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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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Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #2, #1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

2. “Nightcrawlers” (1984; Masques)

McCammon’s story opens with some strongly atmospheric scene-setting: “Wind whined around the front door like an animal trying to claw its way” inside a south Alabama diner “stuck out in the countryside, […] a long way off from civilization.” Diner owner and tale narrator Bob Clayton reads an ominous news story about a gunfire massacre at a motel down in Daytona Beach, foreshadowing the arrival of a gaunt, exhausted-looking stranger named Price. Price proves to be a Vietnam vet, the sole surviving member of a Special Unit nicknamed the Nightcrawlers. But Price believes he, too, should be lying dead with his fellow soldiers back in Southeast Asia, because he only escaped by running from a battle and driving the other Nightcrawlers into the mud as he stepped on their bodies. “And you better believe,” Price says, “I’m in that rice paddy in ‘Nam every time I close my eyes. You’d better believe the men I left back there don’t rest easy.” Now Price is desperate to stay awake, in order to avoid more than just bad dreams. Doused with a potent defoliant dubbed Howdy Doody while serving in the war, Price has developed the ability to turn his thoughts into momentarily tangible projections (“What’s in your head comes true”). And after an overzealous state trooper foolishly knocks Price unconscious, all hell breaks loose: Price’s ghoulish platoon manifests and launches a deadly assault on the diner. “We were all caught in Price’s nightmare,” Bob narrates, “and the Nightcrawlers that Bob had left in the mud were fighting the battle again. […] The Nightcrawlers had come back to life, powered by Price’s guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had done to him.” McCammon’s narrative has a distinct Twilight Zone quality (it was adapted as a stellar episode of the 1980’s reboot of the series), with Bob sounding like a Rod Serling stand-in near story’s end, discussing men lost “in a foreign place they hadn’t wanted to be, fighting a war that turned out to be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I’ve changed my mind about ‘Nam because I understand now that the worst of the fighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.” The fantastic elements added to the story accentuate the sociopolitical commentary, highlighting the haunting nature of the Vietnam War–during both the fighting itself and its long, unsettled aftermath. There have been plenty of genre works (by preeminent writers such as David Morrell, Peter Straub, and Jack Cady) that have dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, but none finer or more frightful than “Nightcrawlers.”

 

1. “Best Friends” (1987; Night Visions 4)

This unforgettable novelette starts off as a slow burn before turning into a napalm blast of grisly horror. A sense of foreboding abounds (“It was Alabama autumn at its worst, humid and heavy enough to make bones moan”) as the protagonist, Dr. Jack Shannon, arrives at Marbury Memorial Hospital to help determine whether a criminal held there is psychologically fit to stand trial. Jack’s case file contains “the life history of a monster”; looking over the crime scene photos, Jack feels as if he’s “sweating on the inside of his skin, the outer surface cold and clammy.” A white-painted suburban home, “all-American and ordinary[-looking],” has been transformed into an utter abattoir, with a gruesome scrawl of “HAIL SATAN” on the bloody walls overlooking “a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room’s corner. […] A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.” Even more shockingly, the perpetrator wasn’t some Manson-Family-type intruder, but seventeen-year-old Tim Clausen, “a boy who had torn his mother, father and ten-year-old sister to pieces.” When interviewed by Jack, Tim admits to being an aspiring demonologist, and claims that his family’s deaths were the grim handiwork of his “best friends”–a trio of summoned hell-fiends he calls Adolf, Mother, and Frog. Unfortunately for all involved, Tim is telling the truth. A scene of body horror (one that might make David Cronenberg squirm) erupts: “suddenly the boy’s left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg. […] The boy’s face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way.” The creatures had been “hiding inside [Tim] and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin,” but now break free of Tim’s head to reveal themselves in all their grotesque glory and sublime deadliness (e.g. McCammon’s description of the nightmarishly arachnid Mother, who sports fangs like “saw-edged diamonds”: “Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness.” The demonstrably monstrous demons waste no time in embarking on a murderous, carnivorous rampage through the psych ward. McCammon’s narrative offers much more than pulpy graphicness, though. The victims are not anonymous fodder, thanks to the author’s commitment to establishing his cast of characters in the opening pages. The extended confrontation with Tim’s unfriendly comrades is genuinely terrifying, the action at once breathtaking and bloodcurdling as Jack battles to defeat the demons before they can reach their apparent destination: the maternity ward, where they hope to feast on baby flesh. A splatterpunk extravaganza for the Satanic Panic era, “Best Friends” forms one helluva rip-roaring story.

 

Mob Scene: Good Neighbors

In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.

When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.

It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”

A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #4, #3

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

4. “Yellowjacket Summer” (1986; The Twilight Zone magazine)

“Yellowjacket Summer” forms the lead story in McCammon’s collection Blue World for good reason: it is a premier work of horror. Riding on E, protagonist Carla Emerson (traveling with her children Joe and Trish to meet up with her husband) pulls her van into a decrepit gas station in the backroads town of Capshaw, Georgia. Joe makes a beeline for the rest room, but in the middle of relieving himself realizes that the ceiling is crawling with myriad yellowjackets: “One landed on his left cheek and walked toward his nose. Five or six of them were crawling on his sweaty Conan the Barbarian T-shirt. And then he felt some of them land on his knuckles, and–yes–even there too.” The vulnerable boy is saved (for the moment, at least) when the young attendant Toby summons the yellowjackets via a “low, weird whistle.” The narrative turns into more than a tale of natural rampage; Toby’s possession of the “beckonin’ touch” and his tyrannical terrorizing of the adults remaining in the almost-ghost town steers readers straight into Twilight Zone country (shades of the classic episode “It’s a Good Life”). Desperate to make an exodus from this nightmare place, Carla attacks Toby, holding a knife to his neck as the yellowjackets threaten to strike. Toby ratchets up the tension by recounting the fate of a state trooper who stumbled upon Capshaw: “And he was gonna put a call through on his radio, but when he opened his mouth I sent ’em in there. They went right smack down his throat. […] They stung him to death from the inside out.” In turn, Toby threatens Carla: “I’ll make ’em sting your eyeballs out and go up your ears.” As if matters weren’t harrowing enough, the character Mase that (touched-in-the-head) Toby was conversing with earlier in the story is revealed as a Norma Bates-esque husk: “The yellowjackets had burrowed a nest inside the dead man, and now they were pouring out of him by the thousands.” And such terrifying discovery isn’t even the climax of this phobia-poking shocker. If readers don’t have a deep fear of wasps going in, they certainly will dread the yellow and black harriers by tale’s end.

 

3. “Lizardman” (1989; Stalkers)

In this thrilling and atmospheric variation on a monster story (available as a free read on the author’s website), the titular hunter stalks a legendary gator called Old Pope, a “chawer of bones and spitter of flesh” with “a great gruesome snout” and “a heart as tough as a cannonball.” The grizzled, cigar-chomping Lizardman is surely no beauty in his own right, but counts that fact in his favor, figuring that it “took mean and ugly to kill mean and ugly.” McCammon paints a haunting Florida Gothic scene as Lizardman penetrates the “sargasso seas of the swamp,” littered with “the hulks of decaying boats” and the sunken remains of defeated hunters: “Their bones had moldered on the bottom, like gray castles, and slowly moss had streamed from their ramparts and consumed them in velvet slime.” Old Pope, meanwhile, is rendered mythic by the referenced tales of local Seminoles, which allege that the creature “was a ghost gator, couldn’t be killed by mortal man,” or that it “had ridden on a bolt of lightning into the heart of the swamp.” Suspense steadily mounts, with Old Pope remaining unseen throughout most of the story (at one point, the giant biter makes its presence known from underwater, chomping one of the Lizardman’s hooked gators right in half). When Old Pope finally surfaces in the climax, it proves no ordinary alligator but an eldritch horror with “yellow eyes set under a massive brow where a hundred crabs clung like barnacles to an ancient wharf” (hissing snakes likewise “clung to the thing’s gnarled maw”). Akin to Kong of Skull Island, Old Pope is a veritable “swamp-god, king of the gators.” McCammon himself warrants some lofty laurels here: it’s a testament to his narrative mastery that he can stage such an epic battle within the scant pages of a short story, and that he can take a tale of man vs. red-toothed/-clawed nature and add cosmic resonance to it.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabid

Last week’s two-part premiere of the anthology series American Horror Stories proved somewhat underwhelming in its recurrence to the Murder House and its innumerable, inexplicably physical ghosts. Tonight’s third episode, though, represents a marked improvement. “Drive In” concerns a banned horror film, Rabbit, Rabbit, that is reputedly cursed: watching it is said to turn viewers into homicidal maniacs.

The episode definitely has a “meta” quality, exploring the nature and purpose of fright films. The film’s deranged director claims to have created “a horror movie where the horror isn’t on screen, it’s in the audience.” Rabbit, Rabbit‘s bloody history naturally turns out to be much more than an an urban legend, as a night at the drive-in erupts into Dawn of the Dead.

The characters in “Drive In” obviously know their horror. Not only are Dread Central and Fangoria magazine invoked; dialogue references are made to William Castle’s The Tingler, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and (most integrally to the plot) William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The episode evinces a strong pedigree: it’s directed by Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame, and features a cast of horror veterans (Adrienne Barbeau) and American Horror Story alums (Naomi Grossman and John Carroll Lynch).

In an episode in which all hell breaks loose at a drive in, the scenes of carnage are not unexpected. Yet it is a quick flashback (to a film cutter who gets overzealous in her work) that provides the most memorably grisly moment here. “Drive In” never lets all the gory bury the story, and concludes with a wickedly clever plot twist.

Satisfyingly seasonal, this third installment of Americans Horror Stories offers a refreshing slice of summer fear fare.

 

Lore Report: “Head Case” (Episode 175)

We humans are really good at judging things by appearance alone. But clearly there is so much more to our world than what we can see on the surface. That hasn’t stopped us from leaning into that flaw, so much so that it’s become entirely automatic, like a compulsion or a mindless habit. A habit that has led us to do dark and terrible things.

Heads up: Episode 175 of the Lore podcast delves into the pseudoscience of phrenology (the attempt to read skull bumps as indicators of mental traits). Host Aaron Mahnke does a fine job of sketching the history of such mindful endeavor, noting its positive (its application to crime fighting) and negative (its racist dichotomies) components. The central theme of Mahnke’s narrative is that people often take matters too far, which leads to a recounting here of some ghoulish cases. Listeners learn of the skullduggery surrounding the corpse of the renowned composer Joseph Haydn, whose grave was robbed and his head stolen (by an associate with phrenological leanings). Mahnke closes the episode with the tale of a woman with a literal hole in her head (a wound traced to the craziest of causes), whose treatment by an unscrupulous, zap-happy doctor sounds like something right out of Frankenstein. The lore shared in “Head Case” is more of the strange-criminal than the supernatural variety, but the podcast’s fans will still go crazy for this episode.

 

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “Children of the Bedtime Machine” (2012; Shadow Show)

McCammon is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction, having produced several memorable examples (from the short story “Something Passed By” to the epic novel Swan Song). Here he envisions a post-technological world ecologically devastated by a global war. It’s a “sad and brutal world,” but the story (commissioned for an anthology celebrating the fiction of Ray Bradbury) does not prove some grim descent into Gothic horror: “There was no panic, and there was very little violence. The ones who had lived by that code were long dead. Now the remaining ones had taken on the thinness, the attitude and the patience of saints, as they waited for the end.” Emphasizing the lonesome rather than the loathsome, “Children of the Bedtime Machine” presents an isolated protagonist, an anonymous woman who lost both her husband and son long ago during the war. The melancholic gives way to the magical, though, when the woman comes across the titular gizmo while bartering at a store in “Douglasville”–a hand-cranked hologram projector designed as a sleep aid in the former age of the world. But when the machine later comes to life in the woman’s bedroom, it does not produce tranquil scenes of nature. Having already captured the tones, themes, and prose stylings of Bradbury, McCammon’s story takes a strong metafictional turn, as an exponentially-growing number of children are projected and ask the (soon-to-be-rejuvenated) woman to read to them aloud from her paperback volume of Bradbury stories. Accenting Bradbury’s ongoing generational impact, McCammon raises the possibility that these youthful figures are more than just “holograms and sparks.” The woman can’t help but wonder “if they were the spirits of children yet to be born. She wondered if when they came to real life, they would not have some memory of the stories, some feeling that they knew them even before they heard them the first time. Because she was sure that through these children the stories would live forever.” In an afterword, McCammon asserts that his narrative expresses his “feeling that Ray Bradbury’s work is timeless”; this hopeful fantasy story, a moving tribute to the Bradbury canon, promises to have a long shelf life of its own.

 

6. “Night Calls the Green Falcon” (1988; Silver Scream)

 

63-year-old Creighton Flint, a former star of Saturday matinee serials back in the 1940’s, is plagued by nightmares that replay scenes from his time as a crime-fighting superhero: “a reel of car crashes, falls from buildings, gunshots, explosions, even a lion’s attack. He had survived all of them, but they kept trying to kill him again and again.” Later in the novelette, it is revealed that Cray had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium in the early 50’s (after a storeroom fire at a theater where Cray was making a promotional appearance resulted in the deaths of fourteen children). Cray reverts to his old character, though, after his apartment-building neighbor Julia, a gold-hearted prostitute, is murdered by a john who turns out to be a slasher known as the Fliptop Killer. Hollywood indeed is “a city of masks,” and Clay dons his (as well as his old superhero suit) to catch Julia’s killer. Along with murderous thugs, Cray has to contend with his personal demons, his doubts of his own sanity: was he “just a crazy old man out for a joyride through fantasy”? His investigative efforts lead him into a series of adventures (including a classic showdown with a group of harassing bikers at a bar, in which Clay is born anew as a hero, a “righter of wrongs and champion of justice,” even as he quotes “lines from old scripts”). Just as “Night Calls the Green Falcon” echoes the title of one of Clay’s popular serials, McCammon’s narrative is structured to reflect the thrilling, episodic nature of such fare, complete with chapter-ending cliffhangers. Clay, who faces daunting tests as a masked crusader against modern decadence, at one point professes: “I think I’d rather die as the Green Falcon than live as an old man with a screwed-up bladder and a book of memories. I want to walk tall, just once more.” The Green Falcon gets to do just that, without ending up levelled: the serial superhero ultimately bests the serial killer, winning himself a new following in the process. Melding gritty horror with more wholesome fantasy, McCammon’s “Night Calls the Green Falcon” is deservedly revered by the author’s legion of fans.

 

5. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” (1986; Halloween Horrors)

“All sorts of good things” have happened to Dan Burgess and his family after the move to the small town of Essex (following Dan’s job loss when the steel mill in Birmingham closed back in February). In April, the once-again-employed Dan is promoted “from gravel-shoveler to unit supervisor at the cement plant.” In August, Dan receives a letter stating that the Burgesses “won five thousand dollars in a contest at the Food Giant store.” In October, though, Dan learns the price of such good fortune, when he is summoned to a strange Halloween night meeting of community members. The meeting’s host, Roy Hathaway, explains that Halloween is uniquely observed in Essex. On this night, a devilish wish-list is left on Hathaway’s doorstep, specifying the sacrifices Essex’s families must make to the town’s “satanic trick-or-treater.” As Roy pitches, “You can have anything and everything you want, Dan, if you give him what he wants on one special night of the year.” The story’s title heralds the fate of those who don’t hold up their end of the bargain, and come knocking is exactly what the dark adversary does after Dan refuses to engage in familial mutilation (he’s been told that the Devil “wants the first joint of the little finger of your child’s left hand”). A harrowing scene of home invasion ensues, but when Dan attempts to shoot the intruder he discovers to his chagrin: “There were no shells in the shotgun. Jammed into the chambers were [his wife] Karen’s pumpkin candies.” When Dan instead clubs the intruder in the stomach with the butt of the shotgun, the trickster spews the grisly evidence of his previous feasting this Halloween night: “a mess of yellow canary feathers, pieces of a kitten, , and what might have been a piglet.” Reading like an autumnal holiday version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” offers some wicked fun. Its delightful frights continue right up to its shocking finale, one that forces a hapless Dan to concede that “the Devil sure could come up with one hell of a Halloween costume.”

 

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #10, #9, #8

Robert R. McCammon no doubt is best known as an author of mammoth, epic-scale novels (e.g., Swan Song, Boy’s Life, They Thirst, Stinger, Speaks the Nightbird). He is not very prolific in terms of writing short fiction (short stories/novelettes): in his four-decade-plus career, McCammon has only averaged one such publication a year. When he does work at shorter lengths, though, McCammon typically produces strong pieces, which makes it difficult to narrow down his output to a top ten. But I will give it my best shot here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, counting down my selections over the next four Sundays.

 

10. “On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was” (1990; The Further Adventures of the Joker)

A portrait of an archvillain as a young sociopath. This origin story of the Joker (think the Heath Ledger version, not the more cartoonish iterations of the character) is grim and harrowing. Fourteen-year-old “Junior” Napier is a lonely outcast, mocked by the older kids in the neighborhood as a “goony” as walks the streets of his Gotham suburb. His home life is even worse, as both he and his mother are terrorized by his mentally-unbalanced father’s terrible act. Comedy-obsessed, Junior’s father constantly fires off groan-worthy jokes, and gives new meaning to punchline with his bullying insistence on a mirthful reaction: “SMILE, I SAID!” There’s a dangerous rage lurking in the dark pools of the father’s eyes: “It flew out without warning, but most of the time it lay inside Dad’s head and simmered in its stew of perpetual jokes and gritted teeth smiles. Where that rage had been born, and why, Junior did not know, and he figured his father didn’t know either. But jokes were its armor and weapons, and Dad wore them like metal spikes.” The tyrannical, abusive Mr. Napier succeeds in warping more than Junior’s sense of humor. Like an incipient serial killer, Junior is fascinated with death, and builds macabre structures–secretly housed inside an old water tank–out of the bones of slain animals (in the story’s horrifying climax, Junior graduates to the procuring of a human skeleton). The missing last word from this American Gothic story’s title is “smiling,” prefiguring the vicious mischief that the eventual “Clown Prince of Crime” will one day unleash on Gotham City.

 

9. “Black Boots” (1989; Razored Saddles)

A fugitive, bank-robbing gunslinger, Davy Slaughter, flees across a desert hellscape in the Wild West: “The sun, white as a pearl in the emerald air, was burning the moisture out of [him]. Davy thought he could hear his skin frying.” He is also wounded, sporting a bullet-scorched hand courtesy of his last run-in with a bounty hunter dubbed Black Boots. This dead-eyed desperado’s predicament seems to extend beyond natural concerns, though, as revealed when Davy claims to have already gunned down Black Boots “eight damn times.” Davy has to keep moving, because he believes the hunter is still on his trail in the form of a relentless revenant who “gets a little faster” on the draw every time he returns from the dead (as described by Davy, “This man who wears black boots is tall and skinny. He looks like he ain’t had a good meal in a long time. He looks hungry. His face is dusty-white, but you can’t set eyes on him for very long because you feel cold inside”). McCammon’s narrative is marked throughout by startling imagery that might be the product of Davy’s sunbaked derangement–or might have more ominous origin. A vulture hovering in the sky begins “to fall to pieces, drifting apart like dark whorls of smoke.” A bartender’s face suddenly becomes covered with “a mess of flies”; moments later, a rattlesnake wiggles from the man’s apparently empty eye socket. With increasing paranoia mounted on top of an already surly disposition, Davy grows dreadfully quick-triggered, and the rotten gunman ultimately finds himself fresh out of bullets when he needs them most. From its opening one-line paragraph (“Under a hard green sky, Davy ran from Black Boots”) that echoes Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, to a wicked clincher that hints that the titular “crafty bastard” might have bested Davy with infernal trickery, “Black Boots” blazes an exemplary Weird Western trail.

 

8. “The Deep End” (1987; Night Visions 4)

Glenn Calder is understandably grief-stricken following the drowning death of his sixteen-year-old son Neil in an “Olympic-sized public swimming pool.” But the man descends into Louis-Creed-like obsession after he catches up with the pool’s history of tragic mishap over the past few summers. Glenn has become convinced that the “small, circular purple bruise” found on the back of a previous victim’s neck was a “bitemark,” and that Neil was likewise killed by some alien predator. Now, Glenn is hellbent on revenge, and desperate to act before the next day’s draining of the pool: “Tomorrow would be too late. Because tomorrow, the thing that lurked in the public swimming pool would slither away down the drain and get back to the lake where it would wait in the mud for another summer season and the beckoning rhythm of the pump.” The story builds tremendous suspense as Glenn breaks into the pool grounds at night and explores the murky waters (wearing snorkeling gear and wielding a speargun). Glenn has to proceed carefully, considering the countless places the chameleon-like creature could hide: “It could be lying along a black line, or compressed flat and smooth like a stingray on one of the colored tiles. [Glenn] looked across the pool where the false ladder [that had lured Neil in] had been–the monster could make itself resemble a ladder, or it could curl up and emulate the drain, or lie flat and still in a gutter waiting for a human form to come close enough. Yes. It had many shapes, many colors, many tricks.” “The Deep End” is perfectly titled, doubling as a description of the pool’s most dangerous section and as a comment on Glenn’s sanity–the possibility that he has slipped “right off the deep end” in the wake of Neil’s death. At this point, it is probably no great spoiler to note that Glenn’s imagined predator proves to be real and suitably monstrous, making for a frightful climactic battle. Just as Peter Benchley’s Jaws chased legions of beachgoers out of the ocean, McCammon’s horrific tale threatens to scare the swimsuit off the reader, who will think twice about ever testing the waters of a public swimming pool again.

Dracula Extrapolated: “Abraham’s Boys”

The third installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

What if Van Helsing was an abusive, delusional figure?

Professor Abraham Van Helsing gets the last word in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Quoted in a note appended by Jonathan Harker (dated seven years after the events of the novel), Van Helsing says of Mina and her son Quincey: “This boy will some day day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.”  Van Helsing strikes an adoring note here, and the dossier of documents that comprises Dracula is posited as a helpful educational tool that will one day teach the boy about his family history. Nevertheless, author Joe Hill’s 2004 short-story sequel to the novel (think Bram Stoker by way of the film Frailty) imagines a much darker development.

In “Abraham’s Boys,” Van Helsing is living in early-20th Century America with his two children, Max and Rudy (the family has emigrated to the new world after being forced out of Amsterdam and then England by the scandal over some “terrible thing” the doctor has done). Right from the opening scene, Max, the story’s viewpoint character, paints a frightful portrait of his father. Van Helsing seizes his son by the wrist (Max can actually feel “the bones separating in the joint”) and verbally assaults him : “You disobey in a stupor, without considering, and then you wonder why sometime I can hardly stand to look at you. Mr. Barnum has a horse that can add small numbers. It is considered one of the great amazements of his circus. If you were once to show the slightest comprehension of what things I tell you, it would be wonder on the same order.” Such verbal lashing, though, pales in comparison to what Max’s younger brother experiences soon thereafter: as punishment for breaking the strange curfew imposed on the children (to be home indoors by nightfall), Rudy is beaten by Van Helsing with a quirt.

Van Helsing’s violent, paranoid behavior (bulbs of garlic are hung over the doorframe of the family residence) hardly endears him to his children, who have no knowledge at this point of their father’s supernatural encounters in Dracula. Max believes that Van Helsing is responsible for the death of his mother, a woman who suffered with “a chronic infection of the blood which caused her to bruise at the slightest touch.” A woman, in fact, named Mina, who Van Helsing married after the death of her first husband (and Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting protégé), Jonathan Harker. Max’s feelings toward his parents (beloved mother, dreaded father) appear more than simply Oedipal-fueled; he seems on the mark in suspecting his father of foul deed. When he and Rudy sneak into Van Helsing’s locked study (a sanctum they have been forbidden to enter when their father isn’t there), they accidently break a frame containing a calotype of Mina, and discover a disturbing picture secreted behind it. A “murdered woman” is shown naked and bound to a bed, with a bulb of garlic stuffed like a ball-gag in her mouth, and a wooden stake protruding from her chest. A blurred shape looms in the background, and Max recognizes the figure as his father: “In one hand he held a hatchet. In the other a doctor’s bag.”

This illicit photo cuts to the heart of Hill’s exploration in “Abraham’s Boys”: was Van Helsing understandably traumatized by his experiences in Dracula, or fiendishly transformed by them? The man Max has grown up with is someone “who feared the night as a person who can’t swim fears the ocean. Max almost needed it to be true, for vampires to be real, because the other possibility–that their father was, and always had been, in the grip of a psychotic fantasy–was too awful, too overwhelming.” Van Helsing might claim that his overbearing behavior is an exercise in tough love and that his stringent rules stem from a paternal desire to protect,” but Max and Rudy seem to need shielding most of all from him, not nosferatu. The story’s climax accentuates this, as Van Helsing attempts to teach his boys the grim basics of the vampire-killing trade by having them practice staking and decapitation on the fresh cadaver of their neighbor, Mrs. Kutchner (who died from cancer, not vampirism). The good doctor is working to warp his children more than empower them, and his fixation on vampires loose in America suggests derangement. When a hesitant Max questions why the staked woman in the secret photo didn’t have fangs, he receives an answer that is neither convincing nor comforting: “His father stared at him, his eyes blank, uncomprehending. then he said, ‘They disappear after the vampire die. Poof.'” Van Helsing’s diagnosis of the woman as a “diseased bitch”–just like his determination that Mina was “hysterical” and “in need of firm instruction”–proves dubious at best.

Hill’s story never outs Van Helsing as a murderous madman with 100% certainty, but the unsympathetic portrait of the character pushes the reader toward that conclusion, and Van Helsing’s ironic fate at Max’s hands at tale’s end smacks of comeuppance. Rather than representing a radical revisioning of the Van Helsing depicted in Dracula, “Abraham’s Boys” forces one to reflect back on Stoker’s character (whom feminist critics of the novel have long targeted as the orchestrator of misogynistic violence).  The obsessive, if not unhinged, figure in Hill’s narrative points back to the instability hinted at in Stoker’s novel (such as when Van Helsing is subject to bizarre outbursts of laughter). In hindsight, the crypt-invading, corpse-violating Abraham Van Helsing might be viewed less as Dracula’s heroic opponent than as the vampire’s transgressive and savage-in-his-own-way double.

 

Lore Report: “From Scratch” (Episode 174)

But just like our innate need for a place to live, sometimes that new life in a new place required new stories to make it all come together. Folklore evolves, it grows, and sometimes it’s invented from scratch to help a people feel a better sense of community. And one place in particular is famous for its stories, both in the ones they made up and the ones that are too amazing to believe.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners on a tour of weird Wisconsin. The various tales related range from the interesting (e.g. an anecdote concerning the rescue of a famous sideshow figure from a hotel fire) to the unnerving. There are ghost stories galore, including one involving reported sightings of an executed murderer whose postmortem condition will put you in mind of a legendary Washington Irving character. A wild outbreak of seeming poltergeist activity results in the blaming of a girl named Mary with possibly Carrie-like abilities. The longest stopover here is in the haunted town of Whitewater; nicknamed “The Second Salem” and featuring a water tank of unsavory repute known as the Witches Tower (pictured above), the place certainly justifies the attention Mahnke gives to it. The only issue with the episode’s narrative is that it breaks off in its back end to promote and present an extended clip of a new podcast (Haunted Road) from Mahnke’s production company. “From Scratch” shifts ground abruptly and lacks closure, but its first half mines a rewarding vein of lore in the Badger State.

 

How the Crowd Gathered

In conjunction with the recent American release of the Terrifying Ghosts anthology, Flame Tree Press has published a special post on its blog today. Eighteen of the contributors (myself included) discuss the inspiration for their respective stories (other authors from the ToC such as Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edith Wharton have yet to respond to the prompt, but based on the theme of the anthology, I’m still holding out hope!).

So check out the post here to find out which classic story was a formative influence on my piece “Theater Crowd.” And be sure to head back to the Flame Tree blog next Wednesday, for a post in which the contributors discuss our favorite titles in the ghost story genre. [Update, 7/7: the second post is now up on the website]