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.

 

“Haunted Attraction”

From my 2014 collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season

 

Haunted Attraction

By Joe Nazare

 

He brings neither date nor friend, walks Rancid Mansion alone
Remains mute throughout, emits not one whimper or groan

Isn’t phased when menaced by hammy actors in macabre disguise
Fails to flinch when seeming statues lurch in animatronic surprise

Doesn’t grimace at the various simulations of butcher shop grue
Has no gag reflex when he scents the hag’s cauldron of noisome stew

Doesn’t panic when the walls of the black labyrinth squeeze coffin tight
Merely grins at the scene of the lupine choir, musical children of the night

Isn’t chilled by strategic breezes, cobweb snares don’t make his skin crawl
Upon exiting the exhibit he doesn’t appear delightfully frightened at all

But when he wings himself home before sunrise strikes him full dead
Exciting new decorating ideas swirl within the crypt of his centuries-old head

 

October Stories: Ranking the Ten “Tales of Halloween”

Tales of Halloween is a Halloween anthology film that tends to be overshadowed by its 2007 forerunner (and clear influencer), Trick ‘R Treat. This 2015 effort, though, boasts a broad array of talent (both onscreen and behind the camera) and features plenty of finely-executed scenes of horror and black comedy. Like any Halloween haul, the narrative pieces aren’t uniformly satisfying, but they make for a rewarding experience overall. Here’s my quick ranking of the ten (loosely connected) segments comprising the film:

 

10. “The Weak and the Wicked” (Segment #4, directed by Paul Solet)

A limp tale of comeuppance, in which a trio of terrorizing punks are dispatched by the summoned “Demon of All Hallows Eve.” For all their acts of arson and trick-or-treater tormenting, these street toughs are hard to take seriously when they traverse the neighborhood turf on their bicycles.

 

9. “Ding Dong” (Segment #6, directed by Lucky McKee)

The always stellar Pollyanna McIntosh shines as a frustrated, unpregnant wife/seething red witch-demon. But the “Hansel and Gretel” overlay feels a bit forced here, and I’m admittedly confused by the abrupt “I’m melting” ending.

 

8. “Trick” (Segment #3, directed by Adam Gierasch)

The Children of the Corn appear to have migrated to Haddonfield, as a group of trick or treaters engage in home invasion and the brutal murder of adult residents. While it ultimately subverts its doorstep-delinquents trope, this segment (which presents images of gruesome child torture) proves too unsavory to really enjoy.

 

7. “The Ransom of Rusty Rex” (Segment #9, directed by Ryan Schifrin)

A couple of hapless kidnappers get much more than they bargained for when they snatch the titular trick or treater (played by the late, great character actor Ben Woolf). Terrific horrific hijinks ensue, but the effectiveness of the segment is mitigated by the fact that its central, monster-under-the-kid’s-mask device gets utilized earlier in the film.

 

6. “Friday the 31st” (Segment #8, directed by Mike Mendez)

An inspired reversal of the “masked slasher chasing the final girl” motif. Evil Dead-levels of gonzo gore are achieved here, but are undercut somewhat by the jarring inclusion of that cutesy Claymation alien.

 

5. “This Means War” (Segment #7, directed by Andrew Kasch and John Skipp)

This combative narrative gives new meaning to keeping up with the neighbors. A pair of yard haunters (one a nerdy suburbanite, the other a shock rocker) with contrasting sensibilities take their decorating rivalry to desecrating, deadly, yet highly entertaining extremes.

 

4. “Sweet Tooth” (Segment #1, directed by Dave Parker)

A local urban legend concerning a candy-ravenous slayer turns out to be all too real. The plot twist is hardly unexpected but can be appreciated nonetheless, as Sweet Tooth has some impressively visceral kills. And bonus points here for the segment’s Big Ass Spider! (Easter) eggs.

 

3. “Bad Seed” (Segment #10, directed by Neil Marshall)

How could any self-respecting gorehound not like a tale that starts off with a jack-o’-lantern coming to carnivorous life (like some gourd version of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) and decapitating its carver? Yes, the police procedural elements are painfully corny, but the segment pays off with a wonderful final image of Halloween sublime.

 

2. “Grim Grinning Ghost” (Segment #5, directed by Axelle Carolyn)

This brief but memorable tale (studded with horror genre luminaries such as Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon) baits the hook with a Halloween party spook story designed to get a frightened rise out of a skittish young woman. The heroine’s subsequent journey home is steeped in creepy atmosphere, but the segment earns its high ranking from its concluding, perfectly-revealed scare.

 

1. “The Night Billy Raised Hell” (Segment #2, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman)

For unabashed Halloween mischief, this witty story (featuring a delightfully dark Barry Bostwick) is unparalleled. The extended pranking montage packs a lot of clever devilishness into a short space, the climactic twist is wicked good, and the implications of the segment’s conclusion are supremely sinister.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

1. “Spyder” (1994)

Hollywood history is given a fantastic rewrite in this Partridge vehicle featuring thinly-veiled versions of James Dean and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (companions who were romantically linked in real life). A large part of the fun here involves catching the various allusions–and appreciating the deviations. The character of Layla (aka “Rigormortia”) isn’t just some cult figure vamping up a persona; she actually possesses occult powers (something the tabloid media irresponsibly accused Nurmi of following Dean’s tragic death). Layla’s black talents include turbo-charging the titular sports car by adding drops of her blood to its carburetor, and resurrecting a dead vintner for a ritual that turns a bottle of wine into a charmed potion. There’s also a memorably atmospheric set piece in which Layla manifests in the fog and hangs wraith-like outside the glass wall of a teetering, Hollywood hilltop home. Layla is a behind-the-scenes Tinseltown manipulator, and she works to give the narrator’s fledgling acting career a boost, but he soon grows leery of her influence. At the same time, he can’t help but lust after the “gorgeous corpsette,” and a complex power struggle unfolds between the two (building to a climax that offers a terrific twist on James Dean’s biography). “Spyder” is not only stocked with dark thrills, but also shines literarily (the narrator references Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon throughout, and waxes philosophical about desire and loss and “the power of legend”). With its unbelievably clever premise, and convincing mix of the mid-20th-Century Hollywood milieu and Monster Culture (alluringly packaged by TV’s first horror hostess), this horror-noir masterpiece lands the top spot on the October countdown of Norman Partridge’s Top 31 Works of Short Fiction.

 

History Lessons: “Holiday Horror” (Episode 3.5)

Let’s celebrate the wise and witty words spoken on the pre-Halloween episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

 

Eli Roth: Holidays are usually the time we get together with our families–for better or for worse. But even if you get along with your relatives, holidays can be stressful. Passive-aggressive behavior, forced cheerfulness, heavy drinking: they’re typical parts of the holiday experience. All that tension needs to be released. Enter the holiday horror film, bringing our wildest homicidal horror fantasies to life.

 

Ryan Turek: What made the first film scary, what made Michael Myers scary–you didn’t know who he was. All you knew is he killed his sister; you didn’t know why. You know, let’s go back [in 2018’s Halloween] to that pure dread that came with Halloween [1978], and let’s go back to that singular strong final girl that took him on, and let’s see what she’s like forty years later, and she’s, you know, she’s–she’s kinda messed up.

 

Nathaniel Thompson: And [Black Christmas] is one of the first great examples of the subjective camera in a slasher movie. But it’s something that critics jumped on later on; in Friday the 13th they really attacked it, because they’re saying “Oh, it’s putting you in the killer’s point of view, it’s attacking women, and it’s misogynist.” No, at least in the beginning, that’s not the point. The point is, you never see the face–that’s what’s so scary. You have no idea what this guy looks like; all you see is his eye.

 

Heidi Honeycutt: Because her boyfriend was not the killer, and the cops are wrong, and they didn’t get him, and now she’s probably going to die because of their incompetence. And [Black Christmas] is written that way deliberately to infuriate us. We’re supposed to see how society leaves this woman vulnerable.

 

Quentin Tarantino: People who don’t understand the concept of slasher movies, to them it’s all violent porno as far as they’re concerned, because they just don’t get it. And most of the films that they made a big deal about, I wish they were closer to what they think they were. I wish they were that strong. [But] Silent Night, Deadly Night is fucked up for a horror film fan.

 

Michael Dougherty[Krampus] is a very personal statement for myself, just how hard it is to maintain optimism and a belief in the goodness of human beings when you’re confronted with the opposite every time you wake up in the morning and turn on the news.

 

Christopher Landon: These woman [in Mother’s Day] actively said, “We’re gonna go back, and we’re gonna hunt these people down, and we’re gonna kill them and get revenge for what they did to our friend.” That was badass. There was a certain feminist element to it that I really appreciate, that was unusual for a film of that time.

 

Jessica Rothe: I love the message that [Happy Death Day] has when it comes to grief and loss, and how you have to, kind of, confront it and really go through it, and spend some real time with that loss and not run away from it, because I think Tree’s been running for a really, really long time.

 

Joe Hill: Good horror is all about uncomfortable juxtapositions. It’s about taking something like Christmas, something we love and find comforting, and then ruining it for everyone forever. It is in the nature of horror fiction, horror cinema, to be a little bit like punk rock. If you fail to piss anyone off, you’re probably doing it wrong!