On Picture Made By My Hand with the Assistance of Light, by Walead Beshty
[[[link to the artwork that inspired this poem: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/31255]]]
i. ice and its qualities // regeneration
the way ice breaks apart between stubborn teeth,
its shatters milk-white, bleeding into
much worse the groaning slush of iceberg
mother nature’s own bad habit,
the habitats of polar bears and elephant seals
caught in the liminal space,
the animals live between gnashing molars,
bicuspids of resplendent bifrost,
and we forget, in the end, that we
are animals too.
ii. deterioration // sanctification
stretch the plastic trash bag to its limit,
feeling the tension in this artificial skin
black to disguise its contents,
black to hide what light can’t see.
the way rays of light break apart on its
bounce back, radiate heat.
the way rays/streams, maybe
even eddies of light
become dots, fragments, shatter
across the membrane as if
given enough time, the sun
will burn even plastic into dust,
motes of floating shale
bleached white in the heat of a
shaking off the last
of its struggling photons,
readying itself for
iii. interiority // glorification
what’s weird with
light is its properties,
both a wave and a particle
is the fact that
across a spectrum,
demarcated only by
the rapidity of
on one end, sound waves
are just light
at a slower pace.
stick your toe in the deeper end
and touch the X-rays
as they touch beyond the blackbody
radiation that pours from your own
the hidden parts
bones organs tumors
and lift the roof of your frame,
expose the underpinnings,
reveal the harsh truth:
there is no self,
only light in all its forms.
THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year, in 2017, and in 2016. The list includes all the books I read in 2019 and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this.
- The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear From the Master of Horror—George Beahm
- This book capped off 2018’s Year of Stephen King for me. A comprehensive exploration of King’s dynasty of popular fiction, the book is a little long. It is an obsessive fan’s discussion of their favorite author, and it can be… too much if that’s not what you’re looking for. If it is what you’re looking for, then have at it.
- The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People—Neil Shubin
- Written by paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, The Universe Within is a book about how cosmic evolution has real impacts on our lives. It’s a melding together of Big History with the history of life on our little speck in the midst of a vast ocean of nothingness, and it is fantastic.
- Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics—Eugenia Cheng
- Exactly what it says on the tin. Mathematician Eugenia Cheng (Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a researcher in higher-dimensional category theory) takes us through the study of infinity in a more cogent way than a book that will make its appearance elsewhere on this list (Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace). The fact that I rank this one higher than DFW’s is a reflection of two things: Cheng is actually a mathematician, and her explanation is much clearer and more easily understandable. Read this if you want to know about how there are different-sized infinities, and how technically there are more numbers between 0 and 1 than there are whole numbers (!).
- Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups—Robert Anton Wilson
- I’ve wanted to read Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy for a while now, but have been unable to get hold of a copy. I ventured into this nonfiction encyclopedia he wrote about conspiracy theories (both proven and out-there, bonkers stuff) and had fun with it. However, it’s… an encyclopedia. Some of the entries are really interesting, others are a trudge. It’s really hit-or-miss.
- Words, Words, Words—David Crystal
- I doubt linguistics is a particularly pressing interest of most people reading this list. However, I LOVED this book. Crystal is a man who loves words, language, the evolution of language, and everything that is captured inside a word (its sounds, shapes, grammar, etc.). He brings his joy into this work and makes you feel it as well.
- The Order of Time—Carlo Rovelli
- As one might expect, this book is about the order of time. Specifically, it is about new developments in physics that change the way we think of time as an entity. An expert on loop quantum gravity theory and (oddly enough) the philosopher Anaximander, Rovelli is an Italian physicist who illuminates these difficult concepts for the layperson like you and me. For instance, he talks about how heat is really the only concept that has an arrow of time in physics. All other equations are reversible, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that energy transfers from higher-energy objects to lower-energy objects (i.e. things get colder as they lose energy to their surroundings). But… under Einsteinian relativity, there is no “true” time. There is no single “now,” but such a concept depends upon the observer’s perception as warped by gravity’s influence on spacetime. Check this book out if any of that interests you.
- Seven Brief Lessons on Physics—Carlo Rovelli
- This is another, earlier work of Rovelli’s. Both books are very short, and this one basically gives the reader a brief tutorial through seven aspects of modern physics. Einsteinian gravitation, quantum physics, cosmology, etc. They are all covered in short, pleasing passages that are surprisingly easy to read.
- Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners—Michael Erard
- Erard takes us on a trip across the world to understand people who “know” dozens of languages. Though the book is well-written, unfortunately, it ends rather disappointingly. And it seems more concerned with Erard’s own journey and issues finding a truly impressive polyglot. He teases different ideas about how these learners hone their craft, but at the end of the day, the book seems to become nothing more than a window into incredibly weird people. Which is not what I was signing up for, really. The beginning gives the impression that we’re going to find answers.
- I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer—Michelle McNamara
- You’ve probably heard about this book before. Michelle McNamara, the late wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, was a crime writer before her untimely death in 2016. Published posthumously from her extensive notes, this book details her search for the Golden State Killer who terrorized California in the 1970s and ’80s. Remarkably, the killer was finally caught after McNamara passed away, and some of the theories she posited in her notes were proven correct. Everything good you’ve heard about this book is right.
- Physics on the Fringe: Circlons, Smoke Rings, and Alternative Theories of Everything—Margaret Wertheim
- Y’all, this book is wild. Mostly about Jim Carter and his Circlon Theory (in which he replaces atoms, quarks, fields, etc. with “circlons” as fundamental particles), Wertheim’s book discusses a host of alternative physics theories. As a scientist and science writer, Wertheim appreciates the skepticism of these alternative theorists (some would say pseudoscientists) and notes that they often are otherwise highly intelligent and capable people who just believe very strange things in certain areas. Thoroughly interesting and, I think, respectful to this group of people rather than the point-and-laugh send-up it could have been in less capable hands.
- Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity—David Foster Wallace
- It hurts me not to recommend a DFW book, but Eugenia Cheng did it better (above). This history is interesting, centers around Georg Cantor (father of set theory and influential thinker re: infinite sets), and has all the hallmarks of the DFW I love, footnotes and all. But it is not compact and is in fact overly circuitous. You get the sense that, despite his constant addresses to the reader stating otherwise, Wallace was not actually trying to make the subject matter easy to understand and was, in fact, obfuscating it needlessly.
- A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos—Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes
- Lewis and Barnes are two physicists who lecture together about the fine-tuning of our Universe (the fact that minor changes in fundamental values of things [like the electron’s mass] would have massive effects on a macro-level). One of them is a theist, the other is not, but both think fine-tuning is a fascinating area of modern physics ripe for discussion and discovery. This is a contender for my BOOK OF THE YEAR.
- Hinduism: A Beginner’s Guide—Klaus K. Klostermaier
- Yeah, the author has an unfortunate set of initials. I dunno. I picked up this book on a whim because I was curious about Hinduism and had not read anything about it, really, other than grossly oversimplified blurbs in textbooks. This book is a good beginner’s guide that goes through the various texts, traditions, and modern issues surrounding Hinduism. Probably a niche recommendation, though, to a Western audience.
- The Grand Design—Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
- This book goes over material that is similar to A Fortunate Universe (above), but without the emphasis on the discussion between theism and atheism. A more general walk through modern cosmological theories and evidence, this work from Hawking and Mlodinow focuses more on the naturalist perspective of our Universe’s structure and history.
- 101 Quantum Questions: What You Need to Know About the World You Can’t See—Kenneth W. Ford
- Virtually every question you can think of regarding quantum physics is answered thoroughly in this book, in a language that is accessible yet informative. Ford, an America physicist who formerly served as CEO and Executive Director of the American Institute of Physics, illuminates subjects like wave-particle duality, Schroedinger’s wave equation, the difference between up and down quarks, particle spin, etc. If you’ve ever been interested in quantum physics, pick this book up pronto!
- The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea That Rules the World—David Berlinski
- This was one of the few books I read this year that I truly disliked. Berlinski ostensibly wants to convey the history and import of the algorithmic thinking that (kind of) started with Leibniz and eventually led to modern computers, but his prose is ridiculously purple. He seems more concerned about masturbatorily stroking his own ego with strange tangential stories about him explaining math to plebs over fine wine in France (yeah, that’s a real digression he takes for… no reason) than with actually explaining his points. Avoid this one.
- The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos—Brian Greene
- Greene is an influential physicist who made some strides in string theory working on Calabi-Yau shapes. In this work, he discusses the science behind many-worlds hypotheses, including bubble universes, holograms, and simulations. Far from science-fiction, Green shows us why some physicists are starting to take seriously the idea that our Universe might be one among (possibly infinitely) many.
- Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness—Peter Godfrey-Smith
- This work discusses the intelligence of cephalopods like octopuses and cuttlefish, which seem to have developed advanced brains along a separate evolutionary trajectory to ours. Highly interesting, Godfrey-Smith’s work delves into the emerging social structures at a site known as “Octopolis,” in which normally solitary octopuses, due to environmental factors, are becoming more sociable.
- The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary—Caspar Henderson
- Henderson’s book compiles a list of interesting creatures, from the axolotl to the yeti crab and many more besides. He uses these animals to discuss key elements of, believe it or not, humanity: what the animals can do that we can’t, how both our species and theirs adapts to its habitat, relationships between these animals and the planet, etc. It is all very interesting and well written.
- All the Fierce Tethers—Lia Purpura
- All the Fierce Tethers is a collection of essays that was great, but which I struggle to recommend to everyone. If you like essays of nonfiction, specifically observational essays, then this is for you. Purpura has won awards for her essays in the past, and her prose is impeccable. Topics in this one include eagles and their relationship with the USA, a motel room’s stained quilt, the concept of irony, and more.
- Watership Down—Richard Adams
- A much-beloved tale of rabbits and their fight for survival, Richard Adam’s novel lived up to the hype. You know I’m a sucker for books that have their own mythologies, languages, and anthropomorphic nuances.
- The Made-Up Man—Joseph Scapellato
- Ultimately a novel about art, its purpose, and its effects on artists, The Made-Up Man is a solid debut from Scapellato. The book is written from the perspective of Stanley, who has agreed to watch his uncle’s apartment in Prague. Soon, it becomes obvious to Stanley that he is just a pawn in another one of his uncle’s strange and inscrutable art projects.
- Ghost Wall—Sarah Moss
- My first Sarah Moss book, this novel was incredibly good. The narrator is an English teenager whose father has dragged her and her mother to a university project. An amateur anthropologist, of sorts, her father is obsessed with the ancient English inhabitants. Her family and the university students essentially live for the summer as ancients. As we read on, Moss develops a growing unease that settles into every sentence. We know the narrator’s father is bad, but we only truly understand his vileness as we read to the end.
- Machine—Susan Steinberg
- This book is about a young girl who recalls a summer in which another girl drowned in a local watering hole. The group of teens at the center of the novel are all children of wealthy families, mixed with a few townies. If I’m being honest, the interesting nature of the experimental poetic-prose in which the novel is written makes the plot seem more captivating than it actually is.
- The Remainder—Alia Trabucco Zeran
- Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Remainder is a sharp, emotional book about two friends living in the aftermath of dictatorship in Chile. The title comes from one character’s constant subtracting of all the dead people he knows in his head, his aim to arrive at some number that will make sense of the world. A friend’s mother dies abroad and desires to be buried in Chile, but her body is lost in transit. The two (along with the motherless friend) go searching for the body, their journey an allegory for modern Chilean life.
- The Parade—Dave Eggers
- Only the second Eggers book I’ve read, The Parade is about two contractors for an international construction firm. They are tasked with building a road through an unnamed war-torn country so that the victorious government can host a parade across the newly unified nation. The two are opposite personalities and do not get along, leading to shenanigans and moral quandaries about the nature of their job and the war economy.
- The Tokyo Zodiac Murders—Soji Shimada
- I hate to be sacrilegious against Shimada, who is known as the veritable King of Japanese locked-room mysteries, but The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was a middling mystery at best, for me. It kept my interest, but I felt (as I often do with translated works) that the writing was stilted and something of the voice and passion was lost in translation. Still, check it out if you are an avid fan of mysteries or crime novels. There is a reason Shimada is so highly regarded, and the plot of this one was, when it comes down to it, fascinating.
- Dog Symphony—Sam Munson
- If you love weird fiction like I do, you need to check out this work from Sam Munson. The main character is an expert on prison architecture who has been called to Buenos Aires by a colleague. Once there, he meets a conundrum: his colleague is nowhere to be found, dogs roam the street en masse at night, and a strange governmental entity beginning to poke its nose into the world. Utterly baffling in a beautiful way.
- Native Tongue—Suzette Haden Elgin (possible novel of the year)
- The fact that I haven’t heard of this book is an absolute travesty. Set in a dystopic future in which women have no rights, Elgin’s novel features a set of 13 families known as the linguists. These families are tasked with learning alien (literally) languages. But, secretly, the women of the linguist families have been working on a language for women only. Elgin, an actual linguist herself, apparently believed that language literally shapes our reality, so the end goal of the women in the novel is to change their subservience by virtue of crafting a new language. HIGHLY recommend.
- Neuromancer—William Gibson
- I finally read this classic, set in a cyberpunk future. I probably don’t need to say much more, given that this book is legendary.
- Look at the Birdie: Short Fiction—Kurt Vonnegut (maybe a recommend)
- This one is hard for me to categorize. Like most collections of stories, I tend not to recommend these kinds of works because the stories are often hit-or-miss. But when Vonnegut hits, he HITS. The best stories in this one, in my humble opinion, are A Song for Selma, King and Queen of the Universe, and The Petrified Ants.
- The Housekeeper and the Professor—Yōko Ogawa
- If I had not read some of the other books on this list in 2019, this one might have snagged my Novel of the Year designation. The premise is simple: a housekeeper and her son grow to know and love a man who used to be a professor of mathematics until an accident in the 1970s left him with about 90 minutes of memory. In other words, he only remembers his life up to the moment of that accident, and then every 90 minutes his memory resets. I stand by what I said in my succinct Goodreads review: “Crushingly, achingly beautiful. Like something holy.”
- Slade House—David Mitchell
- My first foray into the weird world of David Mitchell (author of, among many others, Cloud Atlas), this book was fascinating. It’s a bit similar to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but if HoL featured a worldwide conspiracy of mystics. Really fun ideas mixed with, honestly, true horror.
- The End of the Moment We Had—Toshiki Okada
- This, along with the aforementioned Advent of the Algorithm by David Berlinski, was one of my least favorite reads of 2019. Maybe it’s something lost in translation, but it just feels like yet another tired book from a male writer wanting to discuss his apathy toward sex, relationships, and an inability to connect. Gross shit.
- Grief is the Thing With Feathers—Max Porter (possible novel of the year)
- This may be the only book that has ever actually made me cry. A “novel,” if you can call it that, Max Porter’s debut stretches beyond any real genre. It is a poetic/prose/play all in his own style, and it is about the grief of a father and two boys after the mother/wife dies. The less said about this, the better, in my opinion. That way you can have a pure, expectation-less experience. As a father of two boys (and a girl), the plot obviously got its hooks into me emotionally.
- The Weight of Words—Dave McKean and William Schafer
- If you like the art of Dave McKean (notably, the artist behind Neal Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels), you should pick up this work. Each story is based on a particular image created by McKean, with varying success (in my opinion). Some really good gems here, but also some that fall flat. You know, it’s my typical gripe about story collections. They rarely all are up to snuff (I’m looking at you, Gaiman, who let me down in this book).
- Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children—Shelley Jackson (possible novel of the year)
- I’ve been telling everyone I know who loves weird fiction about this novel. I NEED to read more of Shelley Jackson’s work. This book centers around a school for stutterers that is… unorthodox. The founder, the eponymous Sybil Joines, discovered that stutterers actually can communicate with and enter into the land of the dead through their mouths. Exceedingly weird, Riddance is a pastiche of several narrative lines that are all very compelling: letters to dead authors from Joines, a transcript of Joines’ last trip to the land of the dead, the stenographer’s notes about her experience living at the school, and more. I loved this book.
- Houses of Ravicka—Renee Gladman
- I struggled with recommending this one because it may be too weird even for me (which I know seems odd given my wholehearted championing of Riddance just now). However, Gladman seems a bit too interested in the sort of “art for art’s sake” pretentiousness that I find uncomfortable. The book is set in her imagined city-state of Ravicka, a place where houses and the very geography often moves about. It is reflective of the author’s views on architecture, but in her endnotes Gladman even admits that she purposefully swapped the narrator’s gender back and forth from male to female not because of the character’s gender fluidity but because she inserted too much of herself into the character, or something. I don’t know. It seems all too academic and hifalutin, too self-serious, for my taste. It is, of course, very well written, though.
- Alice Payne Arrives (Alice Payne #1)—Kate Heartfield
- This book features elegantly plotted time travel, primarily a female cast, queer love, and dialogue that passes the Bechdel test. Heartfield is a new name to me, but I absolutely must read the rest of this series. She has a wonderful voice that delves into both character development and intricate plot work, as well as an adept hand at weaving believable sci-fi worlds. If I may be so crass: it’s extremely my shit.
- Multiple Choice—Alejandro Zambra
- While not detestable like The End of the Moment We Had, this book was among my least favorite this year. The writing is good, and I enjoyed the experimental nature of framing/presenting a novel in the shape of a multiple-choice exam, but ultimately I don’t think the literary game “landed” for this one. I am interested to read more of Zambra’s work, though, as he is considered one of Chile’s preeminent writers.
- Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1)—Louise Penny
- My wife recommended the Chief Inspector Gamache books to me, and I am glad she did. If you love warm, charming characters and intriguing mysteries, check out this series by Penny. I loved this book, and my wife considers it her least favorite in the series, so I’m looking forward to reading more!
- Sharp Objects—Gillian Flynn
- Wow. From the author of Gone Girl, this debut novel is about a series of murders in a small town covered by a reporter who is from that town but moved away years ago. She returns to a highly dysfunctional family and a town reeling from the deaths of two young girls. Written in a unique voice and a style as precise as the razor on its cover, Sharp Objects is nearly a perfect story in its genre.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—Mark Haddon
- This award-winning novel is told from the perspective of a teenage boy who is neuroatypical. As he investigates the death of a neighbor’s dog, he narrates for us this story, told (if I remember correctly) through his journal entries. The book is absolutely breathtaking and will leave you in a heap of emotions that Christopher, the story’s narrator, often does not appear to experience as we do.
- Lanny—Max Porter
- The second of Porter’s books that I read this year, Lanny does not reach quite the same heights as Grief is the Thing With Feathers. However, it is still a work of art, emotionally moving, and technically masterful. The story centers around a young boy, the eponymous Lanny, and his experience being a bit more attuned to the nature-spirit-type-entity called Dead Papa Toothwort. A very strange book, it’s well worth the time.
- Pursuit—Joyce Carol Oates
- I debated recommending this one. I gave it five stars on Goodreads, and it was quite good. It made me want to read more of Oates’ work, but it wasn’t the best crime-based novel that I read this year. Pursuit is about a woman who, the day after her wedding, steps into traffic. Her husband visits her in the hospital and tries to decipher why she would do such a thing, and what exactly in her past drove her to attempt suicide right after they were about to start their lives together.
- Bloodborne—Aleš Kot and Piotr Kowalski
- What can I say? It’s an adaptation of one of my favorite video games of all time.
- Rusty Brown—F. C. Ware
- Hoo boy. From the author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth comes another soul-crushing, heart-breaking tale of a young kid coming of age and human beings growing and connecting. Check it at your own risk.
- The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel—Margaret Atwood and Renée Nault
- This is the graphic novel adaptation of Atwood’s famous novel. It is very good and very beautiful.
- Akira, Vol. 1 through 6—Katsuhiro Otomo
- One artist’s grappling with the dangers of nuclear power and the exponential growth of technology, Akira changed the landscape of graphic novels and comics. I remember watching the film, which basically adapts only Volumes 1 through 3, I think, and which was directed by the Otomo. It is required reading for any enthusiast of comics and graphic novel culture.
- Shortcomings—Adrian Tomine
- This one was given to me by a good friend. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. It basically revolves around an Asian-American man struggling with his own constant negativity, living in modern American society, and facing significant difficulties in his love life.
- The Night—Philippe Druillet
- Apparently written after Druillet’s wife died of cancer, The Night is a surreal comic about a future humanity living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an intense story with stellar art that showcases our species’ struggle with the consciousness of its own impending death.
- The Future is Now—Josan Gonzalez
- I have been asking for this book every Christmas for the past few years and finally got my hands on it this year, thanks to my parents. There were only a few thousand created, and Volume 1 is out of print. With virtually no text, the graphic novel is a window into Gonzalez’s idea about the future of society and how it relates to technology: cyborgs, robots, full-robot cities, a Texan nation-state that features a Thunderdome-esque battle royale show, and more.
- Orc Stain, Vol. 1—James Stokoe
- Mainly following the exploits of a unique orc with one eye, Orc Stain features the incredible artwork of Stokoe and its world feels truly alive. The Orctzar and his improbable, massive army of northern orcs is on the move, looking for One-Eye because of an oracle that foretells One-Eye will be his empire’s downfall. It’s a bizarre, wild place where orcs trade in “chits,” which are coins that are actually dried and preserved slices of… each others’ “gronches.” Yeah, you guess right. It’s their dicks. Their money is slices of each other’s penises. Yeah. Yep.
if I were to write a suicide note,
I would want to talk about gravity
—about how when we fall the Earth inches
imperceptibly toward us, coming up
to meet us mid-air. Our own planet is
an aggressor against us! (I once saw
a young girl pierced by the root of a tree…)
Is it possible to live in a world
that by its nature punches holes in you?
there is a caterpillar named Doubt
who, with his razor teeth,
gnaws and shreds his slow way
across the foliage
of Truth and Salvation,
eating through their membranes,
dissolving their cell walls
like a cancer. This worm
(or is it Wyrm?) is not
an unnatural thread
in our world’s great pattern.
For it is the nature
of all leafy green things—
of all things beautiful,
good, and worthy of praise—
to fall prey to Eaters,
to drought and entropy.
This is the way of it.
And the last leafy thing
that Doubt will perforate
is his own opposite—
a tree-root that spouts up
from the ground of All-Things,
an emanating lightbeam called Hope.
The latest short film from indie horror outfit 4 Leagues Media, PSYCHO PATH is a fantastic addition to their repertoire. I first heard of 4 Leagues Media through my friend and local writing group member Kayla Stuhr, who is part of the company and has produced, directed, acted, and written in these films. Like many of their short films, PSYCHO PATH is designed for the circuit, where the crew recently won numerous awards for their horror short Tethered. I was lucky enough to get a special code to watch PSYCHO PATH online, so I’m going to give you my honest opinion here. Nevermind that I know Ms. Stuhr. She told me not to be too nice.
But enough of that. Let’s get into the details of this film. I’ll try not to post anything too spoilery. The film is only 12 minutes, so I don’t want to give away too much.
A General Gist of the Plot
Some have said that the found footage genre is dead. For a while, I thought so too. It seemed like Cloverfield was the culmination of found footage and nothing could really build upon it. Then I saw the horror flick Creep. If you’ve read my brief film reviews, you know that I loved Mark Duplass’ film. The trick was Creep’s ability to justify the found footage mechanism. It was upfront about the fact that the characters were specifically attempting to create a home video, so all of the cinematography made sense within the context of the story.
PSYCHO PATH is much like Creep in that regard. Much of the 12 minutes of the film is captured by the personal camera of our main character, Laurel Rhodes. A vlogger who has a social media channel called Off Roads, Laurel takes her camera with her on backpacking adventures to find interesting trails, waterfalls, scenic locations, and probably anything else that captures her eye in the deep woods. This time around, she’s seeking a specific forest tunnel of some kind, but gets sidetracked by a storm and stumbles upon a lone, empty cabin.
Inside, inevitably, Laurel finds strange runic markings. More importantly for her situation, she finds a dry loft where she can rest her head as the storm passes.
Then, all hell breaks loose. I won’t say anymore here. You can’t make me.
My Thoughts on the Film as a Work of Art
As with most short films, the plot is simple enough. It’s the execution of the story that sets a horror short apart from the milieu. In haphazard fashion, as is my wont, I will now tell you how I think PSYCHO PATH measures up.
Abigail Wilson nails her role as Laurel. It can be difficult to carry the momentum of a story when you’re the only face on screen for the majority of the time, but she manages to seem real, nuanced, human, and exactly like I would expect a backpacking vlogger to be.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not as good as she is. In fact, I’d say this film’s one downside is the awkwardness and somewhat stilted nature of the scenes with characters other than Laurel. This is not enough of a criticism to take away from the overall effect of the film, but it should be noted.
Aside from Wilson’s stellar performance, PSYCHO PATH is carried by its aesthetic and ability to capitalize on excellent moments of terror. Let’s talk aesthetic first. The lighting is great, the interior of the cabin is magnificently styled, and the clips of previous episodes of Off Roads are a really nice touch that sets the mood and establishes Laurel’s character brilliantly. Of course, no horror film is complete without music that colors the scenes. Composer Matt Vucic delivers a haunting score that genuinely impressed me.
Okay, now for the moments of terror. Let me explain what I’m talking about. HEY, HERE’S A SPOILER: when a man enters the cabin in the middle of the night, Laurel starts to climb down from the loft to announce her presence. Then, while she is poised halfway up a ladder in the background, the man begins to drag a body into the quiet room. We sit there, paused and tense with Laurel, as we pray for the man not to see her or hear her creaks as she slowly tries to hide herself again. OKAY, SPOILER OVER.
That kind of moment is pure. It shows what Tethered began to tell the world: 4 Leagues Media understands horror. They understand what makes us afraid, and how to exploit those moments in creative and sense-heightening ways.
The filmmakers are also well-versed in that old adage: show, don’t tell. They let us, the viewers, make of this film what we will. They let us tell ourselves the tale. They are careful to give us only the details we need to conjure the demons in our own imagination. If anything, the film left me wanting just a few more answers, just a little more information. It’s a delicate balance between revealing so little that your audience doesn’t understand the film and revealing so much that your audience is bored with what is inevitably not as scary as they made it out to be in their minds. Fortunately for us all, 4 Leagues Media seems at home on that tightrope.
Plus, the runic symbols are freaking cool. It’s difficult to create a thing that is objectively cool these days, with so much of our art shrouded in irony and cross-references.
The Final Analysis
PSYCHO PATH is really good. It’s not a perfect film, but it is great at showcasing the skill on offer at 4 Leagues Media. I’ve now seen two of their shorts, and I can say that their range is broad as well. Don’t let the simplicity of the story fool you: there is nuance here. This isn’t just a cookie-cutter film crew. I expect to hear a lot of great things about them in the future, and honestly I can’t wait until I’m able to watch another of their movies.
Overall, I give PSYCHO PATH 8/10. But remember kids: numerical scores are usually dumb. What I really mean to say is: see the film if you are lucky enough to have the chance.
I’ve written several brief film reviews, most of them about horror movies, which you can check out here. This one has been brewing in my head for a while, so I hope you enjoy.
The Eyes of My Mother is the single most disturbing film I have watched in recent memory. The horror debut of writer/director Nicolas Pesce, the film has had a lasting impact on me. I watched it alone the first time, was incredibly freaked out, and forced some friends to watch it with me again a few days later. I won’t spoil the film for you if you are interested, but I’ll talk here about the kind of horror that awaits you, and why the film is very good.
Our story begins, after a fittingly terrifying opening sequence, with a young girl named Francisca, who lives in relative isolation on a farm with her mother and father. Her mother was an eye-surgeon from Portugal, and there is a brief moment in which she teaches Francisca how to dissect the eye of a cow. She remarks that they used to practice on cow’s eyes in the old country because they were similar to humans’ eyes, but enlarged.
A series of events unfurl in the film, including the deaths of multiple characters, but we see this all by following Francisca first as a child and then as a young adult played to stunning effect by Kika Magalhães. All in black-and-white, the movie captures almost a neo-noir essence that manages to be both beautiful and austere. But let me get to the nightmarishness.
After I watched The Eyes of My Mother the first time, I remembered it as an incredibly graphic film. But, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is an illusion. Most of the violence or graphicness happens off screen, the tension and terror packed into the space between scenes as we realize the extent of depravity and suffering going on. Even when we see limited moments of gore, the film’s black-and-white nature obscures our ability to see truly the viscera. We comprehend the grotesque through suggestion, mostly, as the director either doesn’t show us the violence or shows us it through a decolorized veil. This emphasizes the true horror, which has to do with time.
See, The Eyes of My Mother is, in my opinion, a film that is ultimately about isolation. It is about the ability of a human being to become completely and utterly isolated from other people. That person can interact with others, but never truly exists among them. This is why an inability to see or speak becomes integral to the horror we witness. It is also why the horror is revealed to extend through time in a way that continues to twist the tension into a coiling spring ready to explode. If I’m talking in circles, it’s because I don’t want to spoil anything, but after you’ve seen the film, remember this: I’m talking about the events that occur inside the barn and their extension through time, which we do not see directly. I’m talking about how long that horror lasts in character-time, how many days and hours it lasts that we, the audience, are not privy to.
Everyone in this film becomes isolated and remains isolated, save for one individual (and possibly two). This isolation and existential terror is also reflected in the pacing of the film. I alternate between thinking that Pesce paced his film perfectly and thinking that it is slightly, maybe a hair’s breadth too slow. The snail’s pace is obviously purposeful, however, and its punctuation with violence and terror enforces in the viewer the kind of (for lack of a better word) fucked-up-ness that is going on here.
Some additional notes: there are traces and hints of (what could be construed as) cannibalism, incest, sexual slavery, and more in this film. It manages to comment on almost all of our societal taboos without making the viewer witness (most of) them. I think the film’s strength is its ability to get at these things in a relatively tactful way while still delivering extreme horror, dread, terror, and the like.
The Eyes of My Mother is shocking, horrifying, beautiful, artsy, humble, and pretentious all rolled into one. It’s a package that you should unpack at least one in your life, especially if you love the horror genre. This one, while containing violence, is more of a horror-in-your-mind film than a torture-porn film, which to me is always, ALWAYS, scarier.
9.5-10/10, depending on how I feel about the pacing at any given moment. Watch it on Netflix while it’s available.
[About a month ago, I went on a writer’s retreat with the Greensboro Scribe Order. One of our exercises was to write a short story in a very brief timespan with the title/prompt “Afternoon’s Gold.” This is my story, which was inspired by Caster Semenya and the ludicrous way that the IAAF has treated her.]
What she noticed first was the quality of the light. The way it splashed across the blacktop, the little black beads of rubber all melted together through some kind of strange osmosis. The way the light splayed out like an ocean, each ray like a drop of water, individual yet part of the whole.
The second thing she noticed was the gun. Like most of these events, the trackmaster had a gun with which he (and it was practically always a he) signaled the start of the race. The gun was loaded with blanks, and oafish like a flare gun, its barrel jutting out on the end like a cartoon prop. She thought about her mother in the stands, part of the faceless, cheering mass, and she felt like laughing. The absurdity of it. The absurdity of her, being here, against all odds, ready to set a record she knew the world would never recognize. Maybe could never recognize.
The voice in her head was her mother’s, oddly enough. Strong and confident, never showing fear. A black woman in today’s world had to be that way. No cracks in the exterior. Present always the fangs first, the lioness gaze.
No. They will recognize you. They will see and learn. You be the best you can be, Fish.
She inhaled slowly, the world slowing down with her breaths. This was her moment, her day. The light splayed out like an ocean across the blacktop where she would run at the gun’s urging. This was her sea. She could be its Fish.
A gunshot snapped across the air like a whip, but for her it was all in slow motion. She could feel her heart beat, feel the air swirling in her lungs, giving oxygen to the blood cells that flowed down into her calves with each passing second. FWOOSH. The sound of air streaming through the trees. FWOOSH. The sound of fire sparking in a frigid hearth. FWOOSH. The sound of a wave crashing against the shore.
Her legs kicked out from under her, the muscles reacting to instinct more than any command. The gunshot snaps, the legs kick. That is the focal point of existence. That is when the world makes sense. She began to run, each stride as smooth as a backstroke, her movements cutting through the air with the elegance of a school of fish: each muscle, each ligament, each cell an individual yet inexplicably a cohesive whole. Not even sex felt this good, this purposeful. No other instinct or drive could be whittled down to one, single verb: run.
They watched her from the crowd, eyes hawkish. She could feel their gazes in the space between her shoulder blades. Cutting, slicing, dissecting her. She could feel the eyes of her mother, trying to somehow salve the pain, trying to deflect the questions that every reporter asked after every single race. Hormone levels. Birth certificate. DNA testing. Gene sequencing. Everything but the question that mattered. Every dissection except the one that would take.
The feeling of wind through the shaved stubs of hair all over her body. The sound of time as it rushed past her. The smell of, somehow, metal. Bubbling up and being smelted, its edges condensing and finally falling into the magma floe of liquid. The knowledge was there, always, from the snap of the gun. She would get that gold. That medal was hers, and hers alone. Inevitable. Like a fish to water.
A flurry of sound rushed into her like a tide as she let her body collapse across the painted white finish line. White as always, my baby Fish. You gotta chase that whiteness, but don’t let it own you. She thrust her body forward, let herself condense as the moment grew larger, time speeding up as she heard the cheers and jeers, saw the stopwatches click in the palms of these distant men with bloodshot eyes, these judges. She could no longer hear the wind.
Panting, hands on her knees, she heard the announcement of the times. She paced for several meters, shaking the lactic acid already starting to build in her thighs. Her name rang out hollowly across the stadium, the announcement solidifying what she already knew, what she could feel in the fibers of her calves, the tendons of her feet: a world record.
Not just that top spot; not just the prize of the day, the plinth at the end of the ceremonies. A world-ass record. The Fish had done it. She had been the best she could be. No, the best anyone could be, had ever been.
The two men in grayish overcoats took her, one hand on either side. They led her down the track for the tests she knew were coming: the reporters have to get their questions answered, after all. One hand on either arm, but those arms extended into the sky.
Her mother was watching, she knew. Her mother saw. No matter what else happened that day, her mother would see the victory in this. You gotta chase that whiteness, Fish. But don’t let it own you.
She raised her arms into the sky, two antennae, two feelers lifted into the air as the sun slid golden beneath the afternoon clouds.
One of the last films starring Anton Yelchin released before the young actor’s extremely tragic death, Green Room is an absolute gem. Yelchin’s brilliance as an actor is on full display here, and he is joined by a cast that definitely earned the right to be on screen next to the inimitable Sir Patrick Stewart. Green Room is one of those films that features a mesh between brilliant acting, incisive writing, and the kind of directing that shows a knack for knowing what needs to be shown on screen. Watch it. Do it now.
Okay, a brief synopsis. Yelchin and his co-stars are in a punk band that is touring around the PNW, I think. They get a gig from this college student who runs a local radio station, but the gig unfortunately falls through. Stuck for cash, the band decides to heed the kid’s advice and take a gig playing for his cousin and his cousin’s neo-Nazi skinhead pals. Once they play their set, they find that the Nazi punks have left all of their gear in the hallway outside the eponymous green room in which they were staying. One of the characters realizes that she left her phone in the room, so Yelchin decides to go back to get it. When he opens the door, he sees the next band sitting on couches with a recently deceased body lying on the floor.
Of course, now the band is not allowed to leave. They are witnesses to a murder, after all. So the Nazis trap them in the green room. I won’t give away anything else, since everything I’ve said is basically the setup. But you really need to see the punchline.
This was the second film I watched that was directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the first being Murder Party, which I will review soon. In keeping with his origins, Saulnier’s film is incredibly violent. The film is moving, emotional, poignant, harrowing, terrifying, and essential to watch in our time, which has seen an increase in white supremacist movements and right-wing terrorism. I plan on watching more of Saulnier’s films in the future, as well as others from the Lab of Madness film group, like Macon Blair (who has an acting role in this film).
My rating: 10/10. This is one of the best horror and horror-adjacent films I’ve seen on Netflix. You really need to watch it, if you can stomach the gore.
I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.
The Endless is one of the currently available Netflix horror-adjacent films that I have been evangelizing to my friends. I don’t want to spoil too much in this review because I think the pacing and slow reveal throughout the film are both brilliant and depend on you going into the thing with as few spoilers as possible. I’ll provide you with a relatively spoiler-free synopsis here.
Two brothers left what they term a UFO-death-cult years ago. In the present day, they receive a video of one of the cultists talking about a coming “ascension.” After much arguing, the two decide that they will return to the cult’s camp for a brief stay in order to say the goodbyes that they never were able to say before. From there, things get weird. The whole camp is a bit off, and the two brothers start unraveling the mystery of the entity that this cult appears to worship.
Filmmaking team Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson directed, produced, wrote, starred, edited, and handled the cinematography for The Endless, which is set in a shared universe with their previous film Resolution. I cannot say enough good about this duo. Their performances were compelling, the story that Benson wrote is wonderful and terrifying in all the right spots, and Moorhead captures some absolutely astounding shots as cinematographer. They also benefit from a brilliant cast that produces some great performances.
The sheer horror that occurs as the two stars unravel the mystery is really moving. I don’t want to spoil anything else, so make sure you check this out while it is still available on Netflix. And remember the names Benson and Moorhead. The two are working on a new film called Synchronic, set to come out in 2019, and you should be ready. They will be names to know in horror for years to come.
My rating: 9.25/10
I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.
I’m going to get straight to the point. Gehenna: Where Death Lives maybe should not have been as fun for me as it was. Certainly, I don’t think I would have finished it were it not for my commitment to watching a bunch of horror films on Netflix and reporting back to the three of you, my avid readers. Essentially horror schlock aimed at crowd-pleasing its fans, the film’s plot involves a group of industrialists visiting the island of Saipan and researching a plot of land on which they wish to build a resort. Of course, this is a horror film, so we learn that the area holds a WWII Japanese bunker built on ancient sacrificial ground.
I found the concept of Gehenna interesting, and I think the filmmakers did a good job with visuals. But that’s where the good stuff ends. Though the film starts out with, frankly, bad acting, terrible dialogue, and a portrayal of natives that I found genuinely offensive, it progressively became better. The shame here is that the narrative of these people descending into this old bunker and finding a terrible curse is actually quite compelling and there is a lot of meat there that I think better hands would have crafted into a better story.
Some of the visuals are striking, some of the concepts are actually horrific and dreadful, but ultimately the film fails because it seems somewhat slapped together. It reads like a movie unsure of whether it is a B-movie or an A-film (spoiler: this makes it more of a subpar B-movie).
My rating: 5/10, would not watch again.
I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.
Creep was one of my favorite horror films of the past decade. Not only did it use the trite found-footage format in as convincing a way as possible, but it also felt deeply disturbing and up-close on a level rarely seen in horror. This kind of dread/terror is what I want in a horror film: the creeping sensation that Things Are Not As They Seem and that Something Is Very Wrong. I won’t spoil the end of Creep, but it ended in a way that seemed both perfect and probably final, i.e. there could be no sequel.
When I first heard that the master Mark Duplass had reprised his role and co-wrote the script for a second film, I was skeptical. What new twist could they put on this guy? Now that we know who he is, how can we experience that same creeping terror? But boy, was I wrong.
Creep 2 features a key figure that makes the film worthwhile and highly interesting: Sara. A YouTuber who has yet to break into the big time (I can feel that, as a blogger and self-published novelist who has yet to make real money off my work), Sara is obsessed with odd people and decides to respond to a Craigslist add penned by the nominal Creep (the aforementioned Duplass). This device allows the film to be creepy and surreal all over again, as we follow Sara’s relationship with this creep knowing full well who he is and what he has done. The jump scares are okay, but the real horror comes from the subtext underneath the actions we see on screen. We know who he is, we can guess what’s coming, but there is still some mystery as he begins to form a real connection with Sara.
I won’t spoil any more for you. I love this and Creep, and I think they both work precisely because they explore different things about Mark Duplass’ character. This is not just a rehash of the first film but feels like an organic growth from its predecessor: a real tangent that the character has gone down and must handle. Watch it if you liked Creep.