The Terror: Definition of?

There is so much to like about The Terror, AMC’s just-completed historical horror series centering on the ill-fated quest to locate the Northwest Passage. Time and again, viewers are treated to stunning visuals (those long-range and overhead shots of the icebound ships are nothing short of sublime). There’s nightmare fuel to burn: grisly images of amputations, postmortems, scurvy-plagued faces, cannibalized corpses, dismemberings and savagings by a mammoth monster. The show is also stocked with incredible performances: Ciaran Hinds as the pompous and incompetent Sir John Franklin; Jared Harris as the tormented yet honorable Captain Crozier; Paul Ready as the aptly-named anatomist, Dr. Goodsir; Adam Nagaitis as the cretinous, Kurtzian caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey.

Ironically, though, for a show concerning a protracted struggle to survive, The Terror often feels rushed. Key scenes from Dan Simmons’s epic novel (e.g. the death of Sir John) flash by too quickly, too incompletely. The creature’s attack on ice master Thomas Blanky, one of the most extensive and suspenseful chapters in the book, is hardly allowed to play to its harrowing extreme. At the same time, certain plotlines are overemphasized: in the latter episodes, political upheaval (the battle between splintered camps after the voyagers abandon ship) eclipses both the monstrous threat of the Tuunbaq and the grueling ordeal of an overland trek (the way the men are so casually dressed, one might almost forget they are crossing terribly frigid terrain). For those familiar with Simmons’s The Terror, the abridgment/alteration of the narrative is severe. In a ten-episode series, surely there was space for a more faithful adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest misstep here is that the show presents too little of the Tuunbaq. The creature appears much less frequently than in the novel, and as a result, much of the tension is sacrificed. Sense of the crews’ frightful plight, their years-long subjection to sudden and spectacular attack by an Arctic terrorist, is undermined. When the Tuunbaq does show up on screen, he looks clearly computer-generated (and to me at least, strangely cute). He seems like a polar bear on steroids, not a sly and malicious entity of supernatural evil. By presenting the Tuunbaq as an almost tragic Inuit figure, the series undercuts both his mythological grandeur and his role as daunting adversary.

Make no mistake: AMC’s The Terror is a riveting drama, and well worth watching. I can appreciate the fact that adapting Simmons’s beast of a novel–which places innumerable characters in inhospitable environments–is no easy task. And naturally, changes are always necessitated by the translation of fiction into a visual medium. Nevertheless, the reworking of the source material here is so radical, it strikes me as an act of hubris: the show’s creators suggest they can take Simmons’s original story and tell it so much better by following an ever-diverging route. While an impressive effort, The Terror, much like the Franklin Expedition itself, falls regrettably short of the ultimate glory it might have achieved.

 

Canine Surprise: Stephen King’s “Laurie”

Stephen King’s latest short story (posted–without previous notice–as a free download at the author’s website) opens with the gifting of the eponymous mutt to a grieving, elderly widower by his sister. Mid-scene, Beth mentions to her brother Lloyd that “dogs die in cars. Especially little ones.” That is exactly the fate of the Jack Russell terrier Biznezz in another canine-centered King story, the Carveresque “Premium Harmony,” which leads one to wonder if “Laurie” will unfold in a similarly minimalist and irony-rich vein. On the other hand, since this is Stephen King we are talking about, there’s also the possibility that the gruesome chaos of Cujo could erupt. No small part of the fun of reading “Laurie” is the uncertainty of just where the tale is heading. King ultimately delivers a wicked curve, resulting in a suspenseful–and somewhat bloody–climax. The narrative works as both a chilling bit of realistic horror (to which the Florida setting is essential) and a heartwarming account of the developing bond between owner and pet. Hardly a shaggy dog story, “Laurie” rewards Constant Readers with a fine, unexpected treat.

Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

List Resistance

So I was browsing on my phone recently, and Google clued me in to an article on the Publishers Weekly website: “10 Scariest Horror Stories.” Naturally, I clicked right on over. Now, I understand that any compiled list is inevitably subjective, and part of the fun is seeing what the selector actually chose and had to say about those items, so I don’t want to be too contentious here. But what I read did bother me. Writer/scholar/editor Victoria Nelson (who admits that the bulk of her list is culled from the classic volume Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural) exhibits a strong bias towards late-19th/early-20th Century British fiction. The implication, then, is that the scariest stories were written long ago, and seldomly by American writers (H.P. Lovecraft and C.L. Moore are the two exceptions cited by Nelson). There’s no hint here of Stephen King or Peter Straub, let alone Laird Barron, Jack Ketchum, Glen Hirshberg, Stephen Graham Jones, or Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps the issue is ultimately one of false advertising: the superlative article title “10 Scariest Horror Stories” suggests comprehensive consideration (“…Of All Time”), but the headnote to the list does qualify that these are simply “10 scary stories recommended by Nelson.”

I’d have to devote some more thought before compiling my own list of the 10 Scariest Horror Stories (American or otherwise), but if anyone has specific pieces they would vote for, feel free to leave a comment below.