Malleus Review: Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner, a binaural audio drama by ZBS (English)

9 out of 10
Malleus Maleficarum German and English Audio Column
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.
Cover of Sticks by ZBS - features creepy illustration by Brad Johannsen of an abandoned farmhouse surrounded by stick assemblages, illumined from within by a strange light.

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Adapted by Meatball Fulton (Thomas Manuel Lopez) from the 1974 short story ?Sticks? by Karl Edward Wagner.

Directed by: Bill Raymond.

ZBS Foundation, 1998.

Language: English.

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!

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  • Chris,

    Nice job checking out an off-the-beaten-path ZBS Production. This is definitely one to add to the listening list!

    Fred

  • I can affirm that the story ?Sticks? was, indeed, inspired by an actual incident in the life of Lee Brown Coye. The stick assemblages weren?t just immediately around the farmhouse but scattered throughout the woods surrounding it, right up to the outer fence, where there was a sign that warned, ?No Trespassing for Any Purpose.? I haven?t read the short story in years, but I immediately made the connection when I saw _Blair Witch Project_ (which I thought well done). I have the ZBS version, but, again, haven?t heard it in years, so I?ll reserve comment on your critique.

    In his days as a Weird Tales artist Coye?s signature device was a crescent moon. Many years later Wagner contacted Coye to ask him to do the illustrations for a collection of horror master Manly Wellman?s short stories. He noticed that the crescent moon had been replaced by the stick assemblages and inquired about it. Thus was the short story ?Sticks? born. You can see Coye?s work in that Carcosa collection _Worse Things Waiting_ and its sequel, the title of which I don?t recall.

    Coye?s work is not finely rendered but more reminiscent of tribal art, somehow disquieting.

  • Chris Dueker

    John,

    thanks very much for your comments regarding Coye’s work. May I ask where you got the information about what Coye saw at the house? I remember reading somewhere that Coye himself wrote up the story in a New England newspaper. Do you know if there is anything to that?

    Incidentally folks, John is too polite to mention that he is the author of an excellent memorial website to Karl Edward Wagner. You can find it here: http://popcultmag.com/obsessions/profilesingreatness/karlwagner/wagnersplash.html.

    You wouldn’t know it from my review of Sticks, but I genuinely admire and enjoy Wagner’s other writings, particularly his Kane cycle. Thanks for your work, John, and sorry for my late response.

  • Well, I have to say that I disagree strongly with the idea that ‘Sticks’ is a “half-baked” horror tale. There are a great number of writers that have adopted the Lovecraftian mythos as inspiration for their writings and I, frankly, am stunned anyone could have such a low opinion of this shocking and brilliantly told tale. Adding a ‘love interest’ is, to me, the lowest-common-denominator of Hollywood demographic crowd-pleasing, and stories like this are simply not meant to be cheapened by high radio drama. You do know that this story won several awards, right? And that it is regarded as one of Wagner’s most powerful efforts? I know, I know; we all have our opinions of everything under the sun, but I just could not remain silent when one of the finest horror novellas I have ever read is so savagely attacked.
    —–

  • Chris

    Hi Jordu,

    I genuinely appreciate your response, and I admire your passion for Wagner’s work. You’re clearly invested in the original story, so let me respond point-by-point to your criticism, as it deserves.

    I will freely admit that although I enjoyed reading Lovecraft when I was younger, and still enjoy returning to his work now and then, I’m generally not happy about the long shadow his work has cast over the work of subsequent writers. Basically, no one did the mythos as well as he did, and I feel that relying on Lovecraft has been an easy out for too many writers, who otherwise might have been challenged to give us more original menaces, evils, and ideas about man’s place in the universe. I know that horror giants such as Stephen King count among the Lovecraft inspired, but in my opinion King’s best work departs from Lovecraft in all but his love for the power of the unknown and mutual love for the haunted New England setting. I recognize that I have to be out of step with many other horror / sci-fi fans in wishing Lovecraft would stay buried, but so it goes.

    What interests me about your comments is that before I listened to this production and read “Sticks” I would have assumed them true. I didn’t set out to attack Wagner, and I took for granted that I would enjoy the original work more than the adaptation. I was surprised when that didn’t happen and found it interesting, part of the reason I decided to write on the subject.

    Again, in the abstract I’d completely agree with you that “Adding a ?love interest? is . . . the lowest-common-denominator of Hollywood demographic crowd-pleasing”. And if I hadn’t heard this production, I’d interpret that change as you did, as a sign that the original work had been butchered. But honestly the effect of the change is subtler than you’d expect, with no Hollywood-style histrionics. All I can say is, it’s worth listening to this adaptation before leaping to conclusions about its quality. (And keep in mind that I’m speaking only for myself, not for Lopez. Any problems you have with my tone or commentary should not be associated with his production.) I did give both versions a fair reading / hearing before commen(ting, and while you might still reach different conclusions, I’d recommend you do the same.

    In retrospect I was harsh with Wagner in this article, perhaps too harsh. I think that bitterness came from disappointment. I actually like and admire Wagner’s writing, and I was genuinely let down by “Sticks”, particularly since it was acclaimed and had won awards. I can’t agree with popular opinion that it rates as one of Wagner’s most powerful efforts, as you put it. What frustrates me most about the story is that it starts off with such brilliant originality and concludes with such a routine pulp finale. For me, the tale didn’t deliver on either its reputation or the promise of its beginning.

    But yes, that is my opinion. If your post inspires more people to seek out Wagner’s original version of “Sticks” and enjoy it, so much the better.

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  • Win Harrison

    Listening to it now. I think it’s a reach to think it influenced the pathetic “Blair Witch Project” – people who make films like that don’t read much, and they sure as hell don’t listen to our now sadly scarce radio drama.

    Back to “Sticks” – it’s an incredible execution of an original story that probably was not that good. I strongly disagree that the lead Steven Keats’ portrayal of Colin is lacking. The character was bland – the acting matches it.

    I love that over the decades ZBS and Tom Lopez have stuck with the style and obsession of duality, mysticism, metaphysics and humor. I’m sure they did ‘Sticks’ for the money. But the fact that they did it so well – and did it only once – makes it even more special. This piece is far scarier than most films you will see.

  • Win Harrison

    And I forgot to say that I appreciate both your article and your artistic sensibility.

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