Deadly Misstep

The title of Stephen King’s latest short story (published in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magaizine) might suggest a scaling of a rotting staircase in a haunted hilltop mansion, but the setting and situation in “The Fifth Step” prove much more mundane. Retiree Harold Jamieson is spending a quiet mid-May morning in Central Park reading the New York Times when a nondescript fortysomething male sits down alongside him and asks a favor. The man admits to being an alcoholic, and needs someone to help him perform the Fifth Step of his AA program (“Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”). At first wary at being approached, Harold eventually agrees to lend an ear. The stranger proceeds with his confession, and these two figures appear fortuitously met. Of course, this being a King tale, all is not fated to end well.

However expected, the dark turn of the story’s climax manages to surprise with its sharp execution. A second go-through of the brief narrative shows just how deftly King prepared for the final twist, planting subtle clues (including the very name of the alcoholic character) along the way. “The Fifth Step” likely won’t take home a Stoker Award, but this well-crafted conte cruel successfully delivers a nasty little jolt to Constant Readers.

 

Gettysburg Gothic

In my last Lore Report, I noted how Aaron Mahnke’s podcast episode focused on the haunted nature of Gettysburg. Such subject matter has called to mind a genre work that covers similar ground in its positing of uncanny unpleasantness lingering at the famous Civil War battle site: Dan Simmons’s masterful 1988 novella “Iverson’s Pits.”

Simmons establishes a sense of positively dread-filled suspense right from the opening lines: “As a young boy I was not afraid of the dark. As an old man, I am wiser,” the octogenarian narrator intones. This brief opening section of the novella frames the reflection back on the summer of 1913, when the narrator was chosen as a ten-year-old Boy Scout to assist at the “Great Reunion” of Civil War veterans commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. The experience there appears to have traumatized the narrator, who completely hooks the reader’s interest with these first-paragraph-closing hints at the sinister: “Even now, three-quarters of a century later, I am unable to turn over black soil in the garden or to stand alone in the grassy silence of my grandson’s backyard after the sun has set without a hint of cold fingers on the back of my neck.” No less intriquing is the concluding paragraph of the frame section, in which the narrator articulates a quintessential Gothic theme: “The past is dead and buried. But I know now that buried things have a way of rising to the surface when one least expects them to.”

A “dark festival” tinge is given to the golden anniversary proceedings, as the narrator conveys his ten-year-old self’s chilling thought “that fifty years ago Death had given a grand party and 140,000 revelers had arrived in their burial clothes.” Scripted in retrospect, such grim perspective can be seen as influenced by Captain Montgomery, the salty Civil War veteran to whom the narrator has been assigned. Montgomery has hardly gotten into the Reunion spirit: “Goddamn idiots,” he grouses about the other gathered veterans. “Celebratin’ like it’s a county fair.” For Montgomery, the Gettysburg battlefield was just a form of open-air slaughterhouse “where they kill you and gut you down the middle…dump your insides out on the goddamn floor and kick ’em aside to get at the next fool. ..hack the meat off your bones, grind up the bones for fertilizer, then grind up everythin’ else you got that ain’t prime meat and wrap it in your own guts to sell it to the goddamn public as sausage. Parades. War stories. Reunions. Sausage, Boy.”

But if Montgomery is more preoccupied with carnage rather than the carnivalesque, why did he even attend the Reunion? His presence at Gettysburg in 1913 results from his fifty-year vendetta against the titular Confederate colonel whose folly delivered Montgomery’s regiment up to ambush and massacre. Montgomery believes Iverson is not only still alive, but also that he will be drawn to the Reunion, and so the captain embarks (with the narrator drafted as a sidekick) on a mission of deadly retribution. Iverson does in fact appear by tale’s end, but nothing goes according to plan in Montgomery’s confrontation with the notorious officer. I don’t want to spoil the climax by revealing too much about it, other than to say that it is an absolute tour de force. The hitherto Faulkneresque narrative veers toward the Lovecraftian, as the angry spirits of mortally-wounded soldiers prove much more visceral, and monstrous, than your typical ghosts. The hunger for vengeance at Gettysburg has a decidedly sharp-toothed edge.

The evocative prose of “Iverson’s Pits” draws upon all five senses, and Simmons vividly realizes the Gettysburg scene before the supernatural elements surface in the climax. The reader can’t help but relate intimately to the horror, as evident in this excerpt from an extended dream sequence in which the narrator (whom the monomaniacal Montgomery repeatedly mistakes for a drummer boy in his regiment killed at Gettysburg) is starkly self-aware of his own postmortem decomposition:

I felt my lips wither and dry in the heat, pulling back from my teeth, felt my jaws open wider and wider in a mirthless, silent laugh as ligaments decayed or were chewed away by small predators. I felt lighter as the eggs hatched, the maggots began their frenzied cleansing, my body turning toward the dark soil as the process accelerated. My mouth opened wide to swallow the waiting Earth. I tasted the dark communion of dirt. Stalks of grass grew where my tongue had been. A flower found rich soil in the humid sepulcher of my skull and sent its shoot curling upward through the gap which had once held my eye.

All told, “Iverson’s Pits” is a nightmarish tale of unquiet death and grisly comeuppance. For all its pulpy, terror-from-beyond-the-grave plot, the narrative does not fail to resonate, to sound deeper truths about human existence. Studying the elderly, decrepit Montgomery as he sleeps, the narrator realizes, “with a precise and prescient glimpse at the terrible fate of my own longevity, that age was a curse, a disease, and that all of us unlucky to survive our childhoods were doomed to suffer and perish from it. Perhaps, I thought, it is why young men go willingly to die in wars.” In the concluding frame section, the narrator expands the scope of his story to include other, post-Civil-War battlefields across the globe: “But the fruit and copper taste of the soil remains the same. The silent communion among the casually sacrificed and the forgotten-buried also remains the same. Sometimes I think of the mass graves which have fertilized this century and I weep for my grandson and great-grandchildren.”

The horrors of war are well established in the annals of genre fiction, but never have they been documented as movingly as in “Iverson’s Pits.”  And while Dan Simmons has gone on to a long and distinguished career marked by an unparalleled ability to combine historical record with dark fantasy elements (e.g. his 2007 epic The Terror), his incredible talent appears fully germinated in this early novella.

 

Bly from the Other Side

In my last post, I noted how Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has strongly influenced various works of American Gothic (in both fiction and TV/film). No writer, though, has engaged more directly with James’s classic novella than Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1992 short story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) completely turns the screw on the source narrative.

Oates’s clever conceit is to revise the Jamesian precursor text by presenting the narrative from the point of view of Bly’s two deceased employees–former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint. By no means does Oates glamorize the postmortem existence of these two ghostly/quasi-physical figures lurking in the so-called “catacombs,” an “abandoned storage area in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.” Even to herself, Jessel is an object of “horror” and “disgust” as she washes “mud-muck” off her body and picks beetles out of the tangles of her hair (she has also developed some ghoulish appetites, and is prone to feral pouncing on vermin encountered on the estate). Nevertheless, by delving into the perspectives of Jessel and Quint, Oates endeavors to cast the ghosts abhorred by James’s governess in a more sympathetic light. While denounced as “depraved, degenerate sinners” by “all in the vicinity of Bly,” the couple is not depicted here as a pair of demonic figures intent on corrupting the innocent children Miles and Flora.

The title of Oates’s story is thus significant, as what at first sounds like a blunt denunciation is proven by the ensuing story to be not necessarily the case. “Accursed” works on a couple of levels, both natural and supernatural. The term references the slander by the seemingly decent Christians living in and around Bly, and also points to the question of whether Jessel and Quint have been damned by some higher power (Jessel is a suicide–a ruined woman summarily dismissed from Bly, she threw her pregnant body into the lake on the manor grounds–and the mourning Quint’s fatal, drunken tumble “was perhaps not accidental, either”). Either way, Jessel and Quint are not the only accursed inhabitants of Bly, as Oates’s title further encompasses the tragic existence of the orphans Miles and Flora. The relationship between all four characters–forced by circumstance into forming a strange, surrogate family–is indeed central to the story. Yes, the late Jessel and Quint might be “accursed by love” of one another, but it’s also their love for the children that keeps them haunting this house: “It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved.” Just as an affair between the two employees trapped in “the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly” was inevitable, the insinuation by the love-starved children into the adult couple’s trysting is (according to Oates’s interpretation) an understandable, not unnatural turn of events.

Oates executes a delicate balancing act, as her story gives name to the unspoken horrors of James’s Victorian narrative, and, like a depth charge, sends the sexual subtext of The Turn of the Screw surging to the surface. She tactfully handles difficult subject matter–sexual relations between adults and minors–touching on the taboo without ever resorting to inappropriate prurience. Of course, Oates has not scripted some curious endorsement of pedophilia here; her story works more in opposition to the facile demonizing of same-sex relationships. As the author herself remarked (in a letter to the New York Times in response to a review of her story), her aim was at “reimagining homoerotic ties as not ‘by nature’ repellent.” Quint’s own pondering in the story–“How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love’s comforts?”–is not a mere self-justification of illicit behavior bur rather poses a broader question to Oates’s audience. Presented as neither sexual nor supernatural predators, Oates’s versions of Quint and Jessel are not hellbent on luring Miles and Flora to their doom but desperately seek the solace of family reunion.

If Quint and Jessel are largely redeemed here, two other characters from James’s novella are overtly villainized in their place. The absentee Master of Bly is exposed as a spurious gentleman. Drunken and dissolute, he is an unloving uncle to the two unfortunate children left in his care. Worse still is his pronounced homophobia, as he says to Quint of Miles (ironically blind to the relationship that will subsequently bloom between valet and child): “I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly.” Meanwhile, James’s narrator, the governess, is presented as repugnant in both her physical appearance (“homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board”) and fanatical personality (marked by “a Puritan’s prim, punitive zeal”). Recasting the either-or dilemma of James’s famously ambiguous narrative, Oates shows that revenants are in residence at Bly, yet the governess is nonetheless a “madwoman.”

Oates’s prose style here proves more accessible, but no less elegant, than James’s. Her story excises the more tedious elements of The Turn of the Screw (the governess’s ruminations and conversations with Mrs. Grose), zeroing in on the key scenes (the governess’s ghostly encounters) and reflecting them from a different angle of vision. The result is not some bloodless postmodernist exercise but an intriguing touchstone to the original novella. As new versions of The Turn of the Screw head to the big screen and streaming (Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) next year, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” surely warrants its own film adaptation. Perhaps the best part of such  cinematic translation, though, would be its leading more readers back to the short story, which testifies to Oates’s preeminent status as a writer of Gothic fiction.

 

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.

 

Hardly Garden Variety

 

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year after I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to tell it.

How’s that for an opening hook? These lines from Mariano Alonso’s short story “Nemesia’s Garden” (published in Cemetery Dance #76) drew me in quicker than the snap of a Venus flytrap.

The story is set primarily in the Dakota Building in Manhattan (filmed as “The Bramford” by Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby; coincidentally, CD#76 also features an essay by Peter Straub marking the 50th anniversary of Ira Levin’s landmark horror novel). Thankfully, though, Alonso doesn’t recur to the device of devilish impregnation. Matters here (involving the botanical extravaganza of a room occupied by the aged, wheelchair-bound eponymous character) are much more exotic and eccentric than suggested by the story’s quaint title.

Alonso’s plot proceeds with subtlety and misdirection, building skillfully to a twisty revelation in the closing paragraphs. Dealing in sibling rivalry, surreptitious poisons, and wild transmogrifications, “Nemesia’s Garden” exudes a modern fairy tale air. But its fantastic elements are well grounded in the everyday, and rooted in the historical (as the story hearkens back to post-Nazi-invasion Poland). Alonso has crafted a tale that is at once beautifully descriptive and hauntingly outre. This latest edition of Cemetery Dance presents several strong stories, but “Nemesia’s Garden” without doubt forms the dark highlight of the issue.

 

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Postscript: if you are interested in learning more about the haunted history of the Dakota Building, check out this short essay by Orrin Grey.

 

Canine Surprise: Stephen King’s “Laurie”

Stephen King’s latest short story (posted–without previous notice–as a free download at the author’s website) opens with the gifting of the eponymous mutt to a grieving, elderly widower by his sister. Mid-scene, Beth mentions to her brother Lloyd that “dogs die in cars. Especially little ones.” That is exactly the fate of the Jack Russell terrier Biznezz in another canine-centered King story, the Carveresque “Premium Harmony,” which leads one to wonder if “Laurie” will unfold in a similarly minimalist and irony-rich vein. On the other hand, since this is Stephen King we are talking about, there’s also the possibility that the gruesome chaos of Cujo could erupt. No small part of the fun of reading “Laurie” is the uncertainty of just where the tale is heading. King ultimately delivers a wicked curve, resulting in a suspenseful–and somewhat bloody–climax. The narrative works as both a chilling bit of realistic horror (to which the Florida setting is essential) and a heartwarming account of the developing bond between owner and pet. Hardly a shaggy dog story, “Laurie” rewards Constant Readers with a fine, unexpected treat.