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All right, now that we’ve firmly established that I can’t watch scary movies to save my life, there are lots and LOTS of good horror books for children, and that Lovecraftian elements abound even when we’re least expecting them…I feel as though I should return to the main theme of this blog, to wit: y’know, H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction.

I dedicated a week or more of this blog to slogging through August Derleth (STILL have not finished The Cthulhu Mythos, damn it all…seriously, the water/air/fire elementals are like nails on a chalkboard to me), but I’ve only mentioned Clark Ashton Smith in passing.  Which is completely unjust, because I LOVE his stories.  Love them to pieces.

I didn’t know very much about Smith at all, beyond the fact that he was good friends with Lovecraft.  Beyond their friendship, I knew that the “E” in T.E.D. Klein (who wrote “Black Man with a Horn”, one of my favorite Lovecraftian works of all time) stood for “Eibon”, the name of one of Smith’s evil wizards.  Anyone who Klein respects that much was surely worth a look from me, so I got a collection of his works.

As I have said before, I’m faaaaairly certain that horror writers of the 1930s were the isolated, anti-social neckbeards of their time, and letter-writing was their 4chan.  Or something like it.  I’ve written plenty about H.P. Lovecraft’s sad life, but it seems like Smith might have been even worse off.  He spent his entirely life in almost complete isolation (although, to his credit, he did get married at age 61, and remained married until his death seven years later).  He got no education after grammar school, and learned to write by studying the dictionary.

The book I got contains poems, “prose poetry”, and short stories.  Apparently, Smith considered himself a poet primarily, and wrote stories for the pulps just to make ends meet.  But I think his short stories are the best of the bunch (although this probably speaks a lot more to my un-literary nature than to the quality of his poems).

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Most of the stories that I read were shamelessly fantastic in nature: endless lists of strange debauched princes and their concubines, gardens of evil wizards filled to the brim with venomous flowers and cunning traps, necromancers by the boatload, sorcerers and sorceresses, and ancient temples laden with squatting, malign idols.  But the worlds he describes are tremendously compelling, and they’re tinged with the same sense of unease that permeates Lovecraftian work.

According to his website (worth checking out–I definitely plan to read through this in the future), two of his most famous works are “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and “The City of the Singing Flame”.  The former is a science fiction story, a tale of the exploration of an abandoned city of Mars.  Their Martian guides are curiously reluctant to explore it, but offer no explanation.  (I feel that the “native guides refusing to enter the abandoned city/temple/cave/area” trope is the “girl has sex on prom night” of 1930’s-40’s horror fiction.)  And then…well, it pretty much ends as you’d expect with that beginning, and even though I saw the ending coming, it did definitely creep me out, which is a pretty significant feat anymore.

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“The City of the Singing Flame” is the story of two American artists who discover a portal in the desert to another world, which is the site of a temple which is the site of a strange alien pilgrimage.   It’s interesting, but didn’t strike me quite as profoundly.  Probably my favorite of his exploration stories is the tale of a sailor who gets stranded on a strange island.  The island isn’t deserted–it’s full of people, but no one interacts with him.  He quickly realizes that they’re all preoccupied with something.  Everyone, even the women and children, are anxiously scanning the sky and studying astrological charts.  Day in, day out, they never do anything else.  It’s a profoundly lonely and disquieting tale–being lost and helpless in the middle of a crowd.

cone-shaped

  Unlike Lovecraft, Smith’s stories tend to be more emotional.  The first of his works that I read was the story of a powerful necromancer whose demonic familiar hints that there might be a limit to his power.  Ignoring his familiar’s warnings, he calls up the image of his lost paramour–a girl he fell completely and utterly in love with as a youth.  His spell is perfect, she stands before him–but something is very wrong.  She’s not what he remembered, she’s less bewitching, less enticing.  He dismisses her shade in a huff, and asks his familiar if he went awry.  The familiar explains that his spell was perfect, but his memory was far better than the reality.  By summoning the reality, he’s forever tainted his memory, and now he has no choice but to live without the pleasure of that remembered love.

antehuman_groteque

I’ve definitely enjoyed all of Smith’s works that I’ve read so far, and I’m looking forward to reading new ones.  If you’re in the market for the dreamlike mood of Lovecraft’s fantastical stories–Randolph Carter, the Gates of the Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Cats of Ulthar–Clark Ashton Smith is an excellent addition to your library.

The Cultist

Sorry I’m late (something something figures for paper, something something conference coming up, something something OH MY GOD HOW IS MY COMMITTEE MEETING IN LESS THAN A MONTH I NEED TO DEFEND AND GET OUT OF HERE, etc.)!  But I assure you, I have not been idle.  When not frantically teaching myself Adobe Illustrator and trying to replicate 10-year-old experiments (yeah…not so much), I’ve been reading and attempting to watch as much horror as I can handle.  Today, I’d like to tell you about Event Horizon, a movie I started to watch, freaked out about badly, tried to continue to watch, gave up, retreated, and looked up plot points on Wikipedia/IMDB and key scenes on Youtube.

Before I get any further: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS in this post, spoilers abound, I will not cut because everything would be cut, because this entire damn thing is just one big SPOILER.  If you do not want Event Horizon SPOILED SPOILED SPOILED, you should look at this adorable lizards in adorable little outfits, and then you should read something else.

lizard 2SO MAJESTIC!

lizard 1(Both of these are from Holy Mountain.  Seriously, how can you not love this movie?)

Anyway, so.  Event Horizon.  Never have I watched a movie with such terrible CG that has upset me so badly*.  (Belated note to animation team: Yes, I know that you wanted to show the abandonment of life and the cessation of normal daily activities by showing frozen items floating idly in zero G.  You intended to create a powerful sense of desolation and horror.  It was a noble endeavor, but my sole reaction was a powerful sense of “That is the fakest can/watch/piece of clothing I have ever seen”.)

From a superficial perspective, it might seem surprising that I consider Event Horizon to be a perfect encapsulation of modern Lovecraftian horror.  Event Horizon is a nominally sci-fi horror movie about Hell.  And I do mean that literally–not just extreme discomfort or unpleasantness, not even a sort of Gary Larson-esque landscape replete with flames and moderately bored devils

Larson hell

Hell is the worse thing you can imagine.  Hell is physical pain beyond imagining, but more importantly, every regret you’ve ever lived and tried to move past thrown in your face relentlessly, for eternity.  Hell is all things evil.

Evil, Hell–these are words that a Lovecraft fan should react to with unease.  There’s no arguing that it’s effective horror, but it’s the complete opposite of the indifferent cosmos that Lovecraft creates.  A force that creates a special, personalized inferno that you and only you will respond to–that’s the definition of care and attention, albeit in a twisted, remarkably disturbing way.

Over and over again, characters in Event Horizon talk about Hell.  Their personal Hell.  The existence of Hell.  A dimension of pure chaos and evil.  It’s the antithesis of Lovecraft.

Right?

I would argue Event Horizon is not a thin veneer of sci-fi masking a gooey center of horror.  I would argue that it is is pure sci-fi–but sci-fi precisely as Lovecraft would have imagined it, not as we’re primed to recongize it.

The main characters in the film are Cowboy Curtis (if you’re slightly older than me)/Morpheus (if you’re my age) as the intrepid captain and that guy from Jurassic Park as a scientist.  They’re in search of the Event Horizon, a ship the scientist designed to test an experimental gravity drive that would enable ships to move faster than the speed of life.  But a distress signal was dispatched, and it’s now up to the crew to figure out what happened.

A lot, as it turns out.

Immediately upon arrival, there’s clear evidence of a massacre.  And by that I mean body parts floating around, mostly.  Blood everywhere.

And here’s where the first hint of Lovecraft shines through.  There’s a lot of hand-waving about how this gravity drive works (it creates a black hole, which I imagine was a moderate surprise to everyone but physicists and other people familiar with the term Event Horizon), but one thing immediately becomes clear: a portal was opened into another dimension.  And the scientist has NO IDEA what or where that dimension was.

Blithe forays into different dimensions in the name of science, activation of novel and tremendously powerful scientific devices or artifacts without full understanding of what they’ll do…From Beyond is the most striking manifestation of this theme, but it’s not the only one, not by a very long shot.

But what happened?  The gravity drive was activated, a portal was opened.  Something came through.  Something was experienced, and all humans that came into contact with experienced dreadful, personal hallucinations and were summarily destroyed in what Wikipedia describes somewhat quaintly as a “blood orgy”.  Was it truly a portal to Hell?

Maybe.  It’s possible we’re supposed to suspend disbelief even more than usual and just assume that the good ship stumbled into a parallel universe that is Evil with a capital E, one that PRECISELY matches all our conceptions about hell.

Is that likely?  I don’t think so.  And I think Event Horizon is a great film because it captures the human reaction to the unknowable (yes, I must say it) far, far better than Lovecraft did.  What do humans do if they’re faced with something that their minds cannot expand to comprehend and cannot dismiss or ignore?  It’s hard to believe that the experience would be anything other than sheer horror.  But…if they’re in a Lovecraft story, they’re packed up neatly into a padded cell, where they spend their days alternating between sitting quietly and babbling on about non-Euclidean geometry.

What would happen in real life?  The first crewman to experience the gravity drive attempts to kill himself, telling the others that the dimension had shown him “the dark inside of him”. I think it’s much more likely that the incomprehensible capital-W Whatever he experienced punctured his understanding of the world, leaving a void that struck his conscious/subconscious brain as so wrong that he filled with the worst thing it could conceive.  He created his own hell, and it was more than enough.

It must be mentioned that, as much as I like this movie, the crew’s general conceptions of Hell/Absolute Evil look AN AWFUL LOT like literally the entirety of Hellraiser, which is delightfully Lovecraftian in its own right.

big puzzle box

That is a damn big puzzle box

barbed wire

Pinhead: “We have such sights to show you.”

Woman from Event Horizon: “I have such wonderful, wonderful things to show you.”

But, you know, Hellraiser came out in 1987, and the shenanigans aboard the Event Horizon take place in 2047.  Perhaps the images of Hellraiser, at this point, were fully embedded in the collective identity of humanity at that point.

The Cultist

 

*Other than The Phantom Menace.  *Ba-dump tish*

As we come to the end of this series, I’d like to tell a rather unusual story.  A story of a decades-long search that only recently came to fruition.  (I debated whether or not it deserved its own blog post, as the subject is decidedly not Lovecraftian in nature.  But at the end of the day, this little internet niche is my personal dictatorship, so here it is, and there you go!)

Anyway.  When I was firmly in the grip of adolescence (ages 12 to 14 or so, I’d say), there was practically nothing I liked more than going to Tower Books and Records, a sadly now-defunct store 30 minutes away from my house.

I was a fan of bookstores in general, but Tower Books and Records was uniquely…lord, I don’t want to say “edgy”, but edgy is really the only adjective I’m coming up with right now.  It struck puberty-riddled me as punkish and irreverent and sexy.  Every time I went there, I stumbled across something that (at the time) seemed impossibly different and significant.  I remember reading as much of Please Kill Me as I could standing awkwardly between aisles, because there was no way in hell my parents were going to let me buy it.  Ditto multiple collections of Letters to Penthouse, and a slender volume that may have had some unifying plot beyond “Here’s a bunch of cocktail waitresses and all of the many and varied ways in which they have sex with their patrons”, but despite careful and close study I was unable to suss it out.

But I think what I remember most vividly (yes, even more vividly than Cock Tales, or whatever that book was called) was a graphic novel based on Struwwelpeter.  You’ve probably heard of Struwwelpeter before.

coverIt’s a series of German poems meant to instruct and entertain young children in the subjects of personal hygiene and behavior.  Light-hearted tales about how if you sucked your thumb, the Scissorman would come at night and cut them off, and how if you played with matches you’d be burned into a crisp.  Complete with illustrations!  Ha ha!  What fun we have!

kaspar2The little boy wouldn’t eat his soup, so he wasted away and died.  LOL!

But this version…this was an absolute nightmare.  Each chipper, boundlessly eager poem about the death and destruction of a disobedient child was accompanied by a finely-detailed, black and white drawing.  SStTitD had primed me to appreciate horrific illustrations, and these…these were something else.  They weren’t abstract and faintly terrifying through suggestion.  They were crystal clear, surrealistic depictions of terror that would have horrified Freud.

Even at the time, I had this sick, sinking feeling that I was witnessing something that would stick with me forever.  Something that I shouldn’t really be looking at.  But I read it all, as much as I could cram into my skull before my parents grabbed me by the collar and dragged me bodily out (as they usually had to do where Tower Books and Records were concerned).

I couldn’t find that book the next time I went to Tower Books and Records.  And then Tower Books and Records was no more.  I remembered that version of Struwwelpeter–oh, I did remember it–but I hadn’t remembered the author’s name, nor the illustrator’s, nor even the name “Struwwelpeter”.

Over the years, I told people about it, and they laughed or shuddered, whichever was more appropriate.  Occasionally I looked for it, but never got very far.

Which brings me to this very week, and to my previously mentioned problems with book-hoarding.  I mean, when I wrote about Mostly Ghostly…I couldn’t help but order a copy.  And that wasn’t too hard (despite the fact that Mostly Ghostly was apparently also the name a tweenage-Goosebumps-esque series, I was able to sift through the chaff pretty effectively).  And so, the thought kept nagging at me.  Could I find that horrific book of German verse?

Well.  It wasn’t hard to search for “horrific German nursery rhymes” to find out that the title was Struwwelpeter, but there I hit a dead end.

I have a very dear friend who is basically the Rainman of internet searches.  You can say to him (and I have), “Goddamn, I stumbled across this really weird clip of a man in a chicken costume stomping on balloons, and now I can’t find the clip or the movie it was from, and I’ve googled every possible iteration of “man” “chicken costume” “balloon” “stomp” and got nothing,” and within 40 minutes he’ll send you the original Youtube video as well as a link to watch the entire movie, in a legal-ish manner.  I do not have such skills.  I don’t type entire questions into the search bar, I don’t use Yahoo or Ask or Bing, but beyond that my internet-fu is pretty piss-poor.

So, I googled “Struwwelpeter modern” and came up with a modern artsy children’s book with a cheerful-looking cover.  No dice.  I googled “Struwwelpeter horrific images”, “Struwwelpeter graphic novel”, “Struwwelpeter re-telling”, and so on and so forth.  I even posted to the hivemind of Facebook, but got nothing.

Finally, after some wretched combination of search terms, I found a slide-show for an art class project.  Basically, it was a sort of “Make Struwwelpeter your own” sort of thing.  I didn’t have much hope, but I clicked through it, and–what was that?  Yes!  YES!

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The images were still burned into my cerebrum.  I knew I had found my book.

I had a date and two names.  And I had Amazon Prime.  The rest was a forgone conclusion.

So, Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folk is on its way.  Were my impressions overly colored by adolescent angst and hormones?  Will the book terrify me as it did 15 years ago?  Time will tell.  But goddamn, I am so, so, SO excited.

And that’s more or less how I became the horror nerd that I am today.  I’ll be more Lovecraft-oriented on Friday, I promise.

The Cultist

The Cultist is afraid of horror movies.  I wish it were not so, but it is.  Short horror films on Youtube have proven sliiightly more palatable, mainly because I can:

  1. Turn the sound way down
  2. Turn the sound off
  3. Minimize the browser window
  4. Skip ahead
  5. Pause the video and peer at the little frames at the bottom of the progress bar to suss out any jump scares (not always successfully)
  6. Turn off the sound, minimize the window, watch the movie, and then go back and watch it again with the sound on
  7. Cover my eyes and have someone narrate the action for me without fear of annoying other moviegoers

Note that I am not proud of this.

Anyway!  Here’s a delightful little horror/sci-fi movie that I think you’ll find is satisfyingly Lovecraftian.  (I’m getting somewhat jaded with the use of that phrase, especially around Halloween.  Someone please play Downwell for me to verify whether or not it is truly Lovecraftian, because the description didn’t sound like it beyond “Occasionally there are tentacles”.)

/rant

Not to hate on tentacles or anything.

The Cultist

First of all, I am all over this documentary like white on rice.  Topical!

But on to today’s topic…ghosts.  Generally speaking, I don’t find ghosts very frightening or compelling.  Even in my youth, long before I had heard of Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters, my fear was relegated to the following:

  1. Vampires: I was alternately reassured by the fact that you had to invite them in and terrified by the fact that they seemed to KEEP FREAKING GETTING IN.  However, all of the illustrations I had seen showed beautiful women sprawled out on top of the bed, which led me to the (admittedly overly-hopeful) conclusion that vampires would be absolutely confounded by bedsheets.  To date, I can’t really sleep if there’s not a blanket or a comforter pulled up over my neck.
  2. Skeletons: Not zombies, not reanimated corpses.  Skeletons.  This confounded my highly logical scientist father, who patiently explained to me, over and over again, that skeletons lack muscles and tendons, and as such are inanimate by design.  I appreciated my dad’s attempts, but he just didn’t understand how these things worked.

I say this because despite all of these things, the third book that I would deem to be the most influential in my youth was a slim purple-covered paperback volume called (simply) Ghosts, in the Usborne World of the Unknown series.

I had this book for most of my childhood, but somewhere along the way it got lost or donated.  This has surely happened to countless books over the course of my life, but I could never quite reconcile myself to the loss.  Finally, this summer, I realized that I lived in the golden age of the internet search engine and had Amazon Prime, and, with a little elbow grease, there was nothing stopping me from reliving my childhood.

Of course, I hesitated a little even after realizing that–much like realizing that Hawaiian Punch isn’t actually that good and Hostess Cupcakes are bland and stale-tasting, I was deeply concerned that the book would not live up to my remembered hype.

ghosts

I am very happy to say that I was wrong.  So wrong.  This book is absolutely excellent.  It’s short, but every page is crammed full of anecdotes, theories, folk-tales, and illustrations.  Bill Bryson described visiting the American History Museum in his youth, before it was slick and polished and well-organized; his delight came in part from the lack of organization, from wandering around and stumbling across random, delightful artifacts.  I felt similarly about this book.  There’s details on stagecraft (ever wonder how they showed ghosts on stage in the 19th century?), world legends (the Gibbering Ghosts of India!), and possessed animals (the possessed British mongoose named Geb?).

And now, for a brief bit of personal philosophy:

At the risk of sounding like I’m an aged, infirm individual (I am newly 28, and no, I do not think I am old), I’ve started to think more seriously about physical possessions, what I want to keep, what is worth acquiring, what is worth hanging onto.  Like most people, I tend to be a STUFF magnet, and I’m sorry to say that my horror collection is definitely part and parcel of this.  It’s so easy for me to justify new purchases–like, of course I need an illustrated copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories!  I mean, of course, I respect Poe, but I don’t particularly enjoy reading his stories that much…I mean, Fall of the House of Usher was great, sure, but he’s Poe!  I have to at least have one of his books, right?

This woman is helping me break that habit:

kondo

In case you haven’t heard of her, she is Marie Kondo, and she wrote a slim volume on organization.  Her philosophy boils down to: Keep only things that bring you joy.  I’ve been getting better about keeping that in mind, although I’m certain that my kitchen cupboards would make her puke and I still tend to compulsively buy books.

But anyway–this is a round-about way of saying that as soon as I ripped open the Amazon mailer and retrieved Ghosts, I knew that I had made absolutely the right decision.  I probably won’t hang on to that Poe volume (I know, I know, I know: Lovecraft immensely admired Poe, Borges thought Lovecraft was more or less a Poe slash-fiction writer, but goddamn it, I gotta be me, and I’m not a Poe person), but this time I won’t be letting Ghosts go.  No sir.

The Cultist

Okay, I did think of a few other horror movies I’ve watched start to finish, and they were all vampire-based:

  1. Let the Right One In: I enjoyed this one, but I did cover my eyes at a few points
  2. Nosferatu: I was surprised–it’s so old and cliched now, but I did get legitimately frightened at a few moments.  The actor playing the vampire just moves SO slowly and deliberately.
  3. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula: I…do people actually find this movie scary?  To me, it was like they took EVERY possible vampire theme–creepy old guy/sexy young guy/ugly monster/steampunk/werewolf?–and tried to mash them all into a single, unified horror movie.  And it just did not work at ALL.  (And did anyone else laugh at the ending?  Not the actual killing of Dracula, but the part where Mina gives her little impromptu speech to all the vampire hunters, and after YEARS of fighting Dracula, they’re all just like, “Yeah, I guess we were wrong…”)  (Although Tom Waits as Renfield was an amazing choice.)
  4. Dracula (the original): I think I watched this when I was 9 or 10, and I was not very impressed.

But anyway!  I think Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was probably the first frightening book I read, but I also have extremely fond memories of Mostly Ghostly.

mostly ghostly 2

I had a hell of a time finding this book, because it’s also the same name of a series by R. L. Stine.

(Incidentally, R.L. Stine would probably be thought as an obvious choice for a blog post…but eh, I don’t have very strong memories of reading his books.  I mean, I definitely read a lot of them–that I know for sure–but I guess by that point my sense of horror was already somewhat dulled by years of exposure to pictures like this

harold

and this

oh-susanna*).

Written by Steven Zorn and illustrated by John Bradley, this book is IMPRESSIVE.  The version I had was hardcover and absolutely massive–just long and large, so it never fit comfortably even on my tallest bookshelf.  This was done, presumably, to make room for the art.  The illustrations themselves are less frankly horrifying than SStTitD, but they’re no less skillful.  They’re more cartoonish, but every one of them is vaguely unnerving in a way that I found absolutely compelling as a child.

mostly ghostly3

The stories themselves are based off of old famous ghost stories.  There’s one about a hanged murderer who doesn’t realize he’s dead, a funny one about a new aristocrat who doesn’t believe his enormous estate can be complete without a ghost, but I think the one that stuck with me the most is about a terrible clammy THING that shows up on a ship.  But this is where my adult knowledge and childhood memory fails me somewhat, because while I can remember a lot of the individual stories, I can’t remember who wrote what.  And while 8-year-old me certainly didn’t care about the source of these stories, it’s interesting in retrospect to realize that I was reading adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbit, and Ambrose Bierce.

The Cultist

 

*This illustration is a perfect example of exactly what I love about SStTitD.  The story it’s associated with is just a simple urban legend about a college girl annoyed by her roommate’s humming–she finally grabs her shoulder to get her to stop, only to discover that her head has been cut off.  Yeah, it’s definitely creepy, but what is going ON in this picture?  How does it relate?

oh-susanna

But it doesn’t matter.  It just conveys the impossible and the fear of the unknown in such a vivid way that it serves only to enhance the sheer terror of the story.

Despite being a complete horror nerd, I do have some distinctly non-menacing interests, one of them being traditional music and dances.  And, as such, I have a very, very soft spot for sea shanties, which (Google has just told me) you have doubtlessly heard if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed 4.

So, the other day I happened across this variant of Drunken Sailor, which (as you might imagine) I’ve listened to 30 or 40 times now.

And then I found the source: The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, a collection of the oddly and OH MY GOD.  Click the previews–I’m most partial to Undying Ladies, which those in the know will recognize as a variant of Spanish Ladies.

Only $15…will I have the patience to request it for Christmas, or will I break down and buy it?  Is there any way I can get the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society to hire me?  Only time will tell.

The Cultist

First and foremost!  The podcast is up, and I have not listened to it, because I hate how I sound in recordings!  But if you wish to listen to it (and please, lie to me and tell me I don’t sound like a moron, or at least don’t tell me you listened to it), it can be found here, the October 8th entry.

But anyway!  October is my favorite month for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that it’s the one period of the year when my love of horror jibes with the annual public zeitgeist.  (Can you use zeitgeist in that context?  I’m really not sure.)  Even Buzzfeed rang in October 2015 with a list of the best 31 horror movies streaming on Netflix.

Buuuuut…and here’s my dirty little secret, alluded to in the past but never fully embraced…

Start to finish, I’ve watched, like, 7 horror movies.  Ever.

  1. The Shining: I maintain that this is a wonderful movie, but not a scary one.  At no point was I scared.
  2. Rosemary’s Baby: This would have been so much better if they cut the last 15 minutes, so you’d never know whether or not it was all in her head.
  3. A Tale of Two Sisters: I don’t know if this really counts, because I spent well over 60% of the film with my face buried in a pillow.  HOLY SHIT is that one scary.
  4. The Sixth Sense: I saw this in Psychology my junior year of high school, after the AP exam.  The stunning twist had been ruined for me five or six years prior.
  5. Hellraiser: I watched the whole thing!  More or less!
  6. Piranha 3D: Saw this one in theaters, spent fully half the movie in tears.
  7. Alien: You know that scene where that one guy is in the ducts, and there’s a probe on him, and a probe on the alien, and you see the probes getting closer and closer together, and the rest of the crew keeps telling the guy that it’s heading right for him, and he’s like, “Naaaaaaaaah”, and then the alien jumps on him?  It’s the most forecasted jump scare in the history of cinema, and it made me pass out.  Literally.  I lost consciousness.

Conversely, the number of horror movies I have failed to complete could fill a fucking book.  Here are a few samples:

  1. The Ring: Made it to that cutaway scene of the girl’s corpse in the closet.  You know, that cutaway scene that happens 10 minutes into the movie?
  2. The Thing (the 1981 version): Made it until the dog gets back to the base and starts acting funny.  Not even transformed.  Just funny.  I knew what was coming, and couldn’t take it.
  3. Hellraiser II: I made it until the guy in the asylum starts scraping his maggot-covered arms with a straight razor.
  4. Re-Animator: Tried it twice, the second time I made it exactly halfway!

To date, in my opinion, this is one of my most grievous personal failings.  I would LOVE to watch horror movies.  I love reading their summaries on Wikipedia.  I read reviews avidly.  Goodnight Mommy is coming to theaters soon, and I am rabid to watch it.  It’s getting incredible reviews.  Will I watch it?  Will I even come close to watching it?  History says no.  I have a vivid imagination, and I have a tremendously exaggerated startle reflex.  Therefore, every movie–horror or not–I watch is tainted by my fear of jump scares, which seem to lurk around every corner.  (Which reminds me!  If you can think of a horror movie that has ZERO reliance on jump scares, add it to the comments.  I’ll be on that like white on rice.)

But I’ve loved horror for as long as I can remember, despite these innate limitations.  How did I get my start?  How ought a horror lover to be raised?

For the next few days, instead of talking about classical or modern weird fiction, I’ll head back to my roots.  And so, to start, I’ll be tremendously unoriginal and say:

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.  Alvin Schwartz is a folklorist proper–every book in the trilogy is concluded with an extensive series of sources and notes on the particular horror tradition, regional variations, etc.  Stephen Gammell may very well be the King of the Damned Incarnate.

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I mean that in only the kindest and most loving way.

scarystories2-scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-has-found-an-adaption-director-to-traumatize-the-youth-of-today

The stories were okay, a few of the ghosts were spooky, but the illustrations captivated me in a way that nothing had ever done before.  And now, 28 years old, well into the age of the internet, I see that I’m very far from alone.  Every person who loved SStTitD loved it because of the illustrations.  The illustrations make the books.  The stories minus the pictures are only mildly scary, even for a children.  And I feel like everyone who loved SStTitD had an illustration that came to define the books in their mind–it was the epitome of horror, so terrible you couldn’t look at it for very long, or maybe you had to avoid the story altogether.  Maybe it was the girl with the boil on her cheek, staring in horror at the explosion of baby spiders and eggs.  Maybe it was the disgruntled, all-too-human scarecrow named Harold.  For me, it was this:

scary stories to tell in the dark

Jesus.  I know, right?

The story, eh.  I can tell you it by heart.

Haunted house, no one stays overnight, then a pastor stays, he hears ghostly footsteps, compels the wraith by invoking the bible, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost*, the wraith appears and tells him she was murdered by her boyfriend, skeleton underneath the house, put her pinkie bone in the collection plate at church, a man touches it and goes crazy, he admits the murder, he’s hanged, the wraith appears one last time to tell the pastor where her money is hidden, he finds it and donates it to the church, her ghostly fingerprints are forever singed into his jacket.  The end.

There’s really not much to it, alone.  But my god…that picture.  It burned itself into my skull.  I memorized more or less where in the book it was, and skipped around it for years because I couldn’t bear to look at it straight on.

I don’t think I was a particularly masochistic child.  I think that some kids–maybe all, I don’t know–like to be scared.  It’s a way of putting the self to the test.  A mountain climb for the myopic, pudgy, and asthmatic (okay, maybe that was just me).  The void is there.  Can we face the void and come back unscathed?  When it keeps us up at night, trembling, terrified of feeling its fingerprints burning into our covers, will we have the strength to come back and face it again the next day?

For me, at least, that feeling was addictive.  It’s morphed into something more subtle with age, but even now, scrolling back up the draft to stare at THAT FACE fills me with a shock of something primal.

Stephen Gammell, I salute you, wherever you might be, and whatever you might be.

The Cultist

*Despite being born and raised an atheist, I memorized this well, in case I ever needed to confront the undead.

I have a somewhat informal and ill-defined mental system for ranking my preferred characteristics of horror fiction.  I like it when the unexpected happens, but I love it even more when the unexpected keeps happening and never, ever lets up.  (See “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet”, by Robert Shearman, one of my favorite horror stories of all time, or The Holy Mountain, which I have seen twice, understand not at all, and love with all of my heart.)

I like twists, but if you’ve read enough horror and are familiar enough with the genre, a good twist is hard to find, thanks to Chekhov’s gun and the internal rules (such that they are) of Lovecraft’s horror stories.  I prefer stories about lesser-known Lovecraftian deities over sucker-and-tentacle freak fests.  I don’t like regular books about war and politics, but I adore stories about war and politics superimposed over a Lovecraftian reality.  (“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear is a great example.)

But one of the rarest pleasures is a short story that unnerves without any explicit fright or departure from reality.  Everything seems as though it could happen, and the parts that seem less likely are still easily explained away.  Nevertheless, the world created by the author just seems off.  A bit torqued, slightly wrong, however you’d like to call it.  And all events–from the mundane to the horrific–seem inexorably tainted by this ill-defined offness.

I don’t quite know what to call it.  The corruption of the mundane?  Horrific realism?  It’s difficult to pin down, but I know it whenever I come across it, and it seems like one of the most difficult feats in horror writing to pull off.  Two examples in particular jump out at me–no spoiler cuts, because there’s nothing to spoil.

The Night Ocean”, by R.H. Barlow: I was trying to figure out why the name Barlow was familiar to me, and then I realized–he’s the fellow to whom Lovecraft dedicated his sketch of Cthulhu!I have no idea who he is, but I think this officially makes Barlow a BFD.

“The Night Ocean” is featured in The Horror in the Museum, a collection of stories that Lovecraft either ghost-wrote or edited heavily, so it’s not clear to me how much of the final product was Barlow’s and how much was Lovecraft’s.  It is a story about a man who rents a cottage on the ocean during the off-season.  That’s literally it.  No tentacles, no menacing inbred fish-faced people, no sense of danger, no ill-concealed threat.  But.  I’ve never had thalassophobia, but the shifting nature of the ocean–its moods, its secrets–is captured in such a vivid way that I’ve never quite looked at the sea in the same way.

There were drownings at the beach that year; and while I heard of these only casually (such is our indifference to a death which does not concern us, and to which we are not witness), I know that their details were unsavory.  The people who died–some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average–were sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies.  It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled them about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.”

“Rotterdam”, by Nicholas Royle: There’s more plot to this story than “The Night Ocean”, but not by much.  A man is scouting Rotterdam for potential shooting locations for a film adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories.  He runs into the writer of the script, a man he views with both vague disdain and apprehension.  But what’s truly striking is not the palpable decrepitude of some of the areas he sees–that’s why the scout is there, after all–but the strange statues that pop up all over the city, a pop-up installation by the odd London artist Antony Gormley.  He creates cast-iron molds of himself, which appear seemingly at random throughout major metropolitan areas.

On the Westzeedijk, a boulevard heading east away from the city center, Joe came upon the Kunsthal: a glass-and-steel construction, the art gallery had a protruding metal deck on which were scattered more Gormley figures in different positions.  Lying flat, sitting down, bent double.  Inside the gallery, visible through the sheet-glass walls, were more figures striking a variety of poses.  Two faced each other through the plate glass, identical in all respects except height.

gormley

It would appear Antony Gormley is a real person. 

I did not know that.

Google searches inspired by horror stories are literally the only reason I have any semblance of culture whatsoever.

Anyway!  No one really comments on the figures–they’re accepted as a part of life–but they cast a weird shadow on everything.  When something terrible happens, when someone may or may not have given in to an uncharacteristic act of violence, there are no clear answers, but plenty of suspicions.  There’s reason at all why Lovecraft’s stories would be related to the bizarre, omnipresent figures–and there’s definitely no reason why the two of them together should have precipitated a bloody murder.  But as the story fades to a close with no real resolution, it’s hard not to try to draw the strings together.  Whether or not that’s a valid interpretation is entirely up to the reader.

The Cultist

There are a number of acceptable responses to recognizing the ultimate indifference of the cosmos and the absolute, soul-crushing insignificance of humanity.  Despair, insanity, denial…  Until today, I didn’t realize that hunger might be involved

p1050257In sunken R’yleh dead Cthulhu lies toasting

But apparently the good lads and ladies of Kitchenoverlord had an entire WEEK dedicated to Lovecraftian food.

cthulhuSalted Mountain Dew tentacle cupcakes!  I’d take issue with the implications that all Lovecraft cultists love Mountain Dew and salty snacks, but…goddamn it, those look good.

Will I make these?  You better believe it.  I have no intentions of turning this into a baking blog, but look for occasional (potentially hilarious) pictures of my finished products.

The Cultist