Thursday, October 31, 2013

This is Halloween: Running the Dogs

Given that I love Halloween, I want to contribute a bit of spookiness of my own to the mix. Digging deep in the voluminous files of Stately Black Manor, I have blown the dust off an oldie of my own, a little vignette of a couple of raccoon hunters and their hounds. Enjoy.


Running the Dogs

The elk was a silent shadow under the moon, staring at us with a cold malice I would never have thought possible in an animal.  Its eyes were pits of darkness that sucked in the thin silver moonlight, looking in and beyond us, freezing us more thoroughly than the sharp late November air.  The huge bull stood as still as the stars, his evil flowing through the tall fence that bound him, an evil that cowed our dogs and jellied our knees. 
      “He can’t get through that fence,” Frank shivered backward, his old Mossberg twelve-gauge his only comfort, “he can’t get through that fence.” 
      The dogs wrapped around our legs, too frightened to whine.  All except Rounder, the wise blue-tick stalking closer to the elk, hate-filled and stiff-legged, tense as a spring-trap, his growl a distant thunder.  He was a climber, and the fence wouldn’t stop him.  The elk shifted his black gaze to the hound, both animals continuing a war old before man walked the Earth.  The moon stopped; the air grew breathless.
      Somewhere there was a distant shout, a yell like no other, a deep wordless bellow that seemed to speak of dead secrets and frustrated revenge.  Rounder jerked back as if kicked; Frank stumbled back a step with a strangled yelp; the elk turned and melted back into the woods from which he came.  I dropped to one knee, dazed and sick, my Remington dropped beside me, forgotten. 
      We grabbed the dogs, Rounder moaning and fussing, and headed for the truck.  Silence stood between Frank and me, neither of us willing to speak for fear of making what had happened become real.  I glanced back continuously as we drew away from the fence, terror slowly building as I expected at any moment to see pieces of the darkness that was the tree-line pull away and glide across the moonlit field towards us.  We were almost in a full run when we got to the truck, the dogs having torn away from us and already huddled near the tailgate. 
      Frank floored the pick-up away from the field, bouncing crazily down the gravel road, the dogs in their boxes, us in the cab.  Frank struggled to light a cigarette, the rutted road defeating him as I switched on the radio, the classic-rock thump a welcome relief to us both.  We banged along in the truck for what seemed like half the night before either of us spoke.
      “God-damn that was a big elk,” Frank hugged the steering wheel, his cigarette nervous in his fingers.
      “Big ain’t the word for it.”  I looked out the door window of the truck at the dark farmhouses sliding by, the moon keeping pace with us.
      “I mean, I seen them elk out there before, but God-damn...”
      “Who keeps elk anyway?  It’s gotta be expensive to bring ‘em in from out west.”
      “Raises ‘em for meat; elk’s pretty expensive, I hear.  Makes a lotta money, man.”  He shook his head like somebody might when they wake up with a headache.  “It was so big...”
      “It wasn’t that it was all that just looked...I don’t know...”
      “Hateful.  That was just one hateful-assed elk.” 
      A small town was passing us, one of those tiny Ohio towns down around Amish country that seem to loom off the backroads, tired and forlorn since the farmers left so long ago.  The town seemed oddly familiar, looking like the small town near the elk-farm we had just left, yet hastily rearranged and placed along the road to intercept us once again.  A worn out gas station - not one of those all-purpose gas station/grocery store/lottery dealer places, but an honest-to-God gas station, with analog readout pumps, rusted 7-Up sign, and sagging garage - was all that seemed to be open.  Frank pulled in, balled up his empty cigarette pack, and hopped out.
      I looked around us.  “Where are we?”
      Frank shrugged.  “I dunno.  I lost track back around Wellington.  Down on three-oh-one, maybe, south of Homerville?” 
      I shook my head.  “No.  This looks like the place we left back there.”   I jerked my head back down the road towards that place, dreading to look. 
      “You’re crazy.  We been drivin’ twenty minutes.”  He turned and went into the station, snorting.  I walked out towards the road away from the lights, looking out at the moon-blued soybean fields across the way.  The sound of laughter came in on the chill breeze, the strange hysterical laughter of children fighting off sleep, but with a harsh tone to it, an almost angry sound.  There was movement in the soybean field, dark shapes twisting and gyrating, seeming to beckon to me.  I hopped the ditch along the road and headed out to the shadows under the moon.
      I could not tell how many there were.  They seemed to slip and whirl around a still form on the ground, a form that bleated in pain, not animal, not human.  With each yelp the shadows laughed and drew closer to the form, beating it noiselessly with arms or clubs-I couldn’t tell.
      “Hey you kids...” I began to call, the words strongly begun but catching in my throat.  The shadows stopped their brutal dance, twisting to face me, featureless in the dark.  I moved forward, the first step the bravest I’ve ever taken.  With a noise like wind in the treetops the shadow kids raced past me, giggling.  I walked to the form on the ground.
      The form lurched up, leaning drunkenly towards me.  A hand that could not be lit by the moon reached out, grabbing my coat.  A face I could not see drew near mine, cold, cold breath washing over me, words without meaning scraping my ears.  I pulled away, twisting from the rubbery grasp, tripping backwards only to recover just as the form gripped me again.  I pushed at its face, my hand slipping across a burning cold surface.  It gobbled meaningful gibberish in my ear as I punched it, once, twice, again.  It moved away, like smoke on a strong breeze, recovered, moved to me again.  Then I ran.
      The gas station was impossibly far away, glaring across the field like a beaten face.  The truck gleamed by the pumps, the only piece of sanity left in this dark town.  The laughing children swirled around me, a flock of crows after roadkill.  The form behind me was fast, too fast, staggering insanely at my elbow.  I jumped the ditch, pain shooting from my left ankle, a moment on the road, a rush and a roar as I saw the semi hurtling at me, a desperate spurt, the wind of the semi’s passing pulling me after and then down, somewhere in the tempest Rounder baying from his box.  I scrambled up and spun, ready to make a stand.
      There was nothing in the road except the flattened corpse of a rabbit, weeks old.  Beyond was the empty soybean field, the stars twinkling madly.  Suddenly I could feel how ragged my breathing was, how much my ankle hurt, how soaked with sweat I was.  I walked to the truck, fighting to get my trembling under control.  The truck was running, doors flung wide.  The lights of the gas station reached out to it, and to me, luminous fingers groping into the dark.  Frank was nowhere in sight. 
      I walked into the station, looking for an attendant that wasn’t there.  Ancient Valvoline cans and stacks of antique Firestone tires patiently waited within the garage bays.  A greasy, worn Chilton’s manual lay open on a shelf, schematics of a ‘51 Chevy transmission seeming to form some arcane formula in the fluorescent light.  A faint hum of static came from a roughly-handled radio sitting on a work bench. It all seemed fake somehow, like a mock-up of a gas station made by an intelligence familiar with the main items but clueless on the details: woodcarving tools stored in socket set boxes; cans of yeast mixed with cans of motor oil; a pneumatic wrench too strangely shaped to have ever been used.  The place felt alive, a thrumming coming from below that was felt through one’s bones rather than heard.
      “Help you?” I jumped at the sound.  He was an old, old man, his eyes hidden by wrinkles, his bent frame belied by the impression of a hidden tautness, like a dog ready to jump on someone coming through the door.
      “The guy I was with.”  I braced myself, as though waiting for a punch to be thrown.  He slowly turned, thumbing towards the truck.
      “I expect that’s him there.”  The faintest trace of hatred was a ghost in his graveled voice.  “Reckon you boys oughta be off home now.”  He turned back to me, and I saw the glitter of black eyes peer out through the wrinkled brow.  I tried to defy those old eyes, but I could not.  I could only hold them for a moment before I had to look down, down at his twisted and mottled hands that wrung a shop rag with barely hidden violence.
      I walked from the garage, my tongue thick with fear as I passed the old man.  He smelled of rot and freshly turned earth.  Something deep and instinctual urged me to hit him, to force him back to the ground from which he sprang, and then to run; but I resisted, the truck my only focus, the dogs rattling in their boxes, Rounder moaning a primal warning.
      I got into the truck.  Frank was there, his face unreadable as he pulled us back onto the road.  I dreaded to speak, to voice the insanity of the night, for fear even Frank had become part of it.  The more I looked at him the more he became a figure from beyond madness, a hunched insect creature affecting the shape of man, almost hugging the steering wheel to his chest.  He did not look at me, staring at the humming road that rose to meet us in the night.  His cigarette burned evilly, a smoldering anger in its ember.  There was no comfort in the radio, the whispering hiss of static hiding some monologue of cosmic malignity.  We hurtled along the nightroads, the towns of man lost to us now, passing farm buildings that were grotesque humps on the back of the land.  I fought an urge to hit Frank, or what he had become, and jump from the truck. The urge became stronger, unbearable, and I felt like I was confined in a moving prison cell. Then a howl came from somewhere, everywhere, a pure, clean sound of redemption.
      The dogs.  Their calls were a chorus of primal good, led by the strong booming bay of Rounder.  The darkness seemed to lift a bit, the stars melting and reforming, the road blurring and becoming solid again.  The truck snarled and swayed, Frank convulsing in agony.  I shoved next to him, grabbing the wheel, locking the brakes.  He grabbed at me, punching and gouging.   I lit from the truck, with him just behind.  He doubled over, falling to his hands and knees.  I pulled down the tailgate, opening the dog boxes one by one.  The dogs spun and yowled in joy, like they did during the first snowfall.  Only Rounder was subdued, standing dignified and holy over Frank, guarding for and against. 
      I had no doubts now about Frank.  I lifted him from the road, clapping him on the back to assure both of us he was real and whole again.
      “Those cigarettes are gonna kill you.”
      A raspy sigh was his only reply.  We sat on the tailgate, letting the dogs sniff the ditches and fields around us, the star-filled bowl of the night bright above us.  The moon was low and feeble, obscured by a distant stand of trees.  The eyes of the dogs flashed in the starlight.  Frank finally stood, stamping his feet against the cold.  He softly called in the dogs, bundling them into their boxes. 
      “I reckon we ought not to run the dogs out here anymore.”  He clicked the tailgate shut quietly and carefully.  I straightened my hat and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets.  The horn of a diesel locomotive sounded somewhere far off.
      “No. I reckon not.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This is Halloween: Val Lewton's Cat People and Curse of the Cat People

I return now to discuss the final two Val Lewton films I haven’t covered: Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1943). Coincidentally, Cat People is the first of the films he produced on his own.


Cat People

Nautical engineer Oliver and fashion designer Irena meet cute at the zoo in New York’s Central Park. A whirlwind romance later and they’re married. This, despite the fact that Irena believes herself to be descended from devil-worshipping Serbs who fled from King John, and will turn into a great cat when her passion is aroused. Oliver’s patience inevitably begins to fray as the marriage remains unconsummated, and he demands Irena see a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a hypnotist and quite an unethical slimeball. Oliver soon begins to grow closer to his assistant Alice, and Irena becomes increasingly jealous. A cat-like shadow begins to prowl about, sheep end up slaughtered, and Alice begins to feel a constant hostile presence.

Many, if not most, of Lewton’s films are permeated with a dreamy atmosphere that shades over into nightmare gradually and irresistibly. Cat People begins the trend of his films being imbued with shadow, a darkness that looms about pools of light. Sometimes the shadow is merely an emptiness beyond the reach of lights; sometimes it comes alive and invades those luminous islands.

Irena becomes drawn to a black panther at the zoo, fascinated by its sleek menace. Is this cat the one that terrorizes the night, or is it Irena? Lewton always leaves the audience unsure if the threats in his films are natural or supernatural.

He was also a master of creating terror from the unseen; Alice finds herself trapped in her building’s swimming pool – but by what? The room is well-lit and no panther is evident, but the play of shadows and the growling and roaring of a great cat surround Alice, and the viewer…only to be dispelled when help arrives in answer to Alice’s screams. Irena appears, smugly polite…was she the panther? Was there a panther at all? Were the sounds Alice heard real, or her imagination? It’s impossible to really know, and that’s what’s unsettling about Lewton’s films.

Much of this film, much of Lewton’s entire oeuvre, deals with belief and the power of the mind to warp our perception and create fear from nothing. The mind can be manipulated, either intentionally, as with the psychiatrist, or unintentionally, as Oliver and Alice begin to feed off Irena’s own belief in her supposed curse, beginning to believe it also. By extension, there is a meta portion of this equation, too, as Lewton’s films also manipulate the minds of the audience, creating fear from what is perceived yet not actually seen. These things would end up becoming foundation stones for future horror films and television shows, becoming second-nature to us in this culture.

This film would also see the advent of the Lewton Bus

which by now is so clich√© as to have inspired many familiar versions of it. If you aren’t familiar with “it’s just a cat!,” one permutation of the Lewton Bus, then welcome to Earth and take a gander:

See? You've seen it a million times.

Curse of the Cat People

Lewton's idea of a sequel is a strange one, indeed. Oliver, Alice, and Irena return, but there the resemblance to the first film ends. 

Several years have passed since the events of Cat People. Oliver and Alice are married and living in a small town, with six-year-old daughter Amy. Amy is an introverted, daydreaming child, shy and retiring, unable and, apparently, unwilling to make friends. Her parents fret about her living such a solitary life, and her schoolwork suffers. Eventually the girl acquires an imaginary friend, one that looks exactly like her father's first wife, Irena. When she identifies her friend as the woman in a photo with her father, Oliver becomes alarmed and increasingly determined to force Amy to do away with her delusions.

This is a strange movie. It is unlike any of Lewton's other films, determinedly staying with the child's point of view. Again, the mind becomes the source of tension in Lewton's hands. Is she imagining her friend? That seems the obvious conclusion, but then...reality is always fluid in Lewton's universe. There is a "haunted" house, a "magic" ring, a "fairy princess" (for lack of a better term), a strange old woman and her bitter daughter (or is she?), a killer blizzard, and the border between sanity and insanity constantly shifting for a number of characters.

This is about as close to a David Lynch film as Lewton made. The plot here is almost completely irrelevant, simply there to set up a series of strange encounters between Amy and her imaginary friend, obnoxious neighborhood children, weird neighbors, and her parents. Oliver, Amy's father, played with all the charisma of a store mannequin by Kent Smith, is about as close to a villain as the film gets until near the very end. The story, such as it is, has the air of inevitability to it, of fate and destiny, and while it pays off at the end (I guess?), it's still tough to describe without it sounding like nonsense. The ever-present shadows of Lewton films are less pronounced here, but the murk remains in a subdued way, found in the sorrows of childhood.

Both films are now classics, Cat People in particular, but I feel Lewton would really hit his stride in other films. Regardless, both films make for unsettling viewing, bringing the viewer into a dark dimension.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A New Start on an Old Road

“Anybody who’d prefer to think I’m hallucinating is welcome to work along that line, but don’t tell me about it; I’m not interested.” – “Through All Your Houses Wandering,” by Ted Reynolds


I called this blog Dark Dimension because it was always meant to cover almost any topic that is generally thought of as associated with the night; not “dark” in a sinister sense, necessarily, but “dark” as in the things we discuss quietly at night with friends. The Dark Dimension is also the depths of our own psyche, our subconscious, the things that inflict those “dark nights of the soul” upon us, when mortality preys upon the mind at 3 AM and marches in from the corners, a looming, surrounding shadow in an already darkened room. But it is also secret hopes, dreams we hold within that shine like lights in a distant window, helping to guide us home. These things and more, the things kept hidden away, make up the Dark Dimension. The occult is the very definition of this.

I admit that I hesitated to even approach this topic, or, more accurately, this spectrum of topics. I’m not one to broadcast to the world my spiritual beliefs. It’s too personal a topic, too easily exploited as a source of ridicule. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to avoid looking like a fool, too concerned with what others might think. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to see that isn’t the way to live. Even now, though, writing this, I still feel a bit like Linus at Halloween:

I've been struggling with the direction of Dark Dimension for a while, and finally decided to just open up and write about whatever compels me. It comes as a result of a restless search for...something...personal truth I suppose you could call it. In years past, when this urge, this compulsion, was upon me, I’d turn to books. I still do, but the internet now is a vast resource for any such contemplation. The thoughts and opinions of much of the world can now be easily heard and ruminated upon, with like minds finding one another across vast distances without the necessity of a gatekeeper. It's a fragmentation in one respect, but the beginning of a wider spectrum of beliefs to choose from in another. As my pal Bryan McMillan over at Dog Star Omnibus put it:

I think there's a lot to what you say about the internet tearing off the lid on so many topics/ avenues of research. It's a crude (though not so crude) version of global telepathy/ global dreaming.”

Yes, exactly – global dreaming and a de facto telepathy. Now our thoughts and dreams can instantly wing across the electronic firmament, finding and touching others, inspiring and being inspired in turn. This is where our society, our species, begins to show its true strength and potential: the individual is allowed to share wisdom to the vast whole at once. It is no longer a gradual, generational dissemination, but a weekly one, a daily one, an hourly one.


The Rise of the Kitchen Witch

First, I know what a kitchen witch is. It was the first term that leaped to mind when the concept occurred to me, and I’m sticking with it. It isn’t meant to belittle those of whom I write; it is meant to evoke the same basic idea writ large: a warm, benevolent, protective presence that is welcomed into one’s home.

Delving into YouTube looking for insight, after a while I began to gravitate towards the astrologers. I’d always had an interest in the subject, and had read about it a good bit, but never to any great extent – the books I most remember from early on were annual overviews for each sign and Linda Goodman’s sweetly loopy Love Signs, all of which were stocked, oddly enough, on the same racks as the comic books at the Open Pantry convenience store at the end of the street. Here, though, was an opportunity to get more depth from the subject, and a human touch, as it could be assumed that those willing to stake a claim on a bit of YouTube real estate for such a purpose would not do so too lightly. After all, it takes a certain courage to put oneself out there for the world to see, but to do so while also espousing a belief system that too often takes knocks from those overly concerned with societal norms? That takes real guts and commitment.

Let me address something here: our society is quick to scorn and dismiss those things traditionally thought of as “feminine” in nature – music, art, the sharing of feelings, the occult. Since these things cannot be quantified or experimented upon or reproduced reliably in a laboratory setting, they cannot be worthwhile – or so the established culture says. Yet we seem to forget we are not at the apex of human knowledge or achievement, that there are discoveries left to make that might reveal energy sources or influences completely unknown today. Imagine trying to explain, or even conceive of, radio waves in the 10th century. Now imagine that we will seem as benighted as those denizens of the 10th century in a millennium. So the prejudices against that which cannot be quantified with today’s scientific knowledge have much to do with cultural myopia rather than actual, objective, measurable proof of non-existence. The internet has allowed these societal barriers to be, if not broken down, at least circumvented. The balance between the masculine and the feminine is thus allowed a way to begin to right itself, to finally, and more than a bit ironically, take the emphasis off just the one side of the equation, the strictly rational, hard science side, by way of technology.

I want to be clear about something. I’m the first to insist on the use of Occam’s Razor and the scientific method when extraordinary claims are made. In this, though, I will freely admit that I can offer no empirical evidence, no data, to bolster what I believe and give it the force of fact. Every example I would give as to why I put stock into anything I discuss here could be explained away by someone else as coincidence or me trying to make the facts fit my theory, or rationalizing how something can be interpreted. I get all that. Hell, I’ve done it myself when hearing similar assertions. All I can say now is that my gut tells me this is the way it is. I’ve seen too many sincere folk assert what they believe and why, and have personally witnessed enough manifestations of astrological principles to deny it to myself. And if that’s not good enough for you, well, as the Dude would say:

So who are the kitchen witches (remember them)? They are astrologers and tarot readers, mostly – but not all – women (in my experience, at least), many of whom seem to be recording their videos at home, judging by the fussy babies and barking dogs and howling computer fans and traffic and generally homey surroundings most of them have. They dispense insight and advice, both in their videos and in the comments sections of those videos (another brave move, given the noxious nature of many YouTube comments sections). The common denominator among them is that they’re real people, not the polished media professionals we’re accustomed to from mainstream media.

After viewing a spectrum of such people, one in particular came to exemplify to me the kitchen witch, the oracle-next-door: Larisa Ozolins. 

With Larisa, there is a rough smoothness, an unpretentious but confident delivery; there is a twinkle in her eye when she says something she finds silly, a laugh when she loses her train of thought, and a general feeling that she, too, is searching for answers, not just dispensing them, and looking for truth in what she does. There is a sincerity to her that has to be real; if she did not believe in what she professes, the medium would make it obvious. YouTube videos are too transparent a window for insincerity to last long. And that is the strength of YouTube videos, what sets them apart from traditional media: more than ever before, media approaches being a true conduit from content creator to viewer and back again, allowing a dialogue not possible before. Plus, in the end, as far as I’m concerned, Larisa has established a track record of being right-on-the-money about the trends and influences derived from astrology, and insightful as to how to apply the knowledge gained thusly. She is the quintessence of what I’ve come to think of as the kitchen witch.


Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

Also as far I’m concerned, none of this conflicts with my rock-solid faith in science. I’ve followed as the Grand Unified Theory has been pursued, grasping at understanding yet still enthralled. I’ve listened repeatedly to the audio of the Huygens lander as it descended through Titan’s atmosphere. The La Brea Tar Pits were the attractions I wanted to visit when I first went to Los Angeles, the grand parade of evolution having always had a grip upon my imagination. I remember watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a teen, rapt with attention as he opened up the vast and wondrous universe to me. Later, his words about the Pale Blue Dot would once again remind me of just how awesome – in the true sense of an overused word – the universe is, and how ephemeral we are as we try to understand it.

I also understand the irony of rhapsodizing about Sagan in the same piece of writing where I discuss my belief in astrology. The inherent tensions between conflicting beliefs helps me more closely examine those beliefs.

So there you have it. Here in the midst of the Halloween season – my favorite holiday – with the veil between the worlds thinning and blustery days losing ground to sharp-starred nights, I find this the perfect time to let go of old fears, to dispel boundaries that I see to be illusory. Life is fleeting, and to spend those moments we have here not being true to ourselves, and not working towards that truth, seems a tragedy to me. However you want to define it, what magic there is in this world is brought into being by us, all of us, but only by trying. So why not try?