All of the writings on this page are by Alison Armstrong
UPDATE (June 2019): Consorting with the Shadow: Phantasms and the Dark Side of Female Consciousness is available in e-book and print format at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble
UPDATE (Oct. 7, 2018): Toxicosis is now available as an e-book at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble
UPDATE (Aug. 2018): Revenance is now available as an ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble
Consorting with the Shadow discussion (presentation at The Center for Optimal Performance, New York, NY, Oct. 20, 2017, with Dr. Brian Healy)
Horror and Literature
Fascinating discussion of horror in literature as well as works often classified as genre fiction–https://crimereads.com/literature-is-built-on-a-foundation…/
Horror and its counterparts, dread and helpless despair, underlie much of literature, expressing perhaps our most primal, tightly suppressed emotions. In horror the nightmares, uncensored, run free, and we see with eviscerating clarity the things we try in vain to conceal from awareness. During times of tragedy and turbulence, it may, paradoxically, illuminate the truths of our vulnerability to forces beyond our understanding and control–disease, pestilence, senescence, and the inevitability of death. Although we as humans often delude ourselves by thinking we have dominion over the earth and sanctimoniously congratulate ourselves on all of the technological marvels we have created, we are still at the mercy of viruses and microbes, still the plaything of entities who, like many of us, are indifferent to the suffering they cause. Not only are we at the whim of non-human entities; we also have cause to fear our own kind, the careless crowds blithely shunning safety protocols or the gullible people blindly disseminating deceptions that put us all at risk. We can be our own worst enemies or become a source of inspiration and solace. We can, through literature and other works of art, symbolically encounter our fears and, in the process, reconnect with our shared humanity.
Internet as Virus
I have been thinking a lot lately about the disease-like tendencies of the Internet, its capacity to infect, addict, and ensnare its victims as it propagates conspiracy theories and other destructive, deceptive ideologies. This capacity seems intensified by the emergence of Covid-19, the virus and its technological counterpart growing stronger while our resistance appears to grow weaker. Like the fictional Internet bogeyman the Slender Man, which inspired two young girls to violently attack their friend, the fiction can assume a sense of reality while it feeds on the fears and needs of its victims.
As I wrote in my book Consorting with the Shadow: Phantasms and the Dark Side of Female Consciousness, “The infectious allure of [urban legend] Slender Man and his archetypal predecessors demonstrates the seductive power of a shared belief, a contagious process biologist Richard Dawkins, featured in the Slender Man documentary, terms a “virus of the mind,” transmitted, in this case via an Internet meme. The Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World also discusses the infectious quality of Internet memes, their power to invade and control a multitude of minds. Although popular media has been influencing people for a long time, inciting desire, anger, hope, and paranoia. . . . the almost instantaneous spread of media via the Internet makes the transmission much more virulent. . . . the malevolent power of an image, a meme, an online urban legend, like that of a ghoulish revenant from ancient lore, is nourished by those it infects. Nurturing an obsession enhances its strength, and sharing it with others gives it an illusion of life. It becomes increasingly real, progressively more intoxicating. Like a tulpa, it assumes a sort of separate yet semi-parasitic existence, dependent on its creators and nurturers yet dominating them.”
I am in a boardroom with several people, and someone tells me there is a tiny, yellow crab-like creature on my head. I then look down and see the creature, along with many other similar things, their numbers multiplying, their shapes mutating. I start to gag and something comes up from my throat that feels and looks like cooked pasta. Other people start experiencing the same thing. We are surrounded and invaded by these creatures, some larger and more gruesome, including one that resembles a centipede. Some are in fluorescent colors and fanciful shapes, such as a two-headed one that looks like two cats playing with a toy. A man next to me exclaims that he wants the cat-head one.
The dream is, no doubt, inspired by the coronavirus, our fears and sense of helplessness surrounding this indifferent, alien entity of contagion.
A lack of connection with Nature and the worry about being infected by other people intensifies the mesmerizing power of the virus, the invader within, the cryptic tenant living invading us, living within our chromosomes, in a sense, trying to become one with us. Like everything in Nature, it is neither good nor evil; it just exists and seeks to perpetuate itself. It is a competitor, an enigma, a threat to our concepts of human dominion over the planet.
My Review of 18 Straight Whiskeys by Michael Easton:
Review of Michael Easton’s 18 Straight Whiskeys
Originally published in 1997, Michael Easton’s 18 Straight Whiskeys has been recently reissued as an expanded, collector’s edition with 30 new poems. The book, available at https://www.michaeleaston.com/product-detail/18-straight-whiskeys , provides a fascinating glimpse into Easton’s evolving poetic style, the sparse eloquence and anguished vulnerability of the new works complementing the gritty, cynical, darkly humorous, occasionally scatalogical, musings of the earlier works.
Divided into sections representing three different eras of writings (2011-2018, 1991-1994, and 1995-1998), 18 Straight Whiskeys explores desire, despair, disgust, creativity, addiction, parenthood, the beauty and filth of mortal existence. Easton’s unflinching examination of human nature in all its degradation, as well as its transcendent yearnings, gives the writings an earthy yet poignant, at times almost mystical, sensuality. Fluctuating between these extremes of abasement and ecstasy, the poems probe the mystery of love, its shifting moods and manifestations. Throughout the poems love assumes various masks, taking on the quality of a bloody, agonizing struggle, a poison, an intoxication, an insatiable yearning, an “exquisite torture,” a caressing, tearing erosion of self.
In addition to his poetry about love and its manifestations, Easton harrowingly describes experiences shaped by his vagabond journeys of self-discovery after his mother’s death in 1994. These works, depicting the life of a youthful wanderer, are awash in scenes of debasement and despair–abusive relationships, puking addicts, gurgling toilets, “the smell of bleach, with a feces twist,” “smoke rings and smoker’s cough,” “the sun hanging by a noose, about to be dropped.”
In the midst of this sordidness and dissipation, however, tepid rays of light beckon; epiphanies flicker in even the lowliest places. Like Leonard Cohen, who found traces of the sacred in the darkness, the carnal, the depths of agony, Easton reveals signs of illumination–”the moontide light passing through the rib cage of Joshua trees; like morning for Matisse”, as well as inspiration from his muses (Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix). He also draws strength and inspiration from memories of his deceased parents and, in his new poems, his love for his children. “Poem for an Improper Wake,” for example, gives a tribute to Easton’s father, focusing on small details, random, fragmented memories that most concisely and powerfully express his essence–a neatly stacked pile of quarters, “the sound of his walk,” his feisty Belfast spirit. As this poem and the earlier one about his mother (“Poem 37”) perceptively express, our loved ones live on through ever-present associations, objects evoking their presence, thoughts echoing their conversations, the parts of ourselves we realize have been shaped by them. The poems about his children celebrate the parental bond while offering visions of hope (“Same Eyes, Blue Eyes”) and empowering advice (“JBE”). His concern for future generations in a world where innocence and faith are easily corrupted is also evident in “Remembering Green and Blue Things,” written long before the birth of his son and daughter: “They’ll ask us to tell them about / the stumps and the sky./ A time, when dolphins didn’t lie on rocks;/ a time when all of it was avoidable.” Whether or not this dire forecast becomes reality and despite the desolation (social, moral, as well as environmental) afflicting our world, Easton’s poetry reminds us that love, its sublimely inspiring yearning, gives life meaning and purpose. We may, as Oscar Wilde proclaims, be living in “the gutter . . . but some of us are looking at the stars.”
My Analysis of Ginger Snaps on Wicked Press Blog
Thanks to Mark Matthews, my essay on the film Ginger Snaps has been featured on his Wicked Run Press blog.
Analysis of Twin Peaks (New Series, Episodes 1 and 2)
The new Twin Peaks embodies my favorite aspects of David Lynch’s work as it eliminates some of the more audience-friendly elements of the original series. Sacrificed in favor of a darker, more atavistic surrealism are many of the comic, rather satirical soapy trademarks of the 1990s episodes—the endearingly loopy eccentricities of the background characters, the comforting illusion that a tragic mystery will eventually be solved and some type of justice will prevail. Instead, chaos or some malevolent, inscrutable system of order inimical to humankind seems to dominate Twin Peaks and perhaps the world as a whole.
Like the bizarre glass cubicle that a lone witness must continually watch, the series is an enigmatic puzzle box from which at any moment something terrifying may emerge. Linearity, logic, and language twist and turn. Attempts to communicate often result in nonsensical replies, reversed utterances, palindromic slogans. Doppelgangers wage a cryptic war amongst themselves, and, like the gods and demons of ancient lore, use humans as their pawns and sustenance. Severed body parts reshape to become new creations—an arm, for example, evolving into a monstrous, tree-rooted head reminiscent of Redon’s “Spirit of the Forest.”
Resurrecting imagery from some of his previous works (sinisterly sizzling electricity, menacing, meandering highways, dismembered corpses), Lynch engulfs viewers in his oneiric vision. Like a dream that momentarily fades but never actually ends, each of his works may merely appear to be a separate entity but may instead be part of one continually recurring nightmare, interspersed with scenes of humor and beauty but then resuming with renewed intensity. Does the dreamer ever actually awake? Does the dream continue, even in death?
(Note: I was especially surprised and pleased by the reference to “Armstrong.” In the first episode, it was used as the name of a dog, but perhaps the name has symbolic meaning that relates to the severed arm that transforms itself into a terrifying new creation.)
To shed my mortal skin and assume the form of something fierce, defiant to time and anthropomorphic morality, has been a fantasy of mine since childhood. Envying the predatory animals and their supernatural counterparts, the creatures of the night, I would imagine myself mutating in the darkness, my flesh, like a pallid mushroom, taking nurturance from the luminous moonlight and damp soil enriched with the bones of long-dead beasts, carnivore cousins with dagger-sharp fangs and claws. My bones, enshrouded in their soft, ephemeral sack, poked and prodded, wanting to break free of their suffocating shelter and join with the spirits of those slumbering ancients. My teeth jutted, jabbing against the insides of my cheek, and I tasted my blood, sweet and sad, like a beloved lament, as the feral ancestors beckoned me into their dreams.
Inevitably, though, sleep or a distracting thought would intrude upon my secretly coveted fantasy, and I would find myself disappointingly unchanged, a mere human with blunted teeth and nearly non-existent claws. Eventually, my belief in a wish-fueled metamorphosis faded, shriveling in dismal daylight “reality” like a darkness-dwelling worm on sun-baked cement. The yearning to transcend, at least temporarily, my human form, however, never died.
Reading Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters rouses those restlessly hibernating reveries of my youth. In Ferris’ graphic novel, the preadolescent narrator, Karen, like myself as a child, envisions otherworldly, uncanny beasts, the monsters of late-night horror films, as sources of creative escape. Ferris’s depiction of Karen’s monster fantasies and homoerotic stirrings while struggling with family tragedies, violence, and prejudice during the late1960s, though often grim, is nevertheless refreshingly perceptive and inspiring, infused with wit, a sense of childhood resilience and untarnished insight. As a monster-loving kid who grew up during the same time period as Ferris’ book, I identify very closely with the narrator’s imaginative responses to popular culture influences, gender stereotypes and her own homoerotic feelings.
As Karen attempts to come to grips with her impending puberty and the traditional feminine restrictions connected with it, she also becomes increasingly aware of her bisexual or lesbian urges. Her best friend, Missy, shares a fascination with supernatural creatures, and after the two girls watch the mildly suggestive Sapphic scenes in Dracula’s Daughter, Missy confides her love for Karen. Their love for each other, however, is thwarted by Missy’s mother, who, associating monsters with same-sex attraction, prevents Missy from seeing Karen and tries to get Missy to renounce her interest in horror movies. Throughout the novel Ferris draws subtle parallels between monsters and the feared, shunned aspects of society and ourselves, the people, impulses, and possibilities that frighten yet sometimes entice us.
Although, unlike Karen, I balked at confronting my feelings regarding sexuality, remaining basically closeted until later in life, I experienced a similar antipathy towards traditional gender roles and male/female relationships. I envied the so-called monsters, the vampires and werewolves that were free to assume various forms, shifting from skin to skin, defying most societal and sexual constraints. Vampires gracefully courted lovers (and potential victims) of both sexes, while lycanthropes, like their animal counterparts, the powerful, magnificent wolves, transcended human gender restrictions. Fiercely able to defend themselves and their loved ones, they had no fear of unwanted sexual assaults, a point Karen perceptively points out when, having escaped an attempted rape, she exclaims, “Being a human girl stinks compared to being a monster. When I’m a monster, I won’t have to keep my mouth shut. No, I’ll open my mouth and use my rows of sharp teeth to rip up guys” who attack.
In addition to envying their freedom from physical and social limitations, their power to fight attackers, I, like Karen, wished to possess these supernatural creatures’ immunity to disease and most forms of death. In Karen’s case, a growing awareness of death is intensified by her mother’s fatal illness. Karen yearns to be magically transformed into an immortal monster who can then give the gift of everlasting life to her mother and brother. Unfortunately, her wish cannot be granted, and she helplessly watches her mother die of breast cancer. Grief-stricken and angry that she could not save her mom, Karen has a dream in which she destroys the monsters who abandoned her in her time of need. As she lashes out in vengeance, however, she feels even more empty and alone without her beloved monsters. She begins to realize that the monsters she adores, draws, and writes about are her salvation; they are her imaginative affirmation of her own self-worth and uniqueness.
Ferris’ poignant description of Karen’s reaction to her mother’s terminal disease highlights the limitations as well as the power of fantasy. Although Karen’s monsters cannot do anything to help her mother, they, in a sense, enable Karen to creatively channel and express her feelings towards death.
These mesmerizing creatures of myth, vampires in particular, represent the ageless, disease-free immortality we as humans crave but cannot achieve. For myself, as well as for Karen, they promised a healing antidote to death’s devastation, a comforting fantasy as we grimly prepared for the inevitable metamorphosis puberty would bring and dreaded the even more terrifying transformation awaiting us towards the end of life.
As an adolescent, I had my first close encounter with human mortality when my grandmother’s sister (my great-aunt Dorothy), a frequent visitor, was diagnosed with cancer. At the time of Dorothy’s diagnosis I had recently entered puberty and also had become fascinated with vampires. A bitter family argument had temporarily eroded my grandmother’s relationship with Dorothy, but when we heard about Dorothy’s illness soon afterwards, my grandmother and her sister reconciled. Dorothy’s visits resumed, but although my family tried to assume a hopeful, optimistic demeanor, I found it almost impossible to suppress my sorrow, fear, and revulsion regarding the progressive deterioration Dorothy’s cancer and gruesome chemotherapy treatments had wrought. Emaciated, jaundiced, Dorothy was being transformed from the inside out, undergoing a monstrous metamorphosis that could not be stopped until she was dead. As I watched the cancer agonizingly consume Dorothy, I was horrified by the ways her body seemed to conspire against her, mounting its merciless insurrection. I began to fear my body and its deceptive, unreliable familiarity. It had already conspired against me with its pubertal swellings and leakings, but someday eventually it would perpetrate a much greater sabotage. My flesh was treacherous, not to be trusted. More than ever I longed to escape my physical female form. More than ever I yearned for my vampires and their healing transmutation. Although they could not grant me or my loved ones the transforming bite I desired, they invigorated me with their eternal, enigmatic allure.
Many years later my grandfather, who lived with my grandmother, my mother, and me, was also stricken by cancer. This time the cancer progressed more slowly, but the overall destination was the same. Month by month Grandpa become weaker, skinnier, his bones beginning to proclaim victory against their imprisoning flesh. A part of myself, the monster within, seemed to envy this emancipation from fleshly flux. The monster sickened my already-meager appetite and was delighted when my bones began to prevail. What others would term “anorexia” was merely a label lacking context. It, like the vampires and the other dark entities within my imagination, offered refuge. It was my way of escaping into a more permanent world of bone, a sanctuary of stillness, hard and unyielding as stone, as protective as the coffin of an undead revenant. The skeleton I had encountered in a nightmare when I was three years old, the one who wanted to cuddle with me in my bed, I realized, was merely a part of myself, a suppressed monster who wanted to be acknowledged. Only by recognizing it and the secrets it wished to share, using it as inspiration, could I begin to realize more of my creative potential.
Monsters take many forms. Although usually depicted as frightening and malevolent, they can also at times provide shelter from things more terrifying, such as death, disease, suffering, and other things that threaten one’s individuality, self-determination, integrity, creativity. As Ferris’ book powerfully demonstrates, they allow us to retreat into a regenerative inner darkness from which we can emerge, strengthened and revitalized
Link to a review I wrote on Emil Ferris’ graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters:
The Vampire Carmilla–An Analysis
One of the earliest examples of vampire literature, Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, brilliantly explores the passionate, tenacious bond between the adolescent female narrator Laura and the seductive vampire Carmilla. In this novella Carmilla, also a young woman, appears as a mesmerizing doppelganger, the shapeshifting shadow side of Laura’s conflicted psyche. A femme fatale with lesbian proclivities, she is a manifestation of forbidden female desires as well as an embodiment of male misogynistic fears.
The first encounter Laura has with Carmilla takes the form of a childhood dream or visitation. This experience, evoking contradictory emotions of tenderness and terror, perhaps reflects a yearning for her mother, who died when Laura was an infant. Never knowing her mother’s caress, Laura has a feeling of being “delightfully soothed” by a mysterious, attractive young woman who visits her in the bedroom one night and gently lulls her back to sleep. However, this nocturnal reverie takes an unpleasant turn when Laura is awakened by “a sensation as if two needles ran into her breast very deep.” Alarmed at Laura’s cry, the haunting lady immediately disappears but returns many years later when a carriage accident causes the traumatized passenger, Carmilla, to be invited into Laura’s home as a long-term guest. Details of the so-called “accident” are as hazy as the moonlight-shimmering veil of mist that creeps with graceful and paradoxical “serenity” across the castle grounds soon before the carriage crash takes place. Laura, walking with her father and other caretakers on this “enchanted,” fateful night is in a sad, reflective mood, for she has learned that a young female guest she had looked forward to spending time with at the castle has passed away due to a sudden, life-draining illness. As if in response to Laura’s sorrow and disappointment regarding the death of her guest, the carriage crash brings a replacement guest, Carmilla, into Laura’s lonely life. When Carmilla’s mother explains to Laura’s father that she must leave for an urgent errand and needs someone to take care of Carmilla for several months, Laura eagerly begs her father to let Carmilla stay with them. Laura feels irresistibly drawn to Carmilla, sensing some connection that binds her to the beautiful young woman.
This connection, Laura discovers, has psychic and genetic aspects. Soon after Carmilla moves in as a long-term guest, Laura, realizing that Carmilla’s face is the same one she saw in her childhood vision, tells Carmilla her memory of that strange nocturnal encounter, and Carmilla confides that she had a similar dream involving Laura. The dreams described by the two women are mirror images of each other. In Laura’s vision, Carmilla is a young lady and Laura a child, whereas in Carmilla’s dream, Carmilla is the child and Laura the older girl. Carmilla declares their shared vision to be a sign that they were “destined” from childhood to be friends, and Laura agrees. However, despite her attraction to Carmilla, Laura feels a slight twinge of repulsion towards her psychic double, the shadow of a consuming, addictive allure. Later, Laura finds that she and Carmilla not only share the same vision; they may also be distantly related, for Laura’s mother, like Carmilla, is descended from the Karnsteins. This genetic connection emphasizes the relationship between Laura’s motherless yearnings and Carmilla’s first visitation as a sort of incestuous surrogate mother. Carmilla reflects Laura’s maternal yearnings and ambivalent feelings of desire. She is the sweetly caressing mother and the life-withering succubus, a memory of love and a pang of mourning.
Although LeFanu’s novella barely discusses the death of Laura’s mother, merely mentioning that she died when Laura was an infant and that, therefore, Laura found maternal affection in the form of her female caretakers, the spectre of the departed mother whom Laura cannot remember lingers like a ghost of unacknowledged grief. The vampire Carmilla, tied to Laura’s mother by bloodline, may be perceived as a malevolent aspect of Laura’s unexpressed, inchoate emotions of mourning for the mom she never knew, the haunting residue of sadness and anger that, though suppressed, may never completely fade. These emotions, associated also at times with survivor guilt, have been linked throughout history with a fear of the dead, a need to appease and put to rest the spirits of the deceased, in so doing acknowledging and making peace with one’s grief. Vampires and ghosts, the unappeased, restless dead, are manifestations of our ambivalence towards our deceased loved ones—the sorrow (and sometimes anger) experienced at their passing, the desire to be with them again, and the terror of dying.
As wandering, insatiable spirits, vampires, in particular, symbolize fatal love, a passion so intense and consuming that it brings death or a perpetual, damning eternity of yearning. Carmilla rapturously confides the destructiveness of her love (and perhaps love in general) when she tells Laura, “Love is always selfish; the more ardent, the more selfish.” Early in her visit as a guest, she even hints at her true nature when she says to Laura, “I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love. . . . You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Carmilla’s “rhapsody” of words and “soft kisses” evoke in Laura “a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable … mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.” “It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering,” Laura relates.
Enticed yet revulsed, Laura cannot resist Carmilla’s spell. Following another rapturous confession in which Carmilla alludes to being “assassinated” at a ball and declares that love demands “sacrifices,” “no sacrifice without blood,” Laura senses a frightening entity in her bedroom that evening.
Unlike the sweetly caressing female presence which visited her when Laura was a child, this time the nocturnal visitor takes the form of a large, black, “monstrous” catlike creature. As in the earlier encounter, Laura then feels “a stinging pain as if two large needles darted ” into her breast. Awakening “with a scream,” she dimly sees a “female figure” standing, motionless as a stone, at the foot of her bed before disappearing from the room. Carmilla, assuming feline form and then transforming back into a woman, has left her mark on Laura, claiming her beloved “sacrifice.”
Throughout the book Carmilla oscillates between occasional violent amatory urges and her usual listless melancholy. Often described as “languid,” lacking energy and vitality, she exhibits symptoms of neurasthenia, a common 19th century medical term for individuals experiencing depression, irritability, and fatigue. Although individuals of both sexes were diagnosed with neurasthenia, women with the same symptoms were often considered “hysterical,” and the treatments differed according to gender. This difference in approach regarding treatment reinforced misogynistic views towards women, suppressing their intellectual and creative drives to focus female attention on the domestic virtues of passivity and complacency. As Anne Stiles, discussing American views towards neurasthenia in the 19th century points out (“Go Rest, Young Man,” APA Monitor on Psychology, Jan. 2012, Vol 43, No. 1, p. 32, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/go-rest.aspx ), while men with neurasthenic symptoms were advised by doctors to partake in vigorous outdoor activities as a way of curing their nervous exhaustion, women were prescribed bed rest and told to avoid mental activities. Whereas the exercise and fresh air probably helped, at least in part, the male patients, the confinement, the seclusion, the lack of diversions no doubt exacerbated some of the women’s symptoms. Given no outlet for the mind or body to release tension, the women held captive could only find release in their imagination, and, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story about this type of experience, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” harrowingly depicts, this release can take the form of a demonically obsessive vision, a liberating psychosis. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the imaginary spectre, like “Johnny Panic,” represents the narrator’s means of maintaining her creative vitality and integrity while, like Carmilla, functioning as a sort of feral doppelganger.
Carmilla, however, unlike mortal women with symptoms of neurasthenia or psychosis, has no need for doctors or the advice of men. Her languor, taking place in the daytime, is associated with her vampiric need for darkness and blood. A morning slumber, as well as an infusion of blood, provides the only treatment she needs to restore her vigor. Despite demonstrating traditionally feminine qualities of weakness and fatigue during her daylight hours, Carmilla, in her fierce nocturnal aspect, becomes an aggressive, powerful predator capable of slaying men, as well as women, in her insatiable sanguinary urges.
At the end of the story, Carmilla, though destroyed in traditional vampire fashion (stake to the heart, decapitation,) remains an ineradicable presence in Laura’s memory. Appearing in visions of paradoxical intensity as a “playful, languid beautiful girl” and a “writhing fiend,” this creature of fascination and loathing still haunts Laura’s soul. She, like “Johnny Panic” and other dark entities of the imagination, lingers within the unlit, often acknowledged parts of the psyche, bringing chaos or liberation.
The Image of the Vampire
The vampire, like the shape-shifter, the feral god of madness and creativity, the dangerous, seductive spectre, and other phantoms of imagination, represents forces of life and death, control and chaos, obsessive addiction and limitless possibility. My interest in vampires, sparked in early adolescence, has remained a potent source of inspiration throughout my life. At times of the bleakest depression, the image of the vampire has infused me with life-sustaining vitality.
The first vampire character I was aware of and then fascinated by was Barnabas Collins (portrayed by Jonathan Frid) on the late afternoon Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (ABC-TV). Although Barnabas, unlike most contemporary depictions of the vampire, was neither beautiful nor depicted in a sexualized way, he nevertheless became a huge fan favorite amongst females of all ages, in part due to the character’s strange blend of chivalry and savagery, sentimentality and ruthlessness. He was a melancholy romanticist, mourning the loss of his first wife, all the while slyly courting her lookalike replacement. Beneath his polite, restrained persona, however, simmered a hungry, fanged, bloodthirsty beast, the monstrous side of himself he wished to eradicate but could not control. His double-edged nature intrigued me, his old-fashioned, chivalric side soothing my early adolescent fears regarding sexuality and the savage, feral side igniting my seething, angry feelings towards my human female body.
Perhaps because I was reaching puberty around the same time as the Barnabas storyline began, the image of the vampire cast an especially potent magic, imprinting itself indelibly on my consciousness with its associations of blood, metamorphosis, animality, and transcendence. I dreaded the day when, as the smotheringly pink booklet given to the girls in my fifth grade class promised us, I would get my first period. I hated the way the book and the little Disney cartoon presented along with it depicted womanhood. A young lady, the movie narrator insinuated, in a sweetly feminine voice, is like a flower and, as such, is expected to be sweet, fragrant, pleasing to the eye, a passive recipient of adoration. Despite the foul-smelling, brackish blood that gushes in swampy clots from between her legs, she must appear and act as if she were delicate, demure, cheerful, and complacent. The thought of that degrading hypocrisy, as well as the grown-up womanly life awaiting us, disgusted me. I knew even then I would never want to have a baby, and I certainly never wanted to be subservient to a man. I envied animals, who, lacking self-consciousness, and absurdly impractical codes of etiquette, were not subjected to such ridiculous expectations. I especially envied the animals, such as cats, who, fanged and clawed, independent, resilient, gracefully at home in their bodies, and attuned to their wild nature, were free to be themselves. As the dreaded day inevitably came, and menses arrived, I felt a deep revulsion towards my now developing body. It and the stagnant fluids that seeped betrayed me. I was imprisoned in this leaking, mutinous, all-too-mortal cage of flesh. Possessing the fangs and fierce instincts of the animals I most loved yet free of the body’s mortal limitations, the vampire, sublime predator, represented everything I desired. The vampire’s communion of blood offered a release from the body’s prison, providing death or immortality. Unlike the pubertal blood that I associated with shame and subjugation, the blood of vampire lore connoted power and transcendence.
My fascination with vampires, fluctuating in intensity throughout the years, helped invigorate me in moments of despair and devitalization. One of the bleakest times, not only for myself but probably for most people in the US, began with the September 11, 2001 tragedy. Like many others, as a result of this devastating event, I was stricken by a pervasive, spirit-draining sense of gloom, apathy, and hopelessness. As I had done during other dismal moments in my life, I sought escape in depictions of dark yet transcendent realms, and this time I found revitalizing solace in the vampire character Caleb Morley, portrayed by actor Michael Easton in the ABC daytime drama Port Charles. Once again, an ABC soap was the catalyst for awakening my interest in vampires. Caleb, however, unlike Barnabas in Dark Shadows, embraced his fierce, animalistic nature, savoring the blood, the ecstasy it gave, the immortality it made possible. Watching the story of Caleb unfold in all of its magic, seduction, passion, and splendor, I felt a resurgence of creative energy that sustained and inspired me, motivating me to begin new writing projects that were longer and more time-consuming, requiring a dedication, patience, and commitment that I had not previously experienced.
Despite the various interpretations of vampires depicted in the numerous movies and TV shows I have watched, as well as the books I have read, the following key elements, to some degree, seem to form the basis of vampire allure: the power to grant immortality or death, the potential to change shape and/or escape bodily limitations, the synthesis of animal, human, and divine characteristics, and the addictive, obsessive, enthralling sensory experiences vampirism provides. Although these enticements would be appealing to many people, regardless of age or gender, I believe they, like the seductive attributes of other dark entities, may especially resonate with adolescent and young adult females who, dissatisfied, as I was, with societal expectations and physical pubertal demands, seek imaginary/creative release and empowerment.
Horror Antihero Caleb Morley
Although daytime dramas, better known as “soaps,” began as languorously-paced, narratively-anemic television stories designed to divert the house-bound wives and mothers while promoting sanitizing domestic products, they evolved into increasingly convoluted melodramas depicting adultery, murder, mental illness, and whatever social problems or taboos enticed their progressively more diverse audience. Deranged twins, falsified medical records, long-presumed dead siblings or children miraculously wreaking havoc upon their scheming relatives are now standard plot devices in the once-prosaic realm of homes, hospitals and detergents. Despite the often implausible storylines, however, the daytime drama genre has rarely ventured or sustained forays into the supernatural. Whereas a few soaps have briefly featured plot elements involving ghosts or demonic possession, “Dark Shadows” was, for years, the only soap that continually delved into otherworldly scenarios. In 2001, however, the General Hospital spin-off Port Charles, originally, like other soaps, focused on romance, intrigue, deception, and betrayal, followed Dark Shadow’s example by introducing supernatural storylines about magic and vampires. The most compelling and creatively inspiring of these storylines focused on the vampire character Caleb Morley, portrayed by actor Michael Easton. Not only were these stories intriguing and innovative in their portrayal of vampires, but they also included immensely perceptive explorations of psychological and spiritual conflicts that have afflicted people for centuries. Like the works of Edgar Allan Poe , Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among other writers of horror-themed literature, Port Charles used imagery of the vampire, the sinisterly seductive stranger, and the doppelganger as a way to explore mysteries and aberrations of consciousness, the monsters within.
A key theme of Port Charles and horror in general is duality, the battle between good and evil. As in many horror films and literature. Port Charles dramatizes this dichotomy by having one character, the vampire Caleb Morley, associated with evil, and some of the other characters, particularly the angel/vampire slayer Rafe Kovich, represent aspects of virtue. This apparent dichotomy, however, reveals layers of ambiguity, mirror doubles reflecting latent desires and fears.
Dream demon, seducer, taker of souls and infester of visions, the vampire Caleb is the stranger we know from somewhere deep within ourselves. He offers those willing to surrender to him a thrilling journey from which we may never return, a dangerous expedition into our primal selves. The wildness and darkness Caleb releases in those he has touched is as ancient and potent as the first bloodstained, firelit gods scrawled on cave walls. He lurks within human consciousness, taking many forms, many guises as he is summoned from his slumber by the dreams and invocations of questing, restless souls
A shadowy figure with fierce, entrancing eyes, Caleb is a tantalizing voice trickling into an innocent girl’s ears, a demon shaman hitchhiking his way into her yielding soul, a seductive stranger who offers dazzling gifts that come at an undisclosed price. Will he ravish the body or gnaw away at sanity? Does he lead into damning temptation or release one into the limitless depths of imagination? Only by giving oneself up to the perilous but potentially illuminating possibilities he promises can the answer be revealed.
Like the Wolf in the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale, he can assume a charming guise, luring his prey with sweet, gentle words, as he does with his soul-mate Olivie (Livvie) Locke, or, for those who unknowingly thirst for excitement, such as the young, romantic Gabriela Garza, he can tempt with forbidden pleasures. At times he offers both danger and magical romance, promising an eternal unconditional love that is attainable only by sacrificing one’s human existence and all mortal ties. During their first conversation (by the river, a symbol of transformation), for example, Caleb tells Livvie that he is her “future,” the one who can take away her grief and loneliness; all she has to do, he murmurs, is “surrender,” and her emptiness will disappear forever. He invades her dreams, becoming the secret lover, the erotic phantom who knows what she desires and is the only one who can satisfy her, the only one who can love the darkness and torment harbored within her lost little girl soul.
Caleb’s seductive enticement and ability to peer inside one’s psyche has similarities to the mysterious temptations offered by A. Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” a mysterious character who appears to a teenage girl (Connie) and proceeds, by sweet talk and threats, to seduce her into going for a ride with him in his flashy gold car. One of the most intriguing aspects of Oates’ tale is that, as with Caleb, A. Friend seems to exist as a fantasy lover, evoked by the unconscious libido, a demon who knows one’s deepest needs and darkest secrets.
Like the girl in Oates’ story, Livvie at the beginning of “Tainted Love” is a young woman with two sides to her, an innocent “good girl” side and a more rebellious, thrill-seeking, defiant side. After Livvie meets Caleb, she, like Connie, is forced to choose between two worlds. Livvie must decide whether to continue living in an illusory, childlike world, represented by her boyfriend Jack, or let herself experience the dangerous passions and forbidden knowledge represented by Caleb. By choosing Caleb, Livvie forsakes human notions of love and security for the fierce, transfiguring, soul-scarring love binding immortals throughout eternity.
Relishing his status as an immortal bloodsucker, Caleb embraces the arrogant, ruthless powers of the defiant damned. Cruel, mocking, treacherously alluring, and nearly invincible, Caleb savors his wicked ways and considers himself to be far superior to the beings he depends upon for sustenance. Stalking, deceiving, and murdering, Caleb terrorizes Port Charles and brainwashes his beloved Livvie, stealing her innocence and forever tarnishing her soul. Even after Caleb is killed twice, struck by lightning, then stabbed in the heart by Livvie, he remains as indestructible and inescapable as a dream, returning to haunt his beloved, as well as the rest of Port Charles, by assuming the guise of the enigmatic, mesmerizing rock star “Stephen Clay.” The first glimpse of him in his new identity is in the shadows of a limousine. Like A. Friend, he uses sinister charm to entice his young female prey. Smiling cryptically and somewhat lewdly at young female songwriter Marissa while sitting beside her in his limousine, he claims to see inside her soul, know her better than she knows herself. “Take a little ride with me,” he urges, luring her away from safety and drawing her more closely into the enclosed, womblike darkness of his limo. Later, after Marissa is dropped off at her destination, “Stephen” sees the innocent, virtuous waif Tess wandering aimlessly in the park and offers her a ride. “All you have to do is get in the car,” he tells her, warning her of the dangers she may face by herself in the park. Although Tess declines his offer and begins leading a life of bland domesticity with Livvie’s boyish cast-off, Jack, she later finds herself irresistibly pulled towards the dark, fiery intensity and passion she perceives in Stephen/Caleb. As with her lookalike, Livvie, she cannot resist her attraction to this seductive stranger.this potential threat or possible savior who seems to know her most private hopes and fears, who offers escape from boredom, loneliness, stagnation, or despair. Taking a “ride” with this stranger can bring death, transformation, or shattering self-knowledge, but few can turn away from his perilous, poisonous magic.
Caleb’s dual nature goes beyond his role as a vampire, giver of death or eternal life. Just as we think we understand his motives or begin to perceive him as merely another intriguing but unredeemable villain, he reveals yet another conflicting facet of his personality. Early on in his story, we see him depicted as the villainous counterpart of his priestly identical twin, “Father Michael.” Lurking in the basement of Father Michael’s monastery, he glares with fiery, beast-like eyes, a phantom dream-embodiment of sin in a sanctuary of virtue. He is sensed by the flakey yet psychic Lucy Coe as an ominous force, appearing to her as the Stranger card, cloaked and sinister, in her Tarot deck.
Caleb is too complex, too ambiguous, however, to be confined to the vampire’s customary realm of evil. Although Port Charles, as is typical of classic horror films, externalizes the conflict between evil and good with its depictions of the vampire and his/her virtuous nemesis, it differs from the typical Universal horror films of the ‘30s and the Hammer vampire horror films of the ‘50s through ‘70s by exploring in considerable depth the inner conflict of its characters, particularly Caleb.
Although on the surface Caleb appears to be the embodiment of pure evil, he is actually much more vulnerable and tormented than he will admit. Torn between a murderous id and a moralizing superego, Caleb’s intense inner conflict takes the form of a dual personality disorder. Like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Caleb is split into two relentlessly battling aspects, and neither Caleb nor his priestly “twin” Father Michael realize that they are actually opposing aspects of the same consciousness. His first screen appearance on Port Charles, in a dark basement of a dilapidated church, vividly symbolizes the antithetical dualities raging with him. Throughout this scene the basement is lit in a gentle, ochre light, dusky and foggy yet pierced in areas with golden rays which illuminate Caleb’s face, making him appear like some radiant, almost holy figure in a Da Vinci or Caravaggio painting. Both Father Michael and Caleb in their scenes together (which are, of course, before it is revealed that they are the same person) have a mystical, ethereal glow. Caleb’s menacingly glowing eyes and his wild, predatory demeanor, however, contrast with the golden aura surrounding him. He is like a beast imprisoned. The basement, symbolizing the id, the savage impulses lurking in the darkness of the unconsciousness, shelters him in its protective yet confining womb, while the church, representing the superego, morality and spirituality, towers above its dank foundations. Apparently unaware that his pious “twin” is merely a creation of his divided psyche, Caleb hides in the shadows as his other aspect struggles to rebuild the derelict church. Unlike traditional vampires, Caleb is immune to the sacred symbols that traditionally repel those of his kind. Escaping from seclusion, Caleb defiantly enters the church, touches the crucifix in a mocking yet somewhat reverent manner, and attempts to destroy all the hard work “Michael” has done to restore the beautiful old chapel.
In a clever twist of the good/evil dichotomy, both aspects of Caleb, the vampire as well as the priest, appear to be incited into battle against each other by their mutual attraction to the same woman, an unmarried pregnant woman with the Biblical name “Eve.” The shy, gentle “Father Michael” gains Eve’s friendship with his kind demeanor and spiritual insight, but despite his chivalric gestures, he seems to harbor unacknowledged feelings of desire. Like the slyly slinking serpent in the Garden of Eden, Michael hands Eve an apple, symbolic of forbidden temptation. Although “Michael” tries to conceal his lustful feelings from Eve and himself, he cannot hide them from Caleb, who continually reminds Michael of his secret sin. Caleb likewise covets Eve but for a different, far more malevolent reason; he wants the fruit still ripening inside her, the as-yet unborn child he plans to steal after it is born and raise with his true love, Olivia, as their own baby. This yearning for his beloved and a family of his own is one of Caleb’s few weaknesses, one that Michael can use against him, for, as Michael rather cruelly reminds Caleb, vampires cannot reproduce. Michael, the celibate but love-smitten priest and Caleb, the lecherous but infertile predator, share the loneliness of a family-less life. Both are outsiders, observers of human experience denied to them, but whereas Michael feels love and compassion for the human world, Caleb feels hostility and resentment.
Just as Norman Bates protects his murderous “mother,” Father Michael shelters his vampiric alter-ego deep within the bowels of his church, Caleb’s dangerous impulses symbolically suppressed by the spiritual, moralizing superego. Caleb, however, continually battles his constricting, compassionate protector, usually triumphing over his priestly counterpart. In a particularly chilling scene Caleb breaks free of his repressive priestly alter-ego, and, still wearing his priest’s robe, stalks Eve. Hearing what appears to be a conversation between Father Michael and someone else, Eve enters the church and sees the priest by himself, his back to her and still talking to an invisible presence. He senses her presence, and, without turning around, urgently warns her to leave. Concerned for her friend Michael’s safety, she refuses to go away, and by the time she realizes what is happening, it is too late. Father Michael is no longer there, his body and soul now controlled by Caleb. This scene in which the priestly-garbed figure turns around and reveals himself as Caleb evokes memories of Psycho as well as The Night of the Hunter. It echoes the Psycho scene in which one of the female characters, searching the basement for clues, sees what she believes to be old Mrs. Bates sitting on a chair, only to discover, in horror, that the old woman is actually the shoddily preserved body of Norman’s mother, the eyes staring back at her as dead, glazed, and ominous as the many stuffed birds of prey Norman has arranged in frozen flight around the dank, musty house of gloom. Although Caleb, in obvious contrast to the gristly Mrs. Bates, is beautiful and breathtakingly alluring in his menace, he is as cold and sinister as a basilisk with his eyes of death. This scene, with its chilling blend of holy and demonic imagery, also shares similarities with the classic thriller The Night of the Hunter. Like the murderous reverend in Night of the Hunter, evil conceals itself behind a religious persona. Caleb, still wearing the priestly collar of Father Michael and otherwise identical to his twin, appears horrifyingly different—his fixed, serpentine stare of loathing diametrically opposed to Father Michael’s shy, kindly demeanor. An othewordly being, indifferent to human suffering, he glows with the luster of a Byzantine icon or a hellishly brilliant devil. Eve watches in horror as Caleb, disguised as her friend Michael, threatens to steal her unborn baby, even if he has to rip it from her womb. Realizing that Caleb and Father Michael are the same person, Eve cleverly decides to coax the sweet, compassionate priest from within the malevolent vampire.
She calls upon Michael, the sweet, shy, sensitive man who befriended her, sheltered at his church, and helped her find her way back to her beloved Ian. Her insistent summons somehow sneak past Caleb’s cruel bravado and bring back his gentle alter-ego. Back and forth the split personalities, demonic god and anguished priest, battle. Seized by convulsions, the Caleb/Michael hybrid staggers, grips his stomach and retches. Like werewolves and other shape-shifters, Caleb is possessed by two opposing aspects of his personality, but in Caleb’s case the transformation is much less visible, revealed only in his facial expressions, voice, and demeanor. “One soul,” the Michael aspect tries to remind his arrogant, vicious Caleb counterpart. Caleb may think he can break away from his more human, vulnerable side; however, the two aspects are one being.
In the end it is this vulnerability, Caleb’s love for Livvie, his addiction to her, that proves his undoing. Killed by a lightning bolt in “Tainted Love” and by Livvie’s stake in “Tempted,” Caleb, phoenix-like, dies and resurrects, but remains hopelessly enthralled by his beloved. Although his “Father Michael” aspect does not appear again onscreen after Caleb’s first death, that human-like vulnerability, love, and addiction continue to undermine his attempts to seize power. The doppelganger, invisible, unacknowledged, still exerts its self-limiting, self-destructive force.
Caleb in all his self-divided intensity represents the turmoil within us all, the energizing, primordial desires and impulses fighting against conflicting emotions and needs. Manipulative, dangerous, even at times “monstrous,” he is nevertheless a character driven by an all-consuming devotion transcending time and betrayal, a man risking everything to be with his eternal beloved.
We shuffle into the school auditorium, and the teachers line their pupils into more or less orderly lines. A teacher, who at the time seems elderly but is probably only 40, sits down on a pencil-etched piano bench and starts plinking off-tune keys on an upright piano. Solemnly, a teacher beside her raises her hands, signaling the beginning of the Thanksgiving song “We Gather Together.”
Tiredly, unenthused by the plodding, possibly Puritan-inspired, melody, the students sing along. One by one, directed by the teacher of each class, the children trudge up to a large box decorated with construction paper turkey feathers and deposit their offerings. When it is my turn, I walk towards the box, cradling my cans of creamed corn and congealed cranberry sauce, then, at a cue from my teacher, plop them into the cardboard receptacle.
As one box is filled, another one, similarly decorated, is brought into the center of the room, and the ritual resumes. The children, exhausted by this wearisome ordeal and eager to get home for the 4-day vacation from school, fidget. Breathy whispers and unsuccessfully suppressed giggles are sternly shushed by teachers. Finally, as the last can is tossed into the last overladen box, the ceremony concludes.
Looking back on these moments of Thanksgivings past, I experience a jumbled smorgasbord of emotions, feelings clashing, dissonant tastes blending—gelatinous, salty grey-brown gravy, spongy, clot-red cranberry jelly, bland, ubiquitous pumpkin puree. Moments of pleasure, scented of cinnamon and sage, sweetly settle into a safe, childlike corner of my brain, while all around them, more recent memories bombard the cozy, cave-like walls.
A flimsy cardtable in the living room is set for our preteen banquet, all of us cousins under the age of 13 clustered around it. My oldest cousin, Julie, though only a few years older than the rest of us, always manages to sit with the grown-ups. Another cousin, the one I feel closest to, envies Julie and wants to desert our special table to be seated with the adults. For that moment in time, however, she is with us and still, thankfully, a child. I resolve never to grow up, trying to forget about the elders around us as I savor the engulfing aromas of the turkey and other oven-nurtured delights.
Shelley, my closest cousin, spending the night for the long weekend, accompanies me to my bedroom to escape the chattering and chewing sounds. Restless that the early afternoon feast is still continuing, we sense an approach of something we do not know whether to fear or welcome. Before another year rolls around, that “something” may irrevocably change us. Childhood is dwindling; the adult table, laden with temptations and regret, soon awaits us.
As the aunts, uncles, and other cousins leave, Shelley and I venture out of the bedroom to say “goodbye.” Dishes stained crimson and orangish-brown, smeary with residue of grease and starch, are stacked in precarious heaps alongside the kitchen sink. Grandma, always the designated cook, dishwasher, and hostess, wipes her dish-soapy hands upon her food-splattered apron. Suffocating in the steamy odors of her kitchen domain, she has missed out on almost all of the meal-time conversations and barely has a chance to see everyone before they, clutching their Tupperware-containers filled with leftovers, depart.
The rest of the evening is ours. As Shelley lies on the creaky cot beside my bed, we talk and make up songs. One of them is a parody of “We gather together.” In our version a hungry family eagerly waits for a delivery truck bearing the cast-off Thanksgiving bounty donated by us schoolchildren. With the innocent insensitivity of children, we laugh at our lyrics about the feast of canned peas and gravy. We do not realize that sadness lurks behind our grimly hysterical ditties.
Now, many years later, as I anticipate another Thanksgiving, the sadness predominates. Almost everyone at the grown-up table has left, never to return except in my dreams and memories. “We gather together” no more, and the feast is a ceremony of hunger, loss amongst plenty.
Whenever “reality” becomes depressing, I seek solace in works of imagination, particularly the dark oases provided by speculative, metaphysical, psychological horror literature, movies, and TV shows. The television series Black Mirror, Channel Zero, and Westworld especially invigorate my creativity. I am thankful for these intellectually stimulating, labyrinthine explorations of the psyche, dream worlds, cybernetic consciousness, and dystopian prophecies. More than ever, it seems, television programs, at least non-mainstream cable or Netflix shows, dare to challenge, confound, disturb, illuminate rather than to placate or numbly entertain. I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago when Westworld made perhaps the first television reference to a rather obscure scholarly work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, which I read many years ago. This revelatory work theorized that consciousness evolves, that the inner voice we now realize as being part of ourselves used to be perceived as something external, a voice of the gods. Whether or not the theory is true, it is thought-provoking. It makes one focus on the process of thought, opening up a mirror maze of self-reflective paradoxes and awakening the nightmare of solipsism I first encountered when reading Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger.” Black Mirror, likewise, offered an enthralling paradox in its episode “San Junipero,” proposing the possibility of consciousness encoded in a virtual reality where paradise is an eternal state of mind. Although unlike Black Mirror and Westworld, Channel Zero is set in the past and present instead of an imaginary future, it also focuses on the relationship between consciousness, electronics (in this case, TV), and the unleashing of phantasmal monsters. I take joy in these fantasy worlds whose darkness offers at least some wisdom.
Independent Creators Alliance
Having attended an Indie Book Fair recently as an author, I learned some valuable information regarding marketing and distribution, but the overall message of the advice left me feeling disheartened regarding the arbitrary standardization of the publishing industry. Instead of focusing on creativity and literary talent, the speakers at the event seemed to emphasize orthodoxy in page design (justified text, avoidance of stylistic content-driven page and paragraph breaks, etc.). I support the importance of proper grammar and punctuation and feel that these aspects, along with originality in content, expression, and style, are essential in quality writing. I do not believe, however, that standardization of font, margins, and other traditional publishing practices should be given such a high priority. After all, readers would probably not notice or care whether the margins were justified. In fact, often justified margins make reading more difficult to comprehend due to breaks in words. Even though there are increasing numbers of indie authors, the publishing industry persists in perpetuating typographic conventions that are usually not used in Word or other common writing programs; in so doing, the publishing industry imposes an arbitrary standard to differentiate between indie and non-indie authors so that indie writers may feel pressured into purchasing services to make their work appear more like traditional published materials, thereby making their work less independent, more restricted by financial concerns. In addition, publishers seem to be promoting an increasingly conventional approach to cover design, resulting in a glut of covers featuring blandly attractive, nearly identical male torsos or other figurative clichés associated with the book’s genre.
Indie authors, musicians, artists and filmmakers represent a challenge to the financially-driven industries that struggle to maintain a monopoly on the arts by propagating lookalike, superficially pleasing but often substanceless clones. The literary renegades, such as William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, the ravaged voices of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, these muses of rebellion and individuality epitomize the freedom, intensity, and expressive potential of the independent, creative spirit. I invite indie creators in any of the arts to join in solidarity, supporting each other and the ideal of artistic freedom. In that spirit of independence combined with mutual support, I have created the Independent Creative Alliance group on Facebook; please feel free to click on the following link to join the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/269464480120915
After the death of my mother, I feel that I have become increasingly adrift from my body. I have dreams that promise a world beyond the body, a vampiric world where the astral body partakes of an idealized, almost Platonic world of sensory delights. In one dream I remember walking barefoot on a beach, the sand under my feet and between my toes, curling exquisitely soft, like kitten’s fur. As I walked further, the sand gradually become moister, submerging my feet and legs, body, and head. I was underwater, engulfed in a grayish, greenish blue blankness that eclipsed my breath. At first I was afraid, but eventually I grew calm, overcome by the suffocating caress of the water. Somehow I managed to make my way upwards, out of the water, and free, reborn.
An experience like this, more vivid and sensual yet etheric. is how I imagine a vampire would feel, living in an astral body, not tied to its mortal, matter-sated demands for food and other physical needs, but free to savor sensual, spiritual delights unknown to earthly flesh.
The Addiction Movie and Revenance
My favorite vampire movie, The Addiction, which I also discuss in Revenance, is featured in the following article about 18 philosophical films: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/…/the-18-best-philosophical…/2/ Here’s an excerpt from Revenance comparing and contrasting The Addiction with the vampire film The Hunger:
“Once snugly inside our room, my Awakener browses through his small stash of DVDs. Since we have limited space, he has only brought his favorite films with him. Looking over his collection (Requiem for a Dream, Sid and Nancy, Naked Lunch, etc.) he selects two vampire films we both like—The Hunger and The Addiction. We begin with The Hunger.
The opening music video-style sequence of this film powerfully introduces the contrast between a vampire’s fierce animality and its seductive, almost ethereal, elegance as scenes featuring the beautiful, genteel undead couple Miriam and John (portrayed by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are juxtaposed with imagery of monkeys fighting in a cage. Miriam and John, sunglass-shielded, scan the cramped, crowded dance floor of a raucous nightclub, seeking their prey while Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy, caged like the monkeys, performs his Goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” His long, graceful hands grasp the cage bars, the song’s sinuously repeated bass line and pounding, fibrillating drums evoking the mood of imprisoning dread. Selecting an attractive punkish young couple, Miriam and John take them back to a luxurious Manhattan apartment. As Miriam and John gently kiss the young man and woman they have brought home, the scene shifts to the caged monkeys, fangs bared, tearing at each other’s flesh. The scene culminates with Miriam’s ankh dagger plunging into the male and female victims, throats slashed, and a caged monkey being torn apart, bloody sinews throbbing. Like the aftermath of a murderous orgy, the next scene is deadly calm. The apartment, as white and solemnly majestic as a marble mortuary, is bathed in light, white curtains billowing as soft, melancholy classical music plays in the background. Tenderly, John and Miriam caress each other in the shower, while John murmurs the words “Forever. Forever and ever,” wistfully, nostalgically. The film, losing momentum after this opening sequence, then begins to show the connection between the caged monkeys and the two elegant vampires. Apparently, the monkeys’ sudden vicious rage is triggered by insomnia, which, in turn, leads to rapid aging, dementia, and death. These symptoms eerily correlate with those of Miriam’s doomed lovers—inability to sleep, followed by accelerated aging as well as physical and mental deterioration. Miriam, unlike the traditional vampires of lore, cannot bestow the immortality she alone possesses. She can only give a shoddy semblance of it—a few centuries of youthful beauty as a blood-drinking murderer—then a sudden, irreversible decline into a state of perpetual putrefaction, the mind, still sentient but trapped in a rotting, entombed body that can never die. This ultimate horror—the mind locked inside a decomposing body—is a theme underlying many horror films, but here it is evoked in all its gruesome yet poignantly sad implications. Forever denied sleep and oblivion, Miriam’s ex-lovers remain in their sealed coffins, cloistered as if in a living dead dormitory, within Miriam’s light-filled attic. She has promised them an eternity of youthful delight but given them a hell as tortuous as it is timeless. Yet monstrous as her actions are, Miriam is a strangely sympathetic heroine. She truly loves the male and female partners she has unwisely, unethically selected to keep her company during their limited counterfeit “immortality.” Doomed to an eternity she cannot share, she lies to her lovers, gives them a beautiful, romantic fairytale fiction she is unable to make true. She watches as John, like all the rest of her loved ones, eventually turns old and decrepit, fiercely craving the blood that can no longer sustain his youth and beauty. Cradling him in her arms in a scene reminiscent of a Pieta, she kisses him “goodbye,” easing him gently into the casket that will be his place of eternal unrest. Up in her attic, the dead lie, flesh peeling, minds endlessly spinning in futile desperation, as white doves, like angels, look down on them with impotent pity.
Unlike the pastel-tinted grisliness of The Hunger, The Addiction presents its interpretation of the vampire myth in gritty, raw-edged, film noir black and white. Although it also takes place in New York City, its Manhattan is far removed from the upscale neoclassical luxuriousness of Miriam’s oasis. The heroine of The Addiction, Kathleen (portrayed by Lili Taylor) is thrust into her undead existence one night when she is bitten by a female vampire in a subway tunnel. After being taken to the hospital and treated for her wounds, Kathleen begins developing the thirst for blood. Unable to eat or sleep because of her incessant craving, she attacks a homeless man, whom she stabs with a needle, and then injects herself with his blood. Swooning with euphoria as she plunges the needle into her arm, she realizes that she is trapped by her addiction to blood. She needs the fix and will do anything to attain it, even attacking her philosophy instructor and her best friend. Since she is a philosophy student working on her graduate degree, she struggles to find philosophical meaning in her addiction, relating it to her thesis on the nature of original sin, predestination, and complicity in evil. According to Kathleen, she, as well as the other victims, did not actively resist their victimization but merely submitted; therefore, they are complicit in the curse they, in turn, end up transmitting to others. She realizes that the addiction is self-perpetuating. It is an escape from one’s “hunger” and yearning, as well as an escape from the truth of one’s own addiction. This escape, ironically, is an imprisonment. Eventually, while stalking what she thinks is a potential victim, she is abducted by her prey, who is actually a very ancient vampire (played by Christopher Walken). Stoically, citing the Tibetan sages, this ancient one, Peina, informs Kathleen that he has managed to survive for centuries by learning how to control his cravings; no longer enslaved to them, he can choose when to feed. He forces her to confront her addiction by starving her and draining her blood until she is reduced to trying to slash her wrists for a few drops of blood; then he releases her to face her downward spiral of addiction to its disastrous, mayhem-filled conclusion. The film’s pessimistic philosophical emphasis, starkly haunting cinematography, and absence of supernatural clichés make it unique in vampire-themed cinema. As I ponder The Addiction’s grim message and the gruesome interpretation of immortality offered in The Hunger, I worry about the secrets not yet told to me by my Awakener. What is this metaphorical clod of native soil that we must carry with us, like a curse and a fix, to keep us as we are? How do we survive the avalanche of years, the piles of corpses, the rotting residue of nightmares? ”
On “Placental Consciousness”
The following is a quote from the author J. G. Ballard in his book The
Drowned World which I find particularly relevant to my interests in
myth, psychology, “dark muses,” and art works originating from our
“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as
old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are
tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey
of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and
its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of
neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of
In this book Ballard describes a future in which global warming has
made almost all of the planet uninhabitable except for the arctic and
antarctic regions. Since the polar ice caps have melted, much of the
earth is a boiling lagoon, filled with primeval life forms. Human
consciousness, like the plants and animals of the external world,
seems to be drifting towards a prenatal, placental state , a solipsism
in which the boundaries between dream and reality are dissolving.
This world is an autistic oasis, each individual in his/her own oceanic
universe. Such is the world as depicted in the works of Expressionistic artists–the painter Edvard Munch, the poet Sylvia Plath, the films of David Lynch, as well as the ancient shamanic maskmakers. These works summon the urges, the wild, tangled, seductively ensnaring roots of our earliest memories.
Review of Michael Easton’s new graphic novel, Credence (also posted in Reviews section of this site)
Where tawdry, contrived “reality” shows featuring floozy debutantes and wannabe poseurs have replaced creatively expressive forms of media, authenticity, integrity, courage, as well as the most profound depths of horror, are obscured beneath a fluorescent sheen of mindless, sensationalistic entertainment. Michael Easton’s graphic novel Credence, illustrated by Steven Perkins, vividly depicts this bleak yet all-too-familiar contemporary milieu, highlighting its depressing banality while exploring the capacity for heroism in the midst of the most gruesome depravity.
Danny Credence, the main character of the novel, is a deeply flawed detective at home in the cesspool landscape of filth, crime, drugs, and celebrity worship. He is a rebel, a transgressor of some of the very laws he as a police officer is supposed to enforce, yet he is also a man struggling to retain his battered ideals. Subjected to abuse by his hateful, tyrannical father, Credence learns that violence is a means of survival and that the boundaries between conventional morality and immorality are often hazy. Despite his shortcomings as a policeman, husband, and person, however, he is driven by a sense of honor, a need to protect the innocent and vulnerable while destroying the malevolent forces that threaten everything good within humanity. Credence has the opportunity to redeem himself when he encounters a murderer who delights in dismembering his young victims. This diabolical nemesis, Andras, like Jung’s concept of the Shadow, represents the darkest aspects of the psyche, the twisted, unappeasable demons haunting, tormenting, and tempting mankind in many different guises and masks throughout history. Bolstered by his proud, pugnacious Celtic heritage, the “Belfast blood—a snake pit of Irish American rogues out there just waiting to be summoned,” Credence prepares to battle Andras to the death.
Easton’s prose—raw, at times profane, yet balanced by passages of poignant beauty, such as his description of the 9/11 rescue dogs searching for signs of life buried beneath the crushing, indifferent rubble of mass-scale death—lays bare the bones, skin, guts, and blood of our worst nightmares and traces with shadowy, evasive tenderness the resilient, revivifying whispers of hope. Giving cinematic vividness to Easton’s words, illustrator Steven Perkins presents in lushly shadowed gradations of black, white, and grey dizzying perspectives—towering skyscrapers and plunging descents. Alleys, basements, and subways lurk with chiaroscuro menace. Faces snarl, scream, and contort with hellish intensity. Like a film noir movie in print form, Perkins conveys an everpresent mood of mystery and unease in a landscape where the worst things are always waiting to happen.
Although the book’s subject matter is dark and disturbing, Easton’s sly, sarcastic wit, his scathingly perceptive observations of our society’s obsession with shallow, insipid, ignoble idols provide invigorating doses of comic relief. In opposition to these crass, disreputable icons, Easton pays homage to heroes who embolden and inspire–the dedicated police officers and servicemen who risk their lives to save others, as well as the artists and musicians (such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Shane MacGowan depicted towards the close of the book) who challenge us to create a new, much more vital and satisfying, reality. As in his Soul Stealer graphic novel series, Easton’s new book is a riveting exploration of sin, valor, love, brutality, and sacrifice. This time the mythic elements are concealed within the gritty, contemporary urban setting. Celebrity flunkies have presumptuously tried to take the place of the ancient gods, but, as Credence shows, the battle between good and evil is as fierce as ever, and heroes, despite their flaws, are just as crucial.
About My Work
Dreams, memories, images from films, notes of music, dust on a fireplace mantel, stained and fading photographs, the endless, indifferent stars–all these shape and define me. As a child, my favorite book was Thomasina; as an adolescent my other favorite was Dracula. I love animals, vampires, the supernatural, mythology, the arts, the surreal, the mystical, the sublimely unexplained
Having always felt a kinship to cats, dogs, and their wild relatives, I often envy them their beauty, power, gracefulness, and sensory awareness. They, like vampires, represent what humans lack.
We, as humans, have lost many of our instincts, our blood summoning. Only possessing the most rudimentary of fangs and claws, we go through life not knowing the intensity of a world beyond the capacity of language. Our senses, like our teeth, are blunted. In my dreams I know that animal-vampire ecstasy, but when I awaken, the daylight shrivels the eidetic images. They die, like worms on parched pavement, and I thirst for the darkness always beyond my grasp.
My interest in vampires and the supernatural began when I was about 13 and saw “Dark Shadows” on TV. From that point on I became fascinated with depictions of vampires in literature, films, myths, and art. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, and Anne Rice’s Lestat, Louis, and Claudia helped to shape my perception of vampires as seductive, enigmatic, sensual, charismatic, and dangerously enthralling beings. Although I have been writing poetry, fiction, and essays since childhood, I didn’t write about vampires until I began creating a series of Web pages analyzing the TV series”Port Charles” and its vampire character Caleb Morley (portrayed by Michael Easton). I then began incorporating vampires in my fiction, using them as a way of expressing my feelings about death, spirituality, creativity, animals, and human existence. Vampires, to me, represent a synthesis of human, animal, and the divine. They are muses, bringing visions, dreams, and nightmares from mythic realms. They haunt, torment, and inspire, awakening the libido, the senses, and the imagination.
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