Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: Pipe Screams/Within The Walls of Madness
So let’s get to it. The first story, “Pipe Dreams” is written by Daniel Kraus, and directed by Joe Lynch, where we are introduced to some very … sentient clogs in rusty, ill-maintained apartment building pipes.
It’s so strange seeing Barbara Crampton again, after watching Jakob’s Wife, in a totally new persona. This time, she is a racist, bigoted “Karen” landlady by the name of Victoria Smoot, and it actually gave me a doubletake to see that just by a sleek hairstyle, designer clothes, a necklace, a pink sweater worthy of Dolores Umbridge, and a nasally, unpleasant voice Barbara Crampton transforms herself into this terrible person who talks about her tenants as “animals” and even says things such as how their “hair is different because they come from different places” in the drain. Just like that, I really wanted something bad to happen to this woman, and that is all by design.
This is a person who not only has lead pipes in her terribly run apartment complex, and a general lack of maintenance and open bigotry, but she also hires one Linus Carruthers — a plumber from a company that used to be owned by him and a disreputable brother that is going under — to patch things up, and deal with the clogs in the pipes that shouldn’t legally exist. She knows he won’t report her as one more bad review will bring him under, and it is fairly certain she will try to rip him off of his pay in any case. When Linus talks about his terrible brother, or refers to him, my mind almost wants it to be Harlan King from “Pesticide” and that parallel of what he did to the homeless, though it doesn’t particularly line up, and there are dangers in trying to put things together that shouldn’t be: a lesson that Smoot never took to heart.
He goes to the apartment upstairs, after something devours a cat — and you know Smoot is evil, as she despises cats — to what seems to be the source of a clog that “squeaks” and “chirps” almost like a bird. It skitters in and out of the shadows. You know you’re not going to want to see what this monstrosity is.
And when you see it, you don’t. It’s … So, a little while back, I was in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign Game Mastered by a friend of mine who really wanted us to confront some rats. So when we saw these rats coming — rats not unlike what Linus kept telling himself they were — we closed the door, only for those rats to bend and twist themselves under the crack beneath the door frame as if they had no bones. One of my friends, during the game, called these creatures — jokingly — octo-rats, and they were bullshit.
This sentient clog, and its kind, are basically octo-rats: malformed, twisted, and they eat flesh. I thought once this thing took the flesh off Linus’ hand, he was going to lose that limb. Then when it got to his face, I thought he was fucked. I thought he’d die, and we would cut to the skittering, bulbous, furry, tentacled clog going after the other tenants in the building, and then Smoot. But likely, it’s coded pretty clearly that Linus is a good man that isn’t just doing the job to save himself, but to protect the children that he knows in his heart is living in the building: the child of the mother that lets him into her apartment, and owned that poor cat that’s eaten.
He survives, gives a good fight, and the mother comes back to actually save him. And this is where, between the two of them, instead of calling the authorities we get some beautiful EC Comics justice in the form of poetic retribution. Oh, it is wonderful. I knew, the moment the tenants, with Linus the plumber, were all down in the basement — and he somehow lured Smoot back — that they weren’t going to simply beat her with tools. No, that is too easy for someone like her. Instead, they lure her to a drain where, as Linus put it as she’s stuffed in there being consumed by the creature, she “is home.” There is something timeless, but timely about this story when you consider the state of landlords and property and tenants during dire times of recessions, and in particular COVID-19. I do feel bad, though, that no one told the girl about her cat, but at least she leaves pretty pictures for her pet by the drain. Oh well, at least the octo-rat might appreciate it.
Speaking of tentacles, and disturbing things, we find ourselves at “Within the Walls of Madness” written by John Esposito and Greg Nicotero, and directed by John Harrison. Imagine William Shatner shouting “There is. Some-thing. On. The. Wing!” from the classic “Terror at 20,000 Feet” in a world created by combining H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” with “At the Mountains of Madness,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and in the spirit of The Thing and you might see the resonance of this story.
It starts off with a graduate student named Zeller held at a military prison being interviewed by a lawyer named Tara Cartwright as he is accused of murdering three of his scientific team in — you guessed it — the Antarctic. What happens is something had already dealt with the rest of their expedition, and the survivors ran back to the base. Zeller had apparently been having an affair with a fellow graduate student named Mallory — who was dating their hostile head of security — but when the latter goes to look for their leader, Professor Trollenberg as played by Star Trek Next Generation veteran Denise Crosby — reality ripples around them into a wormhole as the two students are attacked by an entity from a wormhole.
Of course, the Professor and the security head come back to find Zeller with an axe and Mallory in pieces, and seem to think the worst. But there is security footage that would exonerate Zeller. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that the Professor had erased that footage and kept only him attacking the security head who attempted to kill him.
As it so transpires, Professor Trollenberg found the remains of what she calls the Old Ones — yes, Lovecraftian beings not unlike the ones in the Cthulhu Mythos — who apparently gave humanity Earth millennia ago before dying out, only to have humanity misuse it. She saw through a wormhole that she summons with a strange sonic instrument: an organic bonelike flute or ocarina, almost like a Key — and we know from Cthulhu Mythos lore that “The Silver Key” is not only a Lovecraft story, but it is an artifact that can unlock places between dreams and other realities. I see it as an analogue of that, though it uses sound to create wormholes through space-time in this narrative. Anyway, the Professor used it to manipulate time to when the Old Ones still lived, and believed they would punish humanity for destroying the world: that she would help them usher its destruction and return it all to the sea.
Zeller doesn’t want this, or to be framed for murder and when she summons another wormhole, he kills her. Now, this is where things are interesting. The expedition was a secret government one, which claimed to have them work for medical purposes. They know full well they were dealing with extraterrestrial elements, and they want Zeller to take the fall so that this incident will stay underwraps. It also helps that they genuinely don’t believe anything he says. Hell, even the lawyer claims to want to help him plead insanity, but really just wants all the rights and royalties to the book she will publish about his case. By the time we get towards the end of the story, Zeller’s had a lot of time to think about all of this. He is slated to be executed, which the governor or official along with Cartwright even talks to her about the insanity plea she decided not to pursue.
Zeller starts to see that humanity — its society, its hypocrisy, condemned him to this fate — and wasn’t listening to him when he says “they would come through the walls.” This is where it all goes down. For his last request, he asks for the alien instrument: which he blows. Zeller never gets that lethal injection, but everyone else gets grabbed and torn apart by tentacles from another dimension. What we realize is that Professor Trollenberg didn’t look into the past to find the Old Ones, but the future. And we see, as this paradox trope plays itself out — in which her own words “Time is an illusion” — come back to haunt her as she sees Zeller on the table and the Old Ones everywhere. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy as they both see each other between the past and the present, life and death.
Everyone has betrayed Zeller: from the security head, to the Professor, to the lawyer, to the government, to humankind. And he decides, instead of continuing to warn them, knowing they won’t listen and they will kill him anyway, that if he’s going to die he is going to take them all down with him. His last words are with him cackling, Lovecraft end-sentence style, “They are in the walls! In the walls …” And honestly, this is a story I can get behind, that when you disregard confusing temporal mechanics, it is humanity’s arrogance and abuse of power — and the hatred of one human that supersedes even that of an eldritch otherworldly species’ coming to destroy it all — everyone gets what they deserve. I … love it, frankly, Cartwright’s self-serving book Our Demons, Ourselves says it all.