Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

1. “Berenice” (1835)

This early tale contains all the hallmarks that would make Poe’s fiction famous: a Gothic setting and supernatural atmosphere, psychological complexity and unreliable narration. In many ways, “Berenice” reads like a narrative forerunner of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is set an a family mansion, and haunting its “gloomy, grey, hereditary halls” is an unnervingly sickly female: the title character, whose epilepsy and tendency to fall into “trance” states compares with the catatonia of Madeline Usher. Just as Roderick Usher’s mind is figured as a haunted palace, the narrator Egaeus here refers to “the disordered chamber of my brain.” Roderick’s hyperacute senses parallel Egaeus’s “nervous intensity of interest”–the “undue, intense, and morbid attention” he fixes upon common objects (his monomania is greatly excited by the sight of his cousin/betrothed’s enigmatic smile). Both tales also deal with a favorite Poe theme, premature burial, but “Berenice” gives the already uncanny idea another disturbing turn of the screw.

After Berenice has an epileptic seizure and is pronounced dead, Egaeus awakens “from a confused and exciting dream” at midnight inside his library (a situation that prefigures “The Raven”). Egaeus, who earlier admitted to being an opium abuser, hears the “shrill and piercing female shriek of a female voice” ringing in his ears, and has a vague recollection of committing some horrific deed. A distraught servant soon arrives with troubling news, whispering “of a violated grave–of a disfigured body discovered upon its margin–a body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!” Attention is then drawn to the narrator’s garments, “muddy and clotted with gore”; his hand is “indented with the impress of human nails.” A spade is propped conspicuously against the chamber’s wall. In the shocking closing sentence, the trembling Egaeus drops an ebony box and sends “some instruments of dental surgery” and “many white and glistening substances” scattering across the floor. The monomaniac, Poe reveals, has not only dug up Berenice’s body, but also hacked out the still-living woman’s teeth.

“Berenice” touched a nerve with contemporary readers, many of whom wrote letters of complaint to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger (the magazine that published the piece). Perhaps this public outcry contributed to Poe’s decision to edit subsequent publications of the tale. He deleted four paragraphs that make for quite a macabre scene. Learning of Berenice’s demise, Egaeus goes to view her presumed corpse (which has been placed atop her curtained bed inside an open coffin). The fall of the “sable draperies” upon his shoulders cuts Egaeus off from the others present in the room and encloses him “in the strictest communion with the deceased.” The “pernicious influence of mortality” causes–or at least Egaeus believes so–“a deleterious odor” to emanate from the body. But he also detects the faint stir of a finger inside the enshrouding cerements, and notices that the band around her jaw has somehow broken loose, exposing her “ghastly teeth” and “livid lips,” “wreathed into a species of smile.” Such unexpected vitality and Egaeus’s frightened reaction to it (he “rushe[s] forth a maniac from that apartment of triple horror, and mystery, and death”) suggest that Poe has scripted more than just a tale of morbid fixation. He might actually have written a subtle variation on a vampire narrative (in which Egaeus’s crude dental surgery on Berenice represents a defensive de-fanging rather than a twisted collecting of tiny ivory trophies).

Especially in its original, uncensored version, “Berenice” packs a wicked bite. Filled with graphic gruesomeness and sinister ambiguity alike, this unforgettable tale earns the honor of being slotted here as Poe’s most macabre work of short fiction.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#4, #3, #2

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

4. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842)

Poe is well-known as a pioneer of detective fiction and science fiction, but here in his ultimate tale of sensation he also furnishes an ur-example of torture porn (that would later serve as the basis for a graphic Saw movie scene). The reading audience, though, doesn’t just observe the narrator’s torment at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition; it gets immersed in the complete sensorium of the harried protagonist (even an “intolerable thirst” is evoked, after the imprisoned narrator is deviously fed “pungently seasoned” meat). Awakening from his swoon following his sentencing, the narrator dreads he has been entombed alive–“the most hideous of fates,” he designates it, perhaps hastily, considering the threats soon presented to his existence. Agonizing suspense mounts as the strapped-down narrator watches the “fearful scimitar” steadily arc down toward him. Even his clever plan of escape (by enticing the rats in his vault to gnaw through his bandages) proves a smothering nightmare: “They pressed–they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half stifled by their thronging pressure; disgust, for which the world has no name, swelled my bosom, and chilled, with a heavy clamminess, my heart.” The narrator renders matters even more sinister by filling the account of his ordeal with underworld overtones: the pit is “typical of hell” and the pendulum is a “hellish machine”; a “sulphurous light” burns at the base of his prison, whose walls feature “spectral and fiendish portraitures” flashing “demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity.” Yes, the tale suffers from a deus ex machina ending, but Poe provides a quite devilish adventure leading up to that last-second reprieve.

 

3. “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)

Poe’s tale horrifies right from its opening lines, which detail a plague unprecedented for hideous fatality: “Blood was its Avatar and its seal–the redness and horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.” The guests secluded within Prince Prospero’s “castellated abbey” attempt to pass the plague-time by attending “a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence,” but their desperate revelry is checked by Prospero’s “ghastly” and “barbaric” sense of decor and the arresting, unnerving hourly chimes of a “gigantic clock of ebony.” However “grotesque” the celebrants might appear, their “masquerade license” is exceeded by a figure whose dress smacks of disgustingly poor taste. This midnight party-crasher is “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” a “blasphemous” get-up too reminiscent of the scourge raging without: “His vesture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.” Outraged, Prospero confronts this “spectral image” and promptly drops dead, and the throng that tries to seize the mysterious figure ends up levelled as well after “finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.” Unfortunately for all those who’ve come into close contact, the costumed figure was no spooky approximation but rather represented the Red Death itself. Poe’s own life was marked by the repeated loss of loved ones to terrible disease, and here he scripts a gory, apocalyptic allegory whose concluding line (“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”) bombards readers with a thudding sense of universal doom.

 

2. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)

This most famous of Poe’s short stories is a Gothic extravaganza, starting with the titular “mansion of gloom” (and its “vacant eye-like windows”) that has prefigured countless haunted houses over the centuries. The narrator suffuses his account with eerie atmosphere, from the “pestilent and mystic vapor” created by the “black and lurid tarn” to the “unnatural” luminosity that “enshroud[s]” the mansion during the stormy climax. Both the residence and its residents are perfectly matched in terms of haunting effect: the cadaverous Roderick with his “disordered fancy” and dark artistic interests; his twin sister Madeline, a wasted figure of walking death who strikes “dread” in the narrator long before her premature entombment and revenant-suggesting return. No less macabre is the “constitutional and family evil” that afflicts the Ushers, “a morbid acuteness of the senses” that makes everyday life a terrible struggle for someone like Roderick: “the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.” The drawn-out coincidences between reading matter (“The Mad Trist” of Sir Lancelot Canning) and events overhead in the dungeon below seem a bit hokey, but this ostensible misstep does not spoil the narrative’s powerful conclusion: that unforgettable image of the low, “blood red moon” shining through the edifice’s fissure just prior to the spectacular collapse of the House of Usher.

 

Which tale beat out “The Fall of the House of Usher” and claimed the #1 spot on the countdown? Venture back to the Macabre Republic next week for the reveal.

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “The Premature Burial” (1844)

Delving into one of his greatest–and gravest–themes, Poe writes: “To be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes [of agony] which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.” After cataloguing various cases of living inhumation worldwide, the narrator renders such condition in horrifically vivid terms: “The unendurable oppression of the lungs–the stifling fumes of the damp earth–the clinging to the death garments–the rigid embrace of the narrow house–the blackness of the absolute Night–the silence like a sea that overwhelms–the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm.” Prone to falling into cataleptic trances, the narrator has developed a pronounced dread of being “consigned alive to the tomb.” He relays a nightmare of a fiendish variation of Judgment Day, in which “the graves of all mankind” are thrown open and the struggles of countless figures prematurely buried are made evident. Then he proceeds to give his own first-person account of hasty sepulture; fortunately, his senses deceived him (he’d awakened disoriented, in the dark confines of a sloop’s cabin) and the short shock actually serves to cure him of his longtime “charnel apprehensions.” Such overtly positive ending, though, does nothing to diminish the “grim legion of sepulchral terrors” conveyed throughout this harrowing tale.

 

6. “The Black Cat” (1843)

This fictional forerunner of “The Raven” features a speaker of questionable reliability tormented by a black beast connected with superstitious lore (the “ancient popular notion” that “all black cats are witches in disguise”). Speaking from a “felon’s cell” on the eve of his execution, the narrator recounts how “the Fiend Intemperance” contributed to his perverse mistreatment of his allegedly adored housecat Pluto (who first had an eye gouged out with a knife and later was strung by its neck from a tree). After bringing home a stray cat –an uncanny feline double of Pluto–the narrator developed an awful dread of the replacement pet: “I started hourly from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight–an incarnate nightmare that I had no power to shake off–incumbent eternally upon my heart!” Sunk into deeper insobriety and insanity, the narrator finally attempted to slay the creature, but his wife’s staying hand led to a fatal blow nonetheless: “Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain.” He then attempted to conceal the crime by walling his wife’s body up in the cellar, but his foul deed was subsequently exposed in terrifying fashion: “The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the [police] spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb.” Besides providing shivers with its suggestion of supernatural vengeance, this confessional tale also hints darkly at Poe’s own battles with the demons of alcoholism.

 

5. “Ligeia” (1838)

Time and again in Poe’s work, the grief over the loss of a beloved female transforms into something more dreadful because of the figure’s seeming refusal to stay dead. This highly representative tale (which Poe often regarded as his personal best) starts off slowly–as the widower narrator dwells upon the late Ligeia’s strange beauty and curious studies–but grows steadily more macabre. After Ligeia succumbs to illness, her surviving mate purchases and renovates a quintessentially Gothic abbey in remote England, a building of “gloomy and dreary grandeur.” Taking the fair-haired Rowena as a second wife, the narrator decorates a “bridal chamber” (in a high, pentagonal-shaped turret) that feels more like a burial chamber, complete with funereal black drapery and Egyptian sarcophagi propped up in the corners. What transpires within this tomb of a room proves even more unnerving. Falling mysteriously ill, Rowena complains of a spectral intruder, a presence that the (admittedly opium-doused) narrator also senses. Rowena soon dies, and the narrator watches over her body, which throughout the night fitfully enacts a “hideous drama of revivification” (one that Poe stages in a sequence of thrilling paragraphs). On her deathbed, Ligeia (she of the “gigantic volition”) had spoken of the will to overcome mortality, and a momentary triumph over the Conqueror Worm appears to be achieved in the tale’s climax. Rowena’s corpse rises (looking oddly taller), and the falling cerements reveal Ligeia’s signature dark hair (“blacker than the raven wings of midnight!”) and wide, “wild eyes.” Whether interpreted as madness, drug-induced hallucination, or dire reincarnation, this closing image no doubt is supremely haunting.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#10, #9, #8

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

10. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845)

While Poe himself passed this off as a literary hoax, his mesmerist narrator labors to present his efforts (of suspending the dying title character in a trance state) as a true, scientific account. The description of Valdemar’s “death-bed horrors” is harrowing enough, but even more unnerving is the man’s pronouncement, in “gelatinous,” “unearthly” voice, “I am dead.” When the mesmerist attempts to awaken Valdemar after seven months of inanimation, he fails shockingly: Valdemar’s “whole frame at once–within the space of a single minute, or less, shrunk–crumbled–absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome–of detestable putrescence.” The reader senses that the story’s tongue (a “swollen and blackened” one at that) is planted in its cheek, as the previous rhetoric about Valdemar’s “approaching dissolution” prefigures an actual dissolving at tale’s end. Still, that closing paragraph forms one of the most morbid and strikingly grotesque moments in the whole Poe canon.

 

9. “Shadow–A Parable” (1835)

This short (three-paragraph) tale sports a ghostly, haunting opening, as the narrator Oinos calls across the centuries: “Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write have long since gone my way into the region of shadows.” His unholy parable is set in the “dim city” of Ptolemais, in “a year of terror” when “the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad.” The “gloomy room” that Oinos and his six wine-drinking companions occupy–a black-draped chamber in which a heavy atmosphere hangs like a “dead weight”–seems quite funereal, and Oinos belatedly reveals that the group shares the confines with the corpse of their young friend, the recent plague victim Zoilus (whose open eyes appear to observe the memorial “merriment” with terrible bitterness). As if all this weren’t creepy enough, a vague shadow detaches from draperies, crosses the room, and settles by the chamber door (cf. “The Raven”). Oinos demands “its dwelling and its appellation,” and receives a frightful reply: “I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal.” Not just the content but also the tonality of the response terrifies, as Oinos and the other attendees hear “the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.” Poe is a preeminent writer of horrific sounds, nowhere more evident than in this narrative resonating with ominous implication.

 

8. “Metzengerstein” (1832)

Poe’s first published tale goes heavy on Gothic atmosphere; it’s set in feudal Hungary and features looming castles, an “ancient prophecy” and an apparent act of supernatural vengeance. The young but debauched Frederick, Baron Metzengerstein torches the beloved stables of his neighbor and rival Wilhelm, Count Berflifitzing. As the fire rages next door, Frederick fixates upon a tapestry scene depicting a slain Berlifitzing figure, whose horse suddenly seems to turn its head and take on a menacing aspect (complete with blazing eyes and a flash of “sepulchral and disgusting teeth”). Soon thereafter, a “gigantic and fiery-colored horse” is discovered on the palace grounds, with the “W.V.B.” branded on its forehead hinting at a grim metempsychosis (Wilhelm having perished in the burning stables). Frederick develops a “perverse attachment” to this creature of “ferocious and demon-like propensities,” mounting it for habitual nocturnal forays. “One tempestuous night,” the terrified Frederick races back home, helplessly struggling to rein in the steed as it plunges straight into the strangely flame-engulfed (lightning-struck?) Metzengerstein castle. There hasn’t been a more horrific instance of horse-riding this side of Sleepy Hollow.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#13, #12, #11

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

13. “King Pest” (1835)

For an ostensibly comic tale, “King Pest” features some strikingly macabre imagery. A pair of drunken, bill-dodging sailors are chased off into one of London’s shunned plague districts, a place of “gloom, silence, pestilence, and death.” Decay is the dominant motif here: “Fallen houses choked up the streets. The most fetid and poisonous smells everywhere prevailed”–these coming in large part from the rotting carcasses of those who foolishly ventured into the area. The sailors enter the ruins of an undertaker’s shop, only to discover a group of grotesque imbibers inside. Poe yokes together the potable and the funereal, showing King Pest and his Death-worshipping court draped in borrowed palls and burial garments (one member actually wears a “mahogany coffin”) and drinking from skulls. These ghoulish boozers soon threaten to drown the sailors in a “hogshead of October beer,” and while the tale ends on a positive note (the sailors run off, in quest of further libation, with two of King Pest’s female followers), there is a dark undercurrent flowing through the narrative that suggests the author’s own awareness of the fatal dangers of alcoholism.

 

12. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)

Although hailed as a seminal detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” cannot be segregated from Poe’s Gothic tales. The nocturnally-bent narrator and C. Auguste Dupin haunt a place the Ushers would feel right at home in, “renting and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions.” Even the puzzling crimes of the title are marked by the “excessively outré,” the “brutal ferocity of these deeds.” A victim’s hair has been ripped right out of the scalp in clumps, her throat so savagely slashed that the head falls from the body. The upending of reason by madness and death is signaled by the fate of the other victim, stuffed head-down up a chimney. Dupin ultimately restores order by discovering the cause of the late-night carnage, but the grim nature of the crime scene lingers in the reader’s mind just as much as the ingenious solution of a locked-room mystery.

 

11. “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)

Merriment capitulates to the macabre in this dark carnival tale of excessive vengeance. Hellbent on redressing some unspecified slight, the devious, dissembling Montresor lures his “friend” Fortunato down into the catacombs beneath his Italian palazzo. Montresor’s short narrative is long on black humor and verbal cleverness (e.g. the trowel-brandishing narrator’s insistence that he is belongs to the brotherhood of masons). A bravura performance, to be sure, yet one can’t help but wonder what the drunken, jester-dressed Fortunato could possibly have done to justify ending up walled up alive inside Montresor’s vault. Still, Poe offers more than a portrait of a remorseless sociopath, as can be seen in the closing paragraph when Montresor references his own heartsickness. His very compulsion to tell (confess?) his story–to shed light on his dark crime a half-century after the fact–hints at his being haunted by his past act of fiendish retribution and now fearing (while facing his own mortality) the fate of his soul. [Incidentally, this suggestion of guilt and dread is what I picked up on and developed in my 2009 sequel (Pseudopod #166) to Poe’s story, “Something There Is.”]

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#16, #15, #14

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

16. “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Despite dealing with imbibing, practical joking, and masquerading, this is hardly a merry tale. The titular crippled dwarf/court jester forms a grotesque in both physical (his monkey-like movements; his “fang-like” and “very repulsive teeth”) and mental (wine-drinking excites him “almost to madness”) terms. When his love interest and fellow court dwarf, Trippetta, is affronted by their drunken, abusive ruler, Hop-Frog concocts a fiendish scheme. The “Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs” is ostensibly a costumed gag to scare guests at the masquerade, but really works toward the grim immolation of the king and his cronies (whom the coaxing Hop-Frog has first coated in tar and flax). The dwarf’s self-professed “last jest” involves not comic comeuppance but dire, “fiery revenge.” And whether one chooses to read the narrative biographically (Poe enacting a measure of literary vengeance against his foster father, demanding editors, et al.) or allegorically (concerning the Southern dread of slave rebellion), there is no denying the horrific nature of the closing image: “The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass.”

 

15. “William Wilson” (1839)

The eponymous (and pseudonymous) character here is yet another Poe narrator who feels compelled to confess his misdeeds and account for his present misfortune. He admits to an excitable temperament, is “addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.” His tempestuous nature doesn’t serve him well when he encounters a perplexing rival (at a Gothic nightmare of an English boarding school): a second William Wilson who mirrors him in physique, voice, dress, mannerisms, and even birth date. This doubling Wilson has a distinct sense of morality, though, and in subsequent years haunts the wayward narrator the world over, repeatedly foiling his intrigues at the most inopportune moments. A climactic confrontation (during a carnival masquerade in a Roman palazzo) with this pestering other dizzyingly results only in bloody self-ruination for the narrator. Poe no doubt achieves the pinnacle of the Freudian uncanny in this bizarre doppelganger narrative. At the start of “William Wilson,” the narrator questions his readers: “And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?” By tale’s end, it is hard to contradict him.

 

14. “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

This short and nasty story disturbs with its convincing portrait of criminal madness. The prototypically-unreliable narrator is “very dreadfully nervous,” and suffers from auditory hypersensitivity: “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” He recounts his strange fixation on the filmed-over, vulture-like eye of the old man he lives with, and retraces his methodical midnight stalking of his perceived evil-eyed nemesis. The old man groans in “mortal terror” when he senses an intruder in his darkened chamber, and the “hellish tattoo” of his heartbeat incites the narrator to smother the man beneath his own bed. Another Poe story of a successful murderer bested by his own irrepressible guilt, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is famous for the narrator’s closing exposure of his shocking crime, but the most macabre element here is the narrator’s prior explanation of “the wise precautions I took for concealment of the body.” With chilling nonchalance, he admits to a horrific violation: “First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.” This violent hackwork conducted “in silence”–a maniac performing a gruesome act as if it were some mundane task–haunts even more than the alleged persistent beating of the murder victim’s “hideous heart” beneath the floorboards.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#19, #18, #17

January 19th is the 213th birthday of one of the 19th Century’s literary lions. In honor of the occasion, I am kicking off a new countdown today, of Edgar Allan Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales…

 

19. “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845)

What at first appears to be an essay (on mankind’s perverse penchant “to do wrong for wrong’s sake”) turns midway through into the dramatic monologue of a condemned killer. The now-imprisoned narrator originally got away with a fiendish murder via poisoned candle (and thereby inheriting the victim’s estate), but is undone by his own inexplicable, uncontrollable urge to make an open confession. He suffers a “nightmare of the soul” in which he feels haunted by “some invisible fiend” or “the very ghost of him whom I had murdered,” and ends up blurting out the words that consign him “to the hangman and to hell.” The theme of a criminal psyche self-imploded by underlying guilt is a recurrent one in Poe’s work, but “The Imp of the Perverse” distinguishes itself with its overt theorizing and consistently diabolic rhetoric.

 

18. “The Oval Portrait” (1842)

This brief tale (which references the fiction of Ann Radcliffe) reads like a Gothic novel in miniature. The “desperately wounded” narrator and his valet pass the night in a gloomy, abandoned, mountaintop chateau. Restless during the “deep midnight,” the narrator peruses a book that discusses the paintings hung in his bedchamber. A chance shifting of the candelabrum throws light on a hitherto unnoticed portrait, of a Lenore-like “maiden of rarest beauty” who arrests the viewer with “the absolute life-likeness of [her] expression.” Reading up on the artwork, the narrator learns that the young bride was forced to sit by her painter husband (“a passionate, and wild, and moody man”) for her portrait in a “dark high turret-chamber.” Obsessed with the endeavor, the husband failed to recognize that his painting was uncannily vamping the very vitality of his wife. The tale ends with one of Poe’s patented shocking clinchers: as the painter turned from the completed portrait toward his wife, proclaiming “This is indeed life itself,” he belatedly realized that “She was dead!

 

17. “Thou Art the Man!” (1844)

Here’ a variation on the detective story (a genre Poe pioneered) that sneakily turns toward the macabre. It becomes quite obvious early on that good ol’ Charley Goodfellow is the epitome of duplicity and has elaborately framed his wealthy neighbor’s nephew for the man’s murder. The narrator seems to be the only person in Rattleborough to see through the ruse, and his unusual method for forcing a confession is what lands “Thou Art the Man!” on this countdown. In the climax, the opening of a newly-arrived wine crate delivers quite a surprise: “there sprang open into a sitting position, directly facing the host [Charley], the bruised, bloody, and nearly putrid corpse of the murdered Mr. Shuttleworthy himself.” Before toppling over, the corpse fixes its gaze on Charley and croaks the titular accusation. Only after the horrified Charley confesses (and then promptly drops dead), does the narrator explain that he rigged the corpse with “a stiff piece of whalebone” stuffed down the throat so the doubled-up body would spring up when the crate was opened (the revenant’s seeming voicing of “Thou art the Man!” was a bit of ventriloquism by the narrator). At the start of the tale, the narrator asserts that he is about to “play the Oedipus to the Rattleborough enigma,” but plays more like Edward Lee in his resort to such eye-popping grotesquerie.

 

 

Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.

 

October Stories: Ranking the Ten “Tales of Halloween”

Tales of Halloween is a Halloween anthology film that tends to be overshadowed by its 2007 forerunner (and clear influencer), Trick ‘R Treat. This 2015 effort, though, boasts a broad array of talent (both onscreen and behind the camera) and features plenty of finely-executed scenes of horror and black comedy. Like any Halloween haul, the narrative pieces aren’t uniformly satisfying, but they make for a rewarding experience overall. Here’s my quick ranking of the ten (loosely connected) segments comprising the film:

 

10. “The Weak and the Wicked” (Segment #4, directed by Paul Solet)

A limp tale of comeuppance, in which a trio of terrorizing punks are dispatched by the summoned “Demon of All Hallows Eve.” For all their acts of arson and trick-or-treater tormenting, these street toughs are hard to take seriously when they traverse the neighborhood turf on their bicycles.

 

9. “Ding Dong” (Segment #6, directed by Lucky McKee)

The always stellar Pollyanna McIntosh shines as a frustrated, unpregnant wife/seething red witch-demon. But the “Hansel and Gretel” overlay feels a bit forced here, and I’m admittedly confused by the abrupt “I’m melting” ending.

 

8. “Trick” (Segment #3, directed by Adam Gierasch)

The Children of the Corn appear to have migrated to Haddonfield, as a group of trick or treaters engage in home invasion and the brutal murder of adult residents. While it ultimately subverts its doorstep-delinquents trope, this segment (which presents images of gruesome child torture) proves too unsavory to really enjoy.

 

7. “The Ransom of Rusty Rex” (Segment #9, directed by Ryan Schifrin)

A couple of hapless kidnappers get much more than they bargained for when they snatch the titular trick or treater (played by the late, great character actor Ben Woolf). Terrific horrific hijinks ensue, but the effectiveness of the segment is mitigated by the fact that its central, monster-under-the-kid’s-mask device gets utilized earlier in the film.

 

6. “Friday the 31st” (Segment #8, directed by Mike Mendez)

An inspired reversal of the “masked slasher chasing the final girl” motif. Evil Dead-levels of gonzo gore are achieved here, but are undercut somewhat by the jarring inclusion of that cutesy Claymation alien.

 

5. “This Means War” (Segment #7, directed by Andrew Kasch and John Skipp)

This combative narrative gives new meaning to keeping up with the neighbors. A pair of yard haunters (one a nerdy suburbanite, the other a shock rocker) with contrasting sensibilities take their decorating rivalry to desecrating, deadly, yet highly entertaining extremes.

 

4. “Sweet Tooth” (Segment #1, directed by Dave Parker)

A local urban legend concerning a candy-ravenous slayer turns out to be all too real. The plot twist is hardly unexpected but can be appreciated nonetheless, as Sweet Tooth has some impressively visceral kills. And bonus points here for the segment’s Big Ass Spider! (Easter) eggs.

 

3. “Bad Seed” (Segment #10, directed by Neil Marshall)

How could any self-respecting gorehound not like a tale that starts off with a jack-o’-lantern coming to carnivorous life (like some gourd version of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) and decapitating its carver? Yes, the police procedural elements are painfully corny, but the segment pays off with a wonderful final image of Halloween sublime.

 

2. “Grim Grinning Ghost” (Segment #5, directed by Axelle Carolyn)

This brief but memorable tale (studded with horror genre luminaries such as Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon) baits the hook with a Halloween party spook story designed to get a frightened rise out of a skittish young woman. The heroine’s subsequent journey home is steeped in creepy atmosphere, but the segment earns its high ranking from its concluding, perfectly-revealed scare.

 

1. “The Night Billy Raised Hell” (Segment #2, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman)

For unabashed Halloween mischief, this witty story (featuring a delightfully dark Barry Bostwick) is unparalleled. The extended pranking montage packs a lot of clever devilishness into a short space, the climactic twist is wicked good, and the implications of the segment’s conclusion are supremely sinister.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

1. “Spyder” (1994)

Hollywood history is given a fantastic rewrite in this Partridge vehicle featuring thinly-veiled versions of James Dean and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (companions who were romantically linked in real life). A large part of the fun here involves catching the various allusions–and appreciating the deviations. The character of Layla (aka “Rigormortia”) isn’t just some cult figure vamping up a persona; she actually possesses occult powers (something the tabloid media irresponsibly accused Nurmi of following Dean’s tragic death). Layla’s black talents include turbo-charging the titular sports car by adding drops of her blood to its carburetor, and resurrecting a dead vintner for a ritual that turns a bottle of wine into a charmed potion. There’s also a memorably atmospheric set piece in which Layla manifests in the fog and hangs wraith-like outside the glass wall of a teetering, Hollywood hilltop home. Layla is a behind-the-scenes Tinseltown manipulator, and she works to give the narrator’s fledgling acting career a boost, but he soon grows leery of her influence. At the same time, he can’t help but lust after the “gorgeous corpsette,” and a complex power struggle unfolds between the two (building to a climax that offers a terrific twist on James Dean’s biography). “Spyder” is not only stocked with dark thrills, but also shines literarily (the narrator references Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon throughout, and waxes philosophical about desire and loss and “the power of legend”). With its unbelievably clever premise, and convincing mix of the mid-20th-Century Hollywood milieu and Monster Culture (alluringly packaged by TV’s first horror hostess), this horror-noir masterpiece lands the top spot on the October countdown of Norman Partridge’s Top 31 Works of Short Fiction.