DON’T KNOCK TWICE Trailer Checks Off a Few of My Boxes

Spindly-limbed creature? Check.

Title that doubles as a warning? Check.

Black-and-white ink illustrations that look like they could be pulled from a fake grimoire? Pretty damn specific, and yet, that’s a check.

This isn’t a particularly great trailer. Pretty by the numbers, in fact. But I’m a sucker for the things that I am a sucker for, so it’s a given that I’ll be at least slightly interested in Don’t Knock Twice based just the small sample of it shown here.

There are some elements present here that I’ve come to  be wary of over the years, in particular the whole “incredibly powerful supernatural being is summoned by the most mundane action” thing. On one hand, I have a soft spot for such summoning, since Bloody Mary might be the first major fear I can remember in my life, and probably should be a subject of a future Confessions of a Fear Junkie entry. On the other hand, for many stories it makes very little sense, particularly when the supernatural creature is summoned to do someone’s specific bidding.  That said, the act of knocking on a door may not be what actually summons our supernatural antagonist at all, so I’ll won’t hold that against the movie just yet.

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About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

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. 

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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 read 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 by 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 sentences that are a little too clever and don’t 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 become all that matter or exist in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters.

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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.

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

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.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: ‘Shudders’

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 to 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 the next story. 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 guess that much of the blame for that interpretation was the fault of the listener, not the storytellers. When you’re six-or-seven years old and listening to a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into one of Aesop’s fables.

The story proper is considerably grislier than I expected it to be. 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 is 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 despair, 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 so he can wish the thing 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 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  Shudders it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I couldn’t stop. The anthology includes 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. 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 from straight grade school level scares up to a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.

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Traveler’s Book Review: Nightfall by John Farris

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. [footnote]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.[/footnote] 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 few 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 suggest 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 the initial chapter is the only time where he’s shown to be that. For the rest of the book he resorts to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. No weaponized projectile vomit, no hypnosis. 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 it’s one more thing that gets cast aside as though it were nearly nothing. She’s reduced to 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 some more 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 is no ordinary man. He’s revealed later in the story to be obscenely strong–pinning a victim 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 keeps 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 landed. In case anyone needs it spelled out, Loomis confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before that infamous, chilling final shot of the film.

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 prose, is actually damn good–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 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 to work with, 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 obliterates it. So of course you expect this to be a major factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it isn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation is barely impacted 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 been horribly murdered!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that, at least, isn’t regrettable.

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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.

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Why Write Horror? Because it’s always there…

It’s not much of a stretch to surmise that most horror writers will, at some point, be asked, “Why do you write that stuff?” Depending on how it’s asked it can either be seen as valid or annoying. If asked out of genuine curiosity, it’s the former; when asked with thinly veiled derision, it’s the latter. But I think most horror writers would probably acknowledge, if they’re being honest, that they’ve asked themselves that same question at least once.

In absence of anything else to blog about, I figured I’d do a quick post hashing out why I write the stories I write; partly to answer the question for others who’ve asked me in the past, and partly to help sort out my own thoughts on the subject. For me, there isn’t one simple answer for why I write horror stories. There are a  few different factors that influence my choice of genre. For starters, I write horror because I tend to see it everywhere.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Horror can’t be found in literally anything unless you have an extraordinarily morbid point of view, which I don’t have. If anything I have an indefatigable optimistic streak that persists in spite of my capacity for cynicism. If I a picture of a box of puppies or read a story about some famous person donating time and/or money to a worthy cause, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to gruesome worst case scenarios, or suspicions of dubious intent. My tendency is to give the world the benefit of the doubt even though I know that history dictates the world doesn’t deserve it from anyone, even the most fortunate of us.

But in all the places where you can make a reasonable argument that horror is present, I see it. Particularly in fiction. It’s not something I have no control over, but if I decide to flip my filter on, the horrifying elements present in damn near anything where it’s feasible become crystal to me. That’s because, some time ago, I developed my own very simple formula for mining horror from a situation. Throw the following elements into a pot and mix as desired: intimacy, personal perspective, tone, and fear. The last is, of course, the most vital ingredient, but everything else is important as well. And when you’re looking at a story through that filter, it’s easy to identify how you could transform the mundane or even the cheerful into the terrifying.

 

Example: Recently I was watching the movie Wreck-it-Ralph with my fam (at the behest of my nieces and nephews… no really, honest), and  the filter came on during the final moments when the bad guy gets his at the end (uh, (spoiler alert, the villain loses. And dies). To summarize as best as possible, the villain ends up out of control of his own body, and inexorably drawn against his will into a blazing pillar of light that incinerates him, all as he begs his unresponsive body to resist. Because of the film’s perspective (which is anti-villain, in the tradition of animated family films, believe it or not), because we obviously never get to know the villain very well, and because of its tone (joyful overall, and celebratory in the final moments since, you know, the good guys win), the horror wouldn’t be evident to anyone except some slightly off-center dude like myself who’s looking for it.

Think of it though. Imagine being pulled against your will–your own body betraying you–toward incineration. You’re screaming, “No!” You’re begging yourself to stop, but someone or something else is pulling your strings. You’re aware the entire time of your fate, but you try as you might, you can’t avert it. And then, in the end, you’re on fire. Flesh turning to cinders, organs roasting, eyes boiling out of your skull. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, you feel it all, and any of us who’ve ever felt any kind of pain know how it can elongate time. Time is, after all, a matter of perception. A second of pain expands in proportion to the level of agony. An instant of your skin burning off your bones is, I imagine, worth at least a minute of whatever makes you happiest. It’s a pain most of us can’t truly imagine, but any sincere attempt to imagine it should be sufficient to give us an idea of why such a moment is the definition of horrific.

The same could be said for a number of scenes from other family films most people wouldn’t come anywhere near thinking of in relation to “horror”; imagine Facilier being literally dragged to hell by spirits hungry for his soul; imagine Scar being torn apart and eaten alive by a team of angry hyenas. The fear is present in each of these scenes, but absent the intimacy, perspective and tone, none of them register as horrific to the ordinary audience member. Which is, of course, by design. These are family films, after all. So let’s take a look at something a little more serious, aimed at a more mature audience, but still presented with the same distance and tone and that makes a horrifying death in a Disney flick   come off as routine.

The Military Channel has a show called Greatest Tank Battles, which I wasn’t aware of until I watched it with my father (a history / WWII enthusiast) one day a few months ago. I don’t recall the precise details of the episode we watched together, but I know they interviewed veterans of the battles recreated through computer simulations to get their takes on what transpired. And those veterans surely have their own personal coping mechanisms for the things they witnessed. I come from a military family and have friends who have served as well, I have no illusions that war is anything less than hell. Yet, for morale purposes, or out of a sense of respect to those who lived it and wouldn’t want to relive it, or to emphasize the patriotism by glorifying the soldiers who served, the horrors of warfare are often downplayed in such television programs.

But for a guy like me, it’s all too easy to latch onto the terror and empathize with the deceased, as much as I can, anyway. When the program presents CGI reenactments of the battles as narrated by the veterans, and shows video-game-reminiscent special effects of tanks burning in the aftermath of battle, I tend to think about the men inside those burning metal vessels. For a lot of people that’s just a story or a quick history lesson; I see a little more. I see men screaming for their lives, cooked alive, dismembered. And contrary to what a lot of people may think, I take zero joy from such imagery. If anything, were my substantial ego also given to pretension and judgement, I’d castigate those who could watch such a program without imagining what it would actually have been like to die a violent death in a tank. The absolute panic, the sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the feeling of being trapped and wondering how in the hell your life had come to this moment before the agony took hold and any conscious wondering surrendered to fire and explosions, the smell of blood, burning metal, the immediacy of the end. Christ. That’s meant to be neither dramatic, shocking or indelicate, folks; that’s real.

And that’s one of the key factors that has influenced what I write, watch and read. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for me to enjoy stories where death and murder are treated irreverently or humorously. I love the Coen brothers, for instance.  Miller’s Crossing, that’s my shit. But when death is frequently handled recklessly or carelessly in a story, tossed around just for the sake of it being there, that can take me out of the story. I write horror because it’s out there, and while there are plenty of stories unwilling to directly address or explore it, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s present. Beyond that, I also think it’s a worthwhile exploration. But I’ll save the details on that for another entry…

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Checking Out the “American Horror Story: Asylum” Teasers

Part of the appeal and beauty of supernatural horror stories is their ability to explore the unexplained and incomprehensible. Horror stories often afford storytellers a level of freedom they can’t find in other genres – not if they’re going for something “serious,” anyway. Even the most outlandish science-fiction stories require a certain adherence to established rules, but a story about ghosts or demons or spiritual possession is pretty free to make up its own rules, and isn’t required to offer a sensible explanation for what is taking place. Hell, some horror stories are weakened by too much explanation; when you start trying to explain the inexplicable, you run the risk of ruining the suspense and mystery, or of just cooking up a lame, half-baked explanation that renders the proceedings ridiculous.

Unfortunately, that leads directly to the one big issue inherent to supernatural horror: it doesn’t punish (and sometimes even seems to encourage or reward) undisciplined storytelling. Being free to explore general weirdness and eschew explanation sometimes results in stories that don’t make sense for the sake of not making sense. Sometimes making up your own rules and ignoring the details is just an easy way for a writer to get from point A to point Z, and the story clearly suffers for it.

I say all of this because the first season of American Horror Story was a primer on the benefits and drawbacks of storytelling freedom in the horror genre. Ultimately, the show was a bit of a mess, but it was an entertaining and frequently disquieting  mess, when it wasn’t being a silly, self-parodying mess. Now we have the second season, American Horror Story: Asylum, which features a largely different cast, a new setting (the titular asylum) and a fresh storyline. It’s an interesting direction for a TV series to take, and it gives the showrunners freedom to either improve on the things that didn’t work in season one, or completely break all the things that worked well in season one.

The teasers look promising, as did the teasers for season one. Fans of the show are already speculating as to what kind of plot clues might be found in these teasers, since the teasers for season one hinted at some of the more crucial twists and plot developments (my favorite was the stomach cello solo which was both scary and sexy). American Horror Story was never at a loss for visual panache – many of these images are as artful as they are creepy – and that carries over here, with six increasingly weird and intense teasers.

The first – “Special Delivery” – sees a nun walking through a wooded area, carrying two buckets of what appear to be body parts…

“Blue Coat” is more subtle, with the nun’s momentary, fourth-wall-breaking glance proving surprisingly unsettling.

Probably the most surreal of the six is “Hydrobath,” where it looks like we might be looking in on a drowned body in a bath of… milk? And then the bathtub gets zipped shut? I’ve had prescription-drug-induced nightmares that weren’t as weirdly frightening as this. Okay, that’s an exaggeration… even my sober nightmares are legendarily bizarre, but this is still pretty damn impressive. Probably my favorite of the bunch, overall.

And then there’s “Rose,” my least favorite of the Asylum teasers. It’s not bad, just unremarkable. It looks like the winning idea from a “Submit Your Own AHS Teaser” contest. Even the hint attached to this teaser seems destined to be predictable. Someone’s going to be named Rose, or an actual rose will feature heavily either as symbolism or as an actual object and catalyst for hauntings, or Derrick Rose will be on somebody’s fantasy basketball team. Something. Here’s hoping I’m pleasantly surprised and proven dead wrong.

“Ascend” kind of has a German Expressionism vibe to it. Visually speaking, I’m kind of sort of in love with it. I can’t figure out which still image from this video I most want to turn into a poster. Remember when I mentioned “visual panache.” I wasn’t just saying that just to be saying it.

The last teaser, “Glass Prison,” probably hits me hardest on a visceral level, which is saying something considering the first one has a nun discarding a bucket of body parts s like she’s dumping chum overboard on a shark hunting expedition. It’s a pretty impressive five-second blitz of horror.

For all my misgivings, these teasers have me pretty well sold on the second season American Horror Story. I’m just hoping it can hit the ground running a little better than season one did, and hit a few more highs and one or two fewer lows than season one.

 

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