eye of the devil

eye of the devilEye of the Devil is a sophisticated yet familiar gothic horror movie, sprinkled with age-old rituals and inherited secrets. There is noblesse oblige, transmutation, hidden rites, and sacrifice. There is a damsel in distress. There is the inescapable weight of ritual and tradition. The characters are who you think they are. The plot goes where you think it will. And yet, Eye of the Devil compels you to watch it to the end. A tale does not have to be new to be riveting–but it must be well-told. 

And this is, on all counts.

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Released in 1966, Eye of the Devil deftly mixes traditional gothic trappings with elements of folk horror. 

Set in a sprawling castle high above an ancient town, the plot is of course full of convoluted family history and dark mysteries. The Marquis de Montfaucon’s rural estate has been in his family for a thousand years, and when the vineyards fail he is summoned back from Paris to put things right. In his ancestral home, Philippe de Montfaucon is swallowed up by ancient family responsibilities, and his wife Catherine struggles to save her family from the relentless pull of the past.

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The actors’ performances–cool, distant, reserved–create a feeling of isolation and estrangement that runs throughout the film. When events finally overcome them and hidden machinations are revealed, the emotional release is well-earned.

David Niven plays the Marquis Philippe de Montfaucon with mannered distraction, while Deborah Kerr imbues his wife, Catherine, with frayed dignity and dogged resilience. David Hemmings is cold and beautiful as Christian de Caray, the son of a local family. He is well-matched by Sharon Tate (in her first major role) as his sister, Odile. Rounding out the main cast, Donald Pleasence brings a quiet, secure power to the role of Pere Dominic, the de Montfaucon family priest.

Despite the restrained acting, each brings their character to convincing, guarded life.

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eye of the devilEnhanced by the moody distance created by the actors, a feeling of impending doom hangs over Eye of the Devil from its first scenes and never lets go.

Much of it comes from the stylish and stylized look of the film. The setting is almost overwhelming, with the castle’s massive architecture set against a wide empty sky, sweeping expanses of flat, cultivated fields, and the claustrophobic town below. Crisp, sharp images contrast with the selective use of blurred and soft focus. The play of shadows and light and unusual framing, with faces seen through a screen of objects or bisected by another figure, add to the carefully constructed sense of alienation.

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Eye of the Devil pays attention to its details, and it pays off richly. Despite its familiar ground, I found this film absolutely fascinating, full of resignation and resolve and half-heard conversations. Perhaps in 1966 its horror was shocking, but in 2020 its deliberate unfolding reveals nothing truly unexpected. Still, its grim descent is very, very satisfying, and well worth a watch.

This year is slowly improving, after all.

In that mood, I am happy to announce three more publications for your perusing pleasure.

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First up, my story ”Still” appears in the slightly-delayed but always timely Mythic Magazine #14. The mag is undergoing some changes to its publication schedule right now, but its catalog is readily available. You can pick up this and older issues here.

My retelling of the Orpheus myth, “As Below, So Above” appears in the fine magazine Lamplight Volume 9 Issue 1. You can order the current issue in any format you’d like here, or pick up a four-issue annual subscription. 

Additionally, a reprint of my Robert W. Chambers-inspired story “The Traveller” is included in the new anthology Strange Aeon: 2020, where it shares the pages with fifteen other Lovecraftian tales.

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And don’t forget to pre-order Dim Shores Presents Volume 2, which contains my novella, Homecoming. The first 150 copies will be on creme paper stock, be hand-numbered, and include an art print

That’s all for now–but as always, updates to follow.

horror stories

It’s fun to be frightened, especially as the days grow shorter and colder and Halloween looms. But let’s face it–even gore and jump-scares wear thin after a while, especially if you’re watching or reading something a second time. Yet there are certain stories that retain their power to scare, no matter how familiar they become. 

So in celebration of the season, it’s time for some real, (mostly) traditional monsters. The following three tales are some of my favorite, reliably-disturbing horror stories. Each time I run across them I reread them, and then find myself looking over my shoulder, turning on an extra light, or reconsidering a trip to the basement. I think stories that stay scary are something to savor, and to share.

And, lucky us, sharing is easy. 

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horror stories“The Horse Lord” by Lisa Tuttle is a terrifying variation on the folk-horror theme, with a farm, curious children, and a hungry, old god just waiting to be rediscovered. Listen to it in all its glory (and explore more on Pseudopod’s podcast) here.

“Something Had to Be Done” by David Drake is a tight, scathing tale of a bitter Viet Nam veteran and a werewolf’s curse. Beautifully executed, in more ways than one. Read it (and plenty of others) here.

horror storiesAnd then there is the classic “Lost Hearts” by M.R. James. Murder, sorcery, ghosts, and a creepy old house, told in James’s effective, slightly off-the-cuff style. Chilling, even after all these years. Read it (and many other) here

I know I said three favorite horror stories, but all right, just one more.

“Winter White” by Tanith Lee gives us a bone flute, a demon lover, and the complete ruin of a dangerous man. Lee’s description of a haunting is relentless, and gorgeous, and wickedly memorable. This last story is not available online, but the collection it is in–Women As Demons— is worth every penny. 

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I think the stories above are fine examples of these authors’ talents. And if the names are not already familiar to you, they are a fine, frightening place to start. 

Enjoy the fear.

 

Threads

The mid-1980s were a great time for horror movies–Jason, Freddy, Michael, poltergeists, werewolves, and all their many companions. But on the cusp of the Cold War’s end, nuclear destruction was probably the biggest threat in our collective imagination. And in illustrating that threat, the legendary TV movie Threads  manages to be one of the most frightening films ever made without anything supernatural at all. 

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ThreadsFirst broadcast in 1984, Threads is deceptively mundane and remarkably familiar in its background details. 

There is a recession, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran, rising tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Russia, protests, police violence, growing internal political strife–proof that the more things change, the more they don’t. 

The story as it is opens in blue-collar Sheffield, England, framed around an unplanned pregnancy and the two families dealing with it when their world ends. These characters are the nominal protagonists, lab rats demonstrating all the expected effects. One of them even survives long enough to see society beginning to recover. But the characters are kept at a clinical remove. Somehow, that makes the whole experience more horrifying. They could be anyone. They could be us.

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ThreadsStep by step, the voiceover and on-screen text explain the preparations, the timeline, the circumstances. It shows us the piece by piece dismantling of life as we know it. Based on documented societal collapses and well-educated speculation, Threads is a steady drumbeat of the known and possible outcomes of a nuclear war.

Objectively, there is little about Threads that is genre. Yet it builds such dread, such despair, with it’s simple presentation, that it cannot be anything but horror. There is precious little character development. The special effects are rudimentary. The script is entirely exposition. And yet the impression it makes lasts. 

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There is a reason Threads is as revered as it is. It works–too well. The two hours are grueling viewing, and in my opinion far more terrifying than 1983’s identically-themed  The Day After. With low-budget practical effects and well-used stock footage, Threads creates a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario that is all too believable. 

This one is a must-see. Once will be enough.

It’s time for some quick updates on what’s happening with my once and future acceptances. After what felt like a hundred years–to all of us, I think–I have a few items to announce!

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updatesIn the things to enjoy now category:

First up, my story “Judgment Call” is included in the fine anthology, Shallow Waters Volume 6, from Crystal Lake Publishing. 

Next, you can listen to my flash fiction contest-runner-up story “The Wind, the Sand” at the Tales to Terrify podcast.

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updatesAnd things to look forward to:

My novella, Homecoming, will be coming out later this fall in the anthology Dim Shores Presents Volume 2. It is available for preorder now over at Dim Shores Press.

And last but not least, in case you missed my Facebook reveal, my weird horror novella Sisters in Arms will be published by Trepidatio Publishing in Summer 2021.

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That’s it for now. But as always, updates to follow!

Nightside Codex

The Nightside Codex is the latest anthology from editor Justin A. Burnett. This time, the theme is mysterious, invented writings–secret texts, obscure notes, unknowable symbols. The idea of hidden knowledge–whether actual or purely fiction–has a long history in the human imagination. It is the basis of much weird literature, and many conspiracy theories. It is fertile ground, here.

There are a couple of literal texts to be found among the inspirations for these tales (Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid are put to good use, as is a bit of Lewis Carroll). Otherwise, the authors have created their own imaginary works to serve as guidebooks to the dark side. Some are innocuous. Some are never shown. Some offer more than enough information to get into trouble with.

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Nightside CodexOpening with a striking poem, “The Book of Black Dreams” by K.A Opperman, The Nightside Codex plunges into seventeen strong stories:

Richard Thomas’s “In His House” presents a strange and dangerous chain letter, of sorts, with a curse the recipient cannot avoid.

Brian Evenson”s “I Cannot Remember” is a discomfiting locked-room mystery, with the future perhaps already written. 

Nadia Bulkin’s “Les Belles Infideles” deciphers the symbols of a lost language against a background of male-dominated academia, cultural fetishization, and the long shadow of colonialism. Dreamy and gripping.

Jessica McHugh’s “Pulpit Fiction” repurposes the ever-popular religious tract as a gateway to weirdness.  

Alistair Rey’s “The Past is a Foreign Country” uses an unholy piece of music as its roadmap to the unknowable. Quiet, and very dark.

Michael Fassbender’s “Schattenlenker’s Hidden Treasure” presents a psychological treatise that can inspire fantastic intellectual achievements–but at what cost?

Scott J. Couturier’s “Monster of the Mind” puts a very different spin on an author’s attempts at world-building. 

Selene dePackh’s “The Red King” features the unspeakable reference books of an experimental clinician.

S.E. Casey’s “The Redneck Library” takes several strange turns before it reveals just how far the characters have gone in their pursuit of knowledge.

Devora Gray’s “Tongue-Tied” dives without hesitation into misogyny, fetishes, online echo chambers, and dismal life circumstances. Stunning, sad, and upsetting.

Philip Fracassi’s “As I Sit to Write This Story” uses a fragmented diary and the unreliable narrator trope to great effect. 

Luciano Marano’s “My Eyes are Closed to Your Light” takes the cult of personality and mixes it with both the warning against meeting your heroes and the obsessiveness of fandom.

Christine Morgan’s “For Bobby” gives the convention scene a classic Twilight Zone treatment.

Sarah Walker’s “Ouroboros” proves to be wonderfully atmospheric and chilling, in a distinctly M.R. James sort of way. 

Rhys Hughes’s “Between the Circles” turns to the classics for a new way to visit doom on its characters. 

Austin James’s “Vanity” uses the message from a fortune cookie to create a grim tale of identity and the need to be loved. 

Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Hero of Flight 247” begins with a deceptively simple concept, and follows it to its devastating non-end. Funny, bleak, and wonderfully overwhelming.

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The Nightside Codex offers up a satisfying mix of moods, from the darkly playful to the profoundly grim–sometimes in the same story. There are unexpected philosophical questions, traditional weird turns, and several hauntingly untraditional weirder turns. All in all, a fine anthology. I heartily recommend it.

blood quantum

Blood Quantum presents its take on the zombie apocalypse with a sure hand and a wry sense of humor. It starts in the usual place, and follows the generally accepted plot line of zombie flicks, but it also chooses a much-needed new perspective. By focusing the story on the experiences and actions of its First Nations characters, we get a view of the end of one world from another one that may just survive.

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blood quantumSet in 1981 on the Red Crow Reservation in Quebec, Blood Quantum wastes no time in diving into the beginnings of the plague. To do so, it relies on most of the instantly-familiar tropes of zombie horror. As always, people begin to act strangely. Animals won’t stay dead. People become violent, dangerous, bitey. Chaos erupts at the hospital. Things go downhill fast. 

The zombies here are dubbed “zeds”, and the tribe figures out very quickly that headshots are the best method of stopping them–but they still burn the bodies to be sure. The tribe also figures out very quickly that this plague turns White people into zeds, and that Indigenous people are immune.

Six months later finds the reservation transformed into an armed compound, with the Red Crow tribe holding their own and rescuing what White survivors they can. But there are long-standing family conflicts, wide-open racial wounds, and the question of how dangerous or vulnerable a new baby will be. As always, somebody lets the zombies loose in the middle of it.

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The actors are excellent in roles that are familiar, but still outside the usual zombie apocalypse range.

Michael Greyeyes brings a believable dedication to Traylor, the reservation sheriff.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frustrated, competent, and caring as Joss, a nurse and Traylor’s ex-wife

Forrest Goodluck plays Joss’s and Traylor’s son, Joseph, as a good person struggling to make better choices.

Kiowa Gordon is Traylor’s other son, Lysol, who has already embraced his rage at what the world has handed him.

Stonehorse Lone Goeman gives Gisigu, Traylor’s father, both wit and gravitas as an elder intending to make a stand.

Olivia Scriven is sympathetic as Joseph’s pregnant, White girlfriend, Charlie, who’s condition raises both real-world and horror movie questions.

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blood quantumI was struck by how beautifully filmed Blood Quantum is. It opens with a spinning shot of sea and sky, bridge and shoreline, before it descends into the reservation and the town. There are brief segments of animation mixed into the live action, bringing to mind the spaciness and style of Mandy but on a more human level.

The gorgeousness extends to the splatter, as well. And there is a lot of it. Beside the thoughtful sociological issues it raises, Blood Quantum is a good, gleeful, old-fashioned gore-fest. 

It is full of great effects, from the makeup to the sunlight glistening off entrails to the creative destruction of various zeds. 

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My takeaway? Tight, engaging, and fast-paced, Blood Quantum packs a lot of story into an hour and a half. It raises issues that need to acknowledged, while still delivering a great little horror movie. This is definitely one to watch, and relish, more than once.

la llorona

La Llorona, director Jayro Bustamante’s new interpretation of the popular legend, is a deeply affecting ghost story. Without any gore or jump scares, its terrors become more insidious, its horrors far more personal. In this version, the troubled spirit is not the source of fear for the people she haunts. She is more like them than they wish to admit.

Set against the long aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war, La Llorona is measured, deliberate and stylized, with a subdued palette and muted background noises. The film is full of whispers, of weeping, of running water, of billowing white curtains. Alzheimer’s is suggested. Superstitions abound. The real threats are internal, no matter what happens outside. 

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la LloronaThe story opens as General Monteverde is finally tried for his crimes against the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people during the civil war in the 1980s–burning their homes and crops, raping, killing, stealing their land for its oil. The survivors’ testimony is grim. The General is convicted of genocide. The liberating verdict is annulled by the courts.

In the chaos following his acquittal, the General and his family retreat to his compound. It is not a comfortable place any longer. All but one of his servants abandon him. Protestors mass outside the gates, demanding justice, becoming increasingly violent. The family’s lives begin unraveling under the pressure.

And then a woman, Alma, knocks at the door and is allowed to enter. With her arrival, the family’s falling apart begins in earnest. 

***

The small cast is outstanding.

Maria Mercedes Coroy portrays Alma with dreamy grace and determination, as the lost, searching soul she is. 

Sabrina De La Hoz brings a sense of constant worry as the General’s daughter Natalia. She doubts her father’s innocence, in war and in family matters.

Margarita Kenéfic is haughty and cool as Carmen Monteverde, the General’s wife and Natalia’s mother. She refuses to believe her husband committed the atrocities he is accused of, but she suspects him of other betrayals.

Ayla-Elea Hurtador is gentle as Natalia’s daughter Sara, a lonely girl who befriends the mysterious Alma and begins to learn some of her secrets.

María Telón is stoic and dedicated as the family’s remaining servant, Valeriana. She understands more of her circumstances than she lets on.

Julio Diaz plays General Enrique Monteverde as an old lion, fading but still trying to wield the power he once had. He may be slipping into dementia, but he is still dangerous.

Juan Pablo Olyslager plays the General’s bodyguard Letona with a sense of hero-worship, but an underlying kindness.

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la LloronaThis La Llorona explores the intimate damage done under the excuse of war. The pain that the aging General Monteverde has caused to the Guatemalan people and to his own family is laid bare. While women are the primary victims of the General’s crimes and infidelities, Bustamante gives the female characters real growth and agency. They lose faith in the General. They stand up to him. They diminish him. They achieve some measure of closure for what he has done.

Bustamante presents his retelling as the tragedy it is, and makes its ghosts as real as the living characters. This La Llorona is well worth seeking out.

screaming creatures

Screaming Creatures, Sean M. Thompson’s new collection from Nictitating Books, offers up fourteen meaty tales of horror and weirdness. They often tread familiar ground, but there are enough quirks and twists to keep thing interesting.

Thompson experiments with a wide variety of narrative styles, and with horrors beyond the supernatural. His characters are prey to addiction and abuse, in addition to the monsters that wander among them. Their relationships range from the secure to the profoundly dysfunctional. They rarely find redemption, or even solid footing. Injecting real-life traumas into often over-the-top splatter adds a depth to the goings-on that drew me in.

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“Sunny Village” begins with the reliably unsettling idea of seeing something you can’t explain and shouldn’t witness, and ends with a left turn and a lot of loose ends.

“The Cliffside Tavern” is a good, old-fashioned watery ghost story.

“Centralia” was my favorite of the bunch, with its creepy video gaming superimposed on a famously creepy setting. It had me looking over my shoulder more than once.

“3 A.M. Orphan” is a strange, Twilight Zone take on someone who was never there.

“Cat’s Claw Llc” presents an isolated office building, suave man-eaters, and a woman who accepts a very tasty job offer. Off-kilter and oddly fun.

“Make It A Double” takes on the trope of evil twins, with the addition of ghosts, alcoholism, and hippies.

“Dead Visions Review” is styled as a movie review of a disjointed, bloody film that may or may not be cinéma vérité.

“Kiss Of The Succubus” starts off as a hard-boiled detective story with demons, then veers into introducing a monster-hunting agency. This should be a novella, at least.

“Metronome” is the classic tale of a writer being destroyed by the demons in his own work. 

“The Silent Man: A Documentary” is written as a transcript, and is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre.

“Rot Gut” is a Western, with a terrible stranger haunting the dreams of a dusty small town.

“The Blind Opera”, told in the second person, follows a dangerous video, secret government experiments, and a wealthy psychopath who has figured out how to find out what it all means.

“Cycle” uses alcoholism as the engine driving the horror along, this time in a family riddled with violence.

“Screaming Creatures” is a long, slightly disjointed musing on the state of madness and the human race, punctuated with plenty of gory violence.

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Overall, Screaming Creatures is an entertaining ride with a few rough edges that has to potential to be more. Bloody, scary, and eerie, I think it does a fine job of engaging its readers. But while full of ambitious ideas, a few of the stories (“Kiss of the Succubus” and “Rot Gut”, in particular) feel like they end in medias res. I wish they were fully-developed novellas. If Thompson chooses to expand them, I will be more than happy to keep reading.

miscreations

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, edited by Doug Murano & Michael Bailey, sets out to ponder the nature of monsters. The cover art and interior illustrations by HagCult set a fine, monstrous mood. And as Alma Klatu expresses it, in her foreword, “If you dwell on it, the logic is obvious. Monsters couldn’t exist without man to will them into existence. Monsters are (nearly always) man’s creation, sprung from man’s mind.”

It’s a terrific way to set the stage. But Miscreations does not quite play out as the foreword suggests.

Uneven in its execution, Miscreations gathers twenty-three stories from a panoply of talented authors into an anthology that never fully coalesces around its theme.The idea is left too broad, I think, especially since several of the selections use Frankenstein as their jumping-off point. This gives the anthology a definite direction that makes the rest of the not-Frankenstein’s-monster stories seem disconnected.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are all solid.

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miscreationsThe stand-outs, to me, are these:

“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski uses nesting dolls as the link between generations, and misunderstanding their importance produces disturbing familial rifts. A painful mother/daughter relationship, revealed layer by layer.

“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton gives us a woman whose quest to build a better man reveals the slippery slope of defining “perfect”. The characters of the creator and her creation are finely drawn and fully believable.

“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron winds through a grim and grimly humourous fantasy of gods, assassins, beasts, and politics. Byzantine, deeply weird, and thoroughly engrossing.

“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne serves up a heady mix of Lovecraftian concepts, serial murder, and academia’s obsessive publish or perish imperative. Unexpectedly fun, and effective.

“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley is a striking twist on the character’s famous madness. Another fraught mother/daughter relationship, with an open-ended tragedy at its end.

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Overall, I feel that Miscreations misses the mark on a truly unifying theme, which does the anthology a disservice. It delivers a variety of well-done stories with monsters ranging from the traditional to the distinctly new. But it fails to tie them together in a way that builds something bigger from all the different parts.