Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "A Tree Grows in Trinity"

[For previous entry, click here.]

The second episode of the series draws on a pair of Gothic hallmarks: fearful flight and cruel imprisonment.  "A Tree Grows in Trinity" picks up where the series premiere left off: with Caleb on the run from Sheriff Lucas Buck (after setting his own house on fire to escape him).  Caleb's desperate exodus leads him first into a cornfield, where he almost collides with a decidedly devilish scarecrow.

Eventually Caleb hides out in an abandoned hunting lodge, but is shocked to find that the place is already occupied.  What at first seems a monstrous figure is actually a tied-up, traumatized man.  As the episode unfolds, viewers learn that this is Rafael Santo, a Miami reporter who has been missing for months after coming to Trinity to investigate the "Bermuda Triangle of tourism."  He is now held captive in the lodge after running afoul of Lucas.  Perhaps even worse, he serves as the personal sex slave for the sheriff's lascivious sidekick Selena.

Coroner Curtis Webb is engaged by Lucas to perform a rudimentary autopsy of Caleb's sister Merlyn (and to ignore the evidence that the girl died at the sheriff's hand).  The ghostly Merlyn, though, opposes such machinations, dubbing Webb's tape recordings with the message "Someone's at the door."  She also freaks out the coroner when her corpse's head (now wide-eyed and turned to the side) somehow appears out from under the sheet that had been covering it.  Merlyn's final touch is the bloody injunction scrawled on the autopsy room door: "Don't bury the truth."

Buck later expresses his displeasure with the coroner's handling of the autopsy by leaving the severed head of Webb's pet goat Eli inside the refrigerator stationed on the front porch of the family
home--a sinister riff on a memorable scene from The Godfather.

The episode, though, best lives up to the show's title in the scene where Caleb spies a pair of cemetery caretakers arranging the wooden markers at the graves of his father and sister.  Teapot and her daddy Harlan are quintessential hicks, in both costume and demeanor.  Harlan jokes about the adjacent burials ("Just because he killed her don't mean they can't share the same worms"), and the chortling, overalls-wearing Teapot teases her daddy about his misspelling on Gage's grave marker ("REST IN PEASE").  American Gothic seems quite conscious of its art-world namesake here, as the figures of Teapot and Harlan could have stepped right out of a Grant Wood painting.  All that's missing from the scene is the iconic hay-fork, and it would be no real surprise (based on the way the series has developed thus far) to see such a tool used pointedly in a future episode.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book vs. Film: Shutter Island

The main advantage that Dennis Lehane's 2003 neo-Gothic thriller has over the 2010 film adaptation is the way the novel entrenches readers in the unreliable viewpoint of protagonist Teddy Daniels.  We don't watch Teddy's predicament unfold onscreen; we experience it with him for nearly 400 pages.  We get right inside his tormented head, as exemplified by the following passage detailing the onset of a migraine headache: "He rubbed his right eye, hoping against all evidence, but it did no good, and then he felt it along the left side of his head--a canyon filled with lava cut through the skull just below the part in his hair.  He thought it was Rachel's screams in there, the furious noise, but it was more than that, and the pain erupted like a dozen dagger points pushed slowly into his cranium, and he winced and raised his fingers to his temple."

On the other hand, Martin Scorsese's film contains plenty of arresting imagery that outstrips even Lehane's vivid prose: the towering cliffs on Shutter Island, the metallic labyrinth inside Ward C, the snowing ash in the apartment and Dolores' disintegration in Teddy's arms (during one of Teddy's nightmare visions).

The book goes into much more detail concerning the relationship between Teddy and Dolores, accounting for how they first met and fell in love, how they interacted as a married couple and struggled together.  This more fully developed backstory makes the climactic revelation (of Teddy's shooting of Dolores) especially heart-breaking.

The casting for the film is brilliant (and I'm not even talking about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance--arguably the best of his career).  Scorsese's crop of actors perfectly embody Lehane's characters: Elias Koteas as the disfigured firebug Andrew Laeddis; Patricia Clarkson as haggard fugitive Rachel Solando; Ted Levine as the warden, whose menace beams right from his eyes.  And Ben Kingsley--he of the haunting gaze and stoic face--was made for the role of the enigmatic Dr. Cawley.

The film is admirably faithful to the novel (which presents one of the most deftly executed plot twists in the history of storytelling).  There is one last turn of the screw, though, that the film version does offer.  I refer to DiCaprio's final line of dialogue, which suggests that "Teddy" has not simply reverted to self-delusion once again.  A certain sense of redemption thus counters the tragic note on which the film concludes (with DiCaprio's character destined for a transorbital lobotomy).

So what's my final score for this edition of Book vs. Film?  It's been said that a tie is like kissing your sister, but in this case such a
sibling would be a supermodel with a wonderful personality.  Both Lehane and Scorsese have gifted us with amazing work that only grows more impressive upon second reading/viewing.  Accordingly, I distribute the ten total points equally on the figurative scales:

Book: 5 --- Film: 5

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Minnesota

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

This week we head far north in the Macabre Republic, to uncover names such as Mort (a place synonymous with death), Legionville (where demons have moved in en masse), Hasty (home of misguided zeal), Warroad (your every step here will be contested), Swift Falls (from precipitous heights?), Mound (the bodies pile up quickly in this community), Bigfork (the better to prod you ahead of the angry mob), Kilkenny (Kenny best
emigrate while he can), and Slayton (a town that never shies away from homicide).  Nonetheless, the most Gothic place name in Minnesota belongs to...

Castle Danger.  The name evokes images of an anachronistic stone fortress casting its shadow over an entire settlement.  It connotes a place of evil medievalism, where the pitfalls are plentiful and there's no shortage of dark, imprisoning rooms.  A welcome sign posted at the town limits here would read more like a warning.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Macabre in the Blogosphere: The Vault of Horror

Today's post is going to be short and sugary sweet.  I just want to call attention to an interesting essay that appeared recently over at The Vault of Horror.  The piece is entitled "Monster Cereals: Eating What Scares Us," and ponders the deeper significance of breakfast faves such as Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, and the more obscure Yummy Mummy (General Mills' colorful appropriation of the Universal icons).  Check out the essay here and help yourself to a heaping bowl of food for thought.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Universal Monsters in Our Midst

Universal Monsters Little Big Head Wrestlers

With WrestleMania only a week away, I figured these would be the appropriate products to highlight in this edition of " Our Midst."  The Universal Monsters meet the WWE in these special Little Big Head figurines, as the superstars of classic horror cinema are recast as professional wrestlers.  Making their way to the ring: Dangerous Drac, Freaky Phantom, Weird Wolfie, Big Frankie, Crazy Creature, and Madd Mummy.  Just think of all the possible mash-ups, and the tag team battles between gruesome twosomes.  For the sake of audience safety, though, every contest would have to be a Steel Cage Match.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

QuickList: My Ten Favorite Cemetery Dance Magazine Covers

It wasn't easy to narrow down from the 60+ choices, considering that the covers for Cemetery Dance are as consistently terrific as the material gathered inside the magazine.  But here's my QuickList of personal favorites (in order of publication):

1. (Pumpkin patch surprise)  Issue #10 cover artist: Charles Lang

2. (Creepy, empurpled vista)  Issue #15 cover artist: Alan M. Clark

3. (Candy from stranger)  Issue #20 cover artist: Stacy Drum

4. (Wicked hang time)  Issue #22 cover artist: Alan M. Clark

5. (A haunting depiction of Mr. Hands)  Issue #32 cover artist: Alan M. Clark

6. (One scary scarecrow)  Issue #36 cover artist: Stacy Drum

7. (A slice of autumn)  Issue #41 cover artist: Glenn Chadbourne

8. (Mouldering but ambulatory)  Issue #50 cover artist: Bernie Wrightson

9. (A Burton-esque danse macabre)  Issue #55 cover artist: Steve Gilberts

10. (Halloween looming)  Issue #63 cover artist: Alan M. Clark


Friday, March 25, 2011

Pick Six with James Newman

I'm excited to present the first installment of a new feature called "Pick Six with ___."  It's a variation on the traditional interview, as the subject gets to choose whichever six questions he/she would like to answer from a list of nearly forty items (questions and prompts pertaining to the writer's own work, as well as his/her thoughts on the world of horror).

Helping me to launch this feature today is James Newman, author of the novels Midnight Rain and The Wicked, novellas such as Holy Rollers and The Forum, and the short story collection People Are Strange.  His latest novel, Animosity, comes from Necessary Evil Press, and bears a subtitle that resonates throughout the Macabre Republic: "An American Horror Story."

Here are the six questions James picked:

1.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Less is more.  It's all about the flow.  Why use 100 words to say what can be said in 10?  I prefer crisp, clean, lean 'n mean prose that doesn't waste a word.  It's what I like to read, so naturally it's how I enjoy writing.

2.What is your greatest phobia?

That one's easy: spiders.  It's worse than you could ever imagine, dude.  I see one in the house, I start yelling for my wife or 11-year-old son to come kill it.  I firmly believe that spiders are pure Evil on eight legs.  Just sitting here thinking about those friggin' things gives me goosebumps.

3.What did you enjoy most about writing your latest book?

The fact that I was writing (what I hope is) a disturbing horror novel set in the real world, populated by real people affected by events that could really happen.  Animosity is about a bestselling horror writer whose neighbors turn against him after he finds the body of a murdered child, as they believe there must be some connection between the subject matter of his novels and his tragic discovery (because who could make up such twisted stuff without being a little sick in the head to begin with, right?).  While what happens to my protagonist might seem a little far-fetched when things are at their worst for him, I don't think there's anything in Animosity that's impossible.  Or improbable, for that matter.  People scare me, and the things we humans are capable of is more terrifying to me than vampires or werewolves or zombies.  It doesn't take much at all for folks we thought were our friends to transform into monsters, when they allow themselves to be misled by prejudice, gossip, and/or a mob mentality.

Humans might be scarier than spiders, in fact.  But just barely.  ;)

4.What excites you about the project you are working on now?

That it's sort of a departure from what I normally do.  The novel I'm working on right now is called Ugly As Sin, and it's not a horror novel at all.  It is a very dark story, but if I had to categorize it I guess I'd call it "white trash noir."  It's a book influenced by the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, my favorite writer.  Very Southern, with characters who might be hideous on the outside but beautiful on the inside, and vice versa.

I'm very proud of this one.  I've had more fun writing Ugly As Sin than anything I've written to date.  I can't wait for folks to read it.

5.What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?

That I'm a Christian.  However, I say that with a loud disclaimer.  I don't consider myself to have anything in common with the kinds of people most folks think of when they hear the word "Christian."  I'm not a fan of organized religion, and can't stand most of the bigoted, close-minded assholes associated with it.  If that's Christianity, then maybe I'm not a Christian at all...

Besides, I cuss too much.

6.Which one of your books would you most like to see developed into a movie, and who would be your dream cast for that film?

I think Midnight Rain would make a wonderful movie.  Haven't really thought about casting it in my mind, but it sounds fun.

For Kyle Mackey: how about Chandler Riggs ("Carl" from The Walking Dead)?  He's a little young at the moment, but he'd work.  For his big brother Dan, who Kyle looks up to in more ways than one...gonna throw in an off-the-wall pick that only my fellow die-hard Tar Heels basketball fans will get: Jackson Simmons.  Maybe Catherine Keener as their mom, Darlene?  She never fails to impress.  As poor  "Rooster," the young man framed for a crime he did not commit: Al Shearer (Glory Road).  And as the despicable villain of the piece, Sheriff Burt Baker, I've got to go with Michael Rooker.  He'd be just about perfect.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Glen Talking Manly

Here's some of what writer Glen Hirshberg has to say about the Silver John stories of Manly Wade Wellman:

Though Wellman dedicates the book [Who Fears the Devil?] to the backcountry people from whom he collected the inspiration for these stories, calling them "High on top of the mountain / Away from the sins of the world," the culture he portrays is every bit as sin-soaked and hunger-driven and unforgiving as the one in the teeming American cities below.
And yet, through it all strides Silver John, comfort-ably solitary but capable of love, using music like campfire light to chase back loneliness.  I love his sense of justice, which is site-specific, derived partially from Native American traditions and partially from Judeo-Christian theology but mostly from intuition.  Told that witches can't prevail against a pure heart, John says, "I can't claim that," and he can't.  But he listens, and he learns, and he sorts for himself, and his judgments aren't global, and his fights are his own even when they benefit others.
Hirshberg's full essay--plus 99 others--can be found in Horror: Another 100 Best Books.  This volume (not to mention its predecessor, the unsurprisingly titled Horror: The 100 Best Books) belongs on the bookshelf of every fan of the genre.  It's a testament to what a rich and varied field horror fiction is, and a reminder that even the most constant of readers still has a slew of masterful works left to enjoy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "The Little Black Train"

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

"The Little Black Train"

There's plenty of libation and excitement
At the outdoor party Miss Donie Carawan throws,
But also an underlying unease that only intensifies
When a "wild and lonely whistle" blows.

It's the little black train with coffin-shaped cars
Approaching on an ominous midnight run.
John will need his guitar and ingenuity to stop the engine
From carrying off Donie for all the ill she's done.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "The Little Black Train" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Massachusetts

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

Massachusetts proved surprisingly infertile ground, but I did manage to dig up names such as Little Rest (for the wicked inhabitants here), The X (marks the burial spot), Gill Station (where Lovecraft's Deep Ones come ashore?), Crooks Corner (every abode is a den of thieves), Edgartown (a populace of Poe worshippers?), Plowed Neck (where farm life often turns deadly), and Smalltown (the American Gothic setting allegorized).  Such slim pickings, though, made it easy to choose the following as this week's winner:

Satans Kingdom.  Where midnight mass has nothing to do with Christmas observance.  A place where pandemonium always reigns, and iniquity is ubiquitous, giving new meaning to the phrase "hell on earth."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Identify the Stylist

Think of this as the literary equivalent of the old game show Name That Tune.  Can you identify the writer of the following passage based on its stylistic hallmarks?

Bill began to consider the angles.
One angle he was sure of was, now that his mother had died at the age of about ten million, there wouldn't be any more checks signed by her for cashing.  He had practiced writing her name until he had worn out about a half dozen ballpoint pens, but never could feel confident about the way he put it down.  The checks had started to stack up now, all the way to seven, and he didn't think he could get away with forgery.  His mother had relished a distinct style in penmanship that only a chicken scratching in cow shit might duplicate with authenticity.
The old gal had been right enough and mean enough six months earlier, but one night, after watching Championship Wrestling, perhaps due to excitement over a particularly heated contest, or an overly vigorous inhalement of gummy bears, which she stuffed into her bony body as if they were the fruit of life, she had gone to bed and hadn't gotten up again.
Bill thought at first he ought to report it.  Then it came to him that if he did he'd lose the house and wouldn't have any place to live.  His mother owned everything, and except for a bit she doled out to him on check-cashing day, providing him with a roof and food to eat, there was nothing else.  She hadn't left anything to him in her will.  She had donated it all to some kind of veterinarian research thing so cats could be saved from bad livers or some such shit.
Frankly, Bill didn't give a flying damn about a bunch of cat livers or any part of a cat.  The little bastards could die for all he cared.  He'd certainly taken care of all his mother's cats after her death.  Unless the fuckers had sprouted gills, or had scissors to get out of those rock-weighted tow sacks he put them in, he figured they were resting pleasantly at the bottom of the Sabine River.  No liver trouble, no problems whatsoever.
No, he didn't think he ought to call the authorities and tell them his mother was dead.  It seemed wiser to turn up the air conditioner in her room and keep that fan blowing and be quiet.  Only thing was, now the electricity bill had come twice, then a notice, and then it had been cut off, and with no juice Mama began to stink something furious.  He put a big black trash bag over her feet, up to her waist, and pulled one over her head, tied them together where they met at the waist with one of her robe belts.  But that didn't hold the stink in worth a damn.  He poured a whole bottle of Brut cologne over her, and that helped some.  She smelled like a sixteen-year-old boy on his way to his first date.

(Keep scrolling down to find out the author of this passage)

The conniving but bumbling character...

The sardonic narration...

The sordid situation, presented in grotesque detail...

The East Texas setting...

...This could only be the work of Joe R. Lansdale (hisownself).  The passage comes from the opening chapter of his 1999 novel Freezer Burn (pp. 4-5 in the Mysterious Press hardcover edition).  And if you haven't read this book yet, you've missed out on a real treat.  Plot-wise, it reads like a cross between James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Tod Browning's Freaks, but it's all Lansdale in terms of narrative voice.  You won't have to worry about freezer burn if you pick up this carnival-noir novel, because your fingers will be turning the pages much too quickly.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fantastic Casting: Horns

The bad news: my NCAA Tournament bracket got busted faster than a smut peddler at a church bazaar.  But the awesome news from the past few days: Joe Hill's incredible novel Horns is being adapted as a feature film by Mandalay Pictures (Hill himself will serve as an executive producer).  This announcement immediately got me to thinking about which actors would be best suited to bring Hill's characters to life.  Here's who I would tab for the cast:

Ig Perrish: Shia Laboeuf has already been attached to the starring role, but I would rather go with someone like Justin Long, who has demonstrated the diversity to handle the darkly comedic and dramatic aspects of Hill's bedeviled protagonist.

Merrin Williams: Natalie Portman would bring the perfect combination of attractiveness and gravitas to the role of Ig's tragically-fated girlfriend, but a more realistic choice here is the fresh-faced, redheaded Emma Stone.

Lee Tourneau: I can see Chris Pine excelling as Ig's charismatic but psychotic best friend.  2nd choice: Emile Hirsch.

Terry Perrish: Justin Timberlake seems a natural for the role of Ig's musician/L.A.-celebrity older brother.  Alternately: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Glenna Nicholson: Anyone who's seen Winter's Bone would agree that Jennifer Lawrence could easily embody Ig's disheveled roommate.  Amanda Seyfried could be a good fit here, too.

I have no idea who will ultimately win these roles, but one thing I can assert with a good deal of confidence: the Rolling Stones'
"Sympathy for the Devil" (referenced throughout the novel) will be featured in the soundtrack.

If you missed my earlier review of Hill's novel, click here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: "Lifecast"

"Lifecast" by Craig Spector

In honor of this week's finale of the reality show Face Off (which, by the way, will be returning for a second season on SyFy), I would like to spotlight a classic story dealing with special effects makeup.  Craig Spector's 1988 offering, "Lifecast," mixes suspense (what exactly does the talented but disgruntled artist Philip Thomas plan to do with the mask he's made of his producer/director?) and subversive wit (e.g. Phil has been working on a film called Toxic Shock Avenger--"the terrifying tale of a deformed boy menacing a wealthy all-girl summer camp with lethal tampons").  Spector writes knowingly of the materials/procedures involved in special effects makeup, and references many revered elements of horror fandom (Creature Feature matinees, Creepy and Eerie comics, Fangoria magazine, etc.).  As might be expected from one of the leading figures of the 80's splatterpunk movement, Spector strews plenty of grue (", muscle, and ligament pulling taut, stretching his eyelids until the socketed orbs burst, follicles shrinking around the bristle of his beard until each shaft poked up thick as a pencil stub and then shrinking further still, until it was stretched tighter than the sheets on a bootcamp bed; cartilage compacting, skull pressing in to trash-mash the brain, arteries blowing like high-pressure hoses"), but "Lifecast" itself is very neatly written.  A second reading reveals just how carefully the author prepared for the twist(ed) ending.  Indeed, Spector's story succeeds from its opening sentence to its clever clincher.

"Lifecast" is collected in one of the all-time great theme anthologies, editor David J. Schow's Silver Scream.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Austin Oddities

Honestly, this wasn't the post I had planned for today, but I just couldn't resist.  Struggling with insomnia at 4 o'clock this morning, I got out of bed and sat down at the computer, and soon stumbled upon an AOL article outlining outre activities that people can take part in to help (according to the local slogan) "Keep Austin Weird."  This Texan hot spot is so offbeat, it makes Savannah, Georgia (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame) seem mundane by comparison.

The full article can be viewed here.  Also, I've embedded below a YouTube video highlighting one of Austin's strangest attractions, the Cathedral of Junk:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Macabre in the Blogosphere: The Zombie Feed

Hope everyone out there in the Macabre Republic is having a great St. Patrick's Day.  In today's post, I would just like to call attention to an anthology in which I have a story ("The Last Generation")
appearing.  The Zombie Feed will be published shortly by Apex, and to promote the release of the book, the publisher recently held a contest in which readers were asked to submit a zombie-related question.  Richard Johnston won the contest (and a free copy of the anthology) for posing the following:

Fast or slow, flesh eaters or those who only eat brains, zombies are always pretty fun. Let’s look at them when they aren’t massing and trapping the last bastions of humanity and reducing them to red smears.

What do zombies do when there isn’t prey to motivate them? Say “World War Z” level of infestation goes ahead and wipes out humanity, do zombies establish a society? Do they take jobs? Set up daycares? Worry about 401Ks and health insurance? Or do they just sort of sit around and rot away?”

Each contributor to the anthology was asked to respond to Richard's question(s).  The collected answers are posted here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Final Four

No, today's post has nothing to do with the NCAA Tournament; I'm talking about the remaining contestants on the SyFy reality-tv show Face Off.  The season finale airs tonight at 10 P.M., and by the end of that hour one special effects make-up artist will have won $100,000 in prize money--plus a year's worth of make-up from Alcone.  In anticipation of tonight's episode, I would like to offer my prediction here of who will be declared the winner of the season-long competition.

Of the final four, Conor (the most experienced and technically-proficient of the group) and Tate (the most creative) are the clear favorites.  But Sam--the last female standing--has quietly excelled all season long, and Gage might possess the right combination of demeanor and know-how to pull off the win.  All four contestants have proven themselves to be talented make-up artists, and are certainly deserving of their spot on the final episode.  If I were to single out one maestro of lifecasting (and molding, and applying...), though, it would have to be:

Tate.  Throughout the show's run, he has displayed the greatest artistic vision, and his work his accordingly been the most eye-catching.  I can easily see him earning laurels for his make-up skills tonight (But I select him with one reservation: the number of times he has said "Thank you so much" to the panel of judges this season is the stuff of drinking-game legend, and should he happen to win tonight, there could be massive inebriation in TVland).

Face Off has strained credulity at times this season by conforming to the reality-tv mold (loft living, romantic entanglement, rivalry and backbiting), but its weekly make-up challenges have made for fantastic viewing.  Here's hoping for a terrific finale tonight (in T-minus two hours...)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Maryland

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

My sense of alphabetical order having been restored, I will turn back to survey Maryland today.  This mid-Atlantic state contains places such as Mount Savage (the height of brutishness), Gravely (dour town), Spook Hill (where ghost sightings are always on the rise), Gores Mill (whose workers typically end up in Stumptown), Castles Rising (in homage to the Gothic architecture of Europe), Hack Point (bane of necking teenagers), Autumn Grove (deep in the heart of October Country), Etchison (Dennis's eastern residence?), and Chillum (the bodies will last longer that way).  Still, it was easy to decide which place name in Maryland is the most Gothic:

Blair Woods.  Forget Burkittsville; this place sounds like the true home of the faux-documentary horror film.  And the last place in the entire state where you want to spend the night camping.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic

The following is the first installment of a new series of posts in which I'll be considering the extent to which a classic television show lives up to its name.  In other words, I will explore the American Gothic qualities of American Gothic.  First up, the show's pilot episode:

The opening-credits sequence features a voiceover from Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole).  Even as he discourses about the American Dream, Buck strikes an ominous note: "For those who follow my lead, life can be a paradise.  But for those who don't, it can be a mighty rough road."  Apparently this sheriff wields plenty of influence in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, and has no qualms about abusing his power.

In the first scene (set in an isolated rural home), protagonist Caleb Temple is trying to celebrate his 10th birthday, but his father Gage spoils the paltry party.  Incensed by his daughter Merlyn's 
ceaseless chanting ("Someone's at the door"), he proceeds to attack her with a shovel.  The 16-year-old Merlyn has been traumatized into an autistic-type state by something she witnessed a decade 
earlier (what exactly that was is revealed at episode's end: the rape of her mother by Buck). 

Gage is obviously not in his right mind, and later claims that his violent actions were somehow directed by the nefarious sheriff.  Perhaps the accusation is not that far-fetched, considering that Buck is the one who finishes off the wounded Merlyn by breaking her neck.  Mercy killing or sinister murder?  The ambiguity here points to the duality of the Buck's character.  At once charming and chilling, he is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain.

Duplicity is a trait displayed by other characters as well.  By day, Selena Coombs is a sweet-seeming grade school teacher; by night, she's a cunning nympho in cahoots with Lucas Buck.

American Gothic sports a heap of dead relatives and skeletons in the proverbial closet.  Dr. Crower, an alcoholic, has lost his wife and daughter in a car accident.  Caleb's cousin Gail was orphaned when a fire (deliberately set?) claimed the lives of both her parents.  And Caleb's mother ostensibly committed suicide ten years earlier by jumping out a window (or was she pushed by Buck, who was there at the time?).

The most memorable moment from the first episode finds Buck whistling the theme music to The Andy Griffith Show while approaching Gage's jail cell (where he then tries to force the man to sign documents granting the sheriff legal custody of Caleb).  The parodic whistling serves as the perfect indicator that Trinity is no bucolic Southern town--it's Mayberry with a very dark underbelly.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

     BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, check out this post.]

March Madness: so much fun to watch. I hear there's a big college basketball tournament going on this month as well.
--4 minutes ago

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: ChemICKal Reactions

ChemICKal Reactions by Karen L. Newman (Naked snake Press, 2010)

This alphabetized compendium of poems (that take their titles from elements and compounds) reads like a periodical table of terror.  The imagery here is typically gruesome (my favorite: the abominable "snowmen" created when a hospital morgue's skinned corpses are doused with hydrogen peroxide at Christmastime) and the wit and worldview is carbon-dark throughout.  Brief in length and building toward zinger endings, the selections pack all the punch of a laboratory explosion.  To take two quick, illustrative examples from the 96-poem volume:


As emphysema ate her lungs,
Faye chain-smoked
while being constantly connected
to an oxygen tank.
Thin and bedridden,
she huffed and puffed
until she lit herself up,
forming a human cigarette
that left a long cylindrical ash,
a the flaming tank
torpedoed the house.

Polyvinyl Chloride

The street collapsed downtown,
a gaping hole swallowing cars
and breaking polyvinyl chloride
sewer pipes.  A gusher of shit
spewed over empty buildings
and flowed down cracked sidewalks
in a river of hairy stench.
The snowy-haired mayor
announced the successful movement
of the homeless out of downtown.

The contents are probably best taken in small doses rather than ingested in a single sitting, as the poems draw from a common set of themes (corporate malfeasance, environmental ruin, domestic ghoulishness) and strike similar notes of dire mishap and ironic comeuppance.  I have to admit, not every entry here worked for me, but the hits far outnumber the misses.  Newman proves two things in her latest collection: she is a veritable fountain of chemical information, and she knows how to dial up the "ick" factor.  Yet while disgust might be the most immediate response 
elicited, ChemICKal Reactions also succeeds in created a lingering sense of disquiet--as readers realize just how saturated with dangerous chemicals and debilitating drugs their daily lives are. 

Friday, March 11, 2011


[For previous game, click here.]

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


__  H   __        __  __  __  G  __  N     

__  __  __  C  __  D   __  __        __  Y

__  __  __  __ __  __  Y        __  __  G  __  __  __  D  __  __


HINT: Made into a Coppola film

Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Universal Monsters in Our Midst: The Getting-Tipsy Edition

Universal Studios Monsters Decorative Shot Glasses

Further proof that the Universal Monsters have permeated American pop culture: you can even turn to their famous heads when you want to imbibe something that goes straight to your head.  The Dracula glass is perfect for slurping a Bloody Mary (or a bloody anyone, really), while the Wolf Man counterpart no doubt gives new meaning to putting some hair on your chest.  This is the coolest set of shot glasses, bar none; there's no better way to toast the icons of fright the next time you host a party at your personal Ackermansion.

One last thought: I just love the product image here.  Lined up alongside one another, the quartet of topless heads look like subjects in some mad brain-transplant experiment (which puts me in mind of Ygor's grand scheme in The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "Call Me From the Valley"

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

"Call Me From the Valley"

Caught out in a mountain storm, John seeks
A place to haven him until the squalling's done.
But he soon discovers the lone cabin he enters
Is a haunted home in more ways than one.

The young occupant's engaged in a strange mating rite
Meant to call forth the man she loves most.
A pity, then, that her "dumb supper" party is crashed
By a covetous ancestor turned malevolent ghost.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "Call Me From the Valley" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Michigan

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

Wolverine country is a den of great place names, such as Paines (expect neither rest nor relaxation here), Covert (there's much more to this scene than meets the eye), Killmaster (try getting hired as a servant in this town!), Duel (don't enrage any truckers on the roadways), Ash Acres (a capacious wasteland), Devils Corner (doubtless a suburb of Hell), Hard Luck (a place where your ill fortune has been pre-ordained), Bates Location (I'm guessing in that creepy house up on the hill), and Tallman (sounds like a Phantastic destination).  All worthy contenders, but I couldn't help but choose the following as this week's winner:

Windigo.  I swear that this was a happy accident; I had no idea beforehand that this post would end up part of Wendigo Week.  In any event, the name (doesn't "Windigo, Michigan" just roll off the tongue?) evokes a town with a taste for the taboo, a wintry community where the cannibals can be found by the cabin-full.  The kind of place where the phrase "eat your heart out" is hardly an idle boast.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cruel Tees Meets Wendigo Week

What a shock: a heavy metal band drawing on horrific imagery!

Care to wear it?  The "Wendigo" T-shirt can be purchased here.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Skin and Bones"--And He's Always Eating!

The episodes from the aborted first season of Fear Itself were hit or miss, but "Skin and Bones" definitely falls within the former category.  Directed by Larry Fessenden (who also helmed the feature film Wendigo), the episode focuses on the terrible appetite a rancher has developed while lost in the mountains for ten days.  Now Wendigo-possessed, Grady returns home determined to have a nice, family dinner--with his wife, children, and cuckolding brother serving as the main courses.  The plot is pretty standard, but what makes "Skin and Bones" memorable is the nightmarish makeup (and antics) of Doug Jones as the emaciated, cadaverous cannibal Grady.  He forms one of the most gruesome and unnerving figures ever to appear on network television.

"Skin and Bones" can be viewed in its entirety here.  And for a brief behind-the-scenes look at the episode, check out the YouTube video below.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dark Passages: Pet Sematary

In the following excerpt from Stephen King's Pet Sematary, protagonist Louis Creed encounters the Wendigo while bearing the corpse of his young son Gage to the Micmac Burial Ground.  The passage is masterfully written, creating and sustaining suspense as it chronicles an ominous approach.  Notice how King grounds the scene in realistic detail, focusing on the impact of the Wendigo's approach on the natural landscape and registering Louis's multi-sensory experience (the author also presents a bit of Faulknerian inner monologue, parenthesized and italicized).  At the same time, King manages to convey an air of mystery, to strike the Lovecraftian chord of terror from beyond:

Something was coming.
Louis came to a total halt, listening to that sound...that inexorable, approaching sound.  His mouth fell open, every tendon that held his jaw shut simply giving up.
It was a sound like nothing he had ever heard in his life--a living sound, a big sound.  Somewhere nearby, growing closer, branches were snapping off.  There was a crackle of underbrush breaking under unimaginable feet.  The jellylike ground under Louis's feet began to shake in sympathetic vibration.  He became aware that he was moaning
(oh my God oh dear God what is that what is coming through this fog?)
and once more clutching Gage to his chest, he became aware that the peepers and frogs had fallen silent, he became aware that the wet, damp air had taken on an eldritch, sickening smell like warm, spoiled pork.
Whatever it was, it was huge.
Louis's wondering, terrified face tilted up and up, like a man following the trajectory of a launched rocket.  The thing thudded toward him, and there was the ratcheting sound of a tree--not a branch, but a whole tree--falling over somewhere close by.
Louis saw something.
The mist stained to a dull slate-gray for a moment, but this diffuse, ill-defined watermark was better than sixty feet high.  It was no shade, no insubstantial ghost; he could feel the displaced air of its passage, could hear the mammoth thud of its feet coming down, the suck of mud as it moved on.
For a moment he believed he saw twin yellow-orange sparks high above him.  Sparks like eyes. (328-329)

Work Cited

King, Stephen.  Pet Sematary.  New York: Doubleday & Company, 1983.

Friday, March 4, 2011

DVD Review: Ravenous

Ravenous (Dir. Antonia Bird, 1999)

This weird Western reveals its quirky sensibility right from the outset, when it follows up an epigraph from the renowned philosopher Nietzsche with the Anonymous quote "Eat me."  The fact that this film has its tongue (or should I say, its teeth?) set in its figurative cheek is also signalled by the choice of actor to play the commander of the mid-19th-Century army fort situated in the Western Sierra Nevadas.  Perhaps best known for his work in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the HBO series Deadwood, Jeffrey Jones portrays a bumbling colonel that could have been right at home with F Troop.  Even the music that provides the soundtrack for Ravenous strikes a discernibly whimsical note, in deliberate discord with the drama unfolding on-screen.

All this is not to suggest, though, that Ravenous forsakes horror for comedy.  The oddball chaplain Toffler (played by Jeremy Davies) elicits shivers as well as giggles when he wakes up screaming, "He was licking me!"  The "he" here is the mysterious, Machiavellian (yet also campy) figure Colqhoun, who has insinuated himself into the company of soldiers stationed at Fort Spencer.  It seems that the exigencies of frontier life in the wintertime have forced Colqhoun to develop some taboo dining habits.  Now he has an insatiable, unnatural appetite for human flesh (once you go cannibal, you never go back).  In short, he has turned Wendigo, and now plots to gorge himself on his fellow man--and to turn some of the soldiers into cohort cannibals that will then prey upon unsuspecting travelers who visit the fort.

Robert Carlyle excels in the role of Colqhoun, as does Guy Pearce as the dubiously-decorated soldier John Boyd, who gets his first taste of blood (literally) during the Mexican-American War.  Whereas Colqhoun is a gory glutton, Boyd is a cannibal with a conscience; the conflict that unfolds between the two Wendigo-touched figures drives the second half of the film.  Their climactic battle is wonderful to behold, full of destructive mayhem and bloodshed.  An intriguing moral dilemma also arises at film's end (I don't want to spoil the fun by saying any more about it in this post).

Ravenous is not for the weak (or empty) of stomach, but fans of gleeful grotesquerie will find plenty to feast on here.  Never has the Wendigo theme been incorporated more smoothly or cleverly into a motion picture.  This one is a must see, during Wendigo Week or any time of year.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Kicking Off Wendigo Week...

Last Thursday, I spotlighted Nancy Collins's short story "From Hell's Heart," which employs the Wendigo as its antagonist.  The story got me thinking about the supernatural, cannibalistic entity, so I decided that I would hold a Wendigo Week here at Macabre Republic.  Over the course of the next five days, I will publish posts dealing with the Wendigo's manifestations in fiction, film, and television.

First up, a link to the text of the seminal novella written by Algernon Blackwood: "The Wendigo."  This weird tale (the first to take to the mythical Wendigo as its subject) is a masterpiece of steadily-mounting dread.  H.P. Lovecraft has extolled its virtues in Supernatural Horror in Literature, noting how readers "are confronted by horrible evidences of a vast forest daemon about which North Woods lumbermen whisper at evening.  The manner in which certain footprints tell certain unbelievable things is really a marked triumph in craftsmanship."

For further background info about the Wendigo, you can check out its Monstropedia entry.

I'll be back tomorrow to review the best movie to ever draw upon the Wendigo myth.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cranial Nest

It takes a lot to move me when it comes to horror movies, but the following scene from Case 39 had me squirming all over the couch yesterday.  The film overall leaves a lot to be desired, but this particular clip is utterly horrifying.  It taps into the primal fear of swarms, not to mention the dread of bodily penetration.  And having been traumatized as a child by my discovery of a hornet's nest inside my bedroom window (the top half of the window had slipped down an inch, enabling the hornets to enter and build their nest in the corner behind the blind), I couldn't help but sense a terrible stirring within me as I watched Bradley Cooper's plight: 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Maine

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

To no surprise, the state that produced Stephen King also offers a rich crop of appellations.  There's Foggs Corner (gloomy atmosphere galore), Suckerville (maybe Salem's Lot isn't the only town in Maine with a vampire problem), Lynchville (not somewhere you want to hang around), Deep Cut (comes just after Cleaves Landing), Ketchum (a terrible place to visit in the Off Season), Burnt Mill (such industrial ruin makes a fine home for haunting), Steep Falls (suicidal paradise), and Tainter Corner (where everyone's touched by corruption).  All great names, but none of them can hold a candle to...

Dark Harbor.  This sounds like a more northeastern version of Lovecraft's Innsmouth, or the perfect epithet for Collinsport in the classic TV series Dark Shadows.  Most of all, though, the name suggests a place of sinister concealment, a town full of sheltered fugitives and closeted skeletons.