Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

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Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

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Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

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Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

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You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

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Damaged People

Today I want to talk about some differences I have seen between TV shows created by women and TV shows created by men. I’m going to be using the example of Stranger Things and The OA. 

Major Spoilers Follow, for more than just these two shows.

Both of these shows involve a group of boys in a quiet suburb who get involved with a newly-arrived girl/woman with mysterious origins and apparently supernatural capabilities. She is a Stranger From Afar who shakes up their lives and demands incredible suspension of disbelief. She has been abused by an older man who wanted to push her abilities to their full potential, and harness them for himself. Ultimately, she sacrifices herself and in the process returns the boys to their normal lives, albeit forever changed.

There are also major differences: The OA is an “older” show, with a female lead in her late twenties and a teenaged group of boys; Stranger Things is anchored by children. The OA is also much more ambiguous in its supernatural phenomena. Stranger Things has a much more defined and traditional narrative arc than The OA, which I suspect is part of the reason it’s been much better received (I too struggled with that finale).

But this is the difference I want to focus on:

  • Stranger Things was created and directed by two men (the Duffer Brothers). It had one apparent lead executive producer, a man, and eight executive producers in total, seven of whom were men. It also employed two male editors.
  • While The OA was also directed by a man, one of its two creators was a woman (Brit Marling, also the star). It was also produced by two women (two out of two), had six executive producers (three of which were women), and four editors, three of which were men.

All other differences aside, this difference significantly impacted how well I was able to connect with each show, because The OA had the following things:

A Complex, Central Female Lead

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Stranger Things is much less about Eleven than it is about the boys she befriends. They are the heart of the story; the camera views the whole world from the point of view of these 12-year-old boys; rescuing one of their own is at the heart of the story, and it is for his rescue that Eleven ultimately sacrifices herself. Likely because of this vantage point, Eleven is a cipher, pretty much a blank except for her powers. Apparently good-hearted and wanting to adopt oddly old-fashioned, baby-doll symbols of femininity, but that’s about it – that’s all the boys can discern.

The OA is about OA/Prairie/Nina; her saga is the saga. She is altruistic, self-righteous, judgmental, loving, and selfish all at once, like all new religion messiahs. She fucks up on the regular; she is myopic in her pursuit of her father; she shows some real slivers of cold-heartedness, particularly toward her adopted parents. She craves the approval of older men to replace the father she’s lost, only to fall in love with a man her own age who renders her more vulnerable and compassionate but still myopic. She believes in her own grandeur, unabashedly. She also believes that she is doing good in the world, even despite evidence to the contrary, causing her to frequently bulldoze over dissent and to demand blind faith – which ironically makes her rather similar to her captor/archenemy, Hap.

Visible “Invisible” Women

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The most widely-voiced criticism of Stranger Things – which I shared from the get-go – was the show’s treatment of the women that are invisible/non-entities to 12-year-old boys. Ugly duckling teen Barb is unceremoniously killed and mourned by next to no-one while the entire cast of characters is torn apart by the death of 12-year-old Will. This makes more sense when set against the blank mystery of Eleven, Nancy’s depiction as the coveted prize in a social battle between Jonathan and Steve, and Joyce’s sole defining characteristic as a well-meaning but histrionic mother.

More than anything else, this element is what will kill a male-created show for me, partly because it is so easy to overcome, and partly because it is so unhelpful. No one questions that boys in middle school wouldn’t care about someone like Barb – but why does the show’s God (i.e. its creator) take His cue from them? Besides, plenty of men can and do create very convincing and fully-realized “invisible” women – David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Tom Fontana (Oz), Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror).

The OA, meanwhile, actually humanizes its Barb, frumpy teacher Betty Broderick-Allen. It would have been plaintively easy to turn “BBA” into a nagging shrew who tries to sabotage the plot. Instead she is not only an integral part of the boy group but a character with her own struggles who is called upon to save others, sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong, and has twice the pluck and courage of any of the boys. Even more remarkable to me was the bit character Joanne, the angry, disobedient tomboy who Steve takes a liking to. Despite her prickly self-assuredness, Joanne knows she’s invisible, asking Steve after he kisses her if he’s going to dump pig’s blood on her at prom. “Not unless you think it’s hot,” Steve replies, in an interaction that warmed my subaltern-girl heart.

Sexual Violence as a Part of Life

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I have found that a lot of men struggle to write about sexual violence. They either depict a world that is weirdly sanitized from it, even while a huge amount of other violence is taking place, or linger obsessively over the gruesome details in a manner that can only suggest a fetish. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the former, it’s simply not reality – women know that, because women are usually on the receiving end of the threat; because women structure their whole daily lives around protecting themselves from men, whether walking through a dark parking lot or partying with friends. That’s why most shows created by women include sexual violence – not as a theme necessarily, but as a fact of life given the structure of society. Jessica Jones (Melissa Rosenberg), Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan), and Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, Gerard Lee) are some notable examples. I love The Fall (Allan Cubitt), but I think Gillian Anderson redeems what is otherwise a bit of a leering depiction of sexual murders; I love Halt and Catch Fire (Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers), but it is shocking that its female leads in a sea of masculinity are seldom even sexually harassed, let alone threatened.

[I should point out that some men do a great job depicting sexual violence against men – The Leftovers (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) and Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall) deserve special call-out here – underlining my point that Empathy does wonders.]

There isn’t any rape in The OA but it is clearly a reality that is part of the equation, as when Scott assumes that Hap has been raping OA/Prairie/Nina when he takes her upstairs alone, or the girl at the restaurant talks about how inspiring it is that OA/Prairie/Nina looks so great after having been beaten and raped in captivity. When Hap drags her out of his vehicle and gets on top of her on the side of the road, saying he’ll leave her as he found her – broken and alone – my heart jumped into my throat. Stranger Things has no moments like these, even though there’s plenty of room for them. Eleven is neither sexualized nor ever seen to be in any sexual danger throughout her captivity; Nancy manages to join a rough new popular clique without even being pressured into sex, surely a one-in-a-million success story; Barb is unattractive and so never considered to be in sexual danger from monsters or teen boys; Joyce is the mom and thus devoid of any sexuality. Again, I suspect this is a by-product of adopting a 12-year-old boy’s worldview.

Good Guys That Hurt Women, Too

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The most interesting difference I’ve been able to identify between Stranger Things and The OA is The OA‘s willingness to depict its male heroes clearly hurting women they care about. Stranger Things paints a little too clear of a line between Good Guy Jonathan and Bad Guy Steve. Jonathan is nothing but worshipful of Nancy, and Steve is an utter slut-shaming asshole; the fact that Nancy picks Steve anyway furthers the great delusion that women simply prefer bad boys who treat them badly. None of the boys around Eleven ever does anything to hurt her; the slightest doubt of Eleven’s leadership by Lucas is promptly shut down by his friends and punished by Eleven in a manner that I found not only unrealistic but rather disappointing, as Lucas is the show’s only minority character and clear “token black guy” (but that’s a whole other discussion). Joyce’s ex-husband is an obvious douchebag; police chief Hopper is a tortured, inexplicably gentle alcoholic who never seems to take it out on the crazy woman convinced her dead son is alive.

This is a very tempting fantasy, for men and women alike, especially when confronted with the reality of the sexual violence above. There’s a prevailing preference in the Patriarchy to elevate “good men” who are chivalrous, respectful of women, as the paragons of virtue, to raise little boys to “never hit a woman,” as if there is something particularly breakable about a woman. But just as women transcend the [Attractive & Valuable] / [Ugly & Valueless] dichotomy, men transcend the [Heroic & Chivalrous] / [Villainous & Knavish] dichotomy – precisely because the Patriarchy encourages violence, physicality, sexual aggression, and the devaluation of women. This is of course not to say that hurting anybody should be excused; but a recognition that humans are flawed and subject to poisonous social constructs, and to be authentic in one’s creative choices is to acknowledge this.

And that’s why I love that Steve, the troubled heart-and-soul of the boy group, makes his entrance as a domineering bully who actually physically attacks OA/Prairie/Nina twice: encouraging his dog to literally maul her to death upon meeting her, then stabbing her with a pencil after he has become her friend. There are a lot of reasons for the pencil incident: anger that OA/Prairie/Nina is just using him to rescue the man she actually loves; anger over being abducted by a military boot camp on his parents’ instructions; anger that he has been clearly taught to deflect onto the weak and feminine; self-hate so deep that the only thing he can think of to do is destroy what he loves the most. Once again, Steve is one of the good guys despite all of this, and unquestionably the character that develops the most drastically over the course of the series, transforming from a violent bully to a non-violent leader. Steve is a victim of toxic masculinity, an example of the great truth: Patriarchy Hurts Everybody.

And that’s also why I love that Homer, truly practically angelic in his kindness, patience, and love of OA/Prairie/Nina, nonetheless cheats on her when presented the opportunity to have sex with someone else – and in the process unwillingly helps Hap (the very personification of the Patriarchy) abduct another woman. He’s not perfect; no one is. It doesn’t erase his basic virtue, although it was clearly Hap’s intent to use this to debase Homer as a subhuman “animal,” as Scott says. The sequence where OA/Prairie/Nina tells the boys about this incident is illustrative of the difference between Stranger Things and The OA in this regard. “How can Homer do it? How could he have done that to you?” French demands, full of righteous fury. “I would have never given in. He should have kept trying.” OA/Prairie/Nina responds, “Try to imagine what it’s like to have been a prisoner for all those years. You’re not free just because you can see the ocean. Captivity is a mentality. It’s a thing you carry with you.” Because Patriarchy Hurts Everybody!


Funny you’re the broken one, but I’m the only one who needed saving
‘Cause when you never see the light it’s hard to know which one of us is caving.

– Rihanna ft. Mikky Ekko: “Stay”

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“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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