2017 in Review – Best Doggos

Who am I kidding? Every dog is the best dog. Here’s a tribute to the dogs of 2017, sponsored by my favrit dergs, Aggie and Charlotte:

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Incidentally, Merry Christmas! 

Dogs don’t fare well in books. Unless they are the star of the show (The Chet and Bernie series), the dog is either noble sacrifice, hapless victim, or, typically in non-horror books, dies because that’s what happens at the end of too-short doggo lives.

Personally I think that’s a lazy plot point, a way to score an easy emotional reaction, because the dogs are clearly the most important character in any story. Slaughter humans by the score, I say! Leave the puppies alone. What did they do to deserve it?

 

OtisThe Silence by Tim Lebbons. Otis is a protector. A champ who ensure that his family is safe in the face of an inscrutable enemy that hunts by sound. Brave doggo!

Luna  – The Shuddering by Ania Ahlborn.  Luna is a husky who isn’t afraid to jump in when her people are threatened. The threat is strangely hairless, emaciated creatures with shovel-hands and teeth like knife blades. This doesn’t stop Luna from sinking her teeth into the menace, if only to protect the ones she loves. Even if the ones she loves are idiots who kind of walk right into it.

Chet – Dog on It by Spencer Quinn. Chet endures some adversity for the sake of his erstwhile owner, “Detective” Bernie. He ends up in a “kill” shelter, on the table, and anyone who’s a dog lover will shudder at the prospect of putting down a pup who can’t find love. Chet fights his way through his trials to help his ding-dong dad solve the mystery of a missing child.

Tim – Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero. Tim has a lineage to live up to. His father was a mystery solving champ. Tim rides in an improvised backpack to the deepest depths of a subterranean cave and fights Lovecraftian creatures to keep his people safe.

Nubs – Seeds by Ania Ahlborn. Nubs is the best family dog. Loves his people. If he could save them from the demon, he would.

Jasper – The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Jasper may not hear so well anymore. But he loves being above the world  in an airplane with his best person, sitting shotgun. He’s always ready to warn of impending threats and is totally cool with his unconventional diet in this post-apocalyptic world.

The Dog Stars also wins best dog-related quote of the year:

Why do I fly my eight year old Cessna four seater? 

Because the seats are side by side. So Jasper can be my copilot. The real reason. The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen.” 

Dogs = Best Copilots.

 

2017 in Review – Horror Through the Eons

One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. Hendrix, the author of gimmicky Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, rounds up the best of cheesy, pulp horror from the 70’s and 80’s and presents them in all their insane glory. With a focus on mass-market paperbacks and their gorgeous, gory covers, Hendrix pays tribute to the underrated artists and authors whose work combines to offend, disgust, and delight the reader.

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A goodly portion of my reading time this year has been devoted to wallowing in this madness, leading me to find a new favorite author, and, as per usual, Nazis. I traveled over a century in horror this year. How has horror fiction changed?

1872: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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The particular edition I read had the fun quirk of not having any page numbers

Published 25 years ahead of Dracula , Carmilla might be the OG of vampires. Just like it’s more famous successor, there’s a dark castle in the middle of nowhere, mysterious deaths, ladies fainting all over the place, and a mysterious, charming woman who sleeps later than a teenager.

The horror literature of this era tended to be melodramatic and vague, professions and exclamations and declarations littered plots, which veered toward the nonsensical when summed up cliff-notes style. Gore was limited to “Yeah, we cut off her head” without going into visceral descriptions.

Looking at the billions of iterations of vampires that followed, the vampire as a solitary, blood-stealing creature with a few simple rules about sunlight and wooden stakes is refreshing. The title character, Carmilla, just wants to live for eternity and drink some blood? Can’t we leave her be?

1959-62: The Haunting of Hill House/The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House every year because it’s my absolute favorite novel, and if you don’t think it’s the greatest, you’re obviously illiterate.

Published in 1959, the novel inspired authors from Richard Matheson to Sarah Langan to Stephen King. In addition to re-reading Haunting, I read Jackson’s earlier, apocalyptic novel The Sundial, a less polished story about a group of characters huddling together in an isolated mansion, slowly driving each other mad as they await a prophesied apocalypse.

Sounds kind of like election night, 2016.

In Paperbacks from Hell, Hendrix describes this particular period as lagging behind the times. “Horror seemed to have no future,” he writes, “because it was trapped in the past.” Classics like those above would not be labeled “horror,” but ostensibly the more reader-friendly “thriller.”

A novel about two boys who encounter a haunted carnival with a time machine carousel, a witch in a hot air balloon, disfigured victims disguised as circus acts, and a demonic ringmaster with living tattoos certainly sounds like a horror novel though. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is plotted like horror but reads like a stream of consciousness, coming-of-age tale. It’s almost sweet, in a grotesque, demented way.

The horror novels of this era could be viewed either of two ways. One: they’re musty relics tied to the gothic moorings of Bronte, Du Maurier, Shelley, and Stoker, trapped in polite conventions where the darkest of acts are implied. Or they’re the last vestige of honorable horror before the flood of depraved and disgusting tripe that flooded the market in the 70’s and 80’s and of course perverted our children’s minds.

It’s really kind of both. Horror finally caught up to the culture at a time when cinema was going for broke with brutal films like Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, and Cannibal Holocaust. It became less about ghost rapping under tables and more about maniacs playing jump rope with intestines. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood could certainly complete with the nastier of movies that seared our brains and haunted our dreams.

1979-1982: Michael McDowell, You Guys

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My very first audiobook this year was a little gem called The Elementals. I bought it because it was super cheap and actually looked pretty good. It was great. Who knew the writer for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas could churn out cheesy horror pulps full of memorable characters and atmospheric chills?

I’ve already written at length about The ElementalsKatieand The Amulet. I just wanted to give another shout-out to my new favorite horror author. Sadly, he died in 1999 at the age of 49 and the world is a lesser place because of that.

1977-1984: The Amityville Horror/Incarnate/Wolf’s Hour

As I was adding up the fiction and non-fiction I read this year, I paused as I tried to categorize Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Will we ever know for sure?

Just kidding. That shit is made up.

I just started listening to an entertaining podcast called My Favorite Murderon which the hosts relate their favorite murders each episode. There’s something like a hundred episodes now, so that’s a lot of murder. They commented on how there seemed to be an explosion of crazy murders happening in the 70’s, and one of those crazy murders was committed by Ronald DeFeo, who shot his entire family while they slept, then went to the bar.

Even crazier is the curious immortality of The Amityville Horror. Posited as a true story, it tell the story of the Lutz family, those unfortunate souls who moved into the house where the murders were committed. They only stayed 28 days, claiming all sorts of paranormal nonsense. Approximately eight million movies have been made, as recent as this year.

I was surprised by how readable Amityville turned out to be; the writing is solidly mediocre, and I can only assume the author was paid extra for exclamation marks. But the story is pretty good. Truthful? Believable? Not so much.

The Wolf’s Hour is by the same author who brought you the apocalyptic epic, Swan Song. It may be the only decent werewolf novel in existence. My review of it is here. Suffice it to say one of the classic, if not so pulpy, 80’s authors.

Incarnate is by another master of horror, Ramsey Campbell. It’s a slow burn, and for much of the novel, it seems like nothing is happening at all, or that it’s fitting together in any coherent manner. But wait until the end. A group of people participate in a study about prophetic dreaming, and eleven years later, the echoes of that mutually shared dream finally bear down.

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I have to thank Paperbacks from Hell and Michael McDowell for igniting a love for schlocky horror. I’ve always been a big B movie fan; one of my favorite films is the bloodiest movie ever made, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (or Braindead.) The nerd in me delights at the intersection of cheese and gore where the 80’s collided to produce some of the most ridiculous and amazing horror films/books of all time.

*Lawnmower Massacres

  • I read MacBeth this year and was thrilled to connect with well known references such as “By the pricking of my thumbs” (Agatha Christie novel) “something wicked this way comes” (Bradbury novel). Also there are multiple references in Hamilton (“tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” “screw your courage to the sticking place.”)
  • I remember watching Something Wicked This Way Comes as a kid and being pretty freaked out by some tarantulas. That’s all I remember.
  • Seriously, if you’re the morbid sort, My Favorite Murder is a super-fun and funny podcast. Their tagline is “Stay Sexy. Don’t Get Murdered.” Rules to live by.
  • So there’s a big gap between Carmilla and the horror fiction of the 50’s and 60’s in this post. Inhabiting that gap I can only assume is the cosmic void wherein dwells the eldritch gods.

Tentacles and Racist Dirtbags: Approaches to Lovecraft

I’m just going to get this out of the way: The question of separating Art and Artist is never going to be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Whether we dismiss the art completely, or grant it begrudging respect, or make just make exceptions for our favorite artists, we can draw lines in the sand all day long just to watch the next tide sweep them away.

H.P. Lovecraft was a shitty human being in most respects. His grim view of humanity is reflected in the bleakness of his mythos, the cosmic void and eldritch gods negating the meaning of human existence. He directed the majority of his disdain at those of different races, being an obsessive anglophile. Yeah, he was a huge racist.

I’ve loved Lovecraft’s work for years and years, however much I feel the need to begin any adulation of his work with a disclaimer. “I know he’s a racist dirtbag, but…At the Mountains of Madness? I mean, can you even…?”

Instead of asking again about separating artist and art, I’ve been mulling over a more interesting question after reading a trio of books that in one sense or another, owe a great deal to the creator of Cthulhu.

All art is necessarily derivative, and writers, whether they admit it or not, pay homage, allude to, or just plain rip off the authors of previous eras,. So how do they approach someone so obviously problematic as Lovecraft while acknowledging how large a debt they owe to his universe?

Let’s see how three novels published within the last few years have approached it.

1. Let’s Just Put Some Tentacles on the Cover

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In a novel full of allusions, the Lovecraftian references are oblique, never mentioned outright.

Four kids and a dog who used to solve mysteries are now are all grown up and massively effed up. They reunite to solve one last mystery! But when the meddling kids, now meddled-out adults, return to their old haunts to close the lid on their final case, there’s a whole bunch of weird, cosmic results.

There’s a mad doctor reanimating the dead, creepy subterranean creatures, an elder god looking to make a comeback and maybe destroy humanity. There’s also a character residing in Arkham Asylum where he meets a professor from Miskatonic University; all sorts of Lovecraftian shenanigans going on here.

The premise is cute, the story decent and occasionally funny,  but the best character is the dog, and there are dull stretches of just talking, mostly about one character’s hair, that slams the plot to a halt more than once. Cantero wisely avoids copying Scooby Doo beat for beat; the characters have different names and characteristics, and the dog is not a Great Dane but a Pointer, and his name is Tim. That dog is EPIC.

2. Just Lay it All Out There

I am Providence by Nick Mamatas

I am Providence basically starts out with acknowledging Lovecraft’s racist assholery.  The action takes place at the annual Summer Tentacular! A convention for Lovecraft buffs and writers to mingle, hold half-assed panels, and drink. The novel begins with a cool trick. The narrator is dead, yet somehow his neurons are still firing, and he’s very aware of the going-ons in the morgue where he is being held. His narrative alternates with another attendee of the convention who is trying to solve his murder. The narrative device is interesting for a while, until it requires a lot of action to take place in the morgue under the most contrived of circumstances.

Lovecraft’s problems with other races and also women recur throughout the novel, as we meet many zany and sometimes poorly differentiated characters, all of them being exactly the weirdos that “normal” people imagine attend these conventions. The character decisions in this book are some of the weirdest I’ve come across. Instead of the beats illuminating the characters, they are in clear service to the plot (the cops bring several murder suspects down to the morgue multiple times, because that is common police procedure…?)

Ultimately, the novel leads to an ending it doesn’t earn, although it never wavers on Lovecraft’s faults. It doesn’t seem to lead to any conclusions though, one way or another, preferring to make fun of nerds rather than create any bigger picture.

3. Build a Better World

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft is only mentioned briefly in the beginning of this novel, a story about insane cultists, Necronomicons, and 1950’s Jim Crow America. If you’re going to tell a story about the ills of racism, H.P. Lovecraft is an odd choice, although “Lovecraft Country” is an apt description for the nightmarish reality of being black in the 1950’s.

Lovecraft Country tells its story episodically, each chapter focusing on a different character and their strange journeys that require them to fight not only discrimination and menacing small-town cops, but interstellar portals, creepy cults, and haunted chess boards. Especially striking is the saga of a black woman who is drugged by one of the cult leaders and wakes up as a white woman. Anyone who ever said white privilege doesn’t exist ought to read this story and reevaluate their opinions.

Lovecraft Country is at once an exploration of our country’s shameful history of discrimination and hatred, and a celebration of the weird. It is proof that we can take a terrible thing and use it to start a new dialogue.

And maybe that is how we can start a conversation around our problematic creators.

JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

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DID YOU KNOW LOVECRAFT INVENTED TENTACLES???

*Colours Out of Space

  • I stopped eating at Jimmy John’s when I found out the owner was a big game trophy hunter, which is disgusting. Following this logic, should I also stop reading Hemingway, also a big game trophy hunter? TRICK QUESTION! I don’t read Hemingway because he’s boring as shit.
  • In Meddling Kids, there’s this recurring bit where someone will mention witches burning at Salem, and a character is all “Salem! Stop talking about Salem! It’s not always about Salem!” But what bothers me is the obvious historical inaccuracy: no witches were burned in Salem. Burning was more of a European custom. Those Salemites were all about hanging people and sometimes piling giant rocks on them.
  • My favorite cutesy reference in Meddling Kids is probably the Zoinx River. I listened to this on audiobook, so every time the narrator said “Zoinx River,” I laughed out loud. Go ahead, try it. Zoinx River.
  • There is an actual H.P. Lovecraft Convention held in Portland, OR every year called CthulhuCon