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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

The sky is harmlessly transformed into the underside of a table, and the clouds lengthen and thin into the wicked webs of spiders.

I am fairly certain that it was with this line that I fell completely in love with Pontypool Changes Everything.

To describe the plot feels like a Burroughsian exercise in futility, but sure I’ll give it a lash regardless. A peculiar disease begins to sweep across a regional township. The infected begin to suffer from an unusual form of glossolalia, unbeknownst to themselves as they babble to friends and colleagues. Shortly thereafter the infection progresses to the next stage and the afflicted become violently aggressive, fall into a fit and crack their own necks only to resurrect as ululating ghouls. The disease then explodes into multiple vectors, with those garbled phrases hooted and wailed by the creatures spreading it even further.

See what Tony Burgess has done? He’s gone and made memetic zombies.

The story warps and shifts its way through the perspectives of some few survivors and members of the infected enduring the horrifying process. Initially we are introduced to Les Reardon, a mentally ill drug addict, which neatly throws doubt on the depiction of events he passes on to the reader. For all we know these are the delusions of a madman. Even when Reardon slips out of the story, that suspicion remains. In part this is due to Burgess’ writing style, as exemplified above. Maddeningly elusive, hinting at possible meanings, elliptical in its descriptions of this pandemic – the book itself is clearly a vector of the very same disease. As the story opens it feels like a hybridisation of Joe Lansdale and José Saramago, but it quickly evolves into a far more cunning breed of book.

The film Pontypool was released a few years ago directed by Bruce McDonald. In the novel’s afterward Burgess, here seen interviewed on the film, goes on to explain the differences between the filmed work and his own novel. It seems entirely fitting that the story has mutated into a new form for its adaptation, dropping the storyline of a deranged father dubiously safe-guarding his infant from a pandemic in favour of Stephen McHattie playing a shock-jock DJ besieged by the infected. I have been a fan of the actor for many years – his performance in the execrable Watchmen is one of the few brief shining moments therein – and Burgess describes beautifully the moment when he visited the set and watched his words being spoken by the actors assembled.

Still the book is the original work and worthy of exploration by fans of the film, as well as curious bystanders. Among the many cruel jokes trotted out during its narrative, there is even the suggestion that Marcel Duchamp’s surrealistic urinal is somehow responsible for the chaos. The punchline that follows says it all “So, like, I guess this is one disease that you can catch off a toilet seat.”

This is mindbending, witty, bizarre stuff. Don’t bother reading it with the light on. It will warp your brain regardless.

Pontypool changes everything

“The Kellis-Amberlee virus was an accident,” said Dr. Abbey, still looking at the pane of safety glass. Her hand moved slowly over her dog’s head, stroking his ears. “It was never supposed to happen. The Kellis flu and Marburg Amberlee were both good ideas. They just didn’t get the laboratory testing they needed. If there’d been more time to understand them before they go out, before they combined the way that they did…but there wasn’t time, and the genie got out of the bottle before most people even realized the bottle was there. It could have been worse. That’s what nobody wants to admit. So the dead get up and walk around – so what? We don’t get sick like our ancestors did. We don’t die of cancer, even though we keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere as fast as we can come up with them. We live charmed lives, except for the damn zombies, and even those who don’t have to be the kind of problem we make them out to be. They could just be an inconvenience. Instead, we let them define everything.”

“They’re zombies,” said Becks. “It’s sort of hard to ignore them.”

What the hell Emmet?! Zombies? Again!? Well..Set the way-back machine for June 21 2010. That was when I began the – now happily concluded (which you’ll have noted due to the lack of blog updates lately) – experiment to read and review a book each day. The first title was Feed by Mira Grant, the pen-name of Seanan McGuire who gave my humble notice a mention.  I even got to write up a piece for Filmink Magazine based on Feed for their They Should Make A Movie of That feature.

I am very fond of the book. Thankfully the sequel is pretty tops too.

Shaun Mason survived the events of the previous book physically, but mentally he is the walking wounded. The death of his sister George has left him so severely disturbed he finds himself conversing with her ‘ghost’. She was always the better half of the two siblings, the voice of reason, the sensible one. Shaun has gone from the fun-loving thrill-seeking to a man with a death-wish. His blogger colleagues have begun to give him a wide berth, his mutterings and explosions of temper making him a liability in their attempts to give unbiased lived coverage of zombie-afflicted regions in America.

But then a woman believed to have died in an accident shows up on his doorstep, describing a conspiracy involving the Centre for Disease Control – one that may be responsible for the death of George. Suddenly Shaun is a man on a mission again.

Grant ratchets up the tension with the sequel and gives even more insight into the ‘managed’ zombie apocalypse of the Feed universe. The world-building continues, with this series a fascinating commentary on how social media relates to the mainstream and the compromised relationship between politics and big business. It’s a fantastic irony that the rise of the undead has catapulted the health industry into the biggest business within the world. It’s very amusing to see the CDC become targeted in so many zombie dystopias. The Walking Dead also featured the Centre in their first season finale and they themselves have taken advantage of this sudden popularity and produced a zombie comic of their own!

There’s also some wicked humour on display here. Such as George and Shaun’s childhood viewing of Bambi when they cheered at the death of the titular deer’s mother, because she did not revive. Furthermore the ‘banter’ between the siblings produces a witty running commentary on the book’s action.

This is an excellent horror series, with real brains and heart.

Deadline by Mira Grant

He saw Maja’s little hands reaching for the baby’s bottle with her juice in it, her thin fingers curling around the edges of a Bamse comic as she lay back in her bed, reading. Her feet sticking out from under the covers. Six years old.

Anders stared out into the vast darkness with its single, flashing point of light. The wine had gone to his head and the light was swaying, sliding across the sea, and he could see Maja in her red snow-suit. She was glowing in the darkness, and she was walking across the water. The little body, the soft skin, the muscles tucked into her warm suit. A patch of red that was moving closer, but which dissolved when he tried to focus his gaze on it.

One of my, many, objections to the recent US film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In was that the prosaic title change – Let Me In – was stripped of the author’s intent. For not only was the book’s title a description of the relationship between the main character and a vampire, but a reference to a song by The Smiths. Given the story’s setting in the 1980’s this was obviously a personal call-back for the author.

So when I found that a section of Harbour includes a flashback featuring characters becoming obsessive about The Smiths, well, let’s just say I was not surprised.

The story begins with a simple tragedy. Anders and his wife take their child Maja on a trip across the ice to the old Domarö light house. While the parents investigate the abandoned building, pointing out the graffiti left by teens who grew up on the island much like themselves, Maja walks outside to explore and then vanishes. The townsfolk help search the surrounding area, but no trace of the young girl can be found. Broken-hearted Anders turns his back on his marriage and embraces the bottle. Years pass before he can bring himself to return to Domarö.

Simon has lived on the island for most of his adult life. His landlady Anna-Greta was his only friend on the island when he first arrived and has since become his lover. Now an old man, Simon remains an outside on Domarö despite his relationship with Anna-Greta. Over the years he has grown used to their offhand treatment of him, but with the disappearance of Maja he begins to suspect something more sinister lies behind the community’s sheltered existence. He regards Anders protectively in a grandfatherly like manner and tries to help the young man find some balance in his life. Bound together by the tragic disappearance of the young child, they face the conspiracy of Domarö and the mysterious reverence felt by the people of the town towards the sea.

Lindqvist’s writing is fascinating in his rooting of supernatural horror in the ordinary lives of his characters. Like his previous book Handling the Undead, this is a wonderfully thoughtful piece of horror fiction, that takes its time to let us get to know these people, so that when diabolical misfortune enters their lives it feels all the more devastating.

There is also a cute storytelling device where the book itself – no one narrator emerges – apologises for having to dip in and out of Domarö’s history. Similarly a wedding scene in the latter-half of the book is glossed over because readers typically do not find weddings terribly interesting to read about. There is also an apt moment when Lindqvist addresses with horror fiction head on, namely that the ‘monster’ is typically an anticlimax when it finally appears.

As such the mystery of Harbour is teased and unravelled slowly and gently, making this a very enjoyable book, in terms of technique. The melancholy of Anders and Simon’s growing paranoia are very well handled, transferring to the reader.

The real surprise of this story is how it confirms Lindqvist as the true inheritor of Lovecraft’s title as the master of existential horror, albeit refining and maturing those concepts in a far more coherent form. An excellent work, genuinely gripping.

Harbour John Lindqvist

 

The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.

I reread Brooks’ follow up to the Zombie Survival Guide just as news broke that Glasgow had been converted into downtown zombie besieged Philadelphia for the Brad Pitt film adaptation. That earlier book featured a series of tongue-in-cheek survival techniques for dealing with the imminent time of the undead rising to feed upon the flesh of the living. If you go into a bookstore you’ll like as not find the Guide in the humour section. But the interesting section in the book was its latter half when Brooks introduced a series of short ‘histories’ featuring zombies tropes being applied to a number of unfamiliar settings. My favourite was the zombies in the French Foreign Legion narrative.

For World War Z Brooks revealed that the zombie apocalypse has already happened and following years of hardship humanity is slowly rebuilding itself. This time the storytelling device is that our narrator is a bureaucrat traveling around the world assembling a report on the outbreak of the mysterious disease that caused the ghouls and how it led to the breakdown of civilized society.

The one and one interviews between the narrator and the individuals he meets allows Brooks to introduce a series of contrasting genres into the monotonous zombie horror format. There are military exercises, home invasions, scientific inquiries, political satire – World War Z becomes a wide-ranging critique of many aspects of contemporary culture.

With brain-munching on the side.

Given the variation between the interviews, the tone shifts drastically from ‘objective’ reportage, to comedy, tragedy – even psychological suspense. There has been much comment over the years in relation to the celebrity cameos hidden in the text, from an apathetic Paris Hilton, to Howard Dean and even Nelson Mandela. There is even something blackly comical about Brooks pitching that the only event that could lead the political parties of the United States to unite is the near annihilation of the human race. As such this functions in the best tradition of post-George Romero zombie horror, happy to indulge in both gore and allegory.

There is no plot as such in this book. Rather this is a fictional history of the events that follow the outbreak of World War Z. Brooks was apparently inspired by the documented history of the second world war. Despite this the book is genuinely powerful, avoiding the calculated phrasing of the official report it will come to create. Indeed the narrator frequently alludes to how the official account will exclude much of the personal detail included here. That is possibly the smartest aspect of the book, how it balances the immensity of the horror unleashed with the ‘official version of events’. Compare this to Seeing by José Saramago, the sequel to Blindness, where we discover the government has completely buried the spontaneous lose of sight of an entire city’s population. Ultimately the characters introduced by Brooks are left to deal with the sights they have witnessed and the tragedies they have experienced alone.

This is an instant horror classic, which rises above its brain-dead peers.

World War Z

Now he was in a room filled with strange furniture, a room that was dark. Snow spattered against the windows like thrown sand. His mouth was dry, his eyes like hot marbles, his heart triphammering in his chest. Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide. Footfalls. Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.

There have been a few ‘crazy Emmet’ stories relayed to me down through the years, given my characteristic enthusiasm for sundry things occasionally bubbling over into manic rants. One in particular my friends back in Dublin found particularly funny. We were working in a book depot in 2001 and this Canadian fellow had the misfortune to express the opinion within earshot of me that Stephen King’s 1997 television adaptation of The Shining was better than Kubrick‘s. My reaction to this pronouncement was somewhat Torrance-like. The original 1980 movie is one of my all-time favourites, and we’ll get back to that below, so consequently I have avoided the book for years for fear of disappointment.

So if I did not enjoy this book, did I experience a similar emotional upheaval to that time in the book depot?

The story concerns a family on the brink of flying apart. Father Jack Torrance is an abusive alcoholic on the wagon who recently lost his job and is in denial about his role in his misfortune. Wife Wendy tries to see past her husband’s many faults, attempting to force the familial unit to stay together through sheer force of will. Their son Danny is disturbed by the tension in the household – he does not know what the word ‘DIVORCE’ means but knows enough to associate it with the dark silences at the dinner table – but he is also cursed with psychic abilities that only confuse his five year old mind more. He has a spirit guide of sorts called Tony, who his parents write off as an imaginary friend (ironic given their rationale for that assessment actually dovetails quite neatly with the spirit’s actual nature) although their concern is growing that Danny’s relationship with the invisible boy is actually evidence of a mental breakdown.

With all the attendant pressures on the family, Jack decides to avail of an offer from an old friend to become caretaker for a hotel during the off-season. Located in snowbound Colorado, the Overlook Hotel has a dark past buried beneath its refined exterior. Jack begins to study the history of the establishment, while Wendy relaxes at the prospect of some small stability for the near future.

Before the staff of the hotel leave for the holidays, Danny encounters a cook named Dick Hallorann, who shares the young boy’s psychic abilities, which he calls ‘Shining’, and passes on a warning about the Overlook’s nature. There are many ghosts in the building, but he assures Danny for someone with the Shining it is just like looking at pictures – they cannot hurt him.

As the months pass and cabin fever sets in, Danny slowly realizes that whatever lives in the Overlook is far more dangerous than Dick told him. His protection from Tony is wavering, Jack is becoming dangerously obsessed with his role as caretaker and Wendy’s denial blinds her to what is happening to her husband. Danny is all alone in the Overlook.

King is a very problematic writer for me. I keep reading his books in the hope of some day understanding his appeal, but it never really clicks for me. Partly because of his choice of protagonists. They are usually tortured artists with drinking problems who are meant to be blue-collar men of the world I suppose, but seem more deluded than driven to me, selfish instead of inspired. The Shining is yet another clumsily sprawling tale that could do with being tightened considerably. It also features possibly the most irresponsible doctor in fiction. So you’ve been beating your son have you? Oh well, I’m sure that’s all over now. What!?

There there’s the run on psychic asides rendered in parentheses, which stylistically does not work at all. For me this writing is not atmospheric, haunting, or scary. It is just a long, drawn out sequence of unpleasant things happening to unpleasant people. Over and over again.

Kubrick nailed it. I should have stuck to the film.

The elders had always maintained, without even the slightest wavering on the matter, that we Survivors were the only ones of our kind. But they had taken it so much further than that, insisting that there were no other supernatural creatues in this world, nor had there ever been. Recently, in late night discussions with Lizzie and Sarah, elders with whom I felt close, they had told a few of us tales of how the outside world believed in creatures that God did not create. They had given us some aging copies of literature that a select few from my generation – Noah, Benjamin, and me – were allowed to read. We each got one book that, in turn, we’d end up sharing with each other. Until then, we had only ever read the Bible. Noah received a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Benjamin got a copy of Beowulf, and I got a tattered, gold-lined compilation of Hesiod works including Theogony and Works and Days.

Some months ago I first encounted Amanda Havard over Twitter. She is one of an exciting new generation of writers who fully embrace the potential on blogging and online tools for the purposes of book promotion. It is an exciting development in contemporary writing. I was very happy when Amanda offered me the opportunity to read her novel – an offer I would never have received without the agency of Twitter and my own blogging project.

The story opens with a group of children exiled in the wilderness during the time of the Salem witch trials. Miraculously the majority of the minors survive the outdoor extremes – and take ‘The Survivors’ as their name and the definition of who and what they are.

Then the narrative jumps forward in time several centuries to the present day. We meet Sadie, a Survivor who is travelling to her friend’s wedding. It is quickly revealed that she is an unusual member of the community that has survived in isolation since their exile from the human world. For one – she has left. The Survivors have based themselves rigidly on religious precepts taken from the Bible, searching for a divine explanation for their own supernatural abilities. In addition to long life, each of the colony has certain powers. Sadie is considered undeveloped because her own skills have not evidenced themselves as readily. This outsider status informed her inquisitiveness and her consequent leaving of the colony and everything she has ever known to explain the outside world.

But are the Survivors really alone in this world, or is there more to their mysterious status as as society of immortals?

What I enjoyed the most about this book was how Havard demonstrates how Sadie has acclimatised herself to modern life after centuries of isolated existence. It is quite telling that a story that begins with the Salem witch trials is preceded by a musical quote from Coldplay. Sadie even has a Twitter account (I was tempted to investigate whether it existed or not). The character’s online activities reflect the author’s own online engagement strategy – somewhat meta that. While Sadie has lived a sheltered – obsessively so – life behind the walls of the Survivors’ colony, Havard establishes that she has managed remarkably to cope with the vagaries of the outside world. She is a true Survivor.

The influence of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer is evident here. Personally though I much prefer this work, because its breadth of reference is broader. Yes there is the requisite love triangle of Paranormal Romance, but it is informed by a central character who is legitimately conflicted. She has left behind everything she knows because of simple curiousity and as a narrative motivator, I find that quite a bold choice as opposed to random chance, or the disaffection of Bella Swan.

Also, that title font with the stand-out scarlet ‘S’ is just a delightful stylistic choice.

This is an entertaining and intriguing start to a new Paranormal Romance franchise. I look forward to the next entry in the series.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

 

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