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.