Terrible Vampire Movies: Subspecies (1991)

Everyone has a cinematic guilty pleasure — the movies you know are really not great, but you love them anyway. For me, it is terrible vampire movies. Their low-budget earnestness often delivers more of what I want out of a vampire movie than any of the big name offerings seem to manage. And, more importantly, they are just plain fun. So, with “fun” as our codeword, here is the inaugural entry in our Terrible Vampire Movies column.

We’re starting with one of my (apologies to Chloe) personal favorites: Ted Nicolaou’s Subspecies.

There are apparently four — soon to be five — movies in this series, but I won’t drag you all that far down the rabbit hole. We will be focusing on the original 1991 film, which I trot out for viewing every October like clockwork. The leaves turn orange, and I have a Pavlovian need to watch it. The basic premise of Subspecies is classic horror movie fare: three folklore students working on their Masters theses come to the small Romanian village of Prejnar to study local vampire stories, only to discover that there is more truth to the legends than expected. So far, pretty much as expected, right? Well, buckle up, friends — it’s going to get a little weird.

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A Grain of Salt and a Shovelful of Earth: On The “Twilight Zone,” “The Grave,” and a Lack of Western Ghosts

My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone opens with a scene that even the narration admits ought to be the end. The audience sees a desolate, windswept village, one that the imagery of westerns has trained us to understand is somewhere in the Southwest, likely New Mexico. A man is gunned down in the middle of the dusty street, the shots fired by several of the village men hiding in doorways. After he falls, his body is carried into the jail, and a witness is sent to fetch the wounded man’s father and sister to be with him before he dies.

All of this happens in just a few moments, and is merely the prologue. As Rod Serling says in introduction:

Normally … this would be the end of the story. We’ve had the traditional shoot-out on the street and the Bad Man will soon be dead. But some men of legend and folk tale have been known to continue having their way even after death. The outlaw and killer Pinto Sykes was such a person, and shortly we’ll see how he introduces the town, and a man named Conny Miller in particular, to the Twilight Zone.

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“If I could name the nameless thing”- A Review of “The Monstrumologist”

With no small bit of surprise, I recently realized that one of my very favorite novels of Gothic horror, Rick Yancey’s utterly excellent The Monstrumologist, turned ten this September. This was unnerving because ten years can slip by awfully fast, and I really hadn’t perceived that it had been that long, but also because this book, and its three equally superlative sequels, doesn’t feel only ten years old. In recommending The Monstrumologist to people, which I do, emphatically and to anyone who even half-admits to sort of liking horror, I use Yancey’s brilliant sense of time-specific language as part of my sales pitch. It’s not a simple thing to recreate the tones of late 19th century fiction, and yet that’s exactly what Yancey does so well in these books. The effect goes beyond mere pastiche; The Monstrumologist trades on its author’s seamless feel for late Victorian mores, fears, attitudes, and weaknesses to construct a story which reads like something old and feels bracingly fresh. The Monstrumologist can claim descent from the grim offerings of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle, but at a remove of a century or so, Yancey’s free to spiral into even deeper and darker terrain than did his forerunners. It’s the most satisfying sustained horror series I’ve met. 

I think there’s a case to be made for Victorian horror pioneering the “found footage” trope, in which a story is presented as merely discovered, not fabricated. Dracula is a series of letters, diary entries, and news items, a novel certainly, but one whose impact can be attributed in part to its delivery as a relation of true events. Though they trend less toward the horrific, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are presented as factual events. We tend to see this motif a lot in contemporary horror films, the most famous example still being “The Blair Witch Project,” but it’s less common now in print. The Monstrumologist, true to its core to its Victorian ancestry, resuscitates found footage in text to wonderful effect. Yancey himself, in the book’s prologue, claims to have been given the folio journals which comprise the bulk of the series, the records being the only personal effects of an elderly man who recently died, unclaimed by any family, in a nursing home. Who this man really was remained unclear to the staff of the facility, and, indeed, Yancey isn’t much enlightened himself by the horrifying contents of the man’s journals. None of this can really have happened, right? Of course not. But the great fun of found footage, when it’s treated as a useful imaginative tool and not merely a cheap way of knocking out a couple lazy movies, is that it allows us the thrill of doubt. Of course monsters aren’t real. But if… 

The journals are those of Will Henry, orphaned in the late 1800s in the New England town of New Jerusalem. After the death of his parents, he’s left in the questionable care of Pellinore Warthrop, who treats the boy less as a foundling and more of a free assistant. Warthrop is a natural philosopher, and his specialty is monsters. Real, honest-to-God monsters. A hardened materialist, Warthrop scoffs at the supernatural; his creatures are flesh and blood, warped relics of evolution which most of humanity has been allowed, mercifully, to forget or ignore. The doctor is as passionate about his subjects as he is callous toward Will Henry, and much of the four books’ emotional fulcrum hinges on their wary, difficult attempts to provide what the other needs. As he ages into a teenager, Will hardens from a grief-stricken child desperate for the approval of the only adult left in his life into a much more worrisome creature indeed, something slightly more akin to the beasts he and Warthrop routinely pursue. It’s a theme which isn’t new- those who hunt monsters should be wary lest they become monsters themselves- but it shifts in unexpected directions; the narrative’s ultimate conclusion is murky and unsettling in the best possible way, leaving you turning back to the beginning in sudden trepidation. Another great trick of a story presented as “true”- you realize you can’t trust your narrator. 

Thematically satisfying, the novels also boast a truly memorable cast. Warthrop’s surprisingly gentle mentor Von Helrung is a more relaxed Van Helsing; the anonymous, ubiquitous, and usually hapless Victorian orphan gets a sharp remake in the vengeful Malachi; John Kearns, a mysterious acquaintance of Warthrop’s, is one of the most memorably charming psychopaths I’ve encountered in fiction. And then there are the monsters. Yancey writes very good monsters. The first book features the anthropophagi, headless, man-eating nightmares with maws in the middle of their abdomens (not many novels reference Herodotus, but really, more should). The amorphous wendigo plagues the second book, a metaphysical nightmare for Warthrop, who doesn’t hold that nature is influenced by the unseen. Mongolian death-worms, parasitic infestations, and primordially massive serpents skulk through the pages, often unseen but always felt, casting the actions of the human players in a disturbingly ambiguous light: in a world which permits human beings to be dismembered and crafted into nests for fledgling monstrosities, what sense does individual morality really hold. It’s a deliciously haunting question, one with which Victorian naturalists, confronted with the irrefutable truth of the theory of Darwinian evolution, absolutely wrestled. Yancey cranks up the intensity of that struggle by contrasting his human characters with not only the bald insensitivity of nature but with the genuinely inhuman, Nature permitting no special pleading for humanity at all. It’s a struggle further tangled by the inhumanity of many of the superficially human characters. The uncovering of evolution by natural selection forced the Victorian mind to fundamentally reconfigure itself to the impersonal reality of a universe which does not particularly care for mankind; Yancey, with both empathy and clear-eyed hindsight, depicts a cast of informed, intelligent men and women wrestling mightily with the knowledge that they are not at the summit of any teleological ladder, and it’s both unnerving (don’t we still think of ourselves at the top of the evolutionary heap?) and affecting. 

The Monstrumologist was never a huge seller, but those who do read it are passionately committed to it. I always encourage readers to give the series a shot, because to know it is to love it. Its cumulative impact is wonderfully grim and lovely, its writing densely grotesque and beautiful. The Monstrumologist looks the unnamable in its hideous face and acknowledges the very human attempt to name it. It’s a series which celebrates our determination to make sense of our world, and one which isn’t afraid to recognize that the effort is poignant, bloody, and, sometimes, very futile indeed. 

Recording Begins — a recommendation for “The Magnus Archives”

This has been a hectic week, but there has still been time for listening to podcasts! And, I would definitely like to recommend my current favourite to all of you:

The Magnus Archives

The Magnus Archives is a horror series put out by Rusty Quill. The overall conceit is that it comes from the archives of the Magnus Institute, a British organization whose mission is to investigate weird and paranormal occurrences. The most recent archivist (a wonderfully curmudgeonly Jonathan Sims, who also writes the programme) is attempting to impose some order on the chaos left by his predecessor.

The majority of the files are subsequently narrated by Sims himself, whose reading of them is understated in the best possible way. Each is its own short story — with a truly impressive variety of voices and tones — that range from slightly eerie to outright terrifying. Personally, I love the less flashy stories best. The more mundane they seem at the outset, the more they feel very, disturbingly real.

While it is, largely, an anthology series, The Magnus Archives still delivers in effective world-building. As the series progresses, there are names that start popping up repeatedly, and hints that something more is going on. I’m not going to spoil any of it for new listeners. The slow build is definitely part of the fun.

There is always the temptation to compare something new to its predecessors — and there is something SCP-esque about the whole set-up — but it has a flavour and flair very much its own. Fans of the Weird should definitely give The Magnus Archives a listen.

But What Lurks Without? M. R. James vs. H. P. Lovecraft

It’s sort of strange how omnipresent H. P. Lovecraft is in horror conversations, even now. The legacy of his particular branch of weird is substantial — and, largely, a conversation we are saving for later on. Don’t worry, there is still a lot to say.

A less well-known figure holds a much closer place in my heart: M. R. James.

On the surface, it is strange to compare these two men. James was the father of the antiquarian ghost story. Lovecraft basically created the genre of cosmic horror. And yet, there really is a great deal of common ground. They were, in fact, contemporaries, and died within a year of one another (James in 1936, Lovecraft in 1937). Both wrote stories that took their sensibilities from earlier time periods. Both have had impacts on the horror genre that they never would have foreseen. Both were solitary men whose sexuality is a preoccupation of modern scholars. And, most importantly, both based their horror in a fear of the Outside, of the arcane, and of the forbidden.

Perhaps it’s best to start with some brief biographical notes.

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A Separate Reality: Five Years of “P.T.”

In just over a week I’m going to be playing “Death Stranding,” the long-gestating creation of video game auteur Hideo Kojima. That feels like something of a remarkable statement, given just how long and how well-documented that period of incubation has been; audiences haven’t even touched this game yet, what it’s really about is still debatable, and yet I feel like we’ve been living with and around it forever. Accusations of overhype are of course being lobbed around, maybe not without reason, but I’m ignoring them with steely and perhaps unwarranted loyalty- “Death Stranding” has come to mean a lot to me, an eerie, ominously resonant glimpse at what we might be able to expect from video games in terms of narrative innovation and formal experimentation. And it also means a lot to me because I perceive it as the spiritual if not the genetic descendant of the purest example of horror in gaming I’ve ever seen. 

Five years ago Kojima, working at the time with Konami, released the anemically named “playable teaser” (it quickly and mercifully became known as “P.T.”) for their upcoming project, “Silent Hills.” A new entry in a horror franchise which has long been associated with psychological distress rather than endless encounters with hostile monsters, “Silent Hills” would have had a respected and long pedigree; the games lean in on unsettling imagery and create a lingering sense of dread by crafting stories around the horrors we form and carry with us. Alas, it was never meant to be. Kojima and Konami’s partnership dissolved with deep animosity on both sides, and “Silent Hills” was scrapped. There’s a part of me that feels like this hardly matters. It’s fun to speculate on the shape this game would have assumed (open world horror? branching, butterfly-effect storytelling? randomly generated?), and its status as never-was-and-never-will-be also lends the title a sort of mythical gilding- we can dream that it was going to be the greatest horror game ever, and because it doesn’t exist, it always can be. Reality need never get in the way. But in the end, “Silent Hills” stands as incidental to what we got with “P.T.”. That game, and I won’t call it a demo because that just denigrates the completeness of the thing, was as close to perfect as reality tends to deliver. 

As an aside, and before going any further, I debated whether to include a detailed description of what “P.T.” entails in terms of gameplay, ultimately deciding against it. Every summation I tried to hammer out felt labored and effortful, and the game is emphatically neither of those things. There are excellent Let’s Plays, all of which capture the confining and instant dread “P.T.” evokes, and those with commentary certainly demonstrate how universally terrified we all were by the game. 

I love horror, and I love video games, and they feel like they were made for each other. Games make the player a coauthor of the action they contain; in assuming control of a character, we as players are responsible for participating in the narrative of the game in a way which feels far more intimate than would watching a character carry out actions in a movie or a novel. There’s a permeability of consciousness there which feels ideally suited for horror, as horror seeks to provoke an aesthetic response which shocks and unnerves us. So often, however, games with a claim to be horror titles do little more than occasionally dress up as such. A game will throw some monstrosity at me, and for a while it’s tense, until I figure out how to evade, defeat, or otherwise vanquish said beastie. It can be an exciting feeling, as it requires me to hang in there and persist, but it could then be ages before anything remotely frightening again happens. Games like this feel like the interactive equivalent of watching a horror movie which falls back on whiplashing its audience with jumpscares. Stressful, sure. Scary, no. And, finally, just kind of exhausting and disappointing. 

“P.T.” does not have mere trappings of horror. “P.T.” is not occasionally scary. This game creates an atmosphere so oppressively terrible, from which we want so keenly to escape, as to be nearly unbearable. Every element and design choice is calculated to produce that effect of suffocation; the claustrophobically narrow first-person camera; the restriction of action to moving forward and zooming in on the environment only, when our inclination is most strongly to look away; the cyclical looping of this one hallway and the persistent fear of what could be waiting around the corner. Most commentators, fairly, focus on that appalling, reincarnating hallway as “P.T.”’s cleverest and most effectively horrifying feature- it’s so economical and so nasty in that simplicity- but I’d contend that its sound design should rank as high. Upsetting and incessantly destabilizing, we’re as eager to escape the noise of this place as much as we are the sight of that damned hallway. The very banality of its setting, a suburban home, makes what “P.T.” does all the more unnerving. Horror creeps into places where we expect nothing to go awry. Like the aforementioned parade of jumpscares, if we anticipate where we’re about to encounter the frightening we lose our sensitivity to it. For horror to be something more than an exaggerated startle reflex, it has to infect something unforeseen, and “P.T.” takes the trope of the haunted house- a potent trope because it feeds our dread of something unclean in our private spaces- and spins it up into something almost Dantean. The game’s world is a kind of purgatory, from which deliverance is possible, but the questions it refuses to answer make that escape, if managed, feel ominous rather than triumphant. Who are we in this game- are we responsible for all these reports we hear on the house’s radio of carnage? Are we the victims of it? Did they even happen in this house? We never know and never really can, which makes our ugly suspicion of complicity as players all the more insidious. 

Beyond the sheer ungodly frightfulness of the game, “P.T.” managed to do something else I find fascinating. The determined player could escape the confines of the game’s hallways, but they only escaped to the arguable freedom, presumably, of Silent Hill, a liminal locale to say the least and one of dubious existential definition. But the game itself slipped its leash as a virtual construction. Its release was so strange, what it was so difficult to nail down, and how we were meant to actually solve the house’s riddle so obtuse, that it quickly spawned its own urban mythology. In a weird way, conversations about “P.T.” reminded me of those about MissingNo., a supposed glitch in the very first generation of Pokemon games which yielded players who caught it a bizarre mutant almost-Pokemon and which required a highly specific ritual to conjure it into being. I could, as a kid, never determine if MissingNo. was real, nor could I account for how, in my pre-internet mid-90s life, I even knew of its possibility, but the idea had a hold on me. It was so eerie to think about games as having their own paranormal relics, their own ghosts, and it was even odder for me to consider what fascination this one pseudo-creature held for me and my friends. Like all the most disquieting urban legends, it was impossible to trace our knowledge of it. Evidently, there were a few different methods of beating “P.T.”, if beating it was really what we did, but those methods, from everything I’ve read, varied considerably from one another. It could be that there were a few viable solutions, but maybe not- maybe there was only one. How these enigmas were pieced together involved a lot of frenzied rumor and internet chatter, but unlike with so many other games which give up their secrets after tireless prodding and datamining, “P.T.” never lost its air of inviolate creepiness. It continues to reveal the depths of its oddities, showing us just how far its commitment to alarming us went, but its whole remains mysterious, self-contained. 

Since its release and subsequent, inglorious execution (part of Konami’s parting shot at Kojima resulted in yanking “P.T.” from the PlayStation store, leaving anyone who hadn’t downloaded it or who had deleted it from their consoles out of luck- it’s gone for good), many games have attempted to make the most out of what “P.T.” introduced. For indie developers especially, that looping environment trick is a godsend, as it is wildly cheap to program and even in the most obvious knock-offs still can cause of a tingle of that original trepidation. “P.T.” inspired such a wave of production of small-scale horror games that I was tempted to doubt its long-term potency- would the game still be as scary as it had been initially after five years of playing and watching its offspring? Yes- yes, it absolutely is. Perhaps because it did craft its own, boundary-defying identity, “P.T.” has a weight and power all its own. And it’s a game which, in a sly, uncanny way, acknowledges us as players- it’s aware that we’ve become involved in and  liable for whatever horror is unfolding around us, and that the easy way out (just stop playing, turn the damn thing off) no longer feels like genuine rescue. 

At one point in the game, a voice, one of the few we meet, tells us: “I walked. I could do nothing but walk. And then, I saw me walking in front of myself. But it wasn’t really me. Watch out. The gap in the door, it’s a separate reality. The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?” It’s far more than a wink-at-the-camera synopsis of what the game is doing- it’s a quietly chilling comment on what games can do, introducing us to a layering of consciousness we’re not likely to find anywhere else. In the best games, it’s impossible to feel as though the only you is you. We’re inhabiting ourselves and our own histories, identities, and consciousnesses. And we’re also inhabiting the character we play in the narrative before us. “P.T.” is a concentrated, disorienting exercise in polydimensionality, and there’s no better delivery system for such an experience than horror. 

I still don’t know what exactly we’re getting with “Death Stranding.” It might be best, actually, just to accept that it might be nothing exact at all, that the very murkiness of its nature will be part of its appeal and its strength. “P.T.”’s elastic, transcendental success had so much to do with how we as players were compelled to seek each other out as we attempted to unravel its secrets; “Death Stranding” seems to be about the debilitating nature of isolation and the critical importance of human connections, both to each other and to our environment. It’s hard not to see the evolution from the one, an intensely disquieting exercise in singular confinement, to the other, wherein our sole aim as players appears to be one of reaching out and reestablishing the ties that bind. It feels natural. After all, for horror to really do its trick, we need to be offered a way out of it.