“Wish You Were Here” [the playlist]

There’s not a lot more I have to say about “Wish You Were Here” that I didn’t already tell Christian Coleman in my interview – he even asked about the inevitable playlist. So I’ll just share the full list – a mix of tongue-in-cheek commentary on “third world democracy” and its hustlers from “Paper Planes” and mystical exoticism from “Voodoo in My Blood,” and the genuine emotion that nonetheless underwrites motivations in this story. Ultimately, that’s all I want from horror set in foreign lands: to at least remember that the foreigners are also people, who deserve to be just as well-rounded as the tourists.

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“Wish You Were Here” is part of Nightmare magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror issue, with original fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.: All I wanna do is [bang bang bang] and [ka-ching] and take your money. Third world democracy, yeah I got more records than the KGB, so uh, no funny business.

“The Keepers” – Santigold: I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been. That’s it, boy, just state your case, you’re just as wrong as you were then. We’re the keepers – while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.

“Voodoo in My Blood” – Massive Attack: Barely, barely grieving. Keep the front door open. Wipe that cheeky grin and come on down. [Fun fact: Rose is named after Rosamund Pike – partly because of this video! See if you can spot the other celebrities (they played couples in Hollywood movies) among the tourists!]

“Manifest Destiny” – Zola Jesus: You gotta help me out. You gotta make it happen for me. How will we survive? Just let your spirit rise and don’t worry about the rest. [This is the song I obsessively listened to while writing this.]

“Soccer Game” – Johann Johannsson (Sicario OST): [instrumental, but if you remember this ending scene in the movie – the soccer game punctuated by gunfire – you know exactly why I included it here]

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Black Mirror [Season 3]

Despite being a show about “the horrors of technology,” the best thing about Black Mirror has always been its compassion for its characters and its exquisite articulations of psychological pain – things that transcend technology. Season 3 is no exception.

If Seasons 1 and 2 were an indictment of voyeurism, Season 3 is an indictment of both cyber bullying and outrage culture, two manifestations of the same conundrum that boils down to this: in our hyper-connected world where we are all expected to be digitally publically available and active and open, violating social norms can result in hyper-amplified, hyper-vicious reprisals. Technology is the veil that forces us to present entirely artificial, plastic selves and suffer the consequences of non-conformity (“Nosedive,” and to some extent “San Junipero”). This same veil provides an outlet to indulge in sin, and then, suddenly to be punished for it (“Shut Up and Dance”). Most of the time it’s other people doing the hurting, but in “Playtest” it actually is the technology, needling in, finding weak spots, destroying your psyche. And as shown by “Men Against Fire,” this particularly digital problem is really just a culmination of decades of loaded, coded language that can be used to incite action, including violence. This is commonly known as propaganda. Now, we are all our own propagandists.

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Creator Charlie Brooker is clearly most deeply interested in mob mentality and the way technology can enable a mob (real or virtual or even imagined) to bludgeon unfortunate folks who have found themselves on the wrong side of a crowd. Brooker has always gone to extremes to make the victims of the mob unsympathetic – he needs to explain why the crowd would turn on them, after all – but he’s got an “Enemy of the People” view of crowds, that we are monsters when we can get away with it.

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This little quote is a good summary of what appears to be Brooker’s point:

He likens the population to insects, says we revel in cruelty, that it’s a weakness that should be bred out of us. Recurrent theme is he wants people to face the consequences of what they say and do. Wants to force that on them.

But that’s not a description of Charlie Brooker. That’s a description of one of the show’s antagonists, a mass murderer and terrorist who appears on the incredible final episode, “Hated in the Nation.” “So it’s a moral lesson?” says a cynical cop trying to catch him, one of two refreshingly competent and three-dimensional heroines. “Well, fuck him.”

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Brooker’s turned the mirror back on himself. We may be insectoid and beastly to others, we may have astonishingly little compassion for others or regard for the ramifications of our words or behavior, but everyone – even the beasts and insects – still has the right to live. Nobody should be bred out. This seems like a pretty simple statement, but mass media narratives are so often built around revenge, chosen ones, and the casual destruction of miscellaneous bystanders that it’s actually quite profound.

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So what’s left? What’s left is the love between Yorkie and Kelly in “San Junipero,” or the love Cooper feels for his parents in “Playtest.” Hector’s guilt and Kenny’s shame in “Shut Up and Dance.” Stripe’s moral code in “Men Against Fire.” What’s left is Lacie finally screaming “Fuck you!” in “Nosedive.” What’s left is bodybags, in “Hated in the Nation.”

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It’s a brutal show, made all the more so by Brooker’s incredible ability to elicit empathy or at least sympathy for his characters, the license he gives them to do what they need to do to feel some semblance of comfort in the cruel world he’s given them – even when they make the “cowardly” choice. This is an especially rare accomplishment in horror, where probably the most commonly-voiced criticism is “But why would they stay in the haunted house?” In Black Mirror, the haunted house is the haunted world, and Charlie Brooker can tell you exactly why – despite their better judgment, despite what the self-help manuals would have them do – they stay.

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In Defense of The Price

I miss high-stakes horror movies.

I miss not knowing who’s going to die. I miss not being able to telegraph the end. I miss protagonists that make bad decisions. I miss last-minute twists. What I really miss are lasting consequences. I miss horror movies where every bet is off save for one eternal rule: The Price.

This is the law of The Price. Imagine that in every horror movie, there is a troll under the bridge who collects the fare – The Price – for crossing over from the so-called normal world, or their ordinary existence, into the world of the dead or the damned or whatever else. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to trespass across this boundary – a character decides to use a ouija board to contact a dead relative; a character uses a spell to hex a rival – and sometimes it’s not – a character makes a wrong turn down an unfamiliar road; a character takes in an orphaned child. Sometimes it’s a total freak coincidence – a character gets a phone call from an unknown number; a character sees a neighbor being murdered. However it happens, that character has tasted the forbidden fruit of the abnormal world, and now they have to pay The Price.

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The Price can be paid in a variety of ways, but it’s not a blister that heals with a band-aid. Here are some good options: character death; character loved one death; character damnation; character incapacitation (mental or physical); massive character dislocation. And yes, sometimes it’s terribly unfair: all I did was check-in on my brother! But fair isn’t the point. The point is to recognize that that other world is powerful, palpable, and not to be fucked with. Oh yeah, and that life’s not fair. It’s Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”:

The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken

I don’t know when I learned about The Price, but I remember the first time I noticed that it was missing: the Anthony Hopkins exorcism movie The Rite, where no one seems to pay any price at all. The Rite really shocked me, because of any horror movie subgenre, the exorcism movie is typically the most brutal, given that it deals with literal pure Evil.

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I initially thought that not paying The Price is symptomatic of a movie being part of a franchise, as in The Conjuring series, where no one seems to ever be of any serious risk of anything other than having the fear of God put into them, presumably to keep Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson headlining a universe of Psychic Superhero movies. But horror franchises have been paying The Price for years, and that in fact The Price has jumpstarted various creative detours compelled by the deaths of primary characters (Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and Friday the 13th all killed their original final girls.)

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So now I think it’s something else: now I think there is a strange reluctance to make horror movies that are “too dark.” I think maybe we want updated versions of the original don’t-go-into-the-woods morality tale: if you do go into the woods, if you’re a good person you’ll figure out how to defeat evil and walk away unscathed. That’s some bullshit, folks. Not only does it: (a) not reflect the reality of how bad things actually happen, (b) represent a pretty self-defeating morality tale – so it’s okay to go into the woods, eh?, but it (c) sucks all tension out of what is supposed to be a tense experience. Oh gee whiz, wonder if this nice little American family with three little kids is going to survive the haunted house!

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Some bullshit.

Because The Price isn’t really about trespassing unseen boundaries. The Price is about that great price we all must pay for being alive, being human, being part of a cruel civilization – the guilt of knowing you are sitting comfortably in your home while terrible things are done to people no different from you halfway across the world; the fact that tender hearts are the most vulnerable; the knowledge that you are alive and well because your ancestors made cold-blooded choices that victimized other people – or else they were the victims, and did terrible things to survive; the sinking feeling that someone knows what you did that summer. To quote another song, this one “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)” by The Tragically Hip:

the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
[of actions performed] Under pressure

That’s The Price, my friends, and we all must pay it.

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Horror movies that are all about The Price pictured above: 1) The Ring; 2) The Exorcist; 3) Candyman; 4) Pet Sematary; 5) Retribution [Sakebi].

 

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“There is a Bear in the Woods” [the playlist]

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is named after a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, from 1984. It’s a classic in high-strategy fear-mongering, and I recommend watching it while listening to the soundtrack to The Witch, for full horrific effect.

My story, “There is a Bear in the Woods,” is the first directly political (that is, about politics) story I’ve published that’s been set in the U.S. instead of Indonesia. One other is forthcoming, at this time. “There is a Bear in the Woods” is also the first to be set in the same universe as a series of to-be-written novels that is very close to my heart. Part of the reason I’ve stayed away from American politics is because I didn’t want to publically commit to writing these books. But now I am, so let me say a little about it, because I think it’s as good an explanation as anything else to what drove “There is a Bear in the Woods.”

I wrote the first version of these books – the trilogy now named after Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – from ages twelve through thirteen (1999-2000). They formed books 2 and 3 out of a series of 7 (“just a kid with a pad and a pen and a big imagination”), and they were an absolute mess that demanded suspension bridges for all the disbelief. But when I was in grad school I started toying with the idea of resuscitating and rewriting books 2 and 3. I don’t remember what spurred this decision other than the feeling that I had some thing here, some seedling of an idea, that I thought was worth saving. Many of the details have changed in the intervening years – obviously, I took a buttload of political science classes between points A and B – but at its core, the series is about the following:

An alternate-universe United States is dominated by a politically-corrupt, democratically-elected center-left coalition of parties, called the Alliance. Horrified by the morally-depraved decadence of the Alliance’s long reign, a radical deliverance church and a new conservative opposition join forces to oust the Alliance, and end up installing a tenuous and uniquely American fascist regime. Although the accidental fascists are the antagonists, it’s very important to me that they be kept sympathetic throughout – because otherwise, how would they have been voted in? And yes, because I’m a horror writer, there are a few BOB-like demons involved, but, as reflected in “There is a Bear in the Woods,” the demons came to take advantage of an opening that was entirely manmade.

This story is about a plucky grassroots campaign trying to put one of the would-be fascists, Rick McFarland, into Congress. They, of course, think they’re on a noble cause – literally, saving America. And then they have a fateful campaign stop…

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is in Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis.

“I’d Love To Change the World” – Jetta: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

“Aenema” – Tool: Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. Don’t just call me pessimist. Try and read between the lines. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend.

“2+2=5” – Radiohead: Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? It’s the devil’s way now. There is no way out.

[Note: What a perfect video, eh?]

“Coward” – Hans Zimmer: [Instrumental].

[Note: I rarely include soundtrack-like music here, but the combination of title and sound actually make this match perfectly with the appearance of “The Bear.”]

“Warning” – Incubus: All left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been.

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The number of the bEast is 999

When our old travel agent died, we asked the private investigators next door for a recommendation. They gave us the number of a Joe Pulver who they swore could get them to hell and back, by any means necessary. I figured that by “hell” they were talking about Kansas or Baghdad, and “any means” meant Amtrak or Greyhound. Turned out I was wrong.

I called Joe the first time about booking my boss on a round-trip flight to Los Angeles for a one-day conference. “City of Angels,” said Joe. “More like City of Demons.”

“Right,” I said. “Can we book a flight that gets in on the night of Monday the 21st, and then back on the morning of Wednesday the 23rd? Just one business class ticket.”

“You got it,” said Joe, even though I hadn’t heard any typing from his end. “I’ll be sending your confirmation shortly.”

It showed up in my inbox almost immediately. It was all wrong. It had my boss coming back from a two-day, $999 trip on Thursday the 23rd from a Los Angeles whose airport code was not LAX, but CRC. “Please check to make sure that you are happy with your itinerary. Let me know if you have any questions. BEST! !!”, he’d written. I quickly hit Reply.

“Dear Joe,” I wrote, “What is CRC? And it should be Wednesday the 23rd, right?”

His calm reply reassured me: “It’s a regional airport, not LAX. I made sure the return trip is confirmed for the 23rd. You should be all good now.”

My boss barely noticed when I gave him his itinerary. I thought all was well until he called me after landing, and the static was so loud I could barely understand his words. There was something about roads of glistening bone and seas of battered flesh and a pale yellow moon. I figured that he had forgotten to take his medication. I told him to eat some dinner and go to bed.  But two hours later he called again, hysterical, saying that people were chasing him and chanting.

“Are you at the hotel?” I yelled into the phone.

“The hotel was swallowed,” he replied. I thought I could hear a very old bronze bell, or something, tolling in the background. I tried to think of where such a bell existed in Los Angeles, but I don’t know the West Coast. “I was forced to flee. Oh God! The moon!”

So I called Joe, even though it was the middle of the night, and told him that we had to get my boss out of L.A. and back to his doctors immediately. “Please change the return flight to Tuesday the 22nd. I’m going to try to get him back to the airport.”

“No can do, sister,” said Joe. “He has to do his time, the time that was given to him.”

“He’s having some kind of breakdown! What if he hurts himself?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Joe. “Put him in touch with my colleague on the ground in L.A. She’ll keep him safe. The name is C-A-S-S-I-L-D-A.”

I gave Cassilda’s number to my boss, and then he stopped calling. In fact I tried calling him on Tuesday the 22nd and it went straight to voicemail. I sent Joe an email, asking him who exactly Cassilda was and what she did. I’m going to be honest: I was afraid she was a hooker, and that my boss hadn’t even shown up at the National Conference of Auctioneers and Appraisers.

Fair Cassilda will be your master’s guiding superstar light in that dead City, Joe wrote back. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I repeatedly typed out “Dear Joe, what the fuck?” But for some reason I kept hitting the backspace and I eventually just decided not to send a reply at all. I paid our bills and re-organized my filing cabinet, and then went out and took a really, really long walk home. I collapsed into bed just before the rain started and when I woke up, it was Wednesday the 22nd. So said all the newspapers, the good morning TV anchors, my computer, the paper calendar from the Chinese restaurant. I sat down at my desk and put my head in my hands, convinced that something fundamental had changed, but not sure what. Once or twice I thought I saw someone watching me from the hallway, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength to get up and check.

Of course my boss didn’t come back that day. He came back the next, on Thursday the 23rd. Just as Joe said he would. He seemed better now. Calm. He took his coffee and read the paper and asked me, with great enthusiasm, if I’d be going to the fair tonight. “I hear it’s the talk of the town!” But we don’t have a fair. At least, we didn’t used to. “I’m taking Cassilda.”

This time it was Joe who called me. When I saw his number I crouched beneath my desk so my boss wouldn’t see me. “Just wanted to make sure you made your flight back all right,” he said. “The Storm is growing, so I hear.”

“I want to book another flight,” I whispered. “To wherever I was before.”

“I’ve already booked you. Sunday the 27th, back to Carcosa, the home of Truth.”

So I went home, packed my bags, sat on the stoop of my apartment, and just waited. From the hill where I lived, I could almost see the fizzling lights of the fair.

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“Pro Patria!” [the playlist]

In college I tried to argue that Peter Pan was a post-colonial fable. I based this on the scene where the revolutionary but already somewhat dictatorial Peter, having defeated the imperialistic Captain Hook, puts on Hook’s coat and hat, pantomimes a hook with his hand, and smugly smokes Hook’s pipe in the captain’s chair. For what it’s worth, my professor said she didn’t quite buy it, but that the essay was entertaining.

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When I first read Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” it was immediately obvious to me that the psychosis-inducing The King in Yellow needed to be transposed to the unique horror of the post-colonial setting: the fiercely-independent newborn state, warped by centuries of domination by a foreign culture, that more often than not grows up to have a very genocidal adolescence.

History is littered with evidence that “hurt begets hurt.” The great tragedy of post-colonial states is that so many of them are forged in the fantastical hope that humanity can overcome its base, Hobbesian instinct to shamelessly overpower the weak and the different. But as my protagonist in “Pro Patria!” knows, shaking off the bonds of colonial subjugation is incredibly difficult even after the imperial troops have retreated. Your society has become defined and delineated by the colonists’ caste system, your artificial borders are utterly absurd and meaningless, and you learned everything you know about power, leadership, and right-to-rule from your abusive oppressors (in this story’s case, resurrected by the arrival of the foreign treatise on power, The King in Yellow).

In the country I grew up in (Indonesia), like many others, leaders that held onto republican (small r) ideals of individual rights and social contracts and limits to state power were shoved to the side; the rest – the survivors – fell into the same “might makes right” tautology that justified colonial rule, and became proto-fascists, aided by a whole bunch of justifications: the people are too stupid to be free, these are Asian values, Communists are right around the corner. Incidentally, my dad (Farchan Bulkin) was one of those political scientists who ended up shoved to the side, which is part of the reason this horrible cycle is so personal to me. He died two months before Indonesia finally shook off thirty-three years of dictatorship – indirectly brought about by three hundred years of colonial rule – and never had the chance to see Indonesia become the messy-but-free democracy it is today. Colonialism is one of those historical sins that keeps on giving – resurrecting – no matter how fast you try to run from it. Sometimes, the faster you run, the faster it catches up.

“Pro Patria!” is in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver.

“Mezzanine” – Massive Attack: I’m a little curious of you in crowded scenes, and how serene your friends and fiends.

“Declare Independence” – Bjork: Print your own currency. Make your own stamp. Protect your language. Raise your flag (higher, higher). Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing.

“The Glorious Land” – PJ Harvey: How is our glorious country plowed? Not by iron plows. Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, feet marching.

“Crumbs From Your Table” – U2: You were pretty as a picture, it was all there to see, then your face caught up with your psychology. With a mouth full of teeth, you ate all your friends, and you broke every heart, thinking, “every heart mends.”

“Living on a Thin Line” – The Kinks: All the stories have been told of kings and days of old – but there’s no England now. / Then another leader says, “Break their hearts and break some heads,” is there nothing we can say or do? Blame the future on the past, always lost in blood and guts, and when they’re gone, it’s me and you.

[Note: This is the definitive song about post-colonialism. So much so that I quoted it in my thesis. The British nationalists using this song as a rallying cry need help.]

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“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” [The Playlist]

As is appropriate for a story that’s a reworking of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is named after two songs centered on color: 311’s laidback, beachy “Amber,” and Hole’s angry, feminist “Violet.” I doubt that MRA types would like this story. In my defense, though, “The Colour Out of Space” practically demanded a feminist revision. It’s fundamentally a story about a cranky farmer who keeps his family increasingly isolated, then imprisoned, resulting in the deaths of all. There’s a neighbor who seems to check in a lot. Oh yeah, and something’s off about the water and the crops. And the woman locked in the attic is the crazy one?

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Nick Mamatas wrote a great essay about writing Lovecraftian fiction as a social outsider in Lovecraft’s Western Civilization despite Lovecraft being a “racist clown.” His conclusion: “we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.” My Lovecraftian fiction tends to be of this bent (see “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”). What I love about cosmic horror is its total blindness to any notions of society or morality or anything else humans might use to define themselves. Like the Arcade Fire song “Black Mirror” goes, “The black mirror knows no reflection/ it knows not pride or vanity/ it cares not about your dreams/ cares not for your pyramid schemes.” The colour out of space doesn’t care about Nate’s fixation with being the house’s final authority. It doesn’t care about the family farm. It doesn’t care about the lines of familial sanctity being broached by the neighbor. It doesn’t even care about Abby or her children. But in its willful, violent nonchalance, it (like death, and all great monsters) is the great equalizer. Or in this case, the great fertilizer.

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is in She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles.

“Black Balloon” – Goo Goo Dolls: What’s the things they never showed you that swallowed the light from the sun inside your room?

“This Bitter Earth and On The Nature of Daylight” – Dinah Washington and Max Richter: This bitter earth, what fruit it bears. If my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose, then what good am I?

“The Hollow (Constantly Consuming Mix by Paz Lenchantin)” – A Passive Circle: Screaming “feed me here, fill me up again, temporarily pacify this hungering.”

“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” – Sufjan Stevens: When we are dead, we all have wings/ And when we receive to see a change at last.

“Insect Eyes” – Devendra Banhart: And the neck her head’s on is a tunnel of dawn, but darkness will come.


 

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