Poltergeist – It’s Heeeeeeere! (Finally!)

 

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

Fine, here’s a brief plot:

Sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch

Here’s the story, of a lovely family

Mom and Dad raising three very lovely broods

The youngest had hair of gold, like no other

It’s time to change our moods.

 

It’s the story of Carol Anne

The youngest and creepiest of the three

The ghosts took her to another dimension

Her voice heard on TV

 

So they called up all these special people

They would return her to mom and her spouse

But then these corpses came up from under

That’s when they knew to flee the haunted house

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

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

 

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

Director and Producer

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

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

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

The Evolution of The Haunted House.

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

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

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

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

And I share this from the same review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poltergeist

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

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

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

Poltergeist – A Cursed Film?

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

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

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

 

 

A Review of The Little Stranger – The Novel

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

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

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

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

Plot in Brief (Some spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarities to other classic works

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

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

I will address this claim, author by author.

Henry James – Turn of the Screw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

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

Wilkie Collins – ????

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

Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher

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

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

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

Similar Yet Unique

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

Go-Go Gothic

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Also of note is this, from the same article:

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

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

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

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

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

Agents of The Scare

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

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

The Little Stranger – A Movie?

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

A Review of the Dream House – A Psychological Thriller

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

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

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

SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of Kill Creek

Kill CreekIt began harmlessly enough.  A gathering at a rumored haunted house livestreamed for a popular horror podcast. A publicity stunt that unleashes a series of harrowing events to eventually force four horror authors to go toe-to-toe with the mysterious evil that manifests from the old Finch House. The danger is very real. They find themselves up shit’s creek. That creek would be “Kill.” Full name = Kill Creek

Aside from my shit’s creek/Kill creek pun, how did that description sound? Engaging? Terrifying? Or the opposite – tired? , hackneyed?  Despite the overwhelming positive reviews for this Scott Thomas’s  novel, I went into the book expecting the “tired” and “hackneyed.” Four horror authors of different backgrounds meeting at a real haunted house to face certain horrors that their own macabre minds cannot fathom – haven’t we seen this setup many times?

Here at this blog, I reviewed Micheal Robertson Jr.’s Rough Draft.  The premise is similar. I wrote:

“A mysterious blackmailer forces three authors to meet at a cabin and write a “rough draft” for a prospective horror novel about the cabin, the surrounding woods and a nearby town. They HAVE to complete this assignment – in one weekend – or face the consequences.”

As it turns out, this is not one of my favorite books. A book I prefer is Scott Nicholson’s Creative Spirit.  Of this I wrote:

Creative Spirit is a story about the coming together of writers, painters, photographers, musicians and sculptors. They are gathering in the picturesque setting of Korban Manor as a means of fostering their creativity in the company of like-minded individuals. Unbeknownst to them, there is more to this gathering. The spirit of Ephram Korban thrives on creativity. He siphons the “creative spirit” of others in the hopes that he may live again.”

Author Jack Kilborne assembles a group of trauma victims and tosses them into a haunted house to see what would happen in Haunted House: A Novel of Terror.  They are not authors or artists, mind you, but the theme remains the same – a group of disparate characters must put aside personality differences and overcome the horror that they are subjected to. The personality clashes between Eleanor Lance and Theodora is quite evident in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House  yet another book, (A GREAT BOOK!) to gather strangers together in the confines of walls possessed.

Does Scott Thomas’s Kill Creek go into significant detail delineating the personality differences of his characters? Oh yes it does and once again we have a collection of opposites.  This applies to not only their personalities but also the genre styles. The writing styles of the four authors are subject to painstaking contrast. There’s Sam McGarver, the flawed but likable central protagonist, writer of mainstream horror novels. Then there’s TC Moore; she’s the brash, headstrong author of splatterpunk novels. Sebastian Cole is the elder of the bunch; the sophisticated author of horror classics. And finally we have Daniel Slaughter, the somewhat naive, Christian horror author of young adult novels in which evil is always conquered by the righteous. When readers first meet TC Moore, they are introduced to a seemingly static, one-dimensional  character, obnoxiously brazen. I know when I encountered her I asked myself, “Oh God, am I really about to suffer through a novel where characters that are so tightly packaged into stereotypes are thrown together into the  tired trope of ‘we’re all in this (haunted house) together’ without any twists or depth?” The answer came as I progressed further into the novel. I was wrong in my initial assessment.  These characters do expand and reveal themselves in unexpected ways. As to the story – there’s more going on here than just a bunch of misfits struggling awkwardly together against the forces that go bump into the night. Scott Thomas touches on a theme that is dear to my heart. This would be the theme I define as  Haunted House “Sui Generis” – in the sociological sense.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that society, as it was there before any living individual was born, is independent of all individuals.”  For purposes here, replace “society” with “haunted house” and “individuals” with “ghosts”. Such a house is not haunted on account of its ghosts; it’s haunted in and of itself. It may not even harbor ghosts, yet it is haunted. It has a will of its own that is independent of any trapped spirits that roam about its bowels. Shirley Jackson’s “Hill House” is such a house, as is the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Any author that not only incorporates this theme but expands upon it earns my respect. And expand Thomas does! 

In the tradition of Shirley Jackson, Thomas begins with the assumption that a house can have intrinsic qualities from an unknown origin. “Some houses are born bad,” Shirley Jackson surmises with figurative description, comparing houses, perhaps,  to living entities. Thomas agrees but offers a different take. “No Houses are born bad,”  he writes. While paying homage to Shirley Jackson with this line, Thomas not only places his story within the context of the “Haunted House Sui Generis” theme, but he also plots the trajectory for the theme’s expansion, though the reader may not know this at this time. The house in question, Finch House, is indeed a bad house. But it was not always this way! It began its “life” rather neutrally. Terrible things happened  in or around the house, things that gave the house a reputation and sparked rumors and legends, and this reputation both created and fed the hunger of the house. It is a hunger for more horror, for more evil. It has a craving to be the most horrifically haunted house that it can be. 

In an interview conducted by horrorscribes,wordpress.com, Scott Thomas offers:

What if there were just some lonely, empty house in the middle of nowhere that people began to think was haunted.  And what if enough people told scary stories about this place that, eventually, it was haunted.  Was there always an entity in that house and these people woke it, or was it their belief that created the entity?  That “chicken or the egg” haunted house scenario really interested me. I began to see the house as a major character—a structure that was never supposed to be a bad place but became bad, almost against its will.

“I began to see the house as a major character,”  To quote again from Thomas. I love when an author sees a house that way!

So yes, Scott Thomas invokes familiar tropes and setups. But authors build on the works of other authors and there is nothing wrong with that! It’s the finer details that matter in the end. If the author builds “cookie-cutter” haunted house stories, all replication and no innovation, then “BAH!” to that author. Thankfully Thomas doesn’t do that, but I must admit that for a while, I thought this was exactly what was going to happen. 

Now what would a haunted house that loves to be the subject of stories want with a group of authors? I think you know where this is going. In fact, Thomas offers numerous hints to the direction of his story in the very beginning of the book. I’ve already mentioned the “No house is born bad” hint. But there are others. And it thrills me greatly to examine them because they are found in a lecture that the character Sam McGarver gives to his students. See, he is a part time teacher. He teaches “Introduction to Horror in Popular Culture” at a college (Oh! How come I never encountered such a class when I was in college?) But why am I so “greatly thrilled” to examine this, simply for the hints? No. It is the way the lecture (fictional though it might be) analyzes themes within the fictional haunted house stories of film and literature (and horror in general). That’s what I attempt to do here at this blog! So of course I am excited about it and I want to attend Sam McGarver’s class so bad! 

During the lecture McGarver states:

The Gothic tradition is about secrets, dark secrets, awful secrets, hidden just behind the facade of normality. Modern horror is still heavily influenced by this tradition. But it’s not creepy old castles that hold these secrets anymore. The Gothic has invaded our everyday lives. The old farmhouse in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The suburban Japanese home in The Grudge. Even a video tape in The Ring. The infectious evil that used to be confined to crumbling ruins in the eighteenth-nineteenth-century literature, like Lewis’s The Monk, Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer has spread to our cities, our small towns, our homes. And that makes it even scarier, doesn’t it?

Note at the end, McGarver speaks of an “infectious evil” that begins in a classical haunted domain but “spreads” into modern daily life. Is there a hint here? Yes. The four authors/characters in Kill Creek will be required to make a second trek to Finch House. Why? Because something from their initial visit has followed them into their personal lives and they revisit the Finch house in an attempt to stop its chase.

McGarver talks about Gothic tradition. I love this. Whereas a complete study of the many elements that make up the Gothic tradition is quite the task (I’ve studied these for a while and I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface), McGarver narrows it down to a few interesting elements. Now, am I including these elements here in this article simply because they strike my fancy? No. I am including them because they foreshadow what will come about in Kill Creek.

And here they are:

  1. Emanation from a Single Location

  2. A Sense of Forbidden History (Turn of the Screw, Poltergeist) 

  3. An Atmosphere of Decay or Ruin (The Others, The Woman in Black, Crimson Peak. For mental decay = The Tenant)

  4. Corruption of the Innocent (“This is perhaps the most important element of any good Gothic horror story Without it, what do you have?  A shitty old dump with a dark history no one remembers.or cares about. You need that one person who ensures that the evil lives on)

 

To break these down in a way that applies to Kill Creek,  Finch House is the single location from which the evil emanates (Element #1). Finch House also has a sense of forbidden history. (element #2) An interracial couple is murdered on its premises, two “Finch” sisters later inhabit the house and succumb to its horrors. Plus, there is a secret and sealed room, another trope within haunted house literature. But this theme is explored quite well. What is behind the brick wall that seals the room off? This is part of the  mystery that will haunt the characters after they leave the house. And they better move fast because the house knows about certain secrets that each of the authors harbor and it can use this knowledge against them. It knows their weaknesses; their darkest fears.

Finch house certainly is an atmosphere of decay and ruin, as is true with the many haunted houses of literature (Element #3) Now for that last – the corruption of the innocent (Element #4). What is especially noteworthy is McGarver’s explanation, when he said “you need that one person who ensures the evil lives on.” Pay attention to this – it will point to a most unexpected yet intriguing ending.

Kill Creek is Scott Thomas’s first novel. On the Amazon page for this book  under the Kill Creek Scott Thomasheading “About the Author”, it states:   “Author, Thomas Scott, a former Marine and State Trooper, resides with his wife, Gwen, and their Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, Bene, in Brunswick, Georgia.” Quite an interesting background.  Thomas wrote a second novel which might also feature a haunted house, but I could be wrong about that. I haven’t read it. Yet. The novel is VioletWhat’s interesting is that the description of the author has been expanded. It says:

Scott Thomas is the Stoker-nominated author of Kill Creek, which was selected by the American Library Association’s reader committee as the top horror book of 2017. Originally from Coffeyville, Kansas, Scott attended the University of Kansas where he earned degrees in English and Film. He has written TV movies and teleplays for various networks including Netflix, Syfy, MTV, VH1, the CW, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and ABC family. Scott was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for his work on R.L. Stein’s The Haunting Hour. He lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his wife and two daughters. Violet is his second novel.

My question is – Did all his works for TV and movies transpire after his success with Kill Creek? This I don’t know. His success with his initial novel came about when Inkshares discovered his work and set it to publication. According to Wikipedia  Inkshares “is a publishing and literary rights-management platform founded in 2013. It is an open platform with a community of over 100,000 authors and readers. Authors post partial manuscripts which are sorted based on reader interest. Selected manuscripts are edited by Inkshares for publishing in North America”

Did Scott Thomas participate in the way wikipedia describes? Did he garner reader interest which then led to a publishing contract? If so, what a great success story. I love when indie authors “win.” I am an indie author myself. Haven’t “won” much, except for the joy of sharing my work. In the end, I guess that is winning also.

I’m anxious to read Thomas’s second novel Violet. If it does indeed feature a haunted house, I will review it and share the review with you.  Until then, bye bye!

 

 

Swell by Jill Eisenstadt- Half of a Review

Swell2Halves. There are a lot of those in the universe, aren’t there? All those half-ass jobs performed by people with half a brain. Then there’s Half and Half, equal parts milk, equal parts cream, or something like that; maybe this is only half true. Styx has a song on their Paradise Theater album called Half Penny, Two-Penny, you might want to check it out. Oh and here in Chicago we have a brewery called Half-Acre. Good beer!

I guess this might turn out to be a half review. Why, you may ask? Because, I only read half the book that is up for review. But I tried to go further. Really I did. When my tablet informed me that I was at the 50% mark, I read on. I made it to 54% and then I just couldn’t proceed any further. As one reviewer on the Amazon page wrote, “Swell, it’s not.” Oh by the way, that is the name of the book – Swell. By Jill Eisenstadt.  But the title of the article should have told you that!

Here’s how I discovered this book. I became interested in the literary brat pack of the 1980s. I read Bret Easton Ellis’s books “Less Than Zero” and “American Psychopath.”  Then I discovered another book by the same author – Lunar Park –  a haunted house novel. Before plunging in, I had learned that not only would the book utilize characters from the two books of his that I had read, but it would also give readers quite the rarity of a protagonist – a fictionalized version of the author himself! Whoopie! I read it, I loved it!   (Read the review here.) 

So I decided, if this worked for one Brat Pack author, maybe it would work for another. Jill Eisenstadt published a novel From Rockaway in 1987, a coming of age tale about teenage lifeguards on Rockaway beach in NYC.  I read it. It was okay. Thirty years later she published Swell (with other books between those years) and just as Lunar Park contained characters from American Psychopath and Less Than Zero, Swell would welcome back characters from From Rockaway and feature a haunted house.  So I went for it. I went back to Rockaway (Swell also takes place on the beach on the Rockaway Peninsula) …and I nearly drowned in the waves of the tedious story. I jumped out of Eisenstadt’s ocean before the tides of the tiresome could drag me even further into the depths of boredom.

Swell has very little to do with a haunted house. The subject is kind of an afterthought, just one of many weird themes. But this isn’t why I dislike the book. I dislike the book because the story doesn’t move. Or maybe it does. It moves in circles, retreading the same ground. It zigzags between the perspectives of several characters but never does it seem to go forward. This is a story about the Glassman family. Sue Glassman agrees to live in a house procured by her father-in-law Sy in exchange for her conversion to Judaism. It is a beach house in Rockaway and is known as the murder house since, long before the Glassman’s moved in, murder was committed on the premises. The former owner of the house, the eccentric and senile Rose shows up uninvited with her caregiver and annoys the hell out of Sue. Their next-door neighbor is Tim (Timmy from From Rockaway) a former firefighter now drivers-ed teacher. He pokes his nose in the story quite a bit. The Glassman’s youngest daughter plays with a ghost that might be a pirate. The teenage daughter is learning to drive from neighbor Tim. She intercourses sexually (“intercourses sexually” – ha ha, I just felt like phrasing it that way!) with the neighbor boy on the other side. Oh and there is a big conversion party coming. Half way through this book and this was all that was happening. Only one or two days of “story time” had passed. 

I suppose some might appreciate the way the different strands of perspectives are sewn together. Others will appreciate the way all of these oddball characters play off each other. To some extent I appreciate this too, but for the love of God, go somewhere with this! I suppose it does go somewhere eventually, but I’ll never see it to the end. This book is supposed to be a comedy. But I forgot to laugh

Well, this is going on a bit long for a “half review”. Perhaps I should have somehow sliced the sentence lines in half horizontally and only displayed the top parts. I didn’t know how to do that. Or I could have indented everything to one side of the screen. Either of those actions would have led to a “half review”. I guess  you’ll just have to settle for “half as long”, meaning, half as long as a typical review. Oh but this is more like two-thirds of a typical review! Oh well. Forgive me. It was a half-assed attempt for which I used half my brain.

 

Review of Girl on the Third Floor

GirlOnTheThirdFloor2

Here I go, jumping right in, attempting  to write an interesting article on Travis Steven’s buzzing indie haunted house film Girl on the Third  Floor. Usually when I set out to write these reviews/pieces , I try to follow some kind of theme. An angle if you will; an underlying concept that connects all the various parts of the piece together. Ah but maybe I shall forgo such an endeavor at this time. There is nothing worse than trying such a thing and failing, falling flat on your ass and dropping your prized piece, smashing and destroying all those fragile  connections that you had thought were so tightly screwed together (Okay there are worse things, COVID-19, Justin Bieber, Reality TV, Cockroaches on the toilet paper roll, and on and on). So for this article I won’t attempt such a thing, unlike the film that is up for review, which does try unsuccessfully to tie together a bunch of loose concepts. Film reviewer Oscar Goff of Bostonhassle.com notes that “Stevens throws a lot of ideas at the wall, and while not all of them stick, the cumulative effect is dizzying and effective”This is so true. Many of the ideas don’t stick (hence its inability to tie together loose concepts) However, this doesn’t make it a bad film, noting Goff’s comment about the”cumulative effect” being “dizzying and effective.”

Let’s begin with what is effective about the film. And to do that, I will begin with the beginning. A very impressive beginning it is!. I’m not talking  about the first few minutes either. I’m referring to the first few seconds of the film. The story had not yet begun and yet my eyes were glued to the television, taking in the opening montage of still shots that served as the background for the opening credits. Various images on parade capturing the smallest details of the interior environment of the haunted house, magnifying them so that we the viewers understand how the parts of the whole that make for bad feng shui. A dizzying wallpaper design of rose vines. A round ceiling light fixture with three protruding screws that resemble beady eyes. An aerial shot of drawer left partially open. A dead bee lying near dusty wall baseboards. Unwholesome closeups of cracks in the corners. A nail out of place. I’m betting most viewers fail to take these shots in. You shouldn’t neglect them. They foreshadow the brilliance that will shine throughout the film. They point to the film’s best friends – the camera, the cinematographer  and the editor. The talented crew and their expertise with the tools of their trade keep this film afloat. Now, what about the story? Well, it’s okay. Is there any interesting symbolism in this flick? Sigh. I guess so. But this is where I get lost. This I find underwhelming.

Former professional wrestler CM Punk stars as Don Koch, a former lawyer who has a shady past. He has cheated his clients out of money. He has cheated on his wife with other women. What a low life cheat all the way around! And he’s an alcoholic. Bad, bad Don! But all that is over now. He’s trying to turn over a new leaf. He takes it upon himself to renovate their newly acquired house. His wife Liz is so proud of her hubbie. She remains in Chicago and leaves him alone in the new house in the far away suburbs to work, work, work at rebuilding their new home. They have frequent video chats, where she regularly unleashes her boundless sympathy for her overworked hubbie. Does he need any help? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he sure that he can do without a professional?  It’s so much, dear Don!

Don really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s constantly puncturing holes into the siding. He has only a few tools and he makes a lot of mistakes. It doesn’t help him any that the house itself is determined to fuck with him. Pipes ooze with muddied liquid. Blood spills out of electrical sockets.  Semen sprays from the shower head. If all this isn’t bad enough, the ceiling comes crashing down, revealing a hidden attic with walls covered with a child’s drawings. Oh, and how can I forget, marbles are always materializing out of nowhere. They roll across the floor on some predetermined path. Down the stairs, around the corner, and the camera follows these marbles curiously, demonstrating another fabulous feat in the art of creepy cinematography. They always lead to something pretty darn scary – maybe it’s a misbehaving room, maybe it’s to a dead body.

A local bartender warns Don that the house he bought used to be a brothel in the olden days. A sex worker was killed there. “No straight man” has been able to survive in that house. A female pastor from the church across the street also warns Don. She is a bourbon chugging, potty-mouthed pastor – whatta woman! She tells Don to leave the house. He doesn’t listen.

Don is up to his old tricks. He is drinking. He has sexual intercourse with a young, blonde neighbor. Bad, Bad Don! This young woman, Sarah Yates, turns out to be the ghost of the sex worker who died here years ago. She was testing Don. He failed and now she is out to get him! She haunts him. She does some very mean and deadly things.

Eventually Liz will show up. By the time she does Don is already possessed by the house. She will witness a ghostly recreation of a sex act that took place in the house years ago before the eyes of ogling perverts. She will triumph over the hostile supernatural forces. She will bond with the Protestant female pastor. Yay and stuff!

So what the heck is going on here, besides the typical supernatural shenanigans a haunted house loves to dish out? 

Perhaps my “theme of the themeless” description is inaccurate in that, there is an underlying theme, but it is so painfully obvious that a viewer like myself is left thinking “but there must be something more to this!”  That theme = male douchebags that mistreat women are bad and will suffer. Women will have their revenge. You go girl! This is the simple theme as per a consensus of many reviewers. Still, there are so many things begging for more explanation. The house appears to be alive, and this is one of my favorite themes in haunted house fiction. It screams or whines at times when Don is whacking away at the walls. Sometimes it even giggles. Eventually, Don will find a giant beating heart in the wall, or is it a bulging blood vessel? Whichever, but how does all this tie in with the gender dynamics and toxic masculinity theme in the film?  Perhaps there is another way of examining the theme of the house as a living entity that will answer this question.

When preparing for this article, I found bits and pieces of an interesting theory put forth by some reviewer, and for the life of me, I can’t relocate that review. In my initial sighting I  came across only a couple of sentences so I did not have much to go on in my vain attempt to search for it again. I wish I could provide proper sources but I can’t. Anyway the theory stated that the house was Don. He was, in fact, renovating himself. Rebuilding his life. Or at least making a half-ass attempt to do so. Flushing out the GirlOnTheThirdFloor3toxicity within himself. Putting up solid walls that are barriers to temptation. But there are so many toxins that he can’t handle it.  To improve yourself, you have to face all the putrid things that make you a rotten person. All that blood, shit and semen (symbolic of his uncontrollable sexual urges).Don can’t handle it. So the house is symbolic of his own body. When he digs into too deeply, it cries and gets upset. 

So all that is going on while at the same time, the house is its own independent identity, with its own history of mistreating women. 

Now does all this make sense? Somewhat. To tell you the truth I would care more about all this retribution stuff if Liz was more of a central character. For two thirds of the film, we see here only on Facetime, and she is portrayed, IMHO, as a doting wife, boring as hell, vanilla all the way, perfectly made and bred for the suburbs. Suddenly at the film’s end, viewers see her outside of screen on Don’s phone. She is strong, she is a survivor, she is a victor! And I can care less about her so she is no heroine of mine. 

Furthermore, there are other things going on in this film that cry out for explanation. In addition to the ghost of Sarah, there is this deformed Nymph that appears now and then. Who is she? And what about those marbles? When Liz is exposed to the a Shining-style recreation of the sex act, she also notes a little girl up in the attic that controls the flow of the marbles. Who the hell is she? Is she the feminine spirit of this living house? Oh I don’t know. I guess it’s just an idea that may or may not stick, right Oscar Goff? 

Overall, it’s a suspenseful film with brilliant camera work. Mood and style triumph, and that’s good. Better than jump scares and high octane sound effects. As far as the story and the messaging, well, there is much left to be desired there. But I recommend this film solely on the overall flair.

Other Things to Note

Svengoolie

Ya know where I  first heard of this film? Well let me first ask this, which TV show often exposes me to classic haunted house films? If you said “Svengoolie”, you’d be right. However, The Girl on the Third  Floor has many, many years to go before it can be labeled  a classic. Svengoolie did not show this film. I saw this film on Netflix. But CM Punk made an appearance  on the show. See, Sven likes wrestling, so he brought on Mr. Punk , and Mr. Punk then told us viewers about  this film.

Isn’t this interesting?

We are Still Here

Did you know that the director  of this film, one Travis Stevens, was the key producer dude for the film We Are Still  Here? This is a 2015 indie haunted  house film and I reviewed it. You can read it here. I thought the film was so-so, and I  ended up giving director Ted Geoghegan some advice. What kind of dilettante was I, since I know nothing about the ins and outs of film-making. Oh well, I forgive myself. 

Girl on the Third Floor is Stevens  directorial debut. Despite  some criticism I say to Travis “good job”

A Real Haunted House

The unrenovated  house in the film is really haunted. Supposedly. According to CheatSheet.com this house in Frankfort  Illinois is the home of spirits of two young girls. One is the ghost  of Sadie, a 12 – year – old girl who worked as a maid in this house. She was murdered in 1901. The other is the spirit  of Sarah, who died of an illness in the house back in 1909. Disturbances such as disembodied footsteps and phantom handprints  have been reported there.

A Review of Lunar Park By Bret Easton Ellis

Let’s begin with a question that maybe some of you might have for me.

Are there any other kinds of books that I like to read, aside from horror in general and more specifically stories that feature a good old fashioned haunted house? 

My answer: Hmmmm…….

Questioner: Come on Cheely, you must be open to other genres! 

Me: I am. 

Questioner: So, what are they?

Actually I like several genres that have no name. So I have taken the liberty to name them. I like “nostalgic tales of youth”.  That’s a bit long for a genre name. Oh well. I’m talking about stories that feature prepubescent kids on bikes enjoying those eternal summers. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is one of my favorites. These are stories that feature kids living by their own rules, seeing life unfold before their unsuspecting eyes. In a similar manner, I enjoy coming of age tales. The characters of these types of novels are a bit older than the ones that inhabit the stories of my “nostalgic” category . They are in their teens and the whirlwinds of adolescence disrupt their innocent lives. They experience joys and sorrows beyond any previous skills of comprehension. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is an example of such a novel and a fine novel it is!

Do you know what’s even better than stories about the coming of age? Well, I’ll tell you. These would be the stories that detail what happens where “the age” comes and then “the age”  goes and all hell breaks loose. Novels of this kind feature young adults caught in a world of debauchery, decadence, delinquency and drugs. Three of those four “D” words are used by author Jay McInerney in a fictional conversation about great words that begin with the fourth letter of the alphabet.. This conversation takes place between two night clubbers in his book Bright Lights Big City. McInerney is a member of what has been called the “literary Brat Pack.” 

These were young writers in the early 1980s that often wrote about young characters of the swanky urban milieu  that indulge in drugs. Among this group of authors is Bret Easton Ellis, the author of the book that is the subject of this review (I’ll get to Lunar Park in a moment, don’t you worry, just bear with me for a leeeeeetle bit longer).Ellis is the famed author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho.  Less Than Zero is a story about  Beverly Hills college kids that are home from  during Christmas break. In California, it is difficult to have the traditional “white” Christmas, but ahhh, they find something else that is “white” and flaky to enjoy – Cocaine!  And lots of it. Parties, music, cocaine, sex, and lots of addiction and all around emptiness. American Psycho is told from the first person perspective of Patrick Bateman is a Wall Street yuppie of the 80s that obsesses over designer dress codes  and dinner reservations by day while decapitating people in his luxurious apartment at night. Ohh the subjects in both Less Than Zero and American Psycho make me giddy with goosebumps!  I love them, don’t you??

I guess I’m bleeding into a genre that actually does have a name. (Earlier in this article I mentioned that “I like several genres that have no name”). In my defense, I didn’t know it existed as a defined genre until after I began work on this article. The genre  is known as Transgressive Fiction. This genre is similar to my made up “post adolescence chaos” genre, though I’m guessing that the characters within the stories of this literary category are not always young. Simply put, according to Wikipedia, Transgressive Fiction  “ focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways.”

Furthermore –

“Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressive fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime”.

So for the record, I love me some transgressive fiction. Now wouldn’t it be something if I could find a book that at least flirts with transgressive fiction  while giving me a precious haunted house! Impossible, you say. No, it’s not impossible. The two themes merge in Bret Easton Ellis’ book Lunar Park.

I now “transgress” from genre descriptions to the heart of Lunar Park

 

LunarParkBret Easton Ellis – What an interesting, albeit eccentric, perhaps downright weird guy. The first few chapters of Lunar Park read like an autobiography  of the author’s life, a life filled with more decadence than the characters of his book. Okay-okay, he’s not  morally depraved in the kind of way as Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street serial killer. To the best of my knowledge the author hasn’t killed anyone (yet)! But Ellis describes one of his book tours as a train wreck of drug abuse and tells of the craziness that ensues on account of his incessant  partying. Supposedly, these first few chapters are true, though some have contested the veracity of some of the details. The remaining chapters, the bulk of the book, is a fictional biography of himself and his unsuccessful attempt at normalcy. Giving up his philandering lifestyle made up of bachelor pads and a non-stop habit of pill popping and cocaine snorting, Ellis reinvents himself as a family man, he settles down with Jayne Davis, a famous actress who is the  mother of his only known child, Robby. Ellis had neglected Robby all throughout his young life. He is now a preteen and the father wants to make amends. They live in a house in Midland, a suburb of New York. with Jayne’s six-year-old daughter Sarah.. They have a maid, a dog, a pool; the whole works. All they are missing is the white picket fence,  Brett is trying for sobriety and fidelity, not really achieving those lofty goals, but he’s going through the motions anyway. His past behaviors haunt him, as does the dark inspiration behind several of his characters, along with the traumatic  relationship he had with his now dead father. This haunting takes center stage at his new home at Medford. Hence, Bret lives in a haunted house.

Ok everyone, who remembers my contribution to the analytics of haunted house film and literature – my precious projection theory? Simply stated, a disturbed protagonist “projects” his/her inner demons upon the house which in turn reflects those demons back, acting like a screen of sorts. What the protagonist  sees upon the screen (the house) will confuse him/her as well as frighten. I think I first made reference to this theory on my review of The Turn of the Screw where it is suggested by many analysts that the ghosts of the story are figments of the imagination of Miss Giddens the governess.  They are perhaps products of psycho-sexual guilt and take the form of a man and a woman, two deceased former servants that were in an adulterous relationship. Thus her  “mind churns out the spirits, and her eyes act as the projectors. The house is the screen on which she sets her spirits free.” (quote from the article).

So, what kind of ghosts project from the mind of Bret Easton Ellis’ protagonist, who just happens to be a Bret himself, albeit a fictionalized version of himself?  Don’t expect your typical semi-transparent wraith of some former living person. Instead expect some kind of demonic possession of a bird doll, a toy of his step daughter. Be prepared to try and make sense of Bret’s confusion as the furniture in his house rearranges itself overnight into a layout of a former date. Scratch your head and ponder what it might mean that decorations from his childhood home appear in his new house. But there are certain things that move about like ghosts. From his neighbor’s backyard he can see shadows and silhouettes on the shades of his upper windows when there is no one home.  Then there are the muddy tracks that lead away from a make-believe grave that stands in his yard, leftover from Halloween. The trackings suggest a corpse-like figure might have slid across the grass. And I can’t forget to mention the characters from his books that escape from his novels to stalk him. Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street psychopath with the Armani suit slashes his way out of the novel American Psycho and find his way to Lunar Park to fuck with Bret’s mind. 
What do Jayne and the children think of all this? They think he’s going crazy. He is using drugs again and has been having hangovers daily. Quite the unreliable narrator that Bret! What’s really happening here is up to suggestion, as if often the case in works of this nature. It’s a post-modern piece and similar to works such as The Grip of It and House of Leaves in that there is a lot of symbolism directed at households and relationships.  Yet real horrific things happen in this story. People are murdered. Children go missing.

Lunar Park succeeds in creating a tone of bitter confusion. It’s the story of a character in uncomfortable surroundings; how can a man be at peace in the fictionalized lifestyle of a family man when he’s not even comfortable in his own skin? This foreign environment of a house in the burbs is vastly different from the bachelor lifestyle in upper Manhattan. Readers sense this disparity by confronting the sense of unreality that the book lays out quite well. 

This is a good book to read at the beginning of the Halloween season. The story kicks off at a Halloween party that Bret and his wife throw at their house that will eventually be haunted. They spare no expense on decorations. Costumed folks fill their many rooms, and what a great place for one of Bret’s psychotic characters of previous books to disguise himself! This party launches the story and plants the seeds of derealization that grows and spreads across the pages. It’s a great book. I think you will enjoy it. 

 

The Old Dark House – William Castle and Hammer Film Productions version of an old James Whale Classic

 

It’s zany. It’s stupid. It’s bizarre. It’s both fun and funny. It’s nonsensical. It’s goofy! It’s dimwitted. It’s entertaining. It’s silly. It’s not boring. It’s a WTF kind of movie.

Were there enough keywords to trap you search engine surfers inside of William Castle and Hammer Film Productions’ 1963 version of The Old Dark House?  I hope so. And as long as you’re here, look at the trailer.

 

 

This film is quite different from the 1932 original film by James Whale, although both are billed as dark comedies. Hammer Film Productions are known for their remakes of the classic Universal Pictures monster/horror films. They took Dracula and the Frankenstein monster and put them up on screen in color for the very first time. Their remakes were more graphic and sexy. Supposedly, Hammer’s Dracula was the first time the legendary monster had fangs, inserted into the mouth of Sir Christopher Lee himself!

Sometimes these Hammer remakes worked well, other times they did not. Take the The Old Dark House for instance. Whale gave us a creepy, atmospheric movie about..uh..well, about an old, dark house. In this black and white film, shadows danced, candles flickered, people screamed, and eccentric characters behaved quite eccentric-like. It is a bizarre film. Now, remove all that fancy cinematography, add a bunch of color, but keep a houseful of eccentrics. Not the same characters, but different ones, new weirdos for a new age. Does it work? Well the film never breaks down or catches on fire or anything like that. It’s just weird in a different kind of way. The original film is like “Oh wow man, this shit is so weird and stuff! Give me another hit!” The remake is like, “Okay. This is, like, weird..and stuff. But I guess I’ll keep watching. It’s something different than anything else that’s on TV right now.”

On TV – that’s right, I saw the 1963 version of The Old Dark House on television last Saturday night on a program that I have referenced many times here at this blog – Svengoolie! With interesting trivia and fitting jokes along with a musical parody, horror host Svengoolie makes the viewing fun!

The story is as follows. Remember that older chap on the Newhart show named George Utley? If you are under the age of forty, chances are you are saying “no.” Well back in OldDarkHouseCastle21963, he was a younger chap, the young Tom Poston and he is the star of this film. He plays a car salesman by the name of Tom Penderel who is tasked with the job of delivering a car to a client who resides nightly, not daily, but nightly, at The Old Dark House. He performs his task and discovers he had no way to get home. Then a storm comes and this forces him to spend the night at this house…with several strange people!

Meet the Femm family. There are Uncle Femmes and Auntie Femmes, Cousin Femmes and Father Femmes and daughter Femmes and twin brother Femmes. It’s a wonder that the  Violent Femmes failed to make an appearance.  Any diddly doodles, it turns out that the whole family is cursed to spend every night at this old,dark house or they will lose their rights to their inheritance. The dead benefactor, some long since dead Femm guy,  had a stipulation in his will that each possible inheritor would forfeit his/her inheritance if they did not return to the house before midnight each and every night. Finally, someone gets sick of this arrangement and plans a night of murder and mayhem. Murder all those other people so that, when all is said and done, only one person will be left alive – the murderer, and since that last person will then be the sole inheritor, know more of that “return to the house” long before midnight business! And wouldn’t you know it, this all plays out on the same night that the innocent Tom  gets stranded at this house? As Led Zeppelin said, Poor Tom.  

What ensues in a good ol’ fashion game of Clue. Is the killer that weird uncle that keeps zoo animals locked away in case another biblical flood occurs? It the killer that weird old mother that knits knits knits in pursuit of a finished product that can be measured in miles? Who knows. But murder is afoot. A person will be found with long needles rammed through the neck, and the laughs keep on coming!

Let’s see, what to the professional reviewers think of this flick. Oh no, on imdb it averages 5.4 out of 10 stars. While there are no critical ratings at rottentomatoes.com the average  audience reviews comes in at a mere 17%. On the other hand, the original flick stands at 7.1 out of 10 stars at imdb and comes in at a 100% rating among critics on rottentomatoes, with an audience favorability rating of 72%)

Let’s forgive this remake though, shall we? It means no harm. It’s trying its best to have fun. And it is fun. Stupid, but fun. It’s not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. It’s not really a haunted house film either but I am featuring it here at this blog to compare it with the original, which I have reviewed here. While the original really doesn’t have the ghostly elements of a haunted house movie either, it has the mood and atmosphere and is both dark and spooky while absurdly funny. 

Oh just go ahead and give it a looksie and don’t take it seriously. Who knows, you might have fun with it.

 

 

(A) Stir of Echoes – Book and Movie Comparison

StirOfEchoesBoyHappyNewYear
My first blog post of the new year! 2020! Woo Hoo and stuff! Time to look forward! Time to reflect on the past. But when doing the latter, be careful not to get overwhelmed in those “Stir of Echoes’!  Or is it “A Stir of Echoes”? That depends on whether we are referring to the book (A Stir of Echoes) or the movie (Stir of Echoes). In this case both will suffice, for I’ll be discussing both the film and the novel!

So, whatdidja’ think about my intro and how I segued from New Years thoughts to a creepy tale of the paranormal? Pretty nifty, huh? You are saying “no.”  Oh. Well sorry. I just had to fit in some kind of “Hey it’s a new year” subject here at this blog. It’s obligatory. Everyone’s doing it! But since I don’t have any thoughts on 2019 vs. 2020, resolutions, and all those hyped-up concepts, I  thought I would simply begin the first post of the year doing what I do best – writing about scary stories. They were there in 2019, more will come in 2020. More still will come in the new decade and so many came out in all those decades of the past.

Right now, I want to go back a couple decades, back to that old century we left behind in 2000-2001. Not that far back into it. Not yet. For now, let’s go to the tail end of those 1900 years – the Prince year of 1999.

Back in 1999, four guys went to the movies. We saw The Blair Witch Project. Afterwards we went to a bar where we graded the film over beers. I gave it an A, John gave it a B, Greg a C, and Arvin gave it a D. Quite the spread!  Left with much to be desired but still in the mood for a horror movie, Arvin suggested we regroup and see some Kevin Bacon horror me. (Really? Thought me. Kevin Bacon, that pretty boy?! In a horror flick? (I had forgotten he had already starred in Friday the 13th way back when)). Anyway, we went for it (Greg stayed home), and to my surprise I enjoyed it. It was a chilling ghost story packed with mystery and suspense, taking place in my favorite city, Sweet Home, Chicago! I loved seeing familiar sites up there on the big screen. 

“Did I pick good, Cheely?” Arvin asked, “Now wasn’t that better than that Blair  Witch Project?”

Now I don’t know about that, Arv! They were two different  movies, apples and oranges my friend. But you made your point; Stir of Echoes is a decent  flick.

Many years later, I discovered this cool author dude named Richard Matheson when I read and wrote about his work Hell House. Who knew that this guy was a beloved Sci-Fi and horror writer that gave us many books that were turned into movies? Such  films include I am Legend, What Dreams May Come, The Legend of Hell House (Book =Hell House, no “The Legend”), The Incredible Shrinking Man (Book = The Shrinking  Man, no “Incredible”), and yes, “Stir of Echoes” (Book = A Stir of Echoes, this time the author’s  title has more words than the film title. Well, just one more word  = the letter “A”.)  

Again I ask, “Who knew?” 

Hypothetical Reader:  Uh, Mr. Blogger Man, a lot of people  knew this.

Me:  Okay, but did these people “in the know” also realize  that Matheson was a prolific writer for the original Twilight  Zone series?

Hypothetical Reader:  Yeah, they did.

Well, I didn’t  know any of this until about eight years ago, approximately  twelve years after I saw the movie. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally read  A Stir of Echoes. Very good book.  And, to make sure that I still enjoyed the film, I watched  it again a few nights ago. Did I still like it? I did.

Now, is the book different from the movie? Yes, in significant ways. David Koepp, writer/director of Stir of Echoes does things differently. Can a Hollywood  writer (Koepp) known for writing major action and superhero movies (Jurassic  Park, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom  of the Crystal Skull, Mission Impossible , Spiderman ) be on par with telling the same yet different story as the great Matheson? For the most part, with a couple of exceptions, the answer is “yes”

Let’s explore the plot and some key similarities/differences between the film and the book.


 

In both mediums, the generic story is as follows:

After a family man, (both a husband and father) undergoes hypnosis, he awakens with psychic sensitivities. He will use this special “sight” to explore unsolved mysteries that take place in his neighborhood. Warning: the consequences in meddling in these areas can be deadly! 

 

So far, so good. Now I shall present two expansions of this synopsis. One for the book and one for the movie. Here I go, wish me luck! 

Book Synopsis

This is a tale of a man , Tom Wallace, who is hypnotized by his brother-in-law. After hypnosis, he gains psychic abilities. He can read the minds of others, he can forecast future events. He can sense danger abroad. He can communicate with the dead, as evidenced by his confrontations with the spirit of a woman that is apparently haunting his house. 

The story takes place in the suburbs, where families go about their lives. With his newfound abilities, drawn shades become transparent – in a metaphoric sense (He’s not a Peeping Tom!) He can “see” into the private lives of his neighbors. What dark secrets to they harbor?  What past tragedies have defined their modus operandi? Answers come slowly inside little peeks, like that of a person looking into a small hole in a fence, it’s aperture limiting the view of the large scene that is being acted out. It is a voyeuristic talent that he never asked for or wanted.

In the process, readers are treated to various stories concerning different families in the neighborhood. The book also examines the struggles that come when he is suddenly  “gifted” with psychic abilities and the strain that this exclusive knowledge has upon his marriage and his job. Anne, his wife, is troubled by her husband’s strange and sudden ability to “know things”.  His son Richard, approximately three or four years of age, will be dragged unwittingly into this dangerous game of crime-solving. Does he possess a special sight as well? 

Movie Synopsis

Tom Witzky is hypnotized by his sister-in-law. After hypnosis, he gains psychic abilities. These talents are forced into use by the ghost of a dead teenage girl. He comes to realize that she haunts his house, where he lives with his wife Maggie and his son Jake, who is approximately six years old. Jake has been communicating with the ghost girl since before the events that take place in the movie. Only after Tom is hypnotized does he have  after encounters with the ghost girl. Nearly all of Tom’s episodic moments of clairvoyance point to the mystery surrounding the girl’s death. Throughout the movie, he follows these clues until he discovers a startling secret that involves some of his neighbors.

Right from the get-go, viewers know that they are watching a ghost story movie. Most of the events of the movie are tied to this ghost story. His marriage becomes strained as he and his son Jake, both now possessing psychic abilities,  form a bond to the exclusion of Maggie. This bonding has to do with the mystery surrounding the ghost girl.

*********************

Notice a difference between these two descriptions? The second one has more emphasis on the ghost story, doesn’t it? But there are other differences as well. These differences might make more sense with more details. But I tried to juxtapose them in such a way so as to not give away too many spoilers. Going forward, I will not be so concerned with spoiling the plot. I will provide specific details that point out the major differences. So if you don’t want to have the plot spoiled, read no further!!!

Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below! Oh No! Spoilers Below!

There are several subplots occurring in this story. In the end, it is the story that surrounds the ghostly elements of the plot that ties most of the various subplots together, both in the film and the novel. The book doesn’t let on that this is happening until the very end. However, the book does cover a broader spectrum of events concerning what Tom sees with his special powers – not everything that enters his special sphere of awareness has to do with the ghost story. 

Let’s go over some “for instances.” While at work, Tom suddenly has a premonition that something has happened to his wife. He rushes home and discovers that his wife had an accident and hurt her head. This event occurs in the book but is absent from the movie and it has nothing to do with the ghost story. Other examples include Tom’s ability to know the gender of his pregnant wife’s unborn baby (in the book and not the movie. Remember – the book was published in 1958 – they did not have the medical technology that they have today to ascertain the gender of a pregnant woman’s unborn baby.). Both the film and the novel cover the moment when Tom suddenly knows that his wife’s father?/mother?/grandmother? (I forget which) has passed on before the fateful phone call came. But the book covers this event in much more detail.

The best example of a difference between being part of the ghost plot/not being part of the ghost plot has to do with The Babysitter.

The Babysitter From Hell

In the book, the Tom and Anne go out to dinner, I believe, (they could have been at a movie, a concert, but this is irrelevant), leaving little Richard with a babysitter. While at the evening event, Tom is struck with the notion that Richard is in grave danger! They rush home just in time to thwart an attempted kidnapping on the part of the babysitter. This has nothing to do with the ghost story.

In the movie, Tom and Maggie are to attend a sporting event with their neighbors. Alas, the babysitter cancels. But little Jake mysteriously suggests that his mother should call a sitter named Debbie Kozac. Maggie checks around and finds that the teenaged Debbie comes highly recommended. As it turns out, the teenage ghost girl told Jake to mention Debbie to her mother.

Tom and Maggie attempt to attend the event. Before entering into the stadium. Tom suddenly realizes that Jake is being kidnapped. He rushes back to the house, but Jake and the babysitter are no longer there. Intuitively, he knows to check at the nearby train station. Once there, he discovers Debbie holding Jake. Ah, but she is not trying to flee with him aboard some train! It turns out that Debbie was only bringing the boy to his mother who works at the station. She wants Jake to tell the mother about a conversation he was having  that she overheard. Jake claimed to be talking to Samantha Kozac, Debbie’s somewhat mentally challenged older sister who had disappeared without a trace. The official story was that Samantha had run away but Debbie and her mother don’t believe that. This kidnapping-by-the- babysitter plot ties in very much to the ghost story.

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So, what’s the deal with Samantha Kozac? We’ll get to that, but let’s back up a bit and explore differences in terms of setting and characters before we get to the “biggie”!

The Neighborhood

 

In the book, the story takes place in the suburbs of…is it California? I forget, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a generic suburban setting with lawns,houses on either side and across the street, with “the plant” nearby where Tom and his buddy across the street carpool together to work. Middle class all the way.

In the movie, the story takes place in a Chicago neighborhood. It is a white man’s blue collar neighborhood  all the way. Neighbors have beer parties and barbecues on the street, they talk of sports and men to their manly things (fathers are proud of their football playing sons). They talk with neighborhood accents. 

(Note: It was cool seeing scenes from neighborhoods such as Logan Square, Lincoln Park. But, uh, production guys? These ain’t blue collar hoods. These are gentrified yuppie havens. No middle-aged white men with thick gray mustaches acting all machismo. For that you go to the South Side. But hey, doesn’t affect the story, I know.  I’m just saying..)

Who are the People in Your Neighborhood? 

 

The bookStirofEchoesBookOlderLet’s see, nextdoor to that Wallace’s there is a couple, forgot their names, but the woman is very flirtatious and often her nasty thoughts are broadcasted onto Tom Wallace’s most receptive mind.

Across the street there is Frank and Elizabeth Wanamaker. Frank is Tom’s buddy. But Frank is quite the asshole, and he is always cheating on his wife and putting her down. Somewhere on the other side of the Wallace’s are his landlord and landlady, Harry and Mildred Santas. See, the Wallace’s are only renting the house they live in.  They are an older and quite private couple. Harry is a bit cantankerous. Before renting the house to the Wallace’s, they allowed Mildred’s sister Helen Driscoll to live there. But one day she just ran away, leaving a note announcing her departure, and they had never heard from her since. 

The movie – Tom’s buddy is Frank McCarthy who lives down the street with his wife Sheila and their teenage college-bound son Adam. Frank is played by Kevin Dunn in the movie, and Kevin truly is a Chicago guy! Adam is a budding football star.

Tom leases his house from Harry Damon, who I believe lives across the street. Sporting a gray mustache, he has a son named Kurt who is Adam’s age. Kurt and Adam are buddies.

The Hypnotist

 

The book – It is Anne’s brother that hypnotizes Tom. He is a licensed hypnotherapist.

The movie – It is Maggie’s sister that hypnotizes Tom. She is a pot-smoking, new age flake.

The Creepy Boy – Tom’s Son

 

The book – Little Richard is perhaps 3-4 years old. It is hinted that he might be a “sensitive” like his father. At one point, the ghost communicates through his little voice. 

The Movie – No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts,” about it, Jake,who is older than the Richard of the book, is one psychic little dude, more so than his father will ever be. The movie begins with him talking to a ghost, before we are even introduced to Tom. I think the movie was going for a “creepy kid” angle.

 

The Gun Shot

 

The book – Tom hears a gunshot before it happens. He rushes to the scene where the shooting is to take place. But alas, it has already happened. Elizabeth Wanamaker has shot her husband Frank and then has fainted. Frank survived the shooting and he doesn’t press charges against his wife. It was an “accident”. Turns out, Elizabeth has psychological issues.

The movie – Tom has a vision. He is standing in the house of his buddy Frank. Adam stands before him with a gun. An argument ensues. Is the kid going to shoot him? No. Instead he turns the gun on himself and pulls the trigger.

It turns out that Tom is seeing what Frank is about to see, looking through his eyes. Tom rushes to the house but he is too late, Adam has already pulled the trigger. Adam survives but he is in critical condition.

 

There’s a body in the house!

 

The book – Through a series of supernatural clues, Tom is convinced that Helen Driscoll, his landlady’s sister, had not run away and is in fact, sadly, dead. She is the ghost who is haunting their house. Perhaps Harry the landlord killed her. It turns out that Helen was promiscuous and had been shacking up with her sister’s husband. Maybe he killed her to keep the affair a secret (dead women tell no tales – or do they?). But he needed more evidence. Perhaps her body was hidden on the premises somewhere? In the movies, bodies are hidden in the lowest portion of the house, so he goes there, to the crawlspace. Finally while in the crawlspace, his psychic intuition kicks in and he knows where to dig. 

This is perhaps the most awkward and rushed part of the book. His psychic proclivities do not lead him to the cellar but rather his knowledge of horror stories in general does this. Anyway, they find the murdered body of poor Helen.

The movie – Tom is convinced that the ghost of the teenage girl that haunts his house is Samantha Kozac. He postulates that she did not run away but instead was murdered. However he is troubled by all these psychic messages and he asks his sister-in-law to undo whatever she did to him under hypnosis to open his brain to the supernatural StirofEchoesBodinBagworld. She tries, but turning hypnosis, the spirit invades his mind and orders Tom to “DIG!”

Tom goes home and digs up the back yard. Finding nothing, he digs around in the cellar. Eventually he stumbles upon a wall with loose bricks. He removes the bricks and finds a hidden, enclosed space. There in the space is the body of Samantha Kozac wrapped in plastic.

 

The Big Reveal 

 

The book – After finding the body, Elizabeth Wanamaker pays the Wallaces a visit. She points a gun at them. What’s going on?

It turns out that she killed Helen. Not only was Harry sleeping with her, but Frank had been visiting her bedroom as well and Elizabeth found out about it. Elizabeth had watched Harry leave the house of his sister-in-law, knowing why he was there. When he was sure that he was gone, she snuck into the house and killed Helen with a fireplace poker, then buried the body under the house. It was she who forged the note about her running away.

A struggle ensues, but the Wallaces aren’t harmed. Elizabeth is locked away in a psychiatric hospital. 

The movie – Tom reaches out to touch the corpse of Samantha. When he does so, he receives a vision of what happened to Samantha in the final moments of her life. He sees with her eyes.

Before the Witzky’s move in to the rented house, the place is vacant. The landlord’s son Kurt uses the house as a place to party with his buddy Adam. The two boys lure Samantha into the house and attempt to rape her. In the struggle, they accidentally kill her. They hide the body and go to their fathers’ for help. The fathers, Harry the landlord and Frank, Tom’s buddy, agree to conceal the crime. When Tom finds out their secret,Harry and Kurt try to kill him but Frank intervenes and saves him.

 

Which is better – the film or the book?

 

Both the film and the book are very good. Each tells a similar story and both are successful at doing so. But I guess in this case the old adage is correct – the book is better than the film.

The book tells a broader story, even though the film does quite well with a more narrow tale. However, there is one part of the movie that I have failed to mention that cheapens the film a bit. I’ll mention it now.

Maggie and Jake are walking in a cemetery and they stumble upon a cop who also happens to be gifted with  “special sight.” The cop and Jake immediately recognize this about each other. The cop is a large black man and this whole exchange reminded me of The Shining, with the little Danny Torrence talking to the Overlook Chef Dick Halloran. It was kind of a rip-off moment if you ask me.

A later scene where the cop talks to Maggie reveals that both her husband and son are figuratively walking through a dark tunnel. Tom has a flashlight with a small beam whereas Jake has a large beam. In other words, Jake can see into the paranormal world much better than his father. The reason for this whole scene was not to explain to Maggie what is going on, but to explain to us, the viewers, what is happening with this father/son “gift”. How in the hell does this cop know all this? He just does. A rather contrived way to explain the whys and wherefores if you ask me.

Otherwise, both the book and the film are very good. I recommend both.

 

 

Classics: Horror: A True Tale – A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilly Night (A Christmas Ghost Story Special)

She aged prematurely. Weary with a voice ridden with sighs, the spinster accepts these conditions. Still, Rosa wonders if all this was preventable. Perhaps if certain precautions were attended to, she could have avoided the happenings that solidified her fate on that night before Christmas many years ago, circumstances that make her story all too fitting for the literary category of tales concerning Christmas ghosts and haunted houses. 

Welcome  to the second  edition of Classics: – A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilly Night. The title of the story for this edition is Horror: A True Tale, written by John Berwick  blackwoodscoverHarwood way back in 1861 for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume LXXXIX, No 543. (see the accompanying photo for an example of what this magazine looked like). This piece is an example of a traditional Christmas ghost story, so appropriate for this wonderful time of the year! 

In the first edition of this series, (The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions), I explain my intentions. I’ll revisit a paragraph that summarizes these intentions well:

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

I will proceed according to the objectives specified in the above paragraph. First I’ll describe “the traditional Christmas ghost story” and then I’ll place Harwood’s chilling tale within its context and let the walk-through begin.

So, settle in, sit back and come with me inside a classic Christmas  story. We’ll wander into “certain” depths. As for the depths of “uncertainty”as to what scared this woman  so much on that festive yet fateful holiday night, it’s up to you to plunge deeper into her nightmare by reading the story  yourself. You can read it here for free – Horror: A True Tale by John Berwick Harwood. 

The Telling of Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve and the Plight of Poor Rosa

The telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve was a common tradition back in them there days of yore. Many authors captured  this tradition in the stories they penned. Such stories usually begin at a Christmas gathering. Guests sit by a fire, their glasses are filled with wine. They have been well fed, their minds are a bit hazy, and they  listen to the “teller” as s/he speaks of a fanciful tale of witches, goblins, or sprites. Sometimes the story spoken by the narrator is the story that the author wishes to convey. The story itself might have little to do with Christmas activities, but the telling will take place on the Eve of the holiday. Other times the story told by the narrator is only a catalyst  for the horror that will take place to one of the listeners after the telling. Very likely, it will occur after the party winds down when the spooked listener prepares for bed. Such is the case here in Horror, a True Tale.

In my article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted  Houses I make the case for the “Christmas  Haunted House”, a recurring theme in Christmas  ghost stories. This is the place where the festivities  are taking place. It’s fun to listen to ghost stories in a place of warmth. The lighting might be limited for the sake  of atmosphere, but there is light , unlike the darkness that exists on the other side of the walls, outside, on a cold, windy night. Such weather will not be ignored  by the secluded party guests. Its winds will howl and tree branches will scrape against the eaves. The cold face of frost will press against the windows. All this adds to the scary entertainment. Fun additions. An added soundtrack accompanied by some visuals. Little  do they know that they are not only inside a Christmas ghost story but, worse yet, they are inside a Christmas haunted house. Such a house will gladly accept what I had called “winters symbolic doom” inside it’s walls. Once a place of cheer and stories, later a place to harbor the scary things of darkness that were previously confined to fancy. This is what happens to Rosa’s house.. And poor Rosa will be its victim.

All this anticipation – setting things up for the climatic event. This is 90% of Harwood’s tale. It’s all about the journey to the resolution, and this is quite all right, for any thoughtful traveller will tell you that it’s the journey itself that counts most.

Rosa, both lamenting and accepting of the life she led, robbed of love  and companionship, remembers all too well that fateful Christmas party in her father’s mansion; the shortage of sleeping  chambers, her strange godmother for whom she gave up her room. She will tell you about what went down. She will tell you how she  ended up sleeping in that chamber the servants whispered about. And you will listen if you are a curious person. But of course you are!

She will tell you of the tales told around the fireplace where the Yule’s log blazed, tales that caused her soul to shiver. Such a shivering would persist later that night as she escorts her strange godmother to the safe bedroom that was once hers but is no longer. The godmother  is a bit too knowing, and she offers that maybe they should share the room. Rosa refuses and walks the dark corridors into a wing of the house she had rarely entered , certainly never at night by candlelight. She will encounter those classic haunted house staples, such as the gallery with portraits of long since dead relatives with following  eyes. She will pass the armors of “once-upon-a-time knights” that stand menacingly in the shadows. All to get to a strange room where she will be alone. Or will she?

She will  imagine the things from the fireplace  stories joining her in her chamber. Will it be a walking corpse, a lifeless  skeleton?  

Never trust a strange sleeping chamber when you’re inside a haunted house story. Had she known she was but a character inside a chilling tale, she would have known better. 

This is as far as we will tread, readers. Tread further, y’all. Read the story. Join Rosa. Don’t leave her all alone.