Haunted by Christmas--Joe Hill's NOS4A2

Since Christmas is on the way, I thought it a good time to look back at why Joe Hill’s novel NOS4A2 works. In the novel, Hill appropriates Christmas, a day that’s about as wholesome as wholesome (whatever that means) as it gets and twisting it to his own ends. Hill finds horror in the tropes of Christmas trees and ornaments and most notably the music, and shows us that by skewing the familiar it’s possible to create something as horrific as any slavering, bestial monster.

The novel’s villain, Charles Talent Manx III, serves as Hill’s proxy in this subversion of American values. A long-lived “road vampire” who extends his own life by kidnapping children, sucking the life out of them and dumping them in an “inscape,” Manx takes the pageantry of Christmas and turns it into something terrifying, going so far as using Christmas ornaments to trap the children.

So why is this scary? There are two primary reasons. First, because it is unexpected--the symbols of Christmas are synonymous with joy and little else in the minds of most. And second, because it subverts the sources of safety we have in our lives. This is one of the reasons The Shining works so well--it takes the concept of the father, the strong, benevolent protector of the nuclear family, and turns him into the destroyer instead. Ordinarily Jack Torrance should be protecting his wife and child from the horrors of the world, but instead he is subsumed by them. Even before they reach the Overlook, Jack is abusive to Danny, breaking his arm in a drunken rage. And once they reach the hotel, the supernatural forces at work key in on Jack’s natural weakness. By the end of the book, the institution of fatherhood and the supposed safety it provides is in tatters.

Hill takes a cue from his own alcoholic father here, with Christmas serving the role of fatherhood. Christmas is a time of joy in most people’s lives, as present and carols conspire to make children and their parents feel safe. Nothing bad happens at Christmas, right?

However, that’s not the Christmas experience for everyone. Christmas can become a time where you can’t get out of the house, where you’re subjected to various forms of slow torture at the hands of your family. It’s telling that the heroine of the book, Vic McQueen, is from a broken home herself. Christmas doesn’t have the same power that it does for everyone else, because she’s never really been safe at home. Not from feeling as though the fraying relationship between her parents is her fault, or witnessing her father’s abuse. She’s not one to look for refuge in symbols, and so when those symbols turn out to have sharpened teeth instead of friendly smiles, she’s able to prevail in the end.

Interestingly, NOS4A2 engages almost exclusively with the trappings, rather than the substance, of Christmas. There are few allusions to the religious underpinnings of the holiday, beyond mentions of songs like “Joy to the World” which would be just as home in a Macy’s as it would in a church during the season. For Charlie Manx, Christmas is about Santa and reindeer and snowmen, to the point where his inscape is Christmasland, a theme park--the only way Hill could have emphasized the commerciality inherent in Manx’s perversion of the holiday would be to make his inscape a mall. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few works I’ve read that engages with Christmas but doesn’t feel like a Christmas story, partially because of the lack of engagement with the religious or squishy Hallmark sentimentality aspects, but also because half the book takes place in the summer, and much of the unease is generated through the presence of Christmassy things where they don’t belong (a holiday song playing on the radio over July 4th weekend, for example). The story is less about a family coming together during Christmas, but a family being haunted by Christmas. In a way the holiday becomes as much of the villain as Charlie Manx.

NOS4A2, through its subversion of Christmas tropes, plays to our fear that the things we perceive to be good are really not. All gold is fool’s gold, and there is no refuge to be found in the world. There are a near-infinite number of ways that writers can reproduce this feeling--from perverting the role of a parent, to taking something children love (Christmas, ice cream, clowns) and either making it dangerous, or revealing the inherent danger in the supposedly innocuous thing, like lawn darts, or even the detachable missile in the original Kenner Boba Fett action figure’s backpack. Show the reader how even a balloon animal can cut them, and your work will linger in that reader’s mind.

On Halloween

Halloween MIGHT be my favorite horror franchise. Growing up in the '80s, I remember being aware of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger through other kids at school, even though I wasn't allowed to watch the movies and they probably weren't either, at the time, so my knowledge of the slasher icons was filtered through this game of telephone. I knew what they looked like, and generally that they were BAD, but I didn't know that Freddy appeared in dreams--he was just a scary-looking dude with knife hands. My friends and I would write stories where we'd get into battles with them while skateboarding the mean backstreets of Alexandria, Virginia. At least until we started getting into real fights because Billy killed Johnny in one of his stories or vice versa. My third grade teacher swiftly instituted some limits on what we could write about, even though she still took pains to encourage our creativity.

Regardless of how little direct experience I had, the slashers were inescapable. In retrospect it's kind of weird thinking about elementary school kids dressed up as Jason for Halloween. Not as weird as a kids' animated series based on the Toxic Avenger, but up there. 

The first HALLOWEEN I saw was the much scoffed-at sixth entry in the series, THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS. I don't care what anyone says, I love it. Some amazing kills, the douchebag shock jock, some genuinely creepy moments (lightning flashes and we see Michael standing on the other side of the blinds, for example). And the scene in the hospital when Michael suddenly starts slaughtering all the cultists he'd supposedly been working for/with? Chilling. 

Since this was the '90s and I made a few bucks a week that I mostly spent on weed, CDs, and unfortunate fashion choices, it took me a while to go back and watch all the entries in the series. Now I'm the proud owner of every last one on Blu-Ray. Since I've watched every movie several times and somehow still have a girlfriend I think I'm uniquely qualified to rank the entire series.

Without further adieu, I present to the class my definitive ranking of all the Halloween movies. 

Honorable Mention: SEASON OF THE WITCH (this is worth watching for Tom Atkins' incredibly shitty alcoholic '80s parenting alone, but the entire flick is a joy).


A bullet-ridden Michael commando-crawling into a river and being nursed back to health by a hermit. Tina is the Poochy of the Halloween series. Rachel is killed off unceremoniously. The psychic powers are stupid. Everybody makes dumb decisions and they're too lazy to make it NOT look like Pasadena. This movie sucks. 


Busta Rhymes kung fu fights Michael Myers. That's all you need to know.

8. HALLOWEEN II (Rob Zombie version)

I can see why people hate the Zombieweens (and also everything else Rob Zombie does other than scream about burning through the witches) but other than the white horse stuff I found this movie to be pretty enjoyable. The part where pro wrestler Mikey flips over a cop car is fun even though at that point we're not watching a HALLOWEEN movie anymore. 


After killing off the franchise's Tommy Jarvis in the first few minutes of the previous film and turning up the Cult of Thorn nonsense to 11, retconning Laurie Strode back into existence seemed like a good idea. This movies wears its late '90s influences on its sleeve. Some people criticize it as the WB version of HALLOWEEN and they're not wrong, but it's fun and has a few really iconic scenes (Michael lowering himself from a pipe one-handed). 

6. HALLOWEEN (Rob Zombie version)

Rob Zombie made half a good HALLOWEEN movie.  I don't need to spend any more time with little Mikey Myers than we did in John Carpenter's original, and seeing the escalation of Mikey killing animals and bullies ruins the impact of his sister's murder. The whole point was that his sister's murder was totally out of left field. No build-up, no warning signs. That's what was so scary about it. The second half of the movie is tense and terrifying, however, and the dynamic between Laurie and her friends works well. 


I'm only ranking this movie at #5 because of the competition. The part where the Mark of Thorn appears on Loomis' wrist at the end was a total shark-jump. 


Already got into what I liked about it further up. Far from a perfect film but it will always have a place in my cold, dark heart.  


Kind of a stealth remake, the FORCE AWAKENS of the series. But there are a lot of cool moments, it's generally well-made, and inserts a dose of realism (and additional conflict) with the drunken Haddonfield militia running around shooting dudes in bushes. Unfortunately it also lays the groundwork for the worst elements of the series, psychic powers and unbelievable resurrections. And Donald Pleasence's makeup is, uh, distracting at best. 

2. HALLOWEEN II (orig)


1. HALLOWEEN (orig)

Maybe not the first slasher film, but maybe the best, and it really holds up. Is John Carpenter the greatest horror director of all time? Yes, yes he is. 

UPDATE: I’ve seen HALLOWEEN 2018 and damned if I know where to put it. Definitely in the top half of the list. Maybe 3.5? It’s good, go see it.

Too Much Monster

If you haven’t seen 1990’s HARDWARE, you’re missing out. The cameo by Lemmy, the voice cameo by Dee Snider, William Hootkins*—and that’s all before we meet the MARK 13, one of the cooler killer robot designs to debut post-Terminator (a look that gets even cooler when scrap metal artist Jill gets it a fresh coat of paint). There’s much fun to be had, but the movie’s got one problem—too much monster.

Not that we SEE the MARK 13 too much—budget restrictions are often a horror director’s friend, forcing them to suggest things to the viewer, to engage the viewer’s imagination, rather than just trotting out a CGI monstrosity. But the MARK 13 does suffer from the same problem that any monster designed by a child does. Ask a kid to draw you a monster and they’ll probably make it shoot lasers out of its eyes, breath fire, teleport, fly, and more. There’s a misconception that the way to make something scary is to throw more and more powers into a bucket, which only goes so far. Omnipotence isn’t that scary or even interesting. In the face of a truly unbeatable threat, there’s no reason to be afraid, just depressed. Death is inevitable.

In addition to the badass buzzsaw it sports, the MARK 13 can also inject its victims with a hallucinogenic poison. For me, this was too much. I wanted to see the robot tearing its victims apart. The poison function is an unnecessary layer of icing on an already-frosted cake. No thanks.

HARDWARE seems like one of those movies that’s kind of begging for a remake. If that ever happens, I hope they give the MARK 13 its buzzsaw and let it go to town with that, and only that. Way more fun.

*Who is probably worthy of an article/national holiday in and of himself—Hootkins appeared in both STAR WARS and RAIDERS, and even freaking BATMAN and FLASH GORDON. The guy was all over the place in the ‘80s.

Deus Not Machina: Resounding Horror in Southern Gods

One of the oldest tricks in the horror playbook is the final scene that tells us that nope, the horror isn’t over, the good guys didn’t quite win, and all this is going to play out again. John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods features an ending that might be fanciful and saccharine, if not for one tiny wrinkle. Leading man Bull Ingram dies while retrieving Franny from the Hellion, a diabolical vessel captained by her grand-uncle. Franny herself is murdered in a most heinous way, but comes back to life at the end. While reading, I thought this might be evidence of Jacobs losing his nerve, giving in to some base desire (or perhaps insistent editor) and pulling back at the last minute.

But it’s not.

Read all the way to the end. Jacobs doesn’t just wave a magic wand and reset the table exactly how it was before Franny was butchered. And in a way, Jacobs does something worse than just letting her stay dead.

In most non-extreme horror circles, it’s taboo to kill a child. Jacobs breaks this taboo with panache--Bull Ingram and Sarah finally reach the top of the boat where she’s being held, but to their dismay she’s already dead, split open and used in a ritual to bring forth the Prodigium, Lovecraftian Elder Gods. Immediately this subverts reader expectation. We ask ourselves if this can possibly be true, or if it’s some kind of illusion conjured up by the godling Hastur. But it’s not an illusion. It’s real. But through sacrifice and heroics, Franny is returned to life, and with the exception of Bull’s more permanent death, all is well.

Except it’s not.

In the closing scene, Sarah watches her child swim with her friends, trying to slide back into normalcy after what she’s experienced. And we learn that she remembers all of it. Being violated and butchered, the sort of trauma that no other person could possibly have a memory of. The natural question of whether it might have been better if she’d died arises, and there’s no good answer. But I’m generally an optimist about human resilience if not human nature, so here’s hoping Franny gets through it all okay.

The fact that Jacobs has Franny remember what happened to her means he didn’t pull back after all, he went through with what he meant to do. Which gives the ending a power and a resonance it would not have otherwise, if Franny had been restored to life without any memory of what happened. That would have cheapened the events.

To use this technique, the reminder that the horror continues need not be Jason Voorhees’ hand arising from a lake, or a haunted totem being passed to a new owner, but simply an intimation that inside the minds of the characters we’ve grown to love, the horror is decidedly not over. While the events themselves might not literally recur, for the rest of their lives the events will play out over and over again in the heads of the characters. Which is where all horror stories really take place, after all.

We Need to Talk About Mike

Real quick, SPOILER ALERT for Better Call Saul—though I’ve got a blanket spoiler warning in effect for this blog, since I’m not talking about a thirty-year old horror flick I thought I’d throw an extra one in here. Just to be nice. Okay, really because I don’t want to hear any whining.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s up with Mike Ehrmantraut’s storyline this season. While I’ve enjoyed the hell out of Jimmy’s (de)volution, Kim’s internal battle for her soul, Howard becoming a hot mess and the fallout from Nacho’s switcheroo with the meds, I’ve been baffled by Mike’s plot the last few episodes. His infiltration of Madrigal Electromotive and subsequent chat with Lydia were fantastic, but his story has flagged quite a bit after transitioning to his supervised construction of the super-lab.

Why? There’s no tension.

When the super-lab was first revealed on Breaking Bad, I did wonder how Gus Fring managed to build such an expansive meth-making operation beneath his laundromat. But at the same time I didn’t need to know—I chalked the presence of the lab up to Gus’s intrinsic Fring-ness. Let’s face it, the man could make the Earth rotate clock-wise with nothing more than a steely glare (I mean maybe a raised eyebrow too).

Flash forward to BCS, where we get the origin of the super-lab, which is about as interesting as the origin story of any other building. Someone built it, the end. There’s no tension to the storyline because we know that no matter what trials and tribulations the German team face, the super-lab gets built. We also know Mike doesn’t get killed by a random falling beam, and we don’t care enough about the Germans for any of their construction-related deaths to affect us one iota (although that Kai guy is kind of a jackass).

So what the hell is Vince Gilligan doing here?

I mean, he’s doing something, right? He’s Vince fucking Gilligan, not Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Everything means something, everything has a purpose. He doesn’t have throwaway characters, as evidenced by some of the cameos and bit parts in the series (so glad to see Huell back and looking pretty damn healthy, by the way). Why is he showing us this?

Maybe because this is Mike’s heel turn.

Even though Mike doesn’t harbor any illusions about who Gus Fring is, he’s still a good guy who takes pride in his work, and wants others to do the same (see the aforementioned Madrigal montage). His word means something to him, a handshake is an iron-clad deal in his world.

He still thinks they’re going to build this lab and then the whole thing ends in Miller Time (as Mike might say).

And that’s the trick. Despite the precautions, despite the sally port, Gus Fring will not suffer these men to live once they’re done building his super-lab. Alex and Cyrus are going to slaughter them, and Mike’s going to lose his shit. He’ll confront Fring, maybe there’s even a moment where he comes close to killing him. We might end the season with a rift between Mike and Gus, but by next season that rift will be healed.

This storyline isn’t about Mike building a super-lab. It’s about the scales being pulled from his eyes, and when they are he’s not going to look away, completing his transition from cop to crook. And when we look back at these last few episodes, all the Bing Crosby montages and jackass German guys will have been worth it.

KillerCon Recap

The weekend before Labor Day, I was lucky enough to attend KillerCon in Austin, Texas. KillerCon is an intimate event for writers and fans of extreme horror and splatterpunk. Attendance is limited to a few hundred people, so you really get a chance to rub elbows and clink glasses with some of your favorite authors.

I got into Austin around 2pm local time and immediately headed for a brewery. Pinthouse Pizza had some good reviews and was en route to my hotel in Round Rock, and I’m really glad I stopped there. The Electric Jellyfish IPA hit the spot, the Pizza Rolls were delicious, and they had a Donkey Kong machine. Super cool people, too.

Next up was Austin Beerworks. They had a pretty neat outdoor area which I eschewed in favor of the air conditioned main tap room. San Diego has ruined me—I’m not built for temperatures above or below 70 degrees. The Teripax Belinerweisse was pretty tasty, but my favorite was the hilariously-named Gal-Lager Watermelon Lager. Perfect.

After Austin Beerworks I headed back to the hotel, where the front desk got me mixed up with Brian Keene (I’ll take “People I Don’t Mind Being Mistaken For” for $1,000, Alex). Then I went down to the bar, where Ed Lee and Christine Morgan were hanging out. A veritable deluge of awesome authors followed, including Mary Sangiovanni, the aforementioned Brian Keene, Kelli Owen and Patrick Freivald. I’m not saying all this to name drop, but to promote KillerCon—it’s really that kind of convention where you can just bullshit with the guests of honor all night.

The next morning, I hit the convention proper. Wrath James White was personally checking people in and had a badass coffin full of absolutely ridiculous donuts. Plus coffee. Bless you. Most of the dealers were still setting up, but I had a whirlwind thirty minutes of meeting a bunch of people I’m friends with on the Internet but hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting in real life before—Max Booth, Lori Michelle, Bob Pastorella, Rose O’Keefe, Jeff Burk, Lucy Taylor, Leza Cantoral, Christoph Paul, Joe and Kacey Lansdale, Sam Richard, Carlton Mellick III, Jarod Barbee, Patrick Harrison, Michael Louis Dixon, shit, I feel like I’m forgetting a bunch of people—sorry, you know who you are! Almost everyone I met I’d either had some interactions with online or read their stuff or even taken a class with, so the whole con very much felt like a family reunion.

Later that morning, I was lucky enough to join Wrath James White on a panel moderated by Stephen Kozeniewski on religion and horror. We discussed whether there are still more stories to tell about religion (there are) and discovered that zombie narratives are really Buddhist horror stories. Good times, and I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd.

The rest of the weekend was awesome, highlights included watching Ed Lee read, the Deadite Press Gross-Out Contest (special congrats to Stephen Kozeniewski for taking home the grand prize) complete with Mandy DeSandra guest appearance, the small press/indie publishing panel, the first annual Splatterpunk Awards (watching Ed Lee win the first awards of his career AND accepting an award for Jack Ketchum was amazing), the Clash Books reading, Max Booth’s new Hulu series, and Christoph Paul’s Blacula song.

And finally the LOST FILMS reading.

Bob Pastorella read his incredible story, and then I performed a shortened version of mine since the original would have taken too long to read. Max Booth joined me onstage as my hype man, and while I can’t disclose what actually transpired during those thirty minutes, I can confidently state that KillerCon has not experienced anything quite like that before.

By the end of the weekend, I was pretty exhausted and a little stressed as to how I was going to get all the fucking books I bought back to San Diego, but also completely stoked at how great the con was. Fantastic programming and a truly great (and damn good-looking) crowd. Special thanks to Wrath and the rest of the volunteers who made this event happen. If you get a chance next year, check it out—you won’t be disappointed.

Death by Exposition

I caught the found footage flick #Screamers last night (now streaming on Amazon), based on the fact that I enjoyed the hell out of another Dread Central Presents joint (Terrifier) and the whole "tech nerds hunting an evil viral video maker" premise seemed fun. Despite some decent performances, solid justifications for continuing to film when creepy stuff happens, and the sheer joy in seeing annoying startup gurus get murdered, the whole thing seemed like a donkey-brained waste of time. And a lot of that stems from the fact that there's too much exposition.

Something on the order of the first fifteen minutes of the film are devoted to a "documentary" where we meet the various personages involved in Gigaler, an awkwardly-named YouTubish startup (based in Cleveland because BUDGET). The employees are varying degrees of charming, their banter isn't bad, and the set design is pitch-perfect. But nothing that happens in the first fifteen minutes makes me think I'm watching a horror movie. Imagine if Blair Witch was just shopping at REI for backpacks, making GORP, and Heather doing an improv class or something and no one got to the woods until the third act. And no one MENTIONED the witch until the second.

Yeah, that's what #Screamers is doing.

Sci-fi and fantasy often (and rightly) get criticized for info-dumping on their audience, and that's basically what this movie is doing. I'm kind of surprised they didn't start with Tom and Chris signing an office lease or filling out incorporation paperwork. Point is it's the WRONG place to start the movie, and there's nothing creepy or unsettling (for the audience--Griffin whose title is probably 'social media ninja' is apparently weirded out by milk). Eventually, Griffin finds a stupid jump-scare video that was already dated in the early '00s and everyone up to the execs thinks it's going to put Gigaler on the map.

Uh, no.

Add in some nonsense about a Jack the Ripper suspect and, well, the less said the better. Since the film centers on a viral video, the best place to start would be with the video itself. Two minutes of conversation about Gigaler's finances (and that was a major missed opportunity to increase tension and justify the dunderheaded way Tom goes about, well, everything he does--they're desperate for traffic because they're weeks away from closing their doors and no one knows but the founders) and history could have supplanted fifteen minutes of fake documentary. Cut all that shit and then maybe they could have worked in a scare in the first few minutes.

Or, you know, at all.   


Crying Werewolf

One of the hardest parts of constructing a solid horror narrative is giving your characters a reasonable motivation to stay in the location where the terror happens--even casual fans will snidely ask, "Duh, why don't they just leave LOLZ" the minute spooky shit starts happening. Other then setting your story in the proverbial cabin in the woods (or going post-apoc), the most effective way to believably put your characters through the ringer is to employ the apocryphal (and false)  fable of the boiling frog. Start with innocuous but ambiguous happenings, ratchet up the tension and severity, and by the time your characters realize what kind of story they're in it's too late. One way to do this is to have a character cry werewolf--they are the only ones experiencing the most severe manifestations of paranormal activity (hey-oh), but for whatever reason the other characters don't believe them.

Hell House LLC almost gets this right.

In HHLLC, a crew of professional haunters crashes a creepy, abandoned hotel in order to turn it into the haunted house to end all haunted houses in time for the Halloween season. Head haunt-cho Alex has directed Paul to document their efforts, ostensibly to make it easier for them to replicate the experience when they rebuild everything the next year. Paul's the first one to notice anything out of the ordinary going on, and Alex blows him off when Paul tries to talk to him about it.

So far, so good--we've got a character experiencing crazy shit that would make most of us run screaming out of the house, but he's not the one in charge. Alex isn't seeing or experiencing anything other than being woken up in the middle of the night by his annoying friends/crew members, so he's got no motivation to leave. Paul does, but doesn't have the ability to make it so. This dichotomy gives them a realistic reason to stay in the hotel until everything goes well off the rails.

Unfortunately, there's one moment where everyone's motivation falls apart, and the damnedest thing is it's eminently fixable.

Paul captures a sequence of film that's undeniable--the immobile clown dummy from the basement standing at the top of the stairs, the dummy moving its neck (which the characters have repeatedly stated it could not do), and then disappearing. In the sequence of film everyone in the house is accounted for. Paul plays the film back for the other characters, who all go oh shit and then quickly assume it's just Paul fucking with them.

Which almost works, but there's a problem. It's clear from the footage that none of the guys could have dressed up in the clown suit--we see them seconds later on the other side of the house. In order for Paul to be pranking them, the footage would need to be doctored, and that particular plot point isn't set up well. There are moments where Paul is portrayed as an irreverent slacker, but not as a master prankster--if his character had been set up as a hipster Loki it would have worked. But given what we're shown, I'm not buying the reactions of the other characters to Paul's footage.

To fix this moment, and by extension the reasons why the characters choose to stay in this haunted hotel, a quick scene could have been inserted earlier in the film showing Paul executing a serious practical joke on the rest of the crew. Preferably involving video editing. That's all it would take for me to buy the other characters' dismissive attitudes.

So, to recap--have your character cry werewolf. Have a relatively powerless and reputationally-challenged member of the group bear witness to the real horror. Give the other characters plausible reasons for not believing him or her. And then let the terror ensue!