"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One of the books I re-read religiously every couple of years, to remind myself why I write and what a good scary story is supposed to look like, is a slim little volume that packs in a ton of horror. The author needs no apology from me; she has been a staple of American literature since the mid-20th century, and her superb The Lottery pops up in high school and freshman English courses everywhere. She is of course, Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Hill House is her masterpiece.

With all due respect to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, “Hill House” stands as the finest piece of psychological horror ever put to paper. If you can read this book without a racing pulse, you might be dead. There are no monsters, no real violence, no gore-splattered scenes to speak of. And yet Ms. Jackson is terrifying. There are sections of the book that—despite years of readings—still trigger my fear factor.

The premise is simple, recalling the ghost-hunting tales of the late 19th century. Anthropologist and parapsychologist Dr. Montague is conducting research into hauntings, and to do so has invited a handful of people to spend the summer with him in Hill House. Luke Sanders is a gambler, womanizer, and all-around cad whose family happens to own the place. Theodora is an artist, psychic, and (subtlely hinted at in this 1959 novel) a lesbian with a quiet cruel streak. And then there is Eleanor, a young woman who spent all of her adult life caring for an invalid mother, a shy introvert who dreams of a happy ending to her rather miserable life. As a girl, following her father’s death, it rained stones on Eleanor’s house for three days and nights. Montague invited her—as with Theodora—because her life as been touched by the psychic and he hopes to provoke Hill House into a response.

Hill House. Though Montague refers to it as “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” it doesn’t seem to be that haunted at all. There are no floating skulls, wandering apparitions, rattling chains. Though a large and rambling Victorian mansion, it remains fairly attractive; “within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut.” It is neither in decay nor in ruin. And yet Hill House is without question,wrong. Its architect made sure the angles were all off, 88 or 92 degrees rather than the logical 90. Doors are imperceptibly angled and set to close themselves. Everything is just a fraction off, creating a disorienting effect. People can and do get lost in Hill House.

They also die there in alarming numbers. The number of accidents, break-downs, and suicides in Hill House is on the extreme high end of the bell curve. At the stunning climax of the novel, one of the characters simultaneously suffers all three.

Jackson’s influence on other writers of the haunted house tale is profound and well-acknowledged, but no one has quite seemed to match the slow, quiet, and intense pressure of her novel. Ironically, a few films have come close; Kubrick’s The Shining and the original Robert Wise film version of “Hill House,” called simply The Haunting, came close (avoid however the terrible Liam Neeson/Catherine Zeta-Jones remake of ten years ago). Few writers—myself included—demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable restraint. There is not a single page in this story which goes over-the-top. Jackson hints, whispers, and occassional shouts “boo,” but never once descends into B-Movie tactics. Hill House, to borrow a phrase from Mr. John Tynes, is the equivalent of mental plutonium. Its invisible radiations sicken and poison the mind by mere exposure, unseen and unnoticed until it is too late. As the characters slowly break-down, the reader goes with them, and is forced to fight Ms. Jackson’s undertow.

I have been exploring the first few nooks and crannies of my own haunted house novel, something I have always wanted to tackle but never quite got around to. As I read The Haunting of Hill House again, I felt my nerve slightly fail. It would be impossible to write anything better than Jackson’s novel; one’s only choice is to try to do something different. “Hill House” has stood for fifty years as the apex of the haunted house tale, and is unlikely to ever be dethroned. And so, gentle reader, I leave you with the closing paragraph of that book;

...Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.


I can't stand "genre" fiction. The best stories--the greatest stories--defy being placed in just a single Barnes & Noble category. Calling The Lord of the Rings"fantasy," The Haunting of Hill House "horror," or Watchmen a "comic book" is lovely for marketing, because it allows a whole horde of less talented writers to come along and blindly ape such works for mass consumption. But it also spectacularly misses the point. Tolkien's decades-long experiment in cultural philology and linguistics is a very different animal from the likes of Terry Brooks, who has made a career of stealing Tolkien's most superficial elements and recycling them. Likewise, "graphic novels" are now an entire cottage industry as people try to recreate the bleak realism of Moore's masterpiece. But in my humble opinion (wait, screw the "humble" part), if an author sits down to write a "vampire" novel or a "fantasy" novel or a "romance" novel, he or she is already a hack. A writer is in the business of telling stories, and must remain true to the story no matter how many genres it meanders through.

House of Leaves is one of those rare first novels that managed to get published despite A) wandering through more genres than you could shake a stick at, and B) breaking absolutely all the conventions of what "sells." It is mad, impossible, daunting, distancing, utterly gripping, and sheer genius. I haven't seen an author with balls this size since Eco.

In a nutshell, the entire book is a scholarly dissection of the cult film The Navidson Record,containing hundreds (possibly thousands) of footnotes and references. Except of course, that it was all written by a blind madman, there never was a film called The Navidson Record,and the entire mess was edited by another man who went mad in the process. With me so far?

According to Zampano, the blind man who spent decades piecing the book together, The Navidson Record was a sort of Blair Witch documentary that came about when Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his parter Karen purchased and moved into a colonial Virgina farmhouse. This house, they soon discovered, was wrong. But if you think you've heard this one before, you haven't. The family doesn't have to deal with ghosts or bleeding walls. Instead, a hallway appears overnight that literally goes nowhere. Black, freezing, and featureless, it opens into an endless series of halls, empty rooms, and stairs...a labyrinth that may or may not contain its own horrific minotaur. Navidson grabs his camera and starts filming, and the labyrinth responds by slowing destroying his world.

Zampano analyzes the film scene by scene, drawing upon a staggering wealth of scholarly opinions by scientists, philosophers, artists, etc. Except of course, the film never existed. When Zampano suddenly and mysteriously dies, this mess of a manuscript passes into the hands of tattoo parlor apprentice Johnny Truant, who becomes increasingly obsessed with it and re-edits the work. Now, as any writer worth his salt will tell you, a first person narrative is always uncertain. The disembodied third-person approach can magically get inside everyone's heads and report the truth, while the first person is one character's impression of the truth. Imagine thenHouse of Leaves, a first person narrative of a first person narrative of another first person narrative. But then again, the idea of the "echo" is essential to the book.

The book manages to tell a page-turning, gripping story that leads the reader, like Ariadne's thread, through a maze of horror, fantasy, and philosophy before discovering the whole thing is a love story. Sort of. Not really.

What becomes clear as you read House of Leaves is that the manuscript itself is the real labyrinth, and that if you read too deep, too far, and too long, the Minotaur will find you. The book understands that the true antagonist in any tale is not the villain or the monster, but the narrative itself. Think about that too long and like Johnny Truant you will go mad.

It is cliche to say "you've never read a book like this before," but you haven't. Really. Never. And if you don't believe me, sift through the 663 other reads saying the same damn thing here; If you are a reader, you would do yourself a disservice buy not grabbing this book.


The middle of the last decade saw the publication of an extraordinary debut novel. Moving, disturbing, and strangely uplifting, it told the improbable tale of emerging love between an adolescent and a vampire. It rocketed to the top of the bestseller list and was soon the basis for an equally amazing film (Rotten Tomatoes rated it 97% Fresh). No, we are definitely NOT talking about Stephanie Myers or Twilight. The book in question is Lat Den Ratte Komma In by Swedish novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist.

Let The Right One In (its English title, taken from Morrisey's "Let the Right One Slip In," is a play on the old vampire tradition of having to invite them in) tells the tale of 12-year-old Oskar. The child of a broken home, he lives in a state apartment housing complex with his mother. Slightly overweight, ostracized and horrifically bullied, the daily abuse by his peers has given him the unpleasant habit of constantly wetting his pants. Worse, he has begun to fantasize about sticking a knife in his tormentors, stealing a hunting knife from a local sporting goods store to stab at trees in the woods, imagining their faces, hurling back the taunts usually yelled at him. He is a boy dangerously about to break, the one Pearl Jam wrote about in Jeremy, the kind of monster manufactured in schools every day.

Enter the new girl, Eli. She and her "father" move into the unit next door to Oskar, but are almost never seen. The windows are covered up, and despite also being 12 the girl doesn't seem to attend school. Oskar, whose habit is to sit alone on the communal play ground in the evenings, encounters her there. Despite the brutal Swedish winter she is barefoot and in a thin pink sweater. Her hair is matted and filthy. She smells bad. She tells him she can't be his friend. And yet his loneliness is reflected in her own, drawing them slowly together. Night after night they meet on the playground, pretending they aren't happy to see the other there.

Then Oskar suffers an particularly brutal assault, whipped by a pack of boys with switches. One blow cuts open his cheek. That night, when he meets Eli, the following transpires;

...she touched his wound and (a) strange thing happened. Someone else, someone much older, became visible under her skin. A cold shiver ran down Oskar's back, as if he had bitten into an ice cream.

"Oskar. Don't let them do it. Do you hear me? Don't let them."


"You have to strike back. You've never done that, have you?"


"So start now. Hit them back. Hard."

"There's three of them."

"Then you have to hit harder. Use a weapon."


"Stones. Sticks. Hit them more than you really dare. Then they'll stop."

"Yes, but what if they..."

"Then I will help you."

"You? But you are..."

"I can do it, Oskar. That ...is something I can do."

Indeed she can. Eli is 200 hundred years old, a vampire trapped in the body of a little girl. The man taking care of her is, sickeningly, a pedophile she snared and forces to watch over her by day. Oskar is the first person to be kind to her in decades, and despite herself and the danger to herself, the exposure, she helps him.

Let the Right One In pulls absolutely no punches. Twilight, written roughly the same time and with a very similar premise, is by comparison comfort food, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. WhereTwilight is fastidiously careful not to challenge or offend, to tell you that beautiful people really do have souls and that abstinence really is the best policy until you graduate from school, Let the Right One In has teeth. Its protagonists are not faux outsiders who both mysteriously look like models, but rough, untidy, unclean. Both of them, including Eli, are pathetic and powerfully human. They fall in love (for anyone who remembers junior high school) in a fumbling, awkward, uncomfortable way, drawn together because no one else would want them.

Make no mistake, the novel terrifies to a degree that Myers' work never comes near, but at the same time Let the Right One In is deeply tragic. It leads, unlike Bella and Edward, are not leads in the ballet version of Romeo & Juliet, but nevertheless far more compelling.

The novel--a bestseller across Europe--is readily available in English. The 2007 film version, equally superb, is also easy to find. The 2010 American version, Let Me In, is surprisingly excellent as well.


When you write horror fiction, you pay attention to the trends. These days, you can’t swing a baseball bat (or chainsaw) without hitting a mindless, shuffling, canibalistic corpse. Zombies have taken over the Earth, threatening the monopoly vampires have held over the undead market for 100 years.

It’s a little like Occupy Wall Street.

When it comes right down to it, since the 19th century vampires have been a metaphor for the 1%. Wealthy, parasitic nobles that live off of the “lower” classes. They live in castles, are clad in evening wear, stay ever young and have sneering—if impeccable—manners. Oh sure, we can talk about how much the myth has changed, and argue that Eric Northman and Edward Cullen are a long way from Count Dracula, but they aren’t, really. Just look at the house Edward lives in. How many people could afford that? And his dad is a doctor.

Zombies, however, are very much the 99%. This was true even before George Romero sank his teeth into them. Zombies started out, originally, a form of slave or forced labor. An evil sorceror stole someone’s soul and forced them to obey his every command. Though we’ve all worked for bosses like that, it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels to African slavery that spawned the myth in Haiti. Romero seized this idea and ran with it in his various Living Dead films. The zombie went from being a proper slave to a “wage slave” as Romero remade them into a metaphor for mindless consumerism and the depersonalization of capitalist society. Suddenly zombies were infectious and worse, hungry. They swarmed shopping malls mindlessly eating and making new zombies. It doesn’t take a genius to see the metaphor in that, either.

The zombie has come to embody the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. They are the mob that comes in waves to steal your life away from you. When Herman Cain talks about electrifying the border fence between Mexico and America, about a half-dozen zombie films immediately jump to mind.

We talk about migrant workers like they are zombies. Fox News talks about Occupy Wall street like they are (“mindless,” unfocused,” “mob,” and “dangerous” have all been terms the fair and balanced network used). There are politicians (like Cain again), who talk about the sweeling ranks of the unemployed like they are a zombie threat. And do I have news for you…they are.

Because inherent in the modern zombie is this threat of society going to pieces, of the mob taking over. Vampires have done so well the last century, especially in America, because it is a lot of people’s dream to “ascend” to that 1%. This is why with all the bloody vampire films out there, so few of them are actually horror (and the ones that are usually depict one of the aristocratic and noble 1% swooping in to seduce the working class hero’s girlfriend). Nobody, by contrast, wants to end up a zombie. But the curious thing about horror is that it exorcises our fears, and the more we fear becoming a zombie, the more the myth will fascinate. The implicit message in zombie films is that we all are just a bite—or a pink slip—away from joining the horde.

Right now, that scares the crap out of people.

And so, as we watch the news and see hordes of hungry and often violent mobs forming across the globe, rampaging, just keep telling yourself there is no such thing as zombies.

Good luck with that.

Monday, February 13, 2012


"We are quicksilver, a fleeting shadow, a distant sound... our home has no boundaries beyond which we cannot pass. We live in music, in a flash of color... we live on the wind and in the sparkle of a star! ...And you want to trade it all for a quarter of an acre of crabgrass."

- Endora to Samantha, Bewitched

I started writing when I was ten, and by the sixth grade was reading my stories aloud to the class. By sixteen I'd written two novels--neither was very good, but they showed enough promise to get some attention. At seventeen I won the New York State Young Playwright's Contest, and the next year won it again. So by the time I went to university, everyone expected me to major in English. But there was only one problem with that. Creative writing classes and literary criticism make me cringe.

When someone starts talking to me about plots, character arcs, and motivations I recoil like Bela Lugosi did from the crucifix. For me, at least, stories are not car engines that can be broken down, analyzed, and reproduced. Storytelling isn't a science, it's an art, and the characters that inhabit them are not little robots designed to serve a function, but beings evoked from somewhere else. Writers, like the coccyx or the appendix, are the vestiges of a more ancient phenomenon. They are the modern shamans; odd, half-mad people who cross over the the Otherworld, traffic with spirits, and bring back something to share with the tribe.

Alan Moore (From Hell, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc), who is a practicing ritual magician as well as a writer, pointed out in the conclusion of his epic Promethea that language and magic are intimately intertwined. We cast spells and have spelling, poetry talks about invocation and evocation just like conjuring spirits does, and the traditional magic book of wizards--the grimoire--is linguistically related to the word grammar. We cannot think coherently without language, which at its core is about shaping the world around and inside us. This makes it a quite magical thing indeed. Having spent the last 25 years practicing magic myself, I see other connections as well. The deepest of these is summoning spirits.

Despite being a magician I consider myself a materialist; I don't believe that spirits and other worlds exist in exactly the same way the physical world does. I like to use the analogy of figures in a dream. They may, in fact, be figments of our imagination, but at the same time they seem to exist independent of us. They are the Other, and operate outside our conscious wills. If this wasn't true, nightmares could not frighten us. We'd just tell them to go away. Inside our heads are entire landscapes, multiple unformed realities populated by a legion of beings. Through language, they can sometimes be conjured from their world into our own, where they achieve a kind of half-life. "Hamlet" is distinct from any of the actors who play him, and there is something in acting anyway that resembles possession. "Santa Claus" may not be real the way my neighbor is but he certainly has more power to affect behavior around the world. And don't get me started with "God." These things may--or may not--be conjured up from within the human psyche, but it is a mistake to think they are not feisty, independent, or real.

For me, putting characters on paper then is no different from conjuring elementals or Enochian angels. I think this is what the Greeks meant when they discussed Muses. I don't necessarily see myself as making up characters and stories, so much as I cross over into some deep place and discover them. I go over to the Otherside and bring something back. This is also why Hermes--the Roman Mercury--was the god of magicians as well as of communication and crossing between this world and the next (he was also the patron of liars, con men, and thieves, but those are just storytellers who use their power for evil).

There is something miraculous, mystical, and fantastic about a good story. The characters seem real. I know for myself, at least, that I cannot really force them to do anything. Rather, they follow their own courses, make their own choices, and I scribble down what paths they chose. When people ask me to make changes to a story, my standard response is "don't tell me, take it up with them." I enjoy the magic of the process, and resorting to what they teach you in Creative Writing 101 feels a bit like trading quicksilver for that quarter acre of crabgrass.