Ebony Clocks and Firehoses: The Worst Surreal Parties in Literature


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It’s impossible to read Poe and not summon up the image of Vincent Price.  Growing up with the parents I did I didn’t just watch Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th movies during the Halloween season.  I did watch these films, but I had to wait until my parents went to sleep because Freddy Krueger freaks my mom the fuck out.  Along with more contemporary horror movies though my mom and dad would insist that we watch some old school horror movies as well.   TCM is a go-to channel in the Smith house, and damn-it when there’s a Vincent Price marathon on you watch it.  Somewhere between The Pit and Pendulum, The Tingler, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Robert Osbourne announced The Masque of the Red Death and I managed to find another bit of space to scoot closer to the television because I had read this story in English and I really wanted to see it performed.16256508-_sx540_

Watching the film, it’s obvious someone was on pot, I’m just not sure which one it was.  Most assuredly the audience was because the film is crafted so that the dramatic color scheme can appeal to the stoners who decided to get high and watch a movie.  And when you remember the film was released in 1964 this statement isn’t just lazy mass classification.  Hollywood was pushing more and more towards counter-culture in its film releases and so anything they could do to appeal to baby-boomers helped.  You could make the argument that the director and producers might also have been on drugs, but I’d like to think that Vincent Price made sure that Roger Corman managed to get a few good shots in before taking another hit on the blunt.

Reading The Masque of the Red Death in school however was a bit of a surreal experience, more so than the film, and even reading the short story years later while sitting in the soft orange glow of my lamp the story didn’t lose any of its surreal quality.  I recognize that the word surreal has been bastardized to mean something weird, strange, and definitively “not real” and so I have to clarify what I’m actually trying to say.  Surreal art doesn’t mean impossible; it means super-real.  Watching, reading, or experiencing any kind oAFTINDAf surreal art is not about observing oddity, it just means experiencing something that, while you recognize it couldn’t happen in mundane reality, it feels as if it is actually real.

A good example of this is in the essay David Lynch Keeps his Head by David Foster Wallace.  It’s the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and it covers Wallace breaking down the aesthetic and craft of Lynch while reporting about being on the set for the filming of Lynch’s movie Lost Highway.  At one point he describes first seeing Blue Velvet with some of his fellow Creative Writing student friends from Harvard and the profound effect it had on him:

This was the context in which Blue Velvet made such an impression on us.  The Movie’s obvious “themes”—the evil flipside to the picket-fence respectability, the conjunctions of sadism and sexuality and parental authority and voyerurism and cheesy ‘50s pop and Coming of Age, etc.—were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream logic felt: they felt true, real.  And the couple things just slightly but marvelously off in every shot […] it wasn’t just that these touches seemed eccentrically cool or experimental or arty, but that they communicated things that felt true.  (200-1).

Wallace purposefully italicizes the words true and real, but it’s important to note how the word “felt” precedes them all.  Surreal art feels real because the elements, often concrete objects like clocks, fruits, trains, or dishware, allow people to observe what they know is real while also observing these objects in odd arrangements.  lunch-monkey-surreal-horror-painting-by-karl-perssonA bowl is something we know is real because we see or use one almost every day.  Seeing a bowl filled with ten small elephants is a surreal image because, what we know of elephants, that they are massive in size, distorts reality and makes us feel as if something odd is occurring or else that we’re dreaming.  Or, that Skinny Dave laced the stuff with LSD and we need to have a talk with him once the gloves hovering over the coffee table stop arguing in sign language.

It’s import then to remember how real dreams feel when we’re having them, and even, at times, after we have woken up and immediately forgotten them.

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death in my mind is a surreal story because the elements in the plot create the sensation that we’re observing and feeling something real even as we observe a story that, for all its real elements, is really rather abstract.  Prince Prospero, poean alliterative name that would make even Stan Lee blush, is a mad monarch, now I’m doing it, who has hidden himself away in his castle while a disease known as the Red Death ravages the countryside.  The reader is given no other details about the nationality, or even the continent, though it’s generally felt by the reader that the story is about Europe during the Plague.  Prospero decides to lock himself, and a thousand “friends” and fellow monarchs up in his castle while outside the common people are dying of this decimating contagion.  Prospero arranges his castle into a series of colored rooms and, one one night in question, holds an elaborate masquerade ball.  If you don’t know what that is think of Mardi Gras when people wear masks and beads and feather and usually nothing else.  The party is fine but for an obnoxious ebony clock which distracts people, until one of the guests appears dressed in a long red robe and a mask that is reminiscent of a victim of the “Red Death.”  Prospero is outraged and chases the figure down the halls until he rips off the mask and it’s discovered that the figure is the embodiment of death sent to punish these arrogant nobles for trying to outrun death at the expense of their responsibility.9780940450189

If this sounds like the start of a fantasy epic, or else a really great episode of the Twilight Zone, that impulse is well founded.  Poe’s story is most certainly a warning about the danger of vanity and its ultimate effect upon the individual who entertains this vice.  But I’m not here to work in morals, my concern is horror for surrealism can be a marvelous way to explore nightmares.

In one rather long quotes Poe sets up the party by writing of the various rooms in which the participants occupy:

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. These were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That 4701071_origat the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. (485-6).

The surreal quality of the rooms is proof enough that Poe is a brilliant, but more impboutet_1708_color_circlesortantly an efficient writer, because far too often I’ve read writers who believe having a character see a Great Horned Owl wearing a mortarboard qualifies as surreal. Poe’s efficiency though is established because he masters color.

Color is delicate mechanism in prose because writers run the risk of either being too specific or too vague when describing an object’s particular hue.  Ultramarine blended with Teal is sure to leave the reader stumbling for that color shade card their wife picked out at LOWES for the baby’s room, while “that shade of blue the color of eyes” will not only leave someone dissatisfied, it will send them to Amazon where their review of the book will be the stuff of nightmares.  Color has to be approached carefully in writing, and Poe’s success is that he doesn’t try to pick obscure shades, rather he lets his reader feel the colors by simply noting blue, purple, red, and black and allowing the uniformity of matching windows and furniture create the impression of these rooms.  They 090427_r18408_p646-816x1200-1460744885become surreal spaces because as one would move from the purple room to the yellow room the physiological response would be almost blinding and dream-like.  Reading them alone the reader is able to feel that dramatic shift in hues and so these dense color patterns create a sensation that can only accurately be felt rather than described.

My reader may wonder what this talk of surrealism has to do with horror.  The room themselves wouldn’t create the horror, it’s the grand ebony clock that finally does it.

Poe describes in Prospero’s castle a grand clock that interrupts the party and the effect of his description still resonates:

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were 4cbacf7ecfb962c9c392285e326ee8a0constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies), there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. (486-7).

These two opening passages are, by themselves, not terribly frightening.  Just about anything taken out of context will not strike the reader or viewer as frightening.  As with the case of Blue Velvet, what matters in these passages is their context to the rest of the story and the general feeling that they are real, or at least true.the_mask_of_the_red_death_by_flamiathedemon-d3g1ram

I read The Masque of the Red Death again, sitting alone in my office by the lamp on the table that sits just under the window.  There are two lamps that create a soft amber glow when it is night, and while I have the window-shades shut, there is still always the feeling of a presence just outside the window.  Perhaps that’s why, when I finished the story, and placed Poe beside my plastic skull and copy of The Book of Beetles, the super-realness of the clock still reverberated and I felt, just for a moment, that I might have actually heard its distracting echo.

I’ve written recently, about Poe’s exploration of the dark and mysterious realms of reality, often pushing into the space of the “World Without Men,” and while I agree that The Masque of the Red Death certainly continues this aesthetic, I can’t shake off the idea of feeling the super-real.  The reason for this is because Halloween is approaching and so most people are preparing for the night when spirits are supposed to be more present or at least more accessible to this realm.  And while reason is the defining principle by which I live my life, and while I detest any argument that supports the existence of the supernatural, there is a little joy in putting skeletons in my front yard and enjoying a little fright.

But I’m a writer and making connections is important, so while Poe’s super-realness is observed in his Masque of the Red Death, reading the story was also an excuse to get back to another point in my life, or more accurately, another author.

My regular reader will realize that Stephen King really started it all for me, in terms of realizing that I wanted to be a writer.  After reading The Green Mile I began to write, mostly shit, but I started writing because King explored an interesting territory that I wanted to try.  I eventually gave up writing horror because, and I need to be honest here, stephen-king-cartoonI suck at it.  You have to have the right chops to scare people and my weakness is I’m too intellectual.  I know that sounds vain as fucking fuck but it’s not meant to be.  My only claim here is that I’m in too much of a rush to explore ideas rather than feelings, and when looking at horror all you’re talking about is feelings.

The book that really sealed the death of my career as a horror writer was The Shining because, after reading that, I knew I could never compete with King.  Apart from Pet Cemetery, and his short story 1408, there is no King book that scared me so terribly as The Shining.  The novel is about a man by the name of Jack Torrance, a former high school English teacher who has been fired for assaulting a student and is looking for a job.  He gets hired as a caretaker of The Overlook, a resort hotel in Colorado.  Jack has just kicked his alcoholism and is looking for a chance to write and so he takes the job to spend the winter in the Overlook with his wife Wendy and his son Dany until the spring.  It becomes clear, once the family moves into the hotel, that supernatural forces are attacking the family in different ways, and Jack in particular, is eventually selected to handle the job of killing Wendy and Danny because Danny is psychokinetic.  Jack eventually succumbs to the house, but not before trying to save Danny from himself and destroying the boiler so that the hotel explodes in a mess of fire.shiningfirsteditionautographed

Immediately some might question what relevance the novel has to Poe’s short story, but this question is ended before it begins when they open the book and observe that the clock passage cited before is used as an epigraph to the novel.  Not only that, but throughout the text actual references to The Masque of the Red Death are cited to the point that King builds the elements of the story into his actual novel.  In one particular instance King doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s using the story to build his own.  In the final 100 pages of the novel, which for the record often feel like a marathon sprint because everything just falls into place and King just attacks his reader, Wendy is fleeing the ghosts which are appearing and there’s a dramatic scene:

The ballroom doors were thrown wide, only blackness spilling out.  From within came a steady ticking, like a bomb.  She under glass.  Jack or Danny must have wound it..or maybe it had wound itself up, like everything else in the Overlook.

She turned toward the reception desk, meaning to go through the gate and the managers office and into the kitchen.  Gleaning dull silver, she could see the intended lunch tray.

Then the clock began to strike, like tinkling notes.

Wendy stiffened, her tongue rising to the roof of her mouth.  Then she relaxed.  It was striking eight, that was all.  Eight o’clock.

…five, six, seen…time

She counted the strokes.  It suddenly seemed wrong to move again until the clock had stilled.


(??  Nine  ??)


Suddenly, belatedly, it came to her.  She turned back clumsily for the stairs, knowing already she was too late.  But how could she have known.


All the lights in the ballroom went on.  There was a huge, shrieking flourish of brass.  Wendy screamed aloud, the sound of her cry insignificant against the blare issuing from those brazen lungs.

“Unmask!” the cry echoed.  “Unmask!  Unmask!”

Then they faded, as if down a long corrido of time, leaving her alone again.

No, not alone.

She turned and he was coming for her.  (397-8).

Because this scene is a climax the same level of super-real effect isn’t so potent out of context, but when this scene appears I can only speak for myself, I almost put the book down for fear of continuing.  The shadows on the wall, which had just been shades created by the lamps and ceiling fans, began to move in ways that disturbed me and so my option was finish the book or attempt to move and leave the room.  the-shining-twinsFor obvious reasons I kept reading.  King’s ability with structuring his writing, the use of ellipses and parenthesis especially, create this slowly growing sense of terror because they become impressions of thought that the reader, after a while, cannot tell whether it is their own thoughts or the character’s.  The only problem with this passage is that, while you have the clock and the lunch tray, this scene completely abandons the surreal for the supernatural.  It’s frightening and climactic, but long after reading it the reader will recognize you need the earlier passages to make it unnerving and terrifying.

To see King working this surreal quality I need to take the reader back to an earlier passage.king

Before the grand climax and the “unmasking,” there is a moment earlier in the novel where Danny is walking about the hotel and he realizes that he is about to have to walk past an emergency hose if he wants to go back to his Mom and Dad.  This scene remains my first real memory of reading The Shining, because the experience and sensation was so reminiscent of my own experience.

Danny looked around the corner.

The extinguisher was there, a flat hose folded back a dozen times on itself, the red tank attached to the wall.  Above it was an ax in a glass case like a museum exhibit, with white words printed on a red background: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.  Danny could read the word EMERGENCY, which was also the name of one of his favorite TV shows, but was unsure of the rest.  But he didn’t like the way the word was used in connection with that long flat hose.  EMERGENCY was fire, explosions, car crashes, hospitals, sometimes death.  And he didn’t like the way the hose hung there so blandly on the wall.  When he was alone, he always skittered past these extinguishers as fast as he could.  No particular reason.  It felt better to go fast.  It felt safer.


He started towards it, moving closer to the far wall until his right arm was brushing the expensive silk paper.  Twenty steps away.  Fifteen. A dozen.

When he was ten steps away, the brass nozzle suddenly rolled off the flat loop it had been lying


On and fell to the hall carpet with a dull thump.  It lay there, the dark bore of its muzzle pointing at Danny.  He stopped immediately, his shoulders twitching forward with the suddenness of his scare.  His blood thumped tickly in his ears and temples.  His mouth had gone dry and sour, his hands curled into fists.  Yet the nozzle of the hose only lay there, its brass casing glowing mellowly, a loop of flat canvas leading back up to the red-painted frame bolted to the wall.  (171-2).

Nothing supernatural has occurred.  That is much is clear.  And yet…

This moment can induce a real sense of panic and unease because of the way King describes the hose so realistically.  The “IN CASE OF” summons immediately the images of dozens of fire extinguishers cases either in high school, hospitals, or even at retail establishments.  It’s something people see every day.  I wrote before the quote stephen-king-1981-danse-macabrethat I had experienced moments such as this.  I grew up in an Episcopal church, and since Episcopalism is descended from the church of England, Anglicanism, which itself almost an exact copy of Catholicism, the church we attended was designed to be a big beautiful building.  There were stained glass windows, old clocks, couches that seemed to belong more in the homes old people, grand pianos, and even a library with a massive council table.  It was a beautiful building and remains so to this day, but the great conflict with it was at night the place allowed a child far too much imagination.  The echoes of your footsteps seemed to follow you, the old clocks’ ticking became the growling stomach of some patient monster, and the shadows seemed to twist and contort into nightmares which were rather left unexplored.  Worst of all was, because there were so many halls and twists and turns, and while you knew rationally there was no one following you through the building, you couldn’t escape the super-real feeling of those halls and the sensation that someone might be there.  There moments were surreal, much like the firehose in The Shining, because while there was nothing that was outside the realm of experienced, the sensation of the objects were heightened into a kind of uncomfortable truth.3115012

I haven’t so much explored horror in this essay, or at least the standard of horror many fans of the genre would recognize.  For my own part I can only attest to the fact that, while The Masque of the Red Death may not be a jump-scare horror tale that many contemporary readers may be used to, that doesn’t mean it loses any of its potency.

The real concrete images of the colored rooms, and the ebony clock, and the figure in the red robe all build an impression in the reader’s mind.  These scenes feel real because Poe writes them in such a way so that, even if the details of the world presented seem outside the realm of experience, they still feel real and so it’s impossible to shrug them off as simply supernatural oddity.  The firehose simply falling off of the perch as Danny walks by is so simple in its presentation, and its description is so plain it’s impossible to believe at first that anything could be behind it, and yet, reading that passage when I was thirteen brought back so many sensations I wondered for a moment whether or not I might have been right.7e87c4ef4afbcad4f87bf3da01b35531

Poe and King both are masters of their craft because they allowed their reader’s imaginations to dream feelings and sensations into being, and ultimately that’s all that matters.  Perception really is 99% of reality, for as long as we feel or perceive something it exists in our immediate world.  Great horror then, should rely not so much on its ability to gross out its audience, but to leave them with the impression that something feels real.

A firehose falling from its perch can be explained away with all the physics science can muster, and a clock’s chime is just the proof of a great watch-maker.  Yet all it takes is a moment’s reflection to wonder at the impression, and feel perhaps that there might be something more pushing us towards some wretched realization.

It’s also a good reminder not to read Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe before bed, because now I haven’t slept for seven days and those hallucinations of floating hands on my shoulders are starting to get a little grabby.




*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from The Masque of the Red Death came from Poe: Poetry and Tales as published by Library of America, however if the reader wishes to read the entire article they can follow the link below to a pdf of the short story. All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback


Shining Light on Bloody Elevators: Why so Cold Mr. Torrance?


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It’s pathetic really, but I honestly didn’t get that REDRUM was MURDER spelled backwards until Danny wrote it on the door.  My only defense, the only one I can offer, is that my mind has never been strong when it comes to anagrams.  Some people, though only in films or books conveniently enough, are blessed to immediately unscramble words and find the hidden meaning and so such a realization wouldn’t shock them, but when I was reading The Shining I kept watching that word appear wondering what it could possibly mean and what horrible reality it would reveal in the Overlook Hotel.  When the switch finally came, I admit freely that it legitimately scared me.  In fact, I might have gasped, clutched my hand to my heart, and made sure the blinds were closed.stephen-king-1981-danse-macabre

There was a time in my life when I devoured the writings of Stephen King.  After my Sophomore English teacher gave me her copy of The Green Mile and I read through that water damaged paperback in about a week.  When I finished I had, emphasis on that word, had to read more of the man’s work.  I hopped into Cujo after that.  The Half Price Book Store in Dallas had an entire Stephen King section, and old Signet paperbacks with their pastel spines were lined up like gems Scheherazade might have described to Shahryār as her hero looked upon discovered treasures of some long lost kingdom.  I bought Cujo and read it quickly, moving then to The Shining.  As I remember I tried starting The Stand but it didn’t move quickly enough for me.  I also bought It, Pet Cemetery, and Christine, but as of this writing I’ve only read to completion the middle book which remains the book after The Shining which scared the evr-living piss out of me.

If Cujo terrified me, I did live in a house with three dogs at the time, The Shining was something else entirely.  Though I knew and had experienced the “haunted house” story before, most of these were old and English and none of the characters in those books and films talked the way Jack Torrance did.  The first line alone, which I’m not too big on to be honest, hooked me straight away:shiningfirsteditionautographed

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.  (3).

I suspect part of the reason King appealed to me from such a young age was partly because of his profanity.  The books we read in school rarely possessed any profanity.  There would be the odd “nigger” in To Kill a Mockingbird, but that wasn’t a word I would feel comfortable repeating.  Whereas prick, fuck, bastard, and shit were all lovely words to use when talking to my friends and so King’s appeal was partly for the fact that he wrote the way I and many people I knew talked.  I ate up his book and began looking for films based upon his work.

About the same time, I discovered King, I also found the films of Quentin Tarantino, who became god to me, Martin Scorsese, and finally Stanley Kubrick.  This last film maker left his own impact on me largely because of his eclectic style of selecting stories to tell, but also because his films were so different than anything else that I watched.  It’s not being unfair or hip to suggest that Stanley Kubrick’s movies are unique for their presentation, cinematography, and acting period.  Kubrick’s characters are often caught between acting like archetypes and real living people, and so when approaching Kubrick’s The Shining and Jack Torrance’s character, I really didn’t mind the fact that he was different from King’s Jack Torrance.  The fact that he was also Jack Nicholson didn’t hurt either because I had grown up watching that man play as Joker on repeat almost non-stop.  Wanting to start celebration of Halloween early this year, my sister and I sat down and watched The Shining again, and after watching the film I knew I had to sit down and write about it because I’ve reached the point in my life where I can, mostly, avoid kissing the ass of those who influenced me during my formative years.stanley-kubric-film-fan-18

The Shining centers on the characters of Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny Torrance.  Jack has recently lost his job teaching at a prep school after assaulting a student who slashed his tires, and he is also recovering from a bout of alcoholism that contributed to him dislocating his son’s shoulder in a fit of rage.  He is hired to manage The Overlook, an isolated resort hotel in the mountains of Colorado, and operate the boiler during the winter months when the hotel is isolated from the outside world.  The family moves into the hotel and while Jack tries to work on a play the family is slowly falling prey to the natural forces of cabin fever and, though it’s never suggested till near the end of the film, it’s clear that supernatural elements living in the hotel are trying to corrupt them.  Specifically, they want Danny’s soul because he possesses the ability of “shining” which is a slang word for telepathy.  The film ends as Jack loses his mind and tries to kill Wendy and Danny, manages to kill Halloran the Head cook of the hotel who returns to save the family, and eventually gets lost in the hedge maze outside the hotel before freezing to death and having his soul forever trapped by the hotel.

The film, like so many of Kubrick’s other films, has become iconic and almost cartoonishthe_shining_1 for the fact that everyone between The Simpsons, to Rocko’s Modern Life, to Bob’s Burgers, to Family Guy, to The Pagemaster, to South Park, and even Toy Story 3 have all referenced some element of the film.  For the record my favorite remains Bob’s Burgers for it’s almost loving recreation of the Lloyd bar-tender sequence, and of course the other being Stewie shooting a rocket at the Grady daughter’s at Cherrywood.  These references however only prove the lasting impression of the film upon cinema history for whether it’s Jack hacking the bathroom door to bits before uttering the famous lines:

Jack Torrance: Here’s Johnny!

Or whether it’s Wendy looking at Jack’s manuscript and reading:20120210-224630

Jack Torrance: [typed] All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Or whether it’s the Grady twins standing at the end of the hallway blocking Danny’s path:

Grady DaughterGrady Daughter: Hello, Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us, Danny. Forever… and ever… and ever.

These scenes have been repeatedly re-imagined because Kubrick’s movie is a masterpiece of cinematography and horror.  An added benefit to the film is that even despite the endless pop-culture references The Shining, unlike other horror films before and after it, remains legitimately horrifying to this day.  I might argue that the only other exception might be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that’s because the content of that film remains disturbing regardless of how old it gets._w87m_

Watching The Shining again my mom was walking through the house tending to the numerous little jobs and tasks she handles and catching one moment of the film she made a fascinating observation.  The scene in question is Jack typing in the open hall by the fireplace.  The camera holds the great emptiness of the room centering Jack in the middle of it and the viewer is left sitting and feeling that great emptiness and symmetry until Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, interrupts from the right side of the screen calling Jack.  Kubrick usually employs this destruction of symmetry for effect, and when Wendy walks up to Jack the music breaks as Jack rips the paper out of the typewriter to look up at her.  Wendy offers to make him some sandwiches and then read his manuscript when he’s finished and Jack responds:

Jack Torrance: Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?

Wendy Torrance: Yeah.

Jack Torrance: Now, we’re going to make a new rule. When you come in here and you hear me typing

[types] giphy

Jack Torrance: or whether you *don’t* hear me typing, or whatever the *fuck* you hear me doing; when I’m in here, it means that I am working, *that* means don’t come in. Now, do you think you can handle that?

Wendy Torrance: Yeah.

Jack Torrance: Good. Now why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here? Hm?

As Wendy walks away my mother “Hmmed” and said, “So the film’s about spousal abuse, why didn’t anybody tell me?”

The first time I watched The Shining I never really noticed this because I was still a teenage boy.  I was only interested in the violence and the idea of supernatural influence, and to reveal myself completely, at that age I found anti-heroes admirable.  Jack Torrance was a figure who seemed to embody the same kind of nightmare darkness that I occupied at that age, or at least he seemed to, and as my local comic-shop owner said so beautifully to me “perception really is reality.”  Watching it again however, and paying-heed to my mother’s observation, The Shining took on a new dimension because it became less a chance to perform a morbid hero-worship and instead became an exploration of domestic violence.tumblr_n2zvw7pinu1rpf9sro2_1280

The great horror in the plotline of The Shining, both the novel as well as the film, is the question of whether or not Jack Torrence is behind the atrocious actions or whether it’s the Overlook Hotel influencing him and corrupting his will.  If it was just a story about the Overlook corrupting Jack then the story most likely wouldn’t remain so terrifying to viewers and readers to this day.  If his behavior is just because of the influence of the supernatural, if it’s just a haunted house, then there’s nothing scary because haunted houses aren’t real and the appeal stops there.  If it is Jack however, then no matter how many years go by this will remain horrific because there isn’t anything so terrifying as when someone who’s supposed to love his family turns on them with violence.

I suspect the reason domestic violence is so disturbing is because husbands and fathers are supposed to be the emotional jack-and-dannyprotectors against the outside world.  Even if men aren’t supposed to be terribly emotional creatures, there’s still an understanding in families that fathers are supposed to love their children and husbands are supposed to love their wives.  Watching the film after my mother made her great comment I was watching a later scene as I had never watched it before.  Wendy walks into the main lobby, finds Jack missing, and discovers his manuscript which is composed of nothing but the phrase “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.”  Realizing that her husband has lost his mind, and steadily has been losing his mind, she begins to weep when Jack appears and the following dialogue exchange occurs:

Jack Torrance: What are you doing down here?

Wendy Torrance: [sobbing] I just wanted to talk to you. shining_top_grande

Jack Torrance: Okay, let’s talk. What do you wanna talk about?

Wendy Torrance: I can’t really remember.

Jack Torrance: You can’t remember… Maybe it was about… Danny? Maybe it was about him. I think we should discuss Danny. I think we should discuss what should be done with him. What should be done with him?

Wendy Torrance: I don’t know.

Jack Torrance: I don’t think that’s true. I think you have some very definite ideas about what should be done with Danny and I’d like to know what they are.

Wendy Torrance: Well, I think… maybe… he should be taken to a doctor.

Jack Torrance: You think “maybe” he should be taken to a doctor?

Wendy Torrance: Yes. maxresdefault

Jack Torrance: When do you think “maybe” he should be taken to a doctor?

Wendy Torrance: As soon as possible…?

Jack Torrance: [mocking/imitating her] As soon as possible…?

Wendy Torrance: Jack! What are… you…

Jack Torrance: You think his health might be at stake.

Wendy Torrance: Y-Yes!

Jack Torrance: You are concerned about him.

Wendy Torrance: Yes!

Jack Torrance: And are you concerned about me?

Wendy Torrance: Of course I am! wendy

Jack Torrance: Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?

Wendy Torrance: Oh Jack, what are you talking about?

Jack Torrance: Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first. Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and “trust” in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a “contract,” in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a “moral and ethical principal” is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?

Wendy Torrance: [swings the bat] Stay away from me!

This would be hard enough but for the scene that follows:

Wendy Torrance: [crying] Stay away from me.

Jack Torrance: Why?

Wendy Torrance: I just wanna go back to my room!

Jack Torrance: Why? untitled

Wendy Torrance: Well, I’m very confused, and I just need time to think things over!

Jack Torrance: You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over, what good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?

Wendy Torrance: Please! Don’t hurt me!

Jack Torrance: I’m not gonna hurt you.

Wendy Torrance: Stay away from me!

Jack Torrance: Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in!

[Wendy gasps]

Jack Torrance: [laughs] Gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!

Wendy Torrance: Stay away from me! Don’t hurt me!

Jack Torrance: [sarcastically] I’m not gonna hurt ya…

Wendy Torrance: Stay away! Stop it!

Jack Torrance: Stop swingin’ the bat. Put the bat down, Wendy. Wendy? Give me the bat…

It’s fascinating watching this scene because several years ago while riding on my Stanley Kubrick kick I watched an interview with Steven Spielberg and another with Stephen King, and the sentiment from both of these men is that, while the film is brilliant, they didn’t like Jack Nicholson’s character because they felt he was cold or, in Spielberg’s own words, that it was too much like Kabuki theatre.  the-shining-twinsI agreed with this sentiment the first time I watched The Shining, but with each subsequent viewing I began to disagree with this because, while his behavior was dramatic, Kubrick’s film was about madness and a person imploding while also becoming more and more susceptible to outside supernatural influence.  There’s no doubt by the end of the film that the hotel is possessed by malevolent spirits who want Danny so that his ability can be used to attract more and more souls to the hotel, but the consistency of the horror to me is really the idea that Wendy and Danny are trapped in a physical space with a man who is imploding.

Before Wendy’s discovery of the manuscript she finds Jack suffering from a nightmare and he wakes up to tell her about his dream:

Jack Torrance: The most terrible nightmare I ever had. It’s the most horrible dream I ever had.

Wendy Torrance: It’s okay, it’s okay now. Really.

Jack Torrance: I dreamed that I, that I killed you and Danny. But I didn’t just kill ya. I cut you up in little pieces. Oh my God. I must be losing my mind. the-shining-us-cut-1980-bluray-1080p-dts-hdma-5-1-x264-dxva-framestor-mkv_snapshot_01-53-17_2012-02-11_01-50-22

It’s not enough that Jack suffers this atrocious nightmare, for by itself this wouldn’t contribute much to the film.  As always with Stanley Kubrick this detail is horrifying to the viewer because of its sense of foreboding, or, really, it’s familiarity at this point.  In just the opening moments of the film Jack is interviewed for the job and is told about the previous caretaker:

Stuart Ullman: I don’t suppose they told you anything in Denver about the tragedy we had in the Winter of 1970.

Jack Torrance: I don’t believe they did.

Stuart Ullman: My predecessor in this job left a man named Charles Grady as the Winter caretaker. And he came up here with his wife and two little girls, I think were eight and ten. And he had a good employment record, good references, and from what I’ve been told he seemed like a completely normal individual. But at some point during the winter, he must have suffered some kind of a tumblr_ncfhru3wep1rp0vkjo1_500complete mental breakdown. He ran amuck and killed his family with an axe. Stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the West wing and then he, he put both barrels of a shot gun in his mouth.

Jack will eventually meet Grady during the “Party” in the gold room and after Grady spills an avocado desert on his jacket and they adjoin to the men’s room he once again summons the imagery of familial destruction:

Delbert Grady: Did you know, Mr. Torrance, that your son is attempting to bring an outside party into this situation? Did you know that?

Jack Torrance: No.

Delbert Grady: He is, Mr. Torrance.

Jack Torrance: Who?

Delbert Grady: A nigger. lloyd

Jack Torrance: A nigger?

Delbert Grady: A nigger cook.

Jack Torrance: How?

Delbert Grady: Your son has a very great talent. I don’t think you are aware how great it is. That he is attempting to use that very talent against your will.

Jack Torrance: He is a very willful boy.

Delbert Grady: Indeed he is, Mr. Torrance. A very willful boy. A rather naughty boy, if I may be so bold, sir.

Jack Torrance: It’s his mother. She, uh, interferes.

Delbert Grady: Perhaps they need a good talking to, if you don’t mind my saying so. Perhaps a bit more. My girls, sir, they didn’t care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of matches, and tried to burn it down. But I “corrected” them sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I “corrected” her.

All of these quotes only demonstrate that, while The Shining is most certainly a ghost story that relies on the Supernatural for its final climax, at work in the narrative and cinematic direction, there is a terrifying sense of claustrophobia that leads to spousal and familial abuse.  Jack Torrence is supposed to be a good man who’s kubrick-with-shelley-duvalltrying to do right by his family after failing them and actually physically hurting them, and by the end of the movie his mind is so warped he tries to kill his son and wife in the exact same manner his predecessor’s did.  Stephen King is right in his assessment that The Shining is a “cold” movie, but if I may correct one of my literary heroes, that doesn’t make it any less horrifying than the novel.

While it is somewhat clichéd at times, the family is the core of most of human society because it’s the space where we learn about love, morality, trust, virtue, and proper behavior.  It’s also supposed to be the space where we can retreat from the harshness and often unfeeling cruelty of real life.  Stanley Kubrick’s film is a great testament to the horror genre because horror is supposed to explore territory that many find questionable or uncomfortable.  The idea that the family could become so corrupted that the father would murder his own children unnerves us, because it’s a violation of the family unit, that unit which is supposed to be safe.71mg2awncvl

There are other avenues to explore in the film, but looking back on my mother’s passing sentiment my impression of the film changed dramatically, and that in itself is worth exploring in writing.  The Shining is no longer just a superficial film about paranoia, claustrophobia, and ghosts, it’s about what happens when the men in families fail to do right by their loved ones.

On a final note, it may be unfair to call Jack a complete fuck-up, but then again the man does squander his chance to make his life something new.  And perhaps it’s just out of habit, but by the end of the movie the man has become yet another person claiming to be a writer and producing little to nothing.  This would make Jack Torrance only slightly more of a monster than those people who write screenplays at Starbucks.

Then again, I’m told possession by evil spirits may allow some forgiveness for writer’s block.






*Writer’s Note*

Because I love The Shining so much, while I was working on this essay I looked up just about every video on YouTube that I could and found a few gems:

The first is the interview with Spielberg where he discusses Kubrick as a man and filmmaker period:


The second is an episode of Charlie Rose shortly after Kubrick’s death where he interviews Kubrick’s widow and Matin Scorsese:


This is just a brief video showing the complicated relationship between Kubrick and Shelly [NAME]:


The Making of The Shining:


A Collection of behind the scenes footage:


And finally, here’s a video of Stephen King’s impression and opinions of The Shining movie, and, forwarning, he’s not a huge fan of it.




**Writer’s Note**

Long before I decided to write this essay I watched a video on YouTube which explored the famous shot of the elevators exploding into the river of blood.  Rob Ager is a film critic with his own channel who has argued some controversial claims about Stanley Kubrick’s films in the past, but his observation permanently changed the way I watch The Shining because he notes that at the start of the elevator doors opening there’s some solid object which lands at the bottom of the river of blood on the left (facing) side.  It’s a quick shot, a quick moment, and easy to miss, but Kubrick was too meticulous a film maker to leave something like that to chance.  I definitely encourage you to watch the video, because when I watched the film again I noticed the shape in the blood, wondering if it couldn’t possibly be a human being, but then, we find in vagueness what we wish to find:




***Writer’s Note*

All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback.  All quotes from the film were provided care of IMDb.

Jammer Talks About: Fahrenheit 451 and Banned Books


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It was recently Banned Books Week and so I thought I would do my part to cover a novel which I’m rather partial to.  Fahrenheit 451 is a novel I was exposed to because one of the best teachers I’ve ever had assigned the book The Illustrated Man for class.  Ray Bradbury, along with Stephen King, became an author I adored and so I picked up Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451 on her recommendation. 

This novel is a science fiction masterpiece, but also one of the most misunderstood books in my opinion because everyone likes to focus on the book burning aspect of the plot rather than the deeper theme of combatting ignorance. Bradbury isn’t just writing about censorship in order to say censorship is bad.  The problem with censoring books is not just that it stops people from reading a book, the problem with censorship is that it stops people from reading a book and then thinking about it and the questions it asks. 

Banned Books week is more than just an opportunity to read naughty books in order to feel rebellious, it’s far more personal and political.  Reading Banned Books is a chance to counter ignorance because the only way to become smarter is to admit to ignorance so that someone can help you learn more. 

I’ll leave it at that and let my reader see the video for themselves and come up with their own opinion.  Because, after all, that’s the point of reading in the first place. 

Thank you for reading, and thank you for watching. 












Old Gods We Dare Not Meet, Not Even in Dreams


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After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.  (58).

The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft


I will admit that while there are some Cthulhu memes that I find really funny, I’ve always been detached when reading them.  I laugh at the recognition that Cthulhu is a figure in popular culture that is somehow gaining more and more traction, but without having read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s actual work it seems hard to appreciate the humor of it.  There are some exceptions to this.

For example, when South Park did the Coon and Friends storyline it was hysterical when Mint-Berry Crunch defeated the Old God by firing Mint-Berries at him and thus saving mysterionrisespromo2humanity from Eric Cartman, who for the record seems far more evil that Cthulhu could ever dream of being.  The other popular culture reference that I immediately hop to is the Robot Chicken appearance when the Old God has an appearance on Oprah Winfey as promotion for his Presidential campaign.  He eventually kills Oprah by devouring her soul, but he makes up for it by wearing her face and giving away cars to everybody in the audience.  Another example, and one of my favorites as the new Justice League movie approaches, is the one of Aquaman riding the Old God’s head and chanting out “I useless, they said!  I have stupid powers, they said!”  As a long-time apologist for Aquaman reading this was particularly validating.

I could go on and on with these reference, but only one more is necessary to explain my own connection to Cthulhu and it may be fascinating to observe that it came to me through my grandfather.  Elbert Smith made sure of two things during his life.  The first was making sure no grandchild of his would ever have to bear his own name, he was adamant about that fact, and the second was making sure that I had every Mighty Max that was ever manufactured.  Whether it was Temple of Venom, Skull Dungeon, or that onemighty-max-caught-by-the-man-eater-bluebird-toys-vintage-100-complete with the Cyclops that I purposefully wouldn’t play with because it legitimately gave me nightmares (giant octopus eyeball creature…nuff said), there was one of them in particular that was shaped by a shark and lead by a villain known as the Man Eater.  He wore an electric neon yellow robe that stopped around his waist and the top of his head was a sharp point that I would sometimes try and use as a toothpick.  It helps to remember that I was six or seven at the time, but what really fascinated me about this character was his face.  He was a squid and so four long tentacles formed his mouth making him look like a Quarren from STAR WARS, his legs were nothing but a lump of tentacles, in his right hand he held a black trident, and he has two pupiless purple eyes that seemed to stare into the depth of your soul.

I wouldn’t realize it until years later but the Man Eater was in fact a Lovecraftian anthropomorphic imagining.

Lovecraft himself remains a bit of an enigma, not because there is much of his life that scholars and readers don’t know about, but criticism of his work in general is h-_p-_lovecraft_june_1934really in its infancy.  Born Howard Philips Lovecraft in 1890, the man would live most of his life in obscurity since he never published more than one or two short works of fiction during his lifetime.  Lovecraft, much like the Dutch Painter Vermeer, would be appreciated long after he was actually dead and you could make the argument that the man has achieved a kind of rebirth as his works have inspired new generations of writers, artists, Table-Top Role Playing Game developers, and even just casual readers.  One of these said writers would be Stephen King, the man who inspired me to start writing in the first place.

I’ll admit that I purposefully avoided Lovecraft, not because I didn’t want to know more about his work, but because after watching the film Hostel, and suffering from a two-year mental recovery, I largely dropped Horror from my reading and viewing habits.  There was the added effect that most of my friends were Lovecraft fans and I will always avoid anything that is hyped too much.  I finally decided however, with Halloween approaching, that I would at least sit down and finally read the story that helped establish his aesthetic as something culturally relevant.51yag9tv87l

The Call of Cthulhu is but one of the many Cthulhu narratives Lovecraft wrote during his lifetime, but it remains one of the most important for it clearly lays out the image of the creature and the mythology which surrounds it.  The story is written in the first person perspective, a narrative structure Lovecraft often employed in his writings, and the protagonist appears to be a young writer or journalist hoping at first to find some bubble reputation by writing the story about a series of supernatural occurrences centered around some being called Cthulhu.  The man in question has inherited the collected papers of his Great-uncle, and during his sorting of the paperwork he discovers a locked box which, once opened, reveals his uncles notes which describe a series of persons and events.  Contained within it is a bas relief containing hieroglyphics and an image of a monstrous creature which he describes:

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive.  If I say that my somewhat extravaganthpl-cthulhu imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.  A pulpy, tentacle head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.  Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.  (35-6).

And thus the arresting image begins, and millions of t-shirt manufacturer careers were born.

It’s not unrealistic to suggest that this is an arresting image, for it’s important to remember that, despite his lack of success while living, Lovecraft was working largely as a foundational writer.  Later authors like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Ray Bradbury would all be influenced in some form or fashion by the man’s aesthetic, and the defining image of Lovecraft is the tentacle-faced monster.  Much like Edgar Allen Poe and his ravens, the octopus/squid creature embodies the impression of Lovecraft and that’s 18-06-16-1largely because tentacles tend to unnerve human beings.  It’s not just the anatomical differences, the tentacles suggest something more.  Much like the eyeball creature in that Mighty-Max that gave me nightmares, the intense Other quality of the anatomy suggests something known only in dreams, or nightmares.  Tentacles hint at the unknown.

This is especially important for Lovecraft, because in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he begins with an important observation:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear of the unknown.  These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuiness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.  (1).

This last idea, that the “weirdly horrible tale” is a valid literary form, wasn’t novel when Lovecraft wrote it and in fact this argument still exists to this day.  I noticed 13518921-_sy540_when I was going through college, both as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, that the writing of Stephen King was largely looked upon either with curiosity or suspicion.  Some professors would hold out on the man, wondering if he possessed any merit or warrant of academic inspection, while others admitted that they would be interested in the man but they had never read any of his material.  For the record I read a total of one book by Stephen King: the first of the Dark Tower series for a course over the American Gothic.  Horror as a genre is similar in many ways to Heavy Metal in that both groups tend to have a devoted (some might suggest obsessional) following by fans, both deal freely and unapologetically in grotesqueness, and both are largely spurned by the society which entertains it.  I do believe this is largely because many critics observe the darkness expressed, and mistake that fascination for fondness or sympathy.ee1b7acdc57839113da68a71db991799

Before this essay turns into an apology for Heavy Metal and Horror at large, I want to briefly return to Lovecraft’s Old Gods before I turn my attention to Stephen King.  In The Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft establishes his aesthetic of ancient beings threatening humanity when a French police officer and his men discover a gathering of black voodoos performing a pagan ceremony around a statue of the Old God and the narrator explains these creatures:

They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young would out of the sky.  Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets to dreams to the first men, who formed the cult which had never died.  This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.  Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.

[…]  Mankind was not absolutely alone among the conscious things of earth, for shapes came out of the dark to visit the faithful few.  But these were not the Great Old Ones.  No man had ever seen the Old Ones.  The carven idol was great Cthulhu, but none might say whether or not the others were precisely like him.  No-one could read the old writing now, but things were told by word of mouth.  (46-7).cthulhu_by_disse86-d9tq84i

Later on it’s further explained why these beings no longer live alongside mankind:

They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.  (47).

And finally, because it is a “weird horrible tale,” there has to be some foreboding:

But although They no longer lived, They would never really die.  They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious surrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them.  (47).

Of course by the end of the story Cthulhu escapes from his stone prison but is repelled back into his slumber, but I want to explore this notion of “Old Gods” because this is an important idea that, as I wrote before, became an important influence on Stephen King, an author who inspired me to start writing.  My friend Kyle Bellis helped me with this article, long before I ever had any intention of writing about H.P. Lovecraft, by explaining the Old Gods are not malevolently evil in the way human beings can be.  His metaphor was concise and illuminating.  The Old Gods are like human beings walking through a field stepping on ants.  When we walk we’re not aware that we’re crushing the ants, we just don’t see them, recognize them, or largely care about them.maxresdefault

This is a horrifying thought, for as I explored this idea in the essay about The Tell-Tale Heart only recently, the “World Without Men” bothers us as a species because we’ve become used to the idea that we are the center of creation.  The notion of the Old Gods is horrific, not just because they’re grotesque creatures in physiology, but because they are of a time when human beings did not exist and so they possess knowledge of reality that surpasses us.

But I wanted to discuss Stephen King before the end.  About a month ago I checked out from the Tyler Public Library a graphic novelization of one of King’s novellas simply titled N.  I thought it would be a nice little read between the heavy tomes in my large stack (I’m reading Infinite Jest and The Bully Pulpit so this isn’t just flowery diction on my part) 51bkpglmjgland so it was.  The story is of a wife who mails her cousin a box of papers belonging to her husband, a psychiatrist who has recently killed himself.  The reason for his demise was a patient, named simply N., who discovers a cluster of stone in a field in rural Maine.  He saw the stones and immediately became aware that he felt he was standing over a doorway into a different dimension and one of the stones bore a name; Cthun.  The patient describes how counting numbers has become a compulsion and how specific numbers are good while others are bad.  N. eventually commits suicide and Dr. John Bonsaint, curious and compelled by forces outside his control, visits the sight, and becomes yet another victim of the ancient place.  Johnney’s wife sends the box to her cousin Charlie, a newspaper reporter, before she also commits suicide, and like the previous victims Charlie is compelled to visit the place, feel it’s power, and write an article about it before returning to the stones where he finds a group of curious readers and kills them all before killing himself.

The graphic novel N. is incredible, though I note that, had I not taken any initiative to do any reading about Stephen King’s influences this book might have seemed his usual stuff.  There is always an old, hungry 7e87c4ef4afbcad4f87bf3da01b35531creature or creatures in King’s novels and short stories and novellas which pose a threat to the protagonist or their family, and while the sheer bulk of the man’s work makes it easy to dismiss this consistency as unoriginality, I’ll argue that King’s working and exploring an idea which is seemingly endless.

Human beings fear the unknown, and the Old Gods embody the idea of knowledge that human beings will never possess.  Ultimately that desire to know destroys the protagonists, for like the characters in N. the nameless narrator ends his short story foreseeing his own doom:

That was the document I read, and now I placed it in the tin box beside the bas-relief and the papers of Professor Angell.  With it shall go this record of mine—this test of my own sanity, wherin in pieced together that which I hope may never be pieced together again.  I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.  But I do not think my life will be long.  As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so shall I go.  I know too much, and the cult still lives.cthun


What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.  Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.  A time will come—but I must not and cannot think!  Let me pray that, if I do not survive the manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.  (60).

Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft have become cartoons to the society that has read their work, and while on some level laughter is always dismissive, this parody of the aesthetic reveals a real fear.  The old metaphor is “whistling past the graveyard” and I believe this is apt.  The reader knows and wills into being the idea that the passages and images their seeing cannot possibly be real because it’s just fiction and fiction is just made-up stuff, pure imagination.  The only problem here is philosophy.  The reason stephen-king-cartoonI stopped watching horror films after watching Hostel was because the film was based on an actual supposed business based in Thailand where, for $10,000, you could shoot somebody in the head.  I felt sick with humanity after watching the movie because art imitates life and vice versa.  While the images were just a made-up story, there was still an element of truth and fact behind them.  While the torture-porn brand of horror might leave a more recognizable terror, the fear of the unknown will surpass fear of other human beings because it is rooted in biology.  Human beings fear the Old Gods because the originators of the species feared the beasts that would hunt at night and so as they evolved humans naturally selected those that kept that fear alive because it maintained survival.

This is not a suggestion that giant tentacle faced monsters actually exist, for it is fiction, but Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has lasted and captured the imaginations of readers and writers for its unique horror.  Rather than simply show horrible people performing horrible atrocities on other human beings, and rather than simply show giant insects or other arthropod monsters destroying cities, the image of Cthulhu leaves the reader with a much deeper impression because it’s impossible to easily shake off.

When Inspector Lafitte’s men interrupt the “Voodoo orgy” there is a brief estimation of the statue of Cthulhu they worshipped:king-n

They said it had been there before D’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods.  It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die.  But it made men dream, and so they knew enough to keep away.  (44).

Lovecraft uses the word “Before” four times and there is finally the most chilling reality of the horror Cthulhu is supposed to inspire.  It’s not enough that his escape will bring about the end of humanity, it’s the fact that this nightmare preceded man, who is supposed to be the center of creation.  If there were beings before time and history and reality, what does that say about humanity?  Perhaps it means that human beings aren’t important after all, and all of humanity’s efforts and creations are for naught.  It could mean humans aren’t even necessary for creation at all, and at any moment we might just stop existing period.

Cthulhu won’t stop appearing on t-shirts anytime soon, but neither will he stop appearing in the dreams of men, anxious of the hungry noises he, and the rest of the resting deities, might unearth in the infancy of time and reality.5b1d071c622d3bb26b6c26a80d80534e





*Writer’s Note*

All Quotes from The Call of Cthulhu was taken from The Whiperer in Darkness a collection published by Wordsworth Editions.  All quotes from Supernatural Horror in Literature came from H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horrors published by Barnes & Noble Books.


**Writer’s Note**

If the reader is at all interested in more information on Lovecraft himself they would be remiss if they didn’t follow the link below which provides biography, lists of books and documentaries, tracks Lovecraft’s impact on popular culture, pages explaining his creations, and contact information for anyone interested in Lovecraft studies.  It helped me tremendously while writing this article.


I’d also recommend this article about Lovecraft’s lasting impact on culture, as well as his influence on the writing of Stephen King:


I’ve also decided to go ahead and post the Robot Chicken video of Cthulhu because, despite my moaning, it is legitimately funny:



***Writer’s Note***

This doesn’t really have any point or reason behind it, I just thought it was fucking hysterical because, I would totally watch the shit out of this movie:




Tell-Tale Hearts Sing Songs of Madness Sublime


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Psychosis apparently does wonder for one’s ability with prose.  This isn’t just my own estimation for Humbert Humbert, the obnoxious pervert protagonist, technical literary term for the record, says as much in the novel Lolita.  In the very opening passage of the book, after he writes what is objectively one of the most beautiful opening paragraphs in literary history, he notes his own ability with language when he says:

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. (9).

And Humbert Humbert is not just being ironic as he recognizes that he is purposefully embellishing the language for the sake of writing pretty words, he’s actually falling back upon a previous narrative, specifically The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe which offers the same sentiment.  The unnamed narrator begins his tale with a now iconic and still frightening condition:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed —3792be4e3a103d688a03fe6b715982a0not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.  (555).

It becomes clear that should I ever wish to be taken seriously as a writer I have one course of action: become insane and start penning short stories about my exploits.  My only reservation is that murder is a vastly underrated enterprise and their union benefits miserable.

I honestly believe that the show Even Stevens was my first experience with The Tell-Tale Heart.  The obligatory emo/goth best friend girl character, who’s name I honestly couldn’t remember until I margo-harshman-1337844081Googled it, Tawney Dean, describes the plot of the short story to Steven who is experiencing some kind of guilt and after that my memory of the 90s fades mostly out of a built in defense mechanism against nostalgia.  Though Clarissa Explains It All and Doug do seem strikingly familiar.  This was The Tell-Tale Heart, but I had actually encountered Poe’s work before this.  My first experience of Poe was The Pagemaster when the Raven shouts “Nevermore,” even if I didn’t get the reference.  Poe as a man has become a cartoon character largely appropriated by teenage fuck-ups, I’m saying that as a former one myself, who enjoy the superficial darkness of the text without trying to dig deeper into the philosophical implications his works have to offer.  Growing up I enjoyed Poe’s stories, especially since my seventh-grade English teacher taught us The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amantillado, and The Raven all in one week.

Despite my early love of Poe, or perhaps because of it, I eventually came to distrust my fascination with the man and his writing because his aesthetic seemed taken over by superficial morons who enjoyed reading his poems in graveyards while vaping andEdgar_Allen_Poe listening to The Crow soundtrack.  If I sound bitter about this it is only because my feelings on the matter have become clearer as I age.  Poe’s aesthetic seems at first like something you should grow out of, like Ayn Rand or The Superfriends, when in fact Poe’s writing is a brilliant testament to the possibilities of the creative landscape of the United States, much like The Superfriends.  Poe eventually came back into my life through the essay R.W. Emerson, and then later a fellow student in graduate school who also became my friend.  I’ll get to that in a bit.

I decided to return to Poe after a long estrangement, starting with the first Poe I could think of.  The Tell-Tale Heart is in fact one of the most common introduction of Poe’s work, because it seems to define his aesthetic to the great body of teachers, students, and casual readers.  This is actually rather incorrect, but I’ll deal with that later.  I read the story again, finding in the words a new territory.

Madness is a common ground for horror, and The Tell-Tale Heart from the very start makes this territory the focus of the story.  The protagonist is the narrator, a man who has clearly gone insane.  The cause of his mental illness is never specified for he moves quickly to the fact that he had an unspecified relationship with an older man, whom he says he loved, but who possessed a milked-over eye that drove him eventually to murder the 0cb1b1fe47eaf094fd714dc7f97589a9old man.  He then hides the body in the floor boards of the house, comfortable that he will get away with the crime, until, not long after the old man is dead, a group of Policemen respond to a noise complaint.  They search the house but find nothing at which point the protagonist invites them to stay and enjoy some tea.  They accept, and while the man entertains them he begins to hear the sound of beating.  He discovers, to his great horror, that it is the sound of the old man’s heart beating ever louder and louder.  Fueled by his madness and paranoia he succumbs to the guilt and confesses to the crime.

This beating has, since the publication of this short story in 1843, been one of the hallmarks not only of the horror genre, but story-telling in general.  The heartbeat is a simple yet effective tool of story-tellers to convey tension and, in its own way, the “JAWS Theme” tumblr_mv8yv3nR8Z1qb5qxmo3_500with it’s simple two notes takes advantage of this structure to create the glorious tension that near ruined the economy of seaside towns in the early eighties.  The reason the heartbeat works is because it is a simple yet effective trick that mimics the readers own heartbeat which, depending on the story, only builds with the development of paranoia.  Though to be fair the success of the story is based upon the writer’s ability and Poe most certainly demonstrates this in his writing.

Poe describes the heartbeat as the narrator is preparing to murder the Old Man:

And now have I not told you what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.  I knew that sound well, too.  It was the beating of the old man’s heart.  It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.  (557).tth

And he goes on:

The old man’s terror must have been extreme!  It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well?  I have told you that I am nervous; so I am.  And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.  (557).

And finally he erupts in a denouement that is both climactic with a hint of a quasi-Twilight-Zone vibe:

No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what f42309dd09935173f096997f6192181bcould I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! –no, no! They heard! –they suspected! –they knew! –they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”  (559).

My contester appears as I finish this quote, curious and rapacious as ever to catch me off guard, and they sing the query eternal asking me: so what?  Everybody reads The Tell-Tale Heart in high school, at least if they’re from America, and everybody always arrives at the same conclusion, the story is about guilt.  Once you’ve figured out the lesson that you can never escape your guilt what good can come from reading or discussing this story?

As always my contester raises a fascinating question, but also, as ever and always, they have missed18poe a great opportunity.  They should also clarify that if you’re from the United States, not America, that you read Poe because technically Ecuador and Chile are in the Americas but that doesn’t mean they automatically receive the same education we do.  I agree that one of the defining interpretations of the short story is the notion of guilt, but when I sat down to begin this essay I wondered at this narrative, because I myself couldn’t find a starting point, or a central idea to wrap my head around.  Desperate I went to Facebook and asked my group of friends if they had any ideas.  My friend TJ suggested a queer reading of the story, given the protagonists confession that he “loved” the old man, and while I like this idea it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to go with this time around.  My other friend Michael, not the Prometheus one, built upon another idea of TJ’s, which is the notion of Poe exploring the sublime.  And here I had a starting point, or, at this point realistically speaking, a central thesis.

Poe’s work inspired most of the Gothic subcultures of horror writing in the United States, if not the world, and writers such as H.P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King have followed this aesthetic writing stories that terrify their readers, but beneath this surface aesthetic lies a profound philosophy.  Most people might not see a philosophy in Poe beneath the black birds, dead bodies, and madness, but in fact the_tell_tale_heart_by_murraycita-d7iuhxithese elements reveal the deeper notion of a reality beyond human comprehension: the sublime.  As a word, sublime has fallen upon hard times, and not just because there’s a shitty band from the 90s named after it.  Sublime is often misinterpreted to mean something beautiful, but in fact sublime as a word is meant to be used to refer to natural events like mountains, tornados, hurricanes, or, if you want to step outside the realm of man, the depths of space and the phenomena that occur in the heavens.  A sublime event or force or feeling is one in which the viewer feels a profound sense of awe that is accompanied by fear.  One can watch a tornado or a nuclear blast and feel afraid of it, but at the same time we are drawn to the incredible power.

In horror there is often a moment in which the protagonist will encounter the sublime, but unlike the natural forces many people would understand the sublime that works in the aesthetic of writers like Poe, Bradbury, Lovecraft, and King, there is an entirely different experience and that is with a force that is apathetic or oblivious to the life of man.  My friend Michael explained this to me, in one of those moments that later become a kind of epiphany, that in fact some critics and readers have now argued that Poe’s work explores a unique philosophy: the world without man.clarke-telltaleheart

This can be a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around because human beings are, by design, a narcissistic species that look at themselves as the center of creation.  The geocentric model of the universe that came to prominence during the Classical period in Greece, and was perpetuated by the Catholic church during middle Ages, certainly demonstrates this because in that model Earth is the center of the known universe.  Plenty of examples could be thrown out here to further demonstrate this idea, but I prefer those that reference Superhero’s.  In the film Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Neil deGrasee Tyson has a small cameo where he’s on news panel discussing Superman and he makes a revealing comment about the human species:

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe. And you go back to Copernicus where he restored the sun in the center of the known universe, displacing Earth, and you get to Darwinian evolution and you find out we’re not special on this earth; we’re just one among other lifeforms. And now we learn that we’re not even special in the entire universe because there is Superman. There he is, an alien among us. We’re not alone.

While this scene is a positive moment in the film, when looking back to Poe’s short story there is in fact an element of horror in it for human beings can’t really perceive a universe in which they play no part.  Some might be able to wrap their head around sucn a universe, but most are unwilling because it would mean they would sever their connections to this reality and world and spin hopelessly into madness.  Which leads me to the fitting conclusion of The Tell-Tale Heart.090427_r18408_p646-816x1200-1460744885

While Poe’s story is just about a madman who is driven to murder because he is paranoid that the Old Man is watching him through his cloudy eye, the beating heart is a sublime supernatural element in a story that is otherwise mundane.  For a moment madness becomes an ability to observe that other world where the supernatural forces and creature’s humans normally don’t perceive, or are unable or unwilling to see.  The beating heart becomes not just the guilt plaguing this ill-man, it becomes the gate to another realm where perhaps that beating is not a heart, but the flap of a beast of the old gods and the ravenous beasts.  His madness opens his mind to that other world, for while reason is a great boon to humanity, it is still limited by humanity, while madness is unfettered and free to explore regions beyond the normal comprehension.

The final cry of the narrator seems to support this idea:style-dark_eye_1440x900

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”  (559).

What is not spoken in the horror of the narrator’s voice is just as important as what is spoken.  The final lines certainly lend great weight and support to the idea that the narrator is plagued with guilt, specifically “the urge to confess,” but I do believe the argument could be made that there’s another element that has largely been unexplored, and that is the idea that the narrator shouts out the confession to prove to the police, but more importantly to himself, that all he is hearing is the beating and nothing else.    The desperation prove to himself that it is the beating of the Old Man’s heart that he hears reveals that the narrator has allowed his mind to enter into territories that reveal a reality where man is no longer the center of creation.  In fact, it is a world that doesn’t even care if he exists.

Madness in The Tell-Tale Heart is more than just a plot device, it’s an opportunity for Poe to suggest that madness might in fact be the conduit to that other world, that other reality, where the beating of a heart may not belong to men at all.  That thought, as the narrator demonstrates, may just be too much to bear.







*Writer’s Note*

I noted in this essay that only teenage fuck-ups enjoy Poe and this may be unfair of me to suggest.  Puberty wasn’t a great time in my life, and habit has led me to distrust the impulse to forgive my former self of selfishness or shallowness.  Being a teenager who felt isolated and misunderstood by his peers I gravitated towards Darkness, mostly to Heavy Metal bands like Slipknot, Rob Zombie, SLAYER, KORN, and Disturbed.  It was fun enjoying digging into the darkness, because it fostered that mental state and protected you from the jerks and assholes you normally had to be around.

If I may shed a protective layer of vanity, Poe inspired me at a young age to, and I shit you not this is real, “invent a new mode of sonnets.”  There was the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet models, but I decided I would create the “Raven” model of sonnets in honor of Poe.  This eventually failed when it became clear I was just writing shitty poems about black birds trying to look cool.

Perhaps the “fuck-up” classification isn’t so damning after all.


**Writer’s Note**

All passages from The Tell-Tale Heart were taken from Poe: Poetry and Tales, published by The Library of America.  However, while researching for this essay I also found a pdf with the entire short story completely free and unabridged.  If you want to read the story in its entirety you can do so by following the link below:




***Writer’s Note***

My thanks to TJ and Michael for their helpful suggestions for this essay.  Thanks guys!


****Writer’s FINAL Note****

The narrator tells the tale of the heart…oh my god I just got that.



A Declaration of Sentiments and Desires Culminating in Fashion, 9/?/2016, 1:07 A.M.


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The other day a friend wrote to me, actually wrote me a letter, and being the kind of person who actually bothers to read the letters from friends I read the following lines, which I believe to be poetry, and wondered at my friend.  At the end I could not tell if he was being indulgent, whiney, or else incredibly profound.  Whatever the case I transcribed the letter and have published it here for all the world to see.

I do hope you enjoy.

–Joshua Jammer Smith


A Declaration of Sentiments and Desires Culminating in Fashion, 9/?/2016, 1:07 A.M.

I would really love to write for the New York Times,

I would love to write for Harpers,

I would love to write for the Times Literary Supplement,

I would love to write for The New Yorker,

I would love to write for Esquire,

I would love to write for Ms.,

I would love to write for The Atlantic,

I would love to write for Playboy,

And I would love to write for The Washington Post.


It would seem that I would love the write for those literary halls where I might secure the bubble reputation of those who craft the belles lettres and all that fashionable thinking prose that seals the legacies of gods.


But such is that and none of that for me.  I will linger in obscurity, and, like Prufrock, wonder at the mermaids who sung songs for other men.  But for my youth,…

Ah, but there is none of that.


I am destiny’s forgotten son.  And I would love to write for you, for you is me, and that’s all that I can ever be.


While I wrote this two lamps were on.  I was wearing my blue tweed blazer with the elbow patches.  I was wearing Batman pajama pants, and a scarf around my neck.

The Comics Classroom Presents BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM


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This is the first publication I have to my credit.  When this essay was written I was still working on my B.A. and the idea that anything I wrote could be published was a bit of a revelation.  I had given a presentation over Arkham Asylum at a school event alongside several other students who had created presentations about Graphic Novels, and a year later, when given the opportunity to write about anything I wanted to, I decided to write down my ideas about Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s beautiful graphic novel.

My friend Michael Greenhale, who regularly writes a post entitled The Comics Classroom for the site Comicsosity, offered to publish it, and it stands as I said before as the first published essay of mine anywhere on the internet.

If you want to read the entire article simply follow the link below



The Comics Classroom Presents BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM

Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth remains in my mind the greatest graphic novel ever written due to its complexity, its classical tradition, the way it helped re-create the character of Batman to ensure his cultural relevance to a new generation, and the flawless execution by both the writer Grant Morrison and the artist Dave McKean.

Recently I was given the opportunity to present my views concerning the graphic novel and in this presentation I explained why I felt this work stands as such a triumph by comparing it to the classical oral traditional structure. I will attempt to condense my ideas here and demonstrate that one of the core themes of the work is the journey, and its role in re-creating Batman for a new age.




If you want to read the entire article simply follow the link below:

The Comics Classroom Presents BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM