Greetings from the Macabre Republic…

Featured

…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.

Think you might fit in nicely? Here’s a quick citizenship test:

Continue reading

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 4th

[For the October 3rd highlight, click here.]

 

October 4th

The Game’s afoot, and the brief fourth chapter of Zelazny’s novel concerns itself primarily with extending the cast of prospective players. Snuff spots a sickle-wielding, mistletoe-harvesting old man and his squirrel familiar Cheeter. Passing (yet tantalizing) mention is made of “the great detective and his rotund companion.” The most intriguing figure of all, though, is the one who has left a large paw print outside Jack and Snuff’s residence. Later that night, Jack stands at the center of the city and uses his wand to “trap a certain beam of starlight in a crystal vial while the clocks chimed twelve. Immediately, the liquid in the container began to glow with a reddish light; and somewhere in the distance a howling rose up.” Snuff doubts that this uncanny, hackles-raising howl emanates from an ordinary dog, which leads the reader to speculate about the presence of a classic monster. Aaoooooo! The narrative’s early hints at a late-night-prowling Werewolf of London constitute the highlight of the October 4th segment.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 3rd

[For the October 2nd highlight, click here.]

 

October 3rd

Zelazny hooks readers via the mysterious nature of the “Game” afoot, and the as-yet unanswered question of what it means to be an “opener” or a “closer.” But matters begin to grow clearer in the October 3rd chapter, albeit by subtle means. Snuff narrates that his master Jack went out “hunting” for ingredients that night, wearing a cloak and wielding a blade. Zelazny isn’t so blunt as to come right out and state it, but the reader at this point can intuit that this late-19th character operating in the vicinity of Victorian London is actually a fictionalized version of Jack the Ripper. The chapter’s vital clue, though, appears a few paragraphs later. Checking out Crazy Jill’s residence while out prowling the neighborhood, Snuff notes: “The broom beside the rear entrance was still warm.” The implication here is that Jill is a broom-riding witch. And suddenly the name of her pet grows quite significant, since  “Graymalkin” was also the moniker of the feline familiar of the Third Witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The dropped hint that the colorful, communicative animals in Zelazny’s novel are supernatural familiars (called upon to assist their respective masters in the Game) constitutes the October 3rd highlight.

The Horseman Meets Hal 9000

While conducting the requisite research for “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (the Bonus Essay included in my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I strove to read every work of fiction that drew upon Irving’s classic short story. Any attempt at completism, though, was fated to be outdated, as new Sleepy-Hollow-related books and stories have continued to be published since the composition of my essay. One such example can be found in the 2022 anthology Classic Monsters Unleashed:

 

“Hacking the Horseman’s Code” by Lisa Morton

Halloween expert Lisa Morton gives a technological twist to the traditional tale of holiday terror (as she does in her 2018 story “The Ultimate Halloween Party App”). Mayor Gil Jankowitz is determined to turn the town of Oak Crossing into a modern-day Sleepy Hollow this tourist season. From a cutting-edge corporation called Advanced Mechs, Gil leases an artificially-intelligent, robotic replica of the Headless Horseman (to be employed as a roaming haunted attraction). This Horseman comes equipped with a supply of throwable, biodegradable jack-o-lanterns; upon programmed command, he can rear up, draw his sword, gallop about, and target a bystander for a pumpkin-head hurl. The problem, though, is that this mechanized simulation is too realistic in appearance and lifelike in behavior; Sleepy Hollow’s resident Hessian specter relocates to the uncanny valley. Naturally, the course of events take a dire turn as the AI consciousness continues to evolve, and the Horseman ends up doing more than just popping townspeople’s eyes.

The reader can easily guess where the story is headed (Morton perhaps gives too much away with her choice of title), but the ride itself thrills nonetheless. “Hacking the Horseman’s Code” is the quintessence of grim fun. Man, oh man, any town sporting a Headless Horseman who races through the neighborhood on October nights is a place where I am dying to live.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 2nd

[For the October 1st highlight, click here].

 

October 2nd

The second chapter begins with Snuff’s master Jack “acquiring mandrake root in a field far from here at the place of a killing by somebody else.” It’s one item from a “long list of ingredients” Jack needs to obtain according to a certain schedule. Some arcane ritual is clearly starting to unfold (that specification of a killing by somebody else also furnishes an early clue concerning Jack’s own dire past). The real highlight of the short October 2nd segment, though, is the first interaction between Snuff and the cat Graymalk (whom Snuff catches lurking outside his home, spying for her mistress Crazy Jill). After these two unordinary, talking animals feel each other out, they begin to trade information. Graymalk reveals that a skulking predecessor, “the owl, Nightwind, consort of Morris and MacCab,” has left behind a feather “tainted with mummy dust, to do you harm.” Grateful for the news, Snuff offers up that he spotted “Quicklime, the black snake who lives inside the belly of the mad monk, Rastov,” acting suspiciously outside Graymalk’s residence: “He rubbed against your doorpost, shedding scales.”  Zelazny’s narrative evidently will feature a menagerie of unusual characters, engaged in high-stakes magical intrigue.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 1st

The Macabre Republic screams huzzah! After eleven long months of waiting, the high holiday season is upon us at last. I have lots of posts planned for October, including the nightly run of this new feature.

Highlight of the Lonesome Night delves into the beloved 1993 dark fantasy novel A Night in the Lonesome October. Roger Zelazny’s inventive and sometimes irreverent variation on a Cthulhu Mythos tale features an epic cast of historical and fictional characters (from classic monsters to famous supersleuths) engaged in a secret, month-long magical battle of cosmic import–a murderous contest set to culminate on a full-moon, late-19th Century Halloween night. This autumnal treat of a story has remained popular three decades after its first publication; to this day, fans are known to return to the narrative and reread one of its calendar-coordinated chapters every night in October. I plan to follow suit, but also go one step further with this blog feature. For the next thirty-one nights, I will highlight what I believe to be the best element of each chapter of Zelazny’s book. And so, first up is:

 

October 1st

As October and the story commences, Zelazny’s narrator, the articulate watchdog Snuff, patrols the London-skirting house rented by his master Jack. Snuff keeps tabs on various eldritch entities imprisoned throughout the house: the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Things in the Mirror, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk. At this early point, the reader has no idea what Jack and his faithful companion Snuff are up to, or why they are holding such Things captive. But clearly the creatures are determined to break free. The Thing in the Circle seductively shapeshifts into “a lady dog of attractive person and very friendly disposition,” but when Snuff refuses to be enticed, it intones, “You’ll get yours, mutt.” Similarly, the Thing in the Wardrobe floats the promise of a juicy bone, but cries “Up yours, hound” after the bribe fails, and then proceeds to spout even “more abusive language.” Such outré situation and unusual/off-color dialogue constitutes the highlight of the first chapter, and signals Zelazny’s willingness to strike a comedic note even as he evokes the cosmic horror of the dreadfully serious H.P. Lovecraft.

 

Middling Munsters

I am a huge fan of The Munsters, and count the 60’s sitcom as one of the formative influences on my macabre-loving career. I also enjoy Rob Zombie’s music (and many of his movies), so when word dropped that he would be adapting the series as a feature film, I was definitely intrigued. But also concerned: that Zombie’s graphic and grungy grindhouse aesthetic would make for a bad mix with the innocent silliness of the original series. So I ‘ve been nervously anticipating the release of the film (now streaming on Netflix) for months. My thoughts after finally screening it here on the eve of the October holiday season:

The Look: Initially, I worried that it would feel jarringly weird to watch The Munsters in color after decades of viewing the series in black-and-white syndication. But I found myself wowed by Zombie’s visuals; the colors he splashes across the screen are eye-poppingly vibrant. The scenes set in Transylvania present a mesmerizing blend of oldtime Universal-Horror vibe and modern neon glitz. And the scattering of Easter eggs evoking classic horror films (e.g. Nosferatu) provide an unexpected treat.

The Main Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie will never be mistaken for Meryl Streep, but she’s eerily endearing here in her turn as Lily Munster. Daniel Roebuck gives a spot-on portrayal of the Count role popularized by Al Lewis; it’s Roebuck’s performance that evokes the original sitcom most closely. My biggest issue is with Jeff Daniel Phillips’ Herman. The look of the character is fine (although at times his facial expressions of dismay make him seem painfully constipated), but he fails to capture the goofy charm of Fred Gwynne (a comedic genius whose embodiment of Herman might be one of the most underrated performances in TV history).

The Plot: Much of the film is centered on the Frankensteinian creation of Herman, and his courtship of/marriage to Lily. The problem, though, is that there’s not a lot of recognizable conflict driving the action (perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as Zombie has never been a tight plotter as a screenwriter). There are too many superfluous characters and extraneous scenes that lead nowhere and make the film’s nearly two-hour runtime seem sluggishly paced. Also, the Munster clan’s coming to America doesn’t occur to the very end of the film, and as a result their iconic Gothic mansion barely appears (the scene of street celebration of Halloween on Mockingbird Lane is terrific, though, making me wonder if the film should have focused more exclusively on the holiday). The film’s ending, involving a sudden turn of fortune for the Munsters, is abrupt and unsatisfying. The Munsters, with its problematic plotting, seems to just stop rather than properly conclude.

The Humor: Granted, audience sensibilities have evolved since the 60’s, and the same old wig-flipping gags would feel outdated today. Still, the film’s humor (which includes a couple of questionable forays into the risque) reflects poorly on the original series. There are some chuckle-worthy moments, for certain, but never an elicitation of riotous laughter. The comedy is mostly strained, and occasionally downright lame (the ostensible jokes involving Jorge Garcia’s Floop character are painful to behold).

The Verdict: Munster purists won’t be pleased, but Zombie does deserve credit for attempting to put his own stamp on the adaptation, rather than just offering a by-the-numbers retread. His own adoration of The Munsters cannot be questioned. That being said, this vehicle (speaking of which, Zombie’s failure to feature the Dragula is surprising) proves passably entertaining at best. Unlike the classic sitcom, the film is not one that viewers will rush to re-watch over and over for years to come.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “The Watchers”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Watchers” (1945)

Bradbury’s narrator, Steve, works as personal secretary to William Tinsley, a captain of the kitchenware industry who wields a “flyswatter as scepter.” Tinsley is strangely obsessed with killing any and every insect in his midst. His pesticidal mania doesn’t stem from a basic phobia; he believes that insects (all living animals, in fact) are planted bugs, agents of surreptitious surveillance who report back to some mysterious governing force that Tinsley can only label “They.” Tinsley, who “refuses to talk when there’s an insect in the room,” intones to Steve: “We are being watched constantly. Is there ever a minute in our lives that passes without a fly buzzing in our room with us, or an ant crossing our path, or a flea on a dog, or a cat itself, or a beetle or a moth rushing through the dark, or a mosquito skirting around a netting?” The story offers another sinister turn of the screw when Tinsley realizes that there are more evil/infinitesimal entities to fear: microbes.

Opening a dark new window onto the everyday, “The Watchers” is quintessential Bradbury. Just as Steve is infected with Tinsley’s “apprehensive awareness,” the reader can’t help be haunted by the specter of the paranoid premise (Bug Brother is Watching Us!). The story is infested with disturbing visuals, such as the description of Tinsley’s father, who was accidentally(?) killed by his own gun in a hunting accident, and whose corpse was overrun when his young son returned with belated help: “The entire body, the arms, the legs, and the shattered contour of what was once a strong, handsome face, was clustered over and covered with scuttling, twitching insects, bugs, ants of every and all descriptions, drawn by the sweet odor of blood.” The imagery grows even more grotesque when Tinsley (and later, Steve) falls sudden victim to a “rotting fetid combination of disease.” Unsettling in idea and execution alike, “The Watchers” ranks as one of the most horrific pieces Bradbury ever composed. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t installed in the original edition of Dark Carnival (I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall if Bradbury ever articulated his rationale for the exclusion) is because its unremitting gruesomeness threatened to overshadow the rest of the collection’s contents.

 

Burton Bastardization

The new film Raven’s Hollow (now streaming on Shudder) no doubt conveys autumnal ominousness (e.g., supernaturally gusting leaves, human scarecrow sacrifices). Not only in its title, but also in its very plot–which has West Point cadet Edgar Poe investigating a series of bizarre murders in the remote, specter-haunted New York village of Raven’s Hollow–the film evokes Tim Burton’s 1999 classic Sleepy Hollow. Unfortunately, such parallels only accentuate how much Raven’s Hollow pales in comparison to its illustrious Gothic-horror predecessor.

Whereas Sleepy Hollow is steeped in charming ambience and wicked wit, Raven’s Hollow proves bleak and joyless. The film gets off to a gripping start, but then bogs down in a sluggishly-paced, folk-horror-style plot (involving a legendary local entity called the Raven). The cast, led by William Mosely as Poe and Melanie Zanetti as Charlotte Ingram (echoing Christina Ricci’s role as romantic interest/suspected witch Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow), gives largely lethargic performances. The climax underwhelms, in terms of both its revelations and its visuals. Suspect use of CGI creates the feel of a made-for-Syfy movie, aligning Raven’s Hollow more with the ridiculous (2007”s Headless Horseman) than the sublime (Sleepy Hollow).

Disappointing on several levels, Raven’s Hollow employs facile allusions to the work of Edgar Allan Poe throughout (e.g., a stable hand who is named Usher just because; a mutilated body that is hidden under the floorboards for no reason really relevant to the plot). Also, the film’s positing that Poe’s experiences in Raven’s Hollow inspired him to produce his masterpiece poem decades later is unconvincing and arguably nonsensical (considering the actual content of “The Raven”).

Raven’s Hollow gets the fall season of spooky viewing off to a lackluster start. Hopefully, there will be much better fare to sample in the weeks ahead–and also later this year, when another film featuring Poe as a young cadet/murder investigator (The Pale Blue Eye) lands in theaters and streams on Netflix.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “The Poems”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Poems” (1945)

The poet David stumbles upon a strange ability to capture reality, a talent that extends far beyond the common conception of verisimilitude: “Somehow, David had caught up, netted, skeined, imbedded reality, substance, atoms–mounting them upon paper with a simple imprisonment of ink!” His poetry proves “too perfect”–it actually erases from existence what it describes, leaving nothing but an “unnatural blank-spaced silence.” Basking in the glow of his meteoric rise (literary critics hail him as “the greatest poet who ever lived”), the hubristic David ultimately precipitates his own downfall. Like some mad scientist, he begins to experiment with dogs and cats, sheep and even people as the subjects of his poetry. But when David proclaims his intention to write about the universe itself (“I’ll dissect the heavens if I wish, rip down the worlds, toy with suns if I damn please!”), his horrified wife Lisa takes clandestine yet drastic steps to dissolve their marriage.

Leave it to a creative genius like Bradbury to think up such a story about the wonders–and dangers–of the imagination. Appropriately, the image-rich prose here (“The paper was a square, brilliantly sunlit casement through which one might lean into another and brighter amber land”) approaches the quality of poetry. In its concerns with the uncanny power of inking, the story also prefigures the classic tale “The Illustrated Man.” “The Poems” is certainly dark enough in import; perhaps the only thing that makes it an imperfect fit with the contents of the original Dark Carnival collection is its predominantly vernal (rather than autumnal) vibe.

 

Mob Scene: Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass (which evokes both Salem’s Lot and Storm of the Century) is not only the best Stephen King miniseries not actually based on one of King’s works. This convention-reworking vampire narrative also presents an extensive variation on an angry mob scene.

Deliberately paced and highly philosophical (pondering existential questions such as the meaning of life and what happens when we die), the series works as a slow burn, but builds to a blazing climax over the final episode and a half. Midway through the penultimate episode, “Ch. VI Acts of the Apostles,” the faithful of Crockett Island trek toward St. Patrick’s Church (during a slyly arranged, island-wide blackout) for the titular Easter vigil. They carry candles and sing hymns, the image of their peaceful procession forming a stark contrast to the fiery chaos that is about to erupt.

As the mass begins, Father Hill reveals that he is actually the rejuvenated Monsignor Pruitt, and explains that the cause of the miraculous revitalizations that have spread through the congregation came from sampling the blood of an angel (a winged, vampiric creature that the religiously-minded Pruitt has mistaken as holy). The next phase of the revival now involves the parishioners willfully imbibing poisoned communion wine, dying and then being reborn into earthly immortality shortly thereafter. A successful demonstration convinces many of those gathered to partake, and that’s when proverbial hell breaks loose. The gun-toting sheriff tries to stop his son from poisoning himself, but is tackled to ground by a group of mass attendees. When another protagonist picks up the gun and shoots Pruitt, the dark angel flies down the aisle and snatches her off. Oh, and the undead arise as bloodthirsty savages, impulsively pouncing on their unpoisoned brethren.

The spillage of the macabre mob from the church precipitates most of the action of the concluding episode, “Revelation.” Under the cover of night and the blackout, the vampire brood swoops across the island, attacking nonmembers of St. Patrick’s and violently converting them. The so-called pious have become the monsters here; these riotous villagers, interestingly, also happen to be the ones wielding the torches. Directed by the maniacal, Book-of-Revelations-quoting church member Bev, they toss Molotov cocktails and burn the innocent out of their homes. But the zealot is overzealous in her scheming, and every structure on the small island ends up razed, so that the vampiric congregation (whose plan is to boat off the island in the coming nights and spread their ghastly gospel on the mainland) has nowhere to take shelter come dawn. The monsters end up torched after all, not by vigilante villagers but rather the rising sun.

Midnight Mass divided audiences when it premiered last fall on Netflix, as many viewers found the show too slow-paced and talky (characters are prone to long monologues/homilies). Over time, though, this clever and thought-provoking series might come to be regarded as Flanagan’s masterwork. I found it absolutely gripping, and loved it from its mysterious opening episodes to its wild mob scene climax.