Truth Be Told

They die. If you tell the truth. Sometimes slowly, sometimes on the spot. It depends on the truth being told and it’s weight. The heavier it is, the faster it flattens bone into fragment, pulverizes pulse into a bloody pulp. 

The first time it happened was on the morning news, live. The camera panned across a generic studio audience to the show’s co-anchors, your typical man and woman duo. The man was tailored tight into his fancy suit, grin taut across his too- straight teeth. His arm was slung almost casually across the snug settee the pair occupied, his fingertips just skimming his female co-host’s shoulder, something the smug slant of his lips knew and savored. The woman did not smile. Her lips were set in a fine line. She was looking forward, maybe at the audience, perhaps at something beyond, her gaze focused but unknowable. She shrugged off the man’s prompting, probing fingers and scooted towards the edge of her seat, trying to escape his reach. Then, when the studio audience silenced and the show’s theme song died, she told the truth.

It was a crushing truth. A twisted one.

She told that studio audience and roughly several thousand watchers at home, psyching themselves up for their daily doses of drudgery, exactly what bottom line her boss really wanted to discuss with his female employees, herself included. More male employees than not followed their boss’s example, she said. Those who did not were more than willing to look the other way. Clearly, she had not informed her co-host beforehand of this deviation from the usual drivel, his hand he had not removed from her shoulder earlier now almost recoiling from her as if struck. 

The woman probably hoped her revelation would have impact. She probably never believed that it would.

Not two very tense minutes after the reveal though, an intern came barreling into the studio, blubbering and soaked in blood. Every frantic jerk sent red splattering, some into the studio audience which sat stunned until now, perhaps believing the woman’s piece and the boy’s entrance a part of some poorly contrived bit. The screaming started all at once, people flinging themselves frantically over each other to reach the exit in the back. The camera remained fixed on the boy.

He’s dead, the boy managed in between sobs, his voice barely rising over the panicked clamor. He’s dead. I was handing him his coffee, how he liked it. Decaf, two sugars and…. Just blood, there was just blood. He…his body, it… There was just so much…

The boy seemed to succumb to his shock, then, bloodstained hands falling limp and listless at his sides and eyes vacant. His knees gave out next, springing back like over-stretched rubber bands, and he slid to the floor, the syrupy sludge of blood and viscera that formed beneath him making an audible squish at the impact. 

The cameraman, perhaps not knowing what else to do, spun back towards the anchors. The woman’s gaze was still unknowable and focused but now slightly off-center, clearly intent on the boy covered in her boss’s blood. Former boss’s blood. Her male co-anchor was not as affected. In fact, looking back on it, he seemed downright scornful, his smirk a sneer, jaw clenched, and his frame strained beneath his fancy suit. An accusing finger now pointed at the boy collapsed on the ground. 

He should be arrested. The man declared to the several thousand viewers who were no doubt glued to their screens. And, He turned on his co-host, positively scathing. So should you. For libel. Conspiracy. Premeditated murder. Whatever you call this shit. You should be ashamed of yourself.

That broke the woman out of her trance. She turned her sights on her co-host, slow and calculating, spine straightening but head remaining slightly crooked. The slant of her chin was more like a slash, severing shadows and cutting the glare of the studio lights on her skin into pieces, creating a jagged corona around her face. It seemed like the image of that bloodstained boy was embedded in her eyes, her gaze taking on a reddish hue as the camera continued to role.

Ashamed, she said at last. Is that what I should be? 

The camera closed in on the woman. Her red-dyed eyes appeared to glow bright in their sockets, their glare alight and alive. Scorching. 

That’s an interesting observation, Mr. Hands-On. But, She leaned in then, close enough her co-host must’ve been able to hear the click-clack of tooth against tooth as she asked, If I should be ashamed, then what should you be?

The man fell back from her and onto the floor as if shoved out of his seat, shocked and sputtering. His scornful gaze was now considerably softened, almost pleading. Rather than address the man groveling at her heels though, the woman turned her attention to the camera. There was something almost dreamy about her expression, transcendent even. Now, her eyes definitely gleamed, a shiny sharp red. The studio lights made her incandescent, blazing. Her lips twitched, the beginnings of a grin taking form.

If I were you, She stared straight into the eyes of her viewers. I’d be afraid.

On the floor, her co-host followed their former boss’s example for the last time. He twisted like a corkscrew, joints wrenched from their sockets, blood spewing and flesh flying. An arterial spray painted the brazen woman in jagged strokes of crimson, turning her into a living stained glass window. A lone, agonized screech escaped the man before he burst into a pool of bloody sludge, bits of bone and teeth soaring towards the camera. A full smile split across the woman’s face. Her tongue flicked out, licking at a drop of blood caught on the corner of her mouth. For a second, her eyes closed as if savoring the tang. 

Telling the truth never tasted so satisfying.

Very afraid. She rose and started forward. You should be very afraid.

A scream sounded and another spray of blood sliced across the set. And another. And another. Till the camera finally cut out. 

The woman never stopped smiling.

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Hey~ I hope you enjoyed my little horror story ^.^ This week’s writing prompt was Censorship. I decided to explore the ways in which women who come forward against their abusers are often not only censured but censured. Women often have their lives ripped apart, everything they’ve ever done dissected. People are looking for reasons for why they deserved what happened to them or for why they may be lying. It’s almost more horrifying than anything I could write because it’s real life. To respond to that censure in some way, I decided to write a story where there are actually consequences for the men who hurt women. I decided to rip mens’ lives apart for a change. I think it came out terribly well. But, let me know your thoughts~

Far Too Many Teeth

They come. They always do. The sea brings them to me. Swallows them up and swishes them from cheek to cheek before spitting them just shy of my shore. The only haven in sight for miles. Mama used to say with a smile. Any port in a storm, my little minnow.

I didn’t understand, at the time, why she smiled so widely nor why it prickled me so. There was an…edge, to her grin. Something cutting in its curl. Sharp. It wouldn’t occur to me why until many years later and many more ships spat ashore. Too much teeth.

I have always called this lonely speck of misbegotten rock in the middle of this surly grey sea home. The only watchful gaze I knew better than Mama’s was that of the storm’s. Mama hated when those stormy eyes found us. Hated that moment of calm that would fall when an eye settled on us. It’s the only time she ever spit back at the sea. 

Any port only works if there’s a storm, after all. 

Even many years after her death, Mama’s teeth still gleam in my mind. Too much. Too many. Like those odd fish that sometimes washed up with the ships and sailors, dragged up from the darkest depths, jaws jagged with needle-point teeth. Yes, just like those fish. They were almost always dead by the time their broken bodies caught on our craggy shore, not made to thrive in the unforgiving world above. 

Mama died on a stormy night like this one. Wind howling across the isle, rain biting skin, battering this sliver of world we call home. A ship skid on the horizon, sails slanted, desperately trying to prevail and failing. 

Sailors are so foolish. Mama chuckled, her smile starting it’s upward slice. They always underestimate the storm. Her power. They think they can make her theirs, my dear minnow. They think they can own her.

On the sea, a strong gale tears through the ship’s sails and its bow sinks low, probably taking on water, same as every other ship lured from its course into our waters. Overheard, thunder beats the sky from blue to black. The faintest of screams begins to join the clamor. Those sailors will be screaming on my shore before the candle in my cabin has the chance to burn halfway. They will die before the light does.

In my memory, Mama’s eyes burn. More like lightning than any candle, so striking and yet so fleeting. They only burned like that when she reeled in the night’s catch. When she gutted bellies, pulled out innards, dyed the sands of our little shore and the long hems of our pilfered muslin dresses a deep, dark red. Anything we couldn’t use, she’d toss back into the sea. Like those odd fish. An offering, she called it.

I guess she believed us blessed.

Foolish, she said that night, licking her teeth clean. To think they can own her. Control her. Storms belong to no one, my little minnow. Remember.

She was right.

The wave that swallowed her flopped over the rocky lip of our shore like a large, languid tongue. It slammed her almost casually into the rocks, jagged edges tearing through fabric and flesh, red bleeding in between the points. She screamed, I remember. A piercing sound. My little minnow! But, I wasn’t so little anymore. Neither were my teeth. Or, my appetite. 

Saliva flooded my mouth and blood thundered in my ears and I remember wondering at the storm brewing inside me.

My little minnow!

I caught the eye of the storm. It was nearly overhead. Mama never liked her gaze. Mama spat in her face and threw her our leftovers. Foolish.

I let the sea have her, the last leftover.

Now, I watch as the ship sinks even lower, draws ever nearer my shore. Once faint screams now overtake the winds’ howling. Thunder and blood thump in my ears. A smile with far too many teeth cuts across my face. 

Storms belong to no one.

©Kelli Hayes

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Inspiration Work ~ En La Lejania by Adriana Madrid

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I joined the Writers Circle at my library! This week, the group write stories based upon this picture prompt! I thought is was a very inspiring work and I wrote a story that I am quite happy with! I hope you enjoyed this little taste of horror! Definitely look forward to more!

I Don’t Hide From God: Exploring Horror in Hannibal (Season 2)

(Check out my thoughts on season 1 here~)

*As usual, some spoilers ahead…

Usually, every series has seasons that are decidedly better than others. For example, I think it would be hard to argue that season 2 of Arrow (2012-2020) was not a head above the rest or that season 3 of Legend of Korra (2012-2014) did not bounce back hard from the epic failure of its almost unmentionable prior season. It seems to be the natural course of television. When it comes to Hannibal (2013), though, I find it hard to sever one season from the whole. It is such a fluid show, each season bleeding effortlessly into the next. It seems almost discourteous to single any one season out from the rest of this body of work. In regards to horror, though, I think that the second season of the show really emphasizes and articulates the horrific and profane themes introduced in the first season. The second season of Hannibal (2013) is arguably much darker and more dreadful than the first with a strong undercurrent of rage and vengeance propelling much of its plot. The question of “What is evil?” dwells just below the surface of the mind. We wonder just how similar the faces of God and Satan are and, more, how similar their resemblance may be to that of Dr. Hannibal Lecter or, as the series progresses, that of Will Graham. Season two of Hannibal (2013) realizes the bloody consequences of the actions perpetrated in the first season as well as complicates the answers to the moral questions posed throughout the series. This makes for a season that is both physically and psychologically gruesome.

What stands out to me most about this season is the interplay between perception and belief, between knowing and unknowing, believing and disbelieving, light and dark. In this way, the whole season feels like a kind of back-and-forth game. There’s an almost dark playfulness to the interchanges that occur throughout the season. We know more lies below the surface of these exchanges. The figures of Hannibal and Will become representative of these binaries, weaving together and apart, each character a foil and complement of the other. This puts them in symbolic conflict, something noted through the series through visual cues and their positioning within scenes. For example, Hannibal is often shadowed, his face like an idol, a symbolic godhead, the only thing visible which is representative of his almost Luciferian role throughout the show. Shadows also creep and bleed over scenes and characters, symbolizing Hannibal’s influence. When Will is receiving “therapy” from Hannibal, scenes often grow darker, leaving Will shadowed. Other characters such as Randall Tier (“Shiizakana”), a former patient of Hannibal’s, also appear in swaths of shadow to seemingly demonstrate Hannibal’s influence upon their actions. In contrast, Will is often shown in brighter spaces, his cell at the asylum and his cell-box in the visiting room both appearing under starker lighting. The labs where crimes are laid bare for observation also exist under unapologetic and unforgiving light. This lighting can fluctuate, though, such as when Will and the orderly attending him conspire to murder Hannibal or when Beverly Katz discovers a clue that implicates Hannibal in the Chesapeake Ripper’s crimes. In those scenes, the lighting is considerably dimmer and darkening, seemingly implying his influence and how Hannibal is always in control of the situation, even when you think he’s not. Especially when you think he’s not. 

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me break down a bit more of the season and the aspects of it that I believe serve to construct it’s creeping sense of dread and horror. 

When the second season opens, we are with Will in the cell that Hannibal ensured he would call home at the end of last season. Will’s fear from last season of not being let out of Dr. Chilton’s asylum for the criminally insane has been realized. Will appears to us in a state of constraint. We quickly realize how tenuous that constraint is, in more ways than one. Unlike in the last season where Will’s consciousness was compromised by Hannibal choosing not to treat his encephalitis which was causing lost time and mini seizures, in this season Will is terribly sane from the start. Almost cold and calculating. More, he is clearly and rightfully (righteously?) angry. It is a bitter and vindictive anger but also a resigned one? Will is being accused of the Chesapeake Ripper’s crimes after being framed by Hannibal — who actually is the killer. It is something Will knows for sure, can finally see. Unfortunately, Hannibal has “backed Will into a corner”, so to speak. This is where we first begin to feel that this season will be a game, one of perceptions and persuasions, ebb and flow. Hannibal made his moves last season and now it is Will’s turn to make his moves — and he does.

Even being confined as he is, Will is able to sow the seed of doubt in Dr. Chilton’s mind about Hannibal’s culpability (with the help of Gideon, the formerly accused Chesapeake Ripper) and conspire with an orderly (sympathetic enough to his plight to kill a bailiff in his trial) to kill Hannibal. While neither move is successful, it does demonstrate Will’s own growing moral ambiguity as well as his increasing willingness to kill someone who he believes is guilty and deserving. We see Will developing his own sense of justice in this unjust world. It is also the first inkling we see of Will’s transformation, his “becoming”.

There is an interesting interplay between confinement and freedom that occurs while Will is locked up that seems to further emphasize the importance of perception. Almost every shot of Will while he is in his cell is shot from his perspective, placing the characters who visit him behind the bars looking out, not so subtly conveying to viewers that those characters are actually the ones being constrained by false beliefs. In this case, their misinformed beliefs in Hannibal’s innocence and Will’s guilt. This perspective also demonstrates Will’s own frame of mind, indicating to viewers that he perceives himself to be free in comparison to those still unknowingly under Hannibal’s influence. The only time we really see Will physically constrained is when he is in the visiting room cell-box. Whenever he is in this box, he is, first, always on display and always being accused of crimes or actions he did not perpetrate. This framing further conveys to viewers how constrained Will feels by Hannibal’s lies. It is interesting that, when Hannibal comes to visit Will and profess that he believes them to be “friends”, Will states that the “light of friendship” will never reach them in “a million years”. The shot is also shadowed and and depicts Will behind bars, further connecting both aspects with Hannibal.

The early emphasis on perspective prepares viewers for the latter half of the series which essentially becomes a battle or game of perceptions, played out almost entirely between Will and Hannibal. That said, there are some interesting plays made by other characters that complicate this central conflict. Personally, I really like how Hannibal (2013) uses its supporting cast to create tension and suspense. All characters have a purpose and none are superfluous. Often, characters in Hannibal are used to reveal and conceal information, knowing or unknowing of their position “on the board”. Much of the horror of this season is generated amongst the supporting cast. In fact, it is while Will is being confined that we come across one of the most truly chilling scenes in this season and the one that I feel really sets the rest of the season’s action into motion. It occurs between Will and Dr. Bedilia Du Maurier, who was Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist until she chose to discontinue their therapy this season. No referrals either. Before Dr. Du Maurier, played by the wonderful Gillian Anderson, departs to parts unknown, she visits Will at the asylum. During this visit, she oversteps the safety line directing visitors to stand back from the cells. This triggers a security alarm. Probably, Dr. Du Maurier triggered this alarm on purpose so that Dr. Chilton, who has bugged his asylum with listening devices, will not hear the message she has for Will. This message is a succinct whisper: “I believe you.” It is a chilling line because of what it conveys — that she believes Will’s accusations against Hannibal. She believes Will is not crazy. Not guilty. It vindicates Will. Someone else sees.

For me, this scene not only serves to reinforce the importance of perception this season but also it is the first scene that seemingly addresses the influence over others that Hannibal exercises to maintain control. As mentioned, something quite horrifying about this season in particular is how it portrays the concept of control as this creeping shadowy current, unnoticed and unrecognizable until you are swept up so deeply within it that you cannot possibly escape. Both Will and Dr. Du Maurier are completely aware of this current that is consuming them. This contrasts with characters like Dr. Alana Bloom who begins sleeping with Hannibal and is subsequently depicted as being swallowed whole by dark waters, slithering across her skin and down her throat, drowning her. This depiction is somewhat similar to how in last season Will, suffering from Hannibal’s “treatment”, felt swallowed. Usually, those who become aware of this shadowy current are, well, consumed. Hannibal likes to toy with his prey, to “see what will happen”. Dr. Du Maurier points out later in the series, when she is dragged up from her hiding place by the FBI, that if you think you are ever in control, it is because that is exactly what Hannibal wants you to think.

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 Hannibal’s uncanny ability to convince people to unknowingly play his game of “what will happen” is described by Dr. Du Maurier not as manipulation but as influence, persuasion. In this way, Hannibal is set up as a kind of unstoppable force. It’s deeply unsettling and reinforces the idea of Hannibal being this “devil on your shoulder”. But, it’s more insidious because Hannibal doesn’t necessarily care so much that you choose “evil” so much as he cares that he has played a role in controlling or constraining your choices. It’s something akin to godly that he strives for. In this season, Hannibal really becomes this manifestation of destruction — the kind of destruction from which creation sprouts.

This creates an interesting dynamic between the characters of Will and Hannibal who are not so much faithful representatives of two binaries as they are representative of different intentions propelling similar objectives. (Does that make sense?) Will wants to destroy Hannibal because of the chaos Hannibal has created whereas Hannibal wants to destroy Will so that Will can be recreated. The end goal for both characters is destruction but for different purposes. It makes it difficult to really support one character over the other. In fact, it feels increasingly wrong to support either character as the season progresses, especially once Will and Hannibal begin introducing new pawns into their game. Hannibal sends Randall Tier after Will and Will sends Mason Verger (and his pigs) after Hannibal. Tier ends up dead and Verger maimed. Countless casualties build up. Before then, Dr. Chilton is murdered by Miriam Lass (both victims of the Chesapeake Ripper) and Beverly Katz is also murdered by Hannibal when she figures out that Will was right about his accusations of Hannibal being the Chesapeake Ripper.

The scene in which Beverly is killed particularly emphasizes the destructive force that Hannibal represents. On Will’s hunch, she investigates Hannibal’s home (while he is supposed to be away that night) for human remains and ultimately finds evidence in his basement stores (literally in the belly of the beast). In this scene, the basement is swallowed in shadows and from these shadows, we see the outline of Hannibal appear. He stands on the threshold between the stairs and the basement, illuminated from the back. This makes him appear wholly in darkness, the lighting from behind giving him an unholy halo. The scene places his appearance just over Beverly’s left shoulder, now visually making him the devil on your shoulder. Beverly, as if sensing his presence, turns to meet Hannibal’s shadowed profile just as he spurs into action and we cut away. Two gunshots go off, one exiting through the floorboards of Hannibal’s dining room. The next we see Beverly, she has been killed and dissected for Will to find. (“Mukozuke”) It’s deeply disturbing and really makes Hannibal seem like this not only unstoppable destructive force but also an unapologetic and unforgiving one. Hannibal killed and displayed Beverly the way he did to cause maximum pain for those he knew would discover her. This doesn’t feel like a game; it feels personal. The only parallel this scene has is the one in which the orderly Will asked to kill Hannibal almost succeeds in crucifying him, which occurs as a direct consequence of this murder. It’s a brutal and merciless scene, Hannibal turned into a bastardized version of the passion of the Christ. In this way, that scene almost seems like retribution for the indignity of Beverly’s murder. It’s very biblical in that “eye for an eye” way, underlining the focus of this season on the exploration of the nature of good and evil through Will and Hannibal’s relationship.

On that note, I believe it’s time to discuss the Wendigo. The Wendigo appeared at the end of last season, killing and devouring the stag Will had been envisioning. This stag is a fairly clear representation of Will whereas the Wendigo is a representation of Hannibal. The creature can best be described as Hannibal’s avatar, the two often sharing the same placement within Will’s mind. The Wendigo becomes visually aligned with Hannibal, literally appearing in his shadow at the end of last season. Throughout this season, it becomes a devilish motif, it’s antlers like horns and it’s form rather similar to depictions of Satan as a hooved beast. We often see the Wendigo take the place of Hannibal in several shots, the two almost superimposed. In Will’s visions, the Wendigo will often appear out of the shadows whenever Hannibal’s influence is sensed. As the series progresses, the Wendigo also comes to represent Will’s own darkest desires. As he wades deeper into the current, to try to bait and lure Hannibal for capture, Will’s own actions and intentions become more morally questionable. In fact, Will even envisions himself turning into a Wendigo, antlers protruding from his skin and shadows overwhelming him, swallowing him whole. In this way, the Wendigo becomes symbolic of not just consumption and destruction but also creation and transformation. We even see the Wendigo depicted as Shiva at one point, the god of destruction and creation in Hinduism. (“Ko No Mono”) In the last season, we saw the unbecoming of Will. This season, we see the becoming of Will and we come to wonder at whether he will be a monster or not. Will he help Jack Crawford capture Hannibal or will he help Hannibal escape? We have seen with who Hannibal is aligned but with who is Will aligned?

The becoming or, as some might say, the deconstructing of Will is quite compelling. It brings into question whether one must be a monster to capture a monster but also into question whether monstrous actions can be negated if done in pursuit of a just cause. Was it right for Will to kill and mutilate Randall Tier as a means of securing Hannibal’s trust? To manipulate Hannibal into believing that he also murdered and ate tabloid journalist extraordinaire Freddie Lounds? Arguably, that depends on your perception of the word “right”. Throughout this season, Will and Hannibal focus their discussions on the nature of God, necessitating further pondering on both good and evil. Both Will and Hannibal’s actions seem to naturally coincide with these discussions. During a discussion with Hannibal (because of course Will resumed his therapy) about killing, Will reveals that it feels good to hurt bad people. That it makes him feel powerful. It mirrors a discussion he and Hannibal had last season about God wherein Hannibal professed that killing must make God feel powerful. Why else would He drop church roof after church roof on His parishioners? It is understood by viewers that Hannibal believes that killing makes him feel powerful. In this way, like Lucifer, Hannibal deifies himself. He believes that one can become God — through killing. In this way, Hannibal’s cannibalism is a divine act. He is honoring his victims by eating them, devouring them so that they may become part of this transformative process, absorbed into the body of God. 

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While I find the the set up of the main conflict as a kind of game of cunning to be engaging and compelling at points, I also find it to be quite disturbing. Hannibal and Will move through the lives of each other with destructive force. I mentioned Beverly Katz and Mason Verger earlier but Margot Verger, Jack Crawford, Alana Bloom, and Abigail (who was presumed dead last season) all become swept up in the carnage. Will and Hannibal become so focused on themselves and their game that nothing else seemingly matters. We, like Will, want to believe that he is doing what he does to apprehend Hannibal but several of his actions do make us question his conviction. Will even calls Hannibal to let him know that “They know.”, a callback to last season when Hannibal called Garrett Jacob Hobbs to alert the killer that the FBI was on the way. This almost completes Will’s transformation into Garrett Jacob Hobbs, into a killer, that Will envisioned last season. It’s tantalizing, yes, but truly horrific to see the transformation and becoming of Will Graham into the very monster he has been hunting. 

In the final “battle royale” of the season, we see Hannibal and Jack Crawford face off in Hannibal’s kitchen. Hannibal corners a seemingly mortally wounded Jack (“In the pantry”) when Alana shows up at the house to confront Hannibal. She finally sees him foe who he is and attempts to flee only for Abigail to appear alive and shove Alana out a window. Will arrives in time to call an EMT before his confrontation with the doctor. Dark clouds unleash pouring rain upon him, foreshadowing what is to come. During this final confrontation, Hannibal cuts Abigail’s throat and slices Will’s abdomen, both physically and psychologically gutting him. Killing people, choosing who lives and dies, is something Hannibal believes makes him God. Consuming people is a way to honor those he kills and a way to assert dominance over those he believes to be no better than pigs. Hannibal tells Will, “I don’t hide from God.” And yet, in this moment, Hannibal takes no part of his victims nor goes to any great lengths to ensure they are dead. This is clearly not about power. “I let you know me.” Hannibal tells Will instead, seeming to imply that the betrayal of that trust is the reason for his anger. That betrayal subsumes any other beliefs. Without “the light of friendship”, there is only darkness. It mirrors Will’s own feelings of betrayal from the end of last season, seemingly confirming that the these two characters have reached a stalemate. Hannibal leaves his home and all the people he once considered “friends” bleeding out, their blood like dark water, a shadowy current creeping across the floor.

Season two of Hannibal (2013) is decidedly more gruesome and gory that its prior season, the brutal and bitter confrontation started in the last season reaching its crescendo. Revenge and rage propel this story forward while betrayal and subterfuge keep it aloft, keep us questioning. Last season we were concerned with seeing but this season we are both afraid and yearning to know. To know the monster beside us. Within us. To look in the face of God and smile at the resemblance. I think what is most horrifying about this season of Hannibal (2013) is not that it compels us to question what we think we know about ourselves but that it makes us question who controls what we think we know about ourselves. Because there is always someone in control and if we think there isn’t, that is exactly what they want us to believe. 

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I had so much trouble writing this. Even now, I’m not totally happy with how it has turned out. When it comes down to it, I had far too many ideas about this season of Hannibal and too little time to organize my feelings about these ideas. As soon as I start to think about this show, I find it almost impossible to reduce it to any set of influences or ideas. It overwhelms me, something I believe is apparent in this review. If you take anything from this, I hope that the overwhelming and unstoppable force of this show and its characters comes through. I would love to hear your thoughts and main takeaways on this show, particularly on this season.

The Monster You Know: Why Cujo (1981) is Terrifying

*As always, some spoilers ahead~

Now, I’d like to state for the record that I’ve never been especially afraid of dogs. I’ve always maintained a healthy respect for them and the predators they once were for sure. When it comes to large dogs, I’ve always been cautious of getting too close, of letting them pounce on me. As a little girl, I did have some terrible recurring visions of a large dog knocking me to the ground, scratching or biting my face in the fall. When you’re a child, dogs can be so large, their teeth so potentially sharp. Suffice to say, I never grew up in a house with a dog. (We’ve always been cat people, tbh.) Again, though, I’d like to emphasize that while I may have some anxieties related to man’s best friend, I’d never classify myself as phobic. I know dogs are not inherently violent nor do they have any overtly violent intentions. When a large dog jumps on you, it’s most likely because they are excited. It’s part of how they show affection. If a dog scares you, they probably don’t mean to. Unless that dog belongs in a Stephen King novel and their name is Cujo. Then, they might just want to terrify you.

I went into Cujo (1981) not so much afraid of encountering a rabid dog but afraid I couldn’t handle the violence that would undoubtedly befall this poor, titular dog. The book was written in 1981 and I greatly feared and anticipated what animal abuse I may encounter in its pages. I should’ve feared the dog more. Again, I’m not especially afraid of dogs and yet I found this book scary because of how familiar the monster in it’s pages is. I feared how probable the monster could be. That kind of horror, that fear of the mundane and how easily it can become menacing, is what struck me most about Cujo (1981). It’s horror is not only still prevalent and prescient but so deeply potential. I went into this book prepared to be more sympathetic for its monster and instead I found myself terribly compelled by the potential for what we hold most dear to become that which we fear most. Please, let me tell you why Cujo (1981) is terrifying.

Like most of King’s works, this story opens on a seemingly mundane family in a seemingly mundane Maine town. Castle Rock, in this case. In the past, there was a serial killer named Frank Dodd who operated in the area but that human monster is dead and time moves on. Every town needs a boogie man anyway. A monster to hide in children’s closets and compel them to be good or else.

At the core of this story, there are two families. The up-and-coming Trenton family who moved to Castle Rock from NYC contrasts with the considerably poorer Chambers family, who are clearly living by the skin of their teeth. Vic Trenton has ensured he is able to bring home the bread and then some to his family through an as-of-yet lucrative advertising business. His wife, Donna, doesn’t need to work and their son, Tad, has only one worry: the aforementioned monster in his closet. On the flip side, Joe Chambers is a blue collar, blue blood, mechanic who lives on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Charity, his wife, has lived an anything but charitable existence unless you count her husband’s charity in not beating her every single night. No, instead he just ensures she can never stray too far from his reach, refusing to allow her the freedom to visit her sister Holly in Connecticut. Chambers’ son, Brett, spends his days helping his father in seeming preparation to follow in his work-boot steps. The only tangible affection that exists between father and son may just be Cujo, a much-desired gift acquired after an auto repair was traded on a fancy car was traded for a dog’s lifetime of discounted food. As Cujo would grow to be a 200-lb St. Bernard, this was a very savvy deal. 

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, the Trentons and the Chambers couldn’t be more different. Though class conflicts don’t really come to the forefront per say, the different opportunities or lack thereof available to each family +  the qualities of life of each family do ultimately contribute in different ways to the central conflict. The family”s paths cross when Vic Trenton’s fancy jag becomes in need of a repair that could be quite expensive at a town-side mechanic. Vic received a recommendation for Joe Chambers and has his family tag along on the trip out. It is on this initial venture that we meet Cujo. While Tad is entranced and Vic finds the dog harmless, Donna is immediately frightened by Cujo and does not want her son to interact with the large dog. Perhaps she senses the potential for danger, some remnant of women’s intuition spurring her strong aversion? In the 1983 movie, Cujo has already been scratched by the rabies-carrying bat, leaving a nasty wound on his nose which could have been a warning sign to Donna of trouble to come. In the book, though, the Trentons meet Cujo prior to him being infected, leaving the reason for Donna’s initial fear more speculative. Being that Cujo is a 200 lb. St. Bernard, it could just be a remnant of primordial fear for a beast coming too close to her offspring. Regardless, this first meeting goes without issue, making Donna’s reaction seem unnecessary. What is does do though is provide readers the association of fear with the dog. Intangible, illogical fear. We don’t know exactly why, but we’re afraid. Same as with the monster in Tad’s closet. (An association that we will touch on.)

After this meeting, the book walks us through several circumstances that occur between both families that will ultimately culminate in a kind of “perfect storm”. Firstly, Cujo goes chasing after a hare and gets scratched on the nose by a rabid bat. Readers are also let to believe that the subterranean cave Cujo gets his head stuck in and has his fateful meeting with the bat may also be the dumping ground for aforementioned serial killer Fred Dodd. The floor of this subterranean cave is littered with the bones of creatures who could not escape its grasp, both associating the ultimate consequences of what occurs within the cave with death as well as foreshadowing the situation Donna and Tad will find themselves in later in the book.

Additionally, during this time, readers discover that Donna was having an affair with a jerk-off “stripper” (I.e antiques refurbisher) named Kemp. (She breaks it off fairly early on though, much to Kemp’s displeasure.) Vic suspects the affair which adds to the stress he is experiencing from his job — a recent product (Zingers) from the Sharp Cereals company for which his small business does advertising caused a severe reaction in many young consumers. The red dye used to give the newly released cereal a bright, cherry hue is indigestible and causes several children to experience gastrointestinal issues. When they vomit, it looks like blood. Not great. It’s a PR nightmare and the advertising campaign Vic and his business partner Roger created for the product and the company does not help matters. (I.e. A “Nothing wrong here” slogan is a bad one for this situation.) So, Vic is not only (rightly) concerned that his wife is having an affair but he is also worried he will lose a large customer which could tank his business and leave his family in financial turmoil. Tad, meanwhile, is growing increasingly concerned with the monster in his closet, fearing what will happen when it starts creeping further out of the closet, towards his bed. It’s glowing red eyes and sulfurous smell linger in his mind. Even Donna can somewhat feel it’s presence, again sensing something is “off”, catching a whiff of sulfur that shouldn’t be in her son’s closet, a hint of the monster. To ward off his son’s fears, Vic is essentially forced to create a kind of chant/prayer to say with Tad before bed every night, a ritual that seems to keep the monster at bay. These “Monster Words” become something Tad holds onto in times of great fear.

As for the Chambers family, things are also in flux. Charity has won the lottery — $5k and she plans to use this money as leverage to get her possessive husband to let her go visit her sister, Holly. Joe doesn’t like Holly and her lawyer-husband and perfect family seemingly because they reflect everything the Chambers’ blue collar lifestyle lacks. He finds them shallow. Charity, though, thinks they offer Brett a glimpse into a better life, a better life for himself. After much argument, she managed to strike a bargain, allowing herself and Brett to go see her sister the upcoming weekend in exchange for the money. Meanwhile, Cujo is fully succumbing to rabies and the rabid urges flowing through him. He keeps imagining hurting people, tearing them limb from limb. Killing to kill. In the book, he battles these urges but it seems some unseen or supernatural force is slowly consuming him. Based on how Cujo contracted rabies paired with Tad’s recurring red-eyed monster, I believe it’s safe to say that we are meant to believe that Cujo is being possessed, in part, by the evil and murderous spirit of Dodd. At the very least, the rabies is meant to be symbolic of the primordial predator, the beast that has stalked our nightmares since ancient times, the creature that kills to kill. Because of their upcoming escape to her sister’s, though, Charity convinces her son not to alert Joe that Brett suspects anything is wrong with Cujo till they’re safely away. This means that when Brett encounters an almost entirely rabid Cujo on their property the morning they are supposed to leave, he says nothing. So, Cujo is swallowed by the morning fog, free to go fully rabid.

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Back at the Trentons’ place, things have also begun going downhill. When Vic confronts Donna about the possibility of an affair, she outright confesses to sleeping with Kemp — stressing, though, that she ended it because she loves her family. As Vic needs to leave on an urgent business trip with Roger to do major damage control and hopefully save his livelihood, he doesn’t really have time to hash things out with Donna, leaving them and us in limbo, uncertain about the future and wondering at how tenuous our futures can be. This also leaves Donna as an interestingly unlikable character (which contrasts with how likable Cujo was at first). We’re placed in this position to almost want something bad to happen to Donna – something I believe makes us feel all the more anxious later on in the story, as though we also contributed to the circumstances that led to Donna’s fate.

Anyway, Charity + Brett Chambers exit left while Vic exits right. 

Donna may have also tried to make an exit if not for one key detail on which the entirety of the plot hinges — her old Pinto is desperately clinging to life. The auto shop in town charges a small fortune (that the Trenton family, in their tenuous position) cannot exactly afford right now while the car dealership is located in New Paris, way too far for the Pinto to even dream of making. While Vic, from the hotel, urges Donna to call the dealership to pick up the car (he’ll find a way to pay for it), Donna doesn’t want to cause anymore hardship. She feels so guilty already. So, she decides she’s going to go out to the Chambers’ property and handle this small thing. They fixed the jag right quick and they can probably do the same for the Pinto. Even though she’s afraid of Cujo and uncomfortable around Joe Chambers, she figures she can suffer that much and have one less thing for Vic to worry about when he comes home. She was going to leave Tad with a babysitter but Tad outright refuses to stay at the home with the monster in his closet. More, he refuses to let his mom go without him. He can see the red eyes coming for them, smell how near the monster is. He’d rather they both stay at the house where Vic tacked up the Monster Words but Donna is determined and so, with the Monster Words Tad untacked from the wall in hand and a small boxed lunch Donna prepared to hold them over for the afternoon this errand was supposed to take, they make the unfortunate trip out to the Chambers’ property in the middle of nowhere, entirely unprepared for and unsuspecting of the doom that awaits them. 

As they go, King makes a point to emphasize how isolated the Chambers property is from civilization. There’s nothing but uncultivated land and unpaved roads. Ramshackle dwellings dot the land with miles between them. Unattended children in dirty diapers remind us of how careless these neighbors are, of how careless nature can be. In the movie, overgrown foliage and a small mound of trash obscured the Pervier property from Donna’s view as she drives by. The Pervier property is the closest to the Chambers’ and is home to uncouth, honorably-discharged-injured-in-the-line-of-duty-and-oh-so-bitter veteran Gary Pervier, seemingly only friend of Joe. Gary had planned to spend the weekend gambling with Joe and Joe’s newfound money. Unfortunately for Gary, Cujo found him first and tore out his throat. More unfortunately, when Joe went looking for Gary that morning, Cujo was still in Gary’s basement, awaiting his next victim. 
This is a particularly chilling scene in the book. Joe is hesitantly creeping through Gary’s shadowed house when he notices a dark blob on the floor in the living room, a dark stain spread out beneath it. Initially, he thinks either Gary is still passed out from drinking the other night or it’s Cujo, who Joe could not locate last night or this morning. Brett and Charity had not called about their concerns over Cujo yet. When Joe discovers Gary’s body and notes the torn throat, he understands instantly that Cujo has gone rabid. He runs for the phone in the kitchen and because it’s the 80’s, begins rapidly thumbing through the phone book for animal control. So rapid is his search and labored his breathing, that he doesn’t hear Cujo nose open the door to the darkened basement behind him until it’s too late. All Joe hears is a rumbling growl and all he sees is a brief glimpse of red eyes before he too becomes another victim, throat torn out. Good riddance.

Perhaps if Donna had been able to see the gaping hole torn into Gary’s screen door on her way to the Chambers’ or any of the blood just beyond the doorway, she may have known something was wrong. But of course she doesn’t. So, unbeknownst to Donna, she drives straight into the beast’s lair, the Pinto dying just as she reaches the Chambers’ property, a smidge away from the garage. She figures Joe can’t ignore the car now that it’s right outside his front door.

Since no one answered the phone all morning, Donna figures Charity + Brett probably went into town and Joe is in the garage. She makes to get out of the car, noting the eerie silence as she does. It’s too quiet. Just as she begins to consider what that could mean, Cujo appears. He’s covered in Gary + Joe’s blood, foaming at the mouth, and his eyes are a murderous blood red. They latch onto Donna, “The Woman” as Cujo thinks of her, and in that moment, the two become mortal enemies. Perhaps Cujo had a kind of preternatural knowledge that Donna was responsible for the incessant, headache-inducing calls at the house all morning or perhaps the spirit of Dodd possessing him saw a vulnerable woman and went ballistic or maybe it was just cruel fate but all of Cujo’s hate and rage are now directed at Donna. 

Cujo rushes the car and Donna frantically climbs inside, shutting the door just before Cujo slams into it. He growls, biting and scratching at the door, the scraping sound almost screaming. Or, maybe that’s just Donna and Tad screaming. Donna pushes a panicking Tad out of the way to roll up the windows as Cujo ferociously tries to get at them. Cujo slams and slams into the car, banging on it with his paws, growling all the while as Donna and Tad curl up inside. The car rocks but holds. Tad clutches the Monster Words in his pocket that he brought from home, hoping they will work now to banish this beast. But they don’t. Donna and Tad are now trapped in a dead car in the middle of nowhere with a 200 lb. rabid dog as their only company and with no way to contact anyone for help. They have little food and, as we learn, this is about to be the hottest summer on record for Maine. Donna hopes the mailman will come soon or that someone will see the quick note she scrawled in the kitchen about going to fix the Pinto but what she doesn’t know is that Joe put a hold on the Chambers’ mail starting THAT day and that the note she scrawled at the house would be erased by a jaded Kemp, who came by to harass her but ultimately ended up trashing the place when he found it empty. More to the point, this property damage paired with Vic’s knowledge of the affair with Kemp would sidetrack the investigation into their disappearance for an additional day once Vic realized something was wrong when no one answered the phone at home after almost 48 hrs. Brett and Charity also drag their feet calling neighbors to check on Cujo, battling their own more domestic demons.

Ultimately, Donna and a quickly deteriorating Tad end up in this mortal conflict with Cujo, a standoff in the sweltering Maine summer in a car that quickly becomes an oven in the heat, for an estimated four fucking days. It’s a nightmare scenario, horribly imagined, perfectly crafted. Every piece of both the Trentons‘ and the Chambers’ separately complex lives unified to create this situation. The trepidation and dread builds with each awful revelation that help is being delayed or sidetracked. It’s horrifyingly satisfying. Donna and Tad are trapped and like those unfortunate creatures in that subterranean cave where Cujo was infected, they will die if they cannot find an opening. Unfortunately, that opening keeps becoming smaller and smaller.

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Again, it all comes together is such a satisfying cruel way.

What I find most compelling overall is the central conflict in this story. Though seemingly simple on paper, it speaks to so many of our most deeply human fears. Though we imagine ourselves to be these apex predators, that position is tenuous at best. Any shift could tip the balance at any moment. We are confronted by this realty and the inherently mercurial nature of the universe in the form of a large, rabid dog. In this scenario, we are Donna and we are finding out in the worst way possible that we are not the predators we imagined ourselves to be. We never were. Survival is not a guarantee. It is and has always been something we must fight for — to the death if necessary. For me, this story taps into that most ancient need and the fear that propels it. Cujo (1981) is a compounding of all our most primal fears, this story a microcosm through which to explore what we do if placed in a life-or-death situation against an overwhelming foe — a foe we’ve let inside our lives because we foolishly believed we could tame nature.

I am in that car with Donna and I’m terrified. The world beyond is vicious and blood-thirsty. It wants to harm me and my young. As a reader, I’m thrust into this bitter us-or-them situation, wondering what I’d be willing or able to do under such stressful circumstances. Could I kill to kill? Would I?

And, it’s SO easy to be in that car. As in King’s The Shining (1977), the bare bones of the plot are scary in large part because of their plausibility. In The Shining (1977), it is the very real possibility of isolation turning a man into a monster that leaves us wondering just how much of the threat in the Overlook hotel was supernatural. In Cujo (1981), all of the circumstances that create this “perfect storm” are very real threats today — the obvious being rabid animals, intense heatwaves, car troubles, etc. and the underlying being dysfunctional relationships, abusive partners, bad business breaks, poorly developed infrastructure, wealth inequality, etc. All of these issues appear to some degree in Cujo (1981) and all of them are still present threats that could spiral out of control, becoming our own “red-eyed monster” creeping out of the closet. For me, at least, that is what makes Cujo (1981) so terrifying. Regardless of whether or not there is a supernatural element to the story, the plausible reality of it instills fear. 

The hopeless quality of the book’s (1981) ending, I think, also captures another level of this fear, perhaps the deepest level of this fear. In the book, Tad dies. Not because of Cujo or any other red-eyed monster. He died from heat exhaustion complicated by fatigue and dehydration. Even though Donna finds her courage and her will to survive and does challenge Cujo to a life or death battle that she comes out of victorious, it doesn’t matter. Even though Vic realizes in the midst of the investigation where his wife, son, and the faulty Pinto must be and heads over to the Chambers’ property, he is too late. It’s an unfortunate reality of survival — not everyone can make it. Also, one can do everything right or everything possible and still lose. It’s the horrifying reality and I feel like it is demonstrated very well in this novel.

Donna is motivated to survive largely because she wants to protect her son. Even though she feels guilty about betraying Vic and definitely feels like she’s being deservedly punished (she’snot – this is clearly overkill and if you think otherwise, you can fight me), she adamantly refuses to die before she can save Tad. In the movie, her efforts pay off and she is able to revive and save Tad (for some reason this was decided to be the more impactful ending????). The book, I believe, more closely mirrors reality though in that it is cruel and unforgiving. There is no bargaining with the universe, with a rabid dog, with an unrelenting heatwave. No amount of Monster Words can assuage such horrors. It’s a brutal realization and I think it hits it’s mark in this story.

Cujo (1981) draws a great deal of power from taking everyday horrors and cranking them up to an eleven. It emphasizes how tenuous our safety truly is at any given moment and how easily it can be put in jeopardy. We are all one bad relationship, one bad car day, one rabid dog away from crisis. We take the assurance of our survival for granted, not realizing we could so easily become another animal trapped at the bottom of a subterranean cave or within the confines of a powerless car, as the case may be. We place chairs in front of closet doors and write prayers, hoping they will  be enough to hold the monsters back. We make promises to never cheat again, promises to be grateful for the lives we have. We hope that all these actions are not pointless. That survival is not pointless. We try not to be afraid that, in spite of these precautions, it is. That’s all we can do and maybe, we believe, maybe it’ll be enough. We hope never have to find out either way.

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Hey~ I hope you enjoyed that brief walk through my thoughts on Cujo (1981). I recently read this book and it left quite an impression on me. I thought nothing of King’s could scare me as much as The Shining (1977) or Pet Sematary (1983) but I was delightfully and horrifyingly wrong. I hope I captured even the slightest bit of the terror I experienced while reading this novel. If you enjoyed this analysis, do look forward to more reviews of King’s works in the near future~