Must-Have Nightmares

Editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson’s Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017) is a brilliantly variegated collection, covering horror in its multiple media incarnations and different stages of creation. Some of the volume’s brightest highlights include:

Joe R. Lansdale’s “It’s the Storyteller.” Starting with its very title, Lansdale’s piece refutes the (Stephen) Kingly notion “that it’s not the teller, it’s the tale that matters” (Lansdale argues that King’s own fiction disproves the point: “it’s his voice, his passion for storytelling, that hooks the reader”). According to Lansdale, “Storytelling is the tone and attitude of the storyteller, and a good storyteller is usually releasing their personality into the story, unbound by plot restrictions.” Lansdale shares his own approach to storytelling, and offers a plenitude of suggestions for writers looking to jump start the creative process.

Clive Barker’s “A-Z of Horror.” Eloquent and insightful as always, Barker considers the nature and personal/cultural function of horror. Speculating on a common thread running through the various manifestations of horror, he offers: “Perhaps the body and its vulnerability. Perhaps the mind and its brittleness. Perhaps love and its absence.” Beyond mere shock value, horror elicits a wealth of complex responses: “It can shame us into recognizing our own capacity for cruelty; it can arouse us, making plain the connection between death and sexual feeling; it can inspire our imaginations, removing us to places where our most sacred taboos may be challenged and overturned.” Barker’s essay not only serves as a helpful key to reading his own fiction, but also makes a convincing case for viewing horror as a serious and significant art form.

Mark Alan Miller’s “Why Horror?” Miller attempts to reply to his essay’s titular inquiry with admirable rigorousness. Among his numerous answers is the assertion that the genre does not simply provide an escape from the violent and vexing ways of the real world, but allows us to wrestle with them: “Why horror? Because life is horrible sometimes, and working through those horrors is the only way we can make sense of it when everything else has failed us.” As accessible as it is enlightening, Miller’s piece ranks as one of the best ever written on the subject.

Michael Paul Gonzalez’s “Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta.” Gonzalez’s impressively extensive essay begins with a thorough taxonomy of story archetypes–myths, saga, fable, folk tales, fairy tales. Not content to point out distinctions, Gonzalez also traces developments over time, which leads him to creepypasta and its reality-blurring elements:

The appeal of the modern urban legend thus becomes an evolution from a spooky campfire tale (Have you heard the story of . . . ?) to a presentation of near-fact (Let me show you the story of . . . ). Horror once challenged readers to stay with the story, to confront the monsters lurking in the shadows and find catharsis in the ending of the story. Now, the story oozes from the page, creeping like a low black fog into our everyday lives.

While appreciable as a critical analysis of creepypasta alone, Gonzalez’s essay grows invaluable when the author explores how horror writers might learn from the phenomenon and adapt its techniques to bolster both their own storytelling and the marketing of their fiction.

Tim Waggoner’s “Horror is a State of Mind.” Aspiring horror writers have long been told the importance of creating three-dimensional, relatable characters (not just cardboard targets to be mowed down by some monstrous antagonist), but Waggoner ranges beyond such basic advice to delve deep into a character-based approach. He strives to make us “understand that horror arises from consciousness. Horror is an emotion, a reaction to something that violates our sense of what we believe to be our normal and (mostly) safe reality. In other words, horror begins inside a character’s head. The story isn’t about what happens. It’s about what a character perceives to be happening, and how that perception impacts the character.” The specific techniques for working from this “inside-out” perspective that Waggoner proceeds to describe transforms his essay into a virtual master class on the crafting of effective horror.

I could go on and on here, waxing ecstatic about the entries that provide valuable insight into the aesthetic tastes of leading editors/anthologists such as Richard Thomas, Michael Bailey, and Jonathan Maberry; the essays in which writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Mort Castle present a behind-the-scenes look at the drafting process of their stories; the interviews with genre luminaries such as John Connelly, Stephen King, and Charlene Harris. Suffice it to say, I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. For anyone looking to create–or better appreciate–works of horror, Where Nightmares Come From is an absolute dream come true.

Cystemic

Much like the figure in the poem below, I sport a ganglion cyst on my wrist. I can only hope, though, that it doesn’t have the same origin…

 

Cystemic

By Joe Nazare

 

Google does little
To soothe his concerns.
“Ganglion” hardly captures
This sudden, inexplicable marble
Pressing from his own flesh like some macabre carpal tumor.

The strange growth
Has the hue of bruised fruit,
Sprouts higher with every hour,
Shoots internal tendrils of dull ache
That scale his brachium and entangle in the roots of his teeth.

His instinct is
To have it out of him.
Excision is all: he seizes his
Keenest piece of kitchen cutlery,
Swallows a half bottle of Jack Daniels as ad hoc anesthetic.

But the surgery is
Promptly preempted when
The butcher knife turns tuning fork,
Striking a vibrant and agonizing chord
The instant the blade-edge even grazes the distended skin.

Woundedly, he
Cradles the affronted
Appendage, which takes on
Mind of its own, sends him staggering
Out of his doublewide and into the desolate New Mexican night.

The insistent cyst
Then inflates, incandesces;
His traitorous arm stiffens, strains
Straight overhead in Lady Liberty mimicry.
Feeling his heels lifting, he thinks perhaps the Rapture’s at hand.

He revises this thesis
When he sees the skies slice open,
Birthing the awful and unearthly thing
That wings itself through the heavens,
A metallic pterodactyl homing in on him.
Identifying
Himself as
A beacon,
He realizes
This isn’t
Rapture,
But rather
A reaping.

Rush to Judgment

Rush’s “Witch Hunt” (from the group’s 1981 album Moving Pictures) arguably forms the greatest torch-and-pitchfork song in music history. The haunting aural experience begins with an ominous instrumental, complete with a chanting rabble in the background. Sizzling guitar licks then give way to Geddy Lee crooning Neal Peart’s lyrics, which blaze a condemnation of mob mentality–misguided self-righteousness, proscription of thought, intolerance of otherness, hasty vigilante justice. Described as moving “like demons possessed,” this irreligious hillttop mob might have emigrated straight from George Lippard’s The Quaker City (see yesterday’s post). Bewitchingly critical, Rush’s denunciation of presumptuous persecutors leaves quite a mark on the listener’s conscience.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of George Lippard’s “The Hangman’s Glee” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Skeleton in Armor”

The third 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

 

“The Hangman’s Glee” by George Lippard

The very title of this excerpted scene from Lippard’s 1845 American Gothic shocker The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (the country’s bestselling novel prior to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) points to the macabre mockery of decorum. The villainous Devil-Bug happily narrates about his previous experiences as an executioner: “When I was quite a little shaver I used to hang a puppy or a pussy-cat, and I used to think it quite refreshin’. But hangin’ a man? Ho-hoo! That’s the ticket!” Devil-Bug proceeds to provide an example, recounting the capital punishment of Charley, a young English sailor (wrongly) charged with murdering the captain of a sea vessel. That public hanging occasions some gallows humor, as a punning Devil-Bug describes the attending parson as “a blackbird, or rather a crow come to pray over yer dead body, boy” (the sin-sniffing hangman also exposes the false piety of the parson, who is more worried about what he is having for dinner than about preaching to the condemned man). Devil-Bug also takes a satiric jab at the medical profession, at the old doctors “prowlin’ around like wolves,” eager to steal off with the corpse for a grisly dissection.

Lippard’s scene, though, heaps the most scorn on the angry mob that has gathered to witness the hanging. The crowd’s bloodlust only throws Charley’s innocence into starker contrast; “hooting, yelling, swearing, and screaming like devils,” these people prove no better specimens of humanity than Devil-Bug himself. He gives a final glimpse of the unruly mob working to procure unholy relic, “tearing the gibbet to pieces, and bearin’ splinters away in their fingers, that they might take ’em home to their families and brag of seein’ a man hung! Ho-hoo!”  His jovial tone, though, cannot undercut the horror of what transpired on that ignominious day. Poor Charley’s hanging is described in grim detail, his body jerking spastically, his tongue protruding “black as a hat.” “The Hangman’s Glee” makes for an appropriate excerpt from the sprawling novel, representing Lippard’s penchant for expressing moral outrage by splashing scenes of extreme iniquity across the page.

 

“The Skeleton in Armor” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Longfellow’s poem is framed as an accosting by an uncanny figure; here the titular revenant haunts the poet-narrator, hounding him to record his story in verse or “Else dread a dead man’s curse.” The tell-tale skeleton claims to be a formerly marauding Viking forced into a fugitive elopement with his beloved after a Norse prince scornfully dismissed his request of the daughter’s hand in marriage. A thrilling sea chase ensued, but successful escape to the shores of the New World did not leave the couple married happily ever after. When the wife died some years later, the distraught Viking buried her beneath the “lofty tower” he had built “for my lady’s bower” and then donned his “warlike gear” and threw himself onto his own sword.

This now-grave-marking tower proves to be a key detail. In a headnote to the poem (not reproduced here in Crow’s anthology), Longfellow identifies it as the actual “Round Tower” in Newport, Rhode Island. The poet subscribes to the mistaken belief that that construction is of Viking origin, and accordingly shapes “The Skeleton in Armor” to fit such a narrative. Unfortunately, such backward glance toward the European aligns Longfellow’s poem with a more dubious form of American Gothic that anachronistically transplants medieval structures onto New England soil rather than finding native equivalents for traditional Gothic elements. So while imbued with spooky atmosphere, “The Skeleton in Armor” ultimately makes for a pallid example of American Gothic poetry.

Bridge to Pinhead

Where had Kirsty gone after those traumatic encounters with Cenobitedom in her father’s house and in the Channard Institute? Would she have put it behind her and moved on, or would she have declined into incurable insanity? Where, when, and how would Pinhead choose to return to demand she settle her bets?
–Doug Bradley, Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor

Bradley’s questions receive long-awaited answer in the just-released Hellraiser: The Toll (written by Mark Alan Miller; story by Clive Barker). The book furnishes a key piece to the narrative puzzle, as it both hearkens back to the events of the first two Hellraiser films and forms a prequel to Barker’s Pinhead send-off, The Scarlet Gospels.

No doubt there is a canonical feel to the proceedings here; the prologue portrait of Devil’s Island could have been sketched by Barker’s own talented hand. The biggest factor, however, is the reintroduction of the character of Kirsty (the daughter of Rory Cotton in Hellraiser and Hellbound, not the infatuated coworker from Barker’s The Hellbound Heart novella). Readers learn that, three decades later, Kirsty is still haunted by her run-in with the Cenobites on Lodovico Street and in the infernal Wastes, still hunted by the demonic forces infiltrating the everyday world. But while the events of her past have taken a decided toll on her, they have not served as a death knell; Kirsty is as feisty and resilient as ever (just ask the guy she nails between the eyes with a hammer).

Perhaps because of Kirsty’s perennial fugitive status, the narrative does have somewhat of a rushed quality. Weakly-developed minor characters fade in and out, appearing to have little purpose beyond prompting Kirsty along in her adventure. The plot pattern also seems to replicate that of later film entries in the Hellraiser series, where various events unfold as frustrating preamble until Pinhead (or “The Cold Man,” as Kirsty considers him here) is finally brought onscreen in the last act. The climactic showdown between Kirsty and her Cenobite nemesis, though, easily surpasses such parallel scenes in the later films. Readers are granted an in-depth look at Pinhead (albeit from Kirsty’s perspective), as Miller details the “silvery glint” in his black eyes, containing “only the sentimnent of decay,” and the Hell Priest’s “carrion breath stinking worse than the shit-stained soil.” Kirsty also gleans a bit of Pinhead’s existential state, his underworld-weariness that has rendered him “an angry husk of rage and sorrows.” All this is not to say that Pinhead has lost his sinister Cenobite mojo; he can still sling such barbed lines as “And if He weeps for your pain, why not heal it? […] If He wishes you were not so weak and easily tempted, why not give you strength? If He hears your cries, why is He silent?”

Admittedly, many readers might come to feel that Pinhead’s grand designs for Kirsty are too easily defied here. His parting promise to come after Kirsty once more does resonate as an empty threat, knowing the figure’s eventual fate in The Scarlet Gospels. Nonetheless, Kirsty does have some unfinished business, as the close of the narrative latches onto a loose thread from the opening of that novel.

A final word of warning: this reads like a pumped-up short story, not a novella of Hellbound Heart proportions. It’s $40 hardcover price is thus a bit steep for a non-collector; the $2.99 ebook version is my recommended choice. For those fans of the Hellraiser mythos originally created–and more recently expanded–by Barker, though, The Toll is well worth paying.

 

Judgment Against

While Hellraiser: Judgement is nowhere near as execrable as some of its predecessors in this long-running (rights-securing) series, it is hardly a sinful delight.

The cinematic transgressions here are numerable. Let’s start with stilted dialogue, laced with exposition. Follow that with a cliched premise: detectives hunting an exotic serial killer–the Preceptor, who proceeds from a warped interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In this regard, Judgment steals from a much better film (Se7en), just as its scenes of squalor horror/torture porn clearly rifle the Saw franchise. What’s worse, Judgment‘s derivative storyline feels like one we’ve already suffered through in a previous installment: 2000’s Hellraiser: Inferno.

Writer/director Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s police-procedural plot meanders, making 81 minutes of runtime seem like a season in hell. Meanwhile, Pinhead is barely seen, save for periodic glimpses of him seated on a stony throne, straining for gravitas. As in other lackluster entries in the series, the iconic Cenobite appears out of place in the very film featuring his pierced visage on the DVD cover. Here he is supplanted by the sadistic machinations of the Stygian Inquistion (kudos to Judgment, though, for at least attempting to bring a fresh element to the Hellraiser mythos).

The film only really becomes enjoyable when Pinhead finally takes center stage for his obligatory last-act demon ex machina. Paul T. Taylor is unlikely to make fans forget Doug Bradley, but proves a more-than-passable Hell Priest in the climax. Pinhead displays both his trademark wit and spectacularly sadistic touch as he hauls human sinners off to Hell. This is all just the undercard, however; the main event is a philosophical–and savagely physical–face-off with an angelic adversary. The scene is one of the best to appear in a Hellraiser film in quite some time, and gets even better with an ironic twist that satisfyingly concludes Pinhead’s series-long character arc.

For sure, there are things to like about Judgment. An understated Tunnicliffe supplies some dark comedy in his turn as the Auditor character. Also, the love triangle/infidelity theme that emerges late in the film makes for a nice bookend with the inciting moments of the original Hellraiser. Unfortunately, the formulaic outweighs the fantastic, and a strong finale cannot make up for a sluggish build-up. At times tantalizing yet disappointing overall, Judgment will leave viewers yearning for that special someday when Clive Barker regains the rights to Hellraiser and returns the series to its full infernal glory.

Bloch Quote

When it comes to mixing humor and horror in fiction, the late, great Robert Bloch remains unsurpassed. The Psycho author also had a wicked gift for reeling off macabre/sardonic one-liners during interviews and within his nonfiction writing. I’ve gathered below six of his best examples of such wit, followed by quotes from various genre figures that slice a similar vein.

 

“The man who smiles when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.”

 

“Friendship is like peeing on yourself: everyone can see it, but only you get the warm feeling that it brings.”

 

“A foolish man tells a woman to stop talking, but a wise man tells her that her mouth is extremely beautiful when her lips are closed.”

 

“So I had this problem–work or starve. So I thought I’d combine the two and decided to become a writer.”

 

“But Psycho did fix my image, for better or worse. For years afterward, many young ladies refused to take showers with me.”

 

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

 

 

“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” –Alfred Hitchcock

 

“Put another way, “Suffer the Little Children” is a ghastly sick-joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story.”  Stephen King

 

“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Harlan Ellison

 

“The  way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” —Mary Roach

 

1.If your car breaks down in the rain outside a spooky old house, sleep in the car.” —from “Victor Salva’s Ten Things We Have Learned From Horror Movies”

 

“Everybody is a book of blood; Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” —Clive Barker

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and John Neal’s “Idiosyncrasies”

The second installment of a new 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:

 

“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving

Irving (as an end note to this 1819 story reveals) adapts a tale of “German superstition” and gives it a New World setting–the Dutch villages of the Hudson region, which (as in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) are frequently “subject to marvellous [sic] events and appearances.” The title character makes an archetypal journey into the American wilderness, stumbling upon a “deep mountain glen” in the Catskills, “wild, lonely and shagged.” He also encounters the ghosts (as they are later identified) of Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon, whose supernatural potables knock Rip into a two-decade-long blackout.

Rip’s fantastic siesta has since become a part of American pop culture, and most people can recount the bare bones of his story. What might have been forgotten by those who have not read Irving’s actual text recently is its darker elements–the uncanny effects of Rip’s belated awakening. Returning to the village he believes he left just one day earlier, Rip finds strange new homes with unfamiliar inhabitants and begins “to wonder whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” His own longtime abode has been reduced to a sudden Gothic ruin–“the roof fallen in, the windows shattered and the doors off the hinges.” Perhaps most disorienting of all is Rip’s encounter with his seeming doppelganger, a younger-looking version of himself dressed in his old clothes and referred to by the same name. Before realizing that this figure is his own son, a frazzled Rip suffers an instant identity crisis (“I’m not myself,–I’m somebody else–that’s me yonder–no–that’s somebody else got into my shoes–I was myself last night; but I fell asleep on the mountain–and they’ve changed my gun–and every thing’s changed–and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”). For all the lighthearted humor of Irving’s piece (e.g. the genteel misogyny directed at Rip’s hen-pecking wife), there is also an undeniably terrifying aspect to the scenario it presents.

 

“Idiosyncrasies” by John Neal

This 1843 story makes for an apt pairing with the preceding Irving piece, featuring a tyrannical husband to counter the shrewish wife of “Rip Van Winkle.” But Neal tells a much darker and more psychologically complex tale, one reminiscent (as Crow identifies in the editorial headnote) of his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe. Like the typical Poe narrator, William Southard Lee (“a mono-maniac and perhaps a murderer”) grows more suspect the more he insists that he is not mad. Recounting his personal history to a visitor to his asylum room, Lee reveals himself as someone who lorded over the very family he claims to have loved dearly. He also appears to have precipitated the disaster that befalls his alleged loved ones. When his son Willy stands upon the precipice of a cave-in on a snowy mountain, Lee–irritated by his frightened wife’s hysterics–decides to “punish her for such untimely interference,” and instead of moving to rescue Willy gives the perverse command to the boy to venture forth and fetch his fallen cap. Willy never recovers from his subsequent plunge beneath the frozen surface, and his grief-stricken mother (whom Lee actually blames for Willy’s death) drowns herself years later.

Again recalling Poe, Neal is indistinct in his geography; the story’s wintry setting could just easily be European as American. Nevertheless, the natural scene depicted is quite sublime, and the plot centers on a wilderness trek fraught with danger (cave-ins, avalanches, maybe even a she-bear). Much like its mountainous locale, the lines of Neal’s tale make for rough traveling, as the idiosyncrasies (nested narratives, lack of quotation marks to distinguish speakers) extend to a structural level. For those willing to brave Neal’s narrative labyrinth, though, the story offers some fine chills, including a climax where Lee proves that his madness (employed to avoid a death sentence when he’s suspected of murdering his wife) is hardly counterfeit as he lunges at his interlocutor with a drawn knife.

Don’t Fear the Creeper

The original Jeepers Creepers was an unnerving, atmospheric horror film that introduced a terrific antagonist. The fun (if not quite as frightful) Jeepers Creepers 2 offered loads of action and suspense as the Creeper–that ghoulish gargoyle decked out like The Undertaker–menaced a high school basketball team’s bus. For fans of these first two installments, though, the long-delayed Jeepers Creepers 3 will prove bitterly disappointing.

Jonathan Breck returns here to embody the carnivorous Creeper (whose looking a lot beefier from all that binge eating), but the character gets utterly upstaged by its own paraphernalia. More attention is given to its weapons (which spring to hand via campy telepathy) and its gadget-pimped, booby-trapped truck (imagine the Batmobile redesigned by Jigsaw). Even one of the creature’s severed hands from twenty-three years earlier gets a disproportionate share of screen time–in a hokey bit of mythology, holding said appendage allegedly furnishes insight into the origins and vulnerabilities of the Creeper. I write “allegedly,” because the film refuses to reveal any of this information, despite featuring two drawn-out scenes in which different characters endure the visionary experience. Such failure to deliver marks Jeepers Creepers 3 as a whole; there isn’t even a climactic confrontation, just the histrionic dismay of the monster after it discovers that some of its human nemeses have learned its secrets.

This is a film that has it all–if all we are talking about is hammy acting, B-grade CGI, and a nonsensical, go-nowhere plot. The less said about it, the better; I feel I have already wasted enough time just sitting down to watch it.

After suffering through this wretched resurfacing, I can only hope that the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains dormant for a lot longer than twenty-three years.