Behind the Scenes – Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus

No century-old monsters to discuss today, I’m afraid; I’m a little behind in my Universal movie watch. Instead, we’re gonna do a guest blog! Guest blogs are the best because, frankly, I don’t have to do all that much work; also, this one is about NEW DARK FANTASY NOVELS. Victorian goth fantasy, even. Basically, it’s a win for everyone.

The current pandemic has disrupted, well, pretty much everything right now. Rather obviously, Covid-19 takes priority, as it should; unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any easier on debut authors whose books have just come out. Which is one of the reasons I invited my friend, Jonathan Fortin, to come on my blog and talk about what inspired his debut novel: Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus, which just recently came out from Crystal Lake Publishing. If you’re looking to read something new and/or support debut SF/F/H authors, then feast your eyes on this absolutely gorgeous cover art by Ben Baldwin and continue on to learn all about Lilitu.

BEHIND THE SCENES OF “LILITU: THE MEMOIRS OF A SUCCUBUS”

I’ve always felt that succubi and incubi take everything that’s scary and sexy about vampires, and amplify it. They’re beautiful demons that prey on humans, but they have some pretty cool traits that vampires don’t. For one thing, they can enter and manipulate dreams. For another, they often have wings, horns, or tails. But the biggest difference is that, while vampires are often figuratively about sex, succubi and incubi are far more literal–actually drawing sustenance through sexual energy.

Maybe that’s why there haven’t been too many serious books focused on succubi. There are certainly a few, but more often than not, succubi remain side characters–usually femme fatale sex symbols that exist primarily for the male gaze. It’s also pretty rare for books to portray succubi as folklore does. For example, rarely do succubus protagonists enter dreams, or have wings or horns.

With that in mind, there were a few main goals I had in mind while working on LILITU: THE MEMOIRS OF A SUCCUBUS:

  1. To write a succubus-centric novel that wasn’t male-gazey.

  2. To have it take the folklore of succubi and incubi seriously.

3. To use that folklore to explore gender issues in an exciting horror/dark fantasy tale.

I felt that a proper succubus book needed to address gender issues because of society’s double standards about female sexuality. Indeed, sometimes when men feel threatened by a woman, they will call her a succubus, literally demonizing her–particularly if the woman in question is sexually liberated, dominant, or just won’t submit to male authority.

From this idea emerged the character of Maraina Blackwood–a mortal woman, raised to believe that she must submit to the patriarchy, who ends up becoming a heroic succubus fighting to smash it. Maraina’s arc is all about exploring the ideas that are drilled into our heads growing up, and recognizing how toxic they are. She deconstructs the femme fatale archetype by being a noble seductress. Similarly, the villain of the book, the cruel incubus Salem Sotirios, is a condemnation of toxic patriarchy, as well as of “abusive-but-sexy” Byronic love interests like Edward Cullen or Christian Grey.

Once I had this concept, I ended up setting the book in Victorian England. Part of this was because I wanted to give the book a pervasive Gothic Horror aesthetic; this way, my succubi could wear corsets, my incubi could wear top hats, and they all could frolic around in dark, crumbling castles. As an enthusiast of Victorian Gothic Fashion, that sounded just dandy to me.

More importantly, though, the Victorians had infamously rigid gender roles and severe sexual repression. It was a perfectly horrible society for Maraina to grow up in, making her all the more of a sympathetic rebel.

From there, I considered the rules of succubi and incubi, and adjusted them to fit the narrative I wanted to tell. “Succubi and Incubi” was too mouthy to repeat over and over, so I settled on naming the species as a whole “Lilitu.” Different lilitu bloodlines would have different traits–some would have horns while others wouldn’t, some would shift gender, etc.–but in all cases, they would be able to enter and manipulate dreams.

Another factor was the fact that succubi are supposed to be exceptionally beautiful. I didn’t want to support the idea that there’s one valid form of beauty, so I ensured that we meet succubi of all body types throughout the book. I also decided to deconstruct this facet of the mythology by exploring how society demands that we look and act a certain way based on our sex, and the dysmorphia we can feel as a result.

LILITU is dark fantasy, so it’s got plenty of fun, magical bits: flaming swords, sexy demons, and blood rituals, to name a few. But at its core, it’s attempting to explore very real issues, and many of its most unsettling moments are based on the factual truth of Victorian life. Unfortunately, in our modern world, many of these issues remain uncomfortably relevant. The main takeaway from LILITU is this: all demons do is draw attention to the horror that was already there.

ABOUT THE BOOK: England, 1876. Twenty-year-old Maraina Blackwood has always struggled to adhere to the restrictive standards of Victorian society, denying the courage and desire that burn within her soul. But after a terrifying supernatural encounter, Maraina’s instincts compel her to action.

Maraina soon discovers a plot to unleash a new world—one of demonic aristocrats, bloody rituals, and nightmarish monsters. Putting her upbringing aside, Maraina vows to fight the dark forces assuming control of England. But as her world transforms, Maraina finds that she too must transform…and what she becomes will bring out all that she once buried.

Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus is the first chapter in an epic dark fantasy saga, proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.

PLACES YOU CAN BUY: Amazon

(Or if you want to support small business, check to see if your local bookstore can order the novel and ship it directly to you.)

ABOUT JONATHAN: Jonathan Fortin is the author of “Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus” (Crystal Lake Publishing), “Requiem In Frost” (Horroraddicts.net), and “Nightmarescape” (Mocha Memoirs Press). An unashamed lover of spooky Gothic stories, Jonathan was named the Next Great Horror Writer in 2017 by HorrorAddicts.net. He attended the Clarion Writing Program in 2012, one year after graduating summa cum laude from San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing program. When not writing, Jonathan enjoys voice acting, dressing like a Victorian vampire, and indulging in all things odd and macabre in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him online at www.jonathanfortin.com or on Twitter @Jonathan_Fortin.

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Year of Monsters: The Phantom of the Opera

I should probably state upfront that I was kinda doomed to dislike this movie.

I tried to read The Phantom of the Opera in high school when the library finally got new books. I can’t say I gave it a particularly fair shake, just realized I was bored and didn’t really like anybody and quickly moved onto all the other new books. Much later, I tried out Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, and boy, did I HATE it. It seemed to take forever, I despised basically every character that wasn’t Minnie Driver, and while I freely admit to not knowing much about music, some of the singing seemed, ah, not great? I’ve always felt like I should I see the musical in theater at some point to see if the sheer spectacle can pull me in, but even if that was a possibility at present, I’m reluctant to part ways with that much money over a story that, traditionally, has made me wanna stab people every time they open their mouths.

Alas, I must inform you that even in the silent version, I still hate all these motherfuckers.

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Year of Monsters: Dracula

Dracula is one of the rare Universal classics I’ve actually seen before; it was many years ago, though, and at the time, I found the film rather boring. Watching it again, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the story is undeniably chaotic, I enjoyed Dracula quite a bit. There are multiple reasons for that, but the most strikingly obvious one is the fantastic score.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I’ve seen that movie, and there IS no score . . . well, you’re right. Until the late 1990’s, at least.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

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Year of Monsters: Bride of Frankenstein

Need a quick pandemic break? It’s time to return to our Year of Monsters! Today we’ll be following up Frankenstein with, appropriately enough, Bride of Frankenstein, and unlike its predecessor, I’d never seen this one before.

And while I don’t know exactly what I expected from this movie, holy shit, it wasn’t this.

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TV Superlatives: December, January, and February – 2019/2020

It’s that time again: our winter TV Superlatives!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching (whether they’re currently airing or not) with awards like Favorite Bromance, Favorite WTF Moment, Best Profanity, etc. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked.

As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

Busted! (Season 2)
His Dark Materials
Nancy Drew
The Mandalorian
DC Universe’s Harley Quinn
Watchmen
The Expanse (Season 4)
A Black Lady Sketch Show
The Witcher
Barry (Season 2)
The Good Place (Season 4)
Star Trek: Picard
Legends of Tomorrow (Season 5)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 7)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

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Year of Monsters: Frankenstein

Unlike the other Universal films we’ve discussed so far, I’ve actually seen Frankenstein before. Read it before, too, although I’ll admit it’s been years since I’ve done either. I’ll also admit that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a serious struggle for me to get through. Some of the prose is fascinating and beautifully written, like, there are sections of it that have stuck with me for years, and I’d actually be interested in seeing a more faithful adaptation, but boy. There’s a limit on how much I can deal with a dude moaning about how wretched and cursed and doomed he is, and Victor Frankenstein easily surpasses that limit in the first fifty pages.

But that’s not this story. James Whale’s Frankenstein is a wildly different affair, and while it certainly has its moments, I think I enjoyed it more the first time I watched it.

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Triple Scoop Review: BLOODY HEARTS – Dead Body, Overlord, and The Void

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, so you know what that means: HORROR MOVIES.

Dead Body

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Shudder
Spoilers: Yes, but only in the last two paragraphs.
Grade: Chocolate

To my surprise and delight, this low-budget indie is a pretty decent little slasher film. (And directed by a woman! Yay, more women in horror!) The premise, of course, is absolutely my jam: a bunch of high school graduates (and one older boyfriend) play Dead Body, where one person is secretly assigned the role of the murderer and “kills” someone, and everyone else has to figure out who did it–only then people actually start dying. This is a Golden Age of Detective fiction staple and absolutely the kind of morbid shit I would definitely play, so of course, Mek and I had to try this movie out. Where it shines best is dialogue, characterization, and surprisingly intentional humor: Dominic’s mostly relatable bitchiness about his uninvited guests (“I need to go set up the loft I wasn’t planning on using”) or Dwayne immediately going for hacksaws, hooks, and nail guns after finding the dead bodies. I also genuinely like how protective Marcus is of his weird brother. (Or friend? I was never actually clear on this.) And there are one or two big surprises here: one didn’t do much for me, but the other I LOVED.

The thing that wasn’t a surprise, unfortunately, is the identity of the killer. Which, hey, correctly solving a whodunnit can provide a glorious sense of satisfaction, or even vindication. Here, however, Mek and I were pretty sure about the killer maybe 25 minutes into the film and were all but proven right about 25 minutes later–which is still a solid 15 before the Big Reveal. Some of the setup is actually pretty clever, but there are a few missteps, which I’ll discuss in the next two paragraphs. Other disappointments: the opening scene doesn’t do much for me–we should probably cut the last 30 seconds at least–and the two foreign exchange students are barely even in this movie, which is especially annoying because they’re the only POC in the whole cast.

SPOILER territory: I initially assumed Marcus was the killer because he’s the Nice Guy Love Interest and I figured he’d brought Rumor along as an obvious patsy. However, suspicions were quickly transferred to Dominic, partially because finding him so suddenly dead was shocking enough to be suspicious, partially because of the Harvard motive (which I thought was nicely handled), and partially because I’ve seen enough movies/read enough Agatha Christie to know you can’t trust dead bodies. Even if I hadn’t, Kenji playing dead is pretty obvious foreshadow. I think that bit could probably be cut, along with the whole it was YOU line from the opening scene, and that moment when the camera lingers a beat too long on the hammer. (Because that’s how Mek and I went from, like, 90% sure that Dominic was the killer to 190%: he kills Rumor with the hammer obviously left behind.) If we really want Dominic to be a shock, we probably need another viable suspect and/or a costume change; alternatively, it might work to do the Big Reveal with Rumor’s death, so the audience finds out well before our surviving heroes. That way, we’d get to watch Dominic’s surprise/delight when his intended victims start killing each other out of paranoia. I’m kinda warming up to that idea, actually.

Finally, the two big surprises are the last-minute resurrections of Sarah and Marcus. Sarah is really interesting: for one, her survival is pretty shocking because she seems like such a Dead Meat character. (Shocking survival, as it turns out, became quite the theme of the evening.) For another, Sarah pulls a nail out of her own face to kill the bad guy. I thought the scene where Ilsa pulls nails out of Sarah’s face was pretty great, but this is just badass. Unfortunately, Marcus’s miraculous resurrection kinda feels like it’s just taking away from Sarah’s. I felt bad for the dude when he died, but once dead? Yeah, stay dead, my dude.

Overlord

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yeah, sorry
Grade: Vanilla

I’m always excited by the idea of genre-blending, especially when mystery or horror come into the mix, but Overlord feels uneven to me. It’s strongest, I think, in the first act, when the movie is pure action/war drama. (Did anyone watch this movie without seeing the trailer full of spoilers? Cause damn, no one’s getting Nazi Zombie Shit from the first 20 minutes of this movie.) The plane scene is dramatic AF and the ominous clues in the woods that “something is amiss” are decent. I like most of the cast. Jovan Adepo gives an especially strong performance as our kind-hearted protagonist Boyce. I know Adepo primarily from a two-episode stint in Watchmen, and I definitely want to see more of him.

But we start hitting problems in Act II when our heroes make it to the French village. Part of that’s pacing: it takes way too long to for anyone to find all the horrific experiments. This movie is only 1 hour and 48 minutes, but boy, I’d have bet money it was a lot longer. And then, part of it’s content: I’m not sure Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, AKA, Euron Greyjoy) is doing much for me as a Big Bad, and I definitely found the coerced sexual assault shit completely unnecessary. (Boyce interrupts Wafner before he rapes Chloe, but this is still a yuck subplot and incredibly lazy writing.) The aunt, too, is much more foreshadow than actual character: she barely has screen time, much less dialogue.

Still, the worst problems, I think, begin after Boyce discovers all the Nazi Zombie Shit. The discovery scene itself is great: it’s weird, creepy, maybe a bit silly (I’m specifically thinking of the decapitated head pleading in French), but overall, just a lot of fun. And Boyce has spectacular reactions to the body horror/general impossibility; his freakout is super relatable, TBH. This is the moment the whole film has been building toward–which is why I’m just baffled by the decision to completely cut the tension by stopping for a 15-minute time-out, like, Overlord goes right back to straight-up war movie again, all unethical interrogations and “is it right to beat up a Nazi” and “do we even recognize ourselves anymore?” These are all perfectly fine themes that should not be dwelled on here, five minutes after this shit. And while we do kinda get back on track with the death/zombie resurrection of Chase (Iain De Caestecker), the film never fully recovers; instead, the whole third act loses its creepy body horror vibe and just becomes a really bad Resident Evil movie. It’s so bland and cartoonishly over-the-top that there’s just no tension at all. I was honestly bored, and that’s about the last reaction you want from your audience here.

Finally, some additional notes:

A. Secret histories, admittedly, are not always my bag, but I’m not sure that tying this story  to D-Day really does much for me.

B. I can’t decide if De Caestecker’s American accent is bad or if I’m just very aware it’s not his natural, lovely Scottish. I am fond of the actor, though. When Chase gets shot (inevitably, I mean, maybe don’t send the kid with the camera to secure the Big Bad Nazi Dude, FFS), I was all, “A-ha! This is why you cast De Caestecker, for the emotional death scene!”

C. Overlord’s “Holy Shit, This Guy Actually Lived!” is Jacob (Dominic Applewhite) and, to a lesser extent, Tibet (John Magaro). Tibet is the semi-redemptive asshole, whereas Jacob is Boyce’s buddy from the plane, the one who Boyce repeatedly promises, “I’ll be right behind you!” Obviously, I marked Jacob as First to Die. It is lovely to be wrong sometimes.

D. Alas, Private Dawson (Jacob Anderson) does not fare so well. Mekaela and I had just enough time to say, “Wait, is that Grey Worm?” before he blew the hell up. Sorry, buddy.

The Void

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Shudder
Spoilers: Yeah, sorry again
Grade: Strawberry

This one starts out so strong, but kind of spirals into an incoherent mess. Mileage is definitely gonna vary on that, depending on your A) tolerance for how much a story refuses to explain, and B) nostalgia for 80’s cosmic horror. I tend to be skeptical of the former and like the latter more in theory than execution. For example, The Void reminded Mekaela of Hellraiser, a movie I enjoyed for its aesthetics and not much else. (I’m tagging this whole review a blasphemy just for that sentence.) Meanwhile, The Void reminded me of Prince of Darkness, which I reviewed in great detail last year and, ultimately, didn’t love. Which is all to say I may not have been the target audience here.

Except . . . damn it, I still feel like I really could’ve enjoyed this movie. For starters, there’s an awful lot I do like about The Void. The initial setup and “WTF is going on here” mystery is a lot of fun. The look of the film is pretty great. I enjoy the whole cast. The reveal that our kindly old doctor isn’t just Dead Meat Walking but the actual Big Bad is awesome, especially since it comes after he does predictably “die.” Likewise, the reversal that our blatantly evil murderers from the beginning are actually good guys (well . . . good-sh) is pretty cool, too, although I do feel like their backstory gets a little lost in the chaos. The ending with the Sheriff and Allison is interesting, if sorta huh, and I’m fucked shocked that our ultimate survivors are the unnamed mute guy and Ellen Wong–people. I have finally found a Western horror film where an Asian woman lives. Holy shit.

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons Prince of Darkness came to mind wasn’t the portal sacrifice similarities or the supernatural pregnancy BS–more on that in a bit–it was the ominous cultists converging on the hospital. We know absolutely nothing about this cult, like, who the hell these dudes are, why they don’t bother coming inside, where they peaced out to at the end, etc. (Seriously, did the ascend or something? The fuck?) Apparently, this is one of the many things intentionally left open for the viewer to decide, but this viewer has decided: we learn nothing about these guys because the creators don’t care about these guys; they just needed something to trap the heroes in the hospital, and that’s it. In Prince of Darkness, the cultists are actually possessed homeless people, but they serve the exact same plot function, and IMO, that’s lazy as shit writing.

And therein lies my main problem with The Void; rarely does the script feel purposefully ambiguous and thought-provoking; mostly, it feels lazy, chaotic, and confused. The hallucinations in the not-exactly-there basement feel muddled. Most of what happens in the whole third act feels pretty muddled. And I’m especially disappointed by Allison, who starts out as a potentially interesting character and ends up just becoming a vessel, a body, a plot device rather than an actual person. Allison exists to A) draw our heroes into the Basement of Doom, B) add to our MC’s ongoing man pain, and C) give us some old-fashioned pregnancy horror, I guess? (She lost a baby prior to the story, so Big Bad impregnates her with monster juice, and she gets to die of symbolism. And getting chopped up by her tearful hubby, of course. Cool.) This is all especially tedious because we already have Maggie for the pregnancy horror, but I guess one eldritch nightmare birth where the mom/vessel violently dies wasn’t enough? Basically, this whole bit sucks.

Finally, additional notes:

A. I did actually enjoy the twist that Maggie was also a bad guy. I probably should’ve caught that, but I just assumed she’d have a gross demon baby, which, hey, that part was dead on. Poor Sarah got mighty ugly in her second life, didn’t she?

B. Much like with Grey Worm in Overlord, I had just enough time to be excited about Iris Rouse (Stephanie Belding) from Shadowhunters popping up before she got killed off. (Then transformed into an eldritch horror and then killed off again.) Sorry, buddy.

C. As always, doing clerical/errand work in a hospital hardly makes me a medical expert. And this story is admittedly set in some rural town in the . . . 80’s? 90’s? Still, I had a ball laughing at the medical inaccuracies in this movie. The aborted C-section wasn’t actually as bad as I thought (when you’re primarily familiar with a low transverse incision, a classical cut looks weird AF, like, Jesus, why are you all the way up there), although I highly suspect that whatever pain relief Kim used wouldn’t cut it for fucking surgery. But I straight up cackled when Allison walked to the med room, which appears to just be a basic supply closet where they keep narcotics unlocked on the shelf. Also, seriously, there’s only one patient here. Why the fuck are we keeping the supplies this far away? For that matter, why hasn’t the one and only patient in this hospital been transferred literally anywhere else? Like, I get the idea that this place is still supposed to be open for emergency services or something, but uh, dude’s clearly just an inpatient now. Ship that motherfucker out. And how in Christ’s name is anyone still working out of this hospital? Again, I get the idea–emergency services for locals while everyone else has moved off to hospitals that weren’t recently half burned down–but also, bullshit. The nearest hospital is only 20 minutes away, which of course is shitty, but shocking? In a rural county? HA. Hell, that’s the distance between the high school I went to and its closest hospital. Besides, the state of this place? No one should be working here. This especially kills me dead because the hospital I work at now has been temporarily shut down twice in the past few years just for smoke damage, much less a fire that actually destroyed part of the fucking building. These people have not heard of JCAHO, that’s all I’m saying.

D. Finally, more fun casting: our Big Bad is played by Kenneth Welsh, who I know from one episode of The Expanse but also from Twin Peaks, where he played Windom Earle. I had no idea that was the same guy! Meanwhile, Art Hindle, who was in both the original Black Christmas and the 70’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has a small role here, too. Horror cameo casting is just the best.

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