Lore Report: “By Design” (Episode 162)

Fairy tales help us dream of a better life, teaching us that brighter days lay ahead. But where there is light, there are also shadows; where there are people, there are problems. And wherever there are stories of happiness, there are also tales of the darker sides of life. Because the deeper you delve into history, the more it reveals a painful truth: not everything’s that enchanted is safe.

Episode 162 of the Lore podcast explores the locus classicus of fairy tale settings: the medieval castle. Host Aaron Mahnke guides listeners on a tour of Europe’s most storied fortresses, including Bran Castle in Romania (popularly, if inaccurately, regarded today as Dracula’s Castle) and Austria’s Moosham Castle (a site associated with both witch trails and werewolves). The episode’s title refers to Houska Castle (in the Czech Republic; pictured above), a Gothic structure strategically built atop an alleged hellmouth so as to serve as a barrier against the nocturnal spillage of demons from the underworld. Mahnke’s narrative also details the castle’s connections to Nazi occultism, but given the episode’s central positioning of Houska Castle, one wishes that Mahnke had expanded the discussion and spent some more time in this dark abode. Overall, “By Design” builds up an impressive list of tales of haunted/haunting castles, and does a fine job of connecting the world of the fairy tale with the folklore that surrounds specific historical locales throughout Europe.

 

The Night Stalker at 49

On this date in 1972, The Night Stalker premiered as the ABC Movie of the Week (garnering the highest ratings for any made-for-TV film up to that time). The movie introduced the world to that bloodhound of an investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak, here tracking the story of a series of killings in Las Vegas in which the female victims have been drained of vital fluids via a bite to the neck. Nearly a half-century now after the initial airing, it’s no terrible plot spoiler to note that the perpetrator proves to be not some psychopath with a Dracula kink, but the real supernatural deal.

The Night Stalker forms an indisputable landmark of televisual American Gothic. With Darren McGavin playing a wisecracking, working class Van Helsing, the film imports Bram Stoker’s classic vampire narrative, reworks it and roots it in a modern urban setting. Stephen King has praised the film in his study Danse Macabre (poignantly dubbing Kolchak “more Lew Archer than Clark Kent”), and The Night Stalker can be detected as an influence on the author’ own fiction (e.g., Salem’s Lot, “The Night Flier”). This hard-boiled/horror hybrid has also proven seminal to the paranormal-investigation subgenre, most notably in the case of The X-Files.

With its fine pedigree (Richard Matheson furnished the script for producer Dan Curtis), The Night Stalker unsurprisingly became an instant hit with audiences. The film also holds up remarkably well to a 2021 viewing. Barry Atwater is a frightful, and decidedly physical, menace as the vampiric antagonist Janos Skorzeny. The film’s protracted climax, in which Kolchak searches the vampire’s Gothic household lair (where Skorzeny’s latest victim is held captive as his personal blood bank), is the quintessence of thrilling suspense.

Thanks to the success of the film, the Kolchak character would develop into a pop cultural icon, appearing in a subsequent made-for-TV movie, a short-running but long-revered TV series, and countless works of fiction. Forty-nine years later, though, it is still The Night Stalker that represents the height of Kolchak’s story-hunting, monster-encountering glory.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#15, #14, #13

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

15. “Hell’s Event” (from Vol. 2)

The damnation game’s afoot in this fast-moving piece in which an ostensible London charity event to raise money for Cancer Research actually serves as a high-stakes race between humanity and the denizens of Hell (which is hoping to claim as its winner’s purse “enough souls to keep it busy with perdition another age”). The grim fates suffered by the various human runners as they are tracked down one by one by Hell’s representative give the narrative the feel of an 80’s slasher film, but Barker is also interested in making social commentary here. The black character Joel Jones, who has caught wise mid-race to the infernal shenanigans transpiring, thinks: “And he was not afraid of darkness; he was painted in it. Wasn’t that what made him less than human as far as so many people were concerned? Or more, more than human; bloodier, sweatier, fleshier. More arm, more leg, more head. More strength, more appetite. What could Hell do? Eat him? He’d taste foul on the palate. Freeze him? He was too hot-blooded, too fast, too living.” But the real horror, and the real joy, of the story comes from Barker’s depictions of devilish creatures (with features like “a fan of knives” or an animate wound–“oily bone locking and unlocking like the face of a crab”) and the icy Ninth-Circle hellmouth (in the bowels of London building) from which they spring.

 

14. “The Age of Desire” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

This sexually-charged recreation of the Frankenstein myth forms one of the most realistic (i.e. non-supernatural) and frightfully plausible narratives in the Books of Blood canon. What begins as your basic police procedural (the investigation of a murder scene at a laboratory) steadily unfolds into something darker and more disturbing.  Jerome, a nondescript everyman, transforms into a human monster and goes on a rampage of indiscriminate rape after volunteering as a research subject for a potent aphrodisiac drug (one that “operates directly on the sexual imagination, on the libido”). Following his escape from the lab, Jerome commits a slew of sexual violence, against others as well upon himself (in a scene guaranteed to make any male reader cringe, Jerome rakes his own member bloody while humping away at a niche in a brick wall). But like Mary Shelley before him, Barker elicits sympathy for his murderous monster, the tragic victim of a mad doctor. Some of the most moving sections of the story are those that delve into Jerome’s “spinning, eroticized brain” and present his viewpoint, his ecstatic yet catastrophic state as he is immolated from within by his uncontrollable, artificially-stoked lust.

 

13. “Pig Blood Blues” (from Vol. 1)

Barker’s poetics and politics are clearly revealed in this early Books of Blood entry. The setting of Tetherdowne is called “a Remand Center for Adolescent Offenders but it was near as dammit a prison.” This bastion of “Law and Order” doesn’t appeal to the protagonist, the new employee Redman, who–in a passage that serves as a perfect gloss for Barker’s colorful and uninhibited artistry–thinks: “Minds weren’t pictures at an exhibition, all numbered, and numbered in order of influence, one marked ‘Cunning,’ the next ‘Impressionable.’ They were scrawls; they were sprawling splashes of graffiti, unpredictable, unconfinable.” A place of entrapment and an unsettlingly repressive institution, Tetherdowne grows even more Gothic as a site of violent death, ghostly return, and the monstrous presence of a possessed, man-eating sow (beautiful and grotesque, “a seductress on trotters,” the beast is both feared and worshiped by the cult-like boys remanded to the prison-farm). “Pig Blood Blues” reads throughout like a mix of “Children of the Corn” and Lord of the Flies, but in its gruesome conclusion reaches the level of true, Wicker Man horrific-ness.

 

 

Lore Report: “Shell Game” (Episode 161)

 

Life, just like Viking graves, is often full of surprises. But one thing is certain: warriors have always lived lives of pain and suffering and death. Every battle had the potential to be their last. And when faced with all that risk and fear, those warriors found ways to cope, often through the stories they shared. And, yes, those stories from the battlefield can be frightening, and sometimes even drove people mad. But if we want to dig into them, we need to be aware of an undeniable truth: sometimes the darkest places to look for folklore are also the most dangerous.

Episode 161 of the Lore podcast furnishes another answer to the question posed in the classic Edwin Starr song: what war is really good for is the development of folklore. Host Aaron Mahnke begins by surveying the relevant figures from Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology, and then outlines the types of soldierly superstitions that have arisen throughout history (e.g., premonitions of death, use of charms, alleged assistance by ghostly figures). A significant portion of the episode is devoted to the angels said to have rallied to the cause of British forces in the World War I Battle of Mons; the narrative grows even more intriguing by its entanglement with a contemporaneous weird tale written by Arthur Machen. The concluding segment shares some positively ghoulish lore surrounding the trench-warfare notion of “No Man’s Land.” Because battlefield superstition is such a fertile topic, one wishes that Mahnke had dug up a few more stories like this, but listeners will still find “Shell Game” well worth playing.

 

Comparatively Harrowing

2020 was one hell of a year (or, more accurately, a year of hell). Just remember, though: things could always be worse…

 

Comparatively Harrowing

By Joe Nazare

 

Imagine the horrors depicted by Edwards’ venomous sermon,
His Puritanical harangue of the many listeners congregated:
Visions of the wicked held dangling by a slender metaphysical thread,
Precariously poised between a loathing Jehovah fired with wrath
And the devils perennially ready to catch those downcast into lasting misery.
No great comfort, for sure, to receive such a nightmarish awakening,
A rhetorical tour de force that ostensibly steers toward redemption
Yet sounds utterly fixated on the stark graphics of damnation.

Then consider that evocation of infliction preferable to this classic alternative,
A grim myth of torment, as later captured by the Goya portrait:
Shaggy Cronus grown savagely carnivorous in his averting of prophecy,
His Titan eyes wide and wild with monstrous insecurity
As he insists on capitally punishing his own innocent offspring.
Yes, better the whiff of brimstone than the coppery stench of shed crimson;
Cooking over the Pit couldn’t be any more hellish than serving as a raw recruit,
Seized up and gorily reduced, dinner in the hands of a mad god.

 

Fearful Year

In hindsight, 2020 was a year-long horror marathon, marked by a raging pandemic, just-as-rampant paranoia, mindless violence, and social chaos. Fortunately, for those looking to escape from real-world nightmares, or those who’d rather reflect on them through the prism of fiction, this year produced many outstanding works in the horror genre. With the year drawing to a close, laudatory lists are popping up all over the Internet. Here are some of the “best of” compilations that denizens of the Macabre Republic won’t want to miss:

Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2020

Den of Geek: The Best Horror Movies of 2020

Film School Rejects: The 20 Best Horror Movies of 2020

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Most Gruesome, Disturbing, and Stomach-Churning Moments in 2020’s Horror Movies!

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Coolest, Creepiest, and Downright Best Horror Movie Posters of 2020

The Lineup: The Best Horror Podcasts of 2020

The Lineup: 15 Best Horror Books of 2020

Book Riot: 16 Best Horror Books of 2020 You Don’t Want to Miss

WatchMojo: Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2020

WatchMojo: Top 10 Scariest Scenes of 2020

Mob Scene: “The Crowd”

Curiosity killed the catastrophe sufferer.

The eponymous ensemble in Ray Bradbury’s 1943 short story “The Crowd” appears seemingly out of nowhere, and arrives too quickly at the scene of traffic accidents: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” Honing in on a big bang, the amassing crowd is like “an explosion in reverse, the fragments of a detonation sucked back to the point of impulsion.” Matters grow more uncanny when Bradbury’s protagonist, the car crash survivor Spallner, discovers in his obsessive investigations the same set of faces looming over victims at random accident scenes over the years. Spallner isn’t sure if these figures manifesting “at any public demonstration of this thing called death” are “vultures, hyenas, or saints.” By tale’s end, Spallner (after getting into a second wreck) comes to suspect that the crowd is comprised of the specters of past accident victims. Worse, they seem to be stealthy murderers, who dispatch the wounded under the guise of assistance (e.g. moving the body of someone with a spinal injury).

Bradbury’s classic story demonstrates that not all mobs operate via the lofting of torch and pitchfork. Their menace exists less in their othering impulse than in their smothering impulse. In the final paragraphs, an incapacitated Spallner looks up at the grim witnesses of his predicament and thinks, “You’re the crowd that’s always in the way, using up good air that a dying man’s lungs are in need of, using up space he should be using to lie in alone. Tramping on people to make sure they die, that’s you.”

“The Crowd” takes a commonplace idea–the propensity for gawkers to gather in morbid curiosity at accident scenes–and adds a supernatural/sinister twist. Bradbury also touches on something primal here, reminding readers that to be human is to be born into disadvantage: throughout life, every individual is grossly outnumbered by other people. This is quite a daunting notion, even if such multitudes (contra “The Crowd”) don’t prove to be something other than people.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked: #18, #17, #16

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

18. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” (from Vol. 2)

In the most overtly feminist tale in the Books of Blood, the eponymous housewife attempts to escape “the boredom, the drudgery, the frustration” of her life via suicide; her wrist-slitting fails to prove fatal, but Jacqueline succeeds in developing the paranormal ability to bend/rend flesh with her thoughts. From here, she proceeds to transform her condescending male therapist into a woman, and her adultery-blathering husband Ben is fantastically compressed, “shut up into a space about the size of one of his fine leather suitcases, while blood, bile, and lymphatic fluid pulsed weakly from his hushed body.” The Cronenbergian extreme of body horror, though, is reached when Jacqueline reorganizes her deliberately-abusive, death-wishing lover Titus, “his hands knotted into paws, his legs scooped up around his back, knees broken so he had the look of a four-legged crab, his brain exposed, his eyes lidless, lower jaw broken and swept up over his top jaw like a bulldog, ears torn off, spine snapped, humanity bewitched into another state.” With its erotically-charged and graphic mix of sex and violence, the narrative of Jacqueline Ess (who at one point sprouts “needles she’d made out of her own skin and muscle, like a flesh cactus”) anticipates Barker’s The Hellbound Heart and HellraiserThe lovestruck Oliver, who grows obsessed with Jacqueline, even voices the proto-Cenobite sentiment that “with her, there were no limits.”

 

17. “The Inhuman Condition” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Another narrative forerunner of Hellraiser, with its unnerving vagrant character Pope and its featuring of a puzzle whose solving releases fantastic monsters. Pope initially seems a mere street bum, but gradually emerges as a twisted “priest” after a quartet of thugs harass him, and the least objectionable of them (the protagonist Karney) pockets Pope’s string of knots. The cord itself proves quite uncanny: Karney experiences “a bewildering sensation of intentionality” in it, as the knots find “their surreptitious way into his hand” and begin to tease themselves loose after Karney compulsively plucks at them. Barker’s tale builds in a series of suspenseful set pieces, corresponding with the emergence of each grotesque creature. But for all the bloody mayhem they cause, these monsters ultimately are not painted as villains; that role is reserved for Pope himself, an arcane Cain who has spellbound his own brother in the knots, forcing him to suffer an evolutionary split into “reptile, ape, and child.” And despite his own character flaws, Karney proves a quintessential Barker hero in his determination to transcend banality and embrace the sublime. Recognizing the threat posed by the dark magic embraided in the cord, Karney continues to probe at the puzzle regardless: “just to die a little less ignorant of mysteries than he’d been born” makes the very risk worth taking.

 

16. “How Spoilers Bleed” (from Vol. 6)

Stephen King’s Thinner meets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this harrowing tale of biters bit (or more accurately, spoilers spoiled). A group of racist, land-grabbing Europeans descend upon a native tribe in the Amazon jungle (a confounding locale that, from the invaders’ perspective, threatens to “rot reason altogether”) and end up cursed by a vengeful tribal elder following the fatal shooting of a young Indian boy. The Europeans’ moral corruption is literalized, transformed into a physical disease, as they grow putrescent as overripe fruit. They are ravaged by everything they encounter, no matter how incidental the contact or infinitesimal the object. The innocent rub of his shirt against the murderous Cherrick’s skin chafes “his nerve endings. The shirt might have been sackcloth, the way it abraded him.” A beetle’s “imperceptible tread” on the forehead leaves a “trail of tiny wounds,” and in a climactic bit of spectacular comeuppance, the hapless character Stumpf is scourged by dust motes and skin flakes that hit him like “a hail of minute razors.” There’s message in all this messiness, though, as Barker’s narrative offers cutting remarks on greed and materialism, cultural oppression and genocide.