Fair Gone Foul: Robert Bloch’s American Gothic

Grant Wood’s famous painting (which gives a hint of the sinister to the Midwest) has lent its title to multiple TV series (1995; 2016) and horror movies (1987; 2017), and has even branded the literary efforts of the legendary Robert Bloch. In his 1974 novel American Gothic, Bloch crafts a fictionalized account of the late-19th Century serial killer H.H. Holmes (dubbed G. Gordon Gregg in the book)–a sociopath who used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his prey ground.

As depicted by Bloch, Gregg is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain. The man is handsome, charming, dignified; he enjoys the reputation of an “eminent physician and benefactor of humanity.” But there is an abysmal gap between appearance and reality here. Deep down, Gregg is a Machiavellian schemer and conscience-less murderer. Driven by greed and a sick bloodlust, this fraud seduces a series of women (sometimes employing hypnotism–shades of the early Gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown), divests them of their finances, and then dispatches and dismembers them. Gregg is always careful to cover up his copious crimes, but he’s also not averse to keeping a memento mori. Late in the novel, a discovery is made of eviscerated organs preserved in bell jars.  When it comes to his female conquests, Gregg is literally “the man who had won their hearts.”

If ever there were a man perfectly suited to his domicile, it is Gregg. He erects a massive, three-storied “Castle” (complete with faux turrets adorning the exterior) on a Chicago street corner. The construct stands as an overt example of the transportation of European Gothic conventions into an American (literary) context. Still, it’s the interior of this “architectural monstrosity” that’s most noteworthy, since Gregg has designed a private Chamber of Horrors that makes the homonymous Fair attraction seem tame by comparison. The Castle–an ostensible boarding house built to lure Fairgoers to dire ends–is riddled with “hidden rooms, secret staircases, trapdoors, and a maze of passageways.” Gregg is able to drop his corpses down a narrow chute secreted behind a bathroom mirror, down into his workshop of filthy desecration in the cellar, where he can dispose of any unwanted remains using a concealed back door to the furnace.

Gregg sports the face “of a gentleman, but the appetite was animal.” This “decent, respectable maniac,” though, is not just a Devil in(filtrating) the White City (to invoke Erik Larson’s terms). Gregg is a dark extension of the Fair itself, of the danger lurking beneath the glamour, and the seedy urban underbelly waiting to swallow up naive visitors to Chicago:

Since the Fair, it seemed everyone wanted to see the District–the rich arriving with the clop and clatter of carriages, the less savory specimens on foot. And the District’s denizens waited to welcome them: waited with dazzling displays of diamonds in the pawnshops, phony as the protestations of their proprietors; waited with frantic fingers, deftly plucking the purses of drunken dudes; waited in shadows with blackjacks, billy clubs, and brass knuckles; waited in brightly blazing bars with knockout drops; waited in the cribs and the panel houses with the private parlors with smiles and spirochetes. It really didn’t matter which door the visitor chose. In the end the beast engulfed them all.

During the course of the novel, the plucky-investigator heroine Crystal (a proto-Clarice Starling?) finds herself caught inside the killer’s lair. And in a breathtaking, several-chapters-long climax, Crystal dashes through the shadowed, labyrinthine passageways of the Castle with Gregg in stalking pursuit. It’s a finale quite familiar to fans and students of the genre. While American Gothic perhaps fails to live up to Bloch’s best work, the content of the novel undoubtedly fulfills the book’s bold eponymous promise.

 

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 18-22

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

 

Episode 18: “Echo of Your Last Goodbye”

At the start of this episode (which never aired during the show’s original run), Deputy Ben’s date Cindy teases him about being a “dark secret type.” There’s significance to the comment, though; Cindy subsequently morphs into Merlyn Temple, who proceeds to break her own neck (just as Ben witnessed Sheriff Lucas Buck do to her in the show’s first episode).

An ever-versatile ghost, Merlyn repeatedly appears (demonstrating the nonsensical turns to which Americna Gothic was sometimes prone) to Ben by taking over the bodies of flesh-and-blood women he encounters throughout the episode. Encouraging Ben, in grave terms, to grab a shovel and start digging up the truth, Merlyn leads the deputy to a Gothic ruin in the Goat Town section of Trinity–an abandoned and now decrepit former home for children (a rat-stuffed teddy bear is included in the detritus strewn about the place). Ben detects the foul smell of a festering body here (at one point he’s accosted by a moldering-corpse version of Merlyn), and the building is haunted (by a somber ensemble of kid spirits–who were doomed to early deaths after the proprietor was no longer around to take them in), but no one literally died there. Merlyn, though–who reveals that her mother Judith was the woman who operated the home–is trying to bring a murder to light: she wants Ben to realize that her mother’s suicidal plunge from a hospital window actually occurred at Lucas’s tossing hands.

Perhaps the most notable element of the episode is its confirmation of what has been suspected throughout the series: Lucas (who raped and impregnated Judith, in the hopes of creating a sinister scion) is the biological father of Caleb Temple. In an appropriate subplot, we see Caleb starting to develop into his father’s son. Tutored in cruelty and vengeance by Lucas, Caleb plays a vicious prank on a school bully, Tina.

Overall, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, and marred by muddy character motivation (Caleb’s cousin Gail seems to vacillate between the successfully-seduced lover of Lucas and the determined journalist hellbent on exposing the sheriff’s history of evil misdeed). A measure of redemption, though, is achieved in the closing moments, as the meaning of the episode’s curious title is clarified. Ben and Merlyn (here possessing the bartender Allison) slow-dance to the atmospheric–and thematically resonant–Mel Torme torch song, “The House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye).”

 

Episode 19: “Triangle”

This episode of American Gothic could just have easily been titled (with a nod to Ira Levin) “Gail Emory’s Baby.” When Gail moves to end her affair with Lucas Buck, and threatens to leave town with her cousin Caleb in tow, the sheriff gives her a supernatural nudge that lands her in the hospital. There she learns that she is pregnant with Lucas’s child. The subsequent ultrasound furnishes one of the series’ creepiest scenes, as the grotesque fetus in the sonogram opens its eyes, turns toward Gail and flashes a demonic grin.

The expectant mother continues to experience disturbing visions concerning the monstrous thing growing inside her. These could be dismissed as nightmares or hallucinations brought on by Gail’s own terror, but mid-episode the viewer learns that Miss Emory isn’t just imagining things. A fiendish conspiracy is in place: the nurse who denies that there is anything abnormal about the fetus pictured in the sonogram is actually lying on Lucas’s behalf (the sheriff blackmails her into playing along by threatening to expose her “extracurricular research in the narcotics supply room”).

Gail, though, isn’t about to take the news of her pregnancy lying down. She attempts to flee Trinity, but is stymied by the sudden appearance of Lucas on the roadway. “There’s no running from me, you know that,” the modern Gothic hero-villain reminds the frightened maiden.

For all of Lucas’s entanglement with Gail, he’s also hung up on his ex-lover Selena. And small-town romance begets big-time intrigue when Lucas chafes at Selena and Dr. Billy Peele’s relationship. He gives ominous warnings to both individuals to cease and desist, and when the defiant lovers continue to carry on carnally, Lucas gives Selena a real reason to feel hot and bothered: while in bed with Billy, she is overcome by a 108-degree fever. Lucas casts the incendiary spell with a strike of a match and a proclamation of “Burn, baby, burn”–words that work not just as a sardonic echo of the Trammps’ disco-era classic but as an invocation of the American history of anarchic violence.

In this episode, American Gothic once again demonstrates its cleverness through the use of background details. When Gail ponders a suicidal leap from the roof of the local bank, the institution’s name shines suggestively behind her: “Trinity Trust,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, in this town presided over by a devilish sheriff and riddled with dirty secrets and unholy bargains.

 

Episode 20: “Strangler”

“Strangler,” another episode that was never aired during American Gothic‘s single-season run, opens with a scene set in an autumnal cemetery (as Caleb visits Gage Temple’s grave) and gets progressively darker from there.

Determined to rid himself once and for all of Merlyn and her meddling ways, Sheriff Lucas Buck summons the ghostly figure of legendary serial killer Albert DeSalvo (a.k.a The Boston Strangler). Albert might no longer be haunting Beantown, but he has no problem living up to the latter part of his notorious moniker. He warms up for his eventual assault on Merlyn by fatally throttling a pair of pretty nurses from Trinity hospital and by nearly dispatching Lucas’s paramour, Gail Emory.

The eponymous Strangler is a chilling bogeyman, and a quintessentially Gothic figure rife with duplicity. Handsome Albert oozes spurious charm; “politeness gets you in anywhere,” he confides to Lucas during their initial meeting. Accordingly, he conducts his grim business by posing as a friendly refrigerator repairman, a deliveryman, and a handyman. Postmortem existence also makes the Strangler that much more dangerous, since he no longer needs to work his way past locked doors in order to get at his victims. The scene in which Albert attacks Gail is especially frightening, as the back-from-the-dead predator keeps pouncing on the distressed damsel from different angles no matter how many times she tries to throw him off and flee.

This episode, I must admit, is marred by some stilted dialogue (Lucas down on his knees in the cemetery chanting “Send forth the One!”) and hokey actions (Merlyn–who has somehow evolved into a supernaturally-empowered angel–shooting pulses of light at Albert). But its climax broaches a bit of dark irony that also shines a light on a central conflict. When Merlyn is about to sacrifice herself to the Strangler in order to protect Caleb, the boy uses his nascent powers (his infernal inheritance form Lucas) to immolate Albert. Such intervention, though, makes for a more ominous than joyous ending: sure, Merlyn acknowledges, Caleb has saved her soul, but only by drawing on the force that is bound to destroy his own.

 

Episode 21: “The Buck Stops Here”

Pillow talk takes a dark turn at the start of this penultimate episode of American Gothic, as Selena and Billy fantasize out loud about various ways of killing Lucas Buck (Billy just seems to be playing along, but Selena is serious about offing her sinister ex-lover). What makes the scene even more transgressive is that it occurs in Lucas’s own bed. Recognizing the signs of an illicit dalliance, Lucas later confronts Selena and voices perhaps his most graphic threat to date: “If you ever soil my house again, I’ll cut out your heart and use it for a chamois.”

“The Buck Stops Here” strikes another gross note as Gail prepares an afternoon meal. Lucas’s pregnant paramour makes a misnomer of roast as she bastes and then suddenly gorges upon a bloody, undercooked hunk of meat. Gail’s strange craving erases any doubt that the child growing inside her is a normal one.

The central focus of the episode, though, is the “murder” of Lucas. In a scene that sounds strong echoes of Psycho, a shadowy figure hiding in the sheriff’s Gothic home jumps out and stabs Lucas in the forehead with a trocar. Billy, who just happened to be at the scene of the crime, is arrested, but the two characters the audience really suspects are Selena and Trinity pharmacist Yancy Lydon (who has a grudge against Lucas because he failed to help Yancy’s comatose wife).

Lingering in a hospital bed, Lucas summons his son Caleb, and whispers a request in the boy’s ear. Some nefarious scheme seems to be forming, and a transfer of power transpiring (underscored by the father and son’s joint recitation of the phrase “An Old Order of the Ages Is Born Anew”). Lucas then promptly has a seizure and expires, yet the viewer can’t help but believe that Buck will be back for the conclusion of the series.

Now in full Damien mode, Caleb tracks down Yancy, telling the man that “My daddy sent me.” Caleb also ominously promises to give the pharmacist (presumably Lucas’s attacker) a taste of his own medicine. Shortly thereafter, a terrified Yancy is discovered (by Billy and Deputy Ben) lying choking on a brimming mouthful of pills.

American Gothicism arguably hits its peak during Lucas’s funeral. The scene plays out like a macabre variation on the Seinfeld finale, as an assortment of characters from earlier episodes are brought back for brief appearances. Some of these figures approaching the coffin are genuinely saddened by Lucas’s passing and express appreciation of him, but the sheriff’s corpse is also spit upon by one Trinity citizen and nearly disfigured by the disgruntled, hook-handed Waylon (the current husband of Ben’s ex-wife). This dramatic airing of allegiances and grievances serves as a fitting testimony to the work Sheriff Buck has done as a Gothic hero-villain for the constituents of his sleepy South Carolina town.

And–as his eyes pop open inside the coffin at episode’s end–it looks like Buck’s work is not yet done.

 

Episode 22: “Requiem”

Somewhat fittingly, the series finale of American Gothic begins with a graveyard scene, as funeral services are held for the seemingly departed Lucas Buck. Afterwards, Deputy Ben reminds a disrespectful gravedigger that the sheriff helped a lot of people in Trinity, a statement that prompts a bit of mordant wit from the cemetery man: “Yeah, he sure threw a lot of business my way.”

The best line of the episode (if not the entire series), though, is delivered by the prematurely-buried Buck himself, when Ben and Dr. Billy dig up his grave and throw open his coffin: “Well, if it ain’t the Hardy Boys.” Such sardonic comment (referencing the famous Young Adult series of Gothic-tinged mysteries) is quintessential Buck, and a perfect example of what makes this hero-villain figure so endearing to viewers.

In terms of its plot, “Requiem” centers on the evil evolution of Caleb, who is suddenly suffused with demonic power when Lucas suffers his almost-fatal demise. Caleb transforms into a pint-sized tyrant, and after the funeral, packs up his belongings and moves to occupy his father’s house. Upon arrival, he finds Selena waiting there for him; the sultry seductress proposes joining forces and hints at joining bodies (what would the Gothic be without the whiff of illicit sexuality?). Still seething over Buck’s spurning her for Gail, Selena informs Caleb of his cousin’s pregnancy and warns him that the child Gail is carrying is a threat to him as heir of the sheriff’s powers. Caleb, who doesn’t need much convincing on the point, tells Selena to deliver Gail to him, a sinister request that leads Selena to reply (sounding the theme of evil inheritance), “You’re your father’s son, all right.”

When Gail is subsequently lured to Buck’s house, she makes a disturbing discovery in one of the rooms. Symbolizing Caleb’s petulant protest of Gail’s pregnancy, a bloodied doll has been left lying in a shrouded bassinet. Emerging to confront Gail, Caleb tells her she must get rid of her unborn baby, but apparently the boy doesn’t have the patience to wait. He proceeds, in a scene that perhaps represents the apex of American Gothic‘s Gothicism, to chase Gail through Buck’s gloomy, stuffed-raven-and-grinning-skull-furnished mansion while wielding a fireplace poker.

Lucas, transformed into the role of heroic rescuer, bursts through the front door, only to see Gail sent tumbling down the staircase. He carries her off to safety, but the fall causes her to suffer a miscarriage.

The resurrected sheriff has some unfinished business to attend to before returning to deal with his upstart son. Knowing that Dr. Narone deliberately sentenced him to an erroneous internment, Lucas acts to take vengeance. He forces the good doctor to hang himself with his own granddaughter’s jump rope (Lucas promises to spare the girl Ashley from his wrath if Narone carries out the suicide). Ironically, Ashley is the one to discover Narone’s body, and innocently informs the hospital staff that her “Grandpa is sleeping on the ceiling.”

With that score settled, Lucas (with the ghostly help of Merlyn) confronts his bastard son. Amidst the climactic battle, Lucas hoists Caleb overhead, preparing to toss him off the second floor landing. Merlyn pleads with Lucas to spare Caleb, but he insists there’s no other way. Caleb is sent flying, but Merlyn’s “body” breaks his fall. She winks out in the process, her essence filtering into Caleb and counteracting his nascent malice. Still, there might be more to this turn of events than meets the eye. When the recovered Caleb realizes that Merlyn is gone and wonders what he is going to do now, Lucas assures him (in the final line of the series), “I think we’ll get by.” As the screen fades to black, the viewer is left wondering if Lucas hasn’t just pulled off another one of his Machiavellian schemes, using the confrontation with Caleb as a means of getting rid of the perennially-interfering Merlyn once and for all.

At times during its single-season run, American Gothic suffered from a lack of continuity in its plotting and inconsistency in characterization (to me, the failure to ever clearly define the extent of Lucas’s powers was also a miscalculation). This show might not always have been sure where it was going, but for 22 episodes it did provide a fun ride for fans of the macabre. Week after week, American Gothic justified its show title, which is perhaps a large part of the reason the short-lived series remains such a cult favorite over two decades after its original broadcast.

 

 

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 13-17

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 13: “Resurrector”

Local shock jock Mel Kirby approaches the influential Sheriff Buck for help in moving from radio into television work, but when Lucas refuses to get involved, Mel vows to get even with him. An opportunity presents itself when the sheriff’s deputy, Ben, shoots Lance Biggs after the man fired on the postal carrier who was delivering bills to his home. Turns out that Biggs had owed Lucas money, so Mel uses his radio platform to (in Lucas’s words) “put a dark spin on this morning’s events.”

But give the devil his due: Lucas is not to be outdone when it comes to dirty dealing. With the help of his seductive sidekick Selena, Lucas convinces Mel that a brighter future awaits him: he can make a break into television, but only as a solo act. Mel will have to dump (i.e. kill off) his radio co-host wife Gloria. With that in mind, Mel takes Gloria out for a boat ride on Jackson Lake (only on American Gothic does a nighttime foray onto an eerie, fog-shrouded lake fit the notion of a romantic date). Unbeknownst to Mel, though, Gloria has already been warned by Lucas of her husband’s dishonorable intentions.

Meanwhile, Caleb–troubled by the lingering afterlife of his sister Merlyn–takes steps to release her from her earthly hauntings. Miss Holt, who runs the boarding house where Caleb lives, has a family scrapbook that contains the instructions for holding a “second funeral”–a “going-away party for the dead.” Caleb enlists the aid of his friend Boone, and when the former insists that they follow the directions exactly so as to adhere to old customs, the latter offers a distinctly Gothic counterpoint: “Burning people at the stake was an old custom, too.”

But the best line in the episode belongs to Lucas. When Mel realizes he’s been duped, he moans that he had only come to the sheriff for help. In response, Lucas flashes some of the grim wit that makes him such a wonderful hero-villain: “Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

 

Episode 14: “Inhumanitas”

American Gothic certainly justifies its show title with this fourteenth episode. “Inhumanitas” opens with Sheriff Lucas Buck and Father Tilden sitting in a church confessional. Lucas, though, isn’t there to articulate his various transgressions but to learn of the secret sins of Trinity’s populace. Father Tilden dishes the dirt on the townspeople, citing incidents of petty theft, unwanted pregnancy, and marital infidelity.  Lucas seeks “something [he] can use” in his personal dealings with the locals, and gets a surprisingly juicy tidbit when Tilden confides that Barbara Hudson puts nails in the street to keep cars from speeding by her house.

Corrupt religious figures are a familiar character type in Gothic narratives, and Tilden ties in to that tradition based on the bargain he has made with the devilish Lucas. In return for snitching on the penitent, Tilden gets the assurance that no harm will come to his church (which, as the sheriff recounts during the conversation in the confessional, has been “miraculously” spared from damage by a wildfire that ravaged the rest of the buildings on that block).

Macabre rendition of religious icons is another hallmark of the Gothic, and in this opening scene viewers watch a church statue come to life and take on the visage of Merlyn Temple. Merlyn has turned avenging angel in the hopes of saving her brother Caleb’s soul from Lucas.

Later in the episode, Lucas snuffs the life out of a Scripture-spouting Tilden by squeezing the crucifix from a set of the priest’s rosary beads in his fist. Tilden’s desperate prayer and the lack of protection provided by Christianity’s primary symbol recall the scene from the televised version of Salem’s Lot where Father Callahan is thwarted by the vampire Barlow.

Echoes of Psycho: as part of Merlyn’s terror campaign against the sheriff, she turns the water in his lover Selena’s shower bloody (the image of the dark fluid circling down the drain is unmistakably Hitchcockian).

As Lucas works his latest scheme against Barbara’s husband Brian, he remarks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the man could remove an unwanted tenant on his land by dismembering his body and burying him in the cellar–a course of action with which the narrators of certain Edgar Allan Poe stories would no doubt approve.

The episode’s most ominous note, though, is struck during the climactic confrontation between Lucas and Merlyn. The sheriff boasts of the dark power latent in his son Caleb, and warns that if he (Lucas) is killed, his evil spirit will flow straight inside the boy. “The child becomes the man,” and the Gothic theme of terrible inheritance is accordingly given a frightening twist.

 

Episode 15: “The Plague Sower”

In this episode, American Gothic hearkens back to the work of Charles Brockden Brown, by setting its story against a backdrop of terrible plague. A mysterious illness has been leveling the people of Trinity, who end up bleeding out from their mouth, eyes, and ears. Naturally, panic is burgeoning in the as-yet-uninfected, but Sheriff Lucas Buck tries to calm down the nervous masses by discounting the reports of bloody demise.
“In a small town,” he tells reporters and concerned citizens, “rumors can act like a cancer.”

Meantime, Lucas is using the situation to his advantage. When local hardware store owner A.E. Tippett comes to him complaining of bloody visions, Lucas offers to help the desperate man out–but only if Tippett will frame his own brother for the crime of vehicular homicide. Later, in a wonderfully ghoulish scene, Lucas moves to steal a plasma bag from a would-be transfusion recipient lying on a gurney in the hospital, just because the man had refused to do “business” with the sheriff in the past.

“The Plague Sower” is ripe with disturbing images, none more so than when Tippett falls victim to the bloodshed. A basic act of bathroom hygiene transforms into an uncanny incident:as Tippett brushes his teeth, the froth in his mouth is suddenly stained crimson, and what he ends up spitting into the sink looks like the product of the most gruesome case of gingivitis ever.

he source of all this Old-Testament-type unpleasantness? Merlyn Temple, in the role of avenging angel. Determined to protect the righteous and punish the wicked, she preys on anyone who has fallen in with the devilish Lucas (including her own lust-filled cousin Gail).

One minor but memorable moment from the episode perfectly captures the eponymous Gothicism of the series. Dr. Billy Peele, an investigator of the plague sent to Trinity from the CDC, goes door to door questioning the townspeople. When he asks one of the local yokels if he has noticed anything odd about his neighbors, the man’s superficially innocuous response rings with suggestiveness: “No, no more than usual.”

 

Episode 16: “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday”

“This is kind of a strange town, you know?”

These words from Dr. Billy Peele–a recent arrival in Trinity–perfectly capture the vibe of American Gothic. There’s no shortage of intrigue and lurking horror to be found in the bucolic Southern town, as evidenced by the episode “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday.”  When Judge Streeter declines to get involved in Lucas Buck’s latest scheme against Dr. Matt Crower (who has been digging up past nastiness by investigating Merlyn Temple’s death), the sheriff responds by using his devilish gifts to prey upon the gambling addiction of Streeter’s spouse, Charlotte. The desperate housewife (driven to attempt suicide) is discovered lying in a bloody bathtub by the judge after she loses big in a Lucas-influenced poker game.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Angela has come to town, claiming to be Lucas’s mother (she’s actually a jilted ex-lover) and aiming to assassinate the sheriff. When Dr. Matt jumps in to prevent the shooting, Angela is undeterred, working to manipulate the doctor into carrying out the deed himself. She argues that Lucas is “pure, otherworldly evil,” a supernatural equivalent of Hitler who needs to be snuffed out before he causes widespread suffering. The moralistic Dr. Matt is slowly convinced that Angela is right, but when his attempt to shoot down the sheriff fails, he earns himself an extended stay in a staple Gothic setting–an insane asylum.

Angela is dying of brain cancer, and has been admitted to a room in the local hospital. Conveniently enough, it’s the same room where Caleb Temple’s mom resided during the final days of her pregnancy. Room 105 is “cursed” (as the nurse Sarah tells Dr. Matt), plagued by inexplicable cold spots and presumably haunted by Mrs. Temple’s ghost. The nurse also relates that just prior to giving birth to Caleb, the distraught woman raved that someone was trying to take her baby away. Paging Ira Levin

The episode also makes reference to one of the founding fathers of American Gothic fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sitting with a book in hand in the boarding house parlor, Miss Holt tells Dr. Matt that she has chosen this particular author because reading Hawthorne is “like reading the human heart.”  No doubt there’s plenty of sin (secret, if not unpardonable) bound up in the hearts of Trinity’s constituents, and nowhere more voluminously than in the town’s duplicitous, corrupt(ing) law man.

 

Episode 17: “Learning to Crawl”

Despite being set primarily in a weathered cabin in the woods, “Learning to Crawl” is hardly the most Gothic installment of American Gothic. The episode does begin, though, with an instance of the sudden eruption of horror within everyday life, when Caleb is accidentally electrocuted and nearly killed while doing mundane chores down at the Sheriff’s Station.

Once Caleb survives the scare, Sheriff Lucas Buck takes the boy on a bass-fishing trip.  On the drive to the isolated cabin (located on the outskirts of a “ghost town”), Lucas entertains Caleb with a spook story about a monstrous cat haunting the Simpsonville woods. According to the yarning sheriff, the beast has never been seen, and is known only by the savage claw marks it has scored into trees.

The father-and-son team, however, run across a more natural nemesis upon arrival.  The cabin has been occupied by a trio of Capote-esque criminals who are holding a tobacco-company executive for ransom (and who end up killing the hostage in cold blood). These are ruthless folks, for sure, but they meet more than their match in Lucas, who calmly employs his devilish skills to manipulate the situation.

At one point during the standoff with the criminals, Lucas teaches Caleb a “visualization” technique. Caleb proceeds to imagine an outcome in which Jeri reunites with her brother-in-law Ted (with whom she’s been having an affair), but when the adulteress moves to embrace her lover she ends up kissing the bloody-mouthed corpse of her late husband Cody (whom she has recently gunned down). Subsequently, in an attempt to prey on Jeri’s fears, Caleb uses his nascent powers to terrorize her with the approach of the cat-monster from Lucas’s story. A scene of eerily lit woods (that seems to hearken back to the 1989 film Pet Sematary) ends with Jeri’s cheek clawed gorily open.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of “Learning to Crawl” is that the episode dramatizes the deepening bond between Lucas and Caleb and shows the former’s increasing tutelage of the latter. As the season-long run of American Gothic draws to a close, the storyline has started arcing towards what portends to be a dark climax.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 7-12

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 7: “Meet the Beetles”

The Gothicism of this episode is evident right from the opening, as Caleb and his friend Boone visit the ruins of the Temple house one foggy evening. When Caleb falls through a rotted floorboard, his foot gets caught inside the ribcage of a skeleton that seems to clutch at him as he thrashes.

“Meet the Beetles” also features several graveyard scenes. Caleb is perplexed by the discovery of a tombstone bearing his name (he dreams of digging up the grave, only to have his own undead self leap out at him). What’s actually buried here, though, is $30,000–a cash offering from Sheriff Buck to help get the orphaned Caleb started in life. Buck further tempts Caleb with the vision of building a “big old estate home” where the Temples’ house once stood (Buck now owns the land). The picture the sheriff paints–of luxuriating in a hammock while being weighed on by servants–calls to mind Thomas Sutpen’s obsession in the classic Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom!.

A good old Southern Gothic murder mystery forms the dark heart of the episode. Married men with rumored connections to Selena keep ending up dead, their corpses (though only days old) curiously stripped of skin and flesh. When the investigating Lt. Jack Drey (guest star Bruce Campbell) finds himself chained inside a makeshift coffin and covered with carnivorous beetles, his gruesome predicament firmly establishes “Meet the Beetles” as the most horrifying of American Gothic‘s first seven installments.

 

Episode 8: “Strong Arm of the Law”

The eighth episode of American Gothic opens with Caleb and his sidekick Boone sneaking up onto a porch at night to catch glimpse of a naked woman. The would-be voyeurs, though, are shocked to discover no bathing beauty but rather a group of pig-masked figures busy drowning a man in a tub.

Will Hawkins, the victim, had recently endorsed a rival candidate for the position of town sheriff, leading Deputy Ben to doubt that Hawkins’s death was a mere accident. Further suspicion falls on Lucas Buck when a band of lawless brothers arrive in Trinity and begin shaking down local business owners (under the flimsy pretense that they are collecting for charities such as the “Sheriff’s Retirement Home”). But Buck is not responsible for the presence of the criminal quartet, who have chosen the wrong Southern town to stir up trouble in. The Sheriff’s qualities as a Gothic hero-villain are never more evident than when he first smooth-talks the brothers (leading them to believe that he approves of their misbehavior), and then methodically takes vengeance against them. Justice is is chillingly dispensed: one brother, in Poe-esque fashion, ends up buried alive alongside Will Hawkins in the latter’s coffin. And the episode’s climax offers a scenario that prefigures the traps of the Saw films: Buck handcuffs two of the brothers together (one has been trapped inside a wrecked, overturned car), sticks a burning road flare inside the gas tank, then tosses the captives a knife and proposes that they try to free themselves by cutting off a hand at the wrist.

An exploding gas tank soon decides the matter for the hoodlums. Prior to meeting this grisly fate, the brothers had also run afoul of Caleb. Midway through the episode, they sneak into Caleb’s room in the boarding house, accosting him for making off with their suitcase full of stolen goods. The tables are turned, though, and Caleb ends up putting a scare into his visitors by unleashing a beastly roar. Caleb credits his (unseen) sister Merlyn with the supernatural assistance, but one can’t help but wonder if the boy (dubbed a “demon child” by one of the spooked brothers) is really infused with Buck’s ungodly powers.

 

Episode 9: “To Hell and Back”

The dashing Dr. Matt is forced to face the ugliness from his past when a drunken-driving accident involving a married couple in Trinity stirs the memory of the doctor’s tragic loss of his own wife and daughter. Naturally, the supernatural sheriff of Trinity, Lucas Buck, is the driving force behind the recent accident–part of a fiendish plot to send the doctor on a terrible guilt trip. The ever-tempting Buck then tries to detour Matt (a recovering alcoholic) from the road of sobriety by proffering a bottle and promising him “oblivion.”

Meanwhile, young Caleb fixates on his creepy neighbor Mr. Emmett (shades of Boo Radley), who is spied digging a conspicuously rectangular hole in his yard and howling the name “Omar” at the moon. To the impressionable Caleb (just returned from watching a horror movie), Mr. Emmett seems to be burying a dead body in his pumpkin patch. Caleb ultimately is proven right, but Mr. Emmett is not the nefarious figure he seems, as the episode emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality. This American Gothic theme is further sounded when Caleb’s cousin Gail tutors him about gardening: a plant with a sinister-sounding name like “snakeroot” isn’t actually poisonous, whereas “the ones with the pretty names, they can kill you.”

“To Hell and Back” ends on a seemingly heartwarming, all-dogs-go-to-heaven note, but Mr. Emmett’s love for, and loyalty toward, his deceased pet is overshadowed by the act of small-town malice that caused the canine’s death in the first place: someone put lye in Omar’s food!

Once again, the small details form a large part of American Gothic‘s allure: as Dr. Matt experiences a ghostly flashback to the scene of his family’s car accident, the audience is given a close-up of a Massachusetts license plate lined with the phrase “The Spirit of America.” Of course, in the context of this television series, that slogan connotes much more than patriotic pride.

 

Episode 10: “The Beast Within”

This tenth episode (in terms of narrative sequence, not air date) of American Gothic opens and closes with an eerie dream scene. Caleb moves down a long corridor lined with cells (arms stretch ghoulishly through the bars). The boy is drawn by a shirtless prisoner’s cries of “Father!” Caleb’s path to the prisoner is cut off by the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure (whom the viewer readily suspects is Sheriff Lucas Buck). This figure flashes a razor blade that is then passed to the prisoner, who promptly uses it to make a bloody incision in his own belly. Such events no doubt are the stuff of nightmare, but the setting here is what proves most striking to me: the Dark Tunnel has long been a topos of Gothic literature (cf. the catacombs in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the site of Hannibal Lector’s imprisonment in The Silence of the Lambs).

The plot of the episode centers on a hostage crisis that lands Caleb, his cousin Gail, Lucas, and Dr. Matt in hospital room with a gun-wielding escapee from the psych ward of a nearby military base. Complicating matters further is the fact that this man Artie (the prisoner from Caleb’s dream) also happens to be Deputy Ben’s brother. The horrors of warfare seem to have left Artie mentally unbalanced, but in true Gothic fashion, the man is also haunted by an incident from his distant past. While on a hunting trip as a child, he accidentally shot and killed his father.

In its very title, this episode conjures a lycanthropic image and brings to mind the Gothic theme of split identity that traces back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the most obvious level, the hidden beast here is the makeshift bomb that the munitions expert Artie has sewn inside his stomach. But “beast” also has infernal overtones, and thus the episode title can be seen to point to Lucas’s devilish presence inside the hospital room (we soon discover that the sheriff has orchestrated the entire hostage drama for his own nefarious purposes). At one point during the crisis Lucas admits to never carrying a gun (because shooting wouldn’t give the lawman a chance to impart a lesson to his antagonist), causing a sarcastic Gail to inquire if his demeanor should be perceived as an act of pacifism. “No ma’am,” Lucas bluntly replies. “You should view it as an act of seduction.” Never has the sheriff given stronger clue to his sinister nature; Lucas also marks his own dangerous duality as a Gothic hero-villain, hinting at the harm that’s always lurking behind his charm.

 

Episode 11: “Rebirth”

Initially, the premise of “Rebirth” makes it seem like an episode of The Ghost Whisperer rather than the grim fare the audience has come to expect from American Gothic. Tired of her angelic afterlife–of her inability to touch or feel anything when she makes her visitations to her brother Caleb–Merlyn works to take on corporeal form once again. She manages to reincarnate, assumes a new identity (“Halle Monroe”), revels in the joys of earthly existence, and even experiences love for the first time.

But all is not as saccharine as this synopsis might make seem. Early in the episode, Caleb is shown to be a lonesome object of derision, as a group of teens taunt him about his ignominious family history. Caleb has been tainted by the scandal surrounding the Temples, and observing his mistreatment, Merlyn appears to him lamenting that “It’s the sins of the Father, and it ain’t right.” This notion of generational plague is a recurrent theme in Gothic narratives.

Other Gothic trappings are also evident in “Rebirth”–literally, Ray (the motorcycle-riding local with whom Merlyn falls in love) is entrapped in a police cruiser when Sheriff Buck uses his powers to lock the innocent young man inside the vehicle on a suffocatingly hot afternoon. The episode also offers a bit of Poe-esque grotesquerie when Buck forces Ray to dig up Merlyn’s grave and discover that his dearly beloved girl has already departed. We are only given brief glimpse of Merlyn in decomposing repose, but it is no doubt a haunting image.

Buck, seeing through the “Halle” disguise,” eventually confronts Merlyn. He doesn’t seek to banish her, though. Instead, he encourages her to continue on frolicking in fleshly form. But Merlyn knows enough about Buck to recognize devilish temptation: she has returned to life by borrowing the spirit of a pregnant woman’s child, and if she doesn’t return that vital force to its rightful owner, the child will die before it has a chance to be born (perhaps killing the mother in the process). Rather than committing “the ultimate sin,” and losing Caleb’s faith in her in the process, Merlyn chooses to take a suicide dive off the side of a bridge. And so for the second time in the first half-season of the series, Merlyn suffers a shocking death.

 

Episode 12: “Ring of Fire”

The title of this episode might echo that of a Johnny Cash song, but on American Gothic Sheriff Lucas Buck is the ultimate Man in Black.

“Ring of Fire” (which never aired during the series’ single-season run) focuses on Gail’s quest to solve the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths years earlier in a fire at their newspaper office. Suspecting none other than Lucas Buck (whom Gail’s parents had been investigating at the time) to be the fatal firebug, Gail breaks into the sheriff’s home. Hoping to dig up some dirt, she finds a remarkably clean and modernly furnished residence, albeit one with some bits of macabre decor thrown into into the mix: a gargoyle squatting over the front doorway, a dark stone statue in the foyer, a stuffed raven and an occult tome on a table.

As Gail grows more preoccupied by her search for answers, she suffers a nightmare that makes the shocking final scene from Carrie seem tame by comparison. She envisions herself visiting her parents’ grave site on a bright, sunny day, only to have the pair of moldering corpses suddenly rip through the ground and demand that she avenge their murder.

Effusing his trademark seductive charm, Lucas offers to lead Gail to the truth (provided that she agree to welcome his future sexual advances). Gail grudgingly agrees, and quickly regrets the decision. The sheriff forewarned her that “no one’s exactly who they appear to be,” but Gail learns that lesson the hard way. She discovers (via Lucas-facilitated flashbacks) that the childhood she recalls as idyllic was actually anything but. Her father was guilty of both spousal abuse and sadistic violence towards his own daughter (apparently Gail had repressed the memory of how she got that burn mark on her arm). Even more sordid details emerge: at the time of her death Gail’s mother was pregnant with a child conceived during an extramarital affair with Gage Temple (father of Gail’s cousin Caleb!). Gage was also the arsonist who ended up killing both Christine and Peter Emory (not realizing that his lover was still inside the office with her wretch of a husband when he set fire to it).

At the start of “Ring of Fire,” a librarian tells Gail that “the secret history of the South is hidden in blood. Genealogy. Family.” It’s a distinctly Faulknerian sentiment, one that bookends with a comment Lucas makes later in the episode. In absolute echo of Absalom, Absalom!, Lucas observes: “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even the past.” His words strike at one of the most central themes of the Gothic: the haunting and harrying impingement of prior history on the present moment.

The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 1-6

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 1: (Pilot)

The opening-credits sequence features a voiceover from Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Even as he discourses about the American Dream, Buck strikes an ominous note: “For those who follow my lead, life can be a paradise.  But for those who don’t, it can be a mighty rough road.” Apparently this sheriff wields plenty of influence in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, and has no qualms about abusing his power.

In the first scene (set in an isolated rural home), protagonist Caleb Temple is trying to celebrate his tenth birthday, but his father Gage spoils the paltry party. Incensed by his daughter Merlyn’s ceaseless chanting (“Someone’s at the door”), he proceeds to attack her with a shovel. The 16-year-old Merlyn has been traumatized into an autistic-type state by something she witnessed a decade earlier (and which is revealed at episode’s end: the rape of her mother by Buck).

Gage is obviously not in his right mind, and later claims that his violent actions were somehow directed by the nefarious sheriff. Perhaps the accusation is not that far-fetched, considering that Buck is the one who finishes off the wounded Merlyn by breaking her neck. Mercy killing or sinister murder? The ambiguity here points to the duality of the Buck’s character. At once charming and chilling, he is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain.

Duplicity is a trait displayed by other characters as well. By day, Selena Coombs is a sweet-seeming grade school teacher; by night, she’s a cunning nympho in cahoots with Lucas Buck.

American Gothic sports a heap of dead relatives and skeletons in the proverbial closet. Dr. Crower, an alcoholic, has lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Caleb’s cousin Gail was orphaned when a fire (deliberately set?) claimed the lives of both her parents. And Caleb’s mother ostensibly committed suicide ten years earlier by jumping out a window (or was she pushed by Buck, who was there at the time?).

The most memorable moment from the first episode finds Buck whistling the theme music to The Andy Griffith Show while approaching Gage’s jail cell (where he then tries to force the man to sign documents granting the sheriff legal custody of Caleb). The parodic whistling serves as the perfect indicator that Trinity is no bucolic Southern town–it’s Mayberry with a very dark underbelly.

 

Episode 2: “A Tree Grows in Trinity”

The second episode of the series draws on a pair of Gothic hallmarks: fearful flight and cruel imprisonment. “A Tree Grows in Trinity” picks up where the series premiere left off: with Caleb on the run from Sheriff Lucas Buck (after setting his own house on fire to escape him). Caleb’s desperate exodus leads him first into a cornfield, where he almost collides with a decidedly devilish scarecrow.

Eventually Caleb hides out in an abandoned hunting lodge, but is shocked to find that the place is already occupied. What at first seems a monstrous figure is actually a tied-up, traumatized man. As the episode unfolds, viewers learn that this is Rafael Santo, a Miami reporter who has been missing for months after coming to Trinity to investigate the “Bermuda Triangle of tourism.” He is now held captive in the lodge after running afoul of Lucas. Perhaps even worse, he serves as the personal sex slave for the sheriff’s lascivious sidekick Selena.

Coroner Curtis Webb is engaged by Lucas to perform a rudimentary autopsy of Caleb’s sister Merlyn (and to ignore the evidence that the girl died at the sheriff’s hand). The ghostly Merlyn, though, opposes such machinations, dubbing Webb’s tape recordings with the message “Someone’s at the door.” She also freaks out the coroner when her corpse’s head (now wide-eyed and turned to the side) somehow appears out from under the sheet that had been covering it. Merlyn’s final touch is the bloody injunction scrawled on the autopsy room door: “Don’t bury the truth.”

Buck later expresses his displeasure with the coroner’s handling of the autopsy by leaving the severed head of Webb’s pet goat Eli inside the refrigerator stationed on the front porch of the family home–a sinister riff on a memorable scene from The Godfather.

The episode, though, best lives up to the show’s title in the scene where Caleb spies a pair of cemetery caretakers arranging the wooden markers at the graves of his father and sister. Teapot and her daddy Harlan are quintessential hicks, in both costume and demeanor. Harlan jokes about the adjacent burials (“Just because he killed her don’t mean they can’t share the same worms”), and the chortling, overalls-wearing Teapot teases her daddy about his misspelling on Gage’s grave marker (“REST IN PEASE”). American Gothic seems quite conscious of its art-world namesake here, as the figures of Teapot and Harlan could have stepped right out of a Grant Wood painting. All that’s missing from the scene is the iconic hay-fork, and it would be no real surprise (based on the way the series has developed thus far) to see such a tool used pointedly in a future episode.

 

Episode 3: “Eye of the Beholder”

In the third episode of the series, Lucas shows just what a devilish Buck he is, going to ungodly lengths to make sure he is appointed Caleb’s legal guardian. First, the sheriff tries to discredit Dr. Crower (with whom Caleb wants to stay) by causing a patient to have an epileptic seizure while on the operating table for a simple gall-bladder procedure. Then Lucas coerces anesthesiologist Dan Truelane to speak against Crower at the upcoming custody hearing by acknowledging the doctor’s past drinking problems.

The two-faced Lucas sends an ostensible wedding present to Dan and his recent bride Cheryl, but the ornate looking glass he gifts them with has some supernatural qualities. Cheryl ends up enthralled by her reflection, and turns uncharacteristically libidinous. The sheriff assures Dan that he will get his old wife back if he does he part to support Lucas’s case at the hearing. Unable to bear Cheryl’s strange behavior, though, Dan destroys the mirror in a fit of fury–and Cheryl’s own face is somehow simultaneously disfigured (shades of Dorian Gray).

Having also worked his charm with Judge Halpern, Lucas figures the custody hearing is guaranteed to be decided in his favor. But the judge throws him a curveball by decreeing that Caleb will go live at Loris Holt’s boarding house (a multi-storied manse that happens to built on an old graveyard). Incensed by this turn of events, Lucas warns of retribution. Soon thereafter, Halpern drops dead after spotting a raven peering in his window. This judge will be presiding in Trinity nevermore.

“Eye of the Beholder” captures one of the essential elements of the American Gothic: the disparity between public persona and private nature, between surface appearance and ulterior motive. Lucas might strike a good ol’ boy pose, but he’s really bad news for the townspeople. And his determination to bring Caleb under his wing hardly stems from altruism; he’s carrying out a personal agenda rather than performing a civic duty. God help Caleb if he ever ends up raised in the sheriff’s sinister image.

 

Episode 4: “Damned if You Don’t”

In this fourth episode (with a fatalistic title pointing to the no-win situations that Sheriff Buck presents to the townspeople of Trinity), American Gothic once again proves that is well aware of its literary heritage. The episode introduces “Wash Sutpen,” whose first and last names harken back to the characters of Wash Jones and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!. The echoing of Faulkner’s novel continues with the revelation that Wash Sutpen murdered the “fellow who was taking liberties” with his teenage daughter–recalling Wash Jones’s scything of Thomas Sutpen after the latter insults the honor of Jones’s daughter Milly. Actually, though, Wash Sutpen has gunned down the wrong man; the real culprit was his employee Carter Bowen, who takes over Sutpen’s junkyard business when the latter is sent to jail (how’s that for small-town intrigue?). At the time of Wash Sutpen’s violent outburst, Sheriff Buck helped cover up Carter’s lechery; now he expects a favor in return (he wants to hire Carter’s sexy 15-year-old daughter as a personal assistant). When Carter refuses,the Machiavellian Buck reintroduces (the allegedly paroled) Wash Sutpen to Carter’s family.

The Bowen junkyard is like an automotive graveyard, with rusted hulks (including, fittingly, a hearse) littering the grounds. While visiting the place, Gail Emory stumbles upon the Gothic ruin once driven by her late parents. Ever since returning to Trinity, Gail–a reporter by trade–has been determined to look into the circumstances surrounding her folks’ deaths years earlier, and when she proceeds here to search the abandoned vehicle, she discovers a mysterious key inside a magnetized box adhered beneath the glove compartment.

The battle between good and evil is one of the show’s most overt themes, but American Gothic also makes its points in more subtle ways.  In the cleverly-arranged closing scene of “Damned If You Don’t,” Sheriff Buck stands in the junkyard orchestrating his latest devilish deal. A derelict bus looms over his shoulder in the background, and the one-word sign above the back window makes clear the type of service this vehicle once provided. This was once a “CHURCH” bus, but its days of transporting the faithful throughout Trinity have long since passed.

 

Episode 5: “Dead to the World”

The fifth episode of the series presents three different storylines. First, Caleb prepares to enter an archery competition at a local carnival. As always, Sheriff Buck insinuates himself in Caleb’s affairs, buying him a state-of-the-art bow & arrow and instructing him about the use of psychological warfare. “It’s not who you are, it’s who people think you are,” the sheriff tells the boy. He’s lecturing about having swagger, but Buck also sounds the American Gothic theme of duplicity–the gap between appearance and reality, public persona and inner character. Meanwhile, Buck’s lover Selena prevents Boone Mackenzie (Caleb’s best friend and chief rival in the competition) from practicing his archery by keeping him after school under the pretense that he needs to work on his penmanship. You know matters have really gotten sordid when even your grade-school teacher has a hidden agenda.

In the second storyline, Deputy Ben deals with some domestic strife involving his ex-wife and young son. Barbara Joy is physically abused by her current husband Waylon Flood, who also bullies his stepson. Ben tries to deal with the tyrant man-to-man, but Sheriff Buck tilts the playing field by using his powers to force the cabinet maker to fall onto his own table saw.

The main thrust of the episode, though, comes from Gail’s investigation of the seeming murder of her former childhood friend Holly Gallagher by Buck. The flashback scene opening the episode shows Buck deliberately driving Holly’s car off a bridge after she threatens to expose his “dirty little secret”–the fact that he is Caleb’s real father (Holly works at the hospital where Caleb’s mom died, and she assists her boyfriend Buck by stealing the file containing Caleb’s birth record). But as Gail digs up the ten-year-old dirt (and literally has Holly’s rusted vehicle dredged up from the river bottom), she discovers that Holly didn’t die in the accident. Having suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation when the car went underwater, Holly has been hidden away in a sanitarium for the past decade. Her mother Janice, a cosmetics saleswoman, has quite a gift for concealment. Unwilling to accept that her “perfect little girl” is now an invalid, Janice (with Buck’s help) leads the townspeople of Trinity to believe that Holly died tragically. Talk about dirty little secrets…

 

Episode 6: “Potato Boy”

This episode of American Gothic actually never aired during the show’s 1995 run, perhaps because it is rife with sexual innuendo (a lonesome Selena gets frisky with ten-year-old Caleb during an after-school lesson in her apartment). Also, religion is debased throughout: a dead bug floats belly-up in a basin of holy water; a church looks like the setting for a splatter movie after a priest spills blood-red wine all over during communion; Sheriff Buck (providing voiceover) also wonders if one the prim and proper churchgoers is “a screamer or a squealer.” Yet anyone who has read The Monk knows that the negative portrayal of religion is a traditional feature of the Gothic.

The Potato Boy of the episode’s title is a Boo Radley-type bogey that has captured the imagination of Trinity’s children. Rumor has it that the boy is the bastard child of creepy Old Man Warren and the young woman he imprisoned and impregnated. She died delivering him, since the boy allegedly weighed 30 pounds at birth  He was also wretchedly deformed (no eyes; giant claws for hands) and thus has been kept locked away in the moldering Warren house ever since. Turns out, the Potato Boy is inside, and he is disfigured, but he has a beautiful soul. In another example of the episode’s coupling of religion and the grotesque, the Potato Boy is given an angelic voice (which he uses to belt out church hymns).

The episode shows that Trinity is populated with secret sinners. The school teacher is a harlot; the local psychiatrist is a pedophile; the priest is a dope fiend (who doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to Christian forgiveness: he’s disowned his wanton daughter, Selena, banishing her from his church [how a priest has come to have a daughter is a question the episode skirts]). And of course, the sheriff is the most duplicitous figure of all. But give the devil his due: Lucas Buck makes a good point when he advises Caleb, “Be careful what you see in a man’s eyes. It might not be the truth.” In Trinity, South Carolina, the windows to the soul tend to be darkly shaded.

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #5-#1

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 5-1 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

5. “The Rifle”

Ketchum’s 1996 tale (the lead story in the collection Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a divorced mother finding the eponymous firearm (which her ten-year-old son Danny has stolen from his grandfather’s farm) hidden in a bedroom closet, “unexpected as a snake.” Danny has always been a troubled and troublemaking child (e.g., “stealing Milky Ways from the Pathmark Store”; “the fire he and Billy Berendt had set, yet denied they’d set, in the field behind the Catholic Church last year”). The “shrinks” and “counselors” his mom has already sent him to haven’t really been able to help. And now, with the theft of the rifle–and the loading of it with one of the shells he’d similarly purloined–Danny has gone too far.

Irate, the mother treks through the woods behind her home to confront Danny with this indisputable evidence of his bad behavior. One of the key reasons the mother purchased her property was because she wanted her son to be close to the natural world and to learn from it (“Birth, death, sex, the renewal of the land, its fragility and its power, the chaos inside the order, the changes in people that came with the change of seasons”), but mom has no idea of the perversion/despoiling of nature she is about to uncover. When she confronts Danny about the rifle, she notices “something furtive” about him; he doesn’t seem to want her to see inside the converted root cellar that serves as his clubhouse. Forcing him to unlock his private sanctuary, the mother makes a horrific discovery:

She reached down and threw open one door and then the other and the first thing that hit her was the smell even with her sinus problem, the smell was rank and old and horrible beyond belief, and the second thing was the incredible clutter of rags and jars and buckets on the floor and the third was what she saw on the walls, hanging there from masonry nails pounded into the fieldstone, hung like decorations, like trophies, like the galleries she’d seen in castles in Scotland and England on her honeymoon and which were hunter’s galleries. A boy’s awful parody of that.

Spotting this bloody tableau of animal torture, the mother is struck with a “stunning terror” of Danny, “[o]f this little boy who didn’t even weigh ninety pounds yet.” Worse, she realizes not just what Danny is but “what he would become.” For his is the classic behavior of a nascent maniac, a serial killer in the making, and people like him “did not respond to treatment.” Seeing in Danny’s cold gaze that “there was nothing to save in his nature,” the mother abruptly raises the rifle and fires a killing shot into the boy’s left eye.

Exhibiting the toughest love, the mother makes a preemptive strike in defense of society’s innocents. But the woman (who locks up the root cellar Danny has fallen back into, and plans to report the boy as missing) has achieved anything but closure. Going forward, she’ll be forced to wonder, “How had it happened?” How had Danny turned out so wrong? Here the narrative turns to the natural calendar to form one of the finest closing sentences in the Ketchum canon: “It was a question she would ask herself, she thought, for a great many seasons after, as spring plunged into sweltering summer, as fall turned to winter again and the coldness of heart and mind set in for its long terrible duration.”

In his Introduction to Peaceable Kingdom, Ketchum notes that author “Peter Straub once paid me the compliment of saying that he thought a lot of people came to my writing for the wrong reasons but stuck with me for the right ones.” “The Rifle” perhaps forms the perfect case in point. Hearing that the story focuses on a sick kid given to animal mutilation, readers might expect to encounter depictions of grisly violence, which are in fact present (“Like the turtle the cats were nailed through all fours. [Danny] had eviscerated both of them and looped their entrails around them and nailed the entrails to the walls at intervals so that the cat’s were at the center of a kind of crude bull’s eye.”). Still, it is the realism of natural setting and human psyche, the dramatization of the emotional anguish of a struggling mother, that makes “The Rifle” such a powerful and unforgettable short story.

 

4. “Elusive”

“The first time Kovelant stood in line for Sleepdirt was just before Halloween.” So begins Jack Ketchum’s 2007 short story “Elusive” (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), which creates an instant sense of suspense. The designation “first time” suggests further times after that, and the reader wonders why Kovelant is so compelled to see the horror film. Is it simply that damned good, or has something prevented him from watching it each time he attempted to attend a screening?

That first night in late October, Kovelant finds himself subjected to a cold rain while standing on line, and decides a free ticket to a preview screening isn’t worth the risk of catching pneumonia. The second time he tries to catch Sleepdirt, every showing is sold out at his local theater. An understandable development, especially considering the rave reviews the movie has received from critics. But matters take a turn for the weird thereafter: when Kovelant actually makes it inside a theater, he is stuck by a shooting pain (“an electric eel squirming throughout the entire right side of his body”) as inexplicable as it is abrupt, and one that forces him to abort the outing. By the time he recovers, the film is no longer in theaters, and when Kovelant subsequently tries to watch it at home on his VCR, the cassette tape is mangled by the machine. Then his TV set promptly dies before he can watch another rented tape…

Meantime, the strangeness is compounded by all the odd looks of apparent recognition that Kovelant keeps getting from random people on the street. Finally, the clerk working the check-out at Tower Video informs Kovelant that he is a dead ringer for one of the actors in Sleepdirt, a man who has a small part but makes a big impression via his “amazing death scene.” When Kovelant later discusses this alleged resemblance, and his own frustrated attempts to view the film, with his married lover Maggie, the latter brings up the idea that just as a person can’t observe his or her own death in a dream (always waking up first by necessity), Kovelant “can’t see the movie because you can’t see yourself die in it. I mean, maybe in some way it is you. Not some look-alike.” Kovelant scoffs at the theory, but welcomes Maggie’s offer to watch the film for him. In their follow-up phone conversation, Maggie testifies that the actor uncannily matches Kovelant in both physical looks and mannerisms, and that his death scene is brutal, but before she can share the specific nature of the demise, the phone line (you guessed it) goes dead.

Equally chagrined and obsessed, Kovelant takes matter into his own hands by going out and scooping up dozens of rental and purchases copies of Sleepdirt on VHS and DVD. “Gotcha now you sonovabitch,” Kovelant thinks, but as he walks across Broadway in New York City the bottom drops out of his shopping bag. The scene cuts away with Kovelant stooping to retrieve the spilled contents, but when Ketchum writes that the tapes and DVDs have “clattered to the pavement like a fallen sack of dry old bones,” the reader knows fatality looms.

The final section of the story finds Maggie fixated on Sleepdirt. When her husband Richard expresses disbelief that she is watching such a disgusting film again, Maggie’s reply unwittingly reveals the horrid end of the hapless Kovelant: “It’s a horror movie. It’s supposed to be scary and disgusting. But when’s the last time you saw somebody who looks exactly like somebody you know get his head torn off by a New York City bus? In slo-mo no less.”

Ketchum, a chip off old mentor Robert Bloch, is at his grimly-humorous best here in “Elusive” (as the author notes in his afterword to the story, the title “Sleepdirt” was borrowed from a Frank Zappa album and stands as “a euphemism for the contents of your nightly bedpan”). But what makes the piece so entertaining is not just the various ways in which Kovelant is stymied in his viewing quest but also the elusiveness of ultimate explanation for such events. Is Kovelant simply the victim of tempted fate, someone who bucked up against some intractable universal law by trying to ogle his own doomed doppelganger? Perhaps, but there could also be something sinister in the production of Sleepdirt itself. Appropriately, “Elusive” concludes with Maggie wondering “how in hell [the filmmakers] got that scene,” just as the reader (who, unlike Maggie, already knows what has happened to Kovelant) is forced to question how the movie was able to proleptically capture the non-actor’s death. “Blacker than black!” a New York Post review blurb of Sleepdirt is quoted early in the story, and the same can be said for both the humor and the horror of this superb Ketchum effort.

 

3. “Chain Letter”

This 1998 short story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) enthralls from its very first lines. Riddled with puzzlement and unease, the reader wonders why protagonist Alfred so anxiously awaits the daily delivery of the mail. Furthermore, what’s the significance of Alfred’s dream about first bullying a cab driver and then flagellating himself with sticks spiked with rusty nails? The dark suspense only intensifies when Alfred decides to take a walk into town, and spots a series of roadside atrocities: the body of a long-dead and bird-scavenged child; “a horse with a bullet in its brain“; a group of small boys in the midst of  “nailing a woman to a barn” and beating “her with thin birch switched about the face and head.”  And perhaps most perplexing of all: why does the receipt of something so banal as a chain letter render a “decent enough guy” like the character Henley automatically untrustworthy? (“Now what have you got. Another bloody butcher. Either that or he’ll be having second thoughts or regrets or whatever and he’ll sit himself in a corner somewhere and wait for the brains to crawl on out of him.”)

The violent chaos gripping the town links back to the titular piece of mail, but Ketchum reveals this only gradually to readers, starting with a discussion at the local cafe between Alfred and his friend Jamie. During the course of their conversation, Jamie shows that he has strong thoughts on the subject of the kind of man it will take to put a stop to the sinister missive:

Some fucking lunatic. Somebody tired, disgusted. No promethean, you can bet on that. Somebody without the stomach for it, without the imagination–I figure suicide is about lack of imagination. Somebody missing the urge to make use of all that permission.

That somebody could turn out to be Alfred, who returns home to discover the dreaded envelope waiting for him. The letter inside reads: “The aforesigned pass on to you all responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future. We deem this the highest honor, the highest challenge…” To reject this responsibility, the recipient merely has to “add a new name to the space provided beneath your own. Be sure to check the list thoroughly to see that you do not repeat any name already entered above…” The conclusion of the letter suggests a twisted religious origin: “Declared by the will of God and the First Congress of Faith, Abraham White, founder. All bless.”

“It’s the old, old concept of sin-eater again, only more extreme,” Alfred thinks, the line forming an apt gloss on Ketchum’s hardcore-horror variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” And with this one also recognizes why Ketchum chose to alternate sections written from Alfred’s first-person perspective with italicized sections written in the third person: structure reinforces theme, as notions of self and other (apropos of the symbolic ingestion of external guilt) are melded together.

Alfred truly struggles with the decision of how to respond to the letter: “Do I send the letter to somebody I love or somebody I hate? Do I spare those I love the pain of waiting or take the chance that the letter might miss them entirely, as unlikely as that seems?”
He realizes that ending the chain requires a “martyr, a brand new Christ” committed to suffering the “worst death imaginable.” Alfred psyches himself into being that figure by imagining various acts of horrific self-wounding. The extended sequence (e.g. “But first the genitals should be torn away and the teeth smashed and swallowed, one should have to throw oneself against a wall or table until the backbone cracks and the skull is fractured, long sharp knives one should shove up one’s ass, the nose must be severed, the nipples burned black”) of spectacular havoc forms what is without a doubt one of the most cringe-inducing passages Ketchum has ever penned.

One has to wonder whether Alfred is spurred by an irrepressible masochistic streak or sheer disgust with the society surrounding him. Alfred admits he has “no faith” that anyone else will move to end the cycle of violence, and expresses his disdain for the fellow townspeople who hide behind “the names, the writing, the ordinary symbols” (by using “an odd but commonplace form letter,” one probably dreamt up in some “grey office building” or “grim bar,” as a convenient excuse for indulging uncivilized impulses). By mapping out (and carrying out) “a death commensurate with the crime, the one really emphatic death amid all these careless neutral ones” that his murderous friends and neighbors have caused, Alfred hopes to send a “personal message” to his peers: “You’re full of shit, every one of you. I’m about to prove it.” These closing lines constitute yet another potent clincher to a Ketchum tale, with “full of shit” doubling both as slang for disingenuousness (Alfred puts little stock in people’s proclamations of what they would do if they received the chain letter) and a more literal account of the inner filth saturating the townspeople. By accepting the role of sin-eater and subjecting himself to a gruesome martyrdom, Alfred gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “scathing critique.”

 

2. “Closing Time”

The fact that “Closing Time” (2003) is collected in both Peaceable Kingdom and (obviously) Closing Time and Other Stories is a strong indication of the novelette’s stature.The piece is at once a heartbreaking love story (centering on the turbulent relationship of Claire and her already-married paramour David) and a heart-pounding tale of suspense (as the protagonists cross paths with a sadistic criminal). Set in New York City in October and early November of 2001, the narrative also uses the World Trade Center disaster as a literal and thematic backdrop (Ketchum peppers poignant details throughout: “the smell of burning” and “the strange sad New York silence”; the “thick brown-white dust [that] lay everywhere”; the “windows filled with appeals for information on the missing”; Claire’s observation that “Even if you’d lost nobody close to you, you’d still lost something”).

Yet Ketchum’s concern is not with al-Qaeda but a local, small-scale operative: a Caucasian native New Yorker who graduates from armed robbery (he preys on the City’s bars just before they shut down for the night) to physical and psychological torment of his victims. Though he carries a gun, the unnamed villain considers
“surprise and fear” his real weapons. He performs “shock therapy” on those he robs, ostensibly so that they will end up too frazzled to remember his features (when he holds up bartender Claire, he thinks: “Time to put the fear of God into the bitch and see if she remembered anything but fear after that”). And he goes a long way towards accomplishing this by forcing Claire into a dangerous game involving splayed fingers and the bar-top spindle normally used as a spike for checks.

As vociferous as he is merciless in his terrorizing, the man proclaims that “after me you’ll never feel safe again, Claire. Never. Not at work, not at home. Nowhere.” One has to wonder just how much of this is playacting, and how much the transferal of his own anxieties (after watching the endless news reports about the anthrax scare, he decides to use tossed talcum powder as a further means of unnerving his targets). Despite his dismissal of current events (he “strictly worked ground floor,” doing “what he always did. Plain old-fashioned armed robbery”), the man seems to have been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks. He is no garden-variety psycho, but rather a criminal with a twisted philosophical outlook (reminiscent of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”): “He can see she knows a truth he’s known all along, that there is no help in this world, that what will happen will happen and no amount of pleading to god or jesus or to the milk of human kindness will get you any goddamn where at all.” The events of 9/11 could have done nothing to help the existential angst this man suffers.

The narrative builds incredible suspense as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the terrorist’s manipulation of Claire and of (now-ex-boyfriend) David’s journey to seek out Claire at work. Perhaps David will arrive in time to rescue his beloved from harm, but then again, a Ketchum story isn’t likely to end without casualties. “There could be no good ending to this,” David thinks of his decision to visit Claire after she begged him to stay away, and David’s thought proves terribly prophetic. An earlier passing line about “the perversity of incident and chance” also resonates in the bloody and devastating climax.

In his afterword to “Closing Time,” Ketchum cites the novelette as “the most bleak and hopeless piece” he’s ever produced. Yet it is also a shining example of the author’s ability to create lifelike, recognizable characters (whose dire circumstances become that much more compelling because of such realism). Without a doubt, Ketchum’s self-described tale of “irreversible, irretrievable loss” is the gain of readers everywhere.

 

1. “Gone”

What happens when the writer whom Stephen King hailed as “the scariest guy in America” turns his attention to Halloween? Answer: the top spot in the countdown of Jack Ketchum works of short fiction is secured.

“Gone” (2000; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) reworks the tropes of the classic Halloween spook story, as it features a shunned house (which “seemed to have PLAGUE painted on the door”) and its lone occupant (“the lady down the block,” who parents warn their kids about). The woman–who at the start of the story wonders, “What am I? The wicked old witch from Hansel and Gretel?”–is eager to lure children to her doorstep with the promise of candy, but she’s no wicked crone, just a deeply wounded individual. Helen Teal (a shade of blue, appropriately) is still grieving, still wallowing in despair five years after “the less than three minutes that changed everything.” It should have been “a simple event, an inconsequential event” when Helen ran back into the 7-11 for the newspaper she forgot to purchase. But when comes back out, she discovers that her three-year-old daughter has been snatched from the parked car where she’d been left waiting. And with that devastating disappearance, “Helen Teal, nee Mazik, went from pre-school teacher, homemaker, wife and mother to the three p‘s–psychoanalysis, Prozac, and paralysis.”

Growing steadily drunker and more depressed, Helen is about to shut off her porch light when her doorbell rings. The sight of the trick-or-treaters she has anxiously awaited (in her yearning for contact with children) immediately lifts Helen’s spirits: “the night’s thrill–its enchantment even–was suddenly there for her.” Yet the story also takes pain to remind us that Halloween has since lost its innocence (“Nobody came in[side] anymore. The days for bobbing for apples were long over.”), and Helen is about to get more than she bargained for in the candy-begging transaction. One of the trio of masked young siblings tears open Helen’s internal wounds when he bluntly asks if she’s her: “The lady who lost her baby? The little girl?” The boy’s question, though, is not simply the product of a child’s clumsy curiosity. Ketchum has another trick up his Halloween sleeve, as revealed in one of his patented single-sentence paragraphs that leaves readers as breathless as a sucker punch to the gut:

They turned away and headed slowly down the stairs and she almost asked them to wait, to stay a moment, for what reason and to what end she didn’t know but that would be silly and awful too, no reason to put them through her pain, they were just kids, children, they were just asking a question the way children did sometimes, oblivious to its consequences and it would be wrong to say anything further, so she began to close the door and almost didn’t hear him turn to his sister and say, too bad they wouldn’t let her out tonight, hunh? too bad they never do in a low voice but loud enough to register but at first it didn’t register, not quite, as though the words held no meaning, as though the words were some strange rebus she could not immediately master, not until after she’d closed the door and then finally when they impacted her like grapeshot, she flung open the door and ran screaming down the stairs into the empty street.

Apparently Alice is alive and being held somewhere nearby, but the trio of trick-or-treaters who might lead Helen to her have already “vanished back into nowhere,” carrying off not just a load of candy bars but whatever “was left of” Helen. The narrative spotlights Ketchum’s gifts for probing everyday human evil (in this case, child abduction/abuse) and dramatizing the personal anguish suffered by a lifelike character. Short but haunting, “Gone” absolutely cannot be forgotten.

 

 

Countdown: The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #10-#6

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 10-6 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

10. “The Work”

Set in a remote home in the Maine woods, this 1997 story (collected in Peaceable Kingdom) opens with a business meeting between an anonymous female protagonist and the man, Richard Carey, she has flown in on retainer. A seemingly simple situation–until the eventual revelation that Carey is a contract killer, and the woman a disgruntled writer determined to have him murder not her publisher or editor but her. Beyond such plot twists, though, what distinguishes “The Work” is the window it provides onto Ketchum himself.

The writer in the story clearly is a female stand-in for Ketchum. She speaks of enjoying a “cult following” but never experiencing break-out success. This is partly because of what she writes: “Suspense, horror. I tend to proceed from the dark side, to try to disturb you. Some of it can be pretty brutal.” Another factor is her refusal to follow publishing trends and produce “a big fat blockbuster” (“damned if I’m going to write something just for the money or so some editor can be flavor of the month with the boys on publishers’ row”). The woman also shares an interesting piece of aesthetic self-assessment:

The work‘s the thing, Richard. I work hard and carefully at what I do and I think I do it fairly well. I’m no Dostoevsky but I’m no hack either. You get themes in my books, you get people, issues–though I try hard not to hammer you over the head with them. You get some decent writing. What you don’t get I hope is simple, comfortable beach-reading. Tub-reading. Subway-reading. You don’t get Jackie Collins.

No, you get Jack Ketchum. His protagonist proceeds to speak of the notoriety she gained from her first novel, and of her betrayal by her own publisher, who got “so upset [over the scripted carnage] he damn near fired the editor. Distributors were furious. So they decided to bury it. Pretend it never happened. Pulled all the advertising, window posters, point-of-purchase displays, all that sort of thing.” Tellingly, Ketchum himself suffered the exact lack of support when his first book Off Season (concerning a tribe of modern-day cannibals) was released. If there were any doubt as to what Ketchum is referencing, it is erased when the setting of “The Work” is belatedly identified as Dead River, Maine–the same as in Off Season.

Now the protagonist (who is dying of bone cancer anyway) wants Carey to recreate a grisly murder scene from her first book. She is quick to explain that hers is not a case of madness or masochism: “Someone is going to notice if you do it this way. Any other way and I am just one more dead writer. But if you do it this way someone is going to refer it back to the book. Plenty of people will, I think. And the book is going to go back into print, big-time. In fact, if you do it right, they’ll all go back into print.” Suspense builds as the stone-cold killer Carey blanches at what is asked of him; the savage details are held back form readers until a climactic scene of assault, evisceration, and cannibalism that perfectly matches the shocking murder of Carla in Off Season.

Making a graphic sacrifice for her art, the protagonist of “The Work” ironically succeeds in ensuring her literary legacy. Thankfully, Ketchum himself never had to resort to such bloody extremes to achieve a deserved level of popularity and acclaim, but this semi-autobiographical story nevertheless furnishes strong insight into the writerly hurdles he faced early in his career.

 

9. “Luck”

Jack Ketchum established himself as a master of the macabre Western with his 2003 novella The Crossings, but he made his first foray into such territory in the 2000 short story “Luck” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). Notice how skillfully Ketchum establishes the genre through details of character and setting in the story’s opening paragraph:

The night was moonless and quiet save for the crackling of the fire and the liquid tiltback of the Tangleleg whiskey which they passed between them and Faro Bill Brody drawing hard on his Bull Durham and the moans and heavy breathing from Chunk Herbert and the snort and paw of horses and the voices of the men. Their talk had turned to luck, good and bad. The men were of the opinion that theirs had taken a far turn for the worse this day for who could have guessed at Turner’s Crossing that the stage would be filled with lawmen and citizens with guns drawn and ready and a posse just out of sight behind them. They had robbed the same stage at the same place at the same time of day three weeks running and never known a problem.

“Luck” instantly immerses the reader in its world, but a second reading reveals also just how carefully plotted the story is. As the outlaws huddle around and trade tales about luck, Chunk Herbert (who now lies dying after being shot in the head during the botched stagecoach robbery) groans and mumbles incoherently in the background. “Sounded like ‘Lily’ or ‘Liddy’,” Faro Bill observes at one point. “Sounded like ‘I-ill,” Canary Joe Hallihan later offers when Chunk pipes up during his story about Little Dick West, “the unluckiest man who ever walked the Lord’s green earth.” Canary Joe recounts personally witnessing West’s shooting death on multiple occasions in disparate parts of the country. Even more uncanny than West’s repeated reincarnations is the dire fate that befalls his respective killers. One gunman’s farmhouse burns down about a month later with him and his whole family inside; another hapless assassin trips and breaks his neck while carrying West’s corpse down a three-stepped staircase. Most gruesome of all, a seemingly victorious duelist blows off his own genitalia while holstering his pistol.

Canary Joe’s eerie narration creates a hush amongst the band of bandits. All except Chunk, desperate to confess, and whose last words are terribly clear to his doomed cohorts: “not I-ill or Lily but Li’l Dick West, I shot Li’l Dick West in Dodge City, Kansas, and the fusillade seemed to come from everywhere at once and ended Chunk’s luck and their own along with it for good and ever.”

A campfire spook story with a wicked twist, “Luck” is a tale that every Ketchum fan will consider himself/herself fortunate to have come across.

 

8. “Megan’s Law”

“Well, what the hell would you do?” confrontational narrator Albert Walker asks in the opening line of “Megan’s Law” (1999; collected in Peaceable Kingdom). This arresting hook generates instant suspense, as the reader can’t help but wonder what Albert actually has gone and done.

Albert relates an encounter with police officer legally required to inform that a “tier-three high risk sex criminal,” Philip Knott, has moved in two doors down from his home. Hearing this, Albert is immediately concerned for the safety of his twelve-year-old daughter Michele (whom he has previously protected from her “crazy rumdrum [and now deceased] miserable excuse of a mother”). He grows even more distraught over–and obsessed with–his new neighbor after learning the horrid details (from a gossiping bartender) of the child-raping Knott’s crimes. It soon becomes apparent that the officer’s initial warning to Albert “against vigilantism” has been given in vain.

The brilliance of Ketchum’s story lies in its manipulation of readerly sympathy. Alternating Albert’s narrative with passages of Knott’s italicized thoughts, “Megan’s Law” juxtaposes an extremely devoted father and an ostensibly rehabilitated sex criminal. Knott (whose surname suggests both negation and entanglement) emerges as a vulnerable figure when he considers the dark side of the titular piece of legislation:

This Megan’s Law thing. It fucks you up! Out in California they firebombed this guy’s car, torched the poor bastard, burnt him to death. In Connecticut they got this other guy, about twenty-five of them, beat the shit out of him, somebody they thought did stuff but it was a case of mistaken identity, they fucked up, they got the wrong guy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so fucking scary. What people are capable of.

Knott, though, is no innocent, and is still struggling with some highly illicit urges: “I want to fuck something silly. I want to fuck something till it screams,” the man admits at the end of one passage. But then (as Albert meantime plots to put a “stop” to this “running sore”) Knott begins his next section of the narrative by amending: “I want to fuck something till it screams but I won’t. Not in the immediate future anyway. That I’m pretty sure of. I think I maybe can actually do this thing. Maybe. Maybe it’s the meds or maybe it’s just being free now not in Rahway anymore and not obsessing all the time.” Knott thinks he stands a chance of assuming a normal life, not realizing that Albert is about to mete out a violent death.

Albert steals a jeep, dons a ski mask, then runs over Knott twice as the man crosses his own front lawn en route to his driveway. When Albert backs up the vehicle a second time, he remorselessly observes “that my left front tire had rolled over his neck, that the Wagoneer’s weight had pretty much disconnected his head from his body and had flattened his neck like roadkill which in fact was exactly what the little fucker was now.” The threat-eliminating father enjoys “a busy and productive day at work,” but his daughter Michele is shaken up that night after learning of Knott’s murder. “So I did what I usually do,” Albert admits:

I took her to bed.

I comforted her.

What would you do?

A signature Ketchum twist, belatedly revealing the true reason Albert was so bent on keeping Knott away from Michele. Albert’s interrogative refrain takes an abruptly alienating turn in the closing line, as no sane reader is likely to agree with such a course of incestuous solace. Nevertheless, by closing with a question the story throws down a moral gauntlet, forces each one of us to consider what we are really capable of when it comes to sheltering our loved ones from the world’s various harms. The honest answer here could prove as shocking and unsettling as “Megan’s Law” itself.

 

7. “The Cow”

Co-author Lucky McKee might have had a hand in this novelette sequel to 2011’s The Woman, but “The Cow” is quintessential Ketchum. The plot follows the blueprint established by the earlier novels in the series concerning latter-day cannibals terrorizing coastal Maine. There are unflinching scenes of sudden, savage attack (“she simultaneously reached up and dug her fingers into his eyes and bit down into the crotch of his white cargo Bermudas”) and utterly gruesome meal prep (“the gutting, the removal of the arms, the removal of the backbone, the halving and quartering, the removal of the ribs. The deep cuts along the calves and thighs and rump.”). But what truly distinguishes “The Cow” is not its formula, but its formatting.

The narrative is presented as “The Journal of Donald Fischer,” the lone survivor of a beachfront assault on his rehearsing theater group by the Woman and her cannibalistic sidekicks. Fischer is penning his on-going account in “a filthy battered spiral notebook” while being held prisoner by his attackers. The framing of the story this way is significant in that furnishes an overt example of something I would argue Ketchum has been doing all-along in the series: scripting variations on the Indian captivity narrative (a literary genre dating back centuries and most classically exemplified by the memoir The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson).

Ketchum has hinted at such a context previously (in the series’ second novel, Offspring) by giving the cannibal clan suggestively Native American names such as Rabbit, and Eartheater, and Second Stolen. Here in “The Cow,” the anachronistic primitives living close to nature in the remaining uncivilized spaces of the modern world dry strips of slaughtered meat “over some kind of teepee-style rack.” The Woman’s cannibalism is even described at one point as “a spiritual thing”: “the best food understands its own death, its sacrifice. And the deeper the understanding the more that supports the living.” Finally, while historical abductees such as Mary Rowlandson had to contend with the threat of heathen sexual aggression, Ketchum’s narrative shows that a male captive like Fischer is not exempt from rape. To his horror, Fischer has been kept alive not as a future meal but rather for the purposes of stud service. Because the Woman seeks to rebuild her carnivorous tribe, Fischer is reduced to the status of a profane cow, something “to be milked and milked again.”

Fischer’s closing journal entry is composed about four months after his climactic escape attempt: “The events I’ve written about took place in July. Now, by my reckoning, it’s October, somewhere around Halloween. But there won’t be any trick-or-treaters coming around here.” If there were any kiddies in the vicinity, they’d probably be scared off by Fischer’s appearance. The narrator’s closing revelation is of his having been subjected to a series of body piercings, the inserted slivers of bone strategically placed not just to help keep Fischer tethered in captivity but also to increase his productivity (“It’s true what they say about genital piercings,” the hapless Fischer shares. “It makes me a more efficient cow.”). Fischer nonetheless vows to “tear these bones out of me with my bare hands if given the slightest chance at rescue,” an act that sounds so excruciatingly painful, the (cringing male) reader almost can’t help but hope that Fischer remains gotten by the balls.

 

6. “Firedance”

With “Firedance” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom), Jack Ketchum ventures straight into the heart of King Country. The story is set in Maine, and is populated with small-town, common-folk type characters, including protagonist Frisco Hans (an ex-merchant seaman who one morning had “jumped off a lifeboat made fast high over the leeward rail onto the deck of the Curfew, hit the deck too hard and lost his sense of taste”) and his drinking buddy Homer Devins (whose wife “had run away with the Chinese dry-cleaner last winter while Devins was out hunting rabbits”). Like Stephen King before him, Ketchum offsets the mundane and the incredible, as seen when the characters Ray Fogarty and Dot Hardcuff, amidst an adulterous tryst up on Zeigler’s Notch, make a mind-boggling discovery: of a multi-species group of animals (mice, snakes, a cardinal, a wolf, and a lynx) sitting closely and calmly circled around a campfire.

The promptly-summoned townspeople of Dead River at first feel like they are viewing something “miraculous and awe-inspiring,” but an intimation of the ominous quickly sets in: “It was as though the natural way of things had reversed itself. Humans in the shadows, wild things in the light.” The humans tear off “running like kids from the bogeyman”; when curiosity returns them to the same woodland spot the next night, the inexplicably peaceful circle has grown, and now the animals are observed moving (dancing?) around the fire. Such bizarre choreography scares the watchers, and riddles them with existential angst: “a feeling passed through the crowd that felt like a kind of collective shame or guilt or something, as though the animals had made them smaller somehow, humbled, a damned sight less significant.” So it’s no surprise when the heavily-armed humans start grousing about how just “plain unnatural” the scene is. Frisco Hans, though, suddenly isn’t quite so sure:

How do we know? he thought? Who in the hell knows what’s natural in a world up to its butt in poisoned lakes and streams, with poisoned air for chrissake, with normal-looking guys not a lot different from Homer here walking into a K-Mart and shooting up the customers with some fancy thousand-dollar automatic weapon, guys who like to kidnap and murder little children, a world where you get a doll for Christmas and it eats your hair, a world so crazy and nonsensical that you can jump off a goddamn lifeboat and lose your sense of taste forever? Who says what’s natural and what’s not?

By the third night, “the sheer size of the damn thing” has the folk of Dead River utterly spooked: it “looked like the entire forest was there,” and “there were even plenty of farm animals this time.” Only Hans seems filled with wonder, the sense that he is privy to some evolutionary leap, “the dawn of a whole new time, a whole new nature”: “They’re like us, he thought. Like what we must have been thousands and thousands of years ago. We must have crawled out of caves on nights like this and done just the same.” Yet profound worry accompanies Hans’s wonderment. As the dancers whirl “around the flames in some bright joyous rapture of celebration that was impervious to danger, oblivious to harm,” Hans stands “frozen in a fundamental horror at what his species was capable of doing here tonight.” Hearing “a shotgun pump a cartridge, triggers cocked all around,” Hans knows “a goddamn bloodbath” is about to unfold.

A massacre is averted when little Patty Schilling breaks free from her mother’s arms and runs and joins the dancing animals. Other children and women (man appears to have no place within this peaceable kingdom) soon follow the innocent’s lead. At story’s end, Hans sees “Dot Hardcuff dancing around with a big brown bear and not even her husband or Ray Fogarty was going to argue with that choice of partner.” Nor can the reader argue with the choice of this atmospheric masterpiece of magic realism as one of Jack Ketchum’s all-time-best works of short fiction.

 

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #15-#11

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 15-11 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

15. “Returns”

This 2002 piece (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) reveals yet another side to the multifaceted Jack Ketchum: the animal lover. The story’s anonymous protagonist comes back from the beyond (four days after being mowed down by a New York City cab driver), “knowing there was something I had to do or try to do.” Upon returning to his apartment, though, he finds that his alcoholic wife Jill has been neglecting Zoey, his beloved cat. Thinking that perhaps the purpose of his visitation is to help snap Jill out of her drunken funk, the narrator tries to rouse her to attend to Zoey (unlike the cat, Jill can’t see her late husband’s spectral self, but hears him inside her head). And fails miserably.

That’s largely because Jill already has different plans for Zoey. The plurality of the story’s title comes into play when a stranger bearing a cat-carrier rings the doorbell. He is reluctant to carry out the deed he’s been summoned for, telling Jill that the cat could be put up for adoption for a while rather than being sent straight to death by euthanasia. Cold and malicious, Jill lies that Zoey is a biter and a fighter, and thus unfit for domestic existence.

Jill’s callous act is the ultimate betrayal for the narrator, who rages at the miserable widow with ghostly vitriol:

My wife continues to drink and for the next three hours or so I do nothing but scream at her, tear at her. Oh, she can hear me, all right. I’m putting her through every torment I can muster, reminding her of every evil she’s ever done to me or anybody, reminding her over and over what she’s done today and I think, so this is my purpose, this is why I’m back, the reason I’m here is to get this bitch to end herself, end her miserable fucking life and I think of my cat and how Jill never really cared for her, cared for her wine-stained furniture more than my cat and I urge her toward the scissors, I urge her toward the window and the seven-story drop, urge her toward the knives in the kitchen and she’s crying, she’s screaming, too bad the neighbors are all at work, they’d at least have her arrested. And she’s hardly able to walk or even stand and I think, heart attack maybe, maybe stroke and I stalk my wife and urge her to die, die until it’s almost one o’clock and something begins to happen.

What’s happening is that the narrator’s “power” is fading, in tandem with the waning moments of Zoey’s life. Sensing his cat’s death somewhere across the city, the narrator realizes the real purpose of his visitation. Not to rescue Jill, or even torment her, but to have been there for Zoey one last time before she was carried off: “That last touch of comfort [given to her] inside the cage. The nuzzle and purr. Reminding us both of all those nights she’d comforted me and I her. The fragile brush of souls.”

Understanding delivers closure, both to the narrator and the narrative. Announcing that the “last and best of me’s gone now,” the devoted pet owner promptly fades from consciousness. The same cannot be said for this quietly haunting tale (based, the author shares in the appended story note, on his own experience of having to put down his housecat). Short and bittersweet, “Returns” lingers long past its natural end point.

 

14. “The Best”

This short piece (first published in 2000, and subsequently collected in Peaceable Kingdom) is a premiere example of another typical Ketchum tale-type: the hot-blooded narrative of erotic horror.

Thirty-five-year-old Shelia convinces her great-in-the-sack-but-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Tommy (who has told her he is leaving her for another woman) to join her for one last bout of break-up sex. This proves to be no mere farewell frolic, though, but rather the first act in the diabolical scheme of a woman scorned.

Shelia shows up afterwards at the door of Tommy’s new flame Janine, feigning amiability. But the moment Janine lets her guard down, Shelia knocks her cold with a sucker punch. She then proceeds to choke Janine to death with a belt taken from the woman’s bedroom closet. She tears off the corpse’s nightgown and panties, then takes “a few minutes to give the body a good beating, concentrating on the ribs and head.” What at first appears to be gross overkill is only stage-setting for the really “nasty part” to follow.

A Ziploc bag in Shelia’s purse holds the semen-filled condom saved from Shelia’s earlier coitus with Tommy. Shelia places it over her latex-gloved index finger, pricks the Trojan’s tip with a pin, and goes to work filling Janine with incriminating DNA. The victim’s lifeless womb needs to be lubricated with blood, and it occurs to Shelia that the police are going to think that Tommy engaged in some Dahmer-esque necrophilia. “The idea made her giggle,” and this singularly chilling reaction indicates just how unhinged Shelia has become.

Her sick mission accomplished, Shelia returns home and slips into bed beside the oblivious Tommy. Feeling his familiar body heat, Shelia can’t help but think “for a moment how sad it was, really, that he’d be leaving anyway. Not where he wanted to go but somewhere.”

“The Best” haunts the reader with its realistic horror, as Shelia’s fake-rape frame job seems frightfully plausible. Ketchum’s story also casts a dark shadow over the notion of male prowess. Because as Tommy is about to discover, being the best lover someone ever had can ultimately turn into your own worst nightmare.

 

13. “Bully”

Since readers might not be familiar with this 2010 tale (published in the UK anthology Postscripts #22/23 – The Company He Keeps), I won’t go into too-specific detail regarding its plot.  But I do want to make note of some of the story’s strengths:

First and foremost, “Bully” is a fine slice of American Gothic. The horrors hidden behind closed doors, the dark side of everyday life in Anytown, U.S.A.: Ketchum captures these perfectly in this narrative concerning a drunkard father with a penchant not just for mean-spirited antics (e.g. knuckle-crushing handshakes) but also vicious physical abuse of his wife. Dishing the dirt on his despicable old man, exposing him for the monster he really was, the protagonist Jeff McFee reveals a childhood marked by incidents of terrible violence and emotional scarring (there’s a reason Jeff “can’t ride a horse to this day”). These events transpired on a family farm in rural Sussex County, New Jersey, leading to some harrowing discoveries both under the front porch and at the bottom of a well.

The story is expertly structured so as to build suspense.  An unnamed female narrator, Jeff’s “third cousin once removed,” has the visited the man (now an NYU law professor) in his New York City apartment because she’s determined to learn the full story of a family tragedy that none of her closest relatives seem to want to discuss. Her curiosity is soon coupled by the reader’s, as key elements are hinted at but their full explanation is held in abeyance until later in Jeff’s account. By looking to bring long-past events to light, the narrator also unwittingly sets the adult Jeff down a dark path.

“Bully” features a zinger of a closing line, but this tale of “belated revenge” (to borrow Ketchum’s own phrase in the author’s note attached to the story) does not present a neat, facilely moralistic wrap-up. Yes, tables are turned and comeuppance is transacted, but there’s less a sense of closure for Jeff’s character than an uneasy feeling that this is a truly haunted figure. Jeff’s psychological well-being is called into question by his admitted hearkening to a ghostly voice. Downing drink after drink in the course of the story, Jeff also appears to be transforming into the very person he has abhorred most. And perhaps worst of all, based on Jeff’s final revelation, the titular pejorative technically applies to him just as well.

 

12. “Brave Girl”

A quieter–but not necessarily gentler–Jack Ketchum story…

The premise of “Brave Girl” (2002; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) is simple: four-year-old Suzy comes to the rescue when her mother suffers a household accident (Liza Jackson slips getting into the bathtub, cracking her head off the ceramic soap dish and knocking herself unconscious. Suzy has the wherewithal to turn off the tap, drain the tub, then dial 9-1-1 and calmly explain the situation. In short, this “brave, exceptional little girl” demonstrates a maturity well beyond her years. She isn’t even fazed (hint, hint) by the blood-spattered scene she finds in the bathroom.

Suzy’s grace under pressure makes for a great human interest piece, and the girl is quickly tabbed for a local TV news spot. But the reporter’s (and Ketchum’s) feel-good story takes a dark turn mid-interview. As Suzy bends over to retrieve her dropped doll, the camera captures a startling detail: “the long wide angry welts along the back of both thighs just below the pantyline that told [the reporter] that this was not only a smart, brave little girl but perhaps a sad and foolish one too” for saving her abusive mother’s life.

The reporter, Carole Belliver (a firm “believer” in truth and justice?) is outraged and orders her cameraman to “Dupe the tape. Phone the police and child welfare and get copies to them. I want us to do what her daughter evidently couldn’t bring herself to do. I want us to do our best to drown the bitch.” With such forceful closing words, “Brave Girl” transforms into a different type of feel-good story, one in which the reader revels in the notion of a domestic monster receiving a much-deserved punishment.

The accidental discovery of Suzy’s victim status forces Belliver to “kill the [news] story,” yet brings Ketchum’s story to life as a work of American Gothic. Forget supernatural bogeys and remote locales; the worst horrors, Ketchum reminds us, can be found hidden behind the closed doors of home.

 

11. “The Visitor”

As we’ve already seen on the Countdown, in Jack Ketchum’s writerly hands a ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a vampire story never just a vampire story. So it should be no surprise that the author offers more than the usual blood and guts when turning his focus to zombies.

“The Turning” (1998; collected in Peaceable Kingdom) details the trials of Florida retiree Will and his wife Beatrice. The elderly couple misses the evening news on “the night the dead started walking,” and so are taken by surprise the following morning when their neighbor John Blount “climbed the stairs to the front door of their mobile home unit to visit over a cup of coffee as was his custom three or four days a week and bit Beatrice on the collarbone, which was not his custom at all.” Blount’s attack is described in prosaic terms, but that doesn’t mean the story is devoid of grisly horrors, as Will witnesses “some terrible things that first day”:

He saw a man with his nose bitten off–the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds–and a woman wheeled in on a gurney whose breasts had been gnawed away. He saw a black girl not more than six who had lost an arm. Saw the dead and mutilated body of an infant child sit up and scream.

Still, Ketchum’s narrative does not dwell on the undead pandemic scourging through the streets of Florida but rather situates itself within the “relatively quiet” interior of the local hospital. Will makes daily visits to see his wounded wife, and following Beatrice’s passing (and the lethal injection of her risen form by the swift-acting yet humane hospital staff) he continues to visit the subsequent occupants of Beatrice’s room. He brings the comatose patients flowers, sits with them and regales them with personal anecdotes. Sadly, though, Will is less a good Samaritan than a man plagued by severe grief. When a woman closely resembling Beatrice is “put down” by the doctors in Will’s presence, Will’s bottled emotions bubble over. He’s still crying when he returns to the hospital the next day, and is suddenly grabbed by the now-zombified guard.

When his bicep is bitten, Will feels “a kind of snapping as though someone had snapped a twig inside him,” and the widower wonders if the sensation isn’t metaphysical: “Heartbreak?” Will calmly navigates the desolate hospital, enters his wife’s old room, and climbs right into the empty bed. Lying there infected, Will is more pensive than apprehensive: “He thought how everything was the same, really. How nothing much had changed whether the dead were walking or not. There were those who lived inside of life and those who for whatever reason did not or could not. Dead or no dead.” As the waning Will waxes philosophical at story’s end, Ketchum manages to inject a strong dose of thoughtfulness into the traditional tale of mindless, shambling hordes.

Countdown–The Top 20 Jack Ketchum Works of Short Fiction: #20-#16

In honor of the recent passing of Jack Ketchum, I would like to import this countdown (presented in a series of posts back in 2012) from my old Macabre Republic blog. The ranking was based on works of short fiction (short stories and novelettes) with the Jack Ketchum byline–i.e. pieces employing the Jerzy Livingston pseudonym were excluded, as were any co-authorings with Edward Lee. Here today I have gathered the posts for numbers 20-16 on the countdown.

[Note: the commentary below contains plot spoilers.]

 

20. “When the Penny Drops”

Jack Ketchum is doubtless best known as a creator of unflinching, hard-core horror, but he is a writer of many tones and modes. The 1998 story “When the Penny Drops” (collected in Peaceable Kingdom), for instance, is a quiet and subtly uncanny tale presented by a narrator with a penchant for waxing philosophic (“It’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.“) and existentially curious (“Promise and promiscuity. That’s the business of living and the entire mystery is why. To what end? To perpetuate exactly what?”). This (strategically) unnamed figure also offers up some profound pronouncements about love, as when discussing his frequently-long-distance relationship with his wife Laura:

There’s a sheer simple joy in cooperating with another living soul under difficult circumstances that’s highly underrated. For two people who are mostly apart and provided that there’s love to begin with, every meeting is glue. It is a soft glue which allows for great elastic pullings apart, thin fibrous stretchings over cities and continents, space and time. But each strand is of exactly the same composition. It wants to come together. Its chemical goal is to return to the unity from which it sprang in the first place. And it does.

“When the Penny Drops” unfolds very much as a love story, sketching scenes from a twenty-eight-year marriage. The narrator spends a good deal of time describing a honeymoon spent on the Greek island of Mykonos, but he’s not just awash with nostalgia. He’s leading readers to the account of a strange incident that occurred during the vacation. The narrator loses and frantically searches for his wallet, only to return to his hotel to find that someone has turned it in to the front desk with its valuable contents intact. The mystery man who carried out this good deed seeks no reward, and simply leaves a note for the narrator encouraging him to “Do the same for someone else someday.”  At the time, the narrator doesn’t make too much of this unusual stroke of good fortune, but certainly senses a brush with mystery twenty years later when someone turns in his expensive ring (which the narrator had left behind on the bathroom sink in a New York bar), along with a note reading “Do the same for someone else someday.”

At this point, the story appears to be heading towards some heartwarming finale of repaid kindness. Remember, though, this is Jack Ketchum at the helm; we are being steered toward a dire twist. Mystery in the grander sense of the term yields to unsolved crime, and the narrator’s mysterious benefactor is supplanted by an only-vaguely-identified figure who shoots and kills Laura (an accidental witness to a liquor store hold-up). The murder scene is understandably a traumatic sight for the narrator, but what really floors him is the glimpse of the penny box next to the liquor store’s cash register, a penny box with the message “Take one if you need one. And do the same for someone else someday.

Grief-stricken, and struggling to come to terms with the meaning of Laura’s death (what purpose does it serve in the Grander Scheme of Things?), the narrator takes some drastic measures. He quits his job, buys an oft-robbed liquor store on the Lower East Side. “I figure it’s only a matter of time before somebody tries again,” the narrator concludes as he stands waiting with a thirty-eight Smith & Wesson at hand. “I’m not looking for the guy who shot Laura. I know the odds on that. But somebody. Please god. Someone else someday.” Violence is all he is looking to pay forward now, a fatal payback to an ostensibly innocent third party. If the narrator’s story-opening thesis holds that it’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to either godly grace or evil, then his closing mindset indicates an unfortunate plummet toward the latter alternative.

 

19. “Damned If You Do”

This 2004 tale (collected in Closing Time and Other Stories) might not feature the hard-core horror of a similarly-set Ketchum piece, “If Memory Serves,” but it does pack a nasty surprise. Writhing on the horns of a relationship dilemma, John Brewer has been making weekly visits to a therapist’s office for the past two months. Brewer doesn’t “know what to do with” his mate Jennie; she “just doesn’t listen anymore.” Brewer can’t decide between “holding onto” Jennie or “dumping [her] once and for all” (a drastic act that part of Brewer admittedly doesn’t want to commit, leading him to bemoan
“damned if you and damned if you don’t”). Dr. Sullivan does his best to help Brewer deal with his personal issues, but the story’s climax reveals that the therapist and his patient were never really on the same page. Brewer returns home to observe Jennie lying in their bedroom: “He could almost hear her breathing–that was how peaceful she looked. How she could look so peaceful and be so bloated by now that it was impossible to see the length of baling wire around her neck was a mystery to him.”

“Damned If You Do” is a terrific example of Ketchum’s ability to author a finely crafted short story, with its twist ending set up by several strategic hints. Sullivan notes instances of Brewer’s “sham” body language and evasive responses, early clues pointing to the fact that the man is keeping something secret from the doctor.  When Sullivan suggests that Jennie herself might need professional help, Brewer laughingly but forcefully shoots down the idea: “She’ll never be in therapy, believe me.” Next the doctor attempts to engage Brewer in a bit of dream analysis, not realizing how close he is getting to the truth: “Sullivan was a firm believer in dreams as metaphors for problems left untended to, each with its own symbolic language. Anything from a reminder to pay that overdue gas bill to resolving the guilt over a loved one’s death.” Even a seemingly innocuous detail like the passing mention that Brewer is a furniture maker by trade proves key to the conclusion, when Jennie’s festering corpse is shown to be contained in a “knotty pine box” built by her slayer. In retrospect, even the story’s title is telling, as it omits the “don’t” half of the maxim (and intimates the state of perdition someone like Brewer enters into by committing a mortal sin).

The story leaves off with Brewer still caught in internal debate (“Dump her? Or leave her be?), and unsure whether he can wait until next week’s session to come to a decision, because Jennie “was really beginning to stink.” The same certainly cannot be said for “Damned If You Do,” a piece that only appreciates with each subsequent reading.

 

18. Weed Species

Don’t let the title fool you: Weed Species (a novelette published by Cemtery Dance in 2006) has nothing to do with rampant marijuana use. Rather Ketchum is employing a censorious conceit; as defined on the book jacket’s front flap, a weed species is “an organism that is intentionally or accidentally introduced to an area where it is not native, and where it successfully invades and disturbs natural ecosystems, displacing native species. See also kudzu, water hyacinth, zebra mussel, Burmese python, eco-tourism, sociopath.”

The characters Sherry Lydia Jefferson and Owen Philip Delassandro certainly fit this negative mold. In the shocking opening “chapter” of Weed Species, Sherry presents the drugged body of her thirteen-year-old sister Talia as a Christmas gift to her fiance Owen (a businessman with “Baywatch good looks,” but an utter grotesque on the inside). This holiday rape will also be captured by camcorder, but matters go awry for the awful auteurs when Talia chokes to death on her own vomit mid-shoot. Still, the incident fails to scare Sherry and Owen straight; their perversion extends so far as to a sex game (later in the narrative) in which Sherry dresses up in the late Talia’s clothing, and Owen himself develops into a serial rapist and killer.

Ketchum doesn’t reserve his scorn for this odious duo, though. Weed Species takes a grim view of humanity as a whole, interpolating references to a series of despicable acts, from sailors who “butcher and bludgeon” dodo birds “just for fun,” to a mother who almost kills her daughter through a mind-boggling act of neglect, to a family in Wisconsin who keeps “their seventeen-year-old daughter locked up in the basement for three years without anyone knowing.” Not even in the narrative’s climax does Ketchum allow any sense of real redemption. Sherry, after serving a brief prison sentence (she strikes a deal with the D.A. following the arrest of Owen, who is eventually executed for his crimes), returns to society and soon coaxes her new beau Arliss into raping a girl for/with her. An armed religious zealot who lives down the block (and has recognized the infamous Sherry) breaks in on the perpetrators in flagrante delicto, but there’s ultimately no blaze of glory haloing the gun-firing vigilante:

His third, fourth, and fifth shots were for Sherry Lydia Jefferson whose head was between the young girl’s legs. He could barely hear these shots because the first two were so loud. But the woman twisted forward and slid off the couch bleeding form the breast and stomach so that he knew that his job was done here and felt such joy and excitement, such intense exultation that it did not even occur to him to wonder why his own manhood almost ancient to him by now should suddenly be aroused.

Weed Species is vintage Ketchum, offering unflinching depiction of disturbing acts of sexual violence. Yet once again the author proves that he is much more than the horror genre’s equivalent of a shock jock. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is the account late in the narrative of the subsequent life of one of Owen’s early rape victims (from the time when Owen was only threatening to kill his female abductees). Janine Turner is now married with children, but she has been psychologically scarred by her past trauma, and accordingly turns into a drunken (physical) abuser of her own family members. In the end, Ketchum suggests, hearkening back to the book jacket copy, the most nefarious aspect of a weed is its blemishing spread–its facile mutation of hitherto-ordinary human nature.

 

17. “Papa”

Writing a story for an absinthe-themed anthology seems like an exercise in constriction, but with “Papa” (2006; collected in Closing Time and Other Stories), Jack Ketchum manages to produce an admirably original piece.

The story boasts an interesting premise: painter Neal McPheeters (a real-life figure, and good friend of Ketchum) is mistaken as Ernest Hemingway by a stranger in an Upper East Side bar. Since Papa is “forty years dead,” McPheeters suspects Mike Kelly (an editor of Del Rey science fiction books–“Maybe that explained a few things and maybe it didn’t”) is “either way drunk, putting him on, crazy, or quite a character. Or all of the above.” This unusual case of mistaken identity, though, helps McPheeters (who has gone to the bar that afternoon in defiance of a looming deadline) pass the time in an entertaining manner, and leads to some amusing conversation (such as when Kelly bluntly inquires, “Hey, you ever fuck Gertrude Stein?”). So in the spirit of fun McPheeters plays along, even accepting an invitation to go back to Kelly’s apartment, drink from a bottle of absinthe and “Shoot the shit about the old days.”

The illegal alcohol has a quasi-hallucinogenic effect on McPheeters, but turns Kelly’s mood suddenly surly. In the comic climax of the narrative, Kelly berates “Hemingway” for his famous hyper-masculinity (“All that bullfighting, hunting, fishing bullshit.”), his history of adultery, even his granddaughters Margeaux and Marielle’s choice of movie roles (“You let ’em both get naked for godsakes!”). When Kelly starts ranting that his guest “OUGHT TO BLOW HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!”, McPheeters realizes it’s time to head on out of that den of insanity. In another type of Ketchum story, the protagonist might have been trapped and subjected to grisly punishment, but in this light-hearted piece, McPheeters makes a safe exit, wanders through Central Park soaking up the greenery until the absinthe wears off, then returns home and promptly begins painting.

“Papa” is a standout example of the “New York bar scene” genre of story that Ketchum has repeatedly written (I count at least a half-dozen instances of such tale-types in the author’s short fiction oeuvre). The piece is enjoyable in and of itself, but to me is also noteworthy for all the knowledge of Hemingway’s life and work that it flashes. I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that Ketchum’s pseudonym isn’t merely a nod to the 19th Century outlaw Black Jack Ketchum but also a subtler homage to Hemingway (who lived–and died–in Ketchum, Idaho). Ketchum’s unadorned yet resonant prose certainly suggests a stylistic influence; anyone who doubts a connection between the two writers is advised to take a look at the opening chapter of Ketchum’s novel Red. Neal McPheeters might bear a physical resemblance to Hemingway, but Jack Ketchum can be counted amongst Papa’s literary offspring.

 

16. “The Turning”

Cataclysm is in the air in this 1995 short piece (collected in Peaceable Kingdom). An unnamed narrator walks the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading signs of something wicked coming the City’s way. He passes a gang of teenage boys assaulting a homeless man, shoving “a piece of jagged macadam” into the victim’s bloodied and broken-toothed mouth. He spots grim shop-owners standing sentry in their doorways, and elderly travelers whose frightened faces suggest an innate understanding of the changing underway. He stops to give twenty dollars to a pretty young homeless woman, hoping to save her from a fate worse than destitution.

The climax of the story pulls these cryptic hints together to bring an intriguing premise to light:

He had seen it happen before. A long, long time ago. When the collective will and consciousness of an entire people had grown intense enough, black enough, angry enough, fearful enough and focused enough to rend deep into the nature of human life as it had existed up until then, all that dark cruel energy focused like a laser on an entire class, transforming them in reality how they were perceived and imagined to be almost metaphorically.

In the past it had been the rich–the ruling class who were perceived as vampires.  Feeding off the poor and destitute.

Now it was the poor themselves.

The reason the protagonist understands all this, the narrative reveals, is that “it had happened to him.” He was among the handful of Old World nobles transformed into nosferatu by lower class antipathy. Given the poverty and discrimination now plaguing New York City, though, the number of vampires will be “legion.”

Ketchum’s twisty little tale offers one last turn of the screw in its final lines, as the main character heads off to “dine with a beautiful recently-divorced real-estate heiress.” Apparently the man plans on enjoying a sanguineous night cap afterward as well, as “The Turning” finishes with a line that at once works as a scathing social critique and a pitch-perfect mimicking of the macabre wit of Robert Bloch: “Unlike most of the world, he preferred to feed upon his own.”

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

In my last post, I focused on Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, a novel that is undoubtedly indebted to the work of Stephen King (not coincidentally, Hex‘s main character is named Steve). The strongest echoes are of King’s Pet Sematary, but the town-meeting scenes bring to mind Storm of the CenturyThinking back on that King-scripted miniseries has led me to re-post the following piece (from my old Macabre Republic blog). It is the text of a paper I gave years back at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. 

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

Meandering through four hours of melodrama and not-so-special effects, the 1999 miniseries developed from Stephen King’s teleplay Storm of the Century hardly gets off to a compelling start. The arrival of the evil Linoge as Maine’s Little Tall Island is battered by a massive winter storm seems but a tedious rehash of the Randall Flagg plotline in The Stand: a supernatural antagonist manifests just as disaster threatens the breakdown of social order. Linoge’s endlessly reiterated demand in Storm of the Century–“Give me what I want, and I’ll go away”–creates perhaps less a sense of suspense than of irritation and impatience. The faithful viewer (the telematic analogue of King’s Constant Reader) is almost tempted to hold up the TV remote like Linoge’s cane and intone, “Give me what I want, or I’ll go away.”

On its third and final night, though, the miniseries takes a gripping turn. Linoge finally reveals the motivation behind his menacing: the sinister sorcerer wants Little Tall to hand over one of the town’s children to him, a boy or a girl whom Linoge subsequently will raise in his own image. At first, King might seem to have fallen back on familiar territory once again, considering that the parental anxiety over child welfare forms a leitmotif in the author’s works. But what proves particularly striking in this case is the moral dilemma Linoge creates (he threatens to kill all the children and all the parents if Little Tall does not give him what he wants) and the sociopolitical forum Linoge has Little Tall adopt when making its torturous decision: a good old-fashioned New England town meeting.

In his introduction to the published teleplay version of Storm of the Century, King attests that the Little Tall setting does not merely offer a convenient atmosphere of claustrophobia as the island is cut off from the mainland by the snowstorm and forced to fall back on its own resources: “The final impetus was provided by the realization that if I set my story on Little Tall Island, I had a chance to say something interesting and provocative about the very nature of community…because there is no community in America as tightly knit as the island communities off the coast of Maine. The people in them are bound together by situation, tradition, common interests, common religious practices.”  King’s climactic town meeting thus might be viewed in light of Sacvan Bercovitch’s critique (in his 1993 study, The Rites of Assent) of the rhetoric and rituals of American consensus. These “strategies of symbolic cohesion” inform the American Gothicism of Storm of the Century: “Is the result of pulling together always the common good?” King wonders in the introduction. “Does the idea of ‘community’ always warm the cockles of the heart, or does it on occasion chill the blood?” When King broaches the subject of communal formation and revitalization in Storm of the Century, he affords himself the opportunity to say something interesting and provocative about the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself.

Continue reading