A Tell-Tale Heart

I said it a year ago, on the first Halloween of The Horror Doctor, that this is the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest. It’s a time of costumes, candy, and contemplation. 

A year ago, it was the first Halloween everyone spent in Quarantine from the grim harvest that was COVID-19, before we had a vaccine. It was also the first Halloween without my partner Kaarina Wilson: an avid horror lover. 

So I wanted to enjoy my Halloween twofold, for the two of us, since she wasn’t here anymore to celebrate with me, or her family, or on her own. So I decided that from September to October would be a Grand Halloween, and I would do my damnedest to enjoy it all before I’d have to deal with a reality that I’d rather not.

And I did well. I went to my friends’ virtual horror viewings. I attended some Lost Drive-In Watchalongs, and even interacted with Joe Bob and Darcy, and the fine folks that also love them. And I watched as many of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having returned and being all online this year, that I possibly could. 

So I’m not sure what this was going to be, this latest October 31st post, before the events of a week or so again, when my grandmother passed away.

My grandmother and I used to talk a lot. We were close. I was a demanding child, somehow to counterbalance the extreme introversion and shyness. I had her make me things all the time, when she could, and I was exacting. I wish I could tell you what I had her make for me, but it’s all lost to time now. 

During that time between my childhood and adolescence, I was a nervous being. In retrospect, a lot of my maladies were probably the result of anxiety. And my grandmother played cards with me, we watched television — usually Early Edition, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? — to calm down.

But then, she also read to me. A lot of the time it was from books she already had like Little House on the Prairie, but sometimes I wanted her to make stories. To create them. I was fascinated, and scared, by horror. My parents wouldn’t let me watch 1980s or 90s horror, so I wanted as much of the classical stories as I could get away with. Now, my grandmother was many things, but she didn’t make stories. But she did retell them. I remember being in the basement of a house that saw at least four generations of my family on my Mom’s side, a dim place with crackled red and white checkered tiles with a bar that never saw much use anymore, and a fireplace that did. I recall, like my horror, being fascinated and terrified by that fire place. We would put in wood, but mostly white paper birch that we used to write on from a tree in the front yard, to burn. I’d stay away from that old grate as it would barely contain the crackling embers that spit out, as my grandmother would nudge it with a poker, as she would tell me about the heart buried under the floorboards, and the man that put it there: haunted by his crime of murder: committing it, and hiding it from everyone except himself.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was retelling Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and possibly conflating it with “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it did the trick, and it made me want more. And to do more.

I made all kinds of weird clay creatures from Magic Model plasticine and Play-Do in that house that she displayed for a while. I would create men out of Silly Putty, give them Lego armour, make vehicles, and crash them down the long stairs into the basement into a million pieces just to reassemble it all, and do it again, and again. And again. I am pretty sure she knew I did it too, but let that slide as I had some aggression to work out, those dual forces of creation and destruction that are so intrinsically part of my character. 

There were always woods where she and my grandfather lived, in her own parents’ house. I was always exploring, and contemplating the many ghosts that could be in the area from my late relatives alone. It was a bubble of time that also managed to make me very aware of it having passed. 

Sometimes, my grandmother let us get away with some things. For instance, while my parents didn’t want my brother and I to watch horror films, she would rent us movies, and some of them fell under that umbrella. I am pretty sure we watched Anaconda and Mimic under her watch while my parents were busy dealing with adult matters. And this isn’t even going into when we could get away with staying up a little later. I recall one time, at night, when there was a TVO horror movie with a woman affected by a love potion by a man, who dies, and her ghost haunts him still from the obsession he gave her. It was probably the first time I’d seen a simulated sex scene in a horror movie. There were many other times as well, and this didn’t even include when I could sneak snippets of Tales From the Crypt on Fox 29 when we were over for Passover Seders. 

Things were not always easy between us, especially as I got older. I was questioning a lot of my parents’ beliefs, and therefore those of the family. My grandmother was noted as being a peacemaker, but sometimes what that meant was that she would strongly advise something “for the good of the family,” even if you didn’t like it. Even if, sometimes, it was kind of tone-deaf. She couldn’t help it. It was probably socialized into her, her whole life, being a matriarchal force in a patriarchal family and culture. She would always side with my parents when I just wanted more freedom, and less structure, and her spoiling only went so far. 

Poetically enough, it all came to a head one summer when she blamed my first girlfriend for my rebellious behaviour. It should be mentioned that my first girlfriend wasn’t Jewish, but that I was rebelling far before I met her. She literally took me aside, and chewed me out over it, and essentially told me to tow the line. Never mind the fact that I’d missed spending more time with my friends at this time in my adolescence, at one point being dragged out before I could finish watching Fright Night with them, or not going on cottage trips despite my good grades, and academic behaviour. It was an unfairness that struck me, and those phone calls I used to make to her talking about new ideas, and my days, stopped. I didn’t feel like she was on my side, which I needed her to be — just once — but in a choice between me and my parents, it was kind of inevitable where that decision would land. As it was, it drove me further into my own rebellion, and alienated me a great deal. Years later, I would talk about this incident in Pornsak Pichetshote, José Villarrubia, Aaron Campbell, and Jeff Powell’s horror comic Infidel: which was funny, as my own father once called me a heathen, so there in a symmetry in the miniseries published two of my letters. Infidel is a comic about differences, and how in attempting to overcome them, sometimes they tear us apart. Sometimes, as Stephen King notes, the monster wins. 

I know I didn’t win, then. And this was a powerful experience from my grandmother that I carried with me for the rest of my life, for good or ill. Sometimes the people you love, that might even have good intentions, make mistakes. Sometimes, they simply come from a different place, and they will not see your perspective.

Sometimes, they will fail.

Our relationship was changed. I buried my part of it in the floorboards when I could. I moved as far away from it as I could, which I began to do with other relationships that failed as well. 

Of course, she was always there. She would be invited over to my parents’ and I made token appearances: and made them as brief as possible. I drew her birthday cards. And when COVID-19 hit, I wrote her letters: especially when she sent me birthday money, which she always did without fail. Eventually, over time, what was anger became just awkwardness, and distance, a gap of age and time. I knew she was never going to change who she was, and I wasn’t going to do so either. I didn’t go to many family functions. I still don’t as they aren’t really places for me anymore, unless I have the will and the lack of anxiety to do so. 

When she was sick, it’d not been the first time. I guess a part of me, just like with Kaarina, thought or hoped that she would pull through. Despite our differences, I still loved her. She was stubborn, you have to understand. So am I.

So, one day, I was told she didn’t have enough time. And, despite missing Kaarina’s passing and others, I made my way with my Dad to the house. It’s hard to see someone you saw so independent and strong, and stubborn, even when you disagreed with them, even when you remember all the times you spent with them, tired and worn away. She wasn’t speaking anymore. It was like she was in between dreaming states on that easy chair in the Den. The following morning, she passed. 

It was as though the darkness in the halls of that house I always walked through consumed the dimming light, and it grew throughout the entirety of the week of the services and the funeral. And I realized, with her being gone, that all of it was gone: the childhood, the house that was a part of my reality — even on the fringes — the anger, the disappointment, her distinctive chuckle, and all of it. She loved mystery novels, she always read them and got them from my Mom, and I can see how Poe came to her mind all those years ago when she retold those stories to me. 

And I suppose the mystery is how it all came to this point, which is life, and the horror of realizing one day I would be lying down like that in my own home surrounded by people that knew me: if I was lucky. If I am lucky. 

Reality sucks. I wanted to stave it off for just one more month, but these Twenties evidently want to suck as much as their twentieth century counterparts. And I have been angry, hurt, sad, and terribly tired. 

But this is something I have to write, something real, as autumn becomes fall, and Hallow’s Eve passes to the Morning. It was my grandmother’s house and the land that helped nurture the horror inside of me. It was those stories that made me want to know more, in addition to the remnants of old pulp comics she kept, and books that were collected. It was the little moments of grace where I got to see, and gained things I probably shouldn’t have but she let it pass. 

So maybe I did bury that old part of me. But perhaps, through seeing what was important at the end, I don’t have to have it drive me mad. I don’t have to have it beat through my conscience for the rest of my life. I got to see her again, for at least one last time. 

Rest in peace, Bubby Rose. You were almost a century old, and you saw wonders and horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. I am going to a Halloween Party with friends today as of this writing: where we will participate in a roleplay game as monsters attacking some heroic antagonists coming into our Dungeon. Maybe it’s not what the family might be interested in, and I know you would have hated even the idea of me hurting simulated lives, but it interests me, and I intend to have as much fun for as long as I can.

A funny thing though, before I end this post. When we used to eat at her house more often on weekends, when I stayed up late I would sometimes see some other television shows. And on a channel called TNT, far after Dinner and a Movie earlier that evening there was a strange man in a cowboy hat sitting on a lawn chair that was always hitting on a red-head that viciously never gave him the time of day. I never understood the point to all that, or the weird movies that played … But I do now. It was great meeting you that first time, Joe Bob. And thank you again, Bubby, for that little indulgence. 

Next time, on The Horror Doctor, I think we will talk about something else. Something else to do with family.

Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

Originally, I was going to make something of a Toronto After Dark retrospective: specifically an account on how I was introduced to the Film Festival, and how it made me deal with the horror genre in a different way. And the person who brought me to this Festival in 2010 was Kaarina Wilson.

It always comes back to her.

I’ve talked about Kaarina before, and not just on this medium. I feel like sometimes that is all I ever do: talk, and write about her. Autumn, or Fall, is a time of year in many cultures where the veil between the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. The Harvest is often reaped in Fall, before Winter. And people go around wearing the likenesses of their favourite fictional characters, their celebrities, or their personal demons and their nightmares.

This was Kaarina’s favourite time of year. She got to dress up and be as unapologetically camp as she wanted. And she also got to wear her fears and terrors on the outside for a change, of the creeping, inexorable march of the body’s hunger and decay overtaking the rational and feeling human mind.

She was so much more into the horror genre than I was. Before her, I had read the Classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and H.P. Lovecraft’s main Cthulhu Mythos stories. I’d watched some camp and horror movies with my friends before they moved from their apartment to Barrie so many years ago. I learned, there, that horror is something that should be experienced in a group setting. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference between watching something terrible happen to someone, or an utter bastard of a character getting their comeuppance alone, and then hearing other people gasp, or applaud, or cackle beside you as it all happens on the big screen.

Kaarina cackled. That was how she laughed. It was this wicked, pleased with herself reaction of dark joy, and it was one of the reasons I was so insanely in love with her. It was her that had me read Clive Barker and made me realize that horror isn’t just a fear of the unknown, but also the realization that you often what scares you is — deep down — what you ultimately desire when you strip away human niceties, conventional morality, and common sense. It also set the stage for the fact that, aside for the potential of public catharsis — the purging of emotions caused by pity and fear often attributed to ancient tragic plays — horror can have its own twisted logic, an orange and blue morality that even in its own alien mindset still has a human component that makes sense.

I think about the fact that Kaarina was the one that made me read “Dread” and “The Midnight Meat Train” and then had me see the film adaptations, but not before we watched May together in the basement apartment she called her Wonderland — after Alice’s — or what I thought of at times was her Underground. Quaid just wanted to overcome his fear and help others do so. Leon Kaufman had a terrible need to fit into something bigger than him, to find an assured and foundational place in New York: to belong somewhere. And May, in the midst of humiliation and confusing and deceptive human actions she just wanted to make a friend.

I learned a lot, then, even as I related to it. I’d even read “The Forbidden” and got to see how that short story changed in the better known Candyman adaptation. It also helped that Kaarina had been taking a Ryerson course on Gothic Literature that gave me the excuse to read her online copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a lot of what I learned about horror, which had been scattered between University courses, bored movie channel watching at my parents’ place, and the times with my zombie-fanatic friends, started from Kaarina. And she was definitely the one that encouraged me to write something about horror in film: to the point of her arguing with me when I didn’t believe I could focus enough to do so.

The truth is: I never thought I really fit into this genre. But Kaarina challenged that. She made me watch ridiculous films, weird films, creative films, erotic films, and enjoyable films. She showed me movies that made me use my critical brain, and others that I just sat back and enjoyed. I realized it didn’t always have to be serious, or stick to eclectic small things that were the result of my own crippling perfectionism.

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

This was important, especially given that when we met I was still struggling to finish off my Graduate Program. I didn’t think I could do it, get through my Program, write again for myself, or even engage with these weird independent movies, and have something to say. I know for a fact I used to drive her utterly crazy with my doubts, and my stubbornness.

Perhaps it hit a little too close to home, even as I encouraged her to write more reviews and stories herself. Like the seasons, like birth, death and rebirth, or life, death, and reanimation everything was a cycle. It still is.

For example, if not for the Pandemic this year would have been the first After Dark without her. And there is something almost fitting about the fact that on the year of her death, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival — her favourite event — didn’t happen. But either way, this is the first Halloween without her in it.

And grief is a cycle as well.

So I find myself, in the midst of 2020’s utter misery trying to compensate, to live twice as much as I can in these limited circumstances, to feel that abundant life force and need to live in the middle of so much death and stasis, and to enjoy horror for the two of us. I bought her a subscription to Fangoria while she was in the hospital which I had to cancel after she was gone, and I have to read that for her: to succeed this time, one day, in actually being able to submit something into its pages. I got her a Shudder account while she was in a medically induced coma to shave the damaged parts of her lungs away — and I curated the films in there to match the ones we’d seen together, or that were at the After Dark Festival, or anything I found interesting, but now that she’s gone it still exists there, having never had the heart to close it. Some part of me imagines, in some liminal space between sleep and the Internet, that a part of her watches those films to this very day.

I know there are some things, like this Blog, which she would be proud of me creating, but it’s hard to think about how she will never be able to tell me that herself again. So that is why I watch all these horror films, so many more than I used to. That’s why I want to celebrate Halloween with friends, to enjoy the movies with others and not be alone. That’s why I look forward to the Hallow’s Harvest table-top roleplaying game I’m playing with my friends before I have to return to this reality.

In the early summer, still reeling from Kaarina’s loss, I finally decided to sit in on a live watching of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I’d only been there in passing when they were watching some of the Halloween series having found out about it through Diana Prince: or Darcy the Mailgirl on the show. When I watch the show on Shudder TV, and live-tweet with Diana, and the rest of the MutantFam it reminds me of all the times I watched horror films with my friends, all the moments I wished I had someone to watch them with in my house, every occasion I watched them at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the Bloor, and Underground Cinemas, and ScotiaBank Theatre.

Watching strange and weird films with “blood, breasts, and beasts” with the MutantFam of The Last Drive-In reminds me of all every night I watched movies with Kaarina, and it takes a little bit of that edge of the jagged Jack-o-Lantern hole in my heart off.

I had a lot of plans for this Blog. I was going to write alternate endings to films and stories. I was going to reconstruct one movie in particular. And I was going to write about weird things, unique perspectives and experiences and experiments. Most of this has been reviews, like the ones I would write for GeekPron or Sequart. But sometimes I can still get personal. Perhaps next time, I will tell you all about the writings that actually led to the making of this Blog: my proto-articles that tried to link themes and ideas together in a series I was watching which would provide the basis of what I do — or try to do — on this Blog. I wrote them when Kaarina was still alive, but she never saw them. But I think she would have approved.

So let me just say to you all, before adopting my Horror Doctor half-mask persona again, have a safe and happy Halloween. I will do the same. It is the least I can do now.