Spooky Staff Picks: Bat Bombs, Phoney Phootey


This Week’s Reading

Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels, 1946, oil on canvas, 48 1/8″ x 35″.

Last Halloween we recommended some things that scared us. But there are many such things—we’re easily frightened—so this year we’re doing it again. Stay spooky.

In college, I took a seminar about female Surrealist artists—Remedios Varo, Unica Zürn, Claude Cahun, and Dorothea Tanning, et al. Many of these women’s life stories were harrowing, and their artwork, which often mines frightening psychological territory, is dark, humorous, visionary, and uncanny. It still creeps me out. Dorothea Tanning’s paintings, for instance, are full of tattered clothing and deserted hallways. They’re haunted by somnambulant young girls and oddly sentient sunflowers. Her painting Guardian Angels scares me whenever I look at it: strange, ragged, winged creatures that look like vicious, plucked chickens swirl and tear at each other, rippling with some obscene energy. Later in life, Tanning made forays into sculpture, fashioning soft, upholstered structures that ooze across the boundary between furniture and human figure. My favorite work of Tanning’s is The Birthday, a self-portrait in which she has painted herself stepping through an open door into a corridor that’s full of other doorways. A monster—sort of like one of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz—huddles, couchant, at her feet, and her expression is otherworldly. Is she letting this beast in or sending him across another threshold? —Hannah LeClair 

It’s scary that ESPN would just go and shut down Grantland like that—as if the site hasn’t consistently featured some of the best writing around on sports and everything else. And it’s scary to see twenty-two years of misguided sass from the New York Times all laid out. But that’s just the media: there’s always something scary afoot. The thing that’s most haunted my dreams lately is a government plot dating back to World War II: the bat bomb. Apparently a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, convinced the military that it could weaponize hibernating bats by strapping incendiary time bombs to them and packing them by the thousands into large metal canisters. Since so much Japanese architecture comprised paper and bamboo, Adams thought, the bats would cause a real inferno as they flew around Japan in the nighttime. The enemy’s infrastructure would crumble with minimal loss of life. So the U.S. gave it a shot. “In May 1943, about 3,500 bats were collected at Carlsbad Caverns, flown to Muroc Lake, Calif., and placed in refrigerators to force them to hibernate,” an October 1990 article in Air Force Magazine explains. “On May 21, 1943, five drops with bats outfitted with dummy bombs were made from a B-25 flying at 5,000 feet. The tests were not successful; most of the bats, not fully recovered from hibernation, did not fly and died on impact … in one test, a village simulating Japanese structures burned to the ground … a careless handler had left a door open and some bats escaped with live incendiaries aboard and set fire to a hangar and a general’s car.” Insert obligatory truth is stranger than fiction kicker here, and enjoy your nightmares. —Dan Piepenbring

Bat bombs. Illustration: Chris Fauver

“Imagine every sound a sigh of but one thing dying and instead of coming one after another it sighs a sigh of all at once. What would that sound like?” That’s the storyteller in Mark Z. Danielewski’s riveting and spooky novella, The Fifty Year Sword. At a party one October evening at a ranch in East Texas, the shadowy storyteller arrives to tell a tale to a group of five orphans and brings with him a mysterious box held by five latches. You can see how this is going to go. Still, his story of vengeance and violence isn’t fit for kids. Danielewski, a master of experimental fiction, has set the text like lines of poetry and, with the help of three seamstresses, has punctuated the story within a story with bits of embroidery. The story is also given as a serious of nestled quotations, whose marks are set in various colors indicating various speakers. “Where no quotations appear,” Danielewski writes, “only the worst should be assumed.” Is it all “phoney phootey”? I dare you to find out. —Nicole Rudick

It’s too easy to cite the latest Republican debate as the most frightening thing I’ve experienced recently, so instead I’ll shamelessly imitate Dan, who last year recommended David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy,” and mention another long, multivalent story from Oblivion, “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” Its trapdoor construction positions the narrator as a disinterested participant in his own childhood horror story and an adult inheritor of his father’s quiet, office-bound desperation. In one scene, an elementary school teacher writes KILL THEM ALL over and over on a whiteboard; in another, the characters go to a showing of The Exorcist. But the real terror stems from the narrator’s fears that to understand his father is to pity him, and that to pity his father is to fear for himself a similar quotidian dullness and isolation, in which dreams and waking life alike are arranged in unyielding banality and repetition: “The nightmares themselves always opened with a wide angle view of a number of men at desks in rows in a large, brightly lit room or hall. The desks were arranged in precise rows and columns like the desks of an R. B. Hayes classroom, but these were all more like the large, gray steel desks that the teachers had at the front of the room, and there were many, many more of them, perhaps 100 or more, each occupied by a man in suit and tie. If there were windows I do not remember noticing them.” Rarely are nightmares so harrowing as when they involve desks. Or, during this spookiest of seasons, debate lecterns. —Henri Lipton

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Romeu, 2010.

I scare easily and deliberately avoid spooky films, books, and artworks. Nevertheless, they find me. Through an interest in J. M. Coetzee (We Are All Flesh), and a recommendation from a friend, the pained and fleshy sculptures of Berlinde De Bruyckere sought me out. Her figures of contorted, butchered, deformed, flensed, and inchoate human and nonhuman animals horrify and astound—horripilation par excellence. I only learned what horripilation (“the erection of hairs on the skin due to cold, fear, or excitement”) means two years ago, after coming across it in something by David Foster Wallace; just like Dan and Henri, I wince over his Oblivion, especially the soul-sickening domestic scene of “Incarnations of Burned Children.” It’s a really short, short story, so I’ll give you the opening sentence and leave it at that: “The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them.” You can read the story here, if you must. —Joshua Maserow

Like a lot of people right now, I find Drake’s dance moves pretty scary. (No wonder she used to call him on his cellphone.) In the video for “Hotline Bling,” with its trippy lights, blank space, and beautiful women, Drake makes his dancing debut, and it’s far from what any of us would expect from a Young Money rapper: it’s stunningly goofy. He bobbles his head, he flicks his wrists this way and that. He’s wearing a ribbed turtleneck and using his hand as a telephone, for God’s sake! But what’s even more frightening is how much more I like the song—and Drake—after watching the video. As Sasha Frere-Jones said in 2011, “By hip-hop’s rules, the twenty-five-year-old … has done a variety of things backward, but this approach seems only to have made him more popular.” The same still holds true: there’s nothing hard or gritty or aggressively masculine about Drake in “Hotline Bling,” and that’s exactly what makes him so endearing in the end. When asked about the video’s choreography, its director, Director X, told Rolling Stone, “That’s him going for it. That’s him doing him. You can’t choreograph that. That’s just a man dancing.” In last year’s Halloween staff picks, Taylor Swift was an automaton; in this year’s, Drake’s just human. —Caitlin Youngquist

The very picture of terror.

As a parting shot, I might add that this cussing dad is pretty scary, too. —D. P.