Catch “20th Century Ghosts”

20TH Century Ghosts“, by Joe Hill, re-published in 2007 after its 2005 limited production in the UK (and the 2007 release of his best selling “The Heart Shaped Box“), has garnered some great street cred over the past two years. This collection of dark shorts received the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award for best collection, and the last story in the collection, “Voluntary Committal,” won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.

Despite being very well written, I wasn’t charmed by all of the fourteen stories, mostly because of my confusion by the lack of “horror” in many of the pieces. I was quickly reprimanded…er…reminded by those who know me best, that I tend to be rather single minded in my consumption of the extreme end of horror. (If there’s no blood splatter can it reeeaaallly be good? C’mon…) Of the 14 stories, my favorites included “Best New Horror“: An interesting horror-story-comes-to-life featuring ‘Button Boy’, a kidnapped kid with buttons sewn with wire into his eyeballs to keep his “…life trapped inside” and “The Black Phone“: A tale about a boy trapped in a basement by a serial child molester/killer who gets advice from a dead previous victim over a disconnected phone. (Surprise! They’re the more violent pieces in the book and hmmm…co-incidentally both involving abducted children…)

That said, it was one of the lesser violent and more fantastical pieces that stuck with me as the most memorable; “Pop Art“, an odd story about an inflatable boy, Art, who runs into trouble at a new school and town for being with “different”.

With the diversity and range of horror mixed with doses of fantasy and realism, Joe Hill provides a disturbing story for every temperament. I, for one, am looking forward to sinking my teeth into his first novel (“The Heart Shaped Box“) after consuming these tasty shorter tidbits!

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“What Remains” of Sally Mann

This somber coffee table book, What Remains (c.2003) had a controversial beginning as a provocative and critically successful gallery exhibition of over 90 photographs by renowned American photographer, Sally Mann. The book follows suit with five sections of disturbing photos exploring mortality and its connection to the earth, interspersed with text of illuminating moments from Ms. Mann’s life and perspective.

The collection of ghost-like pictures includes the decomposition of her dead pet greyhound Eva (see photo above); human bodies rotting on a forensic farm; and eerie close-up portraits of her children’s faces (easily mistaken for wide-eyed corpses on casual glance).

From barely decipherable ethereal compositions of body parts decomposing in a sunlit tree grove (see photo below) to the blatant close-ups of bloated, skin sloughing corpses, the haunting quality of the black and white images is enhanced by the photographic process that she uses; the 19’th century practice of the wet-collodion process. The intentional scratchy, foggy quality makes it unclear at times what you’re actually looking at, forcing you to look closely before discovering bones and body parts. And even when the subject matter seems clear, it’s always unsettling.

Sally Mann, her What Remains project, and her family have been twice explored in documentary film by director Steve Cantor. First with the Academy Award nominated short, Blood Ties, and ten years later with his recent (2006) feature (also titled) What Remains.

In addition to several film festivals (Toronto’s 2006 Hot Docs included) , BBC
and HBO have both aired the feature documentary. However, Cantor has been reported having trouble getting film distribution:

“Everyone’s ‘we really like the film but the naked
children and dead people are not going to pack
the theatres.’ It’s the most natural thing in the
world. Yes, it’s difficult material, but it is also
about an intimate discovery of process, life
and death.”
POV Magazine (Point of View Magazine) Fall 2006

A DVD release of the documentary is rumored to be released early in 2008. So that gives you plenty of time to explore What Remains, the monograph, before watching the behind-the-scenes. And it’s just enough time for you to share this uniquely creepy photo collection as a holiday gift for those off-beat special people in your life, don’tcha’ think? The perfect present to grace coffee tables and unnerve guests!

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Gemma’s Gory Gems

I’m an admitted novel junkie. I’ve always preferred the full feature length of literary engagement and spending days immersed in the other world of a good book. I’ve also been accused of being too much of a *gasp* speed-reader. As if the haste with which I feel compelled to devour the words on a page (so much to read, so little time) belies my full comprehension or enjoyment of the work! Pshaw!

That said, Gemma Files‘ collections of short stories have introduced me to an entirely different kind of fictional immersion. Thick with poetic gore they are meant to be slowly savored and rolled around in small doses so the scent of her work can remain in your brain. I picked up a copy of Kissing Carrion from the coffee table of a horror-loving friend about four years ago and I foolishly tried reading it in one sitting; front-to-back, novel chapter style. I learned the hard way (seriously, I hurt my head!) that Gemma’s stories each require a certain amount of space to linger and resonate before switching gears to the next blood-soaked gem. (I don’t think I’ll ever get the titled story “Kissing Carrion” and her meat-puppets out of my brain.)

I knowingly (and willingly!) took my sweet time with the next collection, The Worm in Every Heart. The introduction by Nancy Kilpatrick echoes my sentiment, “Her work may leave you breathless. It could awaken realms within. At times you may sit stunned, wondering at the richness of writing, reconnecting to the reasons you have always loved to read.” This collection of fifteen stories (including her previously published International Horror Guild Award winning short, “Emperor’s Old Bones”) spans a wide range of settings and explores unique twists on classic horror themes – vampires, monsters, and magic mix with science, madmen, and world wars.

To deliver you a cross section of all the shorts would take volumes (and the fun out of your own discovery) but here’s a taste of the story “Ring of Fire” set in 1857 India:

For madness had always lain dormant in him, the hidden loot in his genetic plum-pudding…”

and

“…it made him smile at her in such a warm and reassuring manner that she wept to see him, thinking him an angel — before cutting open her belly with his bayonet and thrusting his penis inside the slippery bag of her bladder until both their groins were stiff with urine, blood and semen.”

So, if you’re a novel snob (like I was) I hope I’ve tempted you to give Gemma’s collections a try. They may be tiny tales but they pack a huge gory wallop. The perfect length for bed-time stories, don’t you think? Sweet, blood-drippy dreams… (heh heh)

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Death is for Kids

It’s back to school season and with Halloween around the corner what a better time to start your young ‘uns curriculum off with a whimsical introduction to that pesky topic of what happens to Fido or Grandpa when they die! (You’re never too young to ponder the mystery of existence, I say.)

The Death Book (2002 translation) written and illustrated by Swedish author Pernilla Stalfelt sounds like it belongs on my shelf between Corpse and Forensic Fingerprints but it’s actually a charming book intended for kiddies.

With quirky and engaging illustrations Stalfelt explores a series of possibilities and rituals (with touches of different cultures and histories) surrounding death and dying. “In the old days you could be buried in a boat instead of a coffin.” An interview with a German publisher confirmed that her intention was to provoke an open dialog between an adult and child rather than give firm answers. “Maybe there are mailboxes in the Kingdom of Death?”Maybe?!

The Death Book was received with great acclaim in various European countries – another example of cultural differences (see the Swedish factsheet on children’s culture) across the pond. Us North Americans do everything we can to avoid any serious contemplation on the topic of our own demise, especially with children. So, not surprisingly, here in Canada I found the title discounted on a remainder table at a book chain.

In some ways the book reminded me of the slim propaganda volume handed to me around the age of ten illustrating how “wonderful it is to be a woman!”(You know the booklets I’m talking about.) Pencil crayon flowers and hearts did little to distract me from the horror of finding out what was going to happen every month however. (Egads!) In comparison, The Death Book to me seems like a much less shocking book to receive as a child. It might be danced around with hushed tones as well but at least the topic of death is a much more egalitarian event!

So, Sparky looking a bit long in the tooth? Great Aunt Matilda sporting a chronic cough? Might be time to gift wrap The Death Book for little Johnny…

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Running Really Wild

What’s more horrific: the tyranny of rigorously scheduled, superficial over-parenting (lovingly caught on camera 24/7!!) or a child’s violent rebellion against all that “care”?

That’s essentially the question posed by J.G. Ballard in his satirical murder mystery, Running Wild. (More satire than mystery, really. Even Ballard has referred to the novella as a “whydunit” rather than a “whodunit.”) And watch out Moms and Dads, his answer is pretty clear.

Inasmuch as he explores the collective heart of adolescent darkness (and he devises some deliciously dark means of demise here), Ballard is also issuing a warning against emerging technologies…and the over-doting parents who rely on them to supervise and protect their children. It’s disturbingly prescient.

This semi-obscure book, published in 1988, pre-dates our increasingly wired world – a world of nanny cams, surveillance cameras on big-city street corners, and the Internet capturing the minutiae of our daily lives, making the private very personal indeed – and predicts a time when even a child’s cuddle time with parents is regulated. It also foretells the increasing incidence of child-/adolescent-aged killers but that’s for another, far more serious article…

Back to 1988.

One Saturday morning, all the adults (parents, private teachers, maids, etc.) of a fictional gated, guarded and heavily surveilled UK estate are found murdered, and their mostly teenaged children have all disappeared, presumed kidnapped.

Investigators at the scene first come upon a murdered security guard. “Arms pinioned, he lies within a bizarre contraption of rope and bamboo sticks, his neck gripped by a pair of spring-loaded steel calipers.” Elsewhere on the estate, police follow bloody footprints to and from the varied and grotesque crime scenes.

You can almost visualize the “seething explosion of bloody water” of a father electrocuted in his bath, then stabbed. And you can almost hear the sick, slapping sound as one mother’s leg repeatedly hits the floor, torso gyrating wildly, trapped on an exercise bike that’s rigged to kill.

The rest of the story follows the forensic investigation of police psychologist, Dr. Richard Greville. Viewing the estate’s miles and miles of video footage, Greville ultimately concludes that the overly structured and supervised lives leave no space for even a minor infraction, so a kid’s catharsis is gonna be dramatic. Violent, even. Payback’s a bitch, you know.

Today’s parents would be wise to read Running Wild as a cautionary tale against “young minds willing themselves into madness as a way of finding freedom.”

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Exquisite Corpse Sparks Killer-Birth!

Exquisite Corpse (1996) is a gem that caught my eye from a display table back when I was starting to make up for about a decade of (university imposed) fiction deprivation. Poppy Z Brite regales the story of Andrew Compton, an infamous UK serial killer who fakes his own death to escape from prison. By chance (and bloodshed) he makes his way to the lush, pre-Katrina New Orleans to indulge in young victims submersed in the drugs, sex and HIV culture consuming the mid 90’s. He eventually collides and coalesces with Jay Byrne, an antisocial and successful (i.e. uncaught) serial killer of young, transient men. Jay moves Andrew to explore cannibalism in its “raw” form, with both of them eventually rolling around naked in guts and bile and rivers of blood. (Oh, my!)

Ok, I have to admit it, none of the characters in Exquisite Corpse, killers nor victims, are redeemable in many (if any) ways. Even the author, Poppy Z. Brite, says as much on her website and declares no desire to revisit them. But here is where I come clean about certain quirks in my entertainment criteria…call me shallow, but give me poetic and unique descriptions of gore and I can easily overlook minor things like sympathetic or fully arc-ed characters. (See my Killer-works article on Dexter for more proof of this!)

In Exquisite Corpse every sexual act, evisceration, and dismemberment is described in equally poetic detail. Lack of redeemable qualities seem beside the point when you have Andrew, “The killer with a thin scrim of blood still greasing his nail beds…” describing his exploits, “The eye socket sucked sensually at the scalpel as I pulled it out.” and “I’d always liked blondes….their blood-soaked hair is like pale silk seen through ruby glass.”

This vivid tale of two 30-something, gay serial killers slaying their way into each others lives quickly led me back to the path of voraciously indulging my passion for hunting down elegantly disturbing fiction…and ultimately planted a seed for the birth of Killer-works.com!

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A Sordid Summer Read – Done but not dead!

Summer is finally upon us and now is the time that even those of us thoroughly ensconced in books of gore are looking for something light and entertaining to sip our cold cocktails with. For this I turned to an unlikely New York Times Bestseller of 2004. If the title alone hadn’t been enough to grab me, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, the chapter headings would have. (A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Dead Man Driving, Eat Me… ) What sealed the deal though was Mary Roach’s immediately humorous tone. She introduces the condition of being dead as a state comparable to being on a cruise ship, “Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” I particularly enjoy her internal dialogue as counterpart to considerable scientific research. While talking with the anatomy lab manager that prepared the pieces of cadavers used in a seminar for plastic surgeons, all she could think was one single repeated line, “You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads.”!

Stiff explores the burning morbid questions that I’m sure all of us have asked after a few drinks and repeat viewings of se7en and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: Is it actually possible to eat yourself to death? (Yes, methodically tested on dead guys, check.) And decapitation, is it really the end? If we can transplant organs couldn’t we transplant a whole head? (Roach talked to the neurosurgeon responsible for “successfully” connecting the head of one decapitated monkey to the body of another in 1971. He’s waiting for the first volunteer human donor to, ah, pop their head in…)

Ultimately, Stiff takes us on a fascinating tour of many human bodies’ after-lives. From main courses in cannibalism to crash test dummies to helping decipher the crucifixion…there’s really something for everyone! While I read it cover to cover, this volume works just as well with cherry picking the chapters that suit your needs. There’s “How Do You Know You’re Dead?” for a rainy day at the cottage. Have intrusive neighbours on the plane heading to your beach vacation? No problem, wave the cover of Stiff around and open to the chapter, “Beyond the Black Box – When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of the crash.” You’re almost guaranteed to keep the guy in the next seat quiet. Nervous, but quiet!

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter

A white screen, the sound of a chainsaw whining against resistance, and the wet drips of blood splattering red…I see, ”Dexter. A Killer New Series.” Ooooohhhh! How intriguing! And how annoying! This original U.S. Showtime TV series about a charming serial killer, staring Michael C. Hall (of Six Feet Under fame), is being launched in Canada on The Movie Network. Problem: I don’t get that channel! Gah! What to do? While exploring the possibility of ditching my cable provider to get 1 new show, I discover that the series is based on novels by Jeff Lindsay. Ah ha! Problem solved, I’ll just go to the source.

The first in the literary series, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, is an engaging first-person account of a sociopath with a code of conduct (only kill bad people…hmmm, makes sense…) working in Miami as a squeamish forensic blood analyst who likes to cut his deserving victims into small, neat pieces. Equally humorous and gory, Dexter’s description of his hometown hunting ground sets the tone, “If a piebald dwarf with advanced leprosy wants to have sex with a kangaroo and a teenage choir, he’ll find his way here and get a room.” CSI Miami this ain’t!
I have to confess, I’m a serial killer novel junkie and I’ve spent much delinquent spare time devouring both fiction and non-fiction books on the topic. Lindsay intrigued me with his slant on the old nature vs. nurture debate explored from the POV of the killer himself. An esteemed writer/editor friend grumbled about thin characterization, but really, how deep can a first person account from a sociopath be and still ring true?! But you can make up your own mind.

And if you’re lucky enough to get Showtime or Movie Network (or whatever other channel I can’t get with my lousy cable package) that Dexter is on, feel free to let me know how the TV series stacks up!

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