Lore Report: “Stains” (Episode 141)

No matter where you live, beneath the city you know, there’s a whole other world. A world of hidden secrets and dangerous legends. And that even though we might carry out our normal lives in relative safety, the past is always lurking just below the surface, like the shadow of a monstrous creature. And what better place to dig for the lost and forgotten, than Paris, the City of Lights. Because where there’s light, there’s also a whole lot of shadow.

The crash course in Parisian history that host Aaron Mahnke gives at the start of Episode 141 of the Lore podcast drives home the point that from the bubonic plague to the Reign of Terror and beyond, the city has seen more than its fair share of fatality over the centuries. “A city can’t endure that much death,” Mahnke states, “without leaving a stain, a dark mark that can still be seen today.” The episode attends to some of the most prominent of these stains. After brief discussion of the ghosts of Pere Lachaise cemetery (including that of Jim Morrison, for whom death didn’t seem to be “The End”), Mahnke leads his audience down into the bone-stocked catacombs underlying the streets of Paris. He shares an effectively creepy tale about a subterranean disappearance, but even more interesting is the explanation of how the catacombs came to be created in the first place. From here, Mahnke relates a gory story of murder and meat pies, one that would become the source of a famous penny dreadful (and an even better Tim Burton film).

Admittedly, I am sometimes underwhelmed by the closing segments of Lore‘s episodes, but that certainly is not the case here. Mahnke concludes with a fascinating narrative about Catherine de’ Medici and a seemingly inescapable curse. Deeply enjoyable from start to finish, “Stains” forms a bright spot in the history of this long-running podcast.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Terri Bruce’s “Stone Baby” and Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tomb-Herd”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“Stone Baby” by Terri Bruce

This is the first original story to appear in the anthology’s pages, but it suggests a classic American Gothic lineage. Bruce’s work here is reminiscent of the dark fables of Shirley Jackson, as something uncanny unfolds from the blanketing banality of married life. Echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” might also be discerned, as a woman is plagued by an overbearing and obtuse husband, and is seemingly unhinged by grief. The protagonist Lynne learns that she was unwittingly pregnant and suffered a form of miscarriage that resulted in a “lithopedion”: the stone baby of the title that “had stayed inside her. Stayed inside her and calcified–the body’s defense mechanism against blood poisoning.” Matters grow even weirder when the thing–declared dead by medical science–begins to kick, and Lynne senses the presence of shadowy winged figures at her bedside encouraging her to bring the stone baby to term. The revelation of the final line isn’t all that shocking by the time it arrives, but it does give a wicked twist to the notion of extramarital affair.

 

“The Tomb-Herd” by Ramsey Campbell

Britain’s greatest living horror writer is best known for narratives with predominantly English urban or rural settings, but this early tale (written when Campbell was just fifteen, yet not published until 1986) displays the overarching influence of American writer H.P. Lovecraft. Campbell somehow manages to pack seemingly all of the Cthulhu Mythos into a few pages of story, naming the various “alien gods” from Lovecraft’s unpronounceable pantheon. The pastiche is so earnest here that Campbell even replicates Lovecraft’s narrative flaws (strings of anxious adjectives–“rolling, plopping, surging monstrously”; characters who sit and continue to write, describing the unspeakable horror currently bearing down on them). Campbell, though, also captures the elements of American Gothic that infuse Lovecraft’s weird fiction. The ill-reputed town of Kingsport, Massachusetts, is approached through “grim, brooding country, sparse of habitation and densely wooded.” There’s a shunned house, shuttered and ivy-strangled, and haunted by nothing so prosaic as a ghost but instead slimy white monstrosities “with lich-like eyes.”  A deserted church in the center of town has been converted into a place of profane worship and sinister rites. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Campbell’s version of Kingston is the way the roads supernaturally circle back toward the church and prevent the escape of spooked humans. The idea of a dead-end town is given terrible new meaning, as anyone unlucky enough to encounter the eponymous necrophagous ghouls ends up suffering a fate infinitely worse than death.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10.”Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9.”Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8.”The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7.”Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6.”Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5.”Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery.The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4.”N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3.”1922″ (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2.”The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1.”The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.

 

Iconic and Oft-Copied

Yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of the release of The Bride of Frankenstein (here’s a cool article commemorating the occasion). A terrific film overall, it is perhaps best remembered for its climactic unveiling of one of the greatest monsters in the history of horror movies. Though she only graced the screen for a few minutes before perishing, the Bride unquestionably has left an undying mark. Here’s a pictorial ode to the most famous fright hair ever styled by a Hollywood studio–a look that has since permeated pop culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@#$%&!

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I am not a big fan of The Exorcist. But I do recognize its historical significance as a horror film, and was definitely intrigued when I learned it would be the subject of the first episode of the Cursed Films series that recently premiered on Shudder. I never knew that The Exorcist had much of a reputation for being cursed; after watching the documentary, though, I realize there’s not much reason to think so.

The episode begins promisingly enough, sharing an eerie anecdote about how a fire broke out during filming, destroying the sets yet leaving Regan’s bedroom mysteriously untouched. But I started to lose faith when the episode addressed the injuries that the actresses Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered in the course of filming–stunts gone wrong are an everyday and easily explained part of moviemaking and don’t create a sense of some supernatural curse. Nor does the fact that an extra in The Exorcist went on to commit a murder years after the film was made. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of material for Cursed Films to draw on here, which perhaps explains the questionable decision to spend nearly a third of the episode interviewing a real-life, modern-day exorcist and showing his performance of the ritual for the purportedly possessed. Much more interesting is the idea of how The Exorcist became a bane for Linda Blair following its release (her life made hellish by audience identification of her with her demonically-possessed character). Unfortunately, this topic gets glossed over, in no small part because of Blair’s own refusal to discuss details of her ordeal when interviewed for the episode.

Cursed Films gets off to an inauspicious start, but subsequent episodes in the five-part series do prove more rewarding (I particularly enjoyed the coverage of Poltergeist and The Crow). I think this project might have been better served, though, by being condensed into a single documentary rather than divided into individual segments (that tend to be filled with distracting tangents).

A final sidenote: The Exorcist episode relates the claim Billy Graham made at the time that the devil existed in the very celluloid of the 1973 film. Naturally, I dismissed Graham’s notion as a bunch of evangelical babble. But as I was streaming the episode of Cursed Films, it suddenly skipped ahead to the next episode with five minutes still remaining, and no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t get the first episode to replay. Cyberspatial snafu or a big FU from Pazuzu?

 

Wednesday’s Best

I have to admit, I was a Munsters kid growing up, and never really got into The Addams Family. Nor did I pay much attention to the film adaptations of the latter that came out in the 90’s. Recently, though, I watched both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, and absolutely loved both movies. The cast is uniformly terrific, but my favorite is Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams. She’s adorably mordant in the first film, and steals the sequel with her deadpan delivery of a slew of gags. Here below are some of her best lines from the films.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the value of gallows humor grows more evident. Black comedy can offer release/relief–we make light of death because it is such a grim and inescapable reality. Death is a relentless bill collector that dogs us from the moment we’re born, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lead him on a merry chase!

 

Wednesday: Pugsley, get in the chair.
Pugsley: Why?
Wednesday: So we can play a game.
Pugsley [climbing into electric chair]: What game?
Wednesday: It’s called…[straps Pugsley in]…”Is There a God?”
(The Addams Family)

 

Girl Scout: Are you sure they’re real lemons?
Pugsley: Yes.
Girl Scout: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy a cup [of lemonade], if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies. Do we have a deal?
Wednesday: Are they made from real Girl Scouts?
(The Addams Family)

 

Margaret: What are you, darling? Where’s your [Halloween] costume?
Wednesday [dressed in her usual outfit]: This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else.
(The Addams Family)

 

Wednesday [standing on the roof, and holding her baby brother Pubert]: Pugsley, the baby weighs 10 pounds, the cannonball [Pugsley is holding] weighs 20 pounds. Which will hit the stone walkway first?
Pugsley: I’m still on fractions.
Wednesday: Which do you think?
Pugsley: The cannonball.
Wednesday: Very good. But which one will bounce?
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Children, this is Miss Tellinsky, your new nanny. What do we say?
Wednesday [holding a blowtorch]: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Debbie: Look at you, all cooped up in this house with a new baby. That’s not easy, is it?
Pugsley: No.
Debbie: Why, I bet sometimes you wish it was still just the two of you.
Wednesday: Or less. [turns and stinkeyes Pugsley]
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Hi, I’m Amanda Buckman. Why are you dressed like that?
Wednesday: Like what?
Amanda: Like you’re going to a funeral. Why are you dressed like somebody died?
Wednesday: Wait.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Morticia: Wednesday’s at that special age when a girl’s only got one thing on her mind.
Mrs. Buckman: Boys?
Wednesday: Homicide.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Amanda: Is that your bathing suit?
Wednesday: Is that your overbite?
Gary: Now one of you will be the drowning victim, and the other one gets to be our lifesaver.
Amanda [eagerly]: I’ll be the victim.
Wednesday: All your life.
(Addams Family Values)

 

[Pugsley shoots and kills a bird during archery practice at summer camp]
Becky: It’s an American Bald Eagle!
Gary: Aren’t they extinct?
Wednesday: They are now.
(Addams Family Values)

 

Lore Report: “Potential” (Episode 140)

But disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. And if history is any indication, there is a powerful lesson there for us to learn, even if we don’t like what it teaches: When it comes to tragedy, the unexpected is right around the corner.

The introductory tease for the latest episode of Lore trumps the unexpected, but “Potential” recurs to a familiar topic for the podcast: the witch-hunt hysteria spurred by the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1485. To his credit, host Aaron Mahnke does attempt to cover new ground by transporting listeners to a less-familiar place (the hill town of Triora, Italy, in the late 1580’s) whose witch trials did not play out to a standard conclusion. Mahnke does a fine job of establishing the build-up to the trials in Triora, and of explaining the twists and turns that events subsequently took. He also draws some interesting parallels with the scene in Salem, Massachusetts (including both communities’ modern-day capitalizing on ignominious history via seasonal festivals and witchcraft museums).

Nevertheless, this is a curious episode on several levels. Mahnke repeatedly undercuts the very message of hope (the fact that the witch trials in Triora didn’t ultimately result in the mass execution of the accused) that he emphasizes throughout. Quite surprisingly, he also fails to invoke other examples of dark lore associated with Triora (for more on this, check out Francesca Bezzone’s essay, “The Triora Witch Trials: The Italian Salem”). Most questionably of all, Mahnke returns to the same subject matter he treated just two episodes ago (“Foresight”), making Episode 140 feel a bit like filler. Overall, “Potential” fails to live up to the lofty reputation the Lore podcast has earned for itself.