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.