Lore Report: “Elusive” (Episode 137)

But not every mystery is safe. In fact, some unsolved events seem to hide a certain level of darkness. From a distance they are just as enticing as all the others, but the closer we get to them, the more troublesome they become. And in the process, they cause us to ask ourselves a very honest–a very dangerous–question, one that takes the tale out of mystery and into horror: What if our worst nightmares are real?

The latest episode of Lore concerns mysteries that remain puzzling and refuse to offer clear, satisfying solutions. Such subject matter might lead the listener to expect a survey of various examples, but the podcast devotes much of its run time to one singular tale. Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke transports the audience to the heart of Gothic America: a rural Kentucky farmhouse surrounded by woods, and besieged by strangeness on a memorable night in August 1955. Shortly after a round, metallic-looking object is spotted flying overhead, the people gathered at the Sutton farm are menaced by a group of glowing, goblin-like figures. The story of the Suttons’ desperate attempt to fend off a perceived home invasion by paranormal entities is utterly thrilling, and makes M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs seem like an episode of My Favorite Martian by comparison (at the start of the episode, Mahnke advertises that his media network will soon be branching out into the realm of audio drama, and Lore appears to channel a similar spirit of entertainment here). By narrative’s end, Mahnke’s citing of the Sutton farmhouse incident as “one of the most influential moments in the development of the folklore surrounding UFO’s” hardly sounds hyperbolic.

The moral Mahnke chooses to draw (“we attack the things we don’t understand”) isn’t terribly profound, and grows duller with insistent repetition throughout. But that’s the only quibble I have with this episode, which is worth the listen if only for learning the origin story of a certain alien-describing phrase that has since become part of our pop-culture lexicon. There’s no persistent mystery when it comes to the appeal of this podcast: “Elusive” furnishes indisputable proof of what makes Lore so gripping.

 

Deadly Misstep

The title of Stephen King’s latest short story (published in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magaizine) might suggest a scaling of a rotting staircase in a haunted hilltop mansion, but the setting and situation in “The Fifth Step” prove much more mundane. Retiree Harold Jamieson is spending a quiet mid-May morning in Central Park reading the New York Times when a nondescript fortysomething male sits down alongside him and asks a favor. The man admits to being an alcoholic, and needs someone to help him perform the Fifth Step of his AA program (“Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”). At first wary at being approached, Harold eventually agrees to lend an ear. The stranger proceeds with his confession, and these two figures appear fortuitously met. Of course, this being a King tale, all is not fated to end well.

However expected, the dark turn of the story’s climax manages to surprise with its sharp execution. A second go-through of the brief narrative shows just how deftly King prepared for the final twist, planting subtle clues (including the very name of the alcoholic character) along the way. “The Fifth Step” likely won’t take home a Stoker Award, but this well-crafted conte cruel successfully delivers a nasty little jolt to Constant Readers.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog”

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

Note: This anthology contains my own short story, “Gothic American,” which I will be excluding from the discussion (hopefully the narrative’s American Gothic qualities speak for themselves!). I will also be skipping over selections that I have already covered in my analysis of American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916 (the seven repeats in the Flame Tree volume are Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” George Washington Cable’s “Jean-ah Poquelin,” Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy,” Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” Stephen Crane’s “The Monster,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller,” and Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes”).

 

“The Bell in the Fog” by Gertrude Atherton

Atherton’s 1905 piece seems to check all the appropriate Gothic boxes. Its protagonist is an American author of “famous ghost stories,” whom Atherton admittedly modeled on Henry James. This author, Ralph Orth, inherits an ancestral hall surrounded by ancient woods and the ruins of a cloister and chapel (the name of the hall, Chillingsworth, perhaps evokes that of the villainous character Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). In the picture gallery at Chillingsworth, Orth encounters and grows obsessed with the portraits of two children (the subjects are said to have died tragically young) painted centuries earlier; the portrait of the girl, Lady Blanche Mortlake, actually contains another hidden behind it, accessed by a spring in the frame. The fixated Orth grows even more haunted when he meets a neighboring girl named Blanche who bears an uncanny resemblance to the figure in the painting. This latter Blanche is descended from the Roots, a skeleton-closeting and ill-fated family that has gone to “wreck and ruin” over the course of generations of apparent “blight.”

All this sounds tantalizing enough; the problem, though, is that Atherton’s tale is set in Hertfordshire, England. “The Bell in the Fog” qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic piece by an American writer (by the start of the story’s second paragraph, the reader learns that the expatriate Orth “has long since ceased to be spoken of as an American author”). For all its hints at haunting and its Jamesian allusions, the narrative ends on a note more sentimental than terrifying (a further Turn of the Screw this certainly isn’t): Blanche is suggested to be the reincarnated spirit of the girl in the portrait, returned to earth to work out her salvation (amongst the descendants of the previously-injured Root family) after having committed the “cardinal sin” of suicide. American Gothic Short Stories presents its contents in alphabetical order by author last name, but the resultant lead-off piece by Atherton gets the volume off to an inauspicious start.

 

Lore Report: “The Third Time” (Episode 136)

image from mythology.net/mythical-creatures/black-dog

But it was [accused witch Elizabeth Sawyer’s] familiar, Tom, who would be remembered the most. Because it sits at the edge of a modern belief and a much more ancient idea–an idea not represented by the behavior or powers she claimed it had, but by the very shape it had taken. A shape that continues to inhabit a terrifying place in folklore today: the black dog.

No, the latest episode of the podcast Lore isn’t devoted to a discussion of man’s best friend–more like his worst nightmare. Host and narrator Aaron Mahnke tackles the subject of an uncanny creature–a monstrous-sized, furry and fiery-eyed animal that is possibly a predatory, shapeshifting demon.

Mahnke performs his usual oratory feats here in “The Third Time.” He contextualizes the discussion with a return to ancient mythology (invoking such figures as Anubis and Cerberus). He makes passing reference to pop-cultural reflections, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan (to this brief list I would add these works of genre fiction: Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting, Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore’s Sleepy Hollow High, and two separate stories titled “Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman and Laird Barron). He recounts a series of illustrative tales that span centuries and range across continents, from the 16th Century English village of Bungay to the Hanging Hills of Connecticut in the 19th Century (as an aficionado of American Gothic, my favorite tale is the episode’s concluding one–of the black-dog-inspired panic that gripped the Massachusetts town of Abington in 1976). He also steps back to speculate on the origins, purposes, and remarkable persistence of folklore tales of the black dog.

The form of this Lore episode might be familiar, but its content is as original and compelling as ever. According to the portentous saying that Mahkne quotes here, the first time someone encounters the black dog is for joy, the second time for sorrow, and the third time means impending death. An initial listen of “The Third Time” promises to bring joy to the life of fans of the macabre.

 

Gettysburg Gothic

In my last Lore Report, I noted how Aaron Mahnke’s podcast episode focused on the haunted nature of Gettysburg. Such subject matter has called to mind a genre work that covers similar ground in its positing of uncanny unpleasantness lingering at the famous Civil War battle site: Dan Simmons’s masterful 1988 novella “Iverson’s Pits.”

Simmons establishes a sense of positively dread-filled suspense right from the opening lines: “As a young boy I was not afraid of the dark. As an old man, I am wiser,” the octogenarian narrator intones. This brief opening section of the novella frames the reflection back on the summer of 1913, when the narrator was chosen as a ten-year-old Boy Scout to assist at the “Great Reunion” of Civil War veterans commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. The experience there appears to have traumatized the narrator, who completely hooks the reader’s interest with these first-paragraph-closing hints at the sinister: “Even now, three-quarters of a century later, I am unable to turn over black soil in the garden or to stand alone in the grassy silence of my grandson’s backyard after the sun has set without a hint of cold fingers on the back of my neck.” No less intriquing is the concluding paragraph of the frame section, in which the narrator articulates a quintessential Gothic theme: “The past is dead and buried. But I know now that buried things have a way of rising to the surface when one least expects them to.”

A “dark festival” tinge is given to the golden anniversary proceedings, as the narrator conveys his ten-year-old self’s chilling thought “that fifty years ago Death had given a grand party and 140,000 revelers had arrived in their burial clothes.” Scripted in retrospect, such grim perspective can be seen as influenced by Captain Montgomery, the salty Civil War veteran to whom the narrator has been assigned. Montgomery has hardly gotten into the Reunion spirit: “Goddamn idiots,” he grouses about the other gathered veterans. “Celebratin’ like it’s a county fair.” For Montgomery, the Gettysburg battlefield was just a form of open-air slaughterhouse “where they kill you and gut you down the middle…dump your insides out on the goddamn floor and kick ’em aside to get at the next fool. ..hack the meat off your bones, grind up the bones for fertilizer, then grind up everythin’ else you got that ain’t prime meat and wrap it in your own guts to sell it to the goddamn public as sausage. Parades. War stories. Reunions. Sausage, Boy.”

But if Montgomery is more preoccupied with carnage rather than the carnivalesque, why did he even attend the Reunion? His presence at Gettysburg in 1913 results from his fifty-year vendetta against the titular Confederate colonel whose folly delivered Montgomery’s regiment up to ambush and massacre. Montgomery believes Iverson is not only still alive, but also that he will be drawn to the Reunion, and so the captain embarks (with the narrator drafted as a sidekick) on a mission of deadly retribution. Iverson does in fact appear by tale’s end, but nothing goes according to plan in Montgomery’s confrontation with the notorious officer. I don’t want to spoil the climax by revealing too much about it, other than to say that it is an absolute tour de force. The hitherto Faulkneresque narrative veers toward the Lovecraftian, as the angry spirits of mortally-wounded soldiers prove much more visceral, and monstrous, than your typical ghosts. The hunger for vengeance at Gettysburg has a decidedly sharp-toothed edge.

The evocative prose of “Iverson’s Pits” draws upon all five senses, and Simmons vividly realizes the Gettysburg scene before the supernatural elements surface in the climax. The reader can’t help but relate intimately to the horror, as evident in this excerpt from an extended dream sequence in which the narrator (whom the monomaniacal Montgomery repeatedly mistakes for a drummer boy in his regiment killed at Gettysburg) is starkly self-aware of his own postmortem decomposition:

I felt my lips wither and dry in the heat, pulling back from my teeth, felt my jaws open wider and wider in a mirthless, silent laugh as ligaments decayed or were chewed away by small predators. I felt lighter as the eggs hatched, the maggots began their frenzied cleansing, my body turning toward the dark soil as the process accelerated. My mouth opened wide to swallow the waiting Earth. I tasted the dark communion of dirt. Stalks of grass grew where my tongue had been. A flower found rich soil in the humid sepulcher of my skull and sent its shoot curling upward through the gap which had once held my eye.

All told, “Iverson’s Pits” is a nightmarish tale of unquiet death and grisly comeuppance. For all its pulpy, terror-from-beyond-the-grave plot, the narrative does not fail to resonate, to sound deeper truths about human existence. Studying the elderly, decrepit Montgomery as he sleeps, the narrator realizes, “with a precise and prescient glimpse at the terrible fate of my own longevity, that age was a curse, a disease, and that all of us unlucky to survive our childhoods were doomed to suffer and perish from it. Perhaps, I thought, it is why young men go willingly to die in wars.” In the concluding frame section, the narrator expands the scope of his story to include other, post-Civil-War battlefields across the globe: “But the fruit and copper taste of the soil remains the same. The silent communion among the casually sacrificed and the forgotten-buried also remains the same. Sometimes I think of the mass graves which have fertilized this century and I weep for my grandson and great-grandchildren.”

The horrors of war are well established in the annals of genre fiction, but never have they been documented as movingly as in “Iverson’s Pits.”  And while Dan Simmons has gone on to a long and distinguished career marked by an unparalleled ability to combine historical record with dark fantasy elements (e.g. his 2007 epic The Terror), his incredible talent appears fully germinated in this early novella.

 

Mob Scene: The Addams Family

From its Karloffian butler Lurch to a winking instance of dead-frog revivification, the latest film version of The Addams Family clearly invokes James Whale’s 1931 film FrankensteinThe Addams Family, though, also hearkens back to Universal horror in its featuring of a pair of mob scenes.

In the film’s opening, the nuptials of Gomez and Morticia are interrupted by angry villagers–a horde of crusty rustics wielding torches and pitchforks and decrying the presence of such “monsters” and “freaks” in the area. This being a children’s animated film (rated PG for “macabre and suggestive humor, and some action”), the proceedings do not turn too grim (the sword-wielding Addams fend off the villagers by causing the latter’s pants to fall down around their ankles). Nevertheless, such expressed intolerance chases the Addams from the Old Country, forcing them to relocate to New Jersey (“Somewhere horrible. Somewhere corrupt. Somewhere no one in their right mind would be caught dead in!”).

There the Addams convert a former asylum for the criminally insane into the family mansion looming remotely on a hilltop. But after thirteen years of relative isolation, the Addams come into contact with the locals and soon discover that the persecution of perceived otherness exists in the New World as well. In the film’s climax, the roused rabble (led by duplicitous designer Margaux Needler) nearly destroys the Addams home with a boulder-launching catapult. These rabid neighborhood watchdogs eventually repent, and help repair the damage caused, yet this happy ending does not blunt the film’s skewering, American Gothic sensibility. The seemingly idyllic slice of suburban engineering dubbed Assimilation (a community that works to eradicate difference rather than accept it) is shown to have various shades of darkness underlying its Day-Glo veneer.

The Addams Family is a mordantly witty and extremely enjoyable film, whose skillful inclusion of mob scenes aligns it with eminent animated horror films such as Paranorman and Frankenweenie.