Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Cistern”

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

 

“The Cistern” (1947)

On a rainy afternoon, Anna stares dreamily out the front window and waxes fanciful about the titular receptacle: “A dead city, right here, right under our feet,” she tells her fellow-spinster sister Juliet. Anna imagines an experience of secrecy and childlike fun, “liv[ing] in the cistern and peek[ing] up at people through the slots and see[ing] them not see you.” She also envisions a pair of dead lovers residing in such underground abode, desiccate mummies reanimated each rainy season (“She told how the water rose and took the woman with it, unfolding her out and loosening her and standing her full upright in the cistern”) and sent floating out to sea in circumnavigation of the globe. Matters take a darker turn, though, when Anna suddenly insists that the dead man in the cistern is her old beau Frank (who’s “been gone for years, and certainly not down there,” Juliet tells her sister). Distraught, Anna weeps silently. Juliet dozes off, but wakes to the sounds of Anna fleeing outdoors and the cistern lid lifting and slamming down again.

“The Cistern” warrants multiple readings if only for its crafted ambiguity. Does Bradbury’s tale put more emphasis on uncanny rebirth (the lovers’ amazing resuscitation by the rainwaters) or tragic death (as the lonely, loveless, and mentally anguished Anna presumably drowns herself)? In its consideration of a fantastic underworld, the story anticipates the work of Tim Burton (e.g. Corpse Bride). But the macabre implications of the story also point to a certain Stephen King opus where the sewer system (not to mention the idea of floating corpses) proves much more sinister.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Night”

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

 

“The Night” (1946)

In the year 1927, an 8-year-old boy and his mother “are all alone at home in the warm darkness of summer.” Dad is at a lodge meeting, and the boy’s older brother Skipper, 12, is out playing with his friends. Matters turn worrisome when Skipper doesn’t come home on time. The mother and the boy venture out to look for him, and their search naturally gravitates toward the town-bisecting ravine, a “pit of jungled blackness” with “a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odor.” It is a region where “civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.” The mother and the boy fear that Skipper might have tried to cut across the ravine and encountered “Tramps. Criminals. Darkness. Accident. Most of all-Death.” Just as the dread builds to a crescendo, though, Skipper appears with his friends, safe and sound. But the boy has been struck by “the essential impact of life’s loneliness,” and the incident has a significant effect on his outlook onto to the world.

Bradbury, somewhat unusually, writes the story in the second-person, perhaps to emphasize universality (“There are a million small towns like this all over the world,” he writes. “Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder.”). Perhaps the author was just trying to distance himself from a story rooted in autobiography (Bradbury would subsequently expand on this material in “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” and Dandelion Wine, both of which explicitly invoke the serial killer known as “The Lonely One”). The sinister ravine setting proves a prominent element of Bradbury’s Green Town milieu, and also prefigures the Barrens in Stephen King’s American Gothic opus, IT. Yes, “The Night” casts a long shadow, and none of its dark brilliance has dulled after seventy-five years.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Handler”

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

 

“The Handler” (1947)

Bradbury’s title character, Mr. Benedict, is a “funeral man,” owner of a combined mortuary, church, and churchyard: “He handled you in and out of buildings with a minimum of confusion and a maximum of synthetic benediction.” Benedict suffers from an inferiority complex (“Anything that lived or moved made him feel apologetic and melancholy”), and because of his profession is subjected to “all the little slurs and intonations and insults” from the townspeople. But Benedict hardly forms a sympathetic figure; he is a “puppet-master” of “his own little theater of the cold,” venting “his repressions on his hapless guests. Some he locked in their boxes upside down, some face down, or making obscene gestures.” One haughty woman who in life prided herself on her intellect and was addicted to junk food has her brains removed and her empty skull filled with whipped cream. And the cadaver of a virulent racist turns pitch black after Benedict substitutes ink for embalming fluid. Benedict’s secret depravity is discovered when old Merriwell Blythe, a man “afflicted with spells and comas,” is mistaken for dead and awakens on the slab. As Blythe is murdered by Benedict, he calls upon the desecrated dead interred in the churchyard to arise and take vengeance on the funeral man. Apparently, his words are heard: evidence the next day suggests that an angry mob of postmortem townspeople attacked Benedict, dismembered him, and buried his body parts under several headstones.

Benedict is a now-common character type (the monstrously perverse mortician), and the beats of the story (in which a reprehensible character receives macabre comeuppance) will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever read an E.C. comic or watched Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow. At the time of its original publication, though, “The Handler” must have been quite (ahem) groundbreaking in its gruesomeness. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, cites the piece as one of Bradbury’s 1940s efforts that were “so horrible” (in their subject matter, not their craftsmanship), the author “now repudiates them.”  With the possible exception of “The October Game,” “The Handler” stands as the darkest and grimmest story Bradbury ever composed.

 

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Small Assassin”

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

 

“The Small Assassin” (1946)

Sometimes Bradbury’s common “The ___” story title structures can be a bit prosaic, but “The Small Assassin” is a terrific attention-grabber (the opening sentence of the piece also serves as a killer hook: “Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.”). After a difficult Caesarian birth, Alice Leiber considers her newborn boy an alien horror to be dreaded. At first her fears are dismissed as a psychological aberration, but mounting evidence (e.g., wakeful staring, sounds of out-of-crib scurrying, toys dangerously positioned on the staircase) points to the child actually possessing sinister sentience. Bradbury takes one of the happiest experiences known to humanity–the birth of a baby–and turns it into a source of the uncanny. After witnessing the grim fates of Alice and her husband, the reader’s perception of infants (these “strange, red little creatures” whose presumed helplessness/innocence provides a “perfect alibi” for their hateful crimes) might be darkened forevermore.

The deadly baby/child has since become a pop cultural trope, but Bradbury’s seminal narrative (the scalpel-wielding, baby-hunting Dr. Jeffers at story’s end anticipates the showdown between Louis and Gage Creed in the climax of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary) furnishes arguably the most effective example all-time of a pint-sized fright figure.

 

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.