The third annual Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird occurred last weekend. It was a confluence of readings, panels, and academic presentations all held in a special effects studio in Atlanta, under the watchful gaze of silicon monsters. Attendees came from all parts of the country, as far away as Hawaii. The readings spanned the entire cosmos of Weird Fiction, from the absurd to creepy to literary and all points in-between. The lively panels were full of passionate participants.
I have no idea where my own fiction fits in this constellation but it definitely has a home, embedded there amongst the other dark stars. In fact, I pitched A SPECTRAL HUE at last year’s symposium (check the acknowledgements of the book). Thanks to everyone who had a hand in organizing this event.
Till next year!
A few of the other attendees (Silver Scream FX Lab)
I saw Velvet Buzzsaw, Netflix film about haunted paintings and outsider art for a few reasons, foremost among them the fact that my forthcoming novel,A SPECTRAL HUE mines similar territory and shares some tropes.*
The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette and Rene Russo as dealers and critics in the contemporary art world. It starts out as a roman a clef/satire of that scene. Gyllenhaal plays a critic (loosely modeled on Jerry Saltz). Russo is an ex-punk rocker turned arts dealer, a nod to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Collette plays a cutthroat curator. There’s no small element of camp in the performances and writing of these characters, as they pretentiously prattle on about the arts on display, some of which is shown in the film. (Which includes incomprehensible abstract art, and, most notably, a horrific robotic homeless person).
Russo’s put-upon underling (and Gyllenhaal’s secret affair), played by Zawe Ashton, sets the plot in motion when she discovers a cache of disturbing paintings left by her deceased reclusive neighbor. The discovery of the paintings resembles the discovery of Henry Darger’s work. (Darger’s epic novel and collage-based paintings were found after his death by his landlords). Vetril Dease, the artist, wanted his canvases destroyed, but the culture vultures ignore the directive and a feeding frenzy starts, as the dealers, curators and critics rush to promote the work as the Next Hot Thing.
That’s when the supernatural element comes into play, and Velvet Buzzsaw turns into a moralistic slasher film. The death sequences are inventive, but the actual haunting—its rules and mechanisms—are not explored. There’s an under-developed subplot about Dease’s mental instability and possible murderous activities. All of that takes the backseat to the stylish comeuppances.
As a ghost/horror story, the movie didn’t work for me. As an over the top jeremiad against the contemporary art scene, the message is muddled. For all that, I’m glad that it was made and the performances were entertaining if a little too cartoonish.
*A SPECTRAL HUE features an art critic and haunted outsider art work, but goes in a completely different direction and mood. The Outsider art in the novel is partial inspired by the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend.
First, some good things about Netflix’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL. I think that it was well-acted, particularly the matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugnino). I liked that they explored and expanded upon Theodora’s sexuality. The subtext, of dysfunctional relationships and mental illness, was spot on. However, I ultimately thought it was disrespectful to the source material.
The title raised certain expectations. Imagine if I wrote a tv series called WUTHERING HEIGHTS and it was about a modern couple dealing with infertility issues. And Cathy was a frustrated novelist writing a cheap romance novel called “Wuthering Heights.” And Emily herself was a character, who was a New Age doula. It would make as much sense as this adaptation. The heart of the novel is about Otherness. This was just a family drama with some supernatural elements that used the architecture of the novel–characters named Luke, Eleanor, Hugh and Theodora, a haunted mansion–and ignored the theme and mood.
I especially depised the portrayal of the writer, Stephen. He was supposed to be a hack writer who mined family trauma for filthy lucre. That’s not how writing—especially successful writing—works. If anything, Stephen should have been the one who believed in the ghosts, and the drug addict brother Luke should have been the one who was in denial. To write, you have to believe in that your words and your paper people are real. Finally, making one of the most chilling paragraphs ever written the start of the hack writer’s exploitative Ghost Adventures-styled book was a low point. (Side Bar: There was a character named Shirley; why couldn’t she have been the stand-in for Ms. Jackson?)
Finally, the nature of the haunting was wrong. The harried mother trope, at the center of the show, is played out, and subverts the meaning of the original novel, which centered non-traditional female characters (the misfit Eleanor, the bisexual artist Theodora).
If you’re going to tell a different story, why have the baggage of a well-known, classic novel? I actually think the series would have worked better with a separate title. (And if they got rid of that ridiculous writer subplot; Jackson was one of the best writers and to have a shout-out to her as bad writer was a terrible idea). The HILL HOUSE reminds me of how bad the LeGuin/Earthsea adaptations were—they took the plot and some of the ideas, and left behind the atmosphere and subtext.
Storm Constantine is reprinting John Kaiine’s horror novel Fossil Circus via her Immanion Press. I reviewed it when it first came out in 2005. Kaiine is an artist as well as a novelist–and the husband of Tanith Lee.
Four former psychiatric patients are given a palatial, ruinous asylum by their kind, eccentric doctor in her will. The troupe of misfits includes Ernie, a grown man mentally flash-frozen at the age of six; the misanthropic (and therefore misogynist, and racist) cripple Mr. Jackson; the Byronic necrophiliac Roane; and the flatulent, hapless Norman. The four men move in together, and settle into a dysfunctional family unit. The house has its own history, and affects all who live there-particularly Roane, who is prone to psychic frequencies. Meanwhile, a serial killer, Jerusalem Lamb, cuts a bloody path across London, drawn to the strange, almost supernatural pull of the former asylum.
Kaiine’s debut alternates between sick comedy (think John Waters meets Erasehead-era David Lynch) and warped horror (Lamb is as chilling and surreal as Hannibal Lechter). Norman and Ernie form a kind of Pooh and Piglet friendship, and get trapped in all sorts of odd, comic situations. Nasty Mr. Jackson’s foul proclamations are only matched by those of his pet parrot, Maudsley. And Roane wanders the weird asylum, a tortured Theseus in a labyrinth. Lamb, meanwhile, moves through London’s underground, mired in murk and gore.
All of this is written in a pun-filled, present tense poetic prose. The inventive language, shot out with rapid-fire wit, draws the reader into these strange characters’ mindscapes. It’s as if Monty Python decided to produce Peake’s Gormenghast. Other times, it’s Lewis Carroll’s version of Silence of the Lambs. Kaiine has a strong grasp of dialog and dialect, and a love of the surreal. There’s nothing quite like it. The closest reference is (American) southern horror writer Caitlin Kiernan, with a dash of Vonnegut.
The devil is in the details in this collection of well-crafted short fiction that sits on the uneasy border of slipstream and horror fiction. The pieces in this collection are as dense as novels, filled with telling, carefully chosen descriptions and character-revealing dialogue. When the supernatural (or counterfactual) appears, it has a rich background to interact with. In the opening tale, The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon, the relationship between the middle-aged men who attempt to recreate a mysterious film that documents a flying machine is rife with details about and character sketches that are as important and enticing as the steampunkish ‘hidden history’ trope the story is built around. Hand weaves together such disparate strands, such as late 70’s life, working at the Smithsonian, cancer, and the pains of widowhood and single fatherhood, in such a natural way that the ‘strangeness’ of the story is , while essential, just another fascinating plot point. The spooky Near Zennor terrifies by insinuation as much as by actual incidence: Hand creates a fascinating red herring subplot about a series of creepy children’s books that aid and abet the disquieting denouement of the tale. The collection is mostly dark fiction, but it’s closer to the work of, say, Isak Dinesen or Robert Aickman than it is to Stephen King or Clive Barker. Part of has to do with the elegant way Hand constructs her tales; each small world is crammed with essential detail, like a motherboard. For instance, the use of Icelandic folklore in Winter’s Wife, or the character study of the titular Uncle Lou. And part of it has do with the craft its self: even on the sentence-level, each image is exquisite. The one outlier piece in the collection, the Jack Vance pastiche Return of the Fire Witch, adds humor to the mostly bleakly beautiful collection.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, updated the ghost story, and used its various tropes to create a new kind of character study. (Forget those douchetastic ghosthunter shows—this team has a suave elegance to their work). It’s mostly the story of Eleanor, a lonely, mousy misfit of a woman who slowly and disturbingly falls in love with the foreboding, architectural monstrosity known as Hill House. Eleanor has an active imagination and never seems quite connected with the mundane world. She comes alive in Hill House, where she is a part of parapyschological research team. And the house, seemingly, seems share her affections. It communicates with her in ways that are scary….and oddly, tender. The reader wants Eleanor to join with her beloved, and escape from it at the same time. Jackson creates marvelous secondary characters—the brash, chic probably lesbian artist Theo, the bratty playboy heir to Hill House Luke, and doddering Professor who heads up the research team. She also adds a kind of mordant humor, such as the dour doomladen housekeeper. Jackson’s prose is written with a delicate beauty that suffuses even the more suspenseful set pieces; neither movies that used the book as source material manage to capture that sensibility. The Haunting of Hill House is novel that stays with reader. It leaves you with deep, lingering horror.
Twelve year old Lucretia lives in an Queens apartment building with her single mother. Her best friend Sunny (nee Zhao Hun Soong) is dying of cancer. One day, after Sunny is back from a prolonged treatment session, Lucretia arranges a play date with her. Just when she Sunny is supposed to appear, Lucretia—called Loochie—finds out that Sunny has been kidnapped by the mysterious family of crackheads who live in the supposedly abandoned apartment 6D. Loochie goes up to save her friend. What she finds there is a twisted, monster haunted version of their neighbor, hidden in a small apartment.
This suspenseful novella crafts turns an urban legend into a tense YA horror story. The prose is nicely crafted, the mood teeters between classic horror and YA adventure. This slim book is a moving thriller that will remind you of Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE–but much darker. It firmly puts the urban in urban fantasy. The novella serves as a teaser for Victor Lavalle’s forthcoming horror novel, THE DEVIL IN SILVER. Fans of Colson Whitehead and China Mieville should check this one out.
Nicholas, a video store clerk and would be poet, and his quasi-lover Nakota, waitress/artist find a mysterious hole in an abandoned storage room. The hole seems to be bottomless and made of pure darkness. The slacker couple begin to drop things down the hole, which spits them back up, beautifully and terrifyingly altered. Nakota, a ruthless seeker of mystical experience, drops a video camera down the hole, and films what is in there. Nicholas is slightly less gung-ho about the obviously paranormal phenomenon, but ends up having a rather personal and symbiotic relationship with the void, which they dub The Funhole.
This novel is an exemplar of what I’d call Existential Horror fiction. While there are supernatural things that go in the novel, they highlight the anomie and isolation that goes on in Nicholas’ rapidly deteriorating mental state. The horror also comes from the demimonde Koja evokes—that of bored artists trying to push the envelope, and the characters, particularly Nakota. The unclean, perverted energy of the Funhole—which at times is described as a mouth or an anus—and the graphic body horror is leavened by Nicholas’ mordant sense of humor. He narrates the tale in an associative stream-of-conscious style full of wry asides. Images of decay, and industrial rot and wounds flow through the hallucinatory prose. You can smell and taste the bizarre odors that issue from the Funhole. A friend of mine read the book 20 years ago, and said that it was one of the few books that made him feel ‘unclean’ after reading it.