Fright Favorites (Book Review)

In his introductory essay to his latest book, Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, David J. Skal notes the concurrent emergence of both Hollywood and Halloween “as significant cultural fixtures” in the early 20th Century. Skal asserts: “Americans have always believed that a malleable identity is our birthright, that we all have the prerogative and power to become anyone or anything of our individual choice. Like Halloween, Hollywood is about dressing up and acting out all the possibilities of our mercurial national personality.”  From here, Skal sketches a brief cinematic history of Halloween, a terrific account that I only wish had gone on at greater length.

Skal devotes a chapter to each of the 31 films heralded by the book title. Since the book is produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, there is an emphasis on older films, but Skal does show good historical range, starting with Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and concluding with Get Out. Along the way, he covers holiday-centered films such as Halloween and Hocus Pocus. It should be pointed out that much more than a mere plot summary is offered in each chapter. Skal demonstrates his excellence as a film scholar, furnishing fine insight as well as a wealth of behind-the-scenes information. Anyone who has ever read Skal’s amazing study The Monster Show knows of the author’s knack for situating horror in its cultural context, and he does the same for the films considered here. Another fun feature of each chapter is the “If you enjoyed…you might also like…” sidebar sections, presenting quick accounts of related films (so really, readers are treated to the discussion of 62 films overall).

Admittedly, I bought this book mainly because of the byline on the cover, since I am a huge fan of Skal’s work (e.g., Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday, Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula). I fully expected another volume filled with enjoyable prose, but what I was not prepared for is what a gorgeously illustrated book this is. It brims with screen shots, publicity stills, and reproductions of movie posters, the various photos appearing in both black and white and vibrant color. Fright Favorites proves the quintessential coffee-table book for horror lovers, one they will want to proudly display not just in October but all year round.

Lore Report: “Hold On” (Episode 153)

 

There are some things we’d all like to forget, yet they manage to hold on, like unwanted houseguests. And few places in American history have been more defined by the past than one east coast city. Whether serving as a stage for violent conflict or a deep well of creative expression, its legacy casts more than a few shadows along the way, and I want to take you there. But be warned, because in Baltimore that dark past has stayed remarkably close to the present.

Among the many things to appreciate about October is the fact that during this month, the Lore podcast shifts to a weekly schedule of releases. In this week’s episode, “Hold On,” our host and tour guide Aaron Mahnke leads us through the haunted history of the city of Baltimore. He starts with Fort McHenry, which is notable for more than the role it played in the composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As a military prison during the Civil War, and a hospital during World War I and the subsequent influenza epidemic, Fort McHenry has seen more than its share of death, so it should be of no surprise that later visitors to the site have reported encounters with the paranormal. Mahnke shares a wealth of ghost stories about the fort, as well as about Hampton Manor, a country estate north of the city. In the final segment of the episode, Mahnke turns his attention to one of Baltimore’s favorite and most famous sons. None other than Edgar Allan Poe is spotlighted–his lifelong trials, his untimely demise on October 7, 1849 (a mystery that persists to this day), and his honoring by a strange visitor to his gravesite, the Poe Toaster.

October is the perfect time for ghost stories, as well as to invoke one of America’s founding fathers of macabre fiction and poetry.  For anyone with interests in such subjects, “Hold On” is an episode to cherish this Halloween season.

 

Anatomy of a Weird Tale: “The Book of Blood”

Happy 68th birthday to dark imaginer extraordinaire Clive Barker. In honor of the occasion, and this Wednesday’s premiere of the Books of Blood anthology film on Hulu, here’s an essay analyzing the seminal Barker short story…

“The dead have highways” (1), the omniscient narrator bluntly asserts in the single-sentence opening paragraph of “The Book of Blood.” These “unerring lines of ghost trains, of dream-carriages,” though, are no mere metaphor, as the narrative quickly establishes via elaboration: “Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence, and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.” Besides setting up the rules for this horror story, these lines also highlight a pair of themes that are central to Barker’s work: love, and the revelation of the forbidden.

This “forbidden highway” has heavily-trafficked “intersections” that also merge closely with “our world”: “Here the barriers that separate one reality from the next are worn thin with the passage of innumerable feet.” The idea of the barrier, or veil, between the world of the dead and the world living growing thin is a familiar one in Halloween mythology. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barker’s tale is set in October. It also features a character who is a “little trickster” (8), who plays a “fine game” (4) for the “sheer mischief” of it. The influence of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” on Barker’s story has been long noted, but one might also link “The Book of Blood” with “The October Game,” a Bradbury tale that blurs the line between Halloween illusion and grotesque reality.

Barker does not hesitate to acknowledge his predecessors in “The Book of Blood.” The story’s setting, Number 65, Tollington Place (an abandoned/shunned house that was the site of some past atrocity, and that now bears an “oppressive atmosphere” [2]), clearly has a foundation in Gothic tradition. A “crack in the front of the house that ran from doorstep to eaves” forms an allusion to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Similarly, the line that “Number 65, Tollington Place was a haunted house, and no one could possess it for long without insanity setting in” echoes the famous opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There’s even a hint of Suspiria when the ceiling of the place appears “maggoty with life–pulsing, dancing” (7).

Having depicted the ominous locale, Barker next presents the figure doomed to become the title character. Simon McNeil is a 20-year-old medium brought to Tollington Place by “the Essex University Parapsychology Unit.” Simon seems to have been a fortuitous choice, as he records “all but incontrovertible evidence of life after death.” In the throes of contact with the otherworldly, he signs the names of the dead (along with their birth and death dates) on the wall of the attic room he occupies. He doesn’t stop there, though; the wall grows as crowded as one of Barker’s own artistic canvases: “There were obscene drawings and half-finished jokes alongside lines of romantic poetry. A badly drawn rose. A game of noughts and crosses. A shopping list” (3). Containing the names of the famous and the anonymous alike, this “wailing wall” is “a roll-call of the dead, and it was growing day by day, as though word of mouth was spreading amongst the lost tribes, and seducing them out of silence to sign this barren room with their sacred presence. Although Simon’s “ghost-writings” (4) will be exposed as fakery a page later, Barker’s own reverence for the numinous is incontrovertible here. The “lost tribes” phrase even anticipates his fondly depicted monsters in Cabal/Nightbreed.

Following the presentation of Simon, the narrative then introduces the professor in charge of the psychic research project, Doctor Mary Florescu. Simultaneously mourning the loss of her husband and mooning over the young, handsome Simon (to recall the terms of the story’s opening: her heart is “close to bursting”), Mary renders herself susceptible to an incredible vision:

The world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of senses, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk, to the stale gold of her wedding ring. [6]

Barker is a quintessentially sensual writer, and there is no better testament to that fact than this scene. Mary is flush with synesthesia; when her assistant, Fuller, grabs her arm, his hands on her skin “tasted of vinegar” (9). He asks her is she is all right, “his breath like iron.” Mary’s heightened senses also allow her to see right through the ceiling into the attic level of the house, where the masturbating Simon is marked as the “boy-liar” (7). Barker’s penchant for intermixing the ecstatic, the erotic, and the graphic is also evident as Mary glimpses (when the crack between worlds widens) the highway of the dead populated by gory-looking ghosts, “the victims and perpetrators of violence” (8). These disgruntled figures seek redress of Simon’s naked lies: “The ghosts had despaired on the highway a grieving age, bearing the wounds they had died with, and the insanities they had slaughtered with. They had endured [Simon’s] levity and insolence, his idiocies, the fabrications that had made a game of their ordeals. They wanted to speak the truth” (9).

Mary doesn’t falter in the presence of the paranormal, but the same cannot be said of her ironically named assistant. Fuller is devoid of the capacity for the sublime; his inability to behold the marvelous leaves him in the grip of mundane physicality: “The sight killed Fuller in a moment. His mind had no strength to take the panorama in–it could not control the overload that ran through his every nerve. His heart stopped; a revolution overturned the order of his system; his bladder failed, his bowels failed, his limbs shook and collapsed” (10). Fuller drops dead and crosses over to the highway even as the ghosts spill over into Number 65, Tollington Place.

A scene of almost sexual violence, “a kind of rape” (12) is subsequently witnessed by Mary as the ghosts make their vengeful assault on Simon. Scoring and scarring “the hieroglyphics of agony” (13) onto every inch of his skin with “the torturing needles of broken jug-glass” (11), the ghosts’ efforts anticipate the sinister ministrations of the Cenobites in The Hellbound Heart. The deep (some might deem perverted) bonds of love forged between Mary and Simon likewise prefigure the relationship of Julia and Frank in the novella/film adaptation, brooking no supernatural obstacle. At the same time, Barker hearkens back to Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” as Simon’s grueling transformation reminds Mary of “the tattooes she’d seen: freak show exhibits, some of them, others just shirtless laborers in the street with a message to their mothers pricked across their backs. It was not unknown, to write a book of blood” (11).

Simon’s forced embodiment of a collection of (true) ghost stories vindicates Mary’s research interests, but at painful cost. Here is “proof beyond any doubt, and she wished, oh god how she wished, that she had not come by it. And yet, after a lifetime of waiting, here it was: the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself” (15). Undaunted by Simon’s monumental damaging, Mary vows to protect him, knowing that henceforth “he would be an object of curiosity at best, and at worst of repugnance and horror.” She also commits herself to this Book of Blood as “his sole translator” for the world at large” (16). Accordingly, at story’s end, Mary leads him, “naked, into the balmy night.”

The closing segment steps back to position “The Book of Blood” as general prologue to the various narratives that follow: “Here then are the stories written on the Book of Blood. Read, if it pleases you, and learn.” The contents of the collection will draw “a map of that dark highway that leads out of life towards unknown destinations.” Most people fortunately will end up dying peacefully, but “for a few, a chosen few, the horrors will come, skipping to fetch them off to the highway of the damned.” The narrator insists: “So read. Read and learn.” But such commandment is not given in the interest of stern moralizing. The lessons to be learned throughout the Books of Blood are not the traditionally conservative ones of the horror genre, where transgression is simply punished and the taboo abjected. Instead, readers will learn to interact with the fantastic, to embrace the forbidden. Finally, Barker hardly seems to have reader safety foremost in mind when he concludes by observing: “It’s best to be prepared for the worst after all, and to learn to walk before breath runs out.” This exercise in macabre wit makes for a perfect pair with the wonderfully graphic epigraph to the volume: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”

“The Book of Blood” forms a strong frame for Barker’s six-volume series (arguably the greatest story/novella collection in the history of the horror genre). It is also an immensely effective narrative in and of itself, one that puts Barker’s visionary gifts–and exquisite prose–on full display.

 

Work Cited

Barker, Clive. “The Book of Blood.” Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Vol. 1. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984. 1-16.

Beta Tested

Somewhat ironically, a global pandemic cut short The Walking Dead last April, causing the Season 10 finale to be delayed by over six months. But last night’s return episode (“A Certain Doom”) proved worth the wait.

I realize that mine might be the minority opinion; there will be plenty of viewers who complain that the season finale was anti-climactic, and that the Whisperer War ended with a whimper. True, we did not get an extended skirmish between heroes and villains (in contrast to the “All-Out War” story arc from previous seasons), but this is precisely why I appreciated the episode. When Beta directs the massive herd of walkers against the building complex where the show’s protagonists are holed up, the conflict is not decided by a by-now familiar battle sequence. Instead, strategy is the key: multiple pairs of protagonists attempt to beat the Whisperers at their own grim game, donning skin masks and splashing themselves in gore in order to slip through the herd and then lure it away in Pied-Piper fashion (there’s an inspired choice of song eventually used to distract the attacking walkers). Hiding in plain sight amongst walkers is a gambit we’ve seen several times before on the series, but the stakes are raised here, because there’s also the Whisperers amidst the undead to contend with. This extended sequence was incredibly tense; not everything goes according to plan, and not everyone makes it through alive. But I loved the way the heroes would navigate the situation by stealthily knifing a Whisperer and then tossing him or her to the two-legged wolves shambling all around.

There is no protracted one-on-one face off with Beta, but again, this is more refreshing than disappointing, since we’ve already seen Daryl battle the behemoth in previous episodes. This is also made sense based on the logistics of the predicament: any extended fighting would have fatally exposed the combatants, by catching the dire attention of the omnipresent zombies. The final showdown scene with Beta, however abbreviated, was worth it just for the deadpan zinger that Daryl delivers at its end.

“A Certain Doom” certainly wasn’t a perfect episode. Lauren Cohan’s big return to the series turned out to be a bit of a letdown, as her Maggie character contributes little to the episode beyond smiles and hugs. Also, the climactic demise of the herd is too CGI-driven to be as highly satisfying a visual as it might have been (the producers missed a grand opportunity to feature some grotesque impact). My biggest critique, though, is reserved for the Eugene/Ezekiel/Yumiko/Princess subplot. Their journey to meet up with the mysterious Stephanie was marred by too many corny speeches. The sudden debut appearance of Commonwealth soldiers at episode’s end, looking like a group of cosplay Stormtroopers, was more jarring than plot twisty. And that closing close-up shot of a goofy, goggling Eugene created a final note of silliness more than suspense.

This episode admittedly won’t rank with the best season finales The Walking Dead ever aired, but it did make for a satisfying conclusion to the Whisperer story arc.

 

History Happily Repeats

A terrific series has returned! October 10th is the official launch date for the long-awaited second season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, but the season premiere (“Houses of Hell”) is already available for streaming via AMC+. As in the first season (see my coverage of Episodes 1-3, 4-5, 6-7), the new episode combines a slew of film clips with commentary/analysis by a wide array of genre luminaries. To whet your appetite for the upcoming season, and to mark some of the fine insight the show offers, here are some quotable quotes from the episode.

 

Chris Hardwick: Well, houses effectively are great locations for horror because a house is anything you want it to be. It can be a home, or it can be a prison. You never can tell what’s going on on the inside, and that’s sort of the macabre curiosity that we all have.

 

Stephen King: One of the things that made [Misery] work and made Rob Reiner the person to do it, is because humor and horror are really two sides of the same coin. You know, I always say, “It stops being funny when it starts being you.”

 

Scott Derrickson: [Sinister]’s a horror film about a guy watching horror films. Watching horror can be a dangerous business. Anybody who watches real true crime, and anybody who watches horror cinema, knows of those moments in their life when they overreached. And they were really punished for watching that particular film. We’ve all had that experience.

 

Rob Zombie: House of a 1000 Corpses to me seems exactly like if you took Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rocky Horror Picture Show and threw it in a blender and spit out another movie. I was trying to make this sort of gritty, back roads redneck movie, which I always loved, and just the so over-the-top “Rocky Horror” vibe.

 

Eli Roth: In horror films, houses are twisted reflections of their owners. Every fear, anxiety, and character flaw is brought to the surface in the pressure cooker of the family home. And those problems get a hundred times worse when you make the mistake of moving into a haunted house.

 

Andrew Douglas: Most haunted house stories, when you boil them down, are really glorified family dramas. You know, they’re about some kind of–they’re about alcohol abuse at some level or parental abuse at some level, or in the case of the original Amityville, they’re about [a] kind of economic distress.

 

Eliza Skinner [on The Cabin in the Woods]: And then seeing all the behind-the-scenes of, okay, so this is like a big government run situation where you have all these different monsters and that going haywire and them all getting loose from their own pods. That’s the depiction of how I think most people feel about government and corporations. Now, we’re like, “Oh, they think they have everything together,” and what they’re actually doing is delicately holding together chaos, something that could destroy our entire society.

 

Sean Cunningham: Wes [Craven]’s thought was that we could shape [The Last House on the Left] as a sort of personalized violence that the audience could react to. That it would become a much more visceral experience, not unlike The Virgin Spring.

 

Lauding Autumn Once Again

Season’s bleedings–I mean greetings–to all the residents of our Macabre Republic. The greatest month of the year has arrived at last! I have a lot of fun stuff planned for this blog all October long as we approach the High Holiday, but thought I would start out by sharing a couple of pieces from my 2014 collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season.

For more on this book, check out the dedicated page here on my website. And for a further sampling of its assorted treats, you can dig into the past posts of these poems: “Ulalume II,” “Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage,” “Octoberzest,” selections from the Angry Villager Anthology, and “Shock Treatment.”

 

Corn Maze

By Joe Nazare

 

Immersive map of autumn,
Sketched by a pictographic tractor
On a sprawling canvas of lank stalks.

Apt metaphor for everyday life:
Byplay of determining paths and personal choice;
Blockages, backtracks, fortuitous turns.

Variously atmospheric, serving as a
Site of rural frolic or nocturnal fright,
Family-friendly agritainment or American Gothic haunt.

Story evoker: the vegetal surround a potential shelter of Shoeless Joe;
Malachi, Isaac, and their idolatrous adolescent ilk;
The annual October Boy, reborn to run a gauntlet of seasonal sacrifice.

A magical labyrinth, no matter what,
Where myriad navigators can succeed in getting lost
Even as they see their way clear.

 

 

Opposing the Joneses

By Joe Nazare

 

Resplendent adornment.
A façade boasting a macabre makeover,
A front yard littered with grim imaginings.
Each piece a welcome mat placed weeks in advance,
Beckoning the costumed to the doorstep on the 31st.

Adjacent starkness.
House and lawn kept spectacle-free,
Either due to religious inclination or simple disdain.
No orange lights, no dark tableaux,
Nary a pumpkin or corn stalk on the porch.

October transforms, and not only leaves into deserters:
It turns private properties into public statements.
Edifices, like architectural versions of face-painting fans,
Identify themselves by the colors they choose to sport.

Because to decorate–or to refrain–is
To declare affiliation, form alliance even with those unknown.
This holiday of masquerade actually unveils one’s true neighbors;
At Halloween, it’s the spirits of the living that grow visible.

 

Lore Report: “Follow the Leader” (Episode 152)

But the woods are more than just a place to visit. They’re home to challenges, risks, and even dangers. Wild animals, difficult terrain, and the dark side of all that peace and quiet–the lack of human assistance–can all conspire to turn a pleasant afternoon into an unexpected tragedy. And it’s been that way for as long as humans have been around. But if the tales are true, the forest might also be home to something else, something that we mere mortals are woefully unprepared to deal with: dangers from another realm.

In Episode 152 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners deep into the woods. The dark forest, lying beyond civilization, is a locus classicus of American Gothic narrative, but Mahnke adopts a much more global approach here. He delves into the folklore of the Wild Hunt, tracing the origins of such mythic tales in Germany and their subsequent spread to other countries such as Great Britain, where “the tales changed to incorporate local legends and key historical figures.” Mahnke takes the time to ponder the significance of the Wild Hunt, which was popularly held as an omen of impending demise for hapless witnesses. Some fascinating details related to the Wild Hunt are shared along the way, such as the British positing of King Arthur as the doomed leader of the procession, and the historical instances of accusing people–by those wont to cry witch–as willing participants in the unworldly endeavor.

A critique I seem to rehearse on almost a biweekly basis is that Lore podcast fails to connect its subject matter to the realm of literature. Happily, that is not the case here, as Mahnke (when discussing the ghostly figure of Herne the Hunter) invokes William Shakespeare, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Jacob Grimm. And imagine my complete and utter delight when the narrative devotes several minutes to linking the Wild Hunt to one of the most famous stories in all of American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Mahnke remains on native soil in the episode’s concluding segment, which concerns a piece of lore involving an uncanny horse-drawn carriage in antebellum East Texas.

“Follow the Leader” need not assume a subordinate position to any precursor. In my estimation, it ranks as the preeminent episode that Mahnke has recorded in the five-year-plus history of the podcast.