This year will be different. This year, no matter how much my child, the Varmint, botches my sleep, no matter how much OT I have to work slinging caps and gritting my teeth, no matter my deadlines, no matter if and when I take to the fainting couch with a migraine, no matter how hard it is to take time for my myself every day, I will take time to celebrate Halloween and appreciate the craft of horror every single day of October. It’s going to be #31DaysofHalloween and #31DaysofHorror, and it may not even quite stop there because in our house, we keep Halloween rolling until my birthday on Veteran’s Day, and then switch over to the Turkey Day/Christmas mashup. But definitely at least 31 Days.
[applies electrodes to blog’s temples]
This was a weird juxtaposition because Oates’ short story collection is almost an anti-Creepshow. I mean, the stories are all riveting horror setups, ripe to the point of putrefaction with boogeyman potential: a group of schoolgirls kidnaps and prepares to sacrifice a classmate in an ancient Indian ceremony; a dissolute man is teased by a mysterious woman from his past into a suspicious assignation; a young girl resents her baby sister and fixates on an ominous gray cat; a twin hates his superficially weaker, Inside Kid twin; another twin fantasizes about murdering his profligate, charismatic twin; a widow develops an unwise attachment to a war-scarred veteran working at a local charity. Every one of these could end with a gory flourish and a ghoulish puppet cackling at his own pun, but no. As Gothic and vicious and haunting as these exquisitely-wrought stories are, they all end in survival of some kind, even when they end in death. She walks the line of horror all the way to the denouement and at the last possible moment, flawlessly, she stops and folds up her dogeared, mystery-splotched penny dreadful into an origami swan. It is the more remarkable because it is consistent, because it is a, maybe the unifying thread of these stories. I suppose that may be why she called them nightmares. Nightmares are terrible, brief visits into horror, but then you wake up. And there will not be a cackling puppet at your bedside.
I responded very much to these page-turners, or since it was an audiobook, press play-ers?, but I suppose there was something in the way she shrank from going full horror in her resolutions that I found not entirely satisfying. People might think me harsh or superficial. “Being raped or left to bleed to death in a graveyard is not sufficiently dark for you? That’s not horror?!” Well, horrific stuff, sure, but the difference is in the very Gothic element of ambiguity. You are left in a muddy wilderness of competing emotions in Oates’ stories, and the dominant strain is not horrified. The dominant strain is survival of trauma. It feels a little bit like being told a humorous story that never builds to a punchline. Many would consider this elicitation of complex emotion a higher, more artful achievement. I’m not assigning grades. I would only observe that as gorgeous as the writing is, as interesting as the stories are, my response was “wait, that’s it?” for pretty much every story’s conclusion. But life is like that, with ragged, unsewn ends to every story. Life usually feels unfinished, too. I make these distinctions not for the sake of gatekeeping, but to try to understand my own responses.
Now Shudder’s Creepshow. That’s ALLLLLLL PUNCHLINE, BABY. Which begs its own criticisms, but I see why horror fans everywhere were asplode with delight. I love how intelligently, how artfully the comic background is drawn into the forefront and onto the stories, as a transitional technique, a dramatic tool, and an occasional callback. I haven’t seen anything like it since the subtitles on Night Watch. It’s beautiful work, lavished with love and skill, and the integration of different animation techniques and practical effects is so inspired. Just [chef’s kiss]. It is a little weird, reading the intros rather than having them conventionally dramatized, but I feel like the shoulder tap of “hey, remember where this all comes from!” is worth the awkwardness and it keeps it distinct from Tales From the Crypt.
The first episode offers two delightfully ghoulish stories, the Stephen King adaptation “Gray Matter” and “The House of the Head.” A very pulpy 70s King joint, “Gray Matter” feels a little hackneyed now, but I’d prefer to think of it as…vintage, and the performances in this one are super strong. It’s really the perfect canvas for this particular grossness. “The House of the Head” comes across as much sillier, but it’s also compulsively watchable, as a young girl watches her dolls being tormented by a mysterious disembodied head. Both episodes end with the disquieting realization that the young protagonist in the story is standing aside to let evil consume innocents because it is the best or only way to protect their own family, which, since my every waking thought is infected with knowledge of our historical moment and the evil that is white privilege and Donald fucking Trump consuming the souls of most of my own family, I don’t know, it just feels a very immediate metaphor right now. Would we be here if more white people resisted latent racism, sexism, and homophobia when they were conscious of it? Or do we just let Uncle Randy rant harmlessly and uncontested? They’re also just good, creepy fun though. And unlike Joyce Carol Oates’ nightmares, you know exactly how you feel at the end of ‘em. Bleurgh.
October 2: Watched most of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, convincing Varmint it wasn’t really scary. I’ll be singing “Terror Time” all week and am not ashamed. Put up more Halloween decorations. Not all by any means. Not even close to all. Truly nightmarish time trying to get the Varmint to sleep in her own bed. Does that count? I lost fully as much sleep as I ever lost to Ju-On.
October 3: Rewatching and writing about Trick R’ Treat for the Gutter later this month. More watching than writing. So good. I need to reread what I wrote about Krampus so I don’t plagiarize myself too much. …Also so I can plagarize myself some.
October: 4: MOAR HALLOWEEN DECORATIONS. Had Super Monsters season 3 on for the Varmint. You think I have nothing to say about Super Monsters? You are correct. I mean, I guess it’s cool that they try to be inclusive beyond classic monsters/white kids, it is toyetic pablum trash, and were it not so aggressively inoffensive and bite-sized, I’d despair of the Varmint’s appreciation for it. With so many monster-themed shows aimed at her though — Super Monsters, Hotel Transylvania, Monster High, Vampirina — all with the basic idea of The Munsters, it’s a wonder she’s genuinely creeped out by monsters at all. Waiting for them to add a classic Japanese yurei in season 4.
At bedtime, I managed to watch some actual horror with Creepshow, episode 2, “Bad Wolf Down” and “The Finger.” Like last week’s entries, a juxtaposition of a straight, balls-to-the-wall horror (werewolves vs. Nazis) and then a quirkier piece (lovable loser and his unusual pet). I was watching these with Wolfie, our derpy monster Dixie Dingo, and they both reminded me of him in different ways. Werewolves, obv, but …I better cool out on mean tweeting Ted Cruz. Anyhoo. So much Charles Band influence on the creature in the second episode! I felt like this week was probably stronger than last, but then I’m sure “Gray Matter” will be a standout of the series and that’s doubtless why they led with it. Cohesively speaking, last week’s young protagonists made their peace with allowing evil to run rampant, but this week featured adults fully embracing monstrousness and using it to escape and prevail, and it overall felt more joyful in that exercise. These were stories with a Clive Barker moral in their hearts. Maybe next week will be a pair of stories from the POV of monsters?
Mark and the Varmint were off to the pumpkin patch with family because it was a work day for me, so I watched In the Tall Grass, Vincenzo Natali’s adaptation of a Stephen King/Joe Hill novella. EXTREMELY late 90s Stephen King feel, i.e. kinda coked-up and in need of a good editor, with the modernizing touches of time loops like in Mike Flanagan’s Hill House and Blair Witch. No, not The Blair Witch Project, not Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, Blair Witch, which, ironically, is the only one I would like to timeloop myself out of having watched. In the Tall Grass, too, as it turned out. Now I love King and I love Joe Hill and envy their talent and craftsmanship and I have not read the novella. Good stuff: powerful performances, spot-on casting, starts strong, Patrick Wilson is Terry O’Quinn as a pretty standard King villain. Honestly, in spite of all that, BORING and I finished it out of a sense of duty and academic interest. It was, in retrospect, much like Natali’s Cube, with characters gradually ground down trying to escape a frustrating enigma, with one stand-out crazy asshole turning into a savage menace among them.
Patrick Wilson has quietly become A Horror Actor, hasn’t he? Most horror stars are super camp or constantly naked like Julian Sands or intrinsically creepy like Julian Sands, but Patrick Wilson, just a benignly handsome everyman who goes to work every day and scans something like dramatic Will Arnett, but keeps cashing those horror paychecks. We’ll make a Robert Englund out of him yet.
In the Tall Grass brings a challenge to my mind: a horror story where technology — cars, cell phones, computers, flashlights, whatevs — doesn’t just get zapped by the spooky menace. Maybe the heroes are changed in ways that the tech doesn’t work for them, or maybe spooky menace opens up different possibilities with the tech. Maybe spookiness feeds on technology, so you can’t use it or have to be really judicious in using it. …Oh, come to think of it, Birdbox was kind of creative on that score. Nevermind, everybody. Good job, Birdbox.
I also managed to listen to the entirety of the CBC radio version of Tony Burgess’ Pontypool while I did light domestic tasks. Pontypool Changes Everything, the novel on which it’s based, is honestly is one of my favorite horror novels of all time, kind of David Cronenberg via James Joyce, or Nabokov writing as Clive Barker. This Pontypool is essentially an abridged version of the film, also scripted by Tony Burgess, with the same cast and everything, and I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, how perfectly some scenes are replicated in the radio play. It’s like Stephen McHattie is a professional actor or something! He said his lines exactly the same way at least twice! … Anyhoo, it does have a bleaker ending, although the ending of the movie is so weird, it’s probably hard to be certain of that. I mean, I’m certain of it, but you have a clear right not to be. The story works really well here for the most part, and with its tidy running time, it’s an great fellow traveler for your commute. Especially a night commute.
I wrote about Pontypool for my very first official article at the Gutter here.
October 6: I put on Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost for the Varmint, but the only real #31DaysofHorror progress I made was finally reading the 2010 graphic novel The Green Woman, co-written by Michael Easton and Peter Straub, with AMAZING painted artwork by John Bolton. Apart from the AMAZING artwork, unfortunately, I must report it’s really, really meh.
The story finds an aging serial killer, Fielding Bandolier, haunted by the murderous bidding of a figurehead taken from a cursed ship in an abandoned bar, the titular — and she is quite sultry and topless! — Green Woman. Fielding was modeled on Peter Capaldi, which is *cough* the reason I even have this thing. Shut up, I don’t have a crush on Peter Capaldi; you have a crush on Peter Capaldi. Anyway. A berserker who either found his calling or lost the last vestige of his humanity as a soldier in Vietnam, Fielding tires of killing, but is urged to commit more murders at the behest of the Green Woman because. He’s also sought out by a young Irish serial killer, kind of a fan and also eager to succeed him as the Green Woman’s devotee, and a boozy, morally-questionable, but psychically-gifted homicide detective is sniffing both their trails. It’s a beautiful, but dull rehash of tropes you’ll find executed better in Hannibal (the series), Dexter, Zodiac, Manhunter (1986)…hell, Hellraiser: Inferno and Hellraiser: Judgment, as far as that goes. I will say it. Hellraiser: Inferno is better than this.
The art is startlingly good, but the story never really goes deeper than an outline with any of its stock characters. Fielding gets the most, best attention, and I understand he’s a central figure in Straub’s Blue Rose Trilogy, which I have not read, so maybe this graphic novel serves a satisfying capstone on that character arc, but overall, this work is missable, unmemorable, murky crap. It has made me curious about the first novel in the Blue Rose series, Koko, mainly because I’m wondering if Fielding’s wife Bee appears or is given more depth to explain the fanatic worship of her husband’s killing destiny. But even though Fielding is the most interesting character here, I’m still not very interested in him either, and that takes some (not) doing when he’s wearing Peter Capaldi’s face.
I do have to say, and you know I say it with love, that as peerless as I’m sure PCap himself would be in this role in the flesh, he has described himself as “an effete dramatic type,” and the beauty of Bolton’s art notwithstanding, it’s just kind of silly to see PCap, with his patrician features and art student physique, as a special forces badass, no matter how cray the character may be. Killing with a knife. Killing scores of armed Viet Cong with a knife. Yes, quickness, litheness, madness, of course, but a little upper body strength? Shoulders? Maybe? OK, I know the knife does a LOT of the work in these cases.
I shall be expelled from PCap stan Twitter.