Cosmic Horror vs. Urban Horror

Allegedly, Cosmic Horror and Urban Horror are different genres…however, as more and more authors genre-blend, genre-hop, and layer thematic motifs on top of each other, the lines have (thankfully) blurred.

They are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.

Cosmic Horror

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered the godfather of Cosmic Horror the same way William Gibson is considered the godfather of Cyberpunk– they might not have invented it, but they sure as hell defined it.

Lovecraft’s main point of terror was that of smallness and unimportance.  In cosmic horror, an indifferent universe manifests itself in the form of aliens, supernatural foes, or other bizarro entities.  The tales recount the cruel indifference of space and time.  Nihilism begets mind-breaking terror.  The human brain can’t process our own unimportance, so we go mad.

Cthulhu isn’t an alien, Cthulhu is a metaphor for monstrous indifference and cosmic vastness.

Then again, monstrous indifference doesn’t need monstrous countenance.  The case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese proves that.  So does ongoing indifference and complicity in a thousand areas of modern life.  In fact, for many people in the world, “indifference would be such a relief.” (Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom.)

Which brings us to the topic of…

Urban Horror

Urban Horror derives from Urban Gothic, which, of course, derives from general Gothicism/Victorian Gothic, etc.  We can trace the roots of this particular devil back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, arguably, earlier.  The focus of these tales generally resides in dark flaws and sinister proclivities in human nature, usually with a supernatural bent.  Because of the genre’s usual examination of the darker threads of mankind’s cloth, the stories tend to be more personal and character-driven than the machinations of cosmic horror.

Urban Horror focuses its lens on mankind, not on the indifferent universe around us…or, well, maybe that’s not quite true.

In many Urban Horror stories, monstrous indifference is merely part of modern society.  A string of murders goes uninvestigated.  People go missing without anyone looking for them.  Often, agents of the law in such stories are either incompetent or on the take, just as likely to be working for the villain as against the villain.  In Urban Horror, widescale indifference is standard…and where indifference isn’t present, maliciousness replaces it.  In fact, the crushing indifference of cosmic horror is often just as present in its urban counterpart, but whereas indifference is a cause for terror in Lovecraftian cosmicism, it’s barely shrug-worthy in many Urban Horror tales.  Of course the universe doesn’t care–people barely care.

But, unlike in cosmic horror, the villain is almost always human, humanoid, or taking on the glamour/semblance of humanity.  The villains, you see, look just like us.  In many ways, they are us.

The Monster at the End of the Story

There are many commonalities between Cosmic and Urban Horror.  Crushing indifference, monstrous cruelty, and tragic disasters that go unnoticed.

Lovecraft has been dead some 80 years.  Frankenstein is nearly 200.

Times have changed, man.

Let’s look at the biggest difference I considered between these genres: the monster at the end of the story.  In Cosmic Horror, the monster manifests the cruel indifference of the cosmos.  In Urban Horror, the monster represents mankind’s darker natures, our perpetrated evils.  But perhaps even these beasts have more in common than we initially assume…

I’ve already written about the inhuman monsters grinding us away in their teeth, but I’ll go over it again briefly now.  There are vast monstrosities destroying people’s lives, and both the universe and the world-at-large are mostly indifferent to their deeds.  Most people could easily recall at least four of their names: War, Famine, Pestilence, Death.  But what about the hungry Lovecraftian god of Nationalism?  What about the festering, many-appendaged grotesquery of White Supremacy?  What about the crawling, fungal consciousness of Revenge, spreading its power airborne at the site of every recrimination?

Cthulhu is a metaphor, remember.  So is Dagon.

In Stephen King’s It, the monster slumbers for 27 years.  How long slumbers the ravening beast of Misogyny?  It doesn’t.

This is a story, in brief: a cult of killers ritualistically sacrifices victims to a squamous god of Nationalism.  Our protagonists find themselves drawn into the dangerous plot, twisting through a nightmare of localized madness.  The cult is routed.  The cult leader is the monster at the end of the story.  Our protagonists stop the cult leader.  The squamous god of Nationalism slumbers, but not for very long.  Our protagonists observe the night sky, understanding the smallness of their efforts against the vast shadows of mankind’s character.  An epilogue: two cultists escape, driving westward, vowing revenge against a system designed to oppress their beliefs.

Cthulhu, the Darkness of Human Nature

Something roars from an unseen sky and cataclysm rends the earth.  You hear screaming.  Rubble smolders, guttering black ash from outside your window.  An eruption deafens you, and some of the screams die in suddenly muted throats.  You scramble for an exit.  Desperate, staccato gunfire surrounds you.  An apocalypse rages through your town.  This happens, somewhere, almost every day.  The stars don’t notice.  Neither do most people.

Vincent: …you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Max: What?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.

Collateral (2004)

He attacked her with a knife at 2:30 AM, to kill a woman.  She screamed, cried out, and ran.  He followed, stabbing her two more times as she shrieked, “Oh my God, he stabbed me!  Help me!”  On the ground, then, he continued stabbing.  He used both a knife and a personal appendage, his existence a force of violence against her.  A man shouted, almost directionless, “Let that girl alone!”  Moseley fled the scene with $49.  Sophia Farrar found the raped and bloodied woman and held her until police and emergency workers arrived.  The exact time of death is unclear, but the woman died either in Farrar’s arms or in the back of the ambulance, unrevivable.  At least 17 people had heard the screams or seen the attack, only 4 or 5 responded.

The earth orbits the sun, waiting to be eaten.  One day, the sun will glower its molten countenance, spread its hungry jaws, and devour the whole world’s history.

The sun is not the monster at the end of the stories.

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The Treeline – Oceanrest Flash Fiction

She dreamt of the tree line.

In the dream, autumn slouched toward winter, and all the leaves had lost color and wilted.  The sky froze, the sun lanced warmth through cold clouds.  The clouds won, filtering the world into graywash dimness.  The trees, pale white and dull brown and mostly naked and leafless, reached out with kinked branches as if desperate to touch each other, and they almost never touched.

In the dream, she sat alone in her room, watching the sprawling wilderness from behind cold glass.  Her breath fogged the window.

The thing in crimson appeared, a slash of violent color against sludgy grayscape.  It wore a deep red robe and had an ivory skull the approximate shape of a deer’s.  Its thin antlers mirrored the tree branches.  They wanted to touch something with their sharpness.

It moved unnaturally, approaching the treeline.  It had an uneven gait, listing slightly to one side, as if unacquainted with bipedal movement.  When it reached the last of the trees before the sprawl of the Estate’s vast yard, it stopped.  It tilted its deerskull face up toward the window, gazing with eyes that were long gone their sockets.

In the dream, Nora couldn’t catch her breath.  She steamed her panic against the glass in short gasps.  Her fingers touched the cross around her neck.  She prayed, under her breath, in short staccato words.

The creature (or was it human) cocked its ivory skull, curious.

When she’d first come to the Estate, Ambrose had told her that the wards were ancient and powerful.  Later, when Ambrose died in Egypt, Victor reiterated this.  The wards of the Estate had protected the Blackwood’s Mansion for generations.  Nothing supernatural could cross.

Almost nothing, at least.  People could still cross over.  Human beings.  Even if they were psychic or if they knew witchcraft or if they knew nothing at all but how to wield a knife and put it to places that would hurt more than words could describe.

Nora prayed that the figure in crimson was not human.

It stood at the wards, head cocked.  The shade of its robe reminded her of the curls of life that swirled in the bathwater when she razored her skin.  It reminded her not just of blood, but of blood shed in a specific way, for a specific reason.  Its robe, the color of precisely reasoned bloodshed, was the only gash of color in the grayscape.  It unnerved her, how important that seemed.

The figure crossed the treeline, shambling, and began its uneven gait across the breadth of grass.  It paused, halfway to her window, and peered up at her with those empty skull eyes.  Lifting a robed arm, it extended a slender, sapient finger, and pointed crookedly at her.

you are chosen, a voice said in her mind.

The figure vanished.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

She screamed.

“Whoa, there, Miss. Nora,” Victor said, jumping back from her reaction.

Awoken from slumber, she sat slouched in an office chair in the library.  Her eyes darted around, a panic of disorientation.  She leapt from her seat, spinning in circles, searching for a threat.  Her better hand went for the shiv she kept in the front pocket of her hoodie–one of the keepsakes from her homeless days.

“You okay?” Victor asked, brow rucked and gaze uncertain.

“Just a dream,” she said, panting against cold nightmare sweat.

“The bad kind?”

She nodded.  She was no psychic, her dreams contained no visions of possible futures, no premonitions of things to come–but they often arrived as omens, as metaphors, as threats.  Nothing she ever saw in her dreams came to pass literally, but the dreams always seemed so obvious after the fact.

She picked up the book that had fallen from her lap when she awoke.

“We need to prep anything?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know yet,” she answered, turning the book over in her hand.  “I mean…probably, yeah.  But.”  She shrugged, and flipped the book open to where she’d dog-eared the story before dozing off.

…’and the red death held sway over all,’ the bottom of the page told her.

A slash of color in grayscape.  A mask of something dead and age-bleached.  A finger, pointing.  you are chosen, it whispered, its voice coming from that distant place in the mind where dreams are real.

She set the book aside and fidgeted with her necklace.  She thumbed the cross and thought about how the old silver flatly symbolized two wooden boards.  Thought about what it must’ve felt like, being chosen, as people drove nails through a good man’s hands.  What must it have felt like, being chosen, when the hungry birds began circling overhead?

“You want breakfast?  Coffee?” Victor asked, trying vainly to pull her out of her thoughts.

She let go of the necklace.

Being chosen seemed like a raw deal.  Seemed a lot like being condemned.

“Coffee,” she said absently.

Seemed a lot like being damned, actually.

Or sacrificed.

Abraham wasn’t leading Isaac up the mountain to have a picnic, after all.

you, the dream warned her.  you.

chosen.

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The Hollow: A Podcast

I wrote a podcast and you can listen to it right now!  It’s called The Hollow and it’s an anthological horror fiction podcast following a different story and characters every season.  Season One is airing now!  Check it out!  I promise it’s not bad.

Season One follows the plight of a lonely, self-important (and self-flagellating) author as he flees his real life and personal responsibilities to stay at a nearly empty inn and Work On His Book(TM).  Of course, things aren’t quite what they seem in this little hamlet, and both the inn and the author have quite a history to unravel…

You can find the podcast on The Hollow official site and on iTunes.  You can also follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter for updates.  Please give it a listen!  And, if you like it, please leave a review on iTunes.

Seriously, please leave an iTunes review!  It would help us enormously!

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Things Not To Say In a Horror Movie – A Clickbait Listicle by Me

THIS IS HOW I SCREAM INTO THE VOID.

Hey, readers, it’s me, again.  If you haven’t noticed, I don’t make very frequent use of my blog, and am always working on habits to change this.  So, today, I’m writing a brief listicle about something I have a fair knowledge of: stupid shit characters say in horror movies and books.  It’s almost like the characters aren’t even genre savvy!

Although I generally write contemporary supernatural fantasy, I usually include horror elements and use a lot of traditional horror tropes and plot devices.  This is because I love horror.  I read significant volumes of horror literature.  I watch significant amounts of horror film.  Through these vehicles, I’ve managed to gain a knowledge of what NOT to say during tense/terrifying moments.

(You’ll notice a large volume of capitalized words in this listicle– they’re capitalized to indicate that they refer to tropes/cliches and literary/movie shortcuts.  If you don’t know what I mean, already, you’ll figure it out.)

“Let’s Split Up!”

The most grievous sin in the world of horror: splitting up.  It might’ve turned out okay for Scooby & The Gang, but in most horror/supernatural situations, it ends with grotesque, anguished death.

PROTIP: if you’re ever in an allegedly-haunted mansion, creeping through dusty hallways and ducking around strained, limp cobwebs…stick together!  If you’re exploring the dark, overgrown woods surrounding the way-too-cheap cabin you and your friends rented for your weekend vacation…stick together!

When to say it: literally never.

How to survive: use the buddy system!

“I’ll Be Right Back.”

No, you won’t.  This tethers into the “Let’s Split Up!” situations.  Often, the person who will “be right back” (LOL) is going to check on a strange sound, or fix a broken generator, or get a spare tire.  Sometimes there’s a broken down car and our poor victim (I mean “volunteer”) goes off to get his/her own vehicle for a jumpstart.  No matter what the reason is, you can rest assured that this person will most certainly NOT be right back.  Ever.  At all.

PROTIP: if you’re ever trying to escape a horror situation, and your car breaks down…stick together!  Did a masked killer cut the power to your (aforementioned) weekend cabin?  Better turn on those flashlights and, I cannot stress this enough, STICK TOGETHER.  Is the generator out of fuel during a zombie apocalypse?  Maybe that’s the world’s way of telling you to move on.

When to say it: when you really don’t want to be right back.

How to survive: bring another survivor with you, and be prepared to spend a significant amount of time away from the party.  You’ll still probably die, but if you’re not alone and you have a lot of patience, you might last a while.

“Most Cops Never See Action.” / “Most Cops Never Draw Their Guns.”

This only applies to cops.  If you’re not a cop, feel free to say it!  But if you are a cop, using these phrases at any point during the story means you will 100% definitely “see action” and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to “draw your gun.”  Unfortunately, most horror story killers/monsters are pretty smart about ambushing police officers, so there’s a decent chance you won’t get your sidearm unholstered before being machete’d in half or eaten alive.  But good news!  If you’re in a haunting scenario (a la Last Shift), your gun wouldn’t have saved you anyway.

PROTIP: don’t be a cop in a horror movie or book, it dramatically reduces your chance of survival.  If you are a cop in a horror movie/book, you’ll want to be a (Wo)Man on the Edge, a Loose Cannon, or a Hothead.  Being quick to draw a weapon might lead you to shoot one of the other survivors during a self-damning Fall From Grace, but it’ll give you a better chance against the masked murderer or supernatural monster coming for your blood.

When to say it: (1) if you’re not a cop, (2) if you Don’t Fear Death, or (3) you’re a Survivor Girl/Guy from a previous entry in the franchise.

How to survive: once you’ve said this, you drastically reduce your options at survival.  You will most certainly see action and need to draw a gun, so just get your gun out now and never holster it again.

BUT ALSO

“Three Weeks From Retirement.”

Sorry, buddy, but the chances that you’ll be seeing a pension don’t look great.  Although this phrase usually issues from the genre-blind mouths of cops and soldiers, anyone close to retirement at the beginning of a story is likely to die by the end.  If you’re a mechanic or other blue collar worker, however, it’s likely you’ll Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good, so at least your death might have some meaning.

It gets worse.  If you’re a cop three weeks away from retirement and you’ve Never Drawn Your Gun…I’m really sorry, I really am, but you’re already dead.

PROTIP: be a Millennial– we’ll literally never retire!

When to say it: you might be able to pull it off if you aren’t a cop or soldier…but the odds still don’t look good.  Try to be a blue collar worker, if you can, because then at least you’ll have a chance at Redeeming Your Dark Backstory when you Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good.

How to survive: instead of retiring, have a big blow-out with your boss at the beginning of the story and lose your job.  Or: hopefully you recently Lost Your Life Savings paying for a friend, family member, or loved one to undergo medical treatment.

“I Think He’s/She’s/It’s Dead.”

To quote Kevin Spacey from Superman Returns

WRONG.

The masked killer/supernatural monster is never dead.  As soon as you turn around, he/she/it is going to get right back up and kill you.

PROTIP: kill him/her/it harder.  Do you have a gun?  Keep shooting!  Did you somehow swipe the killer’s machete?  Better act like the Red Queen and get enthusiastic about beheadings!  Short of running the thing down with a steamroller, you probably haven’t finished the killer/monster off quite yet.

When to say it: once there are brains and skull fragments all over the floor and/or once the killer/monster has been literally steamrolled.

How to survive: once you’ve sufficiently slaughtered the Bad Guy, remember to Set the Corpse Ablaze.

“It’s Probably Nothing.”

Next to “Let’s Split Up!” this is the dumbest thing to say.  It’s almost never ‘nothing,’ in a horror story.  The scratch at the window, the strange sound outside, the ruffling foliage…none of that is ‘nothing.’  Oh, do you think It’s Just the Wind?  Hahahaha, I hope you like getting murdered!

If you’re in a strange place and think you maybe saw a ghost…assume you saw a ghost.  Did your doorbell ring but then nobody was at the door?  Better get ready for a nightmarish struggle for your very existence!  If you’re hanging out at that creepy cabin with your friends…pay attention to strange twig snaps and unexpected bush ruffling.  Oh, and the generator never just runs out of fuel.

PROTIP: JUST ALWAYS ASSUME IT’S PROBABLY SOMETHING.

When to say it: if you’re in a romance story or a literary tragicomedy.  I mean, you’ll still be wrong, but you (probably) won’t end up dead because of it.

How to survive: assume it’s probably something, retreat from the area, and ALWAYS USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM.

 

So that’s it for my lame clickbait listicle.  I hope you’re all a little smarter, now.  And, if you’ve already said some of these things recently, just remember: death is inevitable, and hopefully it will be over soon.

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Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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Resident Evil 7 : Review

Why would an author write a Resident Evil 7 review?  It’s a video game, after all.

Because this author plays a lot of video games.  More on that in the near future.

(Also because I have access to a blog platform and the absurdist millennial belief that anyone cares a spit about my banal thoughts.)

The TL;DR version of this review is as follows: purchase this game.  If you’re a fan of the franchise (which I’m not, really) or a fan of survival horror (which I am), you’ll love it.  I might recommend waiting for a sale (I didn’t), since it comes in a bit short for its price point.

Alright, now for the long version.

Selling Point 1 : You’re Not Helpless.

I’m pretty sick of helplessness as a game mechanic.  If a game is only scary because the player is helpless, it’s secretly not a very scary game.  Anything can be scary if it’s done in low light with tense music and ALSO YOU’RE HELPLESS.  This entire trend is even more absurd because, very often, the player character is walking around an environment often littered with weapons.  Look, Outlast scared the shit out of me, despite having some of the most eye-rollingly ‘shock’ moments in gaming history, but at a certain point I started rooting for the monsters.  The player character may be a journalist, but he’s a journalist walking through halls full of possible improvisational tools!  Pick something up!

People and, by extension, fictional characters, have a tendency to create tools and even weaponry with pretty much whatever is at hand.  They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for fun, they call it that because the tools and weapons were made from stone.  Human beings are so desperate for tools and weapons that we literally made them out of stone.  But apparently our frightened avatars in modern horror games are too busy panting from terror to stop for a second and gather tools.

[/rant]

Resident Evil 7 assumes your character wants to make and use tools and weapons.  That assumption changes everything.  The environment is littered with resources, from big fuck-you-up guns to various chemicals and herbs to garden tools.  It creates a more interesting dynamic than helplessness.  Holding an ax gives you a sense of possibility, of strength.  Swinging it gives you a sense of power.  Whacking it into someone’s neck in a moment of desperate terror gives you an inch of control.  Turning around to find the corpse mysteriously missing…

One of my favorite horror games ever was FEAR (and its sequel, FEAR 2.)  It armed me from the start.  The game handed its player a series of awesome, fuck-you-up guns.  And then it peeled away the frail veneer of your confidence and dropped you into a situation far beyond your depth.  Resident Evil 7 does something quite similar.

Selling Point 2 : A Dreadful Sense of Intimacy

The primary setting of RE7 is a sprawling plantation estate in rural Louisiana.  It’s a family’s property.  A fucked up family, but a family nonetheless.  And the banality of that fact, the familiarity of a house’s interior, serves to create an unsettling intimacy.  Family photographs, sports paraphernalia, book shelves, kids’ trophies, etc… the details of a family history are all there.  There are even receipts and passive-aggressive sticky notes.  And the player is pressured by game mechanics and curiosity to check everything, to look into every corner, to experience as thoroughly as possible this maddening juxtaposition of the familiar and the grotesque.

Perhaps this is what I like most about the game: the minimal scope.  You are a lone human maneuvering through a minuscule slice of the globe.  The massive, overarching lore of the franchise is missing.  The vast scale of backstory is unimportant.  This is a game about the protagonist and the antagonists and very little else.

Franchises tend to bloat.  Scale expands and exposition piles up.  This game, ‘reboot’ or not, solves that problem with a sharp, indifferent knife.  It delivers what it needs: a tightly-focused story.

Selling Point 3 : Something For Everyone

Horror is lush with sub-genres.  RE7 does its best to tap as many as possible.

Supernatural horror is immediately dangled in front of our faces.  Body horror is omnipresent.  Sci-fi horror is the franchise staple.  RE7 even incorporates moments of splatterpunk and, of course, general action-horror.  Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a whole SAW-inspired puzzle-solving section, too.  Not to mention shades of Chainsaw Massacre throughout…chainsaw very much included.  Which also reminds me that southern gothic archetypes and references are everywhere in RE7.  There are also cosmic horror references, though that particular sub-genre doesn’t make any real appearances in the game proper.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something for everyone.  And though the run-and-hide mode of helplessness horror isn’t an expressed requirement of the game, running and hiding is often the wisest course of action.  So they’ve got that, too, if you like it.

One might worry that the ‘dash of everything’ approach might overclutter the game, but it doesn’t.  It provides different levels to the gameplay and, what’s more, always seems in service to the story.

Selling Point 4 : Sadistic Antagonists

I saw an article online lamenting the ugly gameplay necessity of key gathering, narratively lampshaded with the idea that the antagonists want to make it hard for you to escape.  The article pointed out that the antagonists didn’t bother reinforcing the walls, blocking the doors, or bricking up the windows.  I imagined that such measures would take away some of the ‘fun’ for the antagonists.  As much as they claim they don’t want to chase anyone down anymore, they seem to get a wicked joy out of doing just that.  If they made it too hard to escape, they’d lose the ecstasy of chasing down the desperately hopeful escapees and butchering them!

Such is the rabid sadism of our front-and-center antagonists.  Quite early in the game, during my second playthrough, I discovered myself gravely wounded by my pursuer.  Instead of finishing the job, he set a healing kit down on the floor and cooed at me to use it.  Once I’d patched myself up, he even gave me a headstart before coming after me again.  So, in my mind, the key hunting has nothing to do with making it difficult for me to leave; it has everything to do with providing the antagonists with entertainment.

These batshit crazy sadists provide the main antagonism.  Hordes of faceless monsters provide secondary, supporting antagonism (the ‘nameless goon’ variety, mostly.)  And then, behind it all, there lurks a vast, faintly-inhuman force (oh, wait, I guess those cosmic horror references make some sense after all).  Each layer of antagonism serves a purpose both to story and to gameplay.  The front-and-center villains are charmingly psychotic and extremely terrifying.  The nameless goons provide tense, strategic combat.  And the terrible intelligence behind the whole show creates a layer of moral and intellectual questions the game would otherwise lack.  It’s quite an exquisite array of enemies.

The Downside : It’s a Bit Pricey.

Currently, the game goes for $59.99, not including DLCs or soundtrack.  My first playthrough took 10 hours, my second took 7.  There’s an in-game achievement for managing it down to 4.  Though it’s a bit replayable, if only for the sheer moodiness and the awesome realization of its setting, replayability isn’t its prime directive.  I’ll certainly be prancing through it a third time, but I’m a particular sort of person.  In the main, I doubt most people will go through it more than twice.  So what that settles down to is that the base game provides, say, 10-20 hours of gameplay for a ~$60 price tag.  No thanks.

It was worth it, for me, because I love the genre and I’m utterly sick of helplessness horror.  I’ve played through twice and will be playing a third time at least.  I enjoy the game from a gameplay perspective and from a horror theory perspective.  I also sprang for the DLCs, not yet available for PC, which I hear add significant replayability–but we’re not discussing the DLCs, are we?  No.  We’re discussing the cost of the base game.  And the cost of the base game, unless you’re a weirdo  like me, is simply too high.

But I guarantee it’ll be on sale in the near future.  So if you’re the patient sort, you’re in luck.

Final Thoughts

RE7 provides an excellent experience.  It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, frightening, and fun.  In my original 10-hour playthrough, I sweated and panicked through the first 2 hours like a man on the edge.  For the few hours after that, my mood shifted between anxiety and joy.  Anxiety at every door, every corridor, and every corner; joy at my increasing competence at solving my dilemmas.  Most of the last hour was spent in full action mode, all sound and fury and laughter.  It was an incredible emotional journey.

In my second playthrough, I was more confident.  My relatively eased anxiety allowed me to appreciate the setting and the art of the game more deeply.  The narrative flow, the peaks and valleys of fear throughout the story, etc.  It was during my second playthrough that I really fell in love with the game.

So, yes, it’s an exquisite game, an excellent bit of interactive horror media, and a decently written (if also unevenly written) story.  My only dismay is at the price tag, a number I think is a bit high for people less fanatical about their devotion to horror media and video games than I am.  But I suppose that’s for them to decide.

 

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Why Dark Fiction?

Hello, imaginary public, and welcome to today’s process blog entry: “Why Dark Fiction?”

Some time ago, on the internet, while discussing writing with a bunch of fellow writers (whom I’ll likely never meet in person), I was posed a question by someone who had actually read some of my work.  At first, I was stunned, because who reads my work?  But, then, I decided to answer the question.  The question, in essence, asked why I so rarely included ‘redemptive’ endings in my stories.

I assumed (s)he was asking about the ending of No Grave, because it seemed like a safe assumption to make.  My short stories don’t allow for a wide variety of endings, to be honest.  A story entitled “A Black House Rots North of Town” does not seem to promise a happy ending.

But it’s a fair question.  It taps into a kind of debate that I’ve seen people get involved with, before.  Especially in genre fiction–fantasy and sci-fi and such–where part of the allure is escapism: what ending do we provide an audience?  Are authors obligated to leave the audience at-ease?  Are we obligated to try to improve their real-life suffering by providing fictional easement?

My answer is unsurprisingly non-committal.  Mostly, my answer is an awkward, uncomfortable face and a series of tense, shrug-like gestures.  A few sounds akin to words like “eh?” and “maybe?” and “kinda?” and “iunno?”  Luckily, I mostly see this debate on the internet, where I’m able to scroll past without comment.  When asked about it on a forum, I provided a neat, clean paragraph that hardly covered my actual opinion.

But today, I’m throwing in my 2-cents.  And a writing prompt at the end.

Stop Reading Now If You Don’t Want No Grave Spoilers.

Seriously.  I’m not going to get too specific, but you’ll know the approximate ending if you keep reading.

Assuming you care.

Which, if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Alright: last chance to stop reading.

Seriously, you can scroll down to the writing prompt and skip all this.

Still here?

Great.

So, several people I’ve spoken to regarding No Grave have some issues with the ending.  It’s a bit dreary.  The ‘good guys’ (to the extent any of them can be called ‘good’) sort of lose.  Or, at least, they certainly don’t ‘win.’  Whatever that means.  And the main character makes a choice that is deeply selfish in the face of great evil.  (For the record, I would probably make the same choice).  Perhaps worse: once the selfish choice is made, she’s not particularly effective at carrying it out.  It all seems pretty unpleasant.

Well, sure, but that’s the point.

I find it therapeutic actually.  Because, in real life, we lose all the time.  Or we make choices that don’t pan out.  Or we try to save people and they die anyway.  Et cetera.  Mostly, we’re very small and weak and human.  We fail probably more often than we succeed.

And this is the important part: that’s okay.

Tristan makes a terrible mistake and tries to salvage it and it doesn’t work.  Nicole commits to a losing proposition after essentially being pressured into it and she gets scared and doesn’t do it.  Cyrus pursues his own interests selfishly until he sees how far people will go for each other and then those people get fucked because of him.  Even though he tries his hardest to turn over a new leaf and save them, it’s just too-little-too-late.

So what happens, then?  Everyone packs it in, tail between their legs, goes home, and eats a bullet.  No, wait, that’s not what happens at all.  They take their moment, they mourn, they cry about it, they feel guilt and pain and suffering and then they pick themselves up and get ready to try again.  They’re getting licked out there and they huddle up, count off, and prepare to hit the field.  Once more into the breach and all that.

As far as I’m concerned, their failure is a message of hope.

Let me explain.

Escapism vs. Hope

‘Escapism’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘complete fantasy.’  I don’t need to tell a story where the good guys win.  I don’t think the ‘good guys win’ formula is terribly hopeful.  Optimistic, sure, but not hopeful.  Hope isn’t hard to do when you’re winning.  Hope is hard to do when you’re losing.  And that’s the narrative I’m building.  Losing isn’t the end of a thing and neither is failure.  Loss and failure are just things that happen.  People make bad decisions, selfish decisions, wrong decisions.  People fuck up.  Then they try again.  Most of us will probably die with works unfinished and we hope others pick up where we left off.  The world spends a few months raining shit down on us and we hope we do better next time.  Hope isn’t in a victory, it’s in the attempt.

I have no desire to sell the ‘good guys win’ narrative, or any narrative of false optimism.  Or any narrative that feels false to me at all.  Sure, sometimes the good guys will win, I’ve definitely written and outlined stories where that’s what happens–because that’s what makes sense.  But in the main, that’s not the product I peddle.  My type of escapism doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, or a ‘redemptive’ ending as it was put to me.  But I don’t think people need those.  I don’t think they’re particularly helpful.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in easing real-life suffering or imbuing an audience with a sense of hope or wellness.  Instead, I aim to say: “hey, so, things suck right now, shit happens, whatever, but you shouldn’t give up.  Pick yourself up, brush it off, and try again.  Hold out for next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.”

Or, perhaps, in this trying era, Maya Angelou put it best: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

There’s a common saying that things are always darkest before the dawn–so maybe my stories aren’t about the dawn.  Maybe my stories are about the darkness getting darker and the characters having the strength to hope that the dawn breaks soon.  To have the strength to use gas-station bics and old, beaten matchbooks to make their own dawn because they don’t want to wait anymore.

And sometimes the darkness takes one of them, and all the others go out and gather sticks and build a pyre and set it ablaze and that inferno is its own dawn, for a while.

Good guys don’t always win, but they always keep trying.

That’s the narrative I’m selling.

Writing Prompt!

If you feel like doing some writing today, try this one out: write at least one (1) page where the story begins with the character failing.  Bonus points if the character fails because of their own stupid mistakes.  After the failure is complete, what happens next?

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My “Best Books of 2016” List

I’ll get this out of the way.  These are just books I read this year: a collection of fiction from various genres as well as a dash of non-fiction.  Were they published in 2016?  Likely not.  But they’re great books and they deserve more attention (and sales).  In any case, this is my list of the best books of 2016…insofar that I read them all in 2016.

 

#5: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas


The Listeners
contains some of my favorite prose from this year.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, “Zumas has razored into existence a beautiful grotesquery of the English language.”  It’s a tangled tale, a literary experiment, and a horrorshow of a ride.  It does occasionally veer into over-heightened prose, and the ending leaves something to be desired, but it’s a gorgeous work of sharp and painful art and worth every minute I spent reading it.

You can get it at Amazon.com and I recommend that you do.

 

#4: Ritualistic Human Sacrifice, by C. V. Hunt


C. V. Hunt continues to be one of my favorite authors of dark fiction.  Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a great example of why: it’s a wild, insane ride that rushes by at a rollercoaster speed and has little regard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable.  It’s grotesque, horrific, and hilariously transgressive.  I was, by turns, laughing, grimacing, and shuddering.  Hunt has perfectly balanced horror with humor…provided you have a particularly dark and transgressive kind of humor.

Pick it up at Amazon.com and buckle up, because it’s a bumpy ride.

 

#3: Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A. J. Somerset


Non-fiction.  A moderate view of gun culture in the United States and Canada.  Arms is a dissection of cultural mores, historical trends, media, and even ballistic science–all in the service of trying to find sanity in a maddening debate.  Deeply informative and incredibly well-researched.

I always post links to buy things on Amazon.com because I assume that’s where the majority of people reading this will do their shopping.

 

#2: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle


Man…this was an amazing novella.  Just amazing.  Victor LaValle is an incredibly talented author.  He’s an amazing linguist, a dazzling player of the English instrument, with punched-up and tight-wound prose that is at once haltingly beautiful and rapid-fire.  If you haven’t read The Devil in Silver, for example, you should do that immediately.  In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle’s talent with prose is heightened and practiced and a perfect homage to Lovecraft’s work.  Where Lovecraft’s paragraphs tended to bloat, however, LaValle trims off all the fat and leaves nothing unnecessary.

I noticed, this past couple years, that there’s been a tremendous wave of cosmic horror authors trying to work to confront and combat Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism…of all these efforts, I believe LaValle’s was the most successful.

Purchase it on Amazon.com literally as soon as you can.

 

#1: The Nameless Dark, by T. E. Grau


T. E. Grau’s story collection The Nameless Dark is everything I like about cosmic horror and most things I like about fiction in general.  Grau’s prose is lyrical and rich and extremely readable.  The stories cross genres and time periods and Grau is easily at home in all of them, weaving haunting and sometimes horrifying tales with believable (if not necessarily always likable) characters and doing it all with some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever happened upon.  Thrilling, harrowing, and entrancing, these tales are worth a very close read.  Perhaps several.

Pick it up at Amazon.com.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Welcome to Nightvale
, by Joseph Fink

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The New American Apocalypse: Lost Transmission

You hear a rush of static.  The radio crackles.  A voice comes breaking through the white noise waves at first distant and then closer, as if the speaker were struggling to make it ashore.

“…came out of nowhere,” the speaker says.  She is panting with exhaustion.  “A darkness fell upon the city like night and butchered everyone.  It ate the next town over, too.  We haven’t seen anyone in days.  I mean…is it like this everywhere?”

A rush of static ebbs and flows, the hungry roar of emptiness.

“We don’t know if anyone else is left.  The few of us who escaped the slaughter wander this blasted landscape like broken scarecrows.  We are tattered and wretched.  We are few.  There is a bunker nearby where we plan to hold out as long as we can.  We tried to make for the border but we met only a wall: there’s no way into Canada, anymore.  And the monsters, mother of God–the monsters…”

The transmission fuzzes in and out.  You lose a paragraph somewhere in there; the message is eaten by white noise.

“…meet us there.  Though ragged, there’s still fight in our worn bones.  The resistance survives.  If anyone is still out there, if anyone can hear this at all, know that the resistance survives.  They could not kill us all.  And even if they find us, or if the bunker gives out, you are still alive.  You may be the last one, but still…if they aim to kill us all, we will make them bleed for it.  Please.  If you hear this message, find us at–”

But the voice has fallen away beneath the static crush.  You do not hear it again, except in your head, replaying in your dreams through the dark and seemingly endless night.

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Good News, Bad News.

Good news and bad news.  An update from the cave.  The hermit shambles forth from the dark mouth, a decree on his chapped lips.

(That’s me, by the way.)

Let’s start with the bad news: it seems unlikely that my work with The New American Apocalypse will continue, at least not for a long time (by which point it will be no longer topical and probably forgotten by its readers).  I know, I know–we were all looking forward to the final battle between our brainburnt narrator and the squirming tentacles of fascist, greed-driven evil, but I’ve fallen several entries behind and have taken on too many projects to spend much time catching up…and certainly not before voting day.

Perhaps I’ll resurrect the story and finish it soon, maybe 2 years from now, maybe in the form of a smaller, less-improvised, and even more grotesque little chap-book.  Who knows?  I don’t.  And even if I did, I would carry the idea in secret, hidden beneath the tattered folds of my yellow cloak.

On to the good news!

The good news: the reason The New American Apocalypse has been on the back-burner for so long, and the forces behind my decision to suspend all work on it (at least for some time) is because I’m juggling too many other, larger projects.  I am plodding along, slowly but surely, on a sequel to No Grave.  It’s unlikely to see release before mid-2017, but it’s getting done.  The Brownstone crew and the sundry other characters wrapped up in this world of shadows, secrets, and scares will visit upon you again!  Fear not…or, yeah, probably fear a little.

The second piece of news: I am also plodding forth in my dealings with the large (and largely-abandoned) town of Oceanrest, Maine.  By now, some of you might’ve noticed a story about a black house in the woods, or about a strange CD linked to hallucinatory effects, or about a man who wakes up every morning haunted by the ghosts of the future.  Or maybe you’ve just heard about Oceanrest from a mysterious diary page found in a rotting pile of debris.  In any case, the setting is going places.  I’ve hinted at something for a while and, to excuse my seeming abandonment of my improvisational blog project, perhaps it is time I came clean and told you: there are talks of a novel.  I’ve written it, three full from-scratch drafts and months in revisions and rewrites, working happily with editorial staff from various interested parties.  I don’t want to give away too much, in case we get caught in development/contractual hell, but there may be copies available in bookstores in the foreseeable future (assuming we do not all drown in hellfire or nuclear radiation first).  Expect to see more Oceanrest short stories in e-zines, magazines, and on my blog, and (hopefully) you’ll be able to get a larger look at the town and its denizens in the not-too-distant future.

The third piece of news: I am writing a podcast.  As these things often are, the podcast is being created on a tightwire budget above a vast crevasse of darkness, but the people in charge are people I’ve worked with on other projects and who have a history of creating quality goods despite (or because of) budgetary limitations.  They have a strong track record and I trust them.  These words will reach your ears, sooner or later, through the lips of talented voice actors.  Of course, I’ve never written a podcast before–and this is why, in the past four months, I have gone from 1 podcast subscription with 40 “heard” episodes, to 15 podcast subscriptions with 266 “heard” episodes.  I’ve been learning the ropes, writing and revising episodes, etc… and this has, in addition to the above-mentioned news, taken time.

So, between an upcoming Furies book, a possible Oceanrest book (and more Oceanrest stories in general), and a podcast…my plate is a bit full.  And so we bid (hopefully brief) adieu to our New American Apocalypse and its tentacular evils in order to march more steadily forward.

With great love and hope and utter sky-rending terror,

Spencer

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