Thought Crime (poem)

My latest poem was published today over at the weekly crime poetry blog The Five-Two. “Thought Crime” considers how the hard knocks suffered by a hard-boiled detective continue even into retirement.

While in grad school at NYU, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on cyberpunk science fiction, a movement strongly influenced by the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I had a lot of fun (despite the ultimately somber tone of “Thought Crime”) tapping into–and extrapolating from–that same hard-boiled formula here with this poem.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Abraham Panther’s “An Account of a Beautiful Lady” and Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment”

This is the first installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre RepublicMy goal is to explore just how “American Gothic” are the works of literature collected in books bearing that titular designation. The first book I am tackling (periodically, I will cover a few texts at a time from the table of contents) is editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916.

 

“An Account of a Beautiful Young Lady” by Abraham Panther

In this fictional narrative published in pamphlet form in 1787, the pseudonymous Panther pens a letter describing his discovery (while trekking through the “Western Wilderness”) of a cave-dwelling Lady. Prompted to explain her curious living situation, this woman recounts a bloody tale. While eloping with her lover (and fleeing her vengeful, death-threatening father), she and her partner ran afoul of those ultimate bogies of the American Gothic wilderness: a “party of Indians” who proceeded to mutilate and immolate the male and then dance in heathen celebration of their barbarous handiwork. The Lady escaped, but quickly encountered another threat in the form of a giant who took her into his cave and threatened to kill her if she didn’t submit to his sexual advances.

Panther’s epistolary narrative captures the savage state of the wilderness, and the facility with which it strips away the veneer of civility. Before her first night in the cave concluded, the Lady got hold of a hatchet and killed the sleeping giant with it. For good measure, she beheaded and quartered his corpse, dragged out and buried the body parts, and then settled down into the cave herself. While being given a grand tour of the Lady’s home, Panther notes the presence of quartet of skulls, which he supposes “were of persons murdered by the owner of the cave, or of his former companions.” Still, one has to wonder if the cave’s current occupant didn’t author such misdeed herself at some point during her nine years’ stay. She might have a lovely face, and a singing voice to match, but this Lady doubtless can be quite tigerish. The happiness of the story’s ending–with the Lady being returned home to her now-regretful father–does not necessarily wash away the darker undercurrents of the account.

 

“Somnambulism: A Fragment” by Charles Brockden Brown

America’s first (Gothic) novelist shows he can work the same elements in shorter forms, in this story centering on a classic scenario: “the perils and discomforts of a nocturnal journey” through the woods. “Somnambulism” also involves the theme of the double: is the furtive figure haunting the carriage ride of Constantia Davis and her father the misshapen, mentally-challenged, mischievous “monster” Nick Handyside, or the unreliable narrator Althorpe himself? Althorpe embodies contradictory notions of heroism and villainy; he is preoccupied with being the protector of Constantia on her night journey, but actually might be the cause of her demise. He dreams of shooting and mortally wounding the assassin who waylays Constantia, but when news arrive the next day that Constantia has been seriously wounded by a pistol shot, the possibility arises that Althorpe delivered the blow during a bout of sleepwalking. Such unwitting assault (which leads to Constantia’s death at story’s end) would be a most ironic turn. More sinisterly, the violence can be interpreted as an eruption of the unconscious hostility Althorpe bears towards Constantia, who is betrothed to another and thus far has rebuffed the smitten Althorpe’s romantic advances.

First published in 1805, but written prior to some of Brown’s more famous novels, “Somnambulism” clearly anticipates Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. The Davises’ fretting about notorious local trickster Nick Handyside during their night ride can also be viewed as an influence on Ichabod Crane’s concerns with the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Brimming with dark ambiance and narrative ambiguity, “Somnambulism” proves a fine example of American Gothic fiction.

Notes from Six Feet Underground

If your sense of humor tends toward the morbid, check out Grave Marker Macabre in the menu above. I’ve published it as a page rather than a post, because I hope to keep adding to this list of American Gothic epitaphs over time (setting them down in stone whenever I think them up). So keep venturing back; you never know what might poke out of the boneyard next.

X-coriation

If you didn’t catch “My Struggle III,” the first episode of season 11 of The X-Files, you missed a stunning transformation.

Apparently, Fox Mulder has turned into Philip Marlowe.

There’s plenty not to like (as Daniel Kurland points out in an extended critique over at Bloody Disgusting) about this opening episode, but to me the most cringe-worthy decision was to have David Duchovny launch into several voice-over monologues as his character is driving to track down the Cigarette Smoking Man. Such sudden and protracted narration creates a jarring note in and of itself, and the actual content of Mulder’s expressed thoughts makes these scenes that much more difficult to sit through. His lines sound incredibly stilted, as he frames what is at stake and poses a series of questions to himself (Kurland’s article cites the following passage as a prime example of Mulder’s purple turn: “I was running only on adrenaline and Scully’s premonitions, but was it hope I should be feeling, or fear that Scully’s right and that a man that I had come to despise, my own father, was alive? And if he were, he had become mad with power.” ). If the writing here were any lazier, Mulder would be in danger of going comatose behind the wheel. Not since Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun has there been such laughable use of hard-boiled voice-over; the problem is, the audience is meant to take Mulder’s words seriously.

Critics who screened the first half of season 11 have reassured despairing fans that subsequent (monster- rather than mythology-based) episodes do get much better. So there is hope that The X-Files can go down swinging in what appears to be its final round. Based solely on the premiere episode, though, the show looks like a washed-up fighter who unretires to chase one last payday and ends up giving a legacy-tarnishing and utterly embarrassing performance.

Mob Scene: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

A few nights ago, a huge throng gathered and made merry in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” though, a scene of nocturnal celebration is nowhere near as amiable.

The story shows structural similarities with Hawthorne’s more widely-known piece, “Young Goodman Brown”: night-time wandering, ominous encounters, the ultimate disillusionment of the protagonist. Here, a young man named Robin travels from his remote rural home to the heart of a New England colony, to seek a position with his titular kinsman. But the townspeople repeatedly answer his inquiries as to Molineux’s whereabouts with anger and derision. Among these is a devilish fellow whose “forehead bulged out into a double prominence,” and who is later seen sporting a red-and-black-painted face. Apparently, hell is other people, especially those who have united in enmity.

In the story’s climax, Robin encounters a mad pageant–a riotously-dressed mob wielding torches and playing “fearful wind-instruments.” The fantastic scene makes it seem “as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.” Eventually, Robin discovers that his unfortunate relation has been tarred and feathered and is being parade around in public shame. The colonists no doubt enjoy this torture and ridicule of a governmental figure loyal to the British crown, but as a reader it is hard to ignore the horror of the situation. Robin observes that the elderly Molineux’s “eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip. His whole frame was agitated by a quick, and continual tremor.”

Hawthorne’s story illustrates how popular dissent can easily descend into mob violence, how America’s political independence has its roots in the American Gothic. Once more shining a light on the darker elements of the country’s early history, Hawthorne reminds us that tar and feathers precede the Stars and Stripes.

2017 Supreme

Along with a certain sphere in Times Square, a whole host of best-ofs, top __ countdowns, and retrospective summations drop at year’s end. Perusing these innumerable lists/articles/videos, though, can be a tremendous time suck, draining away from the pleasurable hours that might be spent consuming the actual items identified. So for those looking for a quicker 2017-in-review fix, I offer the following listing of some of the year’s best look-backs on the world of horror:

Barnes and Noble: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Chicago Review of Books: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Vanity Fair: Why 2017 Was Such a Big Year for Horror

PopSugar: 11 Truly Masterful Horror Films That Came Out in 2017

Bloody Disgusting: These Are the 13 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2017

Bloody Disgusting: Here Are the 15 Best Monsters of 2017!

Entertainment Weekly: Stephen King Q&A: Pennywise’s Creator on Scaring the Hell Out of 2017

WatchMojo: Pennywise 1990 vs. 2017

 

Looper: The Most Underappreciated Horror Movies Released in 2017

 

Finally, to round out this out post, I’ll add a list of my own to the mix. I put this one together because Fright-Rags is the pinnacle of macabre fashion (and perhaps because I’m pining for t-shirt weather at this time of year!).

The Top 10 T-Shirts On Sale at Fright-Rags at Year’s End

1.Goosebumps

Horripilation Compilation

 

2.Creepshow

This one’s a Keeper

 

3.Halloween III

If only the movie was as good as what’s depicted here

 

4.The Silence of the Lambs

Watch out for Chianti stains

 

5.Groovy

Dead-on

 

6.The Shower Scene

Murderin’ Marion

 

7.I Am the Way

That’s my pleasure, sir

 

8.Predator

Smiling for a head shot

 

9.Trick ‘R Treat

Sam and ensemble

 

10.London After Midnight

Beware of what this guy’s drinking on New Year’s Eve

 

The Gunman’s Oxymorons

Reading Joe Hill’s “Loaded” (from Strange Weather, which I reviewed here) led me to look back on, and revise, a poem I had written several years back. The piece was originally occasioned by my personal fear of gun violence.

 

The Gunman’s Oxymorons

By Joe Nazare

 

loving wife
adorable children

lifetime achievement
moderate drinking

sure bet
savings account

employee benefits
company loyalty

weapons permit
workplace safety

innocent bystanders
pronounced silence

 

Hill of the King: A Review of Strange Weather

Stephen King (Different Seasons; Four Past Midnight) isn’t the only horror writer to publish thematically-grouped novella quartets (cf. Charles Grant’s Dialing the Wind; The Black Carousel), but he is undoubtedly the most popular. Joe Hill, though, might soon threaten his father’s reign, as evidenced by his latest collection Strange Weather.

The opening novella, “Snapshot,” appears to pick up right where the finale of Four Past Midnight left off. Much like “The Sun Dog,” Hill’s story deals with a young protagonist’s encounter with a paranormal camera, which in this case doesn’t capture moments but actually erases the subject’s memories. This alien technology from another reality could have come straight from the Dark Tower multiverse. A coming-of-age tale, “Snapshot” even references Stand By Me (not coincidentally, Will Wheaton narrates the audio version of the novella), but such invocation only throws the loneliness and “adolescent sadness” of the obese thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione into starker contrast. The narrative’s mysterious and perfectly nasty villain, the Phoenician, is perhaps vanquished too easily and too early on, but the long anticlimax does a fine job of establishing the American Gothic elements of the figure’s photographic endeavors (which trace back to a heinous act of domestic violence). For all its fantastic elements, “Snapshot” reminds us of the natural ravages of senescence; it is a haunting tale that won’t fade from consciousness anytime soon.

“Loaded” is the longest of the four pieces collected here, and the most frighteningly realistic (arguably that Hill has ever written). Mall security guard Randall Kellaway is hailed as a hero when he stops a potential mass shooting, but the circumstances of his intervention set off a chain reaction of events that culminates in an explosive climax. Hill makes poignant points about racism and gun violence, but without ever climbing up onto a soapbox. With its large cast of diverse characters whose storylines inevitably intersect, “Loaded” forms the author’s literary equivalent of Crash, and is just as award-worthy.

In “Aloft,” a parachuting mishap renders Aubrey Griffin a “Robinson Crusoe of the sky”–stranded in cumulonimbic limbo, on a sentient and wondrously protean cloud island. The scenario is a prime example of the soaring flights of fancy Hill is so apt to produce, and allows him to flex his writing muscles via passages of astonishing description (e.g. “Ohio lay beneath him, an almost perfectly flat expanse of variegated squares in shades of emerald, wheat, richest brown, palest amber. […] Ruler-straight ribbons of blacktop bisected the fields below. A red pickup slid along one of these black threads like a bright steel bead on an abacus.”). “Aloft” is at once humorous and profoundly human (in its meditation on unrequited–and also unrecognized–love). With its glimpses of both the exhilaratingly beautiful and the awful (the unworldly flying object doesn’t lack a Lovecraftian aspect), the narrative epitomizes the sublime. This one reads like a lost masterpiece from the glory days of Amazing Stories.

Fans of Hill’s last novel, The Fireman, will revel in “Nails,” a post-apocalyptic epic condensed into a novella. The weather is at its strangest here, as crystalline slivers rain devastatingly from the sky. This deadly downpour, though, doesn’t represent some latter-day Biblical plague, isn’t presented as meteorologically-themed magic realism. Instead, the tale posits an act of terrorism that is made to sound terrifyingly plausible. Hill has a grand time describing the bloody mayhem created by the unnatural hail, but for all the chaos that ensues, it is order that ultimately impresses most. The narrative is as tightly plotted as a murder mystery (which in a certain sense it is), where even the smallest and seemingly most incidental detail proves integral. Heart-pounding and heartbreaking, filled with stunning set pieces and touching character moments, “Nails” needs to be made into a feature film quicker than a wicked thunderstorm rolls in.

While its structure recalls the work of Stephen King, this book also testifies to what a unique and incredible talent Joe Hill is. The local forecast for the reader of Strange Weather: captivation, with unremitting entertainment.

Nicked

It’s the night before Christmas, a prime time to post the following piece of flash fiction…

 

Nicked

By Joe Nazare

 

Framed in one of the fifty-six windows of his home, Billy’s face is a mask of anxiousness. But I just snap the reins and fly on by.

The kid’s not even supposed to be up right now. Then again, if Billy Norton knew appropriate behavior, he wouldn’t have ended up bratlisted this year. So no special deliveries from me, although I’m sure his parents won’t leave him wanting. Month-old milk isn’t half as spoiled as he is.

The hilltop mansion in my wake, I proceed with my evening itinerary. Countless touchdowns are scheduled on the rooftop runways of more-deserving households within the town proper. The jolly prospect of morning unwrappings enraptures me…

Until Rudolph’s nose blinkers in alarm, and the entire team rears up as a dark shape swoops down on us. Initially, night and surprise camouflage the airspace invader; perhaps it’s the cacophonic drone that helps sharpen my vision, of what looks like some outsized, automated hornet.

I fight to steer clear of treetops and power lines as the mechanical harasser makes its buzzing loops. At one point the thing alights beside me, and then takes off with my brimming yet incredibly wieldy toy-sack pinched between its steel forelimbs.

The sudden absence of presents in my sky-pirated sleigh leaves me stunned. Finally, I manage to turn, and spot the machine beelining up the hillside. That’s when I realize who has masterminded tonight’s heist.

This Christmas, naughty Billy Norton will be getting nothing on his wish list—and everything on everyone else’s.

 

78/52 = 10

No, the above equation isn’t a math mistake, but an acknowledgment of the sheer perfection of writer/director Alexander O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.

“78/52” refers to the number of shots/cuts employed in the filming of the iconic demise of Marion Crane in Psycho, and also serves as an early indication of the documentary’s precise approach. While viewers might already be aware of some of the fun facts (Hitchcock’s use of Hershey’s chocolate syrup to simulate blood; the faintest twitch of actress Janet Leigh’s eye as the camera pulls back from Marion’s sprawled corpse), they are sure to learn plenty of new details about the shower scene. This reviewer, for instance, never knew that pin-up model Marli Renfro stunt-doubled for Janet Leigh, that the knifing of a casaba melon and a slab of raw meat furnished the flesh-stabbing sound effect, or that the scene even had a direct impact on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

The actual footage from the shower scene is invoked throughout, but the documentary also features clips from a whole host of films as it establishes Psycho‘s immediate cinematic context and perennially pervasive influence. A couple of neat bonuses also come in the form of an opening reenactment of Marion’s rain-drenched arrival at the Bates Motel, and a dramatization of the shower scene as it plays out (slightly differently, but no less hauntingly) in Robert Bloch’s original novel.

The heart of 78/52, though, is found in its slew of talking heads. An impressive number of actors (including Janet Leigh’s own daughter Jamie Lee Curtis), directors, authors, and film critics not only testify to the personal impact of the shower scene but also provide extended, insightful analysis of what makes it so effective both visually and aurally. Their commentary brilliantly elucidates various aspects of Psycho, from the meticulous foreshadowing of the shower scene via both dialogue and imagery (e.g. the slashing of the windshield wipers prior to Marion’s ill-fated stop off) to the subtle but poignant symbolism (the specific painting that Norman removes from the wall of his office when peeping on Marion’s showering takes voyeurism as its very theme).

Ultimately, Philippe’s documentary convinces viewers what a true auteur Alfred Hitchcock was–the deliberate artistry Psycho‘s director brought to the filming of the shower scene (which took a whole week to shoot). At once finely detailed and highly entertaining, 78/52 offers an appropriate appreciation of one of the most seminal and memorable scenes in the history of film.