The scent of madness: The flowery horror of "Little Joe"

The first thing I noticed about the film Little Joe was the color palette. The tones of red and purple were present in many scenes, from the startling red hair of the main protagonist, to the eerie magenta glow of the greenhouse of the titular pseudo MacGuffin: the bloody tendrils of the plant itself. This palette, which drenches the scenes, is a signal to numinous occurrences.  The color primes us for the subtle, hypnotic effect, and this color motif is the thing that stays with me. 

Little Joe is about Alice, a scientist at a botanical biotech company who develops a flower that releases a scent that makes people happy. She calls it an “anti-depressant” plant, one that requires the owner be devoted to the care of the bright red bloom. Against company procedures, Alice brings the plant home for her son, who she feels guilty about neglecting. Soon, she notices subtle, disturbing changes in his behavior.

Little Joe is an example of Weird Cinema, at the interstices of several genres, including science fiction and horror. But the pacing takes cues from psychological thrillers. While there are moments of suspense and eeriness,  this is a more cerebral type of horror, one that relies on ambiguity. The slow blooming, unfurling Little Joe plants are accompanied by ambient whispers that tingle along your spine. The influence of the plant is suggestive, and rather than over the top madness, the effect seems to be a malingering indifference to the world.

(Also, the idea of a supernatural flower in the purple-pink spectrum of course reminded me of the Marsh Bell!)

The Hauntological horror of the movie "In Fabric"

The movie IN FABRIC is infused with the ethos of hauntology, from the creepy soundtrack to the technicolor inspired palette. Ostensibly it’s a tale about a haunted dress. It tells the same story twice, like an anthology film (think of Trilogy of Terror). Act one centers around a recently single mother who’s going out on a series of terrible dates. She buys the bright red dress at a strange department store called Dentley and Sopor. The sales women wear elaborate Victorian funerary gowns and sport gravity-defying updos. The single mother Sheila, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste catches the eye of the most striking saleswoman, played with sinister camp by Gwendoline Christie. Christie’s character speaks in riddles that pepper poststructuralist jargon with sales speak, about abstractions and paradigms with an erotic, hypnotic cadence that seduce Sheila to purchase the dress. The dress seems to have a mind of its own, and causes a series of bizarre occurrences—which I won’t spoil. Act Two follows a young couple who get the dress at a charity shop. Reg, a repairman buys the dress to wear at his stag party. He brings it home and the dress catches the eye of his fiance Babs, wherein the red dress plays out its seductive dance of death. Woven through the film are flashes of the empty department store, where the salespeople perform esoteric rituals with erotic overtones. The plot doesn’t really make sense; it relies on dream logic. The horror is stylish and textual rather than outright violent. The red dress slithers and floats and its filmed in lurid hues. It’s a mindscrew movie with mood whiplash. Did I mention that it has a bleak, black sense of humor? It seems to occur in an alternate world full of anachronistic tech (rotary phones, pneumatic tubes) and has an accompanying soundtrack of vintage synthesized sounds from a group called the Cavern of Antimatter. IN FABRIC is arthouse horror, in the tradition of A COMPANY OF WOLVES or the oeuvre of David Lynch.

Muses: Vaughan Oliver and Alistair Gray

The mysterious arty graphics of 23 Envelope actually influenced my aesthetic sense. The late Vaughan Oliver (September 12, 1957 –  December 29, 2019) instinctively knew how to combine text and image into visually arresting collages. I’ll even admit that I bought some albums just because of the cover art. His designs grace some of my favorite albums. The lace shrouded mannequin on Cocteau Twins’ Treasure. The erotic elegance of the Pixies first album, and the haloed monkey on their Doolittle album. The blurred out naked man dancing and/or swaying with a phallic object on The Breeders’ Pod. His album covers are works of art, and his unique style has influenced the graphic arts.

I read Alistair Gray’s epic novel Lanark around the time of my 4AD/Cocteau Twins fandom. The two of them are indelibly linked for me. That novel, which mixes a bildungsroman with a surrealistic dystopian novel is a classic of Weird Fiction.  It was one of the books where I had an epiphany: much of life does happen in our private alternate realities and using fantasy and allegory are valid ways to talk about the human experience. Plus, the book was illustrated with his amazingly complex drawings that hinted at a personal mythology.

Rest in peace, Vaughan Oliver and Alistair Gray  (December 28, 1934 – December 29, 2019).

Book Birthday: Nowhereville, ed by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski (Broken Eye Books)

Happy Book Birthday to Nowhereville: Weird is Other People. Gable and Dombrowski have amassed a whole lot of talent for this anthology of contemporary Weird Fiction.

From the back cover copy: Nowhereville: Weird Is Other People is an anthology of urban weird fiction. These are stories of the city, of people interacting with the complexities that are other people. These 19 short stories explore the genre of weird fiction, tales not quite fantasy and not quite science fiction, tales blurring the lines between genres. These are the strange stories of the strange decisions we make and the strange ways the city affects us.

Authors include: Nuzo Onoh, Maura McHugh, P. Djèlí Clark, Evan J. Peterson, S.P. Miskowski, Lynda E. Rucker, Tariro Ndoro, D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Mike Allen, Jeffrey Thomas, Erica L. Satifka, Kathe Koja, Leah Bobet, Ramsey Campbell, Wole Talabi, Stephen Graham Jones, R.B. Lemberg, Cody Goodfellow

It’s also been getting some stellar reviews!

“Taken together, these stories create an uncanny, unpredictable hall of mirrors. These wonderfully strange takes on modern living are sure to resonate with fans of speculative fiction.” (STARRED review from Publishers Weekly, and a PW Book of the Week)

“Readers will be enchanted by this collection and eagerly anticipate what the next entry will bring. The stories here are disconcerting, ambiguous, and sometimes confusing—but always intriguing and genre-bending, digging into the ways we connect to those around us.” (Booklist)

“What’s more, they complement one another in a way that’s rare even for collections by single authors, much less an anthology delivering 19 disparate voices. Indeed, the effect of this collection is not so much that of a set of loosely comparable episodes but of a kaleidoscope: variegated and multifaceted yet all of a piece. Remarkably powerful urban tales, each one brilliantly in harmony with the others.” (STARRED review from Kirkus)

My piece, called “Underglaze,” takes its inspiration from the Flow Blue plates my late aunt Evelyn collected.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: good reviews & hate mail.

A SPECTRAL HUE made it on a couple of other lists. The Mary Sue included ASH on this list: Books off the Beaten Path: 15 Small Press Reads If You Want Something Different. Venacular Books crowned my book the Best Horror Novel (!!!!) in its year-end Books to Give Thanks For list.

Of course, it’s not everyone cup of tea.

And some people thought that a book that features black and queer characters shouldn’t even exist. On the release day, Word Horde put up an ad that highlighted the cast of the novel. Trolls came a’ trolling. Most of the negative comments were nuked. But one slipped through

Honestly, the sentiments expressed in this bit of hate mail are why books with minorities,–sexual, gender, racial–are so important.

#awardeligibilitypost

I’m really proud of my debut novel A SPECTRAL HUE. It’s been getting some amazing reviews. I’d love for it to be considered for awards (in spite of being promotion shy).

Nomination committees can contact the publisher, Word Horde, at publicity[at]wordhorde.com for info about the book.

52

51 was a year of firsts. I published my first adult novel. I read in New York City (twice!)

52 will be even better. Another major project will be announced shortly.

Thanks to everyone who edited, published, read, posted reviews and/or came out to see me.

Scenes a from quasi-book tour

Here are some pictures from the whirlwind quasi-tour promoting A SPECTRAL HUE. 3 cites (DC, Baltimore, New York), a variety of venues (from the Library of Congress to a DIY performance space plus a Skyped book club visit in Dallas) and a whole lot of meeting readers and other writers. I’m open to talk to classes, book clubs and readings. Thanks to everyone who set up the events, and those who attended!

Nnedi Okorafor and me at the Baltimore Book Festival
Reading at Club Cumming in NYC
Reading at Club Cumming in NYC
Bureau of General Service-Queer Division Bookstore