Castle Mania

To be perfectly honest, I approached the new Hulu series Castle Rock (set in the afflicted fictional town that Stephen King put on the American Gothic map) with no shortage of trepidation. I had to wonder if the show would prove another loosely-based deviation deep into left field (such as CBS’s Under the Dome), moving from the canonical to the ridiculous. Also, there was the natural concern that Easter eggs could be dropped like hand grenades (cf. the intrusive, illogical insertions in the The Dark Tower film), jolting the audience out of the story. Having just watched the first three episodes of the season’s ten-part arc, I can now happily write that my fears have been allayed.

Rather than merely (or wildly) riffing on familiar King hits, Castle Rock incorporates them as the backbeat for an original track. Thus far the show plays less as outright horror (the screen is not splashed with the same graphic grotesquerie as in American Horror Story) than as a weird mystery. Intriguing questions abound: why does Warden Dale Lacy kill himself via a fiendish garroting in the opening scene? And why has he kept a young man secretly caged in a subbasement of Shawshank State Prison? Does this strange figure’s victim status mask an ultimate supernatural menace? Why does the prisoner ask for former town resident Henry Deaver, the hardly-favorite son of Castle Rock who was implicated as an 11-year-old adopted child in the death of his (white) pastor father?

Castle Rock assembles a stellar cast: Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Frances Conroy, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Skarsgard (uncannily understated here, coming off his antics as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s It). The title town itself arguably forms the drama’s main character, and it is brought here to impressive (half-)life–economically depressed, with countless burnt-out and boarded-up buildings, and neighborhood streets lined with decrepit, looming Gothic homes.

The show does a fine job of unspooling its plotlines, as it flashes back and forth between 1991 and 2018 (a 27-year period whose numerological significance won’t be lost on Constant Readers of King). Looking ahead, I hope the series’ mysteries don’t end with the trite explanation that the town (much like Derry, Maine) is historically bedeviled by a resident evil. Three episodes in, though, I am thoroughly hooked, and can’t wait to revisit Castle Rock next Wednesday.


Fair Gone Foul: Robert Bloch’s American Gothic

Grant Wood’s famous painting (which gives a hint of the sinister to the Midwest) has lent its title to multiple TV series (1995; 2016) and horror movies (1987; 2017), and has even branded the literary efforts of the legendary Robert Bloch. In his 1974 novel American Gothic, Bloch crafts a fictionalized account of the late-19th Century serial killer H.H. Holmes (dubbed G. Gordon Gregg in the book)–a sociopath who used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his prey ground.

As depicted by Bloch, Gregg is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain. The man is handsome, charming, dignified; he enjoys the reputation of an “eminent physician and benefactor of humanity.” But there is an abysmal gap between appearance and reality here. Deep down, Gregg is a Machiavellian schemer and conscience-less murderer. Driven by greed and a sick bloodlust, this fraud seduces a series of women (sometimes employing hypnotism–shades of the early Gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown), divests them of their finances, and then dispatches and dismembers them. Gregg is always careful to cover up his copious crimes, but he’s also not averse to keeping a memento mori. Late in the novel, a discovery is made of eviscerated organs preserved in bell jars.  When it comes to his female conquests, Gregg is literally “the man who had won their hearts.”

If ever there were a man perfectly suited to his domicile, it is Gregg. He erects a massive, three-storied “Castle” (complete with faux turrets adorning the exterior) on a Chicago street corner. The construct stands as an overt example of the transportation of European Gothic conventions into an American (literary) context. Still, it’s the interior of this “architectural monstrosity” that’s most noteworthy, since Gregg has designed a private Chamber of Horrors that makes the homonymous Fair attraction seem tame by comparison. The Castle–an ostensible boarding house built to lure Fairgoers to dire ends–is riddled with “hidden rooms, secret staircases, trapdoors, and a maze of passageways.” Gregg is able to drop his corpses down a narrow chute secreted behind a bathroom mirror, down into his workshop of filthy desecration in the cellar, where he can dispose of any unwanted remains using a concealed back door to the furnace.

Gregg sports the face “of a gentleman, but the appetite was animal.” This “decent, respectable maniac,” though, is not just a Devil in(filtrating) the White City (to invoke Erik Larson’s terms). Gregg is a dark extension of the Fair itself, of the danger lurking beneath the glamour, and the seedy urban underbelly waiting to swallow up naive visitors to Chicago:

Since the Fair, it seemed everyone wanted to see the District–the rich arriving with the clop and clatter of carriages, the less savory specimens on foot. And the District’s denizens waited to welcome them: waited with dazzling displays of diamonds in the pawnshops, phony as the protestations of their proprietors; waited with frantic fingers, deftly plucking the purses of drunken dudes; waited in shadows with blackjacks, billy clubs, and brass knuckles; waited in brightly blazing bars with knockout drops; waited in the cribs and the panel houses with the private parlors with smiles and spirochetes. It really didn’t matter which door the visitor chose. In the end the beast engulfed them all.

During the course of the novel, the plucky-investigator heroine Crystal (a proto-Clarice Starling?) finds herself caught inside the killer’s lair. And in a breathtaking, several-chapters-long climax, Crystal dashes through the shadowed, labyrinthine passageways of the Castle with Gregg in stalking pursuit. It’s a finale quite familiar to fans and students of the genre. While American Gothic perhaps fails to live up to Bloch’s best work, the content of the novel undoubtedly fulfills the book’s bold eponymous promise.


With a Whimper


Having recently read/reviewed Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover and re-read (for the umpteenth time) Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, I must admit to being on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick. So when I caught wind of the new Netflix original film How It Ends–whose trailer presented some stunning visuals, along with the always-exceptional Forest Whitaker in a starring role–I was naturally eager to check it out.

The movie centers on ex-marine Tom Sutherland (Whitaker), who is extremely disapproving of his daughter Sam’s boyfriend, attorney Will Younger. When a mysterious cataclysm strikes the West Coast of the U.S. and sends power outages and freak storms rippling across the country, Tom and Will set out from Chicago to find and rescue the incommunicado Sam in Seattle. How It Ends thus forms a variation on a road movie, tracing the evolving relationship between the unlikely pair of heroes attempting to trek cross-country. On this front, the film succeeds, thanks to the strong performances of Whitaker and Theo James as Will. But their arduous journey is ultimately too protracted: the plot bogs down with too many scenes of run-ins with Americans gone bad in the wake of national (perhaps not natural) catastrophe. Credibility is often strained along the way, such as when Tom manages to talk his way past a military roadblock merely by mentioning (and in no way verifying) that he served in the Marines.

Eventually we arrive at a blasted and ash-shrouded Seattle that makes for an absolutely haunting vista. After all that has preceded it, though, the climax feels rushed, introducing a new, under-developed, and soon-vanquished antagonist. Attempts to explain what triggered the apocalypse also prove unsatisfactory; the film has been preoccupied throughout with thrusting its characters into terrible predicaments, but appears at a loss to provide any sort of satisfying resolution. The final scene, in which a sudden, surging cloud of smoke (devoid of any real narrative logic beyond the writers’ need to generate another obstacle) chases the heroes as they speed away from the city, was groan-inducingly hokey. So while the film gets off to a promising start, the answer to How It Ends is, alas, not well.


Accredited Openings

Yesterday, Meagan Navarro posted a fun editorial over at Bloody Disgusting: “10 Horror Movie Opening Scenes So Good We Were Instantly Hooked.” Her annotated list of memorable attention-grabbers and tone-setters got me to thinking: what first scene of a horror movie left a lasting impression on me? Films like Hellraiser and It Follows quickly came to mind, but if I had to pick just one, I would go with 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat.

To start with, director Michael Dougherty’s visuals are amazing, creating the ultimate All Hallow’s Eve atmosphere (watching the scene, and seeing the magnificent efforts of yard haunting on display, makes me wish that I lived in such a spirited neighborhood). The opening builds incredible suspense, and strikes a perfect balance between subtle disturbances, jump scares, and awful reveals. Mystery also arises, as the viewer isn’t sure just what has slaughtered and strung up Emma, and why. The answers aren’t provided until much later, and seemingly irrelevant elements from this initial scene take on added significance in retrospect as the film’s looping narrative structure is established. A holiday-themed anthology film, Trick ‘r Treat plays like a glorious mash-up of Halloween and Creepshow, and its skillful mixture of horror and black humor is evident before the film even gets to its (wonderfully animated) opening credits.


Blood’s a Winner

Vic and Blood…together at last. Blood’s a Rover presents the complete adventures of the wild boy and his telepathic dog. Their tales–in the form of two stories, a dialogue, a novella, and a teleplay (not to mention the epigraphic “Wit and Wisdom of Blood” interspersed throughout)–are gathered here for the first time in a rewarding volume that reads like an episodic novel.

Back in 1969, Harlan Ellison published “A Boy and His Dog,” the proto-cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic classic that stands as arguably his most popular and revered work. The novella depicts a bombed-out America roamed by teenage scavengers, who exist as “solos” or gang up into “roverpacks.” Ragged individualist Vic falls into the former camp, but he does have his canine companion (more partner than pet, as the ongoing struggle for survival draws Blood together with Vic in a symbiotic, if not always simpatico, relationship). Just as the story itself is set both along and below the surface of the ravaged earth, “A Boy and His Dog,” works on multiple levels. On the most primitive, it splashes glorious amounts of graphic sex and violence across its pages. It offers some good-old, anti-heroic bad-assery (with Vic emerging as a literary sibling of Huck Finn and Alex the Droog alike). The story features both sophisticated wit and raucous banter; the climax adds a twist of dark-as-the-grave black humor. Ellison’s transgressive narrative is also a masterpiece of carnivalesque inversion, starting with the fact that Blood is more erudite and morally-advanced than his impulsive, animalistic human “master.” Similarly, the Middle-American idyll created by the subterranean dwellers proves an artificial construct, its stultifying civility hardly preferable to the chaos and constant danger Vic has faced above ground. Indeed, the spuriousness of the suburban splendor of the Topeka “downunder” is exposed when the folksy villagers are last seen having devolved into an angry mob.

While the prequel (“Eggsucker”) and sequel (“Run, Spot, Run”) stories to “A Boy and His Dog” lack the virtuosity of Ellison’s lauded novella, they serve as much more here than mere filler. These further escapades across a devastated landscape expand upon the complexities of the Vic-Blood relationship–the arguments, betrayals, desertions, and ultimately-enduring camaraderie. The pair of stories also form an interesting counterpoint to “A Boy and His Dog” in terms of technique, as here it is Blood–not Vic–who supplies the first-person (“first-canine”?) narration.

Nearly half of the page-space in Blood’s a Rover is taken up by the titular teleplay (which Ellison scripted for a prospective late-1970’s series that was never developed). This sudden jump into a different literary medium isn’t as jarring as it sounds, as Ellison’s teleplay practically reads like narrative fiction (albeit with dialogue in altered form). “Blood’s a Rover” extends seamlessly from the preceding pieces, and brings the Vic and Blood adventures to a satisfying conclusion. Certain plot points are finally delineated: we get to see the long-awaited showdown between Vic and Fellini, the grotesque, despotic gang-leader (think a humanoid Jabba the Hutt) that Vic has run afoul of throughout the series of stories. There is also some neat thematic symmetry, as a new (not necessarily love-) triangle forms: the introduction of tough girl Spike disrupts the relationship between Vic and Blood, recalling the wedging effect of sexpot Quilla June in “A Boy and His Dog”.

Reading this posthumous volume is a bittersweet experience: the book is enormously entertaining, yet also a sad reminder that the world lost a literary genius with Ellison’s recent passing. Regrettably, there will be no further adventures recounted (in his foreword, editor Jason Davis notes that Ellison was debilitated by a stroke back in 2014 after just beginning to draft a new Vic and Blood story). But thankfully, we do have this terrific release from Subterranean Press to relish. Blood’s a Rover is well worth settling down with, whether in these dog days of summer or any other time of year.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Herman Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” and Alice Cary’s “The Wildermings”

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


“The Bell-Tower” by Herman Melville

Melville’s 1856 story centers on “the great mechanician, the unblest foundling, Bannadonna,” who has been commission to construct the eponymous architectural marvel. Bannadonna is a quintessential eccentric genius whose operation via “secret design” tends to unsettle others (“his seclusion failed not to invest his work with more or less of that sort of mystery pertaining to the forbidden”). Before his work is completed, Bannadonna is found slain in the belfry, apparently bludgeoned to death by the automaton bell-ringer he designed (and which looms over his corpse in macabre tableau). Melville vacillates between mechanical and supernatural explanations for Bannadonna’s fate: was the oblivious builder simply blind-sided while busy putting finishing touches on the bell,  or did he receive vicious redress for his previous murder of a timid workman (whose blood mixed in with metal during the casting of the bell)? The fact that the bell crashes to the ground during Bannadonna’s funeral, and that the tower itself is subsequently leveled (on the first anniversary of its completion) by an earthquake, suggests that a higher power has disapproved of Bannadonna’s lofty ambition and merciless pursuit of glory. As Melville moralizes in the closing paragraph: “So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for its tower. So that bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.”

In his headnote to the entry, editor Charles Crow asserts: “With a strong belief in the reality of evil, a sense that reality is slippery and ambiguous, and an oppositional stance toward many conventional American values, the Gothic mode was natural, perhaps inevitable, for Melville.” Crow goes on to cite the author’s Captain Ahab character as a preeminent Gothic hero-villain, and Bannadonna (a Promethean over-reacher who also forms a Victor Frankenstein figure) certainly fits this mold. But with its overt Italian setting, “The Bell-Tower” is decidedly foreign to the United States; it does not allegorically align–along race or gender lines–with a native situation, either (cf. Crow’s comment that Melville’s Benito Cereno “is a profound Gothic meditation on race in the Americas”). As such, the tale does not make for a terribly representative piece of American Gothic fiction.


“The Wildermings” by Alice Cary

Cary’s 1852 sketch is set primarily in a “lonesome little graveyard” in the woods outside the rural community of Clovernook. The cemetery is a source of superstitious lore for the locals, who claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of “unresting spirits” such as Mary Wildermings, “a fair young girl who died, more sinned against than sinning, [and] had been heard to sing sad lullabies under the waning moon sometimes, and at other times had been seen sitting by her sunken grave , and braiding roses in her hair, as for a bridal.” When a mysterious trio–a handsome young man, a 14-year-old girl (his presumed sister) and an elderly woman (mother? servant?)–inhabit the abandoned cottage nearby the cemetery, the reader (helped by Cary’s story title) can infer that these people are somehow related to Mary. The strange girl, ever stoic and vigilant (“her melancholy are wide open all the time”), takes ill and expires, and is climactically established as the daughter of Mary: “her mother, they say, died in watching for one who never came, and the baby was watchful and sleepless from the first.”

The pitiable Mary Wildermings hardly makes for some malevolent revenant, and Cary’s is no doubt a genteel version of Gothic narrative. Nevertheless, in this darkly romantic tale of a jilted lover/ruined woman, the author (who twice cites Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) creates a fine sense of graveyard ambiance. Charles Crow’s headnote states that Cary’s collections of sketches about the fictional Clovernook “anticipate later regional realists such as Freeman and Jewett,” but Clovernook might also be viewed as a forerunner of more famous American Gothic towns created by writers such as Faulkner, Bradbury, and King.

“The Last Generation,” At Last

Back in 2011, my story “The Last Generation” appeared in the Apex Book Company anthology The Zombie Feed–Volume 1. To this day, it remains one of my favorite pieces that I have written. In “The Last Generation,” I set out to turn the conventions of the zombie/post-apocalyptic-survivor tale inside out. The story is strongly indebted to Hemingway’s classic fictional chronicle of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises, and takes its impetus from popular zombie narratives such as Mort Castle’s “The Old Man and the Dead” and Douglas E. Winter’s “Less Than Zombie” (unlike those stories, though, it does not form a deliberate pastiche of another author’s style).

For months, I have been meaning to format the story so I could add it as a FREE READ on the Publications page of this website. Since fireworks fill the sky in the climax (in hommage to Romero), I figured the 4th of July would be an appropriate day to finally get “The Last Generation” posted. Hope you enjoy, and wishing a happy holiday to all the twisted citizens of the Macabre Republic.