I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

thingprequelfairuseI have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween.  This year, I selected The Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him in Jane Got A Gun earlier this year.

The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name.  I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.

It is a strong setting.  The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.

I say “could have” because it squandered its potential.  The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.

Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth.  Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.

None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.

In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.

“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146

On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella.  It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car.  I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic World a few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down.  I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.

What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me.  Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process.  I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.

Not on this one.  90% of it came to me in the space of a day.  Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made.  It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.

So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?

Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.

Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements.  I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.

But this was different.  It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing.  And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.

I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book.  That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of stories.

A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.

I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October.  I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival, that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.

With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon.   I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.

[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens.  But, fair warning…]

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer
“Annihilation” (Image via Wikipedia)

Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”.  This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.

The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X.  The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.

Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.

Before long, the team begins to distrust one another.  The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself.  The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.

It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.

No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere.  VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty.  Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.

Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her.  At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.

Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it.  She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside.  She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.

After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp.  Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it.  After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.

She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler.  She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world.  Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.

To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book.  While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached.  When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.

It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving.  Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genres creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.

After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition.  At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.

After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore.  The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.

I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere.  Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it.  VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity.  He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.

There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though i have frequently been found guilty of too little description.)  He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.

But in spite of these flaws, it nevertheless remains one of the creepiest books I’ve read. If we use Lovecraft’s own definition of a weird tale:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.

The day dawned dark and grim
As I arose from the depths of nightmare.
I gazed with fear my window from
And saw the streets outside were bare.
The city was deserted, a gilded grave of glass.
I started out upon the street,
And not a soul I met as I went along;
For none was there to meet.
The sun shone green betwixt the clouds,
A cast of light I never saw;
And the wind blew strong and cold,
The air was harsh and raw.
And then at last, an empty highway on,
I met what might have been my twin–
Save the empty sockets for his eyes,
And his cacodaemoniac grin.
He smirked, as if ‘t were all some joke.
And then he melted to a bloody pulp.
And it was then–I think–that I awoke.

The hour was late, and the guardsman held his lonely vigil.
A moonless night, disturbed only by things which might be;
The imagined things which almost don’t exist, but leave their sigil
Imprinted on the black depths of humanity’s genetic memory.

As the guard gazes into the night, what monsters may be there?
Whence come the phantasmal sounds that make him raise his gun?
Is the darkness populated with fiends, lurking everywhere–
Or are the beasts loosed within his brain, content therein to run?

Is it a comfort to say that tales of these abominations
Are products of our minds; some mentally abhorrent whim?
If the vilest of monsters are the works of our imaginations,
Then what kind of things are we who have imagined them?

ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

A couple years ago, I blogged about “The Mothman”–the mysterious creature seen in West Virginia in the 1960s and associated with the collapse of the Silver Bridge.  I also featured the Mothman as a minor element in my book The Start of the Majestic World.  And so I decided I should watch the movie The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, as this year’s Halloween horror movie.

“The Mothman Prophecies” poster, via Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Gere plays a reporter named John Klein, whose wife gets injured in a car accident. Right before the accident, she sees a vision of a winged creature.  At the hospital, it’s revealed she has a preexisting brain problem that will ultimately lead to her death. Before she dies, she makes sketches of winged creatures that orderlies at first call “angels”, but which Gere sees are far more sinister.

Klein goes for a long drive one night as he despairs over his late wife, and finds himself in West Viriginia, with no memory of getting there.  He goes to a nearby house for help, where he is held at gunpoint by the residents, who insist he has been there at the same time on the past several nights.  He is rescued from the situation by a police officer. (Laura Linney) She tells him that strange things have been happening in the town of Point Pleasant lately, and slowly they begin to get drawn into the mysterious events.

People in the town have been seeing visions similar to those of his late wife.  Soon, people start to get phone calls from a strange buzzing voice, (more shades of Lovecraft’s “Whisperer in Darkness”) identifying itself as “Indred Cold” and foretelling impending disasters.

Eventually,  Klein tracks down a mysterious Professor named Alexander Leek (the late, great Alan Bates) who has encountered these strange events in the past.  He gives Klein some info, implying that they are caused by preternatural creatures whose motivations are completely beyond his comprehension, but he ultimately advises Klein to stay out of it, for the sake of his life and his reason.

I won’t spoil the plot–to the extent that there is one–but I bet you can guess whether Klein follows his advice or not.

This was pretty much the very model of a Lovecraftian, weird tale/cosmic horror/mystery movie.  To quote Lovecraft’s definition:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Yep.  That is this movie.  I’ve complained before about movies over-explaining things, and Mothman Prophecies could never be accused of that.  Everything is weird and mysterious and unexplained.

Also, the atmosphere in the movie is just pitch-perfect.  It was filmed in Pennsylvania, but they captured very well the tired, depressing look of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  It is a grim, eerie place, and the movie conveys that vibe wonderfully.

This was the film I’ve been asking for all these years: Scary, without being excessively violent.  Spooky and creepy, and never giving away too much about the threat.

So, given that, my verdict must be 5 out of 5, must-see, awesome, A+ movie, right?

Nah, not really.  It was good.  Better than I expected.  But not great.  There was something missing from it that prevented it from being truly great.  And I don’t know what it was.  It actually makes me feel bad, because it is almost as if they made a movie exactly to my specifications, and then I said, “meh, it’s all right.”  I feel like it’s more my fault for not knowing what I wanted.

I think the problem might have been that the weirdness wasn’t tied together adequately.  But that’s very tough to do, especially when you consider that doing so runs the risk of making it all seem too neat, and thus not weird.

It’s a good movie, lacking one unknown element that prevents it from being great.  My recommendation: watch it, figure out what that element is, and then you will know how to make a truly great weird horror movie.