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).

 

Joe Hill-oween

Joe Hill seems to be everywhere this Halloween season…and this is a very good thing.

He recently participated in the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series (which I posted about here).

The hardcover collection of his comic series, Basketful of Heads, is now in bookstores.

He can be found spouting wisdom about the horror genre on the new season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror.

He appears on the season premiere of the Post Mortem with Mick Garris podcast (the episode is a must-listen for Hill’s closing anecdote alone, about catching fire while on the set of The Stand miniseries).

He discusses his book Full Throttle in the latest episode of the Book Club Girl podcast (I realize I never posted a review of the book here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. I read Full Throttle cover to cover twice, but I think I was ultimately too in awe to react to the experience. So let me just say this here about the book: it is mind-blowingly imaginative. One of the best collections of genre fiction that I have ever read).

His story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” (which is collected in Full Throttle) is one of the animated segments on the Creepshow Halloween Special (released today on the Shudder network, and featuring stunningly grisly visuals, as well as terrific voiceover work by Joey King and Keifer Sutherland [the latter for the adaptation of Stephen King’s story “Survivor Type”]).

If you are a Hill fan, be sure to check out these items. They will stock your late October with enjoyment.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Unlike Christmas

No doubt these have been trying times during the past few months of the pandemic, but at least there is now something to celebrate: the return of the series NOS4A2 on AMC. It’s time for strong creatives to grab their “knives,” cut through the fabric of reality, and trek to Christmasland–that uncanny combination of Santa’s North Pole and Cooger and Dark’s carnival.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations of favorite novels, and am easily irked by radical changes to the book’s characters and plots. This series, though, has remained quite faithful to Joe Hill’s original vision, and any changes from the source material have seemed organic and unjarring. This is due in large part to the writers’ commitment to developing believable characters, whose realism makes the show’s flights of dark fantasy seem all the more natural. NOS4A2 is blessed with stellar performances across the board, starting with Zachary Quinto as the vampiric child predator Charlie Manx. Quinto presents a perfect mix of suave and sinister, of charm and underlying harm; his portrayal of Manx makes for a classic American Gothic hero-villain.

Following suit from the novel, Season 2 opens with an eight-year time jump that leaves us feeling like we haven’t skipped a beat with these characters and their strange situations. Thankfully, in last night’s premiere, “Bad Mother,” not a lot of time was wasted on reestablishment (or the introduction of new characters). Like the Wraith gliding along the St. Nicholas Parkway, the episode keeps the narrative driving forward, showing that the troubles of protagonist Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) with Manx and his horrific “inscape” Christmasland are far from over.

Judging from the first episode, it appears Charlie’s daughter Millie will have a much larger role this season, and the creepily fanged Mattea Conforti looks like she will be up to the task of playing a pint-sized Big Bad. In Hill’s novel, Vic’s parents Linda and Chris get pushed mostly to the background in the latter part of the narrative, but if the show is smart it will find a way to keep these characters front and center. Virginia Kull’s and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s respective performances formed one of last season’s brightest highlights, so it would be a shame to see their contributions lessened (and to hear less of their townie accents).

One episode into Season 2, I’m already as excited as a kid at Christmastime. For sure, I’m looking forward to where the ride takes viewers–both this season and hopefully beyond.

 

The Kings of Comedy

In case you missed it:

Stephen King and Joe Hill recently did an event in Massachusetts together to promote their new releases (The Institute and Full Throttle, respectively). To see father and son on stage together is a terrific treat, and what makes the occasion even more special is just how downright entertaining the two writers prove. They elicit continuous laughter, via both prepared anecdotes and nimble ad-libbing, and as they tease each other mercilessly. The love and respect that King and Hill have for each other, though, is readily apparent, and heartwarming to witness.

Not that this hasn’t been mentioned before elsewhere, but, man, is Hill (especially when sporting a beard) the spitting image of his father at that same age (check out King’s original-hardcover book jacket photos for novels like The Dead Zone or Firestarter).

The interaction between the two here is so precious, and this video is such a fun watch, that I wish it was something King and Hill did together on a regular basis.

Kudos to Porter Square Books, not just for arranging “An Evening with Joe Hill and Stephen King,” but also for posting the video for the sold-out event to YouTube.

 

 

Hill of the King: A Review of Strange Weather

Stephen King (Different Seasons; Four Past Midnight) isn’t the only horror writer to publish thematically-grouped novella quartets (cf. Charles Grant’s Dialing the Wind; The Black Carousel), but he is undoubtedly the most popular. Joe Hill, though, might soon threaten his father’s reign, as evidenced by his latest collection Strange Weather.

The opening novella, “Snapshot,” appears to pick up right where the finale of Four Past Midnight left off. Much like “The Sun Dog,” Hill’s story deals with a young protagonist’s encounter with a paranormal camera, which in this case doesn’t capture moments but actually erases the subject’s memories. This alien technology from another reality could have come straight from the Dark Tower multiverse. A coming-of-age tale, “Snapshot” even references Stand By Me (not coincidentally, Will Wheaton narrates the audio version of the novella), but such invocation only throws the loneliness and “adolescent sadness” of the obese thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione into starker contrast. The narrative’s mysterious and perfectly nasty villain, the Phoenician, is perhaps vanquished too easily and too early on, but the long anticlimax does a fine job of establishing the American Gothic elements of the figure’s photographic endeavors (which trace back to a heinous act of domestic violence). For all its fantastic elements, “Snapshot” reminds us of the natural ravages of senescence; it is a haunting tale that won’t fade from consciousness anytime soon.

“Loaded” is the longest of the four pieces collected here, and the most frighteningly realistic (arguably that Hill has ever written). Mall security guard Randall Kellaway is hailed as a hero when he stops a potential mass shooting, but the circumstances of his intervention set off a chain reaction of events that culminates in an explosive climax. Hill makes poignant points about racism and gun violence, but without ever climbing up onto a soapbox. With its large cast of diverse characters whose storylines inevitably intersect, “Loaded” forms the author’s literary equivalent of Crash, and is just as award-worthy.

In “Aloft,” a parachuting mishap renders Aubrey Griffin a “Robinson Crusoe of the sky”–stranded in cumulonimbic limbo, on a sentient and wondrously protean cloud island. The scenario is a prime example of the soaring flights of fancy Hill is so apt to produce, and allows him to flex his writing muscles via passages of astonishing description (e.g. “Ohio lay beneath him, an almost perfectly flat expanse of variegated squares in shades of emerald, wheat, richest brown, palest amber. […] Ruler-straight ribbons of blacktop bisected the fields below. A red pickup slid along one of these black threads like a bright steel bead on an abacus.”). “Aloft” is at once humorous and profoundly human (in its meditation on unrequited–and also unrecognized–love). With its glimpses of both the exhilaratingly beautiful and the awful (the unworldly flying object doesn’t lack a Lovecraftian aspect), the narrative epitomizes the sublime. This one reads like a lost masterpiece from the glory days of Amazing Stories.

Fans of Hill’s last novel, The Fireman, will revel in “Nails,” a post-apocalyptic epic condensed into a novella. The weather is at its strangest here, as crystalline slivers rain devastatingly from the sky. This deadly downpour, though, doesn’t represent some latter-day Biblical plague, isn’t presented as meteorologically-themed magic realism. Instead, the tale posits an act of terrorism that is made to sound terrifyingly plausible. Hill has a grand time describing the bloody mayhem created by the unnatural hail, but for all the chaos that ensues, it is order that ultimately impresses most. The narrative is as tightly plotted as a murder mystery (which in a certain sense it is), where even the smallest and seemingly most incidental detail proves integral. Heart-pounding and heartbreaking, filled with stunning set pieces and touching character moments, “Nails” needs to be made into a feature film quicker than a wicked thunderstorm rolls in.

While its structure recalls the work of Stephen King, this book also testifies to what a unique and incredible talent Joe Hill is. The local forecast for the reader of Strange Weather: captivation, with unremitting entertainment.