Mob Scene: “Herbert West: Reanimator”

In my last Lore Report, I noted an angry mob scene (the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 in New York City) that resulted from real-life incidents of body snatching. The same dynamic can be seen playing out in fictional form, in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 weird tale, “Herbert West: Reanimator.”

Lovecraft presents a gruesome variation on the Frankenstein story; like his literary precursor, Victor Frankenstein, the eponymous medical man West seeks to bring the dead back to life. As his outre experiments naturally require a supply of dead bodies, West is not hesitant to resort to grave robbing. West’s series of maniacal miscreations over the years, though, come back to haunt him in the story’s climax. A “grotesquely heterogeneous” “horde”–led by a headless nightmare in a Canadian officer’s uniform (Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, reanimated by West six years earlier in Flanders during World War I)–breaks into West’s sub-cellar laboratory in a home neighboring a Boston burial ground. The frightfully silent assailants might not be wielding torches and pitchforks, but their own hands prove sufficiently deadly. The story’s horrified (and perhaps unreliable) narrator recounts: “Then they all sprang at [West] and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”

“Herbert West: Reanimator” (a tale undoubtedly overshadowed by Stuart Gordon’s gory, campy film adaptation) was dismissed by Lovecraft himself as a piece of hack work, but this proto-zombie story offers plenty of macabre mayhem and grim thrills. And its climax reverses the angry-villager formula that would be popularized by Universal horror films a decade later. Here it is not a group of stoked locals stalking a creature, but the vengeful monsters themselves who have banded together to track down and viciously execute the unscrupulous resurrectionist West.

 

 

Lore Report: “Disturbing the Peace” (Episode 134)

But there is a third group of people [along with archeologists and tomb raiders] who break that sacred boundary and disturb the peace of the dead, although we tend to forget about them. Partly because we honestly never expect to find them in the first place, but also because we have so much faith in humanity that we don’t expect them to exist. And yet for a very long time, they not only existed, but thrived. And they earned a name that has become synonymous with disrespect and violation. Because everyone feared the body snatchers.

This intro to the latest episode of the Lore podcast suggests that “Disturbing the Peace” is leading into another rehash of the by-now-familiar tale of the infamous corpse-stealers Burke and Hare (who are also the subjects of the lead episode of the second season of Lore‘s Amazon Prime series adaptation). To this listener’s pleasant surprise, though, host and narrator Aaron Mahnke quickly proceeds to recount American incidents of body snatching (i.e. the digging up of the recently deceased and selling the bodies to medical schools, where the cadavers would be used to teach anatomy and dissection to students). Mahnke provides a fascinating glimpse of such illicit profession; body snatching is revealed as the work not merely of marginal, criminal types but also of secret societies (“The Anatomical Club” formed at Harvard in the 18th Century) and city-wide conspiracies. Equally surprising, body snatching was not just a surreptitious act; its practitioners, Mahnke notes, could be downright brazen in announcing their trade.

“Disturbing the Peace” delves even deeper into American Gothic territory when covering an explosive outbreak of public outrage in New York City in April 1788. To say that it all started with a wave of a hand sounds innocent enough, until one learns that said appendage was severed and belonged to a snatched body. The incident sparked a riot in which an angry mob a few-thousand members strong stormed medical school buildings where dissections were taking place, dragged the cadavers out onto the street and tossed them onto a bonfire, and threatened to do the same to unscrupulous professors and their students.

Episode 134 is Lore at its finest, as Mahnke thrills his audience with a macabre topic (which is not just confined to the annals of yesteryear–Mahnke also touches on  modern-day “body brokers”). The narrator’s knack for digging up the dark treasures of history is evident not just in the discussion of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788; Alexander Hamilton, the son of Paul Revere, a doctor colleague who crossed the Delaware with George Washington in 1776, and President Benjamin Harrison are all invoked into the ghoulish story. The details of this piece might be disturbing, but the episode itself undoubtedly makes for a wonderful listen.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes” and Jack London’s “Samuel”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, a look at the final two stories in editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

In Wharton’s 1910 tale, a group of gentlemanly dinner guests retire to a “Gothic library”  for drinks, cigars, and a round of ghost stories. When their host, Andrew Culwin, is persuaded to contribute his own midnight narrative, he relates a personal experience of having been haunted at several times over a period of years by the infernal glare of a pair of eyes appearing at his bedside:

They were the worst eyes I’ve ever seen:  a man’s eyes–but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

Noting the uncanny eyes’ “damnable habit of coming back,” Culwin asserts: “They reminded me of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed to gloat over the taste of a good conscience.” The self-deluded Culwin, though, is oblivious to his own enervating effect on those around him. Apparently his conscience isn’t as good as he claims, either, because in the climax of Wharton’s story he is forced to consider that the hateful eyes were his very own–a ghost of his future self reproaching him for his selfish misdeeds.

From its mention in the frame story of upping the narrative ante by presenting a tale of two ghosts, to its hinting at the death of a young male character in its final line, “The Eyes” is clearly indebted to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (who served as a literary mentor to Wharton). Wharton further acknowledges her ghost story–and American Gothic–roots by referencing a writer of a famously ambiguous, framed-narrative spook tale (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Culwin recounts early on that he lived in “a damp Gothic villa” in Irvington that belonged to “an old aunt who had known Washington Irving.” Wharton’s literary effort here, however, is hardly derivative; “The Eyes” is an atmospheric and meticulously crafted piece of American Gothic literature.

 

“Samuel” by Jack London

London’s 1909 story concerns an inscrutable old woman, Margaret Henan, who has been mysteriously shunned by her insular community. The intrigued narrator wonders if Henan is guilty of “some shocking cruelty? some amazing infidelity? or some fearful, old-world peasant-crime?” Via a series of conversations with Henan’s fellow islanders, the narrator gradually uncovers the reason for her ostracism. Henan’s beloved brother Samuel suffered an ignominious fate: after his marriage is nullified (due to a clerical error by the minister) while the husband/skipper was at sea, Samuel’s wife drowns herself and her babe. Finally returning home, only to discover the loss of his loved ones, Samuel attempts to kill himself at their gravesite, and before he expires he spits and curses at the minister, and dies “blaspheming so terribly that those that tended on him did so with an averted gaze and trembling hands.”

Because of his manner of death, Samuel is a black figure for the islanders; the suicide’s very name is considered one of ill-omen. Yet Samuel’s sister Margaret insists on honoring her late brother’s memory by naming her own son Samuel. More accurately, she ends up naming four of her sons Samuel, and each child stubbornly christened thus ultimately meets a tragic end. The first Samuel dies of the croup; the second is boiled to death as a three-year-old after accidentally falling into a tub of hot water; the third grows up healthy and happy, only to be drowned at sea. The last Samuel, born to Margaret when she is 47 years old, is “a great awful monster,” a braying idiot that his own father bludgeons to death one day with a puck-handle (the filicide then promptly hangs himself in the stable).

A name with uncannily tragic consequences; a seemingly cursed family; superstitious and provincial locals: London’s “Samuel” might seem a preeminent work of American Gothic. The problem is that there is nothing American in this tale (set on Island McGill off the cost of Ireland) except for the fact that the narrator is a Yankee abroad. In his headnote to the story, editor Charles L. Crow posits that “Samuel” is “a fitting work to conclude this volume, but the piece only proves fitting in that it is yet another example of Crow’s own loose sense of “American Gothic” literature–a Gothic work written by an American author (and not necessarily tied to an American scene).

 

Lore Report: “Proof Positive” (Episode 133)

From the mundane to the groundbreaking, scientific notebooks have been used throughout history to keep a record of events and knowledge learned so that future generations might look back on them and remember. But for a period of time in the 17th Century, that process was used in an unlikely field–witchcraft. And while it’s easy to assume that combination found at the intersection of witches and science might not be the most logical, you’d be surprised to learn that more than a few professional skeptics tried to use rationale to test superstition. And what they discovered was beyond frightening.

Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke begins the latest episode of the Lore podcast with a discussion of Marie Curie’s research notebooks–uncanny items due to their incredible, unremitting radioactivity. From here, Mahnke transitions to the writings of George Sinclair, a 17th Century professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow who “believed witchcraft was a real and powerful threat.” Sinclair’s endeavor to document evidence of the supernatural led him to publish an account of “The Devil of Glenluce”–a 1654 case of a house (accursed by an atheistic beggar) plagued by seemingly demonic activity. Mahnke devotes the bulk of the episode to relating the details of the Devil of Glenluce story, and his narrative makes for a frightfully good listen. Images such as a forearm rising out of the floorboards and pounding on the floor (the malicious spirit haunting the house claims the appendage belongs to the devil himself) would be right at home in a James Wan Conjuring film.

If I have one critique of Episode 133, it’s that I wish Mahnke would have spent even a little more time on the Glenluce story, discussing the aftermath of the strange events (which have since been called into question as a hoax). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining episode with an intriguing topic–the learned’s earnest attempt to validate the existence of the spectral and sinister. Fans of the novel The Haunting of Hill House–which presents a classic case of paranormal investigation taking an unsettling turn–are sure to thrill at the subject matter here in “Proof Positive.”

 

Mob Scene: The Bottoms

Joe R. Lansdale’s 2000 novel The Bottoms (an expansion of his 1999 novella “Mad Dog Summer”) forms an extended riff on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are Southern Gothic takes on the coming-of-age tale, and share many characteristics–tomboy younger sisters, rabid dogs, legendary boogeymen (Lansdale answers Lee’s Boo Radley with “The Goat Man”), and critiques of Deep Southern society as viewed through children’s eyes. Significantly, the plots of both novels also feature a mob scene.

In The Bottoms, the narrator Harry’s father (the constable in their Depression-era East Texas community) has been keeping an elderly black man named Mose (a person of interest in the investigation of a series of brutal rapes/murders in the area) hidden away. When the locals find out, though, they automatically deem Mose the killer, and band together as a “lynch mob” intent on dispensing rough justice. Harry and his dad rush to the scene, the latter trying to avert tragedy by calling for the need for a fair trial. But his attempt to talk sense is rebuffed by the mob, which is led by the despicably racist (and allegorically named) Mr. Nation: “He ain’t gonna be turned loose,” Nation taunts, “except at the end of the rope.” When Harry’s father physically intervenes to prevent the lynching, “the crowd let[s] out a sound like an animal in pain,” and pounces on the constable and his son.

Atticus Finch (with some timely assistance from his kids) in To Kill a Mockingbird is able to stave off an angry mob determined to lynch a black man accused of rape. For all the parallels that Lansdale draws with Lee’s masterwork, though, he takes matters in a shocking direction by having the mob succeed in executing Mose. The lynching in described in unflinching and unsettling detail (“Mose dropped with a snapping sound, started to kick fast and spit blood-tinted foam”), and when the pummeled Harry recovers consciousness he discovers a nightmarish sight:

Mose hung above us, his tongue long and black and thick as a sock stuffed with paper. His eyes bulged out of his head like little green persimmons. Someone had pulled down his pants and cut him. Blood dripped from between Mose’s legs, onto the ground.

Graphic and emotionally grueling, the mob scene in The Bottoms is not easily forgotten.

 

Three Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Thought I’d take a stab at the popular online trend of composing/posting two-sentence horror stories. Here’s a trio of pieces for the New Year:

 

My New Year’s resolution is to wash my hands of sinners. Having their blood under my fingernails all the time just isn’t good hygiene.

 

Dwight considered himself a perfectly functional alcoholic. He never once failed to show up in the afternoon to drive the school bus.

 

I watched my expression growing more vexed in the mirrored backdrop as my drink request repeatedly went unheard by the bartender. After the fifth attempt, though, a Bloody Mary promptly appeared in front of me.