The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private.
This is a reprint of the letter from the editor in Unwinnable Monthly Issue Eighty-Four, the Monster issue. You can buy Issue Eighty-Four now, or purchase a one-month subscription to make sure you never miss an issue!
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
– Traditional Scottish Poem
When I was a kid, there was a monster in my basement. I never saw it, but I knew it lurked in the corner by the furnace and the water heater.
Once upon a time, when my mother was a little girl, my grandparents finished the basement. They installed a bar, lined the walls with wood paneling, civilized it. The years since had taken a toll, along with the occasional floods that came with the spring rain, but the space remained tamed despite the dampness and wear.
Not that corner, though. The tiles of the floor stopped short there, revealing rough concrete beneath. Pipes dripped. Near the wall was a hole. Sometimes, dark water filled it to the rim. Other times, it was empty, a chute to some impossible black abyss.
Of course there was a monster. And, like the victim in any good horror, I was ill-equipped to deal with it.
* * *
In my youth, I had a strange relationship with horror – it fascinated me, but also terrified me. Badly. Monsters in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, or cartoons, or mythology were fine, my bread and butter, until they weren’t. Those created with the intention to truly frighten had a terrible power over me.
A short list of things that gave me nightmares as a kid: a black and white car commercial featuring a couple fleeing from zombies, Dinosaurs Attack! trading cards, commercials for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, the librarian ghost from Ghostbusters, reading an abridged version of Dracula intended for children, the illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Hell, I had nightmares that the Libyans were going to get me the night after I saw Back to the Future. I had to leave the theater a third of the way through Gremlins. I heard Toht’s screams as his face melted and the squeals of the gamorean guard as the rancor chowed down, but all I saw, for many years, was the blurry pink close-up of my fingers locked over my eyes.
Scaredy cat. The biggest. My pal Shawn claims his mother screened The Exorcist for him when he was four or five. I can’t imagine. I wouldn’t have survived.
Yet I still sought the stuff out. You could be kind and say I was slowly building up a tolerance, but really, I just kept grabbing the pan even after I knew it was hot.
* * *
I confess all this to impress upon you that, as a child, I did not know how horror worked. The Rules, as Scream taught us. I didn’t know that you’re safe from vampires so long as you don’t invite them in, that silver bullets can handle a werewolf, that you won’t have a gremlin problem if you don’t feed your mogwai after midnight. All that came later.
Despite this, rules bound the behavior of the monster in my basement.
It was unwise to turn your back on the corner. So long as you were looking, the monster wouldn’t appear.
Silence was bad, but music was also risky – I worried that songs in certain combinations or repetitions might summon the monster.
Most importantly, like the grue from Zork, my monster wasn’t fond of light. So long as one was on, you were safe.
* * *
Rules, of course, are ways to mitigate our vulnerability to the depredations of horror. If we eat lots of garlic, don’t wear a red shirt, always stay with the group and don’t sleep around, then the vampire slasher from outer space can’t possibly kill us. Right?
In fact, rules divide horror into two distinct camps. The stories that embrace them tend to ease our anxieties after all the blood gets mopped up. They reinforce the idea that the universe is ordered and rational. Rules inject a bit of fun into the proceedings.
In some cases, like the monster in my basement, the rules attempt to explain why the monster doesn’t exist in the first place.
Then there are the stories without rules. Compare Freddy and Jason to the remote and uncaring gods of Lovecraft. Or, if you’d like a less played out example, take the film Sauna, which follows a group of Russian and Swedish soldiers making a new map of the border between Russia and Finland in 1595. Along the way, they stumble upon the titular sauna that can potentially cleanse them of their sins. Instead of forgiveness, though, they find guilt, madness, death and a hollow creature that drips oil from its maw.
I understand the plot, but the supernatural elements don’t proceed along any known rubric. I don’t know what the sauna actually is (one character even wonders if the sauna only looks like a sauna because its true form is impossible to comprehend) and the way events unfold is bewildering.
Because I don’t have a clue what was going on, I am vulnerable. I don’t know how to protect myself from things the look like saunas or filth monsters spewing liquid sin. Sauna scares me because I am looking into a violent unknown. It suggests that rules, and our collective hope to be living in a neatly ordered universe, are delusions.
What is more frightening than utter meaninglessness?
* * *
Of course, arbitrary rules can be just as frightening as no rules at all. They can hint at inscrutable systems.
Or maybe your rules are just wrong. Maybe vampires don’t mind sunlight or stakes through the heart. Is it worse to face the zombie apocalypse with no plan, or to go in expecting slow zombies and getting fast ones instead?
My monster, the rule about the music, what was that one really about? I had a little portable tape player I would haul around the house so I could listen to Appetite for Destruction and Peter Gabriel’s So over and over again. Whatever could have given me the idea that the right songs in the right order could summon the monster?
* * *
Two weeks ago, my wife, Daisy, and I moved into the family home. I grew up here. It has changed a lot. It will change a lot more by the time we’re done with it.
That hole is still over in the corner by the hot water heater, but it isn’t bottomless anymore, if it ever was. The rest of the basement needs some work, but the furnace doesn’t give me the heebie jeebies, except maybe when I think about having to replace it someday.
The other night, Daisy called me down to the basement and said, “Listen.”
Aside of the normal house noises, the sounds of the floor settling, the hum of the fridge, I didn’t hear anything.
Daisy swears she can hear lilting music, high pitched and distant. She’d been hearing it off and on for days, actually – this was the first time I was around to witness it. She’s since stopped me a couple other time, once in the kitchen, to point it out.
I can’t hear it, but every time she mentions it, I think about that corner, and the hole there, and my old rule about music summoning the monster.
And I wonder.
This month’s issue has been a particular delight to put together. Aside of the fact that I love monsters, our Theme section is populated by horror creators I have long admired and, in some cases, interviewed for this very magazine. Hopefully you will enjoy their work here as much as I have. If you do, I would encourage you to hunt down their fiction.
On the cover this month is Dave Felton, a fellow New Jerseyan and master of the scratch board – readers may remember him from the May Artist Spotlight. I am pleased with this issue for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that it encouraged Dave to watch Monster Squad for the first time. You can see more of his work on his site, Eldritch Etchings.
Theme is packed with greatness this month. Stephen Graham Jones discusses how monsters come into their own in the public consciousness. John Langan ponders the power the vampire exerts on our imagination. Orrin Grey rhapsodizes the classic kid adventure Monster Squad and the mark it left on him. Ross Lockhart introduces us to the nearly-lost original film version of Frankenstein. Gemma Files peers into the pitfalls of turning somebody’s god into the monster for your horror story.
Deep breath. We made it halfway. OK.
Phil Gelatt argues that an unseen monster is the best monster. Scott Nicolay and Michael Bukowski (who was last seen in the July Artist Profile) share a special installment of their Stories from the Borderland series that charts A. E. van Vogt’s wide and weird web of influence on genre fiction monsters. Michael Calia remembers his transformation into a teenage monster. Livia Llewellyn returns to her childhood home in Tacoma to find monsters lurking everywhere. And, finally, someone claiming to be Laird Barron filed a story about doppelgangers.
In Variation, Michael Sheridan admits that he is terrible at playing videogames. Michael was the very first person to write for Unwinnable who wasn’t me, so it is always a treat to have him back. I spoke to Bill Gardner about his upcoming horror game Perception, in which you play a blind protagonist trapped in a haunted house. I’m looking forward to that one.
All that and our regular columns to boot. Well, except one – we bid a fond farewell to Richard Clark, who will be on an indefinite hiatus due to increasing real job responsibilities. Please welcome Jason McMaster, our hard working assistant editor, who will be taking the spot with The McMaster Files.
Finally, it wouldn’t be Halloween without Ken Lucas’ Halloween mixtapes. You can listen to the previous five here. Check the site next week for this year’s. I have a couple flavors of Spotify playlist you can listen to as well: Halloween, Werewolf and Goth. The last two are collaborative, so feel free to add some tracks. That’s it! Out of space. Happy Halloween!
Kearny, New Jersey
October 5, 201