Climate change. Isis. The police. A growing feeling of insignificance. These are the monsters we live with every day of our increasingly fragile lives, and in 2014 it affected our art in a very pervasive way. If it can be said that pop culture is the dream of our society, an expression of our collective unconscious scribbled onto our paper and video discs and maybe—I don’t know—Netflix’s data centers, then it can also be said that we’re starting to have an increasingly monstrous societal nightmare.
Now, that cultural nightmare, while increasingly scary, is also becoming more beautiful and deftly created every year. With the emergence of horror genre television, the return of weird fiction, and just the general exploration of the more unthinkable aspects of life in all entertainment media, it is becoming clear that those of us who live life connected to the cultural sphere have a very close relationship to the things that would otherwise keep us up at night. It’s also a great time to be a fan of horror.
Here are my picks for most notable monsters that haunted our cultural dreams in 2014.
Notable Monsters: Vampires, a werewolf, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Grey, plague, heartbreak, the entity inside Vanessa Ives, probably a mummy
Primary Fear: We fear the monster inside of us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Most Exciting New TV Series
Penny Dreadful, which is my bid for most exciting new TV series of the year, is a pulpy gothic literature mashup in which the protagonists are plagued by the monsters within themselves. It’s an internal conflict that for some characters is explicit and obvious (a woman possessed by a demon, a werewolf), while for others it is poetic (Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein), and for a few it’s particularly nuanced (a cholera patient, a father haunted by the death of his son and the abduction of his daughter).
In Penny Dreadful the primary struggle involves a group of allies, each suppressing an inner monster, who wage war on the dark forces invading its fictional Victorian London. The most heroic action that can be taken in the show’s world is to acknowledge that you are a monster and then choose to fight monstrosity. As a viewer, this is an empowering and freeing message.
2014 was filled with myriad reasons to stand up and fight for what’s right, but for certain white, straight, and male demographics, the first step in most of those struggles was understanding one’s role in perpetuating the problem. Penny Dreadful acts as a pulp parable in this regard, showing us heroes that are well intentioned yet plagued by the fact that they contain within them some of the same evil that they are fighting.
Notable Monsters: Petyr, Nick, Vladislav, Deacon, Viago (vampire roommates); Anton and his pack of werewolves
Primary Fear: It’s tough being a monster these days.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Movie
The New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, despite having very few human characters, is a variation on the same theme as Penny Dreadful, albeit more optimistic (it is a comedy). Each monster character, from the vampire roommates to the werewolf pack lead by Anton (Rhys Darby’s micromanaging alpha male), is a piece of monster history trying to live and love in modern day Wellington.
I’m including What We Do In The Shadows here not because of its ability to illustrate a major fear, but because of what it says about all the other dark and despairing feelings on this list (also it was my favorite movie of 2014). Shadows avoids taking any sort of moral stance on monsters, electing instead to say, “OK, we get it, we’re monsters. But we still have to pay rent, right?”
Notable Monsters: Area X
Primary Fear: A world that is indifferent to us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Novel(s)
Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy of novels were all released this year, causing many readers and critics to declare the return of H.P. Lovecraft-style weird fiction. The books are an excellent experiment in narrative framing, each one changing format to keep the right things hidden to produce a premium sense of the uncanny and sublime. That said, the most remarkable aspect of VanderMeer’s trilogy is its central monster: Area X.
The Southern Reach books deal with an enemy that is difficult to comprehend. Cordoned off somewhere on the East Coast of the United States (I think), Area X is probably best described as a topographical anomaly which is creating a pristine wilderness out of our human world. It just does what it does, and if you are unlucky enough to bear the curiosity that might bring you close to Area X, it’ll do what it does to you, too. Area X would still create its perfect geography without humans, and it probably will continue to once it assimilates us all.
True to weird genre form, all three books do an excellent job of painting a picture of the unknowable. There are no answers in Area X, because answers are human. The Southern Reach trilogy uses horror and Jeff VanderMeer’s confidence to defy a reader’s lust for answers. Like a hurricane, flood, melting ice cap, or rogue asteroid, the terror of Area X is that it doesn’t require our definition to be hostile. The conflict is on a planetary scale, and we’re too small to matter. Area X will just change us and that’s something we have to accept.
Notable Monsters: Lisa (ghost); talking foetus in a sink; yourself
Primary Fear: There is no escape from this nightmare we’ve created for ourselves.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Video Game
The playable teaser for the upcoming video game Silent Hills, known officially as P.T., was the best video game I played all year. It’s legitimately unsettling like no game has felt, potentially ever; it tells a heartbreaking story completely through simple gameplay; and it subverts the survival horror genre in a very upsetting way. That is to say, in P.T. you have no choice but to survive.
P.T. will not let you die. In previous Silent Hill entries, I always had a sense that the characters would be better off dead than be made to face their custom-tailored punishment. Character death always felt like a sort of emotional escape hatch, even if it was only ever just a frustrating illusion (obviously death is not an option in a narrative that has your character come to the end of the game).
In P.T. there is no “game over” screen. If you are murdered by the abused-to-death ghost of your wife Lisa, you wake up trapped in the same hall. All the doors are locked, even the morbid metaphorical doors, so the only choice (other than standing still) is to keep descending those spiral hallways haunted by the sins of your past.
Notable Monsters: @thereallisaching
Primary Fear: All meaning is created. Nothing matters.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best New Comedy
Review with Forrest MacNeil is the funniest new show of 2014 and a great example of how elements of horror are even invading half-hour comedies. The titular character has taken on the ambitious task of reviewing life itself on an item-by-item basis. After reviewing some of the more difficult parts of life—cocaine addiction, eating 15 pancakes, divorce, eating 30 pancakes—Forrest is confronted with the horror of reviewing the unknown.
A Twitter user named @TheRealLisaChing submitted a request that Forrest review bubble baths, but thanks to a computer glitch the intrepid critic is sent on an odyssey to the end of human meaning.
Forrest is driven temporarily insane on his quest to decipher the meaning of “There All Is Aching” (a broken up version of Lisa’s Twitter handle submitted by the non-existent @bubblebaths). It’s not long before Forrest is being treated to shock therapy, ingesting boatloads of prescription medication, and plotting an asylum escape plan with fellow inmate Emo Philips.
The positive way to look at There All Is Aching is how Forrest reviews it, before the reveal that he should have been soaking in warm, bubbly water instead of being electrically and chemically lobotomized: There All is Aching is a symbol of the struggle of our need to find meaning in randomness. When the glitch is revealed to him, though, it’s clear that no matter what we tell ourselves after experiencing the horrible chaos of the universe and surviving, it can only ever add up to, at most, a three-star experience.
Notable Monsters: Hannibal Lecter
Primary Fear: We are weak and don’t know what to do.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best. Just The Best.
So, if the world is terrible randomness and absurdly horrific, what are we to do? If you’re Abigail Hobbs in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, you do what Dr. Lecter tells you.
The second season of Hannibal is the best piece of 2014’s media I consumed all year. It’s beautiful to behold, intricately written, and does perfect justice to the modern king of monsters, Hannibal Lecter. Beauty and craftsmanship aside, the show’s second season strikes such a heartbreaking chord with its bloody climax that you feel terrifyingly weak as a human.
The entire series is a nightmare love story, and Hannibal Lecter, though not necessarily the main character, is the dark sun around which all the action orbits. He is both the prime mover and the perceived object of every main character. Whether they want revenge, like Will Graham; justice like Jack Crawford; fulfillment like Alana Bloom; or some kind of perverse vindication like Mason Verger, they all need Hannibal to tell them how to get it as the high-functioning psychopath dangles their greatest desire just out of reach.
Lecter is an anti-god, not motivated by the sadistic, but out of active curiosity and pride. Hannibal is an effective representation of our need for some sort of higher being and the fear that the one we put our faith in might be more interested in our mutilation, humiliation, and wine pairing than our actual well being.
We are all living scary lives, and the monsters we love to watch help us know our fears. Hannibal Lecter is an example of how those fears can be at once beautiful and paralyzing.
Peter Counter is a freelance pop culture and technology writer. He writes about TV and video games for Dork Shelf.
This was a shit year. It’s hard to find a “best” thing about a terrible time frame, so it’s no surprise that my Best Of list is exceeding dark. We are the times, and times is hard, Missus Lovett. But my choices, all of them, provide small glimmers of hope, muted rays within the coal dust, a little something to grab for. In a year like 2014, it’s the best I can do.
Everything Dopest in 2013:
- DJ Rashad, Double Cup
- That show I went to in a warehouse in Detroit that Jay Daniel played
- My decision to buy the entirety of Daria and The State on DVD
- DJ Koze’s new album, Amygdala
- Suzi fucking Analogue
- Masters of Sex, especially the boobs
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
- This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
- Ben UFO, fabriclive.67
- DJ Deeon in general
- CodeAcademy/generally learning how to code
- Ableton Push
- Medium (the blogging platform)
- This GIF
Ducky’s newest single, “Two Over Ten,” was released on December 10. The Natasha Kmeto Remix of the track is out today.
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
The 1975, The 1975
Half Moon Run, Dark Eyes
Matt Corby, Resolution EP
I’ve read a lot of the Sherlock Holmes books this year and started—finally—my vinyl collection.
Lewis Watson‘s latest EP, Some Songs With Some Friends, was released December 16 via Warner Music.
Best meal: A toss up between Battersby in Brooklyn and Cal Pep in Barcelona.
Best coffee: Also a toss up: Courier Coffee or Barista, both in Portland, OR.
Best wine: A 1998 St. Emilion that Eric Harland brought to his birthday show at the Blue Note.
Best gig: Montreal Jazz Festival with Aaron Parks, Orlando LeFleming, and Mark Guiliana.
Best concert: Tie between St. Vincent and David Byrne at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA and a traditional flamenco group at Villa Rosa in Madrid.
Best album: Midlake’s Antiphon.
Best movie: I’m hooked on Michael Apted’s original English Up series.
Best purchase: A 1966 Fender Electric XII!
Best drive: After a gig in Vicksburg, MS I took a couple of days to drive up the old “Blues Highway” from Mississippi to Memphis, passing by Dockery Plantation, the legendary “Crossroads, and many of the unmarked places where the blues was born.
Best achievement: Finally finished reading Infinite Jest, which I started sometime in 2012. . .
Best opera: I had a blast playing with the NYC Opera in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, in what ended up being NYC Opera’s final performance. A sad and moving occasion.
Best city: Athens, Greece. You can take a boat to any thousands of beautiful islands, you can study amazing ancient ruins, or you can just hang out and eat Greek food all day. I love it.
Nir Felder‘s next release, Golden Age, will be out on January 21, 2014 via OKeh.
This is the best/worst time of the year for me. I love year-end lists but I hate compiling them. It is a masochist thing for me: I stress on it, torture myself, then as soon as it is done, I want to change it. I’m never satisfied. For the record, all included here may or not be from 2013. My list contains things I’ve re-discovered throughout the year. It happens. Enough of the bullshit: here it is in no particular order (with exceptions for favorites).
Broken is an apt title for director Rufus Norris’s feature debut; viewers will be forgiven if they have a hard time choking back sobs by the end. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Broken‘s superbly arranged 90 minutes evoke a concatenation of emotions. Certainly there is much chest-constricting dread to be found in the film, and many scenes heavy with emotional baggage, but these are often simultaneously buoyed with moments of exquisite gossamer beauty and unbridled humor, reminders that joy can be ephemeral and often intertwined with grief.
A Christmas Story seems like one of those films that was always part of our cultural heritage. Every Christmas, TBS broadcasts it in a 24-hour loop, phrases like “you’ll shoot your eye out” have entered the lexicon, and tchotchkes like the infamous leg lamp sell in large quantities online. Because of the film’s ubiquity, viewers can take for granted what went into getting it made. Writer Caseen Gaines (with the assistance of Jean Shepherd scholar Eugene P. Bergman and actor Wil Wheaton) lifts the curtain on the making of this beloved feature with the book A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic.
By J Howell
Gary Lucas duly notes early on in Touched By Grace that the book is neither a biography of Jeff Buckley nor Lucas himself. It is, however, a remarkable peek from Lucas’s perspective of a brief, tumultuous period in the author’s life, a time of promise and disappointment on a scale that seems overwhelming in retrospect. While the gravitas of the situation may not be readily apparent to non- (or even casual) fans of Buckley or Lucas, considering the lasting impact Grace has made on so many lives, Touched By Grace is an inside look at, frankly, kind of a big deal. Or at least a really big part of a big deal.