When one thinks of cosmic literature, one typically imagines H.P. Lovecraft and the Necronomicon. Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from his peers, however, and he was particularly close friends and creative kin with a man named Clark Ashton Smith, a pulp storyteller, sculptor, and insane poet. Smith’s writing is mythical in its intense depictions of colorful worlds, heinous gods, and unending darkness; and the myths are all Smith’s inventions. He creates his own universe through the originality of his visions in a way that Lovecraft does not.
Not often do the worlds of horror and musicals cross over. Aside from a few notably strange blends—The Rocky Horror Show and Repo! The Genetic Opera of course, along with the elusive but acclaimed Evil Dead musical extravaganza—and other efforts that missed the mark (did you know there was a Dracula musical? There’s probably a reason you didn’t.), these genres are polar opposites. How does one combine the melodrama and cheese of a musical with the dreadful macabre of horror? By being SLASHED! That’s how.
There are horror authors whose fiction never sees the light of a film screen. This is likely for the best—their works are so complex and visually bizarre that an adaptation would destroy them. Thomas Ligotti is a prime example of this barrier. Most of his stories are so perfectly phrased and nebulous that seeing them, rather than reading them, would break their terrifying spell. That does not mean that their themes or aesthetics can’t be translated into film through different, less rigid structures. Perhaps unintentionally, Alex Proyas embodies many of Ligotti’s qualities in his cinematic masterpiece, Dark City.
Modern horror fiction that is both original and classically satisfying is difficult to find. So many stories have been brought to paper already, it’s hard to find a plot that has not yet been explored. Many authors must set about exploring these stories from unique, often amusingly clever, angles, but in doing so the story loses its classic power to scare. Literature has not quite exhausted its power, though—not even close. There are authors who can do both at once, some even while leaving a tear in your eye. Stephen Graham Jones is one of these authors.
We begin in a quiet house, after the joyous occasion of a baby’s baptism. An innocuous question—why is one of the house’s beams so withered and small?—leads to the unraveling of a dark story involving unjust cruelty, desperate choices, and satanic vengeance. Many fantastical stories of the 18th and 19th centuries feature such plot devices, but none of them reach the viscerally horrific heights of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
A woman runs down a long, deserted hallway trying to save her son from her maniacal husband, when she is stopped by a ghastly phantom who proclaims, “Great party, isn’t it?” A man wakes in bed to discover that he has transformed into a giant insect, and worries that he might miss his morning train. Another is charged of a crime with no name, and hopes that his co-workers won’t hear about it. A cigar-chewing general sends a misinformed order, which leads a patriotic cowboy to start the nuclear apocalypse. These scenarios are infamous examples of the absurd, the comedic and the horrific, expressed in chaotic unison through fiction. All of them were created by artists who are often taken far too seriously: Franz Kafka and Stanley Kubrick.
The era of cinema referred to as Eurohorror is defined by its eroticism, over-the-top violence, and psychedelic supernatural approaches to storytelling. It’s a rabbit hole of movie culture. There are twisting avenues and bizarre subsections that seem endless, but few filmmakers created a library as compulsively watchable and weirdly hypnotizing as Jean Rollin’s. This man’s filmography is massive, a good amount of them representing his work-for-hire hardcore movies and the cheesier selection of horror films. One gets what one might expect: waif-like young women seducing men, seducing each other, and drinking gallons of bright red blood.
Indie films have seen a sudden surge of coming-of-age stories, from Sing Street and The Way Way Back to The Edge of Seventeen and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Most of these stories, though some are darker than others, offer optimistic visions of growing up. This is arguably one of the most existentially frightening processes human beings have to go through, yet the films themselves are never scary. Then there’s Shirley Jackson, the master of quiet terror. She looks at growing up and finds all the absurdity, the madness, and the horror, along with the liberation.
Horror is an intense, irrational emotion, and most of the fiction based around it is likewise heightened, even melodramatic. Then, there are works of horror that creep at a low frequency, finding their dread in calm and silence. Imagine Ernest Hemingway writing a horror novel, where dull conversation flows without notice into violence and terror. You don’t have to ponder too long—just pick up something by Bret Easton Ellis. His sparse, iceberg-theory prose resembles Hemingway’s, but his stories are made of nightmares.
Few films can get away with creating entire sets, villains, plot beats, and characters out of cardboard. Then again, few films in recent years have conjured the playful, metaphysical spirit that infuses Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze. This purely independent and fully realized vision was one of the greatest joys of this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival lineup.
We study history in order to understand the past, particularly its traumas, so we will not perpetuate them; yet how can we avoid our mistakes when we hardly acknowledge the impact of the ones we have already made?
The grotesque appeal of carnivals, their inherent and attractive darkness, are long-established motifs of horror. Sideshow acts are full of the lurid and uncanny—humans whose appearances or movements aren’t “normal,” showcased behind heavy curtains or glass as objects of hideous wonder. Few can capture this fascination better than Ray Bradbury, who, along with Tod Browning and Diane Arbus, has solidified these images into our public consciousness.
The greatest of all Hallmark holidays, the day of St. Valentine is constructed to make couples feel obligated to go out on expensive and over-anticipated dates, while unnecessarily reminding single people of their status. Candy hearts and roses are meant to celebrate monogamy and “normal” love; but the origins of the holiday go back to Roman culture and involved whips, wolf skins and fertility orgies. Sound more your speed? Then these decidedly non-romantic books may be the right tonic for this holiday:
It is a pet peeve of mine when people argue that a work of artistic cinema or literature cannot be placed in the horror genre. Horror is a spectrum—on one end we have cheesy, exploitative entertainment; on the other, tales that evoke harrowing combinations of repulsion, disgust, and despair. Though some may disagree, I believe Cormac McCarthy’s mind-meltingly disturbing Blood Meridian belongs on the latter end of the horror scale, and for insidious reasons.
Authors and filmmakers have explored alien invasions since the birth of science fiction. The most common incarnation of this story features the aliens seeking domination over the Earth, with the humans uniting and fighting back. At their cores, these tales are optimistic, and their power pales in comparison to the horrifying allegory at the heart of Octavia Butler’s Dawn. [For those who have not read this and want to, be warned—this article contains a few spoilers.]