Dark Carnival Extended: “Bang! You’re Dead!”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“Bang! You’re Dead!” (1944)

Fair-haired Johnny Choir plays at war, running and laughing, ducking and dodging, pointing and yelling “Missed me!” and “Gotcha!” He’s unquestionably young at heart but maybe not quite right in the head: Bradbury’s twist is that Johnny is an actual U.S. soldier fighting in Italy during World War II. As his army buddy Private Smith says, “As far as I can figure, he thinks this is all a game. He never grew up. He’s got a big body with a kid’s mind in it. He doesn’t take war serious. He thinks we’re all playing at this.” Johnny’s strange outlook seems to work like a good luck charm, protecting him from enemy fire as he moves recklessly. This amazes the fear-gripped Smith, and bemuses another soldier named Melter, who eventually takes a shot at Johnny himself, then tries to tear through his mental armor by revealing that they are in fact fighting a war. Hurt by the news, Johnny stumbles off, and is soon wounded by a German artillery shell. He survives the head injury (which likely will wipe away the memory of Melter’s spoiler), and at tale’s end he (along with Smith) is scheduled to be discharged and sent home to America. The rotten Melter fares much worse, though, after desperately trying to mimic Johnny’s tactic: he ends up strafed with machine-gun fire while running down a hill “screaming about being a kid again.”

“Bang! You’re Dead!” proves quintessentially Bradburian in theme, contrasting the “innocent wonder” of youth and adult experience, vivid imagination and harsh reality. Johnny’s psychological defense mechanism–regressing himself to the playful days of his Midwestern youth–hints at the terrible, traumatic nature of war. Nevertheless, the story features an emphatically happy ending, which frees Johnny from military service and paves the way for him to “go on believing the world is a good place.” Perhaps this ultimate light-heartedness (contra the other stories in the table of contents) is exactly what dissuaded Bradbury from including the piece in the first edition of Dark Carnival.

 

Dark Carnival Extended: “The Sea Shell”

In a recently-concluded retrospective, I explored the contents of Dark Carnival (marking the 75th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s debut collection). And now tonight brings an addendum….The 2001 Gauntlet Press reissue of Dark Carnival offered bonus reading: a quartet of weird tales that Bradbury did not include in the 1947 edition. Over a series of four posts, I will look back at those stories, considering how they might have fit if chosen for the first publication of the book.

“The Sea Shell” (1944)

11-year-old Johnny Bishop, bedridden with an unspecified illness, “wants to get out and play, badly.” The frustration over his confinement is alleviated when the family doctor gifts him with the titular object (which seemingly sounds a call from the remote Pacific: “The ocean! The waves! The sea!”). Now, “whenever the afternoons stretched long and tiresome, he would press [the sea shell] around the lobe and rim of his year and vacation on a wind-blown peninsula far, far off.” The sea shell stirs the wanderlust of Johnny, a Midwesterner who only knows of the ocean through movies. Johnny’s mom chides him for his “impatience with everything in life. you must have things–right now–or else.” In response, Johnny reasons, “If I wait too long, I’ll be grown up, and then it won’t be any fun.” Apparently, Johnny decides not to wait until he gets over his sickness to get out of the house. Lured by “the singing chant of boatmen faintly drifting on a salt sea wind,” Johnny uses the sea shell as a magical portal to an actual seaside adventure.

“The Sea Shell” presents some distinctly carnivalesque imagery: Johnny’s bed quilt is described as “a red-blue circus banner,” and after Johnny’s bewildered mom finds him missing but hears (via the sea shell) him frolicking in the ocean, the bedroom whirls around her like “a bright swaying merry-go-round.” But the story isn’t terribly dark, playing out more as an offbeat fantasy tale (in which Johnny ends up in a happy place). For this reason, and because Bradbury did include a much darker tale (“The Emissary”) centered on an ill, bedridden child, “The Sea Shell” was perhaps wisely omitted from 1947’s Dark Carnival.

 

Horripilation Compilation

Unabashed admission: I’m a complete geek for books, TV programs, or streaming series that gather, rank, and analyze the best that the horror genre has to offer. Projects such as The Book of Lists: HorrorHorror: 100 Best BooksHorror: Another 100 Best BooksBravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Eli Roth’s History of Horror. So it’s no shocker that I have been eagerly anticipating the new Shudder series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, whose first episode debuted this week.

101 Scariest clearly emulates the format of Bravo’s 100 Scariest, combining commentary with classic horror film clips. But 101 also one-ups its predecessor in a few regards. The role of talking head is embodied by various writers, actors, directors, and film scholars, whereas the Bravo countdown mixed in a lot of pop cultural personalities and joke-cracking comedians (figures with questionable connection to the genre) into its cast of commentators. 101 also seems committed to offering more serious analysis of the films under discussion, addressing not just the nature of the scare but also considering the construction of the particular movie scene containing it.

It will be interesting to see how 101‘s completed list ultimately compares to that compiled by the 2004 Bravo show (and its follow-ups, 30 Even Scarier Movie Moments [2006] and 13 Scarier Movie Moments [2009]). Perhaps I will pursue such comparison in a future post.

An eight-episode series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time streams a new installment every Wednesday on Shudder up until Halloween.

Official Trailer:

Peter Straub (1943-2022)

Sadly, the horror genre has lost one of its giants. Peter Straub passed away today at the age of 79.

A consummate prose stylist, Straub authored such classic novels as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon, and Koko. He also co-wrote (with Stephen King) the dark fantasy epics The Talisman and Black House.

I had the opportunity to meet Straub a few times over the years, at different conferences and book readings. His imposing (physical and literary) stature could be intimidating at first, but he proved very approachable and personable. Erudite yet never arrogant. A class act all the way.

Rest in peace, Peter. Our Macabre Republic mourns your loss.

 

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Dracula Untold

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 deliberately chose to become a bloodsucker, but for noble reasons?

Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing Bram Stoker’s gruesome vampire, transforming him into a debonair yet debauched Gothic hero-villain. But 2014’s Dracula Untold (less a horror vehicle than a dark fantasy action film) skews Stoker’s original characterization even further, by making Dracula the actual protagonist of the piece. A brave (if sometimes ferocious) warrior, a devoted family man, and determined defender of his countrymen, he is clearly cut from heroic cloth here.

Fresh from starring in The Hobbit films, Luke Evans portrays the Transylvanian prince Vlad (Drscula Untold perpetuates the error of equating Stoker’s fictional creation with the historical Vlad the Impaler), “Son of the Dragon. Protector of the Innocent.” That latter title is put to the test, by the imperial evils of the Ottoman Turks. Unsatisfied with tributes of silver, the sultan Mehmed demands the surrender of 1000 Transylvanian boys (who will be enslaved and trained as fighters for the Turks). For good measure, Vlad’s own son Ingeras must be given to Mehmed to raise. Vlad violently refuses, sparking a war with the empire (which is already geared to march across Europe).

To save his homeland and its inhabitants from an imminent bloodbath, Vlad seeks out a monster previously encountered atop Broken Tooth Mountain. This “Master Vampire” (chillingly embodied by Charles Dance–Tywin Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones) has been trapped in a cave there by the same Faustian bargain that granted him his dark powers. He agrees to let the desperate Vlad taste-test the vampiric lifestyle, but is careful to spell out the conditions of the transaction: “If you can resist [drinking blood] for three days, you will return to your mortal state.” If not, Vlad will become “a scourge on this earth, destined to destroy everything [he] hold[s] dear” (and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison, to take vengeance against the demon that tricked him long ago).

Vlad takes unholy communion, goes through his momentary death throes, and is reborn as a nosferatu superhero. He now has the promised “strength of a hundred men. The speed of a falling star. Dominion over the night and all its creatures. [The ability] to see and hear through their senses. Even heal grievous wounds.” The Turk-decimating Vlad practically forms a one-man battalion, someone who also possesses the neat ability (the film makes fine use of CGI) to morph into a horde of bats.

The premise of Dracula Untold incites some interesting narrative conflict, as Vlad has to fight not just the Turks but also time (his battles each night must be won by sunrise) and his own unnatural urges. Even as he leads his people in rebellion against the Turks, he struggles to keep his vampiric traits secret from them. When he fails to do so, his countrymen–with classic cries of “Kill the monster!”–put his tent to the torch. This angry mob scene concludes with a unique twist, though, as the not-so-easily-dispatched Vlad emerges from the fiery ruins to verbally chastise the ungrateful uprisers.

Of course, Vlad can’t quite make it through the requisite three days of fasting, but even his eventual slaking of his terrible bloodthirst is given a heroic spin. His dying wife (who was tossed over a cliff by Mehmed’s minions) convinces Vlad to drink her vital fluids, so he will be strong enough to go rescue their son (who has been captured by Mehmed). This sets up a climactic swordfight with the sultan, who cleverly levels the battleground by strewing silver coins (a baneful drain on Vlad’s vampiric powers) beneath his feet. Nonetheless, the undead swashbuckler overcomes adversity and emerges victorious (with the villainous Mehmed suffering some satisfying bloodshed).

For Dracula purists, Dracula Untold might steer Stoker’s original storyline too far off course. Still, the film (directed by Gary Shore, from Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script) deserves credit for its commitment to offering a new take on the hoary figure. Fast-paced and filled with frightfully-framed fight scenes, it’s a quintessential popcorn flick. Entertainment-hungry viewers won’t regret gnoshing on this one one bit.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Next in Line”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here]

 

“The Next in Line” (1947)

Hemingway meets Poe in this narrative of a bickering tourist couple who encounter the macabre. A few days after the “Death Fiesta,” El Dia de Muerte, Marie and her husband Joseph visit the catacombs of a graveyard “in a small colonial Mexican town” (according to biographer Sam Weller, Bradbury drew from his own experiences while on a trip through Guanajuato, Mexico). Propped within the underground tomb are 115 mummies, desiccated corpses dug up from the earth and stood up in this postmortem holding cell when their poor relatives could no longer afford the annual rent on their graves. The resultant tableau is an “embarrassment of horror”: silent screams pour “from terror-yawned lips and dry tongues,” one former cataleptic mimes the agony of her premature burial, and a woman who died during childbirth has her stillborn infant wired to her wrist “like a little hungry doll.” Joseph, a photographer, takes the scene in stride (he considers publishing “an ironical [picture] book,” and even offers to buy one of the figures from the cemetery caretaker), but Marie is terribly frightened by the experience. She develops a morbid fixation with the mummies, to the point where even the sight of a plate of aligned enchiladas triggers dread. Her nervous concern takes its toll, prostrating her, and leading her to beg her husband not to let her body be relegated to the catacombs if she dies. But that appears to be exactly the tact taken by the ghoulish Joseph, who is last glimpsed driving back toward the U.S. border with the passenger seat conspicuously empty alongside him.

“The Next in Line” makes for a fitting end to Dark Carnival, as the mortality concerns that run thematically through the book’s contents are writ large here. Bradbury deftly conjoins the carnivalesque and the sepulchral, describing the mummies as standing “like the naked pipes of a vast derelict calliope, their mouths cut into frantic vents.” The narrative (closer in length to a novella than a short story) takes its time unfolding, not rushing toward some simple, grimly twisting climax of the E.C. variety. Richly (if hauntingly) atmospheric and rife with psychological complexity, “The Next in Line” displays the numerous talents of a writer poised to transcend the shudder pulps.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Cistern”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Cistern” (1947)

On a rainy afternoon, Anna stares dreamily out the front window and waxes fanciful about the titular receptacle: “A dead city, right here, right under our feet,” she tells her fellow-spinster sister Juliet. Anna imagines an experience of secrecy and childlike fun, “liv[ing] in the cistern and peek[ing] up at people through the slots and see[ing] them not see you.” She also envisions a pair of dead lovers residing in such underground abode, desiccate mummies reanimated each rainy season (“She told how the water rose and took the woman with it, unfolding her out and loosening her and standing her full upright in the cistern”) and sent floating out to sea in circumnavigation of the globe. Matters take a darker turn, though, when Anna suddenly insists that the dead man in the cistern is her old beau Frank (who’s “been gone for years, and certainly not down there,” Juliet tells her sister). Distraught, Anna weeps silently. Juliet dozes off, but wakes to the sounds of Anna fleeing outdoors and the cistern lid lifting and slamming down again.

“The Cistern” warrants multiple readings if only for its crafted ambiguity. Does Bradbury’s tale put more emphasis on uncanny rebirth (the lovers’ amazing resuscitation by the rainwaters) or tragic death (as the lonely, loveless, and mentally anguished Anna presumably drowns herself)? In its consideration of a fantastic underworld, the story anticipates the work of Tim Burton (e.g. Corpse Bride). But the macabre implications of the story also point to a certain Stephen King opus where the sewer system (not to mention the idea of floating corpses) proves much more sinister.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Man Upstairs”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Man Upstairs” (1947)

Eleven-year-old Douglas Spaulding is immediately unnerved when Mr. Koberman, a “tall strange man” with “cold gray eyes” rents a room at the boarding house run by Douglas’s grandparents. Koberman has an unfriendly demeanor, and a dark aura that seems to suck the color and warmth from the room. He also exhibits some curious behavioral quirks: the man has a strong aversion to silver (he tips in copper pennies and eats his meals with wooden utensils), is out all night and sleeps like the dead during the day. The enmity between Koberman and Douglas continues to grow, especially after the former frames Douglas for the breaking of a multicolored glass window (through which Douglas had been able to catch glimpse of Koberman’s true nature). Clever Douglas, though, gets the last laugh. Emulating the culinary efforts of his Grandma when she guts/stuffs a chicken, Douglas vivisects the resting Koberman (removing his weirdly-shaped, gelatinous organs) and fills the chest cavity of this inhuman, vampiric creature (who had been preying on local woman) with lethal silver dimes from Douglas’s piggy bank.

Like much of Bradbury’s fantastic fiction, “The Man Upstairs” is rooted in the author’s own childhood experiences (the colored glass window so integral to the plot here mirrors the one that captured a young Bradbury’s fancy). As a Douglas Spaulding story, “The Man Upstairs” (like “The Night” before it in Bradbury’s debut collection) clearly prefigures Dandelion Wine. With its mix of nostalgia and the macabre, it also links with From the Dust Returned, Bradbury’s expansion of Dark Carnival narratives such as “Homecoming” and Uncle Einar” (in which the author’s own beloved relatives are positively recast as Halloween monsters). Perhaps most intriguingly, the story (in which a young boy faces off against a sinister figure in human guise, a peripatetic predator who disruptively appears in the boy’s Midwestern hometown) anticipates Something Wicked This Way Comes. A terrifically imaginative and blackly humorous piece in its own right, “The Man Upstairs” is noteworthy as an early map of the shadowy paths Bradbury would travel down in future, classic works.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Dead Man”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Dead Man” (1945)

An eccentric layabout (with a tendency to stretch out in the gutter) claims decedent status for himself, insisting that he perished in the “flood that washed away my farm and all my stock and put me under water, like a chicken in a bucket.” Martin might not be deluded (as he has no detectable pulse, “can’t eat,” and gives off an “awful smell”) but is derided by the rest of the town. All except the mousy manicurist Miss Weldon, who appreciates Martin’s taciturn nature (vs. the “loud” and “mean” men inhabiting the barber shop where she works). Unwilling to buy into Martin’s morbidity, she tells him, “You’re dead for want of a good woman’s cooking, for loving, for living right.” The pair has a “quiet elopement,” but Martin’s mention of purchasing a “house out on the edge of town” turns unsettling when the townspeople belatedly realize he was talking about one of the tombs in Trinity Park Cemetery.

Much like its titular character, “The Dead Man” is an odd story, seemingly unsure of what it is exactly (a mordant tale with an E.C.-style climactic twist? an offbeat romance, in which two quirky characters find love?). As a kinder, gentler version of the walking dead, Odd Martin allows Bradbury to approach his predominant subject (and the book’s virtual leitmotif) from a not-quite-as-macabre angle. Still, the story seems an imperfect fit with the rest of Dark Carnival. To echo the decree of the young girl in the narrative who vetoes using Martin as a Halloween party prop: “Not scary enough.”

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “There Was an Old Woman”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“There Was an Old Woman” (1944)

The titular spinster, Aunt Tildy, runs an antique shop out of the front of her home, where she sits and rails against death. She refuses to “believe in it,” deeming it “ridiculous”: “it’s silly people live a couple years and are shoved like wet seeds in a hole; but nothin’ sprouts.” Despite her shunning of matters of mortality, Tildy succumbs when the Grim Reaper comes calling (in the guise of a “tall, dark” young man in a funereal suit). Most stories might climax here, but Bradbury is just getting warmed up: the feisty, lingering spirit of Tildy (with the help of her adopted daughter Emily) hurries to the mortuary to get her body back before the mortician rudely opens it up and empties it out. Like the concept of death itself, such treatment is an affront to Tildy: “I’m a maiden lady. My moles, birthmarks, scars, and other bric-a-brac, including the turn of my ankle, are my own secret.” After stubbornly persisting, and threatening to haunt the mortuary for two centuries, Tildy does regain possession of her body, which her spirit diligently rejoins: “She was two drops of matter fusing, water trying to seep into concrete. Slow to do. Hard. Like a butterfly trying to squirm back into a discarded husk of flinty chrysalis!” Thereafter, the long(er)-living Tildy has whopper of a tale to tell visitors to her home, and a body of evidence to back it up: “the long blue scar where the autopsy was neatly sewn back together.”

Here we have yet another Dark Carnival story primarily concerned with death. The raging against the dying of the light seems to be the attitude of not just the old woman but also of the author Bradbury (who, as a young boy, was formatively commanded to “Live forever!” by the magician Mr. Electrico during a carnival performance). Unlike Tildy, Bradbury never got to shuffle back into his mortal coil after passing away as a nonagenarian, but nonetheless achieved a measure of immortality through the age-defying body of fiction he left behind. “Not bad sewin’ for a man,” Tildy at tale’s end says of the autopsy-aborting mortician who closed her back up, and this same praise could be extended to Bradbury’s own fine handiwork as story crafter.