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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost House

Ghost House Revenge

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia

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

SorrelWeedHouse

(Above photo: The Sorrel-Weed House)

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

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

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

The Myrtles Plantation – Louisiana – Ghosts of Chloe and Cleo

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

MyrtlesPlantation

(Above Photo: The Myrtles Plantation House)

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

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

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

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

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

Better Uses of the Supernatural in African American Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so….

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

Peace Out!

About the Author

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Beloved – Third Book Review for Black History Month Series

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

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

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

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

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

 

And Paul D listens. He steps through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

About the Author

 

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

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

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

 

WhiteisForWitching2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author

 

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

(The above information is taken from the following sites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Spoilers  Section

Marie Toussaint

 

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

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

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

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

 

Corey Toussaint

 

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

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

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

Here Ends the Spoilers Sections

 


 

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

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

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

From Britannica.com 

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

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

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

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

 


 

About the Author

 

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

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

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

This is an article comparing the film The Haunting (1963) to its remake, The Haunting (1999). To read an article about the Netflix series: The Haunting of Hill House, click here:

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


 

HauntingHillHouseBook

What you  are  about to read  has been made possible by the brilliant Shirley  Jackson, the late author that gifted the world with her ingenious  novel The Haunting of Hill House back in 1953. This novel revolutionized the ghost/haunted house genre and influenced authors such as Stephen King. Without The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining wouldn’t exist. Very soon, Netflix will be airing a miniseries that bares the same title. It is to be a “modern reimagining” of the classic, according to Deadline.com. Those two  words scare me. We have already had a modern reimagining  back in 1999 with the film The Haunting . It didn’t go over so well. To be clear, this 1999 film was not an adaptation  of Shirley  Jackson’s  novel. Rather, it is a remake of a 1963 film by the same  name. The Haunting of 1963 is an adaptation  of the novel and this film is critically praised.

Here’s how the films score via two review sites:

The Haunting – 1999  /  IMDb.com =4.9/10 stars

The Haunting – 1963 /  IMDb.com 7.6/10 stars

The Haunting – 1999 /  rottentomatoes = Critics Score: 16%  Audience Score 28%

The Haunting – 1963 –rottentomatoes  = Critics Score: 87%  Audience Score 82%

I first saw The Haunting (1963) when I was around six-years-old. I didn’t know what was going on with the story, but I loved watching characters  react to the phantom sound – a loud banging on the walls. Scary stuff. I saw it again in my twenties  and I  wasn’t impressed. What did I know, I  was a culturally  illiterate bar-hopper in those days. I saw it again several times after I “matured” (I reek of this maturity stuff. I’ve given up farting!) and after  each viewing it only  got better. I love this film.

I failed at my first attempt to see The Haunting 1999. Believe  it or not, the theater was sold out. Eventually I did see it and I thought it was  “okay-ish.” I mean, it looked good on the big screen. So many cool special effects! I have come to learn that special effects, a common feature  of a big budget movie, can ironically  “cheapen” a story.

Over the years, I   had forgotten  the details of the 1999 film. It didn’t have a lasting impression  on me. However, that BOOM BOOM BOOM on the walls from the 1963 film stayed with me since  childhood. Even during my close-minded twenties, the film was still percolating  within me, though I would not have admitted it.

In this article, I aim to compare  and contrast the 1963 and 1999 versions  of The Haunting. By doing so, I  am fulfilling  one third of a promise. In my preceding blog post   I stated that I  would compare three classic haunted house films to their respective remakes. I start down the road of promise fulfillment with The Haunting. I will continue  the journey  with  The House on Haunted Hill in an upcoming  article and then wind down with 13 Ghosts. But first things first  – The Haunting!

As evidenced in the review sites in the chart above, the popular consensus is that the classic film is the superior of the two. The modern film has been criticized  for its heavy reliance  on CGI effects used to the detriment  of the story. Also, the 1963 film is closer to the book. The 1999 film strays in odd directions to the displeasure  of the fans of Shirley  Jackson. With all this I agree. But let me elaborate  on this further. Details matter! Let’s get to those details!

Beware – There will be spoilers!!!


The Similarities Between the Films

Here is a plot summary that can be applied to both films.

A scientific investigator invites a team of three to stay at Hill House as part of a study. The team consists of Eleanor Lance, Theodora, Luke Sanderson and the investigator who heads the study. Hill House is a haunted house.

Eleanor is a young woman who has led a secluded life. Most of her adult life has been dedicated to taking care of her invalid mother. She very much welcomes the invitation to stay at Hill House, for she is anxious to start a new life; a new adventure. She has self-doubts and is unsure of her place in the world. Theodora, who goes by “Theo”, is assertive, and somewhat brash. Hill House is an excessively large mansion with an abundance of “Haunted House Décor”: Creepy statues, staring portraits, winding staircases, large fireplaces.  The garden has some very life-like statues. There is a rickety spiral staircase made of metal; very unsafe for climbing.

On the grounds of the Hill House property, there is a stretch of road that leads from the house to the main street. The caretaker of Hill House, Mr. Dudley, mans the front gate. He is quite cantankerous and he initially refuses to let Eleanor in, even though she is expected. Mrs. Dudley is equally unwelcoming. She takes care of the inside of the house. She cooks the meals but makes it clear that she will never stay after dark. She and her husband will go home, in town, which is miles away. The house guests will be alone, at night, in the dark, and will not be able to call anyone for help.

At some point in the movie(s), viewers learn a bit about the backstory of Hill House. It was once owned by one Hugh Crane. The story of Crane’s family is one of tragedy, involving deaths and suicides that take place inside the house.  The story also consists of sad circumstances related to children.

Now, here be some of the stuff of “the haunting”

  1. Eleanor and Theo are awakened in the middle of the night to loud noises; it sounds as if something is banging against the walls
  2. Graffiti mysteriously appears on the walls. The words on the wall read “Welcome Home, Eleanor,” or, something to that effect. Who is to blame for this? The guests accuse each other. Even Eleanor is accused of writing the message, perhaps as a way to attract attention.
  3. Eleanor is the one that is most susceptible to  “the haunting”. The house seems to take possession of her. At one point, she wanders off, as if in a trance, and climbs the rickety staircase. During her climb, the staircase becomes unhinged and other guests have to risk their lives to help Eleanor down.

I’m sure there are other similarities, but I believe I have highlighted the main ones.  Let’s get to the differences – do some slicing and dicing. How fun!


The Differences Between the Films

 

Black and White Vs. Color

The original film is shot in black and white. The modern film is done in color. Does this make a difference? A huge one, which will be explained at the end of the next section.

The SettingHill House Itself  

The original  film does a very nice job of setting the scene and cinematically propping up the creepy atmosphere inside the haunted house with careful details. From the designs on the walls to the angles of the doors, this fictional, if not improbable  house seems real,Haunting1963Wall almost as if one could reach into the screen and feel the grooved texture of the bedroom walls.

The remake, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to portray  a house that could only exist in a fantasy world. It’s as if the makers of this film examined the intensity of style of the house in the original film and magnified it by a thousand. The doors that separate rooms are like barricades built to withhold a battering ram. They are, perhaps, sixty-seventy  feet tall and thick as a fortress wall. And yet, the house guests push them open with the same  ease as a movie cowboy passing through the swinging doors of the Old West saloons. The Hill House of the original film features  very large and ornate fireplaces.The modern Hill House has a fireplace so huge that it is like a room in and of itself. Bigger is better? Ah…no.

Both films feature similar  rooms, such as Eleanor’s large bedroom  and the beautiful  garden. But the 1999 film it isn’t satisfied with the rooms the 1963 film had to offer. It felt the need to add rooms and attractions ,such as a flooded library, where books sprawled on the ground  are used like stepping stones to cross a river (this makes no sense) and a Haunting1999Carosouelspinning room with mirrors and carnival music, I guess intending to mimic a giant carousel  (there are no horses!).

All in all, the filmmakers decided to produce a house that would be an awesome  attraction at Disney World,  but in the end their creation fails to provide a genuinely  scary atmosphere. It is too grand, too cartoonish; the overall backdrop is far too distracting. It is also too colorful, making a fan of the classic film yearn for the simple yet very effective style of the black and white photography.  With shadows and gloomy grays, the Hill House of the original film represents the beloved gothic-style haunted house. Alas, no so with the modern. Instead we get some kind of indoor amusement  park.

Initial premise/Story Setup

While the most general premise remains the same in both films (four people, two men and two women stay at a haunted house as part of a scientific  study), the details are significantly  different. In the original  film, Dr. Markway  is an anthropologist/parapsychologist determined  to prove that supernatural  phenomena is real. To him, it is an unexplored realm of science, and is only scary because it deals with the unknown. Just as early civilizations were fearful of the possibility  that the world could be round, people in the modern day and age are scared to think about the existence  of ghosts.

On a mission to collect  evidence of paranormal activity, he invites two women to stay with him at a house that is supposedly  haunted. Yes folks, the house is Hill House. The women are chosen on account of their past and present experiences with the paranormal. Theo has ESP and Eleanor had been subjected to poltergeist  activity when she was a small girl. Supposedly, a haunted  house is more apt to display  ghostly manifestations when it is inhabited  by people with a natural affinity  toward the paranormal.

Luke Sanderson is the nephew of the heiress to Hill House. The heiress is an older lady who lives offsite. She insists that Luke be there while the investigation  is underway to protect the interests of the family property. Luke will inherit the house when his aunt passes.

The modern film convolutes this whole setup. Dr. Marrow (his name has changed)  is a scientist that studies fear. On a false premise, he invites three people to participate in a study that he claims is about insomnia. Eleanor, Theo, and Luke show up at Hill House to take part in the study (Luke is a participant  in this scenario , not an heir to the house). Dr. Marrow arrives, lies to them some more about “insomnia”, and spreads a rumor that a woman killed herself  in this house. He wants  to test his subjects reaction to fear and hopes they will frighten themselves with their  imaginations. Hill House is chosen for the site of his experiment on account of its overall creepy environment  and arcane  architecture. Everything backfires when the house turns out to be truly haunted.

Why did the screenwriters  of this modern film make this change ?  I have no idea. Perhaps just to set it apart from the original story. To me, this modern twist makes the story unnecessarily complicated  and strips away much of the mystery.

Characters/Actors

As mentioned, Luke Sanderson  is an experiment participant in the modern film and not a relative interested in protecting the interests of Hill House. Truth be told, I  don’t like the way either film portrays  this character. Played by Russ Tamblyn in the first film, Luke is a self-serving cad. However, his “caddish” ways are overdone. With every single piece of furniture or decor, he vows to one day use it for some outlandish purpose, like turning the library into a nightclub and having chorus girls dance down the wobbly  staircase. While he is a scoundrel  in the book, he is at least a more believable  one, more human.  However, I will take the 1963 Luke Sanderson over the 1999 Luke played by Owen Wilson. This actor just annoys the hell out of me. He spends most of the film telling bad jokes and getting on the nerves of the women. He is terribly miscast.

Catherine Zeta Jones as Theo seems like it might be a good choice, but she does not do to well either. Claire Bloom plays Theo in the 1963 film and she is more believable  as the bohemian, perhaps closet lesbian. Jones often seems as if she is  just reciting lines and forcing emotion.

I enjoyed  Richard Johnson’s  performance  as Dr Markway more than Liam

Neeson’s role  as Dr. Marrow.  Johnson as Markway seems more realistically   passionate about the subject of his study. Maybe this is because  the script allows him to be up front  about his research and he shares his ideas with his study participants. Liam is a great actor, so perhaps it is the overall writing that mars his performance. He is at times interesting  to watch in this film. But, well, Richard Johnson does it better.

Here in this section, I should mention that in the 1999 film, Dr. Marrow has two assistants. They are there at Hill House in the beginning. One assistant hurts her eye, the other assistant puts her in a car to take her to the hospital , and then there are none. No assistants. No more screen time. Two totally useless  characters that don’t contribute  to the story in any way.

Finally, there is Eleanor, my sweet sweet Eleanor! This modern film treats you so poorly. It does so by trying to give you strength in the wrong places. You are a very vulnerable  person and I love you just the way you are.  When your character  becomes  confident and self assumed, I weep. Seriously though, The Eleanor of the book and the original film is neurotic, emotional, delusional, needy, and yet she is adventurous  and does a good job at standing up for herself. In the original film, Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance)  is superb at taking all these traits and bringing them to life on the screen. Alas, Lili Taylor (Eleanor in the 1999 film) does not do so well with this. One second she is vulnerable  and the next moment she is self-assured and very centered. Taylor seems confused as to  how to play this role. Again, much of this confusion should be blamed on the story. In this updated version of the story, Eleanor becomes the hero, the solver of mysteries, the only one that can figure out what Hill House is all about. This is blasphemy! No one should figure out the mysteries of Hill House. It cheapens the story and steals away from the allure of the house. The Eleanor of both the book and the original film slowly  allows Hill House to possess her. Much of this possession is psychological. There is very little  psychological  horror in the modern film. It is painfully literal at all times.

Okay, are you ready to get into the meat and guts of the haunting? Of course you are! Let’s see how each film is substantially  different  in this regards.

The Nature of the Haunting

The original  film  deals with an arcane house with a lurid history. Hill House  had preyed on past inhabitants, killed some, drove others mad. The past is often a good predictor of present and future  occurrences, and this theory holds true in this film. The film makes use of the famous opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House. Among the lines are the words

“Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more.” Hill House has endured as a haunted house for a long time and it will continue  on this way throughout  the years to come. Why is Hill House haunted? This question  remains  a mystery, appropriately  so. Why are certain  people such as Eleanor  Lance so attached to Hill House and why  is the house mutually  attracted to her? Again, the answers are reassuringly vague and perhaps only available  to those that can mine the fields of the subconscious that connects the house to the woman. This postulate  assumes that Hill  House has a conscious. And I do believe that it does.

The haunting manifests in subtle  and not so subtle ways. The banging on the walls, the writing on the walls  are pretty obvious. But it’s Hill House’s  hypnotizing  effects on Eleanor that point to its true power – the way  it causes such an otherwise frightened  woman to feel at home in its confines, causing her to dance before one of its statues, to climb to its highest peak, risking her life on a rickety  staircase  while doing so. This interplay  between house and human sets a mysterious tone and makes for some serious haunting.

The modern film  takes a different  approach. It begins with an incomplete  backstory that unfolds as the film progresses. What is revealed is the key to “solving the haunting”. Eleanor  figures it all out and rids the  house of its evil  while freeing many trapped spirits in the process; freeing the spirits of dear sweet, innocent  children!

In the original story, Hugh Crane attempts to bring  his wife to Hill House. She never sees the house.. Her carriage overturns on the road to the house. He remarries, but his second wife dies inside the house with a tumble down the stairs. Hugh is a traveler and he dies abroad, leaving behind a child daughter, Abigail, to be raised be servants in Hill House. The child is sheltered and remains in the house , unmarried, until she is an invalid old lady, still using the nursery she was raised in as her bedroom. One night, Abigail calls out to her caretaker, but this companion is busy entertaining  a gentleman. Neglected, Abigail dies and soon after, the companion hangs herself in the library. All this does not necessarily  cause any future hauntings. Instead, these tragedies are pieces in a large patchwork  of some kind of haunting that has been and will continue  to be. In the remake, the spirit of Hugh Crane is the mastermind of all things evil at Hill House. When he was alive, he murdered his wives and kept  children  as worker  slaves. The spirits of the children haunt the house too, and it is up to Eleanor to free them and defeat Crane. As it turns out, the good spirits  of Hill House had called Eleanor, pretending  to work for the professor , and invited her to take part in the study. Why Eleanor ? Because, it is revealed that she is a descendant  of one of the women killed in Hill House . As Charlie Brown  says, “Oh Good Grief!”

Isn’t it better for the nature of the haunting to be a mystery? Isn’t it better to imply a psychological  connection  to Hill House rather than to absurdly  assign a link from heroine to house via a eureka moment of familial revelation? The stronger link is in the first film, and how Eleanor  is like Abigail, both sheltered women from distressed families. Or how she is like the caretaker. It is revealed that Eleanor  too ignored her mother’s  cane-banging cry for attention, which ultimately  resulted in her death. And in the end Eleanor  will be like Crane’s first wife, dying on Hill House’s road. Crane’s  wife was on horse and  carriage arriving and Eleanor  was in her car leaving. Perhaps Eleanor joins Hill House  because – they are one in the same. Eleanor has “housed” very similar tragedies, so in a way she and Hill House share a similar soul. Ah, but this is just a spur of the moment theory that came to me as I was writing this paragraph. But this off-the-cuff theory illustrates the power of the original film – it stimulates wonder and allows for many interpretations. The latter film has not this power. Nothing is left to the imagination. As an example, the modern film has to show on screen ghosts, displaying the latest  in CGI  technology (latest for 1999 anyway). All the ghosts are literal, spirits of the dead. Boring! The 1963 provides  better scares  with implications. We see the fright on the actors faces. Haunting1963EleanorAndTheo No need for this in the 1999  film. Instead viewers see the subject of the fright (the CGI ghosts), allowing the actors to just look dumb.


Is there anything good about the 1999 film?

The modern film is visually appealing. For me the visuals  steal from the story, but if you are one of those that don’t give a rat’s  ass about story or characters and just want a haunted house film where you can sit back and say,  “Oh man, that ghost looks cool!”, then you might enjoy this movie. In particular, there is a scene  where ghosts evolve from a white  curtain  that blows in the wind. I enjoyed this CGI  in action. I admit, I sat back and said, “Oh man, those ghosts look cool!”. Also there are children’s  faces carved into a piece of wood work. Their facial expressions  change and the direction they stare in changes as  well. Some of the special effects are  well done and very creepy.

Haunting1999Children.jpg

Final Word

I remember  watching film critic Roger Ebert review The Haunting  1999. He went through a list  of criticisms to finally  pivot and mildly recommend  the film. His soft  recommendation  was on account of the entire  haunted house atmosphere. He felt the film succeeded in this way. At the time I agreed with him. I don’t  anymore.

The modern film presents a visually creative haunted  house , I’ll give it that. And I just love those ghosts that materialize  from the curtain. But these things are not enough for me to  recommend  the film as a whole. I’m sorry. I just hope the upcoming Netflix  series is a far better reimagination  than the The Haunting  – 1999

 

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

CastleJackson2What is the most definitive haunted house of fictional literature? Many might say that it is “Hill House”, that mysterious mansion that haunts poor Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House.”  Certainly, Hill House is worthy of such a title. After all, the novel that spawned it went on to influence many if not most of the haunted house novels of the later part of the twentieth century, including Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Robert Morasco’s “Burnt Offerings”.  Jackson has another story in her catalog of works that centers around a gothic style house. The story is dark and disturbing; the stuff of nightmarish fairy-tales in their original form before Disney waters them down with singing birds and colorful princesses. It is also charming (though there are no singing birds,  there is a very observant cat!),  funny, and quite absurd. It’s sort of a Poe-Meets-Kafka kind of piece.  This novella I refer to is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

As I alluded to at the end of the preceding paragraph, We Have Always Lived in the Castle  is many things. But, is it a haunted house story?  Some say that it is. It makes the Goodreads list of Best Haunted House Fiction that Isn’t The Shining. At the time of publication, it sits at #5 on a list of 185 items. Impressive.

There isn’t anything supernatural going on in this tale. But I argue that this novella is indeed a story about a haunted house. Jackson herself was haunted; haunted by insecurities; haunted by a standard of lifestyle that was forced upon her, a lifestyle which she couldn’t, nor wouldn’t, abide by. Underneath the surface of her novels, Jackson writes about the things that haunt her. So when she writes about houses, the things that had haunted her infiltrate the houses and the characters that occupy them. The fusion of house and people, this whirlwind of forces, is what truly haunts her fictional manors. Let’s explore these matters in more detail. I’ll begin by a brief analysis of “the haunting” that afflicts “hill house” and then delve into the things that haunt the family that has “..always lived in the castle”. In the end, both houses, and the stories themselves, are haunted by Shirley Jackson herself. She haunts houses in ways no one else can.

What is Haunting “Hill House”?

It is the author’s writing style that elevates The Haunting of Hill House to such a high standard. Jackson’s description of scene blends well  with her poetic storytelling. She writes with a psychological pen that inscribes a disturbed persona into her characters; a persona that seems to evaporate into the house that surrounds them, thereby lending to the house a personality that is usually reserved only for sentient beings. In a similar manner, she transfers her own personality onto the page, allowing for the passage of her very own personal demons, from her soul to the story. An article from The New Yorker describes Jackson as “one of the twentieth century’s tortured writers”.  Her mother had admonished her for her lack of feminine qualities, for not being “pretty”. She even went so far as to tell her daughter that “she was the product of a failed abortion”.  Thus Jackson struggled with two competing identities. She saw herself as an ugly duckling, lacking grace and femininity, and when she married a man who constantly cheated on her, at least she “was married” and fulfilling her womanly duties. However, she rebelled against convention. “She grew fat…she ran a bohemian household…she dyed the mashed potatoes green..”   Shirley Jackson was an outsider, mistrustful of the larger world. The characters in her novels are very much the same way. They are insecure misanthropes on the one hand. But, in some ways, proud of their oddities.

The protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a young woman who grew up in a very sheltered environment, confined to a life of caring for her ailing mother. She is insecure, lacking worldly experience, and it is not until she stays at Hill House, which is quite possibly haunted by supernatural entities, that she “comes to life”.  As the novel progresses, she becomes more attached to the house. In this odd house with its bizarre architecture and mysterious happenings, she forges a sense of belonging.

One of the pervasive  themes in The Haunting of Hill House is the notion that, perhaps, the supernatural  manifestations that are witnessed by several other occupants  actually  stem from Eleanor’s  own psychic mind. In many ways, Eleanor represents Jackson. Both women, haunted by a troubled  past, carry over these hauntings into worlds of their own, worlds of their making.

What Kind of Ghosts Have Always “Lived in the Castle”?

To me, there is meaning to the title We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  The story is about a family that is at odds with the rest of the world. It’s about a young girl affectionately known as “Merricat.” Merricat was always a weird one, suspicious of those that could not understand the inner-workings of her fanciful mind. Even after a horrific tragedy, there is something about the the characters of this novel that remain “untouched.” They go on living in their own world, sheltered reclusively inside a big old house. There is something about them, about Merricat, that seems to have been…well, it just seems that they have “always been.”

“The Castle” is a large manor owned by the Blackwood family. It stands in a wooded area that separates its surrounding  property from the paths that lead to the nearby village. In addition, there is a flimsy fence of sorts that marks the Blackwood  territory. But the most effective  barrier is a psychological one. The Blackwoods are one of several prominent  and historical  families in the area. Very secretive and seclusive, backed by historical legend, the villagers keep their distance.. They know them only through gossip and legend. They don’t dare tread on their turf. Especially in the aftermath of that horrifying tragedy that occurred only recently, a few years back.

Most of the Blackwoods have recently passed on. They were murdered!  Mother and Father, Aunt and Brother  died of arsenic poisoning. This poison  was mixed into the sugar. Survivors of this tragedy include  the ailing Uncle Julian, Older Sister  Constance , and young tween sister Mary Katherine (Merricat). Constance was accused of poisoning/murdering  her family, arrested, and tried in court.  Eventually she was  acquitted of all  charges. But in the court of public opinion, in the minds of the villagers, she is guilty as sin.

The truth about how  the family is poisoned remains a mystery until the near end of the story. Until then, readers get to know Constance, the seemingly  selfless caretaker of the house and what’s left of the family. She delights in cooking and gardening, waiting on old Uncle Julian. She keeps the place orderly and beautiful. But she is homebound, afraid to tread beyond a certain marker on their property. Uncle Julian is witty and entertaining. But he is slowly losing his mind to dementia. Finally  there is Merricat.  She is very imaginative and her mind churns out alternate places for her family to live, places such as the moon! She adores  her older sister , cherishes the house , but despises the people in the village. In fact, she pretty much has it in for everyone  outside her family. She keeps  her house safe by burying token items in special  places around her property. She seems to believe that by doing so, she is invoking some sort of charm.

So, I have stated that the Blackwood House is haunted. What haunts it? Answer – the survivors of the poisoning. The trio of occupants are ghosts clothed in flesh. Think about this. Ghosts linger inside a house after a deadly tragedy. Ghosts forever dwell in a momentary state of affairs, often repeating the same activities over and over. These ghostly attributes describe  the remaining Blackwoods to a tee. They exist in their own little world, often oblivious to the affairs outside their walls – outside the castle. Merricat is the only one that wanders into the village to fetch needed supplies. Her very presence inside a store disrupts the environment and puts the shoppers and merchants in a state of uneasiness. They would rather the ghost stay in the house where it belongs. Speaking of the house – it is also at the center of many conversations. Villagers fear it, tell stories about it. Sometimes out of morbid curiosity, they dare to approach it. A house that triggers such behavior has to be haunted.

Just as Shirley Jackson herself haunts Hill House, she also haunts the Blackwood House. I see her as Merricat, proud of her idiosyncrasies and distrusting of those who choose not to understand her personality. But she is also Constance, always trying to please, trying to be the dutiful woman. (It should be noted – While Jackson obviously possesses the soul of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, her character can also be found in another of the book’s female characters. This would be Theodora, daring in her forwardness, given to bohemian ways, and challenging the definition of femininity.)

All in the Haunting

Goodreads reviewer Madeline  sums up the haunting elements of We Have Always Lived in the Castle this way:

Simply put, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of how a house becomes haunted. It’s a ghost story without ghosts – or, more accurately, a story of how a person becomes a ghost.

Her summary is spot on. Throughout the book,  characters fade from the world stage and become the stuff of legends, of ghosts.  Shirley Jackson has a knack for bringing out the ghosts from inside the living. She does this by creating  an ethereal environment that welcomes these ghosts, fosters them, and gives them a home.  In an eerie, odd house, these characters can be who they were meant to be. It’s a place for them to be themselves – it’s their own little world. Jackson, I believe, was in her own little world when she encapsulated herself in the writing process. I would venture to guess that  she seemed most happy inside this capsule.  And her ghost will forever remain inside her stories. Gleefully.

Jackson

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!

 

 

 

Review of The Grip of It – A Novel

Jac-Jemc-In-the-Grip-of-It-Crop

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am a Chicago guy.  The author of the book that is up for review – The Grip of It – A Novel,  resides in Chicago. Therefore I am already in love!  All the authors of my other favorite haunted house novels live elsewhere – Maine, California, England, etc. Many are long dead, hopefully living in some heavenly realm.

Author  Jac Jemc received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (See http://www.jacjemc.com/about/). She frequently attends/conducts writing conferences and seminars throughout the Chicago area. A colleague told me she used to work at “Such and Such” indie book store over there in..not only did I forget the name of the store, but I forgot the neighborhood as well. For what it’s worth, he did point north east! Is she a transplant or native born? I don’t know, but I get the feeling that “native born” is just too much to ask for.

Kidding aside, all that Chicago stuff is not why I appreciate her work. I admire her creative approach to the haunted house story; her feat at widening its field into areas previously unexplored. I admire her for avoiding clichés and experimenting with the new.  I admire her ability to tap into the elements of psychological horror in ways that have never been done before.

Quite often, the physical structure in a haunted house story represents something else within the parameters of the narrative. It could be something as large as a kingdom (The Castle of Otranto ) or a familial lineage (The Fall of The House of Usher). Or it might represent the inner workings of a tormented mind (Maynard’s House). On other occasions, it stands for something far more complicated and abstract (House of Leaves). This last example best exemplifies The Grip of It. The house in the story represents a struggling marriage, the complications that come with starting a new life, and the fissures of silence that tear at the foundation upon which a life if built.

As is made clear in the preceding paragraph, The Grip of It is filled with a whole lot of S & M.  No, no, not Sado-Masochism. I mean “s”ymbols and “m”etaphors – Hidden rooms, scratching noises, spreading stains, buried bodies; don’t they just sound darling?  Gotta love the S &M!

James and Julie move away from the city to a new house in a new town. That’s right kids (the couple in the book are much younger than I am so I can call them that), run from your problems! They will never rematerialize in a new home in a new environment, will they? Oh yes they will, in a very haunting way.  Jemc sees to that. As their mistrust of each other increases, so do the uncanny happenings in and around their house.  Does one set of problems beget the other?  Does A affect B, only to have B  affect A? Or are A and B one in the same?

The book is beautifully written. A reader flows through  the pages with a sense of rhythm, never to be deterred by the overall brilliance of the structure. With one exception. The book alters perspective: one chapter is from James’s point of view and the next is from Julie’s.  In either case, the writing is always in the first person.  But sometimes, James will get two chapters in a row. And so will Julie. A reader must ask “Who is this ‘I’ that I am encountering this time around?”  Before embarking on a chapter, I needed to scout the terrain of upcoming words and seek out the third-person spouse in order for me to know whose head I currently occupied. Ah! Up ahead the “I” is wondering where James went. Therefore, I am reading from Julie’s perspective.  I got tired of doing this after awhile.

The Grip of It might fit into the classification known as postmodernism. I say that and yet I only have a hunch as to what defines that movement.  Ah but it seems so right! And, I think that “not having a grasp” of a definition is exactly what postmodernism is all about.  Certainly James and Julie are at a loss of an explanation.  They struggle over “The Grip of it”

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sisters – A Review

This post is brought to you today by the letters “J”, “K” and the number 2.  No, you have not found your way to Sesame Street. You are indeed inside the den of haunted house fiction, which to the best of my knowledge is not located on this Muppet-infested street, so you can put away your Elmo flags now. Horror continues to be the agenda. Only now, we add hyphenated prefixes to the word “horror” along with the two letters that sponsor today’s post. Ta-da! This alchemy gives us the words “J-Horror” and “K-horror” or, in other terms, Japanese Horror and Korean Horror.

Today we will touch upon both J and K Horror films, not to be defined as horror films from the mentioned countries, but as genres in and of themselves. Now, what about the number 2? This sad and creepy tale that is up for review features “two” unfortunate sisters that are victims of tragedy and misfortune.  Hence, the title of this Korean film is A Tale of Two Sisters.

In preparation for this article, I “Googled” and “Yahooed” the words “Asian horror.” Yahoo took the liberty of providing several links that had the words “Japanese Horror” in the title. Google kept the search confined to my key words only.  On Wikipedia, under the category “Asian Horror”, Japanese and Korean Film are singled out from other Asian horror-film producing countries.

Asian horror films are horror, thriller and suspense films made in Asian countries, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, that generally follow the conventions of J-Horror (Japan) and K-Horror (Korea).

What are these conventions that the above quote references?   Again according to Wikipedia, J-Horror   “tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.”

Take all the stuff above and throw a house into the mix, and the results will yield stories that are perfect subject for this blog. So far I have reviewed two J-Horror films –  Ju-On: The Curse  and Ju-On: The Curse 2 .  I enjoyed them both and I promise to get to The Grudge soon.  After all, it made my Top 50 Horror movie list. as did Ringu, which will not be reviewed since it doesn’t feature a haunted house (Alas!)

Suffice it to say, I am a fan of J-Horror and its ghostly tales of suspense that play heavily upon the emotional states of the characters. What of K-Horror?   It is similar to J-Horror:

According to wikipedia:

Many of the Korean horror films tend to focus on the suffering and the anguish of characters rather than focus on the explicit “blood and guts” aspect of horror. Korean horror features many of the same motifs, themes, and imagery as Japanese horror

The article goes on to state the popularity of the female ghost in Korean horror films.

A Tale of Two Sisters has all the aforementioned qualifications from the preceding quote. It also has the female ghost. The story takes place in a house occupied by a dysfunctional family…and perhaps…a few other entities.  Therefore it is a haunted house story and its style is very much to my tastes.  That said, let’s delve into it, shall we?

This is a creepy film; ghosts creep around corners, creep out of cabinets, creep up to its a-tale-of-two-sisters-postervictims as they lie in bed at night.  What is the opposite of “creep?”  Perhaps “jump”, as in “jump-scares”.  I prefer the creeping ghost to the ghouls that suddenly jump-out and go “boo!”  Also, I like a camera that doesn’t rush. I like when it that takes its time treading corridors, thereby capturing many shapes and shadows along the way.  The camera work in this film accomplishes this to the tee!

The story is as follows: Teenaged Su-mi is released from a mental hospital to the care of her father in his countryside home, which was also her childhood home. A tragedy took place in this house years before; a tragedy that psychologically damaged Su-mi and necessitated her stay in the institution.  But she is home now, reunited with her younger sister Su-yeon, whom she cherishes, and her step mother Eun-jo, whom she despises.  Soon after the reunions, the hauntings begin.  Su-mi and Eun-jo bear the brunt of the hauntings; the father never seems to realize that there is anything “supernaturally amiss”. Meanwhile, the hostilities between Eun-jo and Su-mi grow while Eun-jo often acts cruelly and abusive toward poor Su-yeon.

So what’s going on here? A whole lot of “projection”, that’s what. This is a term I have used in other reviews. Basically, it’s when the mind of one of the characters is haunted (by saddness, repressed memories, etc,) and through the eyes of the character, acting like a film projector, the haunting is unleashed onto the house, which acts like the screen. Are the ghosts real or are they only figments of a tortured mind?  This mystery plays out through the film.  In fact it gets so complex that viewers are prone to get confused as to what is real and what isn’t.  This is one of the drawbacks of the film – it has too many twists for its own good.  It’s like opening a gift box, only to find yet a smaller box, which holds yet a smaller box, and finally the contents are revealed: there is a note which states that you’ve been opening the wrong gift all along!  The movie has riddles wrapped in enigmas that are showered in mysteries.  Trying to figure out what is going on disrupts the creepy flow of this film.

Here’s a hint: If there is a group of characters in any given scene, pay attention to which characters are silent; to which characters are not on the receiving end of a conversation. Likewise, are there any character combinations that are kept to a minimum? If so, why is that?

The film has all the stuff of psychology. It has memories that won’t die, memories that are continuously trying to be locked away but to no avail. The film is about disassociation. It is about guilt. It is about love and longing and bitterness and hate. It is about confronting reality…or running the hell away from it.

If after watching the film you find yourself confused, I recommend reading the plot summary at Wikipedia’s “A Tale of Two Sisters” article. It reveals all. There is one major twist that I did not get. Upon reading the revelation, I can understand how it plays out, but I don’t like it so much. I think it would have been better if the film had only the twist that I did understand better, for reasons that I can’t reveal.

Despite it’s burdensome complexity, this is an effectively chilling film. And who knows more about chilling things then our old friend The Count!  Hey Count, laugh if you love this review!