The Sopranos of Sleepy Hollow

From dark dream sequences to Christopher’s comatose glimpse of hell and Paulie’s eerie vision of the Virgin Mary on the Bada Bing stage, The Sopranos repeatedly invoked the uncanny and the supernatural. So it’s no surprise that show also featured two prominent references to one of the greatest spook tales of all time, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The first occurs in “Cold Cuts” (Season 5, Episode 10). On the drive upstate to Uncle Pat’s farm in Kinderhook (to exhume some murder victims from their graves), Tony Blundetto randomly admits to Christopher that “some very sorry people” (presumably kids who suffered for insulting him) used to call him Ichabod Crane. The line then gets a callback in a later scene in the episode. Tony Soprano joins his cousin Tony in ribbing Christopher and mocking his beak nose as they all eat dinner together, until the aggravated Christopher finally snaps at the relentlessly joking Blundetto, “You know I could have called you Ichabod Crane, but I didn’t!” A petulant retort, for sure, but also a pretty funny one, because if ever there was someone who could be cast as Ichabod, it’s Steve Buscemi’s Blundetto.

The second reference is in “Luxury Lounge” (Season 6, Episode 7). Phil Leotardo passes along to Tony Soprano Johnny Sack’s appreciation for his taking out Rusty Millio, but Tony acts coy and claims to have had nothing to do with the hit. Phil laughs off Tony’s cautiousness, and says, “Anyway, Rusty’s gone, and we’ll chalk it up to the Headless Horseman.” A strange name drop, although it does make geographic sense that a New York crime boss would reference Sleepy Hollow’s favorite specter. Phil’s line also has some sinister resonance, considering that Rusty was dispatched by a shot to the head (an assault of brain-scrambling impact, akin to a Horseman gourd toss).

More than just another mob story, The Sopranos was a pop cultural phenomenon. How apropos, then, that the series referenced a pair of legendary Irving characters that have been imprinted on American consciousness for over two centuries now.

 

Lore Report: “Bad Seed” (Episode 196)

For thousands of years, the things above us have altered the way we live our lives down below. It’s a realm of folklore that might seem boring and predictable, but in reality it’s one of the darkest homes of our weirdest behavior. And I promise you this: you’ll never look at the sky the same way again.

Aaron Mahnke talks about the weather in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, but the host’s discourse proves anything but banal. Sojourning back through world history, Mahnke discusses how the dependence on healthy crops led many cultures to adopt unusual measures to try to control the weather (ritualistic acts that make a Native American rain dance seem quaint by comparison). The central portion of the narrative is devoted to the Eastern European belief that the burial of decedents deemed “unclean” (contaminated by wickedness or awful misfortune) would spark a divine wrath that manifested in meteorological terms. When such a foolish burial occurred, and was superstitiously connected with drought conditions, the subsequent desperate and fear-driven act of disinterment could lead to a wild mob scene. The adjective of this episode’s title urns out to be the only negative here; superlative from beginning (an explanation of the mysterious phenomenon of crop marks) to end (an examination of lightning strikes), “Bad Seed” forecasts a sublime listening experience for Lore lovers.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Landscape Chamber” and Grace King’s “The Story of a Day”

[It’s been a couple of weeks since my last dispatch from the Macabre Republic, but it’s time to start posting again, and to resume the following feature…]

In this blog feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Tonight, I continue to work my way through the contents of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Landscape Chamber” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1887)

When her horse is injured while she is on a solitary journey, the female narrator seeks refuge at a dreary and decrepit “colonial mansion” in rural New England: “everything gave evidence of unhindered decline from thrift and competence to poverty and ruin.” The “dismal place” is occupied by an “uncanny father and daughter”; the “weird old man” exhibits a peculiar miserliness, while the lonely daughter hints at “some miserable doom” that haunts their bloodline. Jewett sounds the time-honored American Gothic themes of family degeneracy and a dark past impinging upon the present. In the story’s climax, the old man speaks of an ancestor “who sold his soul for wealth”; “he was greedy for gain, and now we cannot part with what we have, even for common comfort. His children and his children’s children have suffered for his fault.” Matching her father’s “malady of unreason,” the daughter speculates that “we shall all disappear some night in a winter storm, and the world will be rid of us–father and the house and I, all three.” Strong echoes here of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (“The Landscape Chamber” concludes with the narrator readily fleeing the “house of shadows and strange moods”), even if Jewett is too genteel a writer to ever reach the same terrifying heights that Poe so masterfully mapped.

 

“The Story of a Day” by Grace King (1893)

A journey by skiff through the waters of the Louisiana bayou prompts the anonymous narrator to reminisce about Adorine Mérionaux, an old maid of twenty-five who suffered a “calamity” over a decade earlier. The young girl’s courtship by a neighboring beau ended in death rather than a wedding. Zepherin went missing, and his corpse wasn’t uncovered until the following summer (the “inference”–in this quiet and oblique tale–is that he drowned in the swamp while seeking out a late night rendezvous with Adorine). King’s sparse story (the narrator makes the disclaimer in the opening line that there is “not much” to it) works more as a tragic romance. Its most gothic moment involves the death throes (transpiring beneath “a ghostly moon”) of a heifer, “buried alive” in the “black ooze” of the swamp. All told, “The Story of a Day” makes for a curious inclusion in the anthology, as surely there were other, more representative works of “bayou gothic” that might have been chosen instead.

Lore Report: “Straight to the Heart” (Episode 195)

 

And because it’s still here, we can see just how much our world has changed.  How the relative safety we enjoy today would have seemed impossible just a few centuries before. How a lack of systems and technology left people feeling adrift in a sea of fear and danger. And how folklore could often make the situation so much worse.

True crime and dark superstition intersect in the latest episode of the Lore podcast. Host Aaron Mahnke delves into the Ratcliffe Highway Murders that rocked the outskirts of London in 1811. The crimes themselves are of a strikingly gruesome nature–men, women, and children brutally dispatched via chisel and maul. A leading suspect dies while in custody (suicide? frame-up by the real murderers?), and the locals’ subsequent maneuvers with the man’s corpse prove quite curious in their own right. The lore of crossroads burial comes into play here, a rich topic that Mahnke might have mined even further. Add in a haunting account (in the episode’s concluding segment) about a ghost that attempts to throttle those it encounters, and “Straight to the Heart” succeeds in giving listeners the exact opposite of the warm fuzzies.

 

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.

 

“Pardonable” (original poem)

Transitioning back into society can be a tormenting notion…

 

Pardonable

By Joe Nazare

 

The mythologists have it all wrong–
Hell isn’t repetition, maliciously cyclical for eternity.
Instead, damnation’s a transient state.
Sinners suffer exquisitely but within limits;
Every Tartarean inmate is eventually reprieved,
Or more accurately, granted a work-release.
Their infliction sufficient, the downcast return overworld
To become living, seething embodiment of old adage,
The prophetic now echoing as terrible imperative:
Hurt people hurt people.

 

Lore Report: “Lawless” (Episode 194)

Every now and then, though, there was no court, no jury to hear testimony, and no judge to make an impartial decision for the common good.  Without that light in the darkness, many communities were left struggling to handle the crimes and claims that came their way. And in one town at least, that lack of authority led to something most people wanted to avoid: tragedy.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast travels back to Gold-Rush-era Montana and the mining community of Nevada City. Host Aaron Mahnke details how gangs of highwaymen arose to prey on prosperous, gold-carrying miners; such thefts and murders in turn led to the formation of “vigilante committees” that aimed to bring law and order to the area. What makes all this more than just an interesting history lesson is Mahnke’s proceeding to note the ghost stories that have been attached to Nevada City (including one involving a murderous highwayman sentenced to death by hanging). Similarly, Mahnke concludes by discussing the “shade”-iness associated with Deadwood, South Dakota. “Lawless” isn’t a terribly substantive episode (the narrative might have been fleshed out by considering bits of Old West lore other than ghost stories), but nevertheless pans out as an entertaining listen.

 

Reprieve (Book Review)

Reprieve by James Han Mattson (William Morrow, 2021)

James Han Mattson’s second novel (following 2017’s The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) features a terrific premise: the horror goes too far at a controversial, full-contact haunted attraction in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a deranged stranger breaks into the Quigley House haunt and slashes the throat of one of the attendees/contestants. This grim incident is established from the outset (Mattson includes witness-stand testimonies and other court evidence), but the plot matters here are hardly cut and dried. Much like in Quigley House itself, the line between staged illusion and stark reality gets blurred, and the various characters are forced to wrestle with the question of their individual responsibility in the tragic event that transpired.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mattson possesses impressive writing skills and takes a strong literary approach to his subject. Via alternating viewpoint chapters, he delves deep into his main characters, patiently exploring the complexities of their personalities. Other characters, though, are not as well-developed: two of the four team members competing during that fateful night at Quigley House are barely there for the reader. While this is no doubt deliberate on Mattson’s part (one key player, the international student Jaidee, journeys to America in misguided romantic pursuit of his former English teacher back in Thailand–a man he knows almost nothing about), a noticeable imbalance results.

The real unevenness of the novel, though, emerges in the presentation of the narrative’s horror aspects (interspersed “the night of” chapters dramatizing the experience inside the various rooms or “cells” of Quigley House). Yes, there’s a motley crew of actors decked out as monsters and psychos, and there’s undeniable grotesquerie (lots of fake blood is spewed) and physical rigor (wooden bludgeons and shock wands are wielded against the contestants), but Mattson fails to fully capture the horrific intensity for which the haunt is notorious. Suspense naturally suffers because of the book’s achronological structure: the reader already knows who did–and did not–make it out of Quigley House unscathed. The larger issue, arguably, is that Mattson comes across as someone slumming in genre territory; on horror ground, the author’s footing is not as assured. The very safe-word that supplies the novel’s title smacks of stiltedness, sounds like nothing a customer would ever utter at an actual haunt.

For all its promise, Reprieve ultimately disappoints on a few different levels. The big plot twist explaining what really happened at Quigley House falls flat as it falls back on a scheme of sleazy manipulation that is no great surprise (since the real villain of the piece has been made clear throughout). The novel also falls short of its lofty aims, at least as they are articulated by book-jacket hype (“a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment”; “combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life”). Reprieve recalls the film Crash in its crafted intersecting of the lives of disparate characters and in its portrayal of how discrete elements can create a combustible composite, but the book (to this reviewer, at least) lacks any profound statement about issues of race, social class, or sexual orientation. Finally, Mattson’s narrative disappoints in its concluding disavowal of genre horror. A protagonist established as a horror film lover and Constant Reader of Stephen King cringes at her teenage interests when looking back on them later in life. “All that horror nonsense” is now dismissed as treacherous, and the former fandom viewed as a time of misspent youth meant to be outgrown.

Mattson is a gifted writer who scripts beautiful prose, but the house of fiction that he constructs here proves less than the sum of its parts. Failing to serve serious food for thought, it also is apt to leave a sour taste with those who truly savor horror fare.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

1. “Berenice” (1835)

This early tale contains all the hallmarks that would make Poe’s fiction famous: a Gothic setting and supernatural atmosphere, psychological complexity and unreliable narration. In many ways, “Berenice” reads like a narrative forerunner of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is set an a family mansion, and haunting its “gloomy, grey, hereditary halls” is an unnervingly sickly female: the title character, whose epilepsy and tendency to fall into “trance” states compares with the catatonia of Madeline Usher. Just as Roderick Usher’s mind is figured as a haunted palace, the narrator Egaeus here refers to “the disordered chamber of my brain.” Roderick’s hyperacute senses parallel Egaeus’s “nervous intensity of interest”–the “undue, intense, and morbid attention” he fixes upon common objects (his monomania is greatly excited by the sight of his cousin/betrothed’s enigmatic smile). Both tales also deal with a favorite Poe theme, premature burial, but “Berenice” gives the already uncanny idea another disturbing turn of the screw.

After Berenice has an epileptic seizure and is pronounced dead, Egaeus awakens “from a confused and exciting dream” at midnight inside his library (a situation that prefigures “The Raven”). Egaeus, who earlier admitted to being an opium abuser, hears the “shrill and piercing female shriek of a female voice” ringing in his ears, and has a vague recollection of committing some horrific deed. A distraught servant soon arrives with troubling news, whispering “of a violated grave–of a disfigured body discovered upon its margin–a body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!” Attention is then drawn to the narrator’s garments, “muddy and clotted with gore”; his hand is “indented with the impress of human nails.” A spade is propped conspicuously against the chamber’s wall. In the shocking closing sentence, the trembling Egaeus drops an ebony box and sends “some instruments of dental surgery” and “many white and glistening substances” scattering across the floor. The monomaniac, Poe reveals, has not only dug up Berenice’s body, but also hacked out the still-living woman’s teeth.

“Berenice” touched a nerve with contemporary readers, many of whom wrote letters of complaint to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger (the magazine that published the piece). Perhaps this public outcry contributed to Poe’s decision to edit subsequent publications of the tale. He deleted four paragraphs that make for quite a macabre scene. Learning of Berenice’s demise, Egaeus goes to view her presumed corpse (which has been placed atop her curtained bed inside an open coffin). The fall of the “sable draperies” upon his shoulders cuts Egaeus off from the others present in the room and encloses him “in the strictest communion with the deceased.” The “pernicious influence of mortality” causes–or at least Egaeus believes so–“a deleterious odor” to emanate from the body. But he also detects the faint stir of a finger inside the enshrouding cerements, and notices that the band around her jaw has somehow broken loose, exposing her “ghastly teeth” and “livid lips,” “wreathed into a species of smile.” Such unexpected vitality and Egaeus’s frightened reaction to it (he “rushe[s] forth a maniac from that apartment of triple horror, and mystery, and death”) suggest that Poe has scripted more than just a tale of morbid fixation. He might actually have written a subtle variation on a vampire narrative (in which Egaeus’s crude dental surgery on Berenice represents a defensive de-fanging rather than a twisted collecting of tiny ivory trophies).

Especially in its original, uncensored version, “Berenice” packs a wicked bite. Filled with graphic gruesomeness and sinister ambiguity alike, this unforgettable tale earns the honor of being slotted here as Poe’s most macabre work of short fiction.

 

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.