Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

berberianA mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio

Read Full Post »

returnedA fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Returned

Read Full Post »

nortonI have always enjoyed Brad Leithauser’s poetry. He is one of the “New Formalists,” who have advocated for the use of metrical form and structure in modern poetry, as opposed to those who favor free verse. So I thought it was interesting to come across an anthology of ghost stories edited by Leithauser.

One thing that makes this collection a bit different from the others I have written about this week is that Leithauser does not limit himself to the old masters of the genre. While Henry and M.R. James are both included, as is the delightfully named Oliver Onions, Leithauser also includes pieces from later 20th century writers, including V.S. Pritchett, A.S. Byatt, John Cheever, and Penelope Fitzgerald. In his introduction, Leithauser notes that there are two branches to the ghost story genre, and the two Jameses, conveniently, delineate each  branch. M.R is a master of what Leithauser calls the “plot ghost story” and Henry of the “psychological ghost story.” While I favor the former, Leithauser is more interested in the latter, and the collected stories here reflect that interest.

There are some deeply chilling tales here. Marghanita Laski’s “The Tower” finds a woman seeking to impress her somewhat distant husband by exploring an isolated tower in the Italian countryside, with ambiguous results. “The Axe,” by Penelope Fitzgerald starts off as a memo of a rather routine, if callous, office firing, and devolves into something much darker. Cheever’s “The Music Teacher” explores many of the same themes of Cheever’s novels, infidelity, lost love, and suburban life, but with a darkly supernatural twist.

As Leithauser says about fans of ghost stories at the end of his introduction, “In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.” These collected stories all capture that sense of unease, and keep you looking over your shoulder.

Check the WRL catalog for The Norton Book of Ghost Stories

Read Full Post »

victorianHave I said how much I like Victorian era ghost stories? These atmospheric tales seem to me the perfect autumn reading. The Victorians, as the editors here point out, had a fascination with death, and that extended to their fascination with the afterlife. Think about Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented that exceptionally rational detective Sherlock Holmes, but who also believed in the power of mediums to connect with the dead. It comes as no surprise that some of the best ghost stories written come from this death-haunted period.

Oxford University Press is known for its exceptional anthologies, and Victorian Ghost Stories is an excellent example of their work. The collection brings together a superb assortment of authors telling chilling tales published between 1852 and 1908. Some of the well-known suspects are here, the Jameses, Henry and M.R., Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others, but there were also lots of new authors I had not encountered before. I particularly enjoyed “At Chrighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, where ghostly hunters presage a tragedy at Christmas-tide. Or there is Charlotte Riddell’s “The Open Door,” where a young man makes his fortune by risking his life in an ostensibly haunted manor house. All of these tales create an atmosphere of suspense without resorting to cheap tricks or gory details. The Victorians really were masters of the uncanny.

These would be great stories to read aloud by candle light, or better yet the light of just a fireplace. Let the shadows start to dance on the wall, listen to the creaking as the house settles and the tree branches scrape and scratch, or is that just what you think you are hearing?

Check the WRL catalog for Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology

Read Full Post »

dahlMost readers know Roald Dahl for his wonderful, though often dark, children’s novels–Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Witches, and many others. Dahl also wrote short fiction aimed at adults. In those stories, Dahl always “aims to disturb” the reader, and, skillful writer that he is, he generally achieves his goal. So when picking stories for this collection, and horror fiction almost always works best in the short story format to my mind, Dahl sought out writers of the uncanny who could tell a tale that would leave you ill at ease. I can attest that he succeeded, at least in my case.

While there are some familiar names in this collection,  including E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton, and Sheridan Le Fanu, most of the writers here were new to me. Dahl says he read “seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories” in compiling the tales presented here, and he was “completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.” But the fourteen titles he chose are among the best ghost stories written.

From the opening story “W.S” in which a writer finds himself pursued by one of his characters to the final tale, “The Upper Berth,” involving the haunting of a cabin on board an ocean liner, these stories all will make you decidedly uncomfortable and likely to turn an extra light or two on around the house.

Dahl sought out stories that were neither violent nor graphic, but rather ones that seemed likely enough at the outset and then took a strange turn somewhere along the way. Empty rooms and loneliness seem to propel many of these tales. Often the protagonist finds him- or herself alone, perhaps at the holidays or in a new city. This alone-ness sets the stage for some supernatural encounter, though it is often only afterwards that the uncanny nature of things is revealed.

If you like M.R. James or Henry James for that matter you will find a lot to enjoy in these stories selected by a master of the macabre.

Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

Read Full Post »

dickensEach year about this time, I try to find a set of new horror titles to look at that are eerie without being gory. The sort of book to read when evening comes early and mist hangs on the fields. My favorite scary stories come from the late Victorian period or from those modern writers who carry on that tradition.

“One winter’s evening, about five o’clock, just as it began to grow dusk . . .”

What better start to a story for a blustery autumn evening?  I was delighted this year to come across a new collection of Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural. The quote above starts his tale “The Bagman’s Story.”

I love the way that Dickens conjures up characters. His novels are filled with memorable people, often with memorable names, and his short fiction displays the same skill. Here, we meet a range of fascinating people, from Tom Smart— who finds true love and a great pub with the help of a haunted Windsor chair— to Mr. Goodchild, who hears the confession of a ghostly murderer in “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.” Many of the stories here resonate with themes that Dickens explored more fully in his novels: the miser whose lust for money poisons his life, the man who despises others’ joy and cheer until supernatural beings show him the error of his ways, and the young woman bilked of an inheritance by an cruel guardian.

More atmospheric than horrific, these stories can still bring a chill, and cause you to look over your shoulder as you climb the stairs or peer out the back door into the dark night.

Check the WRL catalog for Supernatural Short Stories

Read Full Post »

SwampThingI have a fascination for Swamp Thing that started a few years ago when I picked up a copy of one of the volumes penned by Alan Moore (he of Watchmen fame). Swamp Thing isn’t your normal Superhero. He doesn’t fight supervillians, although he has had occasion to save the earth and humankind before. He’s a conflicted creature, no longer quite human but not fully removed from the person he once was. He is pulled between two worlds, caught between his human memories and the pull of The Green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. Swamp Thing generally keeps to his damp living space, communing with nature and trying to find a semblance of peace.

The character of Swamp Thing has been reinvented and restarted many times over the years, with admittedly varied success. When I saw that Scott Snyder was taking the helm for the new Swamp Thing series I was excited. Snyder is one of my favorite current graphic novel writers (see my review of American Vampire) and I was confident that the story would be done justice to in his hands. Rather than ignoring the past incarnations of Swamp Thing, Snyder was able to build upon the legend, keeping the past intact while carving out his own unique storyline. He is even able to pull in the character of Abigail Arcane who is typically the partner/wife of Swamp Thing and helps to ground him and keep him connected to his human past.

Swamp Thing has always been most easily classified as horror, although that seems unfair as it classifies him more by how others react to him than how he actually conducts himself. Snyder has always shown himself to be remarkably adept at this genre. He is able to build an atmosphere of eerie menace in even the most mundane scenarios but also doesn’t shy away from gore or shock. This is the first of two published volumes in the DC Comics New 52 Swamp Thing series. The third volume will be released in November.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads horror, especially graphic novels.

Search the library catalog for Swamp Thing

Read Full Post »

sleepTo tell the truth, no librarian should have favorite books.  There are too many out there to read, too many different circumstances under which to read them, too many ages at which to discover that a book you hated now speaks to you or one you loved falls flat.  Under theoretical laboratory conditions, though, I might have to admit that I do have favorites, and that several of them are by Stephen King.  The Stand. Salem’s Lot. Christine. The Green Mile. The Dead Zone. Night Shift.  And, of course, The Shining.  I still remember sitting by a pool in 95-degree weather and shivering as a snowstorm sealed me into the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family and the reanimated dead.

Now King has returned to continue Danny Torrance’s story in Doctor Sleep.  (And if you haven’t read The Shining, forget this review and go get that book. Seriously.)  Of course, time has passed and Danny, now Dan, is all grown up.  But the combined burdens of his childhood, his family’s history of drinking, and his dubious gift have left him a place no reader would have wanted to see the tow-headed little boy.

Dan is a drunk.  A drifter, a brawler, sleeping with strangers who promise another high, or in a culvert if he has to choose between the price of a bottle and a bed.  A full-blown alcoholic who hits his personal bottom early in the story, he spends the course of the novel running from his shame.

The thing is, Dan still has his shine, that ability to glimpse things that were or that are or that will be.  It helps him reach in and hold the essential part of other people, and gives him extraordinary empathy.  When he can hold down a job.  But that same empathy gives him haunting visions that he cannot evade.  This time, the shine guides him to a small town in New Hampshire, where he thinks he might be able to start again.  Through the good graces of another person with just a little bit of the shine, and with the help of a hard-ass AA sponsor, Dan Torrance quits drinking.  He also goes to work at the local hospice, where he and the resident cat comfort the dying and guide them to the threshold of whatever lies beyond.

But there are other special people out there in the world, and Dan becomes a sort of unwilling fulcrum between them.  On one side is Abra, a young teenaged girl who out-shines Dan like a lighthouse outshines a flashlight; on the other, the True Knot, a band of psychic vampires who live on the pain and fear of children.  Led by the horrific Rose the Hat (and like all subcultures, the Knot has insider names and public names), the Knot travels in a caravan of campers seeking out fresh victims.  During their time off the road, they lie up in a charming Colorado campsite with a plaque that designates it as the site of the now-destroyed Overlook Hotel.  When the True Knot detects Abra’s ability, they know that they could feed on her for decades, if they can seize and control her.  Dan Torrance must pit his lesser abilities and Abra’s immature skills against Rose’s blind greed and power to save the girl and destroy the Knot.  If he can survive the place of his own fears.

Like the best of King’s fiction, Doctor Sleep excels at framing the relationships between imperfect people drawn together to face an impossibly evil power.  Sometimes those relationships are deep bonds: parent and child, teacher and student.  Sometimes they are forged in hellish fires, as Dan discovers through his AA sponsors and supporters.  And sometimes they erupt from the unlikeliest of sources to create the possibility of redemption.  Maybe that’s the real reason I shouldn’t have favorite books: too many unlikely sources, too much need for redemption, too little time to find either.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Sleep

Read Full Post »

joeIf you’ve ever picked up a book by Mike Mignola, author of the Hellboy series, you will know what to expect: a Victorian gothic adventure set against crumbling ruins with elements of steampunk and the supernatural. This is the second book Mignola has co-authored with Christopher Golden. The first, Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, has also been released as a series of graphic novels that are definitely worth checking out. Both Joe Golem and Baltimore are billed as illustrated novels, which mean the images are less integral to the consumption of the story compared to graphic novels, but they enhance the atmosphere of the narrative.

In this alternative history, New York City is hit in 1925 by several cataclysmic earthquakes, flooding half of the city three stories deep. Wealthy residents who survived the tremors moved up to the higher part of town, called Uptown. The lower, waterlogged Downtown section is often referred to as the Drowning City. Those poorer residents who remain Downtown eke out a living as best they can, navigating the broken, fallen buildings and the canals created between them.

By necessity, residents of the Drowning City are self-reliant, and 14-year old Molly McHugh is certainly a product of her environment. A magician called Felix Orlov, who works under the stage name Orlov the Conjuror, employs her. Orlov is retired from the stage, but still accepts clients interested in his talents as a psychic medium. When a séance goes wrong, Orlov is abducted by strange human-like creatures wearing masks, leaving Molly terrified, but determined to free her friend.

Fleeing from one of the monsters, she runs into Joe Golem, an imposing man built like a boxer, with grey eyes and a stony countenance. Joe knows little of his past, but he and his partner, Simon Church, keep watch on the paranormal activity in the city and they do not like what they have been seeing lately. From here the story takes a decidedly Lovecraftian turn, and Molly has to figure out whom she can trust, and who can best help her free Orlov.

This novel is an enjoyable, quick read. Recommended for fantasy and horror readers, both adult and YA.

Check the WRL catalog for Joe Golem and the Drowning City.

Read Full Post »

Cover artSometimes it’s good to hit the reset button. Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire, but he carved the archetype: a creature of power, terror, and ruthlessness hidden under a veneer of charm. Vampires have been popular recently, both in fiction and movies, but the trend has been to smooth over their edges, making them suave, stylish, even glittery, in a way that doesn’t sit well with many fans of horror.

Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque decided to go back to basics. In Skinner Sweet they re-created the vampire, one who commands visceral fear, not existential angst, who is bloodthirsty, vicious, and brutal. And then they threw in a twist: their vampire would be uniquely American, born and bred in the Wild West. As such, he would not be like any of the vampires that had come before him. Unlike all the European vampires, Sweet is unaffected by exposure to the sun. As the character himself explains “Sometimes, when the blood hits someone new, from somewhere new, it makes something new. With a whole new bag of tricks.”

The first story begins in Nevada, during the construction of the Boulder Dam (now called the Hoover Dam). As the construction expands, so does the vice in nearby Las Vegas. Where there is vice and money, there is blood, and where there’s blood, there’s vampires. Sweet, living under the name Jim Smoke, is running a brothel called the Frontier. In life, Sweet was a murderer and a thief, with a knack for riling up pretty much anyone he interacts with. As a vampire, he’s even worse. When a man turns up drained of every drop of blood after dating one of Sweet’s girls, the law begins to take an interest. But do they have any idea who, or what, they are dealing with?

Pearl Jones, a vampire created by Sweet in Volume 1, is still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of her new life. Desperate to live as normally as possible, she shuns her vampire side, feeding on blood without killing. But she is forever tied to Sweet, and the people who want him dead have decided that she just might hold the key to getting rid of him for good. Pearl, along with her husband Henry, is also featured in a shorter second story in this volume. Although each of the stories has a conclusion, the reader is always somehow left feeling like none of the stories actually end. They are just pieces of a larger narrative that slowly builds with each vignette.

Snyder’s writing ratchets up the tension, and the angularity of Albuquerque’s drawings enhances the sharpness of the vampire’s bite. For the first volume, Snyder approached Stephen King with his idea for Skinner Sweet wanting a forward, but King was so enthused with the character he ended up guest writing the origin story himself, based on Snyder’s outline. If a stamp of approval from one of the biggest American horror writers wasn’t enough, American Vampire won the 2011 Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series. Recommended for fans of horror and westerns.

Check the WRL catalog for American Vampire.

Read Full Post »

injusticeSo a businessman and his son go into a downtown Miami hotel suite to meet with a potential client who might help boost their meager income. Instead, a man with whom they have a dispute steps out, shoots the father in the knee, drags the son up some stairs, then shoots him execution-style. The father escapes, gets out the door, and bangs on the door across the hall, leaving blood in the hall, but the import-export businessman in that room doesn’t hear a thing, including the shots that then kill the father. Neville Butler, who has been held hostage in the room since before the father and son arrived, is then released.

Following Butler’s call to the police, British businessman Krishna Maharaj is detained. After waiving his Miranda rights, he makes inconsistent statements to the investigators, who hold him long enough to discover that his fingerprints are in the hotel room, and Maharaj is arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the executions of Dwight and Duane Moo Young, former associates and now rivals for Maharaj’s Caribbean newspaper. The case goes to trial. Maharaj, a flamboyant millionaire, hires the lowest bidder, Mark Hendon, as his attorney. The trial proceeds in a swift and orderly manner, except that the presiding judge is replaced after three days of testimony. Based on fingerprint evidence, a ballistics expert’s identification of Maharaj’s gun, and Neville Butler’s testimony, Maharaj is given life in prison for Dwight’s murder, and the death sentence for Duane’s.

After several years, the case comes to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney specializing in capital cases. On his own, taking time away from his fledgling non-profit practice focusing on Louisiana death penalty cases, Smith begins reviewing the case, and this open-and-shut case turns out to have been far more complex than the trial transcript would indicate. His early investigation turns up boxes of evidence and interview materials that hadn’t been made available to the defense, prosecutors’ notes indicating that they instructed the detectives and their chief witness how to perjure themselves, and witnesses that prove that Maharaj wasn’t even in Miami at the time of the killings. Some of his basic rights—over and above their violation of his Miranda rights—were not explained to him or put into practice. Forensic evidence was questionable, but Maharaj’s trial attorney didn’t cross-examine, and even rested without calling a single witness. Confident that the reams of documentary evidence show that Maharaj did not receive a fair trial and that his counsel was (to put it mildly) incompetent, Smith heads into the appeals process.

But door after legal door is slammed in Maharaj’s face. The appeals courts won’t consider new evidence—it wasn’t presented in a timely manner and appellate courts don’t try the facts of the case. Each attempt to reopen the case takes months, if not years, to litigate, partially because a prosecutor won’t accept plentiful evidence that her colleagues convicted an innocent man. When he’s finally granted a new trial, Smith can’t introduce all the new evidence and Maharaj is again found guilty. But because the jury doesn’t prescribe the death penalty, Maharaj’s future opportunities for appeal are severely limited—capital cases usually get at least a cursory glance. Based on all the trials and appeals that go before, Maharaj’s last chance—a reprieve from Florida Governor Charlie Crist—is denied.

Unfortunately, as Smith details, Maharaj’s case is only one example of the miscarriage of justice that capital crimes nearly always involve. From personal experience and well-documented cases, Smith demonstrates that each individual misstep in the justice system that Maharaj experienced is echoed across the country, even in non-capital cases. Part of it is the culture, and he shows that from the patrol officer to the US Supreme Court, the fundamental conservatism of the law is geared towards convictions, not justice or even truth. The real poverty of this view is that convicting the innocent allows the guilty to go unpunished.

Smith’s writing is urgent, and his construction of the story maximizes both the drama and the documentation of his fundamental thesis. As he breaks the case down, the depth of the law enforcement and judicial errors becomes appallingly clear. The parallels he establishes between Maharaj’s case and convictions across the country point to the idea that the American justice system has reversed its supposed ideal. At the same time, his admiration for Maharaj (which is echoed by everyone from business associates to prison guards) as a man shines through. Even after being in prison since 1987—including 10 years on Death Row—Maharaj remains kind, gentle, and positive.

This is a timely book. States have begun to revisit their commitments to the death penalty after subsequent investigations and trials have freed other innocent people from Death Row. It is increasingly likely that people known to be innocent were executed anyway. If someone heeds Clive Stafford Smith’s plea to come forward and exonerate Krishna Maharaj, it would be a miracle; if others use his case to strengthen their calls for an end to the death penalty, it would be a huge step to ending the gaping flaws in our (in)justice system.

Check the WRL catalog for The Injustice System

Read Full Post »

The first thing you have to do before reading this book is accept its hard-to-believe premise. Set in the present day, NASA scientists want to boost interest in the fading space program by sending three teenagers into space. If you can get past the fact that NASA scientists would never think this was a good idea, much less that it actually comes to pass, then you’ll enjoy this book. What makes the plot a bit easier to swallow is that NASA actually has a hidden agenda. They need an excuse to send another team of astronauts to the moon, and the media circus surrounding the worldwide teen astronaut contest will mask the true purpose of the mission. NASA needs to find out if what Armstrong and Aldrin encountered in 1969 is still up there.

The three teens, Midori from Japan, Mia from Norway, and Antoine from France are chosen, trained, and sent into space along with a crew of five astronauts. The majority of the plot takes place after the team has reached the moon, however one significant event occurs to each of the three teens before takeoff. They each have an experience that is unexplained and unsettling and which almost convinces them not to go through with the mission. Someone (or something) doesn’t want humans back on the moon, and from the moment the team lands things begin to go horribly wrong. Events occur at a breakneck pace and the suspense builds to a stunning conclusion.

172 Hours on the Moon is an excellent sci-fi horror story/psychological thriller and one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. It continued to occupy my thoughts for days after I finished reading. The atmosphere is intense, drawing from the isolation of being alone on the moon accompanied by only a few others with extremely limited resources. And then the enemy reveals itself.

Check the WRL catalog for 172 Hours on the Moon.

Read Full Post »

The books featured so far in this week’s posts may make you feel a bit uneasy, but it is a sort of comfortable scariness that they offer. Today’s title is quite the opposite. Shirley Jackson is a master of the macabre, and her short story “The Lottery” is still disturbing many years after I read it (probably in 8th or 9th grade). Just thinking about the story sends shivers up my spine and leaves me feeling slightly queasy.

What makes Jackson’s work disturbing, but also compelling, is her ability to move swiftly and easily from a pleasant scene of domestic or community bliss to outright horror. Her work explores the dark heart that Jackson seems to feel lies at the center of our most cherished institutions—family, community, love. These are frightening stories, especially as they usually are peopled by folks not too different from you and me. The horror of the tales is sometimes leavened by a dark strand of humor, but not too much. These are fascinatingly grim explorations of the human psyche.

While “The Lottery” is the story that I find most chilling in this collection, and the one that created a stir when it was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, there are other stories equally unsettling. “The Demon Lover,” “The Witch,” and “Trial by Combat” all will leave you wondering what is really going on in the lives of the characters.

These are not stories I go back to often, but sometimes, when you are in the mood to be discomfited, Shirley Jackson is just the writer to do it.

Check the WRL catalog for The Lottery and Other Stories

Read Full Post »

Steampunk is a growing sub-genre of science fiction that combines a fascination with technology and scientific innovation with, usually, a late 19th-century setting.  As science fiction generally does, Steampunk explores the “what ifs”  of innovations and their effects on society. In Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, seventeen contemporary authors offer stories that share a fascination with scientific exploration, occult books, lonesome graves, and tormented spirits. All of these stories have the feel and tone of the wonderfully creepy ghost tales of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

As in any collection of stories, each reader will find his or her own favorites. I found “Music, when soft voices die” by Peter S. Beagle particularly chilling. Beagle tells the tale of a medical student whose experiments in electric generation go terribly awry, leaving him haunted by a voice of infinite sorrow. As in all of Beagle’s writing, the characters leap off the page and into your heart and mind.

Another fascinating tale is “The curious case of the moondawn daffodils murder” by Garth Nix, a superb writer of eerie fiction. Here, a second cousin of Sherlock Holmes arrives at a police station to help solve a murder, attended by his “keeper.” Sir Magnus Holmes (an echo perhaps of M. R. James’s Count Magnus?) is currently an inmate of an insane asylum, though allowed out if accompanied. The story involves dark spells, enchanted objects, and a mysterious society bent on evil. The ending here is dark and almost Lovecraft-ian.

Two stories, “Why I was hanged” and “The jade woman of the luminous star” demonstrate the dangers of becoming involved in the spirit world, as both protagonists end up accused of murder (which may or may not be the case). Other tales involve grave-robbing in Egypt with dire results, revenants haunting the scene of their transgressions, and an ill-thought-out attempt at creating an army of golems.  All of the stories create a strong feeling of unease without ever being explicitly gory or visceral. The horror here is psychological. Of particular interest is a short essay by the author after each story that gives its origins and sheds some light on the tale.

M. R. James and LeFanu would be delighted with this collection.

Check the WRL catalog for Ghosts by Gaslight

Read Full Post »

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A guy walks into a bar…

Well I promise you haven’t heard this one. The guy in question goes by the name of Pepper, which would also be a good description for his personality. Pepper’s a hothead and his trip to a Queens bar to warn his girlfriend’s ex-husband to leave her alone turns into a brawl that includes three off-duty cops. Not wanting to take the time it would require to put Pepper through the booking process, and also wanting to teach him a lesson, the three take him instead to a mental health facility, where he’s committed for a 72-hour surveillance.

That’s the starting point for LaValle’s tale. Pepper’s lack of friends or family, his temper, his mishandling of initial contacts with some of the other patients, his run-ins with the overworked staff, and the numbing effects of powerful meds soon stretch that three-day stay into months. To make matters worse, a patient who is mysteriously protected by the staff in a separate wing that nobody is allowed to enter makes nighttime trips through the ceiling tiles, occasionally murdering other residents. They call him the Devil, and most think him a  monster while a few think he’s just a very sick man. Pepper becomes allied in a plot to stop him with the facility’s longest-held resident, a deceptively tough African-American teenage girl, and a man who obsessively uses the phones to try to get help from outside.

LaValle has a fluid, unusual style and a real gift for original characters. I found it easy to get immersed in his story, a kind of blend of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a monster novel like Stephen King’s It. The book is great summer reading fun, but it also has a serious side with indictments of bureaucracy and the mental health system, insightful glimpses into human nature, and a thorough exploration of what it means to be mentally ill. Pepper is an antihero whose screwups you’ll lament, whose ultimate victory you’ll always desire. To top it off the book is often flat-out funny. In short, there’s something here for almost any kind of reader, making The Devil in Silver an easy book to recommend.

Check the WRL catalog for The Devil in Silver.


Read Full Post »

I started reading the title story in Dan Chaon’s dark and mesmerizing collection, Stay Awake, before going to sleep. I thought it was an interesting little story about a deformed baby with two heads. The parents had decided not to name each head, but only the “host” one, the one that might survive the inevitable and extremely risky surgery. The surgery would bring an end to whatever consciousness was in the “parasitic” head, which was capable of blinking and smiling and probably not much else, and may in fact kill Rosalie, the head that was more alert. I was tired and, frankly, looking forward to finishing the story and putting the book aside so I could sleep. When I got to the end of the story, and, with a jolt, understood what happened, I could not sleep. As befitted the title, I lay there awake, contemplating consciousness, thought, emotion, self, life — what exactly is this stuff that goes on inside a person’s brain?

Probably my favorite story is “Slowly We Open Our Eyes.” Two brothers are driving cross-country in the semi truck one of the brothers drives for a living. They think they have hit a deer, though the drugs and peppermint schnapps they’ve consumed may have twisted their perceptions.  In “I Wake Up,” an older sister — at least she says she’s his older sister — contacts her younger brother after being separated for years when their mother drowns two of their other siblings.  In “St. Dismas,” a young man kidnaps the son of his meth-addicted girlfriend and takes him on a cross-country trip, breaking and entering into people’s houses. What is he to do with the boy? He hadn’t thought the whole thing through. When he gets to his own isolated boyhood home in the country, ripe with memories, he makes a decision.  In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” a young man tries to get through life after his parents leave him a suicide note on the front door of the house in which he thought they were a happy family. The living space in the house narrows bit by bit as memories and mementos he can’t face force him to shut himself into a smaller and smaller space.  In the story most akin to a ghost story — “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” — three sisters contemplate how their lives would be different if their Daddy had succeeded in killing them twenty years earlier.

The stories in this collection could be called horror stories, though there are no monsters, no aliens, no scary chases. There are, perhaps, some ghosts. The real terror comes from losing control of your mind, of not quite grasping what is going on around you. The horror comes from the inside:  confused states stemming from grief, separation, guilt. These twelve stories are mostly inner dialogues — somber, sometimes philosophical narrations by family members who have been through hell at the hands of someone who should have loved them. They start out gently, with little hints dropped throughout the narration that something just isn’t quite right and, by the end of the story, the reader realizes how utterly horrible the protagonist’s circumstances have been. Chaon powerfully describes the warped senses and circumstances of his characters, subtly weaving horror into what at first appear to be commonplace situations.

Check the WRL catalog for Stay Awake

Read Full Post »

This is why I love historical fantasy: after a certain point, the lives of the Romantic Poets actually make more sense if you assume the influence of vampirical ghouls.

Set amidst the churches and graveyards of Victorian London, this dark fantasy throws together a cast of Pre-Raphaelite poets, painters, and muses with menacing Lovecraftian other-dimensional monsters.

Some of the characters are historical: the poet Christina Rossetti and her brother Gabriel; Gabriel’s laudanum-addled wife Lizzie Siddal (probably best known as the model for Millais’s drowned Ophelia); and septuagenarian adventurer Edward Trelawny, one-time crony of Byron and Shelley. Some of the characters are original such as a hapless veterinary doctor being dragged about London by a reformed prostitute who’s just informed him that they had a daughter together who is in mortal danger, so run!

And some of the characters are spirits in approximately-human form, monstrously old and homicidally jealous. Once you have drawn the attention of these, you can expect to remain single because, in order to keep you to themselves, they will destroy the lives of your kin, your spouse, and your children. On the other hand, while you have their malevolent attention, you will write truly inspired, ageless romantic verse (which, for some poets, is an end that justifies any means).

And these are the stakes: a child, the Rossetti family, and the fate of London itself, menaced by monsters from a dark and violent past.

It’s the details of this supernatural adventure that make it click, including the sights, sounds, and smells of London. I love the way Powers weaves together fantastical reasons for historical events; it helps to have characters like Gabriel Rossetti, who did, in fact, bury his poetry with his lamented wife but later exhume her coffin to get the poems back. With seances, automatic writing, consultations with ghosts on the Thames, heart-stopping encounters in and under cemeteries, and jokes about bad poets, Powers relieves moments of delicious creepiness with glints of dry and deadpan humor.

For fans of old-fashioned, eerie horror and ghouls-by-gaslight adventure: if you enjoyed Martha Wells’s The Death of the Necromancer or Sarah Monette’s The Bone Key, this should be right up your alley.

Check the WRL catalog for Hide Me Among the Graves.


Read Full Post »

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Cover“And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.”

Pity the Ancient Mariner for he must tell his story over and over to different people or he suffers a “woful agony”. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous ballad poem the ancient Mariner is an old man who grabs a reluctant wedding guest and tells him the compelling narrative of being the only survivor of an ill-fated sailing ship journey when the rest of the crew died of thirst.

For lovers of horror and gothic themes this poem is truly creepy. It even has zombies.
“They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is like Shakespeare and The Bible in that bits of them keep popping up in everyday language, whether you realise where they come from or not. Do you have slimy things with legs in your kitchen? Then they crawled straight out of the Ancient Mariner. Have you ever had an albatross around your neck? That’s what happened to the poem’s narrator as a punishment for shooting the albatross and bringing a curse down on the entire ship. Was there ever water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink? That was the fate of the Ancient Mariner’s shipmates.

It is a grand adventure that some people feel was the start of the Romantic Movement in literature when it was first published in 1789. It talks about life, death, faith, friendship, and the supernatural. Its story, themes, and images have been used time and time again in other works of literature, art, and movies, in everything from Douglas Adam’s comic novel The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul to the heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s Powerslave.

If you have never read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner all the way through, try it and you may be surprised at how many phrases you recognise. If you had read it as a long-ago school assignment, revisit it and wait for the shivers down your spine.

The library owns several copies. In addition to several anthologies, we have annotated versions with copious background notes. My personal favorite is the stand-alone edition illustrated by Ed Young with haunting monochromatic charcoal and color pastel spreads. It is housed in the children’s section and older children can enjoy its creepiness but adults will also find that the illustrations add depth to the story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,465 other followers

%d bloggers like this: