Lore Report: “Whistle While You Work” (Episode 120)

Note: I’ve fallen a bit behind with this feature, but it’s time for me to get back on track with my reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s acclaimed podcast…

Yes, caves and mines might hold the riches we seek, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. There might be mysteries to dust off, or superstitions to pay attention to, but they contain a powerful warning: be careful how deep you dig, because you never know what you might find.

The 120th episode of Lore strikes the mother lode of narrative ore. Mahnke focuses on the profession of mining, establishing such subterranean delving as a pre-Industrial Age endeavor. Even more surprisingly, he details how mining was a spiritual activity for ancient cultures, who revered the precious substances (e.g. red ocher) unearthed as something sacred. Given such a mindset, it is not hard to fathom that miners across the world would fill caverns and underground tunnels with guardian spirits. Once again demonstrating an impressive knowledge of global folklore, Mahnke cites mining tales of mythological figures such as the German kobolds and the Australian Mondongs.

As a lover of American Gothic, I was especially pleased when Mahnke shifted the episode’s sights to the New World. As we have learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, people carry their supernatural beliefs with them when traveling to distant lands; that proves precisely the case here, as Mahnke discusses how Cornish immigrants transported their folklore to America. Stephen King’s 1987 novel might have brought tommyknockers to pop cultural prominence as undead extraterrestrial menaces, but long before then such figures (an Americanized version of Welsh “knockers”) were regarded as the spirits of dead miners, who sometimes served as an uncanny warning system for living workers.

With mines forming recurrent sites of “unexpected disaster and horrifying death,” it is little wonder that many haunting tales of mining accidents have accrued. Mahnke regales listeners with a dark gem of a story (concerning a ghostly emergency whistle) that traces back to an incident at a Minnesotan mine in the 1920’s. Episode 120, though, is not simply geared toward fearmongering; tommyknockers are considered as protective spirits more than punitive forces, figure deserving of respect and not just dread. The closing discovery alone–that such a thing as the Pennsylvanian “Society for the Relief and Support of Displaced Tommyknockers” actually existed–makes “Whistle While You Work” quite a rewarding listen.

 

Family Spree

Opting for exorcism rather than exploitation, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, never presents the graphic reenactment of the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate (and company) that audience members are expecting/dreading. This proves in direct contrast to how American Horror Story: Cult approached the same event two years earlier in the episode “Charles (Manson) in Charge.” Now, AHS isn’t exactly known for restraint, but its decision to go there in showing the savagery is questionable at best, and downright disgraceful at worst. I recently joined back up with Cult, rewatching the aforementioned episode and considering the ostensible merit of the reenactment scene.

For sheer shock value, the scene succeeds. Much like the previous dramatization of the Jonestown massacre, it undoubtedly disturbs with its unflinching depiction of violent death. But did viewers really need to watch a pregnant Tate (Lily Rabe), standing with a noose around her neck and weepily begging for her unborn baby’s life to be spared, end up being stabbed multiple times? One can easily argue that this is a gross disrespect of the memory of the slain celebrity; the show’s producers demonstrate a striking insensitivity to the feelings of the relatives of Tate and the other real-life victims of the Manson Family’s bloody machinations. The scene, with cult leader Kai (Evan Peters) providing voice-over as he tells the notorious story to his Project-Mayhem-type acolytes, is marked by a certain flippancy of tone that adds another level of inappropriateness. Granted, Kai is Cult‘s grand antagonist, and we are supposed to be repulsed by his behavior. And AHS, as the show’s own title unabashedly establishes, is in the horror business, not that of giving viewers the warm fuzzies. Still, a line seems to have been crossed here, and the nadir of distastefulness neared.

That said, is there anything to appreciate about the scene? I did like how the actors from the season’s main storyline were utilized in the reenactment. Billie Lourd’s turn as the reticent Linda Kasabian cleverly reflects the outlying position of the actress’s Willow character in relation to brother Kai’s cult/political movement. Similarly, Sarah Paulson playing the (t)witchy Susan Atkins forms a nice piece of foreshadowing of her main character Ally’s dark deviation at season’s end. Indeed, the real impact of the scene is not its recreation of the murderous incident on Cielo Drive in 1969, but its set-up of the horrors to come on Cult. A raving Kai (whose psychotic break is evident when he subsequently holds conversations with a hallucinated Manson) calls for a “Night of a Thousand Tates,” a frightfully exponential copy-catting of Manson Family madness. Kai’s preparation of his hit squad in the season finale (complete with a knifing tutorial using a plastic anatomical model, and a practice stabbing of watermelons) ranks amongst the most chilling moments in the show’s history.

Of course, not even AHS would dare go that far, and the Night of a Thousand–or even a Hundred–Tates never comes to pass. Significant suspense, though, was created by the use of the Tate-murder reenactment scene. I don’t know if this ultimately justifies the show’s artistic choices, and for me the decision to depict such a scene remains controversial. “Charles (Manson) in Charge”–that mocking, unsuitably unserious note can be discerned in the very title of the episode–leaves me questioning what those in charge of the show’s content were honestly thinking.

 

Say Hello to Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino has never been known for strictly linear plotting, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, to no surprise unfolds in a slow-burning and circuitous manner. No doubt there will be plenty of viewers who grouse that the film is self-indulgent and frustratingly digressive, but I certainly do not count myself part of that camp.

There’s undeniable artistic purpose to the proceedings here. Tarantino takes the time to establish the various characters whose lives are destined to intersect spectacularly. Start with the male leads: a wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as the flawed, past-his-prime actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt (who oozes charisma, and gives one of the best performances of his career) as his stunt-double/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie’s starlet-next-door Sharon Tate is developed as a full person (although the camera does tend to linger fetishistically on her legs/feet), not just some cinematic celebrity made more famous by her eventual savage demise. Even seemingly minor figures are woven deftly into the tapestry: the Hollywood hangabouts who prove no mere hippies, but the dangerous constituents of the Manson family.

Outstripping his thorough commitment to character development is Tarantino’s determination to establish the film’s titular setting. The Hollywood scene of the late Sixties is brought to life in stunning detail, from filmings on studio back lots to parties at the Playboy mansion. Clearly this is a loving recreation on the director’s part, a relishing of not just a time and place but a cultural moment just prior to its tarnishing by carnage.

Versed in the bloody details of what transpired on Cielo Drive in early-August 1969, the viewer has to wonder if Tarantino has built up this Hollywood scene merely to burn it back down. Yes, there’s a plethora of era-evoking movie magic on display here, but a palpable sense of dread also hangs over the film. And for all its concern with the Western (which helps further the thematic exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy), the film aligns just as much with the horror genre. The scene in which Cliff visits–and then investigates–the Manson-family-infested Spahn ranch is an interpolated masterpiece of squalor horror. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much sweat-wringing dread, so much fear for a character’s well-being.

Likewise, the film’s extended climax is rife with suspense and deadly menace. Yet it offers a surprising twist in its handling of one of the most shocking, Gothic moments in Hollywood (and American) history. Defying audience expectation and refusing to devolve into an exercise in exploitation, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood concludes on a more cathartic than horrifying note. While veering from the historical record toward the realm of the fairy tale, the film’s story is gloriously well-told, and in the end, epically satisfying.

 

An Immovable Feast

Long days at work, a summer cold, a power outage, and writing deadlines have all conspired to curtail my blogging output this month. I promise to get back on track shortly, but right now I feel a burning need to editorialize…

The past few days, I keep coming across articles online about how some organization called the Halloween & Costume Association has started a petition to have Halloween officially moved from October 31st to the last Saturday of the month. My response to this: are you f@#%ing kidding me?

To uproot Halloween from October 31st is an affront to the Celtic roots (and later Catholic adoption) of the holiday. Such an act also robs Halloween of its special nature: it’s meant to be a day for pushing past usual norms and boundaries. Not only by dressing up, but by getting to stay up later (even on a weeknight!), be out after dark, to venture further into/beyond your neighborhood as a trick-or-treater.

The Halloween & Costume Association appears to be using scare tactics to influence people to sign its petition, making claims such as: “Children are more than twice as likely to be hit by a car and killed on Halloween.” But honestly, do they think there will be significantly less cars on the road on a Saturday afternoon, when most people are not working and free to go out shopping? Not in my neck of the Macabre Republic, that’s for sure.

The Saturday before Halloween already is a traditional party night for adults, so nothing is really affected there. And if a particular community chooses to hold trick-or-treating activities on the last Saturday of the month, that’s its business. But for the Halloween & Costume Association to try to dictate that everyone nationwide observes the holiday on a different day than the 31st is the ultimate instance of autumnal hutzpah.

A word to the wise for such folks: quit messing with the holiday, before this little guy shows up on your doorsteps with his candy sack:

 

 

Summer Lovin’ (A Review of Stranger Things 3)

While the previous season of Stranger Things was decidedly autumnal (blighted pumpkin patches; Will’s Halloween-night glimpse of the Mind Flayer), Season 3 shifts the seasonal scene to the heart of summer. The time of year proves integral to the plot, from the strategic use of a sauna at the community pool to a stunning fireworks shoot-off that serves as much more than a holiday ritual. Apropos of the season it is set in, Stranger Things 3 also has all the feel of a summer blockbuster movie. There’s more action and suspense (seemingly nonstop after the build-up of the first few episodes), more romance, more gore than ever before. The creature effects are nothing short of amazing, as the show demonstrates that scenes of giant monsters running amok (we get to see the Mind Flayer in all its grotesque glory) are not the sole province of Godzilla this summer.

More characters are also incorporated into the story this time around. Lucas’s younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) deservedly gets a much bigger role, and seizes the opportunity to flash sass and sarcasm. I was delighted that Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) figures more prominently this season; the character consistently delivers the show’s best, and laugh-out-loud-funny, lines. The real scene-stealer here, though, is a new character, the adorable Robin (Maya Hawke, lookalike daughter of Uma Thurman), whose relationship with co-worker Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) takes several surprising turns.

The bad guys this season prove comparatively flatter. We get stereotypes like the sleazy politician (Cary Elwes as Mayor Kline) and the chauvinistic jerk in the workplace (Jake Busey as Bruce). The assassin Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) is limited by the deliberate molding of his character as a walking, stalking, Schwarzeneggerian Terminator. Perhaps all of these shortcomings, though, are made up for by the development of Max’s stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a pivotal player whose character arc constitutes one of the strongest elements of Season 3.

Several paragraphs in, and I haven’t even mentioned most of the series’ young heroes. They are all back doing what they do best; we not only get to watch many of the same aspects of their characters, but also new facets as the kids have gotten more mature (and hormone-driven) since last seen. As always, the standouts are Gaten Matarazzo as the endearingly nerdy and dentally challenged Dustin, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who charms with her forays into typical teen activity and thrills with her bouts of monster-battling badassery.

Stranger Things 3 is amazingly entertaining, yet not a flawless effort. I felt the writers overutilized scenes of a blindfolded Eleven engaging in remote viewing. The season-long bickering between Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) quickly got tedious. A viewer’s suspension of disbelief is also sorely tested. I am almost willing to grant the notion of a foreign government setting up secret shop in a small, mid-American town, but the fact that nobody (other than our heroes) seems to notice that there is a supersized beast stomping through Hawkins is hard to fathom. Finally, that bound-to-be-infamous rendition (by Dustin and his long-distance girlfriend Suzy) of “Never Ending Story” forms an ill-timed, and ill-conceived, piece of comic relief.

Overall, the inclusion of Eighties music is spot on (there’s also terrific use of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”). Tears for Fears would have made for an appropriate choice, considering that Season 3 seems determined to wring both from the audience. The horror elements are ratcheted up (this is by far the most frightening installment of the series), and the story builds to a heartbreaking climax and absolute tearjerker of a conclusion. So keep those tissues handy; it’s not just Eleven’s trademark bloody nose that’ll need wiping.

Stranger Things 3 is the quintessence of a binge watch, filled with sublime sights and captivating action. The show goes so big this summer that it is hard to imagine it ever being topped (there seems nowhere else to take things now except outside the confines of Hawkins, and perhaps deeper into the Upside Down). But wherever the road in Season 4 might lead, the Duffer Brothers no doubt will draw a richly-detailed map, and I can’t wait to take that next trip.

Not the Lottery: Six More Great American Gothic Short Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s controversial and unsettling story “The Lottery” is one of the finest examples of short fiction in American Literature, and arguably the greatest American Gothic story of all time. The much-anthologized 1948 tale, though, does not represent Jackson’s sole foray into such territory. Her macabre oeuvre contains dozens of winning selections, but the reader who picks these six pieces will be richly rewarded:

 

1. “The Story We Used to Tell” (collected in Dark Tales)

Jackson’s captivating take on a Gothic standard–the haunted portrait. This one has all the creepy atmosphere and sheer weirdness of The Haunting of Hill House (the story’s opening and closing paragraphs even echo the framing device in the novel), packed into eight pages.

 

2. “Home” (collected in Dark Tales)

This story shares with Jackson’s better-known narrative “The Summer People” the theme of country villagers who are strangely standoffish towards outsiders from the city. But “Home” is also a bona fide ghost story, as chilling as the cold rain drenching the shunned road the protagonist foolishly insists on taking.

 

3. “The Tooth” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson starts with a mundane event–a trip to the dentist to deal with a bad toothache–and then steadily steers the narrative towards the surreal and supernatural. The devilish figure of James Harris, who pops up throughout the story collection, forms a perfect Gothic hero-villain here.

 

4. “The Bus” (collected in Dark Tales)

When a surly old lady gets dropped off at the wrong bus stop, her journey home turns into a (recurring) nightmare. Not since Robert Olmstead’s trip into Lovecraft Country (in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) has a bus ride delivered such unnerving results.

 

5. “The Dummy” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson delves into the uncanny, as a ventriloquist’s eponymous prop forms “a grotesque wooden copy of the man.” The dark highlight of this story, though, is the disturbingly dysfunctional relationship dramatized in the climax: following the show, the drunken ventriloquist verbally abuses his female companion while pretending it’s his dummy sidekick who is mouthing the insults. Jackson’s gift for offbeat humor is also presented when an exasperated witness decides to intervene.

 

6. “The Possibility of Evil” (collected in Dark Tales)

If the American Gothic exposes the dark side of life in Anytown, U.S.A., then Jackson supplies a quintessential example of the subgenre here. A duplicitous septuagenarian has a habit of mailing nasty, gossipy, anonymous letters to her neighbors. From Miss Strangeworth’s warped moral viewpoint, such missives are necessary corrective measures, because “Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people.” An unsympathetic Jackson makes sure this busybody receives an ironic comeuppance in the terrific ending to the tale.

 

Picks and Stones

Let he or she who is without a “winning” slip cast the worst stone: it’s Lottery day in the Macabre Republic!

June 27th is the date of the eponymous annual ritual in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (first published 71 years ago today). The story (which I featured in a Mob Scene post last year) is an American Gothic shocker: “a chilling tale of conformity gone mad,” as newscaster Kent Brockman succinctly describes Jackson’s narrative during one notable episode of The Simpsons (season 3’s “Dog of Death”). Jackson stages a neo-pagan scapegoating ceremony, an unnerving public drawing that sanctions murder in the seeming interest of crop fertility (“lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”). Her story is an indisputable classic, as timely today as when it first appeared seven decades ago, and should be read every year on this date as a primer on the dark underside of the so-called greater good.

And if you are looking to dig a little deeper into the story and its background, check out these links and video below:

American Gothic/Gothic American

I’m excited to report that I have received my contributor copies for Flame Tree Press’s new anthology American Gothic Short Stories, which contains my story “Gothic American.” The anthology features fourteen original tales and a slew of classic reprints. These latter are what make this writing credit my proudest one to date. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would see my name listed on the same Table of Contents page with so many of my literary idols–preeminent American Gothic authors such as Charles Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O’Connor, and Shirley Jackson.

“Gothic American” is one of my favorite pieces that I have written, largely because it deals with my favorite work of art: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The house that inspired Wood and formed the backdrop for the now-iconic couple in the 1930 painting still stands in Eldon, Iowa, and has become an offbeat sort of tourist attraction (with visitors inevitably recreating the scene from the painting as they pose for photos). My story casts a darker shadow over such lighthearted mimicry. It also speculates: what if the American Gothic House (as this historic landmark is now called) actually was an American Gothic house?

The story went through countless drafts (and accumulated its fair share of rejections) over the years before I felt I finally got it right. I wanted “Gothic American” to allow multiple interpretations by readers, and believe the version published in American Gothic Short Stories has achieved the correct level of ambiguity (apropos of Wood’s vaguely-unsettling painting, whose meaning is so hard to pin down). I also believe the story has found the perfect home in Flame Tree Press’s anthology, and am thrilled to see it published there.

 

Chill Ride

The track record for recent adaptations of epic horror novels (e.g. The PassageThe Terror) has been spotty, which led me to approach the AMC TV-series version of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 with some caution. After three episodes, though, the show has alleviated my concerns.

What I had feared most going in was that Zachary Quinto had been miscast as Yuletide ghoul Charlie Manx. I envisioned a variation on his role (as a snarky ghost) in the inaugural season of American Horror Story. Thankfully, I was dead wrong; thus far Quinto has been magnificent. His performance is at once understated and menacing. His old-age make-up is extraordinary (it reminds me of the aging of Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows), transforming him into one creepy geezer. Most importantly, Quinto does not play the character as a mustache-twirling villain. The audience might see through the predatorial Manx’s delusions of being a rescuer of neglected children and deliverer of perennial holiday joy, but Quinto at least makes us believe that Manx actually believes his cause is an honorable one.

Some critics have complained that the series gets off to a slow start, but I appreciate the fact that NOS4A2 is taking its time to unspool its story thread. A sincere effort here is made to establish the main cast of characters as identifiable people. As a viewer, I can easily invest in protagonist Vic McQueen and the conflicts she is facing on levels both mundane (the family drama of her parents’ separation) and supernatural (her newfound powers as a Strong Creative, which set the uncannily talented Manx sniffing after her). In its deliberate pacing, NOS4A2 seems to parallel another AMC horror series, The Walking Dead; hopefully, the eventual payoff will prove just as emotionally powerful as that of a typical TWD story arc.

If there is one aspect of the series I am not enjoying, it is Vic’s interaction with her teenage peers. These characters–most of whom don’t originate from Hill’s novel–just aren’t that interesting, and come across as annoying (Willa) or bland (Drew). Such drastic deviations from the source text are precisely where adaptations start to lose me. I bristle at the hubris of screenwriters determined to alter the blueprint for a proven product.

NOS4A2 isn’t flawless, but has captivated me thus far. I’m eager to ride along with the Wraith, and look forward to when the scene finally shifts to Manx’s vampiric theme park, Christmasland (this sinister inscape will probably go a long way toward determining the success of this series as a horror vehicle).

One last note: perhaps the most delightful gift of all shipped from Christmasland is Joe Hill’s weekly email recaps of NOS4A2‘s episodes. Hill provides commentary on what just aired the night before, interviews those involved in the series, and offers deeper insight into his own novel (e.g. this past week, he discusses the three inspirations for his creation of Christmasland). Terrific stuff, adding another element of fun to watching the series. Be sure to sign up for the recap newsletter here.

 

 

Mob Scene: “The Lynching” by Claude McKay

Over the years, I have covered many examples of mob scenes–of instances of violent Othering and mass misbehavior–in film, television, and fiction. But as Claude McKay’s 1920 poem “The Lynching” (collected in Harlem Shadows) illustrates, the mob scene also has its place in American verse.

Written as a Shakespearean sonnet, “The Lynching” jars with its deliberate dissonance between the elegant poetic form and the particularly ugly subject matter treated here. Evincing a Gothic sensibility, McKay’s lines record sadistic impulses (the victim of the titular crime has died “by the cruelest way of pain”) and present horrific images (hung and burned, a black man has been reduced to a “swinging char”). The poem, though, hits hardest in its sestet section: the last six lines describe the crowd of morbidly curious gawkers that has gathered the next day “to view / the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” McKay is unsparing in his indictment, as the foulness of the allegedly fairer sex is highlighted by the complete absence of “sorrow” in the “steely blue” eyes of the women who “thronged to look” at the corpse. The concluding couplet makes for a devastating clincher, marking a perversion of public celebration and foreboding a dark generational legacy to such scene: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”

McKay’s opening octave alludes strongly to the Crucifixion (ostensibly the quintessential example of execution-as-public-spectacle). But whereas Christ died to take away the sins of the world, “The Lynching” points in a more pessimistic direction. “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” McKay writes, referencing an innocent man’s crime of possessing black skin in a racist white society. This line also resonates with Gothicism, though, suggesting a problematical impingement of the past, the continuously haunting impact of ignominious history.

The racial underpinnings of American Gothic is well- and long-established in literary criticism (cf. Leslie Fiedler’s oft-cited remark in Love and Death in the American Novel: “The proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged”). Perhaps this aspect of the genre is sometimes seized too readily upon by academics, but a poem such as McKay’s “The Lynching” clearly requires no critical stretch to grasp its concerns with black-white relations and racial violence in this country.

[Note: for an excellent overview of this subject, see Hollis Robbins’s essay (which covers McKay’s poem) “The Literature of Lynching.”]