Author: A.E. Siraki

The Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship — Horror Writers Association

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When I was in my early teens, probably fifteen or sixteen, I recorded a movie from TV called Gothic (1986), directed by Ken Russell. The film presents a fictionalized account of what may have happened on that fateful weekend during the summer of 1816.

Gothic 1986 film posterLord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) invited his fellow Romantic poet Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) to the Villa Diodati in Switzerland along with Mary Godwin* (Natasha Richardson) and her half-sister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) as well as Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), who later wrote and published The Vampyre (1819). During this time, Mary Shelley wrote her most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818), one of the earliest horror novels.

Even though I already had an obsession with horror fiction by this age and devoured countless books and films, this movie, Gothic, fueled a dark fire inside of me to want to write from a place of fear and stoked my love of the supernatural. The film prompted me to read the novel Frankenstein to experience it for myself, and it has stuck in my mind ever since.

Fast forward to many years later, and my path as a writer has been a bumpy ride to say the least. But, to quote the immortal Freddie Mercury–one of my all-time heroes:

“I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face. But I’ve come through.”

The past decade has had both ups and downs for me, but this is a huge “up” for which I will be eternally grateful. When I found out I was selected to be this year’s recipient of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship–one of four given by the Horror Writers Association–it blew me away. I could not believe that they chose me.

Mary Shelley

Writing is a lonely profession. There are many pitfalls, and it’s not an easy thing to undertake. From time to time, writers need something–a sign from the universe, from somewhere out there–that what we do matters–that even though believing in ourselves seems impossible at times, we can do this.

I feel so honoured to have received this prestigious scholarship, and I am proud of all my fellow scholarship recipients this year! Congratulations also to John C. Mannone (HWA Scholarship), Ashley Dioses (Dark Poetry Scholarship), Kelly Robinson (Rocky Wood Nonfiction Scholarship, one of two recipients), and Stephanie M. Wytovich (Rocky Wood Nonfiction Scholarship, one of two recipients).

Along with Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley was one of the first women to kick open the door and pave the way for other women writing genre fiction. Although the unbalanced ratio between female and male writers in horror continues to be an issue, the past fifteen years has seen an explosion in more women being published in the genre, and this trend is here to stay.

There are a plethora of women whose works spring to mind when I think of who is doing amazing work in this genre, and will continue to do so for years to come. Stephanie M. Wytovich is one. Eden Royce is another. Among my favourites include: Maria Alexander, Kristi DeMeester, Paula D. Ashe, Rebecca Jones-Howe, Chesya Burke, S.P. Miskowski, Jessica McHugh, Lucy A. Snyder, and countless others.

It is my hope to one day join the ranks of these amazingly gifted and talented women. In the meantime, excuse me while I go off and do one of these:

Love Actually movie still

* In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was still known by her maiden name, Mary Godwin, because she was Percy Shelley’s mistress at the time and not yet his wife.

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Book Review: Haunted Nights, edited by Lisa Morton and Ellen Datlow

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Haunted Nights Horror Writers Association Anthology book cover
Haunted Nights
edited by Lisa Morton and Ellen Datlow
Anchor Books
October 3, 2017
*** Disclaimer: Review copy received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated or paid in any way to review this product. *** 

Description: Sixteen never-before-published chilling tales that explore every aspect of our darkest holiday, Halloween, co-edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most successful and respected genre editors, and Lisa Morton, a leading authority on Halloween. In addition to stories about scheming jack-o’-lanterns, vengeful ghosts, otherworldly changelings, disturbingly realistic haunted attractions, masks that cover terrifying faces, murderous urban legends, parties gone bad, cult Halloween movies, and trick or treating in the future, Haunted Nights also offers terrifying and mind-bending explorations of related holidays like All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil’s Night.

Table of Contents:
“With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds” by Seanan McGuire
“Dirtmouth” by Stephen Graham Jones
“A Small Taste of the Old Country” by Jonathan Maberry
“Wick’s End” by Joanna Parypinski
“The Seventeen Year Itch” by Garth Nix
“A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night” by Kate Jonez
“Witch-Hazel” by Jeffrey Ford
“Nos Galen Gaeaf” by Kelley Armstrong
“We’re Never Inviting Amber Again” by S. P. Miskowski
“Sisters” by Brian Evenson
“All Through the Night” by Elise Forier Edie
“A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” by Eric J. Guignard
“The Turn” by Paul Kane
“Jack” by Pat Cadigan
“Lost in the Dark” by John Langan
“The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little

Review: Who better to present a series of short stories revolving around the theme of Halloween than the Horror Writers Association? Each of these twisted tales collectively comes together to form a trick or treat bag haul—readers will recognize their own individual favourite “candies” so to speak and some will be sweeter or more savoury than others but in that bag of goodies will be something for everyone. Standouts for me included “A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” (Guignard), “A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night” (Jonez), “A Small Taste of the Old Country” (Maberry) and “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds” (McGuire).

Book Review: Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric J. Guignard

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Horror Library Volume 6 
edited by Eric J. Guignard
Cutting Block Books (Farolight Publishing)
April 2017
352 Pages
*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

Bram Stoker Award®-winning editor and writer Eric J. Guignard helms the newest addition to the Horror Library series of books from Cutting Block Books, Horror Library Volume 6One of the things I appreciated most about his stewardship over the anthology was his decision to include little blurbs before each story to introduce them. I have enjoyed this technique in other anthologies he has edited, and thought it was a great idea to incorporate it here as well. Guignard wrote in one note of the anthology that he had a mandate to uphold whereby he tried to publish as many new and/or previously unheard of authors who are not as well known in the horror genre, so although you are not going to see such big names of the titans as Clive Barker or Stephen King, do not let that fool you because this anthology has an extremely high calibre of stories.

We start off with a disturbing ghost story entitled “I’ve Finally Found You” by Garrett Quinn. Con is a troubled young man who is still struggling with the death of his mother. He soon finds out that sometimes it’s best not to poke around where one shouldn’t, and in this particular case, it involves him messing with a CB radio that he believes may be able to help him communicate with his mother’s ghost. If you are chomping at the bit for the new season of Stranger Things to return as I am, this story will slake your thirst in the meantime.

Jackson Kuhl presents “Cartagena Hotel” about a small town in Texas called Ophir where construction workers are disappearing but the reason is unclear and the reader is not sure who is telling the truth or what is truly responsible for the disappearances. Although I felt that the pacing was a bit rushed toward the end of the story, I liked the disturbing implications of this tale.

Next up, “The Night Truck” by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime is the tale of a woman who must heed the consequences of what happens when she ignores her grandmother’s superstitious warnings about darkness in an old house. This is the perfect story to read around Halloween.

Connor De Bruler takes the reader all the way to a Tuscan village in Italy with”Il Mostro” (in Italian, this means “the monster”). Two friends, Earl and Ethan, are wandering around a village when they go to a restaurant where the only other people are the bartender and a man from France. The protagonists are struck by the oddity and unnaturalness of the place, particularly as it concerns a mural that seems like it could be from a Guillermo del Toro movie. Although I was initially a bit confused as to whether Earl and Ethan were tourists on vacation or if they were running away from something, the main theme this story emphasizes is that if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.

Bentley Little reminds us just how unnerving plumbers can be in “The Plumber” while Josh Rountree offers up a World War I tale of historical military horror in “Snowfather.” Next, veteran author Jeffrey Ford presents a semi-autobiographic tale called “Five Pointed Spell” about a protagonist who has traded his city life in New York for farmland in Ohio so he can support his current wife’s dream job. This story does a great job capturing the consequences of people who say they want to live off the grid and be in remote areas who then find that actually, they don’t like it very much and it was not how they imagined when they begin to settle in. Although the ending struck me as a tad anticlimactic, I think it also has a clever edge because it is one of those stories that leaves the reader to guess at the implications of what has actually happened.

For those looking to satisfy their airplane horror lust, John M. Floyd’s “The Red-Eye to Boston” will do the trick. This story is a testament to why it is probably a good idea to minimize speaking to other people on airplanes.

Raymond Little takes readers back to the glitz of 1930s Hollywood in “Elsa and I,” a story in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the present for the protagonist.

The first of my two favourite stories from this anthology is “Mother’s Mouth, Full of Dirt” by Rebecca J. Allred. This story deals with a little girl, Vilte, who believes her dead mother still lingers around the house she shares with her physician father. The reasons for the demise of Vilte’s mother are, although easily inferred from the backstory, also shrouded in secrecy. The creep factor is very strong in this tale, and although I was not expecting “tooth horror,” which is a kind of subgenre I have noticed in the past few years, this story takes an excellent and creative spin on that motif. Also notable was how well Vilte fills the role of unreliable narrator.

In “Predestination’s a Bitch,” Sean Eads presents the only humorous horror story in the anthology in this tale of a disgruntled IT worker, Clyde, who finds that his colleague, Roger, tells some off colour jokes that turn out to have very real consequences. I struggled with the offensiveness of some of the jokes at first, but toward the end, I felt that Eads did a good job building up suspense and tension and helping the reader realize the danger that is unfolding at the same moment as the protagonist.

My number one absolute favourite story of this anthology came from Marc E. Fitch, and it’s called “The Starry Crown.” The main character is a doctoral candidate working on his dissertation. He has left behind the comforts of campus life to do field work in the Deep South. More specifically, he is studying folk songs from the southern states “that had neither a time or place of origin not a known composer.” He is particularly interested in songs sung by slaves and slave owners, backwoods preachers, and so on. He is determined to find out the meaning of the lyric “starry crown” in a song that is shrouded in mystery. Fitch mentions a real book, G.H. Allan’s Slave Songs of the United States and explains some of the possibly fictionalized backstory of why this starry crown song confused Allan. He got it from someone called Cobb in South Carolina.

Rather than continuing to describe my ever-increasing interest in the plot, I will sum up by saying that this is another story that warns the reader that it is possible to uncover too many stones in the search for the truth and that even if we do manage to go to great pains to find it, sometimes the results will make us wish we had not. This is a disturbing, unsettling, and phenomenally well-written story. I hope to be able to read more work from this author in the future.

Vitor Abdala presents a short, but creepy tale of cyber stalking in “Instant Messaging” that is another cautionary tale while JG Faherty presents a criminal who gets summoned by the Devil to work for him on “The H Train” only to realize the true price too late.

Another of the memorable stories for me was “Kalu Kumaraya (My Dark Prince)” by Jayani C. Senanayake. This tale deals with the mythology of Sri Lanka, a kind of dark and morbid love story but in a good way. The protagonist invents an imaginary friend as a child, which seems innocent enough until this “friend” starts causing a lot of trouble in the real world. Kalu seems to function as a sort of dark genie. He makes life very difficult for the protagonist, particularly as it relates to her ability to form relationships with boys her age. Once the myth gets explained toward the end, ultimately it seems that some cycles are not that easy to break, which I found disturbing indeed.

Lucas Pederson’s “We Were Monsters” deals with an alternating timeline between the present and 1994 when the protagonist had an aunt (who wasn’t actually a blood relative) who was into vampirism. He and his group of friends soon dub themselves after all the Universal monsters and encounter a disturbing creature that would make all those movie beasts shriek in terror. This tale also ends on an ominous note.

Another favourie for me was “Waiting for Mrs. Hemley” by Thomas P. Balázs, a tale of psychological horror that has shades of The Silence of the Lambs. There is a particular quote from this story that I wish I could frame, which is when the protagonist, a psychiatrist, says: “The unconscious is a bottomless chasm of trauma and repression.” This tale turned out to be one of the most interesting and unconventional–definitely not at all typical–takes on zombie fiction that I have seen in years.

The ghosts of the past continue to haunt yet more protagonists in Jay Caselberg’s “The Ride,” this time concerning a guy, Jason, who lost his girlfriend four years ago when she went missing, but he has been suspicious of the authorities ever since because they never found a body. When a person goes missing, there is always the weight of the dread where their loved ones wonder if the person is dead or if there is still a possibility that they are alive. Will they ever see that person again? It is maddening and frightful to contemplate.

A person does not simply “get over” something as unsettling as this. At best, a person learns to live with it but to do that, one has to move through it, and that is definitely easier said than done. Jason decides to investigate in Scotland, because he knows he is not going to be able to let this go. This trip makes him feel productive–like he is taking action and like he is doing something, so he can give himself a semblance of control over the situation, or as much as it is possible to have control in a situation like this. In the end, he learns that sometimes it is best not to investigate too far because a person may not like what one discovers when going poking around for the truth and that some things are best left buried and unexplored.

Ahna Wayne Aposhian gives us the trope of the old woman who comes to people in nightmares and sits on their chests, preventing them from breathing, in “Old Hag.” The protagonist, Wendy, used to have a happy marriage but since her night terrors, her husband has become unsympathetic and brusque. If you like your body horror in hefty doses, this is the tale for you.

Another of my favourite writers, Edward M. Erdelac, gives us a memorable tale called “Hear the Eagle Scream.” Edward writes an interesting brand of historical horror that spans many different interesting locales and characters and this story is no exception. This time around, a man named Jim Thiemann is the owner of Longview Ranch in Scurry County. Although I initially placed this story as Wild West setting from the 1800s, it was probably closer to the early 20th century.

A man named Horace comes up to Jim telling him he’s the man for the job that is being advertised on a sign outside the ranch. Although skeptical at first, Jim gives Horace a chance and is very pleased with the results. This is one of those brilliant twist stories in which the reader spends most of the time convinced that the protagonist is in some kind of impending danger only to find out that the real source of trouble is far from what is expected.

Finally, to cap things off, Carole Johnstone presents “Better You Believe,” which is mountain horror at its finest. If you enjoyed The Abominable by Dan Simmons or The Ruins by Scott B. Smith, you will get a kick out of this story.

This anthology deserves 6 out of 5 stars. It is always difficult for any anthology series that continues to sustain momentum and to show that each new volume is even better than the last, but Guignard was the absolute perfect choice to be at the helm of the newest “Horror Library.” He has a spectacular ability to select stories that are all fantastically well-written and of such a high calibre that is rare to find in anthologies. Even the stories that did not interest me as much in Horror Library Volume 6 were impressive and I was stunned by the fact that there is not a single dud in here.

I think that Volume 6 deserves a lot more attention than it has been receiving as far as reviews and reader reactions go, because Guignard has done a masterful job.  You are not going to find another horror fiction collection out there that tops this one except possibly Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror (now up to Volume 9), but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this anthology is on par with hers in terms of quality. This is one of the best horror fiction anthologies of the year and I truly hope Guignard gets the recognition he deserves particularly with regard to awards.

Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

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i am not your negro movie poster

When I first heard about the documentary I Am Not Your Negro that is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Raoul Peck, centering around the work of James Baldwin, I knew I had to find a way to see it.

The documentary opens with a James Baldwin interview from 1968 that sets the stage. We then cut to footage from 2014 in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Samuel Jackson’s distinct timbre narrates Baldwin’s words–excerpts from unpublished as well as published works. The novelist was working on a non-fiction work about the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evars, all of whom were murdered. To say this documentary is brutally graphic would be an understatement, as would it be to refer to it as unflinching, but it is both of those things. A grisly image of a murdered Malcolm X’s corpse is just one of the examples of this.

Baldwin describes Bill Miller, a White woman who the local police and most townspeople reviled, because she taught underprivileged youth of colour such as Baldwin. Growing up, he looked to her as a more balanced voice of reason that taught him to consider a multiplicity of perspectives.

The documentary is filled with clips of the most problematic depictions of African-Americans in all kinds of media, from some of the most horrifyingly racist advertisements, including one in which an African-American man emerges from within a gigantic banana, reinforcing the monkey/sub-human framework as well as extending the disarming/non-threatening image tactic, which portrayed African-Americans as docile and meek.

Baldwin despised the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), which is now recognized as incredibly racist. However, in its era, the novel was hailed the same way that the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens were. One of the reasons Baldwin reviled Stowe’s novel is because instead of fighting back or exacting vengeance on the White characters who hurt him, Uncle Tom continuously turned the other cheek. By contrast, Baldwin struggled with the fact that almost every character John Wayne played in his films depicted him as taking vengeance as he saw fit and without batting an eyelash.

As his works gained more notoriety, Baldwin gave more lectures and participated in a number of interviews, most of which are peppered throughout the documentary at key points in the narrative. We see the evolution of how Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. started out on polar ends of the spectrum as far as their views but eventually came to see eye to eye.

Two interesting stylistic choices I want to touch on include the use of typewriter key sound effects while typewritten documents are being shared on the screen, as well as the addition of audio to still photographs such as the sound of fire burning in the background or the horrifying sound of rope swaying back and forth after a lynching.

Secondly, I’m not sure if this was a strategic choice or had to do with the original format of the interviews and clips, but I found it to be an interesting tie-in with the discussions of colour in the film to show Baldwin in black and white almost exclusively until near the end of the documentary when he is shown in colour twice. It may be that this was not a stylistic choice but rather a consequence of the fact that the earlier Baldwin recordings and appearances were filmed in black and white and thus are only available in that format whereas his later clips were filmed in colour. Nonetheless, it added another dimension to the film for me.

Although Baldwin did not and could not have predicted Obama as the first African-American president of the United States (an emotional moment in the film from his inauguration was very difficult for me to watch given the current political climate), or to have predicted the events of Ferguson, his words have a very prophetic association which the film strategically highlights by juxtaposing Baldwin’s words with current events to show just how relevant the things are that he was writing about decades ago, and how even though we feel that advancements have been made, we realize how little has changed.

It is fascinating, but it is also incredibly grim and not for the faint of heart. It is unflinching. It is unwavering. It is fierce. It is unapologetic. And it should be mandatory viewing across schools everywhere for Black History Month, as well as on channels such as PBS or The History Channel. It is even more relevant today than it was when Baldwin first wrote it.