CoolMaterial.com Recommends You Watch “Peaky Blinders”…

Peaky-Blinders-Netflix

And I’m not going to argue with them. I’m not quite as high on the show as they are, but it’s still a very good crime drama, set in the interesting times immediately following World War I. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for any story surrounding the First World War, in part because the history of that conflict is so complicated. World War II is often oversimplified, but it’s easy to do so when you have such clear villains with the Axis powers. World War I is considerably less black and white. I digress.

“Peaky Blinders” is the name of a familial gang of British criminals who, in the story, come to dominate the town they’re based out of, and eventually look to establish a foothold in London. Cilian Murphy stars as the de facto patriarch of the otherwise fatherless clan, running things alongside two brothers (one older, one younger) and his mother. On the opposite side of the law–though largely in title only–is Sam Neill’s Inspector Campbell, whose harsh, violent stance against the Blinders almost immediately careens over into corruption. In the first few episodes there appears to be a third party at play, a local Communist labor movement leader who is at odds with the authorities and the gangsters, but that plot goes absolutely nowhere and gets abandoned pretty early, unfortunately.

The show is relentlessly bleak, which is one reason why I don’t think as highly of it as the Mike Newman on Cool Material does. I wouldn’t say I’m over the “anti-hero protagonist” thing, or that I’m averse to grim storytelling–I’m a horror writer, after all–but the perpetual dimness of Peaky Blinders can wear you down if you’re digesting it two or three episodes at a time on Netflix. There’s a sort of static hopelessness to it. Instead of descending into or struggling with darkness, these characters are all trudging forward through an unending fog. Eventually they know that they’ll walk themselves right off a ledge that they can’t see coming, but they walk on anyway because it’s what they do and who they are. Not a bad story or theme, but when it applies to just about every character it can be wearying.

Still, the overall execution of the show is excellent. It looks great, the acting ranges from good to stellar, and even the different uses of the theme “Red Right Hand” in each individual episode’s opening is frequently a sliver of mood-setting brilliance. If you haven’t seen Peaky Blinders, season 3 is coming. Take some time soon to hop on Netflix, and treat yourself to an uncommon and entertaining (if melancholic) gangster saga.

About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

Crimson-Peak-Poster

Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.

This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.

Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.

And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.

Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent. 

Today’s Short Story: Stephen King’s “One for the Road”

Image from "The Secretary of Dreams" published by Cemetery Dance

Image from “The Secretary of Dreams” published by Cemetery Dance

At this point, almost any horror story featuring vampires is a reclamation project. I don’t need to rehash it here, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.

Vampires have become many things. Stylish, moody, desirable, heroic, even enviable. But they haven’t been proper horror villains–at least not consistently–for a long time.

Partly due to the setting, I think, the vampires in Salem’s Lot weren’t black-garbed, urbane charmers who happened to drink blood, but monstrous sub-humans with a hunger so unchecked they’re likely to kill off or convert their entire food supply before they realize what they’ve done. Salem’s Lot is not a perfect novel, and isn’t Stephen King’s best, but it still might be my favorite of his. Vampirism as presented in this novel isn’t merely a burden or disease; it’s not something you can struggle against. Its communicability seems less bite-related and more like it’s riding on a general miasma of malfeasance that has settled over a small town already nurturing its share of unpleasantness.

In short, what came to Salem’s lot was classic, old fashioned evil. A level of evil so incontrovertible and palpable that even after the head vampire is killed, Jerusalem’s Lot is rendered a permanent ghost town. There’s no going back to the way it was. And it’s not just about the heavy death toll, damage, or the lingering presence of a bloodsucker here or there. “The Lot” is effectively cursed. In King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “effectively cursed” becomes “literally cursed,” which might be why I’m a little bit biased against that story. Salem’s Lot doesn’t need a backstory featuring an ancient, Lovecraftian presence as the forgotten source for all of its future perils.  All it needed was the pestilence of vampirism to turn it into a fallout zone. And that’s how it’s presented in King’s short story “One for the Road,” from the Night Shift collection.

Dread Central broke the news last week that “One for the Road” is being developed as a short film. This gave me incentive enough to make “One for the Road” my short story read and write-up for today. The story is strong, but flawed. The opening is straightforward enough: in one of The Lot’s neighboring towns, a desperate man comes barging into a bar just before closing time. A blizzard rages outside, and the man, an out-of-towner who had underestimated the Maine winter, has accidentally run his car into a snowbank–wife and daughter still inside–near Salem’s Lot. The man thinks the biggest danger to his family is the unforgiving cold, but the two older locals know better. There’s a reason why the Lot was abandoned, after all, and why people who venture into it tend to go missing.

“One for the Road” does a good job of selling the recent history of Salem’s Lot effectively. Even if you’ve never the novel, you’ll have a clear enough idea about what transpired within it to understand the threat faced by the protagonists of this short story. The idea of living within short driving distance of a town known to have been overrun by vampires, a limited but unknown number of which may still be lingering there, is chilling. And I’m an unabashed sucker for a horror story set in snowy conditions. Top all of that with a no-frills premise and you can understand why I would call this a solid micro-sequel to my favorite Stephen King novel.

But, again, the tale has its flaws. King’s first person narrator gets sidetracked wistful remembrances of deceased wives and the history of the bar that don’t add color to the setting or characters, and show up just in time to temporarily stifle the story’s momentum. There are also a few too many instances of clever dialogue that don’t mesh with the urgency that should be present in the story. When our hapless out-of-towner, Lumley, scared for his family and demanding answers, imprudently but understandably grabs one of the two men who can help him by the shirt, the latter man responds, “Mister…I think your hand just ran away from your brains, there.” In a vacuum, or in a more fitting story and moment, that’s a pretty good tough guy line. But with these characters and what’s at stake, it feels stilted. Lastly, King’s affinity for stand alone, on-the-nose closing lines gets the better of him here, and he wraps “On the Road” with a pair of superfluous and sentences that are, again, trying a little too hard to be too clever, and don’t really match the established voice of the narrator.

Still, if nothing else, the simplicity of the story keeps it moving briskly enough to give little time for significant missteps. When the seemingly doomed impromptu rescue mission gets underway and the vampires start making their presence known, dread and the sense of inevitability becomes all that matters or exists in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters. You wouldn’t want to be in the same zip code as one of these things, much less be in their ranks.

Why This Poltergeist Remake Might Not Be So Bad

I know the reaction to any remake among people who are fond of the original is often universal derision and histrionic declarations of a defiled childhood. Well, I’ve never been one of those people to instinctively dismiss a remake (though, admittedly, most of them are pointless and / or lousy) and my childhood had a lot more going for it than some pop culture entertainment I enjoyed (and which, by the by, will continue to exist regardless of being remade), so I’m not one to go with that trend.

Still, on the surface, I can understand why the idea of remaking Poltergeist might rub people the wrong way. It can sometimes be overlooked when people discuss the horror movie “classics”–particularly of the 80’s–because it’s far from the most hardcore brand of horror you’ll find. In a decade dominated by slashers and films that took onscreen violence to new extremes (most notably The Evil Dead), Poltergeist is a bit of an outlier. It’s more theme park horror; family-centric and family friendly. By the standards of the genre anyway. Its special effects were far less concerned with gore than colorful spectacle. During the climax, when countless skeletal corpses start popping up in the family’s backyard, it feels more Raiders of the Lost Ark than Return of the Living Dead. This is no accident. Though Tobe Hooper is credited as director, it’s commonly held that Spielberg had a lot of  involvement in Poltergeist beyond writing the screenplay.

Poltergeist_2015_posterThat’s pretty important to remember here, because often times the complaints about remakes–horror remakes in particular–focus on how slick the newer film will look compared to its predecessor; how much more reliant the new film is on special effects. This complaint makes sense when remaking a subtle horror story such as The Haunting into a cruddy CGI extravaganza. Other complaints about remakes focus on how the updated version of the film locks in on one element of the predecessor, but loses sight of what actually made the original film so good. This criticism makes sense when comparing Rob Zombie’s ultra-violent, overly grimy and brutal vision of Halloween to John Carpenter’s far more restrained and tense original (sequels of either notwithstanding).

Poltergeist is a little different. There are parts of the original that have the pace and feel of an adventure movie, just with ghosts and possessed clown dolls and the like. It’s still a horror flick, and a damn good one, but it’s a different brand of horror. It’s one of the least threatening horror classics you’ll ever see, leaving you with next to no doubt that things will turn out fine for the family in the end (again, sequels notwithstanding). That’s why I called it “theme park horror” earlier. Poltergeist a ride complete with the security bar, it has its thrills and jolts, but you expect it to end pretty much as it began, with everyone safe and smiling. Rebuilding a newer version of a roller coaster doesn’t ruin the memories we had of the old ride, but it does provide an opportunity to see if better technology can replicate or even–dare I say–enhance those familiar thrills. Poltergeist had excellent special effects for its time, but they can be improved upon. Of course, the film wasn’t all spectacle, but I’m not expecting it to even try to match that Spielbergian 80’s movie sense of magic and the unknown. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a well executed retelling for the modern family audience.

With that in mind, this remake may indeed be unnecessary, but unless they make the inexplicable decision to go too dark and make it a hard-R rated kill-fest, I think it has potential to be a reasonably decent update. The trailer features some solid special effects and familiar scenes featuring an animated clown doll, and an inter-dimensional rope rescue. The cast, with Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt and Jared Harris, is better than you might expect for a horror remake.

I’m not saying that I think that this new Poltergeist is going to be good, much less as good as the original. But I’m more than willing to give it a chance.

Today’s Short Story: Ramsey Campbell “Call First”

Ramsey-Campbell-Call-FirstHis mind was backing away faster than he was…”

That’s one hell of a line (well, hell of a half of a line). Lean, efficient, and brilliant. As a horror writer, you sometimes face the issue of trying to come up with yet another semi-fresh way of saying, “this person is really, really scared.” It’s easy to overthink it, overdo it, and often harder to just summon a direct, fat-free line like this.

“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”

I won’t spoil what has the character’s mind retreating too fast for his feet to keep up in Ramsey Campbell’s excellent, compact short story “Call First.” But I will say that the rest of Campbell’s horror story is as terrifically composed and confident as the quoted line above. Call first begins with a “mystery’ that is less mystery than curiosity born of annoyance. The story very easily could have been derailed by lingering on the insecurities and idiosyncrasies that prompt the protagonist, Ned, to put himself in the kind of perilous position that characters in horror stories often wind up in. Sometimes an author goes overboard in trying to sell you on why a character behaves a certain way, particularly if that charcter is doing something that will put himself or herself in danger.

Campbell keeps it moving, obeying the show-don’t-tell “rule” of writing without cluttering the story with junk details. Here’s Ned; here’s where he works; here’s what’s eating at him; here’s what he decides to do about it; here’s the result. Even as the claustrophobic conclusion creeps nearer, Campbell keeps the story focused and tight.  By the end, the story provides a swift, coldly creepy answer to the element of the mystery that is at once the most mundane, and the most vital. Again, I’m not here to give away too many details, but by the end it’s apparent that of all the questions surrounding the mystery that stirs the story’s progress–“who?” “what?” “why?” and so on–the criticality of one renders the others unimportant. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the writer’s right to leave some questions unanswered.

“Call First” can be read in Ramsey Campbell’s collections Dark Companions and Alone With the Horrors, or in various other anthologies. Go find it and treat yourself.

On Marshawn Lynch, and Why it’s Okay to be Antisocial (or even a jerk)

Marshawn-Lynch-Media-Day-Super-BowlMarshawn Lynch showed up at Super Bowl Media Day today solely to avoid a $500,000 fine and, predictably, said a whole lot of nothing. Not literally, although now that I’ve thought of it, I really wish his actual, repeated quote would have been “A whole lot of nothing.” That would be hilarious. As the title of this post likely gives away, I’m kind of on Lynch’s side on this. I say kind of because I don’t feel that this is anything worth choosing a side over. But what the hell, I’m a guy with an opinion and a website and a novel I should be working on, so why not waste some time chiming in on this.

Mind you, everything you’re about to read is coming from a person who many people probably think could stand to say less, be a little less outspoken and opinionated, and not always try to have an answer to everything.

(In my defense, I am right a lot. A lot.)

First thing: I tire of hearing sports media people make the “just trying to do the job” argument. The same argument is used when Greg Popovich gets short and sour with sideline reporters pestering him mid-game. Nobody’s getting fired because Pop is giving one-word answers, and nobody’s getting fired because Marshawn Lynch goes into “repeat the same thing over and over” mode. Now, I could understand being upset if your livelihood was actually at stake if Marshawn didn’t give a great quote, or you were trying to do something dangerous but necessary and he was preventing you from doing it, or if your family had been kidnapped and Marshawn knew where they were and just refused to tell you. That, obviously, is not the case. You’re just asking him about the sport he plays. And he’s with the same organization as guys like Richard Sherman, Pete Carroll, Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson; assorted personalities who have absolutely no problem giving you great quotes and interviews. And on Super Bowl Media Day you also have the option to go talk to big personalities like New England’s Rob Gronkowski who’s willing to literally dance for you on the spot. With that in mind it seems that wasting your time trying to drag an answer out of Marshawn Lynch means your real argument is, “I’m / They’re just trying to do the job poorly.”

Let’s also own up to this fact: sometimes doing your job means being annoying to someone. It’s okay. I’ve been a salesperson before (unlike Marshawn, I’m , I know what it’s like to basically have to be a nuisance to people for a living. I’m not judging. Your gig is your gig. But don’t pretend you’re showing up with a gift basket of full Skittles and magic lamps letters from everyone Marshawn has ever loved and he’s responding by smacking you in the face and spitting on your dinner. Reporters obviously annoy him. He in turn is annoying you. At worst this is a push. Does it make for a rough few minutes on the clock? Sure. I’d wager most of the working world has a rough spell at work on a fairly regular basis.

Now I’ve heard it argued in Marshawn’s favor that he might have a social anxiety disorder, or some other concrete medical reasoning for not wanting to speak to the media. I would counter that–while for him personally that would obviously be a big deal–for the purposes of this discussion that doesn’t matter. Let’s say there’s no disorder. Let’s say he’s just willfully antisocial, surly, maybe even a bit of a jerk if you want to say that about him. That’s okay. Now it is part of his job to make himself available to the media; that’s in the contract he signed to play in the NFL, so I get why he’s obligated to show up. But he shouldn’t be under any obligation to be personable, genial, loquacious or anything else that’s going to make it easier on the reporter to do his or her job. And even if the NFL feels the need to fine him (a lesser amount) anyway for being so stubborn about his responses in the interest of sending a message to the players (I guess?), I don’t see why anybody is so bent about it.

Maybe years of movie romantic comedy movies have conditioned us to think that underneath every unfriendly jerk is a burgeoning psychopath. But in fact, many real life jerks aren’t predators-in-waiting like Biff Tannen or quasi-homicidal nutjobs like Sack Lodge. Some of them just aren’t always terribly pleasant. It’s okay to think, “Man, this Marshawn Lynch guy doesn’t look like someone who I’d want to play a round of golf with,” but the way some people are reacting to his antics you’d think they wanted him placed under 24-hour surveillance  because he’s this close to biting an elderly nun’s throat out.

Relax. He’s just a guy who doesn’t care to socialize, and might be a bit of a jerk in the way he goes about conveying that.

That’s okay.

No really, it is.

Horror Films “The Witch,” “Knock, Knock” and “It Follows” Made a Splash at Sundance

it_follows_poster_ver7

The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.

The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.

The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.

The-Witch-movie-sundanceWhile we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”

Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)

With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.

So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.

And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).

Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”

knock-knock-Reeves

Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.

Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, none of which received as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.

While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: ‘Shudders’

Shudders-Book-Cover

I think I’m still too young to be using phrases like, ‘They don’t make them like they used to.” Given that I don’t have kids of my own and don’t read current horror anthologies that are geared toward kids, I really have no clue if they do or don’t actually make any more anthologies like Shudders (edited by Ross R. Olney). But from what I gather from the people I know who do I have kids, I’m guessing that much of what pre-teens are given to read these days isn’t half as grim as some of the stuff I picked up from the school library when I was in third grade.

So let’s see… I must have been about eight-years-old when I picked up Shudders. I remember thinking the cover looked cool–a spookier version of the covers to Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books of the era–and then flipping to the table of contents and seeing that it contained “The Monkey’s Paw.” Not that I wouldn’t have picked it up anyway. By that time I was in the habit of devouring anything in the library that was remotely related to ghosts, monsters, madmen and things lurking in the shadows. But I point out “The Monkey’s Paw” because I think its presence in the anthology set me up to expect a certain style of horror fiction. I hadn’t read the original “Monkey’s Paw” short story by then, but I knew of the story via retellings around campfires. So with that, I opened the book thinking that I knew what I was getting into.

And then I was greeted by the opening story, “Sweets to the Sweet” by Robert Bloch. If the author’s name isn’t familiar to you, he’s the gentleman who wrote Psycho. While that ended up being the signature work of his career, thanks in no small part Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Bloch is a legendary and prolific author of horror and crime fiction. At the time, in fact, I didn’t know who Bloch was, or that he had anything to do with Psycho (again, I was 8, cut me a break). So my introduction to a master of the genre–and, to my recollection, to the world of “grown up” horror literature–came completely by surprise.

Robert-Bloch

Robert Bloch

“Sweets to the Sweet” features a grisly, abrupt ending that is still one of the best examples of implied violence and gore I’ve ever read. It’s a textbook case of leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, except you’re not left to imagine what happened–that much is plain–but what it looks like. And unless you have the world’s tamest, blandest imagination possible, it can’t help but to be spectacularly gruesome. Years later,  in the anthology My Favorite Horror Story, Stephen King would introduce “Sweets to the Sweet” by saying that it had “one of the most chilling snap endings I had ever read.” And it really does happen in a snap, so fast that you could mistake it for a twist, or perhaps a punchline, when really it’s a well-earned, expertly set-up knockout blow.

The ending to “Sweets” is disturbing, clever, vicious and brilliant. It’s one of the things that really made me think, “one day I’d like to write something like that, and make other people feel whatever it is I’m feeling right now.” But even before that “snap ending,” the story has proven disturbing. It raises a simple “chicken or the egg” type of question regarding evil that it doesn’t get anywhere near answering. That’s for the best. It’s an unanswered philosophical question that enhances the tale’s impact.

I remember revisiting “Sweets to the Sweet” several times immediately after reading it. At the time I told myself I was simply captivated by my new favorite short story ever, but looking back on it, I wonder if I was just scared to read any farther . If Bloch’s story was any indication, I was way out of my weight class here.

So it makes sense that I then skipped ahead to “The Monkey’s Paw.” Again, it was a story I was familiar with, even if I had never actually read it. In the campfire re-tellings I can recall, in fact, it was less horror story than morality tale with the general themes of “Be careful what you wish for” and “Don’t be greedy.” Obviously that does the story a tremendous disservice, but I’m willing to say that much of that interpretation was the fault of the listener, as opposed to the storyteller. When you’re six-or-seven years old and hearing a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into an Aesop fable in your mind.

The story proper is considerably grimmer and grislier than a fable. The beauty of this classic is that it doesn’t need any meaning attached to it. W. W. Jacobs wrote a fantastic, creepy story in which one innocent, frankly modest wish goes awry. Mister White says outright that he doesn’t know what to wish for because he already has all he wants. Happy wife. Healthy, grown son–Herbert–who’s happy to sit down with the old man and beat him in chess (“the only [child] left to us” White would grimly comment later).  All White asks for is two-hundred pounds; enough to “clear the house.”

When news comes of Herbert’s death due to industrial accident (“caught in the machinery,” *brrr*) and the two-hundred pounds offered by his employer “in consideration,” it leaves his elderly parents in a condition of misery so profound they practically become the living dead. They spend days in a stupefied malaise, hardly speaking to each other, until Mrs. White is spontaneously struck by the idea to use the paw to wish for her son’s resurrection, days after his mutilated corpse has been buried in the graveyard…

The_Monkey's_Paw

Similar to “Sweets,” “The Monkey’s Paw” keeps all of the gory details off screen, but they remain vivid in the reader’s imagination. You can picture the lumbering wreck of a human being that’s on the other side of the White’s door, knocking and expecting to be let inside, even with Jacobs only giving us a hint of what Herbert’s condition must be. The final handful of paragraphs–a race between the mother trying to let her son inside, and the father trying to find the paw to wish the “it” that used to be his son away from the house–is a master class in tension and mounting dread. You know what Herbert’s living corpse must look like, but it’s scarier for you to still remain a bit unsure, to wonder whether or not the characters–and by proxy, you as the reader–will get a clear, direct look at Herbert’s undead form. Sometimes shielding your eyes from the horror is more frightening than looking directly at it, and Jacobs is all too aware of this. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends with the a moment that can make you sigh in relief for the same reason that another character screams in mourning.

The story moves fast enough for some of the other frightening elements to be lost. But I was always struck by two things that are mentioned well before the fantastic climax. For one, the man who cursed the paw to grant wishes did so to deliberately prove that people cannot escape their fates. It is, in effect, a cruel trap, specifically designed to manipulate even a humble wish–such as one for enough money to pay off a home–into the catalyst for a brutal, fatal tragedy. All just to make a lousy point. How screwed up is that? And not long after we find this out, we learn that the first man to possess the paw ended up wishing for death. What the hell could have resulted from his first two wishes to push him to that point? We never come close to knowing, and we’re perhaps better off not knowing.

Shudders-Book-Cover2After reading “The Monkey’s Paw” in my first read through of Shudders, it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I still couldn’t stop. It included a couple of other stories that remain favorites: H. R. Wakefield’s “Used Car” is another straightforward, no frills supernatural story, with some nice noir touches surrounding its haunting; “The Waxwork” by A. M. Burrage perhaps has one too many twists, but given the apparent direction of the story based on its title and setting, you can understand why the author would want to outwit savvier readers. Regardless of what you think of the ending, it has some of the coldest, creepiest lines spoken by a killer that I’ve ever read: “The world is divided between collectors and non-collectors…[t]he collectors collect anything, according to their individual tastes, from money to cigarette cards, from moths to matchbooks. I collect throats.”

Shudders made for one hell of an introduction to the assorted flavors of horror that helped form the foundation of the genre, and those that took it to the modern age. From the Lovecraftian (“Second Night Out”) to the whimsical (“The Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) to the pleasant-yet-macabre “Floral Tribute” (Bloch once again) and still more. As much as I love everything else I’ve written about thus far in my little “Fear Junkie” series, Shudders might have been the most important book I’ve ever read. Reading it at the age I did was akin to skipping the grade school classes to get a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.

Traveler’s Book Review: Nightfall by John Farris

John Farris Nightfall

Odds are this premise will sound familiar to you.

An enigmatic homicidal psychopath makes a daring, impossible escape from a mental hospital. His sole objective is to hunt down and murder a female family member. Along the way to his goal he murders a number of other people who get in his way and proves to be all but unstoppable, and there are vague allusions to him even being supernatural.

Playing “spot the similarities” between two works of fiction is often a mug’s game; paint the picture broadly enough and any story can be made similar to any other, but the details will usually belie the notion that the stories genuinely mirror one another. Nonetheless, if you’re a horror fan who likes movies as much as literature, then that description in the first paragraph probably brought John Carpenter’s Halloween to mind. It’s also an apt (albeit broad) description of the plot to John Farris’s novel Nightfall.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nightfall at a small, well-stocked indie bookstore in Universal City, Texas (a suburb of my home city of San Antonio) called The Book Rack. 1 The cover caught my attention with its Southern Gothic simplicity. Dark swampland, plantation home in the background, mother and son frightful and on the run. Given my relatively recent affinity for the fiction of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, it’s little wonder that such cover imagery drew me in. The straightforward blurb on back brought me in a little deeper, mostly by not overselling its fairly direct premise.

“His heritage is violence and terror. A creature of nightmare, shunning all that is good in mankind, he kills without warning, without mercy. Only once has his prey survived.

Scarred emotionally and physically, Anita fled to the sanctuary of Lostman’s Bayou. But the quiet of the swamps holds no peace–she cannot escape the terror.

Angel will find her. Then she will die.”

Woman on the run; killer on the hunt; bayou as the scene. That’s all I needed to read. So, out of the many John Farris novels available on the shelves, I chose this one, and cracked into it less than a half hour after purchase.

The novel opens with the aforementioned daring, impossible escape from the mental hospital, executed by the villain of the story, Angel, aka “Dark Angel,” aka “the Angel of Death,” properly known as Dominic. Though his real name and identity appear to be a source of mystery throughout the first chapters, that mystery is dropped less than a third of the way through the book. It’s just one of many things that seem to be cast aside as the book progresses. Initially, Angel’s actions are at least suggestive that something supernatural is at work here. He wakes from a catatonic state by projectile-vomiting on command in order to stun his first victim, whom he’s strong enough to pick up off the ground and throw out of a room with one arm. He also seemingly hypnotizes said first victim into giving him some halfhearted manual stimulation before delivering the coup de grâce. He then moves quickly to promptly dispatch of three more individuals on his way out of the hospital. Throughout the book, he’s referred to as being something other than human, but here is really the only scene where he appears to be exactly that. For the rest of the book, he’s resorting more so to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. Less inhuman in the literal “not of this Earth” sense than in the “morally bankrupt psychopath” sense.

There’s a chapter early on devoted to Angel’s rather disturbed mother, who has hallucinations of the Virgin Mary and literally smothered her son on occasion when he was younger, to keep him from going wayward, at least in her fractured mind. This seems important, but again, it’s something that gets cast aside as though it were nothing. I think she gets one other brief mention for the rest of the novel. She’s just one of many hints Farris drops in regard to Angel’s motives: mommy issues; wife issues; sexual issues. Basically the guy has pretty screwed up views in regard to women as a whole. But none of this really connects or adds up. And the thing is, it wouldn’t really have to add up if Farris hadn’t set up the arithmetic before abandoning it.

I’m going to go back to John Carpenter’s original Halloween for comparison here. Michael Myers is made out to be beyond human in that story, but all of that “pure evil” talk comes from one man at first, Doctor Loomis, who appears so obsessed with Michael that his take on the situation can be justifiably questioned. By the end, though, it’s apparent that Michael isn’t just a man. He’s revealed later in the story to be obscenely strong; pinning a man to a wall with a kitchen knife would take a hell of a lot of power. He also takes a ridiculous amount of physical punishment and just keeps on trucking, culminating with the sequence of him taking multiple gunshots, falling out of a second story window, then (off-screen) getting up and leaving from the spot on the lawn where he should have fell dead. In case anyone needs it spelled out for him, Loomis straight up confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before that infamous final shot of him no longer being where he’d landed.

Farris’s Nightfall “tries” to work in reverse. I put tries in quotes, because it doesn’t feel like Farris–who, if we’re talking about straight up writing, is actually damn good with the prose–was actually trying to do anything with that aspect of the story at all. In the end, whether or not Angel is more than human isn’t left as a mystery or even a contradiction so much as a, “meh.”

In fact, much of Nightfall feels like the work of a guy who was really just trying to power through this book on his way to material he actually cared about. Again, Farris can write. That at least makes Nightfall a fast read. But it comes across as a wasted setting and opportunity. You have Louisiana swamps, mobsters and a relentless killer on display, and yet the story is wildly uninspired. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned the hero, Tomlin, yet. (No, the female lead–Anita–doesn’t get much to do beyond be scared for herself and her son, and immediately fall in love with the good guy, who likewise immediately falls in love with her.) He’s the reason for the novel’s title: he suffers from crippling night-blindness that doesn’t just hinder his vision at night, it eradicates it. So of course you expect this to factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it doesn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation isn’t impacted all that much by his inability to see. In short, the night-blindness plot doesn’t add any tension to the climax. It’s just there.

As a whole, Farris’s Nightfall is exactly that: just there. Not awful, but not anything you’d recommend either. Which actually says a lot for Farris as a writer. It should probably be worse than that, given its flaws, and its sappy, “Everything’s okay because romance has won the day” / “Uh, may I remind you that people have died!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that at least isn’t regrettable.


  1. Yes, I know that I’m sort of cheating on the whole premise of the “traveler’s” book review by going with a book from a store that’s right here at home.

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Simon’s Soul by Stanley Shaprio

Simon's Soul Cover1It took a while for me to realize that the things that scared me most were products of my imagination. That’s not to say I’ve never been scared by a movie or a book, obviously. But much of what’s really stuck with me through the years were products largely or sometimes solely of my mind. I forget exactly how young I was when I started praying for nightmare-free sleep before going to bed, but it should have been apparent to me then. And if not then, it should have been apparent around the time I first became aware of a relatively obscure novel titled Simon’s Soul.

I can’t pinpoint the exact year for this little story, but I know it was no earlier than the summer of 1988, because June of ’88 is when the original Metal Gear video game was released in North America for the NES, and that’s the game I was playing when I first heard about Simon’s Soul. Accounting for the probability that my folks didn’t buy me a new game immediately after it came out, I can narrow the time frame down to being before the summer of 1990, because that’s when the movie Flatliners hit theaters; the relevance of this factoid will become apparent shortly. For the moment, let’s say that the following took place in the summer of 1989, which would put me at 9-years-old.

I was in the living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television, glued to the game, but aware of my mother and her friends behind me, sitting on the sofa and chairs, talking about things that didn’t really interest me. I figure my mom thought I was too focused on the game to pick up on anything she said; a reasonable presumption. I’m not exactly sure why my ears perked up when she started giving her friends a quick, enthusiastic summary of Stanley Shapiro’s novel.

Here is how I remember my mother describing the opening of the story (note that this is not meant as an accurate summary of the book, just a remembrance of someone else’s summation): a group of scientists decide to seek proof of the afterlife. To do so, they set up an experiment to actually kill one of their own, Simon, while hooking him up to a machine that allows him to convey his thoughts and experience back to the others during the process. At first he ventures into death with a sense of wonder and curiosity, but gradually his isolation breeds fear and dread. There’s nothing visible, audible or otherwise identifiable out there beyond death, so far as he can tell, but there is an existence nonetheless. Not quite nothingness, but also not actually anything. He asks his colleagues to bring him back, but they either can’t or, for the sake of science, won’t. Then, finally, he starts to sense something. Wherever Simon is, there’s a place beyond that, and he senses something living on that other-other-side is trying to break through the barrier to make its way to where he is. At that point he’s begging his colleagues to bring him back to life before whatever else is out there gets to him, and does heaven only knows what from there. And then…

Then the subject changed. I have no idea how the conversation got to that point, or how it changed. Maybe my mom cut it off there so as not to spoil the rest for her friends, in case they wanted to read the book. Or maybe a phone call came in and interrupted her. Maybe they all got up to leave for lunch and she continued the story out of earshot. Whatever the reason, she stopped her recap of the novel there, and though I was terrified to know what was going to happen next, I was more terrified to never find out. Leaving off there, with Simon stuck in that strange limbo, with some unknown thing trying to get at him from some place deeper in the hereafter, did one hell of a number on me.

Isolation is a key component to horror–something that didn’t really dawn on me until it was pointed out by my outstanding 11th & 12th grade English teacher, Mister Comer. Fear can make you feel pretty lonely. Many other emotions are more apt to be communal experiences. Happiness, anger, even grief. But fear–horror–even when it’s experienced in the midst of other people is still a very private emotion. Other emotions more easily lend themselves to empathy, I think. We can have a ceremony such as a funeral where everyone can gather to mourn and express their sadness. There are parties thrown for celebratory occassions, so everyone can get together to smile, dance and laugh. You can even have rallies built around anger, where everyone can unite around how fed up they are, and how they’re not going to stand for it anymore. But for someone else to truly understand and feel how horrified another person is, they have to be horrified themselves, which means each individual is very much dealing with their own shit. You don’t have rallies, parties or ceremonies where everyone gets together to share their fear. I mention all of this because I can’t think of anything more frightening and lonely than being stuck on the other side of death with no one else around, no sights to be seen, no sounds to be heard, and no way to get back from the void.

Simon's Soul CoverAgain, I was about 9 or 10 years old when my mom accidentally dropped the Simon’s Soul synopsis on me, so I wasn’t giving deep thought to the loneliness of horror at that point. I just knew there was something about this fragment of a story that scared the hell out of me. Scared me so much, in fact, that I couldn’t play that damn Metal Gear game for several weeks afterward. In my mind, the game’s (otherwise charmingly goofy / “spy themed”) music was associated with what I knew of Simon’s Soul; a man’s spirit locked in the stark crawlspace between our world and an antagonistic afterlife. When the movie Flatliners hit theaters in 1990, I remember telling my friends that there was a book out there that had covered similar ground, but I couldn’t get any of them to understand how creepy it genuinely was. Again, I was alone with my fear on this.

Cut to a little more than a decade later, and I would still think of Simon’s Soul on occasion, much more so out of curiosity by that point. I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of buying anything via the internet, and lo and behold, I soon discovered someone selling a used, hardback copy of the book online. Naturally, I decided to get it for my mom as for one of her birthday presents. It arrived and I couldn’t even wait for the actual occasion to give it to her. She appreciated the gesture and placed the book on the shelf, but it soon occurred to me that the book hadn’t been occupying space in her mind the way it had in mine. Not even close. For her it was just something she’d once read and recommended to friends. Besides that, she was by then a grandmother, and as it is with many people as they age and get a few grand-kids under their belt, her tastes in fiction had softened.  Dark, relentless stories centered around a despairing, trapped soul didn’t much appeal anymore to the woman who had just started taking semi-annual road trips to Disney World with the family’s latest additions.

In a (very selfish) way, this was a win for me. I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t in any hurry at all to revisit the book. I didn’t have to wait for her to finish it, or even get started on it, before I could borrow it and plow through it. So I did. And…

…Well, in fairness, there was almost no way Simon’s Soul could have lived up to what I’d mentally prepared myself to venture into. The opening chapters of the book came pretty close to it, however, taking me through the journey into the dark hereafter that I’d so dreaded as a youngster. Thing is, I’d unreasonably presumed that this particular scene was what the entire book would focus on. So when it moved beyond that and into an increasingly imaginative and bizarre self-contained mythology involving demons amok, possession and an afterlife where Hell and Heaven exist, but souls don’t always end up where you think they should, for reasons not quite within the range of human understanding, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It’s still one hell of an intriguing, engaging horror novel, and it doesn’t pull punches. On first read it kind of reminded me of some of the Dean Koontz novels I’d read; how the story can end in a place so far afield from where it began you want to flip back to the first chapter to be sure you aren’t mis-remembering how the story started, but Shapiro’s story is ultimately darker than any of the handful of books I’ve read by Koontz.

In the end, I don’t know if I can fully recommend Simon’s Soul the novel. But the memory of it had an indelible impact on the kid with the near-masochistic fascination with the macabre and horrific.