2016 Reading Wrap-Up: The Weirdest, Scariest, and Grossest Books I’ve Read This Year!

From the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” vibe of Micro to the classic demoniac puking of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a tribute to all of the nasty, creepy, nauseating, perverted, horrifying literature I’ve ingested since January 1, 2016:

Most Likely to make you skip dinner: 

The Troop by Nick Cutter

17571466

A mash-up of Cronenbergian body horror and Freudian nightmares, this book will worm its way into your skin with its grotesque imagery. A Lord of the Flies mentality only increases the horror.

The “Consumerism KILLS!” Award:

The Store by Bentley Little/Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

20968213129925

You’ll find everything you never knew you needed, whether it’s the array of dangerous and illegal merchandise in The Store or that haunted torture chair perfect for your reading nook. The price is only your soul!

More Baffling than your GPS

The Ritual by Adam Nevill/Ring by Koji Suzuki

1023938238379

Our wonderful human brains are wired to constantly evaluate our environment and make predictions, like whether that jerk is actually going to stop at the stop sign. It’s why we love mystery stories and why a good twist always startles and excites us.

Some stories, though, are better left untwisted. The Ritual begins as a morons lost in the woods story and takes a hard left into territory better left unexplored, and to this day I’m still thinking about whether I liked it or not.

The Ring is a rare case of the movie improving upon the book. Because nothing kills atmosphere like misogyny and transphobia. God, this book was so bad!

Overrated, like Buffalo Wild Wings

Annhilation by Jeff VanDerMeer/Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

1793453011286

Seriously, B-Dubs (as the kids call it) isn’t that great.

I’ll never understand the phenomenon of Annihilation. I saw it pop up on “best of” lists everywhere after I read it. It’s not even mediocre. It’s bad. The characters are sketchy, and despite the propulsive nature of “Area X,” the book is boring. It reads like an outline for a longer book. I read the second book, Authority, and somehow made it through, but finally came to terms with bailing on a book in the middle of Acceptance. My boat was not floated.

Carrion Comfort was disappointing because it was both hugely hyped and written by the brilliant Dan Simmons. The writing and characterization was solid, but the plot seemed to follow a by-the-numbers Evil vs. Good scenario that didn’t allow for ambiguity.

Proof that “L’enfer, c’est l’autres”

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi/The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

105992179735

Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn! – Robert Burns

A true story and a novel based on a true story, both books will have you up at night with despair at the cruelty we can inflict on others. Pain reverberates out like a shockwave, down through centuries and bloodlines. Brutality is delivered with a laugh. People die in service of (always) false gods and despair. As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”

Grooviest Creature

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558

One of the most inventive horror stories to come along in a while, our very sight betrays us. If we don’t look, we stay alive. But the temptation to look…the scariest things you see are with your eyes closed.

Squarest Creature

Wolfen by Whitley Strieber

985063

Semi-sentient wolf creatures with terrifying claws and feelings. Proto-Twilight Werewolves. This is the result of half-ass anthropomorphization. What’s scary about creatures is that they kill without discrimination, without intent, without remorse. But give them a love story and suddenly they’re just big fluffy cuddlebears (with teeth for shredding people like pulled pork.)

By the Power of Shirley Jackson!

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

23019294

Anyone who pays tribute to my personal Jesus Shirley Jackson is deserving of accolades. Tremblay, who also happens to sit on the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards gives numerous shout-outs to the Great One in Ghosts, from the protagonist’s name to certain plot elements. Unreliable narrator and questionable existence of supernatural elements? Sounds familiar…

The “You Deserve to Die You Idiot” Award

Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates

23570089

How can a story with such a bitchin’ setting be so lame? Honestly. How did you expect to hike Mt. Fuji with sneakers and a package of Japanese noodles? Is there a staircase to the top? Why do you suck so much, young people? I wish this book were a little better, because I enjoyed watching you die.

Fire and Ice: Best Dystopian Nightmare

Swan Song by Robert McCammon

11557

Sister Creep, makin’ it happen!

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I have a terrible deformity caused by radiation poisoning!

No, I don’t feel fine.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Shirley Jackson!

I dont fangirl out over authors. But when I do, it’s over Shirley Jackson.

A year of reading isn’t complete unless I throw Jackson into the mix, whether it’s an old standby or a set of previously unpublished works or a fresh adaptation of her work. I had the great fortune of reading all of the above, as a treasure trove of new material was recently published.

To honor my favorite writer of all time on her 100th birthday, here’s a recap of my year with Shirley Jackson: a little haunted, a little ritualistic, and a lot of love for all the creepy weirdos in and out of fiction.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within. It had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm and doors were sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

– The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The paragraph above might be the greatest opening lines penned in human history.

I am unabashedly unashamed in my love for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, so much so that I memorized the first paragraph and recite it at random to anyone who asks (or doesn’t ask.)

I read the novel at least once a year, and for the past two, have listened to the audiobook read by Bernadette Dunne, who does a fantastic job evoking the individuality of each character (and sounding uncannily like the actress who played Eleanor in the 1963 film, The Haunting.) Her reading style also evokes the essence of the time in which the book is set: A late 1950’s vibe where everyone was optimistic and cheery and upwardly mobile and any unsightly dirt, be it mental illness or aberrant sexuality, was discreetly swept under the rug.

Discovering the audiobook led to a trilogy of media experience, whereby each piece complements the other. The source, the actual book, is a masterful ghost story where the scariest hauntings are the ones that take place inside the head. Eleanor Vance is a troubled character, desperate to belong, intensely lonely and prey to imaginative fancies. Like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Eleanor’s “oddities” might find a community today among all the other weirdos that congregate thanks to the internet (including book-obsessed weirdos like myself), but in that time and era, it was an unacceptable thing for a woman to want something outside the strict prescriptions of society.

wp-1477424442319.jpeg

The 1963 film directed by Robert Wise, The Haunting, is one of those rare gems, a film that’s just as good as the book. Like Marion Crane’s famous drive in Psycho, Wise and actress Julie Harris set the tone for Eleanor’s fraught state of mind. The film, while probably not scary by today’s standards, is a tightly wound ghost story that remains faithful to the source, and I can’t help but wonder how Shirley Jackson felt in her secret heart of hearts about it.

Speaking of Jackson’s secret heart of hearts…

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

In one of her essays, Jackson spoke of a “heaven-wall-gate,” the concept of something wonderful lying behind a wall, something her characters strive for, only once they discover the gate, they find it locked.

Jackson’s fiction is full of walls, both literal and figurative, from her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, to the infamous gate of Hill House (only that’s the one gate that should stay locked!).

wp-1481730976080.jpeg

A brand new biography of Jackson was published this year, drawing from excerpts of letters previously unseen and unknown. Franklin does a masterful job of portraying Jackson as a woman with a foot on either side of the “heaven-wall-gate.” Although Jackson could easily reconcile herself as a mother of four rambunctious children, doing battle with daily domestic duties, as well as the writer who created worlds in which all the angles were just a little off, it was difficult for others to accept this. The expectations for women didn’t conceive of a woman who would want to dance outside the domestic ballroom.

Although the ending is strangely rushed (much like Jackson’s too-short life), the book depicts a woman of enormous imagination and desires, a life full of both tragedy and joy.

 

Shirley Jackon’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation by Mile Hyman

Whenever anyone dares to tell me “that’s how we’ve always done it,” my standard answer is usually “we used to shit in the woods too, but we don’t do that anymore.” A more helpful answer might be to refer the offender to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, an infamous story about a sinister ritual conducted in Sidestreet, U.S.A (if you haven’t read the story, stop right now and go read it immediately).

The Lottery is one of those stories often fated to the syllabi of college and high school English classes everywhere, destined to be underappreciated and overanalyzed until all meaning is wrung out.

The graphic adaptation adds a fresh coat of paint to the old, infamous story, and it’s written by Shirley Jackson’s grandson, Miles Hyman.

wp-1481734245094.jpeg

The art is deceptively simple, the colors muted, and the faces indistinct and blurry. It’s a rural community that could exist anywhere. The Lottery’s universality is its suckerpunch. The book adheres to the story faithfully (although there’s a naked woman thrown in there because, dudes). There are some beautiful panels focusing on the instruments of the lottery: the black box, the slips of paper.

I don’t know that this new representation is strictly necessary, but it adds a fresh dimension to the old familiar story, which remains perfection.

Let Me Tell YouNew Stories, Essays, and Other Writings

The bummer about loving authors who are long gone is that the possibility of them producing new material is close to nil (unless you can find an especially talented medium)

wp-1481731004381.jpeg

Aggie’s reaction upon hearing that Shirley Jackson was more of a cat person. 

The latest collection of Jackson’s unpublished material is a joy to read. Not every story is The Lottery, but they all help to fill in the colorful outlines of Jackson’s oeuvre. “Garlic in Fiction” might be the greatest writing/food analogy of all time, and “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons” is a paranoic masterpiece.

The book also includes that bane of readers everywhere, the unfinished story. The eponymous story is short, with no conclusion, but it’s like a little bite of cheesecake. You don’t need the whole slice to enjoy it (of course, we want all the cheesecake!).

*doors that close by themselves

  • Another much read, much beloved book is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Next to Eleanor, Merricat is Jackson’s greatest character creation, an odd, imaginative young woman who gets a little murdery now and then.
  • I’m a little embarrassed about my backwards path to discovering Jackson’s work. It began 1999’s The Haunting which retains just enough details from the book to make it a travesty. The first time I read The Haunting, I wasn’t impressed. I was also forced to read The Lottery in school, underappreciating it along with the rest of my dull freshman English class. But Jackson was like a spot of black mold on my heart: she kept growing and growing until she was in the walls and everywhere and it was too expensive to get her out.
  • The Haunting of Hill House is also on Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Book list.

 

Are you Afraid of the Dark? Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack/Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (50 Scariest Reads)

I just finished watching a movie called Lights Out, a tidy little horror film about a malevolent force that’s only visible in darkness. A trope that’s been done before (Darkness FallsVanishing on 7th Street ) this might be about the best. If you plan to watch it, skip the trailer, since most of the good scares are spoiled there. If you’re short on time, just watch the trailer.

The duct tape is truly genius. Too bad ghosts seem to have a formidable command of the power grid (source)

In a strange coincidence (what Milan Kundera might call “a dimension of beauty”), I listened to a podcast that same night called Lore, which relates true life inspirations and stories for some of our most enduring fears and myths. The episode I listened to began by talking about Nyctophobia, or fear of the dark. How fitting.

27312957

You’ll get the cover soon enough (source)

The theme of darkness continues with M.J. Pack’s Certain Dark Things, a collection of horror stories that explore themes of love, loss, friendship, and family with mixed results. Some of the stories don’t land, like a story of a certain “Norma Jean” who visits a seer to cast a curse on a certain famous family. She pays the price, but the emotional impact is blunted by a tired familiarity with the source material. In the stories live women with impossible desires; some are punished, some live to “feed” another day. The best stories exploit these women and their relationships with other women, such as Tracking, where a series of disturbing DVDs leads the main character to revisit the scene of forgotten childhood traumas. There is a pervasive theme of sleeplessness, where characters are haunted by their own misdeeds or chased into insomnia by a perverse desire for horror. You get what you ask for, the stories warn, and it’s never what you think it will be. Certain dark things are better left alone.

img_20161115_200431.jpg

I left this book out in the rain. It refuses to die. 

To complete the nightmare, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. A classic that I would have loved as a kid, this is the kind of book that really is an ideal campfire read, complete with instructions on when to scream (NOW SCREAM! AHHHHHHHHH!). I happened to read this out loud one night while sitting around a campfire and after performing a theatrical scream for my 9 year old sister, who clearly thought my mind was beginning to go, the fire popped and she jumped. Mission accomplished!

I’m not immune to nyctophobia. As a kid, I would watch the shadows morph in my room and imagine the furniture moving with evil intent. My most recurrent nightmare always involves light fixtures that fail to light. Darkness falls indeed, and when it does, who knows what lurks in the shadows (NOW SCREAM!!!)

*other dark things

  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?
  • Don’t be Afraid of the Dark.
  • The Darkness, starring Kevin Bacon.
  • The Darkness 2: I believe in a thing called love!
  • Alone in the Dark starring Tara Reid as an archaeologist.
  • Say the word Dark repeatedly. It gets weirder. It’s a weird word. Dark. Dark. Dark. Dark. Dark.
  • I haven’t watched Darkness Falls since it was released in 2003, but now that I know it stars Emma Caulfield, I may have to suck it up and watch it again. Bunnies! It could be bunnies!
  • I don’t recommend the audiobook version of Certain Dark Things; the narrator doesn’t jive with the source material, like Julia Child reading The History of the Third Reich.
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark includes a variation of one of my favorite poems, The Man of Double Deed. In my Google wanderings, I found this amazing music video for the song.

Booknado 2016: November – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson + 50 Scariest Books: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

…the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: “Without are dogs and murderers.”

– Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

…and yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearts alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts.

– Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Theme: A book you read when younger but don’t remember.

This is Dallas’ pick for November (to clarify, she read Treasure Island as a child, NOT Blood Meridian, thank the Lord. I’m combining the two reviews because I’ve noticed some interesting parallels. )

img_20161103_194429.jpg

Published approximately a century apart, Treasure Island and Blood Meridian are both adventure stories of a sort. Treasure Island is the straight-forward tale of a boy who meets a pirate, discovers a treasure map, and embarks on a famous journey to Skeleton Island, where he must contend with the scurrilous, crafty old Long John Silver and his obnoxious parrot. Blood Meridian is a western yarn, turned on its head to upend the heroic vision of the Wild West as a glorious world where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and good and evil stay in their separate quarters. The protagonist of Blood Meridian is a 14 year old boy called “The Kid,” and the treasure that he seeks is of a more gory variety than that of Treasure Island. To be specific, he’s a member of a group contracted by the Mexican government to procure as many Indian scalps as possible.

Each story has a big bad: In Treasure Island, it’s the one-legged Long John Silver (now immortalized in a stomach-churning fast food chain), effortlessly charming and hilariously self-interested, he’ll feed you to the fishes if it saves his neck from the gallows, or speeds him closer to the treasure. His facility with a crutch borders on balletic, and yet in the end, his greed proves him easily confoundable. But shiver my timbers, the guy manages the last laugh in the end!

The Big Bad in Blood Meridian is a tall, mysteriously hairless man unsubtly named “The Judge.” The only educated man in the Kid’s group of vicious varmints, he spends half his time expostulating on the nature of mystery and morality and the other half doing fun things like drowning puppies and killing children. An unpleasant, manipulative psychopath, he makes the plainspoken cruelty of the others a relief by comparison.

The characters in both novels are archetypes; in Treasure Island, we are meant to side with the plucky hero, Jim Hawkins, cheering him (and by extension, ourselves) as his cleverness bests the pirates time after time. This tendency to identify with a protagonist works against the reader in Blood Meridian, however, because The Kid is no saint, an aimless wanderer who spills his own fair measure of blood for profit on his journey across the Mexican desert. In Blood Meridian, there is no one to root for because there seems to be nothing but evil permeating the bleak landscape. Men kill and rape and drink and fight and die. Plenty of them die for no reason.

Bloodshed is prominent. It’s an easier pill to swallow in Treasure Island, because the bad guys are trying to kill them and steal the treasure. But aren’t the so-called “good” guys trying to steal the treasure too? What really separates the pirates from the heroes? A pirate is an easy archetype to despise (unless they are of the Caribbean variety or named “Captain Morgan.”) It follows the similar western archetypes of Cowboys and Indians, a trope turned inside-out in Blood Meridian where no matter what side of the river you’re standing on, the actors are all capable of the vilest atrocities.

At this point, I have to take a detour to address language. The language of Treasure Island is straight-forward and fairly comprehensible despite the garbled language of seafaring men. Blood Meridian takes a more literary approach that melds the “manly” prose of Hemingway with a lyrical descriptive quality. Having never read a McCarthy novel before, it took me fully a third of the book to find a rhythm and parse a narrative out of the almost surrealistic nature of the prose (time and time again Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain came to mind). I won’t deny that McCarthy’s imagery is striking and sometimes beautiful, such as when he describes “the dusk where lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.”

Just try writing something that evocative with such simple words.

But I am slow to praise even as the blurb on the back reads: “brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West” because McCarthy’s skill at portraying violence is too good, lurid, voyeuristic, loving, even. If the novel is meant to demean the glorification of violence, it fails, because what it does instead is linger with fond eye on that perversity and sickness. In film, that’s called “torture porn” and many times (I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left comes to mind) it puts on a pedestal the violence it seeks to denounce.

I’m all for the gore. Bring it on. But don’t pretend that depicting a head recently liberated of its scalp in tender, loving detail is subversion. Show of hands: who here thinks Anton Chigurh is a total badass? Who really watches No Country for Old Men and remembers it as an epic meditation on the nature and ultimate condemnation of violence? Film critics, maybe. Most people remember Javier Bardem in a terrible wig carrying around a cattle gun and flipping coins. Everyone wanted to be that guy. Tommy Lee Jones who?

To be fair, the blurb may be doing a disservice to the novelist’s intentions, perhaps willfully misreading the message of the novel to assuage a kind of guilt that accompanies such a visceral, amoral story. Take this quote from a 1992 interview with McCarthy:

“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

Irregardless, this book makes a strong case against nostalgia. The “good old days” weren’t really that great, and even adventures are overrated. We see the baggage The Kid carries around from his early days of bloodshed. Would it have been any better for young Jim Hawkins?

*Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

  • Blood Meridian is fresh off Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books list that I’m working through. 29 down!
  • Drinking game! Every time someone spits in Blood Meridian. You’ll be drunk by chapter 2! I’m not sure if that makes the experience of reading the book better or worse. I read a big chunk of it on a plane that smelled like vomit, so there’s that.
  • According to IMDB, there are thousands of Treasure Islands, the definitive version, of course, being 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island.
  • Blood Meridian has yet to be transformed into film. Is there a rule that if I’ve read a book, I have to see the movie? This has turned out badly for me so many times.

 

Swan Song by Robert McCammon: A Review

She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen the stars; maybe it had been on a warm summer’s night, when she was living in a cardboard box in Central Park. Or maybe she’d stopped noticing the stars a long time before the clouds had blanked them out.

Ah, the 80’s. What with the Cold Wars and the Reagans, the Soviets and the ever present threat of nuclear holocaust. What a time to be alive!

wp-1477281110689.jpeg

Trust me, this cat is scarier than any book.

Every decade has their “fear,” the looming bogeyman that could send us into an apocalypse. If I know my history, I think the progression goes something like this:

2010’s: The environment
2000’s: The terrorists
1990’s: Stirrup pants…?
1980’s: Nuclear holocaust (a.k.a. The Russians)
1970’s: Anarchists
1960’s: Hippies
1950’s: Aliens (a.k.a. The H-bomb)
1940’s: WWII
1930’s: The economy
1920’s: Flappers/booze
1910’s: Anarchists again.
1900’s and everything before: Disease. Dinosaurs.

Published in 1987, Swan Song capitalizes on the decade’s fear du jour, that of Nuclear Holocaust and Soviet invasion. It asks the question: What if the guys in charge actually push the button?

The answer is terrifying.

McCammon paints a bleak picture of the United States post-nuclear holocaust. All of the major cities have been destroyed, and everything in between isn’t much better off. Mutually Assured Destruction leaves behind a world with no sunlight, no plants, and a starving, desperate population crippled by radiation poisoning and the aftermath of a world that ends in fire.

If that isn’t bad enough, there’s a sinister figure roaming around, dancing the watusi (sign of the times?) over the graveyard of North America. Evil personified, the “man of many faces” sets out to destroy a mysterious glass ring with fantastical powers and goes head to head with the best bag lady of all time, Sister Creep.

There’s also a little girl called Swan who can make things grow, a former wrestler who is sworn to protect her, and a squadron of angry, hate-filled men growing an army in a quest for dominance.

Every apocalyptic novels asks the question: What is humanity for? Why do we go on living? Why do we work so hard to survive? Genetics answer the question on a biological level, but humans have been blessed or cursed with just enough existential awareness to need more. As the sadistic Army of Excellence pillages its way across the country, the men in charge lust for power for the sake of power. There is no justifiable end. Their visions of the future are brutal, full of violence, and their power rendered empty by its ephemeral nature. Top dog can never stay top dog for long.

Instead, the answer must come from growth, new life, community. When I was younger I used to read and reread the story of Stone Soup (my version had animals) where all the poor starving heroes had to eat were stones, which they made into soup. Eventually, the parsimonious villagers chip in a carrot here, an onion there, until eventually they have a feast for the whole town. This quality echoes in manner in which the “villagers” of Swan Song labor under the revelation of community.

But like all dark apocalyptic visions, things will get much, much worse before they can get better, and the miserable brutality that permeates the novel is at times enough to DNF the whole thing. It’s best to read this on a sunny day.

Characters play into stereotypical archetypes: The wise older woman, the girl with the special gift (with all the gifts?) that can save humanity, the protector, the otherworldly evil, the merciless military man, the psychopathic torturer. Classic good vs. evil clashes abound. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is quoted to no end.

The details make it well worth the read despite some tired tropes. There is a particularly nutty sequence in a K-Mart populated by insane asylum escapees that is both horrifying and delightful. There’s also a rather literal interpretation of true faces which I can’t decide if it is clever or hokey.

We’re not out of the woods yet. There are still some very bad people in the world and some of them have some very bad weapons. If not the nuclear apocalypse, then an environmental one is slowly sneaking up on us, death by a thousand cuts of CO2 and melting ice caps. Either way, humanity is doing itself in, and humanity is the only thing that’s going to stop it. Why do we go on living?

I have my reasons. What are yours?

*Nuclear codes

  • This book, at 956 pages, is endlessly compared to Stephen King’s The Stand. How annoying for everyone involved.
  • P.S. The movie version of The Stand has just about the best opening sequence of a movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t fear the reaper.
  • One step and then the next gets you where you’re going” Sister Creep is now one of my favorite characters. A tragedy from her past has turned her insane and living the bowers of NYC and it takes an apocalypse to drive her sane again. With clarity and purpose, she battles the worst of the worst and remains a badass to the end.
  • My goal for this blog post was to write one word for every page of Swan Song. I’m still a few words shy of my goal, so I’ll just quote from The Wasteland until I reach it:
  • Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
    The lady of situations.
    Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
    And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
    Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
    Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
    The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
  • Boom.

Booknado 2016: October – Book vs. Movie Smackdown! – The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber/Wolfen (1981)

Werewolves always get short shrift. In the pantheon of monsters, they’re kind of an afterthought, despite theoretically sharing a genetic heritage with the best animals of all time.

14474022_343002106044266_7592479654989004800_n.jpg

I am Charlotte, descendant of the mighty wol-is that a sandwich?

In literature and film, werewolves are often portrayed as playing second fiddle to the sexier, cooler monster, the vampire, a relationship either servile or adversarial and always one-sided (see: True Blood, Twilight, Underworld, Dracula). It makes sense: vampires are everything we want to be: powerful, immortal, cool. Werewolves are what we fear we are: feral, bestial, animal.

THE BOOK

The Wolfen does nothing to improve upon the monster’s legacy. Though not technically werewolves (hence Wolfen, a more sentient, deadlier version of a normal wolf), they possess a rudimentary intelligence and tribal mentality that enables them to wage a terrifying campaign against a pair of detectives who have inadvertently stumbled onto their secret.

That they don’t immediately slaughter the two cop ten pages into the book requires quite a leap of faith, considering these two bumbling idiots might as well stand in Central Park smearing Alpo on their faces for all the clever evasive moves they accomplish. That they live on, even posing a challenge for the Wolfen is pretty damn embarrassing, like any football team losing to the Cleveland Browns.

Surely, I thought, the movie can’t be worse than the book.

THE MOVIE

It can’t be too terrible, I thought. I get that it came out in 1981, so I was prepared to accept a certain level of production quality. And it stars such names as Albert Finney, Tom Noonan, and Edward James Olmos. The fact that it deviates considerably from the source material could only be a bonus.

Holy hell,this movie was amazing.

I don’t even know where to start with this lost gem, so I will presents a few carefully curated insights to allow potential viewers to decide for themselves whether this film is worth two hours of their life:

  • Approximately 50% of the movie is filmed in “Wolf-o-vision,” which is basically a lo-fi Instagram filter
  • Starring: Albert Finney’s hair. Albert Finney’s sweatpants. Albert Finney’s eyebrows. Not actually starring: Albert Finney.
  • Lady Detective. Did you get that? Lady. Detective.
  • In a fairly offensive Native American stereotype, Edward James Olmos takes peyote and runs around naked, thinking he is a wolf.
  • Also starring: An old timey windmill.
  • Spoiler alert: the Wolfen look like normal wolves.

THE VERDICT

Skip both. Bad bad bad bad bad.

*Neighboring Packs

  • Whitley Strieber is still actively writing, focusing on alien encounters and journaling about out-of-body experiences. Apparently, he experienced an abduction/encounter himself back in the 80’s and wrote a popular book, Communion about it. So there’s that.
  • Here are some books about werewolves you should maybe read, and then tell me if they’re any good: The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring Gould, The Wolf’s Hour By Robert McCammon, The Howling by Gary Brandner, The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo.
  • Here are some good films about werewolves: The Wolfman (1941), Werewolf of London (1935), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Silver Bullet (1985), Cursed (2005).
  • Here is a song about werewolves: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon.

The Store by Bentley Little: A Review

Coming soon to a small town near you: THE STORE.

14515598_1017746418337875_9194332435821625344_n

Do they sell treats? If they sell treats, LET’S GO. 

Bentley Little’s 1998 parable of corporate menace tells the tale of an insidious retail discount store, creatively named “The Store” that plants its tentacles into the tiny town of Juniper, Arizona, and with lightning quickness proceeds to infest the entire town (how is that for a bag of mixed metaphors?)

The only thing standing between The Store and its absolute domination of the town is a small handful of courageous characters, including the protagonist, Bill, who is resentful of the The Store’s decimation of a beautiful meadow to build its parking lot (“They paved paradise…”). That resentment turns to loathing and dread as The Store destroys local businesses and their proprietors, ensnares his daughters, and takes over the local city council.

Admittedly, the plot is ridiculous. The sinister doings of The Store are never subtle. Employees are forced to chant and bow before an image of the CEO in a subterranean chapel; naysayers are dealt with by a shadowy clan of pasty trenchcoats called “Night Managers.” One of the more fun conceits is the appearance of bizarre and risque items on the shelves, from firecrackers and snuff films to illegal toys and personal pleasure items.

Full steam ahead, the plot barrels into territory that requires a suspension bridge of disbelief big enough to span the Pacific ocean. Murders, disappearances, and suicides become commonplace; vagrants begin to populate the town; a curfew is instituted. In the blink of an eye, the entire city becomes bankrolled by The Store. It’s an authoritarian nightmare executed not by the government, which is a disorderly, incompetent mess, but by the rigidly structured policy and procedure of a vast, powerful corporation.

It’s a parable of the times. In 1998, when the book was published, Amazon was in its nascent stages and a domain called Google.com was registered. Although the book is a time capsule of technology, with its faxes and emails and primitive search engine (which is, no surprise, owned by The Store), there is a prescient ring to the implication of a corporation which exerts absolute control over its customers.

I am a fervent believer in the teaching power of stories. Although horror is often discounted, overlooked, and underestimated, there is potential in looking at the worst case scenario and imagining how we should react, versus how the characters in the book actually behave.

The most frightening element of The Store is compliance. The machine steamrolls towards us, and it’s easier to submit than resist. Resistance will only get you crushed. Call it the “banality of evil.” Call it “submission to authority.” But don’t ever think it can’t happen to you, that it can’t happen in your town, in your country. As Little writes:

Human beings’ capacity to adjust to almost anything was supposed to be one of their greatest virtues, but is was also one of their greatest weaknesses. It rendered them compliant, allowed them to be exploited.

 

Although the plot accelerates to increasing heights of insanity, there is a methodical, incremental deliberateness to The Store’s takeover of Juniper that borders on rational. The next thing you know, there are leather uniforms and violent roundups of vagrants and the people are taking it all in stride. As one character reflects:

The scariest thing was how easily she’d adjusted to Store life, how comfortable the fit felt. Intellectually, she knew she should be shocked and horrified b some of the things that went on. She should be outraged and refuse to participate. But the truth was she really had no emotional response to most of what happened. She understood the necessity of it all, and none of it provoked any feelings within her.

We’ve been on this merry-go-round before. It was called the Inquisition. It was called Eugenics. It was called the Holocaust.

The idea that a corporation can levy such influence over a government and people is not far-fetched. We are living in a time where powerful lobbyists and interests have the power to affect our political leadership. We are living in a time where corporations slather their logos on stadiums and sponsor literally every piece of culture we consume. No matter our values, not a one of us has not sacrificed those values for the sake of convenience, for the sake of a lower price. Advertisers understand more about human behavior than science ever will.

Sure, the book is silly, but the sentiment is real, 1984 wrought for the consumerist age. We are in debt up to our hairlines because of it. At some point we have to say no. We have to make better choices. Because THE STORE is coming to a town near you, but only if you let it.

 

October To-Read: Horror in All the Right Places!

I’m stoked to devote all of October to my absolute favorite genre of anything: Horror.

After slogging through a summer consisting mainly of non-fiction science reads (don’t get me wrong, I loved Get in them Genes! A Summer of Origin) it’s time to indulge.

14498843_1689019391417918_8177351404956942336_n1

The Store by Bentley Little – A story of consumerism taken to its dangerous extreme. This book is on the Flavorwire 50 Scariest Books of all time list that I’m working through.

The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber – Strieber is one of the classics of the genre, however I’ve never read any of his books. This is both a Booknado pick and on the 50 Scariest Books list. I also plan on watching the 1981 movie starring Albert Finney, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan!

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – Also on the 50 Scariest Books list, McCarthy is an author I know only through film. The only thing I know about this book is that I should prepare for McCarthy’s spare prose and also to be depressed.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz – 9 year old me would have loved this book! Also on the 50 scariest book list.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin – Shirley Jackson is hands down my favorite author. Her works are full of horror, perpetrated by ordinary people, and the exploration of haunted psyches. A brand new biography, I can’t wait to read!

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon – Apparently this book bears comparison to Stephen King’s The Stand. It certainly looks long enough. Hopefully my vacation will find me with much spare time to read.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie – I found this book in my car; apparently I liberated it from a garage sale for 25 cents and then spilled something on it. It’s one of the few Christie books I’ve never read, and what an appropriate time to read it!

In addition, I’ll be listening to at least 3 audiobooks: The Troop by Nick Cutter (yay, dum-dums in the woods!), Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack (a book of creepy short stories) and a third, yet to be determined book. Suggestions?

 

50 Scariest Books: #17 – It by Stephen King

If Stephen King and I were Facebook friends, our relationship status would be “It’s Complicated.” (I know, that joke is so 2008). I have read only 6 books by Stephen King and some of them enjoyed, some of them I wondered if he wrote them during a bout of the flu (My feelings about Cell are well documented).

I’ll admit that like most people, I’ve seen more movies based on Stephen King novels than I have read actual Stephen King novels. Shortlist includes: The Stand, Secret Window, The Shining, The Shining (remake), Rose Red, Misery, Pet Sematary, Cell, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Christine, Firestarter, Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, The Mist, 1408, Carrie (the remake), The Langoliers, Storm of the Century. 

Good Lord, I’ve seen a lot of Stephen King movies.

But I’m not a big fan of his prose. There’s a know-it-all cleverness that grates on me at times, an ostentatious look-at-me vibe. His dialogue is a tough sell; it often serves to rip me out of a story because Stephen King’s characters talk in a way no real person talks. I know, I read stories about murderous clowns and murderous cell phone signals and yet cannot suspend my disbelief to forgive a character’s idiosyncratic verbiage.

So it was with mild chagrin and not a little trepidation that I picked up the first book on Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books list: IT by Stephen King.

644173

“We all float down here.” (image from goodreads.com

King’s characteristic style is on full display here, and it makes for a rich story that spans decades. Character and setting are King’s strong suit. The sleep town of Derry is rendered vividly, often through the eyes of a child, that time when geography is limited by the reaches of a bicycle, an entire world writ in the confines of city limits.

The timeline jumps back and forth between a cast of children and their scarred, adult selves, as they navigate a horror they once defeated, but never actually killed. Grown up, all but one of them has built a life outside of Derry, but the evidence shows they never really left.

Although Pennywise the clown is the most famous manifestation of the town’s evil menace, like a Boggart, it morphs to mirror each character’s darkest fear.

Clocking in at over a thousand pages, the novel’s verbosity nonetheless feels necessary; the details are rarely extraneous.

In spite of myself, I liked the book. Writing aside, it made me appreciate the relentless imagination of Stephen King’s brain, a place that would be both horrifying and exhilarating to inhabit.

*party balloons

  • I watched the movie for the first time after reading. It’s…I won’t lie. I fell asleep.
  • Tim Curry is hilarious!
  • But there’s a remake!  Bill Skarsgård will play the infamous Pennywise, although I really wish the rumors about Tilda Swinton had been true! Also, it’s going to be multiple parts, like the miniseries.
  • Full disclosure: I read this book last year. If I had anything rude to say about it, it’s been long forgotten.

50 Scariest Books: #16 – Books of Blood by Clive Barker

I will always remember this grisly trilogy for inspiring one of my more horrifying dreams.

Clive Barker is most salient in people’s memories as the dude who wrote and directed Hellraiser, a movie my grandmother claims is the scariest movie she’s ever seen (and my grandma knows from horror).

I will confess here and now that I’ve never seen Hellraiser, but it’s such a boil on the butt of pop cultural consciousness that I feel like I’ve seen it.

32626

I actually own all the volumes separately in paperback (and they’re pretty sweet) but they’re currently out on loan to a very slow reader. 

The stories in Books of Blood are like Thomas Hobbes’ description of prehistoric human life: Nasty, brutish, and short. To be frank, I hated them.

I’m not one to demand my horror come with a happy ending, but there is such a bleakness ingrained into these stories that even reading them left me feeling unshowered. There are no thrills or fun to be had on this literary journey, just page after page of nauseating plotlines and hideous characters.

The framework threading the stories together is this: A phony psychic in an attic gets more than he bargains for when he finds himself at an intersection of a supernatural highway and the tormented souls decide to use his skin as a canvas for their stories. That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t really affect the impact of the stories one way or another.

There is one story I enjoyed, so I will talk about that.

I first read In the Hills, the Cities in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It delighted me as an odd story that seemed to be a grisly mashup of The Wicker Man and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. In it, a couple navigating turmoil in their relationship stumble upon an ancient tradition between two towns that ends in an horrific accident. It’s a garishly creative and unexpected story, a standout among so much muck.

*bloody extras

  • There is a film based on the books. Book of Blood (2009). It has a 5.3. rating on imdb.com. 
  • The story that gave me a nightmare was Rawhead Rex. I dreamed the titular character came into my place of work and started killing people. I did what any sensible person would do: I grabbed my Mom and my dog and got the heck out of there.