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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

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Lore Report: “Beyond the Pale” (Episode 168)

But one story echoes this ancient belief in the returning hero more than any other. It’s not as famous as the rest, but it represents any entire nation oppressed under the thumb of a foreign ruler, and the hope they placed in their hero’s return. And to hear it, we’re going to need to travel to a land of limitless beauty and enduring pain: Ireland.

The latest installment of the Lore podcast is one that goes heavy on the exposition. Its first half plays like a history lesson, as narrator Aaron Mahnke traces the life story of the 16th Century Irish political figure Gerald Fitzgerald. Exiled from his homeland as a youth and pursued by his enemies (the agents of King Henry VIII), Fitzgerald developed a reputation for unlikely escapes from punishment and death. He accordingly became known as the “Wizard Earl” of Kildare (his open interest in alchemy only added to his mystique), and this Lore episode hits its stride when it delves into the story of Fitzgerald’s attempt to prove his magical powers to his wife–a demonstration that certainly puts her courage to the test. Mahnke also ties Fitzgerald into an Irish version of the “king under the mountain” legend, and recounts a tale (of the Wizard Earl’s ghostly return on horseback to Kilkea Castle every seven years) that sounds like something straight out of Gottfried August Burger or Washington Irving. For those who can get past the initial infodump, “Beyond the Pale” proves an episode rich in dark lore.

 

Vintage Creepshow

Stephen King’s and George Romero’s Creepshow was a determinedly referential endeavor–a concerted effort to recreate the horror sensibility of E.C.-style comics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Shudder spin-off series, which faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of the original movie, also nods knowingly at horror history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Creepshow‘s second-season premiere.

“Monster Kid,” the episode’s opening segment, is a love letter to utter monstrophilia. Joe Aurora is a Dracula-dressing, Bela-Lugosi-quoting, model-kit-obsessed horror hound. His bedroom is a treasure trove of monster memorabilia. The segment (which begins with a black-and-white scene fantasized by Joe) invokes the Universal monsters in the form of the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (at one point, Joe also watches Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). There’s a clip of a horror host addressing “boils and ghouls”–a pun that surely resonates with fans of Tales from the Crypt. With its voodoo-doll plot element, “Monster Kid” even recalls the frame story of the Creepshow film. Despite striking a sweet note in its invocation of Monster Culture, the segment does not shy away from the typical dramatization of grim comeuppance, as Kevin Dillon’s obnoxious character ultimately gets transformed into Johnny Trauma.

Substituting the satiric for the nostalgic, the second segment (“Public Television of the Damned”) is a gonzo homage to the Evil Dead franchise coupled with a send-up of public television programming. All hell threatens to break loose when Ted Raimi shows up on “The Appraiser’s Road Trip” with a copy of the Necronomicon; a PBS-esque pledge drive turns into a demonic demand for a pledge of human souls to the book. Gleefully over-the-top (a Bob Ross knockoff forms a badass hero here), the adult-humored segment features scenes of wild violence that would make Sam Raimi proud. The marvelously macabre makeup (courtesy of Creepshow producer Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group) also expertly evokes the Evil Dead.

With its commitment to vintage horror, the season 2 premiere forms a modern classic. If the same level of reverent retrospection is maintained throughout, viewers have a lot to look forward to this season.

 

The Harder They Brawl (Godzilla vs. Kong Review)


Godzilla vs. Kong
(in theaters, and also currently streaming on HBO Max) is the quintessential popcorn movie, one that almost demands mindless consumption. “It makes sense if you think about it,” the conspiracy-theorizing podcaster Bernie says at one point, straightly delivering the film’s most laughably untrue line.

This is a movie that spotlights wonky science–Hollow Earth theory in particular (I’m still trying to figure out why there would be “sunlight” shining in the center of our planet). It’s a movie that keeps Godzilla remarkably abreast of global affairs (somehow he’s aware of exactly what’s going on in secret, hi-tech facilities). And it’s a movie where the powers that be seem to think it is a good idea to include a cute little deaf-mute girl on a series of ultra-dangerous missions.

Admittedly, Godzilla vs. Kong is a tricky cinematic feat to pull off, as the human players have to take a big backseat to the real stars of the MonsterVerse. The people are basically there to run scared and otherwise react to the city-stomping chaos (and also to supply a series of infodumps–encapsulating explanations that attempt to make wild ideas graspable if not plausible). All that being said, the characterization and acting prove particularly lackluster here. Granted, this isn’t Shakespeare that Alexander Skarsgard (woefully miscast as an academic) is being given to work with, but if he were any more wooden he could be left behind as a totem on Skull Island. Meanwhile, Millie Bobby Brown forms a pale clone of her Stranger Things character (think Eleven without the nosebleeds), infiltrating the evil-multinational equivalent of Hawkins Lab.

Ultimately, though, it’s the saurian-simian showdown that the audience has come for, the spectacular clashing of the Titans of the title. Godzilla and Kong square off on multiple occasions, and their civilization-destroying grappling is Wrestlemania-main-event worthy (each gets the chance to take the upper claw/paw during the fight sequences, whereas in the overall film Kong’s character gets much broader development). Like a grand WWE dramatization, there’s also a major swerve orchestrated in the climax.

The film features some enjoyable incidental creatures (my favorite: the giant turkey-bat) and a few surprise appearances that fans of this series–and the long history of kaiju movies–will no doubt appreciate. Still, the MonsterVerse mythos gets extended to a ridiculous extreme (here’s hoping that this is the last rodeo for Godzilla and Kong). The battle scenes are eye-poppingly epic, but on every other front Godzilla vs. Kong is a resounding dud.

 

Lore Report: “Deviation” (Episode 167)

Archeologists call them “prone burials,” and the reason behind them is much less rational. These were burials driven by fear–fear that the person might come back to life. Like I said, it seems like an irrational motive, swapping out respect and reverence for supernatural fear. But if you spend any amount of time flipping through the pages of history, one thing becomes clear: they had very good reason to be afraid.

The Walking Dead stands as a modern phenomenon, but restless and ill-intentioned corpses have a rich history. The latest episode of the Lore podcast traces a representative sample, as host Aaron Mahnke invokes a wide range of cases from world folklore (China, India, Ghana, Ireland, etc.). Settling his focus on England, Mahnke shares a narrative involving the intriguingly labeled “hound priest.” The episode centers, though, on a malevolent revenant bedeviling Croglin Grange (in Cumberland County) in 1875–a tale as harrowing as any ever recounted on the podcast, and one worthy of Bram Stoker, M.R. James, or Stephen King. Replete with enlightening info (e.g. the ostensible logic behind prone burials) and gripping stories, “Deviation” is right on the mark in terms of what Lore does best.

 

Countdown: Film/TV Adaptations of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales

I’m going to close out my recent coverage of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection with a quick countdown of the films and TV works directly adapted from the author’s six-volume masterpiece. So here’s the list, running from worst to best:

 

9. “The Yattering and Jack” (1987)

Really, all anyone needs to know about this Tales from the Darkside episode is that the yattering is represented as a red-painted little person in a dog collar. Barker’s blackly humorous story gets reduced to slapstick (and the infamous turkey scene is poorly translated from the page).

 

8. Quicksilver Highway (1997)

Mick Garris’s made-for-TV anthology film adapts Barker’s classic story “The Body Politic” (along with Stephen King’s “Chattery Teeth”), providing convincing visual proof that some of the ideas in Barker’s fiction don’t lend themselves to the small screen. The army of disembodied hands comes across as a bunch of outcasts from The Addams Family, looking like Thing and squeaking like Cousin Itt. On a positive note, Matt Frewer’s performance offers arguably the best physical comedy by a horror actor not named Bruce Campbell.

 

7. Book of Blood (2009)

Muted and maudlin, this adaptation seems to lose the eyeball kicks of the source text. The pacing also lags at times (“The Book of Blood” prologue is one of the shortest pieces in Barker’s story collection, so significant stretching of its material is required onscreen). A fairly-faithful version of the collection’s “On Jerusalem Street” epilogue, though, does make for an effective ending to the film.

 

6. Dread (2009)

Anthony DiBlasi’s film often feels like it wants to be another Fight Club, with the antagonist Quaid cutting a figure from the Tyler Durden mold. As with the preceding entry on this countdown, Dread suffers from definite pacing issues (it would have been much better suited as a Masters of Horror episode). But also like Book of Blood, it features a terrific ending, one that gives a wickedly clever twist to the dread experiments in Barker’s story.

 

5. Lord of Illusions (1995)

One of the most disappointing adaptations, considering that Barker directed it himself, and that “The Last Illusion” is one of the strongest pieces in the story collection. Pedestrian actor Scott Bakula is spectacularly miscast as occult detective Harry D’Amour. Worse, the menagerie of demonic monsters in the original narrative get jettisoned here, in favor of the lamely wisecracking cult leader Nix. I would love to see Barker take a another shot at this with a remake that adheres more strictly to the plot and cast of “The Last Illusion.”

 

4. Books of Blood (2020)

Surprisingly, this Hulu anthology film is filled largely with material not taken from Barker’s collection (it’s not like the adaptational possibilities have been exhausted already). The non-canonical material is entertaining, though, and I’ve grown to appreciate the Trick ‘r Treat-style intertwining of the individual tales. This film is worth watching just for the jaw-dropping scene in which the slimy Simon is torturously inscribed by the revenants from the highway of the dead.

 

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Yes, the acting is terrible (Ronan Wilmot hams it up as the hysterical Declan O’Brien) and the special effects are laughable (Rawhead Rex is depicted via a Halloween mask with cheap light-up eyes, and overall looks like a refugee from a Twisted Sister video). But still, there is genuine entertainment to be found in the film’s ancient-monster-on-a-modern-rampage storyline. This one (which took the top spot on my ranking of Barker’s Books of Blood tales) absolutely deserves a big-budget remake.

 

2. The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Director Ryuhei Kitamura’s film vehicle is stocked with inventively-lensed scenes of stunning gore, but for me it’s the quieter moments (e.g. Mahogany slicing the cancerous buboes from his own torso) that are the most horrifying. Bradley Cooper gives a middling performance as Leon Kauffman, but Vinnie Jones is impressively imposing as the mute, mallet-wielding Mahogany. My main critique is that the carnivorous city fathers are criminally undersold by the film version, yet even that fact does not ruin the climax–the protracted battle between Leon and Mahogany in a subway car abattoir.

 

1. Candyman (1992)

The film presents an inspired shift in locale, as the choice of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing project as main setting adds a strong racial element to the socioeconomic commentary in Barker’s (England-based) story. At once eloquent and menacing, Tony Todd elevates the hook-handed, walking-beehive bogey of the title into an iconic movie monster. The mirror summoning is a bit derivative (borrowing from Bloody Mary lore), but however the Candyman might arrive, he does so with undeniable mythic grandeur. A classic horror film (unfortunately, the pair of sequels fail to recapture its dark magic), one that the forthcoming remake/reimagining will be hard-pressed to equal.

 

Mob Scene: “Rawhead Rex”

“Rawhead Rex” (ranked #1 on the recently-concluded Dispatches from the Macabre Republic countdown) is the ultimate monster story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The titular carnivore–“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” the “Lord of the Hardon”–is Barker’s raging, R-rated, phallic-associated answer to King Kong. There’s also a certain Universal-Horror-vibe to Rawhead’s terrorizing of European villagers. It should come as no surprise then, that the story features a mob scene. Or two scenes, if one counts the passing mention (Rawhead’s recollection) of the monster’s capture/live-burial centuries earlier. His hunters used a traditional weapon of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd to smoke the beast out of his lair: “He had been flushed out of his fortress with streaming eyes, confused and fearful, to be met with spike sand nets on every side, and that…thing they had, that sight that could subdue him.”

This all anticipates the mob scene dramatized in the story’s modern-day climax. Rawhead once again suffers from impaired vision, having roasted his own eyeballs while vengefully employing fire against the villagers of Zeal. The real eyesore for Rawhead, though, is the sight of the rediscovered sheela na gig, a stony symbol of female fecundity wielded by protagonist Ron Milton. As Rawhead stands enthralled by the frightful image, he is set upon by his human antagonists. The unsubtly-dubbed “gathering Zealots” attack with their bare hands (“Fists beat on his spine, nails raked his skin”) until someone takes up a knife and savagely hamstrings Rawhead. Immediately, the angry villagers seize the opportunity provided by the beast’s toppling, “overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers.” Rawhead senses his imminent demise yet goes down fighting: “He snaps off a finger here, a face there, but they would not be stopped now. Their hatred was old; in their bones, did they but know it.”

At long last, the Zealots have bested their ancient enemy, but it’s the outsider Ron who delivers the killing blow. Ron, who earlier had witnessed his young son’s head being chomped by the murderous Rawhead, returns the favor by pulverizing the creature’s skull with the dreaded stone: “The King went out…once and for all.” Out, in keeping with Barker’s unflinchingly graphic narrative, in a “brain spattered” blaze of gory.

 

Lore Report: “Toxic” (Episode 166)

Thankfully, history is full of stories that can enlighten us, and at the center of many are the very ingredients found inside that little hidden toolkit. They might grow right outside our door, but they’ve played a role in countless events that have shaped the course of human civilization. And along the way, they’ve become something more. All someone had to do, it seems, is pick their poison.

Episode 166 of the Lore podcast puts a special emphasis on the deadly. Starting with the hemlock cocktail forced on Socrates, host Aaron Mahnke traces an array of poisonings throughout world history. Some exotic concoctions are discussed, from the legendary Chinese gu to Sicily’s dreaded Aqua Tofana. Deaths accidental (the demise of silent-film actress Olive Thomas) and deliberate (those orchestrated by England’s first female serial killer) are recounted, but what keeps the episode from turning into just another true-crime podcast is Mahnke’s commitment to connecting the concept of poisoning to the folkloric. Brimming with interesting examples, “Toxic” is a narrative brew that Lore-lovers will have no problem swallowing.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#1

[The previous posts for this countdown: 30, 29, 28; 27, 26, 25; 24, 23, 22; 21, 20, 19; 18, 17, 16; 15,14,13; 12, 11, 10; 9, 8, 7; 6, 5 4; 3; 2]

 

At long last, the countdown concludes! I’ve really enjoyed this chance to delve back into Clive Barker’s brilliant multi-volume collection (which, nearly four decades later, remains the most audacious debut in the history of the horror genre). The Books of Blood are filled with wonderfully unnerving narratives, but here’s my choice for the most horrifying one of all:

 

1. “Rawhead Rex” (from Vol. 3)

King Kong meets British folk horror in this tale of a pre-Christian-era monster on the rampage in a modern-day village during Harvest Festival time. The titular nemesis terrifies from the moment he is accidentally liberated from his ancient grave (in which he has been buried alive since the 1500’s): “His head was breaking the surface now, his black hair wreathed with worms, his scalp seething with tiny red spiders.” Nine feet tall, brazenly naked, with a “lewd, revolting face”  and double rows of needle teeth “like claws unsheathed from a cat’s paw,” Rawhead Rex is a creature of “gargantuan” appetite and “crude territorial instinct.” He is a “childdevourer,” a gelder of men, a rapist of women (who die giving birth to horrid-jawed hybrids), and a golden-showering defiler of priests (Rawhead anticipates Pinhead as a hellish figure of sacrilege). The scene in which he murders protagonist Ron Milton’s young son is one of astonishing atrocity, horrifying for both the helplessly-witnessing father and the ravaged son who vomits down Rawhead’s tunneling gullet as the monster abruptly bites off the top of his head (later, Rawhead gourmandizes on the stolen corpse in more leisurely fashion: “Occasionally the beast would lean up on one elbow and paddle its fingers in the cooling soup of the boy child’s body, fishing for a delicacy.”). But for all his brute violence, Rawhead is “no mere beast”; he is capable of cunning as well as carnage. Some of the most satisfying sections of the narrative are those presented from Rawhead’s perspective, revealing his bloody desires and fears (like all classic monsters, Rawhead has a specific vulnerability). Unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, he has no aversion to fire. “Fire was a tool: he’d used it many times, to burn out enemies, to cremate them in their beds.” “Demented with death” and eager to raze the village of Zeal, he attacks the “wheeled boxes” he finds “lined up on the pavement like bullocks to be slaughtered” and ignites their “blood” (burning himself blind in the process of such raging). Although ultimately vanquished, Rawhead Rex reigns supreme as Barker’s most formidable monster in the collection, and the savage swath he cuts through the former “Wild Woods” constitutes the most horrific endeavor in the Books of Blood.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#2

[To read yesterday’s countdown post, click here.]

 

2. “Dread” (from Vol. 2)

Volume 2’s lead story announces its central theme in its opening sentence: “There’s no delight the equal of dread” (“As long as it is someone else’s,” the narrative amendment is made a few pages later). The university student Quaid is obsessed with the concept; as he tells classmate Stephen Grace, “It’s the subject of any worthwhile philosophy, Stephen. It’s the things we fear, because we don’t understand them. It’s the dark behind the door.” Like a latter-day mad scientist, Quaid proceeds to engage in a series of fiendish experiments. The devout vegetarian Cheryl is locked in a room for days with a piece of meat that steadily grows more flyblown and putrescent: “The longer she waits to eat, the more disgusted she becomes with what she’s been given to feed on. She’s trapped with her own horror of meat on the one hand, and her dread of dying on the other.” Quaid proves a sadistic predator who “teaches people dread” not to help them deal with their deepest, darkest fears but rather to serve his selfish interests as an observer. “To live another’s dread vicariously was the safest, cleverest way to touch the beast,” Quaid maintains, and thus waits “like a carrion bird at the site of some atrocity, counting the minutes left to the expiring soul, hoping for a morsel.” For all his composed demeanor, Quaid is himself riddled with dread, and torments others in search of “a clue to the nature, to the origin, or to the cure for the panic that now held him in thrall.” But Quaid suffers an ironic, Frankensteinian fate, as he’s confronted by the very monster he creates. He confines Stephen (who as a child lost his hearing and experienced night terrors of being “a prisoner of deaf, blind flesh”) and subjects him to sensory deprivation, but Stephen’s sanity soon snaps. Stephen returns with a vengeance in the climax, “transformed into the image of [Quaid’s] own dread”: a clown-costumed axe-murderer. Watching Quaid receive gruesome comeuppance is doubtless satisfying, but this does not simply erase his preceding reign of terror–the mental and emotional havoc wreaked on innocent people because of “the depravity of his intellect.” The probing, provocative “Dread” lingers in the reader’s mind long after its conclusion, and stands as the most naturalistic, and nightmarishly plausible, horror story in the Books of Blood canon.