Harrowing Shadows: 11 Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

At its darkest, noir naturally shades over into horror, as countless genre films have demonstrated over the years. In honor of “Noirvember,” here’s a list of eleven exemplary works of horror noir:

 

Freaks (1932)

Steeped in dark-carnival atmosphere, Tod Browning’s controversial shocker is also driven by a noir narrative. A scheming pair of lovers (the trapeze artist Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules) plot to seduce the dwarf Hans, to poison him following his marriage to Cleopatra, and then steal his wealth. The climactic scene in which the titular sideshow performers carry out their vengeance against the conspirators during a driving rainstorm forms a classic combination of horror and noir.

 

Psycho (1960)

No director mixed mystery and suspense with terror and horror better than Alfred Hitchcock. This seminal cinematic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel conveys a strong noir vibe: driven by love to a desperate act of robbery, a fugitive woman suffers bloody comeuppance at a lonesome motel (at the hands of a quite violent “femme”). The private detective who subsequently searches the old dark house overlooking the Bates business doesn’t fare much better.

 

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ debut effort signals its dark leanings in its very title (drawn from a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest). This tale of marital infidelity and attempted vengeance (by the cuckolded husband) features shocking acts of murder, premature burial, nightmare visions of revenant return, and one frightfully rogue private detective. The sense of horror is only intensified as randomness and misunderstanding precipitate a series of catastrophic events. My all-time favorite film noir.

 

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s genre-splicing novel, in which a hard-boiled detective stumbles onto the occult, delivers some truly horrifying visuals (the blood spill seems almost as copious as the rainfall). It also offers one of the most stunning plot twists this side of Chinatown. Throw in a frightfully good performance by Robert DeNiro as the sinister Louis Cyphre, and the quintessence of horror noir is achieved.

 

Cape Fear (1991)

De Niro rears his psychotic head here in this remake of the 1962 film, playing the Robert Mitchum role like a redneck Hannibal Lector. Any notion that De Niro’s Max Cady is your basic criminal stalker is destroyed the second he bites a hunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek. There’s also a great set-piece in which he grimly outwits a private detective on a stakeout. Director Martin Scorsese underscores the horror noir nature of the film in a harrowing, protracted climax that transpires during a raging squall.

 

Basic Instinct (1992)

Ok, calling this one a “masterpiece” might be overstating the case, given the abundance of sleaziness and cheesiness. But the horror here extends far beyond the gratuitous glute-shots of a butt-naked Michael Douglas. Sharon Stone is a modern-day femme fatale guaranteed to turn wet dreams into sweat-soaked nightmares. After the savage, in medias coitus icepicking in the film’s opening, the recurrent sex scenes splashed across the screen utterly terrify even as they titillate.

 

Se7en (1995)

Much of David Fincher’s work qualifies for this list, but none of the director’s other films can surpass this one’s combination of the gritty and the grotesque. In lesser hands the basic premise (a serial killer with a baroque schema) might have seemed derivative, the stuff of made-for-cable movies, but Fincher crafts a masterfully-atmospheric film filled with viewer-traumatizing tableaus (the crime scene for the “Sloth” victim alone places Se7en in the horror noir hall of fame). Even when the narrative leaves the seedy confines of the city for sunny expanse in the climax, it heads off into shocking, devastating territory.

 

Dark City (1998)

The best and darkest of the numerous future-noir films that followed in the wake of The Matrix. Alex Proyas’s stunning cinematic vehicle starts with standard noir elements (the main character finds he has lost his memory, as he awakens in a room with a dead prostitute sprawled on the floor) and then takes the idea of urban entrapment (in a rain-slicked nightscape) in a whole other, mind-bending direction. The film’s human-corpse-wearing alien “strangers”–extraterrestrial Cenobites engaged in bizarre experiment–are as unnerving a group of villains ever to form a criminal underworld.

 

Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese sways toward the Gothic in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thrilling twist on a detective novel. As if an island asylum for the criminally insane (where illicit, secret experiments might be taking place) wasn’t creepy enough already, the film adds some spectacularly heavy weather, rat-infested caves, and a protagonist haunted by visions of scarred monsters and corpses come to life. I would also argue that the gut-punch of a climactic plot twist here hearkens back to Angel Heart.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A moody, highly-stylized piece shot in black and white and melding street crime and the supernatural, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film checks all the appropriate boxes. The female of the title is more fearful than someone to fear for: an antiheroic Iranian vampire who prowls the stark wasteland of Bad City (and who leaves quite a mark on a drug-dealing pimp). Calling this one the lovechild of Nosferatu and Sin City isn’t some pithy pitch, but rather an acknowledgement of two of the works that ostensibly influence Amirpour’s artistic vision.

 

True Detective, Season 1 (2014)

Technically, this is not a theatrical film but an HBO series, yet a perfect addition to the list nonetheless. Show creator Nic Pizzolato invokes weird-fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti, as he scripts a gripping narrative in which a murder investigation uncovers conspiracy and depraved ritual. Season 1’s Louisiana mise-en-scène is at once haunting and haunted, and the killer’s discovered lair in the finale makes the Sawyer abode in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like it belongs in Better Homes and Gardens.

 

The Literature of Sleepy Hollow

(painting by William Wilgus)

 

While doing the research for my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I encountered countless written works inspired by Washington Irving’s 1820 tale. Plenty of these qualified as glorified fan fiction and were downright painful to read, but thankfully there were also many entertaining texts. Here’s a list of eight great reads that hearken back to Sleepy Hollow:

 

1. “Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

Not many readers realize nowadays that “The Legend” doesn’t constitute the only time Irving wrote about Sleepy Hollow. In this 1839 work creative nonfiction (presented as an essay by Irving’s pseudonymous narrator, Geoffrey Crayon), Sleepy Hollow is revisited in resplendent fashion. Crayon relates his connection to Diedrich Knickerbocker, fills in the backstory of how the latter learned of “The Legend,” and details the modern innovations that have now intruded upon the quaint village–doing all in a comedic tone that makes the essay a fine companion piece to the original story.

 

2. Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Tellingly, the first ghost story interpolated in Straub’s 1979 novel (which revolves around the frightful fireside tales passed among the haunted members of the Chowder Society) is a variation on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (ultimately mashed up with The Turn of the Screw). The narrator recounts his experience decades earlier as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural New York village, and his encounter with the malevolent revenant of a man that perished from a grievous head injury. How thematically appropriate that Straub’s complex narrative of spook tales come to terrifying life draws upon Irving’s tale of a schoolmaster harassed by a seemingly all-too-real local legend.

 

3. Sleepy Hollow by Peter Lerangis

This 1999 novelization is a must-have for fans who just can’t get enough of the Tim Burton film adaptation. Lerangis follows the cinematic narrative faithfully, capturing Burton’s Hammer-Horror-style revision of Irving in vivid prose. A special treat is the scene at novel’s end involving the retreat of the no-longer-Headless Horseman with Lady Van Tassel into the Tree of the Dead–a scene presented here from the Horseman’s very own point of view.

 

4. Sleepy Hollow High by Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore

This quartet of linked novels (Horseman [2005], Drowned [2005], Mischief, [2006], Enemies [2006]) is marketed as young adult fiction, but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Sleepy Hollow is besieged by a series of terrifying monsters, all linked in some fashion to the legendary Headless Horseman. The Horseman himself proves plenty frightening, but his character arc over the course of the four novels allows him to range beyond mere decapitating menace.

 

5. Rise Headless and RideBridge of Bones, and General of the Dead by Richard Gleaves

The first three volumes (2013/2014/2015) of the Jason Crane series (which also includes 2018’s Salem: Blood to Drink) are set square in a modern-day Sleepy Hollow that is haunted by its early history. These novels draw lovingly on the original “Legend” and transform its materials into an epic narrative centered on the Headless Horseman (whose mythos is thoroughly developed, and whose imagining here is unrivaled for inventiveness). Featuring a diverse cast enmeshed in supernatural intrigue, Gleaves’s books read like True Blood by way of Washington Irving, and are positively begging to be developed into a Netflix series (shot on location in Sleepy Hollow!).

 

6. Grimm Fairy Tales Presents: Sleepy Hollow by Dan Wickline

This modern retelling actually reimagines the Headless Horseman as an avenging hero–which isn’t to say that the figure (who looks from the neck stump down like Gene Simmons on steroids) has been stripped of menacing aura. Grue is splashed across the page in this graphically violent graphic novel, in which the Horseman stalks his prey with all the relentlessness and killer creativity of a classic cinematic slasher.

 

7. The Devil’s Patch by Austin Dragon

Irving’s story is reworked as a weird western in this 2015 novel (a sequel to Hollow Blood), in which a gunslinging posse travels far north of Sleepy Hollow in an attempt to kill the infernal Horseman in his new lair. I include this one on the list for its thrilling climax, blood-soaked and action-packed, and featuring one incredibly surreal image of the Horseman that will not be soon forgotten by the reader.

 

8. The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo

Ichabod in a bodice-ripper? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Palombo pulls it off in this atmospheric and historically-accurate gothic romance. The novel also works as a “feminist retelling” (as Palombo terms it in her author’s note) of Irving’s story, as Katrina is situated here as narrator, central character, and ultimate recorder of the Horseman’s legend. Various female writers have offered their take on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in recent years, but this spellbinding book is head and shoulders above the rest.

 

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.”

 

2019 Supreme

The end of December is not only a time for counting down to the start of the New Year, but also for looking back at the best the horror genre had to offer over the preceding twelve months. Here’s a list of some year-end reviews worth checking out:

*The Lineup: 11 Best Horror Books of 2019

*Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Entertainment Weekly: The 10 Best Horror Films of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Best Horror Movies of 2019

*Watch Mojo: Top 10 Scariest Movie Scenes of 2019

*Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2019

*The Hollywood Reporter: Hollywood’s Best 2019 Halloween Costumes

*Dread Central: Alyse Wax’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2019

*The Lineup: The 13 Best Scary TV Shows of 2019

 

Finally, here are some of my own choices for this year’s superlatives:

*Favorite Film of the Year: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (read my review here)

*Most Enjoyable Series of the Year: Stranger Things 3 (read my review here)

*Greatest Podcast Episode of the Year: This is Horror #300 (Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella celebrate their three-hundredth episode with a four-hour extravaganza featuring interviews with Adam Nevill, Joe R. Lansdale, Josh Malerman, Alma Katsu, Damien Angelica Walters, Stephen Graham Jones, Jon Padgett, and Kathe Koja)

*Favorite Documentary of the Year: Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini (this wonderful film, which I just watched a few nights back, provides a candid look at the life and career of one of horror’s most talented–and affable–figures)

*Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Netflix goes off of its Santa Clarita Diet (this gonzo zom-com still had a lot of meat left on the bone after three seasons. Not since the cancellation of Carnivale–for which I still haven’t forgiven HBO–have I been so bummed about the premature termination of a series)

*Best Acting Performance of the Year: Lizzy Caplan in Castle Rock (Caplan’s portrayal of a young Annie Wilkes is, hands down, the most impressive effort in the horror genre this year. Her incredibly nuanced performance manifests all the complexity of a character at once frightening and sympathetic, transgressive and tragic)

*Most Arachnophobic Moment of the Year: The spider breakout scene in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (absolutely harrowing; the most horrifying bodily eruption I’ve encountered onscreen since the cockroach explosion in Creepshow)

*Favorite Read of the Year: Full Throttle by Joe Hill (I will be posting a full review in the coming days)

*Favorite Dispatch from the Macabre Republic This Year: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

 

Dark Carnival Brilliance: 10 Wickedly Good Descriptions in Bradbury’s Classic Novel

Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes remains a perennial October re-read. One key to the book’s lasting popularity is the poetry infusing Bradbury’s prose. The author uses his unparalleled gift for description to immerse his audience in the autumnal scene. Virtually every page of the novel features instances of haunting imagery and captivating language, but here below are my choices for the ten most memorable passages.

(All quotes are taken from the October 2017 Simon & Schuster trade paperback, a definitive edition recommended not just for the text of Bradbury’s novel itself, but also for the extensive “History, Context and Criticism” section appended to it.)

 

1.A Frost Maiden on Display:

And in the window, like a great coffin boat of star-colored glass, beached on two sawhorses lay a chunk of Alaska Snow Company ice chopped to a size great enough to flash in a giant’s ring. (p. 40)

 

2.Overnight Incoming:

There, on the precipice of earth, a small steam feather uprose like the first of a storm cloud yet to come.

The train itself appeared, link by link, engine, coal-car, and numerous and numbered all-asleep-and-slumbering-dreamfilled cars that followed the firefly-sparked churn, chant, drowsy autumn hearthfire roar. Hellfires flushed the stunned hills. Even at this remote view, one imagined men with buffalo-haunched arms shoveling black meteor falls of coal into the open boilers of the engine. (p. 44)

 

3.The Very Antithesis of Merry:

They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their  panic-colored teeth. (p. 69)

 

4.Suitably Sinister:

His vest was the color of flesh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal as his eyes. But in this instant, swiftly, and with utter clearness, it was the suit which fascinated Will. for it seemed woven of boar-bramble, clock-spring hair, bristle, and a sort of ever-trembling, ever-glistening dark hemp. The suit caught light and stirred like a bed of black tweed-thorns, interminably itching, covering the man’s long body with motion so it seemed he should excruciate, cry out, and tear the clothes free. (p. 70)

 

5.A Fiery Rehearsal:

And there the Lava Sipper, Vesuvio of the chafed tongue, of the scalded teeth, who spun scores of fireballs up, hissing in a ferris of flame which streaked shadows along the tent roof.

Nearby, in booths, another thirty freaks watched the fires fly until the Lava Sipper glanced, saw intruders, and let his universe fall. The suns drowned in a a water tub. (p. 101)

 

6.Hearkening in the Dark:

What sort of noise does a balloon make, adrift?

None.

No, not quite. It noises itself, it soughs, like the wind billowing your curtains all white as breaths of foam. Or it makes a sound like the stars turning over in your sleep. Or it announces itself like moonrise and moonset. That last is best: like the moon sailing the universal deeps, so rides a balloon. (p.130-131)

 

7.Mr. Halloway Monologue:

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the long road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn  by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.” (p. 182-183)

 

8.Horripilating Skin Show:

Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends, his jewel-case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at midnight on his flesh. With him strode the stitch-inked Tyrannosaurus rex, which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral-oil glide. As the thunder lizard strode, all glass-bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh.  It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults. And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers-on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults screaming bat-screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill. Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore, a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward. (p. 196-197)

 

9.Plying Her Craft:

The Witch toppled forward with her seamed black wax sewn-shut iguana eyelids and her great proboscis with the nostrils caked like tobacco-blackened pipe bowls, her fingers tracing, weaving a silent plinth of symbols on the mind.

The boys stared.

Her fingernails fluttered, darted, feathered cold winter-water air. Her pickled green frog’s breath crawled their flesh in pimples as she sang softly, mewing, humming, glistering her babes, her boys, her friends of the slick snail-tracked roof, the straight-flung arrow, the stricken and sky-drowned balloon. (p. 204)

 

10.The Show Can’t Go On:

Then at last, the Freak Tent, the great melancholy mothering reptile bird, after a moment of indecision, sucked in a Niagara of blizzard air, broke loose three hundred hempen snakes, crack-rattled its black side-poles so they fell like teeth from a cyclopean jaw, slammed the air with acres of moldered wing as if trying to kite away but, earth-tettered, must succumb to plain and most simple gravity, must be crushed by its own locked bulk.

Now this greatest tent staled out hot raw breaths of earth, confetti that was ancient when the canals of Venice were not yet staked, and wafts of pink cotton candy like tired feather boas. In rushing downfalls, the tent shed skin; grieved, soughed as flesh fell away until at last the tall museum timbers at the spine of the discarded monster dropped with three cannon roars. (p. 252-253)

 

 

Fear Its Selves: Pennywise’s Ten Most Frightening Disguises

Tapping victims’ psyches and operating via “masks and glamours,” It assumes a slew of forms in Stephen King’s novel IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is Its go-to camouflage, the appearance It most commonly adopts (and reverts back to when revealing Its predatory nature), but throughout the course of the book, It takes the shape of an array of classic monsters and outré figures. Presented in order of appearance, here are my choices for the ten greatest fear-jerkers:

 

1. The Mummy

It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, arid flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust… [p. 214 in the 1986 Viking hardcover]

Ben’s recent late-night viewing of Shock Theater leads to a waking nightmare when he encounters a Karloffian monster in the Barrens. Like a figure in a bad dream, the mummy closes the gap between Itself and Its prey with uncanny, undetected quickness. This initial borrowing from Universal horror films is an appropriate one, as King provides an early hint of Its ancientness.

 

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon

The smell was what made him look back. the overwhelming smell, as if fish had been left to rot in a huge pile that had become carrion slushy in the summer heat. It was the smell of a dead ocean.

It wasn’t Dorsey after him now; it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The thing’s snout was long and pleated. Green fluid dripped from black gashes like vertical mouths in its cheeks. Its eyes were white and jellylike. Its webbed fingers were tipped with claws like razors. Its respiration was bubbly and deep, the sound of a diver with a bad regulator. As it saw Eddie looking, its green-black lips wrinkled back from huge fangs in a dead and vacant smile. [p. 262]

King’s considerable descriptive powers bring a deadly figure to vivid life in this scene in which runaway Eddie Corcoran is run down by the Gill Man alongside Derry’s Canal. Eddie’s vicious beheading even as he searches futilely for a zipper running up the Creature’s back serves notice to the reader that the horrors on display in this Maine town are really lethal and not just clumsy attempts at cinematic make-believe.

 

3. Rodan

It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin’s and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow’s feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them. [p.278]

This scene, in which Mike finds himself trapped inside a fallen smokestack by a monstrous bird of prey, forms one of the most suspenseful of the Losers’ solo encounters with It. King continually takes the scene another unsettling step further, adding details both grotesque (when Mike manages to wound the bird’s eye, “tiny parasites wriggled and squirmed” [p. 282] in the disgusting discharge) and bizarre (“And on this [unfurled] tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs”).

 

4. The Leper 

The skin of its forehead was split open. White bone, coated with a membrane of yellow mucusy stuff, peered through like the lens of a bleary searchlight. The nose was a bridge of raw gristle above two red flaring channels. One eye was a gleeful blue. The other socket was filled with a mass of spongy brown-black tissue. the leper’s lower lip sagged like liver. It had no upper lip at all; its teeth poked out in a sneering ring. [p. 312]

Eddie’s illness phobia (instilled by his overbearing mother) and his dread of sexual predators (after a previous harassing by a syphilitic tramp) make him ripe pickings for the rottenly-costumed It in this scene. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, King has the nightmare follow Eddie into his bed that night, where the boy hears (only in his imagination?) the leper whisper, “It won’t do you any good to run, Eddie” (p. 315).

 

5. The Teenage Werewolf

Its forehead was low and prognathous, covered with scant hair. Its cheeks were hollow and furry. Its eyes were a dark brown, filled with horrible intelligence, horrible awareness. Its mouth dropped open and it began to snarl. White foam ran from the corners of its thick lower lip in twin streams that dripped from its chin. The hair on its head was swept back in a gruesome parody of a teenager’s d.a.. It threw its head back and roared, its eyes never leaving Richie’s. [p. 377]

This timeliest of monster icons (in relation to the scenes in the book set in 1958) also makes for the most active antagonist that the Losers encounter. The Teenage Werewolf chases Bill and Richie out of the house on Neibolt Street and pursues the boys right down the block as they attempt to speed away on Bill’s bike Silver. They manage a narrow escape, but their adversary rears Its hirsute head in another menacing encounter later in the novel.

 

6. Mrs. Kersh/The Witch

Her claws scrabbled on the plate and she began to cram thin molasses cookies and delicate frosted slices of cake into her mouth with both hands. Her horrid teeth plunged and reared, plunged and reared; her fingernails, long and dirty, dug into the sweets; crumbs tumbled down the bony slab of her chin. Her breath was the smell of long-dead things burst wide open by the gasses of their own decay. Her laugh was now a dead cackle. Her hair was thinner. Scaly scalp showed in patches. [p. 570-571]

The Hansel and Gretel story is given a grim twist, as Beverly watches a kindly senior transform into “a crone with an apple-doll’s face” whose house appears to be made out of candy. A child-eater out of a famous fairy tale is an appropriate guise for It, just as the septic sludge It nauseatingly serves up to Beverly as a cup of tea is a fitting beverage from a monster that calls the sewers beneath Derry Its home.

 

7. Paul Bunyan Statue 

There he had been, sitting in that mellow March sunshine, drowsing a little, thinking about going home and catching the last half hour of Bandstand, and suddenly there had been a warm swash of air in his face. It blew his hair back from his forehead. He looked up and Paul Bunyan’s huge plastic face had been right up in front of his, bigger than a face on a movie screen, filling everything. The rush of air had been caused by Paul’s bending down…although he did not precisely look like Paul anymore. The forehead was now low and beetling; tufts of wiry hair poked from a nose as red as the nose of a long-time drunkard; his eyes were bloodshot and one had  a slight cast to it.

The axe was no longer on his shoulder. Paul was leaning on its haft, and the blunt end of its head had crushed a trench in the concrete of the sidewalk. He was still grinning, but there was nothing cheery about it now. From between gigantic yellow teeth there drifted a smell like small animals rotting in hot underbrush. [p. 584]

An American folk hero (adopted as the “patron saint of Derry” [p. 583]) turns into an overarching villain reminiscent of the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In lesser hands, this plastic colossus could have made for a tacky form of attacker, but King succeeds in making this animate statue hugely unnerving.

 

8. Flying Leeches

Suddenly one of the shell-like things unfurled insectile wings. Before Patrick could do more than register the fact, it had flown across the space between the refrigerator and Patrick’s left arm. It struck with a smacking sound. There was an instant of heat. It faded and Patrick’s arm felt just like always again…but the shell-like creature’s pale flesh turned first pink, and then, with shocking suddenness, rose-red. [p.832-833]

It’s a case of the biter-bit here, as the sociopathic Patrick Hockstetter receives some nasty comeuppance. No small part of the shock here stems from the unusual nature of the threat (who ever thought of a flying leech prior to reading this book?) and the unexpected place of its emergence (an abandoned refrigerator in the town dump). A death doesn’t get more horrific than having a leech latch onto your eyeball and suck the fluid out of it (and another one roosting on your tongue when you open your mouth to scream).

 

9. The Crawling Eye

A gigantic Eye filled the tunnel, the glassy black pupil two feet across, the iris a muddy russet color. The white was bulgy, membranous, laced with red veins that pulsed steadily. It was a lidless lashless gelatinous horror that moved on a bed of raw-looking tentacles. They fumbled over the tunnel’s crumbly surface and sank in like fingers, so that the impression given in the glow of Bill’s guttering match was of an Eye that had somehow grown nightmare fingers which were pulling It along.

It stared at them with blank, feverish avarice. The match went out. [p.1024-1025]

This fright for sore eyes might trace back to a campy 50’s monster movie, but ultimately is the eldritch offspring of a beastie out of Lovecraft (an author whose prose style King also seems to channel here). When the light goes out, the horror grows horripilatingly tactile, as the Losers feel the brush of the Eye’s questing tentacles, and then the “thick and wet and somehow gristly” (p. 1027) quality of the jellied surface as they strike out against It.

 

10. George

“Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of the fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed, waiting to unzip some some small boy’s guts. [p. 1038]

The cruelest blow Pennywise strikes ostensibly occurs in the book’s opening scene with the ripping off of poor George’s arm, but Its lowest blow is delivered in the climax when It manifests as the young murder victim. Such disguise is fiendishly designed to prey upon Bill’s lifelong sense of guilt over his brother’s demise (“He had sent George out to die, and he had spent his whole adult life writing about the horror of that betrayal–oh, he had put many faces on it, almost as many faces as It had put on for their benefit, but the monster at the bottom of everything was only George, running out into the receding flood  with his paraffin-coated paper boat”), and nearly does the trick of silencing ol’ Stuttering Bill for good.

 

E.C. Writer: Nine More Stephen King Works That Would Make Great Creepshow Adaptations

Counting the films Creepshow and Creepshow 2, and the premiere episode of the new streaming series, there have been nine Stephen King pieces brought to the screen to date as pseudo-shudder-comics segments. What other King stories might be ripe for adaptation on future (assumably green-lit) seasons of Creepshow? Here are my nine ideal candidates, chosen from works that have yet to be adapted elsewhere (as anything more than a dollar-baby):

 

1. “The Reaper’s Image” (1969)

Some brilliantly dark atmosphere could be recreated by drawing on this early story, set in the “Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum” and centering on a reputedly haunted looking-glass stored with other Gothic bric-a-brac in a gable room. Also, the inevitable appearance of the Reaper in the mirror would allow for the practical-effecting of a particularly Creep-y ghoul.

 

2. “The Blue-Air Compressor” (1971)

King’s modern-day conte cruel (whose story idea developed from the author’s reading of E.C. Comics) concerning a vengeful fledgling writer offers up some nasty violence and horrific imagery that would be right at home on Creepshow. Even better, King’s self-identifying intrusion into the narrative makes this potential adaptation the perfect opportunity for him to film his latest Creepshow cameo.

 

3. “Suffer the Little Children” (1972)

In his endnote to this story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King writes: “it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who revelled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love. Put another way, ‘Suffer the Little Children’ is a ghastly sick joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story.” Enough said.

 

4. “Nona” (1978)

This story checks all the (f)right boxes: more rats than you can shake a stick at, a violent killing spree, a supernatural femme fatale, and a graveyard climax. The fact that “Nona” is set in a little town called Castle Rock would make this a timely adaptation (given the series of that title currently streaming on Hulu).

 

5. “Popsy” (1987)

Featuring a reprehensible lead character who receives his macabre comeuppance, this story seems tailor-made for Creepshow treatment. Throw in a terrific twist ending and some grisly concluding imagery, and you can’t help but wonder why the producers of the new series didn’t turn here first (rather than to “Gray Matter”) when searching for a King story to adapt.

 

6. “Sneakers” (1988)

Creepshow has never qualified for highbrow status, so a tale of a haunted toilet stall would hardly compromise its aesthetics (as the story’s protagonist notes, the very idea combines the “gruesome” and the “comic”). The graphic horrors filling “Sneakers” (nightmares of a “slumped mossy thing”; the eventual encounter with the ghost of a mutilated corpse) would certainly keep such an adaptation well-clear of the crapper.

 

7. “Mile 81” (2011)

This story (one of King’s professed favorites) has a happier ending than those typically adapted for Creepshow, but features an eerie setting (an abandoned rest area) and a series of spectacularly grotesque set pieces. The monster car driving this narrative makes Christine seem like a kid’s toy.

 

8. “The Little Green God of Agony” (2011)

A Gothic shocker (in which a less-than-admirable viewpoint character is forced to learn the errors of her ways) that seems another perfect fit for the Creepshow mold. I can imagine the series’ fx specialists taking wicked delight in designing the story’s eponymous abomination (a slimy, pulsing, sentient sac of pulp).

 

9. “Bad Little Kid” (2015)

The ongoing trials of a hapless protagonist mark this darkly humorous tale as ready-made for adaptation. No doubt there’s an underlying malevolence to the antics of the potty-mouthed problem child of the title. This demon seed wearing a beanie hat with a propeller on top is every adult’s worst nightmare.

 

Superbly Subterranean: 8 Great Cave- and Mine-Based Works of American Gothic

Earlier this week, I reviewed the recent episode of Lore that covered the legends and superstitions associated with mines and caves. This got me to thinking about how such underground sites have served as recurrent settings in works of American Gothic horror. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why writers and filmmakers have turned again and again to the subterranean. Places of pitch-black darkness, caves and mines can be filled with threats both natural and otherwise; they can be populated with our own subconscious dreads as well as supernatural terrors. The history of cave- and mine-set scenes is a rich one, tracing all the way back to the origins of the American Gothic genre (the title character’s frightful battles with a panther and a tribe of Indians inside a cave in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly). Here’s my choice of eight exemplary works from books, film, and TV. This survey is admittedly subjective, and should not be taken as an attempted ranking of the eight greatest (I am well aware that classic texts by Poe, Lovecraft, King, and Ketchum are not included here).

 

*Gargoyles

This 1972 made-for-TV movie plays at times like a bad riff on a Planet of the Apes film (why would a winged gargoyle resort to riding on a horse?), and most of the eponymous antagonists look like outcasts from a Land of the Lost episode. But the makeup (done by the then-unknown Stan Winston) for the head gargoyle is amazing, and the Arizona-desert cave that forms the den for the devilish creatures is wonderfully creepy and labyrinthine. I remember being mesmerized by this movie when I saw it televised one weekend afternoon as a kid, and have no doubt it was a formative influence on my interest in the macabre.

 

*First Blood

Wait, I can hear you saying, isn’t Rambo an action-adventure hero? Anyone, though, who has read David Morrell’s novel knows that First Blood (1972) demonstrates a flair for the Gothic. The scene of the fugitive Rambo’s descent into a mine and forced traverse of a chamber teeming with bats and beetles is as harrowing as any ever featured in a horror film or book. Morrell immerses the reader in the grotesque muck and disorienting darkness right along with the viewpoint character, expertly chilling the blood.

 

*The Descent

“You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deteriorations, a cave can collapse, you can drown.” One of the characters reels off this list of potential dangers as her all-girl group of adventurers heads toward an uncharted cave deep in the Appalachians. Unfortunately, they will soon be able to add to the list, after they run afoul of a group of gruesome, carnivorous Gollums prowling within. Savagely scary, The Descent (2005) does for spelunking what the opening scene of Jaws does for skinny dipping in the ocean.

 

*My Bloody Valentine 3D

This 2009 remake relocates the 1981 Canadian slasher squarely to small-town America (the ironically-named mining community of Harmony) and offers some nice twists for those familiar with the plot of the earlier movie. Filmed in 3D, and concerned with the exploits of a homicidal, pickaxe-wielding coal miner, My Bloody Valentine 3D stages some eye-popping (literally, in one case) kills. Some of the graphics here do prove a bit cartoonish, but the underground scenes nonetheless possess a stark realism, thanks to their being shot on location inside a former working mine.

 

*”The Dark Down There”

Don’t be fooled by the author’s trademark grotesque humor and bawdy dialogue here. Joe R. Lansdale is also a master of crafting tremendously frightening scenes, as can be seen in this 2010 Weird Western story collected in Deadman’s Road. The gunslinging protagonist Reverend Jebediah Mercer battles a horde of Kobolds that have overrun a mine, and man, these are some nasty goblins. When they are not chewing off people’s heads and feet, they enslave humans and put them to backbreaking work in the mine. And their reigning queen, a bloated Kobold “pile of living flesh,” is so repulsive, she makes Jabba the Hutt seem like he belongs on the cover of GQ.

 

*”Lost in the Dark”

John Langan’s title suggests an exercise in primal fearmongering, and the ensuing novella (first published in the 2017 anthology Haunted Nights) certainly delivers the goods. The tale centers on Bad Agatha, a possibly inhuman predator who, according to Halloween lore, has made an old cement mine in the Hudson Valley her lair. The extensive scenes leading a set of hapless characters down into said mine demonstrate the terrifying heights that horror fiction can reach. With its thematic blurring of Blair-Witchy documentary filmmaking and make-believe monstrosity, Langan’s narrative begs to be brought to the big screen.

 

*Meddling Kids

Edgar Cantero’s 2017 novel (which I reviewed here) is an incredibly witty postmodern mash-up of Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing and Cthulhu-Mythos-alluding horror. When a group of former teen detectives reopen the case that made them famous, their investigations take them deep into an Oregon mine containing a mother lode of bogeys: the carbon-dioxide-breathing “wheezers.” How richly eldritch does the tale get? Well, these creatures are merely the hench-things of a monstrous chthonic deity out of Lovecraft waiting to ascend to earthly supremacy.

 

*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

There are plenty of terrifically eerie settings in this 2018-2019 Netflix series, but none outstrips the mine in the Greendale woods. The place is the site of a deadly cave-in triggered by a malicious witches’ spell (Chapter 7), and in the second-season finale (Chapter 20), demonic hordes are ready to break through the Gates of Hell located within the mine and inaugurate the End Times. For my money, though, the show’s best venture into the tunnels comes in Chapter 2, when a prank against the bullying jocks of Baxter High takes an even darker turn with a game of “Devil in the Dark.”

 

 

Not the Lottery: Six More Great American Gothic Short Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s controversial and unsettling story “The Lottery” is one of the finest examples of short fiction in American Literature, and arguably the greatest American Gothic story of all time. The much-anthologized 1948 tale, though, does not represent Jackson’s sole foray into such territory. Her macabre oeuvre contains dozens of winning selections, but the reader who picks these six pieces will be richly rewarded:

 

1. “The Story We Used to Tell” (collected in Dark Tales)

Jackson’s captivating take on a Gothic standard–the haunted portrait. This one has all the creepy atmosphere and sheer weirdness of The Haunting of Hill House (the story’s opening and closing paragraphs even echo the framing device in the novel), packed into eight pages.

 

2. “Home” (collected in Dark Tales)

This story shares with Jackson’s better-known narrative “The Summer People” the theme of country villagers who are strangely standoffish towards outsiders from the city. But “Home” is also a bona fide ghost story, as chilling as the cold rain drenching the shunned road the protagonist foolishly insists on taking.

 

3. “The Tooth” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson starts with a mundane event–a trip to the dentist to deal with a bad toothache–and then steadily steers the narrative towards the surreal and supernatural. The devilish figure of James Harris, who pops up throughout the story collection, forms a perfect Gothic hero-villain here.

 

4. “The Bus” (collected in Dark Tales)

When a surly old lady gets dropped off at the wrong bus stop, her journey home turns into a (recurring) nightmare. Not since Robert Olmstead’s trip into Lovecraft Country (in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) has a bus ride delivered such unnerving results.

 

5. “The Dummy” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson delves into the uncanny, as a ventriloquist’s eponymous prop forms “a grotesque wooden copy of the man.” The dark highlight of this story, though, is the disturbingly dysfunctional relationship dramatized in the climax: following the show, the drunken ventriloquist verbally abuses his female companion while pretending it’s his dummy sidekick who is mouthing the insults. Jackson’s gift for offbeat humor is also presented when an exasperated witness decides to intervene.

 

6. “The Possibility of Evil” (collected in Dark Tales)

If the American Gothic exposes the dark side of life in Anytown, U.S.A., then Jackson supplies a quintessential example of the subgenre here. A duplicitous septuagenarian has a habit of mailing nasty, gossipy, anonymous letters to her neighbors. From Miss Strangeworth’s warped moral viewpoint, such missives are necessary corrective measures, because “Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people.” An unsympathetic Jackson makes sure this busybody receives an ironic comeuppance in the terrific ending to the tale.

 

Horror’s Most Memorable Movie Moments–My Top 10 List

Meagan Navarro’s fun piece last week–“Horror’s 75 Most Memorable Movie Moments!”–over at Bloody Disgusting got me to thinking about what I might add to the list (which, according to Meagan’s criteria, wasn’t just limited to the scariest scenes). Yes, any such effort is inherently subjective, but I submit for your perusal my top 10 choices (presenting the films in chronological order):

 

1.Ill-Received (Freaks, 1932).

The Gooble-Gobble song is as unforgettable as Cleopatra and Hercules’s drunken disparagement of the “freaks” is reprehensible. This is the most disturbing wedding reception ever (or at least until Game of Thrones came along).

 

2.Monster Laughs (Young Frankenstein, 1974)

No scene better captures the hilarity of Mel Brooks’s classic Universal Monster-movie spoof than this one. Decades later, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle’s duet still puts a broad smile on my face.

 

3.Hull of a Scare (Jaws, 1975)

Man-eating shark terrorizing a beach community? OK, I could deal with that. But the sudden underwater framing of Ben Gardner’s corpse in the hull hole (an image permanently imprinted on my psyche) formed my jump-scare baptism.

 

4.Roach Explosion (Creepshow, 1982)

I nearly checked out when first watching this segment of the Stephen King anthology film as a ten-year-old. Creepshow‘s most horrifying scene instilled a lifelong dread of insects in me.

 

5.Police Brutality (The Terminator1984)

Cop-killing is a horror-movie standard (forcing the audience to think that not even our sworn protectors can save us from harm). But Arnold’s hyperviolent assault on the precinct in this film constituted an unprecedented rampage–and haunted my dreams for weeks after viewing it.

 

6.Fears of a Clown (Poltergeist1984)

A creepy doll wasn’t bad enough; no, Steven Spielberg had to go and give us a creepy clown doll. Before Pennywise ever popped up in the Derry sewer system, Poltergeist was IT for causing coulrophobia.

 

7.Cenobite Arrival (Hellraiser1987)

Kirsty’s solving of the puzzle box was a cinematic game-changer. The sublime grotesquerie and menacing eloquence of Clive Barker’s Order of the Gash truly revolutionized monster-movie villainy.

 

8.Kirsten Dunst Dusted (Interview with the Vampire1994)

Who ever thought there could be a worse form of vampire attack than a jugular juicing? The fiendish execution of the scene-stealing Claudia was at once terrifying and tear-jerking, and Louis’s subsequent discovery of her ash sculpture was beautifully macabre.

 

9.Chilling Vigil (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

The scene when Katie looms over a sleeping Micah (underscoring our vulnerability while unconscious) was the stuff of nightmare. A fast-forwarding time stamp on a piece of video has never been more horripilating.

 

10.Jack-o’-Lantern Extravaganza (Trick ‘r Treat2007)

There’s so much about this Halloween-themed film that’s visually spellbinding, but nothing more so than the sight of Rhonda’a yard-ful of carved pumpkins. If I ever lived in the town of Warren Valley (and how I would love to!), this is the place I’d want to call home.