Category Archives: Horrific Books

From the archive: Targets

targetsposter

For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

targets-titlecard-388x220

The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain

The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

The King In Yellow and other meta origins

Image from tvtropes.org

Metafiction is nothing new. Some scholars argue that even ancient texts such as The Odyssey have meta elements. I noticed meta elements in other classic works such as Tom Jones and Tristam Shandy.

In what will be the first and probably last time I mention Jane Austen in this blog, it should be noted that her first novel, Northanger Abbey, was a metafiction satire of horror’s ancestor, the gothic novel. Within the first page, Austen tells us that the protagonist, Catherine, is a fictional character, and that she is determined to be the heroine of her own gothic fiction story. Catherine spends her free time reading books such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all of her decisions are made through the lens of genre convention.

I’m always discovering new things, so there may be other precedents in horror fiction proper, but the first metafiction horror novel I discovered was The King in Yellow. Prompted by reference to the book in Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, I hunted down a pricey copy in the 1990’s, and it was quite a challenge. Now, The King in Yellow is readily available in both print and ebook editions, and has inspired tribute anthologies such as A Season in Carcosa. Perhaps you can thank the popularity of True Detective for bringing it into more mainstream popularity.

Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and borrowed concepts from Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be?: An Inhabitant of Carcosa & Other Stories. In turn, it influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos and films such as John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of MadnessThe King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellow which is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease” across Europe. People who read the book go insane, believe that they are characters within the book, and in some cases are driven to acts of extreme violence. Although the final stories in the collection lose their way, the first few are effective and disturbing, making this a worthwhile read for fans of horror and weird fiction.

Review: The Dark Tower

First, let me confirm that the new film The Dark Tower differs significantly with the sprawling series written by Stephen King. Major plot points are truncated, and key characters are left out entirely. Rolan’s ka-tet doesn’t exist. The story is told primarily from Jake’s perspective, not Roland’s. Purists may be driven crazy by these omissions and changes. As someone who has read the entire series, I think that aspects of the film adaptation may not be friendly to outsiders, perhaps not relatable.

That said, I don’t understand the negative reviews this film is getting.  Again, I’m glad that I don’t allow such reviews to influence my decision to see movies. The Dark Tower has a mere 18% positive meta-critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has a 63% positive rating from audience members. This is a big discrepancy. But more importantly, Stephen King liked the adaptation. Keep in mind that King disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which earned near-universal praise from critics. The Dark Tower is true to the spirit of King’s work while The Shining was not.

In the linked article above, King also discusses his approval of casting Idris Elba as Roland. predictably, some fans in the dark corners of the internet disapproved of casting a black actor as a character who is understood to be white. In the book illustrations, Roland is portrayed as white, and this is further reinforced in dialogue in which Detta Walker calls Roland a “honky” and other racist slurs (The Drawing of the Three). However, Roland’s race really isn’t an important factor. The fact is that Idris Elba did a phenomenal job in this film, and I hope he will be in the TV series as rumored.

Roland as portrayed in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands

Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as the Man in Black. I remember when McConaughey used to be considered conventionally sexy, but gradually transitioned into creepy. I like it.  He’s perfectly cruel in this role.

Matthew McConaughey torments Roland as the Man in Black

Although I had hoped that there would be a film adaptation for each novel, similar to the Harry Potter film series, The Dark Tower included the most essential concepts from the series. If there is to be a TV series, I hope it includes Eddie Dean and Susannah (a.k.a. Detta/Odetta Walker), because the the relationship between Roland and his ka-tet really is the soul of the series.

So yes, I do recommend the movie to anyone with an open mind.

And since we are reviewing “meta” works this month, I have to recommend the Dark Tower novels as well. The film adaptation is not truly meta (although it does give a nod to Pennywise from IT), but the books became increasingly so. In The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands,  we learn that fictional works are windows into very real worlds. One such work is an unsettling children’s book called Charlie the Choo Choo by Beryl Evans, featuring nightmare-fuel illustrations and a story about a sentient train. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah takes things further by having Roland as his friends meet Stephen King himself. In an especially self-deprecating touch, King gives Roland a copy of his novel Insomnia and Roland promptly throws it in the trash.

Until next time, long days and pleasant nights…

Review: The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

 

Today, I am covering the Stephen Graham Jones novel, The Last Final Girl, which bears some resemblance to the new Riley Sager novel Final Girls, but is just plain weird.

What both novels have in common is that several “final girls” are thrown together and have to respond to a new series of murders, and perhaps one or more final girl is a murderer or collaborating with the killer.

Beyond that they are very different books. The Last Final Girl is just plain bonkers, and is written in an equally bonkers style. Stephen Graham Jones wrote the entire novel in screenplay format, and this is something that readers will either love or hate. I find it a bit distracting at times, but does help one imagine the story in a cinematic way and almost begs someone to adapt the novel into an actual film.

The story itself is even weirder. The final girls all have names that reference real slasher movies, such as Crystal Blake and Mandy Kane. Jones even invents new genre-savvy verbs, such as the killer “Hoddering” after an intended victim. The fact that the killer is named Billy Jean and wears a Michael Jackson mask is a nice, absurd touch. The plot itself takes place in that strange liminal space between a film and its sequel. What happens to a final girl and her community after the killer is vanquished but before he miraculously recovers and kills again. Hint: one of the final girls nurses him back to health by feeding him burritos.

Slasher film fans will appreciate film references and jokes, but everyone else risks being left in the dark.

 

Final Girls Week: The slasher film is dead; long live the slasher film!

We kick off Meta-Horror Month with Final Girls week, or technically films and novels which  deliberately reference Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl.

Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is considered a landmark work in film criticism and is largely responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of the horror genre as more than an expression of misogyny. Naturally, horror writers and directors love her for it. S&Man (2006), a faux documentary on faux snuff films, features extensive interviews with Clover regarding the popularity of the subgenre. Another film, the horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), repeatedly refers to her theories. Slam poet Daphne Gottlieb converted Clover’s theory into poetry in her Final Girl collection. 

And yet, there has been a virtual explosion of films and novels in the last two years that use the phrase “final girl” or a close variant in the title. With Clover’s book being 25 years old, why did this take so long?

Perhaps more writers and filmmakers are familiar with Clover’s work now than when it was fresh and timely. Let’s face it, post 9-11 horror, and torture films in particular, blew most of the tropes discussed by Clover out of the water. 

Another reason for this resurgence is that the classic 1980’s-style slasher film is dead. The story has been mined from every angle, until is has absolutely nothing new to offer. Sure, people in my age bracket have a certain nostalgia for the slasher film. But these films just aren’t scary anymore. While many people saw Wes Craven’s Scream series as a revitalization of the genre, I saw it as a sign that the genre was in serious trouble. As smart as that series was, it chose to parody and mock the slasher film rather than add something new to it. We are now at a point in time in which Clover’s theories are more interesting than the films themselves. So why play with the remains of a dead genre in an act of cinematic necrophilia when one can make a film about the genre’s analysis instead?

Come back soon for a review of the new Riley Sager novel, Final GIrls. In the meantime, read my review of Clover’s book here.

August is Meta Month!

 

This month, Todd and I celebrate our birthdays. It is also the birth month of one of our horror heroes, H.P. Lovecraft! 

What better way to celebrate our birth month than to make it all about ourselves, and by extension, celebrate meta horror films and novels, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror too!

“Meta” is a term that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t know the proper definition. Dictionary.com helpfully offers the following definitions:

“meta-

1.

a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings“after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive inEnglish on the Greek model:

metacarpus; metagenesis.
 

2.

a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.
 

3.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously referencesor comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.”
 
 
Urban Dictionary offers other helpful examples as how “meta” pertains to the arts. For instance, a footnote that contains its own explanatory footnote, or a film about filmmakers making a movie which itself is about the film industry, or anything with so many layers of abstraction as to become mid-bending.
 

Image from tvtropes.org

 
It’s a common misconception that meta-horror originated in the 1990s, but I’m here to set the record straight, my little cephalopods. The 1990s may have popularized the narrative style in our lifetime, but it has existed for centuries, popping up cyclically when a genre is seemingly in its death throes.
 

From Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 
This is a big problem with horror, which tends to use the same tropes and core narratives over and over. When a genre recycles its own ideas so relentlessly, and overtly pays homage to the films and stories that came before, much of it is arguably meta. 
 
 
So for my purposes, I’m going to limit my discussion of meta-horror to those works which self-consciously reference academic works about the horror genre, and those works which are determined to rupture reality itself. We are talking about works that make real people into fictional characters, postmodern arguments that fiction is as real as reality, and narratives that cause readers to be lost in a hall of mirrors.
 

John Trent reads between the lines in In the Mouth of Madness

The Woman

Today I’m taking a look at both the novel the novel and the film version of The Woman, a collaboration between Jack Ketchum and Lucky McGee. The Woman is a sequel to Off Season and Offspring. It is the third entry in a series about a feral cannibal family who abduct infants and eat tourists. The Woman is like other Ketchum novels (I’m specifically thinking of The Lost and The Girl Next Door here) in which good people fail to take a stand against evil, or do so too late to change the outcome. Ketchum and McGee pull of a remarkable feat with The Woman, because they portray the cannibal woman of the previous books as a sympathetic victim, and a respectable upper-middle class family as sadistic villains.

The novel is actually written rather beautifully, and at times reminded me, in both tone and subtext of Susan Griffin’s prose poetry ecofeminist manifesto Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. (Check out the quotes on Goodreads to see what I mean.) If you like the message of The Woman, it’s also worth your time to read Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams, in which animals and women are often stand-ins for each other in popular discourse, and both are often discussed in the same sexualized terms.

The film adaptation is remarkable in that both Ketchum and McGee were involved (McGee as the director and Ketchum as a co-writer), but it took me awhile to warm up to the film adaptation. Although the film adaptation is true to the book, the tone is often very different. While the book is poetic, the film is sometimes satirical in tone, featuring an ironic or whimsical soundtrack. Because I had read the novel first, I found the film a little off-putting on the first viewing. There are a few other plot points and concepts in the novel that don’t translate as well to the film, such as the incest subplot and the twist about the dog kennel.

As I previously stated, The Woman, like other stories by Jack Ketchum, is about people who wait too long to do the right thing. In this case, the women of the story are so beaten down and terrorized by the family patriarch Chris that they are either afraid to confront him, or have a twisted view of what constitutes normalcy. For this reason, “The Woman” may not refer only to the cannibal woman, but to the plight of all of the female characters, and all women by extension. Chris, a lawyer, is an avid hunter. During one of his hunting expeditions he sees The Woman, who is nude (in the novel) and living like an animal. He decides to capture her and holds her as a human captive in his cellar with a plan to “civilize” her. And by “civilize,” I mean that he intends to subject her to the physical, mental, and sexual abuse his family experiences. A reasonable person would wonder why his family would agree to a human captivity scenario in the first place, but we find out later that this isn’t his first experiment in this arena. Unlike other Ketchum works such as The Girl Next Door, The Woman ends on something of a positive note, with a show of solidarity between the surviving female characters.

 

 

Men, Women, and Chainsaws: essential reading for every horror fan

Today, I’m reviewing the scholarly book that every horror fan and has to read. Carol. J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is hands down the most important work of horror film criticism, and one of the most important works of film criticism, period. Prior to this book, horror was either ignored by “serious” critics and scholars, or condemned as hopelessly misogynistic. Men, Women, and Chainsaws did a lot to legitimize the genre and argue for feminist subtexts in the horror films of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Clover also argued against the notion that the predominantly male audiences of the time identified with the (usually) male killer, stating that audience members identified across gender lines and with the surviving female character.

Clover is  perhaps the only academic author to influence horror filmmakers in a signifiant way, and even appeared in the pseudo-documentary S&Man (Sandman). If you are wondering why there are films and novels with titles like The Final Girls (2015, dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson), Final Girl (2015, dir. Tyler Shields), Final Girls: A Novel (2017, author Riley Sager), The Last Final Girl (2012, author Stephen Graham), Final Girls (2017, author Mira Grant), and Last Girl Standing (2016, dir. Benjamin R. Moody), it’s because of Carol Clover. In the chapter, “Her Body, Himself,” Clover coined the term “Final Girl” to describe the lone female survivor of slasher films. Usually the Final Girl is virginal, tomboyish, and more resourceful than her peers.

While the Final Girl concept is the most referenced and recognized aspect of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the rest of the book is important as well. In “Opening Up,” Clover explores gender role subversion in supernatural horror films, as well as racial politics along the lines of “Black Magic” vs. “White Science” (think of The Serpent and the Rainbow as a prime example of this). The chapter “Getting Even” explores rape-revenge films, particularly I Spit on Your Grave, one of the most unfairly reviled and condemned films of its type. The final chapter, “The Eye of Horror,” discusses the role of voyeurism in the enjoyment of horror and the issue of viewer identification with killers and victims.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws is now 25 years old. While many aspects of the book are still relevant today, the horror genre has gone in new directions, sometimes creating new subgenres that are now likewise being unfairly dismissed and condemned. Clover’s book is a vital reminder that there needs to be ongoing engagement with and analysis of the horror genre as it evolves.

Women in Horror Month: Lovecraftian fiction and StoryBundle special

I typically don’t recommend books unless I have read them in their entirety, but I’m going to make an exception, because the clock is ticking on a great bargain. Thanks to StoryBundle, I’ve acquired some great Lovecraftian fiction and non-fiction ebooks. And since we are celebrating Women’s History Month here at My Horrific Life, I want to direct your attention to two books in particular. The first is She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short stories written by women. Fans of Lovecraft will note the absence of women in his fiction. The stories in this collection are not only written by women, but feature women as the main characters. Purists will be pleased as the stories are faithful to the Mythos and its core philosphy. The stories I’ve read thus far really capture the weirdness and dread of Lovecraft’s fiction, minus his extravagant verbiage.

The other woman-authored book is Priestess: The Collected Blackstone Erotica by Justine Geoffrey. This one is…different. If you like the perversity and explicit porniness of Edward Lee’s fiction, this may be the perfect collection for you. Let’s just say that nothing is left to the imagination, and poor H.P.L. is likely rolling in his proverbial grave.

While you can purchase these through Amazon at the links above, the most economical bargain is through the StoryBundle Lovecraft collection, which is only available for the next 14 days. In case you aren’t familiar with them, StoryBundle curates collections showcasing indie authors, and lets the buyer pay what they want…within reason. Most basic bundles start at $5, with an option on unlocking all of the books in the bundle for $15-20. You can also decide if you want a portion of your purchase to support a charity. Once you purchase a bundle, the DRM-free ebooks can be downloaded to your computer or eReader of choice.

I haven’t had time to delve deeply into most of the other titles, but am intrigued by When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’Lyehian Spirituality by Scott R. Jones. This seems like a great book for anyone who has had any sort of “religious experience” while reading Lovecraft’s fiction, but who doesn’t relate to the religious texts and grimoires created by Donald Tyson and other occultists. I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it in depth in the future.

The entire Lovecraft Bundle can be purchased for a minimum of $15, and like their other collections, it won’t be offered again once the bundle expires. The other books in this bundle are shown in the image below.

The StoryBundle Lovecraft collection

American Psycho needed a woman’s touch

The novel American Psycho, written by Bret Easton Ellis, featured such graphic depictions of sexual homicide, sometimes running on for nearly a dozen pages, that it incited feminist outcry and death threats against Ellis.  I had read the novel when I was a tender 19 years of age, and as much as I typically enjoy fictional scenes of gore and torture, it was too much for me. There seemed to be no point to the scenes, and the endless monologues about designer brands became their own form of torture. The novel’s sadistic murders had to be omitted or softened for the film version to get an ‘R’ rating, but now, in the current post-“torture-porn” era, the time may be ripe for an explicit “hardcore horror” remake. Given the outcry that the book was hopelessly misogynist, it is ironic that  it was adapted for film by self-proclaimed feminists Guinevere Turner (writer) and Mary Harron (director).

The film adaptation eschews the novel’s graphic violence in favor of its satire of ‘80s consumer culture and its criticism of affluent white masculinity, which is largely defined by conformity and superficiality. Corporate psychopath Patrick Bateman and his peers are obsessed with surfaces. Bateman’s daily routine revolves around maintaining and improving the surfaces of his body. The countless hours spent obsessing over tanning, cucumber facial peels, and six-pack abs make his quest for the perfect masculine body look eerily similar to the fascist beauty regimens employed by the women he despises. His existential crises may be triggered by something as meaningless as not getting a reservation at his favorite restaurant, or the discovery that his coworker has a more attractive business card. Bateman’s sexual relationships are largely informed by pornography and are entirely devoid of emotional content. Bateman himself acknowledges that nothing lies beneath these attractive surfaces. “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.”

Not surprisingly, his victims are most often women, members of racial minorities, gay men, and people who are economically marginalized, all of whom he sees as less than human. While the novel never seemed to transcend its misogyny and classism, the film adaptation’s approach is savagely funny, with the joke ultimately at Bateman’s expense rather than that of his disenfranchised victims. For more about the “subversive female gaze” of the film, and the ordeal of getting the film made despite opposition by feminist groups and studio interference, read “The Female Gaze of ‘American Psycho‘” and “How American Psycho Became a Feminist Statement.”

And please be sure to check out Mary Harron’s other horror film, The Moth Diaries , currently available on Shudder.

“FantasticLand” only $1.99; Lovecraft Storybundle special

OK, so this isn’t part of our Women’s History Month celebration, but we want our readers to know that our friend Mike Bockoven’s first novel FantasticLand is only $1.99 on Amazon Kindle for a limited time!  Todd and I are excited to review his novel, and this is a great bargain.

StoryBundle has a great deal with their current Lovecraft collection. A mere $15 can get you a dozen Lovecraft-inspired stories in the ebook format of your choice. One of these books, oddly enough, is Lovecraftian erotica. I have purchased two other bundles from StoryBundle in the past, and have had a good experience with the company and the products. This deal expires in 20 days, so get on it.

Lovecraft Country: America’s Monsters Exposed

In honor of Black History Month, I’m taking a break from covering erotic horror to review Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: A Novel, which I’ve been reading for the past month. I love the cover art, which melds the images of a Lovecraftian tentacled monster with the hoods of KKK members, and bears the tagline, “America’s Monsters Exposed.” As the title and cover art suggest, the novel depicts not only the distinctively American fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but also the very real horrors of racism in the Jim Crow South and 1940s America as a whole. It’s a fitting combination, because for all of Lovecraft’s creative genius, his major character defects were his racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Although his personal correspondence and stories indicate a softening of these attitudes later in his life, perhaps in part due to marrying a Jewish immigrant from Russia, some of his early writings were atrocious. Ruff references this when protagonist Atticus expresses his enjoyment of Lovecraft’s fiction, only to have his father ruin his enjoyment by pointing out, with no small degree of gleeful sadism, an early Lovecraft poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers.” Repeatedly, the novel illustrates the complicated relationship between African American readers and the fiction created by racist white authors, as illustrated in the following dialogue:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. “
“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”
“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Not only is Atticus shamed by his father for enjoying the fiction of a racist such as Lovecraft, he is questioned by white people who  can’t comprehend that a black man could be appreciate science fiction, let alone be a reading enthusiast at all. One of the most harrowing scenes occurs when Atticus is pulled over by a southern police officer–not because of a traffic violation, but because a black man couldn’t possibly own a decent car. When the officer searches his car trunk and finds a collection of science fiction and horror novels, along with evidence of his military service, this proof of Atticus’ intellect and past heroism arouses further suspicion that the car and the belongings must have been stolen from a white man. Indeed, while the novel does feature Lovecraftian monsters and occult rites, these things are not nearly as terrifying as the mundane horrors of the Jim Crow South.

Sadly, despite the progress we’ve made in this country, we aren’t necessarily much better. Consider this occurrence from my graduate school days. My program brought in an African American FBI Special Agent to teach a class on cybercrime, and while hurrying from one end of campus to the other with his laptop tucked under one arm, he was stopped by a police officer who suspected that he had stolen the laptop. Even after showing her his FBI badge and explaining he was on campus as a guest instructor, she offered no apology whatsoever. He later recounted his experience to my class with the explanation, “The black man can’t have nice things.”

As awful as the examples of racism are in the book, the book isn’t entirely dire and oppressive because the the interconnected narratives tend to offer happy endings for the characters, who are able to outwit the villains. This is especially refreshing considering how the horror genre often treats black characters as expendable.

 

Vampires, Wine, and Roses: a classy collection

I admit, I’ve been bad about actually posting reviews for things related to this month’s theme of romantic and sexual horror. Frankly, it’s because I haven’t felt in the mood. Not only am I bored by the entire romance and erotic genres, it seems that in this post-PC era of “grab ’em by the pussy” dark-ages style sexual conquest, romance is dead.

So after watching several 1970’s lesbian vampire movies in the hopes of finding something, anything, worthy of discussion and deconstruction, I remembered my vast home library of horror fiction. In the process, I rediscovered a now out-of-print short story collection, Vampires, Wine, and Roses, featuring stories by classic and contemporary authors. Fortunately, copies are plentiful on the secondary market, in both a trade paperback format and a handsome hardcover edition (pictured above).

Although a couple comedic shorts by Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are a bit out of place, the collection as a whole is great reading for anyone with a hunger for classy and romantic vampire stories. Here, we have stories by Bram Stoker,  Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton, Anne Rice, Rod Serling, Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Ray Bradbury, and others. Despite the inclusion of contemporary authors, the effect as a whole is that the reader is transported to a more genteel time. This isn’t an ideal collection for those who are looking for explicit erotica, but nonetheless conveys a great deal of passion and genuine creepiness.

My Horrific Life gets kinky this February

Still from Jean Rollin’s Living Dead Girl

Now that we are abandoning January’s pleasant apocalypse fantasies, February will be devoted to something far more horrific: romance. In honor of Valentine’s Day and our corporate overlords who mandate that we purchase obligatory tokens of affection for those whom we love, we are kicking things off with our favorite romantic horror films and sexy vampire movies. Then as the romance wears off–as it always will–we will try to keep the spark alive by exploring horror that features kink, sadomasochism, and taboo sexuality.

As February is also Black History month, we will also be featuring reviews of race-related horror, including my current read Lovecraft Country: A Novel. We really can’t contain our excitement for Get Out, which looks something like The Stepford Wives, except subservience is  along racial, rather than gender lines.

Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS”

 

Although it’s enjoyed popularity due to frequent references on True Detective: Season 1, Thomas Ligotti’s first and only non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, is not bound for approval by the masses. Ligotti is all too aware of this fact. As he states in the introduction, “As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.’ ” While a promising series, even True Detective could not maintain Ligotti’s worldview. In the first season finale, die-hard pessimist Rustin Cohle has a benevolent vision of the afterlife and is converted to a more socially acceptable worldview. Ligotti would never pen such an ending, in his fiction or otherwise.

Early in the book, Ligotti rhetorically asks if life is worth living, to which he answers his own question with a resounding NO. Drawing from diverse sources including philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, and selected religious texts, Ligotti makes a compelling argument to support this claim that human existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (his emphasis). Although Ligotti does explore varieties of theistic determinism (see also my previous post on Calvinism), and doesn’t seem to entirely dismiss the possibility of a  malevolent Higher Power manipulating us like human puppets, his own view is atheistic. According to Ligotti, we are “Nature’s blunders,” programed by our genetics and evolution to have no free will, yet evolve to develop consciousness, which serves no good purpose. It merely provides us with the illusion of having a self, and constantly reminds us of our own inevitable demise. The “Conspiracy” of the title is committed by the human race against the human race. That is, we lie to ourselves and others that life is worth living, and by reproducing, we doom future generations to needless suffering.

In case you wonder how this book fits in with Apocalypse Month, I include it because he offers suggestions to proactively correct Nature’s blunder of giving us consciousness: “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?” Ligotti provides suggestions. The mildest solution would be to strive for ego-death, as advocated by Buddhism. Alternately, we could willingly opt to gradually reduce the population into extinction by instituting a one child per couple policy, or all all of us could decide to stop reproducing altogether. The most extreme solution would be for us to leave the planet, and before exterminating ourselves, blow up Earth from outer space to prevent Nature from ever making such as mistake ever again.

Ligotti’s views are bound to be censured or dismissed outright. Paradoxically, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is sometimes comforting. I doubt that was the intended effect. I’ll explain. My favorite section of the book is the chapter “Cult of the Grinning Martyrs,” which is really about the cult of positive thinking. Ligotti is in part influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he quotes, “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind.” Our culture is relentlessly “bright-sided“to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. Our society doesn’t merely favor optimism, but actively suppresses and marginalizes those who recognize the negative side of human existence. Between positive psychology and the Law of Attraction, we take it up one end or down the other. We are forced to actively lie to ourselves about things that cause us pain, either pretending these things don’t exist, actively lying to ourselves and everyone around us about these realities, or, well, looking for the “bright side.” Only a vision as dark and uncompromising as Ligotti’s could serve as a counterbalance to this trend, but it’s strange that such a malignant work could be so gorgeously written.

Weirding the Apocalypse Part 2: Pontypool

Based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the film Pontypool is a strange take on the zombie apocalypse narrative. Instead of a conventional contagion, the cause of the outbreak is a virus of language itself, with the English language and terms of endearment designated as especially dangerous. The afflicted begin to repeat words and nonsensical phrases before attacking and cannibalizing others. A doctor terms the disease Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis, and determines that the infection is caused by not merely hearing the infected words, but by speaking them and fully understanding their meaning. He also states that if the disease is left unchecked, it could threaten the fabric of reality itself. This would imply that language creates reality and not the other way around. While the doctor never explains this fully, it seems that some familiarity with semiotics and postmodern theory is useful when watching this film.

The strangeness of the film’s concept nearly overshadows the great performances by Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, respectively portraying ex-“shock jock” morning show DJ Grant Mazzy and his producer Sidney Briar. The radio show format is perfect for a story about language and understanding. There is very little on-screen violence and gore. Instead, most of the “action” is narrated to us by Mazzy and other radio personalities, based on briefings from law enforcement and calls from panicked citizens.

It had been several years since I first watched Pontypool, and have just now begun reading the novel, which is even weirder. Burgess uses a writing style that resembles the language of the infected, or the language of the cure as presented in the film adaptation. It’s also worth noting that Burgess himself adapted the novel to a screenplay. Pontypool Changes Everything is part of a loose trilogy of Burgess novels, also including The Hellmouths of Bewdley and Caesarea, available as a one-volume set The Bewdley Mayhem.

 

Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (book review)

Steve Finbow’s book Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia  is one that I wish I had known of while drafting my own chapter for Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, however, it went under my radar during my initial lit review and subsequent revisions.

Finbow has a unique approach of moving seamlessly from real-life case studies to fictional narratives and back again, weaving them together with a variety of theoretical discourse. Because there is nothing to mark the transition between real and fictional examples (aside from consulting the end-notes), I foresee mishaps for rushed researchers. For example, a hapless undergraduateswriting a research paper and could easily misattribute a quote by fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman of American Psycho to Ted Bundy.

My favorite section of the book, and what would have been relevant to my chapter in Understanding Necrophilia, is Finbow’s discussiom of hyperrealism and simulacra in the context of the pornography use of necrophiliac serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen. Dahmer and Nilsen had remarkably similar behaviors in terms of pornography consumption, in their tendency to create homemade pornographic images their victims, and in their pattern of dismembering victims and using parts as masturbatory aids. Finbow observes:

…the object aethetized or eroticized is fundamentally dead, it has no being apart from its image, the image of and over which one masturbates, replacing the object with its copy…the body becoming rejectamenta, the person no longer, just something to be used and then to be disposed of. For Dahmer/Nilsen, living human beings were simulacra, they were copies of copies  of copies of objects of desire to be mut(il)ated into yet more copies until the subjects (torn, tattered, erased, decomposed) had to be disposed of, annihilated, or turned into things (p.133, Kindle edition).

As the passage above indicates, Grave Desire may not be reader-friendly for those unaccustomed to this type of academic writing, but I do recommend it for those interested in cultural theories of necrophilia.

Review: Understanding Necrophilia

For this edition of Scary Scholarly Saturday, we are going to look at the anthology Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Drs. Lee Mellor, Anil Aggrawal, and Eric Hickey. I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased in my review, because I authored the chapter “Objects of Desire: Necroeroticism in Mainstream Pornography.” I won’t go into detail about my own chapter (you can read the supplemental material here), other than to say that I did my best to ensure that I was the villain this anthology deserved. I’m so pleased and honored that my first print publication is in a collection alongside chapters by those listed above, as well as other personal heroes including Katherine Ramsland, Michael Stone, Louis B. Schlesinger, and my BFF Cody Charette.

In my (biased) opinion, there are no bad chapters in this book. Furthermore, this book is truly the first of its type, due to its multidisciplinary approach to the subject of necrophilia, which tends to be under-studied and under-reported. Many of us presented new research findings, or furthered existing discourse on the subject. I can’t discuss all of the chapters in depth, but will cover a few highlights.

Chapters are grouped by discipline and subject matter, including historical and legal issues, cultural aspects (including depictions in literature and popular culture), etiological models, forensic investigations and treatment, and case studies.

*In “A Wider Shade of Pale” and “Mincing Words,” Lee Mellor examines paraphilias associated with necrophilia. The most important being that he finally lays to rest (pun intended) the idiotic term “necrosadism,” which  has been used to describe acts of piqcuerism and mutilation committed against corpses, and replaces it with a far superior term, “necromutilophilia.”

*In “Laws Pertaining to Necrophilia in the United States,” Dr. Cody Charette conducted a thorough examination of individual state laws un the U.S., debunking some often-misreported laws in the process. It is true that some states have no laws on the books against necrophilia. What I found interesting was the fact that a handful of states have laws containing gendered language that would theoretically allow female necrophiliacs to operate without fear of prosecution.

*Necrosurrealist artist David Gough was commissioned to create a new portrait for this anthology. The resulting piece, Putrefying Venus, is quite stunning.

*Jens Foell and Christopher Patrick discuss brain imaging data of paraphiliacs in “A Neuroscientific Perspective on Morbid Paraphilias.” Unfortunately, there are no brain imaging studies of necrophiliacs specifically, but the authors present a thoughtful discussion of how the existing research applies.

*Anil Aggrawal revisits his proposed typologies of necrophilia, previously outlined in his book Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects, another book worth reading. I expect his typology to become essential in discussions of necrophilia.

Lastly, I want to point out that Understanding Necrophilia isn’t just a collection of academics and professionals dissecting necrophilia from the outside. This anthology also features an essay by a self-proclaimed necrophile. As a side note though, in my personal observation, successful academics and professionals don’t necessarily stand at a distance from any perversion, if you get my meaning. More than a few of us understand perversions from the inside looking out. But the gesture of including such an essay is unique and further sets this book apart from typical academic anthologies. Understanding Necrophilia further departs from the typical academic publication in that it embraces the fringes of pop culture by its inclusion of a chapter co-authored by Robert Rhine, the creator of Girls and Corpses Magazine.

 

Understanding Necrophilia now in print!

 I am pleased to announce that the book to which I contributed original research, Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, is finally in print! This is the first time my work has been published in print, and I wasn’t prepared for the grueling (yet fun and challenging) process it would be. The creator of this meme below has the right idea.

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Looking ahead, December at My Horrific Life will be both a month of creepy Christmas cheer and a month of necrophilia, as I’ll be posting a review of Understanding Necrophilia (as soon as my contributor copy arrives) and reviews of complementary books. Stay tuned for our December podcast episodes as Todd and I discuss my research and our favorite Christmas-themed horror entertainment.

Boris Karloff Month Finale: Targets

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For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

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The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

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The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff, a beautiful soul

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Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.

I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.

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The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life  Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.

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Boris with his daughter, Sara Jane, who shares his birthday.

Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.

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Boris as a child

Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.

Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.

Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in  adopting their profession.

He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.

Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.

Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”

He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.

Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.

Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.

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Boris with Elsie the cow.

The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”

Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”

 

Review: House of Psychotic Women

As this blog grows, I’ve decided to designate at least one day a month as Scary Scholarly Saturday…or something like that…perhaps a catchier name will come to mind.

Speaking of disturbed minds, this month’s featured academic book is House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse. This isn’t your typical film criticism book, but rather an analysis of selected films through an autobiographical lens. As the title suggests, it’s an examination of neurotic, psychotic, and otherwise “crazy” women in horror and exploitation films. It’s a book that works my nerves on a number of levels, but also has a lot on its favor. So let’s get the perceived negatives out of the way first.

To foreground this discussion, I must point out that I’ve become so disgusted with people casually using the term “crazy” in reference to women. The term itself is rather lazy, and stigmatizes mental illness, but also tends to be used to silence and discredit women in particular. As discussed in an article by Harris O’Malley, men usually don’t label women as crazy in reference to an actual diagnosis, but usually to delegitimize any behavior or emotion that is merely perceived as inconvenient or annoying. This labeling is also often brilliantly mocked and satirized satirized in the spoof women’s magazine Reductress.

So imagine how irked I was with Kier-La Janisse’s statement in the introduction, “every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another.” Like so many men who use this label to describe women, she often does not refer to any formal diagnosis. In this book as in common parlance, “crazy” is a catch-all term for anything from mere eccentricity to debilitating psychosis. The rest of the book involves relating her own craziness to the on-screen craziness of various female characters. She never does offer a definition of what constitutes craziness, or its elusive opposite, sanity. Likewise, she never posits whether she views women as crazy in an essentialist sense, or that all women are crazy due to the pressures of patriarchal society. Given her description of her horrifically abusive childhood, I was saddened that she constantly labels herself crazy as well. Most of the evidence she presents for her self-described craziness runs along the lines of maladaptive coping behaviors that seem perfectly understandable given her dysfunctional upbringing.

My final criticism is that while horror films do depict a great deal of ” craziness” of different types and degrees, it isn’t a genre specifically about that nebulous category of women’s “craziness.” While I haven’t done a quantitative analysis of the subject, my viewing of thousands of horror films seems to indicate that depictions of mentally ill men are at least as prevalent as those of women, if not more so. Focusing exclusively on “crazy” women excludes their male equivalents. What about Jack Torrence, Norman Bates, and Michael Myers, not to mention scores of mad scientists, serial killers, and cultists? Male craziness is a staple of horror literature. Just ask any of Lovecraft’s protagonists. Janisse even discusses her affinity for the “neurotic” music of Alice Cooper, who has coopted “craziness” and mental illness as part of his personal brand following his treatment at a psychiatric facility. However, she doesn’t explore representations (or self-representations) of male “craziness.” At some point, I would love to see someone compare and contrast gendered constructs of “craziness” within the horror genre. Furthermore, I would eventually like to see a discussion of the perceived benefit of owning “craziness” as a personal brand or label.

On the positive side, Janisse does provide in-depth and thoughtful commentary on many  overlooked movies, which are presented alongside her autobiography, and separately in  a lengthy appendix. There are also many beautiful black-and-white and full color movie stills and poster reproductions throughout the book. Even though I had issues with the premise, House of Psychotic Women was fun to read. Janisse’s autobiography is interesting in its own right, and it’s fascinating how horror films can resonate with people on so many different levels. Clearly, depictions of  “crazy” women serve a cathartic function for Janisse. I am constantly amazed at how many varied readings arise from the horror genre, and this was an aspect I hadn’t previously considered.

Happy Halloween from My Horrific Life

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Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

We want to wish all of our friends and readers a safe and happy Halloween. Our favorite holiday may be drawing to a close, but we will keep it alive all year with coverage of all things dark and horrific.

November is a big month for us, as Dr. Todd Fleischer and I will be recording our first podcast, topic to be announced soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out the latest episode of Todd’s psychology-oriented podcast, KitchenShrinks, in which he and Dr. Jerry Bockoven interview my dear friend and one of my favorite professors, Dr. Carole Levin.

On the blog, I will be introducing two new monthly features: Disturbed Divination Day and Scary Scholarly Saturday. In celebration of Boris Karloff’s birthday on November 23, I’ll honor his memory with posts about lesser-knows aspects of his life and work. And, maybe, because this election season is horrific, I’ll cover a few books and films that are appropriate for the occasion.