Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

WishboneYes, you read the year correctly. This is not in chronological order.  I saved the best for last. 

Wishbone, for those not in the know, was a children’s TV series about a talking Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Larry Brantley) who imagined himself in various classic works of literature. There was also a series of books based on the concept, and I’ve blogged before about the impact the Wishbone adaptation of le Fanu’s Green Tea had on me as an impressionable youth.

But this episode of the show takes the (dog) biscuit for greatest Wishbone-related Halloween memory in my childhood. The opening sequence, showing Wishbone the dog trotting through his hometown of Oakdale, makes me instantly nostalgic for the sidewalks of my own small hometown in October, when the leaves change and the kitschy decorations come out. Wishbone’s narration says it all:

“It’s late October, and everything seems just a little different… something strange is in the air. Something chilling. What could it be? Leaves are learning to dance… sheets are learning to fly… and pumpkins are suddenly growing faces! No doubt about it; there is something in the air. Something that makes people do the strangest things…”

Also, before I get going on the plot synopsis, can I just say how much I love this sweater worn in the opening scene by Ellen, (Mary Chris Wall) the mother of Wishbone’s teenaged owner, Joe (Jordan Wall)? Does it surprise you much to learn that I can’t resist a woman in a jack-o’-lantern sweater?

Ellen in a pumpkin sweater

Anyway, on to the story. Joe is nervous about Halloween, because he is superstitious, and fears the day will be bad luck for him. This feeling only worsens when a black cat crosses his path as he’s taking Wishbone for a walk. But that night, his friends Sam (Christie Abbott) and David (Adam Springfield) convince him to join the Halloween scavenger hunt sponsored by the town’s new sporting goods store. 

Joe’s superstitious anxiety reminds Wishbone of Ichabod Crane, and we now are transported to the world of Wishbone’s imagination, where he envisions himself as the protagonist of Washington Irving’s short story.

Let me pause for a moment. Here are some establishing shots of the location meant to be Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow that they use in this episode:

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION, HOLLYWOOD PEOPLE WHO BLEACH THE COLOR OUT OF EVERYTHING?

Seriously, you would think Hollywood literally believes color didn’t exist until color film was invented. Go back and see my review of the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow and look at the stills. Now tell me which one better resembles Irving’s description in the original:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and Nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…

…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples—some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies…”

A 1997 children’s program starring a dog was able to do a better job of establishing atmosphere than a Hollywood production starring A-listers made a couple of years later. Think about that.

Joe reluctantly joins his friends on the scavenger hunt, where they find themselves competing against the school bully and the series’ running “villain” Damont Jones, and his annoying cousin Jimmy. 

Wishbone Cast
David (Adam Springfield), Sam, (Christie Abbott) and Joe (Jordan Wall) on a Halloween adventure.

After solving riddles that lead them to challenges like shooting galleries, toy racetracks, and an incredible Rube Goldberg machine, Joe, Sam and David find that the last leg of their journey takes them to an abandoned old house where, as young boy, Joe was frightened by a pair of mysterious glowing eyes looming at him out of the doorway.

Swallowing his fear, Joe follows his friends in. Damont has already gone inside, leaving Jimmie outside, shivering and repeating “He went in, but I’m not goin’ in,” in a super-creepy way. 

All this while, Wishbone has been imagining himself in the role of Ichabod, as he confronts his own worst supernatural nightmare. The adaptation is, as always on Wishbone, done gamely by actors who performed their roles far better than they needed to. Special shout-out to Baltus Van Tassel, who mutters, as he looks around at the autumn wind rustling the leaves, “There’s quite a brew stirring this evening.” Love the way he delivers this line. 

The great thing about Wishbone was that the writers almost never sugarcoated major plot elements in the stories, even though they were adapting them for children. Wishbone-as-Ichabod still gets a flaming jack-o’-lantern flung at him by the Horseman.  Admittedly, it’s just a hokey CGI jack-o’-lantern, but still, they weren’t pulling any punches. Likewise, they preserve the ambiguity of Irving’s original tale as to whether it really was a ghost, or just an elaborate prank.

The real-life plot with Joe, Sam, and David has a much happier ending, as our heroes emerge triumphant from the house, and Joe realizes that all along, the thing that had scared him in the old house was just that pesky black cat, which they see running out of the house. 

Everyone heads off for a party at the sporting goods store—but we catch one last glimpse of the old house that suggests maybe the eyes didn’t belong to the cat after all…

I’m sure there is a degree to which my impression of this show is colored by rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. But really, I just can’t imagine not finding it to be an enjoyable seasonal treat. It’s got just the right balance of fun, spookiness and mischief needed for a good Halloween story. And it’s designed to teach kids about reading. Not just how to read, but how to get the most out of reading—by seeing how stories you read are relevant to your own life. That was the real magic of the Wishbone series, and it’s on full display here. It’s a show about imagination, and to my mind, that’s what Halloween is all about, too. It’s a celebration of what we like to imagine might be out there in the darkest of forests after midnight; a holiday all about fantasy and mystery and magic. 

AngelThis short story is a modern tale of un-dead horror. I won’t spoil exactly what type of monster is involved, but readers will probably be able to guess. There’s a clever twist on some classic mythology that enables three high school kids to do battle with an ancient evil.

There are elements of dark comedy as well as horror. And despite its brevity, Abbott gives us more than enough info to care about the characters, and even weaves in a sort of redemptive arc for one of them. 

The text is supplemented with excellent illustrations by Kate Whitmore that provide a face to go with the name for several characters.

This is darker and gorier than Abbott’s other short story, Harvest, but both of them are very good in their own ways. There are plenty of references to classic horror stories and films in this one that fans of the genre will surely appreciate. All in all, a great short story for the Halloween season.

masque 1This film is based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t worry; it’s very short, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever written.

The film begins with an old woman gathering firewood in a bleak landscape when she encounters a strange figure clad entirely in red. And right away, we suspect there is something odd going on, because Edgar Allan’s story makes no mention of any peasant women gathering wood. 

The figure in red hands the woman a rose, and tells her to take it to her village and inform them that their day of deliverance is at hand.

She returns to the village, just as the wicked Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is arriving. The people of the village live in poverty as Prospero reigns over them. Two of the village men, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), stand up to Prospero, and he is on the point of having them executed when Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads for clemency. Just then they are interrupted by a scream, and Prospero and his guards find the old woman who brought the prophecy of deliverance has died of the plague known as the Red Death. Prospero leaves the village, orders his men to burn it down, and takes Ludovico, Gino and Francesca as his prisoners.

Masque 2

Again, I can’t stress this enough: so far, almost none of this has any relationship to Poe’s story. We have a guy named Prospero and a thing called the Red Death, but otherwise it might as well be a different story.

Could it be because Poe’s story is 14 paragraphs long and takes about ten minutes to read? Maybe it’s not ideally suited for a 90-minute film? Well, as we’ll see, the writers came up with, um, creative ways of dealing with this problem. 

Come to think of it, Poe’s story didn’t mention any naked women in bathtubs either, but that’s what we get next: Francesca is taken to the chambers of Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court) and stripped not only of her peasant garb, but of the cross which she wears around her neck. Prospero orders her to remove this symbol of a “dead god.”

Prospero and Juliana are in the habit of holding orgiastic Court balls, at which Prospero orders the guests to abase themselves in various ways, such as imitating animals–he commands a man to crawl like a worm and woman to walk on her hands and knees in imitation of a donkey. He is a hedonistic, cruel, and in the very worst sense, decadent man.

He is also a Satanist, as we discover through his conversations with Francesca. And a weirdly pragmatic Satanist at that. The world is cruel, he reasons, and so there can be no God of Love, as described in the Christian tradition. But his conception of the deity is not as a God of Hate, but rather one of “reality.” The world is full of evil, and thus must be ruled by evil, according to Prospero’s thinking. As he explains:

“The world lives in pain and despair, but is at least kept alive by a few dedicated men. If we lost our power, chaos would engulf everything.”

This is the best Vincent Price performance I’ve ever seen, precisely because he’s so calm, so almost rational, in the way he explains his malignant philosophy. With Price, there was always a hint of a wink to the audience that he knew this whole thing was a bit silly anyway. That element is still here in his performance as Prospero, but instead of seeming like a trait of the actor, it seems like one of the character. It’s as if, as he lives out his nihilistic beliefs, he’s come to see it all as a meaningless joke. Which makes him all the more terrifying. And here we do at last see some overlap with Poe’s story, wherein he writes of “the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests.”

Speaking of jests, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the fact that there is a sub-plot running through this film that’s based on another Poe story, Hop-Frog. There’s a jester called Hop-Toad who seeks revenge against one of the other royals at Prospero’s court. It’s a weird story that doesn’t add a lot, although it’s not wholly out of step with the rest of the piece. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s just weird. But then, this is weird fiction, right?

Anyway, Juliana has grown jealous of the attention Prospero is giving Francesca and so she…

Actually, wait. First, let me give you more background on Juliana. She’s already asked to join Prospero’s cult. She’s been engaging in various Satanic rituals with him, including branding herself with an inverted cross. So, what do you think she does to Francesca?

That’s right! She gives her the key to the dungeon where Gino and Ludovico are being held and tells her the outer guard has been bribed so they can escape. They flee from the dungeons, Gino and Ludovico stabbing a few guards as they go. They reach the castle exterior, but are met there by Prospero.

Francesca’s first thought is “Juliana betrayed us,” which is what I assumed too, but then Prospero snarls that Juliana betrayed him. To me, this says that Juliana really was trying to help. And I have to ask… why? It seems rather out of character. Seems to me Juliana would have been more likely to arrange some unfortunate accident for Francesca.

This is the midpoint of the movie. The three good characters are recaptured, seemingly with no hope for escape. Prince Prospero is devising more cruel tortures for them, while preparing for his grand masquerade ball. So, naturally I’m going to pause to talk about dramatic tropes.

In many ways, this movie is just a classic Gothic melodrama, of the sort that had been a cliché for over a century: the evil nobleman kidnaps the innocent maiden and must be stopped by the brave hero. This is such a well-worn trope that it practically exists only as a parody of itself. W.S. Gilbert was making fun of how silly it was about 90 years before this film was made.

Poe’s story, on the other hand, is not at all a stock melodrama. It has no heroes. It has no virginal maidens. It barely even has a plot. It has instead a series of strange and expertly-rendered scenes, which vividly impress themselves upon the mind of the reader, creating an uncanny mood of despair. I very rarely go in for symbolist interpretations of fiction, but here? The colors of the different rooms in the Prince’s castle, the chiming of the great clock of ebony, the Red Death itself–all point to a story being told on a level beyond rationality and firmly in the realm of allegory.

It’s pretty normal for film adaptations to make a story much more formulaic than the book it’s based on. Often, there’s not as much time for all the details and nuances of a book in a film. In this case, it’s probably more to do with the fact that audiences expect a typical three-act structure with recognizable heroes and villains. A truly faithful adaptation of Poe’s story would be a weird art film that no one would understand. Studio execs would never give funding for that. They want a film with good guys and bad guys and blood and near-naked ladies and sword fights!

But here is where it gets interesting. A typical story would just be adapted into the formula and everything that made it different or interesting would stripped out. The result is a film that’s dull and predictable. Not quite with Masque of the Red Death though. This one is so weird that it actually resisted the formula and stayed weird anyway. In fact, it might be even weirder because of this strange mashup of Gothic tropes, the eerie imagery of Poe’s original story, and a dash of psychedelic 1960s Satanism thrown in.

For an example of the last, I give you the scene in which Juliana pledges herself to The Evil One. She takes a drink of something, and then has a hallucination where she is strapped to an altar while bizarre demonic figures dance around her and make thrusting and stabbing motions at her while she writhes in terror. Gosh, I wonder if this was meant to symbolize anything? (Rosemary’s Baby was made four years later, in case you were wondering. The 1960s was a good decade for the Prince of Darkness’s cinematic career.)

After this vision ends, she considers herself betrothed to the Devil. And then for some reason she gets pecked to death by a falcon of Prospero’s that hangs around the giant clock. The guests are horrified on discovering her body, but Prospero only smirks, “Celebrate for Juliana–she’s just married a friend of mine.”

Some readers may be aware that I don’t enjoy fiction that depicts violence against women, and it’s a testament to just how cheesy the special effects here are that I was able to watch this. The hallucination scene is creepy but vague enough I could handle it. The bird attack is simply ridiculous.

In the meantime, Prospero has devised a challenge of poisoned daggers for Gino and Ludovico, since they refuse to fight one another to the death. The challenge results in Ludovico’s death and Prospero bizarrely letting Gino flee into the countryside, on the assumption that he too will be killed by the Red Death raging outside the castle walls.

In the desolate forest, Gino meets the Red-robed figure from the opening scene, who gives him a Tarot card. He then goes on to find the few survivors of the plague-riddled village making their way to Prospero’s castle to seek sanctuary. Care to guess how that works out for them? Put it this way: at the end of it, all of them are executed by Prospero’s crossbowmen except for one child, who is left to wander outside the walls.

And now at last Prospero’s masquerade begins. The Prince himself appears to be dressed as Omar Sharif’s character from Lawrence of Arabia. Who wore it better?

There is only one rule at the Prince’s debauched orgy: no one is to wear red. Anything else goes, including Hop-Toad setting one of the guests on fire. Like the man said, “to whom life and death are equally jests…”

Gino has managed to scale the walls of the castle, where he again meets the figure in red, who tells him to wait outside, and he will send Francesca out to him. This has to be a moment of mixed emotions for Gino–here he was, all set to be the hero of the piece, and he gets told to stand and wait by some mysterious apparition. We don’t see him again for the rest of the film. This is what I mean about Poe’s weirdness beating the formula.

When Prospero sees the figure in red moving among the revelers, he pursues him through the colored rooms, until at last reaching the black room, where he bows before the figure, believing him to be Satan himself. The red figure declares it is time for a new dance to begin–a “dance of death.” At which point, all the guests die of the Red Death, but continue to dance.

The Red figure sends Francesca outside, and then tells Prospero that he is not Satan, nor a servant of his, for “Death has no master.” Further, “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell,” he tells Prospero, who then demands the figure unmask, revealing the face underneath the hood to be Prospero’s own, only covered with blood. In terror, the prince tries to flee, but is blocked by the bloody corpses of his guests and finally crumbles into death near his own black Satanist altar, at the hand of the Red figure.

The final scene is an epilogue of sorts, revealing the Red figure again in the desolate forest from the beginning of the film, playing with the young child abandoned outside the castle. More robed figures in different colors appear, each telling of how many they have claimed that night. The red figure pronounces that only six remain alive in his territory: the child, Francesca and Gino, Hop-Toad and his lover, and an old man. “Sic transit gloria Mundi,” the figure murmurs, and then they file off in a funereal procession, and the credits roll.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Poe’s story is an allegory for the inevitability of death. The Masque of the Red Death is frequently used in high schools to teach how allegory works because it’s such a slam-dunk; you can’t miss it.

But is that also the theme of the movie? I’m not sure. Moreover, I don’t think the people who made the movie were sure.

There are a lot of mixed messages in this movie. Francesca, Ludovico and Gino are pious and devoted Christians–except, as Prospero points out, Ludovico and Gino both kill guards in their attempt to escape, which by their own religion is a sin. Shouldn’t they have been willing to be martyred instead, like the early Christians executed in the Roman arena? And Francesca ultimately is willing to pledge herself to Prospero, if he will spare Gino’s life. Is this not a betrayal of her faith?

Maybe not. After all, Gino and Francesca are spared the Red Death, and Ludovico dies a noble death confronting Prospero. But why are they spared? Is it really due to their faith or the quality of their character? The hooded spirits at the end don’t seem to be passing moral judgments. They’re just killing some people and sparing others; and their reasons for doing so are ambiguous.

And then of course, there are all of Prospero’s carefully-crafted arguments for Satanism that go strangely unanswered. Like:

Prospero: If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.

Prospero: Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.

I am the furthest thing from a religious scholar, to be clear. And yet, I think even I know the proper Christian response to this, which is that the Kingdom of God is separate from the material world, and the virtues of Christianity are rewarded in the next world, not in this one. But Francesca doesn’t say that. She just says she has no learning and thus can’t answer the prince’s arguments. 

It’s a longstanding tradition in fiction that the villains always get the best lines, but Prospero gets to make the case for his literally hellish philosophy, and nobody ever rebuts it. You might think the avatar of the Red Death itself would, but it doesn’t. It seems to be, as another highly-questionable philosopher would say, “beyond good and evil.”

Thematically, the movie just can’t make up its mind as to whether it’s supposed to be a traditional morality play or a morally nihilistic grotesquerie. You think it’s going one way, and then it goes the other. It’s… weird. 

This is a good adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in spite of itself. Even for all the melodrama, the pointless Hop-Toad sub-plot, the hammy acting, and the special effects that aged quite poorly, it still leaves you with that feeling of uncanny, despairing fear that Poe’s story gives you. You feel like you’ve walked right to the edge of some sketchy borderland between stock melodrama and something else that is quite unusual, rather interesting, and very unsettling. Going back would be boring, going much further would be terrifying. 

SHUnlike the cartoon I reviewed in last week’s post, this isn’t a simple adaptation of the Washington Irving story. It’s a “reboot” (although I don’t think that term was used in that sense in 1999) directed by Tim Burton, the go-to director for weird horror-comedies. 

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now not a school teacher, but a police detective, investigating a series of murders committed in the town of Sleepy Hollow, supposedly by the Horseman. Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) is just a mook who gets killed off early on. Katrina (Christina Ricci) is still a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but she also becomes Ichabod’s sidekick in solving the “mystery.” 

Okay, I put mystery in quotes because there’s some tangled conspiracy where, for some reason, Katrina’s stepmother Mary (Miranda Richardson) has summoned the ghost of the Hessian soldier to avenge her family and also kill off a bunch of people relating to some land dispute among the families of the region.

And this is where I have to stop the review and say that if you’ve written a story about people who have summoned demonic ghosts from Hell in order to win some petty Hatfields-and-McCoys feud over who owns a piece of land, you should stop and think very carefully over whether this makes any sense whatsoever. The Headless Horseman is supposed to be the spirit of a soldier seeking revenge for his death in a strange and foreign country, to which he most likely was sent against his will.  He is not some hired gun to be enlisted for the purpose of settling real estate disputes.

This cheapens the Horseman irrevocably, and turns him into nothing more than a Final Boss that Johnny Depp must defeat by finding the right McGuffin. Not good, not good at all. The Headless Horseman is literally a part of the haunted, bewitching landscape of the glen, with its dreamy atmosphere and pervasive sense of history. He must be treated as such; not as something which can be controlled or seduced—no, not even by you, Miranda Richardson!

MR SH

You’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t like this movie, and you’re right. I wanted to like it. It’s creepy; it’s got a macabre sense of humor, and it has a great cast. I’m not a huge Depp fan, but look at some of the supporting players! Besides Richardson, you’ve got:

-Christopher Walken is the Horseman. Walken is a great actor to play villains and a famed cinematic weirdo. His performance is fine, but the Headless Horseman is not a villain! He’s a spirit! A dream! An embodiment of the unknowable and mysterious rift in the fabric of time and reality itself that seems to exist in the haunted region! Not bloody Max Zorin!

As if that weren’t enough, we also have not one, not two, but three Sith Lords:

-Ray Park is the Horseman during action/stunt sequences. He’s most famous as the guy who played Darth Maul and participated in one of the best cinematic duel sequences ever. His talents are used to minimal effect here.

-The late, great Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster. I forget what he does or why he’s there or what a Burgomaster is. (Maybe it’s what you do before you become a Count, since this was shortly before he appeared as Count Dooku in Star Wars. ) This is indicative of the problem with this film: you have Christopher Lee, legendary melodramatic villain, veteran of Hammer horror, contemporary of Vincent Price, and you waste him in a throwaway role. 

-Ian McDiarmid as the town doctor. “Hey, let’s get the man who played evil emperor Palpatine, the iconic arch-villain in the most famous film series of our time, and have him do absolutely nothing in a bit part!”

I hate it when talent gets wasted, and this movie is like a monument to wasting talent. There are so many good elements here that could have worked, but they didn’t because they weren’t used correctly. It’s supposed to be a ghost story, but the ghost isn’t scary when you know he’s just a goon who can be employed as mafia-style muscle. What we’re left with is a bunch of grisly murders committed for vague and emotionally-uninteresting reasons. 

Oh, one more thing—because let’s face it, I’ve got to get on my hobby horse—this film is a forerunner of the now abominably-common practice of making all movies set in the past in hideously washed-out shades of blue-grey. Look at this:

Sleepy Hollow 1999 washed out2

Ugh.

Well, that’s all for now. Remember this image though for next week, when we conclude the series, hopefully on a better note.

Thousand YesteryearsA Thousand Yesteryears is a crime thriller, set in 1982. A young woman named Eve Parrish returns to her hometown of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Eve, and everyone in the town, are still haunted by the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge 15 years before. Eve’s father and her best friend Maggie Flynn were among the victims of the collapse.

Eve is in town to deal with the estate of her recently-deceased Aunt Rosie, which includes selling the family hotel. She reunites with Caden Flynn, her girlhood crush and Maggie’s older brother, who is still haunted by survivor’s guilt that he lived through the bridge collapse when his sister did not.

Eve begins settling in town and reconnecting with old acquaintances, including Katie Lynch, a friend and confidant of her late aunt. Katie is also haunted by a lost sibling–her sister Wendy, who disappeared shortly before the bridge disaster.

Soon, strange things begin happening to Eve. Her late aunt’s home is vandalized, and soon she is plagued by threatening notes and mysterious phone calls. Caden and his brother Ryan grow fearful for Eve’s safety.

As the disturbing events escalate, the four begin to uncover strands of the past that all lead back to that horrific night in 1967 when their lives–and the whole town of Point Pleasant–were changed irrevocably.

It’s a fascinating blend of literary novel, romance, and thriller. Gradually, the thriller aspect takes over as they put the pieces together, but there are also plenty of atmospheric interludes that tell us about the characters and the strange mood that hangs over Point Pleasant. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Katie and Eve. It starts off sort of on the wrong foot, but then Eve gradually realizes that a lot of what she assumed about Katie from when they were in school isn’t true, and once she accepts that, they start working together. I really liked that.

As I mentioned, this is at least partially a crime novel, and the crimes in question are truly horrific ones. Readers should go in expecting to deal with dark subject matter. It’s actually much grimmer than the sort of story I normally like to read, but it was so well-written I just had to know where it was going, and it certainly reaches a very satisfying conclusion. I don’t often read gritty crime novels, but this is one I’ll definitely recommend for its well-paced plot, its relatable characters, and most of all its memorable, haunting setting.

Ah, okay… and there’s another reason, too. I wasn’t totally up front with you in describing this book, but most readers probably already guessed from the time and the place that there’s another element to this besides crime and romance. Because if we’re doing word association, I’m betting that for 99 out of 100 people, the words “Point Pleasant” instantly call to mind the word “Mothman.”

The legend of the Mothman is one of the most fascinating stories of modern folklore, in my opinion. For those who don’t know, the story is that, beginning in 1966, a strange winged creature was sighted repeatedly throughout Point Pleasant. Eyewitnesses describe a monstrous thing with red eyes making horrible screeching nosies.

Some people believe it was a monster, wreaking havoc. Others believe it was trying to warn people of impending disaster–specifically, the Silver Bridge disaster. John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies links the creature to all sorts of strange phenomena, including UFOs, “Men in Black,” and so on. The story was further popularized by the 2002 film inspired by Keel’s book.

Like the headless Hessian of the Hudson or the witches of New England, the Mothman is intimately tied to the landscape. Anyone who has been to Appalachia recognizes the mysterious and slightly otherworldly quality of the region’s hills and forests. Traveling the Ohio/West Virginia border, you can’t help but feel a sense of eerie wonder. My own opinion is, if the Mothman did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Clair clearly did her research on the legend, as the book is filled with references to all the classic concepts of Mothman lore, from the eerie voices on the phone to the eternally ambiguous motivations of the creature. Because, oh yes; to be quite clear–the Mothman is very much a character in this book, portrayed carefully and thoroughly, yet preserving the proper degree of mystery.

If you love the Mothman legend as I do, you have to check this book out. It’s a dark, unsettling visit to that legend-shadowed river town, and the enigmatic being that reputedly haunts its lonely roads at night.

I compile lists of articles/stories/blog posts/other stuff that I find interesting and share them periodically. Here are some things you should look at. (Those who follow me on Twitter will have probably seen these already.)

sleepy hollowDidn’t I warn you I’d talk more about the adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” Well, here we go with the first full sound film adaptation of the famous tale. (There was a silent film in 1922.)

Now, admittedly, it’s an animated film. 

And it’s a musical.

And it’s by Disney.

And, for some unfathomable reason, it was originally shown as a double-feature with an animated adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. I have no idea why. Maybe Disney was planning to create a horror anthology and do a musical animated version of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, and got mixed-up. But probably not. Although that would have been much cooler.

Fortunately, it’s possible to get this film as a stand-alone piece, usually with its proper title, Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I won’t bother to re-hash the plot here; I covered that in last week’s post. The basic plot is more or less faithful to the book, though with the predictable Disney caricature-ization. 

Ichabod is portrayed as a scrawny glutton. This is in keeping with how he’s described in the story, but it really looks weird on the screen: he’s always eating, and yet he’s comically thin. It seems incongruous, but maybe that was the point. Brom Bones is basically spot-on; I have no issues with him. And then we have Katrina, who I don’t think ever actually speaks or sings in the film, while Bing Crosby sings for both Ichabod and Brom Bones. The big show-stopping number is Brom’s recounting of the horseman legend set to music.

When Ichabod finally meets the Horseman, he is everything you could ask for:

Iceraichabodmrtoad5626

Note, however, that he carries a jack-o’-lantern from the start, rather than his decapitated head. I guess Disney didn’t want to traumatize kids too much, which is why the final dash for the bridge in which the ghostly rider pursues Ichabod is played more for slapstick comedy than horror. Not good. On the other hand, the film seems to emphasize the supernatural nature of the horseman, and downplays Brom Bones’ involvement.

Bing Crosby’s narration is appropriately spooky, especially the shudder in his voice as he says “I’m getting out of here!” at the end.

I remember watching this cartoon on VHS when I was a kid. My mom got it for me one Halloween, and I must have seen it a hundred times. I had a toy riding horse that I would sit on and pull my sweater up over my head and wave a sword while the climactic chase scene played out. I figured it looked pretty terrifying, and it’s true that this cartoon is aimed at an audience young enough to believe that, but it’s still a fun story, and while the characters may be drawn in a goofy, Disneyfied style, the backgrounds are actually pretty gorgeous.

All in all, a decent adaptation. There certainly could be much worse… as we’ll see next week.

Colors of the DeadI picked this book up after Kevin Brennan blogged about it. I assumed it was about a planet of zombies or something. I don’t like zombie stories much, but I figured I’d give it a whirl.

My initial impression was kind of off. I was picturing explorers being chased by zombies on a remote planet, and that’s not exactly what happens. There are space explorers, and there are zombies, and there is a remote planet… but it all combines in a surprising and interesting way.

What really stands out to me about this book are the characters: the space explorer Derek Rain, leading an expedition to the distant world of Draconis IV. His girlfriend Lydia Torch back on Earth, trying to cope with the guilt she feels after surviving a horrific space exploration accident of her own. A young orphan boy named Kito being raised by nuns. Prisha, the sister of one of Rain’s expeditionary crew, stuck back on Earth caring for her elderly mother.

Each of these characters’ threads gradually draw together, beginning with Rain and his crew making an unsettling discovery on Draconis IV. Soon, apocalyptic events begin to erupt back on Earth. I wasn’t entirely off-base with my assumptions about this book, and there are some gory zombie apocalypse scenes. There are really two different styles of horror here: the undead-armageddon scenes on Earth and the Alien-esque sense of isolated dread on Draconis IV. There’s also another sequence in the desolate badlands of Earth that has a vaguely Mad Max feel to it. 

The plot is perfectly-paced, with tension escalating in every chapter, and the different strands of the story are expertly balanced. I could picture the action unfolding as I read, and I found myself feeling almost as though I were watching a movie. 

Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say the ending struck just the right note–a satisfying resolution that also leaves the reader pondering what comes next. And it even raises some existential and philosophical questions to think on, in the vein of classic Arthur C. Clarke-style sci-fi.

Now, as I said, I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre in general, and some of the violent and gory scenes I could have lived without. Not that they were bad; just not to my taste. But the story and characters were so good I could deal with it. And fans of that brand of horror will undoubtedly find this story a real treat. 

Simply put, this is a fantastic book. It has great characters and a magnificently constructed plot. Fans of horror, science-fiction and action-adventure alike can all find plenty to enjoy here. It deserves to be widely-read, and frankly, I’d love to see it adapted for the screen. In addition to Alien and Mad Max, it also had parts that evoked Predator, Jurassic Park, Annihilation and The Mummy. It’s an absolute masterpiece of sci-fi horror.

220px-Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterNote that it’s Color out of Space, not The Color out of Space. The H.P. Lovecraft story it’s based on includes the definite article. (Also, Lovecraft used the spelling “colour.”) I’m not sure why they changed it.

Before I talk about this movie, I’d better briefly discuss that Lovecraft story. The plot is this: a meteorite crashes on the property of a New England farmer, and soon, the vegetation and animal life begins to mutate, and the farmer and his family begin to suffer mentally and physically. The culprit is clearly the strange color seeping from the meteor–a color like none ever seen on earth. As Lovecraft’s narrator puts it:

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all. Its texture was glossy, and upon tapping it appeared to promise both brittleness and hollowness.

Eventually, as is often the way in Lovecraft stories, the farmer and his family go mad and die. Witnesses describe seeing the mysterious color shooting into the sky, and the farm is reduced to ashen desolation.

Lovecraft considered the story one of his best. Personally, I think it’s pretty mediocre. It’s a cool idea–imagine, a color no one has ever seen!–but as a story, it’s kind of plodding. The farmer goes out one day and the chickens have mutated. Then the next day, the cows have mutated. Then the next day his son starts feeling ill. And so on. Each time, people wonder, could it possibly have anything to do with that weird meteorite? (Answer: duh.)

Lovecraft wrote the story in 1927, and the framing device is that it’s being told to our narrator by an old man who is one of the few who still remembers the bizarre event, which began in 1882.

The film adaptation places the setting in the present-day. It’s still a remote New England farm, but they have smartphones and internet connections and TV. Also, the family is given a pointless backstory. The mother is a cancer survivor. The eldest son is a pot-smoker. Oddest of all, the daughter is Wiccan, which makes it feel vaguely as if the film is trying to make some sort of moralizing commentary, although it’s not very coherent if it is.

Whenever people adapt Lovecraft stories, they try to flesh out the characters. And unless you’re Audrey Driscoll, that’s usually a bad idea. Lovecraft sort of, um, hated people, so his characters are generally little more than cardboard cut-outs. By his own admission, he didn’t care about human interest elements. I get that this goes against normal screenwriting advice, which is to make people relate to the characters, but it’s better to stick with the flimsy sketches Lovecraft used than to do what this film does: try to make them interesting by giving them random quirks and eccentricities. This made them seem like a bunch of oddballs even before the meteorite strike.

The bigger problem here, though, is the modern setting. In 1882, if a meteorite hit and began to poison the groundwater, you can imagine that the rustics wouldn’t immediately connect the two things. Likewise, you can see that if a malignant extraterrestrial entity began devouring everything on your property, you’d have fewer options for escaping. Even riding into Arkham would mean a long ride on treacherous roads.

In the present-day setting, none of this applies. The film tries to convince us that these people are super-isolated, and that somehow nobody believes this meteorite is worth looking into, and that everybody is so stupid they crowd around the meteor crash site right near the well, and don’t think that maybe that’s a concern, even after they know there is something wrong with the water.

This is two strikes against the movie, but these issues could be overcome. Otherwise, it plays out more or less like Lovecraft’s story: gnawing dread, weird mutations, unfathomable eldritch abominations from unlighted realms in infinite blackness, blah blah blah. The family gradually dies horribly, the farm is reduced to ash, and only our narrator, the surveyor Ward Phillips, is left to tell the tale of the horror from the stars that he witnessed.

But there’s another problem here. The first two strikes were understandable. But now we’re really down to the very core of the issue.

Lovecraft wrote a short story that asks the reader to imagine a color no one has ever seen. Now, that is, of course, impossible. We literally can’t think in those terms. We know the colors that we can see, and imagining another can’t be done. It’s a brain-teaser; trying to think a thought that’s literally unthinkable. It’s not enough to sustain an entire story, in my opinion, but it’s a neat concept.

Do you see the problem now?

This movie ought to have been called The Magenta Lens Filter That Killed Everyone. That’s what happens. We get a bunch of weird hallucinogenic magenta effects, hideous mutants bathed in magenta light, and then eventually it all ends in a magenta-colored explosion of static.

I’m sorry, but that’s not effective. It’s nothing against magenta; any other color would have been just as ineffective. Because it wouldn’t have been a new color. It couldn’t be.

Of all Lovecraft’s stories, this is the one that is by far the least-suited to being adapted for the screen. The idea of a new color is the only thing driving it. Take away that mind-bending premise, and you’re left with a story about some people gradually dying of radiation poisoning.

What really irritates me is that this movie so badly wants to be a film like Annihilation, a 2018 science-fiction/horror film also premised around the concept of a meteorite causing sinister mutations.

The thing is, Annihilation had explanations for why its characters behave the way they do. The main characters are a team of military scientists entering the poisoned zone created by the meteor. First and foremost, they’re doing it because they’re trying to understand the bizarre phenomenon that’s occurring, and second they each have personal psychological reasons for wanting to find answers. They all have solid justifications for being there, and not just running away screaming, which would be most people’s logical reaction.

The plot of Annihilation is structured as a journey. It’s always reminded me a bit of the Fisher King from Arthurian legend, complete with a protagonist who must journey into the dangerous unknown on a quest to heal both themselves as well as the sick land around them. It has an arc to it.

Color out of Space has no arc, no structure. It’s just a lot of weird special effects that gradually get more grotesque. (For the record, Annihilation‘s alien-mutant color palette was also more creative.) There’s no development. Which, to be fair, is also true of Lovecraft’s story, but again, he at least had an interesting idea at the core of it. The film doesn’t.

This film is the first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations planned by director Richard Stanley. The next one in the works is The Dunwich Horror. 

Well, hopefully that film will at least be better than the dreadful 1970s version. But Dunwich is another odd choice for an adaptation. In many ways it’s similar to The Colour out of Space–remote New England farmers troubled by blasphemous creatures from the depths of space unimaginable. Yawn.

Why don’t they adapt one of Lovecraft’s good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Haunter of the Dark”? “Nyarlathotep” and “The Hound” are creepy, unique, and evocative–good candidates for cinema. Or just throw a pastiche of Lovecraft ideas together and call it Azathoth. Any of those would be better than this.

John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_Project
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story, originally published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. “Geoffrey Crayon” being a pseudonym of Washington Iriving.

It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher in a region of New York known as Tarrytown in the early 19th-century. He is—if I may cut through the florid 19th-century lingo—kind of a jerk. He’s mean to his students, unless he sees an opportunity of mooching free meals off their mothers or flirting with their older sisters. 

Eventually, Ichabod’s fancy is caught by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel. One thing  that’s interesting is that Ichabod seems to be interested in her largely for a wealth—whether he has affection or even mere lust for her seems beside the point.

But another of Katrina’s suitors, the large, vigorous, Brom Bones (actually Brom Van Brunt, but his nickname is Brom Bones) does not take kindly to the girl he’d been wooing spending all her time with the awkward schoolmaster. 

These are the three main characters, and they’re all kind of humorously unlikable. Ichabod is a selfish moocher, Katrina is a vapid tease, and Brom is what we would today call a jock frat boy. The main body of the story is more like a sit-com than a ghost story.

The ghost aspect comes from the setting—Tarrytown, a sleepy, dreamy village in the Hudson valley where, Irving tells us:

“…population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”

In other words, it’s a place that seems removed from modernity—modernity, in this case, being 1820. Even when Irving wrote the story, “Sleepy Hollow” was hearkening back to an earlier era. No doubt he was targeting those 1790s kids who felt nostalgic for their childhood.

Anyway, things culminate with Ichabod going to a large harvest party at the sprawling Van Tassel farm, where folks swap ghost stories, such as the one about “The woman in white that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” And finally, of course, the region’s most popular legend: the story of a ghostly Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannonball in the war, rides forth each night in search of a replacement. 

Ichabod, who is a devoted reader of Cotton Mather, is much troubled by such tales. He leaves the party in a state of agitation, and our narrator suggests that perhaps Katrina has dumped him, although this is ambiguous. At any rate, Ichabod is riding home alone, feeling rather miserable when he encounters a huge, headless rider mounted upon a black horse.

Furiously, Ichabod urges his own horse towards the old church bridge, which, according to a story of the horseman related by Brom Bones, the horseman will not cross. Ichabod successfully manages to cross the bridge and turns just in time to see the horseman hurling his head at him. 

Yes, that’s right—his head. The horseman carries his severed head with him on his saddle. And this is where the story becomes a bit ambiguous because the next day, as the townsfolk investigate Ichabod’s sudden disappearance, they do not find a head at the old church bridge, but do find the shattered remains of a pumpkin. 

The story is deliberately vague after that—while Ichabod is never seen again in Tarrytown, some say he simply moved, and is alive and well in another part of the country. Brom Bones—who, we are told, marries Katrina, looks “exceedingly knowing” whenever anyone brings up the subject of Ichabod, suggesting that perhaps the notorious prankster had simply disguised himself as a headless horsemen, seeking to frighten off his rival.

Of course, the more superstitious residents of the town believe that Crane became a victim of the ghostly Hessian. And after all, since we already have strong reason to think Ichabod was spurned by Katrina at the party, why would Brom have even needed to pull such an elaborate stunt? (Unless he was just adding injury to insult, which would be exactly the kind of move we might expect from Brom.)

This brings me back to what I think is the most curious thing about this story: it plays out like a romantic comedy—or more accurately, one of those anti-romantic comedies where all the characters seem self-absorbed, and the comedy results from the interplay of their attempts to get what they want. In fact, if you take away all the supernatural elements and think of it in modern terms, it’s basically a mean-spirited high-school comedy, where the rich cheerleader and the superstar quarterback screw over the know-it-all nerd.

Which seems like the sort of thing that might actually happen, and indeed almost makes me wonder if the eponymous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the thing about the headless ghost at all, but rather the legend of a love triangle that ended in a bizarre prank. In other words, it seems almost like the sort of thing that could have actually happened. Apparently, Irving did know people named “Ichabod Crane” and “Katrina Van Tassel.” Real-life Ichabod Crane was a captain in the army, not a schoolteacher, but real-life Katrina seems to have been more or less like the character in the story, which again makes me wonder how much of this was based on real events or gossip Irving picked up. 

But obviously, it’s the ghost aspect that has made this story famous. And is it ever famous! It’s one of the first and most iconic pieces of post-revolution American literature, and has been adapted many, many times. (More about that later this month.) There are places all over the country named “Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod and the ghostly Hessian are commemorated on postage stamps and in statuary. Most people know the story even though they never read the original. It’s the quintessential American ghost story.