I’d have to say that disturbing films and novels about cursed media are hands-down my favorite subgenre of horror. I’m not entirely sure why, aside from the obvious fact that I, like so many fans of the genre, have spent a disproportionate amount of my life with my head in fictitious worlds. It stands to reason that the idea those pieces of art might be able to bite back, to cause real damage to their consumers, would be a particularly haunting one. There’s more to it than that, though.
When it comes to a genre so often and so unfairly maligned as being mentally unhealthy for consumption, is it any wonder artists within that genre would take this on as a theme? And the effects of art are in themselves endlessly fascinating. We create and recreate ourselves through these dreams of other people, we do the same when we create art too. For me, an added attraction of the idea that media could wound or even kill you is what I think a reasonable corollary: if art could hurt someone that bad, couldn’t there be art that could heal just as well? And who says that either type of art would have to resemble the effects it had on its consumers? That is to say, couldn’t works that are all sunshine and affirmation on the surface be spiritually corrosive beneath the surface? And couldn’t pieces that take you terrible places end up being good for your soul?
I’d say horror has been good for me, and there is now some research that buttresses that claim. At any rate, this list is filled with stories about Weird Cinema. Some of these films can wound you, some can kill, and some, just possibly, may change you for the better. As with any of my lists, if you know of good stories in any media that would complement the list, don’t hesitate to comment about them. Particularly with this subgenre!
A Child Across the Sky (1989)
Jonathan Carroll’s novels are a strange mélange of horror, fantasy, magical realism, and what for better or worse is often described as “literary fiction,” i. e. realistic drama. The imagination at work here is in its own way almost as sui generis as Robert Aickman‘s or Joyce Carol Oates‘s, but lighter and funnier. That said, Carroll’s novels sometimes end in disturbing ways that upend our understanding of all that came before.
In A Child Across the Sky, director Philip Strayhorn, before committing suicide, sends his best friend Weber Gregston a videotape. Strayhorn, after years in Hollywood struggling for success hit the big time with his “Midnight” horror movie series. In these movies, Strayhorn plays “Bloodstone,” a vicious slasher killer who makes Jason Voorhees and his cohort look like amateurs. He’d been working on what was to be the last, the ultimate Midnight” movie before abruptly killing himself, and in the tape he sends Gregston he asks his friend to finish the film. Gregston himself has become a filmmaker too, though his work leans hard into Art House/Oscar-winning sorts of dramas, so he is hesitant to dip into the raw, nihilistic world of Bloodstone. But as he begins digging into his friends life and inspirations, he finds there are other powers at work in this horror series, powers that may be related to a series of real-life killings that seem to ape those of Bloodstone’s, powers that permit the videotape Strayhorn sent him to grow longer every time he moves further into this world. That, combined with the weird force the “Midnight” movies may be having on audiences, makes this novel a treat for those interested in the cursed film trope.
Interestingly, Carroll seems quite critical of at least a certain type of horror movie here, but like Theodore Roszak in Flicker, in critiquing the genre he ends up adding to it rather than just putting it down. A final note: this is technically the third in a trilogy that began with Bones of the Moon and continued in Sleeping in Flame. Those books are fascinating in themselves and will add to your reading experience here, but I think this one works well as a standalone novel too.
What do 1930’s horror movies, ancient and suppressed religious sects, and the song “Bye Bye Blackbird” have in common? When young film enthusiast Jonathan Gates stumbles across a cache of the lost films of an obscure director named Max Castle, he has no idea how radically his life is about to change. Castle’s work at first gives Gates a professional boost and a chance at visibility as a film critic. The longer he studies the movies, though, the more he suspects they conceal a frightening secret. Roszak’s novel is a magnificently strange beast, equal parts conspiracy thriller, horror novel, and film theory.
Castle’s films are so lovingly described, down to behind-the-scenes gossip and shot analysis, that many readers will find themselves yearning for the movies to exist. Roszak even provides two mad directors for the price of one, later introducing the profoundly disturbing works of Simon Dunkle, the love-child of David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Andy Warhol. In Dunkle, we see a type of horror Roszak seems to indict as nihilistic and meaningless, but his gritty descriptions of the films in question end up being a draw in and of themselves.
Suzuki’s novel thrust the idea of the cursed film into the spotlight when it was adapted into Ringu (1998), which was in turn remade as The Ring (2002). While several more sequels (literary and cinematic), remakes, and spin-offs have emerged, Suzuki’s novel still carries a resonance few of its adaptations have matched. The “film” in this novel at first appears to be an avant-garde short, a brief montage of bizarre and threatening images. Only as the story unfolds, do we discover the origin of these images. This sequence, captured on video, bears a literal curse: anyone who sees it will die in seven days, unless they manage to unlock the secret at its heart.
Unlike most of the other entries in this list, the video in Ring was never meant for theatrical circulation, nor was it “directed” in any conventional manner, but the obsessive focus of both the central characters and the novel itself on these images makes it inescapable in any discussion of weird film.
Throat Sprockets (1994)
Spellbinding, elusive, as fragmented as the film its hero yearns to track down, Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets is closer to an extended prose-poem than a novel. The unnamed protagonist, jaded and disillusioned by “a steady diet of movies made by money and interested only in attracting more money,” finds aesthetic release (though not a sexual one) in X-rated features played in shabby old theaters. In one such venue, though, he watches what appears to be a lost art film, an obsessive study of women’s throats punctuated by scenes of inscrutable dialogue and tasteful bloodletting. His pursuit of this film, as well as its effects on his mind and desires, open up onto a bizarre journey.
Unlike most of the other cursed films on this list, the eponymous movie of Throat Sprockets stretches out to infect the world surrounding this character and the novel playfully handles fan-culture as well as issues of censorship. Lucas exposes us to an entire scene of the film, fully dramatized, as well as think-pieces and interviews. Dreamlike, erotic, disturbing in subtle ways, this is arthouse horror.
Demon Theory (2006)
Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones is now becoming justly famous for his The Only Good Indians as well as its follow-up My Heart is a Chainsaw. The latter is a love letter to slasher movies, a subgenre Jones knows better than almost anyone out there. In Demon Theory, though, his first horror novel, Jones’s understanding of and appreciation for the genre as a whole is in full display. Demon Theory is different than most of the books on this list in that it in several senses is a cursed or haunted film.
The novel purports to be a novelization of a trilogy of horror movies which were in turn based on a book of interviews with mental patients. In the three sequences of the novel/movie series, we see the same characters reshuffled and given new roles as well as new dangers to cope with. This layering of stories/realities doesn’t stop there, as the novel itself, told in a screenplay-like format, is riddled with footnotes, most of which are about other works of horror and their relevance (often only a glancing one) to the story we are following. The effect of these narrative techniques is to make you feel like you are watching a story unfold that is haunted by other worlds, by cinematic parallels, alternate lives, and that nagging sense that there is a truth hidden behind it all. Like Flicker, this novel will be especially tasty for readers of a strong cinematic (and theoretical) bent.
Erickson’s Zeroville is a strange, dreamlike novel, told in brief numbered paragraphs, about a young man nicknamed Vikar who, in the momentous summer of 1969, arrives in Los Angeles. Vikar is so thoroughly besotted by film he has had a scene from the 1951 melodrama A Place in the Sun tattooed on his shaven head. Over the next decade, Vikar will plunge into film culture, both on the screen and behind it. Erickson hits his readers will a whirlwind of movie facts, film theory, and sheer exuberance for cinema, all mixed up with the turmoil that washed over America in the late sixties/early seventies.
Unlike every other item on this list, Zeroville isn’t a horror novel, nor does it’s “weird film” aspect resemble any of the others. In fact, it only blooms late in the book (and is given away by the trailer for the Zeroville movie, so don’t watch that unless you want it spoiled). The novel’s weird film, though, is haunting, and speaks to the seemingly elemental effects cinema has on those of us caught in its hypnotic gaze.
The Grin of the Dark (2007)
Simon Lester, a film critic with a checkered past, finds a possible object of study in a long-forgotten comedic actor by the name of Tubby Thackeray. Tubby, a manic precursor to W. C. Fields and Fatty Arbuckle, had a legendary impact on his audiences, supposedly even causing some of them to laugh to death. As Simon digs deeper, he begins wondering if Tubby’s comic powers might have been on loan from darker forces. Campbell has actually written two novels about dangerous films, his earlier Ancient Images explored classic horror film icons and ancient, unhallowed rites, but The Grin of the Dark brings these explorations into the digital era.
Simon’s investigations bring him into contact with a more modern monster, the Internet troll Smilemime, a mysterious presence whose poorly spelled and threatening posts are almost as disturbing as the scenes from Tubby’s film Simon manages to unearth. The dangers Campbell presents in this novel are less visceral than some of the other entries in this list, but they gesture toward a spiritual contamination and a gaze into an abyss resounding with inhuman laughter.
Night Film (2013)
Scott McGrath is a veteran journalist who was thoroughly disgraced when he tried exposing horror film director Stanislas Cordova as being far worse than his already-dark public reputation suggests. Cordova is like a mixture of Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, and Stanley Kubrick, with the sadism and range of the first, the bloody, stylized, and dreamlike visuals and plot of the second, and the gargantuan ambition, vision, and hermeticism of the last. When Cordova’s daughter dies in what’s supposed to be a suicide, McGrath thinks he’s finally found a way into the twisted world of this director who is now as publicity-shy and reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J. D. Salinger. Why are his films so effective in disturbing his viewers? Is there a dark, possibly murderous secret behind this auteur’s work?
Pessl’s novel is fast-paced and tastily pulpy, but it also touches on themes like exploitation for art’s sake, the occult, the stylization of violence, and the ways in which we both lionize and demonize artistic genius. One big bonus of this novel is the work Pessl and her team put into bringing Cordova’s world to life. The novel has several supposed screen-grabs from websites trying to track the director’s work and influence, as well as faux interviews from real sources such as Rolling Stones. In a gimmick that some reviewers complained about, the novel also comes with embedded codes that, when scanned with an app, reveal even cooler things like posters from Cordova’s fictitious films and trailer-like videos. I’m not sure why these reviewers objected to this innovative presentation; I found it to be helpful in more fully imagining the works of this possibly demented filmmaker.
Neon Phantoms (2014)
Hal Underwood works a dead-end job at The Overlook Video Store for an overbearing manager. His job has only got harder recently, as the store has been targeted by fundamentalists obsessed with the evils of movie watching. Fortunately for Hal (or so it seems at first), he has also just found what appears to be the sole surviving copy of an ultra-obscure horror movie from the 80’s, The Jack-o-Lantern Man. After a few viewings (thoroughly described by McCloy), Hal begins dreaming of a nightmarish cinema, one in which he can hear other patrons screaming. Now, he will immerse himself in movies in what may be a doomed quest to discover the secret behind this eerie narrative of murder and the occult. But he may not be the only one searching for this secret…
McCloy’s novel resembles nothing so much as a lost Hammer movie, one steeped in horror film history. If you are looking for film recommendations, by the way, Neon Phantoms, like Flicker and Demon Theory, will swell your movie lists.
Experimental Film (2015)
“Every movie is a ghost story,” film critic Lois Cairns tells us at the beginning of Gemma Files’ 2015 horror novel. For Cairns, a struggling writer and mother, this is initially a metaphorical truth, referring to cinema’s capability for capturing time in capsule, holding long-gone actors and settings in amber years after they’ve vanished. But she will soon discover that a talented (and unlucky) filmmaker from the early twentieth century captured something far more vital than history with her lens, something that may now have been waiting a century to be freed.
Cairns brings us with her through a fascinating exploration of Canadian filmmaking, autism, and Eastern European folktales, as she tries to untangle the story of a vanished Canadian socialite and avant-garde artist while holding her own deteriorating family together. When she’s brought eye-to-eye with the force hiding behind this ancient film, Experimental Film explodes into a hallucinatory and terrifying climax readers won’t soon forget.