An uneasy scent of madness in the air

alex malcolm mills1Our final reading presentation of Alex Malcolm Mills’ The Carrion Man will close out our inaugural Pipeline PlayLab season, this Sunday, June 29, at 8PM at the Judson Assembly Hall. We recently got to learn a little bit more from Alex about his mystery-horror adventure play. Read all about it below.

Pipeline Theatre Company: What do you want us to know about your play?

Alex Malcolm Mills: The Carrion Man is a mystery-horror adventure, about a teenager trying to join a black-magic cult. It’s also a comedy— the kind with an uneasy scent of madness in the air, the kind both funny and scary. How so? Well, you might suspect the cult does not exist, the supernatural elements might be hallucinations, and the protagonist might be a murderer trying to pretend he’s not a murderer. Or you might be convinced that the plot’s fantastical elements disguise nothing at all. It’s in the realm of a less-surreal David Lynch, or a Harold Pinter with high-speed car chases (there actually aren’t any car chases). Fans of speculative fiction might identify my influences and heroes: Ramsey Campbell, Gene Wolfe, Brian Evenson, Joyce Carol Oates, M.R. James, & H.P. Lovecraft. Cat lovers may also appreciate that one character is a cat. 

PTC: When and where did you decide to start writing this play? Why?

AMM: I’ll answer with two moments, undoubtedly fused with you, Pipeline. First, The Carrion Man was not what I set out to write, at the beginning of the Playlab. Instead, I was writing a sprawling mystery-musical, about a noise-pop band, their ventriloquist, their haunted house Halloween party, and their stalker. I finished it, and the mystery was just too mysterious. I didn’t know how to solve it, nor how to rewrite it. It was about four different stories, Frankenstein’d into one monster, which ran into the swamps and never returned. So I set out for a new draft, but a new idea hijacked my attention.

I got the idea during Pipeline Playlab‘s workshop of Colby Day’s The Great Molly, a play about an aspiring stage magician in the early 1900s. (I was acting in it; I also act.) During a break, I thought… what would it be like if the magician aspired towards the dark arts? (Necromancy, for those of you who have played Dungeons & Dragons— and I’m looking at you, Vin Diesel.) I knew the idea was absurd, and I had to tread carefully; the very word “occult” means hidden; so, the more you show, the more its mystery is lost, and the sillier it gets (isn’t that right, Rob Zombie?) So, I thought— let’s contrast the gruesome suggestion of dark arts with contemporary teenagers and cats. Why did I write it? Perhaps for the same reasons of wish-fulfillment fantasy that anything is written. I got obsessed with its story, via daydreams and schemings; it was fun, and it felt like a play I wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. 

  PTC: What excites you most about this project?

AMM: I think the most exciting part of any story is the agency or role it gives the audience; for thrillers, mysteries, or horrors, my favorite part for the audience to play is that of a detective. When the Gothic flops, it is often because the audience-detective has already “solved the case;” there’s nothing unknown to suspect or to fear. I think The Carrion Man‘s exciting, because there’s a lot of bizarre & contradictory clues, and we’re forced to make uneasy guesses about what’s unsaid, unseen, or untrue. 

So, the exciting aspect of that is the reward you get, from forming your own solutions, allowing the story to haunt you. Suspecting the solution to be X, Y, or Z, is much more enjoyable (for me) than being told it’s certainly just Z. But plenty of conventional mysteries extinguish suspense upon their solution, revealing it’s “just Z.” The ambiguity of X-Y-or-Z, is effectively scarier, because it implies the unstable definition of definitions themselves. I may be fascinated by that idea, but I’m more fascinated by those that might disagree; defensive and practical personalities might violently claim solutions are irrefutable; that “they’re right and you’re wrong,” and that their truth & reality are the only ones. I’d like to think my play would unsettle them, but they might just write it off as the work of a madman.

PTC: In one sentence, tell us something strange that happens in your play.

AMM: The protagonist is visited by (or receives hallucinations of) a talking corpse, whom invites the protagonist to partake in a “series of tests” to gain “great fortune.” 

PTC: Are you working on anything else? What?

AMM: I’m actually still re-writing the ending. Of The Carrion Man! I mean— there is an “end,” written several months ago— it’s just not as fun as I’d like it to be. I’m also finishing its screenplay version; I began the story as a screenplay, but then I enjoyed the premise so much, I brought it to the Playlab as a play-play, adding a narrator to connect the quick jumps in locales that a film allows.

Besides that, I’m still searching for the proper re-write of the mystery-musical (mentioned above), about the band, their stalker, and their ventriloquist. Framing it within a Halloween party, at a secluded mansion, under the guise of a “psychological haunted house,” is just too interesting to ignore. Right now it’s titled A Parade of Mannequins. Funny, right? 

PTC:  Two truths and a lie, go:

AMM: My roommates and I often try to scare each other, for laughs. My two greatest victories include hiding under a black sheet in one roommate’s room, while he left to do laundry and hadn’t noticed me across the street, returning home. I waited for 30 minutes, under that sheet in his room, while he folded clothes in the living room; when he finally saw me, there was a second where his expression betrayed he could not understand what was happening. I think I feed off those moments. 

My second greatest victory was spurred by the fear I’d be scared, upon exiting the bathroom (opening doors in our apartment is always risky). We were watching a movie (I knew the film’s sound could muffle someone’s positioning to hide)— so, I decided to scare anyone who’d scare me, by wrapping (clean) toilet paper around my head, much like that scary mummy-thing in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. I exited the bathroom, blind and mummy-like. There was a silence of confusion, and then we all bust out laughing. In our revelry, we drove into town and set fire to everything that dared to be alive.

PTC: What’s next for you?

AMM: The project I’m most excited about won’t be viewable for about three years. I recently finished acting in an animated high-fantasy epic, called The Spine of Night, co-written and directed by Morgan Galen King (animator & director of Exordium, an awesome short viewable on Youtube) and Philip Gelatt (writer of the Nebula nominated Europa Report, and The Bleeding House). When I tell friends that I acted in an animated film, they say: “so you did the voices?” But no, everything with actors was filmed. It’ll be rotoscope animated (like Heavy Metal, or Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings), where the animators will hand-draw over the actors, capturing their humanity in a way more natural than just… free-handing it. The story is an anthology of four stories told within one larger story; the plot’s about a magic substance, that of course unleashes the evil in men, and it takes a brave woman to stop them (that’s probably not the synopsis they’d choose). I got to play the melancholy guardian of the mythic substance (perhaps he’s melancholy because he outright failed to guard the substance, and he accidentally unleashed the entire plot’s conflict); so, he listens to the four anthology stories. Within one, I got to play an evil wizard. Pipeline member Sydney Matthews acted as that “brave woman,” recounting the stories— a swamp priestess whom is outright nude throughout the film. The whole project was a surreal blast. I’d assumed I’d never get to play an evil wizard, until at least the age of 35. Now I have played one, and nothing will ever be the same.

The final plug is that The Carrion Man got accepted into iDiOM Theatre’s 2015 season! They’re a wonderful non-profit company, and have been around since 2001, in Bellingham, WA. I have no idea how they’ll stage a cat onstage. At least it doesn’t have to talk.

Join us this Sunday at 8PM at the Judson Assembly Hall for the final reading presentation of The Carrion Man. Reserve your seat by emailing [email protected].