Yours truly has had a short story, Carrion Dreams, selected for publication by Transmundane Press in their forthcoming anthology titled Transcendent. I’ve been told it will be published sometime in the late fall/early winter in all formats. Below you can see the cover reveal and the official blurb. More info to come as the release date nears.

Transcendent - Amazon Kindle

“A parallel dimension exists below the surface of reality.

Its doors swing open every time we sleep, allowing us passage into the land of DREAMS, a plane rich with exotic fantasy and limitless bliss. Within this wonder world, however, lurk dark corridors and terrible creatures—some unfortunate travelers never escape the NIGHTMARES waiting in the shadows.

Many have tried bridging our worlds. Seekers and wise men have meditated for VISIONS and ingested intoxicants for HALLUCINATIONS in hopes that the veil between our realms will thin, allowing access to all the thrills, joys, and horrors beyond our senses.

TRANSCENDENT is an open gate, a gangway linking our realm to the shimmering sphere where nothing is certain and anything is possible.”

 

devils uk
Image Credit-Warner Bros

Ken Russell made a career out of directing some of the most bizarre, blasphemous, and kinky movies in cinematic history. Such a provocateur would never survive in our modern political climate, but in the 70’s and 80’s he was the go-to guy for cinephiles who liked their movies weird and wild. One of his most thoroughly strange productions was The Devils, produced in 1971. Adapted from a non-fiction book by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun), which itself was based on true events, the film is ostensibly about a rogue priest, Urbain Grandier, in seventeenth century France who runs afoul of the machinations of the political elite.

Grandier stands in opposition to the desires of Cardinal Richelieu, who wants Louis VIII to destroy the fortification cities, like Loudun, to prevent the Protestant population from uprising. In his bid for power Richelieu is willing to use any means available to assure his success and if a few heads have to roll, well…so be it. The story itself is an interesting chapter in the Catholic church’s long and troubled history, but in the director’s hands it becomes something else entirely. Like many of Russell’s projects, it’s a difficult film to categorize. Horror and satire rub shoulders with historical accuracy and Grand-Guignol excess. He hits all the main points relayed in Huxley’s book but, Russell being Russell, the visuals get downright crazy as the film progresses.

Urbain Grandier, played by Oliver Reed, is a well-regarded man of the cloth who becomes the leader of the town of Loudun when the governor dies. He also courts controversy in that he refuses to abide by his oath of celibacy and has had several secretive affairs. Early on he is asked by the deformed Mother Superior of the local convent of Ursuline nuns to become their new confessor, but he refuses. Played with abandon by Vanessa Redgrave, the twisted Mother Superior is sexually obsessed with the priest after hearing about his various exploits with other women. She has dreams where she sees him as a Christ-like figure. In these otherworldly sequences she is drawn to him—going as far as licking his wounds in a sexual manner as he stands before her. After learning that he has married in secret she becomes consumed with jealousy. Tortured by her obsession with him, while speaking to their new confessor she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess her and the other nuns with demonic entities, forcing them to act out in bizarre fashion. The outward manifestations of these so-called demonic possessions include: barking, moaning, speaking in tongues, convulsions, vulgar dreams, and frenzied sexual behavior—among other things.

This presents an opportunity for the authorities and a professional witch-hunter, Father Pierre Barre, is dispatched to rout the evil. It is here that the film takes a left turn from brooding historical drama to the type of psychosexual freak out that Russell is so well known for. All kinds of technicolor debauchery appears on screen during some of the film’s more lurid moments. The witch-hunter travels to the convent where he and his cohorts perform their own unique brand of exorcism, including: forced enemas, insane exhortations, and maniacal shouting. The effect on the nuns is profound. In a scene that has to be seen to be believed, the hysterical nuns go bat-shit crazy. Shaving their heads and stripping off their clothes, they run wild throughout the convent, writhing naked on top of a statue of Jesus as well as performing other acts of blasphemous nuttiness (I can only imagine what the Catholic church and its followers must have thought of the film upon its release). As the craziness escalates the utter deviancy of the church leaders performing the exorcisms is graphically exposed. If anyone’s in league with the devil, it’s them, along with the country’s elites who are always jockeying for position behind the scenes.

Eventually Grandier is arrested. After a token show trial he is tortured before being executed by burning at the stake (filmed in loving detail as he’s fried to a crisp, screaming his innocence to the end). When he falls, the city also falls. In the end we realize there were no demonic possessions and that the real evil at the root of the story was the banal political scheming that resulted in the total destruction of an innocent man. Religious hysteria combined with sexual repression led the nuns to act out and the elites wasted no time capitalizing on it in order to remove a stubborn political opponent. There is real horror in that, worse than anything that goes bump in the night.

Upon its release the film naturally became steeped in controversy and received numerous X-ratings from censorship boards all over the world for its explicit scenes of nuns gone loopy with sexual frustration and unflinching depictions of brutal violence. In the end we are left with the feeling that, had they all just gotten laid, things might have worked out different for everyone. So endeth the lesson for today.

bosch hellscape
Image Credit-Wikimedia

Horror isn’t always easy to quantify, but most of us know what it feels like to be horrified in one manner or another. Whether it’s the way we reacted as children the first time we saw a dead baby bird, with its translucent skin and bulbous, unformed eyes, or later on as adults after witnessing some gruesome accident, most of us know horror when we see it. It can also be far more mundane in nature. It can be conjured while roaming the darkened halls of abandoned buildings, especially old mental asylums and hospitals. And who hasn’t felt a shiver up their spine when walking through the woods on a moonless night?

Horror can be elicited through our other senses as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual to scare us. It can be triggered by something as simple as a weird sound in the night or a strange smell on the breeze. If you bit into a piece of unidentifiable meat and it was suggested that the taste you were savoring was actually derived from human sources would you not feel overwhelming disgust and horror (unless you’re a practicing cannibal, of course)?

We can even feel it when reading about the natural world around us. With our big brains we can extrapolate an abundance of horrific notions from the different ways that life thrives on our planet. Consider the life cycle of parasitic wasps, who lay their young in the paralyzed bodies of their victims for them to feed on.  We can imagine what it would be like if those tiny horrors were scaled up in size. I don’t know about you, but the thought of giant parasitic wasps, the size of humans, flying around and impregnating people with their voracious young gives me the creeps all day long. How about those ants in the sweltering jungles near the equator who are susceptible to a fungus that takes over their minds and forces them to attach themselves to the underside of leaves? After a few days they die and a strange protuberance thrusts through their skulls, forming a bulb from which fruiting bodies are released to drift away on the breeze and propagate new colonies of fungus elsewhere. What if something like that could happen to us?

Then there’s all the phobias and social anxieties we suffer from. Germs, contamination, threats of violence, and superstitions can leave us cowering in the corner. No matter how immune you think you are, everyone has a flaw in their mental armour and you can bet that there’s something out there just waiting to exploit yours. When it happens you’ll wonder how you got this far in the first place.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and racing thoughts—all part of the fight-or-flight response we’ve been conditioned to obey over the millennia of our collective existences. We have evolved these mechanisms to protect us from harmful situations, but what happens when the harm we imagine within our minds doesn’t really exist? We can’t escape our thoughts, no matter how ridiculous or preposterous they may seem to others. We fear what we fear.

It begs the question: if our goal in life is to live free of anxiety and distress, then why do we subject ourselves on purpose to horrifying ideas? Why do we like movies and books that scare the bejesus out of us? Maybe it’s a way of reconciling the fears we all have. We can cringe for awhile, but then we come out the other side none the worse for wear and we can laugh to ourselves after it’s over.

There’s so many things we can find to be afraid of too—so many fears to stand up to and conquer as we grow older. Chief among these must be the fear of death itself. What greater unknown will we face in our lives, after all? My biggest fear regarding death is that there’s nothing beyond it, and the thought of ceasing to exist altogether terrifies me more than anything else. I suspect that many others share this fear with me.

Everyone fears death or, more precisely, what may or may not lie beyond death’s door. Anyone who says they aren’t fearful is lying. Until you’re on your death bed it’s easy to act brave and talk big. Just wait until it’s your turn, though. Since no one has ever come back from the great beyond to tell us what lies on the other side, none of us can say with any conviction that it’s anything good. Many of the world’s western religions create motivation to be good by convincing us that we’ll suffer eternal torment from demons in a lake fire if we’re bad. If we’re really good we get to go to heaven, but is that even a good thing? Imagine the horror of being reduced to an invisible, incorporeal thing roaming a foreign plane of existence far removed from all that was once familiar? Eastern religions believe in different kinds of punishment and reward, like those espousing reincarnation and karma. Maybe if you’re cruel and you walk all over people in this life, you’ll come back as a lowly bug that lives out its life in fear of being trampled underfoot at any moment. Kafka knew something about that.

Regardless of what scares you, there’s one thing about horror that is very life affirming. As long as it isn’t happening to us we can observe it and then breathe a sigh of relief when it passes, thankful that we get to live to fight another day. Alas, no one lives forever, and the great unknown is out there, waiting for us with infinite patience and all the time in the world to get to know each one of us personally. Can we ever really be prepared for what it has in store for us?