Wednesday, June 20, 2018

House of Small Shadows (2013) by Adam Nevill

House of Small Shadows (2013) by Adam Nevill: Adam Nevill explores the shadowlands between mental illness and the supernatural in disturbingly effective ways in this horror novel that also involves a whole lot of taxidermy and a battalion of creepy dolls and marionettes and puppets and old people.

Catherine is a 38-year-old antiques appraiser with a history of mental problems dating back to childhood when she was abandoned at birth, adopted, and then narrowly avoided being abducted. Or perhaps "spirited away" would be more accurate. After a violent meltdown in London, she's found some peace working for an eccentric antiques dealer and reconnecting with a long-lost boyfriend.

Alas, things will begin to go horribly wrong on the day her boss sends her to a preliminary meeting with ancient Edith, who owns The Red House, near Hereford. Nothing sinister in that name, is there? 

The Red House contains the life's work of post-WWI taxidermist and puppet-maker M.H. Mason: massive, exquisitely detailed tableaux of animals recreating WWI battlefields, strange dolls, and child-sized puppets of unusual design. None of it has ever been sold. If sold, the collection could bring in millions, though Catherine believes that perhaps the material should go to museums instead.

However, once Catherine enters the world of the Red House, Edith, and her laconic housekeeper Maude, events start to get a little odd. And progress towards greater oddity and horror. 

Catherine believes her mental state to be precarious, fragile, easily disturbed. As strange things begin to happen, and as the fugue states of her childhood and early teenage years suddenly return, she believes that the cause is interior to herself. To survive the mental barrage, she believes she must acknowledge that her problems are the problems of a diseased mind and cling thus to reality.

Of course, if these things are not the products of a diseased mind... well, that could be a problem for someone who fears the consequences of believing in many of the things she's experienced since she was a little girl, in Hereford... disturbingly close to The Red House for a couple traumatic years of childhood, she soon realizes.

Neville's portrayal of a mind besieged from within and without by the seemingly impossible reminds me a lot of many horror stories and novels by genre great Ramsey Campbell. An extended sequence in which Catherine attends a puppet show in the small village near the Red House is the most Campbell-like thing in the novel, a masterpiece of horror achieved through environmental description and the accumulation of disquieting details, partially glimpsed.

The character of Catherine has been a problem for some reviewers of this novel. I find her a compelling figure. Her mental problems are sympathetically and convincingly portrayed, as is her lonely battle to remain sane in an increasingly tilted and sinister world. Also, those goddam puppets are terrifying. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors

Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors (2016) by Adam L.G. Nevill: containing the following stories:

  • Where Angels Come In (2005): The first story of Nevill's I remember reading is a doozy of a nod to classic ghost stories, but with a very contemporary, ground-level feel to it. Statues that appear midway through the story all represent M.R. James stories, though the overall effect is closer to Robert Aickman.
  • The Original Occupant (2005): A sort of dry run for Nevill's novel The Ritual, told in a very traditional, M.R. Jamesian way.
  • Mother's Milk (2003): Weird and horrifying and strange, a nightmarish piece that's the earliest written story in this book, from Nevill's days in a creative writing program.
  • Yellow Teeth (2008): A sort of dry run for Nevill's novel Under a Watchful Eye, a tale of roommate-based horror that could be entitled "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave."
  • Pig Thing (2012): For me, the weakest story in this volume primarily because it seems more like the preamble to a horror story than a horror story, and as such simply ends in nihilism.
  • What Hath God Wrought? (2011): Nevill nods to his love of Western novels and movies in this tale of an evil offshoot of Mormonism (note that classic Western novelist often used Mormons as villains in his Westerns). 
  • Doll Hands (2013): Drawing on his experience as a night porter at an exclusive condominium, Nevill depicts a bleak and horrible future world of cannibalism and dire mutation.
  • To Forget and Be Forgotten (2009): Again drawing on his experience as a night porter at an exclusive condominium, Nevill depicts a bleak and horrible present-day world of money and decay. Nevill would revisit his night portering days in his novel Apartment 16.
  • The Ancestors (2009): A nod to Japanese horror and creepy toys. 
  • The Age of Entitlement (2012): In a weird way, a dystopic future take on Withnail and I.
  • Florrie (2011):  An affecting, brief take on houses and hauntings and the malign influence of the past.

Overall: There are some uneven spots in this collection, as one would expect from an attempt to cover the first 15 years of Nevill's writing career (and the first ten years of being published as a professional writer). Nonetheless, this is an excellent introduction to Nevill's work, and a very strong horror collection on any merits and not just as a "first collection." Nevill's strengths at characterization and disturbing descriptions of settings are fully evident, as are his concerns with life among the poor and over-worked. Highly recommended.

Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors

Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors (2017) by Adam L.G. Nevill: containing the following stories:

  • On All London Underground Lines (2010): A bad day getting to work on the London Underground gets progressively worse. 
  • The Angels of London (2013): Some cheap apartments come at a great cost. Manages to be both cosmically and normatively creepy. The characteristics of the apartment super will be reprised in No One Gets Out Alive, though not the actual character. He's a stunning bit of punk-Dickensian grotesquery.
  • Always in Our Hearts (2013): Some cab drivers are jerks. Almost an EC Comics Revenge story.
  • Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) (2017): Sometimes a zoo is not the zoo you expect. A fine Robert Aickman homage.
  • The Days of Our Lives (2016): A really bad relationship.
  • Hippocampus (2015): Something is wrong with the container ship.
  • Call the Name (2015): A really solid H.P. Lovecraft homage using the lens of some contemporary thinking on evolution.
  • White Light, White Heat (2016): A dystopic look at the politics and economic of publishing. 
  • Little Black Lamb (2017): Murder sites and a dandy nod to Ramsey Campbell.

Overall: Highly recommended collection of horror stories from Adam Nevill running the gamut from the gross-out to the cosmic and visionary, sometimes in the same story. His grip on setting and the vagaries of disturbed though often sympathetic personalities is sure throughout, and none of the horrors are stereotypical; rather the opposite. This is Nevill's second collection from his own imprint, bringing the stories he wants to have collected up to the present-day (as of 2017, anyway).

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Tale (2018)

The Tale (2018): written and directed by Jennifer Fox; starring Laura Dern (Jennifer), Elizabeth Debicki (Mrs. G.), Jason Ritter (Bill), John Heard (Bill - Present Day), Ellen Burstyn (Nettie), Frances Conroy (Mrs. G. - Present Day), Common (Martin), and Isabelle Nelisse (Jennifer - Age 13): 

Harrowing tale of childhood sexual abuse based on writer-director Jennifer Fox's own experiences. The cast is excellent, especially Isabelle Nelisse and Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox at 13 and in the present day, respectively. The movie also deftly wields Jason Ritter's essential likeability to good effect in his role as a predatory track coach. 

The movie takes a different path than normal in its exploration of memory. In the present day, Jennifer hasn't repressed her memories -- she's reformulated them into something she can live with. Her mother's discovery of an essay about the "relationship" she had with the track coach and a riding coach forces the memory box open, however, to be reevaluated by Jennifer in the present.

The result is clever and thoughtful, as Jennifer interrogates her 13-year-old self while also having to re-evaluate her interpretation of the events. Those around her also have to deal with these memories as the memories themselves "change." Ellen Burstyn is sympathetic and confused and guilt-ridden as Jennifer's mother. Other participants don't want to admit knowledge of what was going on, much less guilt. Recommended.

Room 237 (2012)

Room 237 (2012): written and directed by Rodney Ascher; featuring theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) from Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner: To paraphrase a Jack Kirby cover blurb, "Don't ask -- just watch it!" 

Rodney Ascher unpacks and illustrates nine, count them, nine 'fan' theories about the secret meaning of Stanley Kubrick's movie of Stephen King's The Shining. Oh, brother. The loopiest is that The Shining is Kubrick's coded confession that he faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The most wide-ranging is that The Shining is about ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY. 

If you want to understand the Ourobouros of the theory, of becoming transfixed by an idea that seems objectively insane... well, this movie is for you. Asture observations occasionally surface, only to be drowned in the red flood of hermetic hermeneutics. Learn the mystery of the Impossible Window! Marvel at carefully detailed, viewer-generated maps of the floor plan of the Overlook Hotel! Realize that somewhere, Stanley Kubrick is busting a gut! An absolutely fascinating work of documentary, non-judgmental about the validity of the theories described herein.

The most astonishing moment probably comes when, prompted by one theorist's statement that The Shining must be viewed backwards and forwards to truly be understood,  a film theatre screens The Shining played backwards and forwards, projected on the same screen at the same time. I've got to guess that a lot of headache medication was taken during and after that adventure. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Grey Gardens (1975)

Grey Gardens (1975): directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert and David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer; starring Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale: Albert and David Maysles, brother documentarians perhaps best known for the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter (aka the Altamont documentary), also gave us this disturbing piece about Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, cousin and favourite Aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. 

At the time of filming, the Beales lived in their decaying Long Island mansion (the 'Grey Gardens' of the title because rich people and Englishmen name their homes) . Jackie Kennedy had just paid to have the grounds and exterior of the house cleaned up so that mother and daughter wouldn't be evicted. 

The interior of the house is a colossal wreck, the power apparently cut off and perhaps the water too, ceilings falling in, seemingly only the one room where they sleep comfortably livable. They have money to feed the colony of cats that now live with them. Mementos of the past are scattered everywhere or arranged carefully in the bedroom.

The Maysles pretty much just document the lives of these two recluses in all their tragic, voluble, endlessly talking sadness. The documentary never stoops to bathos or exploitation, but boy, is it hard to watch. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Outsider (2018) by Stephen King

The Outsider (2018) by Stephen King: 40-year-old Terry Maitland is a beloved high-school teacher and Little League coach in the small Oklahoma town of Flint City. But overwhelming witness, fingerprint, and DNA evidence suggest that he brutally raped and murdered an eleven-year-old boy. 

So Detective Ralph Anderson makes the call to arrest him. Because Anderson is freaked out by the fact that his own son played Little League, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland in as public and humiliating a way as possible -- during a Little League game, with the stands packed.

A problem soon develops, however, as Maitland's lawyer and his own investigator discover: equally overwhelming evidence shows that Maitland was nowhere near Flint City at the time of the rape and murder. 

Does Maitland have an accomplice? Did he try to commit the perfect crime? But if he tried to commit the perfect crime, why did he go out of his way to talk to witnesses before and after the murder while wearing a blood-soaked shirt? Why do the plethora of fingerprints and bloodstains suggest that he went out of his way to leave physical proof of his crime?

So begins The Outsider, Stephen King's new novel. This one is in many ways like a very detailed X-Files episode. No Mulder and Scully, but halfway through the novel Holly Gibney of King's Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) will be called upon to fill the role of an outside investigator with experience when it comes to the paranormal.

For King the novel is pretty tight (it's 500 pages, so yeah, maybe there could be some trimming -- though I really only wished for more, not less). The details of the investigation are ably portrayed. The characterization is superb. It's a mash-up of the supernatural and the police procedural that works really well, perhaps in part because King practiced with End of Watch.

The novel also examines how good police can make catastrophic mistakes, as Ralph Anderson does with that initial public arrest. Anderson is the protagonist here, a good cop faced with something beyond his normal experience. Thankfully, brave, extremely intelligent Holly is there, a most unlikely Van Helsing, but an effective one. Her A/V presentation on what kind of thing they're facing is a miniature masterpiece of horror laced with unlikely comedy that rapidly turns to dread.

There are certainly derivative elements -- there are always in King, a master of synthesis far more than thesis. But the characterization and the pacing keep things going, along with some new (for King) locales. The climax is a dandy, another dark descent made by unlikely heroes in service of the light. Highly recommended.