Archive for the ‘Favorites’ Category

My favorite musician of all time, Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou (best known by his stage name, Vangelis), died last Tuesday in Paris at the age of 79.  And because he was the creator of a large fraction of the soundtrack of my life, I find myself very affected by his passing, more so than by any of the other relatively-recent deaths of musicians whose work I admired.  I wrote a Twitter thread featuring many videos, with a few facts and a bit of criticism, but here I’d rather share more personal thoughts about my relationship with his music.

Like many Americans, I was first introduced to his work by Carl Sagan, who used the third movement of Vangelis’ Heaven and Hell (1975) as the theme to his amazing and groundbreaking TV series, Cosmos.  And while I found the music lovely and moving, it was the music used in this sequence, demonstrating the evolutionary history of humans, that really took hold of my brain:

In those pre-internet days, there wasn’t any simple way to find the name of a piece of music used in a show if it wasn’t listed in the credits, and it wasn’t.  Fortunately, someone thought of writing in to TV Focus, the weekly TV magazine of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, to ask about the main theme, and somebody over there was able to name Vangelis as its composer.  Armed with that knowldge, I begged my cousin Jeff to take me to New Orleans’ best music store, Leisure Landing, where I found the Cosmos soundtrack and a number of other Vangelis albums.  Fortunately, part of the piece I was looking for was on the soundtrack album, along with its name, “Alpha”, and the name of the album on which it appeared, Albedo 0.39.  And it wasn’t long before I made another trip to Leisure Landing to buy it.  China soon followed, then Heaven and Hell, then Spiral; I played them all frequently, and copied them to cassette tapes for playing in the car (as we used to do in those long-ago and far-off days, dear reader).  They were among my favorite albums for playing while dallying with lovers, and to this day I cannot hear the titular song, which appears on Heaven and Hell, without thinking of lying in the afterglow with my first adult inamorata on lazy Friday afternoons in the early ’80s in my apartment near UNO.

Of course, I was much too young then to really feel in my gut what it meant to remember such things across a gulf of decades; even Vangelis himself was only 32 when it was recorded, and singer Jon Anderson two years younger still.  But in the many intervening years my brain has caught up with my very old soul, and the departure of my lifelong musical friend has left me feeling very old indeed.

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I’ll fuck you up, son.  –  John Jackson.

On Friday Liz Brown tweeted that someone had sent her the lyrics to this song with “Elvis” replaced with “sex trafficking”, but she appeared to be unfamiliar with the original song so naturally I shared the video, and it got so many likes and retweets I figured I should share it here as well.  The links above it were provided by Boatfloating, Dan Savage, Scott Hechinger, Radley Balko, Cop Crisis, and Dave Krueger, in that order.

From the Archives

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October Country, that country where it is always turning late in the year.  That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…  –  Ray Bradbury

My 2011 essay “Moondance” was mostly an examination of the psychological and philosophical consequences of modern people’s disconnection with nature, but it also included the following:

October usually enjoys a particular sort of cool weather, a crisp breeziness quite unlike that one might experience on an early spring day or a comparatively warm winter one; this is October Weather, my name for that special atmospheric condition I associate with turning leaves and the imminent arrival of my birthday. In New Orleans I was often cheated of it…but when [it] did arrive I was filled with a sort of wild, witchy joy; I wanted to stay out late, to suck the fragrant air into my lungs and fly through the night under the harvest moon with my hair streaming behind me. As a young teen I often sneaked out in the middle of the night to enjoy such weather, and after I arrived at UNO I would wander about the campus on such evenings or ride my bicycle to midnight movies…And though as I age my reaction to October Weather isn’t nearly as strong as it was in my teens and twenties, on clear, cool October nights I still feel the urge to go out and dance in the dry leaves under the moon.

I’m now a decade further from those days than I was when I penned those lines, and my days of dancing under the moon are long gone; each October takes me still further, and now my reaction to October weather is less euphoria and more blessed relief from the discomfort and anxiety produced by the excessive light and heat of summer.  October is more than just my native month; it is my native country, and the time in which I have always been most at peace and (paradoxically for a time associated with haunts, dying vegetation and the dying year) felt most alive.  I’ve always had a taste for the weird and macabre, for spooky tales and shadow-shows, for rain and dry leaves and pumpkins, for black cats and the imagery of wild woods, sunless seas, and catacombs; I was “Goth” long before either the term or the subculture existed.  So it should be no surprise to anyone that I gravitated first toward a profession associated with musty books, and later toward one associated with the night, nor that as I aged I moved my habitation westward (the direction historically associated with death) to finally settle in the region of this continent with the least sunlight and the most rain.  These days, I mostly celebrate this Month of Months with the watching of horror movies, culminating in my birthday; if you’d like to help me celebrate by sending a token of your esteem, I’d very much welcome that.  And as you’ve probably already guessed, many of the selections are very much in keeping with the season.

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A lot gets said these days about “representation” in popular media, by which people mean that it’s a good thing for children or adolescents to see people like themselves among their heroes in TV or movies.  Usually, this is used to mean obvious characteristics like gender, skin color, or disability, and sometimes less-obvious traits like queerness.  But for me, none of those traits meant anything if the characters displaying them were law-obeying, apartment-dwelling, boring-job-having authoritarian squares of the type television has always been infested with, and whose lives mine was never, ever going to resemble even if the character could’ve been my doppelganger in every superficial “representative” way.  By 1980 I couldn’t find a single network TV program which interested me in any way, and even before that the characters who interested me most were always outsiders, weirdos, and outlaws such as vigilantes, monster-hunters, and fugitives, or else characters who had figured out how to fit in while still doing things in their own idiosyncratic fashion.  Anyone more perceptive than I was at the time could probably have figured out that I was going to end up living outside of the law and at odds with the Establishment, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite shows since my mid-teens has followed the adventures of an eccentric, anti-authoritarian outlaw who stole a spacetime ship from his people and proceeded to wander about the universe, following his conscience rather than some set of arbitrary rules, and teaming up with a long succession of other misfits to ruin the schemes of tyrants, bureaucrats, psychopaths and other violent busybodies while freely associating with weirdos and freethinkers who rarely get along with their local “authorities”.  Yes, representation is important, and never more so than when the type being represented is those who refuse to allow themselves to be sorted into herds and driven to build up power for those who would rule others.

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The other day I saw a tweet in which someone expressed incredulity that others might not like something he likes.  Now, beyond this statement I’m not going to comment on the obvious silliness of the idea that everyone should like the same things, because I think normal people who aren’t cases of arrested development learn that sometime around the age of four or five.  Nor am I going to mention what specific thing he was tweeting about, because it really isn’t important to the point I want to make.  And that point is, there are lots of reasons a person might desire something in the abstract, yet never partake of it in reality.  No substance, object, activity, or other thing a person might like exists as a Platonic ideal; regardless of what pleasure or benefit someone might derive from a thing, there are always costs, drawbacks, side effects, complications or other negatives which tend to counteract the benefits.  And so every responsible adult decision to indulge in a pleasure requires consideration of the give and take:  Can I afford this?  Can I handle the negative health effects?  Do I have time today?  Will it somehow harm those I care about?  Obviously, immature, irresponsible, or foolish people often skip this consideration, with predictable consequences; so do those suffering addiction or mental health issues around the desired thing.  And puritans (or, again, people suffering from certain psychological or emotional disorders) often do exactly the opposite by denying themselves a pleasure whose negative effects are trifling, imaginary, or both.  But well-balanced individuals may very well refuse themselves things they would very much like to enjoy because in their judgment, the negative factors outweigh the positive.  I can’t help looking at the wide variety of delicious candies on display every time I go shopping, but I never buy them because I want to maintain my figure; I don’t drink nearly as much liquor as I’d like for exactly the same reason.  At this exact moment I’d prefer to be stoned, but I’m delaying that gratification so as to finish this essay; there are other drugs I haven’t partaken of for a while because I prefer to enjoy them with companions who have been isolating for the past year due to their own health concerns.  Pretty girls are nice to look at, but experience has taught me that doing more than looking is always more trouble than it’s worth, and as I wrote in “Out of the Dark“,

…there are some things I’ve found very hot my entire life yet have never acted on, and probably never will.  And there are other things I’ve tried, enjoyed and still find hot as hell, but will probably never act on again because they either come with too much baggage or it’s much too difficult to find the right person or persons to do them with.

And this, I think, is the main reason the tweet I spoke of at the beginning annoyed me so much:  if someone doesn’t share your likes it may simply be a matter of different strokes, or it may be that they do share them, but are less fortunate than you in being able to afford their economic, social, practical, or emotional costs.

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The venerable British science-fantasy series Doctor Who has been one of my favorites since it first appeared on our local PBS station (WYES in New Orleans) in the summer of 1981; like many Americans of my generation, the first episodes I saw were those starring Tom Baker as The Doctor, which originally ran from 1974-81.  But as most of you probably know now, he was only one of many actors to play the part, because when a Time Lord (that’s the alien race to which the Doctor belongs) dies, he regenerates into a new form, with a new face and a new personality.  When WYES realized how much pledge money the series brought in, the station naturally did its best to acquire as many seasons as possible; at one point they were playing the Fourth Doctor episodes (starring Baker) on Saturday night, the Third Doctor episodes (1970-74, starring Jon Pertwee) on Friday night, and the then-new Fifth Doctor episodes (1982-84, starring Peter Davison) on Sunday morning.  Eventually they even got ahold of as many of the 1960s episodes featuring the first two doctors as were then available; it was then I discovered that many of these early shows were missing, casualties of lean times at the BBC which caused many of them to be taped over because videotape was expensive and newer shows had to be recorded on them.  In the decades since, some of the missing episodes have been discovered in various places; others have been reconstructed with animation or stills from the original soundtracks (which all managed to survive).  What that means is, with some effort and ingenuity it’s now possible to watch the entire show from 1963 to the present, and last month Grace and I decided to do just that.  Lorelei Rivers is a Who superfan, and graciously allowed me to borrow her complete classic collection; we’ve already watched the first two seasons and soon we’ll move on to the Second Doctor, the one I’ve seen the least of.  Back in the ’80s, I loved watching the series with people who were dear to me, and prior to the pandemic Lorelei and I regularly enjoyed our Who nights; it’s great fun to see them again now with Grace.  And I’ve even started a running Twitter thread on my impressions of the old shows, which despite being less sophisticated than their modern counterparts are still a helluva lot of fun.

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Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies.
  –  Robert W. Chambers

Tomorrow is May Day, and today May Eve; though the tradition has waned in the past century, it was once viewed in the same way as Halloween: a night for ghosts, haunts and dark doings.  In my first column for the occasion I shared my list of the ten scariest short stories, and in last year’s column the scariest TV show episodes I’ve ever seen.  This year, I present thirteen main selections (five movies, two poems, one television miniseries, four short stories and a fairy tale) plus a few lagniappe items, ranging from the fun to the beautiful to the horrifying; most can be described by two or even all three of those adjectives, and I doubt many of you will be familiar with all of them.  I’ve provided PDF copies of all the tales and poems, and links to view or buy the shows.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)  A group of ambitious Lovecraft fans asked themselves, “What if his most famous story had been adapted for the screen shortly after it was published in 1928?”  The result may be the best of all Lovecraft film treatments, especially if you can appreciate silent film.

ChristabelChristabel (1816) is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sadly-unfinished poem of a lesbian vampire.  Though it has other complexities of theme, it is this overt meaning which has had the strongest resonance; J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) is basically a prose adaptation of it, and the lesbian vampire motif has appeared in many movies from Dracula’s Daughter  (1936) to the present.

The Kingdom (1994) Lars von Trier wrote and directed this bizarre Danish miniseries of ghostly, psychic and otherwise-weird goings-on at a super-modern hospital built on what was once a haunted bog.  Steven King adapted it for American television a decade later, with predictably piss-poor results; the original is much, much better.

Kwaidan (1964)Kwaidan is Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous film version of four Japanese ghost stories translated by Lafcadio Hearn.  The word “unforgettable” is badly overused in movie advertising copy, but this is one time it’s richly deserved.

Man-size in Marble (1893) by Edith Nesbit used to be very common in horror anthologies; it was one of the first horror tales I can remember reading, certainly before the age of ten.  But since it isn’t as commonly collected as it used to be, some of my readers may be unfamiliar with this chilling little example of the traditional English ghost story.

The Monster Club (1981) is one of the strangest and most uneven films ever made.  Vampire Vincent Price brings horror writer John Carradine to a London nightclub whose members are all humanoid monsters, and there tells him three stories: one sad, one absurd and one horrifying.  There’s also music and a stripper.  Don’t take this one too seriously; just enjoy the weirdness.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)  Though Vincent Price’s performance as the mad sculptor in House of Wax (1953) was superior to Lionel Atwill’s in this original version of the story, this two-strip Technicolor gem is better than the remake in almost every other way.  I especially love Fay Wray as Lois Lane prototype Charlotte Duncan, the ambitious and hardheaded “girl reporter” whose curiosity leads her to the brink of a gruesome fate.

Psychomania (1973) is another oddball British horror movie in which a sorcerer’s son turned motorcycle gang leader discovers how he and his followers can become undead, and after they do they embark on a reign of terror only his mother can stop.

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow was my favorite fairy tale as a wee lass; I must’ve asked Maman to read it to me hundreds of times.  You may wonder why a fairy tale is on a horror list, until I tell you it’s a Japanese fairy tale; if you still don’t get it, read the story.  Yes, I was a strange child.

The Vampyre (1819) is the only other surviving product of the famous “ghost story” contest between the Shelleys and Lord Byron that rainy summer on Lake Geneva.  Though Frankenstein eclipses it in every way, Dr. John Polidori’s entry (based on a plot by Byron) is the first known vampire short story in English, and influenced all which came after it.

Pauline and the MatchesThe Very Sad Tale of the Matches (1845)  Germany is probably the only country whose children’s literature is more horrific than that of Japan; I’m sure most of you are aware of what the original un-Disneyfied Grimm’s fairy tales are like.  Heinrich Hoffmann was a psychiatrist who wrote a cheery little book (originally for his son) named Der Struwwelpeter, in which minor childhood misbehaviors (such as nose-picking) precipitate horrific punishments (like having the offending fingers cut off by a man with gigantic shears).  This selection from the book has, in my opinion, the most striking disconnect between the tone and language and the awful goings-on therein.

What Was It? (1859) Fitz-James O’Brien wrote only a small number of tales before his untimely death in the American Civil War, but they reveal a talent which might have made him one of the greats had he lived to develop it.  This is the very first example of a story in which there is a creature who is invisible, yet tangible; it is not a ghost but a living being, and its invisibility is ascribed to an undiscovered scientific principle rather than a supernatural one.  If anything, the tale is even creepier because of that.

The Yellow Sign (1895) If you have watched the television series True Detective, you’ve heard references to the Yellow King and the city of Carcosa; both are borrowed from this story and others by Robert W. Chambers, which revolve around a mysterious play called The King in Yellow which brings madness to all who read it (or even own a copy).  Chambers’ work is of very uneven quality, but this one and “The Repairer of Reputations” (also included in this PDF) are outstanding.

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There are nights when the wolves are silent, and only the moon howls.  –  George Carlin, Brain Droppings

Schmucker witch 1911As regular readers know, Halloween is my favorite holiday.  Most of you have probably noticed that I try to do at least a few horror-themed columns every October, and a few even pop up at other times of year.  So in order to help y’all get into the spirit (hee hee) of the season, I’ve collected together everything on Halloween or horror-oriented topics I could think of.  First of all, there are my previous columns for the day itself: “Halloween”, “Samhain”, “All Hallows Eve” and “The Day of the Dead”.  “Moondance”  touches on very similar themes, and they’re also visited in “Saint Death”, in which I introduce you to Mexico’s Santa Muerte, the goddess of death.

One of the great pleasures of the season for me is horror fiction, and I’ve visited the subject a number of times which might surprise readers who don’t know me yet.  “Frightful Films” contains my list of the ten scariest horror movies and my favorite horror movies (which are not the same).  “May Eve” presented my picks for the scariest single episodes of TV shows, and “Walpurgisnacht” the scariest short stories.  I’ve also written quite a few horror shorts myself:   “Dry Spell”, “Friend”, “Mercy”, “Painted Devil”, “Pandora”, “Pearls Before Swine”,  “Ripper”, “Rose”, “The Screening” and “The Trick” all fall solidly into the category, and a few others (such as “Ghost in the Machine”, “Greek God”, “What Gets Into a Man…?” and this month’s “Monopoly”) are at least borderline.  I’ve also linked to two short-shorts from horror master Neil Gaiman, “Feminine Endings” and “Down To a Sunless Sea”, and a video wherein Gaiman explains a new tradition he’s trying to start called “All Hallows Read”.  You can even find two short horror films, “444-444-4444” and “Click”;  John Carpenter’s short spoof of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”; and other seasonal videos in this month’s Links #171, #172 and #173.  My column “Mass Hysteria”  compares the “sex trafficking” panic to that attending the famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, and links a recording for your listening pleasure; “October Miscellanea” contains an item about horror comics and a listing of shows featuring vampire whores, “My Favorite Halloween Stuff” introduces my favorite monsters, horror novels, Halloween songs and more, and “Eros and Phobos” discusses the link between sex and horror.  Finally, you may like these striking Harry Clarke illustrations from the 1919 edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s  Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and this Poe-inspired short film called “The Boundaries of Life and Death”.

I’ll leave you with this selection of spooky links from previous columns:

Zombie links

Lovecraftian links

General horror links

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Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul.
  –  Jimmy Kennedy

Ever since my second “favorites” column a year and a half ago, I’ve pondered what I would put in a favorite songs list.  It wasn’t an easy choice; after all, one hears so many more songs in a lifetime than one sees movies or reads books, and one’s feelings about them can change dramatically with mood or time.  So as usual, I had to come up with a few rules to bring the pool of candidates down to a manageable size; I excluded hymns, songs without words, songs in languages I don’t understand, and songs which were (in my mind) inextricable parts of longer works.  I also limited the selections to one per artist (in the case of songs deeply associated with that artist).  The rules made the process difficult, but doable; I had to cut off almost a dozen songs from the first draft, including everything from Jesus Christ Superstar and a Bulgarian folk song I really love.  What I eventually ended up with was a list of 40 twentieth-century popular songs in English, most of which (with several notable exceptions) were first recorded within my lifetime.  I would’ve considered some of these (the ones marked with an asterisk) my “favorite song” at some point in my life or another; the rest are simply ones that, no matter how much time goes by, I always find myself pleased to hear (or find myself singing or humming).

These are presented in alphabetical order with minimal comment except to note the writers and (where applicable) performers I prefer, featuring a few selected videos; if I’ve mentioned the song before, I’ll link the column in which I did.  And if any of you are surprised that a large fraction of these are dark and/or melancholy, you must not have been paying attention for the past three years.

Bette Davis Eyes  (Donna Weiss/Jackie DeShannon; performed by Kim Carnes)
Bohemian Rhapsody*  (Queen)
Born To Be Wild*  (Mars Bonfire; performed by Steppenwolf)
Brown-Eyed Girl  (Van Morrison) (Jeff strongly associated this one with me, so naturally it reminds me of him.)
Can’t Get it Out of My Head  (Electric Light Orchestra) (I like a lot of ELO songs, especially “Turn To Stone” and “Telephone Line”, but this tale of pining edges them out.)
City of New Orleans  (Steve Goodman; performed by Arlo Guthrie) (Sheer poetry set to music; one of the great American classics.)
The Cover of the Rolling Stone  (Shel Silverstein; performed by Dr. Hook) (I can never hear this without smiling and singing along; just good goofy self-deprecating fun.)
Crazy On You*  (Heart) (Probably my favorite rock song of all time.)

Diamonds are Forever  (John Barry/Don Black; performed by Shirley Bassey) (I like “Goldfinger” a lot, too, but this one stands alone better.)
Dreaming  (Blondie) (Blondie is one of my favorite bands so it’s tough to choose only one, but this would have to be it.)
Dust in the Wind*  (Kansas)
Edge of Seventeen  (Stevie Nicks)
Free Fallin’  (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) (Another hard choice because Tom Petty has a lot of great songs, but I think this is the one that sticks with me the most. )
Free Will  (Rush) (What lover of reason and liberty could not like these lyrics?  Good tune, too.)
Hazy Shade of Winter  (Simon and Garfunkel) (I generally don’t like covers as much as the originals, but the Bangles version featured above is an exception.)
I Never Do Anything Twice  (Stephen Sondheim) (Listen closely to the words.  This is from the film The Seven Per Cent Solution.)

Istanbul  (Jimmy Kennedy/Nat Simon) (I loved the original Four Lads version as a child, and was delighted when it was superbly covered by They Might Be Giants in 1990.)
The Logical Song  (Supertramp)
Love Reign O’er Me  (The Who) (A simple song, but one which gives me chills under the right conditions.)
Mr. Crowley  (Ozzy Osbourne) (This one grew on me for years until I included it in one of my stripping routines.  But I’m not a Goth, honestly.)
Mother Russia*  (Renaissance)
Ode to Billie Joe  (Bobbie Gentry) (Of course I love “Fancy”, but this haunting enigma of a song is one of the great ballads of the 20th century.)
Over the Rainbow  (Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg; performed by Judy Garland)
Queen Bee  (Grand Funk Railroad) (I liked it on the Heavy Metal soundtrack, and later it was Jack’s song for me.)

Real World  (Matchbox 20) (One of the few songs of the 90s that inspired me to seek out the album.)
Satisfaction  (The Rolling Stones)
Signs  (Five Man Electrical Band) (A song which has stuck with me for decades and still pops into my head every time I see one of the ubiquitous order-and-threaten placards that deface this entire country.)
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes  (Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach; performed by The Platters)
Stairway to Heaven  (Led Zeppelin) (In case you missed it, Heart did an amazing cover of this song a few months ago.)
25 or 6 to 4  (Chicago) (I’m not really a big Chicago fan, but this is an old favorite I still enjoy.)
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad  (Jim Steinman; performed by Meat Loaf) (It was extremely hard to pick a favorite Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf song, but this one captures the typical spirit of their oeuvre in a relatively short tune with memorable lyrics.)
Veteran of the Psychic Wars*  (Michael Moorcock; performed by Blue Oyster Cult) (My favorite Blue Oyster Cult song is just about a tie; though this I considered this one my favorite for several years, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is extremely close to it and contains my favorite single line in all of rock, “The door was open and the wind appeared”.)

Vienna  (Billy Joel)
Werewolves of London*  (Warren Zevon) (A great song from a unique artist, and one of the greatest first lines in rock history.)
What a Wonderful World  (Bob Thiele/George Weiss; performed by Louis Armstrong) (Louis Armstrong.  ‘Nuff said.)
What’s Up?  (4 Non Blondes) (This is almost tied with about half of the album from which it comes, especially “Spaceman”; it’s really a shame the group fell apart so quickly.)
Wheel in the Sky  (Journey)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps  (The Beatles) (You know what I said about the difficulty of picking one song for several of the choices above?  Multiply that by six.  I featured this one because it’s badly underrated, but “Eleanor Rigby” is a work of art and I couldn’t exclude it; see the rare 1966 video below.)
Windmills of Your Mind*  (Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman; performed by Noel Harrison) (This was my favorite song when I was 11 or 12; it’s from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair.)
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald  (Gordon Lightfoot) (Yes, another one about death; I’m sure you’re shocked.)

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Bobby didn’t want to come back, Mommy.  –  Dead of Night

Tomorrow is May Day, halfway around the year from Samhain; today is therefore May Eve, a springtime counterpart of Halloween.  As I explained in last year’s column for the occasion, “the night was…believed to be one on which spirits walked abroad, and…bonfires were [used] to keep them at bay…though it’s become less common in the past few decades, 19th and early 20th century horror stories often depicted dark doings taking place on April 30th.”  Last year I shared my picks for the ten scariest short stories of all time, and back in October of 2011 I shared my list of scariest horror movies; today I’m going to sort of combine the two and give you a list of video equivalents of short stories, in other words my picks for some of the scariest TV episodes I’ve ever seen.

Notice I didn’t say “of all time”; when I decided to do the list, I immediately realized that any list I could create would be like an antimatter version of the ridiculous lists created by twenty-something-year-old entertainment journalists, in which “of all time” actually means “since 1984”.  Since I stopped watching commercial television in 1980, broadcast television in the mid-‘90s and virtually all new television in 2003, my experience is as skewed as that of those young critics for whom the word “cheesy” usually means “anything in black and white or without digital effects.”  But just as I was about to give up on the idea, I realized it didn’t matter; many of my younger readers may not know of most of these selections, and I suspect even my older readers may be unfamiliar with some of them.  So without further ado, I present my top nine (and a few honorable mentions), listed in chronological order by original air date.

1)  One Step Beyond, “Vanishing Point (February 23rd, 1960)

Unlike its contemporary The Twilight Zone, this show featured dramatizations of reports of psychic phenomena and other weird happenings; sometimes the real people who claimed to have experienced them actually appeared on camera in an epilogue.  Regardless of one’s opinion of the veracity of these accounts, they made captivating television and, thanks in large part to the directorial talents of John Newland and haunting music by Harry Lubin, many are as creepy as anything ever to appear on the small screen.  In this one, a man is tried for the murder of his wife after she vanishes without a trace…and after he is acquitted for lack of evidence, his research discovers that she wasn’t the first mysterious disappearance in the house’s history.  HM:  “The Forests of the Night

2)  Thriller,The Grim Reaper (June 13th, 1961)

William Shatner - The Grim ReaperThis effective tale of a haunted painting stars William Shatner; those who only know him as an action star or an elderly self-parodist may not realize that before Star Trek, he often played psychologically-disturbed young men tormented by internal (or external) demons.  His most famous role of this type was of course in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, but other examples include “Nick of Time” (The Twilight Zone), “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (The Outer Limits) and “The Hungry Glass” (earlier in this season of Thriller).  Considering that the latter two stories are honorable mentions in this list and the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (like “The Grim Reaper”, written by Robert Bloch) has a few horrific moments as well, that actually makes Shatner – an actor not generally associated with horror – the name appearing most often in this column.

3)  The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life (November 3rd, 1961)

Anthony FremontThough this series scored a very high number of brain-searing episodes, this tale of an amoral six-year-old with godlike powers edges out all the others in my estimation.  Its power to haunt is attested by the fact that there have been at least two attempts at sequels or remakes designed to paste a happy ending onto the horror, as if to exorcise it from the re-makers’ minds.  Honorable mention:  “And When the Sky Was Opened”, based on a Richard Matheson story of the wholly inexplicable and utterly horrifying fate of three astronauts.

4)  The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,Final Escape (February 21st, 1964)

This series was known more for suspense than horror, but sometimes it’s a hard line to draw; the very first episode, “Revenge”, is so shocking it still had impact when remade for the revival series thirty years later.  In my opinion the later, hour-long episodes are not generally as good as the earlier half-hour ones, but this episode about a convict’s attempt to escape from prison is as harrowing as anything which has ever aired.

5)  The Outer Limits, “Wolf 359 (November 7th, 1964)

This series is remembered especially for its monsters, all of which were created with the minimal special effects available on a television budget of the time.  The creature in this one is literally a hand puppet, but in the context of the story (about a tiny artificial planet haunted by a malevolent spirit-like entity), framed with skillful directing and a creepy Harry Lubin score, you probably won’t care unless you’ve sacrificed your capacity for imagination on the altar of CGI.

6)  Night Gallery,The Cemetery (November 8th, 1969)

Night Gallery The CemeteryRod Serling did not produce this series (he was only its host and an occasional writer), and it showed; its quality was far below that of The Twilight Zone, and a few episodes are almost unbelievably bad.  This one, however (from the original pilot movie) is not one of them; it stars Roddy McDowell as a young ne’er-do-well who murders his uncle in order to inherit his fortune…only to find that the old man has no intention of staying put in the grave.

7)  Space: 1999, “Dragon’s Domain (December 5th, 1975)

Dragon's DomainAs I have explained before, this British series is usually mistaken for science fiction because of its conventional sci-fi trappings such as spaceships and laser guns.  But nearly all of its threats are thinly-disguised supernatural ones; they include a ghost, a vampire, an immortal serial killer, possessing spirits, a cannibal race and even an immense entity clearly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth.  But it’s the tentacled Lovecraftian horror in this episode that gave a generation of young fans nightmares, and the creature itself is only the most obvious scare in a show that gives frissons from start to finish.

8)  Dead of Night, “Bobby (March 29th, 1977)

BobbyAfter Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis went on to produce a number of made-for-TV horror movies (including the pilot for The Night Stalker).  Many people remember Trilogy of Terror, and though the first two stories making up Dead of Night are nothing to write home about, the third part – “Bobby” –  is something else entirely.  Richard Matheson penned this utterly terrifying story of a woman so obsessed with her dead son that she resorts to black magic to get him back, and soon discovers what a truly bad idea that was.

9)  Tales from the Darkside, “The Geezenstacks (October 26th, 1986)

GeezenstacksThough this series was often creepy or spooky (though many episodes were funny, confusing or just irritating), very few episodes were actually scary; this is one of those few, and in my opinion the scariest one (though it’s one of those that gets scarier the more you think about it and talk about it to friends at 2 AM).  The script was adapted from a story by Fredric Brown (notice how some of these names keep popping up in different columns?) about a family who discovers that the daughter’s dolls seem to be predicting everything that happens to them.  HM: “Inside the Closet

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