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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

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Mob Scene: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book and film)

Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).

In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.

The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.

As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.”  There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.

Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.

 

 

American Gothic Inspiration

Flame Tree Press is set to publish its latest anthology, American Gothic Short Stories, which includes a new tale by me titled “Gothic American.” In conjunction with the book’s release, Flame Tree has asked the contributors to discuss the genesis of their story idea. My response, along with 18 others, has been posted on Flame Tree’s Fantasy & Gothic blog. So head that way to find my verbal signpost pointing to one of the greatest landmarks of our Macabre Republic:

Lore Report: “The Gateway” (Episode 114)

Episode 114: “The Gateway”

“Some stories leave no impression on the pages of history, and others do. And this tale, of the father and son who leap from the wall, is one of the latter stories. It’s powerful, and even disturbing, but beyond all of that, it’s significant. Not so much because of the contents of the tale, but because of where that wall is located. It’s in the American city of San Antonio, and the sight of a building and a battle that have both become legendary parts of out nation’s history. And in the process, it has transformed into a gathering place for tales of tragedy and loss: the Alamo.”

 

The latest episode of the Lore podcast is a bit of a slow-starter. Narrator Aaron Mahnke spends the first half of the “The Gateway'”s 40-minute runtime sketching a historical account of San Antonio. The area was a “powder-keg of tension and frustration,” marked by a long, tangled history of imperial rule and rebellion. “That’s why,” Mahnke tells his listeners, “you’re getting a deeper tour. Because some marks left on a city aren’t simple to explain; they’re complex and interwoven into a number of larger issues.” Nevertheless, the episode could have benefited from some condensing of this background material.

If the setup proves protracted, the ultimate payoff is a rich one. In the second half of “The Gateway,” Mahnke delves into the types of stories that captivate the Lore audience. As a site of much bloodshed and death, the Alamo unsurprisingly has accrued a haunted reputation. Mahnke recounts reports of the sightings of ghostly figures and of the lingering sounds of battle, but even more fascinating is the account of a supernatural, post-siege defense of the Alamo (an alleged stand-off that saved the subsequently historic landmark from demolition). From here, Mahnke expands the focus, and takes a look behind the origin of the name of the “Six Flags” amusement-park company. The episode concludes with a visit to the nearby Menger Hotel, possibly “the most haunted in Texas,” and whose resident spirits include an ex-President.

While more narrative space could have been devoted here to “haunted San Antonio” than “historic San Antonio,” “The Gateway” ultimately leads to a representative episode and a rewarding listen.

More King on Post Mortem

Eli Roth’s sit-down with Stephen King (which I posted on yesterday) isn’t the only interview with the author to be released in the past week. In the latest episode of his podcast Post Mortem, Mick Garris talks with his old friend and frequent collaborator. The occasion for this interview is the 25th anniversary of The Stand, the grand-scale (“100 days of shooting, 95 scripted locations, 460 script pages, 6 states, 125 speaking roles, 1 year away from home,” Garris details in the intro) ABC miniseries adaptation of King’s epic novel.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t listened to the podcast yet, so in lieu of a review, I’ll just tease some of the highlights:

*King discusses the two disparate (real-world) events that sparked the idea for his novel, and also discusses what almost caused him to give up on the book mid-draft

*King explains why he finds screenwriting easier than fiction writing

*Garris and King reminisce about the famous actor and actress (a pair of veteran King players, at that) who have uncredited cameos in the miniseries

*King (who admits to writing a trial screenplay for Something Wicked This Way Comes when first practicing the craft) elaborates on why filmmaking is like an amusement park

*King speaks at length about his experience working on Maximum Overdrive, and reveals whether he has any desire to direct again

*The director and writer of the original miniseries consider the new 10-hour adaptation forthcoming on CBS All-Access, and King points out “why it’s a good time for The Stand to come back”

*Garris prompts King to identify his biggest literary influence

 

Stephen King, Uncut and Cutting Up

“The more respect we get in this field, the less I feel like we’re doing our job.”–Stephen King

Last week, Shudder released a podcast episode of the interview Eli Roth conducted with Stephen King for last fall’s History of Horror series. The podcast features a slew of material that was never televised on AMC. It’s great fun to listen to King cracking jokes and spouting genre wisdom, and to listen to both he and Roth enthuse about horror films (classic and campy). These two should do a weekly show together–it could be like Siskel and Ebert for our Macabre Republic!

Some of the treats in store for listeners of the podcast:

*discussion of the first film that ever “terrified” King

*the identity of the film that King made his son turn off halfway through, because King himself found it “too freaky”

*behind-the-scenes insight on how the legendary cockroach-explosion sequence in Creepshow was filmed

*King’s identification of his typical starting point when writing shorter fiction

*the purpose/value of horror films, according to King

*the author’s thoughts on watching film adaptations of his own work

*the revelation of King’s near-involvement with a popular Spielberg genre film

*an outline of King’s various critiques of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining

*an account of the vampire figure in cinema (what types of undead bloodsucker King relishes and disdains)

*why King felt Rob Reiner was the “perfect director” for Misery

 

“The worst horror movie I ever saw was fucking great.”–Stephen King

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” and “The Sheriff’s Children”

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

 

“Po’ Sandy” by Charles W. Chestnutt

In the frame story to Chestnutt’s 1899 tale (collected in The Conjure Woman), the white narrator John tells of his decision to tear down an abandoned one-room schoolhouse on his property and build a detached kitchen for his wife Annie. He is dissuaded, though, by his coachman, the elderly ex-slave Julius McAdoo, who claims (shades of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) that the schoolhouse is haunted. Julius launches into the story of the eponymous slave: poor Sandy was dutiful and hard-working, so much so that he was constantly loaned out by his master (who at one point unfeelingly traded away Sandy’s wife while Sandy was toiling far away). When Sandy complained to his second wife, Tenie, about such enforced separation from his loved ones, the latter revealed that she was a conjure woman, and helped him stay at home by working a spell that disguised him as a tree on the property. Minor, and somewhat comic, trials ensued from the transformation (including an incident involving a feisty woodpecker), but true tragedy unfolded when Sandy’s master unwittingly cut down the tree and turned into lumber for the eventual schoolhouse. Tenie (who had herself been sent miles away at the time to serve as nurse for one of the master’s family members) thus had her best-laid plan fail miserably, and the grief-stricken woman is later found dead on the floor of the schoolhouse (which is said to contain the spirit of the groaning, mutilated-while-metamorphosed Sandy).

Annie–a more sympathetic listener than her husband–considers Julius’s account of Sandy a “gruesome narrative.” John, meanwhile, dismisses the “absurdly impossible yarn,” and soon thereafter is forced to consider that the “old rascal” Julius had an ulterior motive for conjuring such a tale: he has worked to preserve the schoolhouse so he and his Baptist brethren can use it as a church. Uncle Julius, though, is more than Chestnutt’s version of Uncle Remus, weaving local-color fiction in a humorous dialect, and “Po’ Sandy” does not just recount a wily hoodwinking but more seriously works to open eyes. “What a system it was,” Annie exclaims after hearing Julius’s story, “under which such things were possible!” She is not talking about fantastic sylvan transformations but the way slavery, beyond just subjugating individuals, tore apart black families. Chestnutt proves the ultimate trickster figure here, as his comic-cum-Gothic tale exposes “the darker side of slavery.”

 

“The Sheriff’s Children” by Charles W. Chestnutt

This second Chestnutt tale first published in 1899 features an American Gothic staple: the angry mob. The quiet, isolated village of Troy in Branson County, North Carolina (whose society “is almost primitive in its simplicity”), is shocked by the foul, midnight murder of Civil War hero Captain Walker. A “strange mulatto” (not coincidentally, Chestnutt himself was of mixed heritage, both of his grandmothers having been slaves impregnated by their white owners) is spotted near the scene and promptly arrested. But a rabble of locals, drunk on “moonlight whiskey,” is hasty for justice and intemperately decides to form a lynching party:

They agreed that this was the least that could be done to avenge the death of their murdered friend, and that it was a becoming way in which to honor his memory. They had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had been killed by a negro.

When the bloodthirsty mob arrives at the jailhouse, Sheriff Campbell fends them off, but he proves no heroic precursor to Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. The sheriff is acting from a sense of duty as an elected official, not from moral outrage at his racist constituents (“I’m a white man outside,” he tells the angry villagers, “but in this jail I’m sheriff; and if this n—-er’s to be hung in this county, I propose to do the hanging”). The sheriff’s misguided sense of superiority (“He had relied on the negro’s cowardice and subordination in the presence of an armed white man as a matter of course”) also allows the prisoner to get the drop on him. In a major plot twist (spoiled somewhat by Chestnutt’s chosen story title), the inmate Tom reveals that he is actually the sheriff’s own flesh and blood, callously sold off as a child along with his slave mother to a speculator. Now, in true Gothic fashion, a “wayward spirit” has “come back from the vanished past” to haunt” the sheriff; Tom’s bitter indictment of his abandoning father recalls the creature’s eloquent confronting of Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Just as Tom is about to commit patricide, he is disarmed by the sheriff’s pistol-toting white daughter Polly. The experience has a nonetheless transforming effect on the sheriff, who resolves to help his son (who is innocent of the crime) beat the murder charge. But the sheriff’s turn toward atonement is a case of too little too late: the next morning he discovers that Tom had deliberately “torn the bandage from his [gunshot] wound and bled to death during the night.” Faced with the perceived impossibility of a fair trial, and the hopeless prospect of societal acceptance, Tom has opted for suicide in his jail cell–cementing his status a tragic mulatto figure, and the legacy of “The Sheriff’s Children” as a Gothic critique of race relations in the South.

Lore Report: “Word of Mouth” (Episode 113)

“All of it adds up to a larger idea, though: the belief that the human body, however temporary and fragile it might be, also contains incredible power, and that this power can be transferred to others. And other than extinguishing that power, death can oftentimes be the key to unlocking its fullest potential. All you need is a human corpse, a pressing need, and a very strong stomach.”

 

Ever wonder why a person would consume ground-up human skull? Would rub his/her sore gums with the tooth of someone who died a violent death? Would drink warm blood from the slashed throat of a gladiator, or eagerly have a hanged man’s hand brushed over their own? If so, then this is the Lore episode for you.

“Word of Mouth,” the latest installment of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast, opens with a discussion of sympathetic magic (the belief that “objects could have power related to their appearance or origin story”) and the macabre artifact known as the “Hand of Glory.” Invoking the likes of Galen, Paracelsus, and Pliny the Elder, Mahnke sketches the development of the practice of “corpse medicine”: the seeking of the allegedly healing powers of the deceased, particularly the bodies of criminals who have just experienced a violent death. The episode provides wonderful insight into the way the masses used to relate to the capitally punished (I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the executioner, whose public service apparently extended beyond the hanging or axing of the convicted).

Mahnke’s narrative builds towards the topic of “medicinal cannibalism” (sufferers invest in a cure for their various ailments by ingesting human corpses!). Our host, though, does not allow us to dismiss all of this as the crazy lengths our less-enlightened ancestors once went to in order to feel better. No, Mahnke takes pain to show that the line between primitive superstition and modern medical science is a blurry one at best.

To its credit, “Word of Mouth” is filled with intriguing background information and limited in its resort to illustrating anecdote (save for one extended story concerning the 1861 beheading of a German murderer). As I listened to Mahnke treat the purported restorative result of drinking human blood, I kept waiting for him to bring vampire lore into the discussion. While this never happens, the closing segment does tie in another figure familiar to Universal Monster-lovers: the Egyptian mummy.

As an avowed van of this podcast, I often fret that at a certain point Mahnke will inevitably run out of interesting things to relate. But “Word of Mouth” proves that he still has plenty to relate. Luckily for us, after 113 episodes Lore remains the epitome of grimly fascinating.

 

Horror’s Most Memorable Movie Moments–My Top 10 List

Meagan Navarro’s fun piece last week–“Horror’s 75 Most Memorable Movie Moments!”–over at Bloody Disgusting got me to thinking about what I might add to the list (which, according to Meagan’s criteria, wasn’t just limited to the scariest scenes). Yes, any such effort is inherently subjective, but I submit for your perusal my top 10 choices (presenting the films in chronological order):

 

1.Ill-Received (Freaks, 1932).

The Gooble-Gobble song is as unforgettable as Cleopatra and Hercules’s drunken disparagement of the “freaks” is reprehensible. This is the most disturbing wedding reception ever (or at least until Game of Thrones came along).

 

2.Monster Laughs (Young Frankenstein, 1974)

No scene better captures the hilarity of Mel Brooks’s classic Universal Monster-movie spoof than this one. Decades later, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle’s duet still puts a broad smile on my face.

 

3.Hull of a Scare (Jaws, 1975)

Man-eating shark terrorizing a beach community? OK, I could deal with that. But the sudden underwater framing of Ben Gardner’s corpse in the hull hole (an image permanently imprinted on my psyche) formed my jump-scare baptism.

 

4.Roach Explosion (Creepshow, 1982)

I nearly checked out when first watching this segment of the Stephen King anthology film as a ten-year-old. Creepshow‘s most horrifying scene instilled a lifelong dread of insects in me.

 

5.Police Brutality (The Terminator1984)

Cop-killing is a horror-movie standard (forcing the audience to think that not even our sworn protectors can save us from harm). But Arnold’s hyperviolent assault on the precinct in this film constituted an unprecedented rampage–and haunted my dreams for weeks after viewing it.

 

6.Fears of a Clown (Poltergeist1984)

A creepy doll wasn’t bad enough; no, Steven Spielberg had to go and give us a creepy clown doll. Before Pennywise ever popped up in the Derry sewer system, Poltergeist was IT for causing coulrophobia.

 

7.Cenobite Arrival (Hellraiser1987)

Kirsty’s solving of the puzzle box was a cinematic game-changer. The sublime grotesquerie and menacing eloquence of Clive Barker’s Order of the Gash truly revolutionized monster-movie villainy.

 

8.Kirsten Dunst Dusted (Interview with the Vampire1994)

Who ever thought there could be a worse form of vampire attack than a jugular juicing? The fiendish execution of the scene-stealing Claudia was at once terrifying and tear-jerking, and Louis’s subsequent discovery of her ash sculpture was beautifully macabre.

 

9.Chilling Vigil (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

The scene when Katie looms over a sleeping Micah (underscoring our vulnerability while unconscious) was the stuff of nightmare. A fast-forwarding time stamp on a piece of video has never been more horripilating.

 

10.Jack-o’-Lantern Extravaganza (Trick ‘r Treat2007)

There’s so much about this Halloween-themed film that’s visually spellbinding, but nothing more so than the sight of Rhonda’a yard-ful of carved pumpkins. If I ever lived in the town of Warren Valley (and how I would love to!), this is the place I’d want to call home.

 

Mob Scene: The Highwaymen

Not every mob scene is concerned with hostile ostracizing. As the Netflix original film The Highwaymen demonstrates, sometimes the villagers aren’t angry, just downright mad.

The film forms a counterpoint to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn’s Academy-Award winner was considered edgy and graphically violent at the time, but today seems somewhat frivolous, treating the Barrow Gang’s murderous interstate crime spree almost like zany hijinks (complete with rollicking banjo music to accompany bank-robbery getaways). John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (co-starring a superb Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) doesn’t romanticize the notorious criminals/lovers; instead the emphasis is on the monstrosity of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the acts of cold-blooded savagery they commit. In contrast to Bonnie and Clyde‘s spotlighting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s characters, the pair of public enemies here are kept mostly offscreen. The Highwaymen is the story not of the killers but the pair of former Texas Rangers–Frank Hamer and Maney Gault–tasked with tracking them down.

In the film’s climax, the diligent Rangers finally get their man (and woman), and Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by a ferocious firing squad. The mob scene follows upon this dispensation of bloody justice, as the bullet-riddled car containing the corpses of the executed fugitives is towed into the nearby town of Arcadia, Louisiana. Word of the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde has spread quickly, and a huge crowd has gathered in the street, driven less by morbid curiosity than the crazy desire for souvenirs. The frenzied masses push past the police to get at the open-windowed car, snatching at the inert bodies and tearing at their clothing. The Highwaymen exposes the grotesquerie of the cult of idolatry that formed around Bonnie and Clyde, as a significant portion of the American public treated the homicidal duo as Depression-era celebrities, admirable antiheroes. What makes this mob scene that much more harrowing is that it actually happened (the real-life details are even more disturbing, with someone going so far as to try to hack off Clyde’s trigger finger; the “death car” itself would subsequently become a macabre tourist attraction).

Bonnie and Clyde have been fictionalized before in American Gothic works such as Norman Partridge’s hard-boiled/supernatural hybrid “Red Right Hand” (which riffs on the 1967 film’s scene of Faye Dunaway fleeing through a cornfield) and Stephen King’s novella 1922 (whose “Sweetheart Bandits” form a clear analogue to the Barrow gangsters). The dark and gritty (and immensely entertaining) The Highwaymen, though, treats directly with the historical figures, presenting a memorable demythologizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime, and a sharp indictment of the misguided, morally-suspect American public.