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This hasn’t been a big year for conventions for me. While I attended the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in Atlanta, I missed NecronomiCon by a hair, which means that I have to wait two more years for another chance to go rub shoulders with all the east coast weirdos. However, I will be attending the 22nd annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland the first full weekend in October.

What’s more, not only will I once again be attending as a guest, I’ll also be contributing to the round-robin Challenge from Beyond, which you can pick up as an add-on to your pledge to the HPLFF Kickstarter which, wouldn’t you know it, is happening now!

So why am I extra-excited about this particular HPLFF, besides that it’s still my favorite convention, I get to see a bunch of old friends and meet Phil Gelatt in person finally? Because the brand new, deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing will also be launching at the HPLFF this year! I recently saw photographic evidence of the proofs, which have arrived at the Strix Publishing offices, and the book should be ready by the time the festival rolls around. If you can’t make it to the fest and didn’t Kickstart the book, no worries, you can still pre-order a copy right here and they should ship around early October, if all goes according to plan!

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the HPLFF as it draws nearer, but for now, I’ll see you there, if you’re going!

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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.]

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!

 

monster_thriller_scifi_headerPanic Fest is something that I look forward to every year; after all, why wouldn’t I? A world-class horror/monster/sci-fi film festival right in my own backyard, put together by my good friends at Rotten Rentals and the Screenland Armour; what’s not to love? But for me, at least, Panic Fest has become something of a fraught weekend.

Two years ago, just as I was leaving the house to go to Panic Fest, I got a phone call about my dad’s declining health. It wasn’t the first phone call on the subject, but it was one of the ones that triggered the fall of dominoes which made up the end of his life, the realization of a lot of trauma and baggage, and various other things that I’ve been dealing with in one capacity or another for the last two years. As such, Panic Fest always feels like an anniversary: the last weekend where I got to feel normal for a while and just have some fun.

Every year since, when Panic Fest has come around it has brought with it a weird combination of emotions–fraught, like I said. This year was the first time I attended as a “private citizen.” In the past I’ve helped out with the fest in some capacity; manning the Rotten Rentals booth or whatever. This year I just bought my ticket like everyone else and showed up to watch movies and bullshit around in the (really nice) vendor loft. I picked up a copy of the really great-looking book Unsung Horrors, which contains a couple of essays by my friend (and former boss, way back when I still worked at a video store) Jeff Owens.

I also watched four movies over the course of the weekend, along with a handful of really good shorts. That is, I believe, fully twice as many movies as the most I ever managed at a previous Panic Fest, so I’ll call it pretty good. To make matters better, I enjoyed all four movies, which is always nice. Here are my brief thoughts on each, presented in ascending order of quality.

The Barn – An 80s-style VHS throwback, The Barn was funded at least partially via IndieGoGo, and it shows. Because of the film’s intentionally low-rent aesthetic, the budgetary limitations are never really a problem for it, and the result is something pretty charming for anybody who has a nostalgic yen for 80s slashers and monsters that are just guys in Halloween masks. What The Barn can’t do is rise much above that. It’s never quite funny enough to function as pure parody, nor strong enough to stand on its own as anything else. So what you get is a pleasant throwback that seems like it ought to be watched on an old tube TV, popped out of one of those clamshell VHS cases; but a surprisingly crowded theatre at a horror film festival is probably the next best thing.

Don’t Knock Twice – A few days before Panic Fest, I watched last year’s Lights Out for the first time. Don’t Knock Twice shares a lot of parallels with that film–minus its specific light-related central conceit–but Lights Out suffers every time by the comparison. Which is not to say that Don’t Knock Twice is any particularly great shakes, but it stands up better than most of the familiar ghostly fare that so often haunts our multiplexes these days.

The Void – Imagine if the Astron-6 guys couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a fan film of HellraiserThe ThingPrince of Darkness, or The Fly–so they just did all four. That’s pretty much The Void in a nutshell, and as such it manages to seem both inventive and derivative, while also feeling more like watching someone play Resident Evil than the Resident Evil movies ever managed. The visuals are strong, and there are plenty of gloppy monsters all done with practical effects, so I love that, but I also can’t help noticing that all of the effects feel like they would probably have been more confidently deployed in the hands of any of those other directors.

It’s been called Lovecraftian–as anything with cultists, tentacles, or horror on a larger-than-human scale will be (and The Void certainly has all three in spades)–but it owes a much bigger debt to Barker than to Lovecraft. Call it Hellraiser with the aesthetic of Carpenter and Cronenberg and you’re damn close. All this probably sounds a little down on The Void, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be–it’s sitting in my number two spot here, after all–it’s just that, for all its promise and its many great qualities, it never quite rises to what it almost is. (A problem that, honestly, seems to plague many of even the very best of our crop of contemporary horror movies.)

Train to Busan – In a year that has already been full-to-bursting with surreal moments, few were as jarring as walking out of Train to Busan to the news of Trump’s Muslim ban. Train to Busan is, essentially, a Korean zombie movie of the contemporary fast, swarming zombie school, and one that, as you’ve no doubt heard from other people than me, is handled brilliantly well. There’s a lot going on in it, but possibly its biggest and least subtle theme can be summed up as: Turning people away because you are afraid makes you into something worse than the monsters that scare you. As such, it has maybe never felt more topical than in this moment.

All that aside, though, it is also just an extremely solid movie. Like Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist from a few years back–which was also very emphatically a product of its moment with a very heavy social message, but that still plays fine without that context–Train to Busan holds up amidst a sea of similar fare as one of the best of the modern crop of swarming zombie flicks.

Though, of course, I don’t have to actually go much of anywhere to be in Kansas City, since I already live here, I will be a guest at this year’s ConQuest in downtown KC this weekend. My full schedule with official panel descriptions is below, and whenever I’m not at one of these panels, you’ll probably be able to find me hanging out with my fellow Pine Float Press authors at the Pine Float Press Floating VIP Lounge.

Friday May 27
8pm – Horror from the Headlines: Current Events as Inspiration 
This panel would discuss how current events can be used to inspire works of horror as well as what possible pitfalls to look out for.

Saturday May 28
12pm – DC Vs Marvel: Who’s Winning on the Silver Screen?
Now that the DC movie franchise seems to have a long-term direction and we have seen The Dark Knight meet The Man of Steel on the big screen, is Marvel still ruling the box office? And what does the next five years hold in store for both superhero universes?

6pm – Film Adaptations: The Best and the Worst
Film Adaptations of Books have a checkered history in Hollywood, giving us both masterpieces and stinkers. Panelists would share their favorite and least favorite adaptations and why they think they succeeded or failed.

Sunday May 29
10am – Reading
This one’s just gonna be me, reading… something. I should probably figure out what before the time comes…

3pm – The Big Three of Weird Tales
H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard were the ‘big three’ in weird fiction in the 1920’s and 30’s. Where are they now in the relevance of speculative fiction? Can the younger fans of today appreciate their work? (In which I get to admit how little I actually know about Clark Ashton Smith…)

You can see the full schedule here, or if you’re only interested in hearing me talk, type in my name to see just the stuff I’m doing.

 

Last year, just before I left for Panic Fest, I received a phone call about my dad’s failing health. It wasn’t the first such call, and it wasn’t the last, but that Panic Fest sticks in my mind as the last time for a long time that my dad’s illness, death, and the subsequent emotional and mental fallout therefrom wasn’t heavily on my mind. I didn’t really realize how much Panic Fest had become the symbolic anniversary of all those things for me until this weekend rolled around.

I had been planning to help work the fest, but for various reasons that didn’t come to pass. And it turned out to be a good thing, because I got buried in some quick-turnaround deadlines that kept me busy much of the weekend. I did make it out to say hello and pick up a couple of Funko minis, but I wasn’t able to stick around and enjoy the festival. Maybe next year.

What I did instead–besides work on the aforementioned deadlines–was have a rougher-than-expected weekend. It took me until this morning to figure out why, to connect the occasion of Panic Fest to my memories of all that I’ve been struggling with over the past year and change. I know that I’ve come a long way in that time, and that I’ll be all right, but it hit me hard today.

To the folks at Panic Fest itself: Sorry I wasn’t able to make it more, or stay longer. It was great to see everyone for the brief moment that I did, and thank you guys for being a pleasant memory in the midst of a lot of unpleasant ones.

I’m a few days back from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and sufficiently recovered as to make a token effort at a wrap-up post. As always, I had a great time at what is consistently my favorite convention/festival/gathering of the year, with my only complaint being that there is never enough time for all the people I want to see, movies I want to watch, and things I want to do. (Nor, for that matter, enough money for all the things I want to buy.)

Of course, the big news for me this year is that Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts is now a real, actual, physical book that real human beings (including myself) have now seen and touched and–given how long some peoples’ flights home were–maybe even read! My fantastic publisher was in attendance, and he brought a box of books so that we had copies to sell and sign at the mass author signing event on Saturday morning. I got to flip through my new book–which, if anything, looks even better in person–and smell that new book smell. It remains a pretty heady experience.

I actually flew into Portland on Wednesday night, and Mike and Lena Griffin were kind enough to pick me up from the airport and give me the run of their place Wednesday night and all day Thursday until it was time to fetch Justin Steele from the airport and deposit me at the Banfield, where I was rooming with some of my oldest and dearest friends, Reyna and Gavin Sparby. Our room at the Banfield this year was remarkably free of kicked-in doors, blood stains, or millipedes, though we overheard someone reporting a “mysterious pool of liquid” in one of the other rooms, which sounded about right. The greatest mysteries our room contained were a massive, faux-leather headboard about as big as the bed itself, a missing toilet paper roll holder, and a bathroom mirror that was clearly doing an inadequate job of covering up a hole in the wall. Oh Banfield, you are as inextricably a part of the HPLFF experience as anything.

While we were waiting for the HPLFF proper to kick off, the Kickstarter for Simon Berman’s latest project The Book of Starry Wisdom launched on October 1. I contributed an essay to this incredible tome, in which I talk about “The Call of Cthulhu,” Descartes, In the Mouth of Madness, and epistemological certainty. You’ve got until the end of the month to get this thing backed, and there are some nice stretch goals waiting in the wings, so everybody take a break from reading this and go throw some money into Simon’s hat so he’ll stop beating me.

The biggest change between this HPLFF and previous years is that I actually watched any movies this year. I had gone in with one big goal: to see City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel, a black-and-white 1960 Christopher Lee picture that I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, fate stood in the way, and my reading was scheduled opposite its only showing on Friday night. And because Amanda Downum and I are real, big time professionals, we did not put up an “IOU one reading” sign and go see Christopher Lee instead.

Later that evening, however, I did see the first of four feature films and a handful of shorts that I would watch over the weekend, making my total HPLFF 2015 film viewing almost fully double the sum of all the film viewing I did at both previous HPLFFs. That first night was Extraordinary Tales, and I also caught Final Prayer (aka The Borderlands), which Trevor Henderson has been on me to watch forever, as well as Black Mountain Side and a Greek film called The Winter. All of them were solid except The Winter, which would have made a good short, but felt stretched at 105 minutes. Black Mountain Side–about which I knew literally nothing going in–turned out to be my favorite film of the fest, and it seems that I wasn’t alone, since it took home the statue for Best Feature Film. Most of the actual shorts I saw were disappointing, and I was unfortunately compelled to miss The Mill at Calder’s End, since I was moderating a panel on cosmic horror in film at the time.

Maybe the best thing I got to see at the whole festival, though, was a live performance of Ask Lovecraft, in which I got to ask Lovecraft how many fish he could name. I am ashamed to say that I had never actually watched any episodes of Ask Lovecraft prior to this, though I knew Leeman from Facebook and from the TOC of Resonator and various other interactions, and getting to hang out with him in person–both in and out of character–was one of the real treats of the whole festival for me. In some ways, I’m glad that this was my first exposure to Ask Lovecraft, because getting to see it live for the first time was a unique pleasure.

The festival had a lot of other highlights, including a big robot named D.A.G.O.N. that hugged Simon and told him “There there, human. It’s okay that your life has no meaning.” As has been the case at previous festivals, most of the time that I didn’t spend doing something else I spent eating delicious food or hanging out on the back patio of the Moon & Sixpence. There were people I got to see a lot of and, as always, lots more people I didn’t see nearly as often as I would have liked. I did shake Jeffrey Combs’ hand, and also ran into him in the upstairs bathroom of the Hollywood Theatre. I know that he got passed a copy of the special HPLFF issue of Strange Aeons magazine, in which I wrote an extensive appreciation of his work, but it might be for the best if he never reads it, since I lovingly discussed Doctor Mordrid at some length.

Speaking of extensive, Monday while I was still wrapping up my festival, a very lengthy round table that I did with Adam Cesare before leaving went live on his monthly Paper Cuts column over at Cemetery Dance Online. In it, we hash out our favorite movie monsters of each decade, and discuss items of important interest like whether or not Michael Myers is a monster, my panhandling skills, swearing in PG-13 movies, whether or not metaphors count as monsters, and that comic book rack from The Mist. Because we are really good at staying on topic, is what I’m saying.

Since I didn’t fly out until Monday afternoon, Amanda and Josh and I went exploring at the Witch House, which was down a long trail full of fallen trees straight out of the spider pit sequence from King Kong. In spite of everything that movies and stories have taught us, we survived the experience, and Josh even found $20, which we assume meant that the witches were pleased with us. We also made the obligatory stop by Powell’s books, and discussed the necessity of an app that replaces the navigational voice on our phones with the Deer God from Black Mountain Side.

Upon arriving home, I had the pleasure of announcing that I’ll be hosting a FREE screening of Dario Argento’s Deep Red at the Tapcade here in KC, where you’ll have a chance to win copies of both Painted Monsters and Giallo Fantastique! More on that as it draws closer, and I return ever more to what passes for a human state around these parts. As for the HPLFF, apologies to all the people I failed to mention in this post, it was a joy and a pleasure as always, and I’m already looking forward to next year!