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.

 

Digging Deeper: Stephen King’s Sources/Allusions in Pet Sematary

As can be seen from my recent series of posts, I have been in a Pet Sematary frame of mind lately. Prior to the release of the new film adaptation, I reread Stephen King’s 1983 novel (one of my personal favorites). At the time of my reread, there was a lot of media buzz about how the new film was reworking the source novel, which got me thinking about King’s own literary sources for (and pop cultural allusions in) Pet Sematary. Here are a (grave)dirty dozen examples that I was able to excavate:

1.Most obviously, King’s novel is inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s classic 1902 weird tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” King invokes Jacobs’s story of ill-fated wishing in an epigraph, and within the narrative itself, King’s protagonist Louis Creed calls the piece to mind: “And suddenly Louis found himself thinking of the story of the monkey’s paw, and a cold terror slipped into him.” King picks up on Jacobs’s theme of compounding bad decisions: Louis (who’s slow to learn that “sometimes dead is better”) plants not just Church, but also Gage and Rachel in the sour soil of the Micmac burial ground. While the frightfully resurrected son Herbert in “The Monkey’s Paw” is wished away from the doorstep in the nick of time, Gage returns all the way home, to devastating effect: “What comes when you’re too slow wishing away the thing that knocks on your door in the middle of the night is simple enough: total darkness.”

2.In epigraphs to all three parts of the novel, King quotes (or more accurately, paraphrases) the Gospel story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This Bible tale of revival underlines Jesus’s divinity–his power, as the son of God, to perform miracles. By contrast, the ironically-surnamed Louis Creed is “a lapsed Methodist” who “did not attend church” and who had “no deep religious training.” His calling forth of Gage from the grave is a decidedly more unholy (and unwise) act.

3.At one key point in the novel, Jud tellingly says to Louis: “But bringing the dead back to life…that’s about as close to playing God as you can get, ain’t it?” Pet Sematary clearly aligns with the theme of Promethean transgression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A sardonic Louis will even go on to refer to the returned Church as “Frankencat.”

4.Church also hearkens back to the titular feline in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” While not shaded the same color, Church reflects the black cat in his uncanny return from the dead. His macabre tormenting of Louis also parallels the ruinous effect of the antagonistic black cat on Poe’s narrator.

5.In journeying into the deep, dark New England woods, King follows the literary trail of Nathaniel Hawthorne. King scholar Anthony Magistrale (in  Landscape of Fear) explicitly links the works of the two writers:

Hawthorne’s woods are a place of spiritual mystery; in them, young Goodman Brown, Reuben Bourne, and minister Arthur Dimmesdale must confront their own darkest urges. In Pet Sematary, Hawthorne’s historical sense of puritanical gloom associated with the forest is mirrored in King’s ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Dr. Louis Creed, like so many of Hawthorne’s youthful idealists, discovers in the Maine woods that evil is no mere abstraction capable of being manipulated or ignored. Instead he finds his own confrontation with evil to be overwhelming, and like Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown, he surrenders to its vision of chaos and corruption.

I would just expand upon Magistrale by positing that all the “soil of a man’s heart is stonier” rhetoric in Pet Sematary is a deliberate nod toward Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand.” Just as Brand, in his obsession with unpardonable sin, has his own heart transmute into marble/limestone at story’s end, a woebegone Louis Creed at novel’s end refers to “the stone that had replaced his heart.”

6.Exactly one paragraph after mentioning the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King returns to the world of Universal monster movies, as Louis uncharitably characterizes his in-laws as “Im-Ho-Tep and his wife the Sphinx.” The allusion to The Mummy is fitting, in that the film (like Pet Sematary) centers on a troublesome resurrection.

7.Louis is equally allusive in the scene when Church is first discovered lying dead on the side of road. Conscious of the “eerie and gothic” nature of “the whole setting,” Louis invokes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “Here’s Heathcliff out on the desolate moors, Louis thought, grimacing against the cold. Getting ready to pop the family cat into a Hefty Bag. Yowza.

8.During Halloween season, Ellie Creed hears “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at school, and her excited recounting of it when she comes home leads Gage to babble about “Itchybod Brain.” Washington Irving’s genteel ghost story furnishes a moment of amusement for the Creed family, who don’t realize they are about to experience much grimmer horror. The Headless Horseman prefigures the hinted-at decapitation of Gage during the tragic accident in the road (when later robbing his son’s grave, Louis notes “the grinning circlet of stitches which held Gage’s head onto his shoulders”).

9.King’s woods-haunting, human-possessing antagonist in Pet Sematary traces back to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” The creature (drawn from Native American mythology) in Blackwood’s classic narrative is sensed moving around the hunters’ campsite, just as Louis Creed hears “crackling underbrush and breaking branches. Something was moving out there–something big.” Blackwood’s Wendigo leaves a noxious aroma lingering; King’s Wendigo is similarly marked by its “eldritch, sickening smell.” King’s novel (particularly as it builds towards its climax) also picks up on Blackwood’s association of the Wendigo with menacing wind.

10.Pet Sematary alludes to classic films about the undead, from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead. Jud points to the former when he says to Louis: “You know, they have these stories and these movies–I don’t know if they’re true–about zombies down in Haiti. In the movies they just sort of shamble along, with their dead eyes starin straight ahead, real slow and sort of clumsy. Timmy Baterman was like that, Louis, like a a zombie in a movie, but he wasn’t. There was something more. There was somethin goin on behind his eyes.” Indeed, unlike “George Romero’s stupid, lurching movie zombies,” figures such as Timmy Baterman and Gage possess (thanks to the Wendigo’s reanimation/infiltration of their corpses) a fiendish intellect.

11.Timmy Baterman and Gage convey dirty secrets of the grave, tormentingly taunting the living by voicing the vile deeds of their deceased loved ones. King appears to borrow such explicitness from The Exorcist (cf. the Pazuzu-possessed Regan’s profane exchanges with Father Damien). Gage is positively demonic in his shocking revelation to Jud that his wife Norma cuckolded him and had a secret kink for anal sex: “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”

12.In Pet Sematary, King makes several connections to his own oeuvre. Early on, Cujo is alluded to, when Jud notes: “Lots of rabies in Maine now. There was a big old St. Bernard went rabid downstate a couple of years ago and killed four people.” The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned in passing, as well as Derry and Haven–fictional locales that King would make famous in subsequent novels such as It and The Tommyknockers. Pet Sematary also anticipates The Dark Half when Louis discusses the concept “that the fetus of one twin can sometimes swallow the fetus of the other in utero, like some kind of unborn cannibal, and then show up with teeth in his testes or in his lungs twenty of thirty years later to prove that he did it.” The most extensive connection, though, is with The Shining. The Creeds, like the Torrances in the earlier novel, have their family ripped apart by the evil machinations of a Bad Place (The Micmac Burial Ground and the Overlook Hotel, respectively). Plot devices used in both novels form clear parallels: Rachel Creed’d desperate quest to return home to Ludlow from Chicago recalls Dick Halloran’s Florida-to-Colorado odyssey, his attempt make it back to the Overlook in time to save Danny. If there’s any doubt that King had The Shining in mind when writing Pet Sematary, consider this line that the character Steve hits Louis Creed with: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know.”

February X-cellence

As February draws to a close, so does the tenth annual Women in Horror Month. A lot of interesting and insightful material was posted online once again. For those who are still catching up, here are some great WiHM-celebrating sites to check out:

LitReactor: The 13 Best Women Writing Horror Today

Nightmare Magazine: Roundtable Interview with Women in Horror

Manuscripts Burn: (Month-Long Interview Series)

iHorror: Six Real Life Lessons from Horror’s Finest Final Girls

Screen Queens: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Its Lasting Impact on Women and Horror

Daily Dead: 45 Female-Directed Horror Movies and Where You Can Stream Them

View from the Morg: Women in Horror Month: Why It Matters

 

2018 Supreme

At December’s end, here’s a list of some of the best summations of the year in horror. See what you might have missed–or be reminded why you checked out these books/shows/films in the first place. Onward, aficionados:

Barnes and Noble: The Best Horror Books of 2018

The Lineup: 10 Best Horror Books of 2018

PopSugar: The 13 Most Chilling Horror Books of 2018

Cinemablend: The 10 Best Horror TV Shows of 2018

Bloody Disgusting: The Best Horror TV Episodes of 2018

Bloody Disgusting: The 10 Best Horror Movie Posters of 2018

Thrillist: The Best Horror Movies of 2018

Harper’s Bazaar: 26 Best Horror Movies of 2018

WatchMojo: The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2018

 

OK, enough retrospective respect. Let’s round out the list with a compilation that looks ahead to the coming year:

LitReactor: The 15 Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2019

 

Forgotten by History

One last post on Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Over the course of seven episodes, the documentary series covered an impressive array of films and television shows. Inevitably, though, there were omissions, either due to time constraints or oversights. Here is my list of the seven most glaring examples:

The Simpsons: Treehouse of HorrorAn annual Halloween institution for nearly three decades (one that has invoked/reworked countless horror classics) surely could have been given at least a passing nod.

Tim Burton’s oeuvreThe auteur of the Gothic and the macabre was basically MIA. Burton’s grimmer and gorier efforts (Sleepy HollowSweeney Todd) would have been perfect fare to savor.

Dark ShadowsA whole episode devoted to vampires, and not one mention of Barnabas Collins, who brought bloodsucking to the afternoon soap opera and captivated a slew of viewers on a daily basis?

It FollowsThe show’s talking heads would have had plenty to expound upon with this haunting and subtext-heavy sexual horror film.

The WitchPowerful, if polarizing, Robert Eggers’s frightening foray into the bedeviled New England wilderness would have been right at home in the “Demons Inside” episode (and could have culminated an episode devoted to the witch figure).

The Twilight ZoneThis eerie (and enduringly popular) series hosted by Rod Serling featured some of the scariest scenes ever to play on the small screen (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: enough said), but you wouldn’t know it from watching Eli Roth’s History of Horror.

Alien. The titular predator is an iconic monster, and certain (chest-bursting) images from the film series have been seared into the viewing audience’s psyches. If sci-fi horror such as John Carpenter’s The Thing could be covered, then Alien should not have been foreign to the AMC program.

 

The preceding list is presented less as a critique than as a simple expression of surprise. A positive spin could be given in this sense: however inclusive Eli Roth’s History of Horror might have been, it wasn’t exhaustive (i.e. there’s room for future episodes!). Overall, I found the series finely edited and highly enjoyable to watch. The analysts added terrific insights and displayed an obvious love for the horror genre (which, time and again, was shown to have deeper significance and not merely form the pop cultural equivalent of junk food, filling the bovine masses with empty calories). Most importantly, the series got me excited to go and re-watch the classic films and TV shows covered. This illuminating history has pointed me toward a future of dark delights.