also, a lot of the actresses looked the same.
One thing is for certain – no one sheds a tear for the poor homeless woman who gets her neck broken in the first scene. Maybe if she had been an heiress or something the movie would have cared enough to at least give her a name. I think that Bowl Haircut Boy must have had a name, but it was not memorable enough to recall it. All that I clearly remember, in fact, was sitting quietly staring straight ahead, like a thing possessed.