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This post is not actually about the 1992 Amityville Yard Sale sequel about an evil clock. Just getting ahead of that, to spare you the disappointment. No, this is about kicking 2020 in the ass on its way out the door, and to that end, I just want you to know that there won’t really be a traditional year end retrospective around these parts.

Tonight, at the Horror Pod Class Study Group on Facebook, Tyler Unsell of Signal Horizon and I will be getting together to talk about the (precious few) high points of this trash fire of a year, and over at Unwinnable I contributed a blurb or two to the various best of the year lists, but for the most part, 2020 was garbage and we’re all happier to have it in the rear view.

Was the best movie I saw this year really Underwater? Maybe. Was very nearly the only book I read this year Adam Cesare’s wonderful Clown in a Cornfield? Also maybe. Did I buy a bunch of tabletop games that you mostly can’t play at the best of times (because who has that kind of free time) and definitely can’t play in the midst of a pandemic? Almost certainly. Did I get back into Dungeons and Dragons just in time to go into social isolation and then write about how racist it is? You bet I did!

Does any of that matter, in a world where people are dying and laid off and struggling to get by while the ghouls in their high towers play politics with our lives and balk at even so much as throwing us the scraps from their table? Not one iota.

This is getting a little heavy, though, so let’s pump the breaks. I have some good stuff to talk about. We all learned that octopuses like to punch fish, and Painted Monsters took top honors in a best-of retrospective. And hey, if you’d like to take their advice and pick up either Painted Monsters or Guignol, both are currently on sale (along with the entire rest of the Word Horde catalog) direct from the publisher.

For those who may be genuinely curious about the stuff I normally include in an end-of-the-year wrap-up, I watched fewer movies in 2020 than I have in a while. The lockdown had the opposite effect on my viewing habits than it did for a lot of other people, and I found it hard to watch (or read, or write) much of anything I didn’t have to.

Fewer than usual still means 248 movies over the course of the year, though, 155 of which I watched for the first time, meaning that I, at least, breezed by my goal of watching more new-to-me movies than not each year, even if my overall total was down. Among those, high points that didn’t come out anywhere near this year included Hercules in the Haunted World, The Spiral Staircase, Humanoids from the Deep, Mill of the Stone Women, The Outing, Psychomania, Next of Kin (1982), exploring the films of Shinya Tsukamoto for the first time, Prom Night 2, WitchTrap, The Killing (1956), and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time on Christmas Eve.

I already wrote about some of the stories I was proud of seeing published this year – and ones that I’m looking forward to in the future – and this year I also started two new regular columns, one in Weird Horror about, well, weird horror, and one at Unwinnable as much about wanting to play board games as about playing them. I got bylines in The Pitch, our local cool-kid newspaper here in Kansas City, and I started writing an occult cyberpunk novella for Broken Eye Books that I’m currently behind on. (Sorry about that.)

All the way back when I made my very first post of the year ten centuries ago, 2020 had already punched us in the mouth not even one week in with the death of our beloved cat, and I said back in that post that “sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.” I was such a sweet summer child in that moment, and I had no idea how much harder 2020 was about to come at us, but those of us who are still standing got out the other side of this entirely arbitrary calendrical delineation, so let’s at least flip it the bird while we’re burning to death.

If you have the stomach for a somewhat more normal end-of-the-year retrospective, join Tyler and I tonight on the Horror Pod Class. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the next year. Stay safe, stay weird.

Now that it’s December, I think I can say with finality that 2020 will mark the first year since 2015 that I haven’t had a new book out with my name on the spine. It would be tempting to chalk this up to, y’know, 2020, and it’s certainly why there may not be one in 2021 either, but publishing is a slow business, and anything that was going to come out in this dark year would have already been in progress before the year began.

In actuality, there is no reason – either sinister or benign – for there not being a book this year, just as there is no real reason for their being a book each of those others. My first collection came out in 2012, the same year that I co-edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. My second, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, was released by Word Horde in 2015. The following year saw the release of Monsters from the Vault, a collection of short essays I had written as part of a column about vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press.

In 2017, I released both my first and, thus far, only novel – a licensed work for Privateer Press – and a hardcover reprint of my first collection, with a couple of new stories and all-new illustrations by M.S. Corley. 2018 saw the release of my third collection, again from Word Horde, while in 2019 a follow-up to Monsters from the Vault hit shelves.

I have more than enough stories to complete another collection – probably a couple more – but the time is not yet right for any of them. The stories are there, but they do not all fit together. Eventually, those stories will find other stories and together they will form the collections they are meant to inhabit. Until that time, I keep churning.

The next book that’s likely to come out with my name on the cover is probably going to be Neon Reliquary, the short, occult cyberpunk novel that is currently being released in serial form at the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Some delays happened, and they are my fault, but the second installment should be up in the next month or two.

Several stories have already made their way out into the public in various places that are part of a “story cycle” based around Hollow Earths and similar pseudoscience. Once all of those have made their initial bows, the plan is to collect them – along with some original content – into a book, as well. Almost all of them are written and either published or pending publication – one has even made it into the Best Horror of the Year and been reprinted at Nightmare magazine – but various factors have delayed, well, everything, right?

I spent November working on a 40,000 word tabletop gaming-related work-for-hire project that I should be able to announce probably early next year. I had a few new stories published in 2020 that I’m quite proud of. More than in 2019, though not by much. “Prehistoric Animals” in the Weird Fiction Review, “The All-Night Horror Show” at The Dark magazine, “Manifest Destiny” in The Willows Anthology, which also reprinted some of my unfortunate juvenilia from a bygone age, “Screen Haunt” in It Came from the Multiplex, and “The Double-Goer” in Between Twilight and Dawn.

I’ve also sold several stories that have yet to see publication but should be out sometime next year. A Lucio Fulci sword-and-sorcery tribute in Beyond the Book of Eibon, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” in Tales from OmniPark – both of which were funded via Kickstarter – and new stories in that Hollow Earth “story cycle” I mentioned that will be out in New Maps of Dream from PS Publishing and Tales from Arkham Sanitarium from Dark Regions Press. Plus some others that I can’t name just yet.

2020 has been 2020 for everyone. Someone on one of the Slacks that I’m on said that we are all a decade older than we were this time last year, which sounds about right. But so far I’m hanging in there, and I’m still banging out words on the regular, so expect to see more from me as we end this accursed year and start another, hopefully better one.

I hope you’re all hanging in there, too. Stay safe, stay weird.

I’ve never officially participated in National Novel Writing Month and, most likely, I never shall. This is not because of any grudge against NaNoWriMo so much as because I don’t really write novels and if I do, it will probably be under other circumstances.

In fact, the only novel I’ve ever written was a tie-in novel for Privateer Press penned, as fate would have it, largely over the course of a November and December back in 2016. (Which is, incidentally, also why I say that I haven’t ever officially participated in a NaNoWriMo – I did knock out 50,000 words of Godless in November of that year, because deadlines are a hell of a thing.)

It’s not quite so ambitious as that was, but this November I’m actually engaged in another work-for-hire project that is also game related, also due at the end of the month, and about 40,000 or so words of work.

It’ll be in a different form than Godless was and isn’t a sequel or anything, for those rare few who were hoping for such a thing. But once again I am experiencing some NaNoWriMo solidarity as I knuckle down to try to churn out a whole lot of words on top of my usual freelance work for the month.

Sadly, the nature of the project has to remain a secret for now, but as soon as I can let you know what it is, I certainly shall.

So, if you don’t hear from me much in November, that’s why. And if you hear from me a bunch more than usual? That’s also why.

Look, I don’t understand it myself – and, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t really tried very hard to understand it because most days just doing what I’ve gotta do to get by is enough – but reading has been really tough during the pandemic.

I don’t have any idea why (see above), but my to-be-read pile has basically not budged one micron since lockdown began. Ditto with writing fiction, for the most part.

Oh, I’ve been working, still. I’ve been freelancing at about the same pace I was before. I’ve read for work; done some copyedits that I was contracted to do. I’ve written nonfiction: articles and columns and also been working on some other … let’s call them projects. (Mostly homebrew game stuff no one will ever see.)

But when it comes time to actually put digital quill to page and write a story that I don’t already owe to anyone? It just hasn’t been there. Normally, that’s the horror of the writer, right? That we’ll wake up one day and it’ll just be gone. We won’t be able to do it anymore. There won’t be any stories there.

Yet, for whatever reason, I’m not too scared this time. This doesn’t feel like the end; it doesn’t really even feel like a dry spell. It just feels like the end of a long day of work, when you’re not feeling up to even watching a movie or anything more than staring at whatever happens to be on the TV at the moment.

So far, I’m okay with letting it just be that. With letting what I have to do to keep the lights burning and food on the table be enough. With my recent spate of dungeon crawl board games and D&D reading being what I do to keep out the dark, for the time being.

So far, so good.

It’s hard to believe that it’s August 2nd already, as I write this. The pandemic – and with it the rest of the garbage fire that is 2020 – has been … having an effect on my overall life and output, to be sure, and rarely an altogether positive one. (When I told my therapist – via a Zoom call, of course – that I had spent a few days freaking out the prior week, she was like, “Only a few days?! Bravo!”)

As someone who already worked from home, I am far from the hardest hit by this slow-motion apocalypse, but it’s also impossible to be an even remotely empathetic human being and not feel the miasma of strain that currently grips the world.

I am proud and envious of the folks who have turned this time toward productive ends by writing their novel, carving through their to-be-read pile, or even just watching a lot more movies; even while my own TBR pile gathers an ever-deepening layer of dust and the very notion of putting words on the page carries a kind of low-key existential dread.

To my own surprise, I haven’t even watched that many movies during the lockdown. In fact, June was the lightest month since I started keeping score several years ago, with only ten movies watched. Part of that can be chalked up to the (hopefully temporary) death of movie theaters and breakdowns in the supply chain for new review titles, but a part of it is just how I’m coping with [gestures at everything].

July picked up a bit, thanks, in no small part, to Arrow Video’s Shinya Tsukamoto collection, my review of which should be dropping any day now. At ten movies all by itself, it basically guaranteed that I was going to at least eclipse June’s paltry sum.

I’ve still been writing, of course, just not a lot of fiction. My last post was partly about my new gaming column for Unwinnable, and I also wrote about getting into Dungeons & Dragons during the plague times for our local dirtbag/cool kid newspaper The Pitch. (Observant readers may recognize a thinly-veiled version of The Pitch as The Current in my story “The Red Church.”)

This is probably my first byline in an actual print newspaper since college. Like most writers my age, I entertained some fantasies about one day being a journalist, mostly when I was in high school and later a bit in college. Even by the time I was in college, though, the future of print newspapers was already pretty close to utter collapse, so I kinda wrote off the notion of that ever coming to pass. Every once in a while, we get a nice surprise, instead of just a box full of the plague.

As you may be able to gather from that, I’ve been spending a lot of the pandemic getting really into games that I mostly can’t play right now. In addition to D&D, I finally took the plunge on Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a game I’ve been wanting to try for years, just in time for it to probably go out of print, it looks like? (Speaking of, if anyone happens to have the Stewards of the Secret expansion for it, I would love to take that off your hands.)

So far, for a game that I basically haven’t played, I’ve really been enjoying my time looking at and thinking about playing Descent, anyway. I guess there are worse ways of coping…

Apparently, I am a writer of nonfiction these days.

That’s not completely fair. I’ve had new stories in The Weird Fiction Review and The Willows already this year, and It Came from the Multiplex is coming soon, not to mention my story “The All-Night Horror Show,” which went live at The Dark and got a “recommended” from Paula Guran in Locus. I’ve got new stories coming out in Ben Thomas’ OmniPark anthology and some other places I can’t yet name.

But I also can’t deny that I’ve been publishing a lot more nonfiction of late. Besides my usual movie reviews – which, for various reasons, have actually dried up a bit due to the pandemic, but there are more in the wings – I’ve also got a column in Michael Kelly’s forthcoming digest-sized Weird Horror mag, the first installment of which is about those Crestwood House monster books.

And that’s not even my only new column! Those regular readers of this here blog may remember a while back my mentioning a new monthly column that I had coming out over at Unwinnable called “I Played It, Like, Twice,” in which I discussed the joys and sorrows of really wanting to be into board games, but hardly ever playing them.

As it did with most everything else in the entire damn world, the pandemic changed plans for that column somewhat, but I’ve still been writing it, and given that the announcement was a few months ago, I’ve written a few of them!

The first installment discussed playing Horrified during the pandemic, while later installments covered the difficulties I ran into with the rules for the otherwise-admirable Vast: The Mysterious Manor and the pleasures and perils of Rum & Bones, a pirate-themed game of shoving piles of minis around.

Though playing board games is necessarily a different proposition in this brave (?) new world we find ourselves in, I’m still plowing ahead with the column and also I’ve recently gotten really into Descent, in spite of not having yet played it even once, so expect some more about that in the future …

Dear Diary,

This is day XX of quarantine. It would be lovely to say that I don’t know how many days this has been going on because of the pandemic but, to be honest, sheltering in place is not much different than being a freelancer always is, with the exception that I can’t go to Analog Sunday and Grace is always home.

Life goes on, even under the strangest of conditions, and I figured it was high time for a check-in on what’s been happening for me in the writing arena – the stuff I can talk about, at any rate.

So far, 2020 has already seen the publication of three of my stories, which is the same number that I published in total last year, so that’s not nothing.

“The All-Night Horror Show” is live at The Dark. For those who attended last year’s Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, this was the story that I read near the end of the Symposium, before the whole spook show presentation.

My story “Prehistoric Animals” is in the latest issue of the Weird Fiction Review from Centipede Press – bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title is borrowed from. And most recently, my all-new story that is extremely critical of American imperialism, “Manifest Destiny,” is in The Willows Anthology. Pick it up, and you’ll also get a bunch of (probably regrettable) juvenalia written by me many years ag

More stuff is coming later this year, to the extent that we can predict anything ever or especially right now. I recently finished up a story with the hard-to-beat title, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop.” I wish that I could take credit for it, but it’s a misremembered paraphrase from an essay Ray Bradbury wrote about Disneyland, of all places.

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It’s bound for a shared-world anthology (something I generally steer clear of) that’s being put together by the minds behind The Willows – an anthology that’s currently accepting submissions, if you wanna try for a shot at sharing a TOC with that imposing title.

As usual, I’ve been working on nonfiction more than fiction of late, though most of it has been freelance work. Movie reviews have necessarily dropped off a bit, due to the whole pandemic thing, but they aren’t gone completely.

My first piece for Kansas City’s local dirtbag newspaper The Pitch – savvy readers of my work may recognize a thinly-veiled version of it as The Current in “The Red Church” – recently went live, in which I reviewed Robert Altman’s jazz opus Kansas City. Meanwhile, over at Signal Horizon, I covered the Vincent Price flick The Mad Magician and the Italian Exorcist knock-off Beyond the Door.

On Twitter, I’ve also been keeping a running list of my favorite new-to-me movies that I saw for the first time this year that didn’t come out this year.

Outside of the realm of direct reviews, I wrote about the works of Thomas Ligotti and cosmic nihilism in the film Gags the Clown, which we also talked about on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. (For those who don’t know, I’m now the regular co-host of the Horror Pod Class, which is weekly for the duration of the pandemic, satisfying my contractual obligation to co-host a podcast as ostensibly a white dude of a certain age.)

Next week, we’ll be talking about Attack of the Crab Monsters, so stay tuned!

Tonight, I recorded an episode of the Horror Pod Class with Tyler (my usual co-host) and Adam Roberts, owner of the Screenland, which you’ve no doubt seen me talk about a lot. I’ll edit this to put up a link when the episode goes live later this week. (The current most recent episode talks about Noroi, another of my favorite films.)

[ETA: Here’s the link to the Legend of Hell House episode!]

As we always do on the Horror Pod Class, we discussed a horror movie. Because he was the guest, Adam got to pick, and so we talked about The Legend of Hell House*, which is one of my favorite haunted house movies, and the adaptation of literally my top number one favorite haunted house novel, Richard Matheson’s Hell House.

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If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please stop reading this right now and go do so. Both are really quite good, and if you like my work, or if you and I share relatively similar tastes in horror, you are unlikely to regret heeding my advice on this, even if the tale doesn’t hit you where you live quite like it does for me.

For those of you who have read it or seen it and are familiar with my work, you may be unsurprised to know that Hell House had a huge influence on me, and on a lot of my stories. Like Clive Barker, the sadistic and psychosexual themes of the novel aren’t what hooked me or what were reproduced in my fiction, even though they are certainly what’s laying around on the surface.

You can find echoes of Hell House in the figure in the chair in “The Granfalloon,” in the history of the house in “Nearly Human,” and countless stories featuring hauntings that aren’t what they appear to be.

Matheson had a keen scholarly interest in spiritualist beliefs, and his fictionalized depictions of those beliefs factor into just about every story I’ve ever written that features spiritualism or seances or anything of the sort. His uncompleted novel Come Fygures, Come Shadowes, about a family of mediums, was the keystone to my as-yet-unpublished short story “On Blueberry Hill.”

I’ve read plenty of other Matheson novels and short stories. I Am Legend is, of course, a classic, and I remember being quite fond of his locked-room magician mystery Now You See It…

And, of course, Matheson was responsible for the screenplays of many of my favorite films. Not just adaptations of his own work, but movies like The Pit and the PendulumThe Devil Rides Out, and so on.

But it was Hell House with its matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural that nevertheless stripped it of none of its gothic grandeur that left the biggest imprint on my own fiction, and continues to do so to this day. Re-watching and talking about Legend of Hell House just reminded me of how much that was true.

* Not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House or The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill.

I missed the official 100th anniversary of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by a couple of days – it was apparently February 26 – but it seemed wrong to let the occasion pass by completely without at least marking it in some way.

Caligari was a film that I became obsessed with years before I ever saw it. Two decades ago, when Mezco Toys was still called Aztech, they released a line of figures based on classic silent horror films, including one of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, looking a bit like Robert Smith of The Cure.

Cesare was the only one of the so-called Silent Screamers toys I ever bought – a decision I regret to this day, when I would love to get my hands on a Graf Orlok or a Golem. But I also still have the Cesare figure by my desk.

The long, sharp shadows of German expressionism and early silent films have long had a major influence on my own aesthetic, even before I had ever actually seen most of them. Caligari, which I first saw in college, not long after buying that toy, remains a movie that I’ve watched only a few times, and yet one that sticks with me in everything I do.

In part, this is because Caligari is a film that can be enjoyed in still frames almost as much as it can be as a movie. I’ve said before that most entire films aren’t as gorgeous or potent as any given frame of Caligari, and I stand by that.

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A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a story to The Madness of Dr. Caligari, a deluxe anthology of stories inspired by the silent classic, edited by Joe Pulver. The story I turned in, “Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic,” concerns an ill-fated Poverty Row production of a 1946 movie called The Corpse Walks, which features some familiar figures.

But it’s far from the only story I ever wrote that had Caligari‘s long shadow over it. “Night’s Foul Bird” in Painted Monsters may be more concerned with Nosferatu and Faust and London After Midnight, but there’s no denying that Cesare is in there somewhere, or that the plot of Caligari (and its successors) runs like a dark vein through “Stygian Chambers,” the story I wrote for Pluto in Furs which, when I first started writing it, was going to be named for a line from the Robert Bloch-penned 1962 remake Cabinet of Caligari.

Even early stories like “The Mysterious Flame,” which anchors my first collection, are filled with the shadows of German expressionist cinema in general, with Caligari as maybe its most striking exemplar.

Nor am I likely to extricate myself from those painted-on shadows anytime soon. A hundred years gone by, and they’ve still never made another movie quite like Caligari – and it may be that they never will.

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.

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