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Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday for all sorts of reasons, but just as the agnostic in me can enjoy Christmas or any other non-secular holiday (with its own freight of both Christian and pre-Christian baggage), I can also still take a day to spend time with the people I love and remind myself to be grateful for the things that I have.

This year I have lots of things to be grateful for. After a particularly tough year in the Grey demesne, the overall health of our populace seems to be returning to something more resembling “normal.”

More than perhaps anything else, I’m thankful for the people in my life. I am lucky enough to have friends who are closer than family. Some of them live near me, and some are very far away. Some I have already seen this holiday season, and others I have never actually stood in the same room with, but to all of you, wherever you are, you are, in so many ways, the best parts of my life. If it weren’t for you folks and dumb monster movies, there’d be very little to make any of this worth doing.

I’m grateful to have Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales out in the wild, and grateful to everyone who has purchased it, read it, reviewed it, and so on. I’m particularly grateful to be working with Ross E. Lockhart and Word Horde once again and hey, on the subject, they’re having a Black Friday sale that runs through the weekend where you can get 25% off any of their very fine titles, including the aforementioned Guignol or Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts.

I’m thankful for the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird and everyone who makes it possible, which, more on that to come. I’m grateful for some story sales that I can’t announce just yet, but very soon.

I’ve recently come off a pretty good October, and I’m grateful to the local Kansas City film community for helping to make that happen. Of special note, I appreciate the folks at Screenland who host great programming all year round, and to Elijah at Magnetic Magic Rentals who always shows us a great time at Analog Sundays, and, of course, the Nerds of Nostalgia who put on the Nerdoween triple-feature, which has been my annual tradition for four years now. I’m grateful that Panic Fest is only a couple of months away, and that I live in a place that has one of the best genre film fests around!

This could go on and on, and maybe it should, but I’m going to call it a night. Basically, it can be all-too-easy to get caught up in the agonizing hellscape that our current timeline often seems to be intent on contorting itself into, so sometimes it’s good to stop and remember what I’m grateful for. Which, if you’re reading this, is mostly you.

(And monster movies.)

Today is the day after the midterm elections here in the United States, so things are perhaps marginally better than they were yesterday. At least in Kansas we managed to replace Kevin Yoder with Sharice Davids and we got Laura Kelly for governor instead of Chris Kobach, so we could certainly have done worse.

I don’t talk a lot about politics on here, and that isn’t about to change now, but I did talk a little bit about politics on the latest episode of the Missouri Loves Company podcast with Brock Wilbur and Viv Kane (if that is her real name…). Of course, we also talked about fun horror, that video game of The Thing that they made years ago, what Jordan Peele is up to these days, Clive Barker’s Facebook tendencies, Venom greeting cards, why Brock hates art, and lots of other stuff.

One thing I want to mention, in that podcast I say that I try not to think about what’s going on in the world politically when I’m writing. To some extent that’s true, insofar as the day-to-day politics of the United States don’t specifically factor into most of my stories, but what I guess would be considered “my politics” definitely do make their way in, just in broader terms that I would think of more as ethics. The specter of racism hangs over several of my stories, classism plays a big role in tales like “Shadders,” anti-imperialism and anti-war sentiment shows up in “The Blue Light,” etc.

More than any of that, though, I try to write about characters who feel at least a little bit like real people, who deserve dignity from one-another, even when they don’t get it from an indifferent universe. Certainly, as someone who grew up feeling different, I have sympathy for the outsider, the Other, the monster. But I also just try to casually inject diversity into my stories, in a way that lays a groundwork for simple acceptance. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I do try.

There’s no such thing as a story that isn’t political, and I don’t want to get caught in the trap of saying that my stories aren’t. They are, often in ways that even I don’t realize, and I hope that they sometimes reflect what I think is important in the world, even when I’m usually not specifically thinking about what’s going on in the latest headlines as I write.

In other news, another glowing and thoughtful review of Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales recently showed up, this time on Heavy Feather Review: “At the heart of Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales is a monster, and it might just be us. The real question is, are you willing to pay the price to find out?”

 

A very long time ago, when LiveJournal was still a thing, my standard user icon there was an old convention sketch that Mike Mignola had done of what would later become his signature skull-head guy. I used it so often, in fact, that I came to sort of be known for it.

Back then, I was also doing some work for a now-defunct magazine of classic-style weird fiction called The Willows. Ben Thomas, editor of The Willows, was putting together a masthead for the magazine that included little portraits of all the staff, done by my old friend Reyna. I asked if I could have her draw her own take on the skull-head guy to use as my staff portrait, and Ben agreed.

To go along with the portraits, we were all supposed to contribute a short bio. I’ve never enjoyed writing bios for myself, and so I was dragging my feet, as usual. In order to do layout, Ben composed a one-sentence bio for me as a placeholder. It read, simply, “Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters.” It has been my bio ever since.

Because the skull-head portrait was now sort of made official by its inclusion in the bio, when it came time to publish my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, I decided to check with the publishers at Evil Eye Books to see if I could stick with it. They agreed, and Reyna drew up a new version, which decorates the back cover of the first edition of Never Bet the Devil. By then, my identity as a skeleton was cemented, and there was no going back.

I used a version of the portrait on my website and my business cards. Before I started using it officially, though, I felt like I had to make sure it was okay. I reached out to Mike Mignola, told him the story, and asked him if he’d mind. He was kind enough to give me his blessing.

A few years later, I asked Mike Corley to do up a new version of the skeleton portrait, which currently decorates my website and business cards. Mike Corley would also illustrate the Strix Publishing reissue of Never Bet the Devil, where another take on the skeleton portrait appears as my “author photo.” A stand-in for my skeleton persona has since appeared on the covers of just about all of my books, with Nick Gucker handling the art duties on both Painted Monsters and Guignol and Thomas Boatwright doing me up for Monsters from the Vault.

TattooAll of this sort of came full circle recently when I saw someone post a photo of their tattoo on a Mike Mignola appreciation group that I’m a member of on Facebook. I recognized the tattoo immediately as… my author photo! The individual in question had never heard of me or Mike Corley, and didn’t know where he had gotten the image. He had made a couple of minor changes and embellished the whole thing with some tentacles, but the resemblance was unmistakable.

We had a nice conversation about it, and I sent him a copy of Never Bet the Devil, because it’s not every day that someone gets a tattoo of me, even by accident.

It’s not the only time that the resemblance between my skeleton persona and Mike Mignola’s skull-head guys has been noted, and it probably won’t be the last. It isn’t something I did on purpose, but I’m pretty happy about it. After all, Mike is probably my single biggest influence and inspiration, when it comes to the kind of work I do, and it’s nice to have my infatuation with his work tied up in my authorial persona this way.

Today is his birthday and, because I am good at stuff, I didn’t plan anything for it like I normally would, but the tattoo thing happened not that long ago, so I’m telling this story now, to mark the occasion.

There’s been a link making the rounds on Film Twitter lately alleging that 1994 was the Best Year For Movies Ever, or somesuch. I haven’t actually read it yet, and any time I’ve seen it posted it’s been in the form of someone indignantly asserting that, in point of fact, it wasn’t even the best year of that decade, etc. I’m not really here to talk about that.

Here’s what I am here to talk about: As I’ve watched people debating the merits of specific years in the ’90s, I’ve come to the realization that 1999 may be the most important year in film for me, personally, at least when it comes to seeing movies in the theatre.

I’ve loved movies for literally as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until high school that I started to regard loving movies as a part of my identity, for lack of any better way to put it, and seeing American Beauty in 1999 is probably the moment that made me realize that I liked movies, not just movies about ghosts and monsters–that I loved the form, as well as the content.

I’ve got clear, sharp, important memories of seeing movies in theatres prior to 1999: TremorsMonster SquadAlien 3Jurassic Park, an ill-fated attempt to take a date to see Screamers, which may go a long way toward explaining why I didn’t have more dates. But in 1999, I went to the movies just about every weekend, and I may have seen more movies on the big screen than any other year, before or since. (A more accurate portrait would extend this timeline both backward and forward, including parts of 1998 and 2000.)

American BeautyLake PlacidHouse on Haunted HillThe Mummy, the list goes on and on. I already liked movies before that year, but the movies I saw on the big screen in 1999 played a role in setting the stakes of my taste in movies, and letting me know that I had a taste, that there was something to the movies I liked that was distinct from them necessarily being “good” or “bad.” There was something about them that drew me, specifically.

I went to see The Haunting on opening night, through a theatre lobby filled with fake fog and cheap Halloween decorations. I had friends wave away my warnings about The Haunting and drag me back for a second showing, after which we went to see Lake Placid as penance. I drove with a bunch of other friends all the way to the other side of the city to see Princess Mononoke, the first anime I had ever seen on the big screen. I saw The Blair Witch Project on opening night, when the hype around it was still fresh and seeing it felt like an experience. I learned that I liked House on Haunted Hill more than ostensibly better movies like The Sixth Sense.

I also got to familiarize myself with the phenomenon of hype and disappointment, as I joined every other nerd on the planet standing in line for Star Wars Episode 1 only to get, well, Star Wars Episode 1.

Not everything I saw that year was something I liked, even then, and not everything that I liked then has stayed with me in the years since, but I learned a lot about myself, and my relationship to film, and to moviegoing, that year, and a lot of that has stuck with me, even as specific films faded away.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot more movies on home video than I ever did–or likely will–in theatres, and movies from a lot of different decades have had a huge impact on me at various times. If I had to pick a favorite year for movies, I have no idea what year I would decide on, and if I had to pick a favorite decade, it almost certainly wouldn’t be the ’90s. But if there’s one year of going to the movies that “made me,” then 1999 would probably be it, for better or for worse.

As someone with a pretty significant anxiety disorder, I get asked a lot why I write (and read, and most of all watch) horror, and most of the time I don’t really have a very good answer. In her latest essay for Nightmare Magazine, Nadia Bulkin certainly hits on part of it. That desire for control, that need to experience our fear in digestible quantities, in a safe space. It’s not a new idea. It’s been trotted out to explain our fascination with everything from scary movies to Halloween haunted houses to rides at the state fair. But it never quite rang true for me. My relationship with horror, as I said on social media when sharing a link to Nadia’s essay, has always been more chummy than cathartic, for reasons that I still haven’t completely figured out.

I think a part of it is quite simply this: Horror doesn’t really scare me. Not the way that it’s supposed to. Not in the hands-over-your-eyes, middle-of-the-night-call-from-the-hospital way that Nadia describes. Maybe there was a time when it did. When I was a little kid, hiding behind the couch from the dog body strung up in C.H.U.D. or getting nightmares from the dead mother with a dog’s head sitting at the foot of Edward Furlong’s bed in Pet Sematary 2. (As a kid, I was pretty scared of dogs. Still am, if they bark, though I’ve gotten more used to it.)

Mostly, though, it was real life that scared me. Horror felt like a place I could escape to. One that acknowledged the darkness and pain of the world–that, in fact, elated it, to some extent–but that also offered something else. Beauty, sometimes, and the opportunity for transcendence. Someplace where pain became elegaic, rather than quotidiain.

That’s part of it, sure, but there’s also this: Horror didn’t scare me, but it let me feel scared. What’s the difference? I’m honestly not sure I know, let alone can explain, but I’ll try. My particular condition causes me to “get out of my body,” as my therapist says. I stop feeling much of anything. Feeling anything becomes dangerous and scary all on its own, regardless of the nature of the feeling. Horror movies let me feel in a way that also feels safe. I can wrap myself in them, and then I’m both in my body and not at the same time.

I think that may be why I can’t do it in the light. Why I need horror to keep at least some ragged vestiges of its edge to work. Why it isn’t enough for a thing to have monsters, it needs to also have a little bit of atmosphere. That atmosphere is the dark room; the place where fear bleeds in and reality bleeds away, so that I can feel without feeling too much.

Or maybe I just like monsters.

Back when I still worked at a video store, a woman came in with her young son–he was probably around 9 or 10 years old, but I am also notoriously terrible at guessing the ages of the children, so who knows? He badly wanted to rent the Brendan Fraser Mummy movie, which she had seen, but she was concerned that it would be too violent and scary for him. She wanted to show him Raiders of the Lost Ark, because she had watched it when she was about his age.

Overhearing all this conversation as they browsed the shelves, when she came up to the counter to ask my opinion, I reminded her of some of the stuff that actually happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The face-melting. The scene with the airplane propeller. Etc. They ended up leaving with both movies, and I felt pretty good about that day.

I tell this story now to illustrate that people have short, selective memories. People my age who ostensibly grew up reading comic books complain that comic books are “too political now” or whatever, handily forgetting how ludicrously heavy-handed the messages in comic books often were when I was a kid. Most recently, I have seen people picking at the notion of a sort of all-ages line of stuff for Warhammer and Warhammer 40K.

Now, leaving aside the fact that I, like a lot of people, first got into Warhammer and Warhammer 40K when I was a kid of about the age these books are probably targeted toward, sure, Warhammer may seem like an odd property to adapt for youngsters. “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war,” and all that. But it obviously appeals to kids, and it’s certainly not the first odd-duck property to get the all-ages makeover, nor the most unlikely. (Not to mention the fact that anything that acknowledges the obvious existence of kids in this setting is only going to be a big plus for more robust world building.)

I have said before that it was the height of irony to me that, when I was a kid, parent groups were freaking out about Dungeons & Dragons while Robocop was over here casually transitioning into an actual Saturday morning cartoon show. They made a cartoon of The Toxic Avenger, for Godzilla’s sake. And, for that matter, let’s talk about Godzilla. All children everywhere love Godzilla, the walking embodiment of the horrors of nuclear war.

If you are a nerd, then chances are your nerd shit appeals to children. That’s probably why you got into it when you were a kid. And anything that appeals to children is going to get marketed to them sooner or later, if it isn’t already. This is not only inevitable, it’s also fine. Calm down about it.

There is nothing wrong with politics in your comic books, or with Warhammer stuff aimed at middle-graders. We were all skimming issues of White Dwarf when we were middle-graders, and those of us who aren’t throwing a fit about this new development obviously turned out fine.

Introducing new people to the things you like is great, and if those people then come in and change those things, that is also great. You don’t have to like every iteration; they aren’t all going to be for you, and some of them are probably going to be overtly bad. But some of the ones you like are probably also overtly bad, so, again, calm down. The grim darkness of the far future is a big damn table. It has room for a lot of different seats.

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Illustration done by Matt Smith as cover art for an LP by the Minibosses.

 

For the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed watching and participating in the Save Horror March Madness bracket on Twitter, where the best-reviewed horror films from the Save Horror website battle for dominance. The bracket has been going for five years now, with Halloween winning the first two and the original Nightmare on Elm Street winning the next two. Back in 2016, I posted about my pleasure at seeing Nightmare walk away with the prize, even if it isn’t necessarily the movie I would have chosen to lead the pack.

This year, at long last, The Thing took that coveted top spot, after a contentious and dramatic bracket, in which at least one movie won by only a single vote. While some serious mistakes were made in the course of the month, I’m very happy to see The Thing finally getting its due, for the same reason that I was pleased to see revisionism (rightly) elevating A Nightmare on Elm Street to the status of genuine classic. In fact, there are few films in history that have benefited as much from hindsight as The Thing, a box office underperformer widely panned by critics at the time of its release, which has since risen to a prominence of popularity and critical acceptance that it could not even have dreamed of some thirty-odd years ago, though it has always deserved.

As far as I know, every year the final battle has come down to Halloween and one other film. This, to my mind, is right and proper. While this was the year for The Thing to take its spot at the top of the pack, Halloween is, if not a better film, then at least a more representative one. In fact, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and if I had to show someone just one movie, with the knowledge that they would never see another, and use that movie to explain to them everything that horror cinema is, has ever been, and is capable of ever being, I would probably show them the original Halloween, a movie which predicts the future while sampling from the past in ways that make it feel like the perfect picture to encapsulate the spectrum of horror cinema, if any one film ever can.

Though they came out just a few years apart, and they’re by the same director, Halloween and The Thing are very different movies. Just as Halloween is very different from A Nightmare on Elm Street, even though they share a subgenre and are the genesis point for two of the big three slasher franchises. (The original Friday the 13th is also pretty different from either one of them.)

And that’s part of the point of these brackets, right? Part of the fun. We’re not really trying to pick the best movie, we’re enjoying the thought exercise that comes with putting some of our favorite movies next to one-another and seeing how we react. Seeing how it changes the way we think about them, and about their relationships, and our relationship to them.

So anyway, consider this a glass of J&B Scotch raised in honor of The Thing and, if you follow me on Twitter, in celebration of not having to watch me proselytize for it a couple of times a day anymore.

JBScotchThing