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American Cult, Part One: The Empty Places

Next month, Madness Heart Press will release American Cult, an anthology of stories of alternative history and distinctly American horror. It includes my short story, “stuffed,” and to celebrate, this is the first installment of a three-part examination of horror that has been molded by the American experience; a look at the empty places. Continue reading American Cult, Part One: The Empty Places

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Review: Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’

When Clive Barker’s Books of Blood began their publication in 1984, it would be fair to say that Stephen King had already reinvented horror as a popular genre. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, King had published more than a dozen novels. Still, even Stephen King himself viewed the publication of the Books as a watershed moment for horror: it was the Books of Blood that led King to famously call Clive Barker “the future of horror.”
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‘Possum,’ ‘Mercy Black,’ and Family Trauma in Horror

To hear Vice’s Ryan Bradford tell it, “Terrifying Family Trauma Is the New Thing in Horror.”

I would dispute that family trauma is a “new thing” in horror, something Bradford himself admits, but his main thesis holds up – namely, that 2018 was marked, in films like the excellent Hereditary and shows like Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, Sharp Objects, and Haunting of Hill House, by stories of family trauma manifested in horrific and terrifying ways. Continue reading ‘Possum,’ ‘Mercy Black,’ and Family Trauma in Horror

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Body Horror, Part Three: Literature of the Flesh

David Cronenberg is one of the defining visionaries of body horror. His remake of the Fly is a masterpiece of both practical special effects and the exploration (in themes and in concrete terms) of biology and dehumanization. One of Cronenberg’s movies, however, is often overlooked in a consideration of his “body horror” canon; his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch itself is a difficult book to describe. It is hallucinatory, absurd, obscene, terrifying, and absolutely unique – completely unlike anything that came before or since. And amidst the drugs, weird sex, science fiction concepts, and gibberish is a fair amount of what I would describe as good old-fashioned body horror; explorations of addiction, disease, disfigurement, and mutation.

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Body Horror, Part Two: Borborygmus

It begins with the pudding. Calvin’s heart quickens as his stubby fingers brush against the carton at the back of the fridge – how did it get there? – but disappointment awaits. He bends as far as his immense bulk allows and retrieves the container. Only a paucity of the thick, off-white treat remains; hardly a spoonful. The store it is, then.

He dresses slowly. The bending and stretching required leave him short of breath, and so he pauses before he dons his shoes. His small apartment is awash in detritus; clothes strewn on the floor, empty pizza boxes piled in one corner, sink freighted with crusty dishes. A mild mammalian odor, not dissimilar to that of a barn, permeates the air. Calvin takes all this in in a sleepy glance before he turns, exits, and locks the door behind him. Continue reading Body Horror, Part Two: Borborygmus

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Vampires and the Beautiful Grotesque

We reach for it with trembling fingers outstretched, filled with contradictory impulses. We are repelled but captivated, our attraction stronger than our repulsion – stronger than our common sense, our decency, even our instinct for self-preservation. It’s a story as old as stories; the beautiful grotesque, the alluring monster, the object of desire that offers us sweet harm. The theme is reflected in horror fiction is multitudinous ways; many are doomed and romantic visions of the beautiful grotesque, cast as love stories or cautionary tales or (often) both. Viewed through one specific facet – the vampire story – the evolution of the beautiful grotesque over the last century can offer us a few interesting glimpses of sex, death, and aristocracy.

1897’s Dracula gave us the modern vampire, and 1922’s motion picture knockoff Dracula, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, gave us a glimpse of the DMCA-plagued future. While Bram Stoker’s masterpiece borrowed many things – many parts of the vampire legend itself, the actual person of Vlad Țepeș – Nosferatu was such a copycat that in 1929 a judge ruled that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. The ruling almost drove a stake through the heart of one of the greatest horror films of all time, but a few unlicensed and unauthorized prints of the film (which was itself, remember, a copy of Dracula) survived. I find this to be an amusing example of life imitating art; Nosferatu survived and became immortal through the same parasitism that spawned it in the first place, and which any creature of the night worth its canines would appreciate.

Stoker’s description of Count Dracula does not line up with the monster given us in Nosferatu (indeed, the genealogy of that creeping, noisome thing might lie in the folktales of Eastern Europe, but it doesn’t reside in the popular Romantic or Gothic conceptions of the vampire as expressed in works like John Polidori’s The Vampyre or Le Fanu’s Carnilla, both of which preceded Dracula). The Count is described as an old man, yes, but one with profuse hair and eyebrows and whose ruddy lips “showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.” This description of Dracula lines up fairly closely with the Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee versions from 1931 and 1958, respectively, but what happened on Dracula’s 1922 journey to Germany that metamorphosed him into Orlok?

It’s an intriguingly German phenomenon that was repeated in Werner Herzog’s uneven 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. The film was conceived of as a remake of the 1922 Nosferatu rather than a direct adaption of Dracula, and while Klaus Kinski’s Count Dracula (no hiding behind “Orlok” or other changed names this time around) is a bald, toothy monstrosity, even Herzog’s Dracula is not as terrible a vision of living death as the 1922 film’s monster.

Modern iterations of the vampire have taken several forms, from the familiar vision of debauched aristocracy presented in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (a vision given a brilliant metaphorical twist through the slaveholding American South – the most parasitic, vampiristic political economy imaginable) or the Kate Beckinsale Underworld movies, to the Nosferatu-esque nightmare of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s Strain novels, but for my money the most telling modern iteration of the story can be found nestled in the foggy Pacific Northwest, in a YA horror-romance series you may have heard of called The Twilight Saga.

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In 2006, I started reading Twilight. Now, bear with me for a second here. My excuses for this behavior are threefold. First off, I’m a big old horror nerd and (like most horror nerds) a voracious, omnivorous, and opportunistic consumer of reading material. I’ll rarely turn down an excuse to sample something novel and interesting, and a soft-romance YA vampire novel was (for me, in 2006) an exercise first and foremost in novelty. I am – when it comes to horror – down for whatever. Second, circumstances were just right. I had just joined a pool of administrative assistants at a standard-issue, biz-cas cubicle labyrinth, and the other admins were ravenously gobbling up the Twilight books, and it gave me something to talk to them about. Lastly, as a purely anthropological exercise, I felt like I had to read at least the first book. After all, while my family are not Mormon, I grew up in Davis County, Utah, and am thus a product of the same basic political-theological stew that produced Stephanie Meyer (and, thus, Bella Swan).

Has the supposedly grotesque ever been so beautiful, so – forgive the pun – defanged? What is Bella’s first impression of Edward Cullen, our hundred-year-dead walking corpse, the embodiment of that which must feed on the blood of the living to perpetuate its own unnatural life?

“I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful – maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.”

But this is merely a vampire’s seductive glamour, right? What horrible truth lurks beneath Edward’s beauty, what skulking Orlok does our heroine eventually unmask?

“Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn’t get used to it, though I’d been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.”
Much rather snarky hay has been made of the sparkly vampire presented by Meyer, but I’m curious what deeper lessons we can draw from the popularity of Twilight. After all, Meyer’s bloodless (pardon the pun) vision of pretty, polite vampires was tremendously successful, spawning four books and five films and earning Meyer more than $120 million. Her vampires are noble, yes, but not just in the pecuniary sense of the word. They don’t really have to avoid the sun, don’t drink human blood (not the good ones, at any rate), and don’t have sex until marriage. That these tepid, sickly satires of a genre I love were so popular still hurts me a bit – I rarely wish to yuck on anyone’s yum, but other than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books, The Twilight Saga were the worst books I’ve ever read.

They represent not the beautiful grotesque, caught in a delicious tension between death and love, sex and the grave, but rather the grotesquely beautiful – boys (and girls) so breath-taking and exquisite that the pain they cause is for us to gaze upon them and ache with longing. Theirs is not a chilling or even interesting contemplation of what lies beyond death and what we might be willing to sacrifice for a voyage into eternity. They represent a glorification of abstinence – a gross and outdated moral viewpoint almost as repellant as Twilight’s gender politics.

Perhaps the journey from creeping Orlok to a more dark-and-handsome, widow’s-peaked Dracula to a sparkling, vegetarian Edward Cullen is less the expression of a straight line than a series of unrelated lamp posts strung along a winding path in the dark, providing illumination of their immediate cultural surroundings but not necessarily suggesting a linear progression. If anything, the meteoric rise of the zombie – that more overtly rotting, clotted, grungy cousin of the vampire – suggests that our fears regarding the grave haven’t evaporated.

If anything, perhaps they have become pronounced enough – gnawing enough – that the delicious tension represented by the beautiful grotesque has become difficult to maintain without something breaking.

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April Fools’ Day, Horror, and the Double Audience

SCSThe only consensus surrounding the origin of April Fools’ Day is that the holiday’s roots run very deep and most likely have something to do with the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox. One theory holds that the origins of the holiday lie with Roman worship of the Phrygian patron goddess Cybele through a celebration called Hilaria Matris Deûm that paid tribute to the resurrection of Cybele’s son, Attis, from the dead. The Hilaria culminated on the “Day of Joy,” which involved games, public sacrifices, and a masquerade, during which it was common for revelers to imitate magistrates or other authority figures (a form of satirical imitation and the inversion of authority figures shared in common with the Feast of Fools celebrated in France during the Middle Ages, although the Feast was usually held on or around January 1).

A little over a millennia later, the first version of what we would recognize as a modern April Fools’ Day developed as France made the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1582; as part of this transition, the new year was celebrated on January 1 rather than April 1. Those who refused to adopt the new calendar were mocked for their stubborn, conservative ways – often (and quite inexplicably) by having paper fishes surreptitiously affixed to their backs like “kick me” signs. Those so marked were then referred to as “April Fish,” based on the belief that such young fish are more naïve and easily caught – a belief, I suppose, as logical as any other component of the tradition. Over the next few centuries this April celebration spread throughout the United Kingdom and proved particularly popular in Scotland, where it was broken into two days; one day devoted to “gowk hunting” (a practice that survives to this very day and would be extremely familiar to any rube who has ever been talked into hunting the elusive snipe) and “Tailie Day,” a day devoted to pinning signs and other hilarious accessories to other peoples’ rear ends. Clearly, the Scots appreciate the finer, subtler forms of humor.

Modern pranks have run the gamut from the low-key, low-impact and goofy (for example, this classic 1957 prank in which the BBC reported on “the spaghetti harvest” in Sweden, complete with ridiculous footage of farmers harvesting noodles from trees) to the annual tradition of pranks that end with someone dead – while springtime human sacrifice many no longer be de rigeur, a certain amount of blood in the name of comedy seems to be a perpetual requirement for the smooth functioning of human society. How else to explain the ocean of news reports on hijinks that end in mayhem, mutilation, or the morgue?

Whether we’re sticking paper fish to people’s backs or accidentally setting massive fires, a prank’s essential appeal lies in a few factors. First, let’s get it right out in the open: pranks rely on our human capacity to comprehend and enjoy the suffering of others. After all, a prank in which we don’t understand what we are doing to the prankee is just an accident, and one in which the victim enjoys the prank is more of a pleasant surprise, yes? And there’s nothing in this that we should necessarily feel entirely ashamed of – after all, a little suffering never hurt anyone and adds spice to a life that might otherwise seem bland or boring.

Secondly, a prank shares one absolutely vital trait with its cousins irony and horror – that of the “double audience.” As with irony and horror fiction, a prank has one audience for whom the surface is intended, and a second audience for whom a hidden, deeper meaning is intended. The surface meaning – the set-up – is directed at one audience, while the second audience – with a much more complete understanding – is privy to the prank. The sweetness of the prank lies in the distance between these two knowledge-sets.

In exactly the same way, great horror fiction provides us – the second audience – with a glimpse of the danger that lies in wait behind the cellar door, the fate that our hapless victim is about to encounter. Our advantage over the on-page or on-screen traveler in darkness can consist of a large quantity of information or a small one, a total set of facts as to what is going on or simply cues, suspicions, and a feeling of dread, but it is in this distance, this gap in knowledge, that we also find one of the many pleasures of horror. We can only tense up – can only yell “don’t go in there, you fool!” at the screen – because, just as with a prank, we know something they don’t know.

And while that may be a cruel pleasure, spring is a time of cruel pleasures – and always has been.

The First Shred DLW

  • The first novella of the Shredded trilogy, and the debut work by author DLW. A grim fantasy novella, enter a world where deaths can be taken, and the faelie wear the dead like skin. Where killers can turn their victims into rains of blood. Follow the path of three would be saviors, but remember; Here, no one is meant to be a hero. PRAISE FOR THE FIRST SHRED: "I couldn't put the damn book down. I needed to know what was going on. I read it more than once. That's a more impressive feat than keeping the interest of an adult with ADHD" --Reed Alexander Horror Reviews
  • Madness Heart Press
  • March 5, 2019
  • 80 pages

Shards of Shattered Sentiments John Baltisberger

  • Poetry in one form or another has been around almost as long as language. We have used it to communicate our joys and heartbreaks, our victories and our losses. But fear has also been a constant companion, and our ghost stories and monsters stretch their claws back into history as far as the eyes can see. It’s with this in mind that we begin our journey through various poetic forms, from traditional Japanese Haiku to more modernist takes such as The Bop. Exploring the rules that create these literary creations all while bending their use to telling scary stories. Heavily inspired by the American pulp horror writers of the 1930’s, this chapbook explores themes of madness and forgotten monsters. Haunted houses that demand sacrifice and sunken cities waiting to be rediscovered. 25 poems, each using different forms dive into the chilling and often deranged world of horror.
  • Madness Heart Press

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Ink Stained: Two Memories of Horror Comics

It’s always interesting what, in retrospect, shapes our perspective as children. What makes enough of an impact to last until our adult years – to mold us, form us – versus what we expect to be the formative events of our young lives. Rarely do the two coincide. The events that, after a span of years or decades, I remember are often not the ones I considered, at the time, memorable.

That’s not the case with my early exposure to horror comics, however. I can clearly remember my first two immersions in the stagnant swamp of horror graphics. One was a dip into what I suppose you could call the shallow end of the bog, and one was a plunge into the deep and chilly depths – a plunge that was as bracing and as transformative as a baptism in a glacial stream. And what’s more, in each case I knew immediately that I was seeing something that had changed me, and that I’d remember forever.

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Maul Rats: Dehumanization and the Built Environment in Horror

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For every terror that lies in wait in the woods – lurking with dripping fangs and razor claws – is there a corresponding menace to be found in the human-made world? I would argue so; after all, who among us hasn’t in the course of shopping or working looked around and noted the ironic inhumanity of a human-manufactured shopping experience? Discomfort with capitalism is as old as capitalism itself, and doesn’t always take the form of a Marxian critique or a suggested public policy change – no, it often emerges in art. In punk rock, in performance art, and – of course – in horror.

Once upon a time, I had a job at a record store in a downtown mall in the city where I live. Each day, I’d ride the train in to work and read on the ride. Often, I’d burn through paperback horror novels, which, thanks to a mall employee discount, I could obtain on the cheap (I polished off most of Clive Barker’s catalog this way). At one point, while taking a class on political ideology and wound up reading anarchist and Marxist critiques of capitalism on my journey in to punch the clock and on my breaks. It was both disorienting and orienting at the same time – reorienting, I suppose you’d call it. A reexamination of what my day-to-day life was by the light of a radically unforgiving and consuming flame. There were things of great and terrible value I that learned in that class. One of them was the concept of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; the prison-concept and forerunner of the modern surveillance state, an institution in which prisoners are both eternally observed and unable to see those observing them. The idea is that each prisoner internalizes their warden, and becomes their own captor – a metaphor that was decidedly not lost on many of the critics of capitalism that I read on my way to the mall.

My thoughts returned to those bygone train rides recently while I was reading Grady Hendrix’s excellent Horrorstör, a 2014 horror-satire set in a supernaturally beset IKEA-spoof (called ORSK in the novel). I was thrilled to encounter my old friend the Panopticon in the pages of Horrorstör, along with descriptions of both the human and inhuman elements of retail that I recognized immediately. Hendrix precisely describes the recycled air, corpse-lights, and general sensory bombardment of the designed retail environment. While the details of his book are more IKEA-specific than my retail experience, Hendrix’s emphasis on the human elements of his tale brought me right up close and made me care about the entire cast – the wage slaves, dead-enders, middle management, all of them. In this, the humanized aspect of Hendrix’s story is our cast of characters, and is contrasted sharply with the dehumanized built environment, which we discover is a prison built on the ghost of a prison – as Marxian a vision of big retail as one could ask for.

I think that Horrorstör is an extremely clever update of a theme that was, perhaps, best explored by a previous generation in George Romero’s masterful Dawn of the Dead (which was subjected to a decent if imperfect remake by Zack Snyder and James Gunn in 2004). Dawn of the Dead was, of course, Romero’s macrocosmic answer to the microcosm he presented in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Whereas Night addressed issues of race and Cold War paranoia, Dawn was aimed explicitly at consumer culture and capitalism. Like Horrorstör, it transpires entirely in a designed environment that has been rendered hostile. Our cast is carried from the supposedly neutral world of commerce to the red altar of carnage, into the cold light of the uncanny, a light by which we are presented with the terrifying truth that the store – the mall – was never really neutral to begin with.

A built environment need not be physical, either – not necessarily. One built social environment in particular has invited consideration by creators of horror: the corporation, that arrangement that has, since its humble beginnings, taken on the foundational importance – the throne of primacy – once occupied in some places by the Holy Roman Empire, or the Mayans. The corporation is all around us, providing for our human needs and attempting to answer our human questions in a profoundly inhuman – -some would argue anti-human – way. This has been addressed widely in horror – for example, in films as diverse as Severance (a blood-soaked, chav-tastic 2006 British-German romp through workplace retreats), 2017 SXSW Steven Yeun gem Mayhem, and my favorite example: The Cabin in the Woods, which is usually celebrated for its fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of horror tropes but is just as much a fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of corporate dehumanization, both literal and figurative.

All of these considerations of built environments and our response to them emphasize the alienation of good, essentially human people from their surroundings, which suddenly take on a hostile or threatening cast. Bret Easton Elis is another kettle of fish entirely. Ellis’ American Psycho is generally accepted as modern horror canon, but Ellis’ other work sometimes escapes the notice of fans of the fiendish, or at least is less often considered in this specific light. 1998’s Glamorama, for example, qualifies as horror-satire as much as thriller-satire – and one that lampoons the built environments (both physical and social) of celebrity with visceral verve and viciousness. My favorite example of the Bret Easton Ellis approach to horror can be found in his 1994 short story collection The Informers, the best of which – “The Secrets of Summer” – should be studied carefully by any writer of short horror fiction for its lean, mean approach to sociopathy and the lessons that monsters can teach us about one another. Monsters are the key (but aren’t they always?); in Ellis’ work, the dehumanized – and dehumanizing – elements of the story are the characters themselves. Rather than set a cast we care about against a backdrop that seeks to do them harm, we meet a cast of wolves, snakes, and jackals – soulless predators all. But in the land of the monsters, is anyone really a monster? Or is “monster” a word necessarily born of comparison, of boundaries that must first exist to then be crossed? What if those boundaries never existed in the first place? In this way, Ellis offers us a truly transgressive vision of capitalist horror wherein we see not the contest between our dollars and our souls – but the bare, fleshless fact that it was never really a contest to begin with.

There are too many approaches to this question to list all of them here. But you don’t need me to list them all – now that I’ve got your gears turning, what are your favorite examples of a terrifying built environment, or of dehumanized humans in an unnatural social arrangement (is it, perhaps, Chopping Mall, arguably the worst movie of 1986)? Leave them in the comments or at me to let me know!