Hijacked Consciousness: an Interview With B. R. Yeager

B. R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space (Apocalypse Party, 2020) caught me utterly unprepared this year and easily maintained a spot in my top ten “Best of 2020” list. Ever since putting it the book down, I’ve been aching to pick the mind behind the novel. I genuinely can’t thing of a better way to inaugurate yet another season of SMM author interviews than by alerting you to this book. Weird fiction and horror fans, particularly those of you with your ears to the ground, waiting to catch a glimpse of possibility on the bleeding edge of genre fiction: you can’t afford to miss this one. Stop by Apocalypse Party’s website (pick up a title there. They’ve got some good ones), visit Yeager online, and for god’s sake get a copy of Negative Space

“Lately I’ve been seeing this sentiment tossed around a lot: ‘True horror fans don’t read horror to be scared. They just like the tropes. They think it’s funny that regular people could be scared by a book.’ I think that attitude kind of sucks, and is even kind of sad. Like, maybe I’m just a normie, but I’ve absolutely read some books that have scared the hell out of me! And it’s been exhilarating! That’s a big reason for why I read and why I write. To me, horror is an emotional response. I want a horror novel to fuck me up.”

Justin A. Burnett: Negative Space is a dizzying novel, and it’s difficult to spot a clear lineage of influence from the outside. It seems to have a bit of everything: near Less Than Zero-levels of teenage decadence, the hallucinatory vibe of contemporary horror films like Mandy (sans the cheese), vivid occult horror in the vein of, say, Richard Gavin, and multiple narrative voices that, somehow, actually work. In short, I’d be interested to know your central inspirations for this novel.

B. R. Yeager: I forget who it was, but there was a musician who suggested that those starting out use all of their influences–not just one or two, but all of them. Throw them all together, and what will come out will most likely feel fresh and unique, because no two people will have the exact same influences. A great example could be a band like EyeHateGod–Mike IX said “I want to be in a band that sounds like Black Flag and Black Sabbath at the exact same time.” This is obviously an oversimplification of their sound, but by combining all these unique and sometimes contrasting elements, they were able to create something unique to their character, and is still unique to their character. There still isn’t a band that quite sounds like EyeHateGod.

My Negative Space melting pot largely consisted of: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, The Gate (1988), Pig Destroyer, Khanate, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Blake Butler’s 300,000,000, early Bret Easton Ellis (plus Lunar Park), Dennis Cooper’s My Loose Thread, Stephen King’s IT, Kathe Koja’s The Cipher, Jennifer’s Body, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, David Wong’s John Dies at the End, Silent Hill 2, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Antichrist, Clive Barker, The Kybalion, Sunn o))) & Boris’s Altar, Boogiepop Phantom, The Maxx—the list goes on and on.

But above all, I was inspired by my experiences, and my friends experiences, as teens. Lots of our memories and experiences made it into this book. And New England in general was an enormous influence–Kinsfield is largely a composite of towns I’ve spent time in and around.

Burnett: I love that you packed music and video games in there. We’ll circle back around to Negative Space, but while we’re talking music, you mentioned at some point on social media that Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven, changed your life. Do you mind sharing that story? I love hearing details about pivotal moments like that.

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Yeager: I don’t mind at all. I was either 16 or 17, so this was  early to mid 2001. Up until then I’d been a fairly strict metalhead, and pretty naïve about any music outside of metal (and to be honest, pretty naïve about metal too). But I started hitting a wall with aggressive music in general, getting bored with it. At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command was a huge turning point, because it was still aggressive and there was the Ross Robinson connection, but it wasn’t a style of music I was familiar with at all, so it acted as a bridge between the nu-metal that had dominated my life and the music I’d become enamored with going forward. It helped me realize there was a whole world of music I didn’t know anything about. So I started seeking this stuff out–lots of indie rock like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Modest Mouse. Lots of emo and screamo, because it was still aggressive but not in a boneheaded way. I was just soaking up as many different styles and sounds as I could. I was buying zines so I could learn as much as much as I could about underground music.

That’s how I found out about Godspeed. I can’t remember the zine’s name, but they had a review of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists. The way they described it–20 minute songs, 9+ members, field recordings, “the soundtrack to the apocalypse”–I’d never heard of anything like that before. I went out and bought it that week. It absolutely blew apart any of my pre-conceived notions about what music could be. Which–not to take any credit away from them–was mostly a product of my naivete at the time. But the atmosphere and emotion, the textures, the scope of their music–I’d never heard anything like it. And the whole Coney Island monologue–I was used to bands putting cheesy snippets from horror movies or Boondock Saints at the beginning of their songs. It was like “What the hell is this recording and where did it come from?” No one knew. It was all so mysterious and evocative–it captured my imagination in a really fresh way.

I got my friends really into them too, and we linked up with these other guys after we found out they were into them (they’re still some of my best friends to this date), and we started this godawful post-rock band. We just didn’t have the dynamics or the ability to pull it off. We were still teens. It was very much “You like this riff? Good, because you’ll be hearing it over and over for the next 10 minutes!” We shot for hypnotic but ended up with monotonous.

How about yourself? What’s your Godspeed story? Ha ha.

Burnett: mine’s actually pretty similar–there was a review of …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s album Source Tags & Codes in Guitar World at some point, wherein they were compared to Pantera. Totally inaccurate, but I was a nu metal goth kid myself and when I came across the album in a massive CD store that sadly no longer exists, I snagged it. The album’s a dynamic indie/shoegaze thing, and it led me to checking out At the Drive In, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Modest Mouse and all that. Soon, I saw GY!BE mentioned in Amazon “best of” lists along with those other albums, and I snagged it.

Long story short, I got the album and cranked it up in the car with friends, having no clue what I was in for, but expecting traditional song structures. Everyone was like “wtf?” We were all extremely high and one guy started freaking out. I was bummed and a little embarrassed at the time, but I got around to listening to it alone several months later and it blew me away. It also earned me a reputation as liking weird music, which eventually led to me seeking out Primus albums to troll my friends with, and THAT led to a whole new dimension of revelation, ha ha.

Alright, next question: Was there a book that did something similar to you? At what point did you decide to write what I’ll just loosely call “horror” here? Which book made you think “that’s it… that’s the direction I’d like to go?”

Yeager: Woah! Source Tags & Codes was also a huge record for me (still a great record–that first half is totally unfuckwithable).

I don’t think it was a particular book. I know it’s cliché, but horror is just a part of who I am. I’ve loved the genre since I was a little kid–reading lots of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, the Scary Stories books, Scholastic children’s horror anthologies, etc. Edgar Allan Poe was a revelation for me (this was still grade school), and it was my first encounter with the classic macabre and gothic tropes–unreliable narrators and cursed families and the past coming back to haunt. I remember being thrilled by “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the paranoid, anxious style of the narration. I had no idea you could do tell a story that way. So that had a really profound impact.

I have a very broad definition of horror, and at the end of the day I consider myself a horror writer, even if a lot of my work is on the border of what many people would consider horror.  Regardless of my subject matter, I skew toward a desire to horrify.

Burnett: Cliché or not, I absolutely understand that response. “Tell-Tale Heart” was exactly the one that cracked it all open for me as well, and it’s been lurking somewhere in my brain ever since.

The horror aspect definitely comes across strong in Negative Space. One remarkable thing about that book is how many motifs you play with–there’s the coming of age aspect, with all the ennui that entails and substances galore, there’s the voyeuristic presence of the Internet, there’s the occult–all of it, however, has a depth that feels… well, true, like your ideas and themes are very lived-in before they get on paper. Nothing is a prop, and one thing in particular that appears to have carried over from your earlier work is the concern with online culture and its apparent tendencies to bring out the worst in humanity, but even this is tempered with a sort of curiosity that keeps the whole thing from feeling too condemning. If you could condense how you feel about “the horrors” of online culture on one hand and its redemptive qualities on the other (if there are any), what major points would you want to make?

Yeager: It’s difficult to pin down. I’m not entirely convinced that online culture brings out the worst in humanity–it just makes it visible, and enables communities to form, sometimes around virulent behavior.

I think that’s what I found so compelling when I was writing Amygdalatropolis–less the anti-social behavior itself, but that there were communities centered around anti-social behavior. Even when people only wanted to destroy others, there was still this desire for connection, for validation by another human. I think that’s a fascinating tension, and tragic in a lot of ways. So there’s the surface horror of the violence these people are describing (or actually committing in some cases), but the deeper horror is occurring at a personal, internal level.

Thinking in terms of monsters and transformation–how does that transformation occur? Many of the people in these spaces describe histories of being abused, and that’s their explanation for monstrous behavior. Others are just there because they find it entertaining–they have an active desire to become monstrous, to destroy in themselves the ability to empathize with others. I don’t really have an answer for why this is, but I felt it was worth documenting.

But that book has a very narrow view of online cultures, which I wanted to rectify in Negative Space. I wanted to depict an online community that wasn’t centered around malice, and was instead centered around dealing with an ongoing tragedy. It’s a form of coping. That may strange when we’re talking about a forum where people try to predict who’s going to commit suicide next, where people post photos of dead bodies, but ultimately I think it’s a method of trying to make sense of this pattern of nebulous violence, that no one understands. It’s gallows humor.

I see it a lot of it on social media, this gallows humor, and COVID has only accelerated it (hell, I often engage in it). It’s cynical, but it isn’t cruel or insensitive–I actually think the opposite is true. The present and the future look like a nightmare in so many ways that are out of our control on an individual level, and people are just trying to figure out ways to deal with that. It’s a form of commiseration, and I think that’s ultimately a positive one. Even when the ship is sinking it’s nice to have someone by your side.

Burnett: That actually nicely fleshes out the ambiguity I was trying to indicate–I think the aspect of “concern” surrounding the message board in Negative Space distinguishes itself a lot from other writings on violence and the Internet. To say it again, it gives the theme depth.

Let’s talk about Tyler, the protagonist of Negative Space–the Void himself. He’s one of those charismatic individuals who tend to draw others into their destruction. Did the impetus to write about someone like this come from lived experience or from an interest in cult-like leaders? Where does Tyler come from?

Yeager: He comes from lived experience. None of my characters are surrogates for real people, but real events and relationships inspired his creation. As you suggest, I imagine everyone has known someone like Tyler: incredibly charismatic, but destructively narcissistic, who doesn’t even realize he’s being predatory, or harming others–someone who just goes so far into their own world, there’s really no coming back from it.

Burnett: I know you’ve cited more than a few inspirations, but if you were asked to prepare a lecture on a single writer, who would it be? What are the points you’d want to cover in this lecture? What makes this writer worthy of a lecture?

Yeager: That’s a good question. It would probably be on one of two rappers, either Ghostface Killah or billy woods [sic]. Fiction writers could learn a lot from rap in general. The rhythm of sentence structure is an obvious one. And there’s a rigidity to the form, so there’s a lesson in economy there: you only have so much space to get your point across. Ghostface and woods each accomplish so much with such limited space. It’s easy for writers (myself included) to get caught up in over-explaining an image, or an environment, or a character, but these two show how you can evoke an entire world with just a line or two.

It’s the minute details that make a piece of fiction feel real, and Ghostface’s records are a masterclass in minute details. His characterization is next level: “Nice like Van Halen, seen him at the tunnel with his skin peelin’ / Did two days, thought he was jailin’ / You get close, look at his hands / That’s the same kid that cut his wrists, talkin’ bout ‘The cuffs did it.’” It’s so vivid. And there’s a unique, natural surrealism at play in his work. I could go on and on. I think he’s one of the most important living writers/poets.

billy woods has only been on my radar for little over a year, but he’s probably my favorite rapper right now. Again, it’s all about the details, and the massive pictures he paints with so few words. “No Christmas this Christmas, kitchen frigid / Space heater in the room, Chinese delivered / Watched the Knicks, every shot missed / Like airplane bottles out mini-fridges / I washed dishes, I’m an isthmus / My arm’s length is quite the distance / Once distant future now day to day existence / My ex-wife is my mistress / Your woman on a pedestal but this Ruby Ridge shit.” Again, so vivid. You can see this guy’s Christmas evening playing out while you’re listening to it. Just an unbelievable writer. One of favorite new podcasts, Call Out Culture, did episodes on each of them, really delving into their lyrical qualities, the methodology that I highly recommend, especially to writers. [episodes: billy woods, Ghostface Killah]

Burnett: Once again, what an excellent response! woods is phenomenal, but I haven’t gotten around to Ghostface. I’ll have to check him out.

This also slides things nicely into my next question: you mentioned Silent Hill and several movies earlier. I take a lot of inspiration from horror games myself. I watch playthroughs or play short indie horror titles as a break between projects–in a lot of ways, I think horror games tend to probe the bleeding edge of horror concepts. However, video games and movies are undeniably different entities from writing. I can generally tell when a horror writer is thinking in cinematic terms, and it just doesn’t go well. My question is: what exactly can horror writers learn from movies and video games? What specific aspects of these media do you walk away with feeling impacted by, and in what ways do they manifest in your writing?

Yeager: That’s awesome. I was very lucky–woods was the second to last live show I saw before the pandemic, in a very small venue and maybe 15 other people, and it was incredible.

It’s generally useful to pull ideas and techniques from mediums outside your own, because those mediums can offer a unique take or approach to well-trod subject matter. You can then take that approach and further modify it to fit back inside your working medium. Ideally, the outcome will be something original, or at least possess the appearance of originality.

Film–more so documentaries–can be useful for writing dialogue, or figuring out how to include exposition into dialogue, though this can be a bit dangerous, as it’s easy to make characters who sound like Hollywood caricatures. Again, documentaries (particularly older ones, before we all got used to talking on camera) can help you avoid this. But if you’re looking to fictional source material to study for dialogue, plays are probably more useful.

I’m frequently influenced by films and video games, but more on a conceptual level than a formal one. I agree that writing that attempts to replicate the formal traits of film often falls flat. The great thing about cinema is that it’s a condensed medium, and sometimes a film will brush over a very fascinating topic, and I’ll end up spending the rest of the run-time expanding upon it in my head.

It’s similar with video games, but for the opposite reason, since video games are frequently sprawling. My favorites tend to be the one that immerse you in a vibe–FromSoft games (Dark Souls/Bloodborne/etc.) is an example I often use. Their approach to environmental storytelling has been a huge influence–they really excel at the whole “show, don’t tell” principal, allowing their stories to be ambiguous and interpretative, and much of Negative Space was an attempt to apply that technique to literature. Silent Hill 2 also does a phenomenal job of environmental storytelling and ambiguity–there’s huge portions of that narrative that aren’t directly explained, just left to the player to piece it together if they want to. That’s how I try to approach my storytelling.

Game writing is also improving. I played Disco Elysium earlier this year and was floored. I keep saying it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I love fractured narratives, and this game has such a compelling approach to that. Not sure if you’ve spent any time with it, but throughout the game, different aspects of the protagonist’s body and personality are in conversation (and sometimes conflict) with each other, to a stunning effect. That’s something I’d like to play around with in the future.

I’ve always been fascinated by video games, on a formal level, aesthetic level, narrative level, etc. I had wanted to design them for a long time, but I just don’t have the patience for coding. One thing that games do better than any other medium is convey movement through space, and if that space is compelling enough, it can be exhilarating. It’s one of the few things I wish literature could do that it isn’t really equipped to accomplish.

One last little thing—there’s this indie game Discover My Body by a dev called Yames that is one of the eeriest things I’ve encountered. Terrific writing, and the sheer vibe of this thing. I’d love to one day write something that feels like this:

Burnett: I haven’t tried Disco Elysium yet, but I went over to itch.io for Discover My Body [available to play for free] and man, it was a good one. I have a serious soft spot for simple, lo fi games that manage to be creepy or thought provoking (this was definitely both).

Yeager: Oh totally, those are some of my favorites, and resonates with what you were saying about horror games often being at the bleeding edge of horror.

Burnett: I feel like it’s the same sort of thing with movies–you mentioned Tetsuo 1: Iron Man on social media as being a movie that made you sad because it represented a possible “alternative history” to cinema–one that is pure will and creativity without the fetters of the shit that destroys freedom (i.e., focusing on a mass product engineered to appeal to the lowest common denominators). These little games are the same thing to me. So is indie writing.

In that spirit, have you read any indie horror authors that you feel don’t get enough attention who you’d like to shout out here? Also, feel free to add anything to the topic leading into that, or to correct any mischaracterizations about your feelings regarding Tetsuo.

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Yeager: You characterize of my thoughts surrounding Tetsuo perfectly! I dream of a film landscape where every piece of CGI is replaced with janky stop-motion. I just think it would be beautiful. Have you seen Dawn of an Evil Millennium? It’s like if someone tried to remake Blade Runner with a $20 budget. Absolutely incredible. That and Tetsuo just feel so fucking alive.

Apologies for the tangent, but this brushes up against something I find really interesting. We’re at a strange point of such overwhelming media saturation that has severely impacted the creation of art. What I’ve always appreciated about indie and underground art is its divergence from (or explicit opposition to) the aims of mainstream mass-appeal. Lately, that seems to have turned around, in that we’re getting a lot of art that is independent only in terms of success or distribution (or lack thereof), rather than on an aesthetic or philosophical level. In other words, there’s a glut of indie art identical to what’s already in the mainstream, or that aesthetically and philosophically aspires toward the mainstream.

Parallel to that, there seems to be a flush of art that is primarily inspired by other mass media, rather than lived experience, or even unmediated thought in general. This can become stifling, to any form and any genre, so I think it’s important to be conscious of it. I’m obviously not exempt from this–looking back at your first question, I named off like a million pieces of media I count as influences. But I’m not convinced anyone can create anything remotely original unless they put a significant chunk of their self, their being, into what they’re creating, in one form or another. You can’t just be taking and replicating bits of media you’ve consumed, no matter how varied and diverse the source material is.

This is a problem for any genre (including “literary,” whatever that even means), but since we’re talking about horror we can use horror as a lens. Lately I’ve been seeing this sentiment tossed around a lot: “True horror fans don’t read horror to be scared. They just like the tropes. They think it’s funny that regular people could be scared by a book.” I think that attitude kind of sucks, and is even kind of sad. Like, maybe I’m just a normie, but I’ve absolutely read some books that have scared the hell out of me! And it’s been exhilarating! That’s a big reason for why I read and why I write. To me, horror is an emotional response. I want a horror novel to fuck me up. I want to be ruined by it. Not necessarily in a shock-value, splatterpunk way, because I usually find that stuff really cold and boring (a story needs warmth and feeling to be truly devastating), but work that pushes the boundaries of what I’m even capable of conceiving.

When somebody reads your book or story, you’re hijacking their consciousness. It’s your consciousness invading theirs. It’s a form of mind control, and it’s so important not to forget how powerful that is. A focus on tropes rather than emotional response runs in opposition to that. I loathe the idea of horror being defined by familiar tropes and familiar monsters doing familiar things in a tidy prescribed way. I think that’s fallout from an out-of-control consumptive culture, and as I was saying above, it seems to have become just as prevalent in indie spheres as it is in the mainstream. There’s an excess of reverence for what’s come before, recycling the hits, hewing to imagined boundaries and abiding by the rules. Nothing against those who enjoy reading or writing “cozy horror” and stories that are defined by tropes and familiar signifiers, but if the genre becomes defined by that it will stagnate.

Which I think finally gets around to your question, ha ha! Some indie horror I’ve read in the past year that I do think pushes the genre in new and powerful directions:

Sam Richard’s To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows absolutely wrecked me. There are passages in there that I think about on a weekly basis

I haven’t gotten to the entire thing yet, but what I’ve read of Charlene Elsby’s Hexis is absolutely phenomenal and damaging.

I recently read a short story by Kealan Patrick Burke in the Lullabies for Suffering anthology that was very cool–I need to check out his novels.

Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel is supremely wild and disorientating.

Gary J. Shipley is a favorite, and not just because he’s published me.

Maggie Siebert writes beautifully vicious short stories.

And of course there’s Matthew Bartlett, who operates in a style I don’t typically gravitate toward, but he pulls it off so well that it doesn’t matter. I admire his dedication to original mythmaking, and his approach to imagery is just so unique and evocative.

I need to finally get around to C.V. Hunt and Andersen Prunty, and dive into Grindhouse Press in earnest–they seem like they’re doing some really exciting things.

Oh, and David Leo Rice! His work is incredibly eerie and unique. Another person who squeezes whole worlds into his text.

Burnett: Your response to the “readers don’t read horror to be scared” thing reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace. Have you read him?

Yeager: I’ve only read his essays, and that was a while back so I don’t remember too much. I know he was also concerned with hyper-mediation, and understood firsthand the addictive nature of commercial culture. It’s funny because he was primarily talking about network television, which feels quaint in comparison to the present landscape.

I’m not a very disciplined person, and am very much addicted to media and stimulus. I refuse to get a smart phone for this reason, because otherwise I’d be plugged in all the time. Working from home, spending the majority of my waking day on the computer, I’m already about as plugged in as you can be. I’m constantly craving stimulation though I realize it’s a destructive urge. COVID has naturally exacerbated that.

I think the greatest danger of hyper-mediation is the limit it puts on our imaginations, in what we can conceive of and dream. Paired with the hyper-commercialization of the arts (primarily the outcome of the people having too little, stuck in work that pays too little, is inconsequential, and is often literally destroying their bodies), they’re the ideal conditions for creative stagnation. I’m seeing this in many (not all) indie writers’ circles, where there’s an extreme emphasis on following prescribed rules for success, around writing what sells, reiterating upon past commercial successes etc. Ironically, I’m not entirely convinced these rules/strategies are that effective. Strict adherence can actually cause an author’s work to just submerge and drown beneath the ocean of content that’s already out there.

All that said, I realize I’m in an insanely fortunate position to have lucked into employment that enables a relatively comfortable and stable existence, where my writing is separate from my livelihood. That spares me from needing to commercialize my art, and I realize most people are in positions where they can’t justify creative endeavors unless they’re able to derive money from it. It’s an awful condition.  When art is only valued when it can turn a profit, it’s such a powerfully stagnating force.

Burnett: This is the last question: are there any upcoming projects of yours you’d like to highlight? What can readers expect from B.R. Yeager over the next few years?

Yeager: I’m presently working toward finishing my piece for Hymns of Abomination. I’m excited about it. It’s been fun trying to reinterpret Bartlett’s style and setting, especially since I’m from the town Leeds is based on. It’s letting me look back certain memories with his tint.

I have another couple short stories scheduled for anthologies that haven’t been announced yet. This has been the first year I’ve written short stories in four or five years, and it’s been good getting into the swing of them, working on compact projects that require lots of minute tinkering. It’s practice for the next novel, which is too early to talk about, and will probably take another two or three years.

B.R. Yeager reps Western Massachusetts. He is the author of Negative Space (Apocalypse Party), Amygdalatropolis (Schism Press) and Pearl Death (Inside the Castle).

Kaurismäki’s “Hamlet Goes Business” Takes the Bard Into Bizarro Territory

Aki Kaurismäki’s films were bizarro before bizarro became a thing. I can think of no other auteur who has done for the motion picture what authors like Kevin L. Donihe have done for alternative fiction—consummately married the mundane to the peculiar.

If there’s one thing that our readers will find appealing about Hamlet Goes Business, a film that could otherwise be summarized as a black-and-white arthouse melodrama, it’s the depths to which it goes to highlight the absurdity of ole Anonymous‘s play.

The high contrast black-and-white photography feels less like an homage to Shakespearean theater and more like a tip of the hat to Kafka fans who have relished cinema’s adaptations of the same (think Orson Welles’ production of The Trial). Indeed, the entire film feels less like a Shakespeare tragedy and more like an exercise in lampooning industrialism and Capitalism, and the people responsible for both.

Where the play starts out with two watchmen convincing Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, to stand watch with them so as to catch sight of the King’s ghost, Hamlet Goes Business opens on a tight shot of a puppy yapping, his cries falling on deaf ears.

Instead of the Prince’s friend becoming convinced that a specter spells bad things for the future of Denmark, Kaurismäki’s story finds Klaus (the Claudius character of the Shakespeare text) poisoning the King before sucking face with the widow Gertrude in a shot yanked straight out of Gone with the Wind.

In a first act reveal that would have likely drawn belly laughs from John Kennedy Toole, Prince Hamlet himself (played sublimely by Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) is shown to be a paunchy, greasy-haired brat.

The other men populating this adaptation are profoundly dense, their actions motivated by the basest of fears and desires. An early scene involving ham is laugh-out-loud funny but, also, symbolic of the flick’s central theme—man’s voracious appetite for amassing things. Wealth describes not only money but anything that can be horded and/or devoured.

As Polonius (Esko Nikkari) explains early on, the porky prince has the controlling shares of the family company with the rest belonging to the banks. Polonius takes for granted that Prince Hamlet will be too stupid to object to a modest allowance in lieu of a promotion. It’s his firm belief that the little bastard is so dumb that he won’t realize that the role of company president is his birthright.

At the King’s funeral, Klaus tells Hamlet that he has something he wants to show him. The next very abridged sequence is introduced by an intertitle reading, “Satan and Jesus on the Mountain.” It consists solely of Klaus showing the prince around the company’s factory as if introducing him to the nuts and bolts of Capitalism.

The intertitle seems to suggest that Klaus is the Devil, tempting the son with the fruits of other people’s labor. It’s a captivating metaphor, particularly in what is an otherwise pretty silly film. That Hamlet is then quite literally thrust upon Ofelia (Kaurismäki perennial Kati Outinen), the daughter of a “good family,” furthers this rather blunt metaphor.

The Finnish director behind this short and defiantly sloppy re-imagining is fond of calling his films dog shit, pointing out that they are failures when held up against the works which inspired them. In Kaurismäki’s eyes, even his masterworks—the Oscar-nominated ‘Man Without a Past‘ and his faithfully rendered film of La Vie de Boheme—are garbage compared to the Art of Bresson’s Mouchette or Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

Many would read the director’s comments as self-deprecation, but that’s only if you aren’t hip to the artist’s rather wicked sense of humor. This is the same guy who jarred David Lynch at Cannes by allegedly whispering, “Who are you?”

Silly and haphazard as much of Hamlet Goes Business is, it’s still a cinematic marvel and a well-crafted one at that. As a filmmaker notorious for his economy with dialogue, Kaurismäki never fails to deliver sparse lines that fester in one’s brain. Example:

[After rebutting Hamlet’s advances, Ofelia sits, slouched, on the bed, staring up at him timidly.]

Ofelia: You know I can’t. Not before marriage.

Hamlet: That’s blackmail, darling.

[Moments later, Hamlet advances towards her again, this time to the sort of melodramatic strings of a Douglas Sirk film.]

Ofelia: No, don’t. We’d both regret it afterwards.

Hamlet: That’s what you think.

Ofelia: What did you say?

Hamlet: Leave me now. I promised to dine with my mother.

[Ofelia gets up to leave as Hamlet exhales cigarette smoke and broods. As she leaves, Hamlet turns off the source of the melodramatic music—a reel-to-reel recorder—and turns to a vintage jukebox sitting against the wall of his bedroom.]

The mise-en-scène here is a key component of Kaurismäki’s signature brand of bizarro. On one level, it can be read as a meta-fictional detail bordering on parody, but on another it’s representative of the anachronisms that make his films so unique. I dare any viewer to name another artist working in motion pictures who better juxtaposes such incongruous elements.

After Ofelia leaves, Hamlet kicks the jukebox in anger, compelling it to skip to a 45” whose chorus commands, “Hush! Hush! You’re talkin’ too much.”

Unlike much of the 69-year old’s ouevre, Hamlet Goes Business was not well-received here in America. Of the few reviews that one can dig up on the Internet, nearly all of them agree that the flick is short, stilted and anything but representative of Kaurismäki at the height of his powers.

This strikes me as hilarious since the picture shares so much in common with an American film that suffered the same critical fate upon its release. There are aspects here that will call to mind The Hudsucker Proxy, a screwball comedy directed by the Coen Brothers and co-written by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, A Simple Plan).

The most obvious similarities are the the ridiculously long dinner table and Polonius’s central hypothesis that Hamlet will be too stupid to succeed. It’s worth noting, however, that The Hudsucker Proxy didn’t come out until 1994, a full five years after ‘Hamlet‘ was released on our Shores.

Like the Coen Brothers, Kaurismäki has an affinity for the village idiot, a character that often propels his narratives forward (see: Leningrad Cowboys Go America). In ‘Hamlet,’ it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are the big, dumb goons while Kaurismäki’s favorite male lead, the late-Matti Pellonpää (Ariel, Night on Earth), fills the ancillary role of The Guard (a conglomeration of the three guardsmen from the Shakespeare text).

The Guard and his young ward are obviously simpletons of the sort that are often found in the periphery of a Coen Brothers flick. Think Steve Buscemi’s Donnie in The Big Lebowski or Ryan Hurst’s Lump Hudson from their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers.

This correlation drew itself in my mind when I was less than a quarter of the way into Hamlet Goes Business. And the more I dwelt upon it, the more it made sense. For all of the credit that we give the Coen Brothers for their signature style, it’s impossible not to see Kaurismäki’s work in almost everything of theirs.

The way that Hamlet gobbles a thick slice of ham over his father’s dead body reminds one of nothing so much as George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer messily gobbling hors d’oeuvres in Burn After Reading. Just when this theory begins to feel far-fetched, ask yourself what made Fargo, the Coens’ 1996 original film, so “original.”

At the time, cosmopolitan American audiences were widely unfamiliar with that distinctly Scandinavian Midwest populated by pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and loser car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). What’s more, the laconic deadpan humor typical of Scandinavian countries was foreign to their ears.

It was this deadpan comedy and the way that the Coens portrayed Minnesota as a bleak winter tundra that got American viewers’ attention. Here was something that was rather eccentric and undoubtedly one-of-a-kind…except it wasn’t.

One could easily picture the Coens’ silent, stone-faced killer, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Storemare), meeting one of Pellonpää’s sad sack working class characters at a pub in Kaurismäki’s Loser Trilogy (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl). And that bleak winter tundra has been well-represented in the auteur’s canon, from Ariel all the way up to Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses.

This is not to slight the exceptionally talented Coens in any way, simply to state for posterity that the Finns did it first, Kaurismäki in particular. Here we are given one of the most indescribably odd adaptations of any classic volume. It’s equal parts Orson Welles drama and Three Stooges-style slapstick.

The incongruity I mentioned earlier pops up again when we arrive at one of the director’s perpetual live music sequences. Here it’s a raw punk rock performance of “Rich Little Bitch” by Melrose, one of Lapland’s greatest bands, whose rhythm section consists of a spiky-haired kid with a giant stand-up bass.

While most reviewers are probably right when they say that Hamlet Goes Business is an imperfect film, they neglect the fact that it is still head and shoulders above the hackneyed productions of Hamlet that are rolled out on the stages of International theaters on a near-constant basis. If there’s one thing going for it it’s the director’s obvious restlessness with the source material.

The resulting picture succeeds by virtue of its almost perverse refusal to acknowledge the play’s underlying concerns. The preternatural relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother is reduced here to a throwaway line of dialogue that reduces the heir’s Oedipal complex to nothing more than the co-dependence of any sexless geek.

If it’s not a masterwork on the order of the director’s later port city stories (La Havre and The Other Side of Hope) then it’s definitely a worthy sizzle reel, demonstrating Kaurismaki’s knack for rendering the boring wildly compelling. If nothing else, it’s surely a worthy stocking stuffer for someone who loathes the Bard.

If you’re familiar with the Shakespeare play then you already know this one doesn’t end well, at least not historically. But in Hamlet Goes Business nothing goes according to plan. Don’t be surprised if the film’s ending finds you smiling. This is just part of what makes it so bizarre.

The History of BigBoobenstein (Including Why I Took Out The Dumpster Fire Ending)

by Jeff O’Brien

Back in 2002 I was something of a scenester. The term “hipster” wasn’t really being thrown around back then but “scenester” certainly was. Looking back, I suppose it was the same thing. It was a term applied to someone who spent the majority of their nights either playing at rock clubs or just hanging out at them with all the other bands and fellow scenesters.

The term was always taken as an insult; no one would ever admit to being a scenester – just like the hipsters of today. I was also an “emo-boy” since I played in a band called Starla, and was skinny with a mop of emo hair on my head. That moniker, I wore like a badge of honor. Still do.

It was a different time. You could still smoke indoors at most public places. My Nokia brick phone was considered fancy. The majority of my porn was still watched via VHS. If you wanted random hook-ups but didn’t want to be social you had either Craigslist or Friendster. Maybe even MySpace if my memory of the time serves me right.

Certain derogatory terms now almost universally frowned upon and deemed as hate-speech were thrown around freely in most circles. Now, before you go getting the wrong idea, I’m not including that last bit with even the slightest hint of nostalgia. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that some words ever even came out of my mouth. I’m just painting a picture of the setting, and for good reason. Unfortunately, some of the ignorant, privileged male mentality hadn’t been fully shed and outgrown by the time BigBoobenstein came into print.

Anyhow, the point of this exposition is to bring you to the place where BigBoobenstein was unknowingly born. Well, maybe not born. In 2002 I’d at least been impregnated with the seed, and it would take eleven years for the monster to come to term.

I was friendly with a group of metal musicians who formed a comedy-gimmick band called Foam n’ Mesh. They dressed as redneck truckers and sang filthy songs. One in particular was a song called “Big Boobens Time” (sp). I misheard the title of the song as “BigBoobenstein” and felt like quite a fool when I told the band – in front of a large crowd of people – that I thought the song title was the greatest song title ever.

This sounds like a minor faux pas, but in such a shallow crowd where everyone is young and superficial and trying to be cooler than the next person, you get your balls busted something fierce when you misspeak like that. It feels almost like wearing a Misfits shirt you got at Hot Topic and being asked by a real punk to name three Misfits song and you can’t do it. I mean, I know every Misfits song, so I don’t know what that’s like. I’m just a shitty writer trying to get a point across, okay? I know how outdated that analogy was. Anyways, the point is that the ball busting in this case lasted many months.

Roughly eleven years after all that, a good friend from back then named John Davidian – whom the book is dedicated to – messaged me one day and said something to the extent of: “Hey, dipshit. Remember that time you said BigBoobenstein instead of Big Boobens Time in front of all those people? That shit was hilarious. You should use that as a book title.” In 99.999 out of 100 cases in which people suggest things like that to me, I ignore them. About two months later I was uploading the book file of BigBoobenstein to Createspace and anxiously awaiting my proof copy.

Strangely enough, in the time between me sending that file and the book making it to print, I found myself sitting before a psychic with my now ex-wife – at her behest. I had zero interest in such an affair, nor would I ever pay to experience it. But there I was.

The psychic told me that my next book would be “the one”. She didn’t specify what she meant by “the one”. She didn’t say it would bring me great fame and riches. She didn’t say it would sell 100,000 copies either. So I guess for once a psychic was spot on with their predictions. But she was also accurate about my next book being “the one”. I’ve written over twenty books, and BigBoobenstein is the only one to crack a hundred ratings on Goodreads. So I guess it’s the one.

It was also a book that spawned two sequels and what I had hoped would be a fourth, which instead turned into four short stories that are now all compiled along with all three books in BigBoobenstein: The Complete Saga, also know as BigBoobenstein: OmniBUST Edition. It’s also the only book of mine to spawn a puppet. But more on all that in a bit.

So…what is BigBoobenstein? Well, for those of you who haven’t read it – and I know there are many of you – BigBoobenstein is the tale of Adelaide De Carlo. Adelaide was 19. She was one of those kids who graduated high school and did not have college in her future. In fact, it didn’t seem there was much future in her future either. She had friends, but that was about all she had going for her. She was broke. Lived at home. Had an abusive, scumbag boyfriend. Hated the way she looked. Hated herself. Had zero self-esteem and overcompensated. Smoked and drank fiendishly.

So, in answer to the question “What is BigBoobenstein?”, the answer is that it is my most truly autobiographical book to date. To elaborate on that any further would be purely solipsistic. There’s a bunch more meta symbolism in the book too that I think is super fascinating, but I guess if David Lynch doesn’t explain that shit then why should I? I’m supposed to be writing this as a means of convincing you to buy the damn thing and read it. Not to summarize it. Maybe if I shut the fuck up there will be hundreds of YouTubers making 5-hour-long videos about the meaning behind BigBoobenstein twenty-five years from now. Why am I even flapping my big fat gums?

Anyhow, without getting too specific and telling you the whole story, BigBoobenstein is a tale of beauty. Yeah, I just called my own work beautiful. FIGHT ME! It’s a tale of hitting rock bottom, fucking yourself up to the point that your very vessel is broken beyond repair, giving up entirely, and somehow rising up when you shouldn’t ever have been able to do so.

But it’s not that simple, you see. And anyone who has lived this tale knows it. Rock bottom is a scary, desolate, and dangerous place. And while it is possible—though very unlikely—to rise back up from it, should you succeed in doing so, you aren’t the same person on the trip back up that you were before the crash. Without explaining my art and demanding that you appreciate and comprehend the sheer and utter brilliance that it is, what I mean to say here is that BigBoobenstein is an inspirational tale.

And now, the sequels…that no one really liked. I know…they are not deep and poetic and meaningful like their predecessor. Thing is, I was 100 percent committed to writing them that way. And why the fuck would I write them any other way?

Have you ever hit rock bottom and successfully turned your life around and succeeded in rebuilding yourself far beyond your own or anyone else’s expectations? And if so, did you then make the conscious decision to fuck your life up again and do it all over just for the sake of adventure and experience? Of course you didn’t, ya’ big dingus. You appreciated the beauty of the world and the people around you. You savored and cherished those things. You enjoyed your new freedom of being able to be lighthearted and fun and overly sexy. Just like the sequels.


And sure, there is some tragedy in both Groom of BigBoobenstein and Daughters of BigBoobenstein. Such is life. But after rising back up from unfathomable depths you take those tragedies and you take those close to you and hold them closer and you go forth understanding the importance of love better than you did before. For fuck’s sake I wrote the most beautiful saga to ever feature a talking, shit-drooling, anthropomorphic hernia and porn-obsessed bridge trolls and horny Martians and undead strippers and all you people care about is… wait…I don’t know what it is you people care about.

As I write this I realize I’ve let my ego completely take over. What lies have I been living all these years? I’m so lost in my own asshole that I can’t see the world around me. When Silent Motorist Media asked me to write this I thought I was some kind of interesting wordsmith as deep and dark as the chasms of Moria. I now realize I am merely another mediocre white man with a computer who can’t even come up with a decent Tolkien reference on the fly. Fuck. Hold on, I’ll be right back.

Hi. I’m back. I just had my wife do that thing with the paddle board and the hot sauce and I’m feeling much better. Now I will discuss the dumpster fire of an ending the original printing of BigBoobenstein had, and why I took it out.

In 2013, when I started writing the book, I was far from the same person I am now. In short, I was the kind of person who thought that ending a book with a man getting raped by a group of trans women is funny and/or shocking. At that point in my life I hadn’t actually met or spoken to a trans person, and had given very little thought to the idea of rape culture beyond simply believing that rape is wrong and hating it very much. I was plain ignorant. But in the following years, with all the brilliant and amazing writers and artists and poets of all cultures and walks of life I’ve come to meet, that ending I once thought was so funny and clever began to seem less and less so, to the point where I took all the BigBoobenstein books out of print until I could figure out what to do. I had to decide how I was going to be able to promote work that I’d poured my heart and soul into only to realize it was tragically/thoughtlessly flawed.

Do I just keep them out of print and pretend they never existed? Disavow them forever? Rewrite them? Add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book? Add a disclaimer at the end of the book? Well, obviously you know the answer already since it’s in the title of this post. I took the damn thing out and put a little note to the reader in its place.

The very reasons I was advised against doing this were the very reasons I finally did it.

No real artist changes their work to please other people.”

No real artist is true to themselves if they worry about offending so and so.”

Political correctness is killing comedy!”

Yeah, I heard all that shit. And the kind of people who say those things are the kind of people that brought Adelaide De Carlo to the point of jumping off a bridge (Not really a spoiler – just sayin’). Adelaide wasn’t allowed to grow because of people who feared her growth. They wanted her simple and basic, kept on a low enough level that they could appreciate her and hold power over her in their limited capacity to do so.

The art of comedy is suffering the same fate from the same “PC CULTURE IS KILLING COMEDY” morons. Actually, no. I take that back. Comedy is doing just fine and evolving and growing as it should. Just because some basic dudes created a fake war around it doesn’t mean I have to buy into that shit.

If altering my work turns those people off and away from it, then holy shit! What was I waiting for!?

BigBoobenstein is about finding utopia in a world full of alt-right fascist scum and toxic masculinity. It’s a book about fighting all the things I hate. BigBoobenstein is my utopia. Just because I fucked it up the first time doesn’t mean I can’t rebuild it, alter it, and make it better and more welcoming with fresh, new life. After all, that was literally the whole fucking point of the book to begin with.

Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space by Duncan P Bradshaw – Book Review

Duncan P. Bradshaw’s Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space is exactly what the title suggests and so much more. Yes, it’s a pastiche of both the demonic possession and nunsploitation genres, but it’s also unlike anything you’ve ever found in book form in the past.

As he did with the charmingly cheeky killer vacuum novella Mr. Sucky, Bradshaw takes his love of speculative fiction and fringe cinema to a hitherto unexplored place. ‘Cannibal Nuns’ opens like you’re watching a DVD, replete with a piracy warning, featuring a fistful of faux “trailers” for other stories whose general plots are almost as mental as the plot of the novel itself.

It’s hard to discuss this book without giving up the ghost and I’ve never been one to spoil endearingly cheap thrills for the freaks who read our rag. So, with that in mind, I’ll summarize the experience of digesting this jubilant jaunt through myriad hells thusly: The web-fingered Bolo-Bolo is drawn so brilliantly and abominably that it emerges as a creature even more hideous to imagine than the nuns with “chest-mouths.”

To put it another way, Duncan P. Bradshaw is a writer afflicted with a particularly acute illness of the mind and we’re all the richer for it. Catch the infection here and develop a bad habit here.

Impossible James by Danger Slater – Book Review

Impossible James

By Danger Slater

Fungasm Press, 2019

Reviewed by Gordon B. White

Impossible James, Danger Slater’s latest novel, is a book about the tensions of finding meaning in an absurd world, about tensions that rupture into paradoxes. It’s about growing larger, but also becoming smaller. It’s about fighting a system, but surrendering to it. It’s about creating a legacy and destroying history in the process. It’s also funny, gross, bizarre, and even a little touching. It’s a trip.

What is Impossible James about? The plot is simplicity itself: James Watson (soon to be James Watson, “Sr.”) is diagnosed with a malignant “black spot” in his brain that will kill him … in fifty years or so. Driven to despair, he loses his job at the multinational conglomerate Motherlove, burns his belongings, and gets a screwdriver through the brain which both pins the black spot in place and sparks his creativity such that he can clone himself through a very disgusting process and, eventually, cure death.

As James Sr. grows less and less human, his first clone, James Watson Jr., narrates the story from the end of the world, alternating between his father’s history and the imminent collapse of the universe beneath a plague known as the Gray Tide. Got it? Good.

While the above description should make it clear this is a fine and pulpy story, Slater has a way of writing that belies the danger of his underlying ideas. The plot careens forward and the writing is almost always conversational and, sometimes, willing to derail its own narrative and draw attention to the mechanics of the novelistic structure. The cumulative effect is a story told by a friend, holding on to your arm and shaking you at the good parts. To focus on just the presentation, though, hides the real heart of Impossible James.

Impossible James bears the subtitle “A book about death,” and this is no joke. At every moment, the specter of futility and the void hangs over the proceedings. It has thematic overlays of capitalism, climate catastrophe, existential dread and more. None of them fit completely, but they do so in a way that evokes the unease that all of them do. It’s about setting up Impossible Goals and Impossible Defenses, but being unable to escape the Impossible End. It’s about giving oneself to the world, but also the sheer egotism that doing so takes.

It’s a very strange book about self-centered sacrifice and catastrophes, and the human moments in the face of both, which are by turns poignant and useless. It’s a book about frustration and how as one’s goals explode, one becomes smaller and smaller. It’s about the selfishness of creating a life filled with doubt, but also the catastrophe of abandoning that doubt — and how that doubt which may be the only thing keeping us in check, or at least placated.

Because it’s that sense of doubt — that question of “What’s it all for?” — that might be keeping us from turning into unrestrained sociopaths. In fact, by abandoning that doubt, James Sr. becomes both a society and a pathology in himself. What’s that mean? Well, you’ll have to read it to see.

But all of this is the paradox of Impossible James: a way to balance these warring impulses of the insignificant and the psychotically grand; the crippling doubt against the destructive untethering. And in the end … well, James Watson Jr. has to make a decision. It’s a decision we all have to make, although it isn’t easy to make and even harder to tell if the decision is the one that’s “right.”

With Impossible James, Danger Slater continues slipping his readers existential poison pills beneath a shiny, gleefully gruesome candy coating. By turns humorous, horrifying, and even heartbreaking, Impossible James struggles to make sense of a modern world collapsing under its own bloat and the human but absurd drive to create — be it meaning, purpose, art — in the face of that catastrophe. Is it impossible? No, but it’s Impossible James.