Wicked Lit 2017: Kinder, Gentler… More Redemptive Horror/Dark Fantasy?

It was definitely a different year for Wicked Lit. The show, now running at the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, is a perfect confection of macabre theater for any Halloween season. But after the years it’s been running, some would argue that it could get a little stale—that the novelty and amazing production values must wear off and the show would seem to be little more than just a visit to musty old horror and supernatural tales of years long past.

That’s why it’s impressive to show up and get the good stuff you’re used to, but to also get some surprises.

The lineup of stories for 2017 is solid as you’d expect. The wraparound connecting story is “Liliom,” based somewhat loosely on the 1909 play by Ferenc Molnar (later adapted by famous filmmaker Fritz Lang). We visit the place called Liliom (originally a person called Liliom!) and find ourselves newly dead, among the other poor unfortunate souls who have been trapped in Liliom for… quite some time. There are things to do, and there are stories to tell, and before we know it, we end up talking with creepy characters like The Mayor (deftly performed by Todd Andrew Ball—we’ve got to give him a hand), the howl-arious Mrs. Severini (Jennifer Novak Chun) and the wonderfully over the top Mrs. Bodman (Tosca Minotto). But the slow-burn standout here is Alec Gaylord as Civil War casualty Carter Druse, who made a hard choice one afternoon in the 1860s that haunts him to this day.

The connecting story is strong and lighter-hearted, as always, so that’s not too much of a surprise… how about the first story?

Well, as old Wicked Lit fans know, which one is first really depends on your group order. In this case, the show started with “The Open Door,” by Margaret Oliphant, and it was a sentimental work of supernatural fantasy. The story is classic gothic fiction from the late Victorian era, a period when people were deeply obsessed with matters of death and the afterlife and spiritualism, and so it makes sense that despite the occasional fright the piece is more a matter of making sense of death than of living in dread of it. The cast is solid: W-Lit newcomer John Patrick Daly is just fine in two roles, Jane Hunt is strikingly charismatic as Charlotte Mortimer, W-Lit veteran Richard Large is his usual brilliance as Reverend Moncrief (he’s also Admiral Smith, but that’s more of a walk-on), Michael Perl is convincing as Henry Mortimer, and Brian David Pope’s verrrrry Scottish Doctor Simson is quite amusing—while kid performer Bradley Bundlie is smooth and professional as Roland Mortimer.

Okay, so the first story is good and maybe even a little sweet. Is that a surprise? Well, it’s part of one surprise, which is that this year’s Wicked Lit is just a little softer and gentler on the audience than usual. Anyone expecting the sharp cruelty of “The Doll” or “The Monkey’s Paw” this year will be surprised to find that the stories chosen this time are usually what we call “redemptive horror,” or “horror stories where things can be made right at the end.” There’s a sense this time around that we’ve all been punished enough in the real world every day, and that for our Halloween season—the season of death, change, remembrance, fear and dread—maybe we could all use a gentler touch and a little more light.

It’s hard to find any diehard horror lit fan that doesn’t know Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” and it’s delightful that Wicked Lit has adapted it for the stage. There’s certainly some crucial changes in this version of “The Damned Thing,” too—things implied in the text are now more obvious, and things used as mere authorial gimmicks given theatrical life. But at base, it’s the same story: Something in the woods takes a man’s life, and the official version isn’t identical with the truth. That’s the simplest tack on “The Damned Thing”—but Wicked Lit’s adaptation upsets the epistolary limitations of the story and gives us something warmer and more human, even as it chills us when we (actually) walk into the dark, elder graveyard and find something whispering among the trees that cannot easily be explained. Wicked Lit veterans John T. Cogan and Eric Keitel are strong in the story, and newcomer Ian Heath is touching and charming in his very key role.

It’s at “Thoth’s Labyrinth” (no relation to “Pan’s Labyrinth”) that sharp changes are visible. The story is an original, based on the actual Book of Thoth and accounts of Carter, et. al., by Jonathan Josephson, and it’s an exciting half-fantasy/half-horror about three competing teams of adventurers (wonderfully played by Dan Billet, Joe Camareno, Sawyer Fuller, LizAnne Keigley and Morgan Zenith) trying to collect six amulets in an ancient Egyptian tomb. The twist here is that this time we can’t possibly see all elements of this story—your group subdivides into three more groups, and you’ll never see it all (unless you happen to come back often enough…) but you will get a wonderfully satisfying story anyway. Of note here (besides the marvelous effects and atmosphere inside the glorious marble mausoleum with all its actual live, breathing bats!) is Kevin Dulude, delightfully stealing scenes again as an Egyptologist.

Wicked Lit 2017 is an extraordinary experience, and you can’t get this kind of theater anywhere else. That it’s got fantastic staging and design almost goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway. Make it a point to go this season at least once (twice would be better!), and join our friends at the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery for some classic chills.

Dan Billet (as Guy Ratinckx) and Morgan Zenith (as Anuket Abbas) in “Thoth’s Labyrinth,” Wicked Lit 2017. Photo by Daniel Kitayama