Category Archives: Book Reviews

31 Days of Halloween (2018): Experimental Film

25867895I had been circling Gemma Files’ Experimental Film for a while before finally picking it up. I’m not sure what stayed my hand, but I think it was something in the synopsis that made me wary. Before I go on, here’s that (very long) synopsis for your perusal.

Fired at almost the same time as her son Clark’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, former film critic turned teacher Lois Cairns is caught in a depressive downward spiral, convinced she’s a failure who’s spent half her adult life writing about other people’s dreams without ever seeing any of her own come true. One night Lois attends a program of experimental film and emerges convinced she’s seen something no one else has—a sampled piece of silver nitrate silent film footage whose existence might prove that an eccentric early 20th-century socialite who disappeared under mysterious circumstances was also one of Canada’s first female movie-makers. Though it raises her spirits and revitalizes her creatively, Lois’s headlong quest to discover the truth about Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb almost immediately begins to send her much further than she ever wanted to go, revealing increasingly troubling links between her subject’s life and her own. Slowly but surely, the malign influence of Mrs Whitcomb’s muse begins to creep into every aspect of Lois’s life, even placing her son in danger. But how can one increasingly ill and unstable woman possibly hope to defeat a threat that’s half long-lost folklore, half cinematically framed hallucination—an existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life?

It might be that the synopsis is so darn long. It might be that it puts the emphasis on Lois as a mom, or that it seems to indicate that a large part of the central conflict in the story will be protecting a child, neither of which appeal to me. Whatever the case, I put Experimental Films aside again and again, only to come back to it because there was something intriguing about it that I couldn’t quite quit. I like the idea of haunted film. The ancients thought mirrors were a window to another world. And what is a film but a dim reflection of reality, capturing images of the long dead, presenting worlds unknown and otherwise unknowable? And the film in this book is an old one, very old, locked on silver nitrate film, a medium so flammable that it cost many a life in the early days of the cinema. So what the heck, I thought. Why not give it a shot?

I’m certainly glad I did.

First of all, it turns out my initial concerns were wholly unfounded. Lois is much more than a mom. Her domestic situation plays a role in the book and is, at times, one of the things that motivates her, but it is largely in the background. Lois is an independent woman pursuing a mystery that is obscure and potentially world-changing all at once. On the trail of a film from the earliest days of movie-making that seems to portray a forgotten Wendish god (obscurity squared you might say), Lois finds herself locked in a struggle of Lovecraftian proportions.

Compellingly readable and filled with interesting tidbits about movie culture, this winding tale will keep you on the edge of your seat from the opening title to the final credits. Definitely recommended.

P.S. If you enjoyed this book, check out Cigarette Burns, one of my favorite entries from the excellent Masters of Horror series.

4 Stars

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Let’s Talk A Head Full of Ghosts

Lately, I’ve written a number of straight reviews. I’m bored with that, so for A Head Full of Ghosts, let’s do something different. Spoilers galore, by the way, so if you haven’t read the book, you might want to do that first.

23019294It took me a while to read Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. When I picked it up the first time, I got to Chapter Two—the first blog post—and put it right back down. Recently, I tried again, and I’m glad I did. It’s not a perfect book. The treatment of religion borders on cliché, and the blog posts are full of the kind of psycho-babble social commentary you might find on your least favorite Twitter feed, but these are minor quibbles. Head Full of Ghosts is a page-turner that makes you think and keeps you guessing. With that in mind, I’ve posed some questions below with my take on the answers. Looking forward to your comments. And as I said, spoilers. SPOILERS. (4.5 stars, by the way.)


I said, spoilers!

  1. Is Merry really the one possessed?

I’ll start here, just because it’s the first thing you wonder after you close the book, based on the last couple of pages. I also feel quite confident in saying that the answer is no. Tremblay’s denouement is a nice trick, just like the one at the end of Inception (I also feel quite confident in saying that two seconds after the fade to black in that movie the top falls over, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he no longer cares what is real and what isn’t because he has the life he wants. It’s deep, man, and everyone missed it trying to decide what the answer was to the question that didn’t matter. But I digress.) It’s just a trick, though. The coffee guy all but says the heat is broken. It’s not Merry’s demon suddenly stealing all the heat. And other than the last few pages, I can think of no other evidence in the book for Merry’s possession. So let’s let this one go.

  1. Was the father planning on murdering the family?

I also feel pretty confident in saying that the answer here is no. As Merry suggests, her father was intending on cleaning the pewter cross, something that potassium cyanide is quite good at. If I’m right about that, then Marjorie is simply manipulating Merry into helping her murder the family she now hates while sparing the sister that she still loves. It’s possible that in Marjorie’s paranoia she also thinks her father is trying to kill them all, but I don’t buy the idea that she doesn’t know the consequences of her own actions. She’s made a decisive choice to end things. The exorcism didn’t work to help her and in the process she lost whatever trust and affection she had left for her mother and father. This also has the side-benefit of a nice tie in between Merry and what I assume is her namesake—Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Now, it’s possible I am wrong here. The emails between the crazy church leader and the father certainly indicate a plan for mass suicide. Moreover, if the father were simply buying the poison to clean the cross, it’s unclear why it would be so difficult for the police to track the purchase. More ambiguity from Tremblay and his unreliable narrator.

  1. What is really wrong with Marjorie?

Some might think this is the central question of the book. I’m not convinced. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with Marjorie. The book is really about the breakdown of a family, a scathing critique of reality TV culture, and an analysis of how desperation and greed can combine to create a horror far more terrifying than the supernatural.

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering what is going on with Marjorie.

Every time I think Tremblay is signaling that there is no demon and that Marjorie isn’t possessed, something happens to change my mind. Let’s get one thing clear from the start—she’s not faking it. The most likely explanation—and I’m no psychologist so don’t @ me bro—is that she is suffering from schizophrenia with associated paranoid delusions. Marjorie’s symptoms line up perfectly with that diagnosis, and the onset in early adulthood fits with the disease. The voices, the belief that thoughts and experiences are inserted into the mind by others, a marked change in personality, etc., etc., would seem to make the diagnosis pretty straightforward. Which leads me to my next question…

  1. Why, exactly, are we performing an exorcism?

This relates to my earlier comment about the way religion is treated in the book. There’s an implication at some point in the story that the local priest is somehow benefiting from the television show which presumably would not exist without the exorcism itself. But it’s never fleshed out and I don’t find it particularly believable. Moreover, a priest can’t just decide to do an exorcism. The bishop has to approve. This is glossed over in the book and there’s a chapter where a doctor, Dr. Navidson in a hat-tip to House of Leaves, examines Marjorie in order to provide evidence supporting the exorcism. He doesn’t find a whole lot. All we really have is Marjorie turning into a chatty Cathy, revealing evidence that she easily could have garnered from the internet. Compare this to The Exorcist, where the demon-possessed victim levitates, speaks Latin and Greek, reads the priest’s mind, and he still isn’t convinced she’s possessed. The book is probably based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but even there they had far more evidence to go on than we have here.

  1. Is this book really just about reality television and what it says about our culture?

Criticisms of how the book handles religion aside, it’s spot on in the way it addresses our reality TV culture. Just think about what is going on here—we have a girl, a mere child, suffering a severe mental breakdown to the point of harming herself and threatening her family and instead of giving her medical treatment the mom and dad have agreed to film the whole thing with an entertainment company agreeing to go along with it. And of course, it’s a huge hit. The central line in the book by my reckoning is when a now adult Merry is asked by the author writing her story how she can watch horror movies about exorcisms, given that they are more horrific than what actually happened to her. She replies, “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”

Now you may be saying—it’s just a book. It’s not real. Bless you if you think it couldn’t be real, though. If you think we wouldn’t watch. And bless you if there’s not a part of you, buried deep back there in your brain, that doesn’t wish you could watch this very reality television show, that doesn’t wish it were real after all.

That’s the true horror, my friend.


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Review: The Fisherman by John Langan

71l6banbv1lIt’s a rare thing, a book that sticks with you. That makes you think days after you’ve turned the last page, that takes you down a path to somewhere dark and dangerous and mysterious and amazing all at once. The Fisherman by John Langan is such a book.

The synopsis:

In upstate New York, in the woods around Woodstock, Dutchman’s Creek flows out of the Ashokan Reservoir. Steep-banked, fast-moving, it offers the promise of fine fishing, and of something more, a possibility too fantastic to be true. When Abe and Dan, two widowers who have found solace in each other’s company and a shared passion for fishing, hear rumors of the Creek, and what might be found there, the remedy to both their losses, they dismiss it as just another fish story. Soon, though, the men find themselves drawn into a tale as deep and old as the Reservoir. It’s a tale of dark pacts, of long-buried secrets, and of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher: the Fisherman. It will bring Abe and Dan face to face with all that they have lost, and with the price they must pay to regain it.

The Fisherman is a story within a story within a story. Don’t think of an onion so much as House of Leaves, a book whose impact on me seems only to increase with distance. It’s a bad pun, but The Fisherman reels you in, and once you are hooked, you won’t be able to put it down. I know I’m not giving you much to go on here. In fact, you could say I’m being intentionally vague. It’s not as if there are spoilers that will ruin the book for you, but I went into it with no real knowledge of what I was getting, and I don’t want to ruin that for you.

In short, The Fisherman is the best modern Lovecraftian book I’ve read, but it is also completely accessible to people who’ve never heard of Lovecraft. Langan is a masterful writer, and I can’t wait to experience more of his magic.

5 Stars

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Review: Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

61i42kqgs3l-_sx328_bo1204203200_I hate three star reviews, the critic’s version of a “meh.” When you pour your heart and soul into writing a book, you hope to inspire something. Preferably joy, horror, love, etc., depending on the genre. If not that, loathing works. A one star review means someone was passionate about your book.  I’m as likely to buy a novel on the basis of a well-written one star review as I am a similarly passionate five star review. But three stars? Meh.

As much as I hate to say it, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge falls squarely in that three star range for me. It shouldn’t have been this way.

The Night Ocean is part of the new hotness that is re-imagining or re-purposing Lovecraft with an ironic twist that would have horrified the late master of the unseen forces that bend men’s fates.  The Ballad of Black Tomwhich I loved, does this with racism. Lovecraft Countrycurrently on my reading list, does the same. The Night Ocean tackles the dubious subject of Lovecraft’s sexuality. This, I was not expecting. I was also skeptical, and remain so, that this is a subject that’s all that interesting. We know that Lovecraft was married. His wife Sonia Greene called him “an adequately excellent lover.” (Talk about a three star review). But other than that, Lovecraft is thought of as decidedly a-sexual, too isolated from humanity to enjoy love or its attendant physical pursuits.

The Night Ocean posits that Lovecraft may have been gay and may have had an illicit affair with a young protege, Robert Barlow, who authored a short story of the same name as our novel. The husband of our protagonist sets off to discover the truth, and in doing so gets himself tangled in a story of mystery and deceit that takes the entire novel to unravel.

Now you may be asking yourself, where’s the horror? And that would be precisely the problem. I stumbled upon The Night Ocean while reading an article entitled “8 Lovecraftian Tales for Those Who Don’t Want to Read Lovecraft which I was pleasantly surprised to see included That Which Should Not BeSince the article’s author clearly has good taste, I decided to pick up some of the other books on the list as well. The Night Ocean was one of them.

The Night Ocean starts off well, promising an almost House of Leavesstyle story within a story, where nothing is ever quite what it seems and the author may not be completely reliable. A couple biographies later and the book was over, without anything all that Lovecraftian ever having happened.

I think it was my expectations that ruined it for me. The book is well written, with all the literary fiction quality one would expect from a book stamped with the “A novel” disclaimer. But it’s not horror. Not at all. So for me, it was just…meh.

3 Stars


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Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

51ok2bmublil-_sx311_bo1204203200_Although some in the horror community struggle to admit it, Lovecraft, for all his brilliance, was also a racist. I’ve written about it before on this site, and it’s a side of the man we should not shy away from. Victor LaVelle has done more than confront it; he’s applied his considerable talent to turn one of Lovecraft’s most troubling–and not in a good way–stories into something far more compelling.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft’s story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” The story derives directly from the xenophobia that Lovecraft’s time in New York City only served to intensify. It’s considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories (even Lovecraft panned it), and one might think it a strange choice for basing a modern retelling. But therein lies LaVelle’s genius. He takes a story born in racial hatred and turns it on its head. The Synopsis:

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

If you’ve read The Horror at Red Hook, you know the basic story. Detective Malone plays a role here, but he is not the central character. Neither is Robert Suydam. For it is Tester, despised because of his race, who ultimately has the power to raise the Old Ones. But more importantly, it is he who understands them, understands what is it is to be an outcast, and understands the desire to form a new world. He could stop them, too, but after living a life of the worst kind of abuse at the hands of a society that hates him, will he bother?

There is so much to enjoy about The Ballad of Black Tom that I scare believe I could do it justice. For all the greatness of Lovecraft, it’s a reminder of what he could have accomplished if he’d been able to overcome his worst tendencies.

4 stars

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31 Days of Halloween: The Ritual by Adam Nevill

220px-the_ritual_adam_nevill_coverI’ve been meaning to read Adam Nevill for a while, and in the spirit of Halloween, I picked up one of his many highly regarded novels–The Ritual.

Four friends from University strike off into the Scandinavian hinterland to rekindle their friendship while enjoying the majesty of the great outdoors. But at least two of the crew aren’t the athletic specimens they once were, and after an accident gives one a bum knee, they decide to take a shortcut through an uncharted forest. Things get bad when they discover the corpse of a large animal hanging from a tree–minus its skin–and they get worse when they find an ancient idol in a forgotten farmstead. Now something is hunting them, and what started as a camping trip soon becomes a fight for survival.

This is a pretty freaky book, but I came away from The Ritual feeling strangely about it. The novel is in two parts. The first part, I loved. The second part…I felt like it went a little off the rails, thought it redeemed itself toward the end. So I can’t recommend The Ritual unreservedly. Having said that. Nevill is a true talent. His writing sings, and he has a way of pulling you in that a lot of other authors could learn from.

The Ritual was my first book by Nevill, but it won’t be my last.

3.5 Stars

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