Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#20

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

20. “The House Inside” (2003)

If the previous entry on the countdown was Partridge’s most lighthearted story, this apocalyptic piece qualifies as his bleakest. Think Toy Story by way of The Twilight Zone: a fundamental change in the sun kills off the human population, while turning plastic toys into real action figures. Assorted cowboys, Indians, and soldiers attempt to make their way from the yard to the shaded safety of the house, fighting rats and scorpions along the way, and finding a Mathesonian spider (gargantuan from the toys’ perspective) lurking inside a dollhouse in a child’s bedroom. Partridge plays masterfully with matters of scale, offering descriptions of “cat-hair tumbleweeds” and a dead boy sprawled in the yard “like a giant, pudgy mesa.” The situation also leads to some harrowing images of body horror: one hapless (and now faceless) cowboy has his “features melted slick as an eggshell,” while a sun-punished sergeant ends up glued in place from the waist down, “his bottom half smeared across the floor like the leavings of some goddamn gutter-slug.” As if the narrative weren’t dark enough already, it also presents a grim climactic twist reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. Not a feel-good story for sure, but unquestionably a real good read.

 

Mob Scenes: Treehouse of Horror XXXII

The non-canonical status of the Treehouse of Horror episodes allows all hell to break loose–and it typically does. Last night’s 32nd(!) installment of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special didn’t disappoint, as it proved resplendent with mob violence.

In the first full segment, “Bong Joon-Ho’s This Side of Parasite,” the Simpsons are accosted by a group of squatters in Rainier Wolfcastle’s basement, who blame the titular family (hired on here to various house staff positions) for their lowly socioeconomic status. These angry Springfielders wield frying pans and pipes, bricks and chains (one guess as to what Crazy Cat Lady is brandishing…). Sideshow Mel’s impalement by the bone ripped from his hairdo kicks off a battle royale that spills out of the house and into the streets, and ultimately leaves Springfield’s citizenship decimated–save for the Simpsons.

Such riotous outbreak would have been satisfactory alone, but is quickly trumped by another mob scene in the ensuing segment, “Nightmare on Elm Tree.” A lightning strike animates the tree containing the Simpsons’ treehouse; it pulls up roots and runs amok through Springfield, liberating its arboreal comrades along the way. A heavily-armed street mob aims to stop the rampage, a group spurred by Homer’s wonderful war cry: “First we kill them, then we hang our hammocks!” The jokes and sight gags come fast and furious thereafter, making for an entertaining carnival of carnage as the trees saw through the would-be lumberjacks.

Treehouse of Horror XXXII‘s sampling of the Dropkick Murphys’ rollicking song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in the intro furnished an early hint of a massive-aggressive approach, and the rest of this fun episode certainly delivered on the unruliness.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#21

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21. “Tooth and Nail” (1994)

Partridge hearkens back to mid-20th-Century cinematic monster mash-ups here, even referencing films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The narrative alternates sections between a not-quite-reliable viewpoint character (a bloodsucker dubbed the Lord of the Night) and a pair of California surfer dudes/bounty hunters, Jones and the Bird-Dog (the latter tracker is also a bona fide werewolf). Horror and humor go hand in hand in “Tooth and Nail,” which is filled with witty banter and sports one unforgettably sardonic quip when werewolf and vampire face off. For all of the dark appetites of its characters, this brief but highly satisfying story arguably goes down as Partridge’s most lighthearted effort.

 

Trope Trick: Six Killer Riffs on the Final Girl

Horror films are streaming seemingly everywhere this Halloween season. Classic slashers are out in full force, but I have been focusing more on the post-Scream variations that rework rather than just rehash the formula. Here are six films that have taken the final girl trope in fresh, new directions (spoilers below):

 

Identity (2003)

When is a final girl not a final girl? Answer: when she proves (along with nine other characters gathered at a remote Nevada motel one rainy night) to be a personality existing only in the mind of a disturbed killer. And even within this mental landscape, the orange-grove idyll of lone survivor Paris (Amanda Peet) gets undercut by a wicked twist at film’s end.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Tongue is impaled in cheek in this mockumentary slasher, in which a film crew follows around an aspiring killer well-versed in slasher conventions. Matters take a hilarious turn when the character Vernon has been grooming as his final girl is revealed as the antithesis of virginal. The real twist, though, is that Vernon actually has tabbed the journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) for final girl status all along.

 

You’re Next (2011)

The turn from frightened flight to vigorous fight has always been a central component of the final girl’s in-film development, but here Erin (Shari Vinson) is shown to be badass from the get-go. Moreover, a credible rationale is given for her formidable skill set (she grew up in a survival compound in Australia). Hardcore Erin also makes for an interesting final girl in her gross outnumbering–by a series of masked killers as well as the two-faced family members who contracted their home invasion.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

This uber-clever effort takes the meta in another direction: the collegiate protagonists are mostly unaware of horror film conventions, unlike the adults who are technologically and scientifically manipulating the situation. The ultimate subversiveness is reserved for the climax, when the refusal by Dana (Kristen Connelly) to fulfill her designated archetypal role and be the last girl standing precipitates the fall of human civilization.

 

Terrifier (2016)

Art the Clown is a coulrophobe’s worst nightmare in this most savage of slashers (which has a grindhouse vibe and near-torture-porn approach). But what lands the film on this list is its surprising looping structure. Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi) goes through hell to survive Art’s horrific assault, but this gritty final girl turns out to be the disfigured wretch we’ve already watch commit a gory murder, dispatching her disparaging interviewer in Terrifier‘s opening frame.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) parties hard, isn’t studious, sleeps with her professor, is a mean sorority girl, and (as is the wont of her character type in a slasher) gets killed early in the film. But while her repeated slaying take a physical toll, her each return to relive Monday the 18th pushes her further along on her slasher-unmasking, final-girl-worthy redemption arc in this witty variation on Groundhog Day.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#22

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22. “Backbite” (2016)

Lovecraft (whose weird tale “The Hound” intersects with Partridge’s plot) meets Steinbeck in this hardboiled cosmic horror story. The narrator and his brother Russ (a scarred and haunted veteran of the Great War’s trenches) are a pair of drifters/migrant workers/petty criminals on the move, their every step dogged by trouble and terror. Along the way they encounter private cops wielding switchman’s clubs, an oracular corpse, and an undead boar–all that before Lovecraft’s hellish hound scrabbles onto the scene (his spectacularly macabre attack combatted by a Winchester shotgun). Partridge does an excellent job of establishing the Depression-era setting (something, he admits in the story’s headnote, that he has found lacking in Lovecraft’s own work), and his polished prose makes the darkness gleam. With lines like “He just stared ahead, his one eye glazed as if a spider had spun cobwebs around his brain,” “Backbite” is a piece that genre readers will sink their teeth into with relish.

 

History Lessons: “Infection” (Episode 3.2)

Some of the cinematic wisdom from this week’s installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror:

Eli Roth: Horror stories are built around our fear of threats we know exist but can’t stop, or the threats we don’t know about until it’s too late. Pathogens inspire both kinds of fear. At first, we don’t know what’s killing us, then we realize an invisible monster is on the loose, and it’s coming for everyone.

 

Bryan Fuller: You had [in Outbreak] the monkey, you had the sneezing in the theaters. And you had these visual expressions that taught people, like, oh shit, it’s actually dangerous to be a human being and have lungs that can absorb bacteria in a way that destroys our entire system.

 

Scott Z. BurnsWhat I was hoping for [when writing Contagion] was to get to a place where reality was scarier than fiction, and so I was very interested in what human beings perceive as dangerous. As opposed to what really is. It turns out that it tends to be our habits and our lack of willpower that is probably a greater existential threat.

 

Madeline Stowe: 12 Monkeys is based on La Jetée by Chris Marker, who was a French filmmaker, and he took a really unique concept of using stills–still images–to convey the arc of a love story and a man’s witnessing his own death. And 12 Monkeys took that story, and made a feature film from it.

 

Rebekah McHendry: Found footage [in REC] became part of the horror, it became part of really using the camera to show the isolation. It uses it so well in the final scene where we’re hurting for light, and so then we get this limited view where she goes into night vision and we are experiencing the exact same limited periphery that the character is.

 

Nathaniel Thompson: When [Pontypool] came out, it seemed something very alien, like, how can a word or a phrase be something that can actually hurt you? And now, social media, of course, has come such a long way since that movie came out; it’s all about words, it’s so violent right now, that if you just say the wrong thing to someone like, boom–all you say is one sentence and suddenly you’ve got people rioting in the capitol building.

 

Max Brooks: Marilyn Chambers [in Rabid] didn’t even know that she was Typhoid Mary until it was too late. that’s what’s so scary about being a spreader–you don’t even know you’re a spreader until you’ve already spread.

 

Axelle Carolyn: [Roger Corman] shot in beautiful Technicolor, and that’s one of the most amazing aspects of [The Masque of the Red Death], actually, the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg–it’s just stunning. The camera’s constantly moving one way or another. There’s a lot of very wide shots because those sets allow a lot of scope. It’s just–it’s stunning. It’s a really, really beautiful movie.

 

Joe Hill: [Color Out of Space] features a classically unhinged performance by Nic Cage. His performance is a stunner, but in and around that performance is a story about a family’s shared sense of reality being smashed into tinier and tinier fragments by an environmental poison that has leaked into their well water.

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#23

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23. “Apotropaics” (1992)

This story can stand right alongside Stephen King’s The Body, as a group of eleven-year-old boys struggle with the mysteries of life, death, and perhaps even undeath. There’s a cornfield grave in Fiddler, California, containing the body of the mysterious, motorcycle-riding suitor of Todd’s older sister Janet, a guy who was brutally beaten by Janet’s father after he found the two lovers in flagrante delicto. The grave, though, is impaled with countless stakes and knives, because the boys believe the stranger wasn’t a simple seducer but an actual vampire. “Apotropaics” is ripe with ambiguity, as Partridge expertly blurs the line between typical small-town meanness and supernatural menace (Do those bruises glimpsed on Janet’s neck indicate hickeys or bite marks? Is Janet now bedridden by grief or vampiric disease?). From any angle, the scenario is harrowing, and the narrative builds to a killer clincher.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#24

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24. “Wrong Turn” (1994)

Here’s another narrative in which Partridge manages to pack a noir novel within the page count of a short story. Narrator Tom Cassady, Jr., is on tour promoting his tell-all book about his late father (a character actor known for playing “heavies and sad-eyed losers in poverty row quickies,” and a convicted murderer who once got too heavy-handed with his wife’s lover) when a hard-boiled half-brother he never knew about turns up with designs of his own. The story also has an American Gothic quality, with its emphasis on Tom Cassady, Sr.’s ugly legacy, and its use of doubling (the narrator’s “doppelganger” half-brother; the way characters’ actions reflect the storyline of Tom Sr.’s most memorable film). For readers who relish dark intrigue (with lots of twists), “Wrong Turn” leads straight to crime-narrative nirvana.

 

Lore Report: “Unsettled” (Episode 181)

But some discoveries are more significant than others. In fact, sometimes the breaking of earth is just the first of many steps down a new road, the start of a journey rather than the end. And sometimes the thing that’s been hidden in the dirt has the power to change lives–just not in the way you’d imagine.

For the month leading to Halloween, Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast presents weekly episodes that put an premium on the eerie. October’s first offering, “Unsettled,” goes ghostly: in 1660’s England, the discovery of scattered teeth and skull fragments beneath kitchen floorboards precipitates visitation by a spirit given to enigmatic statements (but who eventually makes clear that he has been murdered in that very house). The subsequent investigation into this cold case is bound to give listener’s chill bumps. This central narrative also ties into a larger theme explored by the episode: the curious intersection of spectral events and courtroom drama. Final verdict: “Unsettled” is an exemplary episode, one that explores the fascinating borderland between the factual and the supernatural.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#25

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

25. “Johnny Halloween” (1992)

Fright masks and dire tricks abound, as Partridge imports the Halloween spirit into the tale of noir crime. “Johnny Halloween” features a familiar character type employed by the author: the narrator, Dutch, is a small-town sheriff, tough talking but of questionable veracity. He’s haunted by his fatal shooting of his brother Willie during an attempted robbery of the liquor store Dutch worked at back when both boys were teenagers. Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of that fateful Halloween, Willie’s old partner in crime–the titular jack-o’-lantern-masked bandit–has returned to the scene to orchestrate another deadly robbery. But Johnny Halloween has more than vengeance on his mind, and the narrative is packed with grim twists. If Jim Thompson ever ventured into the October Country, the result might be something like this lean, mean holiday story.