Wednesday Weird Short Story Review: The Hodag

Oh hey, hey, it’s back again, I’m back again. Last week I didn’t do this due to the whole silly book publication thing. Imagine that! It still looks like it’s out of stock all over the place. Dunno what to make of that. Hopefully that will all be fixed soonish.

In the meantime? In the meantime! Here it is. A return to form. Every Wodinsday I’ll find some bit of weird fiction and talk about it. Move about it. I guess review is the wrong word here, because I’m not so much telling you about the story and giving you a rundown and thumb’s up or thumb’s down, as I am talking around the story. Discussing it, as it where.

Today it’s The Hodag, by Trent Hergrader. A writer who is new to me, and a story that can be found online for free at the esteemed Nightmare Magazine.

Small towns seem to be a horror thing. Those tiny nestled nowhere places, where everyone knows each other. Isolated landscapes, soon overgrown with the wild and the forest. Why do these stories settle down in the middle of nowhere? Sometimes midwest, sometimes out in lumberjack country. Sometimes Alaska, sometimes Seattle.

It makes one wonder if weird fiction is especially suited for the rural, and shuns the urban landscape? It’s even stranger to think that suburbia, with all its inherit strangeness and wild otherness isn’t a more natural fit for that weird, weird, landscape. Even with Twin Peaks, that strange rural logging town nightmare of a city. A small town, a rural town. What calls to the weird in such a place?

Yet trees and humming power lines and everything else. Small towns, small communities, farmlands and barns and all the rest.  The places that are now dwindling in population, with youth running away at the first moment of graduation. It’s odd. You would think they would be stories of rust belt decay and ghost towns in the making. Yet, they rarely seem to be.

This story does approach it, hesitatingly. Not exactly discussing the recent ills, but instead it seems to reminisce about past population drains. After the depression, after the first world war. And yet, most small towns are dwindling even more and more now. Closing of factories, loss of job prospects, lack of community, etc, etc, etc.

Yet, still. It’s there in the core to this story, which makes it a sort of rust-belt gothic. The horror and the weird used to discuss these slow moving ghost towns. Draining of self, identity, life. The monster not a symbol for these things, not a metaphor, but rather an essence of them. A discussion of them, and maybe a symptom of them. Much like how a fever isn’t a metaphor for the plague, if you get my drift.

The prose itself starts off with a strong voice that kind of weakens as the text continues onward. There is a rhythm of slang that kind of weakens and drifts away into descriptions. At moments there is a bit of horror poetry, those little creepy lines that all good weird fiction have that turn the everyday into something filled with dread. At times, these are the simple bits. The usual numbers, trees branches like boney fingers. You know the drill. Even though they are a bit derivative, they still work in service to the story. And create that oozing atmosphere that’s required.

The pace does move quick, and it feels like it props up kids in danger and pets in danger as a way of creating suspense. A cheap form of suspense, really, but affective. Even though all of this bits and pieces are things we’ve seen before, it creates a conversation with the genre itself. The whole of the story becomes much more than its parts, and it does transcend these thematic borrowings and transform into something sinister.

Overall, it doesn’t surprise. It ends in a way that’s interesting, but only because it feels more like the ending to a literary short story (say, something by Carver), and less like a horror short story ending. A monster story, yes. A beast story, yes. But in the end? That’s not where the core of the story lies.

This is what I mean by being more of the sum of its parts. It uses the tools of horror for a literary affect, and it ends on a moment of silent revelation instead of death or mutilation. I feel like this is preferred, and it fits more into Clute’s concept of horror being a descendent of Heart of Darkness (an idea he explored in The Darkening Garden excellently).

 

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Close Your Eyes Released Today!

Close Your EyesHurray! Huzzah! Look at that cover. Isn’t it beautiful? Wait until you read the words inside. Just as wonderful.

What’s that you say? You want to buy it! Of course you do. Head on here and do it…just. Just do it.

Over ten years in the making. A book filled with so much strangeness your head will explode. Ker-plow!

 

Fugue State Fiction: broken in the heart and head

I’ve become a huge fan of the Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s films. About a year or so ago I watched Pulse for the first time, and fell in love with the way it moves. It’s not surreal, per se. But moves in this kind of meandering, dream like way. Unlike surrealism, it’s characters exist and have inner lives, and aren’t just engines for symbolism.

Their is a deep sense of grief in that movie as well. A struggle not just against depression, but also towards connection. A yearning, and a haunting. A need to become more than just an echo or a ghost. The characters struggle with suicide, and there is this red outlined door whose meaning is obscured. But carries a deep dread that rings in the bones on viewing.

I just watched his movie Cure last night, and I will say that I went in not quite sure. Could it live up to Pulse? Oh. Oh it was amazing. It carried that same feeling. That disoriented sense of dread. Like a fugue state, like a walking dream. Everything fuzzy. Destabilized. And yet, philosophical in core and emotional weight.

It reminds me of Oz Perkins’ movies. Like Blackcoat’s Daughter/February and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. There is that same sense of unreal, of walking through a dream. There is a beauty to the horror and the gore is very minimal or non-existent. Unreal things happen, but in ways that unnerve slowly, slightly. A coil of a rope. A tightening of a knot.

When characters speak they say things that feel like portents. Whispered prophecies that unnerve, and challenge your very concept of identity itself. The way they move, and act, and flow reminds me of the voice over narration bits in a Terrence Malick film. Where it flows around, and everything exists with occluded meaning.

Dread is key to works like this. Unnerving, unsettling. In fiction, a few come directly to mind when I think of these things. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad #8), Joe Hill’s My Father’s Mask, most of the stories in Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, Laird Barron’s Bulldozer, House of Leaves, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, just to name a few.

The world is slippery. Everything moves in a measured pace and carries the weight of ominous portents. Actions of characters feel like forgotten rituals. Sacrifices to dead gods. Characters ruminate on philosophy, depression, suicide, the concept of identity, self, and the world.

The feeling is both that of a fugue and a fugue state. A slow melancholy dance, a waking dream, a memory maybe of something half seen in the dark. Fugue State Horror, maybe. Though really the term horror contains so many negative connotations, thanks to slasher films and torture porn movies like Saw. It’s hard to remember a time when it was like this, something that crawled into your bones. That stayed with you when you were done with it, clung by your side and haunted you.

The world slightly askew now, askance now, broken in the heart and head.

Wednesday Weird Short Story Review

So, something I’m thinking of doing now. Every Wednesday, I’ll just go over a shortstory I read during the week and everything. Not much of a review, per se. Much more like a conversation with the work.

Think back a bit, back to childhood a bit. When I walk around late at night, searching the streetlamps and the doors lit up in the shadows. I sense something sinister in those hours, but also a faint beauty and this pulse of the world. It makes me think of shadow alleys and how in Scooby Doo it’s never daylight, is it? It’s always night. Or the covers of Nancy Drew, or Hardy Boys. Also darkness, always night.

And something sinister in those streetlamp shadows. Encyclopedia Brown and the rest, all of them solving mysteries. All of them seeming to take place in a gothic world, painted only in darkness. They hint at horrible things. Like murder, curses, pirates, and ghost. But they never fully commit, do they? Like all good gothics, the ghosts are humans in costumes. The pirates just scheming neighbors. The supernatural is a farce. And the murder is more of a promise than an actuality.

One of my favorite kinds of stories are ones that take the bones of these teen detective myths and bring them into the true beating heart of horror. Kelly Link’s The Girl Detective. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno. There is something to this, something that stranges the world. That takes in childhood nostalgia and twists it up, makes it strange. It weirds it in such wonderful ways.

In the End it Always Turns Out the Same by AC Wise is this kind of story. There is a danger to this, isn’t it? Playing with not just the nostalgia, not just with the tradition of teen detective stories, but also with the other meta-stories that do the same thing. It is not just a conversation with a conversation, but instead becomes a conversation about that conversation. It needs to move it around, change things up.

Another interesting bit: missing children. Another bit of genre fiction twist up. Another kind of story I find interesting, and unique, but also containing that same danger. You can’t just have a story that has a conversation with other missing children stories now, can you? So many other stories are having that same meta-conversation, with Peter Straub’s Lost Boy/Lost Girl being the main key that seems to take it down, peel it apart, wrap it around itself.

You need to have a conversation with the conversation with the stories having the conversation. It twists around itself. It becomes a snake, a serpent. A beating heart. There are puzzles and keys. I walk around this late night hour. See those halo of street car lights bursting the shadows? Almost a darting form of a missing child in the night.

It also plays with monsters, and yes the main character calls out to my heart when she says she will grow up to be a monster someday. Already the narratives are crumbling and calling out to each other. The meta-ness is stranging itself. It’s moving beyond meta into the core weird. Not a cutesy story, but instead a slippery story. A destabilizing story.

The best conversation stories are like this. They don’t call out to the ones who came before in simplistic ways that are meant to calm and liquify and nothing more (Ready Player One, Stranger Things), but instead use the symbols we already know to throw us off balance. They bring in things that we feel should work one way, but instead start to erode. Change.

Making monsters in our thoughts. For example, what good girl detective thinks of murdering her Scooby Squad? And yet, that thought appears here, and we are slipping away.  The humor is sly, unsettling. The dark kind that laughs with a grimace. The kind that makes me feel something shift in the core of my being.

Another example. Disguises. Ghosts and monsters in disguise. And here, we see an old man who is normal, yet. He looks like a monster in disguise. His suit a human suit, and everything is subtly off. Because we’re playing with known tropes here, this unsettles even more. It takes the idea of disguises, of the whole gothic fake monster, and it turns it inside out. We are unnerved. A wonderful sensation. To be unnerved. A pleasant chill, wasn’t that what M. R. James said? To feel everything become just wrong, wrong. Not wrong not right. Just wrong.

His father died when he was eight years old, but his mother kept the clothes in a trunk in the attic, waiting for him to grow.

And lines like this have weight to them. It’s odd how the reality mixing with the familiar beats of a girl detective story notches that unsettling factor more and more. Knot twisted shut on the real. Tiny earthquakes in your perception.

He doesn’t remember the growing part. 

Do we ever? Try to remember growing. The ache of your bones. The way your skin scratched and you sloughed off dead cells. Try to remember the muscles tightening as your skeleton stretched them out.

And the ones we think of monsters never really are. They are just trying to help the dead. This story is not just a conversation with a conversation with a conversation. It instead uses the tools of genre to destabilize the familiar. Making the very bones of genre itself weird.

 

A Ghost of a Movie, An Echo of a Book

So over the week I dribbed and drabbed out the six or so episodes for the Picnic at Hanging Rock tv show. I know, a lot of you are shocked, surprised, dare I say…confused? A tv show? What tv show?

For some reason, it got very little press over here in the states. But it is an Amazon original, and so it’s streaming as we speak. My overall thought? It was good. Worth watching. Is it the movie? No. Do I love it to pieces like I love the movie? Nope.

There are some excellent bits. But it’s less of a surreal mystery and more of a character study And in doing so, it loses some of the dreamlike quality, and focuses on the day to day and the drama of the characters. It might’ve worked a bit better if the focal point had been on one of the students? But instead, it was on Mrs. Appleyard.

Now, Mrs. Appleyard is the closest thing to a villain in the first movie and in the tv show. I have a feeling that wanted to go the “Wicked” route, where it’s the point of view of the cruel character and giving her a rich backstory, and etc. The only problem going this route is that their needs to be moments where we see beyond the cruelty that’s done to them and that they do to other people.

Someone having a bad childhood only makes them so sympathetic. We need to be able to empathize with them as well, for it to have any power within the narrative. We, as viewers need to synthesize with the characters in order to feel that primal connection.

Instead, we feel that emotional synthesis with Sara. A student at the school, and not the primary focus that Mrs. Appleyard was meant to be. I’m glad for this, and that is the one place this shines more than the movie. Because of this synthesis, the events that unfold gain more emotional heft. And there are a few moments where she is obviously the point of view for the narrative, but they are few and far between.

I wish I could say I was gonzo about it. That it’s something everyone should run out and watch. It’s good, it’s decent, I will probably watch it again, but overall it fails where it wants to succeed. The mystery of the missing should have been closer bubbling to the surface, instead of loss within the local human drama that was the focus of later episodes. It should’ve been a laser point on Sarah, because experiencing the story through her eyes would give it a connective tissue and emotional weight.

The ending, too, was far less affective than they wanted it to be. You could tell that the writers and everyone else involved wanted us to be emotionally devastated by the last episode’s last few minutes. But there were several things keeping this from happening. One, we didn’t synthesize or empathize with Mrs. Appleyard. And two, the one character we did had a similar experience earlier in the story, and that sucked all the emotion out of this viewer.

It left the end-end a bit of a let down. So, go, watch it. When it’s good it’s good. But I felt like there was a better story underneath it, a more unique approach that would’ve challenged the movie and deepened everything. Instead of being what it was, a pale shadow. A hollow echo.

Something that was good, and at points, brilliant. But reached and reached and never grasped what it wanted to grasp. Even the cool scenes that were shot in an almost Legion/Hannibal style manner didn’t quite hit their mark. I felt like, maybe they should’ve taken more risks. Maybe they shouldn’t have played it so safe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really good…very, very good…

But it could’ve been so much more.

A return to blogging, and lengths of fiction

Yes, I’m returning to blogging. Slowly, easing back into it. moving away from the FarceBox. That Facebork. That evil empire machinery that treats the citizens (netizens) as commerce cattle and spills out their intimate details to the highest bidder. I could go on and on about it, but I won’t. Instead, let’s talk about reading and writing and all of that junk.

Right now my mind is filled with a million ideas. Boom, boom, boom. I’m working on a novel, but I’ve also got my hand in all sorts of other things. Short stories, etc. I’m trying to force myself to read more fiction, I’ve become way too lax about this sort of thing. I’d been reading tons of interesting non-fiction, doing loads of research and diving down into interesting rabbit-holes. But in doing so, I’ve neglected my fiction reading, and I feel like I need to delve into it more and more and more so.

Mostly because I adore reading fiction. I go into books all gonzo and passionate and devour them in large gulps. I miss that feeling, and I miss doing it. Certainly, I’ve been doing it with my own writing, but it’s not exactly the same. There is something missing there.

So, anyway. That’s the plan. To read a bit more fiction. I’ve got a few Best Of’s from last year and this year I need to peel through. I’m on a big short story (reading) kick lately, and it’s nice going back into the shorter form. Short stories were my first reader love as a kid growing up. It was the gateway drug into horror, and sometimes I think that maybe the short form is the perfect form for horror. Or weird fiction, or ghost stories.

Because it limits things, and drills them down, and it becomes claustrophobic in the amount of space it takes up on the page itself. The limitation in size creates a walls closing in effect, and when used correctly the very sentences themselves can create a labyrinth of words. Just by leaving out much more than they put in.

Because really, with a short story the economy of words and paragraphs are paramount. There is a deliberate choice to almost everything. You have to have that level of control, in order to ratchet suspense, and have care for and understand the characters in such little space. Creating that feeling of dread, of loss, of neo-gothic atmosphere is one that requires a complete control over the language.

Novellas, too, are also good lengths for these sorts of things. It’s stretched to the point of almost breaking. But once you move past that to novel and then to NOVEL (big brick of a thing) you have the risk of losing momentum. Of losing that claustrophobia, that sense of loss and intimate power. It can still be done, but too many writers lose that sense about halfway through BIG GIANT NOVELS. They turn around, become something else.

The tenseness is gone. The same thing can be said for weird fiction, which I believe the horror genre is actually a subset of, and not the other way around. The key point to weird fiction is the uncanniness of the text, the disruption of the real. Surreal and magical realist works also have this issue, where after a certain point the fluidity of the real can become a hinderance, not a benefit. It’s not impossible, mind you. But it’s tricky, and can easily devolve into something that’s just nonsense.

Anyway. I’m back! I’m blogging. Yar. And I’ll be talking about my upcoming novel Close Your Eyes. And all the stuff I’ll be reading. And who knows, I might start podcasting, too. Dunno yet. Depends on how I’m feeling about this whole thing.

 

Announcing a brand spanking new Weird and Surreal Space Opera for 2018

Apex books acquired my novella sequel to Open Your Eyes (called Close Your Mouth). The plan is to combine it with Open Your Eyes and a short story prequel, and publish it all together as a novel (since they do work well together as a novel, the way the timelines work and etc). Basically, it’s an old school style fix-up. Which makes my pulp brain twitter with delight.

Should be out mid-to-late 2018. Here’s the official post at Apex-
https://www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/frontpage/apex-book-company-acquires-close-your-mouth-by-paul-jessup

And here’s an excerpt from Close Your Mouth, to sort of wet your appetite-

Itsasu’s Room:

Not large at all, barely wide enough for a few things here and there. Scattered about, small and claustrophobic. A bed that breathed at night with wet noises. Splish. Splish. Splish. A wall that was more shelves than space. Covered in tiny vials and tubes and random pages cut out of books. Yellow, those pages. Haunted, those pages. She read them a few times over the years. But the words never stuck in her mind. Always left a whisper and nothing else.

A bejeweled skull on the corner of her breathing bed. You could smell the AI dust roaming about it. The smell of yeast. Growing, growing, and devouring the air. That kind of yeast that suffocates you and brings you close to death. That was the smell of her memories. Populating that skull. Giving it crude life. Almost her husband. Not quite. Something broken in the way he spoke. Something hollow and peppered with randomness.

Another wall, another map. This one crude hand drawn. She’d tried to map out the egia so many times. But her hands. So rough, so broken. Hands that were not the right kind of hands. Grown from bird beaks and crow’s feet. Stitched and attached and she was more doll than person now. How much left of her was real? How much left of her was torn out and taken away?