Checking Out the “American Horror Story: Asylum” Teasers

Part of the appeal and beauty of supernatural horror stories is their ability to explore the unexplained and incomprehensible. Horror stories often afford storytellers a level of freedom they can’t find in other genres – not if they’re going for something “serious,” anyway. Even the most outlandish science-fiction stories require a certain adherence to established rules, but a story about ghosts or demons or spiritual possession is pretty free to make up its own rules, and isn’t required to offer a sensible explanation for what is taking place. Hell, some horror stories are weakened by too much explanation; when you start trying to explain the inexplicable, you run the risk of ruining the suspense and mystery, or of just cooking up a lame, half-baked explanation that renders the proceedings ridiculous.

Unfortunately, that leads directly to the one big issue inherent to supernatural horror: it doesn’t punish (and sometimes even seems to encourage or reward) undisciplined storytelling. Being free to explore general weirdness and eschew explanation sometimes results in stories that don’t make sense for the sake of not making sense. Sometimes making up your own rules and ignoring the details is just an easy way for a writer to get from point A to point Z, and the story clearly suffers for it.

I say all of this because the first season of American Horror Story was a primer on the benefits and drawbacks of storytelling freedom in the horror genre. Ultimately, the show was a bit of a mess, but it was an entertaining and frequently disquieting  mess, when it wasn’t being a silly, self-parodying mess. Now we have the second season, American Horror Story: Asylum, which features a largely different cast, a new setting (the titular asylum) and a fresh storyline. It’s an interesting direction for a TV series to take, and it gives the showrunners freedom to either improve on the things that didn’t work in season one, or completely break all the things that worked well in season one.

The teasers look promising, as did the teasers for season one. Fans of the show are already speculating as to what kind of plot clues might be found in these teasers, since the teasers for season one hinted at some of the more crucial twists and plot developments (my favorite was the stomach cello solo which was both scary and sexy). American Horror Story was never at a loss for visual panache – many of these images are as artful as they are creepy – and that carries over here, with six increasingly weird and intense teasers.

The first – “Special Delivery” – sees a nun walking through a wooded area, carrying two buckets of what appear to be body parts…

“Blue Coat” is more subtle, with the nun’s momentary, fourth-wall-breaking glance proving surprisingly unsettling.

Probably the most surreal of the six is “Hydrobath,” where it looks like we might be looking in on a drowned body in a bath of… milk? And then the bathtub gets zipped shut? I’ve had prescription-drug-induced nightmares that weren’t as weirdly frightening as this. Okay, that’s an exaggeration… even my sober nightmares are legendarily bizarre, but this is still pretty damn impressive. Probably my favorite of the bunch, overall.

And then there’s “Rose,” my least favorite of the Asylum teasers. It’s not bad, just unremarkable. It looks like the winning idea from a “Submit Your Own AHS Teaser” contest. Even the hint attached to this teaser seems destined to be predictable. Someone’s going to be named Rose, or an actual rose will feature heavily either as symbolism or as an actual object and catalyst for hauntings, or Derrick Rose will be on somebody’s fantasy basketball team. Something. Here’s hoping I’m pleasantly surprised and proven dead wrong.

“Ascend” kind of has a German Expressionism vibe to it. Visually speaking, I’m kind of sort of in love with it. I can’t figure out which still image from this video I most want to turn into a poster. Remember when I mentioned “visual panache.” I wasn’t just saying that just to be saying it.

The last teaser, “Glass Prison,” probably hits me hardest on a visceral level, which is saying something considering the first one has a nun discarding a bucket of body parts s like she’s dumping chum overboard on a shark hunting expedition. It’s a pretty impressive five-second blitz of horror.

For all my misgivings, these teasers have me pretty well sold on the second season American Horror Story. I’m just hoping it can hit the ground running a little better than season one did, and hit a few more highs and one or two fewer lows than season one.

 

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

Stephen King Night Shift book cover

Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.

My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”

I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.

I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.

Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation.  Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.

As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The Lawnmower Man” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, is the defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, and the final line is a brilliant punch to the gut, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.

But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps (he typed alliteratively). King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome, invasion- of-the-body-horrors tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Man, they don’t make paperback covers like this anymore. Classic.

I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…

Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.

This is from one of the “humorous” stories. Obviously…

Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two.  Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.

The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?

“Another big toe in the garden? You’d think it was June already.”

We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.

My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. In it, two young sisters living in a small village happen upon a toy drum owned by a gypsy girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.

Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.

The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?

I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Sleep well!

Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Golden Arm

This is, to my recollection, my earliest encounter with a ghost story, antedating my ongoing, abusive, unhealthy love affair with horror.  It’s not the clearest memory, I was only five-years-old, but it’s less opaque than other memories from that age.

“Who’s got my Golden Arm?!”

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Nina (I can’t believe I remember that) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a weird southern or Mississippi thing or if other parts of the country also had kindergarten teachers relate tales of terror to their classes. Granted, she wasn’t reading us Lovecraft or anything quite so dire and potentially scarring, but some part of me still wonders about the objective of letting us hear this story. For that matter, though, the same could be asked about the purpose of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or even writing the stories I write now as an adult. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill of scaring the audience, no matter what age, with a well-crafted creepy yarn. Telling a scary story for its own sake is never as much fun as telling one that successfully terrifies your audience.

Twenty-plus years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, wherever you may be good madame, mission accomplished. As for the story itself, here is the briefest of synopses:

A man has a friend who has a prosthetic arm made of solid gold.  Said friend dies and the man decides to disinter his buddy, remove the 24-karat limb from the corpse and sell it.  The dead friend takes offense, crawls out of his grave with his one remaining arm, hunts down his buddy and then…

…he murders Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife?

Well, you could Google “Golden Arm” and find a number of variations to the tale.  Some give you a formal rendition making abundant use of the word “thou”; others give you the chitlin’ circuit interpretation.  Its central characters are alternatively friends, brothers, or man and wife.

In most portrayals the returned friend/brother/wife stalks through the thief’s house, crying out repeatedly, “Who’s Got my Golden Arm?!” until finally they happen upon the terrified thief, cowering in his/her bedroom, and then the ghost screams “You’ve Got it!!!”  That’s where the story abruptly ends, but it’s intimated that some grievous demise awaits the one who stole the arm.   I’m sure that the ghost didn’t rise from the grave just to say “You’ve got it!  And I’m very disappointed.  I’m really reconsidering our relationship. I thought we were closer than this.”

Despite the story’s obvious intent, it wasn’t the vengeful spirit’s return from death that disturbed me most. It was more disturbing to me that someone had a golden arm in the first place.  The surrealistic, abominable image of this character still stands in my mind the same as when I first heard the story and imagined his appearance.  This is a greedy, selfish, maniacal, loathsome person.  One with jaundiced, spoiled eyes and skin the color of the ocean at night.

Today I can apply some semblance of logic to the conclusion I’d drawn as a kid. Even setting aside the callousness of getting buried with an appendage that could be donated to your friend, or wife, or charity or something, a golden arm would be terribly heavy and cumbersome. Only a severely troubled mind would dream of grafting such a gaudy, useless artificiality to their body.  In short, you’d have to be crazy to want a golden arm, and not the good, comedic kind of crazy, or the tolerable, fearless-when-it’s-not-necessary kind of crazy, but the seething, malignant kind. That special brand of crazy potent enough to wake the dead.

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