‘Woodhouse’ – A short film about the numinous longing for monsters

Woodhouse

The Woodhouse Nature Reserve, South East London. It’s a sprawling hectare of knotted ivy and mossy tree stumps. And while its edges are speckled with rusting tins and damp takeaway boxes, its interior is verdant, untouched. There, beyond the padlocked gates some thing, some creature is living.

This thoroughly riveting short film by writer/director Fred Rowson won Film London’s Best of Boroughs Jury Award and was made with support from Film London, Blink Productions, and the Kevin Spacey Foundation. The writing, acting, directing, cinematography, visual design, musical score, and everything else are quite lush and beautiful. And the concept is quite striking.

Annalee Newitz at io9 describes Woodhouse as “a beautiful, sad short film about a little girl who sees a monster in a London park. But it’s also about why we long to find monsters — and the forces that crush our desires. . . . Rowson offers us a skeptic’s view of cryptozoology, but also mourns the loss of imagination that skepticism brings.”

Greg at The Daily Grail describes it as “A Monster Film That Examines the Interplay between Belief and Skepticism” and says it “shows how marginalised the people studying these topics are by others, from family to media outlets — or at the very least, how modern society tends to suppress non-conforming ideas, imagination and adventure.”

I agree with both descriptions/assessments. But in slight contradistinction to Ms. Newitz’s overall take, I also add that Woodhouse touches the numinous and sublime at multiple points by offering a bit of Fortean, John Keelian, and even Chapel Perilous-type tension between natural and supernatural/preternatural/paranormal takes on life and reality, and by hinting, especially in its final scene and shot (which work in tandem with all that comes before), that the “answer” to this conundrum is both a riddle that defines our deepest selves and, perhaps, an objective reality that can rise up to confront and haunt us.

(If you can’t play the hi-res Vimeo version above, try the slightly lower-res but still nice-looking YouTube version.)

Interview with novelist T. M. Wright: Creativity, the muse, and finding your writer’s voice

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When I took down the Demon Muse site in 2012, this did away with the couple of interviews that I had conducted for the site. A few weeks ago I republished the one with John Langan here. Now the circle is complete, because here’s the resurrection of my interview/conversation with T. M. Wright:

An Unleashed Imagination: Conversation with T. M. Wright

Many of you surely know Terry as the author of the classic horror novels Strange Seed (1978) and A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984). In this interview he talks about his creative process and his thoughts on the relationship between muse-like inspiration and hard work. Here’s a sample:

Getting in touch with the creative unconscious is probably a tricky thing to do. After all, it’s the “unconscious” for a reason: it doesn’t want to be gotten in touch with. But to find that true creative voice, my advice would be to forget it’s there, and simply write.  It doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s got some kind of flow, strange or otherwise. How much should you write? As much as you can until it becomes drudgery. When that happens, back away.

Teeming Links – June 13, 2014

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In a truly horrific instance of mythic and memetic madness, Slender Man has now inspired two teens to try and murder a friend and (apparently) a daughter to try and murder her mother. For those who aren’t aware, Slenderman is “perhaps the Internet’s best and scariest legend,” a daemonic/demonic monster that was created in full view over the past few years by a collective Internet fanbase and that now stands as “a distillation of the most frightening images and trends” in both supernatural folklore and current pop culture (especially the horror genre). In Slenderman we can trace the birth and evolution of a modern monster that has now, in some sense, stepped out of daimonic-folkloric hyperspace and into the literal-factual realm.

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Awesome: Behold the Dystopia Tracker: “Our goal is to document, with your help, all the predictions in literature, film or games that have been made for the future and what has become reality already.”

Arts and culture writer Scott Timberg worries that people who read will become monkish outcasts in a cultural of digital distraction: “Are we doing our son a disservice by allowing him to become a deep and engaged reader? Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st, training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world?”

A. O. Scott reflects deeply on the relationship between art, work, and financial success in a money-obsessed culture.

Roger Scruton analyzes the problem of scientism in the arts and humanities: “This is a sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. . . . [There] are questions that deal with the ‘spirit,’ with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods.”

Cultural and intellectual historian Sophia Rosenfeld observes that Americans have become tyrannized by too many “choices” in a culture dominated by the neoliberal market model of universal consumerism.

Mitch Horowitz traces the fascinating friendship and mutual inspiration of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan.

Al Gore says the violations that Edward Snowden exposed are greater than the ones he committed.

Comparing_Religions_by_Jeffrey_KripalJeffrey Kripal’s new book Comparing Religions is the first introductory textbook on comparative religion that makes a major place for the paranormal as such. Chapter 8, for example, is titled “The Religious Imagination and Its Paranormal Powers: Angels, Aliens, and Anomalies.” In a recent two-part review (see Part 1 and Part 2), religion scholar and UFO theorist David Halperin writes, “More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. . . . Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion?  I haven’t seen it. . . . One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground.’ Some will surely have this reaction.” The publisher’s companion Website for the book contains much of interest, including “Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly” and detailed summaries of seven religious traditions.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Slender Man” image courtesy of mdl70 under Creative Commons / Flickr

Short Film: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound”

Here’s a short (5-minute) adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Hound,” rendered with CG animation and presented in a really intriguing style. I wouldn’t have expected it to “work” for me, but by Azathoth, it does. The gloomy and intriguing visual conception and the lush sound design all add up to a very effective presentation of Lovecraft’s tale of two men who, craving a sublime experience of darkness and decadence, and having exhausted the available literary and artistic sources for such things, turn to grave-robbing. In short order, they call down a hideous fate upon themselves when they inadvertently wake up an ancient supernatural presence.

The predatory excursions on which we collected our unmentionable treasures were always artistically memorable events. We were no vulgar ghouls, but worked only under certain conditions of mood, landscape, environment, weather, season, and moonlight. These pastimes were to us the most exquisite form of aesthetic expression, and we gave their details a fastidious technical care. An inappropriate hour, a jarring lighting effect, or a clumsy manipulation of the damp sod, would almost totally destroy for us that ecstatic titillation which followed the exhumation of some ominous, grinning secret of the earth.

. . . After that we lived in growing horror and fascination. Mostly we held to the theory that we were jointly going mad from our life of unnatural excitements, but sometimes it pleased us more to dramatise ourselves as the victims of some creeping and appalling doom. Bizarre manifestations were now too frequent to count. Our lonely house was seemingly alive with the presence of some malign being whose nature we could not guess, and every night that daemoniac baying rolled over the windswept moor, always louder and louder.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (1924)

To reject philosophy is to embrace the Matrix

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I had considered titling this post “Philosophy slams Neil deGrasse Tyson,” but then I reconsidered. In case you haven’t heard, Tyson recently outed himself as a philistine. Or at least that’s how author and journalist Damon Linker characterizes it in an article titled, appropriately enough, “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson Is a Philistine.” In the words of the article’s teaser, “The popular television host says he has no time for deep, philosophical questions. That’s a horrible message to send to young scientists.”

What Linker is referring to is Tyson’s recent appearance as a guest on the popular Nerdist podcast. Beginning at about 20 minutes into the hour-long program, the conversation between Tyson and his multiple interviewers turns to the subject of philosophy, and Tyson speaks up to talk down the entire field. In fact, he takes pains to specify and clarify that he personally has absolutely no use for philosophy, which he views as a worthless distraction from other activities with real value.

Yes, it all sounds like it must be overstated in the retelling — but in point of fact, it’s not. Have a listen for yourself by clicking the link above, or else read his words here in this transcript of the program’s relevant portion. The comments from Tyson and his interviewers come right after they have been discussing the standardization of weights and measures. Note especially how Tyson not only dismisses philosophy but pointedly refuses to allow that there might be even a shred of validity or value in it. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Invented lifeform: Behold the Strandbeest

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The above image is a photo of a Strandbeest. What, you may ask, is that? Here’s how its creator, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen (who can be seen in the photo as well), explains the matter:

Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life. Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the basic material of this new nature. I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.

If you wonder what this actual entails and looks like in action, see the video below. Be advised that it will probably stand as the coolest and most mind-blowing thing you’ll see all week, month, or maybe year:

Last summer Jansen visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in preparation for the first major American exhibition of his work, which will be presented at the PEM in 2015 and titled “The Dream of the Strandbeest.” My sister Dinah is a writer for PEM, and here’s how she described his visit:

Prior to meeting the man behind the Strandbeest, my introduction was the same as most — gazing at online videos of the enormous beach-combing beasts, while trying to teleport myself to that peaceful beach in the Netherlands. From the first moment I saw the lifelike creatures walking their four-legged dog pace, I wondered whether the God-like figure behind these post-apocalyptic-looking critters could likely change the world.

. . . In a roomful of PEM staff, Jansen shared how a Strandbeest works with pistons that act like muscles. Constructed of plastic tubes and recycled water bottles, the creature has a purpose beyond its more obvious one of being beautiful and mysterious. They are built to harness wind power and save eroding beaches. They detect atmospheric pressure and are designed to “pin themselves to the ground” to survive storms. Jansen spends his mornings coming up with difficult algorithms in the workshop, before biking 50 kilometers to the beach to try them out. By the end of the day, he said, the design works or it doesn’t. “The tubes point you in a certain way,” he says. “I’m surprised by how beautiful they are.”

. . . Jansen recently shared the genetic code of the Strandbeest on the web and is proud of the resulting designs in wood, out of Legos, in materials imagined by children and adults, so that the average person can be “infected” with the compulsion to create a Strandbeest. This is how they masterfully reproduce, he points out, adding that he eventually wants to put them out on the beach in herds, so that they can live on their own.

“Maybe it’s only a fairytale in my head . . . a surviving animal on the beach,” he said. “These are all designed for that. Maybe before I die, these animals will be there. This is my horizon, you could say.”

MORE: “Stunning Strandbeests

For more about Jansen and the Strandbeests, see these write-ups and profiles from NPR, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

Image by Roel via Flickr under Creative Commons

‘An unapologetic pessimist’ – First review of Ligotti interview book

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I just stumbled across the first review of Born to Fear that I’ve yet seen.It was published today at PopMatters, and the reviewer’s take is positive. He also leads with something I’ve been meaning to mention here for the past month or two: that Tom’s work was a significant influence on the recent first season of HBO’s True Detective, and in fact served as the main inspiration for the icy cosmic pessimism that proved so hypnotic to so many viewers as they heard it articulated by Matthew McConaughey.

I’ll say more about that in some future post, but for now here’s a nice excerpt from the review:

In the 25 years that the interviews span, Ligotti’s take on life has remained constant. If for Shakespeare life is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, for Ligotti “it’s a tragedy that consumes us and makes the world what it is — an inane and grotesque puppet show,” and he would disabuse us of any notion that it might possibly be otherwise.

. . . . In the interviews, Ligotti comes across as a learned man whom one might easily converse with, even disagree with, and still get along. He tells one of his interlocutors, for example, “let me pause a moment and acknowledge the obvious, namely, that my celebration of Poe and Lovecraft, and my derogation of writers who are unlike them, is a pure outpouring of personal temperament — and nothing more.”

Personal temperament, or something akin to it, was exactly what drew me to Camus, and what has made reading his books, along with those of Cioran, Ligotti and others, such a solace. Ligotti has a name for this effect: “This is what I call the ‘I thought I was the only one who felt that way’ syndrome. The farther your thoughts and feelings are from those of the mainstream, the more attached you will become to the writer who speaks for you so. You will feel lucky to have found that writer. And that writer will feel even luckier to have found you.”

With a new collection of interviews with Ligotti to read, hot on the heels of the successful first season of True Detective, pessimists have much to feel lucky about all around.

FULL REVIEW: “Hooked on True Detective? Check Out Its Influence, Thomas Ligotti

Teeming Links – May 30, 2014

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Remember America’s “new oil boom” based on fracking? Well, you can say goodbye to it: the Energy Information Agency just downwardly revised its estimate of the amount of technically recoverable oil in America’s #1 shale reserve by 96 percent .

Check it out: a straightforward business interview with Ilidio F. Santos, an environmental consultant for the Angolan oil company Sonangol E&P, suddenly turns all doomer when Santos says human civilization is done for: “The more you study, the more you read, the more you discuss the environmental problems of the planet and its inhabitants (be they human or other), the more you understand that this is a lost cause. The human civilization is doomed in the decades to come, as there is no way that the people who have the power to stop the suicidal path understand the urgency and nature of the problem. Those who do not know about it at least live oblivious to the horror that will come to this planet in a few decades.” The interviewer responds by saying, “You are scaring me, Ilidio.” To which Santos replies, “Be scared!”

Superbug threat as grave as climate change, say scientists: “Superbugs resistant to drugs pose a serious worldwide threat and demand a response on the same scale as efforts to combat climate change, infectious disease specialists said on Thursday.”

Adventures in the Land of Illness: A superb essay by Sam Harris, available in both audio and text form, about his recent experiences with ill health: “It has been interesting for me, as a proponent of science and skepticism, to experience the feelings of vulnerability and desperation that come with an illness for which science has no clear remedy or even a diagnosis. . . . As someone who will soon release a book about meditation, the illusion of the self, and the transcendence of unnecessary suffering, I feel I should offer some account of how my own mind has fared when tested in this way.”

CNN reports 50 percent chance of Armageddon-level asteroid strike in 2041. Or actually not. Seriously, not. (Maybe CNN should consider a name change and pay for the rights to an old HBO series title: “Not Necessarily the News.”)

Astronomer and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf explains why searching for extraterrestrial life yields enormous benefits here on earth: “[T]he cosmic sprawl can help us disentangle the complex terrestrial systems and histories of which we are a part. This is not a frivolous exercise. On the contrary, it could be the key to overcoming our scientific ignorance.”

The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices: “Why are some repulsed by Soylent, but others desperate to receive their orders?”

The Internet as we know it is dying: Andrew Leonard explains how “Facebook and Google are killing the classic Internet and reinventing it in their image,” with nods to Amazon as well.

Dear graduates: A commencement speech for the mediocre: “Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between ‘doing what they love,’ and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.”

It’s been nearly 90 years since John Maynard Keynes started predicting the rise of a technologically enabled leisure society. And yet life in today’s high-tech America is a plague of busyness.

The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits: “From ‘Donkey Kong’ to the NES — how a Japanese company took over the American living room.”

A Beautiful Man: On Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man: “[I]t’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought. . . . In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick — Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype — a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself.”

The Survivor: On Magneto, Mutants, and the Holocaust: “Magneto stands as . . . a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening.”

The Rosicrucian Vision: “Although the Rosicrucian philosophy was presented as a total package of religion, science, etc., it tended to divide into three different streams: first, there was the scientific, philosophical stream; secondly, the social and political stream; thirdly, the Hermetic-Cabalistic-Alchemical stream. . . .When we look at something like Rosicrucianism, or at the Templars or at Freemasonry or at the legends of the Holy Grail, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg. I believe that behind these phenomena lies a very ancient current. What precise form it takes I know not, but I believe that every so often in human history this current comes to the surface.”

The Elf Whisperer of Iceland: “The whole affair, from the cause célèbre behind the protest (Save the Elves?!) to the government’s eventual acquiescence, is indicative of the unusual and complicated relationship Iceland has with elves and other hidden people. Jónsdóttir was advocating for the lives of invisible tiny beings that most of us associate with building Santa’s toys . . . and the government listened.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A new interview with me: “Life and Mind of a Teeming Brain”

 

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My online friend Rafael Melo has just published a new interview with me at his blog Cloudy Sky. Topics include my reasons for writing about horror and religion and such, my creative process, the centrality of depression and dread in my life as a writer, my favorite music and movies, the deep meaning of angels and demons, the current state of higher education, and more.

Here’s an excerpt where I get personal about my childhood anti-education in the realm of horror cinema:

RAFAEL: What are your main influences for writing about the horror genre?

MATT: My major horror influences include Lovecraft, Ligotti, Ted Klein, and a host of other writers in the weird fiction tradition and the wider tradition of supernatural horror in general. When I was young I read a lot of Poe’s and Bradbury’s horror stories, and this proved significant. So did a horror record that a friend played for me at his house one late summer afternoon. It featured some spooky sound effects plus a few readings of classic horror stories, including a deliriously unhinged performance of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” I can still hear the narrator’s voice as he goes for broke in an over-the-top reading of the final line: “Here! Here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” That flat-out marked me, man.

Although I don’t usually name him in this regard, I suppose I ought to mention Stephen King, too, since I imbibed a large number of his books in my youth , along with the movies adapted from them, and this was influential. My parents didn’t let me watch scary stuff when I was young, so when the movie versions of Carrie and The Shining and the television miniseries of Salem’s Lot came out in the 1970s, I saw the ads but didn’t get to see the movies themselves, and my mind generated all kinds of vague expectations of the colossally frightening things that must be in them. The same thing happened with non-Stephen King movies, too, including Hell Night, Silent Scream, and several more. Whenever I accidentally caught the television advertisements, I was so frightened that I couldn’t stop seeing them in my mind’s eye for hours afterward. Quite seriously, these commercials filled me with a sense of terror and dread. But at the same time, I found them hypnotically fascinating.

I’ve realized in recent years that my parents did me a wonderful creative favor, albeit inadvertently, by forbidding me to watch such things, because this worked in tandem with a native bent in my personality to inculcate a deep and tantalizing sense of some elusive horror that’s loose in the world, and that can never really be seen or known directly, but that would absolutely fry you if you saw it face to face.

. . . When Lovecraft invokes the idea of unspeakable horrors and sanity-blasting cosmic gods and monsters, and when he says the fundamental supernatural horrific response is basically coeval with the ancient category of consciousness that we call “religious experience,” I hear him developing an eccentric version of negative/apophatic theology and helping to clarify the very thing that drives me personally.

FULL INTERVIEW: Matt Cardin — Life and Mind of a Teeming Brain

FYI, Rafael also runs the antinatalist blog The Last Page and has long been an active presence in the online community devoted to discussing antinatalism, including in the works of Thomas Ligotti. If you can read Portuguese, you can look up and read his book of antinatalist philosophy, A Última Filosofia: An Essay about Antinatalism.