Friend? Lucky McKee’s May

It’s funny to re-watch May in April.

The last time I saw Lucky McKee’s 2002 psychological horror film, I was beginning to live with my partner Kaarina Wilson in our apartment under the stairs. It must have been 2010, a whole other lifetime ago. At the time, I was still into what I considered to be serious movies, until Kaarina decided to inundate me with various independent horror films. It’s something I should have seen coming from the beginning given her own yearly participation in the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its variety of cinematic fare.

So we sat downstairs, with her various model heads — that she called, appropriately enough, The Heads — and her Alice in Wonderland drawings on where the stairs used to be as she popped in a new film into her system, and I got to meet May for the first time.

It’s hard to remember what it was like seeing May, then. Angela Bettis plays this small, slight, almost elfin young woman who barely “passes” in society as whatever a normal adult is supposed to be. She is supposed to be that diminutive, that hard to notice, that easy to pass over, or dismiss with something of — if you will pardon the wordplay — a lazy eye. When her strange quirks, her halting speech, her quietness, her shy smiles, her love of blood isn’t seen as a weird novelty, she’s treated like some kind of doll that can be played with, and put away whenever someone else is done with her. Or not seen at all.

May wants to be seen. She wants someone to notice her, to treasure her, to know how weird she is, and to not only tolerate that weirdness, but share and even revel in it. But she’s trapped. She’s trapped in a perfect glass case like her mother’s doll Suzie, and she can’t get out. It is perfect. Transparent. Polite. Awkward. Her whole life, because of her lazy eye and onward, she’s considered herself imperfect. Fragile. Delicate. Frail. People laugh at her when they don’t ignore her altogether. May has never fit in, not once, and while most of the film is beautiful, almost sunny and bright, she is always on the outside looking in with people that either want to use her as a young pretty woman, or socially distance from her weirdness that she can’t handle.

I recall the first time watching her slowly begin to understand what she has to do. It was like seeing her find different pieces of cloth and fabric to stitch together, or doll parts to fit together as the cracks in the glass of her façade — of barely passing as neurotypical and “perfect” — begins to spiderweb outward. She can even hear the grinding of those imperfections grow, the language of the doll, the fragile little angel that she can only look at and envision, but never touch, screeching softly, insidiously, into her mind.

And throughout everything she does, that she inevitably realizes she is going to do, there is an odd sweetness about her, almost an innocence that really gets your heart. At least, before May does.

After over a decade, I still appreciate how May takes to her heart what her mother tells her at the beginning of the film: that if you can’t find new friends, you need to make them. Now, as the Horror Doctor here — an imperfect student of horror and creation of grafting nightmares (I wanted to be a Mad Scientist when I grew up and here I am) — I can truly empathize with wanting to understand and construct glorious creations to express one’s art, and will. But May does it out of loneliness, out of a sense of isolation, of wanting to be seen by the cardboard cut-out flat two-dimensional, shallow and insincere people around her, and realizing that only parts of them had intrinsic value.

It is a slow burn, an elaborate dollhouse setup of a film, of someone barely understanding social conventions finally breaking down after constant humiliations, and when she does … I think the most frightening thing about May is when she gets serious towards the end, she acts neurotypical. She takes on the appearance of Suzie, of the doll, of the little girl told she needs to be protected her whole life, isolated from understanding socialization and sexuality, thrown into it like a toy without any care for her very human emotions — and takes direct, cold, command of situations, and gets the things that she needs. There is something heartbreaking, but also impressive in watching her shed that gentle, awkward exterior for that hard beauty that takes what she wants, whose sadness for a moment turns into anger and hate, but back into that need for companionship and touch: for understanding.

To be seen.

Sometimes I wonder, even now, just what would have happened if someone truly attempted to talk with May beyond a surface interaction, to engage on her level. To actually be her friend.

Just seeing her frustration and sadness, but that determination as well despite everything she does — or because of it — makes me ache for her. Because I think when it’s the right audience, we see her. I see her. I appreciate the alchemy, the strange combination of her sewing, dollmaking, and veterinarian assistantship skills, and the placement of the broken clay ashtray with her name rearranged into the name of “Amy” like the inscription of “life” for her version of a patchwork doll-like golem made of human and animal parts, as she sacrifices her eye — the source of her stigma, physical and social — not for wisdom like Odin, but to infuse the parts of her creation: with the hands of a man named Adam, the body of a punk with a Frankenstein’s Creature tattoo on his skin, and female neck and legs into something of an androgynous being.

But now, years later, I see May’s transformation. The way that Adam, played by Jeremy Sisto, plays with and pretends at understanding her weirdness just to reject her, and Polly (Anna Faris) sees her as an interchangeable toy for sexual play, both rendering their friendship with her invalid — adult relations that she understands only initially in an abstract, almost childlike fashion — leads her to the case holding her doll literally shattering, and releasing the rage and primordial need for creation within. And yet, even her killings aren’t sadistic. They are mostly accidental at first, from the cat onward, and even when they become purposeful there is a gentleness in the way she slits Polly’s throat, and a surgical precision, the directness in which she maneuvers Polly’s casual lover Ambrosia to her doom, and the overall one hit K.O. in how she kills the rest of them.

There is something vulnerable, and powerful in May with which I can relate and, throughout the twistedness of the entire film, in how just keeps … trying so hard, and there is something truly moving about how she finally gets her wish at the end.

I’ve never forgotten May. She is far more sympathetic than the protagonists from Tragedy Girls. I almost feel this need to protect this young pretty serial-killer Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s the mad scientist who’s also had trouble relating to flawed, superficial human beings around him. Maybe it’s because she is reminiscent of my lost Kaarina in her own struggles, in dealing with so many conflicting parts of her life, in just wanting “best friends.” In wanting to be seen. It’s no coincidence she showed me that film, so many years ago. It’s one of the few things of hers that I have left. Perhaps it is both of those things that I see, now.

I will say this. This film wandered toward me, like the Creature did in the woods towards the old man in the cinematic Frankenstein. And when it did, when she came then, as she did now, as blind as I am in other ways, when she asked the question, I gave the same answer then that I do now.

Friend. Best friends. I will see her forever.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Creepshow Episode 1 – Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

So after my Iron Man Certificate Challenge escapade, I had a lot of a mess to clean up in my Dissections and Speculatives room. Certainly, I needed more energy and inspiration after such a self-inflicted punishment. Ominously enough, the next season of Creepshow has landed on Shudder, and I had the occasion to watch it. I’ve thought about what I would do once the Creepshow seasons started up again, as I had written a whole series of summaries and thoughts — micro-reviews — of the series’ episodes before I even began the Horror Doctor. What I have decided is that, instead of waiting to have them all compiled, I am going to do one a piece. I think that is fair, and digestible. As such, most of these Creepshow entries are my thoughts and impressions of the episodes with their twinned stories grafted together complementing and contrasting with one another. In other words, I will be horror geeking out most of the time, and hopefully something of substance will be said or gleaned from it. As such, here we go with the first episode. I hope you will enjoy it ladies, gentlemen, and other beings of the night.

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

I wasn’t sure how Creepshow was going to top its first season, especially with its Animated Special. And so, here are the first two stories to start off the second season and … what can I say?

They tell us to think about the children when creating or enjoying controversial things. 

And they did.

That isn’t entirely accurate, of course. In fact, I would say that both of these stories, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by John Eposito and Rob Schrab respectively, are about nostalgia and the power of that sentiment even against the forces of darkness, and abuse.

Eposito’s “Model Kid” reminds me of all the old Universal and Hammer movies made in the early twentieth century that I would watch in my childhood, especially those involving Abbott and Costello. We even see a bit of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a young boy named Joe and his mother watch it on what the latter calls “their time machine.” And she even explains why she calls their projector a time machine: as it is a device that takes you back to a time, a fictional piece of space-time preserved forever, a silver piece of moving eternity, and simpler, perhaps even better times. It’s nostalgia all over again. I also love the fact that Joe creates a fight between the Gill-Man and the Mummy, his action figures, and especially when you consider that as of the release of this Creepshow episode, Godzilla Vs. Kong has just been released. These monster mashups and cinematic attempts at shared universes have existed for a long time, especially when you consider that Meet Frankenstein has “the Monster,” Dracula, and the Wolfman all in one film, whatever grief films like Batman Vs. Superman might have possessed for having more than the titular characters. 

You really feel for Joe, especially when you realize that his nostalgia takes the form of his “friends”: who are essentially the monsters in all the vintage horror films, some before his time in the 1930s and some contemporary Hammer — as he lives in 1972 and talks about Christopher Lee being the relatively new Dracula compared to Bela Lugosi, whom he dresses up as and imitates. For me, it had been the eighties and nineties where I would watch these tapes over and again on VHS, even renting them repeatedly, or recording them from Cable. I could relate to not having many friends, and consistently watching those films to remember the events in my life that happened around those films — my fleeting childhood, my grandparents, uncle, and time just getting away from me. But with Joe, the loss of time is even more poignant, and the people that don’t understand it far more cruel.

I could, as you can see, truly relate to Joe: especially in how even the most well-meaning people in his life didn’t understand why this “time-machine” and its assorted toys and posters were so important to him. And while the plot was fairly predictable, the way those monsters come to him, proving to be his friends, and the karma he delivers through some less than sympathetic magic with a figurine — a model — he orders, is fairly satisfying. 

Nostalgia and karma somewhat bleed out into the next story by Rob Schrab “Public Television of the Dead.” However, the nostalgia doesn’t centre on the early twentieth century, but rather the latter part of that epoch. We open up with a children’s show that reads like a combination of Lamb-Chop’s Play-Along and Reading Rainbow who has a character called Mrs. Bookberry teaching kids about “karma”: about how good deeds — and terrible actions — revisit themselves back on their doers. 

It continues on, with an Antiques Roadshow analogue, and even — honest to the happy little trees — a Joy of Painting homage to the point of plagiarism called The Love of Painting starred by a man named Norm. Norm is about to, unfortunately, lose his show due to the greed of Mrs. Bookberry, who is not nearly as benevolent as she appears to be on television, especially not in how she treats one of the few African-American television production members on staff. That last little detail about that element of racism, glossed over during that time, really added a gravity to the awfulness of that character.

But there is another aspect of horror nostalgia. We see Ted Rami, yes that Ted Rami, on the antique show — one of the three programs run by one WQPS along with the reading show, and the painting one — showing a book he … found in his fruit cellar. I admit: I was swearing, goodnaturedly, at the screen as this went on. And I thought: there was no way they would mention its title. I believed they would just mention it in passing, and have a whole other story. But …

They went there.

They went there, and they went there hard. Not only did the motherfucker have the same twisted cover of flesh and screaming faces, albeit with a lock on its pages, but … it had the same effects. And they named it. They actually named it. 
And … I will just say it. Deadites were there. Fucking Deadites. Deadites somehow manifested, along with the Necronomicon Libre Ex Mortis, outside of Evil Dead into Creepshow.

And Norm, the Bob Ross analogue who is balding in contrast, shares the artist’s former military background and … I was so glad he wasn’t killed in the first part. He, the producer, and his assistant band together to fight the Deadites and keep the Necronomicon from being read on television. It was beautiful, this strange fusion of different aspects of my childhood that played in the background that … works, so well.

I still can’t believe they had the balls, or ovaries, or sheer metaphorical gall to introduce Deadites into another world, though given where they come from, and the other stories involved, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the Necronomicon gets around. Of course, the story has an … open-ending, as you would expect from an Evil Dead homage, that makes me glad I took the time to watch the core films this Pandemic. So while the monsters are not friendly in the latter story, they are a hearkening back to another time that, mixed with an earlier period of reassurance, shows us that the past was not always pleasant but like the past and its conflicts, the present will find its own equilibrium as well: or the very least, the stories will never end. And if either story in this first episode of the second season of Creepshow demonstrates anything, it’s that its stories have only just begun.

My Favourite Lovecraft Story

As I write this, it is now Yuletide.

It’s already a darker time of year with shorter days, and longer nights, but when you add into the setting a Pandemic, there is this faded almost ethereal, even melancholic aspect to the entire thing: like you are asleep, or something is asleep, trapped in a place between a dream and a nightmare — and neither of you can wake up. Or, perhaps, we are all awake and we don’t want to be.

It’s in this particular state right now, in this strange twilight of an eerie calm and sadness, but a reflective point at a darker time that can easily give away to light that I’m thinking about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, this shouldn’t surprise anybody. If you’ve read this Blog, or seen any of my other writings on Lovecraft, you know how much I appreciate the world he created, and shared with so many others. But after the Happy Holidays and towards the time of the New Year, why would I be thinking about his work in particular?

It’d be so easy to say that “The Festival” fits into the theme of the time with its Yule-like rituals at Kingsport, Massachusetts and summoning winged byakhees, and a narrator reluctantly drawn into these family doings, and discovering — or nearly revealing to himself — what they really are. But Cthulhu Mythos holiday celebrations, and awkward family gatherings, remote through space and time, are not going to be the basis of this post. No. I’m going to answer another question.

What is my favourite Lovecraft story?

But before I do that, I want to talk about something I’ve realized: having read about it elsewhere, and truly understanding just how far it goes. H.P. Lovecraft has always identified himself, in some way, with the figure of the outsider. I know I’ve written about his early short story “The Outsider” and its influence on Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli’s Castle Freak, as well as the remake created by Tate Steinsiek and Kathy Charles but it goes so much further than that. You can argue that every writer has something of a literary stand-in for themselves, but some are more overt than others.

Lovecraft is no exception. He always has a character who just never quite … fits in. Be it Charles Dexter Ward, who is a young antiquarian that just wants to roam the old streets of his neighbourhood and gets in far over his head as his own ancestral history literally kills him, or Edward Pickman Derby who is a stunted young occult scholar that finds someone he thinks can understand him and takes everything from him, and even Wilbur Whateley who is seen as “a freak” and just wants to understand his purpose and bring back his father, or Professor Peaslee whose life is stolen from him for a time by the Yithian that takes his body and the Great Race of Yith always outside space-time in other the bodies of other beings: never quite a part of what they observe, or record, but desperate to keep going and keep their words and research alive.

I can go further and look at poor Arthur Jermyn realizing that something bad and “unhealthy” is in his family line, or the distant and frail Dr. Muñoz whose delicate health needs to be preserved, or Walter Gilman who is a student having what seems to be a nervous breakdown but is dealing with experiencing another reality out of the norm. Hell, I’ve always seen the Deep One Hybrids of Innsmouth as resembling the Easter Island statues who, in turn, look like Lovecraft. And if you read the stories, we all know what happened to those people.

I’m sure there are many other examples of parallels you can find as subtext of elements between Lovecraft’s own life, and those of the characters — the humans and otherwise — in his stories.

You might think, to those of you who’ve read or heard of the stories, that “The Call of Cthulhu” is my favourite story due to its epistolary makeup of accounts, journal entries, and the idea of poets and artists being sensitive to a change in the air as something ancient and powerful shifts in its undying slumber. Certainly, I appreciate “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in which Mr. Ward finds the secrets of resurrecting the dead, and learning their secrets through an ancestor that regularly did so to gain incredible knowledge and power. “At The Mountains of Madness” is an epic science-fictional horror story where humans go to Antarctica — to a place of snow and ice much like this time of year — and uncover alien predecessors on Earth who, in turn and for all of their completely non-human qualities, are far less terrifying than the shoggoth they created that went horrifically out of control. And I definitely loved “The Shadow Out of Time” and that whole idea and reinforcement that Earth was ruled by more powerful and terrifying species in its prehistoric era, and whose effects transcend all of space and time.

There is something oddly comforting in knowing that the human species is so small, and inconsequential compared to these vast and alien horrors that makes you really appreciate that little space of safety: at least, for those who identify with the protagonists and their lifestyle and place in the society depicted. I always imagine this vast chaos, and then endless darkness, and then this bubble of academia, and books, and poetry where friends can debate and correspond together away from that terrible uncertainty: even if it’s all an illusion. In that place, which may be less Lovecraft’s and more the place in my own heart created from that writing with corresponding elements taken from those words, I found peace and a little less heartache: and even the creatures and horror were simply inevitable and the pressure to perform and exist, and fit in didn’t matter if we all are truly that small. That weight, in the middle of that terror, lessened for me, and the loneliness became just a little bit less.

I have definitely been influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, but its the Dream Cycle that is closer to me. Dead Cthulhu may lie dreaming in his house at R’lyeh, but his dreams are only part of something far larger that link the unconscious and conscious minds of the world together, and complete planes of existence. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle illustrates this the most, from his earliest to later works. This is where I saw the horror genre verge into the truly fantastical for the first time years ago when I was on my own in my Undergrad.

I saw “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” where the protagonist journeyed from the waking world all the way into the Dreamlands and met a whole wide variety of Lovecraft’s creatures and gods: one of the most epic and bizarre odysseys I’d ever read at that point in my life. The vistas of the entire experience still stay in my mind, and I respect the crossovers the novella had with so many of his other stories, and how it all came full circle. Then, you have “The Quest of Iranon” which I’ve written about before: where the eternal youth Iranon — apart from everyone, sometimes respected, other times laughed at — walks the world to find his beloved dream home, only to realize it is a lie, and he gives up, withering against the harshness of reality and goes off to die.

But it is the last story I’m going to talk about: featuring the protagonist from “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Unnamable” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”

“The Silver Key.”

Randolph Carter is a scholar who has lived most of his life. He used to see the world more clearly. It was brighter. More beautiful. He knew his place in it, or at least he thought he knew it. He had the ability to effortlessly enter the Dreamlands and explore its vastness and potential. He had a family that loved him, and a forest to explore, and the potential for so many adventures. Over time, however, he got older. His family declined and he lost his childhood home. It became harder for him to enter into the Dreamlands on his own, and to see the magic in the world. Carter studied literature and philosophy in an attempt to drown out that pain of loss, of that waning connection with beauty. He became cynical and jaded, even bitter but he could never escape that longing for … that feeling back. He explored what he could of the weak places in reality, studying occultism and nearly getting destroyed in the process.

Out of all of Lovecraft’s protagonists Randolph Carter survives the longest. He doesn’t die, or go mad for quite some time, which is quite the achievement. One day, after using his resources to attempt to reconstruct his childhood home far away from the land where he was, to feel that sense of wonder again to fill that emptiness that had grown inside of him, he eventually finds out about a silver key. It turns out he finds it in the Dreamlands through the help of his long-dead grandfather, and it’s subtle how it all transitions from reality into dreams as Carter uses the key to go back to his old home, and meets with his family again, and he’s not an older man but a young boy whose life is just starting: and everything he’s lived through is a vision that he had of his own future. He’s back where he was happy — back where he belongs — away from the disappointment and heartbreak of adulthood, and ready to plumb the depths of the Dreamlands proper.

I didn’t expect this story. You can see aspects of it in “Iranon” and even in “The Dream-Quest” when Carter realizes that the place he wants to go to is his childhood home of Boston. But “The Silver Key” is something special. It broke my heart, but also reached it during a time when I was lost, or at the very least wandering around aimlessly if only in my own head.

Let me be clear. H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a perfect man. He was a racist that believed in eugenics and had Anti-Semitic views among many other radical and unpleasant flaws. But in this story, I can’t help but realize in retrospect what many of his narrators — his characters — were really looking for. Lovecraft himself lost his beloved grandfather, and his family estate, his father and mother had mental and physical illness, he himself had terrible health, and he couldn’t deal with the outside world beyond Providence, Rhode Island. He married a woman and couldn’t support the marriage in New York, and everything he did just seemed reactionary: at least in the earlier parts of his life.

Many people claimed that he was less of an outsider and alien than the people that he discriminated against, of which there are a few writers who are re-appropriating those aspects in their Mythos stories. But one revelation I’ve had, this Yule during the darkest time in the world at the moment, is that almost all of his narrators in the midst of the fantastical and the horrifying were all looking for something. These outsiders, trapped by the ravages of time, but detached from it and almost everyone else, wandered. They roam. They are all trying to find something, to deal with a fear inside of them, or the a sensation of emptiness or something missing, or an incredible sense of longing.

And in “The Silver Key” I realized that in this inherently non-human world, this uncaring or malicious universe and the need to stay in that small, glowing bubble, Randolph Carter and so many of Lovecraft’s main characters just want one thing. They want to find, or rediscover, or return to a place where everything made sense, where they know their place in the world, where they can get away from the insanity and the madness. Where they know who they are.

In the end, they just want to go home.

Lovecraft ends up giving Randolph Carter a fate worse than death with his writing collaborator E. Hoffmann Price in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” — his “becoming the monster or the alien” trope for his protagonists that don’t go mad or die — but it isn’t the same. It never is. You can never really return to what used to be. You can never really go home again.

You can’t go back. No matter how badly you wish you can.

The stories we relate to say a lot about the people we are, the places we’ve been, and the experiences we’ve had — or didn’t have. We change over time, much like the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep as he wanders the world and planes of life influencing everyone around him. Even when he attempts to trick Carter in “The Dream-Quest,” there is perhaps something of a lesson in that act.

Even if you can go back, you aren’t the same anymore. It’s something crudely illustrated through what happens to Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” but it’s no less true. Still, what is the Silver Key but an artifact with a series of arcane symbols — or words — inscribed on it taking you somewhere else entirely, a place both familiar and different, another variation on a theme of a lived life, and so many other places besides in dreams and nightmares. And perhaps, in this place, through the gates of our imagination, as small as we are, and as strange as everything else around us is, the story that is the Silver Key can help us realize that while we are the outsider, while we feel displaced, we carry that home within us. Even as we travel. Even as we wait. As we sleep.

Even as we dream under the waters. Until the New Year.

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.

The Summer I Saw the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

I considered making this story a Freak Speaks article, as opposed to a Dissections and Speculatives piece. The difference? Well, The Freak Speaks is when I directly talk about something personal about what I am trying to do with a horror topic and how it affects me, while Dissections and Speculatives is all about me taking something apart, and putting it together again in a way that would never make Humpty-Dumpty want to have a great fall around me.

Instead, I’m going to do something different. For those of you who read my previous articles on Cannibal Holocaust, please be relieved because I don’t intend for this to be over four thousand words of analysis: of taking something apart. I find personal writings, writing about the personal and how something affects you — that first person perspective of experience — is more relatable, and it’s a lesson I keep on needing to relearn each time I make a thing.

So it’s Pride Month, during a time of the Pandemic where many people are separated from one another due to social distancing, workloads, depression, and — in some cases — death. I had my first Pride in 2011. It was on Church and Wellesley in Toronto. My partner and I came to it later in the afternoon. We’d come at the tail end of the parades, and we kept to the shade as much as possible. She had been to a few Prides in her time, and finding out I never had — because I am pretty straight — she wanted to show me what she could. Sadly, we were both natural introverts, and we avoided most of the crowds, and people interaction.

After going into a few fetish gear stores, and a pub or two in the evening, feeling the summery heat linger in the night air, we went to a production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. I know: all of these bombastic, incredibly exaggerated names, right? First, I talk to you all about Cannibal Holocaust, and then this. But I have always liked vampires, and I wanted to see the take on this.

Charles Busch, the creator of this play, explains that it is a story about a friendship, with its “ups and downs” over two thousand years. It’s a series of vignettes between a being called The Succubus, who later refers to herself as La Condessa or Magda Legerdemaine, and the female sacrifice she changes into a vampire from Sodom, Madelaine Astarte or Madelaine Andrews. The mother-goddess names, and the carnal words linked to them, are pretty blatant.

It is supposed to be a satire, or a comedy. And I will be honest with you, I have forgotten a great deal of it from that time. The production itself might have been the one directed by Jessica M. Rose at The Lower Ossington Theatre. I recall the night, and the heat, and my partner getting me an apple juice, and us trying to figure out a quiet conflict between us that had been unresolved despite talking over, and again. Just as I was fascinated to see what this production would be like, I was afraid of where the antagonisms in our own relationship would take us, and my own feelings on the matter.

It was a fascinating counterpoint to see these two immortals, sometimes allies and possibly lovers, and other times enemies, engaging with each other. But I think what I remember the most about Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, was the collateral damage the two of them caused with their feuds: from ancient times, to the silent movie area of the 1920s and 30s — the time of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and eerily enough The Succubus resembled Count Orlock quite a bit in the production that I saw — all the way to the 1980s which is important to LGBTQ+ history for a variety of reasons.

But I guess this is where I break my rule here, in this post, and I talk about what I do remember: what stood out to me the most after so many years. Or, rather, who stood out the most.

In a vignette set during the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, there is a dance. By this point, Astarte has become the thing she hates — having not wanted to have been turned by The Succubus in the first place. She and The Succubus have been finding other women during these millennia, and changing them into vampires as well.

It is a merry, summer dance. The men and women all seemed to be peasants enjoying the season. Or maybe it wasn’t summer, but autumn and the harvest. The music is airy, almost as innocent as the virgin — more for what it symbolizes in Western culture as opposed to fact — that Astarte used to be before The Succubus took her life away and turned her into something else, or perhaps helping her reveal the person she was always meant to become.

There is a girl in that dance. I don’t recall what she looks like, but she is happy, excited, and bright. She is dancing with everyone and giving herself to the ecstasy of the moment: to the passion, to the many colours around her, to life. During this dance — or ball — the other vampire women are also dancing, and feeding. One of them comes across this girl, and feeds from her: draining, and ultimately killing her while everyone else continues to celebrate, and not even notice her death.

After the main characters have an exchange, the ball ends, and everyone leaves. The music stops. The body of the girl is sprawled out on the floor, alone. And then, she wakes up. She gasps in terror. Then she moves around unsteadily. She tries dancing again, in the eternal silence, but her steps are clumsy, and uneven. Her sense of rhythm is gone. Her equilibrium changed. Something in her is broken, after having lost herself in the pleasure of the moment, and she is now a hungry being, wandering around, perplexed, sad, and abandoned.

That one scene, towards the end of the vignette has stayed with me for almost a decade. She ends up finding her way to the other vampires, and the one who made her, becoming part of the hangers-on, and she follows in her coterie the antics of the other protagonists. But when The Succubus and Astarte try to bury the hatchet, and not in each other this time, she and the other vampires get angry. They had been changed through this entire rivalry to hurt the other, and now their makers have made peace. They end up turning on them.

That’s what I remember, and I know that others who have watched the play — or it’s become their favourite — would correct me. It wouldn’t be the first time my brain has many stuff up in general, especially when I’ve forgotten so much in the interim.

But that scene with the girl, having participated in revelries, becoming involved with something she only partially understood until it was too late, but still in some ways never leaving the dance always stuck with me. It was a poignant moment that hurt, this profound sense of loss, and revelation. She had been shown what she was, then left to find the rest, and let herself get caught up in the group.

I don’t remember what happened after I saw the production with my partner and I, besides going home. But in retrospect, I saw a thing — and maybe it is a different version of the production than the original, perhaps all of them being creative variations of the first — from an outsider’s perspective. In Vampire Hunter D, Dracula apparently said to his Nobility with regards to their kind and human society that “Transient guests are we.” I’m mixing metaphors majorly like a madman on an alliteration kick, but I was a guest in that space and that story.

Did I identify with the girl abandoned after being turned at the dance that was fun until it wasn’t anymore? Did it say something about how easy it is to frolic in a space fraught with a cycle of violence until you are caught up in it? How something that seems to be a pageant and revelry over time had come from a rebellion between one being, and another? Is this when I began to realize that old friendships can change but the core of them is capable of surviving and even being discovered after a certain point in time? These are loaded questions, but these are particularly heavy times.

It’s a different time now. My partner passed away last month, an out and proud LGBTQ+ woman who had many of her own adventures and discoveries. Before that, we’d had our falling outs, and I moved away from our old apartment that we called Wonderland. I think about what I remember about what we watched together, and how much knowledge of that I lost. I think about that girl stumbling and alienated with a hunger she doesn’t understand, and scared, in a landscape of sickness and death where there had been just the promise of a party of many turned into a Dance of the Red Death. I wish someone would tell the story of that girl — not The Succubus or Astarte — just that one girl and how she found her people, also turned and discarded, on the margins of the story, and from her perspective how the play all ends for them, and why they do it.

Despite all the pain, and bickering, they still found each other. They still banded together. The girl might not dance as she once did, but she can do so with the friends that can’t sing or laugh the same. They are distant from the world they knew, from perhaps knowing their bodies as they once did, but they still feel passions, and they still have hope. They retain their solidarity with one another.

Like I said, I mix metaphors, and I’m only haphazardly looking beneath the surface of movements in a play I saw once almost ten years ago in another lifetime, another life, with another life I’ll never see again.

I think that is it for this June night. Until then, my friends, from a student of horror, have a happy and safe Pride Month.