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Healthy Fears Episode 16 – It’s a Mad, Maddening World

Placing someone in a world that doesn’t make sense to them–that operates on its own, unpredictable form of “logic”–creates ideal conditions for comedy (Looney Tunes), absurdist fantasy (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)… or horror. Which can range from tales as impossible as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to stories that are more terrifyingly plausible than some may realize, such as Kafka’s absurd nightmare The Trial.

Sources

Matt Robinson Liquefaction videos: READ MORE

My Favorites of 2021

Favorite Film

Kicking things off with a decidedly non-horror favorite before we dive deep into world of frights.

I have missed going to the movies. I love being in the theater. The pandemic has seemingly made many people realize that they in fact don’t like going out to the movies. They might even be willing to pay extra to bring the movie straight to the comfort of their living room or bedroom (or home theater, if they have it like that). And if that’s your preference, it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with that. I like the big screen, myself, even when there aren’t many other people in the theater. Hell, especially when the the theater is sparsely populated. I caught Summer of Soul with my significant other and it was the first time I’ve ever been “alone” (save for my partner, obviously) in a theater to see a film, and it was a fantastic experience. Of course, at least 90% of the good vibes I felt while watching it was a product of the film itself.

The movie is as full of outstanding music as you should expect, but the stories of the performers, organizers and attendees elevate it that much higher, even when they aren’t anything extraordinary. The story that gave me the widest smile was that of one man talking about seeing Sly and the Family Stone in person for the first time at this concert. Beforehand, he and his friends were more influenced by Smokey Robinson and the The Miracles, getting suited up when they would go out on the town. After seeing Sly, he and his friends, “weren’t suit-and-tie guys anymore.” When you see Sly and the band perform, you can easily understand why.

Favorite Horror Film

Some might consider Last Night in Soho more of a “supernatural thriller” or “supernatural mystery” than a horror film. I’ve mentioned here multiple times before that I tend to favor inclusivity when it comes to identifying horror fiction, as opposed to trying to find any ol’ reason to say, “That doesn’t count as horror,” or “That’s not a real horror story.” Even with that in mind, I can see why Last Night in Soho might lean farther away from the genre than into it for some.

But you already know where I stand on this, given I’ve got it bolded here as my favorite horror film of 2021. Part of me wonders if this edged out other contenders like The Medium, The Power, and, especially, The Vigil 1. because I saw it in the theater, and, as already established, I love and have missed theaters. I’ve also seen other “Best Horror of 2021” lists include movies from 2020 (like The Empty Man) that would otherwise be a strong contender as well.

Ultimately, for me, out of the movies I’ve seen this year that can reasonably be said to be of this year it came down to Soho and The Vigil (see above footnote for why I’m allowing for it as a 2021 release). Soho wasn’t nearly as frightening, but as others have pointed out, a horror movie doesn’t have to scare you personally to be great. The Vigil got under my skin because of a fondness / weakness I have for a particular horror trope, which I wrote about in my review of the film. As much as I love that aspect of the movie, and the film overall, Soho made me care that much more overall about its story, characters and outcome. And for any still questioning its horror bonafides, it has some memorably horrific imagery that only gets more pronounced as the film goes along. Ultimately, it makes me wish for another non-comedic horror effort from Edgar Wright that tries even harder to scare the hell out of people, and I count that as a point in the film’s favor. Sometimes you’re left wanting more because you’re less than satisfied. Other times you’re left wanting more because what you were given was just that good. Soho, for me, is an example of the latter.

Favorite Horror Novel

My favorite horror novel that I read this year was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, but I was a year late on that and it is not of 2021. Still, since I didn’t do one of these last year and I love Mexican Gothic that much, I wanted to at least make mention of it here, as it’s still my favorite book of the very young decade thus far.

As for horror novels released this year, my favorite was My Heart is a Chainsaw. If you’re at all familiar with the horror literature scene, you’ve probably already heard that it’s one of the year’s best from numerous other outlets and authors, and that Stephen Graham-Jones has created an exceptional, clever and thoughtful love letter to slasher cinema within it.

The interesting thing for me is that I’m not particularly fond of slasher movies. I like many of them and grew up loving and being influenced by them far more in my youth than in my adulthood, but outside of a blip of time when I was enamored with Scream and Scream 2, they’ve never been something I’m overly drawn to.

Nonetheless, My Heart is a Chainsaw captivated me, much like its lead character, Jade, is captivated by identifying who her town’s “final girl” must be, who its killer must be, and who will be next to die by following the guidelines seemingly laid out by slasher film history. Because Graham-Jones is a devious mastermind, the story ends up going both where you might expect it to, and simultaneously somewhere else entirely.

Favorite YouTube Horror-related Video

I thought about dividing this into multiple sub-topics, but figured that would dilute this category too much, especially considering I wouldn’t even be sure how to label certain topics anyway. It’s probably unfair of me to lump all of these together given the quantity and variety of YouTube videos out there directly related to horror, but you know, this is my list, which doesn’t count for anything to anyone, so I’m just gonna do what I feel.

And what I feel like doing, first of all, is making mention of the videos that were very close to being my absolute favorites of the year. Sapphire Sandolo’s “Can You Make it Through the Video,” from her Stories With Sapphire series, was the one I returned to most out of all the fun animated videos on her channel. I love when a horror story makes use of its medium in a way that wouldn’t entirely work in a different format.

On the documentary / horror-lore / legends front, The Paranormal Scholar has a long history of fascinating videos. While her most ambitious project to date, the full-length documentary In Search of the Dead, released just a month ago, was an interesting watch, it’s much more of a research endeavor into metaphysics than something even remotely meant to stir up feelings of fear. Her video titled “5 Horrifying Hellhound Encounters in History,” however, is something I’ve watched at least once a month since it came out in June. Her deliver made even the stories I was already broadly familiar with (like that of England’s Black Shuck) feel eerier than I anticipated. This was only magnified when she spoke of legends I hadn’t heard of before, like El Cadejo. I am an absolute sucker for this sort of thing. Legitimately can’t get enough of it.

My absolute favorite YouTube video(s) of the year, however, come from Dark Corners Reviews. A pair of late entry documentaries about the horror films of Val Lewton, one focused on Cat People and its sequel 2, the other on the rest of his career and output. Much of Dark Corners’ content consists of quick, amusing skewering of undeniably bad and often cheap films. Their more documentaries, however, are consistently well-made and captivating, and direct, and the Lewton double-feature is simply wonderful. Similar to the recent, excellent video covering the Grendel series on the Comic Tropes channel, Dark Corners‘ breakdown of Lewton’s output places a spotlight on work that might be reasonably well-known to certain genre devotees, yet isn’t nearly known well enough.

Favorite Horror-related Podcast

Another unfair category, because, once again, it covers a huge range of territory. Also because I spent a significant part of this year (as with, seemingly all years since podcasting has really taken off) catching up with stuff that is not of 2021. The Magnus Archives, for instance. Something millions of people were already listening to, and I’m the Johnny-Come-Lately just now getting done with the episodes that wrapped in 2017. You’ll have to forgive me. There’s just a lot of quality content out there in the world, and I wasn’t good at keeping up when there wasn’t a quarter as much of it out there as there is now.

There’s much to be lauded and enjoyed in the wide world of horror podcasting. I’m a big fan of the Dark Histories podcast, and the episode about the supernatural in warfare was not just my favorite of the year from that channel, but my favorite that the host has has ever produced, which is saying a lot.

More on the reviews front, I enjoy the Dead Meat Podcast and was particularly fond of the episode covering Lake Mungo, and the “Guess the Kill” episode where Chelsea repeatedly stumped James (to be fair, having to guess a which movie a kill takes place in solely from the audio and a handful of hints is an absurd challenge). Normally any kind of trivia game that’s so difficult you can’t imagine the contestant getting even a tenth of the answers right is frustrating to sit through, but not this time, quite the opposite.

Getting back to the bounty to be found on the horror fiction front, PseudoPod celebrated its 15th anniversary this year which more than qualifies it as a bit of an institution at this point. It’s been around for almost as long as the term podcasting has, and is one of the OG’s of horror fiction podcasting. Yes, I’m probably a bit biased seeing as to how I’ve been published there three times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s outstanding, and has been around this long for a reason. Episode 769, released just ahead of their birthday on August 11th, featured the story “Songs in a Lesser Known Key.” A PseudoPod original written by Mjke Wood would have had to stumble backwards into a sad pit of bad writing not to be one of my favorite works of the year in any medium, given my former infatuation with the song, “Gloomy Sunday,” the subject of the story. Fortunately it does not stumble in any direction, much less backward into said sad pit, but moves deftly and effectively toward grim inevitability.

Episode 409 of the Night Light Podcast doubled up on flash fiction pieces, one by L. Marie Wood, the other by Tyhitia Green, each of which pushed a particular button for me. The last six words of Wood’s story, “Family Dinner,” are just phenomenal. You can never go wrong with a great stomach-punching closing line. Green’s story, “Date Night,” delivers on something I won’t write about here, since the story is brief enough for just about any revelation of its content could count as a spoiler. I’ll only ask that you trust me enough to go give the episode a listen for yourself.

There are too many more noteworthy stories and podcasts to mention here without this post becoming unwieldy, so I’ll just get to my my favorite horror podcast of 2021, the new anthology horror series Nighty Night with Rabia Chaudry. If forced to pick a favorite episode, I’ll go with its inaugural episode, “Rot,” an inspired, loose adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” that replaces being tormented by sound with being tormented by stench.

I routinely feel like the sense of smell doesn’t get enough attention in horror fiction. Every time I see a zombie movie or series, for instance, that features decaying corpses shuffling about, it stands out to me that no one ever reacts to the smell of death. That should be a dead giveaway that zombies are about, shouldn’t it? You start approaching a building, hoping it could be a sanctuary, but you’re greeted with the funk of forty-thousand years, as Vincent Price once put it, and you immediately know that place is probably choking with zombies, and you keep it moving. That sort of thing is not what “Rot” is about, but it does take advantage of the fact that smell is the sensation tied most to our memories, be they pleasant or horrific. It is an adaptation

What, No Favorite TV Episode or Series?

Like I said earlier, I’m pretty bad at catching up with anything, and television series, for whatever reason, frequently tend to end up on the backburner for me. I love a good series or mini-series, but don’t think I watched anywhere near enough television content to make a declaration of a “favorite” worthwhile. So, sure, I could say it’s the penultimate episode of Midnight Mass or the finale of Squid Game, and even if I watched a ton of other series this year that’s a great chance that one of those two would end up being my favorite of the year. But I’m still way the hell behind on Them. I’ve only caught bits of Brand New Cherry Flavor. I’ve heard that You season 3 was terrific. I only ever got a few episodes into season 1, and not for lack of interest. Just, again, I never feel as motivated to go all in on a tv series–even when I like it–as I do just about anything else I watch, read or listen to. I’ve only listed a handful of examples here, there are many others I am all but hopelessly behind on. With that in mind, I’m punting on declaring a favorite television episode for 2021. Maybe I’ll feel better about claiming a favorite next year.

Okay, Well What About a Favorite Short Story Then? READ MORE

Some Advice on Writing Advice: Elmore Leonard’s Rules

Elmore Leonard was one of the greats. I own and love Out of Sight, Killshot, Get Shorty, Mr. Majestyk, Valdez is Coming and a few more. He’s one of the writers I wish I could write like, but my propensity for wordiness often precludes it. He is still an inspiration and a titan.

He has a list of “10 Rules for Good Writing” that you can find pretty easily online. Like other writing advice lists, it is considered fairly unassailable by some. Understandably, at least on the surface. Advice from a legend is priceless. Strangely, though, his rules do not align with the content his ten favorite books. I haven’t read every single one of the books on that second list, but the ones I have read tell me that several of his favorite books–per his official website–contain things that flout the “rules.”

For a quick and easy example from one of the most famous books on his favorites list, the very first page For Whom the Bell Tolls breaks the “rule” against using a verb other than said in its very first line of dialogue. A few sentences later it breaks the rule against using “suddenly.” Twice. All of this is on page 1 of a book written by Hemingway, the American godfather of spare prose.

How could this be? How could many (and perhaps all) of his favorite books break his rules of “good writing?”

Well, here’s the thing… that rules list isn’t really his, at least not completely. It’s missing a lot of content and context from its original version. For example, the link above is missing the following:
“These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.

If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. READ MORE

My Most Anticipated Horror Books of 2020

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

World War Z inspired multiple, similar efforts through the years, trading zombies for some other brand of monster or threat. Robopocalypse and its sequel took the “oral history of humanity’s brush with genre-inspired Armageddon” approach into the realm of science-fiction horror. 2018’s A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is essentially World War V. At least the pretty cleverly named Sleep Over (I’m a sucker for a quality pun) did something different with the format and made the immediate threat something passive that can’t be shot, hacked up, bombed out or set aflame: mass insomnia.

Of these World War Z offspring, only Robopocalypse attained any level of popularity.1 It wasn’t great, but at least it landed a film deal that Spielberg was originally attached to (that  hasn’t moved forward significantly for years, now).

This year, Max Brooks returns to the faux-non-fiction horror sub-genre, albeit with what appears to something closer to the classically epistolary format than an oral history. Devolution is, as the subtitle indicates, a story about a Sasquatch massacre as told through the journal pages of someone who suffered through it. To add to the hellishness, there’s apparently also an eruption of Mount Rainier.

Three things I can’t get enough of are journal entries found in the aftermath of a fictional disaster +*1+*

Daily Horror History, July 27th: The Amityville Horror and The Lost Boys

The last big cash-in on the “Satan’s Gonna Possess and/or Kill You” novel and film craze of the 70’s barely has any direct Christian Devilry in it, especially when compared to its forebears: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. The evil forces at 112 Ocean Avenue that the film implies can compel a man to commit familicide are a bit of a potpourri of paranormal perniciousness. The house was allegedly built on an “Indian burial ground”; the mass-murderer who used to live there is almost implied to be a quasi-doppelganger of the father and husband (and burgeoning possessed murderer) who currently lives there; and, yes, the home was once occupied by a Satanist, but that last part almost feels like a last-minute add-on.

By now, it’s known to many that The Amityville Horror isn’t even an authentic claim of a supernatural occurrence; George and Kathy Lutz, along with their lawyer, cooked up the idea in the kitchen while downing several bottles of wine. How many people actually bought into the story as factual in 1979, I can’t say, but enough people saw the movie–based on a best-selling book, of course–to make it the 2nd biggest movie of the year, behind–you guessed it–Kramer vs. Kramer. The only thing hotter than Hell on Earth in the 70’s was divorce; it was all the rage, back then.

The Amitiville Horror hit theaters on July 27th, 39 years ago. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of the book or film, its impact was undeniable. Book covers and movie posters have copied its iconic “The House Has Eyes” imagery over the years. It helped plant the old “Indian burial ground” horror plot device into the minds of the public, despite said device not actually showing up all that often in horror stories before or since. And it launched an incredibly long-lived franchise that spans nine books and–by year’s end–20 movies.

And yet, it also signals the death knell for the dominance of a specific type of horror, at least at the box office. The horror / horror-themed movies that landed in annual top-ten grossers through the 80’s were decidedly lighter ventures: Poltergeist, Gremlins, Ghostbusters. Even Aliens leans more into action than horror; despite having a higher body-count than its predecessor, it is somehow less grim and much more of a “popcorn movie.” You’ll also note that the closest thing to the Christian Devil in any of these movies is the unspecified “Beast” Tangina speaks of in Poltergeist, but given the mysticism of the character and the film as a whole, people don’t associate said villain with the same kind of Satan that terrorized characters and audiences in the 70’s. Old Scratch from the prior decade was re-birthing himself into children, throwing priests out of windows and otherwise spreading mayhem with ease every other week, it seemed; this “Beast” guy in Poltergeist can’t even win a tug-of-war against a suburban dad. Surely it’s not the same villain as the one who maybe, sort-of half-assedly tried to help motivate George Lutz to axe up his wife and kids.

Also occurring on July 27th, The Lost Boys premiered in New York City in 1987. Its wide-release stateside wouldn’t come until July 31st. A clear but modest hit at the time, made on a small-ish budget, it would go on to have a strange, outsized influence and legacy. It was the first movie to co-star both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, it’s credited by some with helping popularize a “sexier,” more modern and youthful brand of vampire. Despite being black-clad bloodsuckers who can fly, the titular boys still fit right in with the “disaffected, spoiled-yet-misunderstood suburbanite teens and twenty-somethings” of many popular 80’s movies. Especially when compared to the vampires in Near Dark, released the same year, the boys menacing Santa Clara, California can’t help but to seem brattier.

Lastly, The Hamlyn Book of Horror was published on this day in 1979. The second in a series, it was preceded by The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts, then followed by the Book of Mysteries and the Book of Monsters. Written by Daniel Farson, the informative, insightful writing in the Book of Horror is perhaps overshadowed by the incredible, colorfully gruesome artwork. From the spectacular cover (by Oliver Frey) to contents (by a host of artists: Frey, Peter Archer, Mike Bell, Mike Codd, Mike Cole, Peter Kesterven and Ivan Lapper), the book is a visual feast of horrors. Authors, directors, actors and assorted other creative types have long received due credit for their efforts in and dedication to the genre, while the artists who provide some of the most memorable aspects of the works we love get overlooked.

For a nice rundown of what could be found inside The Hamlyn Book of Horror, check out the video below.

Favorite Book Covers: THE CATALYST KILLING

It’s very easy to overdo an homage. If you hew too close to the source of inspiration it can feel redundant and ironically uninspired. The iconic “watchful eyes” effect from the The Amityville Horror, for example, looks watered down and wholly unimaginative when mimicked on the poster for the remake of The Haunting. While I’ve never believed that subtlety is inherently better or more artful than bombast or conspicuousness, in the case of an homage, less is often preferable to more.

The cover of The Catalyst Killing, the third book in Hans Olav Lahlum’s series of murder-mysteries, appears to be a product of evolutionary homage that gets it right after two admirable-but-flawed efforts. Let’s start with the cover to the first book in the series, The Human Flies.

Human-Flies-Hans-Olav-Lahlum

If the inspiration for this cover doesn’t immediately leap at you, perhaps it’s because it comes from a source that’s about as far removed from the mystery thriller genre as can be.

Saul-Bass-West-Side-Story

Saul Bass’s poster for West Side Story is an interesting–if unexpected–slice of art for a book cover homage to be based around, particularly a book with the tagline “They Were Being Killed Off One by One”. Comparing the book to the poster, however, the homage becomes fairly obvious. This puts the cover in an odd place, being an homage that’s too blatant, yet difficult to recognize. Besides that, however, the biggest issue with the cover to The Human Flies–which isn’t bad, by the way–is that it feels somewhat lifeless. It feels almost like something is missing, but not in an intriguing or mysterious way. It demands no questions, demands no attention. Again, not a bad cover, but it’s lacking.

The cover to the next book in the series, Satellite People, triples down on the homage, drawing from multiple Saul Bass works.

Satellite People

Saul_Bass_Posters

vertigo-movie-poster-saul-bass

The puppeteer’s hands are lifted from The Man with the Golden Arm, the segmented doll-bodies are slightly reworked versions of the body from Anatomy of a Murder, and we get a white, spiraling background shape that references the Vertigo poster.

As a hodgepodge homage to Bass, it’s an admirable effort, but it strikes me as a little haphazard. The borrowed components don’t work that well together. The Vertigo spiral in particular is pointless. In Bass’s poster it conveys the disorientation suggested by the title. In the Satellite People cover it’s just background dressing. The twisted arm in the poster for The Man With the Golden Arm makes for a great visual complement to the ironic title of a movie about a man with a heroin addiction. The hands in the Satellite People cover aren’t good for much beyond looking familiar. The segmented body in Anatomy of a Murder‘s poster suggest a clinical, calculated approach to looking at a corpse, which again fits well with the title of the film and works within the theme of movie centered on a murder trial. Further segmenting the bodies for the cover of Satellite People helps emphasize the puppetry of the cover, which works well enough, but would have worked just as well if done in an art style that didn’t mirror Bass’s work. I know I’m repeating myself by saying the following, but this isn’t a bad cover. In fact, side-by-side with the cover to The Human Flies, my vision would be drawn to the cover of Satellite People. But given how many Saul Bass-inspired posters exist, created by professionals and amateurs, a grab-bag approach to appropriating his work comes off as unmotivated.

Fortunately, the cover for the third book in the series dials back the appropriation considerably, and is considerably better than its predecessors.

THE CATALYST KILLING

Every single damn thing about this cover is an improvement over the two that came prior. The homage is more subdued. None of Bass’s signature style is present in the primary image of the falling man. The lettering for the author’s name and tagline still mimic Bass’s text, but that’s all. When I first saw this poster it actually made me think of the Vertigo poster above, even though it bears no resemblance to it. I can only guess that the familiar font combined with the semi-spiral effect suggested by the echoing body pushed that thought to the front of my mind. The next thing I thought of was the classic 70’s paranoid thriller The Parallax View, but that poster only has a general idea in common with this cover.

parallax-view

The still image of a man who’s been just struck (by an assassin’s bullet, it’s easy to presume) isn’t exactly uncommon, and the picture in The Catalyst Killing is more dramatic. Still, the 60’s- early-80’s conspiracy thriller vibe I was picking up from this cover was strong enough to make me look up posters for The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation, Blowout and dozens more in that vein to see if there was a clear homage at work here. Maybe my research wasn’t duly diligent, but I couldn’t find one. This cover captures a fairly specific style without resorting to mimicry, so far as I’m aware.

Beyond that, I feel this cover is more dynamic, and captures hints of a story better than the preceding efforts. The staggered presentation of the title sells importance and urgency that’s worthy of the words. The tagline is perfect: it’s not as flat as “They Were Being Killed Off One by One,” but not as faux-dangerous sounding as “Were They Getting Too Close to a Killer,” which sounds more appropriate for a “gritty” new Scooby-Doo reboot. Sure, “The First Murder Was Only the Spark” might be viewed as somewhat redundant paired with the title, but I think it serves as a proper continuation of the title, and invites questions (specifically “Who gets murdered?” and “The spark for what?”) that add to my desire to read the book.

Favorite Book Covers: JOYLAND

One of my favorites from the past few years is the first edition cover art to Stephen King’s novel Joyland. Created by the late Glen Orbik, it evokes the best of the artwork from pulp novels and magazines of decades past. In addition to the visual flair, what makes this cover effective is how it captures a micro-story of its own that sells a potential reader on how much more the novel contains.

joyland-cover-first-edition

 

The story shown on this cover is straightforward, but nonetheless intriguing. Here we see a young woman investigating an amusement park who appears to be frightened, looking up at someone with bad intentions. How do I know she’s investigating? Well, frankly, I don’t. Not for sure. For all I know the camera in her hand was just for sightseeing, not for sleuthing. But her facial expression, physical posture and position show us more than surprise and fear. She has the look of someone who’s been caught in the act. There’s no reason for her to back herself up against the fortune teller’s tent, unless she was already near it, using it as an obstacle to remain unseen.

For more “on-the-nose” evidence of what she’s up to, the type of camera she has is one of those old-school “I’m with the press” cameras. A different type of camera could have been painted, or the camera could have been left out, if there was no intent to depict her as a snoop.

Presenting her as an investigator in trouble gives the story of the cover details that would be absent if she was just your everyday distressed damsel in a thriller. The titular Joyland isn’t just a dangerous place, it’s a place that has something to hide, and whoever she’s looking at is one of the parties interested in helping Joyland keep its secrets, by whatever means necessary. Instead of being content to show a character in peril, this cover adds elements that suggest backstory and tickles your curiosity. Who is this woman? What did she see or notice before that prompted her to investigate the park? Who is menacing her, and what secret are they protecting? The cover teases a story that can compel interest in what the novel actually contains.

Contrast this with two alternate Joyland covers that are artistically fit, but altogether uninteresting.

joyland-cover-Illustrated Edition

 

Let’s start with the illustrated edition cover art, which was also painted by Orbik in his characteristic pulp-noir style. We have a near-naked woman holding a rifle, leaning against a rail, looking over her shoulder at the park in the distance. It’s pulpy, well-painted, and yet, compared to the first edition cover, it elicits indifference. Whereas the first edition cover presents a story and raises questions that suggest a mystery, the illustrated edition cover simply offers a character in pose and raises questions that suggest what you’re looking at is a little absurd. Why is this woman outside (on a deck presumably) barely covering herself with a towel? Why does she have that rifle? Why is she looking at the park with no particular emotion? Why should I care about any of this?

joyland-cover-Limited-Robert-McGinnis

The same goes for the limited edition cover above, painted by another talented, prolific pulp artist, Robert McGinnis. Many of McGinnis’ paintings fit the description of “character(s) in a pose” as well, but he was also capable of capturing a small story or clear emotion when needed. For Joyland though, he basically gives us the same odd scene that’s found on the illustrated edition. Scantily clad woman holding a rifle near a body of water, amusement park in the distance. As art, it’s competent. As cover art, it’s uninteresting, especially in comparison to the original cover design.

Joyland is one of the relatively few Stephen King novels I haven’t read (though I have read the blurb), so I can’t say how relevant the near-nudity, rifle and house by the water are to the story, though I have to imagine the gun and the location–if, perhaps, not the cheesecake–have to play at least some part in what takes place. But even if those elements of the limited and illustrated editions are more relevant than anything shown in the first edition, the original cover is nonetheless more effective.

Beyond showing a more interesting story than the two other covers, the first edition feels more inspired. The red, orange and yellow lights behind our protagonist–but not too far behind her–make it look like the park is burning. The slight dutch angle of the painting adds to the sense of menace coming from the confrontation between the unseen threat and the discovered sleuth. The painting gives the viewer the perspective of the threat, and the tilt provides a sense of movement. There is action and urgency in this painting.

The motion and emotion of the first edition painting frees the tagline to be a fun imitation of a carnival barker’s taunting pitch. Conversely, the tagline of the limited edition–“Beyond the lights, there is only darkness”–is a sort of standard statement of foreboding that you can find on any number of horror or thriller novels. It’s not an ideal fit for a supernatural murder mystery set in an amusement park written by perhaps the most famous and successful horror author to ever live. McGinnis’s painting feels moody, chilly and lonely, but not especially dark, so the tagline doesn’t fit in that regard either.

Meanwhile the illustrated edition cover abandons a tagline in favor of promoting the book as a best-seller, with a pull-quote from the Washington Post, as if anyone needs a reminder that a Stephen King novel hit the New York Times bestseller list, or that it has been lauded by at least a few prominent reviewers.

In the end, the first edition cover is magnetic and alive. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a more static cover, and of course there will be people who prefer the limited edition or illustrated edition. To me, even as inoffensive as the alternate covers are, there’s no competition here. I wish more covers would seek the dynamism of the first edition to Joyland, not for the sake of making the books more appealing, but for the art of it.

Confessions of a Fearphile: 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.

First New Books of the New Year

Belated Happy New Year’s greetings everyone. I promise to do more than virtually no blogging whatsoever in 2015.

On to the topic of the present post. I had never been to a library sale prior to last week. The good folks in Bandera, Texas–a forty-five minute drive northwest of San Antonio, into and through the Hill Country–were holding such a sale at the County Library. I got there a little later than I’d have liked to, but there was still plenty to choose from, and the picture above is the loot I made off with (thanks to the ladies running the sale who were kind enough to provide the box for my bounty).

Quite a variety there. Straub’s Koko has been on my to-read list for as long as I’ve known who Peter Straub was. Hannibal is a book I already own, but the copy I picked up years ago doesn’t have the hardback sleeve, as this one does. I plan to keep this new copy for the sleeve and make a gift of the other copy. Alex Kava is a name that’s always stood out to me in bookstores, though I’m wholly unfamiliar with her work. I’m a sucker for a wintry settings though, and A Perfect Evil features such a setting, so here it is, ready to be read. And T.E.D. Klein is a name I came to know courtesy of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog. Though Klein was understandably unknown to them, the ladies at the library still commented on the good fortune of my find.

The other books are Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, a twilight-of-the-Cold-War spy novel by the splendid John le Carre, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and a slim ghost story with a direct, unashamed cover…

All-the-Lovely-Bad-Ones

…Mary Downing Hahn’s All the Lovely Bad Ones. It’s not meant for an adult audience, but my affinity for old school, “pure” ghost stories designed to frighten kids (and frighten the kid still in you after you’re grown) is fairly well documented on this site. So, given the size of the book and the potential allure of the story, I’m going to read and recap All the Lovely Bad Ones first. Look for a review in the very near future. Followed by more reviews, and more postings about newly purchased books picked up at various places.

It’s a new year people. I have books to read, a couple of bottles of Atlantico, and every reason to believe the coming months are going to treat me well. Hopefully you can say at least some of the same. Cheers to 2015, best wishes and happy reading to one and all.

Choose Your Own End, er, Adventure – R.I.P. R.A. Montgomery

My intent isn’t to be reductive or morbid here, but with the unfortunate recent death of R.A. Montgomery, now’s as good a time as any to reminisce about the impact that the Choose Your Own Adventure series had on me as a kid.

R.A. Montgomery was co-creator of Choose Your Own Adventure along with Ed Packard; a Williams College and Princeton graduate, respectively . These weren’t works of grand children’s literature, nor were they meant to be, but their interactive nature was effective at keeping kids glued to a book. The undisputed stars of every CYOA novel were the bad endings. Particularly for a burgeoning horror fiction fan like me, the myriad ways to die, disappear, destroy everything or otherwise accidentally choose the path of failure were fascinating.

One of my older brothers was into CYOA, which is how I got into it. They were among the first books I ever read because they were readily available. They also gave me an odd appreciation for unhappy endings. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember a single “successful” happy ending from any of the stories I read. But I can still recall being vaporized by futuristic guns, being devoured by a housecat after being turned into a mouse, and being hanged by castle executioners while stranded in the past. That’s not even a scratch on the surface of the multitude of untimely demises awaiting readers in the CYOA books. Even more interesting, nearly every book was written in second-person, placing “you” directly in the role of the lead character.

In a way the books were precursor to what was to come in video gaming, from adventure games like King’s Quest, to modern first-person games where your character is mute, or games such as Mass Effect where the choices you make can change a story’s direction, influence whether you get a good ending or bad ending, and who among your allies will survive. But while most modern video games are understandably beholden to a certain sense of “fair play,” the CYOA books had no qualms with rewarding a seemingly sound or innocuous decision with an abrupt, often brutal death.

Now to share a few of my favorite endings that I recall, some from books written by Mr. Montgomery, some by his colleague Mr. Packard:

In The Cave of Time you can find yourself in the future or the past, relatively near or distant. And by “distant” we’re talking about far enough into the future to see the sun has become a red giant, and far enough into history that you are effectively pre-pre-history. In the latter scenario, your end comes via asphyxiation, as you’ve come to a time in the past when the Earth is effectively still in its formative stages, and there isn’t any oxygen in the atmosphere.

Journey Under the Sea has several of my all-time favorites. The aforementioned vaporizing episode takes place in this book, courtesy of some overzealous security guards. Relatively early on in the story, you can end up the main course for a feeding frenzy.

CYOA-Journey-Under-Sea-Shark

You also have the option of being swallowed whole by a “big mouth grouper”, a fate which also came with a helpful illustration.

CYOA-Journey-Under-Sea-Grouper

There are plenty of unpleasant fates waiting in haunted house horror story The Curse of Chimney Rock. A lot of them involve being turned into a mouse and / or becoming a meal for a black cat. But the two that stuck with me were even more unconventional. The first involves accidentally knocking over and smashing a vase, and being ordered by the house’s resident witch to “make up for it.” You start to pick up the shattered pieces, but this immediately turns into a bizarre, Sisyphean punishment; no matter how hard you try, you can’t even gather all of the pieces of the vase, much less begin to put them together. Nonetheless you’re compelled to keep trying. Tellingly, instead of the traditional The End, this page concluded with There is No End.

Even more unusual, another Chimney Rock ending has you escape the titular house while being warned by a disembodied voice accompanying a pair of disembodied, ghostly eyes to never look back at the house again. The book gives you the option of letting it end there or (and how could you pass up this temptation?) stealing one last look. You turn to the appropriate page for the final fate of the terminally curious and…

CYOA-Chimney-Rock

From an adult perspective, while still macabre and grim, this is all pretty silly. But as a kid, for me, some of these endings could take on a dimension of strangeness that could occasionally prove unsettling. Particularly because, again, the stories were written in second-person. This is especially effective when it comes to my favorite type of ending in all of the CYOA books. One that was used more than once, but that I recall first reading in Montgomery’s Space and Beyond. Making the wrong decision in an effort to escape the pull of a black hole leads to this gem…

CYOA-Space-Beyond-Never-Heard-From-Again

The only (extraordinarily minor) flaw here is that “The End” is redundant. You are never heard from again. Years later, I still find those words perfectly chilling.

Rest in Peace Mr. Montgomery, and thank you for all of the adventures.