Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry (Berkeley, 2021)

This engrossing novel (Henry has a knack for crafting chapter endings that leave the reader helpless but to turn the page) returns to the enchanted region of Sleepy Hollow and presents the village and surrounding woods in all their rural, autumnal, and dark magical splendor. Set three decades after the events of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Horseman offers a convincing extrapolation of what life has been like for the Van Brunt family in the time since Brom and Katrina wed. It also fills in some of Irving’s longstanding blanks along the way, most notably in the case of what happened to Ichabod Crane the night he was pumpkin-thumped on that fateful ride home from the Van Tassel quilting frolic.

The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Ben Van Brunt (whose grandparents are Brom and Katrina): a rambunctious adventurer in rebellion against the roles mapped out by family upbringing and village life. Such narrative perspective gives Horseman a certain young-adult feel, but make no mistake, this is an unflinching horror novel. Its plot feels like Irving’s “Legend” by way of Stephen King’s The Outsider: a fiendish creature is preying on young boys, savagely devouring their heads and hands (and leaving behind corpses that decompose in gruesomely advanced manner). With its scheming-warlock and evil-seducer character types, its woodland forays, and its thematic concern with haunting family legacy, the book also conveys a strong American Gothic atmosphere.

By the end of the first chapter, Henry reveals an interesting twist: Ben (short for Bente) is actually a female who isn’t just going through some tomboy phase; the character insistently identifies as male. At first, this might seem a jarring choice by the author, a retroactive importing of modern issues into the early-19th Century. But Ben’s desires prove easily understandable within the world of the novel, considering his idolizing of his grandfather Brom (who in turn treats Ben like the son he tragically lost). Ben’s liminal status is also integral to the plot: the character’s unusual appearance (dresses have been ditched for breeches) causes him to be deemed “unnatural” in the eyes of the provincial villagers, and he faces suspicion and persecution as the body count from the bizarre murders rises. Ben experiences moments of terrible peril and suffers some serious harm during the novel, but is also aided by a curious connection with the notorious Horseman of local lore.

A word of warning: this is not the ghostly, galloping Hessian created by Irving. The salient characteristic–headlessness–is even lacking here. Henry’s version of the Horseman (who remains in the background for much of the narrative) is more guardian spirit than harrying goblin. This could prove disappointing to readers expecting the majestic headhunter popularized by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nevertheless, Henry deserves credit for her fresh take, her refusal to follow the same old chase-to-the-churchyard path. Casting its own captivating spell, Horseman is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature that has developed from Irving’s classic story.

 

The Final Girl Support Group (Book Review)

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 2021)

Grady Hendrix’s latest novel wasn’t what I expected–it was even better.

Based on the subject matter, I figured the book would go heavy on the meta, with lots of character mentions of popular horror films. The slasher references, though, are woven unobtrusively into the narrative. The real-life final girls within the world of the novel have had film franchises made of their ordeals, and these series prove to be thinly-veiled versions of genre classics such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. There are ample parallels for readers to notice, but the postmodern playfulness never gets in the way of the story Hendrix is telling.

Secondly, given the author’s track record for publishing humor-laced horror, I cracked the covers of The Final Girl Support Group anticipating a continuous display of irreverent wit. Not that there aren’t fine comedic moments here, but Hendrix handles the figure of the final girl with admirable seriousness. His protagonist, narrator Lynette Tarkington, is still struggling with her near-death experience decades later. She’s paranoid and agoraphobic, has disconnected from others (she lives alone, save for a pepper-plant companion called Fine–short for Final Plant). Lynette is painfully aware of the trauma and trials that remain long after the physical wounds scar over:

I know what happens to those [final] girls. After the movie deals get signed, after the film franchise fails, after you realize that while everyone else was filling out college applications you were locked in a residential treatment program pretending you weren’t scared of the dark. After the talk show circuit, after your third therapist just accepts that he’s your Zoloft-dispensing machine and you won’t be making any breakthroughs on his watch, after you realize that the only interesting thing that’ll ever happen to you happened when you were sixteen, after you stop going outside, after you start browsing locksmiths the way other women browse the windows of Tiffany’s, after you’ve left town because you couldn’t deal with the “Why not you?” looks from the parents of all your dead friends, after you’ve lost everything, been through the fire, started knowing your stalkers by their first names, after all that happens you wind up where I’m going today: in a church basement in Burbank, seated with your back to the wall, trying to hold the pieces of your life together.

The book has an ingenious hook: the women who famously withstood slasher massacres are secretly meeting in a monthly support group organized by a therapist specializing in final girls. The sextet of respective survivors understand that they are an endangered species these days (the novel is set in 2010), a realization that grows more stark when a mysterious killer starts to prey on the group members. Hendrix’s plot sweeps the reader along, presenting numerous twists and terrifying set-pieces. Lynette goes through quite a character arc, faltering many times but ultimately rising above her fears and insecurities to obtain true final girl status. By delving into Lynette’s viewpoint, Hendrix supplies the critical element most often lacking in slasher films: complex characterization.

The structure of Hendrix’s book is also noteworthy. The chapters are all cleverly titled, echoing the syntax of horror-film identifiers (e.g., The Final Girl Support Group 3-D, The Final Girl Support Group’s New Nightmare, Final Girl Vs. Final Girl, Bride of the Final Girls). Bracketing each chapter are various faux documents (therapist notes, incident reports, interview transcripts, diary entries, newspaper clippings and magazine articles) that both supplement the main narrative and explore the cultural significance of the final girl. Unfortunately, an early interpellated piece insufficiently disguises a character’s identity, spoiling some of the mystery (count yourself lucky if you happen to gloss over the clue).

But that’s the only negative note I have on this wonderful, compellingly readable book. A feminism-conscious tribute to horror’s last girls standing, The Final Girl Support Group is an instant classic destined to stand as Hendrix’s greatest literary achievement.

Goblin (Book Review)

Reviewers of Josh Malerman’s Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas (first published in 2017 as part of Earthling’s limited-edition Halloween book series; re-released as a Del Rey hardcover in 2021) have been quick to invoke Stephen King’s Derry. The comparison is no doubt apt–Malerman’s central locale (more Michigan city than small-town Maine enclave like Castle Rock) is rooted in/haunted by the otherworldly. There are also discernible echoes of Creepshow here, especially considering that the book’s opening frame story features a mysterious crate that seems to contain something monstrous. The reader, though, should not be led to expect simplistic, E.C.-style tales of garish comeuppance, as Malerman takes his horror narratives in various and unexpected directions.

The first novella, A Man in Slices, recalls Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. But the childhood friendship of Richard and the more mischievous Charles (Malerman’s answer to Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade) is extended here into adult life and grows increasingly troubled when Charles gets involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman requesting self-mutilating gestures of love that would make Van Gogh cringe. Matters shade off finely into mortuary darkness by narrative’s end, and the novella tantalizes with its introduction of the folklore of the typically-rainswept Goblin–a place where the sun sets a full minute before in neighboring towns; where people gather in “Perish Park” every winter to reenact a historic death-by-strangulation; where the off-limit North Woods are said to be the habitat not only of mythic owls but also a sinister witch whose whispering words can explode a person’s heart.

Kamp concerns a Goblin resident petrified of being scared to death, and who accordingly takes some drastic measures to ghost-proof his apartment. It’s a wonderfully offbeat premise, and since the eponymous protagonist is also a local-history buff, much more of Goblin’s shadowed history is revealed in the course of unsettling events. The tale deftly draws readers into Kamp’s dreadful fixation, demonstrating all the strengths of Malerman’s writing: original situations, filtered through the viewpoint of well-rounded, psychologically-complex characters.

The next novella, Happy Birthday, Hunter!, constitutes the book’s most satisfyingly shivery entry. The renowned big-game hunter, Neal Nash, decides to punctuate the night of his lavish birthday celebration by attempting to bag the missing piece from his trophy collection: one of Goblin’s Great Owls. Nash’s ill-advised adventure (with his colleagues) into the dark woods delivers white-knuckle tension. The plot is shot through with startling twists, and fortifies the bloodshed with a rich dose of irony.

Presto! conjures both Bradbury and Clive Barker (“The Last Illusion”), with its story of a Goblin child’s idolizing of a dark-carnivalesque figure whose magic act relies on more than just prestidigitation. But Roman Emperor is no standard villain–rather a tragic, Faustian character. A lot of the fiendish fun here comes from the discovery of the source of Emperor’s “dirty magic” and the macabre lengths the entertainer must go to to fulfill his end of the bargain.

A Mix-Up at the Zoo reads like Winesburg, Ohio by way of The Twilight Zone, in its focus on an obsessive, mentally-disintegrating “grotesque” of the Sherwood Anderson variety, a lonely young man feeling ground down by his dual positions at the Goblin zoo and slaughterhouse. Slow-moving and overlong (the shock ending is foretold by the very title), this is arguably the least successful of the book’s sextet of novellas. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s steady descent into nightmare is distinguished by a slew of disturbingly surreal images.

As a site of misdirection and twisting turn, the hedge maze in The Hedges forms a perfect symbol of Malerman’s narrative approach. When a precocious young girl is the first to solve the sculpted puzzle, she discovers something shocking hidden within the heart of the maze, but this MacGuffin (un-identified for much of the suspenseful novella) ultimately defies reader expectation. The action detours back into the North Woods, and includes a dogged pursuit by Goblin’s bizarre police force (who form a grim joke on the very notion of protecting and serving).

The book’s epilogue (which returns to the story of the strange crate) ties everything together, showing that the interconnections between the novellas involve more than the overlap of character- and place names. Reminiscent of Trick r’ Treat, Goblin‘s narrative folds back over itself: the events of the individual novellas all trace to a singular stormy night in town, where further grisly mayhem appears to be in store for the hapless residents at epilogue’s end. Malerman invokes some of the horror genre’s hoariest elements (cursed land; disgruntled/displaced Native Americans) yet still manages to produce an original work containing no shortage of surprise.

The (fictional) town of Goblin itself is not a nice place to visit, and you likely wouldn’t want to live–or die–there. But Malerman’s Goblin is an inviting haunted attraction, a creepy and darkly atmospheric novel/linked-collection that makes for a terrific read on a dreary autumn evening.

 

Mob Scene: Good Neighbors

In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.

When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.

It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”

A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

October Dreams: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

The year 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of the amazing Cemetery Dance anthology October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween. This subtitle says it all, as the book forms a treasure trove of holiday-themed writing, clocking in at a whopping 650 pages. Editors Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish strike a fine balance between original offerings and classic reprints (the volume features twenty-one fictional tales, plus one poem). Like the assorted sweets heaped inside a trick-or-treater’s candy bag, the table of contents brims with brand-name greats and the less well-known (but no less enjoyable).

October Dreams gives rise to tales covering the various aspects popularly associated with the holiday. There are tales of pumpkin carving: the graphic grotesquerie of Dean Koontz’s “The Black Pumpkin,” the more restrained yet extremely disturbing art of Charles L. Grant’s “Eyes.” Trick-or-treating stories galore, involving gruesome comeuppance in F. Paul Wilson’s visceral “Buckets,” and terrible revelation in Jack Ketchum’s gut-punching “Gone.” Old, dark houses loom throughout, from the shadowed abode in Richard Laymon’s shocker “Boo” to the utterly haunting structure in Tim Lebbon’s “Pay the Ghost.” Witches get their kicks from ill-treated children, whimsically in Gahan Wilson’s “Yesterday’s Witch,” and much more wickedly in creep-meister Ramsey Campbell’s “The Trick.” Self-reflexive tales take the telling of spook stories as their very subject, in Lewis Shiner’s ouroboros of an October narrative, “The Circle,” and Peter Straub’s foray into Faulknerian Southern Gothic in the novella “Pork Pie Hat.” The selections run the gamut from quiet realism (Ray Bradbury’s subtle yet unsettling “Heavy Set”) to fantastic flights of Lovecraftian terror (or descents, in the case of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s sublimely-titled “A Redress for Andromeda”).

The fictional narratives are greatly variegated in October Dreams, but the book adds even more into the mix with its inclusion of nonfiction pieces. Paula Guran’s “A Short History of Halloween” teems with information, offering plenty of savory tidbits in its baker’s-dozen-worth of pages. In “First of All, It Was October,” Gary A. Braunbeck engages in a broad survey of Halloween -themed/-related movies. Towards the volume’s end, Stefan Dziemianowicz’s “Trick-or-Read: A Reader’s Guide to Halloween Fiction” assures that there are further narrative neighborhoods to venture through.

But without a doubt, the most unexpected treat in October Dreams is the “My Favorite Halloween Memory” feature. These slices of personal memoir prove just as engaging and atmospheric as the fictional tales bracketing them. They remind the reader why Halloween is so beloved, and provide insight on how the narrators developed into writers–whether out of nostalgic hope of recapturing the delightful frights of childhood, or in the determination to surpass them.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ray Bradbury–the “October Dreamer Extraordinaire” to whom the anthology is dedicated–shares a sad rather than favorite Halloween memory (recounting his loss of holiday spirit following the death of his friend Federico Fellini on October 31st). At the start of the piece, Bradbury writes, “I often wonder why people wander around shouting to one another, ‘Happy Halloween!’ It is not supposed to be happy. We celebrate it with a certain amount of fervor and excitement, but at its core it is about those who have gone on ahead of us.” Looking back through the anthology today, I am sadly reminded of just how many of the writers (Bradbury included) gathered within the book have passed away in the twenty years since its publication. From the vantage point of 2020, October Dreams constitutes not just a celebration of Halloween; it forms a memorial to genre giants laid low. It also reinforces the function and import of Halloween horror: as the season turns dark and cold, we briefly make friends with death, that relentless predator who otherwise stalks us every moment of our lives.

After a gap of too many years, Cemetery Dance finally released a wonderful follow-up volume, October Dreams II. Two decades later, though, the first anthology remains the benchmark of Halloween writing, a book that has aged with tremendous grace. October dreams might typically turn nightmarish, but this collection affirms that they can be happily revisited.

 

October: A Thirtieth Anniversary Retrospective

Al Sarrantonio is a revered scribe of Halloween-themed fiction, the author of assorted classic stories such as “Pumpkin Head” and “The Corn Dolly” (both collected in Toybox), as well as the tales and novels comprising the Orangefield Cycle. His 1990 novel October doesn’t seem to be as widely known, but it is no less rewarding a read.

Tellingly, Sarrantonio dedicates October to Charles L. Grant, the leading writer of quiet–style horror in the late 20th Century. Sarrantonio knows his precursors, and to no surprise also ventures into Bradbury Country here: the novel features a sinister encounter at a seedy midwestern carnival. The influence of Stephen King’s It (which is itself indebted to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes) can also be detected, not just in the figure of a deadly, dreadful clown, but also in the focus on the generational recurrence of evil in a small East Coast town.

October opens somewhat slowly; there’s not a lot of action in the early pages, outside of a flashback scene of a Halloween party that takes a tragic turn for a group of high schoolers. Such pacing is surely deliberate, designed to make the eruption of violence mid-book that much more shocking. The narrative defies expectations, offering surprise yet satisfying twists. As if the notion of Abe Lincoln’s likeness on a killing spree isn’t striking enough, the novel contains moments of Cronenberg-worthy body horror guaranteed to test the reader’s gag reflex: “The thing in his mouth scrambled held his tongue in its pincers, pulled itself back toward the back of his throat–”

Similar to his Orangefield Cycle, Sarrantonio’s novel engages in a personification of festival ritual. “Saman, the Celtic Lord of Death” is rooted in mythic misinterpretation (not to mention mispronunciation)–the Celts did not actually worship some dark deity when celebrating Samhain (sow-en, meaning “End of Summer”). At least in October, Sarrantonio provides an intriguing terrestrial explanation: the figure is an ancient, chthonian, body-snatching creature hellbent on spreading carnage and chaos (especially on October 31st, a day sacred to the monstrosity after the cringing Celts–in the author’s fictional reworking of history–elevated it to godhood). The so-called Lord of Death is given a fantastic yet plausible backstory in October, and the uncanny creature hailed as such makes for a harrowing adversary here. Scenes late in the novel presented in Saman’s own, puppet-mastering viewpoint are the stuff of pure horror.

This proves to be a finely-plotted novel, with the disparate characters introduced in the early chapters later crossing paths in frightful ways. Tension mounts as the chapters, and their datelining titles, move ominously toward month’s end (the book builds to a bloody and fiery climax on Halloween night). October is also noteworthy for its well-established setting–the Hudson Valley community of New Polk, “the province of apple orchards and roadside stands.” Sarrantonio creates an even stronger sense of time, of seasonal transition: “Autumn was the bittersweet season, the beautiful, tender passing of the year from life toward death, from knowability to unknowability.” The darkening events of the narrative reflect natural earthly cycle, where bounty yields to barrenness:

Here, in the nightshade of these bare branches, autumn had already passed to winter. Dead apples. The ground was carpeted in unharvested fruit, saturated with the sharp, sick smell of rot. Insects moved into fruit corpses,, drilled holes into paling red skins. Pulp turned from crisp white to soft mealiness. Brown, the color of decay.

Within the the world of the novel, a central character (Eileen Connel) is the author of a book, Season of Witches, that has yet to get the recognition it richly deserves. The same no doubt holds true for October itself, Sarrantonio’s neglected masterpiece of autumnal terror.

 

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.

The Devil All the Time (Book Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clown Citing

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

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

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

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