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Johnny Compton Posts

Healthy Fears Podcast – Episode 21: You Are Never Seen Again

Sometimes, people disappear. There is something uniquely terrifying and captivating about the prospect of vanishing, or having someone you care about vanish. Even when there is a likely answer, the lack of absolute certainty regarding the fate of the missing can produce mysteries that puzzle us for decades or even centuries. From the Roanoke colonists, to the passengers of the Mary Celeste, to the works of Ambrose Bierce, and Joan Lindsay’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, our fascination with and fear of unexplained disappearances can be strong enough to encourage the confusion of fact with fiction. READ MORE

Healthy Fears Episode 18 – Depths of Hatred

Hatred is not strictly an unproductive, seemingly unnatural emotion. Sometimes hate is understandable, and even a motivation, if directed against an injustice or imbalance. Unfortunately, we too often see it deployed in service of maintaining injustices or imbalances, by powerful people who want to keep–or grow–their wealth and influence. This episode opens with the relatable hatred felt by the character Iraxi, from Zin E. Rocklyn’s novella Flowers for the Sea, and ends with prejudiced, manipulated, and ultimately violent hatred found in the 1976 film Canoa: A Shameful Memory. READ MORE

Healthy Fears Episode 17 – The Electric Chair and Three Shocking Years

The electric chair was once the go-to method of execution in the United States, and “the chair” still holds a unique position in America’s history of capital punishment. In aftermath of more than a decade of debates about how “cruel and unusual” execution may or not be, four horror movies emerged over the course three years in the 1980’s. Prison, Destroyer, The Horror Show (aka House III), and Shocker are all films about criminals who die in the chair, only to come back to life newly empowered to kill. One of those movies, however, stands apart from the others in an important way… READ MORE

Pre-Order THE SPITE HOUSE

My debut novel, THE SPITE HOUSE, will be published by Tor Nightfire on February 7th, 2023. That’s a few seasons away, but not so far away that you shouldn’t pre-order now. It’s available at Barnes & Noble, and booksellers everywhere, likely including a local bookseller near you, if you’re inclined to support independent bookstores (like a few favorites in my neck of the woods, where it’s currently available, The Twig Bookshop, Nowhere Bookshop, and Austin’s famous Bookpeople).

About THE SPITE HOUSE:

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

Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money–it’s not easy to find steady, safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you.

When he comes across the strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The Masson property, notorious for being one of the most haunted places in Texas, needs a caretaker of sorts. The owner is looking for proof of paranormal activity. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them.

The job calls to Eric, not just because there’s a huge payout if they can make it through, but because he wants to explore the secrets of the spite house. If it is indeed haunted, maybe it’ll help him understand the uncanny power that clings to his family, driving them from town to town, making them afraid to stop running. A terrifying Gothic thriller about grief and death and the depths of a father’s love, Johnny Compton’s The Spite House is a stunning debut by a horror master in the making.

Healthy Fears Episode 16 – It’s a Mad, Maddening World

Placing someone in a world that doesn’t make sense to them–that operates on its own, unpredictable form of “logic”–creates ideal conditions for comedy (Looney Tunes), absurdist fantasy (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)… or horror. Which can range from tales as impossible as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to stories that are more terrifyingly plausible than some may realize, such as Kafka’s absurd nightmare The Trial.

Sources

Matt Robinson Liquefaction videos: READ MORE

Healthy Fears Episode 13: Dead and Unburied

Generally speaking, societies across the world agree that our beloved dead ideally belong in a certain, final resting place, and that place is out of sight. The idea of people who are dead–or who should be dead–remaining among us is a consistent source of horror. In this episode I talk about our fear of dead bodies that aren’t at rest, either because they never were buried or, in the case of Timothy Baterman, from Pet Sematary, because they returned to us.

For more episodes, visit HealthyFears.com, search for Healthy Fears on your preferred podcasting platform, or click here for a list of popular options. READ MORE

Healthy Fears Season 2 is Live

Hello. If you came here from a Healthy Fears episode, welcome to the loop!

If you arrived at my website by some other means and happened upon this post while having a look-see, you might be wondering what Healthy Fears is. Here’s a description:

Healthy Fears is a horror podcast examining the many things we are afraid of, and how they’re featured in movies, television, literature, and more.

Here’s a trailer for it:

And here’s the newest episode. You can listen to more at HealthyFears.com or through your preferred podcasting platform.

My Favorites of 2021

Favorite Film

Kicking things off with a decidedly non-horror favorite before we dive deep into world of frights.

I have missed going to the movies. I love being in the theater. The pandemic has seemingly made many people realize that they in fact don’t like going out to the movies. They might even be willing to pay extra to bring the movie straight to the comfort of their living room or bedroom (or home theater, if they have it like that). And if that’s your preference, it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with that. I like the big screen, myself, even when there aren’t many other people in the theater. Hell, especially when the the theater is sparsely populated. I caught Summer of Soul with my significant other and it was the first time I’ve ever been “alone” (save for my partner, obviously) in a theater to see a film, and it was a fantastic experience. Of course, at least 90% of the good vibes I felt while watching it was a product of the film itself.

The movie is as full of outstanding music as you should expect, but the stories of the performers, organizers and attendees elevate it that much higher, even when they aren’t anything extraordinary. The story that gave me the widest smile was that of one man talking about seeing Sly and the Family Stone in person for the first time at this concert. Beforehand, he and his friends were more influenced by Smokey Robinson and the The Miracles, getting suited up when they would go out on the town. After seeing Sly, he and his friends, “weren’t suit-and-tie guys anymore.” When you see Sly and the band perform, you can easily understand why.

Favorite Horror Film

Some might consider Last Night in Soho more of a “supernatural thriller” or “supernatural mystery” than a horror film. I’ve mentioned here multiple times before that I tend to favor inclusivity when it comes to identifying horror fiction, as opposed to trying to find any ol’ reason to say, “That doesn’t count as horror,” or “That’s not a real horror story.” Even with that in mind, I can see why Last Night in Soho might lean farther away from the genre than into it for some.

But you already know where I stand on this, given I’ve got it bolded here as my favorite horror film of 2021. Part of me wonders if this edged out other contenders like The Medium, The Power, and, especially, The Vigil 1. because I saw it in the theater, and, as already established, I love and have missed theaters. I’ve also seen other “Best Horror of 2021” lists include movies from 2020 (like The Empty Man) that would otherwise be a strong contender as well.

Ultimately, for me, out of the movies I’ve seen this year that can reasonably be said to be of this year it came down to Soho and The Vigil (see above footnote for why I’m allowing for it as a 2021 release). Soho wasn’t nearly as frightening, but as others have pointed out, a horror movie doesn’t have to scare you personally to be great. The Vigil got under my skin because of a fondness / weakness I have for a particular horror trope, which I wrote about in my review of the film. As much as I love that aspect of the movie, and the film overall, Soho made me care that much more overall about its story, characters and outcome. And for any still questioning its horror bonafides, it has some memorably horrific imagery that only gets more pronounced as the film goes along. Ultimately, it makes me wish for another non-comedic horror effort from Edgar Wright that tries even harder to scare the hell out of people, and I count that as a point in the film’s favor. Sometimes you’re left wanting more because you’re less than satisfied. Other times you’re left wanting more because what you were given was just that good. Soho, for me, is an example of the latter.

Favorite Horror Novel

My favorite horror novel that I read this year was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, but I was a year late on that and it is not of 2021. Still, since I didn’t do one of these last year and I love Mexican Gothic that much, I wanted to at least make mention of it here, as it’s still my favorite book of the very young decade thus far.

As for horror novels released this year, my favorite was My Heart is a Chainsaw. If you’re at all familiar with the horror literature scene, you’ve probably already heard that it’s one of the year’s best from numerous other outlets and authors, and that Stephen Graham-Jones has created an exceptional, clever and thoughtful love letter to slasher cinema within it.

The interesting thing for me is that I’m not particularly fond of slasher movies. I like many of them and grew up loving and being influenced by them far more in my youth than in my adulthood, but outside of a blip of time when I was enamored with Scream and Scream 2, they’ve never been something I’m overly drawn to.

Nonetheless, My Heart is a Chainsaw captivated me, much like its lead character, Jade, is captivated by identifying who her town’s “final girl” must be, who its killer must be, and who will be next to die by following the guidelines seemingly laid out by slasher film history. Because Graham-Jones is a devious mastermind, the story ends up going both where you might expect it to, and simultaneously somewhere else entirely.

Favorite YouTube Horror-related Video

I thought about dividing this into multiple sub-topics, but figured that would dilute this category too much, especially considering I wouldn’t even be sure how to label certain topics anyway. It’s probably unfair of me to lump all of these together given the quantity and variety of YouTube videos out there directly related to horror, but you know, this is my list, which doesn’t count for anything to anyone, so I’m just gonna do what I feel.

And what I feel like doing, first of all, is making mention of the videos that were very close to being my absolute favorites of the year. Sapphire Sandolo’s “Can You Make it Through the Video,” from her Stories With Sapphire series, was the one I returned to most out of all the fun animated videos on her channel. I love when a horror story makes use of its medium in a way that wouldn’t entirely work in a different format.

On the documentary / horror-lore / legends front, The Paranormal Scholar has a long history of fascinating videos. While her most ambitious project to date, the full-length documentary In Search of the Dead, released just a month ago, was an interesting watch, it’s much more of a research endeavor into metaphysics than something even remotely meant to stir up feelings of fear. Her video titled “5 Horrifying Hellhound Encounters in History,” however, is something I’ve watched at least once a month since it came out in June. Her deliver made even the stories I was already broadly familiar with (like that of England’s Black Shuck) feel eerier than I anticipated. This was only magnified when she spoke of legends I hadn’t heard of before, like El Cadejo. I am an absolute sucker for this sort of thing. Legitimately can’t get enough of it.

My absolute favorite YouTube video(s) of the year, however, come from Dark Corners Reviews. A pair of late entry documentaries about the horror films of Val Lewton, one focused on Cat People and its sequel 2, the other on the rest of his career and output. Much of Dark Corners’ content consists of quick, amusing skewering of undeniably bad and often cheap films. Their more documentaries, however, are consistently well-made and captivating, and direct, and the Lewton double-feature is simply wonderful. Similar to the recent, excellent video covering the Grendel series on the Comic Tropes channel, Dark Corners‘ breakdown of Lewton’s output places a spotlight on work that might be reasonably well-known to certain genre devotees, yet isn’t nearly known well enough.

Favorite Horror-related Podcast

Another unfair category, because, once again, it covers a huge range of territory. Also because I spent a significant part of this year (as with, seemingly all years since podcasting has really taken off) catching up with stuff that is not of 2021. The Magnus Archives, for instance. Something millions of people were already listening to, and I’m the Johnny-Come-Lately just now getting done with the episodes that wrapped in 2017. You’ll have to forgive me. There’s just a lot of quality content out there in the world, and I wasn’t good at keeping up when there wasn’t a quarter as much of it out there as there is now.

There’s much to be lauded and enjoyed in the wide world of horror podcasting. I’m a big fan of the Dark Histories podcast, and the episode about the supernatural in warfare was not just my favorite of the year from that channel, but my favorite that the host has has ever produced, which is saying a lot.

More on the reviews front, I enjoy the Dead Meat Podcast and was particularly fond of the episode covering Lake Mungo, and the “Guess the Kill” episode where Chelsea repeatedly stumped James (to be fair, having to guess a which movie a kill takes place in solely from the audio and a handful of hints is an absurd challenge). Normally any kind of trivia game that’s so difficult you can’t imagine the contestant getting even a tenth of the answers right is frustrating to sit through, but not this time, quite the opposite.

Getting back to the bounty to be found on the horror fiction front, PseudoPod celebrated its 15th anniversary this year which more than qualifies it as a bit of an institution at this point. It’s been around for almost as long as the term podcasting has, and is one of the OG’s of horror fiction podcasting. Yes, I’m probably a bit biased seeing as to how I’ve been published there three times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s outstanding, and has been around this long for a reason. Episode 769, released just ahead of their birthday on August 11th, featured the story “Songs in a Lesser Known Key.” A PseudoPod original written by Mjke Wood would have had to stumble backwards into a sad pit of bad writing not to be one of my favorite works of the year in any medium, given my former infatuation with the song, “Gloomy Sunday,” the subject of the story. Fortunately it does not stumble in any direction, much less backward into said sad pit, but moves deftly and effectively toward grim inevitability.

Episode 409 of the Night Light Podcast doubled up on flash fiction pieces, one by L. Marie Wood, the other by Tyhitia Green, each of which pushed a particular button for me. The last six words of Wood’s story, “Family Dinner,” are just phenomenal. You can never go wrong with a great stomach-punching closing line. Green’s story, “Date Night,” delivers on something I won’t write about here, since the story is brief enough for just about any revelation of its content could count as a spoiler. I’ll only ask that you trust me enough to go give the episode a listen for yourself.

There are too many more noteworthy stories and podcasts to mention here without this post becoming unwieldy, so I’ll just get to my my favorite horror podcast of 2021, the new anthology horror series Nighty Night with Rabia Chaudry. If forced to pick a favorite episode, I’ll go with its inaugural episode, “Rot,” an inspired, loose adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” that replaces being tormented by sound with being tormented by stench.

I routinely feel like the sense of smell doesn’t get enough attention in horror fiction. Every time I see a zombie movie or series, for instance, that features decaying corpses shuffling about, it stands out to me that no one ever reacts to the smell of death. That should be a dead giveaway that zombies are about, shouldn’t it? You start approaching a building, hoping it could be a sanctuary, but you’re greeted with the funk of forty-thousand years, as Vincent Price once put it, and you immediately know that place is probably choking with zombies, and you keep it moving. That sort of thing is not what “Rot” is about, but it does take advantage of the fact that smell is the sensation tied most to our memories, be they pleasant or horrific. It is an adaptation

What, No Favorite TV Episode or Series?

Like I said earlier, I’m pretty bad at catching up with anything, and television series, for whatever reason, frequently tend to end up on the backburner for me. I love a good series or mini-series, but don’t think I watched anywhere near enough television content to make a declaration of a “favorite” worthwhile. So, sure, I could say it’s the penultimate episode of Midnight Mass or the finale of Squid Game, and even if I watched a ton of other series this year that’s a great chance that one of those two would end up being my favorite of the year. But I’m still way the hell behind on Them. I’ve only caught bits of Brand New Cherry Flavor. I’ve heard that You season 3 was terrific. I only ever got a few episodes into season 1, and not for lack of interest. Just, again, I never feel as motivated to go all in on a tv series–even when I like it–as I do just about anything else I watch, read or listen to. I’ve only listed a handful of examples here, there are many others I am all but hopelessly behind on. With that in mind, I’m punting on declaring a favorite television episode for 2021. Maybe I’ll feel better about claiming a favorite next year.

Okay, Well What About a Favorite Short Story Then? READ MORE

Classic Scary Story History: “The Golden Arm”

“The Golden Arm” is the first ghost story I can remember ever hearing, reading, or otherwise absorbing and being fascinated by. I wrote about this in my first ever Confessions of a Fearphile post years ago1, and in that piece mentioned that this story has a “number of variations.”

Boy, does it ever.

I’m not even going to attempt to find every iteration of the tale. That’s not the purpose (or fun part) of this “Classic Scary Story History” series anyway. It’s to highlight the stuff I find interesting and try to trace these stories as far back as I can possibly go.

While Mark Twain categorized the story as a “Negro ghost story” in his many live show retellings, it predates the oral folklore of Black folks in the postbellum south. Folklorist Joseph Jacobs once documented a stupendously English version, first published in 1866, that is loaded with “thous” and “thys.” In one telling the parties involved may be husband and wife, in another a pair of friends, in a third a thief and deceased queen. In yet another they are aunt and niece. So on and so forth. In some cases the body part is not an arm, but a leg, as is the case in Vincent Price’s rendition on the 1974 record A Graveyard of Ghost Tales.

In some cases it’s just a toe, and in some the desired body part is not made of gold, but made of silver, or diamond. It has variations that come from France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and more.

Wilson M. Hudson–one of the three authors of Folk Travelers – Ballads, Tales, and Talk–devoted twelve pages of that book just to exploring “The Golden Arm” and as thorough and informative as they are, even that isn’t enough to capture the story’s range. The well-assembled collection of “corpse reclaiming its property” stories put together by folklore researcher D.L.Ashliman is another great read on the subject, that also can’t be expected to gather all the many different takes on the tale in one place.

Both Hudson and Ashliman observe that “The Golden Arm” is an extension of a broader type of ghostlore–the story of a restless spirit that returns from the grave because someone has stolen something it wanted to be buried with. It’s distinct from ghosts that return to avenge a murder, or right some other wrong (clear their names of a crime, for instance), or because of guilt, or a desire to inflict misery on the living, or simply because they’re seemingly unaware of being dead. No, these ghosts are driven solely by reclaiming the thing either stolen from their grave, or withheld from them when they were buried. Sometimes returning the missing item will assuage the spirit. Sometimes the ghost will still strike the thief dead even if their equivalent of a “golden arm” is returned. And sometimes we never find out if the ghost has capacity for mercy or not, either due to them striking before the thief thinks to return the artifact, or because what was stolen from them can’t be replaced (a liver taken from a corpse and eaten, for one example).

One of the most famous retellings of the original story came from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. In the episode “Back to Nature,” the underrated Mr. Griffith tells a variation in which the man who lost his arm was an old hermit, in search of treasure, who lost his original arm to a bear attack. He stabs the bear to death with remaining hand, finds the treasure, then uses it to buy a golden arm. He later dies and is buried with it, and it is stolen as it is destined to be. However, Griffith adapts the story to be even more suitable for the campfire setting; the hermit never catches up to the person who stole his golden arm, as would be the case in many versions of the tale. Instead his spirit still wanders the woods, asking, “Who stole my golden arm,” and attacking anyone he encounters, presuming they are the thief.

Cousins of this idea can show up in the expected places, such as the classic anthology film Black Sabbath. In the film’s final segment, “A Drop of Water,” a nurse steals a sapphire ring from a dead woman she’s dressing for burial, and as you can imagine, things do not go well for her, as the deceased wants back what was taken.

The “stolen item” variant shows up in a much more unexpected (and certainly much more popular) place in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “One Krabs Trash,” where the greedy, penny-pinching character Mr. Krabs commits grave robbery to take a novelty hat after finding out it may be worth a fortune.

In both cases, as well as in most other takes on this type of tale that have come to the screen, we miss out on the stolen object being part of the person’s body. Recently, the Fear Street films on Netflix had its horrors kick into highest gear by way of a corpse’s missing hand, but that was more accidentally displaced than stolen, and also turns out not to be the true straightforward source of the spirit’s vengeance. In most few films or television episodes that give us a spirit seemingly awakened by a missing body part it’s rarely anything as beautifully macabre as a golden arm, or any other appendage made of a precious, shiny mineral.

Whereas the last classic scary story I wrote about, “Wait Til Martin Comes,” might be too much of a strange, hyper-specific and jokey premise to ever be adapted for anything beyond an audio retelling…

…the story of “The Golden Arm” at first feels like it could fit in an anthology film, or in a short episode of a series like Creepshow. Seeing it actually in action, however, makes its limitations fairly apparent.

An adaptation was made for the little-seen Quibi series 50 States of Fright, with some surprisingly strong talent behind it. Sam Raimi directed it, and wrote it along with his brother Ivan. It starred the marvelous Rachel Brosnahan, and Travis Fimmel, lead actor for the first four seasons of Vikings. It went semi-viral for being ludicrous, but it’s not really as comically bad as some made it out to be. It is by my no means good, either.

To stretch the story even up to a little over fifteen minutes it has to incorporate some drama that is facing a massive uphill climb to become interesting, through no fault of the actors or direction really. It’s just hard to feel connected to something as bizarre as someone getting a golden arm made for them. The story would probably work better were it more dreamlike and, naturally, folktale-like, not as if it’s something remotely tethered to the real world. +*1+*

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.
  • READ MORE