This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.

“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”

Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.

As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.

This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.

Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.

The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.

Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.

Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual. 

The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.

Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.

There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.

This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.

Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.

And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.

I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.

I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.

Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.

And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.

The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.

I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.

There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.

The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.

Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.

My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.

Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.

This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book. 

One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.

And now, a word about zombies. 

I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed. 

Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.

Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.

It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

“Come with me, and I’ll be your guide,” H.P. Lovecraft said to me.
“I’m no Virgil, but you’re no Alighieri.”
 We set off into the night, separated but a scant few paces–
Our path lit by twinkling jack-o’-lantern faces.
The October moon was low, the westward wind howled sad.
“Lovecraft,” I asked, “Why did you have to be so bad?”
He stopped, and regarded me a while, then said:
“I was full of hate because I was afraid.”
Then he added, “But it may be my hate-filled heart
Alone could have produced my weird and fearful art.”
We walked in silence then, entering the grove
Where in the night wind, the hulking boughs creaked and hove.
Through the shadows, in the flickering moonlight’s glow,
I touched the dial on my pocket radio.
I half-expected I would hear, from some high desert, a distant Bell;
As if to summon me away, to Heaven or to Hell.
But only buzzing static greeted me instead–
The growling traces of a signal long ago gone dead.
I put the radio away, thinking it was foolish of me,
When suddenly, I thought I heard beating wings above me.
But gazing up, saw only that chill autumn sky.
My companion chuckled, “More things are here than you and I.”
We came into a clearing, the dead leaves crackling ‘neath our feet
And upon a huge, smooth stone, he bade me take a seat.
“Listen!” he commanded, “Listen to the cosmic hum around!”
I obeyed, and heard–no, felt!–that omnipresent sound.
Shapes and visions flashed inside my troubled mind–
Ghosts and devils, fiends and demons, ghouls of every kind.
Methought I saw whole worlds, whole realms our own beyond
And smoky black crevasses that in our own existence yawned.
“Do you see?” he asked, recalling me to that shadowy forest floor.
“I do,” I answered. “I see it all. And I would know more.”
He laughed. “Know more? No more! ‘Nevermore,’ as the poet Poe would say–
What we have seen exists only on life’s fringes, and there it’s bound to stay.
The nature of the weird and frightful is that it’s forever out of reach.
You and I are still upon the placid island–if only on its beach.”
He paused, and looked carefully, clinically at me.
“But,” he said at last. “You can still listen to that darkly murmuring sea.”
I closed my eyes, and listened, and could hear the awful roar–
Whether the black surf of the ocean, or the leaves that rustled o’er.
At last, my eyes I opened, and my companion had disappeared,
Leaving me alone with that tingling dread sensation of the Weird.
Upon the ground where he had stood, I saw a folded note.
I picked it up and from it read aloud the words he wrote:
“You and I, we are both strange and frightened men
Who find ourselves with but one tool to wield–the pen.
With this, we must gather and impart unto our friends
The things that we have seen–the things that shall remain when all else ends.”

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.

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.

Summer's OverI’ve had this book on my TBR list for some time, but it was Lydia Schoch’s review that motivated me to read it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long—this is a fantastic collection of creepy short stories centered around California amusement parks.

Let me give you an idea of the strange and disturbing worlds the book presents: There are cultists who ride roller coasters. There’s a creepy family of Disney fanatics trailing people around Disneyland. (I may be in the minority here, but I think almost everything about Disney is creepy anyway, so this seemed quite plausible.) A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm and an attraction that transports visitors into an apocalyptic nightmare. A young man whose father takes him to a mysterious section of Seaworld with a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. And finally, an opening day at Universal Studios that takes immersion in the world of movies to an extreme.

All the stories are short and engaging, with narrators who are instantly interesting and relatable. There is a smattering of typos, but nothing that obscured the meaning or detracted from the story.   

These are exactly the kind of short horror tales I enjoy: weird, mysterious, eerie and—with the exception of the Universal Studios one—not too gory. Think The Twilight Zone and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. While the stories are short, I felt each one gave me a good sense of who the characters were, while leaving a bit of a mystery to ponder as well.

Highly recommended for fans of weird fiction. And now is the perfect time to read it!

I’ve talked before about the story that first made me love horror–the “Wishbone” children’s adaptation of Sheridan le Fanu’s Green Tea.  But there was another book I got for Halloween that same year that was probably just as important: Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe.

Bunnicula is the first in a series of children’s books. All the books are narrated by “Harold,” a pet dog whose owners find a small rabbit at a cinema showing of the original Dracula film–hence the name. Harold sees Bunnicula as simply a sweet little bunny, but the family cat, Chester, begins to suspect there is more to the little creature when he finds vegetables lying around the house, strangely drained of their juices.

Chester comes to believe that Bunnicula is a vampire, sustaining himself by draining the vegetables. Harold believes his friend simply has an over-active imagination. Throughout the series, the major conflict is between the practical Harold trying to keep the peace, and Chester, who sees, or thinks he sees, supernatural danger lurking everywhere.

Yes, these are books for children, and they’re not even meant as “scary” books for children–they’re just humorous tales that reference classic horror tropes. But even though it’s a children’s series, it has some concepts that I love. The opening of the first book: a showing of Dracula, in an old movie theater on a rainy evening, is a perfect beginning for a scary story. And it was never settled whether Bunnicula really was a supernatural being, or if it was all in Chester’s imagination. Even when the conflict gets resolved, there are differing explanations as to why. Chester always has his own idiosyncratic reasons for ceasing to threaten Bunnicula.

Oh, and there’s also a dachshund who might be part werewolf later in the series. That in itself is a brilliant concept.

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Look at this–it’s almost like a Hammer Horror film poster!

But I think the illustrations by Alan Daniel are the biggest part of what makes the series so good. They are done in a realistic, sketch-like style that feels grittier than the tone of the writing–in a good way. The whimsical prose works well with the serious sketches. (Admittedly, it might also be due to my personal memories as well–when I see those drawings, I turn back into a nine-year-old boy reading by himself at the library on a gloomy autumn night. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.)

While looking up the relevant facts about Bunnicula for this post, I discovered that it has been adapted into a series on the Cartoon Network. I have to say, I don’t care for the style of those drawings. Not that they’re bad, and indeed the series may be fine on its merits, but to me, a key thing about Bunnicula is how normal, even mundane, the basic setting feels. The inherent weirdness of a vampire rabbit has to be balanced by ordinary and unremarkable circumstance.

I vividly remember when the family dentist asked nine-year-old-me what I was reading and I answered: “A book about a vampire rabbit.” “That sounds weird!” he exclaimed in reply. He was a nice guy, but pretty conventionally-minded, and I think the idea of a vampire rabbit was just too crazy for him. I think I recall this so clearly because it was the first time in my life that someone wrinkled their nose at me and said, with a mix of incredulity and suspicion, “Why are you reading such weird stuff?” (Unsurprisingly, it was not the last.)

I hadn’t thought about it in twenty years, but I’ll bet you Bunnicula was where my love of weird fiction started.

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?