A horror writer did not give us the best novel about the horror tradition in 2011. And no, I’m not referring to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (though it was epic). I’m talking about Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight, a sometimes achingly beautiful evocation of the horror host, Appalachian magic and the terror of family secrets. In other words, one of the most truly original works I have ever read.
Holman centers her story on the experience of Eddie Alley, who has his strange 1940s childhood in rural Virginia interrupted by the visit of two strangers from the WPA, one of whom happens to have a movie projector and a film can containing the 1910 Edison Frankenstein. Eddie’s introduction to the first cinematic iteration of the creature sets him on a path to New York City and to becoming “Captain Casket,” a horror host during the era’s golden age.
Most every horror fan knows something of the horror host phenomenon. Born out of the return of the Gothic sensibility in the late 50s and early sixties, it helped create two generations of “monster kids” who spent (“misspent” killjoys would say) part of their youth on the classic Universal tales of Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride, young fans who haunted the foggy moors with the Wolfman and swam in the black lagoon with the creature.
As I describe in Monsters in America, the monster kid phenomenon had its beginnings in 1958 when Universal Studios packaged fifty-two monstrous and macabre films and sold them to local TV stations and regional networks. Horror hosts made watching these films postmodern experiences before the term became cool, intercutting themselves into the flicks, using silly and self-referential sight gags and creating communities of monster fans…children of the atom reintroduced to the monsters of the 1930s. “Zacherly the Cool Ghoul” created one of the most famous of these personas in Philadelphia, though whole troops of terror-ific persona like Ghoulardi, Dr. Lucifer and Morgus the Magnificent followed. Ultimately, they all owed their schtick to Vampira, the acknowledged creator of the genre, who had a brief and unforgettable role as the scary, sultry and hilarious horror host on an LA network affiliate in 1954.
Holman shows us something of why monster kids became monster kids, her narrative revealing to us both the things that frightened them about their world and the things that made them want to frighten their world right back. Her narrative is haunted by war and violence with The Great War, World War II and the “War on Terror” rising up behind the characters like Nosferatu’s shadow. Terrors of the past and the present intermingle and are not diffused by repeated watching of schlocky horror. They are repressed, hidden and become Frankenstein’s Monsters, walking the earth and destroying the cocoons of safety and love we try to shape for ourselves and other people.
The characters we meet in Witches on the Road Tonight are nearly bottomless in their complexity, so much so that you will fight the desire to stay up all night finishing the book just so you can spend more time with them.
Captain Casket’s (Eddie Alley’s) campy humor, repressed sexuality and inability to face the darkness of his past make him a sad clown right to the end, capable of wry humor, deep compassion and very real cruelty. We meet his daughter Wallis both as an adolescent whose seemingly perfect world is about to change forever and as a cynical woman in her forties, a journalist and newscaster whose experiences in the Middle East and ability to damage and abandon those she loves makes her something of a horror host too.
Its important to note that Sheri Holman has previously written best-selling literary fiction that has dealt with everything from 19th century epidemics to modern “family values” and fertility politics. Here she continues to show her ability to write across themes and eras with a deep and empathetic knowledge of the horror tradition. Famous Monsters and other iconic artifacts appear. Perhaps more importantly, Holman captures what might have been the backstage feeling of a showing of Shock Theatre. The camera crew and host appear as heirs to the sideshow tradition, making fun of the films, themselves and of how they make fun of themselves. I have to add that this feeling of realism only adds to the pathos of the Captain Casket’s final show, one of the many unforgettable sequences in this extraordinary novel.
“Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains.” Beginning with this brilliant opening line, genre fans and anyone in love with beautiful and unforgettable writing will not be able to get enough of Captain Casket. Go pick this one up. I seldom re-read novels…I will be re-reading this one.