The End of Freddy’s Revenge: Journal of a Scream Queen

When I first watched the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to write something about it but it didn’t feel appropriate to do so at the time. Aside from it covering Mark Patton, the actor who played Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and his life as a gay man during the 1980s and the demons he had to face then, and afterwards, there was one other fact with which I had to contend.

I hadn’t watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. Any of them.

The reason I saw the documentary at all had more to do with the anticipation of, and the recommendation from Sam Wineman, and his upcoming documentary on queer horror for Shudder. I’d already seen Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin, and I’ve hoped to see a similar treatment to LGBTQ+ people and themes in the horror genre. In the meantime, however, I realized that what I needed to do — unlike Horror Noire where I began watching some of those films and the work of their actors after viewing it — was watch some LGBTQ+ horror itself, or at least some that played with those elements, for good or ill.

This is where Scream, Queen came in. And even now, despite having written something on Sleepaway Camp and its problematic elements, I’m still not writing about this documentary. Not entirely.

I’d like to think it’s not that dissimilar to how Patton wrote “Jesse’s Lost Journal.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I’m a freak. Given that this blog is called The Horror Doctor at the moment, and the subject matter we are covering, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But I might be one of the few people in the horror fandom that watched Scream, Queen before ever seeing the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the sequel in particular. The fact that I saw that documentary before watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 probably informed my opinions differently than someone who saw the film cold in their formative years, or even afterwards.

I am one of those relatively straight people, who didn’t hate the sequel. I like the fact that there was an attempt to create something new in the Elm Street mythos before it had really even begun. For me, it made sense that Freddy Krueger, as a being of nightmares, would need a physical avatar to properly interact with a material world without relying on people asleep or a half-delirious state. It also really spoke to me that he would prey on an adolescent dealing with anger and repressed sexual feelings in order to infiltrate his mind and body. Freddy is a child predator no matter which way you look at it, and he exploits whatever he can, non-consensually, to enjoy his favourite past times: pain, suffering, and murder.

If you go even further, you will notice in the second film that he only ever kills men and boys. When you consider how Jesse is humiliated by his coach, belittled by his father, his feelings mistaken as mental illness by his mother, even physically fighting with Grady, and expected to be sexual with Lisa at a popular party in a mansion I just read it all as an LGBTQ teen being thrown into a patriarchal or kyriarchical system where he doesn’t belong — and Freddy is the other side of it, the destructive, violent tendencies in addition to being his own hideous self that obliterates the societal structure and people tormenting him along with his own false sense of self. The way Freddy eventually rips out of Jesse reminds me so much of the monstrous sentient tumour that comes out of Steven Freeling after arguably rejecting his own toxic masculinity born of anger and helpless and alcoholism in Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

It’s no coincidence, to me, that Freddy wears Jesse as a skin, though the reverse is also true. Just as Jesse’s father is the reason he is imprisoned in this literally hot and stifling place of suffocation in Nancy’s old house made from murder, Freddy becomes the prison that he is entrapped within by the dominant social narrative: watching his subsequent actions become distorted into the worst possible atrocities.

The thing is, writers like Logan Ashley in his article “Scream, Queen!”: A Reflection on the Legacy of a Gay Cult Classic Death of the author, and examining what we remember about problematic, “bad” horror point out that Freddy may well represent the view that society enforces on LGBTQ people — on gay men in this case — that their sexuality is wrong, monstrous, and equated with child predation and worse. But it is through Lisa’s Platonic, pure love and acceptance of who Jesse is that makes him realize he isn’t sick or wrong, that he isn’t alone, that he is heard and understood even in the greatest darkness, and that he will survive.

It’s been pointed out a few times, of course, that this was probably not the message that the film intended. Much like Sleepaway Camp and its treatment of Angela Baker — with the character’s reveal as being biologically male and that transphobia — there is a homophobic element where some might see it as Freddy being the unnatural “other sexuality” that the love of a good woman can cure. I’m not going to rehash all of that, or the fact that the film’s writer David Chaskin attributed the homoerotic or phobic undertones to the “performances of a few elements” only to take credit for the homophobic “critique” years after the denial of it.

Logan Ashley in his article argues that Roland Barthes’ idea of “the death of the Author” — that once a work of art is completed it no longer belongs to the creators but to the audience or those that consume or perform in its legacy — can be applied to Freddy’s Revenge in this sense, in that other readings can be attributed to it, such as — again — a work like Sleepaway Camp. And if that’s the case, there is another way this narrative can be interpreted.

All of that leads back to Mark Patton and his struggles, and the conclusions to which he’s come. All of that can be seen in Scream, Queen, this documentary directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, and co-produced by Patton himself in 2019. However before Scream, Queen and after the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Patton made something else.

Jesse’s Lost Journal is a series created by Mark Patton in 2012, posted on Static Emporium in sixty-eight parts, including a Preface from Patton. The premise is that, much like the Journal Jesse Walsh finds belonging to Nancy Thompson in the first film, he writes down his own thoughts as he experiences the events of Freddy’s Revenge … and beyond.

It’s no secret that I love epistolary fiction. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove where journal entries, transcripts, and letters create the narrative of a horror story: this testimony to terrible things and the revelations they contain. Certainly, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust‘s film reels and also Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch mockumentary aspects fall into that place for me. But there are also two other elements I enjoy in my studies, and my own personal interest. For one, I love meta-fictional narratives: works that say something and build on, and from, the frame of the original works from which they are based. The first time I was exposed to this was through John Gardner’s Grendel, the story of Beowulf as told from the perspective of the monster he slays, but I particularly enjoyed Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comics miniseries Providence — which operates from the idea that Lovecraft created his Cthulhu Mythos from slightly different, but similar events as written down in another Commonplace Book — and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire that tells the story of what if Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok in Nosferatu, really was a vampire.

And another element I appreciate, relating to all of these points and references, is that of the unreliable narrator.

“Jesse’s Lost Journal” has all of these qualities in spades. Unlike Moore and Burrows’ Providence, or even Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, Jesse’s story begins much like the film in which he exists but even then, there are some … discrepancies. They are subtle, at first, but as you go through you find a very different character to the one portrayed in the film: someone self-aware of his danger and his oppressive surroundings, and will do almost anything to survive.

One fascinating part is how Patton characterizes Freddy and his interactions with Jesse. Fittingly, this prose is where it got pointed to me that Freddy only attacked the boys and men around Jesse, but after thinking about Freddy some more it reminded me of Daniel Sheppard’s Sleepaway Camp and the Transgressive Possibilities of Queer Spectatorship article I referenced in my look at Sleepaway Camp in which he references Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster” in stating that “the queer monster” is an aspect of agony and radicalism that many would like to white-wash or disavow but might be, for all of its problematic nature, a source of strength and power against a tyrannical or heteronormative system. This is something of my own paraphrase, and Sheppard goes on to say that LGBTQ people can relate to the discomfort of this being’s existence, but while that may not work with a being like Freddy — who is a predator and killer of children in the film — in Patton’s “Jesse’s Lost Journal” the protagonist sees Freddy as his tormentor, his jailer, his prisoner, but also his cohort, and sometimes even an agent of freedom. In this context, I think the queer monster definitely applies to Freddy while not taking away from his aspect of being a tool or a stereotype created by the heteronormative patriarchy.

What is so good about metafiction is that it tends to comment on its own nature or narrative structure. The fact that Jesse is wondering where Nancy is and why she hasn’t contacted him in his fight against Freddy can be seen as a commentary on women and gay men being discrimated and separated from intersectional solidarity by a heteronormative kyriarchy. There is also the fact that they have different roles in their stories and the franchise itself: Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven’s first film operates out of a sense of righteous justice and self-agency against the odds and the system of disbelieving and secretive adults. Patton’s Jesse Walsh wants to help those wronged but he has to make sacrifices along the way in so doing. Nancy can’t help Jesse in this system. She comes back in other films, fighting other battles. Jesse continues to wage his own from the shadows, deserving his own time. In the end, he can only help himself.

Jesse also doesn’t end up sugarcoating the situation. He comments on how Freddy’s crimes are downplayed to mollify the citizens of Springwood, Ohio or to entertain audiences while giving him the lion’s share of the blame of all the murders of popular children in an upper-middle class society also says a lot about not just the homophobic of the 1980s, but also the fallout from critics and fans on Mark Patton during that particular period, exacerbated by Chaskin’s comments about his homosexuality giving the film a “gay subtext” where none supposedly existed. Jesse nearly dying and being institutionalized, eventually getting away from Elm Street, becoming homeless for a time, getting to New York, and both creating art and writing in a journal to sort out his thoughts and trauma also has some interesting semi-biographical resonances.

Of course, none of it is precisely factual or biographical. Patton changes facts around and Jesse, well, as I said: I love an unreliable narrator paired up with the conceit that something fictional is real. But I would strongly encourage anyone who has watched Scream, Queen to read “Jesse’s Lost Journal” or vice-versa.

I just want to appreciate the fact that for all the flak that Freddy’s Revenge received, there is so much support and even literature written around it. And I would definitely include “Jesse’s Lost Journal” as something of an artistic commentary and critique of that film, how it was handled, how social elements dealt with it, and that entire time period in which it was made. It is such a great example of deconstruction, reconstruction, and even re-appropriation of its parent narrative’s themes. Also, I dare you to look at how Jesse wins his battle at the end of Mark Patton’s series, and then watch Patton have his own confrontation towards the end of Scream, Queen: a place I never thought they would go, but they did. Either way you look at these parallels, a demon is faced, prices have been paid, unforgettably personal denouements are reached, a burden is possibly owned and shed, and perhaps a nightmare is finally over.

It Takes Two: Satan’s Slaves

Before I was a student of horror, I was a student of mythology. And when I say that, I don’t mean that I was just interested in Greco-Roman or other worldly mythology. More specifically, I was — and I am — fascinated with the construction or hybridization of a world-view: of a mythos.

In 2018, at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I had the opportunity to watch a foreign film called Satan’s Slaves. It looked promising, taking place in Indonesia and drawing on the culture and mythos of that land and region. Subtitles have never warded me off, either, and I actually prefer to hear the original language and intonation — the emotion — behind the words as I read them. I also appreciated the premise: of a woman dying, and after her death her family being haunted by ghosts or demons. A few years before this point, I’d been examining the manifestations of zombies cross-culturally, and in the process I’d just touched on some Malaysian or Indonesian horror in the figure of the pontianak: seemingly the ghost of a woman who died while pregnant and could be juxtaposed between the figure of the zombie or a vampire. This being seemed to be central in this film.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to stay for that portion of the Festival, or I hadn’t been able to make it at the time. Perhaps, in the end, it was just as well. Time passed, and eventually after a lot of other life events, I got a subscription to Shudder. And there it was, Satan’s Slaves, with another opportunity for me to watch it.

Yet what I didn’t realize, until getting Shudder, was that Satan’s Slaves, written and directed by Joko Anwar in 2017, was both a remake and a prequel to an older Indonesian film called Pengabdi Setan, or Satan’s Slave, directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra and written by Putra, Imam Tantowi, and Naryono Prayitno back in 1980. Both films, in fact, are called Pengabdi Setan but the former title of “Slave” is singular and the other is plural. I’d be tempting to suggest that this the result of an English translation’s way of differentiating the original from its successor, but I think there might be more to it than that.

So I watched Satan’s Slave first and … wow. I know that if I had watched Anwar’s film before, and on its own, it would have stood out for sure, but watching Putra’s movie put everything into a different context. There were similar beats: a matriarch dies, leaving an affluent family in disarray, there are demonic forces at work, the presence of undead occur, occult and Islamic faith is sought out to deal with it, a male love interest dies for a young girl in the family in seeking out this aid, there are a few funerals — for people who are part of the family and have remained pious and faithful, for all the good it does them — and the family itself seems to be saved at the end … or are they? Now, there is one other common element — a character who appears in both films, though she appears towards the very tail end of Anwar’s film — but we will get more into that soon.

There are some differences. Let’s talk about those briefly. In Putra’s film, the narrative begins with the funeral of the mother and the antagonist is established fairly early on. The family is rich but no longer observant in Islam, and you see them embracing a lot of popular cultural elements, especially the young daughter and her brother: the former in dances and pop music contemporary to the period, and the latter in horror books and comics. Their father is a successful businessman who ignores faith and superstition respectively. He ends up taking on a housekeeper named Darminah who is the fortuneteller that manipulates the younger son into using black magic, and continues cursing the entire household. There is the recurring figure of the kyai — an Indonesian or Javanese expert in Islam — who keeps wanting to make an appointment with the father and, in the end with his followers, allow the power of prayer to exorcise Darminah and the possessed corpses of the mother, the girl’s boyfriend, and their pious and comically sick servant out of existence. In the end, the whole family is saved as they submit themselves, again, to Islam in something that seems like a great morality tale.

Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, however, takes a different slant. The film begins with the eldest daughter attempting to get what is left of her ailing mother’s music royalties to help her family: with no less than three younger siblings, including the youngest named Ian, who is mute, her wheelchair bound grandmother whos is pious and coughs much like the servant did in Putra’s film, and her anxiety-ridden unemployed father who has to leave later to, apparently, find employment. We see her mother dying, and finally pass … and that is when everything goes to hell, almost literally.

There is more story in Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves. There is a sect that is considered by some to be Satanists, but they use an older Javanese language: which might mean they are a local religious or spiritual cult predating Christianity entirely. Apparently, the family’s matriarch embraced them in order to deal with her infertility, for an obvious infernal price: one that various forces seem intent on collecting. Here, the kyai — or the Ustad, which is the Persian Islamic term for teacher — is not effective at all. In fact, the demonic forces kill his father, the girl’s boyfriend, and it breaks him. Organized Islamic religion and piety, which seems to save the family in Putra’s film, doesn’t avail the family in Anwar’s story. In fact, it contrasts with the end of the first film in that waiting outside for the family isn’t a holy leader and his congregants to banish evil with a Quran but rather a group of cultists and their undead allies instead. Ironically, the only person who seems to know what is going on is an occult scholar who had been schoolmates with the grandmother of the family, his knowledge drawing on elements that may well have not been included in mainstream religious education. This is quite the contrast to the shaman in Putra’s Satan’s Slave, who is summoned by the family to deal with their poltergeist activity, only to not only be defeated by it, but become utterly destroyed. But we will get back to that later.

In Satan’s Slaves, there are many more undead servants.– far more than the three in Satan’s Slave. We find out that a child sacrifice is actually, for lack of a better word, an “Antichrist” who has been manipulating the family the entire time. And they only seem to escape because the spirit of the grandmother, who realized what this being was, who they truly were and was killed due to it, put herself between them and the undead.

These are some fairly bare and basic comparisons. If you want to have a more indepth look at these parallels, I would suggest Ghost Series’ Satan’s Slaves and Satan’s Slave: Indonesian Horror in Subtitles, as well as Paolo Bertolin’s SATAN’s SLAVES write-up in Far East Film Festival 22 (June 26-July 4, 2020). Yet what interests me the most is this theme that keeps coming up between the two films, and it potentially manifests in Anwar’s narrative is comparative mythology.

I want to look at the figure of the pontianak again. This is usually a female spirit, a malicious entity, that is the result of a woman dying during childbirth or while pregnant. However, this being can also result from a stillborn child, or from a woman that had been raped. This doesn’t seem to particularly apply to the slow-moving, plodding yet also immaterial spectres in Putra’s work. Not only are two of them men, but the only woman in the group didn’t seem to have suffered any trauma, or gone through pregnancy. In fact, aside from her extremely pale face and very long black hair, the only other sign that she is derived from the image of the pontianak is when the shaman, who fails to exorcise the household of its demonic presence, is attacked by flower petals: something reminiscent of the female ghost, whose presence is supposedly accompanied by the scent of the Plumeria flower. Furthermore, they seem to be animated by the power of Darminah: who is either a sorceress or a demon in her own right that preys on people with weak faith to become “demonic slaves.”

Then, we have the beings in Satan’s Slaves. They are more mobile, and there are many more of them than three. In fact, some seem to have been dead for a longer period of time before the events of the film. Even so, I can see a case for the mother being a pontianak in the sense that she had, technically, died as a result of her pact with the demonic forces that got her pregnant to begin with: either through their human followers, or through a demon itself. As a result of this, she is reanimated and she joins the ranks of the damned. Of course, both Putra and Anwar are probably taking creative liberties and marrying Indonesian and perhaps Middle-Eastern mythologies and folklore together, utilizing the imagery of the pontianak while adding Judeo-Christian aspects of demonology to the mix.

It is this dichotomy as well that fascinates me, and you can see it the most in Satan’s Slaves. Joko Anwar does more than simply create demons mashed from folklore that can easily be banished by Islam. He makes them more elemental, older, and the traditions that support are no less ancient and terrifying. He seems to intimate that there are indigenous — in the sense of local — groups or cults with ties that are more primordial than Islam, and they hide in plain sight. This seems to be a favourite theme of his, so much so that I almost believed that his 2019 film Impetigore — with references to ancient supernatural Javanese language, demonic rites, shamanism, curses, and ghosts — might have been a sequel, spiritual or otherwise, to his Satan’s Slave prequel, if nothing else. Of course, there is the possibility that even Sisworo Gautama Putra, while not as detailed as Anwar, may have also subverted the idea that submission to the tenet’s of Islam would ultimately defeat evil in Satan’s Slave.

I mean, who are Satan’s Slaves? This is the question, isn’t it? I mean, Darminah in the first film would say it is though who are spiritually weak and die unrepentant who can be recruited into the ranks of the damned under her command. Likewise, in the second film they could serve the interests of the cult and their demonic patron who may or may not be the Devil. They could the undead and the hapless families in both films, but then there is the question of who leads them.

In Middle-Eastern and perhaps Western mythology, there is the figure of Lilith and Asmodeus. Lilith, among other depictions, is the former spouse of Adam turned into a demoness that kills children. Asmodeus, however, is her new husband and the Angel of Death or an aspect of the Devil. I can easily see Darminah as a Lilith figure in Anwar’s mythos, even if she had been made by Putra. But what of a counterpart?

One thing that really bothered me at the end of an otherwise exemplary film like Satan’s Slaves was the inclusion of Darminah and someone else. The implication, of course, was that Slaves is tied into Slave and that the demonic worshippers are a web of sects and fertility cults in particular: harvesting families to create human-demon hybrids. It is implied that there was only one true hybrid or “Anti-Christ” in Anwar’s film, but I have a feeling the entire family — all of the children — are the result of that kind of breeding. I’ve seen it written that Putra’s Satan’s Slave was a remake of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, which is … a little hard to see and, if anything Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves with this emphasis on ritual and demonic genetics and eugenics shares a lot of beats with a film like Ari Aster’s Hereditary. This family lives in the city now at the end of the film, under the seemingly kindly auspices of a younger beautiful Darminah who dances with another man named … Batara. Both of them seem to be the leaders of this web of cults.

Now, think about this. Imagine coming into Satan’s Slaves raw, and you have never seen Satan’s Slave. You might come out of it thinking this was all orchestrated, but there would be something — some context — missing. Now consider going into it having seen Putra’s classic, and knowing who Darminah is, perhaps the music she and her counterpart are listening to is from that first film, which may have been made by the mother — who was a musician and singer — in this film, but then there is one question.

Who the hell is Batara?

This drove me nuts. There was something familiar about him, like I should know who he is. The two films have similar beats, so who was this new character added at the very end of the film? So I did some sleuthing, and while I am by no means exhaustive in this search, I recalled something from Satan’s Slave. At the end of the first film, we see Darminah — who had supposedly been vanquished — in a car looking at the family that recommitted itself to Islam. But, if I recall correctly, she is sitting next to someone. Perhaps a man? And then, I found the above article by Paolo Bertolin who claims that Batara is the name of the divine force that ill-fated dukun — the shaman — called upon in his failed attempt to banish the family’s house of demons. And perhaps, if you take Anwar’s story into continuity, the reason it failed is because Batara and Darminah were not only working together, but are part of a pair.

I’m not sure if the above is true. It is possible that Batara is part of the next film by Anwar that will bridge the gap between Slave and Slaves, but Bertolin’s explanation is immaculate and in my mind it works. After all, it takes two forces — the living and the dead, evocations to ancient cultures and monotheistic blasphemies, the old and the modern, two parents, Lilith and Asmodeus, Darminah and Batara and false cultural equivalencies aside — to truly create a garden of horrors. And it takes a village of the damned to raise a blasphemous family.

The Path Back to Aira: H.P. Lovecraft’s Quest of Iranon

It always comes back to Lovecraft, for me.

When I peel back the opaque shroud of time from my mind, I remember that H.P. Lovecraft was pretty much another writer like Edgar Allan Poe to me, before I actually read his work. Certainly, when I read “The Tomb” in those early days, it didn’t disabuse me of that notion, though I had no idea of the depth of his terrifying vision and how it fit into — and beyond — the evolution of humanity until I read “The Rats in the Walls”: problematic elements, and all.

Then, one day, after getting and reading The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft with Neil Gaiman’s introduction telling us how extremely racist he was, as if it hadn’t already been clear, and my own head being filled with Lovecraft’s epistolary first-person scholarly tales of meeting horrific things that have always lived side by side with what we think is normal, though devoid of sex beyond anything squeamish and disgusting, and certainly far from intimacy tat was anything other than camaraderie I found “The Quest of Iranon.”

I remember reading it that first time. It was evening, I think, and I was sitting on the bench at Vanier College at York University. This was my Undergrad year after all my carefully laid plans fell apart, and I was tired of being so structured: and I just wanted to take the courses that interested me and — for the first time — genuinely explore my surroundings. I was pretty young then, about twenty-four or so, and between the end of my first relationship, quitting my Creative Writing Program, and not taking a full course load anymore I guess I was in the place where these stories would affect me.

They spoke to me then, with grandiose language — heightened diction, my teachers called it — but also about dreams, and nostalgia, and loss. “The Quest of Iranon” has gotten some flak over the years. Some have said it is heavily derivative of Lovecraft’s favourite writer and once of his influences, Lord Dunsany. I imagine others have seen it as a lot of navel-gazing on the part of the protagonist, and melodramatic self-pity. I know at least one person who has no patience for this story, and saw it as tremendously self-indulgent and perhaps even a little preachy. When I was reading Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Arkham and Beyond, he referenced Brian Humphreys in his “Who Is Iranon?” who read the ending of the story to mean that Iranon’s physical translation is literal and entails that he is related to the Gods, or the Great Old Ones in some way before stepping into a space that changes him. It is the closest horror interpretation, or Mythos one, I’d seen at that point.

For me, aside from some Cthulhu Mythos or Dream Cycle references — world-building crossover — the horror of the narrative is entirely different. I read the story as as a parable or a metaphor. Iranon is an artist. He fuels himself on his passion and his dreams. He goes to one place that wants him to get a “proper job” in order to survive, only mildly tolerating his natural abilities, and completely ignoring the fact that they just toil for the sake of work, and forgetting the finer things with which they could strive. It’s the dreamer verses the cold, grim real world trope, which I’m sure has felt trite to people who have actually worked at manifesting their dreams, but it’s also an observation about how fickle fame or respect for someone’s art can be as Iranon goes to another city and eventually, for all his initial favour, is replaced by the new. A lot of these ideas and themes are refined in Lovecraft’s later works “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

But Iranon’s goal, to return to Aira — this beautiful land where he is a Prince — is the one thing that keeps him going. He travels the world, telling stories about this place where he feels like he belongs, and he understands things, and it allows him to remain vital. This impulse maintains his sense of youth. I imagine that others can’t even believe it, like his friend Romnod who follows him as a young boy, his constant companion for a time, only to settle in a city and die an old drunkard.

People laugh at Iranon. Or they ignore him. Or they simply don’t see him at all. And yet he continues traveling, and playing, and making his songs, still seeking his lost home. He still wants to return to Aira.

It’s only at the end, when he encounters an old shepherd at the edges of a desert, that he realizes the terrible truth of the matter.

There is no Aira.

The implication is that the shepherd and Iranon were friends years ago, beggar’s children. Iranon himself had been an orphan telling everyone about the magical city of Aira where he said he was a Prince. When Iranon remembers this truth, his self-delusion is gone. His dream is dead. He withers away, looking and feeling every bit his age. And realizing that his whole life was basically a lie, he goes to die in the quicksand rather than continue on with the rest of his miserable existence.

It’s that whole trope of “Forbidden Knowledge” or “You can’t handle the truth” that leads this formulaic story — with Iranon constantly asking every stranger he meets if they know where Aira in an almost poetic verse — to that predictable place. It’s so easy to scoff at that, or say it isn’t scary, or look down your nose and have no patience for dreamers that aren’t professional and don’t see their passion as actual work. You can even argue that it’s something of a maudlin tragedy, and you can see it in Lovecraft’s other stories: in “The Outsider” whose protagonist realizes he is an abomination and tries to forget, and some of his more racist works like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or even “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” where the protagonists realize they have inhuman ancestry in their blood, and either flee from their fraying humanity, or kill themselves.

Lovecraft has always stated that humanity’s greatest fear is that of the unknown, while at the same time positing that if people realized the ultimate truth, it would destroy their sanity.

I think “The Quest of Iranon” works for me because it makes me think of another interpretation of horror. Imagine you have this idea of who you are, and where you come from in relation to that. Consider that you are constantly having that sense of self challenged, and struggling to undertake the actions that make you happy. You go through all of that, and you keep that certainty alive and it strengthens you. Perhaps it is challenged, and you learn, but that core of you is still there, and it inspires you to go onward, and keep living.

And then imagine, one day, you find out that everything that you thought — that you genuinely wanted to be be true — is not only false, it never happened. You were never going to find your home. You were never going to find that peace. You were never who you thought you were.

The horror in “The Quest of Iranon” is more than just coming to the discovery that you are the alien, the monster, or the Other. It’s that you just aren’t that important. You’re not that special. And some people might cynically acknowledge that and think you were foolish for ever thinking otherwise, that this what adolescents and young adults have to accept in order to grow up, but consider what happens to someone when they believe they can never be happy unless they find the thing that, in reality, doesn’t exist. And everyone else is fine with that, or they can move on, or settle down, but you just … can’t.

I think that everyone has had a moment like this. Obviously, we don’t all go into quicksand and die, but sometimes we want to forget this disappointment. Sometimes you just want to forget those dreams that you thought were so important and now they just embarrass you, or anger you, or merely make you terribly sad in that they are not reality, and they will never be.

I’ve thought about Iranon from time to time, and Aira, and the place of youth that we all cobble together from our better memories as some kind of idyllic past that didn’t happen, but you wish it had. Or maybe it did happen in a different form. Even Iranon thought, despite knowing better, that some cities might have been his Aira and enjoyed them for whatever time they were worth.

To this very day, I don’t know the way back to a place that probably never happened, or didn’t the way I thought or wished it would. But there is nothing to laugh about that, or turn your nose up from. It doesn’t make you superior to believe that you are beyond this yearning, or nostalgia, and especially not if you look down at others for feeling this way. Maybe the horror is when you’ve felt like you lost something you never had, and everyone else just doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand you. Or see you.

It’s a haunting story, “The Quest of Iranon” especially during a time when dreams are important to take our minds off of a terrifying reality, or to add meaningful flavour to it. Art has kept us going through seclusion, and united us. Maybe Aira doesn’t exist, but perhaps something imaginary needs to have been, and to be.

I haven’t been in Undergrad in years. I’ve met and lost friends along the way. I’ve been in different places. I’ve still dreamed. Perhaps, one day, I will rediscover my Aira, or the very least find the strength and will within myself to let it go.

Be Careful What You Take In: Rob Savage’s Host

Some films are a product of their times or, if you’d like to pardon the pun, the Zeitgeist: the Spirit of the times. This is definitely the case of this Shudder Original film Host. Host is a film directed by Rob Savage, co-written by both Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, and its one of those cinematic narratives created in the fear-soaked environment of the pandemic: of COVID-19.

It takes the form of a Zoom call, in which six young people decide to have a seance with a medium online to pass the time. Obviously, this turns out to be an excellent life — and afterlife — decision as these things go.

The conference call seems be on a Macintosh Apple computer based on all the colourful buttons, and the Zoom platform itself transitions between the different windows of the users involved as a six-panel screen format, and sometimes a single screen when the story needs to focus on one character. It feels like a call, like you are in the chatroom seeing people get invited in, and having little glimpses into their quarantine lives. It feels like an epistolary fictional narrative, only live. There are no letters, journal entries, transcripts, or even texts but if you take it as a recording of the situation you see these different narratives united under one theme. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Host is a found footage film, arguably a cinematic descendant of the epistolary, that feels as though it is live: that it is happening as you watch it.

Unlike The Tribe Murders, another short Zoom-modeled film that, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft “is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” there is no disclaimer at the beginning telling you that this happened because, very simply, it is happening as you watch it. There is no past-tense here. Only the eternal, oppressive, over-present.

The pacing of the film is excellent. You have six friends brought together in different places holing up against the pandemic, going about their lives as best they can and under different circumstances, while talking about their lives, and sometimes even gossiping about each other beyond their backs before coming onto the screen. You know it’s the beginning of the end when the six characters can’t take the seance seriously, and try make a drinking game from hearing the words “astral plane” from the medium who so graciously offers to guide them through the ritual.

Strangely Seylan the medium herself as she guides the characters — who are, for the most part, irreverent — brings a feeling of tranquility, even ASMR to the chat with her voice, her calm instructions, and her gentle manner. It makes the tense worse because you know that despite the previous joviality, the latter is a false serenity, a deceptive sense of security. Slow-burning stories or, Hitchcock’s “anticipation of the bang” happen this way. The manifestations of everything that goes wrong are planted in subtle images or distortions, little visual and audio feints and red-herrings, but ultimately the tragedy begins from a sense of utter irreverence against an invisible force that the Zoom participants have vastly underestimated. By the time things get serious, the effects are simply extensions of the infection that has already been growing, its signs already there, the connections not cut away in time.

There is a lot of that language in here. There are at least two themes in Host, not including the title as well. It had only been towards the end of the film that I realized it, and began to think about these elements. The first is the togetherness yet distance of the Internet. A Zoom call, like Skype before it, brings people together while being spatially distant. Seylan goes out of her way to tell each participant to visualize a connected string to their doors should they want to terminate communication with any spirit: kind of like how you would stop a Zoom call. At the same time, even the medium has to think about how to adapt her ritual to an online forum: which she has never done before. Usually, the rite involves physical touch and more direct guidance from the medium or spiritual expert in question: in far more tactile, tangible, and ritualistically secure settings.

To be honest, while some characters are practical jokers, I think in a lot of ways the character of Seylan is the most irresponsible: starting these young people on a potentially dangerous activity, and then leaving them to get a package, and not following up when her Zoom call gets dropped. She also doesn’t consider actually encouraging the characters to have physical elements beyond candles to help them have something material to ground themselves into the ritual. Sometimes, for all the information the Internet has, online existence loses something from the offline world in translation, and this disconnect can make all the difference.

At the same time, when you utilize the Internet as a medium to communicate and you don’t follow the right protocols or you disable privacy, or take it for granted, anyone or anything can be seeing or listening in on what you do. In this sense, this is both a twenty-first century cautionary tale, and an element from the entirely timeless folklore of human hubris.

The Internet and the spiritual intersect in another sense. You need to be careful about what information you broadcast, or put out there. In this case, it’s a falsehood — a story — told by one user that ends up becoming a mask, an anonymous persona, for an unwanted, malicious guest.

This feeds into the film’s other theme, the more implicit one. While the dangers of the Internet and that feeling of connection conflicting with detachment and disconnect are there and the characters operate in that background of life as usual while struggling against global despair, the pandemic itself is another major part of the story.

Remember what I’ve said about the Zeitgeist. If F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu serves as an artistic attempt to exorcise the demons of World War I in Germany, if the jinn in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow represent the darkness of the Iran-Iraq War and Iran’s fundamentalist patriarchy, and if Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and José Villarrubia’s comic Infidel deal with the forces of xenophobia in contemporary America as ghosts feeding off hatred, I think there is something to be said about Host and its status as a piece of horror symbolizing the fear of the pandemic.

It is no coincidence that it’s due to the actions of the characters in underestimating the powers of unseen forces to the naked eye, and downplaying manifestations — or symptoms — of the supernatural that everything begins to unravel. In fact, it’s only one of the characters, Jemma, who brings a false narrative — or a false positive — into the procedure out of boredom that their spiritual, and material spaces are compromised by a hostile, foreign agent. One of the characters, Radina, looks pale and sick before the seance begins. Jemma claims to feel a tremendous pressure on her neck, making it hard for her to breathe. Everyone involved doesn’t even consider the other people in their spaces, not participating in the spiritual activity but still present: and how they put them at risk.

Haley is the only one of the characters aside from the medium who she brought into the Zoom call that takes the entire situation seriously, but it’s too late as she’s been exposed to the break in their neutral safe space. Caroline’s Zoom background of herself eternally repeating the same mundane task, a hope to return back to normal, plays as she is brutally possessed and murdered: life going on after being taken by something for which she hadn’t prepared herself. This looped background becomes something of a mockery for the group, for the normalcy they will never have again, that will never cover up the horror they now understand. Even Emma, who is hiding to her last breath, under her blanket — perhaps symbolizing her former ignorance, a flimsy safety — knows the terror that lurks outside, and that will get her now that she’s let it in: and there is nothing she can do about it. There is no cure for this plague they let into their lives.

Jemma herself hastily grabs a medical mask before fleeing her space, barely even getting it on her nose which one needs to have in order to have some protection against the virus. However, even though she ends up putting it back on, it gets knocked off: as if to say it’s already too late for her, and for Haley whose place she breaks into in order to get some protection from this infection. Of course, it’s too late for all of them as, one by one in both in full knowledge and unknowing they watch each other fall — separated — into absolute helplessness: all because of the mistakes of a few.

The film itself, aside from its jump scares — feints and special effects-wise — especially at the end, are fairly predictable, though I was always wondering who would die first. And there is something about a childhood fear in the form of a music box with a limited time span, with something of a timer — much like the one at the corner of the Zoom platform that needs to be upgraded monetarily — that hits home the fear that permeates our world now. It’s just my read that the demon summoned on this Zoom call is a metaphor. The spectres of World War I, the spirits of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the hungry ghosts of xenophobia and hatred in contemporary Trump era New York, all them would be in good company with this unseen demon — borrowing the tools of our online culture, misinformation and terror — that will consume us if we underestimate it, or ignore it, or pretend that we’ve banished it when we know that we haven’t, when we don’t listen to the experts, when the experts themselves don’t even know the full implications of its adaptation, and we let it in.

When you take this read of Host into consideration, you realize that it doesn’t just mean the facilitation of a Zoom call with privacy that doesn’t exist as is examined in The Tribe Murders, or a chatroom, forum, or platform without moderators that can get hacked by entities revealing secrets and spreading lies. Rather, a host is a person who sometimes takes an unwanted guest into themselves, thinking they are safe or non-existent: and both they, and everyone around watches their space get taken over, and they pay the price. That is the fear I feel that Host plays on, and with, and this — combined with how it presents its aesthetic all the way to the credits being a list of participants in the Zoom call itself (almost all them having the same first names as their characters, by the way) — is nothing short of something terrifyingly beautiful, a prime example of imminent horror, and it should be considered a classic of our time.

Behind My Son of Shadows

Nothing ever goes according to plan. This is especially true in the mad science known as creative writing.

I’d been planning to place something within the Reanimation Station for quite some time, to take apart and rewrite an old film and make it into a more coherent story. There have been some smaller, minor experiments before that point: splicing Society and They Live, looking at alternative story ideas and possible narrative execution derived from Cannibal Holocaust, From Beyond, and even Hogzilla, and outright creating a short continuation or epilogue to Crimson Peak.

But this wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Before undertaking this Project, without a hope for financial compensation and only out of the perverted goodness of my black heart, I needed to attempt something … larger.

‎Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is not a bad film, though it isn’t as well known as it should be. In fact, it is a great movie. But, as most homage and fanfiction writers do, I wondered what would have happened if it had gone … differently.

It all began with the premise: what if Stefan, who claimed to be the heir to Chilton Manor, told his new wife Valerie the truth about his phone call back home, and what he truly wanted out of her?

I’d already seen the film twice, but that wasn’t enough. The first Phase of my process was reading up on the movie, on the characters, and even some basic thoughts from critics and its director. I also thought it useful to fill in some gaps about Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess of Hungary, herself. I knew that in order to make the story compelling, I needed to consider what each character was thinking and feeling beyond how their movements and facial expressions are telegraphed in the film.

But even before all of this, I’d already decided that the story was going to be two scenes: the first being the aftermath of Stefan telling Valerie the truth and him meeting Ilona Harczy in the honeymoon suite as per the usual proceedings of the film, and then the Countess Elizabeth Bathory also coming into the room to talk with Stefan privately, and confront him over the knowledge of what he really is.

It sounds simple, right? The film works well not just because of its turns in lush and austere aesthetics, but also due to what it doesn’t show or say. I know that ascribing clear meaning or explanations to things from the film wouldn’t work as they are not in the film. That is a personal rule of mine. If I am going to work in someone else’s playground I am either only going to play with the toys they’ve left behind, or take note of those items and bring some that potentially complement them.

For example, there are a few references to Elizabeth Bathory, and I did place some Dracula allusions into the narrative as well. What’s fascinating is that from Bathory, and Vlad Tepes came in no small part influence for how the image of the vampire is depicted in the literary arts. Yet Dracula isn’t necessarily Vlad Tepes, and the historical Elizabeth Bathory isn’t a vampire. It is the ideas of these legends based off history and folklore, these created identities that are the most fascinating elements to me. They are fictional personas masking something else entirely, another concept or truth that ultimately gets revealed while saying very little about their concrete origins. And if you have watched Daughters of Darkness, you also know that this applies to Stefan to some extent as well: in that he too is a construct over another, darker truth that gets realized one way in the film, and I attempt to reveal in another in my own derivative narrative.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be sparse with little bits of ornamentation changed into something else in the operating theatre of my writer’s mind. The truth of what happened with Stefan and Valerie in my narrative, in contrast to the film, was going to be slowly revealed and only touched upon: kind of like how the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” talk about abortion without being blunt or direct about it.

But if we are going to go into literary influences that aided me in building on, and understanding this cinematic narrative, I would also mention Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: a novella that deals with homoerotic and queer undertones along with the dissolution of a morality and mind obsessed with possessing youth and beauty. Ostend in Belgium, while not Venice, Italy still has some of the architectural and ornamental tradition that mirrors the latter.

There is definitely a Continental European literary influence over Daughters of Darkness, especially in seduction and love as a passionate force that destroys bourgeoisie mentality — a middle-class mindset — and that life itself.

My alternate ending idea changed, however, when Ilona Harczy wanted more “screen time” in the narrative. To elaborate, she spoke to me. One thing that I’ve seen online is that different reviews of Daughters of Darkness ascribe a variety of perspectives to the film. But what they all seem to agree on, or most of them, is that the women — the vampires — are lesbians. It does seem that Elizabeth and Ilona are in a hierarchical lesbian power exchange relationship, especially accentuated by the fact that Elizabeth is the vampire that made or sired Ilona: compelling her with what seems to be a bond. And towards the end of the film, Valerie is influenced by that same magnetism. But I think there are complexities there that are more than just a black and white sense of sexuality, or even gender understanding.

Ilona, to me, wanted to leave the worn down, exhausting relationship she has with her domineering partner, still hungry for blood herself but also for companionship with someone other than Elizabeth, maybe even a temporary reprieve from her own sense of unhappiness. She is a mirror to Stefan in that he too trying to run from his own responsibilities, wanting to embrace his hungers, his appetites but only able to make excuses to attempt to escape the inevitable as well. Neither character is happy, and in this derivative construction of mine, I wanted to make it clear that they know this on one level: even if it is lost in translation between them.

I was content to let Ilona have her time with Stefan, but then a new challenge arose. You see, I really liked — love — Kümel’s dialogue. There are some lines in his film that I just wanted to exist in this alternate ending that was quickly becoming an alternative chapter. It began with Stefan and Ilona, and then after Ilona’s limited third-person narrative, I had to go back to Valerie and see what her interaction with the Countess would be like.

Valerie runs away, this time from the verbal truth and not the visceral, punitive corporeal punishment that Stefan utilizes against her in his sense of thwarted ambition — of being the subordinate instead of the master as he thinks a man should be — and the Countess finds her. I didn’t want to reveal too much about what happened, or what was said otherwise there is that fear of repetition in the narrative. A lot of the lines still worked, especially when applied to Valerie realizing that Stefan’s sadistic desires, and his sexuality are not what she expected: or the truth about his home life.

I think where I had to be really careful was attempting to get to the third-person limited perspective of the Countess. Whereas Valeris is a central protagonist in the film and much about her own development is already made clear to the point it being dangerous repetition, Elizabeth Bathory needs remain more of an opaque, yet open mystery. You can, and you should, read between the lines. She has seen it all. In fact, she has done it all. When you look at her interaction with Stefan in the film, you see they have a lot in common. The difference? The Countess reached the point where she can enact these desires. Stefan has not.

I was thinking about character motivations and dynamics. I considered the fact that Elizabeth would like to travel around a great deal, not just because the Bathory family lost their land ages after the Blood Countess’ house arrest and death, but also because if she had been entombed alive in her own home, she wouldn’t want to stay in one place for too long. It would terrify the hell out of her, which is why she needs to move around so much, and how she came to the hotel at Ostend again. At the same time, the Countess is old. It’s said that it is never polite to speculate on a lady’s age, but when you see Elizabeth interact with others, in the way she moves, or looks at them, or smiles it really does feel like she is ethereal, that she is attempting to remember how to affect human mannerisms and emotion when the only real feelings she channels anymore are disaffection and hunger. She’s jaded and tired, and while Ilona is desperate to feel something else — anything — Elizabeth has particular tastes and likes to take incredible risks.

I added even more literary references, especially from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The historical Elizabeth Bathory, who apparently suffered seizures and some say actually bathed in the blood of healthy innocents to stop them, was also a highly literate young girl who speak Latin and ancient Greek. She was smart, and if the Countess of this film is her, or descended from her, or bases herself off her, I can see her comparing her idea of love to Satan, Death, and Sin. I know that it’s Mary Shelley who makes references to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, but it just suits the Gothic environment crafted in Daughters in Darkness.

Writing this has been challenging. Imagine filming, and the conceit that a lot of the work in film is post-production: in the editing room. So consider finding a complete and excellent film, a masterpiece, and cutting apart pieces of it, and splicing together dialogue into different spaces, with words that are your own and might possibly complement the original dialogue: while something new. That’s what I attempted to do here.

However, and this is important, I didn’t want to destroy the themes of the film. A part of me wonders, even now, if making this ending focused on Stefan doesn’t defeat the purpose of the film, or go against the natures of the characters involved. Certainly, I can’t deny that I changed its trajectory and emphasis on women while, at the same time I feel like it still explores those elements amongst power dynamics, and the questions of eros, and freewill.

Let me just say: rewatching the film again, and going through various scenes and their dialogue made me truly appreciate the detail and layers, the nuances, in the narrative. Elizabeth is calculating, but she isn’t all-knowing. She just knows how to adapt like, in Kümel’s words to Mark Gatniss in Horror Europa, any good “demagogue.” Elizabeth is a casual opportunist, and while she seems to have preferences towards Valerie, for what seem to be similar reasons as Stefan’s, she doesn’t rule him out either. I think what gets me is her speech to Valerie in the film about what men want from women, sexually and kink-wise, and all the while you begin to realize that when Elizabeth is talking about what Valerie is expected to do for Stefan, she is really wanting Valerie to undertake these actions for her. In a way, Elizabeth is projecting her needs and desires on Stefan and men to introduce them, or define them, for Valerie. She is basically manipulating and grooming her away from Stefan after their violent encounter in the film.

In my story, it is a longer game, but Elizabeth does use the situation to win Valerie’s trust and take advantage of her vulnerability. What happens when someone is young and in love and invests this whole energy into a risky business of a person that doesn’t pay off, or turn out the way they think? They panic, and seek someone who knows, or seems to know what the deal might be. And while Stefan does have Dominant, and sadistic tendencies, he does share in the fact that he is bisexual — just as the female characters all seem to be. In the film, he associates gender with a power dynamic: he is a submissive or subordinate partner to his male partner at Chilton Manor, while he chafes under as he has other needs, and inherently believes that a man should be dominant over a woman. That chauvinism is there. However, in the scene in the lounge he does give into the Countess’ sensual domination — whether supernatural, or not.

Elizabeth can read Stefan. You can also interpret this as she talked with Valerie about him. And when someone trying to still feel something, to keep experiencing pleasure, can get more than one good thing, they will. Stefan has the tendencies towards sadism, but Elizabeth has learned it, and it is telling that he calls his partner in England “Mother” but the film Elizabeth wraps her arms around him, and in my fiction she ends up taking the control that he wants to give.

There are other elements that I didn’t plan that turned out well, such as Ilona’s eventual fate. I’ve been reading Clive Barker’s Imajica recently, and the novel begins with a theory of fiction in which there is only room for “three players” in a narrative: be they characters, or themes and three it becomes: though whether or not it will become two, then one like in the film isn’t clear by the end of my narrative. This riff or modification of Aristotle’s Poetics aside, it works out well, especially in using the Chekhov’s gun objects from the film: the razor that Stefan accidentally cuts himself with at the beginning of the story, and Ilona’s pearl necklace. The first item had already been there, and gets used in a different way in the film whereas I worked the necklace in differently.

Originally, I was going to have Ilona drop the necklace when leaving Stefan and Valerie’s honeymoon suite:

In her haste, in her stride to leave, Ilona drops the pearl necklace onto the floor. It snaps, spilling every ivory bead, each one rolling away, releasing them into the shadows gathered under the bed. 

However, there is no way she would have accidentally destroyed that necklace. It is a good image, and excellent foreshadowing, but I found a place where it fits far better, and used more than it was in the film. I had even used a third-person limited Stefan perspective that I didn’t end up using where he compares Ilona’s teeth to the pearls:

Stefan feels her watching him as he showers.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. Something, after Ilona however, feels more coiled. He turns around to see her. In the light of the bathroom, he sees her luscious lips, parted, and her teeth — paler than the pearls that were around her neck, dashed onto the floor like the rest of the room by his hand — exposed.

It is a good paragraph, as well, but in the end I used Ilona’s perspective instead and moved the pearls reference downward, and then away from there to her denouement in the bathtub of her’s and Elizabeth’s suite.

I don’t really know what else to add to this behind the scenes, or backstage look at my literary homage to Daughters of Darkness except I think that if I had to explain how the title works beyond it being a gender-bent version of the English title, it would go a little something like this.

Basically, Stefan who claims to be from Chilton Manor is part of an unofficial and illegal relationship with a more powerful man who stays in his estate and calls himself “Mother.” Valerie wants to protect him and be his wife but she’s basically young and with little substance beyond what she can become. Ilona, who seduces him, is dressed in black and wishes to be free, already resigned to what happens to her with moments of defiance — like him — and when she touches his face and hair, she almost seems to see a reflection of herself except so much younger. And Elizabeth, who plays with him and his wife, is an older feminine version of what he is, and what he could be. But like the shadow of shadows, he is always going to be tethered to something: his partner, his idea of what a man should be, the Countess, his sexual desires, and his unacknowledged needs. Originally, I was going to have the story end where he and Valerie almost touch fingers after the Countess claims them, after he is turned on the memory of Ilona’s final fate. But I needed to have Elizabeth behind them with, yes, that gimmicky black raincoat that looks like a vampire cape or the wings of a bat. It mirrors what Valerie, or the form of Valerie, does at the end of the film with that couple she meets after this is all said and done.

Stefan may have a different existence in this story, in this alternate ending, but he is still a shadow. He is still subordinate to someone else. He is still a slave to his passions. The difference? He knows it now. And he has died for them: just in a different way.

I hope liked this look into the bloody mess of my creative process, and that I will see you all for the next experiment.

Son of Shadows

Dedicated to Harry Kümel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness

Stefan feels nothing.

He sits in the King-sized bed, now empty aside from himself. And he doesn’t count. The honeymoon suite is a mess. After he and Valerie talked, after she left … he must have destroyed the entire place. All the blankets, his clothes, the ornaments, even the bathroom toiletries are strewn everywhere.

And the phone. The phone is in pieces on the floor, against the wall. The same phone that he called …

Stefan notes his hand. His belt is the only thing he’s kept on him, wrapped around his hand. Pins and needles prickle across it as he realizes he must have blacked out with the strap around it, gripping it into a tight fist.

His chest feels tight, as the events from hours ago fully materialize back into his conscious mind. He sits up, maneuvering his legs so his feet can touch the cool wood of the floor. He puts his head in his hands. The leather of his belt, and the metal of the buckle keeps him grounded. All that volatile emotion that he’s tried to avoid, and all he feels now is hollow. Of course Valerie is gone. His wife. As if …

He lifts his head out of his palms, and blinks. There is a figure, standing near the window. So silent …

“Valerie?” His heart leaps into his throat, with many other feelings that are harder to define.

She steps away. The woman isn’t Valerie. She has short black hair. Red lips. White skin. So pale … so …

“Ilona.” Her name comes to his mind, as does her smile at him from the stairway from what seems to have been a thousand years ago. Stefan’s fingers are inches away from where the lamp used to be, until he realizes that it’s one of the things he’d already smashed in his earlier rage. He lowers his hand. Ilona is at his side, sitting at the edge of the bed.

“Why are you here?” He asks her, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted.

He can see her a little better now, in the dark. It’s foolish that he mistook her for Valerie, showing him just how foregone he really is. He can see her black dress, her clothing not like Valerie’s lighter colours. And the pearl necklace stands out around her neck and chest like a string of small full moons.

“I’m so unhappy.” She tells him, tracing a hand across his cheekbone. “Unhappy.” Her fingers trail down his chin, and rest in her lap. In the darkness, she is an eclipsed silhouette, a silvery outline of a ghost. Stefan doesn’t say anything. What does one say under these circumstances? It’s not the first time he’s heard a woman say these words, directed at him, or no, far from England, in a Continental hotel room. But perhaps it’s the first time they really hit home, in the moment.

Instead, seeing this vulnerability that he can somehow feel, he touches her cheek. He looks her in the eyes. “You’re as white as a sheet.” He murmurs, remembering his own terror.

Ilona turns away from him. “No, no.” She whispers. “I’m frightened.” She pauses for a second, as though letting that admission sink in. “I don’t what’s going to happen … to any of us.”

It is such a bizarre thing to say. But Stefan has nothing witty to say. Nothing clever. Nothing dismissive. He thinks back to the events of the evening, and the phone dashed against the wall of their honeymoon suite, feeling the old, oppressive tide of helplessness rise up inside his throat again, no longer enraging him, merely threatening to choke him and take him down with it into its depths of self-loathing. “Neither do I.”

They sit that way for a time. He feels something cool and soft on his hand, on his fist wrapped in his own belt. He realizes it’s Ilona’s hand. He feels her other hand stroking his hair, bringing him closer to her.

He shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea. It’s not good to look up at her right now. It’s bad enough that he’s naked. Because if he does look up at Ilona, if he meets her gaze …

Stefan does it anyway, another terrible decision in a series of awful life choices. There is some consistency in that much. Ilona’s eyes are dark, and they reflect no light. But they are deeper than the unlit room, and there is both a sadness that makes her seem a lot older than what she is, and a hunger beyond a simple midnight rendezvous. For some reason, they make her red lips seem more crimson, less of a pout and more of the orchid that … Stefan doesn’t want to think about.

“I know.” She says, softly. Her lips are inches away from his own. “You didn’t understand anything yet.”

“No.” Stephen also admits, more to himself than to her. “I’m afraid not.”

“How could you?” Her gaze is the equivalent of a sad shake of the head as she lowers her hand again. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No.” Stefan says, thinking of his own circumstances and the bed that he unmade in which he must lie. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

Her hand keeps circling on his own, over the belt. Somehow, he can feel her fingertips trail across the veins underneath. Slowly, imperceptibly, his hand begins to unclench, to let go. All that’s left is that one emotion in Ilona’s eyes.

Loneliness.

And as she strokes his hair, with a combination of fondness and despair in her gaze, her generous lips brushing against his cheek, as she gently but firmly pushes him back onto the bed, her mouth on his collarbone, his chest, and trailing wetly lower, Stefan gives into that loneliness as well.

*

Ilona’s mouth tastes of both Stefan and Valerie. She knows they’d made love, before the telephone call. Before their argument. Before Valerie left. It’s the closest she’s come to having either of them. She remembers her orders, as much as she would nothing more than to discard them, and slake her thirst.

But she has done this. She can no more disobey Elizabeth than leave her. Yet it is the smaller things. The little moments under her. Away from her. They are victories. That is what Ilona tells herself. After sampling the other precious substance that Stefan had to offer, to distract him, to become diverted herself, her core contracts within herself, and around him as she moves slowly, sinuously, contorting her body in the way that he needs. That she needs.

Ilona Harczy knows what she’s doing. She’s done this for a long time. She doesn’t know if she does this for her own enjoyment, or Elizabeth’s, just as much as she’s forgotten the fine line between loving her Countess, and hating her. It is same with this young man. She isn’t blind. And neither is he. In the darkness, at least he won’t see the red stain on the side of her throat. Not that it matters. It’s too late for them, one way or another.

He’s so callow, and venial. So weak. And yet, there is anger inside of him — a profound unhappiness at his life’s circumstances — and a concurrent fear of leaving those elements that so confine him. The truth is, for all she sees the seeds of what Elizabeth finds amusing in the man while lusting far more for the girl — the traits that attract her like for like — she sees a scared youth: trapped in more ways than one.

And Ilona can relate to that sentiment. For deep down, as she folds herself back and moves, and he loses himself in her, and as he gives her the means to take the edge off her red hunger for a time, her red lips parting at their temporary solace, Ilona knows that the person she despises more than Elizabeth is herself.

This is something else that she and Stefan have in common: this, and this momentary, sweet sensation of blissful, unthinking oblivion.

She lies with him for a while, in the dark, watching the rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his heartbeat against her ear makes her feel alive, gives her a sense of anticipation, of having something other than more cold nights with Elizabeth with which to look forward, if only for a little time.

Ilona unwraps Stefan’s belt from around her neck, from where she forced his hands around it, which she inevitably took from his grasp. She touches the imprints left in her flesh, and smiles.

This. This much, right now, is hers.

*

“Do my questions upset you?”

Valerie looks out into the sea, at the dark grey sky, and the turbulent waters. They mirror her heart like some brooding form of romantic cliché. The Countess’ … Elizabeth’s dulcet tones are soft. Inquisitive. Once, that same whispering voice entranced her, just as much as it repulsed her in the lobby of the hotel with what it promised her, with what it shared with Stefan.

Stefan …

“The answers …” She replies quietly, bitterly, realizing yet again in the fog of confusion and pain that Elizabeth’s stories from the hotel lobby, and Stefan’s conversation with her that night aren’t, in their very nature, that dissimilar after all.

There is a chuckle. Faint and throaty. “Not always pleasant, eh?” The Countess sighs. Valerie is mindful that she’s still holding her carryall, having intercepted her at the train station so fast.

The dead travel fast, she thinks to herself, and wonders of the truth of it, especially of the girl in Bruges. Valerie tries not to shudder in the cold winds of the night. Elizabeth, however, continues speaking as though reading her mind of that afternoon. “But as I always say, one must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest deeps of oneself where the light never reaches.”

Valerie turns to look at Elizabeth. “But you cannot imagine what —”

The Countess smiles. Her hair is wavy, and golden. There are laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Between her and Stefan, they believed her to be in her mid-thirties, but as Valerie looks into her eyes she sees a wryness, an old amusement. Her smile makes her cheeks dimple, her cheekbones more prominent. There is something glamorous about the Countess, obviously regal, and incredibly worldly.

“Oh, yes.” Elizabeth says. “I can.” She puts an arm through hers and Valerie, again despite her best judgment, allows her to do so as they walk. “It’s not so difficult to see through your Stefan.”

The jolt of her words hits Valerie, as she remembers Bruges, and the Countess’ arms around him in the armchair, and the phone call. That damned phone call …

“Tell me, Valerie.” Elizabeth says, smoothly interjecting over the trembling storm inside her heart. “Didn’t you already know?”

Valerie suddenly feels tired. The fury, the hurt, the way his dull, flat tone hit her harder than any belt ever could, leaving a numbness inside of her that reminds her of just how young and idealistic, how stupid she really was: that she still is. “He said the same thing to me.” She murmurs. “On the bus, back to the hotel.”

“It began in Bruges.” Elizabeth prompts quietly, her question more of a gentle statement, a lingering on the skein of her mind.

Valerie finds herself shaking her head, feeling herself hurting again. “No.” She blinks back tears. “It was before. On the train. In the bed. Our words to each other.” The two of them walk back into the darkness as she allows herself to full her resignation. “Deep down, that was when I knew.”

*

“You’re both so young.” Elizabeth Bathory tells Valerie as they head to her rooms after walking a few hours through the deserted city. “You can’t give up after a few days.”

“I —” She watches the young woman, barely out of girlhood, her blonde hair a white-gold, her sky-hued eyes keenly poignant, not like the faded disenchanted blue of Ilona’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can face him. Right now.”

“It’s all right.” Elizabeth tilts her head, and attempts a smile. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how to make a facial expression that is so reassuring. “You may stay with us for the night. I will join you shortly.” She turns and pats Valerie’s hand, holding it in her own for a few beats. “Trust me, Valerie. I meant what I said by the sea.” So many changes, the prospect of it fills her with a warmth she hasn’t felt in a while, not with Ilona, not even in Bruges, and Nice, and Monte Carlo. She realizes the name for this feeling. It’s genuine excitement. Elizabeth doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and she adores it, almost as much as the woman she is putting into her room. “You do understand Stefan, if you truly think about it.”

“I …” Valerie finally looks down. “I’ve tried. I can’t help it. He … frightens me. He needs help. And I …” She turns her face. “I don’t know.”

“Does he?” The Countess asks. “Or is that what he said scared something within yourself? Are you truly frightened of your own feelings?” She shakes her head at the younger woman’s silence. “Don’t trouble yourself with this right now. Get some sleep. I will …” She pauses, considering her next decision. “I will send Ilona to check in on you.”

“I …” Valerie actually meets her gaze. This pleases Elizabeth a great deal. “Thank you, Elizabeth. I don’t know what I would have –”

“You would have left.” Elizabeth sighs, deciding on honesty. “And you would have regretted it.” She leans forward, and gently kisses Valerie on her pallid cheek, the colour and texture of warm marble. She smiles, a little more truly, at the red mark that she’s left there, the Dionysian upon the Apollonian. Such a symmetrical, Grecian beauty. “Have a good sleep. Tomorrow evening, we shall speak further.”

She hands Valerie her luggage, and gently but firmly pushes her through, past her threshold. Then, when the door closes behind her, she lets out a faint huff. Right. This is a … complication. But if time has taught Elizabeth Bathory anything, it’s that for all things change the right amount of patience will allow everything to fall into their places.

This is her thought as she walks towards the honeymoon suite, and lets herself in.

*

Ilona watches Stefan bathe under the shower. She doesn’t care, at this point, if he sees her looking at him. Her lips are parted, and her teeth are exposed. In the light of the bathroom, he can probably see her, if he just turns around.

She observes his shoulders straightening, his posture under the running water becoming still. His neck is rigid. When he turns to look at her, she closes her lips. There is a new light in his eyes. He’s grinning. They are just separated by their naked bodies, and water.

“Come on.” He says, his tone lighter than when she first came upon him. She can see him eyeing her, her flesh, and the marks that he’s left on her.

“No.” Illona says, her skin crawling away, instinctively, from the running water. One of her first lessons that, in her eagerness, even now she sometimes forgets.

“Come on in.” Stefan invites her, his smile almost matching his dead set eyes.

“No.” Ilona says, a little more urgently, fear of another kind creeping into her heart.

Stefan smiles. It’s as though he’s sensed this spike of terror. He comes out of the shower. “You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?”

Stefan’s arms are around her. He grabs her, forcefully. Their liaison has woken something inside of him. She can see the fire in his eyes, but it is the water and not the figurative blood in it that scares her far more. Suddenly, she is reminded of just why Elizabeth has her eyes on this couple. She thought it was just the girl, but …

“Ilona. There you are.”

Thinking of, almost literally, the Devil. Ilona turns, in Stefan’s grasp, to look at her Countess. She’s alone. The girl is nowhere to be seen. Did she think she was going to take him? Even now, Ilona knows better. There is a faint amusement in Elizabeth’s eyes as she takes in the scene. Stefan, for his part, tenses. His assertiveness, his aggression, leeches out of him as he looks from herself, to the Countess. And back. For some reason, Ilona finds herself putting a hand on the small of his back.

“Now —” Ilona isn’t sure whether Stefan is about to issue a demand, or an excuse.

It ultimately doesn’t matter. It never did. Elizabeth shakes her head. “Come now, Ilona.” She says, her voice melodious, drifting. She tosses Ilona’s black dress and pants to the ground. The white pearls stare up at her like sightless eyes from a dark shroud. “We have a guest in our rooms. I need you take care of it.”

It is clear to Ilona to whom Elizabeth is referring.

She stares into Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s strange. She’s noticed, over time, that her Countess merely runs through the bare minimum of emotions beyond her strong appetites, a dance or pantomime of social behaviour barely recalled. Even in humiliating her right now, though this is not even close to the worst of it. She turns back, to look at Stefan. She can feel him breathing hard, his wet body rigid, his face full of fury and passion before slack and speechless.

“Now, please. Ilona.” The Countess brings up her willowy arms, and delicate fingers like she is wearing her boa and dress, and not her simple white sweater. This is Ilona’s summons.

Ilona turns back to Stefan. A smile curls on the side of her red lips, as crimson as Elizabeth’s. She reaches up, and grabs the sides of his face. Then, she crushes her lips against his own. She trails her lips down, to Stefan’s neck, letting them linger against a faded scar from the nick of a razor, allowing Elizabeth to see it. It had been good to feel like a desirable object again as opposed to a detached entertainment, an echo of both being the lover and the ardently beloved. There is a defiance in her heart, for a second. A thank you. A goodbye.

Ilona turns, and bends down to pick up her clothes. She doesn’t look at Elizabeth in the eye. She’s done enough. She’ll probably pay for this later. But it’s worth it. Just for that moment. As she walks past Elizabeth, putting on her slacks, pulling her blouse over her head and chest, she wonders wonders if her Countess would be jealous that she got that taste of her lovers together — of the complete set — first.

This what Ilona uses to fortify herself as she returns to their rooms.

*

Stefan can barely process what’s happening. He feels Ilona’s lips on his skin, on his neck. She’s so pale, even after what they … what they did together. And that emotion in her eyes when he came for her, to drag her into the shower. It was genuine fear.

He recalls the bed. The coolness of her body against his. The way she slowly moved, the position she fell towards, what he did to her, what she made him do to her. Even her hands in his own felt like … and the way she remained so utterly still.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. But something that had been building inside of him — coiled — ready to pounce, ready to explode has, for lack of a better term, unfurled. It thrums inside of him, even now, at this strange scene. He watches Ilona’s perfect, porcelain buttocks retreat into the shadows of the room, thinking about how she instinctively sucked on the part of his neck that he cut, the sight of blood making him feel … behind the Countess who, idly, strokes her dark hair as she passes. It’s a detached gesture. A possessive one. It’s like the way a girl would play with one of her dolls.

And suddenly, the reality of what has happened, what he has done, all of it, hits Stefan. Hard. He tries to recall what he was trying to say to the Countess before she’d interrupted, but the words don’t come out.

“Your wife is staying in our rooms.” The Countess tells him softly, her gaze never wavering.

It occurs to Stefan that he’s still naked. “Oh.” He replies, then takes a step back, sitting on the rim of the bidet.

“You are having troubles.” She says. Her face seems sympathetic, but Stefan can tell there is something hard about it, an effort, like the muscle memory doesn’t entirely recall the motions.

“She …” He stops himself, thinking about their time on the train, on the bus, on the boat. “She doesn’t want to see me, anymore.”

The Countess almost glides. She sits on the edge of the bathtub. It occurs to Stefan that both she and Ilona match the ivory material. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

Slowly, Stefan shakes his head. “If my wife is with you, surely you’ve already talked. And …” He waves his hand, at the room, at all of this. “I think I’ve done enough.”

“Have you?” Unlike Ilona’s sad eyes, or the heavens in his wife’s, the Countess’ are a darker, almost steely grey. “Tell me.”

“Countess —”

“Stefan.” She trails her hands over his, folded over his lap. “Remember our talk. We are friends now. You may call me by name, yes?”

Her touch is faint. Ghostly. But muscles in Stefan that he didn’t know were tense begin to loosen. “Of course, Elizabeth.”

She smiles. It is a radiant smile, almost tentative in the manner that he’s observed. “Come.” She puts her arms around his shoulders. “Let’s go back to your room, and talk some more, yes?”

Stefan nods, once. He lets her help him up. They walk across the tiles, and the mirror, and he is so lost in his thoughts he doesn’t particularly see anything other than the outline of himself, wandering through the fog on the reflection. A part of his mind registers, distantly, that his razor isn’t on the basin. It must have fallen in, he supposes. Instead, Stefan focuses on the Countess’ movements, and her form leading now him by the hand. Whereas Ilona reminds him of a flapper from the Roaring Twenties, Elizabeth is akin to a ghost of an actress from the era of Silent film, ethereal white and faded gold. A queen from a bygone time.

He finds himself seated on the bed, still rumpled from his time with Ilona, from his rage, from his time with Valerie. She sits beside him. Their feet almost touch. A part of him wonders if he should cover himself. He can see his clothes on the floor, his white shirt, his black pants, his red sweater …

“We wear similar colours, you and I.” Elizabeth laughs softly.

Stefan recalls her attire when they first met, and realizes she’s right. He decides to give up, that it is far too late for modesty. She’s seen enough of him tonight. It seems as though everyone has, at this point. “Great minds.”

“Yes. With great expectations heaped upon them.”

He looks up at her, his eyes scrutinizing. “How much do you know?”

She shakes her head, the look on her face distant, musing, mulling something over. “You are so sad. So tense. I can see it.”

He feels her move up behind him, folding her legs until she has them on either side of his, her feet hanging again from the bed frame. Stefan doesn’t know what to think of this. He’s just, he’s so tired. Her hands are soft, but firm on his shoulders as her fingers begin to knead the muscles underneath.

“She wouldn’t let up.” He explains, her hands finding the knots in him, unkinking them. His mouth opens and closes almost of its own volition. “She wanted it to be known that we were married. I tried everything. And I thought that maybe …”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. He knew what the result of that call would be before he even made it.

“Family.” Elizabeth drawls out, silvery, behind his ear, making goosebumps crawl up the bare flesh over his back. “It is the first love. Obligation and Duty are unto it like Sin and Death to Satan.”

Paradise Lost.” For a few moments Stefan allows himself a crooked smile, losing himself in the voice of the Countess. “I wonder if it is possible to lose something that you never had.”

“Lucifer had no choices. You never have a choice.” The Countess says, her fingers moving towards the sides of his neck. Perhaps it’s just Stefan’s imagination, but there is a lilt to her tone that hadn’t been there before. “That has nothing to do with love. That is what I told Valerie.”

He stiffens under her touch, hearing his wife’s name again, recalling that night. “What do you know of that, Bathory?”

The absolute venom in his voice startles even him. The Countess’ fingers stop in their massage. Stefan breathes in, and lets out a long sigh. “Of course you know. A stupid question.”

“You told her.”

“Yes.” Stefan says. “After the call. I felt it welling up inside of me. That helplessness. I thought — I thought she wanted to know. About me. I thought that maybe …”

Elizabeth starts to probe the back of his neck with her fingers, her clothed body against his spine.

He bows his head. “I told her everything. All of it. The Manor. The Continental trips. Being alone. I thought maybe if she understood that, realized that, she might know where I came from. She might … know me.”

“You went to the only place that could understand you.” Elizabeth’s words flow through his mind like smoky molasses. Rich, and elegant, and deep. “It’s all you’ve ever known.”

“But it wasn’t enough!” Stefan hisses. His fist tightens as he clenches his jaw, looking away. “I needed more! I need more. I …”

“You wanted to hold her down.”

“Yes.” Stefan murmurs.

“You want to have power over her.”

“Yes.” Stefan feels Elizabeth’s fingers splay out on his chest.

“You wanted her to feel what you have felt, all these years.” Her hands roam around his ribcage, her lips in his ear, her legs wrapped around him.

“… yes.” Stefan closes his eyes.

“You wanted to take that belt, the one you didn’t use, the one you thought about using on her, and thrashing her with it within an inch of her beautiful life.” Elizabeth’s hands roam downwards.

“Mmph.” Stefan groans, his eyes clenching shut, his body betraying him under her hands.

“You wanted her to be like the girl from Bruges.” A pair of lips husk as they kiss his earlobe.

Stefan’s eyes flutter. “Oh god …”

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs. “We are talking about love, remember? God has nothing to do with it. Or everything to do with it, if Family is the first love as is to Satan. You told her all of that, didn’t you?” She continues stroking him, idly. “Just as we talked about those things back in the lounge.”

Stefan’s throat is dry. Something is tensing up inside him, a massive knot in his chest. In his lungs. In his heart. “I can’t …”

“It’s all right, Stefan.” Elizabeth tells him, one hand stroking the side of his face. “That is why you love her. Valerie. It’s what you dream of making out of her, what every man dreams of making out of every woman — a slave, a thing.” Her lips drone into his eardrum. “An object of pleasure.”

Her other hand lets go of him, and scrapes her nails up his inner thigh. “It is understandable.” She tells him, his senses everywhere, his body trapped between the state of animation and stasis.

“It sounds …” Stefan says, his mind almost back into his body from Elizabeth’s caresses. “It sounds like you want this as well.”

“Mmm.” Elizabeth’s hands spread across him again, going lower. Stefan finds himself thinking about Valerie again. Valerie. If Ilona is a doll, and Elizabeth a femme fatale, then Valerie is a nymph. Playful and coy. The answer to that age-old question as to how something so innocent can be so lustful at the same time. And she knows. She knows what he is.

“They are fantasies.” Elizabeth says, teasing him again. “Fun. Little things to spice up a dreary life. All to make a show, like that week in Bruges.”

“Is that what you are …” Stefan sighs, his mind coming back to him. “Like in the stories? Erzsébet Báthory tormenting young women, the only thing she’s known her entire life … in a life of Obligation, and Duty? Sin, and Death? And Satan as her Family …”

He looks to see Elizabeth staring at him, her eyes misty but gazing right into him. “And what if I were?”

“Hm.” He lets himself become distracted, by the thought, entertained by it as she is amusing him now. “It would explain a lot. After all, if she still lived, she wouldn’t want to be stuck in one place. She’s always been stuck, hasn’t she? When she was born, when she lived … and when she died. You’d feel trapped. Claustrophobic.”

“You make me sound like some kind of ghoul? A vampire?”

He laughs. “You can’t stop. You could have a mansion, an entire Castle, to feed to your heart’s content. Why travel against the edge of the sun to do so?”

“Why don’t you stay and enjoy the garden in England? After all, who understands a boy better than his own Mother?”

Stefan’s heart jolts as Elizabeth’s grip tightens. He finds that he has nothing to say.

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs into his neck, continuing her movements. “Just as Dracula is not Vlad Tepes, I am not my ancestor, the Blood Countess. I am even less than that, Stefan. I’m just an outmoded character, nothing more. You know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly … mysterious … that haunts one place after another.”

“W-who are you?” Stefan grits his teeth against the growing sensations in his body. “Are you even real?”

“Are any of us real?” Elizabeth asks. Even her breath smells red. “We all make stories of ourselves over time. Little artifices. Fictions. Am I the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, for instance? And are you really Stefan of Chilton Manor?” Stefan opens his mouth, and he is past the time for words. “Come.” Elizabeth purrs, wrapping herself tightly around him, as he loses himself in her embrace, as he lets her let himself grant him permission. “Let us make a new story together.”

*

Stefan stands on the boat in the night. Everything after their time in the honeymoon suite moved so fast. Elizabeth explained to them that it was like this: time moving slowly, in increments, and then all at once.

He remembers Valerie’s screams as they came into the bathroom of Elizabeth and Ilona’s suite.

Poor Illona. Stefan finally figured out where his razor had disappeared. In the end, she found the water after all, and turned it red. Their favourite colour. Valerie, her white sweater covered in blood, like the spot on Ilona’s pale neck grown and turned large. Stefan keeps the image of Ilona’s body in his mind’s eye.

Elizabeth assured Valerie that it hadn’t been her fault. That she didn’t suspect her, despite the implications. Of course it hadn’t been Valerie’s responsibility. A part of Stefan wanted to rib her further, as he had with the Belgian newspaper, to rankle her, to probe that place, to enjoy her squirming. But restraint. Elizabeth teaches restraint. And patience.

Stefan decided to dig the grave, in the mud, in the darkness, though it’d been Elizabeth’s plan. He hadn’t forgotten how quickly she’d come to that decision, to deal with Ilona. He’d laid a kiss on Ilona’s lips, so pale in death, that when Elizabeth threw the earth on him, and he’d become tangled in the corpse’s limbs, it’d taken him aback. He wondered then, if this had been her plan all along, to bury them together … until a hand reached down …

And Valerie pulled him up. Despite everything.

Then, the Countess’ red bed. And the two of them, as she explored them, and the violet boa around her shoulders. Seeing Ilona’s body, being entwined in it, terrified but … excited him. It helped make that night even more memorable. He wishes he can thank her for that. The last thought he had, of his old life, was seeing Elizabeth’s boa, its feathers reminding him of a bird in a gilded cage, and he couldn’t help recalling the orchid: the Laeliinae, Cattleya violacea. 

Stefan doesn’t think of flowers anymore. Instead, right now he stands on the deck of their ship, wishing it called the Demeter or at least the Persephone, crossing, in Elizabeth’s words, the River Oceanus. It is much calmer now than in those early nights. He turns to his side. Valerie stands there, a stoic, white statue from another time.

“Tell me.” He says, also from another place, another era. “Do you love me?”

Valerie inclines her head. “Don’t you know?”

Her mouth moves, her pouting naivety now become a calculating Galatea. “No.”

Stefan nods.

There is the pause, of a breath that neither of them need anymore.

“And you?” She asks, her eyes far away, the firmament in there as dark as the night that they have led her into, that they were destined for together.

He remains facing away from her, all of his lies now laid bare, now knowing every sordid part of each other. Now knowing, and reveling in, what truly he is. “No.”

Valerie also nods, curtly, hiding her face under her platinum bangs. “That’s good.”

And as their fingers reach each other’s, before Elizabeth can call for them again, Stefan thinks about Ilona’s necklace. She must have dashed it to the floor when she entered the bathroom. He imagines it, in her haste, in her stride as Stoker might have said, snapping, spilling every glorious, ivory bead, each one rolling away, released into the shadows and the crimson tide lapping around them. He considers what kind of newspaper article that would have made, back in Ostend. Stefan grows hard.

Their fingertips almost meet even as Elizabeth comes in from behind, languorously stretching out her arms under her black raincoat, sheltering them, feeling her presence looming over them all.

It Isn’t About the Dick: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp

I first heard of Felissa Rose on The Last Drive-In.

Joe Bob Briggs had, during a “commercial” segment in his show, phoned her up and consulted her as a “mangled dick expert.”

Yeah. So, between her quips and her obvious charisma, I had to find out more about who she was.

I’ve mentioned on here before that I am not a horror expert. A lot of what I do here is me discovering the old classics for myself, or commenting on strange grindhouse, art, and mainstream movies and stories that speak to me in some way. Sometimes, I will just dissect, or reminiscence about my reactions toward them. Other times, I will create potentially bad revisions of the film stories for my experiments, or even outright homages (read: fanfiction).

But I was intrigued by Felissa Rose and her guest calls on The Last Drive-In. I figured out she was a legendary actress in the horror genre, and I had to check out the film in which she is most known: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp.

Now, before I continue writing, I just want to say the following. When I started this Blog, I was going to begin small. Originally, I would look at some older, perhaps more obscure works, and give my takes on them. And then, Cannibal Holocaust happened. It side-swiped me. It hid in the jungle and blew a dart in me with a complex substance that I couldn’t suck out of my brain, or ignore.

And, in that same spirit, so did Sleepaway Camp.

Yes. Even before this death-dealer loving film returned to Shudder, I watched it. And I felt like I got trapped in the sights of that point of view killer camera angle.

Of course, as with most old films the ending was spoiled for me. As Joe Bob mentions in his interview with Felissa Rose that I finally got the opportunity to see not too long ago, I too believed this is where the origin of the “mangled dick expert” came from. But I, too, was wrong: just differently. You know a word or a concept can mean something ages before, and as time passes it changes. Sometimes, it transforms so much there are legends attached to it, even mythologies or tall-tales? This seems to be one of those times.

See, I’m going to spoil the ending to this 1986 film. I’m not going to do it right now, but when I give you the warning, and you want to watch this, run. This article will deal primarily in looking at this issue, and how it relates to the film.

But before we do that, I just want to say I actually enjoyed watching Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose plays a quiet, shy, awkward, and terrified thirteen year old girl named Angela Baker who goes to a summer camp with her cousin Ricky, and proceeds to get humiliated and terrorized by both her fellow campers, and some of the counselors.

So, here is your first spoiler warning, with a side of violent trigger warnings.

Angela Baker proceeds to kill everyone that has wronged her in the most creative, and brutal ways possible. It is bloody inspiring. We only, for ages, see through the camera as a first-person perspective. I can just imagine it as a video game like Dennis the Menace or Home Alone, except instead of escaping Mr. Wilson, or planting death-traps for Harry and Marv, you get to pour grease on a pedophile cook, stab a malicious counselor in the shower, shoot a child beater in the neck with an arrow, create a death by beehive situation to a counselor on the toilet, Anakin Skywalker some little shits with a machete that threw sand at you after nearly drowning, and introduce a particularly mean girl — intimately — to a curling iron.

Somehow, I don’t think that by even today’s standards, that it would be a game for children, even if it happened to them in this film.

Yes, you can tell how much I enjoyed this movie. Almost every person that dies in it, deserves their fate. And those whose fates you have conflicting feelings about, you can understand why they are killed. You actually emphasize with the killer. You feel bad for Angela, and towards the end of the film and looking back, I know I can totally root for her.

And then … there is the other revelation. So, this is where I am going to put spoilers up, with another trigger warning.

So, in 1975, before the film begins Angela is seen with her brother Peter with their father who gets into an accident due to some careless teenagers. As a result, there are some injuries and Angela is the only survivor. This is not the spoiler, however. What you find out is that Angela’s aunt, one Dr. Martha Thomas — who is so much more terrifying than Angela will ever be — decides that she has a son already, and wants to raise a girl.

To get back to the end of the film, we discover that Angela — who is extremely aquaphobic, has issues with burgeoning relationships and her body image, and won’t even shower with the other girls in her cabin — is biologically male. Essentially, the movie ends with one of the counselors finding Angela — this young, sensitive, introverted child you’ve been rooting for — with the decapitated head of the boy she liked, naked, and grinning like a maniac, with a low animal growl in her throat following the man shouting: “Oh my god! She’s a boy!”

… yeah.

There is Angela, who had been, or is still Peter, naked with a demented grin of utter torment on her face, and her penis is fairly clear with a body possessing visible chest hair.

So yeah. I walked right into this. And I was so sure, like Joe Bob, that Angela — and it is unclear to me whether or not good old Aunt Martha made Peter take his sister’s name along with her appearance in some good old fashioned misgendering for her sensibilities — suffered injuries from that accident, and perhaps this is why her Aunt and family influenced her to transition. And, thus, the origin of Felissa Rose’s moniker.

It turns out, we were both wrong.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned that the twist ending of Sleepaway Camp has not … aged well. And I see their point. The transphobic elements from the 1980s are pretty clear. Certainly, the fact that Angela and Peter’s father had been gay, or involved in a gay relationship before their accident adds some homophobia and the implication of this arrangement affecting Angela’s sense of identity adversely to this mix.

I don’t think at this point I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know, or can’t read elsewhere.

Personally, between you and I, I like other takes on this film. Certainly, BJ Colangelo, and more extensively her partner Harmony M. Colangelo on their Dread Central and Medium articles respectively, look at Angela Baker as a young victim of misgendering in a social system of transphobia and bigotry. Harmony M. Colangelo goes as far as to say that Angela is something of a Frankenstein’s creature: a symbol of transgender rage against a social order that maligns her because of her sense of identity.

Colangelo isn’t the only writer that identifies Angela as such. Daniel Sheppard sees Angela as a supposed antagonist that he identifies with as an LGBTQ+ man who had been a fifteen year old boy struggling with gayness. In addition, he ascribes to Angela something not out of place in The Queer Manifesto and Queer Ultra Violence: Bash Back! but draws the idea from Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster.” Sheppard argues that the “queer monster” functions as a symbol of anger, and pain, and radicalism to which LGBTQ+ audiences can relate their anxiety and fear: something that the “normalizing” queer identity can erase for the sake of assimilation and hetero-normative comfort. In other words, the “queer monster” or ” queer radical” isn’t all about “gayness” as “happiness” but as a symbol of every terrible negative feeling an LGBTQ+ person is forced to feel in a system that is supposed to be “natural” or “no longer an issue.”

It’s easy, the argument goes, to claim that representation has been achieved, and there is no need for the radical another, but often the image of the radical or the “monster” makes you look at just how flawed society truly is: even when it seems to be “fixed” — and often isn’t. So when you look at Angela in that light, and consider her utter torment, and the discomfort of watching a young human being in their formative years twisted into something that barely resembles a human anymore, having sympathized with her and — literally — seeing her actions from her perspective, perhaps finding themselves complicit in the impetus that forced her to this point, in a dual juxtaposition that all comes together traumatically at the end of the film, it hits home just how utterly fucked up this situation truly is.

Did Robert Hiltzik and his crew intend this reading — this subversion — of transgender and LGBTQ+ exploitation? I don’t know. However, I was curious to know what Joe Bob and particularly Felissa Rose — who played Angela in every scene except for the murder perspectives, and the nude display of the character at the end — had to say about the issue.

It is already complicated. You have a cisgender girl playing what seems to be a transgender character, but when take away the time period and prejudices of the time in which the film is made, and you really look at the film: just what is Angela’s identity? How does she identify? Is she still Peter in her mind? Is he still there? Are they, beyond arguably functioning as a symbol of both “the danger of the queer infiltrating straight spaces” as Harmony M. Colangelo put it, or the radical image of LGBTQ+ pain striking back against “the heteropatriachal norm” as Sheppard states even transgender? What pronouns would they have? Do they even know? Does this character even know what, or who they are at this age where their aunt has proceeded to “convert” them into her perspective of the female gender?

Does this character, does Angela, like Arthur Fleck in Joker except from a gender identity slant even exist beyond working as a cipher for what others project onto, or see reflected in her portrayal?

Felissa Rose seems to think, from her interview with Joe Bob, that in that scene when Angela and Peter are facing each other after seeing their father and his boyfriend together, they are exploring their own concept of sexuality: a situation that gets disrupted with their father and sibling dies. It isn’t about the genitalia of Angela, or however or whoever this character identifies. Felissa corrects Joe Bob, and says that the character’s body is intact, which leads Joe Bob into making her The Last Drive-In‘s resident mangled dick expert. Rather, I would argue that what’s mangled is Angela’s mind and soul from a lifetime of trauma, and gender projection and enforcement.

Joe Bob says it best, I think. He tells Felissa Rose that he believes that it had been totally unnecessary to state that “She’s a boy!” That image of Angela, if you can even call her transgender — beyond any idea she may represent to audiences — growling deep in her throat, her face twisted into a death-head’s grin, her adolescent body covered in hair and blood, cradling the head of a boy she had confused and conflicted feelings about, is an image that will certainly haunt me far more than any ghost or spectacle ever could.

Experiences From Beyond

I suppose we’ve been spoiled since Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space when it comes to Lovecraft film adaptations. I don’t think I really have to explain that Lovecraft stories are notoriously hard to turn into cinematic narratives due to the fact that their prose rely on the olfactory sense (smell), and strange, non-Euclidean descriptions combined with things that readers are not allowed to see in their entirety.

So, when I found out that From Beyond had been made into a film, I just had to check it out. From Beyond is a 1986 science-fiction horror film directed by Stuart Gordon, and written by Dennis Paoli one year after Gordon’s other main Mythos movie Re-Animator. It isn’t so much that I wanted to see how the 2019 Stanley film compares to the Gordon 1986 one, even though both are derived from Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories and his idea of cosmicism: of a reality where humanity is a small piece of a larger and more uncaring and malicious universe. It’s seeing how those ideas are explored in the 1980s under another director: specifically the one who made Re-Animator that really caught my fancy.

The challenges between the two couldn’t be more different. While “The Colour Out of Space” is a novella, “From Beyond” is a fairly focused and standalone short story about an unnamed narrator who visits his friend Dr. Crawford Tillinghast and not only sees how badly he has physically and mentally degenerated due to his obsession in exploring another dimension, but also encountering the horrors of it himself. So how do you make a film about a fifth or an extra reality around us filled with alien existences that we can’t perceive ordinarily?

Well, while other essays and articles created by genuine horror scholars have gone into it more I’m sure, I think the key here is sex.

In both the short story that is its inspiration, and the film, stimulation of the pineal gland: a gland that creates melatonin that modulates sleep patterns in the brain, and has been historically considered to be a centre of spiritual and metaphysical development. The idea is that in “From Beyond” an electronic device that creates resonance waves can stimulate that gland to allow humans to see different planes of existence of which their usual five senses are not capable. The function of the gland itself is only partially understood even now after all this time.

So Stuart Gordon takes this premise, and realizes that perceiving these other realities, along with the stimulation of a part of the brain in an unusual way, would probably create unusual sensations in those that are exposed to the device that he calls the Resonator.

He takes out the servants that Tillinghast exposes to the machine, placed into the other planes, and left to the auspices of the creatures summoned by it. And he goes further to remove the unnamed narrator, and make three characters take his place: including Tillinghast who is demoted to a protagonist assistant doctor, played by the excellent Jeffrey Combs, to the unstable and eccentric genius Dr. Edward Pretorius — whose name is a reference to the Doctor Pretorius that blackmails and enables Victor Frankenstein to continue his creature-making experiments in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein — who is played by Ted Sorel, and is the true creator of the Resonator.

Dr. Pretorius is also a major BDSM practitioner in Gordon’s From Beyond: seeking to achieve the ultimate experience in physiological pleasure in creating the Resonator and activating his pineal gland to its nth degree: at least from my understanding. It’s this combination of hubris and addiction to stimuli that creates the Resonator, and its resulting consequences on the protagonists.

The premise isn’t bad. From Beyond is supposed to be all about scraping away the seeming of reality, of appearances, for the planes of experience that truly exist around us. The extra-dimensional creature special effects are all right for the time, and they are not the things that make this film more than a little awkward, and clunky.

The problem, for me, is the narrative itself. H.P. Lovecraft is all about “the fear of the unknown” and considering that there is a strange and unseen alien environment around and within us, should be an utterly terrifying prospect. What Stuart Gordon attempts to do, which he succeeded in with adapting “Herbert West – Reanimator” which had already been created a serialized pulp narrative, falls a little flat in places with “From Beyond.” Gordon’s efforts in adding “what you fear is what you desire” to “a fear of the unknown” and its consequences that lends itself to Re-Animator in the form of gore, black comedy, and spectacle itself, overshadows From Beyond as opposed to accentuating it.

There are gaps in logic and narrative progression. Why would the overly idealistic and obsessive Dr. Katherine McMichaels, played by the legendary Barbara Crampton be allowed to force Dr. Tillinghast into repairing the Resonator, and recreating the experiment that traumatized him? How would this prove his innocence to the authorities who believe he murdered his senior Dr. Pretorius?

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. Even Katherine McMichaels, who is stated to have controversial psychological views, is seen as holding sheer curiosity and need to genuinely explore behind the thin veneer of a barely existent professionalism and white lab coat. She seems repulsed by the monitors held in Dr. Pretorius’ BDSM dungeon room with screaming women in leather being flogged, but you can see her intrigue, and her predisposition towards the exploration of that state of mind. Seeing her is reminiscient of a Harleen Quinzel before ever meeting the Joker: a highly controlled but curious mind needing only permission to set her own sensual nature free. And this iteration of Crawford Tillinghast, whom she has more than just an intellectual fascination towards — or something that forms from that intrigue — is both terrified and attracted to the power of the Resonator that brings out something within him that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

I think the film’s issue is that it tries to shame those flirtations with kinks and sexuality, which should be its strength to this regard. Bubba Browns, yes, Ken Foree’s character is called that is an officer assigned to Tillinghast and McMichaels who immediately grabs and shames her once she puts on the leather gear in Pretorius’ room, and berates her: asking her if this is what she wants to be.

Barbara Crampton as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

But what if it is? What if Crampton’s character is now exploring that aspect of herself, away from clinical trappings, and there is actual progression from that point? Instead we have this poltergasmic apparition of Pretorius occasionally manifesting when the machine is turned on as such like of fleshy mutated amalgamation and Jeffrey Combs’ Tillinghast developing an antenna from his pineal gland that requires him to eat human grey matter (because he rarely, if ever plays a character that doesn’t become a monster or antagonist of some kind): including from a particularly dour doctor named Bloch: who is probably named after Lovecraft’s friend and long-time correspondent Robert Bloch who went on to write Psycho.

Do you see what I mean? My tangent aside, and despite the story ending in Lovecraftian horror and madness, the film kind of runs off the rails with the original source material and its theme.

But what if we did something different? Neil Gaiman’s age-old admonition of a story most likely needing rewriting if something is wrong with it, and everyone else pretty much being wrong about how to actually edit aside, let’s do something different. Let’s make another adaptation of From Beyond.

Let’s use Clive Barker as an example of what can be done. I’ve already referenced his “what you fear is what you desire” earlier on in this article. Ironically, he had published The Hellbound Heart, the novella that would become the basis of Hellraiser a year later, in 1986: the same year From Beyond was released. Sexuality, and its obsessive perversion had been applied to Re-Animator, so why not go even further with From Beyond?

Imagine Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is the antagonist as he had been in the short story. Perhaps the story takes place after he’s gone, and Doctors Bloch and … let’s say Katherine Waite, along with a team from the authorities in conjunction with Miskatonic University, are sent in to his building to find out what happened to him, and his research. We see that the house has different rooms within it, almost Jungian-themed, and each chamber has a theme. Tillinghast has left video or recorded journals of himself as he experiments with making the Resonator.

Bloch could have been that friend of Tillinghast’s who had seen his experiments and what they did to him over time. He could be there to help the police find all those missing personnel, including mutual friends of theirs. Waite, because I too love Lovecraftian references, is there to find his research and she has an attraction to this while pretending to be professional. These goals tend to clash with one another as they go on. We see evidence of a sound and idealistic Tillinghast becoming more extreme. There are videos of him in BDSM dynamics with women, or men, or both on video. Bloch sees this as issues with his deteriorating body and mind, while Waite sees it as evidence of an alternative exploration of sensation and experience. She is also highly turned on by this against, perhaps, her own better judgment.

I see Tillinghast as a combination of what Lovecraft intended him to be, though perhaps more of the standard symmetrical handsome man turned into something else, combined with him adopting some charismatic mannerisms not unlike Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook,” or basically the reverse of Suydam to that regard.

The degeneration, or perhaps better yet, the change and evolution of the characters as they discover and repair the Resonator should be gradual as they try to find the missing personnel in this other plane. They begin to transform as they go along. Some of them die. Some are consumed. But the worst are the creatures they encounter. Think of the Resonator as Barker’s Lamentation Configuration, and the extra-dimensional violet entities that bite and consume as Lovecraft’s night-gaunts that arouse every time they touch a human being. Consider these repellent creatures passing through human bodies and arousing them, and mutating them. Add to the sexual tone of the entire thing. Make it uncomfortable and arousing as you see these changes happening to these characters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows do this, they play with Tillinghast’s creatures as erotic elements between characters in their limited-run Lovecraft Mythos comics series Providence.

Then you can have Bloch transform first as he has been exposed to the Resonator the longest. Perhaps there is mention of his physical and a tumour developing in his pineal gland. Maybe then he develops that antenna that doesn’t look like something from Sega Dreamcast’s Seaman.  Or maybe it does grow that way, and something sexually suggestive happens with it as this film changes from a scientific expedition trope into a surreal LSD horror. I like the idea of Bloch encountering a transformed Tillinghast who has reached the inevitable conclusion of his increasingly amoral and inhuman experiments in another plane, and being consumed by him. Maybe Waite has her encounter with Tillinghast and it goes … badly. So badly, like a terrible hallucinogenic trip that she escapes and just barely destroys the machine … but not before she is left stranded back in reality, partially transformed into something not unlike a Deep One, some retroactive evolution triggered, broken, screaming, and without aftercare: seeing something in reality and herself … beyond her understanding that ruthlessly destroys her, and yet keeps others fascinated in knowing more.

This feeds back not only into the story, but also into the Lovecraft Mythos with other nods and Easter-eggs. Consider this an alternative adaptation, a mutation of how I might have made this story with the right space-time and resources at my disposal. Gordon’s From Beyond has some fascinating ideas, taken from Lovecraft. I think, while the challenge is buttressing a very short tale into a cinematic narrative, there are enough elements there to make it all about the terror of that thin membrane of identity and knowing being torn apart to reveal something else entirely.

But as a false Doctor of Horror, this is just a creative observation and suggestion, not a prognosis

Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.

Shall I Come to Thee

Dedicated to Guillermo del Toro.

Carter McMichael departs from his automobile, leaving it on the road down below, as he ascends the rest of the land.

He has no idea how his father managed this trek, at a much longer distance, up this mountain of clay, in a snow storm. But he had: otherwise neither his mother, nor Carter himself would be here. That had been the extent of it. Carter had known that his mother, Edith, had been married to another man before his father, and that she had suffered from an illness that precipitated him to come here, to England, to Cumberland, to the manse at its centre, and he had taken her away with the aid of the villagers once the weather cleared.

There had been some sort of scandal. Neither his mother, nor father elaborated on it — no one in fine society, neither American nor European, would do so — but whatever happened resulted in the deaths of the entire baronetcy of this territory: both the baronet himself, and his sister. It is a small rural territory, even now, well into the twentieth century after an entire World War the town is relatively isolated. Even so, news did get out.

Carter takes a few breaths, and a pause. He had always been a sickly child, something to do with his mother’s condition but his parents would never elaborate on it. The Spanish influenza had taken his mother on his seventeenth birthday. He couldn’t be at her bedside, couldn’t even say goodbye to her. His father had forbidden it, given how delicate his constitution had always been.

He coughs, letting the heaviness ease out of his lungs. His father hadn’t wanted him to take this trip. But he needed to know. He needed to see this place for himself.

The townspeople had given him directions, had even been friendly enough, but there had been a sense of reservation behind their politeness: a degree of caution. His father had let him go. He was well past the age where he could be told what to do, even though the man always told him he needed to settle down with a good woman, to eventually get his bachelor’s days behind him. Doctor Alan McMichael had been a large, gold-haired man of great curiosity, but the death of his wife had visibly aged him, bowed his shoulders, his blond hair turned grey.

He’s always delighted in showing Carter his “spirit photography” and the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that he claimed he only gathered because of the man’s background in ophthalmology: but he fooled him as well as mother, which was not at all.

“She made me promise.” The old man had told him, clasping his hands. “She told me we would tell you when you were older. But the best …” He had a far away look on his face. “The best way is that you go there, and see for yourself. That is what she told me.”

“What is up there?” He asked his father. “Is it like Mother’s book?”

Alan McMichael had smiled at him. “Your Mother always took some creative liberties, Carter. The truth is … much more banal. You will just find dirt there. And ruins. But, if there is anything else to be found, she told me that you would find it. That you would see it. Whatever you do find, come back to me afterwards. We will have a proper talk. I promise.”

That was when his father handed him a letter. The envelope was old, and not addressed to anyone that Carter recognized until … he paid attention to the name.

Now, catching his hitching breath, Carter has left the trail and come to the top of the land. The fence still stands, in the distance. And so does the structure behind it. Its sharp towers point up to the sky, and while some of them have broken away with time, he recognizes it from the photographs, from the descriptions.

Allerdale Hall.

Carter continues walking. This is the inspiration for his Mother’s novel. This place where she traveled to as a young woman, a girl, younger than he is now, and away when sickness or … worse afflicted her. The envelope with the letter acts as a bookmark in the book he carries in the crook of his arm as he strides forward, to take in this whole scene for himself.

In retrospect, Carter isn’t sure whether or not it had been a smart idea to reread Mr. Stoker’s novel on the journey to England, or to Cumberland proper. It is his favourite book, and it certainly captures the Gothic romance and horror genre in which his Mother worked, but its more modernist elements appeal to his sensibilities: as both a reader, and a writer himself.

As he approaches the mansion, he’s easily reminded of Castle Dracula or the Exham Priory of one of his favourite pulps. One of the towers has fallen, the other just a haphazard set of bricks and mortar. Only the central one remains whole and as it is, it approximates a slant reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. His father hadn’t been exaggerating. The mansion is crumbling in on itself, upon closer inspection, sinking deep into the red clay. Even now, the soil looks like blood.

It squelches under his boots, trench boots that he never got to wear in their intended place as he had been exempt from Service. It’s less like blood now as he comes to the door of the gate, swinging it open on its rusted hinges, and more like gore. The air itself smells … metallic.

Carter notes that the pits on the property are still existent, but closed up. And all of Thomas Sharpe’s equipment, his machinery which he had designed himself, had been removed. Apparently, after the disaster that came to the baronet others began to see the potential for the late Sir Thomas’ inventions. As it had transpired, his mother had inherited the technology, along with the whole of Allerdale Hall itself as Sir Thomas’ widow.

According to his father, Carter’s mother had agreed to give both the patents and schematics of her former husband’s works to eager investors. Carter knows that red clay contains ultisol and can used for brick-making — which the Sharpes had done for the Crown before the fall of the Monarchy, and the rise of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. That is what he learned from an old British textbook by one Mr. Salisbury he purchased in London. But the iron ore rendering became more important in this era, especially on the eve of the Great War when the Allies were hurting for it. Hence the letter he carries with him now.

It’d been addressed to the Lady Sharpe, from 1914. And it had taken him a moment to realize that the lady it was written to was Edith. It’d been from the British government, requesting that the Lady Sharpe — who had done business with clay-mining equipment — release her late husband’s land for the War effort. His father hadn’t given him any copy of a reply letter.

Carter isn’t sure how a baronetcy works according to English law: if a baronet relinquishes all lands and titles upon remarriage after their spouse’s death, or if they retain these privileges. He also isn’t sure why they simply didn’t seize the land for the Crown, and take the resources for their own. All he knows is that no one in the village felt inclined to talk about the mansion, or the Sharpes. They didn’t even talk about his mother.

The newspapers, however, did the rest. And the legend as well. They are what led him here.

He walks towards the steps of the great mansion, as though sagging under the weight of its own unstable foundations, and the sins committed within it. Carter’s foot hits something. He looks down, and sees … a ball. Carter almost missed it. It’s a small, rubber, red ball. It rolls away into the dirt of a deeper crimson.

The door stands in front of him. The wood is frayed, the hinges on the frame askew. There is a key hole. Carter doesn’t have a set of keys, but he doesn’t need them. Not anymore.

Before he pushes the door in, he slowly breathes in, and out. Once he’d found about that his mother had been the Lady Sharpe, he’d looked into the truth about Allerdale Hall. How the Lady of the Hall had died. How her daughter had been locked up in a mental institution in Switzerland for a time. How Sir Thomas’ wives had disappeared over time: the wives he had before his mother.

His mother never told him about any of this. But he recalls his father’s words. He also remembers the legend of the Black Ghost.

The door protests, but Carter manages to go into the mansion. He realizes, only moments later, that he needn’t have bothered. Sections of the wall have already fallen away. The hall itself is strewn with debris, the carpet stained in mud and dust. What his father had explained as the decaying skeleton of something once so grand, was now almost in complete ruin. No one had bothered to repair or renovate the structure. No one had attempted to tear it down either.

It had just been left here. To be forgotten.

But even in its dilapidated state, he recognizes it. It’s the interior of the Great Hall in his mother’s work Crimson Peak. He can make out the Gothic architecture, the ornaments, the colour, and even the smell. The winding staircase has collapsed, the place where the lift used to be is empty and probably lost in Hades, and the hole in the ceiling has grown into a maw of a leviathan defying the heavens with its rotting grandeur. But this is the place. He wonders if there is a clockwork workshop above, or multiple suites, or the bathtub of blood, or even the nursery …

It’s real. It’s all real. The shattered windows of the estate seem to follow him as he looks around, like the eyes of some restless dead thing. Even as the wind blows, he can hear his footsteps on the cracked tiles. It’s perfect. The ambiance of this space speaks more than a thousand written words. Ghosts can easily live here. And, if he remembers the novel correctly, the library should be on this floor ….

Let the wind blow kindly …

Carter pauses. The air howls above. It’s strange. For a few moments, he wonders if he heard something. Perhaps he had just been too focused on the atmosphere here. On the story he’d heard from town. He sees the curvature of the hall, and turns left. The library should be that way.

In the sail of your dreams.
And the moonlight your journey …

The light is wan and pale as he enters the darkened room. It’s gloomy, but Carter can make out rows upon rows of mouldering books. It hurts his heart to see them like that. Each one of those books could have been first editions, Greek and Latin-translations gone to dust. Why had no one cleared them out? Why hadn’t his mother taken them? And it’s as almost as though his thoughts have become someone else’s words, those of the wind … Notes drifting in the air.

And bring you to me …

There is a keening in Carter’s chest. It’s not his lungs. It’s a growing sense of sadness, and disconnection. It feels as though there is a song in his head, and the sound of piano keys playing. He reaches the mantle piece and sees the inscription. His parents spared his Classical education no expense.

“I shall lift up mine eyes,” he whispers, his eyes squinting in the gloom, “onto the hills …”

We can’t live in the mountains …

Carter turns as the voice materializes, fully, into the room. He looks away from the mantle over the fireplace, and sees the piano.

We can’t live out at sea …

The piano is lopsided, dusty. Falling apart. But the seat is still there. And someone … someone is sitting there. It’s a shadow, in the darkness. Carter hears the voice. Her voice. A part of him remembers what the villager children said. He blinks. But the form is still there.

Where oh, where oh, my lover …

The song is unbearably sad. The piano keys and their strings, which should by all rights not even be functional, send the pang into him. It reminds him of the day his mother died. But it’s more than that. It’s of a time that’s over. Something that happened, and never should have been. A bittersweet poignancy. A love lost forever.

Shall I come to thee?

Carter’s brow furrows as the feelings threaten to overtake him. He can almost see two forms, in the darkness, in a lost room, holding each other, one rocking the other back and forth, spooning them, cradling them. But that was over. A long time ago. And it will never come back.

There is only silence. She doesn’t turn around. Slowly, as though his pain reaches out to hers. Her dress is black, almost gossamer. So is her skin, though her hair is darker. Carter can’t help himself. Something in him aches at the sight of this lonely figure. He reaches out a hand, as though to touch her shoulder.

“Thomas?” There is a whisper, in the wind. “Have you come back … to me?”

Carter’s hand stops. The realization of what this is, that this is not just a story he’s reading or hearing about around a campfire, that this isn’t one of his father’s slides, hits him like an icicle to the gut. His throat is suddenly very dry. He takes a step back. And another.

The room feels cold and not just because of the mountain’s high altitude. He turns, to run, to get away from …

She might have been beautiful once. He can see that. There is a wound in her chest, blacker than the rest of her. And her face … it’s caved in. As though something crushed her skull in, like they said his grandfather’s had been at the Gentleman’s Club one day. But it’s all of her. It’s as though she is a translucent, blackened version of ligaments and skin. She doesn’t move right, as she jerks towards him, but there is a smoothness to her facial features or what is left of them.

“Thomas.” She whispers, bringing a long, blackened hand towards him. For a few moments, Carter thinks he can see the bloodshine of a stone on her finger. She is like Allerdale Hall, made incarnate. “Tell me, when will she let me be free … Thomas …”

Then, her face warps and twists. Pure hatred and an endless sorrow from hell itself engulfs her gaze. It’s the most horrifying thing about this apparition as Carter staggers backwards, as she lifts a cleaver — glinting with midnight malice — above her head.

“Now you will see!”

Carter falls to the ground, screaming as black moths explode all around him, fluttering mindlessly. Then, he feels nothing. Just a frigid breeze. He can’t breathe. Carter is gasping for air, his heart pumping hard. He looks up, finally. There is nothing there. No one. His mind is detached from his body, viewing the entire situation, processing this impossible thing. That’s when he sees it.

It lies on the ground. A red stone glittering off a golden ring. A part of him wants to reach out, to touch it, to take it for himself. There is a part of him that thinks it belongs to him. The rest of him runs out of the room, down the hall, outside the ruined mansion, shouting incoherently.

He is on his knees in the red mud, trembling. Carter is numb. Empty. It’s like what they said about shell-shock from the trenches that he’d been thankfully too young, and too infirm, to be drafted. That’s when he begins to notice something else.

There is a man. He’s standing right in front of him. Carter stands up, his body freezing into place. The man looks at him. He’s pale. Incandescent. There are marks on his chest, and a cut under his eye. But he can’t deny it. He knows that face. It’s his own face, but without his mother’s eyes.

The man reaches forward. Pallid fingers seem to cup Carter’s face. Carter doesn’t feel anything, but he experiences everything. The man smiles at him, sadly, his gaze full of regret and resignation. Then, he’s gone.

Carter drops his book. He must have been holding it through the entire ordeal. He crouches down on the ground, his elbows on his red-stained knees, as he proceeds to cry into his hands. The letter to Lady Sharpe flies out of the pages of his book, and into the winds.

*

“Why didn’t she destroy the mansion?”

It’d been a month since Carter came back from Cumberland. He sits at home with his father, in his study. The books with their horror stories still manage to comfort him even after everything that’s happened; the medical specimens in jars no longer threatening given that they are actually dead.

Alan McMichael looks tired behind his spectacles. They are so much like Edith’s when she still lived. He sighs, looking at his son.

“She wanted to keep her there.”

There is nothing else said between them for several moments, just the sound of the grandfather clock marking time. Carter slowly shakes his head. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were always a sickly boy, Carter.” His father says, sadly. “It was best you were just entertained by those stories, and not afraid of them. There is so much … I wish she and I could have told you.”

“You can tell me now.” He says to his father. “I … how did you know?”

Alan squints up at Carter, scrutinizing him. He doesn’t say anything for a few moments. Finally, he sighs. “Carter, you know your favourite novel?”

Carter tries to maintain his composure. “Yes. What … of it?”

“Do you remember the end of it? How Mr. Stoker ended the entire thing?”

Carter takes a moment. He looks down to sip of the glass beside him on the easy chair. His father had prepared brandy in advance. He now fully appreciates this fact. “It is a happily ever after, of sorts.”

“Your mother always loved stories that ended that way. Even if life didn’t always do so.”

“Everyone survived.” Carter murmurs to himself. “Except for … Quincey Morris. The American.”

Alan laughs. “The hunter. The one who stabbed Dracula with a Bowie knife.”

“He –” Carter pauses. “The Harkers. Mina, and Jonathan. They named their son after him. After Quincey. Quincey Harker.”

Alan doesn’t say anything as he sips at his own brandy, waiting with the decanter at the table next to him.

“I always wondered.” Carter says. “If Quincey was Jonathan’s or …” He closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.

In a low voice, Alan McMichael speaks. “Your mother loved me, Carter.” Then, the old man sighs. “But she had been in love with someone else.”

Out of the corner of his eye, for a few moments, Carter can almost see something bright. It isn’t from the hearth. A figure, in white. His mother. Paler. Wan. Her hair an unbearably bright gold. She’d been so sick. She seems to smile at the two of them. He can almost hear her voice, asking him as she had always done, if he had been inspired.

Tears well up in Carter’s eyes again. She could have told him, but perhaps this was her way … their method of telling him the greatest ghost story of all time: told in the most poignant manner possible. Carter smiles reaches out and takes his father’s hand in the space between them.

“Tell me everything.” He says, and he realizes that it is just the two of them now. “Father.”