Friday, April 04, 2014

True Confessions: Day One

4/4/14

It’s a summer Saturday, and I’m with my dad at Tower Records & Books. I must have been 11 or 12, not quite yet too cool to hang out with my dad in public. We are in the book section, as we Wards are wont to be, and I have been promised a paperback of my choice. I had recently discovered epic fantasy; Narnia and Middle Earth, Arrakis and Earthsea, they were all digested and well-loved by then. (Excepting the dismay and betrayal I felt upon realizing the magnificent Aslan was a Christ analogue, but that’s another memory). I was looking for a new world to live in for a while.

Then my brain was ambushed by the most skin-crawlingly disgusting book cover I’d ever seen. I was almost afraid to look at it, like I thought what I saw would ooze into my brain and infect me somehow. But I also could not stop looking at it, just stood, fascinated, as my dad sauntered over to see if I had made my selection. When he saw the book, he plucked it off the shelf and said with relish, ”Well! ‘The Rats in the Walls,’ that’s a good one.” I let my dad buy me “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre,” with gruesome cover art by Michael Whelan.

My brain would never be the same.

That guy in the window in particular freaked me out. 

The dude in the web was also pretty upsetting.

P.S.: "Pickman's Model" was my immediate favorite.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Weird Stuff: Swedish Ratzilla Attacks Finally Come to an End

Kidding. There were no attacks, just a SIXTEEN INCH rat! Part of me thinks they could have trapped it humanely, but another part of me says "HOLY SHIT keep that thing away from me!"

Ratzilla, the 16-Inch "Rat From Hell," Finally Captured in Sweden

Read the whole story, and see more unsavory pics at Gawker.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron

5/5
18750399
I waited for The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All to be released for what seemed like years, and began devouring it immediately. Because Laird Barron is about the best thing going in the horror branch of the weird, it's no surprise that it gets my five glowing stars. Barron's prose just gets richer and his cthonic mythology more resonant with each publication.

I did find some surprises in this collection, but I want to do this book justice, so I'm starting my second read through now. Stay tuned. But if you can't wait . . . no fan of Barron, cosmic horror or the new weird will be disappointed by The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.

Okay . . . one surprise? The gracefully and ominously and oh-so-Laird-Barron-y titled title story doesn't exist in its own collection, except as a throw-away reference to another, much maligned, quasi-fictional author's work in the book's satirical closer "More Dark." Yep. Barron's gone more than a bit gleefully postmodern here. I am officially weak in the knees.

Random Thoughts: Am I supposed to feel bad about this?

That evil, hateful old bastard Fred Phelps died last night. Unfortunately, it wasn't particularly slow or painful.

In a statement Thursday, the Westboro Baptist Church chided the "world-wide media" for "gleefully anticipating the death." 

In a statement today, I said: "Phelps prayed unceasingly for the death and damnation of myself and many others who don't adhere to his barbaric, ass-backwards way of thinking. It was the least I could do to gleefully anticipate his demise."

I know some people will call me un-Christian. To that, I say, "Duh." But Old Dead Fred was a worse one, no matter what authority he claimed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Breathlessly Awaiting: Lovecraft's Monsters


So I'm really excited for this anthology. I can't wait for it to show up on my doorstep like poor Edward Derby.


Gaiman, Barron, Kiernan, Langan, Ligotti and more. For full story listing, a pre-order portal, and an interview with editrix supreme Ellen Datlow,
click through to Lovecraft eZine.
Squee!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Weird Stuff: Baby's First Butcher Shop Toy, Circa 1900

Wow, the Victorians really were freaks. 

PETA would never approve: This grisly 1840 doll-sized butcher shop with miniature animal carcasses and a floor covered in sawdust and blood would be shockingly graphic to our modern sensibilities. After all, here in the 21st century, we like to remain cheerfully oblivious about where our meat products come from.
Click here for the full story.

Fangirl Squee of the Day: "Jurassic Park" with cats instead of raptors . . .


You know you love this.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Television: Thomas Ligotti Would Not Approve: True Detective Finale Thoughts (spoilers)


But I do. (In fact, this may be the most satisfying series finale since all the girls in the world got to be Slayers.)  My thoughts, and spoilers for "Form and Void," below.

 

One good thing about cable's shorter seasons (besides higher production values) is that they generally provide tighter story arcs than the old-fashioned 22-ep seasons, and so more easily lend themselves to an analysis of the narrative in its entirety, for its themes, moments of excellence, and some of the promises it left unfulfilled. True Detective has been heaped with praise and put under intense scrutiny by both the media and obsessive viewers since the first episode. The sordid mystery of  ritually murdered girls and a place called "Carcosa" came on like a hallucinogenic, all washed out bayou color palettes, sinister symbols and fashionable nihilism. Its first five episodes might be more  disturbing and existentially intense than anything else on TV. (Well, this season's Hannibal is also outdoing itself, but that's for another time.)

Some of that intensity, at least the part where the lurking evil went undefined, came to an end with Marty's disgust-fueled execution-style murder of the suspected "monster," meth and LSD chemist (and serial child abuser) Reggie Ledoux. Though we would later discover this hydra had many more heads, for now it was back to normal for Hart and Cohle, hailed as heroes in a case they'd actually kind of fumbled. So episodes six and seven, instead of being propelled by the case, were fueled by the unlikely partners' egos and secrets and personal lives crashing and burning. I can't say I was totally on board with the downshift at the time (I like weird), but it served the narrative well. Most importantly, this is when Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle became real to me: not just Woody Harrelson  and Matthew McConaughey giving stellar performances, but real, rounded, flawed and memorable characters, whose journey -- toward hell or redemption -- mattered to me, even leaving aside the quasi-supernatural weirdness. Maybe that was when I fully realized it was their story, not the Yellow King's.

I think there will be a fair number viewers disappointed that the weird fiction ties became less substantial as the series progressed. Wondering if Nic Pizzolatto, even though he is one, was maybe having us horror fans on a tiny bit. But he told us from the beginning that all the monsters in True Detective were human. (Barely so, in the case of Errol Childress and his (ugh) family, but human nonetheless.)  We all know evil exists in our world, and humans are worse than all the supernatural horrors we can imagine. The final episode brought that home explicitly. I don't know how much more evil viewers need to see than that horrific view inside the delusional monster's world. Thanks, Nic, we got it. (Furiously washing eyeballs.)

And those grim Ligotti nods coming out of  Rust's mouth in the early episodes? In his essay on pessimistic philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti does express a number of opinions that inform Rust's dialogue. Ligotti also opines that the worst kinds of pessimistic thinkers are the ones that equivocate, opening the door for a crack of cruel hope rather than carrying their philosophy to its logical end: voluntarily ceasing to exist. And I've got to tell you, I was sure both Marty and Rust would be dead when the backup arrived, or at least that Rust would bleed out right there in Marty's arms when he pulled that blade out of his gushing gut. He'd done his work, and it was time. I was prepared to say goodbye.

So Pizzolatto's totally unexpected final scene probably has the elusive Ligotti spinning in . . . well, Florida, or wherever he is right now. Because, after all, Pizzolatto did something I was totally unprepared for, given what had come in the previous seven-and three-quarters hours of television: he gave us hope. (How dare he!) And closure. Rust's near-death enlightenment was certainly no tunnel of light; it was dark and sludgy and all-consuming, yet somehow it healed him. His last words to Marty -- "You're looking at it [the night sky] wrong . . . once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning" -- tell the story of someone who's finally put his many demons to rest.

True Detective's first season closer, "Form and Void," may not have not given viewers all the answers (what was with Audrey and her creepy dolls and pictures? Who, exactly, was The Yellow King in this scenario? Errol? or was he just the procurer and master of ceremonies? Why couldn't they give Michelle Monaghan something better to do?); but it did provide something I don't think anyone expected: a story about true friendship, grace, and a happy ending. Or as happy an ending as two obsessive, lonely, dark, irascible, flawed men who bonded over lies and horrors can have. I like the thought that somewhere out there, Marty and Rust are drinking Lone Stars, parsing constellations and bickering. Let's call them the Odd Couple for a new millennium. (And since Pizzolatto has retained the literary rights to the characters, we can always hope. How cruel.)

  

P.S.: There was one thing I felt I had to take issue with: no matter what came out of any of those characters' mouths, what the Carcosa cabal were up to was sick and cultlike, but it bore NO resemblance to voodoo, or voudu, as many of the thousands of contemporary practitioners would call it. I thought it was sloppy dialogue for cops to call the crimes "voodoo shit," because anyone from that part of the country would certainly know better.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Random Thought of the Day: Coming soon . . .


So I am both jonesing and apprehensive for  tonight's first season finale of True Detective. It's been a long time since I was so completely riveted by a television show. (Or is it taken in?) Will its weird fiction resonances, Rust Cohle's nihilistic speechifying, and the quasi-Lovecraftian spaghetti monster chasing girls through the trees add up to anything like satisfying coherence? Can it stick the landing? My thoughts tomorrow.

Semi-coincidentally, I've been making my way through Thomas Ligotti's 2010 Stoker-nominated philosophical history of pessimism, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I've started it half-a-dozen times, but this time it really grabbed me. (Maybe because now I'm hearing it in Rust's lazy drawl?) At any rate, for such a nihilistic piece of mental gymnastics, it's remarkably funny. Then again, my sense of humor appalls most nice people. Thoughts to come soonish, as it's not exactly a quick read. Good workout for the brain, though.

Finally, I've just finished Richard Gavin's 2012 story collection At Fear's Altar. I'd never read Gavin before -- I think I'd remember him. But with this collection, a little new-Lovecraftian but with eldritch twists all its own, Gavin has caught my attention. Full review to come.


Friday, March 07, 2014

Weird Stuff: Cthulhu Nopales and Eggs


https://scontent-b-sjc.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash3/t31/1606238_819080938118454_1997742552_o.jpg
 Cthulhu Nopales and Eggs
Deep in the city of R’lyeh, there is no ingredient more rare and sought after than the desert grown paddles of nopales. So there is no better way to honor the priest of the Old Ones with this dish. Lucky for us nopales can be found ready to use in a jar at your local grocery store. If not available this recipe can easily substitute the napoles with any other green variety of pepper. Bell peppers, sweet peppers, and even jalapeƱo peppers – for those of you who are more dragon then octopus or human.

Brought to you by Kitchen Overlord and Lovecraft eZine.

Book Review: Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

158030314.5/5

Simply fascinating! I've lived in San Francisco for the better part of the last 20 years, but there is so much I didn't know about my adopted hometown. In newsy, easily digestible chapters, Talbot takes readers on an intimate tour of the highs and lows of Baghdad by the Bay, from the first blush of the Summer of Love to the invention of the cocktail that saved countless suffering HIV patients from certain death. (FYI, while those events make neat emotional bookends, Talbot also covers some earlier socio-political history, mainly to set the context for the revolutionary times that are his focus.) Maybe most importantly, Season of the Witch (named after the Donovan song) sheds new light on just how those now-infamous "San Francisco values" came into being.

For his book, Talbot interviewed many well-known but disparate locals, including former Mayor, now Senator Dianne Feinstein, writer Armisted Maupin, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, and cult survivor Jim Jones, Jr. But he also took the time to talk to lesser-known game-changers like David Smith, founder of the revolutionary Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, and Dr. Paul Volberding, an early hero in the field of AIDS research. Both medical men have harrowing, yet ultimately heartening stories to tell. Talbot also profiles countless other San Franciscans from all walks: black music promoter and patron of the Fillmore district, Charles Sullivan, who gave Bill Graham his first big break by "loaning" him the Fillmore Ballroom on unbooked nights; legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who took the team (and the City) to glory in the 80s; beloved society columnist Herb Caen; and of course liberal political and gay rights martyrs George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

Just like San Francisco weather, the light moments here are interspersed with the dark. The Diggers confound shoplifters with their Haight Ashbury Free Store. Control freak Bill Graham gets dosed at a Grateful Dead show. Mayor Moscone and future Mayor Willie Brown paint the town red. The Cockettes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raise eyebrows while raising funds for local causes. The 49ers bring the City back from the edge of despair with a near-miraculous Super Bowl victory. And also: hordes of sick and malnourished flower children live in conditions comparable to Calcutta; the Altamont music festival spirals into a mess of blood and blame; heiress Patty Hearst is kidnapped by the shadowy SLA; and the Zodiac and Zebra killers run amok simultaneously, with a minimum total of 30 victims between them.

But the centerpiece of the book is when Talbot relates, in graphic detail, the two bleakest moments in San Francisco history since the 1906 quake and fire nearly wiped it out: in November 1978, popular Bay Area based preacher Jim Jones led 918 Peoples Temple followers to "revolutionary suicide" in Guyana -- leaving thousands of friends and families bereft. The liberal civic leaders who had been Jones' boosters were mortified. Then, just nine days later, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk (both still reeling with shock and horror about their association with Jones) were assassinated in their City Hall offices by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White. Dark days indeed.

I have one small reservation, based on purely personal bias. Nearing the end of his tale, Talbot includes two whole chapters on the birth of the championship-era 49ers (including some play-by-play of the 1982 Superbowl), but only one on the whole arc of the AIDS epidemic. I suppose if you like football that's a treat, but to focus on the struggles of a football team -- even one that may just have saved the morale of this city -- and yet give admittedly moving, but very short shrift to the thousands who died horribly before medicine caught up with liberation seems somehow wrong. But hey, maybe that's just me and my crazy San Francisco values. In the end, Season of the Witch makes for one fascinating true tall tale. 4.5 stars.

Random Thought of the Day: If You're Anxious and You Know it . . .



Read this brave and fascinating piece by Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic magazine and author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind.  I, and I'm sure many others,  appreciate Stossel's frank discussion of his history of acute anxiety . . .  and his various coping mechanisms.        
         
Surviving Anxiety: I've tried therapy, drugs, and booze. Here’s how I came to terms with the nation's most common mental illness . . .
(read more here).
 

Monday, March 03, 2014

Random Thought of the Day: The Wisdom of Rust Cohle


null“Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. Be careful what you get good at.” 

- Rust Cohle,  True Detective

Book Review: The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, by John Langan


178397785/5

This book opens with one of the coolest stories I've read in awhile: the short, brutal, and, honestly, kind of hilarious "Kids." Within just a few paragraphs, Langan had me both howling with queasy laughter and wondering if he was plundering my mind for its deepest fears, and that's very much the way to my heart. (Other than through my chest, natch.)

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies has been on my TBR list ever since it came out last spring. I can only say I wish I'd gotten to it sooner, because this collection is as close to perfect as it gets. There are no bad stories here, not even any "meh" ones. Just a series of really inventive tales, well told.

Of course I had favorites. But I had several. Besides "Kids," which I won't spoil by even hinting at its contents, there was also "Technicolor," a wild (and darkly genius) take on "The Masque of the Red Death," which may have inspired me to re-evaluate Poe. (I secretly find him awfully florid.) There are two new-Lovecraftian tales: "The Shallows," a slice-of-life story about a man and his mutant crab, going about their business in a world where the Old Ones now control reality; and the truly disturbing "City of the Dog," which takes as its inspiration H.P. Lovecraft's underused ghouls (think "Pickman's Model"), and turns Albany into a carnivorously haunted blot on the landscape. Finally, the closing, and longest, tale in the collection is "Mother of Stone," in which a bloody pre-historic rite is accidentally resurrected when a strange statue is unearthed at an otherwise homey Hudson Valley inn. Also, do not miss Langan's end notes (which illuminate several of the stories in unexpected ways), and Laird Barron's hilarious afterword. Final rave goes to Santiago Caruso for the gorgeous cover art. Let's look at it again:

Book cover of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky & other monstruous geographies by John Langan | Santiago Caruso

Bottom line: The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies is an excellent collection, and is so very going on my best-of-2013 list . . . just a little late. If you like weird fiction with just a twist of dark humor, do not miss it. 

Book Review: A Season in Carcosa, Joseph S. Pulver, Jr., ed.


16062930 4.5/5
A Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a story cycle about an accursed play, set in "dim Carcosa," which, when merely read (never staged!), leaves madness and chaos in its wake. Chambers' "KiY" stories, though there are only four, left a small but persistent imprint on the weird, influencing Lovecraft, to start with, whose Necronomicon owes not a little to that "cursed book"-within-a-book trope.

But on to Pulver's collection: a couple of the tales are a bit mannered for me; for example "The Theater and its Double" by Edward Morris, which marries Artaud's surrealism and "Theater of Cruelty" with the infamous play. I've never much liked the Surrealists, and, though Morris does slip in some beautiful language, that particular story felt bloated and self-indulgent, containing as it does both an imagined version of the play, and "Artaud's" musings on art, politics, morphine, dreams, and the terrors of the Yellow King. Also, Gary McMahon's "it sees me when I'm not looking," which tells a fine tale, but does so with purposefully mangled punctuation and random capitalization, an artistic decision which only made me want to copy-edit it.

However, the bulk of the stories evoke the drear decadence of "dead Carcosa" with its pallid masks and its tattered King to uneasy perfection. R.W. Chambers' vision of cosmic horror, though Victorian in its origins, holds up well to contemporary scenarios; issues of mental health and the media's omnipotent hold on our minds underpin many of the stories in the collection. Highlights include "Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars," by Gemma Files, in which a Physicians for Human Rights forensic anthropologist investigating a massacre pit unwittingly unearths something still more dreadful; and (the late) Joel Lane's "My Voice is Dead," whose narrator, a devout Catholic losing his religion and dying of cancer, finds faith in Carcosa on the internet. And addressing media manipulation of our collective sanity, we have a fantastic trifecta: John Langan's "Sweetums," in which a struggling actress gets more than she bargained for when hired for an experimental film; in Don Webb's dark and hilarious "Movie Night at Phil's," the wrong videotape puts a gruesome end to a family tradition; and my favorite in the book, Cody Goodfellow's "Wishing Well," in which a mentally unstable former child actor traces his problems back to his role in "Golden Class," a cult children's show something like "Romper Room," only with a lot more creepy masks, ritualistic games, and marionette "visitors" from the "Golden City of Carcosa."

I only stumbled over the cult of the King in Yellow by way of its interbreeding with the Lovecraft mythos, and initially I was surprised so many gifted artists are still influenced by Chambers' little-known mythical play-within-a-play. But it certainly spawned one disturbing and compelling collection. It seems as though Chambers' tales may be having a cultural moment -- HBO's slow-burn creepshow "True Detective" referenced Carcosa and the King in Yellow several times in just the first few episodes. Not sure where they are going with it, but I'm hooked. Maybe the time is right for the return of the King?

Book Review: Let the Old Dreams Die, by John Ajvide Lindqvist


172866984/5

Wow, this book took me a long time to read. Not in a bad way; it's just that Lindqvist's first collection of short stores, while beautifully written (and beautifully translated by Ebba Segerberg), is dense, with the majority of the dozen stories on the long side, some to good and others to not-so-great effect.

Fortunately, there were only two stories I simply didn't care for in Let the Old Dreams Die. One, "To Put My Arms Around You, to Music," Linqvist admits in his amusing afterword, nobody but the author himself likes. (So it's okay that my notes on this story consisted of "I don't get it.") The other, "Itsy-Bitsy," is short and sharp modern morality tale about a scheming paparazzo, but its moral is kind of ham-handed, and it's just not of the emotional complexity I've come to expect from Linqvist and his characters. (Ironically, considering what I just said about long stories, I think those two are the shortest in the book.)

Overall, though, the collection is top-notch, with stories dark, surreal and moving all at once. Favorites include: "The Border," in which a middle-aged woman slowly realizes she's something other than she'd always believed (avoiding spoilers here); "Eternal/Love," about a couple who discover how to manipulate Death; "A Village in the Sky," a new-Lovecraftian-tinged tale about an apartment building gone subtly wrong and getting wronger fast; and "Tindalos," a tour-de-force portrait of one woman's anxiety which somehow morphs into a giant monster movie. These last three especially have a cosmic horror vibe that I really loved.

Finally, I'm sure people are wondering about the advertised "sequel" stories to Handling the Undead -- "Final Processing" -- and Let the Right One In -- "Let the Old Dreams Die." So how are they? Harrowing and beautiful, in that order. "Final Processing" brings us up to date on the un-pretty status of the "re-living," and is a pretty grueling read. It's also bordering on novella-length, losing some of its punch along the way. But "Let the Old Dreams Die," which closes the book, is a beautiful love story about a couple who met while working on Oskar's "kidnapping." (She was a cop; he was the station worker who punched Oskar's train ticket the last time he was seen alive. They clicked in the interview room.) The case continues to be an ongoing hobby for the pair, though the trail has long ago gone cold. I won't say any more, but the final page of this story is a little miracle, and a perfect note on which to end. (Except you should also read Lindqvist's afterword, which is funny and self effacing, as well as lending some insight to his madness.)

Book Review: Harrowgate, by Kate Maruyama

18100372
 5/5 

Kate Maruyama's Harrowgate came out of left field late in the year to rock my top ten of 2013. Harrowing (pun intended) yet can't-put-it-down compelling, Maruyama's debut defies genre: a unique family romance that both spooked me and pulled at my heartstrings, romantic and repellent at the same time. I'd love to say more, but you'll be glad I didn't.Harrowgate winks at some familiar tropes -- happy couple in spooky New York apartment? Check. Meddling older woman with special teas? Check. However, it unfolds in a truly unique fashion. An excellent and memorable debut novel. I look forward to much more from Maruyama!