Spooklights #18 Mer Whinery

Self-described rural macabre horror author Mer Whinery joins us for this episode of Spooklights! He’s one of my favorite writers in the game today.

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Little Dixie’s Callin’ You Home – A Review of Phantasmagoria Blues by Mer Whinery

Published by Literati Press; Book Available for Order Here

Review by Matthew M. Bartlett

Crows know death.

It’s almost like they can smell it. Something in their nerves gets a hum going. The hive mind melts together and the murder starts to form in the sky, swirling in sooty spirals…

– Mer Whinery, “The Little Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods”

I’m as provincial as they come. Give me New England, with its dense woods, its diffident baristas, its progressive bumper stickers, its snooty colleges, its coffeehouses and even, God help us all, its Vermont hippies. I don’t even mind the cold.

The South? It might as well be another planet. In the early 90s, I took a trip to Florida. Along the way I stopped somewhere in Georgia and found an ancient, leaning, and unpainted ramshackle house, whose owners sold hot dogs out of their kitchen window. The dog I got was the most unnatural, terrifying shade of pink I’ve ever encountered. I ate it anyway.

I think it changed me, and not for the better.

But you know what? I really like Mer Whinery’s dark and haunted South. I’d pay good money to take in an exploitation flick at the Red Hand movie theater. To spend a sticky night in the Tarantula Arms Motel in the staticky blue glow of a television with a dangling antenna. To put on a lighted helmet and trespass at Bloody Ben’s Pit. C’mon, readers, meet me at The Git’N Split. We’ll get some Dr. Peppers and drive around the dark, weird towns of Coffin Mills and Black Knot. (Note to self: ask the author if I can get a subscription to the Black Knot Daily Redeemer.)

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Phantasmagoria Blues, the second collection from Oklahoma horror writer Mer Whinery, consists of seven stories that explore the haunted shadows of Oklahoma and Texas, and the damned and damaged souls that dwell in those shadows. Whinery deftly inhabits and breathes life into a bereft husband and father, a lovelorn teenage girl with a very unhealthy crush, a scummy projectionist, and a broken, cigarette-chewing repo man obsessed with a creepy photograph he finds in a dank old house.

The collection starts off ambitiously with “The Loved Ones,” a post-monster-invasion science fiction tale of a man who has lost his wife and two kids, and the replacements with whom—with which—he’s provided. It starts off by dispensing in a few paragraphs with its premise, but the info dump quickly pivots into a compulsively readable and tense story with a well-executed twist that some might have predicted—though I didn’t. Whinery won me over quickly.

The centerpiece of the collection, a-darker-than-dark little masterpiece, is “The Projectionist,” whose protagonist, the deeply unpleasant Newt McAlester, after suffering a grievous injury via a malfunctioning movie projector, is given a sketchy new assignment: He must arrive at the theater at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, sequester himself in the booth, run the projector without peeking at the film and, especially, never, ever look down at the audience below. He must wear earplugs. He must stay until precisely 7 a.m., and not a moment before. And he has to keep the whole thing a secret.

The narrative starts off fairly predictably—of course McAlester’s curiosity gets the better of him—but it spins off into such grotesque and ornery insanity I felt myself grinning in admiration. And what an ending! Here Whinery proves himself an audacious storyteller with a flair for the grotesque.

I also really dug “Hungry Boy,” despite Whinery’s abject disclaimer that precedes the tale, in which he says his goal was to write “whiney-ass bullshit—like ‘Twilight.’” I haven’t read Twilight, but this story, told from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, is smart, emotionally real, funny, and, of course, violent and grotesque. I went in not expecting much and emerged from the other end impressed.

Most of the stories in Phantasmagoria Blues were similarly surprising, similarly good, compulsively readable, and well-executed. I always kind of inwardly crumple when I encounter a zombie story, and Whinery as much as notes in his preamble to “Dead Folks” that there’s not much new to be explored in that tattered, groaning corner of the genre. I read “Dead Folks” and found little to object to, but also little to cause it to stand out. Otherwise, “The Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods” is effective and eerie, with shades of S.P. Miskowski. “Memento Mori” is a terrific tale of a lost man who finds a women who may or may not be the subject of an ancient photograph of the Posed and Photographed Dead. “The 10th Life” is a buried-treasure story with an aspect that I—an admirer of cats—particularly enjoyed.

I recommend Phantasmagoria Blues as a refreshing take on Southern horror by a writer with a unique and strong voice. It’s well written, enjoyable, dark, and nasty. If I have any minor complaints, they’re about the form, not the content. The margins aren’t right-justified—a peeve of mine—and I found the sans-serif font distracting. It’s a choice far better suited to onscreen reading. I found a smattering of minor grammatical errors and the occasional typo as well. The content, though, is more than sufficiently strong to outweigh the aesthetical issues.

I’m going to pick up a copy of Whinery’s previous collection, and I await the chance to make a return trip to his next work—to his corpse-riddled and gore-soaked savage South.

Four blackened fingers out of five

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, the forthcoming Rangel from Dim Shores, and Creeping Waves (due out late 2015) from Muzzleland Press. His short stories have appeared in Faed, Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Wicked Tales, and High Strange Horror. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and their cats Phoebe, Nigel, Peach Pie, and Larry. You can visit his blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.

Book Review: Giallo Fantastique

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Published by Word Horde

Review by Mer Whinery

Picture it:

1984.

Three thirteen year-old boys in a shadowed living room, huddled around a flickering television set gorging themselves on block-cheese nachos, all hopped up on a case of Mountain Dew. On the screen, a beautiful young woman is admiring herself in a mirror. Suddenly, a wall of dissonant music overpowers the scene; a pair of demonic eyes appear outside her window. The stage is set for ultimate terror.

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This was my first exposure to the genre of film known as giallo. The movie was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It was broadcast into my best friend’s living room courtesy of a hacked satellite dish.  For the uninitiated, “giallo” is the Italian word for yellow, and is a genre of film trapped somewhere between murder mystery and slasher horror, often served with a side helping of supernatural gravy and kinky sex. It eschews coherence and logical plot in favor of style and shock, leaning far into the realm of the surreal. Giallo often features storytelling through melodramatic music and overwrought imagery. After Suspiria came others. Argento’s Deep Red, Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, and even films shot outside of Italy such as England’s Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg. These movies had a profound impact on me both as a writer and a lover of cinema.

Giallo Fantastique, the new collection of short fiction compiled and edited by Ross E. Lockhart, attempts to capture the feel and tone of those films and transfer them to the written word. However, this collection also seeks to marry the giallo with a French genre of fiction called fantastique. Fantastique is a variety of fiction with blatant supernatural overtones, more closely related to weird fiction than any other categorization. The results are mixed, but ultimately satisfying, with a few tales that skirt tantalizingly close to brilliance.

Most of the tales entombed within Giallo Fantastique lean more toward the fantastique than giallo. Mixing the two is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the stories get bogged down in shock for the sake of shock, and an over-reliance on the surreal, which is not uncommon for a giallo. However, since the goal of the collection is an attempt to merge the two genres together, a stronger balance needs to be struck. The majority of the stories are well written and a few are very clever, but only a handful really set themselves apart from the dark flock. But oh, what a handful of darkly delicious doozies are they!

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My favorite selection would have to be the enigmatic, and oh-so-gialloesquely named “The Strange Vice of ZLA-313” by MP Johnson. Johnson totally nails the spirit of the giallo but adds his own twist, setting the mayhem in the future. It’s fantastique, sci-fi, and horror all rolled into one delightful, sexy, and creepy chimichanga. Here is a writer who understands the genre and elevates it to new and exciting heights. I would have loved it to be longer.

“Sensoria” by Anya Martin is a little less far-reaching, but no less compelling. A cocktail of weird fiction ala Lovecraft and Argento-ish psychedelia, it sits with the reader long after the final page has turned. Out of all of the tales within Giallo Fantastique, “Sensoria” is the most cinematic, practically begging to be lensed by David Lynch.

High marks go to Michael Kazepis’s “Minerva,” a straight-up balls-to-the-wall giallo, and Orrin Grey’s “The Red Church,” a creepy little number which digs deep into the hallowed territory of Robert W. Chambers. Brian Keene’s “Exit Strategies” rounds out the collection as a chilling exposé of the secret occult history of the U.S. Transportation system that, honestly, doesn’t really lock into either the giallo or fantastique genre yet, somehow, fits perfectly into the collection. It’s a wonderful closing number.

Enough cannot be said about the excellent introduction by editor Ross E. Lockhart. The man knows his stuff, and his thoughtful and thankfully entertaining explanation of the entangled genres at play here makes sense of what is presented. Lockhart’s introduction makes the book much easier to digest and appreciate, especially for readers who may not be as familiar with Italian cinema.

4/5 Geysers of Fake-Looking Blood

Mer Whinery is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show and  Phantasmagoria Blues, which is available for pre-order here. His short story “The Projectionist” also appears in our latest anthology, High Strange Horror, available now.

What is High Strange?

What is High Strange?

Well, for starters, it’s the theme of our next anthology, High Strange Horror. It will feature several very talented writers, including Matthew M. Bartlett, Mer Whinery, Charles Martin, Matthew D. Jordan, Doctor Gaines, and more.

It’s a horror anthology. But what kind of horror anthology, exactly? If you spend any amount of time lurking on sites like DarkMarkets.com, you’ll see a new call for submissions every day or so. Typically, some small start-up press (like us!) will be looking for gimmicky stories (“your story MUST contain mutant beaver cyborgs”) or something to do with zombies.

Zombies. Always zombies. Because creativity is dead.

Or, as in the case of Spooklights, the submission guidelines are vague. A story that falls within the realm of “horror” can be anything. So if High Strange Horror isn’t a collection of conventional horror stories—what is it?

There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t take a strong interest in the paranormal, the occult, the spiritual, the spooky. I may have taken certain subjects less seriously from time to time, but I’ve always been fascinated by strange and bizarre events (“Fortean” events, named after the great alternative philosopher Charles Fort) that are purportedly true. Yes, hoaxes are legion—doctored evidence has only increased with the advent of consumer-level digital photo manipulation tools. That there are pranksters and charlatans out there selling their stories of strange happenings doesn’t disprove all strange happenings. Our oldest and most enduring stories—from dead mythologies to living religious traditions—are often accounts of the bizarre and supernatural. As a Christian, I take the Bible to be a true account of many, many supernatural events. Yahweh Himself is a trickster, confounding the plans of man and spirit-being alike, knocking down towers, raising the dead, and subverting social paradigms. Go read the book of Ezekiel for some really spooky stuff.

Someone you know has probably had a spooky encounter—most likely a ghost experience, or maybe a UFO sighting. Or maybe, just maybe, they’ve had a profound, frightening experience, and they don’t like to talk about it.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? You can dismiss the Ancient Aliens nonsense, scoff at the Ghosthunters, and see the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult for the cranks they were. But that can’t account for the fact that someone you know or trust has probably had an experience they can’t explain.

According to a National Geographic survey from 2012, about 36% of Americans believe in UFOs as inexplicable phenomena. Thats almost 80 million people, give or take. Other surveys put that number even higher. While the popularity of shows like The X-Files and alien abduction films are no doubt contributors to this upswing in the zeitgeist, some of this trend may be due to personal experience, open-mindedness, or the proliferation of baffling accounts in the media. The events in Stevensville Texas in 2008 and at Chicago O’Hare airport in 2006 were major media news stories that attracted the attention of the nation, and, despite the guffawing of mainstream media talking heads and tongue-in-cheek reporting, they defy conventional explanation.

High strange events are not limited to UFO sightings. Almost every region of the United States has its own local legend or monster—Champy in Lake Champlain, the Mothman of West Virginia, Bigfoot in all sorts of places—and, in many cases, these sightings go well beyond implying that there are unidentified animals running around in the hills.

No, not only do Bigfoot sightings happen—but sometimes Bigfoot gets into or out of a UFO. The Mothman flies around your house, and the men in black show up at your place of work. Police chase a hairy half-man across a neighborhood until he leaps over a house. A goblin-like creature warns children away from certain parts of the forest.

High strange is the inexplicable, the nonsensical, the trickster element in the weird and wild. Things just don’t add up, and people are left in the dark with their fears intensified and their worldviews shattered. This, then, is our modern mythology: the fears of the past re-cast as technological angels and demons, the human mind conjuring (or being made to conjure!) dark creatures and psychic phenomena. High strange isn’t just the UFO sighting—it’s the life changing results of seeing and experiencing something that defies any sort of rational understanding of the universe.

High strange is the crumbling of your worldview when you happen to see the small gray men in silver suits running through the moon-lit field. High strange is the fear of the gargoyle creature appearing beside your bed before vanishing in a flurry of your prayers. High strange is the rain of frogs on your wedding day. High strange is the men in Army uniforms with dead eyes that appear at the edge of your campsite, beckoning you to carry a new and terrible message to humanity.

High Strange Horror releases early April, 2015. We hope you’ll join us as we take part in some modern myth-making, and delve into greater and greater depths of fear, paranoia, and the utterly unknowable.

Or, as Charles Fort might put it – we examine the facts of the damned.