THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER
2015

 

On December 4th of this year Krampus came to town.

It wasn't actually Krampusnacht – that holiday falls a day later, on December 5th, and is celebrated with wild revelry in many parts of Europe (and America too) as you can see by the video below. No, this Krampus was the new film KRAMPUS, Hollywood's first look at the legend of this ancient Yuletide devil. Written by Michael Dougherty, Todd Casey and Zach Shields and directed by Mr. Dougherty, who also TRICK ‘R TREAT, I've been waiting for this since it was first announced last Christmas, and held out very high hopes for the film due to its pedigree.

Let me say quickly (I'll expound more later) that I enjoyed the film, although I'm a bit ambivalent about some of it. Still, it took the Krampus legend and transferred it well to the large screen. (If you're curious about the history of Krampus, I direct you to my LINKS Page, where this month you'll find us again featuring the wonderful Krampus website surrounding his legend. You may also want to click on image below to see what sort of celebration Europe holds on Krampusnacht!)



But what struck me about the movie was the advertising – or more precisely, the tag-line associated with the ads and commercials: “This year, Christmas becomes scary!”

Well, I'm hardly one to gloat, but I want to welcome the makers of KRAMPUS arriving late to the party, because for some of us, Christmas has always been scary. After all, as I've said many, many times before (and you may all join with me in chorus, for you know the song) Christmas is the traditional time for ghostly tales. It always has been, and in the hearts of many traditionalists, it always will be. Halloween, by and large, is a carpetbagger, occupying a space in American that used to belong to December (and still does in Europe.)

I've been very pleased to see the reemergence of Christmas as a macabre holiday, whether it's Victorian Dickens reenactments complete with spirits to candlelight readings of ghostly tales around the table after dinner. I feel right at home during this season, and am delighted to be thought of as the personification of the Christmas Spirit.

(I say this without trying to be boastful, but the truth is my human companions begin questioning me in June or July – “Are you doing a Christmas show this year?” – and the size of the audience indicates that performance is even more popular than my appearances during the October Season.)

But I'm also a bit puzzled by the filmmakers' assertions that this year Christmas becomes scary, because scary audience at Christmas has long been a Tinseltown tradition (pun very much intended.) Fear has been a holiday gift to the public from the early days of cinema, and has continued until today, even though the offerings might not always be recognized as Dark Fantasy.

Allow me…



When the subject of Christmas ghost stories is mentioned, the first thought in the minds of many is “A Christmas Carol”. And that's perfectly fine; it's certainly the most famous of Charles Dickens' holiday tales (but not the only one). Marley and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Yet-To Come have haunted the dreams of many in place of sugarplums, and have become a tradition of the season unto itself.

Almost as soon as movies came into being there were adaptations, beginning with SCROOGE, OR MARLEY'S GHOST , a short from 1901. Since then there have been countless, and everyone has their favorites, from the vintage English versions to the animated efforts of Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse, to modern reimaginings such as the wonderful SCROOGED starring Bill Murray. (And if you haven't seen it, I recommend it heartily if only for the marvelous confrontation between Mr. Murray's Scrooge stand-in and Carol Kane as a two-fisted Ghost of Christmas Present.)



Each version, of course, carries the marks of their creators, and each interprets the basic story somewhat differently, according to what interests the screenwriters, directors and producers. Some have a keen touch with the more macabre and darker aspects of the tale, and these versions have moments worthy of the most chilling ghostly fable. These include the classic Alistair Sims version, the television film starring Patrick Stewart (based somewhat on his acclaimed one-man stage reading of the novel), the Oscar-winning Chuck Jones/Richard Williams animated version which based its drawings and characters on the original illustrations from the book, and Rod Serling's modern adaptation reflecting modern anxieties and social failings CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS . Even those versions that lean more towards the whimsical tone of the story, such as Albert Finney's marvelous musical SCROOGE , find fear present in the dark, unyielding, silent Ghost of Christmas Yet-To Come, with his black Grim Reaper's robe and empty hood.

Of all the versions of the book, my favorite remains the television adaptation starring George C. Scott. Not only was the production lush and handsome, with a superb cast that includes Frank Finlay, the late Roger Rees, Edward Woodward, Susannah York, Nigel Davenport, and David Warner (not to mention a letter-perfect interpretation by Mr. Scott, unparalleled, in my humble opinion) but the film maintains the tenor that Dickens himself desired and noted in his subtitle, A Ghost Story for The Christmas Season. From the wails and rattling chains of Mr. Finlay's Jacob Marley to the wretched children hidden beneath Christmas Present's robe to the shriek of metal-on-metal when Christmas Yet-To-Come commands Scrooge to follow him, there are moments firmly grounded in the macabre guaranteed to raise chills that have nothing to do with the winter chill.



The perennial holiday classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is best remembered by most for its whimsical and romantic moments; James Stewart promising to lasso the moon for Donna Reed, the dance at the high school gym where everyone ends up in the swimming pool, the honeymoon in the old, dilapidated house with posters of far-away destinations pasted over the windows and a chicken slowly turning over a fireplace spit powered by a turning Victrola. But as I've mentioned several times in the past, the film also contains moments of stark, dark fear and horror worthy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE at its most powerful; indeed, the film resembles a full-length treatment of a premise from that classic television show in more ways than a few.

(I would point out that in this respect it shares many themes with other Frank Capra films, such as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and MEET JOHN DOE , both of which contain many disturbing moments of grim drama along with its popular sentiment. Mr. Capra knew well the contrast between the light and the dark, and how a journey through the latter can serve to emphasize more fully the redemption and salvation promised by the former.)

Interestingly enough, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is based on a short story by Phillip Van Doren Stern, and the story is only the last part of the film, where George Bailey (an unnamed individual in the story) contemplates taking his life when confronting by a series of devastating setbacks in his life, and an angel argues how important his existence was by showing what life would be like if he'd never been born. Mr. Capra and his screenwriters Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Michael Wilson added all the other human elements of the film, creating the town of Bedford Falls and its inhabitants with all their human frailties and frivolities whole cloth.



There is foreshadowing of unpleasantness to come early throughout the films lighter moments; the druggist abusing George for stopping him from accidentally poisoning a sick boy, the death of George's father and the attempt by Mr. Potter to take over the Savings and Loan, the run on the bank during the Wall Street collapse, with George holding off the desperate customers with his own savings. Underneath the placid demeanor of Bedford Falls flow very dark waters, waiting to sweep away the unsuspecting.

But it's the final hour of the film when the terror takes firm hold. George's thoughts of suicide and harsh treatment of his family, his first encounter with the angel Clarence that suggests grim proceedings ahead, the realization that George is in a completely alien landscape not of his making (or completely of his making, depending on your point of view) with the confrontation at the bar and the scene where his own mother doesn't recognize him, her features sharp because George wasn't there to soften her. And the nightmarish walk through Potterville, all garish colors and loud noise punctuated by the screams of Violet arrested for solicitation and the gunshots on Main Street. All these are moral and spiritual horrors worthy of Dickens; indeed, the final confirmation that breaks George's despair and brings him to his senses takes place in a snow-swept graveyard, much as where Scrooge's realization and redemption begins in A CHRISTMAS CAROL . George Bailey's night journey is complete, and ends, as all nightmares do, in renewed light.



Speaking of THE TWILIGHT ZONE , its creator, Rod Serling, had a very special place in his heart for the Christmas Season, and a sure hand at presenting both the macabre and magical.

In addition to CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS mentioned above (a retelling of the classic with a strong anti-war message produced as a television special in 1964; you can view the film HERE ) he penned several modern classic Yuletide ghost stories. Probably his most famous was his TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Night of The Meek” , which featured a marvelous performance from Art Carney as a Skid Row denizen playing Santa Claus for a local department store who gets to become the genuine article with the sudden appearance of a magical bag that dispenses whatever gifts a person wishes for. It's a splendid, moving and joyous tale, and was expertly remade for the 1980s revival of the series with Richard Mulligan essaying Mr. Carney's role, again to wonderful effect.



Equally well-regarded is his NIGHT GALLERY Christmas segment “The Messiah on Mott Street” . This powerful drama stars Edward G. Robinson as a dying Jewish man raising his grandson in a run-down tenement, filling the boy with stories of hope about the coming of the Messiah to make all things right. When the Angel of Death intrudes upon their home, the boy goes out into the city streets on Christmas Eve to find the Messiah himself, and returns with a strange, enigmatic visitor. Co-starring Tony Roberts and Yaphet Kotto, the teleplay demonstrates what Mr. Serling did best: delving into the human heart with compassion and fierce authority, and suggesting the mysteries of other forces in the world with subtlety and awe.



Not as well-known was another original TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Changing of the Guard”. In one of his first American television appearances, Donald Pleasance starred as a private school teacher on the verge of forced retirement, looking back on his life with great despair and concluding that he never made an impact on his students or the world. Contemplating suicide, he is called to one of his old classrooms on Christmas Eve and welcomed by the ghost of former students who all gave their lives through the years, each citing in inspiration for decisions and regaling him with the lessons learned from his wisdom and convictions. It's a bittersweet and delicate tale, and again demonstrates Mr. Serling's sensitivity and humanity.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention another wonderful TWILIGHT ZONE episode, this one from the revival and not penned by Mr. Serling. (The screenplay was by Alan Brennert.) An adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's classic SF Christmas tale “The Star” , it featured Fritz Weaver and Donald Moffat as two astronauts, one a Jesuit Priest, who discover an ancient dead civilization light years from Earth, but with a deep connection to the Christmas story. Mr. Clarke's short story ended on a tragic note, which works powerfully for the tale, but the episode opted for a more optimistic finale which I find more satisfying.


 


One might think that children's entertainment would be free from fear during the Yuletide. One might think, but one would be terribly incorrect.

True, Charlie Brown and his friends learn the true meaning of the Season with only a bit of personal angst to cope with, but Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, creators of some of the most beloved Christmas classic broadcast on television, believed that no holiday was complete without a few good moments of fright.

Consider, if you will, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER with its Abominable Snow Monster, SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN and its Winter Warlock, and FROSTY THE SNOWMAN and its evil magician Professor Hinkle.  Amidst the hominess of Burl Ives's, Jimmy Durante's and Fred Astaire's narration are nightmarish scenes guaranteed to darken the holiday spirit. Children (and many adults also) well-remember  the Abominable's blood-curdling shrieks carrying over the frozen wasteland, Professor Hinkle locking Frosty in a warm greenhouse and watching him dissolve into a puddle of water, or the icy visage of the Winter Warlock gazing down through gnarled, animate trees threatening Kris Kringle.



(True, his heart melts and he changes his ways under Kris's influence, becoming benign and compassionate, but the teleplay still features the bombastic and threatening Burgermeister, who at one point gathers a pile of confiscated toys in the town square and burns them in front of a group of weeping youngsters and their families. Nope, nothing scary here! All these moments, incidentally, can be credited to Romeo Miller, who penned all of Rankin-Bass's holiday offerings.)

Even their more spiritual and reality-grounded special THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY features flashbacks of bandits attacking Aaron's home and killing his parents, the flamboyant villain Ben Haramed (voiced by Jose Ferrer at his most wicked) and the death of the boy's beloved lamb by a Roman chariot (although the lamb is revived due to the magic of the holy circumstances in which the boy takes part.) There's also the macabre mood of the Island of Misfit Toys with their strange, unnatural configurations and their winged lion monarch. Magic, even of the most benevolent kind, can give one pause.

Parents that might think twice about letting their small ones watch some of the more disturbing moments of Dickens's classic tale happily gather their children together to watch these annual events, unconcerned about the possible bad dreams they may be encouraging. Most children, of course, will never forget them.



Yes Carpathian, all very well (I hear you protesting) but these can't actually be considered Horror stories, can they? No, I suppose not. Then how about a portrait of Saint Nicholas himself as a mad, maniacal murderer?

The “Killer Santa” motif probably reached its nadir during the 1970s and early 1980s, although in fairness it was predated by several popular incarnations previously. Probably the most well-known of these was the infamous “…And All Through The House” story from the classic “Tales From The Crypt” comic of the 1950s, in which a housewife who's killed her husband on Christmas Eve is terrorized by an escaped lunatic outside her home dressed in a Santa Claus outfit. The story was filmed for the 1972 British production TALES FROM THE CRYPT starring Joan Collins as the desperate woman. (It was later remade for an episode of the television series and directed by Robert Zemeckis of BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? fame.)



But the most controversial must be the 1984 slasher movie SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. It spawned 5 sequels, the latter ones having nothing to do with the original, and a slew of imitators, including DON'T OPEN ‘TIL CHRISTMAS, SILENT NIGHT, and SANTA CLAWS. It also generated outrage rarely seen among critics; for some reason the theme of the movie (a disturbed young man, traumatized by a childhood incident at Christmas, goes on a killing spree carrying an axe and dressed in a Santa suit) appalled many, including the duo of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Leonard Maltin penned his review expressing his dismay that included the famous quote, “What's next? The Easter Bunny as a child molester?” (Actually the evil Easter Bunny appeared in Rankin-Bass's HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL holiday special.)

Looking at the brouhaha in retrospect it's hard to imagine what struck a nerve with the horrified. Perhaps the idea of Christmas as a time of peace and good cheer was already crowding out those who remembered the more ghostly traditions. In any case, it's clear that many of these individuals were not regular readers of “Tales From The Crypt.



In truth there was a movie that appeared predating SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT by a good four years . CHRISTMAS EVIL, also known as YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, tells the story of Harry, who as a young man witnessed a traumatizing event on Christmas Eve (What that event was you'll not learn here on a family-friendly site; rent the film and see for yourself.) As he comes to believe he's the actual Santa Claus, Harry keeps a ledger of the neighborhood children, listing them as ‘naughty' or ‘nice', steals toys from stores to give away, and murders three co-workers for desecrating the Christmas spirit. The film builds to a surreal ending that leaves reality behind and oddly celebrates the Season. The film keeps a light, satirical tone throughout the proceedings which makes it quite entertaining. Why it didn't draw the same howls of indignation from reviewers is a mystery; I suppose it was simply a case of all the planets aligning correctly.

Of course, the idea of a Killer Santa wasn't the end of it. If Father Christmas could be induced to violence and mayhem during the Yuletide Season, why not other symbols of the holiday? These include JACK FROST , featuring a killer snowman (not to be confused with the JACK FROST starring Michael Keaton, which was a horror of another kind), THE GINGERBREAD MAN, ELVES and NUTCRACKER . One begins to realize that the reason people stay indoors, snug in their beds while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads is simply because it isn't safe to go out. (As if staying in is better, but I‘ll come back to that in a moment…)

In the last several years there have been a number of films from Europe reexamining the legend of Santa Claus. This is wholly appropriate, as the legend of St. Nicholas began there. Upset with the usurping of their native heritage and disgusted with the over-commercialization of the Season with its focus of consumerism, these movies have returned Santa Claus to some of his darker, sterner roots, with Father Christmas as likely to punish the wicked as he would reward the virtuous. (This is absolutely authentic to the legends.)



2010's RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE is based on an award-winning short film RARE EXPORTS INC, in which trained “Santa Hunters” scour the Finnish forests for a race of magical old men who are captured, trained to be good St. Nicholases, In the film it's revealed that the old men are actually elves, the minions of Santa, and the ice-encrusted giant behemoth currently being excavated by archeologists is the actual Santa, an Elder God of particular ferocity.

That same year SINT (or SAINT ) made its appearance in Holland. The story of a spectral Saint Nicholas, a former bishop expelled from the church, who returns every 30 years to wreck vengeance and the teenager who must put a stop to his bloody rampage, the film created controversy in its native land over its depiction of the Christmas icon.



But if demonic forces aren't your cup of Christmas Cheer, there's always the good old-fashioned psychopath. BLACK CHRISTMAS featured a sorority house, near empty for the holidays with only a few women remaining, at the mercy of a mad intruder determined to kill them. (I told you it was no safer staying indoors!) The original, which starred Margo Kidder, Keir Dullea and Olivia Hussey was directed by Bob Clark, who would go on to create another Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY. BLACK CHRISTMAS was remade in 2006 (a present no one was truly asking for) but most seem to prefer the original; it's marvelously stylish, shocking and atmospheric.

That also describes HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS , a gripping and terrifying television movie from 1972 starring Sally Field, Walter Brennan, Jessica Walter, Eleanor Parker and Julie Harris, scripted by Joseph Stefano, creator of THE OUTER LIMITS series and screenwriter-adapter of Robert Bloch's novel “Psycho” for Alfred Hitchcock. A widower calls his family together to his isolated farm to inform them that his new wife is attempting to poison him, and the bodies began to fall almost immediately amid the familial tensions. The iconic image of the killer dressed in green raincoat, brown boots and carrying a pitchfork is worthy of both Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. True, the films takes place during Thanksgiving, but the proximity of that holiday to December's celebration makes the divergence moot, in my opinion.



I'd be remiss not to point out some other season episodes from various television series all dealing with the macabre and fantastic. (We'll ignore the myriad of “A Christmas Carol”, “Gift of the Magi” and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE parodies that have been the staple of many comedies and dramas since they began filming special Christmas episodes.)

LOST IN SPACE “Return from Outer Space” – This episode, broadcast several days after Christmas, isn't always considered specifically a Christmas episode, but I think it fits the bill nicely. More sentimental than eerie, it still has its moments of tension as young Will Robinson uses an alien teleporter to return to Earth to try and arrange rescue for his family, only to arrive in a small, backwards Vermont village where his story isn't believed.

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE “Seasons of Belief” – Young children waiting for Santa are teased by their grandfather with tales of the terrible Grither, a Krampus-like creature that comes to terrify youngsters on Christmas Eve. Featuring a splendid performance by E. G. Marshall, the ending is somewhat predictable (this show is named TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE after all) but the mounting tension and suspense makes it a favorite of many.

THE X FILES “Christmas Carol” & “Emily”, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” – This series featured two Christmas episodes, the two-part story of Scully meeting earlier versions of herself to discover the truth behind a mysterious child, and the perhaps better-known episode with Edward Asner and Lily Tomlin as two ghosts who want to share the Christmas spirit with others – by having them die and join them in eternity.



BEAUTY & THE BEAST (1987) “Remember Love” – I'm breaking my rules a bit here; this episode is actually a retelling of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Yet I find that appropriate for this series, which featured a mythical beast-man who often wondered about his place in the world. Wondering what life would be like for his friends and family had he never existed, an angel (played by Linda Hamilton, who also co-starred in the series, in a dual role) shows him a bleak and desperate future.

AMAZING STORIES “Santa ‘85” – Stephen Spielberg's anthology series featured this tale of Santa accidentally tripping a home burglar alarm and being arrested; his only hope lies in an army of red-suited Santa's Helpers and a small boy. Played for comedy rather than fear, this episode features the trademarked Spielberg chaotic hijinks.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER “Amends” – This grim tale of love and redemption finds Buffy's paramour Angel torments by a creature called the First Evil, attempting to drive him mad and into suicide for his past crimes against humanity. On Christmas Buffy is able to comfort him, and snow falls on the lovers as the First's hold on Angel is broken.

THE GHOST WHISPERER “Holiday Spirit” – This series featured a psychic who communicated with ghosts in order to help them find peace. The stories ran the gamut from outright Horror to sentimental fantasy, and this holiday episode straddled both boundaries with a story of a ghost who actually believes himself to be Santa Claus haunting a workaholic husband.

HERCULES THE LEGENDAY JOURNEYS “A Star to Guide Them”
– This seasonal episode retells the biblical tale of the birth of Christ, the quest of the Wise Men and the wicked machinations of an evil king (Polonius in this version) who fears the baby will one day rise and conquer his kingdom, all witnessed through the eyes of Hercules and his companion Iolaus.

THE OUTER LIMITS (1995 revival) “The Conversion” – Unlike the original TWILIGHT ZONE series, the original OUTER LIMITS didn't feature a Christmas episode, although the revival in the 1990s did. A man released from prison and contemplating revenge is given a chance at redemption through the intervention of two strangers, possibly angels or other supernatural entities, who can see the possible futures of all involved with the convict.

SUPERNATURAL “A Very Supernatural Christmas” SUPERNATURAL would be hard-pressed to create a typical holiday offering. This episode concerns Pagan Gods of the Winter Solstice who are claiming human sacrifices for the season. In addition to battling them, the episode contains flashbacks to an earlier traumatic Christmas when the brothers were children. Despite the terrors presented in finding and overcoming the beings, the episode ends with a wonderfully bittersweet segment of the brothers sharing Christmas together in a decorated hotel room, exchanging gifts bought at a local convenience store.



I want to make a special mention of the BBC television specials adapting the terrifying stories of Horror Master M. R. James. In keeping firmly with the ghostly traditions of the Season. Montague Rhodes James, at the time a professor at King's College, Cambridge, would host a Christmas party for students and faculty, and after the meal would gather everyone together by the fire while he read his latest ghastly work.

For seven years the BBC would present specials films entitled A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS , based on these stories, broadcasting them on Christmas Eve. Five were adapted from James's work, one was based on Charles Dickens's “The Signalman” , and two were original tales. The series was then revived in 2004 and intermittent episodes have been broadcast in the years since. The special were critically acclaimed and enthusiastically embraced by the public, and some of James's most memorable tales – “A Warning to the Curious”, “The Ash Tree”, “Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, my Lad” and “Casting the Runes” – became holiday standards, much as HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER , along with other stories such as “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, “The Haunted Airman” by Dennis Wheatley, and “Schalcken the Painter” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

These episodes have been unavailable for some time, but BFI released a complete box set on DVD in 2012. They would no doubt make an extraordinary gift.



Which brings us to KRAMPUS .

There's quite a lot to like about the film. The first appearance of the title menace, leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a blizzard-racked suburban neighborhood, is both magnificent and terrifying. (Not so strangely, he becomes less menacing and awe-inspiring the more visible he is presented; the truth about what you don't see being more frightening than what you do is never more evident than here.) The title sequence, depicting a slow-motion riot during a Black Friday sale set to the tune of Perry Como's “It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is perfectly and sharply satirical. There's an amazing and unexpected animated sequence in the middle of the film depicting the Grandmother's recollections of when Krampus decimated her WWII-ravaged village, and the performances by all involved are wonderful, particularly Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Krista Stadler, Stefania LaVie Owen and Emjay Anthony as the host family besieged by Krampus. (And a special tip of the hat to young Mr. Anthony, in the central role of the boy whose actions set the film in motion; he carries the movie astonishingly well for one so young.)

It's a handsomely produced and quite well-directed effort from all involved, and certainly worth your while seeing this season. Still, I do have some ambivalence about it; they may only be quibbles, but they keep me from proclaiming it another Christmas classic. (And here I give full warning that I may provide more than a few spoilers that will hurt your viewing pleasure should you read this before seeing the movie; you may want to skip the rest of this essay until you've had a chance to watch the film. Consider yourselves advised.)



First, that satirical tone suffuses the early part of the movie and lingers throughout the entire production, making KRAMPUS more of a Dark Fantasy with comedic elements than a straight Horror movie that we'd been expecting. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; still, much of the early humor is quite broad, and though the visiting redneck relatives eventually develop into genuine three-dimensional individuals that you sympathize with, the early stereotypical portrayals work against the rest of the movie's mythic moments. Too, some of Krampus's helpers (an idea original to the film and not part of the legend, to the best of my knowledge) lean towards the amusing rather than menacing, and the family's reactions to the initial terror (“oh, you've got to be kidding me!”), although possibly authentic to how they'd really react, tend to diminish the sense of fear the filmmakers are attempting to build. Because of these comedic moments KRAMPUS has been compared to Joe Dante's GREMLINS , with its ravaging monsters in a holiday setting.

I found the deadly Jack-In –The-Box far more frightening in its smaller form than when it grew to full size (another instance of what isn't seen being worse than what is) and didn't particularly care for the killer robots, but I found the menacing angel very macabre (except for its use of its tongue to torment the mother; Krampus also is given a long, serpent-like tongue that he uses, and although that is keeping with the ancient character, the special effects are more distracting than eerie.) But whatever flaws I find in these antagonists are more than made up for with the Elves; menacing, shadowing half-glimpsed figures that are genuinely unnerving, all wearing medieval masks including some that resemble the Saints, making them even more disturbing. The Elves are brilliant, and I commend the director and designers for their presence.

There are some marvelously true moments of heartfelt bittersweetness and tenderness between the onslaughts that ring honestly and help shape the characters into actual people fighting for their lives. For this reason the movie reminds me more of the original POLTERGEIST than GREMLINS . But POLTERGEIST incorporated these moments more believably against the fantastic events occurring, and the screenwriters don't seem as sure with their material as Misters Hooper, Spielberg and the rest of POLTERGEIST 's production staff were.

I was also unsatisfied by the ending, as I grown to like and admire these families through their travails, and it seemed unfair (and not keeping with the sensibilities of the Christmas Season of forgiveness and hope) to sentence them to an existence in Purgatory. I've since read comments and interviews by the director Michael Dougherty which address his artistic endeavors with the movie, and I may have misread what the actual ending represents. If so I'm delighted, and it certainly gives food for thought, but I'd have preferred his intentions be a bit clearer. I'm a fan of ambiguous endings and don't feel that everything needs to be spelled out, but a few more hints as to the actual nature of Krampus's punishments would have been helpful.

Still, I don't want to make it seem that I didn't enjoy the film; I certainly did, and I think you will as well. There are some moments quite terrifying (such as the initial stalking of the teenage daughter in the snowstorm). It's another worthy Christmas ghost story, perhaps less satisfying than A CHRISTMAS CAROL or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE , but still very enjoyable. I just feel that it probably isn't the definitive version of the Krampus story or character; we may still have to wait a while for that to arrive beneath our collective Tannenbaum to unwrap at a future Yuletide.



This list only touches upon the seasonal scariness of the Yuletide. I've restricted myself to films and television, and haven't even mentioned any live performances (such as evenings of ghost stories hosted by Yours Truly) as well as Dickens Christmas events that feature their own collection of ghosts and wanderers. Those aficionados of the Dark Fantastic who bemoan the passing of Halloween and wish it would remain frightful throughout the year are missing the dark forests for the twisted trees, and are simply not looking hard enough for their fear.

The Christmas Season is indeed the traditional time for ghostly offerings. I welcome KRAMPUS to the celebration, but gently remind him that he wasn't the first one to the party. He can take his proper place behind all his brethren who came before and have been here the entire time.

A Merry and Macabre Christmas to All.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

OCTOBER/
NOVEMBER
2015

 

Last month I spoke about my abhorrence for the so-called ‘extreme' haunted attractions. This month I want to talk about another trend that makes me somewhat uneasy, but not nearly as much and for different reasons.

The most difficult of putting on a successful haunt might just be finding a good location. You want something close to a community for your audience's convenience and accessibility, something fairly large so that you can do a number of maze-like corridors and rooms (a haunted apartment just doesn't have the same possibilities as a haunted house – unless the apartment belongs to the Woodhouses…), something that probably isn't in the finest condition so that 1) it possesses a suitable atmosphere of creeping decay and disuse and 2) you can do creative and destructive things to it without causing a drop in property values, and it should be fairly friendly to any and all neighbors who might have to put up with hordes of excited, screaming, terrified and, sadly, sometimes inebriated visitors into the wee hours of the night.

It's no surprise that many haunted attractions choose industrial locations as their sites. A large empty warehouse has enough space to create any number of exhibits and surprises from scratch, it's solidly constructed to take the most rigorous rebuilding, hammering and refitting, and it's far from any populated area that might object to excessive noise and spectacle. NETHERWORLD Haunted House in Atlanta, GA is a prime example of this thinking; because of the size of the building they are able to produce three separate haunted experiences each year for their customers, and they are located in an industrial complex where there is minimal opportunity for the macabre merriment to get out of hand.

(An addition plus is that NETHERWORLD actually owns their building instead of renting or leasing it for the season, so they are able to revise and construct new frights and features at their leisure, while also taking advantage of the opportunities to open yearlong for special events and holidays.)



The Overlook Hotel - THE SHINING


The late great HAUNTED THEATER of Norristown, PA (of which I was a proud member) was a barn structure converted into a community theater. Because the building had no heat, they only performed shows during the late spring to early fall. But in October they removed all the portable chairs from the auditorium, built walls to divide the space into rooms, and constructed one of the premiere haunted attraction in Pennsylvania. Although it was set in a residential neighborhood, the building was isolated enough to not disturb the neighbors during the regular season run, and went out of its way to cultivate their good nature and faith during their busy October celebration; everything worked quite well.

Most recently I've been involved with the BLUE OX HAUNTED MILL TOUR here on the Lost Coast in Eureka, CA. The Blue Ox Mill is a working mill where students learn the art and craft of woodworking, architecture and custom home design and trimmings. It's quite an imposing structure, off in the corner of town near the bay where the trees and grasslands grow dense and uninviting. Even during the daytime it's an eerie sight, with large industrial pieces and discarded or half-finished projects littering the grounds and some of the building s in disrepair. At night it becomes downright frightening and oppressive, and when someone suggested turning it into a haunted attraction to raise money for both the Mill and a local theater company, many wondered why such a natural idea hadn't occurred to anyone before.

The criteria listed above – an isolated area without imposing on the neighbors, a location convenient to customers, a building that could take refitting and reimagining without doing serious damage – worked perfectly, and in just two years the Haunted Mill Tour has grown into a permanent event in the hearts of Halloween aficionados throughout Humboldt County.

Lately, there's been another tradition for many haunted attractions, one that leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. Because of the conditions required for a well-produced haunt, some have decided that some abandoned hospitals and asylums would be the perfect locations to use for their Halloween extravaganzas. After all, they're isolated, many of them; they're certainly eerie enough, so the morbid atmosphere is already prevalent; they can't be seriously damaged because they're not in general use anyway (and often can be rented and zoned with very little effort). And even more in keeping with the Season, many come equipped with an ambiance and history of misery, horror and despair from the true-life misfortunes that occurred on the premises. As Stephen King points out in his wonderful reference book “Danse Macabre”, every haunted place needs a provenance, a tragic past that provides a catalyst for the uneasy Dead to walk the night.

And it's this last that unnerves me…



Hill House - THE HAUNTING


It's not unusual for Horror and Dark Fantasy to draw upon actual events to inspire their art. If there had been no atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition, Mr. Poe would not have written “The Pit & the Pendulum,” and if the Plague had not devastated Europe there would be no “Masque of the Red Death.” Jack the Ripper's butchery in Whitechapel inspired several music hall songs, with lyrics such as, “Two little whores, shivering with fright, Seek a cozy doorway in the middle of the night. Jack's knife flashes, then there's but one,  And the last one's the ripest for Jack's idea of fun…” and the exploits of Burke & Hare, the graverobbers who turned to murder for their cadavers sold to medical schools were immortalized with, “As time went on these kind men/Brought me several guys and gals/ My lab was choca-block/ With all their freshly passed on pals/ I paid them lots of money/ Bodies came from everywhere/ You really are a busy Mr Burke/ And Mr Hare…”

Harlan Ellison's classic tale “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was inspired by the famous murder of Kitty Genovese, the woman stabbed to death in the courtyard of her Kew Gardens apartment in New York while many of her neighbors watched, listened and did nothing to help her. The brutal and tragic murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski was the basis for Jack Ketchum's novel “The Girl Next Door.” Stephen King drew from the details of the crimes of mass murderers Charles Starkweather and Charles Whitman for his stories “Nona” and “Cain Rose Up.” (For that matter, Mr. Starkweather's spree was also retold in the film BADLANDS and on Bruce Springsteen's song “Nebraska.")

Probably the most infamous incidence of art imitating life came from the crimes of Ed Gein, a notorious figure from the 1950s. His life and behavior was the basis for several books and films, including DERANGED, ED GEIN, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (although that film, which begins with the admonition that it is a true story, is completely fictionalized.) The most famous inspiration was Robert Bloch's classic “Psycho”, made into the film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock, although again, the details of the crimes and situations were only based loosely on the actual incidents.

Of course there have been a number of cheap, uninspired television and direct-to-video films that purport to tell the stories of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Richard Ramirez and other serial killers. These films have little to no merit, and do not approach the artistic ambitions and achievements of THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, CITIZEN X, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, HELTER SKELTER and THE MANSON FAMILY; they are simple-minded examples of exploitation at its lowest level.

And that is troublesome; these are not the fictional exploits of a deranged mastermind. These were crimes that involved actual individuals, mourned by relatives, friends and acquaintances who have to relive the horror every time one of these terrible movies is made and released. It should give any artist with integrity pause, wondering if they really need to add more misery to the world with their talents, or, in the very least, whether they owe something to these relatives and friends to be as careful, respectful and sensitive as possible in creations of historical records.

Some things can be enjoyed as guilty pleasures, but I do believe there is a line to be drawn at some point. I don't call for censorship, but simple acknowledgement that genuine flesh and blood people are involved in these actions, not cardboard characters to be moved about or slaughtered at the scenarist's whim. It's the difference between SCHINDLER'S LIST and ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, and the chasm that separates them is enormous.



Belasco House - THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE


The Bad Place is a traditional archetype of the Dark Fantastic; some might argue the archetype. The haunted castle, the dungeon labyrinth, the old, creaking, abandoned cabin in the woods…next to the churchyard, this is perhaps the most famous setting of all supernatural tales, from Mr. Lovecraft's town of Innsmouth, MA and Mr. Poe's House of Usher to the Castle of Count Dracula nestled in the Carpathian Mountains and the quiet borough of Jerusalem's Lot in Maine.

One can't know where the idea of the Bad Place may have originated; certainly it might have arisen from fears of human ancestors hearing the wind moan through the ominous depths of their sheltering cave, conjuring visions of restless spirits roaming the earth. Or it may have come from superstitions surrounding the mythology of death, and tribes were warned to avoid the ritual burial grounds for fear that some harm may come after the comforting sun had settled behind the horizon. Wherever it came from, the Bad Place is as old as humanity itself, and the genre overflows with famous landmarks.

Shirley Jackson's Hill House may be the most celebrated, and the most iconic. It has a history of terrible events that seem separate from any spectres that might be walking the hallways. Indeed, the events suggest that the house itself caused those tragedies, and may be sentient – and watchful. We are told that whatever walks Hill House walks alone, but it's suggested that Hill House itself is what walks (figuratively) and waits – waiting for someone susceptible to its siren song, like Eleanor Vance, to join it in a lover's eternity.

Richard Matheson's Hell House is not so subtle. Something definitely walks there – and bangs and smashes and attacks with physical poltergeistian fury – but it also seems intent on seduction, playing on the fears and weaknesses of those who would test its malevolence. But it doesn't seem to want lovers or companions; with its perverse intentions it revels in its victims.

Robert Marasco's house of the Allardyce family in “Burnt Offerings” seeks companions such as Hill House, singling out one particular inhabitant to safeguard it for a generation until a suitable replacement is corrupted. The pallor shows the framed photos of its many inhabitants over the years who came to stay as party of the sentient structure. But be warned: while the house is generous to the one it's chosen, it's merciless to those who might stand in its way.

The New York brownstone in Jeffrey Konvitz's (in my opinion) flawed “The Sentinel” is filled with tenants who begin to exhibit alarming behavior directed at their new resident, a model who has twice attempted suicide in the past. A blind priest sits in his room by his window on the top floor, watching over the building which is revealed to be the doorway to Hell. At the conclusion the old priest is gone, but another sentinel is left to keep the demons at bay.



The Brooklyn Brownstone - THE SENTINEL


Perhaps the place most germane to our discussion is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's “The Shining”. Although there are differences between the book and Stanley Kubrick's film, the central theme remains the same: the hotel may well be haunted by genuine ghosts (it is, in fact) but moreso it, like Hill House and our other locations, is itself a creature of thought, able to turn it's benevolence on those who can be drawn into its will, while destroying any that might threaten its existence. It also is hungry, feeding on the tensions, fears, desires and perversions of those who stayed within its walls.

What is most terrifying about the Overlook is the numerous hauntings taking place in each of its rooms, each reliving a particularly horrendous event. Halloran, the caretaker who possesses the ‘shining' ability along with Danny Torrence, tells him that they're like movies that repeat over and over again in an endless loop.

“Did you ever see pictures in a book that scared you, Danny?...Well, that's how it is in this hotel. I don't know why, but it seems that all the bad things that ever happened here, there's little pieces of those things layin around like fingernail clippins or the boogers that somebody nasty just wiped under a chair. I don't know why it should just be here, there's bad goings-on in just about every hotel in the world, I guess, and I've worked in a lot of them and had no trouble. Only here. But Danny, I don't think those things can hurt anybody.”

Mr. King stated in an interview that he read about an idea some researchers had about haunted houses being receptors for the acts committed in them. The ghosts may not be actual spirits but only reflections of what had gone on, seeping into the woodwork and walls like the lead in paint or toxic gases in a basement. The house then becomes a storage unit for all the psychic emotion that existed. There is no conscious haunting, just recordings from the past. In other words, Mr. King suggests that while the Overlook may be sentient, the activities in the rooms are not, they are simply the aftermath. That they can influence the living is not a cognizant decision.



The Allardyce House - BURNT OFFERINGS


The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry (also known as Byberry State Hospital, or simply Byberry) was mental institution constructed between 1907 and the 1920s. It contained mentally ill individuals and the criminally insane. During the 1940s there surfaces allegations of patient abuse and inhumane conditions. These reports continued into the 1980s until the hospital was eventually closed in 1990 by Pennsylvania after an investigation into its ‘atrocious' conditions. In the mid-1990s a local Philadelphia radio station staged a haunted house for Halloween on the grounds.

Pennhurst State School & Hospital (also known as Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic) was an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals. It was built in 1908, and it also became embroiled in controversy with the practice of eugenics and reports of patient abuse, many of which occurred to children in its care. A class-action lawsuit concerning violation of patient rights closed the facility in 1987. Since 2010, the Halloween event Pennhurst Haunted Asylum has taken place on the grounds.

Waverly Hills Sanatorium was built in 1910 in Jefferson County, Kentucky to house tuberculosis patients. Originally built to house 40-50 patients, it expanded and constructed a new hospital in 1924 to hold 400 individuals. After the introduction of streptomycin in 1962, the hospital was converted into the Woodhaven Geriatric Center, housing elderly patients and the mentally handicapped. After allegation of patient neglect the institution was closed in 1982. In 2001 it was purchased by private individuals and hosted a haunted house each October.

(You can learn more about these and other institutions by searching their histories online.)



Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry


Each of these locations has a provenance that is ripe for a haunting. But the difference is that these tales of misery are genuine; like the films based on true incidents, these happened to actual people. The fact that much of it took place a long time ago mitigates the circumstances somewhat (I doubt many would approve of a haunted attraction at Jeffrey Dahmer's home, even supposing that it had never been torn down) but still leaves me feeling…well, uneasy.

I greatly believe in the concept of the Bad Place, somewhere that is filled with darkness and despair and shouldn't be visited by anyone, especially after dark. I believe the stories and legends are too well documented and detailed for it simply to be the product of overactive imaginations. And if you are a believer in other planes of existence and life after death, if you hold religious convictions that determine that some people and places can be blessed –why not the other side of the coin, and acknowledge that some places can be cursed as well?

Many theaters have been known to have ghosts prowling through their backstage catwalks and catacombs. Most are not human ala the Phantom of the Opera, but are spectral beings with a history attached to their haunting. So prevalent are these tales that it's tradition in theaters to leave a “ghost light” burning on the stage when the building is empty, a lone light bulb offered as a friendly gesture to the spirits sharing the rehearsal space.

It certainly makes sense. Most theaters are old converted buildings, barns, and storehouses that come complete with family histories and tragedies of their own long before they became entertainment venues. One theater in Pennsylvania that I've attended is an old converted funeral parlor; the light booth was built into the old elevator shaft that brought the coffins up from the basement for viewings. Another was an old slaughterhouse. One can only imagine the wanderers conjured up by such surroundings…

But for the most part, these are harmless affectations; if there are spirits haunting such places, they seem apt to be benevolent, or in the least apathetic to human intrusion. Rare is the place where the ghosts harbor grudges against the living performers. (Although such incidents have been reported.)

But if the idea of a house as a storage battery of tensions and violent emotions that live on after death, soaking into the walls and floors like a terrible contagion is correct, imagine the misery, horror and fear that permeates these environments! I've stood in front of Byberry; it looks as though it were wracked with pain, and you can almost hear the screaming from the walls. Step inside for some Halloween fun? I don't think so.

The old expression goes, “If these walls could only talk…” But what if they could? What tales would such places tell? And would you want to be the one to listen? (Like Eleanor…?)



Pennhurst State Hospital


A professor who's studied demonology and the occult seriously (and I'm sorry I can't remember his name) once presented a fascinating observation: in none of the cases of documents hauntings or possession have the victims all been random. In every event there has been some doorway, some act that instigated the occurrence. Perhaps there was experimenting with witchcraft, or delving into other dark arts and matters.

(Which is why I am adamantly against the Ouija Board as well; it's simply too powerful a channel for anything waiting to wander in. Even professional ghost hunters refrain from it. That it's considered a plaything or an object de'arte fills me with apprehension.)

Whatever your beliefs in ghostly experiences, I find the professor's point very interesting. If we take him at his expertise, and we accept that some supernatural accounts are genuine, then the old legends about evil presences having to be invited in stand affirmed. And I can think of no larger invitation that entering a supposedly Bad Place on a night when the Ancients believed the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest.

Perhaps I worry needlessly.

Perhaps there are logical explanations for Bad Places, and they're nothing more than myth and legend, leftover superstitions from racial memory.

Perhaps those abandoned hospitals and prisons contain nothing but terrible histories. Perhaps their sum is simply the rotting beam, the rusting iron gate, and peeling wallboard, the stained tile floors.

Perhaps your visit will be an enjoyable one, and that strange prickling sensation on the back of your neck during the ride home, during your evening ritual of eating and undressing, during those moments just after you've turned out the lights and lay in darkness is just the residual anxiety of the night's entertainment.

Perhaps.

If it were more than that…well, what else would you expect from Halloween?

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

SEPTEMBER
2015

 

This month, and this essay, is for the adults only. The subject matter may be very upsetting;
at some point it
will be very upsetting. I strongly recommend the following only for
mature readers. Discretion is advised for sensitive individuals.


It's a question that's been asked time and again: how much is too much?

It's not simply asked in our genre, but in other forms as well. In music: how loud is too loud? In theater and literature: how much ‘reality' is too real, in terms of subject matter and language, among other things?

But for us, the question is: how scary is too scary? And the corollary: can something really be too scary?

The answers depend on where you're standing, most of the time. Those who are not aficionados of the Dark Fantastic are apt to find anything distressing and disturbing ‘too' scary, while genre admirers with a long-time affection will loudly proclaim absolutely not! The scarier the better!

But is this truly the case? The genre, admittedly, has a history of not only confronting taboo subjects but in fact taking them arm-in-arm and dancing frantically with them until they drop, exhausted. Because of this, those who don't understand the dynamics of fear and catharsis often label the field ‘subversive' and ‘immoral', exploiting tragedy and terror and indulging in conduct inappropriate in civilized society.

Some fans scoff at that notion; others defy it by embracing the anarchistic nature of Horror.

But is it an invalid question? Are there standards that shouldn't be breached, lines that shouldn't be crossed? And what of those who cross them?



Let's begin the discussion by agreeing that this is far from a recent argument. Ever since the first author put pen to paper, image to stage or screen, or simply told a frightening tale around a fire, there have been those who've stood ready to pillory him for unsuitable material.

When Bram Stoker first wrote his classic “Dracula” , many critics were aghast. Although most praised the effort for its rich imagination and imagery, some issued warnings that, The book must be carefully kept out of the way of anyone with weak nerves…” and “…the ordinary reader will have to take a nerve tonic after its perusal, especially if inclined to timidity…” The same fate met Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” ; the “Quarterly Review” called it, a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.”

In 1894 Oscar Metenier created Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol (“The Theater of the Big Puppet” – Guignol being the name of a famous Punch & Judy-like character) in Paris, France. Holding only 293 seats, it was the smallest and most intimate theater in Paris. It was dedicated to presenting naturalistic theater with utter realism, and it soon became famous for its one-act Horror shows. The stories were brutal, and featured naturally horrific elements of sadism, madness, rape, and graphic, uncontrollable and senseless violence. Special makeup effects created realistic illusions, heightened by the use of disabled actors (performers missing limbs or other body parts) who could actually have their arms cut off and eyes gouged out in simulated butchery.

Audiences would attend, in the words of some critics, because they wanted to be filled with strong feelings of some kind. Some patrons were aroused by the violence, and private boxes beneath the main balcony for patrons to ‘excise' these desires. Members of the audience would often faint of vomit during a particularly vivid performance; one director declared the shows a success if an average of two people passed out per evening. The evenings were considered decadent and avant-garde, and celebrities and royalty often attended incognito. (For a fine example of the Grand-Guignol experience, I recommend the “Theatre des Vampires” section of both the novel and film adaptation of Anne Rice's INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE .)

The experience no doubt had a direct effect on some of the more explicit literary works of de Sade, Poe and others, and can be traced to the violent films of today. The theater's run came to an end in 1962, although some touring companies still exist today, attempting to recreate the experience. The reason the theater closed, according to its final artistic director, Charles Nonon, was the actual events of the Holocaust some years earlier. “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”



When the Hammer films first hit the theaters back in the 1950s, the outcry was immediate. Genre historians railed against the garish colors and melodrama, condemning the violence, bloodshed and sensuality. Ivan Butler, author of “Horror in the Cinema” , criticized DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS as, “a nasty dwelling on the repulsive” and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN with “lurid sensationalism” . The Hammer movies immediately received an “X” certificate in England (where no one under 16 was allowed in to the theaters) and many decried the loss of the “subtlety and atmosphere” that marked the Universal Horror films – conveniently forgetting that the Universal films had come under some harsh scrutiny themselves. (Boris Karloff's FRANKENSTEIN had lines removed about “feeling like God” because of their blasphemous import, and removed the scene of the monster accidentally drowning the young girl as ‘too upsetting'.)

Other films of terror, now considered classic today, were met with shocked disbelief on their original release. LES DIABOLIQUES was called “vulgar, nasty and French” (the last adjective obviously meant as a truly devastating insult, for some reason); Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO was intensely disliked by many when it was released, with reviews ranging from “a blot on an honorable career” and questioning the director's taste and judgment, to one reviewer being so offended she not only walked out of the film but resigned her position with the periodical “The Observer”!



With the coming of the 1960s and a new age of permissiveness in cinema, stage and literature, artists began to take more advantage of the freedom suddenly available to them, and their efforts were often quite controversial. There were the grindhouse/splatter films of Herschell Gordon Lewis such as BLOOD FEAT and 2000 MANIACS that featured graphic carnage and nudity. “Variety” reviewed BLOOD FEAST and called it, “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences.”

Perhaps the most infamous (at that time) Horror film that reflected this new liberalism was George Romero's classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD . Except that upon its initial release it was considered far from a classic; “Variety” (again!) tore it to shreds with its commentary:

“Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism...” (Wow.)



The most famous review came from Roger Ebert, whose critique was reprinted in “Reader's Digest” . Although admiring the movie, he reflected on its effect on sensitive and impressionable audiences.

“The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying... It's hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all.”

(Interestingly, two of the critics who recognized the film's worth at the time were Pauline Kael and Rex Reed, critics known for being particularly hard on the Horror genre. Ms. Kael wrote, “…one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made – and when you leave the theatre you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience. . . . The film's grainy, banal seriousness works for it – gives it a crude realism…” , and Mr. Reed said, “If you want to see what turns a B movie into a classic [...] don't miss NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD . It is unthinkable for anyone seriously interested in horror movies not to see it.”)

1973 brought one of the most infamous films ever released by a major film studio: of course, it's another classic, THE EXORCIST . Its graphic nature went through both the mainstream and genre press like white-hot shrapnel. Never before had a movie revealed in its blasphemous sensationalism. Vincent Canby called it, “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap ... a practically impossible film to sit through ... It establishes a new low for grotesque special effects ...” Andrew Sarris said, “... THE EXORCIST succeeds on one level as an effectively excruciating entertainment, but on another, deeper level it is a thoroughly evil film.” Jon Landau in “Rolling Stone” wrote the film was, “…nothing more than a religious porn film…” And although Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, he mused at the end of his essay, “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won't be one, because what we get here aren't the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”



Inside the genre there were opinions similar to Jeff Rovin, author of “The Fabulous Fantasy Films” ( “Clinical gore and tastelessness are as freely exploited as contemporary mores allowed; in a way, we deserve THE EXORCIST .” ) and William K Everson, author of “Classics of the Horror Film” ( “It is perhaps a symptom of our unhealthy times that audiences flocked to THE EXORCIST wanting to be scared, intending to scream, coming away haunted and sickened by it, yet somehow proud of having forced themselves to endure it…If this is the new trend in horror films, we may be in for grim times indeed.”) . Celebrated writers of the Dark Fantastic such as Richard Matheson ( THE TWILIGHT ZONE, DUEL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE ) and Robert Bloch ( PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, THRILLER ) both lamented the turn of the genre towards the graphic and visceral.

There were admirers such as Forrest J. Ackerman of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and filmmaker William Castle ( THE TINGLER, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, ROSEMARY'S BABY ), but in many cases critics simply didn't know what to make of a work as powerful as William Friedkin's effort. Many, however, conceded that perhaps things had gone too far, a cry that would be taken up again in two years with the release of another extremely aggressive piece of moviemaking: Steven Spielberg's JAWS .

The 1970s brought a new type of Horror film to the front; with the success of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (which, to be fair, was far less graphic and much, much more stylish than the imitators that were to follow) the psychological thriller featuring the Masked Killer With A Sharp Implement became the archetype. First out of the starting gate was FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH , with its extremely graphic violence, and the glut of Slasher Movies was a phenomenon. (In the interest of fairness again, understand that I despise this subgenre of Horror, and only find one or possibly two efforts worthwhile.)

Again the critics had their say: things had gone too far. The audiences reveled not in suspense and mood, but simply in enjoyment of sadism and gore, and the classic Horror film had been reduced to the parameters of the so-called “snuff film”, where a Roman-Arena type bloodthirstiness of celebrating death and dismemberment could be indulged. Some of this, of course, was hyperbole, but some of it came from genuinely concerned voices in the field itself that were dismayed at seeing the legacy of Poe, Lovecraft, James and Machen cheapened and coarsened in such a way in the minds of the general public.

The outcry has continued to this day. Now the controversy centers around the “Torture Porn” subgenre typified by movies such as HOSTEL, SAW, FUNNY GAMES , and the AUGUST UNDERGROUND films. These are movies that feature few to no supernatural elements but concern themselves with detailing physical, sexual and psychological abuse of a captor towards his victims. Usually, if not primarily, the victims are women, and the details of their abuse quite graphic and excessively photographed and recorded.

There are those that defend these films as being a realistic reflection of the violence and lack of reverence for human life in modern society. Others find them hypocritical, pretending to condemn the activities presented while capturing them in full bloody color and closeup, playing to the fantasies and fetishes of those in the audience who thrill to this type of misogyny and degradation. (Allow myself to declaim again, in the interest of fairness, that I am firmly in the latter camp.)

Again, perhaps never as emphatically as before, the question is asked: how much is too much?



Is it possible for something to be too scary?

H. P. Lovecraft, who mastered the ‘cosmic terror and awesomeness' school of Horror fiction would often write of some nightmarish and phantasmagorical being or circumstance and warn, “If I told you further details or described them fully, you would go mad! ” Mr. Lovecraft, no fool in his knowledge of human nature, understood that the imagination of the reader, working overtime on their own, would conjure up something far more fearsome and frightful than anything he could categorically describe.

Other authors in the field, and not a few filmmakers as well (I'm thinking particularly of producer Val Lewton, who movies – CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN – were marvels of suggested instead of blatant horror; one of his directors, Jacques Tourneur created his masterpiece CURSE OF THE DEMON in this vein, and another, Robert Wise, went to direct the classic adaptation THE HAUNTING from Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” ) have followed the Master's lead and used this technique to create shadow fears that the readers and audiences would magnify in their own fancies. It was a literary allusion, and its subtlety works wonders in the Dark Fantastic.

But could Horror, or something so horrible, really have that effect on someone. Stephen King, for one, disagrees. In his marvelous textbook “Danse Macabre” he writes:

“The thing is – and a pretty good thing for the human race too, with such neato-keeno things to deal with as Dachau, Hiroshima, the Children's Crusade, mass-starvation in Cambodia, and what happened in Jonestown, Guyana – the human consciousness can deal with almost anything… [Discussing the scene in THE HAUNTING where something bangs on the door but never enters] …‘I cannot describe it', protagonist after protagonist tells us. ‘If I did, you would go mad with fear.' But somehow I doubt that. I think both [Robert] Wise and Lovecraft before him understood that to open the door, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is to destroy the unified, dreamlike effect of the best horror. ‘I can deal with that,' the audience says to itself, settling back, and bang! You just lost the ballgame in the bottom of the ninth.”



Far be it from me not disagree with one of the modern Masters of Nightmares, but I think Mr. King may be too optimistic in his assessment. I believe it is possible for someone to go mad from too much fear, but perhaps not in the gibbering, white-haired and wide-eyed manner that Mr. Lovecraft implies.

My human companion Bob remembers seeing a film many years ago called THREADS . It's a very well-made movie, impeccably acted and filmed, concerning a nuclear war and its effect on London. (It was made during the time of great concern over nuclear proliferation in the late 1970s and 80s; several films were made with the same theme, including THE DAY AFTER, TESTAMENT and a little-known low-budget gem called MASSIVE RETALIATION ) One of the producers was author/scientist Carl Sagan, who was a vocal participant in the anti-nuclear movement, and he promised that THREADS would be the most realistic and unblinking version of what would happen to society in the aftermath of a conflagration.

Mr. Sagan's, and the filmmakers' efforts were very sincere, and make no mistake, it's a very good movie. However…the stories it tells, and the uncompromising way in which they're told, make the film a truly harrowing and downbeat experience. And while it was meant to be that way, at some point all the misery, horror and tragedy took its toll on Bob, and while watching, he simply shut down emotionally. He felt numb and uninvolved, and stopped caring about the people on the screen and what was befalling them.

When the movie was over he turned it off, unable to say anything, and spent the rest of the evening in absolute depression. He's never seen the movie since, and won't watch it again. He's glad he saw it, and admires its honesty, but he can't recommend it.



And I think that's a good definition of the madness Mr. Lovecraft was talking about. THREADS had been so terrifying, all too much , that at least one viewer had lost his mind, at least temporarily. Yes, the mind can accept anything, but when humanity loses down and the apathy and numbness of the horror sets in, madness is present. Loss of humanity can be the greatest madness of all; I think even Mr. Lovecraft would agree.

(Ironically, Mr. Sagan had criticized the movie THE DAY AFTER as having good intentions but not going far enough in its depiction of the horrors of nuclear annihilation, and promised THREADS would be far more explicit. While he may have had his point, THE DAY AFTER , as horrible as it was, seemed to know how far they could go in shocking and pounding the emotions of its audience, and stopped just before they had gone too far, making it, in Bob's opinion, a more successful movie.)

And I think it endemic of American society that, worth all the tragedies being broadcast nightly on the evening news – random acts of violence, shootings, protests, terrorism – that more and more people are finding it harder and harder to care about those suffering around them. It all becomes too much, and first the emotions are switched off, then the news itself.

I believe this is true of the more graphic and horrible (as opposed to horrifying) movies and books today. Filled with excessive violence, sexual and otherwise, it reduces the humanity of those viewing or reading it. I won't go into the old argument of whether violent movies, books and video games influence people to commit these acts – I think that's a false premise; many watch, read and play without committing atrocities – but I do believe it makes such actions far more acceptable in the real world. It takes away some of the humanity and empathy that's so important to day-to-day living.

And so we have men threatening women on the Internet with rape and death simply for disagreeing about a video game. We have children who believe that the only solution to conflict is the gun or the fist because they've seen that rationale so many times in entertainment growing up, and the being strong means being ruthless and heartless. We see youngsters watching the worst degradations performed on women in the most horrific circumstances, and they ask for more and more with bloodier effects. There is no thought to the victims, or the families and friends of the victims; they're simply characters in films and video games, and if they're raped and butchered and mutilated, so what? It isn't real.

Who cares?

And there is the loss, and the madness. And when the real thing does occur, the reaction is far more muted than it might or should be.

I recently watched an episode of the television series HANNIBAL , based on the novels by Thomas Harris, concerning the iconic villain Hannibal Lector. I didn't care for the show; I won't go into all my reasons, but one of them was my disturbance at the continued elevation of a sociopathic cannibal into a modern folk hero. (And no, I don't care to debate this.)

The show had begun adapting material from the novels, particularly “Red Dragon” , the first of Mr. Harris's books. In the book, there is a confrontation between the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, also known as ‘The Tooth Fairy' , and a reporter for a tabloid, Freddy Lounds, who'd been covering the killer's crimes. Mr. Lounds had written something the killer hadn't liked, and so he kidnapped the reporter and, in a powerful scene in the book, terrified him while he was tied to a wheelchair. After eliciting a confession on his activities from the frightened journalist, Dolarhyde informed him of his future plans, then, inserting a pair of metal teeth (his signature) into his mouth, bit off the lips of the reporter.



The book “Red Dragon” is one of my favorite Horror novels; impeccably paced and written. That scene in the book is properly horrifying and unforgettable. When the movie was made into a film in 1986 named MANHUNTER , the scene was preserved in all its terror, and it also was unforgettable. The director and screenwriter, Michael Mann, staged it beautifully, with misdirection; we saw Dolarhyde insert the metal teeth, he spoke a chilling line – “Let's seal it with a kiss” – and the camera watched from a full screen wide angle behind Dolarhyde as he approached the terrified Lounds. The camera pulled back slowly and away from the two as Dolarhyde bent over his captive, and we heard the screams of the wounded Lounds – and we saw nothing. All was suggested, and our imaginations portrayed more than could ever be shown. The scene has remained with me as much as its source in the novel.

On the recent episode of HANNIBAL , the same scene occurred, more drawn out because it was part of a weekly series instead of a film or book. There were more histrionics and ranting, far less subtlety in the performances than the excellent Tom Noonan brought to Dolarhyde in MANHUNTER , and as the scene drew to a close we saw the killer insert the metal teeth, move over to the captive Freddy Lounds, clamp down on his lips as he began screaming, and tear them from his face, pulling them away in a bloody, gory mess – all in loving closeup. I turned off the television.

What to say? Well, I am long past the age when simply gory makeup effects make me clap my hands and squeal with glee, or nod admiringly at the artistry. It was needlessly graphic, needlessly explicit; worst of all, it was dull . Dull, dull, dull . It wasn't the least bit frightening or heart-stopping; it wasn't haunting n the lightest the way Mr. Mann's version was. It was imply violent. And I didn't care.

I can understand why the producers did it this way. As I've written before, when even medical dramas such as HOUSE MD and police procedurals such as CSI broadcast the most graphic carnage, disease and bloodshed that wouldn't have passed network standards twenty years ago, the makers of Dark Fantasy seem to feel the need to go one better and push the envelope further. But if pushing the envelope simply means to become more graphic and lave nothing to the imaginations of the viewers, I think it become pointless.

Many people think Horror is easy to produce. It isn't. By the nature of its manipulation of emotions and taboo subjects often unexplored, it is the most challenging material to write and film, as challenging as comedy. It requires all the skills of the creators and artists involved to successfully pull off their intentions. But just as today we see so many witless, humorless comedies, we see far more tepid, unfrightening Horror films. More and more filmmakers seem to think that all that's required to make audiences laugh is bodily function humor, and I suppose in the lowest common denominator they succeed. Equally familiar is the Horror film where blood is thrown haphazardly at the camera, limbs are torn off, and more money is spent on latex gore than the script. And while preteens may find these efforts nightmarish, I think far more sophisticated viewers, even lifelong fans of the genre, respond with a yawn and a slow clap. It doesn't really frighten or disturb.

So more blood is thrown, more brutality is featured, more loving closeups of screaming women are featured, more limbs are severed, and the battle is lost before it even began.

The audience is left viewing a corpse, in more ways than one.



Some of you are aware that for many years I've been involved in the haunted attraction industry. I started with the late, lamented Haunted Theater in Norristown, PA, just 45 minutes outside Philadelphia, one of the premiere haunted houses in Pennsylvania. For the past two years I've been a member of the Haunted Mill Tour at Blue Ox Millworks here on the Lost Coast in Eureka, CA. I've made special appearances at various haunted houses across the United States, most notably Netherworlds in Atlanta, GA, annually voted one of the Top Ten haunted attractions in the US. And I spent ten years as a featured performer, along with my fellow Patient Creatures, at Six Flags Americas October Fright Fest event outside Washington DC.

While haunted houses have much of the same criteria as a good film or book, there are differences. Haunted attraction are live, so the experience is often more visceral and immediate. There is more of an emphasis on the “jump” scare without the narrative buildup of a book or movie, and the experience is often fragmented into various sections – a classic Gothic crypt, a SF flavored apocalyptic wasteland, an industrial zombie-filled urban environment.

It still requires all the skills necessary for a great filmic experience, with top performers and technical people, but unlike the movies listed above, the question most often asked isn't “Is it too scary?” but rather, “Is it scary enough? ” The target audience, usually teens to young adults, have preset expectations of the thrill-ride live theater experience, and are looking to jump, shriek and shock as many times and as often as possible, and the creators and producers of the best attractions want their customers to get more than their money's worth.

To accomplish this, in addition to the months of carefully planning, building and rehearsing these events, there are test runs where customers are sent through and their reaction gauged very carefully by all involved. If there are parts that don't work as well as planned, they are either adjusted or, in some extreme cases, scrapped completely and new ideas are hurriedly submitted. I've taken part in these as well and offered my advice on improving the presentation.

In many ways, this is analogous to out-of-town previews on Broadway or special sneak screenings for upcoming films. Comments are solicited, and often films and plays are edited to audience specifications. (Stanley Kubrick, famous for his visionary and very independent visions and approach to filmmaking, was also quite dependent on audience previews to help with the final edited, moving the pace of the films along and taking out sequences that bored or seemed superfluous or out-of-place.)

Of course, one can't completely know if an attraction has succeeded or not until the paying customers arrive, and once this happens there can be an almost fanatical desire to make certain that the event is perfect – forgetting for the moment that nothing in the world can be perfect. And any criticism, actual or perceived, is turned over obsessively by the staff. “Some people said this isn't scary enough! Some people didn't like it! What went wrong? What do we need to change? How can we fix it?!?”

I speak honestly – unless it is quite clear through a genuine consensus, or unless something physical detracts from the experience – say that a particular tight corner of the attraction is slowing down the flow of customers and becoming congested – I tend to take all criticisms after opening with a huge handful of salt. I think if enough care and planning has been put into the event beforehand, post-attraction critiques are, for the most part, negligible.

Why? Certainly not laziness on my part, or defensiveness on something that has been worked on for months through valiant effort. No, it's because, after years of experience in haunted events, I'd learned some basic truths. First:

In the words of the great Doctor Gregory House: “Everyone lies.”

This is absolutely true, especially in the fear industry. I've personally followed men and women through a haunted attraction, watched them peek hesitantly around a dark, foreboding corner, watched them approach empty doorways with trepidation, seen them jump at sudden movement to the right or left, observed them flinching or screaming at loud noises around them, only to emerge into the bright lights after the exit, take a deep breath and proclaim, “That wasn't scary at all!”

I don't know why; perhaps a need to assert bravado, or to appear unaffected by art in the worst hipster/iconoclastic manner. Perhaps they're embarrassed, or feel a need to assert control over a situation that unnerved them. For whatever reason, I know this happens more often than not, and can be safely discounted.



Mind you, as I said before, if there is a clear consensus on a shortcoming, and the criticisms are specific – if there's too much fog in a certain section and it's difficult to navigate, or if a particular performer is jumping too late to be effective or too soon to another scare to minimize the effect desired – these should be taken seriously and corrected accordingly. But, as usually happens, if one individual says, “The zombies weren't scary enough,” and another proclaims, “The vampire didn't scare me,” or a third mentions, “The skeleton jack-in-the-box was stupid!” you can safely ignore the comments. As Stephen King says regarding writing, not everyone will like every part, and if there's no specific unified opinion, all ties go to the creators.

The second reason is even simpler: Some people simply will not be frightened of anything .

I've found this to be true as well. Just as some people will sit in the front row of an audience for a comedian, arms folded, with a go ahead, make me laugh! expression on their faces and not crack a smile once; just as some people will sit through an exhilarating concert of either classic or contemporary music and not get caught up in the melodies at any time; some people will attend a Horror film or event and yawn throughout the most intense, unsetting moments.

Again, I have no idea why they choose to do this. Why would you want to submit yourself to an experience that is predetermined to disappoint? And to be fair, perhaps some people are simply unable to suspend their disbelief and look beyond the karo syrup blood and plastic entrails, are unable to ignore the papier-mâché gargoyles and painted flats and surrender to the fantasy, or have ice water in their veins and don't scare. (These people would probably make excellent test pilots.)

In that case, no amount of fixing will make the event more palatable, and you can safely discount them as well. If you've given them an entertaining evening, if you've populated the haunted attraction with fascinating sights and sounds and given them interesting things to look at and listen to, you've done all you can humanly do, and all that's required. All drama, especially interactive theater like a spookhouse, is a collaborative effort between the players and the audience, and if the audience doesn't want to hold up their part of the contract, the loss is theirs.

For a final time, I'm not excusing poor showmanship or sloppy presentation; I'm simply observing that most creators of haunted attractions approach their work with enthusiasm, talent, creativity and, in the words of the sage, clean hands and composure. They've used all their skills to the very best of their abilities, and if there is any failures along the way, it must simply be chalked up to the vagaries of the public's tastes.

To paraphrase Cassius, the fault may not lay in themselves, but in the stars. It could be a particularly rainy night, or the crowd may have had a bit too much celebrating before they've arrived (I've seen this happen more than a few times and have been dismayed each time it occurs); the customers may have had to wait in traffic a long time to drive to the event, or they may have had a particularly tiring day at work. For whatever reason, in most cases, the question of “Is it scary enough?” can be dispensed with without any sense of culpability on the conscience of the producers and performers.



Which brings us to the topic of “Extreme Haunted Experiences.”

For the past few years I've been aware that there are certain haunted attractions across the United States that are promising absolute, uncompromising terror, subjecting their patrons to abuse and degradation that would shame the creators of the most vile Torture Porn, all in the name of Halloween entertainment. I've sat aghast and astonished at the trailers run online, and come away deeply saddened not only for the individuals experiencing such an event, not only for the dark, sick minds that are capable of creating such an environment, but for the haunted attraction industry in itself for sanctioning such practices.

Let me state my opinion completely up front, without any attempt to be politic or tactful: I find these events shameful, obscene and pathetic, and consider the creators of these horrors the same. I think they're an insult to the time-honored haunted house industry and tradition, and although I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and the pursuit of whatever entertainment you enjoy without interference so long as it harms no one else , were it within my power I would ban these events, so much do I despise them.

For those staring in disbelief at that last paragraph, not the italicized phrase: so long as it harms no one else . For I believe that these so-called ‘entertainments are inherently harmful to their customers, to their performers, and in the long run to the industry.

Rather than expend another thousand words describing these experiences, I offer the following trailer video as an example of what these places inflict on their patrons. Please note I certainly do not endorse the event being presented; it is merely an example. I also very highly recommend that those with sensitive dispositions and delicate sensibilities refrain from viewing this, and absolutely no children should watch this for any reason.

You have been dutifully warned. Click on the image below at your own discretion. (For those who choose not to watch the video, I recommend THIS LINK to a fine article from the “The Week” by Charles Moss giving an overview of the phenomenon.)



What to say?

I suppose the logical question to ask is, what kind of individual would want to submit to this kind of treatment? For myself, however, I ask what kind of individual would want to inflict this sort of abuse on another human being?

This isn't a simple pop out from behind a door, shout boo! And make somebody jump slightly. That' a harmless scare, a fun scare, like fireworks suddenly exploding overhead. This isn't simulated torture, with the blood and gore supplied by latex makeup, fake blood and manikins. This is the genuine article.

Electric shocks, immersing someone's head in water, flashing lights, imprisoning them in a cage filled with snakes – this is actual torture . This is what people were convicted of and sent to jail for at Guantanamo Bay. This is what is condemned by every human rights organization on the planet.

Look at the photo below of an actual political prisoner, and tell me what the difference is between the two. Because one group is paying for this privilege? Because they're signing waivers? That makes everything all right?



What in heaven's name will happen that fateful night when something goes terribly wrong? And something will go terribly wrong; that's only human nature and the way the universe operates. Someone will miscalculate, or get too caught up in the power play, and someone will be genuinely, seriously injured. What then? An apology? A refund?

The brutality of another human being is far beyond anything in the canon of the Dark Fantastic. We're now in the darkest aspects of human nature that produced goose-stepping fascists and genocidal persecutors. Am I speaking ludicrous hyperbole? I don't believe so.

There is a dark side to human nature, and the darkest aspect that has been recorded is the compulsion to injure others if a) it is part of a mob mentality or b) if there is an element of power that one group wields over another. This is what makes some police officers abuse and kill their perpetrators, what makes some prison guards brutalize their inmates, and what makes some soldiers commit atrocities such as those found at My Lai.

In 1971, a college professor at Stanford University, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted a famous social experiment. He asked for student volunteers, and 24 were selected. The volunteers were divided arbitrarily into two groups; one was to represent prisoners, and the other to represent guards. They were closed into the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building for what was to be a period of seven to fourteen days. The students were filmed and observed at all times, and the experiment was simply to see what would happen in this situation.

The students were well aware that this wasn't a ‘real' prison; they knew very well that they weren't really ‘guards' and their charges had committed no crimes, and weren't actual ‘prisoners'. Everyone was free to quit and leave whenever they wanted to; it wasn't ‘real', any more ‘real' than the extreme haunted houses are. (As you see, I'm already anticipating that argument from the defenders of these attractions.)

But the experiment had to be terminated after only six days, because in six days – six days! – because the experiment had succeeded beyond Dr. Zimbardo's wildest dreams. Because after only six days, the students portraying the ‘guards' had begun asserting a tyrannical authority over the ‘inmates', had actually begun abusing them physically and psychologically. Their power over another human being became absolute and all too real, and they asserted it without thought or conscience. (In fact, several of the ‘guards' were upset when the experiment was stopped after only six days.)



A photo from the actual Stanford experiment.


(There have been several films based on the research, including a 2001 German movie titled DAS EXPERIMENT and a film released just this year titled THE STANDFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT. You might want to check them out for further information.)

The students who played the guards were not ‘evil', any more than those participating in the extreme haunted attractions are ‘evil'. But having such power over another human being in a terribly enticing and exhilarating feeling, and it is the extraordinary individual who can resist these impulses. (How many news reports have we witnessed about an individual who was once honest and sincere becoming involved in corruption and illegal activities offer the excuse, “It just all got away from me; I don't know how it started, but it just got out of hand?”)

In an issue of “Rue Morgue” , a magazine that examines the culture of Horror, some readers took exception to the recent trend in Horror and Torture Porn in featuring sexual brutality and rape as a plot device. In a later issue, another reader (male) responded that these movies weren't harming anyone; they weren't ‘real'! And then he added, “I enjoy watching Rape Movies; there's nothing wrong with them!”

I enjoy watching Rape Movies . Here is the madness Lovecraft described. Here is the subjugation of the value of human life and dignity through constant exposure to violent video games, films and books. Someone who honestly can't see anything wrong in that pronouncement, and proudly and without self-consciousness proclaiming “I enjoy watching Rape Movies.”

What can be done, besides hoping that someone will catch up to that individual and get them the help they need before they do damage to anyone? I don't know. As the article noted above concludes, “And while they may go too far someday, the high prices and long lines are proof that wherever the line is, hardcore horror fans don't think it's been crossed yet.”

Hardcore Horror fans? I don't know that I'd label them as such. I don't know what reverence they hold for the traditions of the genre. I don't know that they have any experience with this rich tradition whatsoever, which saddens me. And I echo the words of Mr. Ebert above, “ Are people so numb they need…this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”

I hope not, sincerely. But I'm deeply disturbed, deeply offended, and fear troubled times are ahead, and the questions “How much is too much?” and “How scary is too scary?” may be becoming moot.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

AUGUST
2015

 

As summer draws to a close, my young friends are passing the time (and in some instances, getting ready for September) by doing some reading. Many, if not most schools now give their students summer reading lists. I find that admirable, because as a reader myself I understand that, as much as you may enjoy books, there are so many things in this world to distract you, and reading, like any other pastime, can require dedication and practice. It's much easier to come home from working all day and slump in front of the television, becoming a passive receptor. Anything that keeps reading at the forefront of people's minds, pushing out thoughts of IPhones and Xboxes, is a worthy endeavor.

Naturally, being an admirer of the Dark Fantastic and our rich genre, I'm particularly heartened when young people turn their interests in that direction. Recently a dear companion posted a wonderful update online concerning her son's recent activities:

Words cannot express the joy in my heart at coming downstairs this morning to find my 5-year old reading Frankenstein to himself. Love for the classics has begun!... I asked Ryan what he thought of Frankenstein and what part he liked best, and he said (with a big grin), "Awesome! I liked the part when Victor created Frankenstein!" I didn't bother to tell him that the monster isn't actually named Frankenstein, since most of the adults I know don't really know that, either.



My admiration for this young man's tastes are amplified when you consider that, as a novel, “Frankenstein” is quite subtle and philosophical, lacking the upfront Horror that you'll find in the films. It's filled with a great deal of dialogue, and much of it is of a spiritual nature. Granted, there are some moments of genuine shock and terror – the creation of both creatures come immediately to mind – but on the whole, the novel is of a much quieter, more cerebral terror than, say, “Dracula” or “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” .

In Bram Stoker's sure hands , “Dracula” contains many scenes of visceral action and bloodshed – Dracula's crawl down his castle wall, the destruction of Lucy, the confrontation with the Count in Mina's bedroom – that hammer the reader with pure adrenaline. “Dracula” is, in both length and style, huge and operatic, with its fears displayed openly.

“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is almost a police procedural, lean, stark and fascinating. It draws you in deeper to the mystery of Jekyll's strange companion and their blood connection, and the tension tightens as the narrative works its way to the grim conclusion. It also contains moments of blatant fear, most notably the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, but its stylishness carries much of it. Stephen King compares the narrative to the ticking of a fine Swiss watch, and believes “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” the best of the three novels. (I myself still have great affection and admiration for the larger and, yes, gaudier “Dracula” .)

So when I mention my admiration and pride at young Ryan's choice of material, I speak sincerely. It's not an easy book to read, but perhaps that challenge makes it more rewarding; certainly the mythic elements are there from the films, captured and displayed imaginatively in its shades of guilt, accusations and vengeance.

Not long after I saw that posting I read another by my friend Mark Redfield, a superb painter, actor, writer and director of both stage and screen. (Ironically, one of his favorite movies of mine, and in my opinion one of the best adaptations of the novel ever filmed, was his version of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE .)

Mr. Redfield's niece had developed an interest in the work of Stephen King, and asked her uncle which books she should start with. Being twelve and at an impressionable age, Mr. Redfield wanted suggestions on which of Mr. King's work would be age appropriate, without being too horrifying or adult in nature and language.

Many made very good suggestions, from “Carrie” to the short story collection “Night Shift” as well as the more monumental-lengthed “'Salem's Lot” . My own suggestion, along with agreeing that the “Night Shift” stories would be wonderful, was the short novel “Cycle of the Werewolf” , a somewhat atypical book from Mr. King.

The novel's history is as unique as the finished work. It was originally planned as a calendar, with artist Berni Wrightson doing the illustrations and Mr. King writing a few short paragraphs of “story” for each month. This proved to be unsatisfying for Mr. King, so he simply wrote the story as a (very) short novel which Mr. Wrightson then illustrated.

Because Mr. King isn't necessarily known for his brevity (consider the lengths of “The Stand”, “'Salem's Lot”, “It” and “Insomnia” ) many consider “Cycle of the Werewolf” almost an afterthought. Yet the book contains many of Mr. King's trademarks: a small town beset by a terrible supernatural force, secrets hidden among the residents of the town that prove as devastating and threatening (alcoholism, family brutality) as any outside force, two young children that discover the source of the menace and find themselves disbelieved, and the almost random violence that comes without reason or sense.

The opening sentence sets the tone perfectly: "Something inhuman has come to Tarker's Mills, as unseen as the full moon riding the night sky high above. It is the Werewolf, and there is no more reason for its coming now than there would be for the arrival of cancer, or a psychotic with murder on his mind, or a killer tornado." With short, sharp characterizations and scenes, “Cycle of the Werewolf” almost seems to me like a Stephen King Young Adult novel, and I think it's a great place to begin a young person's relationship with the Master of the Macabre.



(I also recommend “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” , another novel that reminds me of a YA book with its youthful protagonist and its mounting suspense of naturalistic Horror. I urge you to find it and enjoy!)

Naturally, it fills my ectoplasmic heart with happiness and excitement when someone decides to explore the rich history and variety of our beloved field. After all, the genre is wide enough to include authors, filmmakers and dramatists of every style; Hitchcock, Kubrick, Dickens, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Albee, Genet, and many, many others have found the Dark Fantastic ripe material for their inspiration, and an appreciation of Horror and Terror as a narrative device or theme widens one's perspective's.

So the question for many of us more mature in years is, how do we go about introducing our children to, as authors John Skipp and Craig Spector referred to it, Death's Rich Pagent?



First, let's begin by admitting that it's perfectly fine to frighten young ones.

Many parents, all well-meaning to some degree, take a firm stand against Horror and the Dark Fantastic. “I don't want my children frightened”, they proclaim, and their reasons are usually the following: “the world around them is frightening enough and I don't want to add to it”, “Dark Fantasy is an emphasis on the morbid and horrific, and I want them to be well-rounded”, and, most telling, “I want my children to grow up feeling safe and secure.” As I said, all good reasons, at least on the surface. But let's explore a bit deeper.

Let's tale the second argument first. That one can be perplexing. After all, the parents that disdain some of the more visceral mayhem found in films like HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE see nothing wrong with reading the classic fairy tales to their youngsters, with the Witch prepared to eat Hansel and Gretel as she's done many times before, or the Wicked Queen sending the Huntsman out into the woods to kill Snow White, cut out her heart and return with it in a box.

Make no mistake here: I am not suggesting that we arrange screenings of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for elementary schools. There is always the question of what is age-appropriate. What I am saying is that there are equally horrific things in most children's literature in general as you'd find in Dark Fantasy. (Of course, some parents object to many classic fairy tales as well; that's more an argument for another time, but I hope I'll touch on some of those fears below)

Children's imaginations are unfettered, free-wheeling and limitless. They also have a strong sense of right and wrong, and justice being done on a cosmic level. After all, they're not really in control of this much larger world around them, so it's important that they believe the clockwork of the universe turns with compassion and righteousness. The outlands of the Dark Fantastic feed that imagination, hone it as on a lathe, and give it direction that they can explore at their leisure later in life when their imaginations are battered down somewhat by the day-to-day routine of living.

This also takes care of arguments one and three. Those that feel that exposing them to Horror will make them fearful and less secure overlook the fact that in a child's world, everything is frightening, whether it's the lined, creased faces of old relatives or the loud booming noises and voices of the world around them. Santa Claus and clowns have equally potential for terror as do monsters under the bed and shadows flicking from back-and-white movies.

At some point in time children are afraid of their own shadows, literally, not figuratively. Stephen King tells the wonderful story of a boy caught up for several nights in bad dreams and sleeplessness because of a horrible monster he overheard his father and uncle discussing; they were quite excited about seeing this terrible creature, the dreaded “twi-night doubleheader”! And author John MacDonald spent several evenings trying to calm his son's fears in another monster he'd overhead discussed among adults. Apparently at a party, someone had mentioned the Grim Reaper in conversation, and young Mr. MacDonald had translated that into “the Green Ripper” , and that fiend overwhelmed his young thoughts. (The elder Mr. MacDonald was so taken by this that he later titled one of his Travis McGee novels “The Green Ripper” .)



You can never be certain what connections images or phrases will click inside the circuits of a child's mind, and trying to ascertain what is scary and what isn't is a Mad Caucus Race. My human companion Bob clearly remembers, so many years later, seeing a short musical piece on the CAPTAIN KANGEROO show that featured floating, disembodied hands dancing around in the darkness (a simple effect, with white gloves and black clothing against a black background.) I'm sure the producers meant this as a magical, whimsical interlude, but Bob remembers some nights of bad dreams as these hands chased him about his house, running on the ground on their palms and making terrible sounds as they came for him.

If Dark Fantasy serves a purpose for young imaginations, it's that it names and gives shape to a child's fears, and once a fear is named and identified, it actually becomes much less terrifying. After all, once that dark shape is drawn into the light and seen for what it is, it becomes familiar, and even, in its own way, friendly: witness the Count on SESAME STREET, or the breakfast cereals Frankenberry, Count Chocula and Booberry . Combining this with, in the best stories, is the idea that evil will be beaten and good prevail (Hansel and Gretel cook the Witch in her own over, and Snow White is rescued from the Queen's machinations). Good Dark Fantasy gives little ones control over their fears; yes, the monsters are real, but they can be seen and defeated, and that's a powerful lesson for ones so usually helpless.

And, let us be completely honest: many children do long for the morbid and horrific. They are incessantly curious about the world and things about them, and this includes what many adults might consider very dark subjects, like death and violence. Dark Fantasy translates these complex ides into symbols that their young minds can comprehend, giving them a firmer grasp on things that will concern them more deeply in adulthood, making the transition a bit easier, in my opinion.

In short, one of the most famous articles in the old “Famous Monsters” magazine came from a mother who was raising her children with much of the values I've presented above. The title of the article was “Monsters Are Good For Children!”

I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.



There was a time, years ago, when it was very easy to introduce young minds to the joys of the Dark Fantastic.

During the 1960s and 70s schools would often sponsor book fairs, where youngsters could come and purchase age-appropriate volumes for their reading pleasure. The principal sponsor of these fairs was Scholastic Books, a company that released paperbacks specifically aimed at schools and children. Many of the books had educational themes, and as such there were new versions of classic literature always being published. (Scholastic is by no means gone; one of their triumphs of the new millennium was discovering an unknown and unpublished author and turning her books about a young wizard and his friends at his school into a world-wide phenomenon – I speak of course of J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter.)

I know of many people who began their love of Horror with purchases of Scholastic books. Indeed, many of my human companions who grew up in that time still keep their books in a treasured place on their shelves, passing them along to their children and grandchildren to enjoy. Among the classic novels that Scholastic published were Bram Stoker's “Dracula” , Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” , Robert Louis Stevenson's “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” and Victor Hugo's “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” . They also published collections of the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. These were not edited versions, or ‘adaptations' for young readers; these were the complete and unabridged volumes that held adult readers in thrall.

(My human companion Bob has several other Scholastic collections on his shelf – their publishing was quite eclectic – including a slim volume named “The Haunted House and Other Stories & Poems” , another similar book “Stories of Ghosts, Witches & Demons” , and a volume titled “Stories of the Supernatural” , which contains the classics “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, “Sir Dominick's Bargain” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and “The Fly” by George Langelaan – yes, the story that inspired the films – and an absolutely horrifying tale “The Cocoon” by John B. L. Goodwin.)

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, many of these sort of books disappeared, due to the protests of no doubt well-meaning parents concerned with the “upsetting” stories and images, or complaints from more conservative communities of promotion of magic, sorcery and the occult. The result was either the elimination of these books or watered-down or edited ‘adaptations' the bowdlerized the heart of the tales. Lately that trend seems to have been reversed with the success of the Harry Potter books, but the drought was long and damaging, with almost 20 years of little in good Dark Fantasy literature and a plethora of Harry Potter look-and-sound likes currently filling shelf space.

There were other avenues, fortunately; the local book store always seemed to have a section stock full of children's stories of the Fantastique. For beginning readers there were The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew , whose mysteries sometimes touched on the unnatural and eerie, and the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, which featured mysteries with supernatural overtones – whispering mummies, shrieking green ghosts – that, like the SCOOBY DOO cartoons, always ended with very natural solutions and villains. Speaking of Mr. Hitchcock, he commissioned a series of books filled with classic Horror stories for young readers and wrote introductions for them, much as he did for his adult readers and fans of his mystery magazine.



Whitman, a company that did book tie-ins to popular television series (I SPY, THE MONKEES, LASSIE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) also did two wonderful collections of the macabre, “Tale to Tremble By” and “More Tales to Tremble By” , featuring short stories by Charles Dickens, Ambrose Bierce, F. Marion Crawford and Bram Stoker, as well as two collections of original SF and Horror tales. And for very young readers, Norman Bridwell, the creator of Clifford, the Big Red Dog , brought his deadpan sense of humor to a series of books that kindled a sense of wonder in the uncanny, most notably in his Witch Next Door books (“The Witch Next Door”, “The Witch's Christmas”, “The Witch's Vacation” ) and his Monster books (“How to Care for your Monster”, “Monster Holidays” ).

Children's television on Saturday mornings were filled with adventures that concerned ghosts, monsters and other supernatural creations. The most popular was probably the aforementioned SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? This show created and set in stone the template of a group of teen friends investigate mysteries that initially seemed ghostly but in the end turned out to be quite explainable. Although I normally frown on such cheats, SCOOBY DOO was very entertaining, and it captured the imaginations of countless young people that made the program iconic. (The less said about future versions, including that interminable puppy Scrappy Doo, the better.)

But for those who wanted real monsters and ghosts, you could do no better than JOHNNY QUEST, a cartoon presented in prime time (which gave it its adult slant) and probably was responsible for more than a few nightmares of impressionable viewers. The mummies, dinosaurs, dragons, sea monsters, energy beings, spider robots and other terrors that endangered Johnny, his scientist father, mentor and special agent Race Bannon and best friend Hadji were genuine, not villains in papier-mâché trying to frighten people away from their schemes.

Prime time television was also fertile ground for budding imaginations. In the time being discussed there were programs that ranged from the suspense of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the pulp horror of THRILLER to the Gothic SF of THE OUTER LIMITS and the Urban Fantasy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Although these shows were not designed for children, many watched with their families and excitedly discussed the episodes the next day in school. For older youngsters there was NIGHT GALLERY and KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. None of this included the outright comedy of THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY, nor the straight SF of STAR TREK or the Irwin Allen productions (although Mr. Allen's efforts, woefully short of actual science fiction, leaned more towards Horror.)

The odd dichotomy of television in the 1950s through the 1990s was that the Production Code (for that read ‘censorship') was strictly enforced; there was to be no graphic violence or sex, and many scripts were rewritten to avoid any visual or dialogue reference to ‘shocking' or ‘disturbing' elements. While this tied the hands of writers of Dark Fantasy, many of the best of them ( THE TWILIGHT ZONE 's Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, THRILLER ' s Robert Bloch and THE OUTER LIMIT 's Joseph Stefano) were able to work around this with suggestion and style, leaving the battles with the networks for the big shocks for when they'd be most effective.

Ironically, this censorship, which made it difficult to present more adult variations of Horror, perfectly suited the budding young minds being exposed; the episodes were scary, but not graphically or gratuitously so, as many of the emerging theatrical films of the 1960s and 70s were. ( NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, along with Herschell Gordon Lewis's films, come immediately to mind.) Both Rod Serling and Joseph Stefano in interviews expressed astonishment that they received letters from youngsters praising their efforts, but this isn't so surprising when we consider, as I mentioned above, that young minds have a fascination of the Dark Fantastic, and watching these in the safety of their homes with their families beside them presented an opportunity for safe exploration of this unknown country.



Now, sadly, that time seems to be past; when even police procedurals like CSI contain very graphic violence and carnage, and the Dark Fantasy series – THE WALKING DEAD, HANNIBAL, PENNY DREADFUL among others – are much less censored and contain moments equal to theatrical presentations – there's very little safe haven for young viewers. This is a fine thing for adults, who are receiving genuinely mature programming, but the chance to share a taste of the Dark Fantastic with a child who might become an aficionado is much more limited.

In an interesting footnote, while much television had watered down or discarded the Dark Fantastic during the late 1970s and 1980s, Saturday morning programming upheld the standards with shows as diverse as BEETLEJUICE, DRAK PACK, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, and an animated version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT named TALES FROM THE CRYPTKEEPER. These kept interest alive in the Fantastique during the drought of prime time.

(Please forgive me for repeating myself, but this subject requires that I repeat what I wrote a few months ago about local East Coast television. I hope you'll understand…

Among the many local personalities on Philadelphia television during the 1960s and 70s was a young entertainer, artist and storyteller named Gene London. His program, called variously CARTOON CORNERS, THE GENE LONDON SHOW and GENE LONDON'S CARTOONS & STUFF, would feature Mr. London with young people gathered in his studio set, which resembled a general store. He would tell stories, often illustrating them on a huge sketchpad while he spoke, bring on guests of local interest to education children on a variety of subjects, or show cartoons, mostly Disney or Mr. Magoo. He was a soft-spoken gentleman, in some ways a precursor to Mr. Rogers.

But Mr. London also had a love of the macabre, and one of the most astounding features of his series were times when he would dramatize, with him in the leading role, various classic Horror tales. Among the many stories presented were “Frankenstein”, “Dracula” (with Mr. London in a dual role as himself and the legendary vampire count), “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “She”. Mr. London also used a magical Golden Fleece that he'd found to send him off on other fantastic and magical adventures, and towards the conclusion of the series' run he adapted a version of the SF film ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, complete with performers in (at the time) the ground-breaking ape makeup from the films.

It was a fantastic program, for, with the gentle and courageous Mr. London as the fulcrum, the stories were frightening without being overtly terrifying. I'm certain more than one child in the Tri-State area can probably trace back his love of Horror, SF and the Dark Fantastic to Mr. London's gentle administrations, and I thank him for that greatly and gratefully.)



So what can we offer young minds who profess an interest in the Dark Fantastic?

Well, let's start with what's listed above? Many of those shows – THE TWILIGHT ZONE (both the original and the wonderful 1980s revival), THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER and NIGHT GALLERY are available on DVD, both to buy and rent to watch. Some might dig in their heels a bit at watching some “old” program (I had a young companion refuse to watch any of the old Universal films because they were in black & white) but curiosity should carry the day.

I gladly endorse two special DVD series that I've witnessed personally attract a voracious interest in reading classic literature. The first is the marvelous show WISHBONE originally broadcast on PBS. Wishbone is a smart, literate Jack Russell terrier living in a small suburban neighborhood and sharing adventures with his young human companions. Every so often a situation will remind Wishbone of a famous book or story, and the dog is carried into a flashback dramatizing scenes from the tale, with Wishbone as the star. (Oddly enough, the other characters in the dramatization react to our hero as another person instead of a canine…)

Among the many stories and books featured are “Robin Hood”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “The Purloined Letter”, “Oliver Twist” and “Ivanhoe”. But what will appeal to fans of the Dark Fantastic are the number of works associated with the macabre that inspired Wishbone's daydreamings. These include “Frankenstein”, “Faust”, “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”, “The Time Machine” and “The Phantom of the Opera”.

One of the best aspects of WISHBONE was the fact that the creators never took the easy way out in adapting the classic stories; if there was sadness, tragedy or an unhappy ending, the producers remained faithful to the source material. The same went for any fantastic or frightening moments: “Frankenstein” follows the novel completely, moreso than most of the adult film versions. Of course the material is handled in an age-appropriate way, but it respects the original works, and more than a few of my young friends became fascinated with both Frankenstein's Creature and the Phantom of the Opera after experiencing their presence on WISHBONE. (You can view the "Frankenstein" episode on YouTube by clicking on the image below.)



The other DVD collection is similar, but predates WISHBONE by a few decades. In 1962 the classic cartoon character Mr. Magoo was featured in the holiday special MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL. Unlike the short cartoons, this was a serious adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel as a musical. It proved instantly popular and has indeed become a perennial Yuletide event.

The network, impressed by the ratings of the special, commissioned producers to create a similar series of television episodes featuring Mr. Magoo as the main character in classic novels, each episode a serious adaptation of the work. The program was broadcast as THE FAMOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. MAGOO, and ran for two seasons of 19 episodes. (I mentioned them fondly in an essay several months ago, wondering when they'd be released on DVD; as it happens, the series has been released as part of the DVD Boxed Set MR. MAGOO: THE TELEVISION COLLECTION 1960 – 1977 from Shout! Factory.)

Like his Jack Russell counterpart, Mr. Magoo appeared as famous characters from literature, one of the best being Long John Silver from “Treasure Island”. In keeping with the theme of actors putting on a show from MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, several characters in each episode were drawn as different individuals in each story, as though it were a repertory company of performers putting on each production. Also in keeping with WISHBONE, the show featured some fine examples of the Dark fantastic, including its own version of “Frankenstein” as well as “Sherlock Holmes” “Moby Dick”, Rip Van Winkle” and “A Midsummer Night's Dream”. Be warned: as entertaining as the series is (and it is very well done) the adaptations do take liberties with the original stories, unlike WISHBONE.



Much of theatrical children's entertainment still chooses the macabre and uncanny as their source of inspiration. The past several years has seen films such as CORALINE, MONSTERS INC, SPIRITED AWAY, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE, MONSTER HOUSE, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, PARANORMAN, and the HARRY POTTER movies.

For many generations the Disney movies such as PINNOCHIO and SNOW WHITE were the first encounters with dark forces and fear; for all his sweetness and light, Walt Disney and a sure hand as to what could truly terrify, and practitioners in the Dark Fantastic as diverse as ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King recall Disney films as a source of inspiration and revelation.

On the written page, there are still some excellent books for young people to spur their interest in the Dark Fantastic. In addition to the aforementioned Harry Potter series, there's the Hunger Games books, the Divergent series, and countless others. For the very young who want short, eerie tales there's the marvelous Stories to Tell in the Dark series (you can learn more about these on my RECOMMENDATIONS Page) which have raised their share of goosebumps, and the comical How to Banish Fears series (“How to Outwit Witches”, “How to Get Rid of Ghosts”, “”How to Mash Monsters”).

There are also fine paperbacks of the classics – “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and the rest – available at your local bookstore. Many of these are also available for free online through the Project Gutenberg Horror Bookshelf of collected public domain works. (You can click HERE or use the connection on my LINKS Page.) Many of these printed editions are put out in volumes designed to attract young readers with larger print and eye-catching artwork. Some are abridged, and you can decide for yourself what might be age-appropriate; my rule of thumb is, if they can read the words and understand them, they're welcome to, but I leave that in your capable hands.



(I also want to point out that many of the books mentioned above from the 1960s and 70s are still available on Ebay and in some second-hand and specialty stores. Mint condition volumes are worth quite a bit, but even those in lesser condition are sought by collectors, and still contain the wonderful stories that chilled the previous generations.)

Which brings us to one series in particular: “Goosebumps”.

For those who've lived without any contact with human culture for the past thirty years, the “Goosebumps” books were the product of author R. L. Stine. Published as paperback originals with eye-catching and garish covers, the books were short novels that ran the gamut of well-traveled Horror and supernatural themes: the ventriloquist dummy with a life and mind of its own, the sinister babysitter, the mysterious, stalking clown, vampires, werewolves and other things that slithered and creeped and crawled. As familiar as these may be to veteran and adult fans of the genre, they were a revelation to young readers, with adventures featuring kids their own ages.

I must confess: I had little use for the “Goosebumps” books when they were first published. I read several of them to see what my young friends were enjoying and found them predictable, thuddingly written and not terribly imaginative. They seemed rushed into print with little distinction. I thought there were much better books for young readers, and mourned the fact that they weren't enjoying classic tales by more distinguished writers.

(In fact, the rumor at one time was that R. L. Stine was actually a house pen name and several authors were contributing to the series, much like “Franklin W. Dixon”, the author of the Hardy Boys books. How else could the books be released so quickly? I disagreed; having read them I had no trouble believing one individual was pushing them out every month like clockwork. But I digress…)



All right: mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa , to all “Goosebump” fans and Mr. Stine himself.

I've watched my young companions reading one of the series, or hearing them read aloud, and seen the rapt attention on their faces as they're completely enthralled, hearts in their throats in a comfortable and safe sphere of terror, caught up in the adventures and frights. My stance has softened, and I believe they may indeed be the right books at the right time for these impressionable readers. Although predictable to adults, the tales are wildcards filled with suspense to the little ones, and I conclude that Mr. Stine did indeed know his audience.

Both Stephen King and Harlan Ellison were asked at different times about the books, with the criticisms I mentioned above as a preface. For each the answer was the same: “At least children are reading.” And that indeed is the bottom line. The books are certainly no worse in their own way than the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries, and those readers undoubtedly moved on in their adult lives into the more rewarding mysteries of Agatha Christie, Harry Kemelman, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, P. D. James, and Nora Roberts.

Those who enjoyed whiling their time away with “Goosebumps” hopefully went on to discover the magic, mystery and macabre pleasure of Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Matheson, M. R. James, and of course Misters Poe and Lovecraft. That was my hope, in any case, and my belief today.

Of course, I'd be neglectful to not point out one very assured way of enjoining the very young into a lifetime of pleasure with the Dark Fantastic – reading and telling ghostly stories aloud. Sleepovers provide a marvelous opportunity for some giggling mayhem in semidarkness, and who hasn't enjoyed a night camping around a roaring fire without sharing an eerie tale or two?



One of my great pleasures each year is to host a series of storytelling events at Patrick Points State Park in Trinidad, CA. Once each month I appear beside a campfire in a beautiful amphitheater surrounds by towering trees and with the sound of the ocean against the cliffs in the background. I've entertained families who've crowded about me afterwards, telling me they've never heard or seen anything like it, and thanking me for the show.

It's a joy to meet my new fans and friends, and I'm not alone in these endeavors. Patrick's Point provides a variety of storytellers, musicians and other entertainers throughout the summer months, and indeed, many campgrounds across the country provide similar entertainment, with storytellers waiting to share a shivery bit of scary silliness or spookiness with their audiences. I urge you to take advantage of them wherever and whenever you may find them.

The Dark Fantastic is a rich tradition that dates back to the earliest of man huddled around a blazing fire to keep back the darkness, sharing tales of terror and, in doing so, mastering their fears. I believe we should encourage young ones to explore this lush genre, and that their first experiences must be enjoyable, satisfying ones; frightening without being too scary, and instilling a respect and anticipation of where the darkened pathways of imagination can lead.

To all my friends of all ages: I welcome you into the cemetery, beckon you behind the stones and offer a comfortable spot on the rustling leaves and soft moss at your feet.

Make yourselves comfortable. Lean in closely.

Do I have a story for you!



Next month, this page will be for adults only. I'm inviting my very young friends to move along until October, for I have a few things to say, many of them uncomplimentary, about the new practice of extreme haunted attractions. I was going to speak on it this month, but I wanted to prepare more fully. I'll see you then.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY
2015

 

“Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.” - Robert Heinlein, “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”

So Christopher Lee has left us. On June 7, 2015, at the age of 93, Christopher Lee passed off this mortal coil. There was an enormous outpouring of love that I'm certain would have pleased him greatly. But while there were expressions of shock and sadness as well, I'm afraid I'm not able to share in those.

Surely he will be missed, yet at 93 one can't help but think that if anyone deserves a good rest, it might be Mr. Lee. Look at that quote above from Mr. Heinlein. If anyone savored life, if anyone lived each day to the fullest, it could be argued that Mr. Lee was that individual.

This is what Mr. Lee accomplished in the last three years of his life, from his 90 th birthday: eight films, including two of Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT trilogy, DARK SHADOWS, and THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK; four Heavy metal albums, including “Charlemagne: The Omens of Death”, “A Heavy Metal Christmas”, and "A Heavy Metal Christmas Too”; recorded narration of two video games, including “Lego The Hobbit”, and was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship and France's Commander of the Order of Arts & Letters. That's more than enough for anyone to consider with satisfaction and pride, but at the age of 90, when theoretically a person is supposed to be slowing down and enjoying the sunset of their lives, it's astonishing.

In fact, Mr. Lee was an astonishing man; a revered and respected performer, a war hero with a record of service and heroism, a connoisseur of literature and film, knighted by the British government in 2009, owner of numerous awards from such diverse institutions as the British government and British Film Institute, University College Dublin, and the Trinity College Philosophical Society, and a defined “gentleman” almost universally beloved and admired. Whatever else he might have been in this world, as defined above by Mr. Heinlein, Mr. Lee was no monk.



Prince Charles knighting Sir Christopher Lee - June 13, 2009


I believe what so many people are mourning is the passing of tradition. Mr. Lee was definitely the last of the “Horror Royalty”, performers who've made a substantial mark on the genre by their continued working in and expansion of the field, working with others in an unofficial repertory, and raising the weakest material to greater heights by their sheer professionalism. He belongs to the number including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaneys both Senior and Junior, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price and, of course, his long-time dear friend and co-star Peter Cushing.

There simply are no more of these; Mr. Lee is the last of their kind. Think today: the stars of the Horror field are more likely to be the directors and special effects technicians than the actors. Who has the resume that the gentleman above possess? Jack Nicholson? He certainly has done his share in the genre, but he isn't as closely associated with the Dark Fantastic as these gentlemen were. Robert Englund? He comes the closest with an impressive body of work and certainly elder statesmen status, but his roles don't seem to offer the wide variety that were afforded Mr. Lee and the others.

No, I fear to say that the sorrow expressed in Mr. Lee's passing is simple acknowledgement that he was indeed the last of a lost breed, and we'll not see their kind again.



The role that made him an icon - Count Dracula


In addition to being a fine actor, Mr. Lee was extremely well read, and had a knowledge and appreciation for the best that the genre had to offer. He enjoyed Horror (although he didn't care for the term as a description of the field) and was well-familiar with it. He was a huge fan of Bram Stoker's “Dracula”, and his reluctance to perform in the many sequels to his original appearance as the character had less to do with typecasting (although that was a great concern) as with the fact that the films had less and less to do with the actual Count that Mr. Stoker had created.

He was a great admirer and reader of J. R. R. Tolkien, had met the author several times, and when he learned that Peter Jackson was adapting “Lord of the Rings” into a film trilogy, wrote the director and asked to be considered for the role of Gandalf. Mr. Jackson leapt at the possibility of having Christopher Lee in his films, but thought he might be too old for how he envisioned Gandalf appearing. He instead offered Mr. Lee the role of the evil Saruman the White. Mr. Lee delightedly grabbed the part, and the rest is cinematic history.

He was an enthusiast of M. R. James, perhaps the finest author of ghost stories who ever lived, and portrayed the writer in a series of short films adapting Mr. James's work for special Christmas broadcasts on the BBC. He stated that his favorite film of Dark Fantasy was ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (also known as THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER), a marvelous 1941 movie based on the classic story by Stephen Vincent Benet and starring Edward Arnold, Walter Huston (excellent as Mr. Scratch, in reality the Devil) and the beautiful Simone Simon. It certainly appealed to his literary tastes in the macabre.

He appeared as the voice of King Haggard in the film adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's THE LAST UNICORN. Legend has it that when he arrived at the studio, he carried with him his own copy of the novel marked in several places of moments that had been deleted in the screenplay, and with very definite opinions on why they should not have been deleted. I believe he got his way… (A noted linguist, he also recorded his voice for the German version of THE LAST UNICORN for no fee because he loved the film.)

A noted bit of trivia from Horror film history: one of the roles he turned down in his career was the opportunity to play Dr. Sam Loomis in John carpenter's classic HALLOWEEN. (He was Mr. Carpenter's first choice.) For his own reasons at the time he said no, and Donald Pleasance became the iconic character. In recent years, Mr. Lee had stated many times that decision was the biggest mistake he'd made in his life, and one of his few true regrets.



THE LORD OF THE RINGS - Saruman the White


If Mr. Lee had only been an actor, his life achievements would still be impressive. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he is the actor with the most film performances in history (at this time): 230 films are to his credit. But he was much more than an actor.

In addition, Mr. Lee was a fine singer, with an affection for styles as diverse as opera and popular music. He sang in film several times, particularly in THE WICKER MAN and THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE. He performed on several soundtracks, including “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The King & I”, and was featured on the albums of musicians Steeleye Span (“The King of Elfland's Daughter”) and Manowar (“Battle Hymns MMXI”) As incongruous as it may appear, he was a huge fan of Heavy Metal music, and released several albums of his own, backed by bands such as Judas Priest and Angra. He became the oldest entertainer to enter the music charts with his single “Jingle Hell” from “A Heavy Metal Christmas Too” (taking the title from previous record-holder Tony Bennett) and received the Spirit of Metal Award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony.

He was a decorated veteran of World War II as a member of RAF Intelligence (after he was forced to leave the Royal Air Force due to headaches and blurred vision during flight). He fought in the North African campaign, then moved on to Malta and the Allied invasion of Sicily. During the fighting he was nearly killed several times and succumbed to with malaria six times. Towards the end of the war he was responsible for tracking down Nazi war criminals, and was also attached to Special Operations, activities so secret that up until his death Mr. Lee was unable to talk about them.



His masterpiece - THE WICKER MAN


There are so many tales told of Mr. Lee, some of them no doubt apocryphal, but all as fascinating as his life.

Because of his experience during the war, he was very familiar with genuine, actual violence and its particulars. He spoke about it in an interview: “I've seen many men die right in front of me - so many in fact that I've become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise, we would never have won.”

During the filming of LORD OF THE RINGS, director Peter Jackson was trying to describe the sound Mr. Lee should make when his character Saruman was stabbed in the back. Mr. Lee spoke up. “ Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he's stabbed in the back? Well, I have, and I know what to do.”

One of the more famous incidents concerns his work hunting the Nazis at the end of WWII. While filming THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN in Thailand, Mr. Lee was walking through the city with the film's director, Guy Hamilton, when they chanced upon a notorious Nazi war criminal, who had been hiding in Thailand since fleeing Germany at the end of the war (as often happened).

Angry at the man's ability to live openly in that foreign country, Misters Lee and Hamilton went to the authorities to ask that the man be arrested. Unfortunately, many government officials in Thailand's police department have been known to be corrupt and paid off for looking the other way (which is how the war criminals flourished in such places), and the two received no satisfaction for their efforts and entreaties. As they left the police, Mr. Hamilton noticed Mr. Lee was angry and brooding silently.

After giving it some thought during the night, the next day on the set Mr. Hamilton approached Mr. Lee and said, “We didn't have any luck with the local authorities, but why don't we go to the British Consulate and see if they'll help us?”

To which Mr. Lee replied, “That's all right; don't worry about it. It's been taken care of.” And he said no more about the incident, to Mr. Hamilton's puzzlement.

Some days later the body of the war criminal was found in his home. He'd been beaten severely and strangled to death. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

There's probably more legend than fact in that tale, but as they say: if it isn't true, it ought to be…



THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN with Roger Moore as James Bond


No eulogy for Mr. Lee would be complete without touching upon his deep friendship and working relationship with Peter Cushing.

The two had actually appeared together in a few other films prior to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, their first Hammer feature (most notably in Olivier's HAMLET and MOULIN ROUGE), but they'd never actually met before. (Not so unusual in film, when many actors work on different schedules and, unlike stage work, aren't required to be on the set all the time.) He was offered the role of the Creature primarily because of his height, standing over 6' 5” tall.

As I stated before, Mr. Lee had a vast knowledge of macabre literature, including Ms. Shelly's “Frankenstein”, and was greatly offended that his role in the film consisted of no dialogue. (Unlike the Creature in the novel which has long, philosophical speeches.)

According to his autobiography, he stalked into the dressing room he shared with Peter Cushing on the Hammer lot in a furious temper. He looked at Mr. Cushing, whom he'd not yet met in person, and shouted, "I haven't got any lines!" Mr. Cushing calmly replied, "You're lucky; I've read the script.". And a legendary friendship was born.



Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing sharing a laugh off-camera.


It's not hyperbole to say that the performances and stardom of both Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee made Hammer studios the success it was. While there were many talented individuals behind the scenes creating the movies, it was these two stars in the public's consciousness that became the faces of Hammer. Indeed, Mr. Lee remembers many times turning down a role, only to have the head of the studio call him and plead with him, “Do you know how many people you'll put out of work if you don't do this film?”

And, naturally, some of their best work came from playing off each other, their friendship and professionalism allowing a terrific chemistry between them, even when they might be on opposite sides of the story (as with Van Helsing and Dracula). Together they made 24 films, many some of their best work.

Looking back on their lives together, long after Mr. Cushing's death, Mr. Lee remembered his friend: “He really was the most gentle and generous of men. I have often said he died because he was too good for this world…I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”

If there's any justice in the afterworld (and I believe there is), the one good thing about Mr. Lee's passing is that he's again sharing laughter and good conversation with his companion, catching up on their time apart.



A moment with one of their great fans, Sammy Davis Jr. In 1970, Mr. Sammy Davis Jr. & Peter Lawford starred in the comedy ONE MORE TIME, filmed in England. Misters Lee & Cushing appeared in cameos in the movie, spoofing their Horror persona's. As Sammy Davis Jr. explores an old mansion house, he makes his way down to the basement - to discover Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein engaged in some macabre experiment.


Choosing the essential Christopher Lee filmography would be an arduous task and daunting under any circumstances, but it becomes moreso when you realize that Mr. Lee's solid professionalism as an actor often made even the least of his films interesting and well worth watching.

Take THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, as an example: if we're honest in examining it carefully, it isn't a terribly good film (although is certainly achieves its modest goals of frightening, and is worthwhile not only for its place in history as for the performances of Misters Cushing and Lee). Mr. Lee's role is limited; he isn't allowed to show the pathos and humanity Mr. Karloff conveyed so well in the Universal movies. Even Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee had expressed their disappointment in it after so many years.

Still, Mr. Lee's performance is commanding. Using only his body language, conveying his performance entirely through physicality, he still conveys a pitiful, terrible creation baffled at the world around him and undeserving of the pain inflicted upon him. It's a powerful mute performance, and if it suffers in comparison with the other actors in the movie, one can only plead the limitations imposed on him by the role. (He and Mr. Cushing did much better and came into their own with their next effort, HORROR OF DRACULA.)

Because of this, we can see that there are some films in Mr. Lee's repertoire that shine brighter than the rest (something Mr. Lee would no doubt agree with) and I offer the following examples as his finest hours (in my opinion, of course). These are not necessarily my favorites (I've included them at the end of the list) but I consider them the best; if you're looking to introduce a friend who's unfamiliar with the work of Mr. Lee, these would be a fine starting point. (And note that not all of them fall within our genre.)



The legend begins - CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN


CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN - I've spoken about this above; with all its flaws it becomes essential simply because this was the first, the one that started it all. The ride can be forgiven for beginning a bit bumpy due to its being a shakedown cruise.

HORROR OF DRACULA - This was the one that sprang out of the gate as an unconditional triumph. As in the novel, Dracula's appearance was limited (as were his lines) which had the effect of making the terror and threat more oppressive. With his first words and entrance Mr. Lee cast aside any comparison to Mr. Lugosi. His Count Dracula was cultured, aristocratic and commanding, a refined gentleman used to getting his way – and a stark contrast to the hissing, feral creature he becomes when the bloodlust is upon him. Mr. Cushing matched him pace by pace as the intellectual and athletic Van Helsing, two sworn enemies in a pitched battle for the very soul of the English countryside. Their final battle at Dracula's castle is near perfection, and a legend is born.

DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS - Mr. Lee was apparently annoyed with the banality of Dracula's dialogue in this script, so all his lines were cut, and he portrayed the vampire count silently. Remarkably this does little to detract from his powerful presence, and he still commands the screen with his every appearance. If the sequel doesn't quite live up to its predecessor (Mr. Cushing's Van Helsing is sorely missed, although Andrew Keir does a fine job as the priest confronting Dracula) it is still a powerful and eerie bit of gothic Horror.



THE MUMMY - Mr. Lee cemented his stature as the leading Horror actor of his time with this energetic and muscular portrayal of the title creature. His flashbacks to ancient Egypt reveal the tortured presence behind the sinister bandages, but it is his physical, brutal portrayal of the risen and rage-filled mummy that packs power. Teamed again with his friend Mr. Cushing, this is a splendid reworking of Mr. Karloff's classic.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES - As Sir Henry Baskerville, Mr. Lee gives one of his first sympathetic, non-genre performances, again opposite Mr. Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. Rich in atmosphere and filmed with the high production standards Hammer had become associated with, this is probably the finest version of Arthur Conan Doyle's suspenseful novel, easily tied with the Basil Rathbone adaptation.

SCREAM & SCREAM AGAIN - a genuine mad tea party of a movie, the primary reason for this being an essential was the first teaming of three Horror icons – Mr. Lee, Mr. Cushing and Vincent Price – in one film, although their parts are relatively small. Still, this is an entertaining (if occasionally silly) exercise in fear and overreaction, with some genuinely memorable moments from the triad. Like a good beach novel on a hot summer day, it's an enjoyable waste of time.

DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS
- Teamed again with Mr. Cushing, this was the first of the Amicus anthology films, featuring several stories tied together by a linking tale. In this case Mr. Cushing is a fortune teller sharing a railroad car with five strangers (among them Mr. Lee and a very young Donald Sutherland). As they travel Mr. Cushing reveals their futures, which make up the ensuing tales. Mr. Lee finds the experience distasteful and nonsensical, and his conflict with Mr. Cushing provides much of the drama thoughout the film. Fittingly, Mr. Lee has his future read last (in the original version; in the American release the tales were rearranged slightly) and his story, of an art critic being pursued by the dismembered hand of an artist he'd driven to suicide, is a tour-de-force.



THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS - Not within the genre, but splendid entertainment nonetheless, these films are probably the best and most authoritative adaptations of the Alexander Dumas novels. Alongside Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston, Mr. Lee makes an imposing and comically villainous Rochefort, obviously relishing all the swashbuckling and physical comedy. So iconic was his performance that the eyepatch used on the character – which was not in the original novel, but was a suggestion of Mr. Lee's – became the definitive article and has been used for Rochefort in all succeeding productions.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
- I confess that I'm not as enamored of this film as others, preferring the original James Bond novel (of which this has little to no relation; it was the beginning practice of using only the titles and writing a completely original story – which, to be fair, probably truly began with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, forgive the digression – that would be followed with THE SPY WHO LOVES ME and MOONRAKER). Still, there are compensations; Mr. Moore is still fresh in his portrayal of James Bond, there are some fantastic set-pieces and stunts, and Mr. Lee's performance is sly and authoritative, portraying the killer as a reversal of Bond's honor-bound and righteous agent. Their verbal duel on morality is a rare character moment in a later Bond film, and their physical duel, beginning with guns drawn and marching back to back away from each other on a deserted beach, is quite suspenseful.

HORROR EXPRESS - Put Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together with a flamboyant Telly Savalas, a gorgeous Siberian train setting, armed Cossacks, Russian royalty, and a fossilized missing link that may contain an otherworldly intelligence, and you have a wonderfully entertaining and suspenseful adventure/Horror collaboration. Watching Misters Cushing and Lee as scientists try to solve the mystery while staying ahead and under the gaze of Mr. Savalas's Captain Kazan is a joy, and the scares are plentiful.



THE WICKER MAN - A masterpiece. Mr. Lee stated in no uncertain terms that this was his favorite film and probably his best performance, and I'd be hard pressed to second-guess the gentleman. Suffice to say you'll see him here out-of-character in ways you might never imagine. I'll say no more; it simply must be experienced. Expert direction from Robin Hardy, a literate and slowly unnerving script by Anthony Shaffer (of SLEUTH and Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY, and brother of Peter of AMADEUS and EQUUS fame), with solid performances by Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt and the rest of the ensemble. If you've never seen it, I envy you your first encounter; you'll never forget it. If you have seen it, reacquaint yourself with its wonders. NOTE: Do not mistake the abysmal Nicholas Cage 2006 version with this one; it's like comparing Van Gogh's “Starry Night” with a child's fingerpainting (and not a particularly talented child at that…)

HUGO – Mr. Lee has a small role in this delightful Martin Scorsese adaptation of Brian Selznick's classic children's book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, but it's a featured role that plays off his imposing presence and turns it smartly (and beautifully) on its head. It's a wonderful cameo in a very special film; you'll remember it well.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY - The very definition of epic filmmaking, Peter Jackson's stalwart effort certainly didn't please everyone (some of the most vocal Tolkien fans believed it took too many liberties) but all conceded that Mr. Lee was perfectly cast as the power-hungry Saruman the White. In many ways it was a dream role for Mr. Lee, who was a great follower of Mr. Tolkien and his work (he'd met him in the 1950s) and wanted very much to be part of the experience. He is featured most prominently in the second film, and was greatly displeased that Mr. Jackson left his demise out of the final movie THE RETURN OF THE KING. That scene has since been restored on the extended DVD Director's Cut, and is now considered the Authorized Version.

THE CORPSE BRIDE - In his later years Mr. Lee began a partnership with director Tim Burton, appearing in five of his films (Mr. Burton had long been a huge fan of the actor) and would have appeared in six had his role in SWEENEY TODD not been cut from the finished picture. However he was best served by lending his distinctive voice to this animated gem, and joining the ensemble in song.



THE THREE MUSKETEERS with Faye Dunaway


GORMENGHAST - Based on the classic novels by Mervyn Peake, this miniseries is lush and gothic in tone, dealing with the machinations of an ancient country comprised entirely of an enormous castle (the Gormenghast of the title). Mr. Lee is properly imperious and sinister as the manservant Flay, and the double dealings through the corridors of the immense city-state echo both Shakespearean intrigue and classic Fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis.

THE LAST UNICORN - Peter S. Beagle's wonderful novel became one of Rankin-Bass's (SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, MAD MONSTER PARTY, RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, THE HOBBIT) finest two hours. Among the fans of the book was Mr. Lee himself; I've already spoken above of how he came to his recording session, book in hand, with suggestions on what to incorporate that had been left out in the original screenplay.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES - Mr. Lee often credited this film and director Billy Wilder with breaking him out of the typecasting mold of the Hammer Horror films. I agree. He also thought that Mr. Wilder was one of the best directors he even worked with, and I can't argue that either; in fact it's sinful that this film isn't better known than it is. A terrific adventure-comedy romp, the movie finds Mr. Lee cast as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's more-brilliant brother, keeping secrets that impinge on Holmes's current investigation. The set-pieces are brilliantly staged (a battle with the Lock Ness Monster being among them) and the climactic scene of both Mycroft and Sherlock with Queen Victoria is a comic gem. Robert Stephens. Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page and Clive Revill are equally outstanding, as is the rest of the cast. If you haven't seen this, go and rent it immediately. You're welcome.

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT - A splendid film, one that should have been the first of series. As a connoisseur of supernatural fiction, Mr. Lee was a fan of Dennis Wheatley's work, and approached Hammer studios insisting that they adapt the novel. The screenplay was by the masterful scribe Richard Matheson, and Mr. Lee's performance as Nicholas the Duc de Richleau – a sort of refined, British equivalent of Carl Kolchak – was a perfect characterization, as he goes up against a Satanic cult. Sadly, the film didn't do well financially on its initial release; it's only now recognized as a triumph of atmosphere and intelligence.

CITY OF THE DEAD - This is a vastly underrated gem of a film, owing much to a Hitchcock classic as it does to CURSE OF THE DEMON, BURN WITCH, BURN and Val Lewton's masterpieces. A student goes to a small, isolated English village to investigate rumors of a supernatural cult. Mr. Lee portrays her professor, who may know more than he's initially letting on. Intelligent, subtle and disturbing, this is a lost classic that should be better know.



THE FACE OF FU MANCHU - the inspiration for DR. NO?


THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD - Another wonderful anthology film from Amicus, written by the legendary Robert Bloch (PSYCHO) from his short stories. Mr. Lee's segment is based on the famous “Sweets for the Sweet", and he plays a father to a young lady who may be less innocent than she appears. The ending of the story is a shocker, and the film follows suit admirably.

Of course, as state before, almost any of Mr. Lee's performances are worth your time, whether they be in one of the increasingly silly DRACULA sequels or as a cameo in a Tim Burton production. The films below are worth a look, and are just slightly below the bar set by the above, but in many ways it's all subjective. Quite a few of these are my personal favorites; no doubt some of yours are among them also.

GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS (as stated above, in which he portrays author M. R. James, introducing some of his greatest stories adapted for BBC television;
FAERIE TALE THEATRE “The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers” (a wonderful adaptation of the Grimm Brother's fable); RAW MEAT; THE CREEPING FLESH; POOR DEVIL (a personal favorite with Mr. Lee a very hip Lucifer alongside Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Klugman, and Adam West, enjoyable for a rare excursion into outright comedy); THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH; THE GORGON; THE SKULL; THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (it was his portrayal of Sax Rohmer's pulp villain that made Ian Fleming recommend his cousin for the title role of DR. NO); RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK; THE OBLONG BOX; GOLIATH AWAITS (a splendid gothic miniseries of a society created in the sunken hold of an ocean vessel); THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVICIBLE (Mr. Lee sings songs composed by Richard O'Brien, who wrote THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW!); SLEEPY HOLLOW; and his several guest appearances on THE AVENGERS, SPACE:1999, and an early appearance on THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR.

Unfamiliar with some of these? You have hours of pleasure ahead…



DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS again with his good friend Peter Cushing.


A few final notes on Mr. Lee…

Ad mentioned above, one of his great regrets was that, due to his reputation as a serious, brooding actor, he was not able to do more comedy, as he enjoyed it and had a deft, light touch. One of his happier moments was when he was asked to host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1978. He was wonderful, and he a chance to not only play off his macabre personality (in a skit about vampire hunters and as the Grim Reaper visiting a little girl whose pet he'd taken in another, funny, touching bit) but truly enjoy himself with the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players.

Apparently the good feelings were echoed by the cast, for when he came out to take his final bow and say goodnight, he was presented with a dozen roses each from Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman and Jane Curtin. That was the first time - and so far the only time – that a host has been treated that way by the ensemble.




Recently on YouTube, the following footage appeared. It shows Mr. Lee recording what would be his final performance for the movie ANGELS IN NOTTING HILL, in which he plays the boss of the universe, here taking the form of a small stuffed animal.

Click on the image below to see it; the role speaks for itself in the movie, but the final dialogue seems most appropriate under the circumstances…



I have on my bookshelf a wonderful anthology titled “The Ghouls” edited by Peter Haining, it's a collection of short stories that became classic films of the genre (and includes “The Fly”, “The Most Dangerous Game”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “Incident at Owl Creek”, “The Body Snatcher” and “Spurs”, which became Tod Browning's FREAKS). With a dedication to Boris Karloff and an introduction by Vincent Price, it's a Horror fan's embarrassment of riches.

Mr. Lee contributes the Afterword, and in the final paragraph has this to say to all of us:

“The terror film genre has been served by so many great actors…their ability has brought credit and distinction – not to mention popularity – to a branch of film-making too often unfairly derided for containing excesses of torture and violence, blood and gore…Let me say in conclusion, then, that I believe “The Ghouls” have their own special place in the cinema – and I am more than proud to be one of their number.”

No, Mr. Lee; it is we who are proud to have you among us, and so grateful for your talent, skills and dedication, as well as your integrity and decency.

Thank you, sir. From all of us, thank you so much.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE
2015

 

Remember when I wasn't going to talk about remakes? You should; it was just last month.

I wasn't going to say a word about the spate of remakes and reboots currently making their way through the cinematic swamp towards audiences everywhere, because I simply didn't have the strength or heart to deal with the subject again.

Well, things have changed. (“ Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman)

The trigger was the release of the film POLTERGEIST, and the very perceptive review by my human companion Shane Dallmann, a critic whose knowledge and expertise I'd referenced before. (You can read his excellent review HERE, along with the comments generated.) By all accounts, as I surmised when I first saw the previews during IT FOLLOWS, the film is pretty much a waste of time; rent the original if you so choose. (And seeing the publicity on the film, including the dreaded “Oh-look-my-daughter-is-sitting-in-the-corner-of-her-closet-and-crying-I-must-go-help-her-OH-NO-IT'S-NOT-MY-DAUGHTER-IT'S-A HORRIBLE-THING-INSTEAD-AAAAHHHH!” scene which made nobody jump in sheer surprise and unexpectedness, did nothing to whet my appetite for this latest effort.)



But…in reading the comments on Mr. Dallmann's review, I was struck by an observation, one I had never considered before, and it opened up a stream of thoughts that I wished to explore further. The comment, in part, is as follows:

“Geeky fanboy producers make the movie they wish the original had been, unaware they are using that self-same original as a template upon which to layer their unfiltered…horror-porn.”

Fascinating, to quote a beloved SF character. This is something I'd never previously considered. The common trope of remakes is that they're made simply to cash in on familiar titles or films from a previous era, with the idea that they will be financially viable because of the established recognition factor. In other words, strictly a monetary decision.

But what if this gentleman is correct? It certainly makes sense; the youngsters who'd grown up on these films in their youth are now in positions of authority. It logical that they would turn to these beloved memories as inspiration for their own efforts, and, indeed, if there was any sense of dissatisfaction with the earlier films, there would indeed be a desire to “top” what was done before, or “finally get it right ”…at least in their opinions.

If that sounds too complicated…well, it implies that the impetus for the remakes need not necessarily be entirely avaricious.



The idea of creating a work inspired by another previous effort is an old, established literary tradition, not at all disparaged. Many a fine author has been influenced by another's efforts and created something wondrous in response. In the genre of the Dark Fantastic there are numerous examples:

The great H. P. Lovecraft was hugely influenced by the masterful writings of Edgar Allen Poe, and although he carved out his own place in the field, many of his best works are acknowledges pastiches of Mr. Poe's stylings, most notably his classic “The Outsider”.

Bram Stoker's classic and groundbreaking novel “Dracula” has inspired more adaptations than almost any other literary work, but it's also inspired others to try their hand at the vampire myth. Perhaps the most famous version is Stephen King's “'Salem's Lot”, which is a conscious variation on Stoker's novel set in present day Maine. (And for all its Gothic sensibilities, it's good to remember that Mr. Stoker himself considered “Dracula” a “modern” novel, contrasting the vampire legend with the current advances in science.) The parallels include the gathering of the brave vampire hunting group, the vampire's use of a minion to lay the groundwork (Renfield in “Dracula”, Straker in “'Salem's Lot”), the search for the many coffins, the staking of a female protagonist, and the forced drinking of the vampire's blood to achieve desecration.

“Dracula” was also the inspiration for Richard Matheson's classic novel “I Am Legend”, which put forth the possibilities that if one vampire was scary, then a world filled with vampires would be even scarier. (This “ratcheting up” of the Horror quotient with excess is the same thought process behind the new POLTERGEIST and many current remakes; the reason it worked so well for Mr. Matheson is his sure hand guiding the plot and knowing what he really wanted to say, which wasn't about simply increasing the mayhem.)

And in one of the most famous examples of inspiration, George Romero has often stated that he's indebted to “I Am Legend” in his creation of his DEAD mythos with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD and other films in the series. He was struck by the vision of a new, chaotic society rising from the ashes of an apocalypse that he planned his work as a testament to Mr. Matheson's, choosing to focus on the society as a whole rather than the one individual as “I Am Legend” does.

Harlan Ellison has used inspiration from others for some of his most powerful work; this includes his short story “Nedra at f:5.6” (a homage to Fritz Leiber's classic tale “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”). In perhaps his most famous example, he had long admired Robert Bloch's story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and asked for a sequel for his groundbreaking anthology “Dangerous Visions”. Mr. Bloch complied with his story “A Toy for Juliette”, yet Mr. Ellison had some other thoughts on where the story should lead. With Mr. Bloch's permission, he continued the tale as his award-winning story “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. Both stories can be read as stand-alone works; taken as a pair they offer a rich examination of violence in society and psychotic behavior that is not easily forgotten.

And Richard Matheson has taken inspiration from others in his efforts as well; his novel “Hell House” is a variation on Shirley Jackson's classic haunted house examination “The Haunting of Hill House”.

Even the original POLTERGEIST can lay claim to inspiration. No less a genre observer than Gahan Wilson, in his review in “Twilight Zone” magazine, suggested that POLTERGEIST's creators were moved to make the movie after being dissatisfied with how similar material was handled in the original THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.

All of this is an honorable means of using similar themes to different outcomes. Each of the artists described, intrigued by thoughts and concepts put forth in a previous work, take stock and think, “What can I do and say with that idea?” Each effort is successful because of the clear vision of what the artists wants to bring to his individual interpretation; indeed, in some cases the new interpretations can overshadow the original inspiration.

The problem, as I see it, is when the vision isn't truly clear, and the ‘inspiration' becomes water thin. If the new attempt is simply a desire to make things scarier (for want of a better term), if the attempt simply slavishly follows what small details interested the inspired in the first place without considering the greater work as a whole, then it becomes either a game of one-upmanship (which can become tedious in the extreme very quickly) or acts as a pale imitation of what was done before much better.



Everyone's a critic. Whereas that used to simply be a saying, today it pretty much stands as fact. Log onto any website, whether it's a film tribute site, a Horror site, Facebook, Amazon, anything, and you will find people pontificating about this or that television series, movie, book, comic, and what have you. The reviews may be insightful or amateurish, but they exist without any hesitation or sense of self-consciousness. Everyone has an opinion, and nobody is afraid to share it anymore, for better or for worse.

As with anything else, there is both good and bad in this. It's nice that people feel free to express themselves honestly, and good critical feedback can help many an artist in their lifelong journey of self-expression. On the other hand, it should be abundantly clear that not every opinion is equal. The Internet seems to level that playing field, but in truth that's an illusion. There are many bad, uninformed and simply foolish opinions, but unless a person is intimately familiar with those offering their opinions (and the anonymity of being online makes that extremely difficult) then all opinions are to be taken with equal validity.

And quite often, this is the death of Art, for when Art is determined by committee, it can quickly become the homogenous indistinct efforts that were (and still are) often seen on broadcast television. True Art is often the vision on one or a particular group of individuals, and while the performing arts are indeed a group endeavor, there must be one person at the helm of the ship if anything cohesive and interesting is to be produced. (Such as Rod Serling, Joss Whedon, David Cronenberg, Christ Carter, Gene Roddenberry and other individuals of note.)

Ideally, the artists does listen to criticism – and then disregards it if he finds it contrary to his own beliefs. He doesn't slavishly follow every suggestion or request, but searches out his own path. He is aware that not all opinions are equally important, but some must be paid attention to if he is to grow as an artist, even if that opinion diverges from his own. (Stephen King refers to that individual in writing as the Ideal Reader; the person to whom the manuscript is first given on its completion, and whose opinion influences it's editing and final disposition the most – in his case it's his wife Tabitha King, a noted author in her own right.)

But there is a school of thought, particularly among the film and television studios, that consensus can be achieved through special screenings and sneak previews. Many films are often edited based on audience reactions to these screenings, and while the concept of cutting a film down to eliminate slow parts and fill any plot holes is very helpful (Stanley Kubrick would often base his final edits on the initial screenings) it becomes an issue when the audience seems to go against the very nature of the film's intent – perhaps the ending might be changed to make it more optimistic when the screenwriter wanted a harder, more somber conclusion, or a character who's very popular suddenly dies, and the audience rebels against this even when it's imperative to the overall story arc (as happened to William Goldman in his screenplay of THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER).

When this happens, when the creation of Art becomes a practice on the level of a choose-your-own-adventure manual, it's fated to suffer, particularly when one of the functions of Art is to occasionally make the viewer uncomfortable and cause them to think along lines they might not otherwise be willing to explore.

Popularity can also be a straitjacket in an effort to create Art. George Romero gained fame for his powerful DEAD films, and his loyal fans are legion. They can be devoted and utterly steadfast, provided he continues to supply the films they became fans of initially. But when he's sometimes tried to stretch himself to creating other works, or when he doesn't fulfill the fans' expectations of what a true DEAD film is, they can be equally unforgiving, and quick to demand “Give us what we want, and only what we want!”

Two of his films from the 1990s, THE DARK HALF and BRUISER, were attempts to go beyond his DEAD oeuvre; the first film was greeted with disinterest and the second with actual hostility. Neither reaction was merited. THE DARK HALF was, in my opinion (and take it as you will, considering the theme of this essay) a fine adaptation of Stephen King's novel, not one of the greatest adaptations nor one of Mr. Romero's best efforts, but a fine, solid bit of macabre entertainment with a strong central performance by Timothy Hutton. (Two, in fact, but that's another matter.)



I found BRUISER to be a thought-provoking, wonderful bit of Dark Fantasy and allegory, the story of a man who literally becomes faceless in the soul-crushing circumstances of his family, social and business life. It was a metaphor, an intriguing one, and although it had some clumsy moments here and again as it approached its denouement, the bile released on the film in fan columns and on websites was absolutely baffling to me. It was (and remains) a fine, intelligent, adult Horror tale, and I can only attribute its reception to the fact that it simply wasn't another example of flesh eating, chaotic Walking Dead mayhem. The Romero fans knew what they wanted, and this wasn't it, no matter how worthy it might have been otherwise.

The same situation occurred with the latest DEAD film, SURVIVIAL OF THE DEAD. The outrage expelled on this movie from the Horror community would have you believe that it was a completely wasted effort, a total fumbling of a one talented individual who had long lost his ability to create a worthwhile cinematic effort.

Hogwash.

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD contains moments that ring as some of the most dominant and heartbreaking of any of Mr. Romero's other DEAD films: the Dead family members chained to beds in their spare rooms, the lovely Dead daughter whose one remaining link of memory – riding her beloved horse – sustains her day-to-day existence, and the terrible final fate of that horse, the animated corpses walking across the bottom of the river, the enslavement of the Dead and their final revolt, and, most powerful of all, the final image of the two Dead patriarchs, filled with nothing but the mindless remnants of their long feud, standing apart beneath a full moon, instinctively firing shot after shot at each other with empty weapons. Could there be a more potent image of the complete, irrational uselessness of blind hatred?

I won't argue that SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is on the same artistic level as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD or DAY OF THE DEAD; it has serious flaws, not the least of which is a focus on characters from a previous film (the only time that Mr. Romero used characters from one DEAD film in another as a direct sequel) that we couldn't possibly care less about (I kept wanting to get back to the island families and their conflicts). But I will say that it is a worthy film, and one undeserving of the critical shellacking it got from the Horror community.

What happened? Obviously it didn't meet the expectations of the fans; they wanted more gore and mayhem instead of a careful, thoughtful Western-styled examination of hate and violence. They wanted more victims, blood and effects. But Mr. Romero has never been interested in simply that kind of mayhem; he's always used it as allegory for the breakdown of society. The gore and garish violence associated with many of the so-called “zombie” films today came from the offshoots, the “inspired” homages and the low-budget efforts that had little going for them as far as genuine ideas and had to rely on grue to make their points.

In the end, under the democratic principle of critical consensus, he “didn't give the audience what they wanted,” and suffered for it. But I feel the loss was more the community's than Mr. Romero.



Some years ago, my human companion Bob made a series of short films featuring myself, all based on stories that I tell. It was a fun and exciting project, and in all four 30 minute movies were completed. (I hope very much in the near future to get them released at least on my YouTube channel for your enjoyment.)

After completing two of them, Bob was getting tired and decided that he wouldn't direct the third one; he would produce it and allow another filmmaker to take the reins. (He also thought it would be interesting to see what somebody else's eye might bring to the films.) After some thought he chose an individual that will remain unnamed. That person seemed excited about the possibilities and read the script, which was based on my story “The Devil's Pocket”.

“The Devil's Pocket” is a story about the power of legends, a psychological tale that implies more than it shows. Two brothers have heard stories about an abandoned quarry with a cursed past; called ‘the Devil's Pocket', youngsters are taught to avoid it because the Devil himself may live there, and never to visit it at night. The boys being curious decide to explore that forbidden place, and several strange events occur. The listener to the story and the viewer of the film are lead to consider whether the place truly is cursed, or whether the boys' fears made their imaginations play tricks on them; it end deliberately ambiguous.

When the potential director read the script, he asked if he could suggest changes to the story, and Bob was more than willing to listen, since one, this would have been the director's project, and he should definitely have some input, and two, a fresh perspective often makes for a more creative and successful project. There was a meeting with Bob, his assistant producer and the director.

After listening to the suggestions, Bob was very concerned. There were extensive changes suggested that removed all ambiguity and subtlety in the story, making the terrors full-on and visceral, which completely changed the intent of the original. While that was troubling enough, Bob's assistant pointed out that many of the changes were familiar moments and scenes being used in current popular Horror films. (As one example, there was an effect planned of a demonic creature crawling up the side of the boys' house.) It seemed to her that, in trying to rewrite the script, the director had called up several people and asked them what they wanted to see in a good Horror film, and they replied with tropes that were already becoming overly familiar.

The film was in danger of becoming simply a “Horror's Greatest Hits” collection of unrelated scenes, and after some serious discussion, the director decided not to helm the project, and the script remained as originally written. Bob ended up directing that effort as well, and to the gentleman's credit, when he saw the finished film he apologized and said he now understood what we were trying to achieve with the more suggestive story. There were no hard feelings, and everyone went on with things.

But it demonstrated quite graphically the danger of Art by Committee that I fear ruins many a potentially fine film or story today. Or say rather, not Art by Committee, but Art by Consensus, staging actions and including scenes that offer absolutely so surprise because the filmmakers grew up watching and loving certain types of Horror movies and wanted to make their films exactly the same way.

How many zombie films have there been in the past dozen years that are almost unwatchable because they're all exactly the same story, more or less? The filmmakers grew up loving the DEAD movies of Mr. Romero and want to put their own spin on things, and that minimal point is where things are acceptable. But they don't put their own spin on things; they simply repeat what was done before, over and over and over again, possible bumping up the gore and grue (Which is good for budding makeup artists but not so good for moviegoers that want something fresh) but doing little else.

There's the “a canister of your-fake-chemical-name-here getting into the environment and starting the plague” scene, the “my loved one becomes a zombie and I can't kill him/her because of my love so they end up killing me/my family members/total strangers” scene, the “authorities from the government/military/shadowy conspiracy organization closes of the town to begin quarantining it” scene, and, of course, the various scenes of chewing, gouging, eating, flesh-tearing, veins-in-the-teeth and eyeballs dangling scenes. It's all by rote, so much so that viewers can usually predict within fifteen minutes of watching these films what's about to happen next. And this is the death of true Horror, because to be genuinely scared one must not know what's coming!

It's been suggested that those fans don't really want a true Horror movie; they want a comfortable set of iconic images that they can watch with a feigned interest, ritual moments as comfortable as an old song playing on the radio that they can sing along to. The archetypes are so pervasive that every haunted attraction in America has its own “zombie apocalypse” moment or section, and the tropes are now played for satire on shows like the recent IZOMBIE. (Which I enjoy because of the writing and characters, not the situation; as far as I'm concerned that's simply background white noise.)

By slavishly following what made their hearts beat wildly, the new filmmakers, rather than creating homages to the earlier efforts, have hastened the enshrining of clichés and started the genre down the path to disillusionment and boredom.



Let's look at that terrible daughter-in-the-closet scene from the new POLTERGEIST. No, I didn't see it in the theater; I caught the moment on a talk show when actor Sam Rockwell, an excellent performer, both in comedy (GALAXY QUEST, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND) and drama (THE GREEN MILE, MOON) who deserves much better material than what he sometimes gets, was promoting the film. The logic of the scene is spacious; the daughter, who's been in distress, is sitting in the closet with her back to her father, not acknowledging his presence in the room when he enters and begins talking to her. Do children behave that way? The whole reason for her indifference is when the clueless father (who should know children don't act like that, much less his own daughter) walks over, concerned for her well-being, bends over (for the full jump effect) and can see the hideous being that's actually in the room when it turns to face him, hissing.

Unless you're under the age of ten and haven't seen a single scary movie in your lifetime, the terrible sight that turns and confronts him comes as absolutely no surprise; it's a cheap jump that the more accomplished filmmakers of the Dark Fantastic – David Cronenberg, George Romero, Roman Polanski, even the more mature John Carpenter – disdain. The only shock potential is the “terrible” face that confronts the father, and a slack-faced daughter with empty eye-sockets is somewhat low on the fright scale to more experienced viewers.

Contrast that with a similar scene from the wonderful Gothic chiller THE OTHERS, when the mother enters her daughter's dark bedroom and finds her playing on the floor, talking away as children do, calling to her mother (a splendid Nicole Kidman). The moment when the mother comes face-to-face with her daughter and discovers a blind, elderly woman sitting on the floor, speaking in her daughter's voice, is truly terrifying. (And it has the benefit of being completely logical; at the end of the film the blind woman is revealed as a psychic who at that moment had a connection with the daughter.) It's a study of skill versus imitation and cliché, with POLTERGEIST coming out short.



Does it matter? Are the fans discerning? I think so. THE OTHERS was a critical and commercial success, POLTERGEIST was a disappointment on both counts. It's probably not enough to stem the tide of remakes and reimaginings, but it's a glimmer of hope, and sometimes that's all viewers can cling to. This is an extraordinarily good time for the Dark Fantastic, with films as diverse and challenging as A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, IT FOLLOWS, EX MACHINA, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, THE BABADOOK finding their audiences and receiving accolades from genre critics and supporters. The time when audiences will be satisfied with rehashed anxieties may soon be a thing of the past. I can always hope so, anyway.

When I saw IT FOLLOWS, I was heartened by the age of the audience around me. Many were in their late teens and early twenties, the audience that POLTERGEIST desperately wanted. I was worried that the deliberate pace and quietly rising tension might be lost on these young people who have experienced more visceral shocks in their more popular movies. Yet when the lights came up, the collected release of breath was an honest reaction to the fear generated, and all conversation was excited discussion about how the movie had affected them No one had a disparaging word to say, and most walked into the night laughing nervously and looking over their shoulders in slight apprehension. Greater tribute could not be paid to David Robert Mitchell and his fine cast and crew. Well done, all of you!



It's difficult to remember right now, because his career has, if not exactly cooled down, then certainly levelled off in its maturity, but during the 1980s into the early 1990s Stephen Spielberg was the proverbial 800-pund gorilla in Hollywood: those in charge of the studios thought he could do no wrong, and let him do pretty much anything he wanted. And one thing he wanted to do, in addition to making his own movies, was to produce a series of expensive SF ad Fantasy films that, even though they were slick and superbly mounted, were basically B movies with A movie budgets.

Some of these films were quite successful, artistically, critically and commercially; among those I'd list the original POLTERGEIST, BACK TO THE FUTURE, HARRY & THE HENDERSONS and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT? Others were less so; I don't think GREMLINS has aged terribly well, and doesn't seem as coherent and enjoyable as when I first watched it. I never really got caught up in the excitement generated by THE GOONIES, although it has its legions of admirers, and the less said about YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED, most of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and the second INDIANA JONES film, the better.

But I think one of his worst efforts was the television series AMAZING STORIES, a show that premiered with great fanfare and, a little over a season later, sank unceremoniously without a trace. It was trumpeted as a return of quality anthology television, and much was made of the celebrities drawn to the show because of Mr. Spielberg's reputation: Martin Scorsese, Burt Reynolds, Bob Clark, Peter Hyams, Robert Zemeckis and Clint Eastwood all helmed episodes of the show. Alas, many bought into the Hollywood (and, sadly, popular) notion that the director is the one responsible for the success of a particular production, whereas the truth of the matter is that, without a solid, wonderful script for a director to work with, he might as well be fingerpainting.

The simple fact was that for a show called AMAZING STORIES, most of the stories were far from amazing. Some were good, several were OK, and most were mediocre at best. Because it was an expensively produced series (estimates of the budget per episode were upwards from one-to-two million dollars each) and special effects were used extensively, some of the weaknesses of the material were covered by the production values, something that occurred with the films produced by Mr. Spielberg during this time. But money can't buy quality all the time, and the show left many wanting.

(And to offset the cries of outrage from fans of the show, let me state that many episodes were indeed worthy of the series title. These include Mr. Spielberg's episode “The Mission”, Mr. Zemeckis's “Go to the Head of the Class”, Norman Reynold's wonderful “Gather Ye Acorns” and Mr. Hyam's “The Amazing Farnsworth”. Probably the best episode was one that didn't receive any advance hype, directed by the lesser known (but equally talented) William Dear: “Mummy Daddy”, a raucous, live-action Looney Toons extravaganza about a Horror film actor's attempts to get through the Southern backwoods to the hospital for his expectant wife's delivery.)



What went wrong with the show? And what was wrong with so many of Mr. Spielberg's film productions? Many pinpointed the fact most of the episodes were warmed-over moments that other Dark Fantasy series – THE TWILIGHT ZONE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE OUTER LIMITS and ONE STEP BEYOND – had done originally, and better. And many of his film attempts were recreations of B movies that he'd enjoyed during Saturday afternoon matinees in his youth. He had the money and resources now to recreate his childhood favorites with huge special effects and professionally polished productions, but the charms of low-budget melodrama and monsters were lost in the glaze of corporate coffers; only the weaknesses remained.

And I fear that's what's happening today with the remakes that fail so dismally. Love is a wonderful thing, but love can be blinding as well, blinding to the faults and failings of a relationship, be they with a cherished partner or nostalgic memories. If, as an adult, you spend all your time trying to recapture or improve on a previous love and devotion, the result is sure to be unsatisfactory.

Many of the finest authors and artists still have a love for what first introduced them to this grand genre. Stephen King points to the Roger Corman creature features and Horror comics like “Tales from the Crypt” as his first love; Harlan Ellison thrills to the classic radio dramas of “Inner Sanctum”, “Quiet Please” and “Lights Out” and the pulp heroes The Shadow and Doc Savage for his sense of wonder. Chris Carter was a fan of KOLCHACK: THE NIGHT STALKER, and Rod Serling was long a fan of Horror and SF before the idea for THE TWILIGHT ZONE ever occurred to him.

But each of these, and artists like them, moved on from their initial inspirations when it became clear that there was so much more to their talents that they wanted to explore. Mr. King still has a love for one-reel Horror in black & white, but his passion has grown to include his life experiences. Mr. Ellison still reveres the classic drama dramatists, but his imagination was strengthened and influences by the magic realism of the Central American fabulists. Even Mr. Spielberg's latest works are more assured and mature; LINCOLN, except for the final ten minutes, was magnificent. (Although for my money his finest work may still be the classic JAWS.)

Perhaps those that greenlight and plot the current series of remakes will similarly mature. It's possible; the Beatles began as a fairly typical teen heartthrob quartet imitating their favorite rockabilly artists, covering Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins. There first singles that they wrote themselves were greatly influenced by those artists, but when they began truly trying to find their own voices and carve out their own territory in the music world, they grew into the most influential rock group in history, pointing the way to experiments unimagined by the first rock artists, and inspiring those in their wake, up until today (and probably into the future). The talent of POLTERGEIST might do the same.

A famous quote goes, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” With the Dark Fantastic, there's no need to do away with the sense of wonder concerning the macabre and magical; it's easily recaptured. There's no crime in inspiration, but it can never replace vision, or innovation.

POLTERGEIST was a great movie, but …it would be even scarier if …” is a fine starting point. But if the idea never progresses far beyond that, what's left is simply a hollow echo, shouted into an uncaring and uninterested void, eventually fading into nothing.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY
2015

 

I was honestly planning on having something new to say this month. Truly I was.

I'd worked on it throughout the past month, and each time I seemed to stumble or not quite find the right words to express my feelings. Eventually I realized that my heart simply wasn't in it.

I was going to talk yet again about the spate of remakes that were coming our way. I was going to mention seeing the trailer for the new POLTERGEIST when I went to see the wonderful IT FOLLOWS, and how unimpressed I was with it. I was going to talk about the jaw-dropping announcement that some company was planning a remake of DON'T LOOK NOW, simply one of the finest efforts of Dark Fantasy ever put on screen, a near perfect imagining that cannot possibly be bettered.

I was going to sigh again about the lack of faith and imagination in Hollywood today; that because of the amount of money involved in current productions and the demand for the largest slots possible for their summer blockbusters, that the major companies have limited their selections to the safest possible choices, counting on established adaptations of popular comic franchises, sequels and, yes, remakes.

I was going to postulate that the need to play it safe in a falsehood perpetrated by these film companies; that with the new digital technology the costs of producing moderately budgeted features have actually dropped and professional presentations are well within the budgets of today's independent filmmakers.

I was going to talk about the reasoning offered by some that remakes aren't necessarily a bad thing; how some liken it to revivals and new productions of theatrical efforts, particularly Shakespeare's oeuvre, such as presenting a new version of “Hamlet” or “Twelfth Night”. I was going to agree that this was a reasonable argument, so long as all remember that the best of the new productions should bring something new to the table, a different perspective or a fresh approach to the material rather than simply repeating by rote what was done before, possibly better.

I was going to agree that this argument could be put forth for the new versions of THE THING, THE FLY, CAT PEOPLE and the Hammer Studio versions of FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but that in reality many of these are not “remakes” in the strictest sense, but new interpretations of literary works; THE THING being a more faithful version of John W. Campbell's novella and THE FLY a reinterpretation of the novella by George Langelaan (a fine macabre author who should be better known). These are always acceptable (although I hope many will agree that, after all the previous versions released since movies began using books as their source material, that we really don't need yet another film version of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” unless it has something immediate to say to modern audiences.)

I was going to acknowledge some filmmakers for at least attempting new interpretations of some genre classics, but planned to judiciously point out that, in the case of CAT PEOPLE, THE HAUNTING, HALLOWEEN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, what they artists offered wasn't remotely what the audience wanted. (Obviously they'd misjudged what made those movies brilliant to begin with.) But at least they were a welcome respite from the paint-by-numbers retreads of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, STRAW DOGS, and, most egregious and pointless of all, PSYCHO.

I was going to point out that the remake of POLTERGEIST seems almost a point by point recreation of the original, with every set piece repeated - the tree outside the house attacks the son, the girl is enticed by voices in the television, the clown doll in the corner achieves malevolent life, someone suffers a hallucination of their face rotting away in seconds in the bathroom. What's the point, other than to increase the visual intensity with more state-of-the-art effects? Is that really the bottom line now?

I was going to discuss the argument some use, that remakes actually open classic stories to a new generation, making them their own. I suppose that has merit, but is a mediocre offering, even brand new, better than its predecessor? Did audiences really see that abysmal version of PSYCHO and think, “This is terrible, but I'll bet the original was much better! I'll have to watch that instead!” Sadly, I believe the thought process starts and ends with, “This is terrible!”

But another greater worry is the current cultural amnesia of this generation, who seem to regard anything prior to 1990 as ancient and unworthy, who are not only ignorant but defiantly proud of their state. (How else to explain the astonishing recent eruption online concerning Paul McCartney's collaboration with Kayne West where young people, completely straight-faced, offered their opinion about how nice it was that Mr. West was bringing attention to a novice musician with this effort?) When I recently announced that I would be attending a presentation of the original HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a young human acquaintance of mine looked surprised. “There was an original version?” she said. What more can be said?

I was going to address a new argument gaining ground that Hollywood has always been a place for remakes, many of them becoming classics loved by all. Among the films offered are THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE TEN COMMENDMENTS, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE MALTESE FALCON, and BEN HUR.

This argument is specious at best. Many of these films such as THE WIZARD OF OZ, BEN HUR and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS were presented as silent films in a manner complete separate from their later counterparts, and then each so-called remake offered its own vision in the new era. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a cultural reimagining of the samurai myth juxtaposed into the old west. And again, many are literary adaptations. (And even if THE MALTESE FALCON was a remake, it was so important that no one has – as yet – thought to try and improve on it. It appears to have had the final word.)

But even if this is true – what of it? Just because a practice has become commonplace doesn't mean that it's sound. Were the remakes of MUTANY ON THE BOUNTY with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard or Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson really any better than the original with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable?

I was going to point out that the pulse of a remake seems primarily financial; that remakes are chose not necessarily because someone wants to make an artistic statement regarding and established work, but because a studio believes that using a recognized name will ensure some degree of success from those familiar with the original; in other words, a hedge against financial loss. But how realistic is that considering the cultural amnesia I mentioned earlier. I was going to relate screenwriter William Goldman opinion that sequels are basically “whore's movies”, because the financial impetus, rather than the artistic, make the motive are impure.

I was going to state that this didn't have to be so; that this is a very exciting time for Horror and the Dark fantastic, and the major releases of two exceptional works – IT FOLLOWS and EX MACHINA – after their limited release success, built entirely by enthusiastic word of mouth, indicates that audience are indeed hungry for new ideas, modestly budgeted and packaged. That underestimating the intelligence and taste of the audience is no longer an acceptable excuse.

I was going to go one like that. But why? I don't have the energy nor the desire. I've said it before, and others have said it far better than I. And I doesn't seem to make any difference. Studios will release the remakes and continue their tepid, innocuous practices, and young audiences will flock blindly to each opening night to be either disappointed or not, and no amount of reasoning will change anyone's mind.

My biggest argument previously has been that nondiscriminating audiences get the films they deserve, but that I deserve better. But that's no longer true. With the release of IT FOLLOWS, EX MACHINA, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, THE BABADOOK, WHATWE DO IN THE SHADOWS, HOUSEBOUND and other efforts, I'm receiving an embarrassment of riches; films of intelligence and impeccable artistry that are leaving us shivering and awe-inspired. And as long as this continues, I'm quite satisfied, if a trifle frustrated at times.

Enjoy your remakes. Defend them, embrace them, what have you; simply don't waste my time with them. And if that's the spectral equivalent of “Damn kids! Get off my lawn!”, so be it.

That's what I would have said this month, if I were going to say anything.

Which I'm not.

See you next time.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL
2015

 

The recent untimely passing of Leonard Nimoy has put me in an atypically nostalgic frame of mind, and turned my thoughts back towards the great unheralded time of UHF.

I'll explain.

Back at the dawn of time, during the age of both the Tyrannosaurus and the Mastodon, television, in its infancy, only had three or four basic channels, and they all broadcast in signals over the airwaves rather than through a cable. (Now that satellite communication and entertainment is standard, programs are once again going out through the stratosphere, albeit through a much longer range and with many, many more options. Still, the more things change, etc…)

The channels were dominated by the major networks, of which there were three: NBC, CBS and later ABC. Although the local stations that received these network broadcasts and transmitted them to customers in their area were locally owned, they were under contract to the majors, as they were know, and any network programming superseded local shows, both during daytime and primetime hours.


A mainstay on morning television in Philadelphia was CAPTAIN NOAH & HIS MAGICAL ARK, a children's cartoon/educational program. (Here the good Captain stands with Mrs. Noah and members of his puppet crew.)


There were programs created locally and broadcast on these channels, but for the most part the networks held sway. (This was before the invention of syndicated programming and infomercials; back during the Jurassic period, I believe.) These programs were broadcast on what was referred to as VHF, or Very High Frequency, and occupied the lower end of the dial mechanism used to select the evening's programs. (Remote controls didn't emerge until the Paleocene Era.) Their channel numbers fell between 2 and 10 for the most part.

Up further on the dial, operating still in VHF by on a slightly higher frequency were the Public Broadcasting Stations of the late 1960s and 70s; they could generally be found on channels 11 through 15. (I understand I'm generalizing a great deal to keep this history lesson simplified. Obviously the larger metropolitan areas had more channel selections; as an example, in the Philadelphia area the main channels broadcast were on 3, 6 and 10, but you could also some areas pick up channels 5 or 7, broadcasting out of relatively nearby New York, if you had a strong enough antenna, those ancient devices of antiquity.)

But…up further on the dial, in a magical netherworld of diffuse and difficult-to-reach transmissions, were the UHF stations, UHF of course standing for Ultra High Frequency. Most major areas had at least one or two; very small, locally owned and manned stations that could be picked up on a special supplemental antenna that came with most sets. The quality of the transmissions usually varied as to distance and whether conditions, but they usually broadcast specifically to their intended markets, and tailored their programs to their viewers without thought of other regions.

(A short note: in much of what is to come, I'm using the term UHF, but the programs and individuals described could often be found on the local channels on the lower side of the dial as well. I'm engaging in some poetic license; please indulge me.)

Now, as I stated, the local channels that carried the network programming was at the mercy of their schedules and products; usually the afternoon game shows, soap operas and talk shows would pre-empt any local efforts, and the block of time each evening from 7:30 until 10 or 11 belonged to them. But the UHF channels, operating during the same 24 hour cycle, was responsible for all its own programming, 24 hours a day, seven days a week! That's a staggering amount of time to fill, and the smaller budgeted and staffed channels had to be particularly inventive with their efforts.

Of course, local sports figured frequently on UHF; fans could see their favorite local teams at their own parks and stadiums in this time before ESPN or the Sports Channel. Each station usually produced a morning show for children, complete with cartoons and a host. And each station held the license for many, may old movies, and broadcast them on a continual basis with their Tuesday Night Movies, Wednesday Night Movie, Weekend Double Feature, Friday Late Night Movie…well, you get the idea.

But between these would be local productions that drew loyal, faithful fan followings. There was often a late afternoon dance program, ala AMERICAN BANDSTAND (which actually started out as a local program before moving to the network) featuring teenagers from the nearby high schools dancing and competing for prizes. There were early morning information and talk shows that often featured cash giveaways and dealt with local news and interests, quite often hosted by the celebrity news anchor or radio DJ. And if a station was particularly inventive and had access to its own mad performers, you'd get a comedy show that echoed Second City and SNL, featuring skits and prerecorded bits of filmed ridiculousness. Both the celebrated Soupy Sales and Uncle Floyd began as local programs on UHF before being lauded on a national level. Most of these efforts were produced on a budget barely able to sustain the catering on most network series; it was ingenuity and pure hard work that made them succeed.



I commend a motion picture from some years ago, Weird Al Yankovic's aptly titled UHF. Although it exaggerates their situation for comedic potential, many of the basic details presented are remarkably accurate: the UHF station employees were a small band of tireless workers that did everything from manning the camera to maintaining the equipment to creating, producing, and editing shows to appeal to audiences of all ages. It wasn't uncommon for a station member to man a camera for a news broadcast, film and edit commercials for local businesses, then change into an outlandish costume and host a children's cartoon program, all during the same day.

Each UHF station would develop their own personalities, with frequent appearances by familiar local talent adding to an off-Broadway, collegiate show atmosphere and infusing each station with a sense of neighborhood pride and pleasure. The people that appeared on the air were friends to the viewers, known and loved as well as any Hollywood star. In Philadelphia, morning DJ Bill Webber would don a loud sports coat and become Channel 17's Wee Willie Webber, host of the afternoon cartoon show, singing the SPIDERMAN theme and introducing Popeye to young viewers. Competing for their attention on Channel 48 was astronaut Captain Philadelphia (also known in human guise as Stu Nathan), who offered youngsters THE BANANA SPLITS and THE FLINTSTONES.



Captain Philadelphia (Stu Nathan)


It was common in most markets for one person to play multiple roles at the station. Count Gore De Vol, in addition to his HorrorHosting as himself, also appeared on the children's cartoon program as Captain 20 (it was Channel 20) and the local version of Bozo the Clown, in addition to the evening's weather reports on the news. Each persona was beloved in his own way, and had their own legions of fans that occasionally crossed over into their other work.

And this was the absolute glory of the UHF channels for those with a taste and love for the Dark Fantastic: UHF was its own Disneyland, offering grim, spooky wonders to sate any appetite!

Many, if not most of the HorrorHost of legend came from UHF. Philadelphia again had the late,  beloved Dr. Shock, whose call, “Let there be fright!” echoed on Channel 17 both in the late night hours and Saturday afternoons, depending on what year you tuned in. And Svengoolie, then known as Son of Svengoolie, graced the city with his macabre, outlandish presence in the early 1980s by being syndicated on Channel 48.



Doctor Shock with his young assistant 'Bubbles' (actually his daughter Doreen)


Each offered their own selection of films, depending on the library of each station, and the choices ranged from the early Roger Corman low budgeters to the classic Universal oeuvre to some of the newer independent films too specialized, unusual or gruesome to pass network scrutiny.  NOT OF THIS EARTH, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE BLOB, RUBY, BLACK CHRISTMAS, CHILDEN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF…these are just a minuscule sample of the terrors presented.

What UHF often excelled at was its selections of network programs to rerun in syndication, five nights of the week during the early evening hours. It was on UHF that you'd find classic comedies like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I LOVE LUCY, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, THAT GIRL, and others. For adventure and mystery fans there was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, 77 SUNSET STRIP, PERRY MASON and IRONSIDE.

But for fans of Fantasy, Horror and SF there was a treasure trove, particularly for the very young viewers who missed the programs on their initial run. STAR TREK, a ratings failure on the network (at least to the programmers) became the cult program and social phenomenon it is today directly through syndicated reruns. There was the Irwin Allen collective: LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. For adults there were the classics THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and NIGHT GALLERY. Horror was represented by DARK SHADOWS; early Steampunk by THE WILD WILD WEST, and even comedy in the forms of THE MUNSTERS, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and BEWITCHED. And depending on the resources of your station, there was the occasional rare surprise of ONE STEP BEYOND and WAY OUT, or the 1950s British series of THE INVISIBLE MAN.

For those with a taste for the unique and unusual, there were imports such as THE AVENGERS, the wonderful though short-lived THE CHAMPIONS, the indescribable THE PRISONER, and the introduction of one of the most iconic heroes in SF: DOCTOR WHO. Yes, before it became an American mainstay on PBS, the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee was introduced to in syndication and broadcast locally on Channel 17.



Wee Willie (Bill) Webber with two of his cartoon companions:
Tobor, THE EIGHTH MAN and ASTROBOY


And then there were the special events that truly created that feeling for family and rituals of the holidays. Each Halloween, during the week before the event. Wee Willie Webber would once again become Bill Webber, donning a tuxedo and hosting five nights of classic Universal Horror films: FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY, each with appropriate introductions and background information on each movie. (One year FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was substituted with BRIDE, and Mr. Webber explained that Mr. Lugosi's stumbling, arms-outstretched portrayal of the Creature came about because of its supposed blinding in the previous film, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.)

And it's here that Mr. Nimoy's death brought back memories of these stations. Channel 48 (and I'm assuming other stations across the country; it would have been incredibly generous of the personalities involved to have acted so simply for one market) had special Christmas messages recorded from the stars of their programs and broadcast them between commercial breaks. Mr. Nimoy's went, “Hello; this is Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock – wishing you all a Merry Christmas from the crew of the starship Enterprise!”





Rod Serling also recorded a message: “Hello; this is Rod Serling, wishing you all a very merry Christmas from all the ghouls and ghosts in the NIGHT GALLERY!” This would have had to have been prior to 1975 and Mr. Serling's sad passing, and although you can find almost anything on the Internet, I've scoured online in YouTube and other places trying to find these messages to no avail.

What brought the story of the UHF channels to a close? Not simply the arrival of cable, although that certainly helped hasten it. No, it came about more from the globalization and corporations that swept through local television markets in the 1980s. As more and more independent stations fell under the control of their network interlinking corporate identities, local programming began to disappear. It was far easier and cheaper to program infomercials and other syndicated fare 24 hours that to have the stations produce their own content.

The last local programming of any import that I can recall was the marvelous SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD, starring Philadelphia's own version of Elvira: Stella, the man-eater of Manayunk. It was broadcast Saturday evenings following SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for six terrific years before it too was gone, like the other programs. (I fell in deeply in love with her beauty and wit, as well as the fact that SND actually showed some fantastic lesser known films, including THE SHOUT, SHIVERS and SPIRITS OF THE DEAD.)



Stella from SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD


(Allow me a moment to digress, if I may: among the many local personalities on Philadelphia television during the 1960s and 70s was a young entertainer, artist and storyteller named Gene London. His program, called variously CARTOON CORNERS, THE GENE LONDON SHOW and GENE LONDON'S CARTOONS & STUFF, would feature Mr. London with young people gathered in his studio set, which resembled a general store. He would tell stories, often illustrating them on a huge sketchpad while he spoke, bring on guests of local interest to education children on a variety of subjects, or show cartoons, mostly Disney or Mr. Magoo. He was a soft-spoken gentleman, in some ways a precursor to Mr. Rogers.

But Mr. London also had a love of the macabre, and one of the most astounding features of his series were times when he would dramatize, with him in the leading role, various classic Horror tales. Among the many stories presented were “Frankenstein”, “Dracula” (with Mr. London in a dual role as himself and the legendary vampire count), “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “She”. Mr. London also used a magical Golden Fleece that he'd found to send him off on other fantastic and magical adventures, and towards the conclusion of the series' run he adapted a version of the SF film ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, complete with performers in (at the time) the ground-breaking ape makeup from the films.



[As an aside, he also presented other classic tales, including “Treasure Island” and “The Count of Monte Christo”, each, like “Frankenstein”, interspersed with film clips from the MR. MAGOO series of cartoons where he adapted those classic tales, taking the lead role. Whatever happened to those marvelous cartoons? They're certainly do for a revival and remaster on DVD…]

It was a fantastic program, for, with the gentle and courageous Mr. London as the fulcrum, the stories were frightening without being overtly terrifying. I'm certain more than one child in the Tri-State area can probably trace back his love of Horror, SF and the Dark Fantastic to Mr. London's gentle administrations, and I thank him for that greatly and gratefully.)

Despite what might commonly be believed, I don't think cable was the downfall of the UHF phenomenon – at least not in the beginning, for cable itself, when it premiered, was in need of its own inventive programming ,and each station stepped forward with efforts worthy of UHF at its finest. HorrorHosts Rhonda Shear, Joe Bob Briggs and Commander USA all would have been right at home on local UHF stations, and it's well-remembered that Elvira, or all her national and international acclaim, got her start the same way.

Probably the very best, and the most lamented, UHF-worthy effort on early cable was USA NIGHT FLIGHT program, which ran for six hours from midnight until 6:00 am each weekend. Truly indescribable, NIGHT FLIGHT filled though six hours with a smorgasbord of programming that was unmatched for variety and Mondo sensibilities. Music videos, documentaries, experimental student films (Robert Rodriguez of EL MARIACHI, FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN and SPY KIDS had one of his first films, the delightful BEDHEAD, broadcast on NIGHT FLIGHT) mashups of various public domain films with current television archetypes (“Twin Geeks” was a re-editing of the 1951 movie CHAINED FOR LIFE with the stylistic camera tricks of the then-running David Lynch series TWIN PEAKS).



Nothing like NIGHT FLIGHT had ever been seen before or since; one human companion remembers it “…like being under the influence of low-wattage LSD; because of the late hour, 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, you were physically and mentally exhausted, and these images were just bombarding your senses, making you wonder, ‘Am I really seeing this, or just imagining it?'” And sadly, nothing like it will likely appear again; like UHF, it is gone, but not forgotten.

The sad fact is that with the current corporatization of television, both cable and satellite, despite the wide variety of channels, broadcasting is extremely homogenized, with infomercials, reality shows, clip shows and reruns filling the late night and early evening hours. While there is certainly good programming being produced, none of them have the same local feeling of the neighborhoods and people in your particular town, and very few of them have the eccentric inventiveness of the UHF era.

There is currently public access television, where many of the best and best-known HorrorHosts do their work today, but they are restricted both by budgetary concerns and the overshadowing guidelines and regulations of their station's sponsors and licenses. There is also the Internet, and quite a lot of good work is being done online by inventive independent producers and artists, but because of the nature of the worldwide web these efforts are most often directed at the world audience at large instead of focusing on their regional influences.

No, I'm afraid, like so many good things, the UHF era is gone for good, fondly remembered and sadly lamented as “the best of times…the worst of times”. In many ways it's a shame that the young, who could most easily be inspired by the madness that was UHF programming, don't have that particular resource to draw upon today, when, with video filming and editing in the hands of backyards auteurs (thanks to the growing and increasingly available technology) they could definitely blossom and flourish.

But it was a wonderful time while it lasted.




A variety of Philadelphia Television Kid's Hosts, circa 1965, probably for an event celebrating Ronald McDonald House.
(Left to right, top row) Lorenzo the Clown, Rex Morgan, Ronald McDonald, and
Gene London
(bottom row) Stu Nahan (Captain Philadelphia), Sally Starr (a very popular western host that featured Three Stooges shorts), Lori Rosenblit, Don Rosenblit,
(Wee Willie) Bill Webber and Scott Rosenblit. From the collection of Bill Webber.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JANUARY - MARCH
2015

 

The new year is a time when we look back at what splendid and sorrowful in the past twelve months. What was wonderful and what was wasteful, what we loved and what we loathed...and what we lost.

The sadness of humanity can be found in its mortality. We mourn the passing of those that meant so much, that brightened the darkest corners of our lives. But we mourn for ourselves, not necessarily for those departed. The best have left behind their marks on the world, and we can revisit them as often as we wish. What we lament is that their kind will never pass this way again, never share their best with us. But we're thankful for the time we did have.

This year it seemed as though we lost so many in our wonderful field, although that's certainly an illusion; other genres have their losses as well. This is far from a complete list of either those departed or those particular to our viewpoint. This is entirely subjective; these are individuals that I feel added greatly to the Dark Fantastic and some of their most notable credits in the field; I salute their achievements and sigh deeply that we'll not see more from them.

(A word about the photographs: I'd originally designed this page without any photos, not wanting to single anyone out and knowing I couldn't find images of everyone. But when I saw the simple list of names it seemed to cry out for some illustrations to break up the text. I selected images that I thought were eye-catching and pertinent to the field of the Dark fantastic; I don't mean to slight anyone, and these are in no way indication of any preferences for certain individuals – well, for the most part.)



JOSEPH SARGENT – was a talent director, primarily working in television and on various series, among them STAR TREK ( where he helmed their first filmed episode, the classic “The Corbomite Manuever” ), THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., and THE INVADERS. His film work includes the marvelous thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, the infamous JAWS: THE REVENGE, THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (about orson Welles famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast) , GOLDENGIRL, NIGHTMARES, and the miniseries SPACE.

BILLIE WHITELAW – a classically-trained star of both stage and screen and almost universally loved and respected, her films include Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY, HOT FUZZ (her final film) , A MURDER OF QUALITY (not a Horror film, but a wonderful adaptation of one of John le Carre's George Smiley novels) , THE DARK CRYSTAL, NIGHT WATCH, an episode of SPACE:1999 ( “One Moment of Humanity” ) , TWISTED NERVE, and the delightful THE ADDING MACHINE, but she will be forever feared by genre aficionados as THE OMEN 's dreadful and terrifying Mrs. Baylock.

ROBERT D. SAN SOUCI – was children's book author with a penchant for the macabre; among his books are “Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales”, “More Short & Shivery: Thirty Terrifying Tales”, “Even More Short & Shivery: Thirty Spine-Tingling Tales”, “A Terrifying Taste of Short & Shivery: Thirty Creepy Tales”, “ Dare to Be Scared: Thirteen Stories to Chill and Thrill” , “Haunted Houses (Are You Scared Yet?”, and one of my favorites, the absolutely wonderful “Cinderella Skeleton”. He also provide the story for Walt Disney's film MULAN.

BOOTH COLEMAN – another revered star of both stage and screen, his work includes TIME TRAVELLERS from Rod Serling's final script) , THEM!, television series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE INVADERS, THE WILD, WILD WEST, THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER (the classic “Waxworks” , scripted by Robert Bloch), but is probably best recognized as Dr. Zaius from the PLANET OF THE APES television series. For several years he also appeared regularly as Scrooge on stage at the Meadow Brook Theatre in Detroit.

NORMAN BRIDWELL – will forever be known as the creator (both author and artist) of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (who, among his other stories, was featured in two Halloween books). But Mr. Bridwell had a love for the macabre and magical as well, creating the delightful “The Witch Next Door” series of books, including “The Witch's Christmas”, “The Witch's Vacation”, “The Witch Goes To School” , and “Witch's Catalog”. He also authored and illustrated several books featuring clssic monsters such as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman, in “Monster Holidays”, “How to Care for your Monster”, and “Monster Jokes and Riddles”.



TOM ADAMS – a British actor perhaps best known for THE GREAT ESCAPE, his other film work includes THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, and television series JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN, UFO, THE AVENGERS, HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY & SUSPENSE, and DOCTOR WHO ( “Warriors of the Deep” with Peter Davison 's Doctor).

DONALD MOFFITT – a SF author, his books include “The Genesis Quest”, “Second Genesis”, and “The Jupiter Theft” ; his short stories include “The Man Who Was Beethoven”, “The Beethoven Project”, and “The Devil's Due”. He also penned “The Baroness” espionage series as Paul Kenyon.

KEN WEATHERWAX – was a child actor who moved behind the cameras in his adult years, but his biggest credit is a classic one: he appeared as Pugsley on THE ADDAMS FAMILY television series.

LARRY LATHAM – was an animator and storyboard artist on such television series as SPIDERMAN, SUPER FRIENDS, and THE TICK . He was also the creator of the webcomic “Lovecraft Is Missing” ; originally conceived as animated series.

RAYMOND ALMIRAN MONTGOMERY, JR. ( R.A. MONTGOMERY ) – was ne of the creators and author of over 50 titles in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series.

ERNEST KINOY – wrote for the stage, television and film, but he started in radio with "Dimension X" (1950-1951) and "X Minus One" (1951-1953). Among his films is the dark, powerful CRAWLSPACE, along with BROTHER JOHN, THE PRESIDENT'S PLANE IS MISSING, THE HENDERSON MONSTER.

CAROL ANN SUSI – is most famous today for her role as Mrs. Wolowitz on THE BIG BANG THEORY , but is probably best known to Horror fans as Monique Marmelstein (her first role) opposite Darren McGavin in the classic series KOLCHACK: THE NIGHT STALKER. She also appeared in the film DEATH BECOMES HER.

FREDERICK I. ORDWAY III - was American space scientist and author of books on spaceflight, including “Space Travel: A History” and “The Rocket Team” . He was on the production team of Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY .

ALAIN RESNAIS - a French filmmaker in the New Wave movement, many of his movies had a surreal, Dark Fantastic feel about them, most notably the acclaimed HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. His one outright excursion into genuine SF was JE T'AIME JE T'AIME.

PETER RUBER - a book editor of both Candlelight Press and Arkham House ; he edited the collections “Arkham's Masters of Horror”, “Night Creatures” by Seabury Quinn , “Reunion At Dawn and Other Uncollected Ghost Stories” by H. Russell Wakefield , and “The Final Adventures of Solar Pons” , by August Derleth.

WARREN CLARKE – may be best known to mystery fans as Detective Dalziel in the long-running DALZIEL & PASCOE television series; he also appeared in the miniseries of John le Carre's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER SPY with Alec Guinness in his iconic role of George Smiley. In our genre he's known for the stunning RED RIDING series (3 films detailing a serial killer), TOP SECRET!, THE TEMPEST, and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. He's appeared in the television series HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, and THE AVENGERS , but his most famous role will probably always be as the droog Dim in Stanley Kubrick's classic SF film A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.



C. J. HENDERSON - was a novelist and comics writer. The author of the “Teddy London” supernatural detective series; his novel's include “Brooklyn Knight” and “Central Park Knight” , his comic works include “Neil Gaiman's Wheel of Worlds” and “Neil Gaiman's Lady Justice”. He also wrote three illustrated novellas featuring reporter Carl Kolchak.

GLEN LARSON – a well-known television producer and rather controversial figure (some have either uncharitably or with justification named him 'Glen Larceny') with numerous genre credits, including BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, AUTOMAN, MANIMAL, THE HIGHWAYMAN, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (with Leslie Stevens of THE OUTER LIMITS ) and KNIGHT RIDER.

ALAN RODGERS - was SF and Horror writer, editor and poet. He edited the popular “Night Cry” fiction magazine; his novels include “Blood of the Children” (a Stoker Award nominee for Best First Novel), “Pandora”, “Bone Music”, “The Bear Who Found Christmas” . His short story collections include “New Life For The Dead”, and “Ghosts Who Cannot Sleep” . His story “The Boy Who Came Back From The Dead” was the 1987 Stoker Award for Best Novelette.

PETER UNDERWOOD – was a well-known English parapsychologist and the author of literally dozens of books, both non-fiction and story collections. Among his many titles are “A Host of Hauntings: Haunted London”, “Deeper into the Occult”, “The Vampire's Bedside Companion: The Amazing World of Vampires in Fact and Fiction”, “Dictionary of the Supernatural”, “Ghosts of North West England”, “Jack the Ripper - 100 Years of Mystery”, “Thirteen Famous Ghost Stories”, “Exorcism!” and his autobiography “No Common Task: Autobiography of a Ghost Hunter”.

EILEEN GOLGAN - was an Irish actress whose genre work includes the films I SELL THE DEAD, MYSTICS, and, perhaps her best,the wondrous THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH.

NOEL BLACK - was a film & television director; his work includes the movies PRETTY POISON, THE WORLD BEYOND, THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER (from Ray Bradbury's “I Sing The Body Electric” ) and episodes of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHTMARE CLASSICS.

P. D. JAMES – was, of course, one of the premiere mystery novelists of this century, most famous for the Adam Dalgliesh series. Although they were not supernatural in nature, the books often featured dark and macabre themes with titles such as “Cover Her Face”, “The Black Tower”, “A Taste For Death”, “Death In Holy Orders”. Her one genuine work of Speculative Fiction was her acclaimed novel “Children Of Men” , adapted into an equally acclaimed film.

MARJORIE STRAPP - was a character actress whose film work included THE INDESTRUCTABLE MAN, THE WEREWOLF, KRONOS, MONSTER THAT CHALLANGED THE WORLD, DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, THE YOUNG CAPTIVES , and a guest appearance on the TV series QUANTUM LEAP.

BOB BAKER – was a renowned puppeteer and founder of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater , the oldest children's theater company in LA. He worked with legenday producer George Pal as an animator on his Puppetoons shorts; his work was featured in the television series BEWITCHED, STAR TREK, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and the films CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, BEDKNOBS & BROOMSTICKS, and BLUEBEARD.



DANNY LEE – became the head of special effects for the Walt Disney company. He became famous for his ground-breaking and blood-splattered finale of BONNIE & CLYDE . His work was featured in the films DRAGONSLAYER, THE GHOSTS OF BUXLEY HALL, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, THE BLACK HOLE, ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T, BEDKNOBS & BROOMSTICKS, MARY POPPINS, THE LOVE BUG, and non-Disney movies THE GREAT RACE, THE AMBUSHERS, and MURDERERS ROW.

RIK MAYALL – was a comic actor most famous for his continuing roles in the British TV series THE YOUNG ONES and BLACKADDER ; his genre movie roles include WHOOPS APOCOLYPSE, GRIM TALES, THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, WATERSHIP DOWN, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, SHOCK TREATMENT, EAT THE RICH, DROP DEAD FRED (in the title role), THE PRINCESS & THE GOBLIN, and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. He had a part in HAPPY POTTER & THE SORCERER'S STONE , but in one of the constant the vagaries of show business, his role was cut from final edit of film.

ROSEMARY MURPHY - was a renowned stage and screen actress. Her work includes the films AFTER.LIFE, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, THE HAND, YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER, BEN , and episodes of the television series WAY OUT and THRILLER.

RUBY DEE – was a celebrated activist and an award-winning actress, best known for her work with her late husband Ossie Davis and her role in the acclaimed drama A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Her genre work includes the films CAT PEOPLE and BABY GENIUSES , but she is probably best recognized by fans of the Dark Fantastic for her iconic portrayal of Mother Abigail from the adaptation of Stephen King 's novel THE STAND.

CARLA LAEMMLE – was the niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle ; her films include PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DRACULA, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, THE VAMPIRE HUNTER'S CLUB, MANSION OF BLOOD , and documentaries on the making of DRACULA & PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

TERRY RICHARDS - was an actor & stuntman, perhaps best known as the Arab Swordsman who squared off (to his regret) against Indian Jones in one of the most talked-about moments in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. He was also featured in FLASH GORDON, RED SONJA, HAUNTD SUMMER, TOMORROW NEVER DIES , and as a guest performer on the TV series SPACE PRECINCT, BLAKRE'S 7, and THE AVENGERS.

DANIEL KEYES - a celebrated SF writer, he penned the modern classic Hugo & Nebula Award-winning “Flowers For Algernon” , which became the Oscar-winning film CHARLY. Among his other books are “The Minds of Billy Milligan” and “Until Death”. For his lifetime of work he was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

GEOFFREY HOLDER – made his mark with the public as “The Uncola Man” on the classic commercials for 7-UP in the 1960s and 70s. But there was so much more to this author, actor, designer and artist. He directed the musical “The Wiz” in its original production on Broadway; his movies include DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRIAD TO ASK, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, JOHN GRIN'S CHRISTMAS (an all-black version of “A Christmas Carol” ). He will probably be best recognized by film fans for his portrayal of Baron Samedi in the Roger Moore's first appearance as James Bond LIVE & LET DIE.

EVERETT DE ROCHE - was American screenwriter who worked extensively in Australia in the Dark Fantasy and Horror genre; his work includes some of their internationally recognized classics. They include PATRICK, SNAPSHOT, ROAD GAMES, RAZORBACK, LINK, STORM WARNING, and NINE MILES DOWN. His finest script is probably the eerie and disturbing classic LONG WEEKEND, considered by many one of Australia's finest productions.

PHIL HARDY - was a renowned British journalist; among his books are the indispensable reference works “Encyclopedia Of Horror Films” and “Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction Films”. True fans of the Dark Fantastic genre have both these volumes in their libraries.



ELIZABETH PENA – was a beautiful and brilliant actress, and a personal favorite for her phenomenal performance as Jessie in the extraordinary JACOB'S LADDER. Other genre films include *batteries not included,, THE INVADERS, STRANGELAND, THE INCREDIBLES, DRAGON WARS: D WAR, and IN THE DARK. One of her greatest roles, highly recommended by Yours Truly, was the amazing John Sayles movie LONE STAR.

ANTHONY GOLDSCHMIDT - was a graphic, title and poster designer; his work was featured in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, BLADE RUNNER, E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, COCOON, LOST BOYS, THE CROW, APOLLO 13, THE GREEN MILE, BATMAN BEGINS, and THE DARK KNIGHT.

GERARD PARKES – was an actor best known for his roles in BOONDOCK SAINTS & BOONDOCK SAINTS 2 ; among his genre roles are the movies DEEPLY, STEPHEN KING'S STORM OF THE CENTURY, SHORT CIRCUIT 2, SPASMS, THE PYX , and guest appearances on the television series THE TWILIGHT ZONE (the 1980 revival), WAR OF THE WORLDS, RAY BRADBURY THEATER, and FRAGGLE ROCK.

BOB HOSKINS - will, of course, be remembered for the slapstick animated genius of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? But he was also featured in ROYAL FLASH, PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL, BRAZIL, SHATTERED, HOOK, SUPER MARIO BROS., MICHAEL, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, DOOMSDAY, SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

MARCIA STRASSMAN – will forever be Julie, Mr. Kotter's wife on the TV series WELCOME BACK KOTTER. She delved into the Dark Fantastic with the films REEKER, BRAVE NEW WORLD, HAUNTED BY HER PAST, EARTH MINUS ZERO, and a regular role on TREMORS , the television series. Her best-known performances are probably in her two Disney SF adventures HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS & HONEY I BLEW UP THE BABY.

IAN FRASER – was an award-winning arranger and composer, often working with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. His work includes DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SCROOGE , the 1976 television version of PETER PAN (with Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye) , and BABES IN TOYLAND. One seasonal note: he earned a place in the Christmas Holiday music repertoire by composing the “Peace on Earth” countermelody for David Bowie on his duet with Bing Crosby “The Little Drummer Boy”.

All were shocked and saddened by the passing of ROBIN WILLIAMS . Making a name for himself in the SF themed MORK & MINDY, Mr. Williams was a constant in films of the Fantastic, both Light and Dark. Some of his best known work includes ALADDIN, POPEYE, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, DEAD AGAIN, THE FISHER KING, HOOK, TOYS, BEING HUMAN, JUMANJI, HAMLET, the absolutely exquisite WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, BICENTENNIAL MAN, ONE HOUR PHOTO, INSOMNIA, and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.



RICHARD KIEL - became iconic for his portrayal of the Jame Bond villain “Jaws” in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME & MOONRAKER, but he had a very long career in Hollywood, and because of his enormous statue, much of his work was in Horror and SF. His films include THE PHANTOM PLANET, HOUSE OF THE DAMNED, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE, THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, THE HUMANOID, PALE RIDER, GIANT OF THUNDER MOUNTAIN, and TANGLED ; his television appearances include GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, THE MONKEES, THRILLER, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE WILD WILD WEST, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, and LAND OF THE LOST . His most infamous part was probably as the title role in the cult film EEGAH and his other iconic role may have been that of The Kanamit in THE TWILIGHT ZONE 's classic episode “To Serve Man”.

SAM HALL - was a screenwriter, best known for his long association with producer Dan Curtis . He wrote for the original television series DARK SHADOWS (which featured his wife Grayson Hall in a co-starring role) and its 1980s revival, as well as the feature films HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. His other films include DEAD OF NIGHT: A DARKNESS AT BLAISEDON, THE TWO DEATHS OF SEAN DOOLITTLE, and FRANKENSTEIN.



EUGIE FOSTER - was SF author; among her many stories were “Souls of Living Wood”, “Honor is a Game Mortald Play”, “Mortal Clay, Stone Heart”, “Returning My Sister's Face”, and her collections include “Inspirations End”, “ Returning My Sister's Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice” and “The King of the Rabbits and Moon Lake and Other Tales of Magic and Mischief”.

MARILYN BURNS - built career on appearing in Horror films, with iconic roles including Sally in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and Linda Kasabian in HELTER SKELTER. Her other movies were EATEN ALIVE (with her TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper) , KISS DADDY GOODBYE, BUTCHER BOYS, SACRAMENT, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION and TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D . Her final film IN A MADMAN'S WORLD is in post-production.



MALCOLM SCOTT CIENCIN - a SF and Horror novelist, author of the book series “The Wolves of Autumn”, “The Vampire Odyssey” and “The Nightmare Club” , along with “Dinotopia”, “The Lurker Files”, “Godzilla” , novels based on JURASSIC PARK, BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, TRANSFORMERS, KIM POSSIBLE and CHARMED , and comic books including “Silent Hill”.

ED NELSON - a well-respected character actor whose career began workign for Roger Corman in his films ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, A BUCKET OF BLOOD, and TEENAGE CAVEMAN. His other movies include NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST, THE BRAIN EATERS, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, ALONG CAME A SPIDER, A LITTLE GAME, THE SCREAMING WOMAN (based on a Ray Bradbury story) and THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH & EVERYTHING. He also appeared on television in THRILLER (making four appearances), THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, THE OUTER LIMITS, NIGHT GALLEY, THE SIXTH SENSE, and LOGAN'S RUN

RUSSELL JOHNSON - will always by the Professor on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, but he had a long career both as an established character actor and as a familiar face in SF cinema. His movies include THIS ISLAND EARTH, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, THE SPACE CHILDREN, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, VANISHED, THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, HITCHHIKE TO HELL, THE GHOST OF FLIGHT 401 , as well as guest appearances on TV in BEYOND WESTWORLD, MONSTERS, THE INVADERS, THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER (the eerie episode “The Hungry Glass”, written by Robert Bloch and starring William Shatner ) and THE TWILIGHT ZONE (in two script by Rod Serling himself, “Back There” and “Execution” ).

HAL SUTHERLAND - as an animation director and production manager, was a co-founder of Filmation Studios, which produced several series based on popular SF films, as well as adventures of the DC Comics superheroes. His work includes THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, AQUAMAN, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THER EARTH, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR, SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH, SABRINA AND THE GROOVIE GHOULIES, the wonderful STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and FLASH GORDON , as well as the film JOURNEY BACK TO OZ.



SARAH MARSHALL - was a beautiful actress who appeared in the films LORD LOVE A DUCK, DAVE, BAD BLOOD, BAD BLOOD...THE HUNGER , and guest-starred on television in THE AQUANAUTS, THRILLER, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, THE WILD WILD WEST, and may be best known for her appearances in two clssic SF series, STAR TREK (in “The Deadly Years” ) and THE TWILIGHT ZONE (in “Little Girl Lost” , the episode that inspired the film POLTERGEIST ).

GORDON HESSLER - a British director and producer with a flair for the macabre and horrific, he was at the helm of several classic films from the 1960s and early 70s, including THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE, THE OBLONG BOX, SCREAM & SCREAM AGAIN, CRY OF THE BANSHEE, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, MEDUSA, SCREAM, PRETTY PEGGY, THE STRANGE POSSESSION OF MRS. OLIVER, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, TALES OF THE HAUNTED, THE GIRL IN THE SWING (which he also wrote), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and the infamous KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK , as well as episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, and KUNG FU. He also produced THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR for two years (1962-1964).

ARTHUR RANKIN JR - was co-founder Rankin/Bass Productions , creating the Holiday classics RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, and FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. He had a long association with Fantasy, producing the beloved film of Peter S. Beagle 's THE LAST UNICORN, and adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien 's THE HOBBITT and THE RETURN OF THE KING (which some purists prefer to the Peter Jackson films!) he also filmed the delightful MAD MONSTER PARTY, as well as A FLIGHT OF DRAGONS, and created and produced the SF series THUNDERCATS. His live-action efforts include KING KONG ESCAPES, THE LAST DINOSAUR, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, and THE SINS OF DORIAN GRAY.



LAUREN BACALL - the beautiful wife of Humphrey Bogart, who apeared with him in THE BIG SLEEP, TO HAVE & HAVE NOT, and KEY LARGO, brushed against the Dark Fantastic several times, most notably in BLITHE SPIRIT for television, SHOCK TREATMENT ( not the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW sequel) , THE FAN, MR. NORTH, MISERY, DOGVILLE, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, and, believe it or not, in SCOOBY DOO & THE GOBLIN KING (!!)

JAMES GARNER - was a marvelously likable and relaxed comic leading man in MAVERICK, THE ROCKFORD FILES, and the film THE GREAT ESCAPE, but like Ms. Bacall he explored the genre in THE FAN (with Ms. Bacall), the gripping thriller THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS , the miniseries SPACE , SPACE COWBOYS , as a voiced actor in ATLANTIS THE LOST EMPIRE , and the television series GOD, THE DEVIL & BOB (playing God, of course) , but his finest work may have been in the terrifying SF film FIRE IN THE SKY , based on the supposedly true alien abduction of Travis Walton.

MAXIMILIAN SCHELL - became a star in the drama JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, but his work in our field includes THE CASTLE, HAMLET, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE VAMPYRE WARS, THE EIGHTEENTH ANGEL, VAMPIRES, and DEEP IMPACT. His most recognizable role for SF fans will probably be as the mad Dr. Hans Reinhardt in Disney's THE BLACK HOLE.

HAROLD RAMIS - was a gifted comic writer, actor and director, working on the TV series SCTV and writing the movie ANIMAL HOUSE. His film performances include HEAVY METAL, GHOSTBUSTERS, GHOSTBUSTERS II (both of which he also wrote). As popular as GHOSTBUSTERS may be, his finest moment is probably the magnificent GROUNDHOG DAY (as writer and director). Other films he wrote and directed include BEDAZZLED and YEAR ONE ; he also directed the film MULTIPLICITY.

KARLHEINZ (CARL) BÖHM - has a limited exposure to the Dark fantastic, but his work was so exemplary that he earns his position on this list by starring in the classic films PEEPING TOM and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

AL FELDSTEIN - became editor and wrote for the legendary EC Comics , including “Weird Science”, “Tales From The Crypt” , and “The Vault of Horror” . He published the first work of Harlan Ellison , and later edited MAD” Magazine oncve EC Comics was foced to cancel their Horror line. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2003, and was awarded a Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association in 2012.



MARTHA HYER - was an Oscar winner for her role in SOME CAME RUNNING, but she toyed with her dark side in such movies as ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS, RIDERS TO THE STARS, PYRO, PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, and HOUSE OF 1000 DOLLS.

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ - How to eulogize a Master? Surely if anyone on this list deserves the title of 'Living Legend', it is Mr. Marquez. One of the fathers and practitioners of the field of 'Magic Realism' (which has inspired everyone from Harlan Ellison and Alice Hoffman to Mark Helprin and Salman Rushdie , and influenced films as diverse as THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, LOST HIGHWAY and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD ), his classic novels include his greatest work “One Hundred years of Solitude”, “The Autumn of the Patriarch”, and “Love in the Time of Cholera” ; his short story collections include “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Onnocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother”, “Collected Stories” and “Strange Pilgrims” , and among his screenplays are EL GALLO DE ORO and TIEMPO DE MORIR . You will be profoundly missed, Sir. Thank you.

GORDON WILLIS - is almost a master, albeit of another art form. An Academy Award-winning director of photograph for both THE GODFATHER & ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, his genre work includes LITTLE MURDERS, KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, and PENNIES FROM HEAVEN . He began his career and caught people's attention for his celebrated techniques on the classic THE OUTER LIMITS series, and directed one film, the thriller WINDOWS.

KIRBY MCCAULEY - was the literary agent for Stephen King, Roger Zelazney and George R. R. Martin ; obviously a huge supporter and admirer of our genre, he chaired first World Fantasy Convention and edited several award-winning anthologies, including “Dark Forces”, “Frights”, and “Night Chills”.

SIR RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH - had a long and distinguished career as an actor then later as both a producer and director. Perhaps best known in the mainstream for THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, and THE SAND PEBBLES (the last he also directed), he's best known probably to modern fans of the Dark fantastic for his role in JURASSIC PARK. His other genre credits include STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, the fantastic SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (which he also produced), DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. His sole directorial effort in Horror was his filming of William Goldman's terrifying MAGIC.

ALAN LANDSBURG - was a movie and television producer, primarily of documentaries. He produced THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU, and the series IN SEARCH OF... hosted by Leonard Nimoy . His films include IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT MYSTERIES, IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ASTRONAUTS, THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION, and his non-documentary work ANTS, THE SAVAGE BEES, BURNED AT THE STAKE, JAWS 3D, and THE LOTTERY.

ARLENE MARTEL - was featured in the films CHATTERBOX, DRACULA'S DOG, THE GLASS CAGE, and CONSPIRACY OF TERROR , but made her greatest mark in our genre with her television work, appearing on THE WILD WILD WEST, THE MONKEES (in their monster-filled Halloween episode, playing a Vampira -like seductress), BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. She cemented her place in the field with two iconic performances in classic television episodes: as T'Pr ing, Mr. Spock's Vulcan mate in “Amok Time” on STAR TREK and as Consuelo Biros, reluctant witness to incredible events in Harlan Ellison's award-winning teleplay “Demon With A Glass Hand” on THE OUTER LIMITS . She was by all accounts a genuinely warm and endearing person, appearing at many SF themed conventions and enthusiastically meeting her fans and embracing her place in the genre. I was heartbroken when I learned of her passing; she was someone I very much wanted to meet in person. Ah well; perhaps now another time and place...



EDWARD HERMANN - is well known for his brilliant continued portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in several film sand television projects, and may be best known in the genre for his role in THE LOST BOYS. His other roles include THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN, DEATH VALLEY, THE PRIVATE HISTORY OF A CAMPAIGN THAT FAILED (in a marvelous portrayal of a guilt-ridden revenant) , and the recent remake of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. One of his best performances was taking over the role of Herman Munster from the late Fred Gwynne in the film HERE COME THE MUNSTERS, which all agreed was perfect and respectful casting.

STEFAN GIERASCH - was a character actor who appeared in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, RETURN TO EARTH, CARRIE, BLUE SUNSHINE, BLOOD BEACH, MEGAVILLE, and LEGEND OF THE PHANTOM RIDER. His television guest appearances include WEREWOLF, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, the revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and BRIMSTONE , and he had a co-starring role in revival of DARK SHADOWS.

DON KEEFER - was a fine character actor known for the films SLEEPER, THE CAR, CREEPSHOW, and LIAR LIAR, but he made his mark guest-starring on television in episodes of STAR TREK, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PICKET FENCES, KUNG FU, NIGHT GALLERY, THE MUNSTERS, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and WAY OUT. He will probably be forever known as the man who crossed little Anthony Fremont and for his troubles was turned into a living jack-in-the-box in the classic THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “It's A Good Life”.

JANE BAKER - was a British screenwriter, part of a writing team with husband Pip, who penned the scripts for ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED and CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY , along with episodes of SPACE:1999 and DOCTOR WHO, as well as writing and creating the series WATT ON EARTH .

DENNY MILLER - was a handsome, good-humored man, equally adept at comedy and drama and a very familiar face in film and television. One of his favorite roles was starring in TARZAN THE APE MAN ; other film roles include VANISHED, DOOMSDAY MACHINE, and ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. He was a frequent guest star on WEREWOLF, OUTLAWS, V, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, QUARK, WONDER WOMAN, and THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN , and in these later years became recognized from commercials as the Gorton's Fisherman.

THEODORE J. FLICKER - wrote and directed the wonderful SF flavored satire THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST; he also directed episodes of the 1980s revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE , but may be best known for his work on the series NIGHT GALLERY , adapting the script for “A Question of Fear” , and writing , directing and acting (as the Devil!) in the episode “Hells Bells”.

SIR DONALD SINDEN - a fine British actor, appeared in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, ALICE IN WONDERLAND , and gu e st-starred on LATE NIGHT HORROR, and, most impressively, as Number Two on the marvelous SF series THE PRISONER.

BUSTER JONES - was a voice actor who appeared on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, SUPER FRIENDS, TRANSFORMERS, and G.I.JOE , but he made his mark (and will always be remembered) as Winston Zeddemore on THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS.

GEORGE SLUIZER - dutch filmmaker, was the creator of the grim thriller THE VANISHING, both the original and the inferior US remake.

RALPH WAITE - is best known as John Walton, father of that clan on THE WALTONS. His genre credits include the films LAST SUMMER, WAITING FOR GODOT, THE THIRD TWIN, TIMEQUEST, and SPIRIT , guest roles on the television series TIME TRAX and the revival of THE OUTER LIMITS , but made an impression on Horror fans in his featured role of Reverend Balthus on the series CARNIVALE.

ELAINE STRITCH - is known primarily for her Broadway stage roles, but she was a featured performer on the thriller soap opera THE EDGE OF NIGHT, Her film roles include WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, CHRISTMAS SPIRITS, COCOON: THE RETURN, PARANORMAN, and she made guest appearances on the series TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED and 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN.

DENNIS LIPSCOMB - was a fine actor best known for his villainous turns on the crime drama WISEGU and as the co-investigating officer in A SOLDIERS STORY. He appeared in WARGAMES, THE DAY AFTER, CROSSROADS, SISTER, SISTER, THE FIRST POWER, WITHOUT WARNING, and APOLLO 11 , and guest-starred on AMAZING STORIES, THE X FILES, SEAQUEST 2032, SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and ROSWELL.



JOHN HENSON - If his name seems familiar, yes, Mr. henson was part of the Muppet empire, being the son of the late Jim Henson. Even moreso, as a Muppeteer he portrayed the enormous and enormously popular Sweetums (beginning in 1991), and played the character in the TV series MUPPETS TONIGHT as well as the films MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND, MUPPETS IN SPACE, and THE MUPPETS ' WIZARD OF OZ.

CLIFF BOLE - was a prolific television director, helming episodes of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, V, M.A.N.T.I.S., PROFILER, THE X FILES, and SUPERNATURAL. He earns a place of distinction for directing several episodes of each of the three later STAR TREK series, THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE, VOYAGER.

SID CAESER
- of course, is a famous comic performer. His brush with the Dark Fantastic includes the films THE BUSY BODY, THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, THE FENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THANKSGIVING IN THE LAND OF OZ, and THE MUNSTERS' REVENGE. He made a guest appearance on the wonderful if short-lived Fantasy series GOOD HEAVENS , and gave one of his finest performances as the washed-up magician getting a second chance on the “Mr. Magic” episode of AMAZING STORIES.

MARY GRACE CANFIELD - will be best known for her comic turn as a regular on the series GREEN ACRES; she made guest appearances on THRILLER, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and BEWITCHED , and her films include NIGHT OF TERROR and YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN. But she may be most memorable to Horror fans for her role as Miss Foley, the schoolteacher who fell under the spell of mr. Dark's insidious carnival in the film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

KATE O'MARA - was a lovely English actress whose films include CORRUPTION, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN ; she made guest appearances on THE CHAMPIONS and THE AVENGERS , but may be best known for her reoccurring role as Rani on DOCTOR WHO.

DICK SMITH - is another Master, universally acclaimed as the greatest makeup designer and artist in film. His work appeared in the mainstream in THE GODFATHER ; his old age makeup for Dustin Hoffman in LITTLE BIG MAN raised the bar on prosthetic makeup applications, and he won a much-deserved Oscar for his work on AMADEUS. But it was in Fantasy, Horror and the Dark Fantastic that his work truly shined. His films include ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1955) , MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (the original), THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, THE EXORCIST, THE STEPFORD WIVES, MARATHON MAN, THE SENTINEL, ALTERED STATES, SCANNERS, GHOST STORY, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, and DEATH BECOMES HER. He began by creating the impressive effects on the television series television WAY OUT and DARK SHADOWS (and worked on the first film HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS ), and was a special consultant on the series MONSTERS & STEPHEN KING'S GOLDEN YEARS where he had the interesting problem of reverse-aging an actor, making him younger as the series continued. Unlike many makeup artists who guard their secrets jealously, Mr. Smith shared all his techniques with any student that requested it, cementing his reputation as a true mentor in the industry. For his kindness and generosity as much as for his skills, he will be truly missed.



CHRISTOPHER MALCOLM - was an English actor whose film work includes A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, STAR WARS V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, SHOCK TREATMENT, SUPERMAN III, HIGHLANDER, LABYRINTH, EAT THE RICH, and WHOOPS APOCOLYPSE.

DON MATHESON - was a television actor who worked extensively with producer Irwin Allen, guest-starring on the series LOST IN SPACE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA , but he will best be remembered for his co-starring role as Mark Wilson on the series LAND OF THE GIANTS.

RICHARD BULL - was a familiar face to film and television viewers, most notably for his reoccurring role on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE . Previous to that series, however, he was also a reoccurring character as the Doctor on VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. His film roles include THE SATAN BUG, IN LIKE FLINT, THE STALKING MOON, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, SWEET, SWEET RACHEL (the pilot for THE SIXTH SENSE television series) , HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, and THE PARALLAX VIEW , and his TV guest appearances include TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and AMAZING STORIES.

CHRISTOPHER BARRY - will be recognized as the longest running director on original DOCTOR WHO series; his work tenure included four of the Doctors! His most notable episodes include “The Daleks” (which introduced The Daleks), “The Deamons”, “Robot” (which introduced Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor) and “The Brain of Morbius” . Other series work includes episodes of OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, MOONBASE 3 and THE TRIPODS (based on the novels by John Christopher).

BOB HASTINGS – will most likely be recognized by mainstream audiences for his role as Elroy Carpenter, Captain Binghamton's bedeviled lieutenant in McHALE'S NAVY. His film work includes MOON PILOT, THE BAMBOO SAUCER, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and CONSPIRACY OF TERROR ; his television appearances include THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE MUNSTERS (in a reoccurring role as the voice of the Raven in the clock), BATMAN, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, and I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Genre fans will no doubt know him best as Commissioner Gordon on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.

JIMMY MURAKAMI - an animator who also directed the live action films HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP and the wonderful BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS for Roger Corman. He created the animated TV series THE STORY KEEPERS , and directed the animated classic films THE SNOWMAN and the heartbreaking WHEN THE WIND BLOWS , as well as CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE.

MICHAEL SHAE - a SF author, was the creator of the “Nifft” series, Nifft the Lean” ( a World Fantasy Award winner) , “The Mines of Behemoth” , and “The A'rak”. His other novels include “The Color Out of Time” and “In Yana, the Touch of Undying” ; his collections include “Polyphemus” and “The Autopsy and Other Tales”.

FRANK ROBINSON - also a SF writer, whose novel “The Power” was made into the George Pal production THE POWER , and his novel “The Glass Inferno” was one of two books adapted into the film THE TOWERING INFERNO. His other novels include “The Prometheus Crisis”, “The Dark Beyond The Stars” and “The Donor”.



LORENZO SEMPLE JR - has numerous screenplays to his credits; his work in our field includes THOMPSON'S GHOST, PRETTY POISON, DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING, THE PARALLAX VIEW, KING KONG, FATHOM, FLASH GORDON and SHEENA, but he's best known for bringing the caped crusader to television as creator and writer for the BATMAN television series (as well as writing the screenplay for BATMAN: THE MOVIE ).

EFRAM ZIMBALIST JR. - will be recognized for his tough detective roles in the TV series 77 SUNSET STRIP & THE FBI, but this multifacited actor had a long career on both television and in films. He's known most famously for two iconic roles in animated series; as Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES & the evil Dr. Octopus on SPIDERMAN . His films include the terrifying WAIT UNTIL DARK, BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN and THE TEMPEST , and had a reoccurring role as William Edgars on BABYLON FIVE.

LUCIUS SHEPARD - was an award-winning SF & Fantasy author who worked extensively in the 'Magic Realism' milieu, whose novels include “The Father of Stones”, “Life During Wartime”, “Green Eyes”, “Halloween Town” and “Beautiful Blood: A Novel of the Dragon Griaule” ; his story c ollections include “Trujillo and Other Stories”, “Nantucket Slayrides” and “The Dragon Griaule”.

H. R. GIGER - will be known to moviegoers as the creative force behind the films ALIEN and SPECIES , and was named to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2013. His other film work includes the infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky unmade version of DUNE (his work on that film lead directly to his being hired for ALIEN ). He was prominently and regularly featured in “Omni” magazine, and was well-known for his work on album covers, most particularly Emerson Lake & Palmer's “Brain Salad Surgery”. B ooks of his stunning artwork include “Necronomicon” and “Necronomicon II”.



JEROME WILLIS - is a british actor recognized by genre fans for his reoccurring role as Captain Podly in SPACE PRECINCT . Other television roles include appearances on TALES OF MYSTERY & IMAGINATION, DOCTOR WHO, THE AVENGERS, OUT OF THE UNKNOWN and OUT OF THIS WORLD ; his filmwork includes DOOMWATCH, LIFEFORCE PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER.

NEAL BARRETT JR. - wrote numerous books both as himself and some famous pen names: as Victor Appleton he plotted the “Tom Swift” SF book series, and as Franklin W. Dixon guided “The Hardy Boys” mystery novels. His own novels include the “Aldair” series, “Through Darkest America”, “The Leaves of Time” and “The Karma Corps” ; his story collections include “Way Out There” and “Other Seasons: the Best of Neal Barrett Jr.” . He was named an Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America in 2010.

ALEXANDRA BASTEDO - the beautiful English actress came to international attention for her role as Sharron Macready in the superb but short-lived SF series THE CHAMPIONS. Her film roles include appearances in CASINO ROYALE (1967) , THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, THE GHOUL, STIGMA, BATMAN BEGINS and THE APHRODITE INHERITANCE miniseries, television guest appearances include MY PARTNER, THE GHOST and Harlan Ellison's badly-produced (although not through Mr. Ellison's fault) effort THE STARLOST.

ROGER LLOYD PACK - was an English actor who appeared in the films THE MAGUS, HAMLET, FRIGHT, 1984, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER, U.F.O., INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, HARRY POTTER & THE GOBLET OF FIRE and THE LIVING & THE DEAD , and on television in guest roles on THE SURVIVORS and DOCTOR WHO.

HARVEY BERNHARD - was the producer of the highly successful OMEN series of films ( THE OMEN, DAMIEN: OMEN II for which he also devised the story, OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT, OMEN IV: THE AWAKENING for which he also devised the story), THE BEAST WITHIN, LADYHAWKE, THE GOONIES and THE LOST BOYS.

And please allow me to step outside the field of Dark Fantasy for a moment and acknowledge some artists and personalities that meant a great deal to me personally and who loss should also be noted. These include:

TIM HAUSER (performer and founder of The Manhattan Transfer vocal group ), BEN BRADLEE ( r eporter and Managing Editor of “The Washington Post” during the Watergate scandal) , PETE SEEGER , JOE COCKER, TONY AUTH ( a ward-winning political cartoonist) , JOHNNY WINTER, GERRY GOFFIN (Grammy-winning songwriter) , MITCH LEIGH (composer of the musical “Man Of La Mancha” ) ERIC BERCOVICI (screenwriter who among his other credits, produced and adapted the novel “Shogun” for television), SEAN POTTS (founding member of irish musical group The Chieftans ), JAY TRAYNOR (lead singer of Jay & The Americans ), PHIL EVERLY (of The Everly Brothers singing group ), SHEILA STEWART (Irish folksinger & storyteller), and RUTH ROBINSON DUCCINI (the last surviving female Munchkin performer from THE WIZARD OF OZ ).

And I want to set aside one individual for a personal reminiscence:

MARK LEWIS was a world famous storyteller that performed and acting as a producer at Faerieworlds in Eugene OR. I had the pleasure of meeting him when I performed there several years ago, and enjoyed a brief correspondence with him. We seemed to enjoy each other's company and respect one another's talents.



On film he appeared on the televisions series NORTHERN EXPOSURE and GRIMM ; he voiced part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, was the author of several books, including “Kaliban's Christmas: A Special Tale of Magic”, and “The Secret of the Quilt (Book One of The Counterpane Collection)”. He was tireless active in the community, organized storytelling workshops, and was a part-time college professor of Presentation Skills in the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He also volunteered for the Oregon chapter of the International Thespian Society.

I was most sorry to hear of his passing, and will miss him very much.

To him, and all the others we've lost in 2014, farewell, and thank you so much for the time and talents you shared with us.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER 2014

 

I've talked a great deal about Christmas being the traditional time for ghostly tales. As much as I enjoy Halloween (and it's one of my favorite times of year) I am definitely a Christmas spirit. So I won't belabor that point any further; by now you either understand and agree, or never will.

So what shall I do for the December Season?

Perhaps I'll tell a ghostly Christmas tale, share one with some of my human companions that aren't able to join me for my annual Christmas show in old Town Eureka.

Yes; I think that's what I'll do...a spectral tale for the Yuletide...



One Christmas Eve, not long ago, a man was sitting in his home in a large city. He hadn't decorated, nor was he looking forward to the coming day's events. He had no interest in the Christmas Season at all this year, because over the summer his beloved wife of many years had finally succumb to the sickness that had plagued her since the beginning of the year. This was the first time in longer than he could remember when he wouldn't be sharing the holiday with her.

In truth, the two of them had loved Christmas, and always looked forward to December with anticipation. Now, though, lost, alone, his heart aching and empty, the furthest thing from his mind was peace on earth, good will towards men. All was sorrow and solitude.

Now the sun had set some time before, and he walls of his home seemed stifling, closing in on him in his grief. For want of fresh air, or simply something to do to take his mind from his troubles, he decided to go out and take a walk. He had no destination in mind as he put on his coat and scarf; he simply wanted to walk and get away from the memories crowding him in that place.



The streets were empty, of course; everyone was home with their families or out enjoying the company of friends and strangers alike at their various Christmas functions. The store windows on his block were lit brightly with scenes of the season; Santas, reindeer, snow and sleds, snowman and greens and holly and mistletoe, with presents underneath countless trees. But the windows held no comfort for the man, and he turned up his collar to the cold night around him and continued walking.

He hadn't gone much further when a sound began to grow in the distance, soft and stronger now. It was the music of accapella voices joined in harmony singing Christmas carols, and as he watched he saw emerging from the darkness a small crowd of people, smiling, arms linked or placed affectionately around shoulders, walking slowly and singing with warmth and good cheer. The tunes were familiar: “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Deck The Halls”.

The man watched the others approach; the faces and figures came forward without hesitation, a mixed group of old and young. There was a tiny, delightfully round-faced woman with a broad smile that threatened to burst from her lips, a young couple that held hands and exchanged shy, knowing glances with each other when they thought no one was looking, a stocky, hearty gentleman, red-nosed and flushed with a strong baritone that would cut through the thickest fog, and a half-dozen others. Leading them was a tall, distinguished gentleman with a touch of gray at the temples that peaked from beneath his hat, and a pleasant, strong face that sat atop wide shoulders dressed in a clerical collar and a long coat, an umbrella hanging from the crook of his right arm.

The group greeted the man warmly, and from deep inside the man felt a small stirring, the reawakening of buried feelings and emotions tied to humanity and the December Season. Unconsciously he found himself smiling at their conversation, and was terribly surprised when he accepted their invitation to walk and sing with them as they caroled. He and his late wife had been members of their own church choir, yet this memory didn't come with the pangs of loss and sadness, but a warm nostalgia as he remembered services they'd attended through their long life together.

The group started off, and the music continued, and the man added his fine tenor harmonies to the chorus around him. On they walked, and on they sang - “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Joy To The World”, “What Child Is This?”; the cities streets rang with the ancient tunes, and other voices and faces turned their way from their comfortable homes and meeting places as they group passed doors lighted doors and windows.

Now a light rain had started to fall, and the minister opened his umbrella and held it over the man's head, and the group huddled together closer, their mixed voiced now on top of one another, sounding sweeter than before. The man felt the welcome crush of the community around him and his songs grew more assured and passionate, and the other voices rose to match his. “I Saw Three Ships”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Away In A Manger”, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, and finally, a hushed and reverent “Silent Night” that captured the peace and hope of the birth of Christ, and filled the man's heart with the meaning of the holiday.



The group stood in front of a darkened city church, and the minister told the man this was their final destinations. Goodbyes were said, handshakes and hugs exchanged all around, and the minister gave a final blessing to the group. The man walked off, feeling the weight of his sorrow, if not entirely dissipated, then diminished in the fellowship of the choir, and they called Christmas cheer and good will after him as he continued alone down the street back to his home.

He'd stepped inside, still smiling and hearing echos in the music in his ears, shaking out the remnants of the rain from the black umbrella when he realized with a start that he was still holding the umbrella the minister had given him to keep dry while they sang. He looked at it with wonder and amusement, then shook his head at his folly and promised that the following day he would return it to its rightful owner.

The Christmas day service at the church was well-attended, and the man was greeted warmly by the congregation when he arrived, black umbrella in hand. He sat through the service, and was surprised to see a younger man, not the minister from the previous night, giving the sermon and leading the service. He shrugged and assumed there were two ministers, not unusual for a congregation this size, and the gentleman from the night before had off for this morning's worship. It didn't matter; he would return the umbrella to the younger minister, and he would see it got back to its rightful owner.

After the service, the man approached the young minister and explained what had happened the evening before; that he'd joined the strolling carolers from his church, that he'd inadvertently taken the older minister's umbrella with him when it began to rain, and that he wanted to return it. The younger minister looked perplexed, staring long and hard at the umbrella. “I'm sorry, sir; I don't know what you're referring too. We haven't had a choir at this church for quite some time, and I've been the only minister here for the past several years, since the previous minister passed away.”

“ No, there must be a mistake,” said the man, and he described the minister he'd walked with the night before: tall, distinguished, with a touch of gray at the temples and a pleasant, strong face that sat atop wide shoulders.

The young minister nodded, his eyes still fixed on the umbrella in the man's hand. “Yes, that sounds like my predecessor. He would always carry a black umbrella with him everywhere he went; we thought it an eccentricity, but he put it to good use, and was always lending it out to people. That certainly looks like his.” They began to walk down a long hall, and the young minister indicated a framed photograph hanging prominently on the wall. “This is him, along with other founding members of the church. They were all in the original choir that sang here; sadly, they're all gone now.”

The man stared in astonishment and disbelief. There they all were, smiling from an antique photograph: the delightfully round-faced woman, the young couple holding hands, the stocky, hearty red-nosed gentleman, and the others. In the center of the group was the handsome, smiling face of the minister, black umbrella in the crook of his right arm.

Now the man understood. He took a deep breath and slowly asked where the minister was buried. “He's right here in our church cemetery, “said the young minister. “You'll find his stone towards the rear of the yard.”



The man walked outside into the church's cemetery and walked slowly through the stones until he found the large one towards the rear of the graveyard with the minister's named carved into the granite. He stood there a moment, smiling, then carefully placed the umbrella against the headstone. “Thank you,” said the man. “Thank you for a wonderful Christmas Eve, and for the use of the umbrella.” He nodded, then turned and left.

From that night's experience, a change came over the man. Although he still mourned his lovely wife's passing, he began to emerge from his grief and become involved in his life again, beginning with returning to the church and becoming an active member of the congregation. He started the choir again, and found many eager to join their voices in worship. And he revived an old tradition: each Christmas Eve the choir walked the streets at sunset, raising their voices in praise of the season and encouraging others to come listen and join in the singing.

There are those who have listened over the years that will swear that if you follow along with the carolers sing, you can hear, faintly, almost from a great distance, another chorus of voices joining in harmony above these earthly voices. And the members of the choir, and the choir director himself, will be loathe to disagree.



The author Orson Scott Card, in reviewing a book of Christmas ghost stories, said, “…ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended.”

This is true of many of the ghostly tales I tell - “The Ghost's Hand”, about a minister who finds a murdered girl's spirit haunting a home is a good example – and it can be seen in such classic films as THE UNINVITED and THE INNOCENTS (with the realization that the satisfaction can be tragic in nature). But it seems especially true of the Christmas ghost story, where the good will of the holiday seems to work its powers on every plane of existence. Jerome K. Jerome, who contributed the introduction from his collection “Told After Supper” on my menu page, has as its first tale “Joseph's Tale, or The Faithful Ghost”, which tells of a spectre haunting a family because of the loss of his true love Emily. The family tricks the ghost with a false tombstone, and their haunting ceases.

There's another level upon which the Christmas ghost story works: owning to this being the season (at least in theory) of forgiveness and redemption, the Yuletide tale offers individuals who encounter the veil of the unknown and mysterious and find their lives transformed by the event, more often than not for the better, as in the example of my tale above. This is a common trope in the literature of the Dark Fantastic, perhaps most strongly practiced by Rod Serling in his marvelous THE TWILIGHT ZONE television series. (And Mr. Serling himself well understood the power of the Christmas tale of the uncanny.)

The perennial favorite IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is known with affection for its love story between George Bailey (James Stewart) and his beloved Mary (Donna Reed), but look deeper behind the comedy of everyone falling into the high school's pool during the big dance or the romance of George promising to “lasso the moon” for Mary, and you have the story of a man frustrated at every turn by happenstance, thwarting his ambition, and although he loves his wife, his family and his friends, the bitterness inside him continues to fester year after year. When a financial catastrophe befalls him, he's not strong enough to lean on those around him for comfort and strength, and he descends into self pity and despair.

Very dark material, to be sure. The darkness builds admirably, hidden behind the cheerful facade, but it burst full when George is forced to consider Mr. Potter, the town miser who holds Bedford Falls in his tight fist. Observing that with his life insurance policy, George is “worth more dead than alive”, he sets George on a path of eventual self-destruction – or he would, if not for the intervention of Clarence, George's guardian angel, who engineers a bold move and literally turns George into a ghost of his former self; a man with no past and no future, whose influence never touched the world around him.



IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE could be the quintessential TWILIGHT ZONE episode: through a supernatural intervention, a man learns the truth about his life and place in the world around him. As I've said previously, it's this darkness that gives the film it's powerful resonance. First the signs of past tragedies unaverted as George sees his old boss Mr. Gower the druggist as a child murderer because George wasn't present to stop a terrible mistake from being made. Then the garish nightlife of the now renamed Pottersville, a town where money speaks loudest and any form of entertainment is preferable to the drudgery of daily living, as George's humanity wasn't there to assert itself in the town's history.

Perhaps no moment is more startling or disturbing than when George visits the woman who would be his mother. Her stern visage when she opens the door to him, in stark contrast to her smiling, gentle countenance before, and the news of Uncle Billy's incarceration in a mental institution, forces George to flee in terror. Running full into a closeup, he stares out at the world around him, now a ceaseless nightmare.

My personal favorite moment from the movie occurs, appropriately enough, in the town's cemetery. George finds the childhood grave of his brother Harry. “ Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine,” says Clarence.

George is furious. “That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”



But Clarence speaks louder, over George's fear and indignation. “ Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn't there to save them , because you weren't there to save Harry!” And suddenly it's bigger than George, his family, his town; now the ripples have gone out across the world to affect countless lives and generations.

Of course George asks for his life back, damn the consequences...and there is the redemption. The only thing missing is Mr. Potter's comeuppance (and supposedly in the first draft of the script there was a scene with Clarence confronting Potter about his actions. Director Frank Capra wisely decided that this didn't matter as much as George's salvation in the minds of the audience, and he was probably correct.)



As noted above, Rod Serling was a great admirer of the ghostly tale set at Christmas time. In addition to “The Night of the Meek” (in which a drunken department store Santa discovers that he's the genuine article) one of his less-known TWILIGHT ZONE teleplays is “The Changing of the Guard”, concerning an old schoolteacher forced into retirement, looking back on his life and lamenting that he left no mark on his students or the world. On Christmas Eve he takes a gun and contemplates killing himself, but a phantom schoolbell brings him to his empty classroom where the ghosts of his former pupils – all dead through various incidents that befell them after their graduations – share the stories of the life lessons they learned from him that enabled them to make their sacrifices. At the midnight hour they vanish, their warm affection still in his ears, leaving him more confident to face his future.

His celebrated NIGHT GALLERY episode “The Messiah on Mott Street” drives the point home more forcefully. An elderly Jewish gentleman, a mystic suffering from failing health, cares for his grandson in a tenement apartment in New York City. He fills the youngsters head with tales of the Messiah, who will soon come to Mott Street and deliver them, taking them to a palace and seeing to their every need. But although he's a believer in the mystical, the old gentleman's faith is weak, and the stories he tells are mostly for his grandson's benefit.



But there is a supernatural creature inhabiting the tenement: the Angel of Death, a shadowy, whispering figure that is hovering over the apartment, watching and waiting for the grandfather to weaken beyond help. The grandson catches a glimpse of this creature in the darkness of his grandfather's room, and he is terrified. Determined that only the Messiah can save the old man, the boy sets out on Christmas Eve, walking the crowded, threatening city streets to look for the savior.

And he finds him in an unlikely form, that of a kindly black man wearing a rumpled army coast with the name Buckman stenciled over the breastpocket. He hurriedly brings the stranger back to his home where an ambulance waits: the old man is dying, and the grandfather's doctor wants him taken to a hospital to try and save him. The Angel of Death makes another appearance, and the grandfather seems lost.

But something strange happens. The grandson emerges from the grandfather's bedroom, and the old man is sitting up, stronger than before and growing moreso each minute. What a dream I had, Doctor! So strange! You, Mikey, the Messiah, the Angel of Death…and someone in the living room. Was there someone in the living room? There's nobody there now, and neither the doctor nor the grandson can remember anyone being there.  The doctor is in disbelief at these dramatic turn of events. In Mr. Serling's powerful prose from his adaptation of the script for his short story collection “ Night Gallery 2” :

Levine felt dazed. He was witness to something that defied any kind of explanation. This simply wasn't the way it happened. Not in his experience. Nobody cheated death. Or, at least, no one did it so overtly, so directly. No one spit in its eye and simply shrugged it off as did this once dying and doomed old man...”



With the grandfather's health returning, their collective attention turns to the financial status of the family. The grandfather has been awaiting a sizable check from a brother in California; once it arrives he can pay the doctor and provide for his grandson much better. Neither the doctor nor the old man believe the brother will come through; it's a harmless fantasy of unrequited hope.

Until a stranger knocks on the door, bearing a special delivery package. It contains a check with an enormous amount of money. Elated, the doctor goes into the street and finds the postman; he is a kindly black man with the name Buckman stenciled on his uniform.

You just delivered one hellava holiday gift,” the doctor said.

...Mr. Buckman, the postman, closed and locked the mailbox. “Every now and then,” he said, “God remembers the tenements.”

Indeed.



Illustration by Mark Summers


The best known and perhaps best ghostly Yuletide tale of redemption is, of course, Charles Dickens's classic “A Christmas Carol”, which not only used the trope of spiritual interference but engaged in the practice of time travel to show how past events influence the present.

It's important to remember that Scrooge's great failing isn't that he hates Christmas, as many of the television parodies of the story would have you believe; it's that he hates humanity. His isolation as a child, his overbearing and stern father, the loss of his beloved sister and his obsessive pursuit of the security of wealth and material comfort at the expense of true love and companionship has left him cold and bitter, looking down on those he perceives as weak and in need (probably because they remind him of himself and his own failings and fears). He has no time for compassion or empathy; he leaves that to others and disparages them for it.

As it turns out, he's not entirely heartless, but only with those that touch his life directly; as with so many people, the suffering of others pales when they represent a faceless throng. But when Tiny Tim's fate is in doubt, Scrooge's sympathies are deeply aroused. And he is reminded sharply by Christmas Present, throwing his own words back at him, that in every family there is a Tiny Tim, whose fate means the world to them as much as this does to Scrooge:

If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?”

And for the first time in a long while, Scrooge is forced to look outside the confines of his own experiences and his inner landscape and weather and consider the world at large. It's a sobering moment for him, and for the reader.

“ A Christmas Carol” is one of my favorite books; rereading it is always a pleasure. Some of that is the almost musical quality of Mr. Dickens's prose, as poetic in its own way and time as Mr. Serling's contemporary dialogue. Open the book to any passage – any! - and you can find images that will fill your soul and hammer at your heart:

I wear the chain I forged in life....I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

And one of the most powerful passages, when Scrooge discovers the demonic children beneath Christmas Present's robe:

Spirit! Are they yours?”

They are Man's and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”



Illustration by Mark Summers


The spirits work their magic well, as Marley knew they would. When Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge his legacy, finishing with his gravestone, the humanity being released throughout the evening reaches its pinnacle. And in the redemptive power of the Christmas ghost story, is any passage more heart-rending than Scrooge's final speech?

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?"

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"

...No, Spirit! O no, no! Spirit! hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life."

For the first time the kind hand faltered.

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. O, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"



One of the finest pastiches of the Dickens tale, in my opinion, was featured three years ago as the DOCTOR WHO Christmas special. On a planet continually beset by storms in its upper atmosphere, a spaceship experiencing mechanical difficulty is being buffeted and threatened with destruction unless an industrialist uses his weather machine to clear a landing path. The rich man, a scornful, misanthropic creature with a wounded past becomes the Scrooge surrogate, refusing to get involved in the lives of those aboard the ship and save them. What are they to him? What does it matter if strangers die?

The Doctor, taking a cue from the classic tale, begins to literally tinker with the man's past, making appearances at Christmastime and reshaping the industrialist's childhood to make him into a more caring, compassionate individual. What makes the pastiche work so well is that everyone involved is completely aware of the classic novel; it is a recognized work in this time, and the parallels do not escape the rich man's notice.

Nevertheless, as effective as the Doctor's meddling may be, there is still a portion of the industrialist's heart and soul untouched by the Christmas intervention, even when confronted with the despairing lives on the doomed ship in a parody of Christmas Present. Still holding fast to his misanthropy, he challenges the Doctor to finish the charade. “Go on; show me how I'll grow old and die alone and unloved, just like everyone else in the world! Go on, Doctor! Show me my future!”

And in a brilliant twist, the Doctor smiles. “I already am. Do you like what you see?” And from behind the Doctor steps a little boy, the rich man as a child, staring wide-eyed at his bitter adult self. And the rich man stares in horror at his younger self, realizing that he's truly seeing himself through the child's eyes.

And the transformation is complete.



No less an authority than Stephen King has stated that the classic ghost story is a way to come to grips with one's mortality, looking into the future and testing the spiritual and emotional waters. He's stated succinctly, “Everybody is a haunted house; everybody holds a ghost inside waiting to make its appearance.” He also believes that most people are haunted by their pasts, and the ghost story, with its provenance, allows a catharsis to coming to grips with this as well.

If this is true, and I believe it is, then the Christmas ghost story offers a further catharsis; redemption, hope and forgiveness, and it's this subtext that resonates so strongly. (And it should be pointed out that Mr. King has a fine Christmas ghost story himself, in his collection “Different Seasons”: the final novella, “The Breathing Method”, subtitled “A Winter's Tale”, contains the appropriate call, “Who will bring us a story for Christmas?”)

The sentiments may be cliché to some, but the message holds true, in this world and on any other plane of existence: “Peace on Earth; Good Will towards Men.” The ghostly Winter's tale considers that a worthy message.

So do I.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

NOVEMBER 2014

 

I've lately spent time considering the groundbreaking motion picture 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I've not only been reading the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, but I've read his notebooks about the creation of the script and novel titled “The Lost Worlds Of 2001” (and the evolution and initial drafts of the work from short story to final film is as fascinating as the finished product) as well as Jerome Engel's comprehensive “The Making Of Kubrick's 2001”. (And for good measure, I've read “The Odyssey Files”, which detail the production of the sequel 2010: ODYSSEY TWO.)



2001 was, and remains, a truly visionary project; told almost entirely in visual terms, with the technology created anew as the movie went along, Mr. Kubrick's vision is as awe-inspiring today as when it was first released, this despite the huge leaps taken in special effects since its creation. We've seen everything from STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND to STAR TREK and ALIEN and all their offspring, legitimate and otherwise, right up to the summer's biggest blockbuster GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; all of these are equally worthy efforts, yet none can quite compare to the fierce intelligence and adult presentation that 2001 represents.

Part of that is due to the clarity of purpose of the creative forces behind it. Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest film directors of modern times, and Arthur C. Clarke a giant in the genre of serious SF. The two wanted to make a truly 'adult' Science Fiction film, confronting the larger issues of man's place in the universe, the repercussions and implications of alien contact, and the deep emotional and philosophical questions of space travel.

Granted, there had been many excellent SF films previous to 2001; FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and PLANET OF THE APES come immediately to mind. Yet none addressed the deeper questions and conflicts that 2001 raised. (Probably the one that came closest was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, although it was still far less probing and complex.)



The reaction to the film was hardly universal acclaim, particularly within the genre itself. Although it was enthusiastically received for the most part, it was equally vilified by many influential voices in both the mainstream and SF circles (The highly regarded Science Fiction magazines “Analog” and “Galaxy” both hated the film and published scathing reviews.) The controversy surrounding it was part of its legacy; individuals who had no interest in the least in SF went to see what all the fuss was about, and either emerged enchanted, confused or dismayed.

But it was talked about, it was fought over, it was rewarded, and in the end history had its final say: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is considered the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the field of Science Fiction filmmaking, and it is a yardstick by which all others that followed it to this day are compared.

I am a great fan of Science Fiction, or Speculative Fiction, as the genre has come to be considered. (The difference, I suppose, is that Speculative Fiction more accurately embraces the fantastic and incorporates pure Fantasy into its framework and is not as heavily reliant on scientific accuracy. This also allows for future speculations that don't necessarily rely on ‘hard' science by can explore sociological or psychological issues, such as “Animal Farm”, “1984”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and “Fahrenheit 451”.) And I consider 2001 to be a masterwork. (One of many from Mr. Kubrick, whom I admire as no other filmmaker.)



But I also am a great fan or Horror and Dark Fantasy, and consider that genre as potentially awesome and adult as SF. Yet more than one critic has noted in passing that Horror (a category I'm becoming less enchanted with considering the current market and the ambitions of the best artists in the field; I much prefer Dark Fantasy, or 'Weird Fiction', as both Misters Lovecraft and Poe referred to their efforts) has never truly received the respect due to a field that contains artists as vast and varied as Mark twain, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ira Levin, Stephen King, Ambrose Bierce, Clive Barker, Nigel Kneale, Harlan Ellison, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Edward Gorey, Joyce Carol Oates and so many, many others.

Part of that is simply because a work of great artistry is rare, rarer than in SF. The late author and critic Thomas Disch opined that may simply be due to the limitations of the form; even the most elaborate and carefully conceived work of the Dark Fantastic has, at its bottom line, the scary monster jumping out and screaming “Boo!” In other words, it's a restrictive discipline. I see Mr. Disch's point, and agree to some extent; still, the haiku or iambic pentameter are an equally restrictive disciplines, and they haven't suffered from a lack of serious consideration.

Another part of this lack of serious artistic merit is, alas brought on by the genre enthusiasts themselves. This is in many ways a low point in the genre's history, with its plethora of Torture Porn offerings, endless zombie and vampire reiterations, useless and unnecessary remakes of established classic simply for the benefit of an additional dollar, and mind-numbing examples of idiocy embraced by individuals apparently so starved for entertainment and unable to stand from their sofas long enough to seek out worthy diversions that they drink the mediocrity as though it were vintage claret. (Yes, that's a thinly veiled reference to SHARKNADO or whatever imagination-deprived flotsam being produced by The Asylum.)

(End of unfortunate venting; my apologies.)

The question begs: where is the 2001 of the Dark Fantastic? Where is the film so astonishingly original and mesmerizing, so powerfully compelling and controversial, so overwhelmingly adult that the genre is forever changed from that time forward?

Well…I believe they exist. We have a great deal to be proud of in our beloved niche, and with this Halloween recently past, I want to draw your attention to some efforts that I think rightfully deserve a place on the shelf of honor beside Mr. Kubrick's.

A note about my criteria: I wanted to select films that echoed the pedigree of 2001; preferably those written and produced by name directors and writers and produced by a major studio and distributed in a wide general release. Of those I wanted films that had a profound effect on the general public at large, not merely dedicated fans of the genre.

Under this many amazing films are excluded; these would include small art films such as LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, MARTIN, and others that are considered exemplary efforts, on the basis that the general public is largely ignorant of them. Under these guidelines I'm also excluding many foreign films that have come to be recognized as groundbreaking, such as SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED, BLACK SUNDAY and THE BEYOND.

I'm eliminating films such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HALLOWEEN, and the Hammer efforts, again because they are the province of the fans of Horror and did not generally draw the attention of the curious outside the genre. We have a great many wonderful adult films that we can proudly display with the very best of the Western, Mystery, Comedy and Romance variety, but I wanted movies that cut across all demographics of interest.

And so, acknowledging this imperfect and arbitrary selection process, I offer the following that caused innocents and seasoned moviegoers alike to explore the Dark Fantastic...thirteen of the greatest moments of cinema macabre for your pleasure...




DRACULA/FRANKENSTEIN – I place these together side by side, fitting because they hand-in-hand ushered in the golden age of the Universal Horror films. But more than that, they truly created the genre in ways no one expected. Of course there had been Horror films and movies of the Dark Fantastic before during the Silent Film era, quite often among the German Expressionistic period. But once sound was introduced, many looked upon those earlier films as quaint, childlike and almost embarrassing, simple tricks ala George Melies.

It's astonishing to believe, but Universal had no faith in DRACULA while ti was being produced. (They had snapped up the rights to play based upon its theatrical box office, which despite some very bad reviews was phenomenal.) They never thought sophisticated, modern audiences would accept the premise of an immortal supernatural creature preying on society.

This is why much of Tod Browning's film does away with any special effects or magical archetypes, and Bela Lugosi's Dracula is a solid, more human manifestation of evil. We do not see him change into a bat or a wolf (although we do see a bat; a terrible moth-eaten one on a very visible wire flapping forlornly); we never see Dracula drinking blood, nor does he even sport fangs. His one otherworldly attribute is the highlighted lighting effect on his eyes during his malevolent stare. When the film was finished there was no mention in press releases or advertizements about the supernatural or vampires. Indeed, the poster of the film simply proclaimed it “The Strangest Love Story Ever Filmed!”

Unsurprisingly, the public had no difficulty suspending their disbelief, and the film was hugely successful, this despite the fact that it isn't terribly distinguished, and aside from the production design (which is beautifully Edward Goreyesque) is slow and often uninvolving. (In fact, recent rumors have suggested that Mr. Browning, whose Silent Film work with Lon Chaney included the renowned THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN and LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, didn't have a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject and spent the filming in a state of inebriated apathy, with the actual directing being done by cinematographer Karl Freund. Giving Mr. Freund's slow, moody directorial work on THE MUMMY, I have no difficulty believing this.)

Much of the power of the production can be attributed to Mr. Lugosi; his performance is indeed iconic, despite not being completely faithful to his literary counterpart. Others have assayed the role, but he made it his own, even to this day, by his uncompromising portrayal. In Carlos Clarens's classic tome “An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films”, he praises the actor most precisely: “It is useless to debate whether he was a good actor or not; Lugosi was Dracula...Lugosi appeared totally evil. As Count Dracula, he neither asked for nor needed the audience's sympathy.”

With clear evidence that the supernatural wasn't box office poison, Universal threw its full compliment of publicity and production into its next film FRANKENSTEIN. Here, in acclaimed director James Whale (known for JOURNEY'S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE, and later for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and SHOWBOAT, in addition to his macabre masterpieces THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE) they had the antidote to DRACULA's slow, static camerawork; his images were deliriously imaginative and he pulled intense, grim performances from Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Sloan and Dwight Frye.

But his finest inspiration was in casting a little-known character actor as the Monster. Boris Karloff's portrayal was and remains astounding; menacing and childlike in tandem, and overnight audiences responded and made him a star. It's easily one of the greatest cinematic portrayals in our genre if not in film itself.

Like 2001 both films were hugely popular with audiences while critics were divided on their merits, particularly in the field of the Dark Fantastic. Purists who enjoyed the novels were quite often horrified by the liberties taken when translating them to the screen. The great H. P. Lovecraft, groundbreaking master in the field of Weird Fiction, was a great admirer of Mary Shelly's novel, and supposedly stormed out in the middle of FRANKENSTEIN during its initial release in a blind fury. The movie-going public proved much more sympathetic, and clamored for more, and the age of Cinematic Horror came into its own.



DIABOLIQUE - Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was already considered a French master of terror and suspense with his previous films LE CORBEAU (The Crow) about a vile and malicious blackmailer terrorizing a small town, and LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (The Wages of Fear) concerning a group of criminals hired to drive a truck filled with nitroglycerin into the Amazon jungle. But with LE DIABOLIQUE (The Fiends) or simply DIABOLIQUE, he added the patina of the supernatural to his repertoire.

The film tells of two women, a sickly, abused wife of a cruel headmaster of an isolated and decaying boys school, and the husband's mistress, also abused by the sadist. To escape his brutalities they plot to murder him, and one dark night succeed in the ghastly, clumsy deed, drowning him in the bathtub and, after various near-encounters threatening disclosure, disposing of his body in the overgrown, filthy and unused school swimming pool. All is well, until...

The twists and turns are shared by authors Boileau and Narcejac, masters of the Grand Guignol thriller, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. But this is a director's movie, with the camera prowling the empty school to create a sense of menace that is near unbearable. The performances by Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret and especially Vera Clouzot (the director's wife) are flawless, and the film builds to an utterly horrifying conclusion that has been often imitated but never surpassed.

For a foreign film with subtitles, the reception in America was astonishing. The public flocked to it, particularly young people who'd never experienced the classic Universal years. They screamed in absolute fear, and came eagerly back for more, the word of mouth spreading; professionals in the industry accounted for some of the most loyal fans, including William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock, who was inspired to create his own black & white exercise in terror.

Naturally, some critics were horrified in a different way, with some calling it a masterly thriller and one of the director's best to others who found the story absurd and one who labeled it vulgar and nasty. Still its reputation flourishes, justly so, and even the tepid remakes haven't detracted from its nightmarish supremacy. As critic Dilys Powell observed, “ Grand Guignol sets out merely to horrify. I don't think one should take moral exception if it succeeds.



PSYCHO - For years Alfred Hitchcock had been known as the Master of Suspense with his quality thrillers NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and TO CATCH A THIEF, all of them critical and commercial successes. But when he wanted to film Robert Bloch's novel, he met nothing but resistance from the studios. No one wanted to make such a lurid drama about a transvestite killer. Undeterred, Mr. Hitchcock bought the rights and financed the film himself, using the small crew from his hit television series and filming in black & white.

The rest is cinematic history, as well as a turning point in films of the Dark Fantastic.

PSYCHO broke every conventional rule, both of film storytelling and social mores. The opening scene features a torrid afternoon encounter between a young woman and her lover in a hotel room; the infamous shower scene featured nudity (and the sound of a toilet shown flushing onscreen for the first time ever), the lead character is gruesomely murdered at the halfway point of the story, and the handsome, likable but troubled young man who befriended her is the madman who knifed her to death. There were overtones of incest and dark sexuality throughout the narrative, and the sudden violence came shockingly and without warning or motivation.

To say critics were divided was understatement. Astonishing as it may be today with its universal acclaim, the film was denounced by many as immoral and a sad decline for Mr. Hitchcock's talents; a seedy, tasteless examination of rural madness and terror. Many put it on the list of the year's worst films, and only in hindsight (and through the highly vocal defense from its ardent admirers) did opinion slowly sway to the positive. None of this mattered to the moviegoing public; they loved the film, rushing into theaters to be absolutely terrified.

The biggest influence the film had may have been on the reputation of Mr. Hitchcock. No longer was he the “Master of Suspense”; he was now the “Master of Terror”, and several of his remaining films – THE BIRDS and FRENZY in particular – solidified this title with the moviegoing public. Even more so, the murder was now no longer the strange and threatening figure cloaked in black; he was handsome, shyly charming, unsuspected and completely harmless – most of the time. Michael Myers and Hannibal Lector both owe their personages – and familial ties – to Norman Bates.



THE INNOCENTS – The pedigree for this couldn't be more outstanding; based upon what many consider to be the greatest ghost story in the English language (Henry James's “The Turn Of The Screw”), directed by Jack Clayton (whose previous film was the award-winning ROOM AT THE TOP, and who went on to direct the wonderfully macabre OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE, THE GREAT GATSBY and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES), co-authored by Truman Capote (IN COLD BLOOD) and John Mortimer (creator and author of the classic RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY stories and television series) and starring Academy award-winning actress Deborah Kerr (of TEA & SYMPATHY, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER and THE KING & I).

One must also credit the sterling black & white cinematography of director of photography (and later director), the legendary Freddie Francis (who would photograph THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE and many of the Hammer classics). A finer example of truly adult subject matter and presentation, THE INNOCENTS captures all the complexity and subtlety of the James novel. Audiences were genuinely terrified and disturbed by what might have just been a standard (thought well-executed) thriller, and the movie holds up extremely well even by today's more permissive and progressive standards. This was (and remains) a true milestone in the Dark Fantastic, often referenced and imitated (and remade several times) but unequaled.



THE HAUNTING - From 1942 to 1946, Val Lewton produced a remarkable number of adult, imaginative and classic films celebrating the Dark Fantastic. Saddled with small budgets, handed lurid titles from which to create his projects and forced to hire character actors instead of studio-locked stars, Mr. Lewton substituted talent for money, subtlety for extravaganza, and with a sure hand produced works that are still considered some of the best fare in our beloved genre. CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE BODY SNATCHERS, ISLE OF THE DEAD…these are the mantras invoked by true admirers of Horror.

Robert Wise had tutored under Orson Welles on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS when he came into Mr. Lewton's fold. He directed two films for the producer, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHERS and created two memorable works of terror and mystery. He was an apt pupil, and took what he learned to heart, using suggestion and an adult viewpoint to create a number of classic movies, including THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WEST SIDE STORY, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, among others.

Perhaps no other film put his experience with Mr. Lewton to better use than THE HAUNTING, widely considered by many to be the greatest ghost story ever put on film. It is frightening and powerfully evocative in its portrayal of a group of psychic investigators who come to Hill House, reportedly one of the most haunted places ever discovered, and find a miasmic, untouchable evil that threatens to consume them. Among them is Eleanor Vance, whom the house seems to regard with special favor.

Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that the source material for this extraordinary film is Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House”, a universally lauded classic not only of supernatural fiction but of 20 th century literature itself. And it helps immensely that screenwriter Nelson Giddings carefully adapted the work with respect and professionalism, resisting the urge to create a big, empty Hollywood special effects mediocrity (as the remake by Jan de Bont definitely was).

Perhaps the greatest stroke of fortune came in the casting: Russ Tamblyn, Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom are wonderful individually and as an ensemble. But the movie belongs squarely to Julie Harris, a stage actress who brought all her skill, talent and sensitivity to bringing Eleanor Vance to life. It is truly the artist filling the role, and an iconic one at that, as one of the finest, deepest characterizations in American literature. Ms. Harris is Eleanor, and I doubt anyone else could have portrayed her better. Along with Mr. Wise's cool, calm, matter-of-fact direction, where all is suggestion and there is little-to-no shock (with one brief, startling and superb exception), this is a disturbing and uncompromising work of Art at its highest level.



ROSEMARY'S BABY - Before young Regan became possessed by a demon, there was sweet housewife Rosemary Woodhouse, who had her own encounter with evil...

If THE EXORCIST raised the ire of the religiously devout in the 1970s, ROSEMARY'S BABY had the same effect in the 60s. Coming in with expert timing hot on the heels of the entire “Is God Dead?” discussions that ran through the later part of the decade, Ira Levin's novel was controversial long before the film was conceived. It was banned in many places and denounced in several more, with the Catholic Church being the most vocal critic. None of that stopped the book from being an enormous success (it probably contributed to it, in fact).

Filmmaker William Castle bought the rights to the book, planning to produce and direct it himself in association with Paramount. At the urging of studio executive Charles Bluhdorn, he made the canny decision to hire Roman Polanski, following on the heels of his successful features KNIFE IN THE WATER and REPULSION. It proved to be a fortuitous paring. Mr. Polanski himself adapted the book into a screenplay, creating one of the most faithful adaptations in movie history. All the paranoia, suspense and dark humor made its way from the pages to the big screen, and with a flawless ensemble including John Cassavetes, Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Patsy Kelly, and a superb leading performance by Mia Farrow, the movie became a box office sensation as well.

The controversy continued during the release, with hate mail pouring in to Mr. Castle and the studio. Tragedy seemed to dog all associated with the production, not the least of which was Mr. Polanski's lovely wife Sharon Tate being murdered by followers of Charles Manson. There was talk of a 'curse', similar to rumors concerning the movie POLTERGEIST. In the end it was a commercial and critical landmark, with audiences swearing that they actually saw the baby birthed from a demonic father. They didn't. It was all due to the artistry of Mr. Polanski, who knew, inverse to Mr. Friedkin, that sometimes subtlety can plumb the greatest depths of fear.




NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/DAWN OF THE DEAD - I thought long and hard before putting these on my list. In hindsight, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was certainly a groundbreaking and landmark film; a copy now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. But at the time of its release, it was seen as just another low-budget drive-in exploitation feature, undistinguished and forgettable. Few of the legitimate film critics even bothered to review it, and those who did were appalled by the graphic violence of the cannibalism scenes.

(The most famous of these being Roger Ebert, who review, reprinted nationwide in “Reader's Digest” magazine, is required reading on how perceptions of Art change with time. Mr. Ebert would become one of this film's, along with DAWN OF THE DEAD, critical champions – but that came much, much later…)

But these belong here for the same reason PSYCHO and THE WICKER MAN do; after its release the genre of Horror would never be the same again. There was nothing like it before, and its influence has shaken the foundations of modern Dark Fantasy. The word 'zombie', previously associated only with voodoo rites and the South Pacific, now has an entirely different archetype, and it seems every inspiring filmmaker who wants to break into the Horror field buys some cheap cuts of leftover meat, practices his latex applications, gathers his friends to stumble and moan, listless and slackjawed, and makes a Living Dead film. Simply put, without Mr. Romero's work, everything from 28 DAYS LATER to THE WALKING DEAD would cease to exist.

Would that they all had Mr. Romero's artistry, for he wasn't making a 'Horror' film; in his mind, he was making a statement of sociological change during a time of crisis, the turbulent 1960s. Inspired by Richard Matheson's “I Am Legend”, he wanted to detail the fall and rise of an entirely new society in the ashes and carnage of the previous one, and document the reactions of those who survived to tell of it. From his stark black & white documentary-like photography to his naturalistic dialogue and characters, Mr. Romero took what could have been a ridiculous premise – the dead have risen and are feasting on the living – and made it a gripping tale of survival and class warfare.

The commentary continued with DAWN OF THE DEAD, this time painted in full garish pop color. The critics had ten years to examine the previous work and those that came after, and now they were paying attention. The detail of survivors making their stand inside a barricaded shopping mall and recreating the dying culture they knew while the dead milled outside was a strong parable, and no one failed to comment on the hoards of the risen dead riding the escalators past outlet stores, muzak playing over the loudspeakers.

The field had moved on from dark European castles and monsters with thick foreign accents, thunder and lightning punctuating each crescendo of the orchestra. Horror was now dirty, realistic, squarely in suburbia, neighbor against neighbor, and no place, not even the bastion of capitalism, was safe. Others followed on Mr. Romero's heels: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, DEEP RED, THE EVIL DEAD, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and more. There were no limits, no taboos that couldn't be explored for the sake of fear; all the walls had been kicked down.

And when the Motion Picture Association wanted to release DAWN with an 'X' rating because of the violence, Mr. Romero broke through one final ceiling, releasing it instead unrated (with a written warning about the movie not being recommended for anyone under 17) strictly to independent theaters and drive-ins, cleaning up and becoming the most successful unrated film in cinema history.

Mr. Romero had made a Horror movie because he knew it would be commercially viable, but what he really wanted to do was make the great American film. Most agree he did just that.



THE EXORCIST - This is the one. The big one. The one that can be argued changed everything. It's pedigree couldn't be any greater. Based on a bestselling novel, directed by an Oscar-winning director, with an all-star cast of veteran thespians, many Tony-award winning theatrical performers.

But what made the movie infamous was its graphic nature. This was not a low-budget exploitation movie like BLOOD FEAST, I EAT YOUR SKIN or even NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; this was a major studio production that featured vomiting green bile, public urination and sexual depravity, blasphemy, child abuse, and more foul language than could usually be found on a city street corner. It was a sort of endurance test; would audience members be able to sit through the entire film without leaving? Almost like a dare, crowds ran around the blocks of major theaters across the country.

Religious leaders weighed in on the theme and storyline (which I shouldn't really have to recap, should I? If you're reading these words the odds are great that you've either seen the movie, read the novel, or both.) Many denounced the film for glorifying evil and demonic activity; others saw it as a statement of faith that proved there were supernatural elements in the world. Almost no one had a neutral opinion.

Professionals in the genre, such as William K. Everson, Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”), Robert Bloch (“Psycho”) and Jeff Rovin ("The Fabulous Fantasy Films") castigated the film as going too far past the line of decency. It was equally praised by individuals such as Forrest J. Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland”), Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese (RAGING BULL, MEAN STREETS) and William Castle. Billy Graham had an opinion, as did the Catholic Church. And despite some attention to the storyline of both the novel and the film, most focused their criticisms on the graphic nature of the movie.

Yet many seemed to miss the point (as some do today.) William Friedkin, the director, was known for his gritty, realistic urban dramas such as THE BOYS IN THE BAND and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He made a conscious decision to film the story as realistically and naturalistic as possible. There were no Horror movie shots of fog rolling across the ground, no huge organ sounds or crashing music, no chuckling, hand-rubbing villainy (at least until the final act, when, in my opinion, the movie loses some of its immediacy). It was filmed in an almost documentary manner, and that was why the movie disturbed so strongly. The level of believability was high as per Mr. Friedkin's demands (one of the most famous, as an example, was building Regan's bedroom set inside a working freezer so that the actor's breath could be seen). Many who denounced its graphic nature missed that this was all presented matter-of-factually, adding to the verisimilitude of the events.

And that may be the final legacy of THE EXORCIST. From that point on, total believability was demanded of the fantastic. Audiences were perfectly willing to suspend their disbelief, but as with Mr. Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE they now wanted a strong level of real-world mundane to offset the Dark Fantastic. In this way the film is a triumph that still holds up very well. The filmmaking community seemed to agree; despite the controversy it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.



THE WICKER MAN - Some would argue that this doesn't belong on the list because it wasn't a huge box office success when it was first released. They have a point; in fact, the initial release was a disaster, with a heavily edited print being sent out as the bottom half of a drive-in double feature, so superior to whatever received top billing that audiences didn't know what to make of it.

Critics were divided as well; while many praised the thoughtful, intelligent script by Anthony Shaffer (author of the astonishing SLEUTH and Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY and brother to Peter Shaffer, author of EQUUS and AMADEUS) the direction of Robin Hardy and the performances lead by Christopher Lee (in his favorite role), Edward Woodward, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, many were puzzled by the underlying message of the film, put off by the downbeat conclusion and scandalized by the frank representation of Pagan fertility rites in all their sexual excess.

But the film gathered word of mouth; nobody who ever saw it forgot it, and it became one of those cult classics that even fans who've never seen it discuss with reverence and awe. And for good reason: quality shines forth from every frame, and the mood of dark forces encroaching in daylight surroundings has rarely been better evoked. The tale of a moralistic and repressed police officer who comes to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl maintains a sense of menace through the most innocuous incidents, drawing the threads of the web tighter until the stark finale, when it's revealed that nothing is innocuous in this place.

The film has become a touchstone of iconic imagery and themes that has spread throughout our genre and beyond. The Burning Man celebration owes much to this film, and no other movie or story that tells of civilization encountering an isolated religious culture has escaped comparison. (As in “Stephen King's “Children Of The Corn” contains echoes of “Wicker Man” sensibilities.")

In the end it belongs here simply because it's sui generis; there is literally nothing else like it, and not even the abysmal remake could dampen its power. If you've not seen it, you're simply poorer for it.



JAWS - In 1974 a young director was hired by Universal Studios to helm the film adaptation of a phenomenally best-selling novel. Although he'd only made one feature film, the director had done some notable work in television. He decided to film on location instead of in the studio, and thereafter was subjected to a maddening series of catastrophes that caused the movie to go seriously over budget, that had the studio considering canceling the fiasco, and that had to be rethought on the spot when the promised special effects refused to work properly. The cast and crew thought the final film would be a box office disaster, and the director feared he'd never work again.

Of course, the movie was JAWS, and its incredibly difficult filming and final triumphant release is a well-documented Hollywood legend. All involved went on to wildly successful careers, especially Steven Spielberg, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. In addition, the movie literally recreated the way studios released movies to the general public, and the summer blockbuster was born.

Looking at it in retrospect, with all the frustrations and calamities behind it, hindsight shows clearly why the movie is considered a classic. The Hitchcockian method of suggesting the menace without seeing it clearly, put in place because of the limits to functions the mechanical shark, fill each pan of the ocean with a sense of imminent doom and dread. The engaging performances of the leads give a human perspective and element to the proceedings, making the characters more than simply cardboard figures to be eaten. The story, harsh and bleak, is as basic as the basic elements of great drama: man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus self. All of this under the sure, confident hand of a young man determined to exceed his reach and grasp.

That the film still holds up is a testament to the talents of Mr. Spielberg, Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, Screenwriter Carl Gottileib, novelist and creator Peter Benchley, the Misters Scheider, Drefuss and Robert Shaw, composer John Williams and all others involved in the creation of this masterpiece. In many ways Mr. Spielberg has never been better or equaled this first effort, and it proves the dictum that great adversity can produce great art, as long as there is a steady hand on the rudder.



THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - It was, and remains extremely controversial, with an equal number of genre aficionados proclaiming it “boring” or “not frightening” while others find it “gripping” and “absolutely terrifying”. It's been accused of being plagiarized from other works, most notably THE LAST BROADCAST (which I've seen; I find BLAIR WITCH superior) and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. (All this I find nonsensical; if we want to trace the true ancestry of this ‘mockumentary' style of storytelling, let's go back and begin with Orson Welles's classic 1939 radio drama WAR OF THE WORLDS.) Some people still believe it was a true story, and many descended on the small community of Burkittsville, MD to find the fabled source of the legend.

It's been copied and parodied countless times, both cleverly and weakly. It used the Internet brilliantly; perhaps it may be the first and best use of online resources to expand the mythology of a narrative. Some critics claim that it was only successful because of the hype and extraneous material; I disagree on this strongly. I remember seeing footage and learning of the film a good year before its release and publicity push. Watching just the snippets as they were being assembled, it was clear something special was happening…something original and extremely unnerving.

It created a new subgenre in Horror filmmaking, the “found footage” movie. There have been many since, some quite good, but most abysmal. (Probably the best, and a great success in its own right, was PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.) But the greatest achievement of this film, in my opinion, is what it did for the gene: it made it serious again. The post-SCREAM teenagers-in-danger-with-an-ironic-wink-to-the-audience had taken hold of the field of Horror. There was none of that in BLAIR WITCH; there was only an increasing sense of dread as it became very clear that no one we'd been getting to know for the past hour-and-a-half was coming home alive. Roger Ebert reports that the first viewing shook hardened, professional studio executives to the bone, and audiences soon followed.

Although the filmmakers have made other interesting, well-made movies, they have yet to equal the impact of this film. Sadly, the three performers have disappeared, a victim of the movie's success and Hollywood typecasting. Yet the movie itself remains, a huge success on home DVD (which, interestingly, it's probably more effective, considering the framework of the film). I still contend it to be a landmark and a masterpiece, the greatest Lovecraftian movie ever made that wasn't written by Lovecraft. (I'll expand on that another time, if you wish.) I believe the Dark Master of Providence would have responded enthusiastically.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


These are the best of the best, in my humble opinion, but of course there are many, many exemplary works in our particular field, films even the most discerning critic will find worthy of their time and attention. (And I'm always amused when a mainstream critic is confronted with a work of Dark Fantasy so immediate and outstanding that it simply can't be ignored, no matter what their inclination. Their tongues seem to tie themselves in knots at the ignominy of it all, and they almost seem to shake with a kind of indignant artistic palsy.)

Add to the list above PAN'S LABRYNTH; THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE; MARTIN; DON'T LOOK NOW; THEY CAME FROM WITHIN; THE BROOD; THE SHINING; LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE; THE REFLECTING SKIN; SECONDS; THE TENANT; THE MANSON FAMILY; JACOB'S LADDER; CURSE OF THE DEMON; BURN, WITCH, BURN; FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY; THE DAMNNED; THE SERVANT; DEEP RED; DELIVERENCE; THE BIRDS; THE CONJURING; LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH; THE STEPFORD WIVES; THE CHANGELING; CARNIVAL OF SOULS; MALPERTUIS; all films challenging and filled with artistic vision and discipline. You can no doubt supply many of your own.

Our genre, sadly, doesn't always strive for the very best it can be, let alone achieve it. Yet as the lists above clearly demonstrate, when it is at its best, it can create works that can stand beside anything the ‘serious' critical establishment can bring forward. Because of the work and dedication of these creators, we have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

OCTOBER 2014

 

Last year for Halloween I wrote an essay about the qualities inherent in a good ghost story. I'm very pleased with and proud of that piece, and as I've been so busy getting ready for this year's October Season, I thought I might share it again with you in the (I suppose selfish) spirit of saving time and energy. I hope regular readers won't mind a repeat, and I welcome all new visitors with what I hope to be some enlightening perspectives!

What makes a ghost story?

Many storytelling festivals, including the Bay Area Storytelling Festival in Richmond, CA, the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN and our own local Storytelling By The Sea Festival in Trinidad have special programs dedicated to the telling of ghost stories; they're often some of the most popular events of each festival, as audiences seem to love a good, scary tale (something I could have easily told them if asked.)

But …not every storyteller is comfortable with telling ghostly tales. Some don't care for them or have no interest in them; some simply don't understand them. So in the past some of the tellers at Storytelling By The Sea have fallen back on stories such as, “This is what happened one day when I was lost at an amusement park; it was sooo scary…” In other words, personal reminiscence that contained fearful moments.

But these were not ghost stories, and audiences reacted with displeasure; they wanted genuine tales of spectral terror, haunted castles, and dreadful apparitions. Consequently, when I began hosting the “Mostly Ghostly” segment of the Festival Friday evenings, I was asked to write a series of guidelines for those participating, to make certain everyone knew what was expected.

This is what I wrote:

First and foremost, a ghost story must have a narrative; a beginning, middle and end. Some great and unnatural event must take place and be resolved, either happily or not.

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

A ghost story need not be scary; indeed, there are many famous ghost stories that are quite funny, as witness “The Canterville Ghost”, Jerome K. Jerome's “Told After Supper”, and the macabre humor of Edward Gorey. But again, the humor must arise out of the strange and unusual.

It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story, not simply a memory about fear.

This year, when I was invited back to perform at the 2013 Festival and again host “Mostly Ghostly”, I was asked to again write a short paragraph or two as a guideline for the other tellers. I never did, because I thought the performers this year were well-versed in what I wrote above.

But I did give it a great deal more thought.



What makes a good ghost story?

Ask somebody for the first item that would insure a successful ghostly tale, and many are certain to answer, “a ghost”. And that's a fine start; certainly if a tale has a ghost in it, it's a ghost story. How could it be not?

Well…

Let's look at a very famous writer of ghost stories and the Dark Fantastic. He worked some years ago, so we're not discussing Mr. King or Mr. Bradbury or Mr. Straub; we're going back further than Mr. Serling or Blackwood or Poe or Lovecraft. We're speaking of that wonderful ghost story author William Shakespeare.

Mr. Shakespeare wrote quite frequently of supernatural occurrences, both in his comedies (“A Midsummer Nights Dream”) and tragedies (“Macbeth”). One reason he used ghosts both literatl and metaphorical was that at that time, belief in the supernatural phenomenon was very common, and ghosts could be presented in a piece of writing without there being a terribly great need for suspension of disbelief. Ghosts were accepted and believed, as simply as that.

Let's look at three of his plays that feature ghosts: the aforementioned “Macbeth”, “Julius Caesar” (which many forget contains a spectre) and perhaps the most famous piece of literature to feature a ghost ever written, “Hamlet”. And let's ask ourselves whether these are actual ghost stories, using the criteria I've outlined above.

I don't think we'll have any quarrel about “Macbeth”; witches in a blasted heath prophesizing death and disaster, bloody accusing spectres at a banquet, murder and manipulation, and a shrieking madwomen walking the halls of her castle home with blood on her hands and her conscience.

I've often referred to “Macbeth” and Shakespeare's “The Shining”, and I believe that description wholeheartedly. It is a big, bloody, grand macabre work, terrible and terrifying; to quote the author, it is “supped full with horrors”, and truly a sublime landmark in the Dark Fantastic. Yes, “Macbeth” is most certainly an ideal example of a ghost story.

What of “Julius Caesar”? For most of the work it is a political parable of ambition, guilt and betrayal. Yet late in the play Brutus awakens in the middle of the night to find the ghost of Caesar standing in his room. (Hence the famous expression, “Great Caesar's Ghost!”, beloved by Perry White of “Superman”.) The spectre identifies himself as “thy evil spirit”, and foreshadows doom in the coming battle with the opposing armies.

Here is one of the great themes of the ghost story: guilt, and a foreshadowing of death. The ghost is almost the personification of Brutus's tormented conscience. So with these classic themes in play, obviously “Julius Caesar” is a ghost story, correct?

I would disagree. This one instance is the sole supernatural event in the play; indeed, it's suggested by Shakespeare that the encounter may be simply a nightmare. The rest of the play deals with real-world issues of power and corruption. No, I would place this work outside the realm of a ghost story; say instead that it's a story that contains a ghost, if only a symbolic one.

Now, what of “Hamlet”? This also is a play that takes place in the ‘natural' world, and concerns familial betrayal and corruption. Yet, from the very beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Others have seen him, so he is the genuine article haunting the battlements. When Hamlet finally encounters him it is after much discussion and foreshadowing, a wonderful build-up worthy of any modern tale of fear. And when the Father reveals the terrible crime of Hamlet's Uncle and Mother, the entire condition of all the participants is turned upside-down.

Inexorably blood leads to blood and madness, vengeance and rage. The tragedy is set in motion from the ghost's arrival, and cannot be deterred. In a very literal sense, the castle that Hamlet now inhabits is a haunted house, and the occupants the Living Dead. The fact that the haunting concerns a crime of the past is again in the classic tradition of “Ghost Story”, “The Shining”, “The Turn Of The Screw”, “Bluebeard”, “Hell House”, and other genre landmarks. "Hamlet" fits in quite comfortably, for the atmosphere is one of dread and foreboding, as befitting my second point:

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

I would argue that “Hamlet” is more than simply a ghost story; it is in many ways the quintessential ghost story, an could be comfortably condensed and told around any campfire to produce a sense of shivery, subdued horror. (And while the ghost is offstage for much of the proceedings – returning late in the play to chastise Hamlet for not focusing his vengeance on the one truly deserving, his Uncle – the ghost's presence is keenly felt throughout everything that occurs, much as Dracula hovers over the events of the novel while remaining offstage. It is a great effect, and Shakespeare pulls it off as skillfully as Mr. Stoker does.)

(And I want to point out that the two most famous moments of “Hamlet” concern ghostly doings; the famous “To be or not to be…” speech is rife with unease at what exactly awaits the soul after death: peace, or further nightmares from which none can awaken. And“Alas, poor Yorick…” treatises what is left behind in memory of those gone from this plane; it takes place, appropriately enough, in a graveyard.)



What make a good ghost story?

I think, if you'll look at my third point above, you'll agree that the term ghost story can be used very liberally. To wit:

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

I think we'll all agree that what we're really discussing here when we use the term ‘ghost story' is ‘horror story', ‘weird fiction', or ‘fantastique'. We call tales of Horror and the Dark Fantastic ‘ghost stories” as a kind of shorthand simply to categorize.

Yet within the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy, there is a quantitive difference between a 'horror story' and a 'ghost story'. As I stated above, It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story…

Let's play a game. Let's not look at literary works of fiction; let's take some classic contemporary Horror films and see if they pass the test for a good ghost story.

Obviously, such movies as THE HAUNTING, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE UNINVITED, THE INNOCENTS, THE SHINING, GHOST STORY, POLTERGEIST, THE CHANGELING, INSIDIOUS, THE SIXTH SENSE and others constitute the traditional definition of ghost stories; they take place in haunted houses and concern supernatural events. Let's move beyond these obvious ones and look at a few others.

Let's compare the classic George Romero films NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD. I would argue yes, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD qualifies as a ghost story; the tale begins in a graveyard with the stumbling corpse, moves to an isolated farmhouse, and takes place in one long twelve-hour period. Filmed in black & white, the atmosphere is thick with dread, violence and half-glimpsed phantoms. The movie harkens back to the classic Universal films in term of image, but the visceral impact is quite modern and jarring.

By contrast, DAWN OF THE DEAD takes place in a shopping mall, brightly lit and filled with chrome and plastic structures. There are larger set pieces and an expanded sense of narrative, encompassing the entire country, if not the world. The tone is also sharper, satirical and garish, not reflecting the classic mold that NIGHT still adheres to. While I consider the movie a landmark and a personal favorite, I wouldn't call this a ghost story; rather, it's a grand Horror tale spun on a very large canvas.

How about THE EXORCIST? The slow buildup in daylight, the terrors revealed one by one that something is terribly wrong, the drawing in of the outside participants, especially Father Karras, haunted by his own mother's passing, and growing isolation of the back bedroom as the horrible events progress, culminating in a thunder-filled struggle against an embodiment of evil that echoes the conclusion of THE INNOCENTS. Yes, I believe this fits neatly into the niche we've been discussing.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? As I stated above, like PSYCHO, a ghost story needn't have a supernatural element, and many authors have made use of the isolated backwoods of rural America to create an atmosphere of dread, which the film has in abundance. But I'm going to come down on the “no” side this time; like DAWN OF THE DEAD, this is a noisy, visceral film more garish than ghostly.

Since it's been mentioned twice, what about PSYCHO? I think yes, absolutely. The Bates Motel is a perfect old, dark house filled with a terrible past, and if any individual is haunted, it would be Norman Bates. Pity those who cross his doorstep…

While we're on the subject of Mr. Hitchcock, what of THE BIRDS? Hmmmm…very close. The town of Bodega Bay seems to possess secrets under its sunny façade, and the arrival of Melanie Daniels brings the tensions simmering to the surface. The birds become a supernatural force of nature as terrible as any avenging spirit, and the final claustrophobic stand inside the lonely, besieged farmhouse is affectively Gothic in nature.

I'd definitely consider Daphne du Maurier's novella a ghost story; the original story concentrated on the farm family living under the attacks. The film made some specific changes to the story, opening it up and adding characters. I'm on the fence with this one; I'll let you decide for yourselves.

While we're discussing atmosphere, I definitely consider the Universal Classics firmly in the ghost story tradition, from their sterling black & white photography to the thick, fog-filled ambience. FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN all fit comfortably on the shelf; the only one I wouldn't place there is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is much-more monster-centered.

Quickly now:

THE EVIL DEAD. No. Too frantic and frenetic, albeit stylish.

SAW. Perhaps you could argue the original; I wouldn't. Definitely not the sequels.

JAWS. No. See THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON above. A glorious Adventure/Horror/Monster film.

THE STRANGERS. Yes.

CAT PEOPLE. The original, yes. In fact, all the Val Lewton films fit comfortably.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Absolutely. A perfect campfire tale as well.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I think so. Mr. Kruger as the Boogeyman haunting the dreams of others; yes.

Speaking of the Boogeyman: HALLOWEEN. The original, yes.

FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH. Hmmmmm again…yes. But a poorly told one.

ANGEL HEART. Very much so.

SCREAM: Certainly, although not one of my favorites.

28 DAYS LATER. No. More along the lines of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

PAN'S LABRYNTH. One of the few modern films of the Dark Fantastic simply too large to fit into any category. I'd say no, although it's still a masterpiece.

These are ones that came to me with a little thought and a glance around the reference books on the shelves in my crypt. You are welcome to agree or disagree; your own lists may vary.



What makes a good ghost story?

Author Orson Scott Card ventured one working definition in a book review of ghostly tales; ironically, they were nor meant for Halloween, but for Christmas (which is not so unusual; after all, Christmas is the traditional time for ghostly tales, he repeats for what seems like the thousandth time) but the criteria remains:

“…(T)elling ghost stories as a natural thing to do on Christmas Eve wasn't part of my family's Christmas traditions. And I, for one, am sorry the custom has been lost. Because ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended. ” (Italics mine.)

Quite true. The theme of solving the mystery of the haunting is an old and well-worn path, explored by some of the finest authors: both Richard Matheson's “Hell House” and Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” concern psychic investigators trying to determine the veracity of their respective dwellings; Peter Straub's “Ghost Story” tells of a gathering of old men trying to come to terms with a terrible secret from the past; Steven King's “Bag of Bones” explores the same territory. The most famous of all ghostly tales, “The Turn of the Screw”, is almost the template for such a tale, and many agree it is the finest ever put to paper. (More on this in a moment.) Of my own tales, “The Ghost's Hand”, of a murdered woman haunting an estate, also follows in this vein; the local minister takes it upon himself to bring her murderer to justice and bring her peace from her nightly wanderings.

This isn't to say that all ghost stories have the happy endings of a haunting solved and a ghost freed from its torment; too many times, in fact, humanity meddling with supernatural affairs only seem to make things worse; consider again “The Haunting of Hill House”, where Eleanor Vance is drawn into a rapport with whatever inhabits the halls that she is called to remain behind with them when the others escape. “Hell House” claims a goodly body count before its spectres are exorcised, as do the creatures terrorizing Mr. Straub's Milburn, NY.

And even with lighter fare, as in Noel Coward's supernatural romantic triangle of “Blithe Spirit”, it doesn't pay to underestimate the possessive nature and determination of the Dead once their minds are made. Indeed, Hamlet himself goes against his spectral father's wishes, and the old man's spirit must attend his son again to make certain he remains focused on his task; still and all, in the end, Hamlet lies dead, along with the rest of his family, proving that undertaking the task of settling a restless soul may be hazardous to everyone's health.

The outcome of a ghostly tale sometimes falls into a third realm; that of the draw, where humanity and the spirit world come to a mutual cessation of tensions, learning to live comfortably on the fringes of each other's kingdoms. Perhaps the best example of this is THE SIXTH SENSE. Yes, Mr. Willis discovers a terrible secret affecting his life and his happiness, and young Mr. Osment is still troubled by the unsleeping Dead, but he has come to see beyond the fear generated by their presence, and actually becomes a champion for their own gladness.

The spirit world and that of man can co-exist peacefully, even benefiting the other. One of the finest ghostly tales is a short story titled “Dust Motes” by my human companion, award-winning author P. D. Cacek, featured in "The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection". A woman suffering from cancer discovers that, due to her illness and the close proximity of her own passing, she has the ability to see ghosts all around her. Conversing with a sympathetic spectre, she believes that she's been sent ot hear the final confessions of the spirits to help them move on into the next life. When her cancer begins to go into remission, her abilities begin to fade, and she frantically tries to counsel as many of the Dead as she can before she loses her talents completely.

My simple synopsis can't begin to approach the poignancy of this acclaimed story, one of the authors very best. I consider it the finest TWILIGHT ZONE episode never filmed. Even moreso, it examines the very thin divide between life and death, and the myriad levels in between. It's funny and heartbreaking, and very, very human, and perhaps that's the greatest accomplishment of ghost story: it gives a physicality to that which has none, and puts a human face on something beyond human understanding. In “Dust Motes”, the spirit world is filled with diversity, humor and regret – much like the world that precedes it.



What makes a good ghost story?

On Tuesday evening, as I write this, the Eureka branch of the Humboldt County Library began it's annual Halloween film series for October. This year they're doing a series of especially strong selections, all from England . They led off the weekly viewings with the classic movie THE INNOCENTS.

Based on “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, the story has been hailed as the greatest ghost story ever written. The film is absolutely faithful to the tale, and is a terrifying, exceptional production. It was directed by Jack Clayton, who had previously directed the Academy Award-nominee ROOM AT THE TOP; he would later go on to helm the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. The screenplay was written by William Archibald (from his play adaptation of the novella) and Truman Capote, and it starred actress Deborah Kerr in what she considered her best role.

I don't want to spoil too much of the story; part of the terror in both the film and the novella is how it slowly unfolds in an inexorable, unremitting line from light to darkness. If you haven't seen the movie or read the story, you might want to skip the rest of this essay and return to it after your viewing; I guarantee you it will be worth the wait; It's an extraordinary film, truly deserving of its classic status, and you won't regret seeking it out.

The story concerns a young governess, hired to care for two orphaned children by their emotionally distant uncle. The children, Miles and Flora, are precocious and worldly beyond their young years, charming and sweet, but unusually close, with whispered secrets. Slowly, the governess comes to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the dead former groundskeeper and his lover their former governess.

But are they? The governess, Miss Giddens, is a nervous, unsettled individual; the daughter of a minister who seems to possess a rich and dark imagination. It's suggested she's repressed, both emotionally and sexually, and her suspicions about the children may simply be her own neurosis.

That's the great strength of the tale; everything is underplayed and subtle; nothing is overt. Viewed one way the actions of the principals are completely innocent, as the film's title suggests. Viewed slightly askew, everything is sinister. Miles plays roughly with Miss Giddens and speaks almost flirtatiously, at one point kissing her directly on the lips. For her part Miss Giddens seems preoccupied with the uncle, and her own desires seem to emerge in her moaning, restless sleep. When she turns her attentions to the children's unnatural desires, she may simply be projecting her own.

Seen through this dark reflection, it doesn't really matter if the ghost are real or not; the house that these people live in is quite haunted, and the individuals carry their own ghosts within them, comprised of equal parts guilt, fear and shame. The groundskeeper and the former governess carried on a torrid and explicit affair (there is a marvelous line in both the novel and the film: “ Rooms , used by daylight as though they were dark woods.” ) that may have included the children. Miss Giddens concern is stiflingly self-righteous as well; in discussion her plans for exorcism, she explains, “My father taught me to love people and to help them; help them even if they refuse my help, even if it hurt them sometimes.” In many ways she's as damaged as the children she is trying to save.

Stephen King, when asked about his book “The Shining” as to whether the ghosts are real or a product of Jack Torrance's madness, replied, “People ask if the book is a ghost story or is it just in the guy's mind. Of course it's a ghost story, because Jack Torrance himself is a haunted house. He's haunted by his father…”

This applies equally and perfectly to THE INNOCENTS, and “The Turn of the Screw”. Seen in that light, the question of whether the spectres truly exist becomes moot.



What makes a good ghost story?

The knowledge that humanity is its own ghost story; that the billions of people walking the earth are haunted houses simply because each contains a ghost waiting to emerge; that everyone has a past they carry with them ever-present that shapes their futures; that guilt and pain can do as much damage as any marauding revenant.

Hamlet, the lead character in the quintessential ghostly tale, phrases it better than I ever could: “ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And in his “A Winter's Tale”, the tale in question is revealed: "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins."

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story": begins with a quote from R, D. Jameson: “Ghosts are always hungry.” And the book's opening is iconic:

“What was the worst thing you've ever done?

I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”

All this, and more, makes a ghost story.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

SEPTEMBER 2014

 

Back when I first began this essay, I'd wanted to make some comments about the need to use any means necessary, including deliberately provoking and disturbing the audience, to create high Art in drama. After two months and having my attentions dissipated by various computer crisis, these thoughts seem less than fresh and enlightening than they once did. Nevertheless, I do want to wrap up some of the loose ends I may have left from my last ruminations, and I hope you'll be patient with me.

I had previously discussed why it was important to be receptive to images and situations that might otherwise be deemed uncomfortable or disturbing in life, using my experiences at a storytelling event as the keystone. (I refer you to my last entry; basically I was almost denied entrance to the event because my appearance was considered 'unsettling' to some.)

But more than that, I put forth the opinion that quite often it was perfectly fine to deliberately place an audience in a position of discomfort; not only fine, but absolutely imperative to get across the highest concepts of drama. There are some or will undoubtedly disagree; many like their entertainment to go down as smoothly and bland as a spoonful of warm Cream-of Wheat, and are not looking for anything to shake the foundations of their basic belief systems.

Well, to each his own in that, and there are countless forms of activities from comic books to situation comedies to video games that will fill their leisure time sufficiently in this manner. There will be little thought expended about the human condition, political or social conscience or societal woes, and all will retire to bed free of dismay or concern. That such entertainment is, in my opinion, something as disposable as a used paper towel can simply be chalked up to a question of taste.

But I don't believe any serious artist, one who wishes his work to survive beyond the simple fifteen minutes that Mr. Warhol allotted everyone should be satisfied with simply 'entertaining' the audience, and I cringe deeply inside whenever somebody defends a brainless potpourri of wasted cinema such as SHARKNADO as, “It's just entertaining! It's not supposed to be anything other than fun!” The sarcastic rises in me and I want to shout out, “Oh thank the stars! Now we no longer have to suffer through such torment as offered by PSYCHO and ALIEN and THE SHINING and THE HAUNTING and HALLOWEEN and DEAD RINGERS and THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER and other acts of outrage against our sense of pleasure!”

(I mean, really! Do people really think that those of us who cherish movies, books and music read “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” or “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “Dracula” or watch 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY or THE MALTESE FALCON or HIGH NOON do so only because it's good for us? That we're not having fun? I'm truly baffled; there is so much quality entertainment that was meant to be nothing more than entertaining, from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK through STAR WARS and the recent GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – a wonderful film! - that I simply can't see wasting what little time is available on anything less. End of long, familiar rant.)

The essence of drama, genuine dramas, is broken down quite easily into three basic themes: Man Against Man, Man Against Nature and Man Against Self. That's it; that covers all bases from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to HAMLET. And the serious artist, to get to the heart of the conflict ingrained in these themes, must use every talent and trick to prod the drama into the light to present it to the audience in the strongest possible light.

This includes shaking the audience to the core at times, taking the floor beneath them and ripping it free like a magician removing a tablecloth from a dining table stacked with dishes. Sometimes the cloth will rip free with an astonishing flourish, and sometimes the crockery will come shattering down around him; either effect is perfectly viable to achieve the desired goal of moving the audience and touching their souls.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


It's difficult today to think of the impact that PSYCHO had on its original audiences because the story is so famous; even those who've not seen the film know the basic plot details and twists. Yet at the time of its release, Mr. Hitchcock wasn't known for outright terrifying an audience; thrilling and exciting them, certainly, with elements of fear as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and REAR WINDOW and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. And audiences expecting a neat, pulse-quickening thriller followed the lovely Janet Leigh as she stole funds from her business to help support her lover and herself, then made a nerve-wracking cross-country journey of escape.

So much could go wrong! Her boss sees her at a traffic light while he crosses the street, his look of puzzlement a magnification of her guilt. A suspicious state trooper, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, follows her as she quickly sells her car and buys another to throw any followers off her track. And the audience is enthralled as they fear for her capture. When she finally makes it to that out-of-the-way hotel and has a calming, introspective conversation with a shy, handsome, and sympathetic desk clerk, she decides to turn about and face the consequences of her actions. And at this point the audience relaxes; certainly there will be a thrilling denouement and plot twists as she tries to make good her error, but this is all the comfortable landscape of the thriller, and it will be enjoyable to watch her work it out.

And then she turns on the water and steps into the shower...

To say audiences were shocked must be the understatement of the millennium. For absolutely no apparent reason the leading character was now dead, brutally and unexpectedly murdered, and there was a floundering sense of loss and genuine panicked uncertainty: what now? What do we do now? Who do we follow? Who do we root for? And because they are so at sea they launch onto the one character that seems a reasonable stand-in for the audience, someone just as shocked by the murder and the confusion as everyone else, someone who seems determined to clean things up and try and make sense of these actions. And so the audience transfers its identification from Marion Crane to that nice Norman Bates character; perhaps he'll get to the bottom of things and solve this horrible crime. Ah yes...

One of the reasons that I enjoyed the film SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE so much was that it presented very vividly a world where nobody had ever heard of “Romero and Juliet”, and the audience in the film was discovering the play for the first time. It was a joy to watch their reactions to the proclaimed love of Romeo for Juliet despite their warring households, the tragic street battle with Tybalt and the pursuit of Romeo, the plan to falsify Juliet's death and the terrible misunderstandings that result from it. It was an audience as clean slate, shocked and moved and enthralled by a fresh drama unfolding before them.

(I myself had the pleasure of experiencing this myself. Being a huge fan of Stephen King's work, one of my favorite of his novellas is “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, and I went to see the film version with a bit of trepidation for how it would be adapted. I was pleased and thrilled with it, of course, but because I was familiar with the source material a lot of the plot turns didn't catch me by surprise. I was free then to watch and listen to the audience's reactions. Towards the end of the movie the huge plot twist on which the tale hangs was reveled, and I was gratified to hear one of the largest collective gasps I've ever heard in any theater.)


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


The 1960s and 70s were a wonderful time for the Dark Fantastic in feature films. The Universal Monster films of the 1930s and 40s and spiraled down from frightening to funny, culminating with the appearance of most of the Rogue's Gallery opposite comedians Abbott and Costello. The fear and wonder were gone, and the public was losing interest. Horror, once the province of such talents as James Whale and Val Lewton, were relegated to the Poverty Row B Picture, which again frightened very few.

The Hammer films of the late 1950s infused the genre with new blood (pun very much intended!) filling the screen with lavish sets, bright technicolor and full orchestral accompaniments. The talents onscreen were taken from the rank and file of Shakespearean-trained professionals, and the talent behind the camera proved worthy the trust imparted to them by owner and producer Michael Carreras. The classic monsters were reborn, and the second Renaissance of Dark Fantasy was welcomed by the public with open arms.

But even more so, the censorship of times past was crumbling fast, and the sexual and violent confrontations And situations hinted at in previous films were now placed front and center on the screen, shocking and titillating audiences unaccustomed to such visceral entertainment. Many were offended and outraged; read Ivan Butler's wonderful guide “Horror In The Cinema” to relive how some sat, arms folded, determined not to welcome this new permissiveness. It was controversial of Hammer to take this path, but out was also financially canny, because audiences loved the new freedoms proffered on the screen, and came in droves.

The independent and studio efforts of the 1960s continued with this trend, and truly adult Horror was being presented to the public, freed from the handcuffs of the production Code. Roger Corman pushed the envelope with his films THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, William Castle and Roman Polanski brought Ira Levin's groundbreaking ROSEMARY'S BABY to the theaters, and the foreign influx of Art House films delved into both Ingram Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL and Roger Vadim's BLOOD & ROSES. In the Grindhouse manner, meanwhile, George Romero shocked the nation by presenting the cannibalistic classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to stunned moviegoers, and the highpoint came in 1973 when THE EXORCIST became the Horror Film of the Decade. (And just one year down the road JAWS was preparing to scare people from the water around the world.)

The flip side to all of this is that television, the great communicator, was slowly being strangled and straitjacketed by its own internal censorship (known to the industry as “Broadcast Standards”) while the rest of the entertainment world was flying free on wings of experimentation. It hadn't been this way; during the 1950s and 60s television was surfeited with some of the best drama offered to the public. Television's Golden Age produced the anthology series that specialized in powerful adult content.

True, they also had to deal with “suggestions” from the sponsors and studios, but that era was able to produce such classic tales as REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, TWELVE ANGRY MEN, THE MIRACLE WORKER, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and many, many others. Shows like PETER GUNN and THE UNTOUCHABLES were as violent as any feature films, and series such as THE FUGITIVE, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE and ROUTE 66 explored the world with stark, intelligent scripts.

As far as Horror and Dark Fantasy was concerned, there was THRILLER, which presented some of the most terrifying tales ever shown on television (and they still hold up well today). THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR introduced stores penned by ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, John D. McDonald and Robert Bloch that were grimly effective. And of course, when Mr. Serling tired of fighting the censors, he created his own series of fantasy tales that couldn't possibly be interpreted as anything but simple entertainment – and with THE TWILIGHT ZONE commented fiercely on war, prejudice, social reform, totalitarianism, fascism, the replacement of man by machine, poverty and injustice, and offered episodes that have yet to be equaled today.

But something began to happen. The networks began to tighten their hold as television became bigger and bigger business, and the keep phrase uttered was “inoffensive”. Programming must be inoffensive; anything that pushed at the membrane was batted down and sent home bruised and bleeding. Comedy was raised, drama watered down, violence eliminated, and the gatekeepers poured over every script, every scene, every line of dialogue to maintain the bland promise of inoffensiveness.

Think I exaggerate? Pick up “The Making of STAR TREK” and page through it, and note the constant memos from the networks: “Avoid the open-mouthed kiss”; “Don't dwell on the injuries suffered as that may upset the audience”; “The alien creature must be photographed sop as not to upset viewers”.

A little-known fact: when Stephen King began to gain recognition as the premiere author of the Dark Fantastic (I believe not long after “The Shining” was published, along with his first collection of short stories “Night Shift”, from which the inspiration probably arose) the networks approached him to create a television series for himself. He would host it, ala Rod Serling, and the episodes would be adaptations of his short fiction or original tales written for the series.

Mr. King was flattered, of course, but he had his reservations. According to him, he met with the network and said that he'd be happy to write and host such a series...provide that he could be assured by the Broadcasting Standards department that he's truly be able to do frightening, terrifying stories to scare the audience.

Absolutely! they said.

Really?

Well...umm...what exactly did he have in mind?

Let me give you an example, he said. On the old series THRILLER they'd done a classic episode, an adaptation of Robert Howard's “Pigeons From Hell”. In that episode a young man is spending the night at an abandoned bayou mansion. During the night the young man is attacked by something, and he slowly walks down the steps of the mansion, his head bleeding from an open wound where an axe split it open. Would I be able to do that today?

The network thought. Well...maybe he could have an ax buried in his chest...

Mr. King didn't believe them, but he did write a pilot script for them based upon his horrifying short story “Strawberry Spring”, about a modern day Jack the Ripper. Shortly after he submitted it, the Broadcast Standard people called him. We can't have the killer using a knife. Too phallic. Too brutal. Too...upsetting.

OK, said Mr. King. How about we make him a strangler instead?

Great! they said. That'll work.

The script was never filmed. The final decision at the network? It was too frightening, and might be...offensive. (Which is what fans of Horror want – but don't tell the executives that...)

With this kind of handcuffing and footbinding, it's astonishing – nay, it's miraculous! - that television was able to create anything as frightening as DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, TRILOGY OF TERROR, BAD RONALD, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the NIGHT GALLERY episodes “The Caterpillar” and “Pickman's Model” and a handful of other examples. One can only imagine the herculean efforts it took to get these made against these odds and shake one's head in admiration.

But surely this is not the best way to work. True, an artist can work around structures and barriers set up against him and still succeed, much like a martial artist constantly hones his skills by the tension opposing it. But the best work of an artist is undoubtedly done with hands and imagination freed of any constraints to soar unfettered.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Of late there's been a new phrase cropping up in various places online and in written text; it's called “trigger warning”. The practice is that these words indicate a possibly upsetting subject matter about to be broached in an article or essay. Often these are used in situations of sexual assault, such has discussing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, the purpose being to alleviate any residual suffering of somebody who experienced a similar incident and having them relive it emotionally and mentally by giving them the opportunity to avoid the article or paragraph in question.

I believe these “warnings” do have a place in some discussions, and understand the reasoning behind them; certainly no one wants to be forcibly confronted against their will with a painful past incident. And I am not in the least unsympathetic to the pain suffered by those who experienced such trauma.

What doubts I have about the process are twofold, one personal and one artistic. On the personal side, I'm concerned that using these warnings as a preemptive bubble to avoid painful subjects can inhibit the healing process and lock the individual into the mindset of “victim”.

Quite some time ago, in perusing an episode of a famous talk celebrity hosting a panel about sexual assault (no, I won't name the individual) the comment was made repeatedly by a psychiatric expert, “These people will never be the same again; they'll always be crippled and damaged.” (I paraphrase; it's been years since I saw the segment, but I believe I'm getting the point across accurately.)

I rebel against that notion. Families who saw their loved ones die in the Death Camps of Auschwitz and Dachau returned to give testimony to the world courts to see justice done. Certainly those were horrendous experiences, and in doing so these people demonstrated an uncommon strength. Similarly other so-called “victims” have gone to court to testify against their attackers, or against those who harmed family members to see that they would not escape indictment.

Sadly, I know several human companions who've suffered this experience, and not one of them consider themselves “damaged” or “victims”; they've grown strong and fierce in their day-to-day lives and would balk at being labeled thus. It most definitely wasn't easy for them, but one of the benefits of scar tissue, both emotional and physical, is that it toughens the surface so that the healing can commence more easily and successfully.

But my bigger concern is the damage that can be done to the artist who deliberately wants to make a strong and uncompromising point, and who runs up against a wall of what is commonly called “political correctness”.

(Let me make a point completely clear: I consider those that complain about Political correctness most often boors, bullies and fools. What they dislike is having their bad habits called out, and resort to this as a way of deflecting what is usually well-deserved cr4iticism. In polite society, when you offend someone, you generally apologize, even if no offense was meant. This didn't use to be called “political correctness”; at one time it was known as having “good manners”.)

Having said that, there does seem to be a state of suppressed hysteria running rampant in society as far as works of art are concerned. Most recent was the suggestion that major classic works be accompanied by “warnings”, much like the parental labels on music CDs. For instance, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would contain a warning because of the racial epithets used in the story (never mind that Mr. twain was using those epithets to make a point against racism), “The Great Gatsby” for suicide and domestic abuse, or “The Merchant of Venice” for its themes of antisemitism.

(There was also a famous recent incident where a petition was circulated to have a statue removed – the statue being a young man in his underwear – because it might trigger memories of sexual assault.)

Again...really?

The biggest problem with all of this, of course, is that there is something to offend anyone if you search hard enough. Sometimes these are completely without merit (anyone of a certain age will recall the controversy of “Louie, Louie” being banned from some radio stations because of “obscene language”, which the song didn't contain in the least). Art is most often a Rorschach test for those who view it, as well it should be. Blanding it down, trying to offend no one and present every side of an argument can result in dull, dull programming, as inoffensive as a Hallmark television film of Thomas Kinkade print.

Where does it begin and end? Does a past victim of torture from another country receive a warning about scenes similar in George Orwell's 1984? Does someone who served time in prison need to be coddled from unpleasant memories brought on by ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ? Those who've suffered homelessness and the pain of the Dust Bowl; must they be forewarned before indulging in "Of Mice & Men" or "The Grapes Of Wrath ? What of the act of discovery? What of catharsis?

Anything that interferes with the artist's intent – not matter how well intentioned – is censorship; those who would voraciously oppose book-burning seem to be the same ones in some instances calling for limiting the access of these works. And to those who would say that just adding a “warning” isn't censoring, since the work is still available for viewing or reading, consider this:

One of the seminal moments in television occurred in the early 1980s on a wonderful series called ST. ELSEWHERE, a groundbreaking medical drama. During one early episode, the very nature of episodic drama (and comedy, for that matter) was forever changed.

Let me backtrack a moment...

From the very beginning of television, the average series maintained a continuity that would remain unbroken until the show went off the air. Characters remained exactly the same so that writers could come on board and script interchangeable episodes, and stringent policies were established about what could and couldn't happen on any particular show.

One of the most famous examples of this was the STAR TREK episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, considered the best episode ever written. (We'll discuss the author later.) It postulated a time-travel story in which Kirk and Spock must return to Earth in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. While there, Kirk falls in love with a visionary woman named Edith Keeler, and in the course of this tragic drama discovers that for history to go on unchanged, Ms. Keeler must die in a traffic accident. The story is agonizing and heartbreaking, and the final moments some of the most powerful presented in the series. The depth of Kirk's love for Edith is explicit and inarguable, and it's clear as he returns to his present he'll never be the same again.

Except...that's not what happened. The following week all was as it had been before, and it continued that way throughout the run of the series. (It should be noted that the author was very unhappy with how the show had been rewritten; he felt it diluted the drama. Indeed, the original script went much deeper into Kirk's grief and anguish about what was to happen.)

It would be wrong to blame the producers entirely; this was, after all, how all series were produced at the time. Characters never changed, and situations never varied from one week to another in fear of destroying the all important continuity. (This attention, for example, allowed the shows to be rerun in syndication without having to worry excessively about the order the episodes were shown; not having a major character die and then return if and earlier episode was broadcast out of sequence.)

ST. ELSEWHERE introduced in the first episode the character of Dr. Peter White, played with a brusque charm by Terrance Knox. The doctor was a likeable character, not terrible suave but appealing in his rough goofiness. He was a bit of a Lothario, cheating on his wife and having an affair with another character. He was flawed, but nice and capable and caring, and you hoped he'd pull his act together and straighten up.

Not long after the show began, a ski-mask wearing rapist began to terrorize the hospital. While in the process of attacking a woman in the hospital morgue, the mask is ripped from the attacker's head, revealing...Peter White. He continued on for another several episodes before he was discovered, and another several before his character was shot dead by another doctor.

To say that the revelation of Dr. White was a shock to viewers would be understating enormously. Never before had a television character, a continuing character, gone through such a drastic change, from likable oaf to horrifying menace. His actions and subsequent death left a long shadow over the remainder of the series, and nobody from that time on could be trusted to be who they were initially taken for. Characters went mad, developed AIDS, left their spouses, returned, committed suicide and went through all the permutations that people genuinely experience in life.

And where other shows had characters come and go, live and die (perhaps the most famous being the death of Henry Blake on M*A*S*H) and “character arcs”, as they came to be called, were not unheard of (Richard Kimble running for four seasons to finally, in the final episode, find the one-armed man and prove his innocence on THE FUGITIVE), usually these changes signaled a transition for the series, one season into another of the conclusion of the run. Never before could characters literally change week by week.

Needless to say the effect wasn't contained to ST. ELSEWHERE; character transitions occurred on shows as diverse as HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, CHEERS, and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. From that point on, no one simply drifted from episode to episode unaffected by what had gone on before. The final irony being perhaps, on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, with Captain Picard undergoing a life-changing experience after being captured and used by the Borg, and the references and fallout from the incident continuing right through to the series's finale.

But imagine how the power of discovery, the heart-clutching betrayal and unsettling truth of the moment would have been diluted by a warning: “Tonight's episode of ST. ELSEWHERE features a reference to sexual assault, and illustrates the statistic that it's commonly somebody known to the victim and not a complete stranger that is often the perpetrator. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Truth can be painful and disturbing and catch someone completely by surprise. That's a simply fact of life, and to rob somebody of that discovery is to cripple them in other ways.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


One of the finest and most important voices in the field of the Dark Fantastic (and literature in general, for that matter) is the author Harlan Ellison, who scripted the STAR TREK episode mentioned above, "The City On The Edge Of Forever". (I make no apologies for my admiration of him, and accept to call for dissent. You may not approve of his style or his subjects, but if you can't agree that he is a major talent and one of the founders of modern Speculative Fiction, then we simply have no basis for communication.) He is assuredly controversial, not merely for his artistry as for his refusal to suffer fools in any manner.

There have been many times when one of his stories (“Crotoan” or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”; “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or “A Boy and His Dog”, perhaps) have drawn the ire of those who like to maintain an even keel with their existence, and he has often been confronted (with much pointing of fingers and raised voices) with the, in his own words, “...stunning accusation, 'You only said [or wrote] that to shock!'

His answer, which I heartily endorse, is rendered thus (and please be aware that the following language is definitely for the more mature readers):

“ My response is always the same:

You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not the responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin...”

There's more of the same, but that remains the core of it. (You can find this in his introduction to his wonderful collection “Shatterday”.)

And I believe this to be, if not the last word, then a definitive one. The power of drama lies in its connection to the truths contained within, and those truths can be uncomfortable. To deny them is to live a life unexamined.

Well, I can hear you saying, what of that? What could be wrong with that if everyone's happy?

Consider: Oliver Stone created one of the most important war movies put to celluloid with PLATOON, a searing look at America's experience in Vietnam. Many of the incidents had a sense of authenticity because Mr. Stone was in Vietnam himself, and experienced what he wrote of. And in interviews before the film, he repeatedly sited the film SANDS OF IWO JIMA as an inspiration to enlist. He thought that was what war was like; you went and fought and came home, or you were killed. No one told him about coming home crippled, missing a limb or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The movie didn't tell the truth, and he was caught unprepared.

We've heard the cry from editorial writers to the average person in the street that a police incident, or an earthquake, or poverty in a third world country or other recorded incidents “...weren't like they show you in the movies or on television.” Violence, relationships, marriage, politics, religion, all social interactions are neatly scripted and carefully photographed, and even the most carefully produced dramas sometimes make situations much neater than they genuinely are. (“The following story is true, but some incidents have been fictionalized and characters combined in the interest of time,” as many opening credits declare.)

All an artist has to commend himself is truth and honesty, and that is often unsettling. Misleading others with his art can have devastating and unforeseen effects. The artists is not only allowed to disturb; he is often commanded to, as Mr. Ellison puts it so succinctly.

This is as it should be, whether exploring life as it is known, the Twilight Zone, or realms of the Dark Fantastic.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY/AUGUST 2014

 

“The kind of Horror I like drags things into the daylight and says, ‘Right. Let's have a really good look. Does it still scare you? Does it maybe do something different to you now that you can see it more plainly – something that isn't quite like being scared?”

- Clive Barker


By now you've no doubt heard the story about the three-year-old girl who was turned away from a KFC fast food restaurant because her facial scars were disturbing and frightening the other customers. The little girl from Jackson , Mississippi had been mauled by her grandfather's pit bulls and still requires surgery to reconstruct her features, although to my eyes she appears a delightful, charming girl with an adorable, undimmed smile.

The reports of the callous treatment by the fast food chain was disseminated through the media on television and the Internet, and the outcry was strong and immediate, condemning KFC (which immediately apologized, began an internal investigation and pledged $30,000 to the child's medical expenses. (You can find more details online.)

At this time it now appears that the incident may have been a hoax. Although the little girl's injuries and their history are genuine, there is doubt about the veracity of the KFC story, and new evidence suggests it didn't happen. If indeed it turns out to be false, that will be a shameful exercise in exploiting the suffering of the youngster and the good nature of the community at large.

But when the story was first reported, most people, including myself, had no difficulty believing that the story might have indeed happened. The heart of the story – that some individuals may have found the girl's disfigurement offensive or uncomfortable and asked her to be removed from their presence – all too plausible. I found it so, in no small part because of an incident that I experienced in May.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Despite the opinions of some of my acquaintances and critics, I am not naïve about reactions to my appearance. I know that I present a striking figure; tall, white robe with black sash and skeletal features. I know that when I walk into a typical event location, unless it is specifically geared to the October Season or the Dark Fantastic, I'm going to attract attention and comment.

I've seen expressions of doubt, fear, amazement and wonder from both youngsters and more mature individuals. I've had normally rational adults run or shrink away in abject terror. Conversely I've had small children through their arms around me and hang on tightly, wanting to be close to someone magical, no matter how fearsome he might appear to others. Fear, after all, is a learned emotion, and children aren't born with an innate horror regarding spectres or skeletons.

So I made plans to attend a recent storytelling event, I knew full well that I'd create a bit of a stir. (No, I won't name the event; that wouldn't be fair to them as they aren't present to defend themselves or their actions.) Still, I didn't expect anything out of the ordinary, or certainly nothing more than I'd encountered at other events such as medieval faires, where some were amused at my presence while others were aghast. It's all part and parcel of being a wandering spirit in the material world.

My reasons for attending the event were threefold. First, I wanted to tell a story or two, to put my name and persona before this particular storytelling community for possible future venues and performance considerations. Second, I was representing the North Coast Storytellers, stirring interest in this year's Storytelling By The Sea Festival, handing out flyers and brochures for the event and acting as the group's official representative. Third, I was looking forward to hearing some wonderful storytelling from other professionals; in this I was delighted and successful.

Those were my reasons for being there, in precisely that order of importance. I confess completely that it was primarily for personal reasons and less for wanting to be a passive audience member. Still, I intended, as I try at all such events, to not draw too much undue attention to myself. I sit towards the rear of the performing space, try to come and go unobserved, and keep as much in the background as I'm able. Of course I draw attention, but I also try to deflect and divert attention back to where the focus should be, on the performance at hand, and if I'm too much of a distraction, I make myself scarce.

I arrived Saturday morning, and was pleased that there wasn't a great deal of fuss made about my initial appearance; my attire and visage seemed at first to be taken for granted as a simple personal artistic expression, or at the very least a harmless eccentricity. I looked forward to a full and enjoyable weekend.

But not long after I'd arrived, after I heard the first performer (a wonderful Asian woman named Motoko whom I recommend wholeheartedly and unreservedly; you can find her personal website by clicking HERE), I was approached by one of the members of the event's committee who wanted to speak to me. I will concede completely that he was respectful, polite and apologetic; nevertheless his message was that some attendees, both members of the community and audience members, found my appearance uncomfortable and disturbing. He wanted to know how we should handle this.

(Unspoken was the suggestion that perhaps I should remove myself from the event, but to be completely fair it was never phrased to me in exactly those words or suggestions. Not at that time, in any case.)

I told him that he could assure those concerned of three things. One, that I would never intentionally frighten anyone of any age; that was not why I was there. I wouldn't approach anyone unless they first approached me, and if I made them uncomfortable they could avoid me throughout the day and I wouldn't come near them. Second, as I stated above, I would do my best not to draw too much attention to myself and if my presence became a distraction I would remove myself from that session. (Incidentally, that never happened, not once during the entire event. All the featured performers took my appearance in stride with affection, enthusiasm and good humor.)

Third, I made what I thought was a perfectly valid argument: I said that if these individuals were made uncomfortable by someone who was black or Asian or Hispanic, or Jewish, or homosexual, or disfigured or handicapped or with Down's Syndrome, those individuals would simply have to swallow their discomfort and allow that person to remain, both out of moral and legal rights. Life is not guaranteed to be without some small discomfort, and I thought these people could learn some thing about themselves and their fears by going on with the day despite their reactions to me.

The gentleman thought those were all valid points, and after consulting with the head of the event's committee, word came that I was quite welcome to remain and enjoy the day. I thanked him and returned to the event.

I listened to some fine storytellers, told a tale myself to open the Open Stage event (I told “The Appointment”, which you can find in my VIDEO Room.) I met several people who were aware of both myself and the Storytelling By The Sea Festival, having attended in the past, and all were excited to see me there and hear about this year's event. I met several valuable contacts in the community, including one young lady who was preparing to open a new venue dedicated to storytelling and spoken word performances. (I hoped to plan a Halloween event with her for October.)

In all, I had a very good day, and didn't give a great deal of thought to what had occurred earlier. It was in the back of my mind; I don't like causing distress, even when I'm clearly in the right, and was saddened that people were content to remain fearful without opening themselves to the possibility that learning more about me and talking to me might not only alleviate their uncertainties but open them to experiencing the Dark fantastic in a new light. Still, it was just a slight shadow on the day, which was far more pleasurable in my experiences and encounters.

But the following day was a different story.

I arrived, expecting more or less the same day as before. But when I entered the building I was told that I wouldn't be able to attend the day's events. The lady at the ticket table told me there had been more complaints and concerns with my appearance, and that I would be refused admittance. She said I didn't bother her personally (usually a certain sign that I did bother her) but they had to be sensitive to others' concerns. Because I wasn't a featured guest, my attire was unusual (and when I mentioned that I had performed the day before, it was dismissed with, “Oh, but that was just the Open Stage.” I'm sure that the woman didn't mean to be insulting, but that was exactly how she came off, and harshly) and as it was a holiday such as Dia De Los Muertos or Halloween, I simply didn't fit in with their family friendly and safe atmosphere.

Well.

I tried as tactfully as I could to reiterate my arguments from the day before, but they fell on deaf ears. (Unspoken by me, at that point, was my assertion that they actually had no right to refuse me admittance by law – I wanted to be persuasive and save that rather strong-armed by I believe absolutely correct tactic as a last resort. After all, there were individuals in dakishis and other native dress, so if I wasn't allowed inside, why were they? There were no guidelines forbidding any type of attire.)

Finally I asked to speak to the gentleman who'd I'd encountered the day before, and I gently demanded an official stance of the committee: if they were indeed going to refuse me admittance, I wanted it to be official policy that would have to stand up to scrutiny and criticism. I told them if indeed it was official that I could not attend, I would leave – after my admission for the day was refunded to me. The gentleman agreed, and he went off to talk to various committee members. I waited, as I had the day before, but much longer this time, and I freely admit my patience was beginning to wear thin.

Finally I was approached again by the gentleman. No, the committee would not officially refuse me entrance; I was welcome to attend. I thanked him, but in truth my gratitude was rather strained. This incident completely colored the rest of the day, as well as the entire event. It had stopped being enjoyable, and although I was determined to hear some more stories from those I missed the previous day, my heart wasn't really in it. As it was, I ended up leaving earlier than I'd planned to return home to my crypt.

There were some bright spots during the day; once again the professional tellers and guests at the event didn't seem to have any problems with my being there, and welcomed me as one of their own. (The granddaughter of one of the performers even asked for my autograph, which I gave with pleasure.) And not everyone was nervous about my being in attendance; indeed, some were eager to have me about and thought I added to the festivities.

But there were two other incidents that sealed the day for me and made me determined not to return to the festival any time in the future. First, there was a Children's Stage where young people were invited to tell stories, much like the Youth Stage at the Storytelling By The Sea Festival in Trinidad last year that I hosted. One young lady named Illiyana enjoyed my company and wanted me to attend the telling of her tale; I promised I would be there for her.

After the events of the morning, the same gentleman approached me and said that they didn't want me attending the Children's Stage performance. The person in charge of the event was concerned that I'd frighten the youngsters and would cause too much of a distraction. I reluctantly agreed, on the condition that the gentleman gave my regrets to Ms. Illiyana and explain that it was not my decision that I not attend. He promised to do so.

I was bothered greatly by this. First, because I hate breaking my word to anyone, especially my young human companions, with every fiber of my being, and hate disappointing people. Second, I was bothered that it was predetermined that I would cause a disruption without seeing what exactly would happen; certainly I am self-aware enough that if I was a huge distraction I would excuse myself. To keep me away preemptively seemed excessive. Third, I would have preferred if the person in charge of the stage and come to me personally to voice his concerns instead of sending a representative. It struck me then, and does still, as a cowardly action.

But the final nail was a conversation I had with another teller towards the end of the event. This woman was not a featured performer but was rather a musician/storyteller on the secondary stage. She played Celtic harp, and as I am always partial to that instrument, I looked forward to her performance. We had a brief conversation about my being there, and it was clear that she sided with those who would have barred me from entering.

In vain, I tried to persuade her that I often don't cause fear among my young friends, but rather wonder; that I give them the opportunity to make up their own minds; that a little fear was perfectly OK in this world, and that I was presenting a face on the unknown that they may grow to appreciate. Each argument was met with, “Yes, but…”

Yes, but what about the ones I do frighten? (It seems in her mind that they must take precedence over those who I don't.) What about the ones who are offended? (What of the ones who aren't?) Even the slightest possibility that I might cause fear was reason enough to err on the side of caution. (But youngsters are afraid of so many things that are new to them. And my argument from the day before still held: what if a person was blind, or lame, or disfigured, and this frightened the children, as can so often happen; would they also be refused admittance?)

When it became clear than she simply wouldn't hear any of my side of the discussion, I cut it short and agreed we must disagree, and left her company quite discouraged. Shortly thereafter, after listening to her short set, I made my way home.

And not long afterwards I heard the story about the little girl being asked to leave the fast food restaurant, and had little difficulty believing the story. (And because these events are played in large headlines during their initial run but relegated to the sidelines when the story becomes older, I must emphasize again that it appears at this time that the incident was a hoax; it never happened, and KFC should not be held responsible for actions that never occurred.)


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


So what should we make of all this? Is it simply a tempest in a proverbial teapot? It is just a case of my ego being bruised by being treated less than cordially. Perhaps. I confess that it was a disillusioning experience all around for me, perhaps more so because I was so looking forward to attending the festival.

But I think it's more than that, and this is what I want to discuss.

Last month when talking about various representations of Death in literature and popular myth, I spoke of putting a recognizable face on the supernatural and the Dark Fantastic. And though I try very hard not to take myself too seriously, that is precisely one of the things that I have always strived to do with my appearances and performances.

My fellow Patient Creatures and I put a physical face on the unknown and macabre; we provide personalities that are immediately recognizable and hopefully welcoming. Yes, we represent the Dark Fantastic, but the key word in that phrase to me is fantastic . As the opening lines to that classic television series THE OUTER LIMITS used to promise, “You are about to participate in a great adventure.” Some of those adventures may be frightening or disturbing, but they are indeed great, and those who are adventurous will be rewarded.

In the terrific film NIGHTBREED, directed by Clive barker and adapted from his novella “Cabal”, Rachael, the mother-figure of the Nightbreed (creatures of myth who exist in the underground world of Midian) talks to Lori, a young girl, about the appeal of so-called ‘monsters', and the dichotomy of why so many find them marvelous and literally filled with wonder, making them 'wonderful':

“To be able to fly? To be smoke, or a wolf; to know the night, and live in it forever? That's not so bad. You call us monsters. But when you dream it's of flying, and changing, and living without death.”

I know that there's very little I can say to those who've made up their minds about what I represent; I've certainly tried enough throughout my wanderings. But without attempting to sound too defensive, it is an incontrovertible fact that while some adults and youngsters see a menacing figure lurking, others see a magical sorcerer or eternal companion, certainly a step away from the mundane, and ready to reveal wonders.

Which point of view is correct? I suppose, as with everything else in this world, it depends on the intent. Certainly I can be menacing; when I'm telling a particularly macabre tale I want to be as dramatic and intimidating as possible. But I'm also known for my gentleness, particularly with those who seem especially nervous around the unknown.

As I've often stated, when a youngster first approaches me, I put myself down on their level, eye-to-eye, so that I'm less oppressive. I speak softly, and keep a safe distance. If they wish to move closer and investigate further, its entirely in their hands, and giving them this power and choice makes them much more comfortable. I let them get to know me, and if they like what they discover, most times they want to get closer and learn more.

(Compare this to well-meaning parents who take this power away from their children, who place them unhesitatingly in Santa's lap or in the arms of elderly relatives and are puzzled by the unpleasant reaction, from whimpers to full screams. What's so frightening, they wonder? This individual isn't scary. No, not to them, in their adult mindset; they've forgotten what the world looks like from a lower perspective.)

(Recently I had this experience with a young man at a campfire event. When he first laid eyes on me I heard his uncertain voice asking his mother, “A skeleton?” But after spending the evening watching and listening to me, and deciding for himself that I was a friendly acquaintance, he couldn't stop talking about his school and hobbies and adventures when he came up to me after the show. In fact, his parents finally had to carry him away back to their campsite.)

What this demonstrates, obviously, is looking past appearances to the nature of the person being approached. And this has also been a conscious part of being a Patient Creature; revealing that judging a person strictly by their appearance can be a foolish and dangerous habit. This holds true whether we're discussing a macabre and ghoulish creation, or the more commonplace criteria of skin color, religious background, sexual orientation or handicap.

Foolish, because it limits somebody's personal and social interactions to those who strictly adhere their own background and experiences, with no opportunity to expand their awareness. Dangerous, because we know from past events that true evil sometimes wears a comfortable, familiar face, open and inviting. Too many times in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy we've heard the refrain, “We had no idea the boy/teen/gentleman/woman was like that; he/she seemed so quiet and friendly.”

Probably the best example would be Ted Bundy; he was by all accounts charming and ingratiating, the sort of person that engendered trust immediately – which enabled him to kill in truly horrendous fashions more than 36 women. (And as played by Mark Harmon, a performer known for his likeability, in the excellent telefilm THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, he became even more terrifying.)

Of course Horror fiction has long played on the idea that the mundane and normal may hold secret and hidden terrors. Mr. King's Jerusalem's Lot, Maine seems on the surface like a fine, upstanding conservative Yankee town – at least until the sun goes down. But even before the vampires move in there is abuse and infidelity and alcoholism and other subject unsuitable for polite conversation.

Check into the Bates Motel and you'll be greeted by the desk clerk Norman; as played by Anthony Perkins, he's a handsome, friendly and gentle man, quite shy and somewhat bumbling, which makes him all the more endearing. He's someone you'd easily leave your children with when you went out for an evening's entertainment, or left him the key to watch your house and pets while you went on vacation. But he has a shameful habit, does Norman ; he likes to peep through holes hidden in the wall at women undressing. And at times he'll put on a dress and speak in a different voice and become very unsocial…

One of the most famous examples of not judging an individual by appearance is Oscar Wilde's “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”. Outwardly, young Dorian remains upright and upstanding, a pillar of society, beloved by both women and men who value moral reticence. By Dorian has a secret hidden in his attic (which is one of Mr. Wilde's brilliant bits of symbolism in this horrifying tale): a portrait that shows his true face; every line of degradation and decay, obscenity and secret hungers, all naked on the face carefully kept out of sight from the public, telling the true story of Mr. Gray's character - much like many politicians and religious leaders today in wearying scandal after scandal.

(And in truth, I believe I speak for many when I find that the most disturbing things about these incidents are not necessarily the 'sins' of those involved as much as their unspoken arrogance that the rules may apply to others but never to themselves, and the incredible short-sighted stupidity that in this day and age when everything is made public through the media or internet, that they will never be caught!)

The philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, “What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people's faces as unfinished as their minds.”

And that, at the core, is why I appear as I do, and why I think it so important to demonstrate that what lies on the surface is not always representative of what lies beneath . I consider that a worthy message that I wish more would embrace.

But…having said that, I also believe that, living in the world as it exists today, it is perfectly fine to disturb people on some level in their daily lives; in truth, I believe it's even more than acceptable, it's imperative . And I want to discuss that further next time, and share my thoughts on trigger warnings, political correctness and the quintessence of drama, expanding finally on the wonderful quote by Mr. Barker above.

I hope you'll join me then.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY/JUNE 2014

 

This time we're going to be quite serious, and rather heavy emotionally; you may want to read in bits and pieces to offset being overwhelmed. I say this not to entice or intrigue, but quite sincerely, as Harlan Ellison did with his introductory remarks regarding his collection of tales “Deathbird Stories”:

“CAVEAT LECTOR

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole. H. E.”

For as with the title of Mr. Ellison's work, we are concerned this time with Death; death as an end of existence, death as a personification of the unknown, death as a doorway into other realities, and death as a reality in and of itself.

For more than some time now, I've noticed a recurring motif on the Internet; an almost hesitant yet definite broaching of the subject in popular art and polite conversation. It's become very rare for a week to go by on Facebook without someone asking for kind thoughts or prayers for a family member or friend who is wrestling with a health issue, or actually on the decline and facing their death. There are also notices of the passing of one beloved individual or another, either someone famous known by all, or a person who means a great deal to a small circle of individuals.

This is certainly to be expected; the term is ‘social media' or ‘community', and as with other communities in the past, news of a passing is an opportunity to share in communal grief, to offer comfort to those in need, and to ruminate and examine one's own existence.

There's also been, through popular media, an acknowledgment of death and grieving to a degree that I'd not previously noticed. For example, here is a heartbreaking piece of art inspired by the Disney film LILO & STITCH. For those who've not seen the movie (and I recommend it highly), it concerns a young girl in Hawaii who befriends an alien fugitive and teaches him about humanity.



This artwork was in turn inspired by a work of fan fiction, a short tale titled “The Only Thing Worse Than Dying” by WatsonSword. (You can read that story HERE.) Within the story is an enlightening discussion of the nature of mortality, and its consequences:

"Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to live forever?"

"Gaba?"

"I mean, you never grow old, you never die, at least not of old age."


Stitch frowned,  “ growing old, naga botifa!”

"But then again ,"  Lilo suddenly got a somber look on her face,  ‘ I remember once, I told dad that I wanted to live forever, and he said I shouldn't. I asked him why, and he said the only thing worse than dying is living forever, because you'll outlive everyone you know, and then you'll miss them for all eternity.”

Here is another work, this time inspired by the Pokemon phenomenon, depicting again the emotionally devastating consequences of friendship between a human being and a supernatural creature possibly immortal:



In truth, it isn't terribly surprising to me that there has been a tentative focus on loss and passing; the Baby Boom generation is steadily growing older en mass, and is now considering their places in the vastness of time and the cosmos. It shouldn't be surprising they are looking hard and somewhat fearfully or ruefully at their eventually collective demise. Many, particularly those without any particular belief system or faith are no doubt wrestling with the questions and concerns of what may or may not come after this veil of tears. (And please believe that there is no judgment at all in that statement; I simply feel that those with a system of faith have probably wrestled with these issues throughout their lives, not merely as the light begins to grow dim.)

These concerns seep down to the next generation as well, as thoughts of the passings of loved ones of the previous generation hit home. One of my human companions in Pennsylvania posted these musings online not long ago:

Tonight my eldest had a moment where he realized that in 50 years I will likely be dead. He burst into tears. It was the most sobering, sweet moment. He said that the loss of his grandfather and the illness of his grandmother these past few months has really been wearing on him. How do you try to explain to your child that as bad as it gets, and even when you wish it wouldn't....when we lose people we love, life simply goes on - without making him even more depressed. Life is so freaking grueling sometimes.”

All this can be very unsettling and melancholy; I'm certain more than a few hearts were tightened and tears stung by the images above. Yet death is genuine; it is the one experience that all of humanity shares along with fear. People may not ever have known love (which is tragedy in itself), but all have been afraid and all will die. As far as it's known, humans are the only species that have a deep understanding of their own approaching mortalities, making them unique from dolphins, apes or other similarly social creatures.

With this in mind, let's talk for a moment or two about death, or more precisely, Death, as it's been presented in popular culture, in mythology, and in everyday practice. And hopefully by the time we're finished, the heartache may lesson, and an understanding and truce will be achieved.



The image of Death personified by my Cousin as the Grim Reaper can be traced to the 15 th century. No one can say precisely who first conceived this, but in my mind it's tied deeply into the agrarian communities and early pagan practices; the seasons change, and the earth goes through its natural cycle of birth and rebirth from spring through winter and back again. The planting and the harvesting become entwined deeply with society's dependence on food for its growth and survival, and it's not a far leap from harvesting the grain at the end of autumn to harvesting souls at the end of existence.

Thus the Grim Reaper carries the same scythe that those tilling the fields carry, and he sweeps the landscape clean with a single stroke. (And there may be some connection with Atropos, one of the Three Fates, the woman with her scissors who snips the thread at the end of life.) He is often seen in a long black robe, which may symbolize the end of life (black being a stark color that absorbs all the other ones in the spectrum) or may have nuanced connections to the Black Plague of Europe where Death was always present. In many instances Death is seen as simply a man, but more and more he's portrayed as having skeletal features, for reasons I'll speculate on later.

Of course, the Grim Reaper is popular from Western mythology; there have been and are many Angels of Death, and he represents only one. Every culture has their own representations, each with their own methods of collection.

There is Azrael, the name of my Cousin's wife and an Eternal herself, whose name comes from Islamic culture. The Greeks referred to Death as Thanatos; the Irish regarded Death as a race of beings known collectively as the Dullahan. Lithuania named Death Giltine and saw her as a woman. Indeed, in many traditions Death was not male but female, most notably the sacred figure of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, in Mexican culture. She is also know as La Catrina or Lady Catrina, and is a skeletal figure dressed in regal, exquisite finery. The Chinese refer to Death as Yanluo, the ruler of Di Ya, the Underworld.


In the Hebrew faith there was not a Reaper, but the Angel of Death was commonly called “The Destroyer”, striking down with a drawn sword. They (for there were many) were also known as the Memitim. Some have named the angel Samael as the Angel of Death, while others consider Michael to be the one who carries the souls to Heaven; this has transposed over into Christian beliefs.

Depending on his culture, the Grim Reaper was either seen as benevolent, fulfilling the final task of existence and guiding the passed souls into their next life, as malevolent, tearing the living from this world and snatching them off beyond the curtain between the worlds (and many of these sort are considered very unsociable, tormenting the living that become aware of them and leaving portents on who was the next to die) or neutral, simply doing his job.

If I speak of the Reaper as ‘he', be aware that, as stated before, Death is often considered as female and has a similar range of viewpoints; sometimes seductive and beautiful, calming those recently passed and nurturing them, or ugly and spiteful, cursing those who were to die. In many beliefs the Reaper can appear as either male or female, depending on how the departing soul feels most comfortable with communing.

(For those who want to learn more about the variations and guises of Death, I highly recommend THIS Wikipedia article, well researched and documented, and a fine starting point.)



In folklore, Death can be bargained with, and he can be tricked.

Perhaps the most famous example is from the Ingmar Bergman film THE SEVENTH SEAL (a marvelous work that I hope you've all seen or will see). Max Von Sydow is a knight, Antonius Block, returned weary from the bloody Crusades, who discovers that Death has been walking with him for a long time. When Death comes for his soul, Block challenges him to a game of chess; the rules being that while they are playing, however long it may take, Death will not take him. (This is actually based on old woodcuts and tapestries showing Death playing chess with mortal men; where this first became an iconic trope is a mystery.)

Initially the confrontation seems to be between Death and Block, but it's revealed that Block has other reasons and plans for his gamble. The famous conclusion sees Block and other members of Deaths party walking in silhouette over a twilight hill, engaged in the ‘danse macabre', arms linked together in a long line. This image and theme has been used and parodied many times, probably most sharply in BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, where Death (with a thick Swedish accent) loses challenge after challenge of Twister, Clue, and Electric Football. (“Best three out of five! ”)



In the Russian folktale “The Soldier & Death”, Death is tricked by a soldier slated for dying into a magic sack whose material can hold the spirit prisoner, and hung from a high tree, leaving the soldier to become immortal. But when he grows tied of this life and releases Death so that he will take the soldier's soul, Death flees from him, leaving the soldier to wander the world undying and alone. (A variation of this is heard in my own tale “The Story Of Jack O' Lantern”, with the Devil replacing Death as being tricked up into a tree that he can't depart from, keeping him from taking Jack's soul to Hell.)

In a similar vein, the film ON BORROWED TIME depicts an old man who tricks death into climbing a magic tree from which he can' escape unless freed by his captor. Initially proud of his cleverness in outwitting the Reaper, the old man sees a world where no one dies, and suffering and starvation become rampant. Realizing that, for some, death is merciful, the old man releases death and is carried away to an afterlife that is welcoming and not fearful.



Why does humanity fear Death? After all, humans have been passing from this world for literally millions of years, and billions have gone on to their Great Reward. Why should it be so troubling? Why isn't it regarded as a natural process, like breathing, eating or sleeping?

Most probably because it is a great mystery; a terrible ‘what if?' that cannot be answered in a logical, satisfactory manner. Nobody truly knows what lies beyond, despite many who have claimed to have died and experienced a portion of the afterlife. (The current film HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, supposedly based on a true account, is an example.) By the time the mystery is solved, it's too late for anything to be done; there is no turning back, no change of mind or do-over. And it's safe to say that a lot of anxiety is produced simply because of the usual refrain; “This is different! This isn't happening to anyone else, this is happening to me!

During Hamlet's famous “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy contemplating ending his own life, Shakespeare makes the strongest case for humanity's fear. Comparing death to sleep and respite from the weariness of the world's troubles, Hamlet suddenly realizes:

“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;”
 

Later in the soliloquy:  

“But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
 

As long as there is life, as terrible and tragic as it may be, there is a sure knowledge of the parameters of existence; what is to come can be more or less deduced, and remains comforting. But Death…that undiscovered country…there's nothing known, and nothing assured. What if it's far worse than anything life can offer? What if it's agony unending? There's no turning back!  

But why should it be terrible? Why should it be agony? There's no logical reason; it's the very fact of its unknowing that makes humanity hesitate in its face. 



Art by William Basso


One of the most famous personifications of the Reaper is from the classic film DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. (It was remade both as a made-for-television film, which wasn't bad, and a feature film titled MEET JOE BLACK, which was dreadful.) Death, portrayed by Fredrick March (who would win an Oscar as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) grows weary of his task of collecting souls, and wishes for relief. Cold and aloof, he becomes human and assumes the persona of Prince Sirki. While in disguise he meets and falls in love with a woman and begins to understand and appreciate humanity. As in ON BORROWED TIME, while human nobody on earth dies, and there is much sorrow and suffering. Realizing he must return to his vocation, he confides his true identity to the woman, who has grown to love him, and accompanies him to the next world. Death has become more human, and promises to be more compassionate in his work.

Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE offered several versions of Death personified, all of them representing the varying aspects of the mythic archetype. These range from his delightful and sentimental “One For The Angels” (where Death is fussy bureaucrat, more concerned with his schedules being kept than with the individuals he is responsible for; he learns a great deal about his own failings when he encounters a street conman) to the adaptation of Lucille Fletcher's “The Hitchhiker” (where Death is a menacing figure stalking a woman traveler on a cross-country trip) to George Clayton Johnson's wonderful “Nothing In The Dark” ( with its most sympathetic portrayal meeting a woman shut away and terrified of dying).

Interestingly enough, all of the personifications of Death on THE TWILIGHT ZONE were male; a truly outstanding representation of Death as female occurred in Neil Gaiman's superb “Sandman” comics. Death is a young Goth woman, simultaneously flirtatious, giddy, and wise beyond her years. She is always kind to those in need, respectful of her charges, and they to a man (or woman) found her a comforting companion. So popular did she become that she was spun off into her own series.

Prior to Mr. Gaiman's creation, one of the most vivid representations came from the movie ALL THAT JAZZ, directed by Bob Fosse and written by Mr. Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur. Jessica Lange was the mysterious woman clad in white, intent on an otherworldly flirtation with song-and-dance man Roy Scheider, a self-destructive individual obsessed with Death from a young age. (In a telling moment, the protagonist's mother's ghost speaks cheerfully to the woman, “My boy has always been fascinated by you!”) Alternately alluring and disquieting, her presence becomes increasingly ominous as the film moves towards its grim denouement.

Why is there a need to personify the Reaper? What is it that has drawn artists, authors, filmmakers, playwrights and storytellers as far back as the ancients to put a human face on Death? It is precisely for that, I believe; to put a recognizable face on what is essentially one of the greatest unknowns conceivable, and thereby arrive at a greater perception and report. When presented in human terms, even if those terms are far from benevolent, Death becomes more understandable, more identifiable, and less frightful.



Of the many reasons given for the popularity of Horror and Dark Fantasy, one of the most persuasive arguments is that it's a rehearsal for death, and a way, through allegory and literary elusion, to touch upon the metaphysical. Steven King, among many, has argued this, and indeed believes that many of the more exuberant thrill rides at most amusement parks hold the same fascination; it's a way to test the limits of one's mortality in a safe environment. Mr. King notes, “…Horror movies, like roller coasters, have always been the special province of the young; by the time one turns forty or fifty, one's appetite for double-twists of 360 degree loops may be considerably depleted.”

So the Horror story explores the ‘bad death'; ageing and decrepitude via “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, being buried alive per “A Cask of Amontillado”, being devoured by rats as in “Willard” (also known as “Ratman's Notebooks”), and so on. It even explores the concept of being cursed and troubled beyond death; of the spirit being held and possessed, doomed to haunt this life for past transgressions (“The Haunting of Hill House” and “Hell House”), having your soulless corpse return to walk the night to corrupt others (as in “Dracula” and the other vampire myths) or stumble as a mindless reanimation filled with an insatiable reflex of hunger (as in any of Mr. Romero's DEAD films and their countless imitators).

What is death? I quote Mr. King again, from his novel “‘ Salem 's Lot ”: in the words of young protagonist Mark Petrie, “Death is when the monsters get you.” That may be the essence of death reduced to its simplest terms.

And yet…is the alternative any better?

One of the finest modern tales of Dark Fantasy is Anne Rice's “Interview With A Vampire”. Her books have a loyalty worthy of Mr. Lucas and his STAR WARS endeavors or the most ferverent STAR TREK devotees. All well and good, but it was her original tome that has remained with me all these years since I've first devoured it. I also think the film version is magnificent, not only for its artistry (which is impressive) but because it captures faithfully the foremost theme of the novel.


And that theme is this: no matter what your belief system or lack of one, the simple truth is that through the eons of time that history has carved, man was not meant to live forever.

The years, the decades, march along, and it wears down mountains and civilizations with the same inexorable footfalls; anything that doesn't change stagnates. The family and companions you've known age and turn to dust; even social mores fade and evolve. If a time traveler from the 1900s were to walk the streets of a modern city, what madness could he comprehend? How could equal rights be explained, or immigration, let alone something as relatively simple as cell phones or jet airliners? The technological advances in medicine alone would be astonishing, with transplanted organs and reattached limbs.

Living through those changes would be extraordinary, but that would be a mere century. Now imagine living through age after age, and constantly having to readjust your frame of references. You remain young, unchanging, a curse in itself while the world goes on around you, either rushing past or sweeping you along like driftwood caught in a riptide.

After millennium, wouldn't one grow much more than weary? How much longer would one be expected to take up their arms against a sea of troubles, as the Danish Prince might put it? When would one long for that sleep, no matter what dreams may await?



Art by Paul Delvaux


This has been pretty sobering so far, I'll grant you. But consider this:

One of the things that Horror and Dark Fantasy state implicitly in their very nature is this: there is something beyond this realm. This is something more than just this plane of existence. This is something more than this simple veil of tears. Even at its most nihilistic and pessimistic, by its very nature it states that death is not the end of everything.

This is a famous story, which doesn't make it any less amusing or pertinent, but you may have heard it before; if so forgive me.

When he was preparing to make THE SHINING, the late Stanley Kubrick called up Stephen King to discuss the movie, and he postulated that the tale of the haunted house, no matter how terrifying or horrific, was essentially an optimistic one, because it stated firmly that death was not the final curtain; that there were other worlds that souls would inhabit, even if that meant staying in one location and becoming malevolent. Therefore, no matter how downbeat the ending of the movie might be, it would be optimistic, because of these themes of life after death.

Mr. King was, shall we say, less than persuaded by this contention, and argued for a legitimately happy ending, or at least one where not everyone was dead by the conclusion. He had his way, but I find it fascinating that Mr. Kubrick, an agnostic through his adult life, should consider these themes.



Years before THE SHINING, Mr. Kubrick directed 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY, which contained its own vision of transcendence and deliverance. It should be noted that while Mr. Kubrick was agnostic in nature, the principal author of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, was decidedly atheistic; yet the two of them wrote and filmed one of the most persuasive finales celebrating life beyond the mortal realm. (And I'm going to discuss this in detail, so if you haven't yet seen the film – and why haven't you?!? – consider yourself warned through the next three paragraphs.)

After journeying to Jupiter and discovering a gateway from our universe to another, where host aliens are waiting to see if their cosmic invitation has been accepted by another species, astronaut David Bowman pilots a small spacecraft through the interspatial tunnel to the aliens' homeworld. After a psychedelic and sensory-expanding trip, he finds himself and his craft inside what appears to be a vintage hotel room, decorated entirely in white. The room literally glows with a strange luminescence, and we can hear the quiet chattering of otherworldly voices watching.

Astronaut Bowman begins to experience his life in acceleration, viewing it in a series of stages. He sees himself growing older, then older still, enjoying a fine meal at a small dining table. He drops his wine glass and sees himself at another stage, incredibly old, lying in bed. As he lays there the alien presence, a huge black monolith, stands in the room and communicates with him. He stretches out his hand to the form, and he is transformed again into a glowing shape: a small, infantile being, his huge eyes filled with patience and wisdom. The monolith becomes a doorway, and the child, Bowman reborn into another existence, finds himself returned to Earth. He orbits the planet, the backdrop of stars his cradle, and he looks down upon the new dawn.

Is it any wonder that many saw this as religious allegory? (It certainly caught Mr. Clarke by surprise, although I can't imagine why.) Yes, there is a scientific explanation for all these events, but couldn't there be a scientific explanation for any afterlife experience? I think as a filmed realization of the transient, 2001 remains a high water mark. The monolith, evocative of the Pagan stones of Stonehenge (always denied as an influence by Mr. Kubrick) adds an ancient layer of relevance to the final imagery. And what is the beautiful White Room, filled with white light so familiar to life after death experiences, but Heaven?



One of my favorite, and one of the most powerful films of Dark Fantasy in the past decade or two is JACOB'S LADDER, superbly directed and visualized by Adrian Lyne and written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who also wrote the lighter (but no less thought-provoking) treatment of the afterlife GHOST. In JACOB'S LADDER, Jacob Singer (wonderfully portrayed by Tim Robbins, who shoulders the movie in a very difficult role and carries it effortlessly) has flashbacks to his service in Vietnam , particularly to a battle where he was severely wounded. At this time in his life he's also having visions of demons invading New York City , first in the landscape around him, and finally threatening him directly.

He learns that members of his former unit are also being plagued with demons, and there is a government cover-up regarding an experimental drug that was used during his training. As he digs deeper into the twin mysteries, Jacob discovers that his past, present and possible future have worked themselves loose from linear structure, and he may be caught in a cataclysmic, apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light and dark.

I won't spoil the film, for much of its impact is derived from unraveling the puzzles surrounding Jacob Singer. (And what a wonderful name for a character, Biblical and evocative of the voice crying out in the wilderness or raised in praise; the film is filled with metaphor such as this, which gives it much of its potency.) But I am going to reveal some of the secrets of the finale, so you may want to skip the next nine paragraphs if you haven't seen the movie as of yet.

The demons are marvelously realized; when Mr. Rubin first wrote the script he relied on traditional religious imagery in their depiction. Mr. Lyne wanted something more visceral and less clichéd, and came up with a contemporary portrayal that seems to me terribly authentic. Using the idea of deformity and thalidomide crippling to portray the physical corruption of the soul, the demons (and its depiction of Hell, where Mr. Singer briefly finds himself) are harsh, garish and clinically plausible to a modern society, as well as utterly terrifying.



But as there are forces of darkness in the film, they are counterbalanced by forces of light, most ably realized by Danny Aiello as Louis, obstensively Jacob's chiropractor. He is a smiling gentle figure with an air of mystery and not some menace. (After all, angels are powerful forces of supernatural wonder, and even with their inerrant goodness, can be extremely frightening. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his essay on angels and devils, the first words spoken in the Bible when an angel appears are usually, “Fear not.”)

At one point while looking up from the chiropractic table, Jacob sees Louis smiling down at him, haloed by a soft light from across the room. “You know, you look like an angel, Louis, an overgrown cherub,” says Jacob; Louis just smiles down at him.

But when Jacob is at his lowest, imprisoned in Hell (in his visions a hospital where he is in traction after being injured) it is Louis that comes charging in, shouting at the top of his not inconsiderable lungs and brandishing a crutch to swing at anyone who gets in his way. He releases Jacob from the traction harnesses and pushes him out of the facility in a wheelchair. As an avenging, righteous force of good, Louis is exactly the kind of angel most people would want watching over them.

Then, in his office, correcting Jacob's injuries, they talk about what Jacob's experienced.
“I was in Hell. I've been there,” says Jacob. “It's horrible. I don't want to die, Louis…I've seen it. It's all pain.”

And Louis speaks kindly. “You ever read Meister Eckart? How did you ever get your Doctorate without reading Eckart?...Eckart saw Hell too. You know what he said? The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They're burning them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul…So the way he sees it, if you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it.” (And I will interrupt briefly to point out, as C. S. Lewis did, that angels and devils are not species, but political terms for the same supernatural entities.)

Then Louis sets the table upright and tells Jacob to walk forward. Jacob protests; he's still injured, but Louis holds out his hands and beckons almost as a faith healer. After a tentative moment, Jacob steps forward without pain, and Louis smiles and whispers quietly, “Halleluiah.” I still shiver thinking about this breathtaking scene.

Later, after further investigation, satisfying Jacob regarding the mysteries he's been pursuing, he takes a taxi to his old apartment, and is greeted by the doorman. “Hello, Dr. Singer. Welcome home.” (And isn't that the most common euphemism for dying? Being called home, or going home?) He enters the dark apartment, lies down on the couch and naps a bit. When he awakens he hears a sound by the stairs, and finds his dead son playing there. They are reunited, hug tenderly, and then the two climb the stairs into a bright light.

Initially JACOBS LADDER was to end cataclysmically with a huge battle between good and evil, but the special effects didn't look proper and it would have cost a great amount of money to redo them. Director Lyne decided to completely eliminate the battle, and went with this quiet conclusion. Perhaps it was a case of divine intervention, because I find this ending perfect for this adult exploration of the Dark Fantastic. (I understand the final battle has been restored to the movie by the studio for syndication; I urge you to avoid it at all costs and rent the original.)



Quite a lot to take in, I know. Still, I hope we're moving away from what is fearful about Death and touching on the mysterious without the malevolence; I hope that wonder can be a comfort in the face of the unknown.

Consider this:

One of the TWILIGHT ZONE episodes mentioned above, “Nothing In The Dark”, tells of an old woman shut away from the world because she's afraid of dying. She actually witnessed the Grim Reaper going about his business early in her life, and has become terrified of him. She knows he can take any form at all to trick her and move close to her, so she's locked herself away in a crumbling basement apartment to outwait him…forever? She can't say; all she knows is her fear.

One night a young policeman (well played by Robert Redford in one of his earliest film roles) is shot by a criminal he's been pursuing, and although she's terrified of exposing herself to a stranger, she carries him inside and tends to his wounds. As they talk, she explains her dilemma, and he listens with sympathy. He tells her he can't shut herself away; they're planning to tear down this building very soon, and she'll have to leave.

At that moment there's a knock on the door, and a burly stranger in overalls forces himself into the room. In terror the woman faints; when she comes to the stranger is standing over her. He speaks brusquely but with some kindness:


“You've got to understand, ma'am. I don't get no pleasure out of busting down doors, but you don't seem to savvy how important this is. I got a crew and equipment coming in an hour to pull this tenement down…” And the woman realizes that this isn't Death; it's a construction foreman.

Still, as he continues speaking, the man unwittingly makes the case for Death. “The building is old – run down. I can see how you could get attached to it and not want to see it destroyed, but when a building is old and unsafe it's got to come down to make room for new buildings. That's life, lady. The old has to make room for the new. People ask me why I do what I do – destroy things, but in a way I'm not a destroyer at all. I just clear the ground so other people can create. In a way I help them do it. Look around. It's the way things are. Trees fall and new ones grow out of the same ground. Animals give way to new animals and even people step aside when it's time.”

He tells her if she isn't ready to leave when he returns, he'll have to call the police – and the old woman realizes the foreman can't see the policeman sitting on her sofa. The policeman himself is Death; she's been talking to him all this time. “But why?” she asks. “Once I let you inside you could have taken me anytime and yet you didn't. You acted – nice. You made me trust you.”

“I had to make you understand,”
says Death. “Am I really so frightening? Am I really so bad? You talked with me, confided in me. Have I taken advantage of you? Have I tried to hurt you? It's not me you're frightened of – you understand me. What frightens you is the unknown. What frightens you is the land from which no traveler returns. You needn't be afraid.”

The woman protests she doesn't want to die, and Death responds, “And you didn't want to live. You struggled against it till you were blue and the doctor had to slap you firmly to make you breathe. And you did. You grew accustomed to it and found it good. It was natural and right and now it is done. Trust me.”

He holds out his hand, and tentatively the old woman takes it. And there's nothing. Death smiles. “You see? No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end – is the beginning.” And the old woman sees herself lying dead, peacefully on her bed. Taking Death's arm in hers, she smiles, and the two walk out her broken door into the sunlight.

Like a starchild returning, born anew from a million light years to begin a new life…



Art by Michael Whelan


Of course, what's really mourned in death is the loss of those still loved by the living; those left behind to mourn and grieve and sorrow. Look again at the artwork at the top; it isn't Lilo or Ash that are sad, it's those who loved them and will miss them and be without them, at least until they're reunited in another place.

And that's fine. It's good to mourn, and be sad, and be angry. Angry is perfectly fine; if you have faith in God he can certainly handle any of your understandable anger, and if you have no faith anger is cathartic and releasing in and of itself. Life certainly isn't fair; neither is death, and being livid at the unfairness is natural. Remember: Do not go gently into that good night; Rage! Rage against the dying of the light...!

But remember also that the grief and sorrow and anger is in itself selfish and self-centered; it's for yourself and those left behind, not for those who've departed and begun their incredible journey. The grief is for your loss, and in time it will abate. But that doesn't make the life mourned worth any less simply because time and the world go on without them.

Listen:

In the Hispanic culture, the holiday Dia De Los Muertos is often mistakenly called “The Mexican Halloween”, because of its skeletal imagery and its relationship to the end of October. And there is some truth in that; there's always room for a touch of the macabre and a little spookiness. (It is, after all, one way humanity deals with its mortality.)

But the celebration is much more than that; it's a communing with the Spirits of the Dead, and the Souls of the Departed. It's the conceit that those who've passed are with us always, and remain part of the living family. Although referred to as ‘The Day of the Dead', the event actually takes place over three complete days.



The days before the event, the house is cleaned to make it presentable and welcoming to the spirits. Food is prepared, and a picnic banquet is planned. Candy skulls are made for the children, and flowers decorate the house. Sometimes calacas are placed about; these are the small statues and decorations you recognize as being finely dressed skeletal figures; more about these in a moment.

An altar is prepared in a corner of the home; on it are placed items familiar and precious to those who've passed on. Small toys are left for the dead children, and photos, flowers and food are placed on the altar to honor the adults.

On the second day of the event there is music and dancing and celebration, for it is believed that the Dead are now among the living, visiting and partaking in the celebration. Sometimes the children go from house to house and are giving small pieces of candy or coins; this is similar to our trick-or-treat tradition. The food on the altar is placed for the Dead to eat; some believe they partake of the ‘spiritual essence' of the meal, so the food is left for any visitors to eat and join the revelry.

Costumes and masks are worn; this is also similar to Halloween. Often faces themselves are painted in skull designs made more fanciful by beads and flowers. Because the skeleton is representative of the holiday, some wear costumes with shells attached so they rattle when they dance: clak-a-clik-a-clak! Others rattle and shake sticks or musical bones to invite the spirits to join the dancing. Clak-a-clik-a-clak! Bread is baked in the shape of skulls and twisted and frosted to look like bones.

Why the skeletons, you may ask? Because the calacas remind everyone that, no matter your station in life, Death is the great equalizer. You may be a politician, a banker, a musician, a beggar, or a thief, but under the skin and trappings of the living lies the skeleton, and all are equal once they've passed beyond the threshold. This is also no doubt why the Grim Reaper began to wear his skull features as he performed his tasks; to remind all that all are skeletons, all are the same, and all will be joining in the Dance in due time. Clik-a-clak-a-clik!



On the third day the families go to the graves themselves. They have a picnic feast on the actual gravesites and decorate the gravestones; they share stories of their loved ones, and laugh and enjoy la familia with those still hovering on this earthly plane. They will even leave a trail of bread crumbs from the village back to the cemeteries so that the Dead, weary and worn from the celebration, will be able to find their way back to their resting places without difficulty. Sometimes they also leave small altars and mementos at the gravesite itself in honor.

This is not a time of sorrow; this is a time of joy. All the celebration and festivities remind the participants that the veils between the worlds can be very thin indeed; that those who've left them are always with them in their hearts and memories; that someday all will be meeting again in a joyous reunion in another place and time. That life is brief, but good, and the time apart will be merely temporary. Every year the festivities repeat, every year more join the dance on both planes, and every year brings the loved ones closer to the final reuniting. Clik-a-clak-a-clik!



Some time ago I presented this wonderful short animated film
on my Parting Glass Page. I offer it to you again for your enjoyment
as a tribute to Dia De Los Muertos! Click on the image above.


I hope some of this has been intriguing and fascinating; I hope in some way it has been a comfort as well. I haven't even touched on the wonderful book and film of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME by Richard Matheson; it was recommended by Roger Ebert as a work to share with someone in the throes of grief, and it represents Mr. Matheson's sincere beliefs about what occurs on the other side. The film and book have differences, but both are worthy efforts that I commend to your attention.

At the end of Thorton Wilder's classic play “Our Town”, the ghost of Emily, the young heroine, visits her home one final time and finds everyone engaged in their everyday rituals. She cries out: “Let's really look at one another!...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed... Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Then she speaks to the Stage Manager, the narrator and guide (and, I suppose, surrogate God figure) and asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”

And the Stage Manager replies, “No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”

Here's a final secret regarding death; whatever the mystery may be, in this world life is for the living, and to be lived. The mysteries will wait, whatever awaits may well be completely different from what is around you. This is where the focus needs be and remains. Life is for living, as simple and silly as that may sound put into words. Death will wait.



A final, personal anecdote:

For many years the Patient Creatures and I were mainstays at the MONSTER BASH convention outside Pittsburgh , PA. The event is family friendly, and focuses on the classic Universal and Hammer films. It was always a splendid time; I miss attending very much. Because we were regular attendees, we grew quite close with the staff, and always looked forward to seeing them each year.

One year, as I arrived at the start of the first day's festivities, I met one of the young ladies running the information booth, and we talked of how she'd been since we'd last seen each other. She told me that things had been well until the beginning of the year (MONSTER BASH is traditionally held in June) but that she'd been through some difficult times. “My mother had been very sick for a while; she passed away earlier this year.”

I told her I was very sorry to hear about her loss, and offered any help I could during her grief. She smiled and thanked me, and then said something quite astonishing. “Yes, it was challenging at first; I had a hard time with her leaving. But when I was feeling very sad, I thought to myself: Carpathian is from the other side, and Grim and Kuzibah and the others. And I thought that these were such wonderful people, and if souls like them exist there, then it must be a pretty wonderful place to be.”

I'd always strived, both with the Creatures and in my own wanderings, to put a face on the unknown, and have it be warm, kindly and reflective of humanity. I was happy and gratified, in this small instance, to have succeeded.



Art by Stephen Mackey


Author David Gerrold, of STAR TREK's “The Trouble With Troubles” and the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel “The Martian Child”, wrote a series of short, elliptical proverbs in the manner of Robert Heinlein's “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, the collective wisdom of an immortal. Mr. Gerrold called his creation, with tongue firmly in cheek, “The Notebooks of Solomon Short”. And one of those proverbs is presented herewith, as a final word on this subject:

“Maybe death is the very best part of life; that's why God saves it for last.”



FROM MY PARTING GLASS PAGE :

A final word…



Artwork by Hannes Bok ; from “Famous Fantastic Mysteries” , October 1947

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL 2014

 

I'm not a fan of basketball. (Trust me; this will turn macabre in a bit, but I'm going to digress some beforehand. Just follow along.) March Madness leaves me pretty much cold, with a great deal of time on my hands because I'm not an avid follower of all the hours television spends on the sport.

Nevertheless, I recognize that there are many people who enjoy basketball a great deal; who approach it as obsessively as genre fans discuss the latest Stephen King novel or George Romero film. That's all well and good; if we all liked the same thing, it would be an amazingly boring existence. Further, I recognize that, in the sport of basketball, and great deal of skill, grace and athletic daring is required, so I consider a worthy enterprise for any fan's attention.

Do we make the distinction here? I don't care for the sport myself, but I can still see the worthiness in it, and don't begrudge anyone their pleasures or passions in pursuit of it. I'm able to still appreciate it and what it is about it that engenders such devotion, even though I don't partake of it myself. I don't have any issues with people who seem to enjoy different forms of entertainment, films, books, music or any other endeavor, and though I have my own opinion, and will certainly share it in private conversation with my choice companions, in the end it affects me not in the least how someone else shares their leisure time.

But today, in many cases, it seems endemic that when someone proclaims that they don't care for a particular form of pastime, it's no longer simply a difference of opinion or choice, but a judgment call on the validity of the entertainment itself.

I've said this before in many forums and at many times: the very best thing about the Internet is that everyone is complete free to offer their opinion on anything at all anytime. The very worst thing about the Internet is that everyone is complete free to offer their opinion on anything at all anytime.

Let's take a few modest examples…

I enjoy books, and I am particularly devoted to the Dark Fantastic. But I am able to step outside the genre and appreciate a well-written work that I might not otherwise have shown interest in. I quick glance at the bookshelf in my crypt will reveal a collection of what could be call “mainstream” book that I've found fascinating, involving and completely rewarding. And there isn't a vampire or zombie in any of them.

Among the non-fiction are titles such as Thomas Wolfe's “The Right Stuff”, Woodward & Bernstein's “All The President's Men”, William Goldman's “The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway”, Carl Sagan's “Cosmos”, several of Jacques Cousteau's reference books, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World's Stolen Treasures” by Robert Wittman, and “Travels” by Michael Crichton. I have Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, William Buckley's Blackford Oakes series, two books of stories of The Thinking Machine (one edited by Harlan Ellison) and several of Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books. I have biographies of Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Campbell, William Castle, Roger Corman, Edward Gorey and Ray Bradbury. I have Dickens and Shakespeare, a coffee table book about carousel horses, “Making of…” books on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, STAR TREK and Sid & Marty Croft productions, a couple of books on philosophy and several Bibles.

I would consider this a fairly well-rounded collection for anyone who enjoys reading. Yet time and again I've attended events and festivals and met more than a few human companions who've stated boldly, “If it isn't Horror (or Science Fiction or Fantasy or what-have-you) I don't like it, and I'm not interested.” And I feel a sense of regret about that. They'll never know the pleasures of delving into a masterpiece like “The Killer Angels” (one of the finest books of modern times, fact that reads like brilliant fiction), “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “How Green Was My Valley” or “Shogun”. They view the world and their experiences tunnelvisioned and are poorer for it.

(And I should state right now that certainly not all fans are as regimented in their thinking, and many if not most have extremely diverse reading habits. But it's happened more times than I'd care to consider.)

Then there are those that, simply because they didn't enjoy the experience of reading a certain book or viewing a certain movie, that it's not worth anybody's time. This is far more egregious, but infinitely more common. Author Robert Dunbar wrote a blog some time ago about those that go onto Amazon.com and review some undisputed classics; although he used a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor for his essay, there is an unmistakable sense of frustration, not with how he himself has been treated, but by the simply, dim thought processes of many individuals who have appointed themselves literary critics. You can take a moment and read his opinions HERE.

I can't begin to add anything to Mr. Dunbar's concise and amusing observations. But I do want to stress a few things that still stand out for me in the piece. His opening paragraph, discussing music, sums it up perfectly.

“Most subsist entirely on a musical diet of whatever pop songs are being aggressively marketed, and a substantial subset are fanatically devoted to particular performers or types of music – from bubblegum to thrash metal – and loathe everything else. Brought into contact with the unfamiliar, these folks are not merely uninterested. They're furious.

Classical music is pretentious. Jazz is boring. Modern opera? Electronica? Are you kidding? It's an outrage such things even exist.

This is not encouraging for artists of any sort.”


Bear that last sentence in mind.

And this:

“In the literary world, professional standards have largely ceased to exist. The proliferation of self-published novels, unblemished by grammar or punctuation, the popularity of Write Your Novel in Thirty Minutes events, the various supposed organizations for writers (which exist merely to encourage readers that they too should be published), all contribute to this decline. Even ancillary fields like literary criticism have largely been obliterated. What passes for book reviews these days reminds me of the sort of customer comments that used to appear on the Sears website about headphones or oven mitts.”

And most importantly, this:

“Real literary criticism – once an art form in its own right – celebrated erudition and interpretation. Does the current crop of crude remarks truly represent the contemporary reading public? They are to scholarship what Fox News is to journalism, achieving a level of mythic stupidity.”

(Incidentally, my favorite examples from his selection of comments are these two:

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo
Not at all like the Disney movie.

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!

Favorite, in this instance, being akin to stating my favorite natural disaster was Pompeii . But that wasn't like the movie either…)



"Why, this isn't like SURVIVOR at all?!"


“Once an art form in its own right.” That's it right there. At one point people devoted their lives to genuine analysis of Art, even so-called Commercial Art that had few pretensions but was as entertaining as anything offered. Now you don't need scholarship or experience, devotion to the study of the subject or reputation and prestige from years of experience. All you require is a computer and a mouse, and any individuals opinion is accepted to be on the same level as that of Judith Crist, Richard Schiekal, Brooks Atkinson, Roger Ebert or Harlan Ellison, five critics that I feel were or are exemplary in what they do, and post the high standard that all others should attempt to meet.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


The subject for the month is being a good audience. Not simply turning your cell phone off and keeping silent so others can enjoy the film (although Heaven knows that doesn't happen hear enough these days in itself) but opening yourselves to enjoying a work of Art on its own terms , rather than your own personal bias.

That might seem like I'm making the argument for keeping quiet in the face of bad or boring entertainment; quite the contrary. If you are disappointed in a film, or television series, or book, or comic strip or piece of music, by all means voice your opinion; warn others away and demand the best work that any artist is capable of. But too often individuals are not following the most basic rule of being an audience: you have to be receptive to what's being presented. If you have a preconceived attitude about the Art, the battle is already mostly lost.

I've entertained at many events and in many venues: amusement parks, medieval faires, SF and Horror conventions, libraries, legitimate theaters, hotel lobbies and street corners. Ideally you would like to have a venue where the distractions are kept to a minimum so that your audience can immerse themselves in whatever story you'd like to tell, setting a sustained mood and painting in details for their enjoyment.

All well and good in theory. But in many places that I've performed, there are a myriad of conflicting activities going on around me. Roller coasters thundering by while the riders shriek in delight, carnival booths and games making loud electronic whoops and sirens to announce a winner, jousting knights on horseback battling while crowds cheer them on…well, you get the idea. A great deal of sound and fury swirling about, with Yours Truly at the eye of the storm.

I've very proud to say that, despite all the possible interruptions and disruptions that could be imagined, I've developed a following among my human companions, and have managed to hold their attention and interest in the most cacophonous of locations. I actually enjoy the challenge of taking control of their senses despite any attempt to pull them away, and for the most part I'm pleased to be successful.

But there are times when I've looked into the eyes of an audience member and realized that it's all futility. Not only are they not involved, they couldn't care less about being involved. This is always disheartening, but at those times I simply shrug my ectoplasmic shoulders and concentrate on those listeners who are enjoying my tales.

The late Victor Borges, a marvelous entertainer, once remarked, “There are no such things as bad audiences, only bad performances.” I agree with that wholeheartedly. Many is the time I've heard a performer complain about not getting the reactions they desired from their audience, and my first question is usually, “Were you doing the absolute best that you're capable of?”

But there is that one exception. There is that individual that sits there, eyes completely vacant and vacuous, staring with that dreaded Make me laugh. I dare you! expression. They do exist, and there's little a performer can do, even in a hermetically sealed auditorium with letter-perfect acoustics. They simply don't want to be entertained, and will fight any urge to succumb with every fiber of their stamina.

Why? Who can conjecture? Perhaps they're having a bad day, under some enormous pressure or stress, going through an emotional personal crisis. Or perhaps they're simply jerks, and determined to be as difficult as possible for their own perverse pleasure. I don't understand that in the least; why subject yourself to something if you really, really don't want to, unless you're attempting to win a wager?

Once at Six Flags America, I was wandering the midway when I was approached by a group of twentysomethings who requested a story. I enjoy that sort of environment a great deal, and began (what I thought) was one of my best tales. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it…except for one young lady in front, directly before me, who simply stared grimly. After a few minutes, arms crossed, she spoke matter-of-factly. “You're boring me.”

Whereupon I stopped the story, apologized, and told her I wouldn't subject her to any further discomfort. I wished her a good evening and moved along, leaving her with a shocked expression on her face and catcalls from her companions who were enjoying the story and didn't appreciate her comments. (Sometimes it's best to let the group police themselves.)

Why did I stop? Not to be ungracious or overly sensitive, (not entirely anyway) but for the reason given; I saw no purpose in forcing her to listen to a performer that wasn't pleasing her, not with so many other forms of entertainment around her available for her sampling. I didn't want to subject her to an unpleasant experience. But, more than that, I suspected then (and still do now) that she wasn't really bored; she simply felt she had to express and assume that attitude for her own personal reasons.

And I see that a great deal in some audiences, much as I see them in the comments left for the classic books above. There is a need for some individuals to prove themselves better than any situation, more sophisticated, knowledgeable and worldly. Perhaps its feeling of deep inadequacy, but they are simply incapable of enjoying anything and must place themselves above it, emotionally and socially.

I refer to this as “the MST3K Syndrome”. As much as I enjoyed the classic television series MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, it's birth a disturbing reaction in more than a few audiences: that any work of entertainment is not presented to be enjoyed, but to be mocked, ridiculed and commented on.

Sadly, most viewers are not aware that the writers and producers of that series worked tirelessly, viewing each film over and over and selecting only the very best quips for broadcast. Because the actors made it look so easy and effortless, many audience members believe it so, and think that anything that they can come up with to shout out at the spur of the moment must be equally clever, scintillating and hilarious. They're wrong.

Because of this, audience aren't coming to films (and books and television) prepared to appreciate them as works on their own, but as an extension of the audiences sense of irony and self-amusement. Which has caused a distinct drop in many theaters today; despite the fact of many Hollywood blockbusters dominating the scene, movie audiences are diminishing, and the most offered reason is that people tire of the constant inane chatter, commentary, cell phone use and overall rudeness of the people around them.

(And I want to offer here and now a huge THANK YOU! and a tip of the proverbial hat to the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters, who have recognized this problem and are almost single-handedly attempting to address it and raise the best behavior of their audiences. They are not permitting distractions or misbehavior in their theaters, and loyal audience members are extremely appreciative of their efforts. You might want to Goggle “Alamo Drafthouse Phone Message” and see how they're doing in their efforts; be aware that the video is for mature audiences only because of the language involved.)



Another factor that goes hand-in-hand with the above behavior are audience members arriving at a performance in, shall we say, less than salutatory condition. This probably occurs more often at a live performance at, say, a medieval faire, a haunted attraction or an outdoor festival than a film or with a book, but it does happen and does affect a performance. I've witnessed people arrive at these venues staggering and clearly heavily under the influence, wondering how they were able to find the show let alone arrive, and fearing for their safety when they attempt to depart.

This baffles me to no end; why in the world would you want to come to an event in a condition that almost assures you won't receive the greatest possible experience, viewing it instead through an alcoholic or drug-induced fog? How much are you really going to remember? I remember my astonishment in learning that a group of people had dropped acid before attending a Bruce Springsteen concert. Really? Bruce Springsteen? I suppose I can make the case for doing so at a Grateful Dead or Progressive Jazz event where ambiance is the main attraction, but for an artist whose enjoyment depends on clearly and consciously listening to well-chosen and soul-searching lyrics and ideas?

I'm not taking a stand for abstinence (although that certainly isn't a bad suggestion for some individuals I've encountered) but I say with all sincerity that if your enjoyment of any pleasure depends heavily on placing yourself in an altered state of consciousness to participate, you may want to seriously rethink your lifestyle choices and examine while artificial stimulation is so necessary. The drawback, after a while, is that becomes an automatic response worthy of Pavlov. “Hey, let's all go to the All Hallows Faire! And let's get hammered!

I cringe just a bit every time a venue that I'm attending offers alcoholic beverages. It suspends the critical faculties and dulls the self-censorship needed in a civilized society. It heightens the participant's opinion of their own wittiness and sense of fun and clouds their judgments. They begin catcalling the performances, sharing their almost Oscar Wildean cleverness with the crowd around them, often annoying not only the performers but the audience members that genuinely wanted to see the show without disruption, and because their self-control is inhibited, they don't tend to calmly acquiesce when the management or others in the crowd take exception with their behavior and ask them to control themselves.

Now, I know from experience that many of these individuals, seeing their behavior listed here, will become offended at my suggestions that they refrain from partaking before venturing out in public, saying that I'm a stick-in-the-mud and protesting that this is a free country, that it's their God-given right to enjoy an event any way they see fit. After all, they paid good money for their admission. And sadly, I shake my head because these people won't grasp the simple truth that others also paid good money, and the performers have rights as well, with the expectation of good audience behavior being a primary one.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Perhaps the biggest downfall in not being a good receptive audience is Mr. Dunbar's honest and accurate position that it can actually hurt the Art being presented. As he stated, “ This is not encouraging for artists of any sort.”

And that is the bottom line for any artist; they must be free to explore any and all aspects of their work and style in order to be the best artists possible, always stretching and challenging themselves. Sometimes this will result in failure, but sometimes this will allow the artist to sing far above his or her range and actually expand the parameters of the art in question. But for a true determination of the worthiness, an audience must come to it with open minds and hearts, and only when it fails to meet their expectations must they critique it to find it wanting.

Too often today, far too often, audiences approach a work with preconceived expectations, and those expectations are most often failure. And this is instant death, for there's no possible way that, with the opinion firmly locked already in place, that the work offered is going to satisfy.

You see this a great deal online with television shows, particularly the season or series finales. Recently the series HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER ended its very successful run with its final episode; I was never a fan of the show, but I tuned in to see what might be done with its conclusion, and with an entirely objective mindset I found it funny and touching, quite well done. But online the next day I was clearly in the minority, with many decrying its quality and declaring that the series should have ended years ago.

Clearly many of those commenting were long-time viewers who were genuinely disappointed with the decisions made to conclude the show. And that's certainly fair. But it was equally clear that many were lying in wait, claws and teeth already bared, prepared to dislike anything that the creators presented to the audience, and nothing short of the Second Coming would have satisfied them. (And even then they would have complained about the lack of smoke machines and laser effects.) You can see this attitude with new episodes of THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY and series finales ranging from DEXTER to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

Am I free from these prejudices myself? Hardly; I am, to coin a phrase, only human (even though I'm spectral). I haven't watch the series HANNIBAL, BATES MOTEL or DRACULA because I doubt the quality of these productions, being that the creators of he original works have little-to-nothing to do with the productions. It's possible I'm missing the most powerful and emotionally satisfying hours on television, but I'm willing to take that chance, and if I encounter them someday and find them wonderful, so much the better. But what I won't do is come to them as a bad audience, with preconceived notions and a innate determination to see them fail, and then voice my opinion haphazardly in any forum available. The producers, writers and actors deserve more respect than that.

If an artist wishes to produce the best possible art, he must follow his muse wherever it leads, exploring avenues that he's never taken before, and not concerning himself with possible audience reaction. (Although I don't believe he should try to deliberately alienate or ignore his audience; those individuals aren't artists to be but provocateurs, and you see enough of them in the Art world as it is.) The audience, in turn, must come to each work objectively and receive it honestly, even if it's something their unfamiliar with. (Especially so, in my opinion.)

In our genre, artists that try to explore other aspects of their Art are often attacked for attempting to break the chains of creative confinement. David Cronenberg is celebrated for his visceral visions of human metamorphosis in THE FLY, SCANNERS, THE BROOD and DEAD RINGERS, but when he wants to explore other aspects of psychological metamorphosis and pathology in SPIDER, CRASH, M. BUTTERFLY or A DANGEROUS METHOD, he's greeted with hostility and cries of dismay, “We don't want COSMOPOLIS; we want more VIDEODROME and Body Horror!” But Mr. Cronenberg has always had a fascination for humanity outside of the milieu of straight Horror, and wants to explore as many aspects of it as possible.

George Romero is hailed as the father of the modern Zombie film with his work in NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD. But when he tries to deviate from that work with MONKEYSHINES, THE DARK HALF or BRUISER, the calls for another Zombie film are loud and strident. When he obliges with DIARY OF THE DEAD or SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the audiences shrugs collectively and mutters about Mr. Romero losing his talent and abilities.

They ignore the fact that he has never been interested in just doing a straight gory piece of cinema; he's always used Horror as a large canvas to explore and examine modern society. In fact it's reported that he doesn't enjoy filming the gruesome segments of his films, and finds them upsetting, especially when the actors and extras ignore his calls to cut and continue their rampaging. And his filmic interests have always been diverse; note KNIGHRIDERS and MARTIN and CREEPSHOW.

I won't argue that BRUISER and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD are films on par with MARTIN or DAWN OF THE DEAD. That is honest critical evaluation. But both of those efforts are worthy films of respectful viewing and contain solid elements of writing, acting and filmmaking that equal anything else Mr. Romero has done; if they're not his best work, they're certainly good works for those who can look beyond the simple mayhem they crave from his more visceral efforts.

(And sometimes film requires distance to attain objectivity and determine value; his third DEAD film DAY OF THE DEAD is now considered a classic to be placed beside NIGHT and DAWN, but on its initially release the reception was far from universal acclaim, with many genre fans and critic feeling that he stumbled and fumbled the Trilogy.)

This sort of pigeonholing has stifled other (in my opinion) lesser talents as well. John Carpenter tried to display a more intimate side to his nature with STARMAN, and the fans clamored for more Michael Myers and THE THING. Wes Craven tried to explore the mainstream drama with MUSIC OF THE HEART, and his fan base ignored the film en masse and demanded more Freddy Krueger, SCREAM and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. (And for my money, few of Mr. Craven's feature work compares to the skill and humanity he displayed in his episodes of the 1980s revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including “Wordplay”, “Shatterday”, and especially “Her Pilgrim Soul”.)

But Carpathian, you cry, I know what I like and what I want! That's fair enough, I suppose, though sadly limiting, and you're free to ignore what you will. But if you do choose to approach a new work, you must come with an objective view; disagree with the work all you wish, but it must be for honest critical reasoning and not simply because it wasn't like what came before. And it must be consistent with the work being offered , not because it isn't what you're used to or what you usually enjoy. Otherwise, please stay home.

You simply cannot approach all art with the same critical criteria; it makes no sense. You can't judge “Hamlet” with the same standards applied to Mickey Spillaine's “I, The Jury” or Arthur Conan Doyle's “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”. This is not in any way a critical evaluation of the work as Art; it's simply common sense. It ludicrous to suggest otherwise; these are three distinct and dramatic pieces that have little in common with themes and methods of attack. To disparage “Hamlet” over “I, The Jury” because the people in it all talk funny, wear funny clothes and act in ways Mike Hammer never would (“Why doesn't Hamlet just kill his uncle? That's what Mike would do!”) is ignorance of the lowest sort.

Martin Scorsese is a master of the urban street drama, with his classic films MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS. But he also created a marvelous period drama THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and the beautiful family film HUGO, because these are aspects of his Art that he wanted to explore and spoke to him just as deeply. To dismiss HUGO because it isn't as violent as TAXI DRIVER or belittle AGE because it lacks the grittiness of RAGING BULL is foolishness, and speaks more of the straitjacketing of the audience's intelligence and critical faculties than it does of Mr. Scorsese's success or failure. Success or failure cannot even be weighed in this instance because the audience didn't approach the work with anything resembling critical intuitiveness.

I've spoken before of sitting in a movie theater with the local college crowd during films such as ZARDOZ, DESTINATION MOON, QUATERMASS & THE PIT and other movies from previous eras. I've heard the laughter and catcalls about the clothes design and the fashions, the special effects efforts and the performances. I've heard the same criticism imparted about works as diverse as the original STAR TREK (with its “Styrofoam rocks” and Mr. Shatner's acting style) and DOCTOR WHO (with the cardboard sets and monster designs). And I simply shrug my shoulders and sigh deeply.

Many of these films represented artistic risks on the part of their creators. Many of the special effects at the time were state of the art, of the best possible under the budgetary restrictions. Some of the performances were carefully chosen and the style of acting at the time. Some of these were filmed on sets because the budgets did not allow for location filming. And even though modern audiences have become accustomed to more explicit and realized special effects and artistic renderings, much of this earlier work is still a triumph of creative imaginative extrapolation of future sensibilities.

Would these same individuals attend a production of “A Midsummer Nights Dream” and heckle the costume designs of the faeries? (On the other hand, perhaps they would.) Would they experience a historical reenactment at Gettysburg and laugh at the language used and the outfits and artillery painstakingly recreated. (On the other hand…) This is the very core of what I consider being a good audience; as stated before, being able to accept a work on its own terms and judge it objectively and accordingly, not with an arbitrary or ill-considered set of critical attributes.

I've told this story before, and I think it bears repeating; it's probably apocryphal, but if it isn't true, it should be. A gentleman was visiting an art museum, looking at the various paintings, and was not particularly impressed by what he saw. He stopped in front of one piece and a guard was nearby, watching. After a moment, the gentleman turned to the guard and motioning to the painting, said, “I don't think this is particularly great.”

The guard shook his head and said, “I'm sorry, sir, but history has already passed judgment on the worthiness of this painting. Now what is being judge is each individual's reaction to it.”



Which brings me to this particularly depressing news item, and my final thoughts.

The Search Engine Yahoo! Wanted to find out if the original John Carpenter film of HALLOWEEN was still considered scary for modern audiences, so they conducted an experiment and invited ten young people, all college age, to watch the film. Devin Faraci of the website “Badass Digest” wrote an essay on the results, and, as he most succinctly stated, far from proving if HALLOWEEN is still effective, “…and along the way they proved that maybe movie watching is dead.”

You can read the entire article HERE; please be warned that the language is very strong and recommended for mature audiences only.

Mr. Faraci's language aside, I couldn't possibly agree with him more, and would be tempted to be as equally blunt and impolitic. And whenever someone writes in film or book comment sections or on Facebook about how the powers-that-be aren't creating wonderful new works of originality and imagination, ask yourself why they should bother when the audience isn't really going to pay attention anyway.

For myself, I'll be telling my tales to those who genuinely wish to hear them. I know they're there, because I gladly engage them on a regular basis, and am eternally grateful for each and every one of them. I can only hope that my fellow artists find themselves equally as fortunate.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MARCH 2014

 

When categorizing the Dark Fantastic (assuming one feels a need to do so) there are several schools in which Fantasy can be broken down.

Heroic Fantasy, as in the medieval school of knights, wizards, dragons and the like, includes the earlier primitive era of barbarians, monsters from the earth, swordsmen and witches that comprise Sword & Sorcery, another subgenre. In this I'd place Mr. Tolkien's “The Lord Of The Rings” epic, films such as DARK CRYSTAL and EXCALIBUR, and the work of Robert Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Krull and Solomon Kane.

Dark Fantasy dips into the well of Horror but is not primarily concerned with the school of simple scares, that you'd find in a good Richard Matheson short or novels such as Mr. King's “'Salem's Lot” and “Pet Semetary”. There are supernatural elements and terrible threats, dark presences and chills, but there is more at work, a richer detailing of a universe filled with ancient menace. In this I'd include Mr. King's “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” series, much of H. P. Lovecraft's work and Ann Rice's Vampire books.

Light Fantasy, which is what most people consider when the term “Fantasy” is mentioned, is lighter in tone than the Dark Fantastic, although it may certainly contain dark passages and danger. Still, there is a gentler mood and a sense of wonder in its magical and unusual events. In this final category I'd place “Watership Down” and “Alice In Wonderland”, movies like LABRYNTH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and in general much of the Faerie subject books that inhabit the SF section of the bookstore.

None of this is meant in any sense as a judgment call; one doesn't call into question quality with these labels, such as saying that Dark Fantasy is more adult and deals in deeper themes than Light Fantasy. All the subgenres contain works that are exemplary as well as mediocre, and the reader decides for him-or-herself.

Nor are many works safely niched in one slot; THE PRINCESS BRIDE, for instance, easily straddles both Heroic and Light Fantasy, being a pastiche and satire of each in its own affectionate way. “Little, Big”, one of the finest Fantasies ever put to page can move gracefully between Light and Dark Fantasy, (although as Dark as it may get, the sense of wonder and geniality never dissipates.) “Something Wicked This Way Comes” offers Horror and Terror abounding within its Dark Fantastic frame of Halloween and the larger canvas of malign supernatural powers.

This is the main reason I try to refrain from categorizing at all; categories are for librarians, frankly, and if you enjoy a book, simply enjoy it even if it's a Goth-Emo-Post Apocalyptic-Western-Love Story. (Which I'd probably truly enjoy reading…but I digress…)

Having said that, there are some books that defy any easy categorization. I applaud this; the danger in so defying becomes that these may slip through the cracks of your local bookseller's neatly ordered shelves and disappear without finding their audience. Stories that may seem supernatural in nature, but are subtle, suggesting magic is around without spelling it out completely. The setting seems realistic, but the details are wrong, heightened, intensified and colored with a palate of unusual hues. Miracles seem close at hand, and powers beyond the natural plane of existence seem to be at play.

Much of Ray Bradbury's 'realistic' stories contain these elements, particularly “Dandelion Wine”. John Nichols's “The Milagro Beanfield War”, both book and movie, are steeped in this, as is Bernard Malamaud's “The Natural”. The films of Fellini and Antonioni drip with this sense of unbalance, as does the work of Terry Gilliam at his most grounded (such as THE FISHER KING). One phrase attached to this style is Magic Realism; it is most often associated with the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as in “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera”.

In these tales, as fantastic as they become, the forces of Good are equally as strong as any force of Evil encountered; they may toy with humanity and can be frustratingly unhelpful, but they exist, and they keep the world from falling into chaos and spiraling into despair. Love is as strong as Death, and if it cannot conquer it, it can bring it to its own terms. Optimism is powerful, and grace is rewarded even if there is some suffering or corruption along the way. And the message is: this is an Age of Wonder. This is a Time of Greatness. Look around, continue to strive forward even if your heart is heavy, and be amazed and gratified.

Or, put more simply, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “Magic is alive; God is afoot. God is alive; magic is afoot.”

One such novel is Mark Helprin's “Winter's Tale”, recently made into a film by screenwriter/director Akiva Goldman. The book was released to almost universal critical acclaim (but was quite polarizing to individual readers; we'll discuss that in a moment) while the film was released to almost unanimous disdain, leading it to be labeled the first genuine film failure of 2014. As I mentioned on my MENU Page, I don't think the movie was quite that bad, but I do consider it a failure, and I want to discuss both for a bit, the better to quantify what this White Magic Realism is, and how difficult it is to pull off successfully.



“Winter's Tale” takes place in New York City , but a New York that has never actually existed. There are genuine details of New York : newspapers, slums, taverns, street gangs, beggars, police, thieves showgirls and millionaires. But the citizens exist in a city cut off from the rest of the world: a great white cloud wall keeps anyone from leaving or visitors from entering, except on those rare occasions when it lifts enough to let in a train or two.

Outside in the marshes of neighboring New Jersey are bands of fisherman that live a savage existence and govern themselves by a code equal parts myth and ecology. The criminal element is a lower class hierarchy that inhabits the catacombs, tunnels, towers and bridges entwining and surrounding the city, almost as a Gothic kingdom. North of the city is another land, cut off from civilization, where the hill and mountain people exist with their own sense of community and magic. And the follow the paths of several characters that make their way through this landscape that encompasses all of space and time: people are known to die and then reappear after having traveled into another lifetime.

I haven't mentioned a plot, for a valid reason; there really isn't one. The narrative leaps from one situation and character to another over years and millennia, sometimes seeming very arbitrary. In this manner it's like the best work of Dickens, with his tales of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Pip. The story is an accounting of a life, from humble (or not-so-humble) beginnings to a conclusion of sorts, meandering about wherever the author wishes to take it. This is one of the biggest criticisms leveled against it from its detractors: that the novel doesn't really add up to anything other than a series of interconnected situations. It doesn't draw to a logical conclusion, but simply ends, and there's no payoff.

Others, myself included, are pulled along by the wonderful writing of Mr. Helprin; his use of poetry, metaphor and imagery. Yes, the book meanders, but to us getting there is all the fun; we relish and cherish the journey, and the way it introduces us to characters that we'll remember for a long time with great affection. In that way it's much like life itself. It shares, for me, a lot of similarities with other meandering novels recording an individual's life experiences, such as the previously mentioned “David Copperfield”, “The Life & Times Of Nicholas Nickleby”, and “How Green Was My Valley”. In each one of these there's no real single plotline; we follow along on the drama and memories of the main character. “Winter's Tale” has no main character to follow because New York is itself the main character, filled with warmth surprises…and magic to spare.

If I had to choose another similar experience, “Winter's Tale” is probably closest to the television series BEAUTY & THE BEAST. (The 1980s version, not the awful series reboot currently on the air.) That show, for those who aren't familiar, featured an underground civilization of the lost and lonely; the homeless street denizens found a sanctuary in the subway tunnels and cellars of New York , which was presented as a gleaming, glittering jeweled city. Their benefactor and protector was a lion-featured creature with the gentle voice and soul of a poet warrior, who was himself in love with a wealthy, compassionate woman from above in the city, fighting wrongs as an assistant District Attorney. It was a fine show, with much of its Fantasy delineated by Creative Consultant George R. R. Martin, the award-winning author currently represented on TV by his successful GAME OF THRONES series inspired by his novels.



Where BEAUTY & THE BEAST differs slightly from “Winter's Tale” is that the Fantasy in the television show was very overt: the population of the underground world dressed in medieval/steampunk-styled garb; there were sorcerers and phantoms, underground lakes and ships encased in rock filled with treasure, guilds of assassins and secret society. “Winter's Tale”; through it's poetic evocation of another time (the story begins in the 1900s) seems more grounded in what we'd refer to as 'reality', although it's no more real the the New York presented in the TV series. The fantastic elements blend with the mundane seamlessly, so much so that the characters in the tale don't consider or recognize the fantastic as terribly unique or unusual; one of the best-known devices of Magic Realism.

Yet the film version opts to place the story in a completely realistic setting, so that all the supernatural elements are telegraphed, and the inhabitants of New York are constantly brought up by the strange and unusual occurrences that are happening around them. This is a major departure from the book, and it ultimate denigrates what was so wonderfully amazing in the text, sublimating the greater themes and images. I don't know if Magic Realism is beyond the talents or discernment of Mr. Goldman, but he clearly didn't understand what he was working with in this instance.

Because of this we're given a very bumpy ride into a sort of modern-day Fairy Tale (note the spelling; it's deliberate) where magical things happen only to certain people, instead of all of humanity being immersed in the miraculous in their everyday lives. It shortchanges the story, taking down paths that have nothing to do with the book. This approach jettisons much of the narrative, and to compensate. Mr. Goldman must add elements that have absolutely nothing to do with the novel, introducing well-worn devices of angels and demons existing in the mortal world, and bringing in Wil Smith as the devil, a character that never appears in Mr. Helprin's work.

It focuses on the love story between Peter Lake , foundling, criminal and mechanical savant, with Beverly Penn, a lovely heiress doomed to die of consumption, who as a child proposed mathematical equations that set the universe in motion. Not an unreasonable decision; the love story does take up a good deal of the book. The problem is that in jettisoning much of the other elements of the story (the savage tribe in the New Jersey marshlands becomes a lone Native American, which negates the war between the street gangs and the tribe, which negates the motivation for criminal king Pearly Soames to want Peter Lake dead, etc., and so it goes), Mr. Goldman must create new backstories and motivation for the characters, and quite frankly he's not up to the task.

He settles back into the standard forces of Good opposing the forces of Evil in a struggle for domination, which creates a sense of conflict and menace not prevalent in the novel (where the forces of Good are so strong that we little doubt their ability to right all the might befall the innocent, no matter how tragic it initially appears) and builds towards a confrontation al climax that is pure Hollywood, not the design of Mr. Helprin. It's warmed over sketches that we've seen already in WINGS OF DESIRE and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and HIGHLANDER and other similar explorations.



I do understand that no film can be completely line-for-line faithful to the source material; nor should it be, since the writer is working in two very different mediums. There has to be a streamlining of the plot, a condensing of action and characters, to have the movie stand on its own as a work of Art. Yet, the writer must remain absolutely faithful to the intent of the original work, or the efforts are usually a lost cause.

Some basic examples: William Goldman adapted Stephen King's novel “Misery” into a superb film. The novel is basically a two-character piece, and takes place entirely in the home of Annie Wilkes. To open the piece up visually and take it outside the house, and to provide a means for expository information, Mr. Goldman took a very minor character in the novel – a policeman investigating the disappearance of author Paul Sheldon, who literally appears towards the end of the novel just to be immediately killed – and expanded his character so that one, the exposition could be given neatly in an interesting manner and two, his death towards the end of the film has a greater shock and impact. The film remains completely faithful to Mr. King's themes and intent.

The movie JAWS differs in many ways from the book; several subplots were excised in the streamlining process. In the novel Mrs. Brody has an affair with Hooper, the marine biologist; it's gone from the film. There was a subplot of the mayor being involved with organized crime, which wanted the revenue from the open beaches. That was removed, and the mayor became simply short-sighted about the threat. Sheriff Brody and Hooper hated each other; in the movie they become fast friends. Fisherman Quint has a slightly different backstory to explain his actions; Sheriff Brody has a completely different history. Finally, the character of Hooper is changed from an unlikable individual to the charming character played by Richard Dreyfuss. It can be argued that the book was changed radically when translated to film.

And yet, the themes of the book – a town at the mercy of a brutal twist of fate, and man battling a force of nature awesome in its power – remains intact. All of the major set pieces are in the film: the attack of the young girl at night, the death of the small boy, the attempted cover-up and the pressure on the Sheriff to keep the beaches open, the discovery of the dead fisherman's craft (much more visceral in the film), the final appearance of the shark on the Fourth of July, the three men locked in a struggle of finding the shark, then battling it at sea, the final confrontation between Hooper and the shark underwater (in the original script, as in the novel, Hooper was to die, leaving Brody as the sole survivor, but due to a filming mishap while documenting genuine Great Whites, they were not able to get a dummy into Hooper's shark cage to be ravaged by the shark, so it was decided, through filmic sleight-of-hand, that Hooper would escape the cage and survive), the sinking of the Orca and the death of Quint are all on the screen. I think the streamlining did a service to the story, focusing it more and making the film more powerful than the book.

One final example from outside the genre. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is a celebrated novel by John Le Carre, as intricate and mesmerizing as “Winter's Tale”, concerning a “mole” (a deeply established double agent) in the British Intelligence Agency. It had been previously made as a six-hour miniseries for television, and was greatly hailed by all. The film released two years ago was also almost universally acclaimed, and was half the length of the miniseries. Obviously some streamlining of the plot took place, subplots and characters were condensed, and the entire production was imbued with a nice, jarring visceral feel, both visually and in the narrative. Yet the themes – betrayal, trust, duty, a politics of espionage and their consequences – were strictly adhered to, and the drama was carried by the fine performances of all involved (led by Gary Oldman, superb as master spy George Smiley) and the attention to period detail in recreating the Cold War period of the 1970s. No one who was a fan of the novel felt cheated at what was discarded (at least to my knowledge; I certainly didn't), and admired the effort.

Of course, “Winter's Tale” requires some streamlining, having a myriad of different characters and stories throughout its pages. But the job of the screenwriting is picking the correct stories, choosing wisely what can be kept and discarded, and tossing out only that which won't carry the weight of the tale. Any changes made must reflect a desire to be true to the original intent of the author. By ignoring the Magic Realism of the story and focusing on the Fantasy elements, Mr. Goldman is forced to create material that has nothing to do with Mr. Helprin's vision of New York as a living entity enfolding, nurturing, challenging and inspiring its inhabitants. He relies on special effects to create the magic, rather than just letting the magic speak for itself. (Indeed, the scenes that work the best in the film are the few, the very few, that are taken from the book almost verbatim.)

It is possible to work entirely through suggestion to create wonder from the ordinary. I've mentioned the filmed versions of both THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR and THE NATURAL. In MILAGRO, angels dance through the town of Milagro at dusk and dawn, dressed in sombreros and ponchos of Old Mexico, forces carry pirated protest fliers into the air from their attempted burning on a trash heap and distribute them, dropping them over the town, and a bounty hunter just may be a demon in human form. No special effects were required; the events proceeded from the wonderful cinematography and ensemble performances. In THE NATURAL the primal forces are stressed by slow-motion photography, the stirring Copelandesque score of Randy Newman, and the detailed recreation of the Golden Age of the Great American Pastime (emphasis on American, the movie literally glowed with loving remembrances of small town, bustling cities, corruption and chaos of a bygone era).

Magic Realism is also prevalent in John Boorman's film of James Dickey's novel DELIVERENCE. The woods and rivers where the men from the city come to spend a weekend combating and taming nature become supernatural lands, haunted by monsters as real as any that crawled from a sulfur pit in Mordor, even though they wear human faces. The city dwellers become as committed and devoted as the most feverent ragged barbarian wanderers in a Conan saga, and the landscape is alive with the mystical forces of death, doom and despair, testing them as in any medieval quest. All of this again simply through gorgeous photography and sound and powerful performances by all.

WINTER'S TALE, the film, could have had a similar fate. Perhaps it needed a director confident in simply letting the images work their wonder, as Boorman or perhaps Kubrick would. Perhaps it needed someone like Mr. Goldman who understands subtext and suggestion (and those who've read his short film script DI VINCI in his nonfiction tome “Adventures In The Screen Trade” will understand that Mr. Goldman understands magic realism very well).

It's a great shame; moments and images in the film are indeed inspired, when the words and performances speak simply. The casting of Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and William Hurt is inspiring in their selected roles, and each would have been so superlative that one wishes they could have played the characters as Mr. Helprin had written them. Jessica Brown Findlay is lovely enough, but she lacks the otherworldly dying beauty, wisdom and wit of Beverly Penn, although one can't tell if this is the fault of her performance or how Mr. Goldman directed and wrote the part for her.

So what is left is an expensive, special effects laden but magically barren movie that looks handsome enough at first but is essentially hollow, and not terribly memorable. The critics who dismissed it harshly referred to it in many reviews as a second-rate Fairy Tale, and upon consideration I find that not too far from the mark.



I want to touch briefly, very briefly, on one more book I've mentioned above in the realm of White Magic: John Crowley's “Little Big”. Like “Winter's Tale”, it's a large, sprawling book that takes place over generations. Unlike Mr. Helprin's novel, “Little Big” is squarely at the forefront with its Fantasy, concerning a family that has interactions with the world of Faerie. A mortl falls in love with the oldest daughter, journey's to their mysterious home (shaped from above like a pentagram, with no two walls made of the same material) and marries into a clan that includes a grandfather in the form of a mystic trout. It's charming, sad, phantasmagorical and wondrous. The late Thomas Disch, a firm critic of the Dark Fantastic genre, called “Little Big”, "the best fantasy novel ever. Period.” 

Again, I don't want to go into detail about the novel; the surprises should be yours to discover. I will place it side by side with “Winter's Tale”, as many readers have, as a novel where the idea of a universe not indifferent to the individual, but nourishing, enlightening and sustaining in ways humanity can't imagine; a universe in perfect working order and benevolent, unlike many other tales of the Fantastic, from the Dark Tower series through Mr. Howard's Conan books to current television series such as THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS and LOST GIRL. (And I would also place Madeline L' Engle's “A Wrinkle In Time” and its companion volumes on the same shelf.)

Magic Realism, the kind practiced by the finest authors from Bradbury to Borges, is not easy to achieve, But when it works well, and “Winter's Tale” works very well indeed, it offers pleasures that stay with the reader long after he's finished the final page and closed the volume. The wonder stays with you, remembered fondly, with a hope and optimism missing from darker tales.

And though I deeply enjoy a good, frightful tale, in these instances I defer to Mr. Cohen. Magic is alive, indeed…

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

FEBRUARY 2014

 

Oh, for the love of…not again.

A wise individual once created a brilliant and thoughtful quote, a famous one, which goes, “A good definition of insanity is repeating the same act over and over again and expecting different results.” I think, in my less charitable moments, that this can also serve as a fine definition of stupidity.

“LightSpeed Magazine”, an online periodical of Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction (and my featured website this month on my LINKS Page) is producing a special issue for their June Anniversary Issue. It's titled (with tongue firmly in cheek) “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” It will be produced, edited and storied completely by works created by women. And it came about as a reaction (of which I've been blissfully unaware, until now) among certain members of the SF fandom community – all male – that women can't write ‘real' Science Fiction, and those that try are bringing down the quality of the literature and ruining it for all.

Really?

Really?!?

(There's an expression used online by my young human companions called a ‘facepalm'; that moment of pure exasperation when you simply say nothing, but cover your eyes in sheer annoyance and resignation. I offer that simply for your visual aide.)

I'm sitting at my computer keyboard, typing, putting these words down for your edification. I'm not moving from this spot. I'm not getting up and going to my copious bookshelves and searching reference books, and (you'll have to take my word on this) I'm not going to Goggle and looking anything up. I'm simply sitting here typing.

Sitting here, typing, simply letting my mind wander, without any additional aid, the following names of prominent Science Fiction authors come to mind:

Ursula K. Le Guin

Madeline L' Engle

Joanna Russ

Vonda McIntyre

Anne McCaffrey

Lee Hoffman

Tanith Lee

Andre Norton

Alice Sheldon (real name of James Tiptree Jr.)

Mary Shelly

Ann Crispin

Connie Willis

Nancy Kress

Miriam Allen deFord

Margaret Armen

D. C. Fontana

(I will be completely candid with you; once I typed those names I did run them online to make certain I'd spelled them correctly, but I did no preparation beforehand.)

Without any extra effort, I was able to come up with these names; they simply came to me. These are not obscure authors; these are award-winning individuals who've made a name for themselves in the genre, often expanding and shaking its foundations and taking it in different directions. Each one has contributed at least one groundbreaking work of fiction (most several) to the genre. All of them stand head to shoulder with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Heinlein, Pohl, Niven and other giants in the SF community. One of them, Ms. Shelly, can be argued to have created the genre with her novel “Frankenstein”.

It wasn't hard in the least to come up with these names. If I were to do some serious research and jog my memory further, I know I could at least double this list.

A few words about the last two names on the list. They are probably not familiar to readers of Science Fiction prose, but should be very familiar to SF fans of the visual media. Both of them were writers for the original STAR TREK television series.

Margaret Armen was one of the early pioneers of women in television, one of the most successful female writers in the history of the medium; contributing scripts to literally hundreds of shows in a wide variety of genres, from Detective dramas to Westerns. Gene Roddenberry, in fact, chose her from her Western credits (as he did with many of his fellow television writers, believing that writing a Western was analogous to writing SF in that both were concerned with human drama in a different period setting).

For STAR TREK she contributing several shows, her most famous probably being “The Gamesters Of Triskelon” (which is, ironically, my least favorite of her stories as it is rife with weary SF clichés of slavery, gladiatorial combat for the amusement of an alien race, and the hoary teaching of the word “love” to a beautiful but childlike alien female). I believe her best work were her contributions to the animated STAR TREK revival: “The Lorelei Signal” (in which al alien transmission overpowers the men on boar the Enterprise, and Lieutenant Uhura and Nurse Chapel must take command of the ship along with the rest of the women to overcome the enemy; an ironic tale considering the subject of this essay) and “The Ambergris Element” (one of my personal favorites; in which Kirk and Spock are turned into water-breathers by an undersea society; in additional to a well-told, suspenseful tale it says some lovely things about generational conflicts and tensions.)

Dorothy (D. C.) Fontana began her writing career as Gene Roddenberry's assistant; her first script impressed him so that he made her story editor of the series and creative consultant. One of the strongest and most influential voices of the show, her writing defined much of what's become iconic about the series. I truly believe that hers is a most underrated and underappreciated talent. To wit:

When he started work on the series, Mr. Roddenberry insisted on bringing in actual Science Fiction authors to try their hands at some scripts in order to ensure the pedigree of the series. Many responded, and were responsible for some of the finest episodes, such as:

Harlan Ellison ("I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream", "A Boy & His Dog", and "The Deathbird") and his award-winning “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, universally agreed to be the single best episode of the show.

Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”, THE TWILIGHT ZONE) with “The Enemy Within”.

Theodore Sturgeon (“More Than Human” and “Some of Your Blood”) with “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time”.

Jerome Bixby (“It's A Good Life”) with “Mirror, Mirror”.

George Clayton Johnson (“ Logan 's Run”, THE TWILIGHT ZONE) with “The Man Trap”.

Norman Spinrad (“Bug Jack Baron”) with “The Doomsday Machine”.

Jerry Sohl (“Night Slaves”) THE TWILIGHT ZONE) with “The Corbomite Maneuver”.

Robert Bloch (“Psycho”, ASYLUM) with “Wolf In The Fold” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”.

Surely you see the pattern. Several of the finest names in SF and Fantasy contributed some of the best episodes of the series – single episodes. Many wrote only one; some wrote two; Mr. Bloch wrote three but I don't consider his third attempt his best work.

Here are the scripts written by D. C. Fontana:

“Charlie X”

“This Side Of Paradise ”

“Tomorrow Is Yesterday”

“Journey To Babel ”

“The Enterprise Incident”

“Yesteryear”
(from the animated series)

I think you understand what I'm getting at; while the larger names in Science Fiction wrote one or two classic episodes, Ms. Fontana wrote six. (She wrote others as well, but these six are considered the series' best. Some of her other work remain fan favorites, including “By Any Other Name”, one of my own personal best, and “The Ultimate Computer”.)

In addition to her work on the original series, she wrote the two-hour premiere episode “Encounter At Farpoint” that began STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. She was nominated for the Hugo Award, the highest honor the Science Fiction field bestows, for that episode, and won an Emmy Award for her teleplay for “Yesteryear”, the only STAR TREK episode to win such an honor.

As you can also see above, she was responsible for much of the development of the character of Mr. Spock, detailing his background over several episodes. In “Journey To Babel” we were introduced to his parents; “This Side Of Paradise” revealed his human nature and spoke of his past loneliness; in “The Enterprise Incident” we explored his involvement with the Romulan Commander and learned much of their society, and in “Yesteryear” we traveled back in time to Spock's childhood and learned of his early days. I believe it not a stretch to say that without her we wouldn't have STAR TREK, at least not as it is; its inarguable that without her influence Science Fiction wouldn't have the character of Spock as he appears. (A fact acknowledged by Leonard Nimoy himself.)

Women are destroying Science Fiction? We should be so lucky.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Where does such nonsense come from?

From men, of course. I rarely hear women weigh in on conversations with, “You know, I enjoy Science Fiction and Horror, but I don't think I'd be able to write or create any of it. After all, I'm just a girl.” And although I'm sensitive to the fact that many men believe they are unjustly blamed for much of what is wrong with society and in the world today…well, when the shoe fits…

So, men. Or rather, boys. Boys perhaps grown up and wearing larger clothes but still with the adolescent sensibilities of a playground full of kindergarteners. “This is our swingset! No girls allowed!”

In society as a whole, men pretty much dominate the landscape, in business, politics and other social engagements. The SF and Horror communities, microcosms of the larger world, reflect the imbalance, but there's more at work in this subsect. It's probably unfair to generalize, but much of SF and Fantasy is a form of wish-fulfillment; entertaining and escapist literature that postulates new and exotic environments that will appeal to a younger audience.

Young men, in particular, can imagine themselves as strong, sword-wielding adventurers in ancient lands, or brave explorers at the helm of a massive interplanetary ship, exploring the galaxy. These archetypes are present in much of the juvenilia of SF; most will progress onto more adult themes and stories as they grow older.

But some remain locked into these paradigms, either by nostalgia or a creeping sense of inferiority. Life can be much more complicated than in a good novel, and some find comfort in holding onto art that reinforces the reader's perceptions rather than challenging them.

(This, of course, isn't always the case; the best of the literature for young readers, such as Robert Heinlein's efforts, are rife with uncomfortable ethical and moral dilemmas. In this instance SF becomes a teaching tool to prepare the reader for the difficulties in the so-called ‘real world'. But sadly, many more take the easy route and settle for a good slam-bang adventure with characters delineated in black & white and problems neatly tied up and solved by the final page.)

There's a large crossover in SF with the gaming and comic book community, and here again we see male dominance at work. Most game systems are marketed and written towards the male audience, featuring bloody, graphic combat, violent confrontation, and criminal and nihilistic activity. Women, where they exist in this world, are often ornamentation at their best, victims at their worst.

And although women are slowly becoming a major commercial force in gaming, most companies still will not tailor their products to this new demographic, preferring to stay with the tried and true with an occasional bone thrown of a ‘strong' female character, often half-dressed and frequently abused emotionally and sexually.

(A caveat here: I do not play computer games; all information above is made strictly by observation. I have no intention of immersing myself in game culture, but I think the remarks are accurate from evidence of marketing on television and in magazines, and reviews and commentary from the gaming community itself. Make of all this what you will, and react accordingly.)

The comic community suffers from the same tunnelvision. Most if not all of the artists and writers are male; most if not all of the main characters are power fantasies concocted by male creators to appeal to the tastes of adolescent males, much of their previous audience. (Although, as with computer games, that audience is changing, and women are becoming more and more involved and interested in comics and graphic novels. Yet again, the industry chooses to ignore this possibly booming new audience.)

Female characters are sexualized and subservient; terrible acts of violence are committed on them (the most infamous being the “women in refrigerator” trope; you can learn about that online if you choose), relegated to supporting character status and written out of stories and series. All of this is done in the name of economics and “giving the customers what they want”, but the circular logic indicates that because they don't pay attention to their female fanbase, that base dwindles, which causes the creators to ignore the female characters further, and on and on…

Is it any wonder that such individuals find it uncomfortable and threatening when confronted with “When It Changed” or “The Left Hand Of Darkness”, after a steady diet of this insular worldview? Confronted by an entirely different worldview, a possibly richer and more vital one, at the hands of a female author, most retreat into the comfort of the familiar, and defensively resist any attempts to broaden their horizons. And to justify this stance, the cry arises from the disenfranchised masses: “Women don't understand Science Fiction! They certainly can't write it as well as men can! Whatever they're doing isn't real Science Fiction; they're ruining that! Only these feminist-minded, politically-correct dupes enjoy this new stuff!”

Perhaps I'm being unfair in postulating that those particular fans don't have the emotional maturity and social deftness to appreciate the emotional and thematic richness of female authors of SF.

Perhaps I tar with too large a brush…much like… oh, say, those critics who contend that women are destroying Science Fiction.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


It's just as bad in the Horror and Dark Fantastic genre. Worse, perhaps. Most notably in the media arts.

Log onto any Horror chatboard, discuss the lack of female directors, writers, and producers of Horror films, and they'll come out of the woodwork, proclaiming that women simply don't have the sensibilities to really explore intense, visceral Horror; that women haven't really contributed to the genre; that for all the politically-correct (that horrid, dread phrase again) celebration of the Soska sisters, no woman can rank beside the beloved names of Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, and the new cadre of Green, Roth, Aja, Zombie and Marshall. (Ignoring, as always, that men make most of the decisions of distributing and financing in the motion picture industry.)

These individuals will often hold up for admiration the Scream Queen or the Final Girl, but these, to me, seem to again fit in with the treatment of women in the gaming and comic culture. Women are fine “in their place”; as decoration, preferably half-naked, with any strength of character tied in exclusively with their sexuality. And while many of these are fine actresses in their own right and quite talented individuals (and some good companions I've had the pleasure to share the stage with at various events), I believe none have been truly allowed to stretch themselves and their abilities except in the strict parameters set up by the male production entities.

As long as they do what they do, they're revered; once they try to step outside their milieu, or criticize the industry and its straightjacket restrictions, they're called troublemakers, ungrateful and far ruder appellations by these same male ‘fans' and bloggers.

Perhaps it's because I don't work in the visual medium, but choose to focus on the literary aspects of the Dark Fantastic; because I involve myself in personal appearances and live shows where some of this bigotry has been successfully beaten down, I simply shake my head at these attitudes. Perhaps because I've always valued and treasured the talents of the female authors, artists, actors and personalities whose circles I've had the pleasure to wander in, I reject this “Boys Club” and “Second-Class Citizen” mentality. Because my own Patient Creatures have had unique and valuable associates such as the beloved Haggatha, my apprentice Kuzibah, my delightful vampire (and universally-adored) comic Miss Scarlett, I can't think of anything more ridiculous than excluding individuals who could make our chosen genre richer and instill a deeper meaning.

And because so many of my young fans and friends are girls with their entire futures of imagination and wonder open before them, I denounce and strike back at any attempt to drop them neatly into labeled slots and padlock them with male governance.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Which brings us to Women In Horror Month (or WiHM, as it is commonly known).

Nothing brings the ravening fanboys (and yes, I use that loaded term deliberately) out from their basement lairs than the suggestion that women may deserve a little extra exposure and recognition. Snarl and filled with their own bravado and vinegar, they snarl about ‘preferred treatment', ‘quotas', ‘affirmative action'; they argue that no woman has created any work as important and vital to the genre as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN. (Ignoring conveniently that women haven't been allowed to create such work under the current system.) The decry the ‘feminizing' of the genre, and rail against often justifiable charges of misogyny, rape-culture apologia and sexualized, fetishized violence in many current Horror films. They want women to provide what they've always provided: blood and breasts, and don't want to hear about unfair advantages of male artists.

I ignore most of these rantings, and place them roughly in the same category as racists who complain and wonder aloud about why there's a Black Entertainment Television Network when there isn't a White Entertainment Television Network, conveniently forgetting about the masses of Caucasian faces staring out of the major network channels seven nights of the week. (And as an aside, I recommend a film that's not as good as it could have been, but is definitely thought-provoking: WHITE MAN'S BURDEN, starring John Travolta and Harry Belfonte. It gives a vivid picture of a world where race is a subconscious, fixed cultural trope that alienates without consideration by putting a simple reverse spin on our current racial makeup and society.)

In any case, someone will often angrily sound off in the comment sections, “Why do we need a month dedicated to just women? Women are everywhere in Horror! Look at Danielle Harris and Sheri Moon Zombie and Brinke Stevens and Linnea Quigley and Asia Argento and Cerina Vincent and Angela Bettis! Women are everywhere! Why single them out?! Huh?!?”

Well , for one very good reason, some people are seriously sharing the opinion that Women are destroying Science Fiction.

For another, writers and artists are creating graphic novels and films where women are sexually abused, tortured, humiliated, and occasionally stuffed inside refrigerators.

For a third, here is a list of Horror films in 2013, with the writers and directors listed beside them (for the sake of discussion, I'm limiting this to major releases, although a short perusal of the Internet will reveal that independent films suffer the same limitations):

CARRIE – Directed by Kimberly Pierce; Screenplay by Roberto Aquirre- Sacasa & Lawrence D. Cohen.

THE CONJURING – Directed by James Wan; Screenplay by Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes.

DARK SKIES – Directed & Screenplay by Scott Stewart.

EVIL DEAD – Directed by Fede Alvarez; Screenplay by Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues.

HATCHET III - Directed by BJ McDonnell; Screenplay by Adam Green.

A HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT PART 2 – Directed by Tom Elkins; Screenplay by David Coggeshall.

THE LAST EXORCISM PART II – Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly; Screenplay by Ed Gass-Donnelly and Damien Chazelle.

MAMA – Directed by Andres Muschietti; Screenplay by Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti & Neil Cross.

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D – Directed by John Luessenhop; Screenplay by Debra Sullivan, Adam Marcus & Kirsten Elms.

WARM BODIES – Directed & Screenplay by Jonathan Levine.

WORLD WAR Z – Directed by Mark Forster; Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof.

CURSE OF CHUCKY – Directed & Screenplay by Don Mancini.

Twelve releases, and only one with a woman at the helm; scripts fare a bit better with four women screenwriters (although two are a husband and wife team, and the ratio is still approximately 4:1). And for all its name recognition, CARRIE didn't get anything near the publicity of WORLD WAR Z, MAMA or THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. And if we were being honest, Ms. Pierce probably wouldn't have been directing CARRIE if her previous film BOYS DON'T CRY hadn't been an Oscar winner. (I myself saw no real reason to remake CARRIE; I think the original version with Sissy Spacek is still one of the best Stephen King adaptations.)

Very little divides the Horror community currently than the continual remaking of previous films. For some, it indicates a complete lack of imagination and courage in the Hollywood film community; for others it's simply updating past successes for contemporary audiences. But the reaction to the various remakes released in the past several years have almost universally been disparaging.

And not one of those was made by a woman; not NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and MY BLOODY VALENTINE and FRIGHT NIGHT and STRAW DOGS and HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE WICKER MAN et al. (Only one was written by a woman: Marti Noxon scripted the FRIGHT NIGHT remake; she had previously worked on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and should have known better.)


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Which women do I admire in the Dark Fantastic community? Which do I believe can stand head and shoulders alongside any man in the genre? It's a nonsensical question; talent and craft should be sexually irrelevant, just as it should be racially irrelevant. Talent is talent; it either exists or it doesn't, and it either creates vital, groundshattering Art with a capital A or it doesn't.

But for the sake of this discussion, sadly, it isn't irrelevant; small minds have made it so. So…who do I admire?

Izzy Lee, whose short LEGITAMITE has been hitting filmgoers right between the eyes by the impact of a two-by-four.

Jovanka Vuckovic, former editor of “Rue Morgue Magazine” and one of the most knowledgeable about the Dark Fantastic, whose THE CAPTURED BIRD short burns with more talent and imagination than many of the full-length features released today.

The Soska sisters, Jen & Sylvia, whose AMERICAN MARY is almost universally acknowledged as one of the best films in the past few years.

April Monique Burril, who along with husband JimmyO created CHAINSAW SALLY, who is quickly taking her place alongside Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, but with a dark and sardonic humor that many of their contemporaries lack.

Moving out of film, but not the visual media; Danielle Tunstall, whose striking, awful (in the best sense of that word) visions rival H. R. Giger's.

Bethalynne Bajema, whose mythic and phantasmagorical illustrations stand easily beside the giants Kelly Freas and Virgil Finlay.

Kristen Lawrence's music is truly evocative of the Halloween Season, between her Halloween Carols and her soundtrack to Edgar Allen Poe's “The Raven”. She could easily give Mr. Elfman a run for his money.

Journalists and bloggers Brittney-Jade Colangelo of “Day Of The Woman” and Heidi Honeycutt of “Planet Etheria” always provide thought-provoking analysis of the current Horror scene; their one weakness they share with their male counterparts being a tendency towards excessive snark (which seems to be a universal hazard in essay authorship today, unfortunately).

And the writers: Melanie Tem, P. D. Cacek (a personal friend and favorite) Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mary SanGiovanni, Kathe Koja, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates as contemporaries, Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, Edith Warton and Shirley Jackson as Masters. (or Mistresses, I suppose.)

Especially Ms. Jackson. Creator of some of the most disturbing and unnerving short tales in our field, including the classic “The Lottery”, which will still be read a century from now, along with Mr. Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado” and Mr. Lovecraft's “The Outsider” as an example of the Dark Fantastic's near perfect prose. And a novelist of rare talent, with “The Haunting Of hill House” and “We've Always Lived In The Castle”.

“The Haunting Of Hill House” remains the epitome in many ways of the finest example of what the Dark Fantastic genre can achieve. Acclaimed not only by the Horror community but by the mainstream critical establishment, no other tale of the Bad Place has approached it for its clear, concise writing, full, genuine characters and a creeping sense of terrible dread. Not Mr. King with “The Shining”, or Mr. Masterson with “Hell House”; not Mr. Barker or Mr. Ketchum or Mr. Campbell or Mr. Straub have touched it, and every one of these gentlemen will be the first to admit it to themselves and the public at large.

Which strikes me as once and for all putting to bed this ridiculous discussion; finally driving a stake through its heart and salting the earth after burial.

As I said above about Science Fiction, Ms. Jackson is one of “those women” who “can't write” or “don't understand” Horror? We should all be so fortunate.

And except for the fools too blind and tunnelvisioned to admit that there's nothing any man can accomplish in the genre that these women listed above can't equal or surpass, thankfully, we are.



For further information about Women In Horror Month, please click on the logo above.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER 2013 -
JANUARY 2014

 

For all my human companions who believe I carefully construct these essays from deep and penetrating thought in attempts to illuminate the genre of the Dark Fantastic with carefully reasoned arguments and deliberate incisiveness, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The truth is I make this up as I go along, as haphazardly as inhumanly possible.

Case in point: I had planned to write an essay about why people enjoy being frightened by books, television and filmed Horror, based upon a conversation I had some time ago. (Fear not; you'll be seeing this essay next month – unless something comes along to interrupt me, of course…)

However, a recent posting online by another human friend sparked some thoughts about ghosts and the December Season, and I want to reflect on this. I hope you won't find it too scattered and thoughtless; I dislike destroying this illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that some of you believe I possess…

Many of my human associates are fascinated by this “Internet” fad that has come along; they seem to spend a great deal of time thinking about and using it. Being somewhat of a Luddite spectre, I've learned to tolerate it, although I don't completely trust it – not yet, anyway. I am forced to use it, but in exchange I'm able to stay in touch with my myriad acquaintances, both human and otherwise, that exist a great distance from my crypt. I treasure all of you so very much, so I find this a fair trade.

This evening a man named Hugh was ruminating about that wonderful television series of several years ago, THE WEST WING, an extraordinary series; intelligent, thought-provoking, moving; written, directed and performed with the highest degrees of artistic endeavor. He was told not to watch an episode named “Two Cathedrals” by himself, as it was emotionally shattering. Others in the online conversation weighed in and agreed; it was a very powerful episode.

Being very bad with titles, I had to look up the synopsis for that segment to refresh my fading memory. (Another reason I'm grateful for this “Internet” phenomenon.) Yes, I remembered the episode well; it was one of my favorites, and one of its most compelling, an examination of guilt and loss that was emotionally wracking and heartbreaking.

It also happens to be a ghost story.



(For those who've not seen the episode and want to approach the drama fresh, the following paragraph contains some spoilers; you may want to skip down to the starred (**) paragraph following it.)

In this episode, President Bartlett is agonizing over his decision whether or not to run for re-election; in doing so he must decide whether to reveal to the nation that he is suffering from MS. There are several crises going on in the world at this time, but his attention is centered on the sudden, tragic death of his secretary and confident Mrs. Landingham, killed in an automobile accident (ironically the first car she's ever owned.) In an extraordinary scene taking place following her viewing, the President talks to God, alternating between chastising him and praying the Mass in Latin, all the while lighting cigarettes, taking one puff, then grinding them into the marble floor of the National Cathedral in contempt. (Never before have I seen such a raw display of grief, anger, and despair flowing so seamlessly together; Martin Sheen's performance was mesmerizing.) Returning to the Oval Office to make his decision, President Bartlett is confronted by the ghost of Mrs. Landingham, taking him to task for his self-pity and urging him to consider the greater good and the larger picture. (And the producers cannily refuse to state for certain whether her appearance there is genuinely spectral, a hallucination, or the physical manifestation of President Bartlett's thoughts.)

(**) Of course, THE WEST WING isn't the first so-called ‘mainstream' program to mine our field of the Dark Fantastic for dramatic purposes; as I've written elsewhere, the marvelous show COLD CASE always ended with the ghost of the murder victim returning to acknowledge justice being done. The past is also presented as a physical thing, omnipresent, haunting the individuals involved as surely as any phantom or spirit could do. (We discussed much of this in last month's essay, you'll recall.) There have been other series such as KUNG FU that have straddled the lines between genres.

What was unique about THE WEST WING was its matter-of-fact approach to the situation; it dealt with the fantastic in a low-key, naturalistic way, almost as Magic Realism. There was no crashing thunder or lightning to announce a supernatural presence, no gasps of surprise or terror. It simply was , and, not so incidentally, it amplified the drama, creating a mythic connection that the audience could easily identify with. Many have felt the presence of loved ones beside them in their grieving, and many have felt the influence of these presences in times of crisis.

I've no doubt that for many, this use of the Dark Fantastic hit home and made the drama far richer than it might have been had it not been introduced. I'm also quite convinced that many of those same devout fans of the program were not necessarily fans of the macabre, and might not consider a Horror film as their first choice for an evening's entertainment.

Yet they accepted this, just as many simply accept the ghost in “Hamlet” (also discussed last month) as he puts the tragic events of the Danish Kingdom into motion; one needn't believe or condone the existence of the supernatural world, but its intrusion into the natural and the everyday infuses the drama with additional textures that raise the stakes of the narrative into something magical, just as the opening scene of Stephen King's CARRIE presented the mundane as mythic, amping up an emotionally charged familiar situation to millions of women into megawattage by the use of a paranormal paradigm.

Perhaps the best-known modern practitioner of this was Rod Serling with his TWILIGHT ZONE. He (and fellow writer Richard Matheson, another great voice in the form) would have their stories take place in completely realistic, natural and identifiable settings. Even when those settings were not contemporary, taking place during the Civil War or in the Old West, or imaginary, such as taking place on a spaceship or another world, both of these gentlemen tried to keep the situations as realistic as possible, presenting flawed and fascinating individuals in realistic situations with usually one element of the impossible.

Almost none of their stories took place in Lovecraftian other dimensions or practiced hallucinatory, experimental style; they were most comfortable in what can be called ‘Urban Fantasy'; remove the one fantasy element, and both were writing contemporary drama. Which didn't make their efforts any less fantastic, but by keeping the situations grounded firmly in ‘reality', they could attract an audience that might not necessarily follow or be interested in the Dark Fantastic.

Among the topics touched upon in last month's essay about what makes a good ghostly tale was the distinction between a 'ghost story', such as (in my opinion) Shakespeare's “Hamlet”, and ‘a story with a ghost', such as “Julius Caesar”. The point was that simply putting a ghost into a tale doesn't always make it a ghost story; often the ghost can be symbolic, imaginary, or metaphoric. What I didn't mention was that both types of stories can be very effective in dealing with awe and wonder in the human condition.



One artist who dealt well with both types is the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Many of his films feature ghosts of one sort or another without being genuine ghost stories (FANNY & ALEXANDER comes to mind; while not a ghost story it does feature a ghost that makes its appearance, appropriately enough, on Christmas Eve), but he also excelled at films featuring the actual Uncanny (such as THE SEVENTH SEAL, where, while the setting is primarily realistic, Death is a major physical character).

Another author, this time an American, who works the same is Thornton Wilder. While his play “Our Town” is a naturalistic look a life in a small village during the early 1900s, the final act takes place in a graveyard, where the ghosts of the town's departed sit among the stones, reliving the past or watching loved ones continue on in life. Is this a ghost story, or a story that uses ghosts to make a point? (I have my opinion.) On the other hand, “The Skin Of Our Teeth” is fantastic and phantasmagorical throughout, dealing with Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the Great Flood, and Armageddon in just those terms. It's played for farce , satire and social commentary; does that make it any less Dark Fantastic than PAN'S LABRYNTH?

(There's actually no right answer – except for mine, of course – and that indicates the richness of our particular genre; we can argue intent and appraisal for hours at a time, exploring the stories and films that make up our field in a myriad of ways. You can argue among yourselves whether a certain film, say THE VIRGIN SPRING or WILD STRAWBERRIES is supposed to be supernatural in theme or simply in mood, and test the boundaries of our landscape – if indeed the genre has any boundaries.)

In this context, perhaps I spoke too soon; perhaps the episode of THE WEST WING is more story with ghost than ghost story. (Although I believe that the overall ambiance and many moments, among them the scene in the cathedral, push it into our terrain.) That doesn't mean its any less effective for it, it simply means that the intentions of the authors and creators were not squarely in our area of interest.

There's another term I would like to offer, in addition to Urban Fantasy, that defines a type of storytelling that breaches the fantastic while remaining in the ‘real' world: The Mystery Play. Not mysteries such as Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle; rather ‘mysteries' as defined by religious principles. They were a fashion of play, parables in nature, which were popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While taking place in the world of peasants, kings, knights and other contemporary figures, there was intercourse and interactions with angels, devils and other supernatural creatures and creations. They were presented matter-of-factly, not as intrusions into our world but as an extension of it.



Looking at them through a modern view, e can see elements of these tales in the works of C. S. Lewis (particularly “The Screwtape Letters”), Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Phillip K. Dick and other authors of mystic, mythic, surrealistic and experimental prose that deals in matters spiritual parable. Today we'd label these plays “Fantastique”, or Fantasy, but at the time they were simply ways to express religious and spiritual concepts to individuals who were illiterate, and couldn't read them for themselves. (The television series INSIGHT, which would often present eerie and otherworldly dramas with moral and spiritual overtones and could rival NIGHT GALLERY for unease, was a good modern presentation of the Mystery Play.)

The authors of the plays, lost now in antiquity, understood that using these archetypes allowed audiences to grasp concepts that defied definition in a concrete and easily identifiable manner, enabling them to make their points far more effectively. And because many of these concepts were concerning man's place in the universe, in the order of angels and heaven, and in moral society, the fantastic elements added an extra level of emotional power that drove the lessons home.

And this brings us around to the Season of Christmas.

I mentioned the term ‘catharsis' before. The strict definition is “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Many counselors and psychologists agree that one way to release repressive emotions is by a good laugh, a good cry…or a good scream. And as has often been discussed, the Christmas Season can be a time of tension and anxiety. Loved ones are far away from home, the economy makes gift giving an expensive proposition, family members who don't get along are thrust together, lonely individuals find their loneliness exacerbated by the festivities.

It's also a time of great spiritual discord; atheists decry the religious aspects of the holiday, while believers are disillusioned by the crass commercialism. The normal selfishness and casual cruelty of humanity is brought into sharper focus by the refrain of “peace on earth, good will to men,” and the troubles bedeviling the world, between nations, between ideologies, between the haves and the have-nots, bring to the surface doubts and frustration with the promises of the celebration.

Is there any wonder that some authors and filmmakers have decided to address these conflicting emotions with stories of a parabolic and mythic nature? The wonderful film version of THE POLAR EXPRESS used the story to address the myth of Santa versus the reality that some children never receive a visit from the seasonal saint, simply because their families are too poor to afford presents. What does this do to the individual, and what does it say about the larger community? And it's telling that in adapting the book into film an additional character was added, a ghost, who acts as a voiced of conscience and truth. (Does this make it a ghost story, or a story with a ghost? I have my own thoughts; you may delineate the boundary as you see fit.)



I've often defended the genre of Horror and the Dark Fantastic against the accusation that it promotes horror and misery. As I've said numerous times, by focusing on the terrifying and the ghastly, it actually brings hope and wonder into relief, and actually celebrates light. But it is also true that darkness is a large part of the Horror tale, and although I maintain we do not revel and wallow in it, darkness is a most important ingredient, for without it, it would not cut as deep into the myth pool as it does.

Many feel that darkness, and the emotions that accompany troubling thoughts, should be suppressed, pushed to the very bottom of our collective consciousness and left to fester unattended. The trouble with that, of course, is that when we least expect it, those feelings and emotions come bubbling to the surface. A sudden illness, a close brush with collision in an automobile, the news of a far-away natural disaster or a report of a child abducted, or the oppressive drumbeat and barely-contained chaos of a holiday, and our nightmares come clawing into the light, refusing to be mollified.

There are a multiple of facets to the human condition, and one of the oldest and most powerful is fear; it dates back to the earliest race memories of the most primitive of man's ancestors. Of all the emotions, only fear is universally shared. Many on this earth have never experienced love, or compassion, or hatred, or want, but everyone has been afraid. Yet the paradox is that often by confronting these fears, giving name to them, it diminishes them, however slightly. This is catharsis; clawing through the gloom to find the dawn.

Perhaps the most famous Christmas film, one rerun numerous times during this season, is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And not coincidentally, it's a ghost story, a morality tale, a parable, that uses the fantastic to comment on humanity and society.

What many remember about the film are the sentimental moments: Jimmy Stewart wooing Donna Reed outside her house, soaking wet from taking a dip in the high school swimming pool; coming home to a leaking, decrepit house for their honeymoon, or staring down the wicked financier Mr. Potter as he tries to buy George Bailey's father's business.

But…as sweet as those moments are, the film is also filled with a terrible darkness. Recall the druggist, half-crazed from the news of his son's death at war, almost poisoning a little girl with the wrong medicine, and brutally slapping young George when he points out the error. Listen to George, panicked and near hysteria, as he chastises Uncle Billy for losing the money. Watch the tight, manic expression on Jimmy Stewart's face as he runs from his mother's house, being told that she has no son named George and Billy is in an asylum; Mr. Stewart runs straight towards the camera into a huge close-up, and his eyes slowly take in a world gone mad around him, finally staring straight out into the audience. At that moment, we can safely say that, in addition to being haunted, George Bailey is a ghost of his former self.



It's these moments of darkness that make the film so compelling, for as bleak as they are, so much brighter will be the light of redemption when George Bailey has made it through that terrible night and returns to a world where he's made his mark.

Catharsis. We suffer with George Bailey, and breathe deeply his relief when the nightmare is over, and in return our nightmares are diminished, just a bit. We suffer with President Bartlett, and emerge with new direction. We suffer with the young boy in THE POLAR EXPRESS, and find our faith reborn. We suffer with Hamlet, and the path of redemption, revenge and tragedy are laid bare before us. We suffer with Ebenezer Scrooge, and emerge a new man.

Those who embrace the tales of the Dark Fantastic do not embrace the darkness; they face it and walk through it to embrace the light. The ghosts, like Hamlets father, offer direction, and those that take it emerge stronger, richer, with a burden, if not lifted, then shared and dispersed through the intervention of angels, spirits and spectres. The Play may be a Mystery; the results are not.

Christmas is a traditional time for ghosts; welcome them as good company in the journey through the bleak midwinter darkness. Come; sit and listen; huddle with them around the fire, and hear a tale told of parable and promise. That is the nature of the Holiday ; parable and promise.

A very hopeful and merry Christmas to one and all.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

OCTOBER- NOVEMBER 2013

 

What makes a ghost story?

Many storytelling festivals, including the Bay Area Storytelling Festival in Richmond, CA, the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN and our own local Storytelling By The Sea Festival in Trinidad have special programs dedicated to the telling of ghost stories; they're often some of the most popular events of each festival, as audiences seem to love a good, scary tale (something I could have easily told them if asked.)

But …not every storyteller is comfortable with telling ghostly tales. Some don't care for them or have no interest in them; some simply don't understand them. So in the past some of the tellers at Storytelling By The Sea have fallen back on stories such as, “This is what happened one day when I was lost at an amusement park; it was sooo scary…” In other words, personal reminiscence that contained fearful moments.

But these were not ghost stories, and audiences reacted with displeasure; they wanted genuine tales of spectral terror, haunted castles, and dreadful apparitions. Consequently, when I began hosting the “Mostly Ghostly” segment of the Festival Friday evenings, I was asked to write a series of guidelines for those participating, to make certain everyone knew what was expected.

This is what I wrote:

First and foremost, a ghost story must have a narrative; a beginning, middle and end. Some great and unnatural event must take place and be resolved, either happily or not.

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

A ghost story need not be scary; indeed, there are many famous ghost stories that are quite funny, as witness “The Canterville Ghost”, Jerome K. Jerome's “Told After Supper”, and the macabre humor of Edward Gorey. But again, the humor must arise out of the strange and unusual.

It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story, not simply a memory about fear.

This year, when I was invited back to perform at the 2013 Festival and again host “Mostly Ghostly”, I was asked to again write a short paragraph or two as a guideline for the other tellers. I never did, because I thought the performers this year were well-versed in what I wrote above.

But I did give it a great deal more thought.



What makes a good ghost story?

Ask somebody for the first item that would insure a successful ghostly tale, and many are certain to answer, “a ghost”. And that's a fine start; certainly if a tale has a ghost in it, it's a ghost story. How could it be not?

Well…

Let's look at a very famous writer of ghost stories and the Dark Fantastic. He worked some years ago, so we're not discussing Mr. King or Mr. Bradbury or Mr. Straub; we're going back further than Mr. Serling or Blackwood or Poe or Lovecraft. We're speaking of that wonderful ghost story author William Shakespeare.

Mr. Shakespeare wrote quite frequently of supernatural occurrences, both in his comedies (“A Midsummer Nights Dream”) and tragedies (“Macbeth”). One reason he used ghosts both literatl and metaphorical was that at that time, belief in the supernatural phenomenon was very common, and ghosts could be presented in a piece of writing without there being a terribly great need for suspension of disbelief. Ghosts were accepted and believed, as simply as that.

Let's look at three of his plays that feature ghosts: the aforementioned “Macbeth”, “Julius Caesar” (which many forget contains a spectre) and perhaps the most famous piece of literature to feature a ghost ever written, “Hamlet”. And let's ask ourselves whether these are actual ghost stories, using the criteria I've outlined above.

I don't think we'll have any quarrel about “Macbeth”; witches in a blasted heath prophesizing death and disaster, bloody accusing spectres at a banquet, murder and manipulation, and a shrieking madwomen walking the halls of her castle home with blood on her hands and her conscience.

I've often referred to “Macbeth” and Shakespeare's “The Shining”, and I believe that description wholeheartedly. It is a big, bloody, grand macabre work, terrible and terrifying; to quote the author, it is “supped full with horrors”, and truly a sublime landmark in the Dark Fantastic. Yes, “Macbeth” is most certainly an ideal example of a ghost story.

What of “Julius Caesar”? For most of the work it is a political parable of ambition, guilt and betrayal. Yet late in the play Brutus awakens in the middle of the night to find the ghost of Caesar standing in his room. (Hence the famous expression, “Great Caesar's Ghost!”, beloved by Perry White of “Superman”.) The spectre identifies himself as “thy evil spirit”, and foreshadows doom in the coming battle with the opposing armies.

Here is one of the great themes of the ghost story: guilt, and a foreshadowing of death. The ghost is almost the personification of Brutus's tormented conscience. So with these classic themes in play, obviously “Julius Caesar” is a ghost story, correct?

I would disagree. This one instance is the sole supernatural event in the play; indeed, it's suggested by Shakespeare that the encounter may be simply a nightmare. The rest of the play deals with real-world issues of power and corruption. No, I would place this work outside the realm of a ghost story; say instead that it's a story that contains a ghost, if only a symbolic one.

Now, what of “Hamlet”? This also is a play that takes place in the ‘natural' world, and concerns familial betrayal and corruption. Yet, from the very beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Others have seen him, so he is the genuine article haunting the battlements. When Hamlet finally encounters him it is after much discussion and foreshadowing, a wonderful build-up worthy of any modern tale of fear. And when the Father reveals the terrible crime of Hamlet's Uncle and Mother, the entire condition of all the participants is turned upside-down.

Inexorably blood leads to blood and madness, vengeance and rage. The tragedy is set in motion from the ghost's arrival, and cannot be deterred. In a very literal sense, the castle that Hamlet now inhabits is a haunted house, and the occupants the Living Dead. The fact that the haunting concerns a crime of the past is again in the classic tradition of “Ghost Story”, “The Shining”, “The Turn Of The Screw”, “Bluebeard”, “Hell House”, and other genre landmarks. "Hamlet" fits in quite comfortably, for the atmosphere is one of dread and foreboding, as befitting my second point:

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

I would argue that “Hamlet” is more than simply a ghost story; it is in many ways the quintessential ghost story, an could be comfortably condensed and told around any campfire to produce a sense of shivery, subdued horror. (And while the ghost is offstage for much of the proceedings – returning late in the play to chastise Hamlet for not focusing his vengeance on the one truly deserving, his Uncle – the ghost's presence is keenly felt throughout everything that occurs, much as Dracula hovers over the events of the novel while remaining offstage. It is a great effect, and Shakespeare pulls it off as skillfully as Mr. Stoker does.)

(And I want to point out that the two most famous moments of “Hamlet” concern ghostly doings; the famous “To be or not to be…” speech is rife with unease at what exactly awaits the soul after death: peace, or further nightmares from which none can awaken. And“Alas, poor Yorick…” treatises what is left behind in memory of those gone from this plane; it takes place, appropriately enough, in a graveyard.)



What make a good ghost story?

I think, if you'll look at my third point above, you'll agree that the term ghost story can be used very liberally. To wit:

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

I think we'll all agree that what we're really discussing here when we use the term ‘ghost story' is ‘horror story', ‘weird fiction', or ‘fantastique'. We call tales of Horror and the Dark Fantastic ‘ghost stories” as a kind of shorthand simply to categorize.

Yet within the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy, there is a quantitive difference between a 'horror story' and a 'ghost story'. As I stated above, It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story…

Let's play a game. Let's not look at literary works of fiction; let's take some classic contemporary Horror films and see if they pass the test for a good ghost story.

Obviously, such movies as THE HAUNTING, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE UNINVITED, THE INNOCENTS, THE SHINING, GHOST STORY, POLTERGEIST, THE CHANGELING, INSIDIOUS, THE SIXTH SENSE and others constitute the traditional definition of ghost stories; they take place in haunted houses and concern supernatural events. Let's move beyond these obvious ones and look at a few others.

Let's compare the classic George Romero films NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD. I would argue yes, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD qualifies as a ghost story; the tale begins in a graveyard with the stumbling corpse, moves to an isolated farmhouse, and takes place in one long twelve-hour period. Filmed in black & white, the atmosphere is thick with dread, violence and half-glimpsed phantoms. The movie harkens back to the classic Universal films in term of image, but the visceral impact is quite modern and jarring.

By contrast, DAWN OF THE DEAD takes place in a shopping mall, brightly lit and filled with chrome and plastic structures. There are larger set pieces and an expanded sense of narrative, encompassing the entire country, if not the world. The tone is also sharper, satirical and garish, not reflecting the classic mold that NIGHT still adheres to. While I consider the movie a landmark and a personal favorite, I wouldn't call this a ghost story; rather, it's a grand Horror tale spun on a very large canvas.

How about THE EXORCIST? The slow buildup in daylight, the terrors revealed one by one that something is terribly wrong, the drawing in of the outside participants, especially Father Karras, haunted by his own mother's passing, and growing isolation of the back bedroom as the horrible events progress, culminating in a thunder-filled struggle against an embodiment of evil that echoes the conclusion of THE INNOCENTS. Yes, I believe this fits neatly into the niche we've been discussing.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? As I stated above, like PSYCHO, a ghost story needn't have a supernatural element, and many authors have made use of the isolated backwoods of rural America to create an atmosphere of dread, which the film has in abundance. But I'm going to come down on the “no” side this time; like DAWN OF THE DEAD, this is a noisy, visceral film more garish than ghostly.

Since it's been mentioned twice, what about PSYCHO? I think yes, absolutely. The Bates Motel is a perfect old, dark house filled with a terrible past, and if any individual is haunted, it would be Norman Bates. Pity those who cross his doorstep…

While we're on the subject of Mr. Hitchcock, what of THE BIRDS? Hmmmm…very close. The town of Bodega Bay seems to possess secrets under its sunny façade, and the arrival of Melanie Daniels brings the tensions simmering to the surface. The birds become a supernatural force of nature as terrible as any avenging spirit, and the final claustrophobic stand inside the lonely, besieged farmhouse is affectively Gothic in nature.

I'd definitely consider Daphne du Maurier's novella a ghost story; the original story concentrated on the farm family living under the attacks. The film made some specific changes to the story, opening it up and adding characters. I'm on the fence with this one; I'll let you decide for yourselves.

While we're discussing atmosphere, I definitely consider the Universal Classics firmly in the ghost story tradition, from their sterling black & white photography to the thick, fog-filled ambience. FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN all fit comfortably on the shelf; the only one I wouldn't place there is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is much-more monster-centered.

Quickly now:

THE EVIL DEAD. No. Too frantic and frenetic, albeit stylish.

SAW. Perhaps you could argue the original; I wouldn't. Definitely not the sequels.

JAWS. No. See THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON above. A glorious Adventure/Horror/Monster film.

THE STRANGERS. Yes.

CAT PEOPLE. The original, yes. In fact, all the Val Lewton films fit comfortably.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Absolutely. A perfect campfire tale as well.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I think so. Mr. Kruger as the Boogeyman haunting the dreams of others; yes.

Speaking of the Boogeyman: HALLOWEEN. The original, yes.

FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH. Hmmmmm again…yes. But a poorly told one.

ANGEL HEART. Very much so.

SCREAM: Certainly, although not one of my favorites.

28 DAYS LATER. No. More along the lines of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

PAN'S LABRYNTH. One of the few modern films of the Dark Fantastic simply too large to fit into any category. I'd say no, although it's still a masterpiece.

These are ones that came to me with a little thought and a glance around the reference books on the shelves in my crypt. You are welcome to agree or disagree; your own lists may vary.



What makes a good ghost story?

Author Orson Scott Card ventured one working definition in a book review of ghostly tales; ironically, they were nor meant for Halloween, but for Christmas (which is not so unusual; after all, Christmas is the traditional time for ghostly tales, he repeats for what seems like the thousandth time) but the criteria remains:

“…(T)elling ghost stories as a natural thing to do on Christmas Eve wasn't part of my family's Christmas traditions. And I, for one, am sorry the custom has been lost. Because ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended. ” (Italics mine.)

Quite true. The theme of solving the mystery of the haunting is an old and well-worn path, explored by some of the finest authors: both Richard Matheson's “Hell House” and Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” concern psychic investigators trying to determine the veracity of their respective dwellings; Peter Straub's “Ghost Story” tells of a gathering of old men trying to come to terms with a terrible secret from the past; Steven King's “Bag of Bones” explores the same territory. The most famous of all ghostly tales, “The Turn of the Screw”, is almost the template for such a tale, and many agree it is the finest ever put to paper. (More on this in a moment.) Of my own tales, “The Ghost's Hand”, of a murdered woman haunting an estate, also follows in this vein; the local minister takes it upon himself to bring her murderer to justice and bring her peace from her nightly wanderings.

This isn't to say that all ghost stories have the happy endings of a haunting solved and a ghost freed from its torment; too many times, in fact, humanity meddling with supernatural affairs only seem to make things worse; consider again “The Haunting of Hill House”, where Eleanor Vance is drawn into a rapport with whatever inhabits the halls that she is called to remain behind with them when the others escape. “Hell House” claims a goodly body count before its spectres are exorcised, as do the creatures terrorizing Mr. Straub's Milburn, NY.

And even with lighter fare, as in Noel Coward's supernatural romantic triangle of “Blithe Spirit”, it doesn't pay to underestimate the possessive nature and determination of the Dead once their minds are made. Indeed, Hamlet himself goes against his spectral father's wishes, and the old man's spirit must attend his son again to make certain he remains focused on his task; still and all, in the end, Hamlet lies dead, along with the rest of his family, proving that undertaking the task of settling a restless soul may be hazardous to everyone's health.

The outcome of a ghostly tale sometimes falls into a third realm; that of the draw, where humanity and the spirit world come to a mutual cessation of tensions, learning to live comfortably on the fringes of each other's kingdoms. Perhaps the best example of this is THE SIXTH SENSE. Yes, Mr. Willis discovers a terrible secret affecting his life and his happiness, and young Mr. Osment is still troubled by the unsleeping Dead, but he has come to see beyond the fear generated by their presence, and actually becomes a champion for their own gladness.

The spirit world and that of man can co-exist peacefully, even benefiting the other. One of the finest ghostly tales is a short story titled “Dust Motes” by my human companion, award-winning author P. D. Cacek, featured in "The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection". A woman suffering from cancer discovers that, due to her illness and the close proximity of her own passing, she has the ability to see ghosts all around her. Conversing with a sympathetic spectre, she believes that she's been sent ot hear the final confessions of the spirits to help them move on into the next life. When her cancer begins to go into remission, her abilities begin to fade, and she frantically tries to counsel as many of the Dead as she can before she loses her talents completely.

My simple synopsis can't begin to approach the poignancy of this acclaimed story, one of the authors very best. I consider it the finest TWILIGHT ZONE episode never filmed. Even moreso, it examines the very thin divide between life and death, and the myriad levels in between. It's funny and heartbreaking, and very, very human, and perhaps that's the greatest accomplishment of ghost story: it gives a physicality to that which has none, and puts a human face on something beyond human understanding. In “Dust Motes”, the spirit world is filled with diversity, humor and regret – much like the world that precedes it.



What makes a good ghost story?

On Tuesday evening, as I write this, the Eureka branch of the Humboldt County Library began it's annual Halloween film series for October. This year they're doing a series of especially strong selections, all from England . They led off the weekly viewings with the classic movie THE INNOCENTS.

Based on “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, the story has been hailed as the greatest ghost story ever written. The film is absolutely faithful to the tale, and is a terrifying, exceptional production. It was directed by Jack Clayton, who had previously directed the Academy Award-nominee ROOM AT THE TOP; he would later go on to helm the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. The screenplay was written by William Archibald (from his play adaptation of the novella) and Truman Capote, and it starred actress Deborah Kerr in what she considered her best role.

I don't want to spoil too much of the story; part of the terror in both the film and the novella is how it slowly unfolds in an inexorable, unremitting line from light to darkness. If you haven't seen the movie or read the story, you might want to skip the rest of this essay and return to it after your viewing; I guarantee you it will be worth the wait; It's an extraordinary film, truly deserving of its classic status, and you won't regret seeking it out.

The story concerns a young governess, hired to care for two orphaned children by their emotionally distant uncle. The children, Miles and Flora, are precocious and worldly beyond their young years, charming and sweet, but unusually close, with whispered secrets. Slowly, the governess comes to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the dead former groundskeeper and his lover their former governess.

But are they? The governess, Miss Giddens, is a nervous, unsettled individual; the daughter of a minister who seems to possess a rich and dark imagination. It's suggested she's repressed, both emotionally and sexually, and her suspicions about the children may simply be her own neurosis.

That's the great strength of the tale; everything is underplayed and subtle; nothing is overt. Viewed one way the actions of the principals are completely innocent, as the film's title suggests. Viewed slightly askew, everything is sinister. Miles plays roughly with Miss Giddens and speaks almost flirtatiously, at one point kissing her directly on the lips. For her part Miss Giddens seems preoccupied with the uncle, and her own desires seem to emerge in her moaning, restless sleep. When she turns her attentions to the children's unnatural desires, she may simply be projecting her own.

Seen through this dark reflection, it doesn't really matter if the ghost are real or not; the house that these people live in is quite haunted, and the individuals carry their own ghosts within them, comprised of equal parts guilt, fear and shame. The groundskeeper and the former governess carried on a torrid and explicit affair (there is a marvelous line in both the novel and the film: “ Rooms , used by daylight as though they were dark woods.” ) that may have included the children. Miss Giddens concern is stiflingly self-righteous as well; in discussion her plans for exorcism, she explains, “My father taught me to love people and to help them; help them even if they refuse my help, even if it hurt them sometimes.” In many ways she's as damaged as the children she is trying to save.

Stephen King, when asked about his book “The Shining” as to whether the ghosts are real or a product of Jack Torrance's madness, replied, “People ask if the book is a ghost story or is it just in the guy's mind. Of course it's a ghost story, because Jack Torrance himself is a haunted house. He's haunted by his father…”

This applies equally and perfectly to THE INNOCENTS, and “The Turn of the Screw”. Seen in that light, the question of whether the spectres truly exist becomes moot.



What makes a good ghost story?

The knowledge that humanity is its own ghost story; that the billions of people walking the earth are haunted houses simply because each contains a ghost waiting to emerge; that everyone has a past they carry with them ever-present that shapes their futures; that guilt and pain can do as much damage as any marauding revenant.

Hamlet, the lead character in the quintessential ghostly tale, phrases it better than I ever could: “ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And in his “A Winter's Tale”, the tale in question is revealed: "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins."

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story": begins with a quote from R, D. Jameson: “Ghosts are always hungry.” And the book's opening is iconic:

“What was the worst thing you've ever done?

I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”

All this, and more, makes a ghost story.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

September 2013

 

There's a movie scheduled to be released in November that's stirring no small amount of anticipation and controversy. It suggests larger issues of censorship and whether an artist should be held responsible for more than simply his art.

In 1985 Orson Scott Card wrote “Ender's Game”; it became an immediate sensation, birthed four novel-length sequels and is considered by many a modern classic of Science Fiction. It concerns a young boy, Ender Wiggins, who at the age of six is discovered to have an uncommon talent for strategy. Humanity is as war with an alien culture, and children are being trained at a very young age in Battle School in an effort to develop superior tactical knowledge to lead what is planned to be a final assault.

Both “Ender's Game” and its follow-up “Speaker For The Dead” won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for excellence in SF. In addition to his fiction, Mr. Card has also written book reviews for “The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction”, as well as political commentary for other publications. And it is this last that has immersed him in the controversy he finds himself today.

Mr. Card is a practicing Mormon, and is such his political and social outlook is more conservative, befitting his faith. He has made some disparaging remarks about liberal politics during the last two presidential elections, including a 2013 essay depicting President Obama as a “Hitler-or-Stalin-style dictator” with his own private police force of “young, out-of-work urban men” and working to change the Constitution. Many perceived of this essay, which Mr. Card called “an experiment in fictional writing”, as racist.

But it is his opinions on Gay Rights that have caused the largest firestorms. As a board member of National Organization For Marriage, he has worked to prohibit the passage of marriage-equality legislation in the United States . He's written that , "many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse”; and said "If the Constitution is defined in such a way as to destroy the privileged position of marriage, it is that insane Constitution, not marriage, that will die."

Needless to say, these views haven't endeared him to members of the SF community who are either gay or sympathetic to their causes. And with the long-anticipated release of the film version of ENDER'S GAME, some are calling for a boycott of the movie to protest Mr. Card's views.

Which presents a dilemma; his critics agree that “Ender's Game” is a worthy piece of fiction, and many have been looking forward to its big screen adaptation. Yet many are uncomfortable with any possible revenue befitting Mr. Card in light of his views.

Which begs the question: should an artist be held responsible for his viewpoint outside of the work? Can an artist whose social dynamic is diametrically opposed to that of the reader still offer worthwhile art? Can the two be completely divorced? Or should they be? Why shouldn't an artist be held accountable for his point of view?

The answer, as is often the case, isn't always as easy to verbalize as the questions...



Let me speak for the record. I've not read “Ender's Game”; although it's been recommended to me by several people whose opinions I respect, it simply didn't appeal to me. I did read the novella of “Ender's Game” when it was published in “Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact” (that was later expanded into the novel). I enjoyed it, but not especially so; certainly there were other stories in “Analog” that I've enjoyed more.

My primary association with Mr. Card has been his book review columns in "F&SF". I've enjoyed his writing and viewpoint, never finding the essays less than entertaining. There were some that leaned further into a conservative mindset than usual, such as his condemnation of an alternate universe novel that chastised former President Richard Nixon, but other than those rare instances Mr. Card was able to keep his commentary out of his reviews.

I didn't become aware of Mr. Card's more extreme positions until the proposed boycott began to be debated online in various forums. I wasn't aware of his many writings denouncing gay rights and same-sex unions, but soon came to know that these issues had been discussed in SF circles for quite some time, and passions ran high on both sides of the debate. For myself and my many human companions, judgmental, discriminatory views are distasteful and disturbing.

Nevertheless, much of the truly heated argument falls into two basic opinions:

1) Orson Scott Card is a bigot who has attacked a prominent minority, has actively worked to deprive individuals of their constitutional and human rights, has supported legislation suppressing these rights, and should be held accountable for his views by letting the marketplace decide whether they want any monetary reward going to him with regard to any future projects, including the film ENDER'S GAME.

2) Orson Scott Card is a talented author who holds some despicable personal views of certain members of society; some of these views are founded in his religious faith. It is his absolute right as a private citizen of the Untied States to practice any faith he chooses, to express his opinions about social issues, and to hold and work in implementing what he sees as policies and legislation that he supports, whether others agree with them or not. None of his political or social views affects his work as a writer, and such work should be judged strictly on its own merits. No artist should have his personal life or views read into his art, no should anyone denounce worthy art simply because the artist is less of a human being than he could be in the majority view of the community, either SF or the nation at large.

But is it possible to completely divorce the artist from his views? Aren't those views in many ways what informs the art?



Orson Scott Card & the novel "Ender's Game"


Let's agree on something here: many, many artists were and are failures as human beings in polite society.

Dostoevsky was a gambler and a brutalizer of women who deserted his wife and children. Fitzgerald drank heavily, as did Hemmingway, who also was a bully obsessed with machismo. Mailer was also a heavy drinker who stabbed his second wife. Burroughs shot his wife in Mexico during a drunken reenactment of William Tell, and would have been sent to prison had he not called on some favors from power friends in the US . Picasso had several mistresses and refused to divorce his last wife so that she wouldn't be able to collect half his wealth. Kazan was an informer who gave names to the HUAC, many of whom were not communists, so that he could continue working in Hollywood while friends and confidants found themselves blacklisted. Polanski…well, we know what he did.

In our particular genre, Poe was a gambler and heavy drinker, some of it no doubt to help with his depression. Lovecraft has been called racist by evidence of his letters and some stories. I've argued in the past that I don't necessarily think he was racist, but was more a product of his times; to see genuine racism look no further than Seabury Quinn or Robert Howard and their depiction of foreigners and Third World denizens. Michael Crichton had a reputation as a sexist chauvinist after the publication of “Disclosure”; he also had an extremely thin skin regarding criticism, and his most famous attack was taking one of his reviewers and using his name as a convicted pedophile child-molester in his final novel.

The disparity between the admirable work of an artist and his actual flawed personality is so great a dichotomy that Stephen King wrote a novella, “Dedication”, to try and explain his unease with the concept. (And certainly regarding demons, Mr. King, even with his reputation as a good and honest individual, has been painfully forthright with his own shortcomings of addiction and alcoholism.)

Perhaps no writer in the field of the Dark Fantastic has been more galvanizing than Harlan Ellison. Mr. Ellison is a multi-award-winning author, screenwriter, essayist and critic. He has been involved in political causes such as the Civil Rights movement, the California Grape Boycotts, and the attempted passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. He has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than any other writer, along with the Silver Pen Award for newspaper writing, and the Writer's Guild Award for Best Screenplay a record four times. His artistic credentials are beyond reproach.

He is also known as a troublemaker; elitist, arrogant, sexist, abrasive, short-tempered, a blowhard with a gigantic ego. He's earned much of this reputation by refusing to suffer fools, fighting for the integrity of his art, pushing society to be responsible for its actions, condemning mediocrity in the world at large and the artistic community, refusing to go along with popular wisdom if its pointed in the wrong direction, and demanding unflinching self-examination and honesty, most highly of himself.

(In the spirit of Mr. Ellison's demand for full disclosure, I must say that I am a huge admirer of the man and his work; one complete bookshelf in my crypt is reserved for him. I've also met him a few times and found him to be a complete gentleman, sharp-witted and tongued, but never in cruelty; his occasional barbs have always been delivered with good humor and a genuine smile. I have also seen how others react to him, and understand quite well how he can bristle and turn angry at some of the remarks some fans have directed towards him. But that's a discussion for another time…)

Because he believes that a writer should always be beyond emotional blackmail and false sanctimony, he has always been upfront about his flaws, faults and failings. He admits to his failures as a husband in four of his marriages (although his current marriage has lasted for the past thirty years) and to his womanizing during his bachelor days. He confesses to his lapses in empathy and compassion during times of stress, and pillories himself for times he's been less honest than he'd wish to be. He laments that he does bear fierce, strong grudges against those who've wronged him n the past, sometimes disproportionately so. In short, he is as flawed as any individual can be; he simply lets that side of him out into the world, rather than try to contain it.

And because of this, he is polarizing to many both in the genre and outside. (And it hasn't endeared him that he insists on not being pigeonholed as being a SF or Fantasy writer, condemning himself to what he sees as a ghetto of literature.) Many in film and television who've felt his barbs refuse to work with him or assign projects, fans who don't like his behavior refuse to read a word of his fiction, or criticize him as being overrated and past his prime.

And that is a shame. Because whatever you may feel about Mr. Ellison personally, the fact remains (and it is a fact) that he is responsible for some of the finest work done in the SF field. Anyone who can create “Repent Harlequin, Said The TickTockman”, “The Deathbird”, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, “A Boy And His Dog”, “Demon With A Glass Hand”, “The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs”, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, “Crotoan”, “Jeffty Is Five”, “Shatterday”, “Paladin Of The Lost Hour” and “The Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World” has nothing to account or apologize for.

And yet, as with Mr. Card, some are simply unable to look beyond Mr. Ellison's persona and admire the work. Mr. Ellison has never flinched from other's opinions of him, and has reiterated many times that it's a mistake to confuse the artist with the art. He has maintained that they must be separate; all that the artist owes the public is the art, and nothing about the creator's personal life should be in play.

And I would agree with that, for the most part. Still, it's much harder in practice than in theory.



Harlan Ellison & his short story collection "Strange Wine"


Censorship is a strong word. It conjures up images from Ray Bradbury's “Fahrenheit 451” of burning books and thought control. But in the world around us it's a much more subtle practice than described in Mr. Orwell's “1984”.

We have free will, and the right to expressing our opinions. It's not only what is considered a “natural” right, it's enshrined in the Constitution of the United States . (And is often misinterpreted; when someone complains that his “freedom of speech” is being suppressed by another expressing a differing opinion, that's an incorrect understanding of the First Amendment, which only protects the individual from suppression of speech officially by the government.)

Some years ago, attending a convention panel on censorship, an editor put forth a proposal: being Jewish, if somebody submitted a work that he considered anti-Semitic, would he be acting as a censor in refusing to publish the material? After all, he is in a position of power and by his refusal to publish it is keeping it from the public.

My opinion was no, that wasn't censorship; he wasn't keeping the author from taking it to another publisher, he wasn't calling the other publishers and asking them not to publish it, he wasn't stopping the author from publishing it and distributing it himself. He was simply making a business decision based on his own conscience. He agreed, and thanked me for pointing all that out.

But…what if the author approached other publishers, and they called him asking for his opinion on whether to publish the work or not? And what if he expressed his distaste for the work and persuaded them not to publish it as well? That's a thinner margin, I admit, but I still answered no, that wasn't censorship. He was sharing an opinion, and leaving it up to the other publishers to trust their consciences. He wasn't demanding that they go along with his decision; he was simply offering his point of view. In other words, it was a passive view, not an active one. If his powers of persuasion are that strong, I don't think he can or should be blamed for that.

As you can see, we're entering a realm where the distinctions are much less defined. Let's assume that I was invited to a function, and I learned another artist was also invited. I find this particular artist offensive, and express to the organizers that I won't be attending if that other artist is present; if they want my participation, they can't invite him.

Am I just expressing my point of view? Am I putting them in a position to choose between us? I suppose so, but is that bad? Don't they have a right to decide which of us might be a bigger draw for the event, or might fit in better with their presentation? I'm not demanding that the other artist not attend; if they want my attendance badly enough, they'll accede to my wishes, and if they don't, then they've made their decision on which of us they want more. But am I flexing my artistic muscles here for my own benefit by putting them in this position, forcing them to choose between us? Yet don't I have a right to choose who I want to be associated with?

Slippery slope doesn't begin to describe this dilemma. Which I suppose is a good thing; if we are all creatures of good conscience and exercise them responsibly, things should work out for the best.

Or should they?

One of the largest conventions held in the US is DragonCon in Atlanta , GA. Many of my human companions associated with Netherworld are also participants in this huge undertaking, and many look forward to it every year.

For the past several years, a shadow has hung over the event in the persona of one of the founding members, who had been accused of a particularly heinous crime. (I won't go into the details of what happened; it can be found easily enough searching the Internet.) The individual in question has still not stood trial for the alleged offenses, but that didn't stop many from commenting on and rushing to demand that DragonCon disassociate itself from that individual.

I've not been to DragonCon, but through my acquaintances there I've followed much of the controversy, and those who've committed themselves to it emotionally have fallen into three camps. First, most of those I know have cautioned about rushing to judgment and have stood for letting the courts and law enforcement run their course; when the time came for a decision to be made, it would be from an actual conviction.

Second were those who felt that, innocent or guilty, the charges were so damaging and horrendous that DragonCon should disassociate themselves immediately from the person in question; there is a great deal of precedent in that thought process, as politicians, judges, congressmen and other responsible members of society must avoid even the appearance of impropriety and are often asked to resign in the midst of a scandal in order for life to proceed in a manner untainted by possible wrongdoing. Those who express this are genuinely and sincerely concerned with the event and all involved, including the alleged victims of the offenses.

Sadly, there is a third group, who have clutched onto the crisis for their own agendas. They have demanded from the start that DragonCon disassociate themselves immediately with the individual in question, and if this demand is not met, a broader boycotting of the event must and will take place. These activists express no patience with the process of justice or the law, they don't acknowledge the potential difficulties in legally separating an organization from a member that holds a financial interest in it (I know that other attempts have taken or can take years for all the legal questions and ramifications to sort themselves out), They demand what they demand now , else they will bring pressure on the members of the organization and the artists involved and hold them responsible.

One of the artists caught in the crossfire is the musician Voltaire. I've had the pleasure of working and appearing with him at several events on the East Coast, and have found him to be a genuinely affable fellow, always in good humor and very much a man of conscience. When he suggested that those calling for a boycott of the event show patience and let the convention committee work at their pace, in the interest of not hurting the event itself and disappointing all those fans who've enjoyed it through the years (and who have no stake or interest in the struggles going on behind the scenes) he was met with hostility and calls for a boycott of his work and appearances.

I don't think that will come to pass, or will affect Voltaire terribly; his fans know where his sympathies and conscience lies, and will react accordingly and with their full support. But it was certainly distressing for him to be placed in that position, and hurtful that he be a target for the censors – for that is indeed what these individuals are, despite their attempts at self-justification. They attempted to hold the event hostage with no concern of how it would affect others; as with any true believers, the end result was all that mattered, such end result being what they narrowly approved.



Voltaire & his CD "Ooky Spooky"


The controversy surrounding “Ender's Game” hasn't reached that sorry point, thankfully; all involved, despite the depths of their convictions, have been respectful of other's viewpoints, strained though that respect may be. I sincerely hope that mutual acknowledgement of individual rights continues as the release date comes closer and passions inflame further.

Mr. Card, for his part, has kept a low profile. According to many observers he's been out of the publicity loop for fear that his presence will do more harm than good. He did issue a statement that said something to the effect that “The gay marriage issue is moot,” because of the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding the Defense Of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, and hoped “… the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

More than a few of his critics have pointed out the irony in Mr. Card's call for “tolerance”. I find his remarks most expedient; I'd have far more respect for him if he stated, “The fact that history seems to be against me doesn't sway any opinions I've previously held. I won't say what people want to hear simply because I'd like the film version of my novel to be successful at the box office; that would be disingenuous at best.”

Which brings us back to our dilemma: knowing what we know of Mr. Card's societal views, are we able to separate the art from the artist and appreciate “Ender's Game” on its own merits? After all, the book hasn't changed at all; it's still the same number of words and the same narrative that was hailed previously by the SF community.

(On the other hand, a companion named Nina expressed her dismay at rereading some of Mr. Card's work in light of the revelations of his worldview. She found much of his viewpoint in the work, and it left a very bad aftertaste, so much so that she could no longer read him. Is she perhaps reacting more in hindsight, attributing something to Mr. Card that actually isn't there? Does it matter? The point being, once dissatisfaction has set it, it's very difficult to cleanse the artistic palette and return to a neutral stance.)

As should be obvious now, the answer isn't simple; it depends, quite naturally, on the individual reader. But while I'm not best qualified to judge this impact on Mr. Card's work, I do have an analogous situation with a writer whose work I've enjoyed greatly.



William F. Buckley Jr. & his Blackford Oakes novel "See You Later, Alligator"


Most people are familiar with the name of the late William F. Buckley Jr. Many know his as a voice of the modern conservative movement and a huge support of President Ronal Reagan. Many are familiar with his television series “Firing Line” and as publisher of “The National Review”.

What many are unaware of is that Mr. Buckley, in addition to his non-fiction writing, was quite a successful novelist, particularly of the Blackford Oakes series of spy novels. And as many who know me are aware, I enjoy the espionage genre immensely, whether they're the works of Ian Fleming and his iconic James Bond or the more realistic and somber intricacies of John Le Carre's George Smiley books. One of Mr. Buckley's strengths as a novelist was the incorporation of actual historical events into the books, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the U2 Flyover Scandal (in one of my favorite novels with the very best title; “Marco Polo, If You Can”) among others, making the Blackford Oakes stories a sort of quasi-SF Alternate World and History series.

As a voice of social criticism I found many if not most of Mr. Buckley's opinions ill-advised and offensive; these include his then-reaction to the AIDS crisis, civil rights, the elite class structure, poverty, social unrest among the youth during the 1960s, government pressure and subversion of the political process, women's rights, and military intervention. But as a novelist I greatly enjoyed the Blackford Oakes books, and was very surprised to find the point of view in many of them far more liberal in tone and spirit than Mr. Buckley's other opinions would lead you to believe.

Although I avoided Mr. Buckley's television series (with only the occasional viewing when a guest interested me) along with his periodical, I was always eager to embrace his spy novels, sometimes wishing his (in my mind) more rational worldview carried over into his public thoughts and actions. I was able to separate the artist from the art, and although I bear a grudging respect for Mr. Buckley for the depth of his convictions and tunnelvisioned morality, it is simply as a writer of thrillers that I'll continue to honor him.

I suppose we can ask no more of most of our artists. And, as I stated earlier, where the line is drawn is best left to the individual's conscience.

Is the novel “Ender's Game” still a SF masterpiece, despite Mr. Card's public opinions. Of course it is. Does it still deserve to be treated so? I think so.

Does Mr. Card deserve to be criticized for his personal stances? Of course he does; this is America , and although he is entitled to his opinions, others are more than entitled to their opinions, and entitled to hold him responsible for his opinions. One would think he'd support that, and his wavering in the face of a depleted pocketbook doesn't speak terribly strongly to his honor or convictions.

Does the film deserve to find a wide and accepting audience? Ah, that's far harder to determine, and should be left up to the individual. I am heartened and proud that as impassioned as the dialogue has been there have been no demands of boycotting, only suggestions and personal promises. Censorship, even in the name of a just cause (but aren't all causes just to the true believers?) is still a dark and terrible thing.

It is possible to separate the artist from his art, but it is a careful, difficult and personal line to walk; all must step quite carefully to avoid falling into the abyss.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

AUGUST 2013

 

I would speak of heroes, and how of late they've fallen. Not through their own failings, of course; as the Bard stated, “The fault…lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

By now the Summer Blockbuster Season has more-or-less dissipated, and we've seen (or not, as the case may be) the ‘re-imaginings' of three iconic ‘franchises'. (Oh, how I hate that word! Taking an artistic conceit or construct and reducing it to the mental level of a fast food restaurant chain! However, that is currently the accepted term, and so I'll refer to it thusly in the discussion that follows.) They are, of course, STAR TREK, Superman and The Lone Ranger. The three films have met with mixed critical and commercial success, and all have been controversial in their own ways.

Of the three, I think we can safely declare STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL as unqualified hits, and THE LONE RANGER as a failure. But even with the support of the general public for the first two movies, they were greeted with great debate and not a few howls of outrage among fandom.



The STAR TREK film featured again the new cast playing characters first created for the 1960s television series; it continued their adventures from the first film (which, through an ingenious plot twist, postulated that these new stories take place in an alternate universe from the one starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, allowing the director and writer J. J. Adams (of LOST and REVOLUTION fame) to remain accurate to the original canon but not slavishly point-by-point true to it). It featured a supervillain that planned and executed a terrible act of destruction on Earth; the crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, pursue the antagonist to a distant planet, discover his true identity and motives, and spend the remainder of the film dealing with the ramifications and responsibilities of their actions.

Being a great fan of the original series, I enjoyed the film, particularly the work of the new cast, whom I thought stepped into the iconic characters and admirably made them their own. However, I did have some genuine issues with the storyline, and was greatly disappointed at the denouement. I'll rate the final product a double, in baseball terminology: well- hit initially, but puttering out at the halfway point, and not strong enough to send it all the way home in triumph. Still, I'm not prepared to send the new films to the showers yet, and I await their next at-bat to see what they can do with themselves. (Do I know my metaphors, or do I?!)

But much controversy surrounding the film concerned the characterizations of the main protagonists, the crew of the Enterprise, and the villain. And many were distressed that the storyline echoed the tragedy of 911 and the onset of modern terrorism, thinking that anathemic to the optimistic vision that the original STAR TREK offered; they considered this pandering to the current movie-going public that wants to see action, violence, destruction and ‘battles' as a simile for ‘conflict'.

Personally, I thought the storyline well-executed, at least for the first half of the movie. Gene Roddenberry, like Rod Serling, always envisioned STAR TREK commenting on current political and social issues and mores, and I thought in this instance the film was quite true to intentions. It echoed not only 911, but the current debate about drone use in warfare, the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the issue of prejudging a criminal and sentencing them to execution on the basis of public opinion and military strategy. The fact that these issues were not pounded into the sand in the storyline but were touched upon as subtext was a great deal to the film's credit.

But the charges regarding the characters? I believe there's valid criticism there.



Perhaps no movie this summer was more controversial than MAN OF STEEL. Long before the movie was released there were acrimonious discussions on the internet, debating everything from Superman's new outfit (minus the red trucks) to the choices of Christopher Nolan as producer and Zack Snyder as the director.

In regards to Mr. Snyder, I thought his involvement a plus; I believe WATCHMEN to be one of the best graphic novel adaptations attempted, and think the film is brilliant. I believe him to be a talented man; even though I was not pleased with his remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, I thought it was well-directed, and the few original touches he brought to the movie (such as the living-dead newborn) were inspired. I was not terribly interested in 300, but I know many who were enthralled by its mix of history and spectacle.

Likewise Mr. Nolan was responsible for MEMENTO and INCEPTION, two remarkable movies. (I enjoyed INCEPTION a great deal.) I also very much liked the first film of their modern Batman trilogy BATMAN BEGINS, finding that a respectful retelling of the origins of the Dark Knight. (I must confess to being less-than-enthused with the follow-up film THE DARK KNIGHT; aside from the late Mr. Ledger's astonishing performance, I found it to be too convoluted and unwieldy narratively, filled with far two many characters and implausibilities. Had the film concentrated solely on The Joker and eliminated the Harvey Dent/Two Face storyline, I think it would have been immensely better, more streamlined and coherent.)

Both sets of creative personnel were known for a much darker, more intense sense of story than was normally associated with the Superman character; the Batman films, MEMENTO, WATCHMEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD are all quite cynical, grim, and borderline nihilistic, which is something Superman definitely isn't. Fans of the original character were concerned how this would be played out under their influence. Still, to be fair, it appeared the Superman franchise was in the hands of a production team that knew how to bring quality comic adaptations to the screen, and many had a “wait and see” attitude towards the final product.

When the film was released, more than a few found their dismay justified by how the producers rethought a character that is iconic worldwide; one of the few – including Tarzan, Robin Hood, Mickey Mouse and Sherlock Holmes – who are immediately recognized without the individual having read or seen any of the original material.



THE LONE RANGER had no true controversy; early reaction was both immediate and horrified, and most fans of the original character from radio and television suspected the movie would be a disaster. First there was the announcement that the original budget of the film had been rejected; $250 million. Many wondered why in the world a Lone Ranger film would require such a huge budget; the focus of all the previous stories had never been on spectacle but on the characters of the Lone Ranger and Tonto; their relationship and the relationships of those they came in contact with, either to help or oppose.

The proposed (and eventual) director of the movie was Gore Verbinski, most famous for his association with actor Johnny Depp and the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN franchise. All those films were large, overblown spectacles of special effect wizardry and swashbuckling, frenetic adventure. Fans of the Lone Ranger grew more concerned when it was announced that the large budget for the film was for the creation of CGI werewolves for the story. Werewolves? In a Lone Ranger movie? Not even the underrated (and sadly, largely forgotten) animated series in the late 1960s attempted this, although some of their stories featured WILD WILD WEST-style fantastic themes and devices.

Apparently the werewolves were removed from the script, but the next came the alarming preproduction photos of the two actors, Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, in character as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, respectively. The sight of Mr. Depp in carnival-style facepaint wearing a dead crow on his head was greeted with snorts of derision and wails of sorrowful outrage. What would this endeavor spawn? How far afield were the creative forces straying from the canon laid down so carefully through the years?

Far indeed, I'm afraid. Far as the others strayed from the canon of Superman and STAR TREK.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The history of the Dark Fantastic has never lacked heroes.

From the very beginning, when authors began to explore themes of supernatural conflict, there was always the mage, the wise one, the revenant who would try to understand or combat the demonic, antagonist forces allied against the civilized world.

I suppose we could include Merlin as one of the earliest examples, although he didn't truly do battle against outside forces; he was always considered a supernatural being himself in the various legends. Edgar Allen Poe created the armchair detective (and the modern detective story itself) with C. Auguste Dupin and “The Murders In The Rue Morgue”, but as macabre as those slayings were, the final revel proved to be all too natural. Likewise Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes battled “The Hound Of The Baskerville”, “The Sussex Vampire”, “The Speckled Band” and “The Sign Of Four”, but again as ghastly and uncanny as the proceedings grew, the solutions were always strictly manmade.

I would venture to name the first genuine defender against dark forces as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, the nemesis of Count Dracula in both the novel by Bram Stoker and the various film adaptations. Dr. Van Helsing was a learned man; wise, good-humored, practical, well-read and fiercely intelligent. He was a modern man of science who had also studied ancient myth and legend and gave credence to a variety of beliefs, never dismissing otherworldly occurrences as mere nonsense. (Indeed, he was often greeted by others, both in the novel and in the films, with the common exclamation, “But Doctor, you're a man of science. Surely you don't believe in this vampire superstition?!”)

In the creation of Van Helsing, Mr. Stoker inaugurated the iconic character that would become so well-known and used in Weird Fiction. He was an individual well-aware of the thin veil between the real world and the uncanny; the “Twilight Zone” as Mr. Serling so aptly labeled it, and he knew how easy it was for denizens of either side to slip into the world beyond. He was respectful of supernatural forces and mystical opponents, but he was a commanding presence that wasn't afraid of facing down those who used their powers for evil purposes. He was dedicated to helping others, even if it meant placing his own life in danger, and with his knowledge became a true renaissance figure.

Following heavily in the tradition of Mr. Stoker, other writers explored the idea of a psychic or supernatural detective in their work. Some of the most famous examples include Algernon Blackwood's Dr. John Silence, Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr Martin Hesselius, William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, Dennis Wheatley's Neils Orson, Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin and Manley Wade Wellman's John Thunstone. I think we can also include Robert Howard's Solomon Kane on our list (after all, no one said that the detective/wizard had to exist in a recognizable modern world). Even H. P. Lovecraft gave abbreviated life to researcher Randolph Carter. More contemporary occult heroes include Joseph Payne Brennan's Lucius Leffing, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, Mark Valentine's The Connoisseur, and F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack.



Television has had no lack of defenders against the supernatural, the most famous, of course, being reporter Carl Kolchak. But we can also include FBI agents Mulder and Scully of THE X FILES and Buffy Summers from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Most recently there've been the successful adventures of the Winchester Brothers on the series SUPERNATURAL. In addition, there have been several films featuring single appearances of occult investigators: David Norliss of THE NORLISS TAPES (a pilot for a “Kolchak”- style series), and two wonderful (and sadly overlooked) movies featuring Louis Jordan as psychiatrist David Sorrell; FEAR NO EVIL and RITUAL OF EVIL. Gene Roddenberry even tried his hand at a supernatural series featuring investigators William Sebastian (Robert Culp) and Dr. Hamm (Gig Young) in SPECTRE, a show that was sadly never developed.

(And I'd be neglectful not to mention the comic and graphic novel world, featuring Marvel's Dr. Stephen Strange, Gold Key's Dr. Spektor, and DC's John Constantine. All in all, quite good company to be included in.)

With all attendant fame among genre fans for these supernatural champions, it's no mystery to me that, in the wake of the success of the Dracula films, including Francis Ford Coppola's version, that Hollywood should latch onto Dr. Van Helsing in an attempt to create their own franchise. But here is where things began to go quite wrong, and circle us back to the main theme of our discussion.



When Universal Studios first planned the 2004 VAN HELSING, they were looking for it to be the first of a long, healthy franchise starring Hugh Jackman as the iconic genre character. Unfortunately, the film was so forgettable and badly written that those plans were almost immediately scuttled. (The high point , or low point, depending on your view, was an attack on a small European town by a hoard of infant vampires. No, I'm not joking; baby vampires attacked the town. Then the movie got very bad…)

This was not, I emphatically state, the fault of Mr. Jackman, who gave an engaging performance and was the sole bright feature of the film. So good was Mr. Jackman that I would have tentatively but definitely sat through a follow-up film to see if any improvement had taken place. But despite direction that was all flash and no substance, a storyline that gutted the great mythology of the Universal Monsters, and acting that ran the gamut of emotions from A to C (to be charitable), the greatest weakness (and, I believe, the downfall of the film) was that the lead character was in no way, shape or form Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.

(There was even a name change to Gabriel Van Helsing, because apparently Abraham didn't pull the desired demographics. I'm being sarcastic and facetious, but who knows? I may be completely correct in that assumption of studio thinking…)

Dr. Van Helsing was presented in the novel “Dracula” as a cultured, educated man; a researcher who had made a life-study (and was still in the process of it!) of the ancient myths and legends surrounding supernatural creatures and events. It was his knowledge that he was able to use as a weapon, to out-maneuver and out-think Count Dracula. (And it took a great deal of effort, as Dracula was no slouch in regards to intelligence himself, having lived for centuries.) True, there was some physical derring-do involved in defeating the enemy; this was brought vividly to life by Peter Cushing in the Hammer DRACULA films; his Van Helsing was an athletic and visceral opponent as well.

All well and good. But the character played by Mr. Jackman in VAN HELSING displayed no intellectual prowess, no sense of scholar; he solved the main puzzle by sheer luck and happenstance. His primary weaponry was a steampunk-type arsenal and inventions that made him into a Victorian version of James Bond, and he was more apt to use his fists than his mind. Indeed, throughout much of the movie he spent his time racing from one predicament to another, never stopping to think and consider, in a bone thrown to moviegoers who the studios believed demanded A ction! Action! Action! Constant Action! some romance, and then more Action!

And it was because of this that fans of the character from Mr. Stoker's novel, from the Universal films (where Edwin Sloane made a splendid and commanding Van Helsing) and the Hammer movies rejected Mr. Jackman's efforts, and it died a deserved death. For all his swashbuckling antics, the movie might better have been a remake of the adventures of CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER, another Hammer film that featured a swordsman hero of daring-do. (But of course, that wouldn't have enabled the filmmakers to cynically attempt to lure in the fans by capitalizing on the name Van Helsing…not that it did much good anyway…)

I hear your protests. But Carpathian! Hollywood is always trashing the source materials! How many great books were turned into horrible movies? Look at Stephen King; most of the films based on his books are awful! And other authors suffered as well. Why should we expect Hollywood to get it right now?

Well, I can't argue that point in the least. You're absolutely right. And I suppose I could simply shrug and go on to the next topic. But it appears as though Hollywood is attempting to reconnect with their rapidly-diminishing audience by appealing to those who remember these iconic characters, as well as draw more fans in by ‘rethinking' or ‘reimagining' them. And I object to that for a number of reasons.

First, I object for the same reason I object to these terrible remakes. Cultural amnesia is a truism of modern society. It's been proven that young people have very little knowledge of anything in the past, whether it's actual historical facts (there are reports constantly found online that college graduates can't identify the years of the Civil War, the name of Presidents or historical figures of great importance, or are even up to date with what is happening in the changing world around them) or popular touchstones. And with this amnesia comes a disrespect, and sometimes even contempt for works of Art and value from the past. If they are turned off by modern retelling of STRAW DOGS, THE WICKER MAN, PSYCHO and other ‘reimaginings', how do we convince them there is value in the genuine article?

Second, I object to the idea that iconic creations need to have their stories ‘reimagined' in the first place. They are iconic for a reason. I heard so often from both the apologists and fans for MAN OF STEEL something to the affect of, “This is not your father's Superman.” Well, who asked you? We were quite happy with him as he was; what gave you the right to determine that he needed redoing?

Forgive me for quoting him so extensively, but some years ago Harlan Ellison addressed just such an issue in his column “Harlan Ellison's Watching” in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” (the columns were collected into a volume I highly recommend with the same title) regarding the current ‘reimaginings' of Sherlock Holmes, Superman and The Shadow as expunged by DC Comics ‘auterism' and the film YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES. Mr. Ellison expounds so succinctly and rationally that I can do no more than repeat his wisdom:

“…Here is delivering into the hands of artistic thugs the dreams and delights of those who were clever enough, and talented enough to be prime creators. Not enough to suggest that they cobble up their own inventions as sturdy and long-lived as Superman and The Shadow. Not enough to suggest they retain some sense of place in the creative world. Not enough to suggest they have a scintilla of respect for all the forty-year old (and in this writer's case, fifty-two year old) boys who grew up on these wonders. Not enough.

…Incapable of creating Superman or The Shadow or Sherlock Holmes, they steal the dream and turn it to their own ends, debasing it in the process.

…Does Chaykin care that we derived our understanding of the simplistic but effective ethic that ‘the weed of crime bears bitter fruit' from a pulp hero who came to us in magazines that flaked apart in our laps, across the ether through cathedral-shaped radios before which we lay with our eyes wide?

Does John Byrne consider for a moment between bouts with his own ego that some great selection of the world looks on Superman as a paradigm for our own alienation and need to believe there is superness in each of us somewhere?

W
e chew up and spit out our past.

Honor lasts less long than Warhol's fabled fifteen minutes of notoriety. What remains for the dreamer capable of ushering out a Conan, a Sam Spade, a Tin Woodsman, a Wonder Woman, when any parvenu can misappropriate the vigorous conceit and cripple it by inexactitudes and ineptitude? If this can be done to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, to Burrough's Tarzan, to Pyle's Robin Hood or Johnston McCulley's Zorro or Bad Bill's Hamlet…what chance do the rest of us have?

…Destruction of the past, whether as another De Laurentiis KING KONG abomination, or as the leveling of an Art Deco building, is an American tradition. We eat yesterday and say it is of value only as sauce for our french fries.”

Again, I apologize for such a lengthy quote, but Mr. Ellison said it so perfectly anything I could add would be superfluous.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

A brief digression…

I'm always a bit surprised by those who claim that the villains in any film or story, particularly in our genre, are more important than the hero. (Rob Zombie put forth this view concerning his films HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, but he's certainly not alone in his opinion.) The examples most often put forth are the antagonists in the Batman comics and films and James Bond's adversaries. They're more colorful and more menacing, we're told, and much more multi-dimensioned than the champion.

I think that's more than a little backwards myself, but I've always been drawn to the “good guys” myself. Nevertheless, isn't it true that those villains are more menacing simply because they have to try harder? After all, isn't Professor Moriarity ‘The Napoleon Of Crime' primarily because he's facing off against a worthy adversary in Sherlock Holmes?

As I've said to many who espouse this theory, of course the Batman villains are colorful and menacing; they're up against Batman, for goodness sake, not some rookie fresh from the police academy! Any rogue of less mettle than the Joker would be eaten alive by the Dark Knight. And of course Goldfinger, Blofeld, Scaramanga and Le Chiffre are greater than the average thug; they're squaring off against 007! This isn't someone that the British government sends in to arrest a forger or cat burglar; this is a gentleman with an actual license allowing him to kill. He would naturally face the worst of the worst.

The same can be said of most of our Dark Fantastic heroes. Certainly Dracula is far more threatening because he's opposed by the cool, rational and unflappable Dr. Van Helsing. Janos Skorzeny and Dr. Richard Malcolm are all the more terrifying because Carl Kolchak is on their trail, and his cynicism gives way in the face of supernatural menace. Isn't Michael Myers doubly horrifying because Dr. Loomis knows just what lurks behind that pale mask and is determined to stop him? And don't we cower in fright from Mr. Roat in WAIT UNTIL DARK because Suzie Hendrix proves to be so resourceful and courageous?

Villains are only as terrible as the heroes that oppose them are strong, which is why I've never felt any affinity to Jason Voorhees; he remains a cipher, and his victims simply faceless meat under his cleaver.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Having spent much of this essay lamenting what has been done to some beloved characters in the name of ‘reimagining', let me be completely fair and state that it is possible to more than satisfactorily redefine and recreate a character to contemporary audiences – provided (and let me emphasize this) that the character is treated with the respect by the artists involved in regards to his roots.

When Hammer Studios launched their color remakes of the Universal oeuvre, they wanted to make some changes for (at the time) contemporary audiences. Gone was Bela Lugosi's thick accent, slicked-back Rudolph Valentino hairstyle and ever-present tuxedo and eveningwear. Yet Christopher Lee's more matter-of-fact interpretation worked wonderfully because the character remained true to what Bram Stoker had originally created in his novel, even when the films themselves were less than successful. (I'm thinking of their attempts to transport Dracula into the mod 1960s and 70s England; the quality of these films varied greatly, but Mr. Lee's performance remained dignified and iconic.)



Perhaps the best current ‘reimagining' is the BBC television series SHERLOCK starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The show successfully updates the Holmes canon by transporting him 150 years into modern London , while still maintaining the character as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The episodes are ingenious retellings of the original stories, and the enterprise is filled with respect for the character known and loved by fans so devoted that many still write to 221B Baker Street. To paraphrase Mr. Ellison's comments, the creators of SHERLOCK are well aware of the debt they own to Mr. Conan Doyle and the Holmes enthusiasts, as well as their place in the scheme of Art.

Would that others were equally self-aware…

In 2005 the television series NIGHT STALKER revived the character of Carl Kolchak. This time, instead of a middle-aged, hard-nosed reporter with a weary skeptisism, Kolchak was played by Stuart Townsend, probably best-known to genre fans as the vampire Lestat from the movie QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (making him a two-time follow-up loss). To appeal to a younger demographic, Kolchak was a young, brooding individual in the manner of Fox Mulder of THE X FILES, which is unsurprising considering the revamped series was created and written by former X FILES scribes.

Everything that made the character unique – the newspaper background ala “The Front Page”, the rough courtesy and nobility in the face of the overwhelming unknown, the sharp sense of the absurd, and the hangdog cynicism of a man confronting cosmic forces beyond his understanding was gone.



I don't maintain that no other actor could play Carl Kolchak; Mr. McGavin was near perfection, but many have tackled Hamlet and King Lear and done admirably. But he isn't Stuart Townsend; this was a completely different character .So why didn't the creators write a complexly different character? Because they wouldn't have been able to rope in all the NIGHT STALKER fans that they hoped would flock to their creation. It would be too uncertain or unpredictable to try to launch their own franchise; better to raid something someone else had done well and add their own spin. The series lasted ten episodes, four of which weren't broadcast before it was cancelled; justice sometimes comes so quickly.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Let's look again at the big summer films and their ‘reimaginings'…

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS opens with a slam-bang action sequence – Kirk and McCoy on the run from some natives of an alien planet for stealing a sacred artifact. As Heidi Honeycutt from PlanetFury.com pointed out, it's the same opening as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, with a crucial difference: that classic sequence made sense in establishing the character of Indiana Jones; the sequence in STID makes no sense at all. (Actually, there's a lot about that opening that makes little sense, including why the Enterprise is hiding on the bottom of the ocean, but one point at a time…)

Why are they stealing the artifact? What does it mean to the natives? What does it say about the lead characters? In RAIDERS, all these questions were answered; none were forthcoming in STID, except perhaps the last one: James T. Kirk seems to be a reckless kid who'll do anything in the name of excitement.

In the classic television series, Kirk was sometimes portrayed as reckless, but – big difference here – only if the situation determined no other way out of danger! He never took risks with his crew (or himself) for no reason, and could probably quote Starfleet regulations almost as well as Spock. He was an exemplary officer, decorated multiple times for his actions, and with a strong sense of leadership and commitment to the values of Starfleet, which is why he was the youngest commander in the fleet.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS deals with a younger Kirk; brasher, certainly. But brash and foolish are not similes; further, when Kirk is called on his recklessness, he makes excuses and seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. Where's his integrity? Where's his sense of responsibility and leadership? Certainly that entails more than running, jumping and fighting. Where's the Kirk we've seen from the original series with a sense of duty and honor? (And please don't give me the alternate timeline excuse; it's the same character, or it's supposed to be!)



We see Kirk's womanizing from the old series with the scene with him in bed with two alien temptresses; we see his sense of loyalty by sacrificing himself to save the Enterprise; we see his sense of fairness when he refuses to follow Starfleet's orders and kill the renegade outright. And I suppose the writers were attempting to show how the character of Kirk was born out of the fire of this mission. But shouldn't we have had a sense of who he was before he died of radiation poisoning? Shouldn't his integrity and honor have been part of him from the beginning, and shouldn't we have seen hints of it? This is, after all (as one discerning critic pointed out) the second STAR TREK film; isn't this a little late?

The Kirk presented in the original series was an inspiration; somebody the viewers wanted very much to be like and therefore identified with; the Kirk in STID is like many of the audience members watching – young, hardheaded, sexually over-stimulated and smart-alecky, somebody to supposedly relate to. That may be correct; we all have friends that are genuinely annoying to be around but have good qualities; still, we'd probably not want them commanding a starship…

The same can be said of the new Superman. He was created by two individuals to be a representation of all that was best in humanity. Of course as a human (but remember, he isn't a human; and that loneliness is also part of his character!) he had self-doubts, but he also possessed a strong moral conviction, an absolute sense of right and wrong, a deep humility of being a stranger in a strange land, and an empathy towards those around him. He was determined to be a symbol, a beacon of hope, if you will, and took that responsibility proudly.

What have we in MAN OF STEEL? A character who tries to hide his true identity and avoid these responsibilities. (I'll even grant some of this in an origin story, but I feel it was expressed far better in the first SUPERMAN directed by Richard Donner.) At the conclusion there is a massive battle with Kryptonian forces that literally decimates a city, yet amidst the carnage and chaos not once is Superman concerned about the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of lives lost in the melee (again, with that tiresome homage to 911.) (Which is also nonsense, because during that terrible day humanity's empathy was never more acute; every first responder ached for the victims and pushed themselves far beyond endurance to service those in need.)

(And even though I didn't care for it as much as some fans, one of the strong points about last summer's THE AVENGERS was the stated attempts by all involved to minimize the damage and casualties as much as possible; MAN OF STEEL doesn't even pay lip service to the idea. At no point does Superman try and draw the enemy into a different location, or use his wits to try and outthink his opponents, in yet another sop to Action! Action! Action!)

Then, as the movie draws to a close, Superman makes a decision in the heat of battle which has caused the largest shouting against the film; he kills Zod by snapping his neck. (One critic went so far at that point as to bellow “That's it! You lost me! I'm outta here!” and struggled to leave the theater; only his friends and family kept him there until the finish.)



The Real Deal - Artwork By Alex Ross


But Superman doesn't kill. Ever. End of argument and discussion.

One of Superman's most cherished principles among his fandom was his self-awareness that he was far greater than the average human, in strength, thought and abilities. And with this near-godhood came the responsibilities to not act as a god to humanity; to maintain his ethics and morals even in the face of temptation. More than one Superman story used this as its pivotal point.

(Again, spare me the argument that in some comic ten or twenty or thirty years ago Superman did kill someone as part of the canon. Bad writing in film cannot be excused by bad writing in comics. Superman doesn't kill. Period.) (And yes, I'm aware of Alan Moore's tale “ Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which ironically made this point completely clear. I grant that as the only instance where I'll accept Superman killing anyone.)

The apologists come forth: “But there was nothing else he could have done in that situation!” After the film was released I witnessed at least three instances of alternative endings that would have been far more satisfying to the Superman canon; all it took was superior sense of imagination, which the screenwriters seemed to lack. The argument that there was nothing else he could have done applies to the audience; once again we are presented with a character that they audience is supposed to relate to, not aspire to, and in their mind, there was nothing else they could have done.

But Superman was not one of them; he is far better, and there was always something he could do. I offer the conclusion of the original SUPERMAN, with the death of Lois Lane . Sitting in that audience when her demise struck home was a devastating moment, and in our shocked silence Superman's solution was greeted with shouts and cheers of delight and admiration. Even those whose suspension of belief was stretched to the breaking point had to admit it was an original solution worthy of the character. (Trust me; you probably had to be there, but it was wonderful.) The solution in MAN OF STEEL isn't worthy of comparison; it was cheap and simplistic.

I won't even go into the flaws in THE LONE RANGER. Again we have a character bastardized because contemporary audiences can't accept a truly good man, a moralistic individual with a code of honor above that of the average moviegoer. It must be camped up, played for laughs, dragged down to their level instead of elevating them to the stature of the character. It deserved its box office demise.



(And as a sad aside, I shake my head at Johnny Depp's career choices. This is the man who brought us BENNY & JOON, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, DONNY BRASCO and ED WOOD. Perhaps he's spent entirely too much time with Tim Burton or gotten too wealthy, but whatever has happened, it's been a long, terrible slide.)


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman Year One” went through the comic community like wildfire with its gritty, hyper-realistic depiction of the Batman universe. Yet for all his ‘reimagining', Mr. Miller was respectful to the core of the Batman canon. (Some will disagree, and find fault with some of Mr. Miller's work, such as his recharacterization of the Catwoman. I understand their objections.) At its core was a man damaged by a traumatic incident in his childhood, who vows to restore some semblance of balance to a world tilting into anarchy and corruption.

Yet where Mr. Miller emphasized an obsessive near-psychosis in the character of Bruce Wayne, he played down the aspects of honor, justice, and principles that had carried the previous incarnations through their versions in the previous generation into the Denny O'Neal/Neal Adams era. Many objected to this; the creators of the Batman animated series restored it, making the character far more balanced while continuing the Dark Knight motif.

At the same time Alan Moore was breaking ground with WATCHMEN, detailing an alternate universe where the idea of ‘super-hero' was deconstructed into the masked vigilante, again disturbingly obsessed with presenting a rough, merciless, individual version of justice. While many applauded the new ‘realism' of the series, its a worth noting that there were still characters in that universe that held onto the principles of honor and ethics, justice instead of revenge, and the fine line that had to be walked.

We live in an era where people placed on pedestals are often found to be wanting, and the edifice crumbles messily. Politicians lie and posture, sports figures cheat and take shortcuts, the wealthy rewrite the books and cut loose the human element if it becomes too costly. And when confronted with their crimes, failures and falsehoods, the excuse is primarily the same: “Hey, everybody does it! I'm just doing what everyone else is doing! You'd be a chump not to take advantage of any opportunity.”

It's easy to become much too cynical in this world, because sometimes it seems like everyone is doing it, and you'd be foolish not to lie, cheat, scrabble, and shortcut like everyone else.

But this is an illusion. I truly believe that some, if not most, don't behave this way. They don't make the news for the same reason that the villains in a James Bond or Batman tale receive more attention: simple decency and honesty is a hard sell in the news cycle of “If it bleeds, it leads.” But they are there, men and women of principle. We aren't asked to identify or ‘relate' to them; we're asked to be like them, to follow in their footsteps on the high road, even though that road is rough, pitted, filled with sharp cutting rocks and crevices and wearying to climb and walk.

In THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, in a marvelous moment, Luke asks Yoda if the Dark Side of the Force is stronger than the Light. No, replies Yoda, but it is quicker and easier. It's a hard lesson to learn that the best way is often the most difficult, and many are tempted to quit in frustration. And that is why we have heroes like Captain James T. Kirk, Superman, The Lone Ranger and others. They say yes, it's hard, but it's better; when you've been through the fire, if you've stuck to your values and lived with integrity, when the journey is complete you'll look back upon the ground you've covered and be very glad that you chose the path you did.

Those politicians, sports figures and other failed heroes will never be able to say that. And that's why true heroes are important, especially today in a world that doesn't seem to value them terribly high. I'd say they're more important now that ever.

Many years ago I attended I-Con on Long Island , a massive SF/Fantasy/Horror convention. On my first night I was invited to play “The List”; I don't know if you remember that talk show, but various celebrity guests would gather to pick a list of a selected subject – say, the Best Heavy metal Bands, or the Best Alfred Hitchcock Films. Everyone would come with three or four possibilities, the lists would be discussed, eventually most would be eliminated, and the top three choices left would be considered the decisive and definitive list.

The topic we were given was Top Heroes In SF. I prepared three, and one of them was James T. Kirk. Understand that the other STAR TREK series – THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE and VOYAGER - were on the air and all had their devotees. I suspected that Captain Kirk wouldn't stand in the face of other heroes, particularly since the fans were now vocal in their affection for Captains Picard and Janeway. But I thought the Captain Kirk of the original series – compassionate, dutiful, courageous, strong and moral – was an excellent choice, and was prepared to argue vigorously for him.

It wasn't necessary. I was delighted and pleased to find a cheering audience declare Captain James T. Kirk as the Number One selection of the Top Heroes In SF. The room literally erupted when the choice (and it was apparent to be an obvious choice) was made.

I offer this to all who pronounce the heroes of yesteryear dead and buried, pushed aside for the new grittier, darker, edgier and more ‘relatable' variety. Some of us still value honor, duty, ethics, integrity and decency. I suspect there are far more than many in Hollywood and publishing might imagine.

For those who disagree, who pronounce that “This isn't your father's Superman” or Batman or Lone Ranger or Star Trek or what have you, I offer the words of Mr. Ellison above, and suggest that what you treasure and value today may sadly be tossed aside and laughed off by generations to come. If you're going to offer something worthwhile, try to make certain that it has the staying power of these currently being ‘reimagined'.

Not our father's Superman, or whatever? Again: who asked you? Who asked for it? We like our father's versions just fine. Go find your own damn heroes.

( For a similar [and mercifully much briefer] perspective on this issue, you can click HERE.)

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JULY
2013

 

One of my newest human companions asked me if I was a Reaper. More than a few have noted the resemblance between myself and my Cousin, quite famous in his own rite. No, I told her, I'm not one of the Eternals. In truth I'm always saddened by the mortality of my humanity, and am loathe focusing on the death of anyone I love and admire.

Nevertheless, the time has come to recognize the passing of a true Master of the Dark Fantastic, one of the most influential people in modern Weird Fiction, equally at home both in print and on the screen. He has touched the lives of almost everyone who follows the genre, as significant as the late Ray Bradbury, although not as well-known to the public at large.



But if you mention the name Richard Matheson in Horror circles, you will doubtless get a smile and nod of appreciation, and a flood of remembrances. “Hey, wasn't he the one who…?” Yes indeed, he was, and if any man truly has earned a tribute, it is he. How could I let him go without a few words of deep respect and admiration?

Let me put this as succinctly as possible: if you have enjoyed any aspect of the Dark Fantastic, Horror, Speculative Fiction or whatever you wish to call it, in stories, novels, television, theater or film, you can thank Richard Matheson. He has been as instrumental in the development of modern sensibilities in Horror as any author since Lovecraft or Poe; has literally changed the genre and put his stamp on the field as few other modern writers have. No less than Stephen King has credited Mr. Matheson as his major influence.

The words come difficult for me; there's so much to say about this extraordinary man that I hardly know where to start. As I mentioned earlier, Ray Bradbury may have been the face of Fantasy and SF to general audiences (through his appearances in "Collier's" and other “mainstream” publications) but Mr. Matheson's work is equally as known to the public at large, even if his name is not instantly recognizable. A few small examples to illustrate…

If you were/are a fan or THE TWILIGHT ZONE, you're probably a fan of Richard Matheson.

Some years ago, a friend of my human acquaintance Bob was flying down to Disneyworld for a vacation with her family. While there she sent a postcard to Bob that read, “The flight was wonderful, but I had a seat right over the wing, and spent most of the trip watching for that damn gremlin!”

The general public doesn't necessarily distinguish between those who present a work of art and those who create it. Hence, they think of Walt Disney's PINNOCHIO, although it was actually taken from a book by Carlo Collodi; they think of Francis Ford Coppolla's THE GODFATHER although it was adapted by Mr. Coppolla very faithfully from Mario Puzo's bestselling novel, and we think of Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The last is not such a stretch; Mr. Serling wrote more than 92 of the 156 episodes, most of them original, for his groundbreaking series.



"Nightmare At 20,000 Feet"


But he was not alone. Early in its production two other writers, both of them best friends and members of Southern California 's informal writing corps of the Dark Fantastic (that also included Ray Bradbury) came aboard to also write for the show; these three men were the brain trust behind much of what we consider THE TWILIGHT ZONE. One was Charles Beaumont, and the other Richard Matheson. Both had an immediate sensibility to what Mr. Serling was trying to create; both had backgrounds in the short story form that would produce some of the best ideas and adaptations for THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and both were highly respected in the field of Horror and Fantasy.

Working on the series, Mr. Matheson created some of the most fondly remembered episodes (often mistakenly attributed to Mr. Serling), many of which are rightly considered television classics. There was the aforementioned gremlin on the airplane wing menacing William Shatner in “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (which was remade with John Lithgow in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE), Agnes Moorehead as the mute farm woman beset by miniature creatures from space in “The Invaders”, Lee Marvin fighting against a robot opponent in a society where boxing between humans has been banned in “Steel”, William Shatner again in the thrall of the penny fortune-telling machine with the devil's head in the diner in “Nick Of Time” (one of Mr. Matheson's best, most subtle and chilling episodes), and the small girl that falls through the hole in her bedroom into another dimension and her cries can be heard echoing throughout the house in “Little Girl Lost”.

(One note about this last episode; many who watch it have noted more than a few similarities between it and the movie POLTERGEIST. Some have suggested that Mr. Spielberg based his idea on this episode, much as Mr. Cameron took THE TERMINATOR from Harlan Ellison's OUTER LIMITS episodes. The parallels are striking, and Mr. Ellison hypothesizes that Mr. Spielberg hired Mr. Matheson as the scribe on the TWILIGHT ZONE movie not only as a seasoned representative of the series, but to curtail a long, drawn-out court battle, allowing Mr. Matheson to receive due payment without admitting any wrongdoing. I find that a quite convincing theory.)

What special quality did Mr. Matheson bring to THE TWILIGHT ZONE that so endeared him to Mr. Serling? (They became fast, good friends as a result of working together.) One important attribute they seemed to share was an insistence on absolute reality in regards to their characters and situations. That may sound paradoxical, considering they were writing Fantasy, but neither was terribly interested in old-fashioned crumbling haunted houses with clanking-chained ghosts or historical romanticism with sorcerers, grimnores, witches and knights on fabled quests.

Mr. Serling, and Mr. Matheson specialized (and excelled) in urban Fantasy; the people that populated these tales were grocery clerks, businessmen, school teachers, penny-ante con artists, bank tellers, sidewalk panhandlers and mob buttonmen. They took place in back alleys, suburban neighborhoods, high-rise apartments and other easily recognizable locations. The element of the fantastic was added to the fillip of the story once everyday authenticity had been established.



"Little Girl Lost"


This was Mr. Serling's providence, certainly, but Mr. Matheson had been tilling this soil for many years previously with his novel and short story work. (It's worth noting that Mr. Matheson came to the producers' attention as a short story author instead of screenwriter; two of the earliest TWILIGHT ZONE episodes were “And The Sky Was Opened”, Mr. Serling's very loose adaptation of Mr. Matheson's short story “Disappearing Act”, and his more faithful adaptation of his story “Third From The Sun”.) In his celebrated novels “I Am Legend” and “The Shrinking Man”, the terror is a brilliant counterpoint to the normalcy of those trapped in the fantastic situations. So important was this believability to Mr. Matheson that he often named his characters after friends and members of his own family to sustain the realism (the wife and daughter in “Little Girl Lost” are named Ruth and Tina respectively, Mr. Matheson's wife and daughter's names) and describe locations that existed around him (the cellar in “The Shrinking Man” was an exact description of Mr. Matheson's own basement, where each day he would go down to write, simply describing his surroundings).

If you are a fan of Horror and Dark Fantasy in film and television, you are probably a fan of Richard Matheson.

Mr. Matheson wrote primarily for THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but his scripts appeared on three of the four celebrated anthology shows of the 1950s and 60s, including ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THRILLER. (The only show missing his byline was THE OUTER LIMITS, although I consider his hour-long TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Death Ship” firmly in that tradition. And to be a completist, an adaptation of his short story “First Anniversary” appeared on the 1980s cable revival of the series.) In addition, when Mr. Serling attempted his second series NIGHT GALLERY, he invited his friend to contribute, and Mr. Matheson responded with two of the most memorable episodes: “The Funeral” and “Big Surprise”. He also wrote the celebrated STAR TREK “The Enemy Within”, where Captain Kirk is split into two halves, good and evil, due to a transporter incident.

This last is worth noting on several levels, for it speaks to the dedication that Mr. Matheson would bring to his scripts and stories. The situation is an old one, merely “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”. But in researching for the story, Mr. Matheson discovered that things are not nearly so basic; the ‘good' side of a personality depends on the ‘evil' side for confidence, decision-making, authority, and other strengths of character. Consequently the ‘evil' side is dependent on the ‘good' to keep these qualities in check and not allow the person to become cruel or callous, but because the ‘evil' side is essentially primitive man, it is more easily terrified and depends on the ‘good' for courage in desperate situations. Mr. Matheson's script reflects this dichotomy beautifully, and so well is the psychology delineated that teaching hospitals have been known to use this episode of STAR TREK to show medical students a perfect illustration.

(And just for the record, Mr. Matheson also was a story consultant for William Castle's series GHOST STORY; two of his stories were adapted and filmed for Mr. Spielberg's series AMAZING STORIES, along a rejected TWILIGHT ZONE script “The Doll”; his short story “Button, Button” was adapted into one of the lesser segments of the 1980s rebirth of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and his story “Dance Of The Dead” was faithfully and wonderfully adapted by his son for the MASTERS OF HORROR series.)

While he was writing these episodes for television, Hollywood was also calling on Mr. Matheson to lend his talents to the big screen, first with his adaptation of his novel into THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, one of the handful of truly adult SF films from the 1950s. (There was also an adaptation of “I Am Legend” as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH starring Vincent Price, but he was far less satisfied with those results. Indeed, it's interesting to note that Mr. Matheson has always been his own worst critic regarding his film and television work, not liking anything initially when first viewed, the results never matching up with his vision while writing. He found many of the efforts, including those considered classics, fell far short of his expectations. It's only after time has passed and he'd looked at the films with a fresh perspective that he was able to enjoy them and acknowledge their quality.)

Not long after his success with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Roger Corman called on Mr. Matheson to write the script for a project he was planning: to adapt the stories of Edgar Allen Poe into feature films. Mr. Matherson responded with HOUSE OF USHER, an instant hit that solidified Vincent Price's status as a Horror-film actor and brought Mr. Corman into a new stratosphere of making movies with larger budgets. After the success of HOUSE OF USHER (with both men agreeing that Mr. Matheson's script contributed to the quality and the success), both men embarked on a series of movies that included THE PIT & THE PENDULUM, TALES OF TERROR, & THE RAVEN, all scripted by Mr. Matheson.



"House Of Usher" with Vincent Price


(On a ancillary note, the remaining Poe films were scripted by Mr. Matheson's best friend and TWILIGHT ZONE compatriot Charles Beaumont, who wrote THE PREMATURE BURIAL and, my favorite and the very best of the Poe films in my opinion, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. The only Poe film not scripted by either of these gentlemen was Mr. Corman's final effort, THE TOMB OF LIGEA, written by acclaimed screenwriter Robert Towne.)

Mr. Matheson went on to do other films for Mr. Price, including MASTER OF THE WORLD, and remained in England to write two of the best Horror films of the 1960s and 70s: BURN, WITCH, BURN, a flawless adaptation of Fritz Leiber's “Conjure Wife” (co-written with Charles Beaumont) and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, from the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, produced by and starring Christopher Lee.

But perhaps his finest film moment was his adaptation of his novel “Hell House”. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE had the misfortune to be released just after the groundbreaking THE EXORCIST and its box office suffered as a result. But eschewing the graphic shocks of its competition, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE crafted a genuinely frightening film of misdirection and fear in the Val Lewton tradition; it was only after time had passed that its reputation finally reached the nearly unanimous accord this fine film was due. Featuring Roddy McDowell (in one of his best performances), Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunnicutt, “Hell House” has been bookended with Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” as two of the greatest examples of modern macabre literature, and both movies have been celebrated as high points in the cinema of the Dark Fantastic.

(It's ironic that THE EXORCIST was the movie that overshadowed THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Mr. Matheson was on record in interview after interview downplaying the need for gore and graphic violence and carnage in Horror. He greatly disliked some of the more garish illustrations on the paperback editions of his short story collections, and disliked gratuitous film violence. It's doubly ironic in that Mr. Matheson's work is filled with visceral imagery and shocking implied violence, often far worse than anything more explicit.)



"The Legend Of Hell House"


But it was in the area of the television film that Mr. Matheson was able to hone his skills best. That statement might seem incongruous, considering the level that TV movies have sunken today, but at the time he began writing them, the television original was coming into its own; a ninety-minute or two-hour one-shot event that was taking the place of the anthology series. Many of them were quite bad as well, but some were magnificent, considering the heavy censorship of the 1970s. Mr. Matheson's name could be found on the very best and most critically hailed.

Mr. Matheson adapted Jeff Rice's novel “The Kolchack Tapes” into the iconic THE NIGHT STALKER, for all intents and purposes creating the character of Cark Kolchak (along with actor Darren McGavin, whose performance was exemplary) and helming what was at the time the highest-rated movie in television history, outscoring the previous record-holder BEN HUR. When the film became a sensation Mr. Matheson scripted his original tale THE NIGHT STRANGLER, creating an even better film that catapulted Kolchak into the highest echelons of genre consciousness and paved the way for the series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.

Teaming with producer Dan Curtis (who produced and created the television series DARK SHADOWS as well as the two Kolchak films), Mr. Matheson began a very fruitful collaboration that saw a wonderful adaptation of the novel DRACULA (starring Jack Palace, extraordinary, as the Count and Nigel Davenport as Van Helsing), DYING ROOM ONLY, THE STRANGER WITHIN and what may be one of the single most frightening episodes ever presented for network television, TRILOGY OF TERROR; a triumvirate of stories culminating in the horrifying “Prey”, with Karen Black pursued about her apartment by a Zumi fetish doll come horribly to life. Nobody who's ever seen this shocking, relentless piece of Horror has forgotten it.

(As a small sidelight – which I realize I'm doing quite a bit this essay, but there's so much to cover, please forgive me – Mr. Matheson also during this time adapted the script for the celebrated non-genre film THE MORNING AFTER, starring Dick Van Dyke in his finest dramatic turn as a man coping with alcoholism. So accurate and authentic was his script that, when he first met Mr. Van Dyke, the actor jokingly accused the writer of looking through his bedroom windows. It is a powerful, uncompromising work.)



"The Night Stalker" with Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak

More than any of these, Mr. Matheson was responsible for one of the most notable and celebrated television films ever produced. Which leads to the following:

If you enjoy the work of Steven Spielberg, you can thank Richard Matheson.

Oh yes? I hear you saying. Come now, Carpathian…the creator of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK , ET, THE COLOR PURPLE…really? Well…

Before he became the feature film phenomenon he is today, Mr. Spielberg was a young director of appreciable but not terribly notable talent, working in the fields of series television. His first directing assignment was, ironically enough, the pilot film for ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY, the episode titled “Eyes”. In addition to doing a NIGHT GALLERY series segment, Mr. Spielberg also did many of the Universal-produced series prominent at the time, including COLUMBO, THE PSYCHIATRIST, THE NAME OF THE GAME and OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW. He was working steadily, and always looking for something to help him stand out and boost his career further. He also did a number of the ninety-minute made-for-television films including SOMETHING EVIL and SAVAGE.

Then came a film called DUEL.

Written by Mr. Matheson, based on his short story published in “Playboy”, DUEL was an offbeat story that made every critic stand and take notice. A salesman, played brilliantly by Dennis Weaver, is driving home across country. He is driving through the vast expanse and deserts of Arizona , with the road mostly to himself – until he comes upon a truck that begins to play a terrible and terrifying game of cat-and-mouse with the hapless traveler.

Mr. Spielberg recognized the potential of the script, and set about doing an astonishing job of capturing Mr. Matheson's work. Because they filmed in the actual desert, away from studio interference and oversight, he was able to create a jarring, gripping and savage piece of suspense and Horror, and when the film was initially screened the effect was like lightning. (In fact, there was some concern that the film was too intense and frightening for television. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed.)

Critics fell over themselves with superlatives; it was automatically listed as one of the finest television movies ever created, and a sterling example of what the medium was capable of achieving. The film was released theatrically in Europe and broke box office records. And the production team of Richard Zanick and David Brown, who had just acquired the first novel of author Peter Benchley about a shark terrorizing a beach community, contacted the young director about helming the film version of JAWS specifically after seeing his expert handling of Mr. Matheson's script for DUEL.



"Duel" with Dennis Weaver


And the rest is history. Mr. Spielberg has long contended in various interviews that DUEL, and by extension Mr. Matheson's script, were responsible for launching his career in an enormous way.

Here's another one that will take your breath away:

If you are a fan of modern zombie movies, you can thank Richard Matheson.

This one is much easier to acknowledge, and true fans of our genre are probably nodding in agreement.

Mr. Matheson's first genre novel (he had written two previous suspense novels) was the masterpiece “I Am Legend”. With his typical sense of maintaining total realism in the face of the fantastic, the story told of a lone man in a suburban housing tract overrun by the survivors of a worldwide plague that had either killed all the inhabitants of Earth, or mutated them into vampires. Each night, barricaded behind his boarded-up windows and reinforced doors, protected by the crosses and garlic strung across the exterior of his home, he heard the hordes of the Undead, his former friends and neighbors, hungrily prowling outside his isolated sanctuary, calling out continuously: “Neville… Come out!”

The book was an instant sensation, for, although Mr. Matheson insisted that it was simply a story well-told (he claimed to have the idea while watching Bela Lugosi's DRACULA, and thinking if one vampire was scary, one hundred vampires would be much scarier!) the novel resonated with a post-war generation of Americans that were beginning to ask hard questions about the nature of society. For in his imagining of a world turned upside-down with man as the minority, Mr. Matheson was speculating on the constantly-shifting degrees of “normalcy”, and how easily they can be reshaped, politically, socially…or by accident and disaster.

A young filmmaker named George Romero read “I Am Legend” and was immediately taken by it, and, inspired by the lessons taught by the novel, attempted his own ruminations on a culture turned inside out, and how humanity would react to a wave of the Undead that would make short work of “civilization” His first film in the projected series shares several scenes that stand in stark parallel to similar moment's in Mr. Matheson's work; characters trapped in an isolated location (in the film a remote farmhouse) while a hoard of mindless creatures wander outside (in the film not vampires, but cannibalistic Living Dead) who intend to prey on those inside (instead of drinking their blood, by literally devouring them).



Of course, the film was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which became a sensation and in many ways redefined much of modern Horror film. But NIGHT was only the first chapter of Mr. Romero's planned story arc, an arc that continued with DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and the most recent SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. As each film progresses, society shatters further, humanity becomes a hunted minority in the world of the Walking Dead, and the Dead themselves have begun to evolve to form their own version of civilization, very much as it progresses in Mr. Matheson's novel. All the zombie films and stories that have followed have, to a greater or lesser degree, mimicked and emphasized these ingredients (including the latest phenomenon THE WALKING DEAD, which certainly examines a world fractured by stress and disaster).

Mr. Romero has always cited “I Am Legend” as the inspiration for his films, and Mr. Matheson has kindly returned the favor, stating that the LIVING DEAD films are the best “unofficial” adaptations of his novel made, much better than the “official” ones.

If you enjoy the work of Stephen King, you can…well, you get the idea by now…

I won't belabor this much further myself. Rather, let me simply quote the Horror Master himself on the influence of Richard Matheson's work on his life and Art:

From an interview published in “Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness”, by Douglas Winter:

“I had read Poe and I had read a lot of Gothic novelists, and even with Lovecraft I felt as though I were in Europe somewhere. I knew instinctively that I was trying to find a way to get back home, to where I belonged. And then I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, where this fellow was blockading himself in his house every night - and it wasn't a castle, it was a tract house in Los Angeles . He was going out and staking vampires every day, finding them at the cold counter at Stop and Shop, laid out like lamb chops or something. And I realized then that Horror didn't have to happen in a haunted castle; it could happen in the suburbs, on your street, maybe right next door.”

Or this, from his excellent non-fiction reference “Danse Macabre”, talking of Jack Finney's novel “The Body Snatchers”:

“There are no Plains of Leng here; no Cyclopean ruins under the earth; no shambling monsters in the subway tunnels under New York . At about the same time Jack Finney was writing The Body Snatchers, Richard Matheson was writing his classic short story ‘Born of Man and Woman,' the story that begins ‘today my mother called me retch, you retch she said.' Between the two of them, they made the break from the Lovecraftian fantasy that had held sway over serious American writers of Horror for two decades or more. Matheson's short story was published well before Weird Tales went broke; Finney's novel was published by Dell a year after. Although Matheson published two early short stories in Weird Tales, neither writer is associated with this icon of American Fantasy-Horror magazines; they represent the birth of an almost entirely new breed of American Fantasist…”

Or this last, from Mr. King's introduction to a republishing of Mr. Matheson's work in the collection “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”:

“To say that Richard Matheson invented the Horror story would be as ridiculous as it would be to say that Elvis Presley invented rock and roll…

…But like rock and roll, or any other genre that skates across the nerve-endings, Horror must constantly regenerate and renew itself or die.

In the early 1950s, when Weird Tales was dying its slow death and Robert Bloch, Horror's greatest writer at the time, had turned to psychological tales (and at this same time Fritz Lieber, easily Bloch's equal, had fallen oddly silent for a time) and the genre was languishing in the horse latitudes, Richard Matheson came like a bolt of pure ozone lightning.

He single-handedly regenerated a stagnant genre, rejecting the conventions of the pulps which were already dying, incorporating sexual impulses and images into his work as Theodore Sturgeon had already begun to do in his Science Fiction, and writing a series of gut-bucket short stories that were like shots of white lightning.

What do I remember about these stories?

I remember what they taught me; the same thing rock's most recent regenerator, Bruce Springsteen, articulates in one of his songs: No retreat, baby, no surrender…

…When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be here. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley's mother…”

And after that, what more can be said?



"The Invaders"


Richard Matheson was, by all accounts, a modest, unassuming, generous individual (in the same volume where Mr. King offers his praise of Mr. Matheson's talents, Mr. Matheson returns the favor in his dedication: “To Stephen King, with much admiration for taking the ball and running with it all the way” ), a fine, loyal friend (Rod Serling sings his praises in a letter where Mr. Matheson, having been hired to rewrite a film he's has worked on, writes and asks Mr. Serling's permission to take on the project), a devoted and loving family man (whose son, Richard Christian Matheson, has carved out his own acclaimed corner in the genre of the Dark Fantastic) and, above all else, a gentleman. Those are reasons alone to mourn his passing; there are so few like that in the world today.

I enjoy this picture immensely: it's a gathering of several of the unofficial California Writer's Group (known as the "Southern California Sorcerers") Mr. Matheson was part of: from left to right, we have Chad Oliver (“The Mists Of Dawn”), his best friend Charles Beaumont, Mr. Matheson, and William Nolan (“Logan's Run”). The men look relaxed, goofy and altogether comfortable with each other's company; no doubt a fly on the wall would have had a splendid time flitting in.



He was also a friend of Ray Bradbury's, which is why one of the biggest ironies of his career is that his miniseries adaptation of Mr. Bradbury's “The Martian Chronicles” was one of his few artistic misfires. I'm not certain what went wrong; certainly the production itself wasn't terribly inspired, despite a fine cast. I think this was one instance where Mr. Matheson's sense of realism was at odds with the source material; Mr. Bradbury's work demands a poet's eye and pen, enabling the screenplay to soar in metaphoric wonder and romanticism.

Yet Mr. Matheson was quite capable of such wonder; his novel “Bid Time Returns” (which he adapted into SOMEWHERE IN TIME) was lushly romantic, and his astonishing examination of the afterlife “What Dreams May Come” certainly equals Mr. Bradbury's sense of awe and mystery. And to be fair, the second part of the three part adaptation did reach for some of Mr. Bradbury's poetic best; Mr. Matheson liked that script very much as well, and it earned him a Writer's Guild of America nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. If the rest of the miniseries had been up to that quality, it might have been remarkable.

Mr. Matheson was an extraordinary man, but even more than that, he was an extraordinary writer. Sadly, we will never have another opportunity to talk with him, nor share his company and insights. But we can share his talents; his stories are still in print, either in the original or new, handsome collections from Tor Books. He has never truly been out of print, and it was in the novel and short story that he excelled. The printed page requires no large studio budget or CGI to move, to shock, to terrify. Here he was an undisputed master.

“I Am Legend” is one of the modern classics of the Dark Fantastic, along with “The Haunting Of Hill House”, “Rosemary's Baby”, “Interview With A Vampire”, “Stranger In A Strange Land”, “Fahrenheit 451”, “Ghost Story” and “Falling Angel”; books that have surpassed the boundaries of the genre to become acknowledged literary milestones. I have handed this book to others who have no interest whatsoever in our beloved field; they've literally raced through the novel (it's quite short; easily readable in a day or two) and thanked me.

“Hell House” is one of the finest examples of the tales of the Bad Place , easily mentioned in the same breath as the previous “The Haunting Of Hill House” and “The Shining”. Like Ms. Jackson, it examines the conflict between science, the supernatural and the personalities of those involved with each, creating a truly dark, thought-provoking work. The flip side, a novel of the hope that waits on the other side of that veil, “What Dreams May Come”, is an evocative, beautiful meditation on love and pain, life and death. Roger Ebert suggested showing the film adaptation to someone going through the mourning process; I suggest giving them the novel instead. Genuinely life-affirming, it remains an example of what Fantasy can do better than any other ‘serious' mainstream fiction.



Generations: Richard Matheson and his son,
author Richard Christian Matheson shared the cover of
"Rod Serling's Twilight Zone" magazine in June 1986.
The two were Guests of Honor at the
2009 World Horror Convention.


I haven't even mentioned “A Stir Of Echoes” or “The Shrinking Man”, two other great novels of the Dark Fantastic, because, in my opinion, it is in his shorter work that Mr. Matheson excels. Like Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, HP Lovercaft and Edgar Allen Poe, Mr. Matheson is a consummate artist of the short, sharp, suckerpunch of Terror. His stories are adult, forceful and terribly, terribly unsettling.

If you enjoyed the film of “Duel”, read the novelette and experience the same ratcheting tension. If you consider “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” the greatest TWILIGHT ZONE episode ever broadcast, read the story and delve into the desperate thoughts of the passenger confronting the intruder on the airplane's wing. Did you cower at the Zumi Doll's attack on Karen Black? Read “Prey” and cower more. And despite Mr. Matheson's previously stated aversion to graphic violence, the stories are filled with hideous, implied carnage made all the more horrific for the cool, detached, elegant prose that depicts it.

‘Dress Of White Silk”. “Through Channels”. “Witch War” “Blood's Son”. “Mad House”. “Dance Of The Dead”. “The Children Of Noah”. “Person To Person”. “The Test”. “By Appointment Only”. “Button, Button”. “Dying Room Only”. And his very first tale that rocked the SF community: “Born Of Man And Woman.”

Yet of all his short fiction, I believe his finest effort is “The Distributor”. If Mr. Matheson had written nothing else, his legacy would have been secured with this nightmare. Low-key, and utterly uncompromising, it looks at an average community, the secrets underneath the genteel façade and how easily they are ripped asunder. “The Distributor” is very adult and unyielding; you will finish it feeling as though you'd been hit between the eyes with a two-by-four. And much as I decry the recent glut of useless remakes coming from Hollywood , I yield a prayer to the cinematic gods that “The Distributor” is never released as a film (as it threatens to be every few years or so). It will be completely undone by a useless “backstory” the screenwriters create to “explain” the Distributors' actions, it will cast a currently-attractive twenty-to-thirtysomething as the lead, and it will make every clubfooted, unnecessary and inept move a movie could possibly make in its attempts to frighten. And fail.

Read the story. It will haunt you forever.



Richard Matheson and family; his wife Ruth is directly behind him, his son Richard Christian is on the far left. (Taken at the "Legend" Award ceremony in 2005.)


As with Mr. Bradbury, I want to end on a humorous note for this kind, thoughtful, true gentleman whose presence has enriched us all. (And though I've spoken primarily about his ability to terrify in this essay, many of Mr. Mathseon's works are also sharp with humor and satire; you can enjoy “A Flourish Of Strumpets” and “The Funeral”, his screenplays for THE RAVEN and A COMEDY OF TERRORS, or his TWILIGHT ZONE episode “A World Of His Own” to attest to that.)

So I'll leave this memory with you all, courtesy of Mr. Serling, letting him tell the tale in his own words (from an interview in 1975, retold in “The Twilight Zone Companion” by Marc Scott Zicree):

(Concerning the episode “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”)

“Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco . It was like three or four weeks after the show was on the air, and I had spent three weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardess close the curtains when he sat down, and I was going to say, ‘Dick, open it up.' I had this huge blowup poster stuck to the outside of the window so that when he opened it there would be this gremlin staring at him.

So what happened was we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and I say, ‘Dick – ‘ at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane…

He never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie awake in bed thinking how we could do this.”

If there is any one good thing about the passing of a sterling artist and humanitarian, it is this: Mr. Matheson is now reunited with both of his dear friends, Misters Serling, Bradbury and Beaumont. And at this moment, I'm certain the laughter shared is loud, long, and affectionate.



Mr. Matheson receiving the "Legend" Award
from Gauntlet Press in 2005. Behind him is
Ray Bradbury, who presented the award.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JUNE
2013

 

Last time I finished up by talking about children and how they enjoy being frightened on their own terms. Bear that last part in mind.

A few true incidents…

* A few weeks ago I was one of the guest performers at Ravenswood Faire in Redding , a rebirth of a medieval faire that was quite popular for several years. There were, of course, many youngsters about, enjoying their time with battling knights, ethereal faeries, wandering vagabonds, and ladies-in-waiting. And among them was a certain spectre, making the afternoon macabre and magical.

During the joust I was walking behind the crowd, watching. As I walked I approached a couple with a very young girl. The parents reacted with alarm when they saw me - it was obvious they found my visage quite startling; that's understandable. They then proceeded to do everything wrong, trying very hard to keep their little girl from seeing me, worried she'd be frightened. The kept turning her away from whoever was walking behind her, which only made her more curious, and they tried to cover her eyes and face, which only succeeded in scaring her themselves. After a few such attempts, she began to cry.

The parents took their hands away, and the very instant the young lady saw me, her face lit up in a wide grin of delight and amazement. She stared at me as I walked and watched her, and when I waved to her she waved back immediately. After a time her parents decided to move on, and as they carried her away she waved again from across the fairegrounds, calling out “Goodbye!” as she went.



Yours Truly, obviously terrifying his young audience...


* Many times when I perform during the Halloween Season at the Humboldt County Library (as I have for the past several years) a newcomer will comment about how amazing it is that the children react so strongly and positively to me. Most aren't the least bit afraid but approach me as some kind of magical being (which, I suppose in all modesty, I am). One young lady couldn't verbalize her feelings; after my stories she wanted to visit, and simply held my right hand the entire time, looking at me and saying nothing. Then she took hold of my left hand as well. When she started to crawl into my lap, her mother intervened: “Sweetie, Carpathian needs to visit with other children too.” She simply wanted to be close to me.

* Some years ago, when I was performing at a local Halloween Fair, a young lady came up to me while I was on stage telling a tale. She stood there and watched in silence, unmoving. After a moment I interrupted my story, walked over to her and spoke softly. “Did you want something, my Dear?” She stood there, then grabbed the bottom of my black sash and rubbed her face in it, sighing and smiling, “No.” then she walked away. I was surprised to say the least, and quite amused.

It was similar to two years ago at the Excalibur Medieval Faire here on the Lost Coast . I was doing my stories when a small child saw me from a distance. She quickly toddled over and tried so hard to climb up on the stage to see me, giving it her best efforts. Of course I had to spend a few moments with her when I was done.

Obviously, young ones enjoy my company. All you need do is ask anyone who's attended my October performances, or seen me at Six Flags America's HALLOSCREAM (later FRIGHT FEST) event. Yet, just as obviously many adults are hesitant about exposing young ones to my (admittedly) striking visage. They worry about them being traumatized or terrified by my presence, and work themselves into paroxysms of spastic contortions and catch-phrases to keep this from happening, or from even knowing that I'm in the vicinity. And as you can imagine, these sudden efforts result in increasing the youngsters' tensions and fears instead of diminishing them. This is because certain incorrect assumptions are made immediately and inherently.

First, the adults are reacting to their own fears projected onto the children. As is commonly noted, children are born tabala rosa , or “clean slates”; they have to be taught what to love and fear. No one is born with a premeditated dread of skeletons; this is learned carefully over time. Poison bottles are labeled with skull and crossbones, scary movies present them as fearful creations, often accompanied with a loud crash of thunder, lightning and incidental music. (Children, especially young ones, are much more afraid of loud noises than anything they might see; even an adult's hearty laughter can unnerve them.)

Yet we must remember that at a certain age, children are literally afraid of everything. This is perfectly natural; after all, they view a world designed entirely for adults. Their perspective alone, featured so well in Mr. Spielberg's early films, is locked into a two-to-three foot height. Even benevolent adults tower over them, peering down with large eyes and (again) booming voices. Older people have strange wrinkles and their skin feels different, often paper-thin. There are things on high shelves that they are not allowed to touch, let alone see, and other that are locked tightly away. Most of all, they learn fear from their parents' expressions and exclamations, often from coming too close to the electrical outlets with their fingers or reaching for the very sharp knife at the dinner table.



Putting into practice what I preach.


But they do reach for them, and they do explore, because, not necessarily paradoxically, children are intensely curious about the world around them. Again, this isn't unexpected; they've actually all just arrived! They want to learn more about what's happening, and they are deeply attuned to their fears and doubts even as they are fascinated by what they haven't seen before.

When first approached by a young one, I do several things. First, I hold my position; I don't want to startle them with any sudden movements. I let them become confident that I'm not coming closer (or, conversely, running away to perform other mischief). I bring myself down to their level, so that they can look me in the eye without my towering over them; this change in perspective alone is comforting. I speak softly and gently, and try and remain a soothing presence. And, most importantly, I put the power in their hands. I give them control by letting them decide to approach me or not. This is simple yet incredibly empowering; if they wish, they can come over (and I don't move at all!) and say hello and if not, they don't need to. Either one is fine.

Quite often they will approach, because, as I stated, children are intensely curious. I realize fully that I am probably their first encounter with something beyond their normal worlds; I am a living embodiment of their imaginations there before them, twice as big as life (if you'll pardon the expression). That is a responsibility I take very highly, not the least bit lightly. I want their experience with the Dark Fantastic to be enticing, exciting and wondrous. Of course I'm a bit scary, but that's fine; magic is scary, even the most benign. (As C. S. Lewis points out, when angels make a physical appearance in the Bible, their first words are often, “Fear Not!”)



Children live inside their own heads, and the weather there is whatever the child wishes of fears. Adults do this as well, but not as successfully as young ones; adults are able at times leave their own concerns and be “in the world”, as it were. (Indeed, some adults do this so well that they simply cannot return to their imaginations, and have difficulty accepting anything remotely “unrealistic”. This is why they have no affection or appreciation for the Dark Fantastic in film and literature; to paraphrase Mr. King, the muscles of their imaginations have atrophied and they can no longer lift. Which is sad, to be sure, but certainly a digression and probably a topic for another time…)

Children live in the world, but the world only exists in relation to the interior landscape in their consciousness. Remember the wonderful comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes”? That cartoon got childhood exactly right, and many adults gave a chuckle in regards to their own encounters with their various brood. Allow me, if I may, to quote at length fellow cartoonist Gary Trudeau of “Doonesbury” in his wonderful foreword to the first “Calvin & Hobbes” collection:

“Anyone who's done time with a small child knows that reality can be highly situational. The utterance which an adult knows to be a ‘lie' may well reflect a child's deepest conviction, at least at the moment it pops out. Fantasy is so accessible, and it is joined with such force and frequency, that resentful parents like Calvin's assume they are being manipulated, when the truth is far more frightening: they don't even exist. The child is both king and keeper of this realm, and he can be very choosey about the company he keeps.”


One of the reasons that children respond so strongly to works of the Fantastic, both in stories and film, is that there before them are companions that exist inside their own dreams and nightmares, but have come alive for all to see. And when the Fantasy extends even moreso into the genuine world around them, as with the wonders of Disneyland or a well-run Renaissance Faire, the effect is like lightning.

I offer into evidence, not my own encounter, but a photo from the San Jose Fantasy Faire, held each May. Look long at the delightful expression on the little girl's face; that is pure, unabashed, naked delight. The world around her has become true as her own dreams, three times lifesize! How can she be anything but thrilled?



Of course, there are timid youngsters, shy in nature, who approach anything and anyone cautiously. These include strange and unknown relatives, friends of parents', teachers on the first day of school, clowns (which have their own place in the annals of Terror, but, yes, again a subject for a later time) and even Santa Claus. But when children are first confronted with these individuals, parents do not clap their hands over their eyes and try to keep them from seeing something disturbing. Yet all have, in popular anecdote and personal observation, terrified children as surely as any (supposedly) horrible monster.

Here are a few other mistakes parents make when confronting something they think their child will be afraid of; some wrong things that have been said repeatedly, along with my interpretation of the child's thoughts (I know; thrust me on this):

“Don't worry; he's not real!” (Of course he's real! He's standing right there in front of me!)
“It's just a man in a costume.” (Great! So it's not a scary monster; it's a scary man in a costume!)
“It's just pretend!” (See Mr. Trudeau above.)
“He's just wearing a mask.” (See my costume comment above.)

What should a parent say? How about some basic truths:

“He's not going to hurt you.” (Very true, and important.)
“He's friendly.” or “He's a friend we haven't met yet.”
“Doesn't he look handsome?” (All right, that's just my suggestion, but it will probably work.)

Denying what the child sees is useless; reinforcing what the child might want to believe is a good way to calm the fears and reconcile the imagination with the real world. Because children do want to believe; everything around them is heightened, and everything they see and hear has a ring of absolute truth. Look at this other picture below, a photo I treasure; these are children watching the performance of a puppet show. Note the delight on everyone's face, but note especially the one small girl on the right, her expression of rapt attention and unease: that tale being told is completely real to her, as real as anything in her life. That's an expression that most storytellers and performers pray for.



One final point on this subject: I think helping children react in this manner is very healthy for them, not only when confronting fear, but in other aspects of their lives. (It was always one of the conscious goals of my companions The Patient Creatures.) I think it very good to teach youngsters that those who look different or initially scary – say, those with a different skin color, handicap or disfigurement – isn't someone to be frightened or mistrustful of. And sadly, in this world the converse is ofttimes true: that those who look pleasing and promising are not necessarily always their friends and mean them no harm.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


A few more anecdotes:

* It never fails; I can offer witnesses. Whenever I perform for my younger friends, I often begin by establishing rapport with a simply question – “Would you like to hear a funny story or a scary one?” The answer usually comes back loud and clear, in chorus: “Scary!” Sometimes emphasized with “Real scary!”

* A certain young companion (who has since grown into a lovely young lady) used to attend my shows at Six Flags America's FRIGHT FEST event. She'd often stop by between shows, and ask, “When you do your next show, can you tell my favorite story?” I couldn't always promise that I could; it would depend on the makeup of the audience. If the crowd consisted primarily of small children, the story would have to wait – because her favorite story of all was a ghastly urban legend that I'd share named “Drip…Drip…Drip…!” At some point she'd heard the story and it fascinated her, and would request it constantly; a story that ends with an eviscerated corpse hanging from the high branches of a tree, blood spattering down on the car parked underneath.

* Occasionally, when I've finished a particularly eerie tale, my young friends will rouse themselves and proclaim, “That wasn't so scary!” This, when moments before, they sat with rapt attention, unmoving, all eyes focused upon me, absolutely silent. I simply smile.

* And this small gem: years ago, when my human companion Bob was an occasional guest on a local children's radio program discussing movies, he made an October appearance, and the youngsters were asked to recommend their favorite scary movies. There were the usual Scooby Doo episodes, Bugs Bunny Halloween cartoons, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, and the like. Finally as the show drew to a close, one sweet little girl made one final critical rave: “The movie that I think everyone should see is CHILDREN OF THE CORN PART FIVE!” Which, needless to say, rendered everyone in the studio speechless for a moment. (The producer, in charge of screening the calls, rushed in when the program was off the air and proclaimed, “I swear when she was on the phone she said she wanted to talk about CASPER!”



Why do children want to be scared? Or, to put it more accurately, what draws them to fearful tales, books and movies? That they are drawn is no conjecture; simply look at the sales of the “Goosebumps” books and their progeny. I listened in astonishment one year during a visit to a local elementary school as the teacher regaled the class with another chapter of their latest favorite book, one of R. L. Stine's series of shudder stories.

Remember that I said that very young children are at some point afraid of everything; remember that they also have imagination to spare. They know that terrible things are out there in the world, and they're no match for them. They know that they are literally in the hands of fate, and these concerns loom large in their consciousness. But with folk and faerie tales, particularly the frightening ones, they are able to control their interior environment and deal with their fears using allegory, much as their adult counterparts do with their excursions in Horror film and literature.

When the witch threatens Hansel and Gretel, or the Wicked Queen offers the apple to Snow White, there are replaying in their minds the terrors of the adult world, filled with threatening strangers, dangerous foods and poisons, parents that scold and punish. Yet with the triumph of good over evil, they are able to take back some power from the forces of darkness around them, and maintain control of their fragile lives.

It is very important that the story of fear, told for a child's perspective, must have a strong moral compass embedded deeply. Either the young protagonists must win the day completely or, should they lose, the loss must be the result of their own greed or failings of not following the straight path (as with the young boys turned into donkeys in “Pinocchio”, both the book and movie.) Nihilism has no place in the world of children's tales; they don't need the stark ending of Ben surviving the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, only to be shot by the rampaging posse the next morning, nor do they need the loud, brute cruelty of Leatherface and his death implement. There will be time enough to learn about those when they are much older.

Some parents fight against exposing their children to the darker images of the classic faerie tales, and prefer the watered-down Disneyfied versions. But remember, on their own terms, viewed through the prisms of their own morality, youngsters handle these themes very well. Director Terry Gilliam recalls editing the final moments of his film TIME BANDITS (and there are spoilers ahead if you've not seen the movie; best skip down to the next paragraph). At the conclusion a piece of Pure Evil has found its way into the young protagonist Kevin's home. His mother and father reach out to touch it; Kevin warns them not to, but they do anyway – and they are instantly vaporized. Kevin stands there, quietly calling, “Mom...? Dad…?” as smoke wafts from two piles of charred dust. The ending caused great consternation with many adults who saw the final cut; even Mr. Gilliam admits to feeling a chill. But when he showed the sequence to his young daughter, she merely shrugged and said, “Well…that's what they get for not listening to him!”



The title characters of TIME BANDITS and their human companion Kevin.


Imagination, particularly the Dark Fantastic, is a way to become masters of their small fates and commanders of their domains. When the fear is finished, they can draw a breath and grin at the great adventure they'd partaken in, much as the wonderful introduction to the television series THE OUTER LIMITS promised. Indeed, the title of that show is an apt metaphor; they are constantly reaching and exploring their outer limits, often with no limit at all.

The flip side of fear is wonder; if there are monsters and devils, then can't there be angels and faeries? If there were once dinosaurs, can't there be dragons? If the graveyard is filled with ghosts and the living dead, can't houses and woods be filled with other creatures? And if some monsters are scary, can't some be friendly? They try on many hats in play: Can I be a monster, fierce and shouting and staying up all night, without having to go to school?



This delightful illustration is called "Bwains!",
by artist Charles Santoso.


There's a wonderful scene in the Clive Barker's movie NIGHTBREED (based on his novella “Cabal”, and I believe the dialogue is in the story as well); one of the female creatures that inhabit the cemetery world of Midian explains why monsters fascinate the human psyche so: “To be able to fly? To be smoke? Or a wolf? To know the night and live in it forever. That's not so bad. You call us monsters. But when you dream, you dream of flying and changing...and living without death. You envy us…”  

Trying on the various cloaks of personality and personhood; using their imaginations to confront the strange and macabre, consigning them to their own realities and reassurances are the talismans held aloft before the fear, like a crucifix, silver bullet or sprig of wolfsbane and garlic. And when they embrace the wonder, that is truly precious.  

I've used the story countless times since last October, but I still return to the little girl during Dia De Los Muertos who was giddy to see me. In her culture a skeleton-faced friend wasn't the least bit unusual, and she embraced me with the total delight of someone finding a new best friend. “Mister Happy Skeleton,” she called me.

Children hunger for things uncanny and astonishing; the Dark Fantastic is a banquet where they can feast to their heart's content, hopefully never sating their desires, holding onto that key to the realm into adulthood; where walking through a wardrobe can take you to another land, where vampires lay in their coffins until dusk, where primordial behemoths drift soundlessly beneath the surface of a Scottish loch, where monsters do live in closets and under the bed.

As Mr. Serling once intoned so memorably: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man; it is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity; it is the middle ground between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination…” This is the playground of the child of the Dark Fantastic.

Parents whose children react with wonder and delight to me are often baffled, amused and completely befuddled by those affections. They project their own unease onto the youngsters, and wonder how they can be unafraid. But the real question, and the genuine pity of things, is why many adults cannot recapture that magical time and embrace it for themselves.

And that is truly frightening.



I want to offer a very special thank-you to all the photographers who captured Yours Truly in these pictures, and another grateful nod to my human companion Ozmantic Bates for the finding of and use of the other wonderfully macabre images.

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

MAY
2013

 

I found this short PSA from Finland on the Internet some time ago. You can access it by clicking on the image below. I should warn you that it's quite disturbing. It presents Mother's Day (and Father's Day as well) as seen through a glass darkly. (I should warn everyone that most of the videos presented here will be unnerving, and viewer discretion is strongly advised, particularly for young ones.)


I don't have much comment on the ad itself; you will agree or disagree with it as you see fit. I think it's a striking and truthful piece of work; you may disagree. The comments on the film are enlightening; I find a great deal of defensiveness and justification among many, so in some ways I believe the ad will only be preaching to the choir, as it were. More's the pity.

As for my own thoughts, I have witnessed the random cruelty many adults find humorous to inflict upon young ones from my time at the Six Flags America Halloween event in Washington DC ; I've shaken my head at those that feel it within their right to genuinely frighten their children. (Not, I repeat, scare with a good-natured jump or startlement that comprises what we in the haunt industry refer to as a “good scare”; one in which there is a shriek and then laughter.

No, I'm referring to absolutely terrified youngsters being dragged by laughing parents up to a masked macabre figure with the cries “Take him! Take Him! Eat him!” or other such sentiments while the child screams in abject fear.) I've had parents scold me when I answer a youngster truthfully that yes, that exhibit is very scary, because the parents had been trying to coax the child inside.

I don't know why they behave this way, but they do. And they seem to forget the expressions found on the faces of the youngsters in the PSA; that the world to many at a certain age is a fearfully huge, loud and garish place. They trust their parents and parental figures to keep the darkness away, and are dumbfounded when they add to the terrors instead of alleviating them. For those who feel I'm not talking about them; Sir or Madam, I may indeed be talking about you. I would ask you to look to your consciences, but I would be doubtful.

In any case…what I found most striking about the PSA is the use of Horror imagery to make its point. Not so surprising to me, as I've often commented on the power of the Dark Fantastic when used as allegory. What often disturbs has the ability to resonate in memory long after the work has been seen and thought to be forgotten.

Public Service Announcements have long used stark, morbid or terrifying visions to make their point, particularly during the 1960s and 70s. Here's a particularly frightening one concerning heroin addiction that gave many a child nightmares (and some adults as well, I'm certain.)



There's so much unsettling about this ad, from the young girl's matter-of-fact sing-song voice to the idiot clacking of the monkey against the white background. Some have suggested, quite persuasively, that this ad was the forerunner of the now-famous online ‘shriek' videos.

There were other uncomfortable images from the 1960s; I've been unable to find the one about drunk driver that commended the drunk driver “…for reducing the size of our classrooms.” As the camera pans through an elementary schoolroom, we see a coffin where a child's desk should be sitting among the studying youngsters. Or the one for Radio Free Europe, featuring the young boy mouthing political slogans, wearing a lock and chain around his head. Very unnerving…

Here's one from several years later, the 1980s, but no less frightening.



And this very effective one from the same time decade, with its grim finale.



Of course, it isn't simply past ads that use disturbing images. This is a powerful current ad for the dangers of anorexia.



I've written in the past about the use of Horror in the mainstream; how many are drawn to its power to instantly galvanize and arrest, to cut through a viewer's defenses with an immediate, visceral reaction. As many authors in the genre point out, Horror isn't actually a category; it's an emotion, and the best artists – not only filmmakers and writers, but musicians, painters, sculptors, and the rest - find a pressure point that they can manipulate to produce the strongest possible response.

As I mentioned in my April 2012 essay, some artists, not familiar with the rich history and power of the Dark Fantastic, use the emotion superficially or ineptly, not truly respecting the genre. But when it's used well - and I believe these ads use it very well - then it can convey in a single image an impact that pages of dialogue couldn't impart.

Which is probably why so many writers not normally associated with the field return to its discipline time and again to great effect; Dickens with his murderer Magwitch in the graveyard at night, Twain and his body of Huck Finn's father on the abandoned houseboat, Shakespeare and his bloody corpse of Caesar returning to haunt Brutus's dreams, Crane and his young soldier's discovery of the rotting corpse beneath the trees. Each one of these work - “Great Expectations”, “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn”, “Julius Caesar” and “The Red Badge Of Courage” - are not remotely considered Horror, but Horror is the engine that powers their most memorable moments.

In their marvelous essay in the collection “Cut! Horror Writers On Horror Films”, authors Craig Spector and John Skipp list many of the mainstream movies that have individual moments or a reoccurring theme of Horror that runs through them: the madness and obsession that stalks the Gothic streets of AMADEUS, the horse's head in the producer's bed from THE GODFATHER, the steam-filled garish streets of New York's bowery in TAXI DRIVER, the musical death-filled hallucinations of ALL THAT JAZZ, the blood-drenched hospital corridors in THE KILLING FIELDS.

None of these are by any stretch of the imagination “Horror” films; the sequences in them do not bear any resemblance to what is traditionally considered “Horror”, and the reactions sought by the filmmakers are not the same ones desired by the creators of HALLOWEEN or DAWN OF THE DEAD, by they horrify all the same.

Fear is the mainspring that runs the machinery of such drama, and Horror is the key that winds it. It is the one universal emotion, left deep in the recesses of the consciousness from eons before, when firelight and darkness gave rise to myth and the early tropes of terror, touchplates that have been handed down through race memory to become the universal archetypes. Every soul of humanity has experienced it; it is the one common trait for generations. It's no surprise that it packs such a wallop.

One of the more surprising places to find terror used so well is in children's literature and entertainment. The classic faerie tales, meant originally for adults, are filled with images as grim as any chainsaw massacre, in Texas or otherwise. Hansel and Gretel and the witch, with her ovens for cooking children. Snow White and the Huntsman with the knife to cut her heart out. The birds that attack Cinderella's sisters and peck their eyes from their heads. The stories are filled with grue, so much so that some parents refuse to read the unpurged texts.

Movies and television also contain images certain to terrify. Is there a child of any certain age that doesn't remember the nightmarish boat ride from WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY with its screaming, horrible pictures on the tunnel walls? Or the conflagration that Bambi and his father race through in the conclusion of the film? Perhaps it's the manic laughter of the Scarecrow as he races through Romney Marsh; the bellowing roar of Monstro the Whale as he bears down on Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket's raft, or the terrible transformation of the boys into braying donkeys. Or maybe it's the final battle in the rain soaked night between Captain Nemo and the crew of the Nautilus against the giant squid, or the growl of the Abominable Snowman pursuing Rudolph , Yukon Cornelius and Herby across the Arctic ice.

Walt Disney has been criticized quite unfairly, in my opinion, for ‘sanitizing' the traditional fairy tales and glossing over much of the disturbing and darker moments, but few understand that he introduced a generation of youngsters to these still recognizable stories and filled them with fearful, frightening moments that first introduced youngsters to the thrills and chills that would possibly lead them to other moments of the Dark fantastic as they grew older.

More than a few modern authors, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and many others point to a Disney film as their first enticing exposure to Horror. Walt Disney, as much as any storytelling living or dead (with Jim Henson perhaps a close second) truly understood the mechanics of creating dread, fear and wonder, and how seamlessly they weave together in a child's imagination.

Now wait a moment, Carpathian! I hear you saying. Not long ago, at the beginning of this very essay, you criticized adults for frightening children, and now you praise somebody who practiced it regularly?

Yes. Yes, I do. Because that is the dichotomy; some scares are quite good for children, and most children long to be scared. But that's a discussion for next time, my Friends. Join me next month when we'll pick up again from this very spot.

NOTE: Just as I was uploading this essay, I came across this ingenious ad online. Although it doesn't use Horror as the PSAs do above, I find it so ingenious, remarkable and compassionate that I wanted to draw your attention to it. You can read the article and see a short video by clicking on the image below.


 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

APRIL
2013

 

After the past three months an my exhausting efforts on the NIGHT GALLERY mammoth essay, I'm choosing something a bit easier that requires no research other than scanning the bookshelves of my crypt. 

I have a young human companion named Amanda; she and her husband Austin have been coming to see my shows for some time now, and I've found both to be wonderful company. (Amanda also was one of the musicians who joined me for my St. Patrick's Day event last month; I'll be including photos of the event on my CAMERA OBSCURA Page in times to come.)

Now, it goes without saying that I am - ahem - older than my human companions. And because I've had opportunity to read and see so many good (and not so good) books and movies and plays and other macabre entertainment, I'm often asked to recommend what I've enjoyed most.

It's a duty I enjoy; that's the reason I offer my Submitted For Your Approval Page each month, particularly to offer suggestions that might sometimes fall slightly outside of the genre of the Dark fantastic. (Such as Paddy Chayefsky's THE HOSPITAL or Robert Cormier's “The Chocolate War”.)

Amanda has a habit that I find quite charming, if not a bit intimidating. She carries about a small notebook, and during conversations when I might mention something that piques her interest, she quickly jots it down to investigate later. And she's quite eager to explore the work of some authors or filmmakers that she's heard about previously, but finds it exciting that somebody she knows personally has actually read or seen their efforts.

This inquisitiveness combined with a past discussion I've had with members of the local Science Fiction Club of Humboldt. There was an article published in the SF community that asked, “If you could recommend a seminal work of the genre to a non-fan - i.e. somebody who hasn't shown any particular interest or knowledge of the field but wants to dip in and explore - what would you recommend?”

It's an interesting proposition. After all, these individuals lack the background details of what makes certain works of SF (and let's add Horror or Fantasy to the mix for the sake of our discussion) important and vital; they're simply looking for entertainment. On the other hand, they might truly enjoy the genre once they've begun to sample it, and the veteran reader or viewer wants their first encounter to be magical and represent the very best the field has to offer.

(The final recommendation to the question above, one I concur with completely, was Frank Herbert's “Dune”. Besides creating a vivid picture of life on an alien war, it is at its heart a fantastic adventure novel with political and sociological overtones, and represents what Speculative Fiction does very well - create and entire believable society and culture that parallels many aspects of our own.)

This question, coupled with Amanda's eagerness, caused me to consider what works of the Dark Fantastic I would recommend by some of my favorite authors. What works of theirs do I think stand out above their others, and what would I suggest to somebody who wanted to read stories by these authors they'd heard about but hadn't really sampled?

(This musing was also fed by an article several months ago online, whereas an “author” {yes, I use the term reservedly] with a “literary” background wanted to read a recommended work by Stephen King to determine his popularity. It was a shameful review; the man in question had already determined that King was a “hack” and undeserving of any extensive literary credentials, and the entire article was simply a way to justify the individual's dubious credentials with the literary elite, a sour grapes whine of not understanding why he wasn't selling near the amount of books Mr. King was. But I digress…)

I gave the matter some thought, and I've compiled the following list of important books by several of the best that the field has to offer. Bear in mind that these may not be the best works of these authors (although in many case I believe they are) but they are examples of what each particular author does best; their strengths as storytellers, working themes that suit them well.

If you've never read the author, each book is a good place to start; hopefully you'll be encouraged to explore more of their writings and go deeper into their oeuvre.

Stephen King - Let's begin with the subject of the gentleman's essay referenced above. I find it hard to believe that somebody may be completely unfamiliar with Mr. King's work; after all, in addition to his Horror output he's also written “mainstream works such as “The Body” (which became STAND BY ME) and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, which became the acclaimed film. Still, there was a famous instance of a woman that Mr. King met in a supermarket that refused to admit that he wrote THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION because it wasn't his usual Horror.

So what would I suggest to someone who wanted to explore his darker fiction? Certainly “The Stand” is one of his magnum opuses, along with his “ Dark Tower ” series. And “The Shining” is recognized as one of the finest haunted house tales in recent times, right beside Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting Of Hill House” and Richard Matheson's “Hell House”.

But I'm going to go with “' Salem 's Lot ”, his first attempt at creating a believable community along the lines of “The Stand” and STORM OF THE CENTURY. He was working on a large canvas with multiple characters as with the best of Charles Dickens, and it represents his vision of contemporary Americana with its dark underbelly. It's inspired more than a few modern authors and works in the genre, and remains a landmark novel. Plus, it's an exciting and engrossing read, with clever variations on Bram Stoker's classic “Dracula”.

Ray Bradbury - The true master of the Dark Fantastic has so many possible works to choose from, including his classic (and perhaps his best) “Fahrenheit 451” and his wonderfully evocative “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, but I'm going with my favorite book “The Martian Chronicles”. A novel in name only, and only nominally Science Fiction, this is a collection of his Martian tales from a period of ten years, each offering a kaleidoscopic, multi-narrative gem of imaginative fiction. It represents his best in poetry, humanity, wonder, and yes, terror, with his masterwork of fear “Mars Is Heaven!” and the terrible, powerful ending of “The Martian”. And his conclusion, “The Million Year Picnic” is Mr. Bradbury at his heart-stopping, poetic best.

Richard Matheson - A contemporary of Mr. Bradbury and Rod Serling, screenwriter of some of the most memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films and acclaimed telefilms such as DUEL and THE NIGHT STALKER, short story connoisseur and one of Mr. King's biggest inspirations. He's authored the modern classics “The Shrinking Man”, the aforementioned “Hell House” (made into a terrifying film) and “What Dreams May Come” (also a wonderful movie). But I'll chose his first novel “I Am Legend” as his most evocative, a smattering of his familiar themes – a lone individual involved in extraordinary circumstances, a very naturalistic setting upon which to build the terror, honest, three-dimensional characters and a riveting narrative. The book directly inspired both the good (George Romero's LIVING DEAD films) and the bad (the various screen adaptations, including the recent Wil Smith debacle) as well as countless modern writers, including Mr. Matheson's own son Christian.

Clive Barker - The author emerged on the contemporary Horror scene with the vivid, visceral prose of his “Books Of Blood” anthologies, which include “The Midnight Meat Train”, “RawHead Rex” and “The Hellbound Heart”, which became his film HELLRAISER. He's since moved into the Dark Fantastic with his tales “Weaveworld” and his Young Adult fable “The Thief Of Always”, featuring a dark poetry beside the mayhem. I chose his short novel “Cabal” as his seminal work. It became the movie NIGHTBREED, and combines the bloody terror of his early tales with his phantasmagorical depiction of a world where the monsters are the normal and humanity a terrible, wrathful intruder. The movie is fine (it may be better in the new expanded director's cut that's currently being considered for release) but it doesn't do justice to the visions in the book.

Neil Gaiman - Mr. Gaiman was the award-winning writer for the “Sandman” comic series before he became a short story author and novelist, but his work has always had the hallmark of quality, melding a gentle, fantastic imagination with a dark sense of menace and a sardonic humor. None of these are more apparent than in his first book “Good Omens”, authored with SF writer Terry Pratchet of “Discworld” fame. An amusing and ominous look at the Apocalypse, the cast of characters include the opposing factions of Heaven and Hell, the Four Horsemen, and the Antichrist (a very nice young boy) and his four friends. The end of the world was never so much fun.

Peter Straub - Along with Stephen King, Mr. Straub is probably the Dark Prince of American Literature, although I find some of his prose too chilly. His novels include “Floating Dragon” and “Koko”, but “Ghost Story”, his huge breakthrough, remains his masterpiece for me, a rich Gothic tale of deathless evil, haunting, retribution and absolution. The movie is a travesty of the novel; the scene in the movie theater remains for me one of the finest moments of supernatural Horror of the past 50 years.

Harlan Ellison - It's tempting to simply hand someone a copy of “The Essential Ellison” and let them discover this iconic writer themselves, but that would be too easy; besides, there's simply so much of his work even that tome, revised and updated, can't cover. Besides, we're offering our unfamiliar reader a taste, not an entire banquet. But how you select from a history that includes such classics as “The Deathbird ”,“ Repent, Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman ”,“ The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs ”,“ I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream ”,“ A Boy And His Dog ”,“ Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes", "Paladin Of The Lost Hour", and…well, I could continue for pages. Not to mention that he's as equally known for his nonfiction as his stories.

So I would offer our novice two volumes: “Shatterday”, his short story collection, and “An Edge In My Voice”, his nonfiction newspaper essays from the late 1970s and early 80s. The former continues some of his most heartfelt tales, including “Jeffty Was Five”, “Alive And Well On A Friendless Voyage”, “In The Fourth Year Of The War”, “Flop Sweat”, and the title piece - all powerful evocations of modern wonder and Horror. The latter contains some of his finest writing and sharpest examination of society and culture, viewed through the prism of the Reagan years. The irony always seems to be that artists are often at their best when times are at their worst.

Anne Rice - Long before the “Twilight” books and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES brought the Nosferatu back into the public consciousness, Ms. Rice was (pardon the pun) staking out her territory by reimagining the Dark Romanticism of the Vampire mythos. She's written numerous bestsellers, but her first book “Interview With A Vampire” still stands out as a groundbreaking revision of the iconic that became iconic in itself.

Madeline L'Engle - One of my favorite writers, someone (along with C. S. Lewis) who could wind the deeply spiritual fable into a masterful blend of suspense and wonder. Her tales of the Murray and O'Keefe families sketch out a rich history as complex and engrossing as any of the more famous genre mythologies. All of her books (including her nonfiction) are worthy of your attention, but it's the incomparable “A Wrinkle In Time” that began everything. It is one of the top five books I've read in my time; perhaps the best one, and I've given more copies as gifts to friends and companions than any other.

P. D. Cacek - Although not as well known as either Ms. Rice or Ms. L'Engle (which is a crime) Ms. Cacek is an extraordinary writer; her “Dust Motes” remains one of my favorite short stories of all time and the greatest TWILIGHT ZONE episode never filmed. (I should also note for the sake of transparency that she is a good friend of Yours Truly.) Her vampire novels “Night Prayers” and “Night Players” are both splendid, but I think her finest efforts are as a short story author, and “Leavings” contains some of her most impressive, including the title tale, “Ancient One”, “Baby Dolls” and the stunning “Mime Games”. Sadly, her infamous story “Metalica” is not included; you'll have to seek out that Adults-Only classic yourselves.

Robert Bloch - Along with Misters Bradbury and Matheson, truly a Founding Father of Modern Horror. His supernatural tales and darkly comic short stories are excellent, but he will always be remembered as the creator of that small, quiet out-of-the-way hotel that serves its guest with all the amenities in “Psycho”. Baths are recommended for the genuinely nervous. I think there might have been a movie made at one time…

Manley Wade Wellman was a contemporary of Frank Belknap Long, Seabury Quinn and Henry Kuttner who made his name in the legendary “Weird Tales” periodical. He was the author and creator of several series involving occult characters, but his most famous tales involve John the Balladeer with the silver-stringed guitar in a series of macabre folktales that take place in the Appalachians . Several were collected into a marvelous book “Who Fears The Devil?”, and each tale is a gem drenched in atmospheric lore.

C. S. Lewis - The author is perhaps best known for his "Narnia" series for young (and not-so-young) readers, as well as his lesser-known "Peralunda" Science Fantasy trilogy. But I think his finest hour were his short essays collected under the title “The Screwtape Letters”, a series of missives from a high official of Hell to his minion nephew on the finer points of entrapping mortals with their own failings. At once sardonic, fiercely satirical and deeply humanistic, Mr. Lewis paints a very sharply observed portrait of the faithful and their failings as well as their potentiality. Non-believers can enjoy it as a terrific allegory or fable.

It's extremely difficult to recommend just one work by Edgar Allan Poe or H. P. Lovecraft, the fathers of modern Horror. Both are better known for their short tales than their novels (“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” and “At The Mountains Of Madness”, respectively). Both excel at the short form, and both have had numerous paperback collections issued. I suppose I would recommend “A Cask Of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” for Mr. Poe, while Mr. Lovecraft is probably best represented by “The Outsider”, “The Call Of Cthulhu” and “The Colour Out Of Space”. All of these are inarguably classics, and will hopefully have you seeking out more of their efforts.

Isaac Asimov - For those whose tastes run more deeply to Science Fiction than Horror or Dark Fantasy, I heartily recommend the Dean of classic SF. Although his robot stories and Foundation series are his most famous efforts, I suggest his two novels of the detective team of Elijah Bailey and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw, “The Caves Of Steel” and “The Naked Sun”. In addition to being terrific science fiction, they work equally well as first-rate detective fiction and social commentary.

Arthur C. Clarke - Also a well-known name in SF with his novels “Childhood's End”, “A Fall Of Moondust” and “The Deep Range”, Mr. Clarke is best known for his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on the classic film 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY. For that reason I recommend one of his later novels “Rendezvous With Rama”, which combines his impeccable scientific background, richly drawn backgrounds and well-rounded individuals with the wonder, speculation and mystical imagination of 2001. It's a wonderful read; you can probably skip the co-authored sequels.

For those looking to explore the roots of the genre, what classic work would I recommend? I find “Frankenstein” too involved with its philosophical musings to be truly frightening to the average reader. “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is a fine, fast-paced tale, while “The Phantom Of The Opera” and “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” will probably appeal more to the Gothic Romantic than those interested in exploring fear. “The Turn Of The Screw” is excellent, but I wouldn't start a novice in the genre with such a maddeningly subtle work.

So I would offer Bram Stoker's “Dracula” as a classic for those unfamiliar with the field. Here you'll encounter all the characters made so memorable in the films but filtered through Mr. Stoker's sensibilities. They'll find some terrifying moments and characters that have never appeared on film, and a breathless narrative that provides great shuddering moments of Horror as fresh today as when it was first published. Moreso they'll reacquaint themselves with a figure that has become iconic in the genre, and marvel at how he can command the narrative and page even while remaining offstage. This is a wonderful read for the beginner interested in the mechanisms and totems of the Dark Fantastic, and should encourage them to seek out Mr. Stokers brilliant short tales of terror.

Quickly now…some other books that have meant a great deal to me, and should inspire an appreciation of our beloved field…

“The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson may indeed be the greatest ghost story ever written. It's certainly the greatest one recognized by the mainstream, and held up as an example of how Horror can also be brilliant literature. It is unforgettable, and will haunt your dreams. Se also her brilliant short stories including “The Lottery”.

“The High House” by James Stoddard is a marvelous modern fable of a house that encompasses a universe, with a familial conflict that powers the Horror, unforgettable protagonists and a villain as terrible and terrifying as Mr. Dark from Bradbury's classic, or The Dark Man from Mr. King's “The Stand” and “Dark Tower” books. I have a signed copy from the very kind author whom I met just after he was awarded the Compton Cook Award for Best First Novel.

“The Halloween Tree” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury. Could there possibly be a more evocative presentation of the October Country? Mr. Bradbury's love for the Season rings clear in every word. The former presents an overview of the history of Halloween as seen through the eyes of a group of Trick-or-Treaters taken on a fantastic adventure; the later paints a portrait of small town terror and wonder as a mysterious carnival arrives in the night to bring misery to the inhabitants. Both are written with Mr. Bradbury's special macabre poetic that evokes pure magic.

“Magic” and “Control” by William Goldman - Speaking of magic, Mr. Goldman has a way with a fantastic (in the truest sense of the word) narrative that can catch you completely off-guard and slam you into the darkest recesses of human terror. Both novels are mind-benders that stun with their revelations; one involves a struggling magician with a secret, the other brings together disparate individuals under a strange experiment. To reveal more would be to rob the reader of the powerful impact of the twists and turns inherent. Learn nothing about them before you read them!

“Tea With The Black Dragon” by R. A. MacAvoy is a delightful and deeply enchanting first novel by one of the finest fantasists working. It was deserved nominated for the Nebula, Hugo and John W. Campbell Awards and has been called one of the hundred best novels of modern fantasy, it combines Celtic music, modern computer chicanery and an ancient dragon into a heady mixture of suspense and (again!) magic. You'll fall in love with the characters, who've gone on to other adventures. You'll also be captivated by the author.

“Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions”, edited by Harlan Ellison, who, in addition to being a writer of great renown, has also put together two volumes of groundbreaking SF. These are stories for the more adventurous readers, but they are unlike anything ever published at that time and still pack a huge punch today (although the latter volume probably shatters more boundaries). These are for mature readers only; some of my favorites include the stunning “Time Travel For Pedestrians” and the indescribable “With The Bentfin Boomer Boys…” novella in “Again…” and Fritz Leiber's award-winning classic “Gonna Roll The Bones” in the original.

“Kwaidan” by Lafcadio Hearn is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and legends. Many of them are genuinely unsettling, and offer rich examples of traditional folklore that's as eerie and frightening as any modern film. The stories are short, sharp examples of encounters with supernatural beings and malevolent forces. You can savor these on those cold winter nights when the wind blows fiercely under the eaves.

The “Stardust” Series by Stephen Tall consist of two volumes: a collection of shorts stories titled “The Stardust Voyages” and a novel “The Ramsgate Paradox". (Sadly, Mr. Tall – pen name of Compton Cook – passed away at a fairly young age, and we were robed of his unique talents.) The crew of the Stardust is comprised of scientists exploring planets in other star systems. More relaxed than the crew of the Enterprise , more like Jacques Cousteau's Calypso vessel, they are personable and engaging witnesses to alien cultures and customs. You'll find them very good company.

I also can't resist offering some non-fiction for those interested in discovering more about our genre…

“Danse Macabre” by Stephen King is one of the finest studies of Horror in Popular Culture; it also has a list of book recommended books and movies that were important to the genre for newcomers. (This list you're reading owes much to Mr. King's) “Callegari's Children” by S. S. Prawer is a wonderfully thoughtful and respectful examination of “The Film As Tale Of Terror”, as the subtitle indicates. Written by a professor at Oxford University , it is by no means a stilted or snobbish read; Professor Prawer has admiration for both the classic cinema of VAMPYR and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to modern works such as THE EXORCIST and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. “An Illustrated History of Horror & Science Fiction Movies” by Carlos Clarens is the acknowledged genre textbook examining films from 1895 through 1967; it's carried in the Smithsonian Institute (remind your fellow fan about that the next time they complain that Horror doesn't get the recognition it deserves!). “Nightmare Movies” by Kim Newman is a terrific analysis of post-classic films, and contains works that also stand outside the typical genre boundaries, such as APOCALYPSE NOW, TAXI DRIVER, MARATHON MAN and THE KING OF COMEDY. (His take on the 1970-1980s Slasher Film craze is worth the price of the volume in itself.)

So there you have it; a library full of recommendations for those who want to dip their toes in the grand myth-pool of the Dark Fantastic! If you're a novice, these should be taken as the equivalent of AAA's road maps showing scenic destinations of special interest; for those already well-versed in the macabre and magical (s my friend Amanda) these offer some choices that you might have missed on your initial pass through the field; a summer reading list to introduce you to some of those who staked out special territory in the Autumn Country. I wish you hours of enjoyment and exploration!

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

JAN/feb/MARCH
2013

 

Let me tell you a story. I am a storyteller, after all…

Several months ago, the METV Network, who already do themselves proud by presenting genre classics such as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THRILLER, STAR TREK, LOST IN SPACE and my HorrorHost companion Svengoolie, began showing episodes of Rod Serling's follow-up series, NIGHT GALLERY.


NIGHT GALLERY Opening Titles


I was intrigued, as I had enjoyed much of this series, but I had my concerns. It appeared as though METV would be broadcasting the show in 30 minute segments. This meant that it would probably not be the original episode format, but rather, the syndicated package that the studio, Universal, put together after the series had been cancelled, much to Mr. Serling's consternation and against his wishes. (We'll definitely talk about that as we continue, but I don't want to get ahead of myself…)

I decide to tune in the premiere episode, and, to my disappointment, found my fears realized: this would be the NIGHT GALLERY found in syndication, the edited and bastardized episodes that almost buried the show and never allowed it to achieve the popularity that THE TWILIGHT ZONE had enjoyed.

I sent the following message out on various Horror and Dark Fantasy blogs online:

“ I have suffered for your sins, my children. I have stayed up very late and watched METV's broadcast of NIGHT GALLERY so you don't have to. It's not the original; it's the syndicated abomination that slashed whole episodes and added ridiculous stock footage to pad short segments. Avoid it; watch the actual episodes on Netflix or Hulu and get a good night's sleep. This is simply a waste of time.”

I received several responses to the post, including these from the HorrorHost Underground:

“I noticed that it was the slashed version too. The edited so badly stories make no sense. Go to HULU and watch it.” – Ormsby Host

“Or get the DVDs and the extras that may be explored therein... nowhere will you find Gary Collins in this collection...” – Shane M. Dallmann

“Thank you for taking one for the team, and for the heads up, Brother Carpathian! Though Rod Serling himself called the original series "the weekly trip to the boneyard", I would imagine even he has rolled over a few times in his grave at those awful bastardizations of his work.” – A. Ghastlee Ghoul

And from the HP Lovecraft Appreciation Group came this query from founder Jim Khennedy:

“Wonder why anyone thought that would be a good thing to do? I'm told episodes of a 60-minute show (maybe it was called ESP?) were sliced down to 30 to syndicate as "Night Gallery" episodes. True?”

I replied:

“Actually, Jim, the series was called "The Sixth Sense"; no relation at all to the Bruce Willis film. It concerned a psychic investigator, usually solving ghostly crimes or other paranormal events. It wasn't a great series, like "The X Files" or "The Twilight Zone", but it wasn't bad either. Harlan Ellison worked on it for several weeks before fleeing screaming down a stairwell (literally). The producers were never clear on the concept,; one actually described it as "Perry Mason with ESP", so it wasn't a genuine Horror series. Still, because of the "Night Gallery" debacle, few people know of it besides those awful 30 minute trashed segments, and the original series will probably never get a genuine DVD release. Which is a shame; several episodes were quite effective.

As to why they did what they did in syndicating "Night Gallery" - well, that's a topic I could go on and on about. It's probably worth a good long essay in my crypt, probably after the new year. I'll have to give that some consideration.”

And so I did. I'd been wanting to talk about this for quite some time, and this seemed as appropriate a moment as any.

What follows, like most of my tales, is more than simply a narrative of events. The subtext is equally important; else why go on at length about a television series long gone from the regular airwaves, created by a (admittedly legendary) writer who has also passed from this world? Why would it really matter today?

This is, in truth, a tale about Art versus Commerce; it's a story of how a creative intellect can be corrupted, beyond his ability to resist, by the irresistible forces of ignorance, antipathy and an inability to see beyond what's directly in front of an individual's vision. It's about how special dreamers and the creative are undone by those who cannot dream, and don't care that they cannot. It's about how the myopic vision of those who control the pursestrings and the entertainment arenas, be it television, film, theater, books or the Internet, debase and degrade what they don't understand or are openly hostile to, and how we, who love the genre of the Dark Fantastic, are left the poorer for it, considered by the Powers-That-Be to be simply marketing statistics, no better fit for anything beyond senseless, countless remakes, retreads and regurgitations, while the true Artist is ignored and abandoned.

This is the tale of Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY; it's a cautionary tale, one of both tragedy and triumph, for what could have been and what briefly was, however flawed.


Rod Serling


The history of NIGHT GALLERY begins even as THE TWILIGHT ZONE was fading from the television airwaves. Mr. Serling was quite exhausted by the end of the five-year run of his landmark series, yet when competing network ABC made an offer to buy the broadcast rights to THE TWILIGHT ZONE and continue the show that CBS had cancelled, he was quite tempted.

The problem was that CBS owned the TWILIGHT ZONE package, from format to actual name, and they refused to part with it. Failing to gain the original program, ABC suggested that Mr. Serling create another series for their network, another show featuring the Dark Fantastic, but focusing more on the Horror genre in particular than THE TWILIGHT ZONE had.

Mr. Serling had, during his time on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, adapted his scripts into three volumes of TWILIGHT ZONE short stories, and had edited two collections of classic tales of terror: “Rod Serling's Devil's & Demons”, and “Rod Serling's Triple W: Witches, Warlocks & Werewolves”. ABC thought “Witches, Warlock's & Werewolves” would be a perfect title and concept for the new show, and pressed Mr. Serling to create the new series along these lines.

But while Mr. Serling was quite happy to explore a Horror television series, he thought the concept as outlined by ABC would be far too limiting. His intentions were to use Horror on the new series, as he had used Fantasy and Science Fiction on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, to comment on the human condition, and create powerful, controversial and contemporary stories that commented on the perilous times of the 1960s in ways that couldn't be dealt with using mainstream drama. He suggested a different title: “Weird, Wild & Wondrous”. (Although I think he may have been speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek with this proposal.)

ABC rejected his idea, and Mr. Serling proposed an alternate concept: ROD SERLING'S WAX MUSEUM. During the opening credits, a helicopter view would show Boldt Castle on Heart Island in upstate New York . It would fade into the interior of a large museum area, a long staircase with shadowy figures lining the walls. Mr. Serling would start down the stairs, beginning his introduction for the evening's story, and pause before a shrouded statue. As he would describe the person beneath and the story, he would remove the shroud to show a wax figure of the actor starring in that evening's tale. The camera would move in close on the figure, and fade into the story…


Painting for "The Cemetary" from the NIGHT GALLERY movie


Here, in this brief introduction, were all the elements that would later find a home in NIGHT GALLERY: Mr. Serling acting as an on-air host at the beginning of each program; the museum setting, the use of an object of art as a springboard into the short story. The elements would be refined later, both visually and thematically, but they were present as early as that first synopsis.

ABC insisted on the “Witches, Warlocks & Werewolves” theme; Mr. Serling balked at this,
making disparaging remarks about “weekly ghouls”, and telling an interviewer at “Daily Variety”, “I don't mind my show being supernatural, but I don't want to be hooked into a graveyard every week…” and predicting that the concept would lead to “…walking dead and maggots…I don't think TV can sustain C-pictures every week.”

Like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Mr. Serling had loftier ambitions for his show, but the network, not understanding the concept that couldn't be broken down into the simplest terms, refused to go along. THE TWILIGHT ZONE left the airwaves in June of 1964, and with no follow-up series, Mr. Serling pursued other avenues of interest, including motion pictures; adapting, among others, the original PLANET OF THE APES in 1967. The movie can easily be read as an expanded idea for THE TWILIGHT ZONE, up to and including the shocking final twist and image, a scene not present in the novel the film was based on. Those touches were pure Rod Serling.

In 1967 Mr. Serling again tried his hand at prose, and produced a collection titled “The Season To Be Wary”, three separate novelettes of the bizarre and horrific. (You can learn more about the collection on my RECOMMENDATIONS Page for this month.) Pleased with the results, Mr. Serling again pitched a series idea to a network, this time NBC, through Universal studios. The idea was of an art gallery featuring bizarre paintings; each painting would be the jumping off point for a story of the Dark Fantastic. He named the concept NIGHT GALLERY.

NBC and Universal disliked the idea, and rejected it. The studio and network both thought that a supernatural television series was old hat, and that nobody would be interested in seeing “those kinds of stories”. (Once again proving the amazing precognitive powers of network executives; after all, THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY, two critically and financially successful films released a scant 5 years later, showed there was absolutely no interest in the supernatural with regards to the viewing public. Forgive the sarcasm…)

This is also a strictly personal observation, but I believe that the network had caught on to what Mr. Serling was doing at this time; he had used THE TWILIGHT ZONE to comment on war, bigotry, poverty, injustice, and a variety of social problems under the guise of “harmless fantasy”. Television of that era was uniformly bland and strove to be uncontroversial, and I think the executives at Universal and NBC knew full-well that Mr. Serling intended to use Horror to slaughter some of the nation's sacred cows, and wanted nothing to do with it. (He was actually able to do so, even on a limited basis, during NIGHT GALLERY's run.) Along these same lines, Gene Roddenberry, who had achieved the same results using SF on STAR TREK, was having great difficulty pursuing his other projects as well…


Painting for "Eyes" from the NIGHT GALLERY movie


A renowned television producer working at Universal, William Sackheim, found the proposal, admired Mr. Serling's work, and thought the concept would make a wonderful series. Failing to interest Universal in a weekly venture, Mr. Sackheim offered to produce the project as a one-time television movie-of-the-week, and Universal agreed. Production began in the fall of 1969.

Throughout the production several sources, including Mr. Sackheim and Mr. Serling, pushed for the idea to become a weekly series, but the studio was dug in and wouldn't be persuaded. “I kept saying, ‘There's a series here', and ‘Can we make a deal with Rod?'” said Mr. Sackheim. But there was no interest in having NIGHT GALLERY on NBC's weekly schedule.

Until the movie, broadcast on November 8, 1969 , became the highest rated program that evening, and was awards a special “Edgar” Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Outstanding Drama of 1969. Then there was a flurry of interest…

A deal was struck quickly, but NBC's confidence in the series still wasn't overwhelming. They decided the show would be one of four revolving programs, under the umbrella title “Four-In-One”, that would alternate every six weeks. Mr. Sackheim, as much as he enjoyed working with Mr. Serling, didn't want to return to the pressures of a weekly series, and begged off producing the show. A replacement was found, in a gentleman named Jack Laird.


Rod Serling & artist Tom Wright study Mr. Wright's "Class Of '99"
painting (for Mr. Serling's script) on the NIGHT GALLEY set.


Before we go into Mr. Laird's legacy on NIGHT GALLERY, let's talk a bit about what made this show so innovative, original, and startling, and what the network feared and (seemed to) hate the most about it.

The anthology series has been with us since the beginning of television; the idea of presenting an original drama where each week would be a self-contained episode found its heyday of glory during the Golden Age when series such as PLAYHOUSE 90, KRAFT TELEVISION THEATER, ALCOA PREMIERE and WESTINGHOUSE DESILU PLAYHOUSE lured the finest talents in television writing, directing and acting into their stables. Rod Serling first achieved fame on these programs, as did Reginald Rose (TWELVE ANGRY MEN, THE DEFENDERS), Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, ALTERED STATES), Gore Vidal (THE LEFT-HANDED GUN, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER) and Horton Foote (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, TENDER MERCIES).

(Actually, the anthology series has been with us well since the early days of radio, with programs such as LIGHTS OUT, INNER SANCTUM, ESCAPE, QUIET PLEASE, DIMENSION X and SUSPENSE bringing new stories and characters every episode.)

The anthology shows continued through the 1960s and ‘70s, although they began to dwindle in the later portion of that decade as studios decided 1) creating a new cast and setting each week was cost prohibitive, and 2) audiences wanted to follow the continuing adventures of regular characters over the course of several seasons. Still, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY, POLICE STORY, LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, MASTERPIECE THEATER and MYSTERY flourished (and the latter two still continue to today, although they've changed their formats to feature mini-series; short runs of multi-episode series featuring continuing characters, not in keeping with the true anthology tradition.)

Many of the best remembered anthology series were in the Dark Fantastic genre; among them THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS, DARKROOM, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, AMAZING STORIES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, WAY OUT, and, of coursed, THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

(and while the concept of the anthology series faltered on network television – the last series of this type was FEAR ITSELF, produced by the creators of MASTERS OF HORROR, only lasted a few weeks – cable television took up the practice and found great success, with everything from the soft-core erotica RED SHOW DIARIES to children's programming ARE YOU AFRIAD OF THE DARK? and GOOSEBUMPS to adult genre fare such as the aforementioned MASTERS OF HORROR, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, RAY BRADBURY THEATRE and THE HITCHHIKER.)

Still, apart from LOVE AMERICAN STYLE (which was, in reality, a series of comedy sketches with some occasional drama contained in each episode), all the series above had one shared trait: even though it featured a constantly changing cast of characters and storylines from week to week, each episode would one 30 or 60 minute segment for the week. In other words, you tuned in each week to see one complete story, be it classics like “Lamb To The Slaughter”, “Demon With A Glass Hand”, or “Time Enough At Last”.

What Mr. Serling wanted to attempt, what NIGHT GALLERY was planned to be that set it apart from any other television series before, was to host multiple segments each week; two or three different stories that could range from the black comic to the sardonic to the quietly eerie to out and out horrific – all within the same hour! Mr. Serling wanted to present a genuine anthology series, much like the newsstand magazines “Weird Tales” and “Astounding” and “Fantasy & Science Fiction”, presenting several stories at one time for the audiences entertainment.

Further – Mr. Serling planned that each segment would be free from the restrictions of arbitrary length, as in the 30 minute cookie-cutter format found in most dramas and situation comedies (including his own TWILIGHT ZONE). Some segments might indeed be 30 minutes, but others could be a short 10 minute punch of terror, while others might be a longer 45 minute character study. In other words, Mr. Serling wanted each segment to last as long as the story itself required , no more and no less. Writers would not be forced to stretch out a short idea into a 30 minute slot, nor edit down a longer tale into the same time structure. This was to allow incredible freedom for the writers to tell any tale they wanted to the best of their abilities. (Ironically, years later, CBS's revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE would opt for the same format.)


Painting for "Escape Route" from the NIGHT GALLERY movie


Now, this was a very bold and ground-breaking idea, doubly so because the production requirements for the series would be enormously stressful. After all, a 15 minute segment might require the same set design, dressing, makeup effects and music as you would dedicate to the longer segments; length of time couldn't sacrifice quality. In addition, each segment would be handled by a different director, sometimes filming simultaneously with other segments so that the individual stories could be placed in the appropriate slots per episode.

In theory, and in practice, this would cause tremendous production difficulties and challenges to the NIGHT GALLERY crew, but it would also prove to be invigorating and freeing, allowing the directors and production staff to indulge their creativity and design each segment as they thought would prove most effective. (For instance, some segments might only require a limbo or suggested and surreal set, due to the nature of the teleplay, while others might need genuine locations. All this was to be left to the discretion of the directors, writers, designers and, of course, the producers.)

Naturally, this was a huge incentive for television's most creative to try their hands at genuinely experimental drama. (Indeed, as is so often reported in interviews, the directors almost uniformly remember their efforts on NIGHT GALLERY as being some of their happiest and most creative days, and many went on to careers on the big screen, including, in addition to Mr. Spielberg, John Badham [WAR GAMES], Jeannot Szwarc [SOMEWHERE IN TIME], Theodore J. Flicker [THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST], and Leonard Nimoy, who received his first directing credit for a NIGHT GALLERY episode before going on to the STAR TREK movies and THREE MEN & A BABY.)

Obviously, if Mr. Serling had achieved his goal, NIGHT GALLERY would have been a touchstone television series, inspiring other experimental drama. It's to his credit that, even with the tides against him (which we will discuss shortly) he was able to enjoy some success in this area. Naturally enough, the network and studio were very wary about this entire venture, not only for the possible expense and cost overruns, but more importantly for the fact that this wouldn't “look” or “feel” like “regular television”. Viewers wouldn't understand or accept multiple segments per hour. What if they didn't like the first story and switched over during the commercial break? It was extremely daring and controversial, and if one generalization can be made about the executives in charge of these institutions is that where money was concerned, innovation was no incentive at best and unwelcome at worst.

Still, the movie had done well, and they decided, perhaps in a fit of madness or optimism, to go along with Mr. Serling's dreams and goals, and they set about this task by first securing the talents of a first-rate producer…


Jack Laird


I'll try to be as fair as possible. Mr. Laird has gotten a bad reputation with the show's fans as the gentleman responsible for most of the faults with the NIGHT GALLERY series. But Mr. Laird was a talented writer and producer of quality television; that fact can't be denied.

He was responsible (along with Gene Roddenberry) for several scripts for the marvelous and unusual Western HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. After his tenure with that show he moved on to write for and produce BEN CASEY, and later helped develop and produce the ground-breaking rotation series (doctors, lawyers, police and senator) THE BOLD ONES. He is perhaps most famous as the producer of the gritty 1970s police drama KOJAK starring Telly Savalas; his other major genre credit, besides NIGHT GALLERY, was producing the television mini-series adaptation of Thomas Tryon's THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME.

Nevertheless, it's been a well-known and often told tale about Mr. Laird “borrowing” story concepts from old pulp magazines for various episodes of his series, much to the consternation of Harlan Ellison, who learned of this first hand. And whatever quality he brought to his television projects, it was clear from the beginning that Mr. Laird and Mr. Serling had very different ideas on what made good television.

And this was problematic. Because, after five years of Executive Producing THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Mr. Serling was not eager to jump into the creative pool in such a capacity again. He proclaimed, “Television production is a young man's game,” and didn't insist on creative control when he decided to accept NBC's offer to develop the series. After all, the full title of the series was officially ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY, and with his name possessive in the opening credits, he assumed that his word would be law, and his wished acquiesced to.

And so are disasters created.

It's a rarely known fact that Mr. Serling didn't produce THE TWILIGHT ZONE alone. A gentleman named Buck Houghton was the nuts-and-bolts everyday line producer of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, hiring directors, renting facilities, checking with costume and makeup, scheduling the shooting, overseeing the editing, and doing everything necessary to make the production smooth and professional.

This is not to negate Mr. Serling's influence; Rod Serling was THE TWILIGHT ZONE, its inspiration and ideas, its creator and dreamer, and Mr. Houghton was tasked with making those dreams reality on film. The two men complimented each other perfectly, and their partnership was one of legend. Most importantly, Mr. Houghton saw his job as having the responsibility of bringing Mr. Serling's vision to the screen in as pure a form as possible, budget and time-constraints notwithstanding. He acknowledged Mr. Serling's sensibilities with regard to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and carried out his duties honorably.

If Mr. Laird had acted in the same way on NIGHT GALLERY, another television classic may have been born. But Mr. Laird didn't share Mr. Serling's sensibilities, and without the creative control spelled out contractually, felt no need to accept Mr. Serling's advice or vision in producing the series. There were reports of Mr. Laird or his staff rewriting Mr. Serling's work, of his rejecting stories that Mr. Serling wanted to do, of ignoring Mr. Serling's desires on the show's direction. As much as Mr. Serling admired Mr. Laird's talents in some areas (which he attested to in various memos and missives), there was no communication as there had been on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and no consensus of how the show should reflect Mr. Serling's tastes and desires.

Add to this fact the nervousness of the network and studio over this unusual new venture, and Mr. Serling found himself again battling for the artistic life of his creation. But this time he didn't have a contractual edge to use as leverage, and he discovered to his great dismay that whatever credits and prestige he had accumulated with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, on NIGHT GALLERY he was to be simply another hired hand, no less influential, but certainly no more.


Rod Serling on the NIGHT GALLERY set


The entire experience was extremely discouraging to Mr. Serling; it drained his energy, and in many ways caused him to doubt his talents and abilities. That is probably the greatest crime that can be laid at the feet of NIGHT GALLERY's production. As a close friend, producer Dick Berg, remarked, “Rod was much less than a happy and contented man in the last ten years of his life. His own self-esteem had deteriorated. I don't think this depressed him, but I do think it made him less comfortable here and somewhat disenchanted with the business.”

Mr. Serling was, however, still a fighter, and he didn't suffer in silence. In interviews he made his feelings about the situation quite plain. “I wanted a series with distinction, with episodes that said something; I have no interest in a series which is purely and uniquely suspenseful but totally uncommentative on anything.” When his protests failed to bring about change, he spoke out again: ‘When I complain, they pat me on the head, condescend and hope I'll go away.”

But he wasn't going anywhere; despite not having creative control, he was contractually bound to the series, and felt determined to put as much of himself into it as possible, whether he succeeded or not. “On TWILIGHT ZONE I took the bows but I also took the brickbats, and properly, because when it was bad it was usually my fault,” he would say in later years. “But when it was bad on GALLERY I had nothing to do with it – yet my face was on it all the time…”

During the second season, when the show's ratings were beginning to falter, Universal and NBC began rejecting Mr. Serling's more thoughtful pieces in favor of standard, conventional fright fare. The series opposite NIGHT GALLERY on CBS was the detective show MANNIX, a series distinguished by its action and gunfights. As his show was being twisted beyond his control, and as they turned down several of his scripts as being “too thoughtful”, he made his most famous statement, one that is still quoted today: “They don't want to compete against MANNIX in terms of contrast, but similarity… The way the studio wants to do it, a character won't be able to walk by a graveyard. He'll have to be chased. They're trying to turn it into MANNIX in a shroud”.

Such candor was not appreciated by either NBC or Universal, and Mr. Serling found himself persona-non-grata with both institutions. But if the series never reached the ambitious goals Mr. Serling set for it, it still produced some very worthwhile and extraordinary television, earning it a distinguished place in television's history.

Until it was put into syndication…

But we'll save that dark tale, and an examination of why NIGHT GALLERY never quite achieved the artistic heights of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, for next time. And if you're the sort of individual that can't tear their eyes away from a terrible automobile accident shown in slow motion, you'll want to be here; for this is a cautionary tale that will rival any such cataclysm.

Join me, and shake your head sadly in sheer amazement at what a typical studio thinks of the Horror genre in general, and its fans in particular. It will confirm your darkest suspicions.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last time we were discussing Rod Serling's follow-up to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and the various tensions in play that lead NIGHT GALLERY to become an ambitious failure or a success that fell short of its potential, depending on your viewpoint.

It's a completely impartial, objective observation that NIGHT GALLERY simply wasn't as well-received as THE TWILIGHT ZONE; TWILIGHT ZONE lasted five seasons, compared to NIGHT GALLERY 's three. (Actually two-and-a-half, considering that the first season was an abbreviated one, sharing its timeslot with three other shows under the FOUR-IN-ONE banner.) THE TWILIGHT ZONE, during its first three seasons, could often be found in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings; NIGHT GALLERY barely survived cancellation its after its second season. And TWILIGHT ZONE was almost universally acclaimed, while NIGHT GALLERY received very mixed reviews.

In hindsight, these factors aren't surprising at all. In its favor, NIGHT GALLERY was far more experimental than THE TWILIGHT ZONE; as we discussed previously, it was to be a genuine anthology series, with it's sixty minute running time broken up into two or three segments per week, while THE TWILIGHT ZONE, for all its imaginative storylines, was a traditional thirty minute weekly drama (or comedy). In other words, without being necessarily a fan of the Dark Fantastic, a viewer could enjoy THE TWILIGHT ZONE on its own as another television series; NIGHT GALLERY would appeal to a different set of tastes and expectations, and to the more adventurous viewer.

But there were other pressures at work as well, that affected the overall quality of the show. The failure of NIGHT GALLERY to recapture the artistic heights of its predecessor can be divided into three separate factions: the production difficulties of creating such an untraditional series, the interference and conflicts with both the studio and the producers aligned against Mr. Serling (although the full extent of the studio's destructive abilities wouldn't be shown until syndication), and, sadly, with Mr. Serling's own abilities. Let's examine each of these difficulties in some depth.


Painting for the episode "Midnight Never Ends". Artist Tom Wright
would paint family, friends and associates as his subjects; yes, that's
Rod Serling as the wandering minstrel.


Producing a weekly series, any weekly series, is a massive undertaking. There is the constant pressures and demands of time and money, shortchanging even the most artistically motivated attempts. A common phrase used by many in the industry is, “It doesn't have to be good, it has to be ready by Tuesday!” There's more truth to that than even the most dedicated artist would care to admit. Film crews, editors, writers, directors, actors and producers must constantly be pushing forward to assure that episodes are ready for broadcast in their appointed time-slots.

This is a fearful grind for a person of average talent and ambition; for somebody that wants to achieve as much quality as possible, for somebody that wants to reach artistic heights of greatness, this can be crippling. There's simply no time available; no time to look for just the right stories to tell, no time to polish the performances to bring out every subtle nuance, no time to frame each shot in the best possible cinematography. Worst of all, no time to try it again if you fail to get it right the first time. Television, unlike movies, is produced on a run with the deadlines carved in stone.

Considering how the odds are stacked against any quality production, the miracle is that it's so often achieved. HILL STREET BLUES, THE PRISONER, STAR TREK, HOUSE, THE X FILES, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, CHEERS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE FUGITIVE, BARNEY MILLER, and countless others are testimony that it is possible.

(And if you wonder why I haven't included such landmark shows as DEADWOOD, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, THE SHIELD, and DOCTOR WHO; these are produced on cable where the production schedules are less frantic. Fewer episodes are produced, and there is time between seasons to assure the shows of the quality necessary. The shows I've listed above were all produced for network television, which produces even less episodes now than they did in the 1950s and 60s, when the average television season consisted of thirty to thirty-six episodes. Yes, the mind boggles.)

Some shows naturally lend themselves to a smoother production. For instance, a situation comedy, say THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or I LOVE LUCY , usually take place on one set, with some new ones added depending on the storylines. Producers can concentrate their attention on the writing and performances, and less film has to be shot per day to maintain the production deadlines.

Hour-long dramas are much harder; twice as much film must be produced in that same week of production, so the pace must necessarily be faster. Still, on shows such as PERRY MASON, HOUSE and ST ELSEWHERE , you are still using standing sets week after week. Even shows such as THE FUGITIVE and ROUTE 66 , which moved to different locations week after week, were filmed in familiar places, and backlots and standing sets could be utilized.

Moving up in difficulty are the anthology series, such as POLICE STORY and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS . There are no standing sets to fall back on; one week the show may be set in a gas station, the next a submarine, the following week an office building. Everything must be leased or built from scratch for that week only; this includes the costumes and props used. Everything is disposable, and costs are beginning to escalate.

Now imagine a SF or Fantasy series. Nothing can be leased, and almost everything must be designed and built from scratch. Yes, you have the sets of the Enterprise on STAR TREK, but each planet visited will have a different culture, which means different clothes, buildings, paintings, vehicles, animals, on and on and the producers are now swallowing aspirin like candy. And if you have a SF anthology like THE OUTER LIMITS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE …well, it's too horrible to contemplate.


Production Designer Joe Alves


So NIGHT GALLERY had a huge handicap going in from the start. But its demands were even more pressing, if that was possible, because each sixty minute segment was divided up into shorter stories, each one completely different from the others! The fact that the show was produced with any quality at all is due to the heroic efforts of production designer Joe Alves (who went on to work with Steven Spielberg on JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before becoming a director himself). Week after week Mr. Alves and his staff would raid the other standing sets on the Universal lot for anything they could use for NIGHT GALLERY – set decorations, costumes, even whole sets that would be appropriate for the stories planned.

One reason that THE TWILIGHT ZONE achieved such a phenomenal look on the small screen was because the production company rented studio space from MGM. At the time it was the largest movie studio in existence, and the standing outdoor sets alone were a gold mine for television production requirements. There were western streets, suburban neighborhoods, jungles, farms, castles, almost anything needed; all that was required was a simple redressing for the episode. Producer Buck Houghton made an extraordinarily shrewd choice for his requirements, and sets from films such as MEET ME IN ST LOUIS, THE TIME MACHINE, the ANDY HARDY films and THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE were used to great advantage. (As well as some excellent locations, including Death Valley , which doubled for several alien landscapes.)

They also had full use of stock footage, props and costumes from Science Fiction films, including many from the classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. (The spaceship made an appearance in several episodes, including “The Invaders”.) Universal Studios, as large and prestigious as some of their productions were, simply didn't have the facilities and resources to draw upon. This was especially true of their television work, which tended to use generic sets for most of their productions. Because of this, even the quality episodes of NIGHT GALLERY suffered in comparison to THE TWILIGHT ZONE 's more polished presentations.

For example, when THE TWILIGHT ZONE filmed it's episode aboard a cursed ocean liner, “Judgment Night”, it was able to use sets from the aforementioned THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE , and the atmosphere was quite moody and impressive. When NIGHT GALLERY filmed its similarly themed “Lone Survivor”, it was obviously filmed on a standing shipboard set, with stock footage of an ocean liner cut into the episode, and the believability suffered as a result.


"Lone Survivor"


In the prose version of “The Messiah On Mott Street in Mr. Serling's “Night Gallery 2” collection, young Mikey walks a great distance around the slums and streets of New York, and his journey is frightening and powerful. In the filmed version, he simply walks across the street and has his conversations with the street Santa and the religious madman, and the cumulative effect of his night journey is lost. Could this have been handled better? Of course; in many instances television programs will redress the same area of a street set to make it seem like several different locations. (The film BLADE RUNNER did this quite effectively.) Either the creative talents behind the filmed Mott Street didn't have the money or time to do this, or it was beyond their artistic abilities.

Time can also be crippling in attempting to produce special makeup and optical effects; if something goes wrong there isn't an opportunity to redo it the correct way, as you can on a motion picture. The prose version of “Lindeman's Catch”, Mr. Serling's tale of a hard-hearted fisherman who nets a mermaid and falls in love with her, is dark and wonderfully atmospheric, and the final revelation of the metamorphosis of the mermaid after Lindeman offers her the potion to grow human legs is heartbreaking and horrifying.

But in the filmed episode, the makeup effect of the transformed mermaid is simply ridiculous, provoking a smile instead of terror. The makeup people did the best they could on such short notice, but were unable to solve the problems in time. They admit this; the director Jeff Corey admitted his dissatisfaction, and the producers were unhappy. Why they chose then to film the makeup in full studio lighting instead of attempting some other method of filming to hide the deficiencies is a mystery, but the episode must sadly count as a failure in this regard.

Money was also at a premium with much of the filming of the “night” scenes on NIGHT GALLERY . There wasn't provisions in the budget to film stories taking place at night during total darkness, so the compromise of filming “day-for-night” (the practice of filming during daylight hours and using heavy filters over the camera lens) was used instead. (In episodes such as “The Phantom Farmhouse”, “Brenda”, and “Green Fingers”, among others.) You've seen this in hundreds, if not thousands of low budget films, and it never looks proper. For a television series dedicated to the Dark Fantastic, filming at night is essential for many if not most of their stories, and this proved disastrous; in several interviews, Mr. Serling expressed his displeasure for the “day-for-night” technique, a technique rarely used on THE TWILIGHT ZONE . “It's infrequent that you can shoot night-for-night. If you'll notice on NIGHT GALLERY , very frequently it's supposed to be night, and, Goddammit, there are sun rays coming out on one side of the screen. It never looks proper when they shoot day-for-night.”

Studio interference was responsible for several other missteps on the series. Because they only understood the rudimentary elements of fear and terror on film, the studio insisted on having these elements shoehorned into various episodes, whether they worked for them or not. Thunder and lightning are often used in scary films; that makes them scary, right? Or at least that was the studio thinking; hence they insisted on putting thunder and lightning in various segments to “heighten” the fear, causing Mr. Seling to remark sardonically in an interview, “…the bullshit thunder coming out of the phony klieg lights (was) unsubtle…the reason for the thunder is that Mr. Wasserman, who owns Universal, gets thunder wholesale. There's a thunder dealer in Encino who supplies him with thunder very cheaply – how else can you explain why there's always thunder?” (Which, no doubt, failed to endear him further with the studio executives and Mr. Wasserman himself.)

Fortunately, many of the directors on NIGHT GALLERY did understand the subtle rudiments of Horror, how they weren't dependant on hoary “Old Dark House” clichés, and did their yeoman best to work around them. These include John Astin, John Badham, Jeannot Szwarc, and the aforementioned Mr. Corey. Still, much damage was done to the show that could have been avoided if the studio had keep their opinions to themselves.


"Pickman's Model"


Feeling that Horror equals “monsters”, the studio insisted on stories that featured such creatures, ironically while not providing the budget to properly create quality efforts and privately denigrating the series as a “monster show”. (Talk about schizophrenia!) The one instance where they did allow close to the proper preparation time for a good monster was the justifiably celebrated episode “Pickman's Model”; the studio gave the makeup artists six weeks to create the title creature, which was not nearly enough time for a proper casting and fitting of the appliances needed, but was far more time that would normally have been granted.

John Chambers, creator of the makeup (and Oscar winning makeup artist for PLANET OF THE APES ) did a superb job in the allotted schedule; the creature was featured in a promotional article in “TV Guide” magazine, and because the design was completed early, artist Tom Wright was able to incorporate it into the painting used to introduce the episode. Mr. Serling, Mr. Laird and the studio were delighted, and indeed a classic was presented, despite having to rush the procedure.

Besides controlling the pursestrings, the studio's interference took its tool in the type of material presented. As mentioned previously, Mr. Serling hoped to accomplish with NIGHT GALLERY the same things he'd done with THE TWILIGHT ZONE : use the templates of Horror and Dark Fantasy to comment on contemporary social issues, doing more than simply presenting “scary” stories. The studio wanted to minimize this, prefering the obvious viseral shocks, and rejected several of Mr. Serling's proposed scripts and adaptations. Because of this, NIGHT GALLERY often lacked the immediacy and relevance that so strongly anchored TWILIGHT ZONE 's efforts and became, in the words of Stephen King, “a watered-down version of THRILLER ”, the Boris Karloff-hosted series from the early 1960s.

Even worse, when Mr. Serling put his foot to the floor and tried to create genuine throat-clutching Horror, the studio and the network Standards departments would quash these effort, deeming them “too extreme” and “upsetting” to the viewers, forcing Mr. Serling and the producers to find other, less effective concepts.

(This may seem ridiculously obvious to modern viewers of THE X FILES, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MASTERS OF HORROR and other examples of television Horror, including Mr. King's efforts, not to mention series such as HOUSE or CSI , where blood and gore often drench the screen, but viewers with a taste for Horror often tune into these programs to be upset and terrified! Yet during the 1960s and 70s, until the appearance of Mr. King's miniseries IT and THE X FILES, network standards would not allow viewers to see bloodied corpses, wounds, frightening and jarring images and themes unless the were watered down and first passed muster: many series at the time, including STAR TREK and THE OUTER LIMITS, were cautioned to “avoid disturbing sensitive viewers” – a direct quote from studio memos – with their work. This Mad Caucus Race thought process – terrify, but don't be too scary – lead Mr. King to bemoan the state of Horror on television in his nonfiction work “Danse Macabre”; I commend this to your attention for further information.

The fact that television creators were able to present images that terrified, not only on NIGHT GALLERY, KOLCHACK THE NIGHT STALKER and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but with the TV movies DUEL, TRILOGY OF TERROR, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, and DON'T BE AFRIAD OF THE DARK, among others, is a tribute to their determination and drive.)

A few prime examples:


"Clean Kills And Other Trophies"


Mr. Serling wrote a powerful episode about familial warfare and the rites of manhood called “Clean Kills And Other Trophies”, about a millionare hunter that threatens to cut his pacifist son out of his estate unless he kills an animal by his 21st birthday. A psychological thriller with no supernatural elements, the story concludes with the son, pushed beyond endurance into madness, killing the father and nailing his head to the Trophy Room wall besides the other mounted heads. It's a disturbing and terribly powerful piece – in prose, in Mr. Serling's “Night Gallery” collection.

In the filmed version, the studios wouldn't allow the murder or the nailing, (too disturbing), so the script was rewritten to include an African butler who practiced the ancient tribal arts, and in the end the hunter's head was “magically” mounted on the wall. It was a terrible vivisection of the original that diluted the theme and conflicts inherent in the concept, of masculinity and the tensions between father and son, aggressor and pacifist, hunter and prey, making it just a weak EC-style tale of comeuppance.

In “The Different Ones”, Mr. Serling again examined conventional societal mores of beauty and the debate over euthanasia, postulating a future where the deformed are simply hospitalized for life; or mercy-killed. The studio objected to the script, forcing Mr. Serling to cut it from a thirty-minute story to fifteen, downplaying the euthanasia aspects, and making the deformity more of a “monstrous” makeup, tearing the delicate nature of the screenplay. (Ironically, when syndicated, the episode was too short to be presented in its original format, and it was padded it the attempt to make it a conventional thirty-minute piece. More on this later.)


"The Different Ones"


Little by little, because of their dissatisfaction with his efforts, Mr. Serling saw many of his scripts rewritten completely, without his input or approval. Probably the most egregious was the segment Midnight Never Ends”, an intriguing idea of disparate characters trapped in an out-of-the-way roadside diner coming to a chilling conclusion about their reality, similar to THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit”, also written by Mr. Serling. Story Editor Gerald Sanford was quoted as saying that he rewrote it completely, “That was all my show. I mean, he wouldn't have recognized it.” Hardly the respect due to the multi-award-winning creator.

Of course it wasn't the studio alone that interfered with Mr. Serling's vision of the series. As mentioned previously, Mr. Serling and Jack Laird didn't see eye to eye on the type of shows that should be produced. Mr. Laird shared Serling's love of the classic Horror tales, but Mr. Serling wanted the original scripts to have the social commentary found in TWILIGHT ZONE; Mr. Laird agreed with the networks and wanted the episodes to simply be stand-alone and frightening. Mr. Laird put his imprint on the show in another way as well, one that Mr. Serling disapproved of completely.

One of the most famous aspects of NIGHT GALLERY was the used of the “blackout” between longer segments. The blackouts consisted of short comic idea, mostly two or three minutes in length at most, with a macabre punchline. Some of the most famous ones include “A Question Of Chivalry” (a crowded elevator filled with businessmen stop at a floor, and a pretty young lady gets on, causing all the men to take of their hats politely. At the next floor a skull-faced spectre in a tuxedo and top hat steps on. When one gentleman nudges the spectre, indicating his hat and the young lady present, the spectre follows social conventions by taking off his head and hat together), “Phantom Of What Opera?” (the masked Phantom of the Opera kidnaps the beautiful opera singer, also wearing a mask, and takes her to his lair; during his playing of his organ, the curious woman rips off the Phantom's mask, revealing a hideous face. When the Phantom attacks the woman in rage, her mask slips off, revealing her features the same as the Phantom's, and they embrace as a couple meant for each other. Probably the most intriguing aspect of this blackout was that the Phantom was played by Leslie Nielsen, back when he was still considered a “serious” actor before his comic breakout roles in AIRPLANE! And THE NAKED GUN ), and “With Apologies To Mr. Hyde” (Adam West plays Dr. Jekyll, drinking a potion prepared by his assistant Igor, producer Laird in a cameo role. He turns into a snarling monster and gazes into a mirror, then turns towards Igor, growling, “How many times have I told you go easy on the Vermouth! ”)


"Phantom Of What Opera?"


Nobody liked the blackouts; not the studios, who didn't understand the humor inherent in them, not the directors who would usually film them in an afternoon's time, and certainly not Mr. Serling, who thought they diluted the impact of the longer pieces, providing a break in the tension between episodes that was unwelcome. “(They're) foreign and substantially incorrect. You can't sustain the mood of horror or suspense and then intersperse light laughter in the middle of it and expect to be able to go back in a neutral fashion to an element of horror. You spend fifteen minutes creating a mood for an audience, and then you dispel it arbitrarily by trying to make them laugh.” The only person who enjoyed them was producer Laird, and because he was producer, they stayed, as another example of Mr. Serling's wishes being ignored.

I make a full confession here: I enjoyed the blackouts myself. I didn't mind that they broke the tension; I thought they served the same function on the series as a Gahan Wilson or Charles Addams cartoon after a short story in “Weird Tales” or “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”; an offering of black and macabre one-panel humor. The most honest criticism that can be leveled against them, one I absolutely agree with, was that they were never as clever or funny as they were intended to be by Mr. Laird, with the possible exception of “The Merciful”, a short take on “A Cask Of Amontillado”, starring Imogene Coco in an almost non-stop five-minute monologue opposite her actual husband, actor King Donovan, who speaks one line at the end of the segment.

Still…the point is not whether the blackouts were effective or not. The issue was that Mr. Serling disliked them, but had no creative control over the series in regard to Mr. Laird or the studio. To be fair to Mr. Laird, as I mentioned previously, he was a quality producer, and was responsible for some excellent work on NIGHT GALLERY, most notably as director of the H. P. Lovecraft adaptation “Pickman's Model”. He put together a solid production company that pulled off the almost impossible every week, on a budget that was often stretched to the breaking point. For whatever quality some of NIGHT GALLERY achieved, Mr. Laird should be justifiably proud.

But the series wasn't named JACK LAIRD'S NIGHT GALLERY; it was officially titled ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY, and Mr. Serling felt (and I agree without reservation) that his say should be final on all matters. And that is probably the greatest crime that could be leveled against Mr. Laird. With his talents, he could have acted as Mr. Serling's right-hand man and assured NIGHT GALLERY of a strong hand bringing Mr. Serling's vision to fruition, as Buck Houghton had done on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But Mr. Laird saw himself as the boss, and Mr. Serling was just another voice and opinion to be regarded or rejected as he saw fit, as another hired writer whose segments were to be rewritten, either by Mr. Laird or one of the other story editors, as another distracting element when producing a television series.

If Mr. Serling had insisted on creative control; if Mr. Laird had acquiesced to Mr. Serling, would NIGHT GALLERY have been a better show? That's impossible to say, of course; certainly it might have been a different show. It might well have resonated more with viewers, as THE TWILIGHT ZONE had. It might have produced even more episodes that would be considered modern classics of television's Dark Fantastic, alongside “They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar”, “The Messiah On Mott Street”, “The Caterpillar”, “Cool Air”, “Green Fingers”, and “Pickman's Model”.

But that didn't happen, and that's a shame.


"The Housekeeper"


The real damage to NIGHT GALLERY, the biggest blow to its reputation and the final coffin nail hammered to keep it from achieving the status of THE TWILIGHT ZONE occurred after cancellation, when NIGHT GALLERY was sold into syndication.

NIGHT GALLERY had a relatively short run; as mentioned above, it lasted just two-and-a-half seasons; in the vanguards of syndication this would prove problematic. There weren't really enough episodes to repeat the show back-to-back, five days per week in syndication. Most series required a minimum of five seasons to prove financially viable, the thinking being that too many repetitions of the same shows would wear away viewer interest and affect the ratings.

(Which is why THE OUTER LIMITS and THRILLER, at two seasons each, are so often difficult to find in reruns, while THE TWILIGHT ZONE, at five seasons, flourishes. The one exception is the original STAR TREK; due to it's voracious fandom, it was able to survive while only broadcasting three seasons of episodes.)

In its final season, NIGHT GALLERY was reduced to a thirty minute broadcast, with one story per episode as with THE TWILIGHT ZONE . Since those episodes were already self-contained, the studio decided to offer the entire NIGHT GALLERY package as a half-hour program. This was during a time when hour-long dramas were suffering in syndication; the independent stations were looking to fill thirty minute slots because they were easier to mix and match with situation comedies and game shows. (It wasn't until the original syndicated success of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and other sixty minute dramas during the 1980s that hour-long television episodes were again in demand.)

As a business move, this made a great deal of sense. After all, if the hour episodes of NIGHT GALLERY were cut in half, it would provide twice as much programming. They would now have almost five seasons of material to sell. The problem, of course, was that those sixty minute episodes did not consist of many half-hour segments. Remember, NIGHT GALLERY was a true anthology, with episodes running as long as necessary for their storylines. It would be very messy trying to divide up the forty minute segments neatly, or squeezing the ten minute segments together.

The solution? Cut all the forty minute episodes down to thirty.

With several swipes of the razor, some of the most powerful and memorable episodes were disemboweled. Whole scenes were left on the editing room floor, including those from the two most celebrated episodes, “They're Tearing Down Time Riley's Bar” and “The Messiah On Mott Street ". In particular, the scene with the street Santa, brimming with some of Mr. Serling's most powerful writing, was gone, although the actor playing the Santa is still listed in the episode's credits. Motivations and characters were given a short shift, as though they simply didn't matter, and the dramatic structure of the stories was weakened.

But it didn't end there…

Finding themselves with many segments that could not be edited down neatly, the studio decided on one of the most bizarre actions ever taken for syndication: they would find additional stock footage and add it to each shortened episode to pad out their running times.

The practice was as horrible and ham-fisted as that sentence would imply. Whether the extra footage made sense or not, it was added, with the executives in charge believing that nobody would care. These were, after all, Horror fans. Their tastes couldn't be considered serious.

The damage was extensive, and for this reason above all else, NIGHT GALLERY never found its audience in syndication. Many of the stories either made little sense, or they were boring, padded beyond their length by the baffling inserting of scenes that caused confusion to those tuning in for the first time. I've no doubt that many of them watched the shows in syndication and turned them off in disgust, thinking, “This is horrible! No wonder this show was cancelled!” though in truth the syndicated segments bore little relation to the original series. Until the advent of the DVD collections, these were the only examples of NIGHT GALLERY available for viewing; the episodes could not be seen as filmed.

Listing these abominations – for that is indeed what they were – would take twice as much time as I've already allotted myself for this review, but I can't let this essay conclude without attending to the most horrendous examples:

For the episode “The Housekeeper”, a short fifteen minute black comedy, footage was inserted from the original Universal FRANKENSTEIN starring Boris Karloff, for puzzling affect; it was done underneath the scientist's explanation of his soul-transformation experiments, and I'm assuming they were to illustrate how the heroine of the segment was interpreting his character. Or something like that.


"The Flip Side Of Satan"


“The Flip Side Of Satan” was a sharp, short one-character story of a late-night DJ arriving at his new assignment: an isolated radio station. During several phone calls we learn that he's responsible for the suicide of the wife of a friend, who he spurned after beginning an affair with her. The radio station is Purgatory, and enacts a dark justice. The episode was padded to feature “dream sequences” of a woman in a flowing white gown, a horse-drawn hearse, and a funeral, all in tedious slow-motion. It also repeated dialogue while floating, deformed faces peered from the corners of the studio, apparently representing the demons judging the Lothario. None of it made much sense, and a short gut-punch of a Horror tale became a farce, losing all effectiveness.

“Logoda's Heads” was a twenty minute adaptation of an August Derleth tale by Robert Bloch, concerning a witch doctor's curse, and a expedition sent to his village to discover the whereabouts of the protagonist's missing brother, a famous explorer. To fill the remaining ten minutes, footage from a jungle adventure film was cut into the episode, supposedly demonstrating how the original expedition was lost. The film footage doesn't match the episode's in color, design or even time period involved! (Still, if you catch this episode in syndication and take the first ten minutes to get yourself a snack, you can view the story almost in its original format. Which I suppose is a plus, all things considered.)

For “The Painted Mirror”, footage of construction work is strangely cut into the episode of an antique dealer who receives a strange mirror covered in paint; when the paint is removed he discovers another world inside the glass, primitive and exotic. In the original production the owner's cat runs into the mirror, then directly runs out again, frightened. In the syndicated version we see the cat's journey go on for several long minutes, while footage from a dinosaur film plays over and over, undermining whatever surprise there originally was in the story: that there are monsters lurking in this beautiful mirror world. Oh, and the construction? There were sounds of jackhammers and roadwork laid over the dialogue of the episode to justify the inserting of the footage. But the episode concerns the antique store owner's revenge on his cold-hearted landlady who, among other things, is making his life miserable by playing her music too loud. With all the construction noise it's almost impossible to hear the music at all!

Remember “The Different Ones”? Because the episode was too short to broadcast in itself (and too slight to cut down further), the show was padded with footage from the film version of Ray Bradbury's FARENHEIT 451, showing the futuristic monorail, the surveillance car slowing roaming the city streets, and the flying policeman (a terrible effect from that film, incidentally). All the while a loudspeaker announces “The aliens have landed!” and then “Contact has been made with the aliens!” , followed by “The aliens' purpose is determined to be peaceful!” All this to obviously establish that the aliens present in the episode have landed on earth. But the plot points clearly state that there has only been radio communication with the alien species, and none has ever seen them (leading to the denouement). We're then treated (?) to several flashbacks of scenes that have previously occurred in the episode as the father supposedly agonizes over his son's condition; then we see footage from the movie SILENT RUNNING representing the son's journey to the alien world. In other words, over half the episode's running time is devoted to footage not from the original broadcast!

Perhaps the worst, the absolute worst use of the stock footage occurs in the episode “The Hand Of Borgus Weems”. The story itself, concerning a man whose hand slowly develops a mind of its own, is not terribly compelling, but it isn't too bad in its original version. But for syndication, the most astonishing collection of footage is inserted that has nothing to do with the main story. First we see scenes from the upcoming segment inserted into Mr. Serling's opening narration; these serve to pretty much destroy any suspense the episode might have generated. Then we see various scenes from the episode played out of sequence, later to be repeated in the storyline as a flashback (as it was originally filmed). Then we see images that I guess are supposed to represent the tortured dreams of the man suffering this supernatural fate; these include blood splattered onto a white surface, footage of woman on horseback riding along an ocean wearing medieval garb, and a truly astonishing moment of a man sitting on a couch and wrestling with a spider the size of a small dog. Why? Who in Heaven knows?


"The Hand Of Borgus Weems"


The episode proceeds pretty much as filmed for fifteen minutes; then, with the episode's shock climax that the curse has been passed on to another's hand, we again see the blood spatter, the women on horseback, but no spider this time, fortunately; instead we are treated to a shot from another episode of NIGHT GALLERY ("The Return Of The Sorcerer", to be specific) showing two severed hands crawling along the floor of a tomb. Watching this cacophony of weird imagery, one wonders whether to award the editor a medal for inserting as many non-sequitars as thirty minutes can allow, or light torches and demand his head on a platter…

Why was this done? For a simple reason: the studio executives thought the audience wouldn't care. “They're Horror fans; they'll watch anything as long as it's scary! It doesn't have to make sense! Giant spiders are scary! Right? Right?”

(Very heavy sigh…)

I could go on. I could mention the way that they added segments of another series, THE SIXTH SENSE, into the mix and forced Mr. Serling contractually to do introductions for those episodes in front of special paintings. I could detail how some of the directors who loved the series took it upon themselves to try and edit their own segments in an effort to at least maintain the integrity of their work. I could discuss the toll this took on Mr. Serling's health and his determination to continue working in the field that had brought him so many accolades.

But this has been a painful assessment, and I've gone on at quite a length already. So I'll stop for the time being, and conclude this examination next month. I'll touch on some of these subjects and, ending on a positive note, I'll discuss the best of NIGHT GALLERY, the segments that proved terrifying, extraordinary and fully justified Mr. Serling's faith in the series, and the prose collections that provided the best of all worlds.

Until then…

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A last look at the series ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY; I commend the previous segments to you in my Archives…

The final indignity for NIGHT GALLERY also occurred in syndication at the hands of Universal Studios. There had been a series in the early 1970s called THE SIXTH SENSE. (Absolutely no relation to the acclaimed M. Night Shyamalan film starring Bruce Willis.) The series starred Gary Collins as Dr. Michael Rhodes, Professor of Parapsychology, and concerned his exploits with ESP. The show often touched upon supernatural matters, and it ran approximately two seasons in 1972. (In truth it was more like one complete season; it had started as a summer replacement and was cancelled in its second season mid-run.)

The series wasn't abysmal; rather, it was simply bland, telling primarily mystery stories tinged with telepathy. The producers, in a statement guaranteed to ensure that they had little understanding of the Dark Fantastic in literature of film, conceived of the series as, in their own words, “PERRY MASON with ESP.” (Yes, take a moment to recoil from that horror.)

That the show had any quality at all I attribute to the efforts of famed author Harlan Ellison; very upset that the first attempt at portraying ESP in a series would be treated horrendously, he bullied himself into the producers' offices and read them the riot act about the lost potential of the show and the mistreatment of its subject matter. His argument was so passionate and persuasive that they hired him as a story consultant on the show. Several weeks later, he fled, literally screaming down the stairwells. It was not an auspicious moment.

Still, there were some memorable episodes; I count among the best “Witch, Witch, Burning Bright” (a young woman, descended from a convicted and burned witch, feels her psychic presence intrude into modern life), “Once Upon A Chilling” (A cryogenics experiment sees the dead man appear as a frozen specter), “Coffin, Coffin In The Sky” (A woman on a plane sees visions of a horse-drawn hearse), “With Affection, Jack The Ripper” (A pianist senses the presence of the famous murderer invading his thoughts), “Lady, Lady, Take my Life” (a group of five youths attempt to murder via ESP), “Through A Flame Darkly” (A woman senses a childhood friend to be in danger) and “Dear Joan: We're Going To Scare You To Death” (A group of experimenters with ESP try to terrify a woman to death; starring Joan Crawford). The last two are interesting in that Gary Collins only hosted those episodes ala Rod Serling; the segments played out as individualized anthology segments.

That would prove ironic, because with the demise of THE SIXTH SENSE, the studio tried to find a syndication market for the show to gain extra revenue. But the series only had 25 episodes; it was much too short to be sold, and would languish on the shelves. But an executive had a terrible idea, one of the worst to affect both this series and NIGHT GALLERY.

A different artist, not NIGHT GALLERY regular Tom Wright, was hired to create paintings to represent THE SIXTH SENSE episodes. Mr. Serling was forced contractually to return and film short introductory pieces for these episodes. Then the sixty minute episodes were chopped down to thirty minutes and incorporated into the NIGHT GALLERY syndication and everyone was happy.

Hardly.

Mr. Serling was livid because he was forced to accept responsibility for a project he had nothing to do with and represent it as one of his works. The creators, producers and actors for THE SIXTH SENSE were furious because the thirty minute episodes made no sense, told no coherent stories, and destroyed whatever quality work they'd done on their series. NIGHT GALLERY fans were furious because they correctly viewed THE SIXTH SENSE segments as interloping on their series of choice, and THE SIXTH SENSE fans were furious because they couldn't enjoy the unedited, unexpurged versions of their favorite show. The only ones happy were the Universal Studio accountants.

And so NIGHT GALLERY flailed in syndication, never earning the same respect as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, never proving the quality that was inherent in the series, and remaining a cheap cardboard tombstone to the dedication and efforts of Mr. Serling, Mr. Laird, and all the creatives associated with the series. (And with THE SIXTH SENSE, for that matter.) It was a travesty, and the only ones who could truly appreciate the series were those with memories of the original.

It was a sad waste. Mr. Serling passed away two years later in 1975, the stress and struggles of the series certainly not helping to alleviate the health problems that eventually took his life, and never having the chance to see how appreciated the original series actually was.



I've spent three months now talking about how NIGHT GALLERY went wrong. Let's talk about how it went right.

When it was at its best, NIGHT GALLERY did achieve what Mr. Serling envisioned: it was a ground-breaking series, presenting stories of the Dark Fantastic that touched a chord with the viewers, probing mores and issues and reflecting a dark mirror on contemporary society, often terrifyingly. The writing and directing was imaginative and startling, and the episodes were of a nature never presented before (or, sadly, since) on network television.

In short, when NIGHT GALLERY was at its best, Mr. Serling, Mr. Laird and all associated with the show could hold their heads high, presenting drama and comedy that could stand up to whatever else best that the medium had to offer.

The following is my personal list of NIGHT GALLERY's finest moments. By clicking onto each painting you can view the complete and most importantly unedited segments, presented on both Hulu and Youtube, presented as they were originally broadcast.

“Good evening, and a cordial welcome. For you aficionados of the arts, we offer you painting s that run the gamut of human experiences – and a few of the inhuman experiences. Our paintings are in oils, watercolor, acrylic, charcoal, and occasionally formaldehyde…” From one of Mr. Serling's introductions.

Herewith, the NIGHT GALLERY Hall of Fame…

NIGHT GALLERY“The Pilot Film” - Script by Rod Serling. “The Cemetery” directed by Boris Sagal; “Eyes” directed by Steven Spielberg; “ Escape Route ” directed by Barry Shear.

The movie that began it all; demonstrating the potential of the series at its best. All the segments are wonderful, but my favorite remains the final episode for Richard Kiley's brilliant performance, Mr. Serling's dark, powerful writing and the absolute sucker-punch of an ending. (The second segment, “Eyes”, was the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg at age 22.) Sadly the film cannot be found uninterrupted, but Youtube features each segment individually in its entirety.


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“They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by Don Taylor.

Nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Episode, although neither the writing, acting or directing were nominated (which caused howls of critical outrage). William Windom is astonishing, the perfect melding of actor and role. Unanimously, this is NIGHT GALLERY at its absolute finest.



“The Messiah On Mott Street ” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by Don Taylor.

Another powerful script by Mr. Serling concerning faith, redemption and the Christmas Season. Perhaps nobody understood the elements of the Christmas ghost story as he did. This should become traditional holiday viewing.



“The Little Black Bag” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Cyril M. Kornbluth. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

One of Mr. Serling's finest adaptations, from the classic short story by Cyril Kornbluth. Featuring one of Mr. Serling's favorite actors, Burgess Meredith (who was on record as saying that, between THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY, Mr. Serling had written some of his best roles).



“The House” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Andre Maurois. Directed by John Astin

“Certain Shadows On The Wall” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Mary Eleanor Freeman. Directed by Jeff Corey.

Two more excellent adaptations by Mr. Serling, from short stories by Andre Maurois and Mary Eleanor Freeman, respectively. “The House” was the directing debut of John Astin (Gomez from THE ADDAMS FAMILY) and “Certain Shadows” of Jeff Corey. Both are atmospheric tales with very differing moods.


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“The Doll” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Algernon Blackwood. Directed by Rudi Dorn.

An absolutely terrifying adaptation of the short story by Dark Fantasy master Algernon Blackwood. The doll itself is hideous enough, but the final image is horrific, and pure Serling; only suggested in the tale.



“Class Of ‘99” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

“The Merciful” - Script by Jack Laird. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

The first is a masterful original by Mr. Serling, one of his favorites, and an example of the kind of stories he wanted to do: thought-provoking, contemporary, commenting on social issues, and unnerving. Wonderfully directed by Jeannot Szwarc and featuring a brilliantly ominous Vincent Price in the first of his two appearances on the series.

The second is an extended blackout by Mr. Laird; it's carried by the two performers: Imogene Coco, who talks nonstop for almost the entire running time of the segment, and her real-life husband King Donovan, who only speaks one line at the end of the episode. The ending is ironic and enjoyable.

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“A Fear Of Spiders” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story “The Spider” by Elizabeth M. Walter. Directed by John Astin.

“The Academy” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by David Ely. Directed by Jeff Corey.

“Marmalade Wine” - Script and directed by Jerrold Freeman, from the short story by Joan Aiken.

“Spiders" is probably one of the most famous episodes; few who first saw it have forgotten it. Well adapted by Mr. Serling from the Elizabeth M. Walter short story, it features strong performances by Patrick O'Neil and Kim Stanley.

“The Academy” is a personal favorite of both myself and Mr. Serling, and another example of the sort of stories Mr. Serling wanted to do; parables and cautionary tales of social issues. Adapted from the short story by David Ely (who wrote the wonderful novel “Seconds”, turned into an extraordinary film) and starring a very well cast Pat Boone; the last scene is chilling.

“Marmalade Wine” is a terrific example of the director's free reign on he series with its heightened and surrealistic visuals. Adapted from the short story by Joan Aiken and reuniting Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee from HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. (It's also of note that it's one of two stories adapted for the series from works of family members; her father Conrad Aiken's story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” was adapted into a classic segment below.)


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“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” - Script and directed by Gene Kearney, from the short story by Conrad Aiken.

Sensitive, eerie and unforgettable, this adaptation of the Conrad Aiken story is another example of NIGHT GALLERY's finest; a portrait of madness and fantasy all the more striking for its uncompromising finale.


“Pickman's Model” - Script by Alvin Sapinsley, from the short story by H. P. Lovecraft. Directed by Jack Laird.

The stories of H. P. Lovecraft have been dramatized on film to very mixed results, but it's universally acknowledged that the NIGHT GALLERY episodes have been some of the best. Whatever else can be said about Mr. Laird's work on the series, his directing of this episode – his debut – is impeccable; the adaptation by Alvin Sapinsley is literate and faithful, and the performances by Bradford Dillman and Louise Sorel are perfect. The creature – only suggested in Lovecraft's tale – is brought to vivid life by artist Tom Wright (creator of NIGHT GALLERY's paintings) and makeup artist John Chambers, and was featured in a “TV Guide” article.



“The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Margaret St. Clair. Directed by John Badham.

One of two tales adapted from the works of Margaret St. Clair, this sensitive script by Mr. Serling presents a young child with a gift of precognition, with a chilling final denouement. This was the series debut of director John Badham, who went on to do BLUE THUNDER and WAR GAMES, and was responsible for several memorable episodes.



“A Question Of Fear” - Script by Theodore J. Flicker, from the short story by Bryan Lewis. Directed by Jack Laird.

“The Devil Is Not Mocked” - Script and directed by Gene Kearney, from the short story by Manly Wade Wellman.

Mr. Laird again shows his talents behind the camera, directing a tale of a haunted house that becomes a treatise on vengeance, with strong performances by Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver and a cornucopia of visual effects. The second tale is from macabre master Manley Wade Wellman (of the wonderful Silver John stories) in a sharp take on World War II's Resistance Army, lead by a most unusual commander, with a terrific punchline. A personal favorite of mine.


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“The Diary” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by William Hale.

Mr. Serling's writing is sharp and spare, and Patty Duke turns in a harsh, penetrating performance as a gossip columnist trapped in supernatural circumstances. (She's also quite pregnant, as I realized on a repeat viewing.) A dark parable of hypocrisy and inhumanity, with an absolutely stunning knockout of an ending.



“Dr. Stringfellow's Rejuvenator” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by Jerrold Freeman.

Another example of NIGHT GALLERY and Mr. Serling at their very best; a moody character piece of an Old West medicine-show charlatan that promises a grieving father his daughter's resurrection – at a price. Excellent performances lead by Forest Tucker, Mr. Serling's poetic dialogue and atmospheric direction by Jerrold Freeman meld to present an eerie work of subtle power. Everything is suggested; nothing is overt, which makes the tale so unsettling.

“Hell's Bells” - Script and directed by Theodore J. Flicker, from the short story by Harry Turner.

Perhaps the funniest and best of the comedic segments, John Astin is letter-perfect as a hippie that finds that the afterlife is tailored to the specific individual. Mr. Laird, series writer and director Gene Kearney and episode scenarist and director Theodore J. Flicker cameo as a trio of demons, and Mr. Flicker takes on the role of the Devil in the final minutes.


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“The Dark Boy” - Script by Halstead Welles, from the short story by August Derleth. Directed by John Astin.

A subtle, moving, dreamlike piece ably directed by John Astin from the August Derelith short story, concerning a school teacher at the turn of the century and the ghost of a small boy that haunts her classroom.



“Cool Air” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by H. P. Lovecraft. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

“Camera Obscura” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by Basil Cooper. Directed by John Badham.

The second work adapted from Lovecraft's oeuvre, this time adapted by Mr. Serling, concerning a man who can't stand warm temperatures, directed by Jeannot Szwarc; a classic of mounting terror.

Mr. Serling also adapted the short tale from Basil Cooper concerning a greedy moneylender's confrontation with an eccentric inventor and a diabolical device. Featuring strong performances by Ross Martin and Rene Auberjonois and bravura direction by John Badham, it ably demonstrates the imaginative heights NIGHT GALLERY could achieve.



“Green Fingers” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story by R. C. Cook. Directed by John Badham.

“The Funeral” - Script by Richard Matheson, from his short story. Directed by John Meredith Lucas.

Another classic episode that is remembered by most ardent fans of the series, Mr. Serling's adaptation of the R. C. Cook story again showcases Mr. Badham's direction and the acting of Elsa Lanchester and Cameron Mitchell, building from disquieting strangeness to out-and-out ghastliness.

Richard Matheson worked with Mr. Serling on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but only scripted two NIGHT GALLERYs. This episode, adapted from his own short story, is a comic romp lead flawlessly by Joe Flynn as a funeral director trying to satisfy his customer's unique request. A complete vaudeville delight from start to finish, and another personal favorite.



“The Late Mr. Peddington” - Script by Jack Laird, from the short story “The Flat Male” by Frank Sisk. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

Adapted by Mr. Laird from the short story by Frank Sisk, this vignette about a woman shopping for a low-cost funeral is a two character tour-de-force for Kim Hunter and Harry Morgan, with a truly shocking final moment.



“The Waiting Room” - Script by Rod Serling. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

Another dark Western piece in a one set morality play, featuring a roster of splendid Western characters actors. Although the climax is similar to other episodes, the strengths of this story is the performances (by Steve Forrest, Albert Salmi, Gilbert Roland and Buddy Ebsen, most of whom appeared on THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Mr. Serling's poetic dialogue, and the grim theme of man's relationship to guns and violence, as timely today as when first presented.



“The Sins Of The Fathers” - Script by Halstead Welles, from the short story by Christianna Brand. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

Atmospheric and extremely well-acted, the story concerns the Welsh custom of sin-eating; cleansing the dead soul of his early discretions by symbolically feasting in front of the corpse during the wake. With strong performances by Richard Thomas, Michael Dunn, Geraldine Page and genre icon Barbara Steele, this is a truly dark and unsettling piece.



“The Caterpillar” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story “Boomerang” by Oscar Cook. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

As much as he loved subtlety, when Mr. Serling wanted to terrify full-throttle, he was a master. No less an authority than Stephen King has noted that many, including myself, consider this one of the most horrifying and frightening films ever produced for television. All I will mention is that it concerns a man who's unusual plan for murder goes very, very wrong. You'll never forget it.



When NIGHT GALLERY returned for its third and final season, it was reduced to thirty minutes and abandoned the anthology format, featuring one story per episode ala THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Although not as groundbreaking as it's previous season, there were still some effective episodes.

“The Return Of The Sorcerer” - Script by Halstead Welles, from the short story by Clark Ashton Smith. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

The premiere episode features terrific performances by Vincent Price and Bill Bixby, imaginative direction by Jeannot Szwarc, and some startling and surreal moments. Nothing more than a great, gothic spookshow, but superbly done.



“The Girl With Hungry Eyes” - Script by Robert M. Young, from the short story by Fritz Leiber. Directed by John Badham.

An adaptation of Fritz Leiber's classic tale, the author was very pleased with the final results, remarking in several interviews that he thought the episode improved on the short story with an inspired finale. It features James Farentino as a photographer caught up in a terrible mystery, and the stunningly beautiful Joanna Petit (previously so wonderful in “The House”) as a woman with a dark, hypnotic secret.



“She'll Be Company For You” - Script by David Rayfiel, from the short story by Andrea Newman. Directed by Gerald Perry Finnerman.

Leonard Nimoy (who also worked behind the camera in the third season, directing the segment “Death On A Barge”) is a man who believes himself freed after the death of his long-lingering invalid wife, but a mysterious cat begins to stalk his life in ever-threatening circumstances. A fine example of tension slowly ratcheting up, thanks to the directing of Gerald Finnerman (who directed in him several of the most memorable STAR TREK episodes).



“Something In The Woodwork” - Script by Rod Serling, from the short story “Housebound” by R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Directed by Edward M. Abroms.

This episode is probably Mr. Serling's best writing for the third season, an eerie examination of the relationship between a vindictive, drunken wife and the specter that literally exists in the walls of her attic. It builds to a surprising, grim conclusion.



And for those interested in the blackout segments, my vote for the three best are “Phantom Of What Opera”, “An Act Of Chivalry”, and “Room For One Less”. You can find them sprinkled throughout the episodes listed on Hulu; I'll let you search them out yourselves.



And if you're interested in other worthy episodes, you can do no better than these, featuring episodes that, while flawed and not reflecting the quality of the best moments from the series, are certainly worthwhile and effective examples of the Dark Fantastic as has been presented on network television. “The Dead Man”, “I'll Never Leave You – Ever”, “The Ghost Of Sorworth Place”, “Pamela's Voice”, “Little Girl Lost”, “Brenda”, “The Flip Side Of Satan”, “The Tune In Dan's Café”, “You Can't Get Help Like That Anymore”, “Big Surprise”, “Professor Peabody's Last Lecture”, “The Miracle At Camafeo”, “Rare Objects”, “Fright Night”, “Deliveries In The Rear”, and “Whisper”. Watch and enjoy.



To conclude our analysis, let me recommend that perhaps the best way to enjoy NIGHT GALLERY isn't by watching it at all.

After the series was on the air, Mr. Serling was contracted by Bantam Books to adapt his favorite NIGHT GALLERY scripts into short stories, as he did with his efforts on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The result was two volumes, “Night Gallery” and “Night Gallery 2”.

Although he was not known for his prose, these collections represent some of Mr. Serling's finest writing. Free of budgetary constraints or studio interference, here he was free to present his vision of the series without compromise. Thos episodes that were interfered with, censored or weakly or ineptly produced – “Lone Survivor”, “Lindeman's Catch”, “Make Me Laugh”, “Clean Kills And Other Trophies”, “Rare Objects”, and “The Different Ones” – are as powerful, poignant, eerie or out-and-out-terrifying as his skills could bring to bear, and his best efforts – “They're Tearing Down Time Riley's Bar” and “The Messiah On Mott Street”, are simply wonderful.

In addition, the volumes contain two original works, not filmed for the show. The first features “Does The Name Grimsby Mean Anything To You?”, and the second volume contains “Suggestion”. The first was scripted for the series but rejected either by Mr. Laird or the network; it's a character examination of an astronaut, obsessively pushed to be the first and best at all his endeavors, who finds a dark connection to an obscure Civil War-era scientist. The second story was filmed during the third season as “Finnegan's Flight”; it was effectively done, but the prose version is a rethinking of the concept. In exploring Harvey Hemple, one of Mr. Serling's common men, and his hideous experience with hypnotism at a company Christmas party, Mr. Serling has created a small masterpiece of Horror that I feel may be his very best short story.

This is what Mr. Serling wanted for the series; the pity is that he couldn't always achieve it, but the wonder is that he came very, very close.

For those curious about some of the adapted stories for the series, Carol Serling, Mr. Serling's widow, along with Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, put together a collection titled “Rod Serling's Night Gallery Reader”, featuring 18 short stories adapted for the series, including “The Little Black Bag”, “The Academy”, “The Girl With The Hungry Eyes”, “The Dead Man”, and Mr. Serling's own novella “Escape Route”. You can get further information on all three books by clicking on the respective images below.


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For more information on behind the scenes of the series, may I recommend “Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour” by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson. It contains the history of the series, interviews with actors, writers and other creative personnel, and synopsis and critical analysis of all the episodes. You can find out more by clicking on the image below.



One final note:

When the creators of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival decided to redo Mr. Serling's classic series, then followed NIGHT GALLERY's example: each hour episode was composed of multiple segments, all at various lengths depending on their dramatic needs. Unlike NIGHT GALLERY, the producers tried very hard not to compromise their finished efforts with the network or studio, and the result was an extraordinary series that not only served as a tribute to Mr. Serling's work, but carved out its own niche.

When the series was sold into syndication, they faced the same dilemma that NIGHT GALLERY suffered. The studio decided to syndicate the show in thirty minute episodes. They chopped down the longer pieces to fit into the new timeslot, but thankfully didn't add additional irrelevant footage to the shorter pieces. Rather, they chopped them down as well to conform to fifteen minute pieces.

At no point was there any discussion about not syndicating the show, or simply syndicating it as it was originally produced. Once again the bookkeepers had their way.

Because in the continued war between Art and Commerce, where the bottom line is drawn by the accountants and studio personnel, Art doesn't stand the chance of a snowball in a microwave oven.

This has been a true story.





I want to thank the following individuals and periodicals, without which this essay would not have been possible: Kathryn M. Drennan and J. Michael Straczynski for their history of the series in “Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine”; Stephen King and his non-fiction opus “Danse Macabre”, Gary Gerani with Paul H. Schulman and their chapter in their book “Fantastic Television”, and “Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After Hours Tour” by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, and their NIGHT GALLERY website http://nightgallery.net/ .

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

DECEMBER
2012

 

Thoughts on Seasonal Spookiness and Macabre Merriment, from your own personal Christmas Spirit…


You've heard me say it in times past; you can almost join me in the refrain:

“As you know, Christmas is the traditional time for ghostly tales…”

Some still smile or look astonished, but more and more those I encounter simply nod. The idea of a haunted Christmas isn't the bizarre supposition it used to be, even a few years ago. Across these United States communities are beginning to awaken to and revive the tradition of the ancient countries across the way, as they had in years past.

I'm very pleased and more than a little proud that I've had my ectoplasmic hand in, if you'll pardon the expression, resurrecting the tradition here on the Lost Coast of California. As I've mentioned in other venues, my annual Christmas show draws more interest than any of my Halloween performances. People begin writing to me in August, and asking me as early as my campfire shows at Patrick's Point State Park : “Are you going to be doing a Christmas show again this year?”

Obviously this pleases me to no end; but why should it be so? I can't know for certain, but I think it might be a number of things:

First, I'm naturally enough a creature of the October Season, so it comes as no surprise that I'll be out and about. It's expected I'll be doing Halloween performances, but Christmas…that season is still a little way off when the leaves are turning their fall colors, and my human friends want to assure themselves that I'll be continuing the practice.

Second, the nature of Christmas ghost stories differs from standard Halloween fare. As award-winning author Orson Scott Card so aptly noted,

“…ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended.”


I agree. Many of my ghostly Christmas tales (though certainly not all of them) seem more optimistic than the stories spun in October, as befitting the season of good will towards men.

(And might I also say that the nature of my Christmas celebration is also a good reason for its success; I generally perform with my talented human companions Paul Woodland, Seabury Gould and Howard Emerson, and the combination of our talents makes for a splendid seasonal mix. Paul's specialty is the tall tale and the history of the holiday, with little-known whimsical examinations of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the classic Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus . Seabury is the songster, finding unusual and little known Christmas carols that can get the audience singing along, be it the Mexican version of The Night Before Christmas – which must be heard to be believed – to Santa doing the Mambo, to some wonderful spirituals. Howard brings us full circle with his Celtic harp, wielding a gentle Christmas spell with his ringing melodies of ancient tunes and hymns, often played under my ghostly tales.

It's a fine night's entertainment, if I do say so myself. This year, due to another commitment, Seabury will not be joining us, and Ms. April Parrott, a wonderful songstress and musician, will be contributing to the celebration, as she did with our Halloween show. She has a wonderful style that reminds me greatly of the late Laura Nyro, and I look forward to what she'll bring to the party!)



Even the Elder Gods enjoy the holiday!


So yes, our celebration is always well-attended, but when we first began presenting them, the idea of ghost stories at Christmas struck some as incongruous. Ghost stories? At Christmas? Really? Isn't that the wrong time for scariness? After all, Christmas is, O Come All Ye Faithful , and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen , and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town . Or, to quote Lucy in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS , “I mean "Jingle Bells." You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls.”

Where do ghost stories fit into all this?

Well, in truth, they've always fit in. After all, as I'm always quoting, the Christmas standard “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” contains the following verse:

“There'll be chestnuts for roasting, marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow;
There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago…”

Some believed that line referenced Mr. Dickens and “A Christmas Carol,” but the authors were talking about the entire ghost story tradition. And that song was written in 1963, so it was still until rather recently in the scheme of things.

Why did it change? Well, in many ways, it never did; it simply got shunted aside until it was ripe for revival. But it's always been there, hovering in the background, haunting, if you will, the season.


Perhaps the most famous practitioner of telling of ghostly tales at Christmas was English author and master of the macabre M. R. James, considered the father of the modern ghost story. A dean at Cambridge , he was famous for throwing huge Christmas Eve gatherings of students and faculty, where he would read his latest work. Because of his eclectic interests in academia, he's considered the creator of the antiquarian ghost story.

(In modern times, Canadian author and fellow academic Robertson Davies would continue the tradition of reading a new ghost story at his Christmas Eve celebrations at Balliol College , also attended by pupils and teachers in equal numbers. Would that some enterprising professor would continue this into the new millennia…)

Many of the most famous writers of weird fiction were known to favor the custom, and tried their hand at a seasonal tale or two. Of course, the tradition didn't demand that the stories feature the holiday, but many decided to place their tales during the Yule celebration. These include Jerome K. Jerome, Horace Wampole, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, W. W. Jacobs, and Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as more modern masters such as Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Donald Westlake, Harlan Ellison, Rod Serling, Edward Gorey, and Chet Williamson. Even H. P. Lovecraft, not particularly known as a traditionalist, published “The Festival,” a tale of a traveler stopping in a small town for a Christmas evening, only to find a darker, more ancient celebration taking place.


This is not from Mr. Lovecraft's tale, sad to say...


Jerome K. Jerome, in his wonderful book of humorous Christmas ghost stories “Told After Supper”, sums up the appeal of the holiday in his marvelously wry introduction:

It was Christmas Eve…Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all. The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.
 
Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who IS anybody--or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who IS any nobody--comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes to each other, to criticize one another's style, and sneer at one another's complexion…

…Hollow moans and fiendish grins are, one may be sure, energetically practiced up. Blood-curdling shrieks and marrow-freezing gestures are probably rehearsed for weeks beforehand. Rusty chains and gory daggers are over-hauled, and put into good working order; and sheets and shrouds, laid carefully by from the previous year's show, are taken down and shaken out, and mended, and aired.

Oh, it is a stirring night in Ghostland, the night of December the twenty-fourth!

Ghosts never come out on Christmas night itself, you may have noticed. Christmas Eve, we suspect, has been too much for them; they are not used to excitement…

Ghosts with no position to maintain--mere middle-class ghosts--occasionally, I believe, do a little haunting on off-nights: on All-Hallows Eve, and at Midsummer; and some will even run up for a mere local event--to celebrate, for instance, the anniversary of the hanging of somebody's grandfather, or to prophesy a misfortune…

…But these are the exceptions. As I have said, the average orthodox ghost does his one turn a year, on Christmas Eve, and is satisfied…

…There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas—something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.

And not only do the ghosts themselves always walk on Christmas Eve, but live people always sit and talk about them on Christmas Eve. Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories.

Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.


It's beginning to look a lot like...


How far back does the tradition go?

Some date it back to Charles Dickens, with his ghostly stories of “The Story of The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton,” or “Christmas Ghosts,” and, of course, his tale of Scrooge, Marley and the Three. There is some possibility there; after all, much of modern Christmas celebrations come from Mr. Dickens. (But that's an essay for another time.)

Still, I believe the tradition goes back even further, and Mr. Dickens simply echoes it. There are references to Christmas ghost stories in literary works, most particularly Louisa May Alcott's “Little Men.” Henry James, author of many a chilling tale, called the ghost story, “the time-honoured Christmas-tide toy.” And Washington Irving, he of Icabod Crane, The Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, wrote in another of his tales:

When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.

Because of this, some date the Christmas ghost story as dating to the Victorian times. Nut could they have begun earlier, say as far back as the Elizabethan age? Here is a passage from William Shakespeare's “A Winter's Tale”, and if the title of the play isn't explicit enough, at one point Prince Mamillius proposing to tell the court a story:

“ A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins...”

And he begins the story with these lines: “ There was a man dwelt by a churchyard...” Obviously the start of a ghost story.

And Christopher Marlowe, in his play “The Jew of Malta,” states,

“ Now I remember those old women's words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night…”

The gentleman speaking is named Barnabus. Make of that what you will…)

With the idea of a Winter's tale then, some put the seasonal ghost story back as far as the days of Celtic and Pagan celebrations, stories of dark fantasies told round a clan's fire. A perfectly valid hypothesis; nobody can say with any certainty, of course.

But I like that imagery very much.

For much of this I am quite indebted to a marvelous website “Christmas Spirits – The Origins Of Christmas Ghost Stories” It goes into much greater detail; you can peruse it yourself by clicking on the image below.


Some years ago, while performing at Six Flags America outside Washington DC with my Patient Creatures, I had the pleasure of speaking with a family from Ireland visiting the United States . They came to see one of my storytelling shows, and then stayed afterwards to converse with us. There were three of them; father, mother and daughter, and we sat around for a bit, discussing Halloween in the United States . At one point I ventured, “Do you celebrate Halloween in Ireland like we do here?”

“Oh, we celebrate it, but not like this! America makes a much bigger deal of it than we do; it's on a much smaller scale in Ireland . We do trick-or-treat, and decorate, but our time for ghosts and spookiness is Christmas! That's our big celebration.”

It was a delight to hear their perspective on the holiday, although I already knew much of it. Yes, the tradition has always had its roots more in Europe more than the United States ; the Yule Season is when the specters and sprits truly walk the land, as stated above so eloquently by Mr. Jerome. Nowhere is this more evident than with the television entertainment offered on December 24th.

For years, beginning in the 1960s the BBC would telecast terrifying films based on classic stories (many of them from M. R. James) on Christmas Eve; these would be broadcast late at night to avoid traumatizing the young ones too much. Some of the most celebrated moments in British television terror could be found during these broadcasts; there was the celebrated adaptation of Mr. James's classic tale “Oh Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad,” directed by Jonathan Miller (of stage and the celebrated BBC Shakespeare adaptations) and starring Michael Holden; Nigel Kneale's (the creator of the Quatermass teratology) acclaimed THE STONE TAPE, sited as one of the most frightening films ever made for television, the adaptation of Henry James's “The Turn Of The Screw,” and many, many others.

(For those curious about a more complete listing of the BBC films, I direct your attention to the list of televised Horror that accompanies the ghost story article above; you can access it by clicking on the image below.)



If the telling of tales can be traced back to the Celts and Pagans of ancient times, then some myths of the season are rightfully fearsome and frightening. Remember the classic Hammer film CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF? Truly an excellent work, one of that studio's finest, it featured a young Oliver Reed in his film debut as a man who is gifted with a terribly legacy: when he reaches the age of maturity, he will become a werewolf during each full moon. The movie is a sumptuous spectacle, beautifully written and filmed and produced with extraordinary care, and Mr. Reed, with his dark looks and physicality, makes the greatest werewolf since Lon Chaney.

The movie begins with a cruel king casting a visiting beggar into his dungeon simply because of a whim. Years pass, and the beggar becomes almost bestial. When a serving wench refuses the king's advances, he cats her into the dungeon as well, where she is attacked by the animalistic beggar. She escapes, finds herself with child and, seeking shelter in a nobleman's home, she gives birth to her son, who grows into Mr. Reed.

Now, many assume that Mr. Reed becomes a werewolf because his father was the wolf-like beggar. But if you listen to the dialogue, you learn that the child is born on Christmas Day, and this is a genuine old myth: a child born on the day supposedly reserved only for the Christ Child is destined to grow into a werewolf in his adult life.

Ireland , birthplace of Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu, the banshee and the Gentry, takes its Christmas fears very seriously. In county Meath , they've created a special haunted attraction specifically for the Christmas Season.

The show is part of their regular Halloween event named Farmaphobia . You can click on the image below to take you to the Christmas Haunt website, and a short promotional film for the event; you can then click on the adjoining website for the main haunted attraction. But be warned! The Christmas film is absolutely terrifying, and the Farmaphobia site is deeply unnerving, filled with fearful images and screams. They are meant only for mature viewers ! My young friends and those who are easily unsettled should avoid it at all costs ! This is not hyperbole; the video is a truly upsetting and frightening.

The Irish have always meant business. Silent night, indeed…



Think back to some of your childhood memories of Christmas standards, and you'll find a strong element of fear that permeates.

Remember RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER? The Abominable, the giant snow monster with a red-rimmed (read bloody) mouth filled with sharp teeth, and its terrible roar? That was certain to give many a child nightmares. Or perhaps the Winter Warlock from SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, who in his initial appearance comes as a dark, frightening apparition, before the spirit of Christmas melts his cold winter heart.

How about the Grinch, at first a bullying, angry creature, voiced by that most gentlemanly of monsters himself, Boris Karloff? Of course there's a happy ending, but isn't his introduction rather awful, particularly his toothy, malevolent grin at the idea of stealing Christmas from the Whos?

Adult fare is no less harsh. Everyone remembers IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE with its heartwarming moments of dancing into the high school pool, or the ending with the townsfolk happily turning over their savings to help George Bailey. They smile at Mary losing her dress and hiding in the nearby convenient bushes, or Jimmy Stewart running through the streets, crying out “Merry Christmas!” to all his neighbors.

But there are far darker images to be found in this classic. How about Mr. Gower, lost in the grief of losing his son, almost poisoning a sick child, and in his rage battering young George. Or the scene inside Martini's (then Nick's) bar when it's revealed that the places and times George knew have ceased to exist, since he was never born? How about the images of the transformed main street of Potterville, all strip clubs, nightclubs and gambling parlors?

In one gloriously macabre moment, after George has been rebuffed by his mother and informed that Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for years (since George was never there to intervene for him), when Mr. Stewart runs directly towards the camera, stopping in close up to look in horror and desperation at the mad world around him. He finally stares directly out at the audience, eyes wide with fear and disbelief, sweating and shivering and utterly terrified. (For some reason, this always reminds me of that similar moment in the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, when Kevin McCarthy looks directly into the camera in a tight close-up and screams, “You're next! They're coming, and you're next!” )

In George Bailey's stare is every waking nightmare come to life, every maddening moment of somebody who's slipped through reality to emerge on the other side of the mirror – or into the Twilight Zone, if you will, for certain IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE resembles nothing more than a longish episode of Mr. Serling's classic series.

And what of THE TWILIGHT ZONE? Rod Serling had an affinity for the Christmas Season; he was, after all, born on Christmas Day, December 25 th . (Although all sources indicate he did not become a werewolf…) With his teleplays “The Changing Of The Guard” and “The Messiah On Mott Street” (the later from his later NIGHT GALLERY series) he well understood the concept of the seasonal parable, using the darkness to emphasize the light at the end of the tunnel.

And of course, there's the many films of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. However they are produced, isn't one indelible image of the season always the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To Come, with his Grim Reaper robes and dark, faceless hood? That may well be the iconic image of the Christmas Ghost, along with Jacob Marley in his chains. (My favorite version is the George C. Scott one from the 1980s; it's filmed, quite properly, as a ghost story first and Christmas special second, with a phenomenal cast that includes David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Nigel Davenport, and of course Mr. Scott, simply perfect as Scrooge.)

The final visit of the ghosts take place in a cemetery, with Scrooge confronting his own headstone and finally repenting his empty existence. So too the penultimate visit of George Bailey is to a cemetery to view his younger brother's childhood grave, and understanding the impact he had on those around him before he returns to the real world. I do not think these scenes are coincidence; they echo with the catharsis of the finest Dark Fantasy, confronting the fears of death and emptiness that bedevil humanity. They keep the stories told from being too sentimental and sweet, and add depth and hard truths to the Christmas cheer offered, and do so brilliantly.



Search anywhere ion the Internet for the name “Krampus”, and you'll find information galore about one of the darker myths from the Christmas Season.

Krampus, for those uninformed, is a demon. A trickster. He's unofficially the right hand…er…man of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus. But where Santa brings toys and gifts to good little children, Krampus takes care of the nasty, naughty ones. In some of the stories he simply spanks them with a switch made of branches. In others, he steals them and devours them. He represents the concept of ‘rough justice;' very much in line with the Old Testament.

Probably his origins are as ancient as those of Christmas ghost stories, but it's no stretch to see him among the Season's Rogue's Gallery. It appears as though darkness must always balance out the light, even in a season or merriment. Krampus is the sour milk to go along with the cookies and hot chocolate that Santa favors. To some he's simply a method of keeping children on the straight and narrow – “Behave yourselves, or Krampus will come and get you!” – but to others he's the antidote to what they consider a month entirely too sugar-sweet and filled with cheer.



Santa has often had helpers; we all know of the toymaking elves and the reindeer. In other cultures Krampus is Black Peter, a black man who rides with Santa to dole out punishments to the misbehaving and mischievous. In America, both Krampus and Black Peter have been supplemented by the concept of Santa as both rewarding and punishing, leaving no toys at worst, or a lump of coal in the stocking at best. Santa is much too gentle to be hitting children with a switch.

But to the people of the old country…well, we've seen an Irish Christmas gala complete with the Walking Dead. Europeans love their mischief and anarchy, and Krampus is often their inspiration. Krampus events take place all over, with bonfires lit, people dressed in costumes, and gentlemen posing as Krampus, drinking, brawling, carousing and in many cases vandalizing. It can be a rough celebration; I myself prefer the quieter entertainments.

But Krampus is becoming well-recognized in the United States as well, and many macabre communities, particularly the Goth, Pagan, Wiccan and Horror tribes, have taken Krampus to their dark souls. There are countless celebrations around the country, both on the official Krampusnacht (or “Krampus Night”) of December 6 th , or closer to the 25 th . Cities from Philadelphia , PA to Bloomington IN to the cities on both sides of me, San Francisco CA and Portland OR , have either Krampus celebrations or include Krampus in their Christmas events.

So if this year, while you're gathered at the family dinner table, celebrating with your figgy pudding and roast duck, and spot a horned, devil creature carrying a switch for the children and leering at the wives through a frosty window; please don't be alarmed.

It's simply one of Santa's helpers…

(There is a marvelous website dedicated to Krampus in both his legendary and modern guises; to learn more, please click on the image below.)



For some, the idea of even a spooky Christmas is just so much fa-la-la and saccharine sentiment; they long for a holiday even more macabre, something along the lines of the October Season. Hence; The Necrofeast.

I first learned of this fairly recent event from my companions over at the Monster Matinee Buffet, most particularly the good Professor Bones Macabre. I'll let him explain more about the holiday:

The Necrofeast is a holiday taking place on December 27th from sunset until the following dawn influenced by a potpourri of Native American, European, Arabian, & other "unknown" pagan folklores. While similar to Halloween, El Día de los Muertos & Walpurgisnacht, The Necrofeast's customs include honoring the dead & the undead with ornamentation, benevolence, shenanigans & celebratory masquerading.

It is on this cold night wendigos, ghouls, ghosts & many other things of nocturnal folklore wander among the living in search of human carrion before cemeteries become too frozen for disinterring. But, it being winter, if the ground is too cold, instead of haunting the cemeteries, the undead will find other ways to retrieve their food. Their most common method is to trick lone pedestrians into getting lost therefore leading to certain doom. Another method is to enter houses under the guise of an animal or even a late friend/relative. If this doesn't work, they will also attempt ways to draw folks outside through their nightmares, possession and/or poltergeist activity causing them to flee their homes in terror...



The following customs are observed:

1) On December 27th, from dusk until the following sunrise, people must remain within their homes or a friend's abode having all the windows & doors closed with only a few exceptions.

2) Within your front yard, the closer to your entrance, the better, you must leave a humbled sized empty cauldron, basket, can or any other kind of opened container. And the more embellished with the macabre, the better. Out of mutual respect, the undead will drop an object of best wishes into it which can be a variety of small things like food, toys or pennies. A special note on possible decor: Their favorite containers are opened coffins.

3) In order to stay safe, for the undead are sneaky as much as they are hungry, you must throw an indoor masquerade until sunrise. The reason being so your friends will keep an eye on you, to keep you from being possessed, etc. Again, out of mutual respect, the more ghoulish, the better. Besides eating, drinking & dancing, the most important custom would be the sharing of ghost stories through any kind of media as long as they provoke emotional fright & frolic.

4) With the understanding that not all people or their friends can stay in their homes all night, in order to be safe outside, one must be costumed in the false appearance of a nocturnal creature . The undead have no interest in eating their friends of the animal world. This may include cats, bats, rats, owls, raccoons, possums or anything else. You may also appear as the undead since they much rather have something a bit more "fresh".

5) It is very important to know that while you are out & about, in order to trick the undead into believing you are one of them, you must also contribute a small object of best wishes to those who have left out an opened container. Kind of like trick or treating, but in reverse. Also, before entering & leaving one's home, you must say, "Knock on wood!!!"

6) All costumes, gifts & decor may only be thrifted, homemade, recycled, etc. from prior festive embellishments. Think of it as a "grave robber's holiday"...

7) In the end, this is about the celebrating of the macabre, the Gothic tales & The Fantastique of our past through storytelling, song & dance with victuals & libations while keeping in mind, it is meant to be lively but never "cute". In other words, over time, we always felt holidays like Halloween needed a distant friend to lurk behind XMAS & whisper in its ear, "We're still here..." (Kind of how XMAS steps on Halloween's toes but not as stressful, overcommercialized or sappy) Something much darker. A spine tingling epilogue just a little bit before the end of the year we call "The Necrofeast".”

I asked the Good Professor how The Necrofeast came about, and how it differed from simply a ghostly Christmas celebration? He replied, “Long story short...The Necrofeast has been a secret festival among us ghouls for a very long time. It was our human advocate, CJ White, who decided to unearth its macabre customs in a "softer light" on behalf of the living.”

He adds, “The Necrofeast is not an exclusive event, local festival nor a publicity stunt. If you have a venue & mutual friends who love to celebrate the macabre, Gothic/Victorian tales & The Fantastique of our past through storytelling, song & dance with victuals & libations, that is all you need for this little nocturnal holiday, with tongue-in-cheek, we like to call, ‘Halloween's Revenge on XMAS'.

So, if it's something you'd like to explore, by all means, please copy & paste this humble message & link anywhere you can before sunset on December 27th... And if you have any photos of your local spooky cemetery or any other wintertime macabre pictures, please share those while your visiting our page.”

You can explore more aspects of this intriguing event by clicking on the postcard image below. I think it sounds like a splendid idea for a midwinter celebration; were I not committed to my own ghostly Christmas season, I might attempt a local Necrofeast myself.

For those who want to establish your own macabre traditions, I wish you the greatest success in your endeavors. Enjoy yourselves. Knock on wood!


 

What are some of my favorite Christmas ghost stories? The ones I tell, of course, but there are some that touch or amuse me greatly.

Of course, there's Mr. Dickens and his Christmas tale. It's sad that many know of it but have never actually read the book itself. It's quite short, more of a novella than a novel, and even the slowest reader should be done within four hours. There are moments in it that have never been captured in any of the film adaptations, and the language is wonderful, like diving into an intimate celebration of all the senses. Give yourselves a gift this season and buy a copy for your bookshelves.

H. P. Lovecraft's “The Festival” is a genuine blood-freezer, capturing the awe and mystery at the center of his imagination with a tale of a New England town that celebrates a tradition more ancient than Christmas. The haunting lines, “…older than Bethlehem and Babylon , older than Memphis and mankind.” Will haunt you, and you'll never look at a picture-postcard New England Christmas the same way...

As mentioned above, Rod Serling had a special affection for the Christmas Season (it was his birthday, after all!) as well as the language to express the dark and powerful magic of the season. THE TWILIGHT ZONE aficionados will remember “The Night Of The Meek” (a drunken department store Santa becomes the genuine article), “The Changing Of The Guard” (a retiring professor is visited by the ghost of his dead students) and, my own favorite from his NIGHT GALLERY series, “The Messiah On Mott Street”, a tale of faith and fear, as the New York tenements are visited by both a Christmas angel and the Angel of Death. Can find the prose version in his collection “Night Gallery 2”.

Donald Westlake, famous more tales of macabre suspense, created the anti-Santa demon named "Nackles", who travels under the earth in his iron coal car pulled by six white, blind ghosts, stealing those who do not carry the Christmas spirit within their hearts. It was adapted by Harlan Ellison for the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival; famously, the network rejected it as “too intense and controversial", causing Mr. Ellison to depart the show. Although his script is substantially different, he captured the mythic horror of Nackles to Mr. Westlake's satisfaction. When I tell the tale I combine the two versions. You can find both the original story and Mr. Ellison's screenplay in his collection “Slippage”.

Jerome K. Jerome is known mostly for his humorous pieces; his most famous work is the classic “Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog.)” However, he also possessed a truly macabre streak found in several of his short stories, most particularly in “The Dancing Partner,” a story that begins as a comedy of manners that swiftly dissolves into a horrific and ghastly bit of grue. He combined both talents in “Told After Supper,” a collection of wonderful Christmas ghost stories (from which I quoted above).



Not "Tales From The Crypt", but an incredible simulation...!


One of the most famous Christmas Horror stories wasn't written for an anthology, but for a comic – a “Tales From The Crypt”, to be specific. “All Through The Night” concerns an unfaithful woman who murders her husband on Christmas Eve. But while disposing of the body she's discovered by an unsettling intruder outside her home: an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa suit. Adapted for the television series, I prefer the version filmed for the Amicus anthology, which featured a young Joan Collins as the wife. The ending will make your skin crawl!

Chet Williamson is a fine author of several effective tales that run the gamut from unsettling to terrifying, but “O Come Little Children,” titled after the Christmas carol (the song, not the novel) packs an emotional wallop that reflects the season at its most powerful, greatly in the Rod Serling vein. The story of a young boy's encounter with a flea market Santa will leave you chilled and warmed in the same instant, a telling feature of the holiday of ivy and mistletoe.

Being a huge fan of Edward Gorey, I'd be remiss to neglect his Christmas parody “The Haunted Tea-Cosy,” a wonderful pastiche of his Victorian grotesques that echo the characters of Mr. Dickens's classic, complete with three ghosts and the infamous Bahhum Bug, the man-sized beetle who comes “…to diffuse the interests of didacticism.” (No, I don't know what that means either.) Put it on your shelf next to the Dickens, along with a slim volume by American icon John Updike titled “The Twelve Terrors Of Christmas,” illustrated by Mr. Gorey. Mr. Updike's droll listing of the displeasures of the season match Mr. Gorey's pen & ink perfectly, and the observations will warm the heart of any cynic who wishes to distance himself from the faithful coming. (Terror Number One: “Santa – The Man. Loose fitting nylon beard, fake optical twinkle, cheap red suit, funny rummy smell when you sit on his lap. If he's such a big shot, why is he drawing unemployment for eleven months of the year? Something scary and off-key about him, like one of those Stephen King clowns.”) It's a perfect mixture of eggnog spiked with barbed wire, and goes down just as smooth.



So is the season to be changed? Are the new standards to be God Rest Ye Scary Gentlemen and Have Yourself A Wary Little Christmas? No, not in the least. As Scrooge's nephew Fred testifies, Christmas is still “… a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

But if the ghost story reminds us of any truths, it's that time is fleeting, and the present is all too quickly the past. Humanity lives in haunted houses; each person carries a ghost within them, and the fellowship of Christmas is not something to be taken lightly. Ghost stories at this time of year remind that time is fleeting , that there are other worlds beyond the cares and frustrations of this, and that one must stay awake and watchful always. Regrets must be purged, friendships forged, and fears laid to rest.

I like to look upon these ghost stories as the meat of the dinner filled with sugary dessert for celebration. This is a feast that can be savored and considered, not just now, but year round. What else but a ghost story can provide such a meal of contemplation, and the possibility of redemption through the terror:

“It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

B
usiness!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

“They are Man's and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

“I wear the chain I forged in life....I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

“Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

These are the tales we tell around the Christmas fire.

Come; the guest are waiting.

Come listen…



This extraordinary picture is actually a three-dimensional work of cut-paper;
if you look closely you can see the articulated joints on Santa and the children.

I want to give a very big thank you to all my human companions for supplying the illustrations for this essay, most particularly Ozmantic Bates, Miss Misery, Professor Bones Macabre and all the celebrants at the Necrofeast, and Mr. Moon and Greenslade of the website Hypnogoria. Season's Greetings, All!

 

THOUGHTS & REVERIES ARCHIVES

NOVEMBER
2012

 

During the weekend prior to Halloween, I attended a remarkable event in the town of Fortuna , CA, just south of my haunting grounds of Eureka on the Lost Coast . I'd seen the event two years ago, and thought it was one of the best performances presented during that October Season.

The show was called “Grave Matters & Untimely Departures”, and presented a series of monologues about the current occupants of Fortuna Sunrise Cemetery on Newberg Road . Last year I had a scheduling conflict with one of my own shows, but this year I was fortunate enough to again attend; I expect that there will be a production next year, and I very highly recommend it. Should you be visiting this area during the last days of October, I urge you to make every effort not to miss it.

The event was a remarkable collaboration between the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce, the Fortuna Depot Museum, the local community theater scene, and, of course, the cemetery itself. It was inspired by a similar cemetery event at Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland , OR , and was designed to provide addition revenue for the local cemeteries cared for by the Fortuna Cemetery District, and to discourage the casual vandalism that has afflicted many locations across this country. It also, not incidentally, was designed to be come an annual event that would literally bring the area's history to life.

The conceit is simplicity in itself. A guide takes you through the cemetery to nine tombstones. At each stone, the ghost of the individual buried there addresses the crowd. The ghost is well aware that they are dead, and time has passed, but in the tradition of so many great ghost stories and novels, the spirits have unfinished business, and don't want to be forgotten by the modern world. They tell their stories in expressive remembrances that detail their lives, aspirations, disappointments, and, most particularly, their deaths. Some of the characters are colorful, some tragic; all are fascinating.

From the beginning the criteria set was two-fold; the historical aspect had to be completely accurate (there would be no embellishment of the facts