Lore Report: “By the Book” (Episode 151)

 

And while it’s hard to imagine one small subject having that much of an impact on the mental state of a person, the story of Peter Lias highlights a belief that was all too common for centuries: some books were more powerful than others. And when taken too far, the results could be deadly.

Episode 151 of the Lore podcast hooks the listener from the first minute, with a graphic recounting of a 1916 axe murder in Pennsylvania. Host Aaron Mahnke’s narrative, though, centers not on grim, naturalistic violence, but rather on magical grimoires. Ever informative, Mahnke goes beyond the generic sense of the grimoire as a book of spells (or as required reading material for aspiring demon-raisers). Variously stocked with charms, instructions (e.g., on getting rich; on improving one’s love life), and recipes, such a book served as “a household reference guide for when life got difficult.” This is not to say that Mahnke works to demystify grimoires; throughout the episode, he traces how these volumes gained their reputation as powerful and valuable works of writing. One traditional method for building the allure of grimoires in the eyes of common folk (the majority of whom would not even be able to read texts written in Latin) was to attribute legendary authorship to the writings, which included the crediting of a couple of famous Biblical figures.

My main critique is that I wish Mahnke had done more to connect the subject of grimoires with pop culture. To be fair, he does invoke the Harry Potter series (in describing Toledo, Spain–an ancient hotbed of sorcerous activity–as the Hogwarts of its day) and The Da Vinci Code. But it’s hard to believe that not even passing mention is made here of the most notorious fictional tome of all: H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. A minor quibble, perhaps, and one that does not ruin what is overall a strong installment. Ultimately, “By the Book” is an easy episode for listeners to invest interest in.

 

The Devil All the Time (Book Review)

In anticipation of this week’s premiere (September 16th) of the film adaptation on Netflix, here’s a review of the Donald Ray Pollock novel that I first posted on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday, 2011)

Willard Russell, a haunted World War II veteran who pours sacrificial animal (and then human) blood over a backwoods “prayer log” in hopes of curing his wife’s cancer. Roy Lafferty, a darkly carnivalesque preacher who spills a jar full of spiders over his head while sermonizing, and who kills his own wife when mistakenly believing he possesses the power to raise her from the dead. Carl and Sandy Henderson, a married couple whose summer vacations consist of driving cross country, picking up drifters, photographing them having sex with Sandy and then murdering them and arranging even more graphic poses. These are just some of the ignoble figures parading through the pages of Donald Ray Pollock’s audacious debut novel (following his 2009 short story collection Knockemstiff).

As might be guessed from the book’s title, The Devil All the Time is relentless in its presentation of macabre incident and employment of mordant wit. Not since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust has a novel been so thoroughly populated with grotesques. Practically every character the reader meets seems to be some form of sexual deviant or blasphemous believer. But Pollock does not present depravity just for the hell of it; with his main characters, at least, he takes the time to round them out, to develop their backstories and delve into their present mindsets. To cite one exemplary passage, here are Carl’s ruminations following the Henderson’s most recent photo “shoot”:

When the fire died out, Carl kicked the ashes around in the gravel, then took a dirty bandanna from his back pocket and picked up the hot belt buckle and the smoking remains of the army boots. He flung them out into the middle of the gravel pit and heard a faint splash. As he stood at the edge of the deep hole, Carl thought about the way that Sandy had wrapped her arms around the army boy when she saw him set the camera down and pull the pistol out, like that was going to save him. She always tried that shit with the pretty ones, and though he couldn’t really blame her for wanting it to last a while longer, this wasn’t just some damn fuck party. To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God. He looked up, saw dark clouds beginning to gather in the sky. He wiped some sweat out of his eyes and started back to the car. If they were lucky, maybe it would rain tonight and wash some of the scum out of the air, cool things off a bit.

Pollock splashes his paint on a broad canvas, cutting back and forth between West Virginia and central Ohio and tracing the lives of his characters over a two-decade span. The ultimately dovetailing plotlines might at first seem over-reliant on coincidence, until one realizes that such outcomes are in perfect keeping with the author’s naturalism. For Pollock, grim fate perennially plays a hand, and his characters have been molded (“warped” might be the better word) by the forces of biological and environmental determinism. Yet despite all this bleakness, the narrative still manages to strike a redemptive note in its final pages.

Honestly, this novel is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended (some readers will be hard-pressed to get past the scene where maggots rain down from rotting carcasses). William Faulkner reads like Little Lord Fauntleroy compared to Pollack’s unflinching depiction of grotesquerie. The Devil All the Time is as Gothic as American literature can get, which is perhaps the loftiest praise I could ever give a book. Highly, highly recommended.

 

Clown Citing

When an established horror writer turns to the Young Adult version of fearmongering, trepidation naturally arises. One worries that the language (not to mention the characters) could end up dumbed down, that the plot might end up simplified, and the horror rendered…well, less horrifying. Thankfully, none of those concerns are warranted in regards to Adam Cesare’s new novel (and YA debut), Clown in a Cornfield.

Cesare does present readers with predominantly teenage characters (high school students–including newcomer Quinn, the book’s protagonist–in the blighted town of Kettle Springs, Missouri). But these are not stock players from Central Casting, merely embodying tired stereotypes: the attractive bad boy, the bitchy hot girl, the dumb jock, etc. Cesare’s teen are not just cardboard props set up to be knocked off; they are three-dimensional figures with complex motivations. Just as refreshingly, they are not sardonically self-aware of all the conventions of the horror genre.

After taking the time to establish the characters and situation (the town’s uncanny mascot, the pork-pie-hatted Frendo the Clown, brought to life as a homicidal menace), the book kicks into full gear about a third of the way through and never lets up. Any expectations of a formulaic slasher plot– where a costumed, weapon-brandishing psycho methodically preys on his young victims, picking them off one at a time–are trampled like cornstalks beneath a runaway tractor. A carnival of widespread carnage erupts, featuring some shockingly graphic kills that earn this cinematic narrative a hard-R rating.

Cesare’s latest effort (following such works as Zero Lives Remaining and The Con Season) has been heralded as hearkening back to the classic slasher narrative, and the elements of that paradigm are readily apparent, right down to some rousing Final Girl feistiness. The horror icons of the title also instantly invoke a distinct Stephen King vibe (besides echoing the communal corruption of Derry in IT, the book offers a clever riff on “Children of the Corn”). Nevertheless, with its Midwestern/cornfield setting, its small-town secrets and conspiracies, its generational conflict and bullying cop figure (the hardcase Sheriff Dunne), the novel perhaps compares best with Norman Partridge’s Dark HarvestClown in a Cornfield might not be destined to become a timeless classic like Partridge’s novel, but it is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended to anyone looking for a few quick hours of frightful fun this fall season.

 

 

“Scourge to Multiply” (flash fiction)

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote and submitted the following piece to the Tales to Terrify Flash Fiction Contest (whose prompt was to compose a story inspired by the picture above–“The Plague” by Arnold Böcklin [1898]). Alas, my entry ultimately wasn’t chosen for the podcast, but I thought I would post it here.

 

Scourge to Multiply

By Joe Nazare

 

The town might as well have been designed for the Downfall. Close-constructed quarters form opposing facades that turn the main street into a canyon of entrapment for unsuspecting travelers. Sudden as wind gust, the nightmare creature swoops in, and the leveling begins.

Pair by pair, eyes widen and instantly roll up into whiteness, unable to bear a sight as sublime as this sailserpent. Too incomprehensible is its molten, smoldering visage, not to mention the corona of smokecloud roiling about its reptilian anvil of a head. A single glimpse, unmerciful if brief, sends the townspeople crumpling bonelessly to the cobblestoned road. Men and women lie sprawled, sometimes even piled on top of each other in listless orgy.

The wizened rider knows the danger of marking the beast, although that is not the only reason the figure straddles the sailserpent backwards. It’s a sexless revenant, its shift a soil-dark shroud hanging loosely on the emaciated frame. Taken together, the gray, cadaverous legs don’t measure half the girth of the mount’s body stretching obscenely between them with suppurating sores running its length.

This harvester perched atop the airborne terror like Death personified gives its attention not to the decimation in the street below. Instead, its gaunt face glares back blackly through the gauntlet. Its rictus bares teeth clenched in grim determination. Flensed of muscle tone, those sticklike arms look too weak to loft, let alone wield, the great blade grasped between skeletal fingers. Nevertheless, the scythe swipes, sharply intoning that the Downcast must not be disfigured. The carrion birds that follow in the sailserpent’s wake, devoted as ducklings, squawk and scatter. Yet inevitably, the eager feeders regroup and circle back in pursuit of meaty morsel.

The sailserpent, meanwhile, continues its swift course, and engages on two fronts—fore and aft. In a macabre mockery of anatomy, its long tail terminates in a second, bulbous-eyed head. Pointed beak hinged wide, the industrious tail-head engulfs the faces of the prostrate townsfolk with its pestilential breath. The emission fogs forth like the spume of some unholy censer.

Every last insensate human in the thoroughfare is sufficiently sprayed. Then, just as abrupt as its advent, the monstrosity with its hind-facing rider makes its exit. The tips of its titanic, bat-like wings whispering against the fronts of the looming buildings, the sailserpent soars out of the street scene and renders itself invisible in the vista.

A moment thereafter, the townsfolk resuscitate.

En masse, the Downcast rise to their feet and casually brush the dust from their clothes. Unremembering what just transpired, and unaware of what they inhaled, the people carry on with their lives. They still believe themselves justified in ignoring the burgomaster’s warnings, in disregarding the reports of a strange plague spreading this way from afar. Yet whatever ill-advised errand led them to venture out in the first place has now been forgotten. Hurried return is the unconscious imperative directing their steps. The elected couriers move silently, with nary a cough or sneeze sounding amongst them as they head straight back to welcoming kin.

Unbeknownst at this point to all those who would soon enough bemoan, cataclysm begins at home

 

Pallid Adaptation

Director Richard Stanley’s long-overdue return to feature filmmaking, Color Out of Space (based on the 1929 Cthulhu Mythos tale by H.P. Lovecraft) has generated a lot of buzz in recent months. Having finally caught the film myself (it’s now streaming on Shudder), I regret to say that my high hopes going in ended up undercut by disappointment.

My biggest issue with Color Out of Space is that it stars a terribly miscast Nicolas Cage. The actor, in fine, Razzie-worthy form here, does his typical shtick, throwing an over-the-top temper tantrum seemingly every ten minutes. While these tirades aren’t particularly funny, they do succeed in compromising the tonality of the film. I’m pretty sure that when Lovecraft wrote his piece, goofy wasn’t the note he was going for.

Paradoxically, the same aspect that makes the film noteworthy also works against it. The updating of Color Out of Space into a modern-day context no doubt makes it more accessible as a cinematic narrative (Lovecraft’s nearly century-old, pulp-era story might seem too outdated now if strictly translated onscreen). Nevertheless, the repeated manifestations of post-meteorite-crash alien menace in the form of disrupted technologies–garbled cell phone and TV reception, deadened car engines–prove too formulaic and familiar to be effectively unsettling.

There are some terrifically trippy visuals here, as well as grotesque effects reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (Color Out of Space begs the creation of a new Oscar category: Most Disgusting Scene Featuring Alpacas). Ultimately, though, the film (despite the spectacular pyrotechnics of the climax) fails to establish itself as a work of the cosmic horror subgenre. The palpable sense of dread that Lovecraft was so adept at inducing in his reading audience is largely absent here. A pair of voiceover monologues bookending the film capture this element of Lovecraft’s work perfectly, but I wish everything heaped between in this lengthy and uneven film managed to do so as well.

For all his pop-cultural prevalence, Lovecraft is a quite difficult writer to adapt, and “The Colour Out of Space” clearly presents special challenges. Richard Stanley deserves credit, for example, for visualizing the source text’s explicitly indescribable color as a gruesome fuschia. At the same time, the representation of the inchoate monstrosity lurking in the Gardner farm’s well in the form of a winged alien insect seemed too specific and reductive (marring the fear of the unknown upon which Lovecraft traded). Color Out of Space is a laudable effort, but unfortunately a less-than-successful one.

 

Lore Report: “Addition” (Episode 150)

Even the places we call home can evolve over time, transformed by the people who live there. And few cities in America demonstrate that as perfectly as New Orleans. But be careful, because history has made one truth abundantly clear: the more you dig, the more tragic things become.

The Crescent City is a quintessentially gothic American city, and thus forms a fitting subject for the latest episode of the Lore podcast, which takes as its theme the dark depths hidden beneath alluring surfaces. Host Aaron Mahnke presents a wealth of macabre material, including the stories of Louis Congo (an ex-slave who rose to the position of public executioner) and of the old Orleans Theater and Ballroom (the site of various hauntings). The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the chilling tale of Madame Marie LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite now notorious for her imprisonment and sadistic torture of her black slaves in the early 19th Century. LaLaurie no doubt is a familiar figure to fans of American Horror Story (the New-Orleans-set “Coven” season during which Kathy Bates portrayed LaLaurie is not referenced here, although one suspects that Mahnke had it in mind when discussing fictional embellishments of LaLaurie’s acts for horrific effect). The documented, real-life cruelties perpetrated by LaLaurie are nothing less than unsettling, but Mahnke also turns the screw further here by recounting reports of the woman’s posthumous assaults inside her restored mansion.

“Addition” is an apt title choice: it is a longer episode than recent offerings, and returns to furnish further bits of lore about a place Mahnke has visited previously on the podcast. Layered with dark detail, this 150th episode is itself a welcomed addition to the Lore archives.