a walking study in demonology

In responding to accusations that her character Amy Dunne in Gone Girl perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes, Gillian Flynn says:

the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.

And also, in explaining her predilection for writing villainous women in general:

I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.

As someone who is writing her own female villain right now, I would like to suggest a few of the noteworthy “bad girls” that came before her and helped to inspire her – female villains that are authentically scary, violent, and arguably evil (I’m generally uncomfortable throwing around “evil,” despite writing in horror). They’re also so enrapturing that you just can’t look away. Clearly, there are many other types of female villains – the Bad Nurse, the Vain Actress, the Jealous Wannabe. The girls on this list, and the one I’m writing, are what I’ll call Superpredators.

Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

merricat

It’s to Jackson’s credit that you don’t quite realize it at first, but Merricat is a mass-murdering little psychopath who kills nearly her entire family for no reason and allows her older sister to take the blame. She exhibits no remorse and no regard for anyone except herself (and maybe her cat) – even her “care” for her older sister is ultimately an attempt to resist any undesired change in her life regardless of the cost she inflicts on others. She’s completely lacking in empathy – completely absorbed by her own logical system, a self-made witchcraft – and completely fine with that.

Tomie, Tomie, by Junji Ito

tomie

Tomie was also born bad to the bone, but she’s more demon than psychopath. Always appearing as a beautiful, conniving high-school girl, Tomie breaks up relationships, ruins friendships, and inspires murder. Inevitably, she always winds up on the wrong side of somebody’s knife, but Tomie is unkillable – an eternal embodiment of the cost of desire. I’ve always thought there was something very bold about Ito’s decision to make his demoness both unquestionably evil at the elemental level and also a perpetual victim of horrific, very human violence.

Beloved, Beloved, by Toni Morrison

beloved

Beloved was the first female character to scare the shit out of me, because Morrison writes her so incomprehensibly alien, so “not right.” She is clearly dead yet clearly corporeal, and imposes an oppressive gloom over a makeshift family that is already struggling uphill to stay together. Like Tomie, Beloved reflects the evil of human society and the darkness of the human heart. Her ultimate childishly selfish objective is to drive everyone else away from her mother using whatever means necessary so she can have her mother to herself – and, apparently, to consume and destroy life.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

daisy

Daisy is oft-dismissed as an ineffectual non-character, but I consider her a non-violent, slothful psychopath. Daisy is vapidly selfish, does not demonstrate capacity to feel for anything except objects (over-the-top melodramatic performances aside), and I think there’s a compelling alt-reading of this book in which she murders her husband’s mistress in cold blood and manipulates her brutish oaf-husband to have her cloying lover killed because he’s begun to inconvenience her. The fact that none of the male characters see this is demonstrative of how well she’s learned to game them.

Callisto, Xena: Warrior Princess

callisto

Try as I might to root for bad-ass and rather boring Xena and idealistic jokester Gabrielle, it was unstable, evil, hyena-laughing Callisto, a female mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Apocalypse Now‘s napalm-and-surf-loving Kilgore, who always stole the show. She was such a shameless fiend. Callisto wasn’t born bad – she was driven mad by watching bad Xena kill her family. Like any classical supervillain, Callisto is completely warped by her desire for vengeance over Xena, which she also frequently mistakes for a desire to be Xena.

Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity

katie

It’s hard to pick just one female horror spook – they are all over the place, and are usually the angry victims of a patriarchal society – but I went with Katie, the demon-possessed heroine/antagonist of the Paranormal Activity series, because her transformation from relatable girl-next-door to a non-human uber-monster is so shocking and tragic. Katie is also the victim of the patriarchy, having been saddled with the demon by her brother-in-law, and despite her unthinking post-possession brutality, the PA series loves her like Scream loves Sidney Prescott – she’s the bleeding heart of the franchise.

Maybe it’s because I’m absorbed with horror that I think there’s no shortage of evil women. The horror-related question I’m asked most often by friends is “why do all ghosts seem to be women?” and no matter how you answer (I have several stand-by explanations, and I’m sure there are many others), there’s no avoiding the very close relationship that women have with evil, or at least the dark, in horror. Things are different in political fiction – there are some morally corrupt Mata Haris, the Bond Girls who are on the wrong side of Western civilization, but they’re the women Flynn would dismiss as vamps. A lot of political novels have either one female character – a love interest or ingenue, flat with goodness – or no female characters (except a revolving door of prostitutes). It’s easily argued that politics and governance are a man’s game, but real life shows that women can very easily be political villains, no matter whether you think that’s Margaret Thatcher or Jane Fonda. Lady Macbeth aside, I’m not sure fiction has quite reached its full potential on this front. But I hope my girl Carly will be a worthy contribution.

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Black Mirror [review]

I’ve been thinking lately about the difficulty of writing political fiction, especially speculative political fiction. The main pitfall of political fiction is highlighted by Anthony Burgess in his foreword to A Clockwork Orange: “too didactic to be artistic.” I disagree with Burgess that A Clockwork Orange suffers from that problem, but I’ll leave that entire conundrum for another time. Watching the British TV show Black Mirror drew me to another issue: political realism. This is actually the primary problem I have with most YA dystopias – I just don’t believe that this terrible, unequal, totalitarian society could possibly exist or function long enough for a revolution to need to take place. As Ben “Greasnin'” Platt on Something Awful once said, “I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty huge willingness to suspend disbelief. Hell, I watched Dragon Ball Z for years and enjoyed the fuck out of it. But somehow this just asked too much of me.” Yes, there is North Korea… but that’s the exception that proves the rule. There are many, many more examples of “soft authoritarian” regimes that provide room for rich and fantastic stories – I grew up in one.

Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series exploring near-future technological/social media horror scenarios created by Charlie Brooker. Netflix put up the first six episodes and the American digital media got very excited about “the best show you’ve never seen,” so I decided to check them out. It’s a very well-acted and well-directed series, generally sleek and elegant and nuanced. I was also surprised by how blatantly political the show is – out of six episodes, four revolve around politicians or the power structure as a whole.

The National Anthem

“The National Anthem”: The royal princess is kidnapped, and the ransom video goes up on YouTube – either the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live TV, or the princess dies. It’s a tense and interesting exploration of how a completely democratic society – at least, a government that is completely kowtowed to public opinion – would deal with this situation, and I appreciated the very sympathetic portrayal it gave to the Prime Minister. However, I cannot imagine a society in which such a ransom demand would be entertained. Perhaps I say this because I have never lived in a monarchy? I also can’t imagine a society in which the decision would be determined solely by public approval ratings. Polls matter, yeah, but a nation is more than the sum of its parts. And a state is way more.

15 Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits”: Strong “statement” episode, if you buy the premise that the outdoors have been destroyed and the only way to power the remaining sad claustrophobic world is through pedaling bikes all day. This is the only episode that focuses squarely on that least sexy of social topics – economics: you must pay to skip the advertisements that enclose you in your little shiny prison cell, you spend your “merits” buying useless digital accessories for your useless digital persona. And at night, when you’re not jerking off to pay-for-porn, you’re watching an X-Factor type show where your fellow bike-riders try to sing their way off the bikes. Very grim, very bitter (I almost want to say hateful), and a little overly-telegraphed (didactic?), but it gets points for elaborate and punchy world-building. This is the kind of story that would get nominated for Hugos if it was written down, but wouldn’t work nearly as well without visuals.

The Entire History of You

“The Entire History of You”: Episode 1 that has nothing to do with politics. No qualms on the political realism spectrum here – this is basically life now, except with embedded “grains” that let you play back everything you see. The whole marital angst over infidelity thing isn’t really my cup of tea, and I can see why Robert Downey Jr. feels he can sell this to Hollywood, but characters and dialogue are convincing in their banal flaws and weaknesses. To be honest, if there’s an episode that I felt didn’t belong in Black Mirror, though, it’s this one.

Be Right Back

“Be Right Back”: Episode 2 that has nothing to do with politics, and by far, this is the stand-out episode of Black Mirror for me – admittedly, this hit me right in the nerve. Lead actress Hayley Atwell, aka Agent Peggy Carter, is extraordinary as a woman overcome by grief when her partner dies in a sudden crash. Because her partner was a social media addict, however, he has left behind enough bread crumbs for software to create an alter version of him who can talk to her, responding as the software thinks he would. This reminded me very much of Her, which I thought was great (but “Be Right Back” is better), as well as the Rachel Swirsky story “Eros, Philia, Agape.” Uncliched, very realistic, harrowing as hell. I straight-up cried several times.

White Bear

“White Bear”: If only they had hired a different main actress, I would have loved “White Bear.” But I hate watching hysteria, and the main actress is very much of the scream/cry school of dramatic acting. That aside, “White Bear” is a very clever little episode-within-an-episode about voyeurism and by-stander rubbernecking. The critique of the “angry mob, hungry for justice” is solid. I actually even liked the internal episode, but that may be because I really enjoy the techno-transmitted zombie-ism featured in indie horror movies Pontypool and The Signal. This is where I realized that Brooker’s overall statement about the hazards of technology is this: while empowering “the masses,” it turns people into sheeple, and sheeple into… well, carnivorous, brutish, and surprisingly easily amused sheeple.

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

“The Waldo Moment”: If there were any doubts about Brooker’s aforementioned statement, “The Waldo Moment” bludgeons them to death with a hammer. This is a downright Burke-ian episode about a cartoon bear that starts off as a talk show gag and ends up a joke candidate running for office, beloved for his profanity and apolitical irreverence. I actually had to wonder if this was a jab at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (a pretty poor one, if so). Despite some good moments about the role of corporate funding in political campaigns, the episode was disjointed and not particularly interesting. The “apocalypse” ending was laughable in its un-reality, and judging by the rest of the episode, I don’t think there would have been a satisfactory explanation for this turn of events.

So in sum, in Brooker’s world, people are incredibly stupid (especially in crowds), technology will make them dumber, and politicians will either find themselves utterly hamstrung by the whim of the mob or will find a way to channel that mob’s demand for entertainment into something useful. Not the most radical message, and fairly curmudgeonly for my taste – I unabashedly love the Joker’s social experiment on the ferries in The Dark Knight (“what were you trying to prove, that deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?”), and hated that this sentiment was overwritten in The Dark Knight Rises. But Black Mirror deserves credit for complicating the message with astute depictions of consumerism and corporate financing, and keeping its characters very well-rounded. I would simply question whether people are as ugly – or as influential – as Brooker thinks.

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“Girl, I Love You” [the playlist]

“Girl, I Love You” is named after a song by Massive Attack, but this playlist is an atmospheric and moody one. I also really lucked out that each song has a wildly appropriate music video (was I actually writing a story to explain the “Summertime Sadness” video?!). That’s probably because music helped this story along by creating an ambiance, but the plot itself was inspired by a Junji Ito comic, “The Will.” Said comic is about two teenage girls who hate each other so much that they kill themselves in order to curse each other forever, and end up haunting each other’s bewildered families. Seriously – track this down. And everything else Junji Ito creates, for that matter. It’s totally (and willfully) absurd, but one of my very favorite things in the whole world is horror stories that take place in an elaborately-constructed, socially-and-economically-considered universe. This is why I appreciate movies like Daybreakers and Pacific Rim – because you get to see snippets of the kind of day-to-day society the paranormal phenomena has wrought. Good golly, I love that stuff. Anyway, that was what I was trying to achieve with this story – in a world where supernatural curses are commodified, what the hell would teen girls with all their psychodrama do with such curses?

emotionally compromised teenage girl

 

Fun fact: every time I look at that gif I think he’s holding a gun, not a cellphone.

And while this was not written from experience, per se (and thank God for that), I did and do have a best friend who once called us blood sisters back in seventh grade. I was very emotionally compromised at the time, and I am pretty sure that I owe that friendship my life. Shout-out to Lindsey, for whom the story is dedicated.

“Girl, I Love You” is in Phantasm Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington.

“Girl I Love You” – Massive Attack: Girl I’m back in Spanish town, ain’t no trouble coming around, you promise you will never let me down, if you love me that much you will stick around

“Ghosts (Modwheel Mood Remix)” – Ladytron: There’s a ghost in me who wants to say “I’m sorry” – doesn’t mean I’m sorry

“Summertime Sadness (Cedric Gervais Remix)” – Lana Del Rey: I just wanted you to know that baby, you’re the best

“Strawberry Gashes” – Jack Off Jill: Watch me fault her, “you’re living like a disaster,” she said kill me faster with strawberry gashes all over, watch me lose her (it’s almost like losing myself), give her my soul, and let them take somebody else (get away from me)

“In The Dark” – The Birthday Massacre: All these broken pieces left unglued should never find their way into the hands of someone like you

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“Only Unity Saves the Damned” [the playlist]

The first thing I do when I get a new kernel of a story is start compiling a playlist for it. I don’t know if I could write without music; it’s a huge source of atmospheric and linguistic inspiration, and quite frankly, I name a lot of stories after songs. In honor of what I owe to music, and because I spend so much time making these playlists, I’ve decided to share a five-song soundtrack for each story I publish.

“Only Unity Saves the Damned” is named after a political slogan, not a song, and like its cousin-story set in another freakish-mundane small town in Nebraska, “Absolute Zero,” was born essentially fully-formed. I think that like “Absolute Zero,” it’s a story whose themes and characters had been fermenting in me since I spent my tortured adolescence in Nebraska (there are things I love about the state – well, mostly the football team – but my Nebraska stories are all cold, moody, alienated, and in this case a little angry [“Bored,” “Ticks and Leeches”]). What really kicked this story into gear was listening to the latest Swans album (The Seer) – in particular, the track “Lunacy.” I can’t remember if I decided to name my trio the LunaTicks before or after I heard this song, but it is truly the nucleus of this story in every sense. “Right Where It Belongs” is one of my favorite mood-pieces of all time, and hits on this story’s themes of (self-)deception, buried truth, mental entrapment. And “All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands,” well… besides Sufjan Stevens’ trademark creepy-quaint northern Americana that defines so much of Big Ten country, trees are a pretty big deal in this story.

OUSTD – ha, ousted – is in Letters to Lovecraft, edited by Jesse Bullington.

“Lunacy” – Swans: Break the chain hide within innocence (not innocent), innocent in no sense, eat the beast, keep him in, take the blame, speak the name (lunacy, lunacy) / kill the truth or speak the name (lunacy, lunacy), your childhood is over

“Bored” – Deftones: Get bored, I get bored, I get bored, I wish for a real one

“Ticks & Leeches” – Tool: Suck me dry, my blood is bruised and borrowed, you thieving bastards, you have turned my blood cold and bitter, beat my compassion black and blue / I hope you’re choking, I hope you choke on this

“Right Where It Belongs” – Nine Inch Nails: What if all the world’s inside of your head / Your devils and your gods, all the living and the dead, and you’re really all alone? You can live in this illusion, you can choose to believe, you keep looking but you can’t find the woods while you’re hiding in the trees

“All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens: And I am joining all my thoughts to you, and I’m preparing every part for you

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welcome to the bestiary

One of the many things I adore about NBC’s Hannibal is the feathered stag that haunts Will Graham and sometimes evolves into a stag-man.  I have a huge soft spot for the recurrent use of animals as symbolic, otherworldly entities in horror – i.e., not as monster bait, nor necessarily as the monster itself, but as a sort of gateway, sometimes a hallucinatory one, between the normal and paranormal world, or between the mundane and the sublime.

Hannibal_Stag_zps46309a7cClearly, I like stags for this purpose – I did write a story about a Stag-Man, after all – as they strike very evocative poses and call to mind a strange combination of beauty, royalty, sacrament, and ultimate victimhood (the ridiculous idea of Bambi as King of the Forest).  Any sort of animal horn is probably going to immediately ping your cultural spidey-sense, whether you think of the Abrahamic Devil or something older, like a bull-god.  Much like the stag, you hit that weird sweet spot between an image that looks very powerful but is intended to be sacrificed.  The Conspiracy captures this quite well, when one of the guys trying to break into a secret society finds himself wearing a very ominous-looking bull mask that marks him as the “quarry”:

TheConspiracy_Tarsus

But you don’t have to stop there.  Twin Peaks does this with owls (they are not what they seem), so well that I actually am rather frightened of owls now.  It’s a shame, because I used to like owls.  The video for the song “The Owl,” by I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, doesn’t help.

FinderScreenSnapz035

Candyman does this with bees.

10-horror-movie-facts-that-you-probably-didn-t-know-8ae3eae4-e4dd-4e60-9dc0-ff74053a044c

Ju-On does this with cats.

jucats

The Omen does this with dogs (all kinds of dogs, but the skeletonized jackal in the remake is the worst IMO).

PossibleSatanInRemake

The Disney movie captures precisely none of this, but Kipling’s The Jungle-Book has one of the greatest ambiguous animal conduits into the unknown of all time – the “ghost”-tiger Shere-Khan. I’m sure Shere-Khan himself was inspired by the great man-eating tigers that were the bane of British India’s attempts to lay railroad tracks.

Buldeo was explaining how the tiger that had carried away Messua’s son was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old money-lender, who had died some years ago. “And I know that this is true,” he said, “because Purun Dass always limped from the blow that he got in a riot when his account books were burned, and the tiger that I speak of he limps, too, for the tracks of his pads are unequal.”

“True, true, that must be the truth,” said the gray-beards, nodding together.

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The Control Group

I’ve been really digging Emily Carroll’s horror comics. My favorite so far has been the very ghoulish “Out of Skin.”  Her wife Kate Craig’s comic “Heart Of Ice” is great too, especially if you love arctic horror (and who doesn’t?).  

emily carroll

I really admire artists that can draw scary things, mostly because I can’t imagine possessing that delicate of a balance between creative expression and mental control: I am pretty confident that if I ever created anything like one of Junji Ito’s comics, I would immediately burn it for fear of it coming to life. Not that this isn’t something I worry about with writing too – even though I write what I broadly classify as horror (I prefer “dark”), few things that I’ve written actually terrify me in the way that Ju-On, for example, terrifies me, and I think there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to push that envelope because I’m afraid of my fears manifesting in real life. There are enough horror movies about writers who go forth to learn what fear is and cross one bridge too many (see also: reason I’m not about to go live in an old house for three months to pound out my final draft).

Of course, I have written stories featuring elements that frighten me – “Red Goat Black Goat” probably being the prime example, since that was based off a childhood story that scared the shit out of me, although “Girl I Love You,” “The Five Stages of Grief,” and “Pugelbone” also creep me out – and I haven’t gone crazy. I have “retained control” (get back to me if I ever write a story about crawling ghosts, though).  I’m sure horror illustrators don’t go crazy either (although I still think there’s something about image that is much more powerful than written text). They created it, after all; they control it. I think this is actually at the heart of the reason a lot of people tell horror stories – whether in text or art or film or music – they want to conquer some fleeting thing, some image, some sentence, some idea, that scares them. They want to wrangle it into something they can understand and control.  Which gets to something that Emily Carroll talks about in this interview, something that I’ve sort of dealt with too when people ask me to explain a story like, say, “Absolute Zero”:

So often people will treat that story like it’s a mystery with One True Solution, as though the final panel is a puzzle to be solved, but it really isn’t like that at all. And that was on purpose – growing up, my least favourite part of any horror story was the part towards the end that explained all the scariness away. Because I want to keep away from that in my own work, I made the conscious decision to leave the ending of that story (and preceding events, really) ambiguous and unresolved, in an effort to create a haunting feeling even after the comic ends.

 

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