"Run-of-the-mill" seems like a modestly accurate way to describe myself in terms of horror fandom. In certain respects I find that valuable, since ideally I can make an appeal to those like myself, to those who may be testing the waters, and hopefully to the hardcore horror fans as well. (And I sincerely encourage feedback, especially from the latter.) It wasn't until several years ago, the present time of this writing being December of '09 to give perspective, that the genre genuinely appealed to me and I owe all that to the film adaptation of Stephen King's 'IT'. After that, it was a slow and steady progression that grew into watching more Stephen King film adaptations, then into watching general horror films. In more recent years it's branched from solely films into different mediums, namely: comics (comic books, manga, graphic novels, webcomics, etc.), purely written literature, and different games.

But let's get to the point, shall we? The Darkley Niche is something I've constructed after the comic-in-progress that a friend and myself plan on self-publishing, an anthology of short horror stories much in the same vein as 'Tales from the Crypt' and similar titles. The series centers around a faceless persona we've affectionately dubbed Alan Darkley, the Niche's namesake, and a cast of storytellers whose tales fall within particular subgenres and sister genres of horror. This site is the drawing board, if you will, where everything posted is either a form of research or a roughing out of ideas. It's all relevant in some fashion. By exploring these different horror stories and their mediums a better understanding and influence of the genre, as well as inspiration, can be put into the comic. Even if you have no personal interest in the project, perhaps you can glean something from the reviews and the like. And if nothing else, the Niche will work to serve my own purposes.

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Meet The Darkley Storytellers

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Well, here's yours truly. The name's Drew, in case you were wondering. The Niche is my personal site, while the comic-in-progress is a partnered effort with Don, a lifelong friend of mine. We collaborate on the stories, but my partner's the writer in the outfit while I am the illustrator. This is currently little more than a side project, but we hope to make something of it.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Goosebumps: Night of the Living Dummy

Presenting the seventh, on-going installment of the Niche's R.L. Stine series reviews, here's 'Night of the Living Dummy'. (WARNING: spoilers ahead)

Lindy and Kris Powell are twin girls with a competitive streak a mile wide, one always trying to trump the other. The best way to tell the two apart, aside from their haircuts, Lindy's blond hair kept long while Kris' is trimmed short, is their hobbies. Lindy prefers to keep her paperbacks company and Kris takes pride in her junk jewelry collection. However, as the girls survey the new house that is being built across the street, Lindy discovers a ventriloquist dummy in the nearby dumpster. The wooden puppet has bright red lips and brown hair painted on, blue eyes that move from side to side, and dressed in a gray double-breasted suit with brown leather shoes. Aside from being a little dusty and a chip in the lower lip, the dummy is in decent condition. She decides to keep the dummy, naming "himself" Slappy. Why Slappy? Lindy answers through the him, "Come over here and I'll slap you!" It all seems innocent enough, but even this subtly aggressive remark hints at an ugly, underlying hostility that gradually manifests itself.

Not long after Lindy salvages the puppet, a couple of younger neighborhood children happen by and are drawn in almost immediately by her amateur ventriloquist act. The Marshall kids laugh enthusiastically at Slappy's comical performance, arousing Kris' jealousy. Seeing that getting such attention rubs her sister the wrong way, Lindy decides to keep the dummy out of spite, if for no other reason. The spotlight only grows as Lindy is requested to perform at Amy Marshall's birthday party. And for a tidy little sum of twenty dollars, much to Kris' chagrin. However, as she watches her sister succeed in school with Slappy's sketches, the cogs begin to turn in Kris' head. As Lindy's popularity grew, so would her profits. Word would spread and quite likely Lindy would perform at other parties, earning more and more money. Being a ventriloquist seemed to be a very lucrative business. Why not cash in as well?

Waiting for a private performance in the Powell residence that evening, Kris and her parents sit together downstairs as Lindy prepares. Not expecting to, Kris finds herself asking if she could have a dummy, too. But Lindy catches the conversation and the twins get into a heated argument. It only exasperates the situation when Mr. and Mrs. Powell interrupt to mention that a good puppet can be pricey, so the twins should share. Neither girl is happy with the situation, but Kris seems to settle with this compromise. When she quietly asks to hold Slappy, the dummy suddenly snarls at her, "Beat it, Kris! Get lost, you stupid moron!" and hits her hard across the face. Everyone is startled by this, apparently even Lindy, who claims innocence. Regardless, Lindy forces out an apology at the behest of her dad. Why can't I have something that belongs just to me, Lindy thinks angrily to herself. But she would get even later that night, grabbing Kris' wrist as if the dummy had for a cheap scare.

Perhaps things would have worked themselves out had it stayed like this. However, returning home the following afternoon from Monday's chorus rehearsal, Kris finds another dummy seated next to Slappy. As it turns out, Mr. Powell glimpsed this puppet in a pawnshop window and purchased him for cheap. "I think the pawnbroker was glad to get rid of him," he adds. If we've learned anything from 'Monster Blood', it's that you ought to be wary of questionable wares from shady stores. Though it resembles Lindy's dummy, this one has bright red hair with blue denim jeans, a red-and-green flannel shirt, and white high-top sneakers. Excited, she shows everyone at home her new gift and names him Mr. Wood. Albeit not the most original name, but she is twelve after all. This, however, does not go over well with Lindy, who screams, "Copycat! Copycat!"

Next afternoon, Kris invites a friend, Cody Matthews, over to watch and critique her practice run with Mr. Wood. Unfortunately, Kris doesn't seem to have the knack for jokes like her sister. It only rubs salt in the wound when Lindy later relates that she performed for Alice, her best friend, and several others that evening and received generous laughter with Slappy. Kris tells a white lie to not lose face. As they prepare for bed, Lindy asks about a Betsey Johnson skirt and silk blouse that is laid out. It's for a student teacher's farewell party tomorrow, Kris explains, so she wants to dress up. When Kris awakes the following morning, though, she finds Mr. Wood wearing her dress clothes and angrily accuses her sister. Lindy claims ignorance in the matter. Effectively wrinkling her outfit, Kris rushes to get ready and has to make do with something less formal for class.

Saturday, the day of Amy Marshall's birthday party, Lindy offers less than positive criticism as her sister practices again with Mr. Wood. This time with Cody and Amy also present. Having a paying job under her belt, she remarks as someone with an air of superiority does with an aspiring amateur. Bear in mind that it's only been about a week since Lindy salvaged Slappy. Between the remarks, Lindy keeps fidgeting with her watch, anxious to get going. When asked why she isn't rehearsing, she replies, "No need. I've got my act down. I don't want to over rehearse." Cocky to boot, too. Lindy grabs Mr. Wood from Kris' hands to give some pointers before she can speak, having just about enough of her sister's ego. Reaching to take the dummy back, Mr. Wood suddenly rasps, "You're a jerk!" in a throaty growl to Kris' face. A torrent of insults ensue. "Stupid moron! Get lost! Get lost, stupid jerk!" Once more, Lindy balks at the obvious conclusion that she is to blame. She argues that the dummy is talking on its own. But apparently it wasn't worth sticking around to resolve, since Lindy drops everything to dash over to the party.

Lindy returns home from the party later and seeks out Kris, who is sitting on one of the backyard swings. Despite being a little hurt still from earlier, Kris commends her sister when she hears that the party was a big success. The afterglow fizzles when Lindy learns that Kris, in the meantime, was asked to perform at the spring concert as master of ceremonies with Mr. Wood. Lindy doesn't even feign a smile or pretend to be happy for her. Dryly she remarks, "Well, good luck. With that weird dummy of yours, you'll need it." But the sibling competition is momentarily put aside that evening when the sisters find Mr. Wood sprawled on top of a disheveled Slappy, hands around his throat. It's as if the puppets had been fighting, then froze right in place. Unnerved by what they see, Kris and Lindy go to their parent's bedroom. Mr. Powell is away on business so it's only their mother, who is already on edge from reading a Stephen King novel. (Nice touch, Stine.) Of course she doesn't believe the girls and sends them back to bed. Unsure what to do, Kris decides to try keeping Mr. Wood in the closet for the night. However, Kris awakens the following morning to find Mr. Wood sitting next to Slappy, almost mockingly.

For the next two days, the girls are free from any strange happenings with the dummies. Much to Kris' relief, as she practices in front of the mirror with Mr. Wood. It's still fair to say that Lindy is in the lead as far as this sibling rivalry goes. However, this lead jumps again when Lindy interrupts Kris' practice with some exciting news. Mrs. Petrie was at Amy Marshall's birthday party and works at the Channel Three television station. Impressed with her performance on Saturday with Slappy, she offered Lindy the opportunity to appear on their weekly show Talent Search. An appearance on TV. Kris can hardly believe it. After Lindy leaves the room, Kris throws Mr. Wood hard to the floor in frustration. She regrets the rash action and picks up the dummy, even cradling and apologizing to the puppet. But to her, Mr. Wood's eyes still seem cold and unforgiving.

Late that night, Kris accidentally awakens her sister when she gets up to fetch a drink. Lindy lies back down to resume her rest. Suddenly, she hears a shrill shriek from downstairs. Lindy finds her sister standing horrified at the scene in the kitchen. The glow of the open refridgerator reveals itself to be empty and, looking closer, that its contents have been dumped onto the floor. Then adding insult to the situation, Kris' jewelry has been strewn about the mess, looking like "some kind of bizarre salad". And in the middle of it all sits Mr. Wood, bedecked in beads and earrings with a platter of chicken on his lap. (I'm starting to get the impression that Mr. Wood is a cross-dresser.) Of course Kris' cry didn't reach just her sister. Their mother comes downstairs and sees the kitchen in chaos, the final straw that breaks the camel's back. When Lindy and Kris try to explain, she screams, "Stop it! Stop! I've had enough. This is just sick. Sick!" The sisters are able to keep their dummies by cleaning up the mess. However, if either so much as breathes a word about the dummies to her again, it will be revoked.

By the time the girls get back to bed from cleaning it is past 3 AM, neither sister speaking a word to the other. Taking a last look at Mr. Wood before shutting him in the closet, Kris thinks, I'm beginning to hate this dummy -- fear him and hate him. Kris had just about fallen asleep when she hears a muffled cry from the closet, demanding to be let out. She wakes up Lindy, so frightened that tears stream down her face. Then, in a whisper, Lindy tells her that she knows who has been behind all of this. Who? "I have," she answers, closing her eyes and laughing. Lindy reveals that she was behind everything, including what happened that night. Wow. I wouldn't normally say this, but what a little b*tch. And the thing is that she's so damn remorseless about the whole thing, arguing that it was just a joke. "No. It was too mean to be just a joke. I'm never speaking to you again," insists Kris, angrily.

"Never" only lasts for less than a couple days. As Cody walks home with Kris after school, she replies that there has been some conversation between the two. Forgiveness, however, is another matter entirely. Home alone, Kris brings out Mr. Wood for practice when she notices a yellow slip inside the dummy's pocket. Unfolding the slip reveals a single, intelligible sentence handwritten on the parchment, which she tries to read aloud: "Karru marri odonna loma molonu karrano". Letting out a small gasp, Kris thinks that she saw Mr. Wood blink. But Kris reasons that it is only her imagination and resumes her practice. Later that evening, an elderly couple of neighbors come by the Powell homestead to pay them a visit. Hearing about their ventriloquist acts, the parents call down their girls to give a sample performance. Lindy's goes without a hitch, but when it comes to Kris' turn, the dummy rips into the poor couple with hurtful jokes. Mortified, Kris screams out an apology and runs upstairs crying.

Personally, it would have made sense for Kris to assume that Lindy was somehow to blame. After all, she proved that she could effectively throw her voice. But Kris doesn't come to that conclusion, simply confounded by what had happened. Whether Lindy did it or not, she claims ignorance and asks why Kris would do such a mean thing. She even goes so far as to say that it is just a poor joke on Kris' part. "Very good crying," remarks Lindy sarcastically, adding snidely, "But it doesn't fool me, either. And it won't fool Mom and Dad." With that, she takes Slappy and leaves Kris to practice -- but not before reveling in the possibility that Kris might be kept from the concert as punishment. Like I said before, what a little b*tch. Unfortunately for Kris, things only continue to get worse. She does perform at the concert with Mr. Wood, but the puppet suddenly starts insulting Mrs. Berman, the music teacher, on stage. Then it vomits a rancid green liquid at the audience in the front rows, 'The Exorcist' style. Needless to say, Kris is forcibly removed from the stage and threatened with suspension, possibly expulsion.

While it's possible that Lindy rigged up the puppet to spew like that, it seems very unlikely. Very early the next morning, just after 1:20 AM, Kris awakens from her vivid nightmare of reliving last night's performance. The rumbling of a truck outside is heard, but so is something else. Gentle footsteps. Footsteps inside the girls' bedroom, leaving the closet and out to the hall. Kris follows the shadow and sees that it is none other than Mr. Wood, walking all on his own. Finally, what we've been waiting for. So Kris chases after the dummy downstairs, waking Lindy. Lindy fetches their parents at Kris' pleading, but when they come the dummy plays -- well, dumb. But as soon as they leave, the dummy springs back and the girls struggle to overpower him. All the while, Mr. Wood snarls that Kris brought him to life with "the ancient words" and that they are now his slaves.

Kris repeats the written words, but they prove ineffective, as do their efforts to hurt the dummy. Between this point and when they bury Mr. Wood in a suitcase outside, you'll hear him declare "You are my slaves!" and "I have powers!" repeatedly to the point of annoying. It seems like the best solution for the time being. Except Mr. Wood reappears the next morning when the girls come downstairs for breakfast, the soiled puppet seated at the counter "lifelessly" with their mother present. As long as their parents are around, they should be alright and have time to think of another solution. But what would be entertaining about that? Mr. and Mrs. Powell promptly leave their daughters alone to go on an errand in town. As soon as they are alone, Mr. Wood doesn't play possum any longer. "I have to punish you. I have to prove to you that I am serious," Mr. Wood rasps.

Mr. Wood proceeds to make his point by strangling the family dog, Barky. But the girls manage to force him off before hurting the pet seriously. Struggling outside into the rain, the girls see that construction men next door are operating steamrollers. The plan is simple: crush Mr. Wood. Barky unintentionally throws a proverbial monkey wrench into the works when the dog escapes the house and runs toward the steamrollers. So of course the girls let go of the dummy and nab the little black terrier before it's harmed. "I'm free!" cries Mr. Wood, "Now you shall pay!" Famous last words. A second steamroller runs over the dummy in timely fashion, crushing the wooden body into splinters and releasing a foul green gas (Uh, oh. Hope it's not like 'Return of the Living Dead'.) that disappears like a fart in the wind. The steamroller operator, of course, is given quite a scare but is relieved that it wasn't a kid. Kris and Lindy, along with Barky, go back inside. The threat is over. Well, one that is. In the girls' bedroom, Kris' arm is grabbed suddenly by Slappy. "Hey, slave -- is that other guy gone? I thought he'd never leave!" remarks the dummy.

While the sibling rivalry was annoying at times, Stine really pushed it further into something rather dark. I came to legitimately hate Lindy, which impressed me. Since I've started the 'Goosebumps' series, I haven't felt strong emotions towards any of Stine's characters until this novella. Kudos for achieving that effect, as well as that tip of the hat to Stephen King. The same goes for the Regan MacNeil moment with Mr. Wood. Nice visual. My only complaint is not seeing more of the living dummies. I am aware that they do make a return in the series, so the next time Slappy appears in 'Goosebumps' it should hopefully satisfy this want. Lay off the "slave" and "power" rants and it should be good. I give it four out of five 'Goosebumps' Gs.
On a side note, maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking of Billy the ventriloquist dummy from 'Dead Silence'. The flat brown hair, red lips, green eyes (Slappy has blue eyes in the novella, however his eyes are green in the cover art), red bow ties, and suits. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Slappy (left) and Billy (right) from 'Goosebumps' and 'Dead Silence', respectively

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