When I saw that we had to read A Christmas Carol for class, I was gobsmacked. It fits the bill and it's appropriate for the season, but I approached it with a sense of exhaustion. I'd seen a zillion versions of the story, featuring yuppie Bill Murray and Muppets and Scrooge McDuck and Jean-Luc Picard. I felt like I knew the framework back and forth and I even had my snarky little opinion about the whole thing: he wasn't actually moved by the kindness of the human spirit into celebrating the holidays. He was just terrified into a death-row conversion.
One of the academics writing the introduction to the ebook version I read said that the value of reading the original work is that you can reexamine the character of Scrooge as he was meant to be written, before his cruelty was exaggerated for comic effect in later iterations of the story. The Ebenezer Scrooge I grew up was a hair's breath away from The Grinch. He was a cartoon character, cringing and hissing and cowering in his evil moments and tapping his heels together when he was happy.
Yes, the Scrooge in the book is much more toned down than the interpretations I've seen in other mediums. His miserliness isn't quite as screechy. He's just a cheap old bastard who doesn't have much use for other people. Whatever shell he built around his soul strips him of his humanity to the point where he doesn't feel the cold that nearly freezes his poor whipping boy of a clerk.
One of the nice things that I enjoy about discovering accessible classics is that you often find a shared spark of the collective human experience. When I read the scene of Scrooge chastising the men who came to collect for the poor, I heard the same perfectly rational and completely heartless arguments I hear fiscal conservatives sometimes make about poor people being poor because they're unwilling to work or undeserving of aid. It's the same sort of blanket statement minimalist bullshit you hear from people talking about welfare cheats and it's complete anathema to the spirit of the holidays.
What else is there to say? I liked the story, I liked that the spirits were slightly more mysterious and eerie than I always imagined them to be, and I liked the peculiar way Dickens wrote. I haven't read too much Victorian fiction but I've read a tremendous amount of stuff that parodies Victorian fiction and it's funny to see how oddly postmodern it scans to my modern sensibilities. Dickens is an odd mix of ominous narrator and focused POV storyteller, with the occasional asides to address the reader directly. It was jarring at first, but I eventually grooved to it.
I'm really happy I was forced to read this book.
I read somewhere recently that the vast majority of people who have claimed to watch classic movies like The Godfather haven't actually watched them. I don't actually think they're lying, but rather that the tropes and images of those movies have so completely invaded the public consciousness that we feel as though we've watched them from beginning to end. When I saw A Christmas Carol on the syllabus, I felt that feeling. What I needed to learn was that knowing the story doesn't mean you know the book. It's incredibly rewarding to see the tale directly through the eyes of the creator and to get a sense of what other creators drew from the source material.
Do you want to know the secret story of how A Christmas Carol ends?
I've been collecting comic books since I was a little kid. These days, the stories are geared toward mean old dudes like me, but back in the day they were a little more kid friendly. Marvel Comics released a Christmas Special back in 1991 that told the story of Franklin Richards, the young child of Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic. As he's going Christmas shopping with his mother, he spies an old man wearing Victorian era clothes and wrapped up in chains. He's Jacob Marley and he's decided to lie down into the New York City snow until he fades from existence. Through a bunch of self-sacrifice and courage, Franklin manages to break Marley's chains and everyone has a happy Christmas. It's a terribly sweet story and a wonderful coda for Dickens's book. Go check it out.
It was the one movie that I really should have made the effort to see. All the ads made this film look like the second coming of Leatherface. Remember these ads?
Anyway, the people who know me in real life were dying to find out my opinion on it. Unfortunately I missed it in theaters. Partially it was because I was a little intimidated by its supposed intensity, but mostly it was because I could never get the money and the time together. I'm sad I missed it in the theater because I would love to have seen it done properly. As it stands, I watched a DVD of it while on three different types of medication for an epic ear infection, which made the whole thing extra-surreal.
It's also making writing this review a challenge.
Is Paranormal Activity good? Depends on the audience. Kids who expect horror to be nothing but gore and jump-spike scares are gonna feel let down by this one. I liked it. It reminded me of how little you actually need to tell a scary story. The movie works just on sound and suggestion, on strong performances and a slow escalation of terror. Much like The Blair Witch Project, it's a movie that keeps a claustrophobic focus on the leads. In both movies, as shit begins to unravel, I really came to dread nightfall and the terrible escalation of the demon's assault. If that's your cuppa tea, go check it out. Final Girl's reviews are here and here, with a less-gushing one by Flick Filosopher.
The other thing I took away from the movie is the characterization of Micah and Katie, the doomed couple who find their suburban San Diego home under siege. Micah is one of those take-charge alpha male idiots who sees the supernatural siege as something he treat like a home-improvement project. He constantly shines on and ignores poor haunted Katie and refuses to accept help or treat the threat with any degree of caution or respect. He's basically the pushy jerk in every slasher film that dies the most horribly, only fleshed out and broadened into a real character. Our sympathy really lies with poor Katie, torn between a jerky boyfriend and a menacing spirit. Perhaps she courts her doom by not being assertive enough, but they're both people I can believe in. That's the kind of stuff I like: characters that exist as something other than knife-bait.
Go check it out, as it's probably one of the most important American horror films of the last few years. While you're at it, wish me a speedy recovery from this miserable ear infection. Also, for the record, I liked the theatrical ending more than the alternate DVD ending.
So you tell people you're a horror writer and they're all like, "Do you believe in ghosts?" and internally you're all like "Do you ask fantasy fans if they believe in elves?" (but then you catch yourself in a contradiction because you've met some fantasy people who really really really believe in elves and you just want to ask them if high school was really that bad) but you're all polite and deferential and you say "well, I don't actually believe in ghosts but they make good stories" and then someone who's been waiting to pounce on the conversation the way Hobbes pounces on Calvin when he comes home from school butts in and says "Well I saw a thing one time and felt a presence one time and my dad died but I knew he was there and we lived in a haunted house as a kid and I lost my virginity to an Inuit spirit named Pridefoot" and they look at you with a hint of defiance and challenge in their eyes because if you say you don't believe them then you're calling them a liar or crazy to their face and you're challenging something special they experienced that has subtext of mortality, which is the biggest scariest thing of all beyond turning out like your parents and you say something evasive and inadvertently but unavoidably condescending like "Well, I believe YOU believe that you saw something" and there's a rift in the conversation because they're saying something completely fantastic and they can't back it up and you just can't buy it so you go back to safer conversation topics like why the Tea Party are a bunch of uneducated old fart hypocrites for raising cain about the Occupy Wall Street crowd and why the Catholic Church no longer has any right to claim any sort of moral authority because of of institutionalized practices stretching over decades covering up the abuse of children in their care and you know you're a) not getting laid that night, b) no one is going to invite you back, c) you're not allowed to have any more G&Ts and you're stuck drinking from the Miller High Life like you're a 15 year old and d) you are somehow the dickhead because people, even snotty rational atheists like you, need something irrational to believe in and all you've done is piss in everyone's Ovaltine at the party by pointing out the obvious, which is that you're making some damn fantastic claims and that witness testimony is super subjective and people who have certain personality types are more likely to see fantastical explanations to things and confirmation bias is a thing and our minds release chemicals when we confirm our suppositions and that has a narcotic effect and blah blah blah.
Good for you.
I believe that Elaine Mercado believes something was inhabiting her home in Grave's End.
I believe that Elaine Mercado admits in her book that she's prone to panic attacks and night terrors and things like that. I believe her when she reports that her husband and children report very different views on what she experiences, specifically that they are either skeptical at points or believe that the presence in her home is benevolent which makes me wonder about whether or not her tendency to feeling anxiety might be more fine tuned than the people around her. I believe that she discussed her failing marriage and her children maturing in a way that would lead me to believe that there was a lot of turmoil in her life and that might influence her perception of events. I believe that she has religious beliefs that are not necessarily at odds with belief in spirits haunting her home and one thing can feed the other. I believe that she chronicled what appeared to me to be a series of minor events over the course of ten-plus years that could easily be interpreted in a variety of ways over that time. And, not to kick too hard, I believe that a woman who appears on paranormal shows and pursues work as a clinical hypnotherapist, which is a heavily debunked field, might have a variety of reasons to tell this story this way.
And, given that paranormal expert Hans Holzer is the one who pushed the bullshit Indian burial ground story in the Amityville haunting forward, I have to say my skeptic's alarm kept going off.
But, if I were to meet her in a party or meet someone who held her beliefs, I would probably say "I believe YOU believe it's true."
And then I'd change the subject. Man, I'm a firm believer in gay rights. How about you, fundie weirdo?
As far as paranormal things go, it's a pretty good story. Mercado is a good writer. I felt a lot of sympathy for what she was going through. The whole thing doesn't reek of opportunistic profiteering that The Amityville Horror did, and it's a pretty damned good story of a middle aged woman trying to start over. Little balls of light and trapped miners don't mean much to me, but this woman getting out of a bad marriage, beginning a new career, and raising kids meant a lot more. I kinda barreled over her perception of experiences in my previous little tirade but I was totally on her side through the challenges in her life. She seems like a smart, sensitive, caring woman. She and I share different belief systems, but she seems like a cool woman.
In fact, I will say this about the book. When she's talking about ghosts, I kinda blinked out. When she talks about herself, I was completely engaged. I rocketed through it in a couple days of erratic reading.
It was a good story.
Gentle reader, you can probably assume that this is another assigned reading for my ghost story class. It is.
I know you're reading this, Professor Scott.
When I read the syllabus and saw we were doing "true haunting" books, my alarm bells went off. I know you're a paranormal investigator and I've seen you tell a mean true-life ghost story. I was worried that my opinionated dickhead skepticism was going to flare up and you were going to flunk me or go all kajukenbo on my ass. In the back of my head, I was all "man, we're a literature class, what are we doing reading a bunch of pseudoscience?"
I did learn a lot from it. I learned how believers expect these stories to be structured, how belief reflects what we see, and how our funny little minds work when we're frightened in our homes, how much chaos rests in the center of our spirits. It was an interesting read.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm taking Pridefoot out on a date tonight. She called me last week on a ouija board and I think it could work this time. We're gonna see Paranormal Activity. Please don't kick my ass at the next residency.
The hauntings that occur in The Amityville Horror are so reliable and violent and...well...obvious that it would left the fringe-y world of parapsychology and become the darling of the scientific community. Things fly, devil pigs talk to children, bugs fill rooms for no reason, stuff flies around and crashes like a low-rent air show. It's all very dramatic and impressive and I'm absolutely mystified that anyone took this book seriously.
I came into The Amityville Horror knowing it was bunk. Besides my natural and intense skepticism, I have a friend who is very active in the skeptic and debunking community. He sent me a bunch of articles and podcasts dealing with the Warrens, paranormal investigators who sound like a couple of crass opportunists, and George Lutz, the homeowner who sounds like a crass opportunist with a screw loose. Before I opened page one, I knew I was dealing with a work of fiction.
Strangely enough, that made the book more palatable.
A lot of horror tales boldly declare they're based on trues stories. It's a part of ghost stories. "We're just down the way from where that girl scout with the lazy eye and hare lip killed the rest of her troupe with a lacrosse stick" or whatever variation you'd care to hear. It lends veracity to the tale, as well as chillingly suggests that it could happen again.
So, whatever. You wanna say you're a true account? Oooookay. I'll be your huckleberry.
The core problem with The Amityville Horror is that it tries to have it's cake and eat it too.
The book tells a lurid story. Mass murders, cursed priests, satanic malevolence, and all that good EC comics stuff makes for a great ghastly tale. Unfortunately, the book reads like it's trying to maintain the pretense of straightforward journalism. Part of it is due to the weaknesses of Jay Anson's style, which can be politely described as leaning toward the hyperbolic. Part of it is due to the fact that it's not really structured like a linear narrative. It's more a series of vignettes. Every chapter is essentially a self-contained story. A bunch of spooky shit happens, the parents act like utter cocks, the priest wheedles and moans and bitches out again, and something really scary happens and a bunch of exclamation points start sprouting on the page like mushrooms on a dry old turd. Not to trash too hard on the man's efforts, which had some nifty imagery and works as a fun beach towel/bedside table book, but it's not much of a narrative.
The only real character is the priest. The parents are sketched out so vaguely that I can't tell if their rising temper at each other and their kids is due to supernatural malevolence or simple bridge-and-tunnel douchebaggery. The priest gets the most pages and most of them portray a cowardly, indecisive Hamlet, forever vacillating on whether or not to help the family and passing off responsibility by appealing to his conservative superiors. Frankly, he comes off like a punk. Fuck that guy.
Speaking of which, I'm noticing a theme in these books.
Between this and Grave's End which is another true life account of the supernatural, I can't help but notice something in the inhabitants of these haunted houses. Both of the books deal with deeply religious people and I can't help but believe people with a strong attachment to believing in gods don't have much of a problem making a jump to believing in ghosts.
The movie was much better.
In describing The Amityville Horror in his seminal non-fiction book on the genre, Stephen King called it one of the first "economic horror stories." Think about it. You buy a new house that should be waaaaay out of your price range, you make some rough peace with the fact that people died horribly in there, then you move in and the pipes fill up with black oil and doors rip of their frames and rooms fill up with bugs and the nastiness just keeps escalating. You can't really deal with a fixer-upper when it is actively working against you.
It kinda made sense to me as a kid but it makes a whole lot more sense now. A week ago, I moved into a new apartment in Bushwick. I'm just another hipster kid gentrifying a neighborhood, but it's hard work building a home. It's a tiny room in a basement that was never meant to house people. There is no ventilation in the place, there is no closet, my stuff doesn't fit in the room, the stove barely works, and there's a bunch of teenagers running a craps game going on in front of my place. Yet somehow I gotta make it work. And it's much easier than if some dead asshole started turning over my furniture and knocking over the cheap ass canvas wardrobe I had to buy to keep my stuff.
The movie focuses on that aspect of the tale. The priest is barely in the movie, the family is likable, the performances are good, and shit gets real intense.
There's an argument that The Lovely Bones is a gimmicky book. It's a tale of the disintegration of a grieving family told from the point of view of their murdered daughter. As she watches her family up from heaven with a sort of passive Buddha-like idiot benevolence, we become a sort of voyeur into one family's turmoil. It's pain porn, it's grand guignol melodrama. The story is mostly formless, a series of vignettes dipping in and out of the family's life over the course of several years. The reader doesn't even get to experience a good vicarious sense of vengeance when the murderer gets got. There's no violent death at the hands of a righteous family member or apprehension at the hands of dogged police pursuit. Instead, you get a tale of love and loss, intimacy and regret, growing up and growing old.
I enjoyed the hell out of it.
As I was reading the book, I started to realize that the framing device of the heavenly narrator wasn't actually necessary. She's dead when we meet her, she doesn't seem particularly angry at her murderer (which makes later declarations of outrage hit an oddly false note) and she sort of loves everything and everyone without hesitation. Yes, there is a scene where she inhabits the body of a friend to share a first kiss with her high school sweetheart, but I started to realize that that I had become emotionally invested in the family enough that I didn't need a serene POV walking me through the story.
Still it's unique and dreamy. It feels like the voice of a teenage girl; at once emotionally raw, completely honest, and self-mythologizing. I get harped on a lot in my writing (legitimately so) for injecting too much of an omniscient narrator into my book, and it hit me that author Alice Sebold figured out the perfect way to do this. Susie has a very intimate view of her family, but is distant enough to comment on their behavior as a narrator.
I can't help but feel like I'm going to get in trouble for this, but did anyone else think that Susie's mother was being a self-indulgent asshole for running away from her family?
I mean, okay, her father was entirely too fixated and sloppy about how he went about gathering information on the creep who killed his daughter. And families do fall apart after tragedies like this. But it also seems to me that screwing around behind your husband's back and running away in the manner she did was just straight messed up.
I was at a wedding the other day and, after a few trips to the open bar, me and my fellow bachelors who'd managed to avoid the garter belt were standing around and discussing the wonders of dating women. Someone...okay, me...said that the tricky thing about dating women was that there's a part of them that's always locked away, that always stares at you from across from a great distance. You can try as hard as you like but you can never quite get all the way close to them.
Sexist? Maybe. But when people talk about the mysteries of women, I sometimes think this is what they're talking about.
I tried watching the movie, which was a horrible idea. Aside from the murder and the beatdown in the cornfield and the break in at the murderer's house, not much happens in the story. When Petey Jay directed the flick, he really jazzed up the scenes in Heaven, but the book doesn't focus too much on Susie's afterlife, so tremendous amounts of quality character stuff gets lost in the razzle dazzle world of the movie.
A shame. This is really good stuff. I recommend this book for anyone with a taste for melodrama and a love of strong characterization. I'm going to take a lot away from this book. I hope you do, too.
Everyone's dead. The heroine? Dead. The weird kids? Dead. The help? Dead. The missing father? Dead. About the only people who aren't dead are the people we're supposed to be afraid of.
That's the shit I remember from watching this movie from the first time I saw it. I remember the dreary British estate, perpetually shrouded in fog. I remember Nicole Kidman all sexified in her uptight little Victorian coats. I remembered it being slow and subtle and kinda gimmicky. The problem with movies featuring Big Tweest Endings is that any future viewings of the movie always being about watching the twist being set up and the narrative turns into one big puzzle to be solved.
I was not looking forward to rewatching the movie. My first experience was pleasant but mild, like eating New York Mexican food (yeah, eat a dick NYC. You don't do everything the best. WEST COAST BITCHES!!!!) and the thought of being locked up in my house watching a bunch of uptight religious Brits dealing with unnamed dread sounded wiggidy wack.
Well shit. Now it's one of my favorite ghost movies of all time.
First off, you HAVE to see this film in the proper environment. You need to see it in a theater or, barring that, on the biggest TV you can find. This film needs your full attention. Unlike something like the Dawn of the Dead remake, which you can half-pay attention to while giving sex advice to Steve Carell, you need to enter into the atmosphere completely. The movie creates a very fragile, ephemeral air that would get ripped apart like a spider web spun on a speaker that starts playing Pitbull's "Get Me Everything."
Strained simile, I know, but I got a word count to hit and I just bought the album like 20 minutes ago.
Anyway, the reason this movie works much better than I expected it to on the second viewing is that it's absolutely lactating with gothic dread. The house is a silent, dark place, lorded over by an uptight religious matriarch of questionable sanity who never quite loses our sympathies. The kids are equally engaging; one a rebellious little firebrand you can't help but root for and the other a little scaredy cat we just want to take to our ponderous man-bosom and rock back and forth, gently reassuring him that everything will be okay. It's an atmosphere of secrets and sickness and understated malevolence. The patriarch is gone, only to come back in a shell shocked daze once his TARDIS malfunctions and drops him off at Drearydown Manors. The children have some weird vampire skin disease that renders them mortally vulnerable to sunlight. The mother coldly orders the new domestic staff around in a manner one would expect of a member of the aristocracy, laying out draconian rules and regulations for them to follow.
Then the weird sounds start echoing through the house. And the kids start making very close friends with imaginary people. You know the rest of the tune, do I really have to call it out?
The mystery is actually brilliantly constructed. The filmmakers play fair and all the reveals work in the context of the narrative. The twist doesn't come out of left field but it does a great job of coming from what had been previously established in the movie. Combine that with the old dark house and eerie, oppressive sense of dread and you have a solid Henry James-style ghost story. The bit where Kidman's character finds the book of posed photographs of dead bodies is absolutely chilling, as was the scene of the ghostly help speaking to the family from outside the door.
Even after you know the twist, when you go back and revisit the characters, you discover how well they are written and performed. For example, I really should have hated Gracie Stewart. She's deeply religious, controlling, and prone to smothering her kids with pillows. Yet for some reason she never fully lost my sympathies, even if there were some moments where she needed a whack upside the head. She had a pair of sick children, three weird caretakers, and a missing husband to worry about. She was a deeply sick woman, but also very loving. The scene where she recounts their murder and her suicide was deeply touching. Even the creepy caretakers were fantastic. They could easily have been stock characters, but Bertha Mills and her lot were a very odd combination of compassionate and menacing.
The Others is one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I don't know if it's something I can watch more than a handful of times. The effect it creates is slow going and fragile, so it has to be experienced in the right settings, but it's still a helluva film. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes subtle eerie horror, old world ghost stories, and audiences who have a taste for sumptuous melancholy visuals.
Because I am a little shit, and because I have a tendency to soak up and project hyperliberal dogmas of oppression and subjugation, my first thought after completing Peter Straub's seminal Ghost Story was "another goddamned horror novel about poor helpless men besieged by an eeeeevil woman."
On a very surface level, it's an accurate observation. The only two women to get any real screen time are the shapeshifter antagonist in her various guises and the wife of one of the protagonists, who is a cheatin' ice queen with a heart like shards of cold broken glass. The shapeshifter is a seductress kinda monster who uses her wiles to send men to their destruction. Her acolytes speak of her in reverent tones. She's eeeeevil because she makes men love her too much, but refuses to be subjugated by that love.
This is ultimately a boy's story about the one that got away, about impotent men cowering in the face of a female power. It's also pretty damned good.
I fully intend to be in the Chowder Society when I grow old.
One of the most popular tweets I ever...uh...tweeted (JoeAverageSF, if you're interested) was "I can't wait to be old. I want to be an old theatrically morbid man like Vincent Price." Well, I want to be like the Chowder Society, the four old men who get together and tell ghost stories, starting each one with the same eerie introduction, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?," followed by the response, "I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing..."
The old men in the story are really likable and engaging, the setting is genteel, and the tales they tell are genuinely eerie. This book plays toward my taste in quiet, evocative horror and the evil that descends on the gentle old professionals is slow and spooky and delightful.
As much as I enjoyed the book, and I really did, there are a couple things that bug me. It has the feeling of being improvised as the author went along. Antagonists that start out as distant and ghostly suddenly become little chatterboxes as they're encountered later. Behavior, motivations, and patterns shift, and people get a case of the stupids later in the book. There's also a certain aimless passivity to the heroes. They spend most of the book waiting to get got, rather than being proactive in any meaningful sense. The most dynamic step they take is to bring in the nephew of one of their murdered contemporaries, who appears to be haunted by the same spirit.
Speaking of the spirit, one of the big questions that bugged me about the book is the antagonist's motivations. She's an immortal shapeshifter who is clearly contemptuous of humanity, yet she wastes decades of her existence hassling four random chumps in an isolated small town? Really? Is her evil that banal and unimaginative? The story would have made more sense if she were an actual ghost haunting them because ghosts tend to fixate on a subject. The creature at the center of Ghost Story ultimately came off as petty.
I do want to make mention of something that I found sort of appealing, which was the relationship between Stella and Ricky Hawthorne.
I think we're living in an age where people are becoming more skeptical about the idea of monogamy. Maybe it's the fact that I'm safely ensconced in a bubble of Brooklyn dating, where being "friends with benefits" is too much commitment, and I'm a Dan Savage devotee who read Sex at Dawn a couple times, but my view of human relationships tends to be a little more...progressive than the mainstream.
Horror, as I've often said, is a fundamentally conservative genre. It's all about the status quo and it's often written by people who hold fairly traditionalist views. That attitude is often an asset, as horror is usually about drawing firm black-and-white lines between good and evil, but it tends to falter around deviations in human behavior.
Somehow, Ricky and Stella work. She cheats, he knows about it, and all seems well. On paper, it appears that she can't help herself and he loves her enough to tolerate it. I suppose to some people that would appear to be a catastrophic state of being, but they seem happy. It works for them, and I liked their dynamic, even if I felt she was a throwaway character.
One of the weird things I took away from reading Ghost Story was the fact that it was less effective as it became a more traditional horror novel.
As a tale of four old men, haunted by a tragedy, who find cathartic release by telling ghost stories to one another, it was a great, evocative book. Once they're knife-fighting developmentally disabled werewolf boys in movie theaters, the book became garish and kinda goofy. Still, the book works. I like the characters, I like their world, I liked the pacing (which was eerie, but not foot-draggingly slow), and I liked the little moments of creepy terror. The dreams, the visits from dead friends, the moments of isolation and menace were all wonderfully done.
I have a litmus test when I read horror fiction. First I look at the non-horror elements. Do they hang together? Are the characters compelling? Do I give a shit about who they are and how they interact and collide against each other? Basically, could they hold up in a book without the horror elements? I absolutely felt that Ghost Story passed this test. There are a lot of challenging, engaging characters and they were all richly detailed and fascinating.
The second part of my litmus test is studying the horror elements. Are they original, or at least engaging? Do they improve the human drama or do they just get in the way? Do they make sense? Are they scary? For me Ghost Story mostly passed the test. When the threat was more ephemeral, when the demon facing the the Chowder Society was more vaguely defined, it was an effective horror story. Once we got to know Eva Galli, she became more of an annoyance than anything else.
I was actually a little bit spooked as I read the book because many of the elements of the novel are very similar, and probably better done, to elements of the novel I'm writing for my MFA.
Old friends tied by strange social rituals and a violent crime. An ethereal menace that lurks in the shadows and begins a campaign of psychological warfare before striking with sudden, decisive violence. A strongly defined setting that the characters play off of and experience in their own unique ways.
Screw it. Straub can call a good tune. I will dance to it.
Overall, I give this book my bump. I enjoyed reading it and I think it's a solid introduction to Straub's key work. It's recommended for fans of more subdued, quiet horror.
One of the unique things about my academic program is that it forces me to revisit my beloved genre with fresh eyes. Most horror fans are voracious devourers of their medium and many of the books and movies I'm assigned to read are works I've already visited in the past. There is a world of difference between being passively engaged in a book and being actively engaged in trying to autopsying the great works of horror and laying their guts open for the world to see.
Or, in less bullshitty falutin' terms, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House kicked my ass.
I'm writing a haunted house novel and it sucks because every time I read the prologue of Hill House, I say to myself "That's it. There's no point in writing another haunted house story. How the hell do you write an introduction that sets a mood of eerie, evocative dread that holds a candle to the subtle, imaginative menace of '....and whatever walked there, walked alone.'"
That shit is creeeeepy. We don't meet a specific, sentient menace. We don't have the dusty bones of Hugh Crain greeting the reader, announcing to us that he will be battering at the sanity of poor, doomed Eleanor. Hill House itself is not sane. The size, the vast interiors and the unnatural angles of the home reminded me of a Lovecraftian influence. I tend to hate stories where things have obvious origins and solutions. I feel horror works best with ambiguity, otherwise it becomes puzzle boxes you can open, selfish entities you can strike petty deals with.
I first read The Haunting of Hill House in my early teens, after Stephen King lavished great praise on it in Danse Macabre. People talked about its intense terror and the lurid and shocking underpinnings of lesbianism in the narrative, which attracted 14-year-old me like a pubescent fly to honey. I finished it, but it was a slog. I had gotten used to books with raised lettering and gory pictures on the cover. Hill House by comparison is understated and elegant. It depends on a person sitting alone in a parlor somewhere allowing the book to seduce them.
There were no decapitations by lion statue. There were no hot lesbian make out sessions between Eleanor and Theo. There was none of the lurid, juicy good stuff I loved in my other books. There was just a strange old house and the poor sucker who may or may not have deluded herself into taking her own life. It's all very gracious and subtle, strangely gentile, and I feel Hill House is the template that modern haunted house stories almost ceaselessly follow.
One of the more interesting things that struck me while I was rereading Hill House is how much Eleanor reminded me of Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of The Shining. I never quite bought that the novel's version of the character would have stayed with the self-loathing bully of a husband she found herself with, but the movie's version gave Wendy a strong sense of beaten-down passivity. She exists in a state of perpetual subservience to her husband's whims and makes excuses for his monstrous behavior.
Eleanor Vance struck me as someone desperately waiting for life to give her permission to being. People love harping on Theo's lesbianism, but I think the character appealed more to Eleanor because she was everything that Eleanor wasn't; free, independent, worldly, and confident. Eleanor pushed away from her dickish family in a fairly petty act of independence and her taste of freedom opened the door to a horrible seduction that lead to her doom.
Sure, the ending is an unhappy ending. I guess. Jack Torrance freezing in the snow is an unhappy ending. But ultimately both characters didn't belong in the world. One was too meek, the other too angry. Maybe it's a happy ending. Maybe they were both always ghosts, waiting for a real house to haunt.
Funny story about reading Hill House.
Unlike many horror fans, I'm a big old chicken. Always have been, always will be. I have a much higher tolerance for scares than a casual fan due to sheer overwhelming exposure, but it's not that hard to freak me out to the point where I'm awake at 4AM, staring up at the ceiling, trying not to over-imagine the causes of the noises in my nasty Brooklyn apartment. Because of this, I tend not to take my horror in optimal conditions. I read horror books on trains, watch horror movies at party events, and I get plenty drunk right before I stagger my way through haunted house theme parks (I once puked in a Leatherface set piece in a haunted house attraction in Los Angeles, but that's a story for another time.)
Anyway, I decided to change that up with Hill House. My only memories of it were the memories of a tasteless and stupid boy and I knew there was nothing particularly freaky or scary about it. So I decided to read the book on it's own terms. I kept a copy on my bed stand next to my nightlight and I read twenty pages or so a night before bed. Sitting in the dark, reading a quiet little book in a quiet little space, the story started getting to me.
I live in a party apartment in Brooklyn and we have drunk hipster loudmouths coming and going at all hours of the night. About a week ago, when I was finishing the book, I was laying down to sleep and my roommate's FWB started BANGING on the door. I immediately flashed back to the poor mousy Eleanor and I just about shot out of bed in sheer delightful terror.
The point of this story, aside from the fact that Williamsburg American Apparel zombies should stay away from cocaine and my front door, is that it's tremendously important to take horror stories in the correct context. If I simply read it every day on the subway I would have developed an intellectual appreciation for the craftsmanship of Shirley Jackson's writing, but the emotional impact of it would have been lost to me. Horror is meant for the dark. Keep it there.
While I was reading Hell House by Richard Matheson, I kept thinking to myself "Thank god I was born and raised in San Francisco after the sexual revolution."
Sex plays a HUGE part of this novel but it's the kind of sex horror writers from that era love to write about; 70 percent Penthouse Forum, 30 percent hand-wringing WASP-y sensibilities. Sexual repression runs rampant through the character's psyches and the evil spirits residing in the haunted house torment them with pornographic images, scenes of debauched orgies, and....gasp and shock and awe....a chapel with a crucifix equipped with a large erect penis. A woman has sex with a corpse (sorta) and is forced into having a lesbian encounter with the repressed young wife of the arrogant, impotent professor. The ghosts come from the Rob Zombie/Pazuzu dialogue school of Saying Really Foul Shit To Shock Conservative Sensibilities. I'm sure it was all terribly cage rattling to the sensibilities of some people, but to me the whole thing seemed juvenile.
I'm not scared of sex.
Okay, I'm scared of some of the real, practical stuff around sexuality that everyone is afraid of. Will I ever get laid again? Will I by any good at it? Will the person I get naked with take one look at my fat naked ass and laugh? But the novel seems to be written to rattle the cage of someone with a much more reserved outlook than my own. While I'm not the Marquis de Sade by any stretch of the imagination, I'm not rattled by most of the stuff on the page. I read my Dan Savage, I've lived in slutty cosmopolitan cities my whole life, I had my wild days, and I've walked through the Folsom Street Fair and "seen" (cough) more debauched shit than the book covers.
And all that stuff is done by normal people. Public sex, group sex, gay sex, all that stuff isn't done by depraved monsters rutting in the mud at the expense of their humanity. It's done by people. Ever notice how the most wild sex acts in horror fiction are always accompanied murder, as if the two things run hand in hand and it's a narrow line between murder and fucking? It's like the message is that really wild sex is always one-sided, predatory, and possessive, and there's little distinction between consensual wild rutting and cutting your partner's throat mid-coitus.
But, yeah, I'm not that repressed. I don't find sex particularly shocking or taboo-breaking, so when I read a description of a bunch of psychos fucking, all I can think is that the writer has issues and he assumes that I do too.
But then, that's just me.
Not to dog overmuch on Richard Matheson. I am a big fan. I've read a lot of his major work and a bunch of his stories and it's clear the debt that Stephen King owes to him. He's a great writer, Hell House was a very interesting and engaging book, but the view of sexuality at the core of the book didn't work for me. If the engine behind your horror story are taboos that the average slutty modern person doesn't share, you're gonna run out of steam early.
Reading the book, I couldn't help but think back to Clive Barker's work, particularly The Hellbound Heart. Barker has said that his work is meant to titillate as much as terrify and his stories are full of wild sexuality. But Barker doesn't approach the material the way most horror writers deal with sex. It's a part of his characters' experiences, not something to draw anxiety from. It feels more mature and in line with my sensibilities.
Oh, wait, in all this hot nonsense, I didn't actually synopsize the story.
Hell House tells the story of four paranormal investigators hired by a rich man to investigate the Belasco house, a haunted house of such dreadful malevolence that several previous investigative attempts have ended in tragedy. The noble group includes a beautiful clairvoyant with a new-agey take on Christian ideals, a polio-addled scientist and his significantly younger wife, and a previous survivor of one of the doomed earlier investigations. Each of them brings their own interpretation of the hauntings in the house and their safety and sanity is tested by the vicious spirit at the center of the house, a hedonistic deviant with a messianic complex.
It's impossible to ignore the obvious debt that this story owes to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which also has a group of deeply conflicted individuals trying to puzzle out a rational explanation to the supernatural events that surround them, but Matheson did a great job drawing out these characters. It's a hoary old truism that the best haunted house stories feature characters whose internal traumas power and fuel the hauntings, but the characters in Hell House are really engaging.
Florence, the former actress turned spiritual leader, is usually the sort of character I have a difficult time getting behind. She's essentially, in her own compassionate and gentle way, a religious fanatic of sorts. There's something slightly arrogant about her demeanor; she knows exactly what's going on in the house and the best way to combat it, and her unwillingness to critically examine her surroundings leads to her destruction. She's essentially the house's patsy and she completely buys the con game the house sells her. Yet despite all my complaints about her gullibility, I found myself admiring her courage and selflessness. She enters the house and reaches out to the spirits because she actually wants to help them, and she risks herself time and again to reach out to the "spirit" of the house's owner's son. For all her good intentions, her story ends in the most harsh way imaginable. Her eventual fate genuinely squicked me out, particularly due to the sexualized elements of it, but I got behind her and I found her heroic.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, representing the calm rational world of science is Dr. Lionel Barrett. Unlike many science characters in these sorts of tales, he's not there to scoff rudely at evidence of the supernatural. He's a parapsychologist, but he's view of the source of the energy is refreshingly interesting. I liked his take on the occult and his fancy machine, which he believed would dissipate the energy in Hell House. I also liked his relationship with his wife. It was tender and affectionate, if sexless. One of my complaints on the story is that I felt Matheson doesn't set up the Barrett's bedroom woes early enough, but they work as an engaging and supportive couple. It's got a weird father/daughter dynamic going on and Edith is probably a big ol' confused closet case, but I felt they were portrayed realistically.
The other two characters, Ben Fischer and Edith Barrett, are well-defined and engaging. The shell-shocked man who survived a previous attack on the house and the neurotic wife of the doctor are heroic when needed, weak when called to be, and keep the tale humming along. They're good. Go read the book if you want to learn more.
One of my favorite aspect of the book is how well flushed-out the spirit haunting the house is. Most haunting stories are amorphous entities with ill-defined abilities and agendas. They exist to provide the creak in the floor, the rattling chains, and the whispered threat. Matheson paints Belasco in very specific strokes, with a very specific endgame and weaknesses to be exploited. He's very much a character in the story, at once powerful and ruined by his own egotism. In general, I like ambiguity and mystery, but I liked that Hell House represented a very clear antagonist with a very specific goal in messing with the heroes.
Hell House is a classic of horror literature. It's built like a Swiss pocket watch in its taut precision and was engaging on a craft and characterization level alone. The primary tools of horror the book used to rattle my cage leaned too much toward a melodramatic sexuality, which felt childish. Still, the book was definitely interesting and engaging. I'd recommend it to people who like solid haunted house stories.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a Spielberg softie as much as the next guy. And I do like a heartfelt tale of scrappy kids and monsters. But I'm not a big J.J. Abrams fan and the ad campaign seemed like it was trying to recapture the mojo from Cloverfield. We know there's something terrible in the train, we know there are going to be a bunch of jump scares, but we're left in the dark beyond that. The marketing campaign worked for Cloverfield because it was new and novel and we knew it was a creature feature, but the same tricks didn't work for Super 8. Watching the trailer was more annoying than enticing.
I've seen Super 8 a couple of times now and it's pretty much what you'd expect it to be. There are some kids and a monster and it's trying real hard to be Spielberg. It's perfectly engaging and interesting and charming and all, but...I dunno. I simply don't care any more beyond that. The kid's tragedy was suitably tragic, the weird kids looked and acted perfectly weird, and the monster was monstrous. Don't get me wrong, the movie gets the job done and I didn't leave feeling ripped off. I left without feeling anything. It's weird to bitch about a movie that hits all the right notes, but I just didn't quite emotionally connect to it.
The Grudge 3 is a case of the filmmakers trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
Ju-On is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It's effective, subtle, creepy, and absolutely merciless. It's one of my rainy day go-to films. It's comfort food.
I liked the American remake, though not enough to own it on DVD. I enjoyed the American sequel for what it was. But every instinct told me to avoid The Grudge 3. I saw the panel for it at Comic-Con and they had a couple of the fresh faced young actors talking up the movie. The clip they brought along was the boyfriend returning to the haunted apartment. The room is pitch dark, he stumbles forward for a few seconds, there's a heartbeat of eerie silence, then Kayako reaches forward in the darkness. Cue soundtrack-spike jump effect and the lights go back up.
Objectively it all worked very well, especially that creepy moment of silence before Kayako strikes, but there was something off about it. Maybe it was the fact that actor was too pretty or the moment felt too rote, but the scene felt a little off. Adding to my ambivalence was the fact that it was a direct-to-DVD sequel with no direct involvement from Grudge creator Takashi Shimizu. I wound up giving it a pass.
I've been on a huge yurei kick lately. I'm tinkering with a ghost story and I'm reading the excellent Suicide Forest miniseries from IDW so it felt like a good time to revisit the Saeki family.
The story begins with the last surviving kid from The Grudge 2. He's locked up in an insane asylum and terrified that Kayako is going to kill her. The doctors don't believe him and lock him in a padded cell. Unfortunately, he's not alone...
The intro to the movie is actually really scary, due in no small part to the kid's acting talent. I've seen a lot of poor souls lead to their deaths because no one believed them, but this kid was spectacular. He really pulled the scene off. The doctor feels responsible for his death and returns to the apartment that the Saeki family are currently haunting. In the meantime, the landlord's sickly kid sister starts seeing Toshio and a mysterious Japanese woman moves into the building. It doesn't take long before chicks start crawling down the stairs.
As a basic creepy ghost story, The Grudge 3 works perfectly fine. The actors are surprisingly good, the atmosphere is suitably eerie, and it hits all the right notes. The problem is that it doesn't really feel like a Grudge film.
My first problem with the movie is we see WAY too much of Kayako in it.
The original Ju-on keeps her mostly out of sight. She's an indistinct shape in the window or a shadow on the wall or an out-of-focus lurker in a background. The only time we get a long extended look at her is when she's crawling down the stairs. That scene still stands as one of the creepiest things I've ever seen on film. Here, she shows up waaaaay too often, that crawl thing is overplayed, and you see that it's just a women with a lot of white make up on.
The second big problem I had with the movie is that Kayako just doesn't belong in Chicago. I get that yurei aren't necessarily bound to a single physical haunted location, but the logic for having her jump national boundaries was a little bit flimsy. A bunch of dead Japanese people haunting a run-down Chicago building full of attractive white actors feels discordant.
Finally, one of the things I loves about the original Ju-On was the way it told its story in little vignettes. The whole story takes place over a couple generations and we see how the evil in the house affects different people in different circumstances. That makes the horror of Kayako leaner and more graceful and frees the tale from the typical narrative tropes that haunt the ghost subgenre. Here, the story has a straight forward narrative almost lifted out of screenwriting 101. The characters have relationships laden with issues they don't discuss until they are brought to a crisis point. It's actually pretty well written and acted, but sticking to a formula sacrifices some of the intensity of the horror.
Despite all my harping, I enjoyed The Grudge 3. It's got a decent story, some solid scares, and I was engaged in it from beginning to end. It's a good horror film, but I don't quite think it's a good Grudge film.
You know, I have complained before about movies that wink too much to an audience of presumed horror fans, but Scream 4 takes it to a whole new level. In Roger Ebert's suprisingly positive review, he described the characters in the movie as being "preternatural in their detachment." Every character in the movie is so savvy and self aware, they become essentially audience surrogates commenting on themselves. They act so far removed from people genuine danger that the effect is disconcerting. The only person who is an actual character is poor, tormented Sidney Prescott.
I didn't really realize it until I watched this movie, but I think that Sidney Prescott is one of my favorite final girls of all time. She's definitely damaged from three encounters with film nerd serial killers, but she's got real steel in her spine. She stands up for herself, she fights back, but she never comes off as invincible or fearless. My favorite scene in the movie is the bit where her cousin's friend is being attacked next door and Sidney rushes out into the night to save her. Me, I'd be running the opposite damn direction. My only complaint with her is that I can't help but wonder why Sidney just doesn't leave town every time the killings start. Screwing with Sidney seems to be priority one with the Scream killers and leaving them derails their primary motivation.
I sat on the edge of my seat all through the movie, waiting for Sidney or Dewey or Gail to get it. It makes a mean sort of sense that the movie would bump them off to make way for the new generation. I was expecting it and I was really pissed about it. I came to realize that I really liked Scream's intrepid trio. Horror has very few memorable non-monster heroes and the trio didn't deserve to go out to service such a mediocre story (see: the death of Laurie Strode in that awful Halloween: Resurrection movie.)
Anyway, big spoilers here, Sidney's niece and one of the film nerds are the killer duo.
The film nerd is pretty dismissible. He's watched too many movies, can't tell the difference between right and wrong, and is snookered by his partner at the last minute. He's also got an incredibly slight frame and, like Sidney's cousin, it's very difficult to believe that they have the physical strength necessary to commit the murders.
Sidney's cousin is a much harder sell. Killer motivations in Scream movies are usually pretty lousy, but the idea that she is so enamored with Sidney's legacy that she's willing to kill her mother AND cousin to take her place is too farfetched. That's Hollywood-crazy, not real people crazy, and that's when the whole self-awareness thing stretches too far. It also doesn't help that she plays the final reel in histrionics worthy of a Justin Bieber crowd.
There's also one difference in the methodology of the new murderers: they're filming the killings as they take place, essentially making their own snuff film. This seems like a natural progression of the movie's themes, but ultimately very little is done with it. Scream movies exist in a very strange universe where the line between true crime and gory fantasy is very thin, and the public seems to crave more real world violence to happen so they can fictionalize and revel in it. I would have LOVED to see this played up more, but it's barely touched.
I get that Craven and Williamson were trying to comment on the remake craze sweeping through horror and the way that they do it is fairly clever, but the jokey self-referencing thing feels very 90s and stale. As I was watching the movie, I thought to myself that the only way to really reinvent the movie is to have a Ghostface with an entirely different motivation and voice. I want to see one who isn't playing to the camera, but one who is silent while his predecessors were chatty. There are still meat on dem bones, but not if they keep redoing the same thing over and over again.
I keep talking about the negatives of Scream 4, but ultimately I enjoyed watching it. Craven's movies are seldom bad and this one had enough wacky slasher antics to keep me entertained. It ultimately felt a bit disjointed. The film moved from set piece to set piece with little connecting them. It was fun to reunite with the heroic trio of Scream survivors and watch them beat up the two stupidest killers they've encountered yet, but it's not quite all there.
The big problem I had with Scream 4 was I'd just seen Insidious a week before. Scream 4 is basically fine and I don't feel cheated out of my money, but Insidious was a much more intense experience. Neither are particularly original films, but the raw craftsmanship and terrifying muscle behind Insidious won me over. It shaded my experience with Scream 4. I never jumped, never felt tense, and it never really got under my skin. It was fun to watch though.
Also, it ain't saying much, but Scream 4 was a lot better than Scream 3.
The AV Club just posted an interview with John Carpenter where he talks about the ups and downs of his career. It's a fascinating look at the way he views himself, but I can't help but feel sad for the guy. A lot of the things he's done only earned acclaim long after they were box office failures and that clearly wore him down. He's done with directing. Thanks for some of my favorite movies.
I keep trying to like James Wan's work more than I do.
There are moments in his movies that scare the utter shit out of me. There are few people working in the genre today who can do the drawn out, tense silence and the sudden sharp shock as well as he can. He's also a master at creating deeply unsettling images that drill themselves deep into my skin. I lost a good hour of sleep last night around five AM envisioning the creepy grandma from Insidious lurking under my bed. I think he's got the chops and I like that he sticks with the genre.
Yet despite his chops, I can't really get behind his movies. The screenplays are full of unengaging characters, weird tonal shifts, and frustrating plot holes. As a purely visceral experience, the movies are fine. As stories, they tend to be lacking. I've seen most of his major films, but I usually check them out on DVD.
Still, this season has been very dry for this little horror enthusiast and the word of mouth around Insidious has been surprisingly positive. I watched the movie last night and I can honestly say that Insidious is my favorite James Wan movie.
Insidious tells the story of a family who move into a haunted house. After the eldest child falls into a mysterious coma, the family becomes the victim of terrible hauntings. They flee their new home, only to discover that the ghost has followed them. In desperation, they turn to a psychic with an odd connection to the family.
The general consensus among all the reviewers I've read is that Insidious attempts nothing original, but it does the classics with style and verve. There are a lot of glib people out there who are saying that this movie is an all-but-in-name remake of Poltergeist, which isn't entirely untrue. It follows a similar narrative structure, with a slow set-up that puts the family in danger and targets a child, followed by the introduction of some comedic ghost hunters and a wise psychic who helps the family get through it all.
Insidious, however, has teeth. Between the long, creepy shots of silence and isolation and the genuinely terrifying ghost scares, this movie scared the bejeezus out of me. This is gonna be one of those movies I come back to, but only in well-lit rooms. I especially liked the now-famous eerie old lady in black, which reminded me of a similar creepy creation in Wan's deeply flawed Dead Silence film.
The movie's one point of genuine originality is the hero's journey into the Further, a shadowy reflection of our world where doomed souls wander. As he searches for his son, the father sees enough ghastly tableaus to fuel a dozen different horror films. It reminded me of the doomed landscapes of White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion role playing game. I loved seeing the world from the ghost's perspective, and the chilling images still make my skin crawl. Really, I could have spent an entire movie exploring the Further and it stands as the highlight of the movie for me.
As much as I enjoyed Insidious, it suffered from a few problems. The first was that there are three very large tonal shifts in the movie. The movie starts as a very conventional haunted house story, moves into a VERY exposition-heavy ghost hunter bit, and ends as more of a fantasy film. Each transition is very jarring and a lot of character threads get lost in each jump (most of the family disappears from the narrative by the second act.)
Second, the lead characters aren't particularly likable. Haunted house movies always have one person who doubts and the audience surrogate goes through the frustration of trying to convince them. In Insidious, this scene comes after a huge chunk of exposition that any rational person would have had a difficult time swallowing. Suddenly I felt tremendous sympathy for the poor, beleaguered rationalist who doesn't automatically believe in unquiet spirits and faraway lands of the dead. It didn't help that the wife came off as self-indulgent and high strung.
Insidious ain't perfect. People ding it for being unambitious, the writing is inconsistent, and the characterization is bland. But it succeeds on craft alone. It's a genuinely scary movie, done with tremendous style on a limited budget, and it stayed with me long after the final credits finished. I am probably going to come back to it, and I recommend it for anyone who likes a solid haunted house movie as well as anyone who likes Alice In Wonderland stories of people exploring strange places.
Finally, you ever notice how Wan's movies always have incredibly dark endings? Granted horror isn't exactly an optimist's genre, but his movies always have a sharp kick at the end. If you want a nice little final scare, wait until after the credits end.