Black Rabbit Hall – Who are the Ghosts that Haunt this Story?

Once upon a post, I declared Shirley Jackson’s novel “We have Always Lived in the Castle” to be a haunted house story. Somewhere in the middle of this piece I even went so far as to title a section heading as “What Kind of Ghosts ‘Have Always Lived in the Castle’”.  This threw some readers off. They were ready to point out that “there were no ghosts in the story”. But then they read the stuff underneath the heading and it clicked. “Ah,” they said, “Now I see what you mean!”

See kids, ghosts do not always appear as things in white sheets. Nor do they always show up as glowing, semi-transparent figures.  Sometimes they are not seen at all.  Sometimes a ghost is not representative of one single personality. Sometimes there are ghosts not of a person at all, such as the ghost of a fading memory trying to resurface again, or the ghost of a feeling, long forgotten until that very moment when it suddenly haunts your heart with a confusing mixture of specificity and vagueness, familiar and foreign at the same time.     

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this. There are many ghosts lurking around the pages of Eve Chase’s Gothic novel Black Rabbit Hall, but you must widen your perspective or you’ll miss them. The summers of 1968/1969 are ghosts, ghosts of timeless seasons long gone. They haunt one Lorna in the twenty teen years, these summers that came to pass and faded before she was even born.  Lorna experiences this haunting when she visits Black Rabbit Hall, searching for a venue for her upcoming wedding.  She has vague memories of this hall as a child, but what are these memories made of? She’s not sure, and that heightens her attraction to this place all the more. She becomes obsessed with the house.  This obsession is seen as toxic to her fiancée, sister and father.

It’s a mysterious, gargantuan house with many floors and too many rooms to count. It is old and rundown, but it has its hidden charms.  The grandfather clock named Big Bertie that has never been able to tell time is one. A stone turret that leads to what would be the bridal suite is another.  Outside the hall exists terrains of cliffs and fields, beaches and tidal waves, and forests and trees. In all this Lorna will get lost. She will lose herself. She can find herself again but things will never be the same. She needs to turn to the ghosts to help her find herself. The ghosts take the form of hidden inscriptions on large rocks within the woods. They emerge within the tales told to her by the inhabitants of Black Rabbit Hall, incomplete tales she must piece together like a puzzle in order to make things whole. One such inhabitant is the servant Dill. She was there when it all happened. (When what happened?) Then there’s Mrs. Caroline Alton, the elderly lady that owns the hall and is cared for by a Dill. She’s not quite the charmer, but there’s something about her. Ghosts cling to her like moths to a light. These ghosts will connect Lorna to past events and tragedies. They will be the source of fulfilling revelations and usher in a new future.

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BlackRabbitHall2

Let’s go back. Back to the summers of 1968, 1969.  Black Rabbit Hall was a summer retreat for the Alton family.  Away from the hustle and bustle of London, to escape to the countryside, off they go. Hugo and his wife Nancy, and their four children; teenage twins Toby and Amber, and the younger children Kitty and Barney (Wait, what about Caroline Alton?) Summers here seem timeless. Routines give in to the whim of the weather. Big Bertie dutifully holds back on time.

But ya know, ghosts are born in timelessness. They forever exist in timelessness; coming from the past, predicting the future, invading the present and blurring time’s boundaries.  This time period is seen through the viewpoint of Amber. Something will happen that will seal tragedy within this timelessness. Amber, like Lorna many years later, like her family in the present moment, must rediscover herself and help her brothers and sisters come to terms of the new life that is upon them. 

To quote from the book:

you realize life is not at all linear but circular, that dying is as hard as being born, that it all returns to the point you think you left long, long, ago

This book was one of several items on a list of haunted house books. This list exists somewhere within the realms of the Google search engine. This is how I discovered Black Rabbit Hall.  Since it is featured on this list, I felt it my duty to justify its inclusion. That is why I spent much of this review defining and perhaps redefining the concept of ghosts. But for those who crave a more literal expression of such phantoms, you just might get it. Maybe.  Is the mysterious figure that marches out of the fields at night, leading an army of rabbit shadows, a ghost? Maybe.  

As for Black Rabbit Hall being a haunted house – aren’t houses of this kind often portrayed as conscious entities? It sure seems as if it’s the house itself that protests a certain ceremony that takes place in its confines back in the 1960s. The house and its surrounding environment whip up a quite the storm, perhaps as an indication that such a ceremony, though at the right place, is in the wrong time, celebrated by the wrong people. If anything, the house is the collective spirit of many things, many events and people.  To quote again from the book:

For all its oddness and tragedy, she knows she will miss Black Rabbit Hall , as you do miss places that make you rewrite your own map, if only slightly, places that take a bit of you away, give you something of their spirit in return

The house, in its own way, has the ability to communicate, to call to the ones the belong and shun the ones that don’t.

I recommend this book and I’m sure you will enjoy this haunted house story. If you look for ghosts in the right places, you will find them.

I Am the Pretty Little Thing That Lives in the House – A Review

I-Am-Pretty-Thing-Lives-House Ghost

I am the ugly fat thing that sits in his basement and writes about I Am the Pretty Little Thing That Lives in the House, a 2016 haunted house film from director Osgood Perkins. Actually, I have lost a lot of weight, and come to think of it, I am handsome.  Perhaps my appearance is debatable. As is the quality of this film. Very much so.

The average rating on IMDB comes to 4.6 out of 10 stars. Oh dear. On rottentomatoes  the average rating among critics is 57%. The average among the audience is only 24%. Wow, that is low, man. Reeeeal low. And yet, critics such as Brian Tallerico of rogerebert.com are generous with praise. Released in limited theaters back in 2016, it found its home on Netflix a year later. If I remember correctly, the average rating among Netflix viewers is 3 out of 5 stars.

I’m guessing those who pan it do so for its slow pace, lack of substance, and its arguably pretentious style. Those who like it, perhaps, admire its atmosphere, its creepy tone and the simple visuals of the rooms, stairs, and hallways that create a haunting mood more effectively than a camera obsessed ghost. Though the film does have a ghost, it’s not camera obsessed, but nor is it camera shy. It shows up in the right places, sometimes in the background, sometimes it’s more obvious.

I seem to have devoted more attention to what is good about the film in the previous paragraph than what is not so good. Does this mean I like the movie? Sure I do. But it’s not without its faults.

It’s a simple story, perhaps even a cliché’. A young hospice nurse is to be the live-in caretaker of a retired horror authoress, who is mostly bedridden and suffers from dementia. Iris Blum consistently mistakes Nurse Lily Saylor for “Poly”, who turns out to be the protagonist of Iris’s best-selling novel “The Lady in the Walls.”  Meanwhile, strange things happen to Lily during her stay. Some phantom force rips a phone out of her hands. She hallucinates and sees her arms decay. She hears a thump, thump, thump inside the walls. Due to Iris’s mental state, Lily cannot have a coherent conversation with her, so she cannot turn to her for explanations. All she seems to be able to talk about is “Poly.”  Searching for answers, Lily begins to read “The Lady in the Walls.”

What was it they taught us back in grade school about journalism, the 5 or 6 questions a reporter must ask to get to the meat of the story? I believe it was “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “how.”  Well, this film fails at answering many of these questions. I know, this isn’t a report for the six o’clock news, this is a film, a work of art for Christ’s sake! Still, I believe much of the film’s criticism stems from its unapologetic ambiguity. Quite often, Lily narrates and speaks directly to us, the viewers. But it’s not always her that speaks. Sometimes it’s Poly. Thanks to the subtitles (I watch most films with subtitles) I knew who was speaking. Otherwise, I would have been at a loss.  This is a problem with the “who”.  “What” is this film about?  To go into a deeper examination than what I have already explained is tricky, if not impossible. It’s one of those films that, when it’s all over, might cause someone to say, “What the hell did I just watch?”  See, a problem with the “what”.

The “where” is achieved. A house in New England. This is “where” all the action (and inaction) takes place. There is nothing to be desired outside its premises.  “When” does this film take place?  The film doesn’t explicitly give a time period for the present-day action. But there is a wall phone with a long cord, a rabbit-ears television and a tape deck with cassettes, so one can assume it’s the 80s? Maybe? Then again, the story alternates time periods now and then, sometimes in confusing ways.  Why and how is the house haunted? A vague answer comes from Lily herself as she narrates to us at the beginning of the film:

On ghosts in general

They have stayed to look back for a glimpse of the very last moments of their lives.

 

On ghosts haunting a house

There is nothing that chains them to the places where their bodies have fallen. They are free to go, but still they confine themselves, held in place by their looking. For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing. And left all alone, this is how they rot.

That’s about the best answer the film will give. If it’s not satisfactory then the appetite for further knowledge will just have to go unfed.

But, did you notice how awesome those quotes from the movie are?  This is a film that wants to be a novel. Or a poem. There are many more poetically haunting slices of narration. Perhaps the most quoted is the first narrated line of the film:

I have heard myself say that a house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts that have stayed behind.

Beautiful, right?  With the right visuals properly synced to such beautifully haunting words comes a moving experience.  This synchronization happens many times. “And left all alone, this is how they rot”. We see the rot in the mold on the walls, in the mysterious black puncture wounds on Lily’s skin.  “Their prison is their never seeing”  Enter the blindfolded woman, the original doomed occupant of the house.

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The film moves in dreamlike sequences, nonlinear at times, with metaphors painted over the loose edges. I might be so bold to state that I might have liked this film better if it doubled down on all this. Forget any attempts at a straight story, just move with the words and use the camera to paint the images the words tell us to see.  I am willing to bet the naysayers would only scream a louder “nay” at this suggestion. And who am I to suggest such a thing but a slightly overweight guy in the bowels of his house.  If I had to grade this film on a letter scale, allowing for +’s and –‘s, I’d give it a solid B.  B from the basement.

Review of The Cliffhouse Haunting – A Thorne and Cross novel

Hey you

Me?

Yeah you! Remember that one “American Horror Story” season, with that lodge by the lake and that creepy blue lady ghost?

Let me think…Oh yeah! She was creepy. Man, Jessica Lange impressed again, this time as Constance Leigh Welling, the self-published “authoress.”  Dragging around her assistant by his nose, the poor young Luke Donovan, played so well by Evan Peters. How she thought she was so talented, so young, so beautiful, so popular! That old narcissistic bitch! She really got her comeuppance! Thank God the daughter of the owners, Sara Baxter-Bellamy played by Taissa Farmiga, became Luke’s love interest, making Constance jealous and eventually giving him the encouragement to leave that bitch.

Uh..yeah.

Oh, and I won’t forget Dr. Roger Siechert, played by Dylan McDermott. That hilarious German-folk enthusiast, who not only took up killing people, but also liked to stick that severed finger up is ass! He called it the “chocolate wander” and it was also “The Happy Wander”, like the German song, “Valeri, Valera! Valeri , Valer- Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA HA “

Yeah..sure.

How about that Hammerhead serial killer, named because he killed his victims with the hammer! Man, we never discovered who he was until the end. Who played him?

Beats me. Hey listen-

And through it all – the blue lady ghost! When the bathrooms in the lodge rooms flood, there were her soggy footprints in the carpeting. And even when there was no flooding, the mirrors of the bathrooms would suddenly fill up with moisture, and when that happened you just knew the blue lady was coming! You just knew it!  Thanks for the memories! I’m going to log in to Netflix and watch it again!

You won’t find it. I’ve been trying to stop you before you got to carried away, but I was too late.

What do you mean? And why did they take it down already?

I mean, it never aired. It wasn’t an American Horror Story season at all. This was a book by Thorne and Cross called “The Cliffhouse Haunting

Then why did you tell me it was?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I know! Afterall, I’m the idiot that wrote up that goofy exchange up there! A little more than halfway through the book, I had the thought that the Constance character resembles the appearance and actions of the kinds of characters Jessica Lange plays on American Horror story. As for the happy wandering doctor, the assistant and lodge daughter? The AHS actors I’ve chosen for the parts “sort of” fit, but come on, I had a narrative-thing going on, so I had to make them fit. There are other interesting and kooky characters in this book as well, but I couldn’t make them all fit into roles that are to be played by other notable AHS actors, cramming them it like puzzle pieces in the wrong spots (my Dad used to do this when working a jigsaw puzzle. It would piss my Mom off). AHS stories always have multiple plots. So does The Cliffhouse Haunting! AHS often has too many plot threads going on for its own good. The Cliffhouse Haunting has just the right amount. So perhaps its too good of a story for that famous cable show?

Thorne and Cross have been promoting audio versions of their books lately.  I came across their promotion for the audiobook copy of The Cliffhouse Haunting. Alas, it didn’t coax me to seek it out. It’s just that I’ve never done the audiobook thing. Hell, I have had Bluetooth for my last two cars and I never set it up. I guess for me, if it’s not music, then it doesn’t need to be transmitted to me electronically. BUT, the ad DID get me to purchase a copy to read on my Kindle app. And read it I did. So now, The Cliffhouse Haunting will join the other books by this haunting and hilarious duo that have made my page or reviews. These include The Ghosts of Ravencrest (the story has continued on, I have to catch up!), Five Nights at a Haunted Cabin, and book written by on half of the duo, Tamara Thorne, called Hunted. I do believe that The Cliffhouse Haunting is the first book by this duo.

The Cliffhouse Haunting is more of an entertaining book than it is scary. Yes, there’s the Blue Lady Ghost, and she’s creepy, but the word “entertaining” encompasses a larger umbrella of descriptors. “Scary” fits underneath its domain, as does “gory”, and “weird”. And “funny”, for which you can also remove the “ny” to make it a “fun” book, and that it is.

The authors take a divergent set of characters and flesh them out in a “fun” ghost story.  There’s the typical small-town sheriff; capable, modest, down-to earth. The lodge proprietors two married men with a college-aged daughter that helps her dads run the place. I’ve already mentioned Constance, the Happy Wandering Doc, and Hammerhead; but there is the mortician that is dominated by his overbearing wife. There is the lady who can’t control her obnoxious kids. Oh, I can’t forget the person that likes to vandalize buildings with penis-graffiti art.  Thorne and  Cross love to give their characters sexual idiosyncrasies. It just wouldn’t be a Thorne and Cross book without the characters that seek out different ways to satisfy themselves. Every once in a while, one of these characters will have a criminally deranged perversion, but damn it, these are horror novels! So, be afraid and even disgusted at those characters who kill and maim in the goal of fantasy fulfillment, but laugh at the ones that who have harmless albeit different hobbies. “The Chocolate Wander” – laugh, this is funny, it wanders where “chocolate” gathers! Well, I should say, laugh until someone gets hurt, because sometimes what starts as fun and weird ends rather badly.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I like this book. I guess that’s the point of a review, isn’t it, to state whether you like it or not? I could go into more detail about the Blue Lady and the hauntings how she possesses people, and  I could delve into the legends from the past and how the circumstances surrounding serial killings from one-hundred years ago are happening again in an eerily similar manner. Like I said, I COULD go into all that, but nah, read about that for yourself when you buy the book and read it OR listen to it. Take a journey through its pages. Happy Wandering!  

Review of Dark House of Dreams

Gods and goddesses and demons, oh wow! Arachnids and familiars and oracles, oh dear! Earthquakes and famine and war, oh shit! Shiny men – skinless women – revived dead, say what?

And ghosts. So many ghosts. Hanging out on the roads, in the alleys, in your darkest dreams. Oh, and they hang out in houses too. This last point provides me with the necessary loop hole to include Joe Pawlowski’s novel Dark House of Dreams in my reviews of haunted house literature. But for the most part, it belongs in an entirely different genre.

The genre of the novel as per Amazon.com is dark fantasy.  Scrolling through best sellers that fall into this category, I came across title words such as “summoner,” “underworld,” “dragon,” and “retribution.” Hopefully these words conjure the kinds of themes this genre deals with. I am largely unfamiliar with this genre. I do not normally review books that fall into this category since my genre consists of stories pertaining to ghosts and haunted houses. A reader that is solely attracted to Gothic literature might not be interested in a book of this sort. Likewise, a reader exclusively dedicated to modern haunted house fiction might not be smitten with the stuff of this novel either. Fans looking for similarities to The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining or The Amityville Horror will find nothing of the sort in Dark House of Dreams.

The plot is rather complex and difficult to describe. Dark House of Dreams is one book in a series; the Ring Gargery Series. Much of the book devotes itself to fleshing out a story arc that will reach its curve in future novels. However, this isn’t the first of the series. The Watchful Dead: A Tale of Old Hastur (A Ring Gargery Thriller) predates this novel and is described as “a nightmare blend of gothic traditionalism, magical realism and dark fantasy.”  Perhaps this novel might align more closely to haunted house fiction theme? I should have read this first. Oh well.

Ring Gargery is the protagonist, but he’s by no means the only character to lend readers a perspective. Having spent his childhood isolated within the walls of his house, he comes of age outside the walls, in a world of slaves and nobles where travel is done by boat or horseback, villages are many miles apart and great turmoil is afoot.

An earthquake caused by a demon has ravaged a neighboring community. A giant spider, a god, is burrowing under the town and rising every so often to claim a victim. All this while Ring ekes out a living as a stableman. His pastimes include drinking bowls of wine with friends at pubs and engaging in romantic rendezvous with women. He is also searching for his mother, who mysteriously “went lost”.  Meanwhile, he has these prophetic dreams that place him in a dark house where he is tasked with exploring different “rooms” each time he drifts off to sleep.  When crossing the threshold, he enters not  a room but a landscape of some sort.

What is my favorite slice of turmoil in this story? Why that would be the ghosts, of course! A sorceress has broken down the gates of the underworld and the ghosts have been freed to walk the ….earth? (I’m not even sure this story takes place on earth). The community is forced to live side-by-side with these phantoms. They are mostly a nuisance, but sometimes they can be dangerous enough to be maddening or even deadly.  For mysterious reasons, Ring’s childhood house is overrun with ghosts. They are drawn to it the way flying insects are attracted to light.

Then there is more. There’s politics; councilmen argue and point fingers and do underhanded things. There are murders and kidnappings. There is death by public execution. And then there is more. I can go on and on.

How did I stumble upon this book and why am I reviewing it?  I found an advertisement for this book in one of the many Facebook groups I belong to that encourage authors to promote their books. The title caught my eye. When a haunted house guy such as myself sees the words “dark house”, he reads on. When he sees the word “ghosts” in the synopsis, he considers it for purchase. If the price is right (it was), he goes in for the buy. And that’s what I did. Though there are only a few instances of ghostly goings-on’s that frighten the occupants of a house or castle, dog gone it, I just wanted to say something about Dark House of Dreams.  It took work to finish this book. So many unusual character names, so many unique names for various families, tribes or religious sects (thank you Joe Pawlowski for the list of characters with descriptions at the book’s end!).  I wanted there to be something to show for my efforts. Hence this article; it’s my participation trophy.

Did I like it? In a nutshell, yes. I wouldn’t have finished it if I didn’t. I have no criticisms.  I can’t say that I’m in love with it though. It’s just a matter of taste. It is remarkably well written. And to think of the work involved in creating the world of this novel, set in a mysterious place. Every word spoken, every object used, every place the reader is taken to props up this world and fits neatly together to forge this fantastic setting.  Yes, it took work to comprehend this setting, but much less I am sure than it took to create it. So no, it’s not really a haunted house tale. And it probably does not belong within my catalog of reviews. But here it is anyway. Sue me if you must.

Hausu (House) – A Crazy Film for Crazy Times

Hausu5My first post of the new year! We all know that 2020 was a whirlwind of chaos on so many fronts.  Then Dec 31 came and at midnight we all said, “Happy New Year!” and like magic, we reset our lives, wiped the slate clean and WHOOPIE – peace and sanity came knocking at our doors once again. NOT! The chaos continues.

I wanted to watch a movie that was fit for these times. By this I mean, I wanted to see a chaotic yet fun film. I know, 2020 was not fun. It was deadly for many. In film we can escape reality.  We can watch carnage erupt on our screens knowing that it’s all fantasy. I found a film that was capable of providing such an escape while reflecting the wackiness of recent times and its offbeat volatility.  It’s horror gone looney. Terror turned topsy-turvy. And best yet, it doesn’t take this “horror” and “terror” seriously.  Oh there is bloodshed and decapitations, and yet it’s fun, fun, fun. And funny! All this in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Japanese film Hausu. The English title is House.

Think about the past year. The Pandemic. Shelter-in-place. Lockdowns and the shutting down of public events. Some relief. Covid cases drop. Things reopen. Summer time! Uh oh, cases spiking again. Shutdowns. 

Then there was the social unrest. Protests. Riots.  Things ease. Ahh. Oh wait, here comes some more!  An election year in the United States. Much passion and anger on all sides. 2021 comes along and here comes more social unrest.

My point to all this is that these eleven months have been unpredictable to say the least. Up then down. Up. Down. Turn Around (Please don’t let me touch the ground, tonight I think I’ll walk alone, I’ll find my soul as I go home – sorry, got off track quoting New Order lyrics. But hey, that was “offbeat” of me, like the year.)  Well, Hausu is like that. A scene with a sweet, corny melody of young girls walking, followed by scenes of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed by comedic scenes of a goofball guy doing goofy things, followed by a human-eating piano.  Is that unpredictable enough for ya? Okay, those scenes don’t occur in the order I lay out, but I challenge you to watch the film only once and have a grasp of the order of things. You can’t. It’s not that kind of film.

All you really need to know about the plot is this: a girl invites several of her friends to her aunt’s house for summer vacation. The house is haunted and the aunt is creepy. After this, who cares? Just enjoy the amusement park ride filled with demonic cats, floating heads, severed fingers playing the piano, trippy 1970s-style animation, fountains of blood, dancing skeletons, and psychedelic montages.

It’s hard to describe the film. The Criterion Collection calls it “an episode of Scooby-Doo directed by Mario Bava.”  That’s good. Maybe throw in some Monty Python? Quentin Tarantino (way before his time, but…)? Ahh, here’s a way to relate this to Tarantino. Roger Ebert describes Tarantino in his review of Pulp Fiction as follows:

…he’s in love with every shot- intoxicated with the very act of making a movie.

…Here’s a director who’s been let loose inside the toy store, and wants to play all night.

I imagine Nobuhiko Obayashi used all kinds of film toys to create this film; he must have had a gigantic toy box. If he wasn’t intoxicated with making the movie, certainly his viewers were after watching it. I certainly was. Every technique available in 1977 seems to have found its way into the film. Sometimes these techniques hit all at once, and that can be unnerving to the eyes and ears. Oh well, these sensory devices attached to our bodies do recover and when they do, they will be ready for more!

If Hausu was a rock band, maybe it would be some kind of combination of Rush and King Crimson. Or have you ever heard of Mr. Bungle? Yeah that’s it, Hausu is Mr. Bungle!

I first heard of the existence of this film about a year and a half ago, during calmer, saner times. I’m glad I waited to see it, for insane times welcomes insane tastes. Is that a saying? I don’t know. But the film is “fun insanity.”  And THAT is what is needed. Good ol’ silly insanity over the crap that reality spewed on us over these past many months. Fuck reality. Bring on the surreal. Oh, and this film goes great with a big ol’ fat blunt. 

Classics: The Old Nurse’s Story -A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilling Night

The season of the ghost story is upon us again. Cold nights. Early darkness. So bundle up. Wrap a blanket around your body. Sip some hot tea. Add a little Brandy to it.  Light a fire.  Silence your surroundings, but if there happens to be a strong wind outside your window, open your ears to its calling howl.

Let us now call out to the past then listen to its reply. Forgotten traditions awaken and the spirits of the Christmas season are summonsed when the telling begins. Arriving with frightful countenances formed by a willing imagination, they exist right outside our current norms. But they are there. Can’t you hear them knocking at your door? Let them in. It’s cold outside and your warmth is comfy buy lonely.  Open the book. Turn the page. Or listen to a voice and refine the audio settings.  Partake in the gift of the Victorian Christmas ghost story.  Welcome this tradition and let it haunt you.

It’s been a while. A whole year has passed since my last edition of “Classics: A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilling Night.”  Thus, a refresher of the theme of this series is appropriate: 

It is my intention not so much to review these stories as it is to walk through them much like a fearful visitor might walk through a haunted house. Hopefully I can capture the atmosphere without giving too much away. But while on the walk, there will be time for analysis here and there and room for stray thoughts that creep about like watchful specters

(Two other “Chilling” Articles: The Beckoning Fair One and Horror: A True Tale)

EGaskellThe story featured in this article is meant to be read or listened to during the Christmas season. Elizabeth Gaskell’s  “The Old Nurse’s Story” was first published in 1852 in the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’s periodical Household Words. It features a haunted house. Now, did I ever have anything to say about a “Christmas Haunted House?”  I did. I said something like this:

I believe that winter’s effect on our imaginations is enhanced when its harmful elements are still near us. Imagine reading a scary book or hearing a ghost story while the dark night can be seen just outside the window, or the howling winds are to be heard underneath the crackle of the fire. Nature’s brutal elements are right there on the other side of the house’s walls.  – From Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses

During ghost story-telling sessions on chilly nights, we are “warmly vulnerable.”  We celebrate with colorful lights and gaudy gift-wrapping and perhaps a gentle buzz, all the while “the weather outside is frightful”. We invite the doom in when we share the ghost story.  The ghost story is all the more pertinent to this situation when the plot involves eerie outside elements that want in and succeed in their attempts to do so. Outside the house. Then in. Such a house, my friends, represents to me a prototypical Christmas haunted house.

Furnivall Manor is such a house. Most of the events of “The Old Nurse’s Story” take place there. Old Nurse Hesther is the storyteller. To her current charges, presumably young, she relays this tale. She has been with the family for a long time and knows the details concerning the upbringing of their very own mother, for Hesther had raised her too! She knows of the extended family branches, the uncles and cousins and great aunts, and knows of the manor to which their mother, little Miss Rosamond, was sent to live after she was orphaned. For Nurse Hesther had accompanied the poor, grieving girl to her new home at the grand Furnivall Manor, home to aging distant relatives and servants.

Miss Furnival, lady of the manor, not quite eighty, sits most of her days in the company of a companion, the old Mrs. Stark, her lifelong maid.  They lived many years. Within the long trail of life behind you lurks the past, never fleeting, always encroaching, reminding one of past transgressions.

The house has the grandiose trappings found in many tales of haunted house lore; countless rooms, long hallways connecting the sections, several fireplaces, a gallery of portraits, a bronze chandelier, and a grand organ that was unfortunately broken on the inside.  Would it surprise you, dear reader, if I was to tell you that its internal damage prevented not the music from being played by some phantom musician? And does it cause you wonder that the east wing of the manor is sealed off from the rest of the Hall, to enter is forbidden? Outside on the grounds, along the fells, is where Miss Rosamond loves to play. Will you be shocked to know that danger lurks out there?  The danger wants in.

“Oh let her in! Please!” Miss Rosamond cries on several occasions.  The “danger” is a “she”, and where “she” enchants the young Rosamond she frightens the old Miss Furnival. Hesther too shares her Mistress’s concern, for the strange little girl from the outside has, on one occasion, unintentionally led Miss Rosamond to a dreary place where a strange lady put her into a troubling, feverish, almost frozen sleep. But Hesther could never the-old-nurses-story-snowfear the girl in the same was as Miss Furnival feared her.  To fear her in such a way, one would have to have been there, at the beginning, and taken part in the evil doings that once doomed a mother and her child to the cold, winter elements without shelter. And Miss Furnival took part!

An old nurse knows many things. She knows things your own mother would never tell you. Maybe “Miss” Rosamond had forgotten such things and repressed all the misfortune of her childhood. But there is always someone around who recalls it all. Someone who has heard the family stories and has learned through word of mouth the dreadful acts that would reenact upon the manor and cause a haunting. All this, she would confide to her charges, the children of “Miss” Rosamond. How they would react to such stories, the reader will never know.

The Old Nurse’s Story is available for free in several print formats. Open your search engine and seek and you shall find. Or, listen to it as it is narrated by a woman that goes by the name Dancing Dove, and watch the accompanying video, where an artist brings the house and its landscape to life, drawing into being as the story unfolds. I have attached the YouTube video for your listening and viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

Review of This House is Haunted

“Well ain’t that the Dickens?”

My answer – Uh, I dunno. This was an expression from the days of yore. Did it have anything to do with the famous English author Charles Dickens? Again I must say, “Uh, I dunno.”  But the book that is up for review, John Boyle’s This House is Haunted, is said to be written in “Dickensian prose”. Google Books and other sources make this claim.

The novel takes place during Dickensian times, that is for certain.  It is London circa 1867. Two of the main characters trudge out in the cold to attend a reading by the great author himself. So obviously, it is the author’s conscious attempt to establish a connection to this renowned author. Alas, I am not all that familiar with the writing style of Mr. Dickens, certainly not in a way that I can read a few lines of some latter author’s work and then declare, “AHA! I see the ghost of Charles haunting this prose!” No such ghost beckons me because I haven’t yet tasted the life of his characters and settings. No life, no ghosts. 

But I tell you this! (Interruptous Buttinski: No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn?) (Me: No, that is NOT what I was going to follow with. That is a line of Jim Morrison poetry that admittedly does follow “I tell you this”, but please, no reward will forgive YOU for wasting precious space on this page). I am familiar with the nineteenth century classic ghost story, and Google books draws this comparison to Boyle’s piece as well. I have delved into the works of Victorian era ghost story writers such as M.R James, Henry James and Sheridan Le Fanu and have found much to love about them. So I find myself quite pleased when modern writers such as Boyle recreate the style and settings in their tales of haunted houses of yore! Only a few reviews ago, I shared my experience reading Sarah Walter’s 2009 haunted house novel The Little Stranger, which takes place in England in the earlier part in of the twentieth century (Great book!) and I relished Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, which takes place, uh, well, no specific time period is given, but they travel via horse and carriage, so, well, you know! Anyway, what is noteworthy is that these three authors capture not only the settings of these long-ago times but also the storytelling style. More so than these here modern days, the classic style thrills and chills with descriptive atmosphere that practically creates the ghosts that haunt the novel , confounds by purposely omitting a one-sided explanation for any ghostly phenomenon, beguiles with the stuff of psychological horror that we can all relate to, and elucidates with metaphorical allegories.

Now, I’m not sure Boyle’s This House is Haunted fulfills all of the characteristics of the classical style that I have mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph, but it is a page-turner that makes me feel right at home in another time, place and style. The story flows smoothly. It is a simple story. Eliza Caine, is a young, unfortunate woman who leaves her home in London after the death of her father, her only close companion, and takes on a job as a governess for a young girl and boy in a house called Gaudlin Hall  in Norfolk. She learns too late that she is the fifth person to occupy that position in a relatively short time period. Three former governesses perished and one fled from Gaudlin Hall in fear for her life. Oh my, what ever is going on? Well, like the title of the book says, the house is haunted.

Instead of Charles Dickens, I am reminded of Henry James and his novel The Turn of the Screw. In that story, a woman takes on responsibility for the care of young Miles and Flora, two precocious children who appear to be haunted by the ghosts of a man and a woman, respectively. Guess what? The same thing happens here. It seems as if a female apparition is haunting young Isabella and a male ghost communicates with young Eustance.  Whatever is going on here could be deadly for poor Eliza. I must say there isn’t a whole lot of mystery in terms of the identity of these spirits, nor is there much doubt that there truly is a ghostly phenomenon. But at the book’s end, a couple of surprising things happen that cause the reader to reevaluate the nature of the spirits specifically and the overall haunting in general.

What I found most intriguing was Eliza Caine herself. Her demeanor, her backstory, her self-deprecating style that contradicts her strength of character and soft optimism. A well-written character I must say.

John Boyle may best be known for his novel The Boy in Striped Pajamas, later made into a movie. I have not read the book nor seen the movie. Maybe I should, now that I have read one of his “other” works as opposed to his “major” one.  Ya gotta do the major after the minor, isn’t that what they say? Or maybe I just made that quip up? Guess what – I did. Well it sounds cool, doesn’t it?  Anyway, This House is Haunted – an above average haunted house novel. Give it a try!

Poltergeist – It’s Heeeeeeere! (Finally!)

 

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About a week ago, I posted a review that had all the ingredients of the kind of haunted house story that I love. It was a book that I could savor, and savor it I did, reading little bits at a time every night. Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger was one of the best reincarnations of the Gothic style in modern times.  Hundreds Hall was an old manor.  Belonging to the noble Ayers family, it was passed down from generation to generation.  Memories of times past gathered like cobwebs and hung in the corners if its rooms. The happenings that created the most tragic of memories are the ones that doomed the house and gave it a character of its own. Oh how I love when that happens; when a house in a story is described so well that it is almost portrayed as a character. The source of the haunting is mysterious; it is not only embedded into the walls; it is also enmeshed in the character of the family unit itself. It’s also a product of the unique time and place in history.  All these factors are inseparable when arriving at the haunting’s source.

The story that I am reviewing now is nothing at all like what I have just described. There is nothing Gothic about it. There is no mansion that has lingered throughout history, the dwelling is brand spanking new. It is not far off in the countryside, it’s right smack dab in the middle of suburbia with many houses of similar design surrounding it.  The house itself possesses no unique charm, haunting or otherwise. Remove the ghosts and it’s just a simple boring modern structure. And I could not savor this story night after night, for it’s a movie for Christsake! Best I could do was watch it multiple times, and I have done that, over the course of thirty-eight years. My last viewing was a couple of weeks ago.  Watched in on Netflix. Finally, I decided, finally it is time to write about this. This review is long overdue.  A haunted house story that is the total opposite of what I like. And I loved every minute of it!  Let’s talk about Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film Poltergeist.


 

My Experience With Poltergeist. Oh, and the Plot and Stuff

All of that contrast in the above section. I did that for a reason, not just to haphazardly populate the page with random words for the sake of adding length to the review. My reviews are too long anyway. But this is going to be another long one, so strap yourself in because there is so much I want to say. Like with The Little Stranger, there were so many tangled thoughts I had about this film, and I needed time to untangle them. And I waited five long years! That’s how long I have been writing about haunted houses of film and literature.

This film is a trailblazer. The very fact that it strays from Gothic norms and incorporates all kinds of modern themes separates itself from those haunted house films that came before it. Of course, the special effects are a big part of this, but its modern flair goes beyond that even. I’m referring to the setting, style, story and props.

For the record, I first saw this film in the theater in 1982. I believe my mom took me to see it. I was eleven-years-old. Was I scared out of my wits? Did I shit in my little boy Underoos?  No and no. Even back then, haunted house films intrigued me more than they scared me. Yes, it’s a scary film but for me, ghosts of the page and screen don’t unsettle me. Rather they fill me with a warm kind of creepy-fuzziness. I’m weird that way.

Do I really have to go into the plot?  I mean, isn’t the story by now ingrained into everyone’s head, as familiar as Star Wars, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, and Little Red Riding Hood?

Fine, here’s a brief plot:

Sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch

Here’s the story, of a lovely family

Mom and Dad raising three very lovely broods

The youngest had hair of gold, like no other

It’s time to change our moods.

 

It’s the story of Carol Anne

The youngest and creepiest of the three

The ghosts took her to another dimension

Her voice heard on TV

 

So they called up all these special people

They would return her to mom and her spouse

But then these corpses came up from under

That’s when they knew to flee the haunted house

The haunted house, the haunted house, that’s when they knew to flee

The haunted house!  (Da da da da da da da!)

 

Got it? Family. Lovey-dovey. TV static. Ghosts. Ghostly arm coming through TV Screen. Ghosts attack. Tree almost eats boy. Girl sucked into closet. Disappears. Her voice is heard through the TV. Paranormal specialists come. The children’s room is a whirlwind of poltergeist activity. Toys and shit flying all around the room. Specialists stumped. Call in the “specialest” specialist of all. A Little Person. A Lady. She calms the room down. Discovers a pathway that leads to the realm of the light (you know, where the soul departs into after death). Carol Anne is in there, next to the light. Mother goes in after her. Rescues her. Yay! The End. Not! House is still haunted. Corpses are unearthed and start sprouting all over the place. As it turns out, the house was built over a cemetery. Dad works in the real-estate biz. The whole complex was built by Dad’s company. Dad’s boss had lied about removing the bodies before beginning development. Dad yells at boss. Moral of the story? Don’t ever be afraid to tell off your boss. Oh, and get the fuck out of the haunted house when you have finally had enough. And that’s what are family finally does. Now – The End.

Director and Producer

The talented Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. Hooper was no stranger to horror.  Before Poltergeist he helmed films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fun House, two great films (Many will say Fun House sucked, but they are wrong.)  Hooper passed away in 2017. May he rest in peace.

But I want to focus on Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer of Poltergeist, and one of several of the film’s writers. I’m guessing you’ve heard of him.  He certainly has a knack for resurrecting film themes of the past and clothing them in modernity, doesn’t he? Raiders of the Lost Ark is such an example. This film was made to replicate the serial films of the 1930’s and 40’s which were shown in several short segments. Always ending with a cliffhanger, the viewer had to return to the theater the following week to see how their hero escaped. Well “Raiders” was cliffhanger after cliffhanger throughout the whole movie.  How about Jurassic Park? Let’s bring those dinosaurs into the modern age. Sure, dinosaurs made their impact on films in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 60s, but now we have the “science” for doing so, involving advancements in DNA technology.

And then there’s Poltergeist, Spielberg’s contribution to the haunted house genre. He has established a modern foundation in which to erect a more contemporary abode of horrors.  In what ways has he done this?  Let’s examine these ways.

The Evolution of The Haunted House.

Think of the classic haunted house tale, the earliest days of haunted house literature. Most likely, the house belongs to a well-to-do family. Different generations are born and raised in the same house.  The house is old. It has its own history. Many scandals have taken place underneath its roof. If the walls could talk! (Perhaps in some cases, they can!) Examples of such haunted house stories include The Fall of the House of Usher or The House of Seven Gables.

Years later, with the creation of the middle class, the affairs of the noble class and their legacies were just not on the forefront of the minds of the masses. People could not so easily relate to the concept of serial successions of generations living within the same gargantuan hall. Thus, the manors that once “housed” families that are long gone were now portrayed as abandoned structures. But their doors were always open to visitors who wanted to spend a few nights in a rumored haunted house. Think of books and films such as The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House/Hell House, and The House on Haunted Hill.

Soon, books and films about haunted houses began to reflect the challenges of the middle-class homeowner. Gary Hendrix in his book Paperbacks from Hell – The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction has a chapter dedicated to haunted house novels, a chapter that he names Real Estate Nightmares.  The focus of haunted house stories in these works is not on a group of visitors staying at some unknown and unfamiliar mansion. Nor is the emphasis on an ancient family dwelling in an equally ancient mansion. Rather, these works tell the story of an average middle-class family that moves into a large (but not gargantuan) house, only to realize that it is haunted. Hendrix argues that the surge in popularity of such books in the 70’s and 80s is no accident.  From my review of this book, I share this paragraph:

In true form, Hendrix ties the haunted house paperback phenomenon to the economic issues of the 1970s. High interest rates, inflation, the dawning of the suburbs, the cash-strapped and their search for the best home that they could afford. According to him, these are the reasons “the haunted-house novel reached critical mass.

And I share this from the same review:

he singles our Burnt Offerings as being a first when it comes to the economics of home purchases and the whole buyer beware motif.  I…had never thought about this. “Hell” and “Hill” House were gargantuan Gothic mansions that had visiting characters investigating the spooky happenings within. The characters of Burnt Offerings leased and lived in the deadly place. They invested their money in it. Therefore, they were trapped.

Burnt Offerings (Robert Marasco) is one of my favorite haunted house novels! Other novels that fit into this category are The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons) and The Amityville Horror (Jay Anson)Poltergeist also fits into this is grouping. True, it is a film, not a novel (unless one was made based on the movie), but it deals with that average home-owner struggling to find peace in their new house of horrors. But I argue that Poltergeist takes this concept even further. Let’s explore this.

With the exception of The House Next Door, the haunted houses in the books/films that I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph are still in rather isolated places. I guess Amityville is technically a suburb, but it still seems to be somewhat remote. And, these houses are rather large, perhaps of a classical architectural design. (Colonial?) The house is Poltergeist is of the cookie-cutter type of design and is surrounded by hundreds of PoltergeistHOuseother houses that look very similar.  It’s right smack dab in the middle of modern-suburbia! There is nothing special about it. It’s the house of a suburban family of the early 80s’. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first (or at least one of the first) time/s that such a place finds its way into haunted house lore.

There is more. If you’ve read the post immediately preceding this one (Review of Sarah Walter’s “The Little Stranger.”), then you know about the concept that I call “Agents of the Scare.”  Here are some examples from that article:

“In all haunted houses, there are objects and structural components of a house that are downright creepy. Maybe it’s the swaying chandelier. Or the specter that traipses down the curving stairwell, adding to the unpleasantness of each stair tread.  How about the wall hanging portrait with the moving eyes? That locked room? Te revolving bookcase? The piano that plays by itself?

I go on to point out that the book features rather unique agents of scare, particular to very old manors. A call tube that links a voice to different floors, a servant’s bell. The author makes use of these things in very creepy ways. Poltergeist too has unique agents of the scare. Uniquely modern! There is a creepy clown doll. Yeah yeah, not so unique. But, when the poltergeist takes over the children’s bedroom and toys are spinning around in a whirlwind of paranormal frenzy, which toy pauses for the camera in mid-air? An old-fashioned doll? Not! It’s the Incredible Hulk Mego action figure riding a horse!

The best and most effect “agent of the scare” is the television. Not so modern anymore, I get it. But had there ever been a more creepier television set before? I say no.  And the way it signed off at the end of the night. Wow! See kids, (those under, say 40 maybe) once upon a time, broadcasting shut down at around midnight.  Before this happened, channels displayed various pictures, maybe nature scenes, maybe urban landmarks, all with the National Anthem playing in the background. A second or two after that last note the noise of static came while the picture on the screen turned into a jumble of flickering black and white. Like in the movie, many families fell asleep at their TVs before this nightly event occurred. Looking back, the finality of the event, and the way a clear image turned to scribbles, well, all this was kind of creepy. But it took a movie, Poltergeist, to really bring this creepy effect home. Ghosts began communicating to little Carol Anne through the white noise of static. Then when Carol Anne disappears in the house and her voice turns up inside the white noise…wow!  What a creative way to take a uniquely contemporary situation and turn it into a prop of a modern-day suburban haunted house. (Hey! Don’t laugh, this was modern back in 1982!)

There are other props and storylines that I believe were used in the film with a conscious effort to separate it from haunted house films in the past. The kids’ room was decorated with posters and toys that were currently trending in pop culture. Star Wars paraphernalia is all over the place.  At one point in the film, next-door neighbors realize that their TV remotes inadvertently work on each other’s televisions. Change the channel in House A and you wind up changing the channel in House B. Finally, the father of the family is seen reading the book Reagan – the Man, The President! Can’t get anymore modern than that! (Hey! Again, I mean “modern” for that particular time.) This locks the event of the films securely in the 1980s!

Oh yeah, there are the Spielberg special effects at work. Phantoms of light parade across the screen. So much in the way of light and flashes! So innovative for the time. I do believe this was at least one of the first times such state-of-the art effects were used in a haunted house film. It still holds up today in my opinion.

Is it my imagination that note horror movies in the 80’s were more colorful and flamboyant than those of the 60s and 70s? Perhaps even a bit more comedic? Poltergeist certainly was more colorful and flamboyant.  I don’t know about the comedic part. Anyway from the ancient manor to a cookie-cutter suburban unit, haunted houses have come a long way, baby!

 A House Destroyed – Different Interpretations of Such an Event when Contrasting a Gothic House to a Modern House.

Poltergeist

Ooops! I gave away a spoiler. In the end, the Poltergeist house is destroyed. The destruction of the haunted house at the story’s end has been a common way to close a haunted house tale. It has happened in The Fall of the House of Usher. It has happened in The Shining (the book at least). Hell, it’s happened in The Castle of Otranto, which is credited as the first Gothic novel ever!  I argue the significance of the destruction of the Poltergeist house differs vastly from its predecessors. I’ll explain.

Often in my reviews, I state how much I love the concept of a haunted house that either has its own conscience or at least stands for something larger than its structure. Such a haunted house, I often say, “is more than the sum of its ghosts.”  The Poltergeist house is not, I repeat, NOT such a house. Remove the ghosts that might temporarily haunt it and the house just goes on with its boring old self. To get technical, it’s not the house that draws in the ghosts or poltergeists that haunt the family in this film. It’s the fact that the house was built over a graveyard and the ghosts seek out a living person to attach themselves to in order to stay behind here on earth instead of going into the light. (They attach themselves to little Carol Anne. In the sequels, the supernatural forces follow the family to new places.)  So at the film’s end, when the house implodes (I guess that’s what happens to it), the supernatural beings are in effect saying, “Get the fuck out of our way, house!” The house itself means nothing to them.

In the other works, when the house is destroyed, a whole lot more dies with it. Maybe it’s a family legacy, or a kingdom, or an age. It’s an entity itself that departs from the earth when the walls go crumbling down, or when the whole structure goes KAPLOOOOIE and blows up.

Poltergeist – A Cursed Film?

Oh geez, do I really want to go here? Well I already did so I guess I will continue. Some people say the film is cursed due to the off-screen tragedies that followed in the wake of the film.  Actress Dominique Dunne played the older sister. Unfortunately, she was murdered by an abusive boyfriend in the same year. And poor Heather O’Rourke, the little girl actress that played Carol Anne – she died of bowel obstruction in 1987. Several other cast members that were in the Poltergeist sequels met with untimely deaths as well.  See this link for more info.

Ah but I don’t believe in curses. Just a lot of coincidental tragedy. But the film is noted for this so I thought I would mention it. And so I did. Next –

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.

Um, I really don’t have a “next”. This is the end of the article. Although the film does not fit my criteria for a what makes a haunted house great, it is still a great haunted house film. The stuff of modernity was used in all the right ways. Poltergeist is a groundbreaking achievement!

 

 

A Review of The Little Stranger – The Novel

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Some reviews are easier to write than others.  There are those stories that inspire the briefest of descriptions and the simplest of impressions. These aren’t bad stories necessarily; they can be quite good. But after the reading or viewing (novel or book), everything I want to say falls neatly in place. And there might not be much to say other than things like “very suspenseful” or “just an all-around fun bit of horror.”  Such stories don’t require layers of analysis. Nor will they transport me to wider worlds that inspire endless contemplation.  Then there are books like Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger.  After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn. These thoughts and curiosities I had, well, they were all jumbled up, and I had to start another book while I allowed some time for these ideas to settle and come together in their own due time.

A story that provokes simple impressions, I have stated, can be very good but it can also be very poor. This “either/or” explanation doesn’t work so well with stories that inspire a complex set of thoughts. Such complexity hardly unfolds as the result of a poorly written story.  The opposite is true. To get to the point – The Little Stranger is an excellent book. Superb! Bravo!

The Little Stranger has all the ingredients I love in a haunted house tale. Its “house” is more than “the sum of its ghosts”, meaning, its mystery is innate and not the result of a phantom that goes “boo”.  The house, Hundreds Hall, has a personality all its own. This is a story that falls under the genre of “Gothic”, and so once again, I found myself climbing that tree of this mammoth genre and exploring its various branches. Very willingly I did this. With excitement and curiosity.  I found myself comparing this story to other great literary haunted house novels but never suspecting it of concept plagiarism. Putting aside ghosts and haunted houses, the story that takes place outside these elements is engaging and speaks to matters of the heart.  I came to know the characters of the story quite well. I enjoyed visiting the Ayers family in their run-down manor and taking in all their nuances and eccentricities, their madness if I may be so bold.  And I have Dr. Faraday to thank.  Through his eyes the first-person narrative unfolds.  There is a love story in here as well. A sad love story built on longing and yearning that puts to mind that painful old adage “you can’t always get what you want.” (Thank you, Rolling Stones,!)  Because his viewpoint is “skewed” (biased) , his account of the house itself and the events that take place within its walls add to the “Skewiness” (I made this up – that state of being “skewed”) of an already “Skewed” (twisted) place and situation. Finally, I love the unique “agents of scare” that are built into the house. These would be what are otherwise neutral structural components, except that when they are manipulated by mysterious forces, they become quite creepy.

There. I gathered together all these Sarah Walter’s inspired complexities from my head and condensed and simplified them into one paragraph. My work here is done. Not!  Silly you for believing that. For you see, now I have to explain in more detail what the hell I was getting at in the paragraph above. So here comes the meat of this review!

Plot in Brief (Some spoilers)

The story takes place in the United Kingdom. It begins in 1919. As previously mentioned, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of Dr. Faraday, the family physician for the Ayers family. As a child from a humble background, the young Faraday marveled over the impressive display that was Hundreds Hall. He greatly admired the family that owned and ran it as well. Who didn’t? The Ayers were highly respected members of the noble class and they shared bits of their greatness via the feats they gave to celebrate Empire Day. The Colonel and his wife parade about with their six-year-old daughter Susan and receive grade admiration from the crowds, which are partly made up of folks from the “lesser” classes. Most of the people are not allowed in the grand Hall but young Faraday is lucky.  His mother was once a servant for the Ayers and using her connections to the household staff, she is able to grant her young boy son entrance to the Hall. And he is impressed with what he sees.

Shortly thereafter, little Susan dies, triggering change. The Ayers cease to throw Empire Day fetes. The Colonel and his wife have two more children after her death (Caroline and then Roderick). Later the Colonel dies. Things are never the same.

Fast forward thirty-years later, post-World War 2 Britain, and Faraday is now a country doctor and the family physician for the remaining Ayers. He is saddened at the state of the hall; rundown and in great disrepair, the landscape is unmaintained.  Still he admires the Hall and covets the family unit itself; he wants in.  The family has lost much of their social standing. Roderick, wounded with a limp during his service in the war, struggles with the finances. Caroline is somewhat of a recluse, more so is her mother.  And there is a hint of madness among the family.

In attempt to regain social graces, the Ayers throw a small party for other well-to-do families. It doesn’t go well. The family dog bites the nine(?)-year-old daughter of one of the guests. It’s normally a passive dog. Was the dog possessed by something? A spirit perhaps?  Roderick thinks so. According to him, he has been experiencing strange happenings in his bedroom. His mirror moves on its own accord. Fire erupts in his room, source unknown. He goes mad and is locked away.

Meanwhile Dr. Faraday falls in love with Caroline. She mildly returns this love but is quite ambivalent about this.  The servants are witnesses to what could be supernatural activity. They believe the house is not only haunted but evil. Mother and daughter fall prey to the strangeness of the house. Faraday tries to reassure them.  But its as if the house and its family have some kind of figurative disease for which the doctor cannot cure, to his frustration and great sorrow.

Is all this the work of the ghost of little Susan who dies as a child so long ago? Oh what is going on?

Similarities to other classic works

To begins this section, I quote from Wikipedia’s article on The Little Stranger:

 A mix of influences is evident to reviewers: Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.

I will address this claim, author by author.

Henry James – Turn of the Screw

With the exception of The Jolly Corner, the only work  I read from Henry James is The Turn of the Screw. But Turn of the Screw is a fine example of an inspirational source, so I’ll use that piece for comparison.

In many “spooky episodes” of our favorite television stories, a Scooby-Doo-type premise plays out – a trickster was behind the haunting all the time. There is always that person that suspects such from the very beginning. “There has to be a logical explanation,” the character will say. Well, I’m going to reverse this scenario. In both Turn of the Screw and The Little Stranger, a supernatural explanation is offered early on in the story. But we the readers know that there is something more going on to account for the bizarre events that we have encountered across the pages.  In the James novella, it is surmised that the ghosts of two deceased adulterers, a former governess and a man-servant, are haunting the children, a young brother and sister who live at Bly Manor.  But overall, the story hints that the haunting is rising up from some far deeper source, something that is buried deep within the dark tunnels of the psyche of the children’s current governess.  Likewise, Walter’s novel offers up a supernatural explanation to account for the ghostly-going-ons: the ghost of Susan, the girl that died so young, is haunting Hundred’s Hall.

In both stories, the authors give us a possible supernatural explanation.

James – former adulterous servants, man and woman, dead, ghosts corrupting the two innocent children, boy and girl. But overall the story offers a psychological explanation that may put to rest and claims of supernatural activity.

Walters – the ghost of a  little girl, sister, Susan, is haunting the place.  But it might be that something else is affecting the brother/sister siblings. The source of the scares might not have anything to do with the supernatural.  The “ghost” might just be a “collective hallucination” that plagues a family stricken with sorrow and grief. Or maybe it’s the “times” (“these days” vs. “those days”) that is the ghost?  This will be explained in further detail later in the article. (In the “Go-Go Gothic Section!” Oh boy!)

Also of note – both stories feature a brother and sister as lead characters that fall victim to a haunting that occurs in their own home.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

Both stories treat the houses in each tale (Hill House and Hundred’s Hall) as conscious entities. The houses in question are either troubled, diseased, or downright evil.  In addition, both stories offer a theory that a character is unintentionally projecting negative energy upon the house, and this is what is causing the disturbances. In Jackson’s story The Haunting of Hill House it is Eleanor Lance. In Walter’s story it is Roderick. Or if not him, someone else, but who?

Wilkie Collins – ????

Duh I dunno. I never read anything by him. I should change this. (This was the easiest section to write! Hey, I only said I would address these claims, and address I did. I just forgot to fill the envelope with a letter.)

Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher

Ah, my favorite and perhaps the tale I find most similar to The Little Stranger. I’ve loved The Fall of the House of Usher since I was a kid. I didn’t need that Wikipedia list to let me know that this was a major source of inspiration, for Poe’s ghost kept calling out to me as I progressed through the book.

Both stories are told from the outsider’s perspective. Each is narrated in the first person. Both narrators are visitors/guests of the family that live in the houses that are at the center of the stories. Both outsiders (The Little Stranger – Dr. Faraway/The Fall of the House of Usher – Unnamed Narrator) bear witness to the fall of great families. They watch in horror as the ones they love succumb to madness and grief. Both try and do what they can to ease the suffering of the families but in the end their efforts are futile. They feel helpless, wishing there was something they could do. It doesn’t help that they are caught up in a situation where there understanding is limited. You can’t fight a disease when you don’t even know what it is.

Also, both stories deal with an adult tortured brother and sister that are heirs to the family’s house and legacy. Likewise, they are heirs to a curse.

Similar Yet Unique

Although The Little Stranger’s influences can be found in the aforementioned literary works, it stands on its own. It is not a carbon copy; the houses in these stories are not of the cookie-cutter design. Rather, let’s think if these houses (and the stories surrounding them) coming together to form a neighborhood. Hundreds’ Hall belongs in a neighborhood that boasts Hill House, Bly Manor, etc. One should be proud to be welcomed in such a community.

Go-Go Gothic

Here I go for the umpteenth time wandering on the trails of that behemoth forest that is Gothic Literature, picking at and extracting from only some of its sprawling branches, stealing clues to bring to the next clearing where light will shine upon them and illuminate me on the story that I am currently holding in my heart. I’ve made such journeys for several articles here at this blog, and again I must emphasize that in no way am I trying to encapsulate in one article everything you needed to know about Gothic Literature but were afraid to ask. I can only explore the elements of which I am familiar and examine them within the context of the story that I am reviewing.  So, with that said, hello Gothic elements, meet The Little Stranger!

The collision of the past and the present; this is a common theme in Gothic Literature. The most obvious example in terms of ghostliness is, well, the ghost itself, or the ethereal remains of someone who died long ago making its presence known in current times. But think also of the ruins of an old castle. Long ago the castle served a mighty purpose, but not so anymore and yet part of its structure remains. What use is it to us now? Does it have something to share with us? Is it relaying a message to us modern folk about the past? Is it hiding a secret within its stone walls?  To ponder such questions is to open oneself up to the conflicts that often arise within Gothic Literature.

Gothic stories often take place in times of social change. There’s a new society on the horizon, a new social structure is replacing the old. Those that cling to the old ways have trouble navigating in the new terrain. Outmoded institutions still exist but the forces of change erode their foundations. Every passing moment they shed life-supporting stones.

After I read the book The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, I explored some of the characteristics of American Southern Gothic, for that is the genre that best describes this novel by Siddons, at least according to critics and reviewers.  What I learned parallels with what is going on here in The Little Stranger, even though the story contexts are separated by time, circumstance, and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Though taking place in the early 1970’s, The House Next Door deals with themes that were spawned by the American Southern Gothic movement that came into being following the events of the Civil War. The Institution of slavery had come to an end. The institutionalized social order crumbled. Two quotes from Wikipedia on Southern Gothic  explain some the significance:

continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy

 

Similar to the elements of the Gothic castle, Southern Gothic gives us the decay of the plantation in the post-Civil War South

A different kind of social change was occurring in the United Kingdom post World War 2, the time and place of the events that occur in The Little Stranger. The Wikipedia article TheLittleStrangerWaltersfor The Little Stranger  publishes a quote from author Sarah Walters on her intentions for writing the book that explains some of this social change (quote is originally from the Toronto Star):

I didn’t set out to write a haunted house novel. I wanted to write about what happened to class in that post-war setting. It was a time of turmoil in exciting ways. Working class people had come out of the war with higher expectations. They had voted in the Labour government. They want change…. So it was a culture in a state of change. But obviously for some people it was a change for the worse.

Also of note is this, from the same article:

Reviewers note that the themes in The Little Stranger are alternately reflections of evil and struggle related to upper class hierarchy misconfiguration in post war Britain. Waters stated that she did not set out to write a ghost story, but began her writing with an exploration of the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and how the fading gentry dealt with losing their legacies

Now, remember at the beginning of the article when I wrote “After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn.” (See, the words of the past are colliding with these present words – oooooo! How Gothic!) Upon learning of the existence of such a social change in Great Britain, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to delve into these significant changes and report on all there was to know about the dwindling of a system that “involved the hereditary transmission of occupation, social status and political influence”  (Quote is from Wikipedia: Social Class in the United Kingdom.)

But alas, this is a major feat, a job for a social historian.  Suffice it to say, the noble class lost much of their nobility. Fortunes were lost. Let’s look at the Ayers’ household, the family at the forefront of The Little Stranger. They represent what Walters called the “fading gentry”. They did not benefit from the change. At the center of this story stands Hundreds Hall. Once a grand estate now a rundown shell of its former self. It is no accident that the beginning of the story features a memory of the grand ol’ days of Hundreds Hall and the celebration of Empire Day. Good times for the Ayers.  But the British Empire would crumble as would the legacy of the Ayers.  The remaining family longs for the past but it is gone.  If only the “grand ol’ days” went marching on, status quo preserved, the family’s standing financially and socially secured.  Hmm, now is there a symbol of any sort in this book for “better days” or, more appropriately, “what could have been?”  Yes. Little Susan, who died so young. Her sister and brother never met her.

Susan Ayers – The Ghost of What You Cannot Have. (SPOILERS)

TheLittleStranger3Try to capture a ghost. You can’t. Forget about Ghostbusters and 13 Ghosts and other movies that feature sci-fi technology that allows hunters to suck these poor phantoms into some kind of device. If you reach out to touch a specter your hand passes right through it. Throughout the book, the characters go mad when they confront what could be the ghost of the little girl – the little stranger. I submit that she represents a past that could have been but was not meant to be. That is what is so maddening about her. They can sense this more perfect past; they feel it in their hearts, even see it with their own eyes. It’s there haunting them. But they can’t have it. She is a tease. Susan would be the continuation of the finer way, the preservation of the status quo. She died. And so will the Ayers. Prematurely. One by one. Death of the body or death of the mind. All because they tried to hold on to that which is designed to pass through their fingers. Then there’s Dr. Faraday. He doesn’t see the ghost but he holds onto a misguided love for a family, for a woman, for a house that no longer exists in the form that he has embraced. He survives to tell this sad tale. Maybe that’s the trick for survival. If you embrace the ghost but are ignorant of its composition, then you can endure in sadness. Become the ghost maybe. For quite often a ghost doesn’t realize its dead.

Agents of The Scare

Wow, a lot of cheeriness going on in the above section, huh?  Let’s lighten things up a bit with good ol’ fashion “fun” horror.  In all haunted houses, there are objects and structural components of a house that are downright creepy. Maybe it’s the swaying chandelier. Or the specter that traipses down the curving stairwell, adding to the unpleasantness of each stair tread.  How bout the wall hanging portrait with the moving eyes? That locked room? (How about that wardrobe in the movie The Conjuring?  Clap-clap-clap!)  You get the drift. I just wanted to take some time to highlight some of the unique Agents of The Scare that are found in this book.

Yes there is a creepy set of stairs and a landing that foreshadows doom. Oh, there is a mirror that moves on its own accord and freaks out poor Roderick (analysis – he doesn’t like confronting himself in his present state). There is mysterious writing on the wall and strange burns spots on the ceiling. But what I enjoyed most was the servant bell and the tube.  The bell, I can’t remember how it was described, perhaps decorative rope, rings out and calls a servant to a given room. Except there was no one in the room from which the bell tolled! Then there is “the tube”, which in the book is described as a “19th century tube communication device linking the abandoned nursery.”  It descends from the upstairs down into the kitchen. If the nursery is abandoned, then what is that whooshing sound that makes its way to where frightened maids work?  The sound of breath. The sound of whispers. A child’s whisper. Imagination? The servants are freaked out by it. And you will be too!

The Little Stranger – A Movie?

I think I’ll wrap things up.  What else is there to say? I have said so much and have withheld so much as well.  A great book it is! I discovered there is a movie based on the book. It doesn’t seem like it has gotten great reviews. I will wait a while before watching it. I want my memory of Hundreds Hall preserved with the stuff of mystery and intrigue; a brilliant form of eeriness. I wish not to cheapen such a memory with the trappings of a poorly made film. That would be an injustice.  With that said, peace out.

A Review of the Dream House – A Psychological Thriller

dream_house_movie_poster_2011_1010713214Dream House. I watched it. And I am shaking my head.  The critical consensus on rottonentomatoes  for Director Jim Sheridan’s 2011 psychological thriller reads, “Dream House is punishingly slow, stuffy, and way too obvious to be scary.” Run time is 83 minutes according to IMDB.com, not a long film by any means, and yet Adam Woodward of the now defunct publication Little White Lies writes that this these not-so-many minutes of viewing time are not only “an utter waste of time” but also a “waste of talent” (quote also from rottentomatoes.com). Truly there is some recognizable talent involved in this film. It stars Daniel Craig,the modern day James Bond. It co stars Naomi Watts,  famous star of both film and television, and Rachel Weisz, who won an Academy Award for her role in The Constant Gardener. Let’s not forget the director. Mr. Sheridan directed such impressive films as My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father. So what in the heck is going on, I mean, at Metacritic.com it rates 35 out of 100. Geez, what a low score!

To repeat – “I am shaking my head.” And  I ask again “What the heck is going on?” I shake my head in disbelief and wonder about those critics because, well, I found the film to be rather enjoyable. It’s not the best thriller out there, nor does it make my top 20 list of favorite haunted house films. But come on, let’s give this flick a break here. It did its job. It thrilled me, it kept me in suspense, it unraveled mysteries that made me think, “Oh wow that was a cool setup!”. The actors performed their parts well. There was some decent direction. Perhaps the basic premise is a bit too familiar – an editor at a publishing house, Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) seeks to escape the busy city life of (New York?) by quitting his job and moving into a “The Dream House” in a quaint town in New England with his charming family to write a book. Libby the wife (Rachel Weisz) is beautiful and their two young daughters are quite the charm. Yes there is a suspicious neighbor across the street (Naomi Watts), and the house has a terrible history. A family was murdered there. We’ve seen this situation before many times, but the story moved in a direction that held my attention.There are secret rooms harboring clues from the past, there appears to be prowlers lurking around the premises, and poor Will can’t escape the scandalous glares from police and other townsfolk. More tropes. But there are surprises. Perhaps the critics don’t like the fact that the film goes from light to dark, only to end on a light note. Once the plot darkens, shouldn’t it stay dark? I guess so. But oh well. In the end it makes sense.

Dream House inspired me to think about one of my favorite subjects – haunted houses. Therefore I have to respect the film for that. These inspirations, I can’t reveal them without revealing major spoilers. And I will do that in the section below. But you have been warned. However you can skip the next section and read the final paragraph of this article, which is spoiler-free!

SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW

When I first subscribed to Netflix, I placed Dream House on “My List,” saving it to watch later. There it stayed, a small picture of the theatrical release poster at the top of my home screen, waiting patiently, hauntingly so. Two little girls; their green patterned dresses blending in with the background wallpaper of the same color and design. Each time I logged in, the girls were there and mostly I ignored them. That doesn’t mean I was oblivious to their calling. For years, through that image, they sang out to me on each of my visits to the Netflix home page. “Come look at us, Danny! We’re waiting for you. Come! Come!” Danny; the most informal version of my name, almost sounds like “Daddy”. But it is really their Daddy that they are calling out to. “Come home Daddy!”  Are these ghostly girls calling out to their father from the grave? In a nutshell, yes. But I am Danny, not their daddy. Close enough though, don’t you think?

For maybe ten years Dream House waited for me. Never to be rotated, never to be removed from Netflix’s menu of films. Perhaps there is no demand for this film on other pay platforms, so its roots burrow deep into this site. Like that one ugly, abandoned house in an otherwise charmed setting of picturesque homes, it remains and isn’t going anywhere. So finally, after failing to find a certain film on another platform that struck my mood at the time, I settled for Netflix and in doing so, I settled once again. Let’s get this over with. To “My List” I went. Into “The Dream House” I did go. 

There were ghosts inside The Dream House; ghosts of Will Atenton’s family. They were waiting for him to come home. And come home he does in the very beginning of the film. Home from “that other place” (You mean the office in the city, where he quit his job? I “sort of” mean that, but things aren’t always what they seem.)  They welcome him warmly. For you see, Will has fond memories of them despite…well, never mind “despite” for now.  Memories can be ghosts, you see. And memories can be forgotten. But they don’t always stay forgotten. Something can trigger them, causing them to flourish again. A house can perform such a triggering, for it harbors these memories, the good as well as the bad. But these are good memories, good ghosts. And they shield poor Will’s mind from the bad ones.

It’s only inside this house that Will sees his family. For that’s where his memories lie. There these memories are embedded into the haunting that will inflict Will. Therefore it’s a haunted house. See how that works out? Never mind that the family that he interacts with might not exist outside of Will’s awareness, or that, perhaps, they only exist on account of his head injury.  That doesn’t strip them of their rightful definition. They are ghosts.

Will is the victim of false impressions brought on by both a head injury and psychological trauma. He thinks that he is abandoning a career at a publishing company to write a book in the company of his family at their Dream House. The dream is threatened when he discovers that some time ago in the same house, a man by the name of Peter Ward murdered his family. Peter was sent to a mental institution and later released. It appears that his killer is back in the neighborhood and stalking them, even trespassing on their premises. As it turns out, Will is Peter Ward. “Will Atenton” never existed; it was an alias Peter created as a defense mechanism so that his conscience will no longer have to suffer the pain of identifying with a killer. In reality, he left the institution (not the publishing house) to return to the abandoned house where he and his family once lived. He thinks his house has remained in its pristine, lived-in state. He thinks his family is still alive. In this situation, ghosts, which are normally thought of as frightful and fanciful entities, protect him for the true horror – reality.

Even though the truth is eventually revealed, things are still not as they seem. Remember what I wrote at the beginning of the article, about how the tone shifts from light to dark then back to light again?  Within this shift comes another revelation. Perhaps this shift betrays the horror of the film, but it is what it is. Also, are these ghosts really restricted to Will/Peter’s unreliable perception? Maybe and maybe not. There is a certain scene where, well, never mind. If you want to watch this movie then I will leave it up to you to look for it.

NO MORE SPOILERS /YOU CAN READ ON IN AN UNSPOILED KIND OF WAY

All in all, I thought this was a slightly above average haunted house film. I’ve seen plenty worse. So I don’t get all the negativity. Oh well. I recommend it. But if you do watch it only to discover that you agree with the preponderance of the critics, don’t sue me. Understood? Great! Bye now.