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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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The Horror… The Horror: A Rant

“I don’t read that stuff.”

“Why do you write things like that?”

Those are common comments I get when people discover that I write horror fiction. People also give me a lot strange looks when I set up at local street festivals or wear a t-shirt with a picture of the Bride of Frankenstein on it. Everyone thinks that I’m going to say some kind of incantation in an arcane language and bring about the devil, himself, to tempt them to the dark delights of scary fiction, which of course will lead to the end of the world in a fiery Biblical-style apocalypse. Maybe this is just a reaction that I get. I do live in in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.
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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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Quasimodo: A Reflection on the Hunchback.

The day Notre Dame burned a meme began to circulate. It had a picture of Quasimodo and said something like: investigators don’t know how the fire started, but I have my ideas. Besides being a joke that was too soon, the meme was grossly inaccurate. It implied that the titular hunchback from Victor Hugo’s classic Gothic novel would want the cathedral to burn. This is far from the reality of the character. Quasimodo would’ve been horrified by the fire. The cathedral was his home. He fought off a mob to protect it. The meme also showed how Quasimodo is viewed by the general public, as a monster.

Continue reading Quasimodo: A Reflection on the Hunchback.

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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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Boot or Reboot: Fan Opinions on the New Child’s Play

Like the remake of Pet Sematary, I’d been hearing a lot of complaints about the new Child’s Play reboot.  Curious as to where all the ire was coming from, I decided to investigate fan opinions and see what was turning them off.

First, I ran a survey to see just how many horror heads were really put off by the idea of a reboot.

I’d like readers to keep in mind that the sample from the following survey was taken from horror fans specifically and does have a level of fan bias.  Questionnaires of those surveyed were strictly from individuals who were NOT going to be seeing the movie.  It should also be noted that the sample size fell short of the acceptable 300 sample size minimum and could show a poor sample size bias.  Total Sample Size: 264

Continue reading Boot or Reboot: Fan Opinions on the New Child’s Play

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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