I’d like to welcome back fellow horror author and friend Thomas S. Flowers for a special guest post about the unusual inspiration he received from the Tod Browning classic Freaks. Then stick around to check for an excerpt of Thomas’s latest release Dwelling, which is now available to purchase on Kindle and paperback at Amazon.
One of the best parts of Tod Browning’s feast of film, Freaks, is the intro. Here’s a sample of what you’ll see as the opening credits roll.
Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter. BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversity were invariable cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE AND LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world’s course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB AND KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is worldwide. The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it. Occasionally, one of these unfortunates was takes to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for the amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving. For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such a people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.”
What a powerful message, right? We are forewarned with a somewhat strange historical account for the philosophical reasons for the most traditional accounts of ethnocentrism. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s presentation of Tod Browning’s production of Freaks follows one of the most classic idealizations and horror film motifs, the carnival. According to film historian David Skal, Tod Browning first became enthralled with the carnival when he was sixteen years old, “infatuated with a dancer, a so-called sideshow queen in the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company” (The Monster Show, pg. 28). The unusual attraction to the carnival for those in my generation is probably best seen through the eyes of Ray Bradbury in his epic novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Dark images of Ferris wheels silhouetted against dark skies. The circus, as far back as I can recall, has always been a place of strange attraction. We do not venture to the circus to see the mundane, after all. In the history of cinema, film began very in much the same way, as a sideshow vaudeville.
Freaks takes us through a doomed tale of a trapeze artist named Cleopatra (performed by the ever talented and beautiful Olga Baclanova) who discovers that a circus midget by the name of Hans (Harry Earles) has a sizable inheritance. She knows Hans is in love with her and decides to marry the lovesick performer, all the while concocting a dubious plan to murder him and steal his fortune, running off with her lover, a dim-witted strong man by the name of Hercules (Henry Victor). But everything is not as it seems. Cleopatra is openly disdain towards Hans’ fellow freaks. And when Hans’ friends discover what is going on, they band together and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves both Hercules and Cleopatra knowing what it truly means to be a so-called “freak.” One of the greatest and most historic scenes, I thought, was at the end, during a torrential downpour as both Hercules and Cleopatra are attempting to flee from their would-be assassins. Hercules is caught under one of the wagons and as we watch with him, the freaks, knifes drawn, close in on him. Witnessing these mutilated forms drawing near, crawling through the mud, has always given me this sense of dread one hopes to find in movies such as these. Cleopatra’s fate is probably the most heinous albeit deserving (SPOILERS) when they mutilate her so badly she herself transforms from something of admired beauty to just another disdained sideshow attraction. When we first looked upon her, we swooned with love, and now as the film closes, we can’t help but scream!
There is little doubt that it was Tod Browning’s directorial success with Dracula (1931) which allowed him to work on what many have considered his masterpiece. This is my personal opinion, of course, but I think it is more accurate to say that Freaks was more of a passion project, considering his own past experiences working the sideshow as a geek up and down the Mississippi River. What I find most interesting about Freaks is the time period in which the film was released. Horror during the 1930’s, in my opinion, is retrospective of the decades past Great War. The maiming and grinding machines of war which ended in 1918 found its way into the picture shows of this era, in movies such as Freaks (1932) and even Frankenstein (1931) we find a representation of the mutilated shell-shocked forms of returning soldiers. One need only to look at Lon Chaney’s career to see what his custom-made effects were geared to symbolize, the monster. If this was an intentional use of symbolism is debatable, but nonetheless, especially in the 1920’s-1930’s, it was a familiar image in cinema. Even here in our own age we find the same symbolic gestures. Consider the last season of American Horror Story, subtitled: Freak Show. The season took us to the 1950’s at the encampment of one of the last remaining freak shows struggling to survive, not just financially, but also in discovering their place in the world. Said season is juxtaposed with the (supposed) end of the Iraq War (OIF), or at least the era of the war of which so many of my own generation fought and died or worse, survived —mutilated both externally and internally. Has Tod Browning’s classic 1932 Freaks found a new lost generation, witnesses to the horrors of war and the macabre afterbirths? To each their own, I’m sure. For me, Browning’s Freaks is a marvelous trip into the strange and unusual and was the inspired subtitle chapter in my novel, Dwelling, in which protagonist Johnathan visits Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Hospital to talk at a conference with fellow wounded veterans. During his visit, he’s confronted with all these images of mutilated soldiers and servicemen. Even he has been subjugated as one of the mutilated, the amputation of one of his legs after the Battle of Al-Hurriyah. He of course is struggling with his own demons, but during the conference he’s struck with this overwhelming sense of belonging, similar some might say to the kinship of sideshow attractees. Again, we’re drawn back to the opening credits of Tod Browning’s Freaks, “They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all.”
DWELLING by Thomas S. Flowers
Subdue Series, Book 1
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
Release Date: Dec. 8, 2015
: : : SYNOPSIS : : :
A group of inseparable childhood friends are now adults, physically and psychologically devastated by war…
A horrifying creature emerges from a sandstorm just before Ricky Smith dies in battle. Forced to leave base housing, his widow Maggie buys a home on Oak Lee Road in the town of Jotham. Maggie is isolated in the historic house…and disconcerted by strange clicking sounds inside the walls.
Jonathan Steele attempts to drink the painful past away…
Jonathan was wounded in that fateful battle and now suffers from PTSD. He wants to put the nightmare behind him, but when Ricky’s ghost appears with cryptic warnings about Maggie’s house, he begins to question his sanity.
Bobby Weeks is a homeless veteran struggling with a lycanthropic curse…
Afraid of bringing harm, Bobby stays far away from those he loves. But after a full moon, a mysterious woman approaches him and reveals a vision about a house with a sinister presence, and he realizes staying away might no longer be an option.
Minister Jake Williams lost his faith on the battlefield…
While Jake will do anything to reconnect with God, he turns to vices to fill the religious void. But a church elder urges him to take a sabbatical, and a ghost tells him to quit the ministry, and his life is more out of control than ever.
When Maggie wakes in a strange subterranean cavern, she can’t deny her home harbors dark secrets. Desperate, she sends letters to her old friends to reunite in Jotham, and events conspire to draw them all to the house…unaware of the danger awaiting them.
The friends have already been through hell, but can any of them survive the evil dwelling beneath the House on Oak Lee?
: : : PURCHASE LINKS : : :
: : : EXCERPT : : :
(Warning: Adult Language)
THE BATTLE OF AL-HURRIYAH
Something caught his eye. A glimmer. A shadow in the dark yellow fog.
The fuck? He reached for his binos in the turret. Across the street, Johnathan spied through the dust scratched lens vendors hastily tucking and clutching whatever goods they could get their hands on. Only the most meager of items remained on the street. Even the sound of the Humvees seemed to fade, as if the entire world was holding its breath.
What’s going on? Johnathan shook, his nerves pricked. Hairs stood on-end. His knees locked. He watched, hands resting on the M2 .50-cal. He searched for someone, anyone to put the tightening in his stomach at ease. Where are they going? Shadows snaked in between the empty spaces and seemed to grow larger. The yellow dust whipped the air. Al-Hurriyah was being consumed by it.
Johnathan could feel the lump in his heart become heavy. He pulled his scarf off. He choked on the dust, tasting all the nastiness of the Baghdad ghetto, but paid little heed. The soldier scanned his field of fire. Anticipation boiled in his veins. Then the yellow sand darkened again.
The glimmer returned, taking shape, forming in the dust. His mouth fell agape. “What the fuck is that?” He screamed inside, his mind rattled and confused and terrified.
From the alley across the road the shadows dissolved, giving form to some massive Thing with skin covered in bristle-like hair as black as tar. The bulking torso hissed, and swelled, hissed and swelled. Its thin, but otherwise muscular, fragile-looking legs twitched in the sand, protruding and stretching out, pulling down the tarps of the vender huts near it.
How many legs does this thing have? What is this? I’m dreaming, have to be. This can’t be…
In the dust-whipped wind what looked to be mandibles where its mouth should have been opened and then snapped shut. It was hissing, but the hissing sounded like clicking, the rattle of teeth in a glass jar or a snake poised to strike. On its head was an unmistakable shape, as frightening as it was. Bulging from its head, two swollen red eyes taking up nearly all of the creature’s face glared in the dust, compound, like the eye of a fly, gazing directly at him.
Its antenna drooped low, and then it began talking to him with a wild rush of clicks in its throat. The sound was terrible, reminding him of spring months back home, the swarms of cicadas that blanketed the canopy in his parents’ backyard every few years or so and the eerie sound they made, the clicking, horrible hissing, just like in that one movie Ricky loved to watch when they were kids around the same part of the year, the 1950s atomic-age science fiction flick, the one with the giant ants.
Partially hidden in the dust, the height of the hideous Thing was hard to guess, but whatever is was, it wasn’t possible. None of this was possible. It couldn’t be real, yet there it was all the same, hulking out from across the street, large and hungry looking.
“Are you seeing this?” Johnathan croaked, his voice pained with fear and doubt.
“What?” asked Ricky. He turned in his seat, looking out the driver’s side window. Searching. “I don’t see anything.”
“Are you fucking kidding me!” Johnathan yelled, panic stained in his voice. He kicked the driver’s seat.
“Dude, we’re about to dibby out. Stop being so jumpy,” Ricky scolded. “I don’t see anything, man.”
“Look, you asshole!” Johnathan kicked the driver’s seat again with his boot.
“Dude!” Smith turned fully around and peered in the direction Steele was gesturing. He fell silent for only a moment and then he yelled, “Get down!”
“We need to do more than—” Johnathan had started to say, but was cut short. He looked back to the alley where the Thing had been, but the monster was gone, replaced by a man with a shaved head shouting something terribly familiar and propping an equally terrifying object across his shoulder.
“RPG!” Ricky screamed on the radio.
The air sucked back. Johnathan thought he was going to puke as he watched a plume of white smoke rocket toward him. The world was motionless for a second, perhaps less. In that moment he thought of Karen and Tabitha, he thought of his childhood and his friends that filled it. Then the explosion hit, lifting his Humvee upward into the air.
The large metal behemoth came crashing back to earth with a thunderous moan. He fell inside. His head smashed against the gunner’s platform below. He saw nothing, only white, burning light. Outside, he could hear the crackle of gunfire faintly against the ringing in his ears, like fireworks in a neighborhood a block away.
People were shouting. His squad mates, maybe. Language seemed beyond him at the moment. He could smell sulfur and the awful hint of something else…like overcooked meat on the grill, he imagined, dazed and numb. Through the broken window he watched the battle of Al-Hurriyah with disbelieving eyes.
Another explosion struck somewhere nearby. Pebbles or chunks of the police station perhaps rained down on his truck. The radio was abuzz with noise, fire direction, casualties. Someone yelled through the mike, “Death Blossom.” Death Blossom…? Are we under attack…? Yes…Ricky called it out, didn’t he? His head rung with the battle cry.
Johnathan shifted his weight. One of his legs fell from the strap he used as a seat, the other felt strangely dead. He looked. Among the yellow dust and stars that filled his eyes, he could see, though blurred, the gnarled remains of what was once his right leg.
“Shit!” he screamed, clinching at his thigh. I can’t look. I can’t look. Ricky. Ricky? “Smith? Ricky? Are you okay, man?” he winced, straining to get a look at his friend.
More rattling pinged off his truck. Someone nearby yelled, “Got you, you fucking bastard!” Another voice screamed in language not entirely unfamiliar.
Must be some of the Iraqi police, he thought vaguely caring. Death Blossom…those assholes are going to ping someone in the back…
Something was pinching his neck. He reached and felt warmth and something hard. He dug whatever it was out and pulled his hand to see. He glared dumbfounded at what looked like a tooth.
Not mine, he thought, testing his teeth with his tongue. He looked at Ricky, but his form was covered in haze.
Gunfire continued to crackle outside, but in the broken and torn Humvee, the world felt like a tomb.
He could see Ricky now, lying awkwardly in his seat, one hand still clutching the radio receiver. Smoke wafted from his body. He didn’t move. And the smell…the smell was terrible.
Johnathan blinked. Not real. Not real. “Ricky, you son of a bitch, answer me! Are you okay?” he yelled. Hot adrenaline coursed through him like a drug, pooling in a venomous sundry of dreadful sorrow and hate, lumping together in his heart, stealing his breath. Maggie’s face flashed in front of him and then Karen’s, but he pushed them away.
Please, God. No.
: : : MEET THE AUTHOR : : :
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of fright. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His first novel, Reinheit, was published by Forsaken. He also has a short story, “Lanmò,” in The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean.org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
Robert “Sharky” Pruneda is a native Texan, video game “enthusiast” [addict], and fan of all things horror. He left a career in the newspaper industry in 2011 to pursue the life of a nocturnal author, brainstorming new and creative ways to creep out his readers. He doesn’t only write horror though. He also pens the occasional family-oriented tale just to keep from going completely nuts with all those creatures of the night whispering in his ears. When he’s not pulling ideas out of his twisted brain, you’ll likely find him on social media or fighting alongside his fellow gaming buddies where they all get shot up into Swiss cheese (or turned into little bite-sized chunks because of “Sharky’s” obsession with explosives). Medic!
Pursue your dreams . . . and never look back.
Twitter: Follow @SharkbaitWrites