While I was in San Jose, Grace was doing some remodeling around the house. I knew this much already, though I hadn’t stopped to consider the thematic unity of it, what with me being at the Winchester House and all. We had talked before I left about some of it. Replacing the old TV stand, lowering the bar in the kitchen and putting some built-in shelves underneath it on the living room side. That sort of thing.

When I came home, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, intentionally not looking around, because I figured she might want me to be surprised by the changes to the house. And when she was ready and I walked up the stairs, I expected to be surprised, indeed.

I didn’t know the half of it. Could not even imagine. I’m sitting in the midst of it now, and I still can barely imagine. I was so overwhelmed by what I came home to that my brain processed the information it was presented with backward. Hey, I thought, the TV is on the wall now! Only then, moments later: Wait, that’s not my TV…

The speakers are up in the corners of the ceiling, my brain informed me, translating information thrown to it from my widened eyes, pupils no doubt expanded in their attempts to process this new data quickly enough to make sense of it. Followed only later by the added information: There are speakers now.

My sound system went out some time back, and for ages now I’ve needed a new TV. Grace and I had talked about what my plans were in both regards, but they had been pipe dreams for me. “In a few years, when I finally get around to it, this is what I would like to do.” While I was in San Jose, Grace had done it. Done it all. But not alone. Her family had come to help, Steve and Bear, Jeremy and Jay, Darin and James and other friends had all pitched in, in various ways, to bring this project to fruition while I was away.

I write this now because last night, when I was too exhausted from my trip and a day spent flying that I couldn’t process any of this information, I promised an explanation. Even as I type these words, though, I feel enormously inadequate to the task of summarizing what all this means to me, just as I know this post should be accompanied by a photograph, but no photo can capture it all. It’s more than just the TV and the sound. New lights in the living room and kitchen. So many things. But it’s more than just the things, too. It’s the people who came together to help make them happen.

Perhaps this is not the part that I should share of this experience, but when I saw everything, I just sat down on the couch and wept. I was so touched, so overcome. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, or maybe it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure I know which is which anymore; maybe I never did.

That’s the surprise that I came home to, what so many of the people closest to me were working on while I was in California, with some of the other people closest to me. I wish I had some better way to express how it makes me feel, but I don’t. Right now, this is all I have. There’s apparently a betting pool about what I’ll watch first. I haven’t decided what that’s going to be yet, but I’ll let you all know when I do.

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.

29570623_10213285321341697_2087997097747932670_n

In just a few days, I’ll be at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Not counting a brief layover at LAX, this will be my first time in California, the only state west of the Mississippi that I haven’t visited, excepting Alaska and Hawaii, the “freak states.” At the time of this writing, you still have just over ten hours to support the Outer Dark Symposium’s IndieGoGo campaign, where you can snag copies of Never Bet the DevilThe Book of Starry Wisdom, and other, rarer delicacies while supplies last.

I’ll be around for the whole shebang, assuming that I don’t sneak off into the Mystery House early and get eaten by a ghost, never to be seen again. I’m not scheduled for any readings, though I will be present for the Friday night pre-party stuff sponsored by Word Horde.

On Saturday, when the actual Symposium itself kicks off, I’ll be moderating a panel on the Weird in movies, TV, and even video games. (Which, fortunately, there are some other panelists who seem eminently capable of tackling that last one, because I am way out on a limb there.) We’ll talk about some of the recent ones, and what they (hopefully) mean for more Weird on the big (and small) screen, but knowing me, we’ll probably also talk about some older stuff, too.

There are going to be a lot of great guests at this year’s Symposium, and if the last one was any indication, it should be a hell of a time. If you’re already headed there, I’ll see you in San Jose this weekend. If not, you can still support a cool program and pick up some great weird literature (or Kino Lorber DVDs or other stuff) by backing the IndieGoGo sometime in the next few hours!

I know that we’re not even quite to the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween just yet, but if you’re already jonesing for a taste of the spooky season, Jason McKittrick recently turned me on to the existence of a little show called The Witching Season, which is streaming on Amazon Prime or available to watch on YouTube.

WitchingSeason1

While the show’s humble origins and limited budget are apparent everywhere in its production, that doesn’t stop it from evoking the season better than most more expensive movies ever manage. The episodes themselves range from 9 minutes at their shortest to around 30 at their longest, and you could easily watch all five episodes in the time it would take to watch a regular film.

The end result is a series of short subjects that would feel right at home in the shorts block at any given horror film festival, connected together by a nostalgic yearning for Halloween and a shared style and tone, even as their subject matter ranges from high strange horror to masked killers, possessed toys, and haunted houses.

None of the episodes are necessarily any great shakes in the story department, though most feature a “twist in the tale” that is probably easy enough to predict going in, but satisfying for what it is. Where the show more than makes up for any ground that it loses in production value or originality, however, is in its Halloween atmosphere, which is effortlessly captured in lingering shots of decorations, pumpkin patches, and dead leaves.

There are some nice touches of local color, as well, as certain episodes bleed into each other, often through radio shows or late-night TV vaguely reminiscent of the WNUF Halloween Special or the wraparound segment of Ti West’s The Roost. Honestly, The Witching Season is worth your time for the opening titles alone, which summarize the season beautifully, in a series of shots vaguely (and, based on the rest of the series, probably intentionally) reminiscent of the great opening titles of Halloween 4.

It’s been a few weeks, but as you probably already know, February has been keeping us busy around here. Fortunately, we’ve had no more organ-related disasters for a few days, Grace has been recovering quickly and should go back to work next week, and I’ve gotten a bit of good news to help offset the bad. For starters, I’ll be a guest at the second annual Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, which will be held at the freaking Winchester Mystery House on March 24! There’s an IndieGoGo live right now where you can get tickets, pick up cool books, and what-have-you!

Astute readers will recall that I was a guest at last year’s Symposium, as well, and it was a hell of a good time. This one promises to be even better, and I have it on good authority that I’m already the person earmarked to go missing on the tour of the Winchester Mystery House, so everything is coming up Milhouse.

That’s the good news. Here’s the better news: Ellen Datlow selected my story “The Granfalloon” for volume ten of her Best Horror of the Year anthology series! This marks my second time appearing one of Ellen’s Best Horror anthos, and I could not be prouder! (“Persistence of Vision” appeared in volume seven back in 2015.)

I’m particularly happy that “The Granfalloon” was selected, as it’s a story that I tinkered with for literally years before finally finding the right set of pieces to make it work. The story previously appeared in Darker Companions, a Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology from PS Publishing, edited by Scott David Aniolowski and Joe Pulver. I’m extremely grateful to Scott and Joe for giving my story a home in the first place, and to Ellen for selecting it for the Best Horror of the Year. You can bet that you’ll hear more about that as it gets closer to publication. For now, I’ll leave you with a peek at the cover, with art by Chenthooran Nambiarooran:

Best Horror

 

It feels like the height of ingratitude to complain about The Ritual: a quiet and slow-burning but ultimately satisfying horror tale that is superbly cast, well-acted, and beautifully shot, and which contains [SPOILERS] one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And yet, while all those things are true, I never felt like The Ritual ever quite became the movie it so very nearly was.

Trading in plenty of familiar horror tropes: the woods are scary, so are people who live in rural communities and keep to “the old ways,” The Ritual juxtaposes these early on against a backdrop reminding us that the brightly-lit modern world can be quite scary and dangerous, as well. The parallel comes up again and again throughout the film, in shots that are production designed beautifully, as the off-license that is at the heart of the film’s galvanizing moment is subsumed gradually by the forest in successive dream-like sequences. Yet for all that this reminder seems at the heart of the film, it never connects completely with the film’s final act.

For the first half or two-thirds of its running time, The Ritual is carried, in no small part, by the performances of its leads, and by their dialogue, which never feels strained, even while it conveys a relationship that is always straining at the seams. These early moments seem better than anything that the movie’s climax could deliver, and there’s the fear that we’re looking at another Autopsy of Jane Doe situation, but then, at the last minute, the monster shows up.

Much has been made online of the monster design in The Ritual, and rightly so. It’s something pretty special, a mix between Laird Barron’s “Blackwood’s Baby” and the Kothoga from The Relic. It combines uncanny folkloric resonances with the scope of the monsters in Trollhunter, though never quite deployed with the same devil-may-care success as that film’s many creatures. The monster in The Ritual–which the film calls a jotun–is seen both more than you expect and less than you want, and its implications are played up to be just as effective as its unusually solid execution, which suffers only a very little from the clutter which so haunts contemporary creature design.

Maybe it has to do with when I watched it–after an extremely long day, when I probably should have been in bed but was too tired to sleep– or maybe it’s something in the changes that, I’m told, have been made from Adam Nevill’s source novel, but while The Ritual is good, truly, genuinely very good, and while it has a creature that will be hard to top for best monster of the year, it feels like it is comprised of a bunch of parts, all of which are quite good on their own, but which never feed into one-another in the way that they need to in order to create a sum that is more than themselves. Which is, again, a petty and ungrateful complaint to lodge against a movie that does so much so right, but there you go.

the-ritual-banner_1_orig

Thursday night, we called 911 to get an ambulance to take Grace to the hospital. That’s the bad news. The good news is, the culprit turned out to be her gallbladder, a thing that I had forgotten human beings even had until that very moment, and she is now home, one gallbladder lighter than before, and seems to be recovering well.

Still, it was an unexpected couple of days in-between, and certainly just feels like one more straw on an already broken camel’s back. I have spent more time in hospitals over the last few months than in my entire life up to this point. Hopefully we have now hit our quota, and can take a well-deserved break for a while.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, Grace had just hit the magic six week point in her recovery from back surgery, and was supposed to go back to work (albeit just a few days a week) next week. Those plans have currently been scuppered, of course, but there is some hope that the recovery from this latest surgery will go quickly and will only delay her return by a week or two more.

In the meantime, and as has been the case more times than I can count these last few months: I may be a bit scarce, and if you need anything from me, or if I owe you anything, don’t hesitate to remind me, because there is every chance that I have forgotten.