Luna: New Moon- Kinky Helium Millionaires in Spaaaaace!

Luna: New Moon clearly had strong influence on me because it forced me to do something that I never do: write a blog without being 100% forced to do so. There were elements that didn’t work for me at all, but in the end it was still able to invoke a powerful emotional response, which puts it in good company.

At its best, Luna feels like a near-future version of the first half of Dune. The reader is dropped face-first into the political machinations of rival space houses and forced to figure out what’s happening on the fly. When the narrative is focused on business, high-level politics, and society building it’s pretty compelling. When it gets into nitty-gritty personal politics, it didn’t work all that well for me. I’d agree with Ian McDonald when he liked the dynastic politics to “Dallas,” and while that might work for some readers, I was pretty turned off by stories of pre-nups, strategic marriages, and baby mommas and wives not getting along.

There were moments that the petty dramas and odd sexual detours made me want to put the book down. While I have no issue with giving characters some sexual space to explore, and even when the characters’ kinks don’t match my own, I’m still down to watch the lunar lander descend into the sea of fecundity, if you know what I mean. The thing is, much of it felt hollow and forced. You mean to tell me that the #2 man at Corto Hélio wants to have gay sex WITH A MAN? No way! Also, who cares?!?

Sex is fine. Straight sex. Gay sex. Group sex. Self sex. It’s all good. All I ask is that it advances the character somewhat. There are times in Luna where it does. There are also times where we are treated to an entire CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Dildo/Computer Aided Masturbation) sex scene where there is nothing being said other than “she doesn’t like to share things with other people. That’s just not good enough to justify the fact that I just read a graphic description of multi-haptic power tools being applied to raw genitals. I’m stuck with that. I can’t get rid of it. By the time it got to the furries, I was pretty much checked out. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to pick on furries. You’re great. Keep doing you. It just felt like a hollow, tokenized Power Rangers squad of unique sexual orientations that were shoehorned together to form an Ultramegapowerzord of Narrative Irrelevancy.

That probably sounds angrier than I was. I’m not grinding an ideological ax, I was just bored by it. My bigger problem with the book is that there wasn’t much actual story there. Don’t get me wrong, the writing, the characterization, the world, the social commentary… these were are great. But, in terms of a narrative problem that the characters deal with, it felt pushed off to the next book. If I had to give a micro-summary of the book, it would be “a bunch of kinky moon millionaires have moderate business and personal problems until they are brutally murdered.

As fascinating as the history of the Cortos is (with the high point being Adriana’s autobiographical explanation of how she created the company), they just don’t have any present say in their ultimate fate. The Suns set them up years in advance and the Cortos… with a few exceptions, their participation was limited to dying a lot. That’s a compelling inciting event, but it’s not really a story. Dune did largely the same thing, but unlike Luna, it happened in the first half of the book. Much like Dune’s Paul Atreides, Lucasinho Corta is a dipshit teenager. Unlike Paul, we’ll have to wait for a sequel to see if he gets his head out of his ass.

If that sounds harsh, let me balance it out by saying that despite a bunch of narrative detours and a lack of plot that matters (in this installment anyway), by the end I almost loved Luna. The last act of Corto Hélio was moving solely because the characterization was so good. It hurt to watch Carlinhos be cut down after fighting so bravely, even though I had no idea what he cared about beyond stabbing people for his family. Ariel nearly making it to the top of lunar politics only to have it snatched away was emotionally powerful, despite that entire arc meaning essentially nothing to this installment. I wanted to know what happened to little Luna, even though she pretty much disappears in the second half. I legitimately wanted to know if Lucasinho would ever stop being such an enormous tool.

It takes some pretty skillful characterization on the part of the author to get the reader to care even when there’s not much of a narrative reason to do so. With a bit more story, and a bit less furious masturbation, I think Luna might have landed on my “best SF” shelf. Instead, it felt like a powerful, if maybe a bit flawed novel that I expect to stick with me for quite a while.

Still, I’ll give it my highest rating for a series starter:

“I’ll probably read the next one” out of five stars.

Ghostbusters: When Someone Asks You if You Are a God, You Say “Yes”

When there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

Appallingly, before 1984 there really was no good answer. Sure you could call the police, psychics, a priest. Each option had pros and cons, but none of them had the professionalism, the pimped out ambulance, or the American entrepreneurial spirit to not only figure out how to turn charged particle beams into a service that could really help people, but to do it at a tidy profit.

When there’s something weird and it don’t look good, who you gonna call?

Obviously that’s a rhetorical question. You’re going to call the Ghostbusters from Ghostbusters.

I’ve probably seen this movie a hundred times and in all likelihood so have you, so I’m not going bother with recapping the intricacies of the plot. It’s just your basic script about three disgraced academics thriving in the private sector until some dog statues hijack a pair of Manhattanites to open an interdimensional gate on their apartment building so a Sumerian god can take the form of a forty-foot-tall marshmallow to destroy New York.

Standard fare, really.

In my ongoing quest to tighten up my storytelling abilities, I really tried to focus on how the movie presented and furthered the conflict. I gotta tell you, this movie is so much tighter than I realized. Each of the first four or five scenes use maximum economy to establish the history and personalities of Stantz, Venkman, and Spengler while setting the stage for an immediate (“We’re broke!) and long-term (We don’t want a Sumerian sugar-creature to annihilate the human race!) conflict.

I was really impressed with how well the script cut out he common mistakes common in origin stories like this. We are not bogged down with how the Busters funded their business (a five-second line about Stantz mortgaging his house), how they decided that their name wouldn’t be “Apparition Exterminators” or “Specter Fuckers.” Their paranormal talents are established, the existence of ghosts in the world is confirmed, a need is created, and they just *are* the Ghostbusters.

I’ve talked a bit about one of the sticky wickets I’ve found in haunting stories, which is how hard it can be to reconcile a legitimate ghostly threat with the age-old question of “why don’t you just leave, you dumb-ass Lutzes people?

Ghostbusters has a very good answer for this. They are getting paid and their previous careers are in ruins. The only way out is forward through the ectoplasm. From there, the complication of Gozer’s concrete dogs supersede their need to get paid, but the two goals actually coexist quite nicely.

This movie is not only a (quite deserving) comedy classic, it really is a great example of compelling, tight storytelling that gives the audience a reason to root for the protagonists without getting bogged down in unimportant details.

So the next time I have an issue with creating a compelling motivation for my characters, who am I going to call?

I’m going to call my writing mentor.

And we’re going to talk about Ghostbusters.

Poltergeist: Beware Haunted Consumer Electronics

Poltergeist, for most of its run-time, does a pretty good job of avoiding one of the major traps of the haunting subgenre. Throw in a couple iconic scenes and some legitimate family tension, and you have film that generally fulfills its promises to the audience, despite a flawed ending and a bit of uneven pacing.

As I see it, in order for a haunting story to work, it has to satisfy the question that points out a basic vulnerability of the story. When a person is inside a haunted house, the audience is going to ask “why don’t you just leave?” Bad stories ignore this. Good stories have a good answer. Great stories make the question moot by answering it before it can be asked.

Yes, there are some campy and illogical moments in the movie, but in terms of setting the emotional stage where the protagonists have a vested and undeniable interest in staying through the haunting, Poltergeist does a pretty good job of giving the audience a reason to believe in and care about the characters in the movie.

This isn’t to say that Poltergeist is without flaws. In fact, the false climax near the end pretty much invalidates the setup in the final scene, which turns the plight of the protagonists into the foibles of a couple of illogical idiots, rather than the struggles of concerned parents.

Mr. and Mrs. Coach (Craig T. Nelson’s character and his wife have names, but I don’t care. This I my blog and I do what I want) are not very smart. They seem to care about their kids, but their decision making is suspect. When a TV eats their daughter, they don’t want to leave the house, which makes tons of sense, but they don’t initially send their kids away either. Even when they do, they send their daughter out in the world (almost certainly into the arms/pants of her Camaro-driving boyfriend) and shove their ten-year-old son into a cab and ship him off to auntie so-and-so. There was a sense of relief once they did, as it allowed me to emotionally focus on their plight, rather than being worried that their other kids are going to get pulled into the dishwasher or VHS rewinder or something.

I also had a minor gripe with the pacing. I got the feeling that the decision to unleash the fury of the house on the Coaches so quickly and without warning (to keep the audience from questioning why they stayed), the opening of the movie is slow and then *BLAM* a tree reaches into to the house and pulls out little Billy Coach and tries to eat him. In the confusion, Janie Coach is sucked through Dimension X and into the television.

As much as the scene is a bit goofy (its never adequately explained what the Coaches did to the forests of Isengard to earn the wrath of the Tree Ents), it does do a good job of ratcheting up the tension. The problem is that after a fairly slow start, we get that scene, and then more down time as the Coaches seem remarkably fine with communicating with their daughter via UHF. Paranormal investigators come in, and are more fascinated than horrified by the massive infestation of ghosts in the house. The tension bounces around until a medium is brought in to retrieve the lost girl with the power of love, tennis balls, and a rope pulling.

And if that was the end, it would have been a better movie. Everyone just kind of agrees that it’s all over and there’s nothing to worry about ever again, despite there being no reason at all to think that. The Coaches decide to move out, but not before staying one more day, and for some completely insane reason think it’s a good job to leave their kids alone in a house that was the site of an attempted tree kidnapping and where a television held their daughter hostage.

Predictably, the ghosts were playing rope-a-dope with the Coaches, and waited until they were vulnerable to open up the dimensional gate in the kids’ room and launch a barrage of corpse torpedoes from the hidden graveyard underneath the house. They get out, but the movie lost me by this point. They weren’t plucky and brave heroes who endured hell on earth for their daughter, they were stupid morons who inexplicably left their kids alone inside an obviously dangerous house. As good as the movie did early on in that regard, by the end I was back at “why in the world don’t you leave right now?”

In the end, it was a pretty successful film. While the pacing wasn’t perfect, it did to a good job of creating an important and immediate problem that the protagonists needed to solve, and generally focused the plot on that one problem, until it nuked it in the last couple of scenes.

Just as a little aside, is it just me or is this movie subtextually about the corrosive effects of television in 80s America? The Coaches have an unheard of three televisions, Coach routinely falls asleep in front of the television, and their daughter is eventually trapped inside a television. There’s probably a fifty-page literary criticism paper in there somewhere, but I’ll just say that I can completely understand the trepidation surrounding a box that had the power in 1982 to beam the evil of CHiPs and Three’s Company into your unsuspecting family’s brain. Maybe they all got sucked in.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: That’s not How Courts Work

I’m going to preface a fairly critical take on The Exorcism of Emily Rose by giving the film some credit. Demonic possession stories don’t really lend themselves well to alternative takes. They almost always tend to boil down to a case of demon goes in, scares people, an exorcism happens and either works or doesn’t. It takes guts to layer that kind of story with a courtroom meta-narrative about the aftermath of the ritual, and I appreciate that.

That’s why I didn’t hate the movie even though it made little to no sense as a coherent narrative.

The underlying problem with doing a fresh take on a possession story is that the genre bases much of its legitimacy (and scare power) on the idea that demonic possession is real but has escaped the gaze of empirical evidence somehow. It’s a window into the frightening past, where disease and bad fortune were larger than life and often had no available explanation. It’s a scary thought to think that something could be out there lurking in the shadows, ready to wear your skin like a tracksuit to go out demon boogying.

The problem is how does one retell that story without following the same old script? There’s this genre tension where audiences want something different, but not too different. It’s hard to continue to scare and provide a fresh take without creating something that has diverged too much to appease the horror fans that should be the primary audience of a film like this.

This is why the premise of The Exorcism of Emily Rose kind of works. The demonic possession is absolutely played straight. You know the story already: a demon takes over a young girl to practice his Latin with a priest. And yet, adding a meta-narrative based on the aftermath of Emily’s exorcism (and eventual death) gives the genre a breath of fresh air. There are opportunities to explore all sorts of questions that a straight up possession movie might not have.

The problem is that the result is a melding of genres that doesn’t really enhance either. In fact, it leaves it a bit of a middling mess.

As a writer, I think about it in terms of the genre promises the film makes, and what questions it asks. The Exorcism of Emily Rose pretends like it asks “are demons real?” but it doesn’t. That question is answered for you almost right away. It pretends to ask “should religious leaders be held accountable in secular courts when ritual goes wrong,” but it doesn’t. It clearly shows that the worst thing the priest did was to recommend a girl stop taking a drug that wasn’t working anyway.

As best as I can tell, the question it actually asks is “will the priest be sent to jail?” and that makes it a courtroom drama with a bunch of fluff about demons and exorcism. What makes it worse is that the film seems to actively undercut the legal drama by failing to make a case that anyone would have ever even brought the priest up on charges in the first place. He’s charged with manslaughter for… I really can’t say. Because he performs an exorcism? Because she won’t eat?

The only thing I can come up with that even remotely could have contributed to her death is that he suggested she stop taking a medication that wasn’t working anyway. Is that a thing? If you have a loved one taking a brain-scrambling drug that isn’t helping the problem at all and you suggest that the side effects are worse than the benefits, does that make you guilty of manslaughter? Nope. Unless you are a doctor, it does not.

There’s a bit of hocus pocus at play here as the movie tries to suggest that the existence of demons matters in the least. It doesn’t, or rather it shouldn’t except this priest has run across the most incompetent judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer in the world.

Oh and the jury. Fuck the jury.

Here’s the thing. I’m not legal scholar or anything, but I know this: if you convict someone of having willfully committed a crime that leads to the death of a person (you know MANSLAUGHTER) then you don’t tack on “oh, but that’s not all that bad so let’s not give him a prison sentence.” Maybe there are times where that would be the case, but here the charges are ambiguous at best and complete bullshit at worse.

The whole charade undercuts any power that the movie might have had as a legal thriller because now the trial doubly doesn’t matter.

Aside from a willingness to do something different, the flashback scenes of Emily’s possessed state are legitimately scary. I’m a bit too dead inside to be a particularly accurate measure for stuff like this, but when Emily saw people’s faces going all demon ugly, I probably registered about 2.5 kilocravens of fear. That’s good! Way to go movie!

If you’re interested in how genre, especially horror, especially especially possession horror, I’d give this movie a go. Even though it doesn’t entirely work, I think it’s fresh enough, and has enough glimpses on how the mechanisms of the genre work, that it can be insightful and maybe even a bit entertaining.

The Exorcist: It’s My Body and I’ll Blaspheme if I Want To

I’m just going to come right out with it: bodily possession is just way scarier than a haunted house. There’s a bunch of reasons for that, but the simplest is that houses have doors. Unless that house really, really hates you, there is always the option of using said door to leave. I guess there are some loopholes (such as the stupid Amityville ghosts stupidly tampering with the stupid Luntzes stupid distributor cap for some stupid reason), but for the most part, if you want the nightmare to be over, you can just go ahead and do that.

And you should do that. I implore you, if your walls start exuding green slime, just go before it escalates to ghost farts or pig infestation.

The power of genre savvy compels you.

The power of genre savvy compels you!

THE POWER OF GENRE SAVVY COMPELS YOU!

The Exorcist, and Demonic possession stories in general, works on two different levels for me. First, I’m not big on the idea that some kind of malevolent spirit might inhabit my body and force me to masturbate with a crucifix (which I think only happens in the movie, but bear with me here) or solicit priests for sex. That’s scary! If I’m going to do something like that, I don’t need a demon’s help. Sorry Pazuzu, I’m an old fashioned one soul, one body kind of guy. No vacancies, homie!

The second reason it works is that you then can consider the horror of watching a demon possessing someone you love, and you are powerless to stop it. If you’ve got kids, it’s always scary to think that anything might harm them, never mind to physically take over their body and make them into someone else. In a sense, it’s not really any different than any other kind of mundane illness in a loved one. It frankly doesn’t even matter whether the cause is physiological or spiritual, it’s just not cool when your kids start climbing up the wall and back-talking you in Sumerian.

The film treatment of this novel is so iconic that it probably doesn’t need explanation. The book has a bit more room to go into some of the details of the exorcism rites and Merrin’s experience with demons, but it’s more or less the same basic story. I appreciated the chance to see a bit more detail, and if anything I’d love to get more of some of the demonology. Sign me up for Pazuzu: Origins. I’d totally watch that.

Paranormal Activity: Bad Relationships and Stalker Demons

According to thorough academic research (Wikipedia), Paranormal Activity is one of the most financially successful movies in the history of American film. It was made for approximately $3.27 and returned an impressive eleventy billion dollars on that investment (all figures approximate). Add in the five sequels, and it is by some measures one of the most successful movies of all time.

The problem is, it isn’t a movie. I mean it’s a movie in the sense that the video clips you record of two drunk guys fighting on the bus is a movie. The only difference is that Paranormal Activity was actually scripted and made to look like it was the real deal. It is an 86 minute creepy youtube video.

It’s tempting to blame the “found footage” gimmick for the lack of story, but that’s probably not fair. The Blair Witch Project had a story, so did Cloverfield. While I’m not the biggest fan of the “some guy walks around recording something scary” thing, it can work to some degree if you want it to.

Paranormal Activity’s plot is as follows: A guy sets up a camera to film some… paranormal activity. That’s it. That’s the plot. There are no stakes. There is nothing to suggest that they can do anything about the haunting. A psychic shows up pretty much to tell them not to bother leaving the house or doing anything at all because the ghost would just follow them and be angry.

I was wishing so hard for a proton pack to bust out so at least SOMETHING would happen.

The haunting stuff is pretty well done. Most of it is pretty convincing and subtle, if a bit inconstant (why does the demon need to turn on the light to get around in the dark? Why does he randomly come in and out of the room. Why is he living in this person’s attic with a picture of her? Isn’t there some kind of demon commune he could be living at?)

Actually the creepiest part is barely paranormal at all. At one point, Katie just randomly gets up at night and stands there over Meekuh (according to the credits, it’s Micah, but they call him Meekuh, so I’m going to call him Meekuh) and kind of sleep watches him. I wasn’t peeing my pants or anything but that and the scene where Katie is pulled out of her bed and down the hallway are reasonably frightening.

My biggest problem though was with Meekuh. Oh man, do I hate Meekuh. He is such an annoying douche it’s unreal. In a movie, he’s got one strike against him. He’s the guy who is cramming the camera into everyone’s face. You have to have a character like that in a found film movie, or it’s a forgot to film movie (in this case, that would be better). I could go on and on about what a dipshit Meekuh is. From completely ignoring his girlfriend’s wishes when she is being harassed by a stalker demon, to actually trying to covertly film himself having sex with her (!!!), he is a serious, patronizing, immature dick-wad. I hate him so much that when Katie demonically power-murders him at the end, I almost felt like it was all worthwhile.

There’s some paper-thin background about how this demon has been following Katie around since she was a kid. That got me thinking, this entity wasn’t trying to hurt her, it loved her and was trying to help her.

“Girl, you need to dump the loser and learn to love yourself!” I imagined the sassy demon trying to tell her via the Ouija board, but she does not listen. Eventually, overcome with grief at the state of Katie’s life, the demon takes direct control of her body to do what she couldn’t break (in half) up with her boyfriend. It’s really kind of an inspirational story if you look at it like that.

If you like creepy scenes of people getting haunted while they sleep, watch Paranormal Activity. Just make sure your finger is on the fast-forward and/or mute button.

Grave’s End: Thought’s on the “True Story”

I pretty much shredded The Amityville Horror in my last week because (among other things) it lacked credibility as a “true story.” It felt like a fictional novel but tried really hard to be a nonfictional account of the paranormal. To tell the truth, I’d probably liked the book more if it was presented as a normal novel, which would have reduced the number of times I screamed “bullshit!” while reading it.

Grave’s End is an interesting novel to compare to that experience because it too is a “true” account of a haunting. Unlike Amityville, Grave’s End was not written by a professional fiction writer, but as a first-person narrative by the decidedly non-professional victim of the supposed haunting. And when I say non-professional, I do mean it. The prose is… not going to win any major literary awards. Here’s an excerpt:

Three months after we started, Karin moved her stuff downstairs. She was Elated. And so was Christine!

This is pretty typical of the book. Random sentence fragments, inexplicable exclamation use, and a healthy dose of background that doesn’t pertain to the story. I don’t understand why we are exposed so repeatedly to the fact that the author wants to be a nurse. I mean, you could say it’s character development, but that doesn’t really apply when you’re constantly like “I want to be a nurse! I’m going to be a nurse! I love nursing school! My husband doesn’t want me to be a nurse!” Between that and the constant references to having marital issues with her husband (yet never actually giving any specific details about it) I was kind of on the outside looking in and wondering why I have to know so much about the author/protagonist’s love of nursing and distaste of her husband.

So it’s fair to say that there were some things that got on my nerves about the book. With that said, I found that it had way more credibility than Amityville. It actually took me a little while to realize why. I mean the hauntings described in one book is not really more or less believable in detail than the other, so why did Grave’s End seem more credible.

I think it’s because this book just didn’t feel like a professional work. Any suspicions that I had about Amityville revolved around the fact that I couldn’t not know the context. I couldn’t force myself to forget that the whole thing was allegedly a real-world hoax or that literally no one has ever had an issue with the house besides the Lutzes. In a strange sense, the fact that Grave’s End felt like your aunt wrote you a 150-page letter describing the haunting in her house (right down to the constant diversions about her husband and nursing sequiturs) gave me the feeling that this author believed these events happed, regardless of whether they did.

That’s the tough sell of a “true story.” If people get an idea that you are putting them on from the text itself or from the context, they are going to shut you down faster and harder than if you’d just let in fly as a piece of fiction. Probably the most important thing that I gathered from this book is how important it is to be careful when trying to pass a story off as having truly happened as depicted. Not that I have any intention of writing my own (or anyone else’s) “true story,” but if I do, that’s one lesson I hope to remember.

The Amityville Horror: The Horror of Human Stupidity

There’s a temptation to read novels like The Amityville Horror as a true story. I think for the most part, that’s a mistake. I spent too much of this novel thinking about whether the author or the real world Lutz family were mistaken, full of crap, or actually haunted by the stupidest ethereal beings in the world. Since I’m not reading this thing as a historical study or as part of a fraud investigation, it’s probably just best to suppress the urge to load this post up with “yeah right, asshole!” reactions.

Instead, I’ll talk about how silly it is at a fictional level.

First, I suppose it’s fair to say that I don’t hate this book. It isn’t badly written and there are a few moments of borderline scariness.

The problem is that it didn’t seem to have much of a narrative point or even an internal consistency to what was going on.

On the surface, the narrative kind of makes sense. “A family moves into a haunted house and then leaves when it gets too scary.” The problem is that the fictionalized Lutzes are simply too stupid to live, and I couldn’t get behind the thought process that kept them in the house beyond the first week.

The Lutzes evidently don’t believe in supernatural stuff when the move in, but you’d think that being levitated by a ghost within your first couple of days in the house might change your tune pretty quick. Nope. Not the Lutzes. They get a whole series of random spooky goings-on, but just keep saying “oh, that’s odd I don’t remember leaving floating pig eyes there” or “oh, that’s odd that my wife is suddenly being levitated around the house” and wishy-washing about whether or not they might consider at some later point entertaining the idea of setting a date to make a decision about moving at some point in the future.

In short, the humans are dipshits.

But whatever is haunting the house isn’t much smarter. A couple of angles are supplied for what they might want, but it isn’t really borne out in their actions. What the fuck do they want? They really don’t seem to be very sure. We get an obligatory “get out!” moment at the beginning of the book, but then a haphazard mix of pranks and scares that doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason to it. You’ve got some standard boiler-plate haunting stuff— evil presence, red eyes watching you, various forms of spectral assault. But some of the stuff they do is just comically bizarre.

Is your house haunted? Have you experienced the following?

-Toilet residue

-Windshield wiper detachment

-Flu and psoriasis

-Swine infestation

-Unexplained marching bands

-Wall goop

-Astral perfume and/or flatulence

-HVAC malfunction

-Dog tranquilizers

-Phone hacking

-Vehicular sabotage

-Depression

-IRS audits

-Grand larceny

-Serial killer doppelganger syndrome

They you too may have an Amityville Horror haunting!

What’s worse, the demons (or ghosts? The devil? It’s never really explained) seem to randomly decided when, where, and who they attack with no apparent motive. A huge portion of the book is reserved for the priest that the Lutzes had bless their home. He seems super important, but he… just kind of gets sick a lot. That’s it. He never actually comes back or anything. He just occasionally tries to call them and is punished by the demons with getting sick, or having a smelly room, or getting his car fucked up, or making him be a dick to his fellow priests.

It’s a huge amount of wasted ink for a subplot that has absolutely nothing to do with the story’s resolution.

I call bullshit. Even as a work of fiction I call bullshit. Maybe this is exactly how the book happened. Maybe there are people who are willing to stick around their house even after they’re convinced their daughter’s invisible friend is a demon that is intent on killing them. Maybe ghosts or devils really do pox people with skin disorders and cook up nor’easters to keep people inside a house they previously wanted them out of. Maybe it’s all true, but I still call bullshit because even if you have a 100% true story to work with, you still need a coherent narrative to work with, and this book seems to be just a collection of random ghost pranks thrown together with the implication that they (and the sick priest) are somehow related.

I didn’t really hate reading the book or anything. It mostly got on my nerves because it repeatedly took time out to mention that these are the indisputable facts of the case, even going to say they are corroborated, which even in the book they clearly aren’t. Do you know what I think when someone makes sure to point out that they are telling the truth? Do you know what I think when a financially desperate, abusive, unstable, probably depressed man (and this is just based on his in-book actions) moves into a murder house and then experiences a series of sensational and uncorroborated haunting events, and then goes on to get a major book deal, despite his claims that he doesn’t want people to know about what happened?

It’s demons. Clearly this is the work of demons.

It’s doubly suspicious since the story flat out says he’s been embezzling money from his company, he’s under investigation by the IRS for fraud, and then a huge stack of cash disappears in his home. Demons did that shit too. As any good paranormal investigator will tell you, demons love to cook books and swipe cash out of people’s pockets.

In balance, it’s hard to completely grasp how important this book is to our modern understanding of haunting stories. The Amityville horror did much to frame the modern haunting, and did actually have some decently scary moments in between some of the silliness (the hooded figure on the stairs was pretty creepy).

In the end though, I think it’s the real stuff that keeps us scared. We’re kept up at night not by slime or invisible pigs or plumbing damage, but by the real monster of The Amityville Horror: the horror of human stupidity.

The Others: The Fine Line Between Twist and Gimmick

The Others is a rarity in that the it’s a movie where plot hinges on a major twist, but isn’t reduced to being a vehicle for a one-not gimmick.

With that said, the twist in the movie is actually quite good, and extremely important for the ultimate resolution of the plot, so beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

The Others is a movie about dead people who try to show other dead people that they aren’t alive, and the dead people they think are the ghosts are actually alive.

You still with me?

Okay, so it’s not quite that goofy in the movie, but you can see where a plot like that could easily fall into either being a deus ex machina or just be cheap and cheating the reader (like, frankly, The Sixth Sense does to some extent- I mean come on, you spent all that time with Bruce Willis and you didn’t realize he was a ghost?). It might not be such a tall order in a novel, because you can pull off a bit more manipulation of time, space, and point of view to make the reader see what you want to, but in what is ostensibly a horror film, it takes a pretty light touch to get your viewers riled up and then flip the script like that without being a big fat liar-pants cheater.

I like that The Others doesn’t get cute about the “ghosts” in the house (who are actually just the current occupants of the house), and instead just makes them exist the fringes of the film, just close enough to be a frightening presence, but far enough to not give too much away. It’s essentially a straightforward haunting movie for the first 80%. Protagonist Grace is forced to come to protect her children by coming to terms with the strange presence in her home. First, to realize that ghosts are real, and second to accept that she (and the kids) are dead.

Aside from the details of plot, the movie simply does it well. It’s no easy thing to create a work of fiction that works as one kind of movie for the majority, and then switches over so far at the end. It’s hard enough to harness the kind of tension and energy of the “oh crap, I think there are ghosts in here” and transfer it to the “oops I accidently killed my kids and am now dead” phase. Where you think you are getting the story of a loving, if slightly neurotic, mother trying to protect her children, what you get is the question of whether or not she can or should find redemption after killing them years before the film even started.

And that is a pretty damn cool and interesting point. If a major point of art is to make you take an assumption of life and look at it from another perspective (another spoiler: it is), then this movie opens the question of whether a parent that kills their children can ever truly make it up to them. In real life, that parent is pretty squarely in the “irrevocably giant piece of shit” category, the movie asks if Grace’s love and commitment to her kids in the afterlife is able to restore her.

I really enjoyed this angle of the movie, and turned what was a pretty compelling, well-shot haunting movie into a question that will still with me for quite some time. I’d actually love to read (or write) a story that examined exactly that question. I want to know how her kids feel about her, whether they can forgive her for what she did. I want to know what kind of (non-)life they have for all that time. I think there are so many interesting angles like that to explore, and it can only happen because the movie took the time to establish the relationship without spilling the beans.

The Shining: All Work and No play (That’s Not a Setup for a Joke, Just a Description of My Life)

I think in some ways The Shining is one of those deceptively difficult books to talk about. Any time you have a novel that’s been famously adapted to the screen, there’s always the temptation to write about it as a straight comparison of the version, but that doesn’t really add much to the conversation. The iconic status of the 1980 Stanly Kubrick adaptation also means that there probably isn’t much to be gained in talking about the plot itself because chances are, you know the plot even if you haven’t read the book.

One of Stephen King’s gripes about the film adaptation is that it lost some of the personal struggle of protagonist Jack Torrance. Even though I think that criticism is maybe a little bit unfair (mostly because I’m of the opinion that you can only “adapt” a book to the screen in a general sense. For the most part, you’re just using it as a guidepost for a completely different piece of art), though I do see where the two diverge in regards to Jack’s personal struggle.

Part of the divergence comes down to medium. You just can’t structure a film the same way you can a novel, nor do you have the kind of time to include the volume of details in two hours of film that you can 450 pages. So, aside from Kubrick’s artistic choices there is ample room for an entirely different experience in the novel, which I think is a good thing.

Perhaps it’s my position in life that makes the deeper dive into Jack’s mental state so compelling for me. While I’m not an alcoholic and I’ve never broken one of my kid’s arms (nor do I hang out at ghost parties, walk in on bathing corpse-women in the bath or try to break down doors with a croquet mallet), I can absolutely identify with the personal and moral pressure Jack is forced to deal with. Obviously I hope to… let’s say “do a better job dealing with stress” than Jack, I can identify with the isolation of trying to maintain creative inertia while dealing with family pressure and my own asshole-ish tendencies (but again: I’m not beating the kids or seeing ghosts. I cannot stress this enough).bat.png

 

As a bit of an aside, and I think I’ve hinted on this a bit in some of my previous posts, I struggle to find much of what I read in the horror genre to be scary at all. Much of it can make me tense and if it’s written well it can certainly have me on the edge of my seat, but I’m really not generally frightened by what I read (though movies can manage it just a bit more because of the visceral element of the medium). I mention this because The Shining kind of starts out with an advantage in terms of scaring me, because the underlying point of the book scares me; that I might be the greatest threat to the things and people that I value most. Now, that, is some scary shit.

Drink-serving ghosts and blood elevators don’t really get me, but something real, something that reminds me of the constant state of existential terror living should probably instill in us, that gets to me really fast. That’s why one of the scariest, most thought-provoking horror stories I’ve ever read is “The Box” by Jack Ketchum. I won’t spoil it (and I recommend it to any parent who wants the real-life-actual-shit scared out of them), but suffice it to say that there are no ghosts, zombies, or serial killers at play, just plain old powerlessness and ennui.

What does any of that have to do with the horror genre at large? Eh, nothing really. I doubt that most horror readers are all that into ennui for ennui-sake (have you ever used ennui three times in a blog? Because I have). It’s really more of a personal reflection of what I enjoy about the book.

The Shining has an element of that for me, plus it does have some traditional scary stuff including the justly-famous scene of the naked dead woman coming after poor little Danny. I’d actually read that particular scene before as an example of scary done right, so it wasn’t entirely new, though the context helped amplify the fear. It was so scary, my pulse may have risen by several beat per minute. Go Stephen King! That’s actually very good!

Okay, I’m out. I suddenly have the urge to watch the Simpsons version.

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“That’s strange, the blood usually gets off on the second floor.”