King (Story) Openings

My last post listed my selections of the top twenty opening lines in Stephen King’s novels/novellas. Tonight I am going to do the same for the author’s short stories:

 

Wharton moved slowly up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister had died in.–“The Glass Floor” (1967)

The guy’s name was Snodgrass, and I could see him getting ready to do something crazy.–“Trucks” (1973)

After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.–“Night Surf” (1974)

Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die.–“The Cat From Hell” (1977)

The question is: Can he do it?–“The Woman in the Room” (1978)

When Hal Shelburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eve, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he would scream.–“The Monkey” (1980)

“The Reach was wider in those days,” Stella Flanders told her great-grandchildren in the last summer of her life, the summer before she began to see ghosts.–“The Reach” (1981)

I want to tell you about the end of war, the degeneration of mankind, and the death of the Messiah–an epic story, deserving thousands of pages and a whole shelf of volumes, but you (if there are any “you” later on to read this) will have to settle for the freeze-dried version.–“The End of the Whole Mess” (1986)

I believe there was only one occasion upon which I actually solved a crime before my slightly fabulous friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.–“The Doctor’s Case” (1987)

Looking into the display case was like looking through a dirty pane of glass into the middle third of his boyhood, those years from seven to fourteen when he had been fascinated by stuff like this.–“Chattery Teeth” (1992)

Pearson tried to scream but shock robbed his voice and he was able to produce only a low, choked whuffling–the sound of a man moaning in his sleep.–“The Ten O’Clock People” (1993)

My friend L.T. hardly ever talks about how his wife disappeared, or how she’s probably dead, just another victim of the Axe Man, but he likes to tell the story of how she walked out on him.–“L.T. Theory of Pets” (1997)

It’s so dark that for awhile–just how long I don’t know–I think I’m still unconscious.–“Autopsy Room Four” (1997)

Want you to get one thing straight from the start: wasn’t nobody on earth didn’t like my pal, Johnnie Dillinger, except Melvin Purvis of the F.B.I.–“The Death of Jack Hamilton” (2001)

They rode west from the slaughter, through the painted desert, and did not stop until they were a hundred miles away.–“Throttle” (2009; with Joe Hill)

Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke.–“Fair Extension” (2010)

As the Judge climbs into the kayak beneath a bright morning sky, a slow and clumsy process that takes him almost five minutes, he reflects that an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.–“The Dune” (2011)

Wilson’s mother, not one of the world’s shiny happy people, had a saying: “When things go wrong, they keep going wrong until there’s tears.”–“That Bus Is Another World” (2014)

Dave Calhoun was helping Olga Glukhov construct the Eiffel Tower.–“Mister Yummy” (2015)

Billy Clewson died all at once, with nine of the ten other members of D Squad on April 8, 1974.–“Squad D” (2019)

 

 

King Openings

Open Culture’s recent post “Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers” recounts the renowned author’s discussion of the importance of a good opening line–that single (though not necessarily simple) first sentence that serves as an invitation to the reader and a doorway into the narrative for the writer. King’s comments sent me scurrying over to my bookshelves to reflect on the author’s best practice of such preaching. Here’s a list of what I found to be the top twenty opening lines in King’s novels/novellas:

 

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.–The Shining (1977)

This is what happened.–The Mist (1980)

Once upon a time, not long ago, a monster came to the town of Castle Rock, Maine.–Cujo (1981)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.–The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

The most important things are the hardest things to say.–The Body (1982)

“Thinner,” the old Gypsy man with the rotting nose whispers to William Halleck as Halleck and his wife Heidi come out of the courthouse.–Thinner (1984)

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.–IT (1986)

People’s lives–their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences–begin at different times.–The Dark Half (1989)

“You stole my story,” the man on the doorstep said.–Secret Window, Secret Garden (1990)

No one–least of all Dr. Lichfield–came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told.–Insomnia (1994)

She sits in a corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none.–Rose Madder (1995)

“ASK ME A RIDDLE,” Blaine invited.–The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass (1997)

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted.–The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

When someone dies, you think about the past.–Why We’re in Vietnam (1999)

Pere Don Callahan had once been a Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map.–The Dark Tower (2004)

To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.–Lisey’s Story (2006)

When Wesley Smith’s colleagues asked him–some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically–what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology.–UR (2009)

The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How’s your marriage?A Good Marriage (2010)

It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.–The Outsider (2018)

The day Marty Anderson saw the billboard was just before the Internet finally went down for good.–The Life of Chuck (2020)

 

Speaking of King novels: his next one, Holly, has been officially announced. And the book description sounds like American Gothic nirvana:

Mere blocks from where Bonnie Dahl disappeared live Professors Rodney and Emily Harris. They are the picture of bourgeois respectability: married octogenarians, devoted to each other, and semi-retired lifelong academics. But they are harboring an unholy secret in their well-kept, book-lined home, one that may be related to Bonnie’s disappearance. And it will prove nearly impossible to discover what they are up to: they are savvy, they are patient, and they are ruthless.

Holly [Gibney] must summon all her formidable talents to outthink and outmaneuver the shockingly twisted professors in this chilling new masterwork from Stephen King.

Consider this Constant Reader hooked; I’m already counting the days until the September 2023 publication.

 

23 for ’23

Quot libros, quam breve tempus

 

My TBR pile is still towering with books from 2022, and is apt to remain stacked in the coming year. Here’s a list (unless otherwise noted, the description comes from the book’s dedicated Amazon page) of twenty-three new releases on my reader-radar for 2023:

 

1. How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 1/17/23)

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.

Most of all, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. Unfortunately, she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.

But some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…

 

2. The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, 1/17/23)

Bret Easton Ellis’s masterful new novel is a story about the end of innocence, and the perilous passage from adolescence into adulthood, set in a vibrantly fictionalized Los Angeles in 1981 as a serial killer begins targeting teenagers throughout the city.

Seventeen-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equaled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with the Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them—and Bret in particular—with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence. The coincidences are uncanny, but they are also filtered through the imagination of a teenager whose gifts for constructing narrative from the filaments of his own life are about to make him one of the most explosive literary sensations of his generation. Can he trust his friends—or his own mind—to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, he spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between the Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

Set against the intensely vivid and nostalgic backdrop of pre-Less Than Zero L.A., The Shards is a mesmerizing fusing of fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at seventeen—sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage. Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting, and often darkly funny, The Shards is Ellis at his inimitable best.

 

3. All Hallows by Christopher Golden (St. Martin’s, 1/24/23)

It’s Halloween night, 1984, in Coventry, Massachusetts, and two families are unraveling. Up and down the street, secrets are being revealed, and all the while, mixed in with the trick-or-treaters of all ages, four children who do not belong are walking door to door, merging with the kids of Parmenter Road. Children in vintage costumes with faded, eerie makeup. They seem terrified, and beg the neighborhood kids to hide them away, to keep them safe from The Cunning Man.

There’s a small clearing in the woods now that was never there before, and a blackthorn tree that doesn’t belong at all. These odd children claim that The Cunning Man is coming for them…and they want the local kids to protect them. But with families falling apart and the neighborhood splintered by bitterness, who will save the children of Parmenter Road?

All Hallows. The one night when everything is a mask…

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Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

Last Noirvember’s post gets a sequel: here are eleven more exemplary works that blur the genre lines between horror and film noir. And here on the day after Thanksgiving, I can think of no better place to start than with…

 

Black Friday (1940)

This crime drama–framed as the memoir of a condemned murderer–riffs on both Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff playing the rogue-scientist role in this one) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley is grievously wounded on the street when a gang of treacherous criminals (including Boris Karloff) attempts to depose its leader, Karloff’s well-meaning Dr. Sovac rescues his friend by implanting the injured gangster Red Cannon’s brain in Kinglsey’s body. Unfortunately, Cannon’s murderous personality starts to manifest in the organ recipient, and Sovac succumbs to greed and unscrupulous manipulation when he learns that Cannon has half a million dollars hidden somewhere. It’s hard to upstage Karloff and Lugosi alike, but actor Stanley Ridges does just that as he shapeshifts between the characters of Kingsley and Cannon.

 

Cat People (1942)

An early variation on the werewolf theme, in which Simone Simon plays a Serbian immigrant plagued by the dread that passionate or angry arousal will cause her to transform into one of the feral predators of the title. Her fears are legitimate; the Old World story told to her as a child is true. Simon’s Irena character soon bares her long claws, turned uncannily catty by jealously over her husband’s burgeoning romance with his co-worker. This Val-Lewton-produced, Jacques-Tourneur-directed film masterfully employs chiaroscuro lighting, establishing a noir ambiance well-suited to its theme of a dark shadow self. Cat People features some hair-raising thrills (e.g. the swimming pool stalking scene) and one of the first (and best) jump scares in the history of cinema.

 

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In this carnival noir classic, a sideshow performer temporarily rises to fame and fortune by perfecting a phony mentalist act. The film’s plot includes naturalistic unpleasantness (the inescapable degradation of alcoholism) and supernatural suggestion (the grim workings of the Tarot deck). But Nightmare Alley shines as a work of psychological horror, as it explores the corrosive effects of guilt. And the spurious mentalist more than meets his match in a femme fatale who is not averse of playing mind games of her own. The one shortcoming in this otherwise stellar adaptation of William Gresham’s novel is the excision of the recurring bad dreams signified by the title. Hopefully, Guillermo del Toro reinstates this aspect of the story in next month’s star-studded remake of the 1947 film.

 

Torso (1973)

This Italian giallo film directed by Sergio Martino features some stunning visuals (and I’m not just talking about the gratuitous nudity). A masked, foulard-wielding killer who strangles and then mutilates his victims runs amok on the student bodies of a university in Perugia. The murderer, though, is not merely motivated by his psychosexual kink (which stems from a traumatic childhood incident); many of his current victims are those who were attempting to blackmail him. Torso is a lurid murder mystery that also proves an influential proto-slasher, as evident in the film’s extended climax (in which a final girl emerges from the carnage caused by the killer’s crashing of a slumber party in a mountaintop villa).

 

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian neo-noir stars John Travolta as a sounds effect technician working on a slasher film called Co-Ed Frenzy (Blow Out cleverly opens with a stalking scene from the film-in-progress). One night, while out gathering wind recordings, the protagonist witnesses a car wreck that was actually a staged ambush aimed to disgrace the Pennsylvania governor (the Presidential hopeful was driving with a female escort, whose grifter partner lies in wait to snap incriminating pictures for the tabloids). The scheme doesn’t go according to plan, though, and the incident turns into a political assassination. The shooter, played by John Lithgow, is an absolutely terrifying character (who takes to serial killing to cover-up his impending elimination of the escort). This sinister strangler certainly could teach a few tricks to Co-Ed Frenzy‘s resident slasher.

 

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Made for HBO, this inventive urban fantasy stars Fred Ward as Harry Lovecraft, a hardboiled detective working in late-1940’s Los Angeles (a city rife with the practicing of magic and the presence of unworldly creatures). The private eye is hired to track down an elusive tome called the Necronomicon, and the case leads to encounters with gangsters, gun molls, and even a gargoyle (a figure formed by impressive practical fx). At times the proceedings in Cast a Deadly Spell devolve into comedy, particularly in a scene that pays obvious homage to Gremlins). But the sense of cosmic horror is unmistakable in the film’s apocalypse-threatening climax, in which a Cthulhu-esque colossus makes an awe-striking appearance.

 

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

The antiheroic Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) are a pair of bank-robbing siblings and fugitive killers on the run. Holding a pastor and his teenage children at gunpoint, they have the family smuggle them south of the border to a Mexican desert strip club. There, the Geckos plan to meet up with an associate who will transport them to a legendary criminal haven known (in a nod to Jim Thompson) as “El Rey.” All standard crime noir fare, until the film takes an abrupt left turn into supernatural horror when the strip club turns out to be a front for a horde of monstrous vampires. Director Robert Rodriguez has his ensemble cast wade hip deep in bloody gore, delivering slick dialogue all the while.

 

Saw (2004)

While later installments (featuring increasingly baroque traps) earned the franchise a torture porn reputation, the original Saw plays out as a heady mystery-thriller. A pair of apparent strangers (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) awaken shackled in a grungy bathroom, with no memory initially of how they got there. Even more unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they have been ensnared by the serial killer Jigsaw, whose fiendish game rules present murder as the only hope of escape from the room. Dark crime story elements and situations abound: a policeman who loses his badge but gains a vendetta, a freelance photographer who is hired to snap photos of an adulterous doctor, an innocent man blackmailed into illicit activity by the injection of poison. The foot-hacksawing in the climax is utterly cringe-inducing (reminiscent of Psycho‘s shower scene, more violence is implied than actually depicted), but that image gets trumped by the most startling faked-death twist this side of Diabolique.

 

Secret Window (2004)

David Koepp’s criminally underrated film (adapted from the Stephen King novella) stars Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a distraught writer who caught his wife in a motel tryst. Holed up inside his lake cabin afterward, and suffering from depression and writer’s block, Mort is confronted by a menacing stranger named John Shooter (played wonderfully by John Turturro, although Robert Mitchum would have been perfect for the role had the film been made a half-century earlier). Shooter shows up on the doorstep with claims of plagiarism, and attempts to strongarm Mort into making amends. This is another film sporting a killer plot twist, and the climax (besides invoking “The Fall of the House of Usher”) conveys strong vibes of American Gothic horror.

 

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s film combines procedural (the quest by law enforcement officers and journalists to discover the identity of the Zodiac killer, a taunting, Jack-the-Ripper type who terrorized real-world California in the 1970’s) and thriller elements. The balance isn’t always perfect, but Zodiac makes the list for its interspersed scenes depicting the titular killer in action. Fincher’s dramatizations of the slayings are deeply unsettling, especially since the audience is aware that it is witnessing the historical reenactment, not mere fabrication. Even scenes where the Zodiac doesn’t succeed leave their mark. In one nightmarish sequence, Zodiac gives a young mother a lift (after first sabotaging her car tire), and his nonchalantly voiced intention to throw her baby out the window before killing her has to be one of the most horrifying movie lines of all time.

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

The 1933 Universal horror film (which easily could have been slotted on this list as well) receives a brilliantly dark update. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with an optics engineer. Her mate, Adrian, is also frightfully obsessive: even after Cecilia effects a narrow escape from his home/prison, he plots to get her back by faking his death and then stalking her while wearing the cutting-edge cloaking suit he has designed. Adrian is invisible but not intangible: he represents quite a physical threat. But the real horror of the film is psychological, as the Machiavellian title villain methodically messes with Cecilia’s mind. Such high-tech gaslighting, and the battle of wits that ensues when Cecilia catches wise to the con, makes for one wickedly entertaining film.

 

 

Trope Trick: Six Killer Riffs on the Final Girl

Horror films are streaming seemingly everywhere this Halloween season. Classic slashers are out in full force, but I have been focusing more on the post-Scream variations that rework rather than just rehash the formula. Here are six films that have taken the final girl trope in fresh, new directions (spoilers below):

 

Identity (2003)

When is a final girl not a final girl? Answer: when she proves (along with nine other characters gathered at a remote Nevada motel one rainy night) to be a personality existing only in the mind of a disturbed killer. And even within this mental landscape, the orange-grove idyll of lone survivor Paris (Amanda Peet) gets undercut by a wicked twist at film’s end.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Tongue is impaled in cheek in this mockumentary slasher, in which a film crew follows around an aspiring killer well-versed in slasher conventions. Matters take a hilarious turn when the character Vernon has been grooming as his final girl is revealed as the antithesis of virginal. The real twist, though, is that Vernon actually has tabbed the journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) for final girl status all along.

 

You’re Next (2011)

The turn from frightened flight to vigorous fight has always been a central component of the final girl’s in-film development, but here Erin (Shari Vinson) is shown to be badass from the get-go. Moreover, a credible rationale is given for her formidable skill set (she grew up in a survival compound in Australia). Hardcore Erin also makes for an interesting final girl in her gross outnumbering–by a series of masked killers as well as the two-faced family members who contracted their home invasion.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

This uber-clever effort takes the meta in another direction: the collegiate protagonists are mostly unaware of horror film conventions, unlike the adults who are technologically and scientifically manipulating the situation. The ultimate subversiveness is reserved for the climax, when the refusal by Dana (Kristen Connelly) to fulfill her designated archetypal role and be the last girl standing precipitates the fall of human civilization.

 

Terrifier (2016)

Art the Clown is a coulrophobe’s worst nightmare in this most savage of slashers (which has a grindhouse vibe and near-torture-porn approach). But what lands the film on this list is its surprising looping structure. Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi) goes through hell to survive Art’s horrific assault, but this gritty final girl turns out to be the disfigured wretch we’ve already watch commit a gory murder, dispatching her disparaging interviewer in Terrifier‘s opening frame.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) parties hard, isn’t studious, sleeps with her professor, is a mean sorority girl, and (as is the wont of her character type in a slasher) gets killed early in the film. But while her repeated slaying take a physical toll, her each return to relive Monday the 18th pushes her further along on her slasher-unmasking, final-girl-worthy redemption arc in this witty variation on Groundhog Day.

 

The Five Best Creepshow Stories So Far

The Creepshow series recently finished another frightfully fun season on Shudder. Below are my choices for the five (in honor of the number of segments in the original anthology film) best stories that have streamed so far. (Note: the contents–“Survivor Type” and “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”–of last Halloween’s fully-animated holiday special have been excluded from consideration here, partly because they would dominate the list.)

No small part of the Creepshow charm, though, is its throwback pulp packaging, so I am going to preface my list with another pair of five-packs.

 

The Five Best (Corpse-)Cold Opens

1. Episode 1.1: The Creep kicks the series off by cracking open a crate (a replica of the one in the 1982 film) that doesn’t contain the carnivorous Fluffy, but rather a horde of Creepshow issues.

2. Episode 1.3: The Creep creates a remarkably grotesque jack-o’-lantern–or what he’d probably call a “hack-o’-lantern”–after dispatching some obnoxious trick-or-treaters.

3. Episode 1.6: The Creep goes fishing, and judging by the moldering corpses around him, he’s about to reel in something real scary.

4. Episode 2.4: The Creep cackles delightedly after his macabre mug gets filled with some disgusting sludge.

5. Episode 2.5: The Creep dons some VR goggles and immerses himself in a first-ghoul-shooter version of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

 

The Creep’s Five Most Insidious Intros

1. …And now my rabid readers, this fancy fable of fear follows Clark Wilson on a midnight stroll….Little does he know that his future holds a fantastic find, a devilish digital that I like to call…”The Finger” (Episode 1.2)

2. …And now, boils and ghouls, a real barn-burner of a tale about a boy’s newfound, heh-heh, com-pain-yon! One that’s sure not to die on the vine! Unless you’re too much of a scaredy-crow that is!–“The Companion” (Episode 1.4)

3. …Back for more? This poisonous tale will be sure to have you bug-eyed and squirming in your seats! So strap in for this perilous parable that I like to call…”Pesticide” (Episode 2.2)

4. Welcome, dear fiends! Back for more, I see….Come join me on a voyage of fear, betrayal, and extraterrestrial terror! By the end I guarantee you’ll be gasping for air. So strap in and let’s see if you have what it takes for this otherworldly tale I like to call…”The Right Snuff” (Episode 2.3)

5. Have I got a special treat for all you ghoul gourmets. There will be hell toupee if the plumber doesn’t get to the slimy center of this monstrous mystery. This sludge-filled story will wrap you in its scum-covered strands in…”Pipe Screams” (Episode 2.4)

 

The Five Best Stories So Far

1. “All Hallows Eve” (Episode 1.3). Halloween iconography and lore are finely invoked in this story of a group of trick-or-treaters who are not all that they’re dressed up to be. The classic Creepshow motif of comeuppance combines with a discernible Trick ‘r Treat vibe.

2. “Night of the Paw” (Episode 1.5). This retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw” proves more than a wishful rehash (the climactic plot twist definitely ups the ante on W.W. Jacobs’s original tale). The eponymous appendage is strikingly realistic, and ultra-unnerving as it curls its own fingers down upon dire fulfillment of a person’s requests.

3. “Skincrawlers” (Episode 1.6). The body-sculpting industry is revolutionized by the discovery of an exotic South American leech that feeds on human fat tissue. Naturally, this seeming quick fix for the overweight causes terrible affliction, leading to scenes of spectacularly gruesome, Cronenbergian body horror, and the emergence of a tentacular monster that might have escaped from the set of Carpenter’s The Thing.

4. “Model Kid” (Episode 2.1). The figure of the “monster kid” is canonical to Creepshow (cf. young Joe Hill in the frame story of the original film), and this story clearly offers loving homage. Classic horror (e.g., Universal monster films, Aurora model kits) gets perfect Creepshow treatment.

5. “Public Television of the Dead” (Episode 2.1). This satiric and gloriously gonzo story combined with “Model Kid” to make the second season premiere the show’s most outstanding episode to date. Plenty of laughs (and scares) await anyone who ever wanted to see a Bob-Ross-type painter battle demons from the Necronomicon.

 

The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

The Eight Greatest Openers/Clinchers in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

The final installment of the Books of Blood countdown will be posted in the coming days. In the meantime, here are my choices for the eight best openings and closings in the collection.

 

Openers

The dead have highways.
–“The Book of Blood” (Vol. 1)

Why the Powers (long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned) had sent it out from Hell to stalk Jack Polo, the Yattering couldn’t discover.
–“The Yattering and Jack” (Vol. 1)

There is no delight the equal of dread.
–“Dread” (Vol. 2)

He had been flesh once. Flesh, and bone, and ambition. But that was an age ago, or so it seemed, and the memory of that blessed state was fading fast.
–“Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (Vol. 3)

Whenever he woke, Charlie George’s hands stood still.
–“The Body Politic” (Vol. 4)

The burning man propelled himself down the steps of the Hume Laboratories as the police car–summoned, he presumed, by the alarm either Welles or Dance had set off upstairs–appeared at the gate and swung up the driveway.
–“The Age of Desire” (Vol. 4)

Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air.
–“The Forbidden” (Vol. 5)

Wyburd looked at the book, and the book looked back. Everything he’d ever been told about the boy was true.
–“The Book of Blood–(A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (Vol. 6)

 

Clinchers

The city would go about its business in ignorance: never knowing what it was built upon, or what it owed its life to. Without hesitation, Kaufman fell to his knees and kissed the dirty concrete with his bloody lips, silently swearing his eternal loyalty to its continuance.
The Palace of Delights received the adoration without comment.
–“The Midnight Meat Train” (Vol. 1)

Then the sow smiled, and Redman felt, though he had believed himself numb, the first shock of pain as Lacey’s teeth bit off a piece from his foot, and the boy clambered, snorting, up his savior’s body to kiss out his life.
–“Pig Blood Blues” (Vol. 1)

“I told you to look at me,” said Hell, and went its bitter way, leaving him standing there, a fine paradox for the democrats to find when they came, bustling with words, into the Palace of Westminster.
–“Hell’s Event” (Vol. 2)

The sea has long since washed the plate clean of its leavings. Angela, the “Emmanuelle,” and Jonathan, are gone. Only we drowned belong here, face up, under the stones, soothed by the rhythm of tiny waves and the absurd incomprehension of sheep.
–“Scape-Goats” (Vol. 3)

“The Devil made me do it,” Virginia replied, gazing up at the moon and putting on the craziest smile she could muster.
–“Revelations” (Vol. 4)

He went away content, knowing at last how sin (and he) had come into the world.
–“In the Flesh” (Vol. 5)

He opened his mouth and shouted into the whirlpool, as the light grew and grew, an anthem in praise of paradox.
–“The Madonna” (Vol. 5)

Things came and went away; that was a kind of magic. And in between? Pursuits and conjurings, horrors, guises. The occasional joy.
That there was room for joy, ah! that was magic too.
–“The Last Illusion” (Vol. 6)

 

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.