Horror in the Time of COVID
For a long time, I kind of swore off horror. Mostly movies, because I decided I didn’t need those disturbing images in high fidelity fed straight into my brain, but also books. I didn’t seek out horror books and mostly stuck to sci-fi, non-fiction, and the occasional action-adventure spy thriller. I did read some horror books, and a few shows, but I think only Stephen King. I am a lifelong constant reader, so that was largely out of habit. But I wasn’t out there opening night for the Halloween reboots, Midsommer, or Mother! (to name a few). If you had called me “chicken” for avoiding any of that, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. I was on a “I don’t really want to be scared” kick. Maybe it was because of fatherood, and the realization that I didn’t need any help imagining the horrors that could be visited upon my life. In an ever-growing catalog of new things to watch, it was a genre that did not get a lot of play in my personal media consumption.
I was always kind of aware of what was going on in the horror space. If nothing else the periodic emails from the Alamo Drafthouse would cause something to ping on my radar. So I’ve kind of kept a running list of films over the years—at first informally, but more recently a formal checklist—that meet my fuzzy definition of horror that I might actually view one day.1As with most things I doubt there was a single moment that made me more interested in watching horror again, it’s been a slow cumulative buildup, but perhaps the last piece to fall into place was the arrival of the Kingcast in the world. This is a podcast by Stephen King obsessives for Stephen King obsessives, and many of their guests are steeped in horror in one way or another. I’ve found it to be a great source of new things to consume, on top of just wonderful conversations about King.
Now I’m making a conscious choice to re-engage in horror. Particularly on horror films, because that’s the media I sort of intentionally avoided, but books as well. I’m finding that the opposite of what I had originally thought is true: rather than bringing me down, adding bad thoughts on top of my realistic fears, horror films are an escape and an outlet. It’s a genre that’s particularly experimental, and has a lot of freedom for trying things out and exploring themes and ideas that aren’t usually acceptable in others. Ultimately I want to be challenged by what I watch and read, because if I’m not pushing the edges of what I understand and already know, what’s the point?
Speaking of horror, here’s a fun thread I came across on Twitter.
Norway, 1953. Erling Jørgensen, a local journalist, visits the isolated parish of Hernes, accused by many of being a cult.— Eduardo Valdés-Hevia 🐜 (@Valdevia_Art) March 2, 2022
His unpublished notes and photographs are the only remaining source on this group, and the events that culminated in its destruction. pic.twitter.com/b8EoRDwDIT
Not all of these books have pandemic themes, but here are a few horror books I’ve read recently.
Antibody by Chris Williams
The COVID-19 pushed a lot of people with a sudden surplus of inside time to take up new hobbies. Some learned to make sourdough bread. Others took up knitting or scrapbooking. I started taking a lot more photos of my cats. This young man decided to occupy his mind by writing a book, a contemporary horror novel centered on a fictional analogue to our own in the real world, but with a traditional horror twist that takes the story firmly into WTF no this is crazy territory. It plays with some of the same themes as Wanderers when it comes to right-wing survivalists and the movie Cabin in the Woods when you’re talking about conventional horror tropes, but Mr. Williams lays on a spicy layer of what I would call “influencer culture” that makes this a compelling tale that captures the current unreality of our reality.
Wanderers and The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig, The Violence by Delilah Dawson
Yeah, I already talked about these a little, and might keep talking about them. Wanderers was published before the pandemic, The Book of Accidents was written during the pandemic, and The Violence talks about the next pandemic (or at least a speculative one), while acknowledging the one we’re experiencing right now. Arguably only Accidents could be described as a true horror novel, and even then just kind of a weird, science-fiction-adjacent one. But all three tick some of my horror boxes because the pandemic is scary, and anything that rubs up against it gets a little of that scary on it.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
I tend not to re-read books or re-watch movies as a general rule. It’s not that I don’t enjoy re-visiting things I like; my favorite ice cream is Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla, and has been for the better part of my life. But there are so many books and so many movies that I have an intrinsic aversion to wasting time on “old” things in favor of trying something new. Not counting hundreds or thousands of years of stories from the earliest times of humanity, there are so many new things being put out today I couldn’t even think of keeping up. This means that sometimes—frequently—I come late to a book or an author that so many other people have already discovered, but it’s still fresh and new to me.
I heard about Stephen Graham Jones while listening to the episode of The Kingcast in which he was a guest, ostensibly discussing The Outsider and its HBO adaptation. Even better than that discussion was an introduction to an author whose backlist is deep, from straight up slasher love to horrifying tales steeped in Native American traditions. I mean, those are the two I’ve read, and assume the rest is along the same lines. Jones has a breathless, almost rambling style which can be exhausting to read, but there’s such an immediacy to it that I can’t help but keep turning the pages, like the story is just bursting to come off the page and into my head.
So what about this book, specifically? It’s a tale of supernatural revenge and righting past wrongs. The doom is palpable from the first page, and the events that play out are soaked in dread and blood. Jones doesn’t spell anything out, at least not at first, and it’s a slow burn to really get settled and understand what’s happening. By the end I was left with a sense of hope that was earned through despair. I’m not going to do a plot synopsis because you can find that on the book jacket, but I knew next to nothing going in and feel like it was a better experience as a result.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Imagine, if you will, that my progression back to horror movies is one of those elaborate falling domino demonstrations, like they used to show on That’s Incredible!. 2If The Kingcast was the tipping point of my renewed interest in the horror genre, where the single line of dominos splits into three, then My Heart is a Chainsaw is the big tower of dominos at the end of the line that collapses in a rush. Slow at first and then a mad, chaotic waterfall of noise that leaves your jaw agape in wonder. We get to explore the story from the point of view of Jade, a Native American high school senior in a small Idaho town who lives her life through the lens of the slasher movies she’s been watching since she was a kid. Jones keeps you guessing; is there really a new slasher cycle starting up, in Jade’s reality, or is she just imagining things because she’s desperate to escape her past (and present) troubles? Is the wealthy community being built across the lake just another attempt by the rich folks to escape the world, or is it the center of a new horror being unleashed? I won’t give anything away, but there’s a sequel coming.
Why I Write by Stephen Graham Jones
As a newly-minted SGJ superfan, I am happy to have come across this essay, which answers the perennial question that readers almost always ask writers at some point. Can’t say I disagree with any of it, and the same fire to write has burned in me off and on for my whole life. Sometimes it dies to just an ember, and occasionally flares into a bonfire. I just try to enjoy the heat while it lasts.
It’s not all horror all the time. Gotta have variety.
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
This is a fun one, born from the pandemic in a different way. In the afterword, Scalzi describes how this book came about, how it exploded from the frustration of trying to write a very serious novel that just didn’t want to come to life in our very serious world. In a slight shift from his usual work, this one is literally contemporary: it acknowledges the current pandemic and in fact the plot starts with it being a major driving factor. And then come the kaiju. It’s a really fun read, and if you’re into audiobooks I highly recommend that version, which is brought to life amazingly well by Wil Wheaton.
The Alamo Season Pass is back in my bend of the ‘burbs, so… Yeah. Lots more movies in my future.
Didn’t know anything about this one, didn’t know anything about the filmmaker behind it. All I knew was that it appeared to be a slasher released by A24. With my newly-reinstated Alamo Season Pass in hand I jumped right into a late show after last week’s showing of Evil Dead II, while I was still in a horror frame of mind. I had no expectations, but if I had, I feel like they would have been exceeded. It’s a period piece, maybe late 70s/early 80s rural Texas. Not sure where this was shot, but the scenery looked very familiar to me. The story follows an ambitious film crew attempting to make a porno film worthy of cinema, to make the jump from strip clubs to the glamour of Hollywood. They rent out an old ranch bunkhouse from an old farmer and his wife, but don’t quite let on what they’re up to. What follows is an interesting exploration of the desire for beauty and immortality, with a side trip through the meaning of agency in a world of exploitation. Also a lot of blood and death. If you have problems with nudity and gore then maybe skip this one, but I think it’s an interesting film that plays well with the standard slasher tropes, telling a fresh story without reinventing the wheel.
Army of Darkness
The final film in the Graveyard Shift series this month at the Alamo. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen this movie, the literal icing on the top of the Evil Dead cake. This thing gets going and just never stops, a tight story filled with gags that string together with no time to rest. All meat, no fat. It is what it is and doesn’t apologize for it. There’s a lot of winking at the audience, but without acting like they’re winking; everyone plays it straight throughout the madness. Five stars, no notes.
What I didn’t really recall until I was hearing all the classic lines and the memorable gags was that this movie came out when I worked at the Cinemark back home. Which means I saw it in bits and pieces over and over again as I wandered in and out of the auditorium checking on things or waiting for it to be over so I could start cleaning up. More bittersweet, it reminded me of an old co-worker Billy, who loved this movie. Day after day he would just quote things and laugh at himself. He was a big hulk of a dude, and his laughs were contagious.
Unfortunately the bar floated their keg of Peepyopee right before I ordered, so I settled for a Lakewood Temptress.
Protect Trans Kids
Keeping kids safe and healthy shouldn’t be a debate or a matter of preference. Here’s a few places that are trying to help. If you have others to suggest, let me know, and I’ll include them in a future dispatch.
Rated 97/100 by Charity Navigator, this organization is doing the work to help LGBTQ kids and their families live the life they’re entitled to live, with “full equality in the hearts and minds of our fellow Texans and in all areas of the law.”
If you’d like to show your support with a clever t-shirt (or hoodie or sticker) that demonstrates your pride in our great state and our kids, this is the link for you. Purchases here are going to Equality Texas.
An organization focusing on “furthering gender diverse equality in Texas. We work to accomplish this through education and networking in both public and private forums”.
A grassroots nonprofit dedicated to providing direct emotional and financial assistance and resources to people in crisis.
The value is in the making
As I put the finishing touches on this dispatch, I’m sitting in a high school theater for the UIL Area One Act Play competition. My oldest son is competing with his school, and this is the furthest they’ve gotten in about a decade. I’m thrilled to have followed them on this journey, in spite of the lost free time and the stress it’s put on his life. I remember my days in theater, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. That process of working with the cast and crew to tell a powerful story. They longer you do it, the better you get. As a bonus, I get to sit here all day with my wife, enjoying a bunch of live theater presented by talented performers at the top of their game. A great way to spend the afternoon.
Someone I respect, a gifted writer and artist, asked recently what was the purpose of making art? Does it have to be saying something important to be worthwhile? Is that required, or can there just be uncomplicated joy for the sake of joy? I think the importance of art is often just the act of making it, of creating something where there was previously nothing. That’s enough, and if there’s anything beyond that, it isn’t a requirement. It’s a bonus. And—most importantly—there’s always room for joy.
So that’s a lot of words this week. I’m happy with most of them. I found joy in writing them, regardless. I hope you have some measure of joy in reading them. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it. Until next time, may you be warm and well fed, and find some joy in whatever it is you create.