During the past couple of years, I haven’t had any time to pull together the expansive lists of links to recommended reading that I used to post here regularly. This situation may continue for some time. But in honor of the current Halloween holiday, here are some recently published items about horror pop culture, monsters, and the supernatural that are worth looking at.
These accidents of nature were known as “prodigies.” A non-exhaustive list might include floods; rains of blood or body parts; miscarriages, human and animal; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; comets, eclipses, and conjunctions of the planets; apparitions of armies in the sky; and beached whales. What united this Borgesian collection was its strangeness. Each of these phenomena departed from the ‘norm’, but not enough to be considered a true miracle. They occupied a middle ground between natural and supernatural: the preternatural.
In theory, prodigies could be explained by natural causes. But in creating them, nature wasn’t tending to business as usual. This strange, quirky, slippery realm, the realm of the monstrous, fulfilled a human need to see the moral order reflected in the non-human domain. Prodigies allowed humans to see their own desires, fears and political judgments woven into the fabric of nature itself. In a secularised form, this impulse is still with us today.
One would like to believe that journalists have enough common sense not to believe in ghosts. But in the 1970s, American culture was awash in superstition. It was a time rather like our own, filled with economic and political instability. The Lutz family’s press conference took place 18 months after Watergate had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency and the onslaught of upsetting news had led everyone to question conventional facts and truth. It was unclear whether the stable laws of the universe still held.
Anger and fear were everywhere, and often enough, they bloomed into outright delusions. Couple that with the remnants of the New Age philosophies of the 1960s, shake in a little bit of good old American folklore, and you got something like what the Lutz family’s story would eventually be: The Amityville Horror, a story that would inspire several books and more than half a dozen films, spanning from the 1979 original blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, to the rather poorly-reviewed, middling effort released just this past October 12, called Amityville: The Awakening, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne.
Though a lucrative and ubiquitous emblem of American mythology, it’s telling how dull the story actually is, when summarized . . .
2017: The Year That Horror Saved Hollywood (The Week)
Hollywood is facing crisis on multiple fronts: the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are shedding light on a trade plagued by sexual harassment and gender inequality, cord-cutting and streaming platforms are upsetting the regular order, and the movies are struggling through yet another dismal year at the box office. If there’s a silver lining in any of that for America’s film industry, it’s that the horror genre is still plugging merrily along, seemingly immune to the financial troubles that have befallen most studios. As the rest of Hollywood flounders in 2017, horror is in the midst of its highest-grossing year ever. On the backs of huge hits like It and Get Out, the horror genre has combined for a record $733.5 million in the US this year, according to box office data compiled by the New York Times. The year has proven that horror films are more than just cheaply made movies for niche audiences and can still cross into the mainstream to become bona fide successes.
How Horror TV Embraced Our Demons (The Week)
Where The Walking Dead does connect to Channel Zero and American Horror Story though is in its overriding sense of despair. Every time the heroes seem to be making progress, their egos lead them to blunder into some catastrophic error that destroys nearly everything they’ve built. This is a case of a long-form serialized TV show deriving a thematic angle from an economic necessity. To keep this successful show going, the story has to keep dead-ending and resetting. Fans waiting to see anything like hope in The Walking Dead are going to have to wait for viewership to completely crater. But while that nihilism can be unsatisfying to the audience, it’s also fascinating as a statement of where we are right now as a society. The phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story mean that week after week we’re gazing into an abyss, willingly. Perhaps we’re searching for clues to how to survive it.
Retro Retail: Classic Monsters of Marvel Comics (Inside the Magic) (This article is rather sumptuously illustrated with classic Marvel horror images)
While classic monsters may find their fame from films in the Universal Studios Classic Monster movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, they’ve also haunted the pages of the Marvel Comics universe. With revised backstories and sometimes intertwined story lines, these Marvel monsters made multiple appearances in the 1970’s, both under their own titles and as team-ups (or villains for) various Marvel super heroes.
Why We’ll Always Be Obsessed with — and Afraid of — Monsters (PBS News Hour)
Fear continues to saturate our lives: fear of nuclear destruction, fear of climate change, fear of the subversive, and fear of foreigners. But a Rolling Stone article about our “age of fear” notes that most Americans are living “in the safest place at the safest time in human history” . . . .
So why are we still so afraid? Emerging technology and media could play a role. But in a sense, these have always played a role. In the past, rumor and a rudimentary press coverage could fan the fires. Now, with the rise of social media, fears and fads and fancies race instantly through entire populations. Sometimes the specifics vanish almost as quickly as they arose, but the addiction to sensation, to fear and fantasy, persists, like a low-grade fever.
People often create symbols for that emotions are fleeting, abstract, and hard to describe. (Look no further than the recent rise of the emoji.) For over the last three centuries, Europeans and Americans, in particular, have shaped anxiety and paranoia into the mythic figure of the monster – the embodiment of fear, disorder and abnormality – a history that I detail in my new book, “Haunted” [from Yale University Pres, subtitled “On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Earth”]. There are four main types of monsters. But a fifth — a nameless one — may best represent the anxieties of the 21st century.
“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.” The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree reads like the beginning of a good horror movie, and the film adaptation’s intro does little to quell this terrifying tone. With ominous music, a jack-o’-lantern title card, and Bradbury’s narration, the 1993 feature-length animated television movie produced by Hanna-Barbera seemingly set the stage for something sinister. And that’s how I remember my childhood viewing of this film, as one filled with my favorite holiday tropes. Upon revisiting it, I recognize the adaptation is much more faithful to Bradbury’s work than my younger self realized. That is to say, this is an extremely educational look at Halloween and how its tropes came to be, from witches to mummies and lots in between.
It’s hard not to relate The Halloween Tree to current juggernaut Stranger Things. Both quickly ask that viewers be emotionally attached to a young boy that has been whisked away on a journey that could determine whether he lives or dies. The characters left behind are so enamored with the boy that it makes it hard not to care, too . . .
Much to my surprise, a two-volume encyclopedia priced for institutional purchase by academic and public libraries has become a bestseller at Amazon. I don’t know the actual sales figures, and I’m sure they’re pretty small in terms of absolute numbers, since the book’s category (the history and criticism of horror and supernatural literature) is a rather narrow one. In other words, a book of this type probably doesn’t have to move many units in order to qualify as a bestseller. But for what it’s worth, for much of the past two weeks Horror Literature through History has hovered in the top ten books in that category, peaking at number six and then dropping much lower, but then spiking up again a few times. Amazon sold out of its original stock of the title and had to order more. A couple of days ago I saw that it was briefly flagged as the bestselling new encyclopedia of any kind. Currently those numbers have trailed off again.
In any event, I hadn’t expected so much interest from individual readers, given the book’s steep pricing. I’ve seen a couple of early readers among that crowd speaking glowingly of it in an online forum that I frequent, so that felt good. There’s a forthcoming interview with me about the project at a major horror website. I’m also slated to be interviewed on a major horror podcast a few days from now. I’ll post the links when they become available. In the meantime, if any of my Teeming Brain readers are among those who have purchased the encyclopedia, please know that I sincerely appreciate your interest and support, and I hope the book rewards your investment of time and money.
Update, October 17: The encyclopedia has also sold out at the website for Barnes & Noble.
Here’s the ending to my interview with Thomas Ligotti in Horror Literature through History (which, as I just learned, was published a few days ago, slightly ahead of the advertised schedule). I think these lines represent my favorite thing Tom has ever said in an interview. (And as you know, his interviews are plentiful.)
MATT CARDIN: What is the point, purpose, or value of horror literature?
THOMAS LIGOTTI: To entertain and disillusion at the same time.
MC: What do readers of horror literature need to know?
TL: If you read a lot of horror literature because you like to be scared, then you’re probably a normal, healthy person. If you read horror literature to fulfill some deeply personal predisposition, be assured there is probably something odd and unwholesome about you. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not all right to be that way.
It’s less than two weeks until the official publication date of Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears (available from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere). It’s presently the subject of a feature article in the 2017 Halloween issue of Rue Morgue magazine. With these things in mind, I have obtained permission from the publisher to present my full introduction to the encyclopedia here at The Teeming Brain, along with the full table of contents. (You can also see the full list of 70 contributors, along with further information, here.)
A Preliminary Word about the Contents
As you’ll observe when you read the TOC (see the link below), the encyclopedia is structured in a unique way that makes it a special kind of reference work on the topic of horror literature and its long and rich literary history. Specifically, it’s divided into three broad sections. The first, titled “Horror through History,” consists of a series of sequential essays laying out the history of horror literature across time, from the ancient world to the present. The second section, “Themes, Topics, and Genres,” presents essays on major themes and issues in the field, such as apocalyptic horror, young adult horror, ghost stories, horror comics, horror video games, weird and cosmic horror fiction, and the relationship between horror literature and topics like religion, gender, and ecology. The third and longest section consists of alphabetically organized reference entries on authors, literary works, and specialized topics, such as horror awards, different types of monsters, important literary techniques, and various important elements in the field, such as haunted houses, ancestral curses, and the idea of forbidden knowledge.
Basically, the three sections mutually illuminate each other. As explained in the official publisher description, the first section with its deep tracing of horror literature’s historical evolution provides an overarching context for understanding the reference entries by placing them within the sociocultural, intellectual, and artistic currents of their respective eras. The second section expands on important topics to provide a greater depth of understanding about specific genres and forms, and about the multiple cultural and philosophical issues with which horror has always been intertwined. The final reference section provides informational “close-ups,” as it were — some short, others quite long and in-depth — on matters broached more fleetingly in the large-scale examinations of the first two sections.
I’m also pleased to to point out is that there are in fact many more authors, works, and topics covered in the encyclopedia than what’s listed on the TOC. For example, there are 150 sidebars accompanying the main entries, and quite a few of these are mini-essays on various horror stories. For example, the entry on E. F. Benson is accompanied by a sidebar essay on his classic story “Caterpillars.” The entry on Nathaniel Hawthorne is accompanied by a sidebar essay on “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The same treatment is given to stories by the likes of Robert Hichens, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Robert E. Howard, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, Thomas Ligotti, Richard Matheson, and many more. The sidebars also provide timelines, story excerpts, commentary, and further types of contextualizing information to help illuminate the main entries. Read the rest of this entry
The gorgeous-looking new edition of Lovecraft’s stories from The Folio Society, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, has this really effective (and kind of gorgeous in its own right) promotional video to go with it. Sadly, I don’t have $120 to spare. But with illustrations by Dan Hillier — who comes off quite well in the video, and whose work for this project looks amazing — and an introduction by Alan Moore, the book sure is tempting. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This edition, based on its sister limited edition [at $575!] marries Lovecraft’s best-known fiction with two modern masters of the macabre, the acclaimed artist Dan Hillier and author Alan Moore. In his beautifully crafted new preface, Moore finds Lovecraft at once at odds with and integral to the time in which he lived: ‘the improbable embodiment of an estranged world in transition’. Yet, despite his prejudices and parochialisms, he ‘possessed a voice and a perspective both unique in modern literature’.
Hillier’s six mesmerising, portal-like illustrations embrace the alien realities that lurk among the gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s landscapes. By splicing Victorian portraits and lithographs with cosmic and Lovecraftian symbolism, each piece – like the stories themselves – pulls apart the familiar to reveal what lies beneath.
The edition itself shimmers with Lovecraft’s ‘unknown colours’, bound in purple and greens akin to both the ocean depths and mysteries from outer space. The cover is embossed with a mystical design by Hillier, while a monstrous eye stares blankly from the slipcase.
I find this all quite winning, personally, for the way it underscores Lovecraft’s growing prevalence and relevance in contemporary culture. For more about the new edition, see the write-ups at Tor (where several of the Hillier illustrations are shown), Wired (where the writer amusingly frames his encounter with the book as a harrowing Lovecraftian brush with forbidden knowledge and eldritch monstrosities), and The Verge. The latter presents an interview with Hillier. It also bears the best title of any of these articles, notwithstanding the slight misspelling of Great Cthulhu’s name: “A new collection of Lovecraft stories looks like an artifact from the Cthulu universe.”
This week I finished the primary body of editorial work on Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. It has been my all-consuming focus on this vast project that has kept The Teeming Brain mostly dormant for most of 2016. I just now counted and saw that I have published a mere twenty-five previous posts this year. Quite honestly, in the past twelve months I have become something of an editor monk, devoting myself single-mindedly to this project during every “extra” (ha ha) hour, and working the equivalent of two (or more) full-time jobs.
This week, I sent the book’s edited contents to the publisher, after having already engaged in much editorial collaborative back-and-forth with my project editor there in recent months. There’s still a lot of work left for me to do, of course, when the galleys are ready, but the bigger part of it — which at several points got so big and complex that I wondered how I would ever complete the danged thing — is now done.
That means I’m now able to share the rundown of the total two-volume behemoth (something I’ll doubtless do again when the book’s publication date grows near in 2017). Here are the basic specs:
The encyclopedia contains more than 400 entries written by seventy contributors (or seventy-one, if you count my direct hand in a couple of them) from seven different countries. It is organized as follows: Read the rest of this entry
Maybe someday I’ll have more time to start tending The Teeming Brain again and stop leaving these gaps of weeks-turning-to-months. That time may still be a while off, however, since I’m currently buried under the equivalent of two and a half full-time jobs, what with the horror encyclopedia project eating up so many so-called “extra” hours each week that I’ve lost count. (It’s currently up to 69 contributors, most of them hailing from the US and UK, but also represented are Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, and China.)
At the moment, I wanted to make a point of poking my head above the snow (as in snowed under) to call attention to this, which should be of interest to many readers here.
With themes reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, and Bruno Shulz, but with a strikingly unique vision, Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism heralds the arrival of a significant new literary talent. Padgett’s work explores the mystery of human suffering, the agony of personal existence, and the ghastly means by which someone might achieve salvation from both. A bullied child who seeks vengeance within a bed’s hollow box spring; a lucid dreamer haunted by an impossible house; a dummy that reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps; a stuttering librarian who holds the key to a mill town’s unspeakable secrets; a commuter whose worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign; an aspiring ventriloquist who spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And the presence that speaks through them all.
- Introduction by Matt Cardin
- The Mindfulness of Horror Practice
- Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown
- The Indoor Swamp
- Origami Dreams
- 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism
- Organ Void
- The Secret of Ventriloquism
“The Secret of Ventriloquism is horror with a capital H. Some of Padgett’s lines raised the hair on my neck.”
– Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase
“Padgett…proves with his stunning debut collection [to be] a worthy successor to the master [Thomas Ligotti]. There’s no gristle, no bone, no dilly-dallying here: only pure meat whose terrors seamlessly grow into the metaphysical…this volume is jam-packed with the stuff that nightmares are made of.”
– Dejan Ognjanovic, Rue Morgue Magazine
“…a voice that lodges in the reader’s mind with colossal force and intensity, marking…this book as unforgettable.”
– Matt Cardin, from the Introduction
The Pseudopod site — where you can listen to Jon’s awesome reading of “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” — has a good bio to give you a sense of who Jon is and where he’s coming from:
Jon Padgett…is the creator and long time administrator of the Thomas Ligotti Online website, and — as such — has been the first publisher for a number of Ligotti’s prose works over the years, including MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE and CRAMPTON….Padgett is a professional — though lapsed — ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, daughter, two cats, and dog. Padgett is also a professional voice-over artist with over thirty-seven years of theater and twenty years of audio narration experience.
Trust me. This book is something special. You might consider running, not walking, to secure a copy.
Remember The Starry Wisdom Library, that unique Lovecraftian book project helmed by rare books expert Nate Pedersen, released by PS Publishing in 2014, and containing my faux scholarly commentary on the imaginary occult tome titled Daemonolorum, along with a plethora of similar fake commentary on other imaginary occult books by the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas, F. Paul Wilson, and more? Today I received word from Nate that he has just released an audiobook edition.
Here’s a reminder about the contents:
Scholars and book collectors across the country have long pondered the intended fate of the infamous collection of rare occult books left to rot in the Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island, after the Starry Wisdom cult dispersed to parts unknown in the late 19th century.
The recent shocking discovery of a previously unknown book auction catalogue issued in 1877 offers insight into the myriad mysteries of the cult. Entitled Catalogue of the Occult Library of the Recently Disbanded Church of Starry Wisdom of Providence, Rhode Island, and issued by the notorious Arkham firm Pent & Serenade, the catalogue reveals the long-suspected fact that the church intended to sell its library to finance its removal from Providence. The sale, of course, never materialized, as later events make obvious, but the book auction catalogue informs us of the cult’s original intent and leaves for us an enormously valuable and fascinating piece of ephemera detailing the infamous collection of rare occult books in all of its dark and foreboding glory.
Furthermore, the book auction catalogue is unique among its contemporaries in that the auction firm Pent & Serenade, recognizing the importance of the exceedingly rare volumes in the cult’s possession, commissioned a wide variety of 19th-century scholars to write essays on the histories of the books offered at auction. As such, the catalogue is a uniquely, almost absurdly valuable item for scholars and collectors around the world and is presented here in exacting facsimile by PS Publishing.
Last week ABC-CLIO posted a cover design for Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. This is appropriate timing, since for the past month I’ve been fielding a flood of contributor submissions, and my editorial work on the project is eating up literally all of my extra time. (Well, that, plus editorial duties on the new Vastarien journal, which is progressing nicely.)
So here’s that cover (at fairly small size; it’s the only one available right now), along with a portion of the official description of the project. What that description doesn’t list, by the way, is the fact that the encyclopedia will have a fantastic lineup of contributors, including names that will be familiar to many Teeming Brain readers who are students and fans of horror fiction and its surrounding scholarship. A short “for instance” list to illustrate the point might include S. T. Joshi, Darrell Schweitzer, Michael Cisco, Richard Gavin, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Brian Stableford, June Pulliam, Steven Mariconda, and more.
Many of today’s horror story fans — who appreciate horror through movies, television, video games, graphic novels, and other forms — probably don’t realize that horror literature is not only one of the most popular types of literature but one of the oldest. People have always been mesmerized by stories that speak to their deepest fears. Horror Literature through History shows 21st-century horror fans the literary sources of their favorite entertainment and the rich intrinsic value of horror literature in its own right. Through profiles of major authors, critical analyses of important works, and overview essays focused on horror during particular periods as well as on related issues such as religion, apocalypticism, social criticism, and gender, readers will discover the fascinating early roots and evolution of horror writings as well as the reciprocal influence of horror literature and horror cinema.
This unique two-volume reference set provides wide coverage that is current and compelling to modern readers — who are of course also eager consumers of entertainment. In the first section, overview essays on horror during different historical periods situate works of horror literature within the social, cultural, historical, and intellectual currents of their respective eras, creating a seamless narrative of the genre’s evolution from ancient times to the present. The second section demonstrates how otherwise unrelated works of horror have influenced each other, how horror subgenres have evolved, and how a broad range of topics within horror — such as ghosts, vampires, religion, and gender roles — have been handled across time. The set also provides alphabetically arranged reference entries on authors, works, and specialized topics that enable readers to zero in on information and concepts presented in the other sections.
Full publisher description: Horror Literature through History
Wonderful to come across this new article from Michael Dirda at Barnes & Noble Review, which offers — in typical Dirda fashion — a thoroughly absorbing, insightful, and well-written treatment of a fun and fascinating subject:
Over the past few months I’ve read, or reread, some of the most famous stories about mummies, Egyptian curses, reincarnation and love that prevails over death and the passage of centuries. Unlike other monsters of the id, the mummy lacks a central master text—there is no equivalent to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, these tales display a surprising variety. In 1827 Jane Loudon Webb’s The Mummy!, set in an imagined 22nd century future, employs a revived Cheops to comment on society, ethics and religion. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” is distinctly satirical and ends with the narrator, sick of his shrewish wife, planning to have himself embalmed for a couple of hundred years. A comparably light-hearted spirit pervades Grant Allen’s “My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies” (1880). In this instance, a fortune-hunting cad discovers that on one evening every thousand years the mummies inside the pyramid of Abu Yilla return to life. He intrudes upon their millennial banquet, flirts with Pharaoh’s daughter, and decides to have himself embalmed so that he and the princess can be resurrected together in the future. Alas, the elaborate process is interrupted — Or was it all just a dream?
Even as mummies themselves exist in a kind of halfway-state between life and death, so tales about them frequently blur the line between reality and hallucination. . . .
While it might be tempting to shrug off tales of mummies and Egyptian magic as mere period pieces, in fact, they remain astonishingly contemporary. They deal with racial and religious hatred, the place of women in society, our desire for perennial youth, the relationship of modern science and ancient belief, and, surprisingly often, the question of sexual orientation. In his excellent study, The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy Roger Luckhurst further stresses that narratives about the mummy’s curse are the West’s guilt-ridden response to, or way of “acknowledging and negotiating,” its own imperialist violence in the Middle East.
Click through to read Michael’s reflections on various mummy fictions, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth,” Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen, and Riccardo Stephens’s obscure 1912 novel The Mummy. He also mentions a couple of recent anthologies devoted to such things.
And of course, for more on everything to do with mummies in fiction and fact, you can consult my Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture.