John Carpenter Lost Themes II

[Sacred Bones; 2016]

Styles: The Thing, horror, music
Others: Marissa Nadler, David Lynch, Pharmakon


I’m sitting on my couch, and the thing is sitting in my lap. I look at it, turn it over in my hands, consider its promises.

“Hear your horror.”

I put the thing in my ears.

It’s quiet. I squint. I try to discern a noise. Then there’s a double-shot throb, a whining wash buried back in a cochlear nerve. I close my eyes, focus on the throb. I bring my fingernails to my neck, right below my larynx, feel the sore spot where I strained a muscle. I press my palms to my throat. It’s hot. It’s moving. Teeth slam into teeth. Beating throbs split skin at the strain. Knuckle hornets, spike hairs dripping, shove their way out and the throbbing won’t stop. Fingernails push back farther, into the gape in the neck, splitting cartilage desperate to make the throbbing stop. Fingers wrap around vertebrae. The spine pulses, sending screams to the brain, sweat to the neck. It’s in the bones. The horror is you.

I take the thing out of my ears. I drag my fingernails across the sweat of my neck. I squint. Where have I heard this movie before?


Hollywood promises a dream factory. John Carpenter hocks cheap phantasms in the parking lot. He projects images that rile, phantoms ripe for our rejection. We look away but we lean in: his horror collects the systems we fear (madness, sexuality, identity, memory) and holds them up to us, bleeding. Horror is the promise of a process, the thing that makes you scream until you don’t have to scream anymore.

Lost Themes II is jukebox John Carpenter. “White Pulse” is arpeggio Armageddon (Halloween). “Utopian Façade” reeks of half-familiar streets rendered monstrous (They Live), and the core of “Dark Blues” is snow-globe hair metal, a full-action guitar spasm with a dumb Kurt Russell smile. John Carpenter’s fingers are all over the neck of his lost themes. We lie in bed, smiling, nodding, shades of things that make us cringe. But we fall into a deep and restful sleep, no phantoms to haunt our heads.

Rene Clair filmed a slew of dreams. His 1929 essay The Art of Sound confirms his real horror of sound cinema (“It is too late for those who love the art of moving pictures to deplore the effects of this barbaric invasion.”) Clair bought the Hollywood myth, slipped it through a Parisian lens, and sold it, exalting the “delightful numbness” that a poetry of images could instill. Images that appeared to make real noise didn’t matter: “it is the alternate, not the simultaneous, use of the visual subject and of the sound produced by it that creates the best effects.” Real is horrific, a dream without fantasy.

Lost Themes II is a response horror to Clair’s, a moving sound without an image. It references, it winks, but it is condemned to sensory anxiety. It is completely simultaneous, suggesting worlds and ignoring fantasy for fantasizing. Carpenter’s film scores devastate with sparseness, rejecting the excess of the horror of the image. They make us question our own adrenaline: why am I excited by this canned guitar solo when a monster world is all I see? The monster is the horror. Our terror is hearing it as we lie awake. The monster isn’t there.


Lost Themes II has no monster, and it is not horror. But as an artifact, it presents a slim set of letters that suggest a larger language. Its lostness rejects a label, and in looking to assign one, it aspires. John Carpenter, an author who has achieved poetry with Karo Syrup, presents horror music for our consideration.

Because television, movies, novels all get to be horror. Genre discussions can be shallow, but they can be fun and they can be honest. Lost Themes II is an attempt to codify a horror in a moment of music. What does horror sound like? Pharmakon exercises the crisis of the brain in the expelling of guts. Marissa Nadler traces outlines of love and lust until a ghost emerges and never leaves. Jenny Hval sings the body dying and being born in the same instant. The Body assaults us our thesis: no one deserves happiness. This is horror music.

“The most merciful thing in the world,” wrote Lovecraft “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” I feel my neck. I think about the thing in my ears. It fixates on little fears, and when it works, it explodes them. It needs me. I think about the Thing in John Carpenter’s dreams. It needs a human too, to deliver its apocalypse, to consume and become. Carpenter’s horror art is his alien monster, an unknowable mass of dream flesh constantly sorting and re-sorting, always less itself and more the monster of everything. John Carpenter gave us The Thing because it terrified him to always be changing, to live in flux. Lost Themes II isn’t the monster transfigured. It’s an echo chamber for the transforming horror to howl in.

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