Things that brought me delight in December, 2023:
Lee Mandelo, Summer Sons
Summer Sons is a strange mix of contradictory and unlikely inspirations that don't quite meld together into a seamless whole: portions of the novel feel like "dark academia" for grown-ups, there are many sequences of shit-kickin' country boys drag racing, and a Southern Gothic ghost tale looms everywhere in the background, unable to make itself fully heard over the roar of the high-toned engines.
Andrew Blur has inherited a lot from his best friend-slash-brother after his apparent suicide: a graduate research project on ghostly Southern folklore, a new set of wild and potentially dangerous friends, a crushing sense of loneliness, and a self-imposed duty to discover why and how his friend actually died.
The academic bits felt the most off and nebulously rendered to me; perhaps due to my own experiences, I have an unduly difficult time imagining mentors and professors responding to messages near-instantaneously. Even so, the descriptions of the usual academic issues with thesis committees, plagiarism, and the petty clash of egos were enough to tap into some deep-seated anxieties of my own, so perhaps that element does work in the context of a horror novel.
Things do come together into a satisfying conclusion by the end of things, even if the villains in this whodunit were obvious and the protagonist could have saved himself a lot of grief by being honest with himself much earlier in life. Though Lee Mandelo's Summer Sons isn't a perfect novel, it is a really impressive debut and a worthy addition to the rise of the Queer Gothic.
Hobo With a Shotgun
When Grindhouse released, sandwiched between the two segments were a number of fake movie trailers. Over time, some of those fake trailers have manifested as actual movies--Hobo With a Shotgun was one of them, and it is a wild psychotronic ride. You can guess how it goes: a hobo arrives in a broken-down town ruled by an autocrat and his power-mad, dumb-dumb sons. Said hobo gets pushed around, until he's had too much and acquires a shotgun. And then the fun really begins. Gleefully violent and over-the-top in its approach to everything that gets thrown onto the screen, Hobo With a Shotgun gives you both barrels at point-blank range.
Spawn Compendium 1
We covered the first eighteen issues of Todd McFarlane's Spawn on the podcast, but once the assigned tour of duty was over I just kept trucking through this madness. Does Spawn eventually chill out and fall into a dependable groove of rich, layered storytelling in comics form? Not on your life, bud. It's crazytown all the way down. If you keep reading past what we covered on the podcast, you will get Spawn being mistaken for Santa in a Christmas-themed issue, Spawn being so dumb that he goes along with the murderous plan of a guy who is clearly McFarlane's Joker analog, and Spawn being lynched by the KKK. Yeah, you read that right; that is a thing that happens in this wild-ass comic.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
I was working in a video store when Mask of the Phantasm came out and it was a super popular rental, and yet, somehow I never watched it until just recently. It definitely lives up to the hype; it's superb, easily one of best Batman movies ever made despite being a cartoon. The art is phenomenal (even if the blu ray transfer could have used a little love) and the soundtrack is intense. Really fun set of villains working at cross purposes too. I'm pretty stoked to watch Batman: The Animated Series, which I also haven't really seen despite its glowing reputation, just off the back of how much I enjoyed Mask of the Phantasm alone.
Watching Gremlins was part of my program for "getting in the holiday spirit" this year. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen Gremlins since the 80s, but it is insane how much of this movie I remember. And, to be honest, I still think it rules as much as when I was a kid. It goes really hard for a PG movie meant for families with children, but that was the way of things back then; Phoebe Cate's character's revelation about he dad dying after getting stuck in the chimney playing at Santa, the mom's anti-Gremlin killing spree in the kitchen like she just got back from 'Nam, and the persistent 80s anxieties about "foreigners" are wild--you wouldn't get anything with that much texture for this demographic now. And the special effects are gorier and grosser that you might expect if you haven't seen it in a while, provided you weren't traumatized by it as a kid.
Mike Hutchinson, Gaslands Refueled
In December, I found a box of my old Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars in my mother's garage. By most rubrics, we could call them "well-loved," but if we're honest they are rusty, beat-up, and missing wheels in some cases. What to do with them? No better time to get into Gaslands Refuelled and give these things one last lap around the track. I'm late to the Gaslands party, but it's a miniature game that uses toy cars to catch the vibe of Fury Road and Twisted Metal. I'll even probably be able to get more mileage out of Gaslands by using it alongside PLANET MOTHERFUCKER.
Like Hobo With a Shotgun, Eli Roth's Thanksgiving started out as one of the fake trailers in the middle of Grindhouse that eventually "graduated" to a full feature film in its own right. If you've seen the trailer in Grindhouse, you'll recognize a few scenes; that said, be forewarned that the horniest and most outrageous bits from the trailer didn't make it into this one. (Maybe we'll be gifted with an unrated director's cut at some point, but I'm not holding my breath.) Even so, there are some inventive kills in this holiday-themed slasher and the opening Black Friday carnage will give anyone who has worked retail PTSD flashbacks. Thanksgiving loses a little steam about halfway through, but it's still way more enjoyable than the last few movies that called themselves Scream, so take that for what it's worth.
James Skipp Borlase, The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories
As is tradition, I read a collection of Victorian Christmas ghost tales in December if Valancourt published a book of them the previous year. Unlike previous installments, The Shrieking Skull isn't an anthology; rather, it's a single author collection showcasing the work of John Skipp Borlase. Borlase's fixation on British history, particularly the English Civil War and the religious schisms of yesteryear, color his Christmas ghost tales, giving them a very particular feel.
Borlase also goes extremely hard in some of these stories. For example, what follows is a summary that will spoil the plot of "Twelve Miles Broad," so proceed forewarned. In "Twelve Miles Broad," a young man is spending Christmas Day with the woman he wants to marry and his future father in law at their vineyard in Australia. A tramp shows up, demands to be fed, and is booted from the premises. The tramp curses them out THEN SETS FIRE TO THE BRUSH causing them to need flee for their lives. The problem is that there is only one horse and it won't carry all three of them. The father in law solves this problem by producing a pistol and blowing his brains out in front of his daughter. Merry Christmas!
30 Coins, Season 2
It's been a few years since I watched it, but I remember the first season of 30 Coins being a really well-done take on Catholic horror. The second season--is unhinged. Everything gets thrown in the blender. A few characters begin this season literally in Hell. Conspiracy theories get introduced into the mix. Lovecraftian elements surface, sometimes with hilarious results. And then the UFO stuff starts happening. All that and it retains the biblical horror of last season. It's a mess, and the final episode doesn't make a ton of sense to me, but the second season of 30 Coins was still a fun one to watch.
Alden Bell, The Reapers Are the Angels
In general, zombie media has a pessimism issue: the vast majority of books, tv shows, and movies in that mode proceed from the premise that "man is the real monster," and use the inciting incident of a zombie apocalypse to illustrate the inhumanity of man in gory and horrifying terms. This rubs up uncomfortably against how people actually tend to behave during calamities; human beings are herd animals who survive through cooperation, and that bears out in real world behavior even if it is curiously absent in the face of the ravening undead.
Alden Bell's novel The Reapers Are the Angels takes a different tact. We follow Temple, a fifteen year-old girl, as she tries to navigate a dangerous world teeming with hungry zombies. And yet, most of the people Temple meets are pretty nice folk who are out there just trying to get by and are willing to extend a helping hand to others to get them farther down life's road too. Temple gets fed by the fading Southern aristocrats holed up in a plantation house, is invited to stay in a high-rise compound aiming to recapture the ways of the old world, and gets put on her path by groups of hunters and railroad linemen out in the wilds.
Temple herself evidences the same pro-social tendencies. Despite possessing a murderous rage that manifests as relentless zombie-stomping when needed, Temple saves and "adopts" a mentally handicapped man and tries to return him to his home, and when she has the opportunity to leave her nemesis in the novel to die at the hands of mutants, she leaves him armed to give him at least a fighting chance.
I want to say a little about the relationship between Temple and her nemesis, Moses Todd, a powerful survivalist guided by his own peculiar moral compass. Moses Todd is on Temple's trail because she fought off his brother's attempt to assault her--killing him in the process. Even though Moses Todd believes that Temple was in the right to defend herself, he feels duty-bound to avenge his brother's death. He feels the need to pursue her across the wasteland. But they're connected by more just the inciting incident; they have a grudging respect for each other and they're united in both being "travelers," folks who aren't inclined to settle down because that would take away the opportunity to travel the blighted land and see life's remaining wonders.
There's this really unintellectualized aestheticism in this novel and a focus on the still transformative sublime power of nature. For example, Temple takes solace in a memory of encountering luminescent fish and several characters trade stories of the power of having seen Niagara Falls in person. In this way, The Reapers Are the Angels brings humanity back to the apocalypse. Although the novel has a heartbreaking end, it somehow manages to be affective and moving in a way that media about...you know, shambling undead monstrosities...doesn't usually aspire to.
Therion, Leviathan III
Therion's Leviathan trilogy has been a welcome surprise. Unlike their sprawling and often overwhelming triple-album Beloved Antichrist, each portion of the Leviathan trilogy has felt strong and invigorated; recurring themes emerge, but they aren't tooled to death over the three records in the series. Leviathan III might not hit the highest points of the second installment, but it's certainly no slouch. There are some great symphonic Gothic metal moments on the record--which bodes well for whatever they do next, be it epic or self-contained.
Wataru Mitogawa, Gunbured x Sisters
It probably says something about me that I will eschew what I know to be quality manga to read trash like Gunbured x Sisters instead, but I'm here for a good time not a 400+ volume time, you know? Gunbured x Sisters is a monster-stomping manga about a big-breasted battle nun and her pet dhampir (no, really, their relationship seems based on petplay) as they fight vampires. Gunbured x Sisters has decent action and near-constant horniness, if that helps make your mind up about it one way or another. The Gothic Fantasy version of Catholicism we get in Gunbured x Sisters has some interesting wrinkles, but I gotta tell ya: these nuns are anything but celibate.
Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar
I finally made time to sit down and watch Army of the Doomstar after having re-watched all of Metalocalypse over the summer. Much of Army of the Doomstar is melancholic and introspective, a marked departure from what the cartoon usually deals in: brutally casual violence and jokes about metal. There are some very fun gory sequences here, but at the very end Metalocalypse tries some different--maybe even something we'd call affirming. Though different, Army of the Doomstar is a fitting end to the Metalocalypse saga.
It was probably bound to happen: I've joined the Vermis cult. Vermis has a novel concept--it's the "official guide" for a retro-styled dark fantasy video that doesn't exist. Through art and cryptic text, Vermis introduces the game's characters, locations, items of power, and monsters. Melancholic and dolorous, the world of Vermis should appeal to fans of FromSoft's Souls games for sure, but more generally I could see fans of old-school dark fantasy absolutely loving this. Being a video gamer is definitely not required--do you like grotty art and fantasy that leans more toward horror than epic quests? Unsheathe your blade and proceed.
There was both a lot of critical hype and a bit of derision surrounding Poor Things, and I was pretty excited for it since it was announced, and it really lived up to my expectations. The move is laugh out loud funny, and god damn that's the most sex I've seen on screen in a long time. It's really nice to sit down in a theater and watch a movie that was actually made for adults.
I think we need to reckon with the fact that Emma Stone is one of the finest actresses currently working; her performance here is fearless, and the way she subtly plays her character's maturation is a thing to behold. Willem Dafoe also sinks his teeth into his best role since we saw him in The Lighthouse. I'm going to be thinking about this film for a long time to come.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
I got a copy of The Muppet Christmas Carol for our Christmas Eve festivities this year. I had never seen it before, but I am very well-acquainted with Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The combination of live-action Michael Caine and a cast made up entirely of muppets is pretty funny on the face of it, but The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly accurate and faithful adaptation. Some of the songs are a bit much, especially where it gets maudlin about Tiny Tim, but it's not like Dickens doesn't pull the same saccharine sentiments, so again this follows the source material quite closely.
Wes Craven's Swamp Thing also featured in our Christmas Eve festivities this year. It's not a particularly seasonal movie perhaps, but maybe it fits by virtue of the fact that Swamp Thing is a Christ-like figure. No, I will not be explaining that further. I do have quite a bit of nostalgia for this movie, as it always seemed to be on the USA network when I was young, so I still have a lot of affection for this man-in-a-rubber-suit monster flick. Plus, Adrienne Barbeau is smokin' hot in Swamp Thing, and interestingly I think her character is allowed to kick more ass than women in similar roles now are generally allowed.
Spiritbox, The Fear of Fear
It feels like Spiritbox is on an unstoppable roll. From their collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion to their latest EP, The Fear of Fear, 2023 felt like a rising year for the band. The Fear of Fear starts off hard, but across its handful of songs it manages to showcase the band's many moods and mastery of many textures. If The Fear of Fear is any indication, their sophomore album will be another killer.
Sarai Walker, The Cherry Robbers
To be honest, this one is a mild delight. Sarai Walker's The Cherry Robbers has a lot of strong thematic elements that I enjoyed (a riff on the Winchester House, a family of daughters who inexplicably die after their first sexual encounter with a man, a "mad" mother who senses doom on the wind, etc.), but this one lacks the intensity that makes similar feminist Gothic novels really sing. It's not bad by any means, is actually quite engaging and well-written, and I like how it brings the Gothic into a 1950s context, but I would be more apt to recommend The Cherry Robbers to someone looking for a book more on the "literary" end than one suffused with Gothic nonsense.
Gou Tanabe, The Shadow Over Innsmouth
Gou Tanabe's graphomaniac black and white manga art is absolutely a perfect accompaniment to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," one of Lovecraft's most anxiety-riddled short stories. We live in an era where Lovecraft, and adaptations of Lovecraft, exert an outsized influence on modern horror media, but Gou Tanabe's take feels like it both honors the source material and presents a fresh version of something that has become commonplace through repetition. On the strength of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I definitely plan on checking out the rest of his Lovecraft adaptations. I hear "The Call of Cthulhu" comes in the summer of next year, so that's pretty exciting.
My big fear for Mad God was that it was just going to feel like an extended Tool video, but luckily it is very much its own thing. If you aren't familiar with it, Mad God is a mostly stop-motion animation film that took creator Phil Tippet over thirty years to finish. For some viewers, Mad God will be too light on storytelling. For me, Mad God is the kind of movie I can just watch without really having to think about--the whole thing just sort of washes over you with waves of grime and misery. It's probably not for the faint of heart, but the best things aren't. Lots of drippy, gross meatstuff in display here.
Blue Eye Samurai
Although it treads a fairly well-worn path of revenge, Blue Eye Samurai has enough twists and turns to be truly compelling. The art style is amazing; it's definitely a cut above most Netflix animated series I've seen. Additionally, Blue Eye Samurai can be unbelievably tense. I had to stop watching it at night because being on the edge of my seat before bedtime was messing with my sleep cycle. Tons of violence in this, a surprising amount of sex, and a fantastic cover of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"? Wonderful. Can't wait for another season.
Spawn Cover Gallery Vol. 1, 1-100
The first volume of the Spawn Cover Gallery collects the covers from the first hundred issue's of Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic. Presented as a handsome hardcover, the reproductions of each cover are great. You can fault McFarlane for his pacing, his storytelling (or lack thereof), and even with losing interest in his own indie project, but you gotta admit that he truly exceled at covers--the more static and "pin-up-y" the better. His attention to detail and dynamic poses are a winning combination; some of the covers collected here are absolutely and undeniably iconic.
I do love a movie with rancid vibes and Saltburn, a film about a scholarship student at Oxford who manages to ingratiate himself with an upper class family to spend the summer at their palatial estate, has rancid vibes in abundance. This really is a movie filled with grimy little shits for characters, which is one of my favorite genres of movie. After I watched it, I heard that there was some Twitter discourse around how unsettling it is, which is funny because if I had one critique it's that the movie could have gone a little harder. But that's the moral lesson to close out 2023 with: don't pay any attention to Twitter discourse.
Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver, Uncommon Charm
I managed to squeeze one last book into 2023: Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver's Uncommon Charm, a novella about a young Jewish man who discovers he is a magician and a young woman who is delving into the haunting secrets of her own familial past. As promised, the book does possess an uncanny charm, presenting common Gothic conventions in a modern and often archly humorous light. Despite its short page count and zippy, 1920's tone, Uncommon Charm also has a degree of subtly to it as well--deeper layers beneath the distractions.