Greetings from the Macabre Republic…

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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.

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

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King (Story) Openings

My last post listed my selections of the top twenty opening lines in Stephen King’s novels/novellas. Tonight I am going to do the same for the author’s short stories:

 

Wharton moved slowly up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister had died in.–“The Glass Floor” (1967)

The guy’s name was Snodgrass, and I could see him getting ready to do something crazy.–“Trucks” (1973)

After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.–“Night Surf” (1974)

Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die.–“The Cat From Hell” (1977)

The question is: Can he do it?–“The Woman in the Room” (1978)

When Hal Shelburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eve, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he would scream.–“The Monkey” (1980)

“The Reach was wider in those days,” Stella Flanders told her great-grandchildren in the last summer of her life, the summer before she began to see ghosts.–“The Reach” (1981)

I want to tell you about the end of war, the degeneration of mankind, and the death of the Messiah–an epic story, deserving thousands of pages and a whole shelf of volumes, but you (if there are any “you” later on to read this) will have to settle for the freeze-dried version.–“The End of the Whole Mess” (1986)

I believe there was only one occasion upon which I actually solved a crime before my slightly fabulous friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.–“The Doctor’s Case” (1987)

Looking into the display case was like looking through a dirty pane of glass into the middle third of his boyhood, those years from seven to fourteen when he had been fascinated by stuff like this.–“Chattery Teeth” (1992)

Pearson tried to scream but shock robbed his voice and he was able to produce only a low, choked whuffling–the sound of a man moaning in his sleep.–“The Ten O’Clock People” (1993)

My friend L.T. hardly ever talks about how his wife disappeared, or how she’s probably dead, just another victim of the Axe Man, but he likes to tell the story of how she walked out on him.–“L.T. Theory of Pets” (1997)

It’s so dark that for awhile–just how long I don’t know–I think I’m still unconscious.–“Autopsy Room Four” (1997)

Want you to get one thing straight from the start: wasn’t nobody on earth didn’t like my pal, Johnnie Dillinger, except Melvin Purvis of the F.B.I.–“The Death of Jack Hamilton” (2001)

They rode west from the slaughter, through the painted desert, and did not stop until they were a hundred miles away.–“Throttle” (2009; with Joe Hill)

Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke.–“Fair Extension” (2010)

As the Judge climbs into the kayak beneath a bright morning sky, a slow and clumsy process that takes him almost five minutes, he reflects that an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.–“The Dune” (2011)

Wilson’s mother, not one of the world’s shiny happy people, had a saying: “When things go wrong, they keep going wrong until there’s tears.”–“That Bus Is Another World” (2014)

Dave Calhoun was helping Olga Glukhov construct the Eiffel Tower.–“Mister Yummy” (2015)

Billy Clewson died all at once, with nine of the ten other members of D Squad on April 8, 1974.–“Squad D” (2019)

 

 

King Openings

Open Culture’s recent post “Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers” recounts the renowned author’s discussion of the importance of a good opening line–that single (though not necessarily simple) first sentence that serves as an invitation to the reader and a doorway into the narrative for the writer. King’s comments sent me scurrying over to my bookshelves to reflect on the author’s best practice of such preaching. Here’s a list of what I found to be the top twenty opening lines in King’s novels/novellas:

 

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.–The Shining (1977)

This is what happened.–The Mist (1980)

Once upon a time, not long ago, a monster came to the town of Castle Rock, Maine.–Cujo (1981)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.–The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

The most important things are the hardest things to say.–The Body (1982)

“Thinner,” the old Gypsy man with the rotting nose whispers to William Halleck as Halleck and his wife Heidi come out of the courthouse.–Thinner (1984)

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.–IT (1986)

People’s lives–their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences–begin at different times.–The Dark Half (1989)

“You stole my story,” the man on the doorstep said.–Secret Window, Secret Garden (1990)

No one–least of all Dr. Lichfield–came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told.–Insomnia (1994)

She sits in a corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none.–Rose Madder (1995)

“ASK ME A RIDDLE,” Blaine invited.–The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass (1997)

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted.–The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

When someone dies, you think about the past.–Why We’re in Vietnam (1999)

Pere Don Callahan had once been a Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map.–The Dark Tower (2004)

To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.–Lisey’s Story (2006)

When Wesley Smith’s colleagues asked him–some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically–what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology.–UR (2009)

The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How’s your marriage?A Good Marriage (2010)

It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.–The Outsider (2018)

The day Marty Anderson saw the billboard was just before the Internet finally went down for good.–The Life of Chuck (2020)

 

Speaking of King novels: his next one, Holly, has been officially announced. And the book description sounds like American Gothic nirvana:

Mere blocks from where Bonnie Dahl disappeared live Professors Rodney and Emily Harris. They are the picture of bourgeois respectability: married octogenarians, devoted to each other, and semi-retired lifelong academics. But they are harboring an unholy secret in their well-kept, book-lined home, one that may be related to Bonnie’s disappearance. And it will prove nearly impossible to discover what they are up to: they are savvy, they are patient, and they are ruthless.

Holly [Gibney] must summon all her formidable talents to outthink and outmaneuver the shockingly twisted professors in this chilling new masterwork from Stephen King.

Consider this Constant Reader hooked; I’m already counting the days until the September 2023 publication.

 

23 for ’23

Quot libros, quam breve tempus

 

My TBR pile is still towering with books from 2022, and is apt to remain stacked in the coming year. Here’s a list (unless otherwise noted, the description comes from the book’s dedicated Amazon page) of twenty-three new releases on my reader-radar for 2023:

 

1. How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 1/17/23)

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.

Most of all, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. Unfortunately, she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.

But some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…

 

2. The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, 1/17/23)

Bret Easton Ellis’s masterful new novel is a story about the end of innocence, and the perilous passage from adolescence into adulthood, set in a vibrantly fictionalized Los Angeles in 1981 as a serial killer begins targeting teenagers throughout the city.

Seventeen-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equaled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with the Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them—and Bret in particular—with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence. The coincidences are uncanny, but they are also filtered through the imagination of a teenager whose gifts for constructing narrative from the filaments of his own life are about to make him one of the most explosive literary sensations of his generation. Can he trust his friends—or his own mind—to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, he spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between the Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

Set against the intensely vivid and nostalgic backdrop of pre-Less Than Zero L.A., The Shards is a mesmerizing fusing of fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at seventeen—sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage. Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting, and often darkly funny, The Shards is Ellis at his inimitable best.

 

3. All Hallows by Christopher Golden (St. Martin’s, 1/24/23)

It’s Halloween night, 1984, in Coventry, Massachusetts, and two families are unraveling. Up and down the street, secrets are being revealed, and all the while, mixed in with the trick-or-treaters of all ages, four children who do not belong are walking door to door, merging with the kids of Parmenter Road. Children in vintage costumes with faded, eerie makeup. They seem terrified, and beg the neighborhood kids to hide them away, to keep them safe from The Cunning Man.

There’s a small clearing in the woods now that was never there before, and a blackthorn tree that doesn’t belong at all. These odd children claim that The Cunning Man is coming for them…and they want the local kids to protect them. But with families falling apart and the neighborhood splintered by bitterness, who will save the children of Parmenter Road?

All Hallows. The one night when everything is a mask…

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Best of the Best (Horror of the Year)

As a book product, the latest edition of The Best Horror of the Year severely disappoints: the volume is rife with typographical and formatting errors. But this glaring lack of proofreading by Night Shade Books can be forgiven, thanks to the supreme quality of the anthology’s contents. Editor Ellen Datlow has selected a highly impressive collection of horror stories, written by both genre veterans and promising newcomers alike.

In honor of tonight’s New Year’s Eve ball drop, here is another type of countdown: my choice of the ten best pieces in Volume XIV.

 

10. “The God Bag” by Christopher Golden

At the outset, the horrors here are of the most realistic, relatable kind: the difficulty of dealing with a parent’s dementia and failing health. But then Golden takes matters to another, uncanny level, via the titular pouch filled with paper scraps of inscribed “prayers.”

 

9. “Three Sisters Bog” by Eóin Murphy

In this wonderfully descriptive tale, a father and son’s attempt to retrieve their runaway Labrador leads them into the land and lair of a trio of sinister siblings. These weird sisters might be the most unnerving witches ever encountered outside of Shakespearean tragedy.

 

8. “Chit Chit” by Steve Toase

This crime noir/folk horror mash-up (involving a heist that aims to gain possession of buried horse skulls) reads like a literary version of the film Kill List. Toase (justly represented twice within the anthology’s table of contents) once again proves himself to be a preeminent writer of short-form horror.

 

7. “Shuck” by G.V. Anderson

A moped-crash survivor is h(a)unted by Black Shuck, the canine death-harbinger of British legend. No mere knockoff of Final Destination, though, Anderson’s story features a climactic twist concerned with more than just dire comeuppance.

 

6. “The King of Stones” by Simon Stranzas

Folk horror at its finest: nature’s seemingly tranquil beauty is belied by the performance of savage rites in an isolated orchard. This story easily garners the award for Most Harrowing Repurposing of a Peach Pit.

 

5. “Redwater” by Simon Bestwick

This relentlessly entertaining monster vehicle makes the Rita‘s venture into the Black Lagoon seem as innocuous as a Disneyworld ride by comparison. Bestwick’s narrative presents a captivating setting (the post-apocalyptic Floodland, which includes a partially submerged churchyard) stocked with unique humanoid creatures from the deep.

 

4. “Jack-in-the-Box” by Robin Furth

Blackthorn House is a remote English estate harboring plenty of Gothic secrets, but the skeletons are hardly confined to the closets. Brimming with arresting visuals, Furth’s tale would make for an excellent adaptation as a future episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

 

3. “Caker’s Man” by Matthew Holness

Reminiscent of the work of Ramsey Campbell, Holness’s story (in which a single mom and her children are terrorized by a strange neighbor) creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable dread as the creepy details steadily accrete. Safe to say, after reading this frightfest, I will never look at a birthday cake the same way again.

 

2. “Tiptoe” by Laird Barron

An odd father seems more predatorial than paternal, as Barron proves that he doesn’t have to invoke the Lovecraftian cosmos in order to unsettle his readers. Commissioned for the tribute anthology When Things Get Dark, this sneaky-scary story perfectly captures Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic sensibility.

 

1. “Shards” by Ian Rogers

The hoary cabin-in-the-woods subgenre proves to be alive and well in this inspired riff on The Evil Dead. Rogers splashes horror across the page in gonzo style, but it’s the traumatic aftermath of the protagonists’ discovery of a cursed gramophone that haunts the most. The most wildly enjoyable horror story I have read in many a year.

 

Macabre Accolades

Admittedly, New Year’s Eve is one of my least favorite holidays, but the best part about the close of December is the prevalence of year-end retrospectives.  Here’s a compilation of links to different websites honoring the horror genre’s best offerings of 2022:

BookRiot: “The 10 Best Horror Books of 2022”

CrimeReads: “The Best Horror Fiction of 2022”

Paste Magazine: “The Best Horror Books of 2022”

Vulture: “The Best Horror Novels of 2022”

LitReactor: “The Must Read Horror Graphic Novels of 2022”

Esquire: “The 23 Best Horror Films of 2022 (So Far)”  [posted in October]

Rolling Stone: “10 Best Horror Movie of 2022”

Collider: “10 Horror Movie Protagonists Who Made Smart Decisions in 2022”

Dread Central: “Top 10 Horror Movies of 2022”

But when it comes to this kind of stuff, nobody does it better than:

Bloody Disgusting: “Top 15 Best Horror Movies of 2022”; “The Top Ten Scariest Scenes in 2022 Horror Movies”; “The 10 Best Kills in 2022’s Horror Movies”; “12 Best International Horror Films of 2022”; “The Year of Unforgettable Horror Monologues”; “The 8 Funniest Horror Movie Moments of 2022”; “10 Best Horror TV Series of 2022”; “2022: The Year Jenna Ortega and Mia Goth Dominated the Horror Scene”

Any other sites I missed, and which you would recommend checking out? Let me know!

***

Finally, I’ll weigh in here by citing my favorite pieces of horror-related media from 2022 (note that I say “favorite” rather than “best,” because I still have a big list of items to read/watch):

Favorite TV Series: “Wednesday” (reviewed here)

Tim Burton, The Addams Family, Jenna Ortega, and Edgar Allan Poe? Count me in(vested wholeheartedly).

 

Favorite Horror Film: “X”

This clever twist on the slasher formula had it all: a gripping story, stellar performances by the ensemble cast (led by Mia Goth in a dual role), crazy kills, and stunning visuals (both beautiful and grotesque)

 

Favorite Anthology: Classic Monsters Unleashed

Dracula and Frankenstein Monster and Dr. Moreau; Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and the Headless Horseman: oh my, what an entertaining collection of new stories paying homage to legendary horror figures.

 

Favorite Novel: Reluctant Immortals

A clever and terrifically entertaining updating/reimagining of Dracula and Jane EyreI’ll have a lot more to say about this book shortly here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, in the next installment of Dracula Extrapolated.

Wednesday: Woe Joking

In the Addams Family films of the 90’s, Christina Ricci’s Wednesday was a shining fount of black humor (check out this past post for a survey of her finest deadpan deliveries). Jenna Ortega more than lives up to such mordant tradition in the new Netflix series centered on the Addams goth-daughter. Here are thirteen prime examples of the character’s snappy dialogue:

 

Wednesday: [My visions] come on without warning, and feel like electroshock therapy, but without the satisfying afterburn.
–Ch. I, “Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe”

 

Morticia: That boy’s family was going to file attempted murder charges. How would that have looked on your record?
Wednesday: Terrible. Everybody would know I failed to get the job done.
–Ch. I, “Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe”

 

Wednesday: It takes a special kind of stupid to devote an entire theme park to zealots responsible for mass genocide.
Lucas: My dad owns Pilgrim World. Who you calling stupid?
Wednesday: If the buckled shoe fits…
–Ch. I, “Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe”

 

Enid: Want to take a stab at being social?
Wednesday: I do like stabbing. The social part not so much.
–Ch. II, “Woe is the Loneliest Number”

 

Wednesday: Let’s assess, shall we? Bag over my head for optimal disorientation, wrists tied tight enough to cut off circulation, and no idea if I’m going to live or die. It’s definitely my kind of party.
Ch. III, “Friend or Woe”

 

[After the sheriff leaves, Thing opens the door of the morgue drawer where Wednesday has hid herself]
Wednesday: 
Five more minutes. I was just getting comfortable.
–Ch. IV, “Woe What a Night”

 

Wednesday [about to enter the suspected lair of the Hyde monster]: If you hear me screaming bloody murder, there’s a good chance I’m enjoying myself.
–Ch. IV, “Woe What a Night”

 

Lucas: Wednesday, I come in peace.
Wednesday: That’s a shame. I brought my pocket mace. The medieval kind.
–Ch IV, “Woe What a Night”

 

Wednesday [unhappy to see her family arrive at Nevermore for Parents Weekend]: I knew I should have worn my plague mask.
Ch. V, “You Reap What You Woe”

 

Tyler: Is that Enid’s gift?
Wednesday: It’s perfect if you’re fleeing a war-torn country on foot.
Ch. VI, “Quid Pro Woe”

 

Enid: Oh, we should wear our snoods!
Wednesday: Oh, I…I believe I left mine at fencing.
Enid: Actually, you left yours at the Weathervane. Luckily, Bianca brought it back.
Wednesday: Like a monkey’s paw.
–Ch. VI, “Quid Pro Woe”

 

Wednesday: Of course, the first boy I kiss would turn out to be a psychotic, serial-killing monster. I guess I have a type.
–Ch. VII, “If You Don’t Woe Me By Now”

 

Wednesday: Typically, I have great admiration for well-executed revenge plots. But yours was a bit extreme, even for my high standards.
–Ch. VIII, “A Murder of Woes”

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Christmas Dinner”

It’s posted a couple of days later than intended, but here’s the latest installment of “Beyond Sleepy Hollow,” which explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

 

Before Washington Irving fired the autumnal imagination of Americans with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he helped script Christmas celebration into existence in our Macabre Republic. In early January 1820, Irving published a series of Christmas-related pieces in The Sketch-Book that clearly anticipate “The Legend” (which appeared in the next installment of the book three months later). Within the linked Christmas sketches, Irving’s narrating stand-in, Geoffrey Crayon, is invited by an old traveling companion to come spend the holidays at his family’s mansion in the English countryside. Bracebridge Hall is a bastion of old-time custom, located in “a sequestered part of the country” (just as the unmodernized Sleepy Hollow is removed from the metropolitan bustle of Manhattan). Master Simon Bracebridge (as I discuss in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) is an Ichabod-esque figure, a busybody bachelor exuding self-importance, and who is satirized by Irving in terms strikingly similar to Sleepy Hollow’s hapless schoolmaster.

“Christmas Dinner” constitutes the last of the Bracebridge-centered sketches (Irving would return to the family a few years later in the more expansive collection Bracebridge Hall). After dining on traditional fare (e.g., a boar’s head; peacock pie) and happily imbibing from the circulating Wassail bowl, the gathered celebrants break off into groups. The younger members of the family engage in a game of “blindman’s buff,” while the adults retire to the drawing room. There the village parson begins “dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” His yarning focuses on the “family hero” of his hosts, a Bracebridge ancestor said to have fought in the Crusades, and whose portrait and purported armor decorate the Hall’s dining room. As Crayon relates:

[The parson] gave us several anecdotes of the fancies of the neighboring peasantry, concerning the effigy of the crusader, which lay on the tomb by the church altar. As it was the only monument of its kind in that part of the country, it had always been regarded with feelings of superstition by the good wives of the village. It was said to get up from the tomb and walk the rounds of the churchyard in stormy nights, particularly when it thundered; and one old woman, whose cottage bordered on the churchyard, had seen it through the windows of the church, when the moon shone, slowly pacing up and down the aisles. It was the belief that some wrong had been left unredressed by the deceased, or some treasure hidden which kept the spirit in a state of trouble and restlessness. Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the specter kept watch; and there was a story current of a sexton in old times, who endeavored to break his way to the coffin at night, but, just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretched him senseless on the pavement. These tales were often laughed at by some of the sturdier among the rustics, yet, when night came on, there were many of the stoutest unbelievers that were shy of venturing alone in the footpath that led across the churchyard.

These fireside spook tales shared by the parson, which have quite an unnerving effect on certain listeners, prefigure the events of/following the Van Tassel quilting frolic in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Just as the galloping Hessian forms the “favorite specter” of the credulous inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, the crusader in “Christmas Dinner” appears “to be the favorite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.” And just as Brom Bones follows old Brouwer’s tale of a run-in with the Headless Horseman with an even more marvelous account, the old porter’s wife in “Christmas Dinner” picks up from the parson and adds to the lore of the crusader: she affirms “that in her young days she had often heard say that on Midsummer Eve, when it was well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad, the crusader used to mount his horse, come down from his picture, ride about the house, down the avenue, and so to the church to visit the tomb.”

But no attendee of the Christmas dinner encounters the crusader later that December evening, let alone finds himself spirited away by the supernatural rider. The eerie atmosphere pervading the drawing room of Bracebridge Hall is soon dissipated when Master Simon and other costumed revelers burst in to perform an impromptu “Christmas mummery.” This intriguing “Legend” precursor sketched by Irving ultimately places more emphasis on “wild-eyed frolic and warmhearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and glooms of winter”; the creation of frisson, though, will prove integral to the more sustained Gothic narrative that conveys “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

 

In Praise of Wednesday

The Addams Family and Tim Burton is a match made in merry hell. The runaway-hit Netflix series Wednesday conjoins the macabre humor of Charles Addams’s original creation with Burton’s gloriously Gothic sensibility. Throw in a compelling central mystery and a dazzling lead performance, and the result is the best new series of 2022.

Darkly beautiful to behold, Burton’s Wednesday is a feast for the eyes (starting with that lofty dorm room in a gargoyle-adorned Queen-Anne-style mansion). The show’s setting features murky woods and cobwebbed ruins, hidden passageways and secret underground chambers. Wednesday also clearly works within Burton’s American Gothic wheelhouse, with its depiction of neighboring town of Jericho–a modern-day village whose quaint appearance cannot cover up its sinister roots that stretch all the way back to Puritan times.

There’s a classic slasher element to the first season’s storyline, as a shapeshifting beast dubbed the Hyde preys on a sequence of cast members (while Wednesday, an aspiring dark-crime writer, works to “unmask” the killer). Along the way, references to Poe abound (the author’s tales in general, but also–via the series’ Nevermore Academy locale–to his ever-popular poem “The Raven”). Stephen King fans will delight in a midseason scene of an ill-fated school formal (a bloody brilliant homage that has been overshadowed by a certain dance routine gone viral). If the overall proceedings tend toward the formulaic, as the show recalls other Netflix ventures such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (with its plunges into paranormal romance) and Stranger Things (with Wednesday standing in for Eleven, as the heroic leader of a band of “outcasts”), at least it is a winning formula that is copied.

Admittedly, the casting does feel a bit uneven; Wednesday’s parents, in particular, disappoint. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives a wooden performance as Morticia (one unworthy of predecessors Carloyn Jones and Anjelica Huston), and Luis Guzman (Gomez Addams) delivers his lines as if he’s in a perennial state of gastric distress. But the statuesque Gwendoline Christie is the embodiment of glamor and British charm as Principal Weems, and Emma Myers is delightful as Wednesday’s perpetually-bubbly, would-be-werewolf roommate Enid. Let’s give a well-deserved hand, too, to the prestidigitator Victor Dorobantu, who steals scenes throughout as a convincing, more-than-just-digital-fx Thing.

Of course, the success of the series hinges upon Jenna Ortega’s turn in the title role. Anyone who watched her in X knows that Ortega possesses an incredibly expressive face; I was concerned heading in that the strictures of the Wednesday character would prevent the actress from demonstrating her dramatic range. But Ortega manages to channel the stoic snarkiness of Christina Ricci in the 90’s films while also presenting a more rounded figure. Wednesday’s ongoing series format (vs. the episodic nature of a sitcom) necessitates a character arc, and over the course of the first season the teenage Addams grows increasingly less standoffish and more human in her interactions. No easy task to come off at once as sneering and endearing, but this Wednesday makes it look easy. Already a star in the making, Ortega establishes herself here as the most talented young actress currently practicing her craft.

Ultimately, the series evinces a lot of heart–and not just the tell-tale kind. Wednesday’s child might be full of woe (according to the nursery rhyme line that inspired Morticia and Gomez’s christening of their daughter), but Burton’s brainchild Wednesday is full of wonderful entertainment. I’d be kooky not to give it two enthusiastic two-snaps.

 

Night in the Shadowy November

In his new short story, “Out of the Mirror, Darkness,” Garth Nix revisits the protagonists of 2020’s “Many Mouths to Make a Meal”: Jordan Harper, the hard-boiled “studio fixer” for Pharos Pictures, and his even more capable companion, the fountain-of-arcane knowledge Mrs. Hope. This time around, the duo deals with the strange case of deep sleep and photosensitivity involving a lead actress and her canine costar. The weird mystery traces to an ancient evil–the “Gnawer of Shadows”–that has escaped from the titular artifact unwittingly employed as a set prop. Hope and Harper have to combine brains and bravery to save the film production (and perhaps the world) by vanquishing the supernatural threat. Nix’s smart, seamless splicing of old Hollywood history and dark fantasy is terrifically entertaining, and sure to appeal of fans of Kim Newman’s Something More than Night (which I reviewed here last year). Currently available as a free download for Amazon Prime subscribers, this tale of harrowing shadows makes for a perfect close to the month of Noirvember in the Macabre Republic.

 

 

Finally, the Finale

[No spoilers below]

It’s been quite a haul for The Walking Dead (eleven seasons, over twelve years). The series finale has seemed a long time coming, partly because of Season 11’s split into triple eight-episode segments spaced out over fifteen months, and partly because there was a two-week wait (for those who normally got to watch the episodes early on AMC+) after the penultimate installment. But on Sunday night the curtain dropped on the show at last, with episode #177, “Rest in Peace.”

The episode wraps up the central Commonwealth storyline–none to soon, in my opinion. The final season felt like it teetered on the precipice of the ridiculous with the focus on this nouveau bastion of civilization and its ice-cream-eating, zoo-animal-petting citizens. Episodes framed as noir mystery and courtroom drama suggested that the series, much like its eponymous rotters, had lingered on past its prime. Commonwealth governor Pamela Milton was the least of the Big Bads the show has featured (Alpha would have picked her teeth with this hypocritical politician), so her eventual comeuppance doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.

This climactic confrontation between Milton’s forces and the show’s protagonists takes place amidst a zombie invasion of the Commonwealth. Can’t forget about the walkers, right? This plot complication struck me as somewhat illogical (would a massive horde even exist at this stage of the post-apocalypse, and if so, wouldn’t the Commonwealth army have used its military might to decimate any threat that remotely threatened its borders?), facile in its attempt to raise stakes, and tiresome (because it feels like we’ve witnessed such scene several times before over the years). The finale also doesn’t do much with the plot point concerning the walkers’ weird evolutionary leap–their newfound ability to climb barriers and wield handheld tools.

What “Rest in Peace” does best is provide the show’s heroes one last chance to  demonstrate their noble qualities. Actor defections in recent seasons have elevated minor characters into roles arguably larger than they deserved, but these figures all reach a satisfying end to their character arcs. And the resolution (at least until the “Dead City” spinoff starts) of the Maggie-Negan conflict is handled particularly well, a worthy payoff to all the screen time invested in the storyline this season (in a scene that hearkens back to Negan’s notorious first appearance on the show).

Unsurprisingly, the show’s writers do not miss the opportunity to jerk some tears here. My biggest critique of end-stage TWD is that the show deviated from the formula that made it such a riveting watch, mitigating the emotional investment in characters placed in a constant state of peril (and who could perish at any point). It’s hard to fear a grim fate for characters (Daryl, Maggie, Negan) already slated to appear in spinoff series. And those cast members still eligible for elimination also appeared to have grown bite- and bulletproof during Season 11. Heading into the finale, I couldn’t recall the last time a significant character was killed off, but “Rest in Peace” does justify its title with a moving sendoff for one of its most beloved heroes. The episode also does a fine job just before closing of invoking the memory of all those protagonists who died during the show’s long run.

The Walking Dead perhaps staggered to the finish line in its final season, but created an overall body of work that was undeniably groundbreaking, and which will rise to the forefront of any future consideration of 21st Century television history.