Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.


Scream: A 25-Year Retrospective

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of a film that launched a franchise and revitalized the slasher subgenre. In honor of the occasion, I recently re-watched Scream (a film so impactful that I can still recall the experience of first seeing it in theaters back in 1996). Some thoughts from the perspective of late-2021:

While never allowing the pacing to lag, Scream is an incredibly patient film. That extended opening scene takes its time, toying with the audience the same way the killer toys with Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) on the phone. Suspense is built, but the added effect is that viewers are led to believe they are watching the film’s protagonist– only to have her killed off shockingly.

After the murders of Casey and Steve in the opening, the film then waits quite a while to kill off another character (Principal Himbry). Rather than stacking up bodies, Scream devotes time to introducing the characters and interweaving their backstories (Sidney’s ongoing trauma a year after her mother’s rape/murder). The first half of the film brings the town of Woodsboro to life, giving viewers a sense of the suburban Californian community and its constituents before narrowing down to a single setting (Stu Macher’s house) in the second half.

For a late-20th Century slasher directed by Wes Craven, Scream is, remarkably, not very gory. Yes, there’s an early shot of the eviscerated Steve, and there’s a lot of stabbing, but the knife strikes are never lingered on in graphic detail (Deputy Dewey’s wounding even happens offscreen). Akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween, Craven’s film implies more violence (thanks to judicious editing) than is actually depicted. Perhaps this is the result of being forced to tone down the bloodshed by the MPAA, but Scream does seem willing to allow viewers to fill in the space between the “cuts” with their imagination.

All this is not to say that the movie is devoid of the set-piece kills slasher fans have come to expect. One need only point to the demise of chesty besty Tatum (Rose McGowan), a scene that earns the award for Most Fiendish Use of a Pet Door/Garage Door. Something that did strike me upon this most recent viewing, though, was how silly it was for Tatum’s body to have been left there hanging afterward for anyone to see. For all of Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu’s precise planning, their failure to keep the corpse out of plain sight was fairly careless, and appeared to serve little plot purpose other than have a horrified Sidney (Neve Campbell) stumble across her friend’s murder later.

I’ve seen this film umpteen times, but it wasn’t until this last screening that I noticed that the Halloween-store costume the killer dons is actually labeled “Father Death” on the package. It’s Tatum who puts the name to what would become a pop culture icon, when she teasingly (believing one of her friends is playing a prank on her) refers to the masked/shrouded knife-wielder as “Mr. Ghostface.” Interestingly, the name is not used in the closing credits; much like “Pinhead” (who is identified only as the “Lead Cenobite” at the end of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser), “Ghostface” becomes the unforgettable moniker for the horror villain following the success of the first film in the eventual series.

Scream is renowned (justly) for its postmodern self-awareness and its thrilling action sequences, but arguably its most engrossing element is the mystery of the killer’s (or as it turns out, killers’) identity. As the slasher-savvy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) proclaims, “Everybody’s a suspect,” and the film masterfully casts suspicion upon its various characters. Sometimes this is overt, as in the case of Billy (a seeming red herring), but Craven also makes crafted use of subtlety. When the killer contacts Sidney at the Riley home, Dewey doesn’t rush out of his bedroom until just after the call is disconnected–leaving open the possibility that he was the one calling. Likewise, in another scene the camera offers a quick shot of Sheriff Burke’s boots–eerily reminiscent of the killer’s footwear when glimpsed by Sidney beneath the door of the bathroom stall. As a well-done whodunit, Scream keeps audience members on the alert and primes them to take note of the smallest detail.

The film is replete with witty repartee and wonderful sight gags (after a quarter century, my favorite remains the janitor decked out like Freddy Krueger), but never lets the meta reduce to mere satire or settles for genre-hybrid status. This is first and foremost, a horror movie. That is why my biggest critique to this day is Matthew Lillard’s performance as Stu. The character is spectacularly manic and delivers a slew of memorable lines, but is too over the top for my liking. On the one hand, Stu’s antics are revealing (this clowning kid–unlike the truly sinister and manipulative Billy–doesn’t appear to realize the seriousness of his actions); on the other, they can be jarring, taking the viewer out of the film. A 20% tone-down here might have been perfect, because too much comic relief threatens to undermine the tension.

One ostensibly under-appreciated aspect of the film is the employment of its soundtrack. The musical choices are always spot on, most notably the blaring of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” after Principal Himbry cancels classes. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ominous “Red Right Hand” heightens the mood of anxiety. There’s also a slow, understated (dare I say “ghostly”?) use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in a scene when Billy climbs into Sidney’s window–in retrospect, a verbal cue that clues us into Billy’s guilt.

Inevitably, certain cultural elements (e.g. the existence of video stores) in the film now feel dated, but otherwise Scream holds up very well twenty-five years after its release. Rather than prop up cardboard standees as photogenic slasher-fodder, the film first establishes characters that the audience cares about and then places them in mortal peril. That is the formula for success in 1996, 2021, or at any other point throughout horror genre history.


Ribboning 2021

Another year draws to a close, which means countless year-in-review pieces are popping up all over the Macabre Republic (for me, a recall of all the great work I’ve encountered this year, as well as a reminder that I still have a lot more seek out). Here are the links for some online listings of the horror genre’s best offerings in fiction, film, and television:

CrimeReads: “The Best Horror Fiction of 2021”

Library Journal: “Best Horror of 2021”

LitReactor: “The Ten Scariest Horror Books of 2021–Ranked!”

Goodreads: “Best Horror”

Screen Rant: “The Best Horror Movies of 2021”

Film School Rejects: “The 15 Best Horror Movies of 2021”

The Lineup: “The 13 Best Horror Films of 2021”

IGN: “The 13 Best Horror Movies of 2021”

SYFY Wire: “Here Are the 16 Best Genre Shows of 2021”

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Best Horror Television Shows of 2021; The 10 Best Horror Movie and Television Monsters of 2021; “Top 10 Horror Movies of 2021”“The Top 10 Scariest Scenes in 2021 Horror Movies”; “The Top 10 Hidden Horror Gems You Might’ve Missed in 2021”; “The 15 Best Horror Movie Performances of 2021”; “The 10 Best Horror Books of 2021”

WatchMojo: “Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2021”


“The Raft” Revisited

In his acknowledgements section of My Heart is a Chainsaw (which I reviewed here yesterday), Stephen Graham Jones writes: “Next I want to thank some writers who are involved with [my novel], though they don’t know it. The first is, once again, Stephen King. His story ‘The Raft’ is shot all through Chainsaw. I may hold the record for having read that story the most times.” Jones’s comments struck me as curious, since I remembered the King story as more of a cosmic horror tale (the monstrous, shimmering “black thing” lurking atop the lake like some sentient and carnivorous oil slick seems a literary descendant of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”). The avowal of influence prompted me to go back and reread “The Raft,” to gauge its slasher qualities.

Upon further review, “The Raft” (pub. 1982) does contain many of the now-familiar components of slasher narratives. The plot presents an inciting transgression: four college students venture out to Cascade Lake knowing full well the beach has been closed since Labor Day but planning to bid a frolicking farewell to Indian summer with a late-October swim out to the titular float. The students also conform to slasher character types, with roommates Deke and Randy self-aware of their status as “the Jock and the Brain.” Meanwhile, Rachel is the relatively good girl (no final girl, though), and LaVerne the mean/slutty girl (with her witch-like cackle and unabashed stealing of Deke right in front of Rachel). LaVerne’s frank sexuality is signaled by the nearly transparent state of the bra and panties she strips down to before diving into the lake.

“The Raft” also features some gruesome set-piece kills. First, the mesmerized Rachel is engulfed by the lake monster’s viscous viciousness: “Randy could see it sinking into her like acid, and when her jugular vein gave way in a dark, pumping jet, he saw the thing send out a pseudopod after the escaping blood.” Even more unforgettably graphic is the demise of Deke, sucked down through the raft after the creature catches hold of his foot by bubbling up between the wooden boards. King methodically details Deke’s crushing plunge–“the wishbone crack of his pelvis,” the “sound like strong teeth crunching up a mouthful of candy jawbreakers” as Deke’s ribs “collaps[e] into the crack,” the grotesque way “Deke’s eyes had bugged out as if on springs as hemorrhages caused by hydrostatic pressure pulped his brain.” For certain, it’s as grim a death to be found anywhere in the King canon.

Perhaps most tellingly, “The Raft” also evinces the conservative morality of the slasher film, which typically mixes raging hormones with homicidal maniacs. Here, too, premarital sex precipitates violent death. Yielding to primal urges amidst their dire entrapment, the last two survivors (LaVerne and the appropriately named Randy) lie down and lovelessly fornicate. Their horizontal boogie, though, only attracts the bogey, which interrupts the coitus when LaVerne’s hair happens to slip into the water (Randy “pulled back suddenly, trying to pull her up, but the thing moved with oily speed and tangled itself in her hair like a webbing of thick black glue and when he pulled her up she was already screaming and she was heavy with it; it came out of the water in a twisting, gruesome membrane that rolled with flaring nuclear colors–scarlet-vermillion, flaring emerald, sullen ocher”).

LaVerne’s obliteration is the last (but not least) of the story’s spectacular splatter effects. All told, “The Raft” is a macabre masterpiece, a frightful tale of reckless teen behavior and terrible predation. King scripts the darkest and bloodiest misadventure ever experienced while floating atop a lake–at least until Jones ups the ante and enlarges the carnage in the wild climax of My Heart is a Chainsaw.


My Heart is a Chainsaw (Book Review)

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2021)

I finished–and immediately re-read–this novel months ago, yet never ended up reviewing it here on Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, perhaps fearing that I wouldn’t have the words to do it justice. But considering that Stephen Graham Jones’s latest effort is currently showing up on every year-end “Best of” list, I figured now is the time to speak my piece about this incredible book. My Heart is a Chainsaw is a literary Cupid’s arrow that penetrates deeply and leaves the horror lover swooning.

The narrative starts out hot, with a prologue-style opening chapter in which a pair of young tourists from the Netherlands are murdered during a late-night lake frolic. From here, the action simmers down, but a deliberate pace does not mean a dull pace. Jones takes the time to establish his large cast’s characters and backstories, the setting (the isolated mountain community of Proofrock, Idaho, which has a long, dark history including a massacre a half-century earlier at the now notoriously dubbed “Camp Blood”), and the present situation (someone seems to begrudge the conversion of forest land on the far side of Indian Lake into a luxury development for the ultra-rich). The book’s protagonist, graduating high-schooler and horror movie savant Jade Daniels, finds numerous signs that an actual slasher cycle is about to erupt in her hometown, but of course, this American teenage Cassandra is discounted even as the body count begins to rise. Dreadful suspense (stemming from the killer’s vicious deeds and concealed identity) mounts, and the narrative momentum steadily builds to an extended climax (involving a 4th of July lake-float screening of Jaws) marked by scenes of jaw-dropping violence.

Jones’s book chapters are evocatively titled and glossed by those of golden-era slasher films (e.g., Just Before Dawn, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night). They are also intercut by sections labeled “Slasher 101”–the texts of extra-credit papers Jade composed for her history teacher, Mr. Holmes. Jade’s mini-treatises offer a slash course on the genre’s workings, educating not only her uninitiated teacher (and later the classmate Jade identifies as a quintessential final girl), but the reader as well. One need not be a slasher buff to approach/appreciate this book, but likely will become one before the end credits roll.

No doubt, it is Jade’s voice and viewpoint (from chapter two onwards, the narrative is presented through her third-person-limited perspective) that dominates, and delightfully so. Jade is wise beyond her years and possesses a sharp wit (her snarky attitude never grows irritating, though). For all her social outcast status (resulting from her poverty, her Native American heritage, her unabashed horror fandom…) in Proofrock, she proves quite endearing and easily elicits reader sympathy. Jade is a fighter, a figure of fierce independence, but her tough exterior (as Jones gradually reveals) covers a host of emotional wounds. Simply put, Jade Daniels is destined to become a classic and much beloved character, a horror genre equivalent of Huck Finn or Scout Finch.

Hers is a story I didn’t want to draw to a close, and thankfully, it doesn’t. For sure, this novel forms Jones’s magnus opus of slasher fiction (topping previous esteemed endeavors such as Demon Theory and The Last Final Girl), but maybe not for long. In then end, the best statement I can make about My Heart is a Chainsaw is that it’s only the start of a trilogy; Jade returns to Proofrock and encounters more macabre mayhem next summer in Don’t Fear the Reaper.


Lore Report: “Hide and Seek” (Episode 188)

Things we take for granted, like phrases or legends or the honesty of people we know, sometimes those things can turn out to have an altogether different meaning. But nowhere is this more true than within the world of folklore and belief, because when it comes to the traditions we love, it’s easy to allow emotional attachment to blind us to the real stories behind it all.  And what better way to see this concept in action than by exploring one of the most celebrated times of the year: Christmas.

Aaron Mahnke gives the gift of Lore in this seasonally-themed episode (the podcast’s last original one of 2021). The host regales his audience with the legends of the Mari Lwyd and the diabolical, child-eating holiday boogeyman, the “Christmas Scarecrow” Hans Trapp. Mahnke invokes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, linking the famous novel to a discussion of the Puritan ban on traditional Christmas celebrations–such as the telling of spooky stories–two centuries earlier during England’s Commonwealth period. Another legendary English story, that of the White Lady of Bramshill House (whose haunting traces back to a game of hide-and-seek that went terribly awry during a Christmas Day wedding reception), is also shared. And Halloween lovers will take joy when Mahnke recounts how Christmastime rituals of masking/begging evolved into the American practice of trick-or-treating. This holiday episode stuffs the stocking with an assortment of narrative presents and provides a fine listening experience to close out the year.


Nightmare Alley (Film Review)

Nightmare Alley fully immerses the viewer in its late-1930’s/early-1940’s world. The film’s settings are realized via vivid detail, starting with the traveling carnival (there’s an early scene in which protagonist Stanton Carlisle [Bradley Cooper] pursues the troupe’s escaped geek through a funhouse attraction that you know director Guillermo del Toro just reveled in creating). These carnival scenes–with their rich reds and bright lights set against a bruised-sky backdrop–benefit the most from the remake’s filming in Technicolor. Conversely, the film noir aura gets diminished somewhat (but perhaps will be restored by the promised black-and-white cut of the film).

This version is fairly faithful to the 1947 original starring Tyrone Power, in terms of both plot and character arc (Stan’s journey from carny to conning medium to spook racketeer). But it also emulates the first film in its failure to make use of the “nightmare alley” dream-visions that are so central to William Lindsay Gresham’s source novel. Considering del Toro’s roots in horror, the exclusion of this haunting influence on Stan’s character is at once surprising and disappointing.

The Nightmare Alley of 2021 is a very cold film, and not just because of its icy femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and its wintry New York scenes where snow seems perpetually falling. There’s a slow burn to the proceedings, as del Toro opts for very deliberate (yet never boring) pacing. The action no doubt speeds up towards the film’s conclusion, as Stan’s grandest con game goes spectacularly awry, but even these climactic moments do not play out with as much urgency as they might have (comparing them to their counterparts in the novel). The noir sense of a man caught in an ever-tightening and inescapable grip of bad fortune arguably gets underdeveloped here. Still, this does not lessen the devastating impact of the closing scene, played with tragic magnificence by Cooper.

Make no mistake: Nightmare Alley is a gorgeously crafted film, filled with stunning visuals and strong performances. But as such a polished Hollywood effort, it lacks the grittiness of the 1947 original and definitely the seediness of the Gresham novel. Absorbing and entertaining, Nightmare Alley nevertheless falls short of the greatness that seemed in the cards given the project’s assemblage of talent, both in front of and behind the lens.


A.G. Exemplary? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “The Minister’s Black Veil”

The long overdue resumption of this blog feature, in which 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. Tonight, I return to my exploration of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.


“The Birthmark” (1843) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Aylmer is “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” He fixates on his beautiful and loving wife’s one ostensible flew: the titular blemish that marks her cheek in the shape of a tiny red hand. He seizes on the birthmark as “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,” and his uncontrollable repulsion also instills a deep sense of self-loathing in Georgiana. When he labors to remove the birthmark (with the aid of a grotesque assistant who prefigures many an Igor), Aylmer ends up having a devastating effect on his wife’s well-being. The lab-adjacent apartment in which Georgiana is kept during the time of the various procedures suggests a typical Gothic space of female entrapment, and Aylmer is the quintessential mad experimenter, falling within a long line of dangerously overreaching doctors such as Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Moreau. But there is a vagary of setting here (the tale might be set anywhere, in Europe as easily as America), that limits the sense of the American Gothic and thus makes for a curious inclusion (given the existence of so many other more representative works by the author) in this anthology.


“The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

By contrast, this story evinces a distinctly American setting: the New England village of Milford. Here the resident parson, Hooper, has taken to wearing the eponymous crape draping, which makes him a figure of dreadful fascination to the community. Is his strange facial covering just an “eccentric whim” or part of some solemn moral lesson to his congregation? For the rest of his earthly life, Hooper (who refuses to lift the veil even in the privacy of his home) is “shrouded in dismal suspicions” and shunned by the superstitious villagers. But he finally turns the tables, so to speak, via his parting barb to those gathered around his deathbed:

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women showed me no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin–then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I live and die. I look around me, and , lo! on every visage a black veil!

With its central image of masking and its thematic concerns with secret sin and ostracism of the perceived-monstrous Other, “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a strong work of American Gothic short fiction, and forms a leading example of Hawthorne’s critical engagement with the legacy of New England Puritanism.


Anne Rice (1941-2021)

The Macabre Republic mourns today: literary great Anne Rice has passed away at the age of 80, following complications from a stroke. It’s very sad that Ms. Rice won’t get to see the forthcoming television series adaptation of her Vampire Chronicles brought to the screen. But she leaves behind a rich legacy of Gothic novels, a body of work that has secured her immortality within horror-genre history.


Del Toro!

The latest episode of The Kingcast has a very special guest: writer/director Guillermo del Toro. He offers his insights on Stephen King’s horror epic IT (and the miniseries and film adaptations), as well as several other King works. Genre greats such as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson are invoked into the discussion, and del Toro also talks about his upcoming film Nightmare Alley (incidentally, the movie tie-in edition of the William Lindsay Gresham’s source novel was published today). Smart, funny, and utterly likable, del Toro always makes for a terrific interview subject. Residents of the Macabre Republic definitely will want to give this hour-long podcast episode a listen.