Mob Scenes

No, I’m not talking about Walmart on Black Friday. “Mob Scenes” (a feature on my old Macabre Republic blog that I plan to revive here) highlights literary, cinematic, and televisual instances of angry villagers on the rampage. Though first popularized as the torch- and pitchfork-wielding European folk of Universal horror films, an other-hunting mob certainly exemplifies the American Gothic (as civility and community give way to intolerance and bloodthirsty violence).

I’ll be posting a brand new Mob Scene shortly. In the meantime, here are some scenes from years past on the Macabre Republic blog:

Mob Scene: Paranorman

The Oscar-nominated Paranorman has plenty to recommend it: vivid animation, endearing characters, satiric wit, sophisticated plot twists. Perhaps best of all for lovers of American Gothic, the film features an extended angry-villager sequence.

Paranorman‘s pyrotechnic climax kicks off when a group of zombies shamble into the midtown section of Blithe Hollow, and a redneck resident promptly responds by pulling out a shotgun and shouting, “Kill ’em in the head!” Mayhem and riotous violence ensue, but the dark behavior does not overshadow the scene’s comedic elements. There are sight gags galore, such as a hand mixer and a bowling bowl being wielded as weapons (along with the more traditional torches and pitchforks), and a young girl’s flaming teddy bear tossed forth into the town hall like a Molotov cocktail. A plunger-toting drama teacher climbs atop a car and histrionically proclaims “Cry ‘havoc’ and let loose the dogs of war,” and then (when her audience fails to understand her) bluntly translates, “Let’s rip ’em apart!” More subtle touches include a laundromat sign that reads “Hung and Dried,” and the Frankensteinian-shaped head of musclebound Mitch (who apppropriately bemoans the townspeople’s desire to “burn and murder stuff”). For all its rampant humor, the scene also has serious import, driving home the film’s anti-bullying message: the zombies are ultimately misunderstood creatures, more victims than monsters, and protagonist Norman lectures the crowd about their intolerance of difference.

2012 was a big year for cinematic mob scenes, and none were more effective–or more fun to watch–than the one orchestrated in Paranorman.

 

Mob Scene: “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe”

David J. Schow’s 2003 short story “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” (collected in Havoc Swims Jaded) is a sterling, Serling-esque satire of American values. The story highlights the illusory nature of the idyllic small town, and censures the “superstitious paranoia and hidebound, inbred fear” that reduces townspeople to a monster-hating/-hunting mob. For all its serious subtext, though, the narrative is driven by tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also wonderfully self-aware of the conventions of angry-villager scenes in (Universal) monster movies. At one point the titular grotesque (who makes for an unusual, but quite useful, viewpoint character) is approached for an interview by a doctoral student whose thesis concerns “the weird crowd behavior of group insanity in small, isolated towns and villages.” In the course of the discussion, the scholar, Steve, deconstructs the familiar filmic event:

I mean, you’ve seen some of those movies, right?” said the Steve-creature. “Who really makes out, every time the besotted Burgomeister decides, you know, to blow up another dam? Local contractors, funeral directors, hardware stores, the makers of pitchfork and rope, gun dealers and distributors of ammunition, hell… monsters are great for their economy. They all get shit-faced at the inn until their fizzed enough to see monsters, then they start grabbing for the dynamite. And who do you think gets first crack at developing the destroyed real estate? I mean, where’s the real problem, here?”

Schow’s story (which offers terrifically descriptive prose as well as pointed satire) climaxes with a plot twist that puts the drunken unreason and violent intolerance of the lynch-happy locals on full display. From start to finish, “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” forms arguably the greatest work of angry-mob fiction ever written.

 

Mob Scene: Frankenweenie

Not since Mel Brooks has a director so cleverly referenced the climactic mob scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein. “He’s killed the little girl!” Bob’s Mom exclaims when Sparky, the titular revivified canine, appears carrying Elsa’s pony-tailed wig (part of her Dutch Day costume) in his jaws. Such hasty blaming recalls the denouncement of Frankenstein’s Monster as a murderer when the drowned body of the peasant girl is found. The parallels between the Tim Burton and James Whale films are extended when Mayor Burgemeister in Frankenweenie promptly urges his torch-sporting constituents: “After him! Kill the monster!”

Then the chase is on, with Sparky actually leading the mob to the windmill where Elsa is located (menaced inside by the mutated Mr. Whiskers). The oblivious Burgemeister, confronting Sparky and demanding to know where his niece Elsa is, accidentally ignites the windmill with his lofted torch (the burning windmill seems to be another Burton motif–cf. Sleepy Hollow). Frankenweenie‘s satiric twists grow more evident as the mob (in contrast to the unruly bunch in Frankenstein, who deliberately raze the windmill) is reduced to a group of stupefied bystanders, passive observers of the chaotic scene.

Burton’s oeuvre is filled with angry villager scenes, but this 2012 instance represents the macabre maestro’s best-orchestrated Frankenstein riff to date.

 

Mob Scene: “Going to Meet the Man”

In a Universal monster movie, with old Una O’Connor hamming it up, a gathering of angry villagers could function as a bit of comic relief. But there’s zero humor to be found when the mob-scene setting shifts to an American town in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

The title story of James Baldwin’s 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man features a grisly flashback scene in which a group of whites attend the lynching of a captured black man. His execution is treated like some public holiday, as the caravan of cars traveling to the site carry baskets of food: “It was like a Fourth of July picnic.” Viewpoint character Jesse (eight years old at the time of the lynching) recalls his mother fussing to get dressed up as if for church, and his father nonchalantly sitting him upon his shoulders to provide better view of the proceedings.

What Jesse sees is a naked man chained to a tree limb and dangled above a bonfire. The captive’s wretched screams only stoke the crowd’s bloodlust: “The cry of all the people rose to answer the dying man’s cry. He wanted death to come quickly. They wanted to make death wait: and it was they who held death, now, on a leash which they lengthened little by little.” After the victim is unmanned by a “long, bright knife,” the frenzied crowd pounces, “tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing.” The vicious persecution concludes with a dousing of kerosene that reduces the man to “a black charred object on the black, charred ground.”

Presenting this harrowing event through the eyes of a child, Baldwin dramatizes a dark rite of passage and demonstrates a warping psychosexual effect. Jesse (who considers the hanging body “the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then”) grows up to be a virulently racist sheriff whose libido is a fueled by a confused mix of violent aggression and secret desire.

“Going to Meet the Man” is a deliberately discomforting read, but Baldwin’s searing indictment of Deep South depravity makes for one of the most forceful and unforgettable stories in all of American literature.

 

Mob Scene: American Horror Story

The season of the witch (21 more days ’til Halloween, Halloween…) usually brews up some frightful television programming, but no show promises to deliver as much delicious wickedness this year as American Horror Story: Coven. “Bitchcraft,” last night’s debut episode of the third iteration of the FX horror series, offered a spellbinding cast (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett), heaps of witty dialogue, and more than a dash of grue. The episode also featured not one, but two mob scenes. In the first, the bloodthirsty, torch-lofting Puritans of Salem boisterously cheer on their magistrate with cries of “Hang her! Drown her! Burn her!” as they gather around the scaffold upon which Mercy Osborne awaits execution. This black-and-white flashback is matched by the scene where a modern-day Louisiana girl is persecuted (because of her unusual talents as a healer) by a group of religious zealots; Misty Day certainly suffers a dismal fate–dragged, bound, doused with gasoline, and then set ablaze.

The parallel angry-mob scenes serve as a grim reminder that the American capacity for irrational violence has not waned in the three centuries since the Salem Witch Trials. Such ignominious ganging-up on the perceived Other could easily be witnessed again on AHS: Coven this season. Because as the schoolmistress Delia forewarns her sorcerous wards: “We are under siege, ladies. Our lives, our very existence is always at risk. Know this or face extinction.” Unfortunately, prejudice’s torch-bearers are legion, and for those marked as witches, a flash mob signals a terribly incendiary event.

Can Things Get Any Stranger Than This?

After some belated, post-Thanksgiving binging, I have finally finished Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. This new batch (Gremlins reference intended) of episodes was very well done, and transformed me into one thoroughly satisfied viewer. At the same time, though, I was plagued with concern at season’s end, because I can’t help but wonder: is Stranger Things henceforth doomed to diminishing returns?

The show’s sophomore effort adeptly (and no doubt self-conconsciously) follows the Alien to Aliens trajectory: the blight is more widespread, and a singular menace expands into a multitude of monstrous antagonists. And just as Sigourney Weaver’s explosive heroics at the end of the second film seem to shut the door on LV-426’s alien-infestation problem, Eleven’s climactic closing of the gate (mending the plot-inciting rift she accidentally created back in Season 1) in the finale appears to draw the two-season story arc to its logical endpoint. At least until the just-when-you-though-it-was-over final shot shows the shadow of the Mind Flayer still looming over Hawkins. But if the coming seasons of Stranger Things continue to reach out with Lovecraftian tentacles and the same cosmic-horror Sturm und Drang, could viewers grow fed up with the Upside Down? The dilemma here is that if the show actually takes the story in a whole new direction, it inevitably does so at the risk of believability, since its hard to imagine something else significantly paranormal just happening to be visited upon the same small town in the middle of the Indianan nowhere.

Season 2 repeatedly recurs to the previous year’s episodes, sounding variations on established themes. For instance, Upside-Down-linked Christmas lights festooned the Byers’ house last season; this time around, it’s a mosaic of crayon drawings that aids Joyce’s attempt to rescue her son Will from otherworldly clutches. But can Stranger Things keep dipping into the same well? At what point do such callbacks have to be called formulaic? When does familiar imagery (I’m looking at you, blood-dripping-from-Eleven’s-nostril) start to become cliched and uninteresting?

The nostalgic feel of the series is undeniably a big factor in its success, and timely pop cultural references are just as plentiful in Season 2. Again, though, I worry that this can’t last. My concern isn’t that the writers will run out of 80’s source material to invoke, but that the expectation of such allusive maneuvers (the Internet is inundated with enumerations of Stranger Things’ movie/music/Stephen King references) will cause the Easter eggs to grow too numerous and distractingly overt rather than subtly dispersed.

Perhaps my biggest fear is that Stranger Things will lose dramatic steam if it continues to allow its cast to survive dire straits. Call it the X-Files factor: the weekly jeopardy that Scully and Mulder were placed in failed to be terribly moving, because there was little doubt that the duo would be right back on the case in the next episode. Conversely, The Walking Dead creates maximal tension because the audience is painfully aware that any character, of any age, can go at any time (for me, the fate of Sophia remains one of the biggest gut-punches that show ever threw). Will Stranger Things ever have the courage–and the green light from Netflix–to kill off someone other than a minor (adult) character or a Hawking Lab spear-carrier?

Lastly, time does not appear to be on the side of the producers of Stranger Things. As can already be seen in Season 2, the show’s young actors are maturing rapidly. They are likely to be approaching puberty’s far border by the time Season 3’s episodes roll around. At that point, will these characters still strike viewers as cute and lovable, as vulnerable? As Mike and company move from middle school to high school, will their nerdy activities continue to be endearing or start to feel awkward to behold?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeonly critic or doomsayer. To date, the Duffer Brothers have given us no reason whatsoever to doubt their storytelling prowess, so it’s not inconceivable that they will masterfully navigate any potential obstacles in the show’s ongoing path. I am holding out hope that my concerns will prove unfounded, and that Stranger Things will furnish more episodes of the same high quality, yet also marked by an entertaining difference.

Vermin Literature

They form multitudinous swarms, teem with fleas and terribly infectious diseases. They infiltrate our homes, pilfer our food, and invade our beds, biting us even as we sleep. Rats are undeniably nightmarish creatures, so it is no wonder that this bane of human civilization has been featured often in horror fiction. Consider this exemplary six-pack of rat terror (note: I am focusing here on works of American literature, and thus exclude British efforts such as George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks [basis of the film Willard], and James Herbert’s The Rats from the survey)…

 

1.“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)

Ironically, rats come to the rescue in Poe’s story of the various terrors rained down upon the narrating prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition. This tormented protagonist uses the vermin’s voracious appetite to personal advantage, strategically smearing food all over his entrapping bandages. The promptly overwhelmed narrator recounts: “They pressed–they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half-stifled by their thronging pressure […].” Desperate times call for disgusting measures.

 

2.“The Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft (1932)

Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” might be the more widely-known and more influential tale, but those titular infesting pests seem like lovable pets compared to the furry figure of Brown Jenkin (a diabolical, hyperspace-traveling witch’s familiar) in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Possessing fiendish intelligence and disturbingly anthropoid features, this long-toothed sidekick of an old crone commits some heinous acts of violence–including the wrist-gnawing sacrifice of a stolen child. And what Brown Jenkin does to the main character Gilman at story’s end represents arguably the ghastliest moment in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

 

3.“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner (1936)

The prolific Kuttner’s first-published and remarkably Lovecraftian story (in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales) is set in an ancient Salem cemetery and deals with “ghoulish beings that dwelt far underground, and that had the power of commanding the rats, marshaling them like horrible armies.” Readers are taken on a terrifying subterranean excursion when a grave-robbing caretaker gets in over his head. Anyone with a fear of premature burial had best avoid the climax, which finds the villain trapped in a coffin, suffocating, and subjected to the cacophony of rats’ triumphant squeals.

 

4.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

Wright’s classic novel also landed in my post last month on variations on Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but long before any feline frightfulness unfolds in Native Son, a rodent gnashes its way into the narrative. The book opens with an unforgettable scene of Bigger Thomas and his family being terrorized in their tenement apartment by a giant black rat. Bigger’s violent reaction to the attack (he “took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically”) sets the stage for further fearful outbursts later in the novel.

 

5.“Graveyard Shift” by Stephen King (1970)

In his essay “The Horror Writer and the Ten Bears,” King readily admits to a fear of rats, a phobia that is reflected time and again in his horror fiction. The Lovecraft-evoking “Graveyard Shift” forms his first foray into rat-plagued territory, and proves to be one gruesome endeavor. “Mischief” is the technical term for a group of rats, and that’s exactly what the creatures get up to here as a hapless cleaning crew ventures into the subcellar of an old textile mill. These mutants are awful in their own biting right, but pale in comparison to the shocking sight of their queen, a monstrous rat “as big as a Holstein calf.” In writing this tale, King might not have exorcised his personal dread, but he certainly succeeded in infecting his readers with the exact same fear.

 

6.The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)

In Dracula, Bram Stoker (who also dealt with vermin in “The Judge’s House” and “The Burial of the Rats”) establishes the Count’s psychic command of “meaner things” such as rats–as witnessed in the scene where thousands of the furry minions are called to the vampire’s swarming defense at Carfax Abbey. Rats are also central to the plot of Del Toro and Hogan’s modern, more-realistic revision of Dracula, but cut against Stoker’s mythological grain. The rats here enact a mass exodus to the daylit streets of Manhattan, fearfully displaced from their underground lair by worse “things that burrow and hide. Creatures who nest. Who feed off the human population.” Impressively researched, The Strain owes a debt not just to Stoker’s vampire epic but also (as the authors acknowledge) to Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

 

But enough already about rats–it’s time to turn to turkey. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the Macabre Republic!

 

 

Pest in Show

In yesterday’s post, I raved about the macabre brilliance of the Stephen King adaptation 1922, but I have to admit: it is not even the most frightful rat-related work currently streaming on Netflix. This other endeavor just might be the most unnerving film I’ve ever seen (I can’t remember ever cringing and exclaiming in horror so many times in one viewing). What makes the film that much more difficult to endure is that it’s not even fictional. I’m talking about the 2016 Morgan Spurlock documentary Rats (inspired by the Robert Sullivan book of the same title).

Appropriately enough, the documentary opens in the “ratropolis” of New York City. As someone who used to live and work in Manhattan, I know there’s a tendency to try to ignore the omnipresence of rats, but this film graphically undermines such willful blindness. Again and again, the surreptitious scourge is shown surfacing on food runs, finding a bountiful harvest in curbside garbage bags (one man’s trash is many rats’ treasure). Spurlock reminds us that there’s a biting nightmare lurking just underfoot in the City’s sewer drains, and it is a lot nastier than Pennywise.

From New York, the filmmakers venture down to post-Katrina New Orleans to follow the efforts of a research team at Tulane to track the various diseases carried by local rats.  The cut-in photos of infected humans are haunting enough alone, but viewers are also treated to nearly-unbearable scenes of rat autopsies (beware the botfly-sac extraction!).

There are unpleasant surprises aplenty, but I won’t spoil them by cataloging them all here. I’ll just say that the segment about the preparation of captured rats as Vietnamese cuisine had me ready to declare a hunger strike. And just when I thought matters couldn’t get any worse, the documentary concludes with a visit to a Hindu temple in India, where worshipers happily share space–and food and drink(!)–with thousands of venerated vermin.

I don’t want to misrepresent Rats as sensationalist, merely concerned with creating dismay or sparking disgust. The documentary ultimately aims to open eyes, not force people to avert their gazes from the screen. It was interesting to learn about the intelligence of rats, about their behavioral adaptations (outsmarting the latest attempts at extermination) and evolutionary mutations (developing resistance to the most potent poisons). Humanity appears to be making little progress in its prolonged war against these rodent opponents, and it’s not out of the realm of imagination to consider that someday the earth’s dominant species will be subterranean.

While definitely not for the squeamish, the grimly-fascinating Rats is a film well worth catching.

A Very Good Year: 1922 (Movie Review)

Writer/director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation (currently streaming on Netflix) of the Stephen King novella 1922 astounds on a host of levels. For starters, there’s stunning cinematography on display: shots of the cloud-shrouded Nebraskan plains, a labyrinthine cornfield, a looming, secluded farmhouse. While amazing to behold, the film also features plenty of horrific imagery, from vermin-swarmed church pews during a funeral service to clawed and gnawed corpses (thankfully, the rat-savaging of a cow teat–one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read in a King narrative–is only briefly dramatized here).

1922 is expertly cast, with Molly Parker playing the ill-fated Arlette, and Dylan Schmid and Kaitlyn Bernard portraying the fresh-faced teens tragically turned into the “Sweetheart Bandits.” It’s Thomas Jane, though, who dominates as main character Wilfred Leland James. Countering his more heroic outings in previous King-based films (DreamcatcherThe Mist), Jane embodies a man who exudes intensity even in his pensive moments, and radiates menace without ever having to raise his voice. Physical tics and a pronounced rural drawl do not reduce to a caricature of a country rube, but instead enrich this unprofiting character. Jane’s performance as a doomed (if not damned) wife-murderer is nothing short of award-worthy.

The film is expertly structured, starting with its use of a framing device. Viewer interest is instantly piqued as a maimed and haggard-looking Wilfred enters a rented room in the opening scene: this is someone whose fortunes no doubt have declined considerably. At strategic times throughout, the film returns to this scene of Wilfred penning his confession, and demonstrates that while the character survived the disastrous events of 1922, his psyche is not necessarily intact, and his immortal soul might be in peril. A h(a)unted man, Wilfred is progressively plagued by Lovecraftian rats in the walls that give new meaning to chewing up the scenery.

Although deliberate in its pacing, 1922 never grows tedious or tension-free. To its credit, the film takes the time to allow the unsettling aftershocks of Wilfred’s brutal crime to slowly unfold. There’s no facile reliance on jump scares or sudden, shrill sound effects. No campy mugging, either, by decomposing ghouls: the scene where a ravaged and rotten Arlette seemingly returns from the grave (in her case, a rat-infested well in the backyard where her body was hidden) and proceeds to whisper inaudibly in Wilfred’s ear proves that quiet horror can make for the loudest screams.

1922 also offers a seamless merging of genres, working both as a tale of supernatural comeuppance and as a naturalistic crime story in the vein of Frank Norris (one of King’s favorite novelists). Such duality is signaled in the naming of Wilfred’s son Henry, who insists on being called Hank following his mother’s murder (which he assisted his father in committing). “Henry James” recalls the preeminent writer of nuanced ghost stories, while “Hank James” (the handle of a soon-to-be fugitive) forms a near echo of notorious outlaw Frank James.

Hilditch’s script follows King’s source text faithfully; if there is one ostensible misstep, it comes in the film’s final moment. A whole layer of psychological complexity gets stripped away (in the novella, the bite marks covering Wilfred’s body when his corpse is found in the hotel room are notably self-inflicted), as the film instead opts for a more Creepshow-y image of impending revenant vengeance. This ultimate divergence, though, does not spoil all the fine work that has come before. In the end, 1922 stands as one of the best King adaptations ever made, and an indisputable American Gothic masterpiece.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird

The passing mention of Harper Lee in yesterday’s post prompted me to import this piece first published on the old Macabre Republic blog in 2010 (in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s golden jubilee). A work of multi-faceted brilliance, Lee’s novel can be viewed…

I.As a coming-of-age tale.  Over the course of the novel, narrator Scout and her older brother Jem learn various life lessons–about human nature, contemporary society, and the conflict that often develops between the two. Scout encapsulates this process of physical/intellectual maturation near the end of her narrative, when she recounts: “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, expect possibly algebra.”

II.As an example of Southern Gothic. The Radley Place–gloomy, decayed, den of a legendary grotesque–is the epitome of a Southern Gothic domicile, a “dark house” worthy of Faulkner. The character Miss Maudie also strikes at the heart of American Gothic when she offers: “The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets–”

III.As a mystery. Boo Radley is a ready-made bogeyman figure for the neighborhood children, but is the infamous recluse really still holed up inside the house, and what would it be like to meet him in the flesh? Such questions have captivated not just Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill, but also legions of Lee’s readers.

IV.As a comedy. Scout’s pluckiness and innocence typically make for a hilarious combination (this girl is living proof that kids say the darnedest things). I would even go so far as to claim that Lee’s novel helped shape the revered holiday comedy A Christmas Story: both employ a formula in which an adult narrator wryly comments on his/her childhood escapades (in this light, it’s interesting to note that Scout and Jem receive air rifles as presents one Christmas–prefiguring Ralphie’s memorable gift in the Bob Clark film). 

V.As a portrait of racial prejudice and small town small-mindedness. “There’s something in our world,” Atticus tries to explain to Scout and Jem, “that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried.”  Lee critiques the irrational racism that transforms otherwise upstanding citizens into lynch mob members and blind, unjust jurists, but the author also champions those who manage to transcend a provincial/prejudicial viewpoint: “The handful of people in [sleepy Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s], who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people,” according to Miss Maudie, “with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

VI.As a courtroom drama. These riveting scenes comprise the central chapters of the novel. The case itself is an absolute powderkeg: black fieldhand Tom Robinson has been accused of the ultimate transgression–raping a white woman. By trial’s end the distinction between right and wrong, winning and losing, grows quite muddied: the defendant is convicted, yet the plaintiffs are the ones who end up looking guilty.

VII.As a profile in courage. Atticus Finch demonstrates his fortitude throughout, and not just in physical terms (e.g. facing off against, and shooting down, a rabid dog). Disregarding public opinion, this widower resolves to raise his two children in what he believes is the right way.  Most impressively of all, Atticus defies town censure in his willingness to serve as Tom’s defense lawyer; he commits himself to a case he knows he stands little chance of winning (because of the prevailing racism). Real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Atticus makes this statement in reference to Mrs. Dubose’s determination to kick her morphine addiction before dying, but the words apply just as well to his own character.

VIII.As a summertime idyll. “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.” Scout later elaborates: “summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking.” Summer is finding ways to while away the day in play (is it any wonder Scout, Jem, and Dill fixate on the Radley Place and invoke the mysterious Boo as the subject of their various games?).

IX.As an exploration of gender roles. Aunt Alexandria wages an arduous campaign to get the tomboy Scout to dress and act like a “lady.” Also, notions of Southern chivalry–the placement of the white woman on an imaginary pedestal of untouchability–are what make the incident between Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell so scandalous. The latter broke “a rigid and time-honored code” of Southern society when she attempted to miscegenate with Tom (whom she then fashioned as a rapist to cover her own shame).

X.As an examination of social class. Maycomb doesn’t just break along lines of black and white; there is a distinct stratification to Caucasian society itself–the ostensible nobility (land-owning families of respected name), the rural riff-raff (like the Cunninghams), the white trash (such as the lowly Ewells, who, appropriately, live alongside a garbage dump). Jem attempts to explain these gradations to Scout, who replies, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Jem, though, disillusioned by the outcome of Tom’s trial, counters: “That’s what I thought, too, when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?” Speeches such as this illustrate that Lee’s novel broaches the subject not just of racial equality but of general human decency towards others.

XI.As a morality tale. The theme of senseless slaughter of the innocent is foregrounded by the title, and resounds in the book itself when Tom meets his sad demise. But a more redemptive note is struck at novel’s end, when Boo’s killing of Bob Ewell (who himself was attempting to murder Jem and Scout) is covered up. To thrust the reclusive Boo into the limelight by revealing his involvement in Ewell’s death would be a “sin.” Sheriff Heck Tate impresses this point upon Atticus, and Scout follows it up with: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

XII.As Halloween literature. Let’s not forget that Ewell’s climactic knife attack occurs on a dark street on Halloween night, as Scout and Jem are returning home from the holiday celebration at the schoolhouse. The festivities there include apple-bobbing, taffy-pulling, a costume contest, a House of Horrors, and ghoulish games: the children are led into a darkened classroom and “made to touch several objects alleged to be components parts of a human being. ‘Here’s his eyes,’ we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. ‘Here’s his heart,’ which felt like raw liver. ‘These are his innards,’ and are hands were thrust into plates of cold spaghetti.” Obviously, Maycomb County is also October Country.

XIII.As a seminal influence on other writers’ works. The echoes can be traced in texts such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s Cujo, Richard Laymon’s Halloween short story “Boo” (in the anthology October Dreams), and Joe R. Lansdale’s Edgar-winning novel The Bottoms. To Kill a Mockingbird, itself indebted to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus forms a central link in the evolutionary chain of American Gothic literature.

Five for Frightening, Part Five

Last (belated) stop on the Halloween Carnival review circuit…

Volume 5 opens with a story from the owner of Cemetery Dance Publications himself, Richard Chizmar. “Devil’s Night” (first published in 1996, and previously reprinted in 2012 as a Halloween Short Story ebook) is a fine piece of night-before-Halloween noir: a tale of infidelity and murder, told by an everyman narrator (a high school English teacher) who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the best dark-crime fiction, “Devil’s Night” (which tellingly surnames one of its characters “Cain“) shines because of the voice recounting the vice and violence.

Lisa Tuttle’s “The Last Dare” is slow to unfold, but ultimately proves an unsettling piece of quiet horror (concerning a seemingly witch-haunted “tower house”). The employment of a grandmother protagonist here makes for a fresh variation on the traditional Halloween tale.

In “The Halloween Bleed (A Dr. Sibley Curiosity),” Norman Prentiss offers an interesting premise: that Halloween’s darkly magical influence can carry over to other days. While engaging in its depiction of sorcerous intrigue, the story simultaneously distances the reader because it feels like a snippet from a larger narrative tapestry (admission: I have not read any of Prentiss’s other tales of the sinister academic Bennet Sibley).

To my surprise, Kevin Quigley’ “Swing” deals not with some haunted piece of playground equipment but with swing music. Credit might have been due for taking an unusual angle onto the holiday theme, except that Halloween is only touched upon obliquely here. Featuring an uncertain narrator who poses questions to the very end, this one is a bit of a tedious read.

Closing out the volume and the series is another tale mixing music (in this case, jazz) and Halloween mayhem: Peter Straub’s 1994 novella “Pork Pie Hat” (first published in Murder for Halloweenand also included in Cemetery Dance’s classic anthology October Dreams). Straub, though, produces much more elegant prose than Quigley, and his tale grips the reader with its nested narratives, its atmospheric trek into the backwoods of the racially-tense Deep South (shades of Harper Lee), and its element of mystery that is maintained right up until the final paragraphs. “Pork Pie Hat” is an immaculately crafted tale, filled with haunting images and striking lines, such as the following proclamation by the eponymous musician: “Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things–I’m telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.”

With three middling stories sandwiched between two stellar (yet familiar) reprints, Halloween Carnival Volume 5 is a must-have only for the series completist.

Exorcist Confession

Maybe it’s because I was less than impressed by the William Peter Blatty novel. Maybe my existing familiarity with the various notorious scenes (which have become ingrained in pop culture) doused my interest. Maybe my reticence stemmed from deep-seated dread (had all those years as a Catholic schoolboy put the fear of the Devil in me?). Maybe all–or none–of the above. For whatever reason, I had never seen The Exorcist (a film nearly as old as I am) until yesterday. Now, this may sound like heresy to many, but I have to say: I don’t see what I was missing.

The film moves at a ponderous pace, beginning with an overlong opening in northern Iraq. Ellen Burstyn–who, ironically, portrays a movie actress–overacts throughout. While I am a huge fan of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, I found his work here to be too over the top: Linda Blair as the Pazuzu-possessed Regan looks like some eczematous Orc escaped from Middle Earth (her transformation is so extreme, it’s easy to forget the fresh-faced young girl that is being subjected to such diabolic abuse). Frustratingly, the plot defies logic: when Regan comes spider-walking down the staircase, that should be sign enough that it’s high time to give up the search for medical/psychological/ pharmacological causes and call in a Christ-loving exorcist! Incredulity (the suspension of “Dis belief”?) also arises when Regan’s head is forced to spin around 180 degrees: surely such a maneuver would have broken the girl’s neck, killing her (just as Burke was apparently dispatched by Pazuzu before being hurled through the bedroom window) and thereby putting a prompt end to the demon’s possessive shenanigans. Director William Friedkin seems to value shock over narrative sense, to the point where these periodic outbursts of outrageousness (e.g. pea-soup projectile vomiting) become almost laughable. And that’s probably my biggest issue here: the film–often touted as the scariest ever made–just didn’t seem all that frightening. I would argue that Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism (two modern films undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist) work much more effectively in establishing a dread-saturated atmosphere, in making the supernatural feel like a natural threat.

I understand that it’s not really fair to judge a film from 1973 by the standards of this day and age, when obscenity/grotesquerie has become a familiar part of the pop-cultural landscape. Experiencing The Exorcist fresh in theaters four-and-a-half decades ago must have been a genuinely jarring experience. Like the best works of American Gothic horror, The Exorcist taps into the anxieties bedeviling the national psyche (as David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show: “The film became a highly publicized cultural ritual exorcising not the devil, but rather the confused parental feelings of guilt and responsibility in the Vietnam era, when–at least from a certain conservative perspective–filthy-mouthed children were taking personality-transforming drugs, violently acting out, and generally making life unpleasant for their elders.”). Yet just because the film has succeeded in touching a societal nerve does not mean that its makers pushed all the right artistic buttons along the way.

Five For Frightening, Part Four

Catching up with my reviews of Cemetery Dance’s seasonal anthology series, Halloween Carnival

In the fourth volume’s opener, “The Mannequin Challenge” by Kealan Patrick Burke, a curmudgeonly coworker reluctantly attends an office Halloween party, only to discover the expected revelers all frozen in lifeless pose. The squirming reader, though, will be anything but unmoved after witnessing what unfolds from this scene of strange stasis.

Unsurprisingly, considering that Ray Garton is the author, “Across the Tracks” offers the most adult content in the ebook. A trio of trick-or-treaters encounter not only foul-mouthed and sexually-perverse bullies, but also a bizarre scene of naked paganism. Garton’s transgressive story also appropriately defies neat moral wrap-up, ending instead with a nasty twist.

Bev Vincent channels Bradbury in “The Halloween Tree,” but the oaken totem of the title proves much darker than the pumpkin-lit specimen famously spied by Pipkin’s friends. I have always been a fan of dead/creepy-looking trees in nature and literature, and the one featured here is positively rotten to the core.

In “Pumpkin Eater,” C.A. Suleiman serves up a slice of E.C. Comics-style comeuppance. While fairly predictable in its plotting, the tale is enriched by its sardonic tone and the unfriendly banter of a husband and wife on the verge of a deadly parting. Good, mean fun.

The volume’s lone reprint, Paul Melniczek’s novella “When the Leaves Fall,” opens in Bradburyesque fashion: a pair of young, mildly-mischievous Halloween lovers have their innocence tested by an encounter with something wicked in their small town. There’s a strong American Gothic vibe to the piece, with its sinister farm setting and townspeople characters plagued by a terrible secret. The problem is, the dark forces at work are kept in the shadows for far too long; suspense is counteracted as the plot drags on and the first-person narration grows overwrought (frequently lapsing into the melodramatic rhetoric of some Lovecraftian stumbler upon unnameable horrors).

Comprising half the book’s length, the underwhelming concluding novella feels like filler. This editorial misstep unfortunately renders the fourth leg of Halloween Carnival‘s October-long journey rather pedestrian.

 

Now You Know Poe

The latest episode of PBS’s American Masters series, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive points a corrective lens at an author who is ever-popular yet has been long misrepresented/misunderstood (thanks in no small part to the character assassination performed by literary nemesis Rufus Griswold, and to Poe’s own crafty adoption of an offbeat public persona). Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the 90-minute documentary is stuffed with commentary by Poe biographers and scholars, film directors and novelists. The true highlights, though, are the interspersed scenes in which a Poe-impersonating Denis O’Hare performs monologues or equally-dramatic readings (the actor might not cut quite as striking a figure as John Astin did in his earlier “Once Upon a Midnight” one-man shows, but he does superlative work in bringing classic Poe creations such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Raven” to life). Writer/director Eric Stange’s film excels both in its placement of Poe’s life and work within the historical context of the first half of the 19th Century and in its exploration of the psyche of the unfortunate and often-tormented writer. If there’s one shortcoming here, it’s that Buried Alive conducts the postmortem of Poe posthaste; more time could have been devoted to delving into the mystery of Poe’s death, weighing the various theories as to what actually befell him and taking an interpretive stance. Nevertheless, this is an undeniably enlightening biography of the dark scribe, and the viewer will be left thinking of Poe as just some deranged, depraved drunkard nevermore.