ART AS A WEAPON: STEPHEN VOLK’S “UNCHAIN THE BEAST”

Black Static 68 coverAfter reading Stephen Volk’s DARK MASTERS TRILOGY (see reviews for Whitstable, Leytonstone, and Netherwood), I have been intrigued enough by the author’s prose to check out other works. As it turns out, a novellette led off the March/April issue of BLACK STATIC, a UK based horror fiction magazine and will be the subject of today’s consideration.

“Unchain the Beast” is a short first person account of a special effects man Abelino (or “Beeno” to just about everyone) recalling his friend and colleague Jose Carmacho Mestre (aka “Pepe”) as young men growing up in San Martin Tilcajete, a part of the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico, and later as filmmakers. As it turns out, Pepe has an affinity for creating monster movies and from a youth filled with love for the things as well as experience with a father who carved folk art when he was not farming, he happens upon an idea to make a film called Unchain the Beast, centering on El Hombre Coyote (and his human side Bill Tarquin). Although it shares a few qualities with the trickster figure appearing in Native American folklore stories, El Hombre Coyote is based on legends closer to home, particularly the memorable and macabre alebrije figure Pepe’s father carved:

My God! It scared the pants off us, that creature on all fours on the table, with splayed fingers and small, perfect toenails. You see, Coyote, to the Mexican, is not simply a scavenger and pest. His name comes from the Aztec deity Huehuecoyoti—like the crow, he steps in between the realms of life and death. A shapeshifter—and so, Pepe’s father depicted him with human hands and feet. (10)

El Hombre Coyote is a shape changing monster of the old Universal variety, one that might be somewhat sympathetic however he is far too dangerous to allow to run free . . . However, run free he shall.

Well, we didn’t know what hit us. Unchain the Beast was a huge success in the early ’60s, transformed Pepe into a popular star overnight, and Coyote took on the quality almost of a folk hero. Children saved bubble gum cards with his image on them. Comedians made jokes about him. Whatever it was, people wanted more, and by 1964, at breakneck speed and in some kind of adrenaline rush, the two of us had made twelve films featuring Bill Tarquin and El Hombre Coyote. (12)

Making almost a dozen movies in four years is a grueling schedule, but these are labors of love. The films develop a mythology all their own, sometimes deviating from previous entries in terms of specifics, but they all focus on human beings’ capacity for dark deeds while maintaining the kind of pathos such influential luminaries as Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney brought to their creatures.

Trouble comes into paradise when Mexican President invites himself to visit the set. A strange relationship develops between Pepe, the President, and the President’s lapdog, General Luis Amato Muñoz. At first this may be a mercenary move on Pepe’s part, since following it he gets government funding for his future efforts. Of course, since El Presidente is a dictator, the notes from a bureau of cultural approval soon follow. Have this hated group cast as victims, make Coyote more of a “voice of the people” removing the riff raff (homosexuals, etc.). From here, the story explores the consequences of dealing with grinning devils who offer buckets of money in exchange for integrity as well as the metaphoric and (at least in third world nations ruled by cruel men) all too real suffering artists endure while following their creative impulses. The story is also a cogent meditation upon the usefulness of horror genre both as a critical tool and as a bit of social brainwashing. Art can be a weapon, it would seem. “Unleash the Beast” is not just a shock story. Instead, it is a meaty exploration of a specific time in Mexican history as witnessed by some folks the history books would most likely ignore but who nevertheless played significant roles in the eventual fall of a dictator.

Author Stephen Volk has worked in the film industry for a few decades, responsible for the scripts for several notable horror pictures for both the large and small screens. He’s also a solid fictioneer in his own right, and his non-fiction column “Coffinmaker’s Blues” (soon to be collected in a PS Publishing book length work also by that name) ran for 60 issues of BLACK STATIC. He knows a thing or two about literate, challenging subjects for horror fiction, and he knows quite a few things about the film industry (particularly his beloved horror films). All of these areas of interest shine in his works.

This novelette seems a natural continuation of the themes explored through several pieces of work to this point. Readers of THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY, a triptych of novellas released over the years and collected together last year by PS Publishing, (or our reviews of it on this site) know that Volk has written quite a bit about the horror genre itself as well as its practitioners, using them as seed material for human based horror stories. In addition to those three novellas, there’s also the script for his first feature length film GOTHIC (1986), which explores the weekend of drugs and ghost stories in Lord Byron’s manor that led up to Mary Shelley conceiving the first science fiction story of all time (as well as a smashing gothic horror work), FRANKENSTEIN: OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS. “Unleash the Beast” falls into this mode as well, offering us a view of filmmakers and the tumultuous world they occupy. However, it also dabbles with a supernatural twist as well, though this is left ambiguous enough for the reader to make their own conclusions about what they just read.

There is also a wealth of detail in the Mexican setting and characters. It’s the kind of grounding that comes from solid research not only through books but knowledgeable sources. The story has that much sought after quality of verisimilitude about a time, a place, and some characters I don’t get to see often enough (says the guy who lives in Houston, TX), and I was delighted to see Pepe and Beeno’s story as much as I was chilled by the dark turns the subject matter took.

Of course, “Unleash the Beast” also operates on yet another level than the surface. The title alone seems to be a rallying cry for horror genre creators to give their all to the genre, to throw off whatever yokes others might try to throw around their necks. These are the leashes that come from censors and approval committees. Horror written from a place of personal passion trumps “product”, this story argues, and this lesson applies not only to films/tales spun in countries under the thumb of questionably moral dictators as well as the free world’s film industry as well (often headed by dictators possessed of questionable morals, see Harvey Weinstein, et. al.) . . . Perhaps I am reading a bit too much into the title and the story, but this theme hums along in the background and resonates for me, nevertheless.

I do not typically think about adaptations of works I enjoy reading. I much prefer the stories to be cast and “shot” in my imagination. However, I think this piece would work well as a springboard one of director Guillermo Del Toro’s monster movies. It doesn’t include the clockworks that seem to obsess him, but there’s an emotionally honest story and a solid framework here that he could build some stellar images on as he did with such features as CRONOS (1993), THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), and PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006).

Needless to say, although this is a shorter work than I’ve read to this point, Stephen Volk manages to pack “Unleash the Beast” with as many provocative ideas and meat as his longer works. It’s a chilling work, which managed to feed into a powerful little nightmare the evening after I read it. For me, at least, that’s a solid measure of the story’s success.

Readers looking for an entry point into Volk’s fiction should be well served by this novelette. I encourage lovers of horror fiction and horror cinema to hunt down the issue. Even if Volk’s tale turns out not to be your cuppa, there are quite a few stories alongside it that might work for you instead.

#

“Unleash the Beast” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of, BLACK STATIC (aka number 68). Grab an eBook copy here, and why not drop by the TTA Press website to get a subscription? BLACK STATIC is one of the best horror fiction magazines on stands today.

Next week, we will be checking back in with the Considering Westlake reading series, taking a look at his next adventure/crime story HIGH ADVENTURE. Grab an eBook edition here. I don’t believe there are artifact editions available outside of second hand dealers.

WORKS CITED

Volk, Stephen. “Unleash the Beast”. Black Static: 68, Mar-Apr 2019.

“Art as a Weapon: Stephen Volk’s ‘Unleash the Beast'” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. The quotes and image are taken from Black Static issue 68.

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