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monsters from the vault

No one knows where he comes from or where he’ll show up next, but apparently he’s been around for a long time and is to blame for all manner of trouble and problems.   Attempts to capture or kill him have been unsuccessful, so he remains on the loose and citizens are cautioned about approaching him or attempting to engage him in conversation. 
– “Skeleton Key No. 28: Death,” by Richard Sala

I don’t know how to put this into words in a way that won’t sound more heartless than I mean it to sound, but: it’s one thing to lose someone whose work meant a lot to you, but who hadn’t been doing much work for a while.

Just yesterday, I posted a sort of reminiscence about the passing of Ray Harryhausen. It hit me hard when it happened, but he was also 92 years old, and he hadn’t done work that I had seen in a long time. That doesn’t make it any less tragic that he died; but it made the news less immediate for me.

I can’t say the same for Richard Sala. It would be stretching the word to say that he and I were actual friends, but it would be even more disingenuous to say that he was merely a hero of mine, an inspiration.

Certainly, he started out that way, but thanks to the magic of social media, I actually got to know him a little bit. He would sometimes comment on my posts; I would sometimes comment on his. We usually talked old, weird movies, because he frequently turned me on to titles that I otherwise might have missed.

(Flip through Monsters from the Vault or Revenge of Monsters from the Vault and you’ll see his name more than once.)

This evening, I saw via the Fantagraphics Twitter account that he had passed away at the age of 61. For one thing, 61 is a lot younger than, say, 92. For another, Richard was working right up until the last. His latest book (an art book that you should really buy) came out just last year, and he was posting about his process on the next book as recently as last week.

On top of that, we were, as I said, something approximating friends – at least more-than-casual acquaintances. He was someone I turned to for his enthusiasm about old movies, especially, and as much as I’ll always remember him for his art and writing, I’ll also remember him because there are movies I would never have seen without his recommendation. Those movies will always be his, to me.

He was someone I hoped to work with someday. Someone whose work was so near-and-dear to my heart – and so close to my own aesthetics and obsessions – that I dreamed it might one day decorate one of my own books. But more than that, he was a person whose own dreams and passions glowed in the dark, and provided a creepily cozy light for all us other weirdos to gather ’round.

Hopefully someday we’ll meet on the astral plane. For tonight, I’m going to go read one of his books or watch one of those movies and remember.

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I  have always written a lot about film, but over the last few years I have inescapably also become, among other things, a “film writer.” I have two books of essays on vintage horror cinema in print, and I regularly write reviews of both new and retrospective films for venues like Signal Horizon and Unwinnable.

To the extent, then, that I am a “film critic,” or a critic of any other kind of art, my interest is not in whether or not the art in question is “good” or “bad.” My interest is in the experience of the art itself; in placing that art within its broader context and learning to understand it better, both for myself and for whoever happens to be reading whatever I write.

This makes the experience of art – and of writing and reading about art – necessarily personal, and somewhat immune to criticism, to the extent that you view criticism as nothing more than a binary of “good” or “bad.” Siskel and Ebert, probably the most well-known movie critics of all time, famously simplified it to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” – not to knock either Siskel or Ebert, both of whom also wrote lengthy, heartfelt, highly personal takes on film all the time.

One of my favorite quotes about the role of art comes from Joe R. Lansdale writing an introduction to a trade collection of the comic book Baltimore. “Isn’t that the job of all great art,” Lansdale writes, “to kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see?”

He thinks it is, at least in part, and so do I.

As a critic, then, my job is to help art accomplish that goal. To jimmy the door just that little bit wider, to point into the light and shadow on the other side and describe what I see. To walk through the door – or at least peek through it – when others may not have the time or the energy or the inclination or the adventurousness of spirit to do so.

My job is also to keep an open mind. Not just when I sit in the dark and wait for the movie to begin, but long after I’ve seen the credits roll, after I’ve composed my careful sentences that night or the next day or the next week. This doesn’t mean pretending to like something that I don’t. It means being open to changing my mind.

Some of my favorite movies I was lukewarm on when I walked out of the theater. Some movies that I loved the first few times I saw them grew stale with time. Neither of these reactions are wrong – they’re just descriptive of how I experienced the movies.

As a reader of writing about film, one of my favorite things in the world is to find a thoughtful, engaging appreciation of a movie that I thought I didn’t like. One that helps me to view something in the movie that I might not otherwise have seen. Sometimes I still don’t like the movie when I’m done, but I get the chance to glimpse that otherwise unseen thing, and that’s really what I’m always after.

Art can only do so much to kick those doors open, after all. Sometimes we have to be ready to look.

The Movies (2)

 

Unknown SkeletonAt the start of this decade, I made my first-ever professionally-qualifying sale. (Pro rates were somehow even lower then than they are now.) I had been writing since I learned how, and seriously attempting to publish since I graduated college not quite a decade before that.

In 2012, the first edition of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, came out. In five years it would be out of print, then back in print, in a new, hardcover deluxe edition from Strix Publishing.

Looking back, it came out too soon. Not that I’m not proud of the collection – I am, completely, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have allowed it to be reissued. I just wasn’t at the “first collection” stage in my career quite yet, but I didn’t know that then.

In the years since, I’ve published two more collections of stories, both with Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde press, not to mention two collections of essays on vintage horror films, both with Innsmouth Free Press. I’ve published more than fifty short stories, and been in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year three times.

I co-edited my first anthology with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which got translated into Japanese.

I’ve done work for Privateer Press, writing short fiction and in-game content, adventures, and even a licensed novel that is technically my first published novel-length work. In the last year alone I’ve written nearly fifty movie reviews for Unwinnable and Signal Horizon, where I also now co-host a podcast.

I’ve written introductions for reissues of some of my favorite books, including Benighted and collections by Robert Westall, from Valancourt Books, and introductions to collections by some of my favorite contemporaries, including Nick Mamatas and Amanda Downum. I have nonfiction bylines in places like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nightmare Magazine.

I’ve been a guest at several wonderful conventions and festivals, gone on a great many podcasts, introduced movies at the local movie theatres, and much more. There are so many things on this list that, had you told me about them ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Of all the many surprising things that have happened to me over the course of the last decade, though, perhaps the most surprising is that I quit my day job to write full-time all the way back in 2013, and I haven’t had to give it up yet.

Fiction writing certainly doesn’t pay the bills, so most of my time is dedicated to freelancing, but, as they say in Major League 2, a day of playing baseball is better than whatever most people have to do for a living.

It wasn’t until Grace was asking me if I was planning to do some kind of decade-in-review that I realized how much my life has changed in these past ten years, so it seemed worth taking note. I went from being virtually unpublished (I had sold a few stories, but not many) to having six or more books (depending on how you count) with my name on the spine and writing for a living.

Not too shabby, all in all.

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.)

 

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be posting once a day through the end of the month, suggesting (usually) scary movies that pair well with all 14 stories in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales. The posts are already written and scheduled because, frankly, the next 14 days are gonna be busy with work and watching countless movies of my own–I’ve got at least 8 on tap in the next three days, all at the theatre.

tod-brownings-mark-of-the-vampireSo, while my Countdown to Halloween duties may be adequately covered for the year, I didn’t feel right not leaving you with a little something extra during my absence. Since Revenge of Monsters from the Vault came out earlier this year, it only felt right to leave you with yet another movie list, this time slices of vintage horror that I covered in that book and its predecessor that make ideal viewing in the run-up to the big night.

For those of us who watch and read horror all year round–or, at least, for me–not every horror movie is a Halloween movie. While I may watch the sun-baked nihilism of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the urban decay of Candyman during the month of October, the true Halloween movies are those that combine fun with fear. Those autumnal tricks and treats that take place in quaint little towns with dark secrets and in shadowed suburbs.

Halloween movies are the Gothic chillers of yesteryear, with fog-shrouded sets where rubber bats dangle on wires and painted shadows grow impossibly long. There aren’t many old horror movies that actually take place on Halloween, but that’s okay. There are plenty of overgrown graveyards and old dark houses, which are just as good.

Here are 14 (give or take) movies that I wrote up in either Monsters from the Vault or its sequel that will give you plenty of creaky chills for the long, dark nights until Halloween is here at last. Think of it as a haunted advent calendar, if you’d like. And stop back by every day for the remainder of the month for a devil’s dozen (plus one) of movies to watch on a double-bill with the stories in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

On the 18th watch The Tingler (1959). I showed it to a crowded theatre at the Tapcade just a few nights ago, so I can vouch that it’s a good kick-off for the run up to Halloween. If you came out and saw it with me, feel free to substitute 13 Ghosts (1960).

On the 19th watch Fiend without a Face (1958), the most science fictional flick you’ll find in this list, which is why it’s positioned so far from the day itself. Those invisible crawling brain monsters can’t be beat, though.

On the 20th watch The Vampire Doll (1970). Any of Toho’s “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” of Dracula movies will do, but Vampire Doll is my favorite of the bunch.

On the 21st watch The Living Skeleton (1968), another Japanese import and an even weirder one than last night’s picture. There are mad scientists, rubber bats, and a chorus of skeletons. What more could you want?

On the 22nd watch Valley of the Zombies (1946), a Republic potboiler that’s just a short hop away from being a serial. There’s no valley and no zombies, but there is a great villain named Ormand Murks and, as if they were spoiled by that name, a guy gets killed off-screen whose name is Dr. Lucifer Garland.

On the 23rd follow that up with Night of Terror (1933), an old dark house picture from their heyday that features metafictional narration from its maniac killer and a guest turn by Bela Lugosi.

On the 24th we’re heading into the final weekend so it’s time to watch Blood Bath (1966), one variation on four movies all produced by Roger Corman. This version has a vampire, of sorts, and a particularly Halloween-y sequence in which the heroine and the vampire are both accosted by some costumed revelers.

On the 25th it’s Friday night so relax with a night at The House on Skull Mountain (1974), complete with voodoo and flashing skulls and one of the best matte paintings you’ll ever see.

On the 26th we head back into black-and-white territory with City of the Dead (1960). This chiller not only features a guest turn by Christopher Lee, but it’s got the foggiest little town you can think of, and plenty of witches and spooky graveyards.

On the 27th we’re winding down the last weekend with Return of the Vampire (1944). Bela Lugosi again in a film full of great bits, maybe most notable for the fact that it was made during the War and set in England in the midst of the Blitz. How many vampires were shaken from their tombs by falling bombs, after all?

The 28th begins our final countdown, and what better movie to kick it off than Mark of the Vampire (1935)? It’s cheesy, it’s creaky, it’s an unofficial remake of the classic lost silent film London After Midnight made by the same director. In short, it’s a treasure.

On the 29th watch House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (they’re both pretty short).

The 30th is my birthday, so you’d think I’d pick a favorite movie for you to watch on this day. I thought about it, but I feel like the night before Halloween is maybe the ideal night to watch Spider Baby (1967) if you’re going to. It’s got one foot planted in the films of the past and one in Rob Zombie’s films of the present, and the theme song alone should be enough to make it a Halloween staple.

On the 31st watch The Old Dark House (1932). It’s the one I would have picked for my birthday, if I was going to. And whatever you watch or read or do this season, have a HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

I got so wrapped up in the fulfilling of pre-orders and the like (not to mention the run up to NecronomiCon, which is in less than a week somehow) that I almost forgot to acknowledge the fact that today is actually the official book birthday of Revenge of Monsters from the Vault!

If you pre-ordered your copy direct form the publisher, it should be hitting your mailbox any day now, if it hasn’t already. If you didn’t, well, there’s not time like the present to correct that deficiency.

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I love writing spooky short stories, but I also love writing about monster movies – on my best days, I manage to smash the two together to relatively satisfactory results. In my freelance work, I am lucky enough to write occasionally about movies both modern and antique, but one of my favorite things to do is to just share the joy that I get from tracking down some moth-bitten old movie filled with cobwebbed sets and some painted monsters.

Those are the movies that, as Joe R. Lansdale hisownself once put it better than I ever could, “kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see”.

I’ve been lucky enough to get to write about a lot of them and, with any luck, I’ll get to write about a lot more before I go to wherever good skeletons finally go, but Revenge of Monsters from the Vault closes the door on a chapter, to be sure.

When I first started writing for Innsmouth Free Press, I wasn’t yet a very established voice in the field. Silvia Moreno-Garcia was kind enough to give me a soapbox from which I could share my love for these delightfully creaky old movies, and she was even kinder to add another step to that soapbox by re-publishing all those columns in Monsters from the Vault.

Now, together, we’ve gone a step farther yet. With any luck, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault won’t be the last time I write about these movies, but it will probably be our last trip to the Vault of Secrets. We’re sealing up that tomb and moving on to unearth another.

It’s not an occasion for mourning, however, but celebration. I got to write about Mystery of the Wax Museum and Horror Island and The Return of the Vampire and Zombies of Mora Tau and The World of Vampires and Yog, Monster from Space. And, what’s more, somebody put all of that writing into not one book but two.Most poor skeletons never even get half so lucky.

I hope, if you choose to read either of these volumes, that you come away from them with a new favorite movie that you otherwise might not have seen. I think I agree with Mr. Lansdale that that’s the purpose of all great art, and while I don’t think these books are necessarily great art, hopefully they can be your portal to some.

Today, I finally made it out to the theatre to catch Avengers: Endgame, which means that I have now seen all 22 of the “Infinity Saga” (or whatever they’re calling it) films in the theatre, and I have done my duty by them (and they by me). I know that technically Phase 3 isn’t over until Spider-Man: Far From Home, but while I have every reason to assume I will see that in a theatre, too, this feels like the ending to me, and I’m good with that.

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I’m not really here to talk about Endgame, though. I’m here to talk about my books. Today is also the last day to pre-order Revenge of Monsters from the Vault direct from the publisher. The book will still be for sale through the regular channels when it launches in August, but we appreciate direct sales, and they put more money into my pocket. So if you’re thinking about buying Revenge of Monsters from the Vault (and I sincerely hope that you are) now is the ideal time to do it. But please hurry!

If you’re just coming here from… somewhere else, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault is the follow-up to my 2016 book Monsters from the Vault and, as such, it’s a collection of a whole bunch of essays about various classic (and not-so-classic) horror films from the silents to the ’70s, including such beloved and obscure titles as Condemned to LiveRevolt of the ZombiesThe Devil Bat, not one but two versions of The Black CatReturn of the VampireThe Giant ClawZombies of Mora TauDark IntruderX: The Man with X-Ray EyesBrotherhood of SatanThe Creeping Flesh, and lots more. If you’d like a taste of what you’re in for, you can read my essay on Toho’s “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” of Dracula movies right here.

Not already familiar with the previous volume? Not to worry, you can actually pick it up in a package deal with Revenge of Monsters from the Vault if you pre-order right now!

Today is also Walpurgisnacht. As most of you know, I wrote a story called “Walpurgisnacht” which originally appeared in the Laird Barron tribute anthology Children of Old Leech, and has since been reprinted in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. If you’ve already read that one, though, plenty of other seasonally appropriate stuff can be found in my latest collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales. I think “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars” would be particularly well suited to the evening’s festivities, don’t you?

Speaking of witches, I was also a guest on the latest episode of the Nightmare Junkhead podcast where I talked in some rambling detail about my feelings on the new Hellboy movie (which has more than a few witches), the comics, Brian Lumley, and lots of other topics of occult interest. Greg D. and Jenius McGee of the Nightmare Junkhead podcast are the same cool folks who put on the Nerdoween Triple Feature that has become my birthday/Halloween staple every year, so it was a real pleasure to finally sit down with them in their inner sanctum.