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painted monsters

So, here’s a story: Back when I was putting together my very first collection, it was originally going to include a story called “The Tooth.” Around the same time, however, Cullen Bunn was putting out a comic called The Tooth. To make matters worse, his comic was about a monster hero in the ’70s Marvel style that grew from a dragon’s tooth, while my story was about a ghost/monster that grew from a dead wizard’s tooth. What’s more, the publisher of my first collection happened to also be publishing some of Cullen’s stuff.

In other words, Cullen Bunn and I were engaged in a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing scenario, while we were both writing for the same publisher. “The Tooth” got retitled and, ultimately, pulled from my first collection, to eventually find its way into print (under its new and, frankly, better title, “Remains”) first in Strange Aeons and then in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts.

Cullen Bunn and I aren’t friends, per se, but we’ve remained on friendly terms over the years. He lives in Missouri, I live in Kansas right by the Missouri line, which means that we find ourselves at the same conventions and whatnot a lot of the time. In the years since my first collection came out, his career as a comic book writer has skyrocketed, and he has written, well, just all sorts of things, including lots of stuff for Marvel and DC, not to mention the really great Harrow County and The Sixth Gun.

What reminded me of all this was that last night, I finally got around to watching a movie that came out last year called The Empty Man. It’s adapted from one of Cullen’s comics. The movie seems to be divisive, but most of the weird fic folks I know who have seen it like it, and I totally get why. It’s a big swing at cosmic horror, fronted by a cold open that’s basically an M. R. James ghost story with a Zdzislaw Beksinski creature, and told in the form of a detective flick. Think True Detective only, honestly, this does it better.

It’s long as hell, which I actually dug, because I hate when movies are long except when they’re also long and boring. No, wait, what I mean is, I’m a sucker for overlong procedural stuff. People looking at photographs, digging through papers, going to places and putting pieces together. I can watch that all goddamn day, if it’s done even remotely well, and especially if there’s a supernatural component at the heart of it all.

Add to this that the film is set (though mostly not shot) in and around St. Louis, and I was completely onboard for the whole ride. If you haven’t seen it and you dig cosmic horror, weird fiction, and detective narratives, give it a shot. If you have, or if you’re not into it, at least it prompted me to tell an odd little anecdote about one of my stories…

This time, two years ago, I had recently been a guest on the Nightmare Junkhead podcast to talk about the then-new 2019 Hellboy movie from director Neil Marshall. Since then, I have not revisited the movie even once, which probably tells you all about the flick’s quality that you’ll ever need to know.

As has been a recurring theme of late, it feels indescribably surreal to discuss events at once so temporally near and yet which feel so impossibly distant. I saw Greg and Jenius (altogether too briefly) at Panic Fest, for the first time since October of last year and, before that, the last time I had seen them might well have been the October before.

This is all coming up because tonight is Walpurgisnacht, perhaps the closest thing we have to a second Halloween in the middle of the spring. “Walpurgisnacht” is also the title of one of my more popular stories, which originally saw print in the Laird Barron tribute antho Children of Old Leech and was later reprinted in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, which came out lo these six years gone by.

Interestingly, I was reminded of that story recently for reasons other than the date. I’ve been reading the latest Junji Ito manga to receive English-language release, Lovesickness, and the title story in that volume discusses the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre, which figures heavily in my tale, taking place, as it does, atop the peak from which the phenomenon takes its name.

I don’t have any big plans for the occasion this year. Maybe I’ll play a solo game of Cursed City if I become extremely ambitious. More likely, I’ll just work until late and then watch a witchy devil movie like Curse of the Demon, City of the Dead, or Curse of the Crimson Altar. How are you celebrating witch’s night?

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.

“If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”

In case you were concerned that I was abandoning my core brand with all this recent talk about Dungeons & Dragons and board games, I lately learned that there was a 1962 episode of the show Route 66 in which Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr. guest star as themselves.

Better still, I learned that it’s currently on Prime. So, today I watched it. Please bear in mind that I have never seen even a single other episode of Route 66 – which a little sleuthing tells me was a show in the same “semi-anthology” format as series-creator Stirling Silliphant’s other famous series, The Naked City, with a couple of recurring characters but stand-alone stories driven by the guest stars – and, indeed, didn’t even know the basic plot of the show before I sat down to watch this episode.

The episode, which is set and shot outside Chicago, originally showed on October 26, 1962. Its dual plots involve our two ostensible protagonists (played by Martin Milner and George Maharis) taking jobs as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison” at a hotel where a secretary’s convention is being held along with a secret meeting between Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney (as well as Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula playing their legal advisor) so that the trio can plan a new series of horror films they will be producing.

Peter Lorre is convinced that the old ways are the best ways and wants to create new movies in the classic gothic style, arguing in favor of monsters in which people can see themselves. Karloff, on the other hand, doesn’t think that anyone will be afraid of the creaky old monsters, and wants to create new, “adult” horror. (“My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” Karloff would lament just six years later in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. “No one is afraid of a painted monster.”)

In fact, this episode of Route 66 makes a good thematic double-feature with the much more serious Targets, which tackles a similar question with regards to the efficacy of classic horror and comes to very different conclusions. Dedicated readers no doubt remember me writing about Targets in the past, and recognize the above quote as the source of the title of my second collection.

This episode, titled “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” came out just six years before Bogdanovich’s film, but a world of difference has elapsed in those six years. If Targets is a film about how horror cinema – and the nation – changed from before the ’60s to after, then “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” is an episode that sees that change coming, but still takes refuge in the comforts of what was.

Not that this is a thematically-dense episode. It’s a confection, and mostly an excuse for Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney to have a blast – which they do, from Chaney’s weepy temper tantrums when people aren’t afraid of him to the recurring gag that people are afraid of Peter Lorre, even when he’s not trying.

“You’re the spitting image of Peter Lorre,” the desk clerk tells him, as he’s checking in incognito. “A bit insulting, isn’t it?” Lorre replies, as only Lorre can. Later, as Chaney in his wolf-man getup is frightening the secretaries and causing them to faint, three of them faint dead away upon catching sight of Lorre just standing there like normal.

“I think I resent that,” Lorre quips, aridly.

It’s also a piece of horror history – even while it’s really nothing more than a piece of horror ephemera. Karloff dons a cut-rate version of the Frankenstein’s monster makeup for the first time since 1939, and we get to see Chaney done up as the mummy, the wolf-man, and even a take on his late father’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

As we all grope blindly in the dark for silver linings amid all the peeled grapes and cold spaghetti of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of people excited that we’re halfway around to Halloween – though I’ve seen an equal number wondering just what Halloween is going to look like this year, with a plague on and all.

In fact, we’re excited enough about the date that we did a special “halfway to Halloween” episode of the Horror Pod Class, where Tyler and I talked about the 2019 movie Haunt and he history of commercial haunted houses. It’s honestly worth it just for the bit from a pamphlet for parents organizing haunted houses back in the ’30s, which suggests, among other things, nailing raw liver to the walls.

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Whatever happens with the pox and all that, we keep Halloween alive in our hearts as much as in our celebrations, right? And we can all watch scary movies and read spooky books anytime, even when we’re in quarantine.

Speaking of which, since this is also Walpurgisnacht, I usually take this evening to talk a bit about the story I wrote of that name, which originally appeared in The Children of Old Leech and can also be found in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts – both from Word Horde.

It’s a night for revels and devilry and old, black-and-white witchy movies like Night/Curse of the DemonCity of the Dead, or Haxan. Over on Facebook, I saw someone watching The Devil Rides Out, and that’ll also do.

* Image from a manga that I don’t know the name of, courtesy of Haunted Horror‘s Steve Banes.

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.

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.

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.

Today is the big day! As you read these words, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales is shipping from the publisher, making its way to your mailbox, or being deposited onto the shelves of better booksellers everywhere to prey upon the unsuspecting.

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I’ve had a box of copies sitting on the floor of my office for a few days now, and I’m planning some book launch festivities in the coming weeks. If you happen to be in Manhattan (the one in Kansas, not the one in New York), I will be reading at the Driptorch Creative Performance Series at Arrow Coffee Co. on October 12. And if you’re a Kansas City-area local, the official book launch party will be October 14 at the Tapcade, where I’ll also be hosting a FREE screening of Mario Bava’s gothic classic Black Sunday. I will have copies of the book available at both events.

More about what I’m doing for the rest of the month to come, but for now I wanted to talk a little (more) about Guignol, how it came to pass, and what you can expect to find between its covers. For those who are coming here fresh, Guignol is my third collection of short horror stories of the strange and supernatural, and my second from Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde imprint. From the cover art by Nick Gucker to the stories themselves, I think it makes a particularly good companion piece to my previous Word Horde collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts.

Guignol is slightly longer than my previous collections, and contains fourteen of my grimmest and darkest tales to date, though hopefully these “cruel stories” aren’t without their fun, too. It’s also probably got more monsters-per-page than anything else I’ve ever written, so there’s always that.

Of the fourteen weird stories in Guignol, four are appearing in print for the first time, while several others are out-of-print or difficult to find. The full table-of-contents is as follows:

Dream House
The Lesser Keys
Guignol
Shadders
The Blue Light
A Circle That Ever Returneth In
Programmed to Receive
The Well and the Wheel
Haruspicate or Scry
Dark and Deep
Invaders of Gla’aki
Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet
The Cult of Headless Men
When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars

Of course, all fourteen tales are accompanied by my usual author’s notes, plus the book features an introduction by none other than Gemma Files! All in all, I’m extremely happy with how Guignol has come together, and extremely grateful to Ross Lockhart for once again having me as a member of the Horde, and I can’t wait for it to make its way out into the world.

Guignol has already been reviewed at Publisher’s Weekly and Signal Horizon with more to come, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this and other suitably spooky topics throughout the month of October, but for now, happy book birthday to Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, and if you didn’t already pre-order your copy, you can buy it direct from the publisher right here!