The Horseman Meets Hal 9000

While conducting the requisite research for “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (the Bonus Essay included in my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I strove to read every work of fiction that drew upon Irving’s classic short story. Any attempt at completism, though, was fated to be outdated, as new Sleepy-Hollow-related books and stories have continued to be published since the composition of my essay. One such example can be found in the 2022 anthology Classic Monsters Unleashed:

 

“Hacking the Horseman’s Code” by Lisa Morton

Halloween expert Lisa Morton gives a technological twist to the traditional tale of holiday terror (as she does in her 2018 story “The Ultimate Halloween Party App”). Mayor Gil Jankowitz is determined to turn the town of Oak Crossing into a modern-day Sleepy Hollow this tourist season. From a cutting-edge corporation called Advanced Mechs, Gil leases an artificially-intelligent, robotic replica of the Headless Horseman (to be employed as a roaming haunted attraction). This Horseman comes equipped with a supply of throwable, biodegradable jack-o-lanterns; upon programmed command, he can rear up, draw his sword, gallop about, and target a bystander for a pumpkin-head hurl. The problem, though, is that this mechanized simulation is too realistic in appearance and lifelike in behavior; Sleepy Hollow’s resident Hessian specter relocates to the uncanny valley. Naturally, the course of events take a dire turn as the AI consciousness continues to evolve, and the Horseman ends up doing more than just popping townspeople’s eyes.

The reader can easily guess where the story is headed (Morton perhaps gives too much away with her choice of title), but the ride itself thrills nonetheless. “Hacking the Horseman’s Code” is the quintessence of grim fun. Man, oh man, any town sporting a Headless Horseman who races through the neighborhood on October nights is a place where I am dying to live.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 1st

The Macabre Republic screams huzzah! After eleven long months of waiting, the high holiday season is upon us at last. I have lots of posts planned for October, including the nightly run of this new feature.

Highlight of the Lonesome Night delves into the beloved 1993 dark fantasy novel A Night in the Lonesome October. Roger Zelazny’s inventive and sometimes irreverent variation on a Cthulhu Mythos tale features an epic cast of historical and fictional characters (from classic monsters to famous supersleuths) engaged in a secret, month-long magical battle of cosmic import–a murderous contest set to culminate on a full-moon, late-19th Century Halloween night. This autumnal treat of a story has remained popular three decades after its first publication; to this day, fans are known to return to the narrative and reread one of its calendar-coordinated chapters every night in October. I plan to follow suit, but also go one step further with this blog feature. For the next thirty-one nights, I will highlight what I believe to be the best element of each chapter of Zelazny’s book. And so, first up is:

 

October 1st

As October and the story commences, Zelazny’s narrator, the articulate watchdog Snuff, patrols the London-skirting house rented by his master Jack. Snuff keeps tabs on various eldritch entities imprisoned throughout the house: the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Things in the Mirror, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk. At this early point, the reader has no idea what Jack and his faithful companion Snuff are up to, or why they are holding such Things captive. But clearly the creatures are determined to break free. The Thing in the Circle seductively shapeshifts into “a lady dog of attractive person and very friendly disposition,” but when Snuff refuses to be enticed, it intones, “You’ll get yours, mutt.” Similarly, the Thing in the Wardrobe floats the promise of a juicy bone, but cries “Up yours, hound” after the bribe fails, and then proceeds to spout even “more abusive language.” Such outré situation and unusual/off-color dialogue constitutes the highlight of the first chapter, and signals Zelazny’s willingness to strike a comedic note even as he evokes the cosmic horror of the dreadfully serious H.P. Lovecraft.

 

Horripilation Compilation

Unabashed admission: I’m a complete geek for books, TV programs, or streaming series that gather, rank, and analyze the best that the horror genre has to offer. Projects such as The Book of Lists: HorrorHorror: 100 Best BooksHorror: Another 100 Best BooksBravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Eli Roth’s History of Horror. So it’s no shocker that I have been eagerly anticipating the new Shudder series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, whose first episode debuted this week.

101 Scariest clearly emulates the format of Bravo’s 100 Scariest, combining commentary with classic horror film clips. But 101 also one-ups its predecessor in a few regards. The role of talking head is embodied by various writers, actors, directors, and film scholars, whereas the Bravo countdown mixed in a lot of pop cultural personalities and joke-cracking comedians (figures with questionable connection to the genre) into its cast of commentators. 101 also seems committed to offering more serious analysis of the films under discussion, addressing not just the nature of the scare but also considering the construction of the particular movie scene containing it.

It will be interesting to see how 101‘s completed list ultimately compares to that compiled by the 2004 Bravo show (and its follow-ups, 30 Even Scarier Movie Moments [2006] and 13 Scarier Movie Moments [2009]). Perhaps I will pursue such comparison in a future post.

An eight-episode series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time streams a new installment every Wednesday on Shudder up until Halloween.

Official Trailer:

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Emissary”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Emissary” (1947)

Ten-year-old Martin Smith is confined to his bedroom with an undefined illness, so he has his beloved pet Dog “collect and deliver the time and texture of worlds in town, country, by creek, river, lake, down-cellar, up-attic, in closet or coal bin.” Dog not only brings back various samplings of his adventures (stuck to his fur), but also human visitors, such as Martin’s schoolteacher Miss Haight. The lonely child cherishes the time spent with the young woman, which proves all too short when Miss Haight is killed in a car accident. After that Dog begins behaving strangely, staring and whimpering, and then disappearing on the night before Halloween. When he returns a few days later, Dog carries a telltale “stench–the ripe and awful cemetery earth.” Dog has been bad, digging where he shouldn’t, but he also has been true to his training and brings someone home to Martin, who hears ghoulish footsteps scaling the staircase and shambling toward his bedroom. The story ends on a shivery, yet also slightly ambiguous, note. Just what sort of “company” will this grave-vacating corpse provide? Will the posthumous Miss Haight now be hateful?

“The Emissary” represents one of Bradbury’s deeper forays into the October Country. Its autumn setting is established in the opening sentence, and “the great season of spices and rare incenses” and the “cereal crispness” of fallen leaves is brought to life throughout the narrative by Bradbury’s descriptive prose. Halloween also proves central to the tale, although the experience of the holiday is colored by Martin’s bedridden condition, the recent death of Miss Haight, and the seeming loss of the runaway Dog:

To Martin, Halloween had been nothing more than one evening when tin horns cried off in the cold autumn stars, children blew like goblin leaves along the flinty walks, flinging their heads, or cabbages, at porches, soap-writing names or similar magic symbols on icy windows. all of it distant, unfathomable, and nightmarish as a puppet show seen from so many miles away that there is no sound or meaning.

Such downbeat turn, though, is reversed by the concluding plot twist, in which Martin receives a belated Halloween thrill that he will likely remember for the rest of his life (should it extend beyond that night). “The Emissary”–whose first publication was in Dark Carnival–remains one of the book’s most effective and richly atmospheric pieces. Like Dog’s own doings within the narrative, the story faithfully delivers a strong sense of the autumnal (as it was experienced in the early-20th-Century Midwest) to the modern reader.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “Homecoming”

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dark Carnival (Arkham House, 1947), Dispatches from the Macabre Republic is taking a look back at Ray Bradbury’s debut fiction collection. Adding a new post to this recurring feature every few days, I will work my way through the book’s table of contents, considering the significance of each story and also its present relevance. (Disclaimer: the stories “Reunion” and “The Night Sets” will not be included in this retrospective, as they only appear in super-pricey collectible volumes [the Arkham House original or the 2001 Gauntlet Press special edition] of Dark Carnival, a copy of which I do not own. For the remaining stories, the text is drawn from other Bradbury books in which they have been published subsequently, such as The October Country.)

 

“Homecoming” (1946)

Batting leadoff is a tale full of dark bats and resplendent with Gothic atmosphere. “Homecoming” treats the gathering of monsters (e.g., vampires, werewolves, mummies) from across the world at a Victorian mansion in the American Midwest; they have come to celebrate a family reunion on Allhallows Eve. The narrative is steeped in nostalgia, as Bradbury (who admits to basing many of the supernatural figures on his own relatives) recalls the cherished Halloween festivities of his own childhood home in Waukegan, Illinois. This inaugural literary foray into the October Country testifies to the seminal influence of the autumn holiday on Bradbury, a writer whose name has since become synonymous with the Halloween season.

There’s nothing saccharine about “Homecoming,” though, as a strong sense of alienation also runs through the story (which, according to Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, “sprang from Ray’s own experience as a sensitive, imaginative, oft-misunderstood boy”). The condition of fourteen-year-old protagonist Timothy–reflection-casting, darkness-fearing, coffin-eschewing–is deemed an “illness” by his more traditionally vampiric family members. His siblings and cousins tease him about his obvious difference and constantly remind him of his outcast status. Timothy keenly senses that he is out of place at the monster bash (“The party happened around him but not to him”) and longs to show that he belongs at the celebration. While the carnivalesque inversion of normalcy would later be mined for plentiful gags on The Munsters (i.e. the relative “ugliness” of the humanly beautiful Marilyn), Bradbury strikes a more poignant note. The homecoming–and “Homecoming”–concludes with Timothy “crying to himself,” sadly aware of his own eventual extinction and his lone fate in a family of the undead and undying. Mortality arguably is the grand concern of Bradbury’s fiction; it’s a theme that never ages, because we all inevitably do. The treatment of such theme here, more than the colorful, outré cast and festive Halloween setting, is what makes the tale a timeless classic.

Bradbury’s personal regard for the piece is evident in its selection for the opening slot in Dark Carnival, but the placement is also somewhat ironic. The Arkham House collection intended to showcase the author’s weird-fiction efforts (indeed, many of the stories were first published in Weird Tales). But “Homecoming” was actually rejected by Weird Tales as too far afield of the magazine’s eldritch sensibilities; the story instead saw initial print in a special October issue of the mainstream publication Mademoiselle. So from the very outset, Dark Carnival forecasts Bradbury’s destiny to transcend the pulp fiction ghetto and ultimately form a genre unto himself: imaginer extraordinaire, a storyteller of human truths, who uses the trappings of fantasy to capture 20th Century reality for his legions of readers.

 

Candy Scorn

I’m always in a dark-carnival-loving frame of mind, but especially so in recent weeks with the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley remake and the debut of Aaron Mahnke’s new podcast Sideshow. So when I saw that the 2019 horror film Candy Corn was streaming on Amazon, I was primed to check it out.

The film’s plot is basic: after the annual Halloween-night hazing of gawky, developmentally-challenged local Jacob Atkins (who has hired on as a carny with the traveling show currently in town) goes homicidally awry, the carnival leader Dr. Death performs an occult revivification of the victim’s corpse. Grim carnival justice ensues, as Jacob (now masked in Michael Myers-esque fashion) stalks and mows down down his bullies. This standard revenge element leads to some brutal but well-orchestrated kill scenes, which include the creatively destructive use of the titular treat (a Jacob favorite prior to his death).

The mute (and one-note) Jacob doesn’t make for a terribly interesting character. He’s easily overshadowed by the diminutive but forceful showman Dr. Death, a role embodied by Rob Zombie regular Pancho Moler. Candy Corn in many ways feels like a no-budget version of a Zombie film, right down to the grungy aesthetic and questionable perspective. It seems unsure of the horror it wants to convey, and the viewer struggles to find a character to identify with and invest in emotionally. Jacob proves more monstrous than sympathetic, and the film’s obvious final girl falls short of that role. Most confusingly, Dr. Death vacillates between a staunch defender of his carnival workers and a sinister oppressor of them.

The cast includes some notable horror actors of yesteryear (Courtney Gains, P.J. Soles, and Tony Todd–who is sorely underutilized here); seeing how much they have aged since the days of their prime is apt to make the viewer feel old, too. But the bigger issue is that Candy Corn, with its methodical pacing, moody tone, and murky morality, just leaves the viewer feeling cold.

I’d recommend this one only to the most indiscriminating Halloween horror film aficionado. All others aren’t likely to find it to their taste.

 

Lore Report: “Hide and Seek” (Episode 188)

Things we take for granted, like phrases or legends or the honesty of people we know, sometimes those things can turn out to have an altogether different meaning. But nowhere is this more true than within the world of folklore and belief, because when it comes to the traditions we love, it’s easy to allow emotional attachment to blind us to the real stories behind it all.  And what better way to see this concept in action than by exploring one of the most celebrated times of the year: Christmas.

Aaron Mahnke gives the gift of Lore in this seasonally-themed episode (the podcast’s last original one of 2021). The host regales his audience with the legends of the Mari Lwyd and the diabolical, child-eating holiday boogeyman, the “Christmas Scarecrow” Hans Trapp. Mahnke invokes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, linking the famous novel to a discussion of the Puritan ban on traditional Christmas celebrations–such as the telling of spooky stories–two centuries earlier during England’s Commonwealth period. Another legendary English story, that of the White Lady of Bramshill House (whose haunting traces back to a game of hide-and-seek that went terribly awry during a Christmas Day wedding reception), is also shared. And Halloween lovers will take joy when Mahnke recounts how Christmastime rituals of masking/begging evolved into the American practice of trick-or-treating. This holiday episode stuffs the stocking with an assortment of narrative presents and provides a fine listening experience to close out the year.

 

Longing for Halloween

First, an admission: I’m unfamiliar with the graphic novel that was the source for this two-part animated film, so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation. But I can attest that Batman: The Long Halloween (Part One and Part Two are both currently streaming on HBO Max) does a fine job of capturing Gotham City, representing the metropolitan milieu in all its rain-soaked and shadow-drenched superhero-noir glory.

The narrative, with its murderous set pieces and employment of red herrings, has a certain slasher film quality (a killer of concealed identity executes bloody acts that consistently coincide with major holidays). There is also a strong crime element here with the focus on the Falcones (as both gangster enterprise and dysfunctional family unit).

A combined three-hour runtime allows The Long Halloween to convey an intricate story peopled by a broad cast–virtually every Batman nemesis (The Joker, Scarecrow, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Solomon Grundy, Mad Hatter, et al.) rears his or her colorful head. But the villains don’t just put in cartoonish cameos, and the main characters are all drawn three-dimensionally, complete with complex motivations. These animated figures are enlivened by the voice-work of a talented group of actors, including Jenson Ackles (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Josh Duhamel (Harvey Dent), Titus Welliver (Carmine Falcone), and the late Naya Rivera (Catwoman/Selina Kyle).

A time jump at the start of Part Two can be a bit confusing initially (especially if, like me, you failed to catch the post-credits scene at the end of Part One). The films no doubt cover a lot of story ground (dramatizing the complicated relationship between Bruce and Selina, and Harvey Dent’s fall from grace and transformation into Two-Face), yet never run off course thanks to the calendrical structure imposed by their murder-mystery workings. The climactic revelation of the vigilante Holiday’s identity also makes for a very satisfying plot twist.

All this plus a framing device featuring the celebration of Halloween (where the ritual of trick-or-treating serves as an indicator of the societal health of Gotham City). I’ve always held that every year divides into Halloween season and the eleven long months leading up to it, but entertaining efforts such as Batman: The Long Halloween make the wait for next October eminently endurable.

 

The Good & Plenty of Halloween Horror

Rather than re-watch films I’ve seen umpteen times, I sought out new thrills this past Halloween night. So, with little concern for package inspection, I willfully consumed some Bad Candy.

Ugh, did I ever make a stupid decision.

This anthology film (written and directed by Scott B. Hansen and Desiree Connell) might as well have been called Bad Acting, because that’s what stuffs this putative treat bag. Not that the players are given much to work with here in terms of material. The scripted characters are flatter than a steamrolled Snickers, and form the most hackneyed of figures (the drunken stepfather, the weirdo candy-tainter…). Each one proves more reprehensible than the last; it’s hard to find a single character in the entire film worthy of rooting interest.

Bad Candy is framed as a series of tales of supernatural lore shared by a pair of radio dj’s (Zach Galligan and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor) during their special Halloween night show. Their stories, though, get old quickly, as they all employ the same formula: vile people (the skeevy drug dealer, the corpse-humping morgue attendant…) getting dispatched in nasty ways (the film definitely does not skimp on the gore). Middling attempts to intertwine the various tales are muddled at best, and the not-so-big twist revealed in the climax just results in another ho-hum scene of comeuppance.

The adopted structure here naturally invites comparison with other Halloween anthology films. Aligning with tradition is fine, but this film seems more concerned with ripping off superior precursors. The plot device of a young girl’s monster drawings coming to life serves as a pictorial riff on book of preordaining horror tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. More glaringly, Bad Candy derives from Trick ‘R Treat, as an evil clown (a stiffer and less interesting stand-in for the iconic trickster Sam) pops up all over town to take out Halloween do-badders.

Perhaps the most positive statement that can be made about Bad Candy is that it creates further appreciation for just how well-made Michael Dougherty’s 2007 film was. This grungy and unpalatable offering, meanwhile, will have the most hardcore horror junky reaching for the Pepto. Sample at your own risk, kids.