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Tuning In to Your Twilight Zone

Zombies, vampires, monsters. Why do we get such a kick out of supernatural horror? It’s a strange psychological fact that stories dramatizing our worst fears can offer insights and thrills that make us feel good. The Greeks called it catharsis. I call it therapy from the Twilight Zone. In the stories he produced for The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling served up social and political criticism under the guise of science fiction. Suffusing his stories with the aura of a nightmare, he suspended the rules of physics and biology to explore fears lying just below the level of reason. He gave us small-town America, but it was peopled by the dead who held lessons for the living. He gave us familiar doctors and nurses, but they mutilated flesh instead of healing it. Serling’s Twilight Zone may have been social and political, but my own is clearly personal. Lately I’ve been writing stories so frightening, I scare myself. My fictional universe is haunted by victims of accidents that almost happened, the wrong fork in a road narrowly avoided. A monstrous half-human fish rises out of the sea. A homeless man I met on a lonely side street turns out to be a werewolf. The person inside the coffin at the funeral I recently attended isn’t really dead. Writers are used to digging in their own “night gardens,” pulling up weeds that live at the edges of consciousness. But you don’t need to be a professional writer to enjoy exploring your own Twilight Zone. Just fess up to a few of your deepest fears and see where they lead you. It is an awesome feeling to escape a catastrophe of your own invention. Such terrors stimulate the imagination and provide plots for stories. Whether we write about them, read about them or just dream about them, messages from monsters carry truths buried deep in the human heart—and facing them down is the biggest thrill of all. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_Twilight-Zone

by Roz Siegel

Oct 24, 2014

Spoiler Alert: She Dies. Twice.

Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of sexual obsession, delivers enough perverse chills and thrills to get any viewer into a twisted state of mind. As a treat for New Yorkers wanting a seasonal taste of the macabre, Film Forum is showing this wickedly unhinged classic in a breathtaking new restoration the week before Halloween. Although Vertigo’s plot elements of murder, transformation and reincarnation—not to mention necrophilia—are staples of the horror genre, this movie is no Hammer slasher or Roger Corman quickie. In 2012 Vertigo was named the greatest film of all time in the prestigious Sight & Sound magazine poll, knocking Citizen Kane from the top spot it had occupied for 50 years! But critic Bill Weber in Slant recognized the cruel, black heart of Vertigo when he called it “perhaps the classiest fetish movie produced in Hollywood.” In 1955 the thriller Diabolique caused an international sensation, with critics hailing director Henri-Georges Clouzot as a new master of suspense. But Hitchcock, the reigning champion, wasn’t ready to relinquish his crown to a French upstart. Hitch instructed Paramount Pictures to purchase the latest novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writers of Diabolique, for himself. Infamous for exercising control over his leading ladies, Hitchcock felt a personal connection to this book, D’Entre les Morts (“From Among the Dead”). As he later told director François Truffaut, “I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to re-create the image of the dead woman through another one who’s alive. The man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.” James Stewart was cast as acrophobic ex-detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, in his fourth and final film with Hitchcock. (Critic Andrew Sarris has noted the perversity of casting “the all-American Stewart in the role of a pathological Pygmalion.”) And Hitch was grooming Vera Miles, his first choice for Vertigo’s mysterious female lead, as a successor to his three-time star Grace Kelly, but Miles became pregnant and withdrew from the project. She was replaced by the luminous Kim Novak, who related deeply to her dual role of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. “When I read the line ‘I want you to love me for me,’ I just identified with it so much,” Novak has said. “It was what I felt when I came to Hollywood as a young girl. You know, they want to make you over completely.” The third star of Vertigo is definitely San Francisco. Visitors still take Vertigo tours through the City by the Bay, retracing Scottie’s steps as he trails the haunted Madeleine. Critics and audiences strongly criticized Hitchcock’s decision to reveal the film’s big secret early on [Spoiler alert!]: Novak’s characters, Madeleine and Judy, are in fact the same person, one in disguise as the other. In making this choice, Hitchcock asked the provocative question, “Do we want suspense or surprise?” Although viewers are robbed of a twist ending, the revelation adds a heartbreaking level of pathos to Judy, who must destroy her own identity to satisfy Scottie’s obsessive need to re-create the dead Madeleine. Judy pleads with him, “Couldn’t you like me, just me, the way I am?” Scottie’s response—“Judy, please, it can’t matter to you”—always draws nervous laughter from the audience. Defeated, she relents: Judy is trapped in Scottie’s desperate madness, and the audience watches in horror as the pair hurtle toward their dark fate. It’s no coincidence that Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score echoes Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” from the doomed-lovers opera Tristan und Isolde. A “love death” accurately categorizes Vertigo’s central relationship. When the film debuted, in 1958, it wasn’t a financial or critical success. Audiences were confused and disturbed by its obsessive, dangerous eroticism and bleak ending. Time magazine even called it “another Hitchcock-and-bull story.” The director pulled Vertigo and four of his other movies from circulation in 1973, which increased public fascination with this dark masterwork. Approaching its 60th anniversary, Vertigo is that rare classic film that appears more modern and relevant as time passes. Critic Kenneth Turan has written, “Why has a film dismissed by the keenest minds of 1958 become an icon of modern cinema? Were they crazy or are we?” He also inventoried Vertigo’s “sadism, masochism, fetishism, necrophilia and more garden-variety neuroses.” Sounds like perfect Halloween viewing to me. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Vertigo

by Colin J. Warnock

Oct 23, 2014

31 Nights of Halloween

As I scanned the display shelves in a local bookstore’s science fiction section recently, I was thrilled—rather loudly so—to find a small stack of Roger Zelazny’s long-out-of-print 1993 novel A Night in the Lonesome October. It’s a loving mash-up featuring iconic characters from the worlds of classic horror and mystery, who come together to determine the fate of the earth in a macabre game of Halloween sorcery. Reader, I bought them all. Well, there were only two left. But even so.... For many years now I’ve enjoyed my own particular October ritual. Each chapter of the book details one day of the month, so every night, lamps down, candle lit, tea and ginger snaps optional, I’ve read one chapter aloud (or listened to the author’s reading in years that demanded multitasking). I am not alone in this pursuit. Zelazny may not be a household name, but he’s a beloved figure among genre aficionados for his immense creativity, his reassuring sense of humor and the down-to-earth, hard-boiled tone of his characters, most of whom are nonchalantly involved in outrageous supernatural activities. His books have a sense of genuineness and humanity often missing from fantasy literature. Most famous for his Chronicles of Amber series, the multiple Nebula and Hugo award winner has had tremendous influence on other writers, most notably Neil Gaiman, who shares Zelazny’s love for fantastical occurrences brought into the everyday world. Lonesome October revolves around a game played every Halloween on which there is a full moon, and the action takes place in and near London in the late 19th century (and there was indeed a Halloween full moon in 1887). The occultists who gather to play include Count Dracula, Larry Talbot (a.k.a. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman), a mad Russian monk, a Druid, a witch named Jill and an oddly refined, charismatic Jack the Ripper, who has to do bad things to keep worse things from happening. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and Victor Frankenstein and his creature, also show up to the party. Some of the game’s participants are openers, some are closers—the allegiances are surprising—and knocking at the door to the universe on these special occasions are the monstrous, tentacled Great Old Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional dimensions. (Nota bene: “Opening” spells extremely bad news for humans.) Each player has an animal familiar—a cat, a squirrel, a snake, an owl; in this regard, Larry is his own best friend. Jack’s watchdog, Snuff, narrates the proceedings. Snuff seems to enjoy his job more than he liked being whatever shadowy thing he was before Jack summoned him. The animals provide perspective; the tale is told through their viewpoints as they wander about, form alliances, identify the game’s other players, and which side they’re on, and where the gate between dimensions will appear, leaving their masters to prepare the complicated spells necessary for the final conflict. All this is illustrated by Gahan Wilson’s ghoulishly witty line drawings, and now in trade paperback size from Chicago Review Press. Zelazny’s love for classic monster movies and pulp horror fiction comes through not only in the book’s sweet dedication to his borrowed cast of characters, but in the respect he shows for each one’s unique abilities—particularly those of Holmes, who (obviously not a spoiler here) solves quite a few major puzzles. Our own lonesome October is quickly drawing to a close, so you’d best grab a copy of this delightful book and get caught up. As for end times, don’t worry—this month’s full moon is already past. Photo courtesy of DeusXFlorida/Flickr SHOP_A-Night-in-the-Lonesome-Oct

by Camille Cauti

Oct 22, 2014

War and Corpses Made Exquisite

If I were to take inspiration from some experimental writers and artists of the early 20th century, I’d simply rap my fingers against the keyboard without conscious control. The surrealists called this automatic writing, and they used it to tap into the subconscious “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern,” as the poet André Breton wrote. The results were often hilarious or just laughable, but then again quite a few writers groping for lucidity achieve exactly the same effect. I don’t mean to diss the artists to whom we nod in the “Exquisite Corpse” CultureMap. Aghast at the horrors of modern warfare and set adrift as the empires and monarchies around them crumbled, they turned to bold new art forms. The period—think of smoky cafés on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s—has ever since been associated with bohemian romance. This legacy includes the paintings of Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy and the piano works of Erik Satie. Jean Cocteau created his transcendent Parade for Serge Diaghilev’sBallets Russes, and the genius of Pablo Picasso and René Magritte flowered. Then there’s humor. Magritte, for example, had it in spades. Only a provocateur railing against the rigid mores of his day could have made a drawing as funny as “The Puritan.” The-Puritan Of course, the times we live in are pretty harrowing, too. With each news report we hear that ISIS is coming closer to storming the gates of Baghdad. Ebola is spreading out of control. Vladimir Putin is huffing and puffing in the Kremlin. Climate change–triggered tornadoes and wildfires are ravaging the land. Which makes me wonder whether we’re reacting to any of this horror with new art forms of our own. Is there even room for such things amidst the modern media machine? Nonstop news coverage—with those annoying crawlers whipping up even more frenzy—pretty much corners the market on the horror scene. So what about comedy, that good-for-any-occasion tonic? As the late, great Joan Rivers once said, “Life is tough, darling. Life is hard. And we better laugh at everything; otherwise, we’re going down the tube.” She even managed to get in a good line about her own demise, “The fashion magazines are suggesting that women wear clothes that are ‘age appropriate.’ For me that would be a shroud.” I give Larry David credit for managing to make a respectable joke about what is probably the most momentous event to befall us in recent times. September 11th is ground where no comedian should tread, but David pulls it off. In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he sees a photo on his rabbi’s desk and asks who it is. That’s my brother-in-law, the rabbi says, killed on September 11th. “Gosh, he was in the building?” Larry asks. No, the rabbi explains, he was knocked down by a bicycle messenger on 57th Street. Larry, who can never keep his big mouth shut, just has to say it—that was really just a coincidence, that’s not what’s meant when you say someone died on September 11th. Yes, it’s undeniably tasteless. But for this New Yorker, the joke helps take the edge off memories of a horrific turn of events, just as those guys tried to do with all their weird paintings and automatic scribbling almost a century ago. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_Surrealism-Exquisite-Corpse

by Stephen Brewer

Oct 21, 2014