Things that brought me delight in January, 2024:
Simone St. James, The Broken Girls
Simone St. James's The Broken Girls was the first book I finished in 2024. With this novel, we've got dual-timeline storytelling. It's part Gothic novel about a haunted girls boarding school in the 1950s and part murder mystery about a girl who was found dead in land occupied by the now-abandoned school in the 90s. The protagonist, a journalist who is the murdered girl's sister, finds herself unburying the haunted past to make sense of her sibling's tragic death. There's got a lot going on in The Broken Girls: a Bronte-esque ghost, corrupt cops, and even Nazi war criminals. Definitely recommended if you like the idea of a crime novel mixing with your Gothic ghost stories.
Berberian Sound Studio
It's interesting to compare Berberian Sound Studio (which I enjoyed) against something like Skinamarink (which I think rules people out from having good taste if they say they like it), as both generally fall into the category of "atmosphere is the point." Although is isn't a plot-focused movie, Berberian Sound Studio is at least anchored by Toby Jones's magnificent performance as a sound engineer who is fraying at the edges until there's nothing left of him. The film is also very attractive to look at, and more importantly, to hear. None of that tomfoolery of masking a lack of coherent ideas with murky imagery and muffled sound here.
Often, the idea of religious horror is better than the execution, but I think Deliver Us rates higher than most. When a nun gives miraculous birth to twins--one of which is the messiah, the other the antichrist--a shadowy organization moves to kill the children to prevent the End of Days. The nun comes under the protection of a priest who is questioning his faith; in fact, one of the things I like about Deliver Us is its variation on "priest suffering a crisis of faith": this guy know he has to leave the church because he's knocked a woman up. Admittedly, Deliver Us is light on horror and plays out more like a religious morality play with supernatural elements, but I'm fine with that over another Exorcist clone.
Sara A. Mueller, The Bone Orchard
The Bone Orchard is a strikingly original dark fantasy novel right out of the gate: our central location is a brothel where the clients are served by "ghosts" inhabiting vat grown bodies. Spoiler territory: those "ghosts" being put into vat grown bodies at the brothel are actually bits of the main character's fractured sense of self. Each one is meant to serve as a means to keep the central personality safe from harm. The premise of having a brothel madame entrusted with figuring out which of the emperor's sons killed him is pretty interesting; it feels like a different flavor of machinations than we usually get. The stakes feel nice and high too: we've got the politics of trade, the nation losing their colonial war, and a revolution threatening the imperial center as the army tries to impress citizens into service. All of this and a masquerade ball full of intrigues too!
Coop, Devil's Advocate and Idle Hands
There's more PLANET MOTHERFUCKER stuff coming in 2024, so to get pumped up to finish my drafts I've been dipping into Coop's art again for inspiration. Both Devil's Advocate and Idle Hands are great collections of his style of overheated, lowbrow trash culture art. If you like buxom devil women, hot rods, and all the good shit like that, look no further.
Garrett Cook, Charcoal
In Garrett Cook's Charcoal a promising art student is given a set of charcoals by her lecherous professor that may have the ashes of a decadent 19th century libertine mixed into their composition. Now she's drawing terrifying crows that want to be fed on her trauma, and that's the least horrific thing she's experiencing as a result of experimenting with these forbidden art supplies. You can be sure this won't end well. There's a bit of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in Charcoal, but I'd recommend this especially to people looking for something in the nexus of A24's better films, Clive Barker, and Kathe Koja.
In This Moment, Godmode
On Godmode, In This Moment have evolved into a throbbing beast of industrial metal and dark pop grandeur. While the original tracks are great, it's pretty ballsy that they not only did a cover of Bjork's "Army of Me," but that they made that the third track on the album. Impossible to compete with Bjork, but this is pretty solid. Lots of emo, teenage reprobate moments to savor on this one.
Ai Jiang, Linghun
Ai Jiang's Linghun is a grief-heavy novel about a family who moves to a neighborhood where families are known to be visited by the ghosts of their lost loved ones. Meanwhile, those who hope to one day have a home in the neighborhood--but are currently unable to afford it--camp out on the lawns and forlornly wait their turn. Well, they wait their turn until the unearthly spectacle of a house auction, which routinely turns into blood sport. It's easy to say that a novel is a "meditation on grief," but there's no way around it: that's exactly what Linghun is.
Nominally an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep," Suitable Flesh is a difficult movie to figure out what exactly you appreciated about it. I found it hard to tell which elements were intentional homages to 80s/90s horror and which parts were just plain bad filmmaking; truly, this is a film that has no idea about how psychiatrists operate, despite placing psychiatrists at the center of the narrative. For me, Heather Graham and Barbara Crampton saved it; they both seemed like they were having a lot of fun. Also, the use of billowing curtains and sultry saxophone in the sex scenes was A+ throwback work.
Kaori Yuki, Beauty and the Beast of Paradise Lost, vols. 1-5
Kaori Yuki is my favorite mangaka, so I'll pretty much read anything of hers that gets translated into English. Although she isn't the most startling artist, I love the themes she works with throughout her many series of manga. Beauty and the Beast of Paradise Lost is no different. On the surface, it's a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (and to be honest, the "Paradise Lost" bit doesn't factor in literally), but the manga excavates the inherent Gothic romance of the source story and turns it into something surprising and, in places, monstrous.
Nick Medina, Sisters of the Lost Nation
Nick Medina's Sisters of the Lost Nation, a novel in which a young Native American woman grapples with the sudden and ominous disappearance of her little sister, plays off the epidemic of Native women who go missing in North America. I was expecting something more folk horror from the description I read of it, but it was really good nonetheless. In particular, the tense feeling engendered by the novel's structure--it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline of events related to the sister's disappearance--really kept me on the edge of my seat and kept me turning pages to find out what had happened and how the novel would resolve.
The Fall of the House of Usher
When Mike Flanagan's The Fall of the House of Usher series was announced, I was very excited...until I found out it was a Mike Flanagan joint. Despite minor triumphs like Oculus and his adaptation of Gerald's Game, I really didn't like his take on The Haunting of Hill House; I felt like it mined the surface details of Shirley Jackson's novel for very little reward.
I expected The Fall of the House of Usher to follow suit. Though it's a mixed bag, and again really doesn't evidence a deeper understanding of Poe's work than a Wikipedia dive could give, it is buoyed by strong performances from Mark Hammill and Carla Gugino. Though I'm still not convinced that the show benefits from all the "Easter egging" and doesn't do much with Poe's corpus, there were some nice moments strewn about the dross.
It's been many, many years since I last watched Grindhouse--Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's joint love letter to the sleazy films of yesteryear--but god-damn I still think this is an under-rated good time. Planet Terror is prime Rose McGowan, has some insane ultraviolence, and also features some great visual gags. I was surprised that the car chase in Death Proof still makes me feel incredibly tense even though I've seen it a ton of times. Throw in those great fake movie trailers--several of which have since gone on to become full films in their own right--and you have an absolutely winning combination.
Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obara, Death Note Short Stories
I read all of Death Note last year and was surprised to find that it actually is an incredibly well put-together manga series. Death Note Short Stories is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of shorter works connected to the main story. One of the stories is a long "sequel" of sorts about the next person to get their hands on the death note; others are jokey four-panel comics or shorter vignette-like stories. Overall, this is a nice companion volume to the main series, though it probably isn't essential to the enjoyment of Death Note as a whole. One hilarious thing: it's canon that Donald Trump almost got his hands on the death note.
Richard Swan, The Justice of Kings
Richard Swan's The Justice of Kings follows the exploits and travails of Konrad Vonvalt, a "Justice" of the Emperor--essentially a traveling magistrate entrusted with occult powers to ferret out the truth and make sound judgements on legal matters in accordance with secular law.
Although the story concerns Vonvalt's character arc, it is told to us by his clerk, a woman named Helena. In the narrative she is relating, she is a young and petulant woman of nineteen. She's had a difficult life of hardscrabble survival, and at this point in her life she is unsure whether she wants to pursue the path to becoming a Justice herself or if she'd like to leave Vonvalt's service. Of course, Helena scarcely has time to consider her options as a seemingly routine murder investigation involves the protagonists in a conspiracy with ramifications that threaten to shake the Empire's stability. Want to know more? Check out my full review over at Bad Books for Bad People.
I watched Kill List at the urging of one of my friends on Discord. It was a great recommendation too because I love this slow-burn style of horror that features a big left-hand turn in the narrative. At the start, Kill List appears to be a crime thriller about two ex-military men who have turned assassins-for-hire. They receive a list of three people they are being paid to kill, but with each murder things get a little stranger and more unsettling. We also see that there is something going on with the woman who has befriended one of the men's wives by being a ready ear for the strain their relationship has been under. Of course, by the third killing all hell breaks loose; the assassins interrupt a bizarre cult ritual and things culminate in an unexpectedly folk horror direction.
A Cure for Wellness
A Cure for Wellness was another recommendation I got from the folks on my Discord. (Sorry, it was so long ago that I've forgotten who actually mentioned it, but it was a good rec!) In A Cure for Wellness, an up-and-coming financial executive is sent to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his corporation's missing-in-action CEO. Of course, he arrives and discovers that there is something sinister going on at the center and he becomes embroiled in an extremely Gothic plot. Though the plot doesn't make a ton of sense and the film is admittedly a bit overlong, A Cure for Wellness is a beautifully shot film with some truly disturbing scenes.
Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla, Night of the Ghoul
Night of the Ghoul is a pretty cool horror comic from Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla. It's very cinematic; the story starts with a horror film fanatic dragging his teenage son to visit a dying man he believes is the director of a lost "classic" horror flick in a secretive hospital. Of course, not all is what it seems--the film, the director's life, and now this father and son duo are deeply embroiled with the monstrous ghoul. One thing I really enjoyed about Night of the Ghoul is the way it leverages the structural possibilities of comics to enable its storytelling: we cut from the main action in the present, back to World War II, and also bits from the lost film.
The Doctor and the Devils is a pretty straightforward retelling of Burke & Hare's crimes, but with a surprisingly hefty bit of talent behind it: Timothy Dalton, Patrick Stewart, Twiggy (!!!), and Julian Sands. (Seriously, did anyone else know there was a movie where Twiggy plays a nineteenth-century prostitute?) To be clear, this really isn't a horror movie as such; The Doctor and the Devils is definitely more in the realm of dark historical reenactment, should that matter to you.
Cullen Bunn, Arjuna Susini, Hilary Jenkins, Lamentation
In Lamentation, a young woman shows up to audition for a play and suddenly finds herself cast in the lead role. The catch is that the theater seems to exist in its own shadowy dimension; the players are all trapped within it until they successfully perform the violent Gothic melodrama they've been given as a script. Which is easier said than done, since murder, jealousy, a maze-like interior, and supernatural horrors all provide obstacles to seeing the play through and finding freedom.
I really loved Christopher Smith's Black Death, so when I heard he had a recent "religious horror" film out I had to make time to watch it. Although it didn't thrill me as much as Black Death, Consecration is a really interesting movie that puts an unique spin of the subgenre of Catholic horror. When her brother dies under mysterious circumstances, a woman travels to a remote convent to uncover the truth of his death--and along the way uncovers some massive secrets about her own past.
Kate Heartfield, The Chatelaine
I had been interested in reading Kate Heartfield's The Chatelaine back when it was originally released under the more compelling name Armed in Her Fashion with a much more compelling cover. I've seen it compared to Christopher Buehlman's Between Two Fires, and while I can see some similarities, such as the presence of demons and a medieval setting, The Chatelaine is not nearly as brutal. It is quite good, though; in the wake of a demonic invasion of Bruges, a middle-aged mother with a sharp tongue, her romantic daughter, and an unusual mercenary march into Hell in pursuit of money and treasure that is legally due to them. Interesting, The Chatelaine addresses the themes that a book I read in January and didn't like, Anna Biller's Bluebeard's Castle tried to work with, namely the ways in which women have to navigate a patriarchal world, with much more nuance and intelligence.
I snuck in one more movie before we rolled over into February. Prior to this, I had only seen Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of Nightmare Alley, but now I've seen Edmund Goulding's take on the novel. It's a quite good film noir, though I do think its run time doesn't really do it any favors. This is probably going to sound wildly out of pocket in some corners, but I preferred del Toro's version! As is typical of the era in which it was filmed, this version has a lot of shots that are simply framed around two characters embroiled in a close-up conversation; the additional sense of movement in del Toro's film really does add some interest that I found myself missing.