Artus Scheiner: Is It in the Blood?

We were living in Germany, and my dad got a slim box in the mail. The kind that usually indicated a book. He said we were going to look at something very special once we got home. Me and my sister sat at the dining room table with Mom and Dad while our younger sister and brother played; they were too young to understand the importance of this book. My dad flipped through the pages very carefully with amazement. We had a family coat of arms, and there was text going into the symbology, though there wasn’t too much actual writing in the book. There were lions on the crest, which represented courage. But even at twelve, I knew that. I didn’t need a book to point it out. I really didn’t feel a connection to the book on the Scheiners. It seemed vague and not quite right. This was pre-Internet, and I think my grandmother may have ordered this for my dad.

So I forgot all about that Scheiner book with its coat of arms with lions that looked like a cartoon, not real at all. How could anybody carve that onto a shield? Instead my interests were more taken by visits to the Landstuhl Post newsstand and the few racks that were stacked with real comics. I’d also read the cartoons in the daily Stars and Stripes that my dad brought home from Ramstein every day, but what me and my sister really enjoyed were long-form comics. It started with juvenile Archies, which were few and far between because my family couldn’t really afford these extras.

But one day we discovered a treasure trove of comics in the dumpster outside of our building. They had been thrown out by the Covingtons who lived above us. A couple of teenagers in the family were the source of the comics, and I figured Mrs. Covington must have stumbled on them and made her kids get rid of them. She was super-religious and had been spotted in the woods outside our housing complex cutting switches from the trees to beat her kids with.

For sure, Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing would be against her religion. I remember being terrified while reading the eco-horror title when a boy’s parents release the Monkey King after playing with a ouija board. With both excitement and dread, I watched that black-and-white monkey as it started feeding on the blood of children. I didn’t know comics could do that, and it was transcendent for me. We’ve always been artists in our family, and with horror comics paving the way, along with a deep love of Grimm’s fairy tales, some seriously demented and wonderful creatures sprung up. We’d always had a taste for the dark, the gothic, and that was reflected in my family’s artwork.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto work by Artus Scheiner, a bohemian artist from Prague, who specialized in cartoons and illustrations made in gauche, my paint medium of choice in college because of the bright colors. I clicked a link that Guillermo del Toro put up on his Twitter account and was stunned to find artwork that looked so similar to what me and the rest of my family produced.

I tried to find more information on him, and the things I uncovered gave me shivers down my back because of the similarities I found. Artus started off as a financial clerk in Prague, but he had an interest in drawing and art from a young age. After he started having success publishing his illustrations in important magazines of the time, like Lustige Blätter, he quit and worked full-time as an artist. He participated in the café culture of Prague, where intellectuals, artists, and writers gathered, and frequented Café Arco, which was visited by other famous luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Max Brod. There he met Milena Jesenska who he asked to work as a model for some of his fairy-tale illustrations. She didn’t mind modeling nude, but she was kind of grossed out by his studio.

Artus and his older brother Josef Scheiner, who was a politician, were part of an association called Sokol, which believed in gymnastic training and cultural development for its members. Josef loved puppet theater and would stage productions for children and guests in his study from 1895 to 1907. The puppet theater was a family affair with puppets being created partly by the brothers’ mother and some by Josef’s wife, Karla Scheinerová. Artus helped by creating scenery and backgrounds for the stage. And Josef would write the scripts, some based on old fairy tales. This reminds me of work my sister has done designing marionettes and selling them on her Etsy shop. Teen Vogue contacted her once, and she lent the magazine one of her puppets as a prop for a photo shoot.

Artus is identified as an artist of the Secessionist movement, which puzzled me. But reading more about it, I found it was part of a reaction to classical art of the time, and there were many bases for the movement: Prague, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. I knew it as art from the Weimar Republic, and some of the artists associated with this movement are Otto Dix, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz—only some of my favorite artists. While staying in Berlin, those were the artists I sought out at smaller galleries and museums, skipping all the classical art.

One of my favorite images by Artus is an illustration for the story “The Wooden Baby” from Tales from Bohemia. For the longest time, I thought it was a picture of a giant frog wolfing down a person, but no, it’s a wooden baby with a voracious appetite who keeps eating everybody he encounters while singing rhymes: “I’ve gobbled and gobbled/All that I can;/A jugful of milk/And food from the pan./A whole loaf of bread/And, all this is true—/My mum and my dad/And a dairymaid, too!/I’ve eaten a peasant/And all of his hay,/Pigs, swineherd and shepherd/And sheep, in a day./But as I’m still hungry…/I’ll eat you, if I may!”

The similarities between that and some of my stories are eerie, and now as I work on my kids’ book The Rats of New York with illustrations done by my sister, looking at her artwork and one by Artus for the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, they almost appear as if they came from the same studio. In my eyes, at least.

I am actively trying to acquire some of Artus’s work now through a Czech auction house called Sypka, but so far I haven’t been lucky with any of my bids. I think I need to make a visit to Prague the next time a lot is selling. I want to see one of these artworks in person and really study it.

Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Since Tor announced its new imprint dedicated to horror Nightfire in 2019, I’ve been anxiously awaiting its first books, wondering what to expect. It’s been a long time coming, but reading one of their first offerings, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, has been a highlight of my horror year so far, and I’m looking forward to reading more books from the line. I especially like the feminist bent that Ward’s storytelling takes and her knowledge of what makes horror appealing to a female audience. “There’s a tricksy sense of empowerment, particularly from the ghost story,” she’s told The Guardian. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t felt a bit like a ghost in a meeting, so you can see the appeal. And just being a woman has an element of body horror to it. Childbirth? That’s some horror right there.”

Ward uses multiple points of view to tell a murky, layered story that takes place on the East Coast in a small town near a destination lake and a gothic forest as bleak as any to be found in fairy tales. There’s Ted, a damaged man with questionable tastes in food, who’s become the scourge of his neighborhood after being accused in a child’s disappearance years ago. He has a young daughter Lauren who he sees part-time, and the teenager appears to have some developmental issues. Ted lives on Needless Street, and soon a new neighbor moves in next to him, spying on him and tracking his whereabouts. This is Dee, older sister of Lulu, who was one of the missing girls at the lake years ago. Dee’s determined to find out what happened to her sister years ago no matter what, and her journeys have led her to Needless Street. There are a few appearances from the Bug Man, what Ted calls his shifty psychiatrist who likes to talk about his magnum opus that he plans on publishing soon. And then there’s my personal favorite character, Olivia the cat who describes the many different types of naps she takes and has a faith in God that would rival a human’s. She also harbors a feral huntress side to her that she calls Nighttime, who only comes out when she’s truly hungry or angry.

Ted has set up barricades around his house with teeny-tiny peepholes to protect himself and his property from all the people who want to do him harm, and Olivia watches out of them during certain times of the day when she spies a stray tabby who she loves with all her heart. For me, these are the most heartbreaking moments of the story.

“Her scent precedes her, falls through the air like honey dripping onto toast. She comes around the corner with her graceful stride. How can I describe her? She’s striped like a little dusty tiger. Her yellow eyes are the same color as ripe gold apple skin, or pee. They’re beautiful, is what I mean. She is beautiful. She stops and stretches, this way and that, extends her long black claws. She blinks as snowflakes come to rest on her nose. She has something silver sticking out of her mouth, a tail, maybe. A small fish like a sardine or an anchovy.”

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The Last House on Needless Street is quite unlike any horror novel I’ve read before. The story’s dreamy but also terrifying. I love the homage paid to a person’s pets; no matter how creepy their personality might be, they too love someone or something. Also, the shifting setting kept me feeling off-kilter and claustrophobic. A large part of the story is spent inside that house on Needless Street with three floors. There’s an attic at the top, which all occupants of the house avoid, except Nighttime, because of the creepy green children who live there. There’s an ever-watchful portrait of Ted’s mother, a former nurse, and his father, a drunk who abandoned the family years ago. And next to that portrait stands a set of Russian dolls that keep reappearing in different configurations as the story progresses. This claustrophobia appears to be a desired effect, though, as Ward classifies this novel compared to others she’s written: “Needless Street, I think, was more about containment.”

Full Moon: What Did You Plant 6 Months Ago?

Full Moon: What Did You Plant 6 Months Ago?

It’s the last full moon of the year today and it falls in the sign of Cancer, a perfect place since Cancer is ruled by the moon. A full moon brings a harvest of what the new moon in Cancer brought you six months ago. Or in the case of this year, two new moons in Cancer on June 21 and July 20.

During the new moon, you plant the seeds of your idea, which is influenced by what house the new moon falls in your chart. My favorite site for casting a natal chart, a unique portrait of where the planets were on the day you were born, is Astrodienst. It’s a website out of Switzerland chock-full of free astrology tools and information. If you know the time you were born and where, you can use their free Chart drawing, Ascendant to cast your natal chart. Once you have your natal chart, you can plot your intentions and goals during the year, according to the moon cycles. Here’s a sample chart from Astrodienst, where you can see how the houses of a natal chart fall:

There are twelve houses in a chart, and each one is associated with a different quality. In the chart above, Cancer is in the ninth house, so a person with this particular horoscope would notice things dealing with travel, higher education, and belief systems being highlighted during the new moons of June 21 and July 20 and that is coming to a peak with tonight’s full moon. If you have your natal chart available, look at what house is in Cancer to see what issues are being highlighted by this new moon/full moon cycle.

first house—this house governs self, your physical appearance and mannerisms

second house—this house governs money and possessions

third house—this house governs communications and media

fourth house—this house governs family and home

fifth house—this house governs creativity and pleasure

sixth house—this house governs health and organization; how you approach a task

seventh house—this house governs partnerships and contracts

eighth house—this house governs shared property and money; also transformation and mysteries

ninth house—this house governs travel, philosophy, higher education, religion and other belief systems

tenth house—this house governs your career

eleventh house—this house governs your friendships and acquaintances, your community

twelfth house—this house governs the subconscious, karma, and soul

With this full moon, we’re now harvesting what we planted at the end of June and July. Think back to what was going on in your life during the new moons in Cancer on June 21 and July 20. That should give you an idea of what you’re coming to the end of now. The change can be dramatic or more subtle depending on where the full moon lights up your chart.

In this year of quarantine, I went to my cabin in Pennsylvania in June, knowing I did not want to be in New York City during a hot summer where I couldn’t go out. I carried just enough clothes for two weeks, my cats, computers for work and writing, and my Kindle for reading. With just those few possessions and comforts, I had one of the best summers of my life, surrounded by nature and feeling free. I realized I didn’t need much to be happy and satisfied; in fact, I was happier with less stuff cluttering up my time and mind.

Both of my journal entries from around the new moons on June 21 and July 20 focus on how I was feeling peaceful and content with less, and now with the full moon returning to Cancer, I’ve integrated that want and need into my life. I returned to the city in September and have been actively casting off things as I try and recreate the peace I felt during June and July.

In my chart, my twelfth house (the house of the subconscious, karma, and soul) is in Cancer, so that’s the area that’s being lit up during this full moon as the year draws to a close. In this last part of the quarantine year, I’ve been doing most of my work in my bedroom and found myself not liking what I was surrounded by in there. My place in Pennsylvania is right next to a creek, and for some reason, I always feel best and most relaxed around water. With the bedroom being so close to the subconscious—it is the place where you dream—I’ve found myself redecorating it during these last two weeks of the year. In—surprise—a water theme. Cancer is all about being near the water so it makes sense to me how I’m recreating my summer environment in my place of retreat. Full circle. What about you—which house is associated with Cancer in your chart? What life lesson have you integrated as 2020 comes to a close?

Farmhouse Scares in Annabelle: Creation

I’ve been trying to see a movie a day, like the tagline for MoviePass says, and decided to go see Annabelle: Creation because it was the only thing that really fit into the time slot I had. Plus, I love horror. A horror film almost always dominates at the box office, but people are surprised by how well those titles do. I’m not. We live in nerve-racking times with terrorist attacks and super hurricanes, and I think people are comforted when they go to a theater and see a horror film—they’re guaranteed to see how bad it can really get, and then they emerge unscathed and think, Well, that’s not so bad. I survived that.

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I saw the first Annabelle movie on DVD after it got lackluster reviews, but now, I don’t have to worry about that. A $17 ticket really makes you think about what you’re going to see because it’s more expensive than the DVD or rental, and you don’t want to throw money at crap. Plus, you usually make a movie an event with friends, meaning dinner and drinks and what-have-you, and who wants to have a bad experience and blather about what crap the movie was? No, you want to be excited and lit up about what you saw, to talk about it in rapturous tones. I’m more willing to take a chance with films using the MoviePass because all I lose is time, really. But even then, I don’t think it’s a bad loss. You’re in a two-hour experience of suspended concentration if you do a movie right and focus, not futz around on your smartphone.

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Now, I did see The Conjuring in a theater, where Annabelle was introduced as a brilliant prologue to the film. Well done. And it was an exciting experience, everything you want from a horror film. Unexpected scares and heavy audience participation. When I saw my fellow audience members for Annabelle: Creation (mostly teens), I figured I’d hear a lot from them. But no, they completely surprised me. I was the one laughing at heavy foreshadowing and stuck in a creaky seat that made noise no matter how I positioned my legs. The rest of the audience was silent, like in a French movie theater.

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Annabelle: Creation explains how the evil doll became so in the first place, and it’s a period piece like all the movies in the Conjuring franchise, though there are some bits of dialogue that struck me as post-2000 psychobabble. I loved seeing a farmhouse that looks like it’s straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic with fields, a barn, a well—settings that are so scary and thoroughly wrung in this picture for full horror potential. Here, the characters are a passel of orphans—the most tragic of tragic—who descend on a doll maker’s home. The main character Janice is struck with polio and starts in a heavy leg brace, then moves to an old-fashioned wheelchair à la The Changeling. All the actors in this film did a fine job, especially Talitha Eliana Bateman, who can be winsomely sweet and vulnerable or Bad Seed evil.

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The only time I was really drawn out of the movie is when the origin of Annabelle is summed up in a two-minute voiceover by one of the characters, who wears a painted face plate over half her face, kind of like a dolly-painted version of what the Phantom of the Opera wears. It was a great visual since she’s married to the doll maker and it’s Annabelle the doll who’s the manifestation of evil. But rather than having all the information delivered so quickly, I’d rather have had hints as to what was going on throughout the movie. But Annabelle: Creation was rather ambitious, attempting to pull together elements from The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle. I was thoroughly confused by the ending scene, though I heard some of the kids say, “Oh, I get it.”

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Afterward, a woman asked me, “Excuse me, Miss. Do you understand what happened?,” explaining that she had seen all the Conjuring films but didn’t get the ending scene. I told her I had, too, and didn’t get it. Later, I googled the ending, and maybe someday I’ll view the franchise entries all at once and try to piece the information together, but I prefer it when a movie can stand alone. I think the writers and director were just really excited and wanted to cram as much as they could into one film. Maybe that’s a product of the moviemakers realizing how expensive films are now for audience members, and they just wanted to guarantee as much bang for our buck as possible.

A Bloody Julius Caesar Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

I took my Girls Write Now mentee Laura to go see Julius Caesar last Friday at Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park. We had been planning it for a while and postponed to later in the week so we had nicer weather. I’m glad I charged and packed my computer because we really wanted to tape our exit interview we had planned now that she’s graduating and going on to college in the fall. I had come up with ten questions for Laura, and she ad-libbed questions for me. I was surprised that it lasted longer than an hour, but we had some meaty questions, like “What do you think is going to happen politically in the next five years?” and “What’s going to happen to art in the current political climate?” We were both optimistic about the future and had no idea how portentous our questions and ideas were.

We took turns going to the restroom while the other saved our spot in line, and then right before they started handing out tickets, I went to the snack bar area and got us two hot dogs. The line started moving, and after the first glut of tickets was gone, Laura and I were at the head of the line with just one woman in front of us. A man came by and handed the woman his extra ticket after his friend was a no show, so then Laura and I were at the head of the line. The second round of tickets came by, and the Shakespeare in the Park employee sorted them into singles and pairs and gave us our tickets. We were so surprised to find ourselves in the front row almost center stage—the best tickets in the house. Laura was exuberant, hopping up and down. “I’ve never been in the front row anywhere!”

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The play was tremendous. Whenever I read Julius Caesar while editing our Grade 10 textbooks at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, I enjoyed it, but when I saw it performed at BAM (the first time I’d ever seen it live), I didn’t really like it. Might have been the nosebleed seats we had—the absolute last row in the theater. This Julius Caesar, though, was fabulous. When we sat down, I saw people miling about onstage, looking at scaffolding, like what we have in New York when buildings are undergoing construction. Some had programs in their hands, and they were putting Post-it notes on the scaffolding, similar to what happened in Union Square station after Trump was elected and everybody was so upset. There was a wall that became an entire passageway, where everybody started writing Post-it notes about how upset they were about the election and it became a thing.

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I thought the people were actual audience members, so I told Laura, “Go on up there, hon, and write something. Put your wish down.” Laura said, “No, I don’t think I should,” and usually she’s so bold. Thank God she didn’t. They were frigging actors, and later, they played the part of the disgruntled public.

It was a clever staging. It’s set in modern times, and Caesar is portrayed as a Trumpian character; Calpurnia as Melania, with an Eastern European accent; and Marc Antony was portrayed as a woman with a “Go USA!” attitude, leggings, and an Aw, shucks! Midwestern accent. I’m guessing she’s supposed to correlate to Mike Pence. It worked really well and was riveting for the first three acts, but the play kind of lost momentum in the last two acts. I still loved it. How they handled the crowd scenes was brilliant and unexpected, and Laura and I craned our heads, trying to catch the rabble-rousers who sprang up in the audience. It felt so interactive, like the demonstrations going on now during this presidency. Some people walked out—about four that I could see—and I remember thinking it was because of the controversial staging decisions or maybe because of the chairs. They are pretty uncomfortable. Then I saw the headlines the next day.

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We still don’t have an answer in this play about what is going to happen to us, much like in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but it gives us plenty to think about. We just have to be aware and flexible, roll with the punches, and never give up hope. I think of that old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I do. I most definitely do. And I’m grateful for Shakespeare in the Park.

Oops! Joyce Carol Oates Does It Again with DIS MEM BER

I finished DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates, and for me, it’s kind of meh compared to some of her other works. I prefer the short-story collection HEAT, where the females are allowed to be mean and fierce. The female protagonists in this collection seem limp and boxed in, which maybe is the point—that the stories show how girls and women are forced into these positions by society. But I want heroes, dammit.

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There are two stories about widows, which speak to Oates’s own experience, I think, after unexpectedly losing her first husband. And I’m glad to have a few short stories on the subject because I haven’t encountered many. In “Great Blue Heron,” a brother-in-law pressures a widow to sell the lakefront home she’s always lived in and “invest” in some technology that he deems worthy. The other widow story was the reason why I wanted to read this collection (“The Crawl Space”), since it won a Stoker Award this year. It’s a creepy, claustrophobic story about a widow missing the house she once lived in with her husband and feeling like she’s neglected his memory—eventually when she visits, she’s trapped with his possessions . It reminded me of “Hansel and Gretel” when the witch is pushed into the oven.

“Heartbreak” really hit me with younger sister, Steff, who’s terribly jealous of her older sister, Caitlin, and the attention she gets from her slightly older stepcousin Hunt. It ended completely different from how I pictured it. There’s gunplay going on in the story, and Chekhov has said if a gun’s introduced, it has to be used. I still wasn’t ready for the massive guilt, which I think is the right reaction to an “accidental” shooting. We need more stories showing the consequences.

“The Drowned Girl” seems to be a take on the real-life Elisa Lam story, where a young woman drowned in a hotel’s rooftop water tank (the Cecil Hotel) and contaminated the water supply. For more than a week, guests complained about the foul water, and then a security guard went to the top and found the bloated, dead body of the girl. Cops say she had a psychotic break (Lam was bipolar) and killed herself by accident, but there are suspicious things in the case: She was naked, the top to the tank was put back in place (too heavy to do one’s self), and the rape kit was never processed. Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates sets the story in a college town, where the woman is named Miri Kim, and she’s already died, but another student becomes obsessed with the case and water and pipes. It kind of reminded me of the protagonist who goes a little crazy in Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

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Joyce Carol Oates at the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California campus on Saturday April 21, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katy Winn/Invision/AP)

Sister Love Grows Rancid in Raw

I blundered into Raw not even knowing it was a horror film, which was the most delicious surprise. Buried under deadlines early in the week, I depended on my friends to pick the movie and didn’t check reviews, summaries, or anything. We went to see the eight o’clock showing of Raw at the Angelika on Houston Street, and luckily, I didn’t get anything at the snack bar. This is not the type of movie where you want to have nibbles by your side.

In the French horror film Raw, studious, square Justine (played by Garance Marillier) is taken to veterinary school by her parents, and early on, it’s established that they are strict vegetarians. She’s dropped off in the parking lot of what looks like a sad, gray industrial complex, where her older sister is supposed to meet her. Justine’s parents aren’t surprised when the older sister’s a no-show, and Justine trudges off alone, dragging her red suitcase, to find her dorm—quite different, I think, from how American parents would be portrayed, dropping off their progeny at college.

 

Justine finds out that she’s rooming with a male instead of a female, but he tells her he’s gay so the school counts him as a woman. Not sure what to do with herself, Justine goes to bed, only to be woken in the darkest hours of the night by a team of screaming people dressed in graffiti-covered lab coats with masks covering their faces. They toss all the rookies’ beds, clothes, and other belongings out the windows, trashing their rooms, and Justine and fellow first years are made to crawl through some underground complex until they arrive at a raging party, where Justine is finally reunited with her much cooler older sister Alexia (played by Swiss actress Ella Rumpf). This is just the first part of a hazing ritual that all the rookies have to go through.

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Similar events happen after that, including one where Justine has to eat a rabbit kidney. She balks at this after being a vegetarian for so long, but her older sister bullies her into doing it. The kidney makes her ill, giving her the dry heaves, but that’s nothing compared to the bloody rash she wakes up with. Watching Justine’s itching reminded me of what happens when I go camping and forget the super-DEET bug spray. Just the sound of her fingernails on skin made me cringe. I get baseball-sized welts after mosquitos bite me, and sometimes the itching is so bad that I’ll go after the bites with a hairbrush, resulting in hamburger skin. But that just happens in an isolated patch. Poor Justine has hamburger skin all over her body once she’s done itching.

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Shortly after that, she starts having cravings for meat. They start out mild, with her stealing a hamburger patty from the lunch line and then wolfing down shawarmas with her roommate. But they soon progress to cannibalism, where she experiments with human flesh after an unfortunate waxing incident. It was gag-inducing to watch Justine snacking on a dismembered digit like a chicken wing and hard to look at the screen. I panned across the audience and saw people rolling in their seats, covering their eyes or hiding their faces against their partners. After a few seconds of the eating, though, you do get desensitized. I kept telling myself, it’s just a hot dog, it’s just a hot dog, and it turns out the actress playing Justine had to do something similar to psych herself up for the scene. Marillier told W Magazine, “You know, it was sugar. I was eating candy. If there was any difficulty, it was finding the reality in the scene so I wasn’t thinking, I’m just eating sugar.

 

For showings in Los Angeles, staff handed out barf bags to the audience after fainting was reported from Canadian moviegoers. I’m not sure how the two correlate or if that was a marketing scheme, but the gore isn’t gratuitous. Some of the body horror is uncomfortable, but I think that’s because it’s woven in with some gruesome rituals that females engage in for the sake of beauty.

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My favorite part of Raw is the intense sister relationship between Justine and Alex. It’s well portrayed with moments of extreme tenderness and thuggish brutality. At one moment, Justine and Alex are getting drunk together and laughing, and in the next, they’re trading bite for bite in a parking lot fight, with one bite in particular reminding me of a hellish scene in Cape Fear. There’s jealousy and competition—the essence of a sister relationship. I wish Raw was around years ago when I compiled “Top Five Sister Horror Movies” because it’s definitely a contender. I might have to revise my list.

Agatha Christie Battles the Copyeditor

I make my living as a copyeditor, always following different clients’ style sheets, and I find it strange where people decide to draw the line: no commas after hey when used as a greeting, healthcare as one word, and the weirdest, Jay-Z turning to Jay Z. He was done with hyphens.

I’m reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography right now, and even the grande dame of mysteries had to duke it out with a publishing house’s copyeditor when she published her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

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Her first publisher, The Bodley Head, decided that cocoa should be spelled coco. Christie wrote:

For some strange reason, the house spelling of cocoa—meaning by that a cup of cocoa—was coco, which, as Euclid would have said, is absurd. I was sternly opposed by Miss Howse, the dragon presiding over all spelling in The Bodley Head books. Cocoa, she said, in their publications, was always spelt coco—it was the proper spelling and was a rule of the firm. I produced tins of cocoa and even dictionaries—they had no impression on her. Coco was the proper spelling, she said. It was not until many years later, when I was talking to Allen Lane, John Lane’s nephew, and begetter of Penguin Books, that I said, “You know I had terrible fights with Miss Howse over the spelling of cocoa.”

He grinned. “I know, we had great trouble with her as she got older. She got very opinionated about certain things. She argued with authors and would never give way.”

Innumerable people wrote to me and said, “I can’t understand, Agatha, why you spelled cocoa ‘coco’ in your book. Of course you were never a good speller.” Most unfair. I was not a good speller, but at any rate I could spell cocoa the proper way. What I was, though, was a weak character. it was my first book—and I thought they must know better than I did.

Agatha Christie is my new hero.

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Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska Join the Boys Horror Club

Twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska attribute different reasons for the reason why they got into horror. Sylvia Soska says, “Mom eventually caved in and let us watch Poltergeist when we were ten. We were like, ‘We can handle it, Mom.’ Then bedtime came and we were scared…fucking…shitless. And my mother did something that would forever change the way we look at horror movies. She sat Jen and me down and explained what we had actually seen. She explained the director, the actors, the prosthetics, the sets, everything. And she told us how these were very talented artists who collaborated with the intention of scaring the audience. We were like, ‘Wait a minute. It can be your job to scare people for a living?’”

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But Jen Soska says they got into horror because of traumatic childhood experiences at the hands of others. “We were bullied growing up. We were nerdy and dark and liked horror movies and drama club and comic books. I’m grateful we were bullied because it made us want to stick up for other people being bullied. It’s funny to hear from girls who make horror movies that our message is one of support, but that’s at the heart of American Mary. I think if you look normal, you’re hiding something. But if you wear your Cannibal Holocaust T-shirt, you know what you’re expecting from someone. You know they’re a horror fan.”

The twins directed and wrote their first horror movie in 2009, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, and then went on to their larger production American Mary. “It was one of the strangest experiences of our lives, especially because with Dead Hooker in a Trunk, we were just running around with our friends and cameras and just hoping to god that it would work out and on this one we had a full crew and a cast of some really amazing people,” says Sylvia Soska. “It was still really ambitious, though we did have a modest budget.”

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As far as twin directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska believe they’re the only ones out there. “I know of only us. I know of identical twin actresses and models. We started out wanting to be actors. Nobody ever told me I could be the chairman of my own production company and a director and producer. I always tell girls if you want to be storytellers, don’t chase roles you don’t want to do, just to work,” says Jen Soska.

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Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/movies/jen-and-sylvia-soskas-american-mary.html?_r=1

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/62620

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jan/11/soska-twins-american-mary

Cindy Sherman’s Horror Imagery Helps Her Confront Fears

Cindy Sherman grew up in Long Island, New York, the youngest of five children. She always felt that she had to do something to be noticed since her siblings were so much older and established compared to her. Sherman thinks that’s what led to her dressing up. “There are pictures of me dressed up as an old lady,” she says. “I was more interested in being different from other little girls who would dress up as princesses or fairies or a pretty witch. I would be the ugly old witch or the monster.”

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This continued in her adult life, too. Sherman lived in New York working as a secretary at Artists Space and would sometimes arrive to work dressed as a nurse or Jackie Kennedy. “I’d be home, fooling around with makeup and a costume, maybe picked up at a thrift store, and suddenly I’d look at my watch and go: Oh, wow, I have to get to work. Well, okay, I’ll just go like this,” says Sherman.

 

Her first successful photographs, called Untitled Film Stills, involved Sherman using herself as a model dressed up and posing as screen stars in noirish scenes. This work caused artist Andy Warhol to say, “She’s good enough to be a real actress.”

 

In the late 1980s, Sherman started doing more disturbing photographs of vomit, synthetic pimples, and sex dolls. “Initially, I started that work as a reaction to feeling a little nervous that I was getting successful,” says Sherman. “Do people really like my work, or is it that they’re told to like it as the flavor of the month? So I decided to make these pieces. ‘Well, here you go, collectors. If you want to buy this picture of vomit, I dare you to buy it.’ In a way, it was successful. Those are some of my favorite pieces.”

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These darker photos prompted producer Christine Vachon to ask Sherman if she would ever consider directing a horror film. At first Sherman wasn’t interested because her boyfriend had such a horrible time with the sci-fi flop Johnny Mnemonic, but eventually she was swayed. “The money people wanted to do a series of horror films for an art-house crowd, so they were willing to be experimental,” says Sherman.

This led to Sherman developing the story and then directing Office Killer about a copy editor Dorine (played by Carol Kane) who gets murderous when layoffs happen at the magazine  she works for. Now a cult classic, the movie got terrible reviews when it first came out. “The good thing about horror films…is that nobody expects them to be any good,” says Sherman.

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Other work in the late 1990s after she divorced her husband of sixteen years involved a series of mutilated dolls, which Sherman is particularly proud of. “I was so happy when I was making those pieces. Taking knives to Barbie dolls!”

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Sherman finds herself so attracted to horror because it’s a way for her to confront her deepest, darkest fears. “My biggest fear is a horrible, horrible death, and I think this fascination with the grotesque and with horror is a way to prepare yourself physically if, god forbid, you have to experience something like that,” she says.

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But along with horror she always sees humor, as in her horror comedy Office Killer, and she tries to portray this in her work. “I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were a documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies,” says Sherman.

 

 

The photographer’s studio is littered with odd things. Photographs of amputees, circus performers, wigs, costumes, and a vintage notecard she found in an old junk shop in the late 1990s. She estimates it’s about a century old and has it pinned up in the studio—it reads: “Fair Deceiver: I did not know until last night that you had a glass eye. Woman you have deceived me and our engagement is off! If I had married you, perhaps I would have found out that you had a cork leg, wore a wig and chewed your gum with false teeth — Anyway, I don’t think you could boil water without burning it. I want a girl that can do several things besides rubbing lip rouge on my cheek. Chase around girlie and get another guy.”

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It provides Sherman with a lot of material to think about. “It is just so sad,” she said. “That this person would say what he’s saying, but also that someone kept it all those years. The poor woman.”

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Except for her one foray in directing, Sherman always works alone. “Briefly in the ’80s I tried using friends and family and even hired an assistant to pose, and I felt like I just had to entertain them, be conscious of “Do you need coffee now? Are you tired? Do you want a break?” And they’d be kind of giggly because they were being made up to look funny. I push myself but I don’t push other people, or if I do, I’m apologizing because we’re going too late or whatever. Even having an assistant around, I’d feel self-conscious at times, like I’d better look busy now, rather than just spacing out, looking at images online or in magazines, or whatever I might do.”

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Sources:

http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/interviews/g1802/cindy-sherman-artist-interview-0212

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/fashion/cindy-shermans-vintage-notecard.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/arts/design/moma-to-showcase-cindy-shermans-new-and-old-characters.html

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2000/05/15/her-secret-identities