Category Archives: Horrific fiction

IT (2017): Movie vs. Book

You know what time it is. Time for me to give an obligatory review of IT, because every other horror film reviewer is talking about it. I even re-read the novel in preparation for seeing the 2017 film adaptation. IT was the second novel I read by Stephen King; The Shining was the first. IT stuck with me for a long time, and I tend to re-read the book every few years.

When I later saw the miniseries Stephen King’s It on TV, I was sorely disappointed. Tim Curry made a good Pennywise, but so many terrifying scenes from the book didn’t make the cut. The scenes that did were often cheesy, not scary. But before I cast more aspersion on the TV miniseries, I realize that the adaptation was hampered by budgetary limitations and network censorship. I knew then that to do the novel justice, the next adaptation would need to be an R-rated film with a bigger budget and better special effects.

Finally, Andy Muschietti has given us an adaptation that approaches King’s vision and captures the heart of the novel. This isn’t to say that the new film doesn’t differ from the novel in several significant ways.

Bill Skarsgård is fantastic as the new Pennywise.

The narrative structure is different. First, the narrative structure of the film is purely linear. King’s novel begins with the death of Georgie, and then introduces the Losers as adults. The Losers’ present-day story is interspersed with flashbacks from their childhood as they recover suppressed/repressed memories of their horrific encounters with Pennywise. The film focuses exclusively on the Losers’ childhood events, teasing a future “Chapter Two” which will focus on the characters as adults.

The time period is different. King’s novel set the flashback scenes in the 1950s, and the adult scenes in the then-present 1980s. The new film moves the time period up three decades by having the characters as children in the late 1980s, which will allow the the adults’ story to take place in the mid-2010s. As much as I loved King’s vivid description of life in the 1950s, this change makes sense, is more relatable to most audience members, and doesn’t weaken the story in any way.

Beverly encounters an unusual clog in the bathroom drain.

Don’t expect to see your favorite scares. Everyone who has read the novel has certain scare scenes that affected them. Check out this list from Mashable for examples. I always enjoyed Ben’s first encounter with Pennywise on the canal, and have never thought of the tune “Camptown Races” the same way after reading Stanley’s encounter at the old standpipe. Patrick Hocksetter’s death involving an old refrigerator and flying leeches was fabulously weird. That said, don’t expect to see them. You will get to see a version of Beverly’s encounter with the bathroom drain, but many of these scenes don’t appear in the new film, or have been reimagined as something else entirely. Fortunately, the re-imagined scares are pretty darn good. My favorite is Ben’s encounter in the library.

The creepy house on Neibolt Street is prominently featured in the new film.

The graphic sexual content has been excised…again. The new version of IT isn’t afraid of gore, and actually had the balls to show Pennywise chewing Georgie’s arm off.  But when it comes to the novel’s graphic sexual content, the filmmakers played it safe. So if you are wondering if the new film includes THAT scene in which Beverly has sex with the rest of the Losers, the answer is no. Also missing is the homosexual encounter between the bullies Patrick Hocksetter and Henry Bowers. The “leper “who terrorizes Eddie does not offer a blowjob. However, it is implied that Beverly’s father sexually abuses her. Theses scenes were effective in the novel, because the reality of children being vulnerable to sexual predators was a nice contrast to the wholesome facade of the 1950s, but certainly a PR nightmare to adapt to film, given the fact the characters are underage. We’ll see if the raunchier aspects of the novel make the cut when the adults’ story in “Chapter Two” is released.

I was pleased to see a more serious attempt at depicting the “deadlights,” and the fact that looking into them will make you lose your mind. I hope that “Chapter Two” expands on this, and includes the inter-dimensional battle between the Losers and Pennywise.

September is Stephen King Month!

In honor of Stephen King’s birth month, My Horrific Life will be covering our favorite (and not-so-favorite) Stephen King books and film adaptations.

Like many of our readers, I’m excited for the new film adaptation of IT, because it’s possibly my favorite King novel (in a close tie with The Shining). I revisit the novel every couple years, and I’m hoping IT finally gets the film adaptation it deserves. My massage therapist John summed it up by saying, “maybe now people can stop talking about the TV miniseries, which was AWFUL. The people who like it liked it when they were eight years old. What eight-year-old has good taste in ANYTHING?” Although Tim Curry gave a great performance as Pennywise, I have to agree with John. The other things I noticed is that people who love the miniseries have never read the book. The novel was simply too gruesome and too…adult to be adapted as a 1990s television special. Those of you who have read the novel are probably also wondering if the 2017 film adaptation will include THAT scene. You know, the one in which Beverly did not give the boys a chaste kiss on the cheek, as she did in the TV miniseries?

While I can live without the pre-teen gang-bang scene, I really hope this version includes the inter-dimensional battle between It and the young people, properly explain what the “deadlights” are, and, of course, include the gorier and more lascivious scares that made the novel so effective.

On our podcast, we will be welcoming back Justin Beahm for a roundtable discussion about Stephen King’s works and adaptations. Though not related to King’s work, I am very pleased to announce that we will be interviewing Michael Kehoe, director of The Hatred, starring our recent podcast guests Andrew Divoff and David Naughton. The Hatred  is scheduled for a release on blu/DVD on September 12.

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.

 

Review: Riley Sager’s The Final Girls

We are kicking off Final Girls Week with a review of Final Girls: A Novel by Riley Sager.

Final Girls caught my attention because Stephen King praised the novel as “the first great thriller of 2017” and compared it favorably to Gone Girl. Riley Sager is actually a pseudonym for an author previously published under a different name, Todd Ritter. The name “Riley Sager” seems like a perfect final girl name.

The novel’s protagonist, Quincy Carpenter, is the sole survivor of a massacre in a cabin. She suffers from amnesia regarding the events of that night, and is later mentored by another “final girl,” Lisa Milner, a survivor of a sorority house massacre. When Lisa is found dead with her wrists slit, Quincy is approached by a third final girl named Sam, who goads Quincy into vigilante justice and other problematic behaviors. 

I won’t spoil any major plot points on a novel this recent. I will say that some plot twists are fully expected. It’s fairly obvious early on that one or more of the Final Girls is a murderer. That’s also become a typical device in several postmodern or meta slasher films, such as Scream 4, High Tension, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. That said, there are several, fully unexpected twists. Sager’s prose is straightforward, and some reviewers have complained about his writing style. However, he’s definitely an engaging storyteller. He uses an interesting narrative device of telling most of the story from Quincey’s point of view, and other sections in a detached third-person style. The audiobook version even uses two different narrators for these passages. In part, this format serves the purpose of filling in gaps in Quincy’s memory.  The other reason is…rather surprising.

This is great beach read  as summer winds down.

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

Crypticon Kansas City 2017: Now in St. Joe, Missouri

Todd, Colleen, and I at Crypticon’s new venue.

Crypticon KC 2014 was the first convention I ever attended. This year, I  went on a road trip with my podcast cohost Todd and his wife Colleen. Oddly, Crypticon Kansas City was actually held in St. Joe, which is roughly an hour away from Kansas City itself. I assumed that the move from the Howard Johnson Plaza in KC to the St. Joe Civic Center was merely for economic reasons. I found out later that it was because of a very real-life horror story.

More on this later.

Andrew Divoff sweetly agreeing to have a phone chat with my mom.

For those of you who prefer your horror in film and culture, Crypticon did not disappoint. It was great seeing my friend Andrew Divoff (Wishmaster, Lost, Toy Soldiers), who sweetly agreed to chat with my mom on the phone before things got too busy. 

With Jeffrey Combs, who should be in every movie.

 

I also enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, Star Trek) again. He kicked off the convention Q&A session with several fascinating stories and a great sense of humor.

William B. David and Mitch Pileggi talk UFO’s

Another fun session was the panel with X-Files stars Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis. The most interesting aspect of this panel was their discussion about paranormal activity and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Pileggi is a believer and Davis is not.

Dirk Benedict trumped us during a political discussion at his table!

Battlestar Galactica and A-Team star Dirk Benedict gave a lively talk about his personal life, past romantic relationships, political views, and love for his children. I didn’t always agree with his opinions (for example, he had many positive things to say about Donald Trump), but it was refreshing to listen to someone who was unafraid to share his unfiltered views.

We met a lot of new people too, a few of whom will be future podcast guests. African-American horror-fantasy author Crystal Connor shared a bracing story about a collision with a swastica-tattooed skinhead, only to be surprised that he was more concerned for her well-being. Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp) and Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm St. 2) have passionate opinions on depictions of gender and sexual orientation in horror films, and I can’t wait to talk to them further. Later, über-sweetheart David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London) chatted with us about his upcoming projects, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming and The Hatred.

Chatting with Andrew Divoff at the hotel.

On the final day, Andrew Divoff shared information about his upcoming charity pour and new hand-sculpted Djinn rings. We talked about the new convention venue, and he asked how it compared to the old one. I explained that I stayed in the Howard Johnson Plaza in Kansas City during Crypticon 2014, and while my room was clean, there were definite problems with the facility. One elevator bounced sickeningly before stopping at the correct floor, and another was broken entirely. I opted to take the stairs instead, and found the dismal concrete stairwell to be littered with broken glass and used needles. The convention hall itself looked decent, but occasionally I would notice a foul stench waft through, as though a particularly flatulent convention-goer had walked by and cropdusted the aisle. It turns out that the old plumbing system perpetually leaked sewer gas during the summer months. As unsavory as that was, I speculated that Crypticon simply moved because they found a cleaner, bigger, or cheaper venue.

But then, Andrew said, “No, it was closed down because of the bodies in the elevator shaft.”

The now defunct Howard Johnson Plaza/former Ramada Inn

Note the overgrown weed problem.

It was like American Horror Story: Hotel, minus the glamor. Maybe more like Bentley Little’s novel The Resort. This took me down a rabbit hole of research of the Howard Johnson Plaza/Ramada Inn, beginning with reviews from hotel guests who had far worse experiences than I did. (See select photos above from TripAdvisor.) There were tales of  mildewed coffee pots, filthy bedding, broken windows, televisions “ghetto-wired” directly into the electrical outlet, cockroach and rat infestations, bedbugs, and entire sections left abandoned, with unmade rooms potentially occupied by homeless people. It seems that the Howard Johnson Plaza was like a ghost town by September 2016 and abandoned entirely by December.

As for dead bodies, I found evidence of only one in the elevator shaft.  According to Fox 4 News and the Kansas City Star, a homeless man who frequently sheltered in the hotel reported to police that he had found  a body in one of the elevator shafts, and that it had been there for quite awhile. So long that it was not immediately obvious whether the body was male or female. While I have not found much follow-up information about this, it seems that the death was accidental. The victim was apparently stealing copper pipes and fell to his death.

Stay classy, KC.

 

Berlin Syndrome: Nice Guys and necrophilous personalities

Berlin Syndrome, a film I had been anticipating for months after reading Bryan Bishop’s review in The Verge, is finally out on DVD and VOD. The film is directed by Cate Shortland and adapted from the novel by Melanie Joosten.

Berlin Syndrome is a slow-burn movie that lacks any significant onscreen body count, but is disturbing nonetheless. In many respects, it reminds me of the John Fowles novel The Collector and its  film adaptation starring Terrence Stamp. Both stories are about men who “collect” the women with whom they are obsessed. Arguably, both stories are also about Nice Guys as villains. Note that I differentiate nice guys from Nice Guys, the former being genuinely good and kind people who happen to be men, and the latter are men merely performing a social script of niceness to cover an ulterior agenda, and who are not nice people at all. For more information about the scourge of Nice Guy behavior and their diseased mindset, read this excellent article by Dr. Nerdlove, or listen to my guest appearance as part of a roundtable discussion on the KitchenShrinks podcast episode about benevolent sexism.

Berlin Syndrome nicely exposes Nice Guy psychology and their twisted view of women and relationships. Thankfully, most Nice Guys do not keep women as human captives, but if they had the means to do so without getting caught, they would likely view it as an effective solution to being “friendzoned.” (Although even then, the Nice Guy would view the female captive as a moocher or gold-digger, living in his home rent free and therefore definitely owing him sexual favors.) In Berlin Syndrome, an Australian tourist Clare has a one-night-stand with Berlin Nice Guy Andi, who can’t accept that she doesn’t want a long-term relationship with him. Once Clare is Andi’s captive, she discovers that Andi is a serial kidnapper and possible serial killer, abducting a new victim as soon as the “romance” is gone in his relationship with the current captive. When we see Andi interact with multiple potential victims, we see that all of his charming and endearing  behaviors are just part of a script that he repeatedly performs. Like all Nice Guys, Andi hates women, and in fact sees them as literally dirty, as evidenced by his compulsive urge to wash himself after being touched by a female coworker.

Max Riemelt as Berlin Syndrome’s Nice Guy Villain. Photo by Sarah Enticknap.

I have not read Melanie Joosten’s novel, and therefore don’t know if it provides further insight into Andi’s simultaneous hatred of women and desire to keep women as captives to fulfill his romantic fantasies. But his behavior fits nicely within Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, as discussed in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil  and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. As discussed in an earlier essay, the necrophilous personality is not the same as necrophilia, though the personality and the paraphilia can coexist. One trait of the necrophilous personality is to transform, literally or metaphorically, something that is alive into something that is dead. In The Collector, Miranda’s captor kills and collects butterflies. Instead of admiring these living creatures in the wild, he kills them and keeps their bodies on display so that he can enjoy looking at them. Miranda realizes in horror that, in his mind, she is exactly like those butterflies. In Berlin Syndrome, Andi compulsively photographs Clare, sometimes in candid moments, other times forcing her to model lingerie. When she behaves in a sexually provocative manner during one of these photo sessions, seemingly mocking Andi’s fantasies, he becomes upset with her. She is perhaps too alive with too much a mind of her own. Fromm himself discussed the the compulsive need to take photographs as a symptom of necrophilous personality in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. True crime author Brian Masters, himself influenced by Fromm’s work, took the observation further in his biography The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer:

“The person, once threateningly alive, now exists insofar as the photographer allows him to exist through images of his creating. It is a translation of life into death, of sentience into petrification, of will into object, the dissolution of all into one triumphant thing—the photograph. (p. 163) … It is important to recognize that the camera does not enhance, it reduces (in so far as the person photographed is now no more than an image), and it insultingly proclaims ownership too. (p. 164).”

Andi controls every aspect of Clare’s life.

For the antagonists in The Collector and in Berlin Syndrome, women’s autonomy is somehow so threatening that the Nice Guy psychopaths need to assert control at any cost. They would rather have a sterile, scripted “relationship” than risk rejection or the dreaded Friendzone. Fortunately, things ultimately work out for Clare better than they did for Miranda in The Collector, with women helping each other escape from a horrible situation.

 

What is it? It is Crispin Glover Live at Omaha’s Alamo Drafthouse!

Crispin Glover as ” Mr. World” in the Starz series American Gods

On June 16th and 17th at Alamo Drafthouse (Omaha ), I attended both nights of Crispin Glover’s appearance consisting of live performances, film screenings, Q&As, and book signings. And what a great time it was! Crispin Glover is one of the most wonderfully gracious, down-to-earth, and intelligent people I’ve met. His live performances films and should be experienced firsthand, because they defy easy description. But I’m going to try anyway.

Before I get to that, I want to foreground this review by saying that I didn’t know too much of what to expect from the event or from Crispin himself, and didn’t want to bias my opinion of the event by reading detailed reviews in advance. Aside from enjoying Crispin’s quirky performances in various films (including his recent role as “Mr. World” in the Starz series American Gods), I didn’t know much about him as a person, aside from media articles describing him as” eccentric” or even “crazy,” two terms that are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. Usually, the “evidence” for the “crazy” label consists of speculation about his cringe-inducing first appearance on Letterman in the late 1980s, or the fact that he used to collect antique medical equipment (a fun-sounding hobby that mostly makes me feel envious). As I discussed in an earlier post, “crazy” is a nebulous label, a sloppy blanket term for a range of behaviors and attitudes that don’t necessarily indicate actual mental illness. I’m not just carping about the descriptor “crazy” merely because Crispin Glover clearly isn’t.  I also find it egregious because it’s an intellectually lazy way to dismiss someone whose ideas or behaviors are merely inconvenient, outside the status-quo, or fail to support one’s own agenda. More on this later.

An unexpected reference to bestiality in “Rat Catching”

This isn’t to say that Crispin’s artistic output isn’t eccentric or massively weird, because it is. If you have the opportunity to attend both nights, do so. There is some overlap in content but not so much as to be overly redundant. Both nights began with variations of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show,” in which Crispin crawled out from somewhere beneath the stage (literally) and then presented dramatic reading of several of his books accompanied by a powerpoint presentation of the book text and illustrations. Most of Crispin’s books consist of Victorian-era texts and illustrations, which have been redacted, recombined, and annotated in ways that transform the narrative entirely, usually making it funny or into absolute nightmare fuel. For example, “Rat Catching” contains a surprise reference to bestiality. Other books, such as “Round My House,” consisted of Crispin’s original text, reprinted from his own handwriting. This was my favorite among the books available for purchase at the event and on his website. The others were out of print or never printed for distribution in the first place. My favorite among these was “The Backward Swing.” Crispin’s dramatic reading style most often further mutated or obfuscated the meaning of the text, because he would often read with an emotion that didn’t seem to fit the text, or would read in a counter-intuitive cadence or put emphasis on atypical words. I enjoy the books themselves, but would argue that they are best experienced when performed by Crispin himself.

Poster for It is Fine! Everything is Fine

Following the Big Slide Show on night one was a screening of It is Fine! Everything is Fine, which is directed by Crispin as part two if the “IT” trilogy. Part one, What is It? was screened the second night. In retrospect, I think I understand his reasoning for screening his films out of order. It is Fine! is a good way to warm up audience members who attended both nights, because of the two films, it is more palatable for mainstream audiences. Moreover, it’s in some ways helpful to learn about the screenwriter and lead actor Steven C. Stewart before seeing the first film. Steven C. Stewart, who had a severe case of cerebral palsy, portrays a serial killer who has a fetish for women with long hair. I won’t spoil this film for readers as I tend to do. While there are several taboo elements in It is Fine!, it’s a film with a coherent, linear plot.

Promotional still for What is It?

That said, the oddities of the Big Slide Show and It is Fine! did not adequately prepare me for seeing part one of the “IT” trilogy, What is It?, which Crispin describes as, “Being the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche” ( the racist inner psyche is portrayed by Crispin himself). In his Q&A afterward (as in interviews which can be read online), he states that one controversial element was the fact that the cast of What is It? consisted almost entirely of actors who had Down syndrome portraying characters who do not necessarily have Down syndrome. That’s really only one of many controversial aspects of the film. I would go so far to say that there is something potentially offensive or disturbing for every viewer. Some of those things include excessive use of Nazi swasticas, screaming snails, and unsimulated sex scenes involving women in animal masks. In multiple interviews, Crispin said his goal in making What is It?  is for audience members to ask themselves, “Is this right what I’m watching? Is this wrong what I’m watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this? What is it?” It worked. Among the things that pushed my personal buttons were gratuitous scenes of snail-killing and some…unique soundtrack choices that included Johnny Rebel’s rendition of “Some N*ggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)”  and selected songs by Charles Manson. To clarify, these songs were played in the main character’s subconscious by the aforementioned “hubristic, racist inner psyche,” which didn’t prevent me from dying a little on the inside anyway. 

To say What is It? is disturbing is an understatement. More specifically, I actually found it more disturbing than one of my perennial favorite movies, A Serbian Film, and as least as disturbing as my friend Andrey Iskanov’s Unit 731 quasi-documentary film Philosophy of a Knife. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way at all. In contrast to a lot of big-budget dreck that is entertaining in the moment but which leaves you without a thought in your head, What is It?, like the other disturbing films I mentioned above, is not necessarily pleasant to watch , but is something to be appreciated in the long term precisely because it is thought-provoking.

Which brings us to the Q&A sessions, which were an oasis of calm rationality after the strangeness of the dramatic readings and the films themselves. In response to each question, Crispin gave thorough, intellectual answers that reminded me of my favorite professors’ lectures in film theory classes and from subsequent graduate school behavioral science courses. Although each night’s roughly two-hour Q&A had a different overall focus, one unifying theme was Crispin’s argument that corporately-funded films function as a type of propaganda because they discourage audience members from asking questions of any kind. Another observation was, and I hope I am paraphrasing this appropriately, that corporate films are intended for the eyes of children, because anything that could make an audience member uncomfortable is excised. I very much appreciated his in-depth insights and discussions in this subject, in part because I have a similar perception of such films. For over a decade, I’ve believed that most mainstream, corporately-funded films force the filmmaker to take a “No Child Left Behind” approach to storytelling, insofar that even if a film has subject matter deemed not suitable for children, that film is ultimately scripted and edited in such a way so that even the most intoxicated or least intelligent test screening audience member can understand it. Additionally, it seems that the budget of a film is inversely related to how taboo it is “allowed” to be. While that isn’t a terrible thing for every type of film, it’s obviously deleterious for horror films and any other type of film that by nature needs to convey things that are disturbing or controversial.

Crispin Glover as the screaming hair fetishist “The Thin Man” in Charlie’s Angels

Since What is It? was a reaction to corporate straightjacketing, it’s not entirely without irony that a significant a percent of Crispin’s acting work is in corporately funded and distributed films. However, that doesn’t indicate that Crispin’s views on corporate propaganda are somehow inauthentic, but rather that corporate control over the U.S. entertainment industry is so ubiquitous that it’s virtually impossible for an artist to detach entirely from the system. Crispin states that he used income from Charlie’s Angels and other corporately-funded films to cover the cost of making his independent films What is It? and It is Fine! Which brings me back to the issue of some journalists labeling Crispin as “crazy” or some variant on the term. On one level, it may just be an attempt to entertain celebrity gossip junkies or reflective of a common difficulty in separating an artist from his work product, but on another, more insidious level, it is also an easy way to dismiss Crispin’s more subversive views about the U.S. entertainment industry.

Crispin’s Q&A sessions weren’t restricted to professor-like discussions about corporate propaganda and relevant works by  Noam Chomsky and Edward Bernays. He also discussed the influence of the Surrealist movement on his own work and shared several humorous personal anecdotes, including his intent behind his first appearance on Letterman. (I won’t reveal the answer here.) The fact that he openly answers questions in his Q&A sessions that he will not answer in typical media interviews is yet another reason to attend his live performances and film screenings. 

Finally meeting Crispin at his book signing Friday night

 

After the Q&A sessions concluded, both evenings ended with a book signing. While it was a long wait to meet Crispin (I didn’t make it home until 2 a.m. on Friday and 1 a.m. on Saturday), I’m glad I did, and appreciated the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one. A staff member at Alamo Drafthouse told me that they had recommended that he spend only two minutes with each guest, but he generously spent quite a bit more time with those who wanted to talk. As I mentioned earlier, he was very gracious and grounded, and also genuinely interested in each guest and in hearing their feedback about his presentations and films. Even though I intended to not bring up weird or inappropriate topics, my conversation with Crispin started benignly and then evolved to an academic discussion about paraphilias. Fortunately, he seemed unfazed.

Crispin is currently writing a book about propaganda (I can’t wait for it to be released) and completing an untitled film starring his father, Bruce Glover. Visit crispinglover.com to sign up for his newsletter, buy his books, and get information about his tour dates.

 

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.

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.

 

Boris Karloff’s Tales of the Frightened

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While virtually everyone has some familiarity with Karloff’s films, it’s not as well know that he also narrated books and performed radio dramas. Boris Karloff Presents: Tales of the Frightened is a delightful audio collection of short stories narrated by Karloff himself. Each story is approximately five minutes long, usually involving murder or freak accidents, yet without being overly gruesome or explicit. Nonetheless, each story has a bit of a mean-spirited twist ending that implicates the listener as the next victim.

I really do enjoy Boris Karloff’s voice. While narrating these stories, he comes off as a kind-hearted man who is paradoxically saying creepy things. I confess, I’ve actually fallen asleep to this recording several times in the last month, because it has a weirdly cozy, comforting vibe.

There is also an out-of-print paperback edition containing the same stories, but the recording is currently available as an Audible download  Audible download for the low, low price of $4.87.

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.

 

 

The Dead Zone is getting an audiobook release, and the original timing was sick

No blog about horror in daily life would be complete without at least one discussion of politics, and that’s especially true this election cycle. Not only do both candidates have historically low scores of trustworthiness, the lunatic fringes of society tend to endorse violence as a solution to real or perceived government corruption. This isn’t unique to this election. In 2010, the Tea Party movement received negative coverage for rallies in which at least one protestor carried a sign captioned, “we vote with bullets.” Also consider the screenshot below, posted by a gun-rights extremist:

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This is the stuff that pushes the limits of free speech and causes headaches for threat management professionals.

What seems unique in this election cycle is that one candidate seems to be openly courting extremists and promoting violent rhetoric. Of course, I am referring to Donald Trump’s tacit encouragement of violence against protestors at his rallies, and ominous suggestions that perhaps “2nd Amendment people” could “take care of” Hillary if she wins the presidential election. I suspect that Trump’s rhetoric that the election process itself is rigged would play into extremist ideology supporting domestic terrorism and assassination of political candidates and leaders.

This brings me to The Dead Zone, an early Stephen King novel that, well, kind of does promote the assassination of candidates, if only under the rare circumstances that one has infallible psychic abilities and knows that said candidate will start a nuclear war if elected. The Dead Zone was one of very few Stephen King novels to languish for decades without an audiobook edition. But seemingly in keeping with the zeitgeist of this election season, the folks at Simon and Schuster finally recorded an audio edition, originally to be released on October 25, 2016. Just early enough to complete a listen of the recording before Election Day. Hrmmm…

Some executive must have realized the faux pas just in time, or felt that the current political rhetoric was too heated, because the audiobook release has now been rescheduled for April 4, 2017.

This new release schedule is certainly less controversial and in better taste, and I respect the publisher’s decision to not feed into the current election craziness, but I admit that I’m a bit disappointed in the delay. I was eager to revisit The Dead Zone not because of the assassination subplot, but because the novel’s portrayal of politics was so prescient and appropriate given current events. The Dead Zone‘s villainous candidate, Greg Stillson, is a rather Trumpian character, and even Stephen King himself has acknowledged the similarities via his Twitter. Stillson is a brash, larger-than-life, yet charismatic populist candidate who relies heavily on fear-based rhetoric. He’s also an emotionally unstable narcissist who is destined to obliterate a large part of the human race in a nuclear war. Given Donald Trump’s cavalier remarks about the use of nuclear weapons, it’s easy to make comparisons to King’s character.

In the novel and the film adaptation, there ultimately is no assassination, because Stillson creates his own demise through actions so terrible that he cannot recover as a viable candidate. Only time will tell, but perhaps Trump has finally created his own “Dead Zone Moment” though his “pussygate” remarks to Billy Bush and any number of other offensive televised comments.

Despite the delay in the release, you can still pre-order a copy of The Dead Zone through Audible or Amazon.

Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill


Joe Hill’s work has matured greatly since early novels such as Heart-Shaped Box and even Horns: A Novel, both of which provoked a love-hate response in me. Both were clever, but wallowed self-consciously in their own cleverness. Heart-Shaped Box utilized every horror genre trope and cliche before inverting them, setting readers up for a multitude of “gotcha” moments. (For instance, a spirit uses a Ouija board to incessantly question the living protagonist.) In all fairness, Hill’s fiction is inevitably compared to his father Stephen King’s work, rather than appreciated exclusively for its own merits.

Then came NOS4A2: A Novel, which one could argue was Hill’s breakout work (and will be reviewed here later). NOS 4A2 was in many respects more nuanced and complex than his earlier novels, with greater character depth. This novel made some bold references to Stephen King’s fictional universe, and can easily stand alongside many of King’s novels.

The Fireman: A Novel continues the positive trends of NOS 4A2, and the central conceit of a contagious disease that causes the infected to spontaneously combust is deliriously creepy. However, this isn’t the novel’s scariest aspect. (Here’s where I warn for mild spoilers ahead.) The most disturbing scenes involve dysfunctional group dynamics, particularly those involving social control. The tribal mentality isn’t merely drawn along the lines of the infected vs. the uninfected, but even within the group of infected survivors who are already vulnerable to attacks from “cremation crews” as well as their own illness.

Here we have a story about an isolated and marginalized group that devolves into a murderous cult. The process is familiar to anyone who has read about real-life tragedies such as Jonestown and so many other cults. In The Fireman, an initially likable character creates an environment of of hope and trust, anchored to her own brand of religion. As the characters become more isolated from the outside world, the tone shifts to paranoia, and she grabs as much power and authority as possible. As with real life cases, it’s frustrating that so few characters call her out on her bullshit or hold her accountable. Naturally, the few dissenters are demonized through character assassination, and in some cases, subjected to physical abuse. And naturally, the followers are so desperate to maintain their in-group status that they blindly believe their leader’s lies. The protagonist’s character development arc is satisfying (even if I could have lived with fewer Mary Poppins references), because her previous relationship with  her gaslighting and manipulative ex-husband immunizes her to the cult members’ manipulation. Hill creates a believable transition from passive spouse to assertive hero. Another strength of the novel is how seamlessly Hill provides a biological explanation for the toxic group dynamics that dovetails with the mechanics of the disease itself.