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

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

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

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

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

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

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was it for new fiction, and it’s mostly true, but if you just can’t get enough, you can also hear me reading an as-yet-unpublished story at The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird earlier this year in the latest installment of the Outer Dark podcast.

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

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

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

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

I still haven’t seen Parasite, which I gather touches on similar topics, but several of my favorite movies of the year so far have had one unshakable central theme in common: Rich people are bad, actually.

Family Ritual

It’s not a terribly different theme from many of the movies that I grew up on. Flicks like They Live and RoboCop were certainly not pro-wealth, but they tended to be more broadly focused on the social condition. They were satires, as willing to indict us for our complicity in society as they were those who used that complicity to prey on us.

These films more closely resemble something like Brian Yuzna’s Society, though none of them have quite such a … gooey central thesis.

This year’s crop of movies have seemed more pointed, their focus sharper. These are not films that are broadly critical of capitalism or American society – though they are sometimes that, too – these are films that take specific aim at the wealthy themselves.

Which makes sense. While the ’80s were the “me generation,” the age of Reaganomics and the kinds of broad social policies that have led us to the place where we are now, this is the age of the 1%. The payoff of those decades of greed and corporate malfeasance, which have seen more and more of the world’s wealth concentrated among a smaller and smaller segment of the population.

The anti-capitalist propaganda of the past warned of the dangers of greed and consumerism. This year’s crop of films are all about sharpening the blades on the guillotines.

In Ready or Not and Satanic Panic, perhaps the least nuanced of the bunch, the rich are different from you and me – they’re literally Satanists. While Ready or Not takes aim at inherited wealth in a way that will be echoed in Knives OutSatanic Panic seems more interested in the nouveau riche, couching its Satanic litanies in corporate buzzwords and the language of the self help guru or the Instagram influencer.

Both have a similar punchline, though: the rich are not wealthy because they earned it, they’re wealthy because they made a (literal) deal with the devil, and they’re willing to do anything to anyone else in order to keep their wealth and station.

The many-layered metaphor at the heart of Jordan Peele’s Us takes different aim at the distinctions between haves and have-nots, but there’s no doubt that among the many thematic strata in that film is one about how prosperity is built (literally, once again) on the backs of those who do not have it – and about the naked self-interest necessary to abandon someone to that fate when you could lift them up, instead.

Even Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark contains a wealthy family that is poisoning the town’s water supply for profit – shades of Flint, Michigan, perhaps – and letting their own daughter become the scapegoat. Not to mention broader anti-war themes and the best use of nostalgia to come out of this current wave of “nostalgia porn” that we’re seeing.

The sharpest of these many pointy implements, however, may be Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a film that is wearing the clothes of a cozy whodunit over the body of a vicious skewering of wealth, privilege, and, as I said in my review, the fragility and hypocrisy of rich, white neoliberal allyship.

In common, when you scrape away the genre trappings from all these films, is one shared message. We say a lot that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. These films seem to argue that there is also no ethical wealth without equality.

 

Every now and then, I watch a movie that makes me lament that I am no longer actively writing Vault of Secrets columns or working on another volume of Monsters from the VaultShanks is definitely one of those movies.

Some time ago, I decided to try to watch some of the other films of William Castle that I hadn’t yet seen, specifically the ones that come after those contained in Indicator’s brilliant twovolume William Castle at Columbia boxed sets.

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I started with Shanks, his final film as director, because I was fascinated by its logline. A showpiece for famed mime Marcel Marceau, Shanks sees Marceau playing dual roles – a deaf and unspeaking puppeteer, the eponymous Malcolm Shanks, and “Old Walker,” an eccentric scientist who invents a kind of galvanic machine to “puppeteer” dead bodies via remote control.

Old Walker hires Shanks as an assistant, only to die shortly after they have begun their experiments. After a nasty run-in with his wicked step-sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alcoholic husband (Philippe Clay), Shanks decides to reanimate Old Walker using the same galvinic machine.

Because this is a borderline horror movie – the opening titles call it a “grim fairy tale,” and the film is heavily stylized, think Edward Scissorhands nearly two decades before – things go badly from there, and before long Shanks has a couple of other bodies to puppeteer around.

These bodies are, naturally, the centerpiece of the film, and the physical performances of Marceau and the other two actors playing puppeteered corpses is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their movements are played for comedy more often than not, but the sequence in which Shanks first reanimates Old Walker is a showstopper that reminds us of why horror films should – and often do – rely heavily on mimes, dancers, and the like.

In spite of this and a later sequence in which Old Walker comes out of the grave, Shanks is largely absent any of Castle’s “shock” scenes or usual gimmicks – but that isn’t to say that this is any less a Castle film. It just shares more in common with pictures like his version of The Old Dark House13 Frightened Girls, or Zotz! than House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.

In fact, Castle does some genuinely impressive work here. Though it is a “talkie,” Shanks is built around Marceau’s silent performance as Malcolm Shanks – and the mummery of him and the other performers as animated corpses. As such, it is often filmed like a silent movie, complete with intertitles.

Though there isn’t a lot of dialogue, the use of sound is frequently incredible. The score by Alex North, was nominated for an Academy Award. It was also made up, partly, of his rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The music works like gangbusters, but it isn’t alone. All of the sound work is excellent. See a sequence in which the laugh track to a sitcom on TV is synced to the events in the film perfectly.

What prompted me to write this post about Shanks was that, when I posted briefly about it on social media, I was met with a litany of variations on “why have I never heard of this before?”

It isn’t exactly a lost gem, necessarily – it’s uneven and awkward and has a number of other problems that I’ll get into in a minute – but it is definitely a film that more people should have at least heard of. And, like most Castle films, in spite of its myriad problems, I loved it.

So, those problems. It’s uneven, like I said. The last reel of the film takes a hard left turn into some kind of PG-rated Last House on the Left territory, including an implied sexual assault on a young girl. Even before that, though, the semi-romantic relationship between fifty-something Marceau and said sixteen-year-old girl is already cringey in the extreme.

The magic of Shanks comes from its heavily stylized approach and from its incredible physical performances – and, yeah, a little bit from that macabre fairy dust that Castle seems able to sprinkle on even the most humdrum of his films.

As for why more people haven’t heard of Castle’s swan song, I couldn’t say. But they should. It’s a genuinely odd entry in an altogether odd canon. I watched it on VOD, but Olive Films apparently released a Blu-ray that I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on. I would love it if Indicator decided to continue their run of Castle boxed sets with a few of these later films from his oeuvre.

(The quote that I used in the title of this post comes from William Makepeace Thackeray and is used as a coda to the film.)

 

As any attentive reader already knows, I got sick on my birthday, which was twelve days gone now. I’m still sick. Most of the other symptoms have lessened with time, but I am stuck with a persistent cough that is painful, frustrating, and exhausting. Worse still, it won’t let me sleep.

This sleep issue is, at present, my chief concern. I’m also supposed to record for a podcast early next week, which could be … interesting, given how much coughing I’m still doing.

My second greatest concern is that tonight is Analog Sunday. This may seem a small concern compared to not sleeping, and, indeed, it is. But at the same time … this cold already functionally robbed me of one Halloween; Analog was something of a second chance.

About a week ago, I attempted to reason with this illness, offering it whatever it is that colds want in exchange for being gone by today so that I could go watch a movie about killer scarecrows projected off of a VHS tape. I have my priorities, after all.

Sadly, the pestilence has proven obdurate, and so now we are at an impasse. At this point, if I go to Analog, it will be to spite the malady, and not because I actually feel well enough to do so.

Also, I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, apparently, though I don’t know how much my fellow Analog habitues would appreciate me coughing sporadically throughout the picture.

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A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

The final story in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales acts as a bookend with the first story. Here, another narrator who is a thinly fictionalized version of me goes on a trip that has to do with film. In this case, it’s a trip back to his home town, which is, of course, a thinly fictionalized version of my own home town. The Gorka Theatre was really called the Gregg Theater, and as far as I know it’s still there, though it’s probably less accursed than the one in this story.

Because the narrator of “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars” is a film writer, he talks a lot about film in the course of the story, and even the title is lifted from a really good 2014 flick called Black Mountain Side, which I highly recommend, even if you don’t pair it with this story.

For all that there are several cinematic references in “When a Beast,” there is one that seems more obvious to pair with it than the others. I make a very specific reference to one particular scene in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, which is one of my favorite Hammer flicks.

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But even that’s not the film I’m actually going to suggest for tonight, Halloween night, to go along with the last story in Guignol. Instead, I’m going to suggest a movie that I hadn’t even seen when I wrote this story. Norman J. Warren’s 1976 film Satan’s Slave not only involves the kind of low-rent goat-headed black mass that these kinds of stories demand, but it has the added family Satanism angle to make it all the more apt a companion piece.

If you haven’t seen it or The Devil Rides Out, watch both and make it a double-feature!

As I write this, it’s my birthday, October 30, 2019. At least it is for another few hours. This year, I promised myself that I would do Halloween all the way to the hilt if it killed me in October. And I did. And it looks like maybe it did.

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Art by HamletMachine

No, it’s nowhere near that bad. I was hoping to have a few friends over and maybe watch a movie or two this evening, but unfortunately this morning I woke up with a sore throat and as the day wore on I began to feel more and more under the weather, so I just stayed in and drank tea and didn’t do much besides work today.

Which is okay, because I had a lot of work that needed to get done before the month was over and also because it started to snow today, anyway. Plus, if I’m going to get sick on Halloween, which is the pits, at least I didn’t get sick earlier in the month when I had ten thousand various social obligations to be met.

Knowing I was going to be exhausted, even if I was otherwise fine, I was already planning for a relatively low-key birthday/Halloween, so this works out, even if I’d still rather not get sick, thanks.

It’s been a good month. I had lots of work to do, some of it more fun than others. I saw a lot of movies in local theatres and even hosted a few of them.

I got to show two of my very favorite William Castle/Vincent Price flicks to packed houses, which was an absolute joy. I saw Goblin perform live not once but twice. I kept up my yearly tradition of going to the Nerdoween triple feature and even added in Dismember the Alamo for the first time. I went out to a local haunted house in Independence with my buddies from Magnetic Magic and Forever Bogus. I did a reading at Afterword Tavern & Shelves.

So far this month, I’ve only watched 28 movies. I’d have to watch three movies between now and midnight tomorrow to average out to a movie a day for all 31 days which is… unlikely, but not inconceivable. I guess we’ll just have to see.

It probably depends, more than anything, on how I feel when I wake up tomorrow. As of right now, though, if I’m too sick to do any Halloweening whatsoever tomorrow, I think I’ll still chalk this October up as a win. And I’ve learned some valuable lessons for next time…

A few years ago, I did a thing where I picked a movie that would make a good double-feature with one of the stories in my then-newest collection, Painted Monsters. This year, for the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but with my now-newest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

“The Cult of Headless Men” is another story that has an obvious cinematic antecedent. The whole thing got started because of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, a creaky 1959 favorite of mine.

To say how the two tie together would be to delve into spoilers for the weird flick that are perhaps better discovered on your own, if you haven’t already seen it, but suffice it to say that I borrowed the title wholesale from the movie.

Originally, this novelette was nothing more than a fragment that I had written for Michael Bukowski, who approached me and several other authors to contribute our own forms for Nyarlathotep. However, I liked the ideas present in the fragment, and eventually expanded it into an actual story.

To do so, I brought in Kirby Marsh, the film producer grandfather of the protagonist of the title story from Painted Monsters. Once I had a film producer, of course he needed to be working on some films, taking over an English manor house to produce some quick-to-market horror schlock to compete with the likes of Hammer.

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So, while The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake still may be the ideal pairing with “The Cult of Headless Men,” it could also be set alongside just about any British horror film of the era. Except that many of them, the Hammer films especially, might have a little too much class for a Kirby Marsh production. For that vibe, maybe try Norman J. Warren’s 1978 film Terror, in which a film production about witches in an English manor house is plagued by actual witchcraft.