List Resistance

So I was browsing on my phone recently, and Google clued me in to an article on the Publishers Weekly website: “10 Scariest Horror Stories.” Naturally, I clicked right on over. Now, I understand that any compiled list is inevitably subjective, and part of the fun is seeing what the selector actually chose and had to say about those items, so I don’t want to be too contentious here. But what I read did bother me. Writer/scholar/editor Victoria Nelson (who admits that the bulk of her list is culled from the classic volume Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural) exhibits a strong bias towards late-19th/early-20th Century British fiction. The implication, then, is that the scariest stories were written long ago, and seldomly by American writers (H.P. Lovecraft and C.L. Moore are the two exceptions cited by Nelson). There’s no hint here of Stephen King or Peter Straub, let alone Laird Barron, Jack Ketchum, Glen Hirshberg, Stephen Graham Jones, or Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps the issue is ultimately one of false advertising: the superlative article title “10 Scariest Horror Stories” suggests comprehensive consideration (“…Of All Time”), but the headnote to the list does qualify that these are simply “10 scary stories recommended by Nelson.”

I’d have to devote some more thought before compiling my own list of the 10 Scariest Horror Stories (American or otherwise), but if anyone has specific pieces they would vote for, feel free to leave a comment below.

Domestic Terror: Edgar Allan Poe’s Most American Gothic Tales

My previous post pointed to a problem of categorization: Edgar Allan Poe is an undeniable master of the Gothic tale (and poem), but his work cannot necessarily be framed as American Gothic. Too often, Poe recurs to European–or geographically vague–settings, eschewing a native context. In “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe even takes a much-publicized American true crime (the murder of New York City cigar-girl Mary Cecilia Rogers) and transforms into a Parisian puzzle for C. Auguste Dupin to solve. All this is not to say, though, that Poe never scripts a specifically American version of the Gothic. The following handful of tales prove that local haunts are not out of bounds in the author’s oeuvre:

 

“The Gold-Bug” (1843)

A reclusive eccentric and descendant of a family that has fallen into misfortune, William Legrand no doubt recalls Roderick Usher. But whereas “The Fall of the House of Usher” takes place in an unidentifiable setting, “The Gold-Bug” unfolds on Sullivan’s Island and the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. As the anonymous narrator ponders, the story’s treasure-hunting adventure connects to “innumerable Southern superstitions about buried money.” The darker elements of “The Gold-Bug”–death’s-heads, excavated skeletons–also prove contextually appropriate: they are the bones of pirates fatally betrayed by Captain Kidd after the latter hid his stolen riches on the American coast.

 

“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844)

Poe’s ambiguous narrative features a Rip Van Winkle-like excursion into the eponymous “chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville” (these Ragged Mountains have inspired local lore about “uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns”). The Gothic preoccupation with textuality is reflected by the strange rapport between an American mesmerist and his hapless subject, who experiences his strange vision (while wandering through the Ragged Mountains) of riotous violence in India at the seemingly same time as his doctor records that historical event in a notebook. Poe also draws unnerving parallels between domestic and foreign scenes, as the snake-resembling “poisonous sangsue of Charlottesville” that kills Augustus Bedloe when mistakenly applied as a medicinal leech pairs with the serpentine arrow that fells Bedloe’s double Mr. Oldeb in the Indian vision.

 

“The Premature Burial” (1844)

Poe’s phobic narrator ranges across the globe in supplying examples of the titular terror, but admittedly essays such task while residing in a city “neighboring” Baltimore. His own macabre experience as a sentient “tenant of the grave” also proves distinctly American: he mistakenly believes he has become a victim of premature burial after awakening in the dark confines of a small sloop while on a gunning expedition along the banks of the James River near Richmond, Virginia.

 

“The Oblong Box” (1844)

The subject matter here–a male figure maddened with grief after the sudden death of his beloved–is typical of Poe, yet noteworthy for its American setting. This underrated tale centers on the secret transport of a coffined corpse on a packet-ship traveling from Charleston to New York. Poe earns bonus points, too, as the the story’s climactic hurricane strands the characters nearby a quintessential scene of American mystery: “the beach opposite Roanoke Island.”

 

“The Sphinx” (1846)

In this late piece, Poe makes almost unprecedented (for him) use of the American scene. The “dread reign of cholera” in New York City not only prompts the narrator’s retreat to the Hudson Valley, but also (as continuing reports of the epidemic’s ravages spread north) molds the morbid mindset that leads to his misperception of a monstrosity descending the hillside landscape outside his window.

 

Bloch Quote

When it comes to mixing humor and horror in fiction, the late, great Robert Bloch remains unsurpassed. The Psycho author also had a wicked gift for reeling off macabre/sardonic one-liners during interviews and within his nonfiction writing. I’ve gathered below six of his best examples of such wit, followed by quotes from various genre figures that slice a similar vein.

 

“The man who smiles when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.”

 

“Friendship is like peeing on yourself: everyone can see it, but only you get the warm feeling that it brings.”

 

“A foolish man tells a woman to stop talking, but a wise man tells her that her mouth is extremely beautiful when her lips are closed.”

 

“So I had this problem–work or starve. So I thought I’d combine the two and decided to become a writer.”

 

“But Psycho did fix my image, for better or worse. For years afterward, many young ladies refused to take showers with me.”

 

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

 

 

“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” –Alfred Hitchcock

 

“Put another way, “Suffer the Little Children” is a ghastly sick-joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story.”  Stephen King

 

“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Harlan Ellison

 

“The  way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” —Mary Roach

 

1.If your car breaks down in the rain outside a spooky old house, sleep in the car.” —from “Victor Salva’s Ten Things We Have Learned From Horror Movies”

 

“Everybody is a book of blood; Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” —Clive Barker

2017 Supreme

Along with a certain sphere in Times Square, a whole host of best-ofs, top __ countdowns, and retrospective summations drop at year’s end. Perusing these innumerable lists/articles/videos, though, can be a tremendous time suck, draining away from the pleasurable hours that might be spent consuming the actual items identified. So for those looking for a quicker 2017-in-review fix, I offer the following listing of some of the year’s best look-backs on the world of horror:

Barnes and Noble: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Chicago Review of Books: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Vanity Fair: Why 2017 Was Such a Big Year for Horror

PopSugar: 11 Truly Masterful Horror Films That Came Out in 2017

Bloody Disgusting: These Are the 13 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2017

Bloody Disgusting: Here Are the 15 Best Monsters of 2017!

Entertainment Weekly: Stephen King Q&A: Pennywise’s Creator on Scaring the Hell Out of 2017

WatchMojo: Pennywise 1990 vs. 2017

 

Looper: The Most Underappreciated Horror Movies Released in 2017

 

Finally, to round out this out post, I’ll add a list of my own to the mix. I put this one together because Fright-Rags is the pinnacle of macabre fashion (and perhaps because I’m pining for t-shirt weather at this time of year!).

The Top 10 T-Shirts On Sale at Fright-Rags at Year’s End

1.Goosebumps

Horripilation Compilation

 

2.Creepshow

This one’s a Keeper

 

3.Halloween III

If only the movie was as good as what’s depicted here

 

4.The Silence of the Lambs

Watch out for Chianti stains

 

5.Groovy

Dead-on

 

6.The Shower Scene

Murderin’ Marion

 

7.I Am the Way

That’s my pleasure, sir

 

8.Predator

Smiling for a head shot

 

9.Trick ‘R Treat

Sam and ensemble

 

10.London After Midnight

Beware of what this guy’s drinking on New Year’s Eve

 

Vermin Literature

They form multitudinous swarms, teem with fleas and terribly infectious diseases. They infiltrate our homes, pilfer our food, and invade our beds, biting us even as we sleep. Rats are undeniably nightmarish creatures, so it is no wonder that this bane of human civilization has been featured often in horror fiction. Consider this exemplary six-pack of rat terror (note: I am focusing here on works of American literature, and thus exclude British efforts such as George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks [basis of the film Willard], and James Herbert’s The Rats from the survey)…

 

1.“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)

Ironically, rats come to the rescue in Poe’s story of the various terrors rained down upon the narrating prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition. This tormented protagonist uses the vermin’s voracious appetite to personal advantage, strategically smearing food all over his entrapping bandages. The promptly overwhelmed narrator recounts: “They pressed–they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half-stifled by their thronging pressure […].” Desperate times call for disgusting measures.

 

2.“The Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft (1932)

Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” might be the more widely-known and more influential tale, but those titular infesting pests seem like lovable pets compared to the furry figure of Brown Jenkin (a diabolical, hyperspace-traveling witch’s familiar) in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Possessing fiendish intelligence and disturbingly anthropoid features, this long-toothed sidekick of an old crone commits some heinous acts of violence–including the wrist-gnawing sacrifice of a stolen child. And what Brown Jenkin does to the main character Gilman at story’s end represents arguably the ghastliest moment in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

 

3.“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner (1936)

The prolific Kuttner’s first-published and remarkably Lovecraftian story (in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales) is set in an ancient Salem cemetery and deals with “ghoulish beings that dwelt far underground, and that had the power of commanding the rats, marshaling them like horrible armies.” Readers are taken on a terrifying subterranean excursion when a grave-robbing caretaker gets in over his head. Anyone with a fear of premature burial had best avoid the climax, which finds the villain trapped in a coffin, suffocating, and subjected to the cacophony of rats’ triumphant squeals.

 

4.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

Wright’s classic novel also landed in my post last month on variations on Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but long before any feline frightfulness unfolds in Native Son, a rodent gnashes its way into the narrative. The book opens with an unforgettable scene of Bigger Thomas and his family being terrorized in their tenement apartment by a giant black rat. Bigger’s violent reaction to the attack (he “took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically”) sets the stage for further fearful outbursts later in the novel.

 

5.“Graveyard Shift” by Stephen King (1970)

In his essay “The Horror Writer and the Ten Bears,” King readily admits to a fear of rats, a phobia that is reflected time and again in his horror fiction. The Lovecraft-evoking “Graveyard Shift” forms his first foray into rat-plagued territory, and proves to be one gruesome endeavor. “Mischief” is the technical term for a group of rats, and that’s exactly what the creatures get up to here as a hapless cleaning crew ventures into the subcellar of an old textile mill. These mutants are awful in their own biting right, but pale in comparison to the shocking sight of their queen, a monstrous rat “as big as a Holstein calf.” In writing this tale, King might not have exorcised his personal dread, but he certainly succeeded in infecting his readers with the exact same fear.

 

6.The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)

In Dracula, Bram Stoker (who also dealt with vermin in “The Judge’s House” and “The Burial of the Rats”) establishes the Count’s psychic command of “meaner things” such as rats–as witnessed in the scene where thousands of the furry minions are called to the vampire’s swarming defense at Carfax Abbey. Rats are also central to the plot of Del Toro and Hogan’s modern, more-realistic revision of Dracula, but cut against Stoker’s mythological grain. The rats here enact a mass exodus to the daylit streets of Manhattan, fearfully displaced from their underground lair by worse “things that burrow and hide. Creatures who nest. Who feed off the human population.” Impressively researched, The Strain owes a debt not just to Stoker’s vampire epic but also (as the authors acknowledge) to Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

 

But enough already about rats–it’s time to turn to turkey. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the Macabre Republic!