The Colours of Ari Aster’s Midsommar

It’s hard to bring something new to a previous, or even an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, it’s hard to say anything at all. 

I don’t remember when I saw the preview to Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. Certainly the first look at the Fangoria issue, and its cover featuring the film, made me wonder just what kind of horror I would inevitably be facing this time around. But, deep down, I knew what it was going to be. The truth is, I’d seen it before.

Or I thought I did. In a few interviews with Ari Aster, he says that he’d been going through a terrible breakup, and it influenced the script that would become Midsommar. I can believe that. It doesn’t take much to relate to the idea of a beautiful, ongoing, sunny world where your heart is shattered into a million pieces, and you are obliged to just keep smiling, or at least go through the motions of the dance. I think we’ve all been there, really. I know I have. 

Midsommar can feel like a fever dream in what seems to be an idyllic situation, except you feel that sense of loss pounding away in your chest, the music around you muted and distant as your mind tries to withdraw from the stimuli but also attempting to keep away from the pain. The scene where Dani Ardor, played by Florence Pugh, at a party with her boyfriend and his friends and the forced and detached look on her face comes to mind.

But as I’m writing this article, and I think more about my initial impressions of a movie I saw a year and a lifetime ago, I realize I relate to this film and the atmosphere in another way. You see, before I knew about Dani’s actual physical loss I read the premise to the film in which she is essentially at this outside communal event while essentially going through the process of a strained relationship, and the inevitable separation that is soon to follow. It’s those similar motions, almost being walking wounded in the heat and light of summer, being only being linked with someone in name, trailing awkwardly, not wanting to bump them, and end the mirage — even needing to have them remain to deal with a deeper pain, or fear — but knowing, deep down that it’s inevitable, and a part of you blaming yourself for this coming dissolution. 

Through the year or so, I’ve read and watched a lot of commentary on this film. I’ve seen people claim that Hårga commune is central, and that its ethnocentrism and isolationism — and its penchant for human sacrifice — symbolizes fascism, and racist ideologies: and the dangers that a cult has on the psychology of someone who suffers from depression and loneliness: how a sense of belonging and love-bombing can indoctrinate someone into abhorrent beliefs. Likewise, I’ve even heard that others believe Midsommar isn’t a horror film because it has a “happy ending” for the protagonist. Still more think it is about the end of a relationship, and how that ultimately plays out at the end of the story. 

I can see all these different aspects. It’s no coincidence that in a deleted scene in the film, on the road to the Hårga commune in Sweden, that the students pass an anti-immigration sign, and that Mark — the practical joker and general asshole of the group — tries to bait Pelle, their friend who belongs to the commune, by showing him a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark: in reference to the Nordic runes that the Hårga utilize. However, while these scenes and others are in the Director’s Cut, they were taken out for a reason, because they were either too on the nose, or they took away from the rest of the film, or both. Ari Aster also acknowledges these influences, and it’s no coincidence that there are only Caucasian people in the Hårga, and it’s pretty clear that Josh — a Black student — along with Simon and Connie — who appear to be Indian — are pretty much going to die, though their deaths seem to be ritualized due to the Hårga knowing the former will try to break their rules and steal their secrets for his research, and the latter because they want to leave and potentially reveal to the world the secrets of their ninety year cycle Midsommar ritual: including the ättestupa– the elder suicide — in the movie (though social or hegemonically-supported suicides of the “unhealthy” or the “undesirable” do have some fascist overtones).. 

The connotations are all there. The Hårga are not innocent. They know exactly what they are doing, and they will lie, and massage events to make things go their way. The fact that they sent Pelle as an exchange student to America, and he purposefully brought these friends over to the commune shows a great deal of organization on his, and their, part. Pelle knows, for instance, that Mark has an inherent irreverence towards life, that Josh only cares for his research over everyone and everything else, that Christian — Dani’s distant boyfriend — is a sycophant, narcissist, and generally weak-willed, and if you go by the deleted scenes, has this penchant for gaslighting his girlfriend. And he knows about Dani’s loss, about the murder-suicide of her sister Terri and her parents. 

At the same time, the Hårga genuinely seem to believe in what they practice. They think that seventy-two — numerologically adding to nine altogether, perhaps like the Nine Worlds on the Nordic World Tree — is the full winter lifespan of a human being. They do not seem to have a central leader, though there are elders that have a variety of functions even though they do have regimented roles in their society. The Hårga don’t seem interested in exterminating other diverse people, or outsiders, or even having authority outside of their land, but they use them in their ritual when it occurs: either through sacrifice, or keeping genetic diversity — a lack of inbreeding — in their commune. They definitely practice eugenics, and while the mention of their oracle — the deformed boy Ruben — supposedly represents “racial or genetic purity,” it is also an ancient custom in many different cultures, and even among nobility and royalty. 

I think this film is all of those things. My issue is with those who believe it is only one thing, or another. Midsommar can be an allegory for fascism and extremism, or cult indoctrination, or racism, or even a breakup revenge story. You can even make a case of Midsommar being a critique of North American grief culture, and a lack of a sense of community, empathy, and a centralized sense of self and independence that just fills empty and hollow.

As for me, I think like Ari Aster’s other film Hereditary, this film is about grief. It is about dealing — or not dealing — with a profound sense of loss, and the failure of one social order or group in helping someone dealing with that, and what might fill that void instead. None of the above insights are mutually exclusive with this idea, but it’s pretty reductive to say that one or the other, or another, are all that film is about. 

I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. When I first saw Midsommar, I felt kinship with Dani. I know what it’s like to lose something, or someone, or feel it happening — and you don’t want to admit it. Or the logical part of your brain knows where this is going, but the emotional part still holds on … until it doesn’t anymore. The fact that Dani’s initial grief happens in winter makes no difference that she is still dealing with this in summer, and trying to keep up appearances. Dani suffers from anxiety and depression, and somewhere along the line she’s had to learn to “act normal” or “pass” with it. And this before her sister and parents die. 

Dani is living the North American dream. She’s gone away to college. She’s living on her own, for the most part. During this time, she has a steady boyfriend. Dani also has a therapist, a casual friend she talks with about her problems, and medication. She is even studying psychology or psychoanalysis at school: either to help herself, or her sister who has constantly, throughout their life, been suffering from her own mental illness. Clearly their parents didn’t know, or didn’t want to know — or were incapable of knowing — the extent of it. 

We see what happens. After texting her sister, and calling her parents multiple times, she gets the news of their deaths. It breaks her. And all she has is the comfort of a boyfriend who is pretty much done with their relationship, who isn’t comfortable enough to be there for her when she needs help or is not wired with the empathy or the mental tools to do so, and his friends who don’t feel much of anything to her beyond her being a nuisance. The times she’s nodding blankly at a party she doesn’t want to be at, lying in her bed for all hours, and then going into bathrooms and either crying, or trying not to have a panic attack — and making sure no one else can see her “moments of weakness” — really strikes me. 

And Florence Pugh plays this out well in her body language, and her facial expressions. She tenses up her forehead into a creased brow, and her mouth turns into a literal frown: face bordering constantly on an ugly cry. She looks like she is constantly on the edge of bawling. I know, from the other end of this, how painful that is: to see it happen to someone that you love. In the beginning, when Christian is holding her and she is screaming her agony, there is this numb, almost helpless look on his face. And I know that look. I’ve been there. It sucks. It was one of the few times I almost felt bad for Christian, but then I felt worse because of knowing his wavering feelings or his uncertainty, and seeing how Dani needed someone to actually be there for her: to actually hold her.

To be held. 

Pelle asks Dani, as they are at the commune and Christian has forgotten her birthday, if she feels held by him. And that question stayed with me. It still does.

The thing is, Dani was looking for something even before those deaths. There is a picture in her room depicting something very similar to the Hårga art we see at the beginning, and during the film’s events. Even after the ättestupa, for all of her horror, she starts unconsciously mimicking the gestures of the Hårga in her movements as she stumbles off. And the Maypole Dance, and the way she begins to start talking in Swedish with the other girls even after imbibing their medicinal drink, and winning that contest to become May Queen: I don’t believe it was rigged. I think she genuinely, and unequivocally, won that dance. Something Dani is attracted to all of this, something Pelle might have seen, but even the Hårga with their Oracle could plan for so much. 

Critics have compared the Hårga to fascists or cultists, but I see them as an older culture. Those stones on their property, and runes have been there for a long time. Their Midsommar meals and all their rituals — even their deceptions, especially their fabrications — are choreographed to the nth degree like a Passover Seder writ large: commemorating various events, stories, and applying them to their followers in a seasonal and cyclical manner. Even the pictures of the May Queens seem to go back a great deal in time, and there is something about the fact that Midsommar happens every ninety years. This is not new. This isn’t the 1980s messianic cult of Jeremiah’s Children of the New Dawn in Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film Mandy: with their masculinist overtones, and a pyramidic temple tribute to an egomaniac. That cult would not survive the death of their leader, having been made to essentially glorify him. And Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage, made sure of that. That temple, that structure, burned in memory of his wife, Mandy Bloom whom the cult brutally immolated alive: leaving Miller a ravening, grieving, psychopath driving into a horizon of darkness.

Midsommar itself isn’t the only horror film, as some have said, created in broad daylight: Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man definitely comes to mind on that front as a series of celebrations with at least Celtic folklore influences. But Midsommar’s central theme, I feel, is grief and the loss of not just family or loved ones: but a previous, and tenuous, sense of self. Dani’s journey, if anything, aside from the Hårga’s pyramidic wooden temple that is burned purposefully with its own sacrifices — the last decided by Dani herself — reminds me of Arthur Fleck’s from Todd Philips’ The Joker.

The Joker was released the same year as Midsommar. Like Arthur, Dani loses her sense of family identity, perhaps already having been distant when it still existed. Her relationship with Christian, while had actually happened, was no longer present. She had been around people, and a society that ignored her and, low-key in her case, judged her for her mental illness and not being able to fit in, or “pass” as “normal.” Like Fleck, she keeps reaching out for a connection, and meets maybe one person who cares from her home, but mostly just disinterest, or disdain. She is gaslit by someone she trusts, and made an after-thought. You notice that throughout the film she barely even smiles. 

But just as Arthur Fleck lets go of the faulty and defunct illusion of what he thought he was, or wanted to be, to embrace the chaos that is his nature — a state without an origin — Dani finds order and meaning with the Hårga. They provide a sense of community. The women want her to bake with them. The girls dance with her. She is made May Queen on her birthday, or around then. For the first time, in her entire life, or at least in a long time she feels special. And when Christian runs off to be with Maya, another girl at a breeding ritual, she finally airs her grief: and the Hårga performatively channel it with her. It’s not a ruse, or an artifice. They feel her pain, and they work with it. Where Arthur Fleck finds solidarity with the furious, resentful mobs of Gotham and channels their rage into a dance of destruction and violent liberation, Dani makes a decisive choice to end a failing relationship that represents the lack of connection with the world from which she came. There is something cathartic, you can see, as she watches that pyramid with Christian in the bear suit inside burn. And that smile on her face, while twisted, is genuine. It might as well be painted in her own blood, but I suspect she doesn’t need that: as what we are seeing is what’s now in her heart.

I think that Dani, from the new paradigm she’s shifted into, is actually happy. She is in a culture that has strong matriarchal and gender-shifting elements, and a communal society. Death has a meaning in it, and it is not an arbitrary thing. It’s certainly not a lonely end, or a lingering one. She knows her fate now. Other critics say that Dani will be horrified once the love-bombing, or the honey-moon phase of the cult’s seduction ends but I don’t think that’s how it will play out. I think she has the structure and the support of people. The deaths and sacrifices happen rarely, and most of their life is pastoral. Dani is a part of the Hårga now. She is their May Queen. She is their flowering, smiling, goddess-figure. 

You see, I think the terrifying thing about Midsommar isn’t the machinations of the commune, or the fascist and cultic overtones of the Hårga. It’s the fact that Dani has embraced it. It’s that she’s happy. It’s this burning alive of her former boyfriend, and her peers, and human lives, and her accepting her own ritual death one day is — in fact — her happy ending: the happy ending of a now twisted mind in a world-view that is quite legitimate to her. And it leaves you unsettled, just as it makes you think.

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.

Behind Nostalgia

In order to look at the necromantic strings holding my story “Nostalgia” together, I have to truly go back into the past, and look at Sweet Home.

Now Sweet Home, or Sûîto Homu is a 1989 Japanese role-playing game made for the Famicom: in which you, as a television crew must venture into the haunted mansion of the fresco artist Mamiya Ichirō, and deal with the malevolent spirit of his wife the late Lady Mamiya. It is, basically, an 8-bit nightmare directed by Tokuro Fujiwara for Capcom where you have to switch between protagonists who have different abilities lined up with their tools and you both have to work together and, well, split up to get things done.

Another thing to note is that it was the spiritual predecessor, or even the prototype of Resident Evil, and survival horror games in general. That almost says it all, really.

Released, or announced, concurrently with video game was a film of the same name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and produced by Juzo Itami. There has been much confusion about which came first: the game, or the horror film. I had been introduced to the game through the YouTube Let’s Plays of Deceased Crab, and I briefly paused continuing to view them in order to play the game myself. This is no easy task, as an English version of the game was never released on the Nintendo outside of Japan, one of the possible reasons being the absolute nightmare fuel of the slow, dread-filled pacing of the cinematics, and their graphics. I mean, just look at this. Look at it.

Nightmare fuel and a rotting skeleton from Capcom’s 1989 Famicom horror JRPG Sweet Home.

I mean, what the fuck right? Imagine being a child, which the Nintendo Entertainment System had been advertised towards, and seeing this monstrosity pop out at you. As an adult, and other kinds of people, this would be awesome, right? So, it didn’t get an English translation or port, but there are fan translations and lovely ROMs that you can get online in order to play the game on your computer.

I didn’t get far. The game is a labyrinth, and it’s easy to get lost, to not know what to do, and switching between characters can get cumbersome. Also, you have a limited amount of items that you can get and your items aren’t endurable. I lost patience with the arcane mechanics of the thing, and that’s really not why I brought you all here to examine this particular experiment of mine.

The film is even stranger. It also hasn’t gotten an official Western release, or translation. It is comical at times, almost Hallmark and cheerily bizarre with the characters’ social interactions. But then, it gets dark as fuck. Seriously, the puppeteers and special effects artists that create Lady Mamiya and some of the other things in that film — especially when Ken’ichi Yamamura’s flesh boils and melts off thanks to confronting the ghost — could have easily worked on both The Dark Crystal, and some of the ugliest horror films of that time.

Many people have talked about these elements, with far more qualifications than me, and my learner’s knowledge of horror. So why did I write this story? Why did I create this scene, and incorporate it into an actual scene in the film?

For me, it all began again when I got Fangoria, and read an article in Vol. 2, Issue #1 by Preston Fassel in the column “Corrupt Signals” entitled “Sorting through the murky history of the film/videogame SWEET HOME.” This was the point where I was not only reminded of the game, and encouraged by Fangoria looking at other media in the genre — as I was interested in examining certain horror comics myself — but it hit home, or I realized, there was a film.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And I did. I found a fan subtitled version of it on YouTube and watched the hell out of it: and those “being burned from the inside out” scenes that Fassel talked about were no exaggerations. But I think what really got, and this is something I’ve been looking at in various forms since really honing in on horror is the concept of “family horror.”

It all comes back to two characters: Mamiya Ichirō and Ken’ichi Yamamura. In the Sweet Home game, just as in the film, an old man named Yamamura helps you in your quest to quell the spirit of Lady Mamiya and gets incinerated from the inside for his troubles. He provides clues in the game, if I recall right, while in the film he is an actual character who works at a gas station near the estate, and believes fervently in spiritualism of some kind. But in the film, he sacrifices his life to rescue the girl taken by Lady Mamiya and returning the girl to her father Kazuo Hoshino and his producer the woman Akiko Hayakawa.

Yamamura is a boisterous, taciturn, scolding old man who drinks much sake but at the same time uses the power of belief to do considerable things in the film. He is also, paradoxically, humble and self-effacing. He understands, and is furious, when he hears about how the television crew disturbed the grave of a young child on the estate grounds and he always gives Kazuo Hoshino, and the director of the crew absolute hell. But he also helps them, and tries to show them the way. Juzo Itami plays the old man himself, and there is a cantankerous gravitas there, a living experience, like he’s seen something like this before … perhaps even personally.

There is also the matter of the artist that used to own the estate: Mamiya Ichirō. He is never seen in the film, but referenced as the crew is there to find lost works of his in his locked up home. It isn’t clear what happened to him, nor is this apparent in the game as the antagonist is his dead wife. What we know is that his child, with Lady Mamiya, wandered into the furnace and died: prompting Lady Mamiya to go mad, abduct other children, then when found out she committed suicide. But no one seems to know what happened to the fresco artist amid these consecutive tragedies.

The game, however, seems to intimate that Yamamura and Ichirō are the same person, especially when he still manages to communicate with the characters after he is supposedly dead. There is the matter of the fact that he vanished, and in the game there are servants who seem to know who he was. The film doesn’t go into this detail, and there are no servants in that house: trapped, as they were in the game, or otherwise.

I kept asking myself: could film Yamamura also be Ichirō? Would this make sense? I thought about it for quite some time, watching a Walkthrough of the game after I’d seen the film, and then a story began to form in my mind. I wondered what would happened, that day, if Ichirō had taken a break from the fresco he was creating based on his son’s birth — which would have gone through depicting his entire life — and helped his wife find him before he was burned alive?

The death of a child is a terrible thing. The panic Lady Mamiya must have felt in not being able to find him, and then discovering his body in the furnace must have been terrible enough. But what about Ichirō? What was he doing that day when his infant son burned himself alive when the furnace was turned on?

I considered the Mamiya could have been a merchant clan, or a Clan of craftspeople, in the early days of Japan. Perhaps I flubbed that part. But I decided the house was Ichirō’s ancestral home, and I built up a bit of a history which might have been helped by the film. I looked up Japanese terms for “wife” or “mother” or “beloved” or “child.” I imagine I gained mixed results in terms of accuracy. But those references to the sister-mother and brother-father creator gods was intentional thematically speaking, and I am proud of including them.

Sweet Home is about the agony of a mother having lost her child, while the protagonists Kazuo and Emi had lost the woman that was their wife and mother respectively and still mourned her: still affected by her loss. Akiko becomes something of a love interest for Kazuo, and a maternal figure and friend for Emi. She makes the most effort to get to know Emi, and help her deal with that grief, and when she is taken again by Lady Mamiya she puts on Emi’s mother’s garb — related to an item in the game to deal with the ghost I believe — to confront her with the power of a mother’s love.

It wouldn’t, in my mind, be an exaggeration to say that Sweet Home is about mothers and lost children, and their struggle to bring them back. But what about fathers?

Kazuo does attempt to confront the ghost, and he dies. We know that the man throughout the beginning of the film neglects himself and sometimes even his fatherly duties in doing his job, while burying his own pain in his work: however bumbling and well-meaning he is. So I thought to myself: what about Ichirō? What if Ichirō, after losing his son from absent-minded devotion to his artistic craft, buried himself further into his work to deal with the grief and guilt of losing him — despite burying him with an elaborate grave marker to placate his spirit — only to make himself ignorant of his wife’s madness. What would losing her do to him?

Perhaps, in a way Mamiya Ichirō does die, and a man named Ken’ichi Yamamura opens a gas station, after spending years wandering and studying Buddhism and Shinto. Maybe that marker on the child’s grave was his to not pacify him, but his mother. Perhaps Yamamura drinks, and works, and abandons his art — or any creative impulse he has goes into the creation of talismans to ward against evil — to forget, to let the foolish, neglectful person he was die, until, one day, a bunch of foolish television crewmembers go … back there.

Then he can’t just sit back. He can’t ignore the past. He has to go back. He has to go back to that place.

And he does. He tries to pass his knowledge to Kazuo because he sees some of the person he used to be in the man, and he wants to save him: especially where Emi’s life is involved.

Eventually, he’s forced to go into that fateful return into the incinerator: the one that took his son from neglect, and his wife from suicide. He takes Emi out of there, saving her. And the story, in which I asked myself what would happened if the artist saved his son — and hence his family — becomes less of an alternative history, and more of a vision of what could have been, a delusion of pain as he succeeds in saving at least another child’s life: not his son’s, not the children his wife killed, but the daughter of another foolish man consumed by his own artistic endeavours.

But he knows he must pay the price. Perhaps he’s always known. And he dies, and he dies horrifically. Maybe he thinks he deserves this. Maybe he thinks he has earned so much worse. But I like the idea that he had one look at Emi and Akiko, and realized — and remembered that important theme in the film about the power of a mother’s love, both in the mad grief of loss, and in saving that which she loves — and realizes that a maternal power can succeed where the paternal failed so miserably. That’s how, in my story and from his perspective, he dies: in agony, but with the hope that one child will be saved, and one mother will be united with that child despite him, or perhaps in some small way because of him.

I actually think, looking back to the film, that it would have been more powerful if Kazuo had died by Lady Mamiya as well, leaving Akiko and Emi as the only survivors: only after presenting her with her dead child to take to the afterlife. It would have been a good mirror of Yamamura if he was indeed Ichirō, and the power of motherhood in absent and redemptive fatherhood. But perhaps Kazuo, having survived in a bumbling manner benefitting his character, in hiding at the end was the levity needed. After all, we’d seen a lot of deaths and he did bravely face down a being that he should have failed to survive to save his daughter. He deserves his life. They all do.

I was actually kind of glad he survived, where the old man did not. I just like the fact that if Yamamura were Ichirō, he did in part redeem himself, and in facing his regrets and bravely facing the pain of his past and present, he gave another family another chance. Perhaps redemption isn’t a part of horror, in any culture, but there is a cathartic element in that: especially when you consider Lady Mamiya’s evil nature softening into the genuine grief you see as she holds the body of her long-dead baby, and passing on.

I hope that one day the game and film will be get official releases, and become available to everyone. It makes me appreciate both mediums where the story is told, and this necromantic experiment in analyzing and speculatively synthesizing them together gives me some insight into how the narrative works.

The Cut of My Jib: Inspiration, Not Aspiration From The Last Drive-In

I wrote this back in May of 2020 for MutantFam.com. The plan was to have it posted on there, and then work my way into creating The Horror Doctor. It was originally an appreciation letter for Diana Prince, or Darcy the Mailgirl from The Last Drive-In, but it became something else. It began to encompass my whole feeling towards The Last Drive-In and Joe Bob Briggs. I can’t even begin to overstate just how glad I am that I found, and made a point of watching it, and interacting with people in the horror community during this time. 

If you’ve been following me, or this Blog, you will see many familiar — and some personal — things in this article. And some things have changed since. For instance, I did get to see Darcy’s beautiful Prom Night after all. But, like my Creepshow Commentaries, this writing belongs here, and I will give you all another cut of my jib, as it were. Take care, and Happy Horror Days, and Great New Fears to you. 

It came together. 

I’d been watching Cinemassacre for a number of years, mostly Angry Video Game Nerd videos until I ran out of those and began watching James Rolfe’s Monster Movie Madness series, and in particular some of his interviews. Both James Rolfe’s retrospectives, and his interview with one of his childhood heroes is how I was introduced to Joe Bob Briggs for the very first time. 

I didn’t know what to think of him. He had the Texan stereotype persona on, and I knew he was a host for long-running horror and weird movie commentaries. I even had this sneaking suspicion I’d seen him in passing, once or twice, on his lawn chair in the dark with his cowboy hat, getting sass from the Mailgirl Rusty, on TNT but to this day I still can’t confirm it: much like how creepy stories and nostalgia all begin in half-remembered or even retroactively imagined memories. But I remember James Rolfe talking about Drive-In Theater and MonsterVision, and how it influenced his multimedia work of games criticism, weird film, and blood and guts gross 90s horror. I thought about all the people that watched these commentaries when they suddenly stopped one day on Cable television, and thought it was a shame: how would have been nice to watch horror films then, with some good, erudite and silly commentary. I thought nothing further about it after a while.

I was on Twitter one day. That’s always a great sentence to start off another paragraph. I don’t know how I found it, but some Followers of mine were commenting on a person’s account. They were showing her great solidarity. Apparently, Twitter had banned her account due to nudity or breaking some other terms of service. And it had been a long-running situation. I came in and saw a picture of Diana Prince, looking at the Tweet that was banned, at a shot of her from the waist up wearing nothing but black skull pasties. I thought the picture was amazing, and I’d seen far more graphic things on Twitter that didn’t get any strikes at all.

Then I went onto her website and realized this striking woman with the awesome skull pasties was an absolutely avid horror genre fanatic who liked really bad Crypt Keeper puns. Not only was I taken with her zombie pictures in red and black lighting that made me feel strange things, but I was fascinated with her takes on classical horror films, and by the fact that she was — or was going to become — Darcy the Mailgirl on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show: what was going to be a one-shot revival of what he did years ago.

A lot of things happened to me during that time period, and even though I got Shudder once it was released, I didn’t really get into The Last Drive-In. I always meant to come back to them later, to view them all at once, but I was too busy dealing with the loss of relationship, anxiety, depression, and going back out into the world again.

That’s not completely true, however. One time, on Twitter, I live-tweeted a little bit during one showing of The Last Drive-In. They were showing one of the Halloween films live, and Diana asked us to provide theories as to why Michael Myers had supernatural abilities to resist pain and death when there was no explanation for them. She also mentioned how Dr. Loomis always creeped her out, and she thought he was almost as much a bad guy as Michael, or so I remember it. I remember that night because I tweeted to her, as she had started Following me some time before — which made my day — and I posited that Dr. Loomis was the one that made Michael: that he used someone with a psychological condition and experimented on him to the point of being comatose. And the real reason he was out to kill Michael was to cover up evidence of his crime of creating a psychopath from a tormented child. Diana apparently really liked this, and had been tempted to read it on the show. It didn’t happen, but the charm was already there.

I lost track of the show after a while. I’d read about it in Fangoria, and all the effort it takes for Joe Bob and his crew to make the magic happen: to line the cameras up, to set the stage, and for Joe Bob to read through and communicate clearly his vast encyclopedic mind through long takes. In retrospect, looking back, the interview and article in Fangoria Vol. 2 #2 by Samuel Zimmerman and Preston Fassel — the second issue continuing the return of another horror staple, the magazine itself  — it almost seemed like a prelude to the inspired Week Four of Season Two.

But hindsight is 20/20. And it really is. As of this writing, it is May 2020, and I have been along with many others two or three months in quarantine. I always meant to catch up with The Last Drive-In, but episodes have disappeared due to AMC no longer having the rights to the films that Joe Bob and his crew review: something that will hopefully be remedied, or at least his commentaries can be saved, like the prom segment from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II.

I’ve always been attracted to horror. I would go into Hollywood Movies at my strip mall, and go through and just look at the covers of the films my parents wouldn’t let me watch. I’d hear my friends talk about them, and both ask questions, and retreat in terror at ever seeing them. I was always on the edges of darkness, reading the classics, watching films like Gremlins and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight but not getting too close.

My friends used to live above a store at Eglinton in Toronto called Higher Ground. They would invite me over, show me their endless library of zombie books and movies, and we would watch some of the more graphic horror films. They were my first experience with such films as the Lovecraftian Re-Animator — the Director’s Cut — and the weird movie with a suede heart Bubba Ho-Tep. The DNA foundations of me watching The Last Drive-In as an experience watching ridiculous yet detailed horror films with friends were planted there, at that time and place, and when they moved away it was never really the same.

It wasn’t until I met Kaarina Wilson, however, that my true appreciation for horror evolved. Kaarina was my partner for a very long time. She was the one who, in addition to introducing me to Clive Barker, also brought me to the Toronto After Dark Film Festival: a dedicated gathering of fans that love to watch independent horror and weird films. Kaarina would go to this event every year whenever she could, and I would go with her on a few nights. I saw films riding the gamut between the epic Super Sentai sensationalism of RoboGeisha and the disturbing, twisted horribleness with moments of tongue and cheek comedy like The Human Centipede, and watching them with a crowd that reacted to everything with laughter and horror completely changed me.

Before my friends at Higher Ground, and Kaarina at the After Dark, I always took things so seriously: especially horror. I didn’t think it should be silly, or multi-genre. I also wasn’t very much for crowds of people. But when Joe Bob, in an interview with Patrick Cavanaugh on ComicBook.com mentioned how there aren’t many Chopping Mall films anymore, nothing lighthearted or wacky in the mainstream horror cinematic medium in our time, it reminded me of the charm of events like the Toronto After Dark, and what I value about it.

It is all coming together. I realized I was missing a few episodes of The Last Drive-In, especially the last one, but as of Fangoria and other magazines I knew the show was coming back for another season. And then, the pandemic hit. I began to miss my friends. I thought about the films I hadn’t seen yet.

And I thought about Kaarina a lot.

Kaarina had a series of autoimmune diseases. In the last years of her life, she was in and out of hospitals. She had eventually gotten a much-needed lung transplant. I hadn’t seen her — personally or at the After Dark — in a long time, but I was going to visit her the weekend before quarantine was officially declared. We hadn’t had a movie night in ages. The last film we saw together ourselves was Jovanka Vuckovic’s all-women horror XX anthology. When she had other surgeries, and was in a medically-induced coma, I bought her a Shudder account and curated a whole series of films: including ones we saw for the After Darks of many years. I was already watching many horror films on Shudder, thinking about her. I always hoped we could watch them together, or that she could enjoy them.

Kaarina passed away in April. I couldn’t go see her. The slow encroaching diseases and illnesses in her body, her zombies, finally got her. There was more upheaval in my life too. My pet died, a relationship ended, and my friends and I couldn’t interact as much anymore because of their own personal tragedies all happening at once. Hindsight is 20/20, and 2020 is a stone-cold bitch.

The long and short of it is that I needed something to focus me. To steady me. I needed a routine. And, one day, I’d heard that The Last Drive-In was coming in. So I did an experiment. I decided to try to sit and Tweet through a whole live show. It was hard at first. I have anxiety and I needed to move around, and there were no breaks then. But I got retweeted and loved. And I realized I could pace myself. I didn’t have to stay for both films if I didn’t want to.

It’s now been four weeks. I’ve not only sat through the whole five hours each time, but I have Tweeted and interacted with the fanbase. I do take breaks, but I make sure to listen to as much of Joe Bob’s segments as I can. And I didn’t feel alone anymore. I feel like I accomplish something every time I finish a show, or make a witty comment, or realize I am more savvy in the genre than I thought I was. Kaarina always believed I could write for, and review horror. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t have the confidence then. 

But after writing for the comics scholarship magazine Sequart, and the now defunct Torontonian popular cultural publication Geekpr0n where I covered the After Dark, here I am now. 

The Last Drive-In is reminiscent of the days of watching television together where there were set times, and you could lose those episodes forever if you weren’t careful. At the same time, the online element has a sense of camaraderie to it, and sharing both my reactions and my thoughts in small sentences makes me feel important and that I am participating in something living: or something that we are, all of us, bringing to life. It also reminds me of the After Dark, of its Director Adam Lopez being our commenter, interlocutor, and guide like Joe Bob taking us through the pulp of horror and weirdness, of the sublimely mad and corny, but the literary and the sophisticated — through the guts of the thing like armchair augurs — and having us truly appreciate the ancient tragedy and comedy that is life that truly makes horror so multifaceted, and a shared experience. There is a reason these stories were told and performed around campfires. 

I found it all fascinating. And in watching these films, knowing that Kaarina is gone, I feel like sometimes I am watching them for the two of us.

But what truly won my heart? What impressed the most? Aside from the interview with the Kaufmans? It had been seeing One Cut of the Dead, and then the last segment of that episode with the jib — a moving crane or “arm” that moves the camera — panning out and Joe Bob walking around as everyone cleaned up that night, as Diana had make-up put on on another screen, and Joe Bob explained that there is no such thing as an aspirational creator: that you are a creator. That you don’t need industries or contacts. You just need to make something.

“Fuck aspiring.”

It’s funny how “fuck aspiring” is so inspiring to hear. Realizing that I was sitting through this — live — during a pandemic, during people afraid of speaking out, of losing what they love, of social turmoil, and upheavals we have yet to face, during all of this profound non-consensual suck, I realized I wasn’t just witnessing something special. I was becoming a part of it. I was a part of it. I am a part of it.

With all of you. When I watch something like The Last Drive-In, and I engage with it, I’m not just watching it for me, or Kaarina, or the memories of my friends, or Joe Bob, or Diana Prince, or the people that love the show, or the people that love it but find the courage to criticize the parts of it and the industry and community of which it is a part because they love it and want to belong, I’m watching it for … something magical. Something unique. A thing that can be manufactured, but never truly replicated. For a moment. 

And I got to be a part of a moment with all of you. Moments don’t last forever. They’re not supposed to do so. There is a lot of suck around them, and different perceptions. And simple things. But that makes the essence of them, despite or because of the suck, more valuable: because they happen. This is what The Last Drive-In means to me: a journey through different kinds of reality and weirdness, and inspiration. I’m mindful of the fact that I am not a longtime fan, and I don’t agree with everything being said. I mean, I love A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Joe Bob. Sorry, not sorry. I’ve been at the peripheries of many different communities, groups, cliques, and scenes. You can argue that I’ve aspired to all of them in some way, aspiring to life, even aspiring to be a horror fan.

But yeah. Fuck aspiring. I am a horror fan, period. I am a creator. I am going to make something from all of this. I already am. And Joe Bob, and crew, and friends, despite everything and because of it, thank you for this space — even if it’s just another moment. I will treasure it with you all — Mutant Fam — for as long as I can, and I will make sure that it continues to inspire me.

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.

Behind My Son of Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stefan feels her watching him as he showers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Visceral Response to Lifers: Horror Fan For Life

I wrote another version of this, but like many films — horror or otherwise — I feel like I lost the plot. I tried to be too clever about it, which is something I’ve been accusing other creators, in other media, of being. But this isn’t something to try to be smart about. It’s something I wish I can say directly, and as clearly as possible. It’s how someone else’s story — and the experiences of others — hit me under the umbrella of the horror genre.

A few months ago, about a month into life beginning to stand still thanks to the Pandemic, KreepazoidKelly: a makeup artist, model, interviewer, and general good will and ambassador for horror media and the community mentioned that there is an article about her in Fangoria Magazine. At the time, I thought she had written something for Fangoria, but it is a piece created by the writer and actress BJ Colangelo from many of their interactions about KreepazoidKelly — or Kelly Barlow — an ultimate horror fanatic: a “lifer.”

BJ Colangelo’s article about Kelly, titled “Lifers: Horror Fan For Life,” can be found in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue 7. It talks about her life, her influences, her achievements, and her struggles with brain cancer and its associated maladies, along with the emotional toll its taken on her, while at the same time relating it all back to their mutual love of horror. Both Colangelo and Kelly are cancer survivors as well as horror fanatics, and I can’t and won’t speak for their experiences, but there are two things in the article that really hit home for me: that stabbed me in the gut.

Before I go into that, there is a way that Colangelo frames her entire article that really appeals to me, because it’s something we all do: not just in the horror fandom, but in all geek circles. Interspersed throughout her writing is an ongoing, short form dialogue with Kelly comparing and contrasting different horror characters, and asking for her favourite films and moments, and why. It’s something I actually want to engage with on my own, because as I read it, some of my own answers came to mind as I imagine they did with a lot of Fangoria readers.

Quick! Without thinking! Who would win in a chainsaw fight, Leatherface or Ash, and why?

Colangelo explains why they do this, and I can understand it as well. For Kelly, and others like her, it is a way to distract from the constant of daily pain. It is the reason why someone with chronic and/or terminal illnesses — or someone associated with them, someone knowing or watching someone they love go through them — can enjoy, and even embrace, horror. It’s better than dwelling on it, or being overwhelmed by the despair of that helplessness, of not being able to do anything about the inevitable beyond simply continuing to fight, to exist, to keep engaging, and going on for as long as you can.

“Kind of like I will be in this article.” I will tell you. “Because as of this writing I haven’t seen Chainsaw Massacre yet, but while I know Ash from Evil Dead is far more intimate with his chainsaw out of necessity, Leatherface’s is his love, and I will have to go with Kelly on that answer because, seriously? Ash can barely focus on the things that matter. Like, you know, that mystical spell that comes from The Day The Earth Stood Still? Klaatu barada, um … oh damn. I’ve lost my train of thought, and I’m dead now. Because Leatherface.

Kelly is someone who, with the chainsaw of her beloved genre, could eviscerate a person like myself who lost something, and tries to fill that void with the remnant of what came before that loss, literally and metaphorically opening me up to realization that there is still so much left to feel, and discover. She has done enough horror makeup to know how to make it look like her insides are on her outsides, and taking what is inside of her and projecting it externally: expressing it, accepting it.

Quick! Without thinking! Friday the 13th, or Halloween and why?

I’m terrible at not-thinking. Grief makes it even worse. I’m at a loss. I am only starting my journey in horror with fans around me, while Kelly, and Colangelo, and others have been in it for ages. I know, as I write this, I am putting myself into the conversation — not just between the two of them, but between the dialogue that has been happening with so many people in the horror fandom and the industry for years. Even so, it tugs at the corners of my blackened, twisted heart.

“I’ve barely seen either horror series.” I admit to you all. “But while I love Halloween because it’s how I truly found and interacted with the Drive-In Mutant Fam for the first time with my story prompt, Friday The Thirteenth makes more sense to me because Jason Voorhees is dead, and even though that isn’t always true in continuity, it makes more sense that he has supernatural powers and can survive anything compared to what should be a simple lunatic like Michael Myers. 

It affects me, because I know I might not ever be able to have this conversation, because I wish I could. I’d seen Kelly in passing on Twitter ages ago through mutual horror followers, talking about her illness, receiving support from so many people whose lives she touched, or who just heard her like I had. I also left my support. It wasn’t until a little while ago that I’d seen her post again, and after some interaction we added each other on social media. I began to look at her interactions with others, fans and creators, and her own Live-Tweets during The Last Drive-In on Shudder. What I saw — which Colangelo also states in her article — is someone who promotes both mainstream industrial and independent horror productions and works, a person who attempts to keep engaging with a community: a truly beautiful being, inside and out.

In her article, Colangelo mentions how in October of 2019 Kelly found out that her cancer is terminal.

Quick! Without thinking! If you could keep any horror monster as a pet, who would you keep, and why?

I’ve been thinking about how I wish I could talk with her. I know that Kelly has many people leaving her well-wishes and even in a best case scenario, being well-rested, and comfortable she can’t get to us all. A major part of me, after everything, wishes I found her before now, even wishes I’d gone further into horror more than a year ago. But it’s not just because of Kelly.

I mentioned, earlier, how there are two elements in Colangelo’s article that stood out at me, that stabbed me directly, and went for the killing blow. One of these things, was dealing with the question of why someone who was dying or suffering from a serious chronic illness would still want to surround themselves with horror. Colangelo seems to state that horror can take the terror someone is feeling toward their own sense of mortality and put it on the outside, allowing it to be faced tangibly. Perhaps there is also the catharsis of it, the purging of all those volatile emotions and fears into something resembling meaning against the backdrop of the senseless and unfairness of a chaotic and arbitrary world.

And then BJ Colangelo, while listing the wide array of Kelly’s ailments related to her cancer, mentioned scleroderma.

I would also choose Bob from Creepshow‘s ‘The Finger.'” I admit to all of you, my face bowed down. “He’s a mess and he kills massive amounts of people. But he’s loyal. You never doubt his love for you. Ever. He would be the best pet ever. I wonder if you could order him to kill a nation, or an entire world for you. But I think I already know the answer to that. Such a large love from such a small, beloved, monstrosity.”

My former partner, Kaarina Wilson, had been sick for a long time. She passed away in April, from complications due to various auto-immune disorders: including, primarily, scleroderma.

Going into our relationship, I knew Kaarina had been an advocate for auto-immune awareness. She led workshops, went into marathons to raise money for treatments and education, and throughout all that agony she would present herself and attempt to help others. Horror, to her, was what she was experiencing, what she was feeling from the that place of the inside turned out. When she experienced the horror genre, when she engaged in it, it allowed her to glorify that part of her mortality: to accept it. And while I can’t speak for for her or Kelly, or anyone, I’ve always gotten the idea that horror — in illustrating terrifying death — shows the vitality and voraciousness of that need to live: to truly do something, to be something, with whatever you have left.

I remember when I spent more time with her, Kaarina would look down at her finger. Scleroderma hardens and tightens parts of the skin, and bodily connections. It often has other illnesses like Raynaud’s associated with it that affect circulation. It got bad. Often, she would say that she would lose that finger.

She never did.

For me, horror isn’t so much dealing with the prospect of my own mortality, even during the current Pandemic, but processing grief, and that sense of a loss of time. That melancholy has always been there in me, and I imagine in a lot of other people — fans or otherwise — but my focus on the genre at this time, with my own interest in story and the darkness of the world, is something driven by my own sense of pain and loss, in an attempt to give me some meaning — and to reach out to others — in an extremely lonely time.

It’s why I began interacting more with the Mutant Fam, and participating in the Last Drive-In. And, in so doing, creating this Blog, then finding Kelly again, reading the Fangoria article about her, and writing this entire response. It comes full circle, like the limited spheres of social interaction we are supposed to have now in this time of the Pandemic, the bubbles we are supposed to isolate within to prevent the spread of disease, like the repeating psychodramas of things inside our heads that are hard to ignore during this time of trauma we are only beginning to know that others have been living with far longer than ourselves.

I am taking the bad, and the ugly in me and putting it out there, and projecting it. I know that. I think everyone of us in horror at some point or another does something like this. I don’t know when it will stop. I don’t know if it ever will. It’s like, I am writing for two instead of one. I am reaching out into the darkness to find a light that is similar to my own. To capture what is lost. To hold onto someone or something that won’t always be there, and should never be taken for granted.

Quick. Without thinking. If you could only watch one more horror movie before the end of your life, what would you watch and why?

Once, that would have taken me forever to answer. But I would choose Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, because every reality and every life is a cycle, and they be both beautiful and horrific, and sometimes the most heartrending beauty is that moment when you have to say goodbye and let go — to abandon the familiar cycle of desperate nostalgia and fear, and embrace the terrifying, yet exhilarating vista of the unknown.

Like I’ve said before, and especially now on this Blog: I am no Doctor. I am just a student of horror. And KreepazoidKelly — Kelly — if you are reading this:

Quick. Without thinking. What is a piece of horror, literary or cinematic, fictional or no, that really hit you where it hurts? And why?

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.