Halloween Ubiquity III

For those refusing to make the turn toward the Season to Be Jolly just yet, here is some October overflow to immerse in:

 

The Pumpkinrot blog keeps keepin’ Halloween alive with a heap of holiday-related eye candy

 

The Lineup examines tricky treats: Halloween Candy Tampering: Fact or Urban Legend?

 

Pumpkin-carver extraordinaire Adam Bierton creates a tentacular spectacle in the New York Botanical Garden

 

Tor.com assembles a cast of the best out-casters: It’s an Excellent Day to Rank Our Favorite Fictional Exorcists

 

Crime Reads probes the phobias of leading literary terrorizers: What Are Thriller Authors Truly Afraid Of?

 

Bloody Disgusting props up supreme cinematic examples of a seasonal icon: Harbingers of Autumn: Six of the Scariest Scarecrows in Horror Films

 

The WWE gets down with Halloween in the filmic short Boogey Night:

 

The Lovecraft eZine Podcast offers further eldritch fellowship with its annual Halloween episode:

 

The always-bewitching Christine McConnell continues to practice her craft:

 

Practical Peculiarities helps party planners get the jump on next Halloween by hearkening back to the 1920s:

 

“Just Take One”

Here’s a brand new poem–an impish take on impersonal systems of Halloween candy handout.

 

Just Take One

By Joe Nazare

 

Beneath the porchlight’s warm harvest moon glow,
A cauldron of a candy bowl sits brimming,
Luring nocturnal beggars from the thoroughfare.
The arrangement is annotated by a weathered plank
With dripping red letters, spatter accented,
Imploring the costumed to remain honorable.
That sign I read as invitation, not limitation,
So now I crouch down low, chocolate-cloaked,
My musk masked by the saccharine reek.
All awful hunger this All Hallows Eve,
I await the unwitting plunge of grubby mitt,
Relish this singular opportunity to satisfy my meat tooth.

 

 

“The Day After Halloween”

On the night before Halloween, here’s “The Day After Halloween”–a short story that was first published in the 2011 anthology Jack-o’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy.

 

The Day After Halloween

By Joe Nazare

 

Night, like no other. October’s closing ceremony.

Drew McCormack stands gazing out from his front porch, joined only by the uncarved pumpkin propped on the gray wooden ledge. Curling his forearm to read his wristwatch, he sees that just two minutes have passed since last check. 9:48—which he once again translates to LATE.

“Dammit, Robbie,” he grumbles, but really he’s cursing himself. He should never have let the boy go out tonight.

Originally, he balked at the idea of Robbie heading out alone. It was too dangerous—too many up-to-no-gooders no doubt finding welcomed cover in nightfall. But Robbie was determined to hit up some houses. With oversized pillowcase already in hand, he implored his father to trust him. He was going to be fifteen years old, for crying out loud. “Besides,” Robbie clinched the deal, “you need to stay here in case anyone comes.”

Grudgingly, McCormack agreed. But he insisted Robbie stick to the immediate neighborhood. And that he get his butt back home as soon as he filled his makeshift goody-bag. “Be careful,” he called out as the boy hurried off.

That was nearly ninety minutes ago. Now, standing lookout on the porch, McCormack slowly exhales his unease. Rocking his body weight side to side, he vacillates between anxiety and anger. He squelches the urge to go searching for Robbie, realizing that he has no idea what route the boy chose, what house he could be at right now. And McCormack hates the thought of leaving his own home unattended, with so many beggars and mischief-makers surely afoot.

As if on cue, a figure swoops across the sidewalk in front of the house, momentarily framed by the break in the hedgerow. McCormack focuses first on the weapon in hand, a disconcertingly authentic-looking butcher knife. Next he registers the Halloween mask—literally, the wan, stoic visage of Michael Myers. This incarnation of the methodical slasher, though, has launched into an uncharacteristic sprint, a hastening that could signify either flight or pursuit. A frown elongates McCormack’s mouth as he listens to the Dopplering clomp of Michael-mask’s boots; he’s been reminded once more that on this particular night, anything goes.

And it seems like forever since Robbie went.

Meantime McCormack’s outstretched neck has started aching. Vertebrae crackle while he swivels, then tilts back, his head. As his chin thrusts forward, his view naturally lifts skyward. It’s a moonless night, casket-black, and against such a pitch backdrop he can just discern the cirrocumuli. McCormack pictures the inky gossamer strands as a tattered shroud, or a newborn’s caul.

“Anhhh.” He waves a hand in dismissal, wipes away such mental images. This unhallowed evening has given his thoughts a morbid cast. And it really was no time for fancy, not with more practical concerns pressing. The only shape he should be trying to make out is Robbie’s.

Leveling his sightline, McCormack refocuses on the street stretching past his home. Even when devoid of passersby, the scene hums with the anticipation of activity. Constantly, eruptions of disorder feel eyeblink-imminent.

Despite or precisely because of such charged atmosphere, the homes lining the roadway lie quiescent. Case in point: the Franks’ white colonial directly across the street. None of the strung holiday lights shine, the shades are drawn, and the front door looks nailed shut at this late hour. McCormack wonders if Robbie’s itinerary tonight has led him to a series of such sheltered residences. Wonders how much trouble he’s having trying to fill his pillowcase.

The house neighboring the Franks’ on the right, the Millers’, forms another unshining example of introversion. Swaddled in night and silence, it betrays signs of occupancy only via the faint blue flicker leaking through the slats in the shuttered windows of the upstairs bedroom. McCormack imagines the Millers huddled together there, and supposes he could be inside his own living room right now watching the TV as well. Rather than standing sentinel here on the porch and fraying his own nerves. But he had his fill earlier this afternoon. Honestly, he has little stomach for the limited fare dominating the airwaves. Endless repeats of the same horrorshows. Exploitative schlock, all of it.

A banshee shriek pierces the night, rending McCormack’s thoughts. He whips his head to the left, spots the black muscle car screaming up the block. The din of the car’s passengers, whose hellraising yelps mark them as teenagers, is matched only by the music blaring from the radio. The bass sounds as if it’s been raised full-tilt, and pounds steady as a war drum. McCormack fights back queasiness as the noise pulses through him, but still manages to identify what he’s hearing. It’s that “Number One With a Bullet” song that Robbie liked to play ad nauseam on his own stereo, though nowhere near as loud as this.

The only saving grace, McCormack figures, is that this carload of cacophony will soon zoom past earshot. But as if to spite that expectation, the car promptly squeals its brakes. McCormack’s own hands squeeze down in conjunction, into fists so tight that his knuckles feel like they might erupt from the skin. Fighting the tremble mounting in his right arm, he braces for confrontation.

The car veers from its path down the center of the roadway, effortlessly jumping the far curb. Mouth agape, McCormack watches the bat-wielding passenger riding shotgun stretch his torso out the open window. More thug than slugger, the teen executes a single, booming swing that obliterates the Franks’ curbside mailbox. Gathering speed even as it sacrifices traction, the car continues in a diagonal vector across the Franks’ and then the Millers’ property. A four-wheeled rape of nature, it mows down flowers and tramples Walt Miller’s perennially envied rosebushes. The driver spins the wheel, and the fishtailing vehicle trenches what look like brown quotation marks in the lawn. Engine growling, the car then accelerates back onto the blacktop and the whooping teens speed off in the same direction from which they came.  In all, the blitzkrieg has lasted less than fifteen seconds.

His jaw now clenched, McCormack snorts his fury over such wanton destruction. No-good punks, acting as if this day sanctioned mischief.

For years now late-October lawlessness has been a growing problem here in Sedonia, but tonight’s incidents are of a different order altogether. What McCormack just witnessed across the street makes tossed eggs and t.p.’d trees seem like the quaint rituals of a bygone era.  And he knows it’s not just the particularly brazen nature of the present desecration that bothers him; it’s his own inability to do anything about it. And even if he had the temerity to march into the sheriff’s office tomorrow to make a complaint, would anyone really care?

He supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t seen anything worse transpiring. Be thankful he resides in the rural Midwest, since he can only imagine how riotous things must be in the big cities nationwide. In his mind’s eye he envisions all the mummies and skeletons, all the grotesques and other assorted ghouls filling the city streets tonight. He recalls how for decades good citizens way up north in Detroit have battled annual arsonists given to lighting buildings rather than pumpkins. God knows what sort of bonfire must be blazing there this evening.

But all that urban madness lay many miles over in all directions—days away as the crow flies, as it were. His concern right now is much more localized.

He scans the now-lifeless street once more. A small, internal voice chides him to relax, things will work out fine. He tries his best to heed that voice. Maybe he has magnified the cause for concern here. Besides, hasn’t Halloween historically proven a day of needless worry? Parents, don’t let your trick-or-treaters accept apples—madmen are splicing razor blades into them. Don’t let the kids take candy from complete strangers—it could be laced with poison. Or, more recently, the epitome of post-9/11 paranoia: keep your loved ones out of shopping malls on Halloween—terrorists have planted explosives there.

Like some pathetic attempt to douse flagrant thoughts, a soft rain starts falling, trickling onto the porch roof overhead. The precipitation rustles the oaks in McCormack’s front yard, unmooring brittle leaves that fall in graceful kamikaze swirls.

Influenced by such scene, McCormack presumes that the low scratching sound he suddenly hears represents the scurry of wind-nudged leaves across pavement. But the noise continues to morph, until McCormack identifies it as the scuff of sneakers.

He spots them just as they turn up the walkway. Dark sneakers, two pair, sported by the two approaching figures. Both are clad in denim jackets and jeans, their only concession to costume the matching goblin masks covering their faces in pale green deformity. Their lanky frames suggest they are really too old to be trick-or-treating. Nonetheless, they’re the first to venture onto the property tonight, which has McCormack cursing his luck. He should’ve known he wouldn’t get through the evening without any visitors.

The masked duo exchanges whispers while stalking toward the house.  But then wide goblin eyes lift toward the porch, and the pair’s progress falters as they are no doubt surprised to find McCormack stationed outside his front door. He doesn’t even give them a chance to speak, just offers a solemn shake of his head. They are halted in their tracks now, and McCormack can almost intuit the flow of their thoughts—the debate whether or not to accept such dismissal. The standoff, though, lasts only as long as it takes the goblins to give him a good look up and down. Apparently deciding to try their luck elsewhere, the grotesque twins do an about-face and steal back off into the night.

McCormack’s scowl outlasts their departure. Their unrewarded visit is just another reminder of how ill-prepared he is for this day. But he thinks of the chaos that desperate, last-minute shoppers must be raining down upon the town’s lone supermarket tonight. No, he was right to stay clear of that zoo.

Again, the sound of shuffling feet, loud this time, with no pretense to stealth. So the goblins have changed their minds and decided upon mischief. McCormack swallows, readies himself for them.

But his stiffened body sags with relief when he sees who it is, finally: Robbie, with his brimming sack slung over his shoulder, like some Santa who has mixed up his holidays. The cheeks of his ghost-white face puff out air as he hurries the last steps for home.

McCormack inwardly revels at the sight of Robbie’s safe return. His son—it doesn’t seem right to deem him a boy any longer—really is his entire world since Keira’s passing two years ago. Still, he can’t keep the sharpness out of his voice as Robbie mounts the porch.

Dammit, Robbie.”

“I know…I know,” Robbie says between gasps. “It took a lot longer than I thought. I had to go past the neighborhood. Try houses of people we don’t know, houses that looked deserted.”

Chafing once more at his own enforced stasis, McCormack mutters, “Alright, let me see.”

Robbie unshoulders and holds open the stuffed pillowcase. McCormack peers inside, immediately spotting the full bag of Milky Ways lying on top. He glances up at his son, who offers a sheepish grin in return. In the past McCormack has hounded his chocoholic son about eating such junk; now, though, it just seems silly to worry about. These few sweets weren’t going to cause Robbie’s teeth to fall out.

So McCormack doesn’t say anything, merely paws aside the bag of candy bars to make sure the rest of the sack contains more appropriate fare. And sure enough, he finds bottles and bottles of Evian.  Cans of Chef Boyardee macaroni. Cans of soup. Even a tin of Spam. Strictly nonperishables—just as McCormack had instructed.

Robbie stares at his father, clearly hungering approval. “You did a good job,” McCormack tells him, smiling thinly. Meantime he’s happy to note the pink returning to Robbie’s cheeks. “Now hurry up inside. Take all this down to the cellar.”

As his son steps forward to oblige, McCormack realizes what Robbie isn’t toting. “Hey, where’s your—” he starts, then catches himself.  “Never mind.” Because he’s spotted it. The pistol—which forms a matching pair with the one still clutched in McCormack’s right hand—is tucked into the waistband of Robbie’s jeans, partially draped by his unbuttoned flannel shirt.

Before proceeding indoors, Robbie stops to nod at the house’s façade. “We gonna board up the windows tonight?”

McCormack stares at the house, pondering, then shakes his head. “Not tonight.” Worry has drained him; any extra fortifications will have to wait.

“Go on, I’m right behind you,” he tells Robbie. He stops, though, and doubles back to the front of the porch. Sweeps the pumpkin up into the crook of his arm. Waste not…

Before he can cross over to the doorway, he feels a subtle breeze wafting across the back of his neck. Despite the unseasonable balminess of this October-terminating night, he shivers.

Instinctively, he turns his head left, telescoping his gaze toward the far western horizon. It’s faint from this great distance: an orangey glow radiating up against the black vault of sky, like a sunset trying to reverse itself.

McCormack, who for seventeen years up until today has served as a social studies teacher, suddenly can’t help but to recall the Old World roots of Halloween. For the ancient Celts, the harvest festival “Samhain” marked the End of Summer, and was considered a time when the dead crowded the same plane as the living.

So maybe today’s a typical Halloween after all…

Chuckling hollowly, McCormack steps inside to join his son in setting their stores against the long, dread winter on its way.

Of a Darker Color: Nine Frightful Horses/Horsemen in Literature (Besides Irving’s “Legend”)

“Wild Chase”: 1889 painting by Franz Ritter von Stuck

 

The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions, stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
–“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Washington Irving’s classic ghost story brought a certain “galloping Hessian” lasting fame (I track the cropped figure’s long legacy in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”), but this equestrian terror doesn’t represent the first or last of his kind. Here are nine more “dark horse” candidates who take readers on a wild and wicked ride. I’ve eschewed the obvious and excluded the apocalyptic quartet in The Book of Revelation; nevertheless the prize literary specimens presented below all succeed in putting the “eek!” in equine:

 

1. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Dante populates the 7th Circle, 1st Ring of Hell with the hybrid creatures of classical myth, the Centaurs. These literal horse-men patrol the banks of Phlegethon (the boiling river of blood in which the Violent Against Their Neighbors are immersed) by the thousands. Renowned hunters while haunting the world above, these “agile beasts” now work to ensure that the agony and indignity of damnation extend eternally, as they aim their bow-and-arrows “at any soul that thrusts / above the blood more than its guilt allots.” With their fiendish reputation (cf. Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses of the orgy of violence they instigate at the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia), the merciless centaurs make for fitting enforcers in the Dantean underworld of organized punishment.

 

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Burly, hirsute, vested in verdure colors, and mounted on a steed of strange emerald shade, the title knight cuts a sublimely striking figure as he trots into King Arthur’s court and tempts Sir Gawain into a beheading game. The giant reaches the apex of dreadfulness when–following his axing by Gawain–he casually gathers up his own decapitated head, holds it aloft, and continues to address his stunned audience. The pumpkin-chucker of Sleepy Hollow has nothing on this headless horseman when it comes to constituting a terrifying rider.

 

3. “The Wild Huntsman” by Sir Walter Scott

This 1796 translation/adaptation of the 1778 Gottfried August Bürger poem traces the grim fate of a foolish earl who is spurred on his Sabbath-scorning pursuit of a white stag by a sinister rider atop a steed with “the swarthy hue of hell.” The earl callously tramples man, animal, and nature alike, until he is divinely cursed to be himself chased by a pack of hellhounds and a “ghastly huntsman” with “eyes like midnight lightning.” This “dreadful chase” is decreed to last until the end of days, and the human quarry receives not a moment’s respite from the infernal predators in the meantime: “By day they scoured earth’s caverned space, / At midnight’s witching hour ascend.” The Wild Huntsman’s determinedly tormenting sport makes him one of the most frightening figures in all of legend and literature.

 

4. “Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s first published tale (1832) centers on a “fiery-colored” steed that appears to have leapt supernaturally into the world from a Gothic tapestry and perhaps contains the transmigrated soul of Baron Frederick Metzengerstein’s enemy, Count von Berflitzling (who perished while trying to rescue his favorite mount from a Metzengerstein-set stable fire). Metzengerstein develops a “perverse attachment” to this volatile creature, but his midnight rides have a cursed, compulsory quality: Poe’s story climaxes with this absolutely horrified horseman (“no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped form his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror”) destroyed by a mad dash up into his own towering inferno of a palace.

 

5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

The straits get dire straightaway when Frodo and friends venture beyond the bucolic sanctuary of their Shire. The hobbits are relentlessly menaced by mysterious Black Riders, cloaked/hooded man-shaped figures whose faces are veiled in shadow. These nine horsemen haunt their prey “like phantoms of the woods”; when on foot, they move “like shades of night creeping across the ground.” They are eventually revealed to be supernatural Ringwraiths, eldritch trackers who can “smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.” These ghostly huntsmen (riding actual black horses bred in Mordor) also wield dark-charmed blades that deliver worse-than-mortal wounds. Sauron’s shock troops form staunch antagonists throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nowhere do the Nazgul prove more ghoulish than in Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring.

 

6. Firestarter by Stephen King

The explosive climax of King’s 1980 novel begins with a burning stable, from which a group of fear-crazed horses flee in trampling stampede. But the most horrifying horses in Firestarter are of the mental and imagistic variety. Human lab rat Andy McGee uses his uncanny telepathic powers to set a “weird merry-go-round” spinning in the addled mind of his captor, Cap Hollister. The price for exerting such mental domination is an agonizing headache, the onset of which is described as “inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege”: “Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.” That is one nightmare of a migraine.

 

7. The Pet by Charles L. Grant 

Christine meets “Metzengerstein” in this 1986 novel by the king of atmospheric horror. Don Boyd is a bullied, beleaguered high schooler who is avenged not by a haunted car but rather an imposing black horse that has impossibly come to life from Don’s bedroom poster. Massive and darkly majestic, this unruly “pet” billows “smoke, maybe steam” from its flared nostrils; its thundering hooves spark “greenfire” of the same colorful blaze as its baleful gaze. Like a four-legged slasher figure (Jason Voorhees spliced with Irving’s Horseman), the stalking stallion dishes out bloody justice to the ostensibly deserving, and the kill scenes are thrillingly scripted by Grant. Even the avowed animal lover Don comes to fear the exacting actions of his shadowy protector, “an ebony ghost flying through the boiling fog.”

 

8. “Dark Carousel” by Joe Hill

Something wicked comes pummeling in Hill’s 2018 tale, which gives an even more harrowing spin to the Bradburian carnival ride. Stationed on a seedy seaside pier, the infernally-glowing, dirge-sounding Wild Wheel features “a uniquely disquieting collection of grotesques” as mounts for riders. Perhaps most striking is the team of white horses (reportedly salvaged from “Cooger’s Carousel of Ten Thousand Lights” following a devastating theme-park fire). Frozen in mid-lunge, the horses display mouths that “gaped as if to shriek,” and eyes that  “seemed to stare blindly at us with terror or rage or madness.” As if not daunting enough in stasis, the strange steeds come to life, vacating the carousel to hunt down the story’s protagonists following certain acts of transgression against the ride and its creepy operator. Wild horses can’t be broken, but human bodies certainly can, and Hill’s narrator recounts the subsequent assault in savage, brain-branding detail.

 

9. “White Mare” by Thana Niveau

“Halloween ain’t some kiddie fun fair” in the Somerset village of Thorpe Morag, where a pair of outsider Americans (who have inherited an English farmhouse from a distant relative) come face-to-mask with unnerving “old customs.” On Halloween night, the locals dress up and act out the “terrible ritual” of the titular spirit horse (figured by a white sheet topped by a grinning animal skull): “The community went from house to house, the Wight Mare and her demon entourage, where offerings would be made to ensure that the door between worlds would close at dawn.” When Dave Barton and his daughter Heather fail to appease the Wight Mare by welcoming in the guisers and offering them food and drink, they lose Heather’s beloved pet Callisto to a Godfather-style bit of mischief. This grisly sacrifice, though, only precipitates some awful payback, since Heather had formed quite an unusual bond with her horse.

 

Any glaring omissions above? Feel free to take the reins and steer another entrant into this macabre derby in the Comments section below.

The Fuss About Gus

The Last Haunt by Max Booth III (Cemetery Gates Media, 2023)

In this new novella, author Max Booth III offers a thinly-veiled version of notorious extreme-haunt operator Russ McKamey (here dubbed Gus McKinley). Subtitled “An Oral History of the McKinley House Massacre,” The Last Haunt is structured as a sequence of dramatic monologues–as a juxtaposition of the testimony (by a neighbor, a responding officer, Gus’s father, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, a haunt actor, former haunt participants, and a fellow haunt operator [wittily christened “Miguel Myers”]) provided to an anonymous writer working on a true-crime-style project. The resulting narrative operates via ominous hint and contradiction (of others’ claims); the reader knows early on that bad shit went down on a fateful October 31st night, but not exactly what happened or who is responsible for the killings. Through this approach, Booth also achieves authorial distance. There is no moralistic judgment infused into prose, which leaves the audience to decide about Gus (who never gets to speak for himself): simply a depraved sadist, or a savvy entertainer, almost admirable in his own aberrant way?

Although dealing with a fictionalized extreme haunt, the book itself does not constitute extreme horror. Disturbing details about Gus’s backyard boot camp of brutality– waterboarding, the forced ingestion of one’s own vomit–are related, but Booth isn’t scripting the novelistic equivalent of torture porn (The Last Haunt is less graphic than a literary novel with similar subject matter: James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which I previously reviewed here.). In its overt focus on a “Massacre,” the book forewarns that matters are bound to get messy, yet even with the shocking violence of its conclusion, The Last Haunt proves surprisingly restrained. Which isn’t to say that Booth’s book fails to deliver satisfying chills; its plot reminded me of the formula for the Paranormal Activity films–a slow, steady trickle that turns into a sudden climactic gush.

On one level, The Last Haunt succeeds as a variation on the traditional revenge narrative (showing reprehensible people receiving their just desserts). Arguably more rewarding here, though, is the metacommentary the novella furnishes. About the haunt industry and the value of horror entertainment (Gus allegedly gets his ideas from the movies). About the power of fear–for both those who generate it an those forced to experience it. About mob mentality and the impact of social media. The narrative also naturally leads readers to consider their own proclivities, to question how far they are willing to go, what they would or wouldn’t do for “the privilege of experiencing something wholly unique and bizarre.”

Fans of documentary-style horror will appreciate the design of The Last Haunt. Sneakily seasonal (and not just because of Gus’s “Halloween shenanigans”), Booth’s quick, engrossing book makes for a finely haunting late-October read.

Final note: those curious (morbidly or otherwise) about Gus’s real-life model are encouraged to check out Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House, the recent documentary about Russ McKamey currently streaming on Hulu.

Pop-Up Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s classic Gothic poem “The Raven” is a pop culture fixture, permeating the realms of film and TV, literature and music, professional football and professional wrestling alike. But little did I know (until I stumbled upon this webpage a few days ago) that the poem has also been transformed into a glorious pop-up book by David Pelham and Christopher Wormell. First published in 2016, The Raven: A Pop-Up Book is now a pricey collector’s item, but this quaint tome can still be pondered on a midnight dreary by watching the video below:

Flanagan Enhances Again (Review of The Fall of the House of Usher)

 

All the lessons I learned from those series [The Haunting of Hill House; The Haunting of Bly Manor] came to a head as I told Netflix I wanted to tackle some of the most important and iconic horror fiction ever written: I wanted to do a series based on the collected works of Poe, and I didn’t want to pull any punches. I wanted to tap into that feeling I had as a child reading his work for the first time; I wanted the show to fly without a safety net. I wanted to make something dark, beautiful, mad, and dangerous.
–Mike Flanagan, Foreword (The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories That Inspired the Netflix Series)

Titles such as Hush, Gerald’s Game, and Doctor Sleep have established Mike Flanagan as a preeminent horror-film director. But his latest streaming effort, Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, furnishes further proof that Flanagan does his best work in the limited-series format.

Perhaps the more apt heading here would be The Rise and Fall of the House of Usher, as the series tracks the changing fortunes of a contemporary American empire–a family that has grown filthy rich from hawking a dubious opioid dubbed Ligodone. Much like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, The Fall of the House of Usher presents a fractured storyline. The series jumps deftly back and forth between time periods: the year 1979, when fledgling schemers Roderick and Madeline Usher plot to wrest control of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, and attend a fateful New Year’s Eve celebration at a Manhattan bar; the present day, when assistant U.S. attorney C. Auguste Dupin has been called to the crumbling childhood home of Roderick Usher to hear the ailing, grieving patriarch confess his criminal trespasses at last; and the weeks just prior, during which all six of Roderick’s heirs perished, each in spectacularly tragic fashion. This achronological narrative approach naturally builds suspense, raising several mini-mysteries: Which of the Usher offspring is the alleged informant working with the Feds to take down the family? What became of Roderick’s beloved first wife Annabel Lee? How exactly did the ambitious Roderick and Madeline execute their hostile takeover of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals? Which hapless character is entombed behind a brick wall in the bowels of the company headquarters? Why is the ominously opportunistic Verna carrying out a vendetta against the Ushers?

Apropos of Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher combines the grotesque and the arabesque, the gory and the ornate. In this modernized-Gothic adaptation, the setting shifts from glossy offices and glamorous New York City apartments to abandoned factories and derelict domiciles (the stormy-night scenes of Roderick’s confession in a candlelit parlor–while Madeline bangs curiously around the basement–are the height of chiaroscuro ambiance and nerve-wracking tension). These locales form arenas of tremendous drama, as Flanagan offers clever updates of a host of traditional Poe motifs: premature burial and postmortem haunting, murder and madness, romance and bereavement, intemperance and terribly reflective doppelgangers.

The series boasts a terrific cast of actors (including recurring Flanagan players such as Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Samantha Sloyan), who give uniformly superb performances. Bruce Greenwood excels as Roderick, a modern-day Gothic hero-villain, at once debonair and debauched. Mary McDonnell, meanwhile, isn’t outshined when it comes to revealing dark depths of character: she utterly convinces as the cold and conniving Madeline. Carla Gugino, who adopts various disguises/personae as she stalks the Ushers, is a joy to watch operate. She complexly embodies a sinister supernatural figure whose portrayal could have slipped to the simply campy. Perhaps the standout of the whole ensemble, though, is Mark Hamill as the gruff and gravelly-voiced family attorney/enforcer Arthur Pym (a.k.a. “The Pym Reaper”). Much like the protagonist of Poe’s only novel, this Pym has quite an intriguing personal history, one (had Flanagan not severed ties with Netflix) that would make for a compelling spinoff series.

Undeniably, the source material incorporated here has long since been entrenched in global pop culture, yet The Fall of the House of Usher still manages to give fresh twist to the familiar. The audience has a pretty good idea where episodes with titles such as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” are headed, but surprises nonetheless abound (the series also benefits from unexpected combinations of Poe works–e.g., “The Gold-Bug” and “William Wilson”; “Morella” and “Berenice”). And the fun inheres in the journey as much as the destination: the setup of the episode-concluding set piece kills, which are stunningly visualized. The show consistently serves viewers grim fare, but it is seasoned throughout by a delightful sense of black humor. Poe lovers will be enraptured by the profusion of allusion (and explicit quotation), and fans of Flanagan’s series adaptations of the classics will cherish this masterful mashup of a horror legend’s macabre oeuvre.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Specter Bridegroom”

The return of the blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” explores other Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic. 

Washington Irving’s “The Specter Bridegroom” predates “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by a few months (the former appeared in the fourth American installment of The Sketch Book on November 10th, 1819; the latter in the sixth installment on March 15, 1820) and prefigures it in many ways. For starters, both tales are framed as oral transmissions. The preceding section of The Sketch Book, “The Inn Kitchen,” sets up “The Specter Bridegroom” as a traveler’s tale conveyed by “a corpulent old Swiss” with “a pleasant, twinkling eye,” while the Postscript to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” identifies a “pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow” as the slyly humorous narrator. Both tales also feature similar setting-establishing opening sentences. “The Specter Bridegroom” begins: “On the summit of one of the heights of the Odenwald, a wild and romantic tract of Upper Germany that lies not far from the confluence of the Main and the Rhine, there stood, many, many years since, the Castle of the Baron Von Landshort.” Irving in turn opens “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with: “In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of
Tarry Town.”

The parallels between the two tales extend to characters and themes. Like Ichabod Crane, Baron Von Landshort sports a satiric surname; both figures also evince a love of–and strong belief in–spook stories. “Much given to the marvelous,” Landshort is a “firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds.” Both characters are marked by an excessive air of self-importance. Just as the rustic scholar and schoolhouse potentate Ichabod “prided himself upon his dancing as much upon his vocal powers,” the busybody Landshort was “the oracle of his table, the absolute monarch of his little territory, and happy, above all things, in the persuasion that he was the wisest man of the age.” Ichabod’s famously voracious appetite, though, is not shared by Landshort but is instead given to his importunate “poor relations,” who are mock-heroically devoted to “the indefatigable labors of the trencher.”

“The Specter Bridegroom” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are each centered on a celebration scene–a wedding feast and the Van Tassel “quilting frolic,” respectively. Landshort’s relations have gathered at the castle for the arranged marriage of the Baron’s daughter and Count Von Altenburg. But the nuptials are delayed by the failed appearance of the Count, whom readers learn has been waylaid and mortally wounded by robbers while en route to the event. The Count begs his traveling companion, Herman Von Starkenfaust, to bring news of his demise to the Landshorts: “Unless this is done,” he intones, “I shall not sleep quietly in my grave!” In his dying moment, the Count calls for his horse “so that he might ride to the castle of Landshort,” and “expire[s] in the fancied act of vaulting into the saddle.” So there is some crafted ambiguity when a pale cavalier of “most singular and unseasonable gravity” arrives at the castle–is this a revenant or the dead man’s messenger Herman? The figure, whom the Landshorts assume to be that of the living Count, sits solemnly through the subsequent dinner, which is followed (much like at the Van Tassel party in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) by the telling of “wild tales and supernatural legends.” Landshort regales his guests “with the history of the goblin horseman that carried away the fair Leonora, a dreadful story, which has since been put into verse [by Gottfried August Burger] and is read and believed by all the world.”

Upon completion of Landshort’s tale, the would-be bridegroom arises and makes a sudden exit from the castle, but not before solemnly identifying himself as “a dead man–I have been slain by robbers–my body lies at Wurzburg–at midnight I am to be buried–the grave is waiting for me–I must keep my appointment!” A few nights later, this Specter Bridegroom reappears in the castle’s garden to serenade the Baron’s daughter, who then leaves her family in a frightful uproar when she goes missing: “The goblin! The goblin! She’s been carried away by the goblin.” The apparent supernatural abduction parallels Ichabod’s ostensible spiriting away by the Headless Horseman, but in both stories the ominous incident is treated humorously. Because Ichabod “was a bachelor and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head [pun surely intended] any more about him.” Irving likewise wrings comedy from the “heartrending dilemma” of Baron Von Landshort: “His only daughter had either been rapt away to the grave, or he was to have some wood demon for a son-in-law, and, perchance, a troop of goblin grandchildren.” The sportive Gothic tale ultimately explains away the macabre mystery: the figure who showed up for the wedding dinner was indeed Herman Von Starkenfaust, who couldn’t get an explanatory word in edgewise when the voluble Baron mistook him for the never-before-seen bridegroom. Captivated by the prospective bride’s beauty, Herman allowed the deception to persist, and became “sorely perplexed in what way to make a decent retreat, until the baron’s goblin stories had suggested his eccentric exit.”

So, just as the opportunistic Brom Bones seizes upon the tales of the Headless Horseman told at the Van Tassel party and uses the legend to scare off rival suitor Ichabod, Herman works the spook stories spoken at the wedding feat to his personal advantage (successfully extricating himself from the awkward scene, then later returning to woo and elope with the Baron’s daughter, whom he fell in love with at first sight). Both tales end happily (emphasizing matrimony rather than grim mortality) as dreaded “goblin” riders are mostly demystified. Nevertheless, the reader in retrospect can appreciate that “the wild huntsman, famous in German legend,” isn’t just integral to “The Specter Bridegroom,” but also informs “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and its ghostly galloping Hessian.

 

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Count Chocula

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.

Normally with this blog feature, I engage in serious comparative analysis. This time around, though, I thought some Halloween fun was in order.

 

What if Dracula was transformed from a serial bloodsucker into a breakfast cereal?

In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula famously emigrates from Transylvania to London; in 1971, General Mills delivered the iconic vampire figure to the American kitchen table. That year marked the debut of the chocolate-flavored puff-and-marshmallow mashup, Count Chocula.

A clever bit of branding, for sure, but is there any real connection between Count Dracula and Count Chocula beyond comparable cognomens? At first glance, the answer would appear to be no. Count Chocula seems to draw more from the Universal film adaptation than the Stoker source novel: in TV ads for the cereal, the vampire’s voice is an obvious Bela Lugosi impersonation. A 1987 commercial even has Chocula encountering his Universal monster precursor (via spliced-in film footage). The scaredy Count ends up fleeing in terror from Lugosi–as a mascot marketed to kids, Chocula exhibits more cartoonish cowardice than the Gothic ghoulishness of Stoker’s original character.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of indebtedness. Consider Jonathan Harker’s description of Dracula upon first meeting the Count in the second chapter of Stoker’s novel. Harker notes Dracula’s “aquiline” nose; his “massive” eyebrows, “almost meeting over the nose”; his “peculiarly sharp white teeth”; his “extremely pointed” ears”; his “broad and strong chin.” These various traits can be seen to inform the depiction of the character drawn up for the cereal box. So maybe cereal eaters for the past half-century have been sinking their teeth into a bit of Stoker homage after all.

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Finally, here are a couple of enjoyable videos. The first delves into the history (not devoid of controversy) of the General Mills monster cereals, and the second compiles the commercials for the product that have aired over the years.