Many years ago, in the days of my misspent youth, I toiled for four years at California State University, Long Beach, as a theater major. As such, I of course spent most of my time on and around the department’s two stages. What with the vicissitudes of costume fittings, lighting adjustments, and walking on saying, “What ho!” twenty or thirty times until the director was satisfied, I often found myself in the building quite late at night, which led to a discovery — theaters are damned creepy places. They are, in fact, haunted. (The clunks and thumps and creaks and pops I heard were not from causes as mundane as the huge building setting or from the big glass windows cooling and contracting after the heat of the day — absolutely not.)
On reflection, I have come to think that all places, of any sort, fall somewhere on a supernatural sliding scale — always, sometimes, or never haunted. Indeed, this realization has led to a family game that my children and I often play — naming a place and stating its haunted status and, in case the others disagree, making a persuasive argument for your position. I know it sounds like an odd way to pass the time, but you get tired of Yahtzee after a while.
What are the factors that influence the likelihood of a place being haunted? If we’re talking about buildings, then function is very important, especially if the structure has any intrinsic relation to death or the supernatural. Thus it is far easier for a funeral home or church or morgue to be haunted than it is for a factory that exists for the purpose of extruding plastic into molds for Star Wars toys. (Now if two or three workers should fall into a vat of molten plastic, well, their co-workers might get a little uneasy walking around the isolated areas of the building alone at night. Just how uneasy would have to be determined by several other factors.)
The air has turned crisp, the sun is dipping below the horizon earlier each evening, and the supermarket candy section seems to have grown exponentially. Halloween is just around the corner and, like many of you, my mind has turned to haunts and frights.
Horror is one of the primary elements dividing swords & sorcery from epic fantasy. To quote the Horror Writers Association’s site, horror fiction is that which “elicits an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” Horror has been intrinsic to the genre from its earliest days. Robert E. Howard’s heroes, Kull, Conan, Bran, and Solomon Kane all face off against supernatural horror. In general, the worlds of S&S are dark and dangerous. The protagonists, mostly loners, find themselves pitted against an inimical universe populated with carnivorous forces of darkness that sate their hunger on humanity.
Epic fantasy is concerned with things like the fate of the world, the battle between Light and Darkness, or big dynastic squabbles. There may be moments of terror in epic fantasy (e.g. LotR’s Watcher in the Water; A Song of Ice and Fire’s wights), but it’s rarely the main event. Not in every story, but in most of their S&S work, writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, and C. L. Moore, created tales that were horror first and foremost. They spun nightmares and darkness into thread and, along with strands of adventure and mystery, wove from it something moodier than Prof. Tolkien or his successors.
This and other recipes were the subject of a talk by Caroline Yeldham, an expert on historic cookery. The recipe is below. Be warned it makes quite a lot so you might want to cut down the quantities. The end result is rich and tasty and you don’t have to eat much to fill you up. It’s also quite gingery. Is that a word?
After the initial couple of months of World War One, the front stagnated and both sides began to dig in. The war settled in for four years of trench warfare. While trench warfare was nothing new — the American Civil War, Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars all saw the use of trenches — this was on an unprecedented scale.
The new situation called for new measures. None of the participating armies had an adequate number of grenades and it took a year for supply to catch up with demand. Some countries never managed to produce enough. Artillery commanders discovered that shrapnel, deadly in the open battles of the past, did little against entrenched enemies unless the gunners were lucky enough to score a direct hit. There was a long lag before enough high explosive shells made it to the front.
Back in 2011, I penned the first in this occasional series with an attempt at rating and relating the fantasy titles I’ve read aloud to my boys, then aged seven and eleven. They’re now two years older and two years larger, if not wiser (though they are sometimes that as well).
Sadly, older child Corey no longer cottons to a bedtime story.
Evan, however, is not only game, he’s adamant that he receive his daily dose of out-loud fiction. The question as always is what to read? What’s appropriate? And what does “appropriate” even mean?
Right now, Evan’s big wish is to see Catching Fire in the theaters. He was too young for The Hunger Games, but he’s now read all the books (on his own, like most of his fourth grade classmates), and seems quite keen to revel in the filmic gore of Panem bloodletting. We’ll see.
While that debate simmers, the fare of late has included L. Frank Baum’s The Magic Of Oz, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, Mollie Hunter’s The Walking Stones, and Avi’s Crispin: The Cross Of Lead. Plus a short, Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon.” Evan chose the Oz title, and I chose the other four.
While Black Gate readers may (fairly) view me as a sword-and-sorcery writer, thanks to the Tales Of Gemen the Antiques Dealer, a good many of those who have stumbled across my fiction might (fairly) think of me as a horror writer. Since I never expected to fall into that particular category, I’ve been doing a good deal of soul-searching as to the value of what I’m up to – the value, as it were, of basing so much of my tale-spinning on the supernatural instead of, for example, “real life.”
Dare I take this moment to point out that an entirely different set of readers might quite reasonably think of me as a writer of literary fiction? Yeah, I wear that hat, too.
This odd combination of multiple caps has led me to the following conclusion: ghosts are a tool in the writer’s toolbox, as specific as more established weaponry like setting, length, voice, and theme.
Without further ado, I offer my list of why Things That Go Bump In the Night have worth. I don’t expect this to be an exhaustive list, but I trust that I have made a good start. Perhaps you, gentle reader, will be inspired to add to the till?
I missed nearly all the seminal pop culture of my youth. When in eighth grade Andy H. asked me which I liked better, AC/DC or Pink Floyd, I honestly couldn’t answer the question. I was also much too tongue-tied to ask Andy if he’d ever heard of Doctor Who, which I’m quite sure he had not.
Anyway. One of the major events that I missed was Planet Of the Apes. True, Planet is from 1968, and I was only born in ’67, but even so, kids at my school through at least my sixth grade year sported Planet Of the Apes lunch boxes, thermoses, backpacks, and t-shirts. Planet Of the Apes (whatever it was) was cool.
My hipper-than-I friends informed me that Planet regularly played in re-runs on TV, and of course there was the short-lived spin-off series made specifically for the telly (1974). How was it that I had missed all this? Simple: I was building dams in the tributary streams of the Olentangy River, using whatever was handy: stone knives and bearskins, that sort of thing. I knew better than to explain.
Now that I’m older than Methuselah, or at least rapidly catching him up, I figured it’s time to see precisely what I’d missed.
And you know what?
If it weren’t for the execrable presence of Charlton Heston, it’s not half bad.
Having panned Merlin some weeks back, it’s time to dive headlong into one of the best fantasy films of this century, and possibly one of the best, period.
Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is that good. Director Guillermo del Toro, he of Hellboy fame, was clearly out to prove that given solid material, sufficient devotion, and a lack of Hollywood oversight, he could deliver a contender.
True, Pan does invite several divisive questions, such as why must contemporary filmed violence be so jarringly graphic? Del Toro loves jets of blood almost as much as that eternal child-man, Quentin Tarantino, and he indulges himself more than once along his tale’s labyrinthine path. But is it necessary? Does the vivid bloodletting aid the narrative? Pan is a hybrid, true, a film about war and revolution, and such chronicles cannot easily avoid bloodshed. But as anyone who has ever seen Pan’s sewing and stitching scene can attest, this movie achieves prime “I can’t look!” status. It’s visceral; it hurts.
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) also begs a second question, perhaps even more sinister: is it allowable to put a child (or child character) into such peril? Pan doesn’t pull its punches. Our heroine, young Ofelia (played with no affectation whatsoever by Ivana Baquero), is in mortal danger throughout this film, and unlike, say, Harry Potter or Buffy (Slayer of the Dentally Challenged Undead), there is no guarantee she will survive.
Two weeks back, my Black Gate post took a stab at identifying a handful of the most hair-raising, spine-tingling short fiction ever written (in Vintage Scares). The more I looked at the stories that I (and others) came up with, the more excited I became about them. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm only served to underscore a curious fact that I have not always been ready to claim: I have become both a consumer and a writer of horror fiction.
That’s not something I would ever have expected. My version of horror, my “elevator speech definition,” would for years have centered on the gross-out work of Clive Barker (Hellraiser)and the voyeuristic nastiness of the movies I saw growing up: A Nightmare On Elm Street, Evil Dead 2, and Friday the 13th. Horror to me meant attractive but stupid teenagers getting slaughtered and it was strictly low-brow. Not worthy of serious consideration.
Never mind that I’d already read Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle and a fair amount of Poe. By the time I’d been thoroughly eddicated by college, I’d relegated horror to a very distant cultural bayou. It was, at best, the literary equivalent of junk food.
But then a funny thing happened. I bought a copy of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 14th Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. As with all of those (sadly now defunct) collections, fantasy and horror were presented back-to-back and face-to-face, bumped up against one another as inescapably close kissing cousins. Confronted by the likes of Susanna Clarke, Esther M. Friesner, Ian Rodwell & Steve Duffy, Tanith Lee, and Kelly Link, it was time to re-evaluate.