(A) Stir of Echoes – Book and Movie Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again I ask, “Who knew?” 

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

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

Hypothetical Reader:  Yeah, they did.

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

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

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


 

In both mediums, the generic story is as follows:

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

 

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

Book Synopsis

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

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

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

Movie Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Babysitter From Hell

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

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

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

.

.

.

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

The Neighborhood

 

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

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

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

Who are the People in Your Neighborhood? 

 

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

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

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

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

The Hypnotist

 

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

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

The Creepy Boy – Tom’s Son

 

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

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

 

The Gun Shot

 

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

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

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

 

There’s a body in the house!

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Big Reveal 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Which is better – the film or the book?

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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!

 

The Jolly Corner – A Classic Ghost story by Henry James – A Review

Is your childhood home haunted? Chances are it is.  Imagine visiting it after many, many years.  Perhaps it’s empty, awaiting the next occupants, whoever they might be. While perambulating the confines, “ghostly sightings” are almost guaranteed.  In the den by the large picture window,  you decide to look out upon the spacious yard. You “see” yourself at the age of five running across the grass toward the swing set. The swing set is long gone, but it is here now.  You can even hear the creaking that accompanies the back and forth movements of the chains that attach to the seat of the swing. In the kitchen, you “hear” the whispers of that personal conversation you had with your mother over coffee. The stairs that lead down from the second floor bedroom still echo with the plodding of your younger brother, descending with excitement every Saturday morning. Cartoons were waiting for him on the large Zenith tube television. That monstrosity sat in the south corner of the living room.  Can you hear the crackling of its static when the programming ceased for the evening? Of course you can.  And I bet you can see your family, some still alive, others gone, but all are sitting around it, watching a program.

These are all figurative ghosts. But maybe there are literal ghosts lurking about. The ethereal remains of a lost grandmother? A deceased father?

Spencer Brydon finds himself in a similar situation to the above scenario. He is the main character in Henry James’s short story The Jolly Corner. He revisits his childhood home.  There, he is haunted by memories – and much more. See, Brydon takes the haunting a step further.  He is not merely haunted by the past. He is haunted by a life that could have been. He is haunted by the “ghosts” of  an alternative timeline. As a young man, he left this home in New York and traveled Europe, abandoning his family and his family fortunes. Upon returning to his childhood home at a more mature age, he contemplates what his life might have been life if he had stayed in this house and tended to the family business.  These contemplations manifest into “real” forms.  He meets the ghost of himself. The house is like a magic mirror that reflects an image of himself from an alternate past.  And the reflection he sees is ghastly!

Congratulations! If you were not familiar with the meat and bones of this story before, you are now. It is a short story, just under fifteen thousand words.  However, I’ve encountered analyses of this tale that are longer than the story itself. There’s analysis of themes such industrialization and social change. By 1908, the date The Jolly Corner was published, the effects of The Industrial Revolution were solidified in American culture, creating a thriving urban sprawl which yields rental profits for Spencer’s family.

This leads to analytical pieces on urban renewal – the competing values of land use in terms of economic value vs. personal value (Spencer has the opportunity to convert his childhood home into a profitable modern apartment complex. He refuses).  Of course, from a psychological perspective, writers and literary critics have contributed volumes of analysis. (Okay maybe “volumes” is a bit of an exaggeration.)  Henry James is the master of the psychological ghost story and literary analysts just love to dive into such themes as the “two selves” of Spencer and compare them to Freudian and Jungian constructs of the different parts of one’s personality.  They even go so far as dissecting Henry James’s psychological profile and comparing it to the inner struggles of  his character Spencer Brydon.

A ghost turned me onto this story. It is a ghost that helps narrate the story A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons. This narrator ghost is rather complex in nature, and here is not the time and place to describe him (in other words, I don’t now how to do so – ha!). But he reflects on his childhood home, particularly his basement, his “Jolly Corner”, the term borrowed from James.  Perhaps he still sees himself inhabiting that basement, even though he is long dead.  Or perhaps its more complex or even more simple than that. I’m forgetting, but the ghost explains the basic plot of The Jolly Corner. It sounded interesting HenryJamesBook to me.  I had in my possession the book The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories by Henry James. I had read The Turn of the Screw and wrote up a review back when. Did one of “the two stories” include “The Jolly Corner?” I checked and yippie! It did!  (Later I found it that it could be read online for free – https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Jolly_Corner ) And so I picked up my book and read the story.

Did I enjoy the story? I enjoyed the concept but loathed the reading process.  James’s sentences are so long and over-populated with phrases and commas that by the time I would reach the end, I had forgotten the subject of the sentence.  I had to reread and reread again. Sometimes after rereading a sentence several times I still didn’t have any idea as to what was being conveyed so I just moved along. My plan was to trudge through the story, then read all the cliff notes and go back and read the story again. Well I did manage to trudge through the story. I went online for help with the plot development, and then I reread SOME of the story. Good lord, I just couldn’t start the whole thing again.

I found the Turn of the Screw to be an easier read. But that too is complex. Sometimes I am a fan of the writing style of the days of yore and sometimes I’m not. I guess that is where MY duality fits in. Nevertheless, I appreciate this story’s contribution to the Haunted House genre. It has depth and awesome symbolism. While prowling his old house, Spencer encounters open doors that should have been closed, and closed doors that should have been open. Who opens and closed these doors?  He does, in his mind. They are doors to different parts of his memory and psyche.  Such a fitting scenario for a psychological haunted house story!

 

 

 

A Review of Julia – by Peter Straub

“Julia Dream. Dreamboat Queen. Queen of all my dreams.” – Pink Floyd

 

 

I love “Julia Dream”, a song by Pink Floyd. I don’t, however, love Julia , a novel by Peter Straub. I mean – I like the novel. A little. Somewhat like. I guess.   Okay, okay – I’ll stop dripping out these qualifying phrases and get to the heart of the matter.

Here’s the synopsis – A woman (Julia) fleeing a troubled past finds herself living in a haunted house. She struggles to make sense of her new surroundings. Who is that young mysterious blonde girl that she keeps encountering in the nearby neighborhood? And why does Julia sometimes hear the sounds of someone rummaging around her house while she sleeps at night.

As per the synopsis on Amazon:

Julia’s first purchase upon leaving her husband is a large, old-fashioned house in Kensington, where she plans to live by herself well away from her soon-to-be ex and the home where their young daughter died.

Does the mysterious girl have something to do with her daughter’s death? Is Julia being haunted by ghosts?

Many of the haunted house novels and movies that I have absorbed follow a formula similar to this. Authors Darcy Coates and Blair Shaw, for instance, have published several stories about women who suddenly find themselves living alone in a haunted house. Often they are burdened with the baggage of tragedies past, and this only makes their haunting encounters all the more unbearable. Or maybe, these encounters are one and the same with what has haunted them in the past; maybe these are old phantoms disguised as something new. Jeffery Konvitz abides by this formula in his novel The Sentinel The story within the film Sensoria follows this pattern as well.  Yet Julia, published in 1975, predates all of these. Is it then a first of its kind? Probably not.  Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has a somewhat similar synopsis. The protagonist is not alone in the haunted house, but she does arrive with plenty of emotional baggage, so much so that she becomes an unreliable narrator.  Her sense of reality is in question, and therefore so are her perceptions. This is the same situation readers face with confronting Straub’s central protagonist. Are Julia’s experiences real or are they hallucinations; byproducts of her troubled mind? Thus, the influences of Shirley Jackson are easily recognizable.

 

I have no objection to an adherence of a formula, so long as it’s not a strict adherence. Julia_PeterStraub_156There needs to be ingredients of originality in the brew somewhere. Julia is not without originality. My criticism with the story has to do with its telling. At times, the events of the tale are ambiguous and vague. I found myself confused; is this event that Straub is describing real, or is it a dream. Or, is it just a section that’s poetically licensed to do whatever the hell it wants to do? I know what you’re thinking  “Well this kind of writing is to be expected in a mysterious novel that features an unreliable narrator.” To a degree I agree (hey that rhymed!). But as my great grandmother would say, “enough is enough of anything.”  When a situation is written so vaguely that comprehension is lost and the flow of the story suffers, then Houston, we have a problem.  Sometimes I wasn’t sure as to which character was  thinking/dreaming up a specific surreal situation.

It is well known that the supernatural is a staple of Peter Straub’s works. He is considered one of the masters of his genre and I in no way wish to challenge this mastery. However I learned from Wikipedia  that Julia is Peter Straub’s third novel, but it’s also his first attempt  at writing about ghosts and the supernatural. Bryant Burnette who writes for the blog Truth Inside the Lie has read Straub’s first two novels, and wasn’t all that impressed with them. He saw a marked improvement in Julia, at least in terms of character development. At the same time, he too finds his vagueness daunting.  He says:

.. failing that understanding, our lack of understanding is a part of the narrative.  Straub isn’t 100% successful at this 100% of the time — he occasionally falls back on the old trope of having a character be vague when it makes much more sense for them to be explicit — but he gets it right way more than he gets it wrong.

I would say he gets a right more than half the time.

 Having not read his first two novels, I can only compare Julia with the one other novel of Straub’s that I have read. A fitting comparison it is, because they are similar in certain ways. But the later novel, Novel # 5, (reminds me of this song, replace “novel” with “mambo”) is superior. I am referring to Ghost Story.

Both Julia and Ghost Story convey the idea of a vengeful, female spirit. Julia is a relatively short novel whereas Ghost Story is a gigantic, ambitious work. To me, Julia is the “practice novel;” an exercise Straub must perform while on the way toward the masterpiece that is Ghost Story. Straub learns from his early works. The fruits of his creative and mechanical maturity bear out symbolically, from the ghost of a young girl (in Julia) to the ghost of a fully grown woman (In Ghost Story). This time, Straub’s vagueness add to the overall eeriness of the story.

I am no expert of the works of Peter Straub. He is a favorite of many, including Stephen King. In both of the works that I have read I see talent. But Ghost Story is where his talent is fully realized.  In Julia, this talent – it’s there, but  it is still struggling to come to fruition. Therefore, alas, I can only give it a half-hearted recommendation.  But at least I put my whole heart into explaining why I  “sort of liked” and did not “love” this book, as I promised I would do way back at the end of the first paragraph. Remember? But of course you do! You rock, but not was well as Pink Floyd.

 

The Woman in Black – Modern Gothic at its Best!

My claim to expertise has been compromised!   

(Readers be like:  ShockEmojiShockEmoji2ShockEmojiShockEmoji2)

How dare I claim to be an expert on haunted house literature when I have only just recently read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill!  I am sooo late to the game – very late! I apologize for my tardiness.

(Readers be like:  MadEmojiUseMadEmojiUse2MadEmojiUseMadEmojiUse2 )

This is a major faux pas, since what we have here is a modern “classic”, in every sense of the word.   The Woman in Black is a novella of high quality. It serves as the definitive model for the various adaptions that premiered across various mediums including two films (Made for British TV movie of 1989  and Made for the Big Screen in 2012) and one TheWomanInBlackplay (In London 1987 ). It relays a standard and reminds us of the “shoulds” of a ghost story; it should be descriptive, mysterious, suspenseful, and of course scary.  In addition – Susan writes with a nineteenth century style, giving the story a welcoming Gothic flavor . All of this is a testament to its greatness; a greatness that I should not have ignored for so long.

The story is simple. Who needs a lot of complexity when “simple” gets the job done, right? Anyway, retired lawyer Arthur Kipps refuses to join with his wife and stepchildren in the frivolity of telling ghost stories, for he takes the matter seriously. His real experience with ghosts rivals all of their silly yarns. His true tale is disturbing and deadly; his family wouldn’t understand.

As a young London lawyer, Arthur is sent to the remote coastal village of Crythin Gifford to attend to the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. He must attend her funeral and then retrieve all of the significant legal documents that are scattered about at her former place of residence – Eel Marsh House (gotta love that name!) At her funeral, he sees a mysterious, sickly woman dressed in black. When Arthur mentions her to another funeral attendee, the other freaks out and won’t admit to seeing her. Likewise, no one in the village wants to discuss the late Mrs. Drablow. They want nothing to do with her house, which exists a few miles outside the village. It is surrounded my marshes. It is impossible to get there at high tide. Arthur heeds not the warnings of the people, for he has a job to do. He stays all alone at Eel Marsh House. In the end he will experience something so horrific that he will not be able to share the story with his stepchildren many years later.

As I read this novella and prepared for this review, I could not help but notice parallels between several aspects of this story and certain themes that I have written about here at this blog. First, it pays homage to the “Christmas Ghost Story”, a topic I have written about extensively (For starters, there’s this:  Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses ). The ghost story sessions mentioned at the beginning of this novella occur on Christmas Eve. One of Arthur’s stepchildren correctly points out that such a pastime is part of the English Christmas tradition; at least it was in the days of yore. I am reminded a bit about the Christmas haunted house story by the name of Smee. (See  Review of Smee – A Christmas Ghost Story by A.M. Burrage. To date, this post receives the most traffic). Like Arthur Kipps, the narrator of the ghost story in Smee is reluctant to take part in certain holiday festivities on account of a past terrifying experience. In Smee, the activity that frightens him is a hide-and-seek type game. In The Woman in Black, it is the telling of the ghost story that is unsettling. In both cases, readers learn of the backstory that causes these protagonists to fret on Christmas Eve. In both scenarios, its is this backstory that will turn into the main story.

TheWomanInBlack2Second, the haunted house of this novella is surrounded by terrain that is descriptively creepy. Ghostly grounds are a nice compliment to the haunted house that stands on its domain. I wrote about this here: Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. While eerie events take place inside the house (inside the locked nursery!), most of the terror takes place outside the walls of Eel Marsh House. There is a nearby cemetery where Arthur once again sees the woman in black. Even more creepier are the marshes. Only by a Causeway can a traveler make safe passage to the house. However, the frequent sea frets often obscure the safe passages. It is here out on these foggy marshes that Arthur hears what I deem to be the most terrifying element of the story. In a good ghost story, things that are not seen are more frightening then then the stuff spoiled by sight. Had I read The Woman in Black before writing the “Ghostly Grounds…” article, I certainly would have made reference to Susan Hill’s story.

Finally, Susan Hill strives for the style of the traditional English ghost story. In my opinion she succeeds at this feat. I have written about the traditional English ghost story, in articles such as J.S. LeFanu and Haunted Houses and Everything I Know About Haunted Houses I Learned from British Literature . First of all, though published in 1983, the book is written in the Gothic style that permeates these ghostly tales of yore. For instance, The Woman in Black is told in the first person and is a story within a story, which was a common plot device back then. The sentences are long and they often give way to passive voice. Susan Hill will write “my spirits rose” instead of “I began to feel better” or “you look unwell” instead of “you look sick.” Furthermore, the story is saturated with descriptions, often about the sky, the grounds and the weather.

What does this style do for the story? A lot! In establishes tone and wraps readers in a certain kind of chilling mood; a mood that modern ghost stories just aren’t able to invoke. And yet, with all its mimicry of the old style, there is something “modern” hidden within that I cannot explain. Somehow this work stands apart from Hill’s literary predecessors. Perhaps it’s the absence of archaic terminology that I often stumble upon when reading the ghosts stories of yesteryears. Maybe she benefits by learning from the old stories in a way that the authors of the traditional stories could not since they were but fledglings of their time. I’m just guessing here. But this “something” that I’m so desperately trying to convey testifies to the overall mystery that surrounds this novel. Heck, even the time period of the story is somewhat enigmatic. Like most gothic tales, this is a period piece. But Hill never explicitly states the year. Cars appear in the book, but so do traps and horses. A man on the train “takes out his watch”, he doesn’t look at his wrist. Telephones are mentioned, but so is the telegraph. Often communication is left to old fashion letters and telegrams.

I have heard good things about the 2012 film version of the book starring Daniel Radcliffe – Good ol’ Harry Potter! I am looking forward to seeing and reviewing that film. But the book is a tough act to follow, so we’ll just have to see. But I’m optimistic.  I’m sure I will enjoy it, but probably not as much as the novella.

 

J.S. LeFanu and Haunted Houses

LeFanuBook

LeFanu! I love that name. One can have so much fun with it.  For instance:

LeFanuuuu, This is Gary Gnu (Guh-nuuuu)! How dooo you doooo? Excuse me, ah..ahh…achoooooo!

Oh shucks, I just discovered that his name is pronounced with the short “a”, which is the syllable that is stressed. How disappointing! But his ghost stories are not, which is the important thing.  Far from it! Some consider him to be the best of his craft; the master of the ghost story. His work certainly epitomizes the classic ghost story. By the way, “classic” is always the best!

I first encountered Joseph Thomas Sheridan LeFanu when I read The Mammoth Book of Haunted Houses Stories .  LeFanu’s tale “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House” was just one of many stories that was necessary to plow through on the way to the book’s end. While I am proud of my review of the book as a whole, it didn’t do justice to the many authors and stories that made the anthology special.  I’m glad to finally have the opportunity to hone in on this great author and examine some of his delightful haunted house stories.

It was Anne Rice that first recommended J.S LeFanu to me. Well okay, not to me personally, but she dedicated a post to him on her Facebook page. His vampire story “Carmilla” influenced her works tremendously. After reading her post I went to Amazon and bought Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu . Fourteen chilling tales! I have yet to read them all, but for purposes of this article, I will examine three tales that deal with haunted houses. But first, let us go over some interesting information concerning the master.

LeFanu was an Irish novelist – born 1814. He is one of the main figures associated with LeFanu2Victorian ghost stories.  He influenced many authors of the supernatural, including M.R James, H.P. Lovecraft, and Anne Rice. His vampire story Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” by twenty-six years. According to Dover Books, the publisher of Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu, he “achieved depths and dimensions of terror that still remain otherwise unexplored.”  His knack for setting up an atmosphere that all but welcomes a haunting explains his success.

From Wikipedia:

He specialized in tone and effect rather than “shock horror”, and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible.

With that said, let’s explore some of LeFanu’s haunted houses. We’ll begin with story synopses and then we shall delve into deeper analysis that will uncover common themes.

 

(WARNING: Spoilers are lurking below!)

The Stories

Squire Toby’s Will

Two brothers quarrel over the hereditary rights to Gylingden Hall, the house that is at the center of this story. After Squire Toby Marston passes on, the favored son, Charles, takes possession of the house. Scroope Marston contests this and gives it his “legal all” but to no avail.  Inside the house in a secret compartment, Charles discovers documents that prove Scroope’s right to his share of the inheritance.  But Charles isn’t telling!

A stray bulldog comes wandering along and Charles takes a liking to him and takes him in, against Butler Cooper’s wishes. The dog is locked up at night, but somehow, it always finds its way to his master’s bedroom. It climbs upon Charles’s bed. There in the darkened bedroom, its face transforms into the face of his father. Toby Marston then warns his son, through the mouth of the mutt, to give Scroope was he is due.

Time passes and so does Scroope. Scroope is to be buried inside the family graveyard that is out beyond the garden of Gylingden Hall. While the ceremony is in progress, two men in black coats and hats are spotted exiting a stagecoach and entering house. Servants search for these two strangers so that they might inquire about their identities, but they are nowhere to me found.

After the arrival and disappearance of the two figures, the house is never the same. Servants hear whispering at the ends of corridors. Nurses witnesses strange figures passing by the room of Charles, who is now sick and confined to the bed. Poor Charles, his mind is going. He rambles on and on about lawyers, about bulldogs, about his deceased father Toby and his dead brother Scroope.  It does not seem that his remaining moments here on earth will go too well.

Ghost Stories of the Tiled House

Old Sally is the servant of young Lilias, and she just loves to share stories with her mistress. Likewise, Lilias enjoys hearing about the older woman’s experiences. So Sally tells her all that she knows about The Tiled House; a house that Lilias had been hearing vague but foreboding tales about ever since she was a young child.

One evening, Sally says, the servants and the family friend await the arrival of the master of the house, who is due in quite late. They hear the rustle of the stagecoach horses, the howl of the wind, and a knocking on the front door.  The butler springs to his feet and goes to let his master in.  He opens the door. No one is there. But he feels “something” brush past him. Intuitively the family friend, Clinton, solemnly states “The master has died”

Another tale of the Tiled House is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. Another family lives at the house; it is another time. Occupants look out the window, only to see a set of hands clenching the windowsill.  There is knocking at the door and when the door is opened, the greeter again sees no one but feels a presence brush against him.  Now hands are seen in the middle of the night, penetrating the valences that surround the beds, reaching out toward the unsuspecting sleepers.

An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House

The story begins with the comments of a fictional editor, who is presenting this tale, presumably to some kind of made-up publication. He vouches for the characters of the witnesses that have told him the tales for which he is about to present.

It is a tale told from the perspective of yet another unnamed narrator. He has a large household consisting of a wife, three children, and many servants. They move into a large house and strange things begin to happen.

Quite frequently, the occupants awake in the middle of the night to find strangers prowling about their bedrooms. A tall man moves across the room stealthily. And old woman is seen searching for something. They think of these trespassers as ordinary prowlers. The servants examine the coal vaults, searching for a possible secret passage that might allow trespassers entry to the house. They find nothing.

Maids see a pair of human-shaped shadows move across the wall, passing and repassing.

Later, human bones are uncovered from the outside garden. Eventually the family moves out of the house. Their stay was never meant to be permanent. The mysteries of the house remain unsolved.

Common themes

The Unknown

In this section, not only am I working with the premise cited in Wikipedia (specifically that the “supernatural” in Le Fanu’s stories “is strongly implied but a ‘natural’ explanation is also possible.”) but also with notions concerning the lore-like “origins” of these stories. To begin, the creepy things that lurk within these tales blend in well with the “stuff” of imagination; the byproducts of heightened sensitivities brought on by fear. The face-changing dog in Squire Toby’s Will is the stuff of nightmares that bleeds into Charles’s wakefulness as he lies in bed. The disembodied whispers are disturbances that test the already frazzled-nerves of the highly imaginative maids that are hyper-reactive to rumors of spirits and hauntings.  In Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, the strange noises heard upon “the phantom’s” arrival originate from the same place that gives us all those other unknown sounds that occur on a dark and scary night; that unknown location that is usually forgotten come morning time. The passing shadows behave as if they are but tricks of the flickering candlelight; the hands are perhaps made up of the same material that tends to pass out of existence after crossing the corners of our eyes.  The trespassing figures in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House are like phantoms freed of the nightmare.

In all these stories, the supernatural occurs within the darkest corners of the natural, and this is what makes them truly scary. Never are the ghosts proven to exist; never is there collective agreement concerning what has supposedly occurred.

Another fascinating aspect of these tales is that they are not first-hand accounts. Squire Toby’s Will begins with a narrator that is intrigued by Gylingden Hall. He describes its dilapidated structure and the “ancient elms” that surround it.  He appears not to have witnessed the events of the story, yet he tells the tale. Ghost Stories of the Tiled House is a mixture of tales from an old maid (Sally) and then later by an unnamed narrator. The unnamed narrator confronts one of the occupants, Mr. Prosser, at the story’s end. In the events of the story Mr. Prosser is a young man. When confronted by the narrator, Mr. Prosser is quite old and minimizes the supernatural elements of which the narrator is inquiring.  While the events that unfold in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House do so from the first person perspective of the man of the house, the story is presented to readers via an editor.

As second-hand accounts, these stories rise to the level of folklore, which has staying power. They pass from one person to another like the ghosts that haunt the houses of successive generations of estate owners. Mysterious in content, mysterious is origin. Such is the nature of the ghost.

Outside-In

In all three of these stories, there is this theme – something from the outside wants in. Squire Toby’s Will has two cloaked figures (which some in the story guess to be the father and son spirits of Toby and Scroope) entering the house and then disappearing, perhaps embedding themselves forever into the spiritual fabric of the house.   Ghost Stories of the Tiled House presents a scenario where a man, who is perhaps dead,  is making  noise outside the premises of his former home?  Is he returning from the dead? Then there are the hands hanging from the outside window ledges. In one case a pudgy finger pokes through a bolt hole on the window frame.  In An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, the apparitions appear both inside and outside. But there is the lingering fear that these beings, whoever (or whatever) they are, have forced their way in from the outside.

After these mysterious phantoms gain entry, things go awry. Servants from Squire Toby’s Will hear voices. Cooper the Butler sees two shadows dancing in wall, resembling the two cloaked men who had entered the home on the day of funeral.  After the butler in the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House senses a presence brushing past him through the entryway, people begin to report some rather uncanny occurrences. There are strange noises. Indentations appear in the mattresses of beds without sleepers.  The same situation occurs years later in the same house; a man at the door experiences the sensation of something making its way inside.  After this, occupants no longer see hands outside the windows.  They see the hands on the inside! They find handprints inside pools of dust. They see hands coming at them while they sleep in their beds. The mysterious beings of An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House had already gotten into their home. The question was – how to get them out?

Something is outside. It makes its presence known. It wants in. It gets in. Now what? These are the situations that the unfortunate characters of LeFanu’s stories have to face.

Spine-Chilling Imagery

 LeFanu has a way with words. He finely crafts these mood-alterting scenarios; the tone effectively digresses from ordinary to frightful with just a few strokes of the pen.  It is the imagery that he invokes with this pen that transforms the piece. The things he describes rise up from within the words like the eyes of a gator emerging from the slough.  They take form and come at the reader in almost three-dimensional fashion.  Take for instance the shadow that merges with the wolf-head carving in Squire Toby’s Will. Out of this meeting the contorted face of Scroope comes into being and frightens poor old Cooper. In the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, a poor maiden awakes to the sight of a strange man beside her bed.  His throat has been cut and blood drips onto the floor. But he is not suffering. He is laughing. The hands that will grip the outer sills seem to be reaching outside of the book and clenching the yet-to-be-turned pages. The strange woman that haunts the house in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House is described as a squalid little old woman, covered with small pox and blind in one eye. The way Le Fanu describes her shuffling about and wandering the room – is he looking though the page and describing a woman that he sees in real time standing next to you – the reader?

Throughout these tales, there is yet more captivating imagery. Vanishing stagecoaches, passing shadows, figures ascending staircases, shining eyes, ruffling curtains, and on and on and on.  The things that come to be, they have a way of breaking the serenity. They creep up on their victims when they are at peace; sitting in a soft chair, lying in bed. They interrupt casual conversations. In this way, these image-evoking scenarios are similar to the “outside-in” theme.  Inside, the occupants are going about their normal, peaceful lives. Something wants in. Once in, life is no longer normal. Likewise, once the object of the imagery forms and invades a casual scenario, the situation turns dire.

Summing It Up

 

LeFanu3Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu – who are you?

He is THE master of the ghost story. He conjures up frights that take place within the scariest realms of our imagination and then forces us to confront our own understanding of reality. He constructs haunted houses but leaves the ghosts outside. But they always seem to creep on in. He gives the readers the opportunity to “see” the apparitions that exist in the minds of his characters.  He’s quite the ghostly dude.  If you haven’t read any of his works, I suggest you do so soon. Soon = immediately!  Get on it!

 

 

 

Review of Ghost Story – Book Vs. Movie

MBDGHST EC005

 

Old, distinguished men in elegant attire sip their brandy and tell ghost stories. A mysterious woman unbound by time haunts successive generations of boys and men. The deadly consequences of secrets buried long ago are only just beginning to surface. All this and more make up Ghost Story, a novel by Peter Straub and then later a film by John Irvin.

In past reviews when I have compared a book to a movie, I have used a pseudo-ratio to show how books benefit from a structural advantage. I call this the “200 page/2 hour reel” ratio. Simply stated, there is more opportunity for story and character development in a book than a film. A film based on a book is often forced to take shortcuts, usually to the detriment of the story. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for a film to lay out all of the plot points of a story-heavy book such as Ghost Story unless we allow for a nine-hour film. (I guess that’s where a television mini-series comes to “the rescue.” Ah but this often backfires. But this is a subject for another article.) What does one do about such a dilemma?  Let’s ask Lawrence D Cohen, the screenwriter for Ghost Story.

Cohen is a masterful screenwriter who first “came to prominence” for penning the screenplay for the 1976 film Carrie, a fine film based on a book by Stephen King. In Ghost Story, just like with Carrie, he skillfully paves the road that leads from the book to the movie. Cohen and Director John Irvin know the limitations of the film medium and wisely do not attempt to exceed them. They carefully carve out a simpler yet equally fulfilling story from Peter Straub’s behemoth book. It has been suggested that film critic Roger Ebert prefers the film to the book. If this is so, I might just agree with him. Mind you, I said “might!”

Ghost-Story-BannerAs I alluded to earlier, Ghost Story is a long book. Both in scope as well as style, it owes a lot to Stephen King, from its epic quality of plot intricacies to its focus on small town characters and their foibles. In particular, Ghost Story bears a strong resemblance to Salem’s Lot.  Hank Wagner from darkecho.com  describes this similarity quite well, presenting quotes from Peter Straub himself to back up his claims:

 

Numerous readings reveal how much the book owes to Salem’s Lot. Straub has publicly acknowledged this debt, stating that “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters. Besides the large canvas I also wanted a certain largeness of effect. I had been imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained. Reading Salem’s Lot, I realized that the idea was self defeating.” On reflection, the debt to Salem’s Lot is obvious. Both feature small towns under siege from the supernatural. In both, the terror escalates until the towns are threatened with destruction — Jerusalem’s Lot is consumed by purifying fire, while Milburn is decimated. In each, a writer’s arrival in town seems to trigger disaster. Both writers strike up alliances with young teenagers whose lives are ruined by the terror, Ben Mears with Mark Petrie and Don Wanderly with Peter Barnes. Both forge an almost parental bond with their young allies, replacing those lost parents. In both, the evil lives on — Ben and Mark end up on the run, while Don, after ending the threat of Eva, presumably goes off to face her evil aunt.


I would only add one more similarity – both novels feature a house that is a home or former home to the evil presences of these books. In fact, I need to make this addition, for these reviews are part of the Haunted House themed project and therefore, the stories I review must include a haunted house, even though most of the action in these stories take Ghost Story movieplace outside these houses. (For the record, I have found Salem’s Lot and Ghost Story on sites that list haunted house films and literature – so there!) But here is the take away – the story is too broad to settle on in with just a few characters at one location at a specific point in time.

 

Like with Stephen King’s The Stand and It, there are multiple characters with story lines that encompass more than a few pages. While the primary characters consist of the five old men that tell ghost stories (Collectively known as “The Chowder Society”), the writer/nephew of one of these men (Don Wanderly), and the “ghost” in her many incarnations, there are so many others – the promiscuous wife of one of the old men, the drunk plow driver, the cantankerous sheriff, thrill seeking teenagers, and on and on it goes. The story takes place in a snowy town in New York, but the book takes readers across the country as a large chuck of one of the plots (there are a few) unfolds in California. Oh yes, the town of Milburn has the obligatory haunted house. In fact there are several! The evil goes where it wants – haunting several abodes and businesses, including a movie theater that continuously runs the film “The Night of the Living Dead.” Several of the townsfolk fall prey to the evil. They become possessed, they become the objects of their worst nightmares; they die. And it doesn’t help matters any that a series of snowstorms shuts down the town. The people of Milburn are besieged on all fronts by so many forces.

I say, if you like Stephen King’s epic and character-heavy novels, then it is highly likely that you will enjoy Ghost Story as well. I know I did.

Now, how does one turn all this into a movie? By focusing on one central plot and abandoning the side stories. By letting go of most of the characters and centering only on a handful. And this work well, with a large part of the success coming from the suburb cast:

Douglas Fairbanks Jr      John Houseman                      Fred Astaire              Melvyn Douglas

ghoststorymen

 

It was the final film for Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas. Melvyn Douglas has so far appeared in two other haunted house movies that I have reviewed. (See The Old, Dark House and The Changeling.  Although I did not mention him in these articles.)

The film focus in on one plot – a young woman (as a ghost or whatever evil form you call it) returns from the dead to seek revenge on the four old men (Astaire, Douglas, Fairbanks and Houseman) who had killed her when they were young. This plot line occurs in the book as well but it is much more complicated. Normally when I do a book vs. movie review, I make a bullet-point list outlining the differences within each medium. I feel that is unnecessary here as I have already honed in on the most significant difference. Once that difference is understood and accepted (and accept it I do), an inventory of the nitty-gritty components of such a variance becomes pointless (In more ways than one: meaningless and “no bullet-points.” Get it?) The story that is portrayed is done with great care. It is better to minimize one’s focus to achieve a clear vision than to try and maximize the field of vision, only to achieve a blurry and unwatchable product.

As great as the book is, I find myself preferring the film (Or, I “might” prefer it to the book, as I said earlier). At times during my reading, I found myself lost in the tangled trails of plot. Yes, these trails do untangle and eventually lead you where you want to go, but still, it was a tedious experience at times. The film is straight forward and satisfying.

Not that I am against the complex – by no means. I enjoy books of great breadth and depth.

Perhaps such a comparison is unfair. It’s like comparing a plate of apples to a gourmet meal. It’s just that, as much as great as a gourmet meal is , sometimes I just want apples.

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

Thank you for reading this article.  I invite you to check out my latest book: The House Sitter
– A writer haunted a house with his own stories.

HouseSitterCoverForHHGroup