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.

 

Don’t “Overlook” the Film “Doctor Sleep” – The Overlook is Already Provided.

Ewan McGregor stars as Dan Torrance, a.k.a Doctor Sleep, which is also the title of the film that is up for review. “Doctor Sleep” is Dan’s nickname, given to him by patients at a hospice ward on account of the way he uses his psychic abilities to help dying patients “crossover” with peace and dignity. As much as he is loved at this ward, his talents are needed elsewhere. Dan Torrance will go on one hell of a psychic adventure.

In order to better understand what this is all about, a trip down memory lane is in order.

(Here be me pretending you don’t realize this a sequel to The Shining. Just go with it. Be all wowed and shit!)

The Book – The Shining

DoctorSleepOverlook1

Once upon a time there was a man named Stephen King. In 1977,  He went ahead and wrote a book that was called The Shining. This is my favorite book from this horror author icon and it helped to develop my love for haunted house stories. One of the main characters of the story is a little boy named Danny Torrance who possesses a sixth sense that is called “The Shining”. People who “shine” have the talent to read minds, see the future, talk with ghosts, and/or engage in many other psychic abilities, many of which plague the “shiner” with horrifying visions. Danny’s mean ol’ father, Jack,  brought little “Shining Danny” to The Overlook, a hotel in the mountains that also has “The Shining” (places can shine too). This hotel just loves to conjure ghosts from its past and replay the most bloody scenes that have ever happened on its premises. The Overlook uses little Danny as a battery in order to bring its own Shining abilities to full charge. A fully charged Overlook hotel drives Jack mad and turns him into a homicidal maniac. Jack tries to kill his family, even his dear little boy Danny.  In the end, Danny and his mother escape and The Overlook is blown to pieces. Jack perishes in the explosion.

The Book – Doctor Sleep

DrSleepBook

 

Again upon a time, this man named Stephen King wrote a sequel to his groundbreaking novel The Shining. The time was 2013. The novel is called Doctor Sleep.  Danny Torrance is all grown up. He works as an orderly at a hospice center where he uses his “shining” abilities to help dying patients pass over peacefully to the other side. He meets a little girl named Abra who reaches out to him telepathically. She too has “The Shining” and she is in danger. Abra is being pursued by a deadly gang of psychic vampires known as The True Knot. These folks have been living an unnaturally long life by killing children who “shine” and feeding off of their essence, which leaves their victims’ bodies  in the form of steam. By inhaling this steam, they can cheat death.. The True Knot. seeks to have the feast of a lifetime on Abra, for she is the “shiniest” of all and her essence will sustain these vampires for who knows how long. Dan Torrance comes to her aid, and there is a showdown on the grounds where the Overlook once stood. Dan and Abra vs Rose the Hat, the leader of the True Knot,. Even though the building is gone, its “shine” of remains. Will the residual vitality of the spirit of The Overlook somehow lend its strength to Dan and Abra? Or will it work to their disadvantage?

Wait a minute!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Overlook is no more, and yet I am including Doctor Sleep in my reviews of haunted house films.  Oh why would I go and do such a thing? Because, silly, that brief synopsis outlined in the preceding paragraph describes the book, but  I am reviewing the movie. Things are different with each medium. Think of it this way – The book Doctor Sleep is the sequel to the book The Shining. On the flip-side, The movie Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the film (not the book.) The Shining. To keep with the continuity of mood, the film is shot in the style of Stanley Kubrick, the late famed director that directed the film The Shining and gave it is signature eerie style. So you could say that the film Doctor Sleep, directed by Michael Flanagan, is very .  “Kubric-esque”, and this style is very much welcomed in my opinion. In Kubrick’s film, The Overlook remains standing at the end of the film, unlike in King’s book.. Does this mean that this creepy mansion up there in the snowy mountains of Colorado will once again open its doors to movie viewers? 

(Hypothetical Reader: Oh please let it be so! Please? Pretty please? Please tell me I will get to visit The Overlook again! Please? Oh why won’t you just say “yes?”)

(Me: Okay! YES!)

(Hypothetical Reader: Yay!!!!!!!!!! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!)

DoctorSleepOverlook2

I am very happy to report that the film Doctor Sleep not only includes a fully intact and supernaturally functional Overlook Hotel but that its inclusion comes naturally and serves as a climactic plot device. The title of the article probably already gave this away, but I’m glad you are still giddy with relief. The film begins at The Overlook and comes full circle to finish at the hotel. And I like the film all the more for its inclusion. For this I am so grateful.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do like the way King ended The Shining with the hotel going “Kaplooie!!!!!” due to Jack Torrance’s negligence at keeping checks on the boiler. This ending was foreshadowed in the beginning of the book when Jack is trained on the boiler upkeep and is told to watch out, for “it creeps”, meaning that pressure builds and therefore the settings must be adjusted daily. Likewise, Jack himself fails to keep checks on his own boiler, meaning his temper and sanity. He too “blows” at the end. Brilliant symbolism!

Here’s how I breakdown my preferences. I do like the book The Shining better than the film, but the film is great and it comes in at a close second. I love the film. However, I do like the film Doctor Sleep better than the book. Flanagan’s vision triumphs over King’s, even though it is King’s story. Sorry Stephen, that’s just the way the Overlook crumbles. And it’s not just the presence of The Overlook that makes the film superior to the book. Other factors contribute to its superiority as well. Let’s take a look at some of those factors in the next section.

Doctor Sleep – Book Versus Movie

For the record, I did read Doctor Sleep. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the finer details of the story. In preparation for this article, I made an attempt to refresh my memory by searching my Kindle library, hoping to find the book and do some on-the-spot skim reading. Alas, it was not in my Kindle library. I must have downloaded it from Barnes and Noble on my Nook, which I don’t have anymore. And there was no way I was going to purchase it again. I did like the book, but I didn’t love it, certainly not enough to buy it again.

One of the problems I had with the book has to do with the way King portrays the True Knot. They are senior citizens travelling around in Winnebegos, wearing polyester clothing and straw sun hats. When they extract the psychic steam from their victims, which is  used to prolong their already lengthy lives (like vampires, their true ages are much greater than what their appearances suggest), what they don’t absorb there on the spot they store in canisters. Old people with canisters of vapor – to me this seems like a play on oxygen tanks, a device that many of our elderly are forced to possess. No, I’m not taking offense to any unintentional mockery of the plight of the elderly, I just think the whole set up is hokey. They just don’t strike me as a fearsome bunch, even though they do the unmentionable, i.e. killing and feeding off children.

In the movie, most of the True Knot have younger bodies. They appear to be in their thirties, forties and fifties. This would make sense, wouldn’t it? If they enjoy their prolonged lives so much, wouldn’t it make sense to do so in younger bodies? I seem to remember, in King’s defense, that yes, they would love to have less aged bodies, but they were running low on “steam” and disease and aging are catching up to them, much to their dismay. But their style of dress, i.e. polyester, and the way they present themselves, like escapees from a retirement home, all this just made me chuckle. In the movie, they dress in leather, have tattoos, wear hippie-like clothing. They come off as more of a threat. Yeah, yeah, the whole “retirement community dress-style and culture” serve the book characters well by making them the least suspect in regards to reports of missing children, but this setup didn’t serve me well as a reader ready to be horrified by a band of ruthless monsters. The elderly Satan worshipers of Rosemary’s Baby they are not. That clan of seniors worked for me. These did not.

The True Knot of the film; they held my respect as fearsome folks. They did a good job of making me hate them for their selfish and murderous acts. They are bad, bad people – and when the “good guys” get the upper hand, finally, there is relief. I nearly applauded during a scene when Dan Torrance and his friend are able to kill some of them – and I was in the theater without a companion! 

The canisters of steam are included in the film. But for some reason, they seem less hokey.  I don’t know why I have such “a steam” issue; maybe I should practice more self love. (get it? “a steam” vs. “esteem”? You don’t get it. Fine! Moving on). I just can’t help but question “do we all release steam on death or only people who “shine?” If only people who shine release such steam, then is it this “steam” that gives them their psychic abilities? To me it’s sort of like the midi-clorians of Star Wars, Lucas’s poorly received concept of micro organisms that grant the powers of The Force to its host. But anyway, scenes where the gang of “True Knotters” hover over a dying victim and inhale the steam bring to mind a pack of dogs fighting over a corpse’s bones. These scenes epitomize quintessential horror quite well,  so I won’t belabor the point any longer.  

While I don’t remember all the details of the book’s final showdown, I do remember that it was a bit drawn out. While it was not quite as bad as the grueling car chase in King’s Dreamcatcher, it still was a “page turner” in a different kind of sense – I kept turning the pages hoping for it to end.

This was not so with the movie. Not at all! Enter The Overlook!

The Showdown. Look, it’s The Overlook!

DoctorSleepDanAndAbra

Dan Torrance and Abra lure that last remaining member of The True Knot, Rose the Hat, to The Overlook. It still stands but it is shut down permanently. Dan Torrance knows how dangerous this place is for people who shine. He doesn’t want to return but he must, in the hopes that the Hotel will put an end to Rose’s reign of terror even if he has to die in the process.

Though I went to the theater alone, I clapped when I watched Michael Flanagan recreations of the wide angle tracking shots of The Overlook’s neighboring lake and mountains. It was late afternoon on a weekday, and I was one of five people in the theater. But I didn’t care, I was excited. The same eerie music made me feel right at home as well. I was a happy man and I knew I was in for a treat.

When he’s finally standing outside the deadly hotel, Dan knows that he needs to “wake the place up”.  He does so with his very presence. He enters the foreboding building and he slowly strolls the halls and relives some of the less finer moments of his childhood.  The axe holes in the walls are still there, holes carved out by his mad father once upon a time. 

During one of his hall strolling scenes, darkened ceiling lamps crackle to life when Dan passes under them. The feeling I got watching this was that I was back inside Flanagan’s’ vision of Hill House from his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. Creepy, luring and patient. I loved that series and I was giddy with anticipation watching a similar vision come to light inside The Overlook. There are plenty of Easter eggs – references and recreations of The Shining’s ghosts and deadly scenes. Here in this deadly arena “a Shining” battle will take place as heroes and villains turn their powers against each other. 

 Bringing it All Home – finishing the film in the style of King’s “The Shining”

Doctor Sleep the film ends in a similar way as The Shining the book. The first thing Dan Torrance does upon revisiting The Overlook is to re-calibrate the boilers so that they will blow the whole place to smithereens. A place like The Overlook is simply too dangerous to be left standing.  

Like his father before him, Dan will suffer a similar fate. The hotel possesses him. He runs around with an axe and tries to kill Abra, the girl he sets out to save. Just as he’s about to slam the axe inside her head, he temporarily comes to his senses. A similar situation happens in the book The Shining but not the movie. In the book, Dan breaks free from his trance for just a few moments, enough time to warn his son Danny to run. And run Danny does.  Likewise in the film Doctor Sleep with the grown up Danny and young Abra. At the end of Doctor Sleep the film, the hotel will go up in flames, just as it does in The Shining novel. I thought the film’s ending was a fitting tribute to King’s resolution.


 

By the time you read this piece, movie theaters will probably no longer be showing Doctor Sleep. When I saw it, there were only a few theaters left in the Chicago area showing this film. After seeing it, I began writing this review, then all of a sudden Thanksgiving weekend through me off course. But here it is, finally, and you might have to wait to stream or rent it. Oh but see it you must, by whatever means. Don’t Overlook Doctor Sleep!

Classics: The Beckoning Fair One – A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilly Night

Beckoning2Ghost stories go so well with cold, dreary nights. There’s nothing that hits the spot on such an occasion like a classic ghost story. Sorry kids, a story written twenty years ago is hardly a classic. I’m referring to chilling tales that were penned more than a hundred years ago. Yes, these are the classics that we must allow into our warm dens on cold nights, for something about their ancient age prepares our immediate atmosphere for the immortal existence of the very ghosts that we seek to summons from the page. 

This post will hopefully be the beginning of a series. On many occasions I have read and written about  haunted house story collections. These would be single books that feature several ghost stories from various authors from across the ages. Too often I have reviewed these compilations as a whole while neglecting its most brilliant components – the individual stories themselves. Oh sure, I had singled out a story here and there, but in doing so I also left behind many great works that shared the same binding. Alas, in a single review, one cannot dive into the depths of each story that a compilation offers.. So here’s to some of the great stories I left behind, no longer to be lost at sea, roaring with the waves that push toward the shore to penetrate your awareness. So prepare yourselves for another post in the future with the same title format:

Classics: (story title) – A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilly Night.

Elsewhere in this blog, I make a case for Christmas Ghosts and  Haunted House stories. It is true: traditionally, ghost stories were often spoken on Christmas Eve evenings. Ah, but one needs not the festivities of the Xmas holidays to bring in the ghosts; any old cold night will do. Outside your warm abode it is cold. Winds crack like death’s whip against your windows. The ethereal light of the night seeps through whatever gaps  of transparency your house allows; its scattered and slivering presence reminding you of the formidable darkness that has allowed for these glowing inklings to exist. But you are inside, perhaps feeling the warmth of a fire or heater. Soft is the chair you sit in, snug is your blanket.

Warm tea by your side, maybe with a hint of Brandy. And..there is your book. A captivating tale of a haunted house written in the nights of yore. In the earlier days, some of the best ghost stories were short ones.Short stories or novellas, to be read in one or two sittings. Perfect for such a night, to reach a conclusion, a completion. End the day, end the story, end the night. Sweet dreams.

The first in this series is The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. This story was first published in 1911 in the Widdershins. I came across it in a compilation entitled Inhabited: Classic Haunted House Stories, which also features stories from Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry James, and several others. 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. 

So, let’s get to it! The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. It beckons and we abide. 

 


 

Beckoning3The “To-Let” boards hanging lopsided on a wooden fence tell all. The paling surrounds the old red brick building that somehow stands at a distance from the town square, even though through any of the house’s windows the town and its life can be easily taken in. But no one lives in any of the building’s flats. This sets the eerie scene and Paul Oleron stumbles into it, unwittingly casting himself as the soon-to-be-troubled protagonist – the renter of one of these flats.

Oleron is an author, approaching middle age. Never has he reached great success in his writings. He rents a small place to write, another to sleep, and yet another to store furniture inherited from his grandmother. It’s time, he feels, to consolidate. Bring everything together, layout his life and spread it across the rooms of one of these flats in the red building. Reflection time.What can possibly go wrong?

For those readers that appreciate a descriptive setting, you’ve come to the right place. The house will grab you, just as it grabs Oleron, with its pictorial focal points at various intersections of walls and doorways, with the way his furnishings blend into the makeup of the place, with the overall mood set by the moonlight that creeps into the windows, or the flickering light of the candles. Or by the shadows. Shadows.  All in all, it’s a most appropriate place to cast (project?) one’s shadows and watch them brood.

Projection, in psychology  “is a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world.” (from Britannica.com ) 

In my musings of haunted houses of literature, I often expand on the projection theory to include the inanimate as the target of such displacement. This would be the house, which paradoxically, becomes eerily animated in its own way.  The occupant, the protagonist, casts the dark shadows of his soul onto the house, and in return, the house haunts him back.

However Oleron does not see the house as a threat. Quite the opposite. Likewise, he does not understand that his own inner-workings will be his undoing. His friend sees this quite well. Her name is Elise Bengough. But he will not listen to her. Oh what in heavens is going on?

Paul Oleron has written fifteen chapters of his up and coming novel “Romilly.”  Elise is certain that her friend’s novel will be a masterpiece. It is sentimental, it is worldly, the character Romilly, she embodies romance; Romilly is Elise herself!  But Oleron is not like this, nor does he want to be partnered with a woman of these qualities, not in his work (the novel), not in his life (a prospective romantic relationship with Elise). No, “Romilly” is all wrong, and he will start anew, rework those fifteen chapters, recreate Romilly into a more fitting character, much to the dismay of Elise. She begs him not to do this. But Oleron sees things differently.

Oleron questions his life. His career as an author has not made him happy. And though his seemingly only friend, Elise Bengough, is devoted to him like no other, he questions his relationship with her. There has to be a better pairing, a better life.

His new house is a step in the right direction. Here he is “paired” with something that is “right”. Elise disagrees. She hates the place, and Paul loves it and courts it as if were a welcoming lover, possessed with the kind of feminine spirit which he desires. The house in turn seems to despise Elise. It stabs her with nails where no nails should be. It captures her foot on the stairway, the sturdy board of the step sinking in as she puts her weight on it.

Ah but our Oleron, he’s so smitten by the place that he even appreciates its audible idiosyncrasies, like the dripping of the faucet.  Drip, drip, drip! He even creates a tune to this rhythm of drips. But it isn’t a tune of his creation. He later learns that the little ditty that crept out of his head was an old song of which he had never heard. It is called “The Beckoning Fair One.”  Oh he is being beckoned alright, and he takes other sounds that the house will offer him, causing him to muse that the “whole house (is) talking to him had he but known its language.”  (quote taken directly from the novella)

Maybe this is the beginning of the haunting. It’s hard to tell, because the haunting creeps up on him subtly, like a gentle breeze. There are no outright “boos!” in this story and isn’t it better this way? Isn’t it more fitting that we, like Olderon, are lulled into such a haunting and slowly wrap ourselves in its clutches, mistaking its trappings for a false warmth? I think so.

The way Oleron blends so willingly into the house and its hauntings makes him think that, perhaps, he is like a ghost. From the novella:

“his own body stood in friendly relation to his soul, so, by an extension and an attenuation, his habitation might fantastically be supposed to stand in some relation to himself. He even amused himself with the far-fetched fancy that he might so identify himself with the place that some future tenant, taking possession, might regard it as in a sense haunted. It would be rather a joke if he, a perfectly harmless author, with nothing on his mind worse than a novel he had discovered he must begin again, should turn out to be laying the foundation of a future ghost!”

Ah but there is another ghost! Maybe. Perhaps.

“Formerly, Oleron had smiled at the fantastic thought that, by a merging and interplay of identities between himself and his beautiful room, he might be preparing a ghost for the future; it had not occurred to him that there might have been a similar merging and coalescence in the past. Yet with this staggering impossibility he was now face to face. Something did persist in the house; it had a tenant other than himself.”

The ghost of the story, if there is one, is feminine, a female. But she will not express herself in the form of a traipsing phantom. At her most literal she will be the “other occupant” of the house, whose presence is mostly felt and not seen. “She” is at her strongest whenever Paul rethinks his feelings about both the original Romilly and Elise Bengough and begins to accept them. “She” will put an end to this nonsense with her beckoning.

When is “she” the most transparent, the most objective, plainly existing outside of Oleron’s head? Perhaps it’s when she manipulates the comb. At first this hair-combing phenomenon occurs via a phantom sound only. It’s electric, static producing, and steady. Later he will see evidence of this phenomenon. A lesser story might go about this by showing a ghostly feminine figure tooling with her ethereal hair. A better but even still lesser story would omit the visual apparition and offer only the sight of a phantom comb going up and down in the air. But Paul Oleron, living inside a more patiently profound tale, will witness only the reflected candlelight upon the comb through the reflection of the glass that holds his dear grandmother’s face inside a picture frame. It is this light that bobs in the darkened room. And the crackling sound does its thing.

A dilemma is before him. What is the meaning of this occurrence? The novella expresses it this way:

Granted that he had not the place to himself; granted that the old house had inexpressibly caught and engaged his spirit; granted that, by virtue of the common denominator of the place, this unknown co-tenant stood in some relation to himself: what next? Clearly, the nature of the other numerator must be ascertained

Oleron would go on to obsess over this dilemma. And over Romilly. And over Elise. He would come to despise the latter two. (In Romilly’s case, it would be the woman of his original creation. The new Romilly? Would that ever come to be?). But he will become infatuated with the mystery tenant to the point that he would wait for her to express herself night after night after night at all costs. Many nights, there would be no expressions, leaving him heartbroken, alone.

I think we have gone far enough into this story, far enough into Oleron’s  strange abode with the mysterious female occupant , assuming she does in fact exist. You, reader, are always welcome  to venture further, then you will find out what happens to the endlessly devoted Elise, and you will then also know whether or not Oleron finishes his novel. Will you solve the mystery  concurring the strange occupant? This is a novella crammed with many possible interpretations. For a medium-sized story it is filled to the brim. 

So the next chilly  night when you’re in mood for a ghost story to encapsulate your restful  sitting, The Beckoning Fair One  is there, Beckoning you. Go for it.

Stephen King’s “Rose Red” – A Haunted House Miniseries

Haunted Houses of Miniseries

RoseREdBig

(Picture above be the Rose Red House. It be big!)

Up until now, I have restricted my reviews of haunted house stories to those that came from the mediums of film and literature. The stuff of other media service providers I have ignored. It’s time to take a look at the haunted house fiction that has stemmed from some of these alternate service providers. Mainly, I’m referring to a trending phenomenon known as the “mini-series,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “a television program that tells a story in a predetermined, limited number of episodes.” 

Yes folks, it’s time to branch out beyond the big screen, for exclusive programming from services such as Netflix and Hulu have in some cases eclipsed the popularity of traditional films. Likewise, programs from cable networks such as FX have successfully cemented themselves in the American psyche. The “miniseries” is a big factor in all this (Think Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things)  Hell, I have to acknowledge that even traditional over-the-air television has produced some analytic-worthy miniseries about haunted houses.  And acknowledge I do in this blog post that is dedicated to a haunted house miniseries that aired on ABC for three consecutive nights back in January, 2002. Okay, so this might not be the best example of a “trending phenomenon”, given that this aired seventeen years ago, but oh well, sue me, this post/review/article is about Rose Red, screenplay by Stephen King, directed by Craig R Baxley. 

What are some examples of haunted house themed miniseries that are more current? Well, the most recent I can think of is Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is very loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel. Another is American Horror Story: Murder House which aired on AMC. AHS has featured several haunted houses in there many seasons, but I believe “Murder House” is the most known.  There are probably other haunted house miniseries stories out there, but these are the three that come to my mind as I write this article.  I have seen all three. Which is the best of the three? Definitely The Haunting of Hill House. Which is the second best? Probably American Horror Story: Murder House. Poor ol’ Stephen King is bringing up the rear. Too bad, because he wanted his series to be a memorable tribute to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for his story is very similar to Jackson’s famous novel. Years later, Mike Flanagan (creator of the Netflix The Haunting of Hill House series) would succeed with this in ways that King’s story could not.  Even so, Rose Red is an entertaining piece of work.

In the future I will write up articles on The Haunting of Hill House and American Horror Story: Murder House.  But for now, it’s all about Rose Red. In fact, over the past month, I’ve hosted four watch parties at my Facebook Page, with the subject of each viewing being Rose Red. Four Sundays of October – Rose Red Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 was streaming to the world. This satisfied my craving to do something different this year to celebrate the Halloween season. A couple of people actually watched! For a few minutes here and there. The day after each viewing (those Manic Mondays, ugh!), I wrote a plot summary of the previous night’s story line. 

To read up on the specifics of the story, follow the links below (there will be spoilers)

Rose Red Part 1

Rose Red Part 2

Rose Red Part 3

Rose Red Part 4

Since I have already detailed the plot, I will focus mostly on analysis, review, opinion and trivia in the paragraphs that follow. I will retread through some of the plot basics when it pertains to the analysis, or when it just insists on sticking its head into the conversation.  Ah well, let’s just see what happens. Here I go!

Here begins the Plot-In-Brief (very brief)

(you mean it’s already sticking its head in the conversation?)

(yeah it is, deal with it!)

A professor of parapsychology pays a team of psychics to spend a weekend at a rumored haunted house. The professor, Dr. Joyce Reardon, theorizes that the collective sensitivities of the team to paranormal activity will work toward stimulating the house to behave ever so hauntingly. The goal is to obtain verifiable data from the haunting that will hopefully legitimize the science of parapsychology.  So they get to work. Ghostly stuff happens. Things get dangerous. People die.

Here ends the Plot-In-Brief

 


(Intermission song – La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La.  Okay song and intermission is now over.)


The influences behind Stephen King’s Rose Red

Now my faithful readers, does anything in the “Plot-in-Brief” section seem familiar? It should if you’re a fan of literary haunted houses. The plot also describes Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” to a tee. This is no accident. Stephen King wrote Rose Red with Jackson’s story in mind. There will be more detail on this later.  But his influences don’t stop there. No siree Bob! King also draws heavily from the legend surrounding the very real Winchester House; a (haunted?) house that was in a constant state of expansion (Rose Red expands – on its own supernatural accord!)

Wikipedia provides details regarding The Haunting/The Haunting of Hill House/Winchester influences. And I will draw more from this article later regarding this subject (ooo, that’s the second time I promised this! Will I fulfill on this promise?)   But I venture further than Wikipedia and argue that King borrows much from Robert Morasco’s Burnt Offerings, a story about a house that rejuvenates by killing its occupants. 

Since the key plot points in these other works/situations play out so similarly in Rose Red, might the argument be made that King simply stole these ideas? 

Before I answer that question, let me point out that my favorite novel by King, The Shining,  was in fact the outcome of several influencing factors. The great tectonic plates of haunted house literature coming together to create the mountain that is The Shining. Such plates are Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death.  In my article about The Shining, I defend King this way:

Yes, Stephen King borrowed from many sources. But this is not a criticism. The final product which he assembled from the various themes was indeed a masterpiece. He is like a chef that uses only the finest ingredients to concoct his stew. One does not bitch that the chef stole from the line cooks that prepped the meat, potatoes and carrots. Rather, one enjoys all the makings of this tasty treat.

(Oh yeah, going back to my “three haunted house mini series” declaration way at the beginning, I am now reminded of a fourth. This would be The Shining – not to be confused with the movie. But I already reviewed it, so there’s that!)

“Tasty treat” = “The Shining”, according to me. I continue to agree with this. However, I must clarify that sometimes a chef can throw together all these typical ingredients, creating a concoction that is distinctive and compelling; a unique mixture that is to die for. (People die in these works of King!) But there are other times when the chef mixes together the same ingredients and the result is something only slightly better than bland. This would be Rose Red.

In The Shining, King utilizes his influences to build on a story that has never been told before. But with Rose Red, the influences are indeed the same stories told in a slightly different way. This is the main difference. The result is a series that is entertaining but far from great.

So I guess those that insist that King stole these ideas have some merit to their argument. However, King’s main goal with Rose Red was all about replication. Originally, he wanted to write a remake of  Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting (which is based on Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House), but one thing led to another, and he ended up rewriting the script so that it could be distinctive from Wise’s film. (This is part 1 of my promise fulfillment. And there will be a Part 2!) 

If King is a “thief” (and for me that is too harsh a word), then the modern day master of modern horror stole from himself as well. As I was going on and on about  “The Shining,” I failed to mention that its themes play out in Rose Red. For that matter, so do some of the themes in his first novel Carrie. How, you may ask?  I’ll tell you what – I’ll describe how all the influences that I have mentioned find their way into Rose Red.  Read on!

How is Rose Red  like The Haunting  of Hill House?

Here is how both stories play out. A team of investigators led by a professor stay at a house that is rumored  to be haunted in an attempt to hopefully scientifically study paranormal activity. The team is made up of psychics or people that are somehow attuned to psychic activity. In both stories, the current heir of the house is present as well to either protect  his interests or help the team to better understand the layout of the house. I know, I know, I covered much of this way at the beginning of the article. I’ll move on.

Both houses are said to be “born bad,” meaning that they are not a neutral object   temporarily afflicted with ghosts. In Rose Red Professor Joyce Reardon uses this phrase to describe Rose Red,  accurately attributing it to Shirley Jackson. 

Both houses once belonged  to a well-to-do families that  suffered many tragedies over the years. The backstory  of both houses are long and complicated and each house has quite possibly “worked on” its occupants  over the years, causing them to die or disappear.

How is Rose Red Like Burnt  Offerings?

Both  houses in each story feed off of its occupants in order to rejuvenate or simply stay alive. The Haunting of Hill House does not necessarily  actively seek out occupants  to eat, to the best of my knowledge, even though some people, due  to their psychic or emotional makeup, are more likely to become possessed by the house  or lose their soul to it. The current owner of Rose Red, Steven Rimbauer , claims his house has eaten his relatives over the years.

Also, in both houses, dying plants blossom  and come to life as its human occupants perish.

How is Rose Red  like the legend surrounding The Winchester  House?

The Winchester  House is a real house that was owned by the heiress of the Winchester Rifle  fortune. It was under constant construction as new editions were being added all the time. Some of the designs were rather arcane, such as doors and stairways leading to nowhere.

Why the never ending construction? One theory suggests that the heiress was super generous and just wanted to keep the construction crew employed. Another theory offers a simpler explanation: the heiress was batty as fuck.

Ahh, here comes the more fun theory. It has been rumored that the ghosts  of those that died by the bullets of Winchester rifles haunted the house. In order to make room for all these spirits, the heiress had to constantly  build and add on. It didn’t matter if the interior layout made sense or not, just as long as the house was in a state of perpetual building.

If this ghost theory is to be believed, would it be that much of a “stretch”  to say that the house just builds itself and constructs its own rooms, hallways  and wings? (see what I did there? I used “stretch” and when something expands it stretches and…oh hell, I’ll just move on). Well  this is what happens with Rose Red. Steven Rimbauer states that no one knows at any given time how many rooms the house has because  the number is constantly in fluxThe investigative team at Rose Red witnesses the house changing before their very eyes. Hallways change, turning the house into a maze of sorts. Walls suddenly erect. Scary stuff.

How is Rose Red  like  The Shining?

Both stories have houses (or hotels) that siphon psychic energy  from a psychically gifted child. In The Shining it’s Danny Torrence  who reads minds, sees visions from the past, and mentally calls out to people mentally  that are far away physically. In Rose Red it’s Annie, an autistic  thirteen-year-old who possesses strong telekinetic  powers. She is the key to awakening Rose Red, Professor Joyce says. Likewise  Danny is the battery that charges The Overlook Hotel and brings it to its most haunted  state.

How is Rose Red like Carrie?

In Rose Red, a girl (Annie) with tremendous  telekinetic powers creates a shower of boulders to fall from the sky upon a house. Diddo  Carrie White. Eleanor Lance in the Haunting of Hill House had also created such a phenomenon when she was a child. But Annie, with the power to open and shut doors with her mind, most resembles Carrie. At one point Annie, using her powers,prevents s the doors and windows from opening, trapping everyone  inside the house. Carrie keeps the doors and windows of a school telepathically sealed while she burns the place down, trapping the teachers and students inside.

Let’s “redescribe” the plot of Rose Red while summing up these influences – all in one paragraph!

A Professor  of parapsychology  invites a team of psychics to study a haunted house that was born bad and has a history of tormenting  the successive generations of a prominent family (The Haunting of Hill House). They will learn that the house “eats people” and siphons  their spiritual energy so that it can rejuvenate. (Burnt Offerings). This house has the ability to redesign itself and expand at will. (The Winchester House). At the beginning of the study, the house is supposedly depleted  of energy – a dead cell. Professor Joyce Reardon hopes to recharge  the house by using a psychically gifted child as a battery (The Shining ). She will succeed, and the girl , who once made boulders  fall upon a house , will fall under the house’s spell and telepathically seal all the doors and windows  to prevent the visitors from escaping while bad things happen to them. (Carrie)

Any Other Influences?

For the hell of it, I’ll throw in Poltergeist  for the modern  touches the Rose Red series brings to the otherwise classic haunted house  themes. By this I mean the special effects. Rose Red has scenes where unbound energy causes  electrical jolts and flashing lights, with the scared and wowed  faces of the team reflected in these flashes. With the few glowing ghosts added in for extra measures, we get a toned down production of The Spielberg caliber.

This is not too far fetched, because Stephen King originally wanted to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on a remake of the Robert Wise film The Haunting (which of course is the screen version of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House). King would contribute his talents (the writing) while Spielberg would his kind of genius ( the production).  The two ran into creative differences (a Steve Squared equation ended up a null set, awwwww!) and Spielberg ended up assisting in some way with director Jan de Bont’s remake of The Haunting (1999) while King revised his script, which then was used for Rose Red. As it turned out, Spielberg hated the final product of The Haunting so much that he had his name removed from the credits. I opine that Rose Red is significantly better than The Haunting 1999(And see, I fulfilled Part 2 of my promise to give more detail on the why’s concerning the specifics King’s influences).

Summary

Rose Red has his flaws. Aside from the regurgitation of plot material,  I couldn’t get past some of the story logistics. Professor Joyce Reardon’s determination to scientifically validate the reality of paranormal phenomenon turns obsessive, neurotic, and finally, psychotic. She ends up losing her sanity in Rose Red and causing others great distress and even death. All this, and yet she has a team of psychics, some of who have powers that would put the mutants of the X-men series to shame. Isn’t that proof enough?  Also, the backstories are a bit complicated, and when the series wraps itself up and tries to tie these backstories into the main story, the knots aren’t all that tight. In other words, the “revelations” are a bit “meh” and even “huh?” 

But overall, it was entertaining, and that counts for something. And I should mention, if I haven’t already, that those that die or get lost in Rose Red come back as “zombified” ghosts. They are under the spell of the house and they will prey upon any one who enters. That bit of the story was interesting.

When I wrote my weekly plot summations, I gave the impression that the story I was having such a great time enjoying the series!  I described the plot with enthusiasm, tried to make the story seem as suspenseful has possible. Was I lying? No.  I did enjoy the series and it was suspenseful at times. In other words, I enjoyed the ride. But when it was all over, and I put on my reflective hat, I realized that it was , well, as I stated earlier, a little bit better than bland. I don’t know about you, but when I start on a meal that is tasty but could be tastier, I finish it. And that’s what I did here. 

Cast Trivia

Let’s conclude this article with fun trivia! Question: What other television  programs did the actors of Rose Red  star in? I won’t go  through the whole list, just a few. Okay only  three!

RoseRedJoyceAnd

Professor  Joyce Reardon  is played by Nancy Travis and she went  on to star as Vanessa Baxter in  ABC’s Last Man Standing, wife of Tim Allen’s character Mike Baxter. Since I don’t watch  that show, I’ll say no  more and move on to shows I like – classic  TV shows.

 

RoseREdKevinAnd

 

Rose Red features a character named Victor Kandinsky, played by Kevin Tighe. Victor is a psychic with precognition. Victor is the most physically fragile of the team of investigators. He is the oldest of the crew and he’s almost always on the verge of a heart attack. He takes medicine for this condition. This is quite the opposite of the character he played thirty years prior, a young and hearty, able-bodied hero. This would be paramedic-firefighter Roy DeSoto on Emergency!

Ya gotta be a certain age to remember that show! I was real young when it aired, just a wee little boy under the age of five. My mom watched it and so therefore I watched it, and tried to play along with the story with my action figures.

RoseRedMillerAnd

 

The biggest surprise for me came when I researched actor David Dukes who played Professor Carl Miller, the “bad guy” of this series who tries  to sabotage the efforts of the psychics studying paranormal activity at Rose Red. Please don’t confuse him with the racist politician David Duke; Dukes (with the “s”) has experienced enough unjust hatred over the years on account of a character he played in the late 70s. On a brief but memorable appearance on the show “All in the Family,” he played an unnamed character who tried to rape Edith Bunker, who at that time in 1977 was seen as America’s most innocent (naive) and beloved housewife. This was the first portrayal of an attempted rape on television and Dukes suffered for his performance on this Emmy winning episode. He received death threats from fans who just were not able to separate reality and fiction.  That being said, I’m not blameless either for this stigma, for when I discovered that he starred in the episode “Edith’s 50th Birthday”, right away a voice in my brain shouted out “Hey, you’re the guy who tried to rape Edith!” No brain, he is not. He is a guy who portrayed a fictional character who tried to rape another fictional character.

(Wikipedia info on the All in the Family episode “Edith’s 50th Birthday”)

The other actors of Rose Red had interesting roles in other media as well but I won’t go into all of those. Discover for yourself what other roles these actors played!  I will however point out one nameless character that popped into the Rose Red series for a few minutes – a pizza delivery guy who delivers a pizza to the team at the haunted house. “Gee, that guy looks familiar,” some viewers might say upon his arrival. Others will know his mug right away – it’s none other than Stephen King himself!

 

 

Review of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – The Film

ScaryThingsHouseHappy Mid-August to you all!

Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately.  Let’s see now, my last post, my review and analysis of Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door was published…wow…on July 2nd!  Has it really been that long? I guess it has. I blame my lack of blogging on the summer.  In addition to being an autumn kind of guy, with my love of autumnal colors, Halloween and haunted houses, I’m also a summer guy as well and I try to get in as many outdoor activities as I can in a short period of time.

Some summer rituals do involve The Great Indoors, though.  Such a ritual includes seeing a movie on a weekday during the daylight hours. Blame this on those summers of my high school years when going to matinees was a regular, cherished activity. Oh that precious nostalgia! To relive those days of my youth is to reengage in such rituals, and reengage I did. I went to see a seasonally appropriate film if there ever was one, for the days are getting colder, the nights longer, and fall is just around the corner. But for me at 2:35pm on August 14, 2019, autumn was already here, on the big screen, with its wonderful oranges and auburns, with its comfy wool sweaters and letterman jackets, with its Halloween celebrations, and most importantly, with its nightmarish monsters that prey on high school kids. This sneak preview of autumn even featured the small-town haunted house that stands behind the woods!  And this house is why this movie gets a review on my page. The movie is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Before getting into the guts of the story, let’s go back to that season shit again.  Aw come on, it’s appropriate and it helps establish the feel of the film.  The autumn theme whacks a bit of certainty into today’s Chicago season. Mid-August, soooo uncertain, the weather doesn’t know what to do – be hot? Be cold? At least with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I’m not having the kind of anxiety that is similar to one waiting to depart on a trip – I’m already there! I’m in a small town on October 31st, and seasonal testaments abound! There is the field of fully-grown corn with its stalks turning a golden brown. There are fallen leaves and wind is tossing them around, there are Halloween decorations in the windows. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed the insides of the houses were geared up in autumn colors as well. The wallpapers (this is a period piece, 1968 I believe, as a Nixon election victory was shown later in the film) conform to the hues of this magnificent season. Great job to the set designers.  The film Halloween (1978) is often cited as the epitomical autumn horror film, for it too took place in a small town with houses decorated for Halloween, with its streets filled with blowing leaves. But Christ, this is supposed to be a fictional town in Illinois (Haddonfield), and there are fucking palm trees everywhere. The leaves are so green, too green. Alas, Halloween was filmed in California, and this is the reason for all this out of place scenery.  In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, everything is in the right place. School is in session; high school activities are taking place. So if for no other reason, I recommend seeing this film for its knack of instilling the spirit of autumn. Special effects aside, the landscape is beautiful.  Oh, and the film’s story isn’t too bad either.

The story? Oh yeah – that. Four teens decide to explore the haunted house at the edge of the woods on Halloween night. It once belonged to the very prominent Bellows family back in the 19th century – a family that built and ran a mill which in effect created the town with the jobs it brought to the area.  The family is long gone (later we will learn – most just disappeared from the face of the earth).  The daughter of the family, Sarah, is kept in lock and chain and hidden from the outside world, so the rumors go. The legends also have it that Sarah would tell scary stories to children who listened to her through the walls.  Upon hearing the stories, the children would vanish.  Ah those small-town folktales, pretty silly huh? Well poor Stella, Ramon, Auggie and Chuck get a large helping of this “silliness” and it ain’t too pretty.

While exploring, aspiring horror writer Stella finds a book of stories written by Sarah herself, penned in blood so it appears. She brings it home. Hey Stella!   That wasn’t such a good idea. Oh Stella!

By stealing the book, Stella has awakened the vengeful spirit of Sarah Bellows. And she is cranky, having been “dead asleep” for however many years. In both death and life, Sarah utilizes that unique skill she has – what she writes comes true. She writes about scary stories and legends. And, she will write about the teens that roamed about in her haunted house. Words appear on the pages in present time, and she casts the teens as the victims of such monstrous creatures. Could it be that Sarah had caused her family to disappear by writing them into these terrible tales of hers? Could be!

A team of creative individuals are at the helm of this film.  It is directed by André Øvredal, director of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. If you haven’t seen this film, treat yourself to it as soon as possible.  As for the film currently under review, it is based on a screenplay by none other then Guillermo del Toro (which is loosely based on the books by Alvin Schwartz, more on this later). G del T also helped to produced this film, so if you’re looking for his signature creepy monsters, you’re gonna get them! (although many are replicas of illustrations from the books. Replicated awesomely I might add!)

There are three collections of scary short stories books written by Alvin Schwartz. Published in 1981, 1984 and 1991, they are, respectively, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones.  These are children’s stories but apparently some didn’t think so. Too much graphic violence, the naysayers.  Here are some illustrations from the talented Stephen Gammell:

I consider myself blessed for not having read the books, for I am sure that I would have found the film unfavorable by comparison. But you see, the film is looooosely based on these stories. The books, from what I gather, have no ghostly author that pens stories that come true. That underlying arc from the film was a device used to reenact these stories on the big screen. See, some of the stories of the first book will be the stories that Sarah will bring to life in the film, such as The Big Toe, where a corpse comes looking for her missing toe, which is inside a pot of stew. Ewww! (“Stew and Ewwww”, they rhyme.) But from what I gather, even the details of these stories within are not exactly the same as they are in Schwartz’s books.

I have to wind down this review with my favorite subject – haunted houses. What is found inside the haunted house (Sarah’s book) serves as the catalyst for the scares in the movie, most of which occur outside the house – in a cornfield (that scarecrow is creepy, and yes, it will come to life and do some killing), in a bedroom (hiding under the bed won’t save you from the corpse woman that is looking for her toe!), in a high school bathroom (where every high school student has faced the horrors of self-insecurity by looking in the mirror. Hey Ruth, there’s something popping out of your pimple!), in the halls of a restricted area in a psychiatric facility (That big bloated “huggy monster” with that curving smile, man she looked weird), inside the jailhouse (through the fireplace comes the Jangly Man, piece by piece, down the chimney and into the fireplace).  But it is to the house our heroine and hero must return by the movie’s end in order to restore order. And the house does what a good haunted house always does: it recreates the tragic events that occurred over a hundred years ago and unveils a treachery kept secret up until now.

Is this a great horror movie? I don’t know about “great”.  Is it good? Most definitely. It’s entertaining, scary and looks damn good, and I’m not just writing about the stylized monsters. Guillermo del Toro is skilled at making things look good, and though he might not have been the one to make it all happen, his influence was definitely there.  The whole atmosphere shines of a storybook autumn and its small-town nostalgia.  It pleases the senses of sight. There are some jump scares but thankfully they are used sparingly.  It’s more effectively frightening to watch the monsters lumber along, taking their time, giving the audience a fair chance to embed them into their nightmares.  Yes, some of the monster travel at CGI speed, but I like the ones that didn’t better. Who needs speed when a confident monster knows that s/he will get you in the end!

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons – Review and Analysis

HOuseNextDoorSiddons2I love a haunted house that does its own thing. Such a house births a kind of haunting that is unique from its predecessors and peers.  And yet, it’s  willing to learn from them. Within its walls the traditions and motifs established by the great literary haunted houses are respected. However, this house is determined  to creak and settle to its own moaning boos. Its foundation is secure in pre-established themes while its structure expands into new, terrifying space. Where, you might ask,  might I find such a haunted  house? Look no further  than the “house next  door!”

Hi there, welcome to my article about Anne Rivers Siddons’ critically  acclaimed  novel The House Next Door. All is fine with Walter and Colquitt  Kennedy, the two major characters of this novel. They live in a quiet suburb of Atlanta and admire the empty lot next door with all its greenery and naturesque habitation. But move over nature, for a new house will be built on this lot. With the new house will come new neighbors, a succession of them, for no one will stay in this house  for very long. After several mysterious  and unfortunate events involving the new house and its  different  occupants, Walter and Colquitt suspect that the place is haunted. They then will do whatever it takes to steer potential buyers away from this evil house.

This piece is more than a review; it’s an analysis of the various themes that help this novel to both earn it’s rightful place among  genre-specific greats while offering readers something unique.  Since I will be looking  at key plot points in order to achieve my analytical  goals, there will be spoilers throughout the article. They are simply unavoidable.

In past articles, I have declared  my love for “haunted houses that are more than the sum of their ghosts”. Stories with such houses don’t fit into a logic paradigm that states: there are ghosts in the house. Therefore the house in the story is haunted. These stories feature a house that is haunted in and of itself, with or without ghosts. The House Next Door  haunts without ghosts. Ghosts represent the intangible  yet powerful images and sentiments  from the past. Within Gothic literature, ghosts from a bygone era often return to haunt the contemporary generations. The House Next Door is classified as a Southern Gothic, a subgenre of Gothic Literature. Works within The Southern Gothic often explore contemporary social issues. This is true with Siddons’ novel and in doing so, it inverts the premise of the parent genre – the “haunting present” tears at the characters traditional and comfortable way of life.

Gothic in Brief

I have delved into some of the elements of Gothic Literature in various articles across this Blog but by no means am I an expert on all there is to know about this genre.  Gothic Literature, from its roots in the 18th century, brings together romance, fantasy, suspense and horror. Its influence on modern day storytelling is vast. It’s sort of like what The Beatles are to modern day music.   My “ghosts from the past” description in the preceding paragraph is but one of its many elements. Ah but what an interesting element it is!

Different time periods are often juxtaposed in Gothic literature.  Eras clash with one another. There is the failure of modern science to combat vampirism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Modern science has finally achieved the ability to create life in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the scientist is unable to control his own creation.  More apt to what I might call “the gothic haunted house tradition”,  characters are forced to atone for the sins of past generations. These characters have to deal with ghosts and other supernatural entities, or  even supernatural events, as a form of retribution. This happens in The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne and to some extent in The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.  Think about it, another word for “haunt” might be “linger”.  To linger is to stay. Whatever is lingering is old, meaning, it was there before. It may no longer be wanted. Yet it lingers, to the horrific detriment of the characters in a horror novel.

Southern Gothic and “Then Vs Now”

The Southern Gothic is a uniquely American expansion of the Gothic tradition. Like with its parent genre, I am by no means an expert on its character.  I know by its title that it pertains to settings in the American south. But what else is it?   Here are some quotes from Wikipedia to help answer that question:

The Southern Gothic style employs macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South .Thus unlike its parent genre, it uses the Gothic tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South – Gothic elements often taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.

Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.

AND

The thematic material was largely a result of the culture existing in the South following the collapse of the Confederacy. It left a vacuum in both values and religion that became filled with poverty due to defeat in the Civil war and reconstruction, racism, excessive violence, and hundreds of different denominations resulting from the theological divide that separated the country over the issue of slavery.

A key takeaway from these quotes points to the subject of time and change. That was the past, this is the now. In some cases, The Southern Gothic conforms to the “ghosts of the past” scenario. Toni Morrison’s Beloved provides such an example as the horrors of slavery return many years later in the form of a young, undead woman. But, according to Wikipedia, stories of  the Southern Gothic tradition deal with situations where characters are unable to adjust to modern times. These folks might just prefer some “ghosts of better times”. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for the descendants of aristocratic plantation owners to return to the “glory days” of “the good life” on the backs of slaves. I’m just pointing out that anytime there is social upheaval, there will be serious adjustment problems, for both the oppressed and the oppressors. .

Not having read much in the way of classic Southern Gothic, I am guessing that what I have described in the above paragraph applies significantly to period pieces immediately post antebellum. But there is contemporary Southern Gothic; stories that take place in the modern day South, where characters are historically far removed from the days of slavery and the “Old South”  Still, one element is the same – the theme of larger, outside cultural forces threatening the pre-established ways of insulated communities. Newness “haunts” the old.

Case in point, The House Next Door.  From Simon and Schuster, here is an observation on the novel:

An unparalleled picture of that vibrant but dark intersection where the Old and the New South collide.

The characters in The House Next Door are content and cozy in their private suburb of Atlanta. They are all neighbors. They are well-to-do and they enjoy each other’s company at holiday house parties and country clubs.  It’s a leisurely life until…a new house is constructed on an empty lot on the block. New house, new neighbors. There goes the neighborhood, brought down by the supernatural elements that come with the new house.

Since this isn’t a story about the past coming back to haunt the present day characters, this house has no need to outsource its terror to a bunch of spectral phantoms. It does the job all by itself, and brilliantly so, thanks to the mind of one Anne Rivers Siddons. This house creates horrific situations that no other house has been able to do, at least not in the haunted house books that I have read. In the next section I detail these situations while examining exactly how outside and modern cultural forces threaten the pre- established ways.

 Analyzing The House Next Door – Checking Out the New Neighbors

To begin, the official story of the house is that it preys upon the weaknesses of its  HOuseNextDoorSiddons3occupants. Or, it knows what its  occupants cherish the most, and it rips and tears at the seams all that they hold dear. The malicious  intentions of the house are rooted in either the architect, the architectural  design or both. The Kennedys guess that the architect is cursed, and this is why the house  behaves the way it does. At the book’s end, the architectural plans end up in the hands of a couple that want a newly built home. Readers then know that the “haunting” is embedded in the design. Very creative, Siddons!

There is not a whole lot of description regarding the overall appearance of the house. The key takeaway is that is new, not just “new” to the block, but “new” as in “of modern design”, contemporary, state of the art. The architect himself, Kim, is a young man, fresh out of school, and somewhat of the bohemian type. It’s his first architectural design. Once built, the Kennedys, who weren’t too happy about its construction,  had to admit that it was beautiful. The couple that hired Kim to design the house and then have it built for them, The Pie and Buddy Harralson, are young and inexperienced. Pie Harralson is somewhat  flighty but as a whole they are nice enough  and the Kennedys welcome them warmly. The Harralsons  are expecting  a baby.

Problems began during the construction process. The dead remains of wild animals and household pets turn up on or around the construction  site. They have been brutally mauled, but there are no predatory animals in the area strong and fierce enough to cause such damage.

(Analysis: Suburbanization  and modernity are the predators. Land for wildlife destroyed  by a modern domicile)

Then there was the accident. Pie falls at the site and loses the baby to miscarriage.Off to a bad start but determined to carry on, the Harralsons settle in once the house is finished. They have a party and invite the neighbors. They are determined  to fit into this community and things will work out all right – they hope. Buddy is an up and coming  lawyer and Lucas Abbott from the firm is showing him the ropes. Lucas is at the party. So is Pie’s crotchety father  and all of the neighbors, including  Walter and Colquitt, their brand new best friends.

Then it happened. In a bedroom. Behind closed  doors. When  the doors opened  and the guests peered inside, they saw a disturbing  scene. The body of Pie’s ‘s father lay  dead  on the floor. He was a victim of a stroke. In the bed lay Buddy and Lucas, not dead, very much alive. They are naked. Two men sneak off to have sex, presumably  in front of a shocked  father-in-law, who died as a result of shock.

(Analysis: in these days, 1978, while the gay rights movement  was making strides, the culture at large frowned upon Homosexuality. At best  it was scene as an alternative lifestyle, an “alternative” that I’m sure the characters of this story, secluded characters in Southern suburbia, would find very uncomfortable After this Harralsons move away in grief and shame The book suggests  that the two men in bed were never gay. The house, perhaps, took control of their wills and forced  them into that socially mortifying  situation. It allowed the social ills of modern life (from their perspective, Homosexuality  = an ill) to spill into  its walls and wash its filth upon the occupants, even killing the father in law in the process. The old have no place in this new world.)

A new couple buys the house. The Sheehans are older than the Harralsons. Like the Harralsons, Anita and Buck Sheehan are eager to fit into the community. But for some reason, they are worried about the teenagers that live in the community. The neighbors  reassure them, “They are good kids”, they say, referring  to the only two teens in the neighborhood.  But it’s not the propensity of youthful shenanigans that worries them. Anyone of youthful appearance  upsets the mentally unstable Anita. Not too long ago, the Sheehans lost their son in The Vietnam  War. The sight of a young male teen triggers within her a crippling grief. But she is trying to get better. The couple as a whole are trying to move on, start over, find happiness. The house will not let them succeed.

The house takes over the television programming. It shows Anita war movies when none are being aired by any network. It also manufacturers  long distance phone calls from her son. She hears  the sounds of war in the background. This is too much for her. She withdrawals and the marriage is strained. Virgina, another neighbor, married to Charles,  assists the couple and looks after Anita while Buck is at work. Virgina sometimes stays behind to help even after Buck gets home. It is Colquitt who walks in on the scene  that does the Sheehans  in. She observes Anita in her  living room sitting and staring blankly into space. Next to her, on the sofa, Virgina and Buck are having sex.. Again it is suggested that the house took over the wills of Buck and Virginia in order to destroy  two families. In the wake of this, Virginia and Charles  disappear on a long trip. The Sheehans move away.

(Analysis: The plight of the Sheehans represents the then present day crisis that was the aftermath  of The Vietnam  War. Families grieved for their lost children killed at war. Veterans had a difficult time readjusting to society. The aftermath of this war in particular was dealt with behind  closed doors.  People grieved privately. Veterans suffered in silence. A community  such as the one depicted in this book, of mostly well to do families that didn’t have to send their sons off to war, was Ill -prepared  for this kind of brutal reality. But the house magnifies the tragic grief of the Sheehans so that the misfortune  would spread  to another family on the block, tangling Virginia into an adulterous affair.)

Finally  there is the Greenes, the third family to move into the house. Norman Greene is always publicly shaming his wife Susan. He also treats Melissa, the twelve(?)- year-old daughter  with utter contempt. As a host at neighborhood party, he wants everything perfect and he blames his wife for any mishap. When the house itself shuts off all the electricity at the height of the party, he blames her. It is Anita who comes from money. Norman thinks he’s entitled to have and manage her money and she lets  him do this. Why? Because he did her the favor  of marrying her. For you see, she had brought shame  on herself and family by having a child  out of wedlock. That child would be Melissa, who is not Norman’s biological daughter.  In the end, the house will kill them all by manipulating their wills to commit murder/suicide.

(Analysis: Dysfunctional  families on a block of “normal” families. Back in 1978, among some populations I’m guessing, having a child out of wedlock was still somewhat of a taboo. The term “baby Daddy” was just not popular  parlance. Then on top of this is the abusive husband, his words and actions so caddish as to rub the neighbors the wrong way. Although the house did not create this situation, it certainly brought it to light by humiliating Norman, causing him to lash out, causing, eventually, for their  backstory to be made known.)

The House Next Door – Standing Among the Great Haunted Houses in Literature

Inside “the house next door” we the readers encounter a series of families and couples that fall victim to the enigmatic will of the house. It manipulates their mind and forces  them to behave in ways they wouldn’t  otherwise. They cause scandals with adultery,  gay sex, murder and suicide. All this and yet these families aren’t the victims that are at the forefront of the story. It is from the perspective of Walter and Colquitt by which the story unfolds. It’s not the horror of personal experience  with the supernatural (with one exception, but I won’t spoil everything) , but the horror of the aftermath  of sadness on behalf of the others. Never again will they have normal, happy neighborhood because the world is no longer normal. Abnormality has put its roots down on their block, and their lives will never again be the same. For a modern house has brought the ills of contemporary  life into their secluded community. The Old  and New South have collided, just as Simon and Schuster said it would, making Siddons’  novel a staple of contemporary Southern Gothic

The House Next Door  is no ordinary haunted house. Yet it is very much influenced by the legendary haunted houses from its  literary  predecessors; books such as The Haunting of Hill House, Burnt Offerings, The Shining come to mind. But it’s paid its debt to them with a style of its own.

How is The House Next Door similar to these epic haunted houses?

All of the houses in these books have their own will. They are much more than a place for ghosts to hang out, if there are any ghosts at all. The source behind the haunting is vague and mysterious. These houses are, in a way, alive and they prey on its occupants in one way or another.

How is The House Next Door different from these epic haunted  houses?

The aforementioned haunted houses are all unique in their own ways. The House Next Door stands apart from the rest in the way that it manipulates the will of its occupants and then creates these bizarre scenes for which the occupants become actors and then act out perverse, humiliating, and sometimes deadly scenes. This house is also unique in the  way that it is shown from the perspective  of not is current owners but the neighbors next door. These neighbors , The Kennedys , are forced into a situation where they become unwilling voyeurs of the scary strangeness that lurks next door.

SiddonsAnne Rivers  Siddons – she has many  books  under her belt. According  to wikipedia, Her genre is southern literature, not horror. Perhaps that’s what helps her novel The House  Next Door stand out. Horror doused within another genre allows for a wider and more enriching story than a tale with flat characters and things that go bump in the night.  Perhaps  I’ll read more of her works. I probably  won’t find another horror story, but maybe  I’ll find another  book of hers that touch on that good ol’ Southern Gothic. That would be interesting.

 

 

 

The House Next Door: A Ghost Story – Review of a Darcy Coates Novel

HouseNextDoorCoates2The House Next Door: A Ghost Story – a novel by Darcy Coates. Of course I would have guessed that this was a ghost story even if the last phrase of the title was omitted. This house, the one next door, would it be haunted? Of course it would. For you see, Coates just happens to be the amazon.com queen of modern day haunted house fiction in my opinion. She understands this genre well,  knowing when the stairs should creak and the shadows will creep.

It’s been a while since I last visited the works of Coates. I was surprised  to see that her bibliography has doubled. I knew her as an author that wrote novellas with repetitive titles  such as “The Haunting  of (*Insert name of house here*) House” books. A short catalog of short stories. Her bibliography has since expanded and The House Next Door: A Ghost Story is the first full length novel that I have read from her. (It didn’t disappoint) Search engines yield a lot more info on her than when I last researched her and her DarcyCoatesworks. I have since found interviews (https://redadeptediting.com/darcy-coates/),many positive reviews, and finally, her picture is available!  As Virginia Slims once said- “You’ve come a long way, baby!

For those new to Coates, her stories are admittingly formulaic, but they are page-turning. They are modern gothics that feature a mansion-like house, often with an old-world  flavor. The atmosphere is what is expected and desired –  the layout of the house is creatively detailed and the rooms and corridors  have the descriptive power to ensnare readers within their walls.  Unsettled spirits roam about these corridors, interacting creepily with certain pieces of furniture or decorative objects.   But these are modern tales, so the house might be on the outskirts  of the suburbs or the edge of a cosmopolitan  town. They feature  a female protagonist that is fleeing a former life. It could be a bad marriage, a complicated relationship with her immediate  family  or any a number of things. Alone, she moves to a new location  and buys or rents  one of these large , haunted  abodes. After several brushes with supernatural  phenomena, she finds herself entwined in the mystery that caused the haunting in the first place and it becomes her task to solve such a mystery. In the end she will succeed and live happily  ever after with her cats. She will  always have cats. Coates  loves cats and so do her protagonists.

So, does House Next  Door follow this formula? Mostly. After years of living in a  strained relationship with her ailing mother, Jo is now on her own. With money she has inherited, she purchases a house in new neighborhood. But  guess what? It’s not haunted! However, the house next door is! (Hmm, maybe that’s why the book is called  “The House Next Door? Ya think?) Jo has watched residents of the house come and go. One family in particular fled the house in the middle of the night, leaving all their possessions behind. Never  had she gotten to know any of these  former residents. This changes when Anna moves in. Anna, a maker and seller of dolls, is hiding from her abusive ex, with whom she is keeping her new place of residence a secret. The two  women become friends, but – can two women with troubled  pasts be together without driving themselves  crazy? Scratch that last question, which belongs in the intro for the sitcom  The Odd Couple, albeit slightly  different wording. The real question is – can these two women  work together  to thwart the evil spirit that dwells in the house  without going crazy? Answer – negative. Both will experience bouts of insanity. But they will carry  on. They must.

There aren’t many twists in this book. If there is a slight air  of mystery about an unexplained phenomenon in the house that hints at the activity of a spirit, then the spirit  is probably to blame. If Jo becomes paranoid that her friend’s  ex is driving by her house  to stalk her, then he is probably  doing just that. There is an exception; the women will do something dark and serious. I didn’t see this coming.

I do not read Darcy  Coates’ books for twists. Of these, unfortunately she seems to be in short supply. I do read her books  for her writing style, for her flair  for immersing me in a haunted house where ghosts might be hiding in any corner; a corner that has already been brought  to life by means of descriptive  storytelling. In The House Next Door – A Ghost Story, I love the way the ghost makes its presence known, seen by characters who look up the stairwell, past the stairs, then down the upstairs  hallway. I love the forms that come into being inside the dancing curtains in the wind-deprived rooms. I love the way  she describes the sad  music that manifests mysteriously from the living room piano.

Darcy Coates knows how to haunt a house. This is why I  read her books.  There are so many I haven’t  read. And I’m willing to bet her list will only get longer.

Let it be known – There are several other books out their in reading land with the title “The House Next Door.” James Patterson has such a book. Is it about a haunted house? Probably not. I have only read one of his books, but as far as I can tell, he’s a crime thriller kind of author, not a teller of ghost stories. But – the most famous haunted house book with that title is perhaps Anne River Siddons’ 1978 novel.  And guess what? I am reading that now. Expect an upcoming review. But I will not compare these two stories, or do any kind of Coates Vs. Siddons. Apples and oranges my friends!  The house to my left is an apple, the house to my right is an orange, and I’m just a nut in the middle!

 

Waiting Spirits – From the Dark Forces Teen Horror Series of the Early ’80s

Here’s to the kids of not too long ago yesterday. Growing up, they had all kinds of options when it came to reading young adult stories about the supernatural. They had books that featured ghosts, witches, vampires  and other cool and creepy things. I didn’t have Harry Potter when I was growing up, only Colonel  Potter on M*A*S*H reruns.. Being that the early 80s were the dawning of my young adult years, Twilight  had not yet set in (And from what I’ve heard about the series, that’s a good thing.), While adolescence  was a time of strong emotions, I never got the Goosebumps over the whole thing. In order for me to get my fix of the spookies , I had to turn to – The Dark Forces! Oh no! (Ohhh yes!)

What are the Dark Forces?

DarkForcesCollection

The Dark Forces is a series of teen horror novels that was published by Bantam Books in the early 1980s. The series consists of roughly fifteen book written by various authors. Each book is a stand-alone story and to the best of my knowledge there are no overlaps or crossovers between books. All of them consist of supernatural tales that feature teenage protagonists who go toe-to-toe with ghosts, demons and other magical entities. The series averages about 150 pages per book. These are not timeless classics; they are not on par with one Harry Potter. While The Harry Potter novels thrilled fans of all ages, I doubt that the Dark Forces series had any following from adult readers.  They just didn’t have the breadth of topics or the simple yet sophisticated kind of storytelling that went into creating the Hogwarts culture. Today these books are largely forgotten. In fact they are hard to come by,, at least when it comes to paperbacks. I’m sure some can be found on Amazon, Ebay, etc. As mediocre as they are in terms of popularity and content, I enjoyed reading them when I was thirteen. They certainly had cool looking covers. I didn’t read them all. Maybe half?

For a few years now, I had been wondering about these books. Alas, I couldn’t remember the title of the series nor any specific book title. But thanks to some references from Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, I was able to gather enough information to conduct a search for the right, proper, and fitting book from this series.  Of course, that would be a haunted house book. Did this series feature any such thing? Gosh, I didn’t know! But if it did, by golly, I was determined to find it, read it and review it.  The results of this determination are toward the end of this piece. But for now, read on to learn even more about The Dark Forces series.

Going Deeper into the Dark Forces

Were  things really that drastic in the early 80s that I had to succumb to “dark forces” to get my reading kicks? Was there no other reading outlet to save my precious soul? I suppose there was. There were The Hardy Boys and The Nancy Drew Mystery  series, but those were already on the way out and besides, from my understanding,  they were more mystery than fantasy. Maybe there was some other book series  that I simply neglected. No matter because The Dark Forces worked for me. Ha ha ha ha ha! (Go back and read the “ha ha’s” with a sinister sounding laugh).

Truth be told, this series was all about warning impressionable youngsters like  myself about the dangers of messing around with dark forces. If memory  serves me correctly, the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those  evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague  back there in the early  80s. Created by evil masterminds, targeted against us – the precious  children of America – such trends included role-playing  games such as Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and video  games. For you see, demons were liable  to take over  the games and music, and that’s bad and stuff.

I’m only half joking about the things I wrote in the previous paragraph. I never had to worry about demons infesting my pastimes. And there  ain’t nothing wrong with Dungeons  and Dragons, video games and heavy metal  music! Like anything  else, so long as they are used  and not misused, it’s all good. But back in them there  days (early 80s), adults were worried about  these sort of activities  and the ill-effects they might have on their sons and daughters.

There were stories , real or fabricated I never knew, about “that one boy” that lost all touch with reality on account of his addiction to Dungeons and Dragons.  I remember how freaked out a certain religious  fanatic relative became when I was gifted the game at Christmas. Since the game calls for spell casting, even though it’s all make-believe, this person had real concerns about treating magic playfully. In regards to heavy metal music and rock and roll in general, certain religious  leaders and politicians reacted quite  unfavorably to the explicit lyrics of certain songs. They insisted that albums with such songs have warning labels. Others  claimed that certain  songs had “backwards, Satanic messages.”  The leaders of my Sunday School youth group hauled us all off to a seminar on the  Satanic influences of rock and roll. The pastor leading  the seminar  explained to us that backward messages come though all to clear in our subconscious. Therefore, rock music is, in effect, hypnotizing youth into worshipping  Satan. He actually  believed this. As far as video games go, a common concern among parents is the graphic violence that is portrayed. But in the early  80s  video games were in their infancy and graphics were laughable by today’s standards. Still parents found reasons to get all in an uproar. Video games were stealing time away  from homework. They were seen as addictive  and, as with Dungeons  and  Dragons, parents worried that  their children would  lose touch with reality as they give themselves  up to the fantasy worlds portrayed  in the games.

Now, what does all this have to do with the Dark Forces series? To refresh, I had written “the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those  evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague  back there in the early  80s.” How so, you might  be asking?

The first book of the series is The Game by Les Logan. I don’t remember reading this one,DarkForcesTheGame but according to some Goodreads reviews , it seems to serve as a warning against the use of Ouija boards. So kids, even though such a game is sold on the same shelf as Monopoly and Scrabble, don’t buy it!  The Ashton Horror (#12 in the series)  by Laurie Bridges ,is another book that I missed. But according to the synopsis on Goodreads, young Dennis gets some attention from the prettiest girl in town. She invites him to join a “fantasy game club”. No, no Dennis, fantasizing is the Devil’s work, don’t do it…Dennis? And wouldn’t you DarkForcesTheAshtonHorrorknow it, the club members are trying to free an imprisoned demon. Bad club members!

 

I do remember owning Beat the Devil  (#10 in the series) by Scott Siegel. DarkForcesBeatTheDevilWho could forget that cover? Anyway, Doug is an expert at arcade video games. He becomes obsessed by a game called “Beat the Devil.” This game takes precedence over the important things in his life; his school work, his girlfriend, even his own sanity. And guess who it is that is sucking away at Doug’s life? Why, it’s the Devil himself! So you see kids, even though it may be far-fetched to think that the Devil is controlling  you via Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, video games can make your life “Hell” if you become addicted to them.

DarkForcesTheBargainThe book I remember the most is The Bargain (#5 in the series) by Rex Sparger. I remember the story featured a teenaged (or maybe they were in their early  20s, I don’t know) rock band called The Coastals, or something  like that. Anyway, a shady promoter approaches them, m promises them fame and riches, and soon thereafter  he is their manager. He convinces them to change their  name to Sabbat and change to a heavy metal sound and image. I guess they had a more pop-oriented style before (I hate pop!) If you haven’t  already guessed, this manager is secretly an agent of Satan. The band as, in effect, signed a contact  with the Devil, but somehow they get out of it and defeat the evil forces. By the book’s end, a pastor helps the band and as it turns out, the pastor can play a mean guitar. Isn’t that precious?

So in sum, with current synopses to backup my memory, I describe these books as simple stories (easy to read) that are warning manuals in disguise. They are saturated with warnings against games and trends that are marketed as harmless pastimes when if fact they are gateways to the dangerous world of “dark forces”.  Even as a teen, as I enjoyed reading these books, I became annoyed with the not-too-subtle warnings.

Now here is a question: Was each and every book of the series like this? I don’t know. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t read the series in its entirety. Alas, my impressions are largely based on memories  from thirty-five years ago. Being that it has been such  a long time since I  had read any of these books, is it possible that  my impressions are flawed, my memories imperfect? This is very possible. So I decided that I needed to read one of these books and review the material from a more current mindset.  Once again, I wanted to take a trip down memory  lane as I did  when I reread Ghost House Revenge, as I  did when I  took in the various book descriptions in Paperbacks  from  Hell. Were there any books in the Dark Forces series that featured  haunted houses? Yes, I found one. Waiting Spirits (#11 in the series) by Bruce Coville. This is not one of the books I had read as a youngster. This would be my first reading.

Would this book serve as yet another lesson about avoiding the lure of “dark forces”?

Would I feel differently reading one of these books as an adult? Are there story elements that anyone, both young and old, could enjoy? I  would find out. And I did find out. You can read all about it in the following  paragraphs.

Wait No Longer, The Waiting Spirits are Here

A family spends a summer at a house by the beach. It’s a nice summer home, although  Lisa doesn’t  want to be there. She has her life back home, which includes a chance at dating a guy she likes. Before the summer’s  end, she’ll find a boyfriend  right there by the beach. See Lisa , now that it’s all over, wasn’t it good for you to spend the summer at that house? You found a boyfriend, You learned a lot of family history. You got possessed and tried to kill your younger sister. Good times!

Who is all in the household? Well there’s Lisa’s ten year old sister Carrie. They get along quite well. There’s mom and dad. Dad is trying to write a book, so everyone  just please leave him alone. Mom just does mom stuff . Grandma  is there. She is a retired professor and it is her house. She grew up in it. She’ll behave a little mysteriously now and then, so readers should watch out for her. And of course, there are some ghosts inside the house. They always help to make a summer eventful.

For a novel directed  at young teens, his book is surprisingly dark. Yes I know, this is from the Dark  Forces series, so wouldn’t  that be a no-brainer? I guess what I mean is, yeah of course any subject  matter concerning  ghosts or demons  is by definition  “dark.”  But the story doesn’t just leave the darkness to the  mere presence  of supernatural  entities but this book. Instead it  clinches  it with a darkness that lurks in the backstory and manifests in the behavior of the spirits and the havoc they cause. In various places in the book, there is the death of a child, the terror of an insane ghost, and the startling repercussions of a teen possessed.

I had serious reservations at the beginning. After the prologue, Author Coville  wastes no time “RUSHering” in the story. This rush is was most likely  geared at teen readers that are in no mood for prolonged  setups. It is raining everyday during the family’s first week at the summer home. The girls  are bored out of their minds. The grandma comes to the rescue with an idea to pass the time: they should “play a game” where they can try to communicate with spirits. Grandma is referring  to “automatic  writing”, the process where the one with the paper and a pencil becomes a medium while the spirit  will take control of the pencil and write out a message. So haphazardly  Grandma  suggests this and with a mere shrug, the girls  and their mother agree. One their very first attempt, with Lisa acting as the medium, they make contact  with a spirit. All that was needed was some kind of mundane utterance, something like, “Are there any spirits here, please respond”. This did the trick because right away, Lisa becomes temporarily  possessed and the spirit  uses her hand to  write a message. After this, all the “game” participants  had an attitude like “huh. That was  weird. Oh well, what should we do next?”

Despite that weak beginning, the story does mature a bit. There is some pretty scary ghost stuff going on and the story  slows down so that it can take it all in. Mind you, I’m not saying his piece is a candidate  for The Pulitzer  Prize of haunted house  novels. It’s rather  juvenile, but it’s better than I  thought  it would be. And guess what?? It didn’t smack me over the head with lessons and warnings. Coville, thank you for not doing that. Ironically  it’s an adult that starts the trouble  by initiating the automatic  writing game.

Bruce Coville is a prolific children’s author with an extensive bibliography. His books are divided into several series of his own, including Magic Shop Books (five books), My Teacher is an Alien (four books), I Was a Sixth Grade Alien (twelve books), and many more (From Wikipedia). His series Bruce Coville’s Chamber of Horrors (four books) includes Waiting Spirits. Will I  read any of these? Probably  not. I read Waiting Spirits to experience  a quick dive into the sea of Dark Forces nostalgia while  adding to my collection of Haunted house book reviews. I have done this.  Waiting Spirits is not a bad book, so these other Coville books probably won’t be bad either. But I’m not it’s intended  audience. I was once, back when these books were published. I am not anymore. Time to move on. And besides, I’m a haunted house guy and just because these are “horror” books, it doesn’t mean that any of the remaining three feature haunted houses and….oh wait…..I now see that the second book of his “Chamber of Horrors” series Spirits and Spells does feature a haunted house. Ohhh and it seems interesting:

Trying out their new haunted house game, Spirits and Spells, in the creaky old Gulbrandsen place seemed like a cool idea to Travis, Tansy and their friends.

That was before they found out what was in the attic…and the basement…and everywhere in between.

 

Am I going to be sucked into yet another book meant for a young reader? We’ll see. We shall see

 

 

 

 

Review of Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction – With Special Attention to Its Chapter on Haunted Houses

In 1936, Bing Crosby introduced Pennies from Heaven to the world. Such an invaluable gift this holy coinage was! Is there anyone else that could gift the world similar treasures? If so, what might these treasures be! How about Paperbacks from Hell, with a gifter by the name of Grady Hendrix (Is he a relative of Jimi?)  Okay, so he didn’t write any of these infernal paperbacks, buy hey, Crosby didn’t mint the coins, so there! What Hendrix did do was compile a collection of book titles, authors, and cover artists in a book dedicated to horror novels of the 70s and 80s, which features bios, pictures and a whole lot of fun analysis. The complete title of his work is Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction.

So just what “in the hell” is this book about? Read on and find out. (But first, admire “Pennies from Heaven” please!)

 

Hi there! I’ve been on a short hiatus. I was vacationing in The Philippines, and then I was sick, and blah blah blah. Well let me pick up where I left off. The last time I wrote was back in mid-March. Let’s see, I was writing about something….something about ghosts…and haunted houses…(Me write about those things? No way!)….hmmmm…Ah ha! The subject/s was Ghost House! And Ghost House Revenge, two books by Clare McNally. I must refer back to this review, because it was these two books that led me to Paperbacks from Hell.. I had remembered these two books from my childhood and I searched the Internet to see if they still existed in some format today. But I couldn’t remember the titles or the name of the author, so I had to comb through the various search results that came from my search words “Haunted house and horror books of the 70s and 80s.”  I eventually found what I was looking for, and so much more. Among the search items, I found Hendrix’s book, which had in its title the keywords “70s/80s/horror/” I discovered that these two decades were the heydays for  horror paperback novels, that never before had there been so many fictional works on such horrific subjects: Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, Weird Science, Gothic and Romantic, Inhumanoids, Splatterpunks, Serial Killers And Super Creeps! These are the chapters and category names for Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. The book sounded interesting so I downloaded it and read much of it on the plane to and from the Philippines.. A fitting book for such turbulent times (turbulence shook the plane as I read).

I am including this review in my anthology of haunted house novel reviews on account of one chapter only: Real Estate Nightmares. Yes, this is the section of the book devoted to haunted house paperback novels. Likewise I will be devoting a section of this review to this one chapter. But first, an summary of the book as a whole.

In my review of Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge, I speculate that perhaps it was the works of Stephen King that ignited this horror paperback boom of the 70s and 80s. While his contribution to phenomenon is most certainly great, he did not begin it. How stupid of me, because I knew that works such as Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) and The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty) predate King’s novels. These two, along with The Other (Thomas Tryton), revived the horror literature tradition that had been dormant for a while, Hendrix says.  Even in the days or yore, horror mostly came in short stories, novellas, and then later in graphic pulp books and magazines. There were very few novel length books devoted to horror until the three aforementioned books came on the scene. “Satan Sells”, publishers realized, and soon there were hundreds of satan-spawned paperbacks.

After Satan, along came killer animals and insects, demonic toys, possessed robots, medical nightmares.  So many books, and so we had The Good, The Bad and The Delightfully Cheesy.

I equate many of these books referenced by Hendrix to “B horror” films. So these are B-books?  Some are. Sure, why not?  Often they were goofy, but as Hendrix mentions “never boring.”  Many of these “gems” are out-of-print. I’m guessing that the advent of digital media have revived some of these books, but unfortunately not all.  Hendrix devotes significant attention to the book covers. Resting on the shelves of supermarkets, it was the cover that lured customers to reach for the item. The more vivid the better, much like the days of the video store, with box covers showing an awesome depiction of what just had to be a good, creepy movie – and…often the films failed to live up to the promising pictures on the box. As for the covers of paperbacks, Hendrix shows readers many interesting examples. Colorful, artful, graphic and of course – horrific.

TheStuff TheStuff

 

 

 

 

 

     (First Picture – What “The Stuff” appeared to do to is victims, according to  the box.  Second Picture – How “The Stuff” actually preyed on people, according to the movie)

 

 

In Paperbacks From Hell, Hendrix follows the careers of several cover artists, noting the publishing houses they worked for, mentioning that a certain artist went on to design album covers, etc. Interesting stuff.(Better than “The Stuff” of the film).

 

PaperBacks.jpg2

 

Hendrix writes humorously about his subject. He is often satirical. In the chapter Creepy Kids, on describing a reoccurring theme, he writes “As long as they belong to someone else, homicidal children can be a joy.” That’s funny! But sometimes his writing style is overbearing. But like his book, and like the books he is writing about, it’s/they’re not boring. At the same time, he possesses keen insight. He ties trends within the horror market to topical events that were occurring in the culture at large. The surge of attacking animal books he attributes to environmental disasters of the early 70s. For the rise in popularity of vampire books, he notes the AIDS scare of the early 80s and the fear of being infected. All in all, a reflective guy that Hendrix is. And what an interesting book!

Haunted Houses – or as Hendrix calls them – “Real Estate Nightmares”

 

Ahhh! This is MY area! Yeah, Boy!!  Here we are! “This” section.

Truthfully I was somewhat disappointed. To be clear, my disappointment is not the fault of Hendrix. He did his job covering this subgenre of horror. It’s just that I was hoping to be introduced to a slew of obscure works. Sadly I  already knew about the novels to which he devotes the most attention. He briefly covers  The Sentinel,  and I have read and reviewed that book. Burnt Offerings and The Amityville Horror both of which I have read/reviewed. I did, however, find his insights on Burnt Offerings rather intriguing and his rants about The Amityville Horror humorous.

While Hendrix correctly acknowledges The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House as its predecessors, 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.

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.”   As a student of haunted houses of fictional literature, I am constantly hungry for information like this. Thank you Hendrix, you feed me well.

Hendrix doesn’t think much of The Amityville Horror book series. I only read the one, and for me it was alright, not the greatest, but enjoyable. But I see his point. “Amityville” became the definitive haunted house book of the 70s, while Burnt Offerings, a much better read, is largely forgotten.  He goes on to criticize the series as “crass, commercial-minded, grandiose, ridiculous, this carnival-barker’s idea of a haunted house is a shame-train of stupid.”  The carnival barker I guess would be George Lutz, the real life protagonist of what is supposed to be a true story. Suffice it to say, Hendrix doesn’t believe that this is a true story (and neither do !!)

A couple of times, Hendrix mentions The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons and refers to it as a classic. I am well aware of this book but I have yet to read it. I am relishing in this virginity and I’m looking forward to my “wedding night” when I take this book to bed with me. But like a good virgin, I am saving it for the right time. Then there are those book he footnotes here and there, books with creepy covers, that I do not know. Some are The Intruders (Pat Montandon), The Architecture of Fear (Various Authors) and Walls of Fear (various authors again). But for these he has only little tidbits of information.

 

The rest of the chapter is devoted to horrific towns as a whole, cities as a whole, and strange cultish communities. While this is some interesting stuff, it goes beyond the haunted house, so I am not mentioning these books in this review.

Following the trail of “Haunted Paperbacks” to – What Comes Next?

 

If you are a fan of old horror novels, this book is for you. If you have ever owned or read an old obscure horror paperback, definitely check out this work by Grady Hendrix. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m glad my search for Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge led me to this book. Too bad he doesn’t mention these books in his Real Estate Nightmares chapter. Oh well. But I continue on – Ghost Houses begot Paperbacks from Hell and Paperbacks from Hell begets….a Dark Forces book. What the heck is a Dark Forces book?  I couldn’t remember what the series was called, and this Paperbacks from Hell book had the answer (hint: the series was called Dark Forces). This is yet another nostalgic reading memory from my pre-teen years. Horror books directed at young teens. I read several. Were there any Dark Forces books about haunted houses? Yes!  Well at least one. This will be my next review. Stay tuned for more details!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost House

Ghost House Revenge