Mob Scene: Godless

While never quite descending to the grotesquerie and vileness of Deadwood, Netflix’s Godless is doubtless a grim and Gothic western. The limited series presents no shortage of disturbing scenes: a sick house littered with smallpox victims; rapist slavers wearing buffalo heads; a family butchered by a pair of sociopath sons. Godless features a quintessential Gothic hero-villain, in the dangerous person of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, in a deservedly Emmy-winning role). A revenge-obsessed amputee (who carries around his rotting, bug-swarmed arm like a creepy keepsake), Griffin recalls Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. With his penchant for twisted preaching, he also traces his literary lineage back to the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Furthermore, Griffin is responsible for a massacre that gives a wicked twist to that American Gothic staple, the angry mob scene.

In the opening episode, “An Incident in Creede,” a brutal train robbery by the Griffin Gang is foiled by former member Roy Goode, who intervenes and speeds off with the money from the heist. When Griffin and his men leave to give chase after this rural American Robin Hood, the surviving members of the the Creede community apprehend the deviant Devlin brothers (who’d been incapacitated by Goode) and quickly sentence them to death by hanging. The public execution, though, takes a spectacularly violent turn when Griffin (his left arm now a dangling wreck after taking a bullet from Goode) and his outlaw entourage double back into town. Rescuing the Devlin brothers from the noose is not enough; Griffin commands his band of bandits to murder the people of Creede and burn every last building to the ground (the town is reduced to an apocalyptic ruin). “Them sons a bitches lynched the damn mob,” recounts Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), who in the series’ opening scene was driven to his knees by the sight of a young Creede boy strung up high by the Griffin Gang. The stunning reversal of fortune in Creede (and Griffin’s ominous promise to decimate any community that harbors Goode) sets the stage for the rest of Godless‘s engrossing run.

I don’t want to misrepresent this series by painting it as uniformly dark; there’s plenty of (dry) humor and (tear-jerking) romance splashed across the dramatic canvas as well. Godless offers jaw-dropping cinematography, the sprawling scenery forming an incredible backdrop for the broad cast of richly-drawn characters (heroes and villains alike). An epically good western, Godless is as strong an original series ever to stream on Netflix. I could shoot myself for not having followed its trail sooner.

 

Lore Report: “The Collection” (Episode 106)

Today marks the debut of a new blog feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The “Lore Report” will provide reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.

 

“And sometimes, the very act of hiding darkness away, only makes it stronger.”

Episode 106 of the Lore podcast isn’t concerned with cursed artwork, or the hoarding of macabre bric-a-brac. “The Collection” references the stashing away of criminals, at a prison that has become the locus of dark lore. Mahnke’s narration focuses on the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia–a place that makes the worst hellhole imaginable seem like a penthouse by comparison. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the castle-like facility was riddled with lice, rats, and roaches, and plagued by disease; the stench of sewage permeated its passageways. Inhumane guards committed heinous acts of torture there, and the inmates were not to be outdone when it came to brutality. The poorly-guarded basement rec area (dubbed “The Sugar Shack,” a misnomer if there ever was one) furnished a den of assault (sexual and otherwise) and manslaughter.

With its violent inmates, sadistic guards, and scenes of state-sanctioned execution, Moundsville formed a site of concentrated suffering, and to no surprise, various ghost stories have been attached to the prison. There are reports of a “Shadow Man” glimpsed lurking in the offing; no less haunting is the three-word message (I won’t spoil the frisson by revealing it here) a visitor allegedly captured on an audio recording. Such ostensible supernatural occurrences require a certain suspension of listener disbelief, but Moundsville also sports an indisputably sinister history. Mahnke recounts hangings gone horribly awry, and the stabbing, dismemberment, and disposal of one inmate (who’d been pegged a stool pigeon) that sounds like a Poe tale come to terrible life. Perhaps most poignant of all is Mahnke’s pre-commercial-break anecdote about a notorious murderer (attracted by the prison’s dubious reputation) who actually petitioned to be transferred to Moundsville.

As a storehouse of evil misdeed, Moundsville suggests the prison equivalent of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel. From its first construction to the present day (the prison closed down in 1995), Moundsville supplied a quintessential American Gothic setting. It also has continued to evoke the central theme of the impingement on the present by an ignominious past. Darkness inevitably comes to light, as the ever-illuminating Mahnke reveals in this shining example of his podcast’s Gothic sensibilities.

 

A Series of Wrong Turns: Fox’s The Passage

I hate to sound like the neighborhood crank, offering up yet another not-as-good-as-the-source-novel rant, but my shaking fist has been forced. Fox’s new series The Passage utterly disappoints with its egregious deviations from Justin Cronin’s trilogy-opening literary chiller.

The “Pilot” episode proves jarring from its opening moment: the use of young Amy Bellafonte’s voiceover (like the lazy, info-dumping dialogue the writers subsequently give to the characters) not only leads to some clunky conveyance of exposition, but also seems nonsensical (if Amy–whose extraordinary lifetime spans generations–is speaking in retrospect, why is she doing so in prepubescent voice?). Worse, such loquaciousness is completely out of character with the quiet, withdrawn figure we are introduced to in Cronin’s novel. The TV series transforms Amy into a sassy 10-year-old, and even more strikingly, changes her race from white to black. My immediate reaction to this latter switch is to question why it was made. Is it just change for change’s sake, an attempt (similar to the tricks played by The Walking Dead) to render the adaptation distinct from the original narrative? Is it a compensation for the deletion of Sister Lacey (a significant character in the book) from the series? What bothers me most here is that the change results in racial stereotyping: Amy’s story is set in motion when her “stupid crackhead” (Amy’s term of besmirchment) mother dies on the street of a drug overdose.

Not just Amy, but almost all of Cronin’s characters appear to have been dramatically altered. The novel’s vampiric villain, Giles Babcock, becomes fetching blonde “Shauna” Babcock. Cold-blooded government agent Clark Richards is given a romantic side (anyone who’s read the book was likely shocked to watch him fall into bed with [the now-female] Sykes), and is presented as a longtime friend of protagonist Brad Wolgast. Wolgast’s novelistic backstory, meanwhile, is flipped: here he’s revealed as the one who left home following the tragic death of his daughter Eva; his ex-wife Lila (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, an actress whose painful attempts to emote consistently strike me as the expression of a constipation-sufferer) openly seeks to resume relations.

I also feel compelled to grouse about the the not-so-special makeup effects. The test subjects in Cronin’s novel undergo a radical transformation into monstrosity that fails to manifest (at least not yet) in the series. For all the experimenting doctors’ don’t-call-them-vampires rhetoric, the show appears content to employ standard bloodsucker imagery. Pointy fangs, gleaming eyes: these nemeses look like castoffs from 1979’s Salem’s Lot adaptation.

Ironically, Cronin’s Passage does trace straight back to the work of Stephen King (The Stand in particular). But such intertextual connection (though perhaps to no surprise at this point) is stupefyingly simplified by the TV series. Exhibit A (as in Aargh!): the superpowers of Carrie-like telekinesis that Amy now apparently possesses.

Judging from the pilot and previews of upcoming episodes, The Passage reduces the marvelous (and elaborate) storytelling of Cronin’s post-apocalyptic epic to televisual shorthand. The unabashed bastardization on display thus far portends a series ultimately more absurd than absorbing.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

The latest 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:

Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson:

#9. Dickinson employs stock Gothic imagery–the woods, “banditti” lurking on a “lonely road,” tempestuous weather–in almost allegorical fashion to signal humanity’s fraught journey through life.

#281. The poem invokes the sublime from its opening lines: “‘Tis so appalling–it exhilarates– / So over Horror, it half captivates–.” From here, though, the poem takes a surprisingly optimistic turn, finding relief in release–the acceptance of death frees the soul from “Fright” and “Terror” and makes personal “Woe” no longer so “bleak dreaded.”

#414. Dickinson presents a trio of nightmare scenarios here: drowning by being sucked into a maelstrom, fiendish menacing by “a Goblin with a gauge,” death by hanging from a gibbet. The series of last-minute reprieves–the divine rescue from a dire fate–nonetheless leaves a lasting a crisis of faith.

#512. The opening conceit (“The Soul has Bandaged moments”) hints at mummy-like restriction, at a death-shrouded state. The unnerving attention of a “Goblin” to the poem’s prostrate and and helpless female subject recalls Fuseli’s classic painting “The Nightmare.” In contrast to the positivity of poem #281 above, this one ends on a note of re-imprisonment, a return to the clutches of “Horror.”

#590. Dickinson paints an uncanny scene–a person standing in the mouth of a cave is frightened by a horrid Goblin–as a means of describing the experience of human loneliness.

#670. A poignant exploration of psychological (vs. supernatural) horror: “One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted– / One need not be a House –“. Dickinson argues that the human mind produces “a superior spectre” to any ghost encountered at midnight, to any Gothic villain giving chase through an Abbey.

#1400. This poem focuses on the seemingly-limitless mystery of nature, looks down at the water in a well and posits a whole other world beyond the “abyss’s face.” A perfect example of how Dickinson utilizes a Gothic rhetoric and repertoire of images, as the poet describes nature’s strangeness in terms of a “haunted house” and a “ghost.”

#1670. A surreal shocker (“with creeping blood,” the speaker recounts her nightmare) in which a worm in a bedchamber transforms into a sinister serpent. The Gothic trope of the maiden in flight is expanded to the extreme here, as the speaker runs right out of her house and admittedly doesn’t stop until she’s several towns away.

 

The final verdict? No writer since Poe took readers into–and beyond–the grave. While Dickinson’s work feels closer to home than Poe’s vaguely European settings, her morbid and macabre meditations transcend any specific geographic locale in their more universal concerns with the human condition. Dickinson is an indisputably Gothic poet (one who employs the Gothic to diverse ends), but not necessarily an American Gothic poet. The poet’s own intriguing background–the “fabled eccentricities” (Crow’s headnote phrase) of this legendary New England recluse long sequestered in an upstairs bedroom of her family home–appears to have created an American Gothic framework that does not perfectly reflect what is pictured within Dickinson’s actual poems.

Mob Scenes: “Tender as Teeth”

In my last post of 2018, The Best of the Best of the Best Horror of the Year, I cited Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski’s “Tender as Teeth” as one of the top selections for the anthology series over the last decade. This unique piece of post-apocalyptic fiction takes as its jumping off point the end of a zombie plague (which wasn’t your typical uprising, anyway: “The dead didn’t crawl out of their graves. Society didn’t crumble entirely. The infection didn’t spread as easily as it did in the movies.”). A “survivor” here is not just a human who managed to fend off the dental cases, but also someone like the protagonist Justine, who was injected with a medical Cure after a six-months’ existence as a feral carnivore.

Justine’s problems are far from solved, however. Ongoing digestive issues and “death breath” are the least of her woes. She is not only traumatized, uncomfortable living in her own skin, but also tormented by others who view her with disgust and express venomous hatred toward her. Justine struggles with the infamy of her cannibalistic binge (since her lowest moment went viral: a well-timed photo caught her macabre banqueting on a baby). Now the outraged masses won’t let her forget her” amnesiac murder”; she realizes there’s “an entire planet filled with people who actively wanted her dead.”

“Tender of Teeth” actually features two related mob scenes. In the first, the photographer Carson (who snapped the notorious image of “Zombie Chick”) is attacked by the pack of protesters picketing outside Justine’s apartment. The group’s focus is soon diverted by Justine’s appearance in the window; the new offensive involves “Cursing at her. Gesturing at her. Spitting. Picking up tiny chunks of broken sidewalk and hurling them at her.” In the following scene, the zealots attempt to ambush Justine and Carson on a desert road outside Las Vegas. Even as an attitude of we-just-want-to-talk reasonableness is affected, the accosters come across as not just disingenuous, but as delusional lunatics (whose gun-toting points to a potential firing-squad fate for Justine). In neither scene does this group come off well. Justine thinks of “her personal Raincoat Brigade” as “the biggest bunch of vultures this desert has ever produced.” Arriving at Justine’s apartment, Carson notes that the persistent protesters looked “tired, haggard, and vacant eyed. Ironically enough, they kind of looked like you-know-whats.”

Just as with their handling of the zombie apocalypse, Crawford and Swierczynksi are not content to fall back on cliches when presenting mob violence. As he’s jumped by the hatemongers outside Justine’s place, Carson considers:

In the movies there’s always an explanation. Your antagonists go to great pains to tell you exactly why you’re going to receive a brutal beating before the beating actually happens. Not in reality. When a mob attacks you, and blood’s filling your mouth, and someone’s kicking you in the back and you can feel your internal organs convulsing…there there are no explanations.

The authors also endeavor to demonstrate that “angry mob” might not be the most accurate label for the antagonistic assembly in the story. Fear appears to be the ultimate emotion driving the irrational “Disbelief in the Cure” movement, “a groundswell of people who brought out these pseudo-scientists claiming that the Cure was only temporary, that at any moment, thousands of people could revert to flesh-eating monsters again.” Tellingly, Justine’s concerns are with the murderous hands of a “frightened mob.”

A clever and original tale (that would make for an incredible film adaptation), “Tender as Teeth” takes a healthy bite out of misguided, self-deputizing pursuers of mob justice.