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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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I didn’t publish very much fiction this year, but I am proud of what I did publish. “Doctor Pitt’s Menagerie” in Bargains from Pine Float Press, “Stygian Chambers” in Pluto in Furs, and “The Splitfoot Reel” in the memento book at NecronomiCon Providence.

That’s it for new stories, although this year also saw my third appearance in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, this time reprinting my story “No Exit,” which originally appeared in Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road. “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” which was one of the original stories in my third collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales last year, was performed on Pseudopod this year as well.

When it comes to new work, though, this was the year I really became a film writer. I’ve been writing about film – in both my fiction and nonfiction – for a long time, but this was the year that I started adding bylines at Signal Horizon, where I am the official Monster Ambassador, and Unwinnable. Where I started receiving Blu-rays for review, and critic’s passes to preview screenings of new films.

At Signal Horizon, I also took over co-hosting duties of the Horror PodClass, where Tyler Unsell and I talk about movies and academic theories or lesson plans every couple of weeks. Most recently, we chatted about Black Christmas – both the new and the old – and subtext.

I won’t link to all the many reviews I’ve written over the course of the year, but if you want to follow along you can find most of them here, with more to come in the future.

I also had a book come out this year, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault from Innsmouth Free Press. It’s the sequel to Monsters from the Vault, as you might have guessed, but where that book collected all the Vault of Secrets columns I had written for IFP over the years, this one is almost all entirely new material, never published anywhere else.

That book launched at NecronomiCon Providence, which I was finally able to attend this year. I was on a couple of panels, attended some others, walked the nighted streets of Providence – a city at once familiar and strange, as was only appropriate – and got to introduce a secret screening of Matango.

NecronomiCon was one of the only conventions I made it to this year. Of course, I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January, and I went to Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in March.

In fact, Tyler and I made the mistake of driving down overnight, which meant that I hit the Symposium having been awake for some 36 hours straight. Either the worst conditions for the event, or the ideal ones, even I’m not sure which.

I took a few out-of-town trips that weren’t directly related to work, such as a vacation to Myrtle Beach, where I got to assume that I was going to meet my Tethered in an abandoned spook house and get murdered. Of course, that didn’t happen – or did it?

This was also the year where I got to shelter-in-place when the Screenland was nearly hit by a tornado while we were watching the heavy metal horror movie Black Roses. Which, on that subject, this was also the year that I started regularly attending Analog Sunday at the Screenland, which has changed my life in all sorts of good ways.

When October rolled around, I hosted a bunch of stuff, and attended a bunch more stuff, as part of the local Shocktober programming here in town. And then, on my birthday, I got sick. And unfortunately, the cough that came with that illness has carried with me all this time.

The doctors say its post-viral bronchitis. I coughed so much that the nerves that trigger coughing got damaged, and now they just keep coughing. Unfortunately, the more I cough, the longer it will take them to heal, so I’m now taking measures to limit my activity in order to limit my coughing. Fingers crossed, and all that.70675603_10156706916314503_8400888024463835136_n (2)

I published my customary year end wrap-up back at the end of December, but in it I realize that I perhaps gave somewhat short shrift to my publishing accomplishments for the year, so I decided that a more in-depth post on the subject was in order.

Of course, the biggest writing news of 2018 was the publication of Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, my third collection of short stories about ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and my second through Word HordeGuignol contains fourteen (14) strange tales, four (4) of them appearing in print for the first time.

Counting those four new stories, the total number of new stories I published in 2018 is nine (9). I also had two (2) reprints this year. “Goblins,” which originally appeared as a bonus story in the deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing was podcast at Pseudopod just in time for Halloween, read by none other than the Old Gent himself, Leeman Kessler, and my story “The Granfalloon,” originally in Darker Companions, was reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, marking the second time one of my stories has made it into that esteemed volume.

Other stories that came out in 2018 include “Hollow Earths” in Chthonic from Martian Migraine Press, “The Pepys Lake Monster” in Test Patterns: Creature Features from Planet X Publishing, “No Exit” in Lost Highways from Crystal Lake, “Masks” in the second issue of Forbidden Futures, and “The Hurrah (aka Corpse Scene)” at The Dark. That doesn’t seem like a ton of new fiction, but I’m proud of every one of them, and of the original stories that appeared in Guignol. I’ve also been hard at work on some other stories and projects that should be seeing the light of day in 2019.

In 2018, I was also lucky enough to get to pen the introduction to Amanda Downum’s long-awaited short story collection Still So Strange and I started publishing more of my film writing in places other than here, including reviews at Signal Horizon and Unwinnable. I’m particularly proud of this one.

There’s more stories, more film writing, and more monsters coming in 2019. In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, you could always throw a few bucks into my proverbial tip jar to help me keep doing this.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve still got, like, a week left, but it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to publish anything more in those few days, so let’s go ahead and get this dumpster fire of a year behind us, shall we? (Remember when we all thought that 2016 was kind of the epitome of a bad year? We were so adorable.)

Given the way the last few months of this year, especially, have gone, with various health crises and escalating stress, it’s easy to forget that I accomplished much of anything at all during the rest of it, but I actually published a few stories and, hard as it is to believe, two books in 2017! And by “a few” I mean roughly five new stories of mine came out in 2017, six if you count the one new story in the deluxe hardcover edition of Never Bet the Devil. I had stories in The Children of Gla’akiFor Mortal Things UnsungTerror in 16-BitsTales from a Talking Board, and Darker Companions. (For those keeping score at home, that’s actually two Ramsey Campbell tribute anthologies, and not a single overtly Lovecraft-themed one. Maybe a record?)

On top of that, 2017 saw the release of my first novel, in a manner that I would never have expected in a million years. Godless, the first volume in a proposed series chronicling the adventures of Tristan, nicest of all the Protectorate of Menoth warcasters, was released by Privateer Press back in April. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also got the distinction of being the first writer to permanently kill off a major in-game character, so that was pretty cool. The book was written in something of a rush to meet my deadlines, but it seems to have been received fairly well. I dedicated it to Ray Harryhausen, and earlier this month I got to visit an exhibit of Ray Harryhausen models, storyboards, concept art, and other ephemera in Oklahoma City, which was a rare pleasure indeed.

In non-licensed work, 2017 also saw the re-release of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, in a fancy deluxe hardcover edition courtesy of Strix Publishing. The (jaw-dropping) cover design and pitch-perfect interior illustrations are all the work of Mike Corley, one of my favorite artists in the business and pretty much my first and only choice to work on this book. Besides adding new illustrations by Mike, I wanted to make sure that the deluxe edition had some added value for those who had already purchased the (now out of print) paperback original, so we also included two additional stories that weren’t in the first release. One of them, “Goblins,” was entirely original to the collection, while the other, “A Night for Mothing,” is a difficult-to-find rarity that was originally published in The Mothman Files all the way back in 2011.

Besides heading out to the Ray Harryhausen exhibit in early December, I managed to make a handful of convention appearances throughout the year, despite my wretched health. I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January for the first time as a civilian (previous years I had helped out with booths and other odds-and-ends), something I plan to do again this year. I was a guest of the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in Atlanta back in March and at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland in October, where we actually launched Never Bet the Devil & Other Warning. I’m told that no less a personage than Barbara Steele stopped by the booth to inquire about the book, but at the time I was out getting a burrito, which is probably just as well, so that I couldn’t pitch it to her by explaining that, “I think it’s got ghosts and stuff.”

In-between all of those, I also made a trip up to Minneapolis to see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit At Home with Monsters, and a trip to the Boulder area of Colorado, mostly to accompany Grace to a low flutes retreat, though I also used the opportunity to meet up with some writing acquaintances and do a bit of writing myself, including penning a story that I’m pretty proud of which is part of a lengthier story cycle that I mostly finished during the course of this year, though none of the new additions to it have seen print just yet.

Lots more stuff happened in 2017. I watched a lot of movies, read a few books, was sick a lot, had an emergency surgery, spent my birthday recovering from that, and did a whole host of the other usual stuff that you do in a year, even one where everything is on fire. I’ll have most posts about the movies I watched in 2017, as well as a Year in Creatures, most likely, but those will have to wait until the year is actually over. For now, that’s most of what I accomplished as far as writing and publishing go, and that’s what we’re here for.