Mob Scene: “The Lynching” by Claude McKay

Over the years, I have covered many examples of mob scenes–of instances of violent Othering and mass misbehavior–in film, television, and fiction. But as Claude McKay’s 1920 poem “The Lynching” (collected in Harlem Shadows) illustrates, the mob scene also has its place in American verse.

Written as a Shakespearean sonnet, “The Lynching” jars with its deliberate dissonance between the elegant poetic form and the particularly ugly subject matter treated here. Evincing a Gothic sensibility, McKay’s lines record sadistic impulses (the victim of the titular crime has died “by the cruelest way of pain”) and present horrific images (hung and burned, a black man has been reduced to a “swinging char”). The poem, though, hits hardest in its sestet section: the last six lines describe the crowd of morbidly curious gawkers that has gathered the next day “to view / the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” McKay is unsparing in his indictment, as the foulness of the allegedly fairer sex is highlighted by the complete absence of “sorrow” in the “steely blue” eyes of the women who “thronged to look” at the corpse. The concluding couplet makes for a devastating clincher, marking a perversion of public celebration and foreboding a dark generational legacy to such scene: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”

McKay’s opening octave alludes strongly to the Crucifixion (ostensibly the quintessential example of execution-as-public-spectacle). But whereas Christ died to take away the sins of the world, “The Lynching” points in a more pessimistic direction. “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” McKay writes, referencing an innocent man’s crime of possessing black skin in a racist white society. This line also resonates with Gothicism, though, suggesting a problematical impingement of the past, the continuously haunting impact of ignominious history.

The racial underpinnings of American Gothic is well- and long-established in literary criticism (cf. Leslie Fiedler’s oft-cited remark in Love and Death in the American Novel: “The proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged”). Perhaps this aspect of the genre is sometimes seized too readily upon by academics, but a poem such as McKay’s “The Lynching” clearly requires no critical stretch to grasp its concerns with black-white relations and racial violence in this country.

[Note: for an excellent overview of this subject, see Hollis Robbins’s essay (which covers McKay’s poem) “The Literature of Lynching.”]

Lore Report: “Something Blue” (Episode 116)

 

“For thousands of years, cultures around the world have used fasting as a toll of religious devotion, mental focus, political protest, and as a folk remedy for illness and disease. Some view it as  the reset button for the human body, while others see it as a chance to elevate their consciousness. Whatever the goal, though, the means are always the same: the absence or reduction of food for a period of time. But history is filled with proof that desperate people will go to extraordinary lengths in order to find peace and relief. And in the process, some people have even died for it.”

 

Opening with the line “They mummified themselves” (in reference to the persistent ingestion of resin by Buddhist monks) and closing with “Even killers need to be efficient,” Episode 116 of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast Lore serves up a morbid smorgasbord for listeners.

“Something Blue” takes the questionable practice of therapeutic fasting as its subject. The episode deals mainly with the now-infamous “Starvation Doctor” Linda Hazzard (who had no real medical training). Running the (appropriately-named) Hazzard Institute in Seattle in the early-20th Century, Linda blurred the line between asceticism and sadism. She would prescribe “broth diets and marathon enemas,” and draw scalding hot baths for her patients. Her concept of “therapeutic massage” involved slapping people on the stomach and repeatedly shouting “eliminate!” at them. But Linda’s dubious efforts didn’t just turn “health care” into an ominous oxymoron. Making Annie Wilkes look like Florence Nightingale, Linda was actually a mass murderess in illness-fighting disguise. She would rob her gullible clientele of their savings and personal belongings while methodically stealing their most valuable possession of all: their very lives.

Mahnke’s narrative briefly steps away from Linda Hazzard’s story to note a couple of historical instances of fasting. We learn that such form of abstinence was an attempted defense against evil for the ancient Greeks (who believed that “demons could only enter a person’s body through the mouth”). Mahnke also remarks on Cotton Mather proposition of fasting as a possible “solution to Salem’s witchcraft panic.” These details are fascinating, and my only critique of this relatively short episode is that I wish Mahnke had incorporated more of them.

The charismatic yet dissembling Linda Hazzard, who managed to charm people into a state of starvation, is a quintessential hero-villainess from a Gothic tale. Her pseudo-sanitarium formed a locus classicus of entrapment, an ostensible prison that people had to be ransomed out of by loved ones rather than simply released. The image of emaciated patients wandering like the walking dead through the woods surrounding the institute could have been spliced from a horror film. Concluding with an account of supporting player Edgar Butterworth (a bison-bone collector turned undertaker, who entered into strategic alliance with Linda Hazard by disposing of the many bodies she provided), “Something Borrowed” undoubtedly has all the makings of a terrific American Gothic biopic.

 

This Dark Chest of Wonders (book review)

Commemorating the ruby anniversary of the disaster epic’s first publication, Andy Burns’s This Dark Chest of Wonders: 40 Years of Stephen King’s The Stand was released by Cemetery Dance back in 2018. My recent re-watch of the ABC miniseries adaptation of The Stand inspired me to catch up and dig down into this dark chest (whose title echoes King’s own dedication-page epithet for the 1978 novel).

Burns’s book is clearly a labor of love, which is not to say that it is marked by amateurish admiration. The author provides a wealth of information about King’s novel; his opening chapter details everything from King’s various sources of inspiration and the cultural context for The Stand‘s composition, to King’s struggles with Doubleday (who sought to abridge the hefty manuscript) and the subsequent reception of the novel (it was interesting to learn, considering the revered status of King’s novel amongst Constant Readers, that the 1978 edition’s “shelf life on the hardcover bestsellers list was relatively brief”). Burns incorporates copious quotes from King himself, drawn from previously-published interviews as well as from discussion of The Stand in nonfiction King books like Danse Macabre and On Writing. One quote I found particularly interesting was King’s revelation of the character in The Stand that he identifies most closely with (someone I never would have suspected).

This Dark Chest of Wonders is no mere monograph; Burns includes a panoply of commentators. Many chapters come in the form of interviews with pertinent personages. King experts such as Bev Vincent and Robin Furth make welcome appearances in these pages, and help shine a light on the character of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg.

A significant portion of the book covers the miniseries version of The Stand. There’s a lengthy (and proportionately enjoyable) interview with Mick Garris, in which the director takes the audience behind the scenes via extensive discussion of the casting and filming of the miniseries. Along the way, Garris gives us a precious anecdote–about how King himself was scared off the set during the filming of the climactic mob scene (Flagg’s staging of the public execution of Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner).

In his introduction to the book, Burns promises to “unearth all that is contained within this dark chest of wonders that is Stephen King’s The Stand,” and this completist certainly isn’t kidding. By the time Burns turns to interviewing the narrator of the audiobook version and the illustrator of the comic book version, one starts to wonder if this dark chest is going to transform into a trove of the trivial. In retrospect, the book is best enjoyed in small (even random) samples rather than a straight binge. There is a noticeable repetition of information, and the same quotes get used in different chapters. Burns poses similar questions to his various interview subjects–most prominently, why they think King’s novel resonates four decades after its initial printing. The diverse responses to this prompt, though, leave little doubt that The Stand is still terribly relevant, and thus reinforce the reason for a book like Burns’s.

The hardcover edition of This Dark Chest of Wonders is arguably a worthwhile purchase only for hardcore collectors, but the more moderately priced Kindle e-book makes for a valuable addition to the library of any fan of King’s classic post-apocalyptic tale of the superflu and the supernatural.

 

Test of Time: The Stand Miniseries, 25 Years Later

It has been a quarter-century now since Captain Trips first spread across the small screen and infected viewers throughout America. I can remember what an exciting television event The Stand miniseries was, a large-scale adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel that aired in four two-hour segments over the course of a week. I can also remember, though, having a mixed reaction to this adaptation at the time. After listening to King and director Mick Garris reminisce about the miniseries on the Post Mortem podcast last month (which I posted about here), I was inspired to go watch the miniseries again. This would be my first time returning to the material in 25 years; I was curious how The Stand stood up over time, and if my initial impressions would be changed.

The first thing I can recall about the 1994 miniseries is that the acting was a mixed bag, and a second viewing only confirms this. To be sure, there are some strong performances, led by the never-less-than excellent Gary Sinise, who is perfectly cast as King’s Texan everyman Stu Redman. Ray Walston shines as Glen Bateman, as does Bill Fagerbakke as the mentally-challenged (it’s surprising here in 2019 to see how often the miniseries resorts to the term “retarded”) Tom Cullen. Yet there are also some starkly subpar efforts here, which might be the product of lazy writing (the stereotypically nerdy mannerisms of Corin Nemec’s Harold Lauder) or just bad acting (the single-note conveyed by Shawnee Smith as shrill shrew Julie Lawry). The loudest raspberry, though, has to be directed at Laura San Giacomo, who is painfully unconvincing in the pivotal role of Nadine Cross (or perhaps I am too distracted by those caterpillar eyebrows of hers).

My recent re-watch also reestablished my ambivalence towards the settings in the miniseries. Some of these are particularly striking: such as the scenes set in New York, both amidst riotous upheaval and in post-apocalyptic sprawl (the book’s legendary Lincoln Tunnel walk-through is translated nicely here by Garris). At other, more jarring, times, however, I can’t help but feel like I am watching a film set. The scenes (and not just those rooted in character’s dreams) of Mother Abigail’s Nebraska home and surrounding cornfield are colorful and atmospheric but lack realism.

A quarterly-century later, I am still impressed by how skillfully the plot of King’s novel was adapted for the small screen (the fact that King himself scripted the miniseries no doubt is a major factor). I like how certain elements, such as Frannie Goldsmith’s pregnancy, unfold in a more understated manner and are only gradually revealed. The miniseries also makes crafted use of time jumps (aided by title cards updating the day and place), condensing the events of the novel and moving the action along sensibly. There is one sizable plot hole that I failed to spot back in 1994, but which stood out upon re-watch. It involves the scene when Randall Flagg and Nadine first arrive in Las Vegas. Nadine is practically catatonic (following her desert rape and impregnation by Flagg) as she is ushered upstairs to the would-be honeymoon suite. Later that very same afternoon, she taunts Flagg with alleged knowledge of discontent brewing among his minions; how, though, could Nadine know that “They’re saying that a simple retarded boy outwitted Randall Flagg. They’re saying Judge Farris got away from your man in Idaho. They’re asking questions about Dayna, too.”?

For a miniseries airing on 90’s broadcast TV, The Stand surely features some strong horror. Glimpses of moldering crucifixion victims are hard to forget, much like the scene of corpse clean-up inside a church. On the other hand, the archfiend Flagg (Jamey Sheridan, looking like Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon stunt double) proves grossly disappointing on screen, with his pointy demon teeth and lightning shooting from his fingertips. Garris’s direction also demonstrates an unfortunate over-reliance on “morphing” technology; the repeated emergence of Flagg’s monster face plays like a twisted version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. More hokey than horrifying, Flagg formed the glaring weakness of the miniseries for me back in 1994, and the representation definitely has not aged well.

Despite its various strong points, The Stand miniseries in the end is marred by a distinct cheesiness (the “Hand of God,” King’s blatant deus ex machina plot-resolver, does not translate well to the screen, and that closing montage of the heroic characters who died along the way seems like a ridiculous rip-off of the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars). In this post-Game-of-Thrones age, viewers are ready for a darker, grimmer adaptation of King’s novel, one infused with special fx that don’t prove oxymoronic. I can only hope that the miniseries remake forthcoming on CBS All Access evinces the same maturation that 2017’s theatrical release of It showed over its own television predecessor.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of George Washington Cable’s “Jean-Ah Poquelin”

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:

 

“Jean-Ah Poquelin” by George Washington Cable

Cable’s tale (from his 1879 collection Old Creole Days) establishes its American Gothic credentials from the outset. Set in the New Orleans area at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, the narrative opens with a look at “an old colonial plantation-house half in ruin” that “stood aloof from civilization” behind a chained and padlocked gate. The surrounding property is marked by an alligator-filled marsh and “two lone forest-trees, dead cypresses, […] dotted with roosting vultures.” This decayed estate is a shunned place, largely because of its hermit-like inhabitant. The eponymous Jean Marie Poquelin, a former indigo planter and slave trader, is suspected of misdeed (either fratricide or secret imprisonment) involving his thirty-years-younger half-Brother Jacques, who disappeared seven years earlier while accompanying Jean on a slave-buying expedition to the Guinea coast. Thus, to the local Louisianan community, “the name of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fiction.” The old man has been turned into a scapegoat, blamed for sundry adversities:

To the Creoles–to the incoming lower class of superstitious Germans, Irish, Sicilians, and others–he became an omen and embodiment of public and private ill-fortune. Upon him all the vagaries of their superstition gathered and grew. If a house caught fire, it was imputed to his machinations. Did a woman go off in a fit, he had bewitched her. Did a child stray off for an hour, the mother shivered with the apprehension that Jean Poquelin had offered him to strange gods. The house was the subject of every bad boy’s invention who loved to contrive ghostly lies. “As long as that house stands we shall have bad luck. Do you not see our pease and beans dying, our cabbages and lettuce going to seed and our gardens turning to dust, while every day you can see it raining in the woods? The rain will never pass old Poquelin’s house. He keeps a fetich. He has conjured the whole Fauborg St. Marie. And why, the old wretch? Simply because our playful and innocent children call after him as he passes.”

Perhaps most damning of all in the eyes of his contemporaries, old Jean has resisted the in-roads of modernization (he literally tries to prevent a new road being created across his land). A less-than-scrupulous “Building and Improvement Committee,” believing that the Poquelin property will make “a capital site for a market-house,” repeatedly attempts to get the owner to sell off. Hoping to gain leverage by proving that the “old villain” has his long-missing “brother locked up in that old house,” the Committee sends an investigator to break in. Upon encroaching, though, the investigator spies a “ghostly white” figure on the grounds. Accompanied by a “strange, sickening odor,” this mysterious figure suggests the walking dead. Naturally, the investigator is in dread at first, but after he realizes what he is witnessing, he henceforth becomes a surprising defender of old Jean’s reputation.

As if Cable’s tale wasn’t steeped in the American Gothic already, its climax features a mob scene. The stoked locals seize upon the idea of harassing Jean into submission with clamor: they decided to “shivaree him.” But the raucous rabble does an about face when it catches glimpse of a coffin, and the pale figure. The mystery is solved at last: “beyond the bier [of the deceased Jean], with eyes cast down and labored step, walked the living remains–all that was left–of little Jacques Poquelin, the long-hidden brother–a leper, as white as snow.”

In his headnote to the story, editor Charles Crow writes that “Cable has constructed a richly symbolic account of the legacy of slavery.” Indeed, “Jean-Ah Poquelin” suggests the rot and ruin resulting from the peculiar institution (Jacques presumably contracted leprosy in Africa while accompanying his brother on a slave-buying trip), but the narrative also forms a masterpiece of Gothic suspense. Cable’s tale can be seen to influence later writers like William Faulkner (the modernity-averse outcast in “A Rose for Emily”; the family member hidden in a decrepit mansion in Absalom, Absalom!) and Harper Lee (the vindicated boogeyman in To Kill a Mockingbird), but its own classic status cannot be overlooked. This is one of the most representative pieces encountered in Crow’s anthology to date.