Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#24, #23, #22

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

24. “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (from Vol. 3)

Throughout his career, Barker has shown a penchant for combining the genres of hard-boiled crime and supernatural horror. In this early instance, a mousy accountant is branded a smut-peddler after being framed by the criminal group he got himself mixed up with; enraged at his public humiliation, Ronnie Glass begins to take revenge on the underworld figures, but ends up tortured and murdered himself. Normally, that would be the end of the story, “Except that it was [only] the beginning” here. Rebelling against his ultra-violent demise (and the horrifying, “life-decaying banality” of the pathologists handling his corpse), the still-sentient Glass animates his death shroud and shapes it into humanoid form. This metamorphic “mansheet” makes more than haunting use of its funereal garb; the ghost stalks and physically assaults its killers. And when this masked antihero finally works its way up to the kingpin Maguire, the result is one of the wildest and most unforgettable scenes of sudden evisceration ever to be splashed across the pages of genre fiction.

 

23. “Revelations” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Another noirish tale, in which spectral figures prove decidedly visceral. On the thirtieth anniversary of the notorious murder, the posthumous Buck and Sadie Durning return to the Cottonwood Motel in lonesome Texas where Sadie shot and killed the serial philanderer Buck (Sadie herself ends up executed for her lethal efficiency: “In the final analysis, that was why they’d sent her to the chair. Not for doing it, but for doing it too well”). The couple intends to come to grips with the crime and come to terms with each other, but the attempted reconciling is complicated when the Bible-thumping evangelist John Gyer and his browbeaten wife Virginia are driven by heavy storms to take rooms at the so-called “Slaughterhouse of Love.” Buck is a grim figure to begin with–his chest wound continues to spew blood, like some twisted stigmata–and his unrelenting lustfulness leads him to semi-materialize and sexually assault Virginia. As unsettling as a ghostly rapist might be, though, the real horror here is the maniacal, Apocalypse-obsessed Gyer, who goes on a righteous rampage in the climax. Still, the tale features one of the few optimistic endings to be found in the Books of Blood, as Virginia manages to dispatch both Buck and Gyer with a single bullet. Sadie then advises Virginia to escape significant punishment by feigning insanity, and Virginia gets the ultimate laugh on her brimstone-sermonizing husband in her satirically-resonant line of clinching dialogue.

 

22. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Vol. 2)

An overt sequel to “Poe’s immortal story,” one that reworks the origins of “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Barker’s elderly protagonist, Lewis Fox, claims that his grandfather met Poe and inspired him with the report of an actual Parisian crime, solved by Lewis’s great uncle, the real-life C. Auguste Dupin. Barker outdoes Poe here for recounting bizarre murders in grisly detail. The first victim is said to have bitten off her tongue in terror as she was flensed of skin and muscle by a deadly razor; a later unfortunate suffers a frightful defacement: “The creature had taken hold of his lip and pulled his muscle off his bone, as though removing a balaclava.” But whereas the precursor narrative is neatly resolved via Dupin’s brilliant act of ratiocination, “New Murders” opens onto ambiguity and insanity. The ironic possibility remains that it was Lewis’s friend Philippe who killed the first victim, Natalie, in a fit of jealous rage after his young lover allegedly seduced Philippe’s trained ape (the product of a mad experiment, as Philippe attempts to test the validity of Lewis’s family legend). Subsequent murders while Philippe is in jail (where he soon chews open his own wrists) might be a strange case of his upraised beast aping the irrational violence initially modeled by its beloved master. In Barker’s scathing worldview, humans often form the most horrifying monsters of all.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Book of Blood Tales, Ranked–#27, #26, #25

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

27. “The Madonna” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The central setting–the derelict Leopold Road Swimming Pools, with their labyrinthine layout and “echoing mausoleum” soundscape–is undoubtedly Gothic. The erotic and the grotesque are also conjoined in this tale, as naked, nubile beauties breastfeed Lovecraftian beasties (asexually reproduced by the titular creature). But the sudden transgendering of the main character, Jerry, is treated as more miraculous than macabre, a “wonder” to be embraced rather than a horror to be endured. A vivid deconstruction of masculinity, “The Madonna” encapsulates Barker’s career path–his eventual shift beyond the strictures of genre horror to the imaginative possibilities of the dark fantastic.

 

26. “Twilight at the Towers” (from Vol. 6)

Barker’s ability to hybridize is quite evident in this atmospheric mash-up of espionage and lycanthropy narratives. Cold-War Berlin is an arena of intrigue for the KGB and the British Security Service, who each feature special agents harboring especially dark secrets. When a lupine wild card is added to the cat-and-mouse games of politics, scenes of stunning transformation (“His flesh was a mass of tiny contusions, and there were bloodied lumps at his neck and temples which Ballard might have taken for bruises but that they palpitated, as if something nested beneath the skin”) and savage mutilation (“The beast swallowed down the dead man’s eyes in one gulp, like prime oysters”). What is most noteworthy here, though, is the fact that Barker’s narration clearly valorizes the naturally-free werewolf tribe at tale’s end, anticipating the author’s depiction of the Nightbreed in Cabal.

 

25. “Sex, Death, and Starshine” (from Vol. 1)

A would-be production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night gets the Phantom of the Opera treatment, as Barker injects blood (and other bodily fluids) into the traditional “haunted theater” story. The restless figures haunting the Elysium Theater are no ethereal ghosts; they are starkly physical–and libidinous (as exemplified by that unforgettable scene of afterlife fellatio). For a narrative, however, that features multiple deaths, fiery destruction, and a graveyard breakout that overshadows Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the dominant note struck isn’t really one of horror. Barker offers sardonic commentary on the world of modern acting, as the troupe of thespian revenants preparing to hit the mortuary circuit (targeting “a sorely neglected market”) in the conclusion prove more skilled at breathing life into their roles than do their living, artistically-challenged counterparts.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#30, #29, #28

The new anthology film on Hulu, Books of Blood (which I ended up enjoying a helluva lot more than I expected to), inspired me to return to the landmark, multi-volume collection of horror stories, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. My reread triggered the idea for a series of posts counting down the contents in terms of their horrific effectiveness. So here we go:

 

30. “Babel’s Children” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The setting–a quasi-religious cloister containing an unsettling secret–is classically Gothic (the place’s “lunatic asylum” atmosphere, where it’s hard to distinguish the patients from the administrators, recalls Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”). Vanessa Jape, the protagonist who accidentally ends up imprisoned there, is a quintessential Barker character: an intrepid delver into mystery, driven by an almost perverse desire to see, to know. But there’s a campiness to the piece’s sustained attempt at political satire (the bearded, rifle-toting men guarding the place are dressed–“disguised” would be overstating the case–as nuns). “Babel’s Children” succeeds as farce, but is a far cry from the other horror tales that Barker pens in the Books of Blood. Based on the narrative logic established by the collection’s frame story, the story feels out of place: the reader has to wonder why this one was ever engraved on Simon McNeal’s skin by the ghostly scribes from the highway of the dead.

 

29. “The Book of Blood (A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (from Vol. 6)

This vignette concluding the story cycle does connect clearly with “The Book of Blood” (reinforcing Barker’s indebtedness to Ray Bradbury’s framed story collection The Illustrated Man). But it pales in comparison to the sublime opening section of the Books of Blood. The main character, hitman/procurer-of-outré-trophies Leon Wyburd, is a mere cipher (really all the leader learns about him is that he hopes to retire to Florida), so his bloody fate isn’t all that moving. His demise also fails to achieve the graphic grandeur of Simon’s own, previous comeuppance in “The Book of Blood.” The postscript doesn’t add much to the mythos developed in the first volume’s opening frame; still, it is interesting to hear the reappearing Simon express the maddening state of his ongoing existence as the Book of Blood. Here at collection’s end, he reveals a haunting detail: fours years since his brutal tattooing, his unhealed wounds keep bleeding and bleeding, like sinister textual stigmata.

 

28. “Down, Satan!” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Discounting the Postscript’s return visit to Jerusalem Street, this is the shortest narrative in The Books of Blood. That is not to say the piece fails to pack a wicked punch. Dialogue-free, it reads like a dark, latter-day parable, of the wealthy Gregorius, “who woke one day and found himself Godless.” Desperate, he hopes to force God to reveal Himself by first invoking Satan: Gregorius’s misguided design is to tempt the Archfiend into entering the earthly realm by building him a malefic palace. H.H Holmes with an existential crisis, Gregorius commissions the construction of an elaborate deathtrap (filled with a slew of human sacrifices) in North Africa. The story luxuriates in the details of decadence, yet also shows restraint in its commitment to ambiguity. Does Satan actually take up residence in New Hell, or are the atrocities committed there the product of Gregorius’s inevitable descent into madness? Does the elusive trickster cunningly lead his would-be tempter Gregorius into damnation? An effective foray into the infernal in and of itself, “Down, Satan!” also prospers from its juxtaposition with the preceding tale–the lengthier “Revelations,” whose final line of dialogue is the sly claim, “The Devil made me do it.”

 

 

Dark Turns: Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts

Today is the 62nd birthday of the Macabre Republic”s preeminent filmmaker. In honor of the occasion, here is a countdown of Tim Burton’s top ten directorial efforts (i.e. the list excludes works for which he was only a producer, most notably The Nightmare Before Christmas).

 

10. Beetlejuice (1988)

The effects are now quite dated, and I’ve always found Michael Keaton’s performance more grating than entertaining. No film, though, has ever made more inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr. Charmingly cartoonish, Beetlejuice brims with mordant wit, and puts Burton’s fertile imagination on full display.

 

9. Vincent (1982)

This short film from early in Burton’s career is long on greatness. The stop-motion animation ranks with any of of the director’s later feature-length efforts, and Vincent Price’s narration is pitch (black) perfect. The story–centered on the Price- and Poe-obsessed, morbidly imaginative seven-year-old Vincent Malloy–has a fullness, and resonance, that belies the narrative’s six-minute runtime.

 

8. Dark Shadows (2012)

This film tends to be underappreciated, perhaps because it’s not quite what people expected. While adapting the characters and main plot points from the popular Gothic soap opera of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it presents a much different tonality. But the quirky wit that Burton infuses is fantastic, and the Collinwood Manor setting is astounding.

 

7. Batman Returns (1992)

No colorful shenanigans from Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and no Prince-ly “Partyman” playing in the background here; this sequel is much darker (and more adult-humored) than the original Batman movieNot since The Nightmare Before Christmas has there been such a dark carnivalization (courtesy of the Red Triangle Gang’s strategic attack on Gotham) of the Christmas season. Batman might get title billing, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman forms a fine feline femme fatale, but one senses that Burton considers Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (an unforgettable grotesque embodied by Danny DeVito) the main attraction of Batman Returns.

 

6. Ed Wood (1994)

Any lover of Monster Culture can’t help but be enthralled by the portrayals here of such figures as horror hostess Vampira and Tor Johnson (played, in a brilliant bit of casting, by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). And Martin Laundau gives a career-defining, deservedly-Oscar-winning performance as a long-in-the-tooth Bela Lugosi. Burton’s black-and-white biopic presents an endearing portrait of the oddball director Wood and the outre troupe who assisted him in creating some of the most legendary bad films in the history of cinema.

 

5. Corpse Bride (2005)

While no doubt overshadowed by The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film arguably features sharper animation, more memorable songs, and a stronger storyline than its popular predecessor. The foray into the Land of the Dead is quintessential Burton, a vibrant vision of a realm populated by a slew of offbeat characters. Underworldly nuptials have never made for a more rousing ceremony.

 

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A Universal monster movie reset in a retro California, Edward Scissorhands offers both a cutting satire of suburban banality and an amazing array of sight gags. It is also the most moving of Burton’s films, with its message of overlooking difference and embracing otherness. Hands down, the best (if most understated) role of Johnny Depp’s career.

 

3. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Never before or since has Burton put together a more stellar cast (Jack Nicholson even plays dual roles). But the film–a hilarious spoof of Golden Age sci-fi/horror–trots out its cast of human characters only to do most of them in, in spectacularly violent fashion. Delivering yuks and “acks” aplenty, Mars Attacks! splashes black humor across the screen in bright comic-book colors.

 

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

What at first sounds like a recipe for disaster (Johnny Depp doing showtunes?) ultimately turns out to be a smash hit as both a musical and a horror film. Thanks to the source material’s rooting in revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd constitutes the darkest and most relentlessly grim of any of Burton’s cinematic narratives. (For further discussion, see my piece published in the 2011 volume Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film [reprinted as a Free Read here on my website].)

 

1. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I have written extensively on what I believe to be the crowning achievement of Burton’s career as an auteur (check out my essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sleepy Hollow‘s release). So there’s not much more left to say here, other than the fact that Burton takes Washington Irving’s legendary story (the best known and most renowned spook tale in all of American Literature) and reworks it into an ultra-atmospheric film that proves just as enchanting and widely influential.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10. “Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9. “Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7. “Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6. “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery. The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4. “N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3. “1922” (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2. “The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1. “The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.

 

Growing Rank: A Creepshow Film Segment Countdown

Creepshow debuts as a streaming series on Shudder today, but before reviewing the premiere episode (which, appropriately, features a segment based on a Stephen King story), I’d like to take a look back at the film series. Here’s a countdown of the eight segments included in Creepshow and Creepshow 2 (I will willfully neglect the nominal, non-King-related sequel, Creepshow 3), from the downright rotten to the positively putrid.

 

8. “Old Chief Wood’nhead” (Creepshow 2)

Tooth-achingly sentimental (uggh, that theme music) and painfully melodramatic, this slow-developing segment is by far the worst offering of the series. The uncanny effects of a cigar store Indian coming to life to take vengeance on the storeowners’ murderers is undercut by the resort to blatant cultural stereotypes (the bloodthirsty chief’s warpath leads to arrow-shooting, tomahawking, and scalping). Perhaps most dismaying of all, though, is the use of a glaringly white actor to portray Native American villain Sam Whitemoon.

 

7. “The Crate” (Creepshow)

Adrienne Barbeau gives an over-the-top performance as a boozy shrew of a wife, and the ostensible suspense is overdone (the initial opening of the mysterious box seems to take forever). The carnivorous creature released (dubbed “Fluffy” on the film set) looks like a cheap Halloween costume someone might rent. Filling up nearly one-third of Creepshow‘s runtime, “The Crate” proves terribly overlong.

 

6. “They’re Creeping Up on You” (Creepshow)

No doubt the most notorious and nauseating segment in the series (I’m sure that a significant portion of my present-day bug phobia can be traced back to its swarming scenes). Ultimately, though, there’s just not much to this piece, whose somewhat-nonsensical story strikes a singular note: a jerk of a germaphobe is overrun by myriad cockroaches.

 

5. “The Hitch-Hiker” (Creepshow 2)

The premise here is a strong one (a woman is haunted by the revenant of her hit-and-run victim as she speeds home from an adulterous tryst), and the increasingly grotesque deterioration of the hitch-hiker is well done as a practical effect. But the stricture of the situation (a single actress alone in a car for much of the segment) forces a jarring directorial decision–Lois Chiles’s continuous thinking out loud soon grows obtrusive, reducing the sense of verisimilitude.

 

4. “The Raft” (Creepshow 2)

The scene of Randy perving on Laverne naturally dominated my attention as a teenager, but now I am able to appreciate other aspects of this segment. When the sentient slick sucks Deke down through the slats in the raft, the jock’s violent sacking causes his leg to be bent gruesomely (a sight every bit as horrifying as that of the initial victim in the opening of It Follows). Based on the nature of the monster, this King story adaptation could have made for a tough sell visually, but the filmmakers succeed in creating a convincing float fatale.

 

3. “Father’s Day” (Creepshow)

The ranting, cane-rapping old man in this holiday-themed segment is terrifying even before he rises from the grave as a moldering ghoul. “Father’s Day” features some of the best kills in the series, including Ed Harris’s devastation by a toppled headstone. The closing image of a frosted, candle-crowned head on a platter makes for a garish graphic that might have been ripped right from the pages of a horror comic.

 

2. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (Creepshow)

I love King’s comedic riff (starring the author himself as the titular yokel) on H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror classic, “The Colour Out of Space.” Jordy’s steady, weedy decline is played jokingly, yet the story also jabs a primal nerve: the dread of contagion and terminal disease, and the anxiety of discovering signs of bodily breakdown breaking out. The verdant Verrill’s Hemingwayesque final solution to his human-Chia-Pet status certainly is no laughing matter, and makes for a sobering conclusion.

 

1. “Something to Tide You Over” (Creepshow)

This tale of marital infidelity, criminal revenge by a cuckold, and ultimate supernatural comeuppance plays like a quintessential E.C. Comics story. Leslie Nielson gives a strikingly chilling turn as the villain here (who knew Lt. Drebin could be so dreadful?!). His sadistic set-up (beachfront premature burial) creates a form of torment as relentless as the ocean’s breaking waves. The scenario is so harrowing, it almost renders the inevitable resurfacing of the waterlogged zombies anti-climactic.

The Best of The Best of the Best Horror of the Year

In the recently-released The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, editor Ellen Datlow collects her choices of the top stories from the past decade of the anthology series. But what’s the best of The Best of the Best? Naturally, the competition for such title is stiffer than Mr. Olympia in rigor mortis, and lot of extraordinary stories have to get left off the list, but here’s my New Year’s Eve countdown of the top ten pieces in this wonderful volume:

 

10.”Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

The zombie apocalypse has never featured two more unlikely survivors: an anthropology-department grad student and his dissertation director (Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, they ain’t). Jones’s tale offers a wicked-smart contrast of the heady and the visceral.

 

9.”The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell

A hapless grandson has a disturbing encounter with a group of bingo-hall hags. Campbell is the undisputed champion of subtle, unnerving detail–nowhere more evident than in this witty and slyly sinister masterpiece.

 

8.”Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud

The typically exceptional Ballingrud scripts another winner: a werewolf story that deals with a survivor’s guilt following the massacre of his colleagues. Strong characterization here helps show that economic hardship is no less horrifying than a lycanthrope’s rampage.

 

7.”Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor

Dark times in the sun-punished Death Valley, domain of some unbelievably creepy vultures. Taylor’s terrific descriptive powers brings a beauty to the grotesquerie and brutality of the desert.

 

6.”In a Cavern, In a Canyon” by Laird Barron

Barron’s fictional hallmarks are on display: hard-boiled narration (by a female lead, in this case), an atmosphere of steadily-mounting dread. This one reads like an episode of The X-Files set in the remotes of Alaska, but that show’s Monsters of the Week seem like Sesame Street castoffs compared to the horrid carnivore preying on good Samaritans here.

 

5.”The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick

A Lake District twist on Stephen King’s “The Raft.” Bestwick’s haunting narrative furnishes a classic example of how the monsters we don’t actually see (but can hear all too well) can prove the most terrifying.

 

4.”At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow

A modern Gothic shocker concerning a very private school in the California hills that teaches young girls more than etiquette and equestrian skill. Goodfellow, one of the most accomplished contemporary writers of the weird tale, delves deftly (and unforgettably) here into “a Greek myth that Bulfinch left out.”

 

3.”Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski

Anyone who grouses that the zombie subgenre has lost its bite never feasted eyes on this stunningly original take (concerning the ostracizing of a since-cured flesheater who remains infamous thanks to a photo that captured her mindless chomping on a baby). Gripping throughout, the story builds to a surprising–yet highly satisfying–climax.

 

2.”Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee

Lee’s imagery here is jaw-dropping, as is the unsettling premise she extrapolates from: Britain eclipsed by a gigantic cloud formed of mysteriously uplifted magpies. This epic apocalypse tale would make for one of the weirdest and wildest disaster films ever to hit the big screen.

 

1.”This Stagnant Breath of Change” by Brian Hodge

Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to write an episode of The Twilight Zone. In a quaint town whose normalcy is rooted in the paranormal, everyone is curiously hellbent on keeping a dying city father alive. The cosmic horrors of the conclusion are undeniably chilling, yet almost overshadowed by the preceding scene of angry-mob violence. Incredible on multiple levels, Hodge’s clever riff on the Cthulhu Mythos also forms one of the most harrowing works of American Gothic short fiction that I have ever read.

 

Darkness in the Heart of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Most Haunting Songs

For over four decades now, Bruce Springsteen has fronted one of the country’s most rollicking rock bands. Starkly contrasting with the stadium-shaking anthems, though, are the more somber-toned and macabre-themed tunes Springsteen has penned and crooned over the course of his career. So as the year draws to a close (just like the run of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this month), here’s a top-ten-style list of my favorite musician’s darkest offerings…

  • “My Hometown”: Waxing nostalgic and melancholic at once, the song hearkens back to a birthplace that has since been marred by racial strife and economic plight. But to me, it’s the cyclic structure (as the speaker ends up repeating to his son the same lines his father had given him years earlier) that’s so subtly unnerving, suggesting that “getting out” is now a snuffed aspiration.
  • “American Skin (41 Shots)”The eerie refrain is fired off nearly as many times as the eponymous barrage (Springsteen’s pointed reference to the excessive force used by officers of the NYPD in gunning down an innocent Amadou Diallo). This protest song, though, transcends its racially-charged subject matter by reminding listeners that we all risk violent death as we move through our everyday lives.
  • “The Wrestler”A grappler’s account of his sacrifice to the bloody spectacle of professional wrestling–the physical and spiritual toll the sport has taken on him. The images employed (“one-legged dog,” “one-armed man,” “a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat”) reflect not only the speaker’s sense of having been broken down and hollowed out, but also a terrible self-awareness of his carnival-freakish status. Springsteen has laid elegiac tracks to other hit movies (PhiladelphiaDead Man Walking), but none match the tenor of their cinematic counterpart as pitch-perfectly as this Grammy nominee.
  • “Factory”Springsteen adopts a Gothic idiom (“mansions of fear,” “mansions of pain”) in this dirge about being turned into the walking dead by “the working life.” No less disconcerting than such reduction to soulless automatons, though, is the fact that these men have grown dangerously embittered by their blue-collar employment (and no doubt “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”).
  • “Atlantic City”: A song that highlights the darkness–the corruption and desperation–lying behind boardwalk glitz. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” the down-and-out speaker speculates on the return of luck; nevertheless, a hellish existence appears in store once he starts getting involved with the local underworld.
  • “We Are Alive”: Springsteen channels Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as he presents a chorus of voices from beyond the grave. Ultimately uplifting in both its beat and theme (the undying spirit of those who fight for social and economic justice), the song features some truly horrific imagery along the way–especially when the speaker awakens within the cold blackness of a worm-filled grave.
  • Devils and Dust”: In this bleak Springsteen masterpiece, a soldier in a desert country (a landscape just as evocative of the American West) is gripped by fear and shaken by a crisis of faith. The alliterative title pairing signals a damning spiritual desiccation–an inner wasteland to match the battlefield without.
  • “Nebraska”This unemotional, remorseless chronicle (based on the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) of a couple’s interstate thrill-killing spree proves just as harrowing for the now-incarcerated speaker’s description of execution via electrocution. With his conclusion that “there’s just a meanness in this world,” the killer echoes the grimly philosophizing Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
  • “My Father’s House”A dream of return to the childhood sanctuary of family connection takes a nightmarish turn, as the speaker makes a frightful flight through a dark forest with ghosts not-far afield and the devil right on his heels. Matters grow even more haunting when he awakens and embarks on a trip back home, only to discover that he is too late (his father is gone, and the family domicile is now occupied by strangers). The slow, muted music here is well-suited to the song’s story of quiet tragedy.
  • “The River”This bittersweet ballad (inspired by the marriage of Springsteen’s sister Ginny and brother-in-law Mickey) expertly evokes the loss of youthful innocence–the crushing of hopes by the harsh realities of life. The lines “Now these memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?” rank among the most poignant ever sung by Springsteen. Undeniably powerful, “The River” floods the listener with mournful emotion.

 

The Countdown Continues: Stephen King’s Eight Greatest American Gothic Stories of the Past Eight Years

Recently, I re-posted a countdown that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in the fall of 2010: The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction. The following countdown posted here today will bring matters up to date by considering the top eight American Gothic stories King has published over the past eight years (note: I have considered collaborative pieces such as “A Face in the Crowd” and “In the Tall Grass” ineligible for this countdown).

 

#8. “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” (first published in The Atlantic, May 2011)

There is nothing supernatural in this particular car-horror story (a sub-genre towards which King has repeatedly steered), just stark reality. The multiple fatalities are revealed from the start (by a newspaper clipping included as a heading to the narrative), yet the climactic crash is nonetheless horrifying. Not merely the product of drunk driving, the “accident” proves a deliberate, spectacularly suicidal act, as a pair of single moms (road-tripping in a rented van with their tribes of kids) capitulate to the despair over their impoverished existences and the dim futures for their respective families. In this bleak piece, King succeeds in haunting the reader by not reducing the story’s victims to caricatures of white trash grotesques, instead treating them as tragic underclass figures.

 

#7. “A Death” (first published in The New Yorker, March 2015)

With stripped-down prose, King exposes basic human ugliness, as a dim-witted man in the Black Hills region of the 19th-Century American West is accused of raping and murdering a ten-year-old girl. The locals proceed to form the quintessential angry mob, hurling slurs, rocks, and spittle at the arrested Jim Trusdale, whose hanging scene might put readers in mind of In Cold Blood. What is truly unforgettable here, though, is Trusdale’s ultimately-failed attempt to prevent an incriminating piece of evidence (the murdered girl’s silver dollar) from being found on his person. Eschewing potty humor, the uncharacteristically restrained King manages to end the story on a haunting note.

 

#6. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” (first published in Harper’s Magazine, September 2012)

In this terrifically-titled story, King establishes the mundane, then upstages it with the sudden eruption of bloody violence. On the ride back to the nursing home following his weekly Sunday lunch outing at Applebee’s with his addled dad, Doug Sanderson gets into a fender-bender–and subsequently into deeper trouble with a road-raging Texan (who will soon give new meaning to “redneck”). The beating Sanderson absorbs is shocking, but the most resounding horrors here are the quiet ones–the dehumanizing effects of Alzheimer’s, and the toll this insidious disease takes on a victim’s family members. King’s narrative is impeccably crafted, and its subtle details become doubly appreciable upon re-reading.

 

#5. “Obits” (first published in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, November 2015)

King forays into the paranormal here, as a fledgling journalist for a TMZ-style website discovers that his “joke obituaries” of living persons actually serve as death sentences for the subjects. The narrator attempts to put his verbal hatchet to good use (raping and murdering scum end up scrubbed), but also struggles with the dangerously addictive nature of his strange power. While black humor (pertaining the ironic demise of the memorialized–such as the editor who encounters the “Cough Drop of Doom”) at first reigns, the narrative tone steadily darkens. The only thing that keeps “Obits” from appearing further below on the countdown is the fact that the story (as the narrator himself admits) “end[s] a little flat,” failing to make much use of an intriguing plot twist concerning the collateral damage of the various tactical strikes via keystroke.

 

#4. “A Little Green God of Agony” (first published in A Book of Horrors, September 2011)

King goes heavy on the Gothic atmosphere here, as wind and rain batter a Vermont mansion at nighttime. The story also boasts a familiar American Gothic character type in its cast: the suspect Southern preacher. Reverend Rideout (less healer than exorcist), posits the existence of an insatiable demon god that invades the seriously injured and turns their pain into agony, but viewpoint character Katherine MacDonald (a jaded therapist who has little sympathy for her patient’s pains) believes this is all just holy hokum invoked to con her incredibly wealthy client). This being a Stephen King effort, Rideout’s supernatural claims unsurprisingly prove legit, and the titular antagonist emerges from its host to wreak havoc. In lesser hands, a slimy, spiked tennis ball would form a B-grade monster, but King crafts a terrifying entity whose attacks help render the story’s climax one of the author’s scariest.

 

#3. “Fair Extension” (first published in Full Dark, No Stars, November 2010)

A terminally-ill man makes a life-saving (but not necessarily soul-costing) deal with the devil. Amidst his cure, Dave Streeter deliberately inflicts the worst fate imaginable on his so-called best friend, Tom Goodhugh. As King hits the high notes of false friendship and secret animosity, “Fair Extension” pushes towards the top of the American Gothic charts. Streeter’s remorselessness over the series of misfortunes that befall the Goodhugh clan makes the narrative that much more wicked. How appropriate that this story is set in Derry, a town well-known to Constant Readers for its underlying malignancy.

 

#2. “Summer Thunder” (first published in Cemetery Dance #72, January 2015)

King has dealt with the subject of global apocalypse before, but never more memorably than in this powerful short story. “Summer Thunder” is closer in sensibility to The Road than The Stand; it does not graft a supernatural element onto its plot, but rather focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of those who have managed to survive the cataclysm thus far. The harrowing descriptions of radiation poisoning here are enough to make the reader pull a Chuck McGill and start unplugging everything around. And while the protagonist Robinson manages to go out in his own terms, his defiant final act doesn’t lift the gloom shrouding the narrative. King’s story (the final item in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams) ultimately underscores human helplessness, and reminds us that life as we know it, and the loved ones we share it with, can be obliterated at the touch of a red button.

 

#1. “The Music Room” (first published in In Sunlight or in Shadow, December 2016) 

Poe-like in its masterful use of unity of setting, “The Music Room” transforms a brownstone apartment into a chamber of horrors. The curious, persistent thump coming from the closet soon makes it obvious that this domestic scene (of a wife sitting at a piano, and a husband perusing a newspaper) is not as innocent as it first seems. Driven to desperate measures by the Great Depression, the Enderbys have resorted to preying on more affluent visitors to New York City. Currently, they are waiting for their latest victim, whom they have robbed, imprisoned, and starved, to expire. The couple’s nonchalance–their rationalization of their crimes, and blaming of their victim for not having the good grace to die sooner–is positively ghoulish. King’s story might be inspired by an Edward Hopper painting, but the deadly Enderbys would also be right at home in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Stephen King Works of American Gothic Short Fiction: #7-#1

For #’s 14-8 on this re-posted countdown, click here.

 

7. “N.”

King has gone the Lovecraftian route before, most notably in “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Mist,” and “Crouch End,” but never more frightfully than in this novelette collected in Just After Sunset. And while OCD forms a a central theme here, readers shouldn’t expect to find some cozy episode of Monk. Similarly, the narrative’s primary setting, Ackerman’s Field, produces a crop of beasties more harrowing than any of the Universal lot perennially celebrated in Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

“N.” proves an excellent example of American Gothic fiction on a couple of levels. First, in its update of the epistolary mode of the traditional Gothic novel (“N.” is comprised of letters, e-mails, newspaper clippings, and a psychiatrist’s case notes). More so, though, in its conception of something awfully supernatural lurking within/beyond nature. The patient N. (as he’s referred to in Dr. John Bonsaint’s notes) is an accountant by trade but a landscape photographer by hobby. One day, in pursuit of a picture of rural tranquility, he stumbles upon a distressing scene: a Stonehenge-type arrangement, which he believes forms a gateway between our own world and a world filled with giant, malevolent creatures. Worse, he thinks that his accidental glimpse has upset the taslismanic balance of the stones (whose number seems to waver between eight and seven: “I had activated the place just by looking at it.  Human eyes take away the eighth stone. A camera lens will put it back, but won’t lock it in place. I had to keep renewing the protection with symbolic acts” (acts utterly consonant with the symptoms of OCD: counting, touching, placing. Appropriately, Ackerman’s Field lies just past “Serenity Ridge Cemetery,” whose name suggests the dividing line between peace of mind and debilitating compulsion). Nature gives way to nightmare, as N. perceives a gathering “outer darkness” within the circle of stones–an ominous, vista-distorting presence that uses the very “sunset to see with,” and that seems “to mock the beauty of that silent spring morning.” In the exhausting aftermath of his unfortunate discovery, N. also discerns that the summer solstice (a highly pleasant time of year in most people’s minds) is actually the point of greatest danger of the cosmic horrors breaking into and overwhelming our earthly reality.

“N.” does not just feature cyclopean grotesques reminiscent of the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos but emulates Lovecraft’s work in its creation of a mounting sense of dread via a speaker’s ongoing attempt at recounting–at articulating the unspeakable. The narrative’s premise that mental illness might be transmitted from patient to analyst “like cold germs on a sneeze” also forms a brilliant analogue of the nightmares a horror author like King determinedly passes on the reader (though N. remains anonymous in the narrative, his name might as well be Stephen).

And for all those readers who fear that they might have been “infected” by N.’s story just like Dr. John Bonsaint,I assure you that it was mere coincidence that this piece charted at #7 on the Top 20 Countdown. So don’t even give a second thought to that odd number; there’s nothing inauspicious about it.

Nothing at all.

Right?

 

6. “Trucks”

Don’t be fooled by the ultra-moronic film version, Maximum Overdrive; this is a masterful story, one that reads like Duel meets Night of the Living Dead (as a random group of humans holed up in a diner try to fend off the onslaught of massive vehicles come-to-life). Collected in Night Shift, “Trucks” offers terrific prose (a nervous salesman keeps “his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep”; a diner door, torn off by a rampaging truck, flies “into the night like something out of a Dali painting”) amidst scenes of horrific violence (humans die gruesome deaths, “knocked out of their boots with heavy treadmarks mashed across their guts”). King opens the story with several pages of carnage before providing the kicker (one that proves “Trucks” isn’t some rip-off of a Richard Matheson piece): “There was no one in the trucks.” The automobiles are now truly autonomous.

It’s tempting to read this story as an OPEC-era allegory, where having to pump gas is a harrowing experience for the average man (as the narrator, forced to fuel up a seemingly endless line of trucks, learns firsthand: “My blisters broke, trickling pus down to my wrists. My head was pounding like a rotted tooth and my stomach rolled helplessly with the stench of hydrocarbons”). Still, this is more a story of Frankenstein-ian turnabout: humanity is enslaved by the very technology created to help it master the natural world. On the last page, the narrator realizes there’s no place to hide from the trucks, because “So much of the world is paved now. Even the playgrounds are paved.”

What helps place “Trucks” so high on the countdown, though, is the fact that this is a distinctly American story. It’s telling that no cars (typically the product of overseas engineering) take on a life of their own here. Anyone who has ever watched a Ford commercial during a football game knows that the truck is an American icon. At one point during the extended siege of the diner, the narrator lies down to sleep, and counts trucks instead of sheep: “How many in the state,” he wonders, “how many in America? Trailer trucks, pickup trucks, flatbeds, day-haulers, three-quarter-tons, army convoy trucks by the tens of the thousands, and buses.” King, moreover, does not attribute the trucks’ sentience to freak “electrical storms” or the fallout from “nuclear testing” but rather suggests that the changeover is a byproduct of the national sensibility. In the final paragraphs, the narrator notes that whatever “mass consciousness” the trucks now possess, “we’ve given [to] them.” Ultimately, “Trucks” stands as a cautionary tale, a warning that our country’s preoccupation with its machinery might someday unleash apocalyptic madness.

 

5. “The Reach”

In her 95 years, Stella Flanders has never once set foot off Goat Island, but now her long-dead husband keeps appearing to her, coaxing her to venture across the frozen-over Reach. The aged Stella hasn’t merely imagined the revenant, though–a fact confirmed by key details at story’s end. Bill is a psychopomp (as symbolized by the dead sparrow that prefigures his visitations) calling Stella not to Raccoon Head on the mainland but to a more metaphysical destination.

This concluding selection in Skeleton Crew is not just a ghost story–it’s a finely crafted work of American Gothic fiction (a paragraph concerning family lineage even appears to be modeled on a passage in William Faulkner’s novella The Bear). The narrative does more than chronicle the death of an old woman; it creates a portrait of small-town life beyond the mainland. King captures the insular nature of such a community, whose members are wont to gossip about their neighbors but quick to lend a hand in times of need. The residents of Goat Island “watched out for their own in other ways as well,” like the time a mob of local menfolk murdered an outsider accused of child molestation. For better or for worse, the islanders band together (a theme King returns to in Storm of the Century), and according to Stella, this close-knittedness is a product of geographic and climatic circumstances:

“We had to [look out for one another], for the Reach was wider in those days and when the wind roared and the surf pounded and the darkness came early, why, we felt very small–no more than dust motes in the mind of God. So it was natural for us to join hands, one with the other.

“We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.”

For all the howling of harsh winter storms, “The Reach” is a muted story–haunting yet not harrowing. The idea that the wind carries the voices of the deceased is not a cause for terror but rather a spur to existential inquiry about the reach between the here and the hereafter: “Do the dead sing? And do they love the living?” Stella’s encounter with Bill and his spiritual circle furnishes affirmative answers to both questions. Even in death, the inhabitants of Goat Island watch out for their own.

 

4. “Rainy Season”

A downpour of carnivorous toads in a sleepy rural town–sounds like a biblical plague meets a grade-B movie on Sci-Fi. But in Stephen King’s hands, such premise makes for a rousing horror story, and a premier work of American Gothic fiction.

This Nightmares & Dreamscapes tale reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Shirley Jackson (one of the main characters here references “The Lottery” by title, but Jackson’s “The Summer People” is another obvious source text). Once every seven years on the night of June 17th, the bucolic community of Willow, Maine must endure an unnatural disaster. The reptilian deluge ravages the town, but such damage is “small price to pay for another seven years of quiet prosperity in this mostly forgotten Maine backwater.” Another “part of the ritual” is the arrival of a pair of outsiders on that ominous day, who must be told about the toads and encouraged to spend the night outside the town limits (or to at least close the shutters of their residence tight if they refuse to leave Willow). Vacationing couple John and Elise Graham ignore the warning, of course, and suffer the bizarre consequences.

The climactic attack (by toads with needle teeth, lumpy bodies, and black-and-gold eyes that bulge “like freakish eggs”) is at once terrifying and revolting, but “Rainy Season” is more than a Kingly version of a conte cruel. Actually, the main characters here aren’t the Grahams but the pair of locals they meet at the General Mercantile. Henry Eden and Laura Stanton are charged with playing the welcoming committee for outsiders on the 17th, and this duty of attempting to inform the endangered couple (who never heed the advice to stay away) has grown wearisome for the elderly Willowers. At one point John Graham refers to them as “Farmer Jekyll and Missus Hyde,” but the pair might just as easily be likened to the standoffish duo in Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. And while we can only guess what’s going on inside the heads of Wood’s dour-looking subjects, we are given a clear understanding of why King’s characters are so dyspeptic–why Henry Eden (he of the ironic surname) hopes he’ll be dead and buried when free-falling toads carpet his hometown’s streets seven years hence.

“Rainy Season” brings one helluva storm to Willow, and a memorable story to readers. But as we’ll see next time on the countdown, this isn’t the first time that King has made masterful use of the married-couple-stumbles-into-strange-town plotline.

 

3. “Children of the Corn”

King has gone down the married-couple-stumbles-upon-queer-little-town road repeatedly in his short fiction, but his first foray remains his best. Burt and Vicky Robeson drive cross-country toward California in a “last ditch attempt to patch up their own marriage,” but their road trip hits the skids when they make an ill-fated detour through the dark heartland of America. Gatlin bills itself as “THE NICEST LITTLE TOWN IN NEBRASKA–OR ANYWHERE ELSE!”, but such welcome turns out to be an egregious piece of false advertising. “Somewhere up ahead,” Burt speculates when approaching the town, “there would be a drugstore with a soda fountain, a movie house named the Bijou, a school named after JFK,” and while Gatlin does feature many of these Rockwellian elements, the scene there proves decidedly sinister.

This Night Shift story is a masterpiece of suspense, presenting a string of ominous details: the boy who runs out of the corn field with his throat fatally slit; his corn-husk crucifix; the strange evangelism airing on the local radio station; the utter ghost town that is Gatlin, with its wall calendars twelve years out-of-date; the converted Baptist church, with its portrait of a vulpine Jesus behind the pulpit (“a pagan Christ that might slaughter his sheep for sacrifice instead of leading them”), and its record book of Biblically-rechristened children (none of whom have lived past the age of nineteen). Making these discoveries, Burt slowly pieces together the puzzle of what has gone wrong in Gatlin, figuring that the titular children “got religion and the[n] killed off their parents. All of them.  Isn’t that a scream? Shot them in their beds [an allusion to Capote’s In Cold Blood?], knifed them in their bathtubs, poisoned their suppers, hung them, or disemboweled them, for all I know.” And why? “The corn. Maybe it was dying. Maybe they got the idea somehow that it was dying because there was too much sinning. Not enough sacrifice.” Paging Shirley Jackson…

All of this build-up leads to a terrifying payoff, as the gang of grim-and-proper young pagans at last appears and attacks the Robesons. When Burt attempts to hide out in the labyrinth of the corn field, though, he discovers that he is dealing with not just a case of religious mania run amok but something truly supernatural: “something huge, bulking up to the sky…something green with terrible red eyes the size of footballs.” He Who Walks Behind the Rows actually exists, and this dreadful, Lovecraftian figure makes a fitting deity for Gothic America: “Out there, in the night, something walked, and it saw everything…even the secrets kept in human hearts.”

“Children of the Corn” has perhaps been overshadowed by its popular film version (featuring a young Linda Hamilton and Courtney Gains as the malicious Malachi), but the original story forms a brilliant example of King’s work in the short-fiction mode.

 

2. “Blockade Billy”

Don’t let the packaging as a stand-alone book fool you: this is a short story on steroids.  And a damned fine one at that.

King offers a ghastly take on the national pastime, courtesy of raconteur George Grantham, a former third-base coach for the (fictional) New Jersey Titans. The old-timer tells “Mr. King” about the team’s “nightmare season” way back in 1957; more specifically, he relates the notorious story of “Blockade” Billy Blakely, an emergency call-up from Davenport, Iowa who took the major leagues by storm for one month before his prior foul play caught up with him.

Grantham goes heavy on the ominous remarks, couching his tale as an “awful story” and making repeated comments about how Blockade Billy’s exploits had to be stricken from baseball’s record books. The young catcher (whose nickname derives from his prowess at blocking home plate) is also depicted as someone not quite right in the head: he references himself in the third person, whispers to himself constantly while catching, and has “a habit of echoing back what you [just] said to him.” These various hints propel the reader through the narrative, in eager search of the source of Blockade Billy’s infamy. What could this generally likable “Iowa plowboy” have done that was so terrible?

The answer is provided by a grisly climax (that gives new meaning to the crowd chant “Kill the ump!”) and an explanatory denouement reminiscent of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Blockade Billy is exposed as an impostor: an orphan named Eugene Katsanis, who worked on the Blakely farm in Clarence, Iowa, has been impersonating the minor leaguer. Worse, the real Billy Blakely and his parents have been brutally murdered. Katsanis “slashed their throats” and stashed their corpses “in the barn.” He also “killed all the cows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear them howling to be milked at night.” All appalling acts to be sure, yet Grantham also seems to have some sympathy for Katsanis. The former coach suggests that Katsanis’s proverbial screws could have been knocked loose by the years of physical abuse suffered at a “Christian orphan home that was probably hell on earth.” Grantham also speculates that the Blakelys had their own dark side, that the envious family “pulled a few strings to keep Katsanis from playing locally” and overshadowing the less-talented Billy. Whatever did actually transpire back in Iowa, it wasn’t the stuff Field of Dreams is made of.

Grantham’s tale makes for a fast but mesmerizing read. His oration brings old-time baseball to life–the salty humor, the superstition, the camaraderie. On the last page, he insists that baseball “is a good thing.  Always was, always will be.” Still, the preceding narrative calls such assurance into serious question, as the all-American sport is shown to have a bloody, malicious element. Because is there really much difference between baserunners deliberately sliding into fielders with their “spikes high” and Katsanis deftly nicking Achilles heels at home plate with his hidden sliver of razor blade? Perhaps not, but one thing is certain: in “Blockade Billy” King is at the top of his storytelling game, and man, does he throw a wicked curve.

 

1. “It Grows on You”

Where else could the countdown end but in Castle Rock? The story is set after the events of Needful Things, and the town has seriously decayed: the Rock is now “like a dark tooth which is finally ready to fall out.” It “seems the whole goddamn town is dying,” and the perfect emblem for this condition is furnished by the “deathly” look of the abandoned, rotting mansion known as the Newall house. King has steeped himself in American Gothic tradition here; the spooky house–“empty for eleven years now, no one has ever lived there for long”–recalls the titular domicile of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House. Moreover, the “leaning, crepitating bulk” of the Newall house stands atop a ridge overlooking the section of Castle Rock called the “Bend”–an obvious reference to “Frenchmen’s Bend” in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels.

King echoes Faulkner not just in details of setting but also in terms of characterization. Joe Newall, a mysterious outsider distrusted, if not despised, by the locals, is modeled after Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (like Sutpen, he distances himself from the community, and “never crosse[s] the threshold” of the town church). Newall’s wife Cora, meanwhile, is drawn from the same grotesque cloth as Emily Grierson in the classic Faulkner story “A Rose for Emily,” as can be gleaned from a juxtaposition of verbal portraits:

[Emily’s] skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand. (“A Rose for Emily”)

[Cora Newall] was a grainbag of a woman, incredibly wide across the hips, incredibly full in the butt, yet almost as flatchested as a boy and possessed of an absurd little pipestem neck upon which her oversized head nodded like a strange pale sunflower. Her cheeks hung like dough, her lips like strips of liver; her face was as silent as a full moon on a winter night. She sweated huge dark patches around the armholes of her dresses even in February, and she carried a dank smell of perspiration with her always.

Like its Faulknerian predecessor, King’s story foregrounds the biased attitudes of the townspeople, who trade in vicious gossip about the Newalls. Fact accordingly blurs with fancy: “In January of 1921, Cora gave birth to a monster with no arms and, it was said, a tiny clutch of perfect fingers sticking out of one eyesocket. It died less than six hours after mindless contractions had pushed its red and senseless face into the light.” When Cora suffers a fatal fall down a staircase in her home, “a rumor went through town (it probably originated at a Ladies Aid Bake Sale) that she had been stark naked at the time.” Not to be outdone, Benny Ellis claims that Newall “had gouged out his daughter’s one eye and kept it in a jar of what Benny called ‘fubbledehyde’ on the kitchen table, along with the amputated fingers which had been poking out of the other socket when the baby was born.” The Newalls may in fact be an evil clan, but the exact nature of that evil is hard to discern because of all these wild tales told by the locals.

Indeed, the story’s plot is as unruly as the architecture of the sprawling Newall house, but this skewed structuring only makes the hints of lunacy that much more disconcerting. The climax comes in the midst of a sex dream: old-timer Gary Paulson–one of the the group of “cronies” who hang out at Brownie’s Store and fixate upon the Newall house–suffers a cerebral hemorrhage while dreaming of the time when the adult Cora lewdly exposed herself to him back when he was a child. Paulson dies gasping the enigmatic words “The moon!” and then the story concludes with the following brief paragraph: “The day after he is laid to rest in Homeland, a new cupola starts to go up on the new wing on the Newall house.” It appears that the home feeds vampirically on the townspeople, thriving on their misfortune. This Northern Gothic mansion was always being built up when the Newalls resided there, and continues to metastasize even when it lacks living occupants (in terms of King’s haunted houses, the Newall place hearkens back to the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot but also looks forward to the eponymous Rose Red). The story’s title thus proves to be a sinister pun. Forever pondering the prominent home, which was “an affront to the sensibilities and an offense to the eye,” the crew at Brownie’s would often quip, “But it grows on you.” That it does, but not in a good way for the remaining populace of Castle Rock.

Beautifully written and rife with haunting imagery and incident, the story itself grows on you (like a worm battening on your gray matter). It’s the type of narrative that invites repeated readings, each as effective as the last in establishing a sense of weirdness. This “story about secrets and sickness,” as the author aptly labels it in his endnotes to Nightmares & Dreamscapes, turns the reader into an analogue of the men in Brownie’s Store, obsessed with a looming house of gloom and the dark history of its former(?) owners. For all these reasons, “It Grows on You” ranks as the greatest work of American Gothic short fiction that King has written to date.