The Terror: Definition of?

There is so much to like about The Terror, AMC’s just-completed historical horror series centering on the ill-fated quest to locate the Northwest Passage. Time and again, viewers are treated to stunning visuals (those long-range and overhead shots of the icebound ships are nothing short of sublime). There’s nightmare fuel to burn: grisly images of amputations, postmortems, scurvy-plagued faces, cannibalized corpses, dismemberings and savagings by a mammoth monster. The show is also stocked with incredible performances: Ciaran Hinds as the pompous and incompetent Sir John Franklin; Jared Harris as the tormented yet honorable Captain Crozier; Paul Ready as the aptly-named anatomist, Dr. Goodsir; Adam Nagaitis as the cretinous, Kurtzian caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey.

Ironically, though, for a show concerning a protracted struggle to survive, The Terror often feels rushed. Key scenes from Dan Simmons’s epic novel (e.g. the death of Sir John) flash by too quickly, too incompletely. The creature’s attack on ice master Thomas Blanky, one of the most extensive and suspenseful chapters in the book, is hardly allowed to play to its harrowing extreme. At the same time, certain plotlines are overemphasized: in the latter episodes, political upheaval (the battle between splintered camps after the voyagers abandon ship) eclipses both the monstrous threat of the Tuunbaq and the grueling ordeal of an overland trek (the way the men are so casually dressed, one might almost forget they are crossing terribly frigid terrain). For those familiar with Simmons’s The Terror, the abridgment/alteration of the narrative is severe. In a ten-episode series, surely there was space for a more faithful adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest misstep here is that the show presents too little of the Tuunbaq. The creature appears much less frequently than in the novel, and as a result, much of the tension is sacrificed. Sense of the crews’ frightful plight, their years-long subjection to sudden and spectacular attack by an Arctic terrorist, is undermined. When the Tuunbaq does show up on screen, he looks clearly computer-generated (and to me at least, strangely cute). He seems like a polar bear on steroids, not a sly and malicious entity of supernatural evil. By presenting the Tuunbaq as an almost tragic Inuit figure, the series undercuts both his mythological grandeur and his role as daunting adversary.

Make no mistake: AMC’s The Terror is a riveting drama, and well worth watching. I can appreciate the fact that adapting Simmons’s beast of a novel–which places innumerable characters in inhospitable environments–is no easy task. And naturally, changes are always necessitated by the translation of fiction into a visual medium. Nevertheless, the reworking of the source material here is so radical, it strikes me as an act of hubris: the show’s creators suggest they can take Simmons’s original story and tell it so much better by following an ever-diverging route. While an impressive effort, The Terror, much like the Franklin Expedition itself, falls regrettably short of the ultimate glory it might have achieved.

 

Canine Surprise: Stephen King’s “Laurie”

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

Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

List Resistance

So I was browsing on my phone recently, and Google clued me in to an article on the Publishers Weekly website: “10 Scariest Horror Stories.” Naturally, I clicked right on over. Now, I understand that any compiled list is inevitably subjective, and part of the fun is seeing what the selector actually chose and had to say about those items, so I don’t want to be too contentious here. But what I read did bother me. Writer/scholar/editor Victoria Nelson (who admits that the bulk of her list is culled from the classic volume Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural) exhibits a strong bias towards late-19th/early-20th Century British fiction. The implication, then, is that the scariest stories were written long ago, and seldomly by American writers (H.P. Lovecraft and C.L. Moore are the two exceptions cited by Nelson). There’s no hint here of Stephen King or Peter Straub, let alone Laird Barron, Jack Ketchum, Glen Hirshberg, Stephen Graham Jones, or Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps the issue is ultimately one of false advertising: the superlative article title “10 Scariest Horror Stories” suggests comprehensive consideration (“…Of All Time”), but the headnote to the list does qualify that these are simply “10 scary stories recommended by Nelson.”

I’d have to devote some more thought before compiling my own list of the 10 Scariest Horror Stories (American or otherwise), but if anyone has specific pieces they would vote for, feel free to leave a comment below.

Halfway There

Season’s Dreamings from the Macabre Republic…

We’re only six months away now from the Great Day; for all those hardcore Halloween lovers out there in the Land of Red, Black, and Blue, it’s time to start planning costumes, designing home haunts, and scouting attractions. It’ll be October before you know it!

And for those who just can’t wait for Samhain, check out Mr. and Mrs. Halloween’s splendid article “Halfway to Halloween: 10 Ways to Celebrate the Unofficial Holiday.”

It promises to be an awesome autumn, as a new Halloween movie hits theaters (on the 40th anniversary of the John Carpenter classic), and Stranger Things happen at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. Personally, I have several special projects in the works, so keep an eye on this site in the coming months. In the meantime:

HAPPY HALFWAY TO HALLOWEEN!!!

Corn Reactor

This month’s “The H Word” feature in Nightmare magazine, Desirina Boskovich’s “The Things That Walk Behind the Rows,” explores a specific region of American horror: the rural Midwest. Drawing upon her own recent relocation to the heartland, Boskovich considers the disconcerting isolation experienced in the central states. Her account of the pioneer-plaguing malady “Prairie Madness” suggests that it’s not just the Lovecraftian Northeast that is subjected to cosmic dread: “This place was like space, like the void between the stars, and no one could hear you scream.” Boskovich also offers intriguing commentary on the Gothic impact of the Homestead Act of 1862, as well as a quick survey of literary appearances of the cornfield (the “quintessential symbol of Midwestern horror”)–from classic stories such as “Children of the Corn” and “It’s a Good Life” to the modern novel Universal Harvester. This short essay is long on insight, and certainly worth checking out.

The One Who Is Applauding

Glen Hirshberg has distinguished himself as an indisputable master of the American ghost story, but it is neither fair nor quite accurate to label him a writer of genre horror. The very subtitle running across the cover of The Ones Who Are Waving (Hirshberg’s fourth collection, following The Two SamsAmerican Morons, and The Janus Tree and Other Stories) establishes that there is more at stake than mere shiver-inducing. These are “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous.” The classification just as easily could have read “Tales of Exquisite Craftsmanship.”

Hirshberg’s prose is marked by literary style; his plots are rich in nuance. To use a cinematic analogy, his stories are Oscar-season releases rather than summer blockbusters. A perfect illustration of this is the story “Shaken,” which centers on the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) that devastated Japan in 2011. Godzilla is referenced here, not to mention a native mythological beastie named Namazu, but Hirshberg doesn’t resort to some lumbering, Tokyo-stomping monstrosity for horrific effect. The title captures not just the literal earthquake but also the psychological aftershocks suffered by the elderly protagonist Thomas, who following his unsettling experience in Japan is now terrorized by the thought that terra firma isn’t firm at all (he also grows to shudder at modern American horrors such as 9/11 and the Columbine massacre). As the mentally-listing Thomas frets over the inevitable decimation of human civilization, “Shaken” strikes a haunting note of existential dread.

Admittedly, I was disappointed the first time I read “A Small Part of the Pantomime” (in the 2014 anthology Nightmare Carnival), in large part because this follow-up to Hirshberg’s Halloween classic “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” didn’t delve as directly into the legendary haunted attraction. My appreciation for the sequel, though, has increased exponentially upon rereading. “A Small Part of the Pantomime” creates incredible suspense as it slowly unfolds the story of what happened to David Roemer following the tragic events of “Mr. Dark’s Carnival.” The ghostly elements prove all the more unnerving for not being confined to a spook house, as Hirshberg transforms the grassy plains of eastern Montana into an expansive scene of supernatural menace. In retrospect, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and “A Small Part of the Pantomime” form perfect complements to one another; these two stories would combine to make one hell of a movie (imagine a Mike Flanagan adaptation on Netflix!).

The volume also gathers three “Normal and Nadine Adventures”: “Pride,” “His Only Audience,” and “Hexenhaus.” In his introductory note to these works (in which the protagonists travel the country trying to track down esoteric items for clients, only to find themselves in uncanny territory), Hirshberg points out the difficulty of writing “occult detective” fiction: “The beats are different. […] Detective stories are, in the end, about resolution, however complicated or equivocal. and ghost stories are about mystery. […] My solution was to try to create stories that inhabit the chasm between those ideals, rather than bridge it.”  At this, Hirshberg succeeds brilliantly. The plots (to get into specifics here would spoil the fun of gradual discovery) don’t just resolve; they resonate. Also, Normal (better known as “The Collector”) and Nadine are not just a couple of Kolchak knock-offs, the Mulder and Scully of the private sector, episodically encountering the Monster of the Week. As a pair of characters, they are at once intriguing and endearing. While each piece is self-contained, there are intimations of a larger backstory (we have more to learn about Normal and Nadine individually, and as a couple). Here’s hoping that Hirshberg scripts further adventures, enough to fill a separate volume someday.

The closing, title story is a metafictional mindf**k that gives a dark fantastic twist to Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins’s own experiences with the Rolling Darkness Revue (their touring ghost story troupe). “The Ones Who Are Waving” offers a creepy curse, a surreal climactic reveal, and perhaps best of all, a glimpse behind the curtain of the Rolling Darkness Revue. Those (such as myself) who were always fascinated by the concept but, alas, lived far afield of where the tour stopped every October, get a chance at last to glimpse Hirshberg and Atkins…and then some.

Hirshberg’s narratives are never facile; they take their time to develop (which is not to say they are slow-moving–the reader is propelled by the urge to understand what is actually going on, to discover the wonder or wickedness lying ahead). Nor do they typically present neat moral wrap-up, instead requiring the reader to wrestle with the implications of what has just been recounted. But for anyone willing to put in the work, The Ones Who are Waving pays off as a treasure trove of fine storytelling.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Alice Doane’s Appeal” and “Young Goodman Brown

The sixth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“Alice Doane’s Appeal” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Of the two Salem-based Hawthorne stories anthologized here, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” (1835) is the much lesser known but no less effective. With a bit of proto-postmodern self-reflexivity, it explores the very process of crafting/conveying spook tales. Out walking with a pair of young ladies, the author-narrator (a stand-in for Nathaniel himself) travels atop Gallows Hill. The local scenery prompts him to pull out one of his own manuscripts, and the narrative he proceeds to share is a Gothic potboiler filled with intimations of incest, mysterious doubles, murder, and an uncanny gathering of graveyard ghosts (the climax reveals “that all the incidents were results of the machinations of the wizard, who had cunningly devised that Walter Brome should tempt his unknown sister to guilt and shame, and himself perish by the hand of his twin brother”). The narrator works hard to thrill his audience, but goes a step too far when he claims “that the wizard’s grave was close beside us, and that the wood-wax had sprouted originally from his unhallowed bones”; his intended effect is spoiled when the woman burst into incredulous laughter.

Chagrined but undeterred, the narrator shifts genres to true crime, and finds his source material in historical horror. Hearkening back to the “witchcraft delusion” that gripped Salem, he depicts a scene of multiple executions on Gallows Hill:

Behind their victims came the afflicted, a guilty and miserable band; villains who had thus avenged themselves upon their enemies, and viler wretches, whose cowardice had destroyed their friends; lunatics, whose ravings had chimed in with the madness of the land; and children, who had played a game that the imps of darkness might have envied them, since it disgraced an age, and dipped a people’s hands in blood. In the rear of the procession rode a figure on horseback, so darkly conspicuous, so sternly triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself, but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well won dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion, that sufficed to madden the whole surrounding multitude.

Sufficiently frightened, the females beg for the tale to be cut off before the narrator even gets to the climactic hangings, but enough has been said to establish his (and by extension, Hawthorne’s) thorough condemnation of the Salem witch trials and ensuing executions. And while the narrator concludes by bemoaning the lack of monument on Gallows Hill commemorating those who criminally lost their lives to superstition and mass hysteria, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” succeeds in forming the literary equivalent of such memorial.

 

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The allegorical meets the archetypal in this 1835 tale, as the title character leaves his (wife) Faith behind and makes a night journey into the American wilderness (the woods outside Salem). Young Goodman Brown has an assignation with a Satanic figure, but the antics of this fiendish scene-stealer cannot overshadow the creepiness of setting that Hawthorne establishes. The “heathen,” “haunted forest” is “peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.” Unnerved but persistent, Young Goodman Brown continues on to a clearing where a pulpit-shaped rock is flanked by a quartet of pine trees blazing like cyclopean candles and forming “shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths” above. A witch’s meeting is in full swing, widely attended by the pillars of community. Here the worshiped devil preaches dark truths to his congregation and the prospective converts in attendance:

“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here they all are, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted to you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth, and how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones!–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places–whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest–where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot.”

This scourge’s sermon forms a wicked critique of the duplicity–the false piety–of New England’s civic/religious leaders. Hawthorne, though, has further tricks up his authorial sleeve. At the last moment, Young Goodman Brown resists a baptism into blackness, and soon awakens to a depopulated scene. He appears only to have had a “wild dream of a witch-meeting,” but now ironically must face an unending nightmare. Thoroughly shaken by what he envisioned (if not actually witnessed in the flesh), he transforms into a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.” He lives out his days in fear and loathing, “and his dying hour was gloom.” Clinging to his faith has merely precipitated another form of ruination, as the very consideration of the secret guilt of others destroys Young Goodman Brown’s self-possession.

“Young Goodman Brown” not only constitutes the most representative piece of Crow’s anthology, but to this day stands as one of the top five American Gothic short stories ever written.