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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The First Three People You Meet in a Zombie Apocalypse

The rebirth of zombie horror has largely faded, with The Walking Dead still popular but sputtering towards an end. But as we all know, zombies never stay dead for long. And since we all know the zombie apocalypse is inevitable, I wanted to share with you my thoughts on the kind of people you are likely to meet when it begins–assuming you aren’t dead yet.

The Leader/Hero

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The leader is the guy we all think we are going to be.  He (or she) is the swashbuckling, charismatic, “come with me if you want to live” guy.  The one who always goes into the “abandoned” house first.  The guy who kills the kid after he’s been bit when everybody else is saying they should give him a chance, just to see if he is immune.  The leader decides which mythical zombie-free land the rest of the group will seek out.  Cause there’s always a mythical land.  Amusement park.  Farm.  Island.  Boat.  Whatever.   It’s there, somewhere just beyond the next rise, and the leader is going to find it.

Everybody wants to be the leader.  Everybody wants to star in their own zombie flick.  We all assume we are the important ones, the guy who is going to save humanity, get the girl, and repopulate the species.  But here’s the thing, you probably aren’t, and you probably don’t want to be.

The thing about being a leader is somebody has to follow you.  When you draw that line in the sand, somebody has to cross it.  Otherwise, you’re just another loner.  And besides, how long do you think you’re gonna last anyway?  How many times can you kick down that door before somebody bites off your leg?  How many times can you be the guy who stays back to hold off the horde while the others escape before you don’t make it out?  The leader is living on borrowed time.   Notice all those pictures?  What do they have in common?  They’re all leaders, and they’re all dead.*

*OK, technically Rick is still alive . . . for now.

The Loner

The loner is, in many ways, the opposite of the leader. He has no interest in protecting the group or saving humanity. His priority is always numero uno. He probably has a military or survivalist background, is heavily armed, and either has a stash of food and supplies or is able to acquire them easily. In the movies, the loner is a leader in disguise, the gruff fighter with a heart of gold just waiting to find the reason to step forward. In reality, the loner may occasionally hook up with others, but only when it is beneficial to him. He will also drop them at the first opportunity, preferably when the zombies need something to distract them.

The problem with the loner is he has no one to rely on when things go wrong. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s hard to survive in a zombie apocalypse. You gotta sleep. Who’s going to keep watch? What if you injure yourself? What if there are more zombies than one gun can possible hold off? No, the loner might live longer than the leader, but at some point, he’s gonna slip up. And when he does, that’s the end.

The Prophet*

You know the prophet. He’s the guy who has been preparing for the zombie apocalypse his entire life. He can’t wait till the day comes. It’s his one chance to do something great, to be something consequential. You are carrying a shotgun? He’ll have a Shaolin Spade because he knows that it represents the perfect combination of speed, stealth, killing prowess, and weight of any weapon out there when it comes to zombie destruction. The prophet already knows where he will hold up for the duration of the zombie apocalypse, and if that place is overrun, he has at least three back up plans. The prophet knows everything there is to know about zombies, has read the Zombie Survival Guide at least three times, and could teach a class on the subject, if only a school was awesome enough to offer it.

You would think that the prophet would be the most likely to survive, but you would be wrong. Yes he’s got all the info. Yes he’s got all the plans. But you know, he probably can’t follow through with them. First of all, prophets tend to be nerds. I mean seriously, how many star linebackers are sitting around thinking about what to do during the zombie apocalypse? And that’s another problem, he probably spends a lot more time thinking about what he would do in the case of a zombie invasion than actually preparing for it. I mean come on. Do you really think he has a Shaolin Spade?

Funny thing about the Prophet though.  He never shows up in movies.  In movies, nobody has ever heard of zombies.

*Sadly, I would probably be a prophet.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

Today on Songs of Horror, the three best songs about vampires that I know of. The first is a classic by Gothic rock band Bauhaus. The second is a more stylized story of love in a graveyard. And the third is the most depressing love song you’ll ever hear. Enjoy!

First, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.

Now enjoy “A Boy, a Girl and a Graveyard” by Jeremy Messersmith.

And finally, “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraft and the Supernatural

The following essay was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.

Ask a horror fan to name their favorite purveyor of the supernatural, and H.P. Lovecraft might show up high on their list. And that raises a curious question. Is Lovecraft a writer of supernatural fiction at all?

ixpshot 083I can feel your questioning looks. After all, Lovecraft’s writing is awash with gods and goddesses, with beings that can live forever, transcend time and space, and bend men’s minds to their will. He wrote an essay called “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for Nyarlathotep’s sake!

And I’ll grant you that. But stick your spades in again and dig deeper. Walk with me down this path a little way, and let’s see what we can find. What is the foundation of the cosmic mythology that August Derleth came to call the Cthulhu Mythos? Is it magic? It’s certainly something unusual, out of the ordinary. But is it supernatural? Is it mystical? Is it miraculous?

For the most part, the answer to all those questions is no.

Lovecraft, in his seminal essay on supernatural horror, began with a statement that is as profound as it is obviously true: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But the unknown need not be the mystical or the magical. It could just be…the unknown. The empty, darkened alleyway, the black depths of the sea, the empty, long abandoned mansion—they frighten us, whether we believe in ghosts and ghouls and spirits or not, because we simply do not know what they might hold. Think of it this way—there’s nothing more frightening to college freshmen than a test on a subject they haven’t studied. There’s a reason that dream haunts long after classes have ended.

Take that thought and expand it. Stretch it out and see where it goes. Take it to its farthest limits. They called the stories Lovecraft wrote cosmic horror for a reason, and many of his tales represent the first horror science fiction. The great unknown of the wider universe can hold many secrets. And just as a technology, sufficiently advanced, will appear magic to the uninitiated, the beings that walk in the vastness of space will appear gods to humanity.

Our perspective, after all, is limited to the earth we inhabit and the things within it. We can imagine something beyond that, but most philosophers would tell you that even our imagination cannot escape the natural world and the limits of our experience.

There’s a reason most of the aliens on Star Trek all look basically the same. There’s a reason that every monster is either an amplification or an amalgamation of something we already fear. A giant is just a really big guy. A dragon is a snake or dinosaur with wings that can breathe fire. Even in Cthulhu, we see the combination of a dragon like thing and a cephalopod. Our imaginations simply cannot comprehend of something that is truly beyond.

And that’s what Lovecraft was reaching for. In his essay, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he wrote this:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

Interestingly, from this perspective Lovecraft seems far more intrigued with stretching the bounds of human understanding than he does on writing a good horror yarn. That already puts him in a different stance than your run-of-the-mill writer. Most of us start of wanting to scare, and if we manage to make some deeper statement than that along the way, all the better. Not Lovecraft. His unflinching focus on what causes fear and not the fear itself is one of the reasons few can match his vision.

One wonders if it is also one of the reasons that Lovecraft’s writing is decidedly non-supernatural. Lovecraft doesn’t need ghosts and ghouls to scare you. He knows that the unknown is good enough. And his interest in the cosmic keeps his feet firmly grounded on earth. So his “gods” aren’t really gods at all. Or, I should say, they are only gods to us because we cannot comprehend them. They transcend space and time in a way we cannot comprehend, but their actions need not be seen as magical. They can live so long that death seems impossible, but that doesn’t mean they are immortal. They are responsible for the mighty cities of antiquity, but they built them with methods we simply cannot understand.

There’s an aside here that’s worth exploring, one you may have already caught on to. Does that sound a little bit like the Ancient Alien Theory? In fact, does it sound quite a lot like the Ancient Alien Theory? Before there was Zecharia Sitchen or Erich von Däniken or Giorgio Tsoukalos, there was H.P. Lovecraft. He even had his own Planet X, his own Niburu—Yuggoth. In fact, one noted critic of the Ancient Alien Theory, Jason Colavito, argues convincingly that today’s obsession with ancient aliens can be traced directly to H.P. Lovecraft himself. Check out his book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestial Pop Culture, for the details.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that the Ancient Alien Theory itself also denies the supernatural. Stories of gods, angels, and heavenly visitors are explained as simple misunderstandings. The primitive peoples that encountered these beings could not understand them, so they made up stories about gods and goddesses and developed elaborate cults and rituals to worship them and keep the stories alive. Remind you of the Cthulhu Mythos? It should.

It’s an open question whether Lovecraft intentionally avoided the supernatural or if it simply sprang from his tendency to embrace scientific theory over religious belief. And it is not the case that supernaturalism is absent entirely from Lovecraft’s cannon. There are stories where it makes an appearance, sometimes a dominant one—“In The Vault” and “The Hound”, for instance. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Take one of this stories that would appear, on the surface at least, to be one of his most supernatural—“The Dreams in the Witch House.” The story centers, after all, on a witch—who fears crucifixes no less— and has a human-faced, rat familiar. But the story is actually quite striking for how grounded it is in exotic scientific theory from the very first. Our hero, Gilman, is a mathematician, and he has determined that Keziah Mason—noted witch who fled Salem ahead of the hangman’s noose—may have possessed knowledge far more important than common spells. Lovecraft writes:

Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension… There was much in the Essex County records about Keziah Mason’s trial, and what she had admitted under pressure to the Court of Oyer and Terminer had fascinated Gilman beyond all reason. She had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.

Now that’s some heady stuff. Essentially, Lovecraft is describing Keziah as a member not of a witch-cult, but some black magic mathematician’s club that possessed knowledge far beyond our own, knowledge she could use to warp space and time. Her ability to appear and disappear at will was the result of mathematical formulae, not spell books and black cats. Later in the story, Lovecraft discusses the consequences of such a discovery.

It was also possible that the inhabitants of a given dimensional realm could survive entry to many unknown and incomprehensible realms of additional or indefinitely multiplied dimensions—be they within or outside the given space-time continuum—and that the converse would be likewise true. This was a matter for speculation, though one could be fairly certain that the type of mutation involved in a passage from any given dimensional plane to the next higher plane would not be destructive of biological integrity as we understand it. Gilman could not be very clear about his reasons for this last assumption, but his haziness here was more than overbalanced by his clearness on other complex points. Professor Upham especially liked his demonstration of the kinship of higher mathematics to certain phases of magical lore transmitted down the ages from an ineffable antiquity—human or pre-human—whose knowledge of the cosmos and its laws was greater than ours.

In that paragraph lies the entire theory behind the Cthulhu Mythos, and it is utterly devoid of supernaturalism. In fact, it explains away “magical lore” as complex mathematics. This is stunning stuff, particularly for the early 1930s when it was written. One could say with confidence that Lovecraft is one of the first writers to take the scientific theories of the day and so convincingly turn them to fiction. And that is a testament to his genius.

In this way, Lovecraft spans a gulf. His stories are fantastic, but many of them can be so thoroughly grounded in plausible scientific theory that it is difficult to call them supernatural. Which is not to say there’s nothing of the supernatural in Lovecraft. Of course there is. But that supernaturalism is not at the heart of Lovecraft, and that is the key.

Lovecraft proves that the core of the horrific lies not in supernaturalism itself, but in what supernaturalism represents—a break from the reality we expect, and a sightless plunge into the abyss of the unknown.

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31 days of Halloween (2018): A Disney Halloween Treat

When you think about Disney, you probably don’t think about horror. But you would be wrong.

Very wrong.

Everybody has their inspirations. The classics, the old Hammer movies, Lovecraft, Poe, King, whatever. But for me, as much as anything else, it was those old Disney cartoons in the Octobers of my youth.

Cartoons were different back then, kids. It’s almost like they weren’t for children at all. They were mature, often violent, and occasionally terrifying. Two stick out to me. The first was called A Disney Halloween.

Essentially a clip show, A Disney Halloween brings together many of Disney’s best Halloween-themed shorts into one package. There are probably twelve or so vignettes. The first produced the images above, “A Night on Bald Mountain.” At the time, I only knew this was terrifying. Now, I understand it is an animated recreation of Walpurgis Night, the May-Eve, when all that is evil in this world rules the dark places of the earth. Later on, there is a discussion of cats and how they have been viewed as harbingers of evil throughout the ages. It includes a brief animation of the dark shadow of a man walking through a medieval village at night in the midst of a violent storm, while the good people of the town peer out from the security of their homes. It’s deliciously creepy, and you can see it below at 34:40. I’ve cued up the video to begin with a “Night on Bald Mountain,” but it’s fun to watch the whole thing.

The second Disney offering I want to highlight is one of my favorite productions, tv or film, animated or live action. It’s the Disney animated retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Narrated by none other than Bing Crosby, this is, in my view, the definitive retelling of the Washington Irving classic. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Literally. I’ve memorized the songs. And none are better than this.

If you want to see the whole thing, click here.

So why do I mention all this? It’s not just to tell you how much I love Disney. My love of horror was born with these cartoons, before I even know what horror was, certainly before I could read. Horror is like anything else; a true appreciation for it only comes with exposure. We aren’t born loving it, and if we want the genre to be strong in the future, we have to pass our love for it down. Whether that means sharing these videos with your kids, reading them a spooky story, or just taking them out trick or treating, what you do can change their lives.

It sure changed mine.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Horror of Remakes

I have a confession to make—dawn_of_the_dead_2004_movieDawn of the Dead (2004) is one of my favorite horror movies. Seriously, I must have seen it a hundred times. I own the extended DVD version. Every zombie movie has that sequence where the rising begins, but no movie has done it better than Dawn of the Dead. I believe the first 20 or so minutes are the finest example of zombie horror ever put to celluloid. And yes, I like it better than the original.

That’s blasphemy to come folks, and I get it. One of my other favorite horror movies is the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw the remake. It did a few things well—the microsleep bits were neat. But the rest of it was terrible. The makeup, while more realistic, lost so much in the translation. The acting was wooden, the is-he-really-bad element, silly.

But here’s the thing (and this is where I’m going with all this), a bad remake doesn’t cheapen the original. In fact, if anything, it makes one appreciate all the things the original did right. And a good remake can become a classic film in its own right.

And that’s why I find it impossible to get upset with the remake bonanza that we see going on in Hollywood these days. Do I wish studios would put more money behind daring, innovative, and original productions (hello At the Mountains of Madness)? Sure. I’d also like to be on the New York Times bestseller list, but that ain’t happening anytime soon either. So when I hear that they are remaking a classic like Suspiria, I get excited. And if early reviews are to be believed, that excitement is likely to be rewarded (I’ll miss The Goblin soundtrack, though).

I guess I’m saying give remakes a chance. And to get you started, here are a few of my favorites.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The Thing (1982)

The Ring (2002)

The Fly (1986)

Evil Dead (2013)

 

 

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Ring

the-ring-movie-poster-2002-1020189818I remember the first time I saw The RingIt was 2002 in the old movie theater in Tuscaloosa, the one they had before the mega-theater, The Rave, opened up off the highway. It was old school, no stadium seating, sticky floors, cigarette burns and shoddy sound. I was in college, and my girlfriend at the time–now wife–and I would often find ourselves there on the weekends, more often than not for a horror movie. Then we went to see The Ring, and everything changed.

It was the first time I saw that movie, and so to it was the last.

The Ring is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. It might even be the only scary movie I’ve ever seen. That may sound strange to you, but bear with me. After all, what is fear? Real fear? It’s not a jump scare, a nervous reaction bred into humanity to avoid the quick strike of the leopard or the wolf. That’s not fear. Not really. And it’s not the small terror of wondering what is to come, the hide your eyes because you don’t know what’s about to happen fear. That terror goes hand in hand with disappointment. The beast is always scarier when the door is closed, when you can hear it but not see it, when the doorknob jiggles and the wooden planks crack. But when the door opens and the beast appears? Disappointment. What you see can never overcome what lurks in the back of your mind.

But The Ring is different. The Ring is Shangri-La. It is a thing glimpsed and then lost. And then you search for it the rest of your life, trying to recapture that feeling. But you never do, and you know you never will.

The Ring is utterly unique in my experience. It is the only movie that terrified me, that got under my skin, that took hold and wouldn’t let go. From the first scene to the last, I was petrified.

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Freaked me out, man.

The Ring happened at the last possible minute it could happen. A movie about a haunted video tape? Never fly now. And it barely flew then, at at time when DVDs were all but dominant and just on the cusp of the rise of DVRs and YouTube. But in 2002 it still worked. It was a world still reeling from 9/11, and the burst of horror that always finds fertile ground in the fears of the masses was just beginning, led by the influx of J-horror. It was the beginning of a new golden age, but it would never get better than this.

I can’t tell you exactly what it is about The Ring that affected me so. I can’t tell you why I felt that horror in my bones, or why for the next seven days every time I closed my eyes I saw that girl. I know there are people who will mock this post, just like they mock this movie. Art is like that. It strikes each human soul differently. And horror is art, the oldest and most profound.

No, my life changed that night. I’d been a searcher after horror before, but it was the glimpse of it in its purest form that made me who I am today.

It’s just too bad my wife won’t go to the movies with me anymore.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Best Horror Shorts cont’d

Yesterday we started the countdown of the best horror shorts on the web. Today, we unveil the top three. These are solid films that are better than half the movies in the theaters today. Without further ado…

3.  The Birch

“The Birch” might have been even higher on this list were it not for the fact it’s very short. But what we see is powerful. A grandmother shares an old book and even older knowledge to her grandson. When he goes looking for it, he finds his grandmother’s stories are truth. Created by Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton, the creature design in this short is better than many big budget films. Not to be missed.

2.  Don’t Move

When you screw around with Ouija boards, sometimes you call up things you can’t control. The rules are set from the beginning of this shot flick, so you know what’s coming, but not to whom. Also by Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton, this film features more tremendous creature design, and is probably the most complete story on the list.

1.  The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow

“The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow” is an absolute masterpiece. There are more frightening entries in this list, there are entries that depict better creature design, but for shear inventiveness and wonder, it takes the cake. There’s so much going on beyond what we see, and if the best horror stories are generated in our own minds out of the unknown and mysterious, this film stands alone. Watch it again and again, and you’ll see new things every time.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Best Horror Shorts, part 1

Horror stories come in all shapes and sizes. And just like some of the best horror in the written media comes in the form of short stories, some of the best horror cinema comes in the form of short films. Recently I came upon this list from Looper of the best short horror films out there. You can see that list here. That sent me down the rabbit hole to see what other great horror shorts I could find. Some are better than others, and so you don’t waste any of your precious Halloween time, I’ve ranked the top five, along with some honorable mentions. Top three tomorrow.

Honorable Mentions:

Tuck Me In

Thee shortest of the movies that will appear on this list, Tuck Me In has a simple premise that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. Nothing too complicated here, but sometimes the simplest horrors are the best.

Sleepy Eyes

A similar premise to Tuck Me In, Sleepy Eyes is the scariest movie about wind chimes I’ve ever seen.

The Ten Steps

Once again, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about the premise of this short film, but The Ten Steps takes what it has and whips it into a delightful little fright film.

Now the Top Five!

5. The Jigsaw

Based on a classic story of horror, The Jigsaw is a delightfully creepy film that combines some of my favorite horror tropes: storms, old-timey records, and haunted objects.

4. Cargo

A short so good they made a full-length film out of it, but I can’t imagine what a movie could do that this short doesn’t accomplish.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

The HP Lovecraft Historical Society is one of the premier purveyors of horror around today. That such an entity exists, creating the kind of art it does, is a testament to H.P. Lovecraft’s enduring legacy. As I have written about before on this site, their Dreams in the Witch House, a Lovecraftian Rock Opera is simply brilliant. For your viewing pleasure, enjoy “There’s No Turning Back.”

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Best Scenes in Horror Movie History Part II

And now five more of the best scenes in horror. Enjoy!

Dawn of the Dead (2004) — The World Ends

One of the best remakes ever–and that’s saying a lot considering the source material–Dawn of the Dead also has one of the best scenes of any zombie film. Most zombie movies, for whatever reason, don’t show the fall. The pick up sometime later. But this movie managed to capture exactly what it might be like to wake up on the last day of civilization.

The Babadook — Dook, Dook, Dook

I loved The Babadook, and I think a big reason is this scene. It starts so innocently, and yet it gets under your skin, unnerving you, making you think you something is watching over your shoulder. And maybe it is.

Sinister — The Lawnmower Scene

Sinister is an underappreciated horror movie in my view. But I don’t know anyone who didn’t appreciate this scene. Perhaps the single greatest jump scare out there. Turn the lights down and the volume up.

Army of Darkness –Hail to the King, Baby

Most horror movies sputter to their conclusion. Not Army of Darkness. It ends with one of the single greatest scenes in all of horror history. I can quote the whole thing. Who can’t though?

A Nightmare on Elm Street — Falling Asleep in Class

This is, without a doubt, my favorite scene in all of horror. It’s perfect. Perfectly written. Perfectly acted. And it sums up everything that A Nightmare on Elm Street is about. (As an aside, Nightmare is my favorite horror movie.

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31 Days of Halloween: The Best Scenes in Horror Movie History, Part I

Yesterday we did the best opening lines in horror novels. Today, I want to share with you some of my favorite horror movie scenes. I don’t know about you, but a good horror scene makes me positively giddy. Like, laugh out loud, smile like a madman, giddy. Am I the only one? No? Yes? Anyway, here we go. Let me know your favorites in the comments.

Oh, and P.S., in the tradition of all great horror, this post will have a sequel. Come back tomorrow for Part II, where I reveal my favorite horror scene of all time.

Suspiria — A Beautiful Death

From the finest Italian horror movie ever made comes this gem. Occurring about five minutes into the film, it sets the scene for what’s coming.

Insidious — Tiptoe Through the Tulips

This scene is everything that quiet horror should be. An ordinary day, a record player (always creepy), no reason to think anything is going to happen. But if you are watching, you’ll spy something out of place early on in the scene. I love this scene, and I get chills every time I watch it.

The Shining — Come Play With Us

This one is almost cheating, but man is it good.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — The Record Scene

Another scene involving a record player, but very different. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most visually stunning horror films ever shot, and this scene might be its most beautiful.

Hellraiser — Demons to Some, Angels to Others

The best scene in one of the best horror movies ever made, here we meet the Cenobites in all their glory. I’ll always believe that this scene and our desire to see more, learn more, and know more about the Cenobites spawned the countless Hellraiser sequels. After all, they have such sights to show us.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Best Opening Lines in Horror

This is a post I’ve done before, but I like it so much I’m re-upping it and the two that follow it. Enjoy!

51vefbadjql-_sy344_bo1204203200_A great first line can make a book, and the inability to come up with one has stopped more than a few writers from every getting on with the rest of the story. Here, I present to you some of my favorites (and some of them are more like first paragraphs). Leave yours in the comments.

I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. — A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring. — The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. — Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead. — John Dies at the End by David Wong.

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. — I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe. — The Fisherman  by John Langan

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. — Carrie by Stephen King

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous. — The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft

A considerable number of hunting parties were out that year without finding so much as a fresh trail; for the moose were uncommonly shy, and the various Nimrods returned to the bosoms of their respective families with the best excuses the facts of their imaginations could suggest. — The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

You could argue–as I have more than enough times, as part of my Film History lecture–that, no matter its actual narrative content, every movie is a ghost story. — Experimental Film by Gemma Files

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. — The Haunting of Hill House  by Shirley Jackson

This is not for you. — House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Nightworld

mv5bmtu5ote1ndq0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzcynzcxote-_v1_Periodically, the Internet pops out a “10 Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now” list. That’s where I found Nightworld. A Bulgarian production, I was intrigued by the presence of Freddie Kruger and that door with all the tentacles on it. What could go wrong?

Turns out, a lot. Nightworld follows our trusty hero Brett (best part of the movie), a former LAPD cop who moves to Bulgaria for some reason only to have his Bulgarian wife kill herself. Bummer. So he decides to move to the big city and become a security guard, cause why not, huh?

Turns out the job is easy. Watch some security cameras inside a sealed room for anything unusual, and if he sees something, report it to a blind guy. Because that makes sense. Brett meets exactly one girl in the process. Of course, they fall in love. This can’t end well, and it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong–Nightworld isn’t a terrible movie, and if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Wednesday night, check it out. But don’t expect a well-thought out film. The plot is filled with holes and randomness, and it’s never entirely clear what exactly is going on or why it is happening now.

Bulgaria can do better.

3 Stars.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Hope and the Cthulhu Mythos

The following essay was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.

I. Introduction

There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other Gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

It is this quote, from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, that perhaps best encapsulates the soul of the Lovecraftian ethos. The world is a dark and foreboding place and those who would search for light do so at their own folly. For in the end, there is no dawn. There is only the yawning chasm, the swirling chaos, the black seas of infinity. The gods, if gods there be, care nothing for man. They are neither good nor evil. They are simply forces of nature, as interested in the fate of man as the tides or the winds. To say that they see mankind as nothing but an insect is to overstate our importance in the grand scheme of things. The Great Old Ones are no more aware of us than a gamma ray burst would be as it scoured the earth clean of life.

h_p_lovecraft_alone

That’s the conventional wisdom at least, shared by Lovecratian scholars, fans of speculative fiction, and the writers who have sought to follow in Lovecraft’s footsteps.

But does it have to be that way? Is the only end of Lovecraft nihilism? Or is there room for hope? The answer to these questions will ultimately determine whether Lovecraftian fiction remains a niche area of fascination to true believers, populated with pastiche and fan fiction, or whether Lovecraft will take his place as the father of a true sub-genre of horror and, indeed, all of literature.

II. Respect for Lovecraft, Not Obedience to Him

In 1925, Florence Stoker won a lawsuit she had filed against the producers of an obscure movie who had failed to secure the appropriate rights to her late husband’s most famous work—Dracula. The judgment was severe. Stoker had demanded nothing less than the destruction of all prints of the film. The movie’s name?

Nosferatu.

No one knows for sure why Bram Stoker’s widow was so zealous in her crusade against Nosferatu. Perhaps she disagreed with the changes made to the original story. Maybe she wanted more money than the film company was willing to pay. Or perhaps she simply thought of film as an inferior form of art—a low-brow, uncultured medium that was not worthy of her late husband’s genius.

But in the end, her reasoning is not as important as what would have happened if she had succeeded with carrying out the court’s decree.[1] Dracula has become a timeless classic of immense and enduring influence. But that fate was in no way preordained. At the time Nosferatu was filmed, Dracula was not exactly a best seller. In fact, Stoker and his widow were quite poor in the final years of the great author’s life, forced to rely on public charity just to get by. It was only after Nosferatu and subsequent stage adaptations of Dracula became popular that the novel began to approach the iconic status it now enjoys.

But it wasn’t just popularity that Nosferatu bestowed upon Dracula. It also made one key alteration, one that varied quite a bit from the source material, one that changed vampires forever.

It made sunlight deadly to the creatures of the night.[2]

From Nosferatu followed countless more adaptations, sequels, re-imaginings, and homages. Some good, some bad, but all hearkening back to the source material, even if in only the most cursory of ways. Meanwhile, vampires became iconic to the point of over-saturation. There are a number of horror publications today that will not accept vampire fiction on the principle that nothing new is left to be written.[3]

There’s a lesson there for those of us who write Lovecraftian fiction. We have to be willing to step out from the shadow of the master. That has proven to be easier said than done. Lovecraft’s work strikes a deep chord within many, and a—dare I say it—cult-like devotion has grown up around not only his works, but his legacy. Far too often, arguments over what direction the so-called “new weird” should take seem to devolve into a sort of “What Would Lovecraft Do” shouting match. This tendency goes all the way back to August Derleth, the man who did more than perhaps anyone to preserve and promote Lovecraft’s work.

Derleth was a creative mind in his own right, and in what he dubbed the “Cthulhu Mythos” he found a muse for his fiction. But Derleth wasn’t content to use Lovecraft as a jumping off point. Whether because of a lack of confidence in his own artistic direction or honest but misguided belief, Derleth set out to prove that Lovecraft’s philosophy was, in fact, a reflection of his own more Christian-centric worldview.[4] This effort manifested itself in a number of ways, perhaps most lastingly his division of the Lovecraftian cosmology between the good Elder Gods and the evil Old Ones.

But not everyone agreed with Derleth’s approach, and his widespread influence would eventually result in a significant backlash—led by eminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi—known as “anti-Derlethism.” This school of literary criticism attempted to separate Derleth’s inventions from Lovecraft’s original conception and restore a purer understanding of Lovecraft’s works. A noble goal, but now the pendulum may have swung back too far in the other direction. The status quo today seems to be that anyone who deviates from the dogma of Lovecraft is guilty of Derlethism.

If this all seems absurd to the casual observer, well, it is. The purity of the mythos has become, for some, an almost religious obsession, with heretics and apostates and their works worthy of burning at the literary stake.[5] Thus, for many in the Lovecraftian community, fiction that contains hints of religion, or hope, or even the possibility of ultimate success for the human protagonists, is anathema. Authors who portray the Great Old Ones—who are, to remind you, more than willing to wipe mankind from the face of the earth—as “the bad guys” are guilty of engaging in a naive and simplistic good vs. evil fairy tale.

To all this sophistry, I say enough.

III. Making Our Way in the Shadow of Lovecraft

It’s time for Lovecraftian fiction to blossom into maturity, to grow up if you will. It’s time for writers of weird fiction to step beyond what came before and make our own way. Tales of mind-shattering horror that inevitably lead to the protagonist’s death or commitment to the loony bin are all well and good. There’s room for them. They make great stories. But if Lovecraftian fiction can be only that, then we are drawing from a shallow well, indeed.

I honestly don’t think that is what Lovecraft would have wanted. I think he would have been far happier if those who came after him drew upon his inspiration to create worlds of their own. When I wrote my first novel, That Which Should Not Be, my goal was two-fold. I wanted to write a piece of weird fiction that was true to the old masters of horror while doing something different. And I wanted to inspire a new generation to read Lovecraft and experience his mastery.

I attempted to accomplish those goals by first creating a Gothic, traditionally themed horror novel with an emphasis on Lovecraftian fiction. I then went on to treat the mythos as if it were another of the great religious traditions. Finally, I sought to explore how legends, religions, and myths might be a way for the human mind to conceptualize the Great Old Ones, their fall, and the prophecies of their return.

I knew there would be readers, particularly hardcore fans of Lovecraft, who wouldn’t like that approach at all. Yet I was surprised at how knee-jerk some of the reactions were. For instance, there is a part in my book where one of the protagonists stumbles upon the symbol of the cross as a defense against one of his supernatural enemies. Some critics reacted to this as if That Which Should Not Be was a Christian apologetic.

I think, had they not been so eager to defend Lovecraft’s legacy, they might have approached the issue with more circumspection. As I noted, one of the driving principles of the novel is that there is truth in every legend, every myth. Lovecraft fans who objected to the power of the cruciform might be shocked to learn that the cross as a symbol of power predates Christianity and indeed is present in nearly every culture. The ankh of ancient Egypt was the ultimate symbol of life.  We see the cross in Eastern and Aryan religions, and archaeologists regularly find Bronze Age objects (and even bones) engraved with the cross.  Lovecraft talks about certain signs and sigils that were used to keep the Old Ones at bay.  Why not a cross?[6]

I hope That Which Should Not Be has encouraged people to look up the works of the old master, the gentleman of Providence, and see where the legend of Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, and Nyarlathotep first came into the world. And I hope that H.P. Lovecraft would have enjoyed my book.

But while I care a lot about the former, the latter doesn’t really concern me. I don’t need Lovecraft’s blessing, just as Lovecraft doesn’t need me or anyone else to defend him. That, in my view, is the difference between serious literature that borrows from the past without stealing from it and fan-fiction that remains a slave to whatever artistic well it draws from. Too often, we in the Lovecraftian community have allowed our deep and abiding respect for the man who inspired us to strangle the very creative voice we found in his works.

Every writer wants to be fearless, to write free of external restraints. Horror writers are the most fearless of all. For us, there is no line we will not cross, no boundary we will not stretch, no taboo too…taboo. And yet we find ourselves bound by the memory of a man who has been dead for 80 years.

IV. Lovecraft, Reanimated

But are we right about Lovecraft? Up until this point, we have assumed the conventional wisdom is true, that Lovecraft’s protagonists were always doomed to an unhappy ending. That humanity is helpless in the face of deities beyond imagination. But are things so black and white?

Not really.

Now it’s true, of course, that Lovecraft has his share of tragic heroes. Harley Warren is dead, and there’s always a window to jump out of at the end of every story. But the Lovecraftian world is hardly one of endless darkness, even if, at times it is hard to see the light.

These days, the typical Lovecraftian novel or short story follows a predictable path. Group goes into the woods. Group finds Lovecraftian evil. They attempt to fight back. Lovecraftian evil laughs at them before killing the ones it wants to kill and releasing the rest. The horror.

But even the darkest Lovecraftian story also raises some interesting questions. Why is this evil limited to the woods? Why hasn’t it taken over the world? Does it just not want to? Is there something holding it back, something that it fears? And if there is, who is to say we can’t harness that power?

Is man insignificant? Of course he is. But he is not so insignificant that he cannot do great things. When Wilbur Whateley sought to open the gate and bring forth the old rulers of the world in Dunwich, it was “three men from Arkham – old, white-bearded Dr. Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr. Morgan” who stopped him.[7] We cannot be sure what dark gods Erich Zann battled with the power of his “screaming viol”—though I have my own suspicions—but battle them he did. And then there’s Lovecraft’s magnum opus, the story that more than any other has seared his name into the public consciousness—“The Call of Cthulhu.” There was nothing all that special about Johansen, the Norwegian sailor who, in the company of his fellows, stumbled upon the nightmare city of R’lyeh and Great Cthulhu entombed within. But whether driven by fear or madness or bravery or simply a fool’s hope, it was Johansen who turned his ship and faced the thing from beyond the stars head-on, driving him back to the chamber whence he had emerged, and, I suppose, saving the world from the return of the Old Ones in the process.

To be sure, these victories were not without a price, and a heavy one at that. Whether death or the loss of a friend or a broken mind, no one stands against the crawling chaos without sacrifice. But they also do not stand without hope.

V. Hope and Lovecraft

There is one story of Lovecraft’s in particular that had a profound effect on me and my views of the mythos. It is called The Haunter of the Dark.

It’s not that Lovecraft’s protagonist Robert Blake is able to defeat the “avatar of Nyarlathotep.” In the end, he was doomed from the moment he entered that ancient church in the heart of Providence. Indeed, the three-lobed burning eye consumes all.

But Blake is not the hero of The Haunter of the Dark. At least, not in my view. The hero—or heroes I should say—have no name. They are the people of Federal Hill who, despite the crushing weight of endless millennia worth of superstition and fear, stood against the coming of the night. Those ordinary men and women who “clustered round the church in the rain with lighted candles and lamps somehow shielded with folded paper and umbrellas—a guard of light to save the city from the nightmare that stalks in darkness.”

In the end that darkness was too strong for Blake, and the spirit of Nyarlathotep could not be defeated. But this much also cannot be denied. Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos who has stood at the throne of Azathoth, was not oblivious to mankind, nor did he see those who gathered around the Church of the Starry Wisdom on that black night as mere insects ready to be squashed.

No, Nyarlathotep feared them, just as the darkness must always fear the light.

The light gives darkness its power. Without that light, darkness has no meaning. In the same way, it is the tension between the opposing forces of hope and hopelessness in Lovecraft’s fiction that drive the horror contained therein. It is Gilman slipping through the clutches of old Keziah, only to have revenge visited upon him by Brown Jenkin. It is the clicking on the other end of the line as Randolph Carter screams through the telephone for his friend Harley Warren to answer him, only to have another voice return his call. It is Danforth and Dyer fleeing from madness, only to cast one last glance back, like Lot’s wife of old. It is Robert Olmstead escaping Innsmouth, only to discover that he can never escape the mirror.

It is this tension between opposing forces of hope and hopelessness that makes Lovecraft’s many works not only incisive statements on humanity, but also terrifying tales of fantasy. When we read or talk about Lovecraft, we focus so intently on the mind-shattering madness of many of his endings that we miss the story itself. Hope is there, even if it is misguided, even if it is betrayed. And if hope is indeed critical to Lovecraft’s ethos, then there is no reason that a Lovecraftian story cannot have a happy ending, no reason that hope cannot win the day and banish the night. Surely, Lovecraft himself did not often let hope achieve such a victory, but his mythos does not preclude such an outcome, and it is reductive and disserving to the man himself to insist that it does.

I think there’s a reason that we’ve yet to see a breakthrough Lovecraftian novel.[8] We’ve been too constrained, too limited, too afraid. I would challenge my fellow Lovecraftians to break free, to do something they may have never tried to do before—write a mythos tale that at least has the chance of a happy ending, even if you rip it away at the last moment. Give some hope to mankind. It’s not as easy as you might think. And it can make for a much better story.

After all, we can reconcile ourselves to our fate, to the inevitability of our deaths. But hope? A chance to escape from horror? To burst from a Stygian underground night into the bright daylight of morning? A chance that, at any moment, might be snuffed out?

In the end, that my friends is the scariest thing of all.

Notes:

[1] While Mrs. Stoker won the court case, she eventually lost the war. Although a large number of prints were destroyed, enough eventually surfaced to allow Nosferatu to become the hugely influential horror masterpiece that we all know so well.

[2] That sunlight kills vampires has become so ingrained in our popular consciousness that subsequent adaptations of Dracula have either been forced to follow Nosferatu’s lead or explain why the eponymous character is able to walk in the daylight. I remember criticizing Twilight for having vampires sparkle in the sunlight instead of bursting into flames. Imagine my surprise upon finally reading the original Dracula and discovering that, indeed, Stephanie Meyer had been closer to the truth than I.

[3] Absurd in my view, but difficult to dispute on the merits.

[4] S.T. Joshi lays out an excellent analysis of Derlethism in his review of A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos by John D. Haefele, available at http://www.stjoshi.org/review_haefele.html.

[5] This is ironic, given that Lovecraft is a favorite amongst atheists and agnostics.

[6] As a matter of fact…

In another instant, however, matters were reversed; for those murderous claws had locked themselves tightly around his own throat, while the wrinkled face was twisted with insane fury. He felt the chain of the cheap crucifix grinding into his neck, and in his peril wondered how the sight of the object itself would affect the evil creature. Her strength was altogether superhuman, but as she continued her choking he reached feebly in his shirt and drew out the metal symbol, snapping the chain and pulling it free.

At sight of the device the witch seemed struck with panic, and her grip relaxed long enough to give Gilman a chance to break it entirely.

–“The Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft

[7] Joshi has said that he considers “The Dunwich Horror” an “aesthetic mistake on Lovecraft’s part,” primarily because of its depiction of good vs evil in mankind’s struggle to stave off the return of the Old Ones. While I admire Joshi deeply—it was his Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales that sparked my own personal love affair with Lovecraft—on this point he seems to have a bit of confirmation bias.

[8] I hope the authors of many of the wonderful Lovecraftian novels out there will not take offense to this claim. That great Lovecraftian fiction of all kinds exists cannot be denied, and I think it goes without saying that we are living in the golden age of the genre. Novels like John Hornor Jacobs’s Southern Gods, William Holloway’s Immortal Body and The Song of the Death God, and the short fiction of Laird Barron are as good as anything we have seen. But the work that takes Lovecraft mainstream? The one that makes its mark on literary history? That, I think, we are still waiting on.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Beyond the Gates

October 2, 2018
29 Days Till Halloween

dual-visions-production-services_titles__0002_beyond-the-gatesBeyond the Gates attempts to be the best VHS-based horror movie since Samara crawled out of a television set. And this low-budget flick may well grasp that brass ring, if for no other reason than, to my knowledge, there are no other VHS-based horror movies.

Beyond the Gates begins in 1992, with the grand opening of a small town, horror-themed video store. Flash forward to 2016, when estranged brothers Gordon and John have reunited to settle their missing father’s estate, video store included. For the first twenty minutes or so, the movie meanders, setting up the fact that the two brothers don’t get along, introducing us to the Gordon’s love interest, Margot, and establishing that something weird is going on. After discovering the key to their dad’s office, the two brothers stumble upon the horror-themed board game “Beyond the Gates,” which requires players to watch a VHS tape to advance. Turns out the gates in question are more like gates to another dimension, or possibly hell itself.

Beyond the Gates trades on nostalgia and atmosphere to make its point. The movie has a distinctive 80s feel, and it would certainly have been straight to video if such things still existed. The movie takes a while to get going, but once the game begins, so does the fun. The film’s tongue is always firmly in cheek, and don’t expect any major frights here. But there is plenty of gore and plenty of cool twists.

And I gotta say, between the cool retro video store and the ultra creepy curio shop,  this is a town I’d like to visit.

Check out Beyond the Gates. But just remember–once you start, you have to finish.

3.75 stars

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