Greetings from the Macabre Republic…

Featured

…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.

Think you might fit in nicely? Here’s a quick citizenship test:

Continue reading

Blood’s a Winner

Vic and Blood…together at last. Blood’s a Rover presents the complete adventures of the wild boy and his telepathic dog. Their tales–in the form of two stories, a dialogue, a novella, and a teleplay (not to mention the epigraphic “Wit and Wisdom of Blood” interspersed throughout)–are gathered here for the first time in a rewarding volume that reads like an episodic novel.

Back in 1969, Harlan Ellison published “A Boy and His Dog,” the proto-cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic classic that stands as arguably his most popular and revered work. The novella depicts a bombed-out America roamed by teenage scavengers, who exist as “solos” or gang up into “roverpacks.” Ragged individualist Vic falls into the former camp, but he does have his canine companion (more partner than pet, as the ongoing struggle for survival draws Blood together with Vic in a symbiotic, if not always simpatico, relationship). Just as the story itself is set both along and below the surface of the ravaged earth, “A Boy and His Dog,” works on multiple levels. On the most primitive, it splashes glorious amounts of graphic sex and violence across its pages. It offers some good-old, anti-heroic bad-assery (with Vic emerging as a literary sibling of Huck Finn and Alex the Droog alike). The story features both sophisticated wit and raucous banter; the climax adds a twist of dark-as-the-grave black humor. Ellison’s transgressive narrative is also a masterpiece of carnivalesque inversion, starting with the fact that Blood is more erudite and morally-advanced than his impulsive, animalistic human “master.” Similarly, the Middle-American idyll created by the subterranean dwellers proves an artificial construct, its stultifying civility hardly preferable to the chaos and constant danger Vic has faced above ground. Indeed, the spuriousness of the suburban splendor of the Topeka “downunder” is exposed when the folksy villagers are last seen having devolved into an angry mob.

While the prequel (“Eggsucker”) and sequel (“Run, Spot, Run”) stories to “A Boy and His Dog” lack the virtuosity of Ellison’s lauded novella, they serve as much more here than mere filler. These further escapades across a devastated landscape expand upon the complexities of the Vic-Blood relationship–the arguments, betrayals, desertions, and ultimately-enduring camaraderie. The pair of stories also form an interesting counterpoint to “A Boy and His Dog” in terms of technique, as here it is Blood–not Vic–who supplies the first-person (“first-canine”?) narration.

Nearly half of the page-space in Blood’s a Rover is taken up by the titular teleplay (which Ellison scripted for a prospective late-1970’s series that was never developed). This sudden jump into a different literary medium isn’t as jarring as it sounds, as Ellison’s teleplay practically reads like narrative fiction (albeit with dialogue in altered form). “Blood’s a Rover” extends seamlessly from the preceding pieces, and brings the Vic and Blood adventures to a satisfying conclusion. Certain plot points are finally delineated: we get to see the long-awaited showdown between Vic and Fellini, the grotesque, despotic gang-leader (think a humanoid Jabba the Hutt) that Vic has run afoul of throughout the series of stories. There is also some neat thematic symmetry, as a new (not necessarily love-) triangle forms: the introduction of tough girl Spike disrupts the relationship between Vic and Blood, recalling the wedging effect of sexpot Quilla June in “A Boy and His Dog”.

Reading this posthumous volume is a bittersweet experience: the book is enormously entertaining, yet also a sad reminder that the world lost a literary genius with Ellison’s recent passing. Regrettably, there will be no further adventures recounted (in his foreword, editor Jason Davis notes that Ellison was debilitated by a stroke back in 2014 after just beginning to draft a new Vic and Blood story). But thankfully, we do have this terrific release from Subterranean Press to relish. Blood’s a Rover is well worth settling down with, whether in these dog days of summer or any other time of year.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Herman Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” and Alice Cary’s “The Wildermings”

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

 

“The Bell-Tower” by Herman Melville

Melville’s 1856 story centers on “the great mechanician, the unblest foundling, Bannadonna,” who has been commission to construct the eponymous architectural marvel. Bannadonna is a quintessential eccentric genius whose operation via “secret design” tends to unsettle others (“his seclusion failed not to invest his work with more or less of that sort of mystery pertaining to the forbidden”). Before his work is completed, Bannadonna is found slain in the belfry, apparently bludgeoned to death by the automaton bell-ringer he designed (and which looms over his corpse in macabre tableau). Melville vacillates between mechanical and supernatural explanations for Bannadonna’s fate: was the oblivious builder simply blind-sided while busy putting finishing touches on the bell,  or did he receive vicious redress for his previous murder of a timid workman (whose blood mixed in with metal during the casting of the bell)? The fact that the bell crashes to the ground during Bannadonna’s funeral, and that the tower itself is subsequently leveled (on the first anniversary of its completion) by an earthquake, suggests that a higher power has disapproved of Bannadonna’s lofty ambition and merciless pursuit of glory. As Melville moralizes in the closing paragraph: “So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for its tower. So that bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.”

In his headnote to the entry, editor Charles Crow asserts: “With a strong belief in the reality of evil, a sense that reality is slippery and ambiguous, and an oppositional stance toward many conventional American values, the Gothic mode was natural, perhaps inevitable, for Melville.” Crow goes on to cite the author’s Captain Ahab character as a preeminent Gothic hero-villain, and Bannadonna (a Promethean over-reacher who also forms a Victor Frankenstein figure) certainly fits this mold. But with its overt Italian setting, “The Bell-Tower” is decidedly foreign to the United States; it does not allegorically align–along race or gender lines–with a native situation, either (cf. Crow’s comment that Melville’s Benito Cereno “is a profound Gothic meditation on race in the Americas”). As such, the tale does not make for a terribly representative piece of American Gothic fiction.

 

“The Wildermings” by Alice Cary

Cary’s 1852 sketch is set primarily in a “lonesome little graveyard” in the woods outside the rural community of Clovernook. The cemetery is a source of superstitious lore for the locals, who claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of “unresting spirits” such as Mary Wildermings, “a fair young girl who died, more sinned against than sinning, [and] had been heard to sing sad lullabies under the waning moon sometimes, and at other times had been seen sitting by her sunken grave , and braiding roses in her hair, as for a bridal.” When a mysterious trio–a handsome young man, a 14-year-old girl (his presumed sister) and an elderly woman (mother? servant?)–inhabit the abandoned cottage nearby the cemetery, the reader (helped by Cary’s story title) can infer that these people are somehow related to Mary. The strange girl, ever stoic and vigilant (“her melancholy are wide open all the time”), takes ill and expires, and is climactically established as the daughter of Mary: “her mother, they say, died in watching for one who never came, and the baby was watchful and sleepless from the first.”

The pitiable Mary Wildermings hardly makes for some malevolent revenant, and Cary’s is no doubt a genteel version of Gothic narrative. Nevertheless, in this darkly romantic tale of a jilted lover/ruined woman, the author (who twice cites Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) creates a fine sense of graveyard ambiance. Charles Crow’s headnote states that Cary’s collections of sketches about the fictional Clovernook “anticipate later regional realists such as Freeman and Jewett,” but Clovernook might also be viewed as a forerunner of more famous American Gothic towns created by writers such as Faulkner, Bradbury, and King.

“The Last Generation,” At Last

Back in 2011, my story “The Last Generation” appeared in the Apex Book Company anthology The Zombie Feed–Volume 1. To this day, it remains one of my favorite pieces that I have written. In “The Last Generation,” I set out to turn the conventions of the zombie/post-apocalyptic-survivor tale inside out. The story is strongly indebted to Hemingway’s classic fictional chronicle of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises, and takes its impetus from popular zombie narratives such as Mort Castle’s “The Old Man and the Dead” and Douglas E. Winter’s “Less Than Zombie” (unlike those stories, though, it does not form a deliberate pastiche of another author’s style).

For months, I have been meaning to format the story so I could add it as a FREE READ on the Publications page of this website. Since fireworks fill the sky in the climax (in hommage to Romero), I figured the 4th of July would be an appropriate day to finally get “The Last Generation” posted. Hope you enjoy, and wishing a happy holiday to all the twisted citizens of the Macabre Republic.

Further Drawings: The Literary Legacy of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

In my latest Mob Scene post earlier this week I covered Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery,” which first cast a dark cloud over a summer gathering seventy years ago. In the seven decades since its publication, “The Lottery” has been anthologized countless times, and has formed the perennial source of high school lit class discussion. The story’s legacy, though, extends to a continuing influence on other works of fiction (Jackson herself would return to a scene of rock-tossing angry villagers at the close of her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Here’s another Pick-5 of “Lottery”-influenced texts:

 

1.Storm of the Century. This Stephen-King-scripted miniseries is much indebted to Mark Twain (it might just as easily have been titled The Demon That Corrupted Little Tall), but ultimately King gives a nod to Shirley Jackson. There’s a climactic scene in which representative families from the community submit to a drawing of “weirding stones,” a dire game of chance that earns the unlucky winner a fate worse than death.

 

2.“Guts.” In terms of content, Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious story certainly falls far afield of Jackson’s. But the author himself has testified that he was inspired by “The Lottery” to try his hand at a transgressive narrative that would unsettle his audience. Anyone who’s ever read “Guts” (or heard it performed by Palahniuk) would be hard-pressed to deny the author’s success at that task.

 

3.Dark Harvest. Norman Partridge’s hallowed Halloween novel presents a small town given to performing a sinister annual ritual (which helps assure bountiful crops). Also analogous to Jackson’s narrative, the winning of the contest waged on the night of October 31st proves quite the losing proposition.

 

4.The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s hit trilogy of young-adult novels features another annual lottery drawing that has some dark consequences for the family member selected. At least here, though, the person is given a chance to survive, in a grim edition of reality-TV spectacle.

 

5.Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation. In this final case, the drawing proves literal, as Jackson’s own grandson inks a graphic-novel version of the story. More than just a colorful pictorial translation, though, Hyman’s book also forms a bit of a prequel–it starts out by providing a glimpse of the events on June 26th, the night before the fateful ritual.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

Sadly, one of genre fiction’s most prolific, provocative, and decorated writers has passed away at the age of 84.

Odds are, anyone reading this post knows the name Harlan Ellison, and can cite particular titles from his incredible oeuvre. For those lucky few yet to be initiated, I offer such classic and unforgettable tales as “A Boy and His Dog,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Jeffty is Five,” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.”

I can remember obtaining a copy of The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective back in the late 80’s, and spending a whole summer getting gloriously lost inside its pages (along with Stephen King’s It and The Stand, it was probably the largest volume in my teenage collection). I read and reread that book to pieces, until its dust jacket was tattered and its spine had enough cracks to put an osteoporotic gravedigger to shame. Delving into this copious collection (which has since been Revised and Expanded), I was mesmerized by Ellison’s versatility and virtuosity alike.

In 2005, I got to meet Ellison in person at the World Horror Convention in New York City (where he was a Guest of Honor). The Saturday afternoon train from Jersey was late getting to Manhattan, and when I finally arrived at Ellison’s (ostensible) Q&A session, he was already in full-raconteur mode. Scared to interrupt his performance, I hung back on the balcony overlooking the ballroom, but the second he spotted me up there, he invited me down to join the audience (pointing to an empty seat right up front). There I got to experience up close his oratory splendor, as he regaled the gathered crowd with anecdote after anecdote, joke after joke.

Later in life, Ellison’s public persona seemed to eclipse his weighty reputation as a writer. Someone as brash and outspoken as Ellison was bound to alienate no small number of people, but also to earn the admiration of plenty of others for his take-no-shit attitude. Often uproarious, and never, ever boring, Harlan Ellison always left an impression. Today he leaves behind a treasure trove of literary jewels, rich, finely-wrought narratives that assuredly will never shatter like a glass goblin.

Mob Scene: “The Lottery”

American Literature’s most famous mob scene has turned 70.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published (to no shortage of public outcry) in The New Yorker back in 1948. In the story, the inhabitants of a seemingly-idyllic village (based on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson resided at the time) gather every June 27th for the titular ritual. The lottery (technically a double drawing, selecting first a local family and then a specific member of that household) is well-woven into the civic fabric; the administering official, Mr. Summers, similarly presides over “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” But while all this sounds wholesome enough, there is a nervous tension running through the crowd, and the subsequent freak-out by Tess Hutchinson after she draws the slip of paper marked with a black spot (shades of Billy Bones in Treasure Island) has nothing to do with excitement over sudden enrichment. With a devious twist, Jackson reveals that this lottery delivers an unfortunate reward: this isn’t some Win-for-Life drawing, but rather Lose-Your-Life. The townspeople proceed to set upon the protesting Tess (whose first name and surname allude to fictional and historical female sufferers of persecution, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anne Hutchinson) and begin the stunning act of stoning her to death.

This story of designated scapegoating–of communal cohesion through arbitrary Othering–paints a bloody underbelly onto modern society, calling the very notion of “civilization” into question. Jackson’s slice of American Gothic also exposes the fragility of the family bond: having drawn the black spot, the cowardly Tess promptly tries to serve up her own children as the recipients of the impending handout.

There are distinct religious overtones to “The Lottery,” as the public stoning of a branded deviant proves a most Old-Testament form of punishment. Disconcerting hints of paganism are also offered: these latter-day Druids of the New World appear to engage in murderous sacrifice (on a date close to the summer solstice) in the belief that it will ensure a bountiful harvest. As Old Man Warner memorably recites, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

Jackson depicts the quintessential mob, here wielding stones instead of torches and pitchforks, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the story’s characters angry villagers. They execute their grim business with a chilling cold-bloodedness. It is this blind allegiance to custom, the casual and callous nature of such resort to violence, that haunts the reader long after the initial shock of the ending wears off, and causes the dark themes of Jackson’s story to resonate to this day.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 18-22

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

 

Episode 18: “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”

At the start of this episode (which never aired during the show’s original run), Deputy Ben’s date Cindy teases him about being a “dark secret type.” There’s significance to the comment, though; Cindy subsequently morphs into Merlyn Temple, who proceeds to break her own neck (just as Ben witnessed Sheriff Lucas Buck do to her in the show’s first episode).

An ever-versatile ghost, Merlyn repeatedly appears (demonstrating the nonsensical turns to which Americna Gothic was sometimes prone) to Ben by taking over the bodies of flesh-and-blood women he encounters throughout the episode. Encouraging Ben, in grave terms, to grab a shovel and start digging up the truth, Merlyn leads the deputy to a Gothic ruin in the Goat Town section of Trinity–an abandoned and now decrepit former home for children (a rat-stuffed teddy bear is included in the detritus strewn about the place). Ben detects the foul smell of a festering body here (at one point he’s accosted by a moldering-corpse version of Merlyn), and the building is haunted (by a somber ensemble of kid spirits–who were doomed to early deaths after the proprietor was no longer around to take them in), but no one literally died there. Merlyn, though–who reveals that her mother Judith was the woman who operated the home–is trying to bring a murder to light: she wants Ben to realize that her mother’s suicidal plunge from a hospital window actually occurred at Lucas’s tossing hands.

Perhaps the most notable element of the episode is its confirmation of what has been suspected throughout the series: Lucas (who raped and impregnated Judith, in the hopes of creating a sinister scion) is the biological father of Caleb Temple. In an appropriate subplot, we see Caleb starting to develop into his father’s son. Tutored in cruelty and vengeance by Lucas, Caleb plays a vicious prank on a school bully, Tina.

Overall, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, and marred by muddy character motivation (Caleb’s cousin Gail seems to vacillate between the successfully-seduced lover of Lucas and the determined journalist hellbent on exposing the sheriff’s history of evil misdeed). A measure of redemption, though, is achieved in the closing moments, as the meaning of the episode’s curious title is clarified. Ben and Merlyn (here possessing the bartender Allison) slow-dance to the atmospheric–and thematically resonant–Mel Torme torch song, “The House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye).”

 

Episode 19: “Triangle”

This episode of American Gothic could just have easily been titled (with a nod to Ira Levin) “Gail Emory’s Baby.” When Gail moves to end her affair with Lucas Buck, and threatens to leave town with her cousin Caleb in tow, the sheriff gives her a supernatural nudge that lands her in the hospital. There she learns that she is pregnant with Lucas’s child. The subsequent ultrasound furnishes one of the series’ creepiest scenes, as the grotesque fetus in the sonogram opens its eyes, turns toward Gail and flashes a demonic grin.

The expectant mother continues to experience disturbing visions concerning the monstrous thing growing inside her. These could be dismissed as nightmares or hallucinations brought on by Gail’s own terror, but mid-episode the viewer learns that Miss Emory isn’t just imagining things. A fiendish conspiracy is in place: the nurse who denies that there is anything abnormal about the fetus pictured in the sonogram is actually lying on Lucas’s behalf (the sheriff blackmails her into playing along by threatening to expose her “extracurricular research in the narcotics supply room”).

Gail, though, isn’t about to take the news of her pregnancy lying down. She attempts to flee Trinity, but is stymied by the sudden appearance of Lucas on the roadway. “There’s no running from me, you know that,” the modern Gothic hero-villain reminds the frightened maiden.

For all of Lucas’s entanglement with Gail, he’s also hung up on his ex-lover Selena. And small-town romance begets big-time intrigue when Lucas chafes at Selena and Dr. Billy Peele’s relationship. He gives ominous warnings to both individuals to cease and desist, and when the defiant lovers continue to carry on carnally, Lucas gives Selena a real reason to feel hot and bothered: while in bed with Billy, she is overcome by a 108-degree fever. Lucas casts the incendiary spell with a strike of a match and a proclamation of “Burn, baby, burn”–words that work not just as a sardonic echo of the Trammps’ disco-era classic but as an invocation of the American history of anarchic violence.

In this episode, American Gothic once again demonstrates its cleverness through the use of background details. When Gail ponders a suicidal leap from the roof of the local bank, the institution’s name shines suggestively behind her: “Trinity Trust,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, in this town presided over by a devilish sheriff and riddled with dirty secrets and unholy bargains.

 

Episode 20: “Strangler”

“Strangler,” another episode that was never aired during American Gothic‘s single-season run, opens with a scene set in an autumnal cemetery (as Caleb visits Gage Temple’s grave) and gets progressively darker from there.

Determined to rid himself once and for all of Merlyn and her meddling ways, Sheriff Lucas Buck summons the ghostly figure of legendary serial killer Albert DeSalvo (a.k.a The Boston Strangler). Albert might no longer be haunting Beantown, but he has no problem living up to the latter part of his notorious moniker. He warms up for his eventual assault on Merlyn by fatally throttling a pair of pretty nurses from Trinity hospital and by nearly dispatching Lucas’s paramour, Gail Emory.

The eponymous Strangler is a chilling bogeyman, and a quintessentially Gothic figure rife with duplicity. Handsome Albert oozes spurious charm; “politeness gets you in anywhere,” he confides to Lucas during their initial meeting. Accordingly, he conducts his grim business by posing as a friendly refrigerator repairman, a deliveryman, and a handyman. Postmortem existence also makes the Strangler that much more dangerous, since he no longer needs to work his way past locked doors in order to get at his victims. The scene in which Albert attacks Gail is especially frightening, as the back-from-the-dead predator keeps pouncing on the distressed damsel from different angles no matter how many times she tries to throw him off and flee.

This episode, I must admit, is marred by some stilted dialogue (Lucas down on his knees in the cemetery chanting “Send forth the One!”) and hokey actions (Merlyn–who has somehow evolved into a supernaturally-empowered angel–shooting pulses of light at Albert). But its climax broaches a bit of dark irony that also shines a light on a central conflict. When Merlyn is about to sacrifice herself to the Strangler in order to protect Caleb, the boy uses his nascent powers (his infernal inheritance form Lucas) to immolate Albert. Such intervention, though, makes for a more ominous than joyous ending: sure, Merlyn acknowledges, Caleb has saved her soul, but only by drawing on the force that is bound to destroy his own.

 

Episode 21: “The Buck Stops Here”

Pillow talk takes a dark turn at the start of this penultimate episode of American Gothic, as Selena and Billy fantasize out loud about various ways of killing Lucas Buck (Billy just seems to be playing along, but Selena is serious about offing her sinister ex-lover). What makes the scene even more transgressive is that it occurs in Lucas’s own bed. Recognizing the signs of an illicit dalliance, Lucas later confronts Selena and voices perhaps his most graphic threat to date: “If you ever soil my house again, I’ll cut out your heart and use it for a chamois.”

“The Buck Stops Here” strikes another gross note as Gail prepares an afternoon meal. Lucas’s pregnant paramour makes a misnomer of roast as she bastes and then suddenly gorges upon a bloody, undercooked hunk of meat. Gail’s strange craving erases any doubt that the child growing inside her is a normal one.

The central focus of the episode, though, is the “murder” of Lucas. In a scene that sounds strong echoes of Psycho, a shadowy figure hiding in the sheriff’s Gothic home jumps out and stabs Lucas in the forehead with a trocar. Billy, who just happened to be at the scene of the crime, is arrested, but the two characters the audience really suspects are Selena and Trinity pharmacist Yancy Lydon (who has a grudge against Lucas because he failed to help Yancy’s comatose wife).

Lingering in a hospital bed, Lucas summons his son Caleb, and whispers a request in the boy’s ear. Some nefarious scheme seems to be forming, and a transfer of power transpiring (underscored by the father and son’s joint recitation of the phrase “An Old Order of the Ages Is Born Anew”). Lucas then promptly has a seizure and expires, yet the viewer can’t help but believe that Buck will be back for the conclusion of the series.

Now in full Damien mode, Caleb tracks down Yancy, telling the man that “My daddy sent me.” Caleb also ominously promises to give the pharmacist (presumably Lucas’s attacker) a taste of his own medicine. Shortly thereafter, a terrified Yancy is discovered (by Billy and Deputy Ben) lying choking on a brimming mouthful of pills.

American Gothicism arguably hits its peak during Lucas’s funeral. The scene plays out like a macabre variation on the Seinfeld finale, as an assortment of characters from earlier episodes are brought back for brief appearances. Some of these figures approaching the coffin are genuinely saddened by Lucas’s passing and express appreciation of him, but the sheriff’s corpse is also spit upon by one Trinity citizen and nearly disfigured by the disgruntled, hook-handed Waylon (the current husband of Ben’s ex-wife). This dramatic airing of allegiances and grievances serves as a fitting testimony to the work Sheriff Buck has done as a Gothic hero-villain for the constituents of his sleepy South Carolina town.

And–as his eyes pop open inside the coffin at episode’s end–it looks like Buck’s work is not yet done.

 

Episode 22: “Requiem”

Somewhat fittingly, the series finale of American Gothic begins with a graveyard scene, as funeral services are held for the seemingly departed Lucas Buck. Afterwards, Deputy Ben reminds a disrespectful gravedigger that the sheriff helped a lot of people in Trinity, a statement that prompts a bit of mordant wit from the cemetery man: “Yeah, he sure threw a lot of business my way.”

The best line of the episode (if not the entire series), though, is delivered by the prematurely-buried Buck himself, when Ben and Dr. Billy dig up his grave and throw open his coffin: “Well, if it ain’t the Hardy Boys.” Such sardonic comment (referencing the famous Young Adult series of Gothic-tinged mysteries) is quintessential Buck, and a perfect example of what makes this hero-villain figure so endearing to viewers.

In terms of its plot, “Requiem” centers on the evil evolution of Caleb, who is suddenly suffused with demonic power when Lucas suffers his almost-fatal demise. Caleb transforms into a pint-sized tyrant, and after the funeral, packs up his belongings and moves to occupy his father’s house. Upon arrival, he finds Selena waiting there for him; the sultry seductress proposes joining forces and hints at joining bodies (what would the Gothic be without the whiff of illicit sexuality?). Still seething over Buck’s spurning her for Gail, Selena informs Caleb of his cousin’s pregnancy and warns him that the child Gail is carrying is a threat to him as heir of the sheriff’s powers. Caleb, who doesn’t need much convincing on the point, tells Selena to deliver Gail to him, a sinister request that leads Selena to reply (sounding the theme of evil inheritance), “You’re your father’s son, all right.”

When Gail is subsequently lured to Buck’s house, she makes a disturbing discovery in one of the rooms. Symbolizing Caleb’s petulant protest of Gail’s pregnancy, a bloodied doll has been left lying in a shrouded bassinet. Emerging to confront Gail, Caleb tells her she must get rid of her unborn baby, but apparently the boy doesn’t have the patience to wait. He proceeds, in a scene that perhaps represents the apex of American Gothic‘s Gothicism, to chase Gail through Buck’s gloomy, stuffed-raven-and-grinning-skull-furnished mansion while wielding a fireplace poker.

Lucas, transformed into the role of heroic rescuer, bursts through the front door, only to see Gail sent tumbling down the staircase. He carries her off to safety, but the fall causes her to suffer a miscarriage.

The resurrected sheriff has some unfinished business to attend to before returning to deal with his upstart son. Knowing that Dr. Narone deliberately sentenced him to an erroneous internment, Lucas acts to take vengeance. He forces the good doctor to hang himself with his own granddaughter’s jump rope (Lucas promises to spare the girl Ashley from his wrath if Narone carries out the suicide). Ironically, Ashley is the one to discover Narone’s body, and innocently informs the hospital staff that her “Grandpa is sleeping on the ceiling.”

With that score settled, Lucas (with the ghostly help of Merlyn) confronts his bastard son. Amidst the climactic battle, Lucas hoists Caleb overhead, preparing to toss him off the second floor landing. Merlyn pleads with Lucas to spare Caleb, but he insists there’s no other way. Caleb is sent flying, but Merlyn’s “body” breaks his fall. She winks out in the process, her essence filtering into Caleb and counteracting his nascent malice. Still, there might be more to this turn of events than meets the eye. When the recovered Caleb realizes that Merlyn is gone and wonders what he is going to do now, Lucas assures him (in the final line of the series), “I think we’ll get by.” As the screen fades to black, the viewer is left wondering if Lucas hasn’t just pulled off another one of his Machiavellian schemes, using the confrontation with Caleb as a means of getting rid of the perennially-interfering Merlyn once and for all.

At times during its single-season run, American Gothic suffered from a lack of continuity in its plotting and inconsistency in characterization (to me, the failure to ever clearly define the extent of Lucas’s powers was also a miscalculation). This show might not always have been sure where it was going, but for 22 episodes it did provide a fun ride for fans of the macabre. Week after week, American Gothic justified its show title, which is perhaps a large part of the reason the short-lived series remains such a cult favorite over two decades after its original broadcast.

 

 

Horror Hot List

The 2018 Summer Reader Poll conducted by NPR asked fans to vote for their five favorite horror novels or stories. Regrettably, I missed the voting deadline, but would like to offer my scary quintet here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The nights might be getting shorter, but these works will guarantee a summer that is long on frights.

 

1.Stephen King’s IT

The fact that I was practically the same age as the adolescent protagonists when I first read King’s monstrous opus back in 1986 made the book seem especially nightmarish. It didn’t hurt, either, that King sent a virtual all-star team of terrifying creatures out onto (and under) Derry’s field of play.

 

2.Jack Ketchum’s Off Season

Night of the Living Dead meets Straw Dogs in this controversial and unabashedly violent tale of modern-day cannibals in coastal Maine. The dining habits of this feral clan make Hannibal Lecter’s diet seem positively benign. It’s not for nothing that Stephen King dubbed Jack Ketchum “the scariest guy in America.” 

 

3.Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

These six volumes comprise the greatest story collection the horror genre has ever produced. In tale after tale, Barker manages to both terrify and excite, via prose that is at once profound, provocative, and wickedly witty. These books marked me in so many ways; for example, to this day I can’t venture down into the New York subway without thinking of “The Midnight Meat Train.”

 

4.Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

McCarthy’s novels have always exhibited a Gothic bent, but none more than this post-apocalyptic gut-wrencher. The Road is incredibly affecting, as trauma and tragedy play out on both a personal and global level. What ultimately makes this book so haunting, though, is its utter plausibility.

 

5.Dan Simmons’s The Terror

This Arctic epic delivers big-time on its titular promise. The novel is relentlessly terrifying, replete with unforgettable set-pieces (the extended scene in which the Tuunbaq doggedly stalks ice master Thomas Blanky forms a master class in the creation of heart-pounding horror). Readers won’t have to worry about turning on the air conditioning this summer, because this book is perfectly chilling.

Inspiring Frankenstein

The story is almost as famous as the book itself: on a stormy mid-June night 202 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori are gathered within the Villa Diodati, and decide to pass the time by engaging in a ghost story competition. This proposed writing contest, and a subsequent nightmare suffered by Mary, spark the creation of Frankenstein, the now-classic novel concerning a Promethean transgressor and a pitiable creature driven to vengeance.

Just as Frankenstein itself has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon, with countless iterations in various mediums, the novel’s origin story has inspired a host of literary and cinematic efforts. Writers such as Brian W. Aldiss (Frankenstein Unbound), Tim Powers (The Stress of Her Regard), and Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted) have hearkened back to the Villa Diodati, as have films such as The Bride of FrankensteinGothic, and Haunted Summer. The most recent entry to this list is the 2018 biopic Mary Shelley, featuring an outstanding Elle Fanning in the title role.

Mary Shelley proceeds nearly two-thirds of the way through its run time before arriving at the seminal scene, which is presented in restrained fashion (yes, there are plenty of flickering candles, and thundercracks without, and Fuseli’s The Nightmare looms over one room, but matters don’t get anywhere near as Gothic as in Ken Russell’s Gothic). This is not to say that the events at the Villa are underplayed; what the film does so well is to take the time to establish the import of everything leading up this particular scene. Not simply the product of a single rainy night, Frankenstein is shown here as developing from the author’s lifelong experiences of loss, death, and betrayal. Marked by feelings of “desperate loneliness” and abandonment (mostly stemming from her relationship with Percy Shelley), Mary clearly identifies with the creature that takes shape on the pages of her manuscript.

Overall, this is a finely realized period drama, filled with impressive performances. The film allows its feminist themes to unfold in a natural, non-preachy fashion that makes the narrative all the more moving. Wonderfully entertaining, Mary Shelley is well worth checking out, on this historic night or any other.