Fiction Fragments: Nick Cato

Last week, I spoke with Corey Niles about how identity shapes our fiction. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror film aficionado Nick Cato.

Nick CatoNick Cato is the author of Don of the Dead, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Last Porno Theater, The Atrocity Vendor, Uptown Death Squad, and Death Witch. His debut non fiction film book, Suburban Grindhouse, will be released in February 2020. He has edited the anthologies Dark Jesters (with co-editor LL Soares) and The Gruesome Tensome: A Short Story Tribute to the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nick has had fiction published in many anthologies and writes a film column for the recently revamped Deep Red magazine.

Nick also oversees things at the long running fanzine/website The Horror Fiction Review and occasionally hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Nick! I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t picked up a copy of Suburban Grindhouse yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it. Can you give us a synopsis of the book and maybe tell us what inspired you to write it? This is your first non fiction film book, what challenges did you encounter while switching gears between fiction and non fiction? Do you have plans for any other non fiction books?

NC: Suburban Grindhouse is a collection of columns (along with a bunch of new bonus material) originally published on a film site called Cinema Knife Fight. The columns are part film review, part memoir, as I often explain what audiences were like at certain theaters both in my hometown of Staten Island, NY, as well as in Times Square and some NJ theaters. I always found some audiences could actually shape the way you ended up feeling about a film, and this idea eventually became my column. When I pitched it to one of my favorite film book publishers (the UK’s Headpress) I was thrilled their editor had been familiar with my column and eventually bought my manuscript and added it to their amazing catalog.

It wasn’t difficult to switch gears as writing about film is something I do to “take a breather” while I’m working on a novella or novel. I find it a great way to get my fiction muse back. I’ve written about film since 1981 in various horror and cult film fanzines, so I had somewhat of a background when I decided to try it more seriously.

My second film book is currently being considered at another press, and I’m in full swing on a third.

GMM: The titles of your books are humorous, but you’re writing horror. Would you consider your work  bizarro or weird fiction? Are they the same thing? What are the elements of your fiction that sets it apart from other horror stories?

NC: I originally wrote what would be considered “humorous horror,” but in time I think the majority of my fiction became weird or bizarro. I always try to bring in something unusual or try to turn a trope on it’s head. As subgenres, if you will, weird and bizarro are different, in that “weird fiction” was pretty much what Lovecraft and his like were considered, whereas “bizarro” usually follows more absurd/surreal and less fantasy-like ideas. Not always, but mostly. It’s surely a fine line. Lately lots of “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” fiction is simply being labeled as weird fiction.

I think the main element that sets my stories apart is I bring in the bizarro element later on, be it during a short or longer story. Most of my tales are told in three sections (even my shorts), and I try to bring the strange in toward the end. Most of the stranger things I’ve come up with haven’t been “forced,” but rather came out naturally for me. In high school one of my friends used to say, “Nick doesn’t need drugs to be weird.” I always got a kick out of that. Weird ideas seem to continually pop up in my head, and the more witty ones I try to convert into fiction.

GMM: A few years ago I interviewed horror writer and academic, Michael Arnzen, and he talked about the connection between horror and humor. One of his quotes really spoke to me: “I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.” I really like that statement as a worldview. What’s your philosophy on the connection between horror and humor?

NC: Mike would surely know. I loved his short story collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories. In fact it contains one of my all time favorite humorous horror stories, “Domestic Fowl.” Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand with me. Laughing…and I mean really cracking up, like the first time most people see a film like Blazing Saddles… is an experience that can make you feel naturally high. I’ve experienced that several times in my life through films and certain comedians. Same with horror. When I was 13, I saw the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theatrical rerelease. I had never been as terrified by a film before, or since to be honest. The feelings of sheer terror and “cracking up” laughing bring some of us to a place we both love and dread. That’s powerful. Some films tried to combine the two genres, but only a few succeeded. I’ve tried to combine both to an extreme degree but have yet to come up with something I’d say strongly captures both emotions at the same time. A couple of writers I admire have come close. I continually have my eye out for that inevitable short story or novel that will scare the crap out of us while simultaneously making us laugh till we cry.

“The Bowl,” by Nick Cato, was featured in his latest collection “The Satanic Rites of Sasquatch and other Weird Stories,” published by Bizarro Pulp Press (Journalstone)

Harold Anderson stared out the bedroom window, restless thanks to his wife’s snoring. The occasional bat fluttered by the street light, casting distorted shadows on his ceiling.

“Come on, honey,” he said, pushing Helen onto her side.

She half-consciously rolled over and fell right back to sleep.

Although his plan worked, it was the silence that now kept him awake. He decided to watch a late re-run of the Tonight Show, but was still alert when it ended.

3:30 a.m.

He sat up, looking at the clothes he’d neatly laid out for tomorrow (today, actually). When he laid back down, his stomach gurgled loud enough to make Helen shift.

“Whoa,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I shouldn’t have had that second helping.”

He stepped into his #1 Dad slippers (a Christmas gift from Danny), slid on his bathrobe (a birthday gift from Nadine), then padded toward the bathroom. With each step, the need to expel last night’s dinner became more severe. Where had this come from? Four and a half hours of trying to fall asleep without so much as a fart, and now…

He reached into the darkness and felt for the switch. He dropped his robe as soon as the lime-colored bathroom was illuminated. The toilet—situated strategically between the sink and shower—seemed to beckon him. After pulling the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly from a magazine bin, Harold dropped his boxers and perched himself on the cool porcelain.

He read through the entire film review section before finishing his business. He broke the silence with two courtesy flushes along the way.

“That’s the last time I let her talk me into Mexican on a work night,” he said, washing his sweaty hands and face with lukewarm water. He put the robe back on, then gave the room a few cinnamon-scented blasts of Glade, making the place smell like a combo of Big Red Chewing Gum and ass.

He turned to walk back to bed. Someone said “thank you” in the blackened hallway.

Harold jumped. He flicked the bathroom lights back on, expecting to see Danny or Nadine up for a late-night pee. But on second thought, the voice was too deep for a five- or eight-year-old.

He checked his children’s bedrooms, happy to see them both asleep.

Man, do I need some shut-eye. Harold turned off the bathroom light and scratched the top of his auburn head.

He crawled under the blankets next to Helen, and within five minutes joined her in slumberland.

#

“You look bushed! Tough time last night?” Mr. Davis asked.

“I had a bit of trouble falling asleep. My stomach did backflips for a while.”

“Glad to see you’re here—you know we have that meeting with Tucker right after lunch today?”

“That’s why I’m here, even if I got less than three hours of sleep,” Harold said, taking a swig from his third cup of coffee.

“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Davis patted him on the back. “This is why you’re my number one man.”

At 11:43, Harold felt a sudden need to visit the restroom. He closed the file he was working on and headed to the lavatory.

He sat on the toilet, feeling disgusted by the prospect of doing this in a $600 suit. He experienced feelings of emptiness. Coldness. He couldn’t wait to finish. His heart began racing, as if he was having a panic attack.

He soon felt relieved to be rid of whatever was inside him, and to be off the office toilet; just knowing two dozen people shared it gave him the willies.

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

“Thank you, Margaret. I’ll take it in my office.”

“Please hold one moment,” she said, smiling as Harold passed by.

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

Harold leaned forward in his plush leather chair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is this?”

“You know who this is, and I know what you just did.”

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

Immediately, the phone rang in the lobby. He heard Margaret answer, then page him on the intercom. He accepted the call.

“Hello? Anderson here.”

“If you ever hang up on me again, I’ll destroy your wife and kids.”

“Okay—who is this? What’s your problem?”

Silence. Deafening, painful silence. Then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing. “Have a good day. We’ll discuss this later.”

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

The voice was familiar, but Harold couldn’t match it to a face. He walked around his desk, anticipating another call.

It never came.

He left the office shortly after 5:00 p.m., still haunted by the menacing telephone conversation. Even the successful meeting with Tucker Industries couldn’t keep his mind off that voice. He spent the forty-minute drive home trying to figure out who would first thank him for something, then threaten to kill his family in the next breath.

Must be a prank. Harold tuned into a classic rock station as he hit the highway.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with the world? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Top 10 Haunted Holiday Movies

There is a time-honored tradition in Britain of gathering around the fireplace at Christmas to tell ghost stories. In fact, one of the most famous ghost stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A few years ago, BBC Radio 4 featured a series of 20th century vampire stories read by David Tennant. In my opinion, there’s no better Christmas treat than listening to Doctor Who read vampire stories.

peter

Vampire hunters: sexier than vampires? Discuss.

As a long-time fan of ghost stories and horror fiction in general, and a writer of dark speculative fiction, December is one of my favorite times of year (aside from Halloween) to watch scary movies. Let’s face it, any time of year is a good time to watch horror movies, but there’s something about this time of year that brings out the desire to contemplate the supernatural. Maybe it’s because winter is the metaphorical death of the year, or maybe it has something to do with the veil between worlds being thinnest on the Solstice, or maybe the long dark nights cause our imaginations to run wild with inherited fears of hungry wolves lurking at the edge of the woods.

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Whatever the reason, it has become a tradition in my house to watch horror-themed (or at the very least black comedy) movies this time of year. I mean, sure, we watch the classics too – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without a Santa Claus – which, if I’m not mistaken all have some form of monster or element of dark magic. That’s right, dark magic. No one is going to convince me that the black top hat that brings Frosty to life doesn’t contain black magic.

grinch

So, rather than trotting out a tired old list of holiday classics, I thought I’d share my top 10 picks for holiday films that make you laugh uncomfortably, raise the spirits, and possibly the hairs at the back of your neck. Whether you prefer suicide humor, serial killers, demonic possession, mental illness, or just a good old-fashioned ghost story, my list has something for everyone.

  1. Black Christmas (1974): If you hate sorority girls and love serial killers, then this is the holiday film for you.

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  1. Gremlins (1984): A traveling salesman buys his son the worst Christmas present EVER.

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  1. Scrooged (1988): A modern retelling of A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray. What more do you need to know?

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  1. Better Off Dead (1985): One of the funniest movies about teen suicide you’ll ever see. Happy holidays!

better-off-dead

  1. The Conjuring 2 (2016): Just in case you weren’t sure, The Conjuring 2 is totally a Christmas movie.

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  1. Krampus (2015): Want the kids to stop acting like sugar-fueled psychos before the holidays? Skip “Elf on the Shelf,” and show them this movie.

krampus

  1. 12 Monkeys (1995): A time traveler is sent to the past to prevent the release of a deadly virus and gets a stay at a mental institution for his troubles. Holly jolly!

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  1. Edward Scissorhands (1990): A Frankenstein-like man with scissors for hands has his heart broken after leaving the safety of his home to mingle with monstrous suburbanites.

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  1. The Polar Express (2004): Children are stolen from their homes and taken on a terrifying train ride to the North Pole.

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  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): A heart-warming tale about cultural appropriation gone wrong.

nightmare_before_christmas

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Now It’s Dark: Lynchian Images in The Babadook

babadookPOPUPBOOOK This weekend I watched Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s amazingly beautiful and haunting film, The Babadook (2014). It was my second viewing of the film in about a month. My intent was to kick start my brain into generating a blog post; or rather a series of blog posts about horror films that focus on the darker side of motherhood— “The Horror of Motherhood”. And, I was going to begin posting the series in time for Mother’s Day. I’m still going to write the series of posts, and I will do my absolute damnedest to get the first one posted in time for Mother’s Day, even though I will be attending World Horror 2015 in Atlanta next weekend. According to most successful writers, and several of my well-meaning friends, I simply cannot allow life to get in the way of writing the stories I need to tell. Even if they are just musings about the art and literature I wrap myself up in to hide away from the realities of life. I keep tripping over those realities each time I think I’m going to sit down to finish that poem, story, or book. MUST. KEEP. WRITING.

My intent, while settling in for another viewing of what I consider to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long time, was to inspire myself to write about a series of horror films I feel deeply connected to. Horror films about mothers and their children. This connection stems not only from my awareness as a mother who appreciates how rewarding it can be to raise a child, but also how dark and terrifying it can be to realize that your life is no longer your own. Motherhood is fraught with a host of responsibilities, expectations, and societal pressures that go beyond the basics of keeping the children you bare alive. You must adhere to a very strict level of high standards that seem to fall under constant scrutiny, or you will be deemed a monster. As much as I love monsters, I don’t wish to be accused of being one. Notice that I didn’t say I don’t wish to become a monster. If becoming a monster means protecting the safety of my child, then there will most certainly be a gnashing of sharp teeth.

This concept of the horror of motherhood first occurred to me when I was pregnant with my son. I took a film class to fill the void of boredom, or stave off the fear that I would never have a life again after my son was born. True story. Each week we sat in a dark classroom on the University of Pittsburgh campus for several hours watching films and then discussing them. I was a non-traditional student. By non-traditional I mean an unwed thirtysomething pregnant woman of color with a full-time job at the University, and a master’s degree in English literature in a classroom full of mostly white twentysomething undergraduate students oddly misinformed about cinema. If my alma mater had offered a film minor I would have earned one while pursuing my undergraduate degree…but, I digress (and I will keep doing that, because I am in stream-of-consciousness mode lately and there’s not much I can do about it right now if I want to keep writing. Like it or lump it).

motherdaughterSo, horror of motherhood…film class…right…what was the point I was trying to make…? Oh yeah! One week we watched The Exorcist in class. I saw the movie for the first time when I was maybe ten-years-old. It scared the living shit out of me. I had nightmares for weeks, and I refused to sleep with the lights off for a long time afterwards. To me, that’s a sign of a good horror flick. But, is that enough? When I was kid? Absolutely. I still watch horror movies just for the thrill of being scared, but now I tend to evaluate them with a different set of standards in mind. And, I honestly think I began to think about horror films in this way during my viewing of The Exorcist as a pregnant woman. As a kid, the film was terrifying because, let’s be honest, some really unsettling things happen to Regan and her mother once the demon manifests and takes control of the young girl’s body. We’re talking body horror at it’s finest, demon possession, a parasitic invasion of the mind and body in which the host is totally helpless to defend herself from the invading entity. The connection between demon possession and pregnancy was not lost on me as I sat in the darkened classroom. The film suddenly took on a very personal tone, and my original fears quickly evaporated as I began to perceive a new set of fears the film stirred up in me. I was about to become a mom, so the fears were two-fold. Like Regan, I had a being growing inside me that I had little or no control over. My body had been invaded, and unlike many women who look forward to the miracle of birth, I was terrified, because I didn’t completely have faith in my own body to do what it needed to do to bring forth life. And, I also saw the film from the perspective of Regan’s mother, who has a very sick child that no one in the medical field can seem to correctly diagnose, and as her behavior becomes more bizarre and she is subjected to test after test, it became very clear to me that the horror in this film is very real. The horror(s) of motherhood – fear that you won’t be able to help your child if she becomes sick, fear that people will accuse you of being a bad parent, that somehow your child is ill because of something you’ve failed to do right. Yeah, that’s scary stuff. And, because I had to think about those very real fears while rewatching The Exorcist as a mother-to-be, the film gained a new depth of meaning for me, placing it higher on my horror film hierarchy list.

I’ve studied film unofficially for many years, and have a love of the art form that goes beyond catching the latest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer. In fact, I would consider myself a bit of a film snob. I enjoy certain large production films, like the whole Marvel superhero franchise that has enlisted the talent of some of my favorite actors, screenwriters, and directors, but I prefer indie, foreign, and classic films – silent, noir, Murnau, Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman, Polanski, Herzog, Universal, Hammer, American International – and my taste runs toward the dark, the uncanny, and the bizarre. However, a film has to be more than just weird or unsettling for me to really engage with it. There needs to be some sort of artistic or intellectual exploration happening to maintain my attention for an hour or two. My senses need to be tingled, my emotions need to be swayed (unhinged if possible), and what I’m watching on screen should be jangling loose memories and connections between other films and narrative forms I have encountered before. My enjoyment as a reader, writer, and lover of film comes from the connections I am able to make between these different mediums.

I love films, especially horror films that delve into our dark psychological past in the form of reimagined fairy tales and myths. I am particularly thrilled when I see a newer filmmaker paying homage to another filmmaker whose work I enjoy. The Babadook accomplishes both. Kent’s dark fairytale that features a fictional children’s pop-up book, Mister Babadook, introduces us to a new retelling of a particular type of fairytale that delves into the madness that can result from unresolved emotional trauma and the isolation that often comes along with it. I have a lot to say about this deeply disturbing, and yet somehow familiar tale of motherhood, in which a woman fights against a malevolent spirit to halt her transformation into a monster. She refuses to heed the entities demands to harm her own child. She fights madness and ignores what the voices are telling her to do. But, I’m not going to talk about that here. Not now. Think of this as merely a teaser if you will. I have more thinking to do on the subject, but I will share my thoughts soon.

As the title of this post suggests, while I watched The Babadook this weekend, it became very clear to me that Kent has a very serious love of David Lynch. So do I. I became even more excited about this film, which I didn’t think was possible. I love surprises.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to give you a very brief synopsis of the film, but I don’t wish to reveal too much, because I really hope that if you haven’t seen the film yet, you will. So, I’m going to steal the two sentence synopsis from Kent’s website (parentheses are mine): “The film tells of a single mother (Amelia), plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son’s (Samuel) night time fear of a shadowy monster (The Babadook). But soon, she discovers a sinister presence is lurking in the house.”

repulsion-2Kent’s film has been compared to Roman Polanski’s films, and there were many instances when I was reminded of Repulsion (1965). Especially while watching the scenes in which Amelia is wandering around the house alone at night through shadowy hallways in her nightgown. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Deneuve sleepwalking through her nightmarish descent into madness.

Jennifer Kent admits that David Lynch is her favorite film director, so it is no wonder that his influence can be seen in this terrifying masterpiece about the darkness that lives inside all of us. After noticing the second reference to his imagery, I picked up a notebook and started jotting down notes in an ecstatic rush of joy. Not only is this film well written, carefully crafted, and very scary, but also the filmmaker is asking me to engage in the narrative she has created on a very intellectual level through images that evoke memories of other narratives. Specifically, Lynch’s films and his television series, Twin Peaks.

If you have seen more than one Lynch film, you’ve probably noticed several recurring images and themes. He communicates his narratives through a very surrealistic system of dream-like images, causing the viewer to experience the story in a state of disorientation they share with many of the characters on-screen. Dreams and hallucinations play a major role in his narratives, and so do darkness and the dangers that hide there. Kent employs several of Lynch’s lighting techniques to create a similar feeling for her viewers. She uses light and shadow to define space within a scene, and creates a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and even makes her viewer squint to get a closer look at what is hiding in the darkness. We begin to suspect that things are lurking in the dark corners of Amelia’s house long before the monster is ever introduced. She goes so far as to use one of Lynch’s trademark images, flickering electricity and burned out light bulbs, which I initially read as a common trope of horror films indicating a supernatural presence. I think Lynch uses this recurring image similarly to convey an element of the supernatural set against the backdrop of ordinary life.

The-Black-Lodge-twin-peaksFilms often provide us with an escape from this ordinary life, and while we wish to become immersed in the narrative unfolding before us, both filmmakers have a desire to remind us that we are in fact watching a film they have created, and delve into the realm of metafiction. Lynch does this by creating a proscenium arch in nearly every one of his films, and he even goes so far as to include curtains. Usually very heavy red curtains, which most people will remember from Agent Cooper’s black lodge dream sequences in Twin Peaks. He not only suggests that there is a stage where his characters are performing, but he creates one within a scene. Behind that arch, which sometimes has curtains, and sometimes is just a wall of darkness, there usually lurks something his characters don’t wish to face. The truth. Danger. The darkness within us. Kent uses a wall of darkness to create one of Lynch’s proscenium arches during a very emotionally charged and terrifying scene, in which the Babadook is threatening Amelia’s safety and the safety of her son. She screams at the monster hidden behind the arch and refuses to back down. Refuses to show weakness. She protects her son from the darkness and what it hides. And, much like one of Lynch’s films, eventually something emerges from the darkness. In this case, the true cause of Amelia’s grief and depression is revealed. And then, we are rewarded with yet another Lynchian image, a gaping head wound. I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight during that scene. One reason Lost Highway is one of my favorite Lynch films is because it has two head wounds.

Lost-HighwayAnother example of Lynchian themes Kent uses in The Babadook that really confirmed her love of his work is the concept of split consciousness. In several of his films, Lynch features female leads with dual roles: Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Dern in Inland Empire, as well as Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks. These split identities often highlight the darker side of human behavior and puts the two characters at odds with each other. While Essie Davis plays only one character in Kent’s film, Amelia goes through a psychological transformation rather than a physical one, teetering on the edge of madness. She doesn’t become two people like in Lynch’s work, but her grief over the loss of her husband and her unwillingness to fully accept her role as Samuel’s mother creates a similar fractured female identity. She struggles with depression and feels guilty for wishing she could still have her husband even if it meant giving up her son. She is in danger of not only being a bad mother, but of becoming a monster herself.

GarmonboziaFinally, the icing on the cake for me came near the end of the film when Amelia goes through a terrible night in which the Babadook enters her body. There is a kind of possession that takes place, further supporting this idea of fractured identity. She is becoming a monster. She poses a threat to her own son. But, Amelia is strong, and she is able to force the darkness out. She exorcises her own demons. In the process of casting out the monster, she expels what I like to call emotional ectoplasm. She literally throws up an inky black substance that made me shout: GARMONBOZIA! She expels her pain and sorrow, which is what the demons in the black lodge eat. Bob expels a similar black substance from his hands in Fire Walk With Me when The Man from Another Place demands, “Bob, I want all my Garmonbozia.” Oddly enough, that inky substance, which I equate with a literal emotional discharge, a physical manifestation of pain, isn’t actually garmonbozia. Lynch depicts garmonbozia as something completely ordinary and mundane. Creamed corn. In my opinion, that’s the true stuff of nightmares.