The first thing I noticed about the filmLittle 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 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.
Hear the Necronomicon panel Dark Matters: Weird Fiction from the African Diaspora on the Outer Dark podcast. A bunch of talented folks (Eric Nunnally, Victor LaValle, Chesya Burke, teri.zin, Hysop Mulero and myself) discuss Blackness and Weird Fiction.
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).
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.
A Spectral Hue appears alongside work by many other wonderful authors in this list. Thanks again to everyone who read, reviewed, and promoted the novel. Also, I am grateful that Word Horde took a chance on this novel! Ad Victoriam!