Hidden Folk

C.M. Muller’s debut collection, Hidden Folk: Strange Stories, is an enjoyably weird read. The volume  contains twelve small, finely-tuned stories of lives slipping quietly out of control, even when the characters are sure they still have agency. The inhabitants of these stories range from preteen children to desperate mothers, from recent immigrants to young women to lonely old men. The overall mood is dark and subdued as the characters struggle with loneliness, loss, and their own irrelevance. And that mood lingers long after the book is closed.

***

Muller’s writing style in Hidden Folk is deliberate, dreamlike, and formal. He creates a distance between the characters and the reader that enhances the sense of disconnect and unbalance inherent in the tales. Because of this quality, many of the stories remind me fondly of Rod Serling’s measured prose and of Steve Rasnic Tem’s disorienting  shifts in circumstances.

Besides the overall voice and tone, Hidden Folk also contains some lovely, evocative  imagery. “For the past week, the ride home had begun in semidarkness and ended in pitch” and “A dwelling situated at the worst possible angle to the sun” can both stand as examples of the rich and compact descriptions scattered throughout the stories.

***

My personal favorites in the collection are these three:

“Absconsa Laterna”, in which a father inexplicably loses his son at–or to– a mysterious outdoor art installation.

“Resurfacing”, where an unusual construction project in a stagnant neighborhood opens up strange new options to our reclusive narrator.

And “Omzetten”, an epistolary tale of three young women on a European tour who make the ill-advised decision to visit a quaint, isolated old town just a short train ride away.

***

Hidden Folk is a fine reminder that the weird can be internal as easily as it is cosmic, and that fear can be as simple as familiar circumstances. I recommend it.

lovecraft country

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.

***

Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.

Atticus Turner, an African-American  Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.

The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.

***

However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.

***

And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–

“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”

–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.

***

Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.

they remain

 

they remain
Is this really happening?

They Remain is an unusual horror movie in that it is not actually horrific. Instead it is creepy, and quiet, and very, very weird. Considering it’s source material is Laird Barron’s short story “–30–”, I’d be disappointed if it weren’t.  This is a slow, meandering movie that seems to exist outside of time. Rather than a story of otherworldly monsters and rites, They Remain gives us barely any story at all. What we witness instead is the slow decay of two people left alone for too long.

The Plot Thickens

Two scientists have been assigned to search for…something…in an area deep in woodlands where a murderous cult was once active. Rebecca Henderson as Jessica is a cool and methodical biologist, while William Jackson Harper as Keith is a more wary and guarded field researcher . They have been sent into the wilds by their unnamed company on a three month-long mission. What they are hoping to find is never made clear, although it is tied to the cult’s decades-old activities.

The cult’s murders were investigated decades earlier, but Jessica hints that much of what they did is still unknown. Their limited outside contact taunts them with rumors of other terrible things that have happened in these woods more recently. They find evidence that terrible things may have been going on here for centuries. Nothing is definite. All their tests and data cannot confirm anything. They run experiments, but their findings lead nowhere.

they remain
Bad choices

As the days drag on the scientists’ sense of isolation becomes suggestive and overpowering. Keith and Jessica begin to feed each other’s suspicions and fears. They see things, hear, things, dream things that cannot be rationally explained. They come to believe what they see, hear, and dream–but are their perceptions flashbacks or hallucinations?

Finally, after watching the characters degrade under the weight of uncertainty, They Remain explodes in violence and a terrible sense of having made the wrong choices. It is a disturbing note to end on–there are no explanations, let alone answers. We, and the characters, are as lost as when we started.

How? What? Why?

they remain
The nature of things

They Remain is beautiful to look at. Much of the running time is filled with close shots of the sky and trees and mossy, fallen trunks, and of Keith staring into the distance as he sits alone in the forest. The events take place from September to November, so we get to watch the leaves turn.

The connected white geodomes Keith and Jessica live and work in  stand in sterile contrast to the otherwise natural setting. But bits of the natural world also turn up out of place, from wasps and swarming ants to flowers suddenly blooming. The sense of vague but growing unease is deepened with dreamy, slightly discordant background music and clipped, brittle, sometimes overly formal dialogue. The effect is one of distance. Everything is presented at a remove. We are not allowed to connect with the characters or their experiences. If they reach any conclusions, we are not privy to them.

What Remains

They Remain is undeniably offbeat, and off putting. The bleak mood it produces reminds me very much of Event Horizon, but without the grandeur or horror elements. Slowly growing madness and obscure cosmic influences are not easy to portray on film,  but I think writer/director Philip Gelatt’s decision to keep the plot, cast, and effects to a minimum for the most part succeeds. In the end I enjoyed it, and am still thinking about it, but I can’t say I liked it. They Remain is not a great movie, but a good enough one–the kind you watch simply to be weirded out.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

***

I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.

The Weird
The Weird

The Weird is a far-ranging 2012 anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom have stellar weird credentials—Ann was an editor at the legendary Weird Tales magazine before it fell into limbo, and Jeff is an established novelist of the New Weird known for his Southern Reach trilogy. Together, they have identified many stellar, foundational, and surprising examples of the genre. For this volume, the VanderMeers assembled one hundred and ten stories that fill more than a thousand pages and that demonstrate a spectrum from the most traditional of weird tales to the post-modern new weird.

As Michael Moorcock observes in his “forweird”, “There are no rules for the weird tale, which is at least part of the attraction if the story an author wants to tell can’t readily be told in an established form,” at a stroke releasing the idea of weird fiction from the usual genre constraints. And, he adds, “the best writers write the best weird stories”.

In this ambitious a collection, with stories ranging in time from the early years of the twentieth century to present day, there are of course many familiar authors we are used to considering ‘the best’. The VanderMeers do give us Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Clark Ashton Smith. But there are even more unexpected additions to the ever-widening gyre of weird lit such as Kafka, King, and William Gibson—all of whom are also in here. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashōmon, appears with the inflected and disturbing “The Hell Screen”, and the remarkable but often overlooked Daphne du Maurier is well represented by the grotesque “Don’t Look Now”. And there are so many more surprises. Among my favorites are:

“The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood, which is what I would describe as classically weird. It is a slow, repetitious, corrosively told tale that keeps its true horrors almost entirely hidden. Its length seems at first excessive, but the undefined dread feeds off it.

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair is a story I first encountered as a child in an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology. It is a short example of capitalism and avarice gone horribly wrong, as inspired by Dunsany.

“It Only Comes Out at Night” (1976) by Dennis Etchison, a story I first encountered in The Year’s Best Horror Stories series, is bleak and creepy and inexplicable as the best of the weird always is. This one always comes to mind on long car trips, and makes it clear why Etchison is a legend in the horror community.

“Angels In Love” (1991) by Kathe Koja is almost poetic in its descent, tracing the last days of an unimaginative party girl who wants something she can’t even conceive of. There is an odd, punky, Southern Gothic quality to the story that makes the sudden brief weirdness of the conclusion its only natural outgrowth.

“The People on the Island” (2005) by T.M. Wright is an unsettling surrealist vignette in which none of the characters understands why their world is changing or how to deal with it. Wright’s familiar themes of loss, loneliness, and alienation are all here in one mournful package.

Tentacles are always weird
Tentacles are always weird

Since The Weird is arranged chronologically, it is easy to see the progressive development of the weird tale. I found in many of the earlier stories the weird quality is not fully realized, existing as a blurry suggestion rather than a fully integral component. Some of the stories included do not have the sense of cosmic nihilism I usually associate with weird fiction, falling more into the purely horror or surreal category for me. A few are trapped by their author’s prejudices, such as the remarkably dated “Unseen-Unfeared” by Francis Stevens, which I think perhaps the weakest addition to the collection.

However, the sheer number and international scope of the selections forces one to reconsider dismissing any of these strories or putting them into an easier category.  Taken as a whole, the stories make a reader look at what qualities would bring them into the weird fiction fold. They force the question, ‘What is Weird?’ —a question that is re-examined in China Mieville’s artful “afterweird”. In it he demonstrates his expression of the weird as well as summarizes the subject both richly and well: “This collection is not (just) an act of cannon. It does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion—of the crawling and wriggling kind—there is no Weird”.

And it is hard to argue with that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Bone_Tomahawk_Poster
Bone Tomahawk Poster

Bone Tomahawk is a compelling little Weird Western movie, lurking right on the edge of the genre with its combination of laconic cowboys and horrific natives. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk premiered at Fantastic Fest in September, 2015 and went into limited theatrical release in October, 2015. While it has a familiar quality to it, the story is freshly told and effectively, creepily presented.

Spoilers ahead.

For a movie that opens with a throat slitting, a scalping, and an accidently desecrated burial ground, it is almost immediately engaging in a warm way. The oddly literary dialogue is delivered with a western ruffian twang and a sly humor that is unexpected but right. There is a bar named The Learned Goat. There are lines like, “You ask about horses again I’ll slap you red,” and “Sorry for yelling at you.” “My wife used to call me a dumb imbecile all the time. Felt kinda nice.”

The script is a treat. While Bone Tomahawk echoes some of the drawling stateliness of Unforgiven in its pacing, it is not nearly as contemplative and ambles along with jokes and a quicker step. There is precious little music in the film, save for two scenes. The noises of the men and the wind and the moving brush fill the spaces around their chatter. The dialogue follows its own path, separate from the action–witty, bantering, with sarcastic humor running through almost every exchange. The teasing and familiarity effectively conveys the unavoidable intimacy of a tiny community.

The primary cast is led by the ever-reliable Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, an impressively mustachioed old lawman with a penchant for shooting suspects in the leg. Richard Jenkins plays Chicory, the aged assistant deputy, with deep humor and pathos. As Brooder, the town dandy, Matthew Fox is utterly convincing as a very handsome, very vain, very able rake/gunslinger. Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons play the pivotal O’Dwyers with a modern slant, yet their drives, attitudes, and frustrations a perfectly within context.

fourhorsemen
Riding out

David Arquette as the scoundrel Purvis reminds me of his role in Ravenous, although here is less dissipated and less amusing since his character inadvertently brings monsters to the town of Bright Hope. The troglodytes, as they are called, come in pursuit of him. They capture him, but also take Mrs. O’Dwyer and the Sherriff’s primary deputy, spurring the plot by necessitating their rescue.

There is a sense of casual heroism among the main characters, of competent men shouldering their load without complaint—the familiar Western ethos of honest, imperfect men doing what needs to be done. When Sherriff Hunt declares, “I’m riding out with Mr. O’Dwyer, because there isn’t a choice for either of us,” the immediate response of Brooder and Chicory is that they will go, as well, because they each feel a personal responsibility for what has happened and a need to make it right.

The tension in Bone Tomahawk rises slowly, like water coming to a boil. Before we ever see the troglodytes, we are on edge from encounters with other, less ghastly men. While travelling, Brooder mocks the sherriff, Chicory, and O’Dwyer for ever having married. But his own heart is broken when his horse is badly hurt when she resists being stolen by thieves in the night and he has to put her down. “Thank you, for your service,” is all he says. It is an underplayed scene, and more affecting for it. The humor drains out of the film quickly after that.

Brooder and his horse
Brooder and his horse

Brooder actually develops as a fascinating character to watch. In a remarkable bit of acting, Matthew Fox shows Brooder beginning to go into shock after losing his hand during an ambush by the troglodytes. But even while shaking from the blood loss and pain, he ties off the stump and asks for the repeater rifle and dynamite. “I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple,” he says to his companions, as he chooses how to die.

The unnamed tribe of troglodytes reminded me of the wendol of The 13th Warrior and the Carkers of Anthony Boucher’s “They Bite” in their brutality and described cannibalism. They are human but monstrous, decorated with tusks and skulls, ghostly in a coating of ashes, wielding the sharpened jawbones of horses as battle axes. They inhabit an avoided place known among the local Native Americans as the Valley of Starving Men—an area of dry dirt hillsides scraped into walls and inset with animal skulls. They do not speak–“What kind of tribe doesn’t have a name?” “The kind that doesn’t have a language. Cave dwellers”—instead, they use weird, hollow howls through bone whistles set into their throats.

Hunt_and_trog
Bone Tomahawk troglodyte

While the troglodytes are made bestial, the camera does not linger on them or use them for jump scares and shock value. They are presented rather matter-of-factly, much as the townsmen approach them. The horror is understated, with relatively (if not actually) little gore. What bloodshed there is, is graphic and grotesquely believable—scalping, evisceration, dismemberment, torture, a man split in half. But this is not sexy horror movie gore. It is meant to look as real as it does.

I was never a Western fan (Clint Eastwood doesn’t count—he’s his own genre). I always preferred action and horror. But there is an everyman’s nobility to the Western genre. With the employment of stellar actors, a deeply engaging script, and some outré human evil, Bone Tomahawk becomes a film that crosses genres in a satisfying way. While not particularly frightening, it is a well-told, entertaining, and unsettling film that is grim enough to be, truly, weird.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!