A Rebuttal to Lovecraft Haters

H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, simple and plain.

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of the horror genre.

Both of these statements can coexist. To be disgusted by the fact of the former does not necessitate a disavowal of the latter.

This notion does not seem to have been given much consideration these days, in the midst of a rampant “cancel” culture with its rush to politicize/ostracize/erase. Case in point: the recent stoking of the flames of controversy by those who were offended by the awarding of a Retro Hugo (a retroactive honoring, in this instance, of fiction from 1944, a chosen year predating the existence of the Hugo Awards) to Lovecraft. I was alerted to this ostensible issue by a recent essay (more like an op-ed piece) posted by Meghan Ball on the Tor Nightfire website, entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists: On Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos.” I have no intention of defending Lovecraft–whose indisputable racism is indefensible–here, but I do feel that there are problematic aspects of Ball’s rhetoric that need to be addressed.

Ball takes unabashed umbrage at Lovecraft’s posthumous win:

Literally the most racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist jerk in the entire history of horror as a genre got an award. Even more galling, somehow, is that apparently he won for “Best Series” which is a thing he never even really wrote. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Haven’t we suffered enough?

First, it needs to be clarified that this Retro Hugo was awarded to “The Cthulhu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others.” The distinction was not given to Lovecraft alone, yet Ball is quick to cast Derleth and others aside here. Such singling out of Lovecraft (who, as the original creator of what has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos, no doubt deserves prime recognition) suggests someone eager to take shots at the genre’s easiest target.

The grouse that Lovecraft never wrote a series is mere semantics. What I find more relevant is the competition that the Cthulhu Mythos was grouped against for the Retro Hugo. Looking at the other nominees in the “Best Series” category, I don’t think this qualifies as an upset win. Nor do I think the award is the result of any sort of reactionary conspiracy by the voters.

Ball’s lament about suffering is a bit much, smacking of the hyperbolic and melodramatic. And before anyone accuses me of writing from a position of privilege, let me just say that as an Italian-American, I would have been tossed by Lovecraft into the same cauldron of nauseating vitriol. Personally, though, I don’t feel particularly damaged by the choosing of Lovecraft (and others) for the Retro Hugo, or deem it some torturous development for writers in the horror genre.

In the subsequent paragraph of her piece, Ball’s struggle to come to terms with the acknowledgement of Lovecraft continues:

This literally did not have to happen. The point of these awards is to highlight achievements in the genre that never got awarded. I imagine there was a group of very well-meaning people who thought maybe they could uncover lost gems or highlight authors who never really got their due in their lifetime.  Instead, they appear to be a way to give the same few names more accolades, and seem rather alarmingly unconnected with what is going on right now in the genre. The phrase “read the room” comes to mind.

The operative phrase here is “I imagine”: Ball speculates on the intended spirit of the Retro Hugo awards. Her view skews toward the honoring not merely of the overlooked, but to the under-represented. Her comments speak to a seeming resentment of Lovecraft’s enduring popularity (honestly, would anyone be so outraged over him had he faded into obscurity along with his pulp brethren?), and implicitly interrogate anyone who dares to contribute further to it in any way. Even more bothersome is Ball’s complaint that giving such award to Lovecraft represents a dangerous disconnect with current goings-on in the genre. Does the citing of work circa the mid-1940s have anything to do with what is transpiring in 2020? Is it the obligation of the Retro Hugo Awards to “read the room”? I am reminded of the politicizing of the Oscars in recent years, where the recognition of intrinsic artistic merit has been eclipsed by the desire for gestures toward social justice.

Next, Ball professes:

I love Cthulhu as much as anyone else. That’s why I am here to say: enough is enough with Lovecraft. He has become the racist albatross around the neck of cosmic horror, and I am so sick and tired of it. It’s not “Lovecraftian horror,” it’s “cosmic horror,” because one man does not have a copyright on wondering what horrors lurk beyond the stars.

After having herself just focused exclusively on Lovecraft as the awardee (ignoring the other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos), Ball proceeds to call for a broadening beyond him. More off-putting is Ball’s arrogating to herself the responsibility for being the conscience of, and mouthpiece for, the genre.

Indeed, time and again, Ball enacts a disconcerting slippage between “I” and “we”:

As a community, we have outgrown Lovecraft. We’ve moved beyond him. While his influence will always be there, cosmic horror is undergoing a diverse and powerful transformation into something way beyond what ol’ Howard ever envisioned. […] Cosmic horror is being turned into something wonderful and new in the hands of talented women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors. It would have made Lovecraft hide under his bed, quaking in his boots, and I love that. That is what should be celebrated now, yet we keep picking at Lovecraft like someone picking at a scab, never letting it heal.

There is some vagueness here as to what Ball wants to celebrate: the emergence of new voices in cosmic horror fiction, or the imagined (in vindictive mindset) causing of distress to Lovecraft? That scab analogy is also interesting, considering that it’s the denigrators of Lovecraft who appear the most compelled to pick away and keep the putative wound fresh.

And allow me to digress slightly here to address what I believe to be a disturbing trend in the genre: the systematic discrimination against writers of perceived advantaged background. I am talking about the calls for submissions to anthologies and magazines that strictly limit the demographic; straight white males need not apply. This exclusionary measure offends on several levels, not the least of which is the suggestion that such writers are incapable of creating characters of different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than their own (these same writers doubtless would be excoriated for a lack of diversity in their cast if they failed to offer such representations in their work). These days, the author’s identity seems to supersede the fictional product itself. But as another genre giant once asserted, “It’s the tale, not he who tells it” (although, I am sure that today Stephen King would be loudly rebuked for employing such a masculinist pronoun).

Returning to Ball’s bouncing of Lovecraft:

I think everyone who considers himself a fan of horror or science fiction or fantasy is just tired. I know I am. […] We’ve also been going through so many terrible things the past few years, with revelations within the genre space of sexual harassment, racism, ableism, and homophobia. It has been a very long few years. That’s why the act of giving H.P. Lovecraft an award feels even worse: it’s just another step backwards. I’m not saying that you can never read a Cthulhu story again, you just shouldn’t be giving an award to the person everyone uses as the ultimate example of racism in the genre at a time when we are still very much dealing with racism in the genre.

Again, Ball problematically assumes that she can speak on behalf of “everyone.” Making Lovecraft the figurehead for everything that is wrong with the modern genre doesn’t seem very fair, either. The man has been rotting in his grave for nearly a century now; he shouldn’t be implicated in acts of sexual harassment, ableism, homophobia or even racism currently being committed by other genre figures. And how gracious of Ball to grant that we can still read Cthulhu stories (one suspects, though, that she does so grudgingly).

The disgruntled Bell, meanwhile, wonders whether the Retro Hugos shouldn’t just be dismantled as an awards program. She points out that “these awards seem to be doing further harm to a genre already reeling, and we do not need to keep flagellating ourselves like this. We don’t need to keep contorting ourselves and bleeding out on the altar of ‘proper canon’ created by dead white guys to show fealty to our chosen genre.” Earlier, Ball championed the positive developments in the genre; here she posits a “reeling” genre in serious crisis. The tendency appears to be to tout empowerment or alternately play a victim (admittedly, I find that elaborate masochism conceit a bit of a head-scratcher) whenever it best suits the narrative. Ball’s scornful dismissal of “dead white guys,” reducing genre history to a convenient, pejorative catch phrase, speaks volumes about her antagonistic perspective.

Ball concludes with the denouncing pronouncement that the “Retro Hugos, as well as the 2020 Hugo Awards themselves, were a massive step backwards, awash in the glorification of a past that was primarily white and male, dismissive of anything new, and borderline hostile to changes made for the better. How many people saw Lovecraft’s win and decided this wasn’t the genre for them?”

My immediate response to Ball’s overreaction is, how many people saw Lovecraft’s win (at a conference set in New Zealand, no less), period. How many genre fans really care about this year’s Hugo winners, let alone a retroactive award for the year 1944? I would venture that more–by which I mean a select cadre of–writers (determined to build their own platform by climbing up on a soapbox) than readers were chagrined by Lovecraft’s win.

In any event, the keyword here is “decided.” It links back to Ball’s opening paragraph, where the author declares it an “abomination” that “a group of people decided to give H.P. Lovecraft an award.” Ball clearly cannot accept that this award was the product of a popular vote–that others might actually hold a viewpoint different from her own.

I’ll say it again: Lovecraft was a flat-out racist. I regret his bigoted ignorance, and pity him for whatever biological/environmental forces warped his outlook so terribly. But I am quite capable of deciding for myself, without the influence of self-appointed genre spokespeople, whether or not Lovecraft’s benighted perspective taints my enjoyment of his fiction, or stymies my willingness to engage with his weird tales altogether.

Ultimately, Ball’s essay–emblematic of the Lovecraft bashing that has grown so fashionable, and so tiresome in its rehearsal of the same racism argument–ends up promoting the very intolerance of others that it bemoans. Perhaps the author should be more careful going forward about throwing Lovecraft statuettes from her own glass house.

 

Lore Report: “Reflections” (Episode 142)

https://allthatsinteresting.com/jim-twins

Folklore wasn’t always an invention of the mind, just some clever story invented and then passed along. Sometimes it was more tangible, more physical, and more real. Because in a world of the unusual and unexpected, nothing was more powerful than the birth of twins.

Today’s episode of the Lore podcast considers the wonders and mysteries of identical twins. As always, host Aaron Mahnke is careful to establish historical context: besides recurring to Greek and Roman mythology, he also notes how twins were feared and revered by ancient cultures worldwide. The episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates stories of twin connections (e.g. a pair of brothers separately adopted as infants who grew up to have wives/children/dogs with the same name, who entered into the same career field, and who even chose the same exact vacation spot) that seem to move beyond sheer coincidence and into the realm of the mystical. The scientifically inexplicable shades even further toward the eerily supernatural when Mahnke focuses on a pair of twins with an uncanny link to their siblings who died in a car crash before the younger set was even born.

In the closing segment, the topic shifts from identical to conjoined twins, and unfortunately, the discussion here feels like a bit of a stretch (and an attempt to expand the episode towards the podcast’s typical run time). That Eng died just a few hours after his brother Chang can be interpreted as a mere biological byproduct. The perishing of these famous Siamese twins on the same day doesn’t seem all that incredible, and thus Episode 142 ends with a narrative whimper.

“Reflections” pales in comparison to Lore‘s best offerings, but devoted listeners will still want to check this one out.

 

Lore Report: “Potential” (Episode 140)

But disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. And if history is any indication, there is a powerful lesson there for us to learn, even if we don’t like what it teaches: When it comes to tragedy, the unexpected is right around the corner.

The introductory tease for the latest episode of Lore trumps the unexpected, but “Potential” recurs to a familiar topic for the podcast: the witch-hunt hysteria spurred by the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1485. To his credit, host Aaron Mahnke does attempt to cover new ground by transporting listeners to a less-familiar place (the hill town of Triora, Italy, in the late 1580’s) whose witch trials did not play out to a standard conclusion. Mahnke does a fine job of establishing the build-up to the trials in Triora, and of explaining the twists and turns that events subsequently took. He also draws some interesting parallels with the scene in Salem, Massachusetts (including both communities’ modern-day capitalizing on ignominious history via seasonal festivals and witchcraft museums).

Nevertheless, this is a curious episode on several levels. Mahnke repeatedly undercuts the very message of hope (the fact that the witch trials in Triora didn’t ultimately result in the mass execution of the accused) that he emphasizes throughout. Quite surprisingly, he also fails to invoke other examples of dark lore associated with Triora (for more on this, check out Francesca Bezzone’s essay, “The Triora Witch Trials: The Italian Salem”). Most questionably of all, Mahnke returns to the same subject matter he treated just two episodes ago (“Foresight”), making Episode 140 feel a bit like filler. Overall, “Potential” fails to live up to the lofty reputation the Lore podcast has earned for itself.

 

Lore Report: “Foresight” (Episode 138)

[…] Books can contain just as much evil as they do good. And few can hold a candle to the Malleus Maleficarum, a guidebook written in 1487 to help authorities identify and exterminate people accused of being witches. Instruction guides are meant to help us create , but when it comes to books like the Malleus Maleficarum, all they typically built was panic, fear, and superstition–superstition that we still cling to today. And if the historical record is any indication, it also managed to build something else, at least for a time: mass hysteria, hellbent on destruction.

Witchcraft is a topic Aaron Mahnke has covered before on Lore (as well as in the first season of its spin-off podcast, Unobscured), but episode 138, “Foresight,” provides one of his clearest looks into the demonized dark art. Mahnke begins by considering why people were targeted and outlines the most common traits of those accused of being witches. He also enlightens listeners about the various means for executing condemned witches, which extend beyond the hangings and burnings made familiar by countless pop cultural representations over the years. From here, our host hearkens back to 16th Century Scotland, a hotbed of witchcraft panic. A good portion of the episode is devoted to the hurly-burly surrounding Janet Boyman, a healer who brings significant heat on herself when she branches out into prophesying (a practice that would come to be considered tantamount to attacking with a curse).

“Foresight” satisfies not only with its informative content but also with its strong structuring. The narrative strands tie together perfectly, as Mahnke demonstrates that witchcraft is not merely some outre subject, but rather one (as in the case of Janet Boyman) deeply entangled in national political affairs. The episode builds toward a striking identification of a bitter irony (one which I won’t spoil here), and as an added bonus, links historical record with one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and fantastic, plays.

Along the way, Mahnke also sounds a lucid theme, noting the human penchant historically for “burning what we don’t understand.” In our current age of the coronavirus pandemic, where the fear of others and of the threat posed by the invisible world grows daily, this episode of Lore proves terribly timely indeed.

 

Lore Report: “The Third Time” (Episode 136)

image from mythology.net/mythical-creatures/black-dog

But it was [accused witch Elizabeth Sawyer’s] familiar, Tom, who would be remembered the most. Because it sits at the edge of a modern belief and a much more ancient idea–an idea not represented by the behavior or powers she claimed it had, but by the very shape it had taken. A shape that continues to inhabit a terrifying place in folklore today: the black dog.

No, the latest episode of the podcast Lore isn’t devoted to a discussion of man’s best friend–more like his worst nightmare. Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke tackles the subject of an uncanny creature–a monstrous-sized, furry and fiery-eyed animal that is possibly a predatory, shapeshifting demon.

Mahnke performs his usual oratory feats here in “The Third Time.” He contextualizes the discussion with a return to ancient mythology (invoking such figures as Anubis and Cerberus). He makes passing reference to pop-cultural reflections, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan (to this brief list I would add these works of genre fiction: Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting, Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore’s Sleepy Hollow High, and two separate stories titled “Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman and Laird Barron). He recounts a series of illustrative tales that span centuries and range across continents, from the 16th Century English village of Bungay to the Hanging Hills of Connecticut in the 19th Century (as an aficionado of American Gothic, my favorite tale is the episode’s concluding one–of the black-dog-inspired panic that gripped the Massachusetts town of Abington in 1976). He also steps back to speculate on the origins, purposes, and remarkable persistence of folklore tales of the black dog.

The form of this Lore episode might be familiar, but its content is as original and compelling as ever. According to the portentous saying that Mahkne quotes here, the first time someone encounters the black dog is for joy, the second time for sorrow, and the third time means impending death. An initial listen of “The Third Time” promises to bring joy to the life of fans of the macabre.

 

Lore Report: “Disturbing the Peace” (Episode 134)

But there is a third group of people [along with archeologists and tomb raiders] who break that sacred boundary and disturb the peace of the dead, although we tend to forget about them. Partly because we honestly never expect to find them in the first place, but also because we have so much faith in humanity that we don’t expect them to exist. And yet for a very long time, they not only existed, but thrived. And they earned a name that has become synonymous with disrespect and violation. Because everyone feared the body snatchers.

This intro to the latest episode of the Lore podcast suggests that “Disturbing the Peace” is leading into another rehash of the by-now-familiar tale of the infamous corpse-stealers Burke and Hare (who are also the subjects of the lead episode of the second season of Lore‘s Amazon Prime series adaptation). To this listener’s pleasant surprise, though, host and narrator Aaron Mahnke quickly proceeds to recount American incidents of body snatching (i.e. the digging up of the recently deceased and selling the bodies to medical schools, where the cadavers would be used to teach anatomy and dissection to students). Mahnke provides a fascinating glimpse of such illicit profession; body snatching is revealed as the work not merely of marginal, criminal types but also of secret societies (“The Anatomical Club” formed at Harvard in the 18th Century) and city-wide conspiracies. Equally surprising, body snatching was not just a surreptitious act; its practitioners, Mahnke notes, could be downright brazen in announcing their trade.

“Disturbing the Peace” delves even deeper into American Gothic territory when covering an explosive outbreak of public outrage in New York City in April 1788. To say that it all started with a wave of a hand sounds innocent enough, until one learns that said appendage was severed and belonged to a snatched body. The incident sparked a riot in which an angry mob a few-thousand members strong stormed medical school buildings where dissections were taking place, dragged the cadavers out onto the street and tossed them onto a bonfire, and threatened to do the same to unscrupulous professors and their students.

Episode 134 is Lore at its finest, as Mahnke thrills his audience with a macabre topic (which is not just confined to the annals of yesteryear–Mahnke also touches on  modern-day “body brokers”). The narrator’s knack for digging up the dark treasures of history is evident not just in the discussion of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788; Alexander Hamilton, the son of Paul Revere, a doctor colleague who crossed the Delaware with George Washington in 1776, and President Benjamin Harrison are all invoked into the ghoulish story. The details of this piece might be disturbing, but the episode itself undoubtedly makes for a wonderful listen.

 

Sleepy Hollow Feasting

I was browsing online recently when I stumbled across this neat post by Bryton Taylor: Throw a Sleepy Hollow Party; The Menu from the BookFull recipes are provided for recreating the various items on the banquet table during the quilting frolic scene in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These recipes might be slightly beyond my culinary capability, but those of you out there in the Macabre Republic who are more adept in the kitchen can now party like a Van Tassel. Just don’t invite any itinerant schoolteachers once the table is laden with classic fare, otherwise you might not get to taste a bite of the food you prepared!

Here’s Bryton herself discussing the holiday project:

Fear Its Selves: Pennywise’s Ten Most Frightening Disguises

Tapping victims’ psyches and operating via “masks and glamours,” It assumes a slew of forms in Stephen King’s novel IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is Its go-to camouflage, the appearance It most commonly adopts (and reverts back to when revealing Its predatory nature), but throughout the course of the book, It takes the shape of an array of classic monsters and outré figures. Presented in order of appearance, here are my choices for the ten greatest fear-jerkers:

 

1. The Mummy

It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, arid flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust… [p. 214 in the 1986 Viking hardcover]

Ben’s recent late-night viewing of Shock Theater leads to a waking nightmare when he encounters a Karloffian monster in the Barrens. Like a figure in a bad dream, the mummy closes the gap between Itself and Its prey with uncanny, undetected quickness. This initial borrowing from Universal horror films is an appropriate one, as King provides an early hint of Its ancientness.

 

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon

The smell was what made him look back. the overwhelming smell, as if fish had been left to rot in a huge pile that had become carrion slushy in the summer heat. It was the smell of a dead ocean.

It wasn’t Dorsey after him now; it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The thing’s snout was long and pleated. Green fluid dripped from black gashes like vertical mouths in its cheeks. Its eyes were white and jellylike. Its webbed fingers were tipped with claws like razors. Its respiration was bubbly and deep, the sound of a diver with a bad regulator. As it saw Eddie looking, its green-black lips wrinkled back from huge fangs in a dead and vacant smile. [p. 262]

King’s considerable descriptive powers bring a deadly figure to vivid life in this scene in which runaway Eddie Corcoran is run down by the Gill Man alongside Derry’s Canal. Eddie’s vicious beheading even as he searches futilely for a zipper running up the Creature’s back serves notice to the reader that the horrors on display in this Maine town are really lethal and not just clumsy attempts at cinematic make-believe.

 

3. Rodan

It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin’s and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow’s feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them. [p.278]

This scene, in which Mike finds himself trapped inside a fallen smokestack by a monstrous bird of prey, forms one of the most suspenseful of the Losers’ solo encounters with It. King continually takes the scene another unsettling step further, adding details both grotesque (when Mike manages to wound the bird’s eye, “tiny parasites wriggled and squirmed” [p. 282] in the disgusting discharge) and bizarre (“And on this [unfurled] tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs”).

 

4. The Leper 

The skin of its forehead was split open. White bone, coated with a membrane of yellow mucusy stuff, peered through like the lens of a bleary searchlight. The nose was a bridge of raw gristle above two red flaring channels. One eye was a gleeful blue. The other socket was filled with a mass of spongy brown-black tissue. the leper’s lower lip sagged like liver. It had no upper lip at all; its teeth poked out in a sneering ring. [p. 312]

Eddie’s illness phobia (instilled by his overbearing mother) and his dread of sexual predators (after a previous harassing by a syphilitic tramp) make him ripe pickings for the rottenly-costumed It in this scene. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, King has the nightmare follow Eddie into his bed that night, where the boy hears (only in his imagination?) the leper whisper, “It won’t do you any good to run, Eddie” (p. 315).

 

5. The Teenage Werewolf

Its forehead was low and prognathous, covered with scant hair. Its cheeks were hollow and furry. Its eyes were a dark brown, filled with horrible intelligence, horrible awareness. Its mouth dropped open and it began to snarl. White foam ran from the corners of its thick lower lip in twin streams that dripped from its chin. The hair on its head was swept back in a gruesome parody of a teenager’s d.a.. It threw its head back and roared, its eyes never leaving Richie’s. [p. 377]

This timeliest of monster icons (in relation to the scenes in the book set in 1958) also makes for the most active antagonist that the Losers encounter. The Teenage Werewolf chases Bill and Richie out of the house on Neibolt Street and pursues the boys right down the block as they attempt to speed away on Bill’s bike Silver. They manage a narrow escape, but their adversary rears Its hirsute head in another menacing encounter later in the novel.

 

6. Mrs. Kersh/The Witch

Her claws scrabbled on the plate and she began to cram thin molasses cookies and delicate frosted slices of cake into her mouth with both hands. Her horrid teeth plunged and reared, plunged and reared; her fingernails, long and dirty, dug into the sweets; crumbs tumbled down the bony slab of her chin. Her breath was the smell of long-dead things burst wide open by the gasses of their own decay. Her laugh was now a dead cackle. Her hair was thinner. Scaly scalp showed in patches. [p. 570-571]

The Hansel and Gretel story is given a grim twist, as Beverly watches a kindly senior transform into “a crone with an apple-doll’s face” whose house appears to be made out of candy. A child-eater out of a famous fairy tale is an appropriate guise for It, just as the septic sludge It nauseatingly serves up to Beverly as a cup of tea is a fitting beverage from a monster that calls the sewers beneath Derry Its home.

 

7. Paul Bunyan Statue 

There he had been, sitting in that mellow March sunshine, drowsing a little, thinking about going home and catching the last half hour of Bandstand, and suddenly there had been a warm swash of air in his face. It blew his hair back from his forehead. He looked up and Paul Bunyan’s huge plastic face had been right up in front of his, bigger than a face on a movie screen, filling everything. The rush of air had been caused by Paul’s bending down…although he did not precisely look like Paul anymore. The forehead was now low and beetling; tufts of wiry hair poked from a nose as red as the nose of a long-time drunkard; his eyes were bloodshot and one had  a slight cast to it.

The axe was no longer on his shoulder. Paul was leaning on its haft, and the blunt end of its head had crushed a trench in the concrete of the sidewalk. He was still grinning, but there was nothing cheery about it now. From between gigantic yellow teeth there drifted a smell like small animals rotting in hot underbrush. [p. 584]

An American folk hero (adopted as the “patron saint of Derry” [p. 583]) turns into an overarching villain reminiscent of the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In lesser hands, this plastic colossus could have made for a tacky form of attacker, but King succeeds in making this animate statue hugely unnerving.

 

8. Flying Leeches

Suddenly one of the shell-like things unfurled insectile wings. Before Patrick could do more than register the fact, it had flown across the space between the refrigerator and Patrick’s left arm. It struck with a smacking sound. There was an instant of heat. It faded and Patrick’s arm felt just like always again…but the shell-like creature’s pale flesh turned first pink, and then, with shocking suddenness, rose-red. [p.832-833]

It’s a case of the biter-bit here, as the sociopathic Patrick Hockstetter receives some nasty comeuppance. No small part of the shock here stems from the unusual nature of the threat (who ever thought of a flying leech prior to reading this book?) and the unexpected place of its emergence (an abandoned refrigerator in the town dump). A death doesn’t get more horrific than having a leech latch onto your eyeball and suck the fluid out of it (and another one roosting on your tongue when you open your mouth to scream).

 

9. The Crawling Eye

A gigantic Eye filled the tunnel, the glassy black pupil two feet across, the iris a muddy russet color. The white was bulgy, membranous, laced with red veins that pulsed steadily. It was a lidless lashless gelatinous horror that moved on a bed of raw-looking tentacles. They fumbled over the tunnel’s crumbly surface and sank in like fingers, so that the impression given in the glow of Bill’s guttering match was of an Eye that had somehow grown nightmare fingers which were pulling It along.

It stared at them with blank, feverish avarice. The match went out. [p.1024-1025]

This fright for sore eyes might trace back to a campy 50’s monster movie, but ultimately is the eldritch offspring of a beastie out of Lovecraft (an author whose prose style King also seems to channel here). When the light goes out, the horror grows horripilatingly tactile, as the Losers feel the brush of the Eye’s questing tentacles, and then the “thick and wet and somehow gristly” (p. 1027) quality of the jellied surface as they strike out against It.

 

10. George

“Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of the fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed, waiting to unzip some some small boy’s guts. [p. 1038]

The cruelest blow Pennywise strikes ostensibly occurs in the book’s opening scene with the ripping off of poor George’s arm, but Its lowest blow is delivered in the climax when It manifests as the young murder victim. Such disguise is fiendishly designed to prey upon Bill’s lifelong sense of guilt over his brother’s demise (“He had sent George out to die, and he had spent his whole adult life writing about the horror of that betrayal–oh, he had put many faces on it, almost as many faces as It had put on for their benefit, but the monster at the bottom of everything was only George, running out into the receding flood  with his paraffin-coated paper boat”), and nearly does the trick of silencing ol’ Stuttering Bill for good.

 

Winchester in Gingerbread

For those of us who happily reside in the Macabre Republic, Christine McConnell (whose way-too-short-lived Netflix series I reviewed here) is considered nothing less than a national treasure. McConnell is as resourceful as she is gorgeous, and her photos/videos of her horror- and Halloween-themed craft projects are positively mesmerizing.

Her jaw-dropping magnus opus, though, might be her latest effort: a giant gingerbread edition of the Winchester Mystery House. The creativity and attention to detail on display here is incredible. McConnell makes all those skillful contestants on Halloween Wars look like a bunch of untalented hacks by comparison.

Check out the making-of video below, and be sure to stay tuned to McConnell’s Youtube channel for her next amazing creation.

Algernon Sequitur

In my previous post, I noted Stephen King’s indebtedness in Pet Sematary to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” King’s novel, though, is not the first work of horror to borrow from Blackwood’s narrative (August Derleth transforms the Wendigo into an eldritch deity in the stories “The Thing that Walked on the Wind” and “Ithaqua”); nor is it the most overt. That distinction goes to Laird Barron’s harrowing 2011 novelette, “Blackwood’s Baby.”

Barron announces his genre heritage and acknowledges a literary forefather in the very title of his piece. Within the narrative itself, “Blackwood’s Baby” refers to a “monstrous stag,” the allegedly diabolic offspring of the occultist Ephraim Blackwood and “the Old Man of the Wood, who assumed the form of a doe” to enable the sacrilegious tryst. Both “The Wendigo” and “Blackwood’s Baby” feature a hunters-become-the-hunted motif, as respective expeditions venture too far beyond civilization and too deep into reputedly cursed woods. Overmatched men run afoul of a fiendish adversary, an uncannily anthropomorphic animal (Blackwood’s leonine-stenched Wendigo and Barron’s satanic stag).

Algernon Blackwood (apropos of someone with such an atmospheric surname) was a preeminent writer of outdoor horror, and Barron clearly follows his lead here in sending characters off the beaten path and into forest darkness. While Blackwood’s weird tale speaks to the wilderness’s cruel unconcern (“the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man”), Barron invests his sylvan setting (a stretch of Washington woods dubbed “Wolfvale”) with even more savagery. “Mother Nature is more of a killer than we humans ever will be,” Barron’s protagonist Luke Honey asserts. “She wants our blood, our bones, our goddamned guts.” Further echoing Blackwood, Barron hints at sinister sentience, as the wary Honey is plagued by “a sense of inimical awareness that emanated from the depths of the forest.” The perception of eeriness is a logical byproduct of finding oneself in such lonesome surround, but both Blackwood and Barron endeavor to show that there really is something terribly unnatural about these particular wilderness scenes. The northern woods in “The Wendigo” are the stomping ground of a creature out of Native American myth, and the hunting area beyond the Black Ram lodge in “Blackwood’s Baby” proves to be “the devil’s preserve.” Spectral cries ring out in Blackwood’s story, and the Wendigo-touched wretch Defago raves about an invisible menace before his death: “people with broken faces all on fire are coming in a most awful, awful pace towards the camp.” Likewise, near the climax of Barron’s narrative, Luke Honey hears the ghostly sounds of the hunters bedeviled in this pagan place: “The shrieks of the mastiffs came and went all day, and so too the phantom bellows of men, the muffled blasts of their weapons.”

At one point, Barron’s haunted protagonist is described as an “avid reader” of such legendary writers of supernatural horror as Robert Louis Stevenson, M.R. James, and Ambrose Bierce. The same is no doubt true of the author himself, and based on the evidence of this novelette, the name of Algernon Blackwood can be readily added to that esteemed list.