Tag Archives: psychology

‘Chiral Mad’ – A Review

I really love horror anthologies. I mean, I love story collections by single authors too, but there’s nothing quite like reading an anthology and discovering talented writers you’ve never heard of before, or writers you might have heard about but weren’t familiar with their work. I especially love these sorts of themed anthologies, particularly when the theme is interpreted pretty broadly, as it is in Chiral Mad, Michael Bailey’s anthology of (mostly) psychological horror stories. So I had high expectations for this. Perhaps too high.

As the title suggests, the theme of the book is chirality, which refers to a pair of objects, chemical compounds, etc. which are asymmetrical in themselves but mirror images of each other (e.g. hands). The tension in these twenty-eight stories comes from the perversion or corruption of that mirror image. Hence, beneath the charming and perfect facade presented to the public either by the main character themselves or by a loved one, is their dark side, which is often their true nature.

Among the most conceptually interesting pieces in the collection are the ones that deal with children and childhood memories. In Some Pictures in an Album by Gary McMahon, the narrator describes each of the titular photos of himself in detail as he pages through the album, slowly revealing a nightmarish childhood. And in Monica J. O’Rourke’s powerful and depressing Five Adjectives, a story partially structured like an elementary classroom assignment, the young narrator describes a pleasantly idealized version of her father, who in reality is far from ideal. One of my favorite stories in the book, Christian A. Larsen’s Mirror Moments, also concerns a child. In this case the young boy is saved from certain death by a dark angel, but the price for his salvation may be too steep. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that seriously begs to be adapted into a novel. I’m dying (no pun intended) to know how this all plays out.

In terms of sheer horror, the best pieces here are Pat R. Steiner’s The Shoe Tree, a suburban serial killer tale in which the author does a pretty solid job of misdirecting the reader until the very end, Julia Stipes’s Not the Child, wherein the pregnant protagonist can see weird little fairy beings that take human souls and must protect her unborn baby from one of the creepy critters, and arguably the most disturbing story in this collection, Patrick Lacey’s Send Your End, about a strangely compelling site on the dark web where people film their suicides live.

I also dig the sort of existential horror presented in stories like R. B. Payne’s Cubicle Farm, where a young man seems to be completely incapable of leaving his horrible job at a debt collection agency, and John Michael Kelley’s The Persistence of Vision, where an assortment of objects in the attic begin to take on some rather menacing properties. For sheer quality of writing alone, another of my favorite pieces here was Gary A. Braunbeck’s Need, which amply contrasts a crabby middle class conservative’s jaundiced view of his much poorer neighbors across the street with the terrible plight of one of those neighbors, a young mother pushed by circumstances to the ultimate act of desperation. This is the kind of subtle, insightful humanist story we really need more of in the Age of Trump. And the intense body horror of Jack Ketchum’s Amid the Walking Wounded, where a man with a bloody nose that won’t quit starts to see ghosts in his hospital room, is pretty solid as the penultimate piece in this collection.

That being said, while the book doesn’t contain any truly bad stories, a few too many of them were mediocre for me to recommend this as a must have for fans of these types of anthologies. Sometimes the problem is that the writer doesn’t quite know what tone he or she is going for, or they try to juggle too much. For example, A Flawed Fantasy by Jeff Strand and Inevitable by Meghan Arcuri nicely straddle the line between humor and horror, though in the end neither was quite as satisfying as they should’ve been. While the writing itself is consistently above par, the way the stories play out is sometimes confusing, such as in Gene O’Neill’s The White Quetzal, Erik T. Johnson’s Apologies and Barry J. Kaplan’s Underwater. I suppose that sort of confusion is inevitable in a collection of psychological horror pieces, where frequently nothing is quite as it seems. For some readers that may enhance their experience. If so, then fantastic. I might not quibble as much with it in a novel, where the author has room to play with that confusion before resolving the story in a satisfactory way, but for me a short story is best when it gets in, makes its point and gets out. Too much larking about without a meaty twist or a solid resolution tends to leave me cold. Some writers, like Robert Aickman, can pull that off perfectly, but he was a true master. Very few writers could do what Aickman did and get away with it.

I will point out that none of the authors in this collection, and presumably its sequels, were paid. This was strictly a volunteer effort, and the profits from it all go to benefiting a Down syndrome charity, certainly a worthy cause and one of the reasons I bought the book. I’m still debating whether I want to shell out the cash though for Chiral Mad 2 or Chiral Mad 3. Maybe eventually, but not for awhile.

Grade: B

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Why Horror?: Film Review

Recently I created a music-themed survey for my friends and family on Facebook, and I began it by answering all of the questions myself.  The last question on the survey was, which song would you say best sums up who you are?  For my part, after a bit of mental seesawing, I finally arrived at Tool’s Forty-Six & 2. If you don’t know the song, it deals with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow.  Very simply, in Jungian psychology, our shadow is our (mostly) hidden dark side, those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we don’t like to face, as well as a personal repository for all the social stigmas and taboos we must process in order to be a functional member of society. In the song, Maynard expresses his desire to boldly face down his shadow, to move through it and past it in order to fully become who he is.

This is a concept I am fully invested in, and for me at least, the horror genre has long been my preferred route through my own shadow. Which is why I am not only a fan of the genre, but also fascinated by the psychology of horror fans generally. What exactly is it about horror that attracts its true fans? Are such people well-adjusted or not? How do horror fans stack up against non-fans when it comes to life coping skills? In the documentary film Why Horror? (directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay), the film’s subject, Tal Zimerman, sets out to answer some of those questions, and for the most part, he does so quite spectacularly.

Zimerman begins his examination of horror by peering into its history, beginning with religious iconography. Having grown up in a small Southern town, I am certainly aware of the human monstrosity and violence that permeates Christianity. This is the religion whose central symbol is a guy nailed to a tree after all, and whose holy book describes, among other atrocities, a dude getting a tent stake nailed through his head, a young woman being gang raped and then ripped to pieces (with her father’s approval no less), God causing disobedient followers to devour their own children, God causing bears to maul forty-two boys because they teased a bald guy, God giving his blessing to Moses and his followers to murder all the Midianites they’d conquered, including the little boys, and to save all the virginal young girls for themselves . . .

Are you detecting a trend here? Not to make this political, but I know Westerners tend to believe that Christianity is less gruesome than Islam; however, anyone who’s read the Bible beyond just the popular passages knows that’s absolute hokum. It’s fitting, then, that Zimmerman starts with Christianity, because so much of its history is absolutely glutted with blood and brutality. Not just what’s chronicled in their sacred text, but all the historical violence wreaked upon others in the name of furthering the faith: the Crusades, the witch burnings, the religious conversion at sword-point, and of course the many and varied tortures and murders committed by the Holy Inquisition during its roughly three hundred year reign of terror. Modern Christianity may be a kinder, gentler incarnation, but I think there is something about all of that murder and mayhem ingrained in our collective psyches, and that has surely had an effect on our appreciation for horror. Of course, the irony is that Christians these days will more often than not condemn the appreciation of fictional horror even as they downplay or whitewash their own religion’s abominable history of actual bloodshed and persecution. You gotta love the irony.

The cultural transition from religious to secular horror is embodied for Zimerman in William Hogarth’s famous print series The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pieces depict the evolution of viciousness in human beings, starting with school children tormenting animals and ending with a hanged man’s corpse being dissected by medical students. He notes here that, contrary to the popular opinion that constant exposure to fictional violence desensitizes people and makes them bloodthirsty and heartless, he himself is rather humbled by horror. It constantly reminds him of his own mortality, and is therefore an incitement to always be a good person. In that sense, the entire horror genre serves as a kind of memento mori for Zimerman, and by extrapolation, for many others as well. I think he’s definitely onto something there, as most of the real horror fans that I’ve met have been gentle and benevolent souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . because, well, the fly might be one of us after all.

By contrast, Zimerman posits that most Americans actually go out of their way to avoid death, that they have an unhealthy relationship with it, making them ill-equipped to deal with their own mortality. I’m not so sure about this. Americans love their cinematic violence. They may not go whole hog with it like some of us, but bloody action films and thrillers remain quite popular, and anyway the horror genre itself has now moved into the mainstream. I do think that by and large other cultures may have a more sophisticated relationship with death than we do. Zimmerman does too, and his touchstone for this is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, an annual celebration of the dead that, unlike its American analog of Halloween, is not about fear but rather respect for the dead. In Mexico, death is viewed not as something to be afraid of; it is instead a divine mystery that should inspire awe and reverence. I have to say, given the rising levels of violence taking place in our southern neighbor these days, this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nevertheless, it is something to be admired, I agree.

There are some fantastic highlights in Why Horror?—the interviews with directors George Romero and John Carpenter, the segment on J-Horror (which is actually rooted in Japanese kabuki and noh theater), an animated mini-history of the genre in cinema—but no part of the film lagged or failed to capture my full attention. In fact, my only real complaint is that, other than the J-Horror bit, it really didn’t spend much time on monsters or the supernatural side of the genre, both of which I prefer to Zimerman’s obvious slasher obsession. It does get into monsters a wee bit, including one of my all-time faves, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, and how that particular monster’s story came into being. An entirely plausible theory about monsters is put forth here—they are said to be a projection of our dark side (our shadow, if you will) in symbolic form, which is then usually destroyed, much to the relief and satisfaction of filmgoers. Well, some filmgoers anyway. Me? I like when the monster triumphs. 🙂

Grade: A-

According to Steven Seagal, Mass Shootings Are Engineered… LOLWUT?

There are few things as vile to me as writing off genuine tragedies as either hoaxes or false flag operations.  The Neo-Nazis did it with the Holocaust, and now third-rate actor, martial artist and general loudmouth Steven Seagal is doing it with the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S.  Not only is this incredibly insensitive to the victims and their families, it is clearly an insidious attempt to justify the American gun problem to themselves.  This is nothing new.  I was quite horrified when some of my right-wing family members were circulating the idea that the Sandy Hook shooting was in fact staged by the government.  When the evidence against this position mounted, they finally accepted that it was a real shooting.  But now the conspiracy theory is that someone in the U.S. government is engineering these shootings, which is just as fucked up.

First off, what diabolical individual or group could consistently engineer such things so perfectly and for so long without anyone ever coming forward?  Can you imagine the insane level of logistical expertise it would require not only to pull this off again and again, but also to silence everyone involved?  It displays a mind-boggling degree of ignorance to imagine that such a massive ongoing conspiracy could become anything but a huge boondoggle in a very short period of time.  Seriously, what planet do you live on, conspiracy nuts?  No, you know what’s really happening?  The evidence disagrees with your contention that the American gun culture isn’t massively fucked up, that’s what.  And you need these conspiracies to make yourselves feel better, because the truth is, if it wasn’t for the shit-ton of guns, including assault weapons, that have flooded the country thanks to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA scaring the hell out of gun owners, many of these shootings would never have happened.  They are actively making the situation worse.

But let’s say for a minute that Seagal is right and the government is somehow convincing all these people to go on rampages.  First, let’s remember that most mass shootings are actually familial murder-suicides, meaning a parent—usually a father—kills their entire family and then themselves.  So, if Americans really are that vulnerable to psychological manipulation that they can be regularly manipulated into killing their own little children, isn’t that evidence that maybe we really aren’t responsible enough as a people to own guns?  I mean, currently I am only in favor of some reasonable gun restrictions, but perhaps in light of this new knowledge that Americans are particularly susceptible to engineered murder sprees, maybe it would be better to ban guns entirely.

Listen, the gun crowd has been saying for awhile that it isn’t a gun problem but rather a mental illness problem.  Maybe they’re right.  In light of the fact that the rest of Western civilization (which has mostly either banned guns or heavily restricted them—imagine that) doesn’t seem to have an epidemic of violent crazy people, which should be consistent throughout all nations whether guns are easily obtainable or not, it seems that America has more than its fair share of psychos, some of whom can be apparently turned into killing machines at the drop of a hat.  Well, that’s what Seagal seems to be saying, and God knows he’s an expert on this stuff, right?  Right?

So, um . . . yeah.  If you really want to earn back whatever credibility you once had, gun lovers, you should maybe start by not being insensitive pricks about the tragedy of gun violence that is sweeping our nation.  No one programmed Chris Harper-Mercer to walk into a university classroom and gun down a bunch of students.  The guy was angry and unbalanced because he couldn’t get a date and wanted to punish society for it.  That’s it.  That is what happens when machismo culture meets America’s gun obsession and the film industry’s glorification of violence, which Seagal himself has contributed to with his crappy movies.  There is no government conspiracy, just a bunch of people who have been duped by a political group into believing that Obama is coming to take all their guns away, a group that has contributed to the problem by making it easier and easier for any halfwit or psycho with a grudge to stockpile weapons that were originally intended for military use.  If you really believe this is the government’s doing, then you are clearly part of the problem.

Understanding the Slender Man Murder Case

Lisa Miller has written an excellent, highly detailed article about the events that led to two 12-year-old girls stabbing a classmate as a supposed sacrifice to an internet-born fiend, called Slender Man Is Watching.  After reading the piece, it’s clear that Morgan Geyser, the one who did the actual stabbing, is a mentally disturbed girl.  The motivations of Anissa Weier are more nebulous, but I sort of get the impression that she had repressed sexual feelings for Morgan that she didn’t really know how to process.  As pointed out by Cheryl Eddy at True Crime, this case bears an uncanny resemblance to the Parker-Hulme murder case (exquisitely dramatized in the 1994 Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures).

The Southern Culture of Violence

Although I was born in Michigan and lived there intermittently over the course of my forty-two years, I grew up in rural Tennessee and still live there today.  I am half Southern by blood (my mom’s family is from Arkansas) and have spent the majority of my life here.  I love the South.  It’s a beautiful place to live: the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, the winding country roads.  But I have to admit that there is something terribly wrong here, and that something is an entrenched culture of poverty and violence.  Some of the talking heads here will claim that the problem only exists in the urban areas, but don’t be fooled.  I have never lived in a Southern city, only on the fringes of small towns, with the closest metropolitan areas of any real size an hour’s drive away from me, and I see the effects of poverty here everyday.

For privacy reasons I will not identify the town I live in at this point, but I would like to compare it to a town in Michigan I once lived in, also to remain unnamed.  That town–let’s call it Town M–was once identified as one of the five hundred best small towns in America (it was in a book!)  When I was growing up, it had–at one time or another–an independent book store, an arcade and a music store.  Today there are art galleries, bars and microbreweries in the town, and street art is prominently displayed.  It has brick sidewalks with permanent metal benches interspersed throughout.  It’s a beautiful place.  There’s an annual multi-day Summerfest in this town.  It even has suburbs for its middle class.

By contrast,  the Tennessee town–which I will dub Town T–has virtually nothing in the way of entertainment (unless you consider Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly to be entertainment).  There is a movie theater, but Town M has one of those too.  There are fast food joints, a handful of independently own restaurants, a newspaper, and a whole bunch of stores, banks and churches.  That’s about it.  It’s a grubby and unattractive town.  And it is not a town geared towards young people; nor is it interested in growth.  Its leaders are all about maintaining the status quo, nothing more.  There was a bookstore here at one time, but it was aimed mostly at serving Christians, and it was short-lived.  There is virtually no middle class here–there is a small number of wealthy citizens and a ton of poor people.  (Guess which group I belong to?)

And there is the heart of the problem that infects the South.  This is a place devoted to the outmoded notion of trickle-down economics, which any decent economist will tell you is nonsense and doesn’t work.  But the South is a conservative culture with a lot of desperately poor folks who are still living on the fumes of hope for the American Dream, who are told by their religious leaders that if they bear the hardships of this life, they will be heartily rewarded in the next.  And so they continue to endure this hell instead of working on making it better.  Meanwhile, it is wholly infested with the shallow and the meaningless, as well as the outright self-destructive–the worst aspects of commercialism run rampant, a strange contrast to its purported spirituality.

This is the reality of the modern South, and it has come with a high price.  Let me explain.  When I lived in Town M, I knew only one person connected to a murder, and it was a distant one: the father of a girl I went to elementary school with killed two elderly women over money.  And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was murdered.  Not so here.  Since I’ve lived here, I have known of no less than four murders with less than three degrees of separation from me, and in three of the four cases I knew the victims.  If we break them down, two of the victims died by firearms, one by stabbing and choking, the last partly by vehicular homicide and partly by being burnt alive.  Three of the four were intrafamilial murders, and all four were crimes of passion.  Three of the victims were female, one male, and all were killed by males.  These murders had different motives: one was over a breakup and the killer being turned in for other crimes, one was over a payment dispute, the third was over drugs, and I do not know the motive for the last murder.  But the uniting factor for all of these is that both victim and perpetrator were poor.

Violence is also at the heart of the recent debate over the Confederate flag.  The rallying cry of those defending its continued public use is that it represents heritage rather than hate and bigotry, but this argument has been soundly drubbed by Lonn Taylor in his article The Confederate Flag’s Big Lie.  The flag in question was not, in fact, the standard of the Confederate “nation” (as it were); it was a flag created specifically for the war, since the official Confederate flag was too difficult to distinguish from Old Glory in the heat of battle.  Hence, it is a flag attached to violence by design: a battle flag.  Moreover, as Taylor explains, it was never associated with Southern “heritage” until the 1950s, when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a way to protest civil rights advances, and Southerners–including some state governments–simply carried that concept further.  Segregation itself was a violent affair, predicated on keeping blacks in their own mini-reservations, separating them from white-designated locations and arenas by force if need be.  To say nothing of slavery, the continued practice of which Southern Americans fought and killed their fellow countrymen to try to protect.

Today, however, Southern violence is largely directed at other Southerners.  For a region of people famous for their pride, it seems they are awful willing to hurt and kill their fellow Southerners.  Indeed, the South is consistently the most violent region in the US and has been for decades.  Going by state alone, my own–Tennessee–often makes the top of that list every year.  Anyway, guess what else the South is tops in?  If you said poverty, ding ding, you win the prize!  And we’re also number one in obesity, thanks largely to a diet high in fatty and fried foods.  I see this as another facet of Southern violence, only turned inward, against themselves.  Perhaps it stems from guilt and insecurity, or something similar.  Maybe deep down most Southerners really do feel awful about their shameful history, but they can’t express it outwardly because they fear being an outsider in their own society.  So they punish themselves by eating badly.  Ha!  Armchair psychology, I admit.

At any rate, the South is clearly afraid of progress.  Many here still resent those Yankees for trouncing them during the Civil War.  They may not always say it openly, but it’s just beneath the surface of their conversations about the “federal government” taking away their rights.  Here that term is just code-speak for “outsiders”, meaning anyone who comes into the South and mucks up their way of life.  And the debate over keeping the Confederate flag prominently displayed really comes down to the fact that Southerners resent being reminded that they lost the Civil War, and that it will never be ‘business as usual’ here ever again.  Nobody holds a grudge like a Southerner.  Trust me: I’ve seen it too many times.  This is, I think, where the violence stems from, at least in part.  Far from dying out, racism is still woven into the very fabric of Southern life and thought.  Segregation, though no longer enforced in any official capacity, is still imposed unofficially by white Southerners refusing to sell certain property to blacks or other races, and keeping their distances from them in other ways too.  Don’t get me wrong: there are some genuinely tolerant and open-minded white people in the South (I’m one of them), but they are a small minority.

Ironically, the newly stoked controversy over the so-called “rebel flag” and the mass shooting of blacks by an avowed white supremacist which caused it happened to fall in the same time frame as the historic Supreme Court vote that assures the legal protection of gay marriage throughout the nation, and the rainbow flag has since been waving vigorously across the land.  There was even a meme floating around Facebook which said something to the effect of, “My Facebook looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory.”  We may make light of it, but there is something intrinsic about the Culture War in there.  In the larger sense, the fight between conservatives and liberals is really about fear vs. love, with conservatives defending a culture of fear and liberals defending a culture of love.

Think of it this way: conservatives embrace largely two things, small government and strong religious values, the former because they do not trust others and the latter because they do not trust themselves.  Conservatism is an inherently cynical worldview, a highly negative and paranoid way of looking at reality.  It suggests that outsiders (be they other nations, other religions, other powers, etc.) are to be feared and violently opposed.  Hence, we get a huge military, strong anti-Muslim sentiment, massive opposition to any large, centrally organized government, and so on.  Given its attachment to religion–which is ultimately just a glorified death cult (it’s about spending your life in preparation for death and whatever comes after)–and its love of violence to solve problems, conservatism is also about death.  In contrast, liberalism is about trust: trusting individuals to guide their own morality and trusting the government to properly take care of its people.  Trust arises out of affection, which is to say, love.  Liberalism is therefore a culture of love.  It embraces diversity for the sake of diversity and human well-being.  It says that, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay.  We will survive by accepting transformation, not by avoiding it.  Indeed, the scientific principle of evolution teaches that those most likely to survive long-term are the ones most susceptible to change.  It’s really no wonder conservatives despise it: it goes against everything they believe.  So, yes, conservatism is a philosophy of stasis, and stasis is death.  Growth comes about through change, and anything that does not change either dies or readies itself for death.  There are no other options.  To stand still is to give in to entropy, that steady march of the universe towards chaos.

And so, South, I love ya, but it’s time for you to change.  It’s time to give up your outmoded and archaic worldview.  If you don’t, your culture will eventually perish, swallowed up by its own violence and stagnation.  You should’ve learned your lesson by now: you cannot have your Johnny Reb cake and eat it too.  Lose the racism, paranoia and delusions of a heritage worth defending and move into the 21st century.  Come on, you can make the leap; it’s not that far.  And we’ll be waiting . . .

Additional Resources:

Secession, the Confederate Flag and Slavery

The Truth About Confederate History, Part 1 (Snopes)

I Have a Message for Those Who Claim the Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage

Flags of the Confederate States of America (Wikipedia)

Okay, This Is Just Ridiculous

One of my pet issues is the many stupid ways society and the state handles minors who color outside the lines, so to speak, especially when it comes to criminal behavior.  Tangential to that is the sex abuse scare, and perhaps nowhere have these two issues intersected more absurdly than in the prosecution of minors who engage in sexting.

Before I get to my point though, let me clarify something: when it comes to the actual sexual abuse of children, I have no problem at all with the state throwing the book at such people.  It’s sad that I need to point this out at all, but the problem is that in today’s hyper-paranoid environment there seems to be little room for nuance in the eyes of many people: it’s all black and white, and the black applies to absolutely every intersection of the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘sex.’  Therefore, anyone who disagrees with any part of that is automatically suspect in their eyes.  Frankly, I say fuck that noise.  There are important nuances with these issues, and this is one of them.  I say that both as a rational human being and as a victim of molestation myself.

Thus, when I’d read that parents in Virginia called the police after discovering nude photos that their 13-year-old daughter had taken of herself on her phone (and sent to friends), I was far more horrified by the parents’ actions than by the girl’s.  First off, Virginia again?  What the hell is it with that state?  Secondly, it’s not that I dismiss the girl’s actions–I think they were ill-considered, to say the least.  It’s that I am well aware that, in society’s well-meaning attempts to protect kids from abuse, it has clearly lost sight of the reason for its actions and has far too often hurt the very people it intends to protect.  One way this has occurred is through the prosecution of kids for sexting.  In the eyes of the law child pornography is child pornography, whether produced by abusive adults or by the kids themselves just having a little fun, and it’s just as illegal for minors to own it and produce it as it is for adults.  Which means it is possible–and indeed likely–for kids caught doing it to be prosecuted and treated like sex offenders.  The argument goes that these kids have to be stopped because the images might ruin their lives . . . as if subjecting them to criminal prosecution and labeling them sex offenders won’t.  Go figure.

Clearly society has lost it’s mind when it comes to kids and sex.  We need to treat these cases differently than we treat Chester Molester photographing himself raping a 9-year-old.  Heads up, people: teenagers have always been sexual beings.  It’s just that the technology available now makes it much easier for them to record and distribute their sexual activities, which means there’s hard evidence that sexual behaviors by kids doesn’t always equate to victimhood, and that, I think, is the real crime in society’s eyes: people just do not want to be reminded that their precious, angelic offspring sometimes behave sexually all on their own.  I can sort of understand–even if I don’t condone such thinking–why parents might want to see other people’s teens prosecuted for such things: serves as a nice lesson for their own kids, right?  This can happen to YOU, Junior/Missy, if you don’t keep your private parts to yourself until you become an adult.  But it’s hard to fathom parents turning in their own youngsters over to the cops . . . until you put it into the context of the zeitgeist in terms of kiddie sex.

This reminds me of the 80s and 90s when the big cultural bugaboo was drugs.  The War on Drugs got so insane that kids were being asked to inform on their own parents, never mind that having Mom and Dad arrested for smoking a doobie was likely to break up their family and destroy their parents’ marriage (not to mention getting the kids put into foster care where they were much more likely to be abused).  Kids were frightened because they were taught that drugs were such a horrible, all-consuming evil that NO cost–whether monetary, physical, mental, emotional, or whatever–was too high to get drugs off the streets.  And, of course, juvenile drug offenders were just as legally culpable as adults.  Several years and many billions of wasted dollars and lives later, it’s clear that the War on Drugs was a massive failure.  Drugs are no less widespread than they were back then, and the underworld that capitalized on their illegality has only gotten fatter and richer over the years.  Have we learned our lesson from that?  We’re only just starting to, it seems.  The atmosphere of fear surrounding drugs was so powerful that it warped the fabric of society in some dark and disturbing ways.  The sex abuse scare is now doing the same.

To be sure, there are some distinct differences between the drug issue and teen sexuality issue, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way we as a society deal with them.  For one thing, it seems we’d rather treat all cases with the blunt hammer of the law rather than try to find alternatives.  For another, as stated earlier, kids themselves are far too often hurt by the very laws and taboos that are meant to keep them safe.  Something has gone horribly wrong, and that something is called a moral panic.  There have been many of these throughout the history of human civilizations, and no doubt there will be more.  At their most extreme, moral panics can culminate in large-scale violent events like riots and even genocide, but mostly they just result in things like this, where the fear of a terrible outcome causes people to behave irrationally and do things that ironically tend only to make the situation worse.

No doubt these parents meant well, but they likely just ruined their daughter’s life.  Before, a handful of teens at the girl’s school knew about her actions.  Now, the whole world knows.  Before, she was a normal teenage girl with a (not particularly shocking) secret.  Now, she is a legally designated sex offender, and all that that entails.  And to what end?  Who exactly is being protected in this case?

Come on, people, we can do better than this.                   

Douglas Clegg’s ‘Goat Dance’ – A Review

IX-clegg-goat-danceA few years ago I did something that remains one of the low points of my life: I went to Virginia.  If you’re interested I’ll share the whole wretched event with you sometime, but suffice it to say, what should’ve been a relatively simple fourteen hour car trip turned into a thirty hour dead-of-winter hellride.  The thing is, I was a nervous wreck for three days leading up my trip and literally got almost no sleep during that time.  And there was a storm when we got there, and not one but two semi-trucks flipped across the middle of the interstate.  And we got lost in the mountains.  And, and . . .

Now, I have nothing against the state of Virginia itself; I’m sure it’s lovely (when not in the grip of a snow storm, that is) but I plan never to return if I can help it.  Ever.  But long before that trip I read a little novel called Goat Dance set in Virginia at wintertime by a then-new author on the horror fiction scene.  It probably planted the seeds of my dread of Virginia, for which the road trip only cemented it.

Oddly enough, I first read this book during another road trip, albeit a far less eventful one.  I was a teenager at the time.  I had already cut my horror teeth on a handful of novels by McCammon, Koontz and King, and I had just discovered Clive Barker.  Our vacation was ending and I wanted something to occupy my time during the twelve-hour ride back home.  I found Goat Dance in the book section of Wal-Mart, or maybe it was at a drugstore.  I don’t really remember where I picked it up.  It’s not important.  But the cover had caught my attention.  It had one of those cutout covers that were so in vogue in the ’90s, and the cutout revealed a goat-headed man with a pentagram carved into his forehead (which, by the way, is not in the book, and a good thing too), and I loved, loved, LOVED monsters, so I figured I’d give it a try.

[Note: As you can see, I didn’t use the original cover for my review–there are a variety of reprint covers and I chose the one I liked best.]

Anyway, expecting a so-so novel that would nevertheless keep me entertained for the duration of the trip, I bought it.  And then I read it, and . . . holy shit.  I finished the book right before we got home.  It had completely sucked me into its dark world.  When I say dark world, I’m fully aware this is a cliche often used to describe horror novels, but in this case the term is completely accurate.  This was Clegg’s debut novel, and he had knocked it right out of the park.  I haven’t read his entire oeuvre yet, but in terms of what I’ve read this book comes in second for me only to Neverland, or even ties with it, depending on my frame of mind.  Now this is what horror was capable of, and possibly more than any other book I’d read up to that point save McCammon’s Swan Song, it made me want to write in this genre.  And yet Clegg himself considers this one of his mediocre contributions.  Go figure.

The central protagonist of the story is Malcolm “Cup” Coffey, the survivor of one terrible winter at a prep school in Pontefract, Virginia which ultimately ended in two equally traumatic events for him: the death of another boy, and unrequited love for a girl named Lily, both of which Cup is still obsessed with years later.  So when Cup, now living in Washington, DC, receives a strange phone message from Lily on his answering machine one winter’s day, he decides to return to Pontefract to look Lily up and discovers a town caught in the grip of a nightmare that has only just begun and is slowly building up to something, of which Cup is unwittingly a big part.

I hadn’t read the novel for about fifteen years (ironically, about the same amount of time that passes between the prep school events and Cup’s return to Pontefract), but I recently realized what a debt I owe to Clegg, and this novel in particular, for the structure and certain elements of the content for my novel-in-progress, AL+ER.  Like Goat Dance, my novel uses fictional supplemental items tangential to the story to reinforce its verisimilitude, has a small town where the horror builds slowly and is rooted in a past tragic event in the town’s history, and features a little girl who has certain abilities and who is something like a compliment to the protagonist.  Of course, my book is significantly different in a variety of ways too.  For one thing, the young girl plays a much bigger role in my story.  For another, neither the protagonist nor the girl are from the town (Milton’s Eye, Mississippi) where the bulk of the horror occurs and are not directly connected to it in any way.  Also, my book is meant to be the first in a series that will feature the protagonist and the girl as a team, and there is more of a science fiction feel to it than Clegg’s novel has.  But for me to suggest that Goat Dance wasn’t extremely influential on AL+ER would be a bald-faced lie.  And there you have it.  So I decided to reread it, to see if it had held up to time and my own maturity (such as it is) and to determine exactly to what degree I am borrowing from it.

Without going too much into the plot, I will divulge that Goat Dance is my favorite kind of horror novel: the kind where the horror builds slowly, and where, by the time the main characters realize it’s there, they’re already thoroughly caught up in its web and cannot escape it, only deal with it.  Peter Straub did it beautifully with Floating Dragon.  Bentley Little did it spectacularly with The Resort.  And Douglas Clegg does it equally amazingly in Goat Dance.

Another thing I love about the novel is that Clegg leaves a lot about the book’s antagonist–a force or being that goes by a variety of names, including Goatman (hence the garish and inaccurate figure on the book’s original cover)–to the imagination.  Where did this Eater of Souls come from?  We know how it got where it is, but we never really learn what it is or how long it’s been there.  The monster’s true self is never really shown.  We see the various masks it wears and the people it manipulates, but we never look upon its own visage, and maybe we couldn’t even if we wanted to, which gives the book a nicely handled Lovecraftian quality.

But has it held up over time?  Damn straight, it has.  In fact, I think I appreciated it even more this time around (my third reading of the book, incidentally) because one character in particular, a teacher at Pontefract Prep, reminded me so much of one of my own college professors.  And I realized certain aspects went over my head the first and second time I had read it.  When I was a younger reader, I often found my first reading of an amazing book to be more impressionistic than detail-oriented, which was perfectly fine by me.  In those days I might not have been able to completely express what it was about a book that appealed to me, but that was only a sign of its quality, because I wasn’t distracted by the little stuff that didn’t matter.  I didn’t just read those books; I lived them.  And if a book could so thoroughly pull me into its world that I forgot myself, then it was a resounding success.  Moreover, if a book like Goat Dance could make me want to take up residence in that world, no matter how dark and disturbing it was, then that was just sheer genius.  Perhaps the only other writer I have ever encountered that could do this to me with such dark material was Elizabeth Hand, especially with the novels Winterlong and Black Light.  How did that happen?

Turns out the key ingredient was a heady spice made up of the beauty of the writing itself, the detail in the world-building and that slow-burn sort of build-up.  By contrast, Clive Barker’s writing is every bit as smart and gorgeous, but I have only occasionally felt truly horrified by his work, merely awed by it.  I think the key difference there is that Barker, as brilliant as he is, has a tendency to dazzle you with the sheer weirdness of his worlds and characters, which makes his work more dark fantasy than straight-up horror to me.  Moreover, he tends to throw you right into the bizarreness rather than let it simmer and build, and that choice often has a peculiar flattening effect on the horror elements of his work.  This is not a criticism of the overall quality of Barker’s work, mind you.  I still love every minute of it.  It’s just that for me, with the exception of some of his early stuff, the horror aspects of his fiction tend to take a backseat to the dazzling spectacle of the fantasy, which is obviously where his heart is anyway.  Not a problem for me–I love that too, just for somewhat different reasons.

By the way, I just recently learned that Clegg is gay.  Not that I’m shocked; many of the best horror and dark fantasy authors tend to have non-heteronormative sexualities.  I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Westerners are so weirdly puritanical and guilt-ridden about sex to begin with, and when you add on top of that the fact that when you’re a preadolescent and your sexuality is just developing, if your sexual feelings happen to be taboo too, you begin to see the innate horror of existence in your formative years.  The fact that you are in a sense a slave to whatever weird or unusual quirks/hitches nature has decided to throw into the pot of your genetic materials and/or the profoundly influential early years of your existence, I think we non-heteronormatives really get a sense early in life that the layer between normalcy and strangeness can be paper-thin in spots.  It’s just one step up from there to understanding that the layer between civilization and chaos can be, and often is, equally threadbare.

And that dread realization is generally the driving force behind horror fiction.  It’s a way for some of us to make sense of the burbling randomness and insanity of life.  Further, the need some of us have to create horror, to synthesize it, at least in part taps into another primal fear: the unfairness of being born into a time and place when you are thought a freak for whatever you find beautiful.  In Goat Dance, Cup is dealing with his own sexual neuroses, and it manifests in a deeply symbolic way in the resolution, as he finds himself at one point trapped in a foul pit–the sickly throbbing heart of the Eater of Souls’ domain and influence–with a naked child, the very epitome of innocence and vulnerability, and the desire (to his horror) to . . . eat her.

Ziiiinnnnng!  Bull’s-eye, Mr. Clegg.  Bull’s-eye.

Grade: A+

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

Some Thoughts on the Scientific Method and the Anti-Science Mentality in the United States

There’s a succinct and spot-on piece penned by Editor-in-Chief Analee Newitz over at io9 entitled If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Sh*t.  The article examines a piece written by Jason Mitchell, a Harvard-based professor of psychology, who addressed a growing criticism of the social sciences surrounding the fact that many of its researchers have published studies throughout the last decade or so with results that were not reproducible.  Mitchell, therefore, challenged the very notion that reproducibility is important to the sciences, which is no less than a brazen refutation of the concept of science itself.  Newitz (rightly) ripped Mitchell a new one for this nonsense.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to examine the scientific method, what it is and what it’s for.  In a nutshell, the scientific method is a process through which scientists can test their hypotheses, which is just a fancy word for hunches, albeit ones that are usually well thought through.  The origins of the scientific method as such can be traced back to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it goes back at least as far as Aristotle, so it has a long and distinguished history.  In fact, it is one of the few human inventions that have lasted, being tweaked, refined and improved upon over the centuries rather than completely scrapped for a different approach.  But the latter is precisely what Mitchell is proposing scientists do.

Mitchell’s belief that reproducibility isn’t important to science is a dangerous precedent for someone in his position to set.  Reproducibility, which is the ability of both the original experimenter and others in the scientific community to duplicate the results of an experiment, is vital for determining scientific truths.  Otherwise, a study could be fabricated whole-cloth and passed off as accurate without anyone being the wiser.  Think about the implications of that.  Would you trust your children’s lives or your own to a new medication that had only been demonstrated to be safe and effective in a single study that couldn’t be duplicated?  And yet, this is the level of standards we have been getting in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics) as a matter of course in the last few years, which is the reason for the criticisms that have been leveled against many of the studies in these fields.  Even without gross fabrications these fields have traditionally had less rigorous standards to abide by than the hard sciences, but it seems that some, including Mitchell, believe there should be even fewer standards for testing claims, or perhaps none at all.

All of the fields listed above have been problematic, but the one that most concerns me is psychology because it is the one that most directly impacts the lives of many people.  Thus, for someone of Mitchell’s standing to dismiss the importance of reproducibility in studies that come out of his field is downright chilling.  For starters, consider that psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, sometimes in literal life-or-death cases.  Now, if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, would you want your fate put into the hands of someone who placed little or no importance on the most accurate and widely respected forms of fact-finding among scientists?  I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the so-called soft sciences that have been impacted by this kind of lazy thinking.  It has even infiltrated the hard sciences, most notably in the areas of evolutionary theory and biology, the big bang theory and climatology.  What you should notice immediately if you are at all politically aware is that the importance placed on empirical fact-gathering for these issues tends to break down along political and religious lines, with liberals tending to support the validity of traditional scientific thought and conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, tending to favor a faster and looser approach to the empirical evidence, despite what they may claim.  Anyone who takes science seriously can discover this for themselves by putting their studies and claims to the test.  But, of course, if the test itself is viewed and treated as valueless by them, then they can make the results say whatever they like, which is mighty convenient for those who hold to beliefs not supported by the hard evidence.  Like climate change deniers.

The fact that the vast majority of scientists working in the field of climatology (not to mention tangential fields like geology and oceanography) agree that our planet is indeed undergoing significant climate change and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for it should be enough to silence the deniers.  The problem is that it has become a deeply politicized issue.  Without politicians jumping into the fray, this probably would not be a controversial issue at all.  But it is, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: many wealthy politicians, particularly those who are fiscally conservative, have a direct financial stake in businesses that are strongly contributing to global warming.  The Guardian points out that a mere ninety companies worldwide are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s problematic emissions, with most of the bigger ones being oil and coal companies.  Guess who are some of the major investors and employees of these companies?  Wealthy conservative politicians.

These are primarily Republicans, but there are also some conservative Southern and Western Democrats in the mix.  And it isn’t just politicians who are directly tied to Big Oil and Big Coal who are the problem; those companies also use their money to gain political advantages through Congress.  If you’re interested, there’s a website that lays out the connections between energy companies and major political players: Dirty Energy Money.  It is definitely worth a look.

By the way, lest you think these politicians are just constantly lying to our faces, well, there is certainly some of that going on, but it isn’t the whole picture.  You see, often what happens is that these fallacies begin first as lies, but eventually the liars tell their lies so often that they begin to believe their own lies.  So how does that happen, exactly?  Do you remember those pesky things called cognitive biases that I’ve talked about before?  One of the biggies here is confirmation bias.  This is the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that already supports what they believe.  Thus, these politicians and heads of energy corporations have fabricated their own science with which to counter the real science.  Likewise, the deeply religious have fabricated their own science to counter the mainstream scientific findings that disturb them.  So, you see?  They no longer have to lie–they have their own bona fide science they can believe in, allowing them the comfort of avoiding the unpleasant evidence that shows their beliefs to be misguided.  This is what we call pseudoscience (literally: ‘false science’), and the more people they can convince to swallow it, the easier it is for them to maintain their Grand Delusion.  Unfortunately, their success rates are frighteningly high because a great many people are too morally and/or emotionally weak to face Truth-with-a-capital-T.

And if it’s that easy to convince people to dismiss the overwhelming evidence presented by the hard sciences, imagine how easy it is to sway people when it comes to the murkier realms explored by the social sciences.  It’s true: hard policies with regard to mental health issues and other social issues are often a reflection of the current societal biases that are masquerading as science.  This is why in the past, when homosexuality held a much greater stigma attached to it than it does now, the studies of the day often tended to reflect the stereotypes of that era–because psychological studies which are not held to the same rigorous standards as the hard sciences are far too easy to manipulate to reflect whatever the investigators want it to reflect.  So please remember that fact when you consider studies coming out today that deal with issues which are in some sense politically, socially or ethically controversial.

. . . Of the Week (7-6-14)

So, I am again a day or two behind.  This time I can chalk it up to it being the Fourth of July weekend.  On top of that my house has been undergoing some major work, so that has occupied much of my time as of late.  But anyway, here it is . . .

Article of the Week

This week’s article comes from a site called {Life}Buzz.  I don’t want to say too much about it, but it includes a touching video clip that’s guaranteed to bring a tear or two to your eye.

He saved 669 Children During the Holocaust…

Artwork of the Week

Marcela Bolívar is surrealist digital collage artist whose work has adorned album covers, book covers, t-shirts and magazine articles.  Her style reminds me a good deal of Dave McKean’s, though with a more feminine feel to it.  Here website contains a nice assortment of her work, so check it out.  This piece references Eden and the Fall of Man.

Marcela Bolívar - Garden
Marcela Bolívar – Garden

Album Cover of the Week

This cover design is for Enigma’s A Posteriori album.  Again, the design is enhanced by strong basic shapes, in this case circles.  The muted colors also give it a nice antique aura, and the pink lines (almost literally) tie all of its various elements together.

Enigma - A Posteriori (cover)
Enigma – A Posteriori (cover)

Book Cover of the Week

I haven’t done one of these in awhile.  This is a cover design for Ray Bradbury’s Machineries of Joy.  The coolest things about it are the way the artist/designer worked Bradbury’s name into the frames, and the Art Deco feel of it.  I could easily see this as a poster design from the 1920s or 1930s.  A great concept well executed.

Ray Bradbury - Machineries of Joy (cover)
Ray Bradbury – Machineries of Joy (cover)

Meme of the Week

Here’s a wonderful little cartoon that charmingly symbolizes the nature of books and the knowledge they offer.

Everyone, be good and have a wonderful week!