The Ghosts of My Friends, created by Cecil Henland

Book: The Ghosts of My Friends

Creator: Cecil Henland

Type of Book: Autograph book, novelty

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it’s just such an interesting intersection between sentimentality, Rorschach’s test, and the turn of the century interest in klecksography.

Availability: This is a vintage book. I cannot seem to find the date this book was published but the earliest signed signature in my copy is in December, 1907. There were two editions from London and New York.  The copy I bought from a rare book shop on Abe Books, is a London edition, published by Dow & Lester, and at this moment there is no genuinely vintage edition of this book from either printing for sale on any of my go-to shops for interesting books.

Comments:  I have been doing a lot of genealogy research lately and have been beating my head against a wall where one branch of my family tree is concerned. I simply cannot find proof that the man who may be one of my seventh great-grandfathers had a son with the name of one of my actual sixth great-grandfathers. It is unlikely this research block will be solved by DNA testing yet I spat in a tube for half an hour and mailed it off anyway. I’ve also been cleaning up and reorganizing some bookcases and came across my copy of this delightful little book. I sat down for a moment to flip through it and look at the little ink blot signatures and with several ancestry research sites open on my computer, I decided to plug in the names because it seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time.

I didn’t discover that a famous or notorious person signed this copy of The Ghost of My Friends but the amount of time I spent looking into the people who signed and the history of the book, I realized I should probably write about it.

The signatures in this book may initially bring to mind the Rorschach ink blots used to make personality determinations based on what it is people see when they view a symmetric, but otherwise random image. However, for the purposes of this discussion I think it’s best to look at the 19th and early 20th century fads around ink blots, and this decision has everything to do with the fact that I have spent far too much time lately investigating the administration of the Rorschach test to be able to speak about it in under five thousand words or so.* There was a surprising amount of interest in seeing images in ink blots prior to the creation of the Rorschach test in the 1920s, and while those fads certainly influenced Rorschach, they are interesting in and of themselves.

One such example was the work of a poet called Justinus Kerner, who was also a medical doctor, entry-level occultist and first identified botulism (people had a lot more free time back then because there was no Twitter). Due to failing eyesight, Kerner often marred his paper with ink blots, and one day, after examining some of the crumpled pieces he thought were ruined, he noted that when folded in half the ink made an interesting pattern. He decided to make more ink blot art and used those patterns to illustrate a book of poetry called Kleksographien, which you can and should look through in its entirety, and it is believed that Rorschach had access to the book. The title, translated into English, is “klecksography” and that literally means “making ink blots.”

Klecksography became a popular pastime for children during the late 1800s. I found references on Wikipedia and across various blogs to one klecksographic game called Gobolinks or Shadow-Pictures For Young And Old, which amazingly has been reprinted. You can also thumb through the original version on Project Gutenberg. The game encouraged children to make monsters out of ink blots, which in turn were used to stimulate their imagination by creating stories about those monsters, the so-called “gobolinks.” This book is a descendant of such games, rather than a tool meant to genuinely analyze behavior or personality.

The Ghosts of My Friends was the creation of Cecil Henland, and I can find very little out about her life. In fact, I found out more concrete information about her husband than I did about her. The most I could come up with about her was from a message board devoted to fountain pens. User cercamons discovered that Cecil was a woman, something that is good to know before one writes a long article making assumptions about the implied gender of the name “Cecil.” Cercamons discovered that Cecil was a “founder of a nursery school system in England and the widow of Lt. Col. Arthur Jex-Blake Percival, who was killed in battle in November 1914.” Click on the image for the larger version to see all the very interesting books Cecil Henland created, including Hand of Graphs. I can find out nothing about Hand of Graphs yet I somehow know I want this book very badly.

The first page offers some useful instructions and it’s interesting to note that later entries are less distinct than earlier ones, lacking the smudging and theatricality of earlier blots. I lack the will to determine if fountain pen technology improved from the 1900s through the 1930s but one presumes that it did. Perhaps the parts of the pen that control how the ink funneled down into the nib became more refined. Regardless, anything that improved ink flow and prevented ink from spotting the page affected the drama of ink blot ghosties. You can see this play out in one of the ghosts from 1932. Not enough ink leaked out to leave a proper image on both sides when the paper was folded.


Now for the ghosts!

The first page is signed by C.W. Fendick on December 1907. Because exists, I easily tracked down the Fendick family in a 1911 census record. This is the pater familias, one Charles William Fendick. He was 42 or 43 when he signed this. He was married to a woman named Selina, and in 1911 they had five children: Margaret Selina, Charles Percy, Edith Helen Alice, Sidney Walter, and Reginald Stanley. I’m glad people printed their names but I also wish I could unsee the printed name until I tried to decipher the signature. But when the printed name is illegible, it’s just as bad because most of the time I need the printed name to discern the name in the signature ghost. So there you go.

Were I to hazard a guess, I would say this book belonged to Margaret Selina Fendick. There is no inscription to prove this, but later in the book, on December 26, 1930, we see the ghost of a man named Arthur Mayn. Margaret married an Arthur Mayn on October 20, 1923. It looks like this little book was signed mostly around the holidays. I can’t help but think that Margaret was reminded of this book around the holidays in 1930 – her father, mother and brother Sidney signed it again on December 12, 1930 – and she signed it with her married name and got her husband to sign it, too. Margaret Selina would have been 15 or 16 years old during the first volley of signatures. It seems like this novelty book would have been a fun gift for a teen girl. Something else that lends credence to the idea that this book belonged to Margaret Selina is that one of the first signatures in the book belongs to “Edith Vickery.” I found an Edith Vickery in Essex who would have been about 14 or 15 years old when she signed, making her the right age to be a school friend of Margaret’s. Other surnames appeared in the book as well, like Poole and Cooper, but I did not research them because at some point even I know when I have gone on far too long.

The book is fairly fragile so we did not scan every autograph in the book. We grabbed the “ghosts” who seemed most interesting to us. I’m including my two favorites in a larger size but you can click on any image to get a closer look.

If you don’t see a teddy bear peeking up at you over the top of the signature, can we even be friends?

One cannot help but feel that within young Edith Vickery was a butterfly waiting to burst forth from this adorable caterpillar.

There is something very Creature from the Black Lagoon about Jack’s signature.
There’s something a bit sinister yet cute in this ghost. This is from Sidney Fendick. To me the top half looks a bit like a small demon jumping for joy.
I see something bunny-ish in Edward Bonner’s tentative ghost.
Here we see that improved fountain pens reduced leaking, which in turn made it hard to transfer excess ink when the paper was folded. Mr. Poole was unable to make a ghost at all.

One thing I really found interesting in this book was that people re-signed the book, often with over two decades between signatures. That means we can see how the “ghost” changed over time. I’m including examples from Margaret’s parents, CW Fendick and Selina Fendick, as well as Margaret herself.

Today’s entry has been brought to you by enormous AI-generated ancestry databases and late Victorian fountain pens. I wish I had more reason to write with pen and ink. If I tried to do an ink blot ghost signature, it would likely look like a large A followed by random squiggles, and the only ghost one would see would be that of my muscle memory for handwriting. Though this book cost far more than was likely reasonable, I’m glad I grabbed the copy when I saw it. I don’t think I know how quickly time is passing and the recent past becoming relic until I stumble across books like these.


*I have been researching Rorschach tests because of the work I am still doing on my book about failed assassin, Arthur Bremer. I am indeed still working on the book, I suspect I will always be working on the book in some manner, but hope the actual work anyone would be interested in reading will come to an end this year. Arthur played hilarious games with earnest psychiatrists who asked him to describe what he saw in ink blots. Yeah, he shot four people and was sort of a proto-but-largely-benign-incel, but his therapeutic chicanery made me feel very fondly toward him.

Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Book: Tender Is the Flesh

Author: Agustina Bazterrica

Type of Book: Fiction, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I had to read it twice to really get it, and when I got it, I felt compelled to write this monster of a discussion. Anything that inspires this much of a reaction has to be a bit odd.

Availability: Originally published in 2017 by Scribner, the English translation was published in 2020 by Pushkin Press. I read the Kindle version, but you can also get a paper version here:

*some links in this book discussion may be affiliate links to Amazon*

Comments:  Before I begin, let me be very clear on two points: this will be a very long discussion and I will be spoiling the novel entirely. If you have not read this book yet, and want to experience it fully, read this discussion after you have finished the novel.

So many people have discussed this novel in depth, paying a lot of attention to the dystopian nature of ecological destruction, the presciently eerie notion of a virus completely changing how the world lives, the repulsive brutality and cruelty that parallels American husbandry and slaughter of animals, and the notion of how fascism can quickly other entire sections of the population. These are unavoidable themes in this book, and so much happens in this short novel that it’s shocking how hard it can be to focus in on one area to discuss. Initially I was taken by the comparisons between modern butchery of animals and the ways humans designated as “special” meat in the novel are treated. However, when I reached the end, it was so brutal and stunning that I wondered if it was an unfair conclusion. I felt like the author had placed behavioral red herrings throughout the novel, forcing the reader to believe that the protagonist was a much different man than he really was.

I reread the book with the ending in mind and realized that was far from the truth. Bazterrica’s work has been translated into English, so there is no way that I can assert that what I read was exactly as Bazterrica wrote, but the translation neatly shows how wrong I was to think the ending came out of nowhere. As I reread I paid attention to the way the protagonist, Marcos, interacts with the women in the novel. Through his interactions with them, he shows the reader who he is, what he genuinely believes, and how his hypocrisies may uncomfortably mirror our own. This isn’t a feminist analysis but this is a novel that revolves around fecundity, sterility, and the ultimate separation between the good woman and the bad, the Madonna and the whore, domesticity and wilderness, and Marcos’s character is best revealed through the women in this book.

A short(ish) summary is needed before I discuss Marcos and the women who show who he is. This novel takes place in a dystopia in the not-too-distant future where a virus fatal to humans is found in all known terrestrial animals and birds. These animals are hunted almost as close to extinction as possible, but the need for meat causes society to slowly begin to rationalize, then legalize cannibalism. Those selected for meat are marked and branded and their lives and fertility are controlled in order to maximize meat production, while less ethical uses of these humans in hunts and terrible medical experiments are also legal. Marcos, our protagonist, lives alone in the country. His wife has gone to live with her mother after their infant son died in his sleep. Marcos is the right hand man for the owner of a meat processing facility, and his job is taking a terrible mental toll on him. One day he is given a female head (as in head of cattle, and note that when the terms “female,” “male” or “specimen” are used in direct quotes from the book, as well as “head,” the subject is a human being used as livestock) because a head supplier is trying to curry favor with Marcos. The arrival of this female sets in motion the events in the novel, set alongside the complete degeneration of human decency, because even if human meat isn’t cheap, life itself is and entire subclasses of people struggle to survive.

Marcos has reached a place of disgusted acceptance of his job and his life. He trains people to effectively and hopefully humanely stun and slaughter head, but also rejects and blacklists those whom he considers little more than serial killers or violent sadists looking to channel their urges into a paid job. He is forced to interact politely with companies and people who buy head in order to hunt them or perform terrible experiments on them, and he despises those people for purchasing the very product he sells. He holds in contempt those who refuse to engage in the social niceties that permit and absolve blame for legalized cannibalism, but also hates those who wholly engage in the social narrative. It’s hard for those around him to match his own back and forth, but those who do are treated far better than those who are complete outliers from the cognitive dissonance that governs his behavior.

There are six female characters in this novel who characterize Marcos. Mari is a secretary at Krieg and has worked there for years, for so long that she even knew Marcos’ father, who was also in the meat processing industry. Dr. Valka is a medical researcher who runs an appalling lab devoted to torture. Spanel is a woman who runs her own butcher shop and is utterly without empathy or sentimentality. Marisa is his sister, a vapid, shrill woman with social aspirations and very little in the way of maternal feeling for her two children. Cecilia, his wife, is a nurse and is emotionally devastated after they lost their baby, Leo, following years of fertility treatment. Finally, the most and strangely the least important woman in the novel is a female head who is eventually named Jasmine.

Tender Is the Flesh doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table. Media has offered a lot of movies and books about cannibalism in recent years. If you’ve read Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopic Never Let Me Go, you’ve gone down a path parallel to the one this book travels. Human beings are able to jump through some mighty twisty hoops to be able to justify our own craven desires. We tolerate abuses to other classes of living creatures that we would never stomach for our own. But Bazterrica does not focus on the people who are ill-used, as Ishiguro did. She shows the carnage and acrobatic moral relativism through the eyes of a man who seems like he is fairly resolute in his revulsion for the human meat market. We like Marcos because he seems more like us than anyone else in this novel’s hellscape. But the ending puts into question whether or not Marcos is a man dealing with the hand he has been dealt or if he is a plotting, opportunistic monster, and if that is the case, what does the novel tell us about ourselves? We are rooting for the best villain in a novel fairly teeming with them.

My very long analysis continues under the cut.

Workplace Horrors: a Quick Look at Matías Celedón and Christopher Fowler

Books/Authors: The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón and “Wage Slaves” from the Christopher Fowler* short story collection, Personal Demons

Types of Books: Celedón: fiction, art novel, conceptual novel, horror /  Fowler: fiction, horror, short story collection.

Why Do I Consider These Books Odd: Celedón’s work is odd because it encapsulates the plot of any number of two hour horror films into one 197-page book that has 1000 words or less, all written with a hand stamp and a pad of black and red ink. Fowler’s work is odd because his early work is so criminally under-known in the United States.

Availability: The English translation of The Subsidiary was published in 2016 by Melville Books and you can get a copy here:

Personal Demons was published 1998 by Serpent’s Tail, and appears to be out of print. You can try to score the occasional used copy here, though frankly I found all of my copies of his older works in used book stores:

Comments: I really adore the work of Christopher Fowler, and he’s a master of city horror, especially the terrors one encounters in office buildings. I don’t recall exactly when I began reading him but I know it was roughly around the time I learned about “sick building syndrome.” Sick building syndrome is the phenomenon wherein accidental design flaws result in very poor air circulation, causing workers to not only spread illness quickly, but also causes CO2 overload combined with inhalation of volatile compounds released by furnishings, cleaners and building materials themselves. That toxic soup leaves some workers feeling ill  an hour or so after arriving to work, and the miserable ventilation in modern office buildings demonstrated how sick buildings could fuel contagions of illness, like Covid, due to a lack of healthy ventilation.

Getting trapped in city structures is a common horror trope.  P2 tells the story of a woman trapped in a parking garage, and ATM features a trio of office workers who get stuck in an ATM kiosk (both are alternative Christmas movies too, if you’re tired of Die Hard). But in both of those films, the protagonists are stuck because a killer or maniac has decided to entrap them.  In a similar vein, 2017 film Mayhem neatly wove disease with authoritarian building lock downs into a building horror when the CDC closed off an office building infected with a short-lived sickness that causes everyone who gets it to become homicidal. The Belko Experiment, also from 2017, is a gladiatorial contest wherein workers are locked inside their office building and forced to engage in murder sprees in order to survive.

The Subsidiary approaches building horror in the same vein as The Belko Experiment, in that the employees are trapped in their workplace without consent or warning. However, it has more in common with Blindness by José Saramago in that confinement brought out the worst in some of those locked in the building, causing them to prey on the weak.  No one knows why the Subsidiary turned off the power and locked all the employees inside, but the Subsidiary ominously warns them that the first lockdown is coming, the Subsidiary takes no responsibility for any damages, and all employees are to remain at their workstations. The darkness begins on June 5, 2008 and ends on June 18, 2008. At the beginning shouting is heard as the power is shut off, the phones killed and the doors locked, but soon it becomes quiet. The first day is filled with TEDIUM and almost predictably, a fly left inside dies.

An unnamed clerk in the office uses his stamps and ink to make a record of what is happening to him and his coworkers, who all have names that seem a bit… on the nose. The Mute Girl. The Blind Girl. The Deaf Girl. The One-Legged Man. And so on. After the first day things start getting weird. The Deaf Girl slices his arm and licks the blood. Our clerk is evidently known for his pill habit and his coworkers come to pester him for drugs. There is very little food.

Somehow a lost child was found in the building and The Lame Man had to bathe him, whatever that means in an office building with no light or electricity. Somehow he manages to teach the child to read. We later realize that the child really should not be left with The Lame Man, and before long no one is safe from attack. In a terrible sexual attack in the bathrooms, The Blind Girl is left dead. She died naked and is quietly carried away, but soon the men, whom the clerk calls “animals,” come back.

A new order crosses the clerk’s desk because the men are filing a requisition: they’re looking for another girl. A woman near the clerk begs him to save her, whichever woman it is. This image reflects the clerk’s response to her request, and I frankly am not entirely sure what this means. Shortly after the clerk places his stamp on the request, the lights come back on.

I bought this book presumably because it seemed to be akin to Christopher Fowler’s works about urban horror. I had no idea it was a conceptual piece more than an actual book. It takes about 10 minutes, max, to read, and it is substantially enhanced by the memory of other works, like the aforementioned Blindness and Mayhem. Because I enjoy the unusual, I wasn’t put off by the fact that this somewhat pricey hardcover turned out to be an art experiment in story-telling using archaic office stamps, but I can imagine that this book requires a very specific kind of reader to enjoy it.

Even though I took the concept in stride, there is an interesting problem I had with the book. The use of the rubber stamps necessitates truncated story-telling, but the story being told is very expansive, including a section that causes the reader to wonder if any of this is really happening because the clerk may be a very unreliable narrator. This concept would have been far more effective had it been stamped into stony reality, using this unusual method of story-telling to make a specific and unwavering point. The almost-allegorical use of descriptive names also signals something that I don’t entirely pick up on because there simply is not enough in the book to explain why it is that these names signify something particular about the person. In such a heavy story, these nursery-rhyme names surely have meaning and it’s irritating that I don’t know what they signify.  Add to this that there are so many high-minded utterances like “ALL NEGLIGENCE IS DELIBERATE” makes it all the more almost pointlessly artistic. And these last few sentences may make it seem like I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did find it interesting. Sometimes a fresh or ambitious approach is itself enough to praise (however faintly) a book.

Personal Demons is far more accessible and far less ambiguous, which may seem like points against its favor, odd-wise, but Fowler’s impeccable characterization and creation of technological ideas that seem possible even though they are from the not-too-distant-future more than make up for a lack of outright oddness. “Wage Slaves” tells the story of Ben Harper, a disgraced 26-year-old teacher (he encouraged his students to engage in protests that were categorized as “insurrection”) who falsified his CV so he could get a corporate job, and his realization that his new office is probably going to kill him.

His possible death is foreshadowed in the first few paragraphs of the story, but at that moment the reader does not know yet why Mr Clark, the head of PR, has beaten his subordinate, Mr Felix, to death with a cricket bat. He could just be a garden variety corporate psycho. But it doesn’t bode well for Ben.

Within an hour of being on the job, a co-worker named Marie, who had been canoodling with the late Mr Felix, pegs Ben as a poser with no corporate experience. She blackmails him into meeting her for lunch on pain of her telling everyone he is a fake. Marie is very concerned that there is something wrong at her place of work, Symax, whose motto is “the future is now.” She takes him to a restaurant outside of the building because everything done inside the Symax building is recorded and can be used to fire them. Or worse.

Poor hapless Ben who just wants to keep his new job of a few hours, is openly dismayed that Marie is dragging him into a potential conspiracy. Over lunch he passively pleads for her to back off.

“The secretaries are always off sick. They say there’s something in the air that makes you ill. At this height the windows can’t be opened because of the wind. Then there are the phone lines. They randomly switch themselves around like they’ve got poltergeists or something.”

“It’s my first day,” he pleaded.

“The staff can sense that there’s something wrong even if the management can’t, but no-one – NO-ONE – is willing to talk about it.”

“The suit is brand new, Marie. And the tie.”

Mr Clark quickly becomes suspicious of Ben. It hardly matters that he and Marie met outside the building because the office monitors everything and soon it is clear Ben is snooping around.

Mr Clark glowered at him. “I don’t like you, Harper? Why is that?

“You haven’t tried my cooking yet?”

The rest of the office receives an email warning them about Ben but it speaks to the increasing chaos inside Symax that no real action is taken. What Ben discovers about Symax is unnerving. Symax’s headquarters is a “smart” building. It reacts instantly to all input, attempting to keep a continual state of static equilibrium. Doing so creates constant change. For example, if clouds pass over the sun, the building immediately brightens the indoor lights, which causes computer screens to adapt their brightness. This is one small chain of events to keep the building in a specific state of being perfectly lit. Imagine all the chains of events needed to keep the place clean, temperate, with moderated sound and so on. Even empty the building would be constantly working to overcome any deviation from its main programming objectives.

But what happens when you add people to the mix? Well, as the architect of the building explains to Ben:

“A building is not just a box made out of bricks. It’s organic. Shaped by the needs of the people within. This building responds. People cause disorder, no matter how well controlled they are. The Symax system is responding to human chaos with counter-balancing chaos. Action, reaction. People break down – what happens to buildings?”

Mr Clark, who was a career asshole before the continual electromagnetic shifts in the Symax building exacerbated the worst of his tendencies, eventually fires Ben, but not before dragging out of Ben the reasons why a man so desperate for work that he would lie about his experience would so quickly trash the opportunity by becoming a spy for a disgruntled coworker.

Ben thought for a moment. “Human nature.”

It would have been better for Ben had Mr Clark fired him a couple of days earlier. Mr Clark had the entire company working non-stop and overnight for a big deadline and the building had gone as insane as the people inside of it. Clocks ran backward, Biro pens spun clockwise when placed on their sides, water coolers created typhoons inside the plastic until it exploded, and the electronics that controlled the place began to malfunction in such a way that the electromagnetic waves caused an executive to swan dive out of his office building window while other people had complete nervous breakdowns.

Never fear, though, the smart building has a smart solution for when things get as out of control as they were getting at Symax. Fowler leaves the gory details to our imagination.

I’ve always maintained that I am not as visually oriented as I am a fan of the word. I can appreciate the experimental, artistic nature of Celedón’s building horror, but appreciate more Fowler’s humorous attempts to demonstrate the real horrors of working in a closed off space with a lot of unstable people. All that’s missing in the real life office is the sentient building waiting to correct everything, but then again I have not worked in an office in a very long time, so maybe we’re closer to experiencing Fowler’s dystopian office building than I know. All I know is I’m really suspicious of that Alexa things.

I’m glad I don’t have to deal with offices anymore. I had a fear of door handles that predated the fear of fomites Covid brought us temporarily. People are gross, and it’s daunting being around them in poorly ventilated spaces where the windows can’t be opened and there is a heavy reliance on elevators. Christopher Fowler neatly pokes at this nervous fear of contamination and confinement very well in his urban building horror, and that’s why his work is so effective for me. His short stories take the tiresome nature of grocery shopping, the worries of what you may really be eating when you order fast food, the potential for use of little nooks and crannies in downtown buildings, things so many people in the West experience daily in our lives, and reminds us that so much can go wrong in our orderly lives and how there is still the potential for discovery in even the busiest cityscape.

Celedón’s work is probably only worth it for the story if you can get it on sale, though people into interesting artistic conceits may disagree. Fowler, however, is worth it for me at any price. Unfortunately so much of his work is out of print, especially his early short story collections, like City Jitters, The Bureau of Lost Souls, and Sharper Knives. If you are a fan of that sort of humorous, witty, familiar horror, Fowler’s early works may delight you as much as they did me. He can also slide into deep human emotion, dabbles at times in deep horror and gore, and handles body horror in a way that still haunts me to this day. Grab his work if you can get it.

Do you have any building horror pieces that you enjoyed? City terrors? Share. And if you’ve read any Fowler, let me know what you think of him.


*Christopher Fowler died in early March, 2023. I’ve been more or less offline for five years, and am filled with regret that I never interacted with him on his blog or on Twitter. He was a kind, funny, accessible, extremely talented man, and one of the best horror/mystery/slipstream writers of the late 2oth century and early 21st century. I need to write about him more in the future. His memoirs will be published posthumously and I’ll be sure to discuss it here, whether it’s odd or not.

Yasunari Kawabata and What Can You Do With a Sleeping Girl (and why would you do it?)

Because I don’t sleep for the USA Olympic Insomnia  team and am thinking about going pro, I find myself falling down rabbit holes online at 4:23 a.m. You know how it is. Lately I’ve been lucking out and find myself falling down smaller, less tunneling holes.  The rise of what I like to call “weird shit” YouTube channels are a great source for short-term rabbit holes and one of my favorites is Nick Crowley’s channel. He’s covered some of the more time-intensive Baby’s First Late-Night Google Search topics like Dyatlov Pass, Elisa Lam, and Black Eyed Children, but he also branches out into lesser known weirdness.

For extra nightmare fuel, she’s clutching a humanoid-shaped object covered in blood. You’re welcome.

He earned a permanent place in my heart when he was among the first to share the debunk of the extremely messed-up Seattle Zombie Woman story. I’d long suspected it had something to do with medical current events, but I wasn’t sure because it was, frankly, so well done that I couldn’t immediately rule out that she was a gravely wounded woman who had suffered all kinds of abuse, be it at the hands of a maniac in a torture chamber or a maniac in a medical lab.

I wandered a bit into his back catalog a few months ago and caught his two videos on MrSleepyPeople (first video, second video).  The topic weighed on me for a lot longer than I would have expected. Both videos show the actions specifically of the man who was behind the now banned MrSleepyPeople YouTube channel and, in general, others in that bizarre community. As one so often experiences in these sort of “watch me do something taboo behind the scenes” videos, Nick demonstrated an escalation of grossness within the community.

MrSleepyPeople had a catalog of videos that showed he liked to lick – thoroughly lick – the eyeballs and tear ducts of sleeping women. All of the women he featured in his videos were passed out asleep with their similarly unconscious boyfriends next to them. MrSleepyPeople would pry open the females’ eyes, touch their eyeballs and then begin to lick them. It beggared belief that just alcohol intoxication could render the girls so out of it that they did not react when light and wet pressure were applied to their eyeballs, but I suspect other sedatives were at play. Nick also explained that it’s possible, especially if it occurs during certain stages of sleep, to engage in such intrusive behavior without the victim waking. A couple of times the women stirred a bit when he touched their faces and he quickly retreated, but for the most part he was able to lick the eyes of a variety of women without them reacting.

It seems likely from repetition of backgrounds and a certain amount of context that these women knew MrSleepyPeople in some manner, as he had access to their sleeping spaces, as if they became intoxicated in his home and stayed there overnight. There was never any sign he broke into homes to perform his fetish. I wondered too if these women had given him permission to do it. Perhaps they didn’t care what he did to their eyes when they were sleeping. I also wondered if there was a quid pro quo element, trading access to their sleeping eyes for money, drugs, or just a place to crash for a while. I guess it’s possible that these women had given him permission but it seems unlikely because the creepy subterfuge was very much an element of the fun for MrSleepyEyes, as much of it took place in the dark, with other unconscious people. Permission would have spoiled the fun for him.

It’s equally unlikely that these women were actors. Pretend to be asleep knowing someone plans to pry open your eye and lick it for a prolonged period of time and see how long it is before your voluntary neural control shifts into automatic neural control. You can control when you blink, to a point, but the instinct to force the eye shut when lids are pried open or an object is lowered onto the eye is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control without a lot of conditioning. I doubt these women were subject to such lengthy pre-video conditioning. There was an unexpectedly robust comment section on these videos, and his watchers urged him to do other things to the women, like play with the unconscious women’s feet, or to put his fingers in their mouths or up their noses.

Lazy Eyes by James Nulick

Book: Lazy Eyes

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction, transgressive fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it straddles very fine lines that separate literary fiction from experimental fiction from transgressive fiction from outright strangeness.

Availability: Published in 2022 by ExPat Press, you can get a copy here.

Disclaimers: You will find my name in the “thanks” section in this collection, and I have edited works for James in the past. I also like James and consider him a friend and the readers of this discussion may have to decide for themselves if I like James so much because his writing is amazing or if I am fondly disposed toward his work because he’s so likeable. Safest bet is that it is probably both but as usual I will make my case.

Comments: James Nulick is one of the most under-rated writers working. There are a handful of names I frequently say this about, including Ann Sterzinger and Hank Kirton, and it never fails to baffle me that each one of them isn’t far better known. Each book James writes should be the book that makes his name, so to speak, and this short story collection is no different.

I think one of the reasons that James has yet to achieve the renown he deserves is because it is very hard to pin down his style. Part autobiographic, part utter fiction, his work combines a direct, often visceral confessional tone that he mixes with magical realism. His unflinching look at the worst people can do is balanced with his keen insight into why bad people are unexpectedly good, and why good people so often fail morally. He marries that unyielding yet sympathetic gaze with otherworldly examinations of life and death that are so fantastic that they are akin to fairy tales or alternative takes on religion. His work is complex yet accessible, dark and hopeful, discrete and irreal, and in a literary world where people need writers and their works summed up in a couple of sentences, it can be hard for the genuinely innovative and interesting to reach the audience their talent is due.

Lazy Eyes seems to me to be a continuation of James’s 2021 novel, The Moon Down to Earth. Moon is a remarkable work in which James took the stories of three very unlikely people – an Hispanic super-morbidly obese, bed-bound woman, a white elderly widower, and a young mixed race aspiring musician – and showed the cosmic threads that wove them into a common human tapestry. The invisible strings that connect all the characters can be small things, like common cultural touchstones, to larger issues of coping with loss and abuse. James honors their individual natures while also showing an almost Jungian commonality that removes barriers of sex, gender, race, and age from the inner lives of extremely different people.

In Lazy Eyes, James picks up the central theme of unlikely connections and takes it a step further. No longer bound to the physical, human-dominated world, James created a universe wherein the line between animal and human experience is erased, one where death isn’t the end of personal growth and achievement, and one in which we create our own haunted lives. Cats dream of ascendance, the dead don’t die, and mannequins become sons in James’s strange but instinctively familiar world. Graphic and emotional, visceral and ethereal, relentless and sympathetic, the way James writes is so sui generis that it can only be called Nulickian.

It’s somewhat difficult to discuss these stories the way I prefer. I don’t want to spoil them, of course. There’s also a challenge that comes when one is presented with a series of stories that handle concepts of ceaseless transformation. It’s altogether more difficult when those stories need to be read together in order to understand James’ conceptual world-building. And then you need to bear in mind that I guarantee you there will be one or two elements from these stories that will haunt you or will intrigue you as you try to understand the numerology (and possibly angelology as I believe there are hierarchies among the spirits in these stories) that James salts throughout. I personally found myself ferreting out the meanings behind the numbers nine and fifty-seven, and want to talk about it in depth but am exercising rare restraint. I also never want to see a stick of beef jerky ever again. If you read this collection – and I think you should – please let me know the plot points, meaningful details or strange cosmic filaments that remained with you long after reading.

Since I am trying very hard not to spoil these stories, I am going to limit myself to the pieces that spoke to me the most. There isn’t a clunker among the ten stories in this collection, covering varied topics like alien (species) invasion, dark and fatal magic, or the difficulties of coming of age when one is different or anxious to be different. The stories that stuck with me the most were those that demonstrated the most world-building, verging almost into slipstream as James takes the mundane and makes it fantastic while never leaving behind the very specific, emotional literary effort that defines his style.

My favorite story in the collection is “Doe,” a heartbreaking look at how the dead never really go away, not even when they are nameless, not even when an argument can be made that they never really lived. Having no name and being literally dead on arrival, however, do not mean that the dead don’t stop growing after death. There is a balance in life and death, in body and soul, summed up in the best line in the story:

God is, if anything, symmetrical.

What is remarkable in this particular story is how grounded in reality it is – sadly it is very much a story that can be said to be ripped from the headlines over and over again – while also dabbling in ideas of what it means to be haunted, of why the dead may be both unwilling and unable to lie down. “Doe” makes no distinction between crushing guilt and spiritual revenge, and in fact I wonder if the point of this piece was to give a new insight into human conscience and what is behind our inability to shed the negative emotions we carry after we’ve done terrible things. We may create our own psychological prisons but we may not be the jailer who holds the key to freedom. This story also challenged my sense of what I supposed was my own moral stance regarding life and death, forcing me to consider the idea that simply not being does not mean not existing and wondering who, if anyone, has the right to make decisions regarding life and death when conscious existence may continue forever. This story reminded me a lot of Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a book about dying young and how those left behind can be haunted in vastly different ways.

“The Black Doberman” would be hard for me to discuss even if I were not resolute regarding spoilers in this discussion. Because it disturbed me, I reread it a few times to try and define the uneasiness I felt. This is the story from which the title is derived, as the titular Doberman is named Lazy Eyes. This story is a gut punching combination of Bret Easton Ellis-style empty materialism, post-feminist yearning for traditional domestic titles, and a subtle sort of Freaky Friday role-switching as a character eliminates a rival in her romantic relationship only to take on the moral and social worth of her defeated foe. Best line in the story:

My entire life has been an unattended funeral.

The female character in this story is despicable while also being very pathetic, which then made her even more despicable because the god in my own symmetrical heart wants those who feel pain to be kind, strong, and brave. There is an intelligence that comes from personal misery that allows people to see how others feel the same way, yet this character refused to see the link between herself and that which she hated. There was a similar disconnect at play in “Doe” and it feels very much as if the unattended funeral is the end result of not seeing the tendrils of connection. Being deliberately cut off from the ebb and flow of life and how it affects conscious experience is itself a lonely death in the world James created.

“Dark Web” surprised me with how much more I took away from it after a second read. I suspect most of the stories in this collection will offer up more and more with additional reads. Anil and Ridhi are a couple working at home during the Covid shutdowns that closed many offices. Each stake their claim in the house – Anil becomes a chronic masturbator in the basement as he toggles back and forth between Pornhub and work, and Ridhi works in the kitchen in between her forays onto Reddit. James took a basic story, that of the couple who grows apart when forced to be very close, and subtly embroidered the theme of connection into it. When something genuinely strange happens that disrupts the tiresome routine that Anil is frantically trying to break free from in unseemly ways (like masturbating in public near other joggers while walking his dog), the loss of routine and real intimacy ensures that Anil finds himself just as haunted as those who suffered genuine deaths in this collection.

Beyond that, James draws attention to certain bestial elements of Anil’s viewpoint that closely mirror other, very different minds in this collection. Specifically, he imagines his wife’s ass and thighs, but refers to them, tellingly, as “hind quarters.” Anil is not diminishing his wife, nor is he a closet zoophile. Rather, James is showing the ways that the bestial and the humane can become intertwined because, in the magical world in Lazy Eyes, the animals think as humans do, and their thoughts, betrayals, and desires are very similar to those of humans. Anil is protective of his dog, lamenting planting trees that could poison her so he keeps her safe, creating a close connection with his dog. Not so much with his wife and when it may be too late, he merges the protective love he has for his dog with the protective love he wished he had had for his wife.

This, by the way, is an excellent example of what happens when you dig around in these stories a few times. I can’t think of a book with similar characterization and handling of plot wherein subtle phrases and descriptions reveal a yarn-like skein of connection. It’s genius.

“Strange Captive” broke my heart. It ended on a very hopeful note, but it’s still a rough story. The dark revelation of this story is that you read it in one of two ways, depending on that which horrifies you the most. This isn’t a wishy-washy piece, speaking of dark things without the courage to describe them accurately from the mind of the captive, but rather another example of the commonality between experiences that is the backbone of this collection. The hell of it is, even though the events in the story are specific and defined, I still ended the piece wondering what it was I had really read. The final paragraph and exacting details do not equivocate but my own personal horrors made it less clear.

“The Beautiful Sister” is a surprisingly unpleasant look at a teen girl who strikes out at her older sister in an absolutely calculating way. She’s seeking redress for years of what she considers abuse and dismissal and I was surprised at how much her anger shocked me. Was the revenge she sought so terrible if an adult and her boyfriend did not shrink away from helping her? This is a connection I may not understand, having been raised an only child. Perhaps the tension between siblings can result in such reactions. We have plenty of examples of it, with this story standing as a sort of witchy Cain and Abel update, but my experiences lack that specific tendril attachment. With that in mind, it might be interesting to read this book to see what you don’t connect with as much as what you do.

I won’t mention too much about “Spiders” because I genuinely cannot think of a way to discuss the story without completely spoiling it, but I want to mention that I read this story not long after reading articles about how it is that octopuses give human beings the best way to examine alien minds that we can find while confined to this planet. I had also recently seen the 2015 film Evolution, a minimalist horror story demonstrating the way humans could one day find themselves exploited for the benefit of a completely different, though somewhat visibly familiar species. Both media examples colored how I reacted to this story.

In fact, it was interesting how many of these stories, very unique in world-building and theory-creation, I read on the heels of or alongside media that traveled similar paths. The 2021 film Lamb comes to mind, as well as lower-rent movies on Shudder about angry teen girls who avail themselves of darker magic that seems a bridge too far considering the slights that caused them to lash out. I find coincidences like that meaningful though I seldom can pin down the meaning. Interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very rare short story collection when more than half of the stories are each worth the price of admission, as I like to put it. This collection is definitely worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Elaine by Ben Arzate

Book: Elaine

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.

Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!

But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.

Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?

It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots.  I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.

Some rabbit hole samples:

“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.

But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.

A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?

The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.

Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?

Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.

There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.

I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.


*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki. Even so, I would consider such cold to be a feature, not a bug.

Oh Shit, Should I Be Worried: An OTC Primer for Threat Assessment

Our hosting provider, A Small Orange, is the online equivalent of the human taint, also known as the gooch depending on regional dialects. I will often receive all at once several months to a year’s worth of comment notifications or emails sent to me via the site’s email address.  One time a terminally-ill author sent me a lovely message asking me to review his last book because he was so moved by my first review of his work. I received it months after he died. I do not know why we haven’t changed providers yet, but I suspect it’s because I don’t stay mad long enough to make it a priority. I also am less active on the site lately and check the back end far less often than I should, so I don’t notice gaps in messages in a timely manner. However, this last flurry of notifications contained a comment that gave Mr. OTC pause, enough pause that he became angry that such a comment had gone months without us seeing it.

“Some asshole is effectively threatening you and this comment sat unseen on the server for months until A Small Orange deigned to send us notification,” Mr. OTC said. “What if he’d said, ‘I’m on my way to kill you!’ and we had no idea?” I suspect A Small Orange, who as a company sucks balls (which, by the way, are near the taint) will not be my host much longer. It should be mentioned that Mr. OTC ultimately was more angry at the taint than the asshole because he understands what is considered an actionable threat and what isn’t, but I was surprised that he was so appalled at the comment. He knows what I write about.  He knows that I get terrible comments. Yet he looked at the comment and did not see what I saw. He saw the potential for genuine threat.

Here’s the comment, with the beginning of my reply.

I think most spouses would feel uneasy seeing that their partner receives comments that invoke torture, extrajudicial murder and final judgement for perceived wrong-doing. But I’ve got this. I’ve been doing this for thirteen years and somewhere along the line I learned how to analyze documents in a way that gives me a pretty good metric for whether or not I should be afraid or concerned about what angry commenters say to me when they are especially pissed off.

Finally! A use for an English degree!

While it has to be said that I am not a behavioral sciences expert, nor am I a legitimate threat assessor, I’ve been reading the words of madmen and reactions to the words of madmen for so long that I reckon I can differentiate between a threat and a dude who unloaded on me after a really bad day (or month, or year). Rob may have intended for me to feel afraid, but offered no harm that I felt could endanger me or my family.

I’ve had two or three threats I considered legitimate since running my book discussion sites and those messages were radically different than Rob’s. Those comments showed that the authors know who I am, meaning they know my full name, where I live, the names of some of my pets, that my husband is ex-military. They had specific issues with something I definitely wrote, showing that they actually read what I wrote and were reacting to me specifically, and they did not speak in generalities. They made reference to how easy it would be to find me or a specific pet, what they wanted to do to me or the cat, and mentioned a time frame wherein they hoped to do harm to me.

Rob’s comment wasn’t anywhere close to being genuinely threatening. Unpleasant? Yes. Reason to freak out? Nope. I know some people will disagree with that assessment so let’s break his comment down and hopefully I can explain why I think Rob hollered at me online rather than metaphorically kick the family dog after having a bad day, and hopefully this analysis will help anyone else who is periodically frightened by what angry (mostly) men say online. Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to hyper-analyze the hell out of weird comments.

Election Day Special: The Hunt

Tuesday, November 3, 2020, is going to be a hell of a day.  I despise talking about politics because the only discussions less useful to intelligent discourse lately are forays into conspiracy theory.  But I think I have a perfect way to express the angst, fear and disgust many people have felt when they realized 2020, a year with numbers that represent perfect vision and clarity, was descending into chaos, sickness and violence while those in power exploited the chaos, sickness and violence.

Enter The Hunt.

The conversation about this film gets derailed frequently. Due to release just after the horrific mass murders in an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, The Hunt’s opening was delayed after President Trump and right-wing pundits like Laura Ingraham insisted the film’s goal was to inspire partisan violence against conservatives.  The film’s opening was delayed until late September 2019, then again until March of 2020. It opened right before Covid-19 caused theaters to shut down in the USA. Not many people got to see it on screen, but those who did found the film uncomfortable viewing.  Leftists were angry that the liberals in the film were such assholes.  Those on the Right were angry that the conservatives in the film were such assholes and also felt that the asshole liberals were coded as conservatives.  That, my friends, is a pretty good sign that this is a film that may show you some uncomfortable truths about class, politics, objective and subjective truth, and what happens when the schism becomes all anyone can see.

If it makes you uncomfortable, interrogate that feeling.

Here’s a brief synopsis of The Hunt, and there will probably be spoilers (I don’t think you really can spoil a film like this, but step wisely if you prefer to go into films utterly tabula rasa): The Hunt is a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, humans hunting humans, but this time it’s personal.  A cadre of elite liberals, very wealthy elite liberals, made a dumb joke in a group chat.  One of them spoke of shooting “deplorables” in a hunt, and the others reacted in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  This chat got hacked and released to the public and conspiracy theorists took it seriously.  The elites eventually lost their jobs and decided to track down some of the most virulent proponents of the conspiracy theory and kill them in a hunt, making the conspiracy theory real after the fact.  Conservative and conspiracy theory caricatures were kidnapped, flown to an estate in the Balkans and killed. The last woman standing is Crystal May Creasey, a lower-middle class blonde with a thick Southern accent. The mastermind behind The Hunt, a woman named Athena, researched the prey she and her peers would hunt, but got it very wrong with Crystal.  Athena kidnapped the wrong Crystal Creasey, not knowing the Crystal behind the social media accounts talking about The Hunt spelled her name “Mae.”  That mistake costs her and you need to watch the film if only to see the final confrontation between Athena and the wrong Crystal.

Athena and her comrades in arms are extremely wealthy and very white, with the exception of one Arabic man who is their token minority. They are wealthy in a way that makes them part of the 1%.  They are so wealthy that losing their jobs means little to their overall net worth as they are able to charter airplanes, pay off staff who fly them around, rent entire compounds for weeks, hire a military advisor to help them train, etc. Their absolute privilege fuels their rage at the mostly blue-collar advocates of the conspiracy theory.  How dare those “deplorables” interfere in their lives in such a way? They must be taught a lesson, an individual lesson that results in their deaths. They messed with their “betters” and that cannot stand.

Liberal discomfort at watching these caricatures is interesting.  Athena and her cohorts get very upset over language – while hiding bodies in a back room at a fake general store and gas station set up to catch anyone who escaped the compound, one older married couple argue over whether or not “black” is an appropriate description for human beings. They come to the conclusion that “African-American” is the only polite term, no matter what NPR has to say about it because NPR employs mostly white people. They have no problem policing each other’s language as they literally kill three people with poison gas because they talked conspiracy theory online. Similar conversations happen in a bunker on the compound, as the tiresome elites wait in anticipation for Crystal to return.  When they accidentally shoot a pig named Orwell, their anger at hurting the animal far outweighs any concern they have for the human beings they rounded up and slaughtered.

Oh, and it is a slaughter.  It’s not a hunt. The conspiracy theorists find a box of weapons but the moment they get their bearings in a clearing, they are immediately shot from an enemy they do not know is there, with no knowledge of why they are there and the rules of the hunt. Those who escape instant death are chased into booby traps, tracked with drones, blown up or gassed and the notion of an actual hunt only comes up when Crystal proves hard to kill.  It was never a hunt until Crystal, the wrong Crystal, hunted them.  It was graphic, outrageous revenge against people who had very little power outside of their capacity to talk about jaded and cruel rich people online.

But bear in mind, the people getting shot and gassed and blown up are also distasteful. One of the guys is a big game hunter, posing with animal carcasses like that asshole dentist who lured a lion out of an animal preservation to kill.  One is a hard-core conspiracy theorist who sees a crisis actor in everyone he sees, even babies, and it strips him of any real humanity and makes him an easy target. Another is a dead ringer for Tomi Lahren, so much so that we don’t need much more from her than a couple of sentences because it’s clear who she is meant to portray (checking the name for spelling showed me as I was typing this, the real Tomi Lahren was tweeting and retweeting about the election and evidently wrote a book called Never Play Dead that came out a year after The Hunt finished production and I sense we’ve come full circle, in a way).  And while I don’t like Tomi Lahren, for many of the same reasons I lipfarted at Phyllis Schlafly, I don’t think it will get me cancelled to say that I don’t want to see her kidnapped and her head blown off.  These ringers aside, the rest are just Q-Anon and Pizzagate true believers who never really understood that there were real people on the other side of their accusations, that what they were saying could potentially ruin lives. If they consider that their actions could ruin lives, they feel it was a morally upright decision to ruin those who prey on the weak, even if the basis for such a decision is bad logic and supposition. They just had the bad luck to cross people more motivated for revenge than the Podesta brothers or that dude who runs Comet Ping Pong.

The Tomi Lahren stand-in and the big game hunter may have had some money, but that they are so easily kidnapped and illegally flown into Europe speaks to being far lower on the financial ladder than the liberals who want them dead. This is a class war, pure and simple, and it is based simply on class because the liberals feel it would be terrible to kill any of the people of color who spread the conspiracy theory about The Hunt. It’s an interesting place to stand, to be so attuned to white privilege that one is willing to kill any number of white people who say the wrong thing but utterly unwilling to kill minorities who do the same because that’s just not politically correct.

In the middle of these warring class factions stands Crystal.  Her skills are of a Neo-in-the-Matrix type and her flat deadpan delivery is often far too calm, but in her hyper-aware, violently competent, quiet sense of self, we see the only real human in this film. She may be part of the working class the elites hate, but she was never a part of the conspiracy theory and as an outsider to wealth and conspiracy, she is the only one who can see clear enough to survive.  While the other hunt victims woke with bits locked in their mouths, convening together in the clearing where a large box containing weapons was placed, Crystal was pulling apart her name badge and placing the pin on a leaf in a pond to show her the way north.  She never banded together with the rest of them until she was forced to when other victims found her  – she didn’t even wait around long enough to find out who they were or what any of them may have known about what was going on.  We don’t know her political beliefs.  We know she was in the military and that she had a crappy job at a car rental place.  Beyond that she’s an Everywoman, a stand-in for every person who has watched the world split apart, with loved ones on either side of the divide, tired of the rhetoric, cruelty, entitlement and fear.

The prelude to the final fight is very interesting. Athena’s arrogance and distaste for the messy lives of the underclass is sickening.  She taunts Crystal, reciting knowledge about Crystal Mae Creasey’s sad life.  Parents were meth addicts, life spent in foster care, and that pedigree of poverty and despair to Athena is a sign that Crystal, in some Calvinist assignation of blame, earned her terrible life because she on some level deserves it, that her misery was pre-ordained.  Crystal Mae was scum, she was foul, and she had messed with Athena via comments online and had to die for it.  It’s just a shame that she kidnapped Crystal May Creasey, whom she knew nothing about.

The end of the fight is instructive, showing the way the 1% looks at those who don’t have an MBA and who live paycheck to paycheck.  All of the victims have nicknames the elites use and they call Crystal “Snowball.”  Crystal asks Athena why she called her that and Athena immediately thinks Crystal is asking because she doesn’t have any idea who Orwell was nor had she read Animal Farm.  She begins to pedantically explain it to Crystal, who cuts her off, telling her she understands the reference but doesn’t get the link between her and Snowball.  Athena is visibly shocked that this woman, this woman whose identity she now knows she fucked up, read a book, let alone a book almost every high school freshman in America reads. Athena is so married to her idea of those unlike her being genuinely deplorable that any sign of intelligence in her perceived enemy is shocking.

By the way, I’ll be damned if I understand the way that this film viewed Snowball, the pig who represented Trotsky and whose death was used as propaganda by Napoleon/Stalin, who bastardized Snowball’s ideas. Perhaps the conspiracy-minded Crystal was Snowball, but the Crystal they kidnapped was not.  More puzzling, Crystal says she thinks Athena is Snowball, and that makes even less sense, unless it is a way to convey that Crystal is going to somehow misuse Athena’s image to achieve some larger goal.  If that is the case, it’s unclear at the end.  And that lack of clarity may be the point.  At the end, education, literary allusion and decent analogy meant nothing – they were all slaughtered like pigs. In that regard, Athena really was Snowball.

This is an uncomfortable movie to watch.  It parodies conservative conspiracy theories and parrots the worst people think about elites who use the lumpen proletariat however they want but tantrum like very pampered babies when the proles speak out of turn.  It shows how impermeable conspiracy theory is to rational or reasonable thought.  It shows how perhaps we are right to be very afraid of those who wield power and have money.  Conservatives thought the immoral liberal elites were a parody of them, and maybe they were.  Liberals really hate the way the elites were more focused on the minutia of civility than the morality of killing people for sport and revenge.  This film shows what incompetent assholes many who are rabidly partisan become, and won’t let us off easy in the end by telling us much about the heroine who outlasted her financial peers and bested her economic betters. We may be far more like Athena or the ersatz Tomi than Crystal.

The days ahead are going to suck regardless of who wins the election.  I’m a liberal, or a leftist – I don’t even know anymore because the labels change online constantly – and I see Athena in some of my own. And I know that though I am far from rich, the intellectual company I keep may make me seem like a pandering asshole to those to the right of me. Enemy lines have been drawn in a way they never have been before and I worry about the days to come.

That’s it.  That’s the end.  I have no great conclusion here. No matter what happens today, restoring our faith in the government, politicians, and even our peers will not come quickly. Maybe watching this film will result in some sort of catharsis but right now it might just feel like the movie gods are mocking us.  Just buckle in and hope your level best that we will one day live in a society wherein it is not so easy to constantly invoke Orwell.

Oddtober 2020: Sinful Cinema Series vol. 5 by Doug Brunell

Book:  The Amazing Mr. X from the Sinful Cinema Series

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cinema studies, film criticism

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Less odd than disheartening – this book illustrates how it is that being very good at what you do is no assurance you will ever become famous or even well-respected in your craft.

Availability: Published by in 2020 by Chaotic Words, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Doug Brunell has become a staple of my “Oddtober” adventures.  I’ve read a little of his fiction (I read Black Devil Spine and my main criticism was that I wish he’d just let loose a bit more and wallowed in the depravity because he was soooo close to pulling off the most difficult feat a horror writer can achieve – pornographic violence that doesn’t pander) but am mostly familiar with his looks at weird, fringe and/or under-known films.  I hope he keeps updating his Sinful Cinema series until either I or this site dies because I think his work has become the OTC version of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. You gotta watch Linus out there in the pumpkin patch and you gotta have a Sinful Cinema volume or it just doesn’t feel like Halloween.

I am in a strange place with The Amazing Mr. X because I want to engage in my usual, endless examination, and this film isn’t outrageous like some of the films Brunell has explored. I have had no qualms about spoiling the plots of those films because the plot and characterization took a backseat to the shlock, sleaziness or overall hokeyness.  Few watch Crypt of the Living Dead or The Abductors for plot complexity or interesting characterization and god help those who find such titles and hope that at least the acting is decent.  But Brunell has a gift for seeing the intent behind bad or outrageous films, showing his readers unexpected ways to look at the plots, character arcs that would have been missed among all the stilted delivery and random boob shots, and his biographies of those involved in the films show the crazy ways Hollywood is connected, from the winding paths between sexploitation and Disney franchises to how the name of a small boat that takes a researcher to a vampire-infested, in-bred island can demonstrate the uneasy interactions between rational science and pagan tradition.  Without Brunell, the average film fan might not have ever understood all of these connections and ideas that permeate even the crappiest low budget horror film, and his extraordinary love of the subject redeems films I would have ignored had I known about them.

That is not the case with The Amazing Mr. X. I can see watching this just because.  In fact, I sort of want to watch it with Mr. OTC to see what he thinks of it.  As Brunell notes in his examination, this film has a lot of things that hamper it, mainly the title, which leads one to believe that this is going to be some sort of character-driven science fiction film.  It’s not.  Brunell says it’s a noir film disguised as a horror film and he’s right.  Every actor hits their mark, the plot is a masterful series of misdirections that never seem forced or false, and all the important characters have unexpected redemption arcs that make sense and are not insulting, forcing a schmaltzy and happy ending.

So I don’t want to spoil this film.  I think you need to watch it, decide what you think is happening, and then read Brunell’s book.  This film is fairly easy to get hold of.  I watched it on Amazon Prime for free but the film is also all over YouTube.

Quick synopsis: The extremely wealthy Christine was widowed when her husband Paul died in a car crash. She feels his presence still and is having trouble moving on. Her somewhat annoying but adorable younger sister, Janet, wants her to accept an engagement ring from her new suitor, Martin, a likeable guy, but on the night when Martin proposes, Christine meets Alexis, a clairvoyant and spiritualist (who has a big squawking crow as his familiar, a bird whose role in this film was not clear to me until Brunell explained the ending), who knows all about Paul and Martin.  His unexpected knowledge weighs on her until she consults Alexis for help and becomes a regular client of his as she uses his psychic powers to try to reconnect with Paul.  Paul’s memory is causing Christine to become unhinged and Janet and Martin become suspicious of Alexis. They hire a private investigator, who is a former magician who knows all the tricks of psychic con men (a sort of James Randi figure, may he rest in peace), to look into the psychic and, sure enough, he has a file on Alexis.  To make sure Alexis is the man he thinks he is, the investigator and Martin send Janet in as bait to get his fingerprints but Alexis is two steps ahead of them because he is, indeed, a con man. That may seem like a spoiler but it isn’t because the viewer knows Alexis is a fraud the moment she sees him.  But in the end, Christine really is in danger, Paul is the source of this danger, and by the time everyone figures out what is going on, Christine is more or less a second thought as far more interesting characters shape the end.

This film is an interesting history piece.  Filmed in 1948, it comes at a sort of crossroads in cultural reactions and social movements.  Young widows filled with grief at the untimely deaths of their young husbands were not uncommon after WWII, so this movie had a sort of anchor in Christine. But spiritualism was dying off, men like Alexis raising more suspicion than praise, so much so that the film’s title was changed from The Spiritualist. But Christine (and Janet) are wealthy, presumably through their family, leaving them prey to con men, while also showing that they didn’t need anyone to take care of them.  Moreover, Alexis, played by Turhan Bey (who was known as the “Turkish Delight” and once dated Lana Turner but couldn’t marry her because his mama didn’t approve), was shoved into a role that was losing potency.  The trope of women swooning over suave sheik types of men was drawing to an end.  Yet in spite of these issues, from the terrible title to the tired tropes to the lack of a “big name,” the film works.  Brunell speculates that if one big name had been cast, this film would today be far better known than it is.

One of the benefits of reading Brunell’s books after watching these films is that they encourage me to watch carefully, almost training me in film analysis.  I missed the subtext behind the ending, and there were other bits and pieces I didn’t pick up on.  But it’s interesting what I did see before I read Brunell, things I would have missed ordinarily.  For example:

–I didn’t entirely connect the dots but I felt a sort of discordance at first because it seemed like Christine, who was played by the lovely Lynn Bari, was the protagonist of the film.  Why was the film called The Amazing Mr. X if Christine is the lead character?  Well, she isn’t.  Alexis is, and that misdirection is intentional and part of why this film is so clever.

–Janet, who is at least ten years younger than Christine, has a chipmunk voice, appears ditzy and silly, and Alexis is able to ingratiate himself to her by insinuating that she is actually the more mature, more grounded of the sisters. Even Christine scoffs at this but Alexis is not wrong. Janet may be silly but she is not plagued by ghosts of dead husbands with questionable motives, she offers unwavering moral support, and is capable of saving lives when the chips are down.  Christine, who has a sort of Joan Crawford, 1940s remote elegance that often is linked to feminine intelligence, is easily fooled, ridiculously unable to act in her own best interests, and at the end the least interesting character in the film.

–I wondered why I liked the bad guy – Alexis – so much when he was a con man.  Because I’m supposed to.  Again, the director laid out a path I was walking on before I knew I was even walking.

And I picked up on these things because I was anticipating Brunell’s book and what it would show me.  It’s a fun sort of mental exercise, a puzzle that connects my experience to the ideas of someone very well-versed in film while showing me the puzzle pieces that I missed.  For example, Brunell’s discussion of the lighting in the film was fascinating and far outside my wheelhouse.

And though the cast and crew biographies are not as salacious as those in the other volumes of Sinful Cinema I’ve read, they are still very interesting.  For example, one of them was blacklisted by McCarthy.  One was utterly beloved by all who knew him. One actress lost her acting contracts when she refused to divorce her husband at the demand of a studio executive. And all of them, very good at their craft, never achieved the fame they deserved.  Seriously, this was a tight cast.  The weakest link was the detective and even he had decent acting chops.  If you dislike Christine, it’s because Lynn Bari’s performance was deliberate in its attempt to create that emotion.  If you begin to enjoy the Gidget-like Janet, well-done because she’s a character who only seems like a caricature of a chatty blonde until you juxtapose her with the more “competent” female character and realize she’s pretty cool.  (And though you aren’t wholly expected to want to root on Alexis as he cons Christine, if you do find yourself feeling ambiguous about him, you’re in good company because I didn’t want Christine to come to harm, but if Alexis got a few bucks out of her, c’est le vie.)

Brunell’s other four volumes in the Sinful Cinema series focus on more outrageous or fringe fare and initially I wondered if I was watching the correct film because I didn’t find myself falling into the sort of MST3K mindset one uses when watching a film that is notably terrible in some manner.  This is a well-crafted, though certainly flawed film, with an interesting script, good actors, and mystery elements that are always honest, never resorting to uneven characterization or left-turn plot twists.  Yet in its own way its as much an outlier as Crypt of the Living Dead because the cast and crew themselves remained outliers in an acting community that never gave them their well-earned dues, the film itself got lost among other noir films that didn’t mislabel themselves via terrible titles, and this film seems… cursed in a way, including a leading lady who died in a notorious fashion before the film began production, and terrible timing.

I really enjoyed Brunell’s tour through The Amazing Mr. X. It was particularly enjoyable seeing his keen eye take on a film that isn’t mostly boobs, poor acting, terrible casting, and inexplicable plot elements.  It’s great to see unexpected weirdness in more mainstream and conventional fare.  Highly recommended.

Oddtober 2020: WNUF Halloween Special

WNUF Halloween Special is one of the best “found footage” films the horror genre has produced in years, which is kind of grim because it was released in 2013.  It doesn’t really matter if the premise has had every drop of ingenuity and decent story-telling wrung out of it.  If it worked once, why not keep doing it until not even the mafia will finance your film?  Given my dim view of other films that mine this vein, the only reason I selected this film on Shudder is because I was doing mindless chores and wanted some background noise. Five minutes in, I understood this wasn’t just another V/H/S.  So I stopped it so I could watch it later and pay attention, and forced Mr. OTC to watch it with me.  Good times.  (By the way, I could only find this on Shudder and couldn’t find it elsewhere to stream, sorry.)

The premise is fairly simple: The news station on WNUF, Channel 28, in some northern town some time in the 1980s is hosting the “first live on TV seance.” We are watching a VHS video someone recorded of the news program that aired right before the Halloween special, wherein we learn about this little town and all its problems. Periodically, the film fast forwards through repetitive or uninteresting sections, mimicking what we all used to do when we recorded network television back in the day, placing the audience in the role of an active viewer of the tape. Interspersed throughout the news and the later seance special, we see commercials that are so absolutely true to 1980s concerns, mores, cultural issues and consumer habits that it was hard not to cringe at how awful the 80s really were. The program for the seance begins after the news, and the audience learns that a son slaughtered his parents in the house, and a couple who are paranormal investigators, a hapless priest, an oily reporter and a cat find out that the dead should be the least of anyone’s concerns.

The only way to discuss this film is to recount both the plot and the running commentary Mr. OTC and I engaged in, as we were delighted and utterly appalled by how much this film got completely right, balancing perfectly between retro cringe and upbeat nostalgia, lampooning and lauding the 1980s.  I’ll swap back and forth between the plot and the best of the commercials, but know that if I could explore every commercial without writing a novella-length discussion, I would.

The film begins with a fast forward through commercials, some of which are helpful PSAs (“Wait! Stop! Think! There’s nothing sexy about STDs!”) and then the news begins.  We meet hosts Gavin Gordon, looking like a young Fred Willard in a vampire costume, and Deborah Merritt, with perfect mom makeup, wearing a witch hat and a saccharine smile.

First thing they tell us about is the upcoming special with reporter Frank, and make terrible Halloween jokes.  “No, you didn’t tune into the Transylvania Public Access station,” Gavin says.  Then they give a rundown of the evening’s news stories: a religious organization is praying for the end of Halloween because Satan is bad, the ads in the governor’s race are getting dirty, and they announce Frank Stewart is going to take us along as he traipses through a murder house.


Mr. OTC: Did you see that smile and little shrug she gave him.  You know that wasn’t on the cue cards.  He’s ad libbing and she hates him.  I bet he even bounced the whole Transylvanian cable access joke off her beforehand and she told him she’d strangle him if he did it and he did it anyway to piss her off.

Me: Really?  I got the impression those two are having an extramarital affair.  That’s weird sexual tension, I think.

Mr. OTC: No reason it can’t be both.