horror

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll’s illustrated book Through the Woods came into my life just at the right time. Well, any time would be great, but I’m particularly interested in the uncanny and what spooks us for a few projects I’m working on.

through the woods cover

Besides the engrossing illustrations, Carroll captures the straightforwardness of language that, even though it might appear simple, is in fact hiding the monster that waits beneath our beds ready to pull us by the leg. This book has teeth; large, gnashing teeth ready to eat the characters up.

There are five complete stories in the book and like many of the Grimm fairy tales before it, concern themselves with children protagonist and/or the invasion of the home from an uncanny force. The English name “fairy tales” always seems misleading. In German, these types of stories are labeled Kinder-und Hausmärchen, or children and house stories/tales. Not as fanciful sounding, but more correct.

The stories in Through the Woods do not have happy endings and have not been Disneyfied. It is hard to pick a favorite, but perhaps, if I had a huntsman’s axe pointed at my head, I would choose “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” A young wife joins her husband at his expansive home and is haunted by knocking coming through the walls. It’s a bit of a mix of Edgar Allan Poe and Rebecca.

Even though Carroll clearly has a style, she gives each story its own unique look and color scheme. They do not blend together, but reflect well on the story (in words) being told.

It was fortuitous that I finished this book and then the following night–with the lights turned off, of course–that I watched the film Stoker. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since it was released, but I have only now watched it. It clearly was inspired by Hitchcock films and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. An uncanny presence (who doesn’t eat food) comes into the home. The film utilizes style, and the layering of images and scenes, overlapping events allude to a sinister unease. I enjoyed the film. Although, I absolutely did not like the final scene. Has anyone else seen this movie? I think the song used over that bit was totally ill-fit and knocked me out of sync with the rest of the film.

Anywho, it was an interesting pairing. I’m glad I finally read Through the Woods. It made 2014 a more interesting publishing year than it was.

This book is best read at night before you go to sleep with only a single nightlight or book light. One of the stories is available on the author’s website, along with further stories not collected in the book.

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Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

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Wowzer. I’ve never read Lauren Beukes work before. I’ve been a bit disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to squeeze The Shining Girls into my reading schedule when it was initially released, but after finishing up Broken Monsters, I will certainly have to get it in the new year.

I must admit that I was intrigued by Broken Monsters when I first read the synopsis; it had a very True Detective quality about it (minus the Lone Star beer and interrogation room philosophizing).

Detroit. Present day. The lifeless body of a missing eleven-year-old boy has been found. However, the upper part of his body has been fused to the lower half of a deer. This heinous crime is just part of the ruined remains of Detroit, a city which has obviously seen better days. Most people are gone and the buildings that remain are all broken.

The central point of the novel is the crime (and the subsequent murders carried out by a serial killer). The novel is constructed by alternating short chapters from various characters’ points of view: Detective Gabi Versado, her fifteen-year-old daughter Layla who seems to be moonlighting as Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator, the washed up journalist Jonno who moves to Detroit in hopes of utilizing the internet for his big break, among others.

At first, I was unsure how all of the POVs related, but as the narrative progressed, their stories intertwined until they all start to overlap into each others’ lives. Besides Detective Versado, once her daughter’s narrative started to roll, I found myself loving her spunky, take-no-prisoners attitude.

About halfway through, I thought that Broken Monsters would be another run-of-the-mill cop drama (there was even grumpy police lingo and macho doughnut grubbing detectives). I would like to believe that Beukes was just turning around our perceptions of genre fiction.

The final pièce de résistance was a complete loopy, wild ride. I was properly anxious–dare I say uncomfortable. It was successfully treading into horror territory. I had that feeling of I must know what’s gonna happen. I must finish!

So, I’ve broken my ban on acquiring any more books for the next two months until I finish up my stack of galleys and the two books designated as my own “winter big reads” and checked out The Shining Girls from the library. I couldn’t help it! Has anyone else read it or Broken Monsters?

I found an interesting short video where Lauren Beukes talks about violence against women and they way it is often fictitiously portrayed.

 

 

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

I was hoping to review this book before Halloween in case anyone was interested in an off the beaten path sort of read, but, alas, like many hopes, it had to be altered, changed, and delayed. Regardless, I hope everyone was able to squeeze in a ghostly story or two, or perhaps, a movie that makes you hear bumps in the night. Sadly, I was taken with a stupid cold on Friday (no doubt, from all of my traveling and little sleeping) and also, Halloween isn’t really noticed at all here in Berlin. But enough of that and more of the supernatural…

supernatural enhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements is a send-up to classic ghost stories and haunted houses; it’s also a cousin to the once popular “locked door” mysteries. The novel is a combination of fragments–epistles, notes, recorded conversations, video, etc.–and the majority, if not all, of the action takes place within the uneasy walls of Axton House, a large estate in Point Bless, Virginia. After the untimely deaths of the previous owners (the most recent taking a swan dive out of the window), a second cousin twice removed from Europe only identified as A. shows up after the house is bequeathed to him. He is accompanied by a mute Irish teenager named Niamh, who hastily scrawls her thoughts and exclamations onto a notepad, which is presented throughout the pieced together narrative (however, I must admit, these two characters had me rolling my eyes at the beginning, because they were dangerously close to being too cool hipster types; this feeling didn’t completely pass, either).

The novel has a humor about it. The author and the story are well aware of the history of haunted house novels before it and is curiously investigating it in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

A: I…I’ve been having some rough nights.
Strückner: Waking up screaming?
A: A couple times.
Strückner: Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seeing things?
A: Okay, okay, I see the pattern.

As A. and Niamh continue to live in the house, hoping to identify why the previous owner offed himself, strange occurrences take place and a bigger mystery becomes apparent. I must admit that somewhere in the middle, the once quick and addicting page-turning did become a little tedious. The Supernatural Enhancements would have been served better by tighter editing. There were continuous pages of nothing–meaning, video and audio recording transcripts that offered absolutely no propulsion to the story. Also, the ending did become a bit confusing. Proverbially, I lost the plot. In a way, Cantero was trying to tie up loose ends, but it really didn’t explain the engaging pages he had going for the majority of the book.

Regardless, I would still recommend The Supernatural Enhancements. I’m truly a sucker for epistolary/fragment novels (re: Dracula). Has anyone else read this book? Perhaps, you’ve made better sense of the ending!

Horror fiction from Charles Dickens to Charlie Higson – books podcast

Zdislav Beksinski

There is still time remaining to find your Halloween spooky binges (if you are one of those who chooses to indulge in horror only once a year). I’m currently listening to The Guardian Books podcast about horror fiction. So far, so good. It is entirely interesting in that the guests speak to expected horror fiction, but also the important women authors who have contributed to the cannon of horror and terror.

The horror story, beloved of 19th-century armchair thrill-seekers, is making a comeback in some surprising forms. We return to the infancy of the genre with Darryl Jones, editor of a new anthology of 29 classic tales, to find out more about past masters from Charles Dickens to Conan Doyle. Then we turn to Charlie Higson and Robin Ince to find out more about the surprising affinity between horror and comedy, which has led to a collection of terrifyingly funny tales from some of the UK’s best-known stand-ups.

LISTEN 1 |

The Fallen by Dale Bailey

Back in May, I reviewed an excellent novella by writer Dale Bailey titled, “The End of the End of Everything.” Until now, it had been the only work I had read by the author, but I was delighted to hear that his novels were being republished. The Fallen is Bailey’s debut novel from 2002.

the fallen

Saul’s Run, West Virginia is a small town that is an eerily perfect place to live except every few years when a slew of unlikely deaths and violent crimes flare up like a bout of flu and then ultimately recede again for another number of years. Otherwise, people live till old ages and the security of the residents is completely at ease. Henry Sleep returns to the Run, as it is known to the locals, after a decade’s long absence after hearing news of the apparent suicide death of his father, the local holy man. Henry is skeptical of the death and as he has further run-ins with the other locals and a new face, his apprehension grows tremendously.

The Fallen is classic horror that I couldn’t help but associate with Stephen King. Although, this novel felt tremendously different from his recent novella, Bailey still focused on a place with an unnatural presence growing around it, ready to suffocate the characters till the final pages.

The idea of evil lurking in unexpected places was prime in The Fallen, giving it that earlier King feeling. Recurring shared dreams of being caught in a labyrinth are highlighted throughout leaving the reader ever-curious about how this all ties together.

Bailey structures the novel with sections and chapters that jump between present and past years when the Run’s tranquil life is upended by dastardly crimes and unexpected deaths, which gives a feeling of unknown dread. When weaved together, this plot construct can be both confusing and intriguing with the former purposefully disorienting to leave the reader feeling off-kilter as Henry further investigates his father’s odd death and the evil forces of the town.

Admittedly, the novel did feel a little uneven. The beginning was incredibly engaging as past years’ portions were looped with Henry’s present return. The middle slightly stagnated in a way that it might not have if Bailey was writing this today with several novels already in his oeuvre. The ending’s action is full tilt as Henry and his friends learn what is causing the intermittent horrors of Saul’s Run.

The Fallen and Dale Bailey’s other novels are being republished by Open Road Media. Check ’em out and take special note of his novella that I previously mentioned, which is available from Tor.com.

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Horns

Oh, dear. I do believe this is the second post in a row with a video, but….

I just watched the theatrical trailer for the new film adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns. I reviewed the novel back in April and I have to say it is a mighty gripping read. I hope the film is as entertaining.

Can we talk about how I lost 27 minutes of my life watching the new Rosemary’s Baby?

rosemary's baby

So, perhaps the title is a bit overly dramatic, but the newest adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a total bore. I didn’t read any reviews of the mini-series beforehand, because I wanted to go in with a clear palette. I had heard that they relocated the story to Paris from New York, which I didn’t understand, but I gave the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt that she wanted to isolate Rosemary even more by moving her to a foreign country where she knows practically no one nor is fluent in the language (although, she seems to encounter only impeccably bilingual Parisians).

There was no subtly to this adaptation. Back in September, I reviewed the book. Although, I already knew the twists and turns from being a fan of Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation, Levin’s book still held a creepiness that made Rosemary and the reader increasingly more uncomfortable. On a small island of so many, Rosemary Woodhouse is still alone. At first, she is trusting of her friendly, elderly neighbors, but slowly the thread grows longer and Rosemary can’t seem to trust anyone, including her own husband. Polanski was immensely loyal to the novel and the movie is an accurate adaptation (he didn’t realize that directors stray from the original source material).

In both the book and the original film, there is a creep to the horror with a dash of the claustrophobic. The doers of evil are not what we all expect and, instead, as I earlier wrote, Ira Levin created a “real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people” and Polanski did the same. This new iteration of Rosemary’s Baby was so far away from this whole premise. About twenty-seven minutes into the mini-series, I finally gave up. I am not a fickle viewer and I try to give most things a go. Yet, this was so lukewarm.

There is no mystery to the underlying premise. Right off the bat, we know that Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s new benefactors/landlords/make-out buddies? are up to something more sinister. Heavy-handed would be an understatement. Zoe Saldana–the actress portraying Rosemary–keeps awkwardly oscillating between naive ingénue and the gung-ho type of woman who will chase after a purse snatcher in the middle of the Paris streets. She also has minor rumblings of discomfort over her new posh friends who gift her a wardrobe full of couture clothes, a hatbox filled with a wailing black cat, and after a quick massage to help relieve a headache, gives her a lingering kiss on the lips while lying in bed…all in the first 27 minutes! (oh, yeah, and Guy has a meeting with his colleague at a bar that could double for the set of Eyes Wide Shut). I am a fan of the ridiculous, but this falls more toward the dreadful.

There was absolutely no tension, no subtly, no mystery. We know that Satan is lurking right from the beginning. There is no Ruth Gordon to offer a glass of some questionable milky concoction, all the while, reassuring Rosemary that it’s perfectly healthy. When I turned the series off, I eventually made it to the internet where some cursory Googling confirmed by opinion. The only positive review I read was in the New York Times, but once I saw the byline, I immediately knew that the reviewer probably didn’t even watch the mini-series (my favorite article about NYT tv critic Alessandra Stanley is from the Columbia Journalism Review and is titled,“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong”; she is known for her gratuitous errors and the fact that she sometimes doesn’t even watch the program).

Okay, so I shall stop complaining now. Skip this mini-series and just read the book and watch the 1968 film. Did anyone sit through this in its entirety?

 

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Penny Dreadful

penny dreadful

This weekend saw the premiere of Showtime’s new series, Penny Dreadful. The show brings together some classic characters from literature: Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and his monster. The show is filled with dark creatures, hidden mysteries, and a dark and scrubby London.  The show is richly layered and for fans like myself who like Gothic fiction, the weaving in of these characters and their lore is delightful.

The creators set the show in 1891. Only three years after Jack the Ripper, the city is still on high alert when a gruesome murder has been discovered. Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green, who I’ve loved since The Dreamers) ropes American Wild West Show shooter, Ethan Chandler, in to helping her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) find the latter’s daughter, amongst other not yet said endeavors. Chandler is immediately thrown into an underground world with dastardly blood sucking beasts with very sharp teeth and Egyptian hieroglyphs etched into their skin. Oh, yeah, there is also a tortured young doctor who spends his days autopsying bodies along with his more clandestine nighttime behavior of keeping a corpse on ice connected to an electric generator.

Vampires are wicked in the first episode, but we’ve yet to see Dracula himself and I’m quite looking forward to Dorian Gray, as it is a favorite of mine. Something I particularly like about the series thus far is that they return to the more grotesque and sensational beginnings of the novels. Over the past decades and especially more recently, these characters (particularly the creatures) have been rendered so much away from their original iterations, that they lost some of their more frightening composition. Just look at what vampires have become in present day fiction and movies.

The creators of Penny Dreadful have also taken the route of foregoing heavy CGI in favor of makeup and prosthetics, which are stellar and not at all hokey. They give a reality to the fantastical storytelling and too much CGI, well, that can look too crisp and clear. Also, setting the series in 1891 was ideal. I’m sure they will take advantage of the era when modern medicine and science were evolving (but still stuck, no doubt; Doctor Frankenstein was putting his bare hands inside of corpses leaving him soaked in blood and what better way to clean your hands than to wipe them on a dirty rag). Also, this was a time that was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, so I’m sure all sorts of angst will run wild on the show.

Only episode one has aired, but there are eight in the series. For the weak of stomach, don’t fret. The gore is not obscene and fits well so far with the show. If you can watch an episode of [insert title of any banal cop or doctor show], you can easily watch this without succumbing to upchuck. The grotesque is impressive and just enough mystery was withheld to keep the momentum going. Lovers of both sensational literature and intriguing tales will enjoy Penny Dreadful.

The first episode is available for free with or without a subscription on Showtime’s website. For UK and Ireland viewers, Sky Atlantic co-produced, so I am sure it will air on your side of the pond as well.

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Short Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

Last week’s post about the new Shirley Jackson story that was just posthumously published had me thinking about this short film adaptation of her story, “The Lottery.” I couldn’t recall if I had actually ever seen it and with some minimal internet sleuthing I’ve found it. The short film also features an incredibly young Ed Begley Jr. in his first film role (he plays Jack Watson). Enjoy!

Additional Reading … Interesting article from Shirley Jackon’s biographer detailing the hundreds of hate letters she received after this story was published. Also, the biographer touches on the perplexed feelings some readers had. The New Yorker also has a digitized version of the story from the 1948 issue it first appeared in.

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The Man in the Woods by Shirley Jackson

Although, passing away in 1965, the exquisite author Shirley Jackson still persists as one of our great 20th Century American writers. Even after her death, she leaves us with many unpublished works. Her adult children have been wading through all of her papers and unpublished stories have been found. Last year, the New Yorker magazine ran a previously unknown story called, “Paranoia.” With this week’s issue, a story taking root in mythology and fairy tale was published. This new Shirley Jackson story is called, “The Man in the Woods.” It is also available to read in its entirety online.

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Admittedly, the story reads like an early draft. It is indeed short and the ending is lacking the hard resonance that Jackson’s other works released during her lifetime have. The final sentences give a glimpse, however, to the tone and path she wanted to take. With that all said, “The Man in the Woods” doesn’t disappoint.

It is a short story that unleashes a lingering terror from the first page. Shirley Jackson was always wonderful at making the reader feel on edge without being blunt. Christopher is compelled to start walking into the woods out of the mere fact that he has nothing better to do. He is joined by a nameless cat who Christopher playfully asks, “Where we going, fellow? Any ideas?” As he continues on into the woods, Christopher finds himself at a crossroads, not sure which path to take. Jackson sets up a story that feels very familiar in the realm of fairy tales (well, the kind of fairy tales that really are horror stories with grim outcomes and any notion of “fairy” is wholly misleading). Christopher comes upon a small stone cottage where a trio of mysterious people live. The occupants are strange with their speech and they are not completely able to pick up on the humor in casual conversation.

Regardless of the draft quality of the story, I am still delighted by Jackson’s ability to construct a foreboding environment. She clearly is taking a cue from fairy tales and folk myths (one character’s name is possibly Circe; what this tells the reader about her, though, can be debated). It is this enigmatic quality of the narrative that is the big draw.

When you’re done taking a peek, the New Yorker also included an interview with Shirley Jackson’s son about discovering her unpublished stories and other topics.