Clive Interview

Clive Barker is the interview subject for this week’s edition of the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. It is a bit of a shock at first to hear how pronounced the rasp in Clive’s voice has become, but he sounds very enthusiastic, and says that he is in better health these days (which is wonderful news).

During the 75-minute interview, Clive talks about a traumatic incident from his childhood that was a formative influence on his work. His more recent experience of being in a coma is covered (his return to consciousness makes for quite an anecdote). The boundary-pushing writer also addresses the censorship battles he had to fight with editors and publishers over the years. Valuable insight into his drafting process (when working on a novel) is given. Clive and Mick reminisce on their interestingly-premised Mummy film that never got made, and share the news about an upcoming collaborative project. All told, the interview is a real treat, and one that Clive Barker fans will certainly enjoy.

Lore Report: “Blood Money” (Episode 169)

After all, life is full of surprises. But if you spend a bit of time studying history, you quickly learn that life is also full of darkness. Darkness, and an irrefutable truth: things that are too good to be true can sometimes turn out to be deadly.

Witchcraft is one of the most popular subjects of the Lore podcast, but in the latest episode host Aaron Mahnke takes a different angle of approach. Traveling back to 17th Century England and Scotland, Mahnke focuses on the witch-hunters themselves–now-notorious figures such as Matthew Hopkins and John Kincaid. Along the way, listeners learn of the unusual practices employed to identify witches, such as cruentation and pricking with a bodkin. What ultimately emerges is a portrait of remorseless hucksterism, of deadly frauds capitalizing on the rampant panic of the public. The episode is very informative, and the concluding segment’s narrative features a terrific plot twist, but “Blood Money”–which determinedly documents the deeds of historical con artists–isn’t terribly lore-ish (at least by the standards of this podcast).

 

The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Hemingway and Horror

He has never written about ghosts or vampires or werewolves. Unlike fellow American literary heavyweight William Faulkner, he does not adopt an overt Gothic mode. Nonetheless, Ernest Hemingway in many respects can be viewed as a horror writer.

Committed to the clear examination of the human condition, Hemingway is a writer who inevitably peers into dark places. His typical thematic concerns, such as masculinity-attacking fear (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) and the confrontation of mortality (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) and his recurrent subjects (bullfighting’s spectacular tragedy; warfare’s mass cruelties and casualties) are perfectly geared toward the horrific. Macabre imagery haunts Hemingway’s work. Greek evacuees in “On the Quai at Smyrna” cling to six-days-dead babies and hobble their baggage animals before dumping them in the harbor’s shallow waters to drown. The misleadingly titled “An Alpine Idyll” paints a mordant picture worthy of Tales from the Crypt: a husband is forced to store his wife’s rigid corpse in the woodshed until the spring thaw melts the snow on the ground, and he ends up marring the woman’s features by hanging a lantern from her conveniently gaping mouth while working in the shed.

Hemingway’s work is marked by the eruption of gruesome violence. To continue to draw illustrative example from the short stories: a husband in “Indian Camp” savagely slices his own throat with a razor–either in grief over his wife’s labor pains or in shame at having been cuckolded by a white man. Self-mutilation with a razor also proves terribly central to “God Rest You Merry, Gentleman,” in which a young zealot seeking to purge himself of lustful urge botches the attempted amputation of his own genitalia. In arguably the grisliest moment in the Hemingway canon, a bar brawler in “A Man of the World” suffers a gouging and then has his dangling eye bitten off his cheek “just like it was a grape.”

The horror in Hemingway’s fiction, though, is not merely rooted in the graphic and the grotesque. A quieter, but no less frightful, type of horror also operates, as can be seen in the classic story “The Killers.” Hemingway’s fictional stand-in Nick Adams is utterly shaken by the awful sight of an ex-prizefighter’s resignation to assassination by a pair of Chicago hitmen: “Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on bed looking at the wall.” A sense of existential dread riddles another Nick Adams piece, “Now I Lay Me.” Traumatized by his wartime wounding, Nick desperately tries to keep his thoughts occupied and keep himself from falling asleep in the dark, for fear that his soul will vacate his convalescing body if no nightlight is shining.

Hemingway confronts the horrors of warfare most extensively (leaving aside novels such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls) in “A Natural History of the Dead.” Terrestrial hellscapes that “called for a Goya to depict them” are explicitly presented, such as the grim scene left by the explosion of a munitions factory in Milan (the narrator recounts having to pick fragments of female bodies from barbed-wire fencing). Determined study of the dead strewn across battlefields leads to a catalogue of bloating and blackening corpses, of mouth holes rife with “a half-pint of maggots.” Throughout the narrative, the (uncharacteristic) archness of tone accentuates the starkness of the subject, and verges on an almost-hysterical reaction to wartime atrocity. There’s nothing natural about “A Natural History of the Dead,” which closes with an anecdote concerning a grievously wounded soldier who is hastily interred with corpses set within a mountainside cavern. Despite its repeated reporting from the Italian front, Hemingway’s narrative ends up closer to Poe (cf. “The Premature Burial,” which similarly opens as a seeming scientific essay before sequeing into dark fiction in the climax) than the Po.

As a major American writer who frequently focused on death and violence, Hemingway unsurprisingly inspired later horror writers. Genre giant Dan Simmons includes Hemingway as a central character in the roman a clef The Crook Factory (admittedly, though, the book qualifies as a spy thriller more than category horror). Mort Castle cleverly mixes Hemingway biography and bibliography with war-born zombies in “The Old Man and the Dead.” Castle’s tale prefigures one of my own–“The Last Generation” (anthologized in The Zombie Feed, Vol. 1), a post-apocalyptic riff on The Sun Also Rises in which the ostensible survivors consciously adopt the character names and desperate hedonism of Hemingway’s novelistic cast.

But no reflection upon Hemingway and horror would be complete without consideration of the career of Jack Ketchum. Ketchum (a pseudonym of Dallas Mayr) echoes Hemingway’s final residence in his chosen name, just as his story “Father and Son” recalls the Hemingway title “Fathers and Sons.” The figure of Hemingway himself is invoked in the absinthe-makes-the-brain-grow-crazier piece “Papa.” Anyone who has ever read a Ketchum story like “The Rifle” or his novel Red (whose opening chapter is especially representative) will be hard-pressed to deny Hemingway’s stylistic influence. Ketchum’s predominantly non-supernatural brand of horror (which frequently draws on real-life incident) offers an unflinching exploration, in unaffected prose, of the direst acts that humans commit all too often. Thanks to Ketchum’s impressive body of work, Hemingway’s status as a foundational figure for the horror genre is forever cemented.

***

(Note: for further discussion of Hemingway’s connection to horror, check out Jason Ray Carney’s short essay, “Hemingway, Lovecraft, and the Ubiquity of Fear.”)

Quotations for my blog article are taken from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition.

Hemingway: The (Tormented) Man Behind the Myth

All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.
–Ernest Hemingway

Ken Burns adds significantly to his already-impressive body of documentary work with his (and Lynn Novick’s) new three-part PBS film Hemingway. The project presents an in-depth and anything-but-hagiographic look at one of America’s most renowned writers, accounting for the man’s greatness as well as the various warts on his (adulterous, abusive, backstabbing, and sometimes downright racist) character. Indeed, what develops over the course of nearly six hours is a portrait of a virtuoso with plenty of vices.

Finely constructed, Hemingway astounds on a technical level. The documentary features incredible voicework, starting with the captivating narration provided by Peter Coyote (this guy could read a phone book aloud and make it sound interesting) and also including Jeff Daniels as the eponymous figure (the actor recites pieces of Hemingway’s work and excerpts from his letters). The accompanying visuals (archival footage; countless scene-setting photos) transport the viewer back through history and into Hemingway’s time. Fellow authors (from Tobias Wolff to Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien to Tim O’Brien) and literary scholars furnish cogent commentary and precise analysis.

As a man who engaged in a series of tempestuous relationships with women, and a writer who lived a supremely adventurous life, Hemingway makes for a fascinating subject. His biography also contains no shortage of surprises. For all his legendary machismo, Hemingway is revealed here as a man haunted by fears (e.g. he dreaded sleeping alone or without a nightlight shining). His life is marked by darkness, the exposure to death and violence on both a personal (family tragedy; traumatic injury) and global (the mass atrocity of warfare) level. Hemingway builds to a heartbreaking conclusion, as it shows how a combination of alcoholism, depression, and the deleterious effects of repeated head injuries precipitates a tragic slide into pronounced mental illness and eventual suicide.

The film convincingly demonstrates how Hemingway’s life, like his work, speaks to all the joy and sorrow, the beauty and horror, endemic to the human condition. While establishing the unique nature of the man’s literary genius, Hemingway also evinces the basic traits (positive and negative) that connect Papa to us all.

 

Lore Report: “Beyond the Pale” (Episode 168)

But one story echoes this ancient belief in the returning hero more than any other. It’s not as famous as the rest, but it represents any entire nation oppressed under the thumb of a foreign ruler, and the hope they placed in their hero’s return. And to hear it, we’re going to need to travel to a land of limitless beauty and enduring pain: Ireland.

The latest installment of the Lore podcast is one that goes heavy on the exposition. Its first half plays like a history lesson, as narrator Aaron Mahnke traces the life story of the 16th Century Irish political figure Gerald Fitzgerald. Exiled from his homeland as a youth and pursued by his enemies (the agents of King Henry VIII), Fitzgerald developed a reputation for unlikely escapes from punishment and death. He accordingly became known as the “Wizard Earl” of Kildare (his open interest in alchemy only added to his mystique), and this Lore episode hits its stride when it delves into the story of Fitzgerald’s attempt to prove his magical powers to his wife–a demonstration that certainly puts her courage to the test. Mahnke also ties Fitzgerald into an Irish version of the “king under the mountain” legend, and recounts a tale (of the Wizard Earl’s ghostly return on horseback to Kilkea Castle every seven years) that sounds like something straight out of Gottfried August Burger or Washington Irving. For those who can get past the initial infodump, “Beyond the Pale” proves an episode rich in dark lore.

 

Vintage Creepshow

Stephen King’s and George Romero’s Creepshow was a determinedly referential endeavor–a concerted effort to recreate the horror sensibility of E.C.-style comics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Shudder spin-off series, which faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of the original movie, also nods knowingly at horror history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Creepshow‘s second-season premiere.

“Monster Kid,” the episode’s opening segment, is a love letter to utter monstrophilia. Joe Aurora is a Dracula-dressing, Bela-Lugosi-quoting, model-kit-obsessed horror hound. His bedroom is a treasure trove of monster memorabilia. The segment (which begins with a black-and-white scene fantasized by Joe) invokes the Universal monsters in the form of the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (at one point, Joe also watches Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). There’s a clip of a horror host addressing “boils and ghouls”–a pun that surely resonates with fans of Tales from the Crypt. With its voodoo-doll plot element, “Monster Kid” even recalls the frame story of the Creepshow film. Despite striking a sweet note in its invocation of Monster Culture, the segment does not shy away from the typical dramatization of grim comeuppance, as Kevin Dillon’s obnoxious character ultimately gets transformed into Johnny Trauma.

Substituting the satiric for the nostalgic, the second segment (“Public Television of the Damned”) is a gonzo homage to the Evil Dead franchise coupled with a send-up of public television programming. All hell threatens to break loose when Ted Raimi shows up on “The Appraiser’s Road Trip” with a copy of the Necronomicon; a PBS-esque pledge drive turns into a demonic demand for a pledge of human souls to the book. Gleefully over-the-top (a Bob Ross knockoff forms a badass hero here), the adult-humored segment features scenes of wild violence that would make Sam Raimi proud. The marvelously macabre makeup (courtesy of Creepshow producer Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group) also expertly evokes the Evil Dead.

With its commitment to vintage horror, the season 2 premiere forms a modern classic. If the same level of reverent retrospection is maintained throughout, viewers have a lot to look forward to this season.