He Got Gamey

A quarter-century after its first publication, Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game has finally streamed its way onto Netflix. The film adaptation is no small feat, considering the challenges presented by the source material (with its inciting moment of a bondage game gone awry): protagonist Jessie Burlingame spends the bulk of the novel mostly naked and left handcuffed to the bedpost after a mule kick to her jackass husband’s crotch leads to the titular Gerald’s death by heart attack. Director Mike Flanagan deftly sidesteps issues of nudity and related sordidness by working details of a new negligee and a little blue pill into the plot, but he arguably drops the ball when attempting to execute a similar modifying maneuver.

I can appreciate that King’s novel–where Jessie is not only chained to the bed but locked up inside her own head–is fundamentally unfilmable without certain liberties being taken. Nevertheless, the movie’s decision to personify the voices in Jessie’s head as hallucinations proves problematical on several fronts. The almost darkly-comic note struck by these figures as they move around the bedroom somehow mutes the horror of Jessie’s solitary confinement. Streamlining eliminates the “Goodwife Burlingame” and “Ruth Neary” inner voices so prevalent in the novel, and the assertive/acerbic Jessie alter ego visualized in the film ends up lacking rationale. Most troubling of all is the reanimation of Gerald as recurring hallucination. While I did like that this allowed him to toss a couple of verbal Easter eggs (alluding to other King works), I soon found myself wishing that Bruce Greenwood’s character would just shut up and play dead already. Gerald spends too much film time posthumously dictating to his wife (for better or for worse), which seems to short circuit many of the feminist impulses of King’s novel.

Gerald’s lingering presence also eclipses another masculine antagonist; the film’s so-called “Moonlight Man” is both underutilized and misused. This dreadful apparition is drawn out of the shadows way too soon, missing a tremendous opportunity to develop extended psychological suspense. The Moonlight Man then haunts the film via a few nightmarish yet fleeting images that fail to capture the tormenting effect he has on the book version of Jessie. Also, in the adapted concluding scene in which Jessie confronts her monstrous voyeur, the film eschews the visceral (she spits right in his face in the book), opting for an expression of defiance that comes off as more trite than empowering.

Make no mistake, Carla Gugino gives a strong and believable performance as Jessie. Perhaps inevitably, though, the film lacks the immediacy, the intensity, of King’s novel.  As a viewer, I felt distanced, and (excepting the excruciating handcuff-escape scene) struggled to be be drawn into the experience of Jessie’s physical and mental ordeal. Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) is a fine director, but ultimately appears shackled here by the circumstances of King’s narrative. While it provides a few hours of solid entertainment, this version of Gerald’s Game isn’t destined to be called a classic.

Scooby-Doo Cthulhu

And I wouldn’t have gotten insanely envious, if it wasn’t for that Edgar Cantero!

My interest in Meddling Kids was hooked from first learning that this Spaniard’s second English-language novel hearkens back to my favorite animated series from the late 70’s (if you instantly catch references like  “Zoinx River,” then this is the book for you and me both). Thirteen years after nabbing a greedy schemer masquerading as the Sleepy Lake Monster, the former-teen members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club remain haunted by that last case. Deciding to return to the scene of the foiled crime, the sleuths gradually uncover an occult conspiracy of Lovecraftian magnitude.

Now why couldn’t I have conceived such an imaginative mash-up, and given a clever supernatural turn-of-the-screw to the typical hoax-exposing endings of the cartoon episodes? But what has really salted my wounded ego is the realization that Cantero didn’t just come up with an incredible high concept; he is an ultra-talented writer to boot. His prose is infused with wit–as evident in the early scene when a chauvinist barfly unwisely sticks his middle and ring fingers in the face of badass heroine Andy. She promptly yanks them apart, “virtually disabling those extremities for any purpose other than effusively greeting Vulcans.” Cantero displays a penchant for linguistic inventiveness; for instance, a monstrous colossus on the loose is described as having “howlretched, for lack of a real word.” The writer also has plenty of fun calling attention to conventions (“A lazy rain began to wash out the defiled streets, all casual and gleeful like a late authority figure at the end of a teen detective story”) and pulling the mask of mimesis off his own narrative (“Nate looked at her for the first time in this chapter”). All of this playfulness and self-consciousness, though, is properly seasoned into the story; Cantero doesn’t postmodernize at the price of readability. Rather than reducing to a wearying parody, Meddling Kids works more like a pop-cultural love letter.

Thankfully, the novel’s cast aren’t just caricatured analogues of Fred, Velma, and company. As characters, they prove as endearing as they are well-rounded. Cantero shows a special flair in his depiction of Tim, whether humorously humanizing the Weimaraner (“all tensed up in ‘scandalized Maggie Smith’ pose”) or recounting his canine actions (“Tim wandered in, sniffed the carpet, the foot of the bed, the magic in the air, and chose to lie down”).

Driven by mystery, the plot offers several stunning twists (that continue all the way through the book’s final paragraphs). Classic horror locales such as abandoned mines and a decrepit mansion furnish the Gothic settings. The action sequences are at once madcap and graphic; there’s enough carnage here to make the Evil Dead films seem positively cleanly by comparison.

I cannot remember the last book I enjoyed reading as much as this one. Upon finishing it, I immediately flipped back to the first page, like a connoisseur reaching for a second helping of a delicious dish. No mere Shaggy/dog tale, Meddling Kids rates 5/5 Scooby Snacks.

Recreational Terror

Further proof of what a hot commodity the macabre is these days: the September/October “Bizarre Issue” of SportDiver. A friend passed a copy of the magazine along to me, rightfully assuming that it would be right up my nightmare-loving alley. Landlubber though I might be (you’d sooner catch me flaying my own skin than scuba diving), I can enjoy the vicarious experience of the sea’s darkly fantastic fathoms. This special issue provides plenty of opportunity for such experience, presenting “101 Stranger Things” of the marine world–“the unknown, the freaky and the outlandish.”

Some of the sublime highlights include the bell spider, an underwater predator that sounds like it would be right at home in the sewers of Derry; the Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, an aquatic necropolis where your cremated remains can be stored inside a molded sculpture; the female Maine lobster, who attempts to seduce her potential mate by repeatedly dousing him with her urine; “white gold” treasure hunters who make a fortune retrieving and reselling golf balls from water hazards. Other cataloged items waiting to intrigue readers: the blobfish, exploding whales, the train graveyard buried off the Jersey shore, and the (John Wayne) Bobbitt Worm.

One amazing stat from the issue that has stuck with me: 95% of the ocean is still unexplored, and an estimated 67% of the planet’s marine species have yet to be discovered/described. The most alien world humanity might ever encounter is not off in deep space, but lurking below the surface of earth’s own waters.

The Bizarre Issue abounds with horrific portraits of already-known creatures, from the Gollum-looking oddity on the cover to the king ragworm and the fangtooth fish, which almost make Cthulhu and Dagon appear innocuous as guppies by comparison. Reading this special edition of SportDiver, I couldn’t help but wonder what that unparalleled seafearer, H.P. Lovecraft, would have made of the images modern exploration has brought back from the watery unknown. Such sights might have inspired him to concoct monstrosities that would beggar the wealth of bogies populating his mythos fiction. Or, like one of his unfortunate narrators, he simply might have been left drowning in hysteria.

The Mist Revisited

Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist has since inspired an incredible theatrical film version (2007), and a decade later, an entertaining, if somewhat divergent, TV series. However faithful these adaptations might prove to be, they nonetheless exist as different forms of media and are inevitably forced to discard elements of the source text. The strong imagery of these more recent cinematic/televisual translations also has the capacity to eclipse the actual words of King’s narrative and leave a deeper imprint on the modern audience’s imagination. After viewing the first season of the TV series, I decided to return (after a long readerly absence) to the King novella for a refresher course in dread.  Some observations from that now-completed reread:

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Pop Gothic: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.

Apparently even Taylor Swift is at home in the Macabre Republic. Never has threatened vengeance sounded so catchy as in her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Singing about rising from the dead, Swift invokes the horrific from the opening verses. The accompanying music video makes the imagery that much more graphic, depicting a raven-infested cemetery and Swift (or, technically, her personified Reputation) breaking ground as a moldering, reanimate corpse. More than a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the Halloween-worthy scene signals that Swift is hardly looking to bury the hatchet as she comes back from the grave. In the figure of a zombie–a bogey known for its relentless aggression, Swift puts her enemies on grim notice.

The video subsequently fashions Swift as a Gothic monarch, vampirically-taloned, ensconced on a snake-swarmed throne. Dressed in uncheery cherry, she forebodes bloody comeuppance: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” After sounding a thoroughly antisocial note (“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”), Swift insists on haunting nocturnal visitation: “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.”

In past performances, Swift has shown that she isn’t averse to publicly airing grievances via allusive lyrics.  Here, though, the rhetoric is stronger, the stance decidedly darker. Swift plays the deadly female, furious over her own scorning and hellbent on redressing perceived wrongs. With her coolly-delivered refrain, Swift channels the victim-blaming, violence-justifying demeanor and dubious composure of a classic Poe narrator. And while the media inevitably gets swept up in decoding Swift’s lines and the video’s symbolism, it’s less the “you” (whichever former lover or rival musician being referenced) than the disturbingly vague “what” of the song title that proves so arresting: what exactly has this questionably-driven speaker done?

At the very least, she has compelled me to write this post. Because all of the forced comedy of the video’s conclusion–in which Swift pokes fun at her previous images/personae–does nothing to diminish the sinister overtones of this surprisingly prickly piece of pop music.

Prints of Darkness: American Gothic Impresses

CBS’s 13-episode series American Gothic (not to be confused with the more supernaturally-oriented drama of the same title that ran on the network for one season in 1995-1996) enjoyed neither critical acclaim nor hit ratings during its Summer 2016 run; dismissive commentators and disinterested viewers, though, jointly missed an entertaining and well-executed dark crime narrative.

From its opening scene, American Gothic lives up to its genre-asserting title: a ceiling collapse in the Eiffert Tunnel uncovers the belt used by the notorious (and never apprehended) Silver Bells Killer, a strangler who terrorized Boston for several years a decade and a half earlier. Sins of the past come to ominous light, as the bloodstained murder weapon implicates the patriarch of an upper-crust New England family (unsubtly surnamed the Hawthornes) that appears to be closeting more skeletons than Spirit Halloween in the offseason. Much of the subsequent action is centered in the Hawthorne mansion (which features a winding staircase that proves integral to the storyline), and the show also recurs to other prominent American Gothic settings—the woods, a cornfield—for further macabre doings. Recalling The House of the Seven Gables, the show sounds the theme of the generational curse, as father Mitch’s seeming transgressions cast a haunting shadow over his family’s lives, threatening, for example, to derail the mayoral campaign of daughter Alison. The Hawthorne children repeatedly fret about a deviant gene passed down the bloodline (is suspected serial killer Mitch’s grandson Jack just precocious, or a prepubescent sociopath?), but environment must also be considered as a corrupting influence. It’s interesting to note how, in unrepressed retrospect, son Cam’s adult struggles with heroine addiction trace back to a deadly household scene from his teenage years.

Cooking up more than soap-y melodrama, American Gothic exhibits an appreciable level of cleverness. It gives several fresh and intriguing twists to the hoary serial-killer plot.  From week to week, the “wavering finger of suspicion” (to borrow literary theorist Northrop Frye’s phrase) is adroitly wielded; even when characters eventually are exposed as killers, surprising turns of the screw are then given to their motivations. The series also offers intelligent subtext, as each episode’s titular and visual echoes of an American painting (e.g., Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field) point to a dark undercurrent running through the nation’s art history.

Incidentally, American Gothic fails to restage the Grant Wood painting from which it draws its name, perhaps because the rustic couple depicted on that canvas have since become so iconic, any invocation of them would prove too distracting. The graphic from the show’s title sequence (see above) transforms a quaint-if-pretentious Iowa homestead into a palatial estate, but nonetheless manages to tap into hints of the sinister in the Wood work. Notice how the mansion’s bloody roots suggest an inverted pitchfork.

I don’t want to misrepresent American Gothic as a picture-perfect effort. No doubt the show has its flaws. Alison’s husband Tom inexplicably disappears from the story (at the precise point when he should be considered a prime suspect in one of the murders), and the suspension of disbelief is strained as one character knowingly consorts with the relative of her father’s killer. Still, most of the strokes are deft ones. The grimness is offset by just the right amount of comic relief, such as that provided by pesty neighbor Phyllis in her perennial search for her missing cat Caramel. Virginia Madsen shines in her role as Madeline Hawthorne, devoted mother and keeper of dark family secrets. The actress gives a restrained yet multifaceted performance, and like the show overall, never descends into campiness. Ultimately, the murder-mystery-driven American Gothic satisfies the needs of the most ravenous binge-watcher, while also providing more substantive fare for those viewers determined to reflect on the artfulness of the creators’ endeavor.

It’s Incredible

Twenty-seven years after the TV miniseries, Stephen King’s monster epic has hit the big screen at last. Both savvy marketing and advanced critical praise have generated tremendous buzz, and the film does nothing to pop the lofty balloon of viewer expectations.

Admittedly, one of my biggest concerns going into It involved the cinematic shifting of the era of the characters’ coming of age, from the novel’s 1950s here to the 1980s: would the film just come off as a retread of the obviously King-influenced Stranger Things? The update, though, is made seamlessly, with no felt loss of the earlier decade’s particular cultural context (and famous movie monsters). An overwhelming sense of nostalgia never undermines the naturalness of the 1980s setting; invocations are made in a light-hearted rather than heavy-handed manner, such as a running joke involving New Kids on the Block and one hilarious mention of a certain red-headed femme of Brat-Pack fame.

The film’s settings are impressively dreadful: the shadow-soaked basement of the Denbrough home, the eerily-unquiet public library, the sewer system serving as Derry’s It-lodged bowels.  But it’s the decrepit house on Neibolt Street that looms largest, featuring enough frightful rooms to shame every haunted attraction nationwide. Overall, Derry is brought to remarkable life. Perhaps the single regret is that the town’s ugly history tends to be glossed over, referenced mostly by newspaper clipping. I would have loved to see incidents like the razing of the Black Spot and the Kitchener Ironworks explosion visualized via flashback.

One of the most admirable aspects of the film is its willingness to devote the time to develop each of the members of the Losers Club, to allow us to care about these young characters (imagine that in a horror movie!). Finn Wolfhard’s Richie nearly steals the show with his string of raucous one-liners, and along with Beverly tends to eclipse (the somewhat-underused) Ben and Bill (looking here like a latter-day Gordie Lachance), but the actors are excellent across the board.  Populated with endearing characters, It proves adept at eliciting “awws” as well as “ahhhs!” from its audience.

Make no mistake, though: this movie is genuinely terrifying. There are jump scares galore, all skillfully orchestrated. Expected set-pieces from the book make arresting appearance, including scenes involving the predatorial leper and Beverly’s blood-geysering bathroom sink. Director Andy Muschietti also concocts some fresh horrors, such as a painting-escaping grotesque that bedevils Stan–and forms the creepiest contorted female since Pet Sematary‘s Zelda. The film grows relentless in its onslaught, placing viewers in the same exhausting position as the continually evil-done protagonists.  For me, an added theater-going pleasure was getting to observe tweens in the audience shrieking and practically bouncing out of their seats in sheer terror–a perfect reminder of just how effective King’s original novel was when I first experienced it as an adolescent.

No film review of It can conclude without discussion of Pennywise, who is subject to a stunningly unsettling makeover (vs. the more garish figure cut by Tim Curry’s miniseries incarnation). Pennywise here is so undeniably frightful-looking, It almost defies belief: rather than being lured in, any kid with a lick of sense would turn and haul juvenile hiney at the first distant glimpse of such sinisterness. Nonetheless, Bill Skarsgard gives an amazing performance, whether posing as a static menace or launching into acrobatic act; this Dancing Clown has some jaw-dropping–and heart-stopping–moves. Pennywise’s signature line about floating is also given some wickedly inventive turns (I won’t spoil with specifics). It’s no hyperbole to claim that Skarsgard’s character is destined to be ranked among the greatest horror villains of all time. Nor would it be terribly bold to predict that a whole new generation is about to be afflicted with coulrophobia.

Much like the titular It, the film itself is richly-detailed, multifaceted, and given to frenetic action, and accordingly is sure to reward the repeating viewer.  While the end title promises a second filmic chapter, I am already counting the days (which hopefully won’t feel like an agonizing twenty-seven years) until It resurfaces on DVD.

American Gothics: Ten Terrific Parodies of the Classic Painting

The spoofs are innumerable (as any Google search quickly demonstrates), but here are ten of my personal-favorite reworkings of Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting:

This wild darkening of the original seems strangely fitting, considering that a rural farmhouse served as the centerpiece of the film that gave birth to the modern zombie mythos. Here the notoriously tight-lipped pair bare their teeth in a display of carnivorous desire and grim decomposition. Perhaps the most gloriously mordant detail of all: the reflection of the pitchfork in the man’s overalls being further accented by a graphic skewering.


Further proof of the ubiquity of these goggling Twinkies. An apropos parody, too, given the Minions’ penchant for wearing overalls and also dressing in drag.


Parody of parodies: playing on traditional images of Presidential couples cut-and-pasted into the American Gothic scene.  Palin and Trump’s kooky expressions are brilliantly glossed by the punning title of the piece.


The perennially sex-starved Amy forms a perfect substitute for Wood’s spinsterish female figure, while Sheldon’s nerdy turn as the male figure is deserving of a “Bazinga!”


Irony-rich, with Bob Ross as the least likely painter of such a joyless couple.  Not even the “happy little trees” added to the background can brighten the mood of this piece.


A splendid transposition, capturing Miss Piggy’s dominance in this inter-species relationship. Kermit, with his trademark distressed expression, also forms a remarkable match with American Gothic’s female figure.


The Gothic theme of false appearances resounds here in this portrait of chem-teacher-cum-meth-kingpin Walter White. It’s a spurious memento, for sure: Skylar’s scowl, not to mention the fiery debris streaking down towards her husband, show that this family is about to go nuclear.


The induction of the prim-and-proper couple into the
Kiss Army makes for some hilarious incongruity. Gene Simmons’s Demon makeup proves particularly effective on the man’s long face. The thought of a monstrous, lascivious tongue lurking behind the man’s lips only enhances the wicked wit of this parody.


An extra-clever invocation of The X-Files: Scully and Mulder prove perfectly oblivious to the evidence of the extraterrestrial in their midst.  The transformation of farmer into rooftop Martian, though, is the crowning detail here.


One of Wood’s upright figures is strikingly leveled in this black-humored portrait of murderous misogyny. We finally find out what it takes for Mr. Sourpuss to crack a smile!

Greetings from the Macabre Republic…


…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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