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I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]

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Odds are you don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a rough year. Even leaving aside any political… happenstance, we lost a lot of great people in 2016. Some were losses shared by the world, others hit closer to home. But if I restrict my sights to only those things that were localized entirely within the walls of my house, 2016 was actually a pretty good year. Freelance work picked up considerably from its low point in 2015, Grace got a new job that she is extremely happy with, and I published two books: Monsters from the Vault, a collection of my Vault of Secrets columns from Innsmouth Free Press, and The Cult of Headless Men, a chapbook novelette from Dunhams Manor with an incredible cover by Michael Bukowski.

Since my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings had fallen out of print at the end of 2015, this past year also saw the launch of a successful Kickstarter to get it back in print in a deluxe, fully-illustrated hardcover edition featuring killer art from my good friend MS Corley. The new edition is due out sometime this year from Strix Publishing, and should be available for order direct from them for those who missed the Kickstarter.

Following on the heels of the Kickstarter, the last few months of 2016 were a little hectic for me. I ended September with a tonsillectomy, which more or less put me out of commission for the month of October, and then spent November and December writing my first novel in only 53 days! For those who missed the previous announcement, that novel will be a Protectorate of Menoth novel set in the world of the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer Press. It’s the first in a proposed series called Fire & Faith, and the book itself is going to be called Godless. It’s due out later this year. I’ll be posting a lot more about it–and the process of writing it–once things have gone a little farther, but for now you can read a brief interview with me over at their blog.

Over the course of the year, I published only 6 new short stories (not counting The Cult of Headless Men), but I’m pretty proud of all of them. They showed up in venues like Autumn CthulhuSwords v. Cthulhu, Children of LovecraftEternal FrankensteinThe Madness of Dr. Caligari, and Gothic Lovecraft. (Lots of “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu” titles this year.) Thanks to Children of Lovecraft, I finally got to check my lifelong dream of appearing behind a Mignola cover off my list, and my story from Autumn Cthulhu made the Bram Stoker Award reading list, which I think is a first for me. I also made my debut in the pages of Nightmare magazine, albeit in nonfiction form, writing an entry for their H Word column about creating and consuming horror that isn’t meant to be scary.

I didn’t read very many books in 2016 (a little less than 30, most of them graphic novels), but of those, a few were actually published in 2016 and were legitimately great, perhaps most notably Matthew M. Bartlett’s Creeping Waves and Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism. I was also lucky enough to provide blurbs for a couple of books that came out in 2016, including Pete Rawlik’s most recent addition to his rollicking Wold Newton-ish universe Reanimatrix, and Jonathan Raab’s The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie. (Though really, with a title like that, why do you need a blurb from me to sell it to you?)

I did watch a lot of movies in 2016, however. 333, to be exact. 47 of those were in the month of October, which is what happens when you have a tonsillectomy and can neither sleep nor do much else besides lay on the couch and watch movies. In continuing my efforts to see more movies that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, 197 of those movies were new-to-me, though of those only about 25 actually came out in 2016. Nothing I saw in 2016 ever managed to beat the first movie that I saw in theatres last year, so The Witch is probably still my favorite movie of the year. Other good ones that I saw include Green Room, I Am Not a Serial Killer, Ouija: Origin of Evil (yeah, I’m as surprised as you are), Captain America: Civil WarThe Nice GuysZootopiaThe Shallows, and the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The last movie that I watched in 2016 was Blood Diner, and the first one that I watched in 2017 was Cellar Dweller, so that seems about right.

In breaking with my annual tradition, there probably won’t be a Year in Creatures this year because, frankly, I just didn’t see enough movies in 2016 that had creatures in them. The big alien in Independence Day: Resurgence was totally wasted, and besides it and a few ghosts there was, what, a shark and that thing from I Am Not a Serial Killer? I guess Black Phillip would about have to be the Monster of the Year in 2016, though if there are good creatures I’m missing in movies that I didn’t see do please let me know, because I want to track them down!

In 2017 I’m hoping to read more books, which may entail watching fewer movies, but we’ll see how the year pans out. I’ve already picked up my full-weekend pass for Panic Fest this year, so that’s a pile of movies I’ll probably be seeing later this month. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the works for 2017, including that aforementioned novel, so you’ll be hearing from me more down the line. For now, let’s finish kicking the detritus of 2016 to the curb, and set our sights on getting through the next few days, months, and then years.

 

You want it darker… we kill the flame.

The Clutching Hand is ravenous, and its hunger is never sated, but in 2016 it seems to have taken so much more than its normal remit. All year long I saw friends and peers mourn the losses of artists like David Bowie and Prince, to name just a few of many, and I joined them in their mourning, but I knew that there was a death coming that would touch me as deeply as I saw those touch my friends and fellow creators. It seems that the hour has come round at last. From his official Facebook page comes the news that Leonard Cohen has left us at the age of 82.

It can’t really be called a tragedy, for Cohen led a long and tremendous life, and his art touched the lives of millions of people. He finished and released what he had intended to be his last album just a few weeks ago. I don’t know how much more most of us can ask than that. Yet it is news that has shaken me to my core. In a week filled with such momentous events, a week of so much upheaval and uncertainty, so much fear and so much passion–for good or ill–the death of one old man seems a small thing, but Leonard Cohen had an enormous impact on my life and on my work, and I know that I’ll be hearing from him long after he’s gone.

He’s not a name that comes up often when I’m asked to list influences, and the proof may not be as obvious as some names within the genre where I work, but it is certainly there, again and again down through the years, ever since I first discovered him–by his lyrics first, then later by his music–in high school and early college. Leonard Cohen had as profound an influence on my work as any horror or weird fiction writer ever did, to be sure.

Many of the writers who influenced me were already dead before I came to them, and I’m in the unique position that the majority of the living writers whose works have affected me most profoundly are people I have met, or at least exchanged pleasantries with on Facebook or Twitter. But I never spoke to Leonard Cohen, never wrote him a letter, even missed my chance to see him perform live when he was in Kansas City a few years ago. So I never got to tell him what an impact he had on me; that he was my favorite songwriter, my favorite living poet. (I guess this means that I need to find a way to write a letter to Tom Stoppard, to thank him for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead…)

So many of Leonard Cohen’s songs deal with loss and love and mourning, with art and inspiration and passion, that there’s an overabundance to choose from to mark the occasion. And so many of his songs seem so perfect right now, given the state in which the country and the world finds itself this week. “The Future” leaps to mind, of course, and “Anthem,” and maybe most especially for me, “Democracy,” with its odd juxtaposition of hope and threat. There are songs that mean a lot to me, personally, and there are songs that are just so utterly Leonard Cohen-y, like “Humbled in Love” or “Boogie Street.” It’s tough to know what to choose, so just choose your favorite, I guess, and listen to that tonight.

The Tower of Song doesn’t seem like the kind of place where they let you rest in peace, but I’ll hope that his room there is at least comfortable, now, and that he’s got a decent view. We are left with his enormous body of work, by which he will continue speaking to us sweetly. I suppose that will have to be enough.

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye…

03william-mortensen-l-amour_900I first discovered the work of William Mortensen on Pinterest, of all places, when someone shared the image that accompanies this post, “L’Amour.” Upon seeing it, I immediately knew that I had to learn more about its history and context, and, in my seeking, I wound up learning more about the man who had created the photograph.

Called “the anti-Christ” by Ansel Adams (and we writers think that our squabbles get heated), Mortensen was a fascinating photographer who used various techniques to create captivating, often grotesque photographic effects that frequently look as much like paintings or drawings as photos. Thankfully, about the time I was being introduced to his work, he was experiencing something of a renaissance in popularity, and I had several books available to learn more about him, including the recently published American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen and a reissue of one of Mortensen’s own books, The Command to Look. (If my story intrigues you at all, I highly recommend both.)

In researching Mortensen, I became fascinated, not merely by his methods and the images they produced, but by his life. And gradually, I knew that I would eventually write a story about him, at least roundaboutly. And that story eventually became “Mortensen’s Muse.” In it, I took as my jumping-off point the real-life relationship between Mortensen and then-undiscovered ingenue Fay Wray. Given my fascination with Golden Age Hollywood stories, the combination was too tempting to resist.

At one time, the story was probably going to go ahead and feature William Mortensen, but as I wrote it, I discovered that, as much as it hewed close to the facts in many places, it also diverged from them in important ways, and not just in its supernatural denouement, so I decided to change some names. William Mortensen became Ronald Mortensen, and the names of our “unidentified” narrator’s films all changed subtly, though her co-stars and directors remained the same.

“Mortensen’s Muse” was written for Ellen Datlow’s anthology Children of Lovecraft, where I’m ecstatic to say that it represents two very important firsts for me. It’s my first time in an original Ellen Datlow anthology (my story “Persistence of Vision” previously appeared in her Best Horror of the Year Volume 7) and my first time behind a Mike Mignola cover. Considering those have both been life goals of mine, you could say that I’m pretty happy with this publication, and not be at all incorrect. Below is a photo of my contributor copy, which came packaged very neatly from Dark Horse, and just today a very positive review of the antho went live at Cemetery Dance Online, in which the reviewer says of my story, “If H.P. Lovecraft had written for The Twilight Zone, this could have been the story he would have written.” There is definitely worse praise to get than that…

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In the commentary track for Halloween, John Carpenter talks about people coming up to him and telling him how traumatized they were by the scene when Michael Myers is unmasked at the end of the movie. The irony, of course, being that under the mask is no monstrous makeup job, a la Jason, but simply actor Tony Moran. (Poor guy, traumatizing all those people with his relatively average-looking mug.)

Back in the days before we all had Halloween on Blu-ray, though, and could watch and re-watch it in high definition to our hearts’ content, that scene stuck with us, and in our memories we conjured an image of it that was true to our experience, while straying from the actual facts. This was a phenomenon with which, as a young horror fan, I was very familiar.

Most recently, I watched Creepshow again for the first time in quite a few years, and was reminded of my inaccurate recollections re: the monster from the segment “The Crate.” In my memories, we never see the monster clearly until his final kill, when he drags Adrienne Barbeau’s Billy into the crate.

Of course, that isn’t accurate at all. We get several really clear shots of the monster throughout the segment, including during those sequences. But in my imagination, the monster is mostly suggestion, just claws and fur and teeth and menace, only shown in clarity in those final comic book panel moments. And no matter how many times I learn otherwise, that’s how I’ll always remember it, just like those people who were traumatized by Michael’s unmasking will never be un-traumatized, no matter how many times they see that he’s just Tony Moran underneath.

(On a tangent: The monster from “The Crate” is actually a good representation of something that I harp on a lot when it comes to creating supernatural horror stories. The monster is scary because it eats people, absolutely. But what’s much scarier than that is the fact that it has survived in that crate under those stairs for more than a hundred years without eating anything.)

[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]

Tonight is Walpurgisnacht, which, if it means nothing else, means that we’re at the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween. Along with your bonfires and whatever else, I recommend some seasonally appropriate reading to mark the occasion. As you probably already know, I’ve got a story called “Walpurgisnacht” that takes place tonight and which initially appeared in The Children of Old Leech, though you can also read it in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, both of which are available from Word Horde. Want a taste? You can read an excerpt from the beginning of “Walpurgisnacht” right here.

And speaking of Word Horde, this auspicious day also marks the debut of Mike Griffin’s, well, debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, published by, well, you guessed it.

If your reading card is all filled out for the night, might I recommend a suitably witchy film for your Walpurgisnacht enjoyment? Suspiria is always a good bet, but may be too familiar. Hammer’s The Witches is a little less often-seen, and is a particular favorite of mine. And though I don’t actually remember much about it, I’ve now got an ingrained soft spot for Virgin Witch, thanks to a late-night viewing with Simon Berman of Strix Publishing on the heels of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival a couple years back.

Whatever particular form your libation or revel may take this evening, happy Walpurgisnacht to all who celebrate! Tend to your bonfires, watch out for strange shapes in the sky, and beware of music from beneath the ground. See you all in May, when we’re on the downhill slope toward All Hallow’s Eve.

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Aliens

It was March 14, 1989 when I first saw Aliens in its broadcast television premiere. (Thanks to Jason McKittrick of Cryptocorium for helping me track down the date.) I must have been seven years old–I would turn eight that October–and it hit me the same way that Star Wars seems to have hit most everyone else.

To this day, I remember the scenes from the CBS Special Movie presentation intro, which included my first glimpse of the famous xenomorph design, and I also remember being confused by my later viewings of the theatrical cut, which was missing several scenes that were added back into the television version, notably the moment when Ripley learns about her daughter. It led to one of those bizarre situations that sometimes happened in the days before DVDs and special editions, where I knew something about a movie that wasn’t included in any cut of the movie that I could conveniently find, and so I wondered if I had perhaps made it up.

I had seen other horror movies before, of course. I grew up watching stuff like Squirm and C.H.U.D.The Food of the Gods and countless Godzilla flicks. I think that I had even seen bits and pieces of Predator when my brother rented it on video. I remember watching Cronenberg’s The Fly on network TV while eating a hamburger, and my mom coming into the living room during some particularly gross scene, and asking how I could eat while watching that. I don’t know if that was before or after I saw Aliens. (I wonder now how heavily edited The Fly must have been to even show up on TV in those days.)

But when I first saw Aliens, it was like nothing else I had ever seen. It felt more complex and more ambitious than I was used to my monster movies being, and I was struck by the design–and, of course, the life cycle–of the eponymous creatures. The alien queen might have been my first introduction to the idea of the boss monster in cinema, and the battle between the queen and Ripley in the cargo-loader exosuit, with its callback to the great stop-motion monster battles of King Kong and Ray Harryhausen, and the rubber suit wrestling matches of the Godzilla films, had an enormous impact on my young imagination.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with movies, but seeing Aliens was, without a doubt, a turning point in that fascination. The Alien franchise became my first fandom, for lack of a better word, a fact that was only reinforced by the gradual revelation that the Alien and Predator films might take place in the same universe–another concept that, while not actually original, was new to me at the time.

When I saw Aliens for the first time, I had no idea that it was a sequel to anything, and the opening minutes of the movie felt so amazingly ground-breaking to me. Here was this character we met in media res, having survived some strange off-screen ordeal that primed her for the one that was coming. It’s an oddly inaccurate experience, but one that has remained lodged in my consciousness ever since, one that I come back to again and again.

I don’t remember when I first saw Alien, but I saw Alien 3 and Resurrection in the theatre. I bought piles of the Aliens and Predator toys that Kenner brought out in the 90s, with their various animal-themed xenomorphs. I even got the cloaked (ie, cast in clear plastic) “Ambush Predator” figure that you had to send away for.

Through it all, Aliens remained my favorite movie in either franchise, and something very close to my favorite movie period (a slot it probably had to share with Monster Squad). And while today other films have usurped that favorite spot, and my affection for the Alien and Predator flicks are as much nostalgia as not, both franchises are ones I own on Blu-ray and revisit regularly. (Less so the unfortunate crossover films, though I’ve seen both of them more times than they probably deserve.)

Their influence was so formative that I can’t really identify all the ways that the Alien films made inroads into my creative output. Besides obvious places like the near-closing line of “Painted Monsters,” that big, haunting, H.R. Giger-designed ship with its ancient astronaut and its payload of mysterious eggs, the grotesque and bizarre life-cycle of the aliens themselves, that line from the CBS intro, “so who’s laying these eggs,” that shot of the xenomorph rising up out of the water behind Newt, the alien queen, the enormous ships that were like floating industrial blocks, all of it feels like my gateway to so many of my later obsessions, from the grim future of Warhammer 40k to weird fiction.

To this day, the films hold a special place in my pantheon, and they remain one of a  handful of franchises for which I would love to one day write licensed fiction. So in honor of “Alien Day” (4/26, get it?) , I figured it was high time to do something to pay tribute to one of the most important cinematic experiences of my life. So here’s to you, Aliens CBS Special Movie Presentation. You may not have started it all, but you sure as hell started a lot.