Lore Report: “Proof Positive” (Episode 133)

From the mundane to the groundbreaking, scientific notebooks have been used throughout history to keep a record of events and knowledge learned so that future generations might look back on them and remember. But for a period of time in the 17th Century, that process was used in an unlikely field–witchcraft. And while it’s easy to assume that combination found at the intersection of witches and science might not be the most logical, you’d be surprised to learn that more than a few professional skeptics tried to use rationale to test superstition. And what they discovered was beyond frightening.

Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke begins the latest episode of the Lore podcast with a discussion of Marie Curie’s research notebooks–uncanny items due to their incredible, unremitting radioactivity. From here, Mahnke transitions to the writings of George Sinclair, a 17th Century professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow who “believed witchcraft was a real and powerful threat.” Sinclair’s endeavor to document evidence of the supernatural led him to publish an account of “The Devil of Glenluce”–a 1654 case of a house (accursed by an atheistic beggar) plagued by seemingly demonic activity. Mahnke devotes the bulk of the episode to relating the details of the Devil of Glenluce story, and his narrative makes for a frightfully good listen. Images such as a forearm rising out of the floorboards and pounding on the floor (the malicious spirit haunting the house claims the appendage belongs to the devil himself) would be right at home in a James Wan Conjuring film.

If I have one critique of Episode 133, it’s that I wish Mahnke would have spent even a little more time on the Glenluce story, discussing the aftermath of the strange events (which have since been called into question as a hoax). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining episode with an intriguing topic–the learned’s earnest attempt to validate the existence of the spectral and sinister. Fans of the novel The Haunting of Hill House–which presents a classic case of paranormal investigation taking an unsettling turn–are sure to thrill at the subject matter here in “Proof Positive.”

 

Mob Scene: The Bottoms

Joe R. Lansdale’s 2000 novel The Bottoms (an expansion of his 1999 novella “Mad Dog Summer”) forms an extended riff on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are Southern Gothic takes on the coming-of-age tale, and share many characteristics–tomboy younger sisters, rabid dogs, legendary boogeymen (Lansdale answers Lee’s Boo Radley with “The Goat Man”), and critiques of Deep Southern society as viewed through children’s eyes. Significantly, the plots of both novels also feature a mob scene.

In The Bottoms, the narrator Harry’s father (the constable in their Depression-era East Texas community) has been keeping an elderly black man named Mose (a person of interest in the investigation of a series of brutal rapes/murders in the area) hidden away. When the locals find out, though, they automatically deem Mose the killer, and band together as a “lynch mob” intent on dispensing rough justice. Harry and his dad rush to the scene, the latter trying to avert tragedy by calling for the need for a fair trial. But his attempt to talk sense is rebuffed by the mob, which is led by the despicably racist (and allegorically named) Mr. Nation: “He ain’t gonna be turned loose,” Nation taunts, “except at the end of the rope.” When Harry’s father physically intervenes to prevent the lynching, “the crowd let[s] out a sound like an animal in pain,” and pounces on the constable and his son.

Atticus Finch (with some timely assistance from his kids) in To Kill a Mockingbird is able to stave off an angry mob determined to lynch a black man accused of rape. For all the parallels that Lansdale draws with Lee’s masterwork, though, he takes matters in a shocking direction by having the mob succeed in executing Mose. The lynching in described in unflinching and unsettling detail (“Mose dropped with a snapping sound, started to kick fast and spit blood-tinted foam”), and when the pummeled Harry recovers consciousness he discovers a nightmarish sight:

Mose hung above us, his tongue long and black and thick as a sock stuffed with paper. His eyes bulged out of his head like little green persimmons. Someone had pulled down his pants and cut him. Blood dripped from between Mose’s legs, onto the ground.

Graphic and emotionally grueling, the mob scene in The Bottoms is not easily forgotten.

 

Three Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Thought I’d take a stab at the popular online trend of composing/posting two-sentence horror stories. Here’s a trio of pieces for the New Year:

 

My New Year’s resolution is to wash my hands of sinners. Having their blood under my fingernails all the time just isn’t good hygiene.

 

Dwight considered himself a perfectly functional alcoholic. He never once failed to show up in the afternoon to drive the school bus.

 

I watched my expression growing more vexed in the mirrored backdrop as my drink request repeatedly went unheard by the bartender. After the fifth attempt, though, a Bloody Mary promptly appeared in front of me.

 

Horror in Store

Yesterday, I published a post compiling year-in-reviews for 2019, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead. Here are a couple of links to articles previewing the the top works of horror set to appear in 2020:

Lit Reactor: The 20 Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2020

Bloody Disgusting: 31 Horror Movies We Can’t Wait to See in 2020

It looks like 2020 is going to be the perfect year for dark visions!

 

2019 Supreme

The end of December is not only a time for counting down to the start of the New Year, but also for looking back at the best the horror genre had to offer over the preceding twelve months. Here’s a list of some year-end reviews worth checking out:

*The Lineup: 11 Best Horror Books of 2019

*Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Entertainment Weekly: The 10 Best Horror Films of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Scariest Movie Scenes of 2019

*Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2019

*The Hollywood Reporter: Hollywood’s Best 2019 Halloween Costumes

*Dread Central: Alyse Wax’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2019

*The Lineup: The 13 Best Scary TV Shows of 2019

 

Finally, here are some of my own choices for this year’s superlatives:

*Favorite Film of the Year: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (read my review here)

*Most Enjoyable Series of the Year: Stranger Things 3 (read my review here)

*Greatest Podcast Episode of the Year: This is Horror #300 (Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella celebrate their three-hundredth episode with a four-hour extravaganza featuring interviews with Adam Nevill, Joe R. Lansdale, Josh Malerman, Alma Katsu, Damien Angelica Walters, Stephen Graham Jones, Jon Padgett, and Kathe Koja)

*Favorite Documentary of the Year: Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini (this wonderful film, which I just watched a few nights back, provides a candid look at the life and career of one of horror’s most talented–and affable–figures)

*Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Netflix goes off of its Santa Clarita Diet (this gonzo zom-com still had a lot of meat left on the bone after three seasons. Not since the cancellation of Carnivale–for which I still haven’t forgiven HBO–have I been so bummed about the premature termination of a series)

*Best Acting Performance of the Year: Lizzy Caplan in Castle Rock (Caplan’s portrayal of a young Annie Wilkes is, hands down, the most impressive effort in the horror genre this year. Her incredibly nuanced performance manifests all the complexity of a character at once frightening and sympathetic, transgressive and tragic)

*Most Arachnophobic Moment of the Year: The spider breakout scene in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (absolutely harrowing; the most horrifying bodily eruption I’ve encountered onscreen since the cockroach explosion in Creepshow)

*Favorite Read of the Year: Full Throttle by Joe Hill (I will be posting a full review in the coming days)

*Favorite Dispatch from the Macabre Republic This Year: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

 

999: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

Back in 1999, Al Sarrantonio edited the stellar anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense. Here on the eve of a new year, with another 9 about to roll over, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at the Stoker-Award-winning book.

Two decades later, 999 still impresses with its size and scope. My Perennial paperback copy of the anthology clocks in (not coincidentally, I’d like to believe) at 666 text-packed pages. Between the covers of this thick-spined volume, the full range of dark fiction is represented: from quiet horror (T.E.D. Klein’s subtly sinister “Growing Things”) to brash splatter (Edward Lee’s unblinkingly graphic “ICU”); from Northeastern gothic (“The Ruins of Contracoeur” by the masterful Joyce Carol Oates) to the Southern folk tale (Nancy A. Collins’s local-colorful and captivating “Catfish Gal Blues”); from psychological horror (Rick Hautala’s creepily resonant “Knocking”) to noir crime (Ed Groman’s sexy and sinful “Angie”); and the weird tale of varieties both raucous (“The Entertainment,” provided with wicked wit by the incomparable Ramsey Campbell) and the somber (Thomas Ligotti’s brilliantly hypnotic, yet undeniable bummer of a cosmic-horror story, “The Shadow, The Darkness”).

The standard genre tropes show up here at Sarrantonio’s celebration, but prove most welcome in their fresh attire. Kim Newman’s lead-off piece “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” takes the zombie tale to new places, not just via the story’s Communist Russia setting but also its bizarre twists (involving a revenant Rasputin!). In the bad-blooded “Good Friday,” F. Paul Wilson develops the traditional plot of vampiric incursion to chillingly apocalyptic extremes. The hoary haunted-portrait story gets updated and turbo-charged in Stephen King’s nightmare-fueling “The Road Virus Heads North” (one of King’s earliest post-IT returns to the town of Derry). Last but not least effective, William Peter Blatty’s volume-closing novel Elsewhere slyly reworks the classic elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and gives an incredible twist to the haunted-house formula (one that predates a certain Nicole Kidman film by two years).

I won’t pretend that every tale Sarrantonio selected is a narrative gem, but only a few pieces fail to sparkle in this treasure trove of terror. Shining brightest of all here is a pair of novellas that alone makes 999 a precious possession. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer” (which the author subsequently expanded into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms) is a terrific East Texas riff on To Kill a Mockingbird. David Morrell’s “Rio Grande Gothic” starts with an unsettling premise–empty shoes repeatedly found set on the yellow median line of a Sante Fe road–and deftly crosses over into downright eerie territory.

In retrospect, the high hopes outlined by Sarrantonio in his Introduction (that “this book turns out to be revolutionary, helps to revive the field, kills the ghetto, and starts a third Golden Age”) might not have been quite fulfilled, but there is no arguing against the success of this effort. The book is a strong contender for the title (again, in Sarrantonio’s words) of “the finest collection of brand new horror and suspense stories ever published,” and warrants a permanent space on the genre-lover’s bookshelf alongside such original anthologies as Dark Forces and Prime Evil. 999 has aged finely over past twenty years, and its dark contents prove well-deserving of a “vintage” label.

 

Lore Report: “Puzzled” (Episode 132)

History does hold the key to a number of secret chambers, and while it might be fun to explore all of them, there’s one place that takes the prize for one of the most elaborate and nefarious hidden worlds on record. But it’s more than a closet or a bunker or even a short tunnel to another part of the house. No, this one stands out because of its sweep and scale, and because of how it was used by the people who lived there. It’s a secret network that connects an entire town.

 

Aaron Mahnke’s opening tease to the latest episode of his podcast Lore works as a perfect hook; the listener can’t wait for this town with Gothic underpinnings to be identified. Fortunately, Mahnke isn’t inclined to withhold this information for very long, as he transports the audience to the seaside community of Rye in Sussex, England. The town served as a five-century epicenter for smuggling activities, most notoriously conducted during a fifteen-year stretch in the mid-1700’s by the Hawkhurst Gang (a mafia-like organization nearly 600 members strong). These brazen criminals did not hesitate to employ cutthroat tactics against anyone who interfered with their enterprise, but they also demonstrated some terrific craftiness. Using the ruins of a nearby castle as an illicit warehouse, the Gang engaged in what Mahnke gloriously dubs “Scooby-Dooing”: scaring off potential meddling snoops by making “spooky noises to give the place an unsavory reputation.” A primary base of operation for the Gang, though, was Rye’s Mermaid Inn, a no-less-Gothic building with its hidden staircases leading to a system of underground tunnels, and its secret dungeon located under a trapdoor in one of the guest rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Mermaid Inn is regarded as quite a haunted site, and Mahnke devotes the second half of the episode to sharing the host of ghost stories associated with this place of business.

Sometimes Mahnke’s episode titles and content-organizing conceits come off as strained attempts at narrative coherence, but that certainly is not the case here in Episode 132. The “puzzle” concept–both in the sense of a labyrinthine structure/intricate mechanism (Mahnke references both Clue and the puzzle box in Hellraiser) and in the more verbal sense of confounding comprehension–proves most effective. After expertly demonstrates throughout the episode the ways in which history interfaces with mystery, Mahnke offers a strong conclusion by articulating the nature and cultural function of folklore. In the end, “Puzzled” forms a clear picture of what makes this podcast series so utterly captivating.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Six Poems by E.A. Robinson and “The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, the penultimate stop in the tour through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

Six Poems by Edgar Arlington Robinson

The sextet of selected Robinson texts here appropriately is headed by the much-anthologized piece “Luke Havergal.” This gloomy and atmospheric work features a ghostly speaker from “Out of the grave” who encourages the grieving Luke to reunite with his lost love in death by committing suicide. Next, “Lisette and Eileen” hints at secrets and scandals, lingering resentment and debilitating guilt, as the speaker Lisette reproaches the addressee Eileen for ruining a relationship with a now-deceased male figure (“Where might I be with him to-day, / Could he have known before he heard? / But no–your silence had its way, / Without a weapon or a word.”). “The Dark House” sports a femme-fatale-like “Demon,” and concerns a living state of damnation and imprisonment that can only be escaped upon death. In “The Mill,” a haunting, resonant poem of quiet desperation, a miller (distraught over the obsolescence of his profession due to industrialization) hangs himself from a beam inside the titular structure; discovering his corpse, his wife soon follows suit and erases all trace of her existence by throwing herself into the black waters of the millpond. “Souvenir” eerily recalls a “vanished house” from the speaker’s youth, where he overhead from without “the voice / Of one whose occupation was to die.” Finally, “Why He Was There,” presents a ghost (the “cadaverous” figure of a deceased friend found sitting in his old room) who claims in the final lines that the speaker’s very presence there has given impetus to the spiritual visitation: “‘I was not here until you came; And I shall not be here when you are gone.'”

Edgar Arlington Robinson falls squarely within the tradition of American Gothic literature. His compressed, melancholic, and often morbidly-themed poems prove reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Also, long before Stephen King carved out Castle Rock, Robinson created a fictional Maine community (“Tilbury Town”) rife with intrigue and populated by haunted and unworldly figures. The six poems included here are highly representative not only of Robinson’s work but also of a distinctly Gothic sensibility.

 

“The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

Hearn’s 1880 newspaper sketch reads like a surreal prose-poem. As if in the grip of some fever dream, the narrator speaks of finding himself in an uncanny theater with an audience uniformly dressed in white (“I was the only person in all that vast assembly clad in black”) and actors who emit “thin sounds like whispers from another world–a world of ghosts!” The narrator is captivated by a “strangely familiar” female figure sitting beside him, and is overwhelmed by a “mad impulse” to kiss her. When the narrator surrenders to this desire, the woman (with “a voice such as we hear when dead loves visit us in dreams”) tells him: “Thou hast kissed me: the compact is sealed forever.” This announcement promptly alerts the narrator to the grim reality of the surrounding scene:

And raising my eyes once more I saw that all the seats were graves and all the white dresses shrouds. Above me a light still shone in the blue roof, but only the light of a white moon in the eternal azure of heaven. White tombs stretched away in weird file to the verge of the horizon; –where it seemed to me that I beheld a play, I saw only a lofty mausoleum; –and I knew that the perfume of the night was but the breath of flowers dying upon the tombs!

In his editorial headnote to the piece, Charles Crow points out that Hearn temporarily resided in New Orleans, “surely the most Gothic of American cities.” The above-ground cemetery setting here certainly fits with a Crescent City locale, but Crow then strains in the attempt at contextualization when he writes that  “it might be remembered that New Orleans was regularly visited by epidemics in the post-Civil War period.” Nevertheless, “The Ghostly Kiss” is an effective Gothic narrative, whose theater conceit recalls Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” and whose theme of mournful remembrance of (unhealthy fixation on?) a lost love aligns with much of Poe’s work.