Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Other People" (poem)

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago for an anthology in which all of the selections would take inspiration from Ezra Pound's two-line Imagist poem "In a Station of a Metro" ("The apparition of these faces in the crowd, / Petals on a wet, black bough.").  Alas, that anthology never made it to publication, but I thought tonight would be a fitting time to post my poem here (not that the descent of its line numbers should be confused with the joyous final countdown to midnight in Times Square).

"Other People"

Furtive cross-car assessment:                                                  10
Skewed mannequins, communal autism;
The sway of the seatless--Geiger counter needles.
So many faces, but how many facades?
Which one, already dead inside,
Plots to play conductor, intends                                               5
To reroute everyone into inferno?
Insecurity haunts worse than any apparition.
These days trust only in the fact that
No matter what, you'll never know.                                        1

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Favorite Eleven of 2011

Here's a QuickList of the eleven best books (not all of which were published in 2011) I have read in the past year:

*The End of Everything by Megan Abbott.    A tour de force missing-girl mystery.  (Read my review here.)

*Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne.  A treasure trove of info and insight concerning the modern celebration of the October holiday.  (Read my review here.)

*The Poet by Michael Connelly.  Thrilling narrative about the hunt for a Poe-referencing serial killer.

*Classics Mutilated by Jeff Conner (Editor).  Joe R. Lansdale's novella alone ("Dread Island," in which narrator Huck Finn rafts into Lovecraft country) makes this volume a must-read, but there are plenty of other delightfully inventive tales here as well.

*The Passage by Justin Cronin.  A beautifully written and fright-filled post-apocalyptic epic. (Read my Dark Passages post here).

*Halloween by Paula Guran (Editor).  A red-letter anthology for the black-and-orange crowd.  (Read my review here.)

*Hearts In Atlantis by Stephen King.  This linked-novella collection rivals Different Seasons for sheer literary magic.

*Eddie and the Cruisers by P.F. Kluge.  A skillful (and at times surprisingly scary) variation on a hard-boiled detective novel.  (Read my Book vs. Film post here).

*Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan.  Harrowing subject matter; sublime prose.  (Read my Dark Passages post here).

*The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock.  American Gothic at its grittiest and most grotesque.  (Read my review here.)

*The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell.  Woodrell might be the most talented writer working in our macabre republic today.  (Read my review here.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Damned: hope everyone gets it this Xmas.  4sure, I'm giving a copy to the R&D dept. Down Below.  If you can imagine it, they can implement it.
--6:06 P.M., December 24th

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Damned (Book Review)

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, 2011)

Damned good.

But allow me to elaborate.  Palahniuk's twelfth novel--the posthumous narrative of precocious thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, who suddenly finds herself a denizen of the underworld--naturally features a colorful setting.  Don't expect the classic Dantean inferno, though.  Madison makes this clear early on, discrediting the famous Italian poet as someone who "simply hoisted a generous helping of campy make-believe on the reading public" (likewise, the italicized addresses ["Are you there, Satan?  It's me, Madison..."] that begin each Roman-numeraled chapter parody the glosses headnoting Dante's cantos).  No, Palahniuk is much more original in mapping out Hell, his wicked imagination offering up such dismal landmarks as the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, the Thicket of Amputated Limbs, the Steaming Dog Pile Mountains, and the Lake of Tepid Bile.

For all the references to Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier (not to mention the film The Breakfast Club), Madison's narrative aligns most closely with the work of Lucian, Rabelais, and Jonathan Swift (who is cited, in the midst of what might be the most raucous scene that Palahniuk has ever written).  Damned functions as a satire, a repository of carnivalesque debasement.  Hell here is a place where the constant screening of The English Patient constitutes a prime form of torment, and where Robert Mapplethorpe is lumped in with a listing of exotically-named demons.  Palahniuk ventures into the netherworld in order to take jabs at earthly existence (e.g. "...she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to Hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolnica or Yum Cimil, it won't be a huge culture shock.  She might not even notice the difference.  Not at first.").

The book's plot does not have a lot of forward thrust, but that might be apropos of its setting--traditionally a place of stasis and repetition rather than progress (just ask Sisyphus).  There's a lot of backstory served up, as Madison recounts the trials of her former life as the daughter of a celebrity couple, and slowly recalls the true circumstances of her death.  Also, the metafictional concerns late in the novel fail to rival the climactic surprises that are a hallmark of Palahniuk's work, but Damned does end on a satisfying note of Halloween-night trickery and comeuppance.

Palahniuk himself draws on his familiar tricks--the verbal tics and recurrent riffs that are such a signature of his writing.  Readers already familiar with, and attuned to, the author's quirky style will revel in Madison's snarky narration.  The book's ultimate target audience, though, is those people possessed with a healthy appetite for black- and scatological humor.  For them, Damned will prove a sinful delight.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds. or are you going to choke?


__   __   C   __ ,       __   H   __   C   __ ,      &

B   __   __   __   E   __

MISSES: F, M, P, T, U, W

HINT: naughty abductors of Santee Claus

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: You'd Better Watch Out

OK, it's actually a novella (or "noirella," to use the author's own coinage), but Tom Piccirilli's You'd Better Watch Out is certainly seasonal.  The violence here is more savage than a pack of last-minute shoppers, as an anonymous narrator begins by recounting the Christmastime murder of his mother by his mob-tied-cop father (tongue-swallowing in this case has nothing to do with an epileptic fit).  This warped primal scene has lasting effect on the boy: he
grows up to become a hitman for a Brooklyn mafioso, honing his killing skills while he awaits dear old dad's eventual release from prison.  The plot builds to a predictably deadly climax, but it's the hard-boiled voice of the narrator that makes his vendetta story so captivating throughout. 

Priced at $0.99, this gun-heavy novella totally revalues the phrase "bang for your buck."  You'd better believe it: Piccirilli's unflinching tale is the perfect holiday treat for anyone dreaming of a crimson Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Ultimate Christmas Wish List

Even Santa would be hard-pressed to deliver these items this Christmas.  The following is a list of books that do not actually exist (and for which there are no current plans for publication), but if these volumes were to be released at some point in the future, they would make for the best presents under my tree: 

*a Lovecraftian collaboration between Laird Barron and Caitlin R. Kiernan

*the third (and long-promised) Book of the Art from Clive Booker

*a hitherto-lost Yoknapatawpha novel by William Faulkner

*October Dreams II, an anthology of all-new Halloween fiction published by Cemetery Dance

*a true-crime "nonfiction novel" (in the vein of Capote's In Cold Blood) by Jack Ketchum

*an authorized sequel to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House written by Joyce Carol Oates

*a third Jack Baddalach mystery from Norman Partridge

*a new David Morrell short story/novella collection

*Danse Macabre: The Next Generation by Joe Hill

*Hisownself, the autobiography of Joe R. Lansdale

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Outlaw Album (Book Review)

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) has long since established himself as a preeminent novelist, but with his first collection he also proves a master of the short story.  The Outlaw Album hooks the reader right from the opening line of its lead-off story ("Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn't seem to quit killing him") and doesn't let go until the close of its final paragraph. 

The collection is aptly titled, given that the stories brim with criminal and antisocial figures--rough, earthy folk who effuse menace with the briefest bit of dialogue ("Man, I'm digging your hole already in my head") or the merest hint of aggression ("Sleepy clomps down the steps and into the yard, suddenly stops, goes on high alert, raises his nose, and takes several big sniffs of the air. 'Is that your barn burnin'?'").  Take note, though: these are not stock grotesques or caricatures of American Gothicism.  With his incredible knack for conveying character, Woodrell transforms initially frightful people (e.g. a naked, growling man looming over a sleeping couple's bed; a young girl who torments her brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound uncle) into deserving objects of readerly sympathy.

No less fitting is the "album" portion of the volume's title.  Woodrell's gathered stories form verbal portraits, capturing people and scenes in select moments of time.  The author brings the rural Missouri world to life via precise and vivid imagery ("There'd been three nights of freeze, and the mud had stiffened until the sloped field lay as hard as any slant road.  Morning light met rime on the furrows and laid a shine between rows of cornstalks cut to winter spikes.").  And as in photographs, there's a strong sense here of a wider context, a greater surround.  No surprise then, that a 25-page epic like "Woe to Live On" has subsequently been expanded to novel length (a book, in turn, that forms the basis for the film Ride with the Devil).

If you are shopping for a bibliophile this Christmas, you can choose no better gift than this collection of twelve stellar pieces.  The Outlaw Album is an absolute chart-topper, and will leave you eagerly awaiting Woodrell's next release.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Motley Brew

In the tradition of Swamp People comes the latest entry into the redneck-reality-TV genre.  Moonshiners (airing Wednesday nights at 10 on the Discovery Channel) chronicles the endeavors of modern-day backwoods brewers in southwestern Virginia.  From the little I've seen of this show thus far, the drama seems especially contrived (one thing that bothers me: why would a genuine moonshiner allow his clandestine/criminal activities to be broadcast all over the country?).  I also have to wonder whether the figures on the show are bona fide examples of a subcultural lifestyle or merely a bunch of fame hunters dressed up to fit the stereotypical image of the Southern primitive (grammatically- and hygienically-challenged, wearing nothing but bib overalls and a ballcap, and driving a dented, rust-chewed pick-up truck).  Whatever the ultimate "reality" of these folks might be, there's no denying that they make for some colorful locals (particularly the countrified old coot known as Popcorn).

Here's a preview of what Moonshiners serves up for its audience:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Picking the Bones


How could such a masterful novel be turned into such an abysmal miniseries?

The two-night, four-hour television event on A&E is billed as Stephen King's Bag of Bones, but this is really (screenwriter) Matt Venne's Bag of Bones.  Granted, abridgement and alteration is inevitable when trying to translate a 700+ page novel (written in the first-person) into a movie, but King's text has been adapted nearly beyond recognition.  The miniseries lacks the emotional punch of the book; even more damning, this ghost story isn't even remotely frightful.

Where did the miniseries go wrong?  Let my try and count some of the ways:

*Casting Pierce Brosnan as protagonist Mike Noonan.  In the novel, Mike is a Maine man, born and raised.  He's steeped in the local customs and speaks like a resident naturally would; by contrast, Brosnan with his Irish accent seems like an outsider who has been parachuted in.

*The lavish lake house (dubbed Sara Laughs in the novel) proves no haunting abode.  It's architectural features are more admirable than menacing, and the air of dread is further thinned by the fact that most of the scenes set in the house take place during brightly sunny days.

*The sense of an American Gothic community rife with secrets and conspiracies is severely undercut.  One of King's greatest talents is his ability to portray the grotesquerie of everyday people, but the miniseries does little to establish the "Martians" (as Mike sarcastically calls the natives of TR-90 in the novel). 

*The various, interlocking mysteries that drive King's narrative are streamlined and dumbed-down, hampering the pacing of the miniseries.  In particular, the scenes involving the refrigerator-magnet messages just fall flat.  Also, too much key information is given as mere exposition rather than forming the reward of investigative struggle.

*The characters of Maddie and her daughter Kyra receive precious little screen time, and thus the complexity of Mike's relationship to the two (so central to the novel) is never really established.  Kyra, so adorably precocious yet vulnerable in the book, is reduced to a crying-child cipher.

*The special effects are laughable.  Brosnan getting slapped around by the tree-branch limbs of the Green Lady in the climax plays out like an unintentional bit of slapstick.

Ultimately, watching the miniseries is like experiencing a Cliff Notes version of the book.  Elaborate scenes from the novel (Kyra in the "crossmock,"  Mike's stoning, Maddie's shooting) are glossed over and leeched of their dramatic effect.  All the best meat of King's story has been stripped away, leaving nothing but a disjointed skeleton.  Given the high quality of the source material, this just might be the worst adaptation of a Stephen King work ever made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Haunting on Audio

It's telling that Bag of Bones is the only one of his novels for which King himself has done the reading on the audiobook version.  The decision is a testament to King's fondness for this particular book; the fact that Bag of Bones is presented as the first-person narration of a Maine writer of best-selling genre fiction also suggests a close affinity between King and his protagonist.  No doubt King would be the first to admit that he is no Olivier, but he does a fine job here of bringing his cast of characters to life (I love the raspy croak he employs to deliver the villain Max Devore's dialogue).

The audiobook uses subtle sound effects to reinforce the tension and terror of select scenes; even more hauntingly, it interpolates performances of the songs and lyrics of Sara and the Red-Tops (the fictional group so central to the plot of the novel).  Perhaps the most delightful element of the 20-CD set, though, is the lengthy interview with King at the end.  In this segment, the author recounts how he came up with the idea for his ghost story, and also shares his thoughts on Gothic fiction, succinctly positing that "the basis of the Gothic is secrets that are kept combined with appearances that deceive."

I encourage both longstanding fans of Bag of Bones as well as those new to the book to double their pleasure by listening to the audiobook while reading the text of the novel.  I've done so twice already within the past few years, and each time I've come away with a deeper appreciation of just what a deftly structured and beautifully written narrative this is.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dark Passages: Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones is rightfully revered as one of Stephen King's finest novels.  The narrative succeeds on many levels (ghost story, love story, domestic drama, Northeastern Gothic), but perhaps King's most impressive accomplishment here is the crafting of utterly terrifying dream sequences.  Consider the following (annotated) passage, which plunges readers into protagonist Mike Noonan's recurring nightmare:
Now Sara Laughs is [use of present tense heightens the sense of immediacy] only a dark hulk down below [phrasing that foreshadows that late Sara Tidwell's earthly location?] and I realize I don't want to go down there, anyway.  I am a man who has trained his mind to misbehave [a perfectly paradoxical account of the writer's creative process], and I can imagine too many things waiting for me inside.  A rabid raccoon crouched in a corner of the kitchen.  Bats in the bathroom [alliteration abounds]--if disturbed they'll crowd the air around my cringing face, squeaking and fluttering against my face with their dusty wings [multisensory details make the nightmare figures seem even more real].  Even one of William Denbrough's famous Creatures From Beyond the Universe [intimations of Lovecraft, plus an echo of Creature from the Black Lagoon], now hiding under the porch and watching me approach with glittering, pus-rimmed eyes [my, what disgusting features IT has].
"Well, I can't stay up here," I say, but my legs won't move [classic paralysis of the dreamer], and it seems I will be staying up here, where the driveway meets the lane, that I will be staying up here [repetition reinforces the idea of being stuck in place], like it or not.
Now the rustling in the woods behind me sounds not like small animals (most of them would by then be nested or burrowed for the night, anyway) [rationalization provides little comfort in this case] but approaching footsteps [the suspense of imminence].  I try to turn and see, but I can't even do that...  (54-55)

Work Cited

King, Stephen.  Bag of Bones.  New York: Pocket Books, 1998.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Celebrating Bag of Bones Weekend

In honor of the premiere (Sunday night at 9 on A&E) of the the two-part miniseries based on Stephen King's bestselling novel, I'll be doing Bag-of-Bones-themed posts all weekend.  To start things off, here's a little game--a combination of a crossword puzzle and a word jumble--for those who've already read the book.  The letters comprising the answers to the four numbered clues are drawn from the pool below; it might help to jot down the letters on scrap paper and then cross them off as you go (each successful answer will improve your chances of coming up with the correct responses to the other clues).  Those letters contained in brackets ([  ]) can then be unscrambled to form the answer to the Bonus question.  

The letter pool:

N   R   D   S   F   B   E   Y

H   L   H   I   D   E   U   B

N   T   D   M   R   L   D   O

I   D   A   Y   O   T   I   E

E   C   O   D   L   R   U   S

1.What Max Devore stole as a child:

Scooter Larribee's  [ __ ]   __   [ __ ]   __

2.Where Jo has hidden the plastic owls:

__   __   [ __ ]   __   __       the       __   __   [ __ ]   __   __   __

3.Title of the novel Mike starts drafting while at Sara Laughs:

__   __         __   __   __   __   __   __   [ __ ]   __   __

__   __   [ __ ]   __   __   __

4.Melville character repeatedly referenced in the novel (including the closing lines):

__   __   [ __ ]   [ __ ]   __   __   __   __

BONUS.  Supernatural entity for which Sara Tidwell forms a conduit:

The   __   __   __   __   __   __   __   __

Answers appear in the Comments section of this post.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "Where Did She Wander?"

[For previous ballads about the balladeer, click the "On the Road with Silver John" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

One last time out on the road...

"Where Did She Wander?"

A chiseled rock marks the burial spot of Becky Hoppard,
A witch-girl seized by the town mob and abruptly hung.
Generations later folks still deem it unlucky
To hear the tale of her sudden demise sung.

But the grave's a ruse; broken-necked Becky lives on
Undead, mesmeric and parasitic as a vampire.
Ever curious, John dares the cabin of her pagan kin,
Where he stands to be more than warmed by the hearth fire.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "Where Did She Wander?" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "The Beast Within"

[For the previous entry, click here.]

This tenth episode (in terms of narrative sequence, not air date) of American Gothic opens and closes with an eerie dream scene.  Caleb moves down a long corridor lined with cells (arms stretch ghoulishly through the bars).  The boy is drawn by a shirtless prisoner's cries of "Father!"  Caleb's path to the prisoner is cut off by the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure (whom the viewer
readily suspects is Sheriff Lucas Buck).  This figure flashes a razor blade that is then passed to the prisoner, who promptly uses it to make a bloody incision in his own belly.  Such events no doubt are the stuff of nightmare, but the setting here is what proves most striking to me: the Dark Tunnel has long been a topos of Gothic literature (cf. the catacombs in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," the site of Hannibal Lector's imprisonment in The Silence of the Lambs).

The plot of the episode centers on a hostage crisis that lands Caleb, his cousin Gail, Lucas, and Dr. Matt in hospital room with a gun-wielding escapee from the psych ward of a nearby military base.  Complicating matters further is the fact that this man Artie (the prisoner from Caleb's dream) also happens to be Deputy Ben's brother.  The horrors of warfare seem to have left Artie mentally unbalanced, but in true Gothic fashion, the man is also haunted by an incident from his distant past.  While on a hunting trip as a child, he accidentally shot and killed his father.

In its very title, this episode conjures a lycanthropic image and brings to mind the Gothic theme of split identity that traces back to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  On the most obvious level, the hidden beast here is the makeshift bomb that the munitions expert Artie has sewn inside his stomach.  But "beast" also has infernal overtones, and thus the episode title can be seen to point to Lucas's devilish presence inside the hospital room (we soon discover that the sheriff has orchestrated the entire hostage drama for his own nefarious purposes).  At one point during the crisis Lucas admits to never carrying a gun (because shooting wouldn't give the lawman a chance to impart a lesson to his antagonist), causing Gail to sarcastically inquire if his demeanor should be perceived as an act of pacifism.  "No ma'am," Lucas bluntly replies.  "You should view it as an act of seduction."  Never has the sheriff given stronger clue to his sinister nature; Lucas also marks his own dangerous duality as a Gothic hero-villain, hinting at the harm that's always lurking behind his charm. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sweeney Todd: Music to Our Fears

In today's post, I would just like to call attention to a recent nonfiction publication--my essay "Music to Our Fears."  The piece traces the ways in which the 2007 Tim Burton musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street actually qualifies as a slasher film.  At the same time, I explore how Burton's macabre, subversive movie employs its musical aspects to help orchestrate its very horrors.

"Music to Our Fears" appears in Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film (Dark Scribe Press).  This huge volume (nearly 500 pages long) features contributions by such genre luminaries as Jack Ketchum, Adam Green, Stephen Graham Jones, Harley Jane Kozak, Lee Thomas, Lisa Morton, and Jeff Strand.  The book is a treasury of pop culture analysis (the essays--devoted to specific films as well as the slasher film subgenre as a whole--will send readers scurrying to fill their Netflix queues with old favorites and overlooked gems).  It also makes for the perfect holiday gift for anyone looking to celebrate a Black Christmas this year.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


__  __  __  __  G  E         __  Y

__  I  __  H  __  __  __         __  __  Y  __  __  N


HINT: The Ripper emigrates to America

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Walking Dead--Midseason Report

(a putresecent Tom Petty?)

AMC's The Walking Dead had an inglorious offseason, which included the replacement of its writing staff and the subsequent firing of executive producer Frank Darabont.  Heading into Season 2, then, the future of the show was looking as grim as the post-apocalyptic scenario it dramatizes.  Admittedly, I came to the new arc of episodes worried about a precipitous drop-off in overall quality.  Well, the series' midseason finale aired this past Sunday, and at this point I have to say that The Walking Dead isn't what it used to be.

It's even better.

The show obviously qualifies as horror (Greg Nicotero's special fx makeup for the title corpses is eye-popping), with plenty of carnage oh-so-graphically splashed across its canvas.  But perhaps the true secret to The Walking Dead's success is its science-fictional sensibilities: its thorough extrapolation of what existence would really be like for human survivors in a world overrun by the undead.  This series takes its subject matter seriously (which makes the pop cultural frivolity--for instance, all those silly zombie-themed TV commercials appearing nowadays--that has followed in its wake quite ironic).

For all the behind-the-scenes shake-up, the show's creative vision has been astounding.  The storyline has been stocked with "holy shit!" moments, such as the shocking bit of gunplay at the end of the season premiere and the scene of Otis's demise a few episodes later.  The plot twist at the climax of Sunday's midseason finale literally made me gasp (it continues to haunt me even as I sit here typing).  But the finest aspect of The Walking Dead is without a doubt its cast of characters.  Thankfully, the show's writers don't serve up generic heroes and villains but rather multifaceted figures rife with moral complexity.  Even a seemingly genteel old-timer like Herschel proves to be the embodiment of American Gothic (never trust a farmer who owns a dilapidated barn!).  And Shane has evolved not only into the series' most intriguing character but the best good guy/bad guy combo on cable TV since Tony Soprano.

Let me state it bluntly: there is no better drama series on television right now than this one.  If you haven't been following along, I encourage you to use the hiatus (the second half of the season kicks off on February 12) to catch up with the episodes.  On a gut-level you will be horrified by the gruesome violence, but you'll also find that there's a slew of intellectual stimulation in store.  The Walking Dead is the mindless-braineater narrative for the thinking man.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names: The Top 5 States

With my national survey now complete, I decided to go back through all the posts for the "Most Gothic Place Names" Feature and choose the upper-tenth of Macabre Republic.  My final selections were made based on that state's complete batch of cited appellations--not just the one singled out for the weekly honor of "Most Gothic."  Anyhow, here are my Top 5 picks, in alphabetical order:




4.New York


[A word of thanks to for providing such a handy database for my searches over the past year.]

Think I short-changed a certain state?  Then feel free to leave a Comment to this post.  Also, what would you vote for the single Most Gothic Place Name in all of the United States?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Wyoming

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

The final stop on the Republic-wide tour is Wyoming, which includes such arresting place names as Devils Tower (has sinister leanings), Murke (sounds gloomy to me), Skull Creek (the residents are really struggling to keep their heads above water), Little Medicine (and lots of mortality), Owl Creek (Bierce-ly loyal?), Camel Hump (apparently unabashed about bestiality), Point of Rocks (is that they wound more assuredly than words do), and Recluse (outstanding spot for shut-ins).  But when it comes to macabre monikers, Wyoming's finest offering is...

Crimson Dawn.  This sounds like a town in the sway of some strange cult.  Or a place where the gutters run red before the bloodletters finally settle down for the day.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Pedophiliac coaches who'll find out what it's really like to be on the hot seat once they land Down Below...
--6:14 P.M., November 24th

Shoppers who redden Black Friday by callously trampling their fellow bargain-hunters when the store doors open...
--6:10 P.M., November 24th

Deranged dads who get carried away with the carving during the family dinner...
--6:08 P.M., November 24th

Holidays that pay homage to the Deadly Sins (Gluttony in late-November)...
--6:05 P.M., November 24th

These are the kinds of things for which I give thanks:
--6:04 P.M., November 24th

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Palm Tree

Granted, my imagination gravitates toward the dark side, but to me this tree looks like a giant, eldritch hand reaching up out of the earth.  In fact, when I first passed by it one night late last month, I thought it was a Halloween decoration!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Wisconsin

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

And then there were two states left to survey.

Wisconsin gives us such incredible appellations as Black Earth (shadowed grounds), New Diggings (leads down to Gravesville), Siren (a city in a constant state of alarm), Twin Town (a.k.a. Doppelgangland), Pulp (Tarantino territory), Spirit Falls (anomie guaranteed), New Munster (Herman's hermitage?), Embarrass (a community bent on humiliation), Bundy (a bunch of Ted-Heads), and Horseman (no abode for Ichabod).  Nevertheless, the stand-out name in the Badger State comes from...

Marlands.  A site of utter blight.  A place where the respect for others' property is nonexistent, and the dedication to uglification unsurpassed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (Film Review)

[To read last year's review of Paranormal Activity 2, click here.]

Paranormal Activity 3 (Paramount, 2011; Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)

The strength of Paranormal Activity 2 lay in its ability to adhere to formula while also offering original twists.  PA2 presented more characters, more characters, more mayhem, and ingeniously altered viewers' understanding of the events of the first film.  Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't quite have the same revisionary power, but nonetheless succeeds as a vehicle of terror.

Recapturing the intimate feel of the original, PA3 takes us back into the bedroom (of the children and their parents, respectively).  This strategic camera placement intensifies the frisson by reminding us that sleeping is a state of personal vulnerability--to lie down is to let our guard down.  The cleverest viewpoint PA3 furnishes, though, is a slow-moving scan of the living room and kitchen, achieved by the rigging of a video camera atop an oscillating fan.  Dread inevitably builds during the perpetual pendulating between rooms, as viewers anticipate the appearance of something awful ahead as well as the sound of something unnerving behind.  Veterans of the film series know full well the gotcha! moments are coming, yet these incidents still manage to prove truly startling (I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say there's a kitchen scene here even more jolting than the one in PA2).

While the scares are skillfully delivered, they are hampered by a certain lack of narrative logic.  There was a determined malev-olence and aggressiveness to the unseen demon's acts in the first film that made the scenario even more frightening.  Here in the third installment, though, the motivation of the paranormal entity has grown murky.  At times it seems to be messing with the family just for the hell of it.

The other shortcoming of PA3 stems from its framing as a prequel that hearkens back to Katie and Kristi's childhood. It's hard to really fear for the girls' safety, knowing that they will both survive into (an albeit troubled) adulthood.  That realization, in turn, makes it fairly obvious which characters will meet a dire fate in PA3's climax.  Most regrettably, the film's setting leaves little room for Katie Featherston, the series' most recognizable figure.  The actress--who's given about as many lines as the Teddy Ruxpin doll in the girls' bedroom--is limited here to an appearance in a limp prologue scene.

As reflected by the lack of plot summary in this review, PA3 is short on storyline--what little backstory that is given here comes mostly through quick snippets of expository dialogue.  But the film is long on suspense and ominous atmosphere, and I admittedly left the theater flush with the adrenalin rush that a good horror movie provides.  I also left with a sense that the series' premise has been stretched to the limit at this point.  Thrill-seekers (and fans of the first two films) certainly will not be disappointed by PA3, but our worst fear going forward should be of further Activity next October.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "To Hell and Back"

[For the previous entry, click here.]

The dashing Dr. Matt is forced to face the ugliness from his past when a drunken-driving accident involving a married couple in Trinity stirs the memory of the doctor's tragic loss of his own wife and daughter.  Naturally, the supernatural sheriff of Trinity, Lucas Buck, is the driving force behind the recent accident--part of a fiendish plot to send the doctor on a terrible guilt trip.  The ever-tempting Buck then tries to detour Matt (a recovering alcoholic) from the road of sobriety by proffering a bottle and promising
him "oblivion."

Meanwhile, young Caleb fixates on his creepy neighbor Mr. Emmett (shades of Boo Radley), who is spied digging a conspicuously rectangular hole in his yard and howling the name "Omar" at the moon.  To the impressionable Caleb (just returned from watching a horror movie), Mr. Emmett seems to be burying a dead body in his pumpkin patch.  Caleb ultimately is proven right, but Mr. Emmett is not the nefarious figure he seems, as the episode emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality.  This American Gothic theme is further sounded when Caleb's cousin Gail tutors him about gardening: a plant with a sinister-sounding name like "snakeroot" isn't actually poisonous, whereas "the ones with the pretty names, they can kill you."

"To Hell and Back" ends on a seemingly heartwarming, all-dogs-go-to-heaven note, but Mr. Emmett's love for, and loyalty toward, his deceased pet is overshadowed by the act of small-town malice that caused the canine's death in the first place: someone put lye in Omar's food!

Once again, the small details form a large part of American Gothic's allure: as Dr. Matt experiences a ghostly flashback to the scene of his family's car accident, the audience is given a close-up of a Massachusetts license plate lined with the phrase "The Spirit of America."  Of course, in the context of this television series, that slogan connotes much more than patriotic pride.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Choke Hold

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime, 2011)

Ex-porn-star Angel Dare, having been flushed out of the Witness Protection program, now lives under a new, fake name, but she is still the same kick-ass heroine in this sequel to 2008's Money Shot.

Once again author Christa Faust expertly captures the voice of the (traditionally male) hard-boiled narrator.  Angel's follow-up story is well-stocked with wild similes, critical catalogues of character traits, and generally sarcastic observations.  Some cases in point:
He was clearly the brains of the operation, which didn't bode well for whatever plans these three had made.  (20)
He had a face that looked like something the tribe who made those stone heads on Easter Island might have come up with if they'd attempted a portrait of Chuck Norris.  (45)
The cylinder was open and beside it was a single bullet standing upright on its flat end like a tiny hard-on.  (50) 
The landscape was mostly dull, agricultural.  We passed the Kikima Casino that Cody had mentioned, a squat, glittery building that had the used-up, shabby glamour of a hooker in the morning. (75)
As loose as [his shorts] were, it still looked like he was trying to shoplift a Mexican papaya inside his athletic cup.  (116) 
Where we were going turned out to be one of those soulless cookie-cutter suburban developments on the outskirts of Vegas, the ones that look like fake human habitats created by aliens for an interstellar zoo.  (234)
Angel, though, has more to offer than mere attitude.  Her narration brims with insight (such as when she ponders the similarities between the adult film industry and the sport of MMA-fighting) and self-analysis (e.g., Angel's admitted fear of intimacy, her longing for the life and career she left behind, and her struggles to define her true identity amidst a fugitive existence).  In other words, Angel's character is no less rounded than her legendary figure.  Her complexity is matched by that of her love interest in the novel--Hank "The Hammer" Hammond, an aged pugilist with iron fists and a heart of gold; a man who has suffered too many blows to the head and is now prone to migraines, memory loss, and outbursts of rage.

The inciting moment of Choke Hold strains credulity (what are the odds that Angel's ex-lover and former co-star, Vic Ventura, would be meeting up with the son he never knew in the very same desert-Arizona diner where Angel now works?), but the bloody shootout that ensues gets the book off to a rip-roaring start.  Angel assures the dying Vic that she will look after his boy Cody, a promise that will entail delivering the 18-year-old mixed martial artist to Las Vegas for the taping of an Ultimate Fighter-type reality show.  Matters are quickly complicated by the fact that Cody has run afoul of his old boss, a crooked promoter and drug smuggler.  Angel has her own dangerous pursuers to worry about as well; she is being hunted down by a group of Croatian gangsters, the remnants of the sex-slave ring that she helped topple in Money Shot.  (Incidentally, Choke Hold works just fine as a stand-alone, but will be better appreciated when read in tandem with the first Angel Dare novel.)

Faust has crafted a classic page-turner, replete with clinchers that propel the narrative toward the start of the next chapter.  The pacing here is superb, and the scenes of violence as sudden and savage as the strikes of the combatants in a UFC title fight.  I can't think of a novel more aptly titled, not just because throttling maneuvers figure prominently in the climax, but because this action-packed narrative leaves the reader breathless.  Fans of crimson-splashed noir will eagerly submit to Faust's Choke Hold.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--West Virginia

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

This week I went mining in West Virginia, and came up with these gems: Pickaway (all the scavengers will have at you), Burnt House (born and razed), Shock (to every visitor's system), Moatsville (really digging the whole "a-man's home-is-his-castle" idea), Dahmer (devotees of Jeffrey?), Booher (a community filled with scorned women), Racy (high on impropriety), Gage (no doubt precedes Creed).  West Virginia also sports a Poe, a Faulkner, a King and a Bachman, but the peak name in the Mountain State is...

Grave Creek.  Sounds like a place where everyone ends up doing the dead man's float at the local swimming hole.  Or: where the bodies are buried with a shove overboard rather than with a shovel.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "Nobody Ever Goes There"

[For previous ballads about the balladeer, click the "On the Road with Silver John" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

"Nobody Ever Goes There"

Trimble is no doubt a simple place,
A town with a mostly prosaic history.
But the fact that everyone shuns the far side of Catch River
Is for some people an all-too-tempting mystery.

Across the river's a ghost town, with a derelict mill
And the houses of a populace that abruptly disappeared.
As John discovers, however, when forced to venture yonder,
There's worse than mere ghosts there to be feared.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "Nobody Ever Goes There" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Welcome to the Murder House

It's been a banner year thus far for dark fare on television, with the launch of shows like Death Valley and Grimm and the return of The Walking Dead.  But the darkest, edgiest series of all without a doubt is American Horror Story.

In a nutshell, this is a haunted-house narrative set in a California mansion in the modern-day.  But the show offers more than just standard horrors; there are some truly and uniquely weird happenings in the Harmon family's recently-purchased home (not the least of which is the repeated appearance of a menacing figure in a black latex bodysuit). 

American Horror Story hooks its viewing audience masterfully, opening each week with an unnerving flashback scene (that typically dramatizes the long and bloody history of the so-called "Murder House").  The start of last night's episode ranges
beyond the mansion but arguably constitutes the show's most disturbing scene to-date: a Columbine-like school massacre that leads to the teenage character Tate's ghostly presence in the Harmon household.

I've never been a huge fan of Dylan McDermott's acting, and his turn here as cheating-husband Ben Harmon isn't likely to dissuade me of that viewpoint.  Other players, though, give some incredible performances.  Denis O'Hare, the scene-stealing Vampire King from Season 3 of True Blood, is much less flamboyant here but no less terrific as a grotesquely disfigured former resident of the Murder House.  And Jessica Lange's role as next-door neighbor Constance--a decadent Southern belle with a sharp tongue and a shady past--positively screams Emmy nomination.

My major concern with this series is sustainability.  How long, for instance, before the ongoing dramatic irony (the Harmons' failure to realize that they are interacting with ghosts) causes the audience to grow frustrated with, and lose sympathy for, the protagonists?  More importantly, how much horror can occur in one home before absurdity begins to set in?  For now, though, the imagery is creepy
enough and the storyline complex enough to make American Horror Story a must-see every Wednesday night at 10 on FX.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


E   __   __   A   __          __   __   __  T   L   __

__   __          __   __   A   __   L   E   __

__   __   __   __   K   __   E   __          __   __   __   W   __


HINT: somnambulism propels the plot

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Washington

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

Halloween Season put this feature on hiatus, but it's back to close up its run this month.  We begin today with Washington, which presents names such as Marketown (confidence man Disneyland), Stuck (leaving this town's easier said than done), Chumstick (home of the macabre kabob), Possession (9/10ths of the law-abiding citizens are demon-ridden), Darknell (the church bells toll mournfully every morning), Bickleton (don't talk to the taxi drivers), Lake Ketchum (wildest in the Off Season), and Thrall (where your servitude will be ill-deserved).  But the pinnacle of Evergreen-State appellations is found in...

Geiger Heights.  I love the assonance here, but even more than that, the suggestion of a place plagued by radiation.  And of a community filled with mutants, where giant ants clog the sewers and fifty-foot women rumble down the streets.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: "Trick or Treat"

"Trick or Treat" by J.G. Faherty

Much like the recent film of the same title, this short story features a quintessential crank devoid of holiday spirit.  Old Man Daniels hands out mostly pennies to the costumes children who ring his doorbell on October 31st; he also slips in the occasional tainted candy bar as he sneakily palms goodies from the kids' treat bags.  Eventually the spurned Halloween celebrants catch wise to the old man's tricks, and while their vengeance the following year isn't as violent as Sam's assault on Brian Cox's character in Trick 'R Treat, it still makes for a sweet bit of comeuppance.

Faherty's entertaining tale of ironic comeuppance can be read in full over on the Fenderstitch website.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Night of the Pumpkin (short film review)

A quick review of a short Halloween film that premiered over on Fangoria this past week:

The acting?  Lame.  The dialogue?  Stilted at best.  But that still doesn't spoil the fun of Night of the Pumpkin, a 17-minute short directed by Frank Sabatella and scripted by Ted Geoghegan.  Tongues are definitely pressed into cheeks in this tale of a demon-possessed pumpkin that goes rampaging like a Muppet from Hell as it is driven by an insatiable appetite for human flesh (I loved the scene when the delinquent knocking jack-o-lanterns off of their fence-post perch gets a snap on the wrist).  If all this sounds campy, wait until you get to the castration scene, where coitus is gorily interrupted and a guy's genitalia ends up poking from the pumpkin's saw-toothed rictus like some lurid cigar.  Perhaps the film's true highlights, though, are (cue the Joe Bob Briggs accent) a pair of naked breasts and some cool animation during the opening credits.

As brain food, Night of the Pumpkin is about as nutritious as a chocolate bar, but hell, the filmmakers weren't gunning for profundity here.  This low-brow short is the perfect way to pass the time as you gobble down the remainder of your Halloween candy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Universal Monsters in Our Midst

Every year I start getting ready for Halloween in late August, yet the season always seems to come and go too quickly.  Alas, another 31st has ended, but here at Macabre Republic I decided to let the Halloween-related posts bleed over into the first week of November (business will return to usual next week).

As evident from these images that I culled from the Internet, at Halloween time the Universal Monsters can be found not just on Turner Classic Movies but also on the very pumpkins decorating people's homes:

Monday, October 31, 2011

"October Ode" (poem)

A third Halloween post to close out Ray Bradbury Month...

October Ode

For these we should be thankful a whole month earlier:
Halloween tree fruitful with frightful pumpkins.
Homecoming of every monster imaginable for a holiday bash.
Black Ferris wheel Methuselah-lizing anyone who rides too long.
Dead man living in the streets, solicited as a scary party prop.
Emissary dog digging up more than bones in the cemetery.
Playing "poison" leading to a grave outcome for some.
Witch-viscera passed gamesomely around a circle in the cellar dark.
Calliope siren song: helluva good time at the Pandemonium Show.

Sundry country scenes, of misted rivers and midnights persistent,
And all the autumn people on parade, manifold as skittering leaves.
So forget Reggie Jackson and his series of Fall Classic homers;
Ray Bradbury will always be the one and only Mr. October.

Jack-o'-Lantern 2011

I thought the only thing unusual about this year's jack-o'-lantern would be that I was using a white pumpkin for the first time, but an unprecedented October snowstorm (@#$&!) here in the Garden State knocked out power and forced me to carve by the light of the battery-operated candelabra fortuitously included amongst my Halloween decorations.

The process wasn't an easy one, but I'm pleased with the end result. I like to think of this werewolf as one of Bradbury's Elliott Family members, howling happily on its way to the Homecoming:

Ray's Vectors: October Dark

[For the previous vector, click here.]

I've saved the most amazing vector for last.

David Herter makes no secret that his 2010 novel October Dark employs Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes as "its ghostly armature."  In his Acknowledgments page at book's end, the author also notes his key realization that he "could wield Bradbury's masterwork somewhat like the mirror maze at that novel's heart."

Clocking in at over 500 pages and sporting a fractured narrative structure, October Dark is not easily summarized.  It concerns the "secret history of cinema," and the truly (and sometimes darkly) magical basis of movie special fx.  A pair of fantasy-film-loving fanboys named Will and Jim (naturally) oppose the schemes of an archvillain (Henri Mordaunt) so menacing, he makes Bradbury's Mr. Dark seem as innocuous as Willy Wonka by comparison.  And central to the struggle is a piece of footage from a lost 1957 film entitled Dark Carnival.

Herter's genius here lies in never becoming merely derivative while paying serious homage to Something Wicked.  He gifts readers with original riffs on iconic Bradbury scenes, from the attack by a witch in a black balloon to a perilous descent beneath the city streets by Will and Jim.  A paean to the childlike sense of wonder, October Dark is itself wonderfully imaginative.

The book is not flawless--the narrative could use some tightening (the plot is slow to unfold, yet builds to a breath-taking climax) and the text is in need of better copy editing (too many typos).  But if, like Herter, you grew up adoring Star Wars, Famous Monsters of Filmland, the stop-action marvels of animators like Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, TV monster-movie hosts, and most of all the dark-fantasy fiction of Ray Bradbury, then you will be nothing short of delighted by October Dark.

This wraps up the on-going feature "Ray's Vectors," but I could easily have filled up another month with posts on other novels that have been influenced by Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.  There's The Traveling Vampire Show, and Dark Carnival (Serenity Falls, Book 3), and The Night Circus, and Sideshow, and Carnival of Fear, and Full Tilt, and The Last Temptation, and...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror": Immediate Reactions

"Treehouse of Horror XXII" just finished airing.  Here are some quick thoughts on tonight's episode:

(First of all, it's an added treat when "Treehouse" actually gets to air before Halloween [kudos to Major League Baseball for concluding its season on time and not pre-empting The Simpsons].)

Best quick riff on an iconic scene: an alien Maggie chest-bursting from Bart's astronaut costume.

Best extended riff on an iconic scene:  Homer in the car contemplating stealing off with a stash of candy (cf. Marion Crane driving off with her boss's money in Psycho).

Punniest segment title: "The Diving Bell and the Butterball"

Funniest line of dialogue (tie):

--Homer on Halloween decorating: "The one time of year when the squalor of our home works to our advantage."

--Holy-roller Ned Flanders' suggestion to the streetwalker who approaches him: "Spend less time on your back and more time on your knees."

Best moment of the entire episode: the last one, when Abe walks on stage in a dark tutu and asks, "When are we doing the 'Black Swan'?"

This year's episode really seemed to de-emphasize horror, choosing
to spoof movies like 127 Hours and Avatar.  Halloween was further displaced by the focus on Christmas in the closing scene.  After 22 years, could the "Treehouse of Horror" finally be running out of genre material to skewer?  I hope not.

One last thought: as huge as zombies are in pop culture currently, I was surprised the episode didn't make an ironic comment on the craze at some point. 

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#1

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#1."The Emissary" (collected in The October Country)

Never has Ray Bradbury forayed deeper (or more overtly) into October Country than in this 1947 tale.  The author's powers of establishing a fall atmosphere are on full display here, as Bradbury writes of "the great season of spices and rare incense," of "leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees."  A perennially bedridden boy named Martin can only experience the wider world based on what his Dog fetches back to him, following investigations
"down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal-bin...down hills where autumn lay in cereal crispness, where children lay in funeral pyres, in rustling heaps, the leaf-buried but watchful dead."  Dog dutifully carries back the signs and scents of the season on its hide: as far as Martin is concerned, "this incredible beast was October!"

The venturesome pet also delivers another embodier of the season: Martin's would-be schoolteacher Miss Haight with her "autumn-colored hair."  She forms a close companionship with Martin, before being tragically killed in a car accident.  To make matters worse, Dog turns peculiar soon after Miss Haight's death: "In the late last days of October, Dog began to act as if the wind had changed and blew from a strange country."  On October 30th, Dog disappears from home, and having now lost his last link to the outside world, Martin sinks into despair:
To Martin, Hallowe'en had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows.  All of it as distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.
But Bradbury's bittersweet narrative takes a decidedly ghoulish turn in its last scene.  Dog finally returns home from his mysterious excursion, his previous whereabouts betrayed by his newfound stench--of "the ripe and and awful cemetery earth."  Dog apparently has gone digging six feet deep, because at the animal's heels Martin hears the staggering approach of what readers must presume is the undead and unburied Miss Haight.  Bradbury brilliantly concludes the story with the repetition of an earlier scene-ending line ("Martin had company") that now takes on chilling new meaning.

Indeed, Martin has (some unwanted) company, but "The Emissary" itself stands alone as Ray Bradbury's finest piece of autumnal short fiction.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dark Passages: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury's poetic powers of description have never been put on better display than when detailing a carny's full-body tattoos.  So here's a Dark Passage focusing on Mr. Dark--The Illustrated Man, annotated:
Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends [he is legion], his jewel-case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at mid-night [fitting image for the proprietor of a nocturnal carnival] on his flesh. With him strode the stitch-inked Tyrannosaurus rex [notice how Bradbury personifies the tattoos, creating a sense of ani-mation], which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral-oil glide.  As the thunder lizard strode, all glass-bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh [a convoluted but evocative metaphor]. It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe [assonance par excellence] which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults.  And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers-on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults [the embodiment of Gothic architecture] screaming bat-screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill.  Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore [similes don't get more ominous than this], a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed [a verb choice intimating a Satanic nature] his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward. (158-59)

Work Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962.

Countdown: Ray Bradbury's Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories--#2

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#2."The Illustrated Man" (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales)

Bradbury takes us behind the scenes of a traveling carnival in this 1950 tale.  Disgusted with his own obesity and desperate to stay employed, tent man William Philippus Phelps opts to become the Tattooed Man.  He accordingly visits "a tattoo artist far out in the rolling Wisconsin country," a blind crone (forerunner of the Gypsy Dust-Witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes) who completely inks his skin.  She transforms him into an Illustrated Man, a marvel "alive with portraiture.  He looked as if he had dropped and been crushed between the steel rollers of a print press, and come out like an incredible rotogravure.  He was clothed in a garment of trolls and scarlet dinosaurs."

The old dust-witch informs William that she makes the tattoos "fit each man himself and what is inside him."  Also, two would-be tattoos--covered by bandages on his chest and back--have been left incomplete, and will develop from William's sweat and thought.  At the Big Unveiling of William's chest tattoo, though, a dire scene is revealed--of William strangling his shrill wife Lisabeth.

"The Illustrated Man" sports a wonderfully weird premise (irremovable, seemingly supernatural tattoos that form "Pictures of the Future").  The story also features a violent climax reminiscent of Tod Browning's controversial carnival-horror film Freaks.  Lisabeth (who despises her husband's grotesquerie) drives William to attack her in the very manner depicted by his disturbing chest tattoo.  The carnival's freaks are meanwhile drawn by the sound of argument, and William discovers them "waiting in the middle of the night, in the dry grass" outside his trailer.  When Lisabeth's murdered body is spotted, the gathered freaks proceed to chase down William and pummel him with the tent stakes they brandish.  Carnival justice is mercilessly served.

Amidst this lynching, the freshly-formed tattoo on William's back is uncovered, and the sight of it makes the bloodthirsty mob recoil in horror.  The story-concluding description of the tattoo offers a grim image of infinite regress: "It showed a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a dark and lonely road, looking at a tattoo on his back which illustrated a crowd of freaks bending over a dying fat man on a..."

Interestingly, unlike his novelistic counterpart Mr. Dark, William forms a somewhat sympathetic figure as the Illustrated Man.  His tragic fate leaves the reader wondering: was William destined to kill his mean-mouthed wife even if he never got tattooed, or did the eldritch dust-witch mark him with an image that caused his eventual ruination?  But one thing is beyond question here: Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man" is a macabre masterpiece.