9 out of 10
What possessed Tom Lopez to do this half-baked horror tale? Devil or angel, it was an inspired muse: Lopez doesn’t just adapt Wagner’s story, he rewrites it, and the result is far more chilling than the original.
Adapted by Meatball Fulton (Thomas Manuel Lopez) from the 1974 short story ?Sticks? by Karl Edward Wagner.
Directed by: Bill Raymond.
ZBS Foundation, 1998.
Availability: The ZBS production of “Sticks” was first published as an audio cassette, later as an Audio CD. Those versions are no longer in print, but “Sticks” can still be purchased as an mp3 download from the ZBS website here. Although “30 Second Telephone Terror Theatre” is sorely missed, this download version is easily the strongest package yet – for $12.00 you not only get “Sticks” but also Lopez’s own dystopian tale “O Boy O Boy O” and Craig Strete’s “The Bleeding Man”, another excellent ZBS horror adaptation. Previous releases of “Sticks” bundled it with either one or the other.
“Sticks” is 28:15 minutes long.
I’ve read Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks”, listened to the ZBS audio drama adaptation, and even seen parts of it cribbed for the most powerful scenes of The Blair Witch Project. And I can’t shake the feeling that I still don’t know the story at all. Legend has it that “Sticks” was inspired by the real life experience of Weird Tales artist Lee Brown Coye, who claimed he really did stumble across a strange abandoned farmhouse in North Pitcher, New York. Coye reported that the house was surrounded by bizarre ideographic assemblages of sticks when he first discovered it in 1938, and that these were later washed away completely by flooding. Although the originals were destroyed the weird sculptures made quite an impression on him, and he incorporated inexplicable stick-designs into his work thereafter. Or so the story goes.
I claim ignorance of “Sticks” because I’ve neither read Coye’s personal account of his farmhouse discovery nor seen any of the drawings that were inspired by it. But if, as internet scribes have it, Coye never disclosed a purpose to the stick signs he found, he had better horror instincts than Wagner. The ideographic sculptures of “Sticks” remain powerful and menacing only as long as they remain unknowable.
To his credit, Wagner didn’t literally decipher the strange signs. Instead, he defined them in broadly Lovecraftian terms: the stick designs are elder glyphics in service of the Great Old Ones, rendered by a megalithic cult that migrated from Europe to North America a long, long time ago. I’ve enjoyed Wagner’s other writings, particularly his iconoclastic Kane tales, but that’s a pretty disappointing explanation. Resorting to Lovecraft’s hoary old tropes is the imaginative equivalent of crying “uncle”. And call it professional bias, but as someone who researches Native American cultures, pseudo-scientific histories of ancient European settlements in the Americas rub me the wrong way.
Wagner’s story is strongest in the beginning when it all but retells Coye’s. Horror artist Colin Leverett makes his way through the backwoods of Upstate New York and stumbles across a farmhouse surrounded by bizarre ideograms made of sticks. Following this, Leverett starts incorporating the weird stick patterns into his art. Things look up briefly for Leverett when the stick designs go over well and he is commissioned to illustrate a volume of horror stories by H. Kenneth Allard. But the shadowy cult still exists, and Leverett’s use of their stick designs draws their attention. It all ends badly.
I mean that literally. The strange power of Coye’s stick effigies gets diluted in this story of artistic obsession and eternal life, and the conclusion is silly and trite, with a ghoul unveiling his sinister master plan like some old dimestore novel villain. What possessed Thomas Manuel Lopez to adapt this half-baked horror tale?
I don’t know what possessed him, but devil or angel, it was an inspired muse. Lopez considerably rewrote Wagner’s flawed tale, inventing love interest Carol out of whole cloth and completely excising central characters like the stereotypical scholar Dr. Alexander Stefroi and the story’s absurd central villain. Presumably he did this in the interest of better drama; among other things, having Carol accompany Colin allowed Lopez to use their dialogue to set the scene rather than giving Colin an improbable monologue or using an omniscient narrator. But Lopez’s artistic license also resulted in a far better story. That’s right, ZBS’s “Sticks” is one of those rare instances where the adaptation far outshines the original.
Lopez takes the best qualities of Wagner’s story and brings them forward while muting or eliminating the weakest moments. He plays up Colin’s Heart of Darkness descent into madness, even taking the artist’s obsession a step further than Wagner by having Colin cover the walls of his own room with the strange stick designs. He also wisely takes a step back from Wagner’s excesses, keeping Colin’s state of mind ambiguous: in the ZBS version Colin does not wake up clutching a half-eaten human heart. Probably the best decision Lopez made was to do away with Wagner’s talking villain. Without a human voice to articulate their plans, Lopez’s cult is far more frightening than Wagner’s ever was. The heavy, wet breathing Bill Raymond gives to the ancient ghouls is all they need to inspire fear.
Audio dramatists on a tight budget can take heart from “Sticks” – Lopez turns out an effective horror story with a cast of only three actors this time. (AM/FM theater have since done the same with their excellent adaptation of “God of the Razor”.) Curiously, leading man Steven Keats’s performance is arguably the weakest. His portrayal of Colin Leverett is perfectly serviceable, but doesn’t always convince and falls short of definitive. ZBS regulars Laura Esterman (billed by ZBS as Blanche Blackwell in other performances) and Bill Raymond round out the cast as Colin’s love interest Carol and horror publisher George (instead of Wagner’s “Prescott”) Brandon, respectively. It’s always a risk to rely too heavily on the same actors too often, since this can make your productions sound too much alike. What’s remarkable here is that precisely the opposite happens. Bill Raymond, known to Ruby and Jack Flanders fans as the irascible, cartoonishly energetic (and pretty much interchangeable) characters T.J. Teru and Short Top Detroit, is barely recognizable as the brusque George Brandon. As Brandon, Raymond is neither funny nor even all that likeable. Bill Raymond not likeable? Now that’s acting. And the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Laura Esterman of Ruby fame is just as smart as ever in “Sticks”, but far more delicate and vulnerable than you would believe possible. Excellent work.
“Sticks” was recorded using a Kunstkopf (“artificial head” – the German term is very unfortunately misspelled on ZBS’s cover) binaural recording device. Nicknamed “Fritz”, this device is a dummy head with mics where human ears would be, and it picks up sound like human ears do. The result: the aural environments it records assume three-dimensional presence when listened to with headphones. This creates a strong “you are there” impression, almost as if you are standing on stage in the midst of the actors as they perform. It’s a technique that is well-suited to horror tales for obvious reasons. The best binaural sequences in “Sticks” take place in the abandoned farmhouse, as Colin and Carol go exploring in different directions, leaving you feeling stuck between them in a building that you’d really like to leave. The smartest use of binaural effects happens in the cellar, when Lopez uses it to cue you in to the uncomfortably close presence of the ghoul long before protagonist Colin even knows it is there.
I’d have to say, though, that the real star of “Sticks” isn’t the superb acting or even the binaural effects. It’s Tim Clark’s music. As with Raymond and Esterman, if you’re familiar with Clark’s work from other ZBS productions you will scarcely recognize his performance here. And that’s all to the good. There are no dream-like space music vistas unfolding here a la Jack Flanders, or the smartly syncopated background beats you might expect from the man who scored countless Rubys. The soundtrack to “Sticks” is subtly atmospheric, implacably glacial, and spare. It’s Clark as you’ve never heard him before.
In the end, Clark outdoes Wagner and even Lopez: his music is the most evocative translation of Coye’s weird stick ideograms to date, and the primary reason that this audio adaptation of a profoundly visual terror works at all.
Next week: Malleus continues to explore the world of binaural sound with some 3-D audio tourism. Put on some headphones, turn off the lights, and experience the Japanese Shinto festival of Gion Matsuri as recorded by yours truly in Kyoto, Japan in 2001. Free to all sentient beings, this soundscape album will go up next week on July 17th, just in time to honor Gion Matsuri 2008. If you can’t make it to Kyoto, be here!