Triple Six Pack

Back in the day on my old Macabre Republic blog, I had a feature called Pick Six with ____. It was a variation on the traditional interview, as the subject got to choose whichever six questions he/she would like to answer from a list of nearly forty items (questions and prompts pertaining to the writer’s own work, as well as his/her thoughts on the world of horror). I am hoping to resurrect this feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic in the near future, but in the meantime here is a re-post of interviews with a trio of Halloween Lit luminaries:

 

Pick Six with Norman Partridge (originally posted 11/1/2012)

If there were a Halloween Hall of Fame, Norman Partridge no doubt would be a first-year inductee. He provided an instant classic for holiday readers in 2006 with his Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Dark Harvest (which was also chosen as one of the 100 Best Books of that year by Publishers Weekly). His various Halloween narratives (including a novelette-length prequel to Dark Harvest) are collected in Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season.

1.What is your favorite Halloween memory?

I’d have to open up my treat sack and toss in all the Halloweens I remember as a kid growing up in the Sixties. For me, that was the holiday’s golden age. Every kid in the neighborhood hit the streets, and the doorbells didn’t stop ringing all night long.

One year my truck-driver dad showed up on the big afternoon with cases of Crackerjack stacked in the back of his pickup. My mom took one look at all those boxes and thought he’d blown the mortgage for the month.  All he said was: “Don’t worry about it, Ev…they fell off a truck.” Anyway, the front hall was piled high with Crackerjack when I left the house that night to trick or treat.  We lived on a hill, but word got out. All the Crackerjack was gone by the time I got home, and my dad was handing out change from my piggy bank. I always have to laugh remembering that, though I didn’t think it was particularly funny at the time.

2.What, to you, is the scariest place in your hometown?

I grew up in Vallejo, California. The spot that really sticks out for me is Lake Herman Road, in particular the stretch of country two-lane that leads to the place where the Zodiac Killer murdered two teenagers. When I was a teenager myself, we’d cruise out there in the middle of the night, kill the headlights and the engine, kill the radio, and let the car drift in neutral until someone freaked out. Usually it didn’t take very long.  Something lingers there.

3.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

If we’re talking writers, probably Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale. Other than that, I’d say my dad. He was a born storyteller, and the first yarns I remember are the ones he spun in the backyard on summer evenings–especially the weird stories about a house with bloody footprints and the Green Man, which came from his boyhood in Pennsylvania. I still remember the excitement I felt hearing those tales for the first time, and I try to recapture a little of that when writing my own stories. I want to get the reader’s blood pumping.

4.If you could change one thing about your writing career, what would it be?

I’d type “The End” more often.  Right now, that’s my goal.

5.Three episodes you always try to catch whenever a Twilight Zone marathon airs?

I could probably give you ten, but here are three that come to mind:

“The Passerby”: Serling’s meditation on the Civil War, with a faded Southern belle and a wounded Confederate passing a dark evening together. The ending always gets me. Line for line, one of Serling’s best episodes.

“The Grave”: A weird western with Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, James Best, and Lee Van Cleef. What’s not to like? Plus, it reminds me of those stories my dad told in the backyard when I was a kid.

“Nick of Time”: A husband and a wife encounter a fortune-telling machine in a diner just south of Nowhere, U.S.A. This episode is my favorite example of what made Twilight Zone special. There are no special effects–just a great story, smart dialogue, and a cast that delivers (i.e. William Shatner as the desperate male lead? I’m sold!).

6.What was your favorite horror movie monster when growing up (and today, if different)?

I’ll stick with the Universal gang, and probably always will. My favorite is the Wolfman (a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot). And Kharis. What can I say? The cursed guys speak to me.

 

 

Pick Six [plus a bonus question in honor of the author’s birthday] with David Herter (originally posted 10/31/12)

A graduate of the 1990 Clarion West Workshop, David Herter is the author of Ceres StormEvening’s EmpireOn the Overgrown PathThe Luminous Depthsand One Who Disappeared.  His 2010 novel October Dark (part of Earthling’s Halloween Series) has recently been revised (expanded with new scenes and tightened by some 20,000 words) for ebook release.

1.If you could collaborate with any living writer, who would you choose, and why?

Well, since it’s Halloween, how about a departed one–Catherine Lucille Moore? Which I guess makes me Henry Kuttner. Working in tandem as they did, it would be a giddy pleasure to sit down at the typewriter just after she’d finished her portion in the midst of a sentence, then carry forward a masterpiece like “Clash by Night” so that the heating bills could be paid.

2.What is the best book you have read in the past year?

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. Best. Vampire. Book. Ever.

3.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

“If you can’t make it good, make it short.”–Gene Wolfe

4.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

Briony Travers, my mom. She grew up in wartime Britain and Australia, was a librarian after college in Illinois, then married and became a housewife. Throughout a life of painfully deteriorating health, books were her sustenance. She loved mysteries most of all (Ruth Rendall, P.D. James), and biographies, but also Stephen King and Thomas Harris. She had a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly to keep apprised of the forthcoming titles. She could quote freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. She knew a little something about everything.

5.What did you enjoy most about writing your last book?

My latest is a revision of my 2010 novel October Dark for ebook release. I enjoyed finally achieving the book I set out to write–sharpening the plot, weeding out the excessive nostalgia, darkening the horror. I also enjoyed delving more into the “lost film,” Dark Carnival, that haunts the book. In our world it’s a movie that Ray Bradbury tried and failed to make, eventually becoming the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. In my book the film was made but quickly vanished from sight, holding in its frames an optical curse against an undying Phantasmagoria magician and his dead love, a witch. The movie is a chess-piece in a decades-long battle between the magician and special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. All hell breaks loose on Halloween, 1977.

6.What are you working on now?

The Cold Heavens. An epic space opera with an eschatological twist, inspired by Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore and the occult novels of the Austrian fantasist Gustav Meyrink. I’ve had a great time reading/rereading all of their works, as well as delving into German Romanticism, Fin de siecle Decadence and the Weimar era in Berlin. The resulting 275,000 words are set on Mars, Venus, and beyond, with a sequence in the heart of the book set in Meyrink’s haunted Prague. It’s the first of two books.

7.Your Mt. Rushmore of four all-time favorite writers?

Of horror writers? It would make for an eerie skyline at dusk. Robert Aickman, Gustav Meyrink, Shirley Jackson, and Manly Wade Wellman.

 

 

Pick Six with James Newman (originally posted 3/25/11)

James Newman is author of the novels Midnight Rain and The Wicked, novellas such as Holy Rollers and The Forum, and the short story collection People Are Strange.  His latest novel, Animosity, comes from Necessary Evil Press, and bears a subtitle that resonates throughout the Macabre Republic: “An American Horror Story.”

1.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Less is more. It’s all about the flow. Why use 100 words to say what can be said in 10? I prefer crisp, clean, lean ‘n mean prose that doesn’t waste a word. It’s what I like to read, so naturally it’s how I enjoy writing.

2.What is your greatest phobia?

That one’s easy: spiders. It’s worse than you could ever imagine, dude. I see one in the house, I start yelling for my wife or 11-year-old son to come kill it. I firmly believe that spiders are pure Evil on eight legs. Just sitting here thinking about those friggin’ things gives me goosebumps.

3.What did you enjoy most about writing your latest book?

The fact that I was writing (what I hope is) a disturbing horror novel set in the real world, populated by real people affected by events that could really happen. Animosity is about a bestselling horror writer whose neighbors turn against him after he finds the body of a murdered child, as they believe there must be some connection between the subject matter of his novels and his tragic discovery (because who could make up such twisted stuff without being a little sick in the head to begin with, right?). While what happens to my protagonist might seem a little far-fetched when things are at their worst for him, I don’t think there’s anything in Animosity that’s impossible. Or improbable, for that matter. People scare me, and the things we humans are capable of is more terrifying to me than vampires or werewolves or zombies. It doesn’t take much at all for folks we thought were our friends to transform into monsters, when they allow themselves to be misled by prejudice, gossip, and/or a mob mentality.

Humans might be scarier than spiders, in fact. But just barely. 😉

4.What excites you about the project you are working on now?

That it’s sort of a departure from what I normally do. The novel I’m working on right now is called Ugly As Sin, and it’s not a horror novel at all. It is a very dark story, but if I had to categorize it I guess I’d call it “white trash noir.” It’s a book influenced by the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, my favorite writer. Very Southern, with characters who might be hideous on the outside but beautiful on the inside, and vice versa.

I’m very proud of this one. I’ve had more fun writing Ugly As Sin than anything I’ve written to date. I can’t wait for folks to read it.

5.What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?

That I’m a Christian. However, I say that with a loud disclaimer. I don’t consider myself to have anything in common with the kinds of people most folks think of when they hear the word “Christian.” I’m not a fan of organized religion, and can’t stand most of the bigoted, close-minded assholes associated with it. If that’s Christianity, then maybe I’m not a Christian at all…

Besides, I cuss too much.

6.Which one of your books would you most like to see developed into a movie, and who would be your dream cast for that film?

I think Midnight Rain would make a wonderful movie. Haven’t really thought about casting it in my mind, but it sounds fun.

For Kyle Mackey: how about Chandler Riggs (“Carl” from The Walking Dead)? He’s a little young at the moment, but he’d work. For his big brother Dan, who Kyle looks up to in more ways than one…gonna throw in an off-the-wall pick that only my fellow die-hard Tar Heels basketball fans will get: Jackson Simmons. Maybe Catherine Keener as their mom, Darlene? She never fails to impress. As poor  “Rooster,” the young man framed for a crime he did not commit: Al Shearer (Glory Road). And as the despicable villain of the piece, Sheriff Burt Baker, I’ve got to go with Michael Rooker. He’d be just about perfect.

 

Trick or Treat (Book Review)

One more import from the Macabre Republic blog, this time of a review that I posted in 2012.

 

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a “look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century.” The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide. Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing “It’s probably no coincidence that…”). Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween’s manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone. Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

 

Halloween Nation (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a book review that appeared on the Macabre blog during the 2011 Halloween season.

 

Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (Pelican Publishing Company, 2011)

America’s leading black-and-orange journalist returns to investigate and celebrate the October holiday season. In Halloween Nation, Bannatyne poses the key questions (the most overarching one being: “What does Halloween mean right now and what purpose does it serve?”) and considers all the relevant elements (witches, ghosts, zombies, pumpkins, pranksters, etc.). Her study is at once fascinatingly informative (in particular the chapter tracing the origin of the jack-o’-lantern) and endlessly entertaining. Bannatyne writes with a sense of humor, a prose style reminiscent of Mary Roach (whose work she cites). For instance, when learning of the amazing growth rate of giant-sized pumpkins, the author observes: “Forty pounds a day? That’s like growing a six-year-old over the weekend.” Describing a weigh-off of such gargantuan gourds, Bannatyne offers: “When a 1,180-pounder knocks the rest out of the competition, the crowd roars, and the pumpkin glides through the arena on the forklift like a plus-sized beauty queen on a parade float.”

All this is not to suggest that the author has taken a flippant attitude toward her subject matter, or that she didn’t work hard to produce this book. Like a Charles Kuralt for our macabre republic, Bannatyne spent two years on the road interviewing haunters, performers, and other holiday celebrants across the country. Halloween Nation is an undeniably democratic tome: Bannatyne doesn’t just forward her own ideas but gives voice to the perspectives of countless others. The book seems as populous throughout as the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (which Bannatyne covers in Chapter Seven).

Brimming with brilliant color photos and illustrations, Halloween Nation is a perfect coffee table book to engross visitors to your home this October. The book’s written content (not to mention its extensive “Resources” appendix) is guaranteed to send you surfing the Internet to learn more about the people, places, and events Bannatyne discusses. Such extra-textual forays, though, will not keep you from delving eagerly back into Bannatyne’s pages again and again. I’m not waxing hyperbolic when I state that this insightful and delightful book is an absolute must-read for every unabashed Halloween-ophile.

 

Johnny Halloween (Book Review)

The review of this story collection first appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog in October 2010.

 

Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

This slim yet bountiful volume collects Partridge’s Halloween-based short fiction written over the past two decades. The stories, though, are unified by more than the holiday at month’s end, as signaled by the two nonfiction pieces included here. In his Introduction, Partridge recounts growing up in the sixties as a “card-carrying monsterkid.” The Universal Monsters served as formative influences, and naturally Halloween constituted the most beloved night of the year. But there was another, non-cherished experience that imprinted Partridge’s childhood: in October 1969, Partridge was an eleven-year-old boy living in Vallejo, California, a town that the serial killer known as the Zodiac had chosen as his personal hunting ground. Chillingly, Partridge was forced to realize “that the scariest monsters wore human skin.” The author-to-be received an early lesson in American Gothic, as hinted at in his reaction to the police artist’s sketch of the Zodiac printed in the local newspaper: “His face was like the faces of a half-dozen fathers who lived in my very own neighborhood, right down to the horn-rim glasses. He could have been sitting at a breakfast table down the block, eating Corn Flakes while I stared at his picture on the front page.”

Partridge, in the autobiographical essay “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” elaborates on the shadow cast over his hometown by the Zodiac, noting that the killings were “like an urban legend come to life.” As suggested by the essay’s title, the Zodiac’s reign of terror also marked a loss of American innocence—neither Vallejo nor Halloween ever seemed to be the same again. The essay can shed only so much light on the still-unsolved mystery regarding the Zodiac, but it does provide the reader a much better understanding of why the adult Partridge’s fiction features Halloween masks as recurrent props and duplicitous human monsters as central characters.

The title story (originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine) is vintage Partridge: a bit of Halloween noir involving liquor store hold-ups (past and present), small-town intrigue, and an anti-heroic sheriff (indeed, there’s enough story packed into the pages of “Johnny Halloween” to make for a rousing feature-length film). In keeping with the theme of human monstrosity, the eponymous robber disguises himself with a pumpkin face—a mask that eventually (and symbolically) is taken possession of by the narrating sheriff. But I’ll let you find out for yourself what ol’ Dutch decides to do with it…

“Satan’s Army,” meanwhile, is comprised of an itinerant evangelist (who’s not content to merely preach about the evils of Halloween) and his fervent minions. The tale is pure American Gothic, even including an elderly “Mother” and “Dad” couple who appear to be the perfect neighbors but are actually busy splicing razorblades into apples. And surprise, surprise, a Halloween mask (in this case, the burlap hood of a scarecrow) proves central to the story.

“Treats” has long been a personal favorite Partridge story of mine. The brief tale opens with a mother named Maddie shopping for Halloween candy in the supermarket, and then gets progressively creepier as we learn why she is so harried. Her tyrannical monster of a son “Jimmy was at home with them. He’d said that they were preparing for Operation Trojan Horse.” Fans of golden-age horror/sci-fi cinema will have no trouble identifying the inhuman “them” that Jimmy commands.

In his Introduction to the book, Partridge notes the prevalence of cemeteries (inhabited by “some pretty disturbing monsters,” human and otherwise) in his fiction. “Black Leather Kites” forms a perfect instance of this. The story, tracing the dark machinations of devil-cultist werebats on Halloween night, is enjoyable not just for its wonderfully weird plot but for the humorous banter between the deputy protagonist and his brother-in-law.

Like “Black Leather Kites,” “Three Doors” climaxes in a cemetery. The tale involves a physically- and psychologically-wounded veteran who paints his prosthetic hand black for Halloween in the hopes of gaining magical powers (that will in turn help effect his elopement with the girl he loves). Plot-wise, this is probably the least effective entry in the book; I suspect that some readers will be disappointed by the conclusion of this highly self-conscious story. Nonetheless, Partridge’s hard-boiled voice resounds like the brusque knocks of the protagonist’s fist.

The one piece original to the collection, “The Jack O’ Lantern,” makes Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season a must-have even if you are already familiar with the other selections. This volume-concluding novelette serves as a prequel to Partridge’s incredible Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative is at once action-packed and contemplative, reflecting upon what it’s like to grow up living in a strictly dead-end town.

If you want to treat yourself to some fine reading this Halloween season, trek on over to Cemetery Dance and drop a copy of Johnny Halloween into your goody bag.

 

Halloween: New Poems (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a review that appeared on the Macabre blog way back in 2010.

Halloween: New Poems, Edited by Al Sarrantonio (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2010)

The Halloween Season is fast approaching, and what better way to ready for it than to read this delightful anthology put together by renowned October scribe Al Sarrantonio (HorrorweenHallows EveHalloweenland). Halloween: New Poems collects 41 (i.e. 10 + 31) pieces of original work by 19 different luminaries in the horror genre (and also features stellar artwork by Alan Clark and Keith Minion). Some of the standout poems are Steve Rasnic Tem’s “How to Play Dead,” which kicks off the book with an eerie narrative about a glutinous doorstep beggar, and Elizabeth Massie’s “Spider’s Night Out,” which  presents the holiday from the titular insect’s point of view. Tom Piccirilli’s “Phantom Pains” is a haunting tale of tragedy and remorse, and James A. Moore’s “Autumn” wonderfully matches the bereft mood of the speaker to the season’s dying landscape. Sarrantonio himself weighs in with a trio of amusing poems whose concise lines read like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Emily Dickinson. Perhaps the highlight of the book, though, is the inclusion of the first-ever published verse by Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s distinctive style and darkly comedic worldview are on display in a half-dozen entries, including the gloriously grisly “Observing Nature on Halloween Night.”

Halloween: New Poems features a surprising number of pieces that employ quick-fire rhymes, which at times give the contents of the book a sing-song quality. But Bradley Denton, whose “Cap’n Hook (A Tale of the Prairie)” forms the longest (and most visceral) selection in the anthology, seems wryly self-aware of the limerick-like quality of its stanzas. Take, for example, the following excerpt, in which a group of teenage farmhands lust after the boss’s daughter:

Now wait just a minute,”
piped up both of the Bobs.
“I saw her this morning
“when we came for the job.

“She was there by the barn
“as we got in the truck.
She was watchin’ and grinnin’
“like she wanted to–”

“Hold on now!” snapped Jimmy.
“Y’all can just stop it!
“We’re here to throw bales,
“not to spread lies and gossip!”

At $40, the price of the trade hardcover will no doubt be steep for the non-collector–especially considering that the slim volume can be read in about an hour. At the same time, though, this is the type of book that you’ll eagerly pull off your shelf year after year; such assured treasuring makes Halloween: New Poems a worthy investment in October festiveness.

 

Short Story Glory: “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge

Imported from the Macabre Republic: a post that first appeared on the old blog back in October 2013.

Dark Harvest meets Pet Sematary meets “The Lottery” in Brian Hodge’s “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” (anthologized in Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre). But this is not to suggest that Hodge’s narrative is derivative in the least; the story is stunningly original, and presents a masterful mix of American Gothic and Halloween themes.

The isolated rural community of Dunhaven isn’t like other towns, and its Halloween rituals are undeniably unique. October’s closing night “brought more than just trickery and mischief. In Dunhaven, genuine magic, dark magic, pierced the veil on All Hallows Eve.” Each Halloween, a scarecrow figure stationed in the town square animates with the spirit of a resident who died within the past year. According to custom, the particular returnee is determined by the personally-significant memorabilia left at the foot of the scarecrow’s cross. Right up until the time the eldritch effigy climbs down from its post, it’s unknown which decedent will be communicating with his family from the beyond. This uncertainty supercharges the town–and the story itself–with tension and suspense as the night of the visitation approaches.

Hodge extrapolates brilliantly from this premise, dramatizing the emotional toll the situation has on the survivors of the annual decedents and exploring whether such postmortem reunion is truly a blessing or a curse. The author also shows the effect the rite has on Dunhaven as a whole, inspiring “a deep legacy of secrecy” and turning the town insular (“the last thing [the townspeople] wanted was a tide of incomers desperately seeking assurance of life after death, driving up the property tax base in the process”). But the most intriguing development of all is the “sabotage” and “subterfuge” that attends the Halloween event. Some Dunhavenites pull out all the stops–to ensure their loved one will vivify the scarecrow, or to prevent the revelation of incriminating deeds. As the protagonist Bailey notes, “the dead had secrets, and sometimes the living had a powerful interest in making sure both stayed on the other side, unseen, unheard.”

An incredible sense of anticipation builds as the narrative takes readers through Halloween day and evening. When the climax finally occurs, Hodge provides a pair of terrific plot twists (you might think you know how this story will end up, but you’ll likely be wrong). Ultimately, the narrative reminds us that masking is not just germane to Halloween but to everyday life, with the veil of civility disguising heinous natures.

“We, the Fortunate Bereaved” is an instant classic, and as good a piece of Halloween literature as I have ever read. It perfectly embodies the subtitle of Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre, which (as I attested in my earlier review) is an enjoyable anthology overall, but is worth owning for this amazing autumn tale alone.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre (Book Review)

The following is a re-post of a review that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2013.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre. Edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013).

Guran’s previous high-holiday effort, 2011’s Halloween, was an indisputable October treasury; perhaps its only drawback was that it consisted strictly of reprints, meaning that ardent fans of Halloween fiction were likely to have encountered many of the selections before. But Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre poses no such problem, presenting readers with eighteen (highly) original stories. Some of the standouts:

• “Thirteen” by Stephen Graham Jones. A tale (the best of its kind since Joe Hill’s “Twentieth Century Ghost”) that takes the haunted theater motif in a startlingly different direction. Jones effortlessly blends small-town reality with supernatural sinisterness.

• “The Mummy’s Heart” by Norman Partridge. This one features a monster kid run amok, a psycho who’s seen one too many Karloff movies. The real fun, though, starts when dark crime shades over into dark fantasy. Lovers of the Universal monster movies will be enthralled by Partridge’s re-bandaging of the mummy mythos.

• “Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story” by Jonathan Maberry. A quietly haunting piece in its own right, this narrative is also noteworthy for its depiction of Pine Deep several years after the cataclysmic events of the novel trilogy (cf. Stephen King’s “One for the Road”). “Long Way Home” excitingly suggests that Maberry is a long way from done with mining the Most Haunted Town in America for story material.

• “The Halloween Men” by Maria V. Snyder. The most Bradbury-esque entry in the anthology, but the Bradbury of the dystopian “Usher II” more than Something Wicked This Way Comes. Snyder’s alternate-Venice setting is captivating, and her carnivalesque reworking of the idea of the Halloween mask is terribly clever.

• “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. A work that transports readers to a colonized Mars in the far future, yet hearkens back to the ancient Celtic roots of Halloween. Kiernan’s story is to be cherished both for its diligent world-building and its mesmerizing prose.

• “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge. The best treat in the whole goody bag.  I’ll have more to say about this piece in a subsequent post.

As its subtitle heralds, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre offers a variety of genre approaches to the October holiday. The anthology furnishes ample proof that new tricks can be wrung from old tropes, so here’s hoping that Guran (who bookends the contents with an entertaining intro and editor bio) continues to solicit groundbreaking stories and produces additional all-new Halloween ensembles in the coming autumns.

 

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.