I  have always written a lot about film, but over the last few years I have inescapably also become, among other things, a “film writer.” I have two books of essays on vintage horror cinema in print, and I regularly write reviews of both new and retrospective films for venues like Signal Horizon and Unwinnable.

To the extent, then, that I am a “film critic,” or a critic of any other kind of art, my interest is not in whether or not the art in question is “good” or “bad.” My interest is in the experience of the art itself; in placing that art within its broader context and learning to understand it better, both for myself and for whoever happens to be reading whatever I write.

This makes the experience of art – and of writing and reading about art – necessarily personal, and somewhat immune to criticism, to the extent that you view criticism as nothing more than a binary of “good” or “bad.” Siskel and Ebert, probably the most well-known movie critics of all time, famously simplified it to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” – not to knock either Siskel or Ebert, both of whom also wrote lengthy, heartfelt, highly personal takes on film all the time.

One of my favorite quotes about the role of art comes from Joe R. Lansdale writing an introduction to a trade collection of the comic book Baltimore. “Isn’t that the job of all great art,” Lansdale writes, “to kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see?”

He thinks it is, at least in part, and so do I.

As a critic, then, my job is to help art accomplish that goal. To jimmy the door just that little bit wider, to point into the light and shadow on the other side and describe what I see. To walk through the door – or at least peek through it – when others may not have the time or the energy or the inclination or the adventurousness of spirit to do so.

My job is also to keep an open mind. Not just when I sit in the dark and wait for the movie to begin, but long after I’ve seen the credits roll, after I’ve composed my careful sentences that night or the next day or the next week. This doesn’t mean pretending to like something that I don’t. It means being open to changing my mind.

Some of my favorite movies I was lukewarm on when I walked out of the theater. Some movies that I loved the first few times I saw them grew stale with time. Neither of these reactions are wrong – they’re just descriptive of how I experienced the movies.

As a reader of writing about film, one of my favorite things in the world is to find a thoughtful, engaging appreciation of a movie that I thought I didn’t like. One that helps me to view something in the movie that I might not otherwise have seen. Sometimes I still don’t like the movie when I’m done, but I get the chance to glimpse that otherwise unseen thing, and that’s really what I’m always after.

Art can only do so much to kick those doors open, after all. Sometimes we have to be ready to look.

The Movies (2)

 

There is a gag in the MST of Hobgoblins where, after the film’s cold opening, the titles come up and Tom Servo goes, “Hey, the end credits! Well, it was a terrible movie, but at least it was short.” To which Mike replies, “These are the beginning credits,” and Servo says, “Oh, well, then kill me, please?”

Remember that, cuz we’ll come back to it.

maxresdefault

I don’t know if the turning of the new year is really a time when people make ill-fated resolutions to improve their lives, or if that was just a gimmick cooked up to sell gym memberships. But I do know that this time in the dead of winter – from Christmas Eve until … well, it varies, year to year, but sometimes the end of February – has routinely not been a great time of year for me.

Unfortunately, so far 2020 is no exception. In fact this whole first week (!) feels like every day has been about a year long by itself. Each time I realize that we’re only a week in, it feels like that gag from Hobgoblins that I mentioned above.

Years ago, Grace and I had to let go of our first cat, Corwin, in a fairly sudden and traumatic fashion on Christmas Eve. Yesterday, we had to say goodbye to our cat Abracadabra, or Abby, who we’ve had for twelve years – nearly a third of my life.

It was time, and I’m grateful that she’s no longer suffering, but it was terribly hard to say goodbye, and we already miss her so much. That was the year’s biggest kick in the teeth to me, personally, so far, but it was far from the only one.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got this hacking cough that I have had since October 30, the world is on fire in a way that’s more literal than usual, America’s warmongering and imperialism threatens to escalate a war that has, for all intents and purposes, been going on for most of my lifetime, and I’m sure there’s plenty that I’m forgetting.

I don’t know if all ages are as apocalypse-haunted as my generation, but it seems like I’ve grown up always in the shadow of the end of the world. I was a kid in the tail-end of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large. The Day After was set and filmed not far from where I live now.

Our movies were preoccupied with life in the wake of a future that was sometimes literally post-apocalyptic, other times caught in the midst of the inevitable aftermath of late stage capitalism and its ravages on the planet. A world in which a handful of people lived in comfort while everyone else survived in the gutters, when they survived at all.

I graduated class of 2000, which means that I remember, vividly, the Y2K scare. I remember the fear of global pandemics. Outbreak came out when I was fourteen years old.

Revisiting the movies that I grew up on, I’m often flabbergasted by how quickly they expected the end to come. When you’re making a movie about a blasted future where humanity survives in dregs, and you set it a decade out? Let’s just say, that ain’t optimism.

I’m no kind of historian, but I do routinely consume media, both for work and pleasure, from a lot of different decades. And one thing I’ve learned is that the problems that we face now are, for the most part, the same as the problems we’ve faced all my life. Take a movie from two, three decades ago, strip away the markers of its moment in time, and you’ll find the same themes.

We knew that climate change was going to doom us all if we didn’t do something about it. We knew that the wealth gap was growing. We knew that our warmongering would only ever lead to more and more violence. We knew the self-serving hypocrisy of the “moral majority.” We knew that white supremacy underpinned much of our society – and that it was a trap that held both whites and PoC alike.

Sometimes it’s comforting to see how little has changed, and sometimes it’s terrifying.

Knowing that the fin absolue du monde has hung over us for longer than I’ve been alive helps me to not give in to the apocalyptic mindset that the news often seems so keen to engender, but I can’t deny that the images of Australia, in particular, have an immediacy and ferocity that is hard to ignore.

On the plus side, I made my first sale of the year this week, which is a nice, early start. 2020 may have punched us in the mouth right out of the gate, but sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.

Unknown SkeletonAt the start of this decade, I made my first-ever professionally-qualifying sale. (Pro rates were somehow even lower then than they are now.) I had been writing since I learned how, and seriously attempting to publish since I graduated college not quite a decade before that.

In 2012, the first edition of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, came out. In five years it would be out of print, then back in print, in a new, hardcover deluxe edition from Strix Publishing.

Looking back, it came out too soon. Not that I’m not proud of the collection – I am, completely, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have allowed it to be reissued. I just wasn’t at the “first collection” stage in my career quite yet, but I didn’t know that then.

In the years since, I’ve published two more collections of stories, both with Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde press, not to mention two collections of essays on vintage horror films, both with Innsmouth Free Press. I’ve published more than fifty short stories, and been in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year three times.

I co-edited my first anthology with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which got translated into Japanese.

I’ve done work for Privateer Press, writing short fiction and in-game content, adventures, and even a licensed novel that is technically my first published novel-length work. In the last year alone I’ve written nearly fifty movie reviews for Unwinnable and Signal Horizon, where I also now co-host a podcast.

I’ve written introductions for reissues of some of my favorite books, including Benighted and collections by Robert Westall, from Valancourt Books, and introductions to collections by some of my favorite contemporaries, including Nick Mamatas and Amanda Downum. I have nonfiction bylines in places like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nightmare Magazine.

I’ve been a guest at several wonderful conventions and festivals, gone on a great many podcasts, introduced movies at the local movie theatres, and much more. There are so many things on this list that, had you told me about them ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Of all the many surprising things that have happened to me over the course of the last decade, though, perhaps the most surprising is that I quit my day job to write full-time all the way back in 2013, and I haven’t had to give it up yet.

Fiction writing certainly doesn’t pay the bills, so most of my time is dedicated to freelancing, but, as they say in Major League 2, a day of playing baseball is better than whatever most people have to do for a living.

It wasn’t until Grace was asking me if I was planning to do some kind of decade-in-review that I realized how much my life has changed in these past ten years, so it seemed worth taking note. I went from being virtually unpublished (I had sold a few stories, but not many) to having six or more books (depending on how you count) with my name on the spine and writing for a living.

Not too shabby, all in all.

Scott Nicolay is doing the proverbial lord’s work in translating the weird, short fiction of prolific Belgian author Jean Ray (not getting into his many pseudonyms, of which this is actually one) into English.

In this game, we talk a lot about H.P. Lovecraft and less than we should about folks like William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and the like. But even they get more attention in the anglophone weird fiction community than Ray, whose work deserves every bit as much good press as any of their number, in my humble estimation.

My introduction to Jean Ray may well have been the two stories that wrap up Cruise of Shadows, Ray’s second collection to receive English-language translation by Nicolay. These stories, “The Gloomy Alley” (under its alternate English translation “The Shadowy Street”) and “The Mainz Psalter” were previously reprinted in English in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird.

tumblr_m1xz59FxVZ1qf0717o1_500From there, I read everything I could conveniently get my hands on in translation, which mostly amounted to the old paperback of Ghouls in My Grave (pretty much the only Ray collection available in English for a long time) and Ray’s brilliant weird novel Malpertuis, one of those extremely rare long-form masterpieces of the capital-W Weird.

In fact, I even tracked down the (weird, indeed, but also more than a little disappointing) 1971 film version of Malpertuis, featuring an aging Orson Welles.

From that minuscule aperture into his oeuvre, I could tell that Jean Ray was a classic Weird writer quite unlike any other I had ever read. I was hooked and had to have more, but, being relatively poor and unable to read French, my options were limited. That is, until Wakefield Press began putting out this indispensable series of Jean Ray collections, in new translations by Scott Nicolay.

The previous volume, Whiskey Tales, was a rare jewel for someone like me, who was already thirsty for more Jean Ray stories. But, though it made Ray’s reputation in his native language – a reputation that was shortly ruined when he went to prison – it has less to offer those who are not already aficionados of the weird and macabre or fans of “the Belgian Poe,” as Ray was sometimes called.

There are classic stories of the weird and ghostly in Whiskey Tales, to be sure, including one which had appeared in Ghouls in My Grave under the title “The Cemetery Watchman,” which Nicolay’s translation renders as “The Cemetery Guard,” but many of the stories are little more than vignettes, and while all share the unmistakable absurdity and melancholy of Ray’s voice, several lack any overt supernatural element.

In his translator’s afterword, Nicolay makes the argument that Cruise of Shadows may be Ray’s masterwork of the Weird, and I would not be disinclined to agree. All of the stories in Cruise are longer, more refined, and more overtly supernatural than many of those in Whiskey Tales. The virulent antisemitism that marred those earlier stories is here also at least deflated somewhat, if not gone completely.

The joy of reading Ray is, in no small part, the joy that he takes in language, and Nicolay retains that joy in his translations. Even the three stories in this latest volume that I had read before felt fresh and new here, not least because, in “The Mainz Psalter” – possibly Ray ‘s most famous short – there is an entire section that is newly reinstated that was not present in the previous translation.

Accompanying each of the stories are extensive translator’s notes that help to explain the idiosyncrasies of the language and to supply context for the tales. For all their many allusions to things of the day, their intentional archaisms, and so on, these tales feel vital and fresh and modern in ways that make Ray’s contemporaries – including Lovecraft, to whose writing I mean no slight here – feel old-fashioned and straightforward by comparison.

Ray’s writing is conversational. These are – often literally – tales told in bars, spoken by tongues loosened by drink. They take circuitous routes, become infected by the obsessions, the whims, the tics, and the cul-de-sacs of their narrators. In many ways, this very circumlocution grants the stories much of their weird power.

The majesty of Ray’s prose is in its ability to conjure – not a clear image of a thing, but a clear feeling of it. An atmosphere – oppressive, claustrophobic, inescapably strange – that is called forth like a poet, out of a handful of allusions and carefully-chosen words.

All of the stories in Cruise of Shadows demonstrate Ray’s mastery of that ineffably weird, almost absurd atmosphere that is, at every moment, teetering on the brink of tipping over into comedy, which makes its icy fingers all the more chilling.

The famous diptych that closes out the collection – “The Gloomy Alley” and “The Mainz Psalter” – may be Ray at his best, but my favorite among the new-to-me stories in this volume was probably “Mondschein-Dampfer,” which Scott Nicolay also singled out as his favorite of the bunch.

The “deal with the devil” motif is a favorite of mine, and the mephistophelean moment of that deal in this story is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever read. Others offer similarly uncanny moments, including the delightfully spooky “The Last Guest,” which was previously translated as “The Last Traveler” in Ghouls in My Grave, and “Durer, the Idiot,” which, along with “The Gloomy Alley,” seems to prefigure some of what Ray would later get up to in Malpertuis.

For fans of Weird fiction or “the Belgian Poe,” both of these volumes (and all others that are forthcoming) are must-haves. For those whose affections toward the genre are more diffident or who are simply new to the works of Jean Ray, I would recommend starting with Cruise of Shadows. Then, once you’re hooked, you won’t be able to get enough.

 

I didn’t publish very much fiction this year, but I am proud of what I did publish. “Doctor Pitt’s Menagerie” in Bargains from Pine Float Press, “Stygian Chambers” in Pluto in Furs, and “The Splitfoot Reel” in the memento book at NecronomiCon Providence.

That’s it for new stories, although this year also saw my third appearance in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, this time reprinting my story “No Exit,” which originally appeared in Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road. “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” which was one of the original stories in my third collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales last year, was performed on Pseudopod this year as well.

When it comes to new work, though, this was the year I really became a film writer. I’ve been writing about film – in both my fiction and nonfiction – for a long time, but this was the year that I started adding bylines at Signal Horizon, where I am the official Monster Ambassador, and Unwinnable. Where I started receiving Blu-rays for review, and critic’s passes to preview screenings of new films.

At Signal Horizon, I also took over co-hosting duties of the Horror PodClass, where Tyler Unsell and I talk about movies and academic theories or lesson plans every couple of weeks. Most recently, we chatted about Black Christmas – both the new and the old – and subtext.

I won’t link to all the many reviews I’ve written over the course of the year, but if you want to follow along you can find most of them here, with more to come in the future.

I also had a book come out this year, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault from Innsmouth Free Press. It’s the sequel to Monsters from the Vault, as you might have guessed, but where that book collected all the Vault of Secrets columns I had written for IFP over the years, this one is almost all entirely new material, never published anywhere else.

That book launched at NecronomiCon Providence, which I was finally able to attend this year. I was on a couple of panels, attended some others, walked the nighted streets of Providence – a city at once familiar and strange, as was only appropriate – and got to introduce a secret screening of Matango.

NecronomiCon was one of the only conventions I made it to this year. Of course, I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January, and I went to Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in March.

In fact, Tyler and I made the mistake of driving down overnight, which meant that I hit the Symposium having been awake for some 36 hours straight. Either the worst conditions for the event, or the ideal ones, even I’m not sure which.

I took a few out-of-town trips that weren’t directly related to work, such as a vacation to Myrtle Beach, where I got to assume that I was going to meet my Tethered in an abandoned spook house and get murdered. Of course, that didn’t happen – or did it?

This was also the year where I got to shelter-in-place when the Screenland was nearly hit by a tornado while we were watching the heavy metal horror movie Black Roses. Which, on that subject, this was also the year that I started regularly attending Analog Sunday at the Screenland, which has changed my life in all sorts of good ways.

When October rolled around, I hosted a bunch of stuff, and attended a bunch more stuff, as part of the local Shocktober programming here in town. And then, on my birthday, I got sick. And unfortunately, the cough that came with that illness has carried with me all this time.

The doctors say its post-viral bronchitis. I coughed so much that the nerves that trigger coughing got damaged, and now they just keep coughing. Unfortunately, the more I cough, the longer it will take them to heal, so I’m now taking measures to limit my activity in order to limit my coughing. Fingers crossed, and all that.70675603_10156706916314503_8400888024463835136_n (2)

In one of my earliest memories – this would have been sometime before I was in third grade – I’m sitting on the living room floor, eating a hamburger and watching The Fly on network TV. Not the relatively benign 1958 version with Vincent Price and David Hedison, either. The incredibly gross David Cronenberg one with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

In the memory, my mom comes in during some particularly gruesome, gloppy sequence and asks me how I can eat while I watch that, to which I just kind of shrug. Here’s the relevance of this memory: It was my first exposure a certain, generally much older, kind of monster movie.

I’ve said many times in various places that I was born too late to be a true Monster Kid. The days when the Shock Theater package were showing on TV were before my time. When I was a kid, though, we got a channel that showed monster movies on Saturday mornings. Not the classics. No Frankenstein or Dracula, but rather stuff like Squirm and The Food of the GodsWillard and the occasional Godzilla flick.

From my school library, I checked out copies of those Crestwood House monster series books, which were my introduction to the old monster movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s. I pored over those books, imagining the films that would go with those evocative black-and-white photos. It was my only exposure to those old movies for years, until I was in college.

MV5BNTc5ZWNlMjQtOTlkOS00ODY2LTlkNzEtN2Y3ODViNWJlOGIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ1NjgzOTA@._V1_

This is all a long preamble to the following: Like all kinds of movies, the monster movie qua monster movie has undergone transformations over the years.  As Dario Argento once said, “Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing.”

And monsters, specifically, are uniquely immune to solid definitions. A monster, by its nature, by the very etymology, is an aberration, a breach of the rules.

Also, like all kinds of movies, the monster movie has always been been more than one thing. There is its most simple definition: a movie that has a monster or monsters in it. But then there is also the monster movie as a form, which, I would argue, has transitioned through at least two major shapes over the years.

The “classic” monster movie, as popularized by the Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, The MummyThe Wolf Man, on up through Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a film in which the monster is generally both protagonist and antagonist.

The movie follows the monster and those who are in the monster’s life (or “life”) rather than (or in addition to, or as much as) its victims. The monster, whether by its nature or through hubris, is a figure both tragic and sinister. This is as true of King Kong as it is of Frankenstein.

The second major formulation of the monster movie is one popularized by the “atomic panic” movies of the 1950s – the big bug movies like Them! or Tarantula, early kaiju films like Godzilla, and even alien invasion films like It Came from Outer Space or The Blob.

In this formulation, the monster is often a growing and existential threat. Maybe it will literally wipe out life if it continues to expand, such as in The Thing, or maybe it is a threat to free will and identity, such as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or, hey, The Thing.

The thrust of this form of film is an attempt to stop the monster, usually with some kind of ticking clock where if it isn’t stopped before a certain point it will expand beyond our ability to stop it. In The Thing, this is keeping the monster contained in Antarctica, for instance.

The monster in this form is not generally a tragic figure. With the occasional exception of alien invaders, it cannot (or will not) usually communicate with humans. It is a force of nature, or an animal. In The Monolith Monsters, the eponymous monsters were literally inanimate rocks.

The “big bug” movies of the ’50s, as their informal name implies, often featured normal animals (usually but not exclusively bugs) grown to an enormous size. In the wake of the success of Jaws, these huge animals were often replaced by normal animals simply run amok for whatever reason.

Whatever particular shape they take, the creatures in these movies tend away from the anthropomorphic, in nature if not in form.

From the ’50s on, this second formulation became, in most cases, the default for the monster movie qua monster movie. Even Hammer’s Gothic chillers, which remade the Universal classics for a new generation, sometimes (though by no means exclusively) rendered their creatures more mute and implacable than tragic.

To bring this back around to where I started, one of the things that makes David Cronenberg’s Fly so striking is that it’s that original kind of monster movie.

The 1958 version was too, of course, and it’s far from the only movie from the ’80s that is, but it was unusual enough for its time, and, probably more importantly for this discussion, was my first introduction to that style of movie, the monster movie’s first major form.

Sure, I was probably aware of the plots of Frankenstein or King Kong by the time I saw The Fly, but I had never seen them. Had never seen the pathos of the monster displayed onscreen so eloquently.

I’ve watched it many times since. I’ve also watched the original, and all of its sequel. I’ve experienced all of the original Universal classics, and their silent film predecessors. But watching the David Cronenberg version on Blu-ray today made me think about all of this, so I wrote it down here.

For various reasons, the last couple of months have been largely a dry spell for me when it comes to producing new fiction. But that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to do without.

“When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” one of the four original stories in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, was just broadcast at Pseudopod, read by the great Jon Padgett. The story, which is one of the most personal I have ever written, closes out that particular collection, and shows that, while you can go home again, maybe you shouldn’t…

That’s it for new fiction at the moment – “new” here only if you haven’t already bought a copy of Guignol which, while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t already bought your copy of Guignol or, for that matter, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, now is a perfect time! Why? Because Word Horde is having a 20% off sale!

If you do already own copies of both of those books, why not pick up one of their other titles? A Spectral Hue by Craig L. Gidney? John Langan’s award-winning weird masterpiece The Fisherman? A collection by Livia Llewellyn or Nadia Bulkin or Jeffrey Thomas?

If you like my mixture of lost films and weird horror, you might dig Brian Hauser’s Memento Mori. If, like me, you enjoy The Thing and epic stories about rock bands snowed in at hotels, then Tony McMillen’s An Augmented Fourth may be perfect for you!

Frankly, anything Word Horde puts out is probably good. Ross is a hell of an editor – and I don’t say that just because he’s been goodly enough to publish me a few times.

I said that was it for new fiction, and it’s mostly true, but if you just can’t get enough, you can also hear me reading an as-yet-unpublished story at The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird earlier this year in the latest installment of the Outer Dark podcast.

0_jCRDj6WA8Vqt-Kls

So, that’s fiction taken care of, now on to movies. I’ve had a few reviews go live lately. In fact, over at Unwinnable, last week was all Orrin Grey all the time. I kicked it off with Knives Out, that rare review of a movie that isn’t at least a few decades old – go see it, if you haven’t, and then come back and read the review. It’s good, I promise. Then I followed that up with a review of the latest of many Blu-ray releases of RoboCop.

From there, you can read about Donald Sutherland’s mustache doin’ some powwow magic with the help of the Long Lost Friend in the underseen 1988 hex murder movie Apprentice to Murder, or read about James Cagney doing his best Lon Chaney impression in 1957’s Man of a Thousand Faces.

Before that, I had reviewed both the latest release of An American Werewolf in London and the entire Ringu Collection over at Signal Horizon. So, if you like me writing about variously old movies, I have got you covered in that department, at any rate.

And if even that isn’t enough for you, you can also listen to me and Tyler Unsell talk about The Tingler and phenomenology on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. What more could you ask for?