Women in Horror

Women in Horror Month rightfully draws attention to the many talented women writing today–Nadia Bulkin, Gwendolyn Kiste, Kathe Koja, Lisa Tuttle, and so many, many more. But it also always brings me back to a pair of sisters who compiled some of the most formative women’s horror I ever read.

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Women in HorrorA true sister act, Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis were devoted to creating wonderful anthologies of supernatural fiction for young readers. While their output spanned the later 1960s through 1980, it was during the 1970s that they focused on the female, filling volumes with two century’s worth of suspense, fantasy, gothic, and ghostly fiction written by women.

Their anthologies were certainly my first exposure to classics like Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds”. And there were so many others, by authors both expected and quite a surprise.

Some of the ones I still remember with a chill follow.

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Ladies of Horror: Two Centuries of Supernatural Stories by the Gentle Sex (1971)

  • Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit
  • Hand in Glove by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex (1973)

  • The Head by E. Nesbit
  • Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden by Lillian de la Torre
  • The Willow Tree by Jane Rice

Ladies of the Gothics (1975) 

  • The Locked Room Upstairs by Celia Fremlin
  • The Housekeeper’s Story (excerpt from Wuthering Heights) by Emily Brontë
  • The Sailor Boy’s Tale by by Isak Dinesen

Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex (1975)

  • Searching for Summer by Joan Aiken
  • The Unwanted by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • The Ensouled Violin by Madame Blavatsky
  • Doorway Into Time by C. L. Moore

Women in HorrorSisters of Sorcery (1976)

  • Through the Needle’s Eye by Andre Norton
  • The Horned Women by Lady Wilde
  • No Witchcraft for Sale by Doris Lessing

Women of the Weird: Eerie Stories by the Gentle Sex (1976)

  • One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts by Shirley Jackson
  • John Charrington’s Wedding by E. Nesbit
  • The Yellow Dwarf by Comtesse d’Aulnoy 

Ghostly Gentlewomen: Two Centuries of Spectral Stories By the Gentle Sex (1977)

  • Mr. Edward by Norah Lofts
  • Mommy by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
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While Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis are gone and their anthologies out of print, I think in their time they did an excellent job of showing the wide swath women cut through the speculative genres. The field has of course changed, growing more daring and more diverse. And Women in Horror Month has room for all of us, from the literary to the gonzo, from the earliest to the cutting edge.

Keep reading.

Color Out of Space

 

Color Out of Space has been on my radar for a long time. H.P. Lovecraft. Nicolas Cage. Cosmic horror and vigorous over-emoting. What’s not to love?

It turns out, more than I hoped there would be.

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Directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space opens beautifully, with haunting vistas that set a mood of wildness and isolation.This is almost immediately shattered by a main character showing up wearing a Miskatonic University tee shirt. The film is littered with many other similar, unnecessary call-outs to HPL– a paperback copy of The Necronomicon being the most egregious–that strike me as attempts to build a credibility the movie doesn’t need. Stanley is able to evoke the blind horror of the utterly unknown and build to a stunning conclusion without having to put his inspirations on display.

For all its flaws, Color Out of Space is a remarkably well-realized vision of Lovecraft’s story. Stanley faithfully captures the essential ideas behind it. Weirdness bleeds from almost every scene. The inexplicable alien menace grows until it overwhelms. There is no happy ending–especially not for the characters who survive.

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Those poor characters.

Because of the script’s weaknesses and the direction’s inconsistency, the characters are almost afterthoughts to the action. Backstory details are dropped in without any context or relevance. Family interactions become non-sequiturs as parents and children talk past each other or shift emotional gears midstream without warning or provocation. There is an awful shortsightedness to how the characters are presented–there is no sense of them being a family, or of them even existing in any meaningful way.

I blame this on the direction, simply because of the competency of the cast. Good actors can transcend a limp script, but not indecisive, inconsistent direction. 

Nicolas Cage’s Nathan Gardner is all over the map–angsty, maniacal, befuddled. Perhaps if Cage had been allowed to take it all the way over the top he would have been more convincing.

As his wife, Theresa, Joely Richardson seems thoroughly disconnected. I don’t think she knows what she is supposed to do with her character.

Madeleine Arthur as their daughter Lavinia gives a genuinely strong performance. Her witchy power is diminished by weak, often inane dialogue. Elliot Knight as the narrator and sort-of-hero Ward Phillips also gives a comparatively steady performance despite the uneven demands made of his character. 

Unfortunately, Brendan Meyer as the family’s older son, Benny, is saddled with “stoner” as his defining trait and doesn’t really move past it.  Speaking of stoners, Tommy Chong as the mystical squatter Ezra iplays the same character he usually plays–but among the general chaos he is at least believable.  

Rounding out the main cast we have Q’orianka Kilcher appearing briefly as Mayor Tooma, an otherwise talented actress given a pointless role. She at least fared better than poor Julian Hilliard, who as Jack existed merely as a plot device.

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For me, Color Out of Space produces a weird cognitive dissonance that has nothing to do with the source material. While I can’t say I truly liked it, I do recommend it.

As a comeback film for Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space does what it needs to do. His vision is gorgeous and clear, and his interpretation of the source material captures its bleak and dreadful feel. Despite awkward performances that made my skin crawl for all the wrong reasons, when it came time to bring the unspeakable alien horror crashing down the movie absolutely nails it. The ending is as overwhelming and hopeless as being swept out to sea. 

As many times as I have read Lovecraft’s story, I never saw it. Not like this. 

It seems Stanley did.

 

Strength of Water

Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a strange, compelling, and disorienting novella about sweeping changes–good, bad, and transcendent. 

The story is loosely divided into three sections. The first is our inside-the-skull introduction to the two main characters, and the circumstances of their lives. The second is a tear in the fabric of the universe and a peek at the mechanics of the world. The third is a glimpse of liberation.

In the end I was left at the edge of a cliff and wanting to know what happened next–a very good thing.

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Strength of WaterStrength of Water tells the interwoven stories of Sati and Satyan, two young adults with a haunting, shared desire: to try on another’s form, and to experience the benefits that come from it. 

Their story unfolds at a Bangalorean university in 1999, against a background of liberties and civil rights being stripped away with increasing vigor. The dreamy, stream-of-consciousness narrative moves seamlessly between the two characters as they consider their individual reasons, pains, and growing fears. The society around Sati and Saytan is contracting. The threats are growing closer to home. 

Sati is driven to protect herself and her family, and has embraced mythic and metaphysical options. Satyan is estranged from his own family, discontented and unanchored, and looking for an escape. He is ready when Sati’s drive becomes action, and fulfills their wishes in an extraordinary way.

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Satyamurthy’s moody, lyrical prose and smoothly blended perspectives turn an odd premise into a thoughtful exploration. Strength of Water reminded me strongly of Geoff Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life, with its transformations and heroic quest. And the unexpected leap of an ending did more than make me want to know more about the characters. It makes me want to go back, and read their story over again. 

 

Compline Harbinger Press

And just like that, the winter holidays are upon us–even though we still have a few weeks until winter itself is upon us. The whole cycle seems to come around sooner each year.

I must say, though, I would be happy without the whole snow for Thanksgiving thing.

But on to publishing updates and other happier news!

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On November 29, my flash fiction story Compline appeared online at Harbinger Press. Click on through and check it out–in addition to mine, there are a slew of solid flash pieces to be found there.

And later this month, Camden Park Press will be releasing the charity anthology Yearning to Breathe Free to benefit RAICES. Following an introduction by the incredibly talented S.L. Edwards, my reprinted story “Imago” shares a TOC with such fine authors as Brooke Warra, Sam Schreiber, Michael Bruggeman, and many others.

winter is coming

If you can, please order a copy as soon as it becomes available and support an important cause. If you can’t afford to order it, please help spread the word.

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As soon as I finish plowing through my re-read of the first three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, I will get back to my to-be-read pile. Look out for reviews of the recent novel Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, and the upcoming collection Shout Kill Revel Repeat by Scott R. Jones.

Until then, enjoy what snow may come and try not to let the holidays eat you alive.

Monster She Wrote

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson provides a slick, quick, entertaining overview of forty notable creators of horror and related genre fiction. The profiled authors range from some of the earliest female authors (Margaret Cavendish, Ann Radcliffe) to the more recent (Angela Carter, Jewelle Gomez), with additional mentions of many new, current authors. Some of the women in these pages are obscure, some are household names–and all are well-qualified contributors to the horror field.

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Monster She WroteMonster, She Wrote is at times a little too glib, quick with a quip but light on details. Even with living, currently-active authors, Kröger and Anderson rely more on basic wiki facts than the writers’ own words about their work. Each of the capsule biographies offers a glancing look at the author’s life, a brief summary of her most famous novel or story, a few of her major works, and a short list of other authors whose style or subject is similar to the featured creator. 

Kröger and Anderson use snippets of quotations in place of illustrations to provide a taste of each author’s style. The quotes piqued my interest, and I would have liked to see more of them. The two also include helpful information on any recent reprints and reissues, to point readers in the right direction.

The profiles are presented chronologically, and the timeline defined by overviews of the various subgenres–gothic, haunted house, pulp, the occult. These analyses are shallow, but they do provide a comfortable structure to the overall effort.

Kröger and Anderson conclude their survey with a review of the current state of horror, and the women who make it. They recap the various subgenres and give shout-outs to several writers working within each one.

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Monster, She Wrote is a light, fast read that doesn’t delve too deeply into any particular aspect of women-penned horror. It’s a good resource for someone beginning to get into the subject, and an effective way to find out about some of the major works of some of the major players. It’s also a fine reminder of some truly talented authors who should not be forgotten–no matter when they wrote their monsters.

whiskey and other unusual ghosts

whiskey and other unusual ghostsWhiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, S. L Edwards’s debut short story collection, is a moody, ambitious work and a rewarding read. There is a quiet clarity and depth to Edwards’s writing, an awareness of the ways that history and politics affect every aspect of our lives. In Whiskey, even the deeply familial is inevitably shaped by larger, outside forces. The old saw ‘all politics is personal’ rings true on these pages.

These narratives are populated by addicts and drunkards, martinets, bullies, abusers, and survivors. Everyone is damaged in some way, long before the monsters arrive. There is a lot to think about, here, in the way the characters have been warped by their circumstances, in the way they have adapted. Their reactions seem quite real. The stark and evocative illustrations by Yves Tourigny only emphasize the nightmare situations Edwards’s characters navigate.

Following each story, the author’s commentary gives a glimpse into the inner workings of the man behind the monsters. When he is not exploring the scars of revolution, he comes across as thoughtful and low-key.I found his musings on his inspirations, characters, and creative process engaging, and a welcome respite from the terrors of his fiction.

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Of the twelve pieces in Whiskey, my particular favorites are:

whiskey and other unusual ghosts
The author, himself

“And the Woman Loved Her Cats” is a gothic, graphic, and grotesque tale of devotion and misplaced affection. It’s monster is a particularly nasty creature, and the lead-up to the ending is just as disturbing as the end itself.

“We Will Take Half” is a fairy tale whose central promise–made on behalf of a child, then corrupted by ambition, politics, and a military coup–in the end cannot be broken.

“The Case of Yuri Zaystev” is a ghost story set in the old Soviet Union, where the unquiet dead are less of a threat than the living. The bleakness, the hopelessness, the dehumanization of Soviet communism is palpable.

“Cabras” is the tale of a man who has outlived two revolutions but, because of his daughter’s choices, will probably not survive the third.

“Volver Al Monte” is, in my opinion, probably the strongest story in the collection. It tells of a ruthless general who is something of a hero to his countrymen, but is forced to answer for his monstrous actions by monsters even more powerful than he is.

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Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is an unnerving, mournful, and compelling collection by a talented author. The dozen stories featured all focus, at their heart, on family dynamics–and all the love, hurt, and dysfunction inherent in the system. I recommend it highly.

Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, edited by Justin A. Burnett, is a well-crafted anthology built on the theme of disturbing simulacra. Dolls, statues, and mechanical men have been a staple of our storytelling since the days of myth. While there are plenty of memorable creations that are generally helpful and good, Mannequin steers clear of those types. There is not a Galatea or Pinnochio in the bunch, here, but there is a surprisingly broad range of other sorts. There are dolls of all different kinds, mannequins in various stages of intactness, wooden figures and mechanical puppets, toys and constructs and scarecrows.

None of them have our best interests in mind.

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mannequinFollowing Christopher Slatsky’s thoughtful introduction are the sixteen disquieting variations on the theme:

Ramsey Campbell’s  “Cyril” is a disorienting stream-of-consciouness nightmare, with the narrative slipping between thoughts and dialogue. The doll here is an innocent compared to the greed of the main character.

Michael Wehunt’s “Balladyna” turns on a doll made to comfort a woman’s dying daughters. The descriptions of how the characters move through their house are vivid and unnerving.

Christine Morgan’s “Window Dressing” documents a woman’s loss of identity, and sanity, to a department store mannequin.

Richard Gavin’s “Crawlspace Oracle” is a gothically dark tale of possession. The doll, its keeper, and its victim inhabit a filthy space where prophecy is both power and chain.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Incipient Eleanor” compactly chronicles the power struggle within an abusive and co-dependent relationship between a man and his mannequin.

Nicholas Day’s “The Part That Dies” puts a dark spin on life imitating art, with a surviving twin doing what he must to complete his brother’s final sculpture.

Austin James’ “Into the Fugue” follows a man as he reluctantly recovers the memory of his squalid upbringing, and his family’s reason for doll-making.

William Tea’s “Husks” presents a life-changing inheritance and a useful construct that would be a man. Earthy, gritty, and off-beat folk-horror that got under my skin.

Duane Pesice’s “Bobble” is short, tight, and delightfully bizarre. His choice of simulacra is sort of funny, right up until it becomes truly horrifying. One of my favorites in the collection.

S.L. Edwards’ “The Sickness of the Town” puts puppet governments and false idols into verse in a grimly political take on the anthology’s theme. The poem’s imagery made me think of Pink Floyd’s “Waiting for the Worms”, with its marching hammers and ugly facism.

Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Kuklalar” envisions a grotesque management culture with artificial supervisors, disgruntled employees, and a healthy dose of black magic. Solidly creepy.

S.E. Casey’s “The Night Shift” is another moody, evocative tale set in the workplace. Its organic corporate creations are needy, disturbing, and innocent. I can only wonder if they will stay that way.

Justin A. Burnett’s “She” unravels the connection between a detective, a serial killer, and the ghost of a doll trying to come back into existence.

Daulton Dickey’s “Allegory of Shadows and Bones” is a surreal, new-wave trek by a skeleton and his mannequin through a world that has ceased to be. 

C.P. Dunphey’s “Dance of the Marionettes” is a dreamlike tale of gigantic hybrid beings and the weakness of the human condition, with a distance and mystery reminiscent of the Strugatskys’ work

Jon Padgett’s grim and mesmerizing closing piece, “To a Puppet, From a Dummy”, walks the fine line between personal memoir and fiction. I’m not sure how much to accept as real and how much as embellishment, but its effect is powerful.

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The volume as a whole is full of unsettling creatures with wills and minds of their own. The stories, so effective individually, work together to produce a solid chill. There is a reason the uncanny valley exists. We will always be wary of things that are modeled after us or mimic us–whether we made them, or not.

weirdbook

In other news, I had two new stories published in June.

The first, after a long wait with many dramatic turns, is “The Bones”, which appeared in Weirdbook # 41. I get to share a TOC with such talented fellow authors as C.M Muller, S.L. Edwards, Darrell Schweitzer, and the poets Ashley Dioses and K.A. Opperman.

weirdbookThe second is the flash piece “A Winter’s Tale”, in the anthology Itty Bitty Writing Space. There I share the pages with one hundred and three other contributors of very short stories, including Gregg Chamberlain, James, Dorr, Joanna Hoyt, and Russell Smeaton.

Both Weirdbook and Itty Bitty Writing Space make fine additions to a summer reading list–and will help tide us all over until I can report on several autumn releases.

The best of the bunch

Stranger Things 3, which dropped on the 4th of July, turned out to be a letdown for me. It lacks the charming nostalgia and sure hand of the earlier seasons. While the show did pick up steam by the fourth episode, I think overall this season is the weakest of them all.

The episodes are wildly uneven in tone, and don’t seem to know who the adult characters are supposed to be. They are demoted to cartoons, mugging for the camera and overacting all over the screen, only occasionally coming into focus. Especially egregious, to me, was the waste of talent in casting Cary Elwes as the evil mayor just to have him chew up the scenery.

The younger characters are handled with much more nuance. They have matured, and for the most part behave naturally (although in one scene, Mike is so blatantly mouthy toward Hopper I’m surprised he didn’t get smacked into next week). The Steve/Dustin friendship dynamic is wonderful, and I would joyfully watch a spinoff with just those two. As new characters go, Robin* is outstanding, as is (after a prickly start) Erica. 

Unfortunately, Stranger Things 3 seems like a money-grab to me, especially after the strong and satisfying arc of Season 2. While enough loose threads are left hanging for a fourth season, I truly hope they let Stranger Things lie. 

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Los Espookys, in all their glory

On a brighter note–while Stranger Things seems to have run its course, Los Espookys is just getting started.

Los Espookys is HBO’s new mostly-Spanish-language comedy about a group of Latin American friends who create horror effects for a living. It is a sweet, silly, delightful show. The small and talented cast includes Bernardo Velasco as the group’s cheerful leader, Renaldo; Julio Torres as Andrés, the wealthy heir to a chocolate empire; Cassandra Ciangherotti as Úrsula, the brains of the group; and Ana Fabrega as Úrsula’s simpleton sister, Tati. Fred Armisen plays a small but pivotal role as Renaldo’s Uncle Tico.

While the monsters and supernatural goings-on thus far are all stagecraft, there are hints of real spooky things happening, as well. Andrés displays some magical abilities that may or may not be real. The gorgeous host of a popular television program may be under a hypnotic spell. And the blonde party girl we meet in episode one seems to work for a mysterious government agency.

Los Espookys is not technically a horror comedy, but it plays one on TV. It is a thoroughly charming bit of silliness to help pass a hot summer night. 

 

*For some reason, I decided to rename Robin as April. She looks like an “April” to me, but the correction has been made.

Dead don't die

The Dead Don’t Die is nothing but delightful. Jim Jarmusch’s star-laden zombie flick is part homage, part send-up, and entirely, absurdly, hilariously meta. I laughed. A lot.

In addition to an amazing number of Romero references, Jarmusch infuses The Dead Don’t Die with bits of Phantasm, The Walking Dead, and even a healthy dose of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I’m sure I missed others, because many of the tropes he so pointedly played on are almost standard-issue for the movies he mocks.

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The set-up is familiar: Man’s quest for cheap energy has knocked the earth off its axis. Terrible things are happening. The sun doesn’t set. Animals run away. The moon gives off strange rays. And the dead are up and walking around.

It’s a good thing that the people of Centerville know a zombie apocalypse when they see one.

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In tribute to the low-budget zombie movies of yore, The Dead Don’t Die features low-tech zombie makeup, cheap special effects, and wonderfully stilted dialogue. It would be inaccurate to call many of the small details foreshadowing, since the film’s assumption is that the audience already knows how this story goes.

The cast certainly does.

The players are a mix of Jarmusch regulars and new faces along for the ride. Bill Murray and Adam Driver as most of Centerville’s police force step in and out of character seamlessly to discuss random details and bicker about the script. Tilda Swinton gleefully chews the scenery as a katana-wielding Scottish mortician. Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, the ever-quirky Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, and Caleb Landry Jones back them up as assorted varieties of townsfolk. A slew of other famous and familiar actors round out the cast in smaller roles and in cameos–as zombies and their first victims.

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From Tom Waits’s framing moral philosophy to Tilda Swinton’s extraordinarily pointless deus ex machina, The Dead Don’t Die delivers exactly what you would expect from a cheesy zombie movie, but with a wonderful awareness of its conventions.The actors, for the most part, play it straight–which only serves to exaggerate the irony of the dialogue and the deadpan inversion of predictable situations.

Despite decidedly mixed reviews, I found The Dead Don’t Die to be quite simply brilliant. It’s an affectionate take on a nearly tapped-out genre, delivered by people who seem to revel in the silliness. And that’s my kind of summer movie.