Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#1



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

#1. "Gone"

What happens when the writer whom Stephen King hailed as "the scariest guy in America" turns his attention to Halloween?  Answer: the top spot in the countdown of Jack Ketchum works of short fiction is secured.

"Gone" (2000; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) reworks the tropes of the classic Halloween spook story, as it features a shunned house (which "seemed to have PLAGUE painted on the door") and its lone occupant ("the lady down the block," who parents warn their kids about).  The woman--who at the start of the story wonders, "What am I? The wicked old witch from Hansel and Gretel?"--is eager to lure children to her doorstep with the promise of candy, but she's no wicked crone, just a deeply wounded individual.  Helen Teal (a shade of blue, appropriately) is still grieving, still wallowing in despair five years after "the less than three minutes that changed everything."  It should have been "a simple event, an incon-sequential event" when Helen ran back into the 7-11 for the newspaper she forgot to purchase.  But when comes back out, she discovers that her three-year-old daughter has been snatched from the parked car where she'd been left waiting.  And with that devastating disappearance, "Helen Teal, nee Mazik, went from pre-school teacher, homemaker, wife and mother to the three p's--psychoanalysis, Prozac, and paralysis."

Growing steadily drunker and more depressed, Helen is about to shut off her porch light when her doorbell rings.  The sight of the trick-or-treaters she has anxiously awaited (in her yearning for contact with children) immediately lifts Helen's spirits: "the night's thrill--its enchantment even--was suddenly there for her."  Yet the story also takes pain to remind us that Halloween has since lost its innocence ("Nobody came in[side] anymore.  The days for bobbing for apples were long over."), and Helen is about to get more than she bargained for in the candy-begging transaction.  One of the trio of masked young siblings tears open Helen's internal wounds when he bluntly asks if she's her: "The lady who lost her baby?  The little girl?"  The boy's question, though, is not simply the product of a child's clumsy curiosity.  Ketchum has another trick up his Halloween sleeve, as revealed in one of his patented single-sentence paragraphs that leaves readers as breathless as a sucker punch to the gut:
They turned away and headed slowly down the stairs and she almost asked them to wait, to stay a moment, for what reason and to what end she didn't know but that would be silly and awful too, no reason to put them through her pain, they were just kids, children, they were just asking a question the way children did sometimes, oblivious to its consequences and it would be wrong to say anything further, so she began to close the door and almost didn't hear him turn to his sister and say, too bad they wouldn't let her out tonight, hunh? too bad they never do in a low voice but loud enough to register but at first it didn't register, not quite, as though the words held no meaning, as though the words were some strange rebus she could not immediately master, not until after she'd closed the door and then finally when they impacted her like grapeshot, she flung open the door and ran screaming down the stairs into the empty street.
Apparently Alice is alive and being held somewhere nearby, but the trio of trick-or-treaters who might lead Helen to her have already
"vanished back into nowhere," carrying off not just a load of candy bars but whatever "was left of" Helen.  The narrative spotlights Ketchum's gifts for probing everyday human evil (in this case, child abduction/abuse) and dramatizing the personal anguish suffered by a lifelike character.  Short but haunting, "Gone" absolutely cannot be forgotten.

Pick Six with David Herter



[A special Halloween edition of "Pick Six with__," including a bonus question since it's Mr. Herter's birthday today.]

A graduate of the 1990 Clarion West Workshop, David Herter is the author of Ceres Storm, Evening's Empire, On the Overgrown Path, The Luminous Depths, and One Who DisappearedHis 2010 novel October Dark (part of Earthling's Halloween Series) has recently been revised (expanded with new scenes and tightened by some 20,000 words) and released as a Kindle ebook.  You can check out the book's trailer here.

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

Well, since it's Halloween, how about a departed one--Catherine Lucille Moore? Which I guess makes me Henry Kuttner.  Working in tandem as they did, it would be a giddy pleasure to sit down at the typewriter just after she'd finished her portion in the midst of  a sentence, then carry forward a masterpiece like "Clash by Night" so that the heating bills could be paid.


2.What is the best book you have read in the past year?

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers.  Best. Vampire.  Book.  Ever.



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

"If you can't make it good, make it short."--Gene Wolfe



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

Briony Travers, my mom.  She grew up in wartime Britain and Australia, was a librarian after college in Illinois, then married and became a housewife.  Throughout a life of painfully deteriorating health, books were her sustenance.  She loved mysteries most of all (Ruth Rendall, P.D. James), and biographies, but also Stephen King and Thomas Harris.  She had a subscription to Publisher's Weekly to keep apprised of the forthcoming titles.  She could quote freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson.  She knew a little something about everything.


5.What did you enjoy most about writing your last book?

My latest is a revision of my 2010 novel October Dark for ebook release.  I enjoyed finally achieving the book I set out to write--sharpening the plot, weeding out the excessive nostalgia, darkening the horror.  I also enjoyed delving more into the "lost film," Dark Carnival, that haunts the book.  In our world it's a movie that Ray Bradbury tried and failed to make, eventually becoming the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  In my book the film was made but quickly vanished from sight, holding in its frames an optical curse against an undying Phantasmagoria magician and his dead love, a witch.  The movie is a chess-piece in a decades-long battle between the magician and special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien.  All hell breaks loose on Halloween, 1977.


6.What are you working on now?

The Cold Heavens.  An epic space opera with an eschatological twist, inspired by Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore and the occult novels of the Austrian fantasist Gustav Meyrink.  I've had a great time reading/rereading all of their works, as well as delving into German Romanticism, Fin de siecle Dcadence and the Weimar era in Berlin.  The resulting 275,000 words are set on Mars, Venus, and beyond, with a sequence in the heart of the book set in Meyrink's haunted Prague.  It's the first of two books.


7.Your Mt. Rushmore of four all-time favorite writers?

Of horror writers?  It would make for an eerie skyline at dusk.  Robert Aickman, Gustav Meyrink, Shirley Jackson, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Didn't Victor Frankenstein Pay Cash for His Lab Equipment?



Because he'd rather charge it




(A Grim Riddle in honor of last night's Frankenstorm)


[This post was scheduled for Tuesday, but Sandy intervened]
 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dead Lines



Last night's episode, "Walk With Me," featured the return of Merle, the inaugural appearance of the Governor, and a slew of dirty looks from Michonne.  Culling some of the killer dialogue:

Merle: Oh holy shit.  Blondie.  Damn, you look...good. [stabs walker with his bayonet hand]  Now hows about a big hug for your ol' pal Merle?


Andrea: What do you want from us?
Merle: There she sits.  Four walls around her, roof over her head, medicine in her veins.  And she wants to know what I want from her.  I plucked you and your mute here out of the dirt, Blondie.  Saved your asses.  How about a thank you?
Michonne: You ha d a gun on us.
Merle: Ewww, she speaks.  Well, who ain't had a gun on 'em in the past year? [raises his prosthetic] Show of hands?


Andrea: "Governor."  They call you that?
The Governor: Some nicknames stick whether you want them to or not.
Andrea: "Buzz" is a nickname.  "Governor" is a title.  There's a difference.


The Governor: Did you finish your homework?
Milton: [gesturing towards Merle] Unfortunately, the dog's eating it already.


The Governor: We're going out there and taking back what's ours.  Civilization.  We will rise again.  Only this time, we won't be eating each other.


Andrea: Those walkers were with us all winter long.  Protecting us.  And...you took them out without any hesitation.  That had to be--
Michonne: [chin quivering]  Easier than you think.


Andrea: So what's your real name?  If that's not asking too much.
The Governor: I never tell.
Andrea: Never say never.
The Governor: [beat] Never.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Shining Example


ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK-O'-LANTERN
MURDEROUS UNDER THE SURFACE
  
 
 
This year I borrowed a page from Tom Nardone's Extreme Pumpkins II and made a "Subliminal Message" pumpkin (i.e. the carving is done on the inside, and doesn't appear until the gourd is illuminated).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#2



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

#2. "Closing Time"

The fact that "Closing Time" (2003) is collected in both Peaceable Kingdom and (obviously) Closing Time and Other Stories is a strong indication of the novelette's stature. The piece is at once a heartbreaking love story (centering on the turbulent relationship of Claire and her already-married paramour David) and a heart-pounding tale of suspense (as the protagonists cross paths with a sadistic criminal).  Set in New York City in October and early November of 2001, the narrative also uses the World Trade Center disaster as a literal and thematic backdrop (Ketchum peppers poignant details throughout: "the smell of burning" and "the strange sad New York silence"; the "thick brown-white dust [that] lay everywhere"; the "windows filled with appeals for information on the missing"; Claire's observation that "Even if you'd lost nobody close to you, you'd still lost something").

Yet Ketchum's concern is not with al-Qaeda but a local, small-scale operative: a Caucasian native New Yorker who graduates from armed robbery (he preys on the City's bars just before they shut down for the night) to physical and psychological torment of his victims.  Though he carries a gun, the unnamed villain considers
"surprise and fear" his real weapons.  He performs "shock therapy" on those he robs, ostensibly so that they will end up too frazzled to remember his features (when he holds up bartender Claire, he thinks: "Time to put the fear of God into the bitch and see if she remembered anything but fear after that").  And he goes a long way towards accomplishing this by forcing Claire into a dangerous game involving splayed fingers and the bar-top spindle normally used as a spike for checks.

As vociferous as he is merciless in his terrorizing, the man proclaims that "after me you'll never feel safe again, Claire.  Never.  Not at work, not at home.  Nowhere."  One has to wonder just how much of this is playacting, and how much the transferal of his own anxieties (after watching the endless news reports about the anthrax scare, he decides to use tossed talcum powder as a further means of unnerving his targets).  Despite his dismissal of current events (he "strictly worked ground floor," doing "what he always did. Plain old-fashioned armed robbery"), the man seems to have been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks.  He is no garden-variety psycho, but rather a criminal with a twisted philosophical outlook (reminiscent of the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"): "He can see she knows a truth he's known all along, that there is no help in this world, that what will happen will happen and no amount of pleading to god or jesus or to the milk of human kindness will get you any goddamn where at all."  The events of 9/11 could have done nothing to help the existential angst this man is carrying around.

The narrative builds incredible suspense as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the terrorist's manipulation of Claire and of (now-ex-boyfriend) David's journey to seek out Claire at work.  Perhaps David will arrive in time to rescue his beloved from harm, but then again, a Ketchum story isn't likely to end without casualties.  "There could be no good ending to this," David thinks of his decision to visit Claire after she begged him to stay away, and David's thought proves terribly prophetic.  An earlier passing line about "the perversity of incident and chance" also resonates in the bloody and devastating climax.

In his afterword to "Closing Time," Ketchum cites the novelette as "the most bleak and hopeless piece" he's ever produced.  Yet it is also a shining example of the author's ability to create lifelike, recognizable characters (whose dire circumstances become that much more compelling because of such realism).  Without a doubt, Ketchum's self-described tale of "irreversible, irretrievable loss" is the gain of readers everywhere.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Trick or Treat (Book Review)




Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a "look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century."  The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide.  Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing "It's probably no coincidence that...").  Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween's manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone.  Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Assorted Treats


It's that time of year, when Halloween-related videos, articles, and blog posts get strung up all over the web.  Here are the links to some of the best I've come across:

*Arguably the greatest carving ever (and one bound to give new meaning to "pumpkin rot")

*A poignant essay by author Kealan Patrick Burke

*Undeniably creepy Halloween costume photos

*Vintage reminiscence from Ray Bradbury

*"The Most WTF Horror Movie Monsters Ever"

*The Ten Movies That Should Always Haunt Your TV On Halloween

*Hilariously scared

*This product of the Mad Lab looks like an outtake from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video

*Saddle up with Ichabod for a Midnight Ride



Any others that you would recommend? Let us know by posting a Comment below.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nightmare Magazine (review)

                
 
 
 
The premiere issue of Nightmare Magazine offers some strong nonfiction work, including a column by R.J. Sevin (analyzing the "horror" label and the way horror movies have "tainted the genre") and the first half of a lengthy interview with Peter Straub (who is as expansive as erudite in giving his responses, as always).  It's the quartet of stories, though, that forms the main attraction here, and allows editor John Joseph Adams's latest literary venture to live up to its bold title.
 
Nightmare's lead piece, "Property Condemned" by Jonathan Maberry, is the perfect October story, centering as it does on a group of children's exploration of a reputedly haunted house.  Maberry builds suspense masterfully through his protagonists' slow approach to, and hesitant entry of, the eerie and dilapidated home (an infiltration that will end up haunting them in unexpected ways).  "Property" falls squarely with the town limits of Maberry's Pine Deep trilogy of novels (an adolescent Malcolm Crow serves as the story's viewpoint character), but can be read as a stand-alone.
 
Genevieve Valentine's "Good Fences" is the least effective of the selections as a horror story.  The short narrative conveys a vivid sense of urban blight, and thoroughly blurs the boundary between personal delusion and external reality, but the story's obliqueness ultimately leaves the reader cold rather than chilled.
 
Sarah Langan plays the psychological-or-supernatural-explanation card much more adeptly in her entry, "Afterlife."  The story, involving the attempts by a disturbingly disconnected woman to help the shades of dead children pass into the beyond, reads like an episode of The Ghost Whisperer (without the saccharine sentiments or the cleavage) scripted by Shirley Jackson.  Fans of Langan's last novel, the award-winning Audrey's Door, will certainly enjoy this story, which similarly features elements of insanity, familial dysfunction, and creepy New York City real estate.
 
But without a doubt the standout piece of the first issue is Laird Barron's novelette "Frontier Death Song."  Barron exhibits a familiar knack for seamlessly melding genres, here combining the Jack London adventure story with the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and presenting the mix as a hard-boiled, Hammett-esque narrative.  In this harrowing reworking of the mythological story of the Wild Hunt, the author once again proves himself unparalleled when it comes to evoking utter dread.
 
I'd be remiss not to mention the extras that accompany the fiction selections.  First, there is the "Author Spotlight," a brief Q&A session in which the writer provides further insight into his/her particular story.  And for those seeking a multi-sensory experience of the pieces, there are accompanying podcast readings.  For me, listening along to Dave Robison's narration of "Frontier Death Song" made the narrative doubly enjoyable, as his voice was perfectly suited to the first-person story.
 
Overall, the magazine scores top marks for both content and presentation.  Based on this month's debut issue, Nightmare is something I'm looking forward to having on a recurring basis.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Instant Halloween Party--The 2nd Encore Set

[For last year's encore set, click here]

13 more holiday-appropriate songs/videos to help liven up your upcoming party (or even to just help you get into the spirit of the season):

1.Something Atmospheric This Way Comes:



2.Mellencamp Gothic:



3.Chestnuts Roasting on a Raging Bonfire?



4.From the Barbary Coast to the Macabre Republic:



5.Ghouling Banjoes:



6.The Horror-Lover's Mantra:



7.Vampire Bayou:



8.Zombie Marching Song:



9.Ryan Gosling'a Got the Spirit:



10.Ramones in the Boneyard:



11.Lawrence Talbot's Favorite Love Song:



12.The Veil Between Worlds Has Thinned:



13.Finally, When It's Time to Chase Off Your Guests:



HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dead Lines



Memorable lines of dialogue were delivered at a feverish pace on last night's episode, "Sick":


Tomas: This is our prison.  We were here first.
Rick: Locked in a broom closet? [scoffs]  We took it, set you free.  It's ours.  We spilt blood.


Maggie: What are we gonna do without him [Herschel]?
Glenn: Hey, stop it.  Alright, stop it.  He's still here.
Maggie: What if he does wake up?  Then what?  He can't even walk; all we do is run.


Lori: Well, what are your options?
Rick: [beat] Kill 'em.
Lori: If that's what you think is best.
Rick: [no doubt thinking of Shane] You say this now...
Lori: Look, I know that I am a shitty wife, and I'm not winning any Mother of the Year awards.  But I need you to know that...not for one second do I think there's malice in your heart.  You're not a killer, and I know that.  I know that.  So...so do whatever you got to do to keep this group safe, and do it with a clear conscience.


Maggie [to a comatose Herschel]: Dad, you don't have to fight anymore.  If you're worried about me and Beth, don't, don't worry about us.  We'll take care of each other.  We'll look out.  Me and Beth included, we'll look out.  Go ahead, Dad.  It's okay.  Be peaceful.  [crying now]  You don't have to fight.  If it's time to go, it's okay.  I, I just want to thank you.  For everything: thank you.


Tomas: He [the walker tossed at Rick] was coming right at me, bro.
Rick: Yeah, I get it.  I get it.  Shit happens.  [beat; then Rick buries a machete in Tomas's head]


Lori: I thought maybe you were coming out here to talk about us.  Maybe there's nothing to talk about anymore.
Rick: [grabs her shoulder, but doesn't look at her] We're awful grateful for what you did. [walks away]


And brace yourselves, folks: good ol' Merle makes his return on next Sunday night's episode.  I'm guessing he's going to be making a contribution, too, to the next edition of Dead Lines.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Colors! The Colors!

Yesterday my girlfriend Lisa and I took a trip to the Laurelwood Arboretum in Wayne, New Jersey.  The fiery foliage made a perfectly sunny day seem even brighter, but all I could think of was how spooky those lonely woodland trails must be once dusk falls.  What a great spot this would be for a Halloween haunted attraction!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Arachnid Architecture
 
 
Hermit Hovel?
 
 
Blair Witch-y Sign
 
 
Decrepit and Creepy
 
 
Where to Head if the Headless Horseman's After You
 
 
Construction or Crime Scene?
 
 
Looks Like the Deadfall Barrier to the Micmac Burying Ground
 
Don't Pass Beyond! 
 
 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#3



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

#3. "Chain Letter"

This 1998 short story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) enthralls from its very first lines.  Riddled with puzzlement and unease, the reader wonders why protagonist Alfred so anxiously awaits the daily delivery of the mail.  Furthermore, what's the significance of Alfred's dream about first bullying a cab driver and then flagellating himself with sticks spiked with rusty nails?  The dark suspense only intensifies when Alfred decides to take a walk into town, and spots a series of roadside atrocities: the body of a long-dead and bird-scavenged child; "a horse with a bullet in its brain"; a group of small boys in the midst of  "nailing a woman to a barn" and beating "her with thin birch switched about the face and head."  And perhaps most perplexing of all: why does the receipt of something so banal as a chain letter render a "decent enough guy" like the character Henley automatically untrustworthy ("Now what have you got.  Another bloody butcher.  Either that or he'll be having second thoughts or regrets or whatever and he'll sit himself in a corner somewhere and wait for the brains to crawl on out of him.")?

The violent chaos gripping the town links back to the titular piece of mail, but Ketchum reveals this only gradually to readers, starting with a discussion at the local cafe between Alfred and his friend Jamie.  During the course of their conversation, Jamie shows that he has strong thoughts on the subject of the kind of man it will take to put a stop to the sinister missive:
Some fucking lunatic.  Somebody tired, disgusted.  No promethean, you can bet on that.  Somebody without the stomach for it, without the imagination--I figure suicide is about lack of imagination.  Somebody missing the urge to make use of all that permission.
That somebody could turn out to be Alfred, who returns home to discover the dreaded envelope waiting for him.  The letter inside reads: "The aforesigned pass on to you all responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future.  We deem this the highest honor, the highest challenge..."  To reject this responsibility, the recipient merely has to "add a new name to the space provided beneath your own.  Be sure to check the list thoroughly to see that you do not repeat any name already entered above..."  The conclusion of the letter suggests a twisted religious origin: "Declared by the will of God and the First Congress of Faith, Abraham White, founder.  All bless."

 "It's the old, old concept of sin-eater again, only more extreme," Alfred thinks, the line forming an apt gloss on Ketchum's hardcore-horror variation on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."  And with this one also recognizes why Ketchum chose to alternate sections written from Alfred's first-person perspective with italicized sections written in the third person: structure reinforces theme, as notions of self and other (apropos of the symbolic ingestion of external guilt) are melded together.

Alfred truly struggles with the decision of how to respond to the letter: "Do I send the letter to somebody I love or somebody I hate?  Do I spare those I love the pain of waiting or take the chance that the letter might miss them entirely, as unlikely as that seems?" 
He realizes that ending the chain requires a "martyr, a brand new Christ" committed to suffering the "worst death imaginable."  Alfred psyches himself into being that figure by imagining various acts of horrific self-wounding.  The extended sequence (e.g. "But first the genitals should be torn away and the teeth smashed and swallowed, one should have to throw oneself against a wall or table until the
backbone cracks and the skull is fractured, long sharp knives one should shove up one's ass, the nose must be severed, the nipples burned black") of spectacular havoc forms what is without a doubt one of the most cringe-inducing passages Ketchum has ever penned.

One has to wonder whether Alfred is spurred by an irrepressible masochistic streak or sheer disgust with the society surrounding him.  Alfred admits he has "no faith" that anyone else will move to end the cycle of violence, and expresses his disdain for the fellow townspeople who hide behind "the names, the writing, the ordinary symbols" (by using "an odd but commonplace form letter," one probably dreamt up in some "grey office building" or "grim bar," as a convenient excuse for indulging uncivilized impulses).  By mapping out (and carrying out) "a death commensurate with the crime, the one really emphatic death amid all these careless neutral ones" that his murderous friends and neighbors have caused, Alfred hopes to send a "personal message" to his peers: "You're full of shit, every one of you.  I'm about to prove it."  These closing lines constitute yet another potent clincher to a Ketchum tale, with "full of shit" doubling both as slang for disingenuousness (Alfred puts little stock in people's proclamations of what they would do if they received the chain letter) and a more literal account of the inner filth saturating the townspeople.  By accepting the role of sin-eater and subjecting himself to a gruesome martyrdom, Alfred gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "scathing critique."  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Possibly the Greatest Halloween Commercial Ever

The Headless Horseman has endorsed plenty of products over the course of his legendary career, from Bud Light and Dunkin Donuts to Netflix and M&Ms.  But the latest commercial in Snickers' "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign arguably marks the Horseman's most outstanding cameo appearance to date.  Check out the delightfully witty short below:


Thursday, October 18, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum (episode review)


The second season--and new story arc--of American Horror Story launched on FX last night, and the series got off to a terrific start with the mauling of Adam Levine (if only that meant I wouldn't have to hear Maroon 5 on the radio anymore).  Seriously, though, it was great to see that the show will be utilizing a fractured chronology once again.  Whereas last year the technique involved brief yet poignant flashbacks from the present day, Asylum promises to be set predominantly in the mid-1960's, with periodic flash forwards to the 21st Century.

In both its modern-day dereliction and its 60's height-of-operation state, the titular sanitarium for the criminally insane (Briarcliff, in western Massachusetts) furnishes a wonderfully creepy central setting.  The hulking Gothic edifice carries echoes of Ashecliffe in Shutter Island, right down to the plot point of illicit experiments conducted inside by possibly ex-Nazi doctors.  Shades, as well, of the film Silence of the Lambs, particularly in a scene where a Briarcliff inmate mimics jizz-flinging Miggs.  Throw in secret tunnels and trap-door chutes, and Briarcliff stands to provide plenty of chilling surprises.

Least surprising of all after watching last night is the fact that Jessica Lange is going to absolutely flourish in her new role.  This time out, she plays Sister Jude, a cane-cracking, autocratic nun and closet sexpot who lusts after her priestly superior.  The scene where Sister Jude bullies a schoolteacher (by threatening to expose her lesbianism to the community) into committing her lover to Briarcliff perfectly demonstrated the menace and malice that Lange' character exudes.  And her New England accent adds extra flair to her sinister and sarcastic remarks.  Simply put, another Emmy nod for Lange appears imminent.

With aliens, mad scientists, woodland mutants, and a Leatherface-esque killer all in the eclectic mix, AHS's storyline figures to be a complex one.  It will be interesting to see if, and how, the threads all tie together.  I know I'll be tuning in every Wednesday night over the next few months to find out, because after one eerie episode, Asylum already has me locked in. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Slump in the Night


Nocturnal mayhem is sure to stir up again when a certain
Halloween-season horror franchise hits theaters on Friday.  Here today, though, I offer a poem that takes a polar opposite approach:


Paranormal Inactivity

Tonight I won't do the flying dishes
Or the mood lighting of random rooms.
The furniture can remain precisely arranged
And the dog's chain unrattled.
To hell with the low but baleful moaning,
All the tossing in beds and snatching of covers.

Why bother
When there's always tomorrow (and tomorrow and...)?
Time ultimately grinds the edge off the most spiteful grudge,
Turns the vastest repertoire hauntingly familiar.
Restlessness, I've realized, isn't a sustainable state;
Even the ethereal can be weighed down by lethargy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Short Story Spotlight: "Conjure"



"Conjure" by Alice Hoffman (Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury)

Practical Magic scribe Alice Hoffman's exemplary entry in the 2012 tribute anthology Shadow Show reads like a bewitching mix of Something Wicked This Way Comes (significantly, one of the teen female leads checks the book out of the town library at the start of the story) and Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?".  A seemingly magic-realist opening swerves into blacker territory as the protagonists Abbey and Cate's search for an angel rumored to have crashed down into a field during a thunderstorm instead uncovers a sinister and seductive male figure.  This tattooed and black-jacketed false charmer (a putative relative of one of the townspeople) is no doubt the second coming of Bradbury's Mr. Dark (indeed, the word "dark" buzzes throughout the tale).  Lowell, whose very name hints at baseness, poses a dire threat to the girls both individually and as a pair of longtime companions.

"Conjure" serves as an apt label for Hoffman's magical evocation here.  The intertextual echoes of Bradbury's classic novel resound, as the story explores themes of friendship and betrayal, innocence and experience, light and darkness (the love for the voluminous wonders of a local library also carries over and proves subtly integral to the outcome).  Yet Hoffman succeeds as well in giving a clever twist to her source material: by flipping the genders of Bradbury's iconic boy-characters Will and Jim, she adds an overt element of sexual predation to the villainy.  

Beautifully written and perfectly plotted (facts which become more evident upon each subsequent reading), "Conjure" is sure to delight fans who have a penchant for hearkening back to Bradbury's work at this time of year.  Shadow Show contains many commendable offerings, but is worth the price of purchase for Hoffman's marvelous short story alone. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dead Lines



Last night's premiere of The Walking Dead, "Seed," was ripe with more gore and more zombie kills than seemingly the first two seasons combined.  There were countless action scenes, and not a single word was spoken in the opening segment, but the episode still managed to feature the snappy and dramatic dialogue that forms such a key component of the show.  Some samples:


Daryl [to Rick]: Hey, while the others wash their panties, let's go hunt.  That owl didn't exactly hit the spot.



Carol [jokingly]: It's pretty romantic.  Screw around?
Daryl [climbing from his guard post to go walk the perimeter]: I'm going down first.
Carol: Even better.



Hershel: We're dangerously low on ammo. We'll run out before we make a dent.
Rick: That's why we have to go in there [the prison]...hand to hand.  After all we've been through, we can handle it, I know it.  [To Carl:] Those assholes don't stand a chance.



Michonne: We'll go in a few days.
Andrea [pensive]: If we stay, I'll die here.



Lori [to Hershel]: If I come back [following death in childbirth], what if I attack it?  Or you? Or Rick, or Carl?  If I do, if there's any chance, you put me down immediately, you don't hesitate.  Me.  The baby.  If we're walkers, you don't hesitate, and you don't try to save us.  Okay?



Lori [to Hershel]: He [Rick] hates me.  He's too good a man to say it, but I know.  I put him and Shane at odds; I put that knife in his hands.



And lastly, the final line, forming an apropos coda to the episode:
Amazed Human Prisoner [upon discovering Rick's war party]: Ho-ly shit!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction--#4



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

#4. "Elusive"

"The first time Kovelant stood in line for Sleepdirt was just before Halloween."  So begins Jack Ketchum's 2007 short story "Elusive," which creates an instant sense of suspense.  The designation "first time" suggests further times after that, and the reader wonders why Kovelant is so compelled to see the horror film.  Is it simply that damned good, or has something prevented him from watching it each time he attempted to attend a screening?

That first night in late October, Kovelant finds himself subjected to a cold rain while standing on line, and decides a free ticket to a preview screening isn't worth the risk of catching pneumonia.  The second time he tries to catch Sleepdirt, every showing is sold out at his local theater.  An understandable development, especially considering the rave reviews the movie has received from critics.  But matters take a turn for the weird thereafter: when Kovelant actually makes it inside a theater, he is stuck by a shooting pain ("an electric eel squirming throughout the entire right side of his body") as inexplicable as it is abrupt, and one that forces him to abort the outing.  By the time he recovers, the film is no longer in theaters, and when Kovelant subsequently tries to watch it at home on his VCR, the cassette tape is mangled by the machine.  Then his TV set promptly dies before he can watch another rented tape.  And so on...

Meantime, the strangeness is compounded by all the odd looks of apparent recognition that Kovelant keeps getting from random people on the street.  Finally, the clerk working the check-out at Tower Video informs Kovelant that he is a dead ringer for one of the actors in Sleepdirt, a man who has a small part but makes a big impression via his "amazing death scene."  When Kovelant later discusses this alleged resemblance, and his own frustrated attempts to view the film, with his married lover Maggie, the latter brings up the idea that just as a person can't observe his or her own death in a dream (always waking up first by necessity), Kovelant "can't see the movie because you can't see yourself die in it. I mean, maybe in some way it is you.  Not some look-alike."  Kovelant scoffs at the theory, but welcomes Maggie's offer to watch the film for him.  In their follow-up phone conversation, Maggie testifies that the actor uncannily matches Kovelant in both physical looks and mannerisms, and that his death scene is brutal, but before she can share the specific nature of the demise, the phone line (you guessed it) goes dead.

Equally chagrined and obsessed, Kovelant takes matter into his own hands by going out and scooping up dozens of rental and purchases copies of Sleepdirt on VHS and DVD.  "Gotcha now you sonovabitch," Kovelant thinks, but as he walks across Broadway in New York City the bottom drops out of his shopping bag. The scene cuts away with Kovelant stooping to retrieve the spilled contents, but when Ketchum writes that the tapes and DVDs have "clattered to the pavement like a fallen sack of dry old bones," the reader knows fatality looms.

The final section of the story finds Maggie fixated on Sleepdirt.  When her husband Richard expresses disbelief that she is watching such a disgusting film again, Maggie's reply unwittingly reveals the horrid end of the hapless Kovelant: "It's a horror movie.  It's supposed to be scary and discussing.  But when's the last time you saw somebody who looks exactly like somebody you know get his head torn off by a New York City bus?  In slo-mo no less."

Ketchum, a chip off old mentor Robert Bloch, is at his grimly-humorous best here in "Elusive" (as the author notes in his afterword to the story, the title "Sleepdirt" was borrowed from a Frank Zappa album and stands as "a euphemism for the contents of your nightly bedpan").  But what makes the piece so entertaining is not just the various ways in which Kovelant is stymied in his viewing quest but also the elusiveness of ultimate explanation for such events.  Is Kovelant simply the victim of tempted fate, someone who bucked up against some intractable universal law by trying to ogle his own doomed doppelganger?  Perhaps, but there could also be something sinister in the production of Sleepdirt itself.  Appropriately, "Elusive" concludes with Maggie wondering
"how in hell [the filmmakers] got that scene," just as the reader (who, unlike Maggie, already knows what has happened to Kovelant) is forced to question how the movie was able to proleptically capture the non-actor's death.  "Blacker than black!" a New York Post review blurb of Sleepdirt is quoted early in the story, and the same can be said for both the humor and the horror of this superb Ketchum effort.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Gourds Gone Spoiled




The inevitable decay of one's painstakingly carved jack-o-lantern is is usually a cause of post-holiday blues.  Thanks to the dedication and creative genius of one man, though, gourd corrosion has taken on a much more positive connotation.

Pumpkinrot: A Dark Celebration of Halloween is an absolute feast for anyone craving an October fix.  The site features a blog ("What's Brewing") that's updated at an impressive several-posts-per-day rate. I'm convinced that Rot, as he calls himself, must have tapped into some secret, sacred database of all things Halloween and autumnal, based on his steady supply of incredible images and topical news items.

Yet Rot is not just a blogger but also a masterful prop builder and yard haunter.  And creepy scarecrows (such as the one pictured above) figure prominently in his work. "I've often joked with my wife that I wish I could quit my job and build scarecrows all day long," Rot has said in an interview, a quote that earns him an automatic induction into the Fall Season Hall of Fame.

Rot's Halloween spirit apparently lasts 24/7/365; his is a blog that I follow year-round, and especially in this most atmospheric of months.  Bottom line: your October Country itinerary will be woefully incomplete if you fail to tour the shadowed paths of the Pumpkinrot site.

To get a sense of Rot's sensibility, check out the amazingly eerie short film below:






Note: With this post, Scarecrow Week officially draws to a close.  Be sure to return tomorrow, when the latest entry on the Countdown of the Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction will be revealed.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hangmany



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


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


CATEGORY: FICTIONAL CHARACTER


"__   __   A   __   E   __   __   __   W"          __   __   E


M   __   __   __   A   __   __   __   E   Y          __   N


__   N   __   E   __          __   __   E          __   __   M   E


MISSES: B, F, K, P, V















HINT: It's a small town, son, and we all support the team


Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cinematic Scare(crow)s

Human scarecrows.  Pseudo-scarecrows.  Supernatural scarecrows.
Genre films are stuffed with such frightening figures, as can be seen from the following selection of clips:

1.The Creeper Leaps and Reaps


2.Cheesy 80's Film, But Some Really Eerie Effigies



3.Cillian's Turn



4."Blue Man" Group [starting @ 7:00 mark]



5.Decker Resurrected [starting @ 4:30 mark]



6.Comeuppance Amongst the Pumpkins [starting at 4:00 mark]

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dark Passages: "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World"



Norman Partridge.  Joe R. Lansdale.  Gary A. Braunbeck.  Al Sarrantonio.  These horror-genre heavyweights have all composed narratives featuring scarecrow figures.  But Thomas Ligotti gets the laurel for author of the weirdest scarecrow tale ever, 1990's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World."  Here's the second paragraph from that macabre masterpiece:
Adjacent to the edge of town, the field allowed full view of itself [phrasing suggests sentience] from so many of our windows.  It lay spacious beyond tilting fenceposts and under a bright round moon, uncluttered save for the peaked silhouettes of corn shocks and a manlike shape that stood fixed in the nocturnal solitude [a wonderfully rhythmic and evocative image].  The head of the figure was slumped forward, as if a grotesque slumber [poetic echo of 'slumped' reinforces the sense of lethargy] had overtaken its straw-stuffed body, and the arms were slackly extended in a way that suggested some incredible gesture toward flight.  For a moment it seemed to be an insistent wind which was flapping those patched-up overalls and fluttering the worn flannel of those shirt sleeves; and it would seem [notice the rhetoric of uncertainty throughout] a forceful wind indeed which caused that stitched-up head to nod in its dreams.  But nothing else joined in such movements: the withered leaves of the cornstalks were stiff and unstirring [alliteration reinforces the pairing of adjectives], the trees of the distant woods were in a lull against the clear night.  Only one thing appeared to be living [uncanny animation] where the moonlight spread across that dead field.  And there were some who claimed that the scarecrow actually raised its arms and its empty face [scarecrow paradox: a visage-less vigilant] to the sky, as though declaring itself to the heavens [but to what dark gods?], while others thought that its legs kicked wildly, like those of a man who is hanged [the scarecrow as persecuted figure], and that they kept on kicking for the longest time before the thing collapsed and lay quiet.  Many of us, we discovered, had been nudged from our beds that night, called as witnesses to this obscure spectacle [a phrase that encapsulates the Lovecraftian].  Afterward, the sight we had seen, whatever we believed its reason, would not rest within us but snatched at the edges of our sleep until morning [this straw-stuffed effigy is the stuff of nightmare].
 
And the eeriness only intensifies when the townspeople tear apart the scarecrow and discover its bizarre innards.  "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," collected in The Nightmare Factory, is the perfect story to haunt a reader's autumn evening.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

So What Puts the Scare in "Scarecrow"?



There's no doubt we have come a long way from the lovable straw-man who befriended Dorothy on the glowing road to the Emerald City.  While cute scarecrows in pop culture do persist, they are outnumbered and overshadowed by their more macabre counterparts.  Why, though, is the scarecrow such a frightful guy?  What is it about this constructed figure that proves so unnerving to observers?

A possible explanation begins with the anthropomorphic form of the scarecrow.  The thing's semblance of, yet discernible difference from, humanity makes it strangely disturbing to behold. Composed of natural (i.e. straw) and old household items, the scarecrow vaguely suggests a life-size voodoo doll.  Indeed, the notion of unholy creation has long been linked with the scarecrow, going back to one of its earliest appearances in American literature.  In Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 short story, "Feathertop," Mother Rigby ("one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England") crafts a humanoid straw-man using her own broomstick as spinal cord, and then brings the thing to life via puffs from a diabolically-stoked coal pipe.

Before the scarecrow, in its various fictional and cinematic manifestations, is brought to life, it certainly conveys a corpse-like quality.  Weathered and wizened, slowly decomposing (as seen in the photo above).  The scarecrow is a figure marked by both categorical incompleteness and boundary transgression (when internal straw pokes out of its body like desiccant viscera).  It straddles the borderline between the inanimate and the animate, especially when the breeze fluttering its tattered garb intimates bodily movement.  Its very station as sentinel lends it a spooky aura of sentience: a person can't help but feel watched by it, and wonder if he/she is being tracked, the same way the eyes of a portrait seemingly follow movement across a room.

When considering the dark aspects of the scarecrow, we should not overlook its traditional crucified pose.  Aside from the serious religious implications--the debased reflection of Christ's sacred image--there's the connotation of the capitally-punished criminal.  Historically, the crucifixion victim was left hanging as an ominous message to others, and the rotting body became the spoils of carrion birds all around.  Likewise, when a scarecrow fails to live up to its name, it can be reduced to a perch/chew toy for black, cacophonic scavengers.

The scarecrow's location, its typically rustic habitat, is no less integral  to its fearfulness.  Time and again, the figure is subjected to solitary consignment in a cornfield (that heartland labyrinth and classic American Gothic topos).  Its perennially outdoor existence renders it forlorn.  The constant exposure to the elements saturates it with wretchedness and gloom, as John Mellencamp has reminded us in his haunting hit song "Rain on the Scarecrow."

When sporting its familiar burlap mask, the scarecrow assumes additional sinisterness.  The onlooker inevitably imagines that an actual human being might be hiding in rural disguise (a consideration that again broaches the animate/
inanimate debate).  A mask also raises the specter of underlying grotesquerie, a hideousness of feature or demeanor that affronts one's basic conceptions of normalcy/civility.  Part of the required uniform for the evil killer, a mask has given a quasi-scarecrow look to villains in sundry films, from Nightbreed and The Strangers to Batman Begins and Trick 'R Treat.  Director Wes Craven cemented the link between the murderous scarecrow and the slasher figure when he entertained the idea of a sack-colored Ghostface for Scream 4; the alteration didn't make it to the final cut, but nonetheless has since been popularized as an officially licensed costume.

Last but not least, the scarecrow (by virtue of its association with crops and the harvesting thereof) is a quintessential autumn figure, that season when the days of the year grow short and the nights longer and colder.  And once the scarecrow was fashioned (in art and life) with a jack-o'-lantern head, it instantly transformed into an icon of Halloween.  As long as Americans are wont to engage in pagan celebration each October, the scary scarecrow will remain firmly staked in our cultural and psychological soil.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Kicking Off Scarecrow Week


In honor of those straw-gutted sentinels stationed throughout the autumn landscape, this has been designated Scarecrow Week here at Macabre Republic.  All week long I'll be posting theme-related editions of familiar Features (Dark Articles, Cinemacabre, Games/Trivia, etc.).

Today, though, I want to take a moment to highlight the morbid brilliance of a venture called The Grim Stitch Factory.  Anyone planning on costuming him-/herself as a scarecrow or haunting the yard with such frightful figures this Halloween needs to check out the nightmarish wares being peddled by this online business.  Grim Stitch's handmade, one-of-a-kind burlap masks are grotesquerie personified (imagine Rob Zombie directing a remake of The Wizard of Oz).  And forget just crows--these eldritch visages are guaranteed to spark flight in all those who lay eyes on them.  Be prepared to fork over some serious scratch if you want to take home one of these gruesome beauties.  But the website itself is terrifically creepy, and well worth the surf if only to soak up its rustic Gothic ambiance.

 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Treehouse Redeemed


[For the reaction to last year's Halloween episode, click here.]


"Treehouse of Horror XXIII" just finished airing on The Simpsons.  Some immediate thoughts:

Punniest Segment Title: "The Greatest Story Ever Holed" (bonus points for the way all the letters in the title get sucked into the black letter "o").

Funniest Line of Dialogue: Bartie Ziff, upon taking off his cap and discovering his Jewish afro: "Oy caramba!"  (Runner-Up:  Marge [eying the slavering neanderthal]: "Even Caveman Homer."  Homer [correcting her]: "That's Renaissance Homer.")

Best Quick/Extended Riff on an Iconic Scene: The entire segment
"UNnatural Activity" hilariously spoofs the Paranormal Activity franchise.  All the familiar elements get overturned, starting with Homer's tumble down the steps while trying to wield the camcorder.  Even better: when Homer awakens to a possessed Marge looming over his bedside grunting, and thinks that she's just horny ("Like what you see, hunh?" he offers, throwing down the covers to display his tighty-whities).  But the funniest take-off had to be the fast-forward sequence that captures Homer's seemingly interminable urination.

Best Moment in the Entire Episode: Homer's attempt to capitalize on the disposal-potential of the runaway black hole, which results in a hysterically scatological business name--"Magic Craphole Waste Removal."

Admittedly, I'd been underwhelmed by the past two "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, but this year's edition marked a return to Halloween glory.  There were sight gags galore (e.g. Homer regurgitating his "cricket fajita," whose contents promptly skitter away; Groundskeeper Willie's willy tenting his pants as he fights to save his broom from the black hole), and gory sights to stare agog at (such as the impalement of Moe's decapitated head).  I loved the way the episode made light of modern anxieties (concerning dire Mayan prophecies for 2012, and contemporary scientific experiments involving supercolliders).  And the send-up of Paranormal Activity alone lofted the episode to the height of wittiness while simultaneously reveling in the low-brow (safe to say, "cinnamon" will never be an innocuous word again, following Homer's bedroom romp with a pair of demons).