Variety Is the Slice of Life

Written and directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, Late Night with the Devil boasts a terrifically clever premise. The film frames itself as a documentary dealing with a notorious episode of the late night variety show Night Owls with Jack Delroy. It offers up “the recently discovered master tape of what went to air that night, as well as previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage.” “That night” was October 31st, 1977, a sweeps-week special episode not just content to “celebrate all the fiendish fun of Halloween.” The episode represents Delroy’s desperate attempt to resuscitate his show and boost his career–his last-ditch effort to unseat Johnny Carson as the ratings king of late night television.

The Cairnes brothers bask in the retro, perfectly capturing the1970’s America mise-en-scène. Late Night‘s look–the clothes, the hairstyles, the set design (suffused with brown and orange hues), the video graphics–is spot on. Timely references to figures such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Reggie Jackson, President Jimmy Carter, and Burt Reynolds are made. Fictional characters in the film are recognizably based on real-world models: the medium/spiritualist Christou recalls both Criswell and the Amazing Kreskin; reformed magician and current debunker of the occult Carmichael Haig forms an obvious James Randi stand-in; the satanic leader of the First Church of Abraxas, Szandor D’Abo, echoes Anton Szandor LaVey. The result of all this commitment to verisimilitude is the easy suspension of disbelief as the viewer imagines that an actual television show is playing before the eye.

Indeed, the sustained intimacy of the film’s tv-studio setting reels the audience in; brush with the uncanny/occult feels like it is occurring live and in lurid color. Suspense builds steadily, especially after the first guest Christou, an apparent fraud, experiences genuine distress (physical as well as psychic) and must be rushed to the hospital. Strong narrative tension is maintained, as the characters debate whether something truly supernatural is transpiring, or whether the sinister twists are the product of slyly calculated stagecraft. The apex of anxiousness is reached when the main guests are brought out: parapsychologist/author June Ross-Mitchell and her ward Lilly, the sole survivor of the Abraxas cult’s mass suicide and now the alleged earthly vessel of an infernal spirit. The Night Owls ratings ploy of attempting to summon up the demon dubbed Mr. Wiggles is nerve-wrackingly tense. This extended scene makes for one of the best evocations of the demoniac in modern horror.

Perhaps not shockingly given its talk show setting, Late Night displays a wicked sense of wit. Even the diabolical must capitulate to capitalism, as a deadpan Delroy tells his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned for a live-television first, as we attempt to commune with the Devil. But not before a word from our sponsors.” Wonderfully arch use is also made of the old-style “Experiencing Technical Difficulties” cutaway. All told, the film presents a barbed satire of the entertainment industry, as well as a cautionary tale about the awful price of ambition.

This is the kind of cinematic vehicle that can steer one of two ways: with its ambiguity (natural vs. supernatural explanation) left unresolved, or with all hell indisputably breaking loose at film’s end. I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that the latter direction is chosen here (considering that the documentary intro touts “the late night event that shocked a nation”). Yes, one can anticipate where matters are leading, but the fun resides in getting to that point, and then witnessing what happens once the excrement hits the proverbial fan. Horror lovers are certain to find all the climactic havoc savagely satisfying. Let me whet the appetite by stating: imagine if Regan MacNeil replaced Carrie White as bloody-minded prom queen.

Late Night is not a perfect effort. Its opening montage (for which Michael Ironside provides the voiceover) arguably supplies excess exposition, giving too much information away about Delroy’s dealings. The surrealism of the conclusion also denatures the found-footage trappings, as it seemingly shifts from documented tape evidence to Delroy’s subjective experience of a Faustian nightmare. Still, the film is wildly entertaining and features incredible performances: David Dastmalchian utterly captivates as host Jack Delroy, Ian Bliss is a joy to behold as the curmdugeonly Carmichael, and Ingrid Torelli nearly steals the whole damned show as the perky but mercurial Lilly. It’s also a film that rewards repeated viewing, as subtle glances and suggestive bits of dialogue grow more clearly meaningful the second time through. Stuffed with visual, verbal, and thematic echoes of classic horror fare such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s BabyLate Night with the Devil serves up a tasty snack that can be relished here tonight at the halfway-mark to Halloween or once again at the approach of the midnight hour at October’s end.

Late Night With the Devil is now playing in theaters, and also streaming on Shudder.

Ghostface Invocation: All the Scream References in The Angel of Indian Lake

Jade Daniels’s slasher-film passion clearly saturates the narratives of the Indian Lake Trilogy. When it comes to this horror genre, her namings are legion (as attested by the Letterboxd listings [1, 2, 3] of the various films mentioned in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper, and The Angel of Indian Lake). Jade’s notable cinematic go-to’s include the HalloweenNightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th series, and the films Just Before DawnJaws, and A Bay of Blood. But her (and author Stephen Graham Jones’s) favorite scary-movie franchise to cite arguably is Scream. Callbacks to the Kevin Williamson/Wes Craven creation are sounded throughout the novel trilogy, and nowhere more extensively than in The Angel of Indian Lake. Here is my Letterboxd-inspired attempt to quote (without plot spoilers) the various Scream echoes in Jones’s latest Jade Daniels book:

1. It’s Monday, not Friday, meaning no pep rally for football. nobody pulled the fire alarm. It’s not senior skip day, , and Banner hasn’t instituted some curfew to keep everyone safe–there’s no reason to. Ghostface isn’t out there slicing and dicing. (p. 26)

2. “Dwight,” I say down to this junior on his knees.
He probably thinks it’s a Dewey reference, but I’m really calling him Brad Pitt from Cutting Class. Because that’s what he’s doing.
“Um, Trent, ma’am,” he stammers, trying to peel out of the glittery Father Death robe he’s now tangled in. (p.31)

3. After taking attendance and passing back quizzes and peeling up the Post-it notes stuck to [ ___ and ___ ‘s] seats–“Casey” and Steve” respectively, fourth time in two weeks–we finally dial the lights down […]. (p. 38)

4. I was going to be that janitor working a mop in Scream, waiting for Principal Himbry to surprise me. (p. 39)

5. “Do you like scary movies?” someone behind me says, not with a voice-changer, but with that same kind of murderous chuckle that promises the game’s only beginning here. (p. 52)

6. One says Casey, one says Steve.
Casey who was gutted and hung from her childhood swing, Steve who was tied to a chair in his letterman jacket and gutted just the same. (p. 53)

7. Of note is that both Ms. Daniels and Dr. Watts have agreed to wear “Ghostface” masks (not robes) for these sessions, so as to promote “honest talk.” (p. 54-55)

8. “This isn’t public knowledge,” Banner whispers, eyes darting around Dewey-style. (p. 61)

9. Next time we see [ ___ ], he might look like Dewey from the second-to-last Scream: grey, grizzled, a sort of wince to his step. (p. 71)

10. “A Cassandra’s someone doomed to know the truth but nobody believes her. I’m like the sidekick, the Randy. Good for a little comedy breather, some out-loud exposition, but ultimately not a real factor.” (p. 75)

11. It is how slashers like to open: a Barry and Claudette going down, a Casey and Steve deader than dead. (p. 91)

12. She’s in a pale nightgown, is barefoot, and isn’t moving with the [ ___ ] crowd. Rather, everyone’s flowing around her, their eyes across the lake.
“Maureen Prescott,” I mumble.
Sidney’s mom, from the third Scream(p. 113)

13. But, on the napping couch that day, when I finally made the connection Chin wanted me to make, I looked down to my feet to see if I had tiny skulls painted on my black toenails or what–more like Ghostfaces, thanks–and kind of wiggled my toes in greeting to myself, and… (p. 131)

14. I’ve seen a Casey strung up from a tree by her guts, though. I’ve been in that cell Rod died in.
No thank you, Mr. Craven, Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cunningham. I’m fine being on the outside for once. (p. 137)

15. “I don’t even like that movie.”
“You don’t like Scream? How can someone not like Scream?” (p. 145)

16. Like I have to, I flash on the first time seeing Principal Himbry in Scream, and how, for a moment, it was definitely him chewing through the senior class. But I guess The Faculty would cover that soon enough. (p. 148)

17. I was always meant to be Randy, a Cassandra, a Clear, never the Sidney, never the Laurie, the Nancy. And, I might worship at the shrine of Ripley, sure, but nobody gets to be her. (p. 148)

18. You were always trying to get me to buy into that one, Mr. Holmes, but I always had Sidney and Billy in my head, picking their genre. (p. 156)

19. Gale Weathers is staring right into her new camera man’s camera, she doesn’t care how beat up she looks after this Hell Night, what she looks like is a SURVIVOR, one with Friends now, and what she’s telling the world is that the Dark Night of the Scarecrow is over. (p. 182)

20. By reluctant degrees, I crank my head over, my neck popping in the process, Billy-style. (p. 187) Continue reading

Daytime Nightmares Paired

In this neck of the Macabre Republic at least, this afternoon’s much-hyped solar eclipse proved to be a dud. If today’s celestial event also left you feeling underwhelmed, then you might find a more thrilling experience by turning back three decades–to the literary rendition of a total eclipse in the linked Stephen King novels Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne.

The dark curtain that the July 20, 1963, eclipse drew down over King’s Maine landscape cloaked some seriously illicit acts: premeditated murder (of Dolores Claiborne’s drunken, abusive husband) and traumatizing molestation (of ten-year-old Jessie Burlingame by her own father). False nightfall also gives rise to some truly strange conditions, as the protagonists of the respective novels are able to glimpse (via enhancement of the mind’s eye) moments of their counterpart’s ordeal. The path of the eclipse appears to cut straight through The Twilight Zone.

Aside from such Gothic/uncanny plot elements, King also darkens our encounter of this eclipse with passages of memorably creepy description. In Gerald’s Game, the “premature twilight, both entrancing and horrifying” triggers the untimely and “very scary sound” of an “old hooty-owl” crying out in the woods (King’s subtle nod to Manly Wade Wellman’s Dark Forces story titled “Owls Hoot in the Daytime”?). Jesse is further unnerved by the eclipse’s unusual optical effects: “What scares her the most is the way [her and her dad’s] shadows on the deck are fading. She has never seen shadows fade quite like that before, and is almost positive she never will again.”

Dolores Claiborne, meanwhile, lends the eclipse a dark fantastic aspect. The eponymous narrator’s depiction of the benighted heavens hearkens back to Tolkien. Sauron’s evilly omniscient and captivating Eye is ostensibly matched by the outré orb Dolores observes:

The eclipse wasn’t total yet, but it was close. The sky itself was a deep royal purple, and what I saw hangin in it above the reach looked like a big black pupil with a gauzy veil of fire spread out most of the way around it. On one side there was a thin crescent of sun still left, like beads of molten gold in a blast furnace. I had no business lookin at such a sight and I knew it, but once I had, it seemed like I couldn’t look away.

Two unique narratives conjoined by central astronomical device, Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne clearly demonstrate that when it comes to giving an unsettling twist to a natural phenomenon, there is no eclipsing King.

 

Third Time a Final Girl: A Review of The Angel of Indian Lake

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2024)

“The Savage History of Proofrock, Idaho” (as aptly dubbed by a student’s video essay in the book’s opening) gets an added chapter, in this final installment of The Indian Lake Trilogy. Genre savant Stephen Graham Jones pens another novelistic love letter to horror fans, and once again proves himself a master of devising/revising the slasher narrative. Readers are guaranteed to laugh out loud, to cry (Jones is as skilled as an Ultimate Fighting Champion when it comes to hitting his audience squarely in the feels), to cheer dramatic acts of heroism, and to cringe at the bursts of graphic violence (e.g. “She folds over holding onto the axe handle but [ ___ ] pulls it back to him, Tall Boots’s intestines unspooling like a long meaty tapeworm she’s been keeping secret since second grade”).

Like its predecessors, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the ReaperAngel begins as a bit of a slow burn (the expected opening-scene slayings notwithstanding). Jones takes the time to (re-)establish his characters (the major players and the potential red herrings) and to plant his plot stakes (sketching the circumstances that furnish the requisite isolation; in this instance, it’s a raging forest fire that’s “giving these killings a cover to keep happening”). Once the dominoes are all set in place, though, and the tipping point is reached, the narrative is all hurtling momentum. Former nemeses resurface (in perfectly Gothic fashion, the past refuses to stay dead and buried in Proofrock) and new final girls rise to the violent occasion. Several levels of mystery rivet reader interest, starting with the basic question of what sort of hell has broken loose here–how to explain the series of bizarre deaths (many seeming to result from barehanded decapitation)? Who is the antagonist running around wearing Ghostface (masks)? And who constitutes the title character, the apparent apparition (sporting a “tattered white nightgown and J-horror hair”) reportedly making the town’s environs its haunt? From start to finish, Jones impressively orchestrates his novel’s plot, offering call backs galore and giving familiar story beats fresh resonance.

Angel picks up four years after the events of Reaper, with protagonist Jade Daniels (recently released from her latest prison stint) now back in Proofrock working as the history teacher at Henderson High. She bears plentiful scars from her past two runs through a “slasher cycle,” and is still dealing with the emotional/psychological toll of those prior experiences (Jade pops pills prescribed for “panic attacks,” “social anxiety,” “depression,” and “PTSD”). But she remains a font of slasher knowledge, as cinematic fantasy continues to form both an armor against the harsh realities of life and a special weapon that helps her survive the killing field into which Proofrock has once again transformed. Throughout the trilogy, Jones has experimented with narrative viewpoint, and the bulk of Angel is written in the first-person present, with the unfolding mayhem filtered through Jade’s thoughtstream. This is the closest the reader could possibly get with Jade, and her legions of fans will no doubt relish the intimacy.

Like the two earlier volumes, Angel includes inter-chapter segments. This time they are presented as “reports of investigation” by the Baker Solutions investigative firm (which is attempting to prove that Jade’s community activism has shaded off into criminal vandalism). The official nature of these reports makes them less entertaining than the “Slasher 101”-style essays in Chainsaw and Reaper, but the reports deftly spool out exposition (and have some moving surprises nested within). They also reward the astute reader by embedding key clues to the book’s mysteries.

In Angel, Jones does not shy away from pointed criticism, but never approaches preachiness (recurrent targets: the evils masked by Christianity, and America’s ignominious expansion into the West). The author also continues to interrogate the final girl figure, mining new insight into her nature and significance. Once again, Jade–older, wearier, leerier–is the last person to envision herself as a final girl, yet for the third and ultimate time she proves her metal-AF mettle. Verbally witty and amazingly resilient, brave and vulnerable, badass and tender-hearted, Jade is an unforgettable protagonist, and Angel gives her a legendary send-off.

In the book’s acknowledgment section (which reads like an ultra-informative afterword), Jones states that he felt the need to go “shriekier and gorier” in the trilogy finale. To that end, his book is a screaming success. For all its splattery chaos, the novel nicely ties up loose ends; events from previous volumes receive retroactive explanation, and the closing pages of Angel hearken all the way back to the opening chapter of Chainsaw. Jones brings his Indian Lake Trilogy to an absolutely satisfying conclusion, where the only bittersweet element lies in the realization that this is the end of Jade’s story. Some solace, though: this final girl seems destined to reappear in new form–in the hopefully-near-future adaptation (whether as film trilogy or streaming series) that Jones’s slasher narratives demand.

You wouldn’t want to live (or die) in Proofrock, but it’s a wonderful place to visit, in any shape or form. There might never be another horror locale to match its dark majesty or boast such a rousing heroine in residence.

 

Mob Scene: Thanksgiving

Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day, but tonight Dispatches from the Macabre Republic returns by celebrating Thanksgiving.

Eli Roth’s 2023 film evinces an astute awareness of slasher formula. Its extended opening sets up a genre-specific plot, one quintessentially driven by revenge (to quote slasher savant Jade Daniels, in Stephen Graham Jones’s 2022 Stoker-Award-winning novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw: “years ago there was some prank or crime that hurt someone and then the slasher comes back to dispense his violent brand of justice”). Thanksgiving takes this inciting prank/crime element, and elaborates it into a full-blown mob scene.

Getting the jump on Black Friday sales, the local RightMart in Plymouth, Massachusetts, decides to open up at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving night. A seething crowd gathers outside in anticipation (“Let us in or you’ll be a patient–in Mass General,” one hooligan intones when a RightMart security guard begs the crowd members to remain patient). When the film’s protagonist Jessica (daughter of the store owner) sneaks her friends in through the employee entrance ten minutes early, those still waiting outside the front doors do not react kindly. A regrettable act of taunting amidst this premature shopping spree precipitates a store-storming riot. Immediate pandemonium breaks out as the crowd stampedes in, a battle royale of brawling and looting. Employees are trampled, an innocent bystander suffers a gruesome arm-mangling, and the wife of the store manager (tragically caught in the wrong place/time) is mowed down by a rogue shopping cart–then partially scalped by one of its wheels for bad measure.

Roth’s mob scene is brilliantly orchestrated, spotlighting the darkest impulses of the store crowd. The gonzo violence only accentuates the satire of human callousness and consumerist greed. In hindsight, the scene also subtly clues viewers in to the identity of the subsequent (John-Carver-masked) slasher who manifests the following Thanksgiving season and wreaks bloody, holiday-themed havoc on the RightMart wrongdoers.

A wickedly witty slasher that offers up a grisly yet satisfying course of revenge, Thanksgiving can currently be streamed on Netflix.

 

Horror on the Horizon

Another year just begun, and the same old adage: Quot libros, quam breve tempus.

Here are 15 books scheduled for release in 2024 that I can’t wait to read (unless otherwise noted, descriptions are drawn from each book’s dedicated Amazon page).

 

The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste (S&S/Saga Press, March 5th)

From Bram Stoker Award­–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a chilling novel about three childhood friends who miraculously survive the night everyone in their suburban hometown turned into ghosts—perfect for fans of Yellowjackets.

 

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, March 26th)

The final installment in the most lauded trilogy in the history of horror novels picks up four years after Don’t Fear the Reaper as Jade returns to Proofrock, Idaho, to build a life after the years of sacrifice—only to find the Lake Witch is waiting for her in New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones’s finale.

 

A Better World by Sarah Langan (Atria Books, April 9th)

The author of Good Neighbors, “one of the creepiest, most unnerving deconstructions of American suburbia I’ve ever read” (NPR), returns with a cunning, out-of-the-box satirical thriller about a family’s odyssey into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy that might not be as ideal as it seems.

 

Midwestern Gothic by Scott Thomas (Inkshares, April 30th)

Close your eyes. Picture open plains, wheat stalks swaying gently in the wind. Picture the quaint Main Street of a one-stoplight town. Picture endless summers on sunny, tranquil lakes. With four provocative novellas, Kill Creek author and Kansas native Scott Thomas takes a hatchet to the idyllic tropes of the American heartland.

 

No One is Safe! by Phillip Fracassi (Lethe Press, April)

NO ONE IS SAFE presents fourteen stories of macabre, pulpy terror; a book filled with futuristic noir mysteries, science fiction thrillers, alien invasions, and old-school horror tales that will keep you up late into the night. Inside these covers, you’ll discover haunted dream journals and evil houses, birthday wishes gone wrong, a neighborhood cat that cures any disease, a flesh-eating beach, and mysterious skeletons on a hidden moon base. You’ll meet wise-cracking detectives, suburban vampires, murdered movie stars, and monsters of the deep. And remember—don’t get too attached to the characters you’ll meet on these pages because there’s no holding back in this book. Anything can happen, and no one is safe. Featuring an introduction by Ronald Malfi. [Lethe Press book description]

 

The House That Horror Built by Christina Henry (Berkley, May 14th)

A single mother working in the gothic mansion of a reclusive horror director stumbles upon terrifying secrets in the captivating new novel from the national bestselling author of Good Girls Don’t Die and Horseman.

 

You Like It Darker by Stephen King (Scribner, May 21st)

From legendary storyteller and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary new collection of twelve short stories, many never-before-published, and some of his best EVER.

 

Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow, June 11th)

A chilling twist on the “cursed film” genre from the bestselling author of The Pallbearers Club and The Cabin at the End of the World.

 

Incidents Around the House by Josh Malerman (Del Rey, June 25th)

A chilling horror novel about a haunting, told from the perspective of a young girl whose troubled family is targeted by an entity she calls “Other Mommy,” from the New York Times bestselling author of Bird Box.

 

I Was a Teenage Slasher by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, July 16th)

From New York Times bestselling horror writer Stephen Graham Jones comes a classic slasher story with a twist—perfect for fans of Riley Sager and Grady Hendrix.

 

Witchcraft for Wayward Girls by Grady Hendrix (Berkley, July 16th)

The latest horror comedy from bestseller Hendrix takes readers to a home for teen mothers in 1970s Florida, where five denizens discover latent talents for witchcraft. [Jump Scares book description]

 

Clown in a Cornfield 3: The Church of Frendo by Adam Cesare (HarperCollins, August 20th)

Quinn has just survived yet another bloody run-in with the murderous clown Frendo, but somehow still she knows this won’t be the last. Tired of being hunted and seeing innocent people hurt, Quinn believes the only way to beat the horror is to take justice into her own hands–and stop the Frendo followers herself. Little does she know that this path will take her across cornfields and state lines, to where she will have to face the most dangerous and bloody menace yet: True believers.

 

Crypt of the Moon Spider by Nathan Ballinggrud (Tor Nightfire, August 27th)

Book 1 of the Lunar Gothic Trilogy: a dark and dreamy tale of horror, corruption, and identity spun into the stickiest of webs.

 

Not a Speck of Light by Laird Barron (Bad Hand Books, September 10th)

Bram Stoker Award-winning author Laird Barron returns to the dark and dreadful with his fifth horror collection, which weaves sixteen weird tales into a mosaic of the bloody and the macabre.

 

The Unlikely Affair of the Crawling Razor by Joe R. Lansdale (Subterranean Press, release date TBA)

Edgar Allan Poe’s great private investigator, Auguste Dupin, gets a make-over in this unusual adventure involving a bloody mystery dipped deep in the strange.

A young woman comes to Dupin and his assistant for help concerning her increasingly obsessed brother; obsessed with the dark world that sets alongside our own, where strange creatures dwell and even stranger events occur. A world where our laws of physics are no longer applicable. A world with its own geometry of evil. It’s the place from which all our nightmares spring.

And now that dimensional world, due to spells and sacrifices, is wide open into our own, releasing the deadliest denizen of the dark—The God of the Razor.  It’s a case that will require all of Dupin’s knowledge and the highest courage from his faithful assistant, as they traverse the Parisian streets, as well as the famous Catacombs of skulls and bones, in search of answers. [Subterranean Press book description]

 

For the most comprehensive compendium of pending publications, check out Jump Scares’ 2024’s New Horror Books.

 

Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Persistently Sinister: The 20th Anniversary Edition of Sara Gran’s Come Closer

Sara Gran’s 2003 novel Come Closer is one of the most revered texts in the modern horror genre. As such, it has long been on my radar, but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never read it until recently. Thankfully, though, Soho Press’s release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the book prompted me to rectify my extended error.

Gran’s short novel–whose protagonist Amanda believes she is possessed by a ferocious, fanged female demon named Naamah–offers a masterclass in unreliable narration. Has Amanda been genuinely invaded by a force of outside evil, or is she just replete with her own inner demons, someone who finally gives in to her most impish impulses? Amanda attributes a “subtle” seduction to Naamah: “This mental voice is new, it’s a sound you’re not accustomed to hearing in your own head, but it’s not that different either, it’s done a good job of imitating your own silent voice and you like what it’s saying.” But the truest subtlety here might be Gran’s, as the author suggests that the perceived possession could be a delusion–a convenient eschewing of responsibility for all the vice and violence to which Amanda resorts. There is also a crafted ambiguity to the novel’s titular dictate: do these two words stem from Naamah, eager to draw her targeted subject into her demonic embrace, or from the lonely and unsatisfied Amanda, who on a fundamental level welcomes the idea of having “someone to love me, and never leave me alone”?

Come Closer has been hailed widely as one of the most frightening books written over the past two decades. Such buzz perhaps set me up for disappointment, as Amanda’s account proved less exquisitely unnerving than I anticipated. Granted, different readers have different triggers; as a lapsed Catholic, I don’t put much stock in the diabolical and don’t dread the malicious attention of a demon as a more devout believer might. Likewise, I can recognize that this book–in which Amanda loses control over her own body, and frequently awakens from blackouts following Naamah’s bawdy binges to find herself “naked and shivering in bed with a man I had never seen before”–will hit much closer to home with a female audience. That being said, the horror here appears to be compromised somewhat by the diaristic format. Yes, unease steadily mounts as Naamah’s seeming influence over Amanda grows more pronounced, but the sequence of short chapters prevents the narrative from achieving sustained suspense. Undoubtedly, some chilling incidents are presented (Amanda’s attempted drowning of a young girl already struggling to stay afloat; her apparent savaging of an obnoxious newsstand-operator with a boxcutter), yet these other characters are so thinly sketched by Amanda that the reader (this one, at least) fails to find their plight especially terrifying. What I actually found most evocative were the scenes centered on Amanda’s burgeoning psychic powers (byproduct of her demonic possession). She experiences ghostly glimpses of past acts of human depravity, and grows painfully attuned to suffering: “A vintage yellow dress I had saved for special occasions now made me nauseated–its previous owner had been a drunk, and when I wore it I felt my liver burn with cirrhosis.”

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that pleasantly surprised me. First, its dark humor: just as Naamah takes wicked delight in tormenting her host, Gran herself seems to revel in the opportunity to satirize the spiritualist entrepreneurs who attempt to “depossess” Amanda. There is also a strong feminist undercurrent to the narrative. Naamah claims to be the rejected second wife of Adam (the world’s original male), mentored in demonism by Adam’s first wife Lilith, who “wasn’t good enough at all, she wouldn’t lie down and take it, and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told.” One cannot overlook the fact that a female demon is employed as the possessing entity in this novel, allowing Gran to rework the more rapacious/salacious Pazuzu-inside-Regan dynamics of a canonical text such as The Exorcist.

In hindsight, Gran’s novel neatly aligns with a long tradition of American Gothic fiction. Characters obsessively trying to locate the source of strange noises within the walls of their home hearken back to the narrator’s desperate probing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Amanda’s suspicion that the doctors she visits are secret Satanists constitutes an unmistakable allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. There’s also a strong Fight Club vibe here, from the squalid neighborhood Amanda first lives in to the mental institution that she finally haunts at book’s end.

The 20th Anniversary Edition includes a new Postscript purporting to be “A Note from the Editors” of 2003’s Come Closer–a device that lends an added air of verisimilitude to the preceding novel. This Postscript also furthers the deliberate ambiguity and boundary-blurring of Amanda’s narrative. “In order to help the afflicted, the ruminating, and the confused,” the Editors state, “we have provided this series of questions and answers to illuminate, educate, and, hopefully, keep readers on the correct path.” But the structuring quickly breaks down, as the responding Editors prove perhaps even more disturbed than those seeking their guidance.

Come Closer might not be the scariest book published in the past twenty years, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying the horror genre has offered. Like the best of Poe’s work, its artful complexity–its vacillation between supernatural and psychological explanation–encourages continuous scrutiny. Ultimately, the book’s enticing title might be interpreted as an open invitation to attentive readers, those willing to expose themselves to utter engrossment.

 

Devilish Details: The 7 Wickedest Inflictions in Dante’s Inferno

For those of you bemoaning this late-November holiday and dreading having to suffer the company of your relatives, just remember: it could always be a lot worse. Dante furnished unnerving reminder of this seven centuries ago in his classic compendium of severe yet suitable punishments. As a Thanksgiving Day special Dispatch from the Macabre Republic, here are my choices for the seven worst, most cursed fates in the Inferno–ones I’d be forever thankful to avoid.

 

7.Torment of the Barrators (Canto XXI)

The Fifth Pouch of the Malebolge combines the worst that the underworld has to offer: passive languishing and active torture. Sinners stew in a “thick and tarry mass” of boiling pitch, and when they surface, gasping for air, they are mercilessly pronged by armed guard-demons. Dante’s image of a cook’s urchins “forc[ing] the meat with hooks / deep down into the pot, that it not float” drives home the point of just how horrid this torment must be.

 

6.Torment of the Arch-Heretics (Canto IX)

In the Sixth Circle of Hell, “a spreading plain / of lamentation and atrocious pain” sports sinner-stuffed sepulchers kindled to a “glowing heat” by scattered flames. Consciousness of claustrophobic internment and the sense of impending roasting–this nightmarish situation reads like something Poe might dream up (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum”).

 

5.Torment of the Alchemists (Canto IXXIX)

Sinners–“each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs”– within the final patch of the Malebolge scratch themselves furiously yet futilely. No sooner is one scab clawed off than another crusted wound replaces it. Just thinking about the woeful Alchemists obsessing over their maddening, unrelenting itches makes me squirm in my seat.

 

4.Torment of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism (Canto XXVIII)

Clive Barker’s Cenobites seem to trace their ancestry back to the Eighth-Circle, Ninth-Pouch demon that disembowels and dismembers victims with his sword. Dante catalogues woundings of the utmost grotesquerie: one sinner’s face is “opened wide from chin to forelock,” another walks around “with both his hands hacked off,” while a Headless Horseman forerunner carries his own severed head “just like a lantern.”

 

3.Torment of Traitors Against Their Benefactors (Canto XXXIV)

The demons and assorted monsters of the Inferno are awful in their own wrong-punishing right, but imagine being personally tormented for all eternity by Lucifer himself. Such is the fate of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, each chewed down on by the “gnashing teeth” of the titanic, Saturn-like Satan (the clawed “emperor of the despondent kingdom” also subjects Judas to flaying: “his back was stripped completely of its hide”). Add in an icy cold climate for bad measure, and this all sounds utterly unbearable to me.

 

2.Torment of the Simonists (Canto XIX) 

These sinners are planted head-down inside holes in rock, with only their lower limbs showing. Their extremities are exposed to extreme torment, as flames are set down on bare feet (the agonizing Simonists’ “joints were writhing with such violence, / they would have severed withes and ropes of grass”). Anyone who has ever scampered across scorching beach sand knows just how terribly tender the soles of the feet are; I can’t stand to think of a protracted suffering of such searing.

 

1.Torment of the Neutrals/Cowardly (Canto III) 

Dante designs a system of increasingly sinister punishment, but my top choice of worst infliction harks back to the very first one detailed in the Inferno. The angels who remained neutral during Lucifer’s war against God, alongside “the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise,” file along as their naked bodies are “stung again, again / by horseflies and by wasps that encircled them.” Maybe it’s just the hopeless insectophobe in me speaking, but this sounds like the most awful and all-too-realistic plight (one that I could actually experience while still alive).

 

Teetering But Not Toppling (Review of Treehouse of Horror XXXIV)

Sunday night brought the latest (lamentably post-October) edition of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special. Granted, after thirty-four years, the “Treehouse of Horror” shows signs of serious aging, but there is enough in the episode to convince fans that all the wicked fun isn’t exhausted just yet.

TofHXXXIV opens with “Wild Barts Can’t Be Token,” easily the weakest of the episode’s three segments. A lame satire on the NFT craze, the short is long on unfunny cameos (by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Rob Gronkowski, and Jimmy Fallon) and forced pop cultural references (e.g. Snowpiercer). Digitized Marge massacres a batch of “Cuddle Kittens,” but such scene of cyberspace violence doesn’t strike a distinct note of horror. The passing gag involving “Ralph-House” (a Brundlefly-style monstrosity created when both Ralph and Milhouse are crowded into the same scanning pod) nearly redeems the entire segment, though.

If “Wild Barts” hurtles toward derailment, the subsequent segment, “EI8HT,” quickly gets matters back on track. This vintage Treehouse piece (spoofing classic horror/thriller films such as Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs) also hearkens back cleverly to “Cape Feare,” a canonical Simpsons episode from three decades earlier (here given an alternate ending in which Sideshow Bob succeeds in murdering Bart with a machete). The wackily graphic violence that viewers have come to expect from the annual Halloween episode is in abundant evidence: the flayed Dermott Spuckler’s skinsuit hung on a clothesline, and the meathooked Nelson Muntz’s body looking like a Cenobite centerpiece, to cite a few examples of unrestrained gruesomeness. All told, a bloody entertaining segment.

Finally, in “Lout Break,” Homer precipitates the fall of civilization by consuming a radioactive donut. Apocalypse (or in Homer’s estimation, “me-topia”) results when those who come into close contact with the mutated doofus are infected and promptly morph into crude facsimiles of him. The “Homerizing” of Springfield’s residents via lyncanthrope-like transformation produces a stunning heap of eye candy, as well as some memorable bon mots (“Donut Stu has Diabetes Type 2”). Yes, this COVID-19-evoking parody (Homer’s plague is spread by “burp-borne transmission”) might be deemed tasteless and done-too-soon by certain viewers, but there is no denying the humor permeating the segment’s bonkers scenario.

An uneven but ultimately enjoyable episode, TofHXXXIV keeps the weathered Treehouse intact for another season. It also furnishes a reminder that The Simpsons’ Halloween special works best when it plays off of iconic horror properties and not when it gets caught up with offering snide commentary on modern (techno)cultural trends. Riffing on the horrific always was, and still remains, the key to providing terrific fare.