The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head! -- Robert E. Howard, Pigeons From Hell
Zombos Says: Very Good
Robert E. Howard's 1938 southern gothic short story, Pigeons From Hell, has seen television and comic book adaptations. For television, Boris Karloff's Thriller delivered a straightforward and chilling episode, minus most of the racial underpinning and family curse-inducing miscegenation, written by John Kneubuhl and directed by John Newland (who directed Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond). In the graphic novel format, Scott Hampton illustrated Howard's classic horror story in 1988 for Eclipse Comics, creating an atmospheric narrative of the evil stalking the Blassenvilles in conservatively painted imagery.
Author Joe R. Lansdale adds his touch to the original story in a four-issue series from Dark Horse Comics, now released in trade paperback. Keeping the core elements of voodoo and spellcraft surrounding the decaying antebellum mansion while updating the characters for a younger audience, and dropping Howard's zuvembie hoodoo in favor of the more nebulous shadow in the corn, Lansdale adapts the storyline without losing too much of the lingering dread, inherent injustice, and fearful moral decay permeating Howard's tale; but in moving the story from its overtly prejudicial time period and place, then switching the cultural and racial orientation of important characters--particularly the sheriff--and dropping zuvembie from the story's explanation, Lansdale lessens the effect of Howard's uncanny and evocative horror in favor of plot elements more familiar to today's stalker-with-a-machete-minded audience.
A zuvembie is no longer human. It knows neither relatives nor friends. It is one with the people of the Black World. It commands the natural demons -- owls, bats, snakes and werewolves, and can fetch darkness to blot out a little light. It can be slain by lead or steel, but unless it is slain thus, it lives for ever, and it eats no such food as humans eat. It dwells like a bat in a cave or an old house. Time means naught to the zuvembie; an hour, a day, a year, all is one. It cannot speak human words, nor think as a human thinks, but it can hypnotize the living by the sound of its voice, and when it slays a man, it can command his lifeless body until the flesh is cold. As long as the blood flows, the corpse is its slave. Its pleasure lies in the slaughter of human beings. -- Robert E. Howard, Pigeons From Hell
Also missing from Lansdale's version is Lansdale himself--his unique mojo, that quirky and gritty taste of grain pie and apple bitters,washed down with mimosa and lime. The brilliantly absurd and defiant Bubba Ho-tep sensibility of Old Spice old and chrome walker new and godawful weird is not here; and while the story hits its beats well, it eschews any that would push it further into Lansdaleness; leaving us with a southern horror tale more slasher than gothic in its mojo-less soul.
Claire and Janet inherit the decaying Blassenville mansion. On vacation, they pull up with their friends to inspect their inheritance as pigeons flutter all around them. Although it is a hot day, inside the mansion it is icy cold, and even colder by the huge pile of dead--and partially eaten--pigeons and small animals they find upstairs. Bill, being the equivalent of an extra crewman on one of those Star Trek away missions, manages to break his leg when falling through the rotting staircase. He feints from shock and everyone hustles back into the van to get medical help. An accident brings them back to the mansion, setting the stage for more mayhem to come when evil beckons.
Sally, the cute but ditsy girl; Jason the handsome but ditsy boyfriend; Bill, the ditsy and unconscious extra; and Claire and Janet, now not so sure grandma was right in the head when she left them this real estate nightmare, bed down by the blazing fireplace on the first floor, trying to ignore the intense cold. Jason is drawn upstairs while the others sleep, and returns very much the dead man walking. Nathan Fox's art and Dave Stewart's colors now kick into gear. There is a lively, almost Scooby-Doo quality to the initial panels and colors, especially seen in everyone's faces (Bill could pass for Velma's brother), leaving you hoping for a more serious, more ominous tone. It comes when Jason hits those stairs--or rather, when he comes down them. Fox's zuvembie Jason is a serious bloody mess, and Lansdale finally adds a tiny bit of his mojo to the tale with the souls pouring in from the slave cemetery nearby to witness the horror. Here the art and story merge to create a poetically creepy series of images; Jason's stark horror against the ghostly terror of those soul-shadows peering through the windows. Of course, all this unusual activity freaks out Sally, Claire and Janet.
As the three run to safety, leaving poor Bill unconscious by the fire with axe-sticking-out-of-my-head, oh-hi-there-Bill Jason, Sally disappears into the house, and Claire and Janet run outside--and right into the path of the sheriff. Unlike Howard's white, N-word using, upholder of the law, Lansdale makes Sheriff Buckner a man of color, losing the interesting puzzle presented by Howard's original story: for all of Sheriff Buckner's use of the N-word, it is a knowledgeable black man the sheriff turns to--even showing deference--to get to the bottom of what lurks within the Blassenville mansion.
Alcebee (named Jacob in Howard's story) is around a hundred years old, and the sheriff and the two sisters pay him a visit to learn more about the history of the Blassenvilles. In his hut, old Alcebee tells them about the curse that stalks the Blassenvilles, and why the Shadow in the Corn was summoned. Alcebee's flashback is depicted in sumptuous panels highlighted in different hues from the rest. Lansdale embellishes the story with a more contemporary flesh-eating zombie motif, but deftly merges it with his trapped souls, Howard's brooding dread, and the shadow in the corn horror. The eventual confrontation with that corn-fed shadow is more over the top (remember 1999's remake of The Haunting?) than quietly grotesque as in Howard's story, but it is exciting and presented well.
While Lansdale does depart from his usual approach to horror in adapting Pigeons From Hell, he shows a strong fondness for Howard's story, bordering on reverence, by maintaining that story's central theme of grotesque, undying, evil, invited into the Blassenville mansion by the evil doings of the Blassenvilles themselves.
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