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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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Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#24, #23, #22

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

24. “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (from Vol. 3)

Throughout his career, Barker has shown a penchant for combining the genres of hard-boiled crime and supernatural horror. In this early instance, a mousy accountant is branded a smut-peddler after being framed by the criminal group he got himself mixed up with; enraged at his public humiliation, Ronnie Glass begins to take revenge on the underworld figures, but ends up tortured and murdered himself. Normally, that would be the end of the story, “Except that it was [only] the beginning” here. Rebelling against his ultra-violent demise (and the horrifying, “life-decaying banality” of the pathologists handling his corpse), the still-sentient Glass animates his death shroud and shapes it into humanoid form. This metamorphic “mansheet” makes more than haunting use of its funereal garb; the ghost stalks and physically assaults its killers. And when this masked antihero finally works its way up to the kingpin Maguire, the result is one of the wildest and most unforgettable scenes of sudden evisceration ever to be splashed across the pages of genre fiction.

 

23. “Revelations” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Another noirish tale, in which spectral figures prove decidedly visceral. On the thirtieth anniversary of the notorious murder, the posthumous Buck and Sadie Durning return to the Cottonwood Motel in lonesome Texas where Sadie shot and killed the serial philanderer Buck (Sadie herself ends up executed for her lethal efficiency: “In the final analysis, that was why they’d sent her to the chair. Not for doing it, but for doing it too well”). The couple intends to come to grips with the crime and come to terms with each other, but the attempted reconciling is complicated when the Bible-thumping evangelist John Gyer and his browbeaten wife Virginia are driven by heavy storms to take rooms at the so-called “Slaughterhouse of Love.” Buck is a grim figure to begin with–his chest wound continues to spew blood, like some twisted stigmata–and his unrelenting lustfulness leads him to semi-materialize and sexually assault Virginia. As unsettling as a ghostly rapist might be, though, the real horror here is the maniacal, Apocalypse-obsessed Gyer, who goes on a righteous rampage in the climax. Still, the tale features one of the few optimistic endings to be found in the Books of Blood, as Virginia manages to dispatch both Buck and Gyer with a single bullet. Sadie then advises Virginia to escape significant punishment by feigning insanity, and Virginia gets the ultimate laugh on her brimstone-sermonizing husband in her satirically-resonant line of clinching dialogue.

 

22. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Vol. 2)

An overt sequel to “Poe’s immortal story,” one that reworks the origins of “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Barker’s elderly protagonist, Lewis Fox, claims that his grandfather met Poe and inspired him with the report of an actual Parisian crime, solved by Lewis’s great uncle, the real-life C. Auguste Dupin. Barker outdoes Poe here for recounting bizarre murders in grisly detail. The first victim is said to have bitten off her tongue in terror as she was flensed of skin and muscle by a deadly razor; a later unfortunate suffers a frightful defacement: “The creature had taken hold of his lip and pulled his muscle off his bone, as though removing a balaclava.” But whereas the precursor narrative is neatly resolved via Dupin’s brilliant act of ratiocination, “New Murders” opens onto ambiguity and insanity. The ironic possibility remains that it was Lewis’s friend Philippe who killed the first victim, Natalie, in a fit of jealous rage after his young lover allegedly seduced Philippe’s trained ape (the product of a mad experiment, as Philippe attempts to test the validity of Lewis’s family legend). Subsequent murders while Philippe is in jail (where he soon chews open his own wrists) might be a strange case of his upraised beast aping the irrational violence initially modeled by its beloved master. In Barker’s scathing worldview, humans often form the most horrifying monsters of all.

 

Fatal Attraction–An Alternate Ending

Fatal Attraction is a film long familiar to me (pet rabbit in the stewpot!) through pop culture, but one that I had never actually seen from start to finish. I finally watched it the other night (it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime), and while I found it an entertaining (early) entry in the Psycho Stalker subgenre, I couldn’t help but think that the opportunity for a truly killer ending was missed.

Towards the conclusion of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film, Dan (Michael Douglas) reaches his breaking point with Alex’s (Glenn Close) harassment and endangerment of his family. Half-crazed himself, he breaks into her apartment and violently attacks her. In the midst of strangling her to death, he appears to come to his senses, and relents. Alex isn’t the forgiving or forgetting type, though, and soon charges at Dan with a butcher knife, which he manages to wrest from her. After a lengthy stare-down, he places the knife on the counter and silently exits.

But what if the scene didn’t end there? Imagine if the unstable Alex–who already slit her wrists earlier in the film because she couldn’t bear the prospect of losing Dan, decided to pick up the knife and kill herself with it after he walked out. Given the signs of forced entry and the fingerprints left on the weapon by Dan, it would be easy for the police to then arrest him for Alex’s presumed murder. To me, this would have been a much more interesting turn of events than the standard climax Fatal Attraction proceeded to present, complete with incidents that had to seem cliched even at the time (wait, she’s not really dead and leaps up for one last attack before being shot!). It would also shift the questionable moral tone of the film, which ends up situating the adulterous Dan as the heroic defender of his family (we last see him having his hand shaken by a policeman, and being drawn into the embrace of his still-loving wife). The alternate ending I’ve envisioned would not leave the character unpunished for his infidelity. How darkly ironic Dan’s fate would have been if he was ruined for doing the right thing morally-speaking (not killing Alex), after the wrong choice he made by having an affair in the first place.

A more downbeat ending for sure, but arguably a more satisfying one. A young Michael Douglas naturally conveyed smugness, so I don’t think viewers would have been all that bummed to see his character receive his comeuppance.

 

Mob Scenes: Lovecraft Country

Given its pointed combination of fantastic horror and American history, and its critical engagement with H.P. Lovecraft’s bigotry, it’s no shock that Lovecraft Country features a racially-charged mob scene. What is surprising, though, is that the same incident–the Tulsa riot of 1921, one of the ugliest events in the history of the Republic–is handled so differently in Matt Ruff’s source novel and the HBO series it inspired.

In “The Narrow House” section of Ruff’s novel, Montrose Turner is sent on a mission to retrieve a group of magic tomes from a named Henry Narrow (an alias assumed by Hiram Winthrop’s fugitive son). Arriving in Aken, Illinois, Montrose learns that Narrow is already dead, but interacts with Narrow’s ghost inside an apparition of the man’s house. As the price of his posthumous assistance, Narrow requests that Montrose tell him a story, and Montrose proceeds to relate his experiences in the Tulsa riot. Montrose explains how the riot started: the arrest of a black man named Dick Rowland after he was (falsely) accused of attacking a young white woman named Sarah Page; a white mob’s attempt to lynch Rowland at the jailhouse; the intercession of armed black men on Rowland’s behalf; the shootout that followed, and the eruption of violence as the white mob endeavored to torch a wealthy black neighborhood. Montrose’s father Ulysses was one of the neighborhood’s defenders against the white mob, and is fatally wounded while trying to protect Montrose. Montrose’s tale concords with the one then shared by the ghost Henry, who was himself shot and killed (along with his colored wife and child), and had his house burned down by a racist mob that refused to welcome a mixed family into the Aken community.

In the “Rewind 1921” episode of the HBO series, Montrose, his son Atticus, and Atticus’s girlfriend Leti all time travel back to Tulsa to retrieve the precious Book of Names (which they’ve learned was secretly possessed by the Turner family, but perished in the fires set by white arsonists). In a tense sequence that stretches almost the entire episode, the Tulsa riot explodes around them as the protagonists attempt to locate the book. The violence is especially hard-hitting when witnessed onscreen–the brutal murder, for instance, of a young Montrose’s friend, who is shot in the head at point blank range. Panoramic shots of the raging inferno after the neighborhood is set ablaze reveal the absolute war zone into which Tulsa has been transformed.

In Ruff’s novel, Montrose’s father acts and dies heroically, whereas in “Rewind 1921” he is shown to be an abusive, homophobic alcoholic. The main difference between book and series, though, is in the handling of the Tulsa riot. As impactful as the imagery of mob violence is in the episode, it lacks the backstory furnished in “The Narrow House,” and is employed more as a dramatic backdrop–another dire obstacle thrown in the time travelers’ way. Ruff’s book section (which uses the testimony–quoted in The Chicago Defender–of an African-American survivor of the riot as an epigraph) deals less sensationally but more informatively with the historical events. Both book and series do a fine job of demonstrating how that fateful day in 1921 has scarred Montrose and shaped his character, but the book proves more effective in its more naturalistic (even as Montrose converses with a ghost) invocation of the ignominious moment in American history that played out so chaotically and devastatingly in Oklahoma.

 

 

History Lessons: “Nine Nightmares” (Episode 2.6)

Some quotable quotes from the season 2 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, an episode that focuses on “nine uncategorizable films that push the boundaries of horror”:

 

Eli Roth: Great horror films entertain us and provoke us. They put society under a microscope, making us question not just what we fear, but why we fear it.

 

Jordan Peele: Sort of existing with a privilege, and a privilege that many of us enjoy, is violent act. And that’s the central theme of Us. This idea that when we look in the mirror, both individually and collectively, we might realize it’s not as simple as ‘I’m the good guy.’

 

Mary Harron: When we were filming American Psycho, I realized that the fear a woman has going on a date, or going to a guy’s apartment, and something bad happening, or him suddenly transforming from one kind of person to another, is a very strong female fear. Movies are a way of exploring those fears.

 

Joe Dante: [The Wicker Man is] about faith and how faith doesn’t really pan out for you. I wouldn’t say it’s on the side of the paganists, but it certainly comes close, because devout as the hero is, it doesn’t save him.

 

Michael Dougherty: The [E.G.] Marshall story [in Creepshow] does represent a lot of the sociopolitical things that were going on at the time. You know, him being a blatant racist character who is trying to live in this protective white bubble, literally, in his compound, and he’s terrified of other things getting into that world.

 

Chris Hardwick: Horror is the genre that gave us the bad good. Like there could be a really great horror movie and that’s fun to watch, but a really bad horror movie can be fun to watch, too.

 

Alexandra Billings: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; it’s breathtaking. So it’s unfortunate that it sits on a foundation of transphobia in a really big way, in a really blatant way. Because Dressed to Kill came out at a time when trans people were still thought of as illegal, making us murderers made perfect sense. It wasn’t a big stretch to think that we would go from jail to killing someone.

 

Eli Roth: It’s supposed to be shocking. you’re not supposed to watch and then move on to something else. You know, if you can get through Cannibal Holocaust, you see some of the most incredible, incredible filmmaking ever.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Book of Blood Tales, Ranked–#27, #26, #25

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

27. “The Madonna” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The central setting–the derelict Leopold Road Swimming Pools, with their labyrinthine layout and “echoing mausoleum” soundscape–is undoubtedly Gothic. The erotic and the grotesque are also conjoined in this tale, as naked, nubile beauties breastfeed Lovecraftian beasties (asexually reproduced by the titular creature). But the sudden transgendering of the main character, Jerry, is treated as more miraculous than macabre, a “wonder” to be embraced rather than a horror to be endured. A vivid deconstruction of masculinity, “The Madonna” encapsulates Barker’s career path–his eventual shift beyond the strictures of genre horror to the imaginative possibilities of the dark fantastic.

 

26. “Twilight at the Towers” (from Vol. 6)

Barker’s ability to hybridize is quite evident in this atmospheric mash-up of espionage and lycanthropy narratives. Cold-War Berlin is an arena of intrigue for the KGB and the British Security Service, who each feature special agents harboring especially dark secrets. When a lupine wild card is added to the cat-and-mouse games of politics, scenes of stunning transformation (“His flesh was a mass of tiny contusions, and there were bloodied lumps at his neck and temples which Ballard might have taken for bruises but that they palpitated, as if something nested beneath the skin”) and savage mutilation (“The beast swallowed down the dead man’s eyes in one gulp, like prime oysters”). What is most noteworthy here, though, is the fact that Barker’s narration clearly valorizes the naturally-free werewolf tribe at tale’s end, anticipating the author’s depiction of the Nightbreed in Cabal.

 

25. “Sex, Death, and Starshine” (from Vol. 1)

A would-be production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night gets the Phantom of the Opera treatment, as Barker injects blood (and other bodily fluids) into the traditional “haunted theater” story. The restless figures haunting the Elysium Theater are no ethereal ghosts; they are starkly physical–and libidinous (as exemplified by that unforgettable scene of afterlife fellatio). For a narrative, however, that features multiple deaths, fiery destruction, and a graveyard breakout that overshadows Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the dominant note struck isn’t really one of horror. Barker offers sardonic commentary on the world of modern acting, as the troupe of thespian revenants preparing to hit the mortuary circuit (targeting “a sorely neglected market”) in the conclusion prove more skilled at breathing life into their roles than do their living, artistically-challenged counterparts.

 

Lore Report: “Hanging On” (Episode 157)

 

It’s the one obstacle that we seem unable to overcome. We might be able to eliminate physical pain for a while, or broken social structures that hold us down. We’ve been able to cure diseases and send humans to the moon, but we’ve never been able to put a stopper to death. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But the history books contain hints at an alternate answer, one that says  even something as  permanent and certain as death might be avoided. Death, some believe, can truly be beaten. And if the stories are true, there are some who have already succeeded.

Immortality is in the air in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke covers “our undying obsession with living forever.” The first half of “Hanging On” is devoted to a broad survey of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth–subjects with which the listener is likely familiar already (although it was interesting to learn how the myth of Sisyphus ties in). But the episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates the incredible tale of William Cragh, a 13th-Century Welsh rebel who suffered capital punishment for his crimes (he was hung–twice) but somehow managed to make a full recovery from his grim execution and live on another eighteen years. Cragh’s miraculous resurrection ranks among the wildest stories in the history of Lore, but is soon matched by the episode’s closing segment, concerning a ritual of living burial in Vermont that served as a folksy, early rural version of cryogenics.

Apropos of its topic, the episode enjoys an extended runtime (44 minutes). “Hanging On” gets off to a bit of a slow start, but rewards the listener for hanging in with some astounding folklore in its latter half.

 

History Lessons: “Chilling Children” (Episode 2.5)

The kids are far from all right in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of HorrorHere is some of the fine guidance offered, on dealing with “Chilling Children”:

 

Kier-La Janisse: Everybody sympathizes with Carrie. The character of Carrie White continues to resonate, generation after generation, because she is sort of like this heroine character for anybody who has been marginalized, or bullied, or has had an oppressive parent.

 

Mick Garris: What could be more frightening than your child gone wrong [such as in We Need to Talk About Kevin]? I mean, how organic is that, how horrendous would that be? Because you’re there for at least eighteen years, man. However your kid comes out, you have a responsibility.

 

Eli Roth: The Bad Seed arrived in the mid-1950’s, one of the most conservative periods in American history. The generation that grew up during the Great Depression believed in strict discipline and frowned on selfishness, and Rhoda embodied their worst fears about their children.

 

Dana Gould: It’s the innate fear that parents have, that your child is here to replace you. They’re here because you’re leaving, and they’re going to take over. And the anxiety [as reflected in Village of the Damned] is that they’re not going to wait.

 

Don Mancini: What all these movies have in common is that they were about kids supernaturally punishing their enemies. And I think that is something that is extremely attractive to young people who feel that they have no control over their lives.

 

Milly Shapiro: You don’t want to punch a child; you don’t want to kick a child. They’re scary, but you’re like, ‘I can’t do anything, it’s an actual child.’ And so it’s a very unnerving thing to watch a scary child, or a child with a knife or anything like that.

 

Jason Middleton: It’s Alive dramatizes the idea, you know, of a monster kind of born, and it’s because of environmental factors, so it works in that whole eco-horror theme. But it’s also just very much about the idea that for men, childbirth is something over which they’re going to exercise little control, and, you know, what’s going to happen with this birth.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#30, #29, #28

The new anthology film on Hulu, Books of Blood (which I ended up enjoying a helluva lot more than I expected to), inspired me to return to the landmark, multi-volume collection of horror stories, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. My reread triggered the idea for a series of posts counting down the contents in terms of their horrific effectiveness. So here we go:

 

30. “Babel’s Children” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The setting–a quasi-religious cloister containing an unsettling secret–is classically Gothic (the place’s “lunatic asylum” atmosphere, where it’s hard to distinguish the patients from the administrators, recalls Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”). Vanessa Jape, the protagonist who accidentally ends up imprisoned there, is a quintessential Barker character: an intrepid delver into mystery, driven by an almost perverse desire to see, to know. But there’s a campiness to the piece’s sustained attempt at political satire (the bearded, rifle-toting men guarding the place are dressed–“disguised” would be overstating the case–as nuns). “Babel’s Children” succeeds as farce, but is a far cry from the other horror tales that Barker pens in the Books of Blood. Based on the narrative logic established by the collection’s frame story, the story feels out of place: the reader has to wonder why this one was ever engraved on Simon McNeal’s skin by the ghostly scribes from the highway of the dead.

 

29. “The Book of Blood (A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (from Vol. 6)

This vignette concluding the story cycle does connect clearly with “The Book of Blood” (reinforcing Barker’s indebtedness to Ray Bradbury’s framed story collection The Illustrated Man). But it pales in comparison to the sublime opening section of the Books of Blood. The main character, hitman/procurer-of-outré-trophies Leon Wyburd, is a mere cipher (really all the leader learns about him is that he hopes to retire to Florida), so his bloody fate isn’t all that moving. His demise also fails to achieve the graphic grandeur of Simon’s own, previous comeuppance in “The Book of Blood.” The postscript doesn’t add much to the mythos developed in the first volume’s opening frame; still, it is interesting to hear the reappearing Simon express the maddening state of his ongoing existence as the Book of Blood. Here at collection’s end, he reveals a haunting detail: fours years since his brutal tattooing, his unhealed wounds keep bleeding and bleeding, like sinister textual stigmata.

 

28. “Down, Satan!” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Discounting the Postscript’s return visit to Jerusalem Street, this is the shortest narrative in The Books of Blood. That is not to say the piece fails to pack a wicked punch. Dialogue-free, it reads like a dark, latter-day parable, of the wealthy Gregorius, “who woke one day and found himself Godless.” Desperate, he hopes to force God to reveal Himself by first invoking Satan: Gregorius’s misguided design is to tempt the Archfiend into entering the earthly realm by building him a malefic palace. H.H Holmes with an existential crisis, Gregorius commissions the construction of an elaborate deathtrap (filled with a slew of human sacrifices) in North Africa. The story luxuriates in the details of decadence, yet also shows restraint in its commitment to ambiguity. Does Satan actually take up residence in New Hell, or are the atrocities committed there the product of Gregorius’s inevitable descent into madness? Does the elusive trickster cunningly lead his would-be tempter Gregorius into damnation? An effective foray into the infernal in and of itself, “Down, Satan!” also prospers from its juxtaposition with the preceding tale–the lengthier “Revelations,” whose final line of dialogue is the sly claim, “The Devil made me do it.”