Friday, June 17, 2016

New Review of Experimental Film!

John Langan reviews Experimental Film, very favourably, in this month's Locus Magazine:

There's a cache of lost films at the centre of Experimental Film, the fine, compelling novel by Gemma Files. The movies were made in the early years of the 20th century by a woman who herself went missing during what should have been a routine train journey to Toronto. Shot on highly unstable silver nitrate stock, the short films are variations on the same subject: a mysterious, veiled woman, her dress ornamented with beads or mirrors that make her flash and shimmer. She moves through a stylized farm landscape, bending to speak to a child labourer, when it becomes apparent that she is holding a sword in one hand.

Lois Cairns, the narrator-protagonist of the novel, first becomes aware of Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb's work at a screening of new independent Canadian films she is covering for a film publication. One of the filmmakers includes an excerpt from one of the lost movies in his Untitled 13. The result affects Lois profoundly, viscerally, leading her to interview Wrob Barney about the footage he's sampled. That conversation sets Lois on the path of investigating Iris Whitcomb's life and art. A film historian as well as critic, Lois immediately understands the earthshaking implications of the lost movies for the history of women in film, especially women who produced and directed their own work. She contacts a former student of hers, Safie Hewsen, now a budding filmmaker, and enlists her in documenting the search for Iris Whitcomb's films.

It isn't very long, however, before a series of escalatingly strange and unnerving events connected to her inquiry cause Lois to realize that there might be more to the missing movies than she anticipated. Her research reveals that the subject of Iris Whitcomb's films is a minor deity from Wendish mythology, Lady Midday, who interrogates farm labourers to learn if they are performing their work well and whole-heartedly. Gradually, Lois understands that what she at first took for dramatizations of a somewhat esoteric folk tale are in fact recreating encounters with an actual supernatural entity. What's more, Lady Midday has become entangled with Iris Whitcomb's work—especially the last piece she shot—to the extent that it can provide her a means of return in force to a world whose steady forgetting of her has reduced the deity to a fraction of her former strength.

The story of the forbidden text is, of course, a mainstay of horror fiction, from Lovecraft's Necronomicon to Barron's Black Guide. The number of works that have made movies their sinister texts is more select, but includes Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images and Marissa Pessl's Night Film, as well as “each thing I show you is a piece of my death,” the story Files co-wrote with her husband, Stephen Barringer, and which served as something of a dry run for Experimental Film. Where this novel succeeds is in its understanding of film, from the process by which it is made to those by which it is disseminated and discussed; from its history to its culture. Lois Cairns is steeped in movies, and she incorporates her understanding into her narrative, pausing to deliver relevant information when necessary. Lois is a self-conscious narrator, always aware of how she's framing the story she's recounting, and including the reader in her strategizing. The result is an experimental novel about her quest for a set of films whose experimental qualities extend far beyond her expectations.

All of this would be impressive enough, but Files gives the story additional weight through her description of Lois's experience as the mother of an autistic child. From the early pages of the novel, Files shows the challenges Lois confronts in her son, Clark, whose autism causes him to speak mostly in quotations from popular media, and cannot communicate with Lois and Simon, her husband and Clark's father. Lois is unsparing about the trials of raising her son, but she leavens her bluntness with enough wit and warmth to bring her love for her son to complicated life. Clark's occasional distance from Lois, her remove from her idea of a stereotypical mother, expand the novel's concern with the lost, with what is missing, and give it an added poignancy.

At the same time, the novel's evocation of Toronto and the community of its filmmakers and critics results in a vivid sense of place. Details about the city's geography combine with details about the men and women who populate its film culture to create a setting that is an integral part of the narrative. Experimental Film could not happen in any other place and be the same novel: this is very much a Canadian book, concerned with the history and current state of Canadian filmmaking.

The recent republication of Gemma Files's first two collections of short fiction, Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, was a reminder of how long and how well she has been writing. The last several years have seen a welcome uptick in her output, from the cosmic horror horse opera of the Hexslinger series to the story cycle that comprises We Will All Go Down Together, not to mention her stories in any number of anthologies. Experimental Film represents the next significant contribution to what is emerging as one of the most interesting and exciting bodies of work currently being produced in the horror field. Every film, Lois Cairns writes, is an experiment. The same might be said of every novel. This one succeeds, wildly. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Patreon Post #2: GHOST STORY and the Uncanny

I've been re-reading Peter Straub's Ghost Story and making notes about what I like to call the Haunted Mechanical Dollhouse method of horror: invent a small town full of characters with secrets like you're cobbling together some sort of spook-ride Rube Goldberg machine, lay in orbiting outliers (both threats and and potential protagonists), then make them converge to start the whole thing running. There's a clear resonance with M.R. James's "The Haunted Doll's House," obviously, because part of the machine's power comes from showing how whatever happened in the past drives what will happen in the present/future; there's a definite pattern already set, forcing characters to re-enact earlier tragedies or bring events already in motion to their full flowering.

It's a template prefaced in Stephen King's Salem's Lot, then directly mirrored between Straub's Floating Dragon vs. King's It, but going on to further replicate itself throughout subsequent horror history over and over ever since, from Michael MacDowell's Cold Moon Over Babylon to Michael Rowe's Enter, Night. I just see it as "starting" with Ghost Story, because that's my particular entry-point—my wheelhouse, if you will, particularly since I can never entirely separate my own personal experience of Ghost Story from King's own analysis of it in Danse Macabre, which essentially begins with him elevating it as a prospective cornerstone of the New Horror canon.

My love for this type of narrative set-up particularly amuses me when I realize that because I grew up in a large city, I essentially had to eventually make up a series of small towns that encapsulate every small town experience I've ever had in order to be able to do even a partial version of this story. Though what's even funnier in hindsight is that I realize I actually tried to do this set-up a long time ago, when I was fourteen and wrote an outline for a Ghost Story rip-off set in a small town in 1860s India. (There was a good portion of F. Paul Wilson's The Tomb in there, too—and as you might expect, I later boiled this outline down for parts and made it into "Ring of Fire.")

In both Salem's Lot and Ghost Story, ancient guilt and present greed combine to open the door for an incursion of outside evil into the heart of the familiar, the domestic; the same pattern repeats in It and Floating Dragon, almost to the letter, as a formerly Good Place (an innocuous place, at any rate—a normal place) is slowly converted into a Bad Place, its own troll-mirror reflection, worthy of being sown with salt. Much like a town-wide possession, all four books begin with the obsessive phase: a presentiment of fate and mortality, dreams and visions like warnings from the subconscious. This is quickly followed by a series of stalkings, accidents, suicides and murders that resonate with earlier, forgotten crimes, eventually escalating into a disaster that cuts the town off from any semblance of help before erasing it entirely. (In the case of 'Salem's Lot, Maine, this cleansing involves fire, while Ghost Story's Milburn, New York, is consumed by and entombed in snow.) Then ghosts/monsters descend, making your home theirs, primarily by revealing that invisible monsters and ghosts-to-be have in fact always inhabited it—that they have always been your neighbours, just as you have always been potentially one of them yourself.

For those who haven't read it recently, Ghost Story's basic plot goes like this: As young men, Ricky Hawthorne, Sears James, Edward Wanderly, Lewis Benedikt and John Jaffrey accidentally kill a woman—or what appears to be a woman—named Eva Galli, a minor Hollywood silent screen starlet who descends on their staid hometown like a hurricane in a flapper dress, intentionally provoking in all of them something that begins as idealized love before becoming something far more tainted, converting at the absolute last minute to disgusted sexual rage. Consumed with panic over the prospect of punishment, these “boys”—who will later grow up to be pillars of the Milburn community and form the Chowder Society, a club that meets monthly to drink and tell each other ghost stories—place Eva's body in a borrowed car that they then push into a nearby lake, only to be scarred for life by the horrifying sight of her supposedly dead face staring from the vehicle's back window as it sinks beneath the surface. Shaken, they take a vow to keep her death a secret, and go on with their lives.

Fifty years later, the group still lives in Milburn, outwardly prosperous and content, relying on the Chowder Society as their only method of diffusing the hovering fear that still clings to each of them. However, things start to change after Edward Wanderly dies—possibly of a heart attack, possibly from sheer fright—during a party he's elected to give in honour of a young actress named “Anne-Veronica Moore,” who later turns out to be another version of Eva. The remaining Chowder Society members experience a series of prophetic dreams in which they witness each other's deaths. Unable to admit to themselves that the shapeshifting entity they once knew as Eva has returned to haunt them, they send for Don Wanderley, Ed's nephew, a writer whose recent horror novel The Nightwatcher is based on his own experiences with Eva, known to him as “Alma Mobley.” With Don's arrival in Milburn, Eva's campaign of terror ramps up considerably, aided by two more phantoms who act as her minions—Gregory and Fenny Bate, earlier cited by Sears James in his most recent Chowder Society tale. Two more members die, after which the survivors band with Don and Peter Barnes, a young man whose mother is an early casualty of the struggle. Together, they locate and wound their nemesis, forcing her to flee Milburn and re-set the clock for another try; working on instinct, Don later manages to find Eva's latest incarnation, a child named “Angie Maule,” and finally destroy her.

A sidebar here: in ghost stories, it's always the liminal that trips you up, the literal Uncanny—a variety of horror created by endowing seemingly mundane, ordinary or familiar objects, locations, actions, scenes and people with a sort of intense uncanniness, unheimlich-ness, thus creating the sense that they suddenly and irreversibly rendered Other. M.R. James once wrote a tale that exemplifies this idea, far less well-known than most of his other offerings, called “The Malice of Ordinary Objects”; Robert Zemeckis also plays extremely well with this concept in his thriller What Lies Beneath, forever undermining his protagonist's sense of her own home as safe space by forcing her to intuitively connect the dots between a glass that breaks and the sliver which perforates her heel, thus drawing her attention to a grate in the floor inside which she discovers an earring that doesn't belong to her, thus retroactively sowing suspicion in her about what her husband may have been up to (and with who)...

Nowhere has this feeling been better explored cinematically, however, than in the movies of David Lynch, who talks in Lynch on Lynch about how everyone has their own very specific shock totems and dread fetishes, impossible to communicate to others. He tells an anecdote about a sound designer friend of his who had a recurring dream that he was watching a tire roll back and forth in a sort of decaying gravitational orbit but never quite settling, paralyzed by the inexplicably terrifying knowledge that it would eventually fall over, yet unable to predict when that would actually happen—“And that was bad, you know? Really bad.” It's an effect that's very difficult to create and almost impossible to sustain, especially over long periods of time; the trick is to try and defeat audience expectations, achieving a practical reach-around on every human being's innate pattern-decoding intelligence, especially those for whom storytelling is a habit. Thus Lynch's decision to not provide any scene-break tracks in the DVD version of Mulholland Drive, which clearly embodies his dislike of letting an audience know what they're in for, or allowing them any sort of easy escape from the mood he's working so hard to immerse them in.

But in most cases, the realm of the liminal has historically been assumed to be best occupied by female authors, which is why the ghost story was once thought of as an innately “feminine” genre. Shirley Jackson, who supported her horror novel-writing habit by turning out Irma Bombeck-style satirical autobiographies about family life, used her “I'm just a housewife” pose to inject alienation and existential despair into the simplest of 1950s gender-essentialist routines; her haunted houses are full of domestic ruin, casual impoliteness, poisonous food and cursed bric-a-brac, unruly (girl-)children and unreliable parents—the very antithesis of a spread in Good Housekeeping, on every conceivable level. The Uncanny permeates her work, rendering life's most familiar accoutrements as abruptly alien as though things have slipped sideways in time, or been caught in a certain slant of light that reveals them as profane copies of themselves.

How this background line of thematic descent translates to Ghost Story begins with Eva Galli's original refusal to conform to what the Chowder Society boys initially assume she is and/or want her to be: a helpmeet, a comfort, an enabler; an ideal, not an eidolon. From the very beginning, she makes it clear that she's not going to submit to being turned into the Angel of any of their houses, not going to allow herself to be caught and made into wife, mistress or whore—that she won't (can't) be limited in that way, or any other. And that's because essentially, Eva Galli isn't “just” a woman, no matter how often she may choose to present herself as one; she is something completely different, completely inhuman. Though her influence appears to be echoed in the ostensibly similarly nonconformist sexual freedom of Ricky Hawthorne's Noir film glamourous wife, Stella, who counters the menaces of a scorned lover by off-handedly threatening to stick a hatpin in his neck, it's proud monster Eva—the story's true femme fatale—who shatters the mold of societal expectation for proper female behaviour outright.

The element of meta underlying almost everything in Ghost Story is a quality that only sharpens and becomes more fundamentally obvious as the reader matures, in much the same way the Chowder Society seems to have been formed in part as a way for its founder to process not only what happened to them in the past but what continues to happen to them in the present, as well as subconsciously preparing for future attacks. The Society exists in order to give this quartet an outlet for their fears, a supposedly controllable forum and lens through which to view and subdue them. But the stories they tell each other, couched as personal anecdotes (“What was the worst thing you've ever done?” “I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing...”), are redolent and resonant with classic ghost story echoes. Sears James's tale of the Bate siblings, for example, holds clear if gender-flipped kinship with Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw,” as well as specifically New England gothic writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edith Wharton, whose own ghost story “Afterward” makes it into the fabric of Don Wanderley's later Society submission, the memory of his encounter with “Alma Mobley.”

Similarly, it makes sense that the “nightwatchers” themselves, Ghost Story's main breed of monster-ghost, come to be understood best as a fascinating amalgam of every haunting the Chowder Society has ever told tales of, a sort of unified field theory stringing everything that scares us in any given ghost story together, then crediting that fear retroactively to the cyclical interactions with humanity of an offshoot species that appears to feed on pain, fear, misery...David Lynch's basic Twin Peaks garmonbozia mixture. Much like Lynch's Man From Another Place, the nightwatchers appear to exist parallel to us, intersecting our reality from some other dimension in a way that involves bending time and space—the realm of dream, but also the realm of death. They make jokes about history, popping back and forth between eras at will. They are beautiful and terrible, tainted and proud, vicious and vain, poetic and C.S. Lewis-style Satan-practical all at once. Some of them—Gregory and Fenny—appear to have once been human, but have chosen to sell or debride themselves of their own souls in order to live forever as zombie echoes, sowing chaos eternally. Others, like “Eva Galli,” appear to have never been entirely human at all, yet still share a kinship with and addiction to human evil. It's this same kinship that forms their only weakness, their rare vulnerability to mortality.

In other words, Ghost Story subtextually teaches us that because the only thing we know to be completely true about the state of being human is that we all eventually die, anything that's even slightly human can therefore eventually be killed if you're only willing to sacrifice enough, but not too much: retain love, retain laughter, retain the ability to make and maintain connections and to hope against hope, even in the face of utter nihilistic horror. All the things about us the “nightwatchers”—our bad dreams made creepily flexible flesh—both understand least and dislike most, the things they most long to poison and destroy.

(I could go into the problematic nature of the nightwatchers appearing to identify themselves as manitous, considering that none of the book's characters are Indigenous/First Nations people. But I prefer to think of the manitou as yet another metaphor the nightwatchers adopt in order to semi-explain themselves to their potential victims, ie: we're sort of like this, if that makes you a bit more comfortable...or uncomfortable, rather. It's yet another way to scare people, preparatory to either destroying them outright, making them destroy themselves, or tricking them into becoming a pale imitation of the thing that's currently ingesting them.)

Thus we return once more to Ghost Story's inherent refrain, possibly the inherent refrain of all ghost stories: "I saw a ghost," which becomes "I am a ghost," before finally becoming: "You are a ghost." "I am you, Don," as "Angie Maule" claims, among others. To which young would-be hero Peter Barnes indignantly replies, quoting Gregory Bate: "He said he was ME, I want to KILL him." But can we ever truly know ourselves, let alone anyone else? In a last twist, it's identity itself—slippery and liminal, innately Uncanny—that becomes the final horror at the bottom of Ghost Story's thematic cracker-box, the motor that keeps the Haunted Clockwork Dollhouse running. Nothing is what is seems on the surface, no person and no object, especially those people who most often get treated as objects by society at large: children, wives, women, possessions flipping unnoticed into possessors, shapeshifters destroying the structure which dares to try and hold them static.

Owner beware.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

THE INDEFENSIBLES, INSTALMENT #1: The Collection (2012, dir. Marcus Dunstan)

Ever since I finally signed up for Netflix, my attitude towards movies I don't necessarily expect to like has changed sharply; instead of waiting for them to present themselves in a form I can financially rationalize (second-hand, on sale, late-night TV), I can just search for them or stumble on them randomly, load them, press a button and hey presto: instant gratification. If I don't connect within ten minutes, I turn them off or drift away, leaving them on in the background while I do other things. I tell myself it's free (sort of) and it's research (more likely, but not always). The good part is that I've definitely found some gems this way, films I later “back up” by buying on DVD/BluRay, but the baddish part is that I've also added substantially to my roster of not-so-guilty pleasures.

I call these movies my Indefensibles, but are they really? (The obvious answer: No.) They tend to be films with a lot of grimy grindhouse flair or vaudeville creep, often low-budget yet very physically beautiful, at least for me—appealing mis-en-scene, well-integrated production design, fine and/or eccentric casts doing good work under pressure. They give me great repetitive pleasure, even as they otherwise violate some standards of objectively “good” horror. I often end up calling them “accidental gialli,” regardless of their country of origin, because you sure don't expect a giallo to be anything other than what it very palpably is, for God's sake, nor do you penalize it for performing that exact same function...or possibly “yarn monster” movies, cf. The Werewolf Ambulance horror film podcast, on which host Katie once gave that as her rating for Don Coscarelli's inter-dimensional ghoul vs. stoner fantasia Phantasm, perhaps the most heavy metal movie I've seen aside from the Canadian werewolf law enforcement comedy WolfCop (which would also go on this list).

Like most gialli, an Indefensible has to have the total courage of its convictions, however batshit—to operate by a very specific internal logic of the sort we usually call dream- or nightmare-, yet not ever break that logic in ways which kick us completely out of the viewing experience. For example, I am a big fan of Mirrors, the gothically crazy Alexandre Aja film with Kiefer Sutherland that mostly takes place inside the world's most gorgeous burnt-out department store, a movie that almost all critics and a lot of audiences consider completely ridiculous, given it contains all of the following: ghostly entities that pursue their victims from reflective surface to reflective surface, a woman wrenching her own jaw apart with both hands like she's doing the gore version of that body-modification scene in Beetlejuice, a back-story involving demonic possession and confrontative psychiatric therapy, a climax set in a flooded underground hallway during which Sutherland punches an elderly nun in the face.

But to me, Aja himself has already demonstrated the place where ridiculous slides into truly inept with his film Haute Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance), one of the cornerstones of the New French Extremity movement, in which...spoiler alert...a woman and the friend she wishes was her girlfriend visit the friend's family cabin, only to have a grimy, hulking serial killer descend on them, slaughter the family with delirious inventiveness and kidnap the friend. Our heroine takes off after him, eventually managing to run him down and “rescue” the object of her affection, at which point the sort of twist only two French dudes in their early twenties would think is cool kicks in: turns out, our heroine was the psycho all along! Thus forcing me to sit back and wonder, baffled: Okay, so you just chased yourself for miles through the French countryside, apparently while driving two separate vehicles, then had a fight with yourself in the middle of the road while wielding a concrete saw? Both the truck and the van have to exist, since your friend was tied up in the back of one of them as you were driving the other, but if they do then who was that masturbating with a severed head in the truck's cab while you and your friend drove by in the background in the other van, right at the beginning of the movie? Was that you just thinking about doing that, or what?

No, no,” Aja and his creative partner Gregory Levasseur want to assure me, mainly because they really don't want to go to the trouble of ret-conning all the unreliable narration they've already laid in thus far. “It looks so good, none of that matters! This twist will be the shit!” But as we all know, or should, the line between “the shit” and just “shit” is a very fine one indeed, subjective as all hell, hard to quantify except in hindsight...and crazy as they undeniably are, none of the Indefensibles actually manage to cross this line far enough to undercut themselves beyond salvaging, at least in my opinion.

So: Now all that's been established, I'm going to kick this series off with a film I would never have discovered if not for Netflix—The Collection, ostensibly a sequel to 2009's home invasion/spider-trap slasher extravaganza The Collector, directed by first-ever Project Greenlight winner Marcus Dunstan (the Feast trilogy, Saws 4 to 3D) and co-written with his own longstanding collaborator, Patrick Melton. Both films star the lugubriously handsome Josh Stewart, a career supporting/character actor probably best known for his role as Bane's right-hand man in The Dark Knight Rises, but for my money the original—much like The Purge vs. The Purge: Anarchy—plays more like a 90-minute thesis statement than a necessary adjunct, especially since everything established in it can be (and is) readily reduced to maybe three minutes' worth of newscaster exposition at the top of the opening credits sequence.

Said thesis is that there's this guy, see, known as the Collector, a buff dude in a gnarly looking plasticized skin-leather mask who turns up at people's houses or places of work, fits them out with Rube Goldberg death traps, then collects(!) one survivor at the end of the massacre, who he totes away in an antique banded trunk to some other place as yet unseen and torments them for a while. He will then commence this next massacre by dropping the latest survivor and their trunk in the middle of the scene, like a human warning system. By the end of The Collector, this last person not exactly standing was a thief, Arkin O'Brien (Stewart), who came to rob the house in question but ended up managing to save at least one person, sort of by accident, before becoming Collector-fodder himself.

The Collection, meanwhile, begins on a new protagonist entirely, deaf rich girl Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick), who visits an after-hours club with friends and finds Arkin's trunk in the bathroom. She frees him as the Collector makes literal mulch out of everyone else in the place with a ceiling-lowered thresher, then gets trunked herself after Arkin, having had enough of heroism for the nonce, jumps out the window using Elena's cheating boyfriend's not-quite-dead body as a human shield and breaks his arm badly on impact, but manages to limp away. He ends up at a hospital, where corporate mercenary Lucello (Lee Tergesen, playing a sort of good guy for once) tracks him down on behalf of Elena's dad and offers to make his legal problems go away if Arkin leads him and his team to wherever the Collector's been keeping him, so they can rescue Elena.

Arkin thinks this is an ass-stupid idea, but soon enough they're breaking into the old abandoned "Argento Hotel," which the Collector has obviously spent some time fitting out H.H. Holmes style, turning it into a triple-story murder palace that mimics the interior of his own overheated death-fetishist's brain. It's full of torture victims so drugged up they're like living zombies, starving attack dogs, a permanent girlfriend in sad Barbie doll clownface makeup whose Stockholm Syndrome makes her utterly untrustworthy (Erin Way, from the lamentably short-lived SyFy series Alphas) and the usual roster of death-traps, plus a whole wing full of crazy murder displays of a low-rent Hannibalian nature. The Collector has a thing for insects, so there are bugs made out of people, people full of bugs, and a whole elevator shaft full of random mutilated body parts that people fall down, twice.

What's great is that Elena manages to rescue herself several times over, holding her own until Lucello arrives, and that she and Arkin also manage to rescue each other during the final conflict. In a highly satisfying denouement, she shatters all the murder display cases to put out a fire Arkin's about to burn to death in, after which Arkin manages to track the Collector down on his own and stuffs him into his own personal trunk, swearing to do everything the Collector did to him a couple of times over before he finally lets him die. The Pack AD's "Haunt You" plays over the credits.

The whole film is inventively cruel and gruesome in a very Grand Guignol body horror way, with a great colour scheme and a hundred tiny twists. After three emotionally ambiguous seasons of Hannibal, meanwhile, I somewhat love what a sheer dick the Collector is allowed to be right from the get-go, all kill-crazy ego and theatrical emptiness—Dunstan and Melton refuse to empathize with him even a little bit, never dignifying him much beyond his obviously strong work ethic, characterizing him on their shared BluRay commentary track as “a thing that lives in the dark, just totally complacent about all the harm he does, like a shark: 'this is my function.'” There's this wonderful moment in the third act where he suddenly kicks open a door in a dark room and literally strikes a pose, dog on either side, brandishing a huge machine-gun, like: TA DAH!!! Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name...

And I love the utterly satisfying way that nobody else in the movie has any time for his bullshit, either—they make him pay for every wound, constantly spitting and kicking at him, giving at least as good as they get in a frantic, raging, feverish rush of refusal to end up on his walls or in one of those display cases. (It turns out he actually is an entymologist, and has a gruesome back story that's later reduced to a single line of news commentary as well, 'cause frankly, nobody gives a fuck. Screw your pain if you even have any, dude, and screw you!)

All too often in horror, the monsters get to triumph; it's become a bit of a cliche in itself, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the old Hollywood Code Universal horror restorative model, or a reminder that the trouble with “normal” is is always gets worse. But sometimes it's nice to see total bastards get laid on their asses, especially when the victory's particularly hard-won. The Collection delivers on that promise, and in spades.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Patreon Post #1: Clive Barker

Clive Barker's Books of Blood short story collections came out when I was sixteen and seventeen respectively (1984-85), thus beautifully coinciding with my high school years, ie the moment when I was still writing poetry but about to stop because of all the reasons adolescent girls usually stop writing poetry: mainly social embarrassment, coupled with the realization you couldn't make much money writing it in the first place even though my primary pro sale up to that point had been a poem called "Earthquake" to the kids' magazine Cricket when I was eleven (thirty bucks and a copy of Bunnicula, plus I got interviewed in the Toronto Star). Then there was also the fact that I pretty much only wrote poetry in response to feelings evoked by media--a cycle about the Planet of the Apes movies, a cycle about a particular Stratford production of Julius Caesar I saw on a school trip, etc.

Looking back, I realize those poems were probably the beginning of my adventures in fanfiction, and that triggers the realization that--as most fans could tell you--fannishness in general often boils down to a feverish search for role models, especially if you aspire to become a creator of any type. Which means that by the time Clive Barker came along, I was absolutely primed to discover a writer whose example I could follow directly, a voice for my specific generation as opposed to a person from an earlier era who I admired but didn't necessarily identify with. In terms of short story collections, I knew people slightly younger than my parents who loved Ray Bradbury and people who might have been my non-existent older siblings who loved Harlan Ellison, and between the two, Ellison definitely hit more of my sweet spots (Deathbird Stories was a revelation, especially "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin").

Barker, OTOH, was for ME, or seemed so. Yes, he came pre-blurbed and approved by Stephen King, but I never would have found him on my mother's nightstand, which is where I yoinked my first copy of Carrie from: He was far too weird for that, far too florid and lurid, far too gleefully polymorphously perverse. And thus he would become the fuse-spark that caused me to channel all my most id-tastic impulses directly into short fiction instead of poetry, the shoulder-devil muse murmuring in my mental ear that that idea I thought everyone else around me would almost certainly consider much too goddamn much? Fuck it, run with it, get crazy; pursue it, hunt it down. Found your own mythology, your own brave new world of gods and monsters. Write beautifully about awful things, elevate form over function 'til function almost appears to disappear. Spin it out to 5,000 words, and see exactly what happens.

You probably want some examples of Barker's bafflingly inventive oddity, especially when compared with "normal" horror of the time. The story I remember imprinting on most soundly in the beginning was "In the Hills, the Cities," from Vol. 1. (Link here: It begins with an established gay couple, Mick and Judd, touring the Yugoslavian countryside on vacation together. The fact that they're gay, while front and centre in a way that seemed impossible in then-contemporary media, is actually one of the least directly important things about either of them, as characters; Barker pays scene-setting attention to Judd's wealth and political conservatism vs. Mick's fluttery theatricality, Judd's bear-ness vs. Mick's twink-ness, but only in the process of sketching out how the mechanics of their desire for each other has stuck two people who otherwise have little in common together in such a deft way that it'd ring equally valid if Judd was Judy. One way or the other, what REALLY matters about Mick and Judd is the area they've chosen to stop to argue and then fuck their argument away, specifically the field they've chosen to fall asleep in afterward. they lie there asleep, out of the hills come the cities: Popolac and Podujevo, rivals for centuries, who every ten years create massive communal creatures by binding together the bodies of their citizens, then stride out to fight with each other. Almost forty thousand people each, walking as a single giant, tall as a skyscraper. This year, however, things have gone horribly wrong and the Podujevo giant collapses, converting most of its participants into corpses and leaving the rest to die while still tethered together, screaming, bleeding, crying. In shock over their role in this disaster, the entire population of Popolac goes mad and become the giant they are strapped into, wandering aimlessly, crushing everything in their path. By nightfall, many of the people who make up the giant have died from exhaustion, yet Popolac continues walking: a blind, mad, kaiju-sized zombie version of an Archimboldo composite.

Mick and Judd come upon the smashed bodies of the Podujevans in a ravine awash with blood, after which a local man tries to steal their car to catch up with Popolac and reason with it, before it too collapses and destroys the rest of the people who compose it. The man explains the truth of the situation to Mick and Judd, but they don't believe his story and seek shelter at a remote farm, where Popolac blunders into the farmhouse, killing Mick accidentally. Judd and the elderly couple who own the farmhouse are driven mad with fear (the couple) and guilt (Judd). Running outside, Judd climbs up the tower of ropes and bodies, and is carried away as Popolac walks on into the hills.

In "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament" (Vol. 2), our alienated housewife protagonist tries to commit suicide but survives, then realizes she's spontaneously become a carnomancer who can alter other people's bodies with her mind, and channels this skill into a career as a torture/snuff prostitute; eventually, she allows her greatest fan to consummate his obsession with her, the two of them merging mid-coitus to become one single fabulous, doomed monster. Vol. 3 runs the gamut from "Rawhead Rex," a death-metal Hammer Horror remix which sees a primordial monster erupt from the greenly pleasant British soil to devour children and clergymen alike, to "Human Remains," the quietly anti-romantic tale of a male hooker who discovers his archaeologist john has a resurrected Roman shapeshifter trapped in his apartment.

In "The Age of Desire" (Vol. 4), a tough cop investigates the mass rape-murder of an entire lab full of scientists who were working on the ultimate aphrodisiac, then comes across their star test-subject literally fucking a hole in a wall before getting knocked down and violated himself; the sex-drunk man then burns up from within before the cop can have his revenge, nerves igniting with an impossible rush of universal arousal that renders even the act of dying sexy. The first story in Volume 5, "The Forbidden," was later adapted into one of my all-time favourite movies, Bernard Rose's 1990 film Candyman, while Volume 6 climaxes with "The Last Illusion," the origin story for arcane private eye Harry D'Amour, who Barker himself would eventually put onscreen a decade on (1995) in Lord of Illusions.

The Books paved the way for novellas like "The Hellbound Heart" and "Cabal," then their cinematic counterparts, Hellraiser and Nightbreed. They also kicked off Barker's string of novels, each as metaphysically complex, epic and unapologetically self-indulgent as the next and all equally horrifying, even if they appeared to otherwise fall beneath another genre's banner...Young Adult, perhaps, with The Thief of Always and the Abarat Quintet; romance with Sacrament and Galilee; dark fantasy with Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show; fabulist with Mister B. Gone. My personal favourite of his early works remains The Damnation Game, while Coldheart Canyon's porno-satiric Hollywood alt-history merits a return trip at least once a year. But one way or the other, you can't call the guy lazy.

For me, Clive Barker wrote like an outlaw under a potential death sentence, which—especially in Maggie Thatcher's England—he sort of was, at the time. 1984-85 was the height of Randy Shilts' The Band Played On's era, with HIV/AIDS already firmly ensconced in the public imagination as a monstrous plague whose stigma no one touched by it would ever escape, literal body horror, the Red Death as designed by David Cronenberg. I had a friend who'd just come out, and within the same year I remember him telling me: “So, I hear there's this thing only gay people get that's going around...” “Oh, that doesn't sound plausible,” I replied. “That sounds like an urban legend.”

But it wasn't, and antivirals were very much a thing of the future. Coming as it did at the drag-end of Punk, HIV/AIDS also seemed like every nihilist/fundamentalist Last Days scenario made angry flesh, while Barker's stories appeared to very deliberately pick that thesis up only to immediately turn it inside-out (both literally and figuratively). It was like he was tweaking the place where the Grim Reaper's nose should be, trolling a media obsessed with the narrative that deviance from the accepted sexual norm had been proven fatal world-wide, right on the front page of People magazine.

In a very real way, however, Barker's delirious visions of sex, blood, death and transfiguration through pain—emotional or physical, or both—reach back far further than the cultural context they emerged from. Readers should never forget that because he's a visual artist and a playwright, all his ideas can be seen as equally referencing the full spectrum of politically confrontational theatrical spectacle (I see echoes in his work of Brecht, Artaud, Jean Anouilh, Peter Weiss, Georg Büchner and Joe Orton), Deconstructive Surrealism and Fin de Siecle Decadence. (He also reminds me a lot of Tanith Lee, but that may grantedly just be me, because Tanith Lee's influence often attaches herself to almost anything I love inordinately.)

When asked about his inspiration for Books of Blood in Douglas E. Winter's Faces of Fear, Barker said he'd read Kirby McCauley's 1980 horror anthology Dark Forces—the first place Stephen King's “The Mist” appeared, along with Edward Bryant's “Dark Angel,” T.E.D. Klein's “The Children of the Kingdom” and Robert Aickman's “Mark Ingestre: the Customer's Tale”—and been impressed by the way it ably demonstrated that when putting together a TOC, no unifying theme beyond that of “horror” was really necessary. So he plunged in, proving over and over that nothing human was alien to him yet everything human could be MADE alien, if only viewed from the right perspective.

His sheer post-Punk confidence was intoxicating, seeming to spill right off the page and poetically infect the world around it, which may well be why when I follow my personal chain of association just a little bit further, I realize that the two aftershocks I associate Barker most strongly with are the 1985 emergence of DC/Vertigo character John Constantine: Hellblazer (another “you sound like one of the Beatles!” Liverpudlian, like Barker and Ramsey Campbell, albeit considerably more of a bastard), and the 1987 film adaptation of John Lahr's Orton biography, Prick Up Your Ears (directed by Stephen Frears, starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina).

Like Orton and Constantine, Barker still rings in my mind primarily as a chaotic trickster avatar, ushering me through a creative coming of age that showed me the full range of possibility—how words mattered most, how sentences could be spells, how writing could be a ritual. How, if I was only willing to fully commit to the full truth of my ideas, however supposedly ridiculous, “Do what thou wilt” really COULD be the whole of the Law, so long as I took what I wanted and paid for it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Shirley Jackson Award Nomination

So now it can be told! The nominations for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards are finally out, here (, and I'm very happy indeed to announce that Experimental Film has been nominated in the Best Novel category. As I told my Mom, if I had to ask for one award to be nominated for, this'd be it.;) So I am basically over the moon.

Naturally, I'll be attending this year's Readercon, and look forward to receiving my stone (so I can throw it at whoever wins instead of me, ha ha, totally a joke). Yes!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Patreon and On

For some time now, I've wanted to write a book of Horror Culture reviews and essays--my own theories about the genre, as filtered through a lens of personal experience. Yesterday, I created a Patreon campaign page for this project, which will be called Dark Comforts. If you're interested in getting in on the ground floor, patronage-wise, you'll find it here ( You'll note in the pitch that when I start to produce said reviews and essays, they'll be going up here first in rough form, so one way or the other, this blog's content will hopefully start to swell.

Meanwhile, I also need to link to an incredible new(ish) review of Experimental Film recently posted by Nina Allan at Strange Horizons ( The whole thing is great, but I'm particularly struck by this quote:

"That motherhood is hard, that it does not always come naturally, is a fact that is not addressed in literature often enough. We can infer from Files's biography that she addresses it here from a place of deep personal experience. That the writing in these sections is so direct, so rich in insight, and so thoroughly unsentimental brings an aspect that works, once again, entirely in the novel's favour. In the confessional urgency of Files's narrative, in its emotional candour, I often found myself reminded of Caitlín R. Kiernan's writing, in her novel The Drowning Girl (2012) especially. I can think of no higher praise."

Me either! This makes me happy as hell.;)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Late, O Miller: Experimental Film Review Round-Up

Because I suck, I've totally forgotten to link to Helen Marshall's amazingly flattering review of Experimental Film in the L.A. Review of Books, here ( It's only the nicest thing anybody's said about my writing since Laird Barron called me a punk in Locus Magazine (November 2015), while reviewing the CZP re-releases of Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart! And since I unfortunately can't link to that latter review directly, here it is in full, for those who're interested:

Canadian author and film critic Gemma Files hit the ground running back in the latter 1990s with a handful of brutal and macabre tales. Nominated for an Aurora and the winner of an International Horror Guild Award in 1999 for a short story called "The Emperor's Old Bones," Files quickly established herself as a vital presence. Two collections followed--Kissing Carrion in 2003, and The Worm in Every Heart in 2004. The ever-reliable ChiZine Publications have provided us with a beefy reissue of the original books. There are 17 stories, an introduction by Caitlin R. Kiernan, a self-administered Q&A (hello, James Dickey), and literary horror author Michael Rowe closes the show with a thoughtful afterword.

In the Q&A, Files speaks about trading in romance for viciousness and the honesty of horror as a genre. Diving into this book is to leap into a deep, dark subterranean well. It's not gateway horror by any means. Vampires, ghosts, the risen dead. Terminal relationships. Love, lust, unfulfilled desires, erotic compulsions, and blood--lots and lots of blood--are some of the precincts Files explores in her debut collection.

Kissing Carrion opens with the eponymous tale, and right off the bat the language is redolent of the 1980s, with an epigraph by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and a morbid paean to the body horror of the then-reigning king, Clive Barker. Barker-esque flourishes abound throughout Files's early work, and in this story there's a hint of Sylvia Plath in the cadence and in the bubbling rage of our narrator, a revenant chained to the mortal coil by unfinished business.
"Skeleton Bitch" is another vicious. brutal story. This one concerns the walking dead and is emblematic of Files's preoccupation with sex and violence at the dawn of the latest millennium. Goth girls, drug-fueled band parties, casual sex, casual death, and casual death-sex. Low red rage simmers throughout this tale and much of the collection. Less than a third of the way into the book and anyone who has paid the slightest heed to history will recognize Files is carrying on the good work of Poppy Z. Brite and Mr. Barker and was, at that moment, light years ahead of her contemporary, Caitlin R. Kiernan. 

This is reactionary, smash-mouth art that emerged directly from the Splatter Punk scene and subsequent decline and implosion of category horror. In retrospect, Gemma Files and her hardcore style can be recognized for what it was: signs of life in a dead and buried genre; a heartbeat. And what a heart.

Her aesthetic is as punk as Black Flag, The Sex Pistols, or Alan Ginsberg, punching back against a top-heavy culture that historically demonizes the Other, the poor, and the sick. Much as British author Joel Lane hewed to a miserablist line in matters of sexuality and suffering, Files, having lived through the 1980s when HIV was the bogeyman and greed was good, but good looks were best, utters a primal scream against the politics of sex and shame and, on a meta level, sticks a shiv into the erstwhile popularity of romantic/erotic horror. Yet for all her concern with visceral topics, I hasten to add, there's no lack of humor or wit. Files is playful as a cat with prey; she smiles when she sinks in her fangs. Files's prose magnetizes:

Because, Goddammit, it was her. Same white hair. Same white lips. Same cold limbs all a-roll in their sockets, lithe as bones. And her pale, thread-veined eyes, beneath their fresh black diamonds of mascara--still shiny, still blank, like old blood under ice.

The cohesiveness of her vision is impressive. We're looking at disparate stories, rather than a novel, written over a span of years, and so the thematic consistency, the painstaking textures, the art direction--so to speak--combine to reinforce a pervading mood of real, aching horror, a psychic ague that seeps from muse to artist to page and is eventually transmitted to the hapless reader. In "Skeleton Bitch," the shore of Lake Ontario is "cold and slimy" while its piers' foundations are"slicked with chemical foam," and while "Bear Shirt" continues a focus on chilly Toronto, the style is a half-step behind stream of consciousness and stinging as the rest. A theme of degeneration persists: "Skin City" features a dream wherein a character speaks through "a mouth full of blood" and the creature of the night narrator of "Dead Bodies Possessed by Furious Motion" describes a man's ejaculation (while she chomps his femoral artery) thus:

...beads of sperm choking his auburn pubic thatch until they hung in clusters, like limp stars.

Death in life. and vice versa. But mostly thformer, because life can't hope to escape the gravitwell of this existence. These capsule descriptionare signposts of malignancy that permeate everythinin the pages of Kissing Carrion, until eacstory is corrupted with squamous cells and assumes its link in a chain of cancerous DNA. This is literaturand so, hyperbole notwithstanding, the ultimateffect, while potentially physically scarifying, isn't injurious, except to those predisposed to fainting ooverly-susceptible to vapors arising from stronemotion. Indeed, art often results from extremes of feeling or experience. Kissing Carrion evokes extremes of both.

Along came not a spider, but a worm. In this case, Gemma Files's sophomore effort, The Worm in Every Heart. Nancy Kilpatrick provides a warm and gracious introduction this time around (the
afterword by Michael Rowe duplicates his contributioto the reissued Kissing Carrion) with an afterword by Files in the form of another self-interview (hello again, James Dickey).

I am uncertain whether even a hardened veteran fan of the genre can stomach the reissue of Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart in end-to-end succession. I am certain a brave soul who endeavors the task won't pass from this lifunrewarded. Reflecting upon The Worm in Every Heart, one gets the sense that, like Ligotti 's landmark novella, Gemma Files' work demolishincertain cultural taboos of the '80 was not yet doneexcept now she's vastly broadened her scope (whilparadoxically narrowing it) from contemporary urban settings, and concentrated her firepower upon the page of history. Now it's WWII, the French Revolution, the countryside and wildernesof older, wilder generations. and alternate realities named after demons.

Despite these welcome forays into historicamilieus and an expansion upon tempering influences which include Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, and J.G. Ballard, she only continues to hack and burn and rip through issues with a steely-eyed vengeance, chewing on ideas and then spittinthbitterness out a story at a time.

Arguably Files's signature story, "The Emperor'Old Bones" is the crown jewel. Ballard providean epigraph, then we're lost in the living dream of an old man and his recollections of 1940 wartimeBlack magic, monsters, and monstrousness are thdishes on offer here and the author's self-professed roots as a fan of science fiction and fantasy are evident.

"Nigredo," which opens this tome, is another deftly consummated story nested in the sweepinevents of WWII and is surely evidence that Files would develop not only into a first rate horror authorbut also one with a penchant for period dramaShe's lost none of her edge nor her taste for thvisceral, as evinced by the opening line of "YeaZero" an elegiac counterfactual with vampires, which takes us even farther back into war-torn history to the aftermath of the French Revolution:

At the very height of the French Revolutionafter they killed the king and drank his bloodthey started everything over: New calendarnew months, new history. Wind back the national clock and smash its guts to powder: wipe the slate clean, and crack it across your knee.

"Year Zero" slips to and fro between the 18th and 19th centuries in a dizzying manner, mimickinperhapthe fictional bloodletting and it deleterious effects. "Beyond the Forest" is, by contrastan almost stark bit of world building, disjointed from reality except for a reference to mythical Raum, a noble of Hell, fitting perhaps for a nobllady vampire come home to roost. 

WherKissing Carrion was dominated bfirsperson narrators, The Worm iEverHeart exhibits pleasinarray of narrativmodeshighlighted by the aforementioned "YeaZeroand the second persoviewpoint of "Bottle of Smoke." Thipiece jumps around in timebeginning shortlafter WWIIand is something of a fairytale with mentions of djinn and a quasi-Roald Dahl tenor. Naturally, when I say fairytale, I mean the gritty, unvarnished kind, not sanitized or sterilized for 21st century consumption--but rather the gory variety, oozing plenty of explicit sex and violence. Dahl, for all his genteel comport and urbane delivery, would surely have approved of "Bottle of Smoke." I suspect he would've approved of the whole damned book.

The psychosexual dystopia that Files conjurelike some depraved illuminated manuscript inhabit a universe parallel to our own, and it's worse, or better, depending on your perspective. The parallereality bleeds into this one and becomes a labyrinth of mirrored walls. At time the savagery descends to a more primal wellspring and we find ourselves trapped in fellow Canadian David Cronenberg's nightmares of flesh and sex and mutilation, a la hilandmark Rabid or eXistenZ. Other writers and filmmaker have posited humans, especially women, as puppet or dolls, posable, consumable, and disposable. Seldom has this line of inquiry been pursued with such relentlessness--hot to the touchfebrile of gaze and grin, yet bone-chillingly cold beneath the veneer. Files's smirks are snarls waitinto happen; her grin simply bares teeth yearning for throat. 

A good artist is motivated by passion. A greaartist bends that passion in service of her medium. The Worm in Every Heart is convincing proof Gemma Files consistently attains that greatness.

So, yeah. Laird, like Helen, rocks hard--as do I, apparently. Who knew?;) It's odd and flattering beyond belief to see myself placed in historical context, not to mention cited amongst such wonderful company. Nice to finally have it all in once place, too.