first round game
(10) the chameleons (uk), “swamp thing”
(7) alien sex fiend, “now i’m feeling zombified”
and play on in round 2
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 7.
kevin mosby on “now i’m feeling zombified”
I’ve been wearing all black nearly every day the past two months.
Been waiting since January 1 for someone to ask me “what’s with all the black?” so that I can respond “I’m in mourning” and so they can ask me “mourning what?” and I can say “just a general kind of mourning.” But instead they say “looks like you’ve lost weight” [because an all-black ensemble is slimming to one’s figure] or “smile, why don’t you?” [because an all-black ensemble implies a melancholy of spirit, one situated shallow down within the wearer of the ensemble, and one that tells onlookers/the world, “I’ve chosen to rue because you all disappoint me”].
Concurrent with the advent of this new wardrobe was my newfound desire to partner/to couple, occasioned by Mom’s statement around xmas [“I wonder if I’ll have grandkids.”] and Dad’s [“Leave him alone, Cheryl!”].
I ruminate on death more than I’d like to. Not the moment of it, but the fact of human expiration. I dislike deadlines, endings of all kinds. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do what I’d like to do, not even enough to do what I need to do. That now I must repopulate the earth in a timely enough manner that my parents can enjoy their grandchildren is an added pressure as undesired as it is necessary.
So I must find a mate. One that mother approves of.
I’d say I’m on my way. I’ve grown a full beard for the first time in my life and I’ve discovered that my grown-out facial hair, unlike my dark brown head hair, is nearly jet-black. This revelation, likewise concurrent with the change in my dress, is nothing less than serendipitous. The beard perfectly complements the dark and brooding persona I’m going for, and a number of people have already said it makes me look “distinguished,” but only an elderly acquaintance has yet called it “sexy” (as she petted it with silky fingers).
This is of course not the first time I’ve panicked about dating, coupling, “carrying on the family name” (grandma). Nor is it the first time I’ve decided to make a significant change to my wardrobe. It’s not even the first time I’ve decided to “go dark.” During Surrender to the Darkness v2—circa late 2013—I simultaneously took up gym-going and goth rock. And I switched to boxer briefs and almost bought a cloak and started daily fingering pomade through my hair, which I’ve again taken up during this current iteration of the Darkness.
That my goth-going and attempts at physical betterment have now thrice been simultaneous suggests to me, reflecting on all this, that I have unconsciously associated virility with seriousness, not-smiling, not-color, restraint and reticence, gothic elegance. If I were a goth woman, for instance, I would wear black lipstick and eyeshadow and own at least one dozen little black dresses and my go-to LBD would be a cute li’l number with a whisper of lace at the hem. But I am not a goth woman (I am not a goth of any kind), so I must settle for dark chinos, a button-up, and some handsome, well-polished dress shoes.
So, back to the point: during Darkness v2, in order to get fit and confident and to embark on the trek of dating, I went to the campus rec center more days than not. Got a backcorner treadmill and deposited my earbuds into my earholes. Browsed Spotify until I found a playlist both energetic enough to jog/speedwalk to and melancholic enough to, again, match the brooding studliness I envisioned as my ideal physical/emotional goal.
After looking at playlists like Hallowe’en with Satan, Beach Goth, and Dirty, Filthy Death Metal, I settled on My Psychotic Valentine: Laments from the Darker Side of Love:
Psycho for Your Love / The Meteors
Little Bit of Whore / Johnny Thunder
My Heart is Empty / Nico
I Walk the Line / Alien Sex Fiend
She’s Not There / U.K. Subs
Spooky / Lydia Lunch
Sex & Violence / The Exploited
Last Year’s Wife / Zero Le Creche
Stand by Me / Skeletal Family
Probably the first song I listened to from the playlist was Nico’s “My Heart is Empty,” because I figured her flat German drawl would put me in that studly-dark mood I wanted, which surely it did. But the second song I chose must have been “I Walk the Line,” by Alien Sex Fiend, a band I’d never heard of. I recall clicking on it mostly because I’d hoped it was an über-dark cover of the Man in Black’s song of the same name. 
No, this wasn’t Cash’s song. One of the Alien Sex Fiends must have written it. Instead of “Because you’re mine, I walk the line,” this version consisted mostly of the repeated chorus, “I walk the line / I walk the line / I walk the line / Between good and evil,” sung (belted/howled) by lead vocalist Nik Fiend. Poo.
But it did make my blood boil in all the right ways, so I listened to more Alien Sex Fiend during that iteration of the Darkness five years ago, which lasted only until the flowers bloomed and the sun shone daily and I lost ~5 pounds, at which point I became complacent, convinced the abs would, with little effort, make an appearance any day now.
Poor Alien Sex Fiend (@AlienSexFiendHQ) has only—as of today—294 Twitter followers, despite their sorta-kinda lively presence on social media (96 tweets since they joined in October 2018).
In the header photo, Nik Wade [“Nik Fiend”] and his partner in life and music, Christine Wade [“Mrs. Fiend”], pose, staring on with their trademark disinterested misanthropy. [Though Mrs. Fiend wears such dark sunglasses that she could be dead for all I know.] Now of retirement-community-age, they make a lovely undead couple. One or both of them probably makes a killer cobbler.
Nik Wade, coupled with Christine since before the band’s founding, tended bar in the early 80s at the Batcave, a London hotspot club of early goth rock, now considered the birthplace of the goth subculture. Robert Smith (The Cure), Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Nick Cave, and Siouxsie Sioux were regular patrons.
Of the new sound & culture, music writer Nix Lowrey states, “It was a movement emerging with its own lengthy subtext and a surfeit of black clothing which would come to define itself as a dress code, a movement, a set of cultural expectations later described as 'gothic rock' but then was just known as ‘Batcave.’”
By ’82, barkeep Nik had founded his own group, settled on a band name, and defined his stage persona (“Nik Fiend,” clad in top hat, black suit, white face paint). Shortly thereafter he got Christine to join. She was reluctant. “Hadn’t planned on ever being in a band,” she said. “I would‘ve been happy working behind the scenes.” But when Nik Fiend told Mrs. Fiend the job description—“play a few notes on the keyboard, make weird noises and bang a bit of percussion”—she acquiesced.
Probably the band’s best-known song is “Now I’m Feeling Zombified,” which became mainstream enough for Beavis and Butt-head to provide a commentary of its music video in ‘93.
Butt-head: Cool! Skulls!
Beavis: Yeah! Skulls kick ass.
Butt-head: That guy looks pretty cool.
Beavis: Yeah. He looks cool because he's like, dead.
Butt-head: It's like, this video looks pretty cool, but the sound sucks.
Yeah, Beavis. He [Nik] does look cool cuz he’s dead. I envy the coolness, the gothness that’s clearly more than a facade of black clothes/hair/eyeliner and a birdshit-white face. I’d like to have so few inhibitions that I could comfortably writhe orgasmically under strobe lights while fondling literal skulls, the skinless kind. So few inhibitions that I’d be dead while doing it, for all I cared.
I remember distinctly when I first heard “Zombified” because it reminded me that I’d been meaning to watch the films of Akira Kurosawa. Evidently I didn’t find it odd, while fast-walking and shedding those 5 pounds, that the Fiends namedropped the director in the chorus of a song about feeling dead/undead.
Kurosawa Kurosawa Kurosawa
When you get depressed you make us all ill
Kurosawa Kurosawa Kurosawa
Some present you gave me, the bitterest pill
I must never have listened to the song again after that because only while watching the music video for the first time (last week) did I realize the Kurosawa line was actually “Curiouser and curiouser and curiouser still.”
And how could I have missed, those few years ago, the best line of the song?—
Look in a dustbin for something to eat
You find a dead rat and you think it's a treat
I don’t entirely blame myself; Nik Fiend clearly doesn’t much value articulation.
But unlike Butt-head, that’s exactly what I like about the violent thrashing of goth rock: the sound. The (weird) noise alone, even—maybe especially—when removed from the content/meaning of the lyrics, puts me in the coffin, then the grave, but it never takes itself too seriously. [Mrs. (Christine) Fiend: “We have too much humour for some people, I think. Or . . . we’re too punk or spacey or industrial for their taste.”] The Fiends’ noise lets me welcome—half-smile, half-frown—the dark unknown, the big black hole into which we all fall down.
And for reasons I should certainly explore more (psychotherapist by my side), the music/noise, like the black attire, pumps me with a serenity my neurotic self can rarely muster. Maybe something about that hypnotic orgasmic writhing.
Today I’m on an elliptical at Planet Fitness, wearing black running shorts and a black tee, listening to “Shit’s Coming Down (Monster Mix)” from their new album, Possessed. No idea, really, what Nik’s saying. But the noise is cool. And at least now my mother can have a grandchild.
 Usually (more often than not; when I’m not trying to better myself physically and whatnot) I listen to country music. Not pop country, but the kind of country that progressive-but-not-too-progressive white couples from the midwest or maybe Texas listen to together while porch-swinging, like Lucinda Williams and John Prine and Gillian Welch and Merle Haggard. I enjoy their lonesome warbling and I like that their songs allow me more easily to envision post-retirement life, when Betty and I take the grandkids to the county fair.
Kevin Mosby is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. He's been a vampyre for Halloween at least four times.
berry grass on “swamp thing”
I mean, he isn’t called Marsh Thing. Too gentle for what was originally a 1970s horror comic about a man dying in a laboratory explosion & chemically bonding with plants, becoming a chlorophyllic, existential facsimile of a human. So is Fen Thing, and even Bog Thing sounds silly. What is it about the wetland word swamp that holds our collective darknesses? Swamps are essentially just flooded forests but we’ve imbued them with our fears, as if everything that we aren’t—or everything we’re afraid that we actually are—lurks beneath, waiting to consume us. What makes it scary to acknowledge one’s reflection in the muck and the murk?
In the seminal trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, most cards feature italicized text found at the bottom of the card that conveys character or symbolism or story about the card itself. This is called flavor text. For example, the flavor text to the Magic card “Mind Sludge,” which makes an opponent discard cards from their hand, reads as follows: When you get into the swamp, the swamp gets into you.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of the goth aphorism. After nearly 5 minutes of delicate atmospheric construction—jangly guitars and propulsive drums and synthesizer keys held down making an eerie wind—the mood breaks and the melody sounds triumphant and the bass grooves with glee. It is at this point, the song winding down, that Mark Burgess, singer & bassist for The Chameleons, cries out over and over, “Now the storm has come...or is it just another shower?” The two being, apparently, not the same kind of rainfall. The Storm, then, capital S, must be for Burgess something rare, something important. Unraveled still by the looping twang of guitar strings, I can’t quite tell if the Storm is the nourishing kind, the prayed-for kind, or if it’s the Big One, the inevitable threat, The End.
In Magic: the Gathering you can’t escape the swamp. The most commonly played card in Magic are Basic Land cards, which generate the in-game currency, called mana, that players use to play creatures and sorceries and enchantments. The Basic Land card that generates black mana is called Swamp. Calling upon the swamps, extracting their resources, allows you to cast spells that embody (according to the developers of the game) “Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, & Paranoia.” Black mana’s creatures tend to be the undead or demons. Its spells evoke plague, vampirism, zombification, Faustian bargains, necromancy.
We’re all thinking it here: President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” He was referring to Washington D.C., both the city and the political climate there. For the GOP, which is as close to a political embodiment of the values of black mana as can be, this slogan means that to drain the swamp would be to siphon out the mud and dreck of civil liberties protections & financial regulations to leave a useable crater to be filled back in with defense contractors and oil lobbyists and christofascists. You know, sturdier stuff. Ironically, when Democrat majority leader Nancy Pelosi was campaigning in 2006, she also used the slogan “drain the swamp,” and for her then the Wall Street tycoons and health insurers and roadblocks to campaign finance reform so beloved by Trump were the aspects of D.C. that needed removal. It’s often said that Washington D.C. was itself built on a swamp—not metaphorically, but on literal swampland. People point to the nearby mashlands of Maryland, and the fact that D.C.’s summer humidity is chokingly intense, but it’s an urban legend. The town was built on dry riverbed & woodland hills. Swamp somehow makes space for our collective ideas of rot. But far from decaying, the foundations of the city, much like the ideas of white supremacy and settler colonialism that make up the foundations of the American project, have been stable this whole time.
I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. When your mom has a cancer recurrence, when her cancer cells are metastasizing throughout her upper body, every ache, every sneeze, every skipped meal might mean the Big One is finally here. A routine trip to the doctor because of a lingering cough might mean the last hospital admission she ever has, might mean, like a sudden, violent downpour, the thing you couldn’t see it coming even if you knew it was always coming.
A comprehensive review of 189 wetland studies cited in the academic journal Marine and Freshwater Research found that the Earth has lost 54-57% of its total wetland area compared to pre-industrial totals, almost entirely owing to human drainage projects.
You tell me what the common thread is here. I had a childhood where, in assorted parts, I spent time obsessing over: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series; walking around graveyards; trying to accrue as many extra lives in video games that I could; heavy metal bands; playing as the Necromancer class in “Diablo II”; the concept of séances & actually trying to perform them; Magic: the Gathering decks that brought creatures back from the dead; a band I was in that I named “Phoenix Down,” after the item in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games that gives a character the infamous revivifying qualities of the eponymous firebird; my favorite professional wrestler, who has always been The Undertaker—a supernatural lord of the dead, who began as a zombie gravedigger controlled by a mortician with an occult urn, who was killed, literally buried [un-]alive multiple times, who always came back from out the dirt months later with increasing consciousness & independence & preternatural power over light and electricity, who always came back to compete at WrestleMania to defend his undefeated streak of victories, who always came back.
The closest thing to a conventional chorus in The Chameleons’ song, “Swamp Thing,” contains, in part, the lyrics: “Look around, look around./All around you walls are tumbling down./Stop staring at the ground.” I spend more days than I’d like to admit doing nothing. My depression and my executive dysfunction tag-teaming me into missing deadlines, not returning emails, underpreparing for work. It takes hours some days just to leave the bed in the morning. I skip meals simply because putting my body into motion is too daunting. I am not special in my struggle, I know. Many people feel the frustration of illness interfering with their capability or ambition. Feel like they are wasting time. My mental health is at its poorest after I read about how little time we all probably have left. Every week is a new report that ecological collapse is happening faster than even aggressive climate models were projecting. Every week we learn how fast the coral is acidifying, how drastically in decline is the world’s insect population, what year within the next twenty or ten that millions upon millions of people will be displaced from their coastal homes and become climate refugees, holding out a desperate hope that they will not be killed at the border of a neighboring country even as, right now in the year I am writing this, the world is already obsessing over the ideas of nationalism and border control and citizenry and ownership and hoarding resources and the world is already forgetting about the concept of mercy. Humanity has only a Hail Mary pass of a chance to keep global warming levels right under 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures (above which point the rate of warming is thought to increase exponentially in a way that we won’t be able to prevent), and it’s going to require a global rejection of capitalist models of resource and labor distribution as soon as possible. The bleakest climate models tell us that it’s already too late. I sit around, failing to write, failing to think, failing to do the dishes, trying to process that this is the best my life is ever going to be. That I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. It feels like this.
The thing about swamps is that we pour into them what we fear will harm us. The thing about swamps is that so does the Earth. Swamps and other wetlands take in atmospheric carbon, sink it deep within themselves. Swamps remove carbon from the air and turn it into plant tissue, which in turn collects & stores more carbon. Swamps act as a buffer for storm surge and rising water levels. If we could increase the total amount of wetlands on Earth, restore or refresh or repair them, we could dramatically fight back against the carbon crisis while helping mitigate some of the damage that we’ve already caused to our climate. It’s a cruel truth: that what we’re scared of, be it socialism or swamps or decolonial solidarity, is what will actually save us.
I’ve been trying get this essay to come together not by draining its excess but by addition, by flooding the page with associations. It’s gotten messier and messier as it has resisted saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve barely written about my mom’s death because I’ve felt that some things deserve to be privately held. But what you feel is good for you is not always good for the art, so I think I need to show you what I’ve kept submerged so far.
Before she died, my mom had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form that was [arguably] violated by workers at the hospital she eventually passed away in. I’ll refrain from specific names so as not to get bogged down in a legal complication (I didn’t even intend to use a wetland pun there, but so hazardous & inscrutable is the justice system that it’s cliché to compare it to dark depths). They revived her body, keeping it alive on life support. It was midnight by the time I flew in & made my way to the hospital, right in time to see the nurse attempt to see if my mom still had active brain activity. It’s called an apnea test—turning off the respirator, flooding the lungs with pure oxygen, and seeing how the gasses in the blood respond. Ten eternal minutes went by with no change, then, quite suddenly, seemingly as if in response to my voice—“I’m here, your daughter Berry is here,” I said; the very first time I referred to myself as my mom’s daughter -- my mom’s arms raised themselves up for the first time in two days and her hands moved towards her face. In the part of me where I thought hope was the most radiant I thought she was trying to communicate. I thought through my presence alone I was bringing her back, but to place your hope in Black Magic is by design a selfish hope. What actually was happening was an autonomous response, her hands trying to pull the breathing tube from out of her throat. It was not a conscious movement. There was no indication of brain activity when her arms raised up for what would be the last time. In 14 hours from that point, my brother and I would decide, easily, to remove our mom from life support & she would pass, her brain at peace if negation can be said to be a kind of peace, into waters uncertain. It was an easy decision to make. She signed that DNR form because she had no interest in being kept, technically, alive by a machine. No desire to live as a scientific shell. To have put my hope into the impossibility of her mental consciousness returning to her would have been actually, I think, hopelessness. The difference between my mom and Swamp Thing is that Swamp Thing had to deal personally with the existential crisis of being alive but no longer human. With my mom, that same existential crisis instead belonged to me, my brother, everyone in her life.
I think what I’m feeling here is that I need to learn how to hope unselfishly. Hoping to be saved, that it will all work out, is selfish, like waiting around for the inevitable storm, when what is required is action. Unselfish hope is active. It’s working for and with other people. It’s collective action against Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, Paranoia. I think hope is about not staring at the ground. I think it’s about overcoming fear.
From the flavor text to the Magic: the Gathering card, “Tendrils of Corruption”:
“Even swamps need sustenance. We will give it to them, and in turn, they will sustain us.” —Ezrith, druid of the Dark Hours
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and Philadelphia. She is the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. Her favorite bit of Goth street cred is that in high school she convinced her mom to let her paint her bedroom walls black.