"The Chimney" won the 1978 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.
Providence, RI 2018
"The Chimney" won the 1978 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.
The movie they are all here to see is not pornographic, not in the literal sense anyway: it is the final, suppressed film by the late Spanish filmmaker Bienvido, a mysterious, obsessed, maniacally driven artist whose surrealist output enrages, confounds, and excites critics and audiences alike. This movie is The Answer Tree, which is rumored to be so
subliminally shocking, so disturbing to a viewer's subconscious, that
it can literally kill some of those who see it. "I'm sure we'll all pull through," Grange says to a former student who recognizes him in the concession line. "For fifty bucks a shot?" the young man replies. "Somebody better not."
Boyett intersperses passages about Bienvido's life from the books Grange has written on him, university press tomes with titles like The Key of the Eye and Tyranny of the Flesh. From accidental on-camera deaths of his actors to his flirtation with the fascist regimes of early/mid-century Europe, Bienvido is the type of artist who courts madness, so single-minded and driven in creating his art that he is beholden to none. You know the type.
Concerned not with outward displays of politics, but only his own fantastical imagination he brings to metaphoric life in flickering images, Bienvido makes movies catch-as-catch can, scrounging money any way possible, enlisting whatever friends, acquaintances, and lovers he may have into becoming cogs in the factory of his memories, nightmares, and fantasies.
"One must be willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the image. The image is everything. The brain believes the eye. The eye believes the image. I am the image. The eye is the key. By shaping what occurs in front of it, I shape what is behind it as well."
Bienvido's films were often censored and suppressed, smuggled to Cannes where they cause a sensation, and at times screened for Nazi royalty (even, yes, Hitler!). Boyett continues with Grange's writings on Bienvido, provides glimpses of what they featured—"a marriage bed is slit open to reveal internal organs and later, a fetus." The filmmaker calls his work a "cinema of instinct" and begins casting an androgynous Belgian actress to express uncomfortable notions of sexuality. This actress will be murdered and this seems to push Bienvido further into the realm of mad genius artist. Awesome!
As The Answer Tree begins, Grange settles in with his Coke and jujubes and notebook and pen, and allows Bienvido's final masterpiece to unspool before him. A girl is giving birth and from between her legs "long, thin, jointed, furred legs emerge. Spider legs..." It's gnarly stuff, and Grange scribbles his notes: "Unusually linear! Story emphasis. Misogyny/fear of flawed progeny." The obscure yet graphic images exert a powerful pull on Grange, and Boyett uses the professor's notes to illuminate what Grange can barely express to himself.
Both the movie and the biography continue, with Bienvido pursuing a kind of "derangement of the senses" as he gains French government money for his "lifework," yes, The Answer Tree. His notoriety has preceded him, and the great Salvador Dali turns him down when he asks the artist to design the film. Bienvido edits the movie himself... and dies in the editing room. A rumor starts that audience members are dying at showings of it (Grange remains skeptical of this), and copies of the film are destroyed. But there are secret showings, and "the mythos grew." This is fantastic!
Spoilers yo: The Answer Tree ends, much like it began, and the theatergoers filter out, with one joker playing dead. Grange takes his notebook, with all his frantic, fevered insights—"Cinema of man as animal of instinct to fuck as animal is man to cinema as instinct to fuck the daughter as extension of the mother as extension of the self." Film-school bullshit? Perhaps. But Grange is headed home, where he can finally finish his last book on Bienvido, grab his .38, and wait, naked and erect, for his wife and teenage stepdaughter—so strangely, tantalizingly androgynous—to return home...
As grim and downbeat as "The Answer Tree" is, as splatterpunk stories often were in order to have "cred, "
its imaginary academic scenario is deeply satisfying to me, even, dare I say it, fun, especially as I minored in film and feel comfortable with a lot of the
kind of academic jargon Boyett’s professor uses. I'm certainly
familiar with and a fan of the types of movies being referenced! While it can be a writerly indulgence to create a creation within one’s story, and then to comment critically upon it, I think the fact that this a short story rather than a novel works in its favor. And who doesn't love a mad genius? Other stories of fictional filmmakers and cursed films abound, of course. In recent years lots of people loved John
Carpenter's episode "Cigarette Burns" for Showtime's Masters of Horror,
and I liked it too, but it was ground really already covered by Boyett's
story, this film that will drive its viewers to madness, murder, and
Of course there was the time they found him undressing Olive Jones in an alley. And another time he was discovered dissecting a kitten on his bed.
How about that for a creepy kid? I mean, that is just textbook. Red flag and three-alarm fire. Get this kid into a psych ward posthaste. But in Richard Matheson's telling, "Those scandals were forgotten." I know it beggars the imagination today, but you know, as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground sang, "Those were different times." And Matheson, one of the Founding Fathers of our beloved horror and dark fantasy genres, isn't writing a true-crime tale; this early Fifties, much-anthologized short story is called "Blood Son," and he's only setting the stage for our disturbed young protagonist to fulfill his much-desired destiny.
"'My Ambition' by Jules Dracula. When I grow up I want to be a vampire. I want to live forever and get even with everybody and make all the girls vampires."
Such laudable, ambitious, and clearly-articulated life goals. This kid is goin' places! But alas, he's dragged out of class and is in big trouble, mister.
There's no doubt that the king of the horror paperback original is Alabama-born Michael McDowell. His Avon titles from the early 1980s are all must-reads, and I'm sure you know them (and if you don't, fix that posthaste!): The Amulet, The Elementals, the six-volume Blackwater series, and more, and even wrote the original screenplays for both Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I can hardly believe he wrote no more horror novels after 1983, and his death in 1999 of an AIDS-related illness put an end to one of the greatest runs in the genre. McDowell may have been a master of horror, but he wrote fewer than a dozen short stories, and none of them seem to get mentioned when his name comes up among fans. But one of those stories should, and it is called "Miss Mack."
It's 1957, in the small town of Babylon, Alabama, and Miss Mack has arrived there from another even smaller town called Pine Cone (McDowell fans will well recall these blighted places). Although she is neither old nor young, fat, pig-faced, and gives "the impression of a large piece of farm machinery that had forsaken both farm and field," McDowell does not offer her up as an object of pity or scorn; her worst habit is drinking warm Coke by the caseful and not knowing much Alabama history. Folks know her as the long-time assistant of the photographer of grammar school children in this Southern region. When that fellow dies, she returns to Babylon and asks, nay states outright to the school principal, in a perfect example of go-get-'em-gumption, "Mr. Hill, I want you to give me a job." Boy, try that today!
Miss Mack befriends 22-year-old Janice Faulk, the other third-grade teacher. It is a study in opposites: bulky, tennis-shoe-wearing Miss Mack and neat, petite, doll-like Miss Faulk. But they get along very well, discussing school issues together, having dinner together, endless talking, even taking little nightly road jaunts in which Miss Faulk shouts at truckers they drive up alongside, "Do you want to race Miss Mack?" Sounds like a great time.
The next time Mrs. Hill spoke to her son on the subject of Miss Faulk—the following Halloween—Mr. Hill listened carefully. And he did exactly what his mother told him to do.
Old Mrs. Hill is one of McDowell's classic evil matriarchs as we've read of in virtually all his novels. Indeed, this little story could be a sort of narrative aside that we never see in one of his other books. Although she never appears on-stage, as it were, she obviously controls Mr. Hill. This friendship of Miss Mack and Miss Faulk is getting in the way of Mr. Hill's having a nice, pretty wife. And Mrs. Hill, we take it through inference, wants her son to have a nice, pretty wife. Why, it's what any good mother wants for her son. They have "no intention of allowing his comfortable plans to be thwarted by a fat woman with greasy black hair and a face like a pig's."
Now it's Halloween weekend, and the women plan one last getaway before the weather grows too cold to enjoy the pond. Miss Faulk reminds Mr. Hill about visiting them on their fishing trip, and he replies, "Didn't I tell you, Janice? You gone be needed here at the school Saturday." Miss Faulk tells Miss Mack she has to stay to help with the children's Halloween party, and encourages Miss Mack to go on ahead without her, and Miss Mack makes her promise to come on Sunday, "and you bring me some Halloween candy. I sure do love Snickers, and they go great with Coca-Cola." (They do!) Miss Mack sets off to the pond alone...
And now the spoilers below:
As he leaves, Mr. Hill sprinkles the cindered, foul-smelling remains of some thing "recently dead or even still living" in the tracks that lead out of the wooded pond area, reads an incantation from a piece of yellow paper, burns the October page from a calendar, and smashes a stopwatch and a compass in the ashes. He drives away, back to the school... back to Miss Faulk.
Miss Mack awakes, ready to start her day, but something is amiss: it should be 6 am, but the sky is still black and the moon has not moved. The radio says it's 2 in the morning. She tries to drive out but can't find the turnoff to the main road. She walks through the woods but keeps ending up back at the pond and the trailer she stays in. She sleeps. She wakes up again and it is still 2 am and the moon has not moved—still Halloween night.
I believe that to be effective, horror has to affect the innocent. The story has to end unhappily. And "Miss Mack" features both elements. McDowell is often merciless to his most undeserving characters, and that's what makes his work so unexpectedly hard-hitting. The image of Miss Mack unable to find her way out of Gavin Pond, of waking up again and again in the middle of the night, running out of food and fuel, is to me so nightmarish I can barely stand it, it makes me sick to my stomach. "Miss Mack" is McDowell in miniature, everything he does so well but on a small scale: perfectly paced, a Southern locale, strong, capable women, weak and cruel men, and manipulative mothers from hell itself. I only wish McDowell had offered us more of these evil little treats, at Halloween time or any other.
A series of drownings occur, and of course our guy begins to ruminate upon what the sea hides in its dreadful brooding depths, knowing that no sharks patrol these waters:
Thirty years ago, I was knocked out when I read Brite’s 1990 tale, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood.” First published in an essential, groundbreaking original anthology of the era, Thomas Monteleone's Borderlands, it exemplifies Brite’s worldview and artistic mien from the first sentence: “To the treasure and the pleasures of the grave,” said my friend Louis, and raised the goblet of absinthe to me in drunken benediction. As I read, the story seemed vaguely familiar—oh, yes, it's a retelling of Lovecraft's “The Hound,” one of his non-mythos works that showcased his (intellectual only!) love for overripe, purple decadence. Brilliantly, Brite updated the setting and our "protagonists" are now two macabre-minded young men of the 1980s who live in a home decorated like, perhaps, an Edward Gorey illustration.
Evoking a Goth version of Withnail and I, these guys are “dreamers of a dark and restless sort.” They live in orphaned Louis’s “ancestral home in Baton Rouge… on the edge of a vast swamp, the plantation house loom[ing] sepulchrally out of the gloom that surrounded it always.” Striving for the extremes of experience, a sort Blakean “road of excess,” or maybe just good ol’ sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll salvation, they search in vain:
Both of us were dissatisfied with everything. We drank straight whiskey and declared it too weak. We took strange drugs, but the visions they brought us were of emptiness, mindless, slow decay. The books we read were dull… the music we heard was never loud enough, never harsh enough to stir us… For all the impression the world made upon us, our eyes might have dead black holes in our heads.
We always returned home with crates full of things no man had been meant to possess. We head of a girl with violet eyes who had died in some distant town; not seven days later we had those eyes in an ornate cut-glass jar, pickled in formaldehyde… we scraped bone dust and nitre from the bottoms of ancient coffins; we stole the barely withered heads and hands of children fresh in their graves… I had not taken seriously Louis’s talk of making love in a charnel-house—but neither had I reckoned on the pleasure he could inflict with a femur dipped in rose-scented oil.
What transpires after the two acquire a voodoo fetish (“a polished sliver of bone, or a tooth, but what fang could have been so long, so sleekly honed, and still have somehow retained the look of a human tooth?”) is almost beside the point; Brite is less interested in the way of plot or narrative than in weird flights of atmospheric prose and darkened vibes that go on for days: the lushness, the eroticization of every aspect of the environs, is Brite’s raison d’etre. Sex and death intermingle like the elemental forces they are, lusty and deranged beneath a cool, composed exterior. In his prose there whispers not only the archaisms of Lovecraft, but the pulp poetry of Bradbury, the slick sensuality of Anne Rice, the transgressive sex acts of William Burroughs. Brite slowly envelopes the reader in a cloak of lush midnight velvet, a world beyond the good and evil forces that the horror genre obliviously fooled itself with.
“His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” hit me in the solar plexus, quenching a thirst I’d only just begun to have, and making me hate living my small culture-less New Jersey town even more. I was thrilled to read about a subculture I felt a kinship with. Few horror stories affected me like this, combining the familiar horror stylings I loved with characters that weren’t so far removed from myself in a world I was eager to engage in. And Poppy Z. Brite was already there, lighting the candles, showing the way, serving the absinthe.
I debated between writing about this story and 1992's “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” from
Still Dead. The latter story I may like even more, is even more accomplished in its beautiful, nightmarish visions, but “Wormwood” was
the very first Brite I read, so I opted to revisit that experience. Read my review of the collection Wormwood (originally titled Swamp Foetus), which includes both stories, and others, all excellent.