Rarely (if ever) has there been as great a jump in quality from a movie to its sequel (or prequel, as the case may be) as the one from Ouija to Ouija 2: Electric Boogaloo Ouija: Origin of Evil. That’s what I tweeted when I got home from the theatre, and I stick by it. Which is not to say that Origin of Evil is necessarily the greatest sequel (or prequel) of all time, merely that sequels this good normally come from movies that were already pretty great, whereas the kindest thing that can be said of 2014’s Ouija is probably that it was a harmless enough way to spend 89 minutes.

It’s tempting to lay this at the feet of Mike Flanagan’s sure directorial hand, which he has demonstrated time and again, even if I am in the minority in finding Hush, one of his earlier 2016 efforts, merely okay. But the quality of Origin of Evil owes at least as much to the smart, human script by co-writers Flanagan and Jeff Howard (who also worked together on the superb Oculus and this year’s Before I Wake, which I haven’t yet seen). Since it’s a prequel, there’s really no need to have seen Ouija beforehand, though the storyline dovetails with what I remember from the original in ways that I think will probably improve both films, in the long run. Another rare accomplishment for a sequel or prequel.

Origin of Evil is The Conjuring to Ouija‘s Insidious, not just in its period setting and Catholic trappings, but in its family dynamic and choice to deepen its chills by the juxtaposition of moments of real warmth. (And also an unnecessary scare scene with some blankets that feels lifted directly from The Conjuring.) The script is an incredibly slow burn for a movie with a relatively brief running time of only 99 minutes, but in the final reel things go from exposition to full-on haunted house bonkers at the drop of a hat. It’s an explosion of weirdness that is all the more potent for how restrained the movie has been up to that point.

There are missteps along the way, mostly in the execution of a few of the earlier jump scares and obligatory “creepy kid” moments–Flanagan appears to be better at a kind of creeping realization or hopeless desperation than at delivering a sudden shock–but the extravagances of the last act go a long way toward erasing them from memory. There’s one moment in particular during the film’s absurd spookshow climax that feels like it comes bungee-jumping directly out of Junji Ito manga, in all the best ways.

While the sequel to one of 2014’s worst ghost movies may seem an unlikely place to find one of 2016’s best, sometimes we get something better than we deserve, and it’s tough to imagine a better Ouija movie–sequel, prequel, or otherwise–than the one Mike Flanagan and company have brought us here. Recommended.

scream_ver2_xlgI was 15 years old when Scream first came out back in 1996, at a time and place in my life when it was pretty much guaranteed to be a big deal for me. I didn’t see it in theatres, so chances are I didn’t actually catch it until the following year, when it was available on home video, with that VHS cover that prominently advertised Drew Barrymore’s very brief involvement in the film.

While I had always been into movies and monsters and whatnot, these were the days just before the Internet became what it is now, when the only movies I had access to were the ones that played on the three television channels that we got, or that I could rent from the video section of the local grocery store. As a young horror movie nerd living in isolation from most things that could sustain a horror movie nerd, Scream wasn’t so much an introduction to self-aware horror as it was a confirmation that, yes, there were other people like me out there.

I don’t normally think of Scream when I think of my formative influences, in part because I rarely sit down and think to myself, “I want to make something like Scream,” or even, “I want to respond to this aspect of Scream in this particular way.” But is that really what a formative influence is? I think our formative influences are less often the things that made us go, “I want to create something like X” and more often the things that left us with the, often semi-unconscious realization, “Oh hell, I can do something kind of like Y!”

Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure that I’ve ever seen a Scream film on the big screen. For all the times the sequels traded in the experience of watching a movie in a crowded and rowdy theatre, for me they have always been home video movies. Like the Ring franchise, best encapsulated by that indelible image of a couple of friends sitting down on the couch with a tub of popcorn to watch a scary movie. I have seen all of the Scream films, though, more than once, and found things to like in all of them, though only the first one ever had the particular impact on me that it did.

In fact, if you want to measure solely based upon how much I enjoyed watching them, Scream 4 might be my favorite of the bunch. All of the Scream sequels succeed or fail, to the extent that they do, for reasons that have almost nothing to do with what made the first film work. After that initial outing, the first film’s premise is a liability, not a benefit, and so the Scream franchise, while still shackled to its own rules, lives and dies by its adherence to its core cast of characters, who, after making four movies with one another across almost twenty years, really do feel like old friends who have been through a lot together. Maybe that’s why Scream 4 works better for me than parts 2 or 3 did…

All of which is an extraordinarily long-winded way of saying that I loved Scream, but never really identified myself as a lover of it, or felt like I had a very big investment in the brand. So I wasn’t really expecting much from the spinoff TV series, which abandoned the thing that I just said made the franchise continue to work, and which, let’s face it, just seemed like a bad idea. Hell, the show even knows that it’s a bad idea, and gives its Randy-equivalent character a monologue in the first episode explaining exactly why it’s a bad idea. And yet…

I started watching the first season of the Scream TV series because I was bored and wanted something horror-y and episodic and it was on Netflix. I didn’t expect to like it; I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love. Don’t get me wrong; Scream is nowhere near a perfect show. It’s camped somewhere maybe just above the realm of “guilty pleasure.” Is it better than the movie franchise? I don’t know that I’d be willing to commit to that, and it’s certainly not going to change the game the way the first movie did, but I’m pretty sure that I like it better.

Part of this is because the show knows how to get to me, to push my particular buttons. The decision to tie the events of the show to a previous mass murder, an homage to the plot of any given early-80s slasher film, changes the dynamic in a way that appeals directly to me, adding a welcome sense of history and, yes, even minor mythology to the proceedings.

But mostly the show works by managing to be what it needs to be more often than it doesn’t. It’s endearing when it needs to be endearing, creepy when it needs to be creepy, poignant when it needs to be poignant. In one of his monologues, Noah, our resident Randy-alike, talks about how you have to care about the people in order to make a show like this work, and Scream does a decent job of supplying a raft of people that you can care about, if you’re so inclined. There’s more than a little of “fun teenage clue solving hi-jinks,” but always broken up by something particularly gruesome or painful, to keep everything from becoming too weightless.

The first season starts off a little rough and ends with a whimper instead of a bang, but in-between it is something pretty special, so I was really excited to check out the second season, especially when I saw its convention of naming episodes after horror movie titles. It dropped onto Netflix on September 30th, and since I was laid up from having a tonsillectomy and couldn’t really do anything else anyway, I watched all 12 episodes within 24 hours.

I’ve heard lots of people say that they liked the second season better than the first. I’m not sure that I’m one of them, but it has a lot going for it. If I didn’t like it better, it probably has as much to do with the fact that I went into season 1 expecting nothing and got something I loved, while I went into season 2 already expecting something I loved, and still mostly got it.

There’s something to be said for storytelling that’s unexpectedly effective, without getting too ambitious. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t strong set pieces, and some familiar horror directors who show up to helm episodes to various effect. In season 1 there are good segments in an abandoned hospital and at the Halloween dance, not to mention one particularly gruesome kill that hits all the harder because the show hasn’t done anything especially noteworthy in the gore department up until that point. In season 2, there’s a sequence in a funhouse at a carnival, directed by Gil Kenan, that reminds me of how disappointed I am that his Poltergeist remake wasn’t more fun, and of course the town of Lakewood has an old-fashioned one-screen revival theatre that appears to only show horror films.

Season 2 has some issues with pacing, but as with season 1, the main problem is with the ending. If the first season was a little unsteady on the dismount, then the “resolution” of season 2 is a full-on faceplant off the beam. It’s tricky to say more without getting into the realm of major spoilers, but suffice to say that it’s difficult to imagine anyone who would find this tired, unearned ending satisfying.

My first draft of this post ended on a note saying that, while I would probably sign up for a third season, albeit with a lot of hesitation, it might be best to just let the show die there, especially in the wake of that finale. After all, there’s really only so much flogging that a premise like this can endure.

But then the official Scream website launched a video previewing their two-hour Halloween special, which not only adds another historic killing spree but also takes the show on the road with some full-on Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None murder island shenanigans, and just like that I am completely on board again. While the showrunners on Scream may not be great at sticking landings, they obviously know exactly how to push my buttons, so I guess I’m along for the ride, however disappointing the destinations may prove.

[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]

A few years ago, Neil Gaiman suggested this idea that he called All Hallow’s Read, in which we would all start a tradition of giving each other suitably spooky books on Halloween. I don’t think it ever really caught on, but I do know plenty of people who have annual traditions of reading a certain book every year around this time, whether it’s A Night in the Lonesome October or Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

So whether you’re looking for a scary book to give as a gift this Halloween, or just want something seasonal to read for yourself as the leaves start to turn, I thought I’d throw together a quick list of recommended Halloween reading, limiting myself pretty strictly to books by authors who are currently still alive and working.

Besides mostly avoiding books in which I had any hand (with one exception), I tried not to include books that I haven’t read myself just yet, though you can see that I missed the mark in some ways. That left out a number of books that might otherwise have made the cut, including John Langan’s The Fisherman and Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts or Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. I also limited the list to prose books, though I bent the rules a little bit there too with the last inclusion, leaving aside any of the dozens of graphic novels that might otherwise have dominated the list, and preventing it from being an All Mignola, All the Time list, as it otherwise would have been…

  1. Creeping Waves, Matthew M. Bartlett
    Besides being perfect for the Halloween season, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Creeping Waves is just one of the best weird/horror books I’ve read in years, full stop. And hey, it’s on a massive sale from the publisher for the entire month of October, so there’s no better time than the present to pick it up!
  2. All-Night Terror, Adam Cesare & Matt Serafini
    Really, pretty much any of Adam Cesare’s books could go on this list handily, and if you’ve already read All-Night Terror, I recommend subbing it out for Video Night. Either way, this nails that feeling of sitting down for a horror movie marathon with a big tub of popcorn and some of your best friends, while also bringing in a little of the feeling of those E.C. horror comics. Plus, it’s on sale for cheap on the Kindle for the month of October!
  3. Every House is Haunted, Ian Rogers
    The big news surrounding Ian’s short story collection from back in 2012 is that one of the stories from it, “The House on Ashley Avenue,” recently got optioned for an NBC TV series from the writers of Bates Motel and The Grudge! But long before that had ever happened, Every House is Haunted was already one of the best single-author horror collections out there, with an assured and enchanting mix of scary stories that are utterly perfect for autumnal reading.
  4. The Bone Key, Sarah Monette
    An old favorite, Sarah Monette writes some of the best contemporary ghost stories that you will ever read, and many of them are collected right here in The Bone Key, which bears the irresistible subtitle, The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth. Really, how can you go wrong with that?
  5. The Secret of Ventriloquism, Jon Padgett
    I’m cheating a little bit on this one, because I haven’t yet read the entire collection, and it’s not actually out yet. But it is available for pre-order, and it should be shipping soon, and while I haven’t read every single story in it, I’ve read enough to know how excited I am for this one. Creepy ventriloquist dummies, malformed skeletons, and plenty of Ligottian nihilism make this one a perfect fit as the days grow short and the nights grow tall.
  6. The Last Final Girl, Stephen Graham Jones
    What would Halloween be without a slasher flick or two? And Stephen Graham Jones delivers a slasher flick as only he can with his incredible novel, The Last Final Girl. When I first read it back in 2014, I called it “the book he was born to write, the book he’s been training for all this time.” I stick by that.
  7. Giallo Fantastique, ed. Ross E. Lockhart
    Speaking of slashers, here I am bending my rules just a little bit, this time by including a book that I’m featured in. And if I was gonna do that anyway and recommend a Word Horde anthology, I should probably be shilling the just-released Eternal Frankenstein, even though I haven’t gotten a chance to read it myself just yet. But for me, there’s no more brilliant concept for an anthology around than Ross’s incredible Giallo Fantastique, a vibrantly-colored mixture of crime, horror, and the bizarre that’s perfect reading for Halloween, or any other season.
  8. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, Amanda Downum
    And while we’re on the subject of things that are yellow: Think of Dreams of Shreds and Tatters as urban fantasy by way of The King in Yellow and Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. Or think of it as the coolest World of Darkness game you could ever imagine playing. However you think of it, pick it up. While the setting may be a bit wintry for October, it’s a perfect read for the end of fall, as the air starts to get that extra bite of cold to it.
  9. Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters
    Designed as a companion to the exhibit of the same name that’s currently running at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, At Home with Monsters is another book that I haven’t quite read from cover to cover just yet, but I don’t need to in order to know that it’s also a great companion for monster season. Full of images and insights from del Toro’s collection, it’s a perfect book for any monster lover.

monsters-vaultYeah, yeah, it’s already been October for a few days now, but I’ve been recovering from a tonsillectomy, so this is the first time this month that I’ve felt well enough to post anything. So consider this the official kickoff of my Countdown to Halloween this year!

This year it seems like everyone has been doing these “31 movies for Halloween” lists, to help people to watch a horror movie a day for the entire month of October. Which, to be fair, is something I come very close to doing most months of the year anyway. I thought that it would be fun to throw together a list, but with so many people doing them, it seemed impossible to think of a way to make my list stand out. And with so many movies to choose from, narrowing them down to just 31 seemed like a daunting task. So I hit upon a solution:

I would limit my list exclusively to movies that came out before prior to the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. Part of the impetus for this decision was to make my job a little easier, but part was also to help draw attention to the fact that Monsters from the Vault, my collection of columns on vintage horror films, is on sale for only 99 cents on the Kindle for the entire month of October! (And is currently already sitting in the #1 bestseller spot on Kindle for “video guides & reviews.”)

So, to that end, not only did I limit myself to movies made before ’78, I also pretty much used the same criteria that I used when selecting movies for my Vault of Secrets column. No movies that felt too “modern,” for whatever ambiguous and subjective definition of that I wanted to use. So while my ’78 cutoff would technically let me include things like The Exorcist or even Suspiria, I ruled those too modern, and stuck to the stagey movies that dominated the horror scene in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Which brings me to my other stipulation. I also tried to avoid the most usual suspects, so you won’t find many of the most respected “classics” on this list. No Nosferatu or Psycho, no Haunting or Rosemary’s Baby. If a title seemed to obvious, I tried to eschew it, with a few exceptions. That means you also won’t find some of the classic monsters on here. No Frankenstein, Dracula… not even a mummy. Instead, I opted for at least somewhat more obscure titles that felt like they captured that “Halloween spirit,” while also hopefully covering a pretty wide swath of different styles, tones, and sub-genres. (This also means that you won’t find many kaiju, 1950s atomic panic movies, or alien invaders here… though maybe a few.)

If you like my list, these are exactly the kinds of movies that I write about in Monsters from the Vault, and there’s no time like the present to pick it up. Anyway, without further ado, here are my 31 vintage horror films for the 31 days (and nights) of Halloween:

  1. Night Creatures (1962)
  2. Dead of Night (1945)
  3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  4. I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  5. The Body Snatcher (1945)
  6. Night of the Demon (1957)
  7. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
  8. Black Sunday (1960)
  9. Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
  10. The Haunted Palace (1963)
  11. Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
  12. Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
  13. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)
  14. The Brainiac (1962)
  15. Santo and the Blue Demon Against the Monsters (1970)
  16. Fiend without a Face (1958)
  17. Curse of the Fly (1965)
  18. Matango (1963)
  19. Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966)
  20. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
  21. The Vampire Lovers (1970)
  22. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
  23. Doctor X (1932)
  24. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
  25. The Thing from Another World (1951)
  26. The Undying Monster (1942)
  27. Return of the Vampire (1943)
  28. Mark of the Vampire (1935)
  29. Mad Love (1935)
  30. The Old Dark House (1932)
  31. House on Haunted Hill (1959)


03william-mortensen-l-amour_900I first discovered the work of William Mortensen on Pinterest, of all places, when someone shared the image that accompanies this post, “L’Amour.” Upon seeing it, I immediately knew that I had to learn more about its history and context, and, in my seeking, I wound up learning more about the man who had created the photograph.

Called “the anti-Christ” by Ansel Adams (and we writers think that our squabbles get heated), Mortensen was a fascinating photographer who used various techniques to create captivating, often grotesque photographic effects that frequently look as much like paintings or drawings as photos. Thankfully, about the time I was being introduced to his work, he was experiencing something of a renaissance in popularity, and I had several books available to learn more about him, including the recently published American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen and a reissue of one of Mortensen’s own books, The Command to Look. (If my story intrigues you at all, I highly recommend both.)

In researching Mortensen, I became fascinated, not merely by his methods and the images they produced, but by his life. And gradually, I knew that I would eventually write a story about him, at least roundaboutly. And that story eventually became “Mortensen’s Muse.” In it, I took as my jumping-off point the real-life relationship between Mortensen and then-undiscovered ingenue Fay Wray. Given my fascination with Golden Age Hollywood stories, the combination was too tempting to resist.

At one time, the story was probably going to go ahead and feature William Mortensen, but as I wrote it, I discovered that, as much as it hewed close to the facts in many places, it also diverged from them in important ways, and not just in its supernatural denouement, so I decided to change some names. William Mortensen became Ronald Mortensen, and the names of our “unidentified” narrator’s films all changed subtly, though her co-stars and directors remained the same.

“Mortensen’s Muse” was written for Ellen Datlow’s anthology Children of Lovecraft, where I’m ecstatic to say that it represents two very important firsts for me. It’s my first time in an original Ellen Datlow anthology (my story “Persistence of Vision” previously appeared in her Best Horror of the Year Volume 7) and my first time behind a Mike Mignola cover. Considering those have both been life goals of mine, you could say that I’m pretty happy with this publication, and not be at all incorrect. Below is a photo of my contributor copy, which came packaged very neatly from Dark Horse, and just today a very positive review of the antho went live at Cemetery Dance Online, in which the reviewer says of my story, “If H.P. Lovecraft had written for The Twilight Zone, this could have been the story he would have written.” There is definitely worse praise to get than that…


Over the last few weeks, I’ve acquired a lot of new Facebook friends and Twitter followers, thanks, I imagine, in no small part, to the recent Kickstarter to launch a deluxe second edition of my debut collection Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings through my friends at Strix Publishing. Whatever it is that brought you here, though, I figure all these new faces are as good an excuse as any to stop, take a step back, and sort of remind everyone of who I am and what I do.

As my bio says, I’m a skeleton who likes monsters. I’m also a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. (Before you ask, yes, skeletons are born, where else would we come from? We hatch out of coffins, just like everyone else.) I’m a full time freelance writer, and when I’m not doing content marketing work or writing licensed stuff for Privateer Press or penning articles about true crimes and other weirdness for The Lineup, I write stories about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters.

My stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and been collected into two collections, with a third on the horizon probably sometime in early 2018. Right now you can pick up Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, my second fiction collection, from Word Horde, and that aforementioned deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings should be available to those who missed out on the Kickstarter very soon.

I have had stories recently published or forthcoming directly in Children of Lovecraft, which managed to cross two items off my bucket list (be in an original Ellen Datlow antho, and have something of mine appear behind a Mike Mignola cover), as well as Eternal Frankenstein, which you can pre-order now from Word Horde, The Children of Gla’aki which is nearing the end of a pre-order campaign at Dark Regions Press, and The Madness of Dr. Caligari, which you can pre-order from Fedogan & Bremer, to name just a few. I’ve also got a new novelette, The Cult of Headless Men, which is being released as a chapbook by Dunhams Manor, with an incredible cover by Michael Bukowski.

For a relatively succinct summary of my philosophy regarding my own work and my relationship with the genre of horror in general, check out my essay for Nightmare Magazine’s The H Word, “But Is It Scary?

I also spend an inordinate amount of time writing about horror movies, which you can find right here on my blog, as well as at my Patreon and occasionally other places, like the forthcoming October issue of Unwinnable, where I will be nattering on once again about Monster Squad, while all of my literary betters show me up by discussing more intellectual things, I have no doubt.

And if you can’t get enough of reading my rambling opinions on especially creaky old monster movies of yesteryear, all five-or-so years of my column on vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press have recently been collected into an affordable volume that you can buy right now, Monsters from the Vault.

So, for newcomers or those who just have a tough time keeping up, I think that’s a decent crash course in who I am and what I’ve been up to. There’s a lot more announcements in the works, so keep your radio tuned to this dial until long after you hear the static. That’s where the good stuff lurks…


Seventeen years ago, I sat in a theatre and watched The Blair Witch Project. It may have been opening night; if not, it was close. A friend had wanted to go, and I was always up for a horror movie, but I didn’t know much about what I was getting into except that it was maybe really true (but of course probably not).

The next 81 minutes were harrowing, but how much of that was from the movie itself, and how much the experience, the diving in cold, the “is it real or not” buzz, I can’t say, because I’ve never revisited the film since. Nothing ever seemed like it could touch that first time.

When I sat down last Wednesday night to a preview screening of Blair Witch, I wasn’t expecting that same thrill. I wasn’t expecting much, not really. I had been cautiously excited for the movie back when it was still going under the working title The Woods, to keep its status as a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project–ignoring the already extant, ill-starred 2000 sequel Book of Shadows, which I’ve also seen but don’t remember–a secret. But my excitement came not from anything I’d seen in the teasers, but from the filmmaking duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, whose previous films You’re Next and, especially, The Guest, had managed to surprise me in ways that I really enjoyed.

When it was revealed that The Woods was actually Blair Witch, my ardor cooled, but I still hoped that maybe Wingard and Barrett would manage to extract something equally interesting from the nearly twenty-year-old franchise that kickstarted the modern fascination with found footage horror films. For me, they never quite made it.

Which is not to say that I didn’t like Blair Witch. It was fine enough, settling firmly in a spot near the middle of my “movies I’ve seen this year” list, nowhere near as lousy as the worst nor as good as the best, but I was hoping for more of what I had come to expect from Wingard and Barrett, and instead I got more of what I have come to expect from The Blair Witch Project‘s slew of imitators over the years.

There are plenty of moments in Blair Witch that work–I particularly liked one especially large stick figure–but there is also a lot that feels overly familiar, either from this film’s predecessor or from the innumerable found footage horror flicks that have succeeded it. Blair Witch takes good advantage of its sound design, but while the sound of huge trees snapping that accompanies most of the film’s scary moments is very effective, after a while you realize that the majority of the scares are just that noise, followed by people screaming and running and then… nothing.

The stuff that does happen in Blair Witch tends to hew pretty closely to The Blair Witch Project template, although always taking it just a little bit bigger, but never quite as much bigger as I wanted them to. The things that were inexplicable one-offs there become rules here, exposited to us by the characters, and what worked as a creepy image in 1999, doesn’t work as well as a rule in 2016.

Ultimately, how you feel about Blair Witch may depend, in part, upon how much of a fan of the original movie you are, and what you’re excited about in this sequel. Even if the film itself didn’t make it abundantly clear (and it does), the Q&A that followed my screening showed that Wingard and Barrett are die-hard fans of The Blair Witch Project, and they’re coming at this movie with a lot of reverence for the source material. For other fans of the film that may be a feature. For me, as someone who was hoping for more Wingard and Barrett and less Blair Witch Project, I felt like it tied their hands, keeping them from reaching the same heights that their previous films together have enjoyed.