Tag Archives: Horror

Book Review: The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft



After falling in love with Lovecraft following my experience with The Case of Charles Dexter WardI picked up The Dreams in the Witch House for a refreshing visit into the more fantastical side of the horror master’s oeuvre, along with S.T. Joshi’s invaluable notes accompanying each text.

As Joshi reminds in his introduction, Lovecraft has both been criticized and (as usual for him) remained grossly critical of his own work in writing “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?” The Dreams in the Witch-House collection mostly focuses on the latter style of the author’s works. This Penguin collection—one of three companion pieces by Penguin Classics including The Things at the Doorstep and The Call of the Cthulu—focuses on the more fantastical “Dream-Cycle” of the author’s work that exemplifies the strong influence of Lord Dunsany upon his artistic prowess as expressed by the author himself.

Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s writing remains as inimitable and impressive as ever—arguably the finest horror author to grace English literature with a command of language unparalleled in the genre. Moreover, Lovecraft often demonstrates in these pieces, more so than in his more celebrated works, the unbelievable level of creativity and invention made possible through a combination of his own distinct mythos and his precocious absorption of literature across the genres. Lastly, as found through the best of all his horror tales, Lovecraft imbues an unprecedented control of tone and language to make palpable a feeling of dread and verisimilitude that turn all his best pieces into unbelievably transportive pieces of literature.


A short, poetic tale that many have critics have noted as being a large autobiographical piece for Lovecraft as an allegory of his experiences during WW1. Specifically, the fact that Lovecraft was sidelined from major combat (as with the protagonist in the fictional realm of Lamar), due to his own personal neuroses. Despite not having read Dunsany until a bit later, the piece rings with numerous echoes of the Dunsany aesthetic (along with Poe, who influenced both authors) that contributed to his later attitudes expressed above.

The short tale is also notable for being the first to mention Lovecraft’s Pnakotic manuscripts. Additionally, the prose itself imbues a beautiful dream-like and poetic quality (having been based on an actual dream—like many of his stories) that offers a quick, interesting gateway to the aesthetic of the “Dream Cycle” collection.

The Doom That Came To Sarnath

As Joshi notes in his footnotes, “one of the earliest tales written under the influence of Lord Dunsany, whom HPL had seen lecture in Boston in October”. Like “Polaris”, the tale exhibits a more poetic and fantastical version of Lovecraft’s imagination that also mixes aspects of horror. The city of Ib and the stone idol of their god are the central tenets of this similarly short tale that should be more noteworthy for its ability to convey mood, atmosphere, and Dunsanian fantasy that offers an short, enjoyable read filtered with hints to the power of Lovecraft’s writing in the Dream Cycles to come within the collection.

The Terrible Old Man

Most interesting for standing as one of the few Lovecraft tales to include an element of crime as the catalyst for the horror, the tale concerns the horrific consequences upon three young men determined to rob the eponymous old man of the title for his reported wealth. Interestingly, as Joshi notes “The three thieves…represent the three major non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups in Rhode Island”. Furthermore, the story stands as the first introduction to Lovecraft’s mythical town of Kingsport (a fictional stand-in for Marblehead, Massachusetts). Again, one of the shorter of Lovecraft tales that offers a very cursory glance into the fantastical side of Lovecraft’s imagination to provocative results.

The Tree

Perhaps most interesting for fans of Machen’s masterpiece “The Great God Pan”, “The Tree” is a short Lovecraft tale set in Ancient Greece concerning the fate of two famous sculptors—Kalos and Musides—and the eponymous tree of the title. Set upon a mountain in Greece and perhaps influenced by the Machen tale mentioned above, another very short fantasy tale by the author that is also notable for its Grecian setting which had long fascinated Lovecraft since early childhood.

The Cats of Ulthar

A humorous, memorable, and truly weird fantasy tale from the master concerning the formation of a law forbidding the killing of cats within the fantastical city of Ulthar. As an enormous (and famously well-known) cat lover himself, the short tale serves as one of his most well-known and acclaimed in the style of Dunsany (specifically, with echoes of Dunsany’s The Idles Days of Yarn). Moreover, it’s certainly one of the most accessible of Lovecraft’s fantasy tales for early initiates.

From Beyond

Easily one of the weakest tales in the collection, the short story concerns an unnamed narrator’s account of his experiences with scientist Crawford Tillinghast, who has invented a machine capable of stimulating the pineal gland to allow experience into alternate planes of reality. Though Lovecraft’s command of mood remains as powerful as ever, and what ultimately keeps the reader from putting the book down, the overall point and conclusion of the story remains muddled and indecisive of what it ultimately hopes to express. Somewhat reminiscent of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” or “Hypnos” though both tales are far, far superior.

The Nameless City

Another tale inspired by a dream from the author, “The Nameless City” remains one the best in the collection, an underrated story in its own right, and a fascinating precursor to the type of narrative to used to more profound effect in “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time”. The nameless city of the title refers to an abandoned setting somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, and Lovecraft peppers in an array of foreboding architectural details that will delight readers familiar with “Mountains of Madness”. Specifically, the fact that the very low-ceilings dominate the interior of the abandoned edifices and the use of bas-reliefs/hieroglyphs found in subterranean passages that offer a detailed history of the beings of this supposedly vacant, nameless city. These beings are revealed to be a monstrous reptile race described as something of a mix between a lizard, crocodile, and seal. Furthermore, the feeling of dread that the author subtly weaves and escalates until the final few pages imbues that same sense of gripping terror and wonder to be found in those other, more famous of his stories mentioned above. “The Nameless City” also contains the first mention of Lovecraft’s mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who would later be mentioned in nearly every story of his pertaining to the Cthulu Mythos.

The Moon-Bog

As Joshi notes, easily one of the most conventional of his supernatural tales. The brief story was written for a group of amateur writers all contributing a St. Patrick’s Day themed story. The tale concerns the fate of the narrator’s friend who returns to Ireland to reclaim his estate within a fictional Irish town that borders a dreaded bog from which the locals have warned of superstitious doom. The final passage contains some eldritch imagery worth seeking out from what is otherwise a forgettable entry.

 The Other Gods

With connections both to “The Cats of Ulthar” and to much greater extent in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, “The Other Gods” serves as another Dunsanian fantasy that concerns the fate of two travelers intending to scale the mountain of the gods to glimpse their faces. A fantastic meld of the best of Lovecraft’s fantasy, Dunsanian hubris, and hints of greater cosmic horror—“The Other Gods” stands as perhaps the best Lovecraft fantasy outside “Dream-Quest” and “The Stranger High House…”. A short but evocating tale that hints at the cosmic power and horror that would be revealed in greater detail within “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”.


A compelling, though ultimately lesser, version of a character venturing into the land of dreams to horrific results. The narrator meets a companion (who Joshi notes bears in his description a striking resemblance to Lovecraft’s literary idol Edgar Allan Poe) that joins the narrator in exploring realms only accessible through deep sleep. Though his companion takes drugs that compel his adventures further, the narrator refuses—going so far as to attempt to stop sleeping as to abate the nightmares brought forth from their travels. “Hypnos” occupies a similar narrative (though to better results) as “From Beyond” and (to lesser success) as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, and the final line is thought-provoking when rereading the narrative.

 The Lurking Fear

Following in the thematic footsteps of horror through a degenerative family hereditary line found also in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn…”, “The Rats in the Walls”, and “Shadow over Innsmouth”, this underrated short story concerns a narrator fascinated with the local terror of the landscape known as Tempest Mountain wherein the abandoned Martense Mansion resides. Divided into four progressively dread-filled chapters, Lovecraft imbues this smaller-scale horror story with an escalating sense of terror and concludes in a horrific (though somewhat predictable) climax with powerful and vivid imagery concerning the grotesque fate that befell the Martense Family. A story that serves as a nice break from the numerous fantasy stories that populate the collection.

 The Unnamable

A very, very brief piece that serves more as a treatise (or defense) of supernatural horror in literature. More or less a dialogue between two characters debating the merits of horror literature than one that weaves an actual narrative, though the loving prose Lovecraft imbues upon local New England topography and atmosphere within the cemetery of the setting is perhaps worth seeking out for some. More interestingly, “The Unnamable” contains the first appearance of the famous Randolph Carter character whose later adventures populate this collection.

The Shunned House

Lovecraft’s version of the classic haunted house tale based on an actual home that enraptured his imagination. Unlike most versions of the haunted house story, Lovecraft spends an impressive and well-deserved time establishing the history of the home, the strange fate that awaited its tenants, then finally allows for the protagonists to begin their nightly vigil awaiting for whatever supernatural horrors that may occur. The slow-build up, mounting dread, and sense of incredible atmospheric details all contribute to a feeling of incredible suspense and horror that is only marred by a not as adequate conclusion. Without spoiling it, it’s perhaps the only Lovecraft story I can recall that ends on an undeniably triumphant note with the hero definitively besting the supernatural horror (and in very bizarre fashion). Not that that can’t be an effective ending in its own right, but there’s a weird feeling of false emotion in the last paragraph that feels very out of place for the author. Still, the plotting and incredible verisimilitude that color the majority of the tale are too impressive to be ignored.

 The Horror at Red Hook

Though it is perhaps most infamously remembered (and rightly so) for its abhorrent racism, and though it is certainly one of his least acclaimed by critics, “The Horror at Red Hook” is actually one of the author’s most interesting works due to its strictly urban setting compared to the author’s usual penchant for the pastoral realms of Providence or fantasy realm of dreams. While the potential for this urban horror is terribly wasted by Lovecraft’s blatant racism in using foreigners as the vehicle for the supernatural to unfold, it remains an intriguing and thought-provoking blend of crime and horror. Moreover, the conclusion of Dr. Malone’s investigation and the ultimate reveal of the horror at Red Hook stands as one of Lovecraft’s most creative passages in the author’s cannon. With echoes of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith story “The City of the Singing Flame”, Lovecraft describes the detective’s stumbling into a nightmarish world filled with a surfeit of distinctive and horrific creatures responsible for the ongoing crimes in Red Hook. Certainly not the author’s best tale, and again, the blatant xenophobia destroys the power of the premise, but for the sheer command of creativity, imagination, and unique mix of genre revealed in that passage described above—“The Horror at Red Hook” is very much recommended.

 In the Vault

The most conventional and forgettable tale in the collection, maybe in Lovecraft’s career. The story concerns an undertaker trapped within a vault whose only escape is a high window, which he intends to reach by piling the nearby coffins into a ladder. Despite being rejected by Weird Tales for fear of its supposedly “extreme gruesomeness” not passing the Indiana censorship board, the tale is anything but. Lovecraft’s always impressive ability to imbue dread and atmosphere is present but used to hardly any memorable effect.

The Strange High House in the Mist

A short, beautiful, Dunsanian fantasy written with gorgeous prose and descriptions of the Lovecraft’s fictional coast city of Kingsport. Like most of his short fantasies, plot and character take a backseat in favor of creative and weird imagery that demand the reader to absorb both the awe of the land and those horrors awaiting those who demand more from the gods.

 The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The undeniable masterpiece of the book, one of the best of Lovecraft’s career, and one of the best pieces of pure fantasy ever published. Unpublished in his own lifetime (and as per usual described by Lovecraft himself in saying: “it isn’t much good”), the novella is a long, uninterrupted journey by the recurring character of Randolph Carter seeking the sunset city of his dreams. Carter resolves to literally seek out the gods responsible in hopes of finally finding the sunset city and ventures into realms both horrific and grand.

Lovecraft populates the yarn with an unbelievable number of creative machinations: from ghouls, to night-gaunts, to zoogs, to the depths of cold wastes, to the hidden face of the Moon, to the high hall pantheons of the gods, to the abyss of chaos. Each distinct and fantastic setting is poetically described with a sense of majesty and awe that serves as the best evidence possible for Lovecraft’s inimitable and uncompromised imagination. Each episode and fantastic character encountered by Carter could fill a novel of its own right, and Lovecraft peppers in such a plethora of beautifully creative arrangements that the prose can be overwhelming (in the best way to possible) due to the sheer intensity of its scope and ambitions.

The culmination of Carter’s adventures find the character confronting the ultimate horror and beauty of Lovecraft’s obsessions in a breathtaking finale that sends Carter (and the reader) reeling through voids of time and space in powerful, profound moment that ranks amongst one of the most breathtaking sequences in Lovecraft’s career. While the word fantasy often automatically conjures up the usual suspects of Tolkien, Martin, Dunsany (whose influence is clear throughout the piece), and as much as I adore all their separate works, as well, Lovecraft uses the genre in a very distinct way to conjure up realms with an awe-inspiring sense of scope toward the larger cosmos that truly is without parallel.

 The Silver Key

Following Carter’s adventures back home from Kadath, “The Silver Key” finds Randolph once again in a state of ennui and wanting more out of life. The short tale is less of a narrative and more of a story in disguise of a treatise—in a style that somewhat calls to mind “The Unnamable” from earlier in the collection. “The Silvery Key” is most interesting as a guide into Lovecraft’s opinions on a variety of topics: as a criticism of religion, to even harsher criticism of bohemian lifestyle of any sort, to man’s place in the universe—that last view expressed as one of his most major points of interests throughout his career.

Through the Gates of the Silver Key

A sequel of sorts to “The Silver Key” and the next entry into the continuing adventures of Randolph Carter. Co-written with E. Price Hoffman (though the latter admits that only about fifty words of his original treatment remain after Lovecraft’s re-write), the story was spurned by Hoffman’s urging Lovecraft to follow on Carter’s whereabouts after his disappearance through the portal unlocked by the silver key. The narrative concerns four men meeting to divide the estate of Randolph Carter following his disappearance. One of these men is the mysterious looking Swami Chandraputra, who speaks with a strange voice and wears curious clothing to hide to appearance, and who promises to relate the final fate that befell Randolph Carter.

What follows is one of the most bizarre (not completely successful) but compelling narratives of Lovecraft’s career as Carter’s journey through portals of time, existence, and realms populated by weird creatures of both the Dunsany and Cthulu Mythos variety. Again, there are shades of more philosophical expounding than anything else—maintaining its status as literal and thematic sequel to “The Silver Key”—with Lovecraft pouring out even denser, though always evocative descriptions, of the vast gulfs of the cosmos, time, and man’s insignificant space occupied between them. The conclusion is obvious from miles away, with the text pointing this out in a tongue-and-cheek manner, but the story remains oddly compelling as a vehicle for Lovecraft to further distill those concepts of his obsession discuss above, and in even greater depth than to be found in “The Silver Key”.

The Dreams in the Witch House

As most critics have widely agreed that both “The Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” are of the two weakest Lovecraft stories, it is baffling as to why Penguin would title two of the three major collections after these lesser efforts. Even in Joshi’s introductory notes to the piece, he writes: “The tale suffers from plot holes and florid prose and cannot be ranked amongst his better later efforts”.

Nonetheless, the tale’s preceding reputation remains well-deserved. Though a more imaginative and better-realized effort than “From Beyond”, “The Dreams in the Witch House” is a muddled mess of ideas marred by repetitive writing and a confluence of weird elements that never find a suitable climax to merge toward a more powerful, singularly effective result. A witch, “The Black Man”/the devil, the human/rat hybrid of Brown Jenkins, a haunted house that serves as a portal to the type of cosmic horrors experienced by Carter, a visit with the Shoggoths from “Mountains”—all these elements are better fit for Lovecraft tale of their own design and story. While it is interesting to consider the fact that this tale—unlike most Lovecraft narratives where it is the suggestion of the horror that is most memorable—that the author chooses to go the opposite route and lay out in (somewhat) explicit detail the consequences of the horrors found in the Witch House. (I say somewhat as there are indescribable horror concepts of time and space.)

Moreover, Lovecraft is repetitive in a way not found in the horror master’s usual efforts. Gilman’s adventures beyond the realms of sleep, his encounter with Brown Jenkins, and the like…only begin to escalate in the final few pages, and the author’s trademark ability to imbue a sense of palpable dread is nearly absent from the entirety of piece. Suffice to say, there are memorable, creative concepts and images at play, though they are unfortunately wasted within this very lesser entry in the Lovecraft canon.

The Shadow Out of Time

The best story in the collection outside of “Dream-Quest”. Somewhat reminiscent of its siblings “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Nameless City”, the story recounts two principal episodes of the protagonist’s adventure. The first concerns his mind being swapped by the “Great Race” of extraterrestrial beings of Yith. These early pages dealing with the mind swap are characteristic of Lovecraft’s other great work “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, though the author greatly expands upon ideas of cosmic scope as found within this narrative. The next section then details the protagonists “dreams” when inhabiting the city of Yith during the mind-swap. These sequences are further evidence of the unyielding and incomparable creative imaginings of Lovecraft’s mind, as the author describes in fantastic, specific details as to the sociological, historical, psychological, and physiological aspects that pertain to this extraordinary race, who have swapped minds with not only other human beings, but with entities from far reaches of the cosmos. With descriptions for the bygone city as beautifully crafted as Lovecraft’s gorgeous prose for his own town of Providence, the author details the topography and landscapes of the eldritch region to very captivating effect.

Still, these chapters are only set-up to the master class of tone and atmospheric dread evidenced in the last chapters of the novel. Following the discovery of relics that match those found within the protagonist’s dreams, the setting switches to the uncombed desert regions of Australia. Here, the protagonist stumbles upon the (ostensibly) deserted remains of an underground city as imaginative and horrifying as those cold, cryptic regions of Antarctica depicted in “At the Mountains of Madness”.

As with that entry, Lovecraft conjures a sense of atmosphere and inexorable dread toward the protagonist’s final confrontation with horrifying creatures thought long-dead into a climax that stands as one of the most powerful displays of craft as can be found in horror literature. Though the reveal in “Mountains” is perhaps still the best and most memorable conclusion for its vivid description of the Shoggoth entity, “Shadow” instead favors a more vague foreshadowing and hinting toward the true scope of the terrifying creature that remains undeniably effective as ever. One of best in Lovecraft’s bibliography and an excellent final entry into the “Witch House” collection.

The Apartment Trilogy by Roman Polanski



“I’m sorry to bother you, I was told about an apartment.”

So Roman Polanski asks in the opening line of The Tenant, in what feels like a not-so-subtle wink at an audience preparing to watch the last in his trilogy of horror films known as his unofficial “Apartment Trilogy”—a trinity of horror films linked by their shared setting of an apartment as the feature setting for the horrors of the premise to unfold. As different as the three films remain in scope and story, the trio that consists of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant each use the confined apartment setting as a vehicle to explore larger allegories of the horrors at hand, with each film also depicting a main character battling the possibilities of mental illness and a supernatural terror threatening the safety of their sanity. In doing so, Polanski’s trilogy successfully manages to push the parameters of the horror genre while also exploring larger thematic issues of gender, identity, and mental illness.


Released in 1965, Repulsion marks the first of the trilogy and remains a tour-de-force character-study into the troubled psychology of a young woman named Carol (a doe-eyed Catherine Deneuve). The paradoxical Carol works as a manicurist in a beauty parlor (despite constantly biting her own nails) who is left alone in her sister’s apartment after she leaves with her boyfriend for a vacation. With amazingly wide-eyes, a demure voice, and constantly uncomfortable body-language, Deneuve portrays a woman in a constant battle to reciprocate the basic human emotions provided through social interactions—especially with men. For reasons that will become clear by the ending, Carol has been traumatized by a rough relationship with men since childhood and the experience has left her a shattered shell of a human being—a woman barely capable of holding conversation and driven to near mental collapse by the smallest imperfections.

Early in the film, her sister’s boyfriend has left his toothbrush within Carol’s space, and she lashes out at the violation. This seemingly small intrusion of boundaries marks the beginning of Carol’s trouble with those (again, especially men) trespassing her private space (most especially within the bathroom [the most private possible room]) that will only worsen within this very confined setting of a small Belgian apartment.

While many filmmakers often believe a larger space intimates a more powerful scope, Polanski uses every possible cinematic technique to demonstrate how unbelievably horrifying a simple apartment can transform itself into the most hellish domain imaginable when filtered through the warped psychology of young Carol. Polanski uses the power of repetitive sounds to maximum distortion and discomfort: the incessant ticking of the clock, the torturous dripping of water, the creaks and groans of wooden floors to methodically construct a tortuous glimpse into the everyday life of this traumatized woman. These sounds so representative of mundane life—the ticking clock, the knock at the door, of passersby on the city streets below—no longer reflect the harmless consequence of suburban life, but the chaotic and disorienting noise heard by a woman suspicious of these formerly benign objects that have now transformed into totems representing the terror of her haunted mind.

Polanski further amplifies this heightened, unnerving reality through the use of innovative visuals and cinematography: shadows, unwarranted reflections, uncomfortable close-ups, and optical illusions are all employed to create an even more literal deconstruction of the classical comforts of the home. Whether it be through the jump-scare of the sudden reflection in her dressing mirror, or the visual illusion of decreasing the dimensions of the room to heighten Carol’s accelerating mental suffocation, Polanski repeatedly demonstrates how even the most conventional objects and spaces can suddenly serve as the most horrifying representations of abject terror.


Besides these cinematic tools used to usher the audience into her horrifying psychology, the film also repeatedly depicts Carol’s crumbling mindset through an assortment of symbolic imagery. Cracked surfaces serve as the most obvious example and are seen multiple times both within the apartment and Carol’s very limited outer world. On a sidewalk, a deep fissure spider-webbing upon the pavement causes Carol to completely still—her eyes magnetized to the crack as though hypnotized. As days go by, she continually hallucinates more cracks spreading across the apartment—fracturing upon the walls in tandem with her increasing neuroses—the apartment now acting as a material manifestation of her warped mental state.

Wall hands

Later, as her hallucinations grow more intense and vivid (a man molesting her becomes repeated multiple times), male hands literally emerge from the wall to claw and grasp her. In credit to the relentless atmosphere of dread, this striking visual becomes a perfect metaphor for how terrifying Carol’s world has come to reflect her poisoned inner-psychology. Even within what should be her most private and secure space—her apartment—Carol’s mind conjures up an unyielding demonstration of her interior psychology and how the traumatizing horrors of her subconscious have transformed into her tangible reality.

Lastly, Carol’s character demonstrates the painful reality of a woman battling this constant war of a collapsing psyche against the horrors of her past. Opening with a close-up of her big brown eye, constantly gazing about the space and studying those around her, Carol’s neuroses become quickly apparent: she constantly bites her nails, brushes her hair, speaks meekly…Her appearance and cleanliness moves past the point of concern and into obsession. As a woman who works in a beauty shop—an establishment literally made to emphasize beauty—Carol can no longer function in society while struggling so drastically with her own mind.

From the ceaseless hounding from men, to enduring the sounds of her sister having sex through the thin apartment walls, to living across from a convent of ostensibly “pure” nuns in the neighboring courtyard, to the endless badgering from men who refuse to accept “No”—Carol finally breaks. The apartment landlord arrives to collect the rent and Carol allows him into the apartment from which she has lived in seclusion and squalor. The landlord makes a number of references to her nightgown, which escalates into an attempted rape, only for Carol to stop the attack by killing him.


When Carol’s sister finally arrives home, she and her boyfriend find both the dead body of the landlord, along with Carol—though she remains in an apparently catatonic state. The other tenants filter into the crammed space suddenly concerned for her well-being. While Carol’s ultimate fate remains ambiguous, her last actions are shown to be combing her hair, ironing a dress (the camera takes careful note of the iron’s unplugged cord) and finally in bed—she begins floating toward the ceiling in hallucinatory freedom. One could certainly make the argument that this represents Carol’s attempt at suicide—as woman overwhelmed with repulsion for the world around her—and needing to leave this world behind her so she can finally escape from the relentless deluge of her traumas.

And while this final fate may remain ambiguous, the last shot certainly shines some light toward what may be the initial catalyst that contributed toward Carol’s utter mental breakdown. After being carried away from the apartment, the camera pans across the room until finding an old family portrait from Carol’s youth. Mirroring the opening close-up of Carol’s eye, the camera zooms uncomfortably close upon the eye of a much younger Carol—her gaze filled with repulsion and directed toward what appears to her father seated directly beside her.

This final shot leaves a haunting, disturbing final impression upon the viewer to fill in the blanks about Carol’s family life and why she has been so psychologically damaged by men. Moreover, the fact that this specific explanation does not appear until the final shot addresses how universally understood this overall psychological struggle can be related upon women at large. As a result, Polanski demonstrates how profoundly the devices of the horror genre can be used to address these larger thematic issues, and even more impressively, uses an atmosphere of persistent dread to transport the viewer into such a troubled psychological mind.


The middle installment—Rosemary’s Baby—would prove to not only be the best of the trilogy, nor just one of the best horror movies ever made, but one of the greatest entries into the film canon at large. The premise revolves around a woman named Rosemary Woodhouse, and her husband, Guy, who have just moved into the Bramford—an older New York apartment building. And immediately, the apartment reeks of ominous details: the previous owner went senile, an enormous wooden secretary has been strangely positioned in front of a closet door, legends of witchcraft are reported to have occurred at the same address, an unnerving chant echoes through the walls…

But worst of all, they meet the Castevets: an elderly couple named Roman and Minnie that live down the hall and make excessive efforts to ingratiate themselves into the lives of the new tenants. Soon after, another series of suspicious events start to surface: a young woman living with the Castevets commits suicide just after meeting Rosemary, Guy’s career skyrockets after a secret conversation with Roman, Minnie insists on Rosemary wearing a “good luck” charm of a mysterious herb within a pendant, and finally—Rosemary suddenly finds herself pregnant. The pregnancy arriving, of course, after a horrifying nightmare in which she is raped by the devil.


Immediately upon hearing the news, Roman and Minnie seize upon the situation to become an unavoidable fixture in the couple’s life: referring Rosemary to an exclusive doctor, delivering daily supplements of their specific herb, and essentially isolating Rosemary from any other contact with outsiders beyond the apartment. As weeks go by, Rosemary pieces together the horrific evidence directly related to her pregnancy—and correctly suspects that she is now pregnant with the son of the devil.

While much of Repulsion’s power relies on Polanski’s deft manipulations of cinematic techniques to highlight the extreme psychosis of the protagonist, Rosemary’s Baby works so successfully through an approach of complete contrast in presenting the narrative as objective, removed, and stylistically distanced as possible. While there are two dream sequences and a rapidly edited climax following Rosemary’s attempt to escape her captors, Polanski shoots the vast majority of the scenes without the aid of the stylistic flourishes that made Repulsion so distinct. Whereas the weight of dread in the former film became constructed through such a singular glimpse into this particular female’s point-of-view, the dread of Rosemary’s Baby emerges through a command of unwavering reality.

Indeed, what has allowed for the film’s reputation and unique nature compared to most horror films relies in the slow descent into the horror of the premise—rather than through shock, jump-scares, and moments that may veer too far from reality as to break the barriers of verisimilitude. Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of Minnie Castavet serves as perhaps the best example of how this particular portrayal of a monster can remain so disturbing. Rather than a performance that hinges on leering, creepy machinations, Gordon’s casting presents an affable, grandmother-like figure whose ostensibly good-natured demeanor diminishes any doubts toward obvious malevolent intentions that she may harbor.

Furthermore, the narrative’s greatest strength comes from repeating this effect throughout almost every turn of the plot. The actions of those surrounding Rosemary—from her husband, to the Castavets, to the tenants—all present themselves with an outward appearance of those with the best intentions for Rosemary.

Consequentially, a frustrating urge arises within the audience—an insuppressible cry to reach out and help Rosemary as those around her cast doubts upon her sanity. Nonetheless, Polanski never releases the audience from this plea to help the pregnant protagonist. Instead, he raises the stakes at every possible point: as Rosemary is manipulated by the malicious forces around her, as Rosemary complains of a horrific pain in her stomach and prohibited from seeing any other doctors, as she grows abnormally thin and pale despite her pregnancy…Polanski refuses to release his suffocating grip upon the viewer, demanding their anxiety to rise in equally uncomfortable parallel with Rosemary’s.


In effect, Polanski positions the audience directly within Rosemary’s psychology, much as he did with Carol in Repulsion, though through incredibly different methods. While Polanski frames the claustrophobia of the apartment in Repulsion as a means of discomfort, the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby is used for exactly the opposite effect—to comfort. The tenants of the Bramford apartment building suffocate Rosemary with their unending help and insistence that she need not leave the apartment. When Rosemary escapes their clutches and tries to find another doctor for a second opinion, the tension rises to an almost unbearable weight of dread. She has finally fled the imprisonment of her own home, and every second grows fraught with the fear that she will again be caught and returned back to her apartment for good.


And of course, this is exactly what happens. After delivering the baby, Rosemary sneaks into the Castevets’ apartment, only to find that her baby remains alive and under the care of the cult composed of the apartment tenants. While her initial reaction is one of absolute horror and shock, the film ends on a semi-ambiguous note as Rosemary cradles her child (conceived by Satan) and seems at a sudden peace. As the camera pans out for end credits to roll, over a wide shot of the expansive apartment complexes that mirror the opening, Rosemary’s fate appears sealed. Rather than fight the oppressive rule of her captors, she appears to have finally surrendered—content to be a prisoner of the apartment if it means being with her baby—consequences be damned.


The last in the trilogy—The Tenant—explores yet another intensely psychological character study, though this time with a man taking center stage. That man is Trelkovsky, as played by Polanski himself, serving as both director and star. As with Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant opens with a similar, ominous foreshadowing with the owner introducing the new apartment and explains that the previous tenant—a woman named Simone—committed suicide (with Trelkovsky noting “I’ll never understand suicide”). Though Trelkovsky seems suspicious of the incredible austerity of those surrounding the apartment, and the circumstances of the previous tenants death, he accepts the terms and agrees to move into the apartment.

Yet very quickly, these suspicions that start out as simple inconveniences become realized as the true horrors. The neighboring tenants’ dislike for noise grows into an outright contempt, and Trelkovsky’s own identity slowly dissolves into one that he no longer recognizes. As the neighbors begin subtly pushing Trelkvosky into living a life not unlike Simone—the previous tenant—Trelkvosky recognizes that he is slowly transforming into the identity of the woman who previously tenanted the apartment.


Watching the film with ideas of its own historical context in mind—coming after the Manson murders of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate—and with Polanski starring as Trelkvosky, one can’t help but watch the narrative without projecting certain ideas about Polanski’s own individual troubles of his personal life upon his fictional one. While The Tenant negotiates between these various themes—identity, paranoia, privacy—and there are certainly some memorable moments that mirror the best in Polanski’s career, the levels of dread and are not as strong as the former two of the trilogy. While they don’t necessarily need to be compared, as they are very different films with very different ambitions, The Tenant stands as a very different film, not only within the Apartment trilogy but Polanski’s overall filmography.

Still, The Tenant wrestles with these ideas in an ever-compelling manner. The escalating sense of terror remains, though not as singularly focused, and the final shot before Trelkovsky stares out the window in a full embrace of his changed identity into Simone—with all the other apartment tenants clapping and urging him on—remains one of the most gorgeously haunting moments in all of Polanski’s work.

Through each film, Polanski illumines dark corners of human neurosis and psychological trauma as few horror films have ever so successfully managed. Whether through the resurrection of past traumas in Repulsion, the spiraling paranoia of Rosemary’s sanity for herself and her baby in Rosemary’s Baby, or the crumbling sense of disillusionment within The Tenant, Polanski’s apartment trilogy uses the power of the horror genre to profound effect as comparative allegories of the true horrors of human psychology. In doing so—and by isolating the characters within the most confined and pocketed corners of an apartment landscape—Polanski demonstrates that the most terrifying ideas are often not the fictitious and supernatural, but that the most horrifying of all evils are those that can be found within the darkest corners of the human mind.


Book Review: The Life and Times of Charles Manson


     Most biographies of famous historical figures often seem to start at an immediate compromise with the reader—struggling to negotiate between the subject’s public reputation, contextual history, and yet still deliver an entertaining read without resorting to sensationalist storytelling that may distort the reality of the events. In biographies of infamous figures, especially, authors often have a tendency to present the subject not unlike a bad horror movie character—delivering cheap scares and newsreel highlights of a criminal’s life that exploit the gore of the crimes, rather than breaking down the intertwining events of the subject’s historical backdrop that may have nurtured their life choices. In this respect, The Life and Times of Charles Manson separates itself from the vast number of works written not only about such notorious figures, but one of the most notorious of all—Charlie Manson—by delivering an incredible read that still breaks down in clear contextual detail the confluence of this particular time in history and Manson’s own life that paved the way for one of the most bizarre, shocking, and perplexing crime waves in American history.

Starting even before Manson’s birth, Guinn describes the Kentucky backwoods and Manson lineage that the troubled Charlie would be born into with clear atmospheric detail. While it’s easy to just describe Charlie’s birth as the result of another troubled, unmarried teen pregnancy, Guinn’s deep historical research into the entire family’s personalities, financial, and religious history better help explore the early seeds of potential trouble that would plague young Charlie for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Guinn peppers in anecdotes of Charlie’s early behavior and constant need for attention that laid the groundwork for the troubled psychology that would blossom to disastrous results in the near future

The next few chapters further describe Manson’s perpetual path of self-destruction; specifically, his inability to stay out of institutional life and propensity for manipulating people around him. Manson’s modus operandi quickly reveals itself, and a looming dread expands over the next few chapters as the early formation of the Family grows with ostensibly innocent beginnings. Guinn continually parses in just enough description of the popular movements, incidents, and cultural attitudes that parallel Manson’s own nightmarish distortions of such historical hallmarks.

More importantly, Guinn populates Manson’s narrative with rich characterization and similarly detailed background history of the supporting cast that were as responsible, if not more so, as the catalysts for the crimes often solely attributed to the Family figurehead. In doing so, Guinn demystifies so much of the false propagation of Manson as the calculating, conniving mastermind that has ballooned beyond control in the eyes of the public. Instead, with impressive aplomb, Guinn manages to simultaneously describe Manson’s: unbelievably outlandish teachings filtered through a distorted logic of current events, the fear-based tactics employed to ensure his followers’ unwavering loyalty, and the insatiable impulse for fame that compelled his motives since childhood. As the best biographies are capable of achieving, the reader finishes the narrative with a starkly different understanding of the figure in question. While all of Manson’s horrific inclinations and commitment to his grotesque world vision are not shied away from, Guinn helps deconstruct Manson’s sometimes incomprehensible line of thought, mostly involving either fear for his own personal safety, almost child-like fear for being ignored (in terms of his failed musical career), or just plain racism that charged most of his plans—and how it was the confluence of all the above that concluded in the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Nonetheless, Guinn’s actual writing remains compelling as ever. The chapters detailing the Tate murders are wrought with palpable tension and incredibly vivid descriptions that situate the reader directly into the horrific setting with an oppressive sense of verisimilitude. While my understand was quite murky into the actual machinations of how the Black Panthers, Helter Skelter, the Beach Boys, and Sharon Tate all exactly played their part, Guinn’s writing helps propels the reader through Manson’s puzzling thought process and convergence of these seemingly separate elements that all aligned for one of the most infamous crimes in American consciousness. As a result, The Life and Times of Charles Manson weaves an incredibly compelling narrative that manages to both deliver a page-turning read and succinctly explain the various elements that composed the Manson myth, while also dispelling so much of the mystique previously constructed in the public image of the man.

The Manhunters: Will Graham and Clarice Starling


“You’d be more comfortable if you relax with yourself. We don’t invent our natures, they’re issued to us, along with our lungs…and everything else. Why fight it?”




In the two best adaptation of William Harris’ series of Hannibal Lecter novels, the films delineate two distinct portraits of the psychological profile contained within not just the serial killers, but more interestingly, also within the investigators responsible for apprehending them. Throughout Michael Mann’s 1986 seminal crime procedural adaptation of the Red Dragon novel and Jonathan Demme’s 1990 masterpiece adaptation of the book’s sequel—The Silence of the Lambs—the complex moral challenges facing both manhunters allows a fascinating glimpse into issues of gender and psychological insights contained within both FBI Special Investigator William Graham (William Petersen) and the young FBI trainee Claire Starling (Jodie Foster).  Specifically, this contrast is viewed through the mutual interaction between both investigators and Hannibal Lecter–the cannibalistic serial killer aiding both manhunters in the pursuit of the killers beyond their reach.

While Silence revels much more in the serial killer genre elements with procedural clues in the background, Manhunter brings the police procedural ideas to the forefront. Manhunter’s basic thesis revolves around the thin line separating the psyche between serial killers and the obsessive nature of those investigators attempting to “solve” them. Over and over, Mann highlights the dual identity that Graham must negotiate between being a “good cop”, who uses the obsessive nature of his persona to stop criminals, and how that same obsessive nature taps into the dark reservoirs of his psyche that overlaps with the same perverted landscape as the killers of his pursuit.


In Graham’s introductory scene, he’s persuaded by his FBI Superior Jack Crawford to return to his job as a special investigator after being committed to a mental ward for his arrest of Hannibal Lector. In his first real scene of police work, Graham effectively places himself in the mind of the current killer—codenamed The Tooth Fairy —and recreates his actions within the scene of the murder. Graham effectively uses a method actor’s technique of embedding his thoughts into the mind of the killer in order to piece together the crime from the murderer’s perspective. He talks out loud to himself, plays the role of the Tooth Fairy, speaking into his recorder: “God she’s lovely isn’t she…you opened their eyes, didn’t you! Didn’t you!”

Later, Graham meets with Lecktor (only ever unnecessarily spelt this way in Manhunter) for further help unlocking the identity of the killer. Played by Cox in a much more naturalistic and intellectually driven behavior than that of Hopkins, Lecktor taunts Graham’s plea for help, knowing that Graham’s arresting him continues to haunt him beyond the thin veneer of his outward confidence. Lecktor even (sloppily) underlines the film’s thesis by telling Graham in a bald declaration: “the reason you caught me is we’re just alike.”

The idea of transformation—or becoming—is another theme echoed throughout both Manhunter and Silence. In an uncovered note from Francis to Lecktor, he writes: “You alone can understand what I am becoming. You know the people I use to help me in…undergoing change to fuel the radiance of what I am becoming.” As Francis Dolarhyde (aka the Tooth Fairy) kills his victims in the act of becoming the Red Dragon, Graham struggles against becoming locked in the very acts that he’s committed to fighting. LIkewise, Lecktor’s final piece of advice to Graham in unlocking the killer’s motive involves “becoming”:

“Didn’t you really feel so bad because killing him felt so good and why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God. He does it all the time.”

“Why does it feel good, Dr. Lector”

“…because God has powers. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is”.



Mann further implements this motif by framing Graham’s investigative obsessions in a manner that suggests his own becoming not altogether unlike Dolarhyde. The pre-credit opening is shot from the POV of The Tooth Fairy ascending the household steps to murder the family, and when Graham breaks into the house for his own investigations, Mann replicates the same POV shot to parallel the perspective of the two men. Similarly, this transitions into Graham’s own unlocking of the killer’s psyche—allowing his realization that the Tooth Fairy needs to use mirrors as an “audience” of his becoming. Furthermore, Graham must continue to watch the home videos of the family in the same ritualistic manner as the Tooth Fairy. In watching the videos over and over again, Mann again demonstrates how Graham’s practices for success border that thin line between investigator and the killer.

As Graham falls deeper and deeper into the case, Graham’s son forces him to confront this very nature that he’s demonstrated an inability to control, asking:

“This guy’s trying to kill us?…When are you gonna kill him?

Mann ingeniously uses the innocent of the child’s question in order to again highlight the thin moral boundary separating the two men. A guilty look flashes across Graham’s face: his own son’s question reflecting an idea not too different from the same taunts used by Leckter. Similarly, the question—and his son’s point-of-view of right and wrong—display a failing on Graham’s part to truly define exactly what the moral justice side of his job means. Almost reluctantly, he answers:

“I’m not…It’s only my job to find him.”

However, this does not prove to be the case.



As with Lecktor’s insight that a killer kills because it feels good—to act like God—and if one kills enough times than one will become as God is—Graham cannot stop himself from needing to act like these killers in order to become one. After spending the entire movie using the same obsessive mindset utilized by the killers in order to fulfill their conquests, Graham finally finds the killer of his pursuit and shoots down The Tooth Fairy. Although Mann employs the cinematic style of an action/cop hero forced to kill the bad guy, and the film ends with Graham back on the beach with his family, the question remains whether Graham’s process hasn’t exactly validated Lector’s claims. Though innocent lives have been saved, Graham has now—multiple times, and in the same, serial manner—killed two men by enslaving himself to the same psychological compulsions that compelled the very men that he’s just killed.

Though Lecktor believes that it is in replicating God’s power to kill that drives the Tooth Fairy, Graham can now be seen as one occupying another spectrum in the desire act as God—specifically, in acting as the all-powerful protector. Just before Graham leaves to take on the case, he works with his son to help a build a fence to keep out predators—protecting the innocent animals. Throughout the investigation, Graham continually consults the photos of the murdered families (along with their home videos) as a continual reminder of his responsibility. Nearing the climax, Graham finally yells at Crawford for roping him into the case by shouting:

“You showed me two dead families knowing damn well I’d imagine families four, five, and six”. To which Crawford retorts: “Damn right. And I’d do it again”.

The idea of Graham as protector and father is further underscored by challenges of masculinity repeatedly addressed in the film. In the investigator’s need to outsmart both Lecktor and The Tooth Fairy as a way of proving masculine dominance to himself, family, and co-workers, Mann again uses a parallel structure between The Tooth Fairy and Graham to negotiate their dual struggle. The police’s main assumption about the Tooth Fairy—that he is gay—is proven to be something that troubles and provokes Dolarhyde into fits of rage. After kidnapping Lounds (the paparazzo), he asks point-blank: “Do you imply that I am queer?” Though Lounds profusely denies it, Dolarhyde forces him to “promise”, which he concludes by stating “We’ll seal your promise with a kiss” (before then sending Lounds to his death).

Though some may point to Dolarhyde’s night of “romance” with his blind co-worker, Reba, as an argument against any homosexual inclinations, what one finds on close examination is that she is further framed as yet another prop in Dolarhyde’s slow transformation toward becoming the Red Dragon. After their night in bed, Dolarhyde wakes in a panic upon finding her absent. He races outside looking for her, only to find Reba standing in the rising morning sun. When she talks about coming back inside the house, Dolarhyde begs her stay outside because: “you look so good in the sun”.

This is a clear allusion to main source and inspiration of Dolarhyde’s Red Dragon ideal through the William Blake painting: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun. With Francis standing in for the Red Dragon, Reba is literally standing outside in the sun, fueling his fantasy in acting as the woman literally clothed in the sun.




In line with Graham’s role as father figure and protector, he, too, feels the need to prove his masculinity through the job. Beside the photos/videos of Graham watching as a father might, desperate to protect his family, he’s quick to anger and easily provoked by any threat to his shortcomings. With Lecktor–Graham’s ultimate tool in unlocking the clues to the killer–he’s unable to ever let pass any provocations by the jailed cannibal. During his first visit to ask Lecktor’s help, when Lecktor asks why he would ever aid the police in finding the Tooth Fairy:

“Thought you might be curious to see if you’re smarter than the person I’m looking for”

“By implication, you [Will], are smarter than me”

“You had disadvantages…You’re insane”

“Don’t think you can persuade me with appeals to my intellectual vanity”

“I’m not going to persuade you. You’ll either do it or you won’t.”

Graham deflects Lecktor’s assertion of Will being smarter than either of them by resorting to Lecktor’s insanity, and when Lecktor continues to taunt their similar natures, Graham flees the asylum from being so overwhelmed by the implications. In contrast to the finesse and verbal outsmarting used by Clarice in Silence, Graham’s response to any version of insulting his “less than” is to prove himself the better. Later, when Graham explains to the investigators (with Lounds in attendance) that the Tooth Fairy may be impotent with females, Lounds asks how working on the case affects Graham’s own sex life. To which he responds:

“Mine? Doesn’t affect mine. Affects yours. Go fuck yourself”.

Again, unlike Clarice’s reactions in Silence to utilize any abject response to her sexuality as a means of subverting expectations  to her advantage, Graham—as a man compelled to prove his masculinity—ends up sharing psychological qualities not altogether unlike those of the Tooth Fairy.

Graham’s obsession as both a protector and father figure, and then decision to kill in the name of it, further supports Lecktor’s explanation  to not just The Tooth’s Fairy psychology—but Graham’s. Again, although the film ends on an ostensible sunset of triumph for Graham, there remains a darker reading into Graham’s “feeling good” for having fully completed his cycle of becoming more like God the protector.



Clarice Starling, although an FBI novitiate in training to fulfill the same position occupied by Graham, works as a fascinating counterexample to the troubled male investigator. While Graham’s pathology has proven to be linked to those of the very killers he seeks, and further complemented by his masculine mindset, Clarice works both on the opposite side of the spectrum and strategically utilizes her disadvantages into her advantage.

Clarice is introduced as an FBI trainee, one not even officially introduced into the field, and furthermore—as a woman. Without exaggeration, almost every scene involving Clarice is framed from either her literal point-of-view or displays how men in the field treat a woman, much less a trainee. The first shot of Clarice is training at the FBI training headquarters—climbing a hill—overcoming man-made obstacles. Not a moment later, this is followed with her entering a crowded elevator filled with men drawing her height, where she must force her way inside only to confront their glaring stares. She then meets with Crawford (played, as great as Farina’s moustache will always be, perfectly by Scott Glenn). Here, Crawford offers her the goal of talking with the notorious Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter under the pretenses of interviewing him for an FBI psychological profile. Clarice eyes the Buffalo Bill headlines posted behind him, playing along, as Crawford adds: “I don’t expect him to talk with you, but I have to at least say that we tried.”

At Lecter’s insane asylum, Clarice enters a whole new realm of misogyny from both the staff and those interred at the criminally insane. Chilton—the director of the Baltimore asylum holding Lecter—charms Clarice with such lines as:

“We get a lot of detectives here, but I must say, I can’t ever remember one this attractive.” … “Will you be in town overnight”…”, “Crawford’s very clever using you, isn’t he?…Pretty, young woman to turn him on. I don’t think Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years, and oh are you ever his taste”.

After deflecting Chilton’s first few words, Clarice snaps on the last: “I graduated from UVA, Doctor. It is not a charm school.” When she then suggests that she be left alone to interview Lecter, and Chilton passive-aggressively notes that she could have mentioned that earlier, she replies: “Then I would have missed the pleasure of your company”.

Unlike Graham’s volatile attitude toward even the smallest chide, Clarice must navigate the male-dominated criminology field with a level of self-aware tact. While Graham’s only real obstacle came from within himself and those criminals of his pursuit, Clarice must contend with both sadistic killers and the constant, looming male bureaucracy challenging her competency at every turn.


In Clarice’s first interview with the imprisoned cannibal, Hannibal is insulted both by Crawford’s sending of a trainee and Clarice’s not so subtle questionings that are the equivalent of filling out a standard psych eval. On her way out, however, one of the deranged inmates—Migs—degrades Clarice in one of the vilest methods imaginable: by literally throws semen on her face. An infuriated Lector, who considers Migs’ discourtesy to be “unspeakably ugly”, immediately calls Clarice back and gives her the first clue in catching Buffalo Bill—who is connected to Lecter through a former patient during his days as a psychiatrist.

One wonders if this incident had happened with Graham or another male investigator, rather than Clarice, how the pursuit of Buffalo Bill would have continued forward. Migs would be understandably less inclined to humiliate a female investigator, and Lecter himself seems more repulsed by the discourtesy to a female investigator than those male investigators routinely sent to interview him. Despite Lecter humiliating Clarice only moments before, calling her: “a well-scrubbed rube. You’re not one generation removed from poor white trash.” Migs’ disrespecting a woman in this particular way revolts Lector to the core so much so that he allows Clarice for the first of many breakthrough in finding Buffalo Bill.


As strong as Clarice remains following the incident, she breaks down when reaching her car in the parking lot outside the institution. Alone, without anyone watching, she lets out a long cry that leads to a flashback from her youth. Here, Clarice’s motivation and inspiration for her career is first revealed as her father—the local sheriff—returns home from work. The role of this man in Clarice’s life proves to be the source of her strength, and the defining model of what a strong and decent man can be in contrast to the more despicable men that will populate the remainder of her working years.

When investigating the first clue, Clarice again demonstrates her resourcefulness where many men would turn back or ask for help. Following Lecter’s lead to a storage unit, Clarice and the storage manager are unable to open the long-jammed door. While the manager suggests that his son could help, Clarice finds a tire lift in the back of her car and manages to lift the door enough to crawl inside the long abandoned facility, while the manager stares dumbfounded at her ingenuity.

Still, much of Clarice’s noteworthiness lies in her silent resilience, an ability to trudge forward in perseverance despite the setbacks or constant humiliation from either her peers or the killers. In her second interview with Lecter, he asks: “Do you think Jack Crawford wants you sexually? True, he is older, but do you think he visualizes exchanges, scenarios—fucking you.”

Whereas Graham, in his endless need to prove his position of alpha superiority, would no doubt be ready with some hotheaded comeback, Clarice returns with a simple shake of the head and replies: “That doesn’t interest me, doctor. Frankly, it’s the sort of thing that Miggs would say.” Again, using her intellect and subtle passiveness to turn the tables on Lecter, and in effect, beat him at his own game of mental intimidation.


When Buffalo Bill’s next victim is found, Clarice and Crawford travel to the funeral parlor to inspect the latest corpse. But first, Demme uses the opportunity to again expose Clarice position in the workforce. Demme places the camera from Clarice’s POV, and the eyes of every officer in the room stare down upon the woman as she pushes through the crowded funeral home to the backroom parlor. When Crawford speaks with the Sheriff, and the latter begins discussing Buffalo Bill’s mutilations to the woman’s corpse, Crawford utters loud enough for the room to hear: “Sheriff, this type of sex crime has certain aspects, I’d just as soon discuss in private…you know what I mean” before letting his eyes visibly direct toward Clarice.

Despite her clear competency to both draw out information from Lecter in a manner so many of her male peers have already failed, Clarice’s male FBI superior belittles her before the entire male squad. When Clarice does gain entry to the parlor room, and finds the death moth secreted within the corpse’s throat, she again demonstrates her impressive analytic prowess. In the car ride afterwards, Crawford comments to Clarice: “When I told that Sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned ya, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of them. She replies: “It matters, Mr. Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”


Later, with an attitude not too dissimilar from Graham’s in dealing with Lounds’ taunts, Chilton tries outsmarting Lecter in the most obvious, masculine way possible—bullying him. In his hopes to humiliate Lecter, and his exploiting the opportunity as a means of demonstrating his power, Chilton destroys Clarice’s more clever and subdued path toward finding Buffalo Bill. (In the end, Chilton’s plan proves even more destructive when Lecter’s able to escape from imprisonment.) But yet again, the series has proven that this masculine response of aggression—mirroring the killers’ own compulsions to fuel their dangerous fantasies—leads to disastrous results.

In their last interaction together, Lecter agrees to continue his arrangement with Clarice of helping profile Buffalo Bill under the condition that she reveal her most painful memory. Clarice speaks through a choked up voice, recounting the incident after she ran away to a farm in Montana after her father’s death. There, late one night, she heard the screams of the lambs being slaughtered. Hoping to silence the horrible sound, she sneaks in, steals one of the lambs, and ran as fast as she could—thinking that if she could save just one…


Besides explaining the title, Clarice’s story sheds light on her psychology and driving motivation in a manner both illuminating and heartbreaking. When Lecter asks if she ran from the sight of the slaughtered lambs, Clarice politely refutes him—making him understand that she opened their pens, but they wouldn’t move, the lambs were confused and wouldn’t run…but she was compelled to help save them. With the obvious metaphor for the sheep as the helpless victim, Clarice has been driven all her life to not look away from the danger, to be strong as she saw her father, and use her smarts to help those confused and dumbfounded by the situation in order to save the helpless victims.

Rather than wanting to punish those responsible for the violence, Clarice’s drive has always been focused on saving the victim. While Manhunter’s title is changed from its novel adaptation of Harrris’ Red Dragon, it still encapsulates so much of what defines Graham as an investigator compared to Clarice. Whereas the former relies on his inhabiting the mindset of the killer to the point that he himself arguably transforms into one, Clarice remains unaffected by any such dangerous pathology by knowing that her job relies in her helping to save the innocent. While she is indeed the one to kill Buffalo Bill by the film’s conclusion, her shooting him in self-defense plays out with a world of difference compared to Graham’s. Clarice’s inability to answer Lecter’s final question as to whether the lambs have stopped screaming only helps prove this point further. While Graham views himself as the man responsible for stopping the slaughterer, Clarice operates under the hope that she may always be in service of helping save just one more.

While both investigators are working toward a similar, admirable goal, the stark differences in psychology and methods between Will Graham and Clarice Starling highlights the vast difference between the two and respective consequences of both. Graham’s method of embedding himself within the same, sadistic moral point-of-view as the killers has been proven to be successful in stopping the slaughters, yet still morally questionable in terms of its endgame. In his pursuit of justice, Graham himself begins to transform into the same type of monster that he’s promised to stop—ending in his compromised morals and continued psychological suffering.

Clarice, on the other hand, is driven by the traumatizing effect of violence in hoping to save the victim, rather her needing to solve what is an impossible goal—of defeating violence with violence. Instead, she uses her own unique gifts—skills and training crafted through a lifetime of education and experience to help stop the suffering of those in need. And perhaps most fascinating, the psychology of both investigators is discovered through their relationship with Lecter—the link in finding the killer of their respective pursuits. Where Graham and Lecter continue an endless push-pull of trying to outsmart one another, Clarice uses Lecter’s own psychological tactics to her advantage without needing to compromise herself. In the end, both films demonstrate why the investigators and Hannibal Lecter remain such superb examples of how Harris’ morally ambiguous novels continue to intrigue audiences and expose the wide spectrum of human nature for all its good and evil.



The Case for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward



    Despite a bibliography responsible for some of the most profound contributions to weird fiction and the larger horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft lived a life of very little fame or fortune by his death at a age of forty-six. Yet today, the author of such famous works as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”, and “The Colour Out of Space” remains widely lauded as one of the best in horror—bridging the gap between Poe and Stephen King. Still, this minimal recognition during his own lifetime inspired a great deal of self-doubt and suspicion that often seeped into the celebrated author’s own creative prowess.

Lovecraft wrote on numerous occasions of his own hypercritical reactions to his work, so much so that he would often allow the manuscripts to collect dust rather than be published, or only finally publish the material after a considerable amount of time had passed. (In his notes on Thing in the Doorstep, renowned Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes in the eponymous book: “[Lovecraft] was so dissatisfied with the story upon its completion that he refused to submit it anywhere. At last, in the summer of 1936…when Julius Schwartz proposed to HPL to market some of his tales in England, HPL reluctantly submitted the story.” (pg. 493)) Perhaps the most amazing example of this mistrust in his own abilities, however, can be found in one of the author’s longest yet most profound of achievements, a novel unpublished during his lifetime due to his own dissatisfaction for the material—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Calling the novel a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism”, Lovecraft’s longest piece of fiction remained unpublished until his weird fiction peers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei managed to have the writing posthumously published (in abridged form) within the May and July 1941 issues of Weird Tales. Yet, most remarkably, for all Lovecraft’s creative and unprecedented literary creations: the Cthuhlu mythos, the cosmic horrors of the Old Ones, supernatural entities capable of transcending barriers of time and space, the author rarely employed personal and individual human tragedies into his work, though not without calculated reason. In a letter to E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft explained his reasons for focusing less on his characters than the fantastic cosmic horrors of their adventures as such:

“Individuals and their fortunes within natural law move me very little. They are all momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another common nothingness. Only the cosmic framework itself—or such individuals as symbolise principles (or defiances of principles) of the cosmic framework—can gain a deep grip on my imagination and set it to work with creating. In other words, the only ‘heroes’ I can write about are phenomena”. (S.T. Joshi, xxxvi of Introduction to Thing On the Doorstep)

And indeed, looking throughout the most famous of Lovecraft’s achievements, one finds that the author has distilled this existential philosophy to incredible effect, leaving the reader overwhelmed by climaxes confronting their insignificance amongst the cosmos and their personal troubles. Moreover, examining some of Lovecraft’s most famous character creations—from the humans of Randolph Character and Herbert West to his mythical creations of Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth—one finds clear examples of such principles in play: characters that serve more as functionaries of Lovecraft’s horror philosophy than characters whose individual hopes or failures are used to drive plot. Yet, it is in this respect, that Lovecraft manages to best represent the true tragedy of both horrors—of individual human tragedy and that of his existential cosmos—through the character of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward begins with a structure not too unusual from many Lovecraft tales by hinting toward the final consequences of some unspeakable horror. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward opens in Providence within a private hospital for the insane, shedding few tangible clues, but laying out such preliminaries as to the fact that Charles has gone missing from his room and only left behind a trail of some fine gray dust.

Lovecraft then launches into an early biography of young Charles, jumping back to the chronological beginning of the tale, and providing a wealth of background information into his family history, setting, and position in society. With shades of the author’s own upbringing peppered throughout, Charles is described a precociously gifted scholar with very proud parents. Lovecraft then provides a number of incredibly gorgeous passages that describe everything from the town’s: architecture, landscape, and beauty of his colonial hometown of to contribute further perspective on Charles’ homelife. Following this brief, yet vital understanding into Ward’s family life and early prosaic upbringing, the essence of the plot begins upon Charles’ discovery into the existence of a great-great-great-grandfather whose identity had as of yet been a mystery: Joseph Curwen.

Lovecraft then pauses the present story and returns to the past—back to 1761— to doll out the disturbing history of Joseph Curwen’s infamous early existence and subsequent downfall. Though Curwen poses as a wealthy shipping entrepreneur, local suspicions arise concerning the astounding levels of beef that are delivered to Curwen’s barn, along with the strange, intermittent shafts of light that are periodically produced. Curwen’s enemies soon discover more details of his nefarious plans, which include the possibility of his being able to rise forth beings from the dead and outside realms of human experience. After a raiding party attacks Curwen’s property, the disgraced wizard is never heard from again and the surviving raiders agree to a unanimous secrecy of what they may have just witnessed.

Returning to the present, the narrative’s remaining bulk is devoted toward Charles’ increasing obsession toward his heretofore-unacknowledged ancestor. The young boy drops out of school, a social life, a relationship with his parents…all in the pursuit of unlocking the abominable secrets previously pursued by Curwen. The Ward family doctor—Dr. Marinus Willet—serves as the audience’s eyes, as he slowly discovers the horrid depths of Charles and Curwen’s plans through letters, old documents, interviews—all pointing toward a plan of complete cosmic destruction. Willet’s investigations into Charles’ unraveling psychology eventually lead him the underground catacombs found below Curwen’s old premises—long since abandoned since the attack by the raiding party years ago.

These passages—wherein the elder doctor stumbles down the subterranean depths to uncover a variety of terrible creatures housed by Curwen—present some of the most dread-filled pages within all of Lovecraft’s bibliography. Though these horrors are mostly hinted at, rather than given completely description (as say, the reveal of the Shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness), they become all the more powerful for placing the reader directly into Willet’s shoes and being forced to finally discover the unspeakable monsters living beneath this tiny town.

Afterward, the tragedy of Charles’ obsession finally reveals that the young Ward has been replaced by the soul of his disembodied ancestor: Joseph Curwen. Willet surmises that through a variety of ancient spells, rituals, and hinted alchemy, Curwen killed and replaced Charles’ being, and now intends to finish the nefarious plans set in motion more than a century ago.

As is Lovecraft’s predominant style, the author embellishes his narratives with impressive depictions of fictional creations through a vivid command of language. The inimitable style pulls the reader into the transportive realm of the text before concluding in the reveal of that great, supernatural horror–one whose believability has been soundly constructed through passages designed to hypnotize the reader through this wall of atmospheric realism. As a result, the final reveal builds with an almost unbearable weight of dread. In each major section, Lovecraft has left a trail of clues, hints at horrors to come, that allow the reader to piece together the unspeakable terror until the ultimate reveal of his horrific creation.


 While many of Lovecraft’s narratives are written from first-person point-of-view, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward uses third-person omniscient to expert effect. The story begins with a general impression into Charles’ life, then drastically changes gears to offer the full details of Curwen’s downfall, before reverting back to Charles’ perspective before ending with Dr. Willet’s.

In doing so, the reader becomes familiar with Charles, understanding his world as an actual person and not just as an investigate means of supernatural phenomena. Consequentially, his final fate allows for a demonstration of horror on both the cosmic and personal scale as Lovecraft has never executed so perfectly. Charles’ slow psychological unraveling, his inexorable descent into cosmic powers beyond his control, and the manipulation of this young boy into an expendable chess piece by his own ancestor all exemplify a beautiful merging of the true terrors found within the hearts of men and the cosmic horrors that they may conjure.



Unlike a number of other central Lovecraft characters—say Professor William Dyer in Mountains of Madness or Wilbur Whateley in Dunwich Horror—who either serve as the human functionary unraveling the horrors, or, as in Wilbur’s case, as the actual cosmic phenomena to be later revealed, Charles Dexter Ward represents as a unique combination of both. Charles begins as an innocent child with inclinations that border the bizarre, but never necessitate any cause for worry. But as he digs deeper into his unusual family lineage, Charles’ downward spiral into the occult echoes many of the familiar metaphorical tragedies that would befall a young man due to individual struggles, e.g.: alcohol/ drug addiction, depression, mental illness…that Charles’ ceaseless obsession into Curwen creates a very unique type of dread for the life of this young boy that separates itself from similar character in the Lovecraft canon.

As within the climaxes of cosmic horrors necessitating a very calculated amount of prior clues to propel the reader towards the ultimate reveal, Charles’ own storyline works in a similar, dreadful fashion. As the boy begins to psychologically unravel, his mother and father’s concerns escalate into a subplot of severe family tragedy. As Charles’ experiments with Curwen’s writings soon require his isolation from family, his mother is asked to leave all meals before his door and forbidden entry from contacting him. The mother’s clear disgust for her son’s unstoppable obsession soon becomes apparent, and the reader watches with accumulating dread as these parents must witness their young child begin to lose his mind. Eventually, Charles’ mother’s own sanity collapses under the mental strain and she is sent away to Atlantic City for an indefinite stay: never to see her boy again. Meanwhile, Charles’ father–Theodore–takes up the fight alongside Dr. Willet. The anxious father soon recognizes that his son’s interests with Curwen has driven into a treacherous realm of unstable mental illness, and perhaps toward death or an even worse, unspeakable conclusion.

After his discovery of Curwen’s catacombs beneath the farmhouse, Willet pieces together the true horror of what has happened—that Charles has been murdered by Curwen and the young boy’s body is being possessed by the very ancestor summoned by the boy. Upon realizing what he must do, and how he will be the one responsible for killing Curwen (vis-à-vis Chalres), Willet understands that his actions the following day will result in Charles’ death. What follows is Willet’s letter to Theodore—Charles’ father—explaining how the case will conclude:

“It is better you attempt no further speculation as to Charles’ case, and almost imperative that you tell his mother nothing more than she already suspects. When I call on you tomorrow, Charles will have escaped. That is all which need remain in anyone’s mind. He was mad, and he has escaped. You can tell his mother gently and gradually about the mad part when you stop sending the typed notes in his name…So don’t ask me any questions when I call…There will be nothing more to worry about, for Charles will be very, very safe. He is now—safer than you dream…But you must steel yourself to melancholy, and prepare your wife to do the same. I must tell you frankly that Charles’ escape will not mean his restoration to you. He has been afflicted with a peculiar disease, as you must realize from the subtle and physical changes in him, and you must not hope to see him again. Have only this consolation – that he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing. He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no on should ever reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him…There will be, indeed, no uncertainty about Charles’ fate. In about a year, say, you can if you wish devise a suitable account of the end; for the boy will be no more. You can put up a stone in your lot…that will mark the true resting-place of your son. Nor need you fear that it will mark any abnormality or changeling. The ashes in that grave will be those of your own unaltered bone and sinew – of the real Charles Dexter Ward whose mind you watched from infancy – the real Charles with the olive-mark on his hip and without the black-mark on his chest or the pit on his forehead. The Charles who never did actual evil, and who will have paid with his life for his ‘squeamishness’. That is all. Charles will have escaped, and a year from now you can put up his stone. Do not question me tomorrow. And believe that the honour of your ancient family remains untainted now, as it has been at all times in the past.”

While Lovecraft has written some of the most unsurpassably gorgeous descriptions of fantasy and horror in all of literature, the above letter from a doctor to a father explaining that his son will be dead tomorrow is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s most poignant and heartbreaking. In this above passage, Lovecraft has masterfully merged a union of horrors between the tragedy of human affairs and the consequence of cosmic insignificance. Though Lovecraft’s legacy both in literature and pop culture will always honor him for imbuing the genre with fantastically creative creatures and conceptions of dread that remain amongst the most innovative the genre has to offer, one of the author’s own best works was almost never given the chance to even be presented for any audience. Moreover, one of the author’s most unique characters was almost lost amongst the other classics of the Lovecraft canon. A tragedy that would have made impossible the case of a young man’s downfall—the precocious young Charles Dexter Ward—who provides an invaluable link in representing terrors indicative both to the author’s own philosophical output and those tragedies found in the heart of human nature.

Book Review: The Bighead


     The Bighead—along with the rest of Edward Lee’s novels—have long held an infamous spot within the dark shelf of the horror genre known collectively as the “splatterpunk”. This subgenre distinguishes itself from its horror siblings by—and it bears repeating that this is within the horror genre—excessively graphic depictions of violence and gore. The Bighead itself has long held a reputation as something of a dare for genre readers—a book filled with countless descriptions of the most gruesome, nauseating, stomach-turning scenes of sex, violence, and horror.

From the very first sentence, the reader is able to quickly gauge whether they have the stomach to power through three hundred more pages filled with similarly grotesque sentences or not. This is not the type of horror that haunts you. That is, the type of weird horror that weaves a strong atmosphere of dread before a Lovecraftian glimpse into voids of indescribable terror, nor is it the type of nauseating and vivid horror mastered by guys like Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon, who tell a strong, suspenseful story of terrible and gruesome acts with characters that—although often detestable—are still recognizable as human beings.

Instead, Edward Lee kicks it up to eleven in nearly every category. Often employing a colloquial prose in chapters concerning either the Bighead or the two deplorable redneck hillbillies Tritt and Balls, the writing simultaneously places the reader within the very uncomfortable skin of the two despicable killers while also putting the vile actions at arms length from ever experiencing some of these over-the-top murders in any realistic way. In other words, this colloquial verbiage allows the reader a glimpse into the Bighead’s mindset with passages reminiscent of something akin to a serial killer’s diary, while also distancing any plausibility of how unbelievably over-the-top such savagery could ever be.

If Lee were to write these passages with a straight face, employing the normal prose utilized in chapters with the “normal” character (Chastity, Jerrica, the Priest), the tone would drastically shift from the more pulpy and self-aware disgust into horrors that would become too comically disgusting to bear. While many would (perhaps rightfully) argue that these never-ending descriptions of creative disgusts are already “too much”, this change in perspective using the “hick” dialogue within the prose serves its purpose for both tone and narrative in a unique and stylistic method.

For readers seeking out The Bighead for a thrill, to test boundaries of good taste and violence, then the book certainly delivers. Moreover, these elements are satisfied within the first fifty pages or so, which make the next couple hundred more tiresome than they should be. The reader becomes accustomed to the rhythm of the book, knowing that after one or two quiet scenes that usually consist of character finding out expository plot details, the next chapter or two will be louder than hell and fulfill its task of topping the previous disgusting scene with even more creative and perverse way to send shivers up the readers spine. Certain elements of the ending may serve as a point of dispute, but by that point, arguments toward the overall quality of the book should more or less be rendered mute.

Still, The Bighead lives up to its reputation for those interested. The novel is filled with some of the most perverse, disturbed imagery that one can imagine, and though this is more for shock and thrill purposes, than any type of horror that will crawl under your skin, one should seek out the novel at least to be a part of the discussion and claim to have powered through the infamous novel. Certainly recommended to fans of the horror genre, and those looking for a book that will illumine its most vile corners.