Since April, I’ve been pleased to join Celluloid Citizens as occasional co-host discussing movies both great and other adjectives. Below are the episodes on which I’ve appeared:
Check out the full episode list here for more great discussion.
This Is Just to Say
I have joined
you should probably
We discussed The Empty Man
and so fun
I’ll be on with Sean Thompson chatting movies periodically, so make sure to subscribe early and subscribe often. Also, go back and listen to the ones that don’t even have me because it’s not all about me! I particularly have enjoyed the episodes on The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Under the Skin.
Oh and if you missed it, also I recently published an essay about Uncut Gems, in case that strikes your fancy.
Recently, I caught up to the party and finally watched Uncut Gems. The first time through, my mind wandered a bit at times and there were some occasions on which I wondered if perhaps I’d been conned, even if I did find it entertaining enough for the most part. However, when it wrapped up I found myself thinking that the closing scenes of the movie are among the most effective I’ve seen in any movie, and unsettling in ways that overlapped with some of the best horror movies I’ve seen. Something about how everything came together for such an effective climax made me want to understand more about what went into achieving the effect, even if it meant reconsidering some of those moments when my attention strayed. I started jotting down an occasional note about something that stood out about the movie, and then another and another. A page of these random thoughts became 3 became 5 became 10, and eventually I had a few solid pages of real writing behind which emerged some converging themes, and now…whatever this has become.
(VERY HEAVY SPOILERS in the essay, including both images and text. Allusive references to potential plot spoilers below, but this intro is meant for a general audience that includes people who have not seen the movie. It’s rare that I think spoilers are very significant, though I always try to be considerate of others with them. In this movie, however, I strongly urge you to go in knowing as little as possible. If you haven’t seen it and there’s a chance you will, I’d urge you to see it before reading the essay. Every aspect of the plot is discussed.)
Here are a few things this piece of writing has become for me personally: at about 9,300 words, it’s the longest piece of nonfiction writing I’ve done outside an academic context, and second overall only to my thesis. Hopefully not too many of those words are repeated needlessly. It is the longest piece of non-researched criticism I’ve done (I did skim some reviews and am aware that some of these have touched on a couple of the topics I explore, but I’ve neither sought nor seen anything that attempts to look at the film as closely as I’ve ended up (compulsively) doing…You’re not my teacher, you can’t tell me what to do!). The essay is the longest piece of film writing I’ve ever done by far, and indeed the only “serious” film writing I’ve done since the lone film class I took as an undergraduate 17-18 years ago. It’s a piece of writing that has highlighted something that’s always been there for me as a literature student but that I’ve recently begun to appreciate more deeply, which is the wide variety of ways in which learning about one piece of art teaches us about a whole lot of other art, in both a general and specific sense. While writing this essay, Uncut Gems had me pondering a wide selection of movies I’d seen before that encompasses but is probably not limited to the following: Funny Games, Run Lola Run, Rounders, It Follows, Poltergeist, Requiem for a Dream, U-Turn, The Big Lebowski, Leaving Las Vegas (all of which I heartily recommend). If I had to sum things up, I’d point the curious prospective viewer toward the first three movies I mentioned as touchstones while disclaiming that it would be by far an insufficient comparison still.
I jotted down several pages of notes after one viewing, but at that point I had not yet really decided to do anything with them. After a second watch, I had the feeling that I’d created, after all, a solid framework of initial observations for a thorough understanding of the movie. Also, I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about it. I’m sure there is still a lot I haven’t noticed, but there is so much detail packed into every aspect of the filmmaking that I’m sure ten watches (pun always intended) wouldn’t do the trick either. I’m also sure there could be a few observations in the writing that are a bit off, but I think the general directions in which I’m casting about have held more merit the more closely I’ve looked at them.
It seems to me that there is a unity of purpose between the themes and techniques that begs to be examined closely, and they come together in a way that only the most effective films manage. Except perhaps to clarify a minute detail or prove a point to someone I’m arguing with, I don’t think I’ve watched portions of important movie scenes frame by frame since I took that one film class, but I’ve felt compelled to do it in several key scenes here. That final class project required groups to do a deep enough analysis of a scene that it would take up most of a class meeting. Our group did the final 30 seconds or so of Double Indemnity, a fantastic project to have worked on and something I’d encourage anyone to do some time. I certainly didn’t expect at the time to be thinking back on it at age 39 in this way.
Perhaps more than anything, Uncut Gems has made me ponder the fact that for every “big idea,” in art and elsewhere, there are a thousand little ideas that have to work in harmony to make it happen and countless little accidents that you have to roll with and make work in concert with what you’ve already accomplished. I wanted to know what those ideas and decisions were, or at least try to divine them from a closer inspection. As in every movie but which we so easily forget through acclimation (again, a point that coheres with part of my interpretation of the film), everything that appears in frame and everything you hear was a decision of some kind made by someone, even if there was an accident that was preserved in post-production. Since learning this basic principle in that literature and film class, it has always stayed with me and, I think, made me a better movie watcher, better reader, and better music listener. Rarely have I had as much occasion to make use of that basic fact than with this movie: costumes, sound mix, performance theory…there is a lot to talk about, as with any movie, but here it all comes together in a way that creates a truly stand-out, complex experience worth understanding deeply.
As for what I’d read of the movie before seeing it, that consisted mostly of the basics that everyone hears about the movie: great performance from Sandler, fast-paced, anxiety inducing, New York. As impressive as Sandler’s performance is (though I will disclaim he as a person is a significant part of my hesitation to watch the movie), I was equally taken with the character Phil, played by Keith William Richards. I have not seen a performance as menacing and unsettling in an antagonist in many places outside of a near-perfect horror movie, and I wanted to understand just why that is: performance aside, the character doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen in movies a thousand times and become conditioned to see as unremarkable, which I think is part of the movie’s brilliance. This basic point lines up well with how the movie toys with viewer expectations shaped by all the crime media most Americans consume, and that aspect is very much related to other themes I discuss in the essay. A great juggling act is done with subterfuge/denial and the overstated/unbearably obvious, embodied in Phil as much as Howard. I would stack him up against any horror villain (at least, the ones confined to the physics of the real world). But it’s also important that we don’t much think of him as a villain, not really. A “bad guy” and antagonist, yes, but we mainly think of him as a functionary of a greater power than himself, which may or may not be to our folly. He’s a muscle guy doing a job, right?
Howard doesn’t want to see it either, even as he clearly tells us he’s aware of the violence in the hyperlocal sphere as it affects him, that if the ring isn’t back by Friday he’s a dead man. He looks so deeply into the gem, phone, and TV so that he can refuse to look at what those things entail for him as a human and the shrinking world he affects. Eventually the entirety of what his eyes behold will be brought into congruence with what we as viewers behold, with cosmic fragments of all that came before encompassed within it. It’s part of his pathology and part of the seductive precarity of the situation we’re in with him that makes the movie so anxiety-inducing.
I could be wildly casting about in the dark here. I certainly hope not, but it’s a constant concern when writing anything like this. Even if that is the case, I think there are enough observations with factual basis that even someone staunchly disagreeing with my conclusions might find some details of value in here that will deepen one’s appreciation of the movie.
Thank you for reading.
First, the new: I’m pleased to share that my story “The Drognar” has been adapted into a lovely audio version narrated and performed by Mick Dark of Chilling Tales for Dark Nights. Listen at YouTube.
The Drognar originally appeared in The Yellow Booke, Vol. 3 and is still available.
2020 Awards Eligibility
If you’re nominating for awards, the main published credit I have this year is “Many Lives Theory” (short story, horror/dark SF) in Dim Shores Presents, Vol. 1 (anthology). More details and available for purchase here. Any consideration for such is much appreciated.
I’ve got a work in progress that looks to be a novella if I ever finish it, working title “Hope Lake.” That’s the main thing I’ve got in the works for the new year, stay tuned and thanks for reading.
A quick note to announce that the first, limited run of Dim Shores Presents, Vol 1, containing my story “Many Lives Theory,” sold out in its first week of publication.
The second edition is now available directly through Dim Shores and will soon be on Amazon and other usual websites.
A few other quick thoughts…
I’ve recently gotten a bit of reading done and can heartily recommend Scanlines by Todd Keisling (also from Dim Shores) and”Rogomelec” by Leonor Fini.
I’ve been chipping away slowly at Shadows & Tall Trees, Vol. 8, and want to highlight a couple favorites so far from that: “The Somnambulists” by Simon Strantzas is a stand-out, and this is the second time in a row I have a new favorite story by Strantzas that I first encountered in Shadows & Tall Trees. Though I haven’t read all of Simon’s work, over the years I definitely feel I’ve been able to observe some significant changes in terms of its complexity and resonance with me as a reader. So far I’ve also particularly enjoyed “The Sound of the Sea, So Close” by James Everington, “The Quiet Forms of Belonging” by Kristi DeMeester, and “Sleepwalking with Angels” by Steve Rasnic Tem. I like how well the volume ties together themes relating to climate change and ephemeral dream-architectures. There is a flow back and forth between numerous stories that turn on such premises and I think such editorial choices have made the stories work better by appearing in such close conversation with one another. This tendency feels stronger in this volume than in previous ones.
I have recently been reminded of the fact that my first non-academic writing was for a music review site. It’s been so long that I often forget this, but lately I’ve been listening to something that has had me writing out notes for a piece just like that. Maybe I’ll post it here or something.
I’m delighted to share that my story “Many Lives Theory” has found a home at a publisher I’ve been following as a reader since almost as far back as their first publication in 2015. Dim Shores has begun a new anthology series, and my story serves as the opening track for Volume 1. I can’t think of a better home for it to have found.
“Many Lives Theory” began in response to a prompt for a doppelganger tale, and along the way it wandered through various parts of my own grieving process, constant real-life background horrors related to illness/healthcare and climate change, and meditations on the many ways in which socioeconomic structures are deliberately engineered to alienate people from their own society for reasons that are simultaneously rendered crystal clear and infuriatingly opaque depending on which desk one is sitting at.
Many thanks to all who have read it in various incarnations prior to publication; it wouldn’t have quite the same shape without your thoughtful comments.
Additional details below:
Dim Shores Presents is a new bi-annual anthology series spotlighting some of the best new writing in speculative fiction. Weird horror, strange science fiction, and dark fantasy rub shoulders with each other here, weaving a tapestry of uncanny beauty and fearful wonder.
Pre-order for Volume 1 is open now, and books are scheduled to ship in June.
This is the table of contents for Volume 1:
Christopher Burke – “Many Lives Theory”
Jane Sand – “Vacui”
Chiara Nova – “Walls of White”
Richard Staving – “Silver Bells and Cockle Shells”
Paul L. Bates – “Used Clothes”
Jonathan Raab – “Observer/Experiencer”
Anna Tambour – “The Divorce of Death and Pestilence”
Samuel Moss – “Gallaher Calls”
Victoria Dalpe – “The Rider”
Eric Schaller – “A Study in Abnormal Physiology”
Jen Downes – “Root and Branch”
Jake Marley – “Anemone”
Jess Landry – “I Will Find You, Even in the Dark”
The first 150 copies will be sold through the Dim Shores web store. These copies will be printed on nice creme paper stock, be hand-numbered, and will include an art print. When those copies sell out, I’ll make it available through The Book Depository, Powells, Bookshop.org, Amazon, etc. without these extras. There will eventually be an e-book release as well.
+ 6” x 9” trade paperback
+ Printed on 60# natural paper
+ High-quality print of front cover art
+ New Dim Shores vinyl sticker
+ This edition limited to 150 hand-numbered copies
Have finished two new stories:
“Hope Lake” (flash) – 400 words. A reworking of an old piece about the making of local legend, haunted lakes, and death as a process.
“Dream Home” (short story) – 1350 words. A short piece about climate disaster, rebirth, trauma, occult ritual, uncanny environments, and trauma again. This one was partly inspired by the image and tweet here from @NightlightPod, and they seem like a good place to follow so go give them a look.
Now for the fun part: selling them!
A quick note that Thinking Horror, Vol 2 has been published. It has an essay from me exploring the use of the uncanny video as a plot device in several recent(ish) works of fiction. I’m excited for this to be out there and to share a table of contents with so many people I’ve admired or looked forward to reading in recent years.
As a general purpose update on fiction, I’ve got two stories making the rounds in search of their proper home that I’m quite excited about. Have updated the bibliography accordingly.
- “An Endless Laceration: The Limit Experience in Horror” by Daniel Pietersen,
- “The Impossible Literature of Thomas Ligotti, Puppeteer and Eschatologist” by D. P. Watt
- THNKHRRR Interview: Steve Rasnic Tem,
- “Blood-borne: Viral Culture and the Ambiguous Corporeality in Splatter-punk Literature” by Onni Mustonen
- THNKHRRR Interview: Nick Mamatas
- “His Knife, Her Shadow” by John Glover
- “The Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’” by Kristi DeMeester,
- THNKHRRR Interview: Lisa Tuttle
- “Nothing Will Have Happened: Speculation and Horror in the Anthropocene” by David Peak,
- “‘Your Worst Fear’: Monstrous Feminine(ism) and the Horror Boom of the 1970s” by Andrew P. Williams,
- THNKHRRR Interview: John Skipp,
- “Collective Abjection: Social Horror in Stephen King’s It” by Mike Thorn
- “‘Hello from the Sewers of NYC’: T.E.D. Klein’s ‘Children of the Kingdom’” by Michael Cisco,
- “A Faint Sense of Double Vision”: Cinematic Tensions and Transmedial Anxieties in the Fiction of Files/Barringer, Wehunt, Tremblay, Link, and Ballingrud” by Christopher Burke,
- “Of Rats and Men: The Horror of the Pied Piper” by Kristin Peterson
- “Mi Him en Tow: Stephen King and the Challenge of Faith” by Gemma Files
Well, 2017 has been…a year. Not a good one, to be honest, on pretty much any level. That’s all the intro I think I can muster. Here’s some things about some things.
All that said, I did manage to do a few things, and I’m grateful to have been able to work on them and have access to outlets that are interested. Here’s a round-up of interviews and articles I worked on at weirdfictionreview.com.
I finished my first work of fiction in 3 years since moving to Rhode Island, called “The Crickets Will Sing.” I’m pretty happy with it and feel it’s significantly more complex than any short horror I’ve written before. More on that when it has found the right home.
I’ve recently seen an update that Thinking Horror, Vol. 2, which has an essay from me but was delayed due to circumstances beyond the publisher’s control, is progressing along to the design phase. Final ToC is here, and I’m honored to be included next to so many people I admire or who have been on my radar to read. I’ve updated the ole bibliography page with some of this updated info and have also added a couple things that had been omitted. For 2018, I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing a few older works that I don’t really have a better home for but that I’m pleased with enough to put them into the world.
NecronomiCon 2017 came and went in the blink of an eye, I was delighted to participate in a number of ways. I spent some time volunteering, which is a wonderful way to be involved. I was also a panelist on a discussion called The Dreaded Surreal: Landscapes in Weird Fiction, with Craig Gidney, Mike Griffin, Eric Schaller, and Jeffrey Thomas. It was my first time doing such a thing and I hope it went well. I know I got a lot out of participating. For a list of some of the works that were discussed, have a Twitter thread.
I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct the Guest of Honor interview with Stephen Graham Jones, a writer whom I greatly respect. The interview was published in edited form in the convention memento book, which is available at the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store in Providence and features lots of worthwhile reading. The full version, which ended up at around 5k words in total, should also be available through other means in the future.
I met many wonderful people for the first time and caught up with some others I’ve become more and more acquainted with over the last few years. Too many to list here, but if I talked to you for any length of time at NecronomiCon, I enjoyed it. The drama stirred by and focused around certain (relatively) high-profile people is absurd and not representative of the experience of the convention if you’re there in good faith to learn, socialize, and have fun.
I feel like I’ve had hardly any time to read this year (thanks, miserable excuse for a healthcare and disability system in the U.S.). Some highlights:
I spent the early part of the year in Stephen Graham Jones-land, getting refreshed on some things I’d read and exploring some others that were new to me in preparation for our NecronomiConversation (I will not apologize for this neologism). Those few months significantly deepened my appreciation of his work, and I can heartily recommend digging in with a collection like “After the People Lights Have Gone Off” or the experimental novel “Demon Theory.” “Mapping the Interior”, released over the summer, is also stellar. I read some other work of his this year, but those are my three picks if you want a place to dive in.
Some other noteworthy things I read this year that you should seek out: Palladium at Night by Christopher Slatsky, The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher, Shadows and Tall Trees Vol 7 edited by Michael Kelly, and She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin.
There’s a lot more that came out recently that I wish I’d gotten to read by now, like Nightscript Vol 3 edited by C.M. Muller, Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, Looming Low edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath, and Never Now Always by Desirina Boskovich to name just a few.
Most of 2017 has felt like all crisis, all the time. To cap it off, our beloved feline companion was recently diagnosed with terminal kidney disease, which has been an ongoing heartbreaking experience these last few weeks. Most of what I’ve mentioned here has provided a needed and fulfilling respite from some of the onslaught. Maybe something you’ve read about here will help you find a bit of respite as well.
I’ve also finally added a damn contact page if you have need of such for some reason.
I’ve been slow in updating due to life stuff, but here’s what’s new since the last one.
NecronomiCon 2017: I’ll be volunteering at the convention and I’m also honored to have been included as a panelist on a discussion called “THE DREADED SURREAL: Landscapes in Weird Fiction”. I’ll be joining Craig Gidney, Mike Griffin, Eric Schaller, Farah R. Smith, Jeffrey Thomas for this panel. More info on this and the convention’s core programming can be found here.
I’m also delighted to have been invited to conduct an interview with Stephen Graham Jones, one of the guests of honor at the convention, which will be included in the souvenir book. This is easily the lengthiest and most in-depth interview I’ve worked on, and I think it’ll make for a great read. Stephen had some fascinating things to discuss and really challenged me to develop my own skills as an interviewer. The program book will be sold at the convention, but there may be copies available afterward through Lovecraft Arts & Sciences.
Thinking Horror, Vol. 2: Release date is estimated as late summer or early fall 2017. It will contain an essay from me alongside many other pieces that look like they’ll be well worth a read. Can’t wait to see it!
Also slated for July, I’ll have another interview up that I enjoyed quite a lot with an author I’ve become a fan of in the past couple of years. More on that later, want to keep it a secret for now. I think one of the best things about doing so many interviews in the last couple years is that it forces me to think about writing in a different way by trying to focus my attention on how others work, and that always prompts me to think more critically about my own creative processes. I’ve learned things from every single person I’ve had the privilege of putting questions to, so if that’s you: thanks!
I realized recently that almost all of my reading for the past year has been for projects I was working on, so I decided I need a bit of a break for a couple of months until after the convention to see if I can do some reading strictly for pleasure and maybe feel like I have bandwidth to work on some fiction. I expect I’ll resume nonfiction endeavors after NecronomiCon. That said, the first thing I picked up was Shadows and Tall Trees Volume 7, which has been excellent. WFR has reprinted one of my favorite pieces from the anthology, “The Voice of the People” by Alison Moore, which I found to be elegantly simple in a good way, well executed, and quite relevant to our present moment. I was also really floored by the Conrad Williams story, ‘The Closure,” and can’t wait to read his upcoming collection from Undertow.
Alongside that I’m reading “Palladium at Night” by Christopher Slatsky, which I have no doubt I’ll enjoy as much as his collection, Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. In the world of nonfiction, I’ll soon be reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, which looks right up my alley. I don’t always get around to reviews, but if you want to follow what I’m reading you can hit me up on GoodReads. I also saw a recent review of Nightscript Volume 1 that I was flattered to see call out my story as a favorite.