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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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Hardly Garden Variety

 

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year after I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to tell it.

How’s that for an opening hook? These lines from Mariano Alonso’s short story “Nemesia’s Garden” (published in Cemetery Dance #76) drew me in quicker than the snap of a Venus flytrap.

The story is set primarily in the Dakota Building in Manhattan (filmed as “The Bramford” by Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby; coincidentally, CD#76 also features an essay by Peter Straub marking the 50th anniversary of Ira Levin’s landmark horror novel). Thankfully, though, Alonso doesn’t recur to the device of devilish impregnation. Matters here (involving the botanical extravaganza of a room occupied by the aged, wheelchair-bound eponymous character) are much more exotic and eccentric than suggested by the story’s quaint title.

Alonso’s plot proceeds with subtlety and misdirection, building skillfully to a twisty revelation in the closing paragraphs. Dealing in sibling rivalry, surreptitious poisons, and wild transmogrifications, “Nemesia’s Garden” exudes a modern fairy tale air. But its fantastic elements are well grounded in the everyday, and rooted in the historical (as the story hearkens back to post-Nazi-invasion Poland). Alonso has crafted a tale that is at once beautifully descriptive and hauntingly outre. This latest edition of Cemetery Dance presents several strong stories, but “Nemesia’s Garden” without doubt forms the dark highlight of the issue.

 

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Postscript: if you are interested in learning more about the haunted history of the Dakota Building, check out this short essay by Orrin Grey.

 

Castle Rock Reaction: “Harvest”

Cataclysm is in the air, right from the start of this fifth episode. As wildfires rage across Black Mountain, a cloud of orange smoke encroaches on Castle Rock (a visual I found eerily reminiscent of the 2017 arrival of The Mist). This impending inferno hints at the diabolic, and creates the sense that all hell is about to break loose–perhaps not coincidentally, just as the Kid is released from Shawshank.

The lingering shot of the Kid’s New Balance sneakers as he is about to step past Shawshank’s gates and into freedom seemed at once allusive and symbolic. The capital “N” on the footwear echoes the title of Stephen King’s apocalypse-concerned novella, and a new balance–an upsetting of moral order–might be in store for Castle Rock now that the Kid is venturing into town.

The ostensible “N.” Easter egg is subtly inserted, but the same cannot be said for Jackie (birth name: Diane) Torrance’s reveal that she is the niece of Jack Torrance and adopted the name of the notorious Overlook caretaker to spite her parents. This invocation of The Shining felt forced and distractingly on-the-nose; the show arguably ranges too far afield here from King’s Castle-Rock-centered material (before we know it, we could find ourselves in the author’s Dark Tower multiverse).

Last week’s episode showed how an exhumed coffin gets shrink-wrapped prior to transportation. In “Harvest,” that same coffin (Matthew Deaver’s) is the subject of a phenomenon called “exploding casket syndrome.” No end to the morbid tidbits on Castle Rock!

The moments of intimacy between the elderly Alan and Ruth were very touching. Viewers got to watch a pair of veteran actors–Scott Glenn and Sissy Spacek–at the top of their game, creating maximum emotional impact with minimal effort.

Alan had the lion’s share of great lines in this week’s episodes. My favorite was his sardonic, hardly-thrilled reaction to Henry’s installment of home security cameras to monitor Ruth: “Why don’t you just put a chip in her like a golden retriever?”

The horror of Castle Rock again succeeds via obliquity. The scene in which a cake-cutting at a child’s birthday party turns into a deadly stabbing spree proves all the more unnerving for occurring off-screen (merely overheard as the camera focuses on the intruding Kid).

With “Harvest,” the inaugural season has reached its halfway point, and the various plot threads have started to weave together. What pattern is actually taking shape still remains a mystery, though. The Kid’s closing question–“You have no idea what is happening here, do you?”–is posed to Alan but can be extended to the audience as well. We still don’t know where exactly the show is headed, but there appears to be little reason to doubt that the Weird Shit is about to hit Castle Rock’s fan.

 

Apocalypse Not/Now: A Review of Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World

In his recent string of hit horror novels (A Head Full of GhostsDisappearance at Devil’s Rock), Paul Tremblay has made a name for himself as someone who can cleverly rework well-worn genre conventions. The author’s latest effort, The Cabin at the End of the World, operates in a similar manner, adopting and adapting the elements of the home-invasion narrative. At the start of the novel, a quartet of intruders wielding homemade, quasi-medieval weapons force their way inside the New Hampshire vacation cabin of a gay couple (Andrew and Eric) and their seven-year-old adopted daughter (the Chinese orphan Wen). These aren’t your typical invaders, though; the mysterious foursome aren’t mute sadists, mere thrill-killing Strangers in masks (actually, the masks aren’t donned until after the break-in, and for a most unexpected reason). Rather than forming stock villains, the intruders act from allegedly heroic impulses: these ultimate humanitarians have specifically sought out Andrew, Eric, and Wen to help stave off an impending global apocalypse.

Tremblay has also established himself as a master of ambiguous horror, and Cabin proves a darkly shining example of unsettling uncertainty. Are the intruders the acting hand of a higher power or just touched in the head? The divine-inspiration-vs.-devastating-delusion debate rages throughout, fueling the book’s narrative drive. Tremblay deftly blurs the line between causation and coincidence, and further heightens the ambiguity by playing with viewpoint (e.g. the reliability of one character’s observations is called into question after he suffers a serious concussion).

Written in the present tense, Cabin is marked by an incredible sense of immediacy and urgency (Tremblay brings readers up-close-and-personal with his protagonists, to the point of practically sharing the disorientation of head trauma or the pain of a knee-wrecking bludgeoning). The novel’s unity of setting (much of the action unfolds in a single room, a la Wait Until Dark) gives it the feel of a stage play. Like a work of drama, the novel is heavy on dialogue; this is only realistic, though, since the terrible decision that the intruders ask the protagonists to make necessitates considerable convincing. The verbal back-and-forth never grows tedious, thanks in large measure to Tremblay’s ability to build believable characters.

I don’t think it’s much of a plot spoiler to write that Cabin‘s plot doesn’t resolve with an overt revelation or deliver definitive answers. End matters here can be interpreted in multiple ways, which only renders the situation more disconcerting. This also enables Tremblay to avoid a somewhat trite twist, a climactic redux of the similarly-themed film Take Shelter. My one real complaint with Cabin‘s conclusion is that its resort to third-person-plural viewpoint in its final section is a bit jarring, creating a syntax that can distract the reader from the situation presented.

In any event, Cabin is best appreciated not for its plot but for its prose: Tremblay crafts exquisite sentences,evincing both a clarity of vision and profundity of thought (e.g. “Bullets, those shiny brass threats, are seeds spilled and spread over the black-as-spotting soil trunk interior. Andrew ghosts over the evidence of his earlier struggle with Sabrina and those leavings now read like tea leaves, a forecasting of the events in the cabin that followed.”). As the author of the World’s Longest Dissertation on Cyberpunk, I can’t help but love a book that includes a line like “The gray sky is a smear, a Neuromancer sky, dead and anachronistic.”

Tremblay no doubt aims big in this novel, which deals with the fate of the world and humanity’s relation to the deity (not necessarily Judeo-Christian). While not quite the pulse-pounding instant classic of psychological/supernatural horror it has been hailed as (I would classify the book as more disturbing than outright terrifying), the novel is nothing less than impressive. A binge-read that resonates, The Cabin at the End of the World is the perfect place to start for those who have yet to encounter this abundantly gifted writer.

Castle Rock Reaction: “The Box”

Some random thoughts on this week’s episode of Castle Rock:

As Andy Dusfrene no doubt would attest, Shawshank was never a model correctional facility. But, man, based on the glimpses of the prison provided thus far by Castle Rock, an inmate might be better off serving his time in the jail in Midnight Express.

The disgruntled Dennis Zalewski offers some strong insight into the character of Castle Rock when he grouses to Henry about the town: “Bad shit happens here because bad people know they’re safe here. How many times can one fucking town look the other way?”

Best quote of the episode, though, belongs to Molly Strand. While trying to sell Warden Lacy’s house, she assures the potential buyers that Lacy didn’t commit suicide on the premises, and then enthusiastically offers: “A serial strangler died in my house, and I like sleep like a baby.” It’s nice to see that actress Melanie Lynskey hasn’t lost her comedic touch since her stint on Two and a Half Men.

The venerable Scott Glenn makes for one crusty and salty Alan Pangborn. Surely this isn’t the sheriff that Constant Readers remember. Then again, this current depiction of the character might be a natural extrapolation: makes sense that he would end up so grizzled and gruff after all the bad shit he had to deal with in this town over the years.

Once again, the series exhibits a deft handling of Stephen King Easter Eggs. Viewers who recall that Vince Desjardins was one of the bullying hooligans who ran with Ace Merrill in “The Body” will have a deeper appreciation of the adult character referenced in this week’s episode. Anyone missing the call back to that minor figure from King’s novella, however, won’t be left befuddled by the storyline.

One of the strongest aspects of Castle Rock thus far has been its casting, and “The Box” demonstrates that even a weekly guest star can give an incredible performance. David Selby is awesomely unsettling as creepy barber/hoarder Josef Desjardins. Selby also proves an inspired choice in this sense that he once starred in a show featuring the most American Gothic town (prior to King putting Castle Rock on the map) in the Maine region of our Macabre Republic: Collinsport in Dark Shadows.

Once Dennis Zalewski decided to turn whistleblower on Shawshank shadiness, he seemed doomed for an early exit from the series. Nevertheless, his demise came in a shockingly unexpected form. The climactic massacre scene was quite haunting (and expertly filmed, with Dennis’s rampage playing out on a bank of monitors). Looks like that well-intentioned fist-bump with the Kid (the last guy to touch the mysterious inmate ended up with fantastically-metastatic cancer) ultimately bumped off poor Dennis.

Through most of four episodes, Castle Rock has been a slow burn, which made the sudden violent fireworks in the conclusion of “The Box” that much more arresting. I am eager to see next week’s episode, to find out the fallout from the terrible shootout.

 

Castle Mania

To be perfectly honest, I approached the new Hulu series Castle Rock (set in the afflicted fictional town that Stephen King put on the American Gothic map) with no shortage of trepidation. I had to wonder if the show would prove another loosely-based deviation deep into left field (such as CBS’s Under the Dome), moving from the canonical to the ridiculous. Also, there was the natural concern that Easter eggs could be dropped like hand grenades (cf. the intrusive, illogical insertions in the The Dark Tower film), jolting the audience out of the story. Having just watched the first three episodes of the season’s ten-part arc, I can now happily write that my fears have been allayed.

Rather than merely (or wildly) riffing on familiar King hits, Castle Rock incorporates them as the backbeat for an original track. Thus far the show plays less as outright horror (the screen is not splashed with the same graphic grotesquerie as in American Horror Story) than as a weird mystery. Intriguing questions abound: why does Warden Dale Lacy kill himself via a fiendish garroting in the opening scene? And why has he kept a young man secretly caged in a subbasement of Shawshank State Prison? Does this strange figure’s victim status mask an ultimate supernatural menace? Why does the prisoner ask for former town resident Henry Deaver, the hardly-favorite son of Castle Rock who was implicated as an 11-year-old adopted child in the death of his (white) pastor father?

Castle Rock assembles a stellar cast: Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Frances Conroy, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Skarsgard (uncannily understated here, coming off his antics as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s It). The title town itself arguably forms the drama’s main character, and it is brought here to impressive (half-)life–economically depressed, with countless burnt-out and boarded-up buildings, and neighborhood streets lined with decrepit, looming Gothic homes.

The show does a fine job of unspooling its plotlines, as it flashes back and forth between 1991 and 2018 (a 27-year period whose numerological significance won’t be lost on Constant Readers of King). Looking ahead, I hope the series’ mysteries don’t end with the trite explanation that the town (much like Derry, Maine) is historically bedeviled by a resident evil. Three episodes in, though, I am thoroughly hooked, and can’t wait to revisit Castle Rock next Wednesday.

 

Fair Gone Foul: Robert Bloch’s American Gothic

Grant Wood’s famous painting (which gives a hint of the sinister to the Midwest) has lent its title to multiple TV series (1995; 2016) and horror movies (1987; 2017), and has even branded the literary efforts of the legendary Robert Bloch. In his 1974 novel American Gothic, 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 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 concealed 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-chapters-long climax, Crystal dashes through the shadowed, labyrinthine passageways of the Castle with Gregg in 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, the content of the novel undoubtedly fulfills the book’s bold eponymous promise.

 

With a Whimper

 

Having recently read/reviewed Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover and re-read (for the umpteenth time) Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, I must admit to being on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick. So when I caught wind of the new Netflix original film How It Ends–whose trailer presented some stunning visuals, along with the always-exceptional Forest Whitaker in a starring role–I was naturally eager to check it out.

The movie centers on ex-marine Tom Sutherland (Whitaker), who is extremely disapproving of his daughter Sam’s boyfriend, attorney Will Younger. When a mysterious cataclysm strikes the West Coast of the U.S. and sends power outages and freak storms rippling across the country, Tom and Will set out from Chicago to find and rescue the incommunicado Sam in Seattle. How It Ends thus forms a variation on a road movie, tracing the evolving relationship between the unlikely pair of heroes attempting to trek cross-country. On this front, the film succeeds, thanks to the strong performances of Whitaker and Theo James as Will. But their arduous journey is ultimately too protracted: the plot bogs down with too many scenes of run-ins with Americans gone bad in the wake of national (perhaps not natural) catastrophe. Credibility is often strained along the way, such as when Tom manages to talk his way past a military roadblock merely by mentioning (and in no way verifying) that he served in the Marines.

Eventually we arrive at a blasted and ash-shrouded Seattle that makes for an absolutely haunting vista. After all that has preceded it, though, the climax feels rushed, introducing a new, under-developed, and soon-vanquished antagonist. Attempts to explain what triggered the apocalypse also prove unsatisfactory; the film has been preoccupied throughout with thrusting its characters into terrible predicaments, but appears at a loss to provide any sort of satisfying resolution. The final scene, in which a sudden, surging cloud of smoke (devoid of any real narrative logic beyond the writers’ need to generate another obstacle) chases the heroes as they speed away from the city, was groan-inducingly hokey. So while the film gets off to a promising start, the answer to How It Ends is, alas, not well.

 

Accredited Openings

Yesterday, Meagan Navarro posted a fun editorial over at Bloody Disgusting: “10 Horror Movie Opening Scenes So Good We Were Instantly Hooked.” Her annotated list of memorable attention-grabbers and tone-setters got me to thinking: what first scene of a horror movie left a lasting impression on me? Films like Hellraiser and It Follows quickly came to mind, but if I had to pick just one, I would go with 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat.

To start with, director Michael Dougherty’s visuals are amazing, creating the ultimate All Hallow’s Eve atmosphere (watching the scene, and seeing the magnificent efforts of yard haunting on display, makes me wish that I lived in such a spirited neighborhood). The opening builds incredible suspense, and strikes a perfect balance between subtle disturbances, jump scares, and awful reveals. Mystery also arises, as the viewer isn’t sure just what has slaughtered and strung up Emma, and why. The answers aren’t provided until much later, and seemingly irrelevant elements from this initial scene take on added significance in retrospect as the film’s looping narrative structure is established. A holiday-themed anthology film, Trick ‘r Treat plays like a glorious mash-up of Halloween and Creepshow, and its skillful mixture of horror and black humor is evident before the film even gets to its (wonderfully animated) opening credits.