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THE SPITE HOUSE – Pre-Order Now

Click here to pre-order THE SPITE HOUSE through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your favorite local booksellers.

The Spite House, my debut novel, is coming February 7th, 2023.

It has received early praise from Chris Bohjalian (The Flight Attendant), Cynthia Pelayo (Children of Chicago), Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim), Cassandra Khaw (Nothing But Blackened Teeth), Celso Hurtado (The Ghost Tracks), John Harrison (Tales From the Darkside: The MovieCreepshow), Clay McLeod Chapman (Ghost Eaters), and Diana Rodriguez Wallach (Small Town Monsters), with more to come!

About THE SPITE HOUSE:

The Babadook meets A Headful of Ghosts in Texas Hill Country. READ MORE

Classic Scary Story History: “Wait ‘Til Martin Comes”

Back in 2011 I wrote about my history with and love for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. One thing I’ve enjoyed about the stories I read in my childhood is encountering their origins or earlier versions through the years. Now, as part of my never-ending quest on this site to start new things that I rarely revisit or see through satisfactorily, I’m going to start a series of posts focused on the light history and evolution of some classic scary stories. Starting with the joke story, “Wait ’til Martin Comes.”

As it appears in the first volume of Scary Stories, it is the tale of a man who seeks shelter from a storm in an old house. He falls asleep in the house three times. The first time he wakes up, an ordinary black cat has joined him. The second time, the first cat is now accompanied by another cat that is “as big as a wolf.” The cats speak to each other.

“Shall we do it now?” the larger cat says.

“Let’s wait till Martin comes,” the other says.

The man tells himself he’s dreaming and falls asleep one more time. When he wakes up, a black cat the size of a tiger is present and it asks the other two, “Shall we do it now?” They agree to, “Wait till Martin comes.”

Understandably not wanting to find out how big Martin is or what the cats plan to do, the man says, “When Martin comes, you tell him I couldn’t wait,” then runs out into the storm.

The same story appears in 1959’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed, and Other Scary Tales by Maria Leach. Even details such as seeking shelter from a storm appear in Leach’s telling, which is worth pointing out because, as we’ll see, older versions of “Wait ‘Til Martin Comes” didn’t follow the exact same course.

The story is basically a joke derived from a “traditional Negro folk tale,” per the “Sources” section Alvin Schwartz provides at the end of his book. He then gives four different sources that all tell slightly altered versions of the story. The oldest version Schwartz cites comes from Newbell Niles Puckett’s Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, published in 1926. In it, the man just agrees to stay in a haunted house, as opposed to seeking shelter from the storm. The first cat that appears says, “Well, I can’t do nothin’ ’til Martin comes,” then vanishes. The bigger cat comes in, says the same, and also vanishes. When the third, tiger-sized cat repeats the routine, the man in the house does his own more practical and self-preserving disappearing act to keep from seeing Martin in the flesh.

Two versions appeared in The Journal of American Folklore, one in Volume 40 (1928), the other in Volume 47 (1934). In both of these the name “Martin” is replaced; by “Patience” in the 1928 version and by “Emmett” in the second one.1 In both stories the man in the house is stated to be a Bible-packing preacher. The 1928 version is very brief and to the point, while the 1934 retelling stretches things out considerably, with each cat playing around in red-hot fireplace coals before saying their line, but both follow the same general plot and reach the same destination. Increasingly large cats, implied threats, and then our protagonist books it before the titular (and presumably biggest) cat arrives.

Before looking at some other retellings, a couple of things to note here:

  • Schwartz and Leach had the grace not to write the story in affected “Negro dialect” which dominates the other versions of this tale mentioned thus far (as well as a couple more to come).
  • Related to that, one thing I like about the “original” story, as compared to some other “Negro folktales” involving ghosts, is that it’s not about a black person being afraid of their own shadow, or mistaking an innocent animal for a spirit. There are plenty of examples of other stories like that available just in the volumes I’ve mentioned, as well as elsewhere. In this story, though, our protagonist is faced with something bizarre and unsettling that would scare just about anyone, and when he gets the hell out of dodge it’s obviously the smart thing to do, not a cowardly act.
  • The stories with “Patience” and “Emmett” in The Journal of American Folklore make it clear that these aren’t otherworldly cats of undefined nature, but ghosts taking on the form of cats. Puckett’s story implies this by stating that it’s a haunted house, but the Folklore stories make it plain.
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    My Favorite Horrors: Michelle Paver’s DARK MATTER and THIN AIR

    On her official page, Michelle Paver is described first as simply “A Creator of Legends,” and whoever wrote that “ain’t never lied,” as the folks say. I haven’t read any of her fantasy works. I’ve only read two of her novels in fact, but they’re two of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. This is especially remarkable as they are so similar. You might think the latter story might be less effective for being so close to the first. No, it’s still excellent, and both novels pull together something that feels like a legend. Classic, timeless lore befitting Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.

    The very high-level premise of both books–Dark Matter and Thin Air–could be described as follows: A man–an outsider among his peers–joins an expedition that will take him to one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth. There, it soon becomes apparent that secrets, crimes and tragedies figuratively and literally haunt the hostile landscape, and that the unquiet dead may be willing to do something dangerous to have their story heard.

    Now, if you phrase things broadly enough you can make a lot of different stories sound suspiciously similar to each other. Hell, what I wrote up above there would almost fit as a description of The Shining if you just replace a couple of words in the opening sentence. With Dark Matter and Thin Air, however, the similarities extend beyond a vague summary of each book. Certain story beats that appeared earlier in Dark Matter are replayed in Thin Air, including what happens in the climax, and this surprisingly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the latter book at all. Possibly because Paver created imagery in Thin Air that was somehow even more staggeringly haunting than what worked so well in Dark Matter.

    The setting for Dark Matter is the arctic, specifically an abandoned and now dreaded mining settlement called Gruhuken, while Thin Air‘s action takes place on the Himalayan mountain Kangchenjunga. As perilous as Gruhuken proves to be, the mountain is that much more dangerous. Likewise, the revelation of what took place in Gruhuken is terrifying, while the revelation of what happened on a previous attempt to ascend Kangchenjunga managed to be even more macabre and disturbing to me. It burned an image into my brain that will live with me for as long as I have a healthy memory.

    Both books are atmospheric, eerie, and patient burns leading toward impactful payoffs, and by the end both feel less like pure fiction than shadowy pieces of history. I’ll always have a soft spot for quasi-historical horror stories, possibly a product of reading Daniel Cohen’s Ghostly Terrors when I was seven or eight, a book that introduced me to Glamis Castle and its many creepy legends.

    Given how much I like both of these books, I can’t really explain why I haven’t yet gotten around to Paver’s Wakenhyrst, her latest historical-spooky-fiction novel, except that even now, as I’m thinking I need to rectify that, part of me just wants to go back to Gruhuken or Kangchenjunga instead.

    GHOST STORIES – When Revelation Undercuts Execution

    Spoilers ahead for the 2017 film Ghost Stories, as well as a handful other films that share its big twist.

    I can’t remember the last time a plot twist in a short story, film, television series or novel truly startled me. Surely some “unpredictable” twist must have had an impact on me in recent years, but I can’t think of one at the moment. I’ve enjoyed–even loved–plenty of other movies that featured a twist, but the twist is rarely near the top of the reasons why most stories stand out to me. That leads me to believe that the plot twist, one of the most deliciously irresistible devices available in any writer’s toolbox, is mildly overrated. Not bad, just not the thing that ought to be the most important element of a story in most cases.

    I recently revisited a film that featured a twist that I found underwhelming, 2017’s Ghost Stories. Based on a well-regarded play of the same name, Ghost Stories received plenty of critical praise as it made its rounds through the festival circuit. While its twist was never discussed in effusive terms, it was sold as a positive point pretty consistently. Not to be the arbitrary contrarian, as I did like the film, but I actually think the twist is easily the weakest element of the movie.

    The premise of the film is that a famous supernatural skeptic meets with his idol in the same field of skepticism (who mysteriously vanished years earlier), and is tasked with investigating three cases that the older, more famous skeptic claims he couldn’t disprove. This setup is revealed to be at least a little bit flawed fairly early on, as our protagonist, Professor Phillip Goodman, isn’t actively “investigating” these cases at all,  just interviewing people who tell him a story about supernatural experience they had. “Disproving” an anecdote that is founded on an unscientific belief is sort of a redundancy. If you met with a scientist and told them to disprove your story of the time you fought beside Thor in an enchanted forest where you helped him defeat the Loch Ness Monster, said scientist’s entire counterargument might be, “No you didn’t.” Given this hole in the core idea of the story, you might expect that there’s  more at play here than meets the eye, and you’d be right. But that “more” isn’t particularly interesting; certainly not as interesting as the simple trio of stories Professor Goodman hears about.

    Let’s cut to bone here: the stories told to Goodman are in-universe proven fictional only because they’re manifestations of a locked-in mind. In the end, we’re let in on a secret that the movie hasn’t led us to, despite the breadcrumbs dotted throughout: Professor Goodman is dead, and all of these stories–as well as the encounter with his idol–are basically products of his not-quite-dying dreams and nightmares, born in part from a regretful incident from his youth.

    It’s an ending that has shown up in movies in some fashion or another since at least as far back as Carnival of Souls, and is perhaps more famously the big reveal of the film Jacob’s Ladder. Smaller and/or lesser-known works such as Dead End, Sublime or the Ryan Gosling vehicle Stay also feature this revelation, and that’s just a handful of stories where the dying dream or some variant turns out to be the big twist. I think it’s such a popular go-to because it’s an easy way to “explain”–or, more accurately, write-off–the inexplicable. That’s also why it’s my second-least favorite “surprise” explanation of any mystery behind “Aliens did it.”

    Of course, in some cases it actually works well. In Jacob’s Ladder, for instance, it’s actually a key component of the story, not something that just makes everything that came before it pointless. Carnival of Souls gets grandfathered into good graces, being one of the earliest film examples of such a twist. Also, it legitimately tries to present what the lead goes through as being dreamlike–not, merely, “strange”–before the reveal. Other, lesser examples appear to deploy this twist in order to write themselves out of a corner, or to give themselves a “Get Away With Anything, Who Cares, It’s a Dream” writing pass before they type the first letter on page one.

    I find it much more satisfying if a supernatural story just settles on the idea that some of what it has presented can’t be explained. Here’s a fun fact: we still don’t 100% understand the biological requirement of sleep. It’s something every human and animal does, and we understand that deleterious health effects result from failing to get enough sleep, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about it. And if scientists are comfortable stating they still completely understand something as natural and universal as sleep, I’m comfortable with a writer presenting the idea that something preternatural can’t be completely understood and explained. Or even 2% understood and explained. Ghost Stories would have had a more gratifying conclusion if it went that route, rather than trying to wedge in an overused “explanation” that just diminishes the value of everything that precedes it.

    Fortunately, Ghost Stories’ ending isn’t ruinous. All that precedes it does still hold considerable value, mostly because of the craftsmanship on display when each story builds toward its most frightening element. It’s a lavish exercise in building suspense and tension, injecting levity that can then be used against the audience to magnify the scares, playing with expectations and marrying various types of visual effects to add optical spice to a nightmarish moment. The stories themselves aren’t all that interesting on paper: a night watchman encounters a ghost, a young man has a run-in with the Devil, another man deals with a poltergeist alone in his house. Those summaries aren’t missing any vital details really. But the performances and filmmaking make them all more compelling than they have any right to be. It’s actually quite remarkable.

    The final sequence actually is interesting on paper, however, at least up until the moment of the big reveal. When our protagonist returns to his mentor to sort of state the obvious, that none of these anecdotal accounts are even on the “disprovable” spectrum, the world around him begins to fracture and deteriorate in earnest. Whereas the stories were starting to wear on him and make him hallucinate before, this final confrontation sends him hurtling through a reality without consistency or logic. It’s the first and only dreamlike sequence in the film, and it’s glorious. Then it leads him to the scene of a personal failure that has plagued him since boyhood and it’s a truly harrowing scene, brief as it is. And then the nightmare returns, giggling madly as it drags him, weeping and pleading, down a white hall, toward something he seems to have suffered through more than once before. Something he dreads immensely. We feel it. It’s disturbing and engrossing and pulse-hastening…

    And then it turns out to be a fucking hospital bed. And as the staff come in and out of the room we see that they all have the faces of people from the story. Various things around his actual real world environment informed everything that happened for the previous 90-plus-minutes. None of that was real, you see, which, of course it wasn’t. It’s a horror film about ghosts and haunted houses and shit, not They Will Never Grow Old. I don’t need the loose ends tied up if it means securing them with an old, reused twist tie that doesn’t have the strength to keep them all together anyway. I’d rather see the lead get dragged through a door that leads into a colorfully warped version of outer space for no reason other than to keep the visual feast going, and then just roll credits, than see the movie conclude with a “realistic” explanation that’s actually just a more grounded brand of speculation.

    In other words, I’d rather see the actual ending of Mandy than an ending where it turns out Nic Cage was just suffering a dying hallucination the whole time. I’d even rather Ghost Stories had cut itself short while the character is still being dragged down the hallway–just cut to black, Sopranos finale style–than see the denouement it delivered, which undercut its potential to be a minor classic.

    Movie Review: WHISPERING CORRIDORS

    What a strange delight is Whispering Corridors, a movie that haunted my recommendations across multiple online platforms for years. I am so glad, at long last, to have taken time to watch it.

    Why I didn’t ever give it a chance until now, I cannot say. I’ve taken a chance on movies with worse reviews, worse looking covers, less interesting blurbs, so on and so forth. For some reason I just left Whispering Corridors behind, stuck in my “Eh, I’ll get around to it eventually” bin. This weekend I finally did indeed get around to it.

    Within the first five minutes, I felt a bit of regret. Whispering Corridors might feature one of the weakest openings to an overall good movie–horror or otherwise–that I’ve ever seen. It is a rushed, unimaginative, nonsensical ghost-stalking and murder that instills no faith in what’s to come. Part of me thought I would have been better off never watching the film and always wondering how good it was, instead of seeing and confirming how good it wasn’t.

    What a stupid thought.

    After some patient buildup and very good character development, the movie fully redeems itself from a horror perspective with another ghost-stalking and murder that is so good and so creative it’s a little hard for me to understand how it was made by the same people.

    The opening scene is almost like an embarrassed half-parody of a horror film, and given the considerable care put into the drama that follows, I was getting the impression that the ghost story trappings were something the writers and director added reluctantly. What they really wanted to do was tell a straight story criticizing an exceedingly abrasive educational system, but decided to half-heartedly inject a supernatural element to boost its marketability. That clearly wasn’t the case, but still doesn’t feel entirely untrue, in the sense that the school story is bigger than the ghost story, but that second supernatural slaughter sequence is so, so good that it belies the idea that the filmmakers resent the horror genre. And it’s not even my favorite ghost attack from the film, but I might save my gushing about that for a separate write-up.

    First, let’s discuss the film’s true focus: the plight of South Korean students subjected to physical abuse and cruel psychological manipulation by educators in a system that actively fosters an antagonistic environment among classmates. It’s well, well beyond a competitive atmosphere; each student is taught to think of their peers as “enemies” who they should always be seeking to best, which doesn’t even make sense given that, you know, more than one student could get perfect scores on all their tests. In fact, improbable as it may be, every student in a school could end up with 4.0 GPA, or the overwhelming majority could end up with a 2.5 GPA: in the former situation “better than your peers!” would either be an impossible measurable; in the latter it would be a worthless measurable.

    Flawed as the system may be, it wouldn’t be so bad if not for teachers punishing students for having a shirt collar… out of place? Imperceptibly wrinkled? I’m still not sure what the infraction was there, but it warranted a blood-letting beating across the knuckles with a ruler, and that’s one of the gentler assaults. In fairness, I can understand a teacher getting upset with a student for painting a gruesome portrait of another teacher hanging from a noose, particularly when the subject of said painting was actually found hanging from a noose on school grounds just a few days prior. Revoking that student’s art class privileges is completely defensible. Smacking them to the ground and continuing to beat them while yelling, “Die! Die!” seems like overstepping a bit.

    As far as whether this depiction of the South Korean school system at the time was accurate, most of what I’ve read seems to indicate that it resonated with its target audience. I obviously can’t say one way or another and must defer to people who actually have some familiarity with it. I can say that as a viewer completely ignorant to the topic, as over-the-top as some of it appears to be, none of it struck me as unbelievable as I watched it. I don’t know what to make of that, other than that the filmmakers did a good job of presenting their story.

    It helps that the characters and relationships keep you invested. While the teachers engage in acts of sabotage and humiliation to end friendships and promote ostracism, the students (as well as a new teacher and former student, Hur Eun-young) try to navigate between giving in to these machinations and maintaining human relationships. Interestingly, the only scene to depict actual teaching comes in a conversation between two students; reserved Yoon Jae-yi tells her artist friend Lim Ji-oh that she needs to better her painting skills, but also points out where her work is good, particularly in her use and understanding of light. It would come off as too pointed and preachy were it not embedded in a moment designed to strengthen the important relationship between these two characters.

    As great as some of the slices of horror are in this film, the tragedy and acting carry it. I found myself rooting not simply for these characters to make it out alive, but to make it in general. Make the best that they can of their lives, make a difference, make some art, make each other stronger. Sometimes they succeed, but this being a tragedy, those successes cannot last. The pressures are too great, their bonds too immature and thus breakable, and having a ghost stalking the long halls of the school at night committing vengeful homicides surely doesn’t help.

    Whispering Corridors is a supernatural horror story that has enough story to stand on if you scrubbed the supernatural horror from it. That’s not something you see too often in the genre, which isn’t a knock on other films that lean harder on the horror, just a point of fact. I love A Nightmare on Elm Street, but if you removed the supernatural horror elements there’d be no story to tell. The same goes for Phantasm, Oculus, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, Ringu, and many, many other films that I love to pieces. This doesn’t make Whispering Corridors better than any of those movies–in fact, I’d say its shortcomings (odd editing choices; some bad slow-motion decisions; some outdated-even-for-the-time horror “flourishes”; an unnecessarily melodramatic climactic resolution that drags; a “here we go again” ending that feels obligatory) places it below every film named above. But its focus on a story enhanced by horror certainly sets it apart from those movies and most others in the genre.

    I started this review expecting to be more critical of Whispering Corridors, but that just didn’t happen, did it? Even my problems with the resolution and final shot couldn’t really dampen my enjoyment of the film as a whole. After all, a few moments before that final shot, this movie left me giddy with the thought, “This is surely the loveliest and most touching display of walls crying blood that I’ll ever see,” and that’s not the type of buzz that’s easily shaken off.

    Final Grade: Would highly recommend to any genre fan, or even just fans of high school hardship stories, with a few small warnings about the film’s flaws.

    Movie Reviews: WE GO ON

    $30,000 for proof of the afterlife seems like an underpayment, but when it’s all the payer can afford I suppose you can’t say that he’s a cheapskate. Anyway, that’s the general premise of We Go On, a decent little horror flick with some quite-qualified actors available on Shudder.

    A mostly ordinary man named Miles is so terrified of the idea of dying that he’s willing to give half of his recently inherited $60,000 to anyone who can prove to him that death isn’t the end of it all (he spends the other half on the ad calling for all potential purveyors of paranormal proof). I say “mostly” ordinary because Miles has a pretty run-of-the-mill job (well, by movie standards) and life, but is exceptional in that he’s host to an inordinate amount of phobias. On top of thanatophobia (death anxiety), he has agoraphobia, acrophobia, septophobia, and vehophobia. We find out about the latter in a reasonably effective opening-scene nightmare, and it’s apparently caused by the knowledge of his father’s death via car accident.

    Or is it? The plot of this movie turns on a lot of lies–an almost extraordinary amount of lies considering the sub-90-minute runtime. Men lie, women lie, ghosts lie, it’s a liar’s bonanza. At a certain point, in fact, it feels like the movie’s just piling on deceptions and twists as a way of running out the clock in order to get to a respectable feature-length. The story seems like it should provide enough content to get it beyond the finish line without padding, but a few early segments seem to get shorter shrift than they deserved.

    I say segments because the movie has an almost episodic feel early on. It reminded me of 2017’s much-praised Ghost Stories in that regard. Both stories have a lead who is visiting with people promising a supernatural experience, with said lead looking for evidence that verifies what they want to believe. I actually found the premise of We Go On to be much more interesting than that of Ghost Stories, even if the former can’t hope to match the latter’s execution.

    Still, We Go On made a strong early impression with me. The acting and characters help considerably in that regard. Miles is played by Mark Freeman, who looks like either John Krasinski or Charlie Hunnam or Matthew Fox or just like himself sometimes depending on the angle and lighting. His devoted mother is portrayed by a very game Annette O’Toole, and the first person attempting to cash in on the $30,000 reward is played by the always-fun John Glover. Giovanna Zacarias is convincing, albeit in the stereotypical role of “Latin American psychic expositor and assistant to the lead(s)”, and Jay Dunn does suitably unsettling work in his role.

    O’Toole and Freeman in particular have great chemistry as mother and son, and the script has just the right amount of humor between them to keep their interactions light, despite Miles’s troubles, until the situation turns too dire for that to be an option.

    And things do indeed turn dire as Miles and his skeptical mother, Charlotte, work to separate the psychics from the charlatans. While the movie isn’t a scarefest or particularly atmospheric, it does have a couple of effective, pulse-quickening moments, as well as an extended sequence that really seemed primed to make this movie a true gem. Alas, the story could not capitalize on the momentum it had generated up to that point.

    The inconsistency of the writing for We Go On is what holds it back. The characterization is good throughout, as is the humor, but there are some indefensibly poor plot decisions that crop up later in the movie, one of which has to do with crashing a funeral, and two of which have to do with guns being brandished in broad-ass daylight. Granted, the people drawing these guns are emotionally compromised to a severe degree at the time, but the moments as a whole don’t make much sense even taking that into consideration.

    These flaws are not enough to sink the picture, however. While it strikes me as more of a missed opportunity than a legitimately good film, I didn’t feel like it had wasted my time.

    Final Grade: Surprisingly solid, just short of good.

    Movie Review: THE FOG

    Spoilers abound. Be warned.

    John Carpenter’s The Fog initially had an 80-minute runtime before Carpenter, dissatisfied with what he believed to be “a movie that didn’t work,” reshot some scenes to improve what he didn’t care for and make the movie bit more coherent where he felt it was needed. These reshoots included new and extended scenes, which beefed the runtime up to a whopping 89-minutes. Ironically, one of the added scenes makes the movie cut even more abruptly to the chase than it would have otherwise.

    In the opening scene, an old sailor is sharing an important piece of local ghostlore to a group of captivated children. That ghost story gives us about 90% of the background information regarding who our antagonists are and what their motivation is. It precedes the titular fog’s first appearance and the killings associated with it, so that by the time it happens there’s little mystery as to who’s behind the killings and why. Excise this scene and we’d have to instead wait for Father Malone’s reading of his grandfather’s diary, which comes in around the 40-minute mark, to get a proper explanation as to what’s going on (presuming you haven’t read a synopsis in advance). As it is, the information in the diary just fleshes out the final 10% of the story that the opening campfire tale wasn’t privy to.

    Carpenter clearly wasn’t interested in wasting anyone’s time. The movie has little to no interest in its subplots. The potential “romantic” subplot between Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins is actually a “casual hookup/we’re just hanging out” aside that gives the characters a bit of life, but doesn’t come close to distracting from the primary story. Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ-in-a-Lighthouse is a single mother whose son is there to discover key pieces of plot that get washed ashore, and to be a potential rescuee later in the movie. Her flirty interactions with the weatherman are just setting up a reason for her to hear things that will confirm her suspicions about the fog later in the film. No romantic detour for her, and no ex-husband / deadbeat dad drama surrounding her child’s father. When the chairwoman of the town’s Centennial Celebration finds out her husband must have died at sea, she grieves onscreen for less than 30 seconds before she’s like, “Welp, show must go on. Time to give my speech.” Who has time for any other business in a killer fog movie when there’s a killer fog out there fogging up the town and killing people?

    I haven’t come out and said it yet, so now’s as good a time as any: I think The Fog is great. It’s a perfect Halloween-horror type of story. It’s grim, but hardly nihilistic, it’s dire but not dour, menacing although bloodless (more on that later), and ghastly if not full on frightening.

    The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re all built to be immediately interesting. We have the aforementioned DJ-in-a-Lighthouse, which is the kind of fictional job that I think would get ridiculed for being implausible if it showed up in a romantic comedy. We have an aspiring photographer hitchhiking her way to greener creative pastures. We have the local guy who’s apparently cool enough to pick up pretty young hitchhikers and have them want to sleep with him on the first night, and then they just chill in bed together looking through her portfolio like it’s nothing, just stuff that adults do, which, you know, of course it is

    Everything about the movie is so very matter-of fact. When our trusted local DJ starts issuing warnings to the population to stay off the streets and avoid the fog, we see the aforementioned chairwoman and her assistant–who haven’t encountered anything remotely resembling a threat so far–immediately take the DJ at her word. Granted, the night before the entire town basically experienced some kind of unexplained kinetic havoc that set off car alarms and blew out windows, so it’s not as if they had no reason to believe that something bizarre was afoot. Nonetheless, the refusal to waste time on characters debating the believability of what’s transpiring helps keep the movie so lean. The leanness is part of what makes the flick such a blast. It’s funhouse horror done right.

    It’s also an example of how good a PG-13 horror movie can be if it’s, you know, made well. “But John Carpenter’s original was rated R, you idiot. Are you talking about that pathetic remake, you dumbass know-nothing?” First off, the name-calling is unbecoming. Secondly, the R-rating for the original film is incredibly bogus. I mentioned earlier that this film is entirely bloodless, and the quick glimpses of gore we see, courtesy of the rotted faces of the restless dead, isn’t as graphic as any of the gruesome images seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a PG movie that came out a year later. Carpenter and Debra Hill (co-writer and producer of the film) stated that one reason for the re-shoots was to add gore to the film to help it stand among the gorier horror movies that the 80’s would soon bring us. In that respect, the re-shoots failed miserably. Again, there is no blood in the movie. The juicy corpses are maybe as horrid as any of the ones seen in the decidedly PG-13 remake of The Mummy, only the fetid faces in The Fog get far, far less screen time. If this movie were re-rated today it would easily be PG-13. It’s rated R because PG-13 didn’t exist in 1980, and because the MPAA is, at best, wildly inconsistent.

    So do I have any beefs with The Fog at all? Well, on this rewatch, it did strike me as a little odd and contrived that Father Malone stopped reading his grandfather’s diary after reading about all of the murderous conspiracy bits. “I couldn’t read any further” he said. Really? Because I feel like you already got through the worst of it. What did you think you were going to see on the next page? “Now that I’ve developed a taste for murder, I think I’m going to take a trip to London, target some prostitutes, and taunt Scotland Yard with a letter or two.” A few pages deeper and he would have found out about the important-but-not fact that the church’s large gold cross was made from the melted down gold stolen from our vengeful spirits.

    Then there’s the ending, which I’m probably sourer on now than I was when I was younger, just because it reminds me of the issues horror movies still have with ending confidently absent “one last scare.” The story is concluded. Six had to die to pay for the number of lives lost, or so we thought, but the unexpected repayment of the stolen gold appeared to quench the bloodthirst of the spirits after all, sparing the sixth life. Does it make a ton of a sense? Eh. But it works better than having Blake’s spirit seemingly accept the gold as recompense, only to come back later as though he changed his mind. How did that go down?

    “All right boys, we did it. We rode the fog into town, killed the five that had to die and even reclaimed our gold as a bonus.”

    “Uh, boss. There are six of us. Six had to die.”

    “What? No. It’s just five. I counted before we left. There’s you, Brad, Smokey, Pegleg, and Goldie.”

    “Did you forget to count yourself?”

    “…Shit. Shit. I’ll be back…”

    Ultimately, these are minor things, and my final verdict on The Fog should be apparent.

    Worth your time?

    Always and forever. Pick an evening, any evening–although preferably a foggy one–put this one on and enjoy.

    My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: GHOST STORY

    The film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is unsurprisingly simplified in comparison to its source material. While it has its moments, including a fairly well executed and suitably gruesome climactic reveal, and Alice Krige is pretty magnificent in it, it also has more than its share of corny scenes doomed by bad shot selection, or oversold acting, or questionable (even unnecessary) dialogue. There’s an opening scene featuring a man plummeting to his death that’s laughable even by 1981’s “We’re still sketchy on how best to execute believable falling scenes” standards. A later scene of someone falling off a bridge ends with the same clumsy impact seen when a character takes a dive in Les Miserables thirty-one years later. Apparently, in this one very, very specific area, we haven’t collectively learned much in the past three decades.

    All of that out of the way, I’ve nonetheless always liked the trailer for Ghost Story. From the opening micro-monologue (which is one of the few elements that is even more effective in the movie than it is in the trailer), to every glimpse and hint it gives us of something horrific waiting to be seen, to the effectively mysterious tagline, it does a good job of selling the film.

    Today’s Short Story: “The Four-Fingered Hand”

    Barry Pain’s short story “The Four-Fingered Hand,” initially published in 1911’s Here and Hereafter, is a great, swift tale that can be read on Project Gutenberg for free. You should, perhaps, read the story first, then come back to read this post because I’m going to dive into story details, including the ending.

    Ready now? Let’s get to it.

    If you read enough ghost stories, you know that supernatural omens and phantom harbingers are plentiful in ghostlore; banshees, La Llorona, black dogs, death coaches, The Flying Dutchman, and a host of others that I’m not naming, and plenty more that I’m sure I’ve never heard of. These entities and their freshly imagined stand-ins often pop up in horror fiction, because a being whose mere presence foretells death is ripe for producing frights. Given the familiarity of this character type, stories often add some twist to try to keep the audience on its toes, often utilizing dramatic irony that suggests predestination (the cursed person tries to avoid their death, only to accidentally cause their death through very actions meant to prevent it), or a plot turn involving a false presumption (the banshee appears, but the person sick in bed recovers, and someone else in the house ends up dead instead).

    “The Four-Fingered Hand” has a simple, smart and horrifying twist on such a being. For any who didn’t take a moment to read the story, here’s a rundown: The titular four-fingered phantom is a hereditary haint that used to appear to the forebears of a man named Brackley. Any sighting of the spectral hand was a sign to “stop anything on which he was engaged.” Brackley’s now-deceased grandfather, a wealthy man, would cease specific business dealings or cancel planned journeys whenever he saw the hand. In the story, Brackley spies the hand, but is persuaded by his skeptical acquaintance, Yarrow, to ignore the hand’s warning, which on this night seems particularly mundane and silly. The hand appears to be warning Brackley not to continue playing a game of cards. Brackley disregards the warning, plays cards with Yarrow and another man named Blake, and nothing horrible befalls him while playing.

    And then Brackley excuses himself to his room, where he’s promptly strangled to death. An imprint of the hand that choked the life out of him remains on his neck for his friends to see, and that handprint is missing a finger.

    It’s simple and, I’ll go ahead and gush here, brilliant. A warning and a threat may not be synonyms, but they’re very close cousins, and one very can easily be mistaken for the other. Take the following sentence: “Do as I tell you, or you will be killed by me.” Shave the “by me” off the end and you’re still essentially saying the same thing, but that omission can lead someone to misinterpret your threat as a warning.

    As Yarrow tells another man at the end of the story, there’s no reason to believe that an apparition that seemingly appears to caution people against danger or give advance notice of impending, possibly avoidable danger is actually doing anything of the sort. It could be in business for itself, showing up for “unfathomable reasons” that they don’t bother to explain. We read and write often about such specters and treat them as though they must be stuck on rails, set on a path leading to a destination everyone has marked on their map. I love this story for providing the simple reminder that even a ghostly, maimed hand might be more than just a plot device. It might have a motive, and might not care to share that motive with the reader, or any other characters.