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Stitched Together and Torn Apart: “Frankenstein in Baghdad: A Novel,” by Ahmed Saadawi

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity and ruin.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, although the novel’s author’s name – Mary Shelley – would not appear on an edition until 1821 due to sexism in the publishing industry. Almost two hundred years and three thousand miles removed, Ahmed Saadawi penned Frankenstein in Baghdad, a reconfiguration of the well-known horror story as radical and unsettling as the famous scientist’s reconfiguration of the human form. Saadawi’s tale – published in 2013 – takes place in the years directly after the US invasion of Iraq, a time of chaos, bloodshed, and desperation. Those were bad years for Baghdad. The toll inflicted by the US invasion and occupation is difficult for Westerners to comprehend, let alone contemplate: estimates vary widely and wildly based on politics and methodology, ranging from over 100,000 to 400,000 to (by one heavily-criticized count) possibly a million. When your numbers vary by a factor of ten, it’s worth wondering if your statistical model has any value at all.

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People in the Neighborhood: ‘1BR’ and the Cultic Milieu

“So many people in the neighborhood… I don’t know if they’re very good people.”

–Ween, “So Many People in the Neighborhood

Starting in 1927, the specter which had allegedly been haunting Europe made its way to China. What followed from 1927 to 1949 (interrupted by the united effort against Japan during World War 2) is known as the Chinese Civil War, a conflict between the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party; the last phase of this conflict, from 1945 – 1949, is generally known as the Chinese Communist Revolution. Big changes were afoot for China, many of them long overdue (in particular, reform of the nation’s agricultural and property ownership systems) but all of which were executed, at best, imperfectly. One function that the newly empowered Communist Party took upon itself was the wholesale reeducation of “troublesome” elements of the population, a plan which would eventually evolve into the bloody totalitarian nightmare known as the Cultural Revolution. Before the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution, however, the Party experimented with and perfected a technique known as “thought reform,” although it would come to be known by a more common, less euphemistic term: brainwashing.

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QuarHorror and You: a Primer

As I write this, the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic stands at about 809,000 people worldwide, and an astonishing 179,000 deaths in the US alone. We live in a time of plague – perhaps not the plague that swept the globe in 1918 or Europe several times throughout the Middle Ages, but one nonetheless. Our modern plague is distinct from previous iterations in many ways, but perhaps none so much as the way in which we have all become simultaneously connected (by video chat, by phone, by social media) and isolated (by quarantine, by business closures, by social distancing). This alone-together hybrid existence has given rise to many phenomenon including some unique artistic responses, one of which is the subgenre of horror film that has come to be called “QuarHorror.”

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The Real American Psycho; Mary Trump’s ‘Too Much and Never Enough’

Horror has never shied away from the political. From Night of the Living Dead to Get Out, Red State to The Purge and beyond, horror fiction has dealt with issues of race, class, power, and inequality, and questions of what in American politics constitutes the monstrous. I myself have dipped into this well more than once – my short story ‘Stuffed,’ featured in American Cult (available now from Madness Heart Press) is just one example of what I’d call “political horror” that I’ve written. Here’s an interesting question, however: how often are we presented with a nonfiction political book and memoir that constitutes a bona fide, real-life horror story? One in which all of us – Americans and citizens of other nations alike – are the potential victims?

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The Heavy Horror Sound from Underground, Part 3

The intersection of horror and heavy music – beginning with Black Sabbath and continuing to this day – has produced some sonic gems, many of which can be and are appreciated widely outside of the niche markets for heavy metal and horror culture. Artists like Alice Cooper and KISS brought theatrical horror tropes to mainstream rock audiences, although there was much clutching of pearls and swooning about Satanic influences at the time. For anyone interested in this particular chapter of music and pop culture history, I’d recommend George Case’s engaging Here’s to My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980, which outlines some of these horror trappings and predictable conservative religious responses thereto.

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The Heavy Horror Sound from Underground, Part 2

In a previous post, I talked about horror’s influence on popular music, starting with (for the purposes of my discussion) the blues in America and continuing through the development of rock and heavy metal. I argued at the conclusion of that piece that Rob Zombie, in my opinion, represented the zenith of the heavy horror sound from underground: the ultimate intersection of music and horror, in part due to his excellent musical projects and in part due to his also-excellent career as writer and director of horror cinema. As is so often the case, I regret nothing. I remain a huge fan of Zombie’s work (both in film and in metal) and think his body of work represents a potent distillation of many trends and tropes in horror that I love. With that said, I’ve had time to think about the subject since then, and I believe that the intersection of horror and “heavy” music – a phenomenon I call “the heavy horror sound from underground” – is a subject much broader than can be fairly summed up in one post. Therefore, this post is the second in what will be an ongoing series about heavy music and horror culture.

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The Healing Power of Horror

Researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Chicago have released a preliminary study which indicates that fans of horror have demonstrated greater psychological resilience during the coronavirus pandemic than the general public. (A major caveat is that this study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet.) While correlation is not causation, these findings are interesting and remind me of research that has been conducted regarding chronic pain and exposure to very spicy food, which, as it turns out, can help increase your body’s resilience when it comes to physical distress. Could the same principle apply to the “safe” psychological stress produced by horror?

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From the Cosmos to the Depths

It’s extraordinary how H.P. Lovecraft’s literary reputation has grown within my lifetime. Now that Lovecraft and his cuddliest creation, the mighty Cthulhu, are household names, it’s a little sad to think that the fragile and agoraphobic Lovecraft labored largely in obscurity and died in 1937 with no reason to think that his literary legacy would outlive him, let alone that it would inspire an entire cosmos of imitators, expanders, and appreciators of his mythos. Even when I was a young horror reader, Lovecraft was – while not exactly obscure – hardly mainstream, and certainly not the brand name he would become over the last decade or two. Lovecraft’s growing popularity has led to a much-needed examination of the man himself and his defects, in particular his virulent racism, which is utterly inexcusable, and to an appreciation of his contributions to fiction, including his more-or-less single-handed invention of the genre of cosmic horror.

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When a Sacred Cow Has Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

I’ve made no secret of my love of Wes Craven – in particular, his Nightmare on Elm Street films. It’s worth remembering two important life lessons when considering the canonization of Craven, however: first, that where an artist begins is not necessarily an indicator of where they’ll end up, artistically, and second, that even our creative heroes have their bad days, off moments, and plain, good old-fashioned failures. Both of these lessons came to mind recently when I re-watched (for the first time in a long time) Wes Craven’s 1972 debut as writer-director: a financially lucrative but artistically utterly bankrupt little pile of excrement called The Last House on the Left.

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