Parallel Lines: Rebecca Solnit, Eadweard Muybridge, and The Vorrh

The vorrh eadward muybridge

I have, by pretty much pure chance, wound up reading two strangely connected books in parallel. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows and Brian Catling’s The Vorrh both prominently feature Eadweard Muybridge, the late 19th century photographer who pioneered the fundamentals of motion pictures. But River of Shadows is a historical essay examining the impact of photography on perceptions of speed, while The Vorrh is a novel, more or less in the realm of fantasy.

Reading the two books side-by-side is occasionally disorienting, but more than that it’s an education in form, theme, and adaptation. It seems very likely to me that Catling read Solnit, and learned the history linking Muybridge to Leland Stanford and the westward push of the railroads in America. In The Vorrh, Catling transplants that same colonizing push, driven by railroads, to a fictional and menacing forest in the heart of Africa – and sprinkles in extremely poetic magic, tragic monsters, and very strange machinations.

That transplantation to Africa has, no surprise, proven problematic for some reviewers of The Vorrh. The book fundamentally replays certain tropes about Africa as a center of mysterious and unknown forces – though it does go a great distance to make those forces more complex than mere ‘darkness’ or savagery. The mighty forest corrupts, degrades, and destroys those who spend too much time in it – shades of Conrad. But it is also rumored to be the home of God.

And through that forest cuts a railroad, just as a railroad cut through the dangers of the American West in the time of the real Eadweard Muybridge. The tension is that same as that explored by Solnit – the idea that technology can at once give us access to the strange and unfamiliar, and, at least to a degree, undermine those strange and new things.

Another consonance that doesn’t seem coincidental is that both books decenter white people, at least to the degree that makes sense. Solnit points out that the plains tribes, by the 19th century, had adopted at least two technologies of speed which fundamentally reshaped their lives – the horse, and the gun. In The Vorrh, one of Catling’s major characters is an African who places not just practical, but nearly spiritual importance on a long gun that he uses to fight against interlopers.

These consonances, unfortunately, don’t stick all that deeply. While Solnit explores the themes of time and distance with precision and subtlety, they remain subtext for most of The Vorrh. That book is far more concerned with a kind of dizzying phantasmagoria than anything firmly thematic – or, for that matter, all that precise in the plot department. It is clearly written, and moves forward steadily, but the characters don’t spend all that much time thinking in clear terms about their situations, and it’s sometimes difficult to say exactly what their actions add up to.

In other words, The Vorrh is itself like riding a train, or watching a film – a panorama of imagery and impressions, invigorating but sometimes ephemeral. Perhaps ironically, River of Shadows is much more traditionally novelistic, as a reading experience. You get to know the world and its inhabitants in a much more grounded way.

The Vorrh was late coming across my radar, but Catling has continued the project into a trilogy, with the third book due for release this year. I would guess I’ll keep going, so I’m looking forward to that release. But I’m also ambivalent – I love a good phantasmagoria, but reality, whether true or fictional, is often more beguiling.

For those interested in the history of transportation and communication, I’m reading Solnit as part of my big 2018 project on those topics. You can read more about it here.

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.

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…

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.

Toys are Even Better Than You Remember.

Deathly Headed Zagoran Kaiju


It’s been a very slow couple of months around here on the blog. Slow as in stopped, actually. I’ve been focusing on making the very exciting but time- and mind-consuming switch to being a full-time freelance writer.  I’m not quite there yet, but I’m lucky enough to get to spend some time at home these days, and among other things I’ve spent that time looking at stuff to waste my hard-earned money on. That’s how I rediscovered the collectible art-toy community.

I’ve been familiar with this stuff for a while, and I’ve got a history with toys – back when I got my first ‘real’ job ten years or so ago, I spent $100 or so buying He-Man toys off of ebay.  But the temptations now are subtler and more powerful – like Deathly Headed Four Armed Zagoran here, now on pre-order at Lulubell Toys.  That’s $85 for a weird, cool, totally pointless tschochke (sp?) that does nothing but confirm that I’m a weirdo to the few people I let into my home.  But god dammit, I’ve earned some uselessness.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be hitting you with more of this sort of stuff – He-Man, TMNT, M.U.S.C.L.E. – it all looks more and more like art, the more steps you take back, and the harder you squint.

Interview with William Cardini – The Hyperverse, Alt-Fantasy, And Adult Weirdness

William Cardini is the master of the Hyperverse, a dark science-fantasy world dominated by gods and monsters who do constant battle. He makes alternative comics about the world he created.  We hooked up on twitter a while ago when I presumptuously recommended that he read some of my half baked artsy-weirdo-fantasy fiction, where I’m trying very tentatively to do something similar to him, in a different medium. I decided to ask him some questions, and he answered. This is a lightly edited version of what he had to say.

Page from William Cardini, Future Shock #5

Ill. William Cardini, Color Josh Burggraf.


David Z. Morris: What’s Your Background?  Art School?


William Cardini:  I’ve been drawings comics and reading sff books since I was in elementary school. In fourth-grade I self-published my first comic book, a story about a half-man, half-pterodactyl cyborg. I started off reading Calvin and Hobbes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics published by Archie, and the Silver Surfer, then got into Jim Woodring and Ron Rege Jr in high school, around the same time I started reading Nietzsche and the Existentialists.


I went to the University of Texas and majored in Studio Art and English [Holy shit, we were probably in the English program there at nearly the same time! – DZM]. Not quite the same experience as my friends who went to private art schools but when I talk to them, I realize how much I needed an analytic focus on literature to balance out my creative explorations.


I focused on performance and land art in college. I only took a couple drawing classes but I sporadically drew comics for the student newspaper, the Daily Texan. I feel good about that because the Daily Texan also published Chris Ware and Berkeley Breathed. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had really good friend-collaborators who’ve pushed me to where I’m at now–Jeff Hipsher AKA Jak Cardini, Chuch, Totally Wreck, Anthony Romero, William Sellari, Josh Burggraf, Sean T Collins, and my wife Glade Hensel.


DZM: Your comic is pretty firmly based in fantasy themes, but with a very distinct twist.  Where did you first get familiar with this sort of setting – and when did you start to realize it could be fucked with?


WC: My parents have a large library of sci-fi and fantasy books from the 60s and 70s and encouraged me to read them. I devoured the Lord of the Rings and all of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books in elementary school and became obsessed with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.


It didn’t take too long for me to move on to more subversive novelists. Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem opened my mind to the psychedelic, truly alien possibilities of sci-fi, while Robin Hobb’s Farseer books, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, and Elizabeth Lynn’s Dragon’s Winter were my first exposure to tortured antiheroes. What really got me in the gut, though, was when my friend Juan Cisneros brought a copy of Kramer’s Ergot 6 into our performance art class at UT and I first read a Mat Brinkman comic. Up until that point, my only exposure to the Fort Thunder school of comics had been Brian Ralph’s Cave-In and easily overlooked bits in SPX anthologies.


My comics for the Daily Texan were surrealist, sometimes Jim Woodring-style adventures, sometimes more Ron Rege Jr-, Krazy Kat-, or Marc Bell-style super formalist poem-like comics. But that Mat Brinkman comic showed me I could use my raw, ink-drip drawing style to tell the kind of psychedelic sf stories that I loved. I took a character I’d been using in my performance and video art, the Miizzzard, and made the Miizz the protagonist for my comics. Because of Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Herriman’s Krazy Kat, I made the Miizzz a shape-shifting, gender-fluid being.  Because of Lem, I made the Miizzz an unknowable alien. From Kirby, I took the giant space-gods in outrageous outfits vibe. From Brinkman, I adopted the melting monsters and contemporary, slangy dialogue. From the Wheel of Time I took the epic, mountain-leveling magic battles. I love all of these things, from the most adolescent and cringe-y to the most self-aware and progressive.


DZM: There are definitely other artists comic creators who work at the connection between fantasy themes and a punk attitude  (maybe the two most prominent being Skinner and Jesse Moynihan).  Do you feel like you’re part of a ‘scene’? 


WC: I think there’s two scenes that you could say I’m in. There’s the scene of people I talk to and trade collaborate with, and then there’s a larger scene of people that critics might group me with. I see Skinner’s paintings and Jesse Moynihan’s comics as a plateau that I’m still striving to reach. They were doing what I want to do before I really got it solidified. But sometimes when my work gets reviewed I get compared to my influences and then I get a nice warm feeling of belonging. Like when Robert Boyd put out an article on his art blog The Great God Pan is Dead grouping me with Moynihan and Jesse Jacobs because of our shared Jack Kirby influence.


DZM: Why do you think that approach is coming along at this particular time?


WC: This is a tough one for me to answer. I don’t feel like I have the authority to say why other people are into it. I can only speak for myself. But for me, it comes from processing a lot of the pop culture that I was really passionate about as an adolescent and trying to translate it into something I can still enjoy now that I’m an adult weirdo.


Adult Weirdo.  Embracing that is what this blog is all about.  Take William’s inspiration and get out there and nerd the fuck out, smart people. And be sure to visit the Hypercastle, and follow @williamcardini on Twitter.



10 “Horror” Movies That Will Leave You Truly Shaken (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of the post I started yesterday.  Here are five more movies that will leave you not just scared, but scarred.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre StillThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Admittedly this is a gimme, but it still stands alone in its class. We see the absolute nadir of what could be called ‘human,’ and it all starts with a simple little sledgehammer to the face.

Funny Games: I have seen neither the American nor the German versions of Michael Heneke’s ultra-controversial film, because its synopsis makes it sound like a complete nightmare, and the execution is said to be merciless in both cases.  I have, however, accidentally seen one scene, involving blood splattered on a TV screen, and I am working hard to forget what exactly was going on.

Audition: What makes this movie so audacious is its use of tone and genre in a completely unexpected way.  In most horror movies, you can tell exactly what’s going to happen from the opening scene, and the ominous music and fake-scares along the way (think the cat in Alien) keep reminding you that SOMETHING SCARY IS GOING TO HAPPEN.  Some say this builds tension, but for me it always made things predictable. So what if a movie started off, in every possible way, telling you that it was a slightly melancholy romantic comedy? What would it feel like for it to suddenly turn into something unspeakably horrific?  I can tell you – it would feel way, way more deranged than an average horror film.

Mulholland Drive StillMulholland Drive: Another horror movie that’s not really a horror movie.  But the emotional desperation of the the main characters, David Lynch’s mind-bending story structure, and the frequent eruptions of strange violence, mean that this will leave you equal parts distraught, confused, and paranoid.

Happiness: Also not really a horror movie, but worse than anything that ever featured Jason Voorhees. There are a few horrible people in this film, but the one who will always be remembered is the pedophile who rapes his young son’s friend during a sleepover.  He’s depicted as entirely human – and even empathetic. Ultimately, the most horrifying part of this movie is how you’re likely to react. I first saw it when it was released in theatres, and I was roaring with laughter at it deeply uncomfortable comedy.  I was on a date at the time.  No, things did not go so well.


It turns out I have too many movies to make this just a top ten.  I’ll be posting on similar topics soon, about movies like El Topo and Ichi the Killer.  Stay Tuned!