March 5th: On The Conjuring
Hauntology, a neologism coined by Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, refers to the return of elements from the past. A pun on ontology—the study of being—hauntology is concerned with absence. Derrida used it to refer to the memory of communism that stalked western Europe in the wake of the Cold War, but the term can be applied (or re-applied) to contemporary horror films with fascinating results. Case in point: The Conjuring, the James Wan-directed 2013 film that launched the second-highest-grossing horror universe of all time, terrifies (still) not because it does anything new, but because it doubles down on horror’s oldest tropes.
The film begins with this line: “It scares us, just thinking about it.” It’s an appropriate introduction to the narrative nesting that follows. The first scene we see is a reenactment, which itself is part of a presentation by the demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) about the possessed doll Annabelle. But then Wan cuts away again. Text scrolls down the screen, informing us that the events about to unfold are based on real ones. The details of the Warrens’ most terrifying case have been finally made public, and we are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be able to watch them unfold. The artifice of this is obvious—the “based on a true story” trope is as old as the genre itself—but not ineffective. We are unnerved not because we believe the events are real, but because we believe in the possibility of their reality. We are here, after all, having paid fifteen dollars (for a movie ticket, for a Netflix subscription) for the privilege of watching another’s doom unfold.
Once the story at the heart of The Conjuring begins, the genre specter hovering over the narrative has already manifested. The many boxes the rest of the film ticks only add to our sense of predetermination, flesh out the end we know is on its way. The farmhouse the Perron family moves into is, as it must be, isolated. Their dog, Sadie (a Lassie look-alike if there ever was), lingers, as she must, on the threshold of their new home, unwilling to go inside. Their first few nights in the farmhouse are spent in expected unease: the clocks stop, inexplicably (albeit unsurprisingly) at 3:07 AM; birds break their necks on the windows; Sadie the Precognitive Mutt drops dead on house’s back lawn. By the time the climax of the film arrives, the homage to horror’s past is so thorough as to be almost comic: a secret passage in a wardrobe reveals a cellar with a gruesome history; Carolyn (Lili Taylor), the Perron matriarch, becomes possessed; the house’s tragic backstory, in which an accused witch (!) named Bathsheba (!) commits suicide (!) after sacrificing her newborn (!) to the devil (!) at exactly 3:07 AM (!), is unearthed. And yet The Conjuring, despite its mad-libbed tropes, is anything but funny. The arc is familiar; it is also inevitable. The Perrons, abetted by the Warrens, are powerless to stop their story’s paranormal escalation. And we are powerless to look away.
The Conjuring is inescapably haunted. The thing haunting it, though, is not the demon summoned by Bathsheba’s curse, but the filmic tradition it inherits, then continues. The events of the film play out exactly as hauntology dictates they must. It is absence, not presence, that defines its arc. The survival of the Perrons at the end of the film is a Pyrrhic victory. Ed and Lorraine Warren—the two people with more paranormal knowledge than anyone else in the film—return to their home, but they bring with them a music box from the Perrons’ house. This music box, as it must, opens. The Annabelle doll—who would spawn a series of her own, which in turn would spawn another—remains. It is not their ignorance of horror’s rules that binds them, but their knowledge. To watch The Conjuring is to know what has come before, to know what’s coming next, to know that mere tropes are nothing to fear, and to be frightened nonetheless.
March 6th: On The Prestige
Something I’ve learned—heard, read—in a half-decade of writing and reading every day is this: every time you’re not quite sure what a writer is talking about, it’s almost certainly about writing. The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 thriller, is a film about obsession. It’s a film about the toll ambition takes on one’s personal life. It’s also, in my mind, one of the best pieces of art ever made about the making of art. To bring anything to life—a trick, a god, a script—requires a sacrifice. A life of sacrifice. A life, sacrificed. The Prestige, over and over again, makes this painfully clear.
When I first watched The Prestige—my junior year of college, alongside four of my best friends—I sided almost totally with Borden (Christian Bale), who represented a humanity his rival, the magician Angier (Hugh Jackman), manifestly lacked. Borden was a man in love; Angier, having lost the woman he loved, was a man past the possibility of falling in love again. His sacrifice was one I could understand. To pursue a dream, even one as solitary as magic, even one as lonely as writing, one needed people in their corner. Family, friends. That Borden’s life-swapping with his twin brother (also Christian Bale) led to the death of Sarah (Rebecca Hall), the original Borden’s wife, was tragic. But this was what sacrifice required, I reminded myself. This was what it meant to devote oneself to a craft. If I desired a career in the arts—if I wanted to give writing a shot—then I would have to be open to similar loss. And as long as I had people I loved in my corner, I imagined myself capable of such strength.
Re-watching The Prestige in 2021, though, five years after committing myself to writing, I find myself empathizing far more with Angier, the colder of the pair. It’s Angier who’s internalized his tragedy, Angier who’s done his best to move on. Borden’s sacrifices are visceral: he chops off two of his fingers in order to maintain his likeness to his brother, who’s lost the same two fingers during the performance of a trick; he maintains their deceit even in the face of his wife’s mistrust. By contrast, Angier’s art is sterile, both mechanically and metaphorically. His quest takes him to America, where Nikola Tesla’s electricity allows him to duplicate himself—the precise tool he needs in order to duplicate Borden’s Transported Man. The only catch is that this duplicate of himself, in order to preclude the messiness of two Angiers running around, must drown within a concealed water tank every time he performs the trick. And he does just this; he succeeds. But this success literally costs him his life.
Obviously—obviously, right?—I’m not past my prime. But in the five years I’ve survived since leaving college, I’ve often felt that my strongest emotions were in my past. That I get up, and I pursue my art, and I do so coldly. I kill myself, the version of myself that existed the day before, in order to do this thing. Every day. I do this every day. I will continue to do this until the day I die.
The Prestige is not a horror film.
For me, though, as one who wants to make art his life, it feels an awful lot like one.
March 7th: On The Flame Alphabet
What happens in Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet? It’s difficult to say. There is an epidemic that renders the words of children—and in time all words, all makings of meanings—toxic to adults. Those who are exposed sicken, and develop flu-like symptoms, and suffer the shrinking of their face, and ultimately die. Sam, the novel’s narrator, is a Jewish man living in the tri-state area. His daughter, Esther, is as pugilistic as only a teenager can be. His wife, Claire, succumbs to the language-borne toxin faster than him. When the town the three have built a life in is placed under quarantine, he sets out on the trail of a prophet-like figure named LeBov, who is researching a cure for the epidemic at a facility known as Forsythe, in upstate New York. Claire is gone, presumed dead; Esther has fallen in with a pack of feral youths intent upon dominating the world with their words.
Is this all? No. Not even most of it, really. Much of the story has to do with Sam’s faith, as he prays at a hut in the woods, tuned into the sermons of Rabbi Burke, which are delivered via a network of underground wires. When Sam arrives at Forsythe, he sets to unraveling the Hebrew alphabet, reconstructing it from scratch. There is a history, here, of which I am unaware. And yet The Flame Alphabet is not an allegory, not a parable, not a reinterpreted myth. It is instead a denunciation of these simpler structures: I am meant, I suspect, to sense these older mythologies at play, to want to cling to those narratives as if to a plank at sea, only to grasp at this rotted wood as it drifts away.
Even without its plot, though, the novel would still be deeply unsettling, and that’s because of Marcus’s voice. There is a moment, midway through the story, when Sam, driving north, experiences the road beneath his vehicle—and I swear, there is no better word for it—spread. “I could not leave the highway,” he reflects. “The rumors of the region were true. Even the hills were made of road.” The dystopia to which we’ve thus far borne witness is not all of what’s wrong with the world. Perhaps not even most of it. And yet this reveal is not a surprise. Marcus’s sentences, in and of themselves, deny lushness. There is the sense that Marcus himself is ill with, or from, language. Just listen to that last sentence again: Even the hills were made of road. It’s pure iambic desolation. One can only shiver or envy him. Or perhaps, as I do, both.
March 8th: On El Camino
Warning: spoilers for Breaking Bad—actually, no, fuck that. It’s been almost eight years, people. Let me say that again: it’s been almost eight goddamn years.
One of the last shots of Breaking Bad shows Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) speeding away from the Aryan Brotherhood camp in which he’s been imprisoned. He’s stolen the El Camino of Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), one of his captors, and he’s gripping the steering wheel with both hands. His eyes are wild, his appearance near-feral from his months in a cage—and he’s screaming. Hoarse, awful screams. Ragged with unimaginable triumph, unbearable loss. Breaking Bad is a tragedy as violent as they come, and not only for Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the Ozymandias figure at the story’s center. Jesse, Walt’s former high school student, transforms from a directionless meth addict into someone who knows who he is, what he wants: stability, a family. Someplace and someone to go home to at the end of the day. But he’s suffered for this change. His growth has come with permanent costs.
This is the truth at the heart of El Camino, the 2019 sequel to Breaking Bad. Jesse’s arc is, for the most part, over. The film’s question, then, is less who he becomes from here on out, than whether (and how) he can come to peace with the past that’s brought him to this point. For Jesse, the only way out is in: to make it to Alaska, he must first reinhabit his haunts. Only there may he unknot—or, more often, sever—the ropes that bind him to his old life. He initially flees to the home of Badger and Skinny Pete, two of his oldest and best friends. After leaving the El Camino with them—an act that is at once a gesture of farewell and a more ominous sort of exchange, like the transferring of a curse—he lures his parents way from his childhood home, taking advantage of their absence to make away with two of his father’s guns. Only then, with these two ties slashed, may he confront the last thing binding him to his home: the welder who forged the literal tether that bound him in his months with the Aryan Brotherhood. It is this man who holds the cash that will get him to Alaska, and the quiet that awaits him there. It is also this man who embodies the life that Jesse is trying to at last reject. It is therefore appropriate that he is forced to kill this man—and violently, swiftly, a bullet through the brain. All farewells, no matter how slow, require a final endpoint, a point of no return. And this is his.
At the film’s beginning, in a flashback, Mike Ehrmantraut, a former associate and friend of Jesse’s, tells him that it’s impossible to make amends for his past if he wants to start over. The rest of El Camino bears this truth out. There is no forgiveness in the film, only a series of goodbyes. In the end, the one person Jesse can hope to make amends with is himself. And if the film’s final two flashbacks—the penultimate with Walt; the last with his deceased ex-girlfriend, Jane—are any indication, this hope is not in vain. It is possible to reject the past while accepting the lessons one learned living it. To deny this is to deny any hope of a better, gentler future. Both for Jesse and for us.
March 9th: On The Cipher
The reason horror so often folds at the final turn is the same reason it holds on for as long as it does: the human brain is remarkably adept at scaring itself. Part of this, I think, traces to our evolution; early humans were ill-adapted to darkness, and therefore feared what lived in it. It is smarter, from a Darwinian perspective, to leave the door closed than to open it and see what’s on the other side. All the horror writer must do, then—at least for the first two acts—is to keep this door closed. The problem occurs in Act III, when the door swings open, and the monster steps into the unflattering glare of the reader’s klieg lights. The worst our mind can do is far, far worse than the worst a writer can do. Words are limiting things.
Writers of horror fiction, then, are left with three options. The first is the most obvious, but also in many ways the hardest: they can do their best to make the thing on the other side of the door as frightening as the monster our minds have created. Films like Hereditary and The Ritual do this well, as does most of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. The second option is to never open the door at all: to create and maintain uncertainty in the reader, and to leave them uncertain at the end. Perhaps there is indeed a monster behind the door—or perhaps it is only the imagined monster in their mind. In film, swathes of psychological thrillers (Donnie Darko, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Shutter Island among the best of them) perform this sleight-of-hand with varying degrees of success; in fiction, Paul Tremblay has made (and Shirley Jackson made) a career of causing readers to doubt the ground beneath their feet. The last option—and, in my opinion, the hardest to get right—is to start with the door opening, or perhaps having already opened. And then to train every light in the world on the monster that emerges, or has already emerged.
This is the tack taken by Kathe Koja in The Cipher. The novel’s narrator, Nick, a washed-up poet, discovers a hole in his apartment building’s storage closet. I was tempted, drafting the previous sentence, to write “black hole,” but that’s not what the Funhole is. It is black, yes, and it is a hole, but it otherwise resists scientific explanation. When Nick, in a moment of conflict, accidently dips his hand into the Funhole’s depths, he pulls this hand back to discover that the Funhole has reproduced on his palm in miniature. When a steel sculpture comes in contact with the blackness, it melts; when a camcorder is plunged into its depths, the footage that comes back is of a description-defying monstrosity: as Koja puts it, “the ecstatic prance of self-evisceration.” It is the beloved object of Nakota, who in turn is Nick’s own beloved. It is unknown where the Funhole came from, or even what is; all that is clear is that the Funhole is there, in the storage closet of Nick’s apartment building, and that it intends to draw into its inexplicable maw the lives of all those caught by its gravity.
That The Cipher succeeds so completely (it won both a Bram Stoker award and a Locus award in 1991) is a testament to Koja’s ability to foreground the tale’s monster, but also to Koja’s knowledge of exactly why such a narrative inversion might be necessary. A cipher is a zero in the world: a nobody, a blank slate. The Cipher is concerned with what happens when this nothingness is a character’s defining trait. Enter the Funhole: a different kind of cipher, a lens through which to focus our gaze, a way to omit everything bright in the wider world and see what’s left. All fiction, no matter how black its heart, is concerned with the mystery of what makes humans tick. Koja knows this, and therefore eliminates cheaper sorts of mysteries—how did the Funhole get there? What is the Funhole made of? What is the monstrosity that prances in its depths?—from the equation. All that matters is that Nick is there, that the Funhole is there, that Nakota loves the Funhole, and Nick loves Nakota. And we are there, too, reading on and on, trying to figure out why.
March 10th: On Melancholia (2011)
Several years ago, I wrote a long-ish short story (10K-ish words) about two twenty-somethings—an influencer named Paul, a scientist named Ada—falling in love at the end of the world. They meet en route to a convention held atop a fictional Oregon mountain named God’s Hill; the conflict between them hinges upon the question of whether or not an asteroid is, in fact, about to impact Earth. Either the world’s governments have been lying, or various social media sites—perhaps willfully—have misled all those now gathered atop God’s Hill. Either they, the two of them, are able to hope for a future together, or the few weeks they’re fortunate enough to share are it. It’s not a great story (even at 10K words, it feels rushed), but, re-reading it now, it feels vital in a way many of the (better) stories I’ve written in the years since do not. All setbacks, all failures, all mistakes—they mean more when there is no time left, no hope of future redemption. It’s simple, but there is no better narrative engine than a ticking clock.
In many ways, the looming apocalypse in Melancholia functions in a similar fashion to the asteroid in my shelved story. Even though the characters remain unaware of the presence of Melancholia (a rogue planet potentially on a collision course with Earth) until the film’s midpoint, we are aware. It is because of this unknown omen that the unraveling of Justine’s wedding reception—which, in another film, might play out as a comedy—instead takes on eerie, eschatological significance. Justine’s wealthy brother-in-law, John, who funded her wedding only begrudgingly, is not only greedy—he epitomizes greed. Dexter, her father, is not only narcissistic, he is Narcissus himself. Her mother is both a cynic and cynicism’s Platonic ideal; Michael, her husband (however briefly), represents the vapid placidness with which we (self-aware beings brutally cognizant of our impending ends) are expected to exist. Justine’s actions, set against those of these four sordid horsemen, are no longer impulsive, but brave. When she flees the celebration, when she roams her sister’s estate, when she cheats on her husband in one of the nearby golf course’s sand traps—these are the acts of a woman in desperate, vital combat with her chronic sadness. Melancholy, from both a physiological and psychical basis, is difficult to render dramatic. By definition, depression is listless, static, the diametric opposite of pressing. But by setting a dysfunctional union against the backdrop of an unknown apocalypse, Melancholia does just this.
Where Melancholia veers from this urgency is in the second half of the film, where the incoming planet earns its name. Melancholia, meaning: a feeling of pensive sadness, usually with no obvious cause. Melancholy, meaning: depression. Depression, meaning: stasis, lethargy, despondency. An unwillingness, or inability, to go on. Where the first half of the film is defined by ugliness and chaos, the second half is a slow, lethargic affair. Justine is in her element. As Claire panics, Justine lies on her back on the bank of a creek, naked, bathing in Melancholia’s glow. As the end draws near, Claire asks Justine to join her on the terrace, where they will drink wine, listen to music—Beethoven’s 9th, Justine jokes—and otherwise sentimentally toast their ends. But Justine, laughing, rejects this offer. Melancholia has defined her life for years, and it has done so without pause, without hope of relief. Why should Claire get to enjoy a moment of peace, however brief, when she was denied this thing. Finally, Claire (and the rest of the world) can see what Justine has been able to see for most of her life. There is no future, no hope of meaning beyond one’s end. There is no need for urgency if nothing is at risk of being lost. Depression—the diagnosable, debilitating kind—creates in the afflicted a paradoxical awareness that the worst (a) has already and also (b) is yet to come. The threat of an immediate, unavoidable end makes this sentiment real for those unable to imagine such a state.
Another way to put this: at the wedding reception, again and again, Justine is asked why she feels the way she feels. The planet Melancholia, and the absolute negation it represents, is the answer she is not yet able to give.
March 11th: On Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures
The challenge of writing compelling analysis is the same as that of all genres of writing: to render the personal universal. The task of a memoir and a review of a memoir and a punk record and a review of a punk record is the same. See this thing (each says), this small object, this future artifact? Do you see the much larger, much more durable world of which it is but an infinitesimal part? Do you see how small this thing is? Do you really? How undeniably pitiable, pathetic, perhaps loathsome, kitsch, etc., it is? Yes? Well, listen up, bud: there is Truth in this object. Truth, capital t. The huge, eternal kind of Truth. And if you’re willing to listen, if you’re willing to follow me until the end, I promise to convince you of it.
Analysis, though—especially the kind that contains within it a critical element, as do many of Mark Fisher’s essays—begins with the deck stacked against it. Not only must it wrestle with its own aspirations to universality; it must explain and evaluate another work’s claims. It must set the Truths of this work against its own Truths, as well as the Truths of other artists, other art. And it must do so while translating, to the best of its ability, the elements of the work at hand into twenty-six symbols and a handful of punctuation marks. One who has never eaten Vietnamese cuisine must be able to taste the sweet, savory crunch of cao lau, the vegetal freshness added by sprigs of cilantro and basil. One who has never seen a Matisse must be able to sense the languor he celebrates in his paintings. Art is hard; describing art, getting at the essence of what makes it tick, convincing someone who has perhaps not even heard of the piece at hand that it is worth their time—in many ways, this is the more difficult task.
Mark Fisher’s areas of artistic interest rarely overlap with my own. A London-based writer, his criticism centered (he committed suicide in 2017) on music and film based unambiguously in the UK. In his essays, he analyzes British electronica from the likes of Burial and the Caretaker; he writes about television and film designed to evoke the UK of the 70s, like Life on Mars and the Red Riding trilogy based on the quartet by David Peace. The through line of these pieces is their core melancholy, their nostalgia for a time that never was, their yearning for a future that will not come. I have never listened to most of the music Fisher concerns himself with, nor watched most of the films. What I have done is experience the emotions this art embodies, and which Fisher draws out so adeptly. In his hands, cinematic melancholia becomes enthralling, melodic anhedonia utterly compelling. It’s anything but easy, what Fisher does. And yet he manages it with Arctic-bright, death-defying aplomb.
I am going to read more of Mark Fisher. It’s rare for me to say this—about anyone, yes, but especially so for a philosopher. Brilliance, no matter how engaging, exhausts. But in Fisher I find a kindred spirit. The fact of his suicide frightens me, but the clarity with which he analyzed his demons, his refusal to blink or look away: this gives me hope. There is a quote of his that I’ve underlined nearly to the point of illegibility. Discussing Joy Division’s appeal to his teenage self, he writes, “Their [the band’s] subject, after all, is depression. Not sadness or frustration, rock’s standard downer states, but depression: depression, whose difference from mere sadness consists in its claim to have uncovered The (final, unvarnished) Truth about life and desire.” I find Joy Division, the iconic post-punk band, fine—listenable, occasionally something more—but I find Fisher’s analysis of them divine. A final, incurable (only manageable) lack: this, after all, is depression. Art is depression; so is analysis. And yet both might be beautiful, joyfully so. This, despite my ignorance of much of which Fisher wrote, is a Truth in which I too believe.