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Never Bet the Devil CoverAs you have no doubt gathered by now, the brand-new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing is a real, physical object that has actually happened and is currently sitting on my shelf. What you may not yet know is that it can also be sitting on your shelf, even if you missed out on the Kickstarter and/or didn’t see us at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Through the magic of something called “the internet,” you can now order your very own copy of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, featuring two (2) new stories not published in the previous edition, all new illustrations and header images for every story by the phenomenal M.S. Corley (who is also responsible for that amazing cover), and a new (and very kind) introduction by Nathan Ballingrud!

(And hey, if you’re going to pick up a copy, now’s the time to do it, because you can get it at 15% off thanks to Strix’s Halloween sale!)

Speaking of Halloween, I recently wrote up a recommendation list of five vintage vampiric movies for you to watch on Halloween, which you can read over at Innsmouth Free Press? Why would I do that, you ask? The better question might be, Why wouldn’t I? But in this case it’s actually all part of an elaborate scheme meant to help promote Monsters from the Vault, my collection of essays on vintage horror cinema, collected from across more than five years of writing columns for Innsmouth Free Press. Why vampires, though? Well, that just kind of happened. But you’re certainly not limited to vampires. Pick up a copy of the book and you can find plenty of mad scientists, alien invaders, werewolves, mummies, murderers, unusually large insects and rodents, blobs, apes, skeletons, cults, and just about anything else you might want for your seasonal viewing pleasure.

The list also serves double duty by making me feel a little less bad about not being a very good contributor to the Countdown to Halloween. This October has been a little rough. It got off to a good start with the HPLFF, but there have been a variety of other setbacks that have kept me from celebrating the season with the same vigor that I might have on previous occasions. Fortunately, I have at least gotten Halloween decorations up, and tomorrow night I’m heading out to the Tapcade for a horror anthology triple feature courtesy of the Nerds of Nostalgia. I attended the first of these “Nerdoween” triple-features a couple of years ago, and they’ve since become an annual tradition. Thanks to them, I’ve discovered both Demons and Night of the Demons and, to a somewhat lesser extent, both 28 Weeks Later and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Since this year’s entertainment is anthology film-themed, the odds of me not having already seen all of them decrease sharply, but we’ll see what they can dig up!

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I flew out to Portland for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival (for the third or fourth time now) in large part because I knew that Strix Publishing would have the new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil there. (And they did, and it is glorious, and I’m looking forward to sharing order links with everyone who wasn’t able to back the Kickstarter or make it out to the Festival very soon.)

Apparently, while I was out getting a burrito, Barbara Steele actually came by the table and asked about the book, which is honestly probably better than had she come by while I was around, given that, earlier in the course of events, when confronted by a potential customer who wanted to know what the book was about, I replied, almost word-for-word, with, “It’s a collection of short stories; I think there’s ghosts in it or something.” From then on, I was banned by Simon from attempting to interact with customers or otherwise make sales pitches concerning my own book. I had to avoid eye contact with all future customers, and if they had questions for me they had to ask them of Simon, who would then relay them to me. It was really for the best.

Even had I not been flying out to help hinder Simon’s attempts to promote Never Bet the Devil, however, I would have made it a point to attend on the strength of the fact that this particular HPLFF was the world premiere of Philip Gelatt’s They Remain, the first official adaptation of a Laird Barron story, since Kill List and Sicario don’t count, no matter how much they might feel like they do.

Astute readers may have noticed that I asked Phil to blurb Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, and that he was generous and patient enough to do so. If I didn’t already consider Phil a friend before I got to this year’s HPLFF, I definitely would after the events of the Festival. So there’s no way for me to render an unbiased take on They Remain, I say as if there is any such thing as a completely unbiased take on any movie, ever.

With all that in mind, They Remain is a triumphant, beautiful, meticulous, difficult, challenging, intentionally abstract and recursive film. As such, it’s likely to also be a divisive one. For those who didn’t have the patience for, say, The WitchThey Remain will probably drive you nuts. But for those who are willing to meet the film where it is, rather than expecting it to come to them, I think that you will be amply rewarded.

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I hesitate to even call They Remain a slow burn. The words “slow burn” give the implication that it takes a while for things to get started, that they smolder for a long time before finally bursting into flame. When the first frame of They Remain flashes up on screen, things have already gotten strange, and that strangeness just continues to accrete on every surface, on every character, on everyone and everything for the remainder of the film’s running time. It’s a recursive movie, as I said, which means that it doesn’t have a typical movie’s build to some sort of satisfying (or unsatisfying, for that matter) climax. It turns back in on itself time and again. Do things get stranger? Sure. But do they really, or have they been that strange the whole time?

They Remain isn’t a movie that offers easy answers. In fact, it isn’t even a movie that offers difficult ones. It’s a film that opens itself up to myriad interpretations, all of them potentially valid, without ever offering even the most astute observer one particular “solution” to seize upon. For some viewers that may prove infuriating, but when a movie tells you repeatedly that you won’t understand it, even as early as in the quote that shows up before the first shot of the film actually appears, you may only have yourself to blame if you walk out of it unsatisfied.

NBtD_FancyThe hours are condensing down into minutes and ticking away until I will be on a plane and headed for Portland and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. This will be my third or fourth year as a guest, not quite consecutively, at what has rapidly become my favorite convention. To make the whole thing sweeter, we’ll be celebrating the launch of the new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing. Copies arrived at the Strix Publishing offices yesterday. I have now seen photographic evidence that the book is a real thing and have been assured that it will be present at the Festival!

I’ll be participating in the mass author signing, and also hanging around the Strix Publishing booth in the upper theatre lobby to sign books probably sometime on Saturday afternoon. The rest of the time I’ll be watching movies, jawing with people, or participating in panels and readings. I believe I’m on two panels, one dealing with foreign horror films so that I can annoy all the other panelists by jabbering about Matango and Noroi, and one on fungi (where I can also talk about Matango)!

Unfortunately, I’m not feeling as much better as I had hoped to by now, but unless I take a massive turn for the worse in the next day or so, I’m better enough to head to the Festival. If you see me and I’m looking paler or more uncomfortable than usual, apologies in advance. I’m not contagious or anything, just stuck with a bunch of lingering symptoms that seem to have no intention of vacating the premises in a timely fashion.

In spite of my slow decay, I am extremely excited about the Festival, and especially can’t wait to see the world premiere of Phil Gelatt’s They Remain. For those who are coming out to the HPLFF, definitely track me down and say hi! I’m on the schedule, so I shouldn’t be too hard to find. And for those who won’t make it out, I’ll be posting to social media from the proverbial road, but you probably won’t hear from me on this here blog until I get back, so I’ll see you then!

 

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.