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.