Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge – Two Books from that Horror Fiction Paperback Boom of the ’80s.

GhostHouse2One dark and not so stormy night (most nights it doesn’t storm), I found two books on the Internet for which I had been searching for some time.  I owned this two-part series when I was a kid.  Two paperbacks; both were about haunted houses (what a surprise!). The problem was – I couldn’t remember the titles of these novels nor the name of the author who wrote them .  It took many searches before I finally hit the jackpot. Not only did I find the books I was looking for, but I uncovered a phenomenon I didn’t know about. It might be called “the horror paperback boom of the 70s/80s.”

I participated in the later days of this horror paperback boom, and I didn’t even know  it!  Back then, I only knew it as “reading”. At the age of fourteen, in 1985, I sat at my school desk and read one of the two of these paperbacks that I owned , unaware that I was making history.

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit here with my “making history” comments. I  encourage you to blame the Internet for this. This “Internet” thing forced upon me such articles as Vintage Chillers: ‘80s Horror Novels You Need to Read  and ordered me to look into books such Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror, all because I  innocently typed the words “80s horror novels” into a search engine. From the list of articles and book synopses that the search engine returned,    I learned of this horror paperback  phenomenon.

After skimming through some of these articles, I learned that there were many successful   horror paperback writers in the 70s and 80s. For some reason, horror novels flooded the bookstores, and mainstream  publishers were more than happy  to churn them out by the millions. The more the merrier. Perhaps  it had something to do with the success of the novels by Stephen  King, who rose  to fame in the early  70s? Were  publishers looking for the next King, hoping to find this needle in a haystack  by creating the pile of hay? I’d have to read the sources more thoroughly to get these answers. Another takeaway is that many of these books did not withstand the test of time. Best sellers one day, forgotten the next. Expired copyrights, not available  for print anymore, never converted  to digital format. Sadness.

Somehow, by combing through the various articles and lists, I was able to discover the identities of the two books I sought after.  They are, respectively, Ghost House (1980) and Ghost House Revenge (1981) by Clare McNally.  These two books seem to fall into the category of “books that history has forgotten”. Thankfully, they were both available in Kindle format on Amazon, both selling for $2.99. Needless to say, I bought and read them. Stripping away my nostalgia-based bias, these might not be the best haunted house books out there, but they are decent enough reads, especially  for that low price. I do believe that all print copies are used books

At this time, I would like to share what I remembered about the overall reading experience of these books. I will be going back thirty-four years or so.  Here I go!!

I don’t know how I acquired my paperback of Ghost House Revenge. But there it was GhostHouseRevenge2inside my lift-top desk, my one desk for the entire  school year (same teacher/classroom all year round too). In between lessons, there was free time, where a student could do homework ,  draw, or read. Do middle schools still offer this kind of free time? Well that’s besides the point. Anyway it was during this free time that I did most of my Ghost House Revenge reading.

I had remembered bits of the story. I mostly recalled a physical therapist guy named Derek and his socially awkward pre-teen daughter, who’s name had escaped me. (Her name is Alicen). Father and daughter lived temporarily  in the house of one of his clients who needed therapy on a daily basis. The client had fallen out of a window and needed help learning how to walk again. The client  had a family; a spouse and several children. I couldn’t remember whether  it was the father or mother that needed therapy  (It was the father  – Gary). I couldn’t  remember  his wife’s name (Melanie) or the names and number of children they had (Three – Gina , age 13, Kyle 9 or 10, Nancy 5?).

I remembered that the house was haunted but I didn’t remember the details (the spirit of a vengeful woman terrorizes them). I recalled that Derek wasn’t always nice to Alicen, and I remembered there was something  a bit off about her.  And then, I remember Steven U. No, he’s not a character from the book, he was my best friend in the 8th Grade. I had put the book aside for awhile and he borrowed it from me. He read faster than I did. In a matter of days,  he got further into the book than I did, and he had to go and tell me “So and So got ripped to shreds!”  This is what I remembered most! I remembered who it was that got “torn to shreds” (I’m not telling ya!) and I used these words in my searches (*name* torn to shreds). And….nothing came of these searches. Sadness! This is because, I learned, that the book never describes the fate of this character in those exact terms. These were Steven’s word’s, not McNally’s. But it’s obvious that is what had happened to the character.

The book was (and is) a relatively simple read. It served as a welcoming  pastime for such a young and blossoming mind, not to mention some blossoming hormones. For instance, the other night, when I got to a part in the book where the ghost woman grabs Derek’s crotch, I suddenly remembered stumbling upon this scene way back when. Another brick in the puberty Wall!  Um..let’s move on to another paragraph.

The thing about my initial reading of this book, either I didn’t realize that Ghost House Revenge was a sequel or I simply didn’t care. As an inexperienced reader, I guess it didn’t click that one is supposed to read the original novel first. Throughout the book, there is backstory that pertains to the first novel Ghost House. This happens when Gary tells Derek how he fell out the window (his fall occurs in the first novel), or when both Melanie and Gary explain to Derek about how the house had once been haunted, but isn’t anymore (They are wrong, it still is haunted, but by a different ghost). Once I got into the meat and guts of the story, I must have then known that this was the second of two books. I certainly knew after I acquired  Ghost House at a garage sale. This acquisition came months after reading its successor.

Excited, I opened the book and read how the family was moving into a big house. I remembered that Gary was giving Melanie the cold shoulder. She had recently been having an affair, but she broke off the fling. The couple was trying to reconcile. I remember how Gary kept imagining his wife’s legs wrapped around another man’s legs, and this thought bothered him. It didn’t bother the young me, though. This description excited me. That puberty thing again.

So what happens next? I didn’t find out. I put the book down. Summer vacation was at hand and what person brand new to his teenage years wants to spend the summer reading a book? I put it down after the first few pages and never went back….until a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until then that I learned that the ghost of some 1792 dude dwelled in the house and that he would go onto to develop a thing for Melanie. Very powerful this ghost. He had his way with Melanie many times both sexually and mentally.

After all these years bits and pieces of these books stuck with me. I wanted to finally read the first book and then revisit the second. But this task was difficult, since I couldn’t even remember the names of these books or the name of the author. “Torn to shreds” was not a viable query, oh what was I to do?  And so, after stumbling onto articles pertaining to the yesteryears phenomenon of  “all these horror paperbacks everywhere; good ones, bad ones, ugly ones,” I somehow found these two books once again. I read them and enjoyed them. They aren’t the greatest; there’s some very literal storytelling going on (no symbolism, etc.,). But the books are page turners.

So, this whole post turned out to be more of a piece on the history of my early days of reading and on the horror-themed paperback boom. Not much of a review, is this? Should I describe the “Ghost House” some more? It’s a colonial bay house in New England, built in the 18th century. Should I go into more detail about the ghostly encounters? Both books feature powerful, malicious ghosts. They wreak havoc on this peaceful family. Children are locked up on the roof, locked down in the cellar, tied to posts on the connecting beach.  Gary is injured multiple times when going toe-to-toe with these spirits. Certain characters become possessed. Some characters die.

Still not enough details for you? If this is the case, then you should just go ahead and read the books for yourselves. Below are the buy links. Enjoy!

Ghost House

Ghost House Revenge

 

 

Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era – Fourth Book Review for Black History Month Series

TAlesHauntedSouthWhen I tell people about this blog and my love for the haunted houses of  film and literature, quite often they say something like, “Cool. So I take it you’re a fan of  * Insert – the name of the trendiest cable show that boasts of “real” encounters with  the paranormal – here *.  When I tell them, “No I don’t find value in those kind of shows” and that for me, ghosts are fictional entities , I get blank stares. I might go on to explain that I view haunted house stories through the same analytical lens that a student might use when assessing feminist themes in classic and modern literature , or that I embark upon a similar path that a historian of cinema might follow when studying the evolution of a certain  film technique. And STILL they might reply, “You know, there are several houses here in the U.S. that are supposed to be haunted. Have you ever gone on a ghost tour?” Sigh! These folks just don’t get it.

To answer that last question, no, I’ve never been on a ghost tour, though I’ve been to places where they are offered (Galena, Illinois for instance). I’d like to go on one, just to see what they’re all about. Thankfully, someone has given me a glimpse into what has been coined as “dark tourism”. Her name is Tiya Miles. She has written a book about some of the most popular  ghost tours in The American  south. And wouldn’t  you know it, this book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era  is the subject  of this review. Imagine that! And it is the fourth and final review of my Black History Month Series.

In her book, Miles seeks  out ghosts. Despite  what I said above about my skepticism concerning translucent specters that go bump in the night, I believe in the ghosts Miles seeks. Please, read on.

Tiya Miles went on several ghost tours. She toured many “haunted houses” across the south, from former plantation mansions to carriage houses that once served as slaves quarters. But she is not writing as a “survivor” who lived to tell about her frightful experiences. She is not billing herself as an eyewitness to  floating specters or poltergeist activity (although one the photos she took at a cemetery picked up a mysterious orb!). But, as I mentioned in the last paragraph ,  she was indeed searching for “ghosts”. Alas, for the most part, they did not come – and I’m not referring to translucent figures that moan and groan. These kinds of ghosts she was not expecting (though they did “appear”, at the very least, inside the tales that were told by the tour guides, taking the form of “Right where you are standing now, the ghost of such-and-such appeared to one visitor). What kind of ghosts was she hoping to find?

Paraphrasing, Miles defines “ghosts” as a vehicle to the past. In order to come to terms with the past, in order to “see” the events that have transpired long ago, we must have an honest confrontation with the ghosts that history has conjured. Quite the figurative definition, huh?  But think – if there is any entity that is made up of figurative elements, it would be “the ghost.”

In particular, Miles took in these ghost tours to see if they would relay the authentic tragedies of real people that experienced the horrors of slavery. True, “dark tourists” want to hear the tales of spirits of former slaves or slave owners haunting the premise on ghost tours. They go in with the expectations of learning about the lives of the deceased, of the tragic circumstances that surrounded their deaths, tragedies that caused their souls to remain here on the earth, searching for some kind of peace before being able to pass on to the other side. Miles expected these kind of tales as well. And she got them. But before embarking upon these ghost tours, she wanted to see if the sponsors of these tours exploited the lives of the deceased in anyway, either with misinformation or exaggerated distortions. And exploit they did.  They presented slave ghosts to the customers as caricatures; ghostly voodoo priestesses, promiscuous phantoms, etc. etc. Only now and then did they allow for the true “ghosts” to take form: tales of the true cruelty and oppression that the black enslaved Americans experienced.

Tiya Miles toured several cities in the American South, where dark tourism flourishes.  Why does this industry flourish in the American South? Well, to quote from the book:

The US South, with its history  of Indian removal, slavery, and bloody Civil War battles, together with its regional particularity, and atmospheric  setting  of simmering heat and shroud like Spanish  moss, is a place easily  associated  with a dark past and haunted present.

She went on  ghost tours in Savannah, Georgia, a city that boasts of being the “ghost tour capital” of the United States, beating out both New Orleans, known for all its Voodoo and other paranormal attraction, and Salem, with its notorious history of burning innocent women on stakes to “eradicate witchcraft”.  But Miles also visited “haunted places” in New Orleans and at preserved plantations that stand on the southern end of the Mississippi River, which were known for their “even more horrid conditions” for the enslaved, giving rise to the term “sold down the river.”  The eerie tales surrounding these visited sites, Miles argues, sugarcoat the real tragedies and injustices of slavery with romantic stories filled with ghostly hyperbole.

The Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia

Miles begins her quest at the  Sorrel-Weed House  in Savannah, Georgia. Francis Sorrel, original owner, was allegedly  having an affair with his slave “Molly”, who lived in the carriage  house that is adjoined to the main residence. This carriage  house is said to be haunted by Molly’s ghost. Allegedly, she was murdered in this house, probably  by Francis Sorrel  himself, who needed to terminate any evidence  of the affair. His wife, Matilda, does find out about the affair, so the story goes that she committed suicide, throwing herself out the window. It is said that her ghost  haunts the Sorrel-Weed  House as well.

SorrelWeedHouse

(Above photo: The Sorrel-Weed House)

Miles does some  checking. While she uncovers documents that state that Matilda died “in an accident,” there is no historical record of Molly, at least none pertaining  to the property  holdings of one Francis Sorrel. Neither are there any documents listing slave names similar to Molly.

Is Molly a “figment  of human imagination?” (quote from book as a possible  explanation  of Molly). If so, she exists as the fabricated ghost, the packaged legend,  indeed  a ghostly “figment” of some not-so-creative imaginations, (the lack of creativity attributed to her story’s reliance on the typical  tropes of found in “real” southern  slave ghost stories.) Whether real or not, Molly sets Miles off on a journey  to find “her ghost”. Her ghost will represent the untold stories of an enslaved  people, their perspectives  within the context  of an the inhumane institution of slavery.

There were several things wrong with the telling of Molly’s story, Miles believed. These wrongs, these fabrications would materialize again and again  throughout  her tours of haunted houses. Oh where are the ghosts? And what are these fabrications that stand in place of the ghost and its  hauntings?  Let’s move on.

The Myrtles Plantation – Louisiana – Ghosts of Chloe and Cleo

Tiya Miles visits the Myrtles Plantation, located off the River Road (this would be the Mississippi River, folks!) in  rural Louisiana. The plantation house is supposedly a legendary  haunted house.  It also serves as a bed and breakfast for your average “dark tourist”, or your simple Southern  history  enthusiast. Miles stays in a room that was formerly  a nursery. Her room, she is told, is the most haunted room in the place. It is haunted by the ghost of Cleo, a former slave that once turned  the nursery into a Voodoo  sanctuary. Cleo, a Voodoo priestess, tried her best to heal her master’s  sick child using her “skills of the craft”. Her master allowed this, so long as the child would heal. All night Cleo worked her magic. In the morning, she proclaimed the child to be healed. Sadly the child died soon after, and Cleo ’ s Master had her hanged for her lies regarding the health of the child.

MyrtlesPlantation

(Above Photo: The Myrtles Plantation House)

Myrtles is also supposedly haunted by Chloé, a young slave girl in her early teens who was involved in a sexual relationship  with her master. Although the master liked having Chloe around for sexual company , he didn’t like it when she listened  in on his private affairs. When he found her with her ear to his office door, he cut off  that ear. Still, Chloe was devoted to him and she cherished  their sexual relationship. But she was jealous of her master’s  family so one night she poisoned the kids, killing them. For this crime, her master  hanged her from a tree. Tourists who stay overnight are warned to lock up any earrings they might remove from their lobes before going to bed, although only one of the pair is in danger of being stolen. Stolen by whom? That would be the ghost of Chloé. She only needs one earring  because  she only has one ear.

So, what’s going on with these “phantoms?” A whole lot of stereotyping. Chloé  is portrayed  as a “Jezebel”, a biblical feminine persona that is  amoral, has an insatiable  sex drive, and is seen as an evil temptress toward men. Although some sympathy is granted to Chloe, as the story admits that she was treated cruelly (losing her ear, being a slave in general), she plays a key role in her own demise. She is the one in the story that bears the most evil (killing innocent  little children!)

The story of Cleo with its imagery of “ primitive  rituals” invokes another stereotype – the wild witch woman. Imagine – inside the wholesome confines of a white man’s nursery a black woman is performing ancient witchcraft from the jungle, only to result in the death of an innocent child. Such horrors!

It should be noted that Voodoo was a real religion among various  slaves. However as Miles notes, “Voodoo lends an exotic quality to these stories, calling to mind the notion of the African primitive. Voodoo also portends spiritual danger for non-adherents who see the religion as strange and dangerous, thereby enhancing the taboo-breaking, fear-inspiring elements of dark tourism”.

Within the tales of Chloe and Cleo arises what I again call the “figments” of treacherous, exotic, sex-starved, and witchy women that are responsible for deaths of white children. Then there is Chloe as a thief, a prankster that has nothing better to do with her afterlife  than to steal earrings. To the author’s  dismay, the “ghosts” of Chloé and Cleo do not appear in these tales. These would be the ghosts of two suffering women, suffering through no fault of their own. Victims of horrendous  abuse at the hands of controlling men. In all these tales of sexual  relationships between black slave women and their white masters, are we do believe that the women had an equal status in the relationship? There were no power dynamics  perpetuated  by the men? Could many if not all of these “relationships” really be cases of non-consensual sex and  perpetual  rape? If “ghosts” were conjured from these tales instead of “figments”, then perhaps we might see a clearer  image of the truth. Ghosts don’t lie.

Better Uses of the Supernatural in African American Experience

Returning now to Molly, the slave ghost from the Savannah Sorrel-Weed House, we see again a slave complicit in an adulterous act, not the victim of power play and subjugation. Figments abound in this tale. Ghosts do not. What Miles came to realize during her quest to find “Molly’s ghost” was, in her own words:

I also came away with an alarming sense that the representation of slaves as ghosts reproduces intersectional racial and gender norms from the antebellum era, often without context, caution, or critique. As a result, the narratives on these tours reinforce retrograde interpretations of power, race, gender, sexuality, and identity. These stories turn on the abuse of the socially weak, often African American women, but do nothing to contextualize the experiences of black women or hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against them. In short, ghost tours featuring spectral slaves often uphold the ideas of an antebellum social order by replaying antebellum plots that repopularize antiquated race and gender hierarchies.

The goal of Miles’s work is not to discredit the supernatural (She did see that orb on her photo). Rather, it is to allow for ghost stories to capture the true cruelty of slavery while providing dignity to the black slave ghosts. She says:

Black slaves do not fare well in the genre of the southern ghost tour. But we need not rely on ghost tours and haunted sites to gain historical understanding about the supernatural in African American experience.

As an example, Miles refers to a project conducted by the Georgia WPA. In the 1930s, The WPA conducted a series of interviews with former slaves and ancestors of slaves. One woman relayed a story her mother had told her. Her mother, a former slave, saw and heard a phantom machine made up of chains and wheels. It was as big as a house, very loud and extremely terrifying.  At this spot, back in history, a slave master would whip his slaves to death. Here in this tale, the evil of slavery is pronounced and takes form, representing the “ugly machinery” of slavery.

Also, Miles mentions Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, where a slave child returns from the dead. She, according to Miles, represents the history of slavery (I mention this in my review of Beloved. )

Beloved is a work of fiction. As for the story about the massive conglomeration of chains, well, supposedly the storyteller  believed it to be true. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that the “ghosts” in both of these tales “speak of truth”. They do their job of communicating with the living as to the reality of our nation’s yesteryears. Often times this truth is ugly. But ghosts do not exist as contestants in a beauty contest. They exist as messengers of the past and don whatever appearance is necessary to relay the spirit of its time.

Madame  Lalaurie – Remember “Coven” in American Horror Story?

Are you a fan of the TV series American Horror Story? I can’t say that I have a love affair with this show, but I found some episodes enjoyable. Anyway, there was one season, the third season I believe, which was titled “Coven”. It was a story about modern day witches in New Orleans. However there were several flashback scenes set in the antebellum south, at the house of a cruel mistress named Madame  Lalaurie, played by Kathy Bates. She kept slaves in chains in the attic. She branded them, dissected them. Well did you know that Madame Lalaurie was a real person? Tiya Miles visits her “haunted house” in New Orleans (where she really did keep slaves locked in an attic), which is purportedly haunted by the cruel Madame herself.

Miles places the story of Lalaurie within the context of her theories. The stories conveyed by tour guides once again contain figments rather than ghosts.  But I won’t get into all that here. For details, buy the book!

And so….

I thank Tiya Miles for writing this book. It taught  me a lot about slavery and black history, much of which I did not detail in this review. I believe that I now have the necessary mental tools to prepare myself for a ghost tour, if I should ever decide to go on one. Yes, the romantic in me will hope to see an actual specter (though I won’t expect such a thing). But the analytic side of my personality will now be looking for the “unseen” ghosts. Depending on the historical context, I might never come to now the true nature of the “once-was-a living-person” that is presented to me as a ghost in these tales, but I can step back, think independently, and ask myself questions such as, “Do these tales seem antiquated in nature? Does the business (i.e. the ones hosting the tour) have anything to gain by preserving some kind of preconceived notion of the past? Are these tales haunted by obvious clichés and caricatures? I must go back to Galena ,Illinois, a town where the once many antique shops have been converted to cafes and other trendy kinds of storefronts . Ah but the historical town, home of Ulysses Grant, still has “antiques” to sell, only now, they come in the form of ghosts. This small down boasts several ghost tours and a few haunted houses. I must return and see whether they are peddling figments or trying to tell true “ghost” stories.

Peace Out!

About the Author

TiyaMilesTiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard University. She is the author of five books. One of her research specialties is African and Native American comparative histories.  She is the winner of several awards including the Frederick Douglass Prize.

 

 

 

*** information above was gathered from the following links:

https://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/tiya-miles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiya_Alicia_Miles

 

 

Beloved – Third Book Review for Black History Month Series

beloved-by-toni-morrisonIt is 1873. The Civil War is over. Slaves are freed. Sethe, a former slave, lives as a free woman in rural Ohio. She had been a runaway slave, fleeing the South and finding freedom back when such actions were illegal by law. But all that is over now, she is no longer a wanted woman. Nothing left but the best of times…right? No. Not true.

Sethe raises her daughter Denver (age = 11? 12?) in a haunted house. Ghostly handprints appear in a cake. Mirrors shatter, a kettle of chickpeas is tossed on the floor. Sethe has other children besides Denver, but they are gone. Howard and Buglar, in particular, ran away at the young age of thirteen. Two young boys off on their own, never heard from again. They fled the ghost that haunted their home.

Sethe and Denver live a reclusive, dreary life. They are lonely. Along comes Paul D, a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation to which both he and Sethe were enslaved. He too notices the ghost at Sethe’s place. It shines as a pool of red light.

“Good God. What kind of evil you got here?” Paul D asks.

“It’s not evil, just sad. Come on, Just step through.”

 

And Paul D listens. He steps through.

Paul D takes up residence at the house. He and Sethe begin a romantic relationship.  Whereas Denver has her misgivings about Paul D, Sethe seems happier than she has been in a long time. For you see, Paul D has chased the ghost away.  According to Sethe, the ghost = sadness. Has Paul D eradicated sadness from her life? Maybe temporarily.

The past haunts us all. Mostly in stories about the supernatural, the haunting past makes its presence known in the form of a ghost, as it does here in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer  prize winning novel Beloved. But a past such as Sethe’s is so troubling that its haunting demands a far more substantive expression than that of an ethereal phantom.  The ghost is gone but the past returns again, this time in flesh and bones.  It comes back in the form of a young girl/woman with the brain of a child. This woman appears to Sethe, Denver and Paul D on the road, looking and smelling as if she had just risen from the swamp.

Sethe takes pity on her and invites her into her home and welcomes her into her family. This mystery girl/woman is name is Beloved. Soon Sethe will realize  who she is and…what she is. She is both the precious past and the putrid.  She is love. She is guilt. She is beautiful. She is the ugliest  of realities. She is whole, not minced.

Who is Beloved? I will not answer that question directly. From a very simple and literal perspective, the answer to that question is unveiled very early on in the novel. This “literal” answer might even be found in the book’s synopsis on Amazon or on any other platform that sells the book. Even so, these answers will not explain the depths of Beloved’s identity. Perhaps there is no one true explanation.  I will be presenting some of my thoughts about this. But as for the surface explanation  concerning her identity and why she comes packaged with a tragedy that eats away at Sethe’s soul, you will have to read the book to understand these things.

Beloved is much more than a ghost story. There are several back stories that serve as case studies for some very interesting characters. Following these characters back in time, the novel  transports us to the harsh days before  the Civil War came to an end. Toni Morrison gives readers a glimpse into plantation life and it isn’t pretty to say the least. The book details the lives of these characters as slaves and shows us the great lengths to which they go in their quests for freedom. Considering  such hardships, it is understandable  that authors such as Tiya Miles  believe  that Beloved represents  the physical embodiment of “the history of slavery”. (From her book “Tales of the Haunted South – Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era” This is up next for review!) There is merit to this view. Certainly the inhumane past Sethe and her family  endured continues to haunt her and disrupt their daily  living. The damage inflicted by slavery does not simply fade upon its cessation. Its takes generations to fully  eradicate.

To me, Beloved represents an extension of Sethe.  Let me explain. Much of the novel explores the  building and destruction of self boundaries.  One of the book’s characters, an elderly black woman that goes by the name “Baby Suggs,” preaches to congregants, telling them to “Look at your hands. They are yours. They are beautiful”.  Former slaves needed reminders that their bodies no longer belonged to some master or mistress. They needed to know that even when they were in captivity, their thoughts, their feelings, their very “selves” had been theirs all along. This sense of self is not so easily  apparent when one is shackled like an animal, sold like livestock, and forcibly separated from family.

At one point in the story, Sethe is violated, held down and robbed of the milk in her breasts by the nephews of the plantation owner. With experiences such as this, it can be difficult to not only feel a sense of self worth but to have a healthy understanding of the concept of “the self” at all.  Without this understanding, one’s sense of self can be projected onto others.

In another part of the book, we learn that Sethe herself had committed an unspeakable act. Unable to come to terms with what she had done, her guilt manifests into another person, into Beloved.  To quote from Beloved herself , “I am not separate from her. There is no place where I stop…her face is my own.”

Who is Beloved? She is so many things. When all is said and done, she is the genius that is Toni Morrison. Morrison’s book is a patchwork of keen psychological insights, layers upon layers of them. She writes dialogue in the vernacular of her subjects and composes her concepts with thoughtful depth. She uncovers the abstract and makes it real, painfully real.

Beloved may not make my top ten list of  favorite haunted house novels. This does not matter, for you see, Beloved has earned its rightful place on my list of top ten novels overall, regardless of genre. The haunted house is but one concept in a sea of themes that Morrison touches upon. Nevertheless, her novel features a haunted house and therefore, Beloved is a most welcomed addition to my collection of reviews.   It is a brilliant piece of literature.


 

About the Author

 

BelovedToniMorrisonToni Morrison is a professor emeritus from Princeton University. She is the author of several novels and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her novel Beloved.

*** The information above was taken from Wikipedia.com

White is for Witching – Second Book Review for Black History Month Series

 

WhiteisForWitching2

I don’t even know how to begin. This book, White is for Witching, stumps  me. For sure this will be one of  the more challenging  reviews because I really don’t know what to say about it. I’m not certain  what the book us getting at it. I still haven’t  made my mind up on whether I like  this novel or not. So, I guess this  is it then. Buy it here if you wish. Good luck  with it. Peace out my friends!

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Fine, I’ll try to do better than that! Maybe a list of the multiple themes would be a good start. If this book is about anything, it’s about several things. It’s about a college-aged young woman named Miranda Silver. The very first chapter leaves readers with the impression that “Miri” (Miranda  for short) is either dead and buried, off on her own  somewhere, a runaway without  any shoes, or just hiding underneath some strands of symbolism that the author has spun.  Three competing entities are trying to assess her whereabouts; three different  perspectives; perspectives for which we the readers will come to know the story. (I’ll  explain  why I am using the term  “entities” momentarily ) First there is Ore, Miri’s  friend from college. She says that Miri is “in the ground underneath  her mother’s  house”. Eliot , Miri’s  brother, states that she just ran off somewhere  one dark and windy night. Finally, an entity known as 29 Barton Road insists that Miri is a home, inside its  confines  someplace. “29 Barton Road” is the haunted house. It’s also the Bed and Breakfast that Miri’s  family operates. It too shares is perspective with us. Since it is not human, I refer to the four that share their perspectives as entities. Four? Who is the fourth? That would be Miri herself. She too shares her side of things. A rather skewed  perspective it is! Or is it? We learn early on that Miri is not entirely mentally  stable. Is this a case  of an unreliable  narrator? More than that, the whole book is an unreliable  narrative – no matter what you think this story is about, it’s probably about something  else.

More topics, more things  this book is about (or isn’t – you know, that whole “unreliable  narrative” thing.)  It’s about grieving. The family at center  of the story, The Silver  family,  lost its Matriarch, Lily. She was a journalist who was murdered  on assignment in Haiti. Eliot blames his sister  Miri for this, for she wouldn’t  stay awake over there in England  while the murder was happening  in Haiti. How does this make sense? I don’t know, some kind of symbolism that’s lost on me  I guess. But after  the fact, Miri wears her mother’s watch that is always  set at Haitian  time. Speaking  of Miri, she suffers from pica, a psychological  disease that causes one to consume non-edible  objects. Chalk is her favorite snack. Readers also learn that Miri was institutionalized  sometime after her mother’s  death. So the book is about battling mental illness  as well.

The book is also about the politics  of group identity, nativism, and immigration. A group  of Kosovan girls have it in for Miri on account of something she said or did to one of the girl’s  boyfriends. Miri insists  it’s a case of mistaken identity. She never did such a thing!  Or did she? Who is “she” anyway? Who are any of us?

Move over Miri, Ore is taking over the story!  The novel dedicates several chapters to her perspective. She is of African  descent, adopted by a white British family. She is the butt of “good natured (really?)” ridicule from her white, conservative male cousins. She attends Cambridge  with Miri. She and Miri will become lovers. She will visit Miri over the holidays, at her home, at the haunted house. Weird things will happen.

Apparently, this haunted house is objectively  haunted  and not depended on Miri’s warped mind. Early on in the story, the domestic  help quits on account of the haunting. The children of the help have a frightful experience on the lift. The replacement maid, an African  woman partial to Voodoo, notices the spiritual nature of this house, but she’s not all that freaked out by it. It’s a voodoo thing, you know. Then there’s  Miri and her meetings with her deceased mother, grandmother, great grandmother, etc. in a special room of the house. This same house  has claimed to have trapped  one of these female ancestors  within the walls and has kept her hidden for untold years. It’s a weird house. It’s a weird book. There are allusions  to vampirism  in this book as well. And witchcraft. The Silver family is white. Hey, what do ya know, white is for witching!

White is for Witching is what I might label a postmodern haunted house novel. Others might be House of Leaves and The Grip of It,  both of which I have reviewed (click on them to read these reviews). I’ll assign some characteristics of what I perceive is postmodern: lacking  a center, non-linear, rich in symbolism, and experimental. Traits such as these can make for a highly intriguing book, but I  must say that White is for Witching  is too much of these things. Did I like the book? To a certain  extent. Helen Oyeyemi  is skilled  at prose and her sentences  flow artfully. In this way it is an interesting  read. But overall  this novel doesn’t  do a whole lot for me.

I include this book in the Black History  Month theme solely on account of the author being a black woman. While this book deals with issues that blacks as a race face  (social  prejudice), there’s not a whole lot of history  going on here. But include  it I did, and to that I say “Oh well.”


About the Author

 

HelenOyeyemiHelen Oyeyemi is a British novelist originally from Nigeria. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards. She has written several books, short stories, and plays.

(The above information is taken from the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Oyeyemi

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/helen-oyeyemi )

The Good House – First Book Review for Black History Month Series

GoodHouseTo the house that belongs to the Vodou priestess the locals brought  the possessed girl. Hopefully Marie Toussaint would cleanse her.

To the house that once belonged to her grandmother, Angela Toussaint returns. It’s hers now. Here she will jump start her life ,  take care of her  teenaged son and perhaps rekindle her love for her ex-husband . All this falls apart. Things go very wrong.

At this legendary house, Fifteen year old Corey Toussaint, curious by nature, finds magical relics that once belonged to his great grandmother. He uncovers secrets that the house hides, deadly secrets

This is a story of a terror plaguing multiple  generations, a story about a  stretch of land with strong connections to the spirit world. On this land the “The Good House” stands, home to four recipient  generations of horror.

Hi there!  In honor of Black History Month, I welcome you to the first review in this series of haunted house novels written by black women. I begin with Tananarive  Due’s acclaimed novel The Good House.  “Good House” is haunted, but it is not the epicenter of the haunting. The trigger for the haunting lies within the lineage of the Toussaint family and on the spirit-laden lands upon which the house rests. It is the combination of a family sensitive to the magic of Vodou positioned in an environment that is receptive to other-worldly forces that stirs up the ghosts, or more appropriately, the demons. Or most appropriately – the “baka”.

The story unfolds from multiple perspectives.  At the heart of the story is Angela Toussaint. I suppose she would be the central character. If this were made into a movie, whoever played Angela would be the actress in a leading role.  The year is 2001 (approximately) and Angela, a successful lawyer from California, is temporarily residing in her second home in Sacajawea, Washington for the summer. This is “Good House”  (also “Goode House”), her childhood home, where she was raised by her grandmother, Marie Toussaint, now deceased. Angela ’ s own mother was unfit to raise her due to mental health issues (or perhaps  her soul was “infected”.)

The townsfolk  of Sacajawea warmly welcome Angela’s return. Her family, her house, it’s all part of the town’s history, all woven into the fabric of the community, though the weaving process , from a historical perspective, was quote contentious. She is one of the few black members of the community. Mostly, race is not an issue, although the town  has pockets of redneck racists. (Her son Corey will learn this) She is highly respected. But when her grandmother  was young woman living in Good House.it was a different  story.

Angela  is seeking  to  refresh  her life.  Having only partial custody of her teenaged  son, her experiences with him have been limited  as of late and she wishes to change that. Corey  seems to favor his father, and so she tries to rebond  with him one fateful summer at Good House. At the same time, her relationship  with her ex-husband is not lost. He visits  the house, and there is a rekindling.

So far I am describing a rebuilding of family and community. But this will not happen. Instead everything falls apart. Neighbors go insane. Some kill their loved ones. Others kill themselves. Her friends suffer horrific calamities   Her own family meets tragedy  head on. Something unspeakable  has been unleashed.

As previously mentioned, Angela’s story is the central  narrative. And yet, it is my least favorite of the various perspectives. At times, it gets too bogged down in mundane things such as the tasks involving  her career and the details  of her exercise routine. Even the attention focused on her love life was too much for me. For my tastes. But then again, I’m a guy and romance dramas don’t do a whole lot for me. However, Angela’s story ties together the stories from the perspectives of other characters, so her tale is an important  one. And it is these other perspectives that I  will now focus on. For me, they capture the intrigue of the book. These would be the perspectives  of Corey the teenager  and Marie the grandmother. WARNING: there will be spoilers  ahead. I don’t know how else to discuss the themes I’m   about to delve into without them.


 

Spoilers  Section

Marie Toussaint

 

Why is the house at the center of the story a “good house”? Because once upon a time, people  came to the house to be healed. Because the former owner, Elijah Goode, a pharmacist in the early 1900s, dispensed medicines, specially brewed with natural  herbs and a little bit of magic. The herbs grew on blessed grounds, on land populated with spirits. These special medicines were concocted by his maid Marie Toussaint, later to be his wife, a voodoo priestess. Marie will inherit the house upon Elijah ’ s death, marry an Indian man, be the recipient of much hatred and racism. Still, she will exorcise a demon from one of the daughters of the townsfolk. It is “a good house”. It was a “good”  thing for her to do, especially since she was the one to summons the demon  in the first place.

What if you were a black woman of Creole  descent in the 1920s,  and your life was turned  upside-down by murderous racists, and you had the power to extract revenge on them with an act that was as simple as snapping your fingers? Would you go in for the  kill? Marie Toussaint showed restraint when her first husband was murdered by racists in New Orleans. When she moved across  the country to Washington with her young daughter and married a white pharmacist, Elijah Goode (His house = Goode/Good House), racism would rear its ugly head again, even after she helped the nearby communities by using magic to extract the healing power within the herbs that grew on this enchanted land.   When she, a black woman, inherited the house of her husband, a white man, people in the nearby town of Sacajawea sought out lawyers to get her out. To further piss-off this community of racists, she took Red John as a common law  husband. He was formerly viewed as “the good Indian who knew his place”. Red John had been “the white man’s pet”, but this new arrangement might cause him to step “out of his place”.  Both Marie and Red John were stepping out of their places, so the people of the town  shot bullets through her windows and front door.

It was all Marie could stand. She gave into anger. A kind of momentary  anger that all  of us fall victim  to now and again. An anger that might elicit a curse word or two from ordinary people. Marie is not an ordinary person. She utters a curse. But the thing is, her words are packed with much more power than your average “God damn you!” Chances are, God won’t sent a person to Hell based upon one person’s idle request. Marie remembered  a word that was stolen from the gods. A powerful  word. She spoke it, unleashing a powerful baka. Her words, so simple to say, so deadly the consequences. Mudslides ravage  the down. A demon is summoned  and it does what demons do – it possesses the living.

This is the backstory – the history.  But as all of us amateur historians know, history repeats itself. Some eighty years later, the baka will once again be summoned and ravage the community. Who is it that calls upon the baka? Her great grandson Corey.

 

Corey Toussaint

 

Corey, fifteen, an aspiring poet and rap artist, is having trouble adjusting to his new environment in the rural northwest.  For a whole summer, he must live with his mother Angela at Good House in  Sacajawea, Washington.  He is used to his urban environment in Los Angeles, where he has many friends and lives under the lax supervision of his father. He had no friends in Sacajawea. His mother is naggy and strict. He is the only black kid in the community.

Eventually, he forms a friendship with a white kid named Sean. They share a love for rap music. However, not all of the kids in this community are friendly to him. Some are downright hostile, such as the town bully Bo Cryer , proud of his confederate flag t-shirts, ready to beat “sense” into this new “gangster kid”.   And beat him he does.

Corey is a bright and curious kid. He finds items of his great grandmother  hidden away in the house. He finds her diaries, reads her  journals. He learns Vodou  spells. At first, he uses these spells for innocent things, such as reclaiming lost items. But even this kind of tampering  has its costs. And when he speaks the forbidden word to get back at the bully ,  all hell breaks loose.

Here Ends the Spoilers Sections

 


 

So, are there any, shall we say, “Haunted  House  happenings” in the story?  There are some. A piano plays by itself, a presence or two are felt at times, a mysterious ”friend” of Corey’s defies physics by the way she sits on a tree branch and talks to him through his upstairs  window. Sometimes the plumbing churns out foul black slush through the faucets. Then there is the night that every  room in the house is blanketed with leaves, turning the floors of Good House into a forest’s  bed. As previously mentioned, the house is not necessarily the “ epicenter of the haunting.”  But the house itself is important to the story, so much so that author Tananarive  Due devotes attention to describing the rooms, the attic and cellar, the furnishings and portraits on the wall.  The modern day characters that populate the Sacajawea community (Sacajawea is a fictional town, BTW) have great respect for the Goode House. For them it is not only an historical landmark, but it’s a history that continues on.  The townsfolk cling to the stories of the past that that focus on the generosity of Angela’s grandmother, Marie Toussaint. She is spoken of as a town healer. When Angela returns to her property and hosts a Fourth of July party at Goode House, many prominent people of the town show up. They have warm affections for Angela and the house and its history of “goodness”.

The people of Sacajawea have either forgotten the darker history of Goode House or have chosen not to confront it. Some still remember, or at least know of the cruel accounts of racism directed toward Marie Toussaint and her house (details of this are in the spoiler section above), but they either don’t speak of these things or do so in a “hush-hush” tone. But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights. Maybe this is one of the many messages of the book?

Is there anything to say about this book concerning the subject of black history? Well, this is a work of fiction, for sure. Even when it comes to the subject of Vodou, Due admits that while she utilized real concepts associated within that religion (i.e. “lwas”, spirits  of Haitian  Vodou or “baka”, evil spirits), she creatively improvised when it came to creating the spells, prayers, and magic that take place in story. But Vodou is a real  religion and it was practiced by many African slaves

From Britannica.com 

“Vodou is a creolized religion forged by descendants of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other African ethnic groups who had been enslaved and brought to colonial Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known then) and Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

While fictional and fanciful, Good House does point to many historical circumstances on the subject of black history. It teaches the importance of family and the value of heritage, especially for a people that were so cruelly uprooted. It reminds us of the prevalence of racism toward African Americans in the early part of the twentieth century, and lets us not forget the ongoing prejudice and discrimination that still occurs today. On this last note, maybe I should repeat a phrase I used earlier that gets to the heart of this…and more. I will do that. Here I go:

“ But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights.”

In other words, our country’s racist past cannot be erased. The ghosts of history will not allow for this. Nor should they.

 


 

About the Author

 

GoodHouseTananariveDueTananarive Due is a an educator, former journalist and author. She is the daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who as a member of CORE, (Congress of Racial Equity) and participated in several marches and a jail-in. Tananarive is the author of several books on the subject of  black history/speculative fiction. Her novel “Black Rose” is based upon the research of Alex Haley.

***The above information was taken from Wikipedia.com

Review of Ju-On: The Grudge

Hey all, Happy New Year! A very timely  wish if I do say so myself!

(Hypothetical Reader: Um, New Years Day was like, four weeks ago. We are too far into the year for that kind of greeting. You’re late, bro!)

Never too late to fulfill a resolution! Remember that time I reviewed the short two movies from Japanese  TV, Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2  and I promised to review the full-length  film that  continued the Ju-On series?  Lately, I’ve been getting several hits for those reviews at this blog. Since that is the case, I’m going to review the feature length film that arose from these “Curse” movies. So… resolution  fulfilled!

(Hypothetical Reader: Dude, that was two years ago when you wrote those reviews and made that pledge. How long does it take you to make good on your promises?)

It does take me a while , doesn’t  it? I hope you don’t hold a “Grudge” on me! (Get it? Ha Ha Ha!) But I’ll  tell ya, the kind of grudge  at work in the 2002 Japanese  film Ju-On the Grudge is not to be trifled with. It is scary  and deadly. It affects the innocent – people that had nothing to do with whatever offense it was that spawned such a grudge, those unfortunate ones that happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That “wrong” place is a house in Nerima, Tokyo. grudgehouseThe “wrong” time is anytime after a certain murderous tragedy took place on the premise. See readers, this affliction that haunts and claims the victims  of this  movie is more of a “curse” than a “grudge”, although I’m told the English translation of “Ju-On” is “Curse/Grudge”. A “grudge” , as per the movie, is negative  energy  in action; or, in reaction. Let’s assume there are scientific laws governing a body of supernatural physics. There is a steady harmony of body and spirit, life and death. The living go about their business and the dead stay dead, their spirits at peace in whatever plane of afterlife existence there happens to be. A horrific tragedy perpetuated with evil intentions can upset this balance. Evil and horror beget  evil and horror. In the film, the negative energy is attached to a house, where a mother, her little boy, and the family cat had been savagely  murdered by a jealous husband/father. Those who enter the house are susceptible  to the negative  energy that exists in the wake  of this tragedy. It attaches  to them. Can they rid themselves  of this negative  energy  by leaving the house? Fat chance! “The Grudge” is part of them now  and it follows them wherever they go. Go to work and it will haunt the office.  Go to school and it will be there too. Go home? That home will now be haunted.

How do you know if you’ve been affected  by this grudge? Well, if suddenly, there just happens to be this strange, creepy little boy with bluish skin running in the halls of your home, then the grudge is imminent. This creepy boy might open his mouth in a circle  and release a disorientating  creaking sound. Or he might mew like a cat. You might also  encounter  a young, undead woman crawling down the stairs, bending her  limbs in unnatural ways. The boy would be Toshio, the  woman Kayako, the ones murdered  by their father/husband. The murdered cat  is there too, mewing  from Toshio’s  mouth, or from the phone. Be careful of the calls you accept. If these crawling, creeping undead things catch you, you are toast. Your body will become theirs and will disappear from mainstream  life. You will become such an abomination.

 

 

We the viewers of this film witness such an unfortunate  scenario play out near the film’s  beginning. A family owns/occupies the house that once belonged  to the murdered family. The aging mother-in-law is no longer mentally  fit to care for herself. She sits on the floor  and mostly does nothing but stare vacantly.. This is what “The Grudge” did to her. A woman from social services pays her a visit , checks on her well-bring. Where  is the old woman’s son and daughter-in-law? “The Grudge” has already claimed them. And the poor lady from social services, she will  be taking a ghost or two home with her.

Ju-On: The Grudge is divided into several segments. Each segment, each story, focuses on a different character; all are victims of “The Grudge”. Every story is named after the character that receives the focus. Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 follow the same format but mercifully, Ju-On: The Grudge presents these stories (mostly) in chronological order. “The Curse” movies don’t, and it’s a real pain in the you know what trying to figure out what’s going on. I do admit, however, that this out-of-sequence story telling adds an unsettling element to what are intentionally disturbing films, so in this way they provide a continuity of mood.

Is it necessary to watch Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 before watching Ju-On: The Grudge?  I say no.  Ju-On: The Grudge does a quick rehash of some of the events in the previous two films, enough to keep viewers up to speed. But the earlier films devote more detail to story of the tragedy that began this whole curse/grudge business. They are most certainly worth viewing, but Ju-On: The Grudge is the best of the three. It is the culmination of “The Curse” films. The effects are better, the undead things are creepier, and it just seems the most confident of the three. I believe “The Curse” movies were accidental hits for director/creator Takashi Shimizu. Because of this, perhaps he had more of a budget, studio cooperation, etc. when it came to making Ju-On: The Grudge.

Ju-On: The Grudge makes my list for top 50 horror movies of all time. I believe it’s either in the teens or the twenties, I’d have to recheck. Oh fine, I’ll check right now. I’ll find the link to the list and….here it is – Top 50 horror Films. Oh! I see now that I have it at #32.  Well, it makes the list and that’s what’s important.  It’s a great film and like other Japanese or Korean Horror films, it achieves scares in a way that Hollywood horror films grudgepicturestruggle with. This film (like several other Asian horror movies) has a built-in flair for all things creepy. Maybe it’s the detail devoted to the ghosts, or maybe it’s the wise abandonment of cliché plots and over-hyped character types. Perhaps it’s the balance of mood and in-your-face scares. Whatever it is, Ju-On: The Grudge works well.

 


 

Ta da! I have finished my review of Ju-On: The Grudge.  Did I do good?

(Hypothetical Reader: You do know there are more movies to the series, like Ju-On: The Grudge 2, and several others. Are you going to review them?)

Yes I know of these. I didn’t watch them, so probably no.

(Hypothetical Reader:  Also, there is the American version, also directed by Takashi Shimizu, simply called “The Grudge.” Shall we expect a compare and contrast article soon?)

Sigh! I didn’t see the American version. I should watch it and…will I write about it? Oh I don’t know! I really don’t. Oh please, for now, just let me be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past – A Review of a Collection of Christmas Haunted House Stories

Ghosts-of-Christmas-Past-1163062Stop the holiday press! (Is there such a thing?) Put those  ornaments  back on the tree right now. Return those vines of ivy to the banister. Rehang  those stockings  and regurgitate some of those “Ho Ho Ho”’s  you swallowed  on the 25th, cause I  got one more Christmas-themed  post for you!  It is a book of Christmas  ghost stories – Ghosts of Christmas Past – A chilling collection of modern and classic Christmas ghost stories.

Published in 2017 in Great Britain, the stories within are from various years. Some date  back to the 1800s. The book includes  a story from M.R. James,  whose name is synonymous with  “The Christmas ghost story.” His stories were published in the early part of the 20th Century.  Other stories in this collection are as recent as 2014. It is refreshing  to see that the traditional Christmas  ghost story lives on. I thought it was a thing of the past, as the book’s title  suggests. (Not really!)

Telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve – I didn’t know there was such a tradition until 2015 when I saw an article floating around on Facebook (floating like a ghost – Booooooo!) A year later I wrote my own article on the subject. Now in 2018, I see the subject  of “The Christmas  ghost story”  all over social media. Yay Internet! Still, I didn’t know there were  modern stories; I thought that “Christmas  ghosts” were phantoms of a bygone era.  I’m glad that I  was wrong.

In my 2016 article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses I briefly  describe  the evolution of the Christmas  ghost story, then go on to make a case for “The Christmas Haunted  House”. A Christmas  haunted house is usually   haunted  on Christmas  Eve. It is the setting of festivities; friends and family gather there. The haunting  takes place after the feasting and frolicking, or in some cases, it interrupts these activities. The haunting is symbolic of the cold and dreary  winter that exists outside the window. If it is not symbolic of the cold and darkness, it is at least  a reminder of these conditions. End of the year holidays, with all the lights  and cheer, are there to counteract the harshness and darkness of  winter. This was most certainly true in the ancient  yuletide  tradition of winter solstice. Winters were harsher, darker, and more deadly.  When the lights go out, when the festivities come to an end, the darkness remains. Scary “winter’s tales” emerged from this, and the telling of such tales evolved into the telling  of ghost stories on Christmas  Eve. Safe inside a house, beside a warm and blazing fireplace, the ghost stories are fun….but…even today, darkness is right outside. So close….so….what if a real ghost joins the party, escaping from its prison inside these fanciful tales?

Much of the literature  revolving around Christmas  ghosts are stories within stories. A group  gathers in a house on Christmas  Eve to tell fanciful ghost stories to pass the time on such a cold winter night. Often one of the storytellers relays a “true” ghost story. Fantasy  becomes reality. And “reality” has always been there, lurking outside of their  protective indoor setting. Now it is inside.

For the record, not all Christmas ghost stories involve haunted  houses. But many do and I love it, because if you haven’t  noticed , I’m a haunted house kind of guy!  Are there any Christmas  haunted house stories in the book that is up for review, Ghosts  of  Christmas  Past? Answer: Of course! What a silly question, for this is a haunted house kinda blog! And it is these stories that I will single out , not that they are better than the “houseless” stories but because they fit the theme  of this blog. However , do they conform to my criteria of what makes a “Christmas  haunted house” story? Sometimes they do.

To my dismay, authors both past  and present  never said, “Hey, there is or will be this Daniel Cheely guy, and he says  Christmas  haunted houses have to be written such-and- such  a way, and I must write my story accordingly.” In other words, the specific details of my “Christmas  haunted  house”  criteria  will not always play  out in every story. I know, awww! But I will say  this; most of the haunted house stories in this book that I am about describe feature a noticeable  dichotomy: the happenings  inside the house vs. the happenings  outside the house. To go from one to another, from out to in or in to out, is to transcend into the supernatural  in someway. Things outside peer in, spirits in the home vanish when exiting  the house.  To some extent, these observations  reflect the themes of  1) warm/cozy inside – 2) cold, dark and scary outside, and the convergence of these two states. Don’t you agree? Maybe you will be able to answer this question when I go into more details about the stories. And I  will do that. Right now!

Warning! There will be spoilers!

 


 

Dinner for One – by Jenn Ashworth  – first published 2014

This story is told from the ghost’s perspective. The ghost haunts his/her wife/partner  on Christmas. The gender of the ghost is not revealed and the official status of the relationship  is unclear, although it is assumed these two were once lovers, back when the ghost inhabited  a living body.

The ghost rearranges things in the house, sets the table for dinner, and gets irate when the former lover fails to acknowledge  the ghost’s  efforts. The angry spirit throws the plates/glasses on the floor. See, the ghost doesn’t realize that it is dead.  The doings of the ghost – this troubles the lady of the house, understandably  so.

Meanwhile, the surviving lover spends much time outside the house. She stands over a bed of rocks.  It will be revealed  that the body of her former partner lies there. She had killed him. Poor ghost, it’s body thrown out of the house, buried under the earth. Poor former person – tossed out of the world  of the living. All it wants is to live, to spend Christmas with its  former lover. And so, it returns to the house and, unknowingly, haunts it.

The Shadow by E Nesbit – first published  in 1905

Ah, a classic Christmas  ghost story! It fits the classic is formula. A group of a young girls, on Christmas  Eve, gather in a sleeping chamber in a house  they occupy to share fanciful ghost stories. They invite one of the household  maids into the room and ask her to tell a ghost story. She is shy, somewhat reluctant to share her story. But she gives in.

The maid’s tale is a true one. She once visited the house of two friends, a married couple. The wife is sick in bed, so she spends most of her time in the company  of the male friend. All the while both are haunted by a presence, a shadow. This shadow is symbolic  of…something. Something that hides underneath. Underneath  what? Just underneath.

By the time the maid finishes the story, the presence is inside the chamber. A tragedy occurs, a tragedy that ties one of the girls to the accounts described by the maid.

In their protective  environment on Christmas  Eve, the girls had shared made-up stories. Then a horrid, truthful tale penetrates  their security. The safe house has been haunted.

This Beautiful House – by Louis De Bernieres – first published 2004

A man returns to his childhood home every Christmas  Eve. He always stands on the grounds, observing the outdoor setting, reflecting, taking in the serenity. He likes to remember  the past Christmases that took place inside the house and relive all the cherished memories he had with his family.  Often, the man can see them in the house, through the windows, he witnesses activity inside.

One by one, various family members come out to greet him. Mother and father, sisters or brothers, uncles. They plead with him, but whether their pleas  are for him to come inside or for him to just go away,  it is not clear. But the man never enters the house and he doesn’t  go away until he is ready.

A tragedy caused all these family members to perish  inside the  house many years ago on Christmas  Eve. Even so, the man knows where to find them, every year  on the anniversary of their deaths, he sees their ghosts. Is he a ghost as well? A ghost that is unwilling to join his family in death where he belongs? Is he reluctant to attend an eternal Christmas  party inside the house?

Inside. Outside. The meeting of these two sides and what happens or doesn’t happen on the crossroads. This is what this story  is about.

The Ghost in the Blue Chamber – by Jerome K. Jerome – first published  in 1891

Another classic story adhering to the classic formula. This is somewhat  of a humorous  tale. A man tells a ghost story to a group of people that are gathered at his house on Christmas  Eve night. It is a true story. He claims the blue chamber  of his house is haunted  by a murderer and his victims. When he was alive, the murderer  had a pastime of killing musicians (See, I told you this was humorous . Laugh! Ha ha ha!). He tells the group the details of all the murders.

After  the telling, the man’s nephew insists  in sleeping  in the blue chamber. That night, the ghost of the murderer visits the nephew. Both men, nephew and ghost, pass the night with chitchat  and pipe smoking. Soon it is time for the ghost  to leave. All ghosts must return  to the cosmos before  dawn, after all. The nephew walks the ghost out the door and down the sidewalk. Soon he confronts two truths: 1)the ghost is no longer by his side 2) The nephew  forgot to put on his pants before going outside.

There is not much more to this story. I can’t find any symbolism within. So, how about my whole “inside/outside” dynamic? Does it play out in this story? Well, the ghost is there  in the house. When he leaves the house ,  when he goes outside , he disappears. So there’s  that. And…that’s all I got.

The Lady and the Fox – by Kelly Link – First published in 2014

This is my favorite of the bunch. It is more a story of fantasy and wonder, though it is a little creepy  and somewhat ghostly. It is a modern fairy tale. Young Miranda, a little girl, enjoys spending Christmases with The Honeywell family. Elspeth  Honeywell  is her godmother. Her son Daniel is like a step-brother to Miranda. Over the years he will become more than that, off and on.

Miranda lives with an  aunt. Her mother is in prison and probably  will be for life. It seems  as though the Honeywells have custody of her only at Christmas  time. One Christmas Eve, while a large gathering of Honeywells party it up at the house, Miranda sees a strange man peering into the windows  from outside. She goes out to meet him. She discovers he is a Honeywell…from a different time period. He dresses in 17th century  outfits. No, he is not a ghost, he insists. His name is Fenny, an no, he can’t go inside the house. This isn’t allowed. He wishes the little girl would just go away and leave him alone.

Year after year, Miranda meets  Fenny  outside the house on Christmas  Eve. He eventually warms up to her. He comes  with the snow. She ages, he does not.  Never does he come inside.

Miranda is a young woman now. She grows to love him. To want him. And he her. She will literally hang on to him to prevent him from disappearing.

Who is Fenny if he’s not a ghost? He is, after all, solid. I failed to mention  that before. I am mentioning it now. Perhaps  Miranda craves that which is “solid”, a solid relationship , a solid understanding  of how she fits into the Honeywell family.  Her relationship  with her mother is  far from solid. The prison system  does not allow  her to see her. Her relationship with Daniel is confusing. She feels more at home with the Honeywells than she does at her aunt’s  place. Is Fenny the physical incarnation of Miranda ’ s desire to belong?  And will Fenny ever come inside? Will Miranda ever rid herself of the feeling that she is always on the outside,  looking in? Outside. Inside.

 


 

Outside the Christmas  house. Inside the Christmas  house. The places in between  the inside and outside, the places that fuel the supernatural. These are the themes I have noticed in these stories. These themes relate to my observations  concerning  Christmas  haunted houses in literature – fragile safety  zones that are in no way impermeable  to the dark forces  that lurk outside in the darkened night of winter.

As a reminder, these are not the only stories in the book. I have covered  less than half. But these are the Christmas  haunted house stories. I recommend buying the book and reading all the stories. Some are better than others, but this is always the case with anthologies.

Thank you for reading  this article about Ghosts  of Christmas  Past, especially  since Christmas  has passed (See what I did there?). I wish you a happy post-Christmas. May your home receive the leftovers of the  Christmas ghost. May they haunt your house – inside and out.

13 Ghosts/1960 Vs. Thir13en Ghosts/2001 – Which Film Wins?

13GhostsSvenInterrogation time! Where were YOU the night of October 27, 2018?  If you had any sense, you would have been snugly wrapped in a blanket on your sofa with your TV tuned to MeTV. That Saturday night in question, Svengoolie, America’s beloved comedic horror movie host, was showing William Castle’s entertaining movie 13 Ghosts.  I’ve brought up Svengoolie several times at this blog. Several of the classic haunted house films I’ve reviewed I first saw on his show, including The Uninvited , The Ghost and Mr. Chicken , Hold that Ghost, and several  more. But of course you know that, since you are a regular visitor of his page, isn’t  that correct, reader? (The interrogation  continues!)

Truth be told, I don’t always have the kind of sense I called for in the preceding  paragraph. I did not tune into Svengoolie on the date in question. I was at a Halloween  party . But us folks in the Chicago area get to watch a rerun of his show the following week on Saturday  morning. It was at this time that I turned on Svengoolie and watched 13 Ghosts. I had  already seen the movie and had written about it (See 13 Ghosts review)but it was worth a revisit. Especially  since I am writing about it once again.

During the show, Svengoolie brought up the 2001 remake  of the movie. He showed  viewers  a promo picture  from the film and invited his audience to check it out, mentioning something  positive  about it, but I can’t remember his exact words. Is this modern incarnation, titled and Thir13en Ghosts (note the unique spelling!) worthy of his praise? I say  “no”, but who am I? And Sven is too nice, in my opinion, to trash anyone’s work.

Here is a synopsis that can be applied to both films. A father/patriarch is having serious trouble making ends meet. In a stroke of timely luck, his long lost Uncle passes away (whoopie! Yay!) and Dad inherits a mansion. He can move his family into the new home. Oh but there is a “catch”, or several “catches” – The dead uncle was a collector of ghosts and these apparitions come with the new  house. He caught them from various  places around the world. Either eleven or twelve  ghosts inhabit the house  depending on the version of the movie (this discrepancy will be explained  later). By and large, these ghosts are invisible, but the dear old dead uncle discovered a way to make these ghosts more sightly. He developed these special glasses that, when worn, allow the mundane living human being to see these scary phantoms.

Now, I have mentioned that the number of ghosts range  from 11-12. So, why are these films called “13 Ghosts/Thir13en Ghosts?”  It is the thirteenth ghost that spawns the mystery of these films.  There is “the prediction” that “there will be” a thirteenth ghost by each film’s end. Whether this prediction comes true varies with each film.

So, what are the differences between the films? On the one hand we have an old fashioned,  kooky  film with an old school Leave it to Beaver type family with a Ward Cleaver type of dad, a housewife mother, and teenage daughter and curious little boy.  On the other, we have a modern  family, with a widower raising his young boy and teenage daughter with the help of a sassy African American babysitter. The ghosts in the original film are cartoon animations superimposed on the screen. The ghosts in the remake  film are actors made over in ghoulish and gore-ridden get ups. The second  film has state of the art production . Not so with the first film. The original  movie was shot in black and white, the modern in color. Finally, the 1960  flick uses that old fashion ghostly groan that grandpa might use to scare his grandchildren (ooooooooooo! Groooooooan) and the 2001  movie shows viewers a lot of state-of-the-art blood and guts.

These are just some of the differences between  the films. Let’s go further and get into the nuts and bolts of plot and style. Once we do so, we will see that these are two very different films.


13 Ghosts (1960)

WARNING: SPOILERS ARE COMING!

As previously mentioned, both movies feature a special  pair of glasses that allow its characters to see the ghosts. But it was the  original  film that gave the movie audience the same opportunity. Back in the day, theater  attendees  were given a “ghost viewer.” It had two lenses, on blue and one red. Periodically, the screen would turn blue. This was an indication that ghosts  were about to appear on the screen. Or were they? See (or not to see), the film begins with a short commentary spoken by Director William Castle.  He speaks to the audience  members  that do not believe  in ghosts and tells them to look  through  the blue lens. When doing so, they would not see any ghosts. However, he instructs those moviegoers who do believe in ghosts to gaze through  the red lens. They would see the ghosts. So basically,  the audience had to look through the red lens to see the ghosts that haunted the house in the film.

Here is the intro to the film:

This whole nifty  ghost-viewing experience  was the main point of this film. It was a kind of audience  participatory art form, and of course, a marketing  gimmick, for which William Castle was the master. The plot takes second place to this. But it’s not such a terrible plot! It’s not all that great either, but….hey! The film has ghosts! Boo! Yay!

Benjamin Rush, the attorney for the late Plato Zorba, the Dead Uncle who bequeathed his estate to his nephew,  takes care of the property transfer and brings  the nephew and his family into their newly inherited home. He warns them about the ghosts but the family doesn’t believe him…until they witness the ghostly activities for themselves. Objects move 13GhostsGhosts on their own accord. Through the special glasses, they see the ghosts. Quite the variety these specters are! There is an Italian chef that likes to toss knives around in the kitchen. There is a ghostly lion that comes equipped with a headless lion tamer. There’s a fiery skeleton and many others.  As to the whys and wherefores regarding Plato Zorba’s collection (just what in the heck did he want to do with these ghosts?), the details are unclear as the movie never fully explains this. But never mind, remember: plot is second to the ghost-viewer gimmick.

The family treats these ghosts as a nuisance, albeit a dangerous annoyance. But what can they do? They have nowhere else to go, so they are forced to put up with Uncle Zorba’s collection of eleven ghosts. Ah, but there is another ghost in the house. It is the spirit of Uncle Zorba himself. It is revealed that ghosts remain on earth when they have unfinished business. Plato Zorba certainly has some loose ends that need tying. For one thing, he didn’t just die, he was murdered! He needs his revenge. The murderer is to be “the 13th Ghost”  He or she will die in this house. Now who could it be?

As it turns out, Dear ol’ dead Uncle Zorba left an enormous amount of cash behind. It is hidden somewhere in the house. The murderer wanted the money. And s/he is still hunting for it. Could the murder be the spooky ol’ witchy maid?  She too comes with the house. 13GhostsGhosts2And she is played by Margaret Hamilton, most famous for her portrayal of The Wicked Witch of the West in The W izard of Oz.  She leads a séance at one point as the family tries to contact the spirit of Uncle Zorba. A prime suspect, don’t you think?  If you think so, you are wrong. It is the lawyer, Benjamin Rush, who is the murderous villain. And he will get what’s coming to him. No, not the money. He will die in the house and become the 13th ghost.

In the end, the family finds the money and they are happy. Uncle Zorba is no longer earthbound, since he has his revenge. From that point on, the house is clean of ghosts. Why the rest of the ghosts pass on is anyone’s guess. Remember: Ghosts before plot. Keep repeating that: Ghosts before plot -Ghosts before plot -Ghosts before plot -Ghosts before plot.


Thir13en Ghosts – 2001

WARNING: SPOILERS ARE COMING!

The ghost hunter, a.k.a the rich uncle, goes by the name of Cyrus Kriticos in this movie, which begins not with the family that is about to inherit his house, but instead kicks off by showing the great extremes to which Cyrus and his team of merry ghost hunters go to in order to capture a ghost. Cyrus is not dead yet, but he will be after the ensuing carnage (Or will he be?).  This carnage take place in a junkyard. This ghost is like a wild animal and he resists the hunt. There are explosions, shouts, zaps, flashing lights, giant walls of cars that come tumbling down. In the end, the ghost is caught. But oh no, Cyrus dies in the aftermath of the hunt. (Or does he?)

Arthur is the down on his luck nephew. Just like in the original film, a lawyer by the name of Ben informs Arthur that his Uncle Cyrus has died and that he has inherited his house and all his wealth. Yay!  Arthur moves his family to the new home, and what a home it is!  It resembles the kind of structure Indiana Jones might encounter – there are chambers and hallways everywhere and they are separated by glass panels that open and close via a machine involving wheels, gears and levers.  Lawyer Ben is there to show them around, to get final papers signed, etc.  Oh yeah, there’s this annoying “Dennis” dude there as well. He is posing as a power company inspector, but he is really an “empath” that is super sensitive to the presence of ghosts (he screams ever so  annoyingly when he encounters them). He used to work for Cyrus and he is there to warn the family of the 12 ghosts that haunt the house.

The ghosts are locked in glass wall prison cells down in the basement. There are phrases written in Latin inscribed on the glass panels which, due to some kind of magic, act as barriers and prevents these ghosts from passing through the glass. Now, remember how I mentioned that in the original film, there were sacks of cash hidden in the house that the lawyer wanted to steal? That was a major plot point that moved the story toward its finality. Well in this movie, the cash is also there and Lawyer Ben wants it just as much as Lawyer Ben in the original film, but this is a mere subplot that gets resolved in the first 30 minutes. Ben wanders to the basement, finds the cash while inadvertently striking some lever or button which releases the ghosts from their prison cells.. He meets a quick end when a sheet of glass slides down from the ceiling and cuts him in half. Bye Ben, your screen time is done.

Meanwhile, the house seals itself off and the occupants are trapped inside. Annoying Dennis explains that “this isn’t a house, it is a machine”. It was designed for a grand ritual that will take place at the movie’s end. The ritual involves a spinning platform, shifting walls and panels, ghosts and so much more – oh my! The family ends up in the basement, and the horrific looking ghosts chase them, fight them, and kill poor Dennis.  And guess what? Uncle Cyrus is there too! No, he’s not a ghost – he never died! He had faked his death for some very nefarious reasons.

Uncle Cyrus wants his nephew to be the 13th Ghost. Now why does he want something like that to happen? Well, it’s all part of a plan. As an occultist, he follows the Black Zodiac. The 12 Ghosts represent each Zodiac sign, which is vastly different from the signs we learned from astrology. Instead of Pisces the fish and Taurus the bull, the black Zodiac gives us Torso , a ghost with missing legs, or The Angry Princess – the ghost of a young woman who commits suicide. All 12  are needed, plus one more – in order to open the gates of Hell, or achieve some sort of hellish power. The 13th ghost must come from 13Ghosts2ndMovieGhost2someone who is willing to sacrifice his life for the love of others. And so…..at the end, all 12 Ghosts are lined up obediently on the edges of a spinning circular platform.  Arthur’s children are caged in the middle of the circle. To free them, Arthur must sacrifice himself.  Gears are turning, walls are shifting.

But this ritual fails in the end. Cyrus dies, the children are freed, huggies and kissie for everyone, and the maid ends the movie on a sassy note, saying something to the effect of “I don’t get paid for this shit! Dealing with all these ghosts, I quit!”  Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!! Let’s laugh again,  Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!!


What “those other” folks might say

So, which film is better? For me it’s the classic William Castle version. But many will disagree. I have seen a comment somewhere out there in Internet Land that the original film “hasn’t aged well.”  I’m guessing many viewers agree. I suppose the superimposed cartoon-style ghosts look too silly for modern viewers. There are scenes where objects float in the air, and yes, this type of antic is used in many comedy films such as Abbott and Costello Meet (Whoever). In other words it looks more funny than scary, and 13 Ghosts was never intended to be a comedy.  Perhaps the family that is at the center of the plot is too hokey with their “Leave it to Beaver” style camaraderie and their unrealistic reactions to the situation. They treat the whole affair as if their house was infested with insects instead of ghosts.

13Ghosts2ndMovieGhostThe modern film moves faster, that’s for sure. Its ghosts look more deadly, more real.  It is filled with non-stop action and a whole lot of pizzazz. Many viewers like this sort of thing and so it would be the second film that strikes their fancy. Filmed in high tech color with bright red blood, it is more entertaining for hue-spongy eyes than a screen of “dull” black, whites and grays.

Here’s what I say!

Sure the original film is hokey, as are most William Castle films to some degree. But gosh darn it, it is a fun film, just like Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” is a fun but hokey film! I didn’t mind the dated technology that made these ghosts possible. Cartoonish – yes. Scary – for me, a little bit! Although today’s viewers, myself included, are deprived of what Castle called “The Illusion-O Effect” (wearing the glasses to see the ghosts on the screen), I still like the concept. What a fun and creative way to promote and deliver a movie! I’m not saying that 13 Ghosts is a great film, but it is good. And it’s fun!

Now how about this 2001 remake? I was annoyed at the very beginning and this annoyance progressed like a building headache. Too much motion, too much action, too many flashing lights, too much damn noise – all within the first few minutes. This trend continues with the “machine house” and its jump-scare ghosts. While they look gory and scary, they are always accompanied by flashing lights and loud jolting noises. Watching this film is like being inside a pinball that crashes against bumpers and lighted alarms as it travels the downward slope toward the gutter. I don’t want be trapped in a pinball machine when I watch a movie.

In my review of the modern House on Haunting Hill film, I am a bit forgving for its excessive flare and over-the-top style. One of the reasons for my pardon is that the film is a remake of a movie that was never intended to be a cinematic masterpiece, so any deviations from the original style are not that unwelcoming. In the end, both films were exercises in entertainment and do not take things seriously. Does Thir13en Ghosts 2001 take itself seriously? No.  Is the original film a cinematic masterpiece. Definitely not. So I should apply the same standards for this critique, right? Answer – NO!  If the modern film had turned down the noise, did away with a third of the flashes, and just slowed the fuck down, then maybe I could enjoy it better for what it is – a jump-scare, special effects extravaganza, which is not necessarily a bad thing when done right. But here it is done wrong. Too much, too much, too much!

There is one scene that moves at an appropriate pace. A teenage girl is in the bathroom and she calmly reflects in the mirror. The ghost of The Angry Princess stands next her but goes unseen (teenage girl is not wearing her ghost viewing glasses). The ghost does not like what the mirror shows her. She sees a disfigured face. In the bathtub, the teenager refreshes herself with clear, cool water. The Princess sees only a tub of blood. This scene, while bloody and gory, is good. It allows the viewers to feel something, to absorb some of the story. If only the rest of the film was like this.

As for the plot, I enjoy the simple story of the original movie.. I don’t know why these modern remakes insist upon explaining the hauntings with over complicated plot devices. A machine house designed to somehow extract “something” from 12 spirits that will somehow unlock some dark secret power, all by using machinery with a design that would stump the greatest of engineers – this is just absurd and I would rather have the cartoon ghosts just appearing here and there to say “boo!”

Here is how I grade these two films:

13 Ghosts (1960) – C+
Thir13en Ghosts – 2001 – F

Now, let’s see how Rottentomatoes.com scores these films:

13 Ghosts (1960) – Critics Score: 36% / Audience Score: 41%

Thir13en Ghosts (2001) – Critics Score: 15% / Audience Score: 48%

While both the critics and the audience give low scores to both films, the audiences tend to favor the modern version over the original. For the critics, it is the opposite. I guess it’s “the audiences” that might agree with what I wrote in the section “What “those other” folks might say” while maybe the critics would agree with what I wrote in the section “Here’s what I say!’

If you have not seen these films, go ahead and do so, compare them, and make up your own mind as to which film is better.


 

And so, this article ends my October theme: Classic Haunted House Movies and Their Remakes – Just How Bad are These Modern Modifications? As predicted by the biased article title, I ended up enjoying the classics more than the remakes in all three cases. But some of the remakes weren’t super duper bad. Thir13en Ghosts was that bad though. I’ll let Juliette Lewis say it:

The House on Haunted Hill/1959 Vs. The House on Haunted Hill /1999 – Which Film Wins?

 

HouseOnHauntedHillSkeletonCption

 

Who can survive the night in the House on Haunted Hill? There have been many tragic deaths within its confines. Those of us with an appetite for haunted house stories know that a house with a deadly history foreshadows future doom  for those story characters that choose to roam its  rooms and corridors. Why oh why do these people embark  upon such a journey? For fun and games?

Someone is making a game out of this situation. An eccentric rich man is willing to pay large sums of money to anyone that spends the night in The House on Haunted Hill…and survives. He decides to host a birthday party for his wife at this house. A strange  party this is, for the guests are strangers to him. These strangers are the contestants  in his deadly game of survival. Why is he doing this? That is the  mystery, but viewers learn  early on that he is very suspicious  of his wife. She has tried  to murder him on past occasions. Is all this a scheme  to extract  some kind of twisted revenge on his wife? Will she, once again, try to murder him and do so before the night is through.

In the first  release of this film, there is a skeleton  that rises out of a vat of acid to prey on people. In the second  release of this film there is a chamber designed to rid a mental patient of his/her schizophrenia. But the inverse  is also true – it can drive a sane person insane. Get ready folks, there  is a lot of weird  things afoot  in these two different  versions  of the movie The House  on  Haunted  Hill .

Welcome readers to my second compare and contrast article concerning classic haunted house films and their respective remakes. I hope by now you have read the first article: The Haunting 1963 Vs. The Haunting 1999 – Which Film Wins? If not, click on the link and read, read read!

The films in the preceding article are based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House.  Though the films in this article share a name that is similar to the novel (“Hill House” vs. “Haunted Hill”), they are of different species and should not be confused with “The Haunting” movies. Let’s compare the two original films, (The House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting), in brief.  The House on Haunted Hill (1959)  by William Castle is by no means the definitive haunted house film. In my opinion, that description belongs to the Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).  Castle’s film possesses not the pristine creepiness of Wise’s film. The Haunting is for the serious student of spooky cinematography – The House on Haunted Hill is a fun popcorn film filled with gimmicky scares. I like The Haunting considerably more than The House on Haunted Hill, but truth be told, Castle’s film is entertaining, so please don’t think I am panning his film. It too is enjoyable in its own way

Look what I’m doing – this is supposed to be an article about the similarities and differences between the two House on Haunted Hill films, and here I am instead devoting much attention to the differences between The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Haunting (1963). Why am I doing this?  All will be explained in the chart below:

Where:

  • A = The Haunting (1963)
  • a =  The Haunting (1999)
  • B = The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
  • b = The House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The likability gap between A and a  <   B and b. Such a variance can best be explained by an overall categorical comparison

See, now everything is explained!

(Hypothetical Reader:  “I don’t know what the fuck you are getting at! And will you please use plain English and ditch the mathematics?)

What I’m trying to say is that I prefer The Haunting of 1963 so much more than its remake.  While the original House on Haunting Hill film is significantly better than its remake, The House on Haunted Hill of 1999 isn’t altogether terrible; it is better than The Haunting of 1999. I am more forgiving of the style and content changes that earmark the modernized version of The House on Haunted Hill. The reason for this pardon has to do with the laxed tone of the original film. The House on Haunted Hill/1959, though not technically “horror comedy, is silly at times. It “makes” fun, and therefore, the gesture can be reciprocated. We the viewers are allowed to “make fun” of it while enjoying the movie at the same time.  By the same token, The House on Haunted Hill/1999, while seriously flawed, is also a fun film. It doesn’t take itself as seriously as The Haunting/1999. Because the original film is gimmicky by intentional design, the remake is bequeathed certain liberties in the name of fun or even absurdity. The Haunting/1963 does not call for such directional change, and yet its 1999 remake awkwardly pursues a different path to the point of identify confusion. Is it attempting a serious, gothic-style haunting or is it settling for a hammy display ghost-centered theatrics? It doesn’t know. Meanwhile, even though I enjoyed The House on Haunted Hill/1959, it cannot compete with the masterpiece that is The Haunting/1963.

Here is another chart that utilizes a grading scale to explain my preferences:

The House on Haunted Hill/ 1959 –  B+
The Haunting/1963 – A
The Haunting/1999 – D
The House on Haunted Hill/1999 – C-

Let’s see if rottentomatoes.com critics/audience feels the same way.

The House on Haunted Hill/1959 – Critics score – 92% / Audience score 72%
The Haunting/1963 –  Critics score – 87% / Audience score 82%
The Haunting/1999 – Critics Score: 16%/ Audience Score 28%
The House on Haunted Hill/1999  – Critics Score: 29%/Audience Score 42%

Wow, the aggregate of critics prefer the The House on Haunted Hill/1959 to The Haunting/1963. But the general trend regarding the modern films seems to agree with my preferences. So there!

Okay, let’s move along and find out what these two “House on Haunted Hill”  movies are made of!

The House  on  Haunted  Hill  – 1959

To appreciate   the “silly yet scary” tone of this film, one must understand something  about the film’s director and creative  marketer, the late great William Castle. I’ll give you a couple of “somethings.”

Castle was the master of marketing gimmicks. These gimmicks played out at the theaters where his films were shown. These manufactured stunts related to certain scenes in the film. For instance, during his film The Tingler, about a centipede-like  creature that attaches itself to the human spine  and causes a tingling  sensation, Castle  equipped certain theaters with vibrating chair device that caused viewers  backs to tingle. In his movie 13 Ghosts, viewers were given special  glasses to wear if they wanted to see the movie ghosts. (This movie will be featured  in my next compare/contrast article).

Did he have a gimmick for The House  on Haunted  Hill? You bet he did! Remember at the beginning of the article when I referred to a skeleton  that rises out of a vat of acid? Well, in select  theaters, he arranged  for a skeleton  to slide across a hidden wire over the heads of seated viewers. What fun!

Think of William  Castle  as a prankster that pulls off cheesy  yet scary pranks. We all had that relative that threw a sheet over his head and jumped out of a closet with a “boo!”. In retrospect, that’s cheesy, but the trick scared its victims and ended up being a whole lot of fun. This is what  his films are like. They are also filled with mystery and creative twists. Think Scooby-Doo (but the mastermind  is not always Old Man Crowley!) . The House on Haunted  Hill follows this criteria. It’s mysterious, scary, and delightfully cheesy .

The rich  eccentric, Frederick Loren  is played by Vincent  Price. As usual  his performance  is brilliant. Without  him, my rating of this film would drop by a grade and a half. The way he goes at it with his  wife Annabelle, played by Carol Ohmart . ..growwwwwwwl!!

Frederick makes sure to inform his guests that they have until midnight  to change  their minds about spending  the night. At midnight, the servants leave and lock the doors, sealing all guests  inside until dawn. For protection during the long night, he “gifts” each person a gun. The guns are “gift-wrapped” inside a tiny coffins. What could possibly go wrong  with  this scenario?

The most annoying  character is Watson Pritchard (played by Elisha Cook Jr.) He owns the house but doesn’t  reside in it. He is the one that knows about the history  of this house and he is terribly frightened of it. But he is in need of money and hopes to win the ten thousand dollars  that Frederick promises to each surviving guest. Throughout  the movie, he plays the scaredy-cat and carries on in an irritating , squeaky voice.  In addition, his pervasive facial expression  of cartoon fright gets old real fast.

Guest Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) receives the brunt of the haunting. She finds a HouseOnHauntedHill1959 severed head in her bedroom. She sees ghosts and witch-like  figures here and there, around this corner, outside this window. (The “floating” witch-like  character  looks like on of those  carnival fun house dummies.) During her stay, she finds a love interest, one Lance Schroeder (Richard Long). He looks out for her and tries to calm her.. How sweet!

During the night, Annabelle (Fredericks wife) is found hanging over a stairwell, a noose around her neck. At first the group thinks it’s suicide, but there is a doctor  among the guests. He examines the body and decides, due to the way she had been hanging, she couldn’t  have done this to herself. Someone  had murdered her. But who?

Initially, Frederick  is the suspect. After all, the guests learned how much he despised his wife. But Frederick objects, insisting that one of them had murdered Annabelle. In the end, no one is sure what to believe  and they all suspect  each other. So, in this type of situation, for everyone’s safety, what is the best course of action? At the doctor’s suggestion, everyone retires to their own personal  bedrooms. The one who breaks this rule, the one that might decide  to take a late night stroll, is quite  possibly  the killer. I wonder if this film began the “we all most separate” trope that is pervasive  in horror films. Maybe not, but the separation  plan as specifically laid out in the dialog is patently absurd. Oh well, on we go with the rest of the movie.

Now, here comes a Twist!  Let’s do it!  (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!)

The body of Annabelle  lies on a bed. The doctor has left his room. He approaches  Annabelle. Surprise! She is not dead. She and the doc are lovers and have been planning something  nefarious. See, they have been haunting the house, purposely scaring the shit out of poor Nora, hoping that in her frightened state, she would shoot Frederick, thinking he is the murderous, evil facilitator of the house haunting. They arrange for Nora to encounter him down in the cellar by the vat of acid in a situation where she would mistakenly think he was there to kill her. The plan works! She shoots him! He falls over and she runs away.

The doctor then descends to the cellar to get rid of the body of Frederick. He pulls the corpse toward the vat of acid, intending to throw him inside, where the acid would eat away at his skin and guts, reducing him to bones.  The screen goes dark, there is the sounds of a scuffle.

Hey readers, how about we do another Twist!

Annabelle makes her way down to the basement. The skeleton of Frederick rises out of the vat of acid and chases her. His evil voice accompanies the chase. The skeleton leads her to the edge of the vat. Its boney arm reaches out to her. She fall in!

And yet another twist! (No Chubby Checker this time. Sorry!)

The real Frederick comes out of the shadows. He had been operating the skeleton with wires, making it move. He was never dead either. The gun he had given Nora was filled with blanks. When the Doctor was moving “his body” and the screen went dark, Frederick had stopped playing dead and fought the doctor and pushed him into the acid vat.

In the end, he gets away with killing his wife and her lover. A nice happy ending! Yay!!!!!!

Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!


The House  on  Haunted  Hill  – 1999

Forty years after the original movie, society is blessed with – this. The “this” is that which I am about to describe. Oh, I should knock off the mockery, for as I have already stated, this remake isn’t all “that bad”. It’s just bad, without the “that”.

In the original film, the backstory concerning the house is given, but not in great detail. Seven people had died in the house before the events in the film. All of them had lost their heads.  The whys and wherefores concerning these head losses are not given. Nor do we know if the backstory is even true. It might just be the wild imaginings of that annoying guy. In the modern version, the backstory is central to haunting. In this version of the story, the house on haunted hill was once an insane asylum. The doctor who ran this institution was not a very nice guy. (Not even a little nice? No!)  What made him “not nice?”  Well for one thing, he operated on patients without using anesthesia. That’s not very nice. The film shows him with a patient on the operating table, who is twitching in pain as the “not nice” doc rips out some of his organs. There is a nurse or two there as well, perhaps another doctor, and they are all cruelly taking part in this operation.  This kind of thing is common parlance here at this asylum – the patients are the doctor’s guinea pigs.

One day, the patients rise up. They kill the doctor and his evil staff. While the carnage ensues, the place goes on automatic lockdown. Steel barriers seal off all the doors and windows. It’s an automatic thing, controlled by machinery.  The insane people set the place on fire. But they can’t get out!  So, they all die; doctors, staff and patients. Hmmm, I wonder is such a tragedy will cause some kind of haunting later in the film, when once again, a rich eccentric will invite complete strangers to this “house on the hill” for his wife’s birthday party? The answer – yes!

HouseOnHauntedHill1999While the original film is marked with gimmicks and sideshow scares, this film is filled with – gore, gore, gore! I have already mentioned the operation scene. But there is more in store than what was shown as the backstory. There are a lot of flashing lights, buzzing sounds, and mechanical zaps!  Parts of the movie remind me of any opening sequence for American Horror Story, whichever season.

The rich eccentric (played by Geoffrey Rush) goes by the name Stephen Price.  I like how is character is named after the great Vincent. Throughout the movie, they simply refer to him as “Price.” They even make him look like Vincent Price a bit with a similar hairstyle and thin mustache. Price is an amusement park mogul, and there is a cool scene at the beginning of the film involving a roller coaster. Anyway, the set up is the same – Price is at odds with his wife Evelyn (played by Famke Janssen). They would like to kill each other, if only there was a way!

The screen chemistry between Rush and Janssen, I must say, is pretty good. Maybe not quite up to par with Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart team, but still they put on a good show. Once again, a birthday party is planned for the wife at a haunted house. Guests will be paid a million dollars if they can last the night. In the earlier film, the reward was ten thousand dollars, but that kind of money doesn’t go very far in 1999. Oh already, there is a twist! The computer erases the guest list and creates an alternative list. This doesn’t happen in the first film. What is going on? (Hint: Ghosts are playing around. Oooooooo!)

Four guests arrive at the house, lead by a fifth person – Watson Pritchett (That’s almost the same name as the charter he is playing from the first film, which is Watson Pritchard, according to Wikipedia). He is the one granting everyone access to the house. He owns it but refuses to live there. He doesn’t even want to be here tonight. He knows about its past and knows that it is haunted in a very deadly way. This Watson is less annoying than the one in the original film. This one is kind of funny in an entertaining kind of way. The other guests include a doctor dude, a pilot dude, a journalist dude-et, and a secretary dude-et. Of course Price and Evelyn are there and….let the games begin!

Watson wants to get the hell out of there. He doesn’t plan on spending the night. But oh no, the automatic lockdown kicks in. Doors and windows are sealed. Who did this? Is it Price? Evelyn? Or…the ghosts? (Hint: it’s the ghosts). So the cast of characters need to figure out how to get to the controls that operate the barricade and deactivate it. On the way toward the machinery, they pass a lot of torture devices.

The same basic plot of the original film plays out here in pretty much the same way. All guests are given guns. Evelyn if found dead, not by hanging, but someone had the gall to strap her to an electroshock machine. Price is blamed and they lock him in the chamber that “Makes an insane person sane, and a sane person crazy”. Ahh, I don’t feel like describing the chamber, so just see the film to see what that’s all about.  But- eureka! Evelyn isn’t dead. The doctor guest is in cahoots with her. They want Price dead. Eventually Price is freed from the chamber and is shot dead. Oh no he isn’t! He is wearing a bulletproof vest. He and his wife then physically fight each other, but both ended up being destroyed by – the ghosts.

Alas, there is no skeleton rising from a vat of acid in this version of the story. The modern movie replaces those sideshow special effects with, once again, the wonders of computer graphic images. Back in high school, did you ever learn about the four types of conflict within the short story? If memory serves me correctly, they are:

Man vs. Man
Man Vs. Nature
Man Vs. Himself
Man Vs. Society

(Sorry for the sexist terminology, this is how I learned to refer to this conflicts)

Well now there is a new one:

Man Vs. CGI Amorphous Blob of Spirits. (That’s what the thing at the end of the movie looked like to me anyway – one shadowy blob consisting of hundreds of spirits)

In a similar manner as The Haunting 1999, it is this CGI Monster of Spirits that is the bad guy. Why oh why are they so mad at these guests that they want them dead. Well, remember when I mentioned that the computer had swapped one guest list for another? As it turns out, the ones invited via the phantom computer operator are descendants of the staff that ran the evil insane asylum. The spirits need their revenge, don’t they?  So once again, just like The Haunting 1999, the writers felt the need to tie the characters to the backstory via familial relations that were kept secret. Oh my!

 


 

And so….

There is one area, in my opinion, where both films fail. And that is – creating an establishing shot of a large, creepy haunted house.  The “house” in the 1959 film looks like this:

HouseOnHauntedHillOriginalHouse

Kind of a random array of blocks and squares if you ask me. Following suit, the 1999 film uses an establishing shot that invokes no real sense of “haunting:”

HouseOnHauntedHillModernHouse

It looks more like something out of a Star Wars movie.

Be that as it may, The House of Haunted Hill 1959 is a good film, not necessarily great. The House of Haunted Hill 1999 is a tolerable film, so long as one is not offended by gore and noise. The second film has its fun moments, but it should not be on anyone’s top 50 list of great horror films. Maybe not on any top 100 list either.

Both films invoke humor, and humor is a good thing, right? I mean, we all need to laugh. The original film is comfortable with its gimmicky status and doesn’t try to be anything else. The second film, though overblown with effects and filled with unintentionally cheesy story arcs, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is a good thing too. And what a great way to end this article, on a “good” note.

 

 

 

The Haunting of Hill House – The Netflix Series – What it is and What it isn’t

Who has been coming to my door these days?

HillHouseNetflixDoor

 

I’ve been getting a larger than usual number of hits at this blog lately. Sometimes WordPress records the search words that lead people to my page.   Some of the “search phrases” as of late are as follows:

  • is haunting of hill house the same as the book
  • the haunting versus the haunting on hill house
  • how does the haunting of hill house tie in with the haunting
  • the haunting of hill house same like the book
  • can hold my pee and peeing alot (Don’t know how this searcher found my page about haunted houses with this!)

In short, visitors are searching  for clues as to how the new Netflix  series The Haunting of Hill House  ties into  either:

  1. Shirley  Jackson’s  book by the same name, OR
  2. The Haunting, which is the movie that is based on Jackson’s novel.

Search engines  have led them to my site, which features  articles and reviews  of both the movie and book. But alas, visitors have found no information  about the Netflix  series  – until now!

I appreciate  the extra traffic. To show my appreciation, I  will answer some possible  FAQs about the Netflix series. I just started watching it: I have seen the first  five episodes. In an article I wrote about the movie The Haunting,  I express doubt  about the whole idea of turning Shirley Jackson’s novel into a miniseries. (The link to this article is at the end of this piece) However, now that I am halfway through it, I can honestly say that  I am hooked. I love it! The show is very very good!

Let me begin with  what the series  is not. It’s not a sequel to the book ( or movie). It is not a prequel either. It is not a crossover , it is not a spinoff; it exists in a story universe of its very own. What it does do is utilize the same character names of the book and it recreates several parts/scenes of the book/movie within an entirely  different  context. Admittedly, the series is a bit confusing  with its constant  jumps in time and non-linear  storytelling. Do yourself  a favor –  don’t try and figure out how the Nell of the series has become or was once the Nell of the book. Same goes with Theo. The characters of the series are very different than the characters that are portrayed in the original  story (though not entirely different This will be explained later). Please don’t add to any existing confusion  by trying to tie the characters  of the series to the book. It just won’t work. There is no prevailing story arc that flows from the original incarnation to this latest manifestation.

Before I delve into what the Netflix  series is, I first  need to explore  “the is” of the original story, the story that came from the brilliant  mind of Shirley  Jackson. The movie The Haunting (1963)  follows Jackson’s  book pretty closely, so for the purposes of this article I will treat both the book and the film as one in the same (although  in another article I write about the differences between the two mediums and their versions of the story. The link to that article  is posted at the end  of this piece.)

Dr. Montague   (Named Dr. Markway in the film, but who cares) recruits two people to take part in a study  that aims to investigate the paranormal  activity that has  been rumored to be rampant  at Hill House. Both participants have an affinity  toward the supernatural  in one way or another. Theo, the brash bohemian and implied lesbian, has ESP, can read minds, etc. Eleanor  Vance was once the victim of poltergeist activity  – stones showered down on her house when she was a little  girl. Dr. Montague hopes that Hill House will be more likely  to display paranormal   activity in the presence  of people that are attuned to the supernatural.

The two ladies join Dr. Montague for a prolonged  stay at Hill House. Also there is Luke Sanderson. He is due to inherit Hill House and he too stays with the trio at the house . He doesn’t believe  the ghost stories but he is taking part in this study mostly to protect the interests of his future property .

Hill House has a history of madness and unexplained  deaths. Built by one Hugh Crain, two of his wives lost their lives in the house or around the property.  His daughter Abigail  lived in the house from birth to death. She occupied the nursery the whole time. She died as an old lady , who called out to her caretaker  in the middle of the night. The caretaker  did not come to her assistance and , unaided in her ailment , Abigail passed on. The caretaker would later hang herself beside a spiral staircase.

The team of four witness several supernatural occurrences.  They stand in cold spots, they observe doors that won’t stay closed, they hear loud banging noises against the walls. But it is Eleanor  that receives the brunt of the haunting. Even so, she is drawn to Hill House, and Hill House  is drawn to her as well. It wants to keep her inside. Forever.

That is the classic  story in a nutshell. So, what’s the modern series all about? It’s about a family  -The Crain’s (the same surname of the original Hill House occupants in the backstory  of Shirley Jackson’s novel). They stay at Hill House for a summer.  There is Hugh the father, Olivia the mother, Shirley  the eldest daughter (approximately  twelve-years-old) and her younger  siblings:  Steve (Maybe age eleven?), Theo (age ten?) and the two young twins Luke and Eleanor  (approximately 5 or 6 years old  ). See what they did here? They use  the names of  the characters  from the original  story. While the series gives them similar traits as the original characters, they are different people in different contexts. In the original story, Luke, Theo and Eleanor are strangers to each other  until they met at Hill House. In the series  they are siblings.

Most of the family members have experienced some kind of ghostly disturbance during their stay at Hill House. After a tragedy , the family flees the house. The series juxtaposes between several time periods. We see the kids as grown ups.. As adults, they suffer through various life dilemmas and troubling psychological problems. Most of their problems  can be traced back to that summer spent at Hill  House. See, “the haunting of Hill House” follows the kids into their adult years . It is like a hand, and though most of the family has escaped Hill House’s palmy grip, Its  fingers stretch throughout the years, pointing its horror in the survivors’ direction,  poking at their daily lives. Even in their adult lives , they are haunted by ghosts.

The Netflix  series is creepy , dark, and very morbid. In other words , it’s great! And, it creatively  reimagines  some of the classic  scenes, fitting them into updated  contexts. Waking up in the middle of the night to feel a phantom hand holding your hand – this scene plays out in both the series and book. Finding graffiti on the wall of Hill House that reads “Welcome Home, Eleanor”, this happens in both mediums. Breaking out into a HillHouseNetflixOriginalHauntingdance before some creepy Hill House statues – yep, this scene can now be considered both classic and modern. The “Hill House” of the series has many of the same features of the Hill House of the 1963 movie,  including a large gate at the beginning of the driveway, and the “twisted” spiral staircase. Both Hill Houses feature rooms that are locked – for the safety of the inhabitants. The caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, are featured in both the series and the book. But again, please remember, these are recreations of the famous scenes, not repeats, not meant to tie directly into the happenings of the original story. These are what they call “easter eggs”; features that pay homage to the earlier works.

Like in the book, the Theo of the series has a talent for “knowing things”. In the original story, she reads minds and knows the cards of another card player. In the series, she touches things (and people) and suddenly she gains knowledge about the object of her touch. While her sexual preference for women is only implied in the original story, she actively seeks out female sexual partners in the series. As in the book, Hill House “calls” out to Eleanor (Nell).  When they are children, Luke has an imaginary friend – Abigail (possibly a ghost?) Abigail is the daughter of Hugh Crain in the book/movie, the one who spends her whole life inside the nursery.

There are plenty of other similarities and references to the original story within the series, but I won’t go into them all.

If you are already a fan of the Netflix series but have yet to watch the movie The Haunting (or read the book The Haunting of Hill House), I encourage you to do so, then you yourself can discover the ghosts that crossover between the mediums .The movie is a classic and the book is a very intriguing read. Likewise, if you are fans of the film and the novel but are hesitant to try this modern reimagining of the story, I strongly suggest that you let go of this hesitancy and climb on board. You won’t be disappointed.

 


 

As promised, here are the links to articles and reviews that I have written about Hill House, The Haunting, and other good stuff:

1) An article comparing the book The Haunting of Hill House  to the 1963 film The Haunting:

Review of The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting: Book Vs. Movie

2) An Article comparing the film The Haunting/1963 to the remake – The  Haunting/1999

The Haunting 1963 Vs. The Haunting 1999 – Which Film Wins? 

3) An article reviewing another book written by Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Who are the Ghosts that Haunt Shirley Jackson’s Novels?