A Collection of Caliginous Choppings

Posts tagged “horror fiction

Unbelief by Michael Marshall Smith

The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013

For the ninth Slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, Santa’s assassin, crazy dancing eyebrows, Santa vs. Zombies, the anti-Santa Nackles, BILL GOLDBERG!, four creepy songs, Tales from the Crypt, Santa’s demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!

 

 

Welcome back to the list espouse all of the ho ho horror this holiday season. Today’s pick sees a return to the realm of audio fiction as the latest episode of Drabblecast contains a short story featuring Santa Claus squaring off against a hitman. In Michael Marshall Smith‘s Unbelief the naughtiest of acts is commissioned for a professional assassin. This self-proclaimed family man killer has been hired by a syndicate to off Jolly Old Saint Nick, but outside of the money, he says that it is personal. What is the horror he holds from his childhood that makes him despise Santa so? In a surprisingly tense story, this cold-hearted man struggles with what he claims to be the arbitrary moral codes upheld by the mythical Kris Kringle. In this story, he faces up to the true meaning of Christmas, and how his profession has left him cold and dead inside.

This is an excellent piece and quite a dark departure from the cheesy stuff elsewhere exhibited in this list. Drabblecast is a podcast that delivers strange stories, by strange authors, for strange listeners. If you’ve enjoyed the rest of the stuff in my list of X-mas Slays, then you’re sure to enjoy Drabblecast. Check out the latest episode by clicking HERE.

 

 

In addition to Michael Marshall Smith’s story, the host of Drabblecast, Norm Sherman, chats about the 13 trolls of Christmas, the Yule Lads of Icelandic lore. The Yule Lads are riffs of the traditional Santa Claus, but with much weirder names, such as Meat-Hook, Spoon-Licker, and Window Peeper. These guys don’t have the same demonic bent as Krampus, but they are definitely strange, as if you are a naughty child, then you’ll be left a rotten potato as a gift. In the Drabblecast, Mr. Sherman sings a familiar holiday tune with updated Yule Lad lyrics. It’s hilarious! So, if you’ll looking for a piece of darkness that is both grim and gelastic, check out the Drabblecast.

Until tomorrow, look out for rotten potatoes in your stockings!

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Nackles by Donald Westlake

The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013

 

For the sixth slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, the anti-Santa Nackles, BILL GOLDBERG!, four creepy songs, Tales from the Crypt, enslaved demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!

 

 

Today we are getting literary again with another short story based on a Santa-like construct that punishes the naughty. Nackles is the anti-Santa Claus, and he originates in Donald Westlake’s (writing under the pseudonym Curt Clark) story “Nackles” published in 1964. The evil Santa in this story is a bit different than what we’ve encountered before. While Krampus is a black-hearted demon enslaved by the righteous and more powerful Saint Nick, Nackles is an entity of equal power driven by an opposite motive. Also, whereas Goldberg plays his Santa-as-really-a-demon to comedic effect, Nackles is much more cerebral and mysterious.

 

Nackles is the evil alternative of Santa being not just an angelic being, but a godly one. This is a story that questions what Christmas has become in our modern society, with Santa as “a god of giving, of merchandising, and of consumption.” It also explores where the tenacious ideas of god and religion come from in the very first line: “Did God create men, or does Man create gods?

 

Nackles may be a more modern antithesis to Santa Claus than Krampus, but he is no less outwardly grotesque. He is “very very tall and very very thin. Dressed all in black, with a gaunt gray face and deep black eyes. He travels through an intricate series of tunnels under the earth, in a black chariot on rails, pulled by an octet of dead-white goats.” From this description, Nackles seems almost to be a holiday version of Slenderman!

 

flickr / Chris Isherwood
He sees you when you’re sleeping . . .

 

The story of Nackles was at one time being developed by George R. R. Martin and Harlan Ellison as a holiday episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition. Nackles is the perfect entity to exist in the Twilight Zone, as he is a fantastical creation brought to life (?) by the power of imagination. Millions of people believe that Santa Claus is real, and those of us enlightened folks (adults) go along with the whole schtick too. So, if we give lip service to a Santa, why not a Nackles?

 

You can read Donald Westlake’s “Nackles” in its entirety by clicking here.

You can read more about the Nackles Twilight Zone debacle by clicking here.

I’ll be back with another Slay of Christmas real soon. Until then, don’t be naughty!


St. Nicholas’ Helper by D.K. Thompson

The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013

For the second slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, Santa’s Demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!

Meet Kramus!

“I’ll feast on the flesh of children tonight until the snow is stained red with their blood.”

— D.K. Thompson

 

Welcome back to the list that keeps on giving, Pieces of Darkness’s Twelve Slays of Christmas! Yesterday I explored a film all about the balancing the gift giving for good children with the punishment of the naughty ones with Silent Night, Deadly Night. Today I’m taking a stab at Santa’s own personal enslaved demon Krampus.

 

If you know nothing about this wooden faced, cloven hoofed, hairy beast, then allow me to enlighten you, with a little help from Wikipedia:

Krampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish children during the Yule season who had misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair.

What the opening paragraph fails to mention, is that soon after being hauled away to Krampus’s lair, these children would be dismembered and eaten by the demon. That makes getting coal in your stocking a pretty enticing gift afterall doesn’t it? Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and a Demon Claus too!

Krampus has his origins in pre-Christian pagan times, but eventually made his way into the Christmas traditions of central Europe. He suffered a bit of anti-propaganda from the Austrian government in the 1950s, but today seems to be rising in popularity and has been embraced by as a darker part of the Christmas tradition. There are even bachannalian Krampus Runs where participants dress up like this horned beast, get drunk, and trounce through the snow. (The consumption of child flesh is presumably kept to a minimum.)

 

Or, you could consume delicious chocolatey Krampus. Turn about is fair play demon!

 

Traditionally, Krampus stalked after children on December 6th, as that is The Feast of St. Nicholas, and the one day each year that Santa Claus releases Kramups from his chains. This is the case in D.K. Thompson’s short story St. Nicholas’ Helper. In it, two young girls have disobeyed their mother, and gone out on the Demon Night after their lost cat. Predictably, they are captured by Krampus, shoved into his great child-holding sack, and taken back to his lair.

“Don’t be scared, you’ve been good right?’

“I tried . . . but how good did I need to be?”

What is unexpected is the gory detail that the author uses to describe their fate, and the superb way it digs into your mind conveyed through the medium of audio fiction. Suffice it to say, the fate of the children is grim, especially when considering that all of the barrels stocked in Krampus’s lair are filled with his previous captures — “curing, so their flesh could be sold off as ham.” Also, we get more than a mere glimpse of Krampus, we get to smell him — “wet putrid fur, like an old forgotten carcass picked at by scavenging rats.” And we can almost hear the wet smack of organs tearing free as “Krampus pulled something long and twisted, like crimson serpents . . . and put them in an open barrel.”

The story comes down to a battle between a older, lither, Saint Nick, and his contemptuous demon, but I won’t spoil the outcome for you here. Listen for yourself, but bundle up, as it’s one to chill the blood.

St. Nicholas’ Helper by D.K. Thompson was ‘published’ in Pseudopod — one of the best horror fiction podcasts out there — in December of 2011. It was read by Marie Brennan. Check it out by clicking here! Also, be sure to check back tomorrow for the third slay of Christmas!


How “The Tell-Tale Heart” Ticks

Edgar_Allan_Poe

Although the graphic sights and sounds of the horror movies glisten more vibrantly than the written word, the Halloween season is a great time to revisit horror fiction. One of my perennial favorites to read this time of the year is Edgar Allan Poe, whom no genre fan is a stranger towards. Poe was not just a superb storyteller in the realm of horror, but his work stands as that of a master craftsman in the (relatively new for his time) art of the short story. Just as movies have tighter narratives and less lag than a serialized, weekly TV programs (see The Walking Dead’s second season), so too is a short story is able to vividly portray a terrorific jolt while remaining in the confines of a few pages. This shorter form constricts the writer to a more economical with his words than a novelist. But, while it meant that Poe’s stories would be stripped any superfluous language, the essential details would remain clear and a singular chilling moment would be distilled to haunt the reader’s imagination.

A perfect example Poe’s craftsmanship and economy of language is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which at a mere 2000 thousand odd words, is short and to the point. Now, while the tale’s brevity may make it more appealing to modern readers, what makes this an effective horror story that has stood the test of time is Poe’s pacing and use of repetition in his writing. Although some of Poe’s other stories, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” would also feature murderous narrators retelling their evil deeds, it is my opinion that “The Tell-Tale Heart” establishes this maniacal fiend not only the best in Poe’s body of work, but probably in the entire canon of dark fiction.

Before diving into what makes “The Tell-Tale Heart” tick, have a look at the story’s opening paragraph:

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 –not 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.

Again, the two key elements that make this story so effective — pacing and repetition — are both present from the opening lines. From the onset — from the very first word — the pacing is quick. This narrator’s mind and heart is racing, and the reader speeds along with him, not only because of the words that Poe chooses — “nervous/dreadfully/disease/sharpened” — but also because of the internal rhythm of the sentences he constructs. Each word is a short explosion — a hammering — punctuated only by the next. This is not some Lovecraftian lugubrious and slowly unfolding story, this is Edgar Allan Poe at his most frenetic and fanatical. Consider how the exclamation point after the first word bursts forth from the page. Consider how the next word — nervous — is not recited simply as a matter of fact, but as a condition of being. No one calmly says that they feel nervous, no, this word bounces off the page as an actor, or a murder would actually speak it. There is a stuttering in this text, but it further serves to quicken the pace. Read the next word — very — and there is a comma afterwards telling you to stop, to slow down, but that is all too much as you are already sucked in. The words move more quickly now, pausing only momentarily at the semicolon, and then racing off to the question mark, where, despite the narrator’s pleas to be considered mentally sound, the reader has likely already reached the sobering realization that he is unreliable, if not altogether off his rocker. The second sentence continues this frantic pace, all while reaffirming to the reader that this man, claiming to have been imbued with superhuman hearing following an act of murder, is certifiably insane.

It isn’t just punctuation or word order that contributes to the quickened pace, but also the very words themselves. All of them are short. In this opening paragraph there is not a single word longer than three syllables. Neither the narrator’s, nor the reader’s heart is at rest, and neither can simply plod through the text. These are hearts under stress, and although the shorter syllabic structure makes the reading more rhythmic, it also serves to speed things up. The narrator’s palpitations are palpable to the reader because of Poe’s control over the pacing of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Naturally, Poe pulls back as he eases into the rest of the story, but it is interesting to note how he starts this tale with the same heart-pounding pace as the horrific reveal at the finish.

As with pacing, repetition is something that Poe could could use very, very effectively — see “The Raven,” and especially, “The Bells.” In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the first sentence contains repetition of the words ‘very’ and ‘nervous.’ Our dear narrator isn’t just nervous — he isn’t even just very nervous — he is nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous. Poe’s repetition isn’t confined to just repeating words, as starting from the second line Poe uses a repeating sentence construction: not destroyed –not dulled and continues on with repetitious sentences: I heard all things … I heard many things. What does this repetition serve? It ties the reader closer to the subject matter as we are compelled to feel as the narrator feels. We are hearing the same thing, in our head, over and over again, just as the narrator is hearing, over and over again, incessantly, maddeningly, that beating of the dead man’s heart.

Poe’s language heightens the reader’s sense of awareness as one falls in line with the narrator’s speech pattern. This is deliberate, to make your heart speed up and to make you short of breath with the heavy H sounds in the last few lines of the opening. Speak them out loud yourself. These are heavy, breathy sounds — hearken, how healthily, whole story — and they serve to slow the pace as the narrator, and you the reader catch your breath from the fantastic opening of the story.

And what a story it is! “The Tell-Tale Heart” is as archetypal and influential as any other in the genre of horror. This horrific Halloween holiday season, I would urge you to get back the roots of horror and rediscover one of the monumental pillars of the genre (and all of fiction). Go and pull your Poe off of your bookshelf (any self-respecting horror fan ought to own a tome!) and revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Or you can read a copy of it online here.

Finally, check out this wonderful animated version of the story narrated by James Mason. His rendition of the madman is strikingly similar to the one in my head! Be warned though, that even though it is excellently rendered and recited, this story is slightly abridged from Poe’s original masterpiece.

Odilon_Redon_-_The_Tell-Tale_Heart_-_1883