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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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A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes” and Jack London’s “Samuel”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, a look at the final two stories in editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

In Wharton’s 1910 tale, a group of gentlemanly dinner guests retire to a “Gothic library”  for drinks, cigars, and a round of ghost stories. When their host, Andrew Culwin, is persuaded to contribute his own midnight narrative, he relates a personal experience of having been haunted at several times over a period of years by the infernal glare of a pair of eyes appearing at his bedside:

They were the worst eyes I’ve ever seen:  a man’s eyes–but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

Noting the uncanny eyes’ “damnable habit of coming back,” Culwin asserts: “They reminded me of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed to gloat over the taste of a good conscience.” The self-deluded Culwin, though, is oblivious to his own enervating effect on those around him. Apparently his conscience isn’t as good as he claims, either, because in the climax of Wharton’s story he is forced to consider that the hateful eyes were his very own–a ghost of his future self reproaching him for his selfish misdeeds.

From its mention in the frame story of upping the narrative ante by presenting a tale of two ghosts, to its hinting at the death of a young male character in its final line, “The Eyes” is clearly indebted to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (who served as a literary mentor to Wharton). Wharton further acknowledges her ghost story–and American Gothic–roots by referencing a writer of a famously ambiguous, framed-narrative spook tale (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Culwin recounts early on that he lived in “a damp Gothic villa” in Irvington that belonged to “an old aunt who had known Washington Irving.” Wharton’s literary effort here, however, is hardly derivative; “The Eyes” is an atmospheric and meticulously crafted piece of American Gothic literature.

 

“Samuel” by Jack London

London’s 1909 story concerns an inscrutable old woman, Margaret Henan, who has been mysteriously shunned by her insular community. The intrigued narrator wonders if Henan is guilty of “some shocking cruelty? some amazing infidelity? or some fearful, old-world peasant-crime?” Via a series of conversations with Henan’s fellow islanders, the narrator gradually uncovers the reason for her ostracism. Henan’s beloved brother Samuel suffered an ignominious fate: after his marriage is nullified (due to a clerical error by the minister) while the husband/skipper was at sea, Samuel’s wife drowns herself and her babe. Finally returning home, only to discover the loss of his loved ones, Samuel attempts to kill himself at their gravesite, and before he expires he spits and curses at the minister, and dies “blaspheming so terribly that those that tended on him did so with an averted gaze and trembling hands.”

Because of his manner of death, Samuel is a black figure for the islanders; the suicide’s very name is considered one of ill-omen. Yet Samuel’s sister Margaret insists on honoring her late brother’s memory by naming her own son Samuel. More accurately, she ends up naming four of her sons Samuel, and each child stubbornly christened thus ultimately meets a tragic end. The first Samuel dies of the croup; the second is boiled to death as a three-year-old after accidentally falling into a tub of hot water; the third grows up healthy and happy, only to be drowned at sea. The last Samuel, born to Margaret when she is 47 years old, is “a great awful monster,” a braying idiot that his own father bludgeons to death one day with a puck-handle (the filicide then promptly hangs himself in the stable).

A name with uncannily tragic consequences; a seemingly cursed family; superstitious and provincial locals: London’s “Samuel” might seem a preeminent work of American Gothic. The problem is that there is nothing American in this tale (set on Island McGill off the cost of Ireland) except for the fact that the narrator is a Yankee abroad. In his headnote to the story, editor Charles L. Crow posits that “Samuel” is “a fitting work to conclude this volume, but the piece only proves fitting in that it is yet another example of Crow’s own loose sense of “American Gothic” literature–a Gothic work written by an American author (and not necessarily tied to an American scene).

 

Lore Report: “Proof Positive” (Episode 133)

From the mundane to the groundbreaking, scientific notebooks have been used throughout history to keep a record of events and knowledge learned so that future generations might look back on them and remember. But for a period of time in the 17th Century, that process was used in an unlikely field–witchcraft. And while it’s easy to assume that combination found at the intersection of witches and science might not be the most logical, you’d be surprised to learn that more than a few professional skeptics tried to use rationale to test superstition. And what they discovered was beyond frightening.

Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke begins the latest episode of the Lore podcast with a discussion of Marie Curie’s research notebooks–uncanny items due to their incredible, unremitting radioactivity. From here, Mahnke transitions to the writings of George Sinclair, a 17th Century professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow who “believed witchcraft was a real and powerful threat.” Sinclair’s endeavor to document evidence of the supernatural led him to publish an account of “The Devil of Glenluce”–a 1654 case of a house (accursed by an atheistic beggar) plagued by seemingly demonic activity. Mahnke devotes the bulk of the episode to relating the details of the Devil of Glenluce story, and his narrative makes for a frightfully good listen. Images such as a forearm rising out of the floorboards and pounding on the floor (the malicious spirit haunting the house claims the appendage belongs to the devil himself) would be right at home in a James Wan Conjuring film.

If I have one critique of Episode 133, it’s that I wish Mahnke would have spent even a little more time on the Glenluce story, discussing the aftermath of the strange events (which have since been called into question as a hoax). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining episode with an intriguing topic–the learned’s earnest attempt to validate the existence of the spectral and sinister. Fans of the novel The Haunting of Hill House–which presents a classic case of paranormal investigation taking an unsettling turn–are sure to thrill at the subject matter here in “Proof Positive.”

 

Mob Scene: The Bottoms

Joe R. Lansdale’s 2000 novel The Bottoms (an expansion of his 1999 novella “Mad Dog Summer”) forms an extended riff on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are Southern Gothic takes on the coming-of-age tale, and share many characteristics–tomboy younger sisters, rabid dogs, legendary boogeymen (Lansdale answers Lee’s Boo Radley with “The Goat Man”), and critiques of Deep Southern society as viewed through children’s eyes. Significantly, the plots of both novels also feature a mob scene.

In The Bottoms, the narrator Harry’s father (the constable in their Depression-era East Texas community) has been keeping an elderly black man named Mose (a person of interest in the investigation of a series of brutal rapes/murders in the area) hidden away. When the locals find out, though, they automatically deem Mose the killer, and band together as a “lynch mob” intent on dispensing rough justice. Harry and his dad rush to the scene, the latter trying to avert tragedy by calling for the need for a fair trial. But his attempt to talk sense is rebuffed by the mob, which is led by the despicably racist (and allegorically named) Mr. Nation: “He ain’t gonna be turned loose,” Nation taunts, “except at the end of the rope.” When Harry’s father physically intervenes to prevent the lynching, “the crowd let[s] out a sound like an animal in pain,” and pounces on the constable and his son.

Atticus Finch (with some timely assistance from his kids) in To Kill a Mockingbird is able to stave off an angry mob determined to lynch a black man accused of rape. For all the parallels that Lansdale draws with Lee’s masterwork, though, he takes matters in a shocking direction by having the mob succeed in executing Mose. The lynching in described in unflinching and unsettling detail (“Mose dropped with a snapping sound, started to kick fast and spit blood-tinted foam”), and when the pummeled Harry recovers consciousness he discovers a nightmarish sight:

Mose hung above us, his tongue long and black and thick as a sock stuffed with paper. His eyes bulged out of his head like little green persimmons. Someone had pulled down his pants and cut him. Blood dripped from between Mose’s legs, onto the ground.

Graphic and emotionally grueling, the mob scene in The Bottoms is not easily forgotten.

 

Three Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Thought I’d take a stab at the popular online trend of composing/posting two-sentence horror stories. Here’s a trio of pieces for the New Year:

 

My New Year’s resolution is to wash my hands of sinners. Having their blood under my fingernails all the time just isn’t good hygiene.

 

Dwight considered himself a perfectly functional alcoholic. He never once failed to show up in the afternoon to drive the school bus.

 

I watched my expression growing more vexed in the mirrored backdrop as my drink request repeatedly went unheard by the bartender. After the fifth attempt, though, a Bloody Mary promptly appeared in front of me.

 

Horror in Store

Yesterday, I published a post compiling year-in-reviews for 2019, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead. Here are a couple of links to articles previewing the the top works of horror set to appear in 2020:

Lit Reactor: The 20 Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2020

Bloody Disgusting: 31 Horror Movies We Can’t Wait to See in 2020

It looks like 2020 is going to be the perfect year for dark visions!

 

2019 Supreme

The end of December is not only a time for counting down to the start of the New Year, but also for looking back at the best the horror genre had to offer over the preceding twelve months. Here’s a list of some year-end reviews worth checking out:

*The Lineup: 11 Best Horror Books of 2019

*Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Entertainment Weekly: The 10 Best Horror Films of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Scariest Movie Scenes of 2019

*Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2019

*The Hollywood Reporter: Hollywood’s Best 2019 Halloween Costumes

*Dread Central: Alyse Wax’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2019

*The Lineup: The 13 Best Scary TV Shows of 2019

 

Finally, here are some of my own choices for this year’s superlatives:

*Favorite Film of the Year: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (read my review here)

*Most Enjoyable Series of the Year: Stranger Things 3 (read my review here)

*Greatest Podcast Episode of the Year: This is Horror #300 (Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella celebrate their three-hundredth episode with a four-hour extravaganza featuring interviews with Adam Nevill, Joe R. Lansdale, Josh Malerman, Alma Katsu, Damien Angelica Walters, Stephen Graham Jones, Jon Padgett, and Kathe Koja)

*Favorite Documentary of the Year: Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini (this wonderful film, which I just watched a few nights back, provides a candid look at the life and career of one of horror’s most talented–and affable–figures)

*Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Netflix goes off of its Santa Clarita Diet (this gonzo zom-com still had a lot of meat left on the bone after three seasons. Not since the cancellation of Carnivale–for which I still haven’t forgiven HBO–have I been so bummed about the premature termination of a series)

*Best Acting Performance of the Year: Lizzy Caplan in Castle Rock (Caplan’s portrayal of a young Annie Wilkes is, hands down, the most impressive effort in the horror genre this year. Her incredibly nuanced performance manifests all the complexity of a character at once frightening and sympathetic, transgressive and tragic)

*Most Arachnophobic Moment of the Year: The spider breakout scene in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (absolutely harrowing; the most horrifying bodily eruption I’ve encountered onscreen since the cockroach explosion in Creepshow)

*Favorite Read of the Year: Full Throttle by Joe Hill (I will be posting a full review in the coming days)

*Favorite Dispatch from the Macabre Republic This Year: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

 

999: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

Back in 1999, Al Sarrantonio edited the stellar anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense. Here on the eve of a new year, with another 9 about to roll over, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at the Stoker-Award-winning book.

Two decades later, 999 still impresses with its size and scope. My Perennial paperback copy of the anthology clocks in (not coincidentally, I’d like to believe) at 666 text-packed pages. Between the covers of this thick-spined volume, the full range of dark fiction is represented: from quiet horror (T.E.D. Klein’s subtly sinister “Growing Things”) to brash splatter (Edward Lee’s unblinkingly graphic “ICU”); from Northeastern gothic (“The Ruins of Contracoeur” by the masterful Joyce Carol Oates) to the Southern folk tale (Nancy A. Collins’s local-colorful and captivating “Catfish Gal Blues”); from psychological horror (Rick Hautala’s creepily resonant “Knocking”) to noir crime (Ed Groman’s sexy and sinful “Angie”); and the weird tale of varieties both raucous (“The Entertainment,” provided with wicked wit by the incomparable Ramsey Campbell) and the somber (Thomas Ligotti’s brilliantly hypnotic, yet undeniable bummer of a cosmic-horror story, “The Shadow, The Darkness”).

The standard genre tropes show up here at Sarrantonio’s celebration, but prove most welcome in their fresh attire. Kim Newman’s lead-off piece “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” takes the zombie tale to new places, not just via the story’s Communist Russia setting but also its bizarre twists (involving a revenant Rasputin!). In the bad-blooded “Good Friday,” F. Paul Wilson develops the traditional plot of vampiric incursion to chillingly apocalyptic extremes. The hoary haunted-portrait story gets updated and turbo-charged in Stephen King’s nightmare-fueling “The Road Virus Heads North” (one of King’s earliest post-IT returns to the town of Derry). Last but not least effective, William Peter Blatty’s volume-closing novel Elsewhere slyly reworks the classic elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and gives an incredible twist to the haunted-house formula (one that predates a certain Nicole Kidman film by two years).

I won’t pretend that every tale Sarrantonio selected is a narrative gem, but only a few pieces fail to sparkle in this treasure trove of terror. Shining brightest of all here is a pair of novellas that alone makes 999 a precious possession. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer” (which the author subsequently expanded into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms) is a terrific East Texas riff on To Kill a Mockingbird. David Morrell’s “Rio Grande Gothic” starts with an unsettling premise–empty shoes repeatedly found set on the yellow median line of a Sante Fe road–and deftly crosses over into downright eerie territory.

In retrospect, the high hopes outlined by Sarrantonio in his Introduction (that “this book turns out to be revolutionary, helps to revive the field, kills the ghetto, and starts a third Golden Age”) might not have been quite fulfilled, but there is no arguing against the success of this effort. The book is a strong contender for the title (again, in Sarrantonio’s words) of “the finest collection of brand new horror and suspense stories ever published,” and warrants a permanent space on the genre-lover’s bookshelf alongside such original anthologies as Dark Forces and Prime Evil. 999 has aged finely over past twenty years, and its dark contents prove well-deserving of a “vintage” label.

 

Lore Report: “Puzzled” (Episode 132)

History does hold the key to a number of secret chambers, and while it might be fun to explore all of them, there’s one place that takes the prize for one of the most elaborate and nefarious hidden worlds on record. But it’s more than a closet or a bunker or even a short tunnel to another part of the house. No, this one stands out because of its sweep and scale, and because of how it was used by the people who lived there. It’s a secret network that connects an entire town.

 

Aaron Mahnke’s opening tease to the latest episode of his podcast Lore works as a perfect hook; the listener can’t wait for this town with Gothic underpinnings to be identified. Fortunately, Mahnke isn’t inclined to withhold this information for very long, as he transports the audience to the seaside community of Rye in Sussex, England. The town served as a five-century epicenter for smuggling activities, most notoriously conducted during a fifteen-year stretch in the mid-1700’s by the Hawkhurst Gang (a mafia-like organization nearly 600 members strong). These brazen criminals did not hesitate to employ cutthroat tactics against anyone who interfered with their enterprise, but they also demonstrated some terrific craftiness. Using the ruins of a nearby castle as an illicit warehouse, the Gang engaged in what Mahnke gloriously dubs “Scooby-Dooing”: scaring off potential meddling snoops by making “spooky noises to give the place an unsavory reputation.” A primary base of operation for the Gang, though, was Rye’s Mermaid Inn, a no-less-Gothic building with its hidden staircases leading to a system of underground tunnels, and its secret dungeon located under a trapdoor in one of the guest rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Mermaid Inn is regarded as quite a haunted site, and Mahnke devotes the second half of the episode to sharing the host of ghost stories associated with this place of business.

Sometimes Mahnke’s episode titles and content-organizing conceits come off as strained attempts at narrative coherence, but that certainly is not the case here in Episode 132. The “puzzle” concept–both in the sense of a labyrinthine structure/intricate mechanism (Mahnke references both Clue and the puzzle box in Hellraiser) and in the more verbal sense of confounding comprehension–proves most effective. After expertly demonstrates throughout the episode the ways in which history interfaces with mystery, Mahnke offers a strong conclusion by articulating the nature and cultural function of folklore. In the end, “Puzzled” forms a clear picture of what makes this podcast series so utterly captivating.