Beyond Iverson’s Pits: Six Other Great Works of American Gothic Short Fiction by Dan Simmons

In a previous post, I discussed at length Dan Simmons’s masterful story “Iverson Pits.” That Gettysburg-set shocker, though, does not represent the author’s sole foray into American Gothic territory in his short fiction (i.e. stories, novelettes, and novellas). Here are another half-dozen exemplary pieces:

 

“The River Styx Runs Upstream” (1982)

The text is as great as the title of Simmons’s first-published, award-winning story. A deceased mother is brought back to life-and back home to her family–by a quasi-religious/scientific group called the Resurrectionists. But Mother, mute and mentally blunted, proves a grim facsimile of her former self. The result, though, isn’t Pet Sematary-type carnage, but instead the more quiet horrors of the quotidian (e.g. Mother’s narrating son sees her “watering a plant that had died and been removed while she was at the hospital in April. The water ran across the top of the cabinet and dripped on the floor. Mother did not notice.”). The heartbreaking, not to mention American Gothic, aspects of the narrative are accentuated by the ongoing discrimination suffered by Resurrectionist families such as the narrator’s.

 

“Carrion Comfort” (1983)

The epic novel of the same title is a genre classic, but the source story furnishes no less rewarding a read. A trio of vampiric puppet-masters with a deadly mental Ability to direct the actions of others gather to compare their latest kills. But old rivalries and resentments rear their offensive head, and the game degenerates into macabre mayhem (occurring in both the narrator Melanie’s mansion and the Southern Gothic environs of Charleston). Simmons’s theme of the utter corruption resulting from absolute power makes for some hard-hitting horror, while also providing food for thought about people’s frightening penchant for inhumanity when dealing with one another.

 

“Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites” (1989)

A dingy barber shop in a quintessential Midwestern town becomes the scene of chilling horror. Two pre-teen protagonists suspect the place is a front for a pair of vampires, but these wannabe Hardy Boys get more than they bargained for when trailing surveillance of the barbers turns to late-night break-in of their shop. The story (which jumps back and forth in time between the protagonists’ youth and adulthood) is structured for maximal suspense, and the climactic twist is big and stunning, as Simmons shows it is not just Bram Stoker he’s channeling here. Paging Greg Nicotero: “Shave” would make a perfect script for an episode of Creepshow.

 

Elm Haven, Illinois” (1991)

Written specifically for the shared-world anthology of linked tales, Freak Show, this story serves as one piece of a larger narrative puzzle. In it, the lonely, extremely disfigured narrator Benjamin (inflicted with “Elephant Man’s disease”) gets caught up in the machinations of a shady traveling carnival. The plot is quite enjoyable in its own right, but the true delight for Simmons fans lies in the fact that this piece forms a postscript to Summer of Night. The small town of Elm Haven is in the midst of its death throes three decades after the events of the novel; decadence runs rampant. Benjamin tours the community’s darkest nooks, from the “charred ruin” of his own family mansion to the even more Gothic wreckage of the sinister Old Central School.

 

“This Year’s Class Picture” (1992)

Simmons breathes new life into the zombie subgenre in this tale of a veteran fourth-grade teacher determined to carry on after the collapse of civilization. Ms. Geiss still tends to and attempts to educate the students in her classroom, even if they are now undead and festering. A story that might have devolved into mere grotesquerie instead builds to a moving conclusion (in which Ms. Geiss’s efforts earn her a much better fate than landing on the lunch menu). Besides offering a portrait of post-apocalyptic survival, “This Year’s Class Picture” also presents a scathing critique of a pre-Tribulations society plagued by forces more insidious than zombie hordes: for thirty-eight years, “Ms. Geiss had, as well as she was able, protected her fourth graders from the tyrannies of too-early adulthood and the vulgarities of a society all too content with the vulgar. She had protected them–with all her faculties and force of will–from being beaten, kidnapped, emotionally abused or sexually molested by the monsters who had hidden in the form of parents, step-parents, uncles, and friendly strangers.”

 

“Sleeping with Teeth Women” (1993)

An impressive work of Native American Gothic, presented from an indigenous perspective and displaying a vast knowledge of the culture and mythology of the Lakota Sioux. In his foreword, Simmons writes that the novella is “my antidote to what I consider the saccharine condescension of such travesties as Dances with Wolves,” but his countering of the weak-and-whimpering-victims characterizations in the Costner film does not mean that Simmons in turn simply idealizes Native American strength (he does not gloss over instances of cruelty and savagery). The climax features a battle with some truly nightmarish creatures, yet here the vanquishing of monsters out of native mythology does not mark a conservative end point to the narrative but instead opens up the possibility of a more positive outcome: the eventual freedom from subjugation, and the reclaiming of the lands previously stolen from the Sioux by the greedy white “Fat Takers.”

 

Gettysburg Gothic

In my last Lore Report, I noted how Aaron Mahnke’s podcast episode focused on the haunted nature of Gettysburg. Such subject matter has called to mind a genre work that covers similar ground in its positing of uncanny unpleasantness lingering at the famous Civil War battle site: Dan Simmons’s masterful 1988 novella “Iverson’s Pits.”

Simmons establishes a sense of positively dread-filled suspense right from the opening lines: “As a young boy I was not afraid of the dark. As an old man, I am wiser,” the octogenarian narrator intones. This brief opening section of the novella frames the reflection back on the summer of 1913, when the narrator was chosen as a ten-year-old Boy Scout to assist at the “Great Reunion” of Civil War veterans commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. The experience there appears to have traumatized the narrator, who completely hooks the reader’s interest with these first-paragraph-closing hints at the sinister: “Even now, three-quarters of a century later, I am unable to turn over black soil in the garden or to stand alone in the grassy silence of my grandson’s backyard after the sun has set without a hint of cold fingers on the back of my neck.” No less intriquing is the concluding paragraph of the frame section, in which the narrator articulates a quintessential Gothic theme: “The past is dead and buried. But I know now that buried things have a way of rising to the surface when one least expects them to.”

A “dark festival” tinge is given to the golden anniversary proceedings, as the narrator conveys his ten-year-old self’s chilling thought “that fifty years ago Death had given a grand party and 140,000 revelers had arrived in their burial clothes.” Scripted in retrospect, such grim perspective can be seen as influenced by Captain Montgomery, the salty Civil War veteran to whom the narrator has been assigned. Montgomery has hardly gotten into the Reunion spirit: “Goddamn idiots,” he grouses about the other gathered veterans. “Celebratin’ like it’s a county fair.” For Montgomery, the Gettysburg battlefield was just a form of open-air slaughterhouse “where they kill you and gut you down the middle…dump your insides out on the goddamn floor and kick ’em aside to get at the next fool. ..hack the meat off your bones, grind up the bones for fertilizer, then grind up everythin’ else you got that ain’t prime meat and wrap it in your own guts to sell it to the goddamn public as sausage. Parades. War stories. Reunions. Sausage, Boy.”

But if Montgomery is more preoccupied with carnage rather than the carnivalesque, why did he even attend the Reunion? His presence at Gettysburg in 1913 results from his fifty-year vendetta against the titular Confederate colonel whose folly delivered Montgomery’s regiment up to ambush and massacre. Montgomery believes Iverson is not only still alive, but also that he will be drawn to the Reunion, and so the captain embarks (with the narrator drafted as a sidekick) on a mission of deadly retribution. Iverson does in fact appear by tale’s end, but nothing goes according to plan in Montgomery’s confrontation with the notorious officer. I don’t want to spoil the climax by revealing too much about it, other than to say that it is an absolute tour de force. The hitherto Faulkneresque narrative veers toward the Lovecraftian, as the angry spirits of mortally-wounded soldiers prove much more visceral, and monstrous, than your typical ghosts. The hunger for vengeance at Gettysburg has a decidedly sharp-toothed edge.

The evocative prose of “Iverson’s Pits” draws upon all five senses, and Simmons vividly realizes the Gettysburg scene before the supernatural elements surface in the climax. The reader can’t help but relate intimately to the horror, as evident in this excerpt from an extended dream sequence in which the narrator (whom the monomaniacal Montgomery repeatedly mistakes for a drummer boy in his regiment killed at Gettysburg) is starkly self-aware of his own postmortem decomposition:

I felt my lips wither and dry in the heat, pulling back from my teeth, felt my jaws open wider and wider in a mirthless, silent laugh as ligaments decayed or were chewed away by small predators. I felt lighter as the eggs hatched, the maggots began their frenzied cleansing, my body turning toward the dark soil as the process accelerated. My mouth opened wide to swallow the waiting Earth. I tasted the dark communion of dirt. Stalks of grass grew where my tongue had been. A flower found rich soil in the humid sepulcher of my skull and sent its shoot curling upward through the gap which had once held my eye.

All told, “Iverson’s Pits” is a nightmarish tale of unquiet death and grisly comeuppance. For all its pulpy, terror-from-beyond-the-grave plot, the narrative does not fail to resonate, to sound deeper truths about human existence. Studying the elderly, decrepit Montgomery as he sleeps, the narrator realizes, “with a precise and prescient glimpse at the terrible fate of my own longevity, that age was a curse, a disease, and that all of us unlucky to survive our childhoods were doomed to suffer and perish from it. Perhaps, I thought, it is why young men go willingly to die in wars.” In the concluding frame section, the narrator expands the scope of his story to include other, post-Civil-War battlefields across the globe: “But the fruit and copper taste of the soil remains the same. The silent communion among the casually sacrificed and the forgotten-buried also remains the same. Sometimes I think of the mass graves which have fertilized this century and I weep for my grandson and great-grandchildren.”

The horrors of war are well established in the annals of genre fiction, but never have they been documented as movingly as in “Iverson’s Pits.”  And while Dan Simmons has gone on to a long and distinguished career marked by an unparalleled ability to combine historical record with dark fantasy elements (e.g. his 2007 epic The Terror), his incredible talent appears fully germinated in this early novella.

 

Horror Hot List

The 2018 Summer Reader Poll conducted by NPR asked fans to vote for their five favorite horror novels or stories. Regrettably, I missed the voting deadline, but would like to offer my scary quintet here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The nights might be getting shorter, but these works will guarantee a summer that is long on frights.

 

1.Stephen King’s IT

The fact that I was practically the same age as the adolescent protagonists when I first read King’s monstrous opus back in 1986 made the book seem especially nightmarish. It didn’t hurt, either, that King sent a virtual all-star team of terrifying creatures out onto (and under) Derry’s field of play.

 

2.Jack Ketchum’s Off Season

Night of the Living Dead meets Straw Dogs in this controversial and unabashedly violent tale of modern-day cannibals in coastal Maine. The dining habits of this feral clan make Hannibal Lecter’s diet seem positively benign. It’s not for nothing that Stephen King dubbed Jack Ketchum “the scariest guy in America.” 

 

3.Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

These six volumes comprise the greatest story collection the horror genre has ever produced. In tale after tale, Barker manages to both terrify and excite, via prose that is at once profound, provocative, and wickedly witty. These books marked me in so many ways; for example, to this day I can’t venture down into the New York subway without thinking of “The Midnight Meat Train.”

 

4.Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

McCarthy’s novels have always exhibited a Gothic bent, but none more than this post-apocalyptic gut-wrencher. The Road is incredibly affecting, as trauma and tragedy play out on both a personal and global level. What ultimately makes this book so haunting, though, is its utter plausibility.

 

5.Dan Simmons’s The Terror

This Arctic epic delivers big-time on its titular promise. The novel is relentlessly terrifying, replete with unforgettable set-pieces (the extended scene in which the Tuunbaq doggedly stalks ice master Thomas Blanky forms a master class in the creation of heart-pounding horror). Readers won’t have to worry about turning on the air conditioning this summer, because this book is perfectly chilling.

Precursors to Terror: Seven Influences on Dan Simmons’s Arctic Gothic Novel

Dan Simmons is one of the most literate and culturally-astute writers of genre fiction, and in his 2007 novel The Terror (a supernatural recasting of the fate of the Franklin Expedition), he proves as allusive as ever. Here are seven examples that can be dug out of the ice:

1.“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
The icebound plight of The Terror parallels the dead calm plaguing the ship in Coleridge’s poem (which the crew believes to be a supernatural entrapment by an angry Spirit from the Antarctic “land of mist and snow”). Also, just as the ancient mariner’s troubles traces back to his sacrilegious slaying of an albatross, the Franklin Expedition perhaps curses itself by slaughtering polar bears as it makes its transgressive foray into the Arctic. Late in the novel, Simmons reveals that shamans have promised the God Who Walks Like a Man (i.e. the Tuunbaq, who has adopted/adapted the shape of the white northern bear) that “they would honour it by never fishing or hunting within its kingdom without the monster-creature’s permission.”

2.Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Shelley’s frame story (often abridged in film versions) intriguingly features an icebound ship stalled in its quest to discover the Northwest Passage. Captain Walton’s predicament reinforces the theme of Promethean overreaching, and the advice he receives from a dying Victor Frankenstein (“Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries”) applies just as readily to Sir John Franklin in Simmons’s novel.  Frankenstein‘s tale of the reckless creation of a hulking monstrosity that rebounds troublingly on the creator also aligns with the mythological backstory of the Tuunbaq that Simmons sketches towards the end of The Terror.

3.”The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)
Poe’s story is worked overtly into the plot of Simmons’s novel: crewmember Richard Aylmore, having read it in Graham’s Magazine five years earlier, uses it as the basis for the color-coded apartments he sets up during the Second Grand Venetian Carnivale. Alas, just as the ghastly embodiment of the Red Death crashes Prince Prospero’s festivities, the mauling Tuunbaq adds some dire fireworks to the New Year’s Eve celebration. Both Poe and Simmons furnish haunting reminders that ultimately there is no refuge from terror.

4.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Simmons immediately invokes Melville by employing a passage from Moby-Dick as the epigraph to The Terror: “This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors that they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.” Moby-Dick also swims into the narrative itself, such as the scene when Sir John Franklin (a vainglorious captain bent on career redemption rather than revenge) entices the crew with the Ahab-like promise of golden reward for the killing of their adversary. Much like the captain of the Pequod, Franklin dooms his ship’s crew (save for a sole survivor) with a series of bad decisions. Surely it’s no coincidence, either, that in his death scene, Franklin suffers an injury that doubles Ahab’s unmasting by the whale: he has his legs torn off by the Tuunbaq. Side note: Simmons (perhaps unwittingly expressing an anxiety of influence) has written an essay in which at once admits to rereading Moby-Dick while writing The Terror and vociferously distances himself from Melville’s novel.

5.Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Simmons’s treacherous, renegade caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey, compares with the Conradian antagonist Kurtz. Just as Kurtz notoriously supported the Suppression of Savage Customs–“Exterminate all the brutes!”–Hickey orchestrates a fiendish massacre of friendly Esquimaux. Hickey also sounds echoes of Heart of Darkness in his descent into madness and presumed rise to godhood, and his “terrified” final pronouncement recalls Kurtz’s dying cry of “The horror! The horror!”

6.Nosferatu (1922)
Simmons closes his novel with a curious scene: Captain Crozier returns to The Terror, only to find it inhabited by an ostensibly dead figure with rat-like teeth and “long brown gingers and too-long yellow nails.” Both in appearance and situation, this seeming vampire suggests Count Orlok (who, after decimating the crew, forms the solitary occupant of the “death-ship”) in the influential German horror film. Simmons’s notion of a supernatural evil drawn to haunt a bad place also calls to mind Stephen King’sSalem’s Lot (whose film version offers a vampire that is a clear Nosferatu-homage).

7.The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Terror “is dedicated, with love and many thanks for the indelible Arctic memories, to Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, Dewey Martin, William self, George Fennerman, Dmitri Tiomkin, Charles Lederer, Christain Nyby, Howard Hawkes, and James Arness”–respectively, the cast, screenwriter, director, producer, and title character of the classic science fiction/horror film The Thing from Another World (based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”). “The thing on the ice” (as it is repeatedly referred to within Simmons’s novel) hails from the Spirit-World rather than another planet, yet lays a similarly nightmarish siege on the protagonists’ base of operations. (In a recent interview, Simmons offered further comment on the personal appeal of The Thing.)

The Terror: Definition of?

There is so much to like about The Terror, AMC’s just-completed historical horror series centering on the ill-fated quest to locate the Northwest Passage. Time and again, viewers are treated to stunning visuals (those long-range and overhead shots of the icebound ships are nothing short of sublime). There’s nightmare fuel to burn: grisly images of amputations, postmortems, scurvy-plagued faces, cannibalized corpses, dismemberings and savagings by a mammoth monster. The show is also stocked with incredible performances: Ciaran Hinds as the pompous and incompetent Sir John Franklin; Jared Harris as the tormented yet honorable Captain Crozier; Paul Ready as the aptly-named anatomist, Dr. Goodsir; Adam Nagaitis as the cretinous, Kurtzian caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey.

Ironically, though, for a show concerning a protracted struggle to survive, The Terror often feels rushed. Key scenes from Dan Simmons’s epic novel (e.g. the death of Sir John) flash by too quickly, too incompletely. The creature’s attack on ice master Thomas Blanky, one of the most extensive and suspenseful chapters in the book, is hardly allowed to play to its harrowing extreme. At the same time, certain plotlines are overemphasized: in the latter episodes, political upheaval (the battle between splintered camps after the voyagers abandon ship) eclipses both the monstrous threat of the Tuunbaq and the grueling ordeal of an overland trek (the way the men are so casually dressed, one might almost forget they are crossing terribly frigid terrain). For those familiar with Simmons’s The Terror, the abridgment/alteration of the narrative is severe. In a ten-episode series, surely there was space for a more faithful adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest misstep here is that the show presents too little of the Tuunbaq. The creature appears much less frequently than in the novel, and as a result, much of the tension is sacrificed. Sense of the crews’ frightful plight, their years-long subjection to sudden and spectacular attack by an Arctic terrorist, is undermined. When the Tuunbaq does show up on screen, he looks clearly computer-generated (and to me at least, strangely cute). He seems like a polar bear on steroids, not a sly and malicious entity of supernatural evil. By presenting the Tuunbaq as an almost tragic Inuit figure, the series undercuts both his mythological grandeur and his role as daunting adversary.

Make no mistake: AMC’s The Terror is a riveting drama, and well worth watching. I can appreciate the fact that adapting Simmons’s beast of a novel–which places innumerable characters in inhospitable environments–is no easy task. And naturally, changes are always necessitated by the translation of fiction into a visual medium. Nevertheless, the reworking of the source material here is so radical, it strikes me as an act of hubris: the show’s creators suggest they can take Simmons’s original story and tell it so much better by following an ever-diverging route. While an impressive effort, The Terror, much like the Franklin Expedition itself, falls regrettably short of the ultimate glory it might have achieved.