Friday, August 31, 2012

Reasons to Smile

Only two months away now from the Great Day, and one month
from the official launch of Halloween Season here at Macabre Republic.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#16


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

#16. "The Turning"

Cataclysm is in the air in this 1995 short piece (collected in Peaceable Kingdom).  An unnamed narrator walks the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading signs of something wicked coming the City's way.  He passes a gang of teenage boys assaulting a homeless man, shoving "a piece of jagged macadam" into the victim's bloodied and broken-toothed mouth.  He spots grim shopowners standing sentry in their doorways, and elderly travelers whose frightened faces suggest an innate understanding of the changing underway.  He stops to give twenty dollars to a pretty young homeless woman, hoping to save her from a fate worse than destitution.

The climax of the story pulls these cryptic hints together to bring an intriguing premise to light:
He had seen it happen before.  A long, long time ago.  When the collective will and consciousness of an entire people had grown intense enough, black enough, angry enough, fearful enough and focused enough to rend deep into the nature of human life as it had existed up until then, all that dark cruel energy focused like a laser on an entire class, transforming them in reality how they were perceived and imagined to be almost metaphorically.
In the past it had been the rich--the ruling class who were perceived as vampires.  Feeding off the poor and destitute.
Now it was the poor themselves. 
The reason the protagonist understands all this, the narrative reveals, is that "it had happened to him."  He was among the handful of Old World nobles transformed into nosferatu by lower class antipathy.  Given the poverty and discrimination now plaguing New York City, though, the number of vampires will be "legion."

Ketchum's twisty little tale offers one last turn of the screw in its final lines, as the main character heads off to "dine with a beautiful recently-divorced real-estate heiress."  Apparently the man plans on enjoying a sanguineous night cap afterward as well, as "The Turning" finishes with a line that at once works as a scathing social critique and a pitch-perfect mimicking of the macabre wit of Robert Bloch: "Unlike most of the world, he preferred to feed upon his own."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pick Six with Alden Bell

(Okay, it's about time I got this feature rolling again...)

Pick Six with ________" is 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).

Alden Bell is the pseudonym of New York writer and prep school teacher Joshua Gaylord.  His previous novel, The Reapers Are the Angels, was nominated for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Shirley Jackson Award.  In November, Tor will publish the UK edition of Exit Kingdom, the prequel to Reapers (featuring Moses Todd as the lead character).  For more about the author, check out his website at

1.If you could collaborate with any living writer, who would you choose, and why?

Bell: I'd like to work with Tom Franklin.  Have you read any of his books?  You should.  They're these gorgeously rich Southern Gothic novels--and they've been completely influential on my own writing.  Start with my favorite, Smonk, which is a heady mix of western, adventure, horror, comedy and coming of age.  It's almost hysterical in tone, completely unexpected--and delightful from beginning to end.  Or, if you're looking for something more traditional, his more recent book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a breathtakingly rendered southern noir about two boys and the horrors they encounter.  Mostly, I'd like to work with Franklin for purely selfish reasons: I'd want to learn everything I can from him.  I know of no other living writer who is so stylistically gutsy.  Do yourself a favor and check him out.

2.What is the worst writing advice you ever received?

Bell: "Write what you know."  I'm not sure why writing teachers say this.  It seems not only wrong but also downright damaging to beginning writers.  I think this is because many people in the writing industry are concerned with "authenticity"--they like to think the book that accurately reflects some objective reality is "good," while the book that builds its worlds outside accepted truths is "bad."  But, for me, the whole point of fiction is building worlds outside accepted truths.  I'm not sure what the point of writing is if not to take the real world and change it into something better--something whose uniqueness and purity is the result of one individual's writerly imagination.  If you just write what you know, you may feel constrained to report rather than fabulate--and that's a shame, no?  I like the boldness of someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs who writes about battles between Martian civilizations.  What does he know about Mars?  Nothing, clearly--but maybe there are beautiful princesses there!  Why not?  And after Mars, how about a book about the deepest jungles of Africa?  The last thing the world needs from a young, hipster writer who drinks too much and says clever things is a book about a young, hipster writer who drinks too much and says clever things.  What you know isn't interesting, so why would you want to write about it?

3.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

Bell: I would not have been a writer at all if it hadn't been for Carol Mooney, my ninth-grade English teacher.  I was on track to becoming a computer programmer, then she came along.  I'd always been an avid reader, but I don't think I understood the power of books until she illustrated that power to me.  She stood in front of the classroom, talking about Charles Dickens or J.D. Salinger, and she made those texts feel important.  She gave you the impression that there was superior magic in literature that she could see and testify to--and she invited you to see that magic with her.  She implied that her life was grander because of the books she read, that the world was richer when viewed through the lens of stories.  And I was a sucker for it--I believed it wholeheartedly.  I began to love books so much that it wasn't enough to consume them.  I wanted to be one of the craftsmen who created the objects of magic.  I wanted to be behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making the dancers dance.  And so I became a writer to try my hand at making a little magic on my own.  And I owe it all to one vibrant teacher.

4.What is your biggest pet peeve about the current state of the horror genre?

Bell: I wish horror were more stylized.  Actually, I wish all contemporary fiction were more stylized.  So many creative writing courses teach young writers to be, above all, efficient--to put plot and character before language and style.  Over the past thirty years or so, writing has become infuriatingly industrious.  It panders to the lowest common denominator of a reader: the reader who is just eager to know what happens next and can't be bothered to slow down and luxuriate in language.  For me, that equates to a particularly joyless kind of writing.  I prefer fiction in which I can hear an author's distinctive voice.  I like the idea of picking up a story and being able to tell who wrote it just because the style is so unique.  Think about H.P. Lovecraft.  Now there's a writer whose voice you could hear from a mile away.  That's why we have the term "Lovecraftian."  Why don't we have the term "King-ian"?  I think because Stephen King is a storyteller--which is a marvelous thing to be--but he is not a wordsmith.  I'm sure there are plenty of readers worldwide who are grateful for this fact, but for me it's a bit of an annoyance.  I frequently find myself reading passages of Stephen King and thinking, "Okay, yes, I see how you've advanced the plot here.  But couldn't you have done the same thing a little more artfully?"

5.What do you consider the most disturbing scene you have ever watched in a horror film?

Bell: You know, I've been watching horror films for so many years that I began to think I was inured to them.  I haven't been shocked or horrified by a movie in a long, long time.  Or, at least, I hadn't been until I saw Martyrs.  Now, Martyrs definitely falls into the same category of "torture porn" alongside Hostel and Saw and The Human Centipede.  and normally these movies don't bother me so much.  I usually find them more offputting than anything else.   But Martyrs--I don't know.  That movie didn't just scare me--it made me feel bad.  Corrupted.  Defiled.  I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks afterward.  Without giving anything away about the movie, I would say that there are scenes which I wish I could erase from my memory.  The thing is this: it's cold horror--unmitigated by any kind of artifice or elegance or even convention.  I discovered something by watching this movie.  Screams are easier to deal with than silence.  Screams are a recognizable horror convention that make the audience feel safe.  I wish there had been more screams in Martyrs.  Instead, the quiet was just plain brutal.  Now, I say this not as a recommendation but rather as a warning.  You should not see this movie.  It is not meant to be watched.  Really, I'm not kidding.  I urge you to use good judgment on this one.

6.In your estimation, the best cover art ever to appear on a genre book:

Bell: When I was a kid reading Stephen King, I was fascinated by the paperback cover of his collection of short stories called Night Shift.  The cover showed a person's hand held up, palm facing you.  But the hand was bandaged--or at least partially bandaged, up to about the middle of the palm.  The bandages were in the process of being removed, and under them you could see that eyeballs had grown all over the fingers and palm.  They gazed at you with mild indifference.  I'm not sure why I found this cover so completely affecting, but I did.  I kept my copy of that book to this day because I didn't want to do without the cover art.  Eyes where they shouldn't be are always horrifying, aren't they?  Because it's never just an eye.  An eye implies consciousness.  To grow eyes on your hand is to stare back at all the foreign consciousnesses that have taken up residence in your body.  Who are those strangers?  And what are they doing inside you?  Of course, I was a teenager.  Don't all teenagers feel their bodies are filled with hostile strangers?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#17


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

#17. "Papa"

Writing a story for an absinthe-themed anthology seems like an exercise in constriction, but with "Papa" (2006; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), Jack Ketchum manages to produce an admirably original piece.

The story boasts an interesting premise: painter Neal McPheeters (a real-life figure, and good friend of Ketchum) is mistaken as Ernest Hemingway by a stranger in an Upper East Side bar.  Since Papa is "forty years dead," McPheeters suspects Mike Kelly (an editor of Del Rey science fiction books--"Maybe that explained a few things and maybe it didn't") is "either way drunk, putting him on, crazy, or quite a character.  Or all of the above."  This unusual case of mistaken identity, though, helps McPheeters (who has gone to the bar that afternoon in defiance of a looming deadline) pass the time in an entertaining manner, and leads to some amusing conversation (such as when Kelly bluntly inquires, "Hey, you ever fuck Gertrude Stein?").  So in the spirit of fun McPheeters plays along, even accepting an invitation to go back to Kelly's apartment, drink from a bottle of absinthe and "Shoot the shit about the old days."

The illegal alcohol has a quasi-hallucinogenic effect on McPheeters, but turns Kelly's mood suddenly surly.  In the comic climax of the narrative, Kelly berates "Hemingway" for his famous hyper-masculinity ("All that bullfighting, hunting, fishing bullshit."), his history of adultery, even his granddaughters Margeaux and Marielle's choice of movie roles ("You let 'em both get naked for godsakes!").  When Kelly starts ranting that his guest "OUGHT TO BLOW HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!", McPheeters realizes it's time to head on out of that den of insanity.  In another type of Ketchum story, the protagonist might have been trapped and subjected to grisly punishment, but in this light-hearted piece, McPheeters makes a safe exit, wanders through Central Park soaking up the greenery until the absinthe wears off, then returns home and promptly begins painting.

"Papa" is a standout example of the "New York bar scene" genre of story that Ketchum has repeatedly written (I count at least a half-dozen instances of such tale-types in the author's short fiction oeuvre).  The piece is enjoyable in and of itself, but to me is also noteworthy for all the knowledge of Hemingway's life and work that it flashes.  I've long had the sneaking suspicion that Ketchum's pseudonym isn't merely a nod to the 19th Century outlaw Black Jack Ketchum but also a subtler homage to Hemingway (who lived--and died--in Ketchum, Idaho).  Ketchum's unadorned yet resonant prose certainly suggests a stylistic influence; anyone who doubts a connection between the two writers is advised to take a look at the opening chapter of Ketchum's novel Red.  Neal McPheeters might bear a physical resemblance to Hemingway, but Jack Ketchum can be counted amongst Papa's literary offspring.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

American Pastime

Normally, on a baseball diamond, the mound is limited to the pitcher's position, but at this play area (existing in an apparent
state of suspended renovation) in my hometown it looks like an entire team of fielders has been buried:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#18

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

#18. Weed Species

Although this 2006 work was packaged as a separate book by Cemetery Dance, it qualifies as a novelette in terms of its length.  And based on its content, it earns the #18 spot on the Countdown.

Don't let the title fool you: Weed Species has nothing to do with rampant marijuana use.  Rather Ketchum is employing a censorious conceit; as defined on the book jacket's front flap, a weed species is "an organism that is intentionally or accidentally introduced to an area where it is not native, and where it successfully invades and disturbs natural ecosystems, displacing native species.  See also kudzu, water hyacinth, zebra mussel, Burmese python, eco-tourism, sociopath."

The characters Sherry Lydia Jefferson and Owen Philip Delassandro certainly fit this negative mold.  In the shocking opening "chapter" of Weed Species, Sherry presents the drugged body of her thirteen-year-old sister Talia as a Christmas gift to her fiance Owen (a businessman with "Baywatch good looks," but an utter grotesque on the inside).  This holiday rape will also be captured by camcorder, but matters go awry for the awful auteurs when Talia chokes to death on her own vomit mid-shoot.  Still, incident fails to scare Sherry and Owen straight; their perversion extends so far as to a sex game (later in the narrative) in which Sherry dresses up in the late Talia's clothing, and Owen himself develops into a serial rapist and killer.

Ketchum doesn't reserve his scorn for this odious duo, though.  Weed Species takes a grim view of humanity as a whole, interpolating references to a series of despicable acts, from sailors who "butcher and bludgeon" dodo birds "just for fun," to a mother who almost kills her daughter through a mind-boggling act of neglect, to a family in Wisconsin who keeps "their seventeen-year-old daughter locked up in the basement for three years without anyone knowing."  Not even in the narrative's climax does Ketchum allow any sense of real redemption.  Sherry, after serving a brief prison sentence (she strikes a deal with the D.A. following the arrest of Owen, who is eventually executed for his crimes), returns to society and soon coaxes her new beau Arliss into raping a girl for/with her.  An armed religious zealot who lives down the block (and has recognized the infamous Sherry) breaks in on the perpetrators in flagrante delicto, but there's ultimately no blaze of glory haloing the gun-firing vigilante:
His third, fourth, and fifth shots were for Sherry Lydia Jefferson whose head was between the young girl's legs.  He could barely hear these shots because the first two were so loud.  But the woman twisted forward and slid off the couch bleeding form the breast and stomach so that he knew that his job was done here and felt such joy and excitement, such intense exultation that it did not even occur to him to wonder why his own manhood almost ancient to him by now should suddenly be aroused. 
Weed Species is vintage Ketchum, offering unflinching depiction of disturbing acts of sexual violence.  Yet once again the author proves that he is much more than the horror genre's equivalent of a shock jock.  Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is the account late in the narrative of the subsequent life of one of Owen's early rape victims (from the time when Owen was only threatening to kill his female abductees).  Janine Turner is now married with children, but she has been psychologically scarred by her past trauma, and accordingly turns into a drunken (physical) abuser of her own family members.  In the end, Ketchum suggests, hearkening back to the book jacket copy, the most nefarious aspect of a weed is its blemishing spread--its facile mutation of hitherto-ordinary human nature.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Paranorman (Movie Review)

Paranorman (Focus Features.  Written and Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

2012 promises to be a banner year for animated horror-comedies, with the scheduled release of films such as Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie.  But the first one to hit theaters, the charmingly macabre Paranorman, just might prove to be the best of the bunch.

The film centers on Norman Babcock, whose Sixth Sense-like ability to see dead people leaves him one ridiculed and outcast pre-teen in his hometown of Blithe (echoes of Sleepy) Hollow.  A much greater appreciation for Norman grows, though, when the boy's talents are needed to help save the town from the curse of a zombie-raising witch.

Paranorman features several stand-out elements, starting with its endearing, ghost-whispering protagonist, who sports Kodi Smit-McPhee's voice and seemingly Vanilla Ice's hairdo and Alfred E. Neuman's ears (other inspired voice work is provided by Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the nasally bully Alvin and Casey Affleck as the musclebound doofus Mitch).  Understated but scene-stealing comic relief comes from Norman's friend Neil, the best chubby sidekick since Monster House's Chowder.  The film presents viewers with fantastic, brilliantly colorful stop-action animation (e.g. the image of a leering witch visage in a roiling magenta sky), courtesy of LAIKA, the artful folks behind Coraline.  And how can you not love a movie that includes an angry-villager scene that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Universal Studios?

I seem to be referencing a lot of other films in this review, and that is probably no accident.  The various witty references to other horror genre fare form a large part of Paranorman's fun. (I, for one, was sold on buying a ticket for this one the first time I saw the bit in the trailer involving a masked Neil striking a Michael Myers pose in Norman's backyard.)

The movie conveys a strong anti-bullying/acceptance-of-difference message, and its monsters are ultimately rendered as innocuous as possible, but with some of the intense action sequences here, the label of "children's film" becomes a bit dubious (I heard at least one youngster wailing in fright in the theater).  But for everyone else older in years and with more experience with cinematic fear, Paranorman is bound to be enormously entertaining.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#19

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

#19. "Damned If You Do"

This 2004 tale (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) might not feature the hard-core horror of a similarly-set Ketchum piece,
"If Memory Serves," but it does pack a nasty surprise.  Writhing on the horns of a relationship dilemma, John Brewer has been making weekly visits to a therapist's office for the past two months.  Brewer doesn't "know what to do with" his mate Jennie; she "just doesn't listen anymore."  Brewer can't decide between "holding onto" Jennie or "dumping [her] once and for all" (a drastic act that part of Brewer admittedly doesn't want to commit, leading him to bemoan
"damned if you and damned if you don't").  Dr. Sullivan does his best to help Brewer deal with his personal issues, but the story's climax reveals that the therapist and his patient were never really on the same page.  Brewer returns home to observe Jennie lying in their bedroom:
He could almost hear her breathing--that was how peaceful she looked.  How she could look so peaceful and be so bloated by now that it was impossible to see the length of baling wire around her neck was a mystery to him.
"Damned If You Do" is a terrific example of Ketchum's ability to author a finely crafted short story, with its twist ending set up by several strategic hints.  Sullivan notes instances of Brewer's
"sham" body language and evasive responses, early clues pointing to the fact that the man is keeping something secret from the doctor.  When Sullivan suggests that Jennie herself might need
professional help, Brewer laughingly but forcefully shoots down the idea: "She'll never be in therapy, believe me."  Next the doctor attempts to engage Brewer in a bit of dream analysis, not realizing how close he is getting to the truth: "Sullivan was a firm believer in dreams as metaphors for problems left untended to, each with its own symbolic language.  Anything from a reminder to pay that overdue gas bill to resolving the guilt over a loved one's death."  Even a seemingly innocuous detail like the passing mention that Brewer is a furniture maker by trade proves key to the conclusion, when Jennie's festering corpse is shown to be contained in a "knotty pine box" built by her slayer.  In retrospect, even the story's title is telling, as it omits the "don't" half of the maxim (and intimates the state of perdition someone like Brewer enters into by committing a mortal sin).

The story leaves off with Brewer still caught in internal debate ("Dump her? Or leave her be?"), and unsure whether he can wait until next week's session to come to a decision, because Jennie "was really beginning to stink."  The same certainly cannot be said for "Damned If You Do," a piece that only appreciates with each subsequent reading.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Big deal about the Olympics, held for a fortnight every four years.  Down Below, the Brimstone Games go on 24/7/forever.
--6:39 P.M., August 12th

Remember, it's always sowing season when it comes to demon seed.
--12:12 A.M., August 9th

To the producers of Hell on Wheels: don't count on Ixion tuning in.
--3:07 P.M., August 5th

Know what I love most about summertime?  The proliferation of flies.
--8:51 A.M., August 4th

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#20

Jack Ketchum (the pen name of horror writer Dallas Mayr) is not just an accomplished novelist; he's also an indisputable master of the shorter narrative form.  In acknowledgment of that fact, the new Countdown here at Macabre Republic will be ranking Ketchum's top twenty works of short fiction.  I'll be choosing from stories and novelettes only; extraordinary novellas such as The Crossings, Right to Life, and The Passenger will not be considered.  The Countdown will also be limited to single-author works (i.e. I'm excluding the various collaborations with Edward Lee) featuring the Jack Ketchum byline (not those published under the earlier, Jerzy Livingston pseudonym).  Of course, the selection and slotting of stories on the Countdown is highly subjective (many will be surprised to find a certain prize-winning piece missing from the list), but the accompanying commentary will attempt to give a bit of explanation for each of my decisions.

OK, enough preamble.  Let's get this Countdown started:

#20. "When the Penny Drops"

Jack Ketchum is doubtless best known as a creator of unflinching, hard-core horror, but he is a writer of many tones and modes.  The 1998 story "When the Penny Drops" (collected in Peaceable Kingdom), for instance, is a quiet and subtly uncanny tale presented by a narrator with a penchant for waxing philosophic ("It's from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.") and existentially curious ("Promise and promiscuity.  That's the business of living and the entire mystery is why.  To what end?  To perpetuate exactly what?").  This (strategically) unnamed figure also offers up some profound pronouncements about love, as when discussing his frequently-long-distance relationship with his wife Laura:
There's a sheer simple joy in cooperating with another living soul under difficult circumstances that's highly underrated.  For two people who are mostly apart and provided that there's love to begin with, every meeting is glue. It is a soft glue which allows for great elastic pullings apart, thin fibrous stretchings over cities and continents, space and time.  But each strand is of exactly the same composition.  It wants to come together.  Its chemical goal is to return to the unity from which it sprang in the first place.  And it does.
"When the Penny Drops" unfolds very much as a love story, sketching scenes from a twenty-eight-year marriage.  The narrator spends a good deal of time describing a honeymoon spent on the Greek island of Mykonos, but he's not just awash with nostalgia.  He's leading readers to the account of a strange incident that occurred during the vacation.  The narrator loses and frantically searches for his wallet, only to return to his hotel to find that someone has turned it in to the front desk with its valuable contents intact.  The mystery man who carried out this good deed seeks no reward, and simply leaves a note for the narrator encouraging him to "Do the same for someone else someday."  At the time, the narrator doesn't make too much of this unusual stroke of good fortune, but certainly senses a brush with mystery twenty years later when someone turns in his expensive ring (which the narrator had left behind on the bathroom sink in a New York bar), along with a note reading "Do the same for someone else someday."

At this point, the story appears to be heading towards some heartwarming finale of repaid kindness.  Remember, though, this is Jack Ketchum at the helm; we are being steered toward a dire twist.  Mystery in the grander sense of the term yields to unsolved crime, and the narrator's mysterious benefactor is supplanted by an only-vaguely-identified figure who shoots and kills Laura (an accidental witness to a liquor store hold-up).  The murder scene is under-standably a traumatic sight for the narrator, but what really floors him is the glimpse of the penny box next to the liquor store's cash register, a penny box with the message "Take one if you need one.  And do the same for someone else someday."

Grief-stricken, and struggling to come to terms with the meaning of Laura's death (what purpose does it serve in the Grander Scheme of Things?), the narrator takes some drastic measures.  He quits his job, buys an oft-robbed liquor store on the Lower East Side.  "I figure it's only a matter of time before somebody tries again," the narrator concludes as he stands waiting with a thirty-eight Smith & Wesson at hand.  "I'm not looking for the guy who shot Laura.  I know the odds on that.  But somebody.  Please god.  Someone else someday."  Violence is all he is looking to pay forward now, a fatal payback to an ostensibly innocent third party.  If the narrator's story-opening thesis holds that it's from the mysterious that we make the leap to either godly grace or evil, then his closing mindset indicates an unfortunate plummet toward the latter alternative.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Eldritch on Celluloid

For anyone interested in cinematic versions of weird tales:

Mike Davis over at Lovecraft eZine published a blog post last week compiling YouTube videos of a host of Lovecraftian movies (in their entirety).  The post is worth checking out if only for the videos of the hard-to-find hard-boiled/mythos blend Cast a Deadly Spell and the stellar documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.  Hours of terrific, tentacular entertainment guaranteed!  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lovecraft Lines

Like some eldritch tentacle, H.P. Lovecraft's prose could seize sudden hold of the reader and drag him/her straight down into the abyss.  The weird-tale scribe had a knack for crafting sublime first paragraphs (often framed as the journal entry of a traumatized narrator, who furnishes tantalizing bits of exposition hinting at dire misdeeds and cataclysmic events).  Here's a QuickList of six of Lovecraft's best story openings:

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.  Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species--if separate species we be--for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.  If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did, and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.  No one placed the charred fragments in an urn or set a memorial to him who had been; for certain papers and a certain boxed object were found which made men wish to forget.  Some who knew him do not admit that he ever existed.

--"Arthur Jermyn"

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.  The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

--"The Call of Cthulhu"

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.  Penniless, and at the end of my supply of the drug which alone makes life endurable, I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below.  Do not think from my slavery to morphine that I am a weakling or a degenerate.  When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.


Whether the dreams brought on the fever or the fever brought on the dreams, Walter Gilman did not know.  Behind everything crouched the brooding, festering horror of the ancient town, and of the moldy, unhallowed garret gable where he wrote and studied and wrestled with figures and formulae when he was not tossing on the meager iron bed.  His ears were growing sensitive to a preternatural and intolerable degree, and he had long ago stopped the cheap mantel clock whose ticking had come to seem like a thunder of artillery.  At night the subtle stirring of the black city outside, the sinister scurrying of rats in the wormy partitions, and the creaking of hidden timbers in the centuried house, were enough to give him a sense of strident pandemonium.  The darkness always teemed with unexplained sound--and yet he sometimes shook with fear lest the noises he heard should subside and allow him to hear certain other fainter noises which he suspected were lurking behind them.

--"The Dreams in the Witch-House"

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.  For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries.  They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia.  The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands.  But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England, for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of hideousness.

--"The Picture in the House"

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.  At first I shall be called a madman--madder than the man I shot in his cell at the Arkham Sanitarium.  Later some of my readers will weigh each statement, correlate it with the known facts, and ask themselves how I could have believed otherwise than I did after facing the evidence of that horror--that thing on the doorstep.

--"The Thing on the Doorstep"

Friday, August 10, 2012


Following up on Wednesday's post, I just wanted to call attention to a fine documentary entitled H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer (available for Instant Viewing on Netflix).  Writer/director John Borowksi's hour-long film is not only highly informative (we learn that the crimes of the brazen con man Holmes extended well beyond preying on attendees of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago) but also surprisingly atmospheric.  Take, for example, the grave narration provided by Tony Jay ("Behind this innocent facade was a Gothic house of horrors designed by a monster..."), or the eerie voiceover readings from Holmes's autobiography.  A slew of vintage photos and period newspaper clippings transport the viewer back to another era of American history.  Perhaps the most effective technique of all is the inclusion of a series of brief black-and-white dramatizations (my favorite: a nightgowned, lamp-lofting damsel navigating the labyrinthine corridors of Holmes's deathtrap Castle) that give the proceedings the look and feel of a silent horror movie.  The documentary, which also offers a fascinating glimpse into late-19th Century criminal investigation and forensic analysis, is one that fans of the true crime genre will definitely enjoy checking out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Gothicism of (Robert Bloch's) American Gothic

Like the early 90's TV series, Robert Bloch's 1974 horror novel American Gothic draws its title from Grant Wood's famous painting.  Bloch crafts a fictionalized account of the late-19th Century serial killer H.H. Holmes (dubbed G. Gordon Gregg in the book)--a sociopath who used the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago as his prey ground.

As depicted by Bloch, Gregg is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain.  The man is handsome, charming, dignified; he enjoys the reputation of an "eminent physician and benefactor of humanity."  But there is an abysmal gap between appearance and reality here.  Deep down, Gregg is a Machiavellian schemer and conscience-less murderer.  Driven by greed and a sick bloodlust, this fraud seduces a series of women (sometimes employing hypnotism--shades of the early Gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown), divests them of their finances, and then dispatches and dismembers them.  Gregg is always careful to cover up his copious crimes, but he's also not averse to keeping a memento mori.  Late in the novel, a discovery is made of eviscerated organs preserved in bell jars.  When it comes to his female conquests, Gregg (cue the trademark Bloch macabre humor) is literally "the man who had won their hearts."

If ever there were a man perfectly suited to his domicile, it is Gregg.  He erects a massive, three-storied "Castle" (complete with faux turrets adorning the exterior) on a Chicago street corner.  The construct stands as an overt example of the transportation of European Gothic conventions into an American (literary) context.  Still, it's the interior of this "architectural monstrosity" that's most noteworthy, since Gregg has designed a private Chamber of Horrors that makes the homonymous Fair attraction seem tame by comparison.  The Castle--an ostensible boarding house built to lure Fairgoers to dire ends--is riddled with "hidden rooms, secret staircases, trapdoors, and a maze of passageways."  Gregg is able to drop his corpses down a narrow chute secreted behind a bathroom mirror, down into his workshop of filthy desecration in the cellar, where he can dispose of any unwanted remains using a conceiled back door to the furnace.

Gregg sports the face "of a gentleman, but the appetite was animal."  This "decent, respectable maniac," though, is not just a Devil in(filtrating) the White City (to invoke Erik Larson's terms).  Gregg is a dark extension of the Fair itself, of the danger lurking beneath the glamour, and the seedy urban underbelly waiting to swallow up naive visitors to Chicago:
Since the Fair, it seemed everyone wanted to see the District--the rich arriving with the clop and clatter of carriages, the less savory specimens on foot.  And the District's denizens waited to welcome them: waited with dazzling displays of diamonds in the pawnshops, phony as the protestations of their proprietors; waited with frantic fingers, deftly plucking the purses of drunken dudes; waited in shadows with blackjacks, billy clubs, and brass knuckles; waited in brightly blazing bars with knockout drops; waited in the cribs and the panel houses with the private parlors with smiles and spirochetes.  It really didn't matter which door the visitor chose.  In the end the beast engulfed them all.
During the course of the novel, the plucky-investigator heroine Crystal (a proto-Clarice Starling?) finds herself caught inside the killer's lair.  And in a breathtaking, several-chapter-long climax, Crystal dashes through the shadowed, labyrinthine passageways of the Castle with Gregg is stalking pursuit.  It's a finale quite familiar to fans and students of the genre.  While American Gothic perhaps fails to live up to Bloch's best work (cf. Psycho), the content of the novel undoubtedly justifies its title. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Gone Girl (Book Review)

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishers, 2012)

It's been a long three years for anyone who read the incredible Dark Places (check out my review here).  But with the publication of her much-anticipated follow-up, the mystery/noir-thriller Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is back with a vengeance.

The novel provides an intimate look inside the lives of troubled married couple Nick and Amy Dunne: when the latter disappears from the family home on the morning of her wedding anniversary, the former quickly emerges as the prime suspect of foul play.  Such synopsis might make Gone Girl sound like the stuff of a Lifetime Original Movie, but in Flynn's immensely talented hands the subject matter is molded into high art.

Much like Dark Places, Gone Girl succeeds on every level.  First and foremost, it presents a pair of psychologically-complex, flawed, yet unforgettable protagonists in dueling husband-and-wife narrators Nick and Amy.  The alternating-viewpoint chapters (Nick's narrative dramatizes the immediate aftermath of Amy's disappearance, while Amy's narrative unfolds as diary entries predating the fateful day) allows Flynn to map out an elaborate and tricky game of he said/she said.  "Lied" is a recurrent verb in the attributive clauses of Nick's dialogue, and the ominous clues spread throughout Amy's diary point the subsequent investigation in unusual directions.

The plot thickens in wonderfully wicked ways, offering more wild twists than a Tilt-A-Whirl operated by a narcoleptic carny.  (A word of caution: refrain from leafing ahead to see where latter sections of the book begin; the section titles contain potential spoilers.)  The book is so rife with intrigue and macabre incident, one secretly wishes that modern science can find a way to resurrect Hitchcock to direct the film version.

Flynn also weaves deeper theme into the novel, such as a critique of the ubiquity of, and hyperreality created by, postmodern media (Nick's legal plight, for instance, is bound up in what is dubbed the Evil Husband effect: "Everyone has seen too many true-crime shows where the husband is always, always the killer, so people automatically assume the husband's the bad guy.").  America's recent economic downturn is also a looming specter here, instigating key events that propel the plot forward and setting the stage for some Gothic set pieces (e.g. Flynn's haunting depiction of an abandoned Midwestern mega-mall).

The truest measure of Gone Girl's brilliance, though, is on the prose level.  Line by line and page after page, Flynn's words shine.  The author is an indisputable master of figurative language, concocting sentences such as "A supermarket deli tray full of hoary carrots and gnarled celery and a semeny dip sits untouched on a coffee table, cigarettes littered throughout like bonus vegetable sticks," and "My mother had five miscarriages and two stillbirths before me.  Once a year, in the fall, as if it were a seasonal duty, like crop rotation."  With her stylistic flair, Flynn even manages to transform a mundane incident like moving furniture to a new home into a memorable image: "Our dignified elephant of an ottoman with its matching baby ottoman sits in the living room looking stunned, as if it got sleep-darted in its natural environment and woke up in this strange new captivity, surrounded by faux-posh carpet and synthetic wood and unveined walls."  Also, for all its direness, the narrative is laced with a sense of humor that is at turns sardonic ("A girl texting and walking forget the nuances of the latter and almost ran into me.") and raucous ("'I got it,' Go said [jokingly solving her brother Nick's problem of finding a wood-themed fifth anniversary present for Amy]. 'Go home, fuck her brains out, then smack her with your penis and scream, "There's some wood for you, bitch!'"").

Perhaps the only negative that can be written about this absolute blockbuster of a book is that with Gone Girl, Ms. Flynn might have done irreparable harm to the institution of marriage.  Because after being exposed to Nick and Amy's relationship, even the most trusting soul will be wary of ever settling down with a mate.  And love, the reader realizes by novel's end, is the ultimate four-letter word.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Universal Monsters in Our Midst

Their ubiquity even extends to YouTube.

There are plenty of musical-tribute/montage videos to be found on the site, but this one has to be the best of them (I love how the content of the film clips is synched with the tempo of the orchestral score):

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Happy Birthday to Blog

Hard to believe it, but Macabre Republic turns two years old today.

I just wanted to take this time to thank everyone who has been following this blog, reading the posts, and leaving comments over the past two years.  Your loyalty and enthusiasm is much appreciated.

The goal for Year Three is to continue to build Macabre Republic, both as an ever-growing collection of posts and an online home for aficionados of American Gothic.  There will be new installments of some old favorites (e.g. another Top 20 Countdown will begin shortly), and I also plan to introduce several original Features.  So keep on traveling back to the Land of Red, Black, and Blue.

And as always, if there is a particular topic or media item that you would like to see covered here, don't hesitate to contact me at the address in the right sidebar.