Lore Report: “Inside Information” (Episode 143)

Sometimes, whether we want them to or not, the dead return.

Episode 143 of the Lore podcast goes ghostly, recounting stories of spectral haunting throughout history. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with a discussion of the nature and function of ghost stories in ancient cultures (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese). He also references classic works of literature (by the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens) featuring ghosts. But it’s the real-life cases that Mahnke delves deepest into, and the episode grows the most interesting when it turns to ghosts that don’t work merely to terrorize–instead, they provide their witnesses with warnings about future events (the “inside information” of the title). My only critique is that the ghost stories recounted here are a little too Eurocentric; I wish some consideration had been given to American encounters. Overall, though, this episode is as fun (for those looking for a bit of frisson, that is) as it is informative.

 

Del Toro Post Mortem

Don’t be alarmed by the post title: renowned filmmaker and author Guillermo del Toro is alive and well. He also recently did a terrific interview for the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. Over the course of 79 minutes, del Toro delves into such topics as: how his Catholic upbringing spurred his monstrophilia; his early influence by legendary make-up artist Dick Smith; the challenges he faced in the industry as a Mexican filmmaker; the difficulties of shooting Mimic for Miramax; his upcoming remake of the carnival noir film Nightmare Alley. I find del Toro a fascinating speaker for his wonderful accent alone, but this interview also demonstrates the immense erudition he possesses when it comes to genre films in particular and the arts in general. A must-listen for fans of his work.

 

Beyond Iverson’s Pits: Six Other Great Works of American Gothic Short Fiction by Dan Simmons

In a previous post, I discussed at length Dan Simmons’s masterful story “Iverson Pits.” That Gettysburg-set shocker, though, does not represent the author’s sole foray into American Gothic territory in his short fiction (i.e. stories, novelettes, and novellas). Here are another half-dozen exemplary pieces:

 

“The River Styx Runs Upstream” (1982)

The text is as great as the title of Simmons’s first-published, award-winning story. A deceased mother is brought back to life-and back home to her family–by a quasi-religious/scientific group called the Resurrectionists. But Mother, mute and mentally blunted, proves a grim facsimile of her former self. The result, though, isn’t Pet Sematary-type carnage, but instead the more quiet horrors of the quotidian (e.g. Mother’s narrating son sees her “watering a plant that had died and been removed while she was at the hospital in April. The water ran across the top of the cabinet and dripped on the floor. Mother did not notice.”). The heartbreaking, not to mention American Gothic, aspects of the narrative are accentuated by the ongoing discrimination suffered by Resurrectionist families such as the narrator’s.

 

“Carrion Comfort” (1983)

The epic novel of the same title is a genre classic, but the source story furnishes no less rewarding a read. A trio of vampiric puppet-masters with a deadly mental Ability to direct the actions of others gather to compare their latest kills. But old rivalries and resentments rear their offensive head, and the game degenerates into macabre mayhem (occurring in both the narrator Melanie’s mansion and the Southern Gothic environs of Charleston). Simmons’s theme of the utter corruption resulting from absolute power makes for some hard-hitting horror, while also providing food for thought about people’s frightening penchant for inhumanity when dealing with one another.

 

“Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites” (1989)

A dingy barber shop in a quintessential Midwestern town becomes the scene of chilling horror. Two pre-teen protagonists suspect the place is a front for a pair of vampires, but these wannabe Hardy Boys get more than they bargained for when trailing surveillance of the barbers turns to late-night break-in of their shop. The story (which jumps back and forth in time between the protagonists’ youth and adulthood) is structured for maximal suspense, and the climactic twist is big and stunning, as Simmons shows it is not just Bram Stoker he’s channeling here. Paging Greg Nicotero: “Shave” would make a perfect script for an episode of Creepshow.

 

Elm Haven, Illinois” (1991)

Written specifically for the shared-world anthology of linked tales, Freak Show, this story serves as one piece of a larger narrative puzzle. In it, the lonely, extremely disfigured narrator Benjamin (inflicted with “Elephant Man’s disease”) gets caught up in the machinations of a shady traveling carnival. The plot is quite enjoyable in its own right, but the true delight for Simmons fans lies in the fact that this piece forms a postscript to Summer of Night. The small town of Elm Haven is in the midst of its death throes three decades after the events of the novel; decadence runs rampant. Benjamin tours the community’s darkest nooks, from the “charred ruin” of his own family mansion to the even more Gothic wreckage of the sinister Old Central School.

 

“This Year’s Class Picture” (1992)

Simmons breathes new life into the zombie subgenre in this tale of a veteran fourth-grade teacher determined to carry on after the collapse of civilization. Ms. Geiss still tends to and attempts to educate the students in her classroom, even if they are now undead and festering. A story that might have devolved into mere grotesquerie instead builds to a moving conclusion (in which Ms. Geiss’s efforts earn her a much better fate than landing on the lunch menu). Besides offering a portrait of post-apocalyptic survival, “This Year’s Class Picture” also presents a scathing critique of a pre-Tribulations society plagued by forces more insidious than zombie hordes: for thirty-eight years, “Ms. Geiss had, as well as she was able, protected her fourth graders from the tyrannies of too-early adulthood and the vulgarities of a society all too content with the vulgar. She had protected them–with all her faculties and force of will–from being beaten, kidnapped, emotionally abused or sexually molested by the monsters who had hidden in the form of parents, step-parents, uncles, and friendly strangers.”

 

“Sleeping with Teeth Women” (1993)

An impressive work of Native American Gothic, presented from an indigenous perspective and displaying a vast knowledge of the culture and mythology of the Lakota Sioux. In his foreword, Simmons writes that the novella is “my antidote to what I consider the saccharine condescension of such travesties as Dances with Wolves,” but his countering of the weak-and-whimpering-victims characterizations in the Costner film does not mean that Simmons in turn simply idealizes Native American strength (he does not gloss over instances of cruelty and savagery). The climax features a battle with some truly nightmarish creatures, yet here the vanquishing of monsters out of native mythology does not mark a conservative end point to the narrative but instead opens up the possibility of a more positive outcome: the eventual freedom from subjugation, and the reclaiming of the lands previously stolen from the Sioux by the greedy white “Fat Takers.”

 

A.G. Exemplary? E.E.W. Christman’s “The Dark Presser” and Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley”

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.

 

“The Dark Presser” by E.E.W. Christman

In Christman’s 2019 story (original to the volume), protagonist Margo is haunted by a “monstrous shadow creature” in her nightmares–and seemingly also in her waking life. Such persistent terrorizing turns her surroundings uncanny, unfamiliar and strange (the very first line of the piece reads: “There’s something wrong with my house”). Jason, Margo’s eager-to-help neighbor who harbors a sinister secret, clearly fits the Gothic hero-villain mold. But the sense of place here is vague: the setting could be anywhere, and not necessarily even in the U.S. “The Dark Presser”  is a traditional horror tale, yet not one that is distinctly American Gothic.

 

“The Dead Valley” by Ralph Adams Cram

Cram’s 1895 story elicits chills from the wilderness, presenting a scene of nature haunted by the supernatural. A mountainside black forest is unnervingly quiet, with not a bird or insect to be heard. The air is oppressively stagnant: “The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the body like the weight of sea on a diver who has ventured too far into its awful depths.” The epicenter of terribleness, though, is the titular stretch of land covered (only after dark) by a “sea of dead white mist”–“so ominous was it, so utterly unreal, so phantasmal, so impossible, as it lay there like a dead ocean under the steady stars.” Looming up from this valley is a “great dead tree” ringed by “a wilderness of little bones”:

Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them, rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared–the thigh of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a human skull.

Such frightful errand into the wilderness might make for a quintessential American Gothic narrative except for one key fact: the protagonist, Olaf Ehrensvard, is relating an incident that happened during his childhood back in Sweden! A considerably creepy variant on a ghost story, “The Dead Valley” thus qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic tale written by an American.

A final aside: the biographical end note points out that Cram was not just an author but “also one of the foremost architects of the Gothic revival in the United States. His influence helped to establish Gothic as the standard style of the period for American college and university buildings.” No doubt Cram was an astute student of (American) Gothic form; one only wishes that a more representative composition was chosen for this anthology.

 

Lore Report: “Reflections” (Episode 142)

https://allthatsinteresting.com/jim-twins

Folklore wasn’t always an invention of the mind, just some clever story invented and then passed along. Sometimes it was more tangible, more physical, and more real. Because in a world of the unusual and unexpected, nothing was more powerful than the birth of twins.

Today’s episode of the Lore podcast considers the wonders and mysteries of identical twins. As always, host Aaron Mahnke is careful to establish historical context: besides recurring to Greek and Roman mythology, he also notes how twins were feared and revered by ancient cultures worldwide. The episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates stories of twin connections (e.g. a pair of brothers separately adopted as infants who grew up to have wives/children/dogs with the same name, who entered into the same career field, and who even chose the same exact vacation spot) that seem to move beyond sheer coincidence and into the realm of the mystical. The scientifically inexplicable shades even further toward the eerily supernatural when Mahnke focuses on a pair of twins with an uncanny link to their siblings who died in a car crash before the younger set was even born.

In the closing segment, the topic shifts from identical to conjoined twins, and unfortunately, the discussion here feels like a bit of a stretch (and an attempt to expand the episode towards the podcast’s typical run time). That Eng died just a few hours after his brother Chang can be interpreted as a mere biological byproduct. The perishing of these famous Siamese twins on the same day doesn’t seem all that incredible, and thus Episode 142 ends with a narrative whimper.

“Reflections” pales in comparison to Lore‘s best offerings, but devoted listeners will still want to check this one out.

 

Mob Scene: We Sold Our Souls

In the “Master of Puppets” chapter of Grady Hendrix’s 2018 heavy-metal horror novel We Sold Our Souls, protagonist Kris Pulaski is a fugitive on the run, framed for a series of murders. Worse, her nemesis, the rock god Terry Hunt (who has made a deal with forces much more dangerous than the Devil) has alerted his legions of fans nationwide to be on the lookout for her. Inevitably, Kris is spotted at a highway rest stop, and the gathering crowd immediately begins to menace her verbally and physically. What is interesting here is the technological emphasis: this mob wields not torches and pitchforks but cellphones: “Kris stopped, turned, and saw a wall of people behind the girl, all of them bearing down on her, all of their phones out, all of them staring at her tiny image on their screens, fitting her into their phones, capturing her in their hands” (218). When a suspicious white van at the rest stop begins to blast a song from Terry’s group Koffin, the music transforms the singer’s loyal followers into a viciously homicidal “herd” (220).

Just as Kris is about to be mauled, her former band mate (and current sole ally) JD rolls into the rest step. Kris hops in, but the car is surrounded before it can make its getaway: “The car began to rock on its shocks as the screaming crowd pushed it from side to side” (222). The real mayhem, though, doesn’t kick in until the driver’s side window is shattered:

Pebbles of safety glass showered [JD’s] hair and face and bounced off Kris’s neck, unleashing the roar of the furious crowd. Hands slapped into JD’s face, grabbing his hair, his shirt, his arms. Kris screamed, and JD thrashed and bellowed, but that exposed his tongue and fingers forced their way inside his mouth, hooked his left cheek, grabbed his tongue by the root. JD clung to the wheel as hundreds of hands pulled him out through the window by his lips. Hands pried his fingers off the steering wheel, breaking them with hollow pops, and JD screamed as his left cheek stretched like bubblegum, and then fissures appeared, filled with red, widened, and his cheek came loose from his face and white gobbets of fat and red blood flowed down his hairy chin and the front of his shirt in a bib.  (222-23)

Grim stuff, for sure. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of JD’s suffering. I won’t spoil the reader’s experience here by quoting the passage of JD’s subsequent annihilation, but let’s just say the paragraph has a certain splatterpunk panache. Kris, meanwhile, does manage to escape the lynch mob, although hardly unscathed either physically (she has hunks of hair ripped right out of her scalp) or emotionally.

Hendrix’s short chapter leaves a lasting impression, and constitutes one of the most visceral and chilling mob scenes ever to appear in a horror novel.