Further Drawings: The Literary Legacy of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

In my latest Mob Scene post earlier this week I covered Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery,” which first cast a dark cloud over a summer gathering seventy years ago. In the seven decades since its publication, “The Lottery” has been anthologized countless times, and has formed the perennial source of high school lit class discussion. The story’s legacy, though, extends to a continuing influence on other works of fiction (Jackson herself would return to a scene of rock-tossing angry villagers at the close of her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Here’s another Pick-5 of “Lottery”-influenced texts:

 

1.Storm of the Century. This Stephen-King-scripted miniseries is much indebted to Mark Twain (it might just as easily have been titled The Demon That Corrupted Little Tall), but ultimately King gives a nod to Shirley Jackson. There’s a climactic scene in which representative families from the community submit to a drawing of “weirding stones,” a dire game of chance that earns the unlucky winner a fate worse than death.

 

2.“Guts.” In terms of content, Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious story certainly falls far afield of Jackson’s. But the author himself has testified that he was inspired by “The Lottery” to try his hand at a transgressive narrative that would unsettle his audience. Anyone who’s ever read “Guts” (or heard it performed by Palahniuk) would be hard-pressed to deny the author’s success at that task.

 

3.Dark Harvest. Norman Partridge’s hallowed Halloween novel presents a small town given to performing a sinister annual ritual (which helps assure bountiful crops). Also analogous to Jackson’s narrative, the winning of the contest waged on the night of October 31st proves quite the losing proposition.

 

4.The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s hit trilogy of young-adult novels features another annual lottery drawing that has some dark consequences for the family member selected. At least here, though, the person is given a chance to survive, in a grim edition of reality-TV spectacle.

 

5.Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation. In this final case, the drawing proves literal, as Jackson’s own grandson inks a graphic-novel version of the story. More than just a colorful pictorial translation, though, Hyman’s book also forms a bit of a prequel–it starts out by providing a glimpse of the events on June 26th, the night before the fateful ritual.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

Sadly, one of genre fiction’s most prolific, provocative, and decorated writers has passed away at the age of 84.

Odds are, anyone reading this post knows the name Harlan Ellison, and can cite particular titles from his incredible oeuvre. For those lucky few yet to be initiated, I offer such classic and unforgettable tales as “A Boy and His Dog,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Jeffty is Five,” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.”

I can remember obtaining a copy of The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective back in the late 80’s, and spending a whole summer getting gloriously lost inside its pages (along with Stephen King’s It and The Stand, it was probably the largest volume in my teenage collection). I read and reread that book to pieces, until its dust jacket was tattered and its spine had enough cracks to put an osteoporotic gravedigger to shame. Delving into this copious collection (which has since been Revised and Expanded), I was mesmerized by Ellison’s versatility and virtuosity alike.

In 2005, I got to meet Ellison in person at the World Horror Convention in New York City (where he was a Guest of Honor). The Saturday afternoon train from Jersey was late getting to Manhattan, and when I finally arrived at Ellison’s (ostensible) Q&A session, he was already in full-raconteur mode. Scared to interrupt his performance, I hung back on the balcony overlooking the ballroom, but the second he spotted me up there, he invited me down to join the audience (pointing to an empty seat right up front). There I got to experience up close his oratory splendor, as he regaled the gathered crowd with anecdote after anecdote, joke after joke.

Later in life, Ellison’s public persona seemed to eclipse his weighty reputation as a writer. Someone as brash and outspoken as Ellison was bound to alienate no small number of people, but also to earn the admiration of plenty of others for his take-no-shit attitude. Often uproarious, and never, ever boring, Harlan Ellison always left an impression. Today he leaves behind a treasure trove of literary jewels, rich, finely-wrought narratives that assuredly will never shatter like a glass goblin.

Mob Scene: “The Lottery”

American Literature’s most famous mob scene has turned 70.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published (to no shortage of public outcry) in The New Yorker back in 1948. In the story, the inhabitants of a seemingly-idyllic village (based on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson resided at the time) gather every June 27th for the titular ritual. The lottery (technically a double drawing, selecting first a local family and then a specific member of that household) is well-woven into the civic fabric; the administering official, Mr. Summers, similarly presides over “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” But while all this sounds wholesome enough, there is a nervous tension running through the crowd, and the subsequent freak-out by Tess Hutchinson after she draws the slip of paper marked with a black spot (shades of Billy Bones in Treasure Island) has nothing to do with excitement over sudden enrichment. With a devious twist, Jackson reveals that this lottery delivers an unfortunate reward: this isn’t some Win-for-Life drawing, but rather Lose-Your-Life. The townspeople proceed to set upon the protesting Tess (whose first name and surname allude to fictional and historical female sufferers of persecution, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anne Hutchinson) and begin the stunning act of stoning her to death.

This story of designated scapegoating–of communal cohesion through arbitrary Othering–paints a bloody underbelly onto modern society, calling the very notion of “civilization” into question. Jackson’s slice of American Gothic also exposes the fragility of the family bond: having drawn the black spot, the cowardly Tess promptly tries to serve up her own children as the recipients of the impending handout.

There are distinct religious overtones to “The Lottery,” as the public stoning of a branded deviant proves a most Old-Testament form of punishment. Disconcerting hints of paganism are also offered: these latter-day Druids of the New World appear to engage in murderous sacrifice (on a date close to the summer solstice) in the belief that it will ensure a bountiful harvest. As Old Man Warner memorably recites, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

Jackson depicts the quintessential mob, here wielding stones instead of torches and pitchforks, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the story’s characters angry villagers. They execute their grim business with a chilling cold-bloodedness. It is this blind allegiance to custom, the casual and callous nature of such resort to violence, that haunts the reader long after the initial shock of the ending wears off, and causes the dark themes of Jackson’s story to resonate to this day.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 18-22

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

 

Episode 18: “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”

At the start of this episode (which never aired during the show’s original run), Deputy Ben’s date Cindy teases him about being a “dark secret type.” There’s significance to the comment, though; Cindy subsequently morphs into Merlyn Temple, who proceeds to break her own neck (just as Ben witnessed Sheriff Lucas Buck do to her in the show’s first episode).

An ever-versatile ghost, Merlyn repeatedly appears (demonstrating the nonsensical turns to which Americna Gothic was sometimes prone) to Ben by taking over the bodies of flesh-and-blood women he encounters throughout the episode. Encouraging Ben, in grave terms, to grab a shovel and start digging up the truth, Merlyn leads the deputy to a Gothic ruin in the Goat Town section of Trinity–an abandoned and now decrepit former home for children (a rat-stuffed teddy bear is included in the detritus strewn about the place). Ben detects the foul smell of a festering body here (at one point he’s accosted by a moldering-corpse version of Merlyn), and the building is haunted (by a somber ensemble of kid spirits–who were doomed to early deaths after the proprietor was no longer around to take them in), but no one literally died there. Merlyn, though–who reveals that her mother Judith was the woman who operated the home–is trying to bring a murder to light: she wants Ben to realize that her mother’s suicidal plunge from a hospital window actually occurred at Lucas’s tossing hands.

Perhaps the most notable element of the episode is its confirmation of what has been suspected throughout the series: Lucas (who raped and impregnated Judith, in the hopes of creating a sinister scion) is the biological father of Caleb Temple. In an appropriate subplot, we see Caleb starting to develop into his father’s son. Tutored in cruelty and vengeance by Lucas, Caleb plays a vicious prank on a school bully, Tina.

Overall, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, and marred by muddy character motivation (Caleb’s cousin Gail seems to vacillate between the successfully-seduced lover of Lucas and the determined journalist hellbent on exposing the sheriff’s history of evil misdeed). A measure of redemption, though, is achieved in the closing moments, as the meaning of the episode’s curious title is clarified. Ben and Merlyn (here possessing the bartender Allison) slow-dance to the atmospheric–and thematically resonant–Mel Torme torch song, “The House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye).”

 

Episode 19: “Triangle”

This episode of American Gothic could just have easily been titled (with a nod to Ira Levin) “Gail Emory’s Baby.” When Gail moves to end her affair with Lucas Buck, and threatens to leave town with her cousin Caleb in tow, the sheriff gives her a supernatural nudge that lands her in the hospital. There she learns that she is pregnant with Lucas’s child. The subsequent ultrasound furnishes one of the series’ creepiest scenes, as the grotesque fetus in the sonogram opens its eyes, turns toward Gail and flashes a demonic grin.

The expectant mother continues to experience disturbing visions concerning the monstrous thing growing inside her. These could be dismissed as nightmares or hallucinations brought on by Gail’s own terror, but mid-episode the viewer learns that Miss Emory isn’t just imagining things. A fiendish conspiracy is in place: the nurse who denies that there is anything abnormal about the fetus pictured in the sonogram is actually lying on Lucas’s behalf (the sheriff blackmails her into playing along by threatening to expose her “extracurricular research in the narcotics supply room”).

Gail, though, isn’t about to take the news of her pregnancy lying down. She attempts to flee Trinity, but is stymied by the sudden appearance of Lucas on the roadway. “There’s no running from me, you know that,” the modern Gothic hero-villain reminds the frightened maiden.

For all of Lucas’s entanglement with Gail, he’s also hung up on his ex-lover Selena. And small-town romance begets big-time intrigue when Lucas chafes at Selena and Dr. Billy Peele’s relationship. He gives ominous warnings to both individuals to cease and desist, and when the defiant lovers continue to carry on carnally, Lucas gives Selena a real reason to feel hot and bothered: while in bed with Billy, she is overcome by a 108-degree fever. Lucas casts the incendiary spell with a strike of a match and a proclamation of “Burn, baby, burn”–words that work not just as a sardonic echo of the Trammps’ disco-era classic but as an invocation of the American history of anarchic violence.

In this episode, American Gothic once again demonstrates its cleverness through the use of background details. When Gail ponders a suicidal leap from the roof of the local bank, the institution’s name shines suggestively behind her: “Trinity Trust,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, in this town presided over by a devilish sheriff and riddled with dirty secrets and unholy bargains.

 

Episode 20: “Strangler”

“Strangler,” another episode that was never aired during American Gothic‘s single-season run, opens with a scene set in an autumnal cemetery (as Caleb visits Gage Temple’s grave) and gets progressively darker from there.

Determined to rid himself once and for all of Merlyn and her meddling ways, Sheriff Lucas Buck summons the ghostly figure of legendary serial killer Albert DeSalvo (a.k.a The Boston Strangler). Albert might no longer be haunting Beantown, but he has no problem living up to the latter part of his notorious moniker. He warms up for his eventual assault on Merlyn by fatally throttling a pair of pretty nurses from Trinity hospital and by nearly dispatching Lucas’s paramour, Gail Emory.

The eponymous Strangler is a chilling bogeyman, and a quintessentially Gothic figure rife with duplicity. Handsome Albert oozes spurious charm; “politeness gets you in anywhere,” he confides to Lucas during their initial meeting. Accordingly, he conducts his grim business by posing as a friendly refrigerator repairman, a deliveryman, and a handyman. Postmortem existence also makes the Strangler that much more dangerous, since he no longer needs to work his way past locked doors in order to get at his victims. The scene in which Albert attacks Gail is especially frightening, as the back-from-the-dead predator keeps pouncing on the distressed damsel from different angles no matter how many times she tries to throw him off and flee.

This episode, I must admit, is marred by some stilted dialogue (Lucas down on his knees in the cemetery chanting “Send forth the One!”) and hokey actions (Merlyn–who has somehow evolved into a supernaturally-empowered angel–shooting pulses of light at Albert). But its climax broaches a bit of dark irony that also shines a light on a central conflict. When Merlyn is about to sacrifice herself to the Strangler in order to protect Caleb, the boy uses his nascent powers (his infernal inheritance form Lucas) to immolate Albert. Such intervention, though, makes for a more ominous than joyous ending: sure, Merlyn acknowledges, Caleb has saved her soul, but only by drawing on the force that is bound to destroy his own.

 

Episode 21: “The Buck Stops Here”

Pillow talk takes a dark turn at the start of this penultimate episode of American Gothic, as Selena and Billy fantasize out loud about various ways of killing Lucas Buck (Billy just seems to be playing along, but Selena is serious about offing her sinister ex-lover). What makes the scene even more transgressive is that it occurs in Lucas’s own bed. Recognizing the signs of an illicit dalliance, Lucas later confronts Selena and voices perhaps his most graphic threat to date: “If you ever soil my house again, I’ll cut out your heart and use it for a chamois.”

“The Buck Stops Here” strikes another gross note as Gail prepares an afternoon meal. Lucas’s pregnant paramour makes a misnomer of roast as she bastes and then suddenly gorges upon a bloody, undercooked hunk of meat. Gail’s strange craving erases any doubt that the child growing inside her is a normal one.

The central focus of the episode, though, is the “murder” of Lucas. In a scene that sounds strong echoes of Psycho, a shadowy figure hiding in the sheriff’s Gothic home jumps out and stabs Lucas in the forehead with a trocar. Billy, who just happened to be at the scene of the crime, is arrested, but the two characters the audience really suspects are Selena and Trinity pharmacist Yancy Lydon (who has a grudge against Lucas because he failed to help Yancy’s comatose wife).

Lingering in a hospital bed, Lucas summons his son Caleb, and whispers a request in the boy’s ear. Some nefarious scheme seems to be forming, and a transfer of power transpiring (underscored by the father and son’s joint recitation of the phrase “An Old Order of the Ages Is Born Anew”). Lucas then promptly has a seizure and expires, yet the viewer can’t help but believe that Buck will be back for the conclusion of the series.

Now in full Damien mode, Caleb tracks down Yancy, telling the man that “My daddy sent me.” Caleb also ominously promises to give the pharmacist (presumably Lucas’s attacker) a taste of his own medicine. Shortly thereafter, a terrified Yancy is discovered (by Billy and Deputy Ben) lying choking on a brimming mouthful of pills.

American Gothicism arguably hits its peak during Lucas’s funeral. The scene plays out like a macabre variation on the Seinfeld finale, as an assortment of characters from earlier episodes are brought back for brief appearances. Some of these figures approaching the coffin are genuinely saddened by Lucas’s passing and express appreciation of him, but the sheriff’s corpse is also spit upon by one Trinity citizen and nearly disfigured by the disgruntled, hook-handed Waylon (the current husband of Ben’s ex-wife). This dramatic airing of allegiances and grievances serves as a fitting testimony to the work Sheriff Buck has done as a Gothic hero-villain for the constituents of his sleepy South Carolina town.

And–as his eyes pop open inside the coffin at episode’s end–it looks like Buck’s work is not yet done.

 

Episode 22: “Requiem”

Somewhat fittingly, the series finale of American Gothic begins with a graveyard scene, as funeral services are held for the seemingly departed Lucas Buck. Afterwards, Deputy Ben reminds a disrespectful gravedigger that the sheriff helped a lot of people in Trinity, a statement that prompts a bit of mordant wit from the cemetery man: “Yeah, he sure threw a lot of business my way.”

The best line of the episode (if not the entire series), though, is delivered by the prematurely-buried Buck himself, when Ben and Dr. Billy dig up his grave and throw open his coffin: “Well, if it ain’t the Hardy Boys.” Such sardonic comment (referencing the famous Young Adult series of Gothic-tinged mysteries) is quintessential Buck, and a perfect example of what makes this hero-villain figure so endearing to viewers.

In terms of its plot, “Requiem” centers on the evil evolution of Caleb, who is suddenly suffused with demonic power when Lucas suffers his almost-fatal demise. Caleb transforms into a pint-sized tyrant, and after the funeral, packs up his belongings and moves to occupy his father’s house. Upon arrival, he finds Selena waiting there for him; the sultry seductress proposes joining forces and hints at joining bodies (what would the Gothic be without the whiff of illicit sexuality?). Still seething over Buck’s spurning her for Gail, Selena informs Caleb of his cousin’s pregnancy and warns him that the child Gail is carrying is a threat to him as heir of the sheriff’s powers. Caleb, who doesn’t need much convincing on the point, tells Selena to deliver Gail to him, a sinister request that leads Selena to reply (sounding the theme of evil inheritance), “You’re your father’s son, all right.”

When Gail is subsequently lured to Buck’s house, she makes a disturbing discovery in one of the rooms. Symbolizing Caleb’s petulant protest of Gail’s pregnancy, a bloodied doll has been left lying in a shrouded bassinet. Emerging to confront Gail, Caleb tells her she must get rid of her unborn baby, but apparently the boy doesn’t have the patience to wait. He proceeds, in a scene that perhaps represents the apex of American Gothic‘s Gothicism, to chase Gail through Buck’s gloomy, stuffed-raven-and-grinning-skull-furnished mansion while wielding a fireplace poker.

Lucas, transformed into the role of heroic rescuer, bursts through the front door, only to see Gail sent tumbling down the staircase. He carries her off to safety, but the fall causes her to suffer a miscarriage.

The resurrected sheriff has some unfinished business to attend to before returning to deal with his upstart son. Knowing that Dr. Narone deliberately sentenced him to an erroneous internment, Lucas acts to take vengeance. He forces the good doctor to hang himself with his own granddaughter’s jump rope (Lucas promises to spare the girl Ashley from his wrath if Narone carries out the suicide). Ironically, Ashley is the one to discover Narone’s body, and innocently informs the hospital staff that her “Grandpa is sleeping on the ceiling.”

With that score settled, Lucas (with the ghostly help of Merlyn) confronts his bastard son. Amidst the climactic battle, Lucas hoists Caleb overhead, preparing to toss him off the second floor landing. Merlyn pleads with Lucas to spare Caleb, but he insists there’s no other way. Caleb is sent flying, but Merlyn’s “body” breaks his fall. She winks out in the process, her essence filtering into Caleb and counteracting his nascent malice. Still, there might be more to this turn of events than meets the eye. When the recovered Caleb realizes that Merlyn is gone and wonders what he is going to do now, Lucas assures him (in the final line of the series), “I think we’ll get by.” As the screen fades to black, the viewer is left wondering if Lucas hasn’t just pulled off another one of his Machiavellian schemes, using the confrontation with Caleb as a means of getting rid of the perennially-interfering Merlyn once and for all.

At times during its single-season run, American Gothic suffered from a lack of continuity in its plotting and inconsistency in characterization (to me, the failure to ever clearly define the extent of Lucas’s powers was also a miscalculation). This show might not always have been sure where it was going, but for 22 episodes it did provide a fun ride for fans of the macabre. Week after week, American Gothic justified its show title, which is perhaps a large part of the reason the short-lived series remains such a cult favorite over two decades after its original broadcast.

 

 

Horror Hot List

The 2018 Summer Reader Poll conducted by NPR asked fans to vote for their five favorite horror novels or stories. Regrettably, I missed the voting deadline, but would like to offer my scary quintet here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The nights might be getting shorter, but these works will guarantee a summer that is long on frights.

 

1.Stephen King’s IT

The fact that I was practically the same age as the adolescent protagonists when I first read King’s monstrous opus back in 1986 made the book seem especially nightmarish. It didn’t hurt, either, that King sent a virtual all-star team of terrifying creatures out onto (and under) Derry’s field of play.

 

2.Jack Ketchum’s Off Season

Night of the Living Dead meets Straw Dogs in this controversial and unabashedly violent tale of modern-day cannibals in coastal Maine. The dining habits of this feral clan make Hannibal Lecter’s diet seem positively benign. It’s not for nothing that Stephen King dubbed Jack Ketchum “the scariest guy in America.” 

 

3.Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

These six volumes comprise the greatest story collection the horror genre has ever produced. In tale after tale, Barker manages to both terrify and excite, via prose that is at once profound, provocative, and wickedly witty. These books marked me in so many ways; for example, to this day I can’t venture down into the New York subway without thinking of “The Midnight Meat Train.”

 

4.Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

McCarthy’s novels have always exhibited a Gothic bent, but none more than this post-apocalyptic gut-wrencher. The Road is incredibly affecting, as trauma and tragedy play out on both a personal and global level. What ultimately makes this book so haunting, though, is its utter plausibility.

 

5.Dan Simmons’s The Terror

This Arctic epic delivers big-time on its titular promise. The novel is relentlessly terrifying, replete with unforgettable set-pieces (the extended scene in which the Tuunbaq doggedly stalks ice master Thomas Blanky forms a master class in the creation of heart-pounding horror). Readers won’t have to worry about turning on the air conditioning this summer, because this book is perfectly chilling.

Inspiring Frankenstein

The story is almost as famous as the book itself: on a stormy mid-June night 202 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori are gathered within the Villa Diodati, and decide to pass the time by engaging in a ghost story competition. This proposed writing contest, and a subsequent nightmare suffered by Mary, spark the creation of Frankenstein, the now-classic novel concerning a Promethean transgressor and a pitiable creature driven to vengeance.

Just as Frankenstein itself has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon, with countless iterations in various mediums, the novel’s origin story has inspired a host of literary and cinematic efforts. Writers such as Brian W. Aldiss (Frankenstein Unbound), Tim Powers (The Stress of Her Regard), and Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted) have hearkened back to the Villa Diodati, as have films such as The Bride of FrankensteinGothic, and Haunted Summer. The most recent entry to this list is the 2018 biopic Mary Shelley, featuring an outstanding Elle Fanning in the title role.

Mary Shelley proceeds nearly two-thirds of the way through its run time before arriving at the seminal scene, which is presented in restrained fashion (yes, there are plenty of flickering candles, and thundercracks without, and Fuseli’s The Nightmare looms over one room, but matters don’t get anywhere near as Gothic as in Ken Russell’s Gothic). This is not to say that the events at the Villa are underplayed; what the film does so well is to take the time to establish the import of everything leading up this particular scene. Not simply the product of a single rainy night, Frankenstein is shown here as developing from the author’s lifelong experiences of loss, death, and betrayal. Marked by feelings of “desperate loneliness” and abandonment (mostly stemming from her relationship with Percy Shelley), Mary clearly identifies with the creature that takes shape on the pages of her manuscript.

Overall, this is a finely realized period drama, filled with impressive performances. The film allows its feminist themes to unfold in a natural, non-preachy fashion that makes the narrative all the more moving. Wonderfully entertaining, Mary Shelley is well worth checking out, on this historic night or any other.

Sins of the Mother: A Review of Hereditary

Hereditary, the most-anticipated horror release of 2018, has enjoyed months-long (film-festival-generated) buzz, and recently debuted to widespread critical acclaim. After finally watching the movie myself, I have to add: I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The film centers on a nuclear family aggrieved by a secretive, eccentric (i.e. dark-arts-and-crafts-loving) grandmother who becomes an even greater burden after she’s dead and buried. A promising enough premise, but Hereditary quickly proceeds to underwhelm. For starters, the main performers prove guilty of rampant overacting. The Oscar-touted Toni Collette as mournful mom Annie Graham vacillates between shrieking hysterically and shrilly hectoring her loved ones; Alex Wolff as the increasingly-petrified stoner teen Peter demonstrates acting chops no less hammy. Meanwhile Gabriel Byrne as patriarch Steve is presented as a laid-back foil to his overwrought family, but Byrne practically sleepwalks through the role.

Hereditary also threatens to make a misnomer of run time, as the film (its first hour in particular) unfolds with torturous slowness. A major twist about two-thirds of the way in is anything but unexpected: one character couldn’t have more clearly announced herself as a Duplicitous Assister Straight Out of Rosemary’s Baby if she were wearing a sandwich board. Likewise, the occult-conspiracy climax plays out all too familiarly for genre fans.

I can appreciate that first-time director Ari Aster aims to build a lush Gothic atmosphere rather than rely on cheap jump-scares. For sure, there are some creepy and disturbing moments here (too many, though, that were spoiled by the film’s trailer), but Hereditary never really terrifies. It failed to scare me at least, mostly because I just didn’t care enough about the characters and their predicament.

Much like The Witch (an infinitely superior effort), this film seems destined to create a broad divide in its audience. And much like Robert Eggers’s Puritanical chiller, Aster’s cinematic premiere will no doubt benefit from repeat viewing (not just to appreciate its more nuanced aspects, but simply to get a closer, at-home view of the small print that appears onscreen on several occasions and is a struggle to read for hardly-eagle-eyed theatergoers such as myself). My lofty expectations having been grounded, though, I can’t say that I am looking forward to a reunion with the Graham family anytime soon. More histrionic than horrific, Hereditary passes along too many negative traits.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 13-17

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 13: “Resurrector”

Local shock jock Mel Kirby approaches the influential Sheriff Buck for help in moving from radio into television work, but when Lucas refuses to get involved, Mel vows to get even with him. An opportunity presents itself when the sheriff’s deputy, Ben, shoots Lance Biggs after the man fired on the postal carrier who was delivering bills to his home. Turns out that Biggs had owed Lucas money, so Mel uses his radio platform to (in Lucas’s words) “put a dark spin on this morning’s events.”

But give the devil his due: Lucas is not to be outdone when it comes to dirty dealing. With the help of his seductive sidekick Selena, Lucas convinces Mel that a brighter future awaits him: he can make a break into television, but only as a solo act. Mel will have to dump (i.e. kill off) his radio co-host wife Gloria. With that in mind, Mel takes Gloria out for a boat ride on Jackson Lake (only on American Gothic does a nighttime foray onto an eerie, fog-shrouded lake fit the notion of a romantic date). Unbeknownst to Mel, though, Gloria has already been warned by Lucas of her husband’s dishonorable intentions.

Meanwhile, Caleb–troubled by the lingering afterlife of his sister Merlyn–takes steps to release her from her earthly hauntings. Miss Holt, who runs the boarding house where Caleb lives, has a family scrapbook that contains the instructions for holding a “second funeral”–a “going-away party for the dead.” Caleb enlists the aid of his friend Boone, and when the former insists that they follow the directions exactly so as to adhere to old customs, the latter offers a distinctly Gothic counterpoint: “Burning people at the stake was an old custom, too.”

But the best line in the episode belongs to Lucas. When Mel realizes he’s been duped, he moans that he had only come to the sheriff for help. In response, Lucas flashes some of the grim wit that makes him such a wonderful hero-villain: “Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

 

Episode 14: “Inhumanitas”

American Gothic certainly justifies its show title with this fourteenth episode. “Inhumanitas” opens with Sheriff Lucas Buck and Father Tilden sitting in a church confessional. Lucas, though, isn’t there to articulate his various transgressions but to learn of the secret sins of Trinity’s populace. Father Tilden dishes the dirt on the townspeople, citing incidents of petty theft, unwanted pregnancy, and marital infidelity.  Lucas seeks “something [he] can use” in his personal dealings with the locals, and gets a surprisingly juicy tidbit when Tilden confides that Barbara Hudson puts nails in the street to keep cars from speeding by her house.

Corrupt religious figures are a familiar character type in Gothic narratives, and Tilden ties in to that tradition based on the bargain he has made with the devilish Lucas. In return for snitching on the penitent, Tilden gets the assurance that no harm will come to his church (which, as the sheriff recounts during the conversation in the confessional, has been “miraculously” spared from damage by a wildfire that ravaged the rest of the buildings on that block).

Macabre rendition of religious icons is another hallmark of the Gothic, and in this opening scene viewers watch a church statue come to life and take on the visage of Merlyn Temple. Merlyn has turned avenging angel in the hopes of saving her brother Caleb’s soul from Lucas.

Later in the episode, Lucas snuffs the life out of a Scripture-spouting Tilden by squeezing the crucifix from a set of the priest’s rosary beads in his fist. Tilden’s desperate prayer and the lack of protection provided by Christianity’s primary symbol recall the scene from the televised version of Salem’s Lot where Father Callahan is thwarted by the vampire Barlow.

Echoes of Psycho: as part of Merlyn’s terror campaign against the sheriff, she turns the water in his lover Selena’s shower bloody (the image of the dark fluid circling down the drain is unmistakably Hitchcockian).

As Lucas works his latest scheme against Barbara’s husband Brian, he remarks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the man could remove an unwanted tenant on his land by dismembering his body and burying him in the cellar–a course of action with which the narrators of certain Edgar Allan Poe stories would no doubt approve.

The episode’s most ominous note, though, is struck during the climactic confrontation between Lucas and Merlyn. The sheriff boasts of the dark power latent in his son Caleb, and warns that if he (Lucas) is killed, his evil spirit will flow straight inside the boy. “The child becomes the man,” and the Gothic theme of terrible inheritance is accordingly given a frightening twist.

 

Episode 15: “The Plague Sower”

In this episode, American Gothic hearkens back to the work of Charles Brockden Brown, by setting its story against a backdrop of terrible plague. A mysterious illness has been leveling the people of Trinity, who end up bleeding out from their mouth, eyes, and ears. Naturally, panic is burgeoning in the as-yet-uninfected, but Sheriff Lucas Buck tries to calm down the nervous masses by discounting the reports of bloody demise.
“In a small town,” he tells reporters and concerned citizens, “rumors can act like a cancer.”

Meantime, Lucas is using the situation to his advantage. When local hardware store owner A.E. Tippett comes to him complaining of bloody visions, Lucas offers to help the desperate man out–but only if Tippett will frame his own brother for the crime of vehicular homicide. Later, in a wonderfully ghoulish scene, Lucas moves to steal a plasma bag from a would-be transfusion recipient lying on a gurney in the hospital, just because the man had refused to do “business” with the sheriff in the past.

“The Plague Sower” is ripe with disturbing images, none more so than when Tippett falls victim to the bloodshed. A basic act of bathroom hygiene transforms into an uncanny incident:as Tippett brushes his teeth, the froth in his mouth is suddenly stained crimson, and what he ends up spitting into the sink looks like the product of the most gruesome case of gingivitis ever.

he source of all this Old-Testament-type unpleasantness? Merlyn Temple, in the role of avenging angel. Determined to protect the righteous and punish the wicked, she preys on anyone who has fallen in with the devilish Lucas (including her own lust-filled cousin Gail).

One minor but memorable moment from the episode perfectly captures the eponymous Gothicism of the series. Dr. Billy Peele, an investigator of the plague sent to Trinity from the CDC, goes door to door questioning the townspeople. When he asks one of the local yokels if he has noticed anything odd about his neighbors, the man’s superficially innocuous response rings with suggestiveness: “No, no more than usual.”

 

Episode 16: “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday”

“This is kind of a strange town, you know?”

These words from Dr. Billy Peele–a recent arrival in Trinity–perfectly capture the vibe of American Gothic. There’s no shortage of intrigue and lurking horror to be found in the bucolic Southern town, as evidenced by the episode “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday.”  When Judge Streeter declines to get involved in Lucas Buck’s latest scheme against Dr. Matt Crower (who has been digging up past nastiness by investigating Merlyn Temple’s death), the sheriff responds by using his devilish gifts to prey upon the gambling addiction of Streeter’s spouse, Charlotte. The desperate housewife (driven to attempt suicide) is discovered lying in a bloody bathtub by the judge after she loses big in a Lucas-influenced poker game.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Angela has come to town, claiming to be Lucas’s mother (she’s actually a jilted ex-lover) and aiming to assassinate the sheriff. When Dr. Matt jumps in to prevent the shooting, Angela is undeterred, working to manipulate the doctor into carrying out the deed himself. She argues that Lucas is “pure, otherworldly evil,” a supernatural equivalent of Hitler who needs to be snuffed out before he causes widespread suffering. The moralistic Dr. Matt is slowly convinced that Angela is right, but when his attempt to shoot down the sheriff fails, he earns himself an extended stay in a staple Gothic setting–an insane asylum.

Angela is dying of brain cancer, and has been admitted to a room in the local hospital. Conveniently enough, it’s the same room where Caleb Temple’s mom resided during the final days of her pregnancy. Room 105 is “cursed” (as the nurse Sarah tells Dr. Matt), plagued by inexplicable cold spots and presumably haunted by Mrs. Temple’s ghost. The nurse also relates that just prior to giving birth to Caleb, the distraught woman raved that someone was trying to take her baby away. Paging Ira Levin

The episode also makes reference to one of the founding fathers of American Gothic fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sitting with a book in hand in the boarding house parlor, Miss Holt tells Dr. Matt that she has chosen this particular author because reading Hawthorne is “like reading the human heart.”  No doubt there’s plenty of sin (secret, if not unpardonable) bound up in the hearts of Trinity’s constituents, and nowhere more voluminously than in the town’s duplicitous, corrupt(ing) law man.

 

Episode 17: “Learning to Crawl”

Despite being set primarily in a weathered cabin in the woods, “Learning to Crawl” is hardly the most Gothic installment of American Gothic. The episode does begin, though, with an instance of the sudden eruption of horror within everyday life, when Caleb is accidentally electrocuted and nearly killed while doing mundane chores down at the Sheriff’s Station.

Once Caleb survives the scare, Sheriff Lucas Buck takes the boy on a bass-fishing trip.  On the drive to the isolated cabin (located on the outskirts of a “ghost town”), Lucas entertains Caleb with a spook story about a monstrous cat haunting the Simpsonville woods. According to the yarning sheriff, the beast has never been seen, and is known only by the savage claw marks it has scored into trees.

The father-and-son team, however, run across a more natural nemesis upon arrival.  The cabin has been occupied by a trio of Capote-esque criminals who are holding a tobacco-company executive for ransom (and who end up killing the hostage in cold blood). These are ruthless folks, for sure, but they meet more than their match in Lucas, who calmly employs his devilish skills to manipulate the situation.

At one point during the standoff with the criminals, Lucas teaches Caleb a “visualization” technique. Caleb proceeds to imagine an outcome in which Jeri reunites with her brother-in-law Ted (with whom she’s been having an affair), but when the adulteress moves to embrace her lover she ends up kissing the bloody-mouthed corpse of her late husband Cody (whom she has recently gunned down). Subsequently, in an attempt to prey on Jeri’s fears, Caleb uses his nascent powers to terrorize her with the approach of the cat-monster from Lucas’s story. A scene of eerily lit woods (that seems to hearken back to the 1989 film Pet Sematary) ends with Jeri’s cheek clawed gorily open.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of “Learning to Crawl” is that the episode dramatizes the deepening bond between Lucas and Caleb and shows the former’s increasing tutelage of the latter. As the season-long run of American Gothic draws to a close, the storyline has started arcing towards what portends to be a dark climax.

Back to Haddonfield

It’s only early June, but Halloween is already in the air–or on the Web, at least. The trailer for Michael Myers’s next nightmarish assault debuted today, leading legions of fans to start dreaming of October. Forty years in the making, the latest installment hearkens back directly to the 1978 original, nullifying the storylines of the innumerable sequels and Rob Zombie remakes. The revision of the Myers mythology alone makes this forthcoming endeavor intriguing; the look of the film–the glimpses of holiday scenery and festivity–also creates cause for excitement.

Here in the Macabre Republic, every autumn is always eagerly anticipated, but this trailer points to one big reason why Halloween 2018 can’t come soon enough.