Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles,
ed. Ellen Datlow
reviewed by Graham Thomas Wilcox
Issue #3, Winter 2023
The first horror film was not an adaptation of pre-existing literature. That first horror film—George Méliès’ Le Manoir du diable—is more of a slapstick comedy than anything else, but it contains the devil, a cauldron, and a charmingly animated skeleton (which a man promptly smacks with a sword), and so one can see, in some ways, how it stands out as the first tentative step along the long, dark road that brought us Nosferatu, The Thing and Hereditary (among many, many others).
As I said, Le Manoir du diable was not an adaptation. But its immediate successors—such as 1911’s L’Inferno, which adapts a portion of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—very often drank deep from the well of literary influence. Soon, we began seeing more and more crossover: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein and, of course, Dracula. It is not within the scope of this review to determine when we first saw crossover in the other direction—from film to literature—but one imagines it could not have taken very long. Humans are fiends for borrowing, reusing and reconstructing, after all.
Now, over a century since the first horror film debuted and with hundreds—thousands, even—of its successors in circulation, one finds discourse on the interaction between film and pen divided. Imprecations against the harmful influence of the screen upon authors date back decades at this point: liters of ink (and uncounted electrons) have been spent on thinkpieces railing against authors writing works in anticipation of film adaptation, authors writing works influenced more by the cinema they enjoy than by the literature they read, and so on. Much of this is, of course, alarmism. Yet, as with much criticism, there exist kernels of truth hidden within the dross. Calculating the balance between two, however, is also a topic outside this review’s purview.
Yet, it must be said: if one harbored any doubts on the fruitfulness of cross-pollination between literature and cinema, Ellen Datlow’s 2020 anthology, Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, might just convert said doubts into belief. Published near the beginning of the COVID pandemic by Blumhouse Books, this anthology was perhaps a victim of its time, lost in the deluge of real-world panic accompanying its release date. This is, in my humble opinion, a crying shame. Ellen Datlow, editor par excellence for nigh on half a century, needs no introduction: her anthologies are legion, and legendary, not to mention her other storied work. But Final Cuts is, one might say, a cut above the rest. Clocking in at a chunky 456 pages spread over eighteen stories, it’s an excellent sampler of some of modern horror’s best. Each story within engages with the history of horror cinema in some way, and none of them do it poorly. It’s one of my favorite horror anthologies of the past five years, and one I’ve returned to often since first purchasing it. It is proof of the richness of the horror literary tradition and its ability to adapt to new circumstances and contexts, and to draw fresh meaning from old fare.
I would love to deal with each story here in turn and in-depth, for they all deserve some critical attention, but alas! My fellow editors approach, faces girt in grimness and axes of suspicious size gripped near, and I worry they seek to stem my loquacities at their very source. Ergo, brevity! Or my nearest approximation of it (one prays to Saint Hemingway for guidance, but he proffers scant guidance). So, in place of a longer breakdown I shall deal with my three favorite stories from the anthology: Gemma Files’ “Cut Frame,” Laird Barron’s “The One We Tell Bad Children,” and John Langan’s “Altered Beast, Altered Me.”
“Cut Frame” by Gemma Files was my introduction to Files’ work as an author (an admission that somewhat shames its speaker, given the depth and breadth of her oeuvre), and a particularly fine introduction at that. Similar to its fellow at the anthology’s end, Langan’s “Altered Beast, Altered Me,” “Cut Frame” experiments a bit with form and framing. Presented to us as a series of transcripted interviews, supplementary notes, Wikipedia articles, and other such excerpted documents, the story revolves around a Polish-Canadian dentist-cum-film producer and his interactions with a famed femme fatale of the mid-20th century, Tamar Dusk. In part a documentation of one man’s infatuation with an actress, and in part an iteration on the succubus motif, “Cut Frame” wields its frame narrative and subject matter to great effect. The use of aptly named “supplementary material” lends the story a real sense of history—perhaps even obituary, though that is left ambiguous by the tale’s conclusion. In many ways, the story inverts the succubus tropes: Tamar Dusk is not a daemonic killer, but rather a product of the Hollywood system, her mystical qualities exploited by those around her: her director and his cohorts, who form a sort of cult. There is a poignancy to the story that goes beyond mere inversion, however: Dusk is dangerous, and aware of her nature, yet simultaneously unable to stop it. In many ways, she is thematically more a vampire than a daemon, though of the tragic bent rather than purely monstrous. In our age of parasocial relationships, social media influencers, and the ever-increasing invasiveness of the public into the private, the themes Files work with here—and the method of their delivery, as if one is skipping through tabs on a computer, looking first at one thing, then another, listening in parts to an audio-file, then swapping over to an IMDB page, and so on—strike home.
“The One We Tell Bad Children” by Laird Barron is one of my favorites among the author’s more recent work. Like much of Barron’s work, it speaks to deeper themes—the perfidy of parents, and the guilt of the child that “gets away,” in this case—without meandering into explicit didacticism. Set in Barron’s Antiquity setting (an alternate, dark fantasy history of our world with cosmic horror overtones), the story begins with its protagonist, Vlad, watching over his (many) younger siblings. A knock at the door startles everyone and, in order to quiet them down, Vlad has his siblings watch a cursed film: Ardor of the Damned. The film stars their mother, and was filmed by their father. Both parents are implied to have abandoned their children only days prior, resentful of the burden of raising such a large family. After the film’s conclusion, Vlad goes out into the woods and there meets a daemon in the guise of Gregory Peck (albeit a Peck of fantastical bent). There, the two quibble over the terms of an agreement Vlad made with the daemon. From there, things go south in horrific fashion.
There are three things that elevate this story for me and, in a way, none of them are surprising, for they’re recurrent elements in Barron’s work: the quality of the prose, the strength of the worldbuilding, and the aforementioned thematic incorporation. At the sentence-level, there are few current authors (horror, or otherwise) who match Barron at his best. There is a Zelazny-esque quality to Barron’s prose both in its quality and its timbre, which moves between a spare, contemporary tone that recalls noir fiction, and a more ornamented, fantastical style (often reserved for descriptions of the film itself, in this case). The resulting fusion lends the story an element of unreality that bonds the worldbuilding together quite effectively. The dark fantasy version of the American frontier Barron constructs embraces anachronism and strangeness (the film in the story is recorded on cured entrail and depicted via a magic lanthorn rather than a projector, for example, and the weapons used throughout the story are a musket, a blunderbuss, and a boar-spear), and while in many cases I find this sort of juxtaposition somewhat off-putting, Barron pulls it off.
Finally, Barron touches on some heavy thematic material in this story, but does so without overhandling it, so to speak. The story is, ultimately, one about family: the ways in which our families might betray us, and (perhaps) the ways in which we might betray them in turn. The daemon in the guise of Gregory Peck is not truly the villain of the piece. He merely enables the evils of Vlad’s parents—and Vlad himself, even—by offering them a choice: sacrifice your children (or your siblings/parents) in return for freedom from the isolated wretchedness of rural poverty. There is an ambiguity and a realism to the evil on display: Vlad’s parents are not overtly monstrous, but rather resentful and neglectful. Vlad is not a young sociopath—indeed, far from it—but merely a boy seeking an escape from a bad situation. Yet at the same time, the story makes no excuses for either party, leaving it up to the reader to pass judgment. Beneath the fantastic veneer, these are real, human situations with few answers (and none of them easy). This underlying psychological realism—perhaps drawn in part from Barron’s own childhood in rural Alaska, or so one might presume—heightens the horror of the piece.
The final story of the anthology is also, in my opinion, its best: John Langan’s “Altered Beast, Altered Me.” An epistolary tale of vampirism told via that most modern of epistles, the e-mail chain (alongside a few handy Wikipedia articles and e-journalism features), Langan once again proves himself the modern master of the frame narrative. The overarching narrative comprises an email exchange between two authors, Gaetan Cornichon and Michael Harket (literary avatars of Paul Tremblay and John Langan himself, respectively), who chat with each other regarding a ring recently acquired by Cornichon at auction, and the subsequent horror stories it inspires him to write. This ring is, of course, the Dracula Ring, made famous as an element of the Count’s wardrobe in the iconic horror films of the mid-20th century. At first believing the ring a harmless prop, Cornichon dons it and begins writing.
The stories Cornichon’s pens under the ring’s influence, aided and abetted by Harket’s research into the ring’s provenance, form the tales nested within the frame. It soon becomes clear (or does it?) that Cornichon’s stories are more autobiographical than fictional, and the ring he wears is itself a catalyst for his burgeoning vampirism.
This summary does the story little justice, and indeed, I am not sure I want to say more, lest I spoil the effect for any readers interested in the anthology. Suffice to say, Langan’s ability to weave disparate plots together and invest them with emotional and symbolic meaning (and also just plain make them cool, which is a skill one can never over-rate) is prodigious. As is common in Langan’s work, we find him once again engaging with the notion of autobiography-as-fiction, and interrogating the extent to which we draw upon our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, throughout the artistic process. The connection between the author-as-vampire and the family-as-prey becomes more and more explicit throughout the story, and includes within it a lovely reference to Byron’s poem The Giaour, which is a little-used point-of-contact in modern vampire fiction (at least, explicitly).
Indeed, “Altered Beast” itself is replete with allusion and reference: the epistolary form, of course, recalls Stoker’s Dracula, but we see just about everything imaginable packed into the story: the Countess Bathory, Kostova’s The Historian, Warhol’s Dracula (as refracted, perhaps, through Laird Barron’s “Ardor” in his collection Swift to Chase), Bela Lugosi, and more besides. Langan’s use of allusion never comes off as pretentious or showy, but rather firmly sets his work within the long-standing tradition of vampire fiction. It feels celebratory—in suitably macabre fashion—rather than satirical or parodic. It is this element, I think, that I most appreciate about the story. This may be more of a “me” problem than anything else, but I find the vampire, more than any other horror staple, subjected to rampant cynicism masquerading as “satire” or “critique.” I am, by birth and breeding, a cynical man, and greatly fond of satire and critique (well, more the former than the latter, let’s say), but even the greatest glutton tires of the same provender day-in and day-out. In “Altered Beast, Altered Me,” Langan takes the vampire story seriously, and it pays off in the end.
To conclude: Final Cuts is well worth a look for horror fans. The creeping dread and framing narratives of the above stories might make it seem as if the entire anthology partakes of the “elevated horror” craze one sees bandied about in modern discourse on horror cinema, but that is not so. Datlow collected a group of stories with surprising thematic breadth: Garth Nix’s “Many Mouths to Make a Meal” is a delightfully pulpy mashup of noir and cosmic horror set in Hollywood’s “golden age,” and Kelley Armstrong’s “Drunk Physics” is an irreverent, yet effective, take on YouTube and parasocial relationships. There is a little something for every horror fan here, and if nothing else, the ticket-price is worth it for the three stories I discussed in detail above.
About the Author
Graham Thomas Wilcox is an author and freelance editor. He lives near the Atlantic coast with his fiancée and their two dogs.
Purchase the full issue here