Greetings from the Macabre Republic…


…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: “Crooked” (Episode 110)

“Our cities, like the Tower of Pisa, are places that are built on some type of foundation. And in the chaos of building a community and all the infrastructure that will need to grow and thrive, mistakes can happen. Issues can be woven into the fabric of a location, and problems can become part of the DNA there, setting it up for a future of pain and misfortune. And while the United States is full of example of this idea in practice, we’d be hard pressed to find a city in our country with a more flawed beginning than its own epicenter of power and authority: our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.”

In “Crooked,” the 110th episode of the hit podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke takes listeners straight to the geographical heart of American politics. Fear not, though, because our host does not address anything as prosaic as presidential underhandedness or congressional chicanery.

Admittedly, Mahnke does have a tendency to torture a metaphor, and his narrative here proves no exception. Starting with the idea of a literally faulty foundation (causing the famous lean of the Tower of Pisa), Mahnke broadens the discussion of crookedness to encompass aberrant/unexpected development and historical instances of skewing from the putative norm. Figurative turns such as these oftentimes feel forced (in the interest of creating a thematic tread), but Mahnke can be forgiven his flourishes, especially after he delivers these lines capturing the essence of American Gothic: “But the beautiful, elegant appearance [of the nation’s capital] is often little more than a facade. Just like the people who lived there, Washington, D.C., was a pretty shell with a rotten core.”

From here, Mahnke leads his audience on a ghost tour of notable residences around the Potomac. We visit the reputedly haunted Octagon House (whose staircase is said to have been the site of two separate, fatal falls by a pair of sisters) and the uncanny Halcyon House, an East Coast analogue of the Winchester House (the focus, incidentally, of episode 79, “Locked Away”). The tour is sure to stop at the White House, where a grieving (over the death of her child) Mary Todd Lincoln once hosted seances and was preyed upon by a spurious spiritualist (who, ironically, would also forewarn President Lincoln about a legitimately dire threat).

Following the sponsor break, Mahnke shares an engrossing story about Henry Adams, his suicidal wife Clover, and an illegal copy of the statue overlooking her grave. This memorial knockoff, dubbed “Black Aggie” (pictured above), has served as the locus of various college hazing rituals over the years, and has spawned a slew of legends (my personal favorite: anyone who dares to sleep in the figure’s lap overnight will be found dead there the next morning). The episode-concluding tale of Black Aggie is pure Lore: a soaring toward the ostensibly supernatural that is nonetheless grounded in historical detail.

All told, “Crooked” is a highly entertaining episode; my only real complaint is that I wish it had been longer. Given the scope of the subject here, Mahnke could have elected to extend the tour and furnished further examples of Washington, D.C.’s Gothic leanings.


Bly from the Other Side

In my last post, I noted how Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has strongly influenced various works of American Gothic (in both fiction and TV/film). No writer, though, has engaged more directly with James’s classic novella than Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1992 short story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) completely turns the screw on the source narrative.

Oates’s clever conceit is to revise the Jamesian precursor text by presenting the narrative from the point of view of Bly’s two deceased employees–former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint. By no means does Oates glamorize the postmortem existence of these two ghostly/quasi-physical figures lurking in the so-called “catacombs,” an “abandoned storage area in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.” Even to herself, Jessel is an object of “horror” and “disgust” as she washes “mud-muck” off her body and picks beetles out of the tangles of her hair (she has also developed some ghoulish appetites, and is prone to feral pouncing on vermin encountered on the estate). Nevertheless, by delving into the perspectives of Jessel and Quint, Oates endeavors to cast the ghosts abhorred by James’s governess in a more sympathetic light. While denounced as “depraved, degenerate sinners” by “all in the vicinity of Bly,” the couple is not depicted here as a pair of demonic figures intent on corrupting the innocent children Miles and Flora.

The title of Oates’s story is thus significant, as what at first sounds like a blunt denunciation is proven by the ensuing story to be not necessarily the case. “Accursed” works on a couple of levels, both natural and supernatural. The term references the slander by the seemingly decent Christians living in and around Bly, and also points to the question of whether Jessel and Quint have been damned by some higher power (Jessel is a suicide–a ruined woman summarily dismissed from Bly, she threw her pregnant body into the lake on the manor grounds–and the mourning Quint’s fatal, drunken tumble “was perhaps not accidental, either”). Either way, Jessel and Quint are not the only accursed inhabitants of Bly, as Oates’s title further encompasses the tragic existence of the orphans Miles and Flora. The relationship between all four characters–forced by circumstance into forming a strange, surrogate family–is indeed central to the story. Yes, the late Jessel and Quint might be “accursed by love” of one another, but it’s also their love for the children that keeps them haunting this house: “It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved.” Just as an affair between the two employees trapped in “the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly” was inevitable, the insinuation by the love-starved children into the adult couple’s trysting is (according to Oates’s interpretation) an understandable, not unnatural turn of events.

Oates executes a delicate balancing act, as her story gives name to the unspoken horrors of James’s Victorian narrative, and, like a depth charge, sends the sexual subtext of The Turn of the Screw surging to the surface. She tactfully handles difficult subject matter–sexual relations between adults and minors–touching on the taboo without ever resorting to inappropriate prurience. Of course, Oates has not scripted some curious endorsement of pedophilia here; her story works more in opposition to the facile demonizing of same-sex relationships. As the author herself remarked (in a letter to the New York Times in response to a review of her story), her aim was at “reimagining homoerotic ties as not ‘by nature’ repellent.” Quint’s own pondering in the story–“How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love’s comforts?”–is not a mere self-justification of illicit behavior bur rather poses a broader question to Oates’s audience. Presented as neither sexual nor supernatural predators, Oates’s versions of Quint and Jessel are not hellbent on luring Miles and Flora to their doom but desperately seek the solace of family reunion.

If Quint and Jessel are largely redeemed here, two other characters from James’s novella are overtly villainized in their place. The absentee Master of Bly is exposed as a spurious gentleman. Drunken and dissolute, he is an unloving uncle to the two unfortunate children left in his care. Worse still is his pronounced homophobia, as he says to Quint of Miles (ironically blind to the relationship that will subsequently bloom between valet and child): “I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly.” Meanwhile, James’s narrator, the governess, is presented as repugnant in both her physical appearance (“homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board”) and fanatical personality (marked by “a Puritan’s prim, punitive zeal”). Recasting the either-or dilemma of James’s famously ambiguous narrative, Oates shows that revenants are in residence at Bly, yet the governess is nonetheless a “madwoman.”

Oates’s prose style here proves more accessible, but no less elegant, than James’s. Her story excises the more tedious elements of The Turn of the Screw (the governess’s ruminations and conversations with Mrs. Grose), zeroing in on the key scenes (the governess’s ghostly encounters) and reflecting them from a different angle of vision. The result is not some bloodless postmodernist exercise but an intriguing touchstone to the original novella. As new versions of The Turn of the Screw head to the big screen and streaming (Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) next year, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” surely warrants its own film adaptation. Perhaps the best part of such  cinematic translation, though, would be its leading more readers back to the short story, which testifies to Oates’s preeminent status as a writer of Gothic fiction.


A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

James’s 1896 novella is an undeniably canonical work of Gothic fiction. It exemplifies the genre in both form and content. The narrative is framed as the text of a manuscript that has been secreted “in a locked drawer” for many years, and which has at last been brought out to entertain those gathered fireside for the telling of ghost stories (an attempt to present the ultimate in the macabre reminiscent of the famous competition at the Villa Diodati that eventually produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The actual story that is read aloud to the group is set in an ancestral home (complete with castle-like towers) in the English countryside, an isolated abode that is seemingly haunted by the ghosts of two former employees of ill repute. “Seemingly” is the operative word here, as James haunts/taunts his own readers with ambiguity–the ongoing, nerve-wracking uncertainty of interpretation. Are the horrors at Bly manor sinisterly supernatural, or do the alleged ghosts simply reflect human madness (the dangerous visions of a deluded governess desperate to prove her own heroism)?

All this being said, I have no idea why The Turn of the Screw appears in Crow’s book. The novella qualifies as American Gothic in only the most facile sense: it is a Gothic work written by an American author. Set explicitly and strictly in England, the narrative has zero connection to the American scene (Crow’s claim in the headnote that James emulates Washington Irving in the use of the frame-story device makes for a weak argument for the inclusion of the novella here). The Turn of the Screw has exerted a strong influence on American Gothic works, from The Haunting of Hill House and Dark Shadows to Ghost Story and The Shining, but such legacy does nothing to establish retroactively its own American Gothicism. The fact that Crow did not choose to select “The Jolly Corner,” a much more representative (if less popular) James piece, is a real head-scratcher. The Turn of the Screw is the longest entry in this anthology, and unfortunately, also its wrongest.


Lore Report: “Assumption” (Episode 109)

[A review of the latest episode of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore]

When we assume, we write off all other possibilities, and throw ourselves completely behind an idea that we believe to be the full and complete truth. But assumption can lead us toward tragedy. And the sooner we catch it, the sooner the real truth can be pursued. And as history has shown us time and time again, innocent lives may depend upon it.

Episode 109 takes listeners back to 19th Century New England, and reminds us that the dark history of Salem, Massachusetts, did not conclude with the Witch Trials of the 1690’s. Mahnke’s narrative focuses on the sensational 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White, a retired shipmaster/trader and “insanely wealthy widower.” White’s grisly killing (while asleep in his bed, the 82-year-old had his skull cracked by a brutal bludgeoning, and he was also stabbed thirteen times in the torso) left the townspeople of Salem haunted with fear of the depraved killer(s) at large. The public panic following White’s murder is something I wished Mahnke had delved further into; he passingly mentions the local populace’s sudden demand for daggers and pistols.

“Assumption” traces out all the strange twists and turns of the White murder case. The exploration of the historic crime–which proves to have been motivated by the greedy desire to secure the victim’s immense fortune–exposes plentiful family intrigue. In keeping with the episode theme, various erroneous assumptions (made by the prosecutors and the perpetrators of the crime alike) are highlighted. With appropriately Gothic flair, Mahnke even likens assumptions to “a locked house in the dead of night…lull[ing] us into a false sense of security.”

In the midst of his narrative, Mahnke acknowledges that “on the surface, there’s nothing particularly special” about the murder of Joseph White. I have to admit, as I sat listening I found myself wondering what really made this case (its macabre violence notwithstanding) worthy of a Lore episode. Had the podcast played itself out after 100+ episodes? Just as I was beginning to doubt, though, Mahnke proceeded to draw the intriguing connections that Lore is noted for. First, he recounts how renowned attorney/orator Daniel Webster got involved in the murder trial. An impassioned speech by Webster in turn inspired “a particular [fiction] writer to spin his own tale of murder, guilt, and our inability to hide from our own shame” (somewhat surprisingly, Mahnke–unlike one of the sources he seems to borrow from–fails to cite a second writer influenced by the White case: Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne). I won’t spoil the surprise hear, but rest assured, this American writer identified is an exemplar of Gothic fiction, and his tale one of the most popular of all-time.

This closing connection (which Mahnke skillfully establishes through the reciting of parallel passages by Webster and the short-storyteller) alone makes for a remarkable episode. So as I have thankfully realized, thinking that Lore has somehow lost its podcasting knack is the most incorrect assumption of all.


February X-cellence

As February draws to a close, so does the tenth annual Women in Horror Month. A lot of interesting and insightful material was posted online once again. For those who are still catching up, here are some great WiHM-celebrating sites to check out:

LitReactor: The 13 Best Women Writing Horror Today

Nightmare Magazine: Roundtable Interview with Women in Horror

Manuscripts Burn: (Month-Long Interview Series)

iHorror: Six Real Life Lessons from Horror’s Finest Final Girls

Screen Queens: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Its Lasting Impact on Women and Horror

Daily Dead: 45 Female-Directed Horror Movies and Where You Can Stream Them

View from the Morg: Women in Horror Month: Why It Matters


A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun” and “Luella Miller”

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

“Old Woman Magoun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Freeman’s 1909 tale presents a clear American Gothic hero-villain in the character of Nelson Barry, “the fairly dangerous degenerate of a good old family.” Forceful in personality yet shiftless and given to vice, Barry is worshiped as “an evil deity” by the town’s other layabout males. He is at once physically attractive and morally repugnant. It’s not bad enough that he seduced and then deserted the title character’s daughter (who died a week after giving birth to her own daughter, Lily). Now, after discovering that the child he has neglected for fourteen years is beginning to blossom into a beauty, Barry attempts to claim Lily from her grandmother’s guardianship (so he can pimp the girl out to a gambling buddy in debased payment of an accrued debt). Desperate to keep Lily from her corrupt father’s clutches, Magoun first seeks to have Lily adopted by a wealthy lawyer and his wife. When that last-ditch effort fails, she knowingly allows the innocent and naive Lily to consume deadly nightshade berries.

In her murderous decision to save Lily from a fate worse than death, Magoun prefigures Sethe in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Her extreme protectiveness of her granddaughter brings a considerable amount of moral complexity to Freeman’s short story (one could argue that Magoun herself has had a ruinous effect on Lily all along, by keeping her mired in “prolonged childhood,” a perennially prepubescent state meant to stave off a fateful deflowering such as the one suffered by Lily’s mother). While the righteousness of Magoun’s steering of Lily toward the safety of the hereafter is debatable, there is no denying that the old woman’s best intentions in the story prove tragic missteps. Her efforts to distance her family from the sordid Barrys are in vain; just like Nelson’s “feeble-minded” sister Isabel, Magoun appears “touched” in the head at tale’s end. Toting around the same rag doll that a fourteen-year-old Lily had been allowed to play with, Magoun ironically reverts to an unnatural child-like state. Freeman ultimately paints a grim picture of a patriarchal society that affords limited options to women, who are left warped by their own desperate measures.


“Luella Miller” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Long before Kurt Barlow visited Salem’s Lot, a vampiric figure wreaked uncanny havoc on a fictional New England village. In Freeman’s 1902 tale, the title character has a strangely enervating effect on those around her, who all seem to waste away while weighing on Luella hand and foot.  Luella’s evil reputation in the village gradually develops as her pupil (when Luella was employed, but never really worked, as a schoolteacher), her husband, her sister-in-law, and a sequence of caregivers are each drained of their vitality. And Luella herself wanes whenever there isn’t someone to provide the sustenance of subservience. Freeman’s story seems to present a more metaphorical form of vampirism, as part of a commentary on the dangers of doting on fetching beauty (which can also lead to a prostrating passivity for the idolized herself).

Freeman’s feminist concerns, though, do not drain “Luella Miller” of Gothic effectiveness. There are some truly unnerving moments here, such as when the aged protagonist Lydia Anderson glimpses the ghosts of Luella’s past victims (servile even in posthumousness) leading her out of her house on the night Luella herself finally expires. Lydia’s own death a few years later hints at Luella’s haunting effect: “One bright moonlight [sic] evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbor who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead.”  Lydia’s mysterious downfall causes an uprising the next night, when Luella’s long-shunned house–“unhallowed by a nearly half a century of superstitious fear”–is “burned to the ground” in classic angry-villager style.



Lore Report: “Debris” (Episode 108)

(The third installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“From the illustrations on ancient maps to Hollywood blockbusters, humans have always been obsessed with monsters of the deep. And while science has given us more clarity over the centuries, we still wrestle with the possibility that we might have missed something–something that’s still there beneath the cold black waves of the sea.”

Episode 108 delves into the ocean deeps, and the ostensible mysteries that have risen to the surface over the years. First enlightening listeners with established myths (e.g., the giant Japanese catfish Namazu; the Kraken), Mahnke then swims out into murkier waters. He traces various historical sightings of floating curiosities–the eponymous “debris” that blurs the line between dead matter and living, serpentine legend.

Mahnke’s assertion that “we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of our own oceans” is arresting, and his recounted tales of maritime uncanniness are intriguing in and of themselves. Ultimately, though, the episode disappoints. The dearth of factual evidence accompanying the reported sightings renders them to fish stories. And when an attempt is made to resolve such longstanding mystery, the explanation proves somewhat prosaic, if grotesque (I did find it quite interesting, though, to learn what a “globster” was–not the phosphorescent crustacean the strange coinage might suggest).

I have to admit, the summarizing generalization here failed to grab me: “Even now in 2019,” Mahnke intones, “the existence of sea serpents is still lurking in the backs of the collective consciousness like debris floating on the sea. And some of us can’t help but wonder if it will eventually raise its head. And if it does, will any of us be ready?” As an unabashed landlubber, I can’t say I consider beasties from the deep any real cause for Lovecraftian concern.

“Debris” is by no means podcast garbage; Mahnke provides an entertaining listening experience, as always. Nevertheless, the overarching story told here isn’t the most impressive one in the vast Lore repertoire.


Mob Scenes: The Sopranos

Even the godfather of mob series offers us a mob scene…

And not just any scene featuring a rambunctious rabble, but one including vintage angry villagers. I refer to episode 5.11 of The Sopranos, “The Test Dream.” Worried that his AWOL cousin Tony Blundetto is going to whack Phil Leotardo and set off a war between the New York and New Jersey families, Tony Soprano has one epic nightmare. In the middle of this midnight mind movie, Tony fails to prevent Blundetto’s mob hit, and is challenged by a huge crowd of disapproving onlookers with questions of “Why didn’t you stop him?” The scene then cuts to Tony being chased down a dark alley by the crowd, who suddenly turn into Europeans in lederhosen, with flaming torches and the leashes of barking hounds in their hands. This quick and terrifically surreal reference perfectly captures Tony’s fear of persecution, while also highlighting his deep awareness of classic films.

I’ll admit, I was never especially fond of this late-season episode of The Sopranos. I felt the dream sequence was too long (stalling the show’s narrative drive) and just too damned weird. Nevertheless, I have to give all due respect to David Chase’s wise-guy drama for its knowing nod to Universal’s Frankenstein movies.


Whisperers Shout Out

The wasteland is a red state, as The Walking Dead has donned its M.A.G.A. (Macabre and Gripping Again) hat.

The unevenness of the AMC series in recent years has been bemoaned and belabored by fans and critics (I’ve contributed my own pair of pennies to the discussion when posting here–and here). But with Angela Kang’s succession of Scott Gimple as showrunner, and the recent six-years’ time jump in the action following the send-off of protagonist Rick Grimes, the show seems to be making a conscious effort to reset itself, to refocus its creative energies. Apparently this involves a renewed emphasis on the horrific, as evidenced by the shocking murder of Jesus by a Whisperer in a fog-shrouded cemetery at the end of the season-splittling episode 9.8, “Evolution.”

Last night’s mid-season premiere, “Adaptation,” picks right up where the show left off, and instantly demonstrates the significance of the Whisperers to TWD‘s rebound. The introduction of this group revitalizes the human-zombie conflict that had grown understandably mundane. When it comes to fearmongering, familiarity breeds diminished returns; after so many seasons, the countless walker attacks lost a lot of their bite. The zombie horde ostensibly served as decayed clay pigeons, heroically obliterated by gun and sword and hatchet. With the advent of the Whisperers, however, the rules of close-up enemy engagement have been altered dramatically, since now a more calculating and dexterous nemesis can be lurking in the midst of the staggering cannibals. My anxiety was appreciably high last night as I watched Negan take swing at some walkers outside the Sanctuary, as I wondered if one of the gruesome opponents would suddenly show its true, living color (my concern for Negan’s safety also says a lot about the redemptive character arc this former Big Bad has been given).

For certain, the Whisperers’ subterfuge makes for a sinister modus operandi, but these figures also prove quite frightful in and of themselves. Their very appearance arrests the viewer, who can’t help but question the mindset of anyone willing to dress up in someone else’s flayed skin. As they stood looming in the tall grass in last night’s episode, the Whisperers also reminded me of another classic horror bogey–the killer scarecrow (in her first appearance, the Whisperer leader Alpha suggests less a latter-day Leatherface than a glorious product of the Grim Stitch Factory). Just as the raggedy straw-man staked as a cornfield sentinel unnervingly blurs the line between the animate and inanimate, the scarecrow-evoking Whisperers muddle the distinction between the living and the undead. From its inception, TWD has presented a clear duality, as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse faced threats from human and posthumous antagonists alike. Now, those two groups of foes can no longer be easily distinguished.

These people in ghouls’ clothing not only model a clever (if outre) survival strategy; their blending in with the grave masses also allows them to turn zombies to tactical advantage. Accordingly, the Whisperers can help redress one of the show’s shortcomings from a past season. I felt the Wolves’ run (in season 6) was cut way short; I wanted to see more of their morbid mousetraps, created by the recruiting of the resurrected dead as shock troops. The herd-infiltrating/-influencing Whisperers, though, promise to take the weaponizing of walkers to a whole other level.

I’ve never read the Kirkman comics, so I don’t know much about the story arc concerning this faux-putrified faction (and have been trying hard to avoid all plot spoilers when reading up on the AMC series of late). But needless to say, I will be attending closely to the Whisperers as TWD moves through the back half of season 9.


Kid You Not: A Review of The Prodigy

I caught a screening of The Prodigy yesterday, and in hindsight found it apropos that the previews before the start of the film included trailers for the remakes of Child’s Play and Pet Sematary. The basic premise of the former–the posthumous persistence (in pre-adolescent mold) of a killer–is forwarded here, while a central theme of the latter–parental love leading to poor choices and catastrophic consequences–resounds in director Nicholas McCarthy’s film (not coincidentally, Jeff Buhler, the writer of The Prodigy, also scripted the forthcoming Pet Sematary).

In fact, The Prodigy manifests a broad horror lineage. Its most obvious relation is to the Evil Kid film, a subgenre stretching from The Bad Seed to The Good Son (with The Omen in between). But it hearkens back, too, to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that ur-werewolf narrative (as identified by Stephen King in Danse Macabre) of conflicting figures in a singular body. The Prodigy is arguably also a ghost story–only in this case it’s a house of flesh that’s haunted, and the restless spirit isn’t seeking to have the story of its bloody death unearthed.

Film reviewers have failed to catch an intriguing connection that The Prodigy makes: the name of the paranormal problem child, “Miles,” is also that of the young boy watched over by the governess in The Turn of the Screw. To note this allusion, though, is also to highlight a shortcoming: whereas Henry James’s supernatural/psychological horror novella is a masterpiece of ambiguity (the question of whether Miles has fallen under the evil influence of a ghost is never resolved), The Prodigy (thanks to the precise imagery of its cross-cutting prologue) makes its uncanny aspects clear to the audience from the start. Miles’s parents seem the only ones who haven’t caught on (failing to do so until the boy is eight), and the dramatic irony drags on a bit too long.

The scenes dramatizing early instances of disturbing behavior underwhelm here because they have become overly familiar; like his cinematic brethren, Miles is the bane of babysitters and family pets. McCarthy steers the film in a more impressive direction when he touches on the taboo–the subtle gestures that “Miles” makes toward his mother that raise the specter of incest. For me, the most unnerving moment in the whole film occurred when the scheming Miles, like some juvenile (and decidedly foul-mouthed) Machiavelli, blackmails the reincarnation expert Arthur Jacobson with the threat of alleging sexual misconduct during their hypnotherapy session.

At times, the film’s plot strains disbelief: there’s not a chance in hell that Miles would have been allowed to set foot back into the classroom after his spectacularly violent outburst against a fellow student (the legal repercussions of the incident are completely glossed over as well). Trading in notions of reincarnation, The Prodigy inevitably approaches the hokey, so credible performances are a must. Taylor Schilling gives a strong one as Sarah, a mother beleaguered by her beloved boy’s bad turn. And Jackson Robert Scott is undeniably creepy as the eponymous savant. Scott, who gave his arm and his life to Pennywise as Georgie Denbrough in IT, here plays a role that recalls another Stephen King kiddie: the adorable but deadly Gage Creed in Pet Sematary.

Where The Prodigy really hits its stride is in the home stretch. When Sarah finally realizes what she is dealing with, her actions to save Miles lead to some terrific suspense. The climax ties back nicely to the film’s opening, while also presenting a question likely to linger in viewers’ minds long after the closing credits: How far would you be willing to go to protect the life of your child? I wish more screentime had been devoted to this moral dilemma, which proves much more gripping than the standard scares stocking the first two-thirds of the film.

While falling short of the extraordinary, The Prodigy is an effectively entertaining horror movie, one that just might cause prospective parents in the audience to consider contraception instead.