Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 28 March 2011

Carnivàle reviewed by Lorna Jowett

US, 3 Arts Entertainment/Home Box Office
Originally Aired 2003-5
Producer: Daniel Hassid et al.
Writer: Daniel Knauf et al.

Carnivàle can be seen as the ultimate HBO show. “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” in many ways: high production values; distinctive visual style; what some people call literariness; complexity; references to other films, TV shows and historical events; a variety of genre influences. To some it might seem slow, talky, pretentious. Watching it, I am often struck by its beauty and fascinated by its creepiness, yet get to the end of an episode and realise that nothing really happened. Though it won Emmy awards and a five-season narrative had been mapped out by creator Daniel Knauf, it was cancelled and ended after the second season. Carnivàle is difficult to describe. Some might say it isn’t really horror. It blends Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) with Twin Peaks (1990-1); it mixes epic history, period drama, and surreal, uncanny horror. Its blend of documentary realism and fantasy is demonstrated in the opening credit sequence where images from tarot cards, famous artworks, and US newsreels of the 1930s do not just sit alongside one another, they literally merge into each other.

This surreal mixture is foregrounded from the opening of the first episode in some of the most striking minutes of television ever. A face (Michael J. Anderson) appears against a black background and intones:

To each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness, and great armies clash by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility and unimaginable cruelty. So it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity. And Man forever traded away wonder for reason.

Almost immediately we lurch into a fleeting montage (only 30 seconds long) of surreal, disturbing images (some prefigure events of the season to come), including scenes of trench warfare, a tree silhouetted against the sky, and a man tattooed with the same tree, lit only in flashes and moving at different speeds. This soon appears to be a dream - a young man (Nick Stahl) starts awake and raises his head to see if his dying mother is still alive in the next room. Now we are in Oklahoma during the 1930s Dustbowl and Great Depression, a period setting that the show renders in convincing detail, the palette of sepia tones presenting a weary, faded world. Ben Hawkins is about to bury his mother, see her small house repossessed (similarities with Ford’s film and Steinbeck’s novel are readily apparent here), and join a passing carnival troupe. Ben, the show’s developing narrative suggests, is the creature of light mentioned in the prologue, and we follow his travels with the carnival, woven together with the story of Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist preacher in California.

Horror often operates by situating the supernatural in relation to the everyday world. Here, the realistic setting anchors the show to history, but its mythological struggle between good and evil unmoors it temporally, transcends history. Time itself becomes strange and uncanny. The 1930s is both the real against which the more supernatural elements of the show are contrasted, and a means of paralleling the scale of the mythological battle with epic historical change. The world Carnivàle depicts is at once tangibly mundane and experiencing huge upheavals. This is not period horror in the sense of Gothic, rather the detail of 30s life naturalizes both the freaks of the carnival (we see them mostly backstage or in their trailers) and its supernatural elements (some of which, like tarot fortune telling or mind reading, are everyday parts of carnival life).

Carnivàle makes the freakish ordinary and exposes strangeness in the everyday. Take one of the main protagonists, Justin. As a preacher, he is already attuned to the supernatural, but he is nevertheless firmly located within his place and time. In early episodes he ministers to migrant “Okies,” despite resistance from prominent citizens, and expands his work via the relatively new medium of radio, gaining donations and enthusiastic volunteers from his “Church of the Air” broadcasts. In “Ingram, TX” (2.3) he states that in one radio broadcast he should be able to “speak to more souls” than Jesus Christ “in his entire lifetime”, later he describes an upcoming event as “a Sermon on the Mount for a new America” (“Outskirts, Damascus, NE” 2.8). We could read such comments either as delighted optimism about the potential of radio to highlight religious ideas and social justice, or as a dangerous form of hubris. There are obvious similarities with historical figure Father Charles Coughlin (whose political broadcasts in the 1930s reached millions), as well as a broad parallel with President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” Contemporaneous concerns about the influence of radio on the general public are evident. Are such figures champions of the people, or simply manipulative speakers? Of course, if Ben is the creature of light, then Justin must be the creature of darkness and we are primed to see his actions as sinister, however selfless they may appear.

Moreover, radio itself can be seen as an ethereal, uncanny voice (in the same way that early cinema images were perceived as ghostly) and thus is more than simply period detail in Carnivàle. The uncanny nature of radio is made literal in season 2 when Justin’s broadcasts send a message to prison inmate Varlyn Stroud (John Carroll Lynch). Stroud hears Justin speak directly to him, telling him he is Justin’s “archangel” and consequently Stroud escapes prison to do Justin’s dirty work. Radio takes its place with visions, tarot cards, and prophecy as a means of supernatural communication, offering not simply information or inspiration but a connection to something that transcends everyday life in Depression-era America. As Justin’s Church of the Air sells it, this might be the sublime but it is also aligned with the show’s horror elements.

As Carnivàle unfolds Justin’s façade of righteousness dissolves. His relationship with sister Iris (Amy Madigan) is disturbingly close: both unmarried and seemingly unattached, they live together and are often in each other’s company. Soon we discover that their closeness arises in part from their childhood experience as orphan survivors of a rail accident (“The River” 1.7) when they were Russian immigrants, Irina and Alexi. This story is told through a series of bizarre and disturbingly unreal scenes and we see both siblings resort to violence to protect each other, as Iris continues to protect and support Justin on his path to salvation/ damnation. In a nightmare version of the American dream, Justin is a poor boy made good, his success secured by evil means. Like horror classics from Frankenstein to The Omen (1976), Carnivàle addresses not just morality (in all its shades of grey) but the operation of power on the human psyche and on society. Even the carnies take the law into their own hands in the chilling season 1 two-parter “Babylon” and “Pick a Number.”

The combination of history, myth, and horror is engaging but it is the imagery of the show that lingers, its surreal, dream-like visions (accompanied by evocative music). Some images relate to the social and historical context, the period drama aspect of Carnivàle. Ben sees visions of a mushroom cloud from the first nuclear test (codename the Trinity test, Alamorgordo Range, NM, 1945). This is what Samson’s introduction refers to as “the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity” and it seems to function as an end point towards which the loose narrative moves. Again, this ties together history and mythology, the real “horror” of nuclear weapons and their potential for destruction that ushered in decades of paranoia and Cold War, and the uncanny horror of half-seen, half-understood visions and symbols (science, or reason, displacing wonder). Because the show was cancelled at the end of season 2, however, we never reach this conclusion. Both history and mythology suggest that our fate hangs in the balance.

Characters are developed as much through imagery as through narrative. Ben often sees his father, Horace Scudder (John Savage) in visions. Scudder is a mysterious, elusive absent presence, often shown in evening dress (his stage clothes) making his appearance even more surreal in mundane surroundings. Traces of him include photographs and a death mask found in season 2, eerie versions of a man who rarely appears in the “real” world. Yet more images evoke visceral horror or symbolic dread. Repeated scenes such as the lone tree or the camera moving through a cornfield are unmoored in realistic time (unlike the bear in the trenches of World War I, or the word avatar scribbled on the walls of a mine) and inspire both anxiety and curiosity, that typical horror experience of wanting to see and find out yet not wanting to be confronted by the horror we know awaits us.

The show is slippery in genre terms and also tests the limits (limitations?) of TV drama. Yet its status as a prestige production aimed at “intelligent” viewers allows it to present uncanny, horror elements in disguise, as it were, just as some types of film or TV (serial killer movies, forensic investigation shows) provide the thrill of horror for those who would not regard themselves as horror viewers. Carnivàle, as should be clear by now, is not about blood or gore; it offers suggestive, supernatural, surreal horror, made all the more uncanny and haunting by its realistically depicted period setting and the liberties it takes with conventional pace and narrative. It is must-see TV, if only because something this ambitious in scale might never be made again.


Lorna Jowett is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Northampton, UK, where she teaches some of her favourite things, including television, film, horror, and science fiction, sometimes all at once. Research currently focuses on genre, aesthetics and representation in television, film and popular culture. Her monograph, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2005, she is on the editorial board of Slayage: the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association and she is currently writing a book on TV Horror with Stacey Abbott.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Lorna. I do wonder what they would have done for the third series, if it had one, particularly in relation to Sophie. Whilst she wasn't my favourite character, watching her struggle between sides would have been an interesting development, I think. I found it interesting that you only mentioned the episode Babylon. For me that was perhaps one of their best episodes and a microcosm example of the show as a whole. I think you're correct when you say you watch the whole episode and then realise nothing has happened, but I feel that was an intentional flavour of the show - the idea that you can go anywhere, New Mexico, Colorado, California - and wherever you are, you're in the same place you just left. You didn't escape, you didn't even really leave. You're still there. That cyclical sort of claustrophobia in the open spaces was of particular interest to me, especially in a Gothic sense. Several of the characters (Jonesy, Libby, etc) often talk about trying to escape, and a need to leave - and yet none of them really escape. Sophie manages to leave and then the Carnivale shows up in her backyard. She's never free. They're all just as trapped as Stangler (John Hannah) in the episode Babylon. It often reminded me of the old Avengers episode House that Jack Built when every room Emma runs into is the same room, a prison within space. So I certainly agree when you say "Time itself becomes strange and uncanny" but I would also add that space becomes Gothicised as well, that idea of a haunting or being haunted - and time certainly comes into play with that as well, as so many are being hunted/haunted by their own pasts. I certainly wish the show had had an opportunity to flourish - I agree it was truly an ambitious undertaking, perhaps one of the most ambitious in television. Aesthetically, it was a masterpiece - and the likes, as you say, we'll probably not see again. Thanks for the great article!


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