Monday, February 28, 2011

Red Carpet Macabre

What's the scariest outfit ever worn to the Oscars?  I'd have to go with this Goth-funeral ensemble donned by Helena Bonham Carter back in 1987.  Carter, who I love as an actress, is quite the eccentric dresser, and has been busted repeatedly by the fashion police over the years.  Here she sports a look that only Tim Burton could love:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book vs. Film: True Grit

[For an overview of the scoring system, see yesterday's post, and for my earlier review of the film itself, click here.]

What stands out most to me about the movie is the way Jeff Bridges embodies Rooster Cogburn.  In the Charles Portis novel, the character is conveyed mostly through dialogue, but Bridges brings Cogburn to life with a full repertoire of mannerisms.  Nobody does scruffy and drunken better than Bridges.

The novel does a much better job of establishing the historical/
political context, providing a clear understanding of the state of affairs not just in the Indian Territory but also in Washington, D.C.  Readers learn plenty about Civil War-fare, not to mention real-life outlaws like the James brothers.

The film's directors, the Coen Brothers, are faithful to the key scenes from the novel, but still manage to add their personal touch (e.g., the undertaker is transformed into a true grotesque by his repeated point to Mattie that she can kiss the corpse of her father; the hanging scene offers some black comedy when the Indian's speech is preempted by the hangman).

In the novel, Cogburn and LaBoeuf remain together throughout the hunt for the murderous Tom Chaney.  This lack of separation precludes some of the suspenseful moments and surprises that work so well in the film.

On the other hand, the climax is even more rousing in the book version of the narrative (two words: more snakes!).  To me, there also seemed to be less of an anti-climax in the novel--Cogburn's desperate ride on Little Blackie to save the snakebitten Mattie does not play out as long as it does in the film.

Perhaps the key distinction between the two versions is that Mattie Ross (wonderfully played by Hailee Steinfeld) is a more endearing figure in the film.  Because of its respective, first-person narration, the novel foregrounds Mattie's adult voice, and she accordingly comes across as more opinionated than precocious, more grouchy than plucky.  The romantic feelings that LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) sparks in Mattie in the film are also noticeably absent in Portis's text.

For these reasons, I give a slight edge to the cinematic incarnation of True Grit (a film that I would love to see rack up awards at tonight's Oscars).

Book: 4
                       Film: 6

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book vs. Film: Winter's Bone

In honor of tomorrow night's Oscar ceremonies, I'll be doing Book vs. Film posts the next two days--covering films that are current nominees.  Final scoring, as always, is based on a ten-point-total system.  Think of it as having ten good pieces to be distributed on the opposing arms of a scale.  Based on which medium is preferred, the scales will be tipped--either slightly or significantly--in that direction (if both versions are valued on an equal level, they will each receive a score of five).  First up:

To me, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 2010 film version is its under-emphasis of the winter season foregrounded by its title.  There's not a speck of snow to be seen in these Ozarks (I'm assuming that's because of budgeting considerations).  Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel is much more overtly wintry, with the season transcending the status of setting to serve almost as an antagonistic character.  The harshness of the climate is conveyed through wonderfully descriptive passages, such as the following: "Clouds looked to be splitting on distant peaks, dark rolling bolts torn around the mountaintops to patch the blue sky with grim.  Frosty wet began to fall, not as flakes nor rain but as tiny white wads that burst as drops landing and froze a sudden glaze atop the snow.  The bringing wind rattled the forest, shook limb against limb, and a wild tapping noise carried all about.  Now and then a shaking limb gave up and split from the trunk to land below with a sound like a final grunt" (p. 58).

The film does a fine job of depicting its characters as people with real lives.  These hardly-well-off residents of the Ozarks aren't unevolved cavedwellers.  They engage in activities the audience can identify with: going to auctions, throwing birthday parties, playing music and singing songs.  Indeed, both the film and the novel on which it is based deserve credit for never pandering to "hick" stereotypes.

That said, the novel delves much more deeply into the background of the characters, not only as individuals but also as a clan.  Woodrell shows the Dollys to have strong roots in the region, and his account of the clan's history and ancient religious beliefs gives the book a mythic scope reminiscent of the work of Cormac McCarthy.

In the film, Woodrell's characters are memorably embodied; Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes are amazing in the roles of Ree Dolly and Uncle Teardrop, respectively.  The gaunt Hawkes exudes quiet menace as Ree's rough, crank-addled yet ultimately devoted uncle (his performance makes it hard to believe that this is the same actor who played the wimpy Sol Star on HBO's Deadwood).  Lawrence, meanwhile, shines as the film's teenage heroine, a girl desperate to track down her shifty, crystal-meth-cooking father (if he misses his court date, the family home that he put up for bond will be lost).  The talented actress captures both the courageous and anxious sides of Ree's character, and is equally effective whether exhibiting a sharp tongue or a quivering lip.

The film version, though, ignores a key component of Ree's character in the novel: her intimate, quasi-lesbian relationship with her best friend Gail.  Much is lost thematically here, because the solace she seeks in Gail's arms only underscores the lack of acceptable male figures in Ree's life.

Director Debra Granik's adaptation is quite faithful to the plot of the novel.  But I just wish she would have included a wrinkle from Woodrell's conclusion.  When a certain job offer is made to Ree at novel's end, the author raises the possibility that additional sparks will fly from Ree's future interactions with her volatile relatives.

This is an excellent film, one well-deserving of its Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.  It's eclipsed, however, by Woodrell's utterly brilliant book, a work that contends for the laurel of Great American Novel.  Thus the lopsided nature of my final ranking of the two versions of the narrative:

                         Film: 3
Book: 7

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Macabre Republic Oscar Ballot

Here's my vote for which nominees should win (not my prediction of who actually will win) the Academy Award in the six major categories:

[  ] Amy Adams, The Fighter
[  ] Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
[  ] Melissa Leo, The Fighter
[X] Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit 
[  ] Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Steinfeld (who arguably belongs in the Best Actress category) towers over the other nominees with her performance as the plucky and intelligent Mattie Ross.

[X] Christian Bale, The Fighter
[  ] John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
[  ] Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
[  ] Jeremy Renner, The Town
[  ] Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

This is the most loaded category on the entire ballot, but the human chameleon Bale is still the clear winner here.

[  ] Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
[  ] Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
[X] Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
[  ] Natalie Portman, Black Swan
[  ] Michele Williams, Blue Valentine

Portman's isn't the only dualistic performance in this category.  Lawrence masterfully conveys both fierce determination and vulnerability.

[  ] Javier Bardem, Biutiful
[X] Jeff Bridges, True Grit
[  ] Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
[  ] Colin Firth, The King's Speech
[  ] James Franco, 127 Hours

John Wayne made Rooster Cogburn famous; Jeff Bridges makes the character unforgettable.

[  ] Black Swan
[X] The Fighter
[  ] Inception
[  ] The Kids Are All Right
[  ] The King's Speech
[  ] 127 Hours
[  ] The Social Network
[  ] Toy Story 3
[  ] True Grit
[  ] Winter's Bone

Why The Fighter?  Because it has action, drama, comedy, an uplifting storyline, and terrific performances by the entire cast.

[  ] Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
[X] David O. Russell, The Fighter
[  ] Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
[  ] David Fincher, The Social Network
[  ] Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

For all the reasons listed above.

The 83rd Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday night at 8 on ABC.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: "From Hell's Heart"

"From Hell's Heart" by Nancy Collins

Herman Melville crosses with Algernon Blackwood and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this superb piece published in the recent anthology, Classics Mutilated.  Collins continues the story of Moby-Dick's Ahab, arguably the greatest Gothic hero-villain in all of American Literature.  Thanks to his unholy pursuit of the white whale, the late captain of the Pequod finds himself in thrall to the Devil himself, and must now roam the earth hunting down supernatural creatures to fill Hell's menagerie.  In this instance, the harpoon-wielding Ahab tracks the Wendigo, a ravenous beast preying on a trio of trappers in the Canadian wilderness.  "From Hell's Heart" is heavy on suspense (and horror, when the Wendigo engages in gory feasting), and melds seamlessly with events and details from Melville's epic novel.  Most remarkable of all here is the damned Ahab, a figure full of tragic grandeur and grim determi-nation.  Without a doubt, he would make a great series character if Collins ever decided to expand upon her fantastic premise. 

"From Hell's Heart" is a must-read not just for all those who know and love Moby-Dick, but also for anyone who appreciates a gripping story.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nothing Common About This One

Yesterday I received my contributor's copy of Death in Common
(the definitive edition of the anthology from Needfire Poetry).  The book looks fantastic (Bob Freeman did the cover and interior artwork), and the Table of Contents page boasts names such as Christopher Conlon, Barry Napier, J.G. Faherty, Martel Sardina, and Joel Arnold.  Editor Rich Ristow deserves credit for the brilliant conceit for the anthology (which gathers the posthumous monologues of the victims of a serial killer).  Reading like an even more Gothic version of Spoon River Anthology, Death in Common will be relished by connoisseurs of dark poetry.  I'm proud to be part of this fine volume.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Louisiana

If you've been following this weekly Feature, you know the drill by now, so here we go: Louisiana gives us Savage Fork (whose folk pitch more than hay), The Woods (lovely, dark and deep), Rockthrow (opposite of Stones Landing), Slaughter (the murder rate in this place must be extraordinary), Charon (you'll be in for a helluva ride if you board the ferry here), Hooker Hole (a modern den of iniquity), Romero (where the dead find direction in life), and Grim (count on stern countenances in this town).  But the most (American) Gothic place name in all of Louisiana has to be...

Swindleville.  This sounds like a genuine home for the fraudulent, a community where dishonesty has been deemed the best policy.  The kind of place where the locals welcome outsiders with open arms, because the confidence game is always afoot.

Monday, February 21, 2011


[The following is my preferred version of a poem that was first published in an issue of Paper Crow last year.]


.Savage, I tear into my next-day delivery
.This IGIA that sounds like some goddess
.Let the machine be a true worker of wonder
.Modern-night miracle for the unsuitably hirsute
.No more abrasive Nair baths, or abrasive shaving
.Bloodshed stemmed if this product can root down deep

.Its silver-tipped wand sizzles and sears, excites my hopes
.Intent as a tattooist I pore over every epidermal inch
.Stoking and stoking, invoking my follicle holocaust
.And so now I lie naked, masochistically hairless
.Yet taunted by the 30daymoneybackguarantee
.As I keep watchful eye on the waxing moon

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Absalom, Frankenstein!: Faulkner's Neo-Gothic Narrative (Part 2 of 2)

(To read Part 1 of this article, scroll down to yesterday's post.)

Mr. Compson's comment also serves as an apt description of the narrative enveloping Bon's letter, and signals how Faulkner's modernism substitutes epistemological uncertainty for epistolary realism.  In Frankenstein, letters form faithful guides to events, as in Walton's travelogue mailed home to his sister in England.  Moreover, letters furnish documented evidence, validating the oral accounts of the novel's narrators (e.g. the love letters of Felix De Lacey and Safie, which the Monster gives to Victor and Victor to Walton).  Letters can also be grouped with other helpful texts in Frankenstein--the much-needed hermeneutical guides that conveniently fall into the Monster's hands, such as Victor's journal detailing the Monster's own creation story, and the found copy of Paradise Lost that helps structure the Monster's relation to, and rebellion against, Victor.  But if Frankenstein facilitates the act of reading, the tantalizing Absalom frustrates it by literally withholding important pieces of text.  Mr. Compson launches into a chapter-long monologue about Bon's letter before finally handing it over for Quentin's/the reader's perusal.  Similarly, Mr. Compson's letter to Quentin at Harvard detailing Rosa' burial is fragmented by Faulkner's narrative, interrupted in mid-sentence at the start of Chapter 6 and not completed until the book's penultimate page.  The placement of Mr. Compson's letter ("lying on an open textbook beneath the lamp") symbolizes how Sutpen/Southern history has followed Quentin north and overtaken his college studies, but this
juxtaposition also hints at the way Faulkner's narrative taunts readers by presenting a letter that is neither an "open text" nor clearly illuminated.

Faulkner even seems to mock the role that texts play in Gothic conventions when Quentin's sardonic roommate Shreve suggests that the lawyer for Bon's mother "maybe had the secret drawer in the secret safe and the secret paper in it."  Such statement steers the narrative towards Northanger Abbey territory yet also drives home an important point, since Shreve here is forced to invent a series of letters rather than draw upon existing letters as evidence.  This, in turn, brings me to my final comparison of the narrative dynamics of Frankenstein and Absalom.  When Victor's narrative wanes along with his health, closure is provided by "Walton, in continuation."  The journalistic captain serves as a diligent recorder of the events of Victor's last days and as an eyewitness to the climactic scene of the Monster brooding over Victor's corpse in the ship's cabin.  Walton's ensuing conversation with the Monster not only allows the latter to confess to his criminal vengeance against Victor but also resolves any Todorovian hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations of what goes on in the novel.  Victor's wild story is verified when Walton himself encounters the Monster, who proves neither demonic fiend nor figment of Victor's strained imagination.  It is precisely for this reason that I disagree with Rosemary Jackson's reading of the open-ended "structural indeterminacy" of Frankenstein, a reading that points to the Monster's drifting away on his ice-raft in the novel's final lines.  Let's not allow our reactions be colored by all those black-and-white
Frankenstein movies from Universal Studios; Shelley's unvanquished Monster is not set to return and wreak havoc in some sequel.  Readers have no cause to doubt the Monster's stated intention of launching himself upon his own funeral pyre (however chillingly, the Monster is a man of his word in the novel, as when he vows to be with Victor on the latter's wedding night).

While Frankenstein does achieve a sense of closure/cohesiveness, the conclusion to Faulkner's novel proves much more troubling.  Walton's faithful reporting in continuation of Victor's narrative contrasts sharply with the storytelling tactics of Quentin and Shreve, who can only speculate about dramatic scenes involving the Sutpens.  Like Shelley, Faulkner manipulates his plot to maximize suspense (building toward a climax in which Quentin confronts the dying, bed-ridden fugitive Henry inside the Gothic ruins of the Sutpen mansion), but whereas Walton's eyewitness account ultimately dispels any mystery regarding the concluding events in the ship's cabin, Shreve's conversation with Henry is kept behind a closed door by Faulkner.  The reader has no way of knowing if Henry actually confessed to murdering his half-brother and potential brother-in-law, Charles Bon, just because the latter possessed black blood.  Was Bon cognizant of his mixed racial makeup? Did he consciously play the role of Frankenstein's Monster and, with vengeance in mind, insinuate himself back into the life of Thomas Sutpen and his kin?  Henry could shed significant light on such matters, but Faulkner confines him to the shadows offstage.  The author's deliberate indeterminacy forces readers into the same position as the novel's characters--incapable of making sense of, and taking definitive meaning from, the bloody history of the Sutpens.

When he learns that Walton has been taking down notes, the dying Victor lingers on as editor of the manuscript that will come to bear his name: he "corrected and augmented [the notes] in many places, but principally in giving the life and spirit to conversations he had with the enemy.  'Since you have preserved my narration,' said [Victor], 'I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity.'"  Yet it is precisely such a mutilated narrative about Thomas Sutpen (a man fated to be mowed down by a rusty scythe) that has been passed down to readers within/of Absalom, Absalom!If Gothic tales frequently presented themselves as recorded text, then Faulkner with mordant wit countermines such notion.  Rosa tells Quentin she has chosen him to hear her version of the Sutpen story in the hopes that he might chronicle it: "So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe someday you will remember this and write about it."   But largely because Quentin cannot stop remembering the sordid details of the Sutpen story and its parallels with his own family situation, Quentin will commit suicide and thus never "write about it."  All this, though, is not meant to negate the Gothic and to repeat the shortcoming of Cleanth Brooks's criticism that I cited at the outset.  The crafted complexity of Absalom is not merely an equal and opposite reaction to a Gothic novel like Frankenstein.  Faulkner's is a Gothic narrative not just because it embeds Gothic themes or relates horrific events, and it is neo-Gothic not just because it updates the medieval European setting and situates it within an American context.  If, as I have been suggesting throughout this paper, Faulkner modernizes the Gothic, he simultaneously Gothicizes his modernism.  The reader of Absalom is entrapped by its labyrinthine sentences, exhausted by the attempt to navigate its dark passages and unlock its secrets.  Taking the Promethean theme of Shelley's novel to heart, Faulkner structures a narrative that serves as a haunting reminder: there are just some things we are not meant to know.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Absalom, Frankenstein!: Faulkner's Neo-Gothic Narrative (Part 1 of 2)

The following is a blast from my past life as an academic: the text of a paper I presented at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association held in New Orleans in the Spring of 2000.

Absalom, Frankenstein!: Faulkner's Neo-Gothic Narrative

From the quasi-epistolary method of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly and the ghost-story framing device of Henry James's The Turn of The Screw, to the collaboration of the writer-heroes in Bram Stoker's Dracula (whose assemblage of journals/diaries enables the discovery of both the vampire's "plot" and the means of defeating him), the Gothic tale has traditionally foregrounded its own genesis as a narrative and existence as text.  This preoccu-
pation with form and formation, though, is not reflected by the literary criticism of such works, which typically adopts a thematic approach and focuses on the setting, atmosphere, and character types connoted by the very label "Gothic."  Case in point: critics' analysis of William Faulkner's 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!.  Making only passing reference to Absalom as "an intricately constructed and immensely complex work," Leslie Fiedler stresses the thematic elements of Faulkner's novel: [It] "seems the most deeply moving of all American Gothic fictions.  In the history of that genre, Absalom, Absalom! is remarkable for having first joined to the theme of slavery and black revenge, which is the essential sociological theme of the American tale of terror, that of incest, which is its essential erotic theme."  Conversely, Cleanth Brooks, who has made the most persistent and perceptive study of Absalom's narrative structure, disavows any "cheap mystery mongering" on Faulkner's part and denies that the novel represents a "terrible Gothic sequence of events."  While critics have variously noted either the Gothic elements or the complex narrative structure of Absalom, I hope to demonstrate that these two facets are inextricably intertwined in Faulkner's novel.  In arguing this point, I will juxtapose Absalom with an ostensible precursor text that foregrounds its own existence as a narrative: Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Shelley's 1831 introduction, which elaborates on the origin of her novel, might also have provided the inspiration for Faulkner's masterpiece.  According to Shelley, the impetus for Frankenstein was provided by Lord Byron's proposed ghost story contest; in turn, one can assert that Faulkner's novel is generated by the contesting stories of its narrators--the first of whom (Rosa Coldfield) actually leads her listener (Quentin Compson) to envision the ghosts of the Sutpen family in the room with them.  The link forges a bit stronger when one considers Shelley's introductory summary of a ghost story that the group of vacationers at the Swiss villa read just prior to Byron's proposed contest: "There was the tale of a sinful founder of his race of his race whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise."  This sounds like a proleptic synopsis of Faulkner's novel, where the ill-fated Thomas Sutpen sees his grand design (to bequeath a Southern plantation to a male heir) result in ruin and heartache.

The juxtaposition of Frankenstein and Absalom is further justified when one moves from Shelley's intro and into her novel itself.  Both Victor Frankenstein and Thomas Sutpen are Gothic hero-villains leading almost parallel lives.  Just as the reanimator Victor's desire to "father" a "new species" leads him into the "unhallowed damps" of German graveyards, Sutpen's desire to father a Southern dynasty lead shim into the miasmal swamps of Mississippi.  The megalo-
mania and blind obsession of these figures forces both to try to create life outside the sanctified bond of heterosexual marriage--Victor in his turning away from his fiance Elizabeth Lavenza to become the sole progenitor of his Monster, Sutpen in his proposed and performed breeding experiments, respectively, with Rosa Coldfield and Milly Jones.  Both fathers disgustedly disown their first-borns--Frankenstein's Monster and Charles Bon--denying them the family name and fortune.  The fathers also ban any wedding banns when these scorned children return and request that Victor and Sutpen provide a female mate.  Ostensibly the Monster and Bon are trying to force paternal recognition, but it's precisely the fathers' steadfast refusal to accept their sons that precipitates the fall of the House of Frankenstein/Sutpen.  Such scenarios elicit Gothic motifs of family entanglement (in terms of both issues of inheritance and intimations of incest), but I must stress once again that I am less interested here in thematic parallels or intertextual allusions than in comparison of narrative structures.  Or more precisely: a contrast of narrative structures.  My goal here is to illustrate Faulkner's deliberate deviation from the paradigm of Shelley's Gothic novel and radical problematizing of the coherence of his own narrative.

Faulkner's vaunted modernist fragmentation of narrative order and sequence in Absalom can be viewed as a grotesque distortion of the symmetrical form of Frankenstein.  Shelley's neatly-layered text moves down through Walton's, Victor's, and the Monster's respective testimonies and then back out again.  If the story of Frankenstein and his Monster begins mysteriously and in media res as the two figures are glimpsed from Walton's ship in the Arctic, Shelley's tripartite narrative proceeds to put its plot in order, by establishing the circumstances/sequence of events that led up to that point and then returning to that inciting moment at novel's end.  By contrast, Faulkner's figurative house of fiction is not so squarely framed.  The novel's recourse to past events does not arrange a smooth timeline of the Sutpen story and reveals its retrospective narrators as terminally plagued by the effort to make sense of Southern history.  In Absalom, the past does not serve simply to motivate and elucidate the present but rather to impinge hauntingly upon it, as figured by the central consciousness of Quentin Compson: possessively "peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts."  Almost symptomatically, there is a continuous displacement in Absalom of a seemingly present moment that proves to have already been engulfed by the past.  While Frankenstein returns to the present moment of its frame story at novel's end, Absalom does not return to its origin point of Rosa's September 1909 conversation with Quentin in her Mississippi home but instead skips ahead to Harvard dorm room in January 1910 (Rosa, the reader learns, is now a buried corpse; incidentally, one could argue that Quentin himself has already passed away in the minds of Faulkner's readers, by virtue of the June 1910 suicide recounted in the previously published novel The Sound and the Fury).

Faulkner's disjointed narrative lacks not just the symmetry but the simple disclosure of Shelley's novel, in which Frankenstein and his Monster both step forward to offer first-person accounts of their history.  But in Absalom Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon are presented not as individual speakers but as ghostly memories.  Their histories are obscured by over four decades of darkness and distance and are mediated by a host of narrators (Rosa, Quentin, Mr. Compson) who prove unreliable due to personal bias or to incomplete information leading to mere speculation.  Besides Rosa's obsessive testimony, readers and exegetes of the Sutpen story have only hearsay, rumor, and scraps of physical evidence to work with.  One such scrap of paper is central to the detective work in Absalom yet also distinguishes Faulkner's novel from Shelley's in terms of Gothic textuality.  If Frankenstein is a narrative embedded in a letter, Absalom is a narrative enveloping a letter (whose content/meaning cannot be properly deciphered).  I refer, of course, to Charles Bon's letter to Judith Sutpen during his tour with the Confederate army, a letter subsequently handed over to Quentin's grandmother and passed down through the generations of the Compson family.  "Incurably pessimistic, without date or salutation or signature," the letter is of imprecise origin and unclear motivation.  Is it a love letter providing evidence of Bon's relationship with Judith?  The letter's vague message that "we have waited long enough" leads the reader to ask, For what?  One can assume here that Bon is making the marriage proposal that leads the Sutpen men to strike him down preemptively, but the assumption must remain just that.  Rather than forming the vital clue or code for deciphering the bloody events of the Sutpen story, the letter, in the words of Mr. Compson, "just does not explain."

Venture back to the Macabre Republic tomorrow for the conclusion of this article.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Universal Monsters in Our Midst: Route 66

The dark stars of Universal Studios' monster movies have no doubt permeated American pop culture over the years.  To take one prominent example: an episode ("Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing") of the 60's hit television series Route 66.  Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. (not to mention Peter Lorre) appear here as themselves and, more importantly, embody the wonderfully frightful creatures they made famous. Frankly, Frankenstein's Monster looks a bit wizened here, and the Wolf Man has gotten long in the tooth, but these character makeups still start nostalgia sparking like the equipment in a mad scientist's laboratory.

For your viewing pleasure, here's the full episode (as it has been parceled out on YouTube):

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "One Other"

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

"One Other"

At the Bottomless Pool high atop Hark Mountain,
A scorned woman engages in furious spellcasting.
By making offering to an entity called One Other,
She hopes to secure John's love everlasting.

She'll want John's heroics, though, more than his heart,
Once One Other rises up from the deep.
For the half-formed thing's a hopping nightmare,
And the price of its summoning is steep.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "One Other" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Kentucky

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

The Bluegrass State fields plenty of worthy candidates, such as Butchertown (an open call to massacre the populace?), Trapp (don't be fooled by the Welcome sign), Bladeston (which no doubt points straight to Stab), Oddville (a place perfectly in sync with the offbeat), Scythia (where the reaping is always grim), Goldbug (a real Poe-dunk town), Lookout (they're right behind you!), Carntown (an absolute freakshow), and Rockcastle (Castle Rock, in a glass darkly?).  But getting my vote for the Most Gothic Place Name in Kentucky is...

Savage Branch.  This assonant appellation suggests a piece of deadfall wielded like a cudgel, or some stout limb that has served as a legendary hanging post.  Most of all, though, the name connotes a backwoods place settled by the roughest offshoots of one's family tree (the kind of relatives that are best kept distant).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Macabre in the Blogosphere: "Damn Love"

Just when I thought Dark Valentines Week had concluded...

I came across this post this morning while browsing the Fangoria website.  It contains a YouTube video for a five-minute short film entitled Damn Love.  The film chronicles the frustrated attempts of a "Geek" (as he's identified in the closing credits) to declare his love for the "Hottie" he's had his eye on.  Black comedy mixes with Valentine red in this enjoyable short, which is definitely worth a few minutes of your viewing time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: The Loving Dead

The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer (Night Shade Books, 2010)

Zombieland meets Scream (or: Romero does Emmanuelle) in this funny, self-aware, and unabashedly steamy zombie novel.  Beamer's brilliant conceit here is to treat zombieism as a venereal disease (the virus spreads through kissing as well as intercourse).  And once the infected start turning, they want your body for more than dinner.  This is a book that gives new meaning to sexual appetite.

As a first novel, The Loving Dead has plenty to recommend it.  The narrative brims with wit and sardonic humor, yet also manages to provide ample scares (including a terrific set piece involving a zombie outbreak amongst tourists on a zeppelin ride).  The sex scenes are expertly presented, proving at once erotic and authentic (no easy task in any novel, let alone a horror-comedy).  Beamer, a native of Oakland, also exhibits a deep familiarity with Bay Area geography and culture; the novel appropriately climaxes at Alcatraz, as the main characters seek a safe haven from apocalypse.
But perhaps Beamer's greatest accomplishment here is her creation of interesting, well-rounded characters, whose basic humanity renders them easy to identify with.  These are people who throw house parties, work at Trader Joe's, tell jokes, use iPhones and watch Netflix, have sex, want love, and fear commitment.  And they've seen a slew of zombie movies, an experience that comes in handy when the loving dead start pawing their way through civilization.

The novel concludes with an epilogue-type last chapter set "ten years later," which some readers might find  jarring, not just for its chronological leap but its shift into a more maudlin tone.  Taken on its own merits, though, the chapter stands as a fine piece of extrapolation, sketching a portrait of an America a decade removed from a successfully-quelled uprising.  More importantly, the chapter explores what life would be like for the still-infected (their zombieism held in check by antiretrovirals) as they attempt to make their way in quote-unquote mainstream society.  The uneasy mix of discrimination and coexistence here gives this last chapter a strong True Blood vibe.

Overall, this is not a flawless novel (at times, excessive character introspection reduces the pace to a slow crawl), but The Loving Dead nonetheless marks an impressive debut.  This clever variation warrants a spot on every zombie-lover's bookshelf--or bedroom nightstand.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

     BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, check out this post.]

Hope you fall deep in love this Valentine's Day (and move one step closer to a crime of passion).
--13 minutes ago

Horny devils of the world: unite!  May your carnal knowledge always be unlawful.
--7:24 P.M., February 13th

I ♥ the heartless, and savor the sweetly sinful.
--4:09 P.M., February 13th

An open call to all the masochists out there: care to re-enact the Massacre this Valentine’s Day?
--11:02 A.M., February 12th

Just not that into him/her? My advice: try using a sharper knife.
--9:31 A.M., February 11th

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Make vs. Remake: My Bloody Valentine

Make (1981):

Remake (2009):

It's been awhile since I've done this type of post, so let me start by explaining the ten-point-total system used in the final scoring.  Think of it as having ten gold pieces to be distributed on the opposing arms of a scale.  Based on which film version is preferred, the scales will be tipped--either slightly or significantly--in that direction (if both movies are valued on an equal level, they will each receive a score of 5).

The 2009 version of My Bloody Valentine definitely ups the ante when it comes to graphic violence (the opening sequence alone strews more grue than the original does in its entirety).  The kills are not just more spectacular, but startling and original as well.  Conversely, I felt like the victim's deaths (and the particular manner of their downfall) in the first film could be easily foreseen.

Whereas the remake goes heavy on the "Bloody," "Valentine" is much more relevant to the original (granted, the filmmakers do get a bit heavy-handed, even naming the town where the action takes place "Valentine Bluffs").  February 14th has an especial significance to the plot of the 1981 version, while in the remake the holiday is mostly incidental.

Honestly, the acting in the original isn't bad--it is abysmal (and all those Canadian accents! It was like watching the slasher equivalent of Strange Brew). The cast of the remake (including Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, and Kerr Smith) proves not just more talented but markedly more telegenic (also, those who like plenty of T&A served up with their splatter will savor the remake's extended sequence featuring a fully-tanned, birthday-suited Betsy Rue).

Even more gratuitous than that nude scene, though, is the remake's use of 3-D effects.  At times, it felt like the action of the film was put on pause in order to showcase a pointy weapon poking out from the screen.  A distracting gimmick that the film need not have resorted to.

The original is obviously indebted to Halloween (right down to the use of the I-camera to present the killer's p.o.v.), but the remake follows more of the Scream formula.  Everyone appears to be a suspect here; the identity of the masked, pickax-wielding maniac (someone other than deranged miner Harry Warden, who went on a killing spree years earlier?) forms a much more intriguing question in the remake.

The 2009 version also distinguishes itself with its noir elements.  Developing the love-triangle storyline from the original, the remake offers a shady sheriff who has impregnated the co-worker of his wife, who herself still pines for her old flame, who himself has just drifted back into town after disappearing for ten years following Harry Warden's bloodbath.  These various complications make for a highly entertaining plot.

In final account, the 2009 version is an exemplary entry into the slasher-film subgenre, and a much heartier piece of horror than the original:

Make: 2
                        Remake: 8

So what's your take?  If you'd like to share your thoughts on either of these two films, you can post a Comment below.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"I Go to Pieces" (short story)

(A word of warning to the demure: the following short story, which was inspired by a segment on the old HBO series Real Sex, is chock full of adult content.)

"I Go to Pieces"

by Joe Nazare

Reaching down below my waist, she tears off my genitals with one firm tug.  Talk about an attention grabber--my mental haze sears off instantly.  There's an unpleasant pop as she unmans me, but no pain.  I sit there suctioned to a leather sofa, watching as she tosses my tool onto the coffee table and then picks up an even larger unit and snaps it into place.

"It's like a Mr. Potato Head for perverts," comments the woman standing by with her arms folded across her ostensible chest.

I ignore her, focusing instead on my manipulator.  She's tall, with long, sinewy limbs extending from her black t-shirt and jogging shorts.  Her blond hair is scrunched back into a ponytail.  A hottie, no doubt: most guys would be ecstatic to have her fondling their bait and tackle.

"Very funny," she replies.  "I thought you promised to be serious about this."  That voice: vaguely familiar.

"I'm sorry," the other one says.  "I just can't believe you spent six thousand dollars for a glorified dildo.  A big Ken doll with a strap-on and a goofy grin."


Thursday, February 10, 2011


[For previous game, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 30 seconds, or are you going to choke?


T  __  __      __  __  A  T  __ ,      T  __  __  __ ,      __  F      A

__  __  A  __  T  __  F  __  __      W  __  M  A  __      __  __ ,

__  __  Q  __  __  __  T  __  __  __  A  __  __  Y ,      T  __  __

M  __  __  T      __  __  __  T  __  __  A  __      T  __  __  __  __

__  __      T  __  __      W  __  __  __  __ .


HINT: Poe on prosody.

Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

QuickList: 14 Great Tales of Erotic/Sexual Horror

Dark Valentines Week continues here at Macabre Republic with the following QuickList of 14 inflaming yet chilling narratives.  Tales that simultaneously titillate and disturb.  The chosen stories/
novellas are either overtly erotic in tone or take human sexuality (in all its perverse permutations) as their subject.  In the interest of symmetry, I've listed selections from seven male and seven female writers.

1.Poppy Z. Brite: "His Mouth will Taste of Wormwood" (1990). 
Borderlands: An Anthology of Imaginative Fiction
Goth debauchery takes a grave turn in this homoerotic update of Poe.

2.Christa Faust: "Tighter" (2004). 
Strange Bedfellows (Hot Blood, Book 12).
A bondage addict searches for a special kind of closeness in this modern classic of dark kinkiness penned by an ex-dominatrix.

3.Gemma Files: "Torch Song" (1998). 
Kissing Carrion
An erotic variation on the hard-boiled fiction of James Ellroy, in which a police detective is cursed (by a member of an Aphrodite-worshipping cult) into carrying an un-guttering torch for his male partner.

4.Jack Ketchum: "The Best" (2000). 
Peaceable Kingdom
Break-up sex with a Machiavellian twist.  No one handles scenes of sexual violence better than Ketchum.

5.Richard Laymon: "The Diving Girl" (2005). 
Dark Delicacies
Reads like the prose equivalent of the famous pool scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High--at least until the eerie discovery at the end of the story.

6.Edward Lee: Trolley No. 1852 (2009). 
This lushly-detailed novella delves into some explicit extrapolation: what if H.P. Lovecraft had applied his writing talents to pornography?

7.Elizabeth Massie: "Hooked on Buzzer" (1988). 
Splatterpunks II: Over the Edge
Warped neo-puritanism begets sexual perversion.  One way or another, this story will put a charge into you.

8.Joyce Carol Oates: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966).
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories
A moony teenager who likes to dress and behave beyond her years attracts the attention of the wrong older guy.  Arnold Friend's doorstep tete-a-tete with Connie comprises the most unsettling seduction scene since Satan convinced Eve to add more fruit to her diet.

9.Chuck Palahniuk: "Guts" (2005). 
Haunted: A Novel
That's exactly what it will take, dear reader, to get through this grotesque yarn about auto-erotic mishap.

10.Norman Partridge: "Spyder" (1995). 
The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists
Partridge takes to heart the old tabloid rumors about black magic rituals, in this clever and steamy fictionalization of the relationship between Maila Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira) and James Dean.

11.Dan Simmons: "Dying in Bangkok" (1993). 
"Imagine an organism where you're ejaculating blood," offers one of the characters in this harrowing tale of vampiric fellatio in the Far East.

12.Lucy Taylor: "Fuck the Dead" (1997). 
Mondo Zombie
The title's a tad subtle, so allow me to elaborate: you'll be up to your neck in necrophilia in this nasty piece narrated by a teenage voyeur who's tired of just watching his prostituted zombie-mom and her living johns.

13.James Tiptree, Jr. (pseudonym of Alice Sheldon): "The Screwfly Solution" (1977). 
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Hands down, the most terrifying tale of sexual aggression ever written.  The basis as well for a blood-curdling episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror.

14.F. Paul Wilson: "Menage a Trois" (1987). 
Hot Blood
Three's definitely a crowd when it comes to a caretaker, a maid, and a handicapped hag in a hilltop mansion in West Virginia.  A masterful erotic-Gothic novella from the multi-talented Wilson.

These selections will likely leave you feeling spent, but by no means is this an exhaustive list (I could probably draw up another one using the very same group of writers, and there are countless other scribes out there who have produced exemplary works of erotic/sexual horror).  If you'd like to augment my QuickList and recommend other tales of this type to readers, you can make note of them in the Comments section of this post.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book Review: Vicious Romantic

Vicious Romantic by Wrath James White (Needfire Press, 2010)

Needfire Press once again proves itself the leading publisher of horror poetry, with this collection of works of "terror, madness, pain, and sorrow" (as White himself glosses in the Introduction).  In Vicious Romantic, White deftly utilizes Japanese and Korean verse forms (e.g. haiku comprise the "stanzas" of select poems); the writing, as a result, is at once tight and resonant.  As one might guess from the book's title, the coupling of love and death forms an overarching theme here.  For instance, in "The Wind Over the Water," a heartbroken boy sitting lakeside and grieving over
"unrequited love" is targeted by a heartless, rapacious "monster."  The imagery in this poem, and throughout the volume, is as vivid as it is vicious.

There are several other standout pieces couched between the covers, such as "Consumption," in which the poet manages to make even cannibalism sound exquisite.  In the chilling "Not His Mother," a shotgun-wielding son faces off with his beloved but zombified mom.  Don't expect to find Bob Villa or Norm Abrams in "This Old House of Pain and Woe"--the titular domicile probably could use an exorcism more than an excavation.  And the darkly allegorical title poem--featuring a creature that battens on romance, that stalks
"desperate lovers" and "camouflages itself / As diamond engagement rings"--forms the perfect coda to the collection.

Just as the individual poems are brief but poignant, the volume overall is short yet haunting.  Easily devoured yet meant to be relished.  For those lucky enough to be in love with a horror lover, this book can serve as the perfect Valentine this coming Monday.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Kansas

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

While not as rich in suggestive names as some other states, Kansas does boast of such gems as New Salem (not hard to guess which craft is most prominent here), Cravensville (where everyone has a zest for Wes's films), Strong City (the weak stood no chance of survival), Wolf (no doubt an outgrowth of Moonlight), Orwell (a city that's stuck in 1984), Smileyville (sounds like a Stepford-Wives kind of town), and Dispatch (they're awful eager to execute here).  There was a regrettable near miss (if only Skellyville had been dubbed "Skellyton"), but I did finally hit upon the following, which I deem the most Gothic place name in the entire state of Kansas:

Ransomville.  This one could be the kidnapping capital of America--a town where myriad abductees are held in captivity.  The perfect refuge for extortionists, and the last place in the country from which you want to receive a letter in the mail.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

And the Winner Will Be...

Green Bay has been flying high this postseason, but the Aaron Rodgers air show will come crashing down to earth today.  It's going to be a Black (and Yellow) Sunday, as the Steelers claim their third Super Bowl victory in the past six seasons.  (All the Cheeseheads out there in the Macabre Republic can send me a big, potent hunk of provolone if my prediction turns out wrong.) 

Final Score:  Pittsburgh Steelers 24  --  Green Bay Packers 14

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan

Black Swan  (Directed by Darren Aronofsky; 2010)

Heading in, I was worried that this movie was going to be too artsy-fartsy to generate a real sense of the heebie-jeebies.  But that wasn't the case at all.  The film--with its chiaroscuro settings, ominous mirror images, and doppelganger characters--features some truly unsettling scenes.  In both creating brief startle moments and lingering dread, Black Swan works more effectively than most traditional horror movies.  There are moments here, too, that will have audience members absolutely cringing in their seats, as the film illustrates the physical rigors a ballerina must endure (I never thought that a mere split toenail could be so horrifying!).

So the film establishes plenty of creepiness, but therein also lies the problem.  The same note of weirdness is struck throughout most of the 110-minute runtime.  All those dark, surreal scenes (as the protagonist loses her grip on sanity) soon grow wearisome.  There's no ultimate plot twist here, and the ending is extensively foreshadowed and thus lacks real impact.  The events of Black Swan parallel the story told within Swan Lake--a story summarized early on in the film, leaving little doubt as to where matters are leading.

The beautiful and admirable Natalie Portman does give a strong, double-sided performance as Nina, a dancer who at last catches her big break when she is cast as the lead in a production of Swan Lake staged by a prestigious New York City ballet company.  Nina's drive for utter perfection, though, puts her on a collision course with disaster.  As she caves under the physical and emotional strain, she elicits both sympathy and terror (she lashes out with some jaw-dropping violence, particularly against mommy dearest Barbara Hershey).  All that being said, though, I have to admit that I was not blown away by Portman's role; I didn't exit the theater thinking that she is the overwhelming, no-brainer choice for a Best Actress Oscar that critics and precursor awards shows have made her out to be.

Let me be clear: by no stretch of the imagination is Black Swan a bad movie.  It's just nowhere near as good as all the buzz surrounding it led me to believe.  Much like its flawed heroine, the film fails to achieve perfection--or to even approach it before the final curtain falls.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pack of Black

Black Swan (which I finally caught yesterday and will post my review of tomorrow) got me to thinking: there certainly have been a lot of films--genre films in particular--over the years that have featured the word Black in the title.  So here's a little brainstorming game: grab yourself pencil and paper, give yourself five minutes, and see how many of these movies you can name.

I've listed the titles I came up with below (no peeking!).  If you seize upon some other good ones, feel free to add them as a Comment to this post.

Creature From the Black Lagoon
Black Christmas
Black Hawk Down
Horrors of the Black Museum
The Black Dahlia
The Black Cat
The Black Hole
Black Widow
Black Snake Moan
Pitch Black
Men in Black
Blacula  (okay, this one might be a bit of a fudge)
Black Sheep
Black Rain
Meet Joe Black

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "Vandy, Vandy"

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

"Vandy, Vandy"

While spending the night with a family of rustics
A watchful John finds himself suddenly spellbound,
And the comely daughter Vandy in risk of abduction
By an ancient warlock whose soul is ultimately hellbound.

John fights his constraint, attempts to free himself
With holy words and sheer physical persistence.
But when he manages at last to toss his silver coin
He receives some ghostly governmental assistance.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "Vandy, Vandy" can be found in the collection Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hell is Repetition...Hell is Repetition...

Feel like you've been reliving the same snow-filled day this winter?  Bill Murray can empathize:

(A note to the uninitiated: Groundhog Day is an ingenious film, and features some scenes of pitch-black humor [two words: suicides montage].  It's available for instant viewing online at Netflix; if ever there were a day to watch it, this is it!) 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Iowa

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

Is it any surprise that the homeland of (Grant Wood's) American Gothic sports a slew of terrific place names?  Here you'll find Lost Nation (this town's in the state of perdition), Elvira (where B-grade horror movies are bosomed), Voorhies (which just has to be found near Crystal Lake), Payne (masochist paradise), Lore (my, what local legends they have), Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha in Iowa?), Taintor (it will besmirch more than your name), Correctionville (and you thought your hometown was a prison), Hard Scratch (close neighbors, no doubt, with Rake), and Last Chance (to turn around and go).  Still, all of these worthy contenders for the title of Most Gothic Place Name in Iowa are overshadowed by...

Hauntown.  It sounds like a place that's self-reliant when it comes to frightening (they "haunt" their "own" here).  A town where every house is ghost-ridden, and where the residents have plenty of skeletons in their personal closets.  In short, the kind of community where the old couple in Wood's famous painting would be right at home.