A Review of Children of the New Flesh, edited by Chris Kelso and David Leo Rice, via 11:11 Press
In the quest for influences and masters among a new wave of artists and writers wishing to tap into a heritage of darkness and cerebral legitimacy, you could do worse than to position yourself in the riptide behind the strange, cool director David Cronenberg. Cronenberg is that rare artist who has managed to veer into commercially viable, relatively mainstream success while still staying true to his bizarre obsessions and themes. Cronenberg’s iconography has stood out from hordes of other lesser horror and sci fi filmmakers as something otherworldly, disturbing, phantasmagorical, and sexy — if you consider bodily transfiguration and the incursion of foreign inhabitants into your mind to be sexy.
A new book has come out from cutting edge indie publishers 11:11 Press which pays tribute to Cronenberg’s influence on writers in the here and now. Editors Chris Kelso and David Leo Rice have organized a host of other writers to offer up their takes on Cronenberg’s work, with a focus on the early, lesser-known short films of the Canadian auteur. Fittingly for the often biomechanical crossbred subject matter of the movies, the book consists of a hybrid admixture of non-fiction essays and fictional homages which manages to unsettle the reader while providing crucial information.
The seven short films discussed here span from the late 60s to the mid 70s and make up the early corpus of Cronenberg which I have not seen. I am one of those people who with the videotape revolution really only saw his movies from the 1980s onward, such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Crash. I have seen some of his newer pictures, which seem more psychological than based in body horror, and I liked them, especially Maps to the Stars. From the descriptions in the book (the whole middle section is short essays describing the early shorts followed by responses), these little-known shorter films, like the later movies, perhaps with the exception of 2022’s Crimes of the Future, to touch on abnormal psychology, parapsychology, horrors of the mind. Perhaps their more meager budgets in the 1960s and 70s did not enable the special effects which came later in Cronenberg’s career, allowing for the mutations, gore, and violence which became his peculiar bread and butter in the 80s.
The brainpower on display in the book’s writings is staggering and head-exploding, but the critical high-point of the book for me came in the form of David Leo Rice’s essay near the beginning titled “Long Live the Heroic Pervert: On Seeking Live Flesh in an Undead Age.” Rice is a perceptive, intelligent critic capable of insights into the contemporary relevance of what might otherwise seem like a niche director making money off curiosities of genre horror and sci fi. The full array of critical light Rice shines on Cronenberg, technology, modernity, and art will need to be explored by those who read the book and the essay for themselves, but Rice hits a sensitive, fresh wound when he talks about 2022, a year which lurks through the book like the scariest monster taking a new shape — the involutions and folds of the Internet — that is impossible to deflect:
We believe we’ve dodged a bullet by, so far, avoiding mass implantation or a literal ‘Rise of the Machines,’ but we are more networked and abstracted from our own autonomy than we would be if we simply had bionic body parts, or lived inside mech-suits—at least in that case we could fantasize about taking them off…The fact that this new evolutionary step was accomplished willingly, by promising to satisfy our own narcissism, loneliness, insecurity, ambivalent horniness, longing for the void and need for convenience makes it seem as though no act of violence was perpetrated, which in a sense is true, and yet the result of this willing transfer of body and mind into the ether may be more violent, by many scales of magnitude, than anything art can encompass.
Cronenberg’s art about mental abnormality, new mutations, and cursed societies has much to prophesy about the present moment in which we are, as a widespread collective of social media addicts, tapped into the vast fear machine network that is running at full speed.
The selections from other writers are plentiful and varied, and the editors chose some doozies. I found that in the large middle section taking its cues from the older Cronenberg films, I preferred the often lyrical fictional works to the more academic essayistic writing. Standouts to me included Joe Koch’s “Invaginies,” Gary Shipley’s “Tendrils,” and Evan Isoline’s “Corpusplex,” a frightening, clinical collision of -ologies that was banana-cakes, rendered in grammatically unmoored fragments which put me in mind of Cronenberg’s corporate surgical theaters or telepathic group-therapy chambers.
The list of short movies themselves will serve as a helpful guide for those cinephiles wishing to round out their diet of Cronenburgundian poisons (to utilize interviewee and Cronenberg collaborator Bruce Wagner’s punning adjective). Of the seven movies, the most enticing to me seem to be “Stereo” (1969) and “The Italian Machine” (1976), the latter being a tale of motorbike enthusiasts setting out to steal a particularly sexy and sleek rare motorbike from a show-room collector who has no intention of riding it — the eroticized relationship between man and machine that would return like an obsessive dream with the director’s Ballard-adaption Crash from the 1990s.
The book is rounded out with a series of interviews with writers of freakout books, movies and non-fiction, on the subject of Cronenberg’s influence and interaction with the culture, such as Tim Lucas, Mick Garris, Kathe Koja, and the aforementioned Bruce Wagner, a favorite writer of mine. These interviews open doors to the behind the scenes blood-and-guts of the moviemaking process that Cronenberg has had to operate within. This is followed by an illuminating (and somewhat unsurprisingly demystifying) interview with David Cronenberg himself, where he sheds some of the artistic and critical exoskeleton that has been imputed to him over the preceding pages. The reader isn’t quite as thwarted as he might be by the dissatisfying lack of ornamentation found in fellow directorial icon David Lynch’s gnomic interviews and comments on his own work. Yet Cronenberg is careful to deflate some balloons that may exist in the minds of worshipful interlocutors, as seen in his own disavowal of the popular nomenclature “body horror” and/or the failure of any attempts at goading him into an amplifying reflection on his “vision”: “I don’t have a vision,” he says, adding later, “I don’t have a list of things that must be in my movies or a philosophical statement of intent.”
Bursting with unsettling cerebral meditations and perceptions, the book Kelso and Rice have expended such effort at pulling together should justly stand the test of time as an essential work of criticism and homage to one of the most idiosyncratic and stimulating cinematic artists of the past fifty years. Readers — particularly artists and writers working in the unusual, the outré, the weird, the disturbing, the apocalyptic — who seek a media context in which to place themselves that stretches from the recent video-infused past into the malevolent contortions of a potential Internet yet to be envisioned should pick up this fearful book and be changed.
— Jesse Hilson is a freelance reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared in AZURE, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Misery Tourism, Expat Press, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Heavy Feather Review, Eclectica, Excuse Me Mag, and elsewhere. His novel Blood Trip was published by Close to the Bone (UK) in April 2022. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and runs a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com.