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.

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.)

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.

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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.

Centaur, an Excellently Bizarre Pinball Table

One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.

The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.Centaur

The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.

The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.

But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.

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Phantasm, Wu-Tang, and the Power of Suggestion

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a conundrum. It makes an immediate impression of amateurism, mostly thanks to the naïve style of the untrained actors. That’s reinforced, as the film progresses, by the seemingly random progression of unexplained, though effectively ominous events – a murder in a graveyard, a funeral overseen by a menacing mortician, a sightless medium inexplicably speaking through her apparently psychic (and affectless) teenage granddaughter.

A seasoned aficionado of the weird will, by the middle of Phantasm, feel pretty sure that they’re seeing something like an inferior American version of Suspiria, complete with unexplained murders and mounting signs of a conspiracy, motivations just barely hinted at. Unfortunately, Coscarelli doesn’t have anything like Argento’s visual flair (or that amazing Goblin soundtrack – though Phantasm’s theme weakly echoes Suspiria’s), and the movie’s long setup comes dangerously close to flatness.

But what Coscarelli lacks in painterly excess, he quickly makes up for with a sense of the bizarre that dwarfs Argento’s. Suspiria is memorable for how it looks – Phantasm is memorable for its utterly uncanny events. Argento’s witches would certainly fall into Lovecraft’s category of “old,” unscientific horrors, alongside werewolves and vampires. But the relentless, cosmically inscrutable force at the center of Phantasm – the Tall Man, with his army of horrific dwarves – defies both tradition and categorization, and is all the more menacing because it occupies an apparently human body.

It all comes together in one moment of sublimely realized cosmic horror that holds the movie’s dream-logic together. The young protagonist, in pursuit of the Tall Man, slips through a dimensional portal and glimpses the corpse-dwarves at some utterly opaque form of slave labor, on the surface of a resolutely alien world. The place is desolate – nothing but an expanse of rock all the way to the horizon – and with a red, fiery sky. In the next instant, Mike is snatched back through the portal, and we never see the place again.

It is a total shift in visual tone from the muted aura of the rest of the film. And while the effect of the planet’s surface itself is not exceptionally refined, the fact that we only see it for a matter of seconds leaves it to resonate in our heads, not just for the rest of the movie, but (if you’re of a certain morbid cast) long after.

The moment reminds me, in a strange, oblique way, of the 2000 Wu-Tang Clan track “Careful.” Despite the weirdly blingy video, the track is totally haunting, slow, and sparse. It came out a year after RZA did the transformational “Ghost Dog” soundtrack, and could easily be an outtake.


At about the 3:40 mark, as the song is about to end, RZA drops a horn sample that transforms the entire song. It’s a three-note traditional soul/funk hook. It’s beautiful, funky, rich. It gives heart to a track that’s ice cold – but instead of using it to climax the song, or under the hook, RZA laces it in all the way at the end of the song, twice – and then returns to the bare-bones original beat.

It’s a stunning bit of artistic restraint. Every time you remember the song, the loop floats over the whole thing, not just the last few seconds. Every time you listen to the song after that, the loop haunts it.

You’re waiting for it. It hangs on in its own absence.

It’s a strong parallel to Coscarelli’s gesture in Phantasm, and to the brief flashes of revelatory truth that define almost all works of weird horror. The glimpse of the alien planet looks like it might be an explanation of the inexplicable, a source of order, if not security, in the face of seemingly random terror. Coscarelli does offer some logic – but just the barest wisp, ultimately just a further tease to enrich the wanderings of our own brains.

Phantasm is not by any means as rich a mine of illogic as, say, Inland Empire, or El Topo, or Trash Humpers. It’s structured as a traditional horror movie, with a villain, and a hero who overcomes it (at least temporarily). But the nature of that monster – scientific rather than supernatural, and yet at the same time totally inexplicable – makes it an inspiring manifestation of the weird by a determined auteur working without much money, but with a fierce dedication to his own singular ideas.

Zulawski’s Possession: Most Insane Lovecraft Movie. Ever.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like for a woman miscarrying a tentacle monster fetus in a subway station?

Well, wonder no more.

This moment of learning comes to you courtesy of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski and his 1981 unrelenting anxiety-fest Possession. It’s a Lovecraft movie in all the important respects, except that A) Lovecraft didn’t write it and B) Lovecraft could never quite have written it, because he kept his fear of intimacy and sex fiercely repressed throughout his entire life.

There are no children and no women in Lovecraft’s work – but Zulawski made a film that found in relationships exactly the same sort of bottomless horror that Lovecraft found in evolution, time, and space. The psychology of the film is profound, at least for anyone who’s ever been cheated on or just plain manipulated by someone they’ve made the mistake of loving. And the monster at the center of it all is perfect, crafted by Carlo Rambaldi, also responsible for the creature effects in Alien.

But the real power of the film isn’t in its plot or its monster, but in the way the disjointed, surreal script makes the viewer constantly question and dissect everything they’re seeing. There seems to be some vague, suggestive resolution at the end, but the whole thing remains decidedly up for debate. I love this sort of film (or book), disjointed in such a clearly careful way, suggestive rather than explicit, evocative and mythic rather than beat-driven.

It’s a goal I’m a long way from in my own creative writing, where my journalistic and academic background push me constantly towards precision. But I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Possession for pointers.

‘True Detective’ brings together Burroughs and Lovecraft to make the darkest television ever.

“Death made time for what it kills to grow in.”  That’s the dialogue thought-bomb Matthew McConaughey dropped near the end of Sunday’s True Detective. I knew I knew the line. It comes from William S. Burroughs, from Cities of the Red Night, from a passage celebrating Ah Pook, The Destroyer.

True Detective is already getting attention for its references to weird legends like Thomas Ligotti and Robert W. Chambers and, indirectly, H.P. Lovecraft. And now it’s making references to William Burroughs. That connection hasn’t been widely made, but it’s one that has always struck me. The putrescent aliens and rabid gore and giant centipedes of Burroughs’ Interzone echo the body horror that pervades Lovecraft, and True Detective, with its nihilistic, degraded detective protagonists and its degenerates running through the woods worshiping demons, brings the two worlds together in a way that gets at the heart of both.

Both Burroughs and Lovecraft saw that the world was something to be feared and hated – Lovecraft, through his maladjustment, Burroughs, through his cynicism and superiority. Cohle, the darkly damaged figure at the center of True Detective, carries Burroughs’ world-weariness, and moves through a world, like Lovecraft’s, ruled over by powers he can’t see or fight.

The explicit references are one thing, but above all, the tone and message of True Detective are more faithful to the weird than any Guillermo Del Toro spectacle.  There are no tentacles in True Detective (at least not yet), but there are monsters. It trades in one of Lovecraft’s great tropes, pitting the forces of order against a chaos personified by the poor, downtrodden, and in this telling, irreparably corrupted.  But True Detective takes this easy dichotomy and tumbles it, by making its protagonists not just broken or weak, but in their own deep ways malevolent.  That’s the Burroughs talking.

This show is dark beyond dark.  For Lovecraft, for Ligotti, for Chambers, the malevolent world beyond the veil often hunts ciphers, investigators who stand in for our own uncertainty. True Detective forces us to wrestle with figures of ourselves that are not simply neutral, but, Like Burroughs’ junkies and murderers, bear the malevolence of the indifferent universe within them.