The Crypt of Blood: A Halloween TV Special
While there are many leading lights in the Weird Horror genre, such as Matthew M. Bartlett, Jon Padgett, Orrin Grey and Gemma Files, for me personally the greatest writer in the genre at the moment is Jonathan Raab. Raab has easily mastered writing what I would term ‘conventional’ Weird Horror fiction, particularly in the form of his delightfully bizarre and conspiracy theory-laced novels featuring Sheriff Kotto, The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre and The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie, not to mention the shared-world anthology Freaky Tales from the Force: Season One. But he’s also begun to venture into what I can only term as more ‘experimental’ Weird Horror that begins to blend together fiction, script-writing and reality-bending writing, to create something truly unique and deeply, deeply unsettling. He began this trend with Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization, a multi-layered and metafictional novel that was equal parts love letter to slasher horror movies, a deconstruction of multiple conspiracy theories, and a thought-provoking analysis of real-life governmental overreach and the sinister effects of the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States. Apparently not content to sit on his laurels with these novels, alongside running Weird Horror publisher Muzzleland Press, which has published a tranche of amazing novels and anthologies, Raab has now created another experimental work in the soon-to-be-released novella The Crypt of Blood: A Halloween TV Special. Although initially only to be published as a physical product via Muzzleland Press with ebook to follow at a later date, Raab was kind enough to provide me with an advance review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’ve been looking forward to reading this novella ever since it was first announced, and I eagerly dived into reading it.
Appearing to take inspiration from the format used in Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI, Raab’s latest work is not just a piece of weird horror fiction, but instead weaves together several different narrative formats to tell its tale. As the back-cover blurb proclaims, The Crypt of Blood purports to tell the tale of a local television station near Denver, Colorado that decides to show a locally-produced adaptation of gothic horror novel The Crypt of Blood in the sort of low-budget, made-for-TV film seen on a thousand different local TV stations during the Halloween period in the United States. But when the cameras started rolling that fateful night, far more was recorded than that adaptation – instead something occurred that became the grist in the internet rumour mill, the raw film sought after by a certain breed of film buff and conspiracy theorists. What The Crypt of Blood presents the reader is something that alleges to tell the truth of that broadcast – in multiple formats, using both text and imagery and moving between that low-grade B-movie film and what happened on the set during the night. Raab presents us with a masterful series of narratives that initially run concurrently but then begin to intersect with each other, all while the unnatural nature of this ‘found footage’ begins to corrupt the entire novella. While the story opens with the delightfully cheesy and amateurish nature of the studio set arranged by the cast and actors of the Front Range Community Theatre group, with Raab lovingly recreating the nostalgia-laden memories of late-night B-movie marathons on flickering TV screens, things soon become incredibly weird, surreal and utterly unnerving.
As the pages turn and we witness scenes from Crypt of Blood, replete with poor camera-work and terrible, awkward lines from the script delivered in stilted, over-dramatic fashion by the amateur actors, Raab also begins to interleave it with ominous hints at how you – the reader of this novella, yet also the person watching this found footage – actually came to watch this strange VHS tape. Whatever that truth is, it’s something you really don’t want to remember. As the film progresses, some of the gore and special effects seeming to be oddly impressive for such a low-budget production, and the footage is intercut with ominous yet indecipherable interstitial scenes, as well as commercial breaks that just don’t seem right at all, blending together the efforts of the local community with terrifyingly powerful and omniscient industries. Even the footage of The Crypt of Blood slowly progresses from an enjoyably thread-bare, shoestring-budget B-Movie to something far more complex and sinister, with strange and unusual elements threaded into it with unexpected and often jarring effect; the film itself almost becomes a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster, strange parts stitched together from numerous sources to create something far more powerful and unnatural. It also becomes clear that the cast and crew of the film dabbled in occult elements they should not have, failing to leave that sort of thing on the set of the film, and suffered as a result. Finally, all of this is wrapped in Raab’s unique, anger-laced commentary on the nature of American society and its endless orgy of capitalism and its self-destructive campaign of mindless patriotism and worshipping of the Military-Industrial Complex; the culture that produces and consumes Horror B-Movies instead of interrogating the all-too-real horrors present in their own lives and culture. All of these elements – the TV station set, the film, the adverts and interstials, you the viewer/reader – come together to create a sort of Inception-style narrative, culminating in a brilliantly-orchestrated ending that merges all of the narrative strands into something disconcerting and yet also deeply impressive all the same.
Indeed, one of the greatest impressions that comes from reading The Crypt of Blood is that every page of this novella – every scene and frame of this found footage you are experiencing – has been carefully and artfully constructed by Raab to be as engaging, familiar and yet jarringly alien as possible, creating a surreal atmosphere that I’ve never quite experienced before in any horror title across the genre. I find it difficult to describe any more of the plot or narrative in any detail – not only because it would comprehensively spoil them for the reader, but also because what Raab has constructed is something that deserves to be experienced without any external guidance. It really is that unique of a title, and consequently something so thoroughly weird – bizarre – unsettling – that only by purchasing it and reading it will you fully experience it; it must be absolutely amazing to have a hard copy, rather than simply in an ebook format. Raab’s skilful writing and genuinely terrifying imagination are buttressed by the brilliant, evocative cover art by Trevor Henderson, and the fantastic internal illustrations by Mat Fitzsimmons that perfectly evoke the strange, surreal atmosphere within the novella. The writing, illustrations and internal layout and design all mesh together in order to create something atmospheric and distinctive, bringing you into that ‘found footage’ scenario and the occult machinations occurring in that multi-layered narrative.
Raab has described The Crypt of Blood: A Halloween TV Special as his most experimental work to date, and that is certainly the truth – the multiple narratives that are weaved through the novella could easily have fallen apart in the hands of a less experienced author; and the meta-textual nature of the story and the reader’s engagement with it as it progresses really benefits from multiple read-throughs to get the most out of it. Yet it is also a highly-successful experiment, creating a simultaneously fascinating and fundamentally unnerving novella that is an utterly unique experience for the reader. While I’ve read a number of horror novels and anthologies that have attempted to replicate the ‘found footage’ concept and transfer it from film to text, in my opinion none of them have come even close to achieving it; by comparison, Raab has somehow managed that transfer perfectly, artfully composing a novella that makes it seem like you are watching the multiple narratives within the Crypt of Blood footage play on a crackling, static-laced CRT screen, rather than merely reading words on a page. Added to that is Raab’s masterful evocation of childhood and teenage nostalgia, watching cheap B-Movies bookended by cheesy, second-rate presenters trying to use enthusiasm to make up for talent, as well as a loving tribute to those same B-Movies and their delightful amateurishness, a subject and hobby that is clearly very dear to Raab. It all comes together to deliver a fantastic slice of experimental Weird Horror, one that once again proves that Raab is the master of the Weird Horror genre. I absolutely cannot wait to see what he comes up with next – particularly the anthology of horror stories teased at the end of The Crypt of Blood: A Halloween TV Special.