Friday, December 31, 2010

10! 9! 8! 7! 6!...

It's not just 2010 that's drawing to a close, but also the months-long listing here at Macabre Republic of the Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction (the latter countdown, though, doesn't involve hordes of people courting frostbite in Times Square).  Here's a recap of the top 10 thus far (for a recap of #'s 20-11, click here):

#10. "The Reaper's Image"

#9. "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson"

#8. "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away"

#7. "N."

#6. "Trucks"

#5. "The Reach"

#4. "Rainy Season"

#3. "Children of the Corn"

#2. "Blockade Billy"

#1. ???

Be sure to return to Macabre Republic tomorrow (1/1/11), when the work that has claimed the top spot on the countdown will finally be revealed.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thirteen Ways of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird

2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's first and only novel, and I'd be remiss if I let this golden year slip past without reminiscing about the book.  The following post ponders the multi-faceted brilliance of Lee's classic narrative.  Here are Thirteen Ways of Looking (Back) at To Kill a Mockingbird:

I.As a coming-of-age tale.   Over the course of the novel, narrator Scout and her older brother Jem learn various life lessons--about human nature, contemporary society, and the conflict that often develops between the two.  Scout encapsulates this process of physical/intellectual maturation near the end of her narrative, when she recounts: "As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn't much else left for us to learn, expect possibly algebra."

II.As an example of Southern Gothic.  The Radley Place--gloomy, decayed, den of a legendary grotesque--is the epitome of a Southern Gothic domicile, a "dark house" worthy of Faulkner.  The character Miss Maudie also strikes at the heart of American Gothic when she offers: "The things that happen to people we never really know.  What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets--"

III.As a mystery.  Boo Radley is a ready-made bogeyman figure for the neighborhood children, but is the infamous recluse really still holed up inside the house, and what would it be like to meet him in the flesh?  Such questions have captivated not just Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill, but also legions of Lee's readers.

IV.As a comedy.  Scout's pluckiness and innocence typically make for a hilarious combination (this girl is living proof that kids say the darnedest things).  I would even go so far as to claim that Lee's novel helped shape the revered holiday comedy A Christmas Story: both employ a formula in which an adult narrator wryly comments on his/her childhood escapades (in this light, it's interesting to note that Scout and Jem receive air rifles as presents one Christmas--prefiguring Ralphie's memorable gift in the Bob Clark film). 

V.As a portrait of racial prejudice and small town small-mindedness.  "There's something in our world," Atticus tries to explain to Scout and Jem, "that makes men lose their heads--they couldn't be fair if they tried."  Lee critiques the irrational racism that transforms otherwise upstanding citizens into lynch mob members and blind, unjust jurists, but the author also champions those who manage to transcend a provincial/prejudicial viewpoint: "The handful of people in [sleepy Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s], who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people," according to Miss Maudie, "with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord's kindness am I."

VI.As a courtroom drama.  These riveting scenes comprise the central chapters of the novel.  The case itself is an absolute powderkeg: black fieldhand Tom Robinson has been accused of the ultimate transgression--raping a white woman. By trial's end the distinction between right and wrong, winning and losing, grows quite muddied: the defendant is convicted, yet the plaintiffs are the ones who end up looking guilty.

VII.As a profile in courage.  Atticus Finch demonstrates his fortitude throughout, and not just in physical terms (e.g. facing off against, and shooting down, a rabid dog).  Disregarding public opinion, this widower resolves to raise his two children in what he believes is the right way.  Most impressively of all, Atticus defies town censure in his willingness to serve as Tom's defense lawyer; he commits himself to a case he knows he stands little chance of winning (because of the prevailing racism).  Real courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."  Atticus makes this statement in reference to Mrs. Dubose's determination to kick her morphine addiction before dying, but the words apply just as well to his own character.

VIII.As a summertime idyll.  "Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill."  Scout later elaborates: "summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill's eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking."  Summer is finding ways to while away the day in play (is it any wonder Scout, Jem, and Dill fixate on the Radley Place and invoke the mysterious Boo as the subject of their various games?).

IX.As an exploration of gender roles.  Aunt Alexandria wages an arduous campaign to get the tomboy Scout to dress and act like a "lady."  Also, notions of Southern chivalry--the placement of the white woman on an imaginary pedestal of untouchability--are what make the incident between Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell so scandalous.  The latter broke "a rigid and time-honored code" of Southern society when she attempted to miscegenate with Tom (whom she then fashioned as a rapist to cover her own shame).

X.As an examination of social class.  Maycomb doesn't just break along lines of black and white; there is a distinct stratification to Caucasian society itself--the ostensible nobility (land-owning families of respected name), the rural riff-raff (like the Cunninghams), the white trash (such as the lowly Ewells, who, appropriately, live alongside a garbage dump).  Jem attempts to explain these gradations to Scout, who replies, "Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks.  Folks."  Jem, though, disillusioned by the outcome of Tom's trial, counters: "That's what I thought, too, when I was your age.  If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other?  If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?"  Speeches such as this illustrate that Lee's novel broaches the subject not just of racial equality but of general human decency towards others.

XI.As a morality tale.  The theme of senseless slaughter of the innocent is foregrounded by the title, and resounds in the book itself when Tom meets his sad demise.  But a more redemptive note is struck at novel's end, when Boo's killing of Bob Ewell (who himself was attempting to murder Jem and Scout) is covered up.  To thrust the reclusive Boo into the limelight by revealing his involvement in Ewell's death would be a "sin."  Sheriff Heck Tate impresses this point upon Atticus, and Scout follows it up with: "Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?"

XII.As Halloween literature.  Let's not forget that Ewell's climactic knife attack occurs on a dark street on Halloween night, as Scout and Jem are returning home from the holiday celebration at the schoolhouse.  The festivities there include apple-bobbing, taffy-pulling, a costume contest, a House of Horrors, and ghoulish games: the children are led into a darkened classroom and "made to touch several objects alleged to be components parts of a human being.  'Here's his eyes,' we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. 'Here's his heart,' which felt like raw liver. 
'These are his innards,' and are hands were thrust into plates of cold spaghetti."  Obviously, Maycomb County is also October Country.

XIII.As a seminal influence on other writers' works.  The echoes can be traced in texts such as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King's Cujo, Richard Laymon's Halloween short story "Boo" (in the anthology October Dreams), and Joe R. Lansdale's Edgar-winning novel The Bottoms.  To Kill a Mockingbird, itself indebted to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus forms a central link in the evolutionary chain of American Gothic literature.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#2

[For previous entries, click the "Top 20 Countdowns" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

#2. "Blockade Billy"

Don't let the packaging as a stand-alone book fool you: this is a short story on steroids.  And a damned fine one at that.

King offers a ghastly take on the national pastime, courtesy of raconteur George Grantham, a former third-base coach for the (fictional) New Jersey Titans.  The old-timer tells "Mr. King" about the team's "nightmare season" way back in 1957; more specifically, he relates the notorious story of "Blockade" Billy Blakely, an emergency call-up from Davenport, Iowa who took the major leagues by storm for one month before his prior foul play caught up with him.

Grantham goes heavy on the ominous remarks, couching his tale as an "awful story" and making repeated comments about how Blockade Billy's exploits had to be stricken from baseball's record books.  The young catcher (whose nickname derives from his prowess at blocking home plate) is also depicted as someone not quite right in the head: he references himself in the third person, whispers to himself constantly while catching, and has "a habit of echoing back what you [just] said to him."  These various hints propel the reader through the narrative, in eager search of the source of Blockade Billy's infamy.  What could this generally likable "Iowa plowboy" have done that was so terrible?

The answer is provided by a grisly climax (that gives new meaning to the crowd chant "Kill the ump!") and an explanatory denouement reminiscent of Robert Bloch's Psycho.  Blockade Billy is exposed as an impostor: an orphan named Eugene Katsanis, who worked on the Blakely farm in Clarence, Iowa, has been impersonating the minor leaguer.  Worse, the real Billy Blakely and his parents have been brutally murdered.  Katsanis "slashed their throats" and stashed their corpses "in the barn."  He also "killed all the cows so the neighbors wouldn't hear them howling to be milked at night."  All appalling acts to be sure, yet Grantham also seems to have some sympathy for Katsanis.  The former coach suggests that Katsanis's proverbial screws could have been knocked loose by the years of physical abuse suffered at a "Christian orphan home that was probably hell on earth."  Grantham also speculates that the Blakelys had their own dark side, that the envious family "pulled a few strings to keep Katsanis from playing locally" and overshadowing the less-talented Billy.  Whatever did actually transpire back in Iowa, it wasn't the stuff Field of Dreams is made of.

Grantham's tale makes for a fast but mesmerizing read.  His oration brings old-time baseball to life--the salty humor, the superstition, the camaraderie.  On the last page, he insists that baseball "is a good thing.  Always was, always will be."  Still, the preceding narrative calls such assurance into serious question, as the all-American sport is shown to have a bloody, malicious element.  Because
is there really much difference between baserunners deliberately sliding into fielders with their "spikes high" and Katsanis deftly
nicking Achilles heels at home plate with his hidden sliver of razor blade?  Perhaps not, but one thing is certain: in "Blockade Billy" King is at the top of his storytelling game, and man, does he throw a 
wicked curve.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#3

[For previous entries, click the "Top Twenty Countdowns" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

#3. "Children of the Corn"

King has gone down the married-couple-stumbles-upon-queer-little-town road repeatedly in his short fiction, but his first foray remains his best.  Burt and Vicky Robeson drive cross-country toward California in a "last ditch attempt to patch up their own marriage," but their road trip hits the skids when they make an ill-fated detour through the dark heartland of America.  Gatlin bills itself as "THE NICEST LITTLE TOWN IN NEBRASKA--OR ANYWHERE ELSE!", but such welcome turns out to be an egregious piece of false advertising.  "Somewhere up ahead," Burt speculates when approaching the town, "there would be a drugstore with a soda fountain, a movie house named the Bijou, a school named after JFK," and while Gatlin does feature many of these Rockwellian elements, the scene there proves decidedly sinister.

This Night Shift story is a masterpiece of suspense, presenting a string of ominous details: the boy who runs out of the corn field with his throat fatally slit; his corn-husk crucifix; the strange evangelism airing on the local radio station; the utter ghost town that is Gatlin, with its wall calendars twelve years out-of-date; the converted Baptist church, with its portrait of a vulpine Jesus behind the pulpit ("a pagan Christ that might slaughter his sheep for sacrifice instead of leading them"), and its record book of Biblically-rechristened children (none of whom have lived past the age of nineteen).  Making these discoveries, Burt slowly pieces together the puzzle of what has gone wrong in Gatlin, figuring that the titular children "got religion and the[n] killed off their parents.  All of them.  Isn't that a scream?  Shot them in their beds [an allusion to Capote's In Cold Blood?], knifed them in their bathtubs, poisoned their suppers, hung them, or disemboweled them, for all I know."  And why?  "The corn.  Maybe it was dying.  Maybe they got the idea somehow that it was dying because there was too much sinning.  Not enough sacrifice."  Paging Shirley Jackson...

All of this build-up leads to a terrifying payoff, as the gang of grim-and-proper young pagans at last appears and attacks the Robesons.  When Burt attempts to hide out in the labyrinth of the corn field, though, he discovers that he is dealing with not just a case of religious mania run amok but something truly supernatural:
 "something huge, bulking up to the sky...something green with terrible red eyes the size of footballs."  He Who Walks Behind the Rows actually exists, and this dreadful, Lovecraftian figure makes a fitting deity for Gothic America: "Out there, in the night, something walked, and it saw everything...even the secrets kept in human hearts."

"Children of the Corn" has perhaps been overshadowed by its popular film version (featuring a young Linda Hamilton and Courtney Gains as the malicious Malachi), but the original story forms a brilliant example of King's work in the short-fiction mode.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Florida

The Sunshine State features plenty of dark monikers: Hawthorne (where the houses all have seven gables), Dismal Key (very scenic, if you like dreariness), Goodno (wicked, yes), Driftwood Estates (beachfront community doomed by hurricane?), Big Blackjack Landing (hopefully not upside your head), Wild Island (whoever happens onto the island, stays on the island), Hell Gate (enough said), and Jolly Corner (go co-op with your doppelganger!).  But the most Gothic place name in Florida belongs to...

Cape Haze.  This assonant appellation suggests a town drenched in atmospheric gloom. The epitome of obscurity--where the landscape is indistinct, and the locals' motives unclear.  Plus, one shudders to think of the harassment and humiliation that high school freshmen and fraternity pledges must be subjected to here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Holiday From Hell

Sure, Frank Costanza's observance of Festivus was weird, but his holiday customs pale in comparison to the strange paganism
described by H.P. Lovecraft's narrator in the short story "The Festival":
As the steps and the passage grew broader, I heard another sound, the thin, whining mockery of a feeble flute, and suddenly there spread out before me the boundless vista of an inner world--a vast fungous shore litten by a belching column of sick greenish flame and washed by a wide oily river that flowed from abysses frightful and unsuspected to join the blackest gulfs of immemorial ocean.
Fainting and gasping, I looked at the unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar.  It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring's promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music.  And in the stygian grotto I saw them do the rite, and adore the sick pillar of flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chloritic glare.  I saw this, and I saw something amorphously squatted far away from the light, piping noisomely on a flute, and as the thing piped I thought I heard noxious muffled flutterings in the foetid darkness where I could not see.  But what frightened me most was the flaming column, spouting volcanically from depths profound and inconceivable, casting no shadows as healthy flame should, and coating the nitrous stone with a nasty, venomous verdigris.  For in all that seething combustion no warmth lay, but only the clamminess of death and corruption.
So if you thought visiting your relatives was rough yesterday, just remember: somebody always has it worse.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Anatomy of a Weird Tale--"The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise"

"The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise: A Tale of Possession in Old Grosse Pointe" by Thomas Ligotti

Only Ligotti could transform one of the most peaceful and beloved nights of the year into a time of terrible weirdness.  As the narrator Jack recounts, when he was a child the kaleidoscopic play of holiday lights in the thick fog rolling off a Michigan lake furnished the "image and atmosphere defining the winter holiday: a serene congregation of colors whose confused murmurings divulged to this world rumors of strange and solemn services that were concurrently taking place in another."  This sense of a world beyond amazes here, but later will be the cause of dreadful dismay.

Like Lovecraft before him, Ligotti achieves his effects through dexterous verbal weaving--the steady accretion of details of setting and character that jointly work to fabricate an ominous mood.  The domicile of the titular matron here forms a perfect example of such unsettling description.  According to Jack, his aunt's house "fit very nicely--when it existed--into a claustrophobic cluster of trees on some corner acreage a few steps uphill from Lake Shore Drive."  Note how that curious qualification between the em dashes practically erases the house at the same time the narrator endeavors to establish its location.  The reader is given pause, forced to ponder the significance of that phrase "when it existed"--is Jack merely conveying that his aunt's place his since been razed, or does the house somehow possess the ability to wink in and out of existence?  Jack concludes this second paragraph of the story by recalling how Aunt Elise's window lights countered the camou-
flaging effect of a "soot-gray stone" facade: "one realized that a house in fact existed where before there seemed to be only shadowed emptiness."  Here again is that same hint of
impermanence, an ontological flickering that proves central to the ensuing narrative.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Short Story Spotlight: "Visitation Rights"

"Visitation Rights" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Holiday blues shade off into the black in this bleak tale by the terrific prose stylist Kealan Patrick Burke.  An alcoholic father desperately tries to arrange some quality family time with his estranged pair of young daughters on Christmas Eve, but only manages to stoke the heart-scorching fires of anguish ("We are a tableau of pain and misery and fear," the father narrates as his hopes for a cheerful reconciliation are dashed).  The story's title proves a bit of a misnomer, because dad doesn't exactly have visitation rights with his daughters.  As the twist ending reveals, though, abduction doesn't even begin to account for this man's transgressions.  This is the type of short fiction that is appreciated even more upon a second reading, as you realize just how carefully the author has prepared for the shocking conclusion (starting with the opening paragraph), and as an even darker shadow is cast over the events leading up to the climax.  By no means is this a feel-good story, but it's an undeniably well-crafted one.

"Visitation Rights" can be found in Burke's short collection of Christmas/snow-season pieces, Dead of Winter, which is available in e-book format from Smashwords.  The settings here are quite stark (as suggested by the book's cover image), but these moving narratives will have you trembling from more than just the chill.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Short Film Review: "My Name is Kris Kringle"

This five-minute short, written and directed by Drew Daywalt, premiered on the Fangoria website today.  In a nutshell: the eponymous perp is apprehended leaving a crime scene and brought to a police interrogation room, where he must answer for his bloody holiday deeds.  The special effects here are something of an oxymoron, and the acting--save for R.A. Mihailoff (Hatchet 2, Dark House) as the cleaver-wielding Kringle--is pedestrian, but the film does offer a nice bit of yuletide fear.  The moral of this story, kiddies, is that you better be good--for your own sake.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Connecticut

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Next up in our weekly tour of Gothic America: Connecticut.  Here you'll find such wonderful appellations as Lonetown (if ever there were a place that sounded isolated and ghostly...), Wildmans Landing (don't expect much civility here), Breakneck (the locals are apt to leave you hanging), Hazardville (pitfalls aplenty; don't say you weren't forewarned), Thralltown (whose residents are into some serious bondage), Devils Backbone (no mystery about the favorite Guillermo del Toro movie here), Sodom (c'mon, now, these people are just tempting fate), Killingly Center (the murder capital of Connecticut?), and Overlook (the hotels in this town
must be a real scream).  Still, the most Gothic place name in Connectiuct is sported by...

Town Plot Hill.  The name conjures images of a hillside cemetery, like the one forming the setting for Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.  But "town plot" also resonates, suggesting locals in cahoots.  This place could be a clearinghouse for communal conspiracies and wicked schemes.  Simply not a nice place to visit, because you wouldn't want to die there.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"Hot and Bothered"

[For previous entries, click the "A.G.T.V." label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 10: "Hot and Bothered"

You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out that sex drives this latest installment of Carnivale.  Jonesy and Rita Sue continue to go at it like rabbits (Libby catches glimpse of her mom's torrid lovemaking).  The cuckolded Felix, meanwhile, couples with a sultry Chicana named Catalina, whom he then recruits as the new cootch dancer to replace the deceased Dora Mae.  Jonesy (again) locks lips with Sofie, but pulls back guiltily.  Ruthie finally beds Ben.  Even Brother Justin (returning home at last) gets in on the act, planting a hardly-chaste kiss on his sleeping sister's lips.

Justin is also hot and bothered when he returns to the pulpit in his Mintern church.  Yet his inspired sermon about spiritual rebirth seems stocked with duplicitous rhetoric.  Both he and Iris are steadily emerging as a pair of nefarious characters, ones using the facade of religion to conceal much darker designs. 

Seeking information about Scudder, Samson and Ben visit a nearby Templar lodge in Loving, New Mexico.  The members, though, play dumb when Samson questions them (in his inimitable manner). 
And Ben fails to take note of the mural painted on the wall of the lodge, which contains the figure of a tattooed man in a field (the same man Ben keeps having visions of, and who apparently raped Sofie's mom Apollonia).  Yes, folks, the puzzle pieces are starting to link up and the plot lines to converge as the first season draws to a close.

On the drive back to camp, Samson fills Ben in about the Carnivale's history.  An eastern outfit, the Hide and Teller Company, was bought out by Management "just after Scudder took a powder."  Management has been searching for Scudder ever since.  Samson doesn't know the reason for his boss's obsession, but offers:
"Something happened in the old country.  Something real bad.  Badder than you can imagine.  Badder than anyone can imagine."  

Following his prolonged bout of self-enforced wakefulness, Ben konks out after sleeping with Ruthie.  Ever the opportunist, Lodz sneaks into Ruthie's trailer and insinuates himself into Ben's dream.  But in that dream, Scudder steps out of character to deliver a stern message to Lodz.  And with that, it becomes terribly clear that Ben is an unwitting pawn in a sinister game, a power struggle that traces back to a World War I battlefield and points toward future massacre.

Colorful, complex characters.  Sexual intrigue.  Machiavellian schemes.  These are some of the elements that make Carnivale such compelling viewing, and they are all on display in this scorching episode.       

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Have Yourself a Little Black Christmas Quiz

Nearly a decade before he directed A Christmas Story, Bob Clark helmed another holiday classic: the seminal slasher film Black Christmas.  Here are some trivia questions for those who've seen the 1974 frightfest (answers appear below in the Comments section of this post).

1.What Christmas song is playing during the opening credits?  A) "O Holy Night"  B) "Silent Night"  C) "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"  D) "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"  E) "Jingle Bells"

2.How does the killer gain access to the sorority house?

3.What is the murder weapon used to dispatch Clare?

4.Clare has a bedroom poster of a grandmother in a rocking chair giving the finger.  True or False?

5.Which of the following is not a place where house mother Mrs. McHenry has hidden a bottle of booze?  A) in the toilet tank  B) inside a hollowed book  C) in a shoe box  D) in a suitcase in the attic

6.What is the psycho killer's name? (Hint: it's not Freddy, Jason, or Michael)

7.What personal problem is protagonist Jess (Olivia Hussey) trying to deal with at the start of the film?

8.The movie is set in the town of Belmont.  True or false?

9.How many people fall victim to the killer in the film?

10.From what medical condition does Barb (Margot Kidder) suffer?

11.The killer uses _____________________ to repeatedly stab Barb.

12.Why doesn't Jess hear the noise of Barb being murdered (upstairs in her bedroom)?

So how did you score?
0-6 Correct: a performance as obscene as the killer's phone calls
7-9 Correct:  the sorority girls would be impressed (if they were still alive)
10-12 Correct: Rejoice! You are the bright star atop the Black Christmas tree

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#4

[For previous entries, click the "Top 20 Countdowns" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

#4. "Rainy Season"

A downpour of carnivorous toads in a sleepy rural town--sounds like a biblical plague meets a grade-B movie on Sci-Fi.  But in Stephen King's hands, such premise makes for a rousing horror story, and a premier work of American Gothic fiction.

This Nightmares & Dreamscapes tale reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Shirley Jackson (one of the main characters here references "The Lottery" by title, but Jackson's "The Summer People" is another obvious source text).  Once every seven years on the night of June 17th, the bucolic community of Willow, Maine must endure an unnatural disaster.  The reptilian deluge ravages the town, but such damage is "small price to pay for another seven years of quiet prosperity in this mostly forgotten Maine backwater."  Another "part of the ritual" is the arrival of a pair of outsiders on that ominous day, who must be told about the toads and encouraged to spend the night outside the town limits (or to at least close the shutters of their residence tight if they refuse to leave Willow).  Vacationing couple John and Elise Graham ignore the warning, of course, and suffer the bizarre consequences.

The climactic attack (by toads with needle teeth, lumpy bodies, and black-and-gold eyes that bulge "like freakish eggs") is at once terrifying and revolting, but "Rainy Season" is more than a Kingly version of a conte cruel.  Actually, the main characters here aren't the Grahams but the pair of locals they meet at the General Mercantile.  Henry Eden and Laura Stanton are charged with playing the welcoming committee for outsiders on the 17th, and this duty of attempting to inform the endangered couple (who never heed the advice to stay away) has grown wearisome for the elderly Willowers.  At one point John Graham refers to them as "Farmer Jekyll and Missus Hyde," but the pair might just as easily be likened to the standoffish duo in Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic.  And while we can only guess what's going on inside the heads of Wood's dour-looking subjects, we are given a clear understanding of why King's characters are so dyspeptic--why Henry Eden (he of the ironic surname) hopes he'll be dead and buried when free-falling toads carpet his hometown's streets seven years hence.

"Rainy Season" brings one helluva storm to Willow, and a memorable story to readers.  But as we'll see next time on the countdown, this isn't the first time that King has made masterful use of the married-couple-stumbles-into-strange-town plotline. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Overkill

And now, from the Clark Griswold school of retina-singeing holiday decoration:

The residents here really have gone all out.  But more power to them (please, before there's a massive outage in the tri-state area).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"Insomnia"

[For previous entries, click the "A.G.T.V." label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 9: "Insomnia"

This episode functions as a stage-setter, putting the various pieces in place that will make for a dramatic climax to the first season of Carnivale.  Jonesy and Rita Sue can't help falling into bed again (against their better judgment).  Brother Justin's sinister nature continues to emerge (the hypnotic effect he has on a fellow patient in the asylum is absolutely chilling).  Sofie has a vision of her mom being raped by a savage man with a tattooed back (presumably the father Sofie never knew), and worries that her mom is going crazy.

As Lodz conspires with Management, a chagrined Samson approaches Ben and presents Scudder's Knights Templar medal to him.  Samson lets on that he knows Scudder is Ben's father, and tells Ben that he needs to trust him (better Samson than Lodz).  The professor, meanwhile, keeps working at Ben, who has tried to stave off his terrible nightmares by forcing himself to remain awake for days on end.  Lodz implores Ben to lay his weary head down and allow himself to be taught/guided by his dreams.  According to Lodz, Ben's acceptance of his own unique talents is a matter of grave import: "The gift.  It must be practiced if you wish to attain the skill necessary to control it.  If you don't, you risk putting everyone you know--everyone you love--in mortal danger.  And that is what happened to Scudder."

Lodz acts as if he is only trying to help, but his duplicity cannot be underestimated.  Early in the episode he informs his lover Lila about the dilemma posed by Ben's willful insomnia: "Boy doesn't sleep, he doesn't dream.  He doesn't dream, he can't be reached."  The burning question, then, is reached by whom, and to what end?  Is Lodz himself (who is shown to be a bona fide mentalist in this episode) the one who has been infiltrating Ben's sleep and shaping his dreams?  Is it Management's doing? Scudder's influence?  Moreover, what is the significance of those nocturnal visions (in which Brother Justin forms a recurring figure), and what exactly is the connection between Ben and the devilish priest?  Viewers can only hope that many of these mysteries will be resolved before Carnivale shuts down for the season.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#5

[For previous entries, click the "Top 20 Countdowns" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

#5. "The Reach"

In her 95 years, Stella Flanders has never once set foot off Goat Island, but now her long-dead husband keeps appearing to her, coaxing her to venture across the frozen-over Reach.  The aged Stella hasn't merely imagined the revenant, though--a fact confirmed by key details at story's end.  Bill is a psychopomp (as symbolized by the dead sparrow that prefigures his visitations) calling Stella not to Raccoon Head on the mainland but to a more metaphysical destination.

This concluding selection in Skeleton Crew is not just a ghost story--it's a finely crafted work of American Gothic fiction (a paragraph concerning family lineage even appears to be modeled on a passage in William Faulkner's novella The Bear).  The narrative does more than chronicle the death of an old woman; it creates a portrait of small-town life beyond the mainland.  King captures the insular nature of such a community, whose members are wont to gossip about their neighbors but quick to lend a hand in times of need.  The residents of Goat Island "watched out for their own in other ways as well," like the time a mob of local menfolk murdered an outsider accused of child molestation.  For better or for worse, the islanders band together (a theme King returns to in Storm of the Century), and according to Stella, this close-knittedness is a product of geographic and climatic circumstances:  
"We had to [look out for one another], for the Reach was wider in those days and when the wind roared and the surf pounded and the darkness came early, why, we felt very small--no more than dust motes in the mind of God.  So it was natural for us to join hands, one with the other.
"We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid."
For all the howling of harsh winter storms, "The Reach" is a muted story--haunting yet not harrowing.  The idea that the wind carries the voices of the deceased is not a cause for terror but rather a spur to existential inquiry about the reach between the here and the hereafter: "Do the dead sing?  And do they love the living?"  Stella's encounter with Bill and his spiritual circle furnishes affirmative answers to both questions.  Even in death, the inhabitants of Goat Island watch out for their own. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Colorado

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

I knew I was in for some plum discoveries when I learned that Colorado actually sports a place named Spook City.  The state also features Wareland (you'd best tread carefully through this town's limits), Broomfield (a natural spot for witches' meetings), Brimstone Corner (bet the Sunday sermons aren't too cheery here), Castle Rock (King worship apparently persists in 21st-Century America), Matheson (a prime location for a Hell House), Skinners (where Leatherface's Coloradan brethren reside?), Troublesome (only ornery folk allowed), Resurrection Mill (this place just keeps churning out the undead), and Mad Creek (insanity runs throughout the community).  But the most Gothic place name in Colorado belongs to...

Gothic.  An absolute no-brainer of a decision.  The mind boggles at the envisioned architecture, occupants, and incidents of intrigue and violence.  This almost-allegorical appellation sounds like a mecca for the darkly bent, a locus of grotesquerie, and the perfect capital for the Macabre Republic.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"Lonnigan, Texas"

[For previous entries, click the "A.G.T.V." label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 8: "Lonnigan, Texas"

Carnivale's eighth episode is a strong one, full of (in)tense interactions between characters.  Felix and Rita Sue's marriage continues to flounder after the loss of Dora Mae, and no longer welcoming his ever-amorous wife's attentions, Felix proposes that Jonesy have a tryst with her.  Both Rita Sue and Jonesy balk at the idea of such a liaison at first, but when they do eventually get together, they generate enough sparks to power the entire carnival.

Meanwhile, Brother Justin has an interesting tete-a-tete with the head doctor at the asylum where he's been confined.  "I am the left hand of God," Justin proclaims, meaning that not only is he no longer the Lord's servant, he "never was" in the first place.  As he grows conscious of his extraordinary powers, Justin asserts that "I am His will made flesh."  No, not Satan, he responds to his interrogator, but fails to identify who the dark influence is.  But Justin does admit, "I broke a man's neck.  I willed it and it was so."

Realizing that Lodz has taken a curious interest in Ben, Samson decides to send the boy off on a recruiting mission (to sign up the allegedly claw-handed Scorpion Boy).  Lodz confronts Samson about his decision, worrying that Ben (a chain-gang fugitive) might never return.  When Lodz grouses that someone like Ben is too important to be sent away on such errand, Samson (eager to understand Ben's significance to the Carnivale) retorts: "Why don't you tell me then.  What is he, exactly?"  Naturally, the scene cuts without Lodz offering a clear answer.

The rumored Scorpion Boy turns out to be a Lobster Girl, and Ben misses out on the opportunity to sign her to a contract thanks to the duplicity of rival carnival owner Phineas Boffo.  When Boffo forces a no-hard-feelings handshake on Ben, the latter has a nightmarish vision involving the Knights Templar.  Taken aback, Ben grabs the strange ring off of Boffo's hand, but the sleazy proprietor later comes to the Carnivale camp to retrieve it.

At episode's end, Samson enters Management's trailer, only to find Lodz holding court.  "But we can't overrule the possibility that Scudder--," Samson overhears Lodz speaking to Management, who apparently exists after all ("Samson, leave us," a voice croaks from behind the curtain).  This revelation makes for a surprising conclusion in and of itself, but the episode offers one more turn of the screw.  As the banished Samson stands bristling outside the trailer, he unpockets a medal reminiscent of Boffo's ring and sporting the conspicuous initials "H.S."  Seems that the mysterious history of Henry Scudder involves not just murder and magic, but Masonic intrigue.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars (Part 4 of 4)

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

Today's Review: A Good Marriage

In King's previous novella collections, the fourth piece has been the weakest in the lineup (cf. The Breathing Method, The Sun Dog), and A Good Marriage proves no exception.  The premise is interesting enough: happily married housewife Darcy Anderson stumbles across evidence that her loving and mild-mannered husband of over two decades has a "secret life" as a serial rapist/killer (the novella raises the unsettling question: "Does anybody really know anybody?").  Unfortunately, the narrative is slow to develop, and requires a lot of backstory to establish the history of Darcy and Bob's relationship.  Time is also needed to set-up the moral dilemma presented by Darcy's terrible discovery, and King perhaps is guilty of bringing readers too deep inside the protagonist's head (tracing her thought processes so thoroughly that the plot lags).  Darcy's ultimate decision about how to deal with Bob is not very surprising or moving, and the long anticlimax further diminishes the impact of A Good Marriage.  The narrative might have been more compelling had King decided to play more with the strange, supernatural explanation that Bob offers for his misdeeds.

Before closing the discussion of the book, I should also give mention to the Afterword.  As in many previous volumes, King's commentary entertains no less than the fiction itself.  The story notes (or more properly, the novella notes) here brim with insight, and King's last line makes for a wonderful, sardonic clincher.

Overall, Full Dark, No Stars is a strong quartet (I would rank it ahead of Four Past Midnight and just behind Different Seasons).  Both 1922 and Big Driver are brilliant yarns, and represent some of the finest work King has ever done in the novella form.  This grim collection is indeed full dark, but it's hardly devoid of stars.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars (Part 3 of 4)

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

[Four novellas, reviewed over four consecutive days here at Macabre Republic.]

Today's Review: Fair Extension

As with the preceding novella, Big Driver, King adopts a familiar narrative template here--in this case, the ol' deal-with-the-devil story.  Protagonist Dave Streeter encounters a strange figure (not-so-subtly christened George Elvid) at a roadside stand outside the Derry County Airport.  Elvid sells Fair Extensions, and for a 15% tithe on Streeter's annual income, promises to increase his life span by curing his terminal cancer.  There's just one catch, as Elvid explains: "You have to transfer the weight.  In words of one syllable, you have to do the dirty to someone else if the dirty is to be lifted from you."  Moreover, this scapegoat "has to be someone you hate," but that's no problem, because Streeter has the perfect candidate: his lifelong "friend" Tom Goodhugh, a healthy and wealthy entrepreneur (thanks to the bank loan Streeter pushed through for him) now happily married to the girl he stole from Streeter back in high school.  So a deal is readily struck with Elvid, one that brings a cataclysmic reversal of fortunes for the Streeter and Goodhugh families.

Readers, though, should not expect the traditional climactic plot twist, the eventual diabolic double-cross.  As Elvid bluntly discloses early on: "This isn't some half-assed morality tale.  I'm a businessman, not a character out of 'The Devil and Daniel Webster.' [...] And if you think I'm going to show up two decades or so down the line to collect your soul in my moldy old pocketbook, you'd better think again."  Belying his reputation, the anagrammatic Elvid is a straight-talker and a fair dealer, and thus there's no stunning turnabout at novella's end.  Instead, the truly shocking aspect of Fair Extension is Streeter's utter lack of remorse, his cavalier attitude about the assorted tragedies that strike Tom and his kin.

Fair Extension exposes the envy and animosity that underlies the facade of friendship.  The novella also serves as a reminder of the various horrors--both commonplace and exotic--that potentially await us in our everyday lives.  Nonetheless, the dominant note struck here is comedic--the tale is laced with humor black as the slate of a constellation-erased sky.  Elvid ultimately proves an incidental figure--a mere plot facilitator--but the real devil here is King himself, as one can't help but sense the author reveling in his (wickedly deadpan) narration of incidents of macabre misfortune.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars (Part 2 of 4)

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

[Four novellas, reviewed over four consecutive days here at Macabre Republic.]

Today's Review: Big Driver

King is a proven master of the dire-straits narrative, and this novella ranks up there with books such as Misery and Gerald's Game.  Cozy-mystery novelist Tess ___ is ambushed on a deserted country road, battered, raped, strangled, and left for dead (alongside her attacker's previous--and now putrescent--victims).  She manages to find her way back to civilization and safety, but the harrowing ordeal has transformed Tess into a "New Woman" bent on some Old Testament-style retribution.  But this isn't exploitative shlock, the literary equivalent of I Spit on Your Grave.  King handles the sensitive subject matter deftly, and immerses readers in Tess's viewpoint, conveying her physical hurt, her psychological trauma (although Tess's imagined conversations with her cat and her GPS do grow a bit wearisome), her sense of outrage, and her dilemma over "her moral responsibility" (as she debates whether to report the crime, to keep it secret and prevent her public humiliation, or to take the law into her own hands and track down her attacker).

Like 1922 before it, Big Driver is a prime example of American Gothic fiction.  King knows full well that American Gothic flourishes on the open road (where a person, having ventured beyond the confines of the familiar, constantly risks encountering adversity).  Tess, whose trials trace back to the decision to take a shortcut home from a public speaking event, has learned the hard way that "there were many strange twists and devious turns as one hopped down the overgrown bunny-trail of life."  The novella also broaches the theme of the secret identity, the Other lurking within; recognizing her transformation into not just a "survivor" but also a "killer," Tess wonders: "How many unsuspected selves could a person have, hiding deep inside?  She was beginning to think the number might be infinite."

Judging by the numerous references to "the conventions of horror tales and mysteries"--not to mention revenge-fantasy films like Death Wish, The Brave One, and The Last House on the Left--King is self-aware that he is treading on some well-worn territory here.  Still, the author uses his immense storytelling talents to make this tale uniquely his.  Offering superb characterization and terrific plot twists, Big Driver is a gripping novella, one that seems the perfect vehicle for a feature film down the road.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars (Part 1 of 4)

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

[Four novellas, reviewed over four consecutive days here at Macabre Republic.]

Today's Review: 1922

This leadoff piece is the best written and most terrifying (musophobes beware: there are some ghastly scenes involving rats), setting the tone for the entire collection.  It is a self-described "ghost story," where the haunting might stem from either supernatural (hellish vengeance from beyond the grave) or psychological (the narrator's guilt-ridden id) sources.  Eight years after the titular date, narrator Wilf James sits in an Omaha hotel room penning his confession, of having coerced his then-14-year-old son into joining his father in a throat-slashing murder of his mother (Wilf's "bloody divorce" follows a bitter dispute with his wife Arlette over the 100 acres of rural land she has inherited--she wants to sell out and move to the city).  Wilf recounts the bedroom killing in mesmerizing detail, and the aftermath of the grisly deed is even more suspenseful, as father and son attempt to get away with their crime by sealing Arlette's corpse inside an abandoned well and then pretending that she ran away from home.  A clever plan, no doubt, but one destined to turn into a smashing failure.

An unreliably-narrated tale of brutal murder in an isolated farmhouse, 1922 reads like Poe meets Capote (with a hint of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls").  But in its chronicle of the catastrophic repercussions to a singular act, the novella most strongly echoes the grim naturalism of Frank Norris (whom King cites as a literary idol in his afterword to FD, NS).  "Poison spreads like ink in water," Wilf notes (a figuration of doom worthy of Norris's magnus opus, The Octopus) toward the end of his confession, after both he and all those around him have been reduced to misery and ruin1922 is unrelentingly bleak--as one might expect of a novella whose Midwestern mise-en-scene was inspired by the stark photos in a nonfiction book entitled Wisconsin Death Trip--yet proves that in 2010 King continues to reign as the nation's greatest writer of American Gothic fiction.   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beelzebub Tweets

       BLZ, Bub

[For earlier tweets, check out this post.]

Xmas. Xmas. Xmas. Scrawl it everywhere, everyone. O come all ye faithless materialists, and cancel out Christ!
--20 minutes ago.

Clive Barker's "Lost Souls"--now there's a heartwarming Xmas story (but that Harry D'Amour is a sadistic bastard in my book).
--11:54 P.M., December 7th.

This time of year, I like to walk across bridges. To meet the indecisive depression cases teetering there, and talk them off the edge.
--6:16 A.M., December 7th

How many cans of kerosene would it take to really light up the tree in Rockefeller Center? Seriously, does anybody know?
--8:30 P.M., December 5th

O Holy Night. Away in a Manger. Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Countless others, played endlessly. Tis the season of giving me acid reflux.
--2:18 A.M., December 4th

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--California

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Before I even started digging into California, I expected to strike Gothic gold, and I certainly was not disappointed.  This is a state that features place names such as Poe, Bradbury, and Tryon Corner.  There's also Helltown (more Dis than Disneyland), Dagon (it's no secret who the pagan cults worship in this fishing village), Stones Landing (because the local zealots have excellent aim), Mugginsville (beware of walking the streets at night), Bateman Place (an ideal residence for American psychos), and Town Talk (where the dirty laundry gets thoroughly aired).  All worthy candidates, but the title of Most Gothic Place Name in California goes to...

Lairport.  It sounds like an ominous pun, a portmanteau word deconstructing into oxymoron.  A place that lures you inside its borders with the false promise of facilitation.  A terminal where you stand to lose more than your luggage, where travelers are dropped off but never picked up again. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Walking Dead (season finale)

I won't go so far as to say that the initials of the episode title "TS-19" should stand for T(otally) S(ucked), but after five engrossing installments, the season finale of The Walking Dead proved a bitter disappointment.

The episode starts out promisingly enough: the opening segment flashes back to Shane's attempted rescue of the comatose Rick from his hospital bed when the zombie outbreak first occurred (a scene that underscores the complexities of Shane's character--he's not quite a hero but neither a total heel).  But with the return to the present moment, and the descent of Rick's group into the bowels of the Center for Disease Control, "TS-19" devolves into bad science fiction.  Lone resident Dr. Jenner (in the role of Mad--or at least Seriously Depressed--Scientist) provides food, drink, and lodging for the group, but it's obvious from the outset that he will be anything but a savior.  Meanwhile, the countdown of a red digital clock (could the show have resorted to a more hackneyed plot device?) heralds an imminent doom.  In less than thirty minutes, when the CDC's generators finally run out out of fuel, the entire facility will self-destruct (as we're informed by that quasi-feminine computerized voice that has sure found a helluva lot of movie work since Aliens).

Perhaps the lone bright spot of the sequence inside the CDC involves the deeper look at how a person transforms into a zombie.  T(est) S(ubject) 19 turns out to be Jenner's own doctor wife, who, after being bitten and infected, volunteered to have her death/rebirth process scientifically recorded (computer imaging shows that only the victim's brainstem reactivates, resulting in an impersonal shell driven by mindless instincts).  Still, this informational nugget is hardly the payload viewers expect from a season finale.  And the drama here just isn't that compelling.  Jenner locks down the command center and tries to convince the others that instant, fiery eradication is preferable to violent death and grotesque resurrection in the world outside (his fatalistic sermon makes an impact: not everyone from Rick's group decides to flee the CDC, some opting instead to join Jenner in what amounts to computer-assisted suicide).  Now, I understand that the show's strength lies in its human characters and the existential/moral dilemmas they face as survivors in an apocalyptic world, but is it too much to ask that the finale of a zombie series actually feature zombies (rather than the handful of walkers who make token, blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance here)?

Implausibility further mars the climax of "TS-19."  The group is liberated by a hand-grenade ex machina (which Carol just happened to be keeping handy [and all to herself] after finding it in Rick's uniform when doing the laundry back at the camp).  Worse, this facile escape (the grenade succeeds in blowing out a large window of bulletproof glass) comes only minutes after Jenner raves about what an impenetrable fortress the CDC was built to be.  One final bit of awkwardness involves the last exchange between Jenner and Rick: before the latter can make his hasty exodus from the command center, the former grabs him by the arm and whispers an indistinct something into his ear.  While a certain element of mystery is welcome in a season finale, The Walking Dead could have done much better than some cheap miming of the conclusion of Lost in Translation.

In the past week, rumors have swirled that Frank Darabont (executive producer of the series, which has already been renewed for a second season) does not plan on bringing back any of the staff writers.  Judging from the lame finale of The Walking Dead's first season, such decision can be made none T(oo) S(oon).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"The River"

[For previous entries, click the "A.G.T.V." label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 7: "The River"

The action picks up two weeks after the tragic death of Dora Mae, and the Dreifuss family is still hurting from the loss.  Samson manages to take away some of the sting from mom Rita Sue when he informs her that he privately took care of the murderous Stangler.  But for the bereft Felix, the carnival grounds are now hellish environs; after drowning his grief in alcohol, he admits to Jonesy that "Every which way I turn, I see my little girl."  Indulging the dreams of his remaining daughter Libby, Felix agrees to pack up and drive off to Hollywood, but reneges on the promise because he can't bear to leave behind his stubborn wife Rita Sue.  Sofie, too, had planned to make the journey (once again illustrating her discontent with carny life), and the burgeoning friendship between Sofie and Libby allows the show's writers to sneak in another intriguing bit of backstory.  During a discussion about birthdays, Sofie reveals to Libby that "The day mama had me was the day she took sick."

Romance, meanwhile, continues to blossom between Ben and Ruthie.  The odious Prof. Lodz intervenes and incites a confrontation between the prospective couple by telling Ben that Ruthie had slept with Scudder back in the day.  When Gabe steps forward to defend his mother, Ben pushes him down and accidentally breaks the strongman's arm.  Guilt-stricken, Ben subsequently heals the injury in a river (a paradoxical miracle that sends the local fish population floating belly-up to the surface).  Ben swears Gabe to secrecy about the mended arm, but bearded lady Lila catches wise and runs to share the news of Ben's deed with Lodz.  "He did it on his own?" the Professor blurts, both impressed and incensed that the "boy" has succeeded without the benefit of tutelage.

The Brother Justin parallel storyline was overshadowed in the past two episodes by the Carnivale's experiences in Babylon, but here it moves center stage.  Standing at a bridge railing contemplating a suicidal leap, Justin has a vision of washing ashore and begging help for his injuries from two strange siblings (the sister asserts that her father is an evil man, and is paranoid about pursuing assassins).  Justin's sister Iris fills in more detail when she relates to reporter Tommy Dolan that the boy and girl (Alexsei and Irina--i.e. Justin and Iris) were Russian immigrants who washed up on a riverbank following a train-wrecking bridge collapse that killed their mother.  The two children were alive but not necessarily safe, because "a man was sent [by their own father?] to kill them."  Emerging from his reverie, Justin enigmatically gasps, "I killed him," and later makes a telephone call to his sister, chastising Iris that "You always knew what was inside of me."  Justin's mysterious interior promises to form a major plot point as Carnivale's first season pushes toward its conclusion.

Following the high drama of the previous two installments of the series, "The River" is a meandering, catch-your-breath kind of episode.  Still, it manages to reel viewers forward by tantalizing them with tidbits of cryptic (but no doubt crucial) information.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"A Trojan House"

(The following poem was previously published in the [now lamentably defunct] magazine Champagne Shivers.)

A Trojan House

Pine Barren palace, its marvelous architecture a fait accompli.
To the stunned crowd of onlookers, the old hunter
Insists the scene was uniformly sylvan but three days ago.
Then how to explain such uncanny masonry,
This granite mansion now towering before them
Sporting myriad occulting windows?
The ecologically-inclined bemoan the rape of nature
While the landowners grouse of property taxes unpaid
And the dreamers stand mumbling of still greater mysteries
     that must be labyrinthed within.
In the end they form one delegation--
The curious and the querulous marching side by side
Through the non-deterrent front gates.

Unwitting housewarmers, their very presence set the darkness blazing
And a raucous party into sudden motion.
Alight with malice, the palace began to roar and pulse
Then sank slowly again into its earthen grave,
Ushered itself back to more accustomed depths.
(The three rules of surreal estate: relocation, relocation, relocation)
But not before the few survivors outdoors
Caught an awful glimpse through newly stained glass
Of the carnage so knowledgeably effected by the horned grotesques
     that had been squatting inside.
And thus grasped a singeing truth, something of which
Blind Milton had failed to forewarn:
Pandemonium was a mobile home.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Random House, 2009)

I like to fancy myself a very well-read person, and to think that I stay attuned to events in the publishing world.  But I have to wonder about the rock I've been living under for the past few years, because I can't fathom how I missed out on Gillian Flynn's debut novel (Sharp Objects), let alone her follow-up Dark Places--an instant classic of American Gothic fiction.

The book--centering on the brutal murder of a family inside a Kansas farmhouse--is obviously influenced by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (Flynn even references the town of Holcomb at one point), but quickly stakes out its own dark territory.  At age seven, Libby Day emerged (though hardly unscathed, physically or emotionally) as the only survivor of her family's bizarre massacre (by shotgun blast, axe blade, and strangulation).  She never actually witnessed the crimes taking place, but her testimony helped convict her allegedly devil-worshiping brother Ben of the murders.  For twenty-five years Libby has tried to put that awful night behind her, but now finding herself verging on destitution, she gets involved with the Kill Club, an offbeat group obsessed with sensational crimes.  At first the flawed Libby (who's snarky and quirky as a Chuck Palahniuk protagonist--she numbers kleptomania amongst her foibles) figures she'll make a quick buck by pawning of family memorabilia to the Kill Club.  But she soon discovers that many of these devotees believe her brother is innocent and accordingly want her to help clear up the mystery surrounding that fateful January night back in 1985.  She reluctantly agrees, and her subsequent detective work forces her to confront the dark places lurking both within her own psyche and out in the world of the American Midwest.

Dark Places is ingeniously structured, its chapters alternating between Libby's first-person narration (as she embarks on her present-day quest for answers) and flashbacks (presented in the third-person viewpoint of Libby's brother Ben or their mom Patty) to the day leading up to the shocking bloodbath.  Such plotting allows Flynn to parcel out information about the crimes and clues to their solutions.  Moreover, it creates a heap of suspense as the novel builds toward a climax reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs (as the investigating Libby walks unsuspectingly into the killer's very lair).

Flynn's powerful novel fires on every cylinder imaginable.  The 
settings are brought to life by fantastic bits of description 
(e.g.  "Doors [in Ben's prison, which Libby finally visits] opened and shut, opened and shut, as I walked through a series of them, each shifting in size, like a metal Wonderland.  The floors stank of bleach and the air smelled beefy and humid.").  The imagery ("they fell on her bed, stuffed animals bouncing to lemming deaths on either side") is precise, the similes ("Lyle's tiny ears turned red like angry embryos") wonderfully original.  Characterization, though, is the book's strongest suit; even minor figures are memorably depicted (via details of appearance and action).  Flynn delves deep inside major players like Ben and Patty, expertly conveying their inner conflicts, their anguish.  Most unforgettable of all is Libby, a damaged, unambitious, yet ultimately admirable protagonist.  Her voice mesmerizes, even when dealing with unpleasant subject matter.  Consider, for instance, this frankly unflattering self-portrait that Libby paints at the start of the novel:
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.  Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.  It's the Day blood.  Something's wrong with it.  I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.  Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives--second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends--stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas.  Me going to school in my dead sisters' hand-me-downs: Shirts with mustardy armpits.  Pants with baggy bottoms, comically loose, held on with a raggedy belt cinched to the farthest hole.  In class photos my hair was always crooked--barrettes hanging loosely from strands, as if they were airborne objects caught in the tangles--and I always had bulging pockets under my eyes, drunk-landlady eyes.  Maybe a grudging curve of the lip where a smile should be.  Maybe.
I was not a lovable child, and I'd grown into a deeply unlovable adult.  Draw a picture of my soul, and it'd be a scribble with fangs.
Flynn has written an engrossing murder mystery, a highly-literate page-turner.  Readers will tear through the narrative (compelled to find out who really killed the Day family); other writers will pore over it (trying to study the author's craft).  Dark Places is an utterly brilliant book, and proves that two novels into her young career, Flynn is already one of the most talented writers working in America.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#6

[For previous entries, click the "Top 20 Countdowns" label under Features in the right sidebar.]


Don't be fooled by the ultra-moronic film version, Maximum Overdrive; this is a masterful story, one that reads like Duel meets Night of the Living Dead (as a random group of humans holed up in a diner try to fend off the onslaught of massive vehicles come-to-life).  Collected in Night Shift, "Trucks" offers terrific prose (a nervous salesman keeps "his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep"; a diner door, torn off by a rampaging truck, flies "into the night like something out of a Dali painting") amidst scenes of horrific violence (humans die gruesome deaths, "knocked out of their boots with heavy treadmarks mashed across their guts").  King opens the story with several pages of carnage before providing the kicker (one that proves "Trucks" isn't some rip-off of a Richard Matheson piece): "There was no one in the trucks."  The automobiles are now truly autonomous.

It's tempting to read this story as an OPEC-era allegory, where having to pump gas is a harrowing experience for the average man (as the narrator, forced to fuel up a seemingly endless line of trucks, learns firsthand: "My blisters broke, trickling pus down to my wrists.  My head was pounding like a rotted tooth and my stomach rolled helplessly with the stench of hydrocarbons").  Still, this is more a story of Frankensteinian turnabout: humanity is enslaved by the very technology created to help it master the natural world.  On the last page, the narrator realizes there's no place to hide from the trucks, because "So much of the world is paved now.  Even the playgrounds are paved."

What helps place "Trucks" so high on the countdown, though, is the fact that this is a distinctly American story.  It's telling that no cars (typically the product of overseas engineering) take on a life of their own here.  Anyone who has ever watched a Ford commercial during a football game knows that the truck is an American icon.  At one point during the extended siege of the diner, the narrator lies down to sleep, and counts trucks instead of sheep: "How many in the state," he wonders, "how many in America?  Trailer trucks, pickup trucks, flatbeds, day-haulers, three-quarter-tons, army convoy trucks by the tens of the thousands, and buses."  King, moreover, does not attribute the trucks' sentience to freak
"electrical storms" or the fallout from "nuclear testing" but rather suggests that the changeover is a byproduct of the national sensibility.  In the final paragraphs, the narrator notes that
whatever "mass consciousness" the trucks now possess, "we've given [to] them."  Ultimately, "Trucks" stands as a cautionary tale, a warning that our country's preoccupation with its machinery might someday unleash apocalyptic madness. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leslie Nielsen, RIP

The entertainment world suffered a great loss on Monday, when actor Leslie Nielsen passed away at the age of 84.  Nielsen is no doubt best known for his portrayal of the bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, but he also starred in darker fare, such as the classic 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet.  And horror fans will never forget his turn as a sadistic cuckold in 1982's Creepshow.  Check out the pair of clips below from the Creepshow segment
"Something to Tide you Over," in which Nielsen (as Richard Vickers) exacts some unusual seaside vengeance against his cheating wife Becky and her lover Harry.