934No one is surprised that I’m a fan of Guillermo del Toro. Even when I don’t like his movies, they’re always full of plenty of creative nutrients for me to absorb and convert into something of my own, and his commentary tracks are, invariably, some of the best in the business, and always worth the price of the movie by themselves. Del Toro and Mignola are two influences that have been with me pretty much throughout my writing career, and both have been huge inspirations for me, not least in how they, themselves, proudly display their own influences and inspirations in their work.

So, of course, I’ve always been intrigued by GDT’s bizarre personal museum Bleak House, and when the opportunity came to get a tour of at least part of it in the form of the At Home With Monsters exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of of Art, I jumped at it. Along with some other local writing friends and colleagues, we piled into a couple of cars and made the seven-and-a-half hour drive up to Minneapolis, just long enough to see the exhibit and head home, pretty much.

It’s probably good that we didn’t budget anything else to do while we were there, because I could have spent all day inside the At Home With Monsters. Walking around the exhibit was a lot like walking around a physical projection of the inside of my own head. The overlap between GDT’s obsessions and my own may be less pronounced than mine and Mignola’s, but there’s certainly still plenty of overlap there, and I was overjoyed to find comics that I owned on the walls of comic books that the collection held.

949More than anything, it felt like a creative space, like a direct conduit between inspiration and generation. Highlights included, well, most of the place, really, but perhaps the most exciting was seeing the actual original sketches of one of Mike Mignola’s original designs for the Sammael creature in the first Hellboy movie, which has always been one of my favorite monster designs. I had seen most of the sketches before, but as is always the case with art, seeing it in person was a world of difference from seeing even a high-quality reproduction.

Speaking of that, there were a couple of original paintings there by Vladislav Beksinski, including one (unfortunately, I didn’t get the title) that was so jaw-dropping to see in person that I practically had to reach out and touch it to reassure myself that it wasn’t three dimensional. (I didn’t touch it, because the signs specifically asked me not to, but the urge was certainly there.)

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Godless CoverWell, it kind of crept up on me, but today is actually the release day of my very first novel, so if you always wanted to read a novel by me, you’re into Warmachine, or you just like the idea of devout religious types with big robots burning heretics and fighting monsters, you might want to pick up a copy of Godless, the first book in the Fire & Faith series from Privateer Press! (It’s available in print or digital via Amazon, or you can check the Skull Island eXpeditions website.)

If you had asked me several years ago how and when I would write my first novel, I would not have guessed that it would be a licensed Protectorate of Menoth novel for Privateer Press. Even when I had already started doing various freelance work for them, and wrote what was, heretofore, my longest published piece of fiction–the 30,000 word novella Mutagenesisthe idea of working on a licensed novel never crossed my mind until Mike Ryan at Privateer Press gave me a call. (Godless is just over 90,000 words, so working on it was a big jump out of my comfort zone.)

In a lot of ways, writing Godless wasn’t like writing a novel the normal way. I’ve compared it before to what I imagine writing a novelization of a movie must be like. The Privateer folks gave me a very substantial outline, and I followed it more-or-less to the letter, with input and help from Mike, Matt Goetz, and Doug Seacat every step of the way. Which is not to say that I didn’t put my own stamp in there, both in how the book is written and also in creating some of the supporting cast.

When I’m writing a story for myself or even for an anthology invite, I generally have almost total freedom. An invite may demand that a story adhere to a certain theme, but within that theme I have an awful lot of creative wiggle room. Working on this novel–and, indeed, everything I’ve done for Privateer Press–was a different sort of challenge, because instead of deciding what happened, I already knew what happened, and had to decide how, and how to sell the beats that I knew the story needed to hit.

From that (very detailed) outline, I wrote Godless in just under two months. (I believe it was 57 days when I turned in the first draft.) Add in another few weeks for revisions, and my first novel was done. While I was able to turn it around in that time, and I think with help from Matt and Doug and everyone the finished product is pretty strong, I also learned some valuable lessons for the next novel, including that two months isn’t enough time to write one, especially if you’re also trying to do your normal freelance work and recovering from a tonsillectomy. So next time we’ll try to take it a little slower.

So what’s the book about? If you’re coming to it from my weird/horror short stories, you’ll find that it’s a big departure, but maybe not as big as it at first appears. This is a fantasy story about war and faith, about knights, robots, monsters, and epistemological uncertainty. As someone who’s been a fan of the games and the settings for years, I’m not sure how much the novel will mean to anyone who isn’t at least passingly familiar with Warmachine, the Iron Kingdoms, or Privateer Press’s line of products. But for those who are, or those who want to learn more, well, Godless is available right now.

I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]

IMG_20170310_145038_633No remake can ever live up to the original King Kong. Luckily for Skull Island, it’s smart enough not to try.

From its largely unnecessary opening sequence (because we’ll get it all exposited to us again later), Skull Island is a lot sillier than I was expecting from the trailers. Not just in a “giant monsters smashing each other” kind of way, either. In a “Tom Hiddleston slow-motion chopping up pterodactyls with a katana” way. Pretty much top to bottom, this takes place in what is fundamentally a comic book universe without superheroes. Which is fine for Kong, and especially fine given that this is basically the first step in creating a shared universe with Gareth Evans’ 2014 Godzilla, to be exploited first in Mike Dougherty’s forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters and then later in a planned Godzilla vs Kong.

While Skull Island never even aspires to anything more substantive than what is essentially the pilot for a particularly brutal Saturday morning cartoon, it learned the lessons that Godzilla had to teach, even if it then goes on to make its own mistakes along the way. Where Godzilla didn’t spend enough time on the titular monster, Kong is all over this film, along with piles and piles of other monstrous denizens of the eponymous island. (Including the Best. Stick insect. Ever.) Your mileage on individual critters may vary, but at least there are lots of them, including a few nice visual nods to other giant monster movies that I may or may not have been reading too much into.

And while the human characters here may be just as thinly drawn as those in Godzilla, they replace any attempt at “normal folks” with a collection primarily composed of outsize archetypes, ready made for Saturday morning syndication. While most of the actors aren’t given a lot to do, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson steal the show, with the latter playing Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick.

A quick skim across other reviews shows lots of people complaining about the screenplay, and while yeah, we could all have probably wished for something with a little more heft there, nobody really comes to a movie like this because of the screenplay, right? The biggest problem that Skull Island actually has is that the (frequent) monster battles too often feel like exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of pixels. No matter how good they look, there’s a weightlessness, a lack of physicality, that keeps them from having the punch that you want from seeing Kong wrestling with a giant octopus or some weird, surprisingly gross skull-headed lizard monster.

Before I walked into the theatre, a friend basically texted me to say, “I hope it’s good!” And I replied back that I was pretty sure it would be what I wanted it to be; and it was. On the spectrum of modern giant monster movies, it’s situated firmly below Pacific Rim, which is certainly the contemporary benchmark, at least for me. But it’s also a big step up from my recollections of Godzilla, and a huge improvement on Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to remake Kong, if only because it never makes the mistake of trying to replicate the original’s success.

Instead, Skull Island is a fun, cartoonish movie with lots of giant monsters fighting one-another while humans played by good actors mostly narrate things that just happened. Chances are that’s all you’re going in for, which is good, because it’s all you’re gonna get. (There’s your pull quote, in case you need one.)

 

Yesterday, I got to explain to a very nice (and probably very normal lady) on the phone that I needed a hotel room for the last weekend of the month because I was attending the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird. So that was fun. It also segues nicely into my announcing that I will be a guest at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, which is happening in Atlanta on Saturday, March 25!

If you’re interested in attending or just supporting the event, there’s an IndieGoGo currently in its final days, where you can also snag some cool stuff, such as a signed, personalized copy of The Cult of Headless Men along with some other fine, weird chapbooks via the (still available, for a limited time) Dunhams Weird pledge package!

That doesn’t provide a particularly good segue into my next topic, but whatever, I’m headed there anyway! Recently (for values of “recently” that include “back in October”) my story “Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic” appeared in The Madness of Dr. Caligari, edited by Joe Pulver and from the fine folks of Fedogan & Bremer. It’s a story I’m happy with, and a publication that I’m particularly proud of, not just because it’s my first time working with Joe and F&B, but because The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a hugely influential and important movie for me, and one that I’m extremely grateful to get to play around with.

For those who’ve read my previous stories, the idea that the aesthetics of silent horror films play a big role in my work likely isn’t surprising, and probably no single silent film had a bigger impact than Caligari, with the possible exception of Murnau’s Faust. However, my story eschews the silent film milieu somewhat to instead tell the behind-the-scenes story of the production of a 1940s Poverty Row flick called The Corpse Walks because, to quote my narrator, “on Poverty Row in those days pretty much everything either walked or creeped, from monsters to gorillas to killers to cats to, in our case, corpses.”

I haven’t gotten a chance to read the rest of the tales in the book yet, but it’s full of amazing names in the field, and with such a rich, surreal, and classically weird source of inspiration to draw from, it’s hard to think that The Madness of Dr. Caligari isn’t full-to-bursting with winners. Copies are still available, so snag one today! And if you’re in the Atlanta area on the 25th, come on down to the Symposium to hear me and a bunch of smarter people talk about Something (or things) Weird!

 

After my recent post about William Malone’s 2002 film Feardotcom, I decided to take a stab at his 2008 follow-up (Masters of Horror episode notwithstanding) Parasomnia. It turns out that I had already watched the first third or so of this movie once before, but something had interrupted me and I hadn’t gotten any farther. Which is probably okay, but also kind of a bummer, since most of the best stuff is in the last reel, but none of it is really worth watching twice.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard more talk about Parasomnia in weird fiction circles–not because there’s actually all that much to talk about, but because of four words in the opening credits: “Conceptual Art – Zdzislaw Beksinski.” Beksinski’s work is so beloved among many in the weird fiction world that I figured his involvement–even if it seems to be more inspirational than actually direct–would be enough to attract some attention to the picture, and certainly, once you know to look for it, it’s hard to miss in the film’s surreal dreamscape images, even if they are also unduly burdened with low-budget CGI and lots and lots of spinning mirrors (plus apparently at least one monster that was scrapped from Malone’s Masters of Horror episode).

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Weirdly, for all that William Malone financed this film himself and gets his name in front of the title like John Carpenter or something, this actually feels substantially less stylized than previous outings, possibly due to the budgetary constraints of shooting an indie rather than a studio feature. While IMDb doesn’t list a budget for Parasomnia, a little online sleuthing suggests that it’s considerably cheaper than either Feardotcom or House on Haunted Hill, and as a result, with the exception of the occasional foray into the aforementioned dreamscapes, the film reserves most of its visual style for the last few minutes, which bring in automata and a mesmerized string duet wearing goggles and corsets.

There are a few good gore effects, including a body that’s walled up in an abandoned bookstore bedecked with posters for old-fashioned stage magicians, but even when the film is throwing everything it has at the wall, it feels positively constrained compared to Malone’s previous films. (Though the shots of the mesmerist serial killer bad guy–a phrase that should be enough to win me over all by itself–using his powers are actually pretty cool.)

Sean Young shows up for all of a minute, Jeffrey Combs essentially revives his role from Feardotcom, Timothy Bottoms plays the exposition doctor who really needs to study up on patient confidentiality and medical ethics, and John Landis makes a cameo as a department store manager who turns out a semi-comatose, blood spattered girl onto the streets without so much as calling the cops.

Compounding any of Parasomnia‘s other problems is the fact that its central premise is pretty gross/creepy, in the way that Sleeping Beauty stories are often kinda gross/creepy, but maybe even moreso here. As our ostensible protagonist falls in love with a girl who has been asleep for most of her life and therefore has the emotional and mental development of a child; as they “bond” in scenes where, during her brief periods of wakefulness, she rubs ice cream all over her face like a toddler, plays with a doggy chew toy, or dresses up like a cheerleader; and as he bathes her sleeping body in scenes that are overtly sexual, or tells his kooky 80s movie best friend that he loves her, I found it impossible to go along with the movie’s notion that this “relationship” was on the up-and-up.

An insinuated connection between the two because they once met when they were very small, in a house that looks a lot like Elise’s house from the later Insidious movies, and a scene returning both characters to childhood in the film’s closing moments attempt to ameliorate the sexual predator vibe, but it’s really too little too late. Fundamentally, our “protagonist” may be less of a serial killer than the sinister Byron Volpe, but he doesn’t really come off looking a whole lot better aside from that.

Without the interference of a studio, Parasomnia should have been Malone’s stylistic triumph–the ultimate affirmation of Roger Ebert’s claim, regarding Feardotcom, that if “the final 20 minutes had been produced by a German impressionist [sic?] in the 1920s, we’d be calling it a masterpiece”–but instead it is so bogged down by its stricter budgetary limitations and its dedication to a problematic script that it feels like a lesser cousin to even the least of Malone’s more studio-oriented work, where, while the scripts were often still bad, the movies at least seemed less interested in them.

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

I liked William Malone’s 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill, and I remember watching his 2002 follow-up Feardotcom back when I was working in a video store. All I remember about it at the time is that it felt immediately dated, and already a little too reminiscent of that year’s American remake of The Ring. (Even though Feardotcom actually beat The Ring into theatres by a couple of months, though of course the Japanese original had already been out for a few years by then.)

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Re-watching Feardotcom today, it still feels immediately dated and sort of derivative of the general atmosphere that was starting to pervade horror cinema as the Asian horror boom began to make its way to American shores, but it also feels weirdly precognizant and definitely very, very of a piece with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill.

Specifically, while still being a stylized ghost movie in the House on Haunted Hill mold, Feardotcom also prefigures the rise of the torture porn genre, and you could extract almost the entire aesthetic of Saw (which wouldn’t hit theatres for two more years) from this film. Meanwhile, the titular website and some of the investigation scenes feature found-footage segments of the sort that would shortly become ubiquitous in horror circles.

While the plot is ostensibly a lift of Ringu, with a “live-cam death site” replacing the cursed video tape as the film’s deadly MacGuffin, following a police detective (Stephen Dorff) and a researcher from the Department of Health (Natasha McElhone) as they try to track down a serial killer who is torturing people to death online, while also trying to figure out why people who went to the website are dying mysteriously within 48 hours, this isn’t a movie that lives and dies by plot. In fact, it feels more like it careens from one moment to another than like it actually has a story, helped along by the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere that Malone conjures up.

Feardotcom is pure stylistic indulgence. From a prominently-featured reference to Mad Love‘s Dr. Gogol in graffiti within the first two minutes to the fact that the film’s cold opening features Udo Kier playing a character named Polidori to a creepy ghost girl with pale hair and a white ball that is probably a nod to the Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, we’re deep into a territory of unrealism before the movie gets very far.

In spite of the website premise, the New York City of Feardotcom is a timeless, rainy, noir metropolis that feels more like the fictional and unspecified urban landscapes of weird fiction than any real or modern place. (See also the setting of Alex Proyas’ Dark City from four years before.)

Exteriors are always the brightest points in the film, in spite of the constant rain, while interiors are claustrophobic and dimly lit, with characters trapped in pools of light like insects frozen in amber, even when they occupy otherwise expansive rooms. As in House on Haunted Hill, Malone juxtaposes grandeur and decay, as in a scene where a hallway filled with peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights culminates in an elevator with marble panels and gilt edges.

By this point, deteriorating industrial backdrops had already become de rigueur in horror cinema, but in Feardotcom these urban hellscapes are incorporated into the proceedings in ways that make them feel as much internal as external. They are a part of the deteriorating effect that the events of the movie are having on the psyches of the characters. (In some ways, Feardotcom probably feels somewhat less dated now than it did at the time, because the fact that the internet never looked or worked like that just seems part and parcel to Malone’s odd, anachronistic setting, rather than bad artistic direction.)

In spite of sharing a lot in common with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill, however, Feardotcom is never as good as its elder sibling, mostly because it is humorless and lacks that film’s strong central premise (borrowed from the William Castle original) and the accompanying performances of Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen. (Also, while the ghosts here are certainly in the same family tree, there are no Jacob’s Ladder-style vibrating heads.)

Still, it’s intriguing to stack the two next to each other, and see how much Malone’s aesthetic vision influences both, for good and for ill. From the same creepy sadomasochistic montages to the same use of plastinated bodies in display cases as a backdrop, there’s even an odd fetish for desk-mounted pencil sharpeners in both films. Feardotcom also relies on a similarly regrettable use of CGI in its closing moments, although it is considerably toned down from the ending of House on Haunted Hill.

Feardotcom boasts a lot of familiar faces in its supporting cast. Besides the aforementioned Udo Kier in its cold opening, Stephen Rea has a role as the mad doctor serial killer, while Jeffrey Combs plays Stephen Dorff’s dissolute partner. (Combs and Malone seem to have had a good working relationship, as the former is in most of the latter’s handful of feature films.)

Make no mistake, Feardotcom is a nearly-plotless and often inept movie that is primarily of interest because it is so deeply mired in William Malone’s particular vision while also being such an odd harbinger of things to come. I found it fascinating in its way, but fascinating should not necessarily be confused with good.

Sadly, even if Feardotcom had benefitted from a tighter script, it seems unlikely that it would have succeeded on many more levels than it does. Fortunately, the weird stylistic decisions of William Malone are more than enough to keep it oddly compelling, at least for me, even while it stumbles around from one “spooky” scene to another. I remember his Masters of Horror episode “The Fair Haired Child” having a somewhat similar aesthetic, and I can’t actually remember if I already checked out his 2008 film Parasomnia, or just watched the trailer, but I guess it’s time to give it a look (possibly again).

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]