Unsolicited Thoughts on Recent Horrors

“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened!” Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar. (Source)

I finally saw Midsommar.

Let me begin with the good. I liked it a lot more than Ari Aster’s first offering, Hereditary. The bright Scandinavian aesthetics and Pawel Pogorzelski‘s enchanting cinematography lent the film an undeniable visual appeal. The acting was also to be commended. Florence Pugh’s performance is a masterclass in theatrical distress.

That being said, the film was on the whole, yet another disappointment from Ari Aster. I cannot say the same about Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, which I saw with friends last week.

I think I can fairly compare these two horror directors working under the aegis of A24. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Eggers is better in every way that counts. Both have now produced folk horrors centered on the trauma of young women in claustrophobic wilderness. The Witch is more inventive, precisely because it is more traditional, than Midsommar. Or rather, it did what few films are willing to do in its approach to the past; take it on its own terms. Its originality lies in large part due to its embrace of the Puritan myths without judgment, and exposing the horrors we thought we left behind in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, Midsommar doesn’t have the burden (or the gift?) of history to work with. But one can’t help but feel that what we find here is just The Wicker Man gutted of its moral core and set slightly farther north. In fact, the ending is probably a double homage to both Wicker Man films.

Nicolas Cage in a bear skin suit. The Wicker Man (2006) – (Source)

While Midsommar is an improvement over the rather humdrum (if at times shocking and, admittedly, very well researched) Hereditary, it doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema in the way that The Lighthouse does. In The Lighthouse, we discover a radically different kind of film. Its irregular aspect ratio, its black-and-white cinematography, its baroquely salty dialect – these bewildering distinctions from the run-of-the-mill horror flick work together to construct a vision of a world totally unlike our own. And yet, The Lighthouse manages to provide a series of sights, sounds, and even smells so visceral that one feels entirely immersed in this other world.

Midsommar fails to do that. For all its blood-and-guts moments, for all its eros and trauma, one comes away from the experience feeling strangely detached. I couldn’t manage to care too much about what happens to these characters, some of whom are intensely annoying. Not so in The Lighthouse. One cares very, very deeply – or more correctly, you feel the confusion and desperation of the situation in your gut. You are on that island. It is happening to you.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Midsommar was its rather predictable plot twists (if I can even call them that). Anyone familiar with the genre will be able to see exactly what is coming, even if they can’t imagine all the precise details. Not so in The Lighthouse. While one can establish a direction of travel – particularly in the film’s first half – after a certain point, you become as disoriented as the film’s unhappy protagonists. Like its great antecedent, Moby Dick, The Lighthouse is full of strange allusions, haunting images, and intensely visceral shocks. It’s a tight, dark, and disturbing maze.

Beyond that, I have a complaint that is, perhaps, too subjective to warrant much value criticism. Midsommar failed to scare me. Not many horrors do, I have to confess. I liked Possum, even though it was more unnerving than actually scary. Two of my favorite horror films, The Shining and the original Wicker Man, don’t actually frighten me. Nor does The Witch. In their cases, I can overlook the lack of fear because of the strength of these movies has as a film. Midsommar wasn’t strong enough for me to forgive the lack of fear.

The Lighthouse however, climaxed with one of the most genuinely frightening scenes I have seen in any film for a very long time. Without saying too much, I will refer my readers to my essay on eldritch horror in the New England literary tradition. Eggers knows that tradition very, very well. The Lighthouse, like The Witch before it, is a superlative contribution to New England’s peculiar darkness. His final, terrifying scene in The Lighthouse is an echo of Pip’s experience in Chapter XCIII of Moby Dick. Eggers, and of many a chapter in Lovecraft.

Powerhouse performances, top-notch writing, historical faithfulness, invocation of the New England horror tradition, black humor, innovative cinematography, and genuine scares make The Lighthouse the best and most beautiful horror film of the year. (Source)

I’m a sucker for folk horror, as my readers may well recall. Midsommar does deserve a place in the folk horror canon. But The Witch and The Lighthouse are higher on that grisly totem pole. They are also better works of art.

Announcing a New Poetry Publication

A Neo-Gothic ruin. (Source)

I’m very pleased to announce that I have a poem coming out in the Emma Press’s new collection, The Emma Press Anthology of Contemporary Gothic Verse. From the press release:

The anthology was compiled from poems sourced in an open call for submissions launched towards the end of last year. 294 poets entered, of which 26 were chosen for the anthology. Editor Nisha Bhakoo says in her introduction to the book: “My hope for this anthology was to showcase poems that pointed to the uncanniness of our present time, giving traditional gothic tropes a compelling, contemporary flavour. I not only wanted the poems to hold up a mirror to our post-postmodern age, but also to challenge the norms and unwritten rules of it.”

Although I make no money from the sale, please consider buying a copy of the Anthology from the Press’s UK-based store. Small presses need as much support as we can give them, and the Emma Press has published some really great contemporary poetry. Pick up your copy today!

Patreon: Mirrors – Part II

Who is it that Jonas sees on the swing? (Source)

Over at Patreon, I’ve published the second part of my weird story, “Mirrors.” Novelist Jonas Beckley is having a more and more unsettling time in his new lodgings.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was a strange smell in the staircase today. Heavy, piercing, wet, rotten. Familiar, somehow, though I couldn’t place it. I think it must have been connected with whatever that black substance was on the stairs leading up from my floor. When I went to tell Wilson about it, he was nowhere to be found.

“Mirrors,” Part II – By Rick Yoder

Take a moment to become a patron today! Thank you to those who have already pledged and donated.

Patreon: Mirrors, Part I

Over at Patreon, I’ve published the first part of a new weird story, “Mirrors.” A popular writer moves into new lodgings, only to discover that the odd neighbors aren’t the only thing strange about the place…

Here’s an excerpt:

I still have not met any of my other neighbors, but I have heard them. Last night, I was woken up some time past midnight by several large thuds from above. It sounded as if someone was dropping bowling balls again and again on the floorboards. Just when I got out of bed and was halfway to making up my mind about whether or not I should go complain, the noise stopped. I hope this will not be a nightly recurrence, as it will surely impact my writing.

“Mirrors,” Part I – By Rick Yoder

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Patreon: A Walk to the Pier

A British pier, not to be confused with a British Peer (Source)

My short story “A Walk to the Pier” – a surreal tale of memory, guilt, and telephones – is now up on my Patreon. An excerpt:

With almost a week gone by, Seymour Groves was regretting his retirement. Everyone had said that moving to Etcham-on-Sea would be just the thing to do, a kind of neverending holiday. What they hadn’t mentioned is whether a neverending holiday was really desirable. After frequenting the music halls, the buffets, the toffee shops, and the boardwalk, Groves had decided in the negative. Part of it was boredom. The amusements of his youth looked more tired than ever. He couldn’t, in all dignity, ride the bumper cars again, nor frequent the clubs and bars that had so enticed him in the summers of his early adulthood. Everything was sagging, rust-lined, smelling of piss. The beach huts stood in a silent line, all quite beyond repair. His own small flat was hardly more than a bedsit with a couple faded posters that shouted “Etcham! Poseidon’s Paradise in the North!” Perhaps it had been so, once. But as he was alone, he would have to find something to do. Groves had never married – had, in fact, lost the one woman whom he ever loved, Mona Deane, on the rocky shore of Etcham. He had not come back since that night so many decades ago.

“A Walk to the Pier,” by Rick Yoder (your humble blogger)

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Anglo-Catholics and the Occult: My Church Times Debut

The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.


The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here

The Voice of Arthur Machen

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The title illustration of Machen’s The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (1896), famously rendered by Aubrey Beardsley (Source)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was one of the greatest horror writers in the English language. His particular brand of esoteric paganism, the dangers of the occult, the sinister truth lurking behind folktales, and a highly-developed knack for evoking eldritch terror – all of these elements exerted a profound influence on the development of weird literature. Those who enjoy Lovecraft will recognize much in Machen that later made its way into Lovecraft’s own corpus. The dark bard of Providence held Machen in high esteem.

Machen was also a deeply spiritual Christian, best but imperfectly classed as an Anglo-Catholic. His strong sense of the mystical life found its fullest expression not in his horror stories, which do indeed bear some mark of his sacramental worldview, but in his later writings. A Welshman, he was fascinated by the Grail legend and connected it with his idea of an ancient, vividly supernatural “Celtic” Christianity.

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Portrait of Arthur Machen (Source)

Machen is a favourite of mine. I cannot recommend his stories highly enough – especially The Great God Pan, “The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “The Ceremony,” and “The Lost Club.” He is far scarier than some of his better-known contemporaries such as M.R. James or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He also figures prominently in some of my research. I recently came upon a recording of his voice from 1937, in which he speaks of Chesterton, Dickens, Thackeray, and the art of fiction more broadly. Some of my readers may find this as enjoyable as I do, and so I provide a link here.

A Heathen Song in Time of War

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“Then the black snake coursed the meadow,/The red dragon rose unwombed,/While the storm wailed like a shadow/To eternal anguish doomed.” – Johannes Carsten Hauch (Source)

As the world seems to be reeling towards another horrendous conflict, I am reminded of one of the greatest, most Dionysian pieces of recent anti-war art, Veljo Tormis’s Raua Needmine (Curse Upon Iron). Bleak as the Baltic, majestic as the dark woods of the north, and terrifying as Ragnarok itself, the 1972 piece from Estonia managed to capture the frenzied devastation of war. It is music best listened to with eyes firmly shut.

Nostalgia Without Illusions

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The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious (Source)

Recently I read an article about a genre of music that had previously been unknown to me: Hauntology. In a nutshell, Hauntology is a throwback to the eerie, folksy world of British childhood in the 1970’s. The author summarizes the genre’s affective impact as “strange, melancholy disquiet.” Apparently music is being made today (and has been for some time) that conjures all at once that decade’s public broadcasting for children, the acoustic sounds of the English folk tradition, psychedelia, pagan chants, and synthesizers. Most of this material has been released through a few different labels: Ghost Box, Clay Pipe, and Trunk Records. Each specializes in a different variation of the general theme. On the whole, though, they all produce music that’s unsettling and evocative of a very particular place and time in the last century. There is something autumnal, something anachronistic, something broken in it all. In short, it’s music that’s haunted.

Many of the albums have cover art inspired by Eric Ravilious or John Nash or Sir Stanley Spencer or even Rex Whistler, those painters who so marvelously captured the quiet unease of the British landscape and its denizens. And the multimedia satirical phenomenon that is Scarfolk fits right into the broader movement. Hauntology is more than just a style of music. It’s an aesthetic.

In this respect, Hauntology is to the 1970’s what Vaporwave is to the late 1980’s and 90’s, or, for that matter, what David Lynch’s entire corpus is to the 1950’s.

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Malls built in the early years of Bush I are the stuff of Vaporwave dreams. (Source)

Vaporwave derives its critical bite as well as its occasional airy ephemerality from a unifying sense of dread. Much the same could be said of Hauntology. Only instead of the zombie-like ascent of neoliberal late capitalism under the glittering haze of digital culture and advertising, Hauntology is still preoccupied with the anxieties of the analog age. Orwellian dystopia, the loss of the British countryside, and the destruction of innocence all hover under the surface. It’s drawing upon creepy public service announcements rather than Japanese soft drink commercials. Hauntology is to British Folk Horror as Vaporwave is to Cyberpunk.

BlueVelvet

A scene from Blue Velvet (1986), one of David Lynch’s most distinctive films. It set the tone for much of what was to follow in its powerful evocation and ultimately ruthless subversion of mid-century norms (Source).

The common denominator is nostalgia, but a nostalgia free of illusions. Each of these aesthetic representations of a remembered decade – Lynch’s 1950’s, Hauntology’s 1970’s, and Vaporwave’s Digital Age – contains a degree of attachment to that particular time. Usually because the main creators involved in producing the aesthetic grew up then, and thus they draw upon the dreamlike haze which alternately gilds and clouds our world in youth. But it’s all shot through with the very real understanding that the past was not as wonderful as we would like to believe. Something nasty lurks just beyond our peripheral vision. We cannot help remember, but in that remembrance, terror awaits.

I’m an American, and only in my early twenties. 1970’s Britain wasn’t a world I ever knew. Nevertheless, I immediately connected with the emotional phenomenon behind Hauntology. Certain relics of that earlier time appeared every now and then in childhood, and even those that weren’t directly from the United Kingdom of the 1970’s often bring to mind that same feeling of remembered unease. Many of Don Bluth’s films animate precisely this strange, sensitive part of my memory. So do Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. So does The October Country, Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story collection (which itself significantly predates the main era of Hauntology). So does anything by Lynd Ward. So do parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So does that horrible movie, The Plague Dogs. There are probably more examples I could summon up if I thought about it long enough. I am no stranger to “strange, melancholy disquiet.”

I’ve always liked that sensation, and I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ nostalgia. As such, I’m super pleased to have discovered Hauntology.

“And the Light Shineth in Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended It Not.”

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Cybele, the Magna Mater, on her triumphal car pulled by two lions. Has there ever been a more perfect likeness to the Whore of Babylon? (Source)

March 24th is the traditional Dies Sanguinis of the ancient Roman calendar, when the painted eunuch-priests of Cybele and the votaries of Attis in their Phrygian caps would join with the servants of warlike Bellona in the most vile public atrocities. On that day, hideous pipes stirred the wicked throng into a fever of unutterable terror, and as the revelers danced in an ever more demoniac fashion, they mutilated their flesh and let out copious torrents of blood upon the stones of forum and temple. Then they drank from their own spilled blood, descending even lower than the beasts in their frenzy and taking on instead the aspect of lustful aegypans. The summit of these evil ecstasies came when, before the altar of the Magna Mater, devotees castrated themselves. Only thus could they enter the service of that infernal priesthood.

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The Triumphal Entrance of Christ, mosaic, Palermo. (Source)

This was the culture that Christianity conquered. And it is with these satanic rites in mind that we look forward to a double feast of rather a different sort tomorrow. For tomorrow, on the 25th of March, we celebrate Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, falling providentially on the same day.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

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The Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489-90. My favorite of all Annunciations. (Source).