30 Years of Superman Annual #11: “For the Man Who Has Everything” (1985)

Comics

Superman 1

30 years ago, in the summer of 1985, the unassuming Superman Annual #11 appeared on comic stands around America. The cover, in a rarity for its time, announced the main contributors to the book in full at the bottom: By Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. Both creators had garnered a following at DC, Alan Moore on the critically and commercially successful supernatural horror Swamp Thing (one of my all-time favourite comic-book runs) and Dave Gibbons on the superhero space opera Green Lantern. The bold declaration of these creators on the front shows the faith that DC Comics had in these two British creators. The issue was a special one-off story – a 40-page story written by two of the best contemporary creators and starring the four biggest characters at DC – Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and of course at the center, Superman.

The story was the first of a couple Superman-centric stories Alan Moore would write. In 1986 he would follow up “For the Man Who Has Everything” with the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, illustrated by classic Superman artist Curt Swan and inked by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger. Whilst both rank among my favourite Superman stories, “For the Man Who Has Everything” remains my favourite of the two. It’s also my favourite Superman story behind Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s epic All Star Superman. It’s my favourite for two reasons – it’s a wonderfully self-contained story, with no loose ends (a miracle in today’s comic-book market); whilst a darker version of Superman, it doesn’t feature the bleakness that “Whatever” does; and it is perhaps one of the greatest character-studies in the history of American comics.

For the 30th anniversary of the story, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this classic issue and find out what makes it so unique and special.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons at a signing for Watchmen in the late 1980s.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons at a signing for Watchmen in the late 1980s.

One year before they would reinvent the graphic narrative with their masterpiece Watchmen, British writer Alan Moore and British artist Dave Gibbons would take on that most classic of DC superheroes, Superman. They would both take their unique flavour to the project and produce one of the character’s most intimate stories.

Krypton or Coruscant? Krypton illustration excerpted from Page 6 and Coruscant as seen in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Krypton or Coruscant? Krypton illustration excerpted from page 6 and Coruscant as seen in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Dave Gibbons provides his unique and beautiful feather line to the story, conjuring brilliant visions of a decrepit Krypton – perhaps a source of inspiration and at the least a forefather for the planet of Coruscant from the Star Wars prequels. The highlight of Gibbons’ work though is his facial illustrations. He imbues the entire cast of characters with startling clarity and emotional focus. You’ll never forget the insanity on Jor-El’s face, nor the heartbroken glances of Superman as his fantasy unwinds. His anatomy work is also brilliant – the fight scenes between Wonder Woman and Mongul and then Superman and Mongul have an untethered ferocity that was lacking in the issue’s contemporary mainstream comics.

Superman 3

The fight scenes are brutal in “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Wonder Woman battles Mongul on page 19.

However, as good as Dave Gibbons’ artwork is, Alan Moore’s writing is the true star of the issue. He breaks ground fiercely with the comic and creates perhaps the first true literary investigation into a classic superhero. As much as Swamp Thing was also reinvented in the classic The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” I wouldn’t really consider the character a classic superhero – he is a far more modern creation. Superman, on the other hand, was the first proper superhero – thus an entire genre of comics is named after him. In just 40 pages Moore delves into the psychology of the character in a way that other writer’s wouldn’t or couldn’t. This is what happens when you get such a talented writer treating these characters as real people – their actual character shines through the standard plots and machinations of the classic comics. That can be said of “For the Man Who Has Everything” in general. The plot is a standard comic story, not anything particularly original, but it is in how Alan Moore writes this plot that gives the story literary significance.

Furthermore, the fact that the story is a single story in just 40 pages makes it a particularly delight. I would rank it among the very best of Alan Moore’s masterpieces. This is perhaps controversial considering it is such a short work, but I would rank it far above all of his work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta.

The tragedy of fantasy

Superman 4

Krypton’s purity has been shattered. From page 8.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the story is that the logical depiction of Superman’s greatest desire – that Krypton never exploded and he would have a normal life with a family – goes so dismally wrong. The phrase is “be careful what you wish for,” I believe. Due to the fact that Krypton never exploded, Jor-El has become a radical politician and frequents with religious fanatics in a hope to restore the former glory of Krypton. Krypton’s infrastructure has nearly broken. After the shrinking and disappearance of Kandor by Brainiac, the beginning of a lucrative drug trade and racial violence with immigrants, Krypton is no longer the wonder city that the Silver Age Superman comics supposed it to be. This completely destroys the parallels between Superman and the story of Christ (Krypton as a pseudo-heaven) and crafts it into more of a dystopia, something not unlike the dystopias of A Clockwork Orange or Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Maybe Jor El wishes Krypton had exploded so he could have kept his pride. From page 9.

Maybe Jor-El wishes Krypton had exploded so he could have kept his pride. From page 9.

However, perhaps the most interesting facet of this fantasy is that in Superman’s wish for normalcy, all fantastical elements of his life – the weight of good versus evil – are reduced. With the removal and perversion of all good on Krypton, Krypton has fallen into an ugly state. This can specifically be seen in the maddened Jor-El. Jor-El, in all of the stories set on Krypton, has been seen as the very best of those on Krypton – a sort of figure for all to aspire too. Here, with his life’s research disproved he has retreated from his family, started hanging out with radicals and religious zealots, in an attempt to recover the purpose in his life that was destroyed the moment Krypton didn’t explode. It holds a dark mirror up to the life of Superman. If Superman’s purpose was removed, would he too become the evil of his father? Perhaps, perhaps not. But you can’t miss the dark parallels between the fallen Jor-El and those of Superman.

Jor El clearly has fallen far from the hero he used to be. From page 20.

Jor-El clearly has fallen far from the hero he used to be. From page 20.

The worlds of Krypton and the DC Universe

The comic brilliantly enriches the world of Krypton. From page 17.

The comic brilliantly enriches the world of Krypton. From page 17.

Another great element of Moore’s and Gibbons’ work is that they have built a real, breathing Krypton, something rarely seen before and rarely seen since. Sure, we’ve caught snapshots of that most fantastical planet before, but this is the first time that Krypton really felt like a real place with geography and streets and buildings. Most of this is achieved through the writing – Moore offhand refers to a lot of distinct neighbourhoods and streets. But Gibbons’ artwork also details this script, giving great visuals to these distinct neighbourhoods.

However, this is frankly nothing compared to the secret history of the DC Universe displayed within the pages. For a first-time reader of comics, this will go over their heads and not impact their reading positively or negatively. But for long-time DC Comics readers, there are so many references in both script and artwork to the larger DC Universe. It is a brilliant showcase of interconnectivity with a larger comic-book universe whilst also being a standalone story. It’s something more recent comics should take note of – this is how to build a real distinct universe without cramming comics full of guest stars or locations. There is everything from Lyla Lerrol being Superman’s dream wife, the countless cameos in the final panels of the comic, and the reappearance of Mongul’s Warworld.

The realism of superheroes

One of my favourite elements of the comic is Moore’s description of Mongul and Superman when they fight at the end of the story. Most writers just leave the excitement to be pulled off by the artist, but Moore’s details in the captions really enhance and capture a brutality and realism that couldn’t be captured by art. Basically, his words place you in the scene, and you can feel the shocks and impacts of the blows.

Alan Moore poetically explores the physical reality of superheroes. From page 27.

Alan Moore poetically explores the physical reality of superheroes. From page 27.

Take for example the excerpt above. In most comics, this would be one panel of Superman bursting through a wall and flying straight into Mongul, with the use of speed lines for added emphasis. It would look good, but Moore takes it a step further here. By spreading the moment over three panels, Moore is able to capture the details of the scene. It’s tactile, sensitive – you can feel the wall rippling and exploding. This is some of Moore’s best writing of superhero comics.

The worldview of Mongul

Alan Moore re-introduces Mongul as one of Superman's most frightening villains. From page 10.

Alan Moore re-introduces Mongul as one of Superman’s most frightening villains. From page 10.

Alan Moore also writes one of the most memorable stories featuring one of Superman’s villains, Mongul. A yellow hulk wearing a purple leotard, there is no way this villain should be as scary as he is. But through very simple reasoning, Moore crafts him into one of Superman’s most frightening villains.

Mongul delivers some iconic and chilling dialogue. From page 12.

Mongul delivers some iconic and chilling dialogue. From page 12.

His concise explanation of how he beat Superman with the use of the Black Mercy is chilling in its intelligence. His refusal to explain to Batman who he is denotes a massive superiority complex. And then asking the group of heroes, with the now famous chilling line, “Which of you would it be polite to kill first?” turns him, in two pages, from a standard C list villain to one of Superman’s most ruthless and terrifying. My favourite moment has to be when he tells the heroes to stop Robin from walking about: “Oh, and please tell the little yellow creature to stop shuffling. It distracts me.” It all adds up to making him a psychologically complex and unique villain, even if we don’t get a complete explanation of his motives.

Page 36 parallels Mongul's dream with his fate.

Page 36 parallels Mongul’s dream with his fate.

It is only after Mongul is beaten, however, that we get a glimpse of the true extent of his insanity. When Robin defeats him by dropping the Black Mercy on him, parallel panels show his defeat whilst Mongul’s dream plays out – knocking aside the Black Mercy, killing Robin, then tearing Superman’s head off and using it as his standard when he conquers the galaxy. It’s a brilliant piece of writing and artwork, showing that Mongul would never have the self-control that Superman has showed by giving up his dream to face Mongul. Furthermore, the one-page Epilogue details even further the dream he is trapped in, revealing him as perhaps the ultimate Darwinist nightmare.

Mongul as Darwinist nightmare in the Epilogue on page 40.

Mongul as Darwinist nightmare in the Epilogue on page 40.

The coming of age of Robin

The comic, despite being a Superman story, also functions well as a Robin story. A frequently derided and ridiculed sidekick, Robin has a great character arc in “For the Man Who Has Everything.” When we first meet Jason Todd, the new Robin, he is as juvenile and useless as previously pictured. Moore adds to this by making him into a horny teenager, leading to one of the funniest moments of the strip when he comments on Wonder Woman wearing so little in the Arctic cold. “Think clean thoughts, chum” always delivers a smile.

Jason Todd's adolescence provides some quick comedy. From page 2.

Jason Todd’s adolescence provides some quick comedy. From page 2.

However, when the Black Mercy detaches from Superman and attaches to Batman, Robin proves to be the smartest of all the characters. Whilst Superman tries to best Mongul in a match that is equal, and Wonder Woman has been beaten senseless at this point, Robin thinks to use the Black Mercy against Mongul to defeat him. His moments of capturing the Black Mercy, containing it, and transporting it to Mongul show him to be intelligent and resourceful – resources that he’ll need. When he finally defeats Mongul, it is a moment of triumph, showing that humans are not “almost intelligent,” as Mongul previously said. He outwits Mongul.

Jason Todd proves himself by defeating Mongul on page 35.

Jason Todd proves himself by defeating Mongul on page 35.

By doing this, Jason Todd proves himself as the new Robin in a trial by fire. Whereas Wonder Woman and Batman were both incapacitated by Mongul and Superman wasn’t really getting anywhere by trying to match his strength, Robin used his wits and ultimately defeated Mongul when the others couldn’t. It’s a great moment and works as a coming-of-age story for Robin.

The heroism of Superman

However, the greatest character study the issue offers is obviously that of Superman. Superman’s greatest wish as granted by the Black Mercy is to lead a normal life. For him, this means being happily married on Krypton with his people. He leads a normal job as an excavator at the Kandor crater. Superman is perfectly happy, despite a tortured relationship with Jor-El.

Superman is happy. From page 1.

Superman is happy. From page 1.

However, Superman’s characteristic is to protect people. And when his cousin Kara (in reality Supergirl) is brutally attacked by Phantom Zone protesters, he knows something is wrong. He can’t put his finger on it, but he knows something is wrong. Ultimately he can’t accept this reality – despite having his greatest wishes, Superman puts others before himself, and he knows that thus the reality of Krypton is discordant with who he is. Life could never have got this bad had he not intervened as he always does. So it must be fake. This leads to an absolutely heart-breaking scene in which he is separated from the son he never had.

Superman is separated from his son as the Black Mercy loosens its hold on him. From page 23.

Superman is separated from his son as the Black Mercy loosens its hold on him. From page 23.

This leads to perhaps the greatest realisation of who Superman is – heroism cannot be abandoned. He has to save everyone. And thus when he finally faces Mongul, he is angry like we’ve never seen him before. Their battle is violent because Superman is volatile and emotionally compromised by the events which have transpired. Although his Kryptonian family were never real, they were real for him – he has effectively destroyed a life that he has lived in favour of saving his real friends. This is incredibly distressing. We can see this in the following excerpts:

Superman 16

From page 28.

Superman expresses his fury. From pages 28-29.

Superman expresses his fury. From pages 29.

Ultimately, though, Superman defeats Mongul. He celebrates his birthday with his friends. We can see that the events have severely marked him when he tells Batman that it’s probably for the best that the new rose Batman had bred named Krypton was stepped on in the battle. The final panel with Superman reconfirms that despite the traumatic events, he will bounce back. With the company of his friends, and with his own personal strength, he has beaten Mongul. All wounds heal.

Superman is ready for his birthday party. From page 39.

Superman is ready for his birthday party. From page 39.

Well I hope you all enjoyed this look back at “For the Man Who Has Everything.” I certainly enjoyed looking back and talking about one of the greatest Superman stories ever published. I hope to make these anniversary retrospectives a recurring thing on Tales From the Border, so make sure to look back every now and again to check for more updates. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the funny pages!

Top 10 books I read at the University of Warwick, 2014-2015

Literature

In my second year of study at the University of Warwick, reading English Literature, my modules focused on mostly American literature. I did three modules covering the time period of 1780 to the present day, and a fourth module on science fiction and fantasy writing.

I really enjoyed my reading this year so thought it would be cool to rank the books I read for the first time this year. Below are the novels (and two short stories) that I thought were the best of my reading.


10. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (1856)

Benito Cereno

This novella, inspired by the real-life experiences of Captain Amasa Delano, follows a fictionalized Delano, sea captain of the Bachelor’s Delight, as they approach and board the battered San Dominick, a slave ship in a coastal region. Delano meets the captain of the ship, Benito Cereno, and his personal slave Babo, who seems a bit too close to his master. The ship has conscpicously more black than white people on deck. As Delano ventures deeper into the mystery of the San Dominick, he realizes all is not as it may seem. The novella is a brilliant examination of the American slave trade and is debated to this day whether the novel is pro or anti slavery. Melville’s minor masterpiece is thrilling, horrifying, and thought-provoking, and at only 100 pages or so it is a quick and gripping read.

9. Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing

Set in 1920s Harlem, Passing examines the friendship of two black women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare is happily married to Brian, a black man, and they have two children. Irene, however, has passed as white since she was a teenager, and is married to a racist white husband. As Irene begins to entangle herself in Clare’s world, her dangerous activities begin to threaten the safety of all concerned. A brilliant, short novel that examines the politics of passing for a different race, as well as the racial tensions of the era, Passing is also one of the most memorable novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Thoroughly gripping.

8. “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft (1928)

The Classic Horror Stories

Possible H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest short story, “The Call of Cthulhu” follows Francis Wayland Thurston, as he begins to piece together the notes of his granduncle George Gammell Angell. What waits for him is the truth of the universe as he discovers the horrifying Cthulhu cult and it’s figurehead. Terrifying, atmospheric, and doom-laden, it is one of the best pieces of horror and science fiction writing ever. Despite the out-and-out racism throughout, the short story is captivating and speeds along to its horrifying climax. Unforgettable.

7. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic, post-modern second novel is a slice of brilliance. Capturing brilliantly the insanity and decay of 1960s America, the novel follows Oedipa Maas as she uncovers a conspiracy dating back centuries concerning postal delivery. Haunted by the image of a muted post horn, she meets many weird characters on her journey, which is a 1960s odyssey through the seedy underbelly of America. Utterly unique in it’s approach to the novel, I wouldn’t try too hard to understand exactly what is going on at all times – simply fall under Pynchon’s spell and let the whole thing wash over you. At just over 100 pages it is easily one of the most readable books I’ve read.

6. “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving (1819)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories

“Rip Van Winkle” is perhaps the closest America has to a creation myth. Weaving together the folklore of the early settlements in America, particularly the Catskills, with the political revolution of independence, “Rip Van Winkle” effortlessly sums up and critiques the main problems of the beginning of the country. And it does this with a brilliant use of fantasy – lazy Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 20 years and when he wakes America has won it’s independence from Britain. At the same time comic, disturbing, and weird, it’s a classic of American fantasy and perfectly captures the mysteriousness of the Catskills. It’s many passages describing the forests and mountains are unforgettable.

5. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s epic western is an American revision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Instead of Kurtz, we have the Judge; instead of Marlow, we have the kid. Epic and spanning the vast swathes of desert and brush, Blood Meridian is easily one of the most disturbing studies of violence and the human condition you’ll read. The Judge proves to be one of the most memorable of American villains – up there with Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell of The Night of the Hunter (1955).

4. Pastoralia by George Saunders (2000)

Pastoralia

George Saunders’ collection of short stories Pastoralia is a piece of genius writing. The stories assembled are all memorable. Saunders combines the real world of down and out America with the cartoony world of pulp fiction. An amusement park where staff are employed to permanently live as the exhibits; a male stripper targeted by the rotting corpse of his grandmother must help get his family out of financial decline; these are just two of the six stories in the collection and each is better than the last. Saunders’ stories are deeply affecting, emotionally gripping, intellectually stimulating, and absolutely hilarious.

3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)

Narrative Frederick Douglass

Douglass’ masterpiece of a memoir charts his childhood born into slavery, his adolescence as he grasps the importance of reading and writing to his eventual freedom, and the struggle that nearly destroys him as an adult as he decides he would rather die than live another day as a slave. Douglass proves in this slim volume that he is at once one of the most remarkable people that has ever lived and also an economic writer of brilliance. A short memoir that captivates you and is a real page turner, by the ending you will be emotionally drained but you will come out feeling that you have become somehow a better person by sharing in his struggles. Douglass is someone who fought for years, by mind and by fist, for his freedom, and when he finally gets it the moment is so full of ecstasy and glory it is hard to describe. The fact that this novel, whilst debated at the time, didn’t mobilise the anti-slavery movement to the extent that the dire and melodramatic Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) astounds me.

2. The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902)

The Virginian

The novel that practically kick-started the western genre, Owen Wister’s The Virginian is a mythic and epic tale and also a modern mythology for the United States. The Virginian is one of the greatest of literary heroes. One third moral and social philosophy, one third romance, and one third western action and daring-do, the novel is gripping and a thrill to read. The Virginian’s on-going feud with Trampas, and their shootout that ends the novel is unforgettable. His courtship of Molly Wood is magical and will have you turning the pages. Their romance explodes on the page. An absolute treasure of a volume that should be read by everyone.

1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

As I Lay Dying

Faulkner’s southern gothic novel is a harrowing read. Before Addie Bundren dies at home in the poor fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, she lets her family know that she would rather be buried in the town of her birth, Jefferson. The members of the family all narrate the novel in a stream-of-consciousness style as they traverse Mississippi with the dead body to honour her wishes. The characters are flawed, horrifying, and deeply disturbed. Darl, Anse, Jewel, Dewey Dell – these are characters that you will never forget. Their odyssey will change them all in ways they cannot forsee and reveal all of their true colours at their most grotesque. An absolute masterpiece.


There you have it folks. If you’ve read any of these novels or short stories and wish to talk about them don’t hesitate to comment. I enjoyed all of these works and cannot wait for my next year at University.

Film Review: Kill List (2011)

Film

Kill List Poster

Spoilers follow.

My attention was brought to this film during the research and preparation for my earlier article, Top 10 American folk horror stories. I had heard (and was intrigued by) of Ben Wheatley before, mostly from his well-reviewed film A Field in England (2013), so when I saw that Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) was the most heavily recommended among reader suggestions on the BFI’s list of 10 great British rural horror films, I had to give it a go.

Essentially Wheatley’s film is a muddle of genres. It’s at once a gritty urban crime film and a folk horror in the tradition of The Wicker Man (1973). The story follows a British soldier named Jay who, returned home from a horrific time in Kiev, becomes a hit man with fellow friend Gal. Jay’s mind becomes increasingly unravelled as he starts to tick names off of his “kill list,” and as a conspiracy begins to emerge. His family and fellow hitman become concerned when he starts to lose control and becomes determined to end the conspiracy laid out in front of him.

Kill List 2

Many plot details – including the hints of some sort of Satanic cult, child sacrifice, and a conspicuous videotape – are shared with Nic Pizzolatto’s television show True Detective (2014). It makes me wonder whether Pizzolatto has seen Kill List. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had. Whilst the two share similarities in plot, both have distinct flavours. Whereas Pizzolatto’s show melds itself into the southern gothic, Kill List has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The long tracking shots and focus on a hidden, tortured psychology are reminiscent of Kubrick’s film, and it’s clear that Kubrick’s shadow falls heavy on Wheatley. Fortunately Wheatley feels up the challenge and provides one of the best chillers in recent British cinema.

Also notable is the film’s use of violence. As Jay begins his mission of retribution upon discovering a child pornography ring, he begins to loose it. Whereas Gal would prefer something quick and clean, Jay delights in savagely killing those responsible. He claims, in a scene in which he burns the bodies and evidence, that they deserved it; but I wonder if that is really his motivation. His experiences in Kiev loom over the film’s events. Jay is a man who has been marked by violence, and cannot help but succumb to it’s release.

Kill List 4

Really, it’s the last half-hour of the film that makes it worth viewing. I was wondering slightly where the film was going, but the pieces really come together and the deck of cards fall once Jay discovers the cult. In many ways the film, whilst holding its own, couldn’t exist without its predecessor The Wicker Man. The sense that the finale is fated and that Jay and Gal never had any other options is inescapable. And as they are hunted through the forests and tunnels of their target’s estate home, you can’t help but let the dread flow over you.

Kill List 3

Particular highlights of the film remain the naturalistic screenplay / dialogue and performances. Neil Maskell as Jay and Michael Smiley as Gal (Tyres from Spaced?!) shine. Their deep friendship is at moments affecting and others volatile. They share a lot of chemistry and it really shows on screen. MyAnna Buring as Jay’s wife Shel is also a highlight. Whilst perhaps less interesting due to a lesser involvement in the main events of the film, she is captivating as Jay’s much concerned wife.

Ultimately I’m not exactly sure what Wheatley is saying, or if he is saying anything at all. I think that’s OK, though. This film is unashamedly a genre picture. Wheatley proves himself to be a modern master of suspense as he melds the genres of the hitman thriller with the British tradition of folk horror together seamlessly. The twists and turns afforded by the twists in genre and convention will keep all viewers on the edge of their seat.

Kill List 1

One thought remains though. Perhaps the most evil character in the film isn’t Jay or his employers or the cult-members, but Shel. How can she sleep at night knowing her luxury is paid for with the lives of others? The suspicious morality of these characters, especially and Gal who seem a bit more down-to-earth than Jay, is what disturbs me the most. They are all lost in the drama of the story, and ultimately none can escape it.

Wheatley goes for the throat with Kill List, and the result is nothing less than horrifying. A solid genre picture and a great continuation of the British folk horror cycle.

8/10.

Top 10 American Folk Horror Stories

Comics, Film, Literature, Television

There is a large tradition in the horror genre across media of the folk horror story. Mark Gatiss, in his excellent BBC documentary series A History of Horror, notes that the three definitive films of the subject are Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), and The Wicker Man (1973). These films often featured countryside and rural settings, with subject matter such as religious hysteria, paganism, and cults frequently popping up.

This particular sub-genre has fascinated me for a while. There’s something about these stories that really gets under your skin. I think it has to do with the desertion of the modern in them. By setting these stories in remote areas, with little contact of the outside world, a genuine chill arises. The modern, urban city characters that delve into the world of the rural are often lost and doomed by an evil that entirely predates their existence. As such, these stories often reach into much more disturbing subject matter than most other subgenres of horror.

The Wicker Man, arguably the greatest of all folk horror films.

The Wicker Man, arguably the greatest of all folk horror films.

Whilst I would generally agree that The Wicker Man is and will remain the greatest folk horror story, there remains a startling short-sightedness in Gatiss’ inquiry. He only includes British folk horror, and whilst there is a great collection of acclaimed British folk horror films, I would argue that there is a unique subset of American folk horror too. Whilst it isn’t as extensive as the British folk horror genre, it contains some brilliant horror stories that are deserving of more attention.

With the release of the trailer for the new film The Witch (2015) yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the American folk horror story. Listed below are my top 10 American folk horror stories from across media.


10. The Fog (1980)

A film deserving of far more critical attention than it has received, The Fog is one of John Carpenter’s minor masterpieces. Set in the fictional Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay, the film follows a cast of normal American folk over the course of two days as the village is laid siege to by the ghosts of mariners who were killed in mysterious circumstances. The pacing is slow, creepy, and suspenseful, leading to a final half hour of brilliant horror as the ghosts of the dead walk the streets of Antonio Bay, enshrouded in the titular fog. The film strikes at the heart of the corrupted origins of the United States.

9. The Village (2004)

The Village

A much underrated psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, of The Sixth Sense and Signs fame, the film follows the day-to-day life of the inhabitants of Covington, a small Pennsylvanian village in the 19th century. The titular village is surrounded by dark and mysterious woods, in which live volatile beasts. Between the people of the village and the monsters of the woods there lives an uneasy truce – keep to your space and I’ll keep to mine. To say much more would be to reveal too much, but Shyamalan strikes at the nerve in this one, and the folk horror trappings of this period drama provide lots of suspense.

8. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)

An illustration from the recently released Illustrated Edition by David Palumbo, published by Cemetery Dance.

The first and only novel on this list is also one of the few to combine the folk horror genre with the classic gothic novel. It is also Stephen King‘s favourite novel he wrote. Writer Ben Mears returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, after twenty-five years away. Soon after the arrival of an Austrian immigrant and his business partner, weird happenings begin. Soon, Ben realizes that ‘Salem’s Lot is in danger of being consumed by an ancient evil, and with a select group decides to fight it. The novel’s multiple character-driven narratives really gives a sense of place and of community, and as this community begins to fall apart the horror is all the more intense. As much a statement on the hypocrisy of small-town America and it’s hidden darkness, the story is also an ode to the classic good versus evil stories of the Victorian gothic.

7. Hellboy: The Crooked Man (2008)

The Crooked Man

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s ode to the Appalachian folkloric horror stories of writer Manly Wade Wellman turns out to be one of the strongest folk horror stories set in America. In 1958, Mignola’s character Hellboy encounters Tom Ferrell, a native of Appalachia who has returned home after decades abroad to atone for his biggest mistake – congress and initiation with the witch Effie Colb. Soon both Hellboy and Ferrell will have to face the terrifying Crooked Man, the Devil’s own representative on Earth who has come to claim the souls of the living. Ratcheting up the tension until the heart-stopping climax, in which Hellboy, Tom, and the blind Reverend Watts must defend their lives and souls inside a crumbling church as it is relentlessly laid siege by the Crooked Man and his coven of witches. Taking inspiration from real life folklore of Appalachia, the story is made all the more terrifying by Richard Corben’s supreme artwork.

6. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1835)

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1840, by Charles Osgood.

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne painted by Charles Osgood, 1840.

The first of three classic short stories to appear on this list (and the first of two by classic American author Nathaniel Hawthorne), “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is a savage indictment of the violence deemed necessary during the American Revolution. In 1732, Robin, a young boy, arrives in Boston from the countryside, looking for his family friend Major Molineux. Molineux is an official in the British government and has promised him a job in government. However, his search becomes increasingly mystifying and terrifying, as he gets lost in the labyrinthine city and malevolent forces begin to appear. The climax of the story is notable for just how unrelentingly horrifying and violent it is. Much like The Fog, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” stabs at the heart of America’s origins with ferocity.

5. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead

Five university students take a holiday trip in spring break into Appalachian Tennessee, expecting a few days and nights of relaxation, fun, and revelry. What they get instead when they read from the Necronomicon is a bloodbath as one by one demonic forces possess their group and they turn against each other. Unrelentingly violent and savage, Sam Raimi’s brutal 1981 cult-classic was championed by Stephen King as one of the most horrifying films he’d seen. It gave birth to an entire franchise and perhaps the only viable horror hero, Ash Williams. While the sequels would include higher budgets, more blood, and slapstick comedy, the original remains the scariest of them all. Appalachia doesn’t seem like that great a place to go holidaying anymore, does it?

4. “Young Goodman Brown” (1831)

A scene from

A scene from “The Forcibly Bewitched,” painted by Francisco de Goya, 1798. Used as the cover in the Oxford World Classics edition of Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s bizarre story, set during the Salem Witch Trials, is perhaps his most supernatural. Young Goodman Brown leaves the village of Salem, Massachusetts, and his beautiful wife Faith to do some unknown but unpleasant deed in the local forest. His increasingly hypnotic journey undermines his belief that human beings are naturally good and reveals his entire community to be at best sinful and at worst evil incarnate. This story has everything – from a witches Sabbath to references to Satanism and child sacrifice, the story holds no punches as Hawthorne furiously derails the philosophy of Transcendentalism and the supposed morality of the United States. The story was written due to guilt of Hawthorne’s own great-great-grandfather, who presided as a judge during the Salem witch trials, which also resulted in Hawthorne changing the spelling of his last name. Perhaps the purest American analogue to Britain’s own The Wicker Man.

3. True Detective (2014)

True Detective

Nic Pizzolatto’s masterpiece of a television show is not only an instant classic of the detective genre but also of the southern gothic and folk horror. Taking inspiration from the writings of Robert W. Chambers and H. P. Lovecraft, True Detective’s fist season charts the lives of two Louisiana detectives, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, over seventeen years as they investigate the murder of a prostitute. The case would eventually break open a governmental conspiracy and a Satanist cult, but not before defining both the professional and personal lives of both men as they become increasingly obsessed and darkened by the evil with which they are faced. A modern American tale that is an epic meditation on the eternal battle between good and evil, True Detective has a strong claim to being a definitive American narrative.

2. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, painted by John Quidor, 1858.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, painted by John Quidor, 1858.

The earliest story on this list, and perhaps the only one that can lay claim to actually becoming American folklore rather than taking inspiration from it, Washington Irving’s short story is known to all and is one of the earliest pieces of genuine American literature. Set in 1790 in the countryside around Tarry Town, soon to be New York State, the short story’s imagery has become ingrained in American culture. Poor Ichabod Crane being chased by the Headless Horseman remains one of American literature’s greatest moments. One of the earliest American short stories and perhaps America’s first true exploration of the horror genre, the story remains as mystifying and haunting as it was in the day.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch Project

Three student filmmakers went missing in the forests near Burkittsville in 1994 whilst making a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. A year later their footage has been recovered and edited into the film. As much famous for the hoax as for the film itself, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez‘ The Blair Witch Project remains a classic of horror cinema and perhaps the greatest example of American folk horror. The students’ descent into horror and madness in the endless woods, while being haunted by a terrifying, nameless evil, is truly one of the scariest films ever made. It popularised an entire subgenre of filmmaking (now known as found-footage) to a ridiculous scale, but whilst the genre would become increasingly predictable and uninteresting The Blair Witch Project retains its primal power.


Whilst the genre of American folk horror perhaps isn’t as famous nor as influential as its British counterpart, I find that the genre strikes at the heart of many readers or viewers. Isolated communities, religious hysteria, and Satanic cults all deliver something much more scary, disturbing, and thought provoking than most other horror subgenres.

Robert Egger’s feature-film debut The Witch, subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” seems to carry the torch of folk horror with much success. It has received critical acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is easily one of my most anticipated films. Let’s hope the genre can continue to thrive under Egger’s direction and continue to deliver subversive content.

The Witch