Thursday, October 29, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "Shambleau" by Catherine L. Moore (1933)

One of horror's great scenes is when Jonathan Harker is confronted by three vampire women—the "weird sisters"—in Dracula. As one of them kneels at Harker's side, he hears the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, then he closes his eyes in langourous ecstacy, waiting for the moment when her sharp white teeth will pierce the flesh on his neck... Wonderful stuff (till of course the Count rushes in and ruins this tender moment). And I thought of this bit of sexual dread when I first encountered Catherine L. Moore's famous 1933 pulp horror/science fiction story, "Shambleau."

This was Moore's first story, believe it or not, and its popularity hasn't dimmed since it first appeared in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales, having been included in dozens of science fiction and horror anthologies across the globe. There is something so primal about this work that nine decades have not dulled its power, and I think it operates as a kind of ur-text for erotic horror.

Featuring a semi-heroic character that Moore would use again and again named Northwest Smith, "Shambleau" at first comes across as standard pulp for its day: Smith is a space pilot, an outlaw, a smuggler, going about business in a kind of Wild West city called Lakkdarol, an outpost on Mars: a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and often did (Smith is obviously a precursor to Han Solo; this type of pulp adventure is just what George Lucas would repurpose for the Star Wars universe). 

A wild mob is chasing down a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance. Smith draws his laser gun in defense of the poor creature as she evokes a kind of sympathy in him, even though he's no hero. He talks down the mob, who keep shouting "Shambleau!" The leader informs Smith "We never let those things live," but Smith informs him that Shambleau is his, he's keeping her. This puzzles and astonishes the crowd; as they disperse, the leader spits out at Smith: "Keep her then, but don't let her out in this town again!"

Obviously relieved, this girl known only as Shambleau cannot speak much English, and Smith is perplexed by the bloodthirsty disgust the mob had evinced towards her. Their brief conversation is halting, but she manages to get out, "Some day I—speak to you—in my own language" (nice foreshadowing!). Smith knows he needs to get her someplace safe, like back to his sparse, rented room. As they walk, he notices others on the streets staring after him and the turban-headed alien girl in disbelief.

Back in his room, Smith tries to get the girl to eat, but she will not. He tells her she can stay safe here, and he goes out to do his business: Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun. He returns that evening, drunk on “segir,” or Martian booze, and is surprised to see Shambleau still there. Yes, he's drunk... and suddenly horny. They embrace...

Her velvety arms closed around his neck. And then he was looking down into her face, very near, and the green animal eyes met his with the pulsing pupils and the flicker of—something—deep behind their  shallows—and through the rising clamor of his blood, even as he stooped his  lips to hers, Smith felt something deep within him shudder away—inexplicable,  instinctive, revolted. What it might be he had no words to tell, but the very touch of her was suddenly loathsome—

With a cry of "God!" he pushes her away, recalling that wild look in the eyes of that street mob. Shambleau falls to the floor and her turban slips. Smith had thought her bald, but no, quite the opposite is true:

a lock of scarlet hair  fell below the binding leather, hair as scarlet as her garment, as unhumanly  red as her eyes were unhumanly green. He stared, and shook his head  dizzily and stared again, for it seemed to him that the thick lock of crimson had moved, squirmed of itself against her cheek. 

Smith blames this "squirming" on too much too drink, tells the girl to sleep in the corner, and then gets into bed, where he dreams strange dreams beneath a dark Martian night, of some nameless, unthinkable thing ... was coiled about his throat . . . something like a soft snake, wet and warm, sent little thrills of delight through every nerve and fiber of him, a perilous  delight. He is like marble, rigid, unable to move, fighting against it, till oblivion takes him and then, bright morning. Dismissing this “devil of a dream,” he tells Shambleau she can stay again, but he'll be leaving Lakkdoral in a day and after that, she'll be on her own.

C.L. Moore, c. 1940s

It was not until late evening, when he turned homeward again, that the thought of the brown girl in his room took definite shape in his  mind, though it had been lurking there, formless and submerged, all day. "Formless and submerged," you say? Freud would, as it's said, have had a field day. Shambleau still has not eaten, still speaks in halting English obscurities like "I shall—eat. Before long—I shall—feed. Have no  worry." Smith brilliantly asks her if she lives off blood, and she scoffs: "You think me—vampire, eh? No—I am Shambleau!" Well, that clears things up. 

Where I first encountered Shambleau

That night brings a fuller realization of the horror that is Shambleau, and Moore spares nothing in her efforts to reveal what a danger to the rational human this alien is. Smith wakes to see Shambleau teasing him as she undoes her turban, allowing those scarlet locks to writhe and glisten in an obscene tangle, drawing Smith in helplessly. It's as if he recognizes what she is...

And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa. The knowledge of that—the realization of vast backgrounds reaching into misted history—shook him out of his frozen horror for a moment, and in that  moment he met her eyes again, smiling, green as glass in the moonlight,  half hooded under drooping lids. Through the twisting scarlet she held out  her arms. And there was something soul-shakingly desirable about her, so that all the blood surged to his head suddenly and he stumbled to his feet like a sleeper in a dream as she swayed toward him, infinitely graceful,  infinitely sweet in her cloak of living horror.

Jayem Wilcox’s illustration for Weird Tales

Moore goes on in this amazing pulp fashion, overheated prose all silken seductive slidings, wet and glistening tentacle tresses like serpents, eager and hungry as they crawl towards this man frozen in fear... and desire. As she embraces him, she murmurs, "I shall—speak to you now—in  my own tongue—oh, beloved!" Whew. Smith is bewitched, nearly hypnotized, a drug addict now, his identity subsumed into the hungering that Shambleau is, welcoming mindless, deadly bliss. 

this mingling of rapture and revulsion all took place in the flashing of a moment while the scarlet worms coiled and crawled upon him, sending deep, obscene tremors of that infinite pleasure into, every atom that made up Smith. And he could not stir in that slimy  ecstatic embrace—and a weakness was flooding that grew deeper after each succeeding wave of intense delight, and the traitor in his soul strengthened and drowned out the revulsion—and something within him ceased to struggle  as he sank wholly into a blazing darkness that was oblivion to all else but that devouring rapture. 

Like the femme fatale of a noir story, Shambleau promises heaven but delivers hell. Only the arrival of a space-pal named Yarol saves Smith; Yarol engages in a last-minute feat of derring-do, as he recognizes the alien for what it is, recalling in him ancient swamp-born memories from Venusian ancestors far away and long ago. Moore concludes her wild tale with the two space friends discussing the origins of Earth myths, an alien race, half-forgotten legends, a race older than man... you know the stuff! Yarol insists that if Smith ever sees a Shambleau again, "You'll draw your gun and burn it to hell."

The science-fiction setting of "Shambleau" is beside the point—this story is all about the shivery-delicious erotic abandonment delirium, and that exotic scarlet-maned alien woman who made many striking paperback covers possible. Delving into forbidden sensuality, notions of addiction, and debased pleasures that I'm sure few others were exploring in pulp magazines then, "Shambleau" is fully realized, imagined with audacity, holding nothing back, its voluptuous vibe making it a favorite of 1930s pulp fans and beyond. Not too bad for a brand-new author.

While horror as a genre is so often concerned with revulsion, fear, despair, and the like, Moore seemed to be clued-in to the uncomfortable fact that horror also can explore forbidden, attractive, addictive desires that polite society deem unacceptable. But as psychologists understand, desire and disgust are rarely opposites; they mingle, coalesce, to beckon us towards our doom... and we’d have it no other way.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "The Chimney" by Ramsey Campbell (1977)

"Deep down, we are all still as vulnerable as we were in childhood; sometimes it takes very little to break through our defenses," states Ramsey Campbell in his introduction to the 1982 collection of his short stories, Dark Companions. If there's anyone who's developed a mastery of breaking through our adult defenses, it's Campbell with his vast output of short stories and novels since the Sixties. He's one of the writers featured the most here on Too Much Horror Fiction, and while I've read only a fraction of that astounding output—I'd have to put everything else on hold to be able to do a complete read of him!—I've loved a lot of it. And perhaps none more so than "The Chimney," a 1977 tale that first appeared in the dark fantasy anthology Whispers, then later in Companions, and many more books after that.
An early example of his patented quiet, slow-burn, off-kilter style, Campbell makes sure that virtually every sentence in this story depicts something "wrong." Whether it's an emotion or a word, a shadow or an article of clothing, a parent or a fellow schoolchild, every thing is cast in an as uncomfortable light as possible. Step by step Campbell delicately puts down each sentence and oh-so-precisely injects un-ease into it, so we are always wobbling off-balance, fearful, in suspense, feeling like our poor unnamed protagonist... knowing that Campbell has something horrible awaiting us at the end. It's one of the purest Campbell stories I know, and rereading only confirms that fact.

The first-person narrator is now an adult looking back at the year of his life when he was but 12 years old, when he was "beginning to conquer his fears." Something traumatic happened back then, which he does not wish to attribute to those fears—of which there are many, but it is the titular object which causes the child the most distress: "I even went upstairs to do my homework, and managed to ignore the chimney. I had to be brave," he states. Well aware of how his mother is terrified of him going off to school, and how that seeps into his own experience of it, where children from social classes both above and below tease and bully him. Even those who approach him in friendship are rebuffed in his self-conscious anxiety. 

He tries to gain sympathy from mother by feigning sickness, but all his fears only embarrass father, who has his own problems with a struggling five-and-dime shop. "You only upset the child," father says to mother. "If you didn't go on at him he wouldn't be half so bad... you'll have him afraid to go up to bed next." And it is upstairs indeed where our greatest source of fear is: the chimney. Its firelight causes distressing shadows: "Everything was unstable; walls shifted, my clothes crawled on the back of the chair." He knows he must hide these feelings from his parents; he must conquer his terror of the chimney.

And so Campbell puts his man through the paces: nightmares, sleepwalking, sickness, cranky dad. And my god, does he say in front of a new pal and two girls they've just met that he still believes in "Father Christmas"? It's this last aspect that is actually the crux of this fellow's abject if inchoate fears, when he reveals to us that at three years old he'd seen a Christmas movie on television:

I'd seen two children asleep in bed, an enormous crimson man emerging from the fireplace, creeping toward them. They weren't going to wake up! "Burglar!" I'd screamed. "No, dear, it's Father Christmas," my mother said. "He always comes out of the chimney."

Perhaps if she'd said "down" rather than "out of"...

The ironic idea of Santa as the origin of night terrors is a believable one: "I lay awake listening fearfully for movement in the chimney: I was sure a fat grinning figure would creep upon me if I slept." Then one Christmas Eve, dear old dad borrows the neighbor's Father Christmas costume... "It was many years before I enjoyed Christmas very much." There are two climaxes, and each rattles the nerves, bringing past and future together into one horrific moment, a vision from that blighted holiday night: "What shocked me most was its size." But these set-pieces, taken together, add up to our narrator realizing he will never conquer his fear, suggesting that it may even have a life of its own... and "that would be worst of all."

"The Chimney" won the 1978 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.

Grady Hendrix, Ramsey Campbell, & me
Providence, RI 2018

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: “The Answer Tree" by Steven R. Boyett (1988)

It started with weirdo flicks in the early Seventies, they had titles like El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Flesh for Frankenstein, Multiple Maniacs and Eraserhead, They Came from Within and Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. Midnight movies, they were called, shown in disreputable theaters, premiering at the stroke of 12 and playing all night long, attracting hardcore cinephiles (but more likely the lost and the lonely and the houseless seeking shelter). These were films for the after-hours, unfit for matinees, watched by denizens of darkness the daytime city pretends to not see. Again and again these acolytes returned to the source, creating a cult of revolt against the constraints of daily rational life: on the screen, anything goes.

Influential 1983 nonfiction study, perhaps the first to explore this new subculture, 
by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman
Midnight movies are well met in 1988’s Silver Scream, a huge anthology of movie-themed horror stories edited by “splatterpunk” godfather David J. Schow (whose own movie-themed tales would’ve been a perfect fit herein). In an antho bursting with great works by the biggest genre names, it is Steven R. Boyett's “The Answer Tree” which still stands out to me, a unique work of cinematic madness, academic commentary, and squicky sexuality.

Boyett began writing his first published novel when he was still a teenager, the well-regarded fantasy Ariel, which came out in 1983 as a paperback original. He wasn't a horror writer, but was friends with Eighties horror writers, later wrote two other horror stories, published in 1989 and 1992 respectively, "Like Pavlov's Dogs" in Book of the Dead and "Emerald City Blues" in Midnight Graffiti. I liked those too, as I recall, but it is “The Answer Tree” that I’ve returned to again and again over the years. He invokes the mystery of the midnight movies of Cronenberg, Lynch, and Romero and filters through it the abstractions of European cinema, Cocteau and Bunuel, Antonioni and Franju, Pasolini and Godard. Exploitation and art? SOLD.

We begin with Howard Grange, film academic, standing in line at a porn theater with his $50 ticket, disgruntled about the fact that the line is long and the long line is made up of clean-cut college students, the privileged type that take his classes but only engage to ask "Is this going to be on the test?" But tonight they're all here engaged in a kind of illicit activity, "isolated individuals... mingling with others who shared their peculiar taste in entertainment." 

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."

Grange is ambivalent and ultimately annoyed by these clean-cut fellows, much younger than himself, who share the theater with him. Indulging in some self-satisfied bitterness, he laments how both he and Bienvido have been unheralded and ignored. Ignorant students take his film classes for an easy grade, and now they spend $50 for... what? He knows: to watch someone die.

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...

Back in print 2020 from Cimarron Street Press

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 studied film in college and feel comfortable with a lot of the kind of academic jargon Boyett’s professor uses, and I'm familiar with and a fan of the types of foreign art 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 beyond.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "Blood Son" by Richard Matheson (1951)

Until he was twelve Jules kept pretty much out of trouble.

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.

Originally appearing in a spring 1951 issue of a magazine called "Imagination" under the title "'Drink My Red Blood...'", Matheson uses spare, plain sentences in paragraph form to highlight the single-mindededness of little Jules: he wants to be a vampire. Born "on a night when winds uprooted trees" with three teeth to latch onto his mother's breast to drink mingled milk and blood, Jules has never not been creepy. He doesn't speak till he is five years old and then it's to say "Death" at the dinner table. Then he starts making up words, edgy freak-out-the-squares stuff like "killove" and "nighttouch." He's a failure in school, unless it's reading and writing, then "he was almost brilliant." A literate creep!

When he's 12 he goes to the movies one Saturday and sees a picture called Dracula (Matheson doesn't have to specify which Dracula because in 1951 there was only one Dracula). And like many kids who see a movie that makes them feel something special but they aren't quite sure what to do with those feelings, he goes home and locks himself in the bathroom for two hours. Ignoring his parents pounding on the door, Jules finally emerges with "a satisfied look on his face." But he's also got a bandage on his thumb, so it's not that kind of creepy. 

I like this kid—he skips school to hang out at the library, and from there steals a book—ok, that's not so great—but it's Bram Stoker's Dracula so I dunno, I guess I like him again. Showing his brilliance, he reads the book straight through in the  park, and then walks home reading it again "as he ran from street light to street light." As someone who tried to read the Stoker novel when in kindergarten, I really admire Jules: "As the days passed Jules read the story over and over. He never went to school."

1967 Avon vampire anthology
Eventually Jules does go back to school, mostly because he wants to write a composition to read in front of the class. Duly impressed at his offer, the teacher allows Jules to do so. She is unhappy mere moments later when he reads aloud:

"'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.

This is pretty much it for Jules and school, no surprise. He becomes a kind of juvenile delinquent, drifting around, I guess, "wandering the streets searching for something." Unexpectedly, he visits the zoo, and upon seeing the vampire bat, has a similar reaction to seeing and reading Dracula: he becomes obsessed, learns all about it, and then one night is able to grab the vampire bat from its cage. Jules takes it to a shack off an alley and, with a penknife, cuts his throat open and implores the little creature of the night to "Drink my red blood! Drink me!" The furry black bat laps it up, and then "suddenly his mind was filled with terrible clarity."

1977 anthology taking its title from this story
I guess the following is a spoiler? Yep, as his blood pours out of him, Jules realizes what a sham it's all been, and here he is, dying in an abandoned shack "lying half naked on garbage and letting a flying bat drink his blood." Jules flings the winged mammal from him in vain, stumbles outside, near death. He can hear the bat wings coming back... and then they're gone. Jules may be dying, but he can sense he's now being lifted up by a man "whose eyes shone like rubies." Who it is you can probably guess, and also what he says to the boy, fulfilling Jules's long-dreamt destiny....
Matheson's terse, stripped prose is incantatory, the opposite of the archaic, romantic stylings of Gothic fiction. His conflation of daily banality and supernatural malevolence is perhaps his richest contribution to the genre—no, more than that: he helped construct the modern horror tale with this duality. And having Jules engage with the fictional and cinematic Draculas is also utterly modern, Old World myth meets New World high-tech. This was an all-new approach to horror. I could sense it when I read it in my early teens, this story so bereft of ornamentation but so rich in implication, an invocation of evil, desired and embraced: this self-orphaned outsider has sought, and he is found.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "Miss Mack" by Michael McDowell (1986)

Do you wish it could be Halloween all year long? Have I got a story for you!

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 he 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, yet 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."

First appearing in the 1986 anthology edited by Alan Ryan, titled Halloween Horrors, natch, "Miss Mack" was only published again in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Vol. 1 (2016). Well-chosen, guys! My initial read of it was in 2015, and it's one of the few stories that I've come across in recent years that won't leave me be. When I think about it, I get a twisty snake-like chill up my spinal column. Stripped of all the excess pages of a novel, McDowell is able to get down and get dirty in around 20 pages.

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!

Knowing a good teacher when he sees one, Mr. Hill in fact does give her a job, teaching the third grade. She gets a small apartment between the library and the Coke bottling factory. Everybody loves her. She teaches fractions and the Alabama state song, and plays a mean dodgeball with the "manliest" little boys, flinging it so hard at them it puts them "right flat out on the ground." 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. 

But you know who's not having a great time? Mr. Hill, who's got designs on pretty Miss Faulk, and didn't he give her a prize job, teaching the best, most well-behaved students, and doesn't she owe him something for that? Miss Faulk is "just the sort of impressionable young woman to imagine that such favors ought to be returned, with much considerable interest." Now McDowell does an interesting bit of sleight-of-hand, some foreshadowing that a careless reader might miss. Mr. Hill tells his mother, a widow living a place called Sweet Gum Head (I haven't looked it up to see if it's a real place in Alabama but it sure sounds like it could be), that he intends to marry Miss Faulk, and dear old mom tells him not to wait. But Mr. Hill waits, and it's a mistake.

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 Miss Mack and Miss Faulk love to drive out to secluded Gavin Pond some miles away, fishing and enjoying one another's company after the long school week. Mr. Hill casually mentions to Miss Mack that his mother lives out that way, and maybe one Sunday afternoon on his way back from visiting her he could stop by while Miss Mack and Miss Faulk are fishing. Miss Mack says politely, "I wish you would." She has no reason to suspect anything untoward of Mr. Hill; but his mother is another story: in her Southern travels over the years, she's "heard stories about that old woman."

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:  

Having successfully separated the two women, Mr. Hill, as he said, stops by to see Miss Mack at the pond, telling her his mother drew him a map of the out-of-the-way area. "My mama has heard all about you, Miss Mack. My mama is old, but she is interested in a great many things." And Miss Mack herself has heard about old Mrs. Hill, and "that the things that Mrs. Hill interested herself in withered up and died."

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 just on a small scale: perfectly paced, 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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "The Night Ocean" by R.H. Barlow & H.P. Lovecraft (1936)

I believe it's common knowledge among fans of weird horror fiction that H.P. Lovecraft spent an inordinate amount of time writing letters, collaborating with other writers, and revising/editing their in-progress works. In 1936, they year before his death, Lovecraft assisted with the manuscript of his friend, young R.H. Barlow (1918-1951), a budding writer who entered the fabled "Lovecraft Circle" when he was only 13. Barlow, who later became a respected anthropologist specializing in early Mexican history, would take his own life when a student cruelly threatened to expose Barlow's homosexuality.

"The Night Ocean" is a perfect example of what weird fiction is, can be, and should do, a bridge between the work of an old master like Algernon Blackwood and future authors such as Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell. Noted HPL scholar S.T. Joshi has stated that the finished work is 90% Barlow's, although I think often it was attributed solely to Lovecraft. It was the last piece of fiction Lovecraft worked on, and was first published in a magazine called "The Californian" in 1936. Much later it was included in Arkham House's 1970 collection of Lovecraft's collaborations and revisions, The Horror in the Museum (it was the last story, deemed worthy of the buildup). In 1980 it was included in the Zebra paperback Weird Tales #2, as you can see at top; Necronomicon Press issued a chapbook of it in 1986, while I myself only read it for the first time in 2012, and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I've read little else like it.

After a period of arduous creative activity, a painter, our nameless narrator, sets off to the beach near the town of Ellston for a respite in a somewhat remote little cabin on a lonely stretch of seaside. A solitary sort, he long ponders the failure of imagination to recount our past and the influence of locale and psychological state on individual human feeling, and our inability to capture our inward visions: "Set a pen to a dream, and the colour drains from it." His tendency towards introspection is engaged more and more in proximity to the rolling sea, which hearkens back to humanity's first days, and he witnesses "a myriad of ocean moods." The sun, the clouds, the shimmering light, the morning mist, the lace of sea foam, all of these things affect him, but it is "the ocean which ruled my life during the whole of that late summer."

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:

The people who died—some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average—sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies. It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.
Descriptions of the night-time filtering through into the day, causing a grey pall over the landscape, are unsettling; our preternaturally perceptive protagonist observes that "the beach was a prisoner in a hueless vault for hours at a time, as if something of the night were welling into other hours." Nothing creeps me out more than that in-between time of certain moments of dusk or dawn, and now the whole area is cast in that light? *shiver* But it's more than that:

There was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange... a loneliness crept upon me... made subtly horrible by intimations of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.

Vague as it may be, something is happening: a strangely carved metal bead found washed up on shore; figures cavorting one rainy night outside the house who freeze with "cryptic blankness... in the morbid sunset" when our narrator waves at them to come in from the downpour. When he looks out the window, they are gone. And what of the foul, decaying thing that is bandied about in the surf the next morning? He is offended by "the presence of such an object amid the apparent beauty of the clean beach," but knows intuitively that "it was horribly typical of the indifference of death in a nature which mingles rottenness with beauty, and perhaps loves the former more."
The atmosphere grows progressively darker from here, as he puts together the drownings and the thing in the surf and a "perception of the brief hideousness and underlying filth of life." This shit is getting to him, and it might be a good time to head on out of Ellston Beach. But not before one final glimpse of something "which ventured close to man's haunts and lurked cautiously just beyond the edge of the known..."

At times the narrator overindulges in his moodiness, as amorphous images, observations, and feelings tumble over one another in a manner that may slow some readers; I certainly had to take a break here and there. But the cumulative effect of Barlow's careful observations cannot be dismissed or ignored: "The Night Ocean" is a powerful work of eerie suggestion, of the supernatural qualities that lurk in various aspects of our natural world, of a reality beyond human ken that affords us a momentary glance at its incomprehensible secrets, something like the call of the void, "an ecstasy akin to fear." I feel as though Lovecraft may have inserted very subtle allusions to Innsmouth and the Deep Ones (the carven metal bead, odd figures emerging from the waves, and more) into Barlow's poetic, philosophical treatise on insignificance, which the unknowable sea appears to represent. Knowing that Barlow would kill himself lends a real poignancy to passages like this:

I felt, in brief agonies of disillusionment, the gigantic blackness of this overwhelming universe, in which my days and the days of my race were as nothing to the shattered stars; a universe in which each action is vain and even the emotion of grief a wasted thing.

Barlow reaches for and achieves, I believe, a secular, sermon-like quality as he wraps up his tale, a drawing together of experience and emotion into a solemn whole of profound insight into the human condition... yet is aware that he can never truly capture in these "scribbled pages" what has happened to him. Awed and humbled before an oceanic universe, as this circle closes, he can only offer, and take refuge in, the balm of nothingness.

Vast and lonely is the ocean, and even as all things came from it, so shall they return thereto. In the shrouded depths of time none shall reign upon the earth, nor shall any motion be, save in the eternal waters.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood" (1990)

Few writers in horror during the genre's Eighties heyday had a knack for writing about people who lived in any kind of minority subculture, whether ethnic or artistic. How could it be otherwise? Horror was mainstream, horror was marketed towards middle America, and for the most part espoused those middle American values and identities. It wasn’t really till Clive Barker that horror fiction acknowledged, if not outright embraced, these "alternative lifestyles." A few short years later it was Poppy Z. Brite who wrote fiction composed almost solely of young outcasts, usually gay or bisexual young men, often musicians or artists, living in the demimonde of several intersectional non-mainstream cultures. 
Arriving on the scene after publishing a smattering of short works in various horror magazines, with blurbs attesting to greatness by the likes of Harlan Ellison and Dan Simmons, Brite published two novels with Dell Abyss and a third after the Abyss line folded, then seemed to ease away from the genre, returning only within the last decade a transman named Billy Martin; Brite is still however the name he uses professionally.  
Brite's specialty was adding a fresh flavor of doomed romance to various well-known horror scenarios. Gothic, but not in the sense of night-gowned women running from castles, but in the aesthete, decadent, libertine sense of Wilde, Beardsley, Baudelaire, Klimt, Rocky Horror, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Jaded, plagued by ennui, even if it was mostly a pose, these characters were arty, amoral teens and college-age kids hanging out in filthy ill-lit nightclubs, wearing skin-tight black, Doc Martens, funeral priestly collars, and smudged eye makeup. Established horror writers were old and boring, they wrote about the kids’ parents dealing with demons and rising property taxes. Writers like that wouldn’t be out drinking and clubbing till 4am listening to Bauhaus and Christian Death, chain-smoking, drugging, fucking (and then, since many of Brite’s stories were set in North Carolina, eating at Waffle House).

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.

Brite's first collection of stories, Penguin UK, mid 1990s?

These jaded fops of the nighttime world seem lost, about to waste away, when Louis suggests an ultimate transgression: grave-robbing. How charmingly quaint! Their grave-robbing booty becomes a monstrous museum:

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.

Postscript: 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.