Halloween Reads

So, I decided I’m going to create a single post I can just link right to every October. Filled with stories I’ve written that are free online that are horror stories. At the bottom I include a link to a few non-free places (anthologies, natch) that have some other of my creepy short stories in case you want to read those. I’ll update these whenever I have new things that fit (two forthcoming in November and December 2018)

The House at the End of the World
Someone Changed the Bones in Our Homes
And Out Came the Words of Fire (honorable mention in Best Horror of the Year Volume 4, 2011)
The Last Stand of the Ant Maker
Apple Magick
Fingerbones Hung Like Mobiles
Philannion
Light Like Knives Dragged Across the Skin
Secret in the House of Smiles (audio)

And some anthologies and stuff-
Future Lovecraft – has my story PostFlesh
Glass Coffin Girls– has my story Stone Dogs. Which was also a Honorable Mention in Best Horror of the Year Volume 4, 2011

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Memento Mori

I was thinking the other day on how flawed the idea of horror can be, when it is only is described as fiction that provokes fear. That it is only emotional, and that this is the primary defining term. This feels weak to me, it feels like a cop out.

Almost all fiction uses fear and intense emotions in order to get us to care for the characters. Adventure fiction, action fiction, spy books, and all of the rest use fear and our fear for the characters to create an enjoyable, interesting experience. And yet, these books would not be called horror. It needs to be something more than that, doesn’t it? What links the desperate things that we label with this term? As a genre it doesn’t have as many rules and tropes and cages as others. Certainly, some subgenres carry a few brief outlines (haunted house, etc, slasher, etc, killer animals, etc), but they are nowhere near as codified as the subgenres of fantasy and science fiction (something I consider to be a huge benefit to horror as a medium).

It has to be something else. And I think, really, it all boils down to one primal fear. A primal, concentrated fear that all these desperate things connect to somehow. The fear of our own death. Not the death of others, but rather the death that awaits each of us. And not the actual act itself, but rather the mystery of it all.

I was thinking about this the other day. Maybe I’m wrong about it? I probably am, and I’ll probably change my mind later. Who knows? But even cosmic horror, or horror about the wrongness of the world, or horror about the wrongness of humanity, etc, etc, all seems to boil down to seeing our own skull in a mirror. What waits behind the gruesome veil of pain?

One fear I plan on exploring in fiction some day is one I come to a lot. This fear I have of what constitutes consciousness, and when does consciousness turn off? How long are we dying before we’re no longer aware of it, or anything else? Recent studies say those that were considered brain dead really weren’t, and could hear people and everything else if they ever make it back to the land of the living.

This makes me question where consciousness is stored, how it’s activated, and when is turned off? What if I’m dying and fully aware of it? How long before it goes away? Do I feel myself rotting, watch it all go down? Are my thoughts still running around in my head as my eyes rot out and my blood drips out from the last bit of my body? How long does the pain last? Do I feel my insides melting into goo? Can I taste the flies who taste me in those last hours?

Damn. I really hope I die in my sleep. But even then, what does that even mean? How do they know the person doesn’t briefly, quickly, wake and feel their lungs stop, their heart stop, and then everything on fire and burning fire and the nerves firing off their last synapses before it all winds down and ceases to be?

What a happy thought to think right before bed. Ah well. I do need to filter this into some story, some way. Not in the cheesy way twilight zoneish way. But rather, a character who has this same fear, this same obsession. Maybe a little girl who buries her dolls and constantly worries about her own death and the death of her family. Who’s created rituals in order to keep everyone alive and breathing still.

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).

 

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.