History as Speculative Fiction: Some thoughts on reading "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and "From Hell" While Under the Influence of Robitussin

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.

A particularly surreal splash page that demonstrates From Hell's hallucinatory, even mystical take on English history.

A particularly surreal splash page that demonstrates From Hell's hallucinatory, even mystical take on English history.

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 Futureetc.  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.  

Or maybe, just maybe, I've stumbled on the recipe for Chicken Soup for the Damned Soul...

Or maybe, just maybe, I've stumbled on the recipe for Chicken Soup for the Damned Soul...

High Strangeness and Family Romance: a review of Sharma Shield's "The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac"

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.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek

Dr. J. Allen Hynek

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. 

 

 

On the "Evil Text", from the "Necronomicon" to "The Ring" by way of Judas Priestd

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 "Necronomicon" as seen in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II.

The "Necronomicon" as seen in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II.

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.

UFOs Streak the Skies, and other "alternative facts" unrelated to Trump

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.

Negan as the Terminal Point of Villainy, or, Why The Walking Dead should just kill off all of its characters

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"

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.

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Blandly Titled "Incarnate" is, like a dream, forgettable.

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.