The discussion with my side-splitting hosts covered wrestling, writing, rock-n-roll, dueling holidays horror movies, superheroes, siblings and a whole slew of other topics. Be warned: it’s a loud, surreal and frequently funny ramble. Thanks to Regan Arevalos, Larry Garza and Jess Castro for a great time, some strange questions and many much-needed laughs.
Last month, my wife and I went as Poe characters to a Halloween party — she as the Raven and myself as Fortunato, the poor sap who gets bricked up in the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Before the big night, I reread the source material to make sure I hadn’t omitted anything from the costume. After all, it’d been a couple decades since I’d last taken a look at “Cask.”
Turns out, I should reread Poe more often. While I vividly remembered the story’s creepy atmosphere and swelling sense of dread, I didn’t recall “The Cask of Amontillado” having such sharp dialogue.
As writers, we sometimes fall into the trap of writing dialogue that’s too transparent, too truthful to the characters’ real motives. For one, it’s tricky to capture the subtle obfuscation we engage in during everyday conversation. Also, we tend to underestimate readers and assume they’ll take untruthful dialogue at face value.
In “Cask,” neither of Poe’s characters speaks the truth. They verbally mislead each other (or at least attempt to) from the opening to the point when Fortunato’s fate is literally sealed. And it works because Poe, master that he is, gives us cues to guess what lurks beneath the characters’ lies, boasts and half truths.
It’s a lesson any writer could learn from.
The nobleman Fortunato presents himself as an expert in wines and spirits, yet Poe provides us enough hints to show he’s simply a blowhard. Early on, for example, he derides another purported connoisseur for being unable to “distinguish Sherry from Amontillado.” Amontillado is, in fact, a type of Sherry.
Montresor, the revenge-minded rival who bricks up Fortunato, guides his victim to doom by appealing to his ego and falsely extolling his expertise. Even though Fortunato should pick up on countless hints something ghastly lies in store, he can’t resist the lure of Montresor’s flattery.
When Fortunato raises a toast, Montresor’s response drips with both irony and menace. It’s clear his response, like so much of the story’s best dialogue, has a dreadful double meaning.
“Thank you, my friend. I drink to the dead who lie sleeping around us.”
“And I, Fortunato — I drink to your long life.”
Bravo, Mr. Poe! I raise my Fortunato cocktail to the long life of your work.
This installment’s “Cask”-inspired mixed drink is a twist on the Teenage Riot, originally devised by New York bartender Tonia Guffey. In honor of poor Fortunato, I increased the amount of Amontillado and substituted the bitter and citrusy Italian aperitif Campari for the original’s Cynar, another Italian liqueur.
While the Riot’s Cynar imparts a nice herbaceous quality, the Campari used here plays against the Amontillado’s raisiny sweetness with bitter orange-peel notes. (Isn’t revenge supposed to be bittersweet?) The sherry and Campari, combined with the rye, create the sensation of scarfing down a really boozy slice of fruitcake.
1 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey
1 1/4 oz Campari
3/4 oz Lustau Dry Amontillado Sherry
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a slice of orange rind.
The less you know about the recent film Spring before watching it, the better.
The 2015 low-budget thriller presents us with dark and appealing story mashup — part love story, part horror, part science fiction – about the ultimate unattainable woman. It starts out as a well-crafted romance between a traveling American and the mysterious Italian beauty he encounters on the Adriatic. Soon after, it whisks us into alleys of mystery as old and foreboding as those in the medieval town where the pair meet.
The American, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), heads to Italy after problems mount at home and quickly finds himself smitten by Louise (Nadia Hilker), whose charms aren’t just physical. She’s brilliant and worldly — and has a habit of disappearing on him, which only adds to her allure. Louise also places a lot of odd rules on their relationship. The crisply written, often funny, dialogue keeps us interested, even if romance isn’t the reason we’re watching. It makes the relationship seem real and resonant.
Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (whose only other film was the super low-budget horror tale Resolution) help build the suspense with stretches of eerie silence and beautifully framed shots of predatory insects and decay in the ancient seaside town. The effect is dreamlike, and it makes us increasingly certain Evan’s dream of romance will end up a nightmare.
In other words, see it with a date.
And while you’re watching, why not sip on the cocktail it inspired, the Spring Boulevardier? The Boulevardier is a classic cocktail that serves up a perfect romance between distinctly American and distinctly Italian ingredients. It fuses the bold complexity of bourbon with the enigmatic bitterness of Campari.
In this version, I add a couple dashes of orange bitters to help the orange flavor really pop, as it’s a nice foil to the Campari’s bitterness.
All art is political.
Whether or not the artist intends it to be taken that way is a moot point. Others will assign politics to the work, even if the creator doesn’t. Witness, for example, the fascinating documentary Room 237, in which Stanley Kubrick obsessives assign subtext and symbolism to The Shining the director likely never intended.
As a horror author, I wince when people characterize the genre as being inherently conservative (a notion also frequently applied to fantasy). Horror stories, some critics argue, are essentially about stopping forces from changing the status quo — putting the genie back in the bottle, so to speak. What’s more, the genre also has a long and unfortunate tradition of making the other a source of fear.
Author Paul Tremblay clearly struggles with the same unease about that categorization. His recent essay in Nightmare Magazine, “The H Word: The Politics of Horror,” presents an eloquent argument that horror, if well-executed, deserves a progressive interpretation rather than a conservative one.
While horror protagonists’ objectives are almost always to bring a return of the status quo, Tremblay points out that horror’s quest to make us uncomfortable necessitates that characters and readers confront truths that will permanently change them. This shift in outlook dispels the very conservative fallacy that things were different in the “good old days.”
“Not only are (the good old days) gone and never coming back, they never existed in the first place,” Tremblay writes. “That’s the horror of existence. Change happens whether you want it to or not.”
By way of example, he points to Alien, the haunted-house-in-space installment of that film franchise. The movie ends with Ripley floating alone in a vast and uncaring cosmos, lucky to have escaped with her life. By contrast, in Aliens, more of an action flick than its predecessor, Ripley settles into hibernation with her surrogate family of Newt and Hicks, telling the girl they’re safe to dream again.
I maintain that perspective-altering aspect of horror is what appealed to the creators of the ’70s and ’80s who unleashed an innovative and bloody wave of fiction and film that commented on the Vietnam War, racism, urban isolation, AIDS and the military-industrial complex from a left-of-center perspective.
In his documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, Mick Garris points out that George Romero, David Cronenberg, Clive Barker and Stephen King all aim to turn an oppressive status quo on its head. “It’s the people who repress them who are the ones you have to look out for,” Garris argues.
Indeed, the conservative politics of division and discrimination can be an effective tool for creating and sustaining the isolation needed to make a horror story work. Consider the racism in Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and the fear of the gay title character in Lee Thomas’ The German. Only after the protagonists in both books are able to overcome their fear of the other are they able to effectively fight off a larger evil.
Is this to say horror always has a progressive bent? Certainly not. Slasher films and some other horror subgenres are conservative as the “700 Club.” In these works, teens who explore sexuality are punished in gruesome ways and only characters’ faith in a Christian higher power can rout supernatural evil.
To my mind, horror is neither inherently progressive or conservative. The genre’s themes and variations, the intent of its creators and the perspectives of its observers are simply too broad for that to be the case.
But Tremblay is fundamentally correct: the progressive notion is frequently what makes a horror story stick with us. The best such work terrifies us because it alters our outlook on the way the universe works and shows us change — whether or not we’re ready to face it — is inevitable.