Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Feeling Catty.

Animals pop up regularly in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. There are rats in The Pit And The Pendulum, the orangutan in The Murders In The Rue Morgue, a gold bug in, well, The Gold Bug and deathwatch beetles in The Tell-Tale Heart, and a horse in Metzengerstein. Poe’s famous raven was, in an early draft, an owl, and in The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether there’s a woman who thinks she’s a “chicken-cock” and I never want to see that on a KFC menu, but that’s another story.

And then there’s The Black Cat. It’s the first Poe story I ever read, and I distinctly remember sitting in the school library giggling like a fiend not because it was funny–it’s not–but because it was just so over the top gory and horrifying I couldn’t believe it.

It’s the ultimate Poe story, really, drawing not just on animals but other themes from his work: someone sealed in a wall, as well as a narrator who tries to shut off his violent impulses, repressing them until they erupt. There’s no moral, no message, no point really. The narrator barely makes an attempt to justify his actions and clearly feels no remorse, because, as Stephen Peithman says in The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, “the narrator sees everything in terms of black or white There is no middle ground.” He’s done evil things and therefore can’t see himself as anything but an evil person.

Maybe there is something to it, though. At the beginning of the story the narrator and his wife have acquired “birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat”. The cat’s name is Pluto and the narrator says he’s “sagacious to an astonishing degree”. Poe almost always uses the word “sagacious” ironically but here it seems to be sincere. Pluto’s a smart cat and his reward for it is the narrator cuts out one of his eyes then hangs him. The narrator’s house burns and even though the cat itself was cut down and thrown through the house’s window during the fire an after-image of a hanged cat is left imprinted on the wall.

Or is it? Supposedly others see it but we’re not exactly dealing with a guy whose word can be trusted here.

He and his wife get another cat–this one also missing an eye, and also black, but with a white mark on its chest. And the mark changes.

The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS ! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death !

I’ll let you look up a picture of a gallows if you want but let’s just say it seems a little too specific and elaborate to be a mark you’d see in an animal’s fur. It seems pretty obvious the narrator is projecting.

Or maybe that’s just what Poe wants us to see. Or what I think Poe wants us to see. Who can really say? When I was in fifth grade–just a few years before I read The Black Cat for the first time a kid brought a Ouija board to school. On a bright sunny fall day we convinced ourselves we were communicating with the spirits of the dead. There was a fence behind the school and woods beyond it, and that afternoon we all saw a face in a distant tree. One girl even said it winked at her, and I’m giggling like a fiend here because to this day I firmly believe we were only seeing what we wanted to see.

Counting Daves.

Big Dave was an English taxi driver. I met him when I was a student in England and he worked for a local taxi company that shuttled students back and forth between Harlaxton Manor where we lived and had our classes and nearby Grantham where we went to pubs and threw up in the street, but that’s another story. We called him Big Dave because he took up most of the front of the taxi. And also there was another guy named Dave who worked for the same company. Little Dave. He was the exact opposite of Big Dave. It’s not unusual to meet two guys named Dave, even two guys named Dave who worked for the same small company, but they were so different it was as though they’d both been cooked up in some mad scientist’s experiment. Big Dave had straight black hair with a streak of gray and jet black eyes. He always wore a gray-green jumper—sweater on this side of the pond—so he kind of resembled a big mossy boulder. Little Dave preferred powder blue shirts and had curly ginger hair, and he wore glasses over his pale blue eyes. Big Dave was also chatty and always had a story, like the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain, but Little Dave was quiet, and so small that if you sat directly behind him and leaned back you could almost imagine the cab was driving itself.

So one Saturday morning I was riding into Grantham with Little Dave and we passed a house that was covered with crows. Absolutely covered. There were so many I wasn’t even sure there was a house underneath. Maybe there was some ravens there too.

Source: Know Your Meme

“Did you see that?” Little Dave said. I perked up, unused to hearing Little Dave say anything other than “That’ll be £1.50” and “Ta very much.”

“The crows?” I said.

“Yeah, a lot of them on that house back there.”

I leaned forward. “Isn’t there some folklore about crows on a roof?”

And Little Dave started to sing, quietly:

“One for sadness, two for mirth;

 Three for marriage, four for birth;

 Five for laughing, six for crying:

 Seven for sickness, eight for dying;

 Nine for silver, ten for gold;

 Eleven a secret that will never be told.”

“There were a lot more than eleven on that house,” I said. “What does that mean?”

“It’s either really good for them or really bad,” and Little Dave started to laugh and didn’t say anything for the rest of the trip.

Living Dolls.

Source: Reddit

The picture of dolls carrying corpses that popped up on Reddit late last month—that’s right: someone put this display in their yard in September at the latest, getting the jump on Halloween—is so brilliant I don’t know where to start with it. Of course it’s creepy and disturbing but then dolls are creepy and disturbing already. So many have the uncanny valley thing going on and I remember being seriously unsettled by those dolls whose eyes pop open when they sit up and close when they lie down because I couldn’t stop thinking, do they die if they never sit up again? And I thought that might not be so bad if it meant not looking into those cold, lifeless eyes ever again.

Maybe that’s why scary dolls are a horror film cliché, from 1929’s The Great Gabbo through The Twilight Zone‘s Talky Tina, who still creeps me out as an adult because she looks like one of those dead-eyed dolls from my childhood, up through Chucky and Annabelle.   

All of them, I think, owe a little something to the original scary doll story. If you’re only familiar with Disney’s Pinocchio it can’t prepare you for just how bonkers Carlo Collodi’s late 19th-century novel The Adventures of Pinocchio is. The two have more or less the same plot but the novel is darker and more rambling. Geppetto’s a poor woodcarver and decides he’ll make a little money by carving a puppet, but the block of wood he’s using is alive–it talks and bashes him in the legs before he even starts carving, which should have been a sign to throw that log in the fireplace. There’s a talking cricket but after Pinocchio smashes him with a hammer he comes back as a ghost and is then reincarnated, but never with a top hat or an umbrella. There’s also a fairy but she has blue hair–I guess that was too radical for the 1940s so Disney made her blonde with a blue dress. In the novel she first appears when Pinocchio is being chased through the woods by the Fox and the Cat, and does nothing while they throw a rope around his neck and leave him hanging from a tree. That was where Collodi planned to end the story, so be good kids and sleep well! Just remember–one wrong move and you’re dead!

Collodi was convinced to, ahem, finish the story and he more than doubled the length, including some scenes that made it to the film, like Pinocchio turning into a donkey and later, restored to his puppet self, being swallowed by The Terrible Dogfish–Disney turned it into a whale, referencing the story of Jonah which I guess they considered more believable–and scenes that didn’t, like Pinocchio being thrown in jail, working as a watchdog, and accidentally giving a dragon a heart attack.

It all ends happily, of course, with Pinocchio, through hard work and concern for others finally becoming a real boy. Is that a happy ending, though? He’s been through about three years of pretty demented adventures without ever getting older, but as a real boy he’s going to grow old and eventually die. That’ll probably keep him up at night.

Send Out The Clowns.

That’s me under all that makeup.

Several years ago I had a small part in an independent film called Encounter. My first scene is pretty funny. The hero, a guy who’s seen a UFO, is complaining about how everyone thinks he’s crazy or a joke, and  the writer and director very cleverly had me start speaking off-screen, responding to the hero’s moans. Then the camera turns to reveal that I am, well, a clown—a drunk, angry clown doing shot after shot as I go into a foul-mouthed rant about how everyone thinks they’ve got problems but no one understands how bad I have it. Maybe I should preface that with a “spoiler alert” but, as far as I know, it was only released on VHS so the odds of anyone finding a copy, let alone having a way to play it, are pretty slim. I have a second appearance too, also as a clown—it’s a somewhat subtle joke; there’s also a guy in a therapy session with an I HATE CLOWNS t-shirt, which would explain why a clown really does have problems. And a lot of people do hate clowns, even before Steven King’s IT put a scary clown front and center, or rather in the sewer. There’s even coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. How many other professions can you think of that have their own phobia? Not even mimes have one and I think a guy trapped in an invisible box is a lot scarier than any clown, but that’s another story.

Some of us, of course, like clowns, and if you have a friend in the San Francisco area you can send someone a screaming telegram delivered by a clown, and you can even add some extras, like “cupcakes, to something more adult, like a bottle of Halloween Hooch served in a wrinkled brown paper bag”. Or you can order a video if they live elsewhere, although the ones delivered locally make me wonder how these clowns are getting around. Probably by car but still I think the only thing better than riding one of the city’s famous cable cars would be sharing the ride with a clown. Or maybe not. I’ve ridden the bus with enough bozos.

For extra fun send one to someone who hates clowns.

Source: Tenor

Here’s the trailer for Encounter and if you don’t mind a little adult language and want to see me in action you can also check out the outtakes.

He Told Us Where We Stand.

Source: RiffRaffStatue.org

There’s a statue of Riff Raff, the traitorous servant from Rocky Horror, on a street corner in Hamilton, New Zealand. That might seem like an unlikely place unless you know that Richard O’Brien, the musical’s creator and original butler, lived there and worked as a hairdresser, which might be why they gave the statue Riff Raff’s climactic look, after he decided to get his hair done at Dairy Queen.

There are also instructions on the statue’s base on how to do The Time Warp, the great dance that’ll take ya back to the moon-drenched shores of Transylvania, and a camera you can use to catch others doing The Time Warp if you can’t make it to New Zealand, and this is added to my list of approximately three thousand other reasons I’d really, really, really like to go to New Zealand, but that’s another story.

Why does Rocky Horror survive? It was a surprise hit on the London stage, a dud on the New York stage, and the film was a commercial and critical disaster that turned around into the biggest selling midnight movie of all time, developing a huge cult following, spawning a sequel, and I’m pretty sure it’s still a critical disaster because like anything campy it does everything wrong and does it brilliantly.

It’s also prescient in a weird way. It’s not just that Rocky Horror aggressively challenged gender norms. The sequel, Shock Treatment, would too, with Brad locked away like a fairy tale princess and finally rescued by Janet only after her rise and fall as a reality star. The never-to-be-made third film, Revenge Of The Old Queen would, if you can believe the bootleg scripts floating around, take things even farther: Janet goes her own way, Brad is dead and buried wearing nothing but a pearl necklace and high heels, and Riff Raff makes an unceremonious return to Earth, his teleporter putting him under a running shower head. If you wanna get really deep there’s even a fitting kind of symmetry in Tim Curry originating the role of Frank N. Furter but making a comeback of his own in the 2016 remake as The Criminologist—the life of the party reduced to a voyeur.

Way back in the early 1970’s when it all started O’Brien was riffing—no pun intended but let’s say it was intended anyway—on the glam rock of the time that killed the rhythm and blues rock that came before it (sorry, Eddie!), but he knew glam would burn out, or be taken down by whatever came next. When Riff Raff and Magenta crash Frank’s orgy they are the embodiment of punk rock, which makes it fitting that it’s the vengeful, murderous Riff who’s immortalized down under. Richard O’Brien knew the times they were a-changin’, and would keep changing. History doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme.

Because of the time difference whenever I check in on the Riff Raff statue it’s almost always tomorrow there, but it doesn’t matter. It’s always time to do The Time Warp.

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