I was on the way out the door to go to my reading at Third Place Books last night when I found the box with my complimentary author’s copies of The Destroyer of Worlds sitting on the porch:
P.S. The reading was great, with a big, enthusiastic crowd that asked lots of good questions. I also signed a lot of stock, so if you’re in the vicinity of Lake Forest Park and are looking for a copy of your own, stop by.
This morning I posted our first full episode of The Destroyer of Podcasts, in which co-host Blake Collier and I discuss The Destroyer of Worlds and related topics. You can find it here.
I’ve also been appearing on a lot of other people’s podcasts over the past couple weeks. Because I’m promoting a new book, there is a certain amount of inevitable repetition, but each of these conversations had its own flavor and they all went to different places:
For all Nerds Show— This was my third visit with the “Multicultural Maestros,” DJ BenHa Meen and Tatiana King, and as always it was a pleasure. They were early supporters of both the Lovecraft Country novel and the HBO show, so it meant a lot to hear how much they liked The Destroyer of Worlds. (I also learned that I am an agent of chaos whose appearance on the show causes weird things to happen in the larger spacetime continuum. Sorry about that.) Big thanks to For All Nerds alumnus Mellow Brown, who first got me on the show back in 2017.
The Virtual Memories Show— This was also my third time speaking with Gil Roth, whose podcast specializes in interviews about “books and life.” Be sure to check out his backlist of other author interviews, including a recent conversation with one of my personal favorites, John Crowley, whose name appears in the acknowledgments of The Destroyer of Worlds.
Talking Scared Podcast— A UK-based horror fiction podcast hosted by Neil McRobert, who lives somewhere out on the Manchester Moors and conducts remote interviews when his internet hasn’t been knocked out by the local werewolves. We go in-depth about the “white guy writing from multiple black perspectives” issue; Neil, who is incredibly polite, was worried I’d be bored by the topic, but as I never tire of explaining, one of the main joys of storytelling for me is that it lets me imagine how the world looks from other points of view. P.S., he’s got Margaret Atwood coming on the show very soon, so you’ll want to check that out as well.
Vox Vomitus— The one thing that did go right during my recent trip to Portland was this whimsical and freewheeling chat with Jennifer Anne Gordon and Allison Martine Hubbard. We went live starting at 3 PM, and you can see me tempt fate here by joking about the snow, not realizing that it’s going to stick and cause real problems in just a few hours. The subject of karaoke also comes up during the conversation, but fear not, I don’t burst into song.
It’s been an exciting first week for The Destroyer of Worlds. Last Wednesday I was in Portland, Oregon, where I was supposed to do a reading and signing at Powell’s City of Books. But shortly after my arrival, it started snowing. My notion of what constitutes a bad winter storm is based on my childhood in New York City, and also on the five years I spent living up in Portland, Maine. Even after twenty-three years in Seattle, I still sometimes forget that here in the Pacific Northwest, where low-lying cities don’t have snow plows, the rules are different.
Long story short, by sunset the city had started to shut down. I was on my way to the bookstore when I got a call saying that Powell’s was closing early and my event had been canceled. I made a mad dash, hoping to at least get there in time to sign stock, but by the time I reached the store the staff had already locked up and left. This was followed by a mildly epic crosstown trek to find a takeout joint that was still open. After being turned away by two pizza parlors, I was blessed to discover Ramen Ryoma, who loaded me up with soup, noodles, gyoza, and spring rolls.
On Thursday, the morning train that was supposed to take me back to Seattle was canceled. My publicist and I spent a couple frantic hours trying to arrange alternate transportation. When Amtrak reinstated the noon train (which had also been canceled), I managed to snag one of two open seats. I checked out of my hotel around ten-thirty, started walking to the train station, and was almost there when I took a spill crossing a last icy street. Other than a bruised knee and some scraped knuckles, I was fine, but one of the conductors from my train was less lucky—he slipped on wet marble floor inside the station, went down a lot harder than I had, and ended up being taken out on a stretcher.
The storm wasn’t quite done with me. On the way out of the station, just after I’d texted my publicist that I was underway and all was well, the train stopped for five minutes while the crew dealt with a frozen track switch. But once we’d cleared that, we were fine—thirty miles north of the city, there wasn’t even any snow on the ground. I made it back to Seattle a little late, but still in plenty of time to make my event at Elliott Bay Book Company (which was great).
Friday I sat around the house in an exhausted daze and did nothing of consequence.
On Saturday I spent three hours at the Barnes & Noble in Tukwila, WA, signing books and chatting with folks (also great). And that, plus a podcast recording session last night, was week one.
I’ve been a published author for thirty-five years now, and one thing that never gets old is the excitement of bringing a new book into the world. My eighth novel, The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country, goes on sale today. You’ll find order links for the book on its main page here, a preliminary FAQ about the novel here, and a schedule of my in-person appearances to promote the book here.
We’re still three days out from the on-sale date, but bookstores are already getting their shipments of The Destroyer of Worlds. Yesterday I stopped by Secret Garden Bookshop to pre-sign their stock.
Since my author’s copies are still in transit, this was my first chance to see what the finished books look like. They are gorgeous. The cover illustration is by Jarrod Taylor, who also did the art for Lovecraft Country, and as with that novel, it’s done paper-over-boards style (i.e., no separate dust jacket) with fake wear and stress marks that make it seem like an old storybook you found up in grandpa’s attic, only cool and shiny.
Publication day is Tuesday. On Wednesday, I’ll be reading and signing at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR, starting at 7 PM. On Thursday night I’ll be back in Seattle, reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, also at 7 PM. And next Saturday, February 25, I’ll be down in Tukwila, signing books at Barnes & Noble South Center from 1 PM to around 4 PM. As always, my full schedule of events can be found here.
I thought about including Archive 81 in my “cursed media” binge-watch, but like it enough to give it its own post. This eight-episode series is a Netflix production, developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine, based on Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger’s podcast of the same name.
Mamoudou Athie plays Dan Turner, an archivist at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. A corporate executive named Virgil Davenport offers him $100,000 to restore and digitize a set of fire-damaged videotapes. The tapes were recorded by a cultural anthropology student, Melody Pendras, who was compiling an oral history of the Visser Apartments when the building mysteriously went up in flames; Davenport believes that the video archive may provide answers about exactly what happened.
Dan takes the job, but the deal is fishy from the start. Claiming that the tapes are too fragile to be moved, Davenport insists that the restoration work be done at an isolated research compound in the Catskills. The place has no internet access or cellphone service, the landline makes funny clicking sounds whenever Dan uses it, and despite Davenport’s suggestion that he’ll be alone on the property, it soon becomes clear that he isn’t. Dan also learns that Davenport didn’t just hire him for his technical skills: he’s got a personal connection to the story. Dan’s family died in a house fire that occurred around the same time that the Visser burned, and Dan’s late father, a psychiatrist, appears on one of the restored videotapes. It turns out Melody Pendras was his patient.
A lot of folks would cut and run at this point, but like any good horror story protagonist, Dan decides to stick it out. Having found a spot on the property where his cellphone works, he enlists his friend Mark back in New York to act as a remote research assistant and sets to work solving the mystery. The narrative jumps back and forth between Dan and Mark’s investigations in the present day and Melody Pendras’s adventures in the Visser in 1994. One of the series’ many neat touches is the way the videotapes (and later, Dan’s father’s session tapes) serve as a literal medium for moving between the timelines: we’ll see Dan watching the restored footage, and then the perspective will switch to the location where Melody is recording and stay with her even after she lowers the camera. Very late in the game, a film archive recovered by Mark becomes a gateway to the 1920s, where we learn the backstory of a demon-worshiping cult, the Vos Society, whose headquarters once occupied the same site as the Visser.
Archive 81 is not without its flaws. Although the series generally does a great job of maintaining a tense atmosphere, the demon at the heart of the mystery manifests as a laughably bad CGI effect. Another, bigger problem is the series’ conclusion: although we do learn what caused the fire at the Visser, what happened to Melody Pendras, and how Dan’s father was involved, the final episode ends on a twist/cliffhanger that is meant to set up for a second season. Unfortunately, Netflix has canceled the series, leaving poor Dan stranded in limbo. It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the series that I’d still recommend it, but you should know going in that you won’t get a full resolution of the story.
If you’d rather watch something with a definitive ending, let me point you instead to Marc Carreté’s Asmodexia, a Spanish-language horror film set in and around Barcelona in the unseasonably hot December of 2012. As the film opens, exorcist Eloy de Palma and his teenaged grandaughter Alba set out on a cross-country trek to the site of “the Resurrection,” which is due to take place in three days. To say any more would risk spoiling things; just trust me, it’s good. Currently streaming on Shudder and AMC Plus.
The two stories I want to highlight today aren’t inspired by the official Lovecraft canon, but they do fit thematically into the Lovecraft ethos, and they’re both very good.
Ghoul, a Netflix original three-part miniseries written and directed by Patrick Graham, is set in a near-future India where sectarian violence has led to a military crackdown on civil liberties. Radhika Apte plays Lieutenant Nida Rahim, an intelligence officer in training. Despite being a member of the Muslim minority, she’s a true believer in the system who reports her own father for subversive activity, naively believing he’ll be “reeducated” and released unharmed.
This act earns Nida a surprise posting to a government black site, Meghdoot 31, where she’s told she will assist in the interrogation of a notorious terrorist, Ali Saeed. But the “Ali Saeed” who arrives at the site is something far more dangerous—a flesh-eating shapeshifter in human form, summoned from the unseen realm to hold sinners to account.
As the ghoul uses its powers to turn the torturers against each other, Nida becomes a target: Major Das, the second-in-command, is convinced that she’s somehow responsible. Meanwhile Nida, having recognized the monster for what it is, tries to figure out which of the prisoners is responsible for summoning it, even as she fights to stay alive and to protect the one true innocent at the site. It’s a wonderfully creepy cat-and-mouse game.
Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad stars Sohum Shah as Vinayak Rao, whose mother was the mistress of the wealthiest man in Tumbbad village. Fifteen years after his father’s death, Vinayak returns to Tumbbad to seek the fortune in gold rumored to be hidden beneath the decrepit fortress where his father once lived. Vinayak’s paternal grandmother—a literal monster—offers to share the secret of the treasure in exchange for a merciful death. But she warns him: “Not everything you inherit should be claimed.”
The treasure is guarded by a god, Hastar (not to be confused with Hastur of the Cthulhu Mythos), who as punishment for his insatiable greed was cursed by his divine mother to be forgotten by men and never worshiped. Hastar possesses an infinite supply of gold coins, and it’s possible to steal from him, but the method is extraordinarily dangerous and only yields a handful of coins at a time. Vinayak is willing to take the risk; he returns to the fortress again and again, and becomes a wealthy man. But as his grandmother warned, the wealth is a curse—it slowly robs him of all happiness, and, in the film’s final act, threatens to do the same to his son.
Here’s an interesting fact about Indian cinema that I learned from watching Tumbbad: under regulations passed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, all depictions of tobacco use must be accompanied by a visible health warning. As Vinayak sinks further into a dissolute lifestyle, the phrase “SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH” begins popping up in the corner of the screen. It’s true, but ironic in context—lung cancer is the least of Vinayak’s worries.
One of H.P. Lovecraft’s inspirations was Robert William Chambers (1865-1933) an author of weird fiction whose most famous creation, The King in Yellow, is a play in book form capable of driving readers insane. The narrator of Chambers’ story “The Repairer of Reputations” describes his experience with the play this way: “I remembered after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.”
Books that harm the reader remain a popular subject in horror, though modern versions of the trope often substitute other media. In John Carpenter’s excellent “Cigarette Burns,” an episode of the Masters of Horror anthology series, the medium in question is a film, La Fin Absolue du Monde, whose premiere ended in a deadly riot. Norman Reedus plays a ne’er-do-well theater owner and cinephile who is hired by Udo Kier to track down the movie. (La Fin‘s sole print was reportedly seized and destroyed after the riot, but Kier knows this isn’t true, and he’s willing to pay handsomely to see it before he dies.)
The phrase “cigarette burns” refers to the changeover cues that let projectionists know when a film reel is nearing its end. As Reedus gets closer to his quarry, he starts seeing flashes of these cues superimposed on reality—a sign that the film’s spell is already taking hold of him. As the protagonists of such stories invariably do, he ignores the warning and keeps going.
The entire Masters of Horror series is currently streaming for free, with ads, on Tubi; “Cigarette Burns” is the eighth episode of season one. For a double feature, you might try pairing it with John Carpenter’s other entry in the cursed media subgenre, In The Mouth of Madness.
David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, is a mock documentary about another supposedly cursed movie. A brief introduction gives the history of the film: At a 1988 screening in Budapest, the theater spontaneously combusted, killing everyone inside. A number of programmers at film festivals to which Antrum was submitted died shortly after watching it. When a 1993 showing of Antrum in San Francisco also ended in tragedy, the movie was withdrawn from circulation. Until now.
A liability disclaimer then appears on screen:
…and after a thirty second countdown, the cursed film is shown in its entirety. It’s a clever gimmick—undercut, in my case at least, by the fact that not only did Antrum fail to kill me, it never came close to making me believe that it could. But it did get me wondering whether there’s a version of this film that would make me believe, and what that would look like.
Antrum is currently streaming on Tubi and Freevee. (Note: if it does kill you, please don’t @ me.)
My current favorite example of the cursed media trope is Graham Reznick’s Deadwax. Hannah Gross plays Etta Price, a record hunter who becomes obsessed with finding the Lytton Lacquer, a legendary LP whose producer, Lyle Lytton, died during its creation; the sound of Lytton’s death is said to be encoded in the grooves of the record.
On its own, the Lacquer is worse than useless. Listening to even a fraction of it causes madness; listening to the whole album is fatal. To employ the Lacquer “properly,” the would-be listener must first be “tuned” by hearing three other Lytton records—Keys One, Two, and Three—played in synchrony, after which the Lacquer becomes a door to another reality. It goes without saying that this is one of those quests where success will leave you wishing you’d failed. But by the time Hannah realizes that, it’s much too late to give up.
Deadwax is billed as a series, but the episodes are short (the total running time is less than two hours), which gives it an overall structure and feel very much like that of a concept album—one that I would highly recommend. It’s available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.
Because of the Lovecraft connection, the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to interview Paul when The Night Ocean was published in 2017. A month later, when he came to Seattle on book tour, we met up for coffee. In my all-too-brief interaction with him, he came across as a smart, thoughtful, and incredibly friendly guy. I was really looking forward to seeing what he’d write next.
You can read my interview with Paul here. And you should definitely check out The Night Ocean. As I write in the interview intro, it’s “one of those impossible-to-categorize books that seems to constitute its own genre.” My favorite kind, and a good legacy to leave behind.
With the publication of The Destroyer of Worlds just five weeks away now, I thought I’d revive this series of blog posts about Lovecraft-inspired films and TV series.
In Lovecraft’s 1930 novella The Whisperer in Darkness, a Miskatonic University folklorist named Albert Wilmarth strikes up a correspondence with a Vermont farmer, Henry Akeley, who claims that the old legends about monsters living in remote areas of the countryside are true. These creatures, the Mi-Go, are extraterrestrials from Yuggoth, an undiscovered ninth planet located at the outer rim of the solar system—but their real home is much farther away, in “strangely organised abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” Wilmarth is skeptical at first, but Akeley provides him with photographic evidence and a Dictaphone recording of one of the Mi-Go speaking to a human confederate.
Unfortunately for Akeley, the Mi-Go are jealous of their privacy, and they know he’s been telling tales about them. Some of his letters to Wilmarth are intercepted in transit; those that get through describe an increasingly dire situation in which the Mi-Go stage nightly attacks on Akeley’s isolated farmhouse. He’s able to hold them off for a while with guns and police dogs, but his days are numbered. “I am fully resigned,” he writes at last. “Can’t escape even if I were willing to give up everything and run. They’ll get me.”
This despairing missive is followed a day later by another letter—this one entirely typewritten—in which Akeley’s attitude is completely transformed. It was all a big misunderstanding, he says. He’s met with the Mi-Go and it turns out they’re TOTALLY friendly! They’d really like to meet with Wilmarth too, so he can see for himself how friendly they are! He should come up to the farmhouse as soon as possible—there’s a convenient train that’ll get him into Brattleboro, VT just a few hours after dark! And, oh yeah, as long as he’s coming, he should bring along Akeley’s letters, and the photographs, and the Dictaphone recording…
You’ll never guess what happens next.
Andrew Leman and Sean Branney followed up their 2005 silent-film version of The Call of Cthulhu with an adaptation of Whisperer (trailer here). Like the prior film, it’s shot in period style—this one’s a talkie—and the black and white photography makes the low-budget special effects more persuasive. Matt Foyer gives a good performance as Wilmarth, and even the hammier acting—like Daniel Kaemon’s turn as the villainous Mr. Noyes—feels both deliberate and appropriate, exactly what you’d expect from a 1930s horror movie.
The screenplay improves on Lovecraft’s novella in a number of ways, starting with the fact that Wilmarth’s decision to go to Vermont feels a lot more believable. There are still plenty of warning signs, but nothing so blatant that only an idiot could fail to see that the Mi-Go have laid a trap. And the film’s climax is both more elaborate and more satisfying, with Wilmarth doing his best to disrupt the Mi-Go’s plans for world conquest before attempting a desperate escape in a crop duster’s biplane.