Lore Report: “Opportunity” (Episode 178)

We have this uncanny knack of seeing opportunity and doing whatever we can to benefit from it. It’s a skill that mixes being in the right place at the right time with quick thinking and a lot of risk. If it’s pulled off right it can alter lives forever. But not every opportunity is golden. In fact, many of them represent trips into uncharted territory, where a myriad of dangers wait to shatter our dreams. So grab your warmest coat, pack your bags, and follow me on a journey into the folklore of one of the last great frontiers. We’re headed to Alaska.

Episode 178 of the Lore podcast basks in the (land of the) Midnight Sun. After dropping some familiar nuggets from geography and history class (the Bering Strait; Seward’s Folly), host Aaron Mahnke takes the narrative in more unexpected directions. Natural disaster combines with supernatural aura, as Mahnke relates tales of demonic attack, vanishing tombstones, haunted saloons, and a shipwreck averted by the intervention of a seemingly ghostly figure. The episode’s titular theme is well woven throughout, and Mahnke’s final thought concerning the opportunistic nature of folklore makes for a poignant conclusion. Lengthy but fast moving, and filled with a mother lode of northern lore, “Opportunity” is an episode that listeners should seize upon the very first chance they get.

Slasher Antho Anniversary

I can’t believe the Dark Scribe Press volume, Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film, is now ten years old. A decade later, I still count it as a great thrill to have placed my essay “Music to Our Fears” (which traces Sweeney Todd as a slasher film) alongside the work of so many horror genre luminaries (including one of my literary idols, Jack Ketchum).

Weighing in at nearly 500 pages and featuring over 90 entries, the book is an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in the subgenre. Unfortunately, it is now out of print, and used copies are hard to come by. For certain, it deserves a reissue (and even an eBook edition).

Some sort of sequel volume (covering the years 2011-2021) would be highly welcome as well. The past decade has been a strong one for the slasher, in films (You’re Next, Happy Death Day, Halloween, Freaky), on TV (Scream, Scream Queens, AHS: 1984)and in fiction (about which I’ll have more to post in the coming weeks). Plenty of select material to essay upon!

As any fan knows, slashers don’t stay down the first time. So here’s hoping to a higher Body Count…

Dead Again

Some thoughts on last night’s premiere episode of Season 11 of The Walking Dead

“Acheron, Part 1” opens with an extended sequence in which the show’s heroes descend into a former military installment to scavenge a precious cache of MRE pouches. Naturally, the mission goes sideways just prior to successful completion, and the soldier zombies rise and attack. For the next several minutes, they are systematically levelled, with the heroes emerging unscathed (not even a spear-carrier character gets bitten!). This 10-minute opening sequence felt both familiar and like filler. The decimation of the undead threat points to a grim reality in the show’s current, post-Whisperer moment: the walkers are little more than macabre fodder once again, background figures propped up to provide cheap action beats.

In the episode’s main plotline, the Alexandrians team up with Maggie and her cohorts and set out to take back Maggie’s old community, Meridian, from the Reapers. A torrential downpour drives the group underground, where they seek to carry out their time-sensitive mission by proceeding through a subway tunnel. Besides fulfilling the underworldly suggestion of the episode’s title, the subway sojourn makes for a creepy and claustrophobic set piece. That mass grave site (filled with plastic-shrouded, throat-slit walkers) the heroes encounter also struck a strong note of dark intrigue.

The episode’s B-story follows Eugene/Ezekiel/Yumiko/Princess as they are “processed” (i.e. interrogated) by members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth regime is being established as the Big Bad of the show’s concluding season, but so far I am having a hard time getting invested in this storyline. The Commonwealth’s ostensible (and still anonymous) leader looks like an Idris Elba wannabe in orange Stormtrooper getup, and does little more than smolder here.

Easily, the highlight of the season premiere is the antagonism between Maggie and Negan, which steadily builds during the underground mission. Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan both give strong performances, particularly during a tense stand-off scene. You know The Walking Dead is going to milk such conflict for all its worth this season, and just seeing how it finally plays out makes the show a must-watch here towards the end of its long and accomplished run.


Lore Report: “Strings” (Episode 177)

It seems that music has always been a controversial topic. From the halls of Athens to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, music has been seen by some as art, and by others as a threat. But few arguments have lasted as one in particular, a claim that has been used for centuries to strike fear in the hearts of good people and to hold back progress in a field that has given us so much beauty. Some music, it seems, belongs to the devil.

Episode 177 of the Lore podcast, “Strings,” draws the listener in right from the opening moment, as host Aaron Mahnke references a secret code embedded in Plato’s writing (every twelfth line has a reference to music). From there, Mahnke goes on to discuss the role music played in the witchcraft panic of centuries past (a time when the phrase “dance with the devil” had an ominous significance). The curious careers of Giuseppe Tartini and Niccolo Paganini, a pair of Italian violinists alleged to have experienced a fiendish influence, are considered. Appropriately enough (although this reviewer wishes Mahnke had ended by delving into the Satanic Panic surrounding 80’s heavy metal), the episode concludes with the story of the legendary Robert Johnson, whose meteoric rise to blues guitar mastery conveyed quite a whiff of brimstone. Fans might be wary about playing this devil-dealing episode backwards, but I’m betting that they won’t hesitate to listen to such a finely haunting arrangement more than once.


Mob Scene: Love at First Bite

In my last Dracula Extrapolated post, I noted Love at First Bite‘s splendid spoof of the Universal vampire film. The George Hamilton-starring comedy also treats viewers to a classic send-up of that staple of Universal horror movies: the angry mob scene.

Given an eviction notice by the Communist government, Dracula decides to find a new home in America. Before the undead Count can depart, though, he discovers a crowd of locals gathered outside his castle. Viewing the torchbearers and pitchfork-wielders outside, Dracula marvels: “So they’ve come to pay their respects, have they?” The prompt sound of a rock crashing through a castle window bespeaks a much different motive for the mob.

The laughs come rapid-fire as Dracula attempts to make his way to his carriage through the crowd of rough-justice-seeking rustics. While a violin-player serenades the passing vampire with suspenseful music, an opportunistic hawker chants offscreen: “Get your wolfsbane!” The bumbling sidekick Renfield does the exact opposite of quenching the mob’s ire when he tries to defend his master: “What do you want from him–blood?” One of the “yokels” accosts the Count: “You dirty bat, you bit my mother!” Suave but snarky, Dracula clarifies: “No, Alexei, I bit your mother and your grandmother.” Dracula’s parting words arguably pack the most bite, as the Count warns his harassers: “Have your fun, but remember this. Without me, Transylvania will be as exciting as Bucharest on  a Monday night.”

This early scene provides a perfect setup for the rest of the film. It establishes Dracula as a formidable yet admirable character, someone who can handle a dire situation with a cool head and a witty tongue. The playful restaging of the familiar angry-villager scene also points to the satiric skewering of vampire conventions that the remainder of Love at First Bite so entertainingly presents.


Dracula Extrapolated: Love at First Bite

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

What if Dracula emigrated to New York City?

Central to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the Count’s decision to abandon his castle in Transylvania and set his deadly sights on England. Such horrific relocation has provided a template for many subsequent vampire works, but not all of them are concerned with a specifically British invasion. The American comedy film Love at First Bite (1979) imagines a transatlantic Dracula. When the Count, along with his loyal if bumbling manservant Renfield, is evicted from his Gothic abode by the Communist government of Romania (so gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci can use the place as a training facility), he chooses to become an expatriate exsanguinator. The eviction gives him the impetus to travel to America and pursue New York fashion model Cindy Sondheim, whom he has identified as the reincarnation of his beloved Mina Harker.

Since Love at First Bite is a vampire comedy, Dracula’s coming to America leads to some hilarious developments. After a baggage claim mix-up at the airport, the Count’s casket lands in the middle of a black funeral ceremony. His bat-flight into the apartment of a poor, starving Latino family quickly goes awry when the New Yorkers deem the intruder a “black chicken” and hungrily chase after him. When Dracula has to resort instead to taking a nip from a stereotypical wino, he gets terrifically tipsy, and ends up with a queasy stomach and bloodshot eyes (lamenting his nightcap, Dracula says the soused donor tasted “like the Volga River at low tide”).

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula plans his move to England with fiendish precision, but here in Love at First Bite he engages in a romantic lark. Accordingly, he is quite unprepared for what he encounters in the new world. This fish-out-of-water (bat-out-of-sky?) element propels much of the film’s plot, and because the Count is presented as more debonair than debased, he forms a sympathetic lead, not the frightful foreigner of Stoker tradition. Dracula is just an exaggerated version of any disoriented visitor to Manhattan, overwhelmed by the course of life in the big city.

Love at First Bite spoofs the Universal film Dracula more than Stoker’s book, as star George Hamilton affects the attire and accent of Bela Lugosi. The film’s transplanting of a classic storyline also works as a sendup of American modernity, by drawing extensively on the popular image of late 70’s New York City. The Big Apple is represented as an urban jungle, rife with street crime (in an early scene, Dracula makes like a nonlethal, nosferatu Charles Bronson when accosted by a group of hoodlums in Harlem) and subject to sudden outbreaks of chaos (the mass looting that transpires during the borough-wide blackout that forms the backdrop to the film’s climax). It’s a city of illicit subway trysts and discotheque glitz; narcissism and hedonism abound. Casual drug use is depicted, and inspires one of the film’s best lines. When Cindy offers Dracula some booze and a marijuana joint, enthusing that the latter is “really heavy shit,” Dracula evocatively responds: “I do not drink…wine. And I do not smoke…shit.”

This film proves that not all Dracula stories need be dire retellings. Hamilton is delightful as the undead Count, a dashing figure who dashes off a slew of deadpan jokes. Arte Johnson (who has the Dwight Frye cackle down pat) is hysterical as the insect-dieting, scene-chewing Renfield, and Richard Benjamin provides supreme silliness as the obsessive offspring of Van Helsing, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. From I Am Legend to Salem’s Lot and The Strain and the film/TV adaptations thereof, there have been plenty of (American-set) extrapolations of a vampire plague–the very epidemic of terror that Stoker’s heroes risked their lives to avert. Love at First Bite‘s Dracula Abroad storyline takes a decidedly more laughing approach, and remains quite enjoyable four decades after its cinematic release.


Lore Report: “Rooted” (Episode 176)

Around the world, countless cultures have viewed the forest as a place of darkness and danger. From the foot of Mt. Fuji to the depths of Germany, people all throughout history have looked at the shadows between the trees as the home of something to be avoided at all costs. The woods have always been a place that demands respect; whether the true danger comes from ancient forest deities, or the inherent risk of entering the wilderness unprepared, the best course of action might just be to never set foot inside at all. Because if we do, we might not come back out.

In episode 176 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads an excursion into the woods, and they are unlovely, dark, and deep. “Rooted” covers a lot of forested territory, ranging through Roman, Hindu, and Norse mythology, Grimm fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and Scandinavian folklore. The second half of Mahnke’s narrative is devoted to the “Witch Woods” outside Salem (accused practitioner Giles Corey is said to have hid out there at one time). Mahnke relates Caroline Howard King’s mid-18th Century encounter with an uncanny farmhouse in a clearing in the woods (an event that King would later record in her memoir When I Lived in Salem). The episode’s Gothic trails all converge into a concluding promo for Mahnke’s latest venture, the audio fiction podcast Bridgewater (which premieres on August 6th). Before traveling on to Bridgewater, though, loyal listeners will easily get lost in the strange sylvan spaces visited in this highly enjoyable installment of Lore.


Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #2, #1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


2. “Nightcrawlers” (1984; Masques)

McCammon’s story opens with some strongly atmospheric scene-setting: “Wind whined around the front door like an animal trying to claw its way” inside a south Alabama diner “stuck out in the countryside, […] a long way off from civilization.” Diner owner and tale narrator Bob Clayton reads an ominous news story about a gunfire massacre at a motel down in Daytona Beach, foreshadowing the arrival of a gaunt, exhausted-looking stranger named Price. Price proves to be a Vietnam vet, the sole surviving member of a Special Unit nicknamed the Nightcrawlers. But Price believes he, too, should be lying dead with his fellow soldiers back in Southeast Asia, because he only escaped by running from a battle and driving the other Nightcrawlers into the mud as he stepped on their bodies. “And you better believe,” Price says, “I’m in that rice paddy in ‘Nam every time I close my eyes. You’d better believe the men I left back there don’t rest easy.” Now Price is desperate to stay awake, in order to avoid more than just bad dreams. Doused with a potent defoliant dubbed Howdy Doody while serving in the war, Price has developed the ability to turn his thoughts into momentarily tangible projections (“What’s in your head comes true”). And after an overzealous state trooper foolishly knocks Price unconscious, all hell breaks loose: Price’s ghoulish platoon manifests and launches a deadly assault on the diner. “We were all caught in Price’s nightmare,” Bob narrates, “and the Nightcrawlers that Bob had left in the mud were fighting the battle again. […] The Nightcrawlers had come back to life, powered by Price’s guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had done to him.” McCammon’s narrative has a distinct Twilight Zone quality (it was adapted as a stellar episode of the 1980’s reboot of the series), with Bob sounding like a Rod Serling stand-in near story’s end, discussing men lost “in a foreign place they hadn’t wanted to be, fighting a war that turned out to be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I’ve changed my mind about ‘Nam because I understand now that the worst of the fighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.” The fantastic elements added to the story accentuate the sociopolitical commentary, highlighting the haunting nature of the Vietnam War–during both the fighting itself and its long, unsettled aftermath. There have been plenty of genre works (by preeminent writers such as David Morrell, Peter Straub, and Jack Cady) that have dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, but none finer or more frightful than “Nightcrawlers.”


1. “Best Friends” (1987; Night Visions 4)

This unforgettable novelette starts off as a slow burn before turning into a napalm blast of grisly horror. A sense of foreboding abounds (“It was Alabama autumn at its worst, humid and heavy enough to make bones moan”) as the protagonist, Dr. Jack Shannon, arrives at Marbury Memorial Hospital to help determine whether a criminal held there is psychologically fit to stand trial. Jack’s case file contains “the life history of a monster”; looking over the crime scene photos, Jack feels as if he’s “sweating on the inside of his skin, the outer surface cold and clammy.” A white-painted suburban home, “all-American and ordinary[-looking],” has been transformed into an utter abattoir, with a gruesome scrawl of “HAIL SATAN” on the bloody walls overlooking “a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room’s corner. […] A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.” Even more shockingly, the perpetrator wasn’t some Manson-Family-type intruder, but seventeen-year-old Tim Clausen, “a boy who had torn his mother, father and ten-year-old sister to pieces.” When interviewed by Jack, Tim admits to being an aspiring demonologist, and claims that his family’s deaths were the grim handiwork of his “best friends”–a trio of summoned hell-fiends he calls Adolf, Mother, and Frog. Unfortunately for all involved, Tim is telling the truth. A scene of body horror (one that might make David Cronenberg squirm) erupts: “suddenly the boy’s left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg. […] The boy’s face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way.” The creatures had been “hiding inside [Tim] and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin,” but now break free of Tim’s head to reveal themselves in all their grotesque glory and sublime deadliness (e.g. McCammon’s description of the nightmarishly arachnid Mother, who sports fangs like “saw-edged diamonds”: “Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness.” The demonstrably monstrous demons waste no time in embarking on a murderous, carnivorous rampage through the psych ward. McCammon’s narrative offers much more than pulpy graphicness, though. The victims are not anonymous fodder, thanks to the author’s commitment to establishing his cast of characters in the opening pages. The extended confrontation with Tim’s unfriendly comrades is genuinely terrifying, the action at once breathtaking and bloodcurdling as Jack battles to defeat the demons before they can reach their apparent destination: the maternity ward, where they hope to feast on baby flesh. A splatterpunk extravaganza for the Satanic Panic era, “Best Friends” forms one helluva rip-roaring story.