Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Other People" (poem)

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

"Other People"

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

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Favorite Eleven of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Damned (Book Review)

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, 2011)

Damned good.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011


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

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


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

B   __   __   __   E   __

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

HINT: naughty abductors of Santee Claus

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: You'd Better Watch Out

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Ultimate Christmas Wish List

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

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

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

*a hitherto-lost Yoknapatawpha novel by William Faulkner

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

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

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

*a third Jack Baddalach mystery from Norman Partridge

*a new David Morrell short story/novella collection

*Danse Macabre: The Next Generation by Joe Hill

*Hisownself, the autobiography of Joe R. Lansdale

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Outlaw Album (Book Review)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Motley Brew

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Picking the Bones


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Haunting on Audio

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dark Passages: Bag of Bones

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

Work Cited

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Celebrating Bag of Bones Weekend

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

The letter pool:

N   R   D   S   F   B   E   Y

H   L   H   I   D   E   U   B

N   T   D   M   R   L   D   O

I   D   A   Y   O   T   I   E

E   C   O   D   L   R   U   S

1.What Max Devore stole as a child:

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

2.Where Jo has hidden the plastic owls:

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

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

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

__   __   [ __ ]   __   __   __

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

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

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

The   __   __   __   __   __   __   __   __

Answers appear in the Comments section of this post.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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

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

One last time out on the road...

"Where Did She Wander?"

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "The Beast Within"

[For the previous entry, click here.]

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sweeney Todd: Music to Our Fears

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011


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

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


__  __  __  __  G  E         __  Y

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


HINT: The Ripper emigrates to America

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.