Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Tombstone”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Tombstone” (1945)

Bradbury offers a wonderfully offbeat premise: a carved headstone found sitting in the middle of a rented room in an apartment house. Turns out, the previous occupant, Mr. Whetmore was an “apprentice marble-cutter” who botched his first commission, mistakenly spelling the decedent’s name as “White” instead of “Whyte.” A perfectionist with an inferiority complex, Whetmore became so upset by his erroneous etching that he ran off that morning and left the tombstone behind (now the landlord is in the process of arranging its removal).

Despite this perfectly rational explanation for the object’s presence in the room, Leota seizes the opportunity to act superstitious and deliberately “frustrate” her husband Walter (whom she resents for his air of superiority and penchant for “spoiling her fun”). Leota treats Mr. White’s marker as an actual gravesite (placing cut flowers in front of the tombstone) and carries on that the late figure is haunting the room (in vain, Walter tries to explain to his wife that the muffled voice heard through the floorboards is that of the man in the room directly below them). At story’s end, Whetmore comes knocking and happily retrieves his abandoned handiwork. By “the most astonishing stroke of luck,” he has found someone who can make use of the “White” tombstone. He promptly ventures one floor down, presenting the marker to Mrs. White (whose pneumonic husband has passed away in the room below). To Leota and Walter’s shock, they have been living above a dead man this night after all.

The climax of “The Tombstone” is too coincidental to satisfy in dramatic terms, and the “shivering” (of Leota and Walter) in the closing paragraph doesn’t elicit the same fearful reaction from the reader. But the piece is noteworthy for the marked antagonism between wife and husband. Already in our revisiting of Dark Carnival, we have seen Bradbury depict unhappily married couples (“The Jar”; “The Lake”), and we will witness such character types again in the collection. In retrospect, “The Tombstone” highlights Bradbury’s strong influence on the horror genre, as the Constant Reader of Stephen King (and his many tales where the road trip of a bickering husband and wife takes a turn for the weird) would doubtless recognize.

 

Firestarter (2022): Rapid-Fire Reaction

Some immediate thoughts on the Firestarter remake (now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock):

*In contrast to the frenetically paced 1984 original (which, like the Stephen King novel, begins in medias res, with Andy and Charlie already on the run), the remake operates at a slow burn. The film takes the time in its opening scenes to delve into the domestic life of all three McGees: Charlie, Andy, and Vicky (who are all living without cell phones or wifi, for fear of being traced and tracked down). The parents’ struggle to raise their special child–the debate over whether to suppress Charlie’s pyrokinesis or train her how to use her abilities–makes for compelling drama.

*From the outset, the upgrade in acting (vs. the original) is evident. Zac Efron brings emotional depth and range to the role of Andy McGee, whereas David Keith in the original was a one-note character who presented as little more than a washed-out oaf. Similarly, Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie proves herself to be a much more skilled performer than Drew Barrymore (whose talent at that age basically consisted of being cute). Anyone who watched Armstrong’s killer turn in the most recent season of American Horror Story won’t be surprised to find that the young actress has the chops to play a gifted/cursed child such as Charlie.

*Because of the film’s tight focus on McGee family dynamics, the Shop does get a bit shortchanged here. The story of the shadowy agency and its questionable experiments is mostly confined to an opening-credits-scene montage. A strong sense of the Shop as a sinister U.S. government operation is lacking in the remake.

*The new Firestarter does correct one of the most dubious aspects of the original, by casting an actual Native American (Michael Greyeyes) to play John Rainbird. At the same time, the remake alters the character drastically. SPOILER ALERT: This version of Rainbird was also subjected to the Lot 6 drug experiment, and developed psionic powers of his own. An unnecessary and not very rewarding development of the character, one that threatened to push the plot towards an X-Men-type showdown. But the bigger issue is that the film doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with Rainbird, and muddles matters by attempting to turn him into a quasi-sympathetic figure. Rainbird’s devious manipulation of Charlie (so central to King’s novel and George C. Scott’s portrayal in the 1984 film) is completely lost here.

*Contra the original, the climax of the remake is not terribly pyrotechnic (although the images of Charlie projecting her rage like a blowtorch are effective throughout the film). All this is in keeping with the more restrained and intimate approach of the 2022 Firestarter, and thus does not seem like a letdown or failure to live up to the fiery spectacle of the 1984 version.

*The final scene–all I will note here is that it involves Charlie and Rainbird–is one likely to polarize viewers (perhaps like none other since Hannibal). I wasn’t very satisfied by it (it’s hard to supply my reasons why without getting into spoilers), but will reserve the right to change my mind should a sequel film ever follow from it.

*1984’s Firestarter drew closely from the Stephen King novel; it played all the requisite notes, yet ultimately failed to capture the “music” of King’s narrative. The more greatly deviating remake features a stronger script, more convincing acting, and better FX than the original. By no means can it be viewed as a classic adaptation of King’s work, but the 2022 Firestarter does make for an entertaining update of its cinematic predecessor.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Blacula

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

 

What if Dracula was given the blaxploitation treatment?

While Bram Stoker’s Dracula–which concerns the invasion of London by a horrid Eastern European other–probes British colonialist fears, it steers relatively clear of issues of race (regrettably, Stoker resorts to racial caricature in his objectionable portrait of the African manservant Oolanga in his later novel The Lair of the White Worm). Race is made much more overt, however, in a 1972 cinematic variation, the punningly titled Blacula.

Truth be told, the film deals loosely with the Stoker source text. Its closest intersection comes in an opening sequence set at Castle Dracula in the year 1780. The African prince Mamuwalde has traveled there with his bride Luva to enlist the Count’s support in eradicating the slave trade. Behaving less like a Transylvanian nobleman than a southern plantation owner, the lascivious Dracula instead offensively offers to purchase Mamuwalde’s “delicious wife.” Called an animal by the outraged Mamuwalde, the racist Dracula retorts: “Let us not forget, sir, it is you who comes from the jungle.” To no surprise, a scuffle ensues, and Mamuwalde ends up bitten by the Count, cursed with the name “Blacula,” and sealed inside a coffin.

And there he remains for nearly two centuries, until a pair of gay interior decorators on a buying trip in Transylvania purchase the coffin and have it shipped to the U.S. A basic redux of Dracula thus unfolds, with Stoker’s novel of vampiric predation recast with black actors and restaged in 1970’s Los Angeles (a distinctly American urban scene marked by nightclubs and taxicabs). The film, though, gets tangled up in a romantic plotline seemingly borrowed from Dark Shadows, as the resurrected Mamuwalde believes the character Tina is the reincarnation of his beloved 18th Century bride Luva. Other than an offhand remark that the L.A.P.D. doesn’t investigate some strange murders too diligently because the victims were minorities, Blacula (which was directed by an African-American, William Crain) makes little use of its updated milieu, and provides scant commentary on the matter of black lives during that time period.

By no means can this subgenre flick ever be mistaken as high art. Blacula features hammy acting (although William Marshall does give a regal performance as the title neckbiter) and lousy, low-budget makeup effects (vampire minions sport garish greenface). The film is also terribly dated; the N-word is prevalent, and homosexual slurs are casually employed. But in its transplanting of the classic vampire narrative onto American soil, Blacula stands as a notable transition piece (that both looks back to Dark Shadows and anticipates Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot). A reboot reportedly is in the works, and needless to say, it will be quite interesting to see what kind of statement such a vehicle might make in the present era of more socially conscious horror filmmaking.

 

Putting King in The Kingcast

Today The Kingcast podcast presents the ultimate embodiment of its name, as it features Stephen King himself as guest! Akin to any King interview, this hour-long episode is filled with humorous and highly enlightening bits. Early into the discussion, King shares an amusing (and unabashedly low-brow) story concerning a Japanese tour group outside his home. He discusses difficulties with getting The Dead Zone published, and identifies the actress he believes should have won an Oscar for her performance in one of the film adaptations of his books. The adaptation process is explored at length here, particularly in relation to Lisey’s Story. Discussion of the bleak ending of the nightmarish horror novel Revival leads to the question of whether King dreads his own mortality, and the author responds by detailing what he fears even more than death. King is also prompted on his collaboration process with Richard Chizmar in the Gwendy books, and hosts Scott Wampler and Eric Vespe pose plentiful question about the Dark Tower series. Oh, and along the way King casually drops some major news: a forthcoming novel titled Holly, which focuses on one of his favorite (and most recurring) characters, Holly Gibney.

I could listen to King talk 24/7 and be completely entertained, so this unexpected treat that appeared today flat out made my day. Constant Readers, or any fans of the adaptation of King’s work, will likely feel the same.

 

“The Raft” Revisited

In his acknowledgements section of My Heart is a Chainsaw (which I reviewed here yesterday), Stephen Graham Jones writes: “Next I want to thank some writers who are involved with [my novel], though they don’t know it. The first is, once again, Stephen King. His story ‘The Raft’ is shot all through Chainsaw. I may hold the record for having read that story the most times.” Jones’s comments struck me as curious, since I remembered the King story as more of a cosmic horror tale (the monstrous, shimmering “black thing” lurking atop the lake like some sentient and carnivorous oil slick seems a literary descendant of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”). The avowal of influence prompted me to go back and reread “The Raft,” to gauge its slasher qualities.

Upon further review, “The Raft” (pub. 1982) does contain many of the now-familiar components of slasher narratives. The plot presents an inciting transgression: four college students venture out to Cascade Lake knowing full well the beach has been closed since Labor Day but planning to bid a frolicking farewell to Indian summer with a late-October swim out to the titular float. The students also conform to slasher character types, with roommates Deke and Randy self-aware of their status as “the Jock and the Brain.” Meanwhile, Rachel is the relatively good girl (no final girl, though), and LaVerne the mean/slutty girl (with her witch-like cackle and unabashed stealing of Deke right in front of Rachel). LaVerne’s frank sexuality is signaled by the nearly transparent state of the bra and panties she strips down to before diving into the lake.

“The Raft” also features some gruesome set-piece kills. First, the mesmerized Rachel is engulfed by the lake monster’s viscous viciousness: “Randy could see it sinking into her like acid, and when her jugular vein gave way in a dark, pumping jet, he saw the thing send out a pseudopod after the escaping blood.” Even more unforgettably graphic is the demise of Deke, sucked down through the raft after the creature catches hold of his foot by bubbling up between the wooden boards. King methodically details Deke’s crushing plunge–“the wishbone crack of his pelvis,” the “sound like strong teeth crunching up a mouthful of candy jawbreakers” as Deke’s ribs “collaps[e] into the crack,” the grotesque way “Deke’s eyes had bugged out as if on springs as hemorrhages caused by hydrostatic pressure pulped his brain.” For certain, it’s as grim a death to be found anywhere in the King canon.

Perhaps most tellingly, “The Raft” also evinces the conservative morality of the slasher film, which typically mixes raging hormones with homicidal maniacs. Here, too, premarital sex precipitates violent death. Yielding to primal urges amidst their dire entrapment, the last two survivors (LaVerne and the appropriately named Randy) lie down and lovelessly fornicate. Their horizontal boogie, though, only attracts the bogey, which interrupts the coitus when LaVerne’s hair happens to slip into the water (Randy “pulled back suddenly, trying to pull her up, but the thing moved with oily speed and tangled itself in her hair like a webbing of thick black glue and when he pulled her up she was already screaming and she was heavy with it; it came out of the water in a twisting, gruesome membrane that rolled with flaring nuclear colors–scarlet-vermillion, flaring emerald, sullen ocher”).

LaVerne’s obliteration is the last (but not least) of the story’s spectacular splatter effects. All told, “The Raft” is a macabre masterpiece, a frightful tale of reckless teen behavior and terrible predation. King scripts the darkest and bloodiest misadventure ever experienced while floating atop a lake–at least until Jones ups the ante and enlarges the carnage in the wild climax of My Heart is a Chainsaw.

 

Del Toro!

The latest episode of The Kingcast has a very special guest: writer/director Guillermo del Toro. He offers his insights on Stephen King’s horror epic IT (and the miniseries and film adaptations), as well as several other King works. Genre greats such as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson are invoked into the discussion, and del Toro also talks about his upcoming film Nightmare Alley (incidentally, the movie tie-in edition of the William Lindsay Gresham’s source novel was published today). Smart, funny, and utterly likable, del Toro always makes for a terrific interview subject. Residents of the Macabre Republic definitely will want to give this hour-long podcast episode a listen.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#7

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “’59 Frankenstein” (1996)

This vintage piece (first published in Partridge’s edited anthology It Came from the Drive-In) is a premiere example of the author’s love of 50’s-era drive-in movies and “the rockin’ rollin’ juvenile delinquent” horror of early Stephen King (e.g., Christine, “Sometimes They Come Back”). Riffing on the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, the story has an American-based Doctor Frankenstein create an amalgamated monster out of the body parts of high school football players who perished in a team bus accident. Things go south from the outset of the narrative: when the condescending doctor refuses to allow his monster to take a custom hot rod out for a spin, the teenage creation attacks him with a fireplace poker and tosses him down into the alligator pit below the basement laboratory. From here, the action cuts back and forth suspensefully between the doctor’s dire struggle and the creation’s encounters out on the town. While there is a definite grimness to the proceedings (no shortage of gator gore here), the story enchants with its sardonic wit and concludes with a perfectly ironic plot twist. A signature Partridge effort, whose subject matter and stylistic approach would identify its author even if there were no byline stitched below the title.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#8

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

8. “Lesser Demons” (2010)

By his own afterword admission, Partridge doesn’t put much stock in H.P. Lovecraft’s stable of bloodless, swooning characters. No, Partridge subscribes to “the Macbeth school of horror. Which means I like heroes and villains who go down swinging no matter what a pack of witches, or the vagaries of fate, or the universe might have to say.” This utterly harrowing cosmic-horror story (which opens with a scene of laughing, grave-rifling children picking a corpse clean with their filed teeth) has the author’s approach/worldview stamped all over it. The narrator, Sheriff John Dalton, is a classic hardcase, and he has to be, considering all the awful, razor-jawed entities seeking to chomp into him (or even be born from his corpse). Dalton learns to navigate this haunted new world by confronting the hunters and “reading tales written in muscle and blood,” whereas his deputy sheriff, Roy Barnes, pursues answers to the macabre developments by sticking his nose in a grimoire (guess which methodology prevails). All told, this is the best account of the apocalyptic eruption of otherworldly monsters (e.g., “a hoofed minotaur with centipede dreadlocks”; “a giant worm with a dozen sucking maws”; “rat-faced spiders”) since The Mist enveloped Stephen King’s fictional town of Bridgton. With its hard-boiled fortification of Lovecraftian pulp elements, “Lesser Demons” constitutes one of Partridge’s greatest literary feats.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: ’Salem’s Lot

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

 

What if Dracula descended upon rural Maine?

In his biography of Bram Stoker, David J. Skal quotes writer Ralph Milne’s Farley’s claim that Stoker told him he “planned to bring Dracula over to America in a new story.” Skal continues: “Another reason to suspect Stoker considered a sequel is a press clipping, included with his notes, titled ‘Vampires in New England’ and dated 1896–too late to be of use in Dracula, but of great potential utility in a follow-up book set in America.” If Stoker was actually entertaining the idea of an American-set sequel to Dracula, he never did get around to dusting off the (only seemingly vanquished) Count for another bloodletting tour. The absence of such a narrative might be one of the most regrettable turns of genre history, if Stephen King hadn’t filled in this vampiric void with his 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot.

King, in his afterword to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of ’Salem’s Lot, cites Dracula as “the first fully satisfying novel I ever read, and I suppose it is no surprise that it marked me so early and so indelibly.” Nowhere is the mark of Stoker’s vampire novel more evident than in ’Salem’s Lot, an extended act of literary homage that lifts the central plot of Dracula: an undead predator from Eastern Europe decides to relocate to the Western world and seek out fresh blood, but is opposed by a gathering band of fearless vampire hunters (King’s heroes are clearly aware of Dracula, referencing the “Bram Stoker’s evil fairy-tale” repeatedly upon realization of the vampire epidemic spreading through their town). Major scenes from Stoker’s narrative are paralleled: the staking of Lucy Westenra/Susan Norton; the unholy communion of Mina Harker/Father Callahan, forced to drink the king vampire’s blood; the climactic race against sunset to locate the archnemesis’s coffin. King’s head vampire Kurt Barlow clearly hearkens back to Stoker’s Count Dracula. This isn’t “Bela Lugosi’s corny Valentino imitation” (as King writes of Universal’s Dracula in Danse Macabre); nor do we get a romantic/sympathetic vampire figure like Barnabas Collins of the Maine-based Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. No, Barlow is cruel and cunning, savage and utterly evil (e.g. his boasting threat that he not only intends to kill Mark Petrie’s parents but also to emasculate the adolescent prior to vamping him: “you shall enter my church as choirboy castratum“).

What distinguishes ’Salem’s Lot, though, is not so much its carryover from the 1897 precursor novel but rather its points of departure. King does not merely rehash Dracula; he re-maps it by setting it an American small town instead of the urban sprawl of London. This transplanting is crucial, since the rural and isolated situation of ’Salem’s Lot enables Barlow’s scheme of finding a new feeding pen/breeding ground to take root. Unlike in a big city, horror can propagate virtually undetected, as King’s protagonist Ben Mears notes; “A person from out of town could drive through the Lot and not know a thing was wrong. Just another one-horse town where they roll up the sidewalks at nine. But who knows what’s going on in the houses, behind drawn shades? People could be lying in their beds…or propped in closets like brooms…down in cellars…waiting for the sun to go down. And each sunrise, less and less people out on the streets. Less every day.” Barlow himself articulates the advantages of the Lot over the metropolitan:

“I might have bypassed a rustic community such as this,” the stranger said reflectively. “I might have gone to one of your great and teeming cities.  Bah!” He drew himself up suddenly and his eyes flashed. “What do I know of cities? I should be run over by a hansom crossing the street! I should choke on nasty air! I should come in contact with sleek, stupid dilettantes whose concerns are…what do you say? Inimical?…yes, inimical to me. How should a poor rustic like myself deal with the hollow sophistication of a great city…even an American city? No! And no and no! I spit on your cities!”

Count Dracula lacked such foresight, and unlived to regret it. In his introduction to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of Salem’s Lot, King writes: “Stoker was clearly fascinated by modern inventions and innovations, and the underlying thesis of his novel is clear: in a confrontation between a foreign child of the Dark Powers and a group of fine, upstanding Britishers equipped with all the mod cons, the powers of darkness don’t stand a chance.” By contrast, King (as he admits in the afterword to the 2005 edition) “wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula” and its Victorian optimism. Indeed, King’s original intention was to have Barlow “emerge completely triumphant over the puny representatives of the rational world arrayed against him.” Of course, the finished novel does not play out quite so direly. But while Barlow is ultimately destroyed just like Dracula, his nosferatu progeny continue to overrun the Lot, and their eradication is not guaranteed at book’s end (as Ben attempts to smoke them out and send them running by setting fire to the town).

This isn’t the only reason, though, that King’s novel forms a more ominous version of Dracula. For all its sexual suggestiveness, Stoker’s book is remarkably conservative: the dark stranger, the foreign invader, ends up forcibly expelled from the heart of the British Empire. King, meanwhile, suggests that the corruption in ’Salem’s Lot predates the vampire’s arrival. Rife with dirty secrets and sordid scandals, the “town knew about darkness. […] There is no life here but the slow death of days and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take.” Barlow acknowledges that it wasn’t just his correspondence decades earlier with local occultist Hubert Marsten that drew him to ’Salem’s Lot. He finds the town’s collective neck particularly ripe for the pricking: “The folk here are still rich and full-blooded, folk who are stuffed with the aggression and darkness so necessary to” a creature such as himself. In the highlighting of inherent darkness, embedded in ’Salem’s Lot long before something wicked that way came, King’s novel shows that it is no mere clone of Stoker’s, but also traces its literary lineage back through the American Gothic of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the Yoknapatawpha Saga of William Faulkner.

The final word here on this subject ought to go to Clive Barker, who (in his introduction to the 1991 Stephen King Collector’s Edition of ’Salem’s Lot) provides a perfect gloss of King’s novelistic endeavor:

It is not, finally, the vampires that kill ’Salem’s Lot, but rather a corruption in the town itself, or more accurately, in its people: a number of little sins that allow the greater villainy its hold upon the town’s soul. Perhaps it’s this, more than any other element, which so distinguishes the book for me: the sense that ’Salem’s Lot is complicit, by dint of its apathy and obtuseness, in its own destruction. The novel, after all, is not named after the vampire, but after the meat upon which the vampire feasts.

 

 

“Mums” Bumbled

Joe Hill has been intimately connected with Creepshow from the get-go. Long before he became a renowned writer in his own right, the son of Stephen King starred as the comics-loving monsterkid Billy in the frame story of the original film. So when Creepshow was turned into an anthology series on Shudder in 2019, it was only natural that the inaugural season would feature a segment based on one Hill’s stories–“By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain.” Now, the Creepshow series digs into Hill once again with the opening segment of Season 3, an adaptation (co-written by horror legend David J. Schow) of the author’s novelette “Mums.” First published Full Throttle, “Mums” forms a standout piece in Hill’s collection. It is a work that also seems tailor-made for a Creepshow adaptation: “rooted in tragedy, betrayal, and revenge” (as the Creep’s introductory headnote to the episode segment states), the story showcases a “grotesque garden of ghoulish gore.” And that is what makes it so disappointing to discover that the adaptation has been utterly flubbed.

No doubt part of the problem stems from the fact that Hill’s 45-page text has a lot of story to it; Creepshow severely condenses the narrative, stripping it in the process of its complexity and nuance. For starters, the protagonist Jack’s great-great-great grandmother “Meemaw”–a terrifically witchy figure central to Hill’s tale–is written right out of the adaptation, never appearing onscreen. The mystery of the fate of Jack’s mom Bloom is almost immediately resolved (and her demise attributed to a different character than in the novelette). Jack’s father Hank, whom Hill depicts as a powerful and quietly menacing leader of an  American separatist movement, here gets reduced to a one-note cliché (the abusive redneck). Any ambiguity that Hill originally inscribed (the question of whether the horrors are a product of mental illness or supernatural agency) is also lost. Even the monster effects, which one would expect Creepshow to nail, prove underwhelming, like something ordered up from the Little Shop of Horrors.

“Mums,” though, positively shines compared to the episode’s second segment, “Queen Bee”–a nonsensical story rife with cheesy effect (those green glowing eyes flashed by the hospital staff look like props bought at a Spirit Halloween store; the titular monster, however, is quite impressive). Overall, this episode represents a definite step down in quality from the Season 2 premiere (reviewed here). Fans will have to keep their fingerbones crossed that Creepshow issues more satisfying frights in the coming weeks.