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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.

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I’m writing this from my hotel room in San Jose, California on the day after The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, which was held at the Winchester Mystery House, of all places. But more on that in a moment…

The day before yesterday, I got up at 4 in the morning, after staying up until much closer to that point than I would have preferred, and got on a plane bound for Los Angeles. On the way, I watched Blade Runner 2049 for the first time, a movie probably better suited to a bigger screen than the back of the seat in front of me, but one that seemed thematically appropriate for an early morning flight into LAX, and one that was almost exactly the length of my flight.

Unfortunately, my flight was delayed by just a few minutes, and the shuttle system at LAX delayed me even further, causing me to miss my connecting flight to San Jose by a mere 5 minutes, which was still enough. I was booked onto the next connecting flight, which was scheduled to leave some three hours later. After some more juggling around from terminal to terminal, I settled in to wait. Being stuck in LAX for three hours was an adventure, though not always of the most pleasant sort, and those who follow me on social media may have already heard about the guy I was sitting next to who was on what was clearly a business call, discussing Google search results for how to kill a werewolf. “The public knows why they’re searching for how to kill a werewolf and not a leprechaun.”

After a handful of other misadventures, I finally made it into the San Jose airport, where I was picked up by Sam Cowan, of Dim Shores fame, who was also going to be my roommate for at least the first leg of the weekend. Before we could get settled into our room, however, we were given a key card and a room number, as is the style at the time, and when we swiped the card and opened the door we found a room in disarray. Fold-out couch partly folded out. Children’s water wings lying on the floor. Half-empty glasses strewn about the place. A very distinctive black cowboy hat perched in a position of prominence atop the half-folded-out bed. (Ross Lockhart later reminding us that a hat on the bed is, distinctly, bad luck.)

We backed out of the room that was, clearly, not ours, and explained the situation to the front desk. They apologized profusely, gave us another room that was, in fact, ours, and things went on from there, though I can’t help speculating on the whereabouts and, indeed, the fates of the people who once occupied that room. Thoughts of Lowlife and other movies about low-rent criminal enterprises gone terribly awry flitted through my mind. Mostly, though, I just kept kicking myself for not swiping that very specific and almost certainly cursed hat.

Friday night was readings and mind-expanding, sometimes mind-altering discussions. But the real festivities began on Saturday morning, when we all carpooled over to the Winchester Mystery House. It was my first time attending that fabled structure, though it has been one of the places in the world that I most wanted to go at least since reading about a (renamed and fictionalized) version of it in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.

29571133_10213283720221670_1687390744750188255_nBecause of our special status as part of the Symposium, we entered through the gift shop, rather than exiting that way, and literally the first thing I saw when I walked in the door was a Drunkard’s Dream-style penny (actually quarter, in this case) arcade. One of those animatronic dioramas, this time a drunkard in a cemetery, sprawled atop a grave as devils and witches peered at him from behind the tombstones. For those who have read my story in Terror in 16-Bits, you’ll have some idea of why this delighted me so very much.

Ross (whose perspicacity is, you may have noticed, a running theme throughout this account) was perhaps the first to point out the… irony? The dissonance? Of having a symposium in a house built from a fortune generated by America’s history of gun violence – and, perhaps, if you believe the (probably apocryphal but always compelling and narratively satisfying) legends about the origins of the strange structure, built by the guilt or the ghosts or both that came from those deaths–on the very day that the March for Our Lives was kicking off. I don’t think the juxtaposition was lost on any of us, especially when, right outside the window of the room where the symposium was held, we could watch the public play at a shooting gallery, or pose in front of a green screen with what I assume were prop rifles, though I never looked close enough to find out for sure.

The Symposium itself: Like last year, it was as if you took a normal, weekend-long convention and compressed it, leaving behind something midway between a writing convention, an academic summit, and a discussion salon. Call it the essence of a con; convention extract. Or, perhaps it was just a writing convention run through Cody Goodfellow’s ingenious literary vaporizor, so that we could all inhale its most potent elements and get them delivered into our bloodstream that much more quickly.

I moderated a panel on the Weird in film, television, and video games; a panel in which I found myself in the unusual position (where discussions of cinema are concerned, at least) of being hopelessly outclassed, surrounded by actual filmmakers and those who labor behind the scenes to get movies made or distributed or both. It was a fascinating discussion, I think, and perhaps even an illuminating one? Time may yet tell.

After the panels and the readings we all filed through the house itself on an abbreviated tour. I took a number of photos from outside, which you can find on my Instagram, but photos inside the house were, sadly, forbidden. It was strange, as promised, with stairs and doors leading to nowhere, though some of the more extravagant items of legend were nowhere to be found, at least in the part of the tour through which we were conducted. (The seance room, for instance, was quite small, and lacked the thirteen fireplaces with which Alan Moore’s story populated it, though there were plenty of instances of the number thirteen throughout the rest of the house.)

It was also not the least bit spooky, which was both disappointing and not. Partly, it felt like what it is: a tourist attraction, whatever air of mystery or menace it might once have held dispelled by years of gradual conversion to a sort of amusement park. More, though, I think that it is just that there is perhaps nothing ominous to feel within the walls. The story that Sarah Winchester built the house at the behest of the spirits is a good story; compelling and filled with thematic potential. And of course that beautiful line, “The sound of hammers must never stop,” which has been used so well by so many over the years.

But the other explanation, that Sarah Winchester was a frustrated amateur architect, prevented from expressing herself in any other way than through the constant modifications and experiments of her own home, a form of expression that her vast wealth afforded her even while society denied others, tells a story that is just as compelling, and within the walls of the house, feels more likely, more real.

By the time we left the Winchester House, night had fallen over San Jose. We drove back to the hotel, had a few drinks at the bar, and retired to one of the rooms to continue our rambling discussions long into the night. Then, finally, we all slept, we all awoke again, and most departed, leaving me to type these recollections in my hotel room while they are still fresh. As is always the case in a situation like this, it was a delight to see everyone, and a shame, always, not to see everyone more. Thanks to Scott and Anya for putting this one-of-a-kind experience together, and to everyone who supported it, who attended, who read or did panels, and anyone else who in any way helped this happen. It is unique, and it is special, and it is, above all, Weird.

Now it’s time to get ready to go home, to get back to writing, reinvigorated by the thoughts and words that have passed through me during this time, in this place. Typing is not unlike hammering, after all, and the sound of hammers must never stop.

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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.]