31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Best Opening Lines in Horror

This is a post I’ve done before, but I like it so much I’m re-upping it and the two that follow it. Enjoy!

51vefbadjql-_sy344_bo1204203200_A great first line can make a book, and the inability to come up with one has stopped more than a few writers from every getting on with the rest of the story. Here, I present to you some of my favorites (and some of them are more like first paragraphs). Leave yours in the comments.

I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. — A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring. — The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. — Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead. — John Dies at the End by David Wong.

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. — I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe. — The Fisherman  by John Langan

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. — Carrie by Stephen King

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous. — The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft

A considerable number of hunting parties were out that year without finding so much as a fresh trail; for the moose were uncommonly shy, and the various Nimrods returned to the bosoms of their respective families with the best excuses the facts of their imaginations could suggest. — The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

You could argue–as I have more than enough times, as part of my Film History lecture–that, no matter its actual narrative content, every movie is a ghost story. — Experimental Film by Gemma Files

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

This is not for you. — House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Nightworld

mv5bmtu5ote1ndq0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzcynzcxote-_v1_Periodically, the Internet pops out a “10 Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now” list. That’s where I found Nightworld. A Bulgarian production, I was intrigued by the presence of Freddie Kruger and that door with all the tentacles on it. What could go wrong?

Turns out, a lot. Nightworld follows our trusty hero Brett (best part of the movie), a former LAPD cop who moves to Bulgaria for some reason only to have his Bulgarian wife kill herself. Bummer. So he decides to move to the big city and become a security guard, cause why not, huh?

Turns out the job is easy. Watch some security cameras inside a sealed room for anything unusual, and if he sees something, report it to a blind guy. Because that makes sense. Brett meets exactly one girl in the process. Of course, they fall in love. This can’t end well, and it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong–Nightworld isn’t a terrible movie, and if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Wednesday night, check it out. But don’t expect a well-thought out film. The plot is filled with holes and randomness, and it’s never entirely clear what exactly is going on or why it is happening now.

Bulgaria can do better.

3 Stars.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Hope and the Cthulhu Mythos

The following essay was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.

I. Introduction

There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other Gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

It is this quote, from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, that perhaps best encapsulates the soul of the Lovecraftian ethos. The world is a dark and foreboding place and those who would search for light do so at their own folly. For in the end, there is no dawn. There is only the yawning chasm, the swirling chaos, the black seas of infinity. The gods, if gods there be, care nothing for man. They are neither good nor evil. They are simply forces of nature, as interested in the fate of man as the tides or the winds. To say that they see mankind as nothing but an insect is to overstate our importance in the grand scheme of things. The Great Old Ones are no more aware of us than a gamma ray burst would be as it scoured the earth clean of life.

h_p_lovecraft_alone

That’s the conventional wisdom at least, shared by Lovecratian scholars, fans of speculative fiction, and the writers who have sought to follow in Lovecraft’s footsteps.

But does it have to be that way? Is the only end of Lovecraft nihilism? Or is there room for hope? The answer to these questions will ultimately determine whether Lovecraftian fiction remains a niche area of fascination to true believers, populated with pastiche and fan fiction, or whether Lovecraft will take his place as the father of a true sub-genre of horror and, indeed, all of literature.

II. Respect for Lovecraft, Not Obedience to Him

In 1925, Florence Stoker won a lawsuit she had filed against the producers of an obscure movie who had failed to secure the appropriate rights to her late husband’s most famous work—Dracula. The judgment was severe. Stoker had demanded nothing less than the destruction of all prints of the film. The movie’s name?

Nosferatu.

No one knows for sure why Bram Stoker’s widow was so zealous in her crusade against Nosferatu. Perhaps she disagreed with the changes made to the original story. Maybe she wanted more money than the film company was willing to pay. Or perhaps she simply thought of film as an inferior form of art—a low-brow, uncultured medium that was not worthy of her late husband’s genius.

But in the end, her reasoning is not as important as what would have happened if she had succeeded with carrying out the court’s decree.[1] Dracula has become a timeless classic of immense and enduring influence. But that fate was in no way preordained. At the time Nosferatu was filmed, Dracula was not exactly a best seller. In fact, Stoker and his widow were quite poor in the final years of the great author’s life, forced to rely on public charity just to get by. It was only after Nosferatu and subsequent stage adaptations of Dracula became popular that the novel began to approach the iconic status it now enjoys.

But it wasn’t just popularity that Nosferatu bestowed upon Dracula. It also made one key alteration, one that varied quite a bit from the source material, one that changed vampires forever.

It made sunlight deadly to the creatures of the night.[2]

From Nosferatu followed countless more adaptations, sequels, re-imaginings, and homages. Some good, some bad, but all hearkening back to the source material, even if in only the most cursory of ways. Meanwhile, vampires became iconic to the point of over-saturation. There are a number of horror publications today that will not accept vampire fiction on the principle that nothing new is left to be written.[3]

There’s a lesson there for those of us who write Lovecraftian fiction. We have to be willing to step out from the shadow of the master. That has proven to be easier said than done. Lovecraft’s work strikes a deep chord within many, and a—dare I say it—cult-like devotion has grown up around not only his works, but his legacy. Far too often, arguments over what direction the so-called “new weird” should take seem to devolve into a sort of “What Would Lovecraft Do” shouting match. This tendency goes all the way back to August Derleth, the man who did more than perhaps anyone to preserve and promote Lovecraft’s work.

Derleth was a creative mind in his own right, and in what he dubbed the “Cthulhu Mythos” he found a muse for his fiction. But Derleth wasn’t content to use Lovecraft as a jumping off point. Whether because of a lack of confidence in his own artistic direction or honest but misguided belief, Derleth set out to prove that Lovecraft’s philosophy was, in fact, a reflection of his own more Christian-centric worldview.[4] This effort manifested itself in a number of ways, perhaps most lastingly his division of the Lovecraftian cosmology between the good Elder Gods and the evil Old Ones.

But not everyone agreed with Derleth’s approach, and his widespread influence would eventually result in a significant backlash—led by eminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi—known as “anti-Derlethism.” This school of literary criticism attempted to separate Derleth’s inventions from Lovecraft’s original conception and restore a purer understanding of Lovecraft’s works. A noble goal, but now the pendulum may have swung back too far in the other direction. The status quo today seems to be that anyone who deviates from the dogma of Lovecraft is guilty of Derlethism.

If this all seems absurd to the casual observer, well, it is. The purity of the mythos has become, for some, an almost religious obsession, with heretics and apostates and their works worthy of burning at the literary stake.[5] Thus, for many in the Lovecraftian community, fiction that contains hints of religion, or hope, or even the possibility of ultimate success for the human protagonists, is anathema. Authors who portray the Great Old Ones—who are, to remind you, more than willing to wipe mankind from the face of the earth—as “the bad guys” are guilty of engaging in a naive and simplistic good vs. evil fairy tale.

To all this sophistry, I say enough.

III. Making Our Way in the Shadow of Lovecraft

It’s time for Lovecraftian fiction to blossom into maturity, to grow up if you will. It’s time for writers of weird fiction to step beyond what came before and make our own way. Tales of mind-shattering horror that inevitably lead to the protagonist’s death or commitment to the loony bin are all well and good. There’s room for them. They make great stories. But if Lovecraftian fiction can be only that, then we are drawing from a shallow well, indeed.

I honestly don’t think that is what Lovecraft would have wanted. I think he would have been far happier if those who came after him drew upon his inspiration to create worlds of their own. When I wrote my first novel, That Which Should Not Be, my goal was two-fold. I wanted to write a piece of weird fiction that was true to the old masters of horror while doing something different. And I wanted to inspire a new generation to read Lovecraft and experience his mastery.

I attempted to accomplish those goals by first creating a Gothic, traditionally themed horror novel with an emphasis on Lovecraftian fiction. I then went on to treat the mythos as if it were another of the great religious traditions. Finally, I sought to explore how legends, religions, and myths might be a way for the human mind to conceptualize the Great Old Ones, their fall, and the prophecies of their return.

I knew there would be readers, particularly hardcore fans of Lovecraft, who wouldn’t like that approach at all. Yet I was surprised at how knee-jerk some of the reactions were. For instance, there is a part in my book where one of the protagonists stumbles upon the symbol of the cross as a defense against one of his supernatural enemies. Some critics reacted to this as if That Which Should Not Be was a Christian apologetic.

I think, had they not been so eager to defend Lovecraft’s legacy, they might have approached the issue with more circumspection. As I noted, one of the driving principles of the novel is that there is truth in every legend, every myth. Lovecraft fans who objected to the power of the cruciform might be shocked to learn that the cross as a symbol of power predates Christianity and indeed is present in nearly every culture. The ankh of ancient Egypt was the ultimate symbol of life.  We see the cross in Eastern and Aryan religions, and archaeologists regularly find Bronze Age objects (and even bones) engraved with the cross.  Lovecraft talks about certain signs and sigils that were used to keep the Old Ones at bay.  Why not a cross?[6]

I hope That Which Should Not Be has encouraged people to look up the works of the old master, the gentleman of Providence, and see where the legend of Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, and Nyarlathotep first came into the world. And I hope that H.P. Lovecraft would have enjoyed my book.

But while I care a lot about the former, the latter doesn’t really concern me. I don’t need Lovecraft’s blessing, just as Lovecraft doesn’t need me or anyone else to defend him. That, in my view, is the difference between serious literature that borrows from the past without stealing from it and fan-fiction that remains a slave to whatever artistic well it draws from. Too often, we in the Lovecraftian community have allowed our deep and abiding respect for the man who inspired us to strangle the very creative voice we found in his works.

Every writer wants to be fearless, to write free of external restraints. Horror writers are the most fearless of all. For us, there is no line we will not cross, no boundary we will not stretch, no taboo too…taboo. And yet we find ourselves bound by the memory of a man who has been dead for 80 years.

IV. Lovecraft, Reanimated

But are we right about Lovecraft? Up until this point, we have assumed the conventional wisdom is true, that Lovecraft’s protagonists were always doomed to an unhappy ending. That humanity is helpless in the face of deities beyond imagination. But are things so black and white?

Not really.

Now it’s true, of course, that Lovecraft has his share of tragic heroes. Harley Warren is dead, and there’s always a window to jump out of at the end of every story. But the Lovecraftian world is hardly one of endless darkness, even if, at times it is hard to see the light.

These days, the typical Lovecraftian novel or short story follows a predictable path. Group goes into the woods. Group finds Lovecraftian evil. They attempt to fight back. Lovecraftian evil laughs at them before killing the ones it wants to kill and releasing the rest. The horror.

But even the darkest Lovecraftian story also raises some interesting questions. Why is this evil limited to the woods? Why hasn’t it taken over the world? Does it just not want to? Is there something holding it back, something that it fears? And if there is, who is to say we can’t harness that power?

Is man insignificant? Of course he is. But he is not so insignificant that he cannot do great things. When Wilbur Whateley sought to open the gate and bring forth the old rulers of the world in Dunwich, it was “three men from Arkham – old, white-bearded Dr. Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr. Morgan” who stopped him.[7] We cannot be sure what dark gods Erich Zann battled with the power of his “screaming viol”—though I have my own suspicions—but battle them he did. And then there’s Lovecraft’s magnum opus, the story that more than any other has seared his name into the public consciousness—“The Call of Cthulhu.” There was nothing all that special about Johansen, the Norwegian sailor who, in the company of his fellows, stumbled upon the nightmare city of R’lyeh and Great Cthulhu entombed within. But whether driven by fear or madness or bravery or simply a fool’s hope, it was Johansen who turned his ship and faced the thing from beyond the stars head-on, driving him back to the chamber whence he had emerged, and, I suppose, saving the world from the return of the Old Ones in the process.

To be sure, these victories were not without a price, and a heavy one at that. Whether death or the loss of a friend or a broken mind, no one stands against the crawling chaos without sacrifice. But they also do not stand without hope.

V. Hope and Lovecraft

There is one story of Lovecraft’s in particular that had a profound effect on me and my views of the mythos. It is called The Haunter of the Dark.

It’s not that Lovecraft’s protagonist Robert Blake is able to defeat the “avatar of Nyarlathotep.” In the end, he was doomed from the moment he entered that ancient church in the heart of Providence. Indeed, the three-lobed burning eye consumes all.

But Blake is not the hero of The Haunter of the Dark. At least, not in my view. The hero—or heroes I should say—have no name. They are the people of Federal Hill who, despite the crushing weight of endless millennia worth of superstition and fear, stood against the coming of the night. Those ordinary men and women who “clustered round the church in the rain with lighted candles and lamps somehow shielded with folded paper and umbrellas—a guard of light to save the city from the nightmare that stalks in darkness.”

In the end that darkness was too strong for Blake, and the spirit of Nyarlathotep could not be defeated. But this much also cannot be denied. Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos who has stood at the throne of Azathoth, was not oblivious to mankind, nor did he see those who gathered around the Church of the Starry Wisdom on that black night as mere insects ready to be squashed.

No, Nyarlathotep feared them, just as the darkness must always fear the light.

The light gives darkness its power. Without that light, darkness has no meaning. In the same way, it is the tension between the opposing forces of hope and hopelessness in Lovecraft’s fiction that drive the horror contained therein. It is Gilman slipping through the clutches of old Keziah, only to have revenge visited upon him by Brown Jenkin. It is the clicking on the other end of the line as Randolph Carter screams through the telephone for his friend Harley Warren to answer him, only to have another voice return his call. It is Danforth and Dyer fleeing from madness, only to cast one last glance back, like Lot’s wife of old. It is Robert Olmstead escaping Innsmouth, only to discover that he can never escape the mirror.

It is this tension between opposing forces of hope and hopelessness that makes Lovecraft’s many works not only incisive statements on humanity, but also terrifying tales of fantasy. When we read or talk about Lovecraft, we focus so intently on the mind-shattering madness of many of his endings that we miss the story itself. Hope is there, even if it is misguided, even if it is betrayed. And if hope is indeed critical to Lovecraft’s ethos, then there is no reason that a Lovecraftian story cannot have a happy ending, no reason that hope cannot win the day and banish the night. Surely, Lovecraft himself did not often let hope achieve such a victory, but his mythos does not preclude such an outcome, and it is reductive and disserving to the man himself to insist that it does.

I think there’s a reason that we’ve yet to see a breakthrough Lovecraftian novel.[8] We’ve been too constrained, too limited, too afraid. I would challenge my fellow Lovecraftians to break free, to do something they may have never tried to do before—write a mythos tale that at least has the chance of a happy ending, even if you rip it away at the last moment. Give some hope to mankind. It’s not as easy as you might think. And it can make for a much better story.

After all, we can reconcile ourselves to our fate, to the inevitability of our deaths. But hope? A chance to escape from horror? To burst from a Stygian underground night into the bright daylight of morning? A chance that, at any moment, might be snuffed out?

In the end, that my friends is the scariest thing of all.

Notes:

[1] While Mrs. Stoker won the court case, she eventually lost the war. Although a large number of prints were destroyed, enough eventually surfaced to allow Nosferatu to become the hugely influential horror masterpiece that we all know so well.

[2] That sunlight kills vampires has become so ingrained in our popular consciousness that subsequent adaptations of Dracula have either been forced to follow Nosferatu’s lead or explain why the eponymous character is able to walk in the daylight. I remember criticizing Twilight for having vampires sparkle in the sunlight instead of bursting into flames. Imagine my surprise upon finally reading the original Dracula and discovering that, indeed, Stephanie Meyer had been closer to the truth than I.

[3] Absurd in my view, but difficult to dispute on the merits.

[4] S.T. Joshi lays out an excellent analysis of Derlethism in his review of A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos by John D. Haefele, available at http://www.stjoshi.org/review_haefele.html.

[5] This is ironic, given that Lovecraft is a favorite amongst atheists and agnostics.

[6] As a matter of fact…

In another instant, however, matters were reversed; for those murderous claws had locked themselves tightly around his own throat, while the wrinkled face was twisted with insane fury. He felt the chain of the cheap crucifix grinding into his neck, and in his peril wondered how the sight of the object itself would affect the evil creature. Her strength was altogether superhuman, but as she continued her choking he reached feebly in his shirt and drew out the metal symbol, snapping the chain and pulling it free.

At sight of the device the witch seemed struck with panic, and her grip relaxed long enough to give Gilman a chance to break it entirely.

–“The Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft

[7] Joshi has said that he considers “The Dunwich Horror” an “aesthetic mistake on Lovecraft’s part,” primarily because of its depiction of good vs evil in mankind’s struggle to stave off the return of the Old Ones. While I admire Joshi deeply—it was his Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales that sparked my own personal love affair with Lovecraft—on this point he seems to have a bit of confirmation bias.

[8] I hope the authors of many of the wonderful Lovecraftian novels out there will not take offense to this claim. That great Lovecraftian fiction of all kinds exists cannot be denied, and I think it goes without saying that we are living in the golden age of the genre. Novels like John Hornor Jacobs’s Southern Gods, William Holloway’s Immortal Body and The Song of the Death God, and the short fiction of Laird Barron are as good as anything we have seen. But the work that takes Lovecraft mainstream? The one that makes its mark on literary history? That, I think, we are still waiting on.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Beyond the Gates

October 2, 2018
29 Days Till Halloween

dual-visions-production-services_titles__0002_beyond-the-gatesBeyond the Gates attempts to be the best VHS-based horror movie since Samara crawled out of a television set. And this low-budget flick may well grasp that brass ring, if for no other reason than, to my knowledge, there are no other VHS-based horror movies.

Beyond the Gates begins in 1992, with the grand opening of a small town, horror-themed video store. Flash forward to 2016, when estranged brothers Gordon and John have reunited to settle their missing father’s estate, video store included. For the first twenty minutes or so, the movie meanders, setting up the fact that the two brothers don’t get along, introducing us to the Gordon’s love interest, Margot, and establishing that something weird is going on. After discovering the key to their dad’s office, the two brothers stumble upon the horror-themed board game “Beyond the Gates,” which requires players to watch a VHS tape to advance. Turns out the gates in question are more like gates to another dimension, or possibly hell itself.

Beyond the Gates trades on nostalgia and atmosphere to make its point. The movie has a distinctive 80s feel, and it would certainly have been straight to video if such things still existed. The movie takes a while to get going, but once the game begins, so does the fun. The film’s tongue is always firmly in cheek, and don’t expect any major frights here. But there is plenty of gore and plenty of cool twists.

And I gotta say, between the cool retro video store and the ultra creepy curio shop,  this is a town I’d like to visit.

Check out Beyond the Gates. But just remember–once you start, you have to finish.

3.75 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

Throughout this October, I’ll be using Fridays to share some horror-themed music for your Halloween enjoyment. Today I have two offerings. The first is a bit of spoken word creepiness by the inestimable Tom Waits, “What’s He Building.” Waits gravelly voice combined with unsettling sound effects and the endless repetition of the question What’s he building in there? will begin to make you question your sanity.

Our second offering today is by an artist who has dedicated himself to creating just this kind of music–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The almost operatic, melodramatic “Song of Joy” hearkens back to the murder ballads of yore, when singing about murder and mayhem was something good Christian folk enjoyed doing. The ultimate question? Is the man telling us this tale actually the murderer himself? And when that narrator says “I see sir that I have your attention,” he does, oh he does.

 

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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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31 Days of Halloween (2018): A Dark Song

01What would you do to have one last moment with the ones you love and have lost? What would you give up? Would you risk your life? Would you risk your soul? That’s the question at the heart of A Dark Song.

A Dark Song investigates a paranormal subject that has always interested me but I’ve never seen a movie tackle—just how dang hard it is to pull off a magical ritual. Forget what you’ve seen in the films, the ancient mystics made it more or less impossible to actually complete one of these things. The Grand Grimoire, written by Satan himself some say, contains a ritual that takes some six to eighteen months and involves privations that would make a masochist blush. If you ever wondered  why more people aren’t walking around casting spells—other than the, you know, fact magic isn’t real—the difficulty involved is a place to start.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because that’s the bulk of A Dark Song. A women rents a house in the wilds of Wales so that she can lock herself inside with her mystical guide and embark on a quest to complete a magical rite–this one contained in the real grimoire The Book of Abramelin. It will take months, and during that time they will be stuck together. You can imagine how well that’s going to go. The ritual may or may not be working, but will they kill each other before we find out?

I very much enjoyed this movie, more so than I think most people would. (Hat tip to the names of our two main characters, Solomon and Sophia, both of which have esoteric significance.). It’s the definition of slow horror. Towards the end, it goes a little wacky in a Silent Hill kind of way, but that doesn’t take away too much from the rest of the film. I’ll give this movie Four Stars, well aware that many of you will find that rating inflated. But if you’ve ever wondered what this sort of ritual involves, this movie is for you.

4 Stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Nights in the Lonesome October

Welcome to October. If you’re a fan of horror, this is the month to try new things and discover new worlds. Every year, I read Night in the Lonesome October, the finest Halloween themed book ever written. Truly, no fan of Halloween, Horror, or H.P. Lovecraft should live life without reading this book. But I know some of you are looking for something new and different. So without further ado, here are some books I’ve read in the last year that I think you should consider checking out this October. In no particular order…

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1. The Fisherman by John Langan. One of the best books I have read in years, The Fisherman is a powerhouse of a novel that creates one of the most amazing and original Lovecraftian worlds you’ll ever find.

 

 

230192942. Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Head Full of Ghosts is not only scary, it is a book that will make you think. It is a book that will stick with you for days and weeks. Tremblay’s fiction isn’t for everyone, but whatever you may think of his other books, this novel is one to read.

 

51ok2bmublil-_sx311_bo1204203200_3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle. Powerful, genre-redefining, a page-turner. All these describe The Ballad of Black Tom. Re-imagining Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” in a way that turns some of the more troubling racial aspects of the old master on its head, The Ballad of Black Tom is a true must read.

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Welcome to 31 Days of Halloween

You can feel it in the air. You can see it all around. The cool, crisp cut of the wind. The dying leaves. Halloween is coming.

I admit I’m not the most attentive web master in the world. In between making a living and writing fiction, there’s not much time for this sort of thing. But then October comes, and what better time to share my love of all things horrific with all of you. We’ll be reviewing movies and books, experiencing songs with a Halloween connection, and exploring the wider horror world. So come with me, my friends, and let us take a trip into the dark, the mysterious, and the macabre. Just don’t lose yourself in the night.

‘Tis the night – the night
Of the grave’s delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they – it is they.

– Arthur Cleveland Coxe

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The Night of Walpurgis is Upon Us

The Site That Should Not Be


The veils between the worlds may be at their thinnest on Samhain, but the darkest night of the year is now upon us. Walpurgis Night. The Eve of Beltane. The Night of the Witches, when those dark beings meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods.  Bar the door and shutter your windows upon this May Eve.  For tonight, the darkness takes shape.

Each night, the people of Arkham cowered behind their flimsy wooden doors, terrified of what lurked beyond. But it was the the Beltane Eve, the night of Walpurgis, that the old men of Arkham still speak of in whispered words and phrases. They say that the hills burned with an unnatural glow that night, that satanic psalms floated down to the town below, as creatures of darkness danced and gibbered in the moonlight.

Read more in my book, That Which Should Not Be.

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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.)

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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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The Ritual

p14607106_p_v8_abHorror is having its [latest] moment, and the availability of mediums like Amazon and Netflix mean that horror movies which might have disappeared into straight-to-video oblivion ten years ago have a chance to shine today. But The Ritual is a coup for Netflix. This is a movie good enough to go to theaters, and it is can’t miss for anyone with a Netflix account.

Four friends from University strike off into the Scandinavian hinterland to honor their fifth member, killed in a robbery gone wrong. 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–gutted–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.

The Ritual is based on the novel of the same name by Adam Nevill. I enjoyed that book quite a bit, but it was flawed, particularly in its second half. In adapting Nevill’s book, the filmmakers have taken what made the novel great and fixed its shortcomings. And the creature design is inspired. The beast stays just beyond the frame for most of the movie, but the usual disappointment when the monster is revealed is completely absent here. It’s too good for just one movie, and I hope for more exploration of its mythology in the future.

The Ritual is an unmitigated success. Everyone involved should be proud.

4.0 Stars

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