Lore Report: “Inside Job” (Episode 111) and “Facets” (Episode 112)

Episode 111: “Inside Job”

“But just because [dreams] are powerful, doesn’t mean they are safe. Dreams are just too complex to nail down as purely good or entirely evil. And it’s that unpredictable aspect that gives dreams their mysterious aura. They can delight us with pure fantasy, or stab us with the knife of grief over a long-lost love done. They can reconnect us with sights and sounds from our youth, or they can paint a picture that is difficult to understand. And if you’ve ever had the sort of dream that stuck with you the entire day, like a ghost that was eager to haunt your mind, then you can understand how problematic they can be. A dream come true, it seems, might not be such a good thing.”

The subject of this Lore episode might be dreamy, but Aaron Mahnke makes a lucid exploration of it. He considers the function of dreams throughout history and across cultures, starting with the ancient Eqyptians (it’s interesting to learn that dream books–“collections of common dream images and their associated meanings”–aren’t just a New Age creation). Particular attention is given to the supposed power to heal through dreams; Mahnke recounts the story of the Greek physician Galen, who was visited in a dream by the god of medicine Asclepius and informed how to perform self-surgery to fix exactly what ailed him. From here, Mahnke moves on to the Mesmerism movement, and the claims of “clairvoyant physicians” to be able to use animal magnetism to draw disease out of the human body. A healthy portion of the podcast is focused on Vermont sensation “Sleeping” Lucy Ainsworth Cooke, who reportedly could diagnose, and recommend remedies for, illnesses while she was in a trance state. During her long career as a healer, Sleeping Lucy consulted over 200,000 people(!), and even numbered Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy among her followers.

The title of the episode stems from the fact that dreams can’t be put on display as external proof: when it comes to surreally-inspired healing, it’s a Ripleyesque case of “believe it, or not.” Here, though, is where Mahnke’s narrative itself falls short. Sleeping Lucy was either an incredible fraud or someone with a truly fantastic gift; I wish more documentation of her specific efforts had been provided, to help steer the listener toward one explanation or the other (Mahnke’s account, unfortunately, remains mired in the anecdotal). Also, the opening monologue (whose conclusion is quoted above) hints at a turn towards the darker, more nightmarish aspect of dreams that the ensuing episode never really takes. The coverage of some early cases of psychic investigators (whose dream visions help expose the secret sin of murderers) doesn’t prove terribly gripping because by this late date, such clairvoyant figures have become a pop cultural cliche. Overall, “Inside Job” tantalizes, but ultimately fails to satisfy.

 

Episode 112: “Facets”

“Death and grief are guaranteed parts of our life. Like taxes, they are something we can count on experiencing more than once. But despite that element of dependability, we never seem to be ready for it, do we? More often than not, we’re taken by surprise, and left gasping for relief. So it’s no wonder that cultures around the globe have put traditions and beliefs into practice that are meant to help–a balm for an aching soul, but also a grim reminder of the inevitable. Part of living is losing the ones we love, and we’ll take any help we can get to manage that–even if it fuels our nightmares.”

Acknowledging the inevitability of death and the universality of grief, this episode traces the practices (and resultant narratives) that have arisen from the attempt to cope with heartbreaking loss. “Facets” is studded with nuggets of intriguing information: noting that funerary traditions are nearly as old as civilization itself, Mahnke points to the Neanderthals as the “first culture to practice intentional burial.” Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of the existence–from the time of ancient Egypt to modern China–of “professional mourners” (or, more technically, “moirologists”): actors hired by grieving decedents to perform ostentatious acts of lamentation. Mahnke also delves into the Gaelic “keening woman,” an actual bardic figure with a “vast collection of songs of lament” in her repertoire, who later mutates into a more sinister and supernatural entity: the banshee. The most extensive focus is on another hair-raising wailer, La Llorona, whom Mahnke dubs “one of the finest examples of global folklore.”

The various tales (with connecting traits) of the weeping-woman myth are compared here to the different facets of a gemstone. This episode-organizing analogy is an appropriate one, since “Facets” provides a treasure trove of dark stories. Starting with discussion of the sineater and closing with the Indonesian legend of the Pontianak (horrifically voracious vampiric ghosts of women who died while pregnant), Mahnke enriches the imagination of anyone invested with a fondness for the macabre and offbeat. Without a doubt, “Facets” is one of the most insightful and fright-fulled episodes of Lore ever produced, and the quintessence of what makes this podcast so utterly fascinating.

 

Algernon Sequitur

In my previous post, I noted Stephen King’s indebtedness in Pet Sematary to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” King’s novel, though, is not the first work of horror to borrow from Blackwood’s narrative (August Derleth transforms the Wendigo into an eldritch deity in the stories “The Thing that Walked on the Wind” and “Ithaqua”); nor is it the most overt. That distinction goes to Laird Barron’s harrowing 2011 novelette, “Blackwood’s Baby.”

Barron announces his genre heritage and acknowledges a literary forefather in the very title of his piece. Within the narrative itself, “Blackwood’s Baby” refers to a “monstrous stag,” the allegedly diabolic offspring of the occultist Ephraim Blackwood and “the Old Man of the Wood, who assumed the form of a doe” to enable the sacrilegious tryst. Both “The Wendigo” and “Blackwood’s Baby” feature a hunters-become-the-hunted motif, as respective expeditions venture too far beyond civilization and too deep into reputedly cursed woods. Overmatched men run afoul of a fiendish adversary, an uncannily anthropomorphic animal (Blackwood’s leonine-stenched Wendigo and Barron’s satanic stag).

Algernon Blackwood (apropos of someone with such an atmospheric surname) was a preeminent writer of outdoor horror, and Barron clearly follows his lead here in sending characters off the beaten path and into forest darkness. While Blackwood’s weird tale speaks to the wilderness’s cruel unconcern (“the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man”), Barron invests his sylvan setting (a stretch of Washington woods dubbed “Wolfvale”) with even more savagery. “Mother Nature is more of a killer than we humans ever will be,” Barron’s protagonist Luke Honey asserts. “She wants our blood, our bones, our goddamned guts.” Further echoing Blackwood, Barron hints at sinister sentience, as the wary Honey is plagued by “a sense of inimical awareness that emanated from the depths of the forest.” The perception of eeriness is a logical byproduct of finding oneself in such lonesome surround, but both Blackwood and Barron endeavor to show that there really is something terribly unnatural about these particular wilderness scenes. The northern woods in “The Wendigo” are the stomping ground of a creature out of Native American myth, and the hunting area beyond the Black Ram lodge in “Blackwood’s Baby” proves to be “the devil’s preserve.” Spectral cries ring out in Blackwood’s story, and the Wendigo-touched wretch Defago raves about an invisible menace before his death: “people with broken faces all on fire are coming in a most awful, awful pace towards the camp.” Likewise, near the climax of Barron’s narrative, Luke Honey hears the ghostly sounds of the hunters bedeviled in this pagan place: “The shrieks of the mastiffs came and went all day, and so too the phantom bellows of men, the muffled blasts of their weapons.”

At one point, Barron’s haunted protagonist is described as an “avid reader” of such legendary writers of supernatural horror as Robert Louis Stevenson, M.R. James, and Ambrose Bierce. The same is no doubt true of the author himself, and based on the evidence of this novelette, the name of Algernon Blackwood can be readily added to that esteemed list.

 

Digging Deeper: Stephen King’s Sources/Allusions in Pet Sematary

As can be seen from my recent series of posts, I have been in a Pet Sematary frame of mind lately. Prior to the release of the new film adaptation, I reread Stephen King’s 1983 novel (one of my personal favorites). At the time of my reread, there was a lot of media buzz about how the new film was reworking the source novel, which got me thinking about King’s own literary sources for (and pop cultural allusions in) Pet Sematary. Here are a (grave)dirty dozen examples that I was able to excavate:

1.Most obviously, King’s novel is inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s classic 1902 weird tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” King invokes Jacobs’s story of ill-fated wishing in an epigraph, and within the narrative itself, King’s protagonist Louis Creed calls the piece to mind: “And suddenly Louis found himself thinking of the story of the monkey’s paw, and a cold terror slipped into him.” King picks up on Jacobs’s theme of compounding bad decisions: Louis (who’s slow to learn that “sometimes dead is better”) plants not just Church, but also Gage and Rachel in the sour soil of the Micmac burial ground. While the frightfully resurrected son Herbert in “The Monkey’s Paw” is wished away from the doorstep in the nick of time, Gage returns all the way home, to devastating effect: “What comes when you’re too slow wishing away the thing that knocks on your door in the middle of the night is simple enough: total darkness.”

2.In epigraphs to all three parts of the novel, King quotes (or more accurately, paraphrases) the Gospel story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This Bible tale of revival underlines Jesus’s divinity–his power, as the son of God, to perform miracles. By contrast, the ironically-surnamed Louis Creed is “a lapsed Methodist” who “did not attend church” and who had “no deep religious training.” His calling forth of Gage from the grave is a decidedly more unholy (and unwise) act.

3.At one key point in the novel, Jud tellingly says to Louis: “But bringing the dead back to life…that’s about as close to playing God as you can get, ain’t it?” Pet Sematary clearly aligns with the theme of Promethean transgression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A sardonic Louis will even go on to refer to the returned Church as “Frankencat.”

4.Church also hearkens back to the titular feline in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” While not shaded the same color, Church reflects the black cat in his uncanny return from the dead. His macabre tormenting of Louis also parallels the ruinous effect of the antagonistic black cat on Poe’s narrator.

5.In journeying into the deep, dark New England woods, King follows the literary trail of Nathaniel Hawthorne. King scholar Anthony Magistrale (in  Landscape of Fear) explicitly links the works of the two writers:

Hawthorne’s woods are a place of spiritual mystery; in them, young Goodman Brown, Reuben Bourne, and minister Arthur Dimmesdale must confront their own darkest urges. In Pet Sematary, Hawthorne’s historical sense of puritanical gloom associated with the forest is mirrored in King’s ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Dr. Louis Creed, like so many of Hawthorne’s youthful idealists, discovers in the Maine woods that evil is no mere abstraction capable of being manipulated or ignored. Instead he finds his own confrontation with evil to be overwhelming, and like Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown, he surrenders to its vision of chaos and corruption.

I would just expand upon Magistrale by positing that all the “soil of a man’s heart is stonier” rhetoric in Pet Sematary is a deliberate nod toward Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand.” Just as Brand, in his obsession with unpardonable sin, has his own heart transmute into marble/limestone at story’s end, a woebegone Louis Creed at novel’s end refers to “the stone that had replaced his heart.”

6.Exactly one paragraph after mentioning the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King returns to the world of Universal monster movies, as Louis uncharitably characterizes his in-laws as “Im-Ho-Tep and his wife the Sphinx.” The allusion to The Mummy is fitting, in that the film (like Pet Sematary) centers on a troublesome resurrection.

7.Louis is equally allusive in the scene when Church is first discovered lying dead on the side of road. Conscious of the “eerie and gothic” nature of “the whole setting,” Louis invokes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “Here’s Heathcliff out on the desolate moors, Louis thought, grimacing against the cold. Getting ready to pop the family cat into a Hefty Bag. Yowza.

8.During Halloween season, Ellie Creed hears “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at school, and her excited recounting of it when she comes home leads Gage to babble about “Itchybod Brain.” Washington Irving’s genteel ghost story furnishes a moment of amusement for the Creed family, who don’t realize they are about to experience much grimmer horror. The Headless Horseman prefigures the hinted-at decapitation of Gage during the tragic accident in the road (when later robbing his son’s grave, Louis notes “the grinning circlet of stitches which held Gage’s head onto his shoulders”).

9.King’s woods-haunting, human-possessing antagonist in Pet Sematary traces back to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” The creature (drawn from Native American mythology) in Blackwood’s classic narrative is sensed moving around the hunters’ campsite, just as Louis Creed hears “crackling underbrush and breaking branches. Something was moving out there–something big.” Blackwood’s Wendigo leaves a noxious aroma lingering; King’s Wendigo is similarly marked by its “eldritch, sickening smell.” King’s novel (particularly as it builds towards its climax) also picks up on Blackwood’s association of the Wendigo with menacing wind.

10.Pet Sematary alludes to classic films about the undead, from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead. Jud points to the former when he says to Louis: “You know, they have these stories and these movies–I don’t know if they’re true–about zombies down in Haiti. In the movies they just sort of shamble along, with their dead eyes starin straight ahead, real slow and sort of clumsy. Timmy Baterman was like that, Louis, like a a zombie in a movie, but he wasn’t. There was something more. There was somethin goin on behind his eyes.” Indeed, unlike “George Romero’s stupid, lurching movie zombies,” figures such as Timmy Baterman and Gage possess (thanks to the Wendigo’s reanimation/infiltration of their corpses) a fiendish intellect.

11.Timmy Baterman and Gage convey dirty secrets of the grave, tormentingly taunting the living by voicing the vile deeds of their deceased loved ones. King appears to borrow such explicitness from The Exorcist (cf. the Pazuzu-possessed Regan’s profane exchanges with Father Damien). Gage is positively demonic in his shocking revelation to Jud that his wife Norma cuckolded him and had a secret kink for anal sex: “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”

12.In Pet Sematary, King makes several connections to his own oeuvre. Early on, Cujo is alluded to, when Jud notes: “Lots of rabies in Maine now. There was a big old St. Bernard went rabid downstate a couple of years ago and killed four people.” The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned in passing, as well as Derry and Haven–fictional locales that King would make famous in subsequent novels such as It and The Tommyknockers. Pet Sematary also anticipates The Dark Half when Louis discusses the concept “that the fetus of one twin can sometimes swallow the fetus of the other in utero, like some kind of unborn cannibal, and then show up with teeth in his testes or in his lungs twenty of thirty years later to prove that he did it.” The most extensive connection, though, is with The Shining. The Creeds, like the Torrances in the earlier novel, have their family ripped apart by the evil machinations of a Bad Place (The Micmac Burial Ground and the Overlook Hotel, respectively). Plot devices used in both novels form clear parallels: Rachel Creed’d desperate quest to return home to Ludlow from Chicago recalls Dick Halloran’s Florida-to-Colorado odyssey, his attempt make it back to the Overlook in time to save Danny. If there’s any doubt that King had The Shining in mind when writing Pet Sematary, consider this line that the character Steve hits Louis Creed with: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know.”

How to Go Wendigo

One of the most disappointing aspects of the remake of Pet Sematary (reviewed here) was the film’s failure to bring the Wendigo onscreen as a woods-haunting monstrosity. The movie barely even references the creature from Native American myth (which is so central to Stephen King’s novel). It also abandons the cannibalism element from the original (1989) film adaptation, with the transgressions of Louis Creed’s undead offspring (emphasis on “off”) here being confined to savage slashing with a scalpel. Going into the theater, I’d hoped that the new Pet Sematary would form the preeminent example of the horror genre’s use of the Wendigo myth. That distinction, though, still belongs to “Skin and Bones,” the signature episode from NBC’s 2008 anthology series Fear Itself.

Directed by Larry Fessenden (who drew on similar mythology in his films Wendigo and The Last Winter), “Skin and Bones” stars Doug Jones as Grady Edlund, a rancher who takes a turn for the perverse. Stranded in the mountains while on a hunting trip, Grady resorts to cannibalism, is possessed by a Wendigo as a result, and then returns home to terrorize his wife, children, and cuckolding brother. Jones is an absolute nightmare figure in his portrayal of the voracious Grady; sinisterly sinewy, he embodies the episode’s title. His frostbitten, black fingertips and ears are horrifying, and his inhuman yowls are chilling as a blast of a nor’easter. Jones’s character unnerves even when prostrate in bed with the covers pulled up to his neck, and epitomizes the jump scare when suddenly springing at his prey with supernatural speed. Grady does descend into Freddy Krueger-ish campiness when forcing his wife to serve up some human stew, but remains seriously scary with his strange combination of ungainliness and unnatural strength.

Jones has made a career out of portraying fantastic and horrific creatures in film (The Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water; The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) and on TV (The Lead Gentleman on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; one of the Ancients in The Strain), but, for me, Grady Edlund is his meatiest and most memorable role. And while the Wendigo has figured into the plots of countless shows (from Haven and Sleepy Hollow to Hannibal and Supernatural) and films (such as the black-humor masterpiece Ravenous), “Skin and Bones” still provides the most terrifying vision of the entity’s supernatural invasion of the human frame.

 

 

Grave Mistake: A Review of the Pet Sematary Remake

In many ways, the new version of Pet Sematary improves upon the original film adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel. The acting is appreciably better: yes, Jason Clarke will never be taken for the second coming of Laurence Olivier, but Amy Seimetz (who already proved she could do parental anguish, back in The Killing) is exceptional as always, and Jete Laurence is lovable and much more believable as Ellie Creed than her 1989 counterpart. The 2019 edition exhibits a much tighter focus, paring down characters and incidents (the reprehensible Irwin Goldman–listed simply as “Rachel’s Father” in the film’s credits–doesn’t even get a line of dialogue this time around), while sounding thematic concerns with death and afterlife more distinctly. Patient first-act set-up, coupled with an intoning score, creates a palpable sense of foreboding, and the film is darkly atmospheric, with the misty, forested surround furnishing an unnerving mise en scene.

I just wish I could have liked this film more.

Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer know they have a tough act to follow in the flawed yet memorably frightful 1989 film, and clearly assume audience familiarity here with that earlier version. For better and for worse, the directors employ the precursor as a cinematic touchstone. The infamous run-down-in-the-road scene is cleverly re-choreographed to gut-wrenching effect (but shame on the film studio for blunting the shocking impact by including a major plot spoiler in the trailer for Pet Sematary). The mindful variation on the original’s Zelda scenes is far less successful, with Kolsch and Widmyer serving up lame, predictable scares involving a dumbwaiter.

Like any horror film, Pet Sematary shoots to chill, yet ultimately leaves the viewer cold. This is perhaps best exemplified in John Lithgow’s portrayal of Jud Crandall. Contra the avuncular Fred Gwynne in the original, Lithgow’s Jud is gruff and unendearing, even a little creepy in his affection for Ellie. Overall, the film is too stony-hearted, failing to make us care enough about the characters and the stakes. The concluding twist strikes a satisfyingly mordant note, but fails to resonate tragedy the same way King’s novel or the first film does.

Visually, the titular graveyard proves unremarkable: we hardly get a glimpse of the grave markers, and the “sematary” itself is reduced to the site of imitative pagan ritual (performed by anonymous adolescents in animal masks). The depiction of the Indian burial ground (I don’t believe the Micmac tribe is ever identified by name in the film) likewise disappoints. Filmed in murky close-up, it lacks the scope, the eerie grandeur, of the sour-ground setting in the 1989 film (recall that breathtaking overhead shot of the spiraling sequence of cairns). Worse, the film severely abridges the backstory of the burial ground (e.g. Timmy Baterman’s grim return is deep-sixed in this version), and the sense of a place of supernatural evil is resultantly limited. Missing a golden opportunity to surpass the 1989 film and rectify one of its most glaring errors, the new Pet Sematary gives mere lip service to the Wendigo legend. The imposing creature is shown only as a crude drawing in a book that Jud sticks under Louis Creed’s nose for a brief perusal.

This film is obviously determined to be different from its predecessor (sometimes via facile revision, as in the turning of Victor Pascow into a character of color). Unfortunately, different doesn’t equate with better; there’s little chance this version of Pet Sematary will be remembered and revered by horror fans three decades hence. Straying from the familiar path, the film ends up lost in the woods.

Sometimes Dead is Even Better: 10 Ways the Pet Sematary Remake Can Improve on the Original

Director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was a frightful, if flawed, effort. Three decades in the remaking, the new version of the film hits theaters this week. How might it improve on its predecessor? Here are my thoughts on ten possible upgrades:

1.In a headnote to the novel, King writes: “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” The ensuing narrative digs up the secret and spreads it out for reader inspection. Indeed, one of the most (morbidly) fascinating aspects of the book was its peeking behind the scenes of the “quiet trade” (as protagonist Louis Creed reminisces about his time apprenticing with his undertaker uncle). Regrettably, the 1989 film failed to draw upon this insider info; here’s hoping the remake makes better use of such intriguing source material.

2.Let’s be honest: the acting in the 1989 film was far from award-worthy. Fred Gwynne gave a memorable performance as Jud Crandall, but the rest of the cast was eminently forgettable. Denise Crosby (Rachel Creed) proved wooden as a Pet Sematary grave marker, Blaze Berdahl (Ellie Creed) sounded like a child reciting memorized lines, and the last-act lapse into madness of Dale Midkiff (Louis Creed) was bad to the point of laughable. Yes, the acting bar has been set awfully low here, and clearing it shouldn’t be like scaling the deadfall for the esteemed cast of the remake (led by John Lithgow and Amy Seimetz).

3.The 1989 film’s use of Victor Pascow went terribly awry. The character’s death scene was appropriately disturbing, and his initial ghostly visitation of Louis was chilling. But Pascow’s interaction with Rachel in the film’s final third was nonsensical (how does he influence Rachel all the way in Chicago, and why can’t she–unlike Louis–actually see him?). Worse, it was tonally jarring: this was no time for comic relief, from a ghostly jokester who seemed one step away from breaking out into Beetlejuice tune. The new film can go a long way toward improving upon the original by making more limited, and consistently serious, use of this grave character from King’s novel.

4.In the novel, Louis and Jud’s Church-burying journey through Little God Swamp to the Micmac Burying Ground was an atmospheric delight, complete with loons and foo lights (or what Jud attempts to explain away as such), creeping mist, and “stars wheeling between the massed dark border of trees.” The 1989 film conveys very little of this, and inexplicably, doesn’t even take place during nighttime. Closer focus on the scene from the book would clearly benefit the remake.

5.Anyone who ever watched the original film was likely haunted by the twisted image of Zelda. The 2019 remake will be hard-pressed to top the representation of this character, but could possibly do so by keying in on a novelistic detail omitted by the 1989 film: the young, lisping Zelda’s fascination with “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” (who King transforms from a children’s book character into a daunting Death figure).

6.The 1989 film includes a fine flashback scene concerning the ill-tempered return of Jud’s dead dog Spot. I would love to see the remake draw more extensively from King’s novel and incorporate more of Jud’s recounting of the history of the Micmac Burial Ground and the animals temporarily interred there. Imagine how awesome it would be to get a flashback scene centered on Hanratty the undead bull!

7.Sadly, the Timmy Baterman storyline was botched in the first film adaptation. The depiction of his character as some rotting mongoloid robs him of his most sinister aspect in King’s novel: his profane revelation of the dirty secrets of the townspeople who oppose him. Also, the scene of the lynch mob arriving at the Baterman home deviates ridiculously from the book (the arsonists’ earnest desire to save Bill Baterman from his abominable son by burning down the man’s house before he can even vacate it calls the old maxim “with friends like these…” to mind). The remake could advance significantly past the original by adhering more faithfully to King’s conceptions of Timmy’s blasphemous character and the novelistic version of the fall of the house of Baterman.

8.One of the best, and most protracted, sequences in the novel involves Louis playing resurrectionist–robbing Gage’s grave and transporting the corpse to the Micmac Burial Ground. It is both a physical and mental ordeal for Louis, and King wrings every bit of gut-wrenching suspense from the attempt. The 1989 film severely short-changed this sequence, and the remake could go much further in conveying the horror of the situation by devoting more screen time to Louis’s dreadful efforts.

9.To me, one of the most incongruous parts of the 1989 film was the decision to splice in surreal images of Jud’s house in oozing, sinking decay during the climax. While visually striking, these images didn’t make a lot of narrative sense. The Gage and Church invasion of Jud’s home is sufficiently terrifying, rendering such distracting graphics needless. It would be truly shocking if the remake made the same mistake Lambert’s film did.

10.The most glaring omission from the 1989 film (even more unfathomable, in that King furnished the screenplay) was the failure to invoke the book’s Big Bad: the Wendigo. King’s novel pumps out plenty of nightmare fuel in its descriptions of this supernatural horror (with which Louis eventually comes face-to-monstrous-face). The remake could distinguish itself mightily by restoring the Wendigo to its central place in the narrative. Indeed, it would be worth the price of admission alone just to see the giant creature realized (ideally, through practical fx) on the big screen.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

At the start of Chopin’s compact but impactful 1892 story, an abandoned orphan (Desiree) of unknown parentage is discovered in Louisiana bayou country. Adopted and raised by the Valmonde family, Desiree matures into a beautiful woman; she is eventually wed to the lovestruck Armand Aubigny, whose family name is “one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana.” Desiree takes up residence at the Aubigny family mansion, L’Abri, a “sad looking” and shudder-inducing edifice reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher:

The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.

Chopin’s story broaches a subject central to American Gothic fiction: racism and slavery. Aubigny’s sadistic, diabolic treatment of his slaves (he’s described at one point as seemingly possessed by “the very spirit of Satan”) forms the backdrop to the main narrative’s family drama. When the titular newborn shows evidence in his features of possessing black blood, Desiree is perplexed, but the proud Aubigny is revolted, and viciously rejects his wife and child: “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.” Distraught over Aubigny’s cold-hearted turn, Desiree takes her baby and disappears into the “deep, sluggish bayou” (where she presumably drowns herself and the child). But Chopin (who was an admirer of Guy de Maupassant) gives a final, surprise twist to the plot, when Aubigny (in the Gothic tradition of the discovered document) finds an old letter from his mother to his father that reveals it was he, not Desiree, who passed the mixed blood along to their baby.

In a mere handful of pages, Chopin manages to convey the sense of a sweeping Gothic saga (anticipating Faulkner’s chronicle of the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!). This tightly-woven tale makes for one of the strongest and most representative selections in Crow’s anthology.

 

Me vs. Us

Midway through Us, NWA’s “F*** tha Police” is invoked to brilliant comedic/satiric effect. A track by a contemporaneous rap group, though, perhaps provides a better gloss on Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort (following 2017’s Get Out): Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Helmed by an Important Director who has previously demonstrated a knack for delivering a thrilling plot and probing message, this film is one we are predisposed to like. According to reviewers (by Metacritic metrics, Us has garnered “universal acclaim”), it’s one we should like. But the term “masterpiece” has been bandied about much too facilely, making such film critics sound more like hype-meisters than insightful commentators.

Get Out, a riveting mystery with a horrifying reveal, expertly explores the subject of race relations in America. In Us, the social commentary (concerning the uprising of the underclass) is much less coherent and more clumsily presented. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, since the victims of the sinister doubles here (most graphically, the drunken, obnoxious couple and bratty twins next door) are all conspicuously Caucasian. Maybe Poole felt that the film already depicted plentiful black-on-black violence (as the African American protagonists are menaced by, and fight back against, their doppelgangers), but the demographics of deadly demise in Us are nonetheless eyebrow-raising.

The hype machine for the film also has been busy generating Oscar buzz for Lupita Nyong’o for her dual role of heroic mother Adelaide and villainous revolutionary Shadow. But, again, I’m not buying it (no more so than I did the overvaluing of Toni Collette’s acting in Hereditary last year). Not that Nyong’o doesn’t give a fine performance; there’s just nothing extraordinary or distinctive about it. Audiences have seen the portrayal of traumatization, not to mention the stop-at-nothing defense of one’s family, countless times before. And while the antagonist role might naturally make for more memorable characterization, Nyong’o’s Shadow is a pale effort. Her croaking whisper comes across as more hokey than horripilating, more gimmicky than plot-motivated in any convincing way.

What frustrates me most about Us is that film gets off to such a promising start. Following an atmospheric prologue (leading to an uncanny encounter in a seaside hall-of-mirrors attraction) the action flashes forward to the present day. Peele adeptly establishes his characters (the nuclear quartet of the Wilson family, who are all likeable and lifelike) and sets the stage for the coming disruption of their summer vacation. The home invasion–one of the most harrowing incidents of its kind since A Clockwork Orange–comprises the strongest part of the film. The situation is wonderfully creepy in and of itself, and the suspense keeps increasing with the cuts back and forth between the Wilsons’ individual struggles with their respective doppelgangers. Besides being gripped by the protagonists’ peril, the viewer is stirred by curiosity: who/what are these homicidal lookalikes (dubbed the “Tethered”) terrorizing the Wilsons, and where have they come from?

Unfortunately, much like Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed 2018 home-invasion novel, The Cabin at the End of the World–Poole’s film fails to pay off on its intriguing set-up. The explanation (provided via a pair of unsatisfying infodumps) for the Tethered’s origins/motivations is downright absurd. This story of weird experiment and national conspiracy (I won’t get into more specifics here, for fear of spoilers) opens up plot holes the size of the underground tunnels featured in the film. While critiquing the plot dynamics of Us, I cannot fail to note that the climactic twist is forecast from the opening scene, and proves neither shocking nor mind-blowing.

There are elements of the film that I truly enjoyed, such as the allusions to Blade Runner (Adelaide’s daughter Zora shares a name with one of the replicants Deckard retires, and the somersaulting neighbor girls mimic Pris’s android gymnastics). Kudos, too, to Poole for his extensive Gothicizing of the Hands Across America event from the 1980’s. Us also features a killer score, which helps heighten the tension and darken the mood throughout.

In the end, though, the parts do not add up to as grand a sum as might have been achieved. Straining to make social commentary, the film approaches pretentiousness, and its determination to embed subtext ultimately subverts narrative logic. No doubt, this is a movie (apropos of its double theme) that will be better appreciated following a second viewing. But after the disappointing experience of our first relationship, I can’t say I’m eager to give Us another chance.

 

Lore Report: “Crooked” (Episode 110)

“Our cities, like the Tower of Pisa, are places that are built on some type of foundation. And in the chaos of building a community and all the infrastructure that will need to grow and thrive, mistakes can happen. Issues can be woven into the fabric of a location, and problems can become part of the DNA there, setting it up for a future of pain and misfortune. And while the United States is full of example of this idea in practice, we’d be hard pressed to find a city in our country with a more flawed beginning than its own epicenter of power and authority: our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.”

In “Crooked,” the 110th episode of the hit podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke takes listeners straight to the geographical heart of American politics. Fear not, though, because our host does not address anything as prosaic as presidential underhandedness or congressional chicanery.

Admittedly, Mahnke does have a tendency to torture a metaphor, and his narrative here proves no exception. Starting with the idea of a literally faulty foundation (causing the famous lean of the Tower of Pisa), Mahnke broadens the discussion of crookedness to encompass aberrant/unexpected development and historical instances of skewing from the putative norm. Figurative turns such as these oftentimes feel forced (in the interest of creating a thematic tread), but Mahnke can be forgiven his flourishes, especially after he delivers these lines capturing the essence of American Gothic: “But the beautiful, elegant appearance [of the nation’s capital] is often little more than a facade. Just like the people who lived there, Washington, D.C., was a pretty shell with a rotten core.”

From here, Mahnke leads his audience on a ghost tour of notable residences around the Potomac. We visit the reputedly haunted Octagon House (whose staircase is said to have been the site of two separate, fatal falls by a pair of sisters) and the uncanny Halcyon House, an East Coast analogue of the Winchester House (the focus, incidentally, of episode 79, “Locked Away”). The tour is sure to stop at the White House, where a grieving (over the death of her child) Mary Todd Lincoln once hosted seances and was preyed upon by a spurious spiritualist (who, ironically, would also forewarn President Lincoln about a legitimately dire threat).

Following the sponsor break, Mahnke shares an engrossing story about Henry Adams, his suicidal wife Clover, and an illegal copy of the statue overlooking her grave. This memorial knockoff, dubbed “Black Aggie” (pictured above), has served as the locus of various college hazing rituals over the years, and has spawned a slew of legends (my personal favorite: anyone who dares to sleep in the figure’s lap overnight will be found dead there the next morning). The episode-concluding tale of Black Aggie is pure Lore: a soaring toward the ostensibly supernatural that is nonetheless grounded in historical detail.

All told, “Crooked” is a highly entertaining episode; my only real complaint is that I wish it had been longer. Given the scope of the subject here, Mahnke could have elected to extend the tour and furnished further examples of Washington, D.C.’s Gothic leanings.

 

Bly from the Other Side

In my last post, I noted how Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has strongly influenced various works of American Gothic (in both fiction and TV/film). No writer, though, has engaged more directly with James’s classic novella than Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1992 short story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) completely turns the screw on the source narrative.

Oates’s clever conceit is to revise the Jamesian precursor text by presenting the narrative from the point of view of Bly’s two deceased employees–former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint. By no means does Oates glamorize the postmortem existence of these two ghostly/quasi-physical figures lurking in the so-called “catacombs,” an “abandoned storage area in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.” Even to herself, Jessel is an object of “horror” and “disgust” as she washes “mud-muck” off her body and picks beetles out of the tangles of her hair (she has also developed some ghoulish appetites, and is prone to feral pouncing on vermin encountered on the estate). Nevertheless, by delving into the perspectives of Jessel and Quint, Oates endeavors to cast the ghosts abhorred by James’s governess in a more sympathetic light. While denounced as “depraved, degenerate sinners” by “all in the vicinity of Bly,” the couple is not depicted here as a pair of demonic figures intent on corrupting the innocent children Miles and Flora.

The title of Oates’s story is thus significant, as what at first sounds like a blunt denunciation is proven by the ensuing story to be not necessarily the case. “Accursed” works on a couple of levels, both natural and supernatural. The term references the slander by the seemingly decent Christians living in and around Bly, and also points to the question of whether Jessel and Quint have been damned by some higher power (Jessel is a suicide–a ruined woman summarily dismissed from Bly, she threw her pregnant body into the lake on the manor grounds–and the mourning Quint’s fatal, drunken tumble “was perhaps not accidental, either”). Either way, Jessel and Quint are not the only accursed inhabitants of Bly, as Oates’s title further encompasses the tragic existence of the orphans Miles and Flora. The relationship between all four characters–forced by circumstance into forming a strange, surrogate family–is indeed central to the story. Yes, the late Jessel and Quint might be “accursed by love” of one another, but it’s also their love for the children that keeps them haunting this house: “It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved.” Just as an affair between the two employees trapped in “the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly” was inevitable, the insinuation by the love-starved children into the adult couple’s trysting is (according to Oates’s interpretation) an understandable, not unnatural turn of events.

Oates executes a delicate balancing act, as her story gives name to the unspoken horrors of James’s Victorian narrative, and, like a depth charge, sends the sexual subtext of The Turn of the Screw surging to the surface. She tactfully handles difficult subject matter–sexual relations between adults and minors–touching on the taboo without ever resorting to inappropriate prurience. Of course, Oates has not scripted some curious endorsement of pedophilia here; her story works more in opposition to the facile demonizing of same-sex relationships. As the author herself remarked (in a letter to the New York Times in response to a review of her story), her aim was at “reimagining homoerotic ties as not ‘by nature’ repellent.” Quint’s own pondering in the story–“How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love’s comforts?”–is not a mere self-justification of illicit behavior bur rather poses a broader question to Oates’s audience. Presented as neither sexual nor supernatural predators, Oates’s versions of Quint and Jessel are not hellbent on luring Miles and Flora to their doom but desperately seek the solace of family reunion.

If Quint and Jessel are largely redeemed here, two other characters from James’s novella are overtly villainized in their place. The absentee Master of Bly is exposed as a spurious gentleman. Drunken and dissolute, he is an unloving uncle to the two unfortunate children left in his care. Worse still is his pronounced homophobia, as he says to Quint of Miles (ironically blind to the relationship that will subsequently bloom between valet and child): “I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly.” Meanwhile, James’s narrator, the governess, is presented as repugnant in both her physical appearance (“homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board”) and fanatical personality (marked by “a Puritan’s prim, punitive zeal”). Recasting the either-or dilemma of James’s famously ambiguous narrative, Oates shows that revenants are in residence at Bly, yet the governess is nonetheless a “madwoman.”

Oates’s prose style here proves more accessible, but no less elegant, than James’s. Her story excises the more tedious elements of The Turn of the Screw (the governess’s ruminations and conversations with Mrs. Grose), zeroing in on the key scenes (the governess’s ghostly encounters) and reflecting them from a different angle of vision. The result is not some bloodless postmodernist exercise but an intriguing touchstone to the original novella. As new versions of The Turn of the Screw head to the big screen and streaming (Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) next year, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” surely warrants its own film adaptation. Perhaps the best part of such  cinematic translation, though, would be its leading more readers back to the short story, which testifies to Oates’s preeminent status as a writer of Gothic fiction.