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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 Series of Wrong Turns: Fox’s The Passage

I hate to sound like the neighborhood crank, offering up yet another not-as-good-as-the-source-novel rant, but my shaking fist has been forced. Fox’s new series The Passage utterly disappoints with its egregious deviations from Justin Cronin’s trilogy-opening literary chiller.

The “Pilot” episode proves jarring from its opening moment: the use of young Amy Bellafonte’s voiceover (like the lazy, info-dumping dialogue the writers subsequently give to the characters) not only leads to some clunky conveyance of exposition, but also seems nonsensical (if Amy–whose extraordinary lifetime spans generations–is speaking in retrospect, why is she doing so in prepubescent voice?). Worse, such loquaciousness is completely out of character with the quiet, withdrawn figure we are introduced to in Cronin’s novel. The TV series transforms Amy into a sassy 10-year-old, and even more strikingly, changes her race from white to black. My immediate reaction to this latter switch is to question why it was made. Is it just change for change’s sake, an attempt (similar to the tricks played by The Walking Dead) to render the adaptation distinct from the original narrative? Is it a compensation for the deletion of Sister Lacey (a significant character in the book) from the series? What bothers me most here is that the change results in racial stereotyping: Amy’s story is set in motion when her “stupid crackhead” (Amy’s term of besmirchment) mother dies on the street of a drug overdose.

Not just Amy, but almost all of Cronin’s characters appear to have been dramatically altered. The novel’s vampiric villain, Giles Babcock, becomes fetching blonde “Shauna” Babcock. Cold-blooded government agent Clark Richards is given a romantic side (anyone who’s read the book was likely shocked to watch him fall into bed with [the now-female] Sykes), and is presented as a longtime friend of protagonist Brad Wolgast. Wolgast’s novelistic backstory, meanwhile, is flipped: here he’s revealed as the one who left home following the tragic death of his daughter Eva; his ex-wife Lila (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, an actress whose painful attempts to emote consistently strike me as the expression of a constipation-sufferer) openly seeks to resume relations.

I also feel compelled to grouse about the the not-so-special makeup effects. The test subjects in Cronin’s novel undergo a radical transformation into monstrosity that fails to manifest (at least not yet) in the series. For all the experimenting doctors’ don’t-call-them-vampires rhetoric, the show appears content to employ standard bloodsucker imagery. Pointy fangs, gleaming eyes: these nemeses look like castoffs from 1979’s Salem’s Lot adaptation.

Ironically, Cronin’s Passage does trace straight back to the work of Stephen King (The Stand in particular). But such intertextual connection (though perhaps to no surprise at this point) is stupefyingly simplified by the TV series. Exhibit A (as in Aargh!): the superpowers of Carrie-like telekinesis that Amy now apparently possesses.

Judging from the pilot and previews of upcoming episodes, The Passage reduces the marvelous (and elaborate) storytelling of Cronin’s post-apocalyptic epic to televisual shorthand. The unabashed bastardization on display thus far portends a series ultimately more absurd than absorbing.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

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:

Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson:

#9. Dickinson employs stock Gothic imagery–the woods, “banditti” lurking on a “lonely road,” tempestuous weather–in almost allegorical fashion to signal humanity’s fraught journey through life.

#281. The poem invokes the sublime from its opening lines: “‘Tis so appalling–it exhilarates– / So over Horror, it half captivates–.” From here, though, the poem takes a surprisingly optimistic turn, finding relief in release–the acceptance of death frees the soul from “Fright” and “Terror” and makes personal “Woe” no longer so “bleak dreaded.”

#414. Dickinson presents a trio of nightmare scenarios here: drowning by being sucked into a maelstrom, fiendish menacing by “a Goblin with a gauge,” death by hanging from a gibbet. The series of last-minute reprieves–the divine rescue from a dire fate–nonetheless leaves a lasting a crisis of faith.

#512. The opening conceit (“The Soul has Bandaged moments”) hints at mummy-like restriction, at a death-shrouded state. The unnerving attention of a “Goblin” to the poem’s prostrate and and helpless female subject recalls Fuseli’s classic painting “The Nightmare.” In contrast to the positivity of poem #281 above, this one ends on a note of re-imprisonment, a return to the clutches of “Horror.”

#590. Dickinson paints an uncanny scene–a person standing in the mouth of a cave is frightened by a horrid Goblin–as a means of describing the experience of human loneliness.

#670. A poignant exploration of psychological (vs. supernatural) horror: “One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted– / One need not be a House –“. Dickinson argues that the human mind produces “a superior spectre” to any ghost encountered at midnight, to any Gothic villain giving chase through an Abbey.

#1400. This poem focuses on the seemingly-limitless mystery of nature, looks down at the water in a well and posits a whole other world beyond the “abyss’s face.” A perfect example of how Dickinson utilizes a Gothic rhetoric and repertoire of images, as the poet describes nature’s strangeness in terms of a “haunted house” and a “ghost.”

#1670. A surreal shocker (“with creeping blood,” the speaker recounts her nightmare) in which a worm in a bedchamber transforms into a sinister serpent. The Gothic trope of the maiden in flight is expanded to the extreme here, as the speaker runs right out of her house and admittedly doesn’t stop until she’s several towns away.

 

The final verdict? No writer since Poe took readers into–and beyond–the grave. While Dickinson’s work feels closer to home than Poe’s vaguely European settings, her morbid and macabre meditations transcend any specific geographic locale in their more universal concerns with the human condition. Dickinson is an indisputably Gothic poet (one who employs the Gothic to diverse ends), but not necessarily an American Gothic poet. The poet’s own intriguing background–the “fabled eccentricities” (Crow’s headnote phrase) of this legendary New England recluse long sequestered in an upstairs bedroom of her family home–appears to have created an American Gothic framework that does not perfectly reflect what is pictured within Dickinson’s actual poems.

Mob Scenes: “Tender as Teeth”

In my last post of 2018, The Best of the Best of the Best Horror of the Year, I cited Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski’s “Tender as Teeth” as one of the top selections for the anthology series over the last decade. This unique piece of post-apocalyptic fiction takes as its jumping off point the end of a zombie plague (which wasn’t your typical uprising, anyway: “The dead didn’t crawl out of their graves. Society didn’t crumble entirely. The infection didn’t spread as easily as it did in the movies.”). A “survivor” here is not just a human who managed to fend off the dental cases, but also someone like the protagonist Justine, who was injected with a medical Cure after a six-months’ existence as a feral carnivore.

Justine’s problems are far from solved, however. Ongoing digestive issues and “death breath” are the least of her woes. She is not only traumatized, uncomfortable living in her own skin, but also tormented by others who view her with disgust and express venomous hatred toward her. Justine struggles with the infamy of her cannibalistic binge (since her lowest moment went viral: a well-timed photo caught her macabre banqueting on a baby). Now the outraged masses won’t let her forget her” amnesiac murder”; she realizes there’s “an entire planet filled with people who actively wanted her dead.”

“Tender of Teeth” actually features two related mob scenes. In the first, the photographer Carson (who snapped the notorious image of “Zombie Chick”) is attacked by the pack of protesters picketing outside Justine’s apartment. The group’s focus is soon diverted by Justine’s appearance in the window; the new offensive involves “Cursing at her. Gesturing at her. Spitting. Picking up tiny chunks of broken sidewalk and hurling them at her.” In the following scene, the zealots attempt to ambush Justine and Carson on a desert road outside Las Vegas. Even as an attitude of we-just-want-to-talk reasonableness is affected, the accosters come across as not just disingenuous, but as delusional lunatics (whose gun-toting points to a potential firing-squad fate for Justine). In neither scene does this group come off well. Justine thinks of “her personal Raincoat Brigade” as “the biggest bunch of vultures this desert has ever produced.” Arriving at Justine’s apartment, Carson notes that the persistent protesters looked “tired, haggard, and vacant eyed. Ironically enough, they kind of looked like you-know-whats.”

Just as with their handling of the zombie apocalypse, Crawford and Swierczynksi are not content to fall back on cliches when presenting mob violence. As he’s jumped by the hatemongers outside Justine’s place, Carson considers:

In the movies there’s always an explanation. Your antagonists go to great pains to tell you exactly why you’re going to receive a brutal beating before the beating actually happens. Not in reality. When a mob attacks you, and blood’s filling your mouth, and someone’s kicking you in the back and you can feel your internal organs convulsing…there there are no explanations.

The authors also endeavor to demonstrate that “angry mob” might not be the most accurate label for the antagonistic assembly in the story. Fear appears to be the ultimate emotion driving the irrational “Disbelief in the Cure” movement, “a groundswell of people who brought out these pseudo-scientists claiming that the Cure was only temporary, that at any moment, thousands of people could revert to flesh-eating monsters again.” Tellingly, Justine’s concerns are with the murderous hands of a “frightened mob.”

A clever and original tale (that would make for an incredible film adaptation), “Tender as Teeth” takes a healthy bite out of misguided, self-deputizing pursuers of mob justice.

The Best of The Best of the Best Horror of the Year

In the recently-released The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, editor Ellen Datlow collects her choices of the top stories from the past decade of the anthology series. But what’s the best of The Best of the Best? Naturally, the competition for such title is stiffer than Mr. Olympia in rigor mortis, and lot of extraordinary stories have to get left off the list, but here’s my New Year’s Eve countdown of the top ten pieces in this wonderful volume:

 

10.”Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

The zombie apocalypse has never featured two more unlikely survivors: an anthropology-department grad student and his dissertation director (Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, they ain’t). Jones’s tale offers a wicked-smart contrast of the heady and the visceral.

 

9.”The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell

A hapless grandson has a disturbing encounter with a group of bingo-hall hags. Campbell is the undisputed champion of subtle, unnerving detail–nowhere more evident than in this witty and slyly sinister masterpiece.

 

8.”Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud

The typically exceptional Ballingrud scripts another winner: a werewolf story that deals with a survivor’s guilt following the massacre of his colleagues. Strong characterization here helps show that economic hardship is no less horrifying than a lycanthrope’s rampage.

 

7.”Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor

Dark times in the sun-punished Death Valley, domain of some unbelievably creepy vultures. Taylor’s terrific descriptive powers brings a beauty to the grotesquerie and brutality of the desert.

 

6.”In a Cavern, In a Canyon” by Laird Barron

Barron’s fictional hallmarks are on display: hard-boiled narration (by a female lead, in this case), an atmosphere of steadily-mounting dread. This one reads like an episode of The X-Files set in the remotes of Alaska, but that show’s Monsters of the Week seem like Sesame Street castoffs compared to the horrid carnivore preying on good Samaritans here.

 

5.”The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick

A Lake District twist on Stephen King’s “The Raft.” Bestwick’s haunting narrative furnishes a classic example of how the monsters we don’t actually see (but can hear all too well) can prove the most terrifying.

 

4.”At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow

A modern Gothic shocker concerning a very private school in the California hills that teaches young girls more than etiquette and equestrian skill. Goodfellow, one of the most accomplished contemporary writers of the weird tale, delves deftly (and unforgettably) here into “a Greek myth that Bulfinch left out.”

 

3.”Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski

Anyone who grouses that the zombie subgenre has lost its bite never feasted eyes on this stunningly original take (concerning the ostracizing of a since-cured flesheater who remains infamous thanks to a photo that captured her mindless chomping on a baby). Gripping throughout, the story builds to a surprising–yet highly satisfying–climax.

 

2.”Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee

Lee’s imagery here is jaw-dropping, as is the unsettling premise she extrapolates from: Britain eclipsed by a gigantic cloud formed of mysteriously uplifted magpies. This epic apocalypse tale would make for one of the weirdest and wildest disaster films ever to hit the big screen.

 

1.”This Stagnant Breath of Change” by Brian Hodge

Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to write an episode of The Twilight Zone. In a quaint town whose normalcy is rooted in the paranormal, everyone is curiously hellbent on keeping a dying city father alive. The cosmic horrors of the conclusion are undeniably chilling, yet almost overshadowed by the preceding scene of angry-mob violence. Incredible on multiple levels, Hodge’s clever riff on the Cthulhu Mythos also forms one of the most harrowing works of American Gothic short fiction that I have ever read.

 

2018 Supreme

At December’s end, here’s a list of some of the best summations of the year in horror. See what you might have missed–or be reminded why you checked out these books/shows/films in the first place. Onward, aficionados:

Barnes and Noble: The Best Horror Books of 2018

The Lineup: 10 Best Horror Books of 2018

PopSugar: The 13 Most Chilling Horror Books of 2018

Cinemablend: The 10 Best Horror TV Shows of 2018

Bloody Disgusting: The Best Horror TV Episodes of 2018

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Best Horror Movie Posters of 2018

Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2018

Harper’s Bazaar: 26 Best Horror Movies of 2018

WatchMojo: The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2018

 

OK, enough retrospective respect. Let’s round out the list with a compilation that looks ahead to the coming year:

LitReactor: The 15 Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2019

 

Darkness in the Heart of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Most Haunting Songs

For over four decades now, Bruce Springsteen has fronted one of the country’s most rollicking rock bands. Starkly contrasting with the stadium-shaking anthems, though, are the more somber-toned and macabre-themed tunes Springsteen has penned and crooned over the course of his career. So as the year draws to a close (just like the run of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this month), here’s a top-ten-style list of my favorite musician’s darkest offerings…

  • “My Hometown”: Waxing nostalgic and melancholic at once, the song hearkens back to a birthplace that has since been marred by racial strife and economic plight. But to me, it’s the cyclic structure (as the speaker ends up repeating to his son the same lines his father had given him years earlier) that’s so subtly unnerving, suggesting that “getting out” is now a snuffed aspiration.
  • “American Skin (41 Shots)”The eerie refrain is fired off nearly as many times as the eponymous barrage (Springsteen’s pointed reference to the excessive force used by officers of the NYPD in gunning down an innocent Amadou Diallo). This protest song, though, transcends its racially-charged subject matter by reminding listeners that we all risk violent death as we move through our everyday lives.
  • “The Wrestler”A grappler’s account of his sacrifice to the bloody spectacle of professional wrestling–the physical and spiritual toll the sport has taken on him. The images employed (“one-legged dog,” “one-armed man,” “a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat”) reflect not only the speaker’s sense of having been broken down and hollowed out, but also a terrible self-awareness of his carnival-freakish status. Springsteen has laid elegiac tracks to other hit movies (PhiladelphiaDead Man Walking), but none match the tenor of their cinematic counterpart as pitch-perfectly as this Grammy nominee.
  • “Factory”Springsteen adopts a Gothic idiom (“mansions of fear,” “mansions of pain”) in this dirge about being turned into the walking dead by “the working life.” No less disconcerting than such reduction to soulless automatons, though, is the fact that these men have grown dangerously embittered by their blue-collar employment (and no doubt “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”).
  • “Atlantic City”: A song that highlights the darkness–the corruption and desperation–lying behind boardwalk glitz. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” the down-and-out speaker speculates on the return of luck; nevertheless, a hellish existence appears in store once he starts getting involved with the local underworld.
  • “We Are Alive”: Springsteen channels Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as he presents a chorus of voices from beyond the grave. Ultimately uplifting in both its beat and theme (the undying spirit of those who fight for social and economic justice), the song features some truly horrific imagery along the way–especially when the speaker awakens within the cold blackness of a worm-filled grave.
  • Devils and Dust”: In this bleak Springsteen masterpiece, a soldier in a desert country (a landscape just as evocative of the American West) is gripped by fear and shaken by a crisis of faith. The alliterative title pairing signals a damning spiritual desiccation–an inner wasteland to match the battlefield without.
  • “Nebraska”This unemotional, remorseless chronicle (based on the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) of a couple’s interstate thrill-killing spree proves just as harrowing for the now-incarcerated speaker’s description of execution via electrocution. With his conclusion that “there’s just a meanness in this world,” the killer echoes the grimly philosophizing Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
  • “My Father’s House”A dream of return to the childhood sanctuary of family connection takes a nightmarish turn, as the speaker makes a frightful flight through a dark forest with ghosts not-far afield and the devil right on his heels. Matters grow even more haunting when he awakens and embarks on a trip back home, only to discover that he is too late (his father is gone, and the family domicile is now occupied by strangers). The slow, muted music here is well-suited to the song’s story of quiet tragedy.
  • “The River”This bittersweet ballad (inspired by the marriage of Springsteen’s sister Ginny and brother-in-law Mickey) expertly evokes the loss of youthful innocence–the crushing of hopes by the harsh realities of life. The lines “Now these memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?” rank among the most poignant ever sung by Springsteen. Undeniably powerful, “The River” floods the listener with mournful emotion.

 

Of a Different Feather

Let me begin by offering a pair of disclaimers. First, I’m not a big fan of Sandra Bullock, whose acting seems to range between bitchy yelling and the delivery of sarcastic zingers. Second, I’m the guy who always grouses that movies “based on the novel” never are as good as the book.

Which brings me to today’s release to Netflix’s streaming service, Bird Box, an adaptation of Josh Malerman’s harrowing 2014 novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bullock gives a convincing and complex performance; she conveys both gritty determination and emotional vulnerability as a single mother, Malorie, desperately struggling to deliver her children to safety across a post-apocalyptic American scene (“landscape” doesn’t seem the right word here, considering that a good chunk of the film involves a rowboat journey downriver). And my concerns that I would have to title this posted review “Turd Box” thankfully proved unfounded. The film is a gripping and entertaining thriller, effectively dramatizing the sudden breakdown of civilization when the world is overrun by mysterious creatures that drive anyone who beholds them to a prompt (and often gruesome) suicide.

Still, the viewer fortunate to have read the Malerman book beforehand is likely to sense some missteps by the movie version. There’s no denying that the source text presented a difficult case for adaptation: readers are able to get right inside the head of the frequently-blindfolded “viewpoint” characters and share their fear of the unknown, whereas the medium of film automatically enforces a more externalized perspective. The fact that Bird Box‘s viewers are able to see what the characters cannot steers the experience from dread toward dramatic irony (the film attempts to address this dilemma by employing close-ups and random cuts to an occluded “I-camera” to simulate Malorie’s sightless perspective). A second area of difficulty concerns what to do with the monsters: unlike A Quiet Placewhere the grotesque predators are spectacularly visualized, Bird Box (in a wise adherence to Malerman’s approach in the book) never brings the suicide-inducing nightmares front and center. But how then to present an invisible menace? Shadows and swirled leaves are deftly employed, but the (over-reliant) resort to whispered temptations feels more hokey than horrific.

My major issue, though, is the sea change the filmmakers create by turning from suspense to action. The movie is filled with scenes of exciting adventure (e.g. the river here features roaring rapids), which while well-choreographed also give the proceedings a rushed feel despite Bird Box‘s two-hour-plus run time. Nowhere is this more regrettably evident than when Gary invades the plot. In the film, this obvious lunatic confirms our first impression all too soon, whereas the book wrings sweat from the uneasy reader because of the uncertainty of situation (Malorie’s mounting suspicion of Gary, and her indecision after realizing that her concerns about him are justified). In retrospect, a ten-episode series (cf. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) rather than a feature-length film would have made for a stronger adaptation. This would have allowed for a more natural development of characters (especially the supporting cast) and set-up of incident, and enabled viewers to have a keener sense of the housemates’ entrapment and their day-to-day difficulties of living in a world where willful blindness has become the first rule of survival.

In and of itself, Bird Box is an eminently watchable film, but those hoping for the height of terror are advised to migrate straight back to Malerman’s novel.

 

Mob Scene–Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

 

The 1992 film Candyman made a couple of key revisions when adapting Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” First, it relocated the action from (the fictional) Spector Street Estate in England to Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project. It also furnished a backstory for the titular killer: no mere urban legend, Candyman was actually a black artist named Daniel Robitaille, who ended up lynched by a miscegenation-hating mob after impregnating a white woman. In Candyman, Professor Purcell conveys this exposition (the transcript of his speech can be read here) to protagonist Helen Lyle over the dinner table. The graphic picture Purcell paints is framed as a strictly verbal account, but in the film’s 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel’s torture/murder is fully dramatized onscreen.

This mob scene begins in horrific fashion, with the gruesome sawing off of the subdued Daniel’s right hand. But the sudden swarming of a black cloud of bees (and just as quick retreat of this quasi-Biblical plague of insects) is a nonsensical bit marked by silly CGI. The drama also gets melo-, thanks to the hammy histrionics of Daniel’s protesting lover Caroline. Perhaps most dissatisfying of all, the scene is too on-the-nose in its explanation of the origins of the Candyman legend. A child present at the spectacle of violence tastes a drop of honey splattered on his cheek as Daniel is smeared with honeycomb, and proceeds to christen Daniel with the hybrid moniker “Candyman.” A parasol-carrying woman picks up on this lead, and laughingly chants “sweets to the sweet” (we’ve come a long way from the allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Barker’s story). Finally, Caroline’s vengeful father feels a strange need to stick a handheld mirror in the ravaged Daniel’s face; the mirror conveniently capture’s Daniel’s soul as he dies uttering “Candyman.”

Yes, the execution here leaves a lot to be desired, but this mob scene undeniably succeeds in establishing the modern-day bogey as a formerly human victim. The erstwhile Daniel Robitaille is transformed into a sympathetic figure, an innocent man (in life) whose romance with Caroline precipitated a tragic death. Candyman–who provides a voiceover to the flashback–was forced to become “the reflection of [the racist rabble’s] hatred, their evil.” His mortal demise is much more pitiable than that of another horror icon, the child murderer Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, who suffers a boiler-room immolation by a mob of outraged, vigilante-justice-seeking parents.

Recently, a remake of the original Candyman was announced, with Jordan Peele at the helm. If the forthcoming film chooses to give a similar backstory to the legend, it might be worth the price of admission just to see what sort of mob scene the Get Out director envisions.

Prime Evil: Thirtieth Anniversary Review

1988 was a banner year for horror anthologies, delivering not only Silver Scream (which did include several reprints in its table of contents), but also Prime Evil: New Stories of Modern Horror. I recently reread the latter, Douglas-E.-Winter-edited anthology, curious to see how it holds up three decades later. The short answer is “amazingly well”; allow me to elaborate, though, on the individual selections.

“The Night Flier” by Stephen King. “Count Dracula with a private pilot’s license” (as the story’s Kolchakian investigator quips) doesn’t do justice to this atmospheric and allusive tale that forms a clever riff on The Night Stalker. Perfectly paced, the piece builds to a terrifying climax (the urinal scene furnished an image that has stayed with me for thirty years). One of King’s more underrated works of short fiction.

“Having a Woman at Lunch” by Paul Hazel. Hazel’s was (and ostensibly remains) the least recognizable name in the book, and his entry the least satisfying. The punchline of this brief, pedestrian bit of black comedy is captured by the story title, removing any real need to read further.

“The Blood Kiss” by Dennis Etchinson. Etchinson’s intricately structured story cuts back and forth between the script of a zombie-themed TV episode and the narrative of an accidental encounter with a psycho on Valentine’s Day. This one must have seemed very meta- and postmodern when it was first published, and doesn’t pale when looked back upon from a post-Scream vantage point.

“Coming to Grief” by Clive Barker. The immensity–not to mention the diversity–of the author’s talent is on full display in this understated meditation on mortality and mourning. Barker proves that his horror extends beyond graphic splashes across the page, while depicting a quarry-haunting Bogey that represents one of his most frightening creations.

“Food” by Thomas Tessier. The veteran horror reader can anticipate where this story (of awful apotheosis) is headed, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the journey. Tessier strikes a fine balance here between urbanity and grotesquerie.

“The Great God Pan” by M. John Harrison. Disclosure: as a teenager back in 1988, I didn’t know Arthur Machen from Arthur Treacher’s (and actually thought going in that the last word of Harrison’s title signified a frying pan!). Thirty years on, I’ve grown much more genre-aware, enough to know that Harrison’s tale, while rich in uncanny imagery, fails to stack up against its totemic namesake.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell. What if David Morrell turned to writing a more Lovecraftian type of cosmic horror? One need not wonder anymore after reading this unforgettable tale of weirdly-caused artistic madness. One of Morrell’s most fantastic efforts, in every sense of the word.

“The Juniper Tree” by Peter Straub. Straub focuses here on the mundane horrors of parental neglect and sexual abuse (by a predator in a movie theater). I can remember being underwhelmed by this long, downbeat story when it was first published, and, unfortunately, it still falls flat for me in 2018.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant. This tale of a ghost-haunted fishing trip reads like a more horrific version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” For me, Grant’s trademark brand of quiet horror often straddles a fine line between obliquity and obscurity, but there’s no misunderstanding the shadows darkening this particular narrative.

“Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti. The master of the eerie short story is in top form in this unnerving first-person account of an author haunted by the macabre and mischievous protagonist of her series of children’s books. Ligotti’s 1989 story “Conversations in a Dead Language” might be better known today, but his entry in Prime Evil is another terrific foray into Halloween horror.

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s penchant for penning darkly witty and dreadfully realistic scenarios is evident in this monologue by a dangerous, deluded plagiarist. In retrospect, this succinct story also anticipates Campbell’s similarly deranged-author-themed novel, Secret Story.

“The Pool” by Whitley Strieber. A backyard swimming pool is transformed into a site of abysmal creepiness, and the horror of losing one’s child is given an otherworldly twist. Powerful in and of itself, Strieber’s story also intrigues because it is the first fiction the author produced following his controversial claims of alien abduction in Communion: A True Story.

“By Reason of Darkness” by Jack Cady. Cady draws readers into a Conradian heart of darkness inhabited by the literal–and decidedly unfriendly–ghosts of war. Exquisitely envisioned, and building toward a harrowing climax, Cady’s masterpiece of a novella should have long since been developed into a feature film.

With classic works by Morrell and Cady, and strong offerings by King, Barker, and Ligotti, Prime Evil bears out its titular hint at supremacy. The most important piece in the entire volume, though, might be Winter’s introduction. Tracing the nature (Winter famously defines horror as an emotion rather than a genre) and modern history of horror, the essay shines with insight. This nonfiction document alone made the anthology a must-read when first published, and makes it a must-find now for any fan or aspiring writer who wasn’t around back in the Eighties.

 

Baby’s Fiftieth Birthday

As I mentioned in a previous post, the excellent documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror has sparked a desire in me to re-watch countless genre classics. First up on my list was Rosemary’s Baby, the 1968 Roman Polanski film (based on the Ira Levin bestseller) that is now an astounding fifty years old. Here are some thoughts upon viewing the DVD once again in 2018:

One ostensible key to the film’s longevity is that it succeeds in frightening its audience even when the supernatural element is subtracted from the plot. The body horror of Rosemary’s painful pregnancy strikes a chord with every prospective parent, as well as anyone who has ever feared being ravaged from within by some terrible disease.

Rosemary’s Baby, which transplants the witchcraft tale from Puritan New England to the heart of metropolitan Manhattan, continues to speak to our hyperpopulated urban modernity. The film underscores the perils of the apartment complex, of living in too close proximity to too many strangers. As Rosemary Woodhouse’s residence in the Bramford demonstrates, you never know who you might get as neighbors, or if you can trust the public face they present.

Ruth Gordon garnered Oscar glory for her portrayal of nasal busybody Minnie Castavet, but hers was a one-note performance bordering on cliche. In retrospect, Sidney Blackmer’s embodiment of Minnie’s husband Roman creates the much stronger character–one all the more sinister for his seemingly avuncular nature.

Mid-Twentieth Century values are on full display in the film: Guy is the breadwinner, Rosemary is the homemaker. Perhaps the most appallingly chauvinistic moment occurs when Guy pesters his drowsy wife to get up and cook him breakfast (on the morning after he fed her roofie-laced chocolate mousse and pimped her out to Lucifer!).

Rosemary’s climactic expectoration in the face of Guy (a quasi-Weinstein using sex to manipulate his own acting career) should elicit resounding cheers from supporters of the current Me Too Movement. [For an excellent look at the film through this particular lens, see the Laura Jacobs article “The Devil Inside: Watching Rosemary’s Baby in the Era of #MeToo”.]

Along with The Haunting (1963), Rosemary’s Baby–whose titular infernal infant never appears onscreen–forms a preeminent example of a film that prefers to hint at horror rather than hit viewers right in the face with it (Rosemary’s demand “What have you done to its eyes?” ranks right up with Eleanor’s “Whose hand was I holding?” in The Haunting as a moment that terrifies without overtly identifying). Rosemary’s Baby forms a polar opposite to another hit horror film from 1968, the unabashedly graphic Night of the Living Dead. It’s also the antithesis of the similarly-occult-themed film The Exorcist (1973), whose over-the-top garishness has lost its shock value over time.

Unlike The Exorcist (which I critiqued in an earlier post), Rosemary’s Baby warrants and rewards repeated viewings. Subsequent study highlights the various subtle clues of conspiracy–the Machiavellian machinations of the coven, not to mention the utter duplicity of John Cassavetes’s Guy (a virtuoso American Gothic hero-villain). The dramatic irony can also be savored: even after discovering witches in her midst, Rosemary mistakenly believes they want to steal her baby for a blood sacrifice, and is slow to realize that she’s bearing a half-breed with the actual blood of Satan in its veins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a clear product of its times, an era of considerable cultural turbulence. But a present-day viewing verifies that the film is still relevant, and still eerily effective, a half-century after its release.