The Dirty Little Secret of The Black Phone

The thing I love about speculative fiction (horror, sci-fi, contemporary fantasy) is those stories aren’t just about monsters or spaceships or time travel. They serve as broad canvases to explore different facets of humanity. Dragons and Ice Zombies in Game of Thrones are window dressing for a story about the lust for power. The task of fighting vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor for the tumultuous transition to adulthood.

Recently I saw a horror movie titled The Black Phone that was not just about a teenage boy locked in a basement by a sadistic madman who got help from previous dead victims via a dead phone. The story was not about ghosts. It was about child abuse.

The Black Phone (not sure how I feel about the title), starring Ethan Hawke and based on a short story by Joe Hill, is about a child abductor nicknamed the Grabber who terrorizes a Denver suburb. He kidnaps teenage Finney and locks him in the basement. In this basement is the black phone of the title that doesn’t work, except it does. (WARNING: spoilers ahead). Finney has a touch of ESP, and that ESP allows him to communicate with the boys who the Grabber kidnapped and murdered before him. Those boys barely know who they are anymore. Their murders left them that traumatized, but they’re able to give Finney advice that leads him to tools that may help him survive.

First off, The Black Phone is really well done. At no point did I find my mind wandering. I didn’t get bored. It took me a while to get into it, but that’s more of a Kevin quirk than an actual criticism. The ‘70s details are fun (before my time, so I can’t relate or critique), the suspense and thrills are well placed and well spaced, and the writing and acting were strong. If you like horror, you’ll love this movie.

So, about the child abuse. In the real world it’s a topic rarely touched. The Black Phone didn’t shy away from it.

One of the earliest shots shows Finney and his sister Gwen tiptoeing around their angry father, a nasty drunk mourning the suicide of his wife. Gwen (like Finney and their mother) has ESP abilities, which their father literally tries to beat out of her. This, not the kidnapping or murders, was the most horrific scene of the movie. For anyone who’s experienced something similar, it will be a killer scene to watch. For those lucky enough to never have suffered abuse, hopefully it will be a little easier to watch.

It’s not profound or especially insightful to say that abuse warps children. Gwen is defiant and violent. Finney is passive to a fault. Both learned lessons from their abuse (Gwen: fight fire with fire. Finney: weakness). By the end Finney learns that sometimes you have to fight back, if just to survive. The second to last scene gutted me. After Finney kills the Grabber, he and his sister huddle in the back of the ambulance. Their father runs to them and sobs apologies at their feet. They stare at him, blankly. He’s repentant, but they’re already broken. That scene rang so true.

But the final scene of The Black Phone, the one just after that ambulance scene, told a different story. Throughout the movie, Finney was tormented by bullies. In the last scene, Finney, now legendary for killing the Grabber, struts through the halls of his school, ready to claim the love of the girl he crushes on.

It was a good ending, but it left me with a doubt I could only make sense of when I read an interview with the director. For him, the movie was about being bullied. In that narrative framework that absurdly triumphant last scene make sense. But the realities of child abuse tell a different story. In the real world Finney would have a long, long road ahead of him. He’d face a mighty struggle to reclaim his sense of self and his sense of power.

We rarely talk about the effects of physical abuse on children, including in fiction. Horror is the exception. To me, the movie Hereditary was about a woman abused by her mother pass on that abuse to her children. In The Babadook, a mother lashes out at her difficult son, using her grief as an excuse. Add The Black Phone to this thin cannon (I don’t count Carrie–the mother was too cartoonish). All three movies presented the parents as sympathetic. They usually are. But they didn’t flinch at showing us a glimpse of the horror that children experience as a result of their physical abuse.

Rambling on: Tlaloc

Here’s to the bloody gods, the demanding gods, the gods that were forgotten only to be resurrected.

One of these: Tlaloc.

Reading Juan Villoro’s book Horizontal Vertigo, his ode to his hometown of Mexico City, he recounts the tale of the statue of the Aztec deity called Tlaloc. The statue, which sits in the city’s Chapultepec Park, was not commissioned but was unearthed in the late 1800s in a nearby state by engineers digging an irrigation canal. Experts of some sort deemed this half completed statue to be a representation of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and fertility.

I will take their word for it (although Villoro disputes that this is indeed Tlaloc).

In 1963 the hulking statue (23 feet high) was brought to Mexico City and planted in the middle of a man-made lake in the park. Arriving during the dry season, Tlaloc brought with him rain, the heaviest rain the city had seen in some time. but Tlaloc didn’t demand his usual price for rain: blood. The ancient Aztecs didn’t just offer their prayers to Tlaloc, they offered the blood of their children–human sacrifice in exchange for the waters of life.

Knowing this grisly history adds to what I see when I look at Tlaloc. And what do I see with my untrained eye? I see a god stunted. He is broken. No eyes to see. No arms to embrace with. No legs to run with. His mouth, two rows of holes, are passive and useless.

On one hand I see a monster, a brutal thing that could crush the earth and any who would dare defy him. I picture the blood of children pouring down his face and dripping down the holes into his hungry mouth.

But I also see a thing lost to time. A broken god. A useless deity. Maybe his subjects tired of feeding him their children. They slaughtered his priests. They scaled his heights and hacked his eyes out to blind him and smashed his limbs to hobble him. Then they toppled him from his altar and buried him deep within the earth.

This recovered god is just a fraction of what he once was. He won’t get the blood he craves. Instead he sits in a park for tourists to gawk at.

He’s a once mighty god, humbled.

(image credit: JAONTIVERIS/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rambling on: Malgre Tout

I’ve never been to Mexico City. A night in Juarez over the border from El Paso (I remember a scorpion climbing the wall of the bedroom) was the closest I got. I want to go. Someday. Soon, maybe. A friend of mine who’s been to Mexico City loaned me a book, Horizontal Vertigo, a translation of the writer Juan Villoro’s life in that city. I’m inching through it. I think I’ll get a short story out of one of his memories. Stories are loaned from one person to the other.

But that story is not what this is about. This post is an experiment. I don’t consider myself a visual person when it comes to art. I got kicked out of an art history lecture in college; that killed any chance at formal training. So I’ll play the innocent (or imbecile): what do I see when I look at a piece of art?

First up, a sculpture mentioned in Villoro’s book: Malgre Tout by the Mexican artist Jesus F. Contreras.

I don’t care about the history of the sculpture. I don’t care about technique. Contreras seems like he’d be interesting to learn more about (he only had one arm when he sculpted it??) but I don’t care about that right now.

What do I care about?

Only what I see with my untrained eyes.

I see this: She crash landed onto the ground from somewhere. Not heaven or a spaceship but something made her fall down to earth. She hit the ground hard. Naked (exposed) and bound (constrained) but she struggles to move ahead. How many times have you felt exposed? Do you let yourself be exposed? Maybe you’ve learned from a lifetime of hits and slams to cover yourself. Don’t let a single inch of your self be exposed to the world, ever. So you don’t, you can’t, you won’t. But she is.

What about constrained? Her hands are shackled behind her back. Are yours? No, not literally, of course not, but maybe you’re shackled in other ways, only you can’t admit that to yourself, because if you acknowledged your own shackles, if you looked at them, then you would see your own nakedness. Even worse, the world might see. Who wants that?

This naked, shackled woman is crawling forward. She’s propelling herself forward, despite her shackles, despite her nakedness, her face is fixed on something ahead. Fear? No. Desperation? Maybe. Desire? Yeah. She wants something real bad, so bad she’ll chase after it. She doesn’t care that she’s exposed. She doesn’t care that she’s bound. All she knows is she wants that thing, and she’ll chase after it.

Or maybe I’m reading it all wrong. She didn’t crash down to the ground. She’s a prisoner, crawling along the dirt, about to give up. She knows she’s naked and bound and there’s no escape and this is a stubborn woman’s last moment of stupid hope that she really can break free but she can’t.

According to Wikipedia, Malgre Tout is French for In Spite of Everything. I like the hope in the name. I really do. But what I’m left with is her futility. Trapped. Alone. Stuck like that, forever.

((Image credit: By AlejandroLinaresGarcia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7762678))

The Top Hundred Books to Read

Every so often some version of this list bubbles up into my consciousness. Mostly it’s when I guiltily remind myself I’m way behind on my reading (my bookshelves can attest to that). So I did a web search and pulled up a bunch of these lists of the top hundred books you should read. The “you” in question is debatable, of course, as are the lists. There are tons and tons and tons, everyone from The New York Times to the BBC, PBS, booksellers and publishers of course, as well as more obscure sites like The Art of Manliness (glad to see that people are finally treating manliness as the art form that it is).

Here’s one site I found, a writer at Medium who compiled his list of the top hundred. Let’s see how I align with his list.

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read it, loved it, recommend it, mainly for the technique of the unreliable narrator. Nick Carraway is a creep.
  2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Tried it in college. I was too young for it. Didn’t make it very far.
  3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Read this soon after I got out of the army. I liked it well enough, even though its antiestablishment, pre-hippie vibes were dated.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Controversy be damned, this one should be higher up on this list.
  5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. Tried reading The Hobbit in high school. Hated it, so I never got to this one, and I never will. The movies were great.
  6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I recently tried reading this. It’s one of those books that is too well written. I couldn’t stomach a book about a pedophile. Despite the great writing, I will not finish it and I couldn’t recommend it.
  7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. This book gets slagged a lot, and I get why, but I think it’s phenomenal. Salinger broke new ground with his storytelling and POV character style, a style that’s been imitated almost to death. But it’s great in its original incarnation. Also spawned one of my favorite lyrics by country artist Orville Peck: “You’re just another boy caught in the rye.”
  8. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Read this book several years ago. It’s about a world and a time I know little about–interesting, fascinating, expertly written, and highly recommended.
  9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Know the story, never read it, but I did write a story based off his Jabberwocky poem that got included in an anthology.
  10. Ulysses by James Joyce. A friend of mine who is a Joyce fanatic had me read this book chapter by chapter and discuss it with her over wine. Ulysses is a challenge, but he maps out the modern novel.
  11. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I think I might have read it in high school? Can’t remember, but this is one of those stories almost everyone knows, even if they’ve never read it.
  12. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Read it. Loved it. I can never forget that final scene. Also, one of my favorite songs, Rose of Sharyn by Killswitch Engage, shares the name with a character in this book.
  13. 1984 by George Orwell. Why read it when we’re living it? Just kidding.
  14. Jayne Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Never read it, though I did read Wuthering Heights by her sister Emily, and also Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a strange and fun take on Bronte’s title character.
  15. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I tried reading it in college. I kept falling asleep.
  16. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I read and loved Woolf’s mercifully briefer answer to Joyce’s Ulysses.
  17. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. Nope
  18. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Yes. And I loved it. Dystopic sci-fi at its finest.
  19. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Yes, years ago. Not something I’d usually pick up but well worth the read.
  20. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I don’t know her.
  21. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the thing. I hate Garcia Marquez. Every time I read his writing I get depressed because I will never write anything half as good, this included.
  22. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I tried but it wasn’t for me. I think the main problem is that Austen, like Salinger, started a literary tradition that’s been done to death. I read Salinger early in my reading career. I tried reading Austen too late.
  23. Animal Farm by George Orwell. Yep, back in high school, and I still remember it vividly. Some things never change.
  24. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. Working on it right now. Intense.
  25. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Not yet but it’s on my list.
  26. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Nope.
  27. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Yes. When I was ten. Way too young. Then again a few years ago. Classic.
  28. The Stranger by Albert Camus. Nope. I read The Plague though. Dark is an understatement.
  29. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Nope.
  30. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. No again.
  31. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes. She is one of the parents of modern horror. Great book.

If you’ve made it this far you get the point and I won’t go on until 100. It’s fun, though, to look back on what you’ve read and loved (or didn’t), and to add more books to your pile waiting to be read.

Someday…

Wait…Gendercide Is a Thing?

I like to consider myself a fan of all things speculative–horror and supernatural and sci-fi books, movies, TV shows, etc., and I believe I know a ton about these genres.

Apparently I don’t. The other day I was rabbit holing into the latest of a long line of literary controversies (I won’t go into it here) and I read this article asking whether it’s time do do away with the gendercide trope, a trope I’ve never heard of before.

What is gendercide? It sounds nasty, because it is. Gendercide is where either the men or the women in any given story are killed or die off from some nefarious or mysterious or viral reason. The book that inspired the article introducing me to gendercide is The Men by Sandra Newman. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s about a world where all males suddenly vanish. The remaining women adjust to this disappearance, while videos online depict the men living in a hellish landscape.

There are others, too, such as Y: The Last Man, a comic turned TV show where (almost) all men die of a virus. One of my favorite books, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, is a variant of the gendercide trope; the novel opens in an all-male society where the women have mysteriously died off.

According to TVtropes.org, gendercide isn’t super popular, and most of the time only a variant is used (only some or most of either men or women die or disappear). Stories where the men disappear are more in line with the theme of feminist utopia, and stories where the women vanish are considered dystopic.

In reading about Newman’s book, I found it disturbing that all the men were sent to a hellscape ruled by demons. Oddly, the writer of the article critical of gendercide (and Newman’s book), didn’t write about that disturbing aspect of it. From me, though, disturbing is not a criticism. I want to learn more about this trope, and see how different writers explore it.

The Health Benefits of Writing

Writing saved my life. Okay, that may be an exaggeration as well as a cliche, but cliches have a foundation in truth, and while writing may not have stopped a speeding bus from pancaking me as I ventured through a crosswalk, the (almost) daily act has helped center me and give me purpose.

With that in mind, how much do writers (and readers) consider the health benefits of writing? And by health benefits I mean psychological, which is as important as the physical. In a recent blog post for Jersey City Writers (a large, community-based writing group I’m a part of), one of the moderators, Sara Stone, reflected on the mental health benefits of writing, and she came up with a surprising benefit of putting pen to paper and SHARING it: the act of sharing your writing for critique requires TRUST, and trust in turn can foster community and acceptance.

I’d never thought of that aspect of writing. Even here, this act of writing these exact words right this very minute forces me to build my resiliency, to face and accept that some might not like these words. But others might. And that’s cool.

To read more of Sara’s post, plus all of the nitty gritty psychological links, click here.

Watch this movie: High Life

This one’s a tricky recommendation.

It’s not often that I like revolting movies, movies that are repulsive for the sake of being repulsive, movies that are obviously trying to shock you.

But here I am.

high life

High Life is a recent sci-fi film by French director Claire Denis. It stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as travelers on a spacecraft on a one-way mission to harness the energy of a black hole. And perform experiments.

The twist? There are two. Number one: all onboard are death row convicts. Number two: the experiments involve trying to bring a baby to term in deep space.

That all sounds like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot. High Life is definitely, absolutely, 100% not. Like I said, it’s revolting. It’s graphic. There should be a whole list of trigger warnings attached. Every trigger warning ever invented.

But it’s also beautiful. Beautifully shot. Beautifully scripted. Beautifully acted.

I was never a Twilight fan. I watched the first one in German and that was enough. But Robert Pattinson is one hell of an actor. His character is reserved (mostly) and mysterious enough to not be annoying.

Juliette Binoche is a madwoman in every sense. The rest of the cast are all great — intense and hateful — with the exception of Andre Lauren Benjamin (aka Outkast’s Andre 3000), who plays a convict full of regret for what he left behind on Earth.

High Life is not for everyone. Some scenes were straight-up sick. Still, this movie is one hell of a trip.

Read this book: The Space Between the Stars

“Life is its own point. It’s just a series of moments, some of them memorable, some of them not. There’s no redemption but what we’re prepared to grant ourselves. No point when we’re finished becoming what we’re going to be. There’s just this breath, and the next one, and the next one. Each of those breaths, each of those moments, help shape us.”

The Space Between the Stars

This bit of gorgeous nihilism is to me the heart of Anne Corlett’s sci-fi novel The Space Between the Stars, the story of a group of plague survivors: the .0001 percent or so of humanity spread across several worlds who were not turned to dust.

I didn’t plan on reading a book about a plague, not right now. Living through a much milder one than in this book is about all I wanted to do with anything plague related.

Once I started reading, it was hard for me to stop.

The Space Between the Stars is centered on Jamie, a thirtysomething veterinarian who is estranged from her long-term boyfriend, isolated from her own historical grief, and the only survivor on a small colony world.

Or so she thinks.

Plague stories can go in several directions. The Walking Dead was once my favorite TV show. Now just a droning, repetitive PSA that humans can be monsters too (ok, I get it!). When Jamie finds other survivors, I was expecting some Walking Dead-ish human vs. human confrontations.

Not so much.

I won’t get into spoilers, but a search for survivors–and her boyfriend–takes on some twists. Not too many, though. The Space Between the Stars is not a hard sci-fi novel (spacecraft can traverse great distances in unbelievably short spans of time). It is also not a thriller.

Instead, it’s more of a character study. On that note, I found Jamie wholly unlikable. She is prickly. She snaps at people. She is self righteous. She’s a horrible communicator. But Corlett does a great job in showing some of the whys, and also showing how maybe Jamie doesn’t like being so flawed. So, while Jamie is unlikable, she’s relatable, if not quite sympathetic.

The Space Between the Stars is not perfect. There were things I couldn’t relate to–as an American, I don’t get the English obsession with class, which was one of the themes of this book. And I wished the sci-fi was amped up (several scenes felt too present day, and not set a century or two in the future).

Still, I was glad to be along for the ride. The writing was beautiful (almost to the point of distraction), and Corlett hit all the right emotional notes. By the end, I wanted to stay in that plague wrecked world just a little while longer.