Stephen King and the Truly Terrifying

I have a birthday coming up soon. And I’m at an age – dangerously close to 40 – where the achievements of others have become unnerving. I’m not the type to be jealous per se, and I value the process of creation for its own sake. But it does erode the sense of one’s own importance to see what others – more focused, more blessed, or just luckier – have accomplished with the same time given me.

Both more focused and more blessed, certainly, was Stephen King, who wrote the epic ‘Salem’s Lot when he was only 24. I’ve never been particularly enthralled by King, whose fiction is written with tight plots and merely utilitarian style. But I’ve finally started reading Danse Macabre, his treatise on horror – written, of course, when he was younger than I am now. It is, to someone questioning their own accomplishments, more terrifying than any of his horror novels.

The book is not remotely academic. King mixes memoir and sociology and criticism freely and elegantly. Worse, he shows here that he’s capable of amazing literary subtlety. Take this passage, which I reread something like four times, in which he links the Creature from the Black Lagoon to a childhood experience with the mystical, through an oblique reimagining of what it really means to “buy” an imagined story.

I knew, watching, that the Creature had become my Creature; I had bought it. Even to a seven-year-old, it was not a terribly convincing Creature, [but] I knew that, later on that night, he would visit me in the black lagoon of my dreams, looking much more realistic. He might be waiting in the closet when we got home, he might be standing slumped in the blackness of the bathroom at the end of the hall, stinking of algae and swamp rot, all ready for a post-midnight snack of small boy. Seven isn’t old, but it’s old enough to know that you get what you pay for. You own it, you bought it, it’s yours. It is old enough to feel the dowser suddenly come alive, grow heavy, and roll over in your hands, pointing at hidden water.

It’s not quite James Joyce. But King is certainly, if you don’t know already, more than a mere scribbler of potboilers.

This post first appeared in the Blown Horizonz newsletter, which this week also touches on Twin Peaks and Luc Besson. Sign up to the right, or here, to receive future updates.

Horizon: Zero Dawn Has a Secretly Upbeat Message About Human Destiny

I’ve been playing a decent amount of the new game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s been justly praised on the basis of its very capable following of the open-world blueprint of games like Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry. But the world has also gotten a lot of attention – the game imagines a distant future where civilization has basically collapsed, but there are many technological holdovers from a long-forgotten past.

That includes lots of huge robots which, I’m sure for Reasons, resemble dinosaurs and sabretooth tigers, and which make up the (really, really fun to blow up) main enemies of the game. But it also includes a lot of mundane objects, from ceramic mugs to corkscrews to a Bluetooth headset (more or less) that’s central to the game’s plot and mechanics. The humans interacting with this stuff have no idea how it works – the entire setting hinges on the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic.

The game’s approach to time and human collective memory, though, are what I think really set it apart. Post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen, but that’s not what this is, despite the sense that there’s been a technological catastrophe. In Mad Max or Fallout, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the lost past, and a struggle to survive in a harsh present. They seem to reinforce, in that way, the inherent value of the real world we live in now – they suggest that we should treasure what we have, because look how horrible things would be if we lost it.

But things aren’t that horrible at all in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn (these dual titles are really unwieldy, execs). There are wars and conflicts, but humans now live in fairly well-structured, semi-primitive tribes and proto-nations, including farming and hunting societies. They’re not 21st Century America, but they’re not some sad vestige of a glorious past. They’re just different, functioning societies.

And they don’t pine for any past, either. The builders of the technology they see all around them are more mysterious ‘others’ than direct forebears, closer to ancestral gods than actual people. There’s no powerful sense that protagonist Aloy and her people have ‘lost’ anything – this ecosystem of strange and dangerous robots, and occasional technological scraps, is simply the world they live in, and make their living from.

This sense a much different message about human fate than the standard postapocalypse narrative, and considering that we’re likely headed for something catastrophic pretty soon, it’s a bit of a light in the darkness. Humanity (according, ahem, to this video game) is robust enough to survive up and down cycles – while we may recede from the progress and horror of the 20th century, there will still be an essential humanity to us, and we will continue. We will make hunting armor out of car reflectors, and maybe that’ll be enough to propel us to the next good patch.

Your Weirdness is Political

A Note from the Editor.

Since the November 9th election, I have been trying to make some measured sense of what it means, and what it will mean. I still think the greater part of that answer is ‘we don’t know.’ I want to offer a smaller message, though, to devotees of weird culture.

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself wondering whether world events render a love of monsters and noise and strange combinations of words frivolous, superfluous. If, perhaps, the blossoming of the weird over the past few years was that of a hothouse flower, a form of cultural indulgence only possible because a small slice of the population existed in a state of self-satisfied comfort.

You may wonder, in short, whether we should all put down our fantasy tales and start reading political science.

And the answer is: Absolutely not. Because weird culture is resolutely political, down to its bones.

Kafka, probably the weirdest of them all, has left us one of the most profound critiques of modern life we have. The Dadaists, much more self-consciously political, gave birth to a long line of resistant absurdism that, consciously or not, all experimental artists continue today. William Burroughs’ vampire sex-aliens and time-travelling shootists carved out a space for the truly, polymorphously queer.

The politics of strangeness takes many forms, but at heart it is about the resistance to all forms of authority, all forms of identity, and all forms of fear – three words whose contemporary relevance are inescapable. Of course, this resistance doesn’t take the form of fist-shaking, of confrontation. The weird is about subversion, escape, troublemaking, trickery.

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At the most abstract level, there is the weird’ s hostility to language itself, from genre’s crude gestures at the unknowable, to formalist rejections of linearity and sense. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Ubu Roi inaugurated anti-language as the mode of resistance, setting its satire of authority and hate in a patois of slang, puns, and word-play that highlighted the hollowness of despots.

Take, also, the weirdness of Samuel Beckett, from whose blasted landscapes and inarticulate, deformed heroes Ligotti draws his soul. Beckett was active in the French Resistance, and his writing was just as anti-authoritarian as his life. He was the bard of ignorance, of broken words, of failure and darkness. That exposure of the holes in the world, of human frailty and ignorance, is the political essence of the weird. What Kafka spelled out more clearly is there in Beckett in elemental form – that all claims to rightness are ultimately illusions, and crimes committed in their name are never justified.

The assertion that the world is unknowable and our own efforts ineffectual can, of course, also be fuel for the authoritarian. Beckett manages to salvage not just a difficult beauty, but a certain nobility from the ruins. That is one way of facing the terror of universal nonsense without reclining into true nihilism.

The counterpoint, some might say, is Lovecraft. His xenophobia and fear of change sometimes seem to invite the destroying hand of the Old Gods. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Lovecraft’s abject revulsion towards difference and change contained an inevitable fascination with them – as many forms of racism do.

How to live with the unknowable. That is the question that humans have always faced. We have struggled to paper over the void of existence with religion, with power, with myth, with science, with racial scapegoating, with material plenty. Look at that list and you’ll see that these efforts inevitably fail, to various degrees.

That doesn’t mean we should simply become friends with darkness, acquiesce to despair. Rather, we must look the void in the face. Understand its presence, and even its attractions, and try and make a life with that knowledge in hand.

That is the therapy of the weird, and its politics. Contemplating strangeness, dread, non-sense, and non-being is an inoculation against existential dread. And perhaps it can blunt our seemingly genetic impulse to hoist up tin-pot lords and empty banners and fictional Races to shoulder the threat of nothingness on our behalf.

On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Our First Giveaway: 1945 Edition of The Dunwich Horror!

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Howdy regulars and new folks! We’re launching a giveaway for this cool 1945 Bart House edition of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. We’ll keep signups open until November 31st, then send the book to the winner – so you can keep it for yourself, or give someone a great Christmas gift!

Enter Our Giveaway!

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When you sign up for the drawing, we’ll also add you to our mailing list. We’ll send you a bimonthly content digest and newsletter, covering the world of weird fiction and culture. We’ll be doing the first one in a couple of weeks, and trying to create something that everyone enjoys, based on feedback from our early subscribers.

You’ll also get another cool treat for signing up – in a few weeks, we’ll be offering a free ebook to new subscribers. You’ll be given access to that when it goes live, if you’re already on the list.

(Also: When we pick a winner, we’ll reach out for your address so we can mail out the book.)

Capsule Review: SP4RX, Wren McDonald

SP4RX Wren McDonald Akira

NoBrow press is a generally amazing home for weird visual material in a sci-fi or fantasy vein (and now, it seems, of a line of kid’s volumes for hipster parents who want to warp their seed from birth). But they have a pretty minimalist house style, so when Wren McDonald’s SP4RX comes billed as a “stoner Akira,” it’s no big surprise that doesn’t encompass the meticulous, almost tactile virtues of Otomo Katsuhiro’s landmark work.

You might think, in fact, that “stoner Akira” is a little redundant – but Akira is more of a cheap-speed jam, with all those fine lines and hyperviolent deaths. SP4RX has a similar techno-dystopian setting, and a similar fight against authoritarian evil, but it’s all a lot more laid back. The drawings are cartoonish and approachable, though still occasionally evoking a sense of wonder at the great/awful future.  And the dialogue is of the affectless punk variety, lowercase, minimal punctuation, offhand. The sort that resists intensity.

What you get instead of that Akira intensity is a certain stoned charm, as a hacker hero and friends, including a cute/dangerous robot, work their way through a straightforward but relevant plot about class and the threat automation poses to workers. Some of the scenes are really fun, and you get to see a lot of bad guys blown up in very satisfying ways.

I could see this being a bingeworthy ongoing series, and in many ways this volume looks and feels like the setup for one (though unfortunately outside of Japan, it’s tough to pull off). The line art and simple monotone coloring would make it easy to churn out a lot of pages, and it’s the kind of thing I could zone out with on the couch for many, many hours. The current volume, at about 120 pages, really seems to barely get you in the zone before it’s over, but it’s a warm and fuzzy ride while it lasts.

Two Poems By David Z. Morris at TL: DR Magazine

We’re proud to announce that Blown Horizonz editor David Z. Morris has two appropriately strange poems out this week at TL:DR, a new literary publication run by Russell Jaffe.

Click here to read David’s poems, which are about publishing and medieval purges, respectively.

And if you like this site, David’s poems, or the general vibe of the two, we’d highly recommend you check out Jaffe’s own poetry. You can start here.

Writing Autopsy: Oh, For Fuck’s Sake, The Neon Demon

Every week or so, we like to sit down and examine a film or TV show from a writer’s perspective, digging deep into the not-always-obvious mechanics of plot and character. Sometimes the exercise is an attempt to understand greatness. Other times – as in this week’s installment – it’s quite the opposite.

I should start things off by saying I didn’t finish Drive. I don’t remember disliking it, or particularly liking it. I just never finished it. Take that as you will.

But Neon Demon (let’s just put our cards on the table) is a pretty rough watch given the level of enthusiasm that greeted Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film. To call this one “half baked” would be an insult to collapsed cakes. Its theme is interesting, but the execution of that theme manages to be offensive and insulting. Its setting is trite, but workable. Its structure is a little weird, though not entirely broken. But the devil here is really in the details, because Refn has tried to direct a kind of horror film, but seems to have missed most of the key elements of what makes horror work.

Neon Demon is a film that completely eliminates suspense. It almost seems like an art project towards that goal. It’s not that you know what’s going to happen – the problem, actually, is that you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen.

Okay though, wait, rewind. Let’s start from the beginning here.

On Art Films and Abstraction

Some will certainly argue that this is not a movie where ‘writing’ should be a matter of focus. It’s an art film, people will say. And I’ll say look, having a lot of unnecessarily long takes does not make it an art film. The world’s great art films, while often not conventionally plotted, are usually incredibly well written/structured (same thing).  Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Drawing Restraint 9: These are, I want to say symphonies, but maybe more like frantic, jagged jazz masterpieces.

Continue Reading…

Writer Autopsy: What’s the Matter With the Conjuring 2?

I was very late to the party on The Conjuring, but when I saw it about two months ago it scared the pants off me. (There’s nothing dignified about a 36 year old man clutching his fiancée like some sort of mystical talisman against the dark – but it’s definitely fun.) So I was happy to devote a couple of hours to the followup last week – only to be disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that scary or interesting, even though it has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one.

But for a writer, a failed piece of work can be just as educational as a successful one. You can see the cracks – in fact, the cracks leap out at you. So here are the cracks in The Conjuring 2.

Structurally Fucked: The movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, give or take. Which is too long for a haunted-house movie to start with – but that weakness is really exacerbated by the frontloading of the haunting. We get an hour and 30 minutes of foreboding rattles and jump scares before the demon hunters show up – and that fight is the center of the story, especially since it isn’t until that conflict gets rolling that we actually gain even a hint of understanding as to the nature of what’s happening.

The long buildup might have been sustainable if there had been slightly clearer hints as to the nature or motivation of the ghost, but there just aren’t. Slight spoiler, but the ghost’s main motivation seems at first to be . . . wanting to watch a different TV channel?

Low Stakes: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but you know practically from the get-go that no one in this movie is going to die. Even after the haunting is clear to everyone, people just kind of hang around, remaining under threat. They go elsewhere if they want to sleep, suggesting that the ghost is about as threatening as a termite infestation. The exception, of course, is the ‘host’ character – but even she isn’t seen to be really in danger until a very late scene. The haunting, for her, is more of a bummer because it makes her a social outcast, than because she’s in actual danger. That’s just not a good way to generate fear.

Contrast that with the first movie, where people had a mounting plague of bruises and cuts, and oh yeah, your mom is trying to murder you. And your mom is Lili Taylor, and she’s totally terrifying.

Fake, Shallow Central Relationship: Since it’s now officially A Franchise, the Conjuring’s central duo are more important than in the first film. And nothing about them feels remotely real. God Bless Vera Farmiga, who deserves much better, but these un-flawed whitebread ghost hunters are terminally uninteresting. And their boringness makes the few moments when they express their mutual affection downright squicky – “It’ll give you something to look forward to when you get home.” Thanks, Mom and Dad.

All of which is to say that their relationship is core to the dramatic moment at the heart of the movie, when Dad Hunter decides to go into the house alone despite the danger. When Farmiga tells him, “I can’t lose you. I’m so scared,” it’s hard to buy, because they seem more like business partners and mutual beards than two people in love.

Doesn’t Question its Own Highly Questionable Premise: The movie makes a few minor gestures towards the haunting being faked, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a dramatic question, largely because the context makes doubt hard to swallow. Everyone who questions Mom and Dad Ghost Hunters’ core belief that demons love to possess children and haunt houses is depicted as a deluded, pinheaded ivory-tower academic, who is also physically weak. Dad Ghost Hunter is shown to be willing to beat someone up for his beliefs, which is, you know, proof that he’s right?

Even on its own terms, this does much less than the first film to explore the idea that demons prey on weakness and doubt. Honestly, it could even be seen as pretty anti-feminist, since basically all the family did to ‘invite’ the haunting is to be led by a single mother.

Anyway, intellectually shallow. I had the same problem with The Witch and its dangerously-close-to-total acceptance of women as conduits of evil – though that’s a far, far superior film.

Other Minor Stuff:

Uses the exact same “crosses flipping upside down” moment as the first movie (I’m pretty sure?). Gives us a three minute montage set to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which, sorry, doesn’t do much to actually convince me about the relationship.