Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Arkansas

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

This Deep South state sports an array of intriguing town/city names.  There's Stinking Bay (hard to ignore what's festering beneath the surface of this place), Graphic (quite the violent scene), Killin (come indulge your murderous urges!), Slabtown (where Killin's less fortunate ultimately end up?), Black Cat (no home for ailurophobes), Rocky Mound (a very grave locale), and Faulknerville (a town abounding in dark, decaying mansions).  Besting all of these, though, for the honor of Most Gothic Place Name in Arkansas is...

Strangers Home.  The odd, almost oxymoronic combination of words conjures images of an invasion by outsiders (such as the masked trio who torment/torture Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in The Strangers).  At the same time, the name evokes the inciting moment of countless Gothic plots--of innocents seeking assistance at a lone domicile (e.g. after their car breaks down).  It's hard to be at ease in the home of strangers, never knowing if you'll be experiencing hospitality, or deadly hostility.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Short Story Spotlight: "The Wheel"

"The Wheel" by Bentley Little

This weird tale (published in Cemetery Dance # 64, which also happens to be a Bentley Little special issue) revolves around a wheel of fortune, but don't expect to find a smarmy Pat Sajak or ageless Vanna White close at hand.  The titular apparatus--wooden, paint-flaking, and studded with nails around its outer rim-- is located in the housing-project apartment of an elderly widow, and its segments are painted with alliterative, politically-incorrect commands such as "Choke the Chink" and "Kick the Kike."  Spinners of the strange wheel (such as the young narrator, who finds himself addicted to its mysteries) must carry out the order, or otherwise suffer a similar violent fate.  The premise makes for a haunting story, one that hints at a bizarre source for seemingly random crimes of racial intolerance in the inner city.

Offbeat but dark, "The Wheel" is quintessential Bentley Little, and is well worth giving a spin.  Fans of this prolific and highly-respected author will also find plenty of other material (as outlined on the magazine cover above) to enjoy in CD's dedicated issue.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Walking Dead (episode review)

As the fifth of a six-episode arc (and falling between last week's frenetic conclusion and next week's season finale), "Wildfire" figured to be a transitional episode.  And sure enough, tonight's installment of The Walking Dead was all about cleaning up, and moving on.

In the aftermath of the bloody zombie attack, the remaining camp members tend to the dead, burning the toppled "geeks" and burying their murdered loved ones.  Andrea, meanwhile, keeps vigil over her slain sister Amy, whose eventual resurrection as a zombie furnishes perhaps the series' most poignant scene to date.  Bitten on the stomach during the attack on the camp, Jim makes his own slow, feverish transition towards geekdom.  His fate is just another reminder that the zombies of this post-apocalyptic world are not alien monsters but rather humans who have slid along a continuum between life and death (and afterlife), between civility and mindless savagery.

With the camp at the quarry obviously no longer a safe haven, the group has no choice but to pack up and head out.  The dilemma, though, involves the direction they should take.  Rick suggests the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, while Shane proposes they trek to a military base 100 miles away.  After much debate, the group decides to try for the closer destination.  And it's apropos that this transitional episode ends with the image of the survivors standing at a threshold--of the opened doorway of the CDC (although the coming attractions for the season finale intimate that the compound won't provide the sanctuary everyone had hoped for).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"Pick a Number"

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

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 6: "Pick a Number"

In this highly emotional episode, the Carnivale community attempts to deal with the shocking murder of Dora Mae.  A funeral is held in an open field, with each troupe member leaving a personal possession in the grave.  Then all eyes turn towards retribution, but an armed search through Babylon comes up empty, as every last inhabitant of the town seems to have fled overnight.

Eventually, the Irish bartender, Stangler, is apprehended and forced to participate in a ritual known as "carnival justice" (which involves an ancient wagon symbolically circled three times around the accused).  The scene illustrates some of Carnivale's greatest strengths as a series: its ability to convey a sense of authenticity about 1930s carnival life, and its creation of odd yet admirable characters.  Samson, for example, is dwarfish by nature but large in stature as he leads his troupe of carnies.  Here he's determined to carry out tribal law, proclaiming: "One of ours is dead; one of theirs is gonna answer for it."

Stangler actually survives the Russian-Roulette-type ritual (the episode's title refers to the number of bullets to be inserted into a pistol's chamber), enabling him to provide Samson with key information.  He admits to murdering Dora Mae so that the menfolk of Babylon can engage in some spirited coupling with her.  This revelation that Babylon is literally a ghost town is hardly stunning to the astute viewer, but what does give pause is Stangler's explanation of how Babylon was decimated.  The entire mining company was wiped out by a cave-in caused by none other than Henry Scudder (who knew that the group intended to lynch him for murdering one of the miners).  Scudder's character is given an ominous twist as he proves a man gifted with a deadly touch.  Indeed, his virtual cursing of Babylon (anyone who dies there thereafter is doomed to wander the town nightly as a ghost) puts one in mind of the dire machinations of the Man in Black in Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

Ben, still trapped in Babylon's mine, wanders through its labyrinth and then makes a surreal crossing over into the World War I battlefield that has haunted his dreams all season long.  He witnesses the recurring figure of the circus bear maul a Russian soldier, and bumps into a younger and un-blind version of Prof. Lodz, who asks: "Have you seen my bear?"  With that claim of ownership, another piece of the grand puzzle falls into place.

Meantime, Brother Justin is still reeling from the torching of his church for migrants.  His faith in God in shambles, Justin leaves the wreckage and embarks on an impromptu trek into the wilderness (he's next seen sharing a campfire with some hoboes, as the show is once again true to the era in which it's set).  The easy assumption
here is that Justin will eventually cross paths with the Carnivale while out on the open road, but then again, in this brilliantly plotted series, nothing is ever that simple. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#7

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


King has gone the Lovecraftian route before, most notably in "Jerusalem's Lot," "The Mist," and "Crouch End," but never more frightfully than in this novella collected in Just After Sunset.  And while OCD forms a a central theme here, readers shouldn't expect to find some cozy episode of Monk.  Similarly, the narrative's primary setting, Ackerman's Field, produces a crop of beasties more harrowing than any of the Universal lot celebrated in Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

The novella proves an excellent example of American Gothic fiction on a couple of levels.  First, in its update of the epistolary mode of the traditional Gothic novel ("N." is comprised of letters, e-mails, newspaper clippings, and a psychiatrist's case notes).  Moreso, though, in its conception of something awfully supernatural lurking within/beyond nature.  The patient N. (as he's referred to in Dr. John Bonsaint's notes) is an accountant by trade but a landscape photographer by hobby.  One day, in pursuit of a picture of rural tranquility, he stumbles upon a distressing scene: a Stonehenge-type arrangement, which he believes forms a gateway between our own world and a world filled with giant, malevolent
creatures.  Worse, he thinks that his accidental glimpse has upset the taslismanic balance of the stones (whose number seems to waver between eight and seven: "I had activated the place just by looking at it.  Human eyes take away the eighth stone.  A camera lens will put it back, but won't lock it in place.  I had to keep renewing the protection with symbolic acts" (acts utterly consonant with the symptoms of OCD: counting, touching, placing.  Appropriately, Ackerman's Field lies just past "Serenity Ridge Cemetery," whose name suggests the dividing line between peace of mind and debilitating compulsion).  Nature gives way to nightmare, as N. perceives a gathering "outer darkness" within the circle of stones--an ominous, vista-distorting presence that uses the very "sunset to see with," and that seems "to mock the beauty of that silent spring morning."  In the exhausting aftermath of his unfortunate discovery, N. also discerns that the summer solstice (a highly pleasant time of year in most people's minds) is actually the point of greatest danger of the cosmic horrors breaking into and overwhelming our earthly reality.

"N." does not just feature cyclopean grotesques reminiscent of the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos but emulates Lovecraft's work in its creation of a mounting sense of dread via a speaker's ongoing attempt at recounting--at articulating the unspeakable.  The novella's premise that mental illness might be transmitted from patient to analyst "like cold germs on a sneeze" also forms a brilliant analogue of the nightmares the horror author like King determinedly passes on the reader (though N. remains anonymous in the narrative, his name might as well be Stephen.)

And for all those readers who fear that they might have been "infected" by N.'s story just like Dr. John Bonsaint, I assure you that it was mere coincidence that this novella charted at #7 on the Top 20 Countdown.  So don't even give a second thought to that odd number; there's nothing inauspicious about it.

Nothing at all.


One final note: for those who like their horror even more "graphic," "N." is also available online as an original video series, and has been adapted as a hardcover book by Marvel Comics (Stephen King's N.).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from the Macabre Republic

                         Today's Special: Turkey a la Roadkill

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Gourd Mortality"

Sure, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but I'm hearkening back to Halloween once again today with my short poem "Gourd Mortality," published over at A Handful of Stones.  Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Arizona

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

To my surprise, there was a dearth of worthy candidates here (Alaska actually provided better material).  But I did find appellations such as Chambers (I shudder to think of the bloody deeds taking place behind closed doors in this town), Crookton (at least they're honest about their dishonesty), Chaney Place (Population: 1--but the man has a thousand faces), Pumpkin Center (Halloween's southwestern headquarters?), Midway (sounds like a perfect spot for Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Show), and Dagger (the most likely place in America to get stabbed in the back).  I will have to go with the obvious here, though, and award the title of Most Gothic Place Name in Arizona to...

Tombstone.  The very name originated from a bit of grim humor: a soldier told silver prospector Ed Schieffelin that the only rock he was bound to collect in that waterless, Apache-full region was his own tombstone.  There's just a wonderfully rhythmic aspect to "Tombstone, Arizona" (imagine equivalents like "Casket, Alaska" or "Funeral Urn, New Jersey").  And it's hard not to appreciate the macabre quality of a town name that heralds the ultimate monument raised for every resident.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Walking Dead (episode review)

Family--of both the biological and makeshift varieties--forms the central theme of "Vatos," the fourth episode of The Walking Dead.  The episode opens with Andrea and her sister Amy reminiscing about fishing with their dad when children (and also now wondering whether their parents might still be alive down in Florida).  An unbalanced Jim digs grave-like holes near the camp following a dark dream, and laments the earlier loss of his wife and children to zombie feasting.  Meanwhile, Rick, Glenn, and T-Dog join Daryl in his continued search for his brother Merle (who's on the loose with a cauterized stump and a stolen van).  The searchers have a tense standoff with the Latino gang members protecting/caring for  the "abuelos" at an abandoned nursing home.  Even Dale sounds the theme of family with his fireside parable (drawn from the fiction of William Faulkner) about a father passing a watch onto his son.

"Vatos" builds to a chaotic, action-packed climax when the survivors' camp is suddenly attacked by a horde of ravenous walkers.  This scene requires some suspension of disbelief (hard to imagine that the survivors would leave their grounds completely unguarded at night so they could all sit down and have themselves a fish fry), but the ensuing drama makes this sketchy bit of plotting easy to overlook.  There are casualties aplenty, for both the living and the undead (in a sequence that features more head shots than a Hollywood casting call).  The episode concludes with one sister wailing in heartbreaking grief over the other's death; families have been literally ripped apart by the assault, and their quasi-idyllic community will never be the same again.  Obviously no longer safe in that location, the (remaining) survivors will need to move on in the next episode, back out into the wide, zombie-rife world. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book Review: Four Murders

In his introduction to Four Murders (an exclusive poetry e-book available from the Merchants Keep webstore), Rich Ristow quickly traces the impact of technological development on poetry from ancient times to the present.  Considering the 21st Century state of the art, he notes how "E-book devices currently make a mess of poetic form and lineation, as do mobile phones."  Ristow attempts to circumvent such garbling here in his own book by deliberately composing poems with "thin syllabic lines."  The result?--a collection that can be enjoyed in any reading format.

Homicide serves as the central theme of the poetic quartet comprising Four Murders.  The lead-off piece, "Men of Dirt and Dust," offers a tale of vengeance from beyond the (shallow) grave, as a rape victim turned indiscriminate vigilante is haunted by the males she's killed.  When reduced to summary, this might sound like some lost segment from Creepshow, but Ristow transcends pulp with his sublime imagery (e.g. "shallow graves / sprouting
decayed arms / swaying like sick, wind-blown / brown grass").

"To Be Bandersnatched" is all the more unsettling for its allusions to Lewis Carroll.  The language of childhood fantasy proves starkly incongruous in this 1st-person account from a sadistic killer (one who wields a softball bat with past victims' hair stuck to its head).

The third poem, "The End Without a Hero: A Triptych," reads like a verse version of Cormac McCarthy, with its wonderful depiction of awful ruin.  But as Ristow's title suggests, unlike the father in The Road, the poem's speaker is committed to protecting no one but himself.  Inaction breeds introspection, and the speaker discovers that the only thing more devastating than global apocalypse is personal remorse.

"In Contempt of Sleep" is the most unforgettable of the four poems, not simply because it concludes the collection.  The piece is a promise of nocturnal haunting: "I shall come into your dreams," the speaker announces assuredly in the opening line.  This eloquent bogey's description of its own nightmarish qualities lingers in the reader's imagination, as does the ultimate revelation of why the speaker is so focused on the "you" being addressed.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this brief e-book is how much Ristow has packed into it.  His truncated lines resonate with their imagery, yet also weave together to form clear narrative threads.  Fans of dark-themed poetry are sure to delight in Ristow's work.  Simply put, Four Murders makes for one killer read. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Carnivale Revisited--"Babylon"

This feature has been on hiatus since the start of the Halloween season, but the time has come at last to resume the look back at the first season of Carnivale.  (Note: the posts for the first four episodes of the series can be found by clicking the "A.G.T.V." label in the right sidebar.)

Episode Guide--Season 1, Episode 5: "Babylon"

The Carnivale caravan finally reaches the tapped-out mining town of Babylon, Texas, and from the outset it's obvious that the place is not just off the beaten path but simply off.  For one thing, it is sparsely populated (and strangely, the Irish-brogued individual seen exiting the town at the start of the episode later reappears as the bartender at the local saloon).  When Samson decides to treat his disgruntled troupe to a night out on the town, the Babylonians loom outside the windows of the saloon in mysterious vigilance.  Also, when the lantern-wielding populace arrives en masse at the Carnivale the following night, the grim visages on the people's faces belie the quest for merriment.

Meanwhile the Scudder backstory continues to unfold.  We learn that he "killed old Carl Butridge with a pickax" back when working as a miner in Babylon years earlier.  When Ben finds himself trapped underground (a situation that Professor Lodz seems well aware of), he experiences a ghostly vision of Scudder-as-miner.  "I know who you are," Ben calls out to his presumed father.  "But do you know what that means?" Scudder counters.  As always, Carnivale entices us with further mysteries.

Jonesy, still stinging from Samson's apparent lie about Management, neglects his duties as operator of the Ferris Wheel.  Dismissed by Samson, he stumbles drunkenly outside the carnival grounds, where he makes a a terrible discovery.  The not-so-good people of Babylon have engaged in Biblical reenactment, at the expense of cooch dancer Dora Mae.

Even without Brother Justin quoting (in voiceover) verse from the book of Revelation in the opening and conclusion of "Babylon," the episode has an ominous, apocalyptic aura.  Various hints about the true nature of the town's inhabitants are seeded throughout, but the dark harvest of disclosure is delayed until the next episode of this gripping series.    

Friday, November 19, 2010

Magazine Review--Shroud #10 (Autumn 2010)

The special Halloween edition of Shroud magazine did not ship out in time for October's end, but that's the only gripe I have with this highly enjoyable issue (which features terrific cover art by Steven Gilberts--a scene of clockwork, pumpkin-headed scribes that might have sprung from the dark imagination of Tim Burton).

The issue's informative nonfiction offerings address various aspects of the holiday.  Jodi Lee ("Sam Hane It's Not") traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, while Elizabeth Tucker ("Exploding Pumpkins and Poisoned Candy") considers some of the darker, modern-day pranks associated with the 31st.  In a pull-no-punches, op-ed-type piece ("Where did All the Monsters Go?"), Kelli Owen laments the ubiquity of slutty costumes in stores these days ("Walt Disney has got to be rolling in his grave," says Owen, "knowing Cinderella, Snow White, and even Sleeping Beauty are all wearing fishnets, four-inch heels and less fabric than Donald Duck--and he only ever wore a shirt").  Also, Norman Partridge (a writer whose name has become synonymous with Halloween fiction in recent years) is interviewed, as is rising star Rio Youers.

All of this makes for some sweet reading, but the true treats are found in the fiction selections (which include a reprint of Partridge's "Three Doors"--a hard-fisted variation on "The Monkey's Paw").  Halloween is held to be a night when the worlds of the living and the dead blur together, and writers Robert Ford, Daniel G. Keohane, and Kelli Owen (again) furnish appropriately haunting tales of restless/vengeful spirits.  Jeremy C. Shipp ("Almost Paradise") gives his signature bizarro twist to the holiday, writing about oppressive Angels who fall into a dormant state every October 31st and who are then decoratively debased by their human subjects.  In "Red Lantern," Alethea Kontis presents an artist who grows too intimate with his painted muse on Halloween (while a party--described in wonderful detail by the author--plays out in the neighboring apartment).  Of all the stories in the magazine, Halloween is probably least integral to the plot of Thomas Phillips's "Vaccination," but this is nonetheless a gripping tale of a zombie-type outbreak (stemming from tainted flu shots) at a 9-1-1 call center.  The issue's most memorable story, though, is the piece of flash fiction in the leadoff slot: Justin Gustainis's "Waiting for G.P."  Gustainis gives us a sinister riff on the classic Peanuts Halloween cartoon, one that makes the notorious Simpsons spoof seem innocuous by comparison.

Kudos to guest editor Kevin Lucia for putting together a delightful issue.  Shroud 10 might not have arrived in time this October, but I can foresee myself returning to it next Halloween season and jumping happily back into its autumnal leaves.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#8

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

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

The setting for this short story (originally published in the New Yorker, and collected in Everything's Eventual : 14 Dark Tales) is quintessential American Gothic: the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, where the wind has "that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country's flat midsection," and where "if you switched over to AM you could still hear angry old men calling down hellfire."  Traveling salesman Alfie Zimmer has just arrived at a Motel 6 on I-80, but plans (having been worn down by his lonely life on the open road, away from his family) to check out early via a .38 revolver.

But there are some unexpected complications to Alfie's sad, simple plan.  For the past seven years, he's been carrying around a pocket notebook, filled with the transcriptions of graffiti phrases spied on the walls of rest stops across the Midwest.  Sayings like "Here I sit, cheeks aflexin', giving birth to another Texan," "Don't chew the Trojan Gum it tastes just like rubber," "Elvis killed Big Pussy," "1380 West Avenue kill my mother TAKE HER JEWELS," "Nobody here even if there is," and the titular "All that you love will be carried away."  For Alfie, these phrases aren't just shithouse wit; he senses an underlying profundity to the poetic "messages from the interstate": "something was going on here, and it wasn't frothy."  He's never considered the scrawls the "ravings of lunatics," but now worries that the contents of his notebook will be mistaken as some bizarre suicide note (and that his wife and daughter will be subsequently stigmatized as the surviving family of a crazy man).  So Alfie decides to dispense with the notebook, even though he hates "the idea of just flushing it away"--a line that also evokes Alfie's ultimate ambivalence about killing himself.

Finally, Alfie ventures outside, prepares to toss the notebook into the snowy field of the solitary, Capote-esque farmhouse in the distance.  At the last instant, though, Alfie strikes a bargain with himself.  If the farm's spark lights reappear within the next minute, he won't blow his own brains out but rather will try to write the book (working title: "I Killed Ted Bundy": The Secret Transit Code of America's Highways) he's often contemplated composing:
To write a book like that, he thought, you'd have to begin by talking about how it was to measure distance in green mile markers, and the very width of the land, and how the wind sounded when you got out of your car at  one of those rest areas in Oklahoma or North Dakota.  How it sounded almost like words.  You'd have to explicate the silence, and how the bathrooms always smelled of piss and the great hollow farts of departed travellers, and how in that silence the voices on the walls began to speak.  The voices of those who had written and then moved  on.  The telling would hurt, but if the wind dropped and the spark lights of the farm came back, he'd do it anyway.  
"All That You Love Will Be Carried Away": understated, open-ended, and absolutely unforgettable.  At one point King writes that "to Alfie, the voice giving [the weather report over rest-area loud speakers] sounded haunted, the voice of a ghost running through the vocal cords of a corpse"; the reader might easily say the same of King's own narration in this non-supernatural masterpiece. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hitchcock-Film Word Search

(photo courtesy of Stan Osborne)

Are you ready, Hitchcock fans?  Hidden in the grid below (either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally) are the titles of eight classic films directed by the master of suspense.  The twist, though, is that you have to know what you're searching for; I'm not going to list the eight titles for you.  The only hints I'll give here are that some of the titles contain more than one word, and all of these films are set in America.  Happy hunting!

          P R E A R N F T R P V Y D X R O N
          S O T H E B I R D S E E S F A I D
          T X S Q A V O N W Y I O R B A H T
          R U E S R M L O Y Z Q D I R E A R
          U T W E W A L P S C U I T H E G O
          T E H B I R N E O P T A T I V D P
          T O T C N X O M D R N L H T O I E
          O P R I D V T W E O R B E C E S N
          P S O D O E E V S P V I M H Y H P
          A V N P W M A R K P T R A C E S T
          Y E Y E Z I E X T O N D N O Y T P
          Z R B O O G R M A I L I W C O R H
          I E H R N O T O C V G E H K B I T
          V E T A D A S J E S T O O S A E R
          S T R O N G Q M T H E H P S A N O
          A T O C I F A M I L Y P L O T U N
          S U N A L F G E T E O P S Y C H E

This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Linda, who would have been sixty-five today.  Thanks Mom, for sharing your love of Hitchcock films with me, and for all those monthly issues of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you bought for me when I was growing up.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Alaska

[For background info on this new Feature, check out last Tuesday's post.]

Alaska probably has the slimmest pickings of any state in the Union, with its relative lack of civilization and its prevalence of Russian- and Eskimo-sounding appellations.  Nonetheless, I managed to find some intriguing town/city names.  There's False Pass (something wicked that way lurks), Red Devil (northern vacation spot for Satan?), Bonibrook (no secret where this town's skeletons lie), Deadhorse (the glue-factory capital of America?), Gost Creek (sounds 'aunted to me), Fink Creek (perhaps found on the outskirts of Duplicity City), Broadmoor (conjures images of an Arctic Gothic expanse), and Salt Chuck (he'll taste better that way!).  But my choice for the most Gothic place name in Alaska is...

Nightmute.  Forget the so-called Land of the Midnight Sun; this wonderfully spondaic name intimates a place where the darkness is so deep it muffles sounds of life.  The kind of place Lovecraft might have written about, where unspeakable acts abound after sunset.  The (unkind) kind of place where nocturnal sojourners are never heard from again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review: Love Craft

Love Craft.  By Bryan Dietrich. (Finishing Line Press, 2010)

Dietrich's referential/reverential chapbook of thirteen poems pays pays plenty of homage to the gentleman scribe from Providence.  Lovecraft's presence is evident throughout, from the various epigraphs drawn from his weird tales to Dietrich's general prologue "Necronomicon."  The book is also divided into three sections (The Tomb, The Temple, and The Book of the Dead) containing poems with titles like "The Whisperer in Darkness," "The Shadow Out of Time," and "Dreams in the Witch-House."  But the reader should not expect to encounter simplistic, derivative work, stocked with ichor and tentacles, "eldritch"  this and "squamous" that.  What Dietrich actually offers here is an application of Lovecraft to modern reality, the fiction of cosmic horror forming a thematic framework for more personal drama.

In the poem "Cool Air," for instance, the speaker laments how his (retired pilot) father wastes away his golden years in an armchair, sitting enthralled by televised weather reports rather than going out and experiencing the outside world firsthand.  And the terrible "It" in the follow-up poem "The Unnamable" isn't  "Cthulhu, Ubbo-Sathla, / some ghost from another time, another plane," but rather the senility devouring the father's short-term memories (and preventing his recall of the pulp fiction he reads daily: "Wilbur Whately, warped. / Dexter Ward, deleted. Pickman and his models all washed / out").

Dietrich's concise lines delight with their verbal resonance.  The poet's skilled hands transform a crystal ball into an "oracle ovary," turn the act of compulsively sticking the Naugahyde side of an armchair with a needle into "furniture murder."  There's cultural resonance here as well, as Dietrich invokes not just Lovecraft but James Bond, The Flintstones, and a slew of horror movies both classic and contemporary.  Stanzas such as the following prove doubly enjoyable, for the wordplay itself as well as the chance to catch the filmic allusions:

          Foxed to a closet by some badly born Shape,
          all bib-alls and bad tan, the babysitter tries
          a hanger.  You just can't kill the Boogeyman.

          Another shower.  Perhaps the most
          pointed.  Naked desire, naked
          she....  Mother.  Son.  Carotid cutlery.

          She claws her way through cupboard to secret
          sect, finds black bassinet, her child, a stranger
          at its side.  Within, two terrible eyes.

The collection as a whole paints a portrait of American Gothic, as the interconnecting poems delineate a family saga involving infidelity and divorce (yet continued co-habitation), morbidity and madness.  Appropriately enough, the book's closing piece is entitled "Behind the Shutters," a final reminder that haunting is an indoor sport.

Fans of the horror genre in general and H.P. Lovecraft in particular will appreciate the allusive quality of Dietrich's work.  But this is also a book that will appeal to any lover of erudite, finely-wrought poetry.  Profound and pop-cultural at once, Love Craft is a spellbinding piece of versification.

To learn more about the poet and his work, check out his website at http://www.bryandietrich.com/.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Walking Dead (episode review)

The relatively zombie-free third episode of The Walking Dead ("Tell It to the Frogs") puts the emphasis on moral dilemma.  Rick's wife Lori (who has become intimate with his partner Shane) must contend with the guilt of her betrayal when her husband shows up alive and well at the survivors' camp.  The reunion, though, is short-lived, because Rick's conscience compels him to return to Atlanta to try and rescue Merle from the rooftop where he has been left stranded.  Rick's decision to risk his own life for the low-life Merle naturally doesn't sit well with Lori, and Shane protests that Rick is endangering the welfare of the camp by taking three men with him on the expedition.  Rick, in turn, tries to explain that he has to go back not just for Merle or the bag of guns that has been lost; he needs to retrieve his walkie-talkie so he can possibly save the life (by warning him to stay clear of Atlanta) of the man who who restored him to health in the series premiere.  These various moral complications make for riveting drama, and demonstrate that The Walking Dead ultimately values the story more than the gory.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is its illustration of what day-to-day life is like for a survivor of the zombie apocalypse.  Such an existence involves more than toting guns and shooting ghouls; tasks like scrounging for food (and fuel) and hand-washing clothes are now part of daily reality.  In a moment of comic relief, the woman of the camp lament the loss of civilization's modern appliances: washing machines, computers, and coffee makers, not to mention a more personal item normally stored in the bedroom nightstand.

Through three episodes now, none of the human characters in the series have been killed off, but I'm betting that that will change next week.  Something tells me that one of the four men on the expedition is not going to survive the trip back into zombie-riddled Atlanta.  The odds against them are worsened by the fact that Merle (as tonight's cliffhanger reveals) is on the loose again--and he's unlikely to extend a hand in friendship and let bygones be bygones.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

DVD Review: Frozen

Frozen.  Written and Directed by Adam Green (Anchor Bay Films, 2010)

It's easy to take the high-concept route here and categorize this movie as "Open Water at a ski resort" (the filmmakers themselves seem well aware of the inevitable comparisons: early on, the main characters ponder the worst possible way to die, and "eaten by a shark" is immediately offered as a response).  Still, such paralleling perhaps does an injustice to Frozen, which is a frightfully good film in its own right.

Female protagonist Parker (played by Emma Bell, who can also be seen these days on AMC's The Walking Dead) joins her boyfriend Dan and his lifelong-friend Joe on a skiing/snowboarding outing at a winter resort.  Joe is hardly thrilled that Parker is cutting into his and Dan's guy time, and some sparks fly between the threesome at the outset.  Frozen deserves credit for taking the time to develop its three leads, establishing the individual personalities of these characters as well as the complexities of their relationships with one another.  The viewer can relate to these figures as human beings, which makes the predicament (being accidentally stranded up on the chairlift when the resort closes for the night) they soon find themselves in that much more compelling.

Unlike the campers in The Blair Witch Project, the trio here grow frantic but not irritating to behold when they find themselves in dire straits (you'll be rooting for them to survive, not to be silenced by death).  And the plot certainly gives them plenty to contend with: the freezing temperature, snowstorms, the local wildlife, the rickety quality of the chair, even their own body functions.  The tension is further ratcheted by the fact that Parker, Dan, and Joe have been stranded on a Sunday night, and the resort won't be opening again until Friday.  So if they choose to just sit and do nothing, they will die from exposure.

I'll be honest: Frozen made me flinch like no other horror movie has done in years.  There are some unforgettably grisly moments, all the more harrowing for their plausibility.  I don't want to give too much away, but one scene here makes the infamous hobbling in Misery seem like the world's greatest foot massage.

Personally, I've never had any desire to go skiing, and Frozen only redoubles my conviction to stay away from the slopes.  But that is also the terrible beauty of this film: it will tap into something primal inside anyone who has ever been transported up a mountainside while suspended from a cable.  Face it: Frozen does for riding chairlifts what Psycho did for showering in roadside motels.  Such experience will never be the same again after watching the movie.

One final note: the Frozen DVD includes a series of "the making of" featurettes that are well worth checking out.  You'll discover that the filmmakers' decision to shoot on location rather than on a soundstage not only created a vital sense of realism, but also made the production of the film as nearly a grueling ordeal as what the characters undergo within the film.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beelzebub Tweets

          BLZ, Bub

[For earlier tweets, check out this post.]

Whoever claimed that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned obviously never spent a day in Hades.
--56 minutes ago.

The Giants are on the verge of winning the World Series?  The local forecast Down Below must be calling for sudden glaciation.
--7:35 P.M., November 1st

Knobby black horns.  Rouged faces.  Yak-hair goatees.  Plastic pitchforks.  Eventually these revelers will pay for their caricatures.
--10:13 P.M., October 31st

Should've looked more carefully at The Devil's Dictionary before I shoplifted it from B&N.  Goddamn false advertising.
--9:17 A.M., October 25th

Caught the midnight premiere of Paranormal Activity 2.  Loved the movie, especially the happy ending.
--2:06 A.M., October 22nd

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#9

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

#9."The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson"

Note: While best known as a chapter within the King novel The Tommyknockers, this piece was also published as an ostensible short story in a July 1984 issue of Rolling Stone, in an October 1985 special hardcover edition of Skeleton Crew, and in the 1991 anthology I Shudder at Your Touch.

King revels in the low-brow and grotesque in this satiric shocker.  Overweight housewife 'Becka Paulson (a woman who believes that "half a coffee cake and a beer stein filled with cherry Za-Rex" constitutes a "little snack") begins to receive telepathic communications from the framed picture of Jesus set upon her television.  The picture (a wedding present from 'Becka's sister) shows the member of the Holy Trinity "in lifelike 3-D," with His hair combed "a little bit like Elvis after Elvis got out of the Army."  Undoubtedly self-aware of the absurdity of his story premise, King squeezes some (borderline blasphemous) comedy out of it:
Below Him, on the screen, a couple of animated salad bowls were dancing in appreciation of the Hidden Valley ranch dressing they were about to receive.  "And I'd like you to please turn that crap off, if you don't mind.  We can't talk with that thing running.  Also, it makes My feet tingle." 
The actual content of Jesus and 'Becka's talks, though,  pushes this story squarely into American Gothic territory.  As Jesus reveals the secrets of Haven's various residents, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown U.S.A. is brought into sharp focus.  For instance, Moss Harlingen--a poker buddy of 'Becka's husband Joe--killed his own father on a hunting trip, a murder made to look like an accident.  Moss believed he was committing this crime in order to inherit his father's wealth, but his real, underlying motive was vengeance for the sexual abuse his father heaped upon him as a child ("incidents of buggery" that Moss has since repressed).  There are other sordid examples in the story to choose from, but perhaps the most interesting aspect here is 'Becka's reactions to Jesus's revelations.  She's sickened by, yet ravenous for, the dirt dished out to her, finding such gossip terribly compelling: "She couldn't live with such an awful outpouring.  She couldn't live without it, either."

In the course of her conversations with Christ, 'Becka learns that her husband has been having an affair with a co-worker down at the post office.  Rather than encouraging her to turn the other cheek, Jesus helps 'Becka get revenge by instructing her how to booby-trap her television so that it electrocutes Joe when he turns it on.  Here the hints of apocalypse in the story's title take on new meaning.  'Becka is too slow to realize that she hasn't been communicating with her Lord and Savior--she's been manipulated by the alien Tommyknockers.  At the last instant she tries to rescue Joe, but only ends up electrocuting herself as well.  Joe's eyes "burst like grapes in the microwave"; 'Becka is driven by the voltage "up onto her toes like the world's heftiest ballerina en pointe."  As the couple drop dead while their home goes up in flames, King's darkly humorous story draws to a horrific conclusion.

Lesser hands might have reduced this story to the literary equivalent of an episode of 1000 Ways to Die, but King, with his knack for colorful characterization and the dramatization of small-town intrigue, has produced a memorable piece of American Gothic fiction.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gothic Trappings: Paradox and Postmodern Terror in Palahniuk's Fight Club

The following piece (a paper presented several years ago at the Northeast Modern Language Association's annual conference) traces back to my former existence as an academic.  I was part of a session panel that focused on the ideologies of Gothic fiction--the question of whether such writing is subversive or (ultimately) conservative.  My analysis of the novel Fight Club willfully complicated matters by taking a both-and rather than an either-or approach.

Gothic Trappings: Paradox and Postmodern Terror in Palahniuk's Fight Club

If as Tyler Durden asserts, the first rule about fight club is that you do not talk about fight club, and if the second rule about fight club is that you DO NOT talk about fight club, then surely I'm going to be hard-pressed to present this paper.  I begin on this note not in a strained attempt at flippancy but to raise the notion of paradox.  These two fight club rules, the second of which reiterates the first, articulate a need for silence.  Technically speaking, Tyler violates his own proscription in the very act of utterance, and he himself becomes the most brazen rulebreaker when he later proceeds to establish new chapters of fight club in cities nationwide.  Tyler thus forms a perfect example of what critic Mark Edmundson, in his book Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, cites as the paradox "at the center of the Gothic vision. [...] The terror-Gothic figure who announces in stentorian tones that Thou shall not, himself does, and does, and does" (16-17).  Indeed, by drawing on the work of Edmundson--and his forerunner Leslie Fiedler--in my analysis of Fight Club, I aim to cut against the strictly-postmodernizing critical grain and instead view Chuck Palahniuk's book as a late-20th Century update of the Gothic novel.  Such an approach, though, points to a further paradox: the Gothic originated in the late 18th Century as a literature of revolution, but attending to the Gothic trappings of Fight Club can actually temper the book's revolutionary impulses.  Nonetheless, I hope here to give another turn to the proverbial screw, demonstrating that in Palahniuk's complex novel, subversion capitulates to, and yet simultaneously resists, containment.

Let's turn first to the novel's main character, the anonymous speaker who, with his his verbal dexterity and ultimate unreliability, echoes the typical narrator of Poe's Gothic tales.  Apparently suffering from chronic insomnia, Palahniuk's narrator leads an existence that is at once surreal and hyperreal.  He says that "three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience" (19); "Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy" (21).  The constant traveling dictated by his job also goes a long way to leaving the narrator enervated and deracinated.  Jet-lagged and disoriented by the changes in time zone, he meanders through a so-called "tiny life" (28) marked by single-use hotel products and the miniature kits posing as in-flight meals.  No doubt his consciousness is further plagued by the gruesome business he must attend to.  As an employee in the Compliance & Liability department of a major automobile manufacturer, the narrator investigates grisly crash sites and formulates whether it is cheaper for the company to recall the line of car and fix the faulty part or to simply pay the out-of-court settlements for the ensuing accidents.  The narrator admits: "Everywhere I go, there is a burned-up wadded-up shell of a car waiting for me.  I know where all the skeletons are.  Consider this my job security" (31).  The blood money, so to speak, that he reaps from his corporate job is not very rewarding, as he grows to despise his own yuppie lifestyle of conspicuous consumption.  Recognizing that he's become a "slave to [his] nesting instinct," the narrator marvels at how the IKEA furniture catalogue has replaced pornography as prime bathroom reading.  Before you know it, he adds, "you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you" (44).  Driving home the point about the superficiality of such a lifestyle, the narrator comments on his embarrassingly extensive collection of salad dressings and fancy mustards: "I know, I know, a house full of condiments and no real food" (45).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Alabama

This is a new feature debuting today here at Macabre Republic.  Starting with Alabama (then proceeding in alphabetical order on a weekly basis), I will be choosing what I deem to be the most Gothic-sounding town/city name in each of the fifty states in America.

A couple of disclaimers before getting started...First, my choice is based solely on the place name itself; I'm making no judgment on the actual town/city or the real-life people who happen to reside there.  Also, given that there are hundreds upon hundreds of candidates to choose from in each state, some worthy names might end up flying under my macabre radar.  If you feel that I have overlooked an appellation that conveys a strong sense of American Gothic, you can always cite that particular place in the Comments section of the post.

Now, onto Alabama:

I discovered several intriguing names in the course of my research.  Places like Pathkiller Cove (sounds like the ultimate dead-end town to me), Barlow Landing (layover on the way to Salem's Lot?), Batesville (something tells me the motel business isn't thriving here), Screamer (wonder what the noise ordinances are like in this place), Blow Gourd (just conjures the image of rifles aimed at pumpkins), Burntout (well, at least they're honest about it), Pull Tight (a reference to communal ties or cruel bondage?), and Trickem and Skinem (if these two aren't neighbors, they should be).  But none of these are the most Gothic place name in Alabama.  That distinction goes to...

Mansion View. This name paints the picture of the spooky house on the hill looming over its surroundings--a scene that can be found in Psycho, 'Salem's Lot, and countless other books and movies.  Such setting represents an American translation of a European Gothic hallmark: the isolated castle perched atop a mountain. 

And if the view is daunting from without (cf. Eleanor's reaction to the titular domicile in The Haunting of Hill House), imagine what that old mansion looks like on the inside.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Walking Dead (episode review)

The second episode of The Walking Dead--focusing on a crisis situation in a singular setting--is much more limited in its scope than last week's apocalypse-establishing premiere.  Offering a modern, urban update of the under-siege plotline made famous by Night of the Living Dead, the episode chronicles the efforts of Rick and his new-found allies to find a way out of a zombie-surrounded Atlanta high-rise.  Their various escape attempts make for some excellent drama, and Rick's scheme for sneaking past all the walkers outside is astonishing both in its preparation and execution.  Let's just say that the episode's title, "Guts," applies here in a figurative as well as as a gruesomely literal sense (in two short weeks, The Walking Dead might have already earned the distinction of the goriest show in television history).

To be fair, the episode did strike a couple of false notes.  The opening scene, where Rick's wife Lori leaves her group's camp to wander unarmed through the woods on a berry-picking mission, felt contrived, a cheap way to manufacture suspense (undercutting her credibility as a savvy survivor).  Also, later in the episode, when another female character (Andrea) prattles on about her sister's love for unicorns and dragons while the zombie horde is in the midst of beating down the doors twenty feet away, the dialogue just felt off.  It points to a unique difficulty that a show such as this faces: a constant threat (in the form of the ravenous zombies) has been posited, but still the producers must find ways to dial down the tension so that the audience can catch its breath and the characters have a chance to convey necessary pieces of exposition.

Perhaps the highlight of the episode was the appearance of perennially-superb actor Michael Rooker.  The man is a master of villainous roles (as anyone who's seen Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, Sea of Love, or Slither will attest), and his turn in The Walking Dead proves no exception.  Rooker plays a sleazy, ornery redneck who poses nearly as much danger to Rick's group as do the zombies encircling the building.  His character is abandoned when the others make their escape (he's left handcuffed to a pipe up on the roof of the high-rise), but the coming attractions for next week's episode suggest that viewers haven't seen the last of despicable Merle Dixon.  Just one more reason to keep tuning in to this utterly compelling series.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Treehouse of Horror XXI (review)

The Simpsons' annual Halloween episode just aired, dishing out another trio of satiric segments.  Here's a quick review:

The first segment, "War and Pieces," was by far the weakest of the three.  The premise--that a mysterious board game called "Satan's Path" causes all other board games to come to life and terrorize the residents of Springfield--was not terribly inspiring.  I thought the action of this segment was too chaotic, the references to classic games almost too rapid-fire to even appreciate.  Perhaps the highlight here was the parody of the game "Mouse Trap" (as usual Grandpa Simpson makes the most of his limited screen time).

"Master and Cadaver," the middle segment, offered a clever spoof of the Nicole Kidman movie Dead Calm--not to mention some hilariously risque humor.  The sight of Marge in a skimpy bikini obviously turns Homer on, but the suggestive boing heard below his waist turns out to be just his cell phone going off inside his bathing suit.  Later, Homer's broken sunglasses make it seem that Marge is the recipient of a double nipple-tweak, when actually a pair of radio knobs are being turned.  For me, though, the best part of the segment was when Homer laments (following Marge's death) the choice of a high-seas second honeymoon: "She just wanted to ride bikes in New England," he cries to the heavens, "but those seats hurt my ass!"

The final segment, "Tweenlight," received the most advanced billing, but ultimately seemed to fall short as a parody of the Twilight books and movies (Milhouse's jealousy-fueled transformation into a werepoodle was pretty funny, though).  Highlights of this segment included a pseudo-cameo by "The Count" from Sesame Street, and the demise of the vampiric predators after they feast on Homer's cholesterol-saturated blood.

One seemingly needs the DVR function referenced by Professor Frink in the episode's intro in order to catch all the name gags in the closing credits, but a ghoulish riff on a recent movie title did stand out: "Eat Prey Kill."

Overall, I thought the episode was a bit disappointing (a definite step down from the prior year's edition, with its brilliant re-staging of Sweeney Todd inside Moe's Tavern).  Sad to say, but at twenty-one, the Treehouse of Horror has started to show its age.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Top 10 Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" Segment Titles

The Halloween season isn't over until The Simpsons spoof.

The annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode is always stuffed with great material--from the spooky opening sequence, to the plentiful references to horror and science fiction, and the ghoulish variations on the names of the cast and crew in the closing credits.  Not to be overlooked, though, are the delightful titles given to the individual segments within the episode.  Here is my QuickList of the top ten segment titles that have been employed over the past two decades:

10."Tweenlight" (Treehouse of Horror XXI).  This segment hasn't even aired yet, but any parody of the Twilight phenomenon is a welcomed parody.

9."Hell Toupee" (Treehouse of Horror IX).  Technically, Homer gets a hair transplant, but still a clever pun.

8."The Shinning" (Treehouse of Horror V). Wittily weak attempt to avoid a lawsuit.

7."Terror at 5 1/2 Feet" (Treehouse of Horror IV).  The Twilight Zone lowers on Springfield.

6."Married to the Blob" (Treehouse of Horror XVII).  Patty and Selma have been telling Marge this for years.

5."The Homega Man" (Treehouse of Horror VIII).  Brilliant riff on the Charlton Heston movie.

4."Starship Poopers" (Treehouse of Horror IX).  Potty humor at its sci-finest.

3."Dial 'M' for Murder, or Press '#' to Return to Main Menu" (Treehouse of Horror XX).  Wordy but wonderfully satiric title.

2."It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse" (Treehouse of Horror XIX).  Hard to believe it took 19 episodes for the classic Peanuts holiday episode to get (superbly) spoofed.

1."I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did" (Treehouse of Horror X).  No mystery who the cloaked killer is here!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Countdown: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction--#10

[For a list of previous entries on the countdown, see yesterday's post.]

#10."The Reaper's Image"

This very early story (first published in 1969, and later collected in Skeleton Crew) showcases King's precocious talent, his mastery of atmosphere and setting.  The action takes place inside the Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum, a quintessentially Gothic locale with its "suit of armor guarding the shadows of the second-floor corridor," its "grotesque scrolled candelabra," its "maze of statuary," and its "ghastly glaring portrait[s]."

As potential buyer Johnson Spangler and tour guide Mr. Carlin wind their way toward the upper levels of the Claggert mansion, the atmosphere grows ever more oppressive, conveying "a smell of long-dead flies in shadowy corners, of wet rot and creeping wood lice behind the plaster.  The smell of age.  It was a smell common only to museums and mausoleums."  The two men climb up into the attic through a trapdoor in the ceiling, and enter a cobweb-strewn gable storeroom that houses the item of Spengler's interest: the DeIver looking glass.  The mirror, crafted by John DeIver in Elizabethan-era England, is a magnificent object in and of itself, but also bears a spotted history.  Select gazers have reported glimpsing an ominous hooded figure looming behind their reflection in the mirror; their strange claims prove even more memorable when these unfortunate viewers each vanish without a trace soon thereafter.  Spangler, naturally, scoffs at such superstitious tales, until he has a first-hand encounter with the mirror's dark mysteries.

The brilliance of this 8-page gem is that the looking glass's transatlantic trajectory (it plagued a British duchess, then later a Pennsylvania rug merchant and a New York judge once the object was shipped to America) reflects the story's own literary turn.  King might be working here with traditional Gothic props, but he situates them within a distinctly American context.  Instead of simply offering readers a (European) castle anomalously transposed onto U.S. soil, he presents the antique-cluttered manse of a late-19th Century captain of American industry.  In this light, it's surely no coincidence that one of the mirror's latter-day victims is given the surname "Bates," the same as the main character in Robert Bloch's prototypical novel of American Gothic, Psycho.

"The Reaper's Image" is often overshadowed by King's subsequent, more expansive horror stories, but this finely-crafted early work has the capacity to make a haunting impression on anyone who stops to lay eyes on it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Countdown Resumes...

The countdown of the Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction has been on hold for the past month as Macabre Republic focused on the Halloween season, but the time has come to pick up with the list. (For full information on the nature of the countdown, check out its introductory post.)

In tomorrow's post, when the countdown officially resumes, I will cover the short story that garnered the #10 slot.  First, though, here's a recap of the preceding selections, with links to the respective posts:

20."Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)"

19."Rest Stop"

18."Dolan's Cadillac"

17."The Last Rung on the Ladder"

16."Premium Harmony"

15."Chattery Teeth"

14."Why We're in Vietnam"

13."That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French"

12."Night Surf"

11.Cycle of the Werewolf

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Angry Villagers Strike Again!

As an addendum to October's month-long poetry sequence, Angry Villager Anthology, I just wanted to post about this amusing "toy" I stumbled across online.  It's called the Angry Mob Playset, and includes the figurines of nine lethal provincials.

Even better than the playset itself, though, is the accompanying product description.  As wryly noted on stupid.com: "Great for intimidating your action figures and teaching children the concept of mob rule."

Meanwhile, the product page at neatoshop.com sports the following bizarre bit of ad copy: "Terrorize your little sister or your office mates, decorate a cake, and make your own angry villager diorama."  To me, though, the kicker is the accompanying warning: "Not suitable for children under 3 years old."  (So apparently these vigilante villagers can provide some good wholesome fun for any child age 3 or older.)

To adapt boxing promoter Don King's famous line: "Only in Gothic America..."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Zombie Potpourri

Yesterday's post lauded the Halloween night premiere of the new zombie series The Walking Dead.  One day before that, though, on Saturday October 30th, the Walking (Just Pretending to Be) Dead congregated in Asbury Park, NJ.  The event was the third annual NJ Zombie Walk, which featured over 4,000 bloody, decomposing attendees.

Here are a couple of videos from the proceedings.  First, a link to a Star-Ledger news segment on the event; then, embedded below, a video one of the participants shot and posted on YouTube (it's fun to see how the walkers try to distinguish themselves from the horde by wearing Halloween costumes along with their zombie makeup).

One last zombie-related item.  You might recall that when Macabre Republic launched back at the start of August, the first interview conducted was with Alden Bell, author of The Reapers Are the Angels.  Later that same week, Bell appeared at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City.  The video from that event has since been posted online as part of the Barnes and Noble Studio.  Watch as the author discloses the origins of his fascination with the undead, reads from his novel, and theorizes about the pop cultural significance of zombies as he fields questions from the audience.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Walking Dead (Series Premiere)

Forget about parades, parties, and costumed kiddies on the doorstep--the highlight of Halloween 2010 was the much-anticipated debut of The Walking Dead on AMC.  Despite nearly a year-long build-up, the 90-minute pilot episode did not disappoint.

The Walking Dead is American Gothic television at its best.  In this first episode, sunshine blazes down on primarily rural settings (shades of The Crazies) that are rendered grotesque by the incursion of the moldering undead.   For example, one of the more memorable scenes presents a bucolic park where the stretch of vibrant green grass contains a hideous, legless zombie dragging itself along determinedly in search of sustenance.

To be honest, the plot (drawn from Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series) here is not terribly original.  The set-up of a protagonist waking up in a hospital only to discover that civilization has been decimated has been seen before, in the opening of the film 28 Days Later.  Likewise, the notion of a father trekking across a blighted landscape in search of his family has been previously employed in novels such as Brian Keene's The Rising and Stephen King's Cell.  Still, any familiarity of plot is offset by the depth of characterization.  Viewers are offered three-dimensional figures rather than regurgitated stereotypes.  Protagonist Rick Grimes might have been a deputy sheriff in the former state of the world, but in the aftermath of apocalypse he does not merely transform into a shoot-from-the-hip killing machine.   

That is not to say that the episode does not include some spectacular zombie head-shots, the graphic violence of which no doubt pushes the boundaries of basic cable television.  But while there is enough bloody mayhem here to satisfy the most hardcore members of the Fangoria crowd, The Walking Dead makes its deepest impression by presenting the zombies (stunningly designed by special FX maestro Greg Nicotero) as more than just hand-canon fodder.  We are reminded that these are not anonymous monsters, but former human beings, and in some cases, recently-deceased loved ones.  As such, their shuffling, cannibalistic existence is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.

Perhaps one of the more ingenious tactics of the pilot episode is the fact that throughout most of the 90-minute run, the zombies do not appear as the cliched marauding horde.  If anything, these scattered figures are sluggish and almost pathetic.  But this approach only heightens the impact of the zombies' climactic onslaught (that poor horse!) in the city street.  The episode concludes with a cliff-hanger that strands Rick is some overwhelmingly dire straits, which has left this viewer dying to tune in again next Sunday night and fall in with The Walking Dead.