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 I 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 shares 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 reach 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 the 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 Ghosthouse

GhostHouseIf only filmmakers possessed the gift of hindsight at the very beginning of a film project! (Question – Wouldn’t that be “foresight” then? Answer – Oh yeah!)  Had Umberto Lenzi, director of the film Ghosthouse – the subject of this review, been able to see the final product before the filming (before the writing as well), he would have known what works and what doesn’t. There are some well-crafted scenes in this film; they are genuinely frightful. But alas, most of the scenes in this movie are cringe worthy. In sum, the “stuff of ghosts” is good; the “stuff of people” is bad.  If only this “imbalance of stuff” could have been realized at the very beginning. They could have scrapped all the “people talk to people” plot elements and relied heavily on the basics of “people encounter ghosts.” But isn’t this always the case – ghosts rule and people suck?  You are saying “no.”  Okay I hear ya! Great characters and excellent dialogue go a long way. But some films just aren’t destined for Oscar worthy dialogue and acting. When this is the case (and here is where the foresight comes in handy!) it’s better to hone in on other aspects of the film.  This “ghosts over people” strategy would have at least made for an average haunted house film. “Average” isn’t great but it is better than “below average.”   Alas, Ghosthouse is below average.

The story beings with a house and the horrific murders that took place on the premises. See, there’s this little girl and her clown doll (already we know this pairing can only lead to trouble!). Like all normal little girls, she has a mommy and a daddy. But parents of little girls who play with clown dolls are not destined to have long lives. The parents die, and we’re not quite sure what happened to the girl and the doll. Not until later. Fastforward twenty years or so, the house is abandoned.  But don’t worry, it will be acquire some occupants; a few squatters and a bunch of trespassers. Take for instance this guy Paul. He is a CB fanatic and he picks up some disturbing voices over his radio. He and his girlfriend trace the signal to the abandoned house, where some squatter has set up his own CB station. He squats in the house with his girlfriend and younger sister.  Now we have five youth, all potential victims for some deadly ghostly shenanigans! You know the drill.

The sounds and screams that come over the CB – chilling. The carnivalesque music and the mechanical clown laughter that occurs whenever something frightening us about to happen – creepy! The crazy old man with his pitchfork weapon – disturbing! The ghostly scenes with the little girl and her creepy clown doll – awesome!  Oh but the acting is so Ghosthouse2bad, and the dialogue is terrible, and the motivators that move the characters to do what they do are pathetic and all this makes a mess out of the overall story.  Why oh why can’t these kids stay around the house, where all things are scary, and just accept their fate and die?  No they have to leave the house, get in involved in lame-ass plots in places far away from the frights of the film, only to return, then separate, them come together, then separate again, over and over when all we want is for these annoying characters to perish in a most haunted way!

Sometimes it’s better to “Go for the Ghosts” and forget all this “Power to the People” jazz. Such a time should have been 1988 – the year this film debuted in Italy. Oh well, what’s done is done. It’s all in hindsight now.

Review of Eerie

EerieSometime ago, I wrote a review of Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings. In the review I refer to book’s foreword, written by author Stephen Graham Jones. Jones’ delineates between two types of haunted houses. There are houses that want you to stay away (i.e. The Amityville Horror house, remember the famous “Get out!” line?) and there are houses that want to imprison you within their walls (i.e. the Burnt Offerings house – it feeds on the essence of its occupants.)  The house that is the subject of this review is definitely of the latter kind.  Its occupants become violently ill when they attempt to leave! There seems to be a powerful spirit at work here.  Its behavior is rather…’creepy’? Nah, that word better describes some hall-traipsing spirit inside a Gothic mansion. This novel is not the Gothic type; after all it takes place on a modern urban street. The spirit – if that’s what it is – has some rather uncanny needs and…I KNOW! Rather than call it “creepy,” its behavior can be summed up as “eerie.”  I am right, you know why? Because that is the title of the book that I am reviewing.  Eerie  by Blake and Jordon Crouch.

The coauthors are brothers with Blake being the more famous of the two. As far as I know, this is the only book that Blake has written with his brother but I could be wrong. I have read enough of Blake’s work to be familiar with his style, which I admire very much, and I’m glad that I can feature one of his books on this page. See, I would not assign Blake to the paranormal genre. Heck I wouldn’t even call him a horror writer. He’s more of the fantasy/thriller type that dabbles in several genres, including sci/fi and horror. Oh and mystery! So much mystery! But “Eerie” meets my criteria for a haunted house novel, although I’m not sure the brothers would consider the novel as such.  I certainly don’t believe that they set out to write a haunted house novel. Instead, I would guess that they created an “eerie” set of conditions that necessitated a house with unexplainable phenomenon.

The book opens with a tragedy. A father and his two children, a boy and a girl (Grant and Paige), are victims of a near fatal car accident. The father is incapacitated, leaving his children to face the cruelty of homelessness and then later the burdens that come with being wards of the state.  Fast-forward several years. The adult brother and sister are estranged.  Grant is a detective involved in missing persons’ cases. Several prominent men have disappeared. He follows the clues and they lead him to his Paige’s house. Before this, he didn’t know where his sister was living.  Their reunion is at first hostile as they rehash old tensions.  But they learn to make nice and they rediscover their brotherly and sisterly bonds. They will need these bonds and much more to fight against the strange forces that hold them hostage at Paige’s house.

Grant and Paige are refreshingly flawed characters. There are no heroes or distressed damsels. Both are likeable in their flaws. In sum they are great characters. Paige is a drug-addicted prostitute.  Grant is an alcoholic who has frequented prostitutes from time to time.  This “frequenting” causes him dissonance when he objects to his sister’s profession. As it turns out, all the men from Grant’s case file, the men that had gone missing, are clients of Paige. They had gone missing as soon as they left Paige’s upstairs bedroom.  Something in that room took over their minds. As if under a spell, they left the premises, not to return to their homes or jobs.  They went – somewhere.  This same presence traps Paige in her own home. It demands that she continue to bring men to her room. Grant too discovers that he is unable to leave.  Both succumb to severe nausea and vertigo when they stray a few feet from the front door. The further they stray from the door the worse the feel.

The book begins as a detective story and continues as such but it later invokes the paranormal and the strange in a way that is uncommon in crime novels. It’s quite the mixture of genres. One classification I might assign it is “Paranormal & Urban”, although Amazon doesn’t assign it as such. (Paranormal & Urban is a legit Amazon genre classification.)

I like Eerie a lot. But I have some reservations about the book. In order for me to explain what they are I first need to go into more detail about what I like about Blake Crouch’s stories in general.

Blake Crouch creates scenarios that are similar to Twilight Zone  plots. These scenarios unfurl in rather unique and well thought-out ways.  I would say that this unfurling EeriePinesprocess shows off Crouch’s greatest strength. Thus I knight him: “The Earl of The Unfurl.”  What unfolds in his novels is unpredictable and highly imaginative. The answers to the mysteries are elaborate and yet plausible within the context of the overall story. This is certainly true for his Wayward Pines saga, which was my introduction to the world of Blake Crouch. This three-book series begins with a federal agent that has a car accident and wakes up in a hospital in a strange town. He recovers fine but the townsfolk won’t let him leave this “gated” community; gated by a tall electric security fence. He fights his way to the other side of the fence, only to encounter a never-ending mountainous wilderness populated with strange creatures.  What the heck is going on? The luckiest guess might slacken the suspense a tiny bit but it will not eerieAbandonBetterunravel the entire mystery. (this is also a television series on Fox ) Likewise with his novel Abandon. In the novel, explorers set out to investigate the remains of an isolated gold-mining town that “disappeared” in the late 1800s. In this mountainous and blizzard-prone region, the people had seemingly vanished in thin air. Their possessions were left behind, uneaten meals were found on their tables, but no bodies or even bones were ever found.  How could this be? Is this the work of aliens? Spirits? Two stories unfold in this novel– one that takes place in present time with modern day explorers trying to figure out had happened and one that takes place in the far away past, just before the events that led to the disappearance.  By the books end, I was like “Aha! This is what happened! How clever!”  The Earl of The Unfurl had struck again!

I’ve established quite the criteria for ol’ Blake. Now here are the big questions – Does  “Eerie” hold up?  Does the collaborative effort of the two Crouch brothers earn them the title “The Earls of The Unfurl.”  The answers – Almost, but not quite.   The Crouches have certainly created an imaginative scenario – a force of some kind that prevents some people from leaving a house while sending others away as mindless zombies; that is quite the situation. But the “Unfurl” is a bit disappointing. To be fair, the guts of the mystery are rather unique. Maybe they’re too unique, I don’t know. I was looking for a different kind of explanation.  In order to understand what I mean you’ll have to read the book.

In the end what I’m saying is this: I didn’t like the final destination but I sure as hell enjoyed the trip. It was fun and exciting and I enjoyed the characters very much.  Also I enjoyed the afterword (I’m not sure they call it that, but it’s after the main story). Blake and Jordon have a written dialogue with each other. It’s as if they are interviewing each other, going over what they liked about the collaboration process, what changes they had made to the story.  They share with readers their bond as brothers and I appreciate this offering very much. Readers are left with a sense of warmth, which comes in handy on cold days.

 

 

 

 

Review of The House of Seven Corpses

house-of-seven corpses3 The year was 2001. It happened on the 20th of November. It was a Tuesday evening when a certain set of words were spoken sometime between 8:00-8:30pm on NBC.  Very telling words.

“Is that one of those movies that takes 45 minutes for anything to happen, and then you’re sorry it did?”

This quote was uttered by Martin Crane, a fictional character played by John Mahoney on the television show Frasier.  Well Martin, your quote sums up the film The House of Seven Corpses to a tee!  I  know, I know, you were referring to some other movie. But it works so well here! In fact I would say your assessment is even too generous for the film I am reviewing. The House of Seven Corpses took about 70 minutes for something to happen.

In case anyone is confused, the film in question did not premiere in 2001 on some “20 day” in November – this is the date that the Frasier episode with the Martin Crain quote aired. The House of Seven Corpses (Directed by Paul Harrison) came out in the theaters in February of 1974.  It’s a film about a film. A film crew is shooting a horror movie in an old house where suspicious deaths had occurred many years ago.  The horror turns real when a corpse buried in a grave behind the house comes to life and starts doing zombie-stuff.  You can learn more about the plot details here  at Wikipedia. But please note: the synopsis as described in this article doesn’t really begin until the movie is almost over. Until then, viewers have to sit through boring scene after boring scene that shows the mundane activities of a fictional amateur film crew. Snore!

house-of-seven corpses2

Here’s an interesting note: I originally wanted to see the film – The House of 1000 Corpses  by Rob Zombie. I didn’t know there was a previously released film that featured only seven corpses. (Does the visa-versa of this exist in other contexts?  For example, is there a “House of One Thousand Gables” film to rival original story of a house with only seven gables?)  So when I stumbled upon the 1970’s film with the “Seven-Corpse House”, I naturally assumed it would be the better of the two. Without having seen Zombies’ film,  I suspect that I’m wrong.   True, Zombie’s film is widely panned (according to Rottentomatoes.com). But it has to be more entertaining than Paul Harrison’s film. Zombie’s film is partially panned due to its excessive gore.  But for me, gore is better than dull. And come on, one thousand corpses have to be better than seven!

All kidding aside, had the producers/writers of The House of Seven Corpses just settled for a mindless zombie film the results would have been better. They had an excellent location and a creepy old house with a winding stairway. As a haunted house lover, I appreciate these things and it’s a shame they didn’t make better use of what they had.  They could have focused less on plot and more on creepy camera angles with more ghosts and zombies to fill the shadowy corners. They could have given a lot more attention to John Carradine’s character. A brilliant actor he is. Why was he used so sparingly?

I’m not saying that my suggestions would have turned this into a great movie. However, they would have made this film watchable at the very least. Anyway, soon I will watch Zombie’s film and then decide with finality if one thousand corpses are better than seven. Until then, I say good night.  Here is a closing theme for ya!

 

Review of “The Haunting of..” series by Blair Shaw

BlairShawBooks

There are houses. There are hauntings.  There are hauntings that take place in houses. A fitting book title for this kind of thing might be The Haunting of ( *insert name of house here*). There are several (tens? Hundreds? ) novels that make use of this title template. That’s understandable. After all, it is practical. It communicates to prospective readers what they need to know.  In a nutshell it states – “if you’re looking for a haunted house novel, you have come to the right place”.

I’ve explored several books that make use of the “The Haunting of ..” template right here in this blog. The most noteworthy, in my opinion, is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Read and reviewed here!) I’ve also explored several titles from Darcy Coates (The Haunting of Ashburn House , The Haunting of Blackwood House, The Haunting of Gillespie House)  For my next “The Haunting of…” excursion, I turn to Blair Shaw.  When I began reading her works, she had three published novellas. They are are The Haunting of Hainesbury House, The Haunting of Ingleton House,   and The Haunting of Bramley House, all of which can be found at Blair Shaw’s Amazon Page.

I am including all three in this one review.  Why not give each book its own review?  Two reasons #1) They are very short reads. #2) They all follow the same formula.

Here is the formula.  The book(s) begin(s) in England in the distant past inside a house that is named after its owners. Cruelty and murder have claimed the lives of some of the inhabitants. Fastfoward  a hundred years or so. A woman is leaving her home in the United States,  fleeing a sad past and facing a new adventure on the otherside of the Atlanic.  Sometimes she has offspring to care for, other times no.  She moves into a large manor in England, the same manor where the deadly tragedy took place. Of course, the place is haunted by the spirit/s of those that perished in the tragedy.  Their disturbances are rather bothersome and in some cases deadly. Luckily, there is a way to rid the house of these spirits. In each case, (in each book), the American Woman figures out what needs to be done. She fixes it so that the spirits can pass on to their eternal home. Then she (and sometimes her offspring) lives happily ever after. The end.

While working out the framework for this review, I returned to Shaw’s Amazon Page and learned that she has since put out two more “The Haunting Of….” Books:  They are The Haunting of Addison House  (Date of publication March 31) and The Haunting of Morgan House (Date of publication April 16). She’s cranking these out faster than a ghost in a speed machine. However, I am not rushing to read these latest editions.  After reading the three, I’m in the mood for something; shall we say “meatier”?

These aren’t bad books.  I prefer something a little less formulaic, but nevertheless the stories are engaging.  Shaw is a good writer; she expresses herself clearly and concisely.  But I would equate these novellas to appetizers. These are stories to read in between books. They are like the “shorts” that used to premiere before the main movie back in the golden age of film. I make these comparisons not only because they are short reads. I use these analogies to equate the level of depth as well. These are simple reads. There aren’t any twists; nothing profound is going on here.  But not everything is designed to be a masterpiece.

I will say this – what I like best about her novellas is the beginnings, the prologues (although they aren’t labeled as such) that tell the historical backstory. Shaw has a talent for making me feel a home in a different time period.  They describe the feeling of the times well without resorting to archaic language. Perhaps I will make the time to read the rest her novellas – someday.  They did seem to get better with succession.  I just wish Shaw would write a longer, meatier book.  She has it her, I just know it!

Review of Haunted

HauntedThorns and Cross – sounds like I’m about to embark upon a seasonally appropriate Easter theme post, doesn’t it? Christ wearing the crown of thorns, Christ nailed to a cross, etc. etc. and etc.  All on account of a typo. Damn that “s” for being so close to the the “e” on the keyboard!  Let’s remove the “s” in “Thorns” and replace it with the correct “e” and we now have Thorne and Cross – two authors who often partner together to write Gothic ghost stories. I first discovered them when I read and reviewed one of their works: The Ghosts of Ravencrest.  I found the book very much to my liking.

Having familiarized myself with the pair, I decided to dissect the duo.  By this I mean that I wanted to read their “solo” novels.  I began with Haunted  by Tamara Throne.  Overall, I enjoyed it.  I will explain why but first let me establish the novel’s setting and describe the house that is at the center of the story.

 

David Masters, best selling author of paranormal books, moves to a Victorian mansion off the coasts of California known as Baudey House.  Yes, it is haunted. He knows it too. Or at least he expects it to be haunted; that what the rumors say anyway. As a paranormal kinda’ guy, it’s what he wants.  The house is part of an odd seaside community that is a mixture of cantankerous yokels and new age flakes. Nearby the house is a lighthouse haunted by a headless ghost. And there are plenty more where that (or in this case, “he”) came from! Inside the Baudey House there are spirits, some of which are visual echoes that can only be perceived by those that that have sixth sense. Others are more interactive – more deadly!  There are certain rooms where presences are so strongly felt that it is impossible to remain inside of them for any length of time.  Somewhere in the house there is a secret passage that leads to a dungeon. It is up to Masters to find it. Then there are ceramic, hand-made dolls hidden in various places throughout the house. How weird is that!

Did I mention the murders? At different times over the course of more than one hundred years, grizzly murders have occurred inside the house.  Bodies were found in various states of dismemberment. It is no wonder Baudey House became known as “Body House.”

Let me now describe the things I find most appealing about this book. The first has to do with the overall story.  Thorne serves up a “full meal of a plot” with several interesting angles, many well-rounded characters, numerous situations of captivating drama, and a compelling but chilling backstory. If I had to choose one word to summarize the story, that world would be “fulfilling.”

My second piece of praise is more specific. Of all the authors that have dealt with the subject of “cold spots”, I find Thorne’s descriptions to be the most visceral, which for me translates to “frightfully descriptive.”

Cold spots, according to the According to the Associations of the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena:

“… are small areas (usually a lot smaller than a room) that feel significantly colder than the surrounding area. They are considered by some to be a sign of a ghost in the area. Some cold spots are always felt in the same place while others seem to appear and disappear at different locations.”

Thorne’s accounts of cold spots are gripping, literally so; when her characters encounter them, they feel their chilling presences closing in on their bodies.  First, there’s the drop in temperature, then there’s the gripping sensation, next come paralysis and finally their bodies are vulnerable to possession!

Alas, the novel has its shortcomings. Quite often, without warning, the third person narrative slips into a first person perspective. This happens in the middle of paragraphs of all places!  Sometimes I found myself at the end of a sentence before realizing that I was reading the character’s thoughts.  Italics go a long way! Perhaps this is a formatting issue; maybe the italics disappeared when the original file was converted to an e-file. Even so, it would have been helpful if the phrases that represented thought had their own lines.

All in all, this a good book.  One Thorne down, once Cross to go! I’m not sure if Alistair Cross  has written a haunted house book. I might just have to bite the bullet and “read outside the house”.

Review of The Castle of Otranto

castleofotrantoI’m willing to bet that the following themes are all too familiar – Kingdom vs. Kingdom. A despotic Prince.   Underground passageways. A fleeing princess. Knights on the hunt. Dire prophesies.  A castle haunted with phantoms. Have I listed enough clichés?

All of these motifs are found in Horace Walpole’s novel “The Castle of Otranto”. But let’s give the guy a break. After all, he wrote this piece back in 1764.   Long before George R. R. Martin had his Game of Thrones, sooner than J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, previous to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, prior to Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, Walpole wrote this fantasy novel about a time long ago (even in 1764 it was a period piece); a time of knights and kingdoms, princesses and perils, all wrapped up in a story that is sprinkled with ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Mind you, he had his predecessors. Shakespeare was writing of kingdoms and ghosts in the 16th and the stories of King Arthur and The Knights of the Roundtable date back to the 11th and 12th century. However, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is credited as the very first gothic novel.

What does it mean to be the first “gothic novel?” Well let us see what the with the fine men and women of wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, the novel, establishes:

“many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures that begin to move, and doors that close by themselves.”

But what makes this novel standout among other fantasy and frightful novels of its time is its unique method of blending the fantastic with the mundane. Supposedly in the late 1700s, stories of the supernatural were considered “old school” (They probably had a different term for it, but you catch my drift).  Modern tales of romance and adventure were allegedly devoid of such supernatural themes and focused more on believable foes and realistic conflicts.  By mixing the two literary strands, Walpole establishes what has come to be a defining theme for Gothic literature – traces of the past making their way into the modern world. Looking at the gothic haunted house stories that come later, this theme bears out over and over –  curses born in the past that claim the lives of future generations, justice for sins committed long ago coming for the heirs of the original sinner; ghosts returning from the graves to haunt the living.

Wadpole, a British politician, was a fan of the ancient medieval period, so much so that he had a castle built to replicate a palace of yore. It’s called Strawberry Hill House and it still stand today, although it has gone through much renovation. In writing “The Castle of Otranto,” Wadpole tried to imitate the style of speech from the medieval era. In its initial publication, Wadpole included a preface that made is seem as if his tale was an ancient one, written in the sixteenth century.

Fascination for the ways of yore, nostalgia for periods of we never knew – this is at the heart of Gothic literature. What are ghosts but fanciful beings from times long gone!

So, how much of this novel is dedicated to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night? I’d say there is a smidgen of these elements. Maybe more.   Phantoms and other mysterious things pop in and out of this story. Lord Manfred, a ruthless tyrant, arranges a marriage between his son Conrad and the maiden Isabella in order to unite two kingdoms. However, before the marriage is to take place, a giant helmet falls from nowhere and crushes him. Paranormal event #1.   Lord Manfeld then takes it upon himself to have Isabella as his own. But not if she can help it. She flees through an underground passage. Lord Manfeld chases her while the painted image of his grandfather flees the portrait and interferes in the chase. Paranormal event #2.

More story follows, but I’m not going to go into much detail. There are battles. There is a love story, and there are more supernatural events; inhabitants of the castle see a giant foot that occupies an entire room, a specter in dark clothes kneels before an altar. Some of these occurrences are rather bizarre to say the least.

As to the claim that this tale deposits the supernatural into “realistic situations”, I don’t really see it. I’m not saying that this isn’t happening. It’s just that I am so far removed from the writing style of the eighteenth century and I’m a complete novice when it comes to the “ordinary, day to day life” of the royal classes of medieval society. Therefore, I’m not attuned to the supposed “realism” that is going on here. “Realism” to me is a Stephen King story, where there might be a guy in a baseball cap chomping down on a Mars candy bar at gas station and sipping his bottle of Dr. Pepper, all while speaking in local slang.   In Wadpole’s work, the characters speak in a theatrical style.  Formal, long-winded salutations seem to invade nearly every sentence of the dialogue.  The heroes and heroines always have the noblest of intentions.

I can’t say that this novel thrilled me to death. The story is fair. However, I did learn a lot from reading the book and doing research for this article. I have a better understanding of the foundations of gothic literature and I have learned a great deal about the evolution of literary styles. For this I am thankful. And onward I will go, digesting more works within the Gothic genre. Some I will like, others not so much. But I look forward to the rewarding experience. You too can have such an experience. Just pick up a book and read, read, read!

 

Beauty and The Beast – Enchanted Castles VS Haunted Castles

BBLast Sunday I spent a fine afternoon at the movies with my wife. We took in the charming, live action film Beauty and the Beast which is based off of  Disney’s 1991 animated film of the same name.  I was delighted to hear Emma Watson sing and I enjoyed her performance as Belle, a.k.a Beauty. I got into the love story and the whole “beauty is within” message.  I was pleased with the fanciful display of CGI. Ohh it was all so precious! And through it all I kept asking myself “Can I consider this  a haunted house film?”  At one point myself replied, “What? ‘and they lived happily ever after’ Disney film = a haunted house story? Are you nuts?”  Later on, “myself” gave in a little. He said “Okay, some of these scenes revolving around the Beast’s Castle are a bit scary. But still – no. No Haunted Castle for you!”  Finally when cups, dishes, clocks and candelabras came to life, “myself” met “I” half way and said “Maybe. Maybe this is a Haunted House film and maybe it isn’t.”

Allow me to argue on behalf of “I” , The Beast’s castle is huge and creepy with foreboding towers and sharp pinnacles.  It has cavernous passageways and a dark dungeon.  The grounds surrounding the castle are quite terrifying.  It is hidden away in a cursed section of a forest where it is always winter. Dangerous wolves roam about on these trails.  Defiled BBCastleGroundsgrounds and the creatures that inhabit them often surround the haunted houses of lore (See my article: Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature).  When our heroine Belle enters the castle, she is greeted by moving candelabras, magical wardrobes, and self playing instruments – all of which can talk, sing and dance!  These objects warn Belle not to venture into the east wing of the castle (or is it the west wing?  I forget).  The Beast tends to spend most of his time in this wing, and it can be dangerous for Belle to rummage around in there!  Haunted wings, forbidden rooms and walled off passageways are staples of haunted house lore.

In the novel “Dracula”, the mysterious Count warns visitor Jonathan Harker  not to go roaming around the castle (See Dracula’s Castle .)  In the house that is the subject of the book. The Ghosts of Ravencrest, there is “a wing that is locked away – for there are strange things afoot in this side of the building.”  Finally, the villagers who enter this castle and witness these strange goings-ons declare the place to be haunted.  If you can’t trust a villager, who can you trust?

“I” has made some very good points. But alas, “myself” retracted his “maybe” and eventually “I” saw things from his point of view. All the beings inside my head have come to an agreement: The castle of the Beast is not haunted.  My colleague helped to properly explain the condition of the castle. He said, “It’s not haunted, it’s enchanted.”

Throughout these reviews and articles, I struggle to define the term “haunted house” (or haunted castle, haunted inn, haunted flat, you get the idea).  I have perhaps contradicted myself from time to time as I have written out various themes concerning what a haunted house is or isn’t.  This is all part of the learning process, and the goal of this blog is just that – to learn, to discover.  Therefore, perceptions can change along the way.

Let me continue by offering some definitions of the word “haunt.”  Borrowing from Merriam-Webster , haunted can mean  “to stay around or persist.” But it can also be defined as something that is “inhabited or frequented by ghosts” (via dictionary.com). A house with ghosts is haunted. However it does not have to have ghosts in order for it to be haunted. It can be haunted by tragedies or sins of the past, by curses that play out again and again, or by lingering sadness.  The Fall of the House of Usher and The House of Seven Gables are examples of such ghostless haunted house stories.

Now, let us see what the dictionaries have to say about the word “enchant”  From dictionary.com:

under a spell;bewitched;magical

or

utterly delighted or captivated; fascinated; charmed.

As per the context of this story, the first definition applies. The second definition is more appropriate for the castle that stands at Disney World.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Beauty and the Beast, a witch who is refused entry into a handsome Prince’s castle on account of her haggish appearance curses his household. The Prince is turned into a beast while his staff is transformed into objects (the candelabra, cups, etc.).  If the Prince can find a woman to love him despite his beastly appearance, the curse will be removed. The beast can become handsome again and the BBObjectsstaff can once again regain their humanity.  This is the story as per Disney writers.  I have never read the original book by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (and later abridged/rewritten by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) But when I skim the synopsis per wikipedia, I see no reference to the bewitching of the staff.  Could it be that Disney created these household object characters in order to have a silly and cutesy cast of animated creatures; creatures which are prevalent in most Disney cartoon movies?  Perhaps, but at the same time, these things are downright uncanny and freaky – a nice touch for the lovers of the bizarre. I am a lover of the bizarre and I love this whole concept of living people becoming a part of the physical castle.  In many haunted house stories, the physical becomes the spiritual (In The Shining, The Inn itself manifests the ghosts).  Here the reverse is true.The fact that the servants transform into these objects shows that this curse not only plagues the people but it also infects the castle itself. Thus it can be said that the castle is enchanted.

As freaky as these object-things are, they are not ghosts. Nor are they objects possessed by ghosts or demons. They are regular people that have been bewitched and transformed.  In this story, the theme pertaining to visitations from the past does not exist.  The curse that subjects the household to take on these cruel forms is not a phenomenon that reoccurs from generation to generation (as with the curses of The Fall of the House of Usher and The House of Seven Gables). They are damned not to the past but to the awful present of never-changing appearances. For these reasons, The Beast’s castle is not haunted.  {By this criteria, I realize that the strange supernatural houses in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales would not be considered haunted. I had written that they were. (See H.P. Lovecraft Article 1 and and H.P. Lovecraft Article 2) Oh well!}

Beauty and The Beast is a dark tale. Perhaps I can make it even darker. I can recreate the tale so that the castle is both enchanted and haunted.  Again to quote my colleague, this would be an “enchaunted castle”

The beginning of the story will be the same: an old crone desires entry to the Prince’s castle in order to escape the cold and the rain. At first sight, she is the object of The Prince’s cruel scorn. His servents laugh at her as well, but not to the same extent as their Lord. Suddenly she becomes ill and The Prince laughs even more as she succumbs to tics. Right there in front of him and his staff, she dies. Her spirit rises from her body. It is a beautiful spirit and The Prince and his servents turn away in shame, feeling unworthy to behold such beauty.

The spirit says to the Prince.

“The soul is where true beauty exists. It will take you many painful centuries to learn this. For I curse this kingdom!”

From that moment, the Prince is trapped in his own body, which suddenly becomes deformed and hideous. But he is damned to remain in this body until he finds a woman to love him for what he possesses on the inside.  Throughout the years, his body decays and rots until he resembles a zombie. Alas, he cannot die.

The staff, being a lesser evil than the prince, is struck dead. However, their souls will be bound to the castle. They will haunt it until The Prince finds love and is freed from his despicable body.

For centuries, this zombified Prince will roam about the castle. The bitter spirits will  BBCastle haunt him from time to time, blaming him for their fate. After many many years, he will finally find love. Her kiss will be the kiss of death. When her lips press against his, he will die but his soul will be free. The spirits of the castle with join their lord in this freedom.

So – how does that story sound?  What’s that? You think it is better to stick with the original? Fine!  No “enchaunted castle” for anyone! Go on loving those enchanted castles for what they are and continue admiring those haunted castles for what they have to offer.

 

 

 

 

Review of Haunter

Hey, have you ever seen the film “Haunter”?

(I think you mean “The Haunting”.  There’s the original 1963 film by Robert Wise and then there’s- )

No, I don’t mean “The Haunting”.  I mean “Haunter”

(Oh!!! You mean that 1995 film with Kate Beckinsale.)

NO!! That’s “Haunted!”  I’m referring to “HauntER!” “er!” “er!” er!” “er!”

(Hunter? )

Oh never mind!!

 

Truth be told, I had never heard of this film either (until I found it on Shudder.com a  Hauntercouple months ago) It premiered in 2013, but according to Wikipedia, this Canadian film had a limited release in U.S. theaters. Released on video in 2014, it only took in $129, 477.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t get much exposure. Equally disappointing are the lukewarm reviews.  Fifty-four percent of professional critics cited on Rottentomatoes  rated this film positively – a slim majority. But there are plenty of professional critics that panned the film.  Rex Reed of the New Yorks Observer writes that the film is “A dull, confusing movie for which nobody provided a script” Meanwhile, only forty-two percent of the non-professional critics (audience) view the film favorably.  IMDB gives this a rating of 5.9 stars out of 10.

All this is sad to me, because I think this is an underrated film that is too good to be hidden from the masses. It is NOT dull. In fact, it is quite the opposite; I was drawn in immediately. It only took a few scenes before I had dissolved into the mystery of the house that is at the heart of this story.  Is it a confusing movie?  Perhaps at times. It is  complex but in a captivating way. It is non-linear.  Characters weave in and out of various timelines. They tunnel into different dimensions; the dimension of the living and the dimension of the dead. There is a lot packed into this 97-minute film. There is layer upon layer of awesomeness. And yet, the film doesn’t feel rushed. Nor does the plot feel oppressive and burdensome.

It is difficult to explain the plot without giving away spoilers.  On all of the major review sites, a spoiler sticks out in the very first lines of the synopsis.  I understand the reasoning behind its inclusion: the heart of the story beats according to this revelation. But I swear, for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, the revelation is not immediately apparent. Having read the various synopses, I knew what this revelation was before beginning the film, and yet I let myself flow freely in the directions that the plot was taking me, so much so that I nearly forgot the surprise.

In some of my reviews, I do post spoilers. Normally I warn the reader about this.  Depending upon what I want to achieve with the article, I sometimes need to give things away. If I’m doing an analysis of major themes, for example, it is sometimes necessary to reveal key plot point and twists.  For The Haunter, I wish to give nothing away. I am even omitting things that major review sites list freely. I want this to be a surprise from start to finish. I want it to be like the roller coaster that it is; with exciting twists and turns.

I’ll close this review by starting a new subject, hopefully to be continued in the future I consider “Haunter” to be a post-modern film. It’s non-linear and it lacks a center, so to speak.  Some other haunted house stories that fall into this category are The House at the End of Time , a film and House of Leaves, a book.  So I ask, are there commonalities across all post-modern haunted house stories that are limited to its genre?  Are there certain themes that are begging to be discovered and analyzed?  I don’t know. This would be an interesting avenue to explore. And that’s what we do here at the Haunted House Poject – drive down avenues that behold such wonderful houses of haunts!

 

 

Review of House

house3I was there.  Back in 1986, I saw the movie House at the Norridge Theater in Norridge, Il. Norridge Theater is nearly ten years gone.  But this film lives on…barely.  It’s been on and off of youtube. It might be hiding in the back of the $1.99 shelf at the DVD store. I saw it again Friday night via Shudder. But I was there for its incarnation!  At fifteen years of age, I watched this wacky film on the big screen. I freaked at the corny, carnivalesque demons. I laughed at the oddball humor.   I walked out of the theater thinking, “Wow man, that was cool!”  And I wasn’t even stoned! Thirty one years later, I find myself watching it a second time.  My how time flies…and excitement fades.

IMDB categorizes the film under the genres of comedy, horror, and fantasy.  To me, however, it seems genre-confused.  I will explain more about this genre identification crisis later. But for now, here is the plot in a nutshell. Author Roger Cobb has been having a rough life as of late. His publisher has been pushing him for new material, but he’s been having a tough time writing ever since his young son went missing.  This tragedy leads to the dissolution of his marriage.  When his old aunt passes away, hey takes over her large, gothic-style house. His aunt was his sole guardian when he was young, so this is also the house he grew up in. It’s also the house that claimed his son. Apparently he had lived there with his wife and son for a time being. In any case, the House is haunted. Obviously.  That is why I’m reviewing the movie!

This film smacks of the 1980s.  It’s colorful, simplistic, goes for appearance over depth,  house–it’s  a glam punk of a movie. As mentioned, the things that haunt this place look creepy, insane and ridiculous.  They looked as if they are mummy wrapped in Hefty bags.  But perhaps this is part of the humor; the style!  George Wendt, A.K.A, Norm from “Cheers” stars as the funny guy neighbor who likes to drink beer while Alan Autry A.K.A. Captain V.L. Bubba Skinner of “In the Heat of the Night” stars as a serious cop that comes to the house to investigate some shenanigans. It’s nice to see two beloved television actors reprise their characters in this film (not quite though, as In the Heat of the Night TV show came later. Ahhh but they are so similar).

This film is an exercise in genre experimentation, whether it is conscious of such an experiment of not.  Throw in some camp, stir in in some Gothic horror, toss in the absurd, add a bunch of comedy, mix it up with some psychology and put it all together, make a movie and let us hope it all fits together in the end.  And the result is….it doesn’t fit so perfectly. It’s like a puzzle where the connecting ends of the pieces just won’t go into the given slots. But if you push real hard (GRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!), it can sort of fit.

Take for instance, the war scenes. (What? War scenes? How does that fit into this plot as you have so described it?)  Roger decides to write about his experiences in the Vietnam War. As he writes, we the viewers “see” his experience.  These battle scenes; I’m not sure what Director Steve Miner had in mind. I sure hope it wasn’t intended as a mimicry of Platoon, because the soldiers don’t resemble the well rounded warriors of Oliver Stone’s epic film. Instead they are like the soon-to-be-slaughtered teenagers of any slasher film.  They are mannequins in soldiers’ uniforms.

I guess my tastes have changed since 1986.  I had forgotten most of the finer plot points.A year later I saw Evil Dead 2 in the theater. In my opinion, Evil Dead 2 does a better job with its stylized camp while remaining true to the horror genre. In the end, House is an entertaining film. But that’s about all it is. It’s sort of like the crap rock I used to listen to in the 1980s; (Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, etc.) before discovering good rock (The Who, Led Zeppelin).  The crap is enjoyable but not worthy of a spot in the hall of greatness.  So it is with House.  Shudder also has House 2. I’ve never seen the sequel.  Should I watch it?  I just don’t know.