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ZYZZYVA’s Summer Dance Party—Featuring Our First-Ever Raffle

Raffle itemsZYZZYVA’s Summer Dance Party 2018 is almost upon us! Do you have your ticket yet?

The event—our annual fundraiser—kicks off on Friday, June 15, at 6 p.m. at the Make Out Room in San Francisco. Besides the chance to hang out with your compatriots and supporters of our literary community, you will also be able to bid on one of our many silent auctions, and test your luck with our first-ever raffle, featuring:

  • Tickets to the Asian Art Museum
  • Gift cards & certificates to Dynamo Doughnuts, Rustic Bakery, Dandelion Chocolate, Pizzeria Delfina, and Point Reyes Bookstore
  • Gift bags from Lo-Fi Aperitifs and Baggu
  • A Family Membership to the SF Botanical Gardens
  • Membership to the Mechanics Institute Library, and more!

Tickets to the Summer Dance Party start at just $25, but are going fast. So get one now and don’t miss out on a once-in-a-year night of drinks, dancing, and community!

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What We’re Reading this Women’s History Month

IMG-4538March represents Women’s History Month and, as such, we thought we would share a brief overview of some of the women we’ve been reading as of late, which includes a group of authors operating within a myriad of genres and hailing from a number of locales. We hope this collection serves as just a small sampling of the dynamic work being done by women in literature and non-fiction today.

ImprovementLaura Cogan, Editor: “No one knew the real story but me,” declares one of Joan Silber’s exquisitely drawn characters near the end of Improvement. It is both a brag and a burden this character bears—and a not-quite-accurate statement. Silber has crafted a book that uses a kaleidoscopic narrative technique to meditate on the recurring patterns within our life stories, and the unexpected junctures where our shifting patterns of desire and deception interact with the equally complex lives of others. The frustrating truth of life, beautifully evoked here as only fiction can do, is that not one of us can ever know the real story (if by the real story we mean the whole story). As desperate as we may be to see more, and yet more, our perspective is inescapably blinkered. Still, there are authentic truths in the fragment of the whole that each of us calls our life story. Fiction can remind us of this persistent limitation—remind us of all we cannot know of the lives of others, and that knowledge in turn can, crucially, remind us to remain curious, questioning, empathetic.

With a light touch, Silber’s novel offers insights on imitation vs. authenticity; the power and limitations of love; and the cons we run—on each other, and on ourselves. The book is packed with seekers and wanderers, cheaters and dreamers who tell themselves and others little lies to get by. Through their stories, Silber develops a graceful and moving meditation on the idea of reparations and amends. Improvement evokes the beauty and unexpected generosity of our imperfect, inadequate gestures of remorse, our struggle to manage our guilt, and human empathy in the face of irreducible loss—on both a historic and a personal scale. As another character observes, “That was the question asked every day, all over: how much could ever be fixed?”

Improvement is so accomplished and polished that I suspect it will invite many readers to simply sit back and enjoy being in the presence of a fabulous storyteller. But others may pause from time to time to marvel at Silber’s skill, and for any of these readers who close the novel with a sense that they would love to hear Silber discuss craft there is The Art of Time in Fiction, from Graywolf’s excellent “The Art of” series. Here Silber brings similar clarity to complex material, and it’s a pleasure to follow her discussion of works by Chekhov, Flaubert, Baldwin, and Munro, among others.

Speaking of clarity: if anyone you know is still struggling with the very concept of feminism, perhaps We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would be an excellent gift, and tonic. While this short essay is unlikely to advance the understanding of those already conversant in the basic terms and ideas of feminism, it may well be gentle and focused enough to persuade those who genuinely have not thought such ideas through but have been susceptible to the noise of misogyny and the often invisible prevalence of sexism. This is a time in which we must ask difficult questions without obvious answers; one such question might well be, “How much can ever be fixed?” Another is certainly: How can we effectively change minds, and advance ideals of equality?

The Collected Stories of Amy HempelSamantha Aper, Intern: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel has lived next to my bed since the moment I picked it up three years ago. Reading these stories has been a slow process, as I often find myself putting the book down to stare at the ceiling and turn Hempel’s sentences over in my head. I have told anyone who will listen: you must read this book. Hempel is one of those writers who makes you throw your hands in the air as you question everything you ever thought you knew about fiction. Each word she writes is precise, each punctuation mark carefully chosen. Embedded in these pages are life lessons without the in-your-face siren that says: this is a lesson, pay attention! And when she doesn’t offer a lesson, Hempel writes from a place of hindsight. Her stories make you crawl into another body’s world and live in it as if it were your own. Perhaps what makes her so special is her understanding of the human experience— of the emotions behind the choices people make. She excavates identifiable scraps of experience that leave you somewhere between laughter and tears — typically both.

Many of Hempel’s stories deal with the mundane, all-encompassing boredom that can result from loss, yearning, and failed relationships. It’s as though her goal is to find the place where trauma lives in the body, to pull it apart and dissect it all:

The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad. Lose that sense of loss—you have gone and lost something else. But the body moves toward health. The mind, too, in steps. One step at a time. Ask a mother who has just lost a child, How many children do you have? “Four,” she will say, “—three,” and years later, “Three,” she will say, “—four.” 

Amy Hempel claims to be a slow writer, one who agonizes over every sentence she writes; it took her over twenty years to amass the four hundred pages comprising this story collection. Her careful craft is evident in each exquisitely constructed sentence of wry humor and observation. Her superb wit and dazzling relatability will stay in your head long after you’ve put her work down. Read this book.

Sing, Unburied SingIsabel Erickson White, Intern: When asked to think of a great Southern writer, most likely one would respond with names from the past — William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams. We don’t often imagine the South as a place that still produces great literature. Jesmyn Ward’s voice, however, demands that we return our gaze to the South, and shows us that it can still produce incredible works. Ward’s work places her alongside the celebrated literature produced by the region’s previous writers; her latest novel has been described as a Southern odyssey and compared to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Her first work of nonfiction, Men We Reaped, was a soul-crushing memoir about the losses of five men in her life due to drug addiction, suicide, and accidents. Ward’s book took statistics about black male life expectancy and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and shaped them into a narrative about five caring, much loved men from her life — men whose lives had great meaning and whose deaths were keenly felt. The final loss Ward suffered was that of her younger brother, whose death remains a looming presence over her most recent work of fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The novel is about three generations of a family—Mam, Pop, their daughter Leonie, and Leonie’s two children, Jojo and Kayla—living in southern Mississippi. Ward takes her reader on a road trip through Mississippi, starting at the southern end, where the air smells of the Gulf, and ending in the north at Parchman prison, a symbol of Southern racial violence and convict leasing. Ward travels from present day as Leonie, her children, and a drug dealing friend go to pick up the children’s father at the prison, to the past when Leonie’s brother died as Pop endured his days in prison. As in her memoir, Ward is capable of making characters on a page feel as real as the members of one’s own family. She mercilessly drags her reader into the story; the pain from the loss of Leonie’s brother, Given, is not something one merely reads or observes, but something felt viscerally, as if you’ve experienced the loss yourself. This novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Some Gangster PainZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Gillian Conoley announced her arrival on the literary scene with 1987’s evocative debut, Some Gangster Pain. To revisit this collection today is to be reminded of the pleasure of experiencing a vivid poetic milieu. Conoley’s critical lens is trained on the South, a region ravaged by both beauty and violence — that American dichotomy. Whether she’s rendering the Texas plains or New Orleans’ French Quarter, Conoley creates images that emerge from the page like phantoms: “the cicadas, thick in the air” and their drone like “a scratched record/spinning above her,” or the bulldozers churning up a graveyard depicted as “yellow tanks steamshovelled/for the underworld.”

Although many of these poems were originally featured in outlets such as The American Poetry Review and Ploughshares, they form a remarkably cohesive tapestry gathered as they are here, arranged by Conoley into three separate Parts. As a writer in her early thirties, Conoley displays both youthful candor (“There is no peace in my mind anywhere”) and a battle-tested wisdom (“We can be kin/in an eternal house,/your hair falling to my shoulders/if my thoughts become too private”).

Conoley’s poems read as minimalist, rarely longer than a page each and with sparse lines, but her details prove as lucid and precise as photographs. Her words speak to a pastoral landscape haunted by loneliness, insomnia, and the lingering imprint of the mythic West. Images and sounds begin to accrue: a sorry Texas bar with Patsy Cline on the stereo, a horse wildly bucking at the rodeo, the light of the drive-in’s screen reflected off the hoods of cars.

Some Gangster Pain traffics in the ghosts of our collective memory, both channeling and challenging the origin stories we tell ourselves about our country (“The white man…lassoed the stars and rode amuck”). Throughout the book, we witness Conoley’s fascination with hands, and again and again we see those hands plunge into the soil, stirring up the resting place of those who came before and our own ultimate destination — when at last “There is nothing but sleep.”

Jewels of AllahIngrid Vega, Intern: What began as a doctoral thesis at Columbia University was re-written to become an award-winning book by Dr. Nina Ansary. In Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of the Women in Iran, Dr. Ansary aims to “lift the veil of misunderstanding” by chronicling the women’s movement unique to Iran and Islam, as well as attempting to answer the controversial question, “Can women in Iran be equal?”

She directly addresses popular misconceptions born out of the coups, wars, and revolts that have shaped modern Iran. While the Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought many negative effects to women of Iran, Dr. Ansary Argues that one should look deeper below the surface: “The quasi-westernized education that these girls received in single-sex institutions is one of the underlying reasons a women’s movement has developed in post-revolutionary Iran.”

Ansary illuminates the paradigm of feminism unique to Iran — “Islamic Feminism,” as coined by female expatriates. This paradigm seeks to “break the bonds of tradition through the reinterpretation of Koranic passages” and runs in parallel to nonreligious contemporaries. She also notes how journalism has been central to the dissemination of information that has helped strengthen the women’s movements in the post-revolutionary era. There were many great (yet short-lived) Iranian feminist journals from the post-modern, but the most influential and long-standing was Zanan (meaning Women) which ran from 1992-2008.

Zanan published brazen articles like “Sir, Have Your Ever Physically Assaulted Your Wife?” and “Man: Partner or Boss,” and republished excerpts of Western feminist classics such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), which helped to rejuvenate and strengthen the women’s movement. It also furthered the Sharia-based discourse characterized by Islamic Feminism. Much to the public’s surprise, Zanan survived for 16 years and its founder  was eventually cleared of all accusations, including “collusion and conspiracy with the West.”

Dr. Ansary is optimistic and claims that the Iranian women and youth “could be an instrumental force in effecting its dissolution,” and believes this movement will persist in Iran until “they are granted the divine compassion they deserve.” She ends the book with a compendium of outstanding women from Iran – such as Olympians, actresses, and politicians. She also shares several of her own personal philosophies, including “You will never find what lies deep within if you choose to remain in shallow waters,” a quote that perfectly aligns with the ethos of the entire work.

One of UsOscar Villalon, Managing Editor: Books have a way of finding us when we’re ready for them, which is why we keep so many stolid stacks of them around our homes. They bide their time. Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (translated by Sarah Death), published in the U.S. in 2015, chronologically relates the personal histories of a terrorist and his victims, following their separate paths to July 22, 2011, when their stories would disastrously meet, and on through Breivik’s trial.

On that July day, Breivik would methodically murder 73 people, the vast majority of whom were teens on a Workers’ Youth League retreat on the island of Utøya. A harrowing if brisk read, Seierstad’s book is, unsurprisingly, difficult to get through. But given the current circumstances, the story—which is also the story of Europe’s far right, of the racism and xenophobia championed by Norway’s ironically named Progress Party, of poisonous misogyny and Internet delusion, and of a view of the left as the enemy of civilization—is, alas, more relatable now than before the 2016 election.

One pores through One of Us as if looking for clues to the future. There are certain details, which may or may not mean anything: their people believe themselves to be exceptional, too—citizens of the best country on Earth, in fact; their youth also champion equality and social responsibility, and are averse to profit at the expense of society. Also interesting: Norway’s colors are red, white, and blue. But also this: Norway’s society, as reported by Seierstad, is something of a marvel. Children are encouraged to assert their voices and play a part in meaningfully shaping their future. Education isn’t starved; decent housing and social services are prioritized. What do those details mean then, if anything? What an anxious way to read a text! Still, what lays ahead? The rising dawn or the plunge into midnight?

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Reflections in an Uncertain Era: ZYZZYVA Looks Back at Our Favorite Reads in 2017

We can think of a lot of words to describe 2017, but “trying” would certainly be one. If you’re anything like the team at ZYZZYVA, you’ve found yourself reaching for book covers new and familiar as both a source of comfort and intellectual edification during these tumultuous times. As 2017 winds to a close, we thought we would take a look back at some of the titles that proved most memorable for us. What was your favorite book you read this year (whether it was published in 2017 or not)? Feel free to share in the Comments section.

Thrill MeBjorn Svendsen, Intern: In Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press; 160 pages), veteran genre and literary writer Benjamin Percy talks writing craft. Percy, the author of such novels as The Wilding, the werewolf infection epic Red Moon, and recent techno horror thriller The Dark Net, shares his insights into the creation of short and long fiction. With fifteen essays on topics such as setting, character building, and emotional arcs, Percy analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of genre and literary fiction, and poses an important question: why can’t a work of art be both?

Percy’s academic background lends itself well to explaining how fiction works. Thrill Me is both entertaining and informative, and employs the very lessons it teaches. Percy shares funny anecdotes and the strange experiences which have formed his writing life alongside scene analysis from a diverse selection of writers. Films, too, are also referenced as Percy describes scene construction, pacing, and narrative conflict—what he refers to as “juggling flaming chainsaws”—as plot drivers.

Students and the curious will find plenty to work with and plenty to ponder. Thrill Me is
relatively short at 167 pages, but these essays are rich and lean, and would be of interest to any reader or aspiring author who wants to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Cake TimeZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: The book that has lingered in my subconscious the most heading into the back half of 2017 would have to be Siel Ju’s Cake Time (Red Hen Press; 246 pages), a collection of short stories that, sequenced together, form a mosaic of one professional woman’s life in contemporary Los Angeles – from spending her teenagers years under the watchful eye of her stern Korean immigrant mother to navigating the perils and pitfalls of the post-Internet dating scene.

Cake Time quietly declares Siel Ju as one of our preeminent scholars of thirty-something ennui, her nameless narrator drifting from cubicles to L.A. hotspots to lovers’ beds, not in search of love or a storybook ending, but something that can often prove far more elusive: a sense of fulfillment. Cake Time asks if it’s possible to rise the ranks of the corporate world and maintain a monogamous relationship without comprising some part of ourselves that once felt integral along the way – and the answer doesn’t look hopeful.

A savvy Netflix executive paying attention to bookstore shelves would greenlight a series based on Cake Time, targeting the same audience that has embraced Master of None; but Siel Ju’s book still feels a bit too bruising, a bit too real for scripted drama, blurring as it does the line between fiction and memoir. Even what could have been the most provocative story of the collection, in which the narrator’s Match.com date makes the questionable decision to take her to a swingers party, very quickly descends into an uncomfortable (and honest) examination of consent and personal responsibility when the narrator witnesses an encounter go too far.

That scene, like so many others, have stayed with me in the months since finishing Cake Time – whether it’s a high school girl seeing Batman Returns with her boyfriend after a pregnancy scare or the cringe-worthy birthday party that unfolds in the titular story. An elegant chronicle of SoCal despair, Cake Time will strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s ever nursed a sense of romantic disillusionment along with their vodka-tonic.

The Seventh Function of LanguageKailee Stiles, Intern: Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (FSG; 368 pages), recently translated into English, is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve read this year. The story starts with the death of Roland Barthes, the famed French intellectual from the mid-twentieth century. Binet takes the real, albeit bizarre circumstances of Barthes’ death–from injuries sustained when a laundry van hit him on the streets of Paris–and assumes it was murder. The fallout of this assumption is a rollicking murder mystery that takes an everyman detective through the imagined netherworld of philosophy. Binet’s protagonist, a decidedly pragmatic detective named Jacques Bayard, is the only one in the French police force who thinks there’s something fishy about Barthes’ death. Like any good detective he follows the trail of Barthes’ known associates and enemies, diving deep into the world of cutthroat French academia to look for suspects. Bayard is, predictably, entirely out of place in this tightly-confined, esoteric milieu, and so enlists a low-level adjunct professor as his theoretical translator.

I could talk forever about Function’s wit, complexity, and cunning layers of plot–but really, the thing I love most about it is the fact that it’s just fun. Bayard muddles around looking for a murderer while sidekick Simon ponders Barthes’ work, but Binet has a love of the absurd that trumps any self-seriousness. Even long passages devoted to explaining the mysterious seventh function of language pose it as a Sherlockian problem, drawing readers in to the arcane instead of walling us out. The meaning of life is a very serious business, but thankfully Binet keeps the book light and its characters alive. A born teacher, Binet knows to be patient with his audience. If Detective Bayard or a college freshman can understand Foucault at a base level, so can we. Either way, Binet peppers the novel with enough red herrings and unexpected twists to bring us into a world of intellectual intrigue that’s much more than the sum of its parts.

The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: It’s when putting together a roundup like this that I admonish myself for not keeping a reading diary, or maintaining a tightly organized library, or for being able to remember anything from more than a month ago (though that I lay squarely on the crisis in which we all find ourselves).

So knowing there will be titles that I’m missing, here are the books—some published this year, some yesteryear—that made an impression as they made their way from the one of the many to-be-read stacks at home to one of the spare crannies in the already crammed bookshelves in the living room.

Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (Penguin Classics; 480 pages) was an unexpected delight. Joaquin, who died in 2004, is not widely known outside the Philippines, despite writing in English. This is a shame. His themes of colonialism, power, class, and religion, and his often-creepy but entertaining tales of violence and retribution remain perfectly suited to the times. Speaking of violence and retribution, Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings (Deep Vellum; 136 pages; translated by Douglas J. Weatherford) offers minor work from one of the masters of literature, but that all minor work be this good. The title story—a rags-to-riches-to-extinction one, set amid the world of cockfighting and itinerant musicians—and the other collected pieces (fragments, really) speak to the palpable presence of death and ruin, there lurking in the wings. Maybe it’s just the times, but reading this slim volume one is left wondering at what point does the inevitable arrive, at what point have we exceeded our quotient of mercy.

This year I was fortunate enough to be in public conversation with several authors, some of whose works made it on to best-of-the-year lists, but all of whose book I was grateful to have read. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Grand Central; 496 pages) is a multi-generational epic whose depiction of a Korean family dealing with institutional bigotry in Japan stays with you; the ways in which laws and policies can batter if not destroy the least among us figures also in Shanthi Sekaran’s powerful novel of family and immigration, Lucky Boy (Putnam; 480 pages); story collections by Edie Meidav and Akhil Sharma—Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande; 256 pages) and A Life of Adventure and Delight (Norton; 208 pages), respectively—displayed bracing, voracious experimentation in language (Meidav) and incisive, exquisite sentences, too (Sharma); and one’s understanding of the concerns and paths of poetry, and the concerns and paths of coding, will be immensely enriched by Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry (Ecco; 256 pages) and Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD/FSG; 320 pages).

Rebels in ParadiseThough I’m a confirmed San Franciscan (at least until rent-control and eviction laws say differently), I have a deep abiding love for Los Angeles. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s (288 pages), published by Henry Holt in 2011, is a reminder of how culturally vibrant and exciting the Southland has been, and, indeed, continues to be. One of the prominent figures from Rebels is the late legendary art curator Walter Hopps, and his memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art (Bloomsbury; 336 pages), written with the New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran, only confirms that idea. (Interestingly, Hopps’s book also gives a glimpse of what a socially complex place L.A. is. Hopps’s grandfather moved from the U.S. to northern Mexico in the late 19th century, and by 1900 had a citrus plantation going in Tampico, where Walter’s father was raised and presumably born. “Having grown up in Mexico, my father had a great openness and empathy,” Hopps writes, referring to his father’s disgust at the internment of Japanese Americans. Indeed, though his father was a white American, it’s not hard to imagine him identifying with Mexicans to the extent of viscerally understanding the cruelty of racism.) Yet another figure from Rebels is the writer Eve Babitz (who at one point was Hopps’s lover), whose Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York Review Books Classics; 184 pages) was re-issued last year. All the hype you’ve heard about Babitz’s writing is true. Slow Days is full of life, brimming with wit and intelligence. And so as not to be stuck in the past, reading Dana Johnson’s story collection from 2016, In the Not Quite Dark (Counterpoint; 225 pages), gave one a better understanding of L.A. today. Johnson’s characters play out their lives against the gentrification of downtown and the desire to reclaim the elegance of the city’s past while never quite dealing with the truth of that past.

The Bloody ChamberAnd finally, I made my way to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (Penguin Classic; 176 pages), the edition commemorating the 75th anniversary of Carter’s birth, the one with an introduction by Kelly Link. Perhaps it was because the movie version of “The Company of Wolves” was so off-putting that I was so late getting to this, but books arrive to us when they need to, and I really needed something to read while waiting for a flight out of San Diego. It was, of course, very, very good. God bless well-stocked airport bookstores.

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It Came From the Fiction Aisle: ZYZZYVA Recommends Literary Horror Adaptations

If you’re anything like the ZYZZYVA team, you occasionally like to spend Halloween curled up in front of your screen of choice for a frightening film (or two…or three). From Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, we can’t help but observe the fact that many – if not most – of the iconic horror movies of the last fifty years have drawn their source material from the written word. In celebration of the holiday, we thought we’d recommend a selection of some of our favorite or under-appreciated horror movies adapted from works of fiction for you to check out.

PINPin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988) – Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 work Pin is not a great novel, but it’s one that continues to linger in the imagination of readers thanks to its genuinely strange premise and the way Neiderman conveys the cold, clinical psychopathy of its narrator, Leon. The story opens on the dismal childhood of siblings Leon and Ursula Linden, who face an overbearingly obsessive-compulsive mother and a cold, emotionally withholding father. The only comfort they find in their early years comes from each other and the medical dummy their physician father brings to life thanks to his prodigious gift for ventriloquism. Leon’s connection to the anatomical model, whom Ursula nicknames Pin (short for Pinocchio), turns out to be so profound that even into adulthood the sheltered young man is unable to connect with anyone outside his cloistered circle of Ursula and Pin.

When Leon and Ursula’s parents are killed in a horrific car crash, Leon promptly moves Pin from his father’s practice to the sibling’s expansive but lonely estate, and the stage is set for a disturbing psychodrama worthy of Robert Bloch. Surprisingly, the film adaptation from director Sandor Stern (a filmmaker who has helmed more Lifetime movies than feature films) is remarkably faithful to its source material. While Stern perhaps wisely chooses to tone down the incestuous subtext and render Leon a more sympathetic but no less unhinged figure, the director proves most adept at conveying the suffocating air of privilege and mental decay in the Linden household, as well as the systems of abuse that can exist within a family. Aided by a dreamlike synthesizer soundtrack and a convincing turn from Cube’s David Hewlett as Leon, Sander’s version of Pin often brings to mind the moody and sterile-feeling horror of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Most importantly, this is one of those rare and relatively bloodless films from the genre that proves far more sad than gruesome, and Pin is all the better for it.–Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant

CoralineCoraline (2009) – Fair warning: if you’re terrified of spiders, dolls, or any combination thereof, this next film may not be for you! Coraline, based on a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is the story of a young girl who is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the dilapidated Pink Palace Apartments. That is, until she discovers a small door to a parallel universe in her new living room. Traveling through the portal, she finds an idealized version of her life on the other side: a place where her parents are more loving, food tastes better, and everything seems great. Of course it seems great, and of course it isn’t – darkness lurks underneath. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s childlike aesthetic, this is horror. The 3-D stop motion animation manages to employ some of the usual visual tropes of children’s cartoons – each character has an oversized head and eyes, for instance – without sacrificing the whimsically eerie atmosphere that Gaiman’s books are known for. Coraline is a visual treat, which makes it all the more riveting.–Rebecca Rand, Intern

The ShiningThe Shining (1980) – Adapting a horror novel to film has got to be one of the most thankless tasks in writing. The sense of fear constructed by a novel’s omniscient narrator isn’t easily replicated in film, and dialogue that once crackled in our heads often turns bland when we hear it from an actor. So when anyone raises the stakes of the horror genre by taking the written word and exceeding our most terrifying literary imaginings onscreen, there’s little holding it back from becoming one of the best films –full-stop – of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-thriller adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is one such film, required viewing for both cinephiles and horror junkies alike. Kubrick worked loosely from his source material (King is famously dismissive of the movie), re-imagining the world of the Overlook Hotel into a space where the inexplicable layers on top of the otherworldly to create a Möbius tapestry of fear. Perhaps most impressively, Kubrick married the slow-building terror literature excels at with the visual scares endemic to campy horror movies, creating an indescribable nightmare that exists outside any logic but its own. Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s eerie screenplay is taken to legendary heights by every member of the cast, even the one-time supporting appearances; I’ve been hearing “Play with us, forever” ringing in my ears since I first watched this film over a year ago.

During much of the film, it’s almost impossible to even say what we’re scared of – there’s no easily named fear in many of the scenes, and fans have spent decades attempting to decode the symbolism in the film to work out Kubrick’s own nightmare-logic. But that’s the very point: fear is a feeling, floating in the air and through our minds, not a thing we can look at and name. We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. The best films coil back on themselves, evading explanation, over and over again with every repeat viewing; The Shining similarly locks us into its labyrinth, doomed to the endless loop of a dream. All we have to do is wake ourselves up.–Kailee Stiles, Intern

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Though it works perfectly on its own as a paranoid thriller and creepfest, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1956 novel) has a particularly unsettling resonance for anybody who remembers San Francisco before 2000.

The tech boom and its corrosive effect upon who gets to live here has bubbled forth a mucous pod of a metaphor for the 1978 movie that simply wasn’t there before. So as Donald Sutherland’s health inspector stumbles through the mystery of why people are acting so peculiarly, and as regular seeming working stiffs and suited businessmen start to gather conspiratorially, the eerie feeling that something huge is afoot—and that whatever it is it’s not good—can’t help but summon a dread that has nothing to do with being replaced by an alien species but everything to do with being replaced by a kid in a hoodie bearing a start-up logo.

Aside for its story, the movie can be watched for the nostalgia its setting evokes. San
Francisco is portrayed as something of an urban village full of working-class people.
For anybody who recalls the perhaps now lost egalitarianism of the city, it makes
complete sense that a couple of Department of Health employees, a poet (Jeff
Goldblum) who runs a mud-bath business with his wife (Veronica Cartwright), and a
famous psychiatrist (Leonard Nimoy) should all know and hang out with each other.
(Every other column by the late, great Herb Caen attested to this sort of thing.) Even
as the movie’s dastardly plot unfurls, the various moody shots of the city remind us
of a time when this was a beautiful place to which nobody driven by the need to
make millions in a hurry was especially attracted to.

But San Francisco is where they came just the same to make their fortunes, and the
city has pretzeled itself to accommodate this new reality. Disquieting enough,
Kaufman’s movie addresses the situation. At one point, one of the characters is
revealed to be a pod person, their human self replaced by the invaders from space.
“We came here from a dying world,” the creature informs us. “We drift through the
universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we
survive. The function of life is survival.”

Go to sleep and accept the inevitable is the advice being given. It’s painless. Wake up
in your new form. Then congregate down on the corner, wait for orders, and help us
spread through the rest of the planet. Everyone will adapt. But first they’ll die, and
then it’ll be as nothing changed.–Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor

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Voices from the Dark: Some Recommended Horror Reads

Edgar Allan PoeWith the approach of Halloween, we polled our staff and contributors about which literary works of horror (or of just plain ol’ spookiness) they’d like to point our readers to. From the progenitor of the macabre short story, Edgar Allan Poe, to the psychological stylings of Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, these works display a keen understanding of the utter fragility of the human mind. It may be a well-worn genre, but horror retains its power to effectively probe our darker impulses and explore cultural traumas:

Paul Wilner, ZYZZYVA Contributor: I generally stay away from horror literature – it’s a step above science fiction, but it still gives me, you know, the creeps. That’s the intention, of course, but it feels a bit…intentional for my taste.

But I make an exception for Edgar Allan Poe. Besides being the lead Goth of his time, inspiring everyone from Baudelaire to Lou Reed, there’s a hysterical realism to Poe’s prose that continues to be relevant, even incorrigibly modern.

The Poe story that has stayed with me most is “The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, a magazine edited by James Russell Lowell, a poet about as far from the aesthetic of the bard of Baltimore as it’s possible to imagine.
In it, the unreliable narrator recounts the “perfect crime’’ of murdering the old man who lives in the house they share, whether as a servant or family member.
Poe strikes the High Romantic note from the outset.

“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’’

How, indeed? Let us count the ways.

Trying to explain his motive for the crime, he discounts the usual: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me…I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…”

In the dead of the night, he falls on the old man with a shriek, pulls his bed down over him, dismembers him and buries his remains in the room. Move over, Hannibal Lecter.
When the police arrive – neighbors had heard the commotion – he entertains them cordially, confident “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph’’ and places his chair above the spot where the corpse had been hidden. But as he tries to continue his small talk, he hears a sound, persistent and growing ever louder – the heartbeat of his victim.

“Was it possible they heard not! Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think.”
Chattering in terror, he confesses, prefiguring a thousand Raskolnikovs.

Poe is considered the father of the detective novel, a banal ambition. But he was so much more. His excited sentences leap forth and grip us still, even in these short pages.
He anticipates Baudelaire’s famous challenge – “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère,’’ and Rimbaud’s later derangement of the senses.

Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, he died a few days later. There’s an apocryphal report that the cause of death was “cooping’’ – a form of 19th century election fraud in which unwitting victims were kept in a room (or “coop’’) and plied with liquor until they voted, often several times, for a particular candidate. Or maybe he was just drunk, and took too many drugs – he never needed much encouragement in that regard.

Regardless, “The Tell-Tale Heart’’ still makes me shiver. I see Poe’s wild man, and his victim, in my mind’s eye. Wherever we may go, he is waiting.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You BeenRebecca Rand, Intern: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of Joyce Carol Oates’ most famous short stories, and it is an incredibly eerie work of psychological horror. It recalls the experience of a teenager named Connie, approached by a creepy man who calls himself Arnold Friend, who she finds seductive in spite of herself.

When a character in any story utters the line, “You’re a monster!” to a human villain, it is usually after s/he has committed or promised to commit some inhuman act of violence. Oates manages to make Arnold Friend an incredible monster without any violence. We question his humanness because he is grotesquely phony. He has shaggy black hair that is “crazy like a wig,” a face covered in mask-like foundation makeup, a nakedly aged throat, eyelashes covered in tar, and boots stuffed to make himself look taller. His disguise is clumsy and careless–he trips over his obviously-stuffed footwear. Connie sees all this, know’s he’s a fraud, and yet he still exerts psychological control over her. This is part of what makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” so freaking scary. And a perfect short read for this Halloween.

Paperbacks From HellZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: If you walked into a mall bookstore before the year 1995, chances are you saw them: the rows and rows of mass market paperbacks with evocatively rendered skeletons, masked killers, and insect hordes adorning their covers. While you may have thought that titles such as Night-Shriek, Toy Cemetery, and The Accursed – with their almost microscopic fonts and outlandish storylines – had been resigned to the dustbin of history, one man has made it his mission to preserve their dubious legacy. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell is both a survey of and a love-letter to the lurid horror novels of the 70’s and 80’s, skipping over the big names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz in favor of the lesser known and forgotten authors who contributed to the genre during the mass market paperback boom.

While Hendrix’s deadpan, often ironic tone may not be to every reader’s liking, his genuine excitement when he stumbles upon a gem in the dusty stacks proves infectious. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the work of William H. Johnstone, whose novels routinely featured muscle-bound Vietnam vets battling Satan-worshipping deviants in small town America, as well as the more clinical and psychologically-driven stylings of Andrew Neiderman (his book Brainchild depicts what happens when a straight A science student turns her household into a laboratory maze for humans). Don’t be surprised if you come away from this book with your own wishlist of macabre titles to track down. An ideal read for the October season, Paperbacks From Hell serves as a nostalgic ode to a paperback era long gone and a reminder of the assorted treasures that might be lurking at your local used bookstore.

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Looking for ways to help those affected by the Northern California fires

North Bay firesSmoke, ash, and an eerie light are constant reminders of the devastating fires just North of San Francisco. Our hearts go out to all those affected, and we’ll be looking for ways to help.

To begin, 7×7 has a list of local relief efforts that we can contribute to, including food donations and fundraising socials,  while KQED highlights ways to help animals that are affected by the Northern California wildfires. In addition, the compassionate crowdfunding site YouCare is raising funds for fire victims in the Santa Rosa community.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments section.

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What’s There to Be Afraid Of?: Some Long-Lasting Works of Horror

Black Hole When my best friend read Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole at age eleven, her parents assumed it was a harmless comic book. They were sorely mistaken, and, in her own words, Black Hole messed her up. How bad could it be,? I thought, flipping through the weighty twelve-issue collection. Black Hole is set in Seattle during the mid-1970s, when a horrific STD plagues a small suburb. Only teenagers can contract “the bug,” and like the AIDS epidemic, the town is initially unsure of how it spreads. The disease manifests itself in a variety of disturbing ways. Adolescence is already a bizarre time in anyone’s life, but then Burns throws strange physical mutations and heavy recreational drug use into the mix. The point of view changes from issue to issue: sometimes you are in Chris’s mind, whose skin starts to molt off her body like a snake’s after she has sex for the first time. Then we follow Keith, who is falling for Eliza, a struggling artist with a tail and roommate troubles. There is no shortage of nudity, and these are sex scenes like no other. Burn turns on a dime from creepiness to sexiness, and there are moments when both of those feeling are evoked simultaneously, like when Chris’s first time happens in a cemetery. There is yet another layer of eeriness as things get violent. The infected become pariahs, some living in tents in an area of the woods called “the pit.” In this state of alienation and teenage angst, the outcasts turn to alcohol, drugs, and even to murder. There are moments where you are floating in the black hole, trying to discern whether a scene is a nightmare, a bad trip, or reality. Several of the characters are in an altered state of mind more often than they are sober, and this hallucinogenic quality is reflected in the panels. The pictures are beautifully unnerving, a rich blackness you feel you could fall into. But whether you are unsuspecting middle-schooler or a faint-hearted adult, Black Hole will mess you up.—Devan Brettkelly

Pet SemataryThere’s horror, and then there’s horror. Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, for example, is horrific because its subject is real. These pitiless things happened, these gruesome deaths occurred, and that they did strongly suggests your life skates upon an icy crust of unwarranted optimism and dumb luck—and beneath, a light-swallowing abyss swirls. It relates a horror that heaps contempt upon the most brazen torture-porn, dare-you-to-watch movie. That’s what you came up with as being the worst thing that could happen to somebody? You know nothing. You’re a child. Which is not to say the other kind of horror, horror as genre, can’t truly rattle. Though it’s been decades since I read it, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary remains with me. Why? Not because of its conceit of a burial ground that brings back the dead (Oooooo, scary stuff! as Count Floyd might have said), but because of how King evokes the all-too-possible terror of losing your small child, of being utterly hollowed by grief and by guilt. The novel, of course, is an engrossing read, and we are indeed deliciously frightened by the consequences of trying to bring back the dead. But that’s not even its point. The point is to stand next to that wretched stretch of highway running by that house, shoulder to shoulder with the devastated protagonist, and recognize that the abyss lurks everywhere; it’s moving beneath your feet even as you read this.—Oscar Villalon

The Turn of the ScrewHorror icon H.P. Lovecraft once delivered a central theory on the genre: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Even after decades of psychoanalysis, there’s arguably no territory more uncharted, more unknown than the human mind. It’s an area Henry James explored brilliantly in his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, a tale of solipsistic horror that consistently calls into question the reliability of its narrator. As the new governess at an Essex country-house tends to her two youthful charges Flora and Miles, she encounters ghostly apparitions of the children’s previous caretakers, with James generating suspense from the possible spoiling of Flora and Miles’ Victorian-era innocence—while at the same time subverting that supposed purity through their otherworldly behavior. Over a hundred years later, The Turn of the Screw remains essential horror reading. —Zack Ravas

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