Greetings from Read Max HQ! Every month or so I solicit questions from subscribers and rifle through my molding brain for a vaguely entertaining answer.
This edition is part two of a mailbag started last week; while last week’s questions focused on FTX, Twitter, and related subjects, this one is oriented toward culture questions. (There were a lot of questions; there might yet be a third edition of this mailbag.)
Among the things we delve into for this edition: recommendations of “mellow occult thrillers,” the possibility of cryptocurrency sci-fi, and thoughts from guest gamers on the communist horizon of Animal Crossing.
I'm not sure that what I'm looking for has a name--maybe it doesn't exist--but I wondered if you could recommend any mellow occult thrillers. By this I mean something like The Ninth Gate -- long on atmosphere, with a central element of the occult (maybe an evil book, a lost gnostic gospel, or a painting that seems to be causing murders, as in the early Kate Beckinsale vehicle Uncovered), but that never really shades into anything actually frightening. Ideally I suppose what I'd like is to feel as if I've been suspended inside a Gorey drawing. The Basil Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles probably fits the mold, at least in terms of atmosphere, but I'm more interested in something in which the occult/supernatural element isn't ultimately explained away as a clever trick or ploy or some kind of electrical storm. Messiah of Evil would be too intense; Sleepy Hollow would not. The context, which maybe should have come at the beginning, is that this is the rare kind of movie that my wife and I have discovered we both enjoy, so if there are more out there, I'd love to know. — Chris C.
This is a great question, because it really hits a bunch of my interests -- Weird Stuff, Edward Gorey, Movies Your Wife Will Watch With You, The Gothic As A Mood, Not Being Too Scared During A Movie But Feeling A Bit Unsettled For A While After. (One thing this question made me think is that it’s really fucked up that no one’s ever made a great John Bellairs adaptation.) Also it made me add Uncovered, which I’ve never seen, to my list of things to watch. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer, though I have some suggestions that might come kind of close. And I encourage readers with ideas to suggest more in the comments!
The first movie that comes to mind is Angel Heart, an erotic-occult neo-noir thriller starring Sexy Young Mickey Rourke as a grimy private detective, Robert De Niro as his mysterious employer, and Lisa Bonet as a sexy 17-year-old. Be warned that this movie is like 7 out of 10 on the Problematic Scale, but it’s well-made, spooky, and doesn’t ever get too intense.
Another occult neo-noir movie that comes to mind is Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusion, which I haven’t seen in years but I remember liking. That being said, it’s Clive Barker, so it’s probably a bit too intense for what you’re looking for. (In terms of supernatural-themed neo-noir from that era there’s also Cast a Deadly Spell, made-for-HBO mystery with Fred Ward as a private detective in a 1940s Los Angeles where witches and magic are real. I don’t think this is really what you’re looking for, but it’s not nearly as bad as you’re imagining it.)
Looking further back, there’s also Night of the Demon (which was also released in shorter former as Curse of the Demon), a 1957 occult mystery about an American academic investigating a colleague’s mysterious death in England. This is high on the “Gorey Illustration” scale, I think. Martin Scorsese named it one of the scariest movies of all time; I would not personally agree, but it is pretty good.
Going in a different direction, what about Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper? It’s not really a traditional thriller, but there’s a mystery at its core, and it cultivates a great creepy atmosphere that never gets too scary.
Or, saying in the Contemporary Euro Hip vein, maybe Luca Guadanigno’s Suspiria? Probably a bit too intense? Italian directors love creepy occult atmospherics, but they also love gore. I have an abiding, and possibly undeserved, affection for the forgotten 1994 movie Dark Waters, an English movie shot in Ukraine by the Italian director Mariano Baino, about a mystery at a spooky occult convent on an island. It probably gets too actually-scary to count for this exercise, but it’s wonderfully creepy.
Another director who comes to mind is Guillermo Del Toro -- I haven’t actually seen Nightmare Alley yet, but I think Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak are both in the gothic neighborhood of what you’re looking for. (The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone are also excellent but probably too out-and-out scary.)
Finally, have you considered the possibility that you and your wife are just … Roman Polanski fans? I feel like Frantic, Ghost Writer, and Bitter Moon are all kind of adjacent to Ninth Gate on a tone-and-atmosphere level, even if they’re not as occult-focused. (I’m setting aside Rosemary’s Baby because I presume it’s too intense.)
One final thought: Eyes Wide Shut isn’t really a thriller, but it’s sort of the “serious” version of Ninth Gate? In a way? And Christmas is just around the corner…
As a dad when and how do you do all your reading and other cultural consumption! — Marc T.
The answer is “after bedtime and during naptime, if I don’t have other work to do,” but I will say that one reason I like doing the newsletter is that it (usually) compels me to read and watch engaging and challenging stuff during my downtime, so I have good stuff to recommend, rather than defaulting to whatever will make my brain smoothest. That being said, LOL. As close readers of the blog will have noticed, I have not actually recommended any “culture” for the last few weeks because I have consumed barely any! (Besides Andor, which is great, and which I hope I’ll get time to write about soon.)
You can take any artist at the peak of their powers and will them to cover any subject you so choose. EG Don DeLillo from 1985 has to write a novel about the July Crisis of World War 1, or SBF and FTX; Caravaggio from 1600 must paint Trump in the White House surrounded by Big Macs? Etc Etc. Who goes to the top of the list, doing what? — Benny
I wish I had some funny high-culture answer to this but I think what my lizard-brain really wants to read is peak James Ellroy on the Years of Lead in Italy.
Why is there almost no crypto in scifi and what does that say about the technology? (Only one I can think of is a reference in a Kim Stanley Robinson book that he later recanted) — Mark S.
One other example I can think of is this Hannu Rajaniemi short story from MIT Technology Review. But yeah, in general, it seems to not show up very much in the sci-fi I read -- assuming we’re excluding centralized digital currencies like the ones in every Neal Stephenson book.
The thing is, I think I’d like to read good sci-fi about (or, at least, that involves) cryptocurrency -- smart speculative fiction is a good way to understand the dynamics and consequences of trends in technology and politics. I can imagine middling cyberpunk stories about crypto arbitrage schemes, cold-wallet heists, etc., or even more ambitious stories about decentralized governance, a world under multiple currency regimes, consequences of ongoing deflation. It’s not like the complexity of cryptocurrency design would scare off hard SF writers.
So it’s interesting to me that so little of it (seemingly) shows up. It makes think something about cryptocurrency just isn’t capturing the imagination of many writers in SFF. Possibly just the unbelievable mundanity of the culture that’s spring up around it. I do wonder if one boring answer to this is that because the world of SFF writing is extremely polarized at the moment, the authors I like to read just aren’t interested in dealing with a technology that’s coded as libertarian or right-wing?
Everyone is asking for an Elon movie or miniseries when what we really need is the Fincher/Sorkin Social Network 2. What era of Zuck should they use and what bullshit Sorkin framing device should be used? — Peter N.
The entire saga of Zuck ineffectively sucking up to Xi Jinping -- blurbing his book, asking him to name his daughter, etc. -- told in flashbacks as he bow-hunts boar in Hawaii.
Neon Genesis: Evangelion, thoughts? — Matt Z.
OK, my thought is the Vince McMahon meme, where Vince gets increasingly excited as the text continues:
A GIANT-ROBOT ANIME
IN WHICH MECHAS FIGHT ANGELS
INSPIRED BY THE KABBALAH
ALSO IT’S ABOUT DEPRESSION
AND FOR SOME REASON THERE’S A PENGUIN
Is it possible to play Animal Crossing communistly? — Parker
I never actually played Animal Crossing, so I turned this one over to the gamers group chat:
Me: someone sent a mailbag question to read max
Me: “Is it possible to play Animal Crossing communistly?”
L: well i don’t have a good enough understanding of communism to answer that unfortunately
B: You can give items away to other villagers but you have to buy them and sell your fruits and stuff
B: You can play the turnip market, earn a bazillion bells, and practice effective altruism
L: yeah i mean there’s no real mechanism to like. jointly own the means of production (trees) or whatever
C: Stardew valley and animal crossing are prob as close as it gets
C: There is a collectivism
C: If not exactly a communism
C: Link and build
L: that’s actually a good separate question
L: would a game where you do communism be fun
S: a game with no winners or losers would not be very fun
S: a Stalinism Simulator could be fun
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Kinda collating two questions together, I have a "James Ellroy writes an occult thriller" recommendation: Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez is a 700-page horror saga set during the Argentinian dictatorship. It has everything anyone could ask of that prompt: a European cult, Guarani folk horror, political commentary, love, sex, paranoïa, and a bit more horror. Check it out, everyone, I don't know anybody who has read it and not absolutely loved it (though I'm talking French translation, in our case). Also, cheesy American cover, don't mind it, check the Argentinian cover for a better sense of the tone.
Fincher’s The Game isn’t technically occult, but probably close enough for the prompt. (Also happens to be the best Philip K Dick film not actually based on any PKD source material.)