After the Bang, My Love: The Passing of a Horror Fan, and Mine

Last weekend, Kaarina Wilson passed away.

I haven’t really talked much about her, though I have definitely referred to her on Mythic Bios a few times. She’s even commented on this Blog a few times, once with regards to a poem I wrote for her called For Red, and another time encouraging my writing.

She always supported my writing, and continuing to improve myself. She was the only one of my friends and partners that came to my Graduate School Convocation back in 2012, almost a lifetime ago now. Kaarina saw me through that difficult part of my life where I was running out of money and dealing with the Damoclean nightmare that became my Master’s Thesis, and the end of Grad School. It wasn’t easy, for either of us. She was the first person I ever lived with, and the first person from whose place I had to move out.

Kaarina was also one of the first people in my life to tell me that I should not only keep a Blog, but I should write on geeky subjects. Her favourite genre in particular was horror.

While she introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut — or Grampa as she called him — and the black comic, almost banal terror of Cat’s Cradle with its Ice-Nine in the sky, and Mother Night‘s warning that you will become what you pretend to be there were two other extremely important contributions Kaarina provided to return me back into horror properly: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Up until this point, I had mostly read H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore — fear of the unknown, interpersonal character development and the strange being commonplace and the normal being bizarre, and a cynical world still made cerebral and wondrous respectively — but it was Clive Barker that taught me that what you fear can be inexorably linked to what you ultimately desire.

But while I went on to read more Barker, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival showed me just what independent films — both horror and weird — could truly accomplish. Alongside Kaarina in 2010, the year we started dating and when the After Dark used to be in the summer and where Hot Docs currently resides — we watched ridiculous films with heart like RoboGeisha, and twisted things like The Human Centipede. Some of my best memories was getting off at Bathurst Station and meeting her there, and she was often late, while eating some chicken shawarma wraps and freshly squeezed orange juice watching the latest volley of insane films. I think it was from Kaarina exposing me to these forms of literature in the horrific and the sublime that showed me not to take things so seriously anymore and, in doing so, to remember what creative play was, and to genuinely enjoy watching entertainment again.

It was an interesting time when we met. Rental stores were already being phased out. Not long after my first year with her, Blockbuster’s physical stores died, though it took a few years for Suspect Video to share their fate. But we saw it coming. We felt change coming.

Kaarina had always suffered from four autoimmune diseases, something she made no bones about when we first met at a bar gathering in 2009. She had scleroderma, which is a chronic disease that hardens the connective tissue throughout the body, along with primary biliary cirrhosis, which is a slow destruction of the bile ducts in one’s liver, and Sjögren’s syndrome, which often accompanies other autoimmune disorders but has symptoms of dry eyes and mouth. She also had Raynaud’s disease, which narrows the blood vessels in extremities: usually in the fingers and toes.

One of the few times we spent the night together, she showed me the sore developing her finger which caused her horrible pain. Often, she would talk about having it amputated. Once, when I went to the hospital near the ROM to pick her up we came across a patient who had multiple amputations, and she told me that she expected this in her future.

That future didn’t happen, thankfully, but the fear was always there. When she would get sick, her immune system would attack the illness and her: which is what autoimmune disorders often are in and of themselves. At the very least, she was far more vulnerable to infections — including Staph infections — than most, and she never had flu shots as they would most likely compromise her immune system further.

I didn’t want to see it. I knew it was a reality, her reality, but I thought with more time and so much more time there would be further treatments, that she just had to hold on. We just had to hold on.

I also didn’t have a lot of time, though in a different way. I was running out of money and funding for Grad School and OSAP. My bursaries, scholarships, and loans only went so far. Every day, even before I met Kaarina, I knew I was on borrowed time: that this period of freedom and independence, unless something spectacular happened, wouldn’t last forever.

And it didn’t.

It’s like those old horror films, zombie movies in particular, where two survivors are hiding in a place besieged by the undead and trying not to get bit, while one of them has already gotten infected and is more real about it — is more pragmatic amidst horrible emotional turmoil — while the other is in intense denial, that they just need to hold on a little longer, and it would work out.

Kaarina liked zombie movies. Not the newfangled zombie runners, or rage-monsters created from 28 Days Later, but the undead — the ghouls — that came from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. She always said that she preferred slow, encroaching, inevitable horror and death to the fast and furious show-off gore of other films. You can, obviously, see the parallel. Horror, after all, makes you face your own mortality and find some catharsis in the thing. I could make a pretty good argument, if I wanted to, that the horror cinematic genre has elements of what the ancients would have considered tragedy, if not outright tragedy in and of itself.

There is something about a zombie horde as a mindless, relentless scourge that consumes everything in its path — something so unstoppable, so senseless, so … fucking stupid despite the fact that Romero’s ghouls can use tools — that spoke a lot to Kaarina, and her continuing struggle with her own body, and sometimes her mind.

Zombies weren’t the only thing that Kaarina enjoyed. She always had a focus on doppelgängers: on doubles of people, mirror parallels, and the uncanny valley that they inhabit in the minds of those that they see them. When she was studying Journalism at Ryerson, she was taking a course in Gothic Literature, possibly the only thing she enjoyed in that program. And while this allowed me the opportunity to read some of her required reading such as Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” it also gave me the opportunity to help her with her assignments. While I couldn’t always contribute financially, I had the skills and the ability to read over her work, offer reviews, and even help her formulate those ideas. Her last assignment in that course was about doppelgängers and their thematic function: why they exist, and what they represent.

Throughout Kaarina’s life, and from my understanding of it and experience with it, there were two sides to her. They even had two names. Most people, including her friends, called her Karen. Karen was often the persona that was matter of fact and had the party manners. She took things gracefully, even when she could be cold and distant. Kaarina, on the other hand, was the more creative and intuitive part of her, the sensitive part that cried a lot, and would freeze into place when she was particularly upset or scared, or rage at the unfairness of everything. Karen, in my mind, would question you, always. And when she got angry would methodically and with some detail explain everything you did wrong, while Kaarina would shout and scream and was far more visceral. The dichotomy of these aspects of her were not mutually exclusive, and they did not develop in a vacuum. Both were very real. In fact, I would say dichotomy was a major part of her life. She even had heterochromia: two different coloured eyes.

The focus of her final paper had been on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film I woke up late at night with a fever to sit with her on the couch in our apartment under the stairs and watch. And later, long after the money ran out, and patience turned into exhaustion, and I moved back in with my parents with my boxes following, and hospitals became an even more daily occurrence of her life Jordan Peele’s Us that, according to Fangoria, was the first or most definitive horror film that utilized the doppelgänger as the central monster.

I bought that film for her. I also got her a subscription to both Fangoria Magazine and Shudder. I recall getting her Shudder when she was in a medically-induced coma after a procedure to shred the damaged parts of her lungs, curating a collection for her, hoping that she would wake up and eventually be able to watch the entire thing: a shadow of the shared experience we had in watching some of these films at the After Dark together. I didn’t see her often after I moved out, and a lot of our own struggles with each other, and ourselves. These gestures seemed just so small by comparison, even though I hoped they would make that difference when I would finally see her again.

Kaarina’s contributions, and her utter exasperation in me not doing any writing during our time together, led me to creating Mythic Bios, led me to writing for Sequart, and even the stint for GeekPr0n, and covering the Toronto After Dark. I went from buying single passes to particular films at the After Dark, to sharing a Press Pass among GeekPr0n staff, to eventually just getting a full Pass like she always did: to enjoy those films on my own again. Part of it was to try to find a sense of meaning as I moved back into my parents’ place and rejecting academia, while some was a combination of homage and defiance towards Kaarina herself: to show her I had learned from her, to illustrate that I would all the thing she pushed me to do when we lived together on my own outside of the place we used to share.

A lot of things happened after I moved out in 2012. I got published in a print and ebook anthology about Hell. I wrote for two online publications. And I went to the After Dark on my own, and it became more than our place. It became my place as well. But never once, during that entire time, did I forget Kaarina, or the impetus she gave me to keep going. To keep experimenting. To keep seeing what I could do.

The last film she and I watched together on our own was in 2017, at the Carlton Cinema. It was the anthology XX: a film directed, written, and starring all women. After the film, Jovanka Vuckovic — one of the central writers and directors in the film, who I met through covering her at GeekPr0n — noticed that the central theme in the whole film, through the blood, and pain, and loss was about family. And, looking back, it makes sense that that would be the last movie we saw on a date because, despite everything, I never doubted — not once through everything that happened, perhaps because of everything that happened — that Kaarina and I loved each other.

I was going to visit Kaarina in the hospital the Sunday after the Pandemic was formally declared. I couldn’t make it. I wanted us to have a remote Movie Night, Bed-Time as she called it — where we would watch The Addams Family or The Twilight Zone together — but it never happened. It seems, in a way, the two central horror themes of Kaarina’s fascination unfolded before, and after, her death. Disease and the slow crawl of fear has enveloped the world, and in doing so we are seeing two sides of the same reality become starkly contrasted with each other: social inequality and justice, hope and dread, truth and lies, and life and death all unfolding around us, and with little ambiguity.

There is an uncertainty in the world now, more than ever. There is a loss of understanding in my own, without her in it. The fact that I saw it coming doesn’t make it better. It just felt like a rehearsal for this time. It was just like watching that zombie horde come creeping towards you, and now it is facing myself in the mirror scared of the feelings I am continuing to find while viscerally, morbidly, messily fascinated with exploring their guts.

Horror and weirdness lost a great fan last week. I lost an amazing lover and friend. I lost one of my greatest fans, and supporters. I want her to be honoured in the places that she loved the most.

Rest in peace, Kaarina. You always liked to quote Hitchcock, again, when he said “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”

I hope that after your bang, when it came, all that is left now, for you, is its catharsis.

Jovanka Vuckovic Looks Inside The Box

I met Jovanka Vuckovic this weekend. It was the second and last day of the Suspect Video and Fangoria-sponsored Torontonian convention Horror-Rama and I stepped behind the curtain to sit in on Jovanka Vuckovic’s Hangout session: to listen to her answer questions about her career and her future plans. I didn’t go into the Hangout with plans to write an article this time. I have written about Jovanka Vuckovic before: specifically about her creating the film adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story The Last Will and Testament of Jacqueline Ess.

But in the midst of hearing about her time at Clive Barker’s house, an anecdote or two about Guillermo del Toro, her plans for and a few more details about Jacqueline Ess, her views on diversifying the roles of women in film as characters and creators, and advice about not necessarily requiring film school to direct a film Jovanka Vuckovic revealed something for the first time that day.

She told us that she would be writing and directing a short film based on Jack Ketchum’s story “The Box.”

I’ll admit that up until that moment I’d never read anything of Jack Ketchum’s, though I watched and loved The Woman that was adapted from his novel a few years ago at the Toronto After Dark. And I definitely heard of him in the horror community: as he is generally highly regarded there. So after being among those who got to hear the news publicly for the first time I just had to find this short story and piece together, in my mind and based on Jovanka’s works and thoughts, just how this might go down.

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There was one thing that Jovanka Vuckovic mentioned in her Hangout that really stands out for me: her need to bring her voice to the work in question. As someone who looks at a creator’s own personal bent or slant, and as a creator myself, I can tell you that this is really important and also challenging when you are working in another’s world.

Or someone’s sandbox. A box is created to contain something. It can be put together, and it can be taken apart. It can have beautiful red wrapping paper on the outside and look like a pretty present. It can be a heavy burden or something incredibly light. The thing to remember about a box is that it’s hollow on the inside: perhaps, dare I say, even bigger on the inside. A box has nothing inside of itself except for what you put into it, or how you make it …

Or what you might see in it.

After being introduced to Junji Ito’s bizarre and Impressionistic horror manga Uzumaki this past weekend, it’s tempting for me to say that just as spiral patterns are prevalent in nature and culture, so too are boxes prominent in human society: if only as metaphors. Boxes can be homes and coffins. They can also be check lists and labels. They can carry tools that build, repair, and take things apart.

Children play in boxes and imagine them to be something else.

The way I see it, these considerations are important in speculating just what kind of creative sensibility and voice Jovanka Vuckovic might bring into “The Box” of Jack Ketchum. And in order to ponder further on that, there will be some story spoilers.

Jack Ketchum The Box

“The Box” is a story about a man who watches his family slowly and peacefully starve to death after his son gets a peek at a stranger’s box on a bus ride. This box is like a twisted version of Pulp Fiction‘s MacGuffin. However, unlike that film’s briefcase we only get to see the box once: and even then we never know what’s inside of it. It’s gone: slipped back into the night. But, at the same time, this isn’t true.

The true horror of the story is the fact that the protagonist watches everyone he loves understand something he can’t, seen from that box, while slowly and gradually fading away: leaving him alone and desperate to find that man and his box again so he can finally feel what his family feels, and join them.

Jovanka Vuckovic is no stranger to families, death, and particularly children in horror. She isn’t even unfamiliar with Impressionist or the abstract: the Kafkasque in storytelling sensibility. All you need to do is view her short films The Captured Bird and The Guest to see that much. But here is where Jovanka’s voice comes into play with something like “The Box.”

It’s only in retrospect that I realize that she is making this film for Magnolia Pictures and XYZ Films’ all-female anthology XX and it makes so much sense. At the Hangout, Jovanka told us that she is going to make the film version of “The Box” from the perspective of the mother as opposed to the father. You might think that this doesn’t make a difference, but it does. It really does.

I already have my own speculation as to what was in that box. The story narrator’s son, who looked inside, told his father that he saw “nothing” in the box. At the same time, the man who carried it claimed it was a present. What if the box contained the truth: that life is meaningless in itself and the acceptance of such is positively liberating?

Then you also have to take into account that the father character makes a point of stating that he has always carried a deep sense of detachment and separation from the rest of the world: from all other people including his own family. At the same time, the father believes in routines and order. He believes in protecting and helping his family. He just can’t let go of needing to live so that he can continue that role: and it’s only at the end that he realizes that this role no longer exists. He has no emotional shelter — no box — around him any more. He needs to find a new one.

Now think about this. It’s very clear that society has different roles and classifications for the female gender. There are various expectations for women, some spoken and others not, that they have to struggle with every single day. And motherhood is loaded with even more cultural assumptions and scrutiny. A mother tends to be seen as always related to her family unit, particularly to her children. But a mother is also a woman and a human being first: someone who can’t always relate to people, even her loved ones, all the time. Sometimes she just doesn’t understand her family: and feels distance from them and the guilt that comes with it. Sometimes she needs her own time away from societal and familial obligation and deep down in a place she doesn’t always want to look feels the burden and wants to be rid of it all. In this way, a mother is a person who has to reconcile her own individuality with her family-identity: or a lack thereof.

What happens if her family finds that box and realizes that all of these roles are pointless? There is her love for her family and her sense of obligation. Would she hold onto it with a death-grip towards the very end? Would she be afraid of dropping that heavy burden off of her shoulders? Would she fight to save their lives? Or, at the end of the film, would there be a shift from the personal into the frighteningly transcendent? Would she finally accept the inevitable and realize that she — and they — are and can actually be free?

It would be quite a challenge: to create something that could become a feminist existential horror genre film: a very poignant and human story. But this is all speculation on my part. There is just so much potential here and we will only know if Jovanka Vuckovic turns this “Jack in the Box” inside out after the film is shot this December.

Vuckovic and Headey Explore Jacqueline Ess: Her Will And Testament

Clive Barker’s short story “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will And Testament” is not only being adapted into a horror film by the Canadian and Torontonian film director Jovanka Vuckovic, but Lena Headey will be playing the role of Jacqueline Ess.

While until this announcement I was unfamiliar with Jovanka Vuckovic or her work, and I only know of Headey through her roles in Game of Thrones and 300 as Queens Cersei and Gorgo respectively, I have read “Jacqueline Ess” and it is a fascinating story. Beware my friends, if you intend to read this story there will be spoilers.

Books of Blood

“Jacqueline Ess” is a story found in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. It is about a woman by the same name who, after being neglected and passive-aggressively abused by her cheating husband and being dissatisfied with her overall life, attempts to kill herself only to be brought back from death with–for lack of a better word–some strange, flesh-crafting abilities. Think of it as telekinesis that can only affect human flesh and organs. Now imagine all that rage and pain that she has suppressed her whole life in being the good wife or woman and patronizingly being told what how she feels by men.

But the story is so much more than simple revenge. It subverts stereotypes. It changes Ess from a victim to an accidental instigator of manslaughter, to a murderer, and into someone who examines the very nature of power. Her sexuality, which was used by men, becomes her most overt weapon. However, again, she is not simply a monster or a villain, or a Carrie that lets her repressed emotions completely rule her powers. She is an intelligent woman that not only wonders about this power and what it means, having gained it by temporarily piercing the veil beyond death, but she also truly examines what the meaning of life is in light–and despite of–the discovery of her powers.

The very weapon that is her power, that is her sexuality, that is her body, becomes a weapon that ultimately turns on her. What this might say about social perspectives with regards to female gender and sexuality is a whole other subject entirely that will hopefully be explored in further depth, but I will say that the story manages to move this power from the place of the stereotype into the dark, red realm of the archetypal: of that primal place where life comes from, where it is changed, in that plane suspended between sex and death and, when you get right down to it, even a sense of enlightenment and acceptance.

Clive Barker has an interesting sense of horror: at least in his earlier stories such as those found in The Books of Blood. For him, horror is not only your fear of the unknown, but your secret desire for it and that place where your anxiety is forced to meet your sense of anticipation in the language of the flesh.

Lena Heady

I suppose you can tell that I really took a lot away from this story. Certainly, I can see Lena Headey making an excellent Jacqueline. Not only does Headey have a sense of portraying women of power in Game of Thrones and 300–characters that exist in traditionally male-dominated spaces–but particularly in the first Season of Game of Thrones to me she actually portrays a more sympathetic version of Cersei Lannister: someone who has power, and knows she has power as a woman in a traditional role, but who was never trained to understand it to its fullest extent or to protect those that she loves.

Headey’s Cersei understands just how subjugated and micro-managed women in Westeros truly are and even in Season Four you can see just how powerless and vulnerable she can be when her father takes her son from her. To me, it’s almost as though Headey’s Jacqueline may well be a parallel to the character of Cersei: both start out with affluence but are limited by the men and patriarchal structure of their lives, but while Cersei stays with the trappings of power and never seems to explore their origins, hopefully Jacqueline will portray her vulnerability and continue to explore her more literal and supernatural power and its nuances on the environment around her.

As I said before, I didn’t even know who Jovanka Vuckovic was before news about her film came out. However, if she can explore the details of Jacqueline’s evolution and its effects on the men and society around her, while keeping in mind Barker’s own horror genre sensibilities we will definitely see an interesting multifaceted blood-soaked gem of a strong female character and what she says about our own world: as a master of the horror genre, the sub-genre of body horror, and the medium of film tends to do.

Given the fact that Jovanka Vuckovic was an Editor-In-Chief for Rue Morgue magazine, author of Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, founder of She Wolf Films, studied physical anthropology, and the fact that she made The Captured Bird, a horror-fantasy short film about a young girl that discovers a black-inky evil underlying her world only adds to the fact that I very much look forward to seeing what she does with this film. I know that many of her friends in the Toronto geek community–including some here at GEEKPR0N–wish her and her endeavours well.