The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

Crimson Peak

crimsonpeak

This ghost story commits an unforgivable, positively ghastly sin: The ghosts don’t even matter! It’s a ghost story with pointless ghosts! Mere backdrop. Fluff.

It’s also a majorly flawed, tonally confused movie.

The story opens in late 19th century Buffalo, New York and our protagonist is Edith, an aspiring author whose publishing start is facing challenges due to extreme gender prejudice. “Write a love story”, they say. The writing plot[1] is dropped as soon as the story leaves Buffalo, but anyway, Edith has the ability to see ghosts. Her dead mother came to her as a child and warned her to “Beware Crimson Peak”, which turns out to be a completely useless warning because Edith doesn’t even learn the name Crimson Peak until she’s already there. She had no chance to avoid it. Thanks, Mom.

Edith’s dad is a big business man in. . . something. The type of business that allows one to don a pressed suit, grow a bushy beard, and pontificate on one’s own self importance. Dad’s money attracts an English aristocrat slash entrepreneur pitching a mechanical contraption designed to draw clay from the ground. Edith’s dad is not a fan of this guy, Thomas, for reasons of character. Dad insults Thomas and his soft hands, praises his own American rough hands, and tells him to get lost. But Edith inexplicably falls in love with him. Why she does this is anyone’s guess; Thomas displays a distinct lack of charisma and neither actor has much chemistry. He compliments her manuscript I guess. This is all it takes to get them wed right quick and Edith is swept off away from everyone she knows to an isolated, decaying English manor with her new husband and his creepy sister.

And through it all, this movie cannot decide if it’s a period horror piece or a fairy tale with ghosts. So characters make nonsensical decisions or live in a house that has an open roof, letting snow and rain and whatever else in. A house filled with bugs. The type of thing that’s totally acceptable in a fairy tale. But the dialogue and characters are typically playing everything straight. They seem to think they’re involved in a gothic drama, bound to the laws of reality, with piano solos and deep-eyed brooding.  It doesn’t help that few of the performances are any good[2], which is at least fifty percent a directorial problem in this movie, since the vision and tone are so muddled.

Crimson Peak has more continuity errors than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. A character turns off a faucet and in the next cut, it’s back on. Time gaps abound. There’s other miscues that aren’t so much ‘continuity error’, as pure nonsense. Edith learns she’s being fed poison tea so she declines an offer of tea and then half a second later willingly eats porridge spoon-fed to her from the same person who prepared the tea.

And let me repeat: The ghosts don’t even matter! The actual plot could exist entirely without ghosts. They just kind of hang out in the background. They’re not particularly scary or well designed ghosts either (which is baffling considering this is the same director as Pan’s Labyrinth). The visual design and effects do not mesh well. The ghouls have an ethereal, semi-opaque quality that is thematically consistent, but comes off as cheap.

As for the plot, I could have settled for a cliche “the villains were ghosts all along!” over what we actually get: ghost bystanders to an entirely human story that happens to make no logical sense. The villains were seducing rich heiresses and murdering them after they stole their money, so they could finally finish building the clay extraction machine, to make money to repair their ancient house. Why didn’t they just use their victim’s wealth to restore the house? Who knows! It’s nonsense just like the rest of this movie.

All the movie really has going for it is the creepy-pretty design of the house that half the movie takes place in. It is beautiful and would be fun to explore. But it’s not that interesting, certainly not enough to carry the plot, dialogue, or performances.

 

[1] Did I mention this plotline also insults literary history? There’s a point where someone mocks Edith for being a single lady writer, and tells her Jane Austen died a spinster. Edith (cleverly) retorts that she’d rather be like Mary Shelley and die a widow. I wanted to flip a table over and shout that’s because Percy died when he was so young! And Mary herself didn’t exactly reach old age either. What the hell.

[2] While the tone and acting is confused, there is one actor who is somehow perfect: Charlie Hunnam, Jacks from Sons of Anarchy, plays Edith’s childhood friend. He is so earnestly campy, we couldn’t stop laughing whenever he was on screen. Despite being a doctor in 1900s New York, he still uses his modern day NorCal biker accent! It’s hilarious. While other stalwart men riding to Edith’s rescue, walking four hours through a blizzard, would be eye-roll worthy, watching Jacks do it is hilarious.

“Sir, we’re closed, you can’t rent a horse.”
[deadpan] “Then I’ll walk.”
“But it’s four hours in the snow, at night!”
[stoned-faced, biker accent] “Then I better get goin…”

At one point he gets stabbed in the arm, and the manner in which he pirouettes around, upper body frozen, face tense and quivering, is like perfect satirical theater. I don’t think it’s supposed to be this funny. It’s probably not funny at all if you’ve never seen an episode Sons of Anarchy.

The Spooking Orb #3: The Guest

guest3

The Peterson family — father, mother, early 20s daughter, highschool age son — are in mourning. Recently, Caleb, their oldest son and army soldier was killed in the Middle East.

Enter David. The Guest. David shows up at the Peterson’s rural abode, claiming to be a squadmate and great friend of Caleb. We, the audience, know something is off with David, not simply because the movie is titled ‘The Guest’, and Mrs. Peterson senses this at first at well. But David backs up his story by pointing himself out in a picture of Caleb the Petersons had amongst their mourning shrine before he even got there. He ingratiates himself further by being the missing good son/brother — he helps the highschooler stand up to bullies, assists the daughter with boyfriend problems, is a sounding board for the dad’s work woes, a warm son-like presence for mom.

This is a movie of tension, building. Watch David chop food in the kitchen with a large knife and wave it around while he’s talking in his earnest, affable manner. There’s a constant juxtaposition between blue eyed, ultra friendly David, that guy from Downton Abbey, and the violence we’re sure he’s capable of even before we see it. Indeed, the tension is dramatically more engaging and frightening than the violence itself when it does arrive.

While ostensibly a horror movie, The Guest isn’t all that scary or share many commonalities with modern horror. It’s more of a homage to 80s thriller/horror. It’s kind of goofy, kind of campy, there’s purposeful overacting and secret military plots. The type of movie that somehow sets its final set piece amidst a Halloween maze. Dan Stevens keeps David just believable enough to not devolve fully into silliness. 

The mystery of David is never fully explained. The film uses some sci fi handwaving to explain portions of it. But that feels more like a crutch to explain otherwise inexplicable violence than an organic part of the film. I read later that the director had more ‘explainer’ scenes in the initial cuts but removed them because audience’s found them boring. But the end result feels too middle-ground for me — I would prefer a full explanation or none at all. If you read into the details the film drops, there’s definitely a fun sci-fi twists lurking below the surface, but without a reveal, it loses much of its appeal. I realize how fickle I am when I just celebrated a movie for giving no full explanation two days ago and then get annoyed this one didn’t have one. But they’re completely different styles of narrative!

My final thoughts coming away from the movie was that it was a great ride that I really enjoyed while it was happening, but kind of unsatisfying in the end. You could almost chart my tension/engagement as a jagged, rising line that flatlines once the movie ends. Something about this style of horror, even when very well realized like this movie is, just does not stick with me like other, scarier subgenres.

The Spooking Orb #2: Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water

fatal frameblack

Fatal Frame 2 on the Playstation 2 was the scariest game I ever played. I straight up did not finish it. Couldn’t handle it. Only game that I can claim that. I could only play in very short bursts before the atmosphere got to me and I shut it off.

Why was it so frightening? For several reasons. Even though most horror games I had played were Japanese in origin, they were based on American mythos (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) with zombies and mad scientists with a vision and bioweapons gone wrong and Freudian rape monsters. Instead, Fatal Frame was full J-Horror — drowned women, hanged women, broken necked women, women weeping tears of blood, all pale with creepy, flowing black hair. (Why is J-Horror so feminine? I’m sure someone’s written about that.) That shit is scary. They bust out of a wall screaming, or creep around the corner awkwardly bent over backwards and grinning at you upside down.

And unlike the other horror games, you had these ethereal, shrieking creatures pursuing you but you weren’t some burly dude with a gun, but instead a little girl with a camera, which you could use to trap the ghosts in, ghostbuster style. You actually start as twins with a camera — the protagonist and her identical sister who has a lame leg, which she drags along after you as you navigate the game’s setting. An effect used for scares of course (…wait a second, I can’t hear the other girl dragging her leg anymore, how long has it been???). I’m telling you the avatar you control in games is a big deal.

After I shamefully put down Fatal Frame 2 (I think I sold it, actually; total banishment!), I did not pick up further entries in the series. Then the other day my Wii U controller started blinking to alert me a new Fatal Frame game had come out. Not only that — I could download the first few levels for free! Just in time for Halloween.

Long story short: It’s extremely boring and mediocre, a clunky, difficult to control mess. 

Like another favorite Japanese genre, RPGS, Japanese horror seems to have stagnated. This game feels like, mechanically, it could have been a PS2 game. We don’t put up with terrible controls anymore! The story, the dialogue and voice acting does not feel modern. There’s some sort of hair monster that looks more like a Final Fantasy boss than something that’s supposed to cause a fright. Enemies take forever to kill — the scariest ghost becomes kind of joke when you have to take dozens of pictures of him to kill, while fighting off the horrendous controls (what kind of game in 2015 doesn’t let you move the game camera while walking??).

I think if I somehow recovered a copy of FF2, it would have many of the same shortcomings. Well, actually the environment didn’t stuff me into narrow hallways where I couldn’t see anything like the Black Water demo and I don’t recall the enemies being quite so annoying to fight. But otherwise, probably the controls and camera and whatever weren’t great. But that was like ten years ago! I need a game to be enjoyable to actually play before I can get scared nowadays.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Mieville

threemomenetsexplosionWant to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.

China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!

Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.

China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.

Yum.

 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.

 

Occultation and other stories by Laird Barron

occultSome horror stories are character driven — the interpersonal drama is as important and interesting as the creepshow. Others rely heavily on mechanics of the horrorstuff — the characters are just vehicles to drive us from one slavering monster to the next abandoned mountain cabin. The stories of Occultation try to do both, but they are at their best when they are embracing the latter.

While there are occasional echoes of Stephen King (the title story), Barron is primarily a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird, unknowable horror. Unfathomable, ancient entities breaking our protagonists minds. Terrible, ominous wilderness. It works, sometimes; there is occasional piercing, stomach dropping visuals, like a woman opening her closet and seeing saggy skin corpses hanging amongst her clothes. Or the creepy whispering one protagonist hears, late at night, floating up from the vents in his apartment:

Intestines. Kidneys.
Ohh, either is delectable.
And sweetbreads. As long as they’re from a young one.
Ganglia for me. Or brain. Scoop it our quivering.
Enough! Let’s start tonight. We’ll take one from—

Other times it’s a little too campy. Anyone not named Lovecraft using the word ‘cyclopean’ in a horror short comes off as a bit of a poser. And sometimes the darkness comes off as a murky adjective soup that is barely comprehensible, let alone scary:

(group of hikers finds a mysterious cave with a pool of water in the center, described in the quote below)

The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising.The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened–chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static.


This is only an excerpt; it goes on. Slothful splay indeed.

These stories occasionally have way too much backstory or don’t know when to end. A great example is my favorite story of the collection, Strappado, about a group of people going to investigate some edgy, modern performance art. It unfolds rapidly, chills, and leaves a disturbing impression in its wake. The people involved absolutely don’t matter. So the 3-4 page leadup introducing the main character and his relationship with his on and off boyfriend is a totally cutt-able bore. It probably could have ended a page or two earlier too — an image of a man trying to slice his wrists with a cut-up credit card, failing, and calling the cleaners was all it needed.

These stories were written individually and arranged in a collection later — this causes an issue that would never have occurred if I was reading them as one-offs. Namely, they start to feel a bit samey. The characters fall into a few (wealthy) types. Everyone smokes*. The wilderness of Washington state is thoroughly plumbed. I found myself saying, satanists, occultists, again? And after the Nth time it happened, I wanted to alert Laird Barron that not all stories need to end with the protag succumbing to madness or ripping off the zipper on his human suit. Sometimes watching our mangled hero scrabble to escape is the far scarier experience, whether he/she makes it or not.

The sum is lesser than its parts, though. I feel this review is too negative for the generally positive outlook I have of this book. 7 of 9 of these stories are solid, good reads.


*This book feels really old. I have a beat up used copy with a cheesy 90s cover. Everyone smokes cigarettes or has dusty old cars. Satanism is an earnest, not laughable, fear. So I always felt sort of confused when the book mentioned recent events like the recession or prop 8. The book was published in 2010 and this edition in 2014!

Upstream Color (2013)

upstream colorThere’s a whole slew of movies that utilize a sci-fi premise to explore loss, relationships, anger, pain & abuse, whatever. The level of investment in the sci-fi can vary — some clasp it fully and others just use it as a set up to launch complicated emotional arcs. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her, Alien, etc.

Upstream Color is one of those movies. It is also the type that goes above and beyond and truly embraces the horrifying premise that haunts the lead characters and instills in them the pain and loss they stumble through. The shuddering body horror and confusion it evokes is singular and in some perverse bit of viewer solidarity, none of the synopses and reviews of the movie even describe it. You have to experience it visually and aurally, without prior expectations.

Upstream Color is steeped in abstraction, from its narrative to its dialogue to the quick back-and-forth cuts that comprise its scenes. Locations change, faces change in quick, often incomprehensible cuts. The dialogue is purposely low-key, unclear, and cast at a low volume compared to the music. As such, you can never decipher the full breadth of what the characters are saying and instead you have to catch just enough to gather what the sequence is communicating. I loved it, but I could see many other people loathing this ear-straining style.

(those people are lame)

The color, music, and natural scenery is beautiful. New England streams and forests, with incongruous orchids sprouting between the roots of trees. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is central to the film’s mythos and some childhood setting in Vermont is sought after, in memory, like the promised land. Music is almost always playing and sets the mood of the scene, and does as much speaking as the characters do. It often bubbles, tinkles, or roars like water. There’s actual biology specialists in the credits that designed the film’s numerous abstract closeups of birth and decomposition. This all ties together into a cohesive, if not coherent, whole.

Amy Seimetz plays the main character, Kris, and does a superb job of looking haunted and lost while anchoring the viewer to her presence. Otherwise, Upstream Color is the total vision of one man. Shane Carruth has directed, written, produced it. Did I mention he’s the male lead? Indeed, he’s the editor, the composer, the designer, and he chose the cast. It’s the sort of movie that could maybe only exist as a contained obsession.

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

the kingThe best parts of this book are about the king– the King in Yellow!

The worst parts of this book are everything else. Which is, unfortunately, most of it.

The lead story is a solid piece of weird horror-sci fi*. In the near future of 1920 — the book was written in 1895 — New York City celebrates the inception of its first Lethal Chamber, a little piece of political futura legalizing and enabling suicide, in part because it is ‘believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst’. It is implied that suicides have greatly increased in the intervening years due to the promulgation of a mysterious book, the eponymous play — The King in Yellow. Banned in theocratic and secular states alike, reading the play generally leads to misery, self harm, insanity, and worse.

In fact, our protagonist, Hildred, has just been released from incarceration from an asylum following his reading of the The King in Yellow. His release is questionable as he is clearly quite mad and the story relates his ascension to the crown of King. The result is frightfully bizarre, though quaint in its antiquity. A collection full of stories such as these would have been welcome. The following three tales relate to the King at least in part and vary in quality. They offer epigraphs from the real-fictional play itself.

CAMILLA: You sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No Mask!
THE KING IN YELLOW: Act 1-Scene 2.d

See? Delightful and creepy in an old fashioned, gothic aspect.

But following the King stories are some middling supernatural tales followed by a nosedive into poor-grade literary fiction. I’m thrilled by the idea of a writer oscillating between pulpy genre fic and realist pieces, but this is dreck. The lengthy, penultimate story’s plot revolves around a troupe of free spirited Parisian artists being joined by a pure and innocent religious boy. A loose woman then finds she can go from impure to pure via our little man of God (and love — real chaste love, not that smoky pre-marital sex kind!!). You’d maybe think this could be fascinating as an artifact of the fiction of yesteryear. Moldy and archaic like an archeology dig.

It’s an interminable slog. I was two pages into the final story, which revealed itself to be much of the same, even so far as sharing some of the same cast, when I closed the book for good.

*I picked this book up because I knew that, in part, it inspired the plot of the HBO series True Detective. I wanted to read it before I watched the show. I would guess that it is merely the overarching idea of the The King (a book that drives people crazy) and bits of pieces of the first story that influence the show. While still very cool that an obscure, old cult favorite resurfaced over a hundred years post publication in a major television series, it’s still a bit disappointing. Maybe I’ll change my tune after I watch the show.