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.

 

Lore Report: “Debris” (Episode 108)

(The third installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“From the illustrations on ancient maps to Hollywood blockbusters, humans have always been obsessed with monsters of the deep. And while science has given us more clarity over the centuries, we still wrestle with the possibility that we might have missed something–something that’s still there beneath the cold black waves of the sea.”

Episode 108 delves into the ocean deeps, and the ostensible mysteries that have risen to the surface over the years. First enlightening listeners with established myths (e.g., the giant Japanese catfish Namazu; the Kraken), Mahnke then swims out into murkier waters. He traces various historical sightings of floating curiosities–the eponymous “debris” that blurs the line between dead matter and living, serpentine legend.

Mahnke’s assertion that “we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of our own oceans” is arresting, and his recounted tales of maritime uncanniness are intriguing in and of themselves. Ultimately, though, the episode disappoints. The dearth of factual evidence accompanying the reported sightings renders them to fish stories. And when an attempt is made to resolve such longstanding mystery, the explanation proves somewhat prosaic, if grotesque (I did find it quite interesting, though, to learn what a “globster” was–not the phosphorescent crustacean the strange coinage might suggest).

I have to admit, the summarizing generalization here failed to grab me: “Even now in 2019,” Mahnke intones, “the existence of sea serpents is still lurking in the backs of the collective consciousness like debris floating on the sea. And some of us can’t help but wonder if it will eventually raise its head. And if it does, will any of us be ready?” As an unabashed landlubber, I can’t say I consider beasties from the deep any real cause for Lovecraftian concern.

“Debris” is by no means podcast garbage; Mahnke provides an entertaining listening experience, as always. Nevertheless, the overarching story told here isn’t the most impressive one in the vast Lore repertoire.

 

Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

October Overview

Strictly speaking, autumn began a week and a half ago, but it’s the calendar’s turn to October that really inaugurates the High Holiday season. This is the most wonderful time of year of denizens of the Macabre Republic, as the month-long lead-up to Halloween delivers an incredible assortment of dark entertainment. Some of the film, TV, and streaming-service items that belong at the top of must-watch lists during this season of the witch:

 

*Halloween (in theaters October 19)

 

*Eli Roth’s History of Horror (premieres October 14 on AMC)

 

*The Haunting of Hill House (available October 12 on Netflix)

 

*The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (available October 12 on Netflix)

 

*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (available October 26 on Netflix)

 

*Lore (Season 2 available October 19 on Amazon Prime)

 

Some of the best Halloween-themed blogs to follow all October long: The Skeleton Key, the Horror Writers Association’s Halloween Haunts 2018, and Pumpkinrot: What’s Brewing. And, of course, there will be various articles on pop cultural horror published online this month; just today I came across a fun one titled “The Horror Oscars: The Best Scary Movies of Every Year Since 1978’s Halloween.”

Finally, as you can see from the header image to my website, the Macabre Republic leads straight into October Country. So be sure to keep an eye out for the special posts I have planned for this Halloween season…

Seasonal Dream

Norman Partridge’s Dark Harvest became an instant classic of Halloween fiction upon its 2006 publication, and since then has remained perennially popular (Bloody Disgusting recently featured it in a listing of “13 Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit“). What many fans might have failed to realize, though, is that this wasn’t Partridge’s first October-based short novel. That distinction belongs to 1998’s Wildest Dreams (a reworking/expansion of the author’s 1992 short story “Tombstone Moon”).

In Wildest Dreams, tough-guy narrator Clay Saunders is a contract killer whose tongue is no less sharp than his K-bar knife. He is hired to decapitate Diabolos Whistler, the notorious head of a satanic church with international reach. The hit goes off without a hitch; nevertheless, when Saunders attempts to collect payment, he faces a deadly double-cross and an attempted frame job that spurs him to do some “detective work.” Such synopsis makes the book sound like standard Gold Medal fare, but the genre-hybridizing Partridge also turns the screw towards horror. For starters, Saunders (who was born with a caul) can see ghosts–including those of the people he’s dispatched. Also, Whistler’s prophesy that his own ruined corpse will form the cradle for Satan’s earthly rebirth suggests that the bloody mayhem won’t be limited to the initial murder of the cult figure.

The novel offers some terrific images, such as a “hanging tree” ripe with fantastic fruit (the ghosts of six lynched witches). There’s also a variation on a “haunted house,” whose concrete-embedded bottles supposedly store the souls of the devil-pledged. While descending a hidden stairway stretching from a trapdoor in the floor of the bottle house, Saunders is tempted to make “a crack about forgetting his trick or treat bag.”  This isn’t the lone invocation of October ritual in the novel. After shooting a pair of henchmen, Saunders (sporting a “monster mask” that would make Hannibal Lecter proud) observes: “Two splashes in the pool. Two dead men bobbing like Halloween apples.”

One can detect echoes of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (a skinless, posthumous antagonist numbers among the cast), and the climactic twist is worthy of another identifiable precursor, William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. But the book is a product of Partridge’s unique vision, rendered with trademark style. For the lover of supernatural noir (where some seasonal orange mixes in with the black), Wildest Dreams is an absolute dream come true.