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.
Lord 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.
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:
* 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.
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.
“The Chamber” is the first story in this collection and is about Karl, someone who has done bad things but he’s trying to make amends. He was a Nazi in a concentration camp and says he was just following orders, but what he did continues to sicken him. There are corpses who come back to life, but the larger threat seems to be the fact that Karl’s post-traumatic stress disorder makes him unable to tell the past from the present, which has dire consequences for his family.
“Valerie’s Window” starts off with a girl, Valerie, who is scared of a nearby monster, trying not to be seen by it. Someone called Jasper has kept her as a sort of prisoner for some time under the guise of ‘protecting’ her and still has the nightmares that remind her of how she ended up here, abducted, in the first place–sadly, she’s not the only one who this has happened to. To say that this piece is full of despair and misery would be an understatement.
“A Window to Dream by” involves a guy, Seth, who finds himself attracted to a possibly Cthulu-inspired squid-woman of some kind in spite of the fact that he’s married and ends up being a tale of sexual obsession while “Each New Day Unknown” follows a scientific experiment mixed with some black magic gone haywire. Next up, “Under a Drift of Snows Lies Another World” revolves around a widowed man coming to grips with the loss of his wife, Claire, and recounting their far-from-perfect marriage with a twist.
“Blackbird’s Breath” has echoes of the previous story, also dealing with couples and loss of a wife, with a splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell Tale Heart thrown in for good measure. Anne loved birds but Henry doesn’t share her sentiments. At one point, he has to tend to an injured bird and all I will say is that for readers who have difficulties with animal cruelty, it’s going to be a hard one to take for them so they may wish to pass it over in favour of another tale.
“Desolate” continues the theme of discordant family relations and has shades of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle. Next up, “Lost in the Woods,” as the title suggests, follows a protagonist, Allie, who is on a particular wooded path that we know from the outset is not going to lead to anywhere particularly good. The theme of familial loss is also a strong undercurrent in this piece, and explores the age-old notion of what if we could bring our loved ones back from the dead.
And if you thought that was dark, “Final Breaths” makes things even darker, this time dealing with the mother’s pain at the loss of a child. If that topic is a trigger warning for you, as well, this story is not going to be an easy one to get through. Needless to say, it’s one of the more disturbing pieces of the collection.
“Closer” is about a guy named Travis who is out hunting even though it has never particularly appealed to him in contrast to his father, who pretty much lives for the thrill of the hunt. The story, however, focuses more on their strained relationship and how despite the fact that Travis’s father has been less than kind to him, Travis is still desperate for the old man’s affection and approval.
The impact of the ending had resonance, but what followed immediately after was a little bit on the confusing side as there seemed to be a logistical issue. Still, like most of the stories in this collection, “Closer” is short, punchy, to the point, and delivers a sharp impact in a big way.
Along with frayed family relationships as one of the dominant themes in this collection, birds are another big one. This is something that continues in the story “Flocking Birds,” which is about Chad, who is at the dinner table with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Angie. Jane is quite keen on taking issue with everything Angie does, so this seems to set up a tale of mother-daughter conflict. It turns out that Angie has had a past issue with posting nude photos online, the cause of which seems to stem from her insecurities about her physical appearance and wondering if she’s pretty.
The metaphor here appears to be that while Chad constantly refers to worrying about birds outside, he is referring to his wife and daughter. The imagery that shows Angie’s bony body and implications that she might be anorexic are also bird-like to drive home the theme. While this story had a good build and an inevitable ending that seemed projected, it ended too soon and felt like there needed to be more build-up to the eventual conclusion.
“Pirouette” is another tale of domestic abuse, this time from the point of view of young Maddie, who does ballet as a coping mechanism for the awful arguments her parents have while “Of Both Worlds” seems to follow a mythological creature like the Minotaur or Grendel who can’t go out into the sun anymore. We learn through them that once upon a time there was a boy called Rylak who was a ‘malformed freak’ according to one of the humans who has invaded his lair. He has no choice but to reveal himself to them, and as you might guess, it doesn’t end well. It’s a fair attempt at trying to establish sympathy for why the monster becomes a monster.
“Breathing Cave” seems to explore some of the same territory as the previous story with a different group of teenagers in a cave. Soon, the main girl in the story is alone in the dark cave, her friends having disappeared, and the question becomes if she will survive, but of course, tales like this one never end well.
“Soul Tapped” follows an older protagonist, Henry, who reminisces about a son he has never met while he is being pursued by unruly teenagers. He’s something of an unreliable narrator, and when he finds his way back to the retirement home where he lives, there’s some trouble with another one of the residents. When the nurse comes by to check on him, Henry tells her that he thinks he has witnesses a ghost stealing the soul of one of the more overweight residents, but in the moment, it seems as though Henry may have been the one attacking this guy. I knew there was an elaborate setup for some twist and when it came at it at the end, it struck me as a tad underwhelming. Still, the story elements were interesting.
“The Water People” is about Chandler, whose wife has just left him. He speaks of having dedicated much of his life to research about ‘the water people’ near Chesapeake Bay and how he saw one when he was five years old. His wife finds out the hard way that she should have trusted him more.
“Water Snake” follows Sawyer, who is fishing, but he’s faced with several water snakes hurrying towards him. It’s a struggle for survival and how just when you think an experience is over, it can come back for you despite your best efforts.
“Buried Beneath the Old Chicago Swamps” continues the other dominant theme in this collection, which is that of creature features–stories about squid-like or reptilian creatures and monsters. This time around we follow the mishaps of a group of children who seem to have stumbled upon a witch’s house, but they also speak of “not having seen the Earth’s surface until last year, so their memories and knowledge may not be so reliable. It seems to be a post-apocalyptic tale set after some great calamity has beset the Earth and turns into a creature feature with the children’s survival becoming the question mark and follows an interesting path.
One of the other things I noticed about the collection is that it has been organized in such a way that stories with similar elements are grouped together. Thus, “The Bad Men” is another tale of post-apocalyptic suggestions, this time about a guy, Roger, who left Earth when in his early twenties, and is more of a sci-fi horror fusion.
“Parasite” is about Aiden, whose brother Neil has a habit of crying wolf, but when Aiden’s ex-fiancee, Jasmine (who, incidentally, appears to have been unfaithful to Aiden) gets involved, they have to make sure he’s okay, but of course, it’s far from okay. He’s been infected with some kind of alien life force and they need to get as far away from him as possible, but it’s a very complicated situation. There’s also lots of Cthulhu-inspired material in the monsters featured in this collection, and this particular story is one example of that.
“Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women” is slightly more comical in its horror as Jesse and his friends need to fight alien-esque crab creatures with some, ahem, interesting tools while “The Benefit of Being Weighty” starts off with the protagonist chastising himself for ignoring the fact that bad things happen when the skin under his wedding ring throbs. The consequences of one such occasion ensue.
Overall, Embers is a well-constructed and put together collection of horror stories from Kenneth W. Cain that marks another quality release from Crystal Lake Publishing.