Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#6

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

6. “Vampire Lake” (2011)

Not your average Crew of Light: a stoic, gun-slinging “bounty killer” (“hunter” doesn’t do justice to this man’s relentlessness), a burly German blacksmith, a Mexican dynamite-man, a profane preacher, and the narrator–a scorched, disfigured wretch who managed to escape from a scene of nightmarish captivity. Their dark destination: the eponymous pool, located in a sepulchral underground cave, and the home of a vampire queen and other bloodsuckers cursed long ago during a search for Indian gold. Vampire Lake is one of the greatest settings Partridge has ever created, and the heroes’ journey down to it is marked by stunning descriptive passages (e.g. “The place was like a throat filled up with whispers, and they washed over the big stone gullet and hushed past us on their way to the narrow grave of a mouth above. Thanks to Indio’s dynamite, the iron gate that corralled the vampires’ corner of the world was now a twisted mess. That gate had once been a hell of a sight, scored with chains the blacksmith could never have cut, and spikes set with dead men’s skulls and tattered human hides that flapped like scarecrow warnings in the subterranean breeze.”). The narrative takes several intriguing turns: the bounty killer is haunted by his past slaughters in a most unusual (and visceral) manner, and the spectacular climactic battle with the vampire queen and her undead attendants (as albino alligators in the lake are stirred into a feeding frenzy by the carnage) presents a surprising, but extremely satisfying, twist. As the Top 31 Countdown has demonstrated time and again, Partridge has a special talent for penning unique vampire tales and weird westerns, and this deft combination of the two constitutes a double-barreled blaze of storytelling glory.

 

Bronze Macabre

Photo Credit: Peter D. Kramer/USA Today Network New York State Team

I came across an online item this afternoon, and thought it makes a fine companion piece to my “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” post yesterday. Peter D. Kramer’s USA Today article “Sleepy Hollow’s Lesser Known Ghost Story: The Curse of the Bronze Lady in New York” proves that Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman isn’t the sole source of spookiness associated with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The Bronze Lady is a purportedly cursed sculpture, a funereal memorial that has captured the imagination of locals and graveyard visitors. Various superstitions have been attached to her, a collection of unsettling narratives that would render the Bronze Lady the perfect subject of a Lore podcast episode. Kramer’s article is an informative and enjoyable read, and well-suited to the late-October mood.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#7

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “’59 Frankenstein” (1996)

This vintage piece (first published in Partridge’s edited anthology It Came from the Drive-In) is a premiere example of the author’s love of 50’s-era drive-in movies and “the rockin’ rollin’ juvenile delinquent” horror of early Stephen King (e.g., Christine, “Sometimes They Come Back”). Riffing on the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, the story has an American-based Doctor Frankenstein create an amalgamated monster out of the body parts of high school football players who perished in a team bus accident. Things go south from the outset of the narrative: when the condescending doctor refuses to allow his monster to take a custom hot rod out for a spin, the teenage creation attacks him with a fireplace poker and tosses him down into the alligator pit below the basement laboratory. From here, the action cuts back and forth suspensefully between the doctor’s dire struggle and the creation’s encounters out on the town. While there is a definite grimness to the proceedings (no shortage of gator gore here), the story enchants with its sardonic wit and concludes with a perfectly ironic plot twist. A signature Partridge effort, whose subject matter and stylistic approach would identify its author even if there were no byline stitched below the title.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Rip Van Winkle”

This new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic forms a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” will explore other Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic. In today’s inaugural post, I cover Irving’s second-most-popular tale, “Rip Van Winkle.”

Published (June 1819) nine months before “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle” prefigures the latter piece in many ways. Both works are framed as found texts of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, and take the same satirical approach to Dutch customs and characteristics. They are both set in the Hudson region of New York (“Rip” is centered north of the Valley, in the Catskills), and their principal event transpires on “a fine autumnal day.” “Rip Van Winkle” even references an absentee schoolmaster (Dutch rather than Connecticut Yankee) said to be serving now “in congress”–anticipating the missing Ichabod Crane at the end of “The Legend,” rumored to be a justice in the Ten Pound Court.

At the start of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker depicts the Catskills as “faery mountains” with “magical hues and shapes.” He might not just be waxing poetic here, though, as the area appears to be the haunt of otherworldly beings. While on a squirrel-hunting (and shrew-wife-avoiding) foray into the mountain wilds, Rip encounters a mysterious group of “grave roysters” playing at ninepins (later in the story, a village elder well-versed in local lore claims the figures were the spirits of Hendrick Hudson and the crew of the Half-Moon). When Rip unwisely partakes of the crew’s strange brew, he ends up as spellbound as any human visitor who samples the fare of the faery realm. Rip falls so deeply comatose, he loses two decades of his life during a seemingly single night’s sleep.

However weird this supernatural forwarding of Rip in time might be, it really serves as little more than a plot device. The true eeriness of the tale develops after Rip awakens from his long slumber. Unable to identify his home, family, or familiar haunts, Rip is struck by an awful sense of the uncanny: “Strange names were over the doors–strange faces at the windows–everything was strange. His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” Rip also suffers an identity crisis when he spies a doppelganger of his younger self (actually his loafing, chip-off-the-old-block son): “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 everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name or who I am!” But Rip’s terrors are gradually assuaged, and the story’s more unsettling notes give way to a comic misogyny: Rip draws comfort from the discovery that he has outlived his henpecking wife, who “broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler.” While the shadow of ambiguity hangs over the conclusion of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (did the frightened Ichabod run off, or was he “spirited away” by the Headless Horseman?), Rip’s liberated fate clearly makes for a light-hearted ending.

Yet, interestingly, Knickerbocker’s Postscript to the tale swings the pendulum back towards supernatural atmosphere, as the Catskills are posited as a perennial “region full of fable” and “the abode of spirits.” Native American superstition is explicitly invoked:

In old times, say the Indian traditions, there was a kind of Manitou or Spirit who kept about the wildest recesses of the Catskill Mountains, and took a mischievous pleasure in wreaking all kinds of evils and vexations upon the red men. Sometimes he would assume the form of a bear, a panther, or a deer, lead the bewildered hunter a weary chase through tangled forests and among ragged rocks, and then spring off with a loud ho! ho! leaving him aghast on the brink of a beetling precipice or raging torrent.

Such mischievous, animal-associated racing calls to mind the equine hijinks of a certain Galloping Hessian (cf. the Headless Horseman’s legendary pranking of old Brouwer: “they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge, when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”). The connection grows even more tantalizing in the final paragraph of the Postscript, which recounts the washing away of a hunter following a mishap involving a gourd(!) in the Manitou’s “favorite abode.”

A look back at “Rip Van Winkle” reminds the reader of the aptness of the tale’s pairing (in subsequent book publications and TV adaptations) with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” over the past two centuries. These are not just Irving’s two most famous stories, but fantastically similar as well.

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#8

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

8. “Lesser Demons” (2010)

By his own afterword admission, Partridge doesn’t put much stock in H.P. Lovecraft’s stable of bloodless, swooning characters. No, Partridge subscribes to “the Macbeth school of horror. Which means I like heroes and villains who go down swinging no matter what a pack of witches, or the vagaries of fate, or the universe might have to say.” This utterly harrowing cosmic-horror story (which opens with a scene of laughing, grave-rifling children picking a corpse clean with their filed teeth) has the author’s approach/worldview stamped all over it. The narrator, Sheriff John Dalton, is a classic hardcase, and he has to be, considering all the awful, razor-jawed entities seeking to chomp into him (or even be born from his corpse). Dalton learns to navigate this haunted new world by confronting the hunters and “reading tales written in muscle and blood,” whereas his deputy sheriff, Roy Barnes, pursues answers to the macabre developments by sticking his nose in a grimoire (guess which methodology prevails). All told, this is the best account of the apocalyptic eruption of otherworldly monsters (e.g., “a hoofed minotaur with centipede dreadlocks”; “a giant worm with a dozen sucking maws”; “rat-faced spiders”) since The Mist enveloped Stephen King’s fictional town of Bridgton. With its hard-boiled fortification of Lovecraftian pulp elements, “Lesser Demons” constitutes one of Partridge’s greatest literary feats.

 

History Lessons: “Apocalyptic Horror” (Episode 3.4)

Talking heads cover undeath and destruction in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror.

 

Ruben Fleischer: I think it’s a human trait that we imagine that we’re the last civilization. I think every civilization throughout time has thought they’re probably going to be the ones who end it for everybody that comes to follow. So it’s generated this whole genre where we get to see or imagine what that might be like.

 

Max Brooks: I think that future zombie historians will see [World War Z] as a turning point for zombies in pop culture. The special effects are now copied in every zombie movie. Because I was just watching Train to Busan, and the zombies coming together in a river of humans? That’s straight out of World War Z.

 

Margaret Cho: Train to Busan is probably one of the greatest Korean films. There’s something about Koreans where we have a lot of protocol in terms of, like, hierarchy and age, and manners are so deeply ingrained in your being. Part of the horror if you’re Korean is watching it and seeing people lose all of those kind of protocols, all of those social niceties.

 

Joe Hill: So the biggest problem with zombie films at this point is the idea that anyone would be surprised by zombies. Everyone has a zombie apocalypse plan and Zombieland is the first movie to sort of take that head-on. To admit that this is a scenario that is almost cliché at this point and that everyone is prepared for it and here are the rules you need to follow to keep you alive.

 

Joe Dante: When you look at it with Night of the Living Dead, you see that George Romero was definitely inspired by The Last Man on Earth. His treatment of the zombie characters is extremely similar to the ones in this movie. They’re lethargic and they moan and groan and they call the name of the hero.

 

Lydia Hearst: I think that [I Am Legend] really plays into one of the greatest fears that we all have, which is, yes, of course, we’re all afraid of the apocalypse and the end of the world, zombies, that whole thing. But also just being alone.

 

Rebekah McKendry: All of them [The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, I Am Legend] have the same thread that at some point, man is the monster. That society will keep reinventing itself over and over, and if you stay stuck in the past and don’t evolve, you may be the source of legend. You may become the monster.

 

Eli Roth: Steven Spielberg’s 2006 adaptation [War of the Worlds] had an equally blunt message about American complacency and overconfidence. Set in New York and made just a few years after 9/11, it’s a nightmare vision of a terrorist attack waged by shadowy enemies we don’t understand.

 

Jonah Ray: Like this is the height of, you know, valley girl mentality. This culture that’s very ditzy LA women. And to see a movie where they end up surviving and kicking ass just makes it really stand the test of time with how, like, great [Night of the Comet] is.

 

Dan Trachtenberg: I kept on saying to everyone that we’re sort of the inverse and that in Misery, you meet Kathy Bates and you like her and trust her, and then you’re not sure if there’s a darkness. In our movie [10 Cloverfield Lane], we meet this guy, and we’re immediately going, “He’s trouble. I’ve seen this horror movie before. I got to get out of here.” And then it flips on us and we go, “Oh wait, maybe he’s not trouble,” you know?

 

Michael Dougherty: [Leonard] Nimoy, who up until then had always been seen as a good guy, as Spock from Star Trek, suddenly playing a villain, made [Invasion of the Body Snatchers] extra frightening. But he was also, like, a strange sort of ambassador or emissary for their point of view. He almost made becoming a pod person sound somewhat appealing.

 

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#9

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

9. “Guignoir” (1991)

By Partridge’s own admission, this story (where dark crime shades off into horror, and the author’s love of monster culture is on full display) is the one where he really hit his creative stride. The narrator Frank and his twin brother Larry are roustabouts at their father’s traveling carnival, who also don the masks of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man to work the Castle of Horrors attraction. But the ultimate draw of the carnival is the Death Car, formerly owned by Hank Caul, notorious author of a “stab ‘n’ skin murder spree” in Fiddler, California (the very town in which the opportunistic carnival has now pegged its tents). Caul and his legendary vehicle are involved a new round of bloodshed, as a slew of deadly betrayals between the carnies and the townsfolk transpire. “Guignoir” thematizes the telling of stories–fabrications designed to captivate an audience of “gawkers”–and this tale’s rapid-fire plot twists and scenes of utter viciousness (all related by an increasingly unreliable narrator) are guaranteed to leave the reader slack-jawed.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#10

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

10. “The Mojave Two-Step” (1999)

Partridge has made a career out of mixing the genres of horror, dark fantasy, hard-boiled crime, and the western, but this entry stands out for its combination of crime noir with science fiction. The story is set “in the twilight days of global warming,” when cars are necessarily electric and “the licensing fees for luxuries which negatively impacted the sorry remains of the the ozone layer cost more than the cars.” A pair of armed criminals, Anshutes and Coker, are driving a hijacked ice cream truck (whose hot goods will be like frozen gold when sold on the black market) towards the air-conditioned oasis of Las Vegas. En route they run across, and nearly over, a robotic one-armed bandit. Even stranger than an “ambulatory slot machine” walking down a desert highway is the sight of the young woman lashed to its back (the titular punishment, handed down by gangster/casino-owner Johnny Ringo over Kim’s gambling debts). The omen-seeking Coker believes Kim on the “Cogwheel Kid” is Lady Luck personified, but their acquaintance is destined to be unfortunate. Double-crosses between the trio of Anshutes, Coker, and Kim mount up quickly, but for all the bloody mayhem this remains a fun read. Wonderfully offbeat, “The Mojave Two-Step” is on the mark when it comes to inventive and entertaining genre fiction.

 

Lore Report: “Suffer the Children” (Episode 183)

Humans are very good at assigning value to things, the more rare, the higher the significance. But truly valuable things have one other quality in common: a dash of the unexpected. And when it comes to history, those are the stories that deserve to be told. Because they take us off the beaten path, put us off balance, and give us a fresh view of something we thought we understood. And in the process, they offer a perspective that’s more than a little disturbing.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast demonstrates that Sweden is the source of more than just Abba, meatballs, and a madcap Muppet chef. No, host Aaron Mahnke recurs to one of his favorite topics and traces the country’s staging of witch trials. Rather than rehearse a familiar narrative, though, Mahnke emphasizes the salient differences marking Sweden’s witch hunts. Children played an unusually prominent role, both in giving accusing testimony and suffering physical abuse (especially at the hands of one evil, torturing priest) and execution. “Suffer the Children” is stuffed with dark elements, folkloric and historic. The fabled island of Blakulla, reachable only by magical flight and purported to be the site of devil-attended witches’ sabbaths, is discussed. Mahnke also hearkens to the Great Noise, an ignominious peak of the witch panic (circa 1668-1676) that included “the largest execution on a single day for any recorded witch trial.” The October appropriate of this week’s episode is cemented when Mahnke invokes an Easter/Halloween holiday hybrid in which children dress up as witches and engage in trick-or-treat-style traipsing from door to door. Episode #183 makes for quite a bewitching listen, and is not to be missed this Halloween season.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#11

[for the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

11. “Carrion” (2006)

And speaking (in yesterday’s countdown post) of birds of ill omen…this retro-pulp masterpiece features a flock of unearthly buzzards with awful appetites (a story title like “Carrion” forebodes some grim pickings). But these grisly feeders don’t represent the extent of the horrors: there’s a strange, shuttered house looming incongruously alongside a lonesome highway in the Arizona desert. Its anthropomorphic façade is apropos, since the structure appears to be alive with evil: the thing is a “clapboard beast” from another, red-skied world. This hellish, buzzard-overrun house possesses its human visitors, stirring up–and feeding off of–black hatred and inner misery. In this consummately weird tale, some of Partridge’s most familiar story elements appear, from hardcase characters (such as a misnomer of a lawman with a sheriff’s badge pinned over his dark heart) to fantastic desert settings brimming with menace. The origins of the otherworldly house are never clarified here, but that only adds to the Bad Place’s macabre mystique. Additional construction is pending, as Partridge has voiced (in his afterword to the Lesser Demons collection) his intention to return to this unusual ruin in a future narrative.