Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “horror”

The Wrath of Angels (book review)

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker, #11)The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. I read a previous book, Dark Hollow by the same author, featuring the same protagonist, private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but that was 19 years ago, and 9 books in the series ago. There seems to be a lot to catch up, and a lot that is unexplained, though I’m not sure I want to read all the intervening nine novels in order to catch up.

In this one it seems that everyone is wanting to get hold of a list of names from a crashed plane, but who compiled the list, and what the significance of the names is, is not disclosed. There are also other lists of names circulating and it seems that people are prepared to kill to get hold of these lists or to stop others from getting hold of them. It seems that there are several rival parties in competition for the lists, some of them demonised and others who are not, but who suspect each other of being demonised. So the good guys go around with armed bodyguards, which seems a bit too physical for facing spiritual threats.

For a while I thought it might develop into the “supernatural thriller” genre represented by the works of Charles Williams, but it tended to be a bit too physical for that. There were some nice touches of a mysterious historical legend, but nothing much seemed to come of it. Perhaps it will be developed in the next in the series, perhaps not. But too much in this one seemed to depend on knowledge of the backstory.

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Pet Sematary

Pet SemataryPet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The other night they showed the film of Pet Sematary on TV, and I thought it was quite good, and stuck quite closely to the book. Well it would, since Stephen King wrote the screenplay. So after seeing the film, I thought it was time to reread the book, which I had last read about 25 years ago.

On rereading it I decided to up its rating to 5 stars. I really think it’s the best of Stephen King‘s books, and that was confirmed for me in rereading it after seeing the film. The difference in the number of stars is because I’ve come to think differently about his monsters since I first read it. I used to think that evil monsters in fiction should tell use something about the nature of evil. I suppose I was thinking that the protagonist, who is good, fights the monster, who is evil;. That, at least, is what happens in Dracula.

It was only afterwards that I really understood that in this book, as in some of other books, the monster just just a prompt to the battle of good and evil that takes place in the protagonist’s heart. I’ve written more about that in another blog post, dealing with another of Stephen King’s books that I have recently reread, here Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya.

That post also contains a review (with spoilers] of Pet Sematary, which doesn’t leave much to say about it here, other than a plot summary that doesn’t give away too much of the story.

Louis Creed, a medical doctor, gets a new job at a university clinic in Ludlow, Maine, and moves there with his wife Rachel and children Eileen aged 5 and Gage aged 18 months. They are happy in their new house, and their neighbours across the road, a retired couple, Jud and Norma Cranston, make them welcome. Behind the house is a wood, part of which is included in the Creeds’ property, but it goes on for 50 miles, and beyond the Creed land is a wilderness whose ownership is disputed between the US Federal Government, the State of Maine and the Micmac Indians. A path leads up into the woods to a pet cemetery, where generations of the children of the town have buried their pets.

Jud Cranston takes the family on a walk to the pet cemetery, and tells how he had buried his own pet dog there when he was a child. The path seems to go on beyond the cemetery, but the way is blocked by a fallen tree, and Jud Colston warns that it would be too dangerous to try to climb over it.

On his first day in his new job Louis Creed is faced with a badly injured student, who was knocked down by a car while jogging. The dying student apparently knows his name, and warns him to stay away from the pet cemetery, and above all not to go beyond it.

See also:

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The Midwich cuckoos: dresses and mannequins

We go into Woolworths to buy hummus because tomorrow is Wednesday, and there are two mannequins near the door, with little girls’ dresses. Val says that when she was little girl she would have loved to to have a dress like that. I barely notice the dress, I am struck by the mannequins, which look like something out of a horror movie, the Midwich cuckoos or something.

I stopped to take photos of them. As we leave Val mentions the dresses again, and how she liked them. I said I was so struck by the eyes of the models that I hardly noticed what they were wearing, and she was so struck by the dresses that he did not notice the eyes at all.

We walk down the mall, discussing how people rarely make their own clothes nowadays, and think of our family history research, where the occupation of so many people in 19th-century census records was given as “dressmaker”. Back then it was probably rare to buy clothes off the shelf.

Well, there’s my photo, but the eyes are far less scary in the picture than they were in reality. They look as though they are peacefully sleepwalking, but in the shop the eyes were fiercely glittering. Perhaps I should have turned the flash off.

But it is interesting how people can look at the same things, and yet see something completely different.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

The Angel’s Game (book review)

The Angel's Game (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #2)The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third of the books I’ve read in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and I’ve just realised that I’ve neglected to write reviews of the other two either here in GoodReads or on my blog.

I read The Shadow of the Wind first, followed by The Prisoner of Heaven. But since the books follow in a series, and share many of the same characters, I think I might need to reread them in the correct order.

There is something about Zafón’s books that is reminiscent of Phil Rickman, with the shared characters, and the undertone of fantasy and horror. The difference is, as I can now see, that Zafón’s books need to be read in order, even though The Angel’s Game is a kind of prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.

In that respect they are more like C.S. Lewis‘s Narnia books, where it is better to read them in published order rather than the chronological order in the sequence of stories. Chronology is an obsession of modernity, and Lewis, in particular, was trying to lead his readers out of modernity into a mythical world.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a similar intertwining of the mythical and the modern, though in a somewhat darker and more adult way than Lewis.

Having said that, I’m not sure I can review The Angel’s Game now. I think I will have to re-read The Prisoner of Heaven first, since I have forgotten most of the plot.

So for now let me just say for that the series is about different generations of the Sempere family who run a bookshop in Barcelona, and the different generations of the family are introduced in turn to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where they are invited to leave a book that has been, or is likely to be forgotten, and to take one forgotten book and read it. Behind this lurks the idea that the book has something of the soul of its author and its readers embedded in it.

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Book Review: Prophecy, by Peter James

ProphecyProphecy by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book, I didn’t like it much. Perhaps my initial dislike was just prejudice. One of the characters is a child called Edward, and I don’t think that is really a child’s name. Yes, as a child I knew other kids called Edward, but not many, and it makes me think of people like the late US senator Ted Kennedy.

I’ve also read books by Peter James before. He writes whodunits, featuring Detective Inspector Roy Grace of the Brighton police. But this wasn’t a whodunit, it was more like a supernatural horror story along the same lines as The turn of the screw by Henry James.

Well, I’ve come across such things before. Phil Rickman started off writing supernatural horror stories like Candlenight, but has gradually drifted into the whodunit genre, and his exorcist-in-chief, Merrily Watkins, has turned into an amateur detective in his more recent books. Peter James seems to keep his genres more separate than that, and his exorcist has nothing in common with Detective Inspector Roy Grace.

I liked the story more as it went along, and it had occasional resemblances to some of the “supernatural thrillers” of Charles Williams, particularly his War in heaven.

This is not the sort of book one can say too much about without spoilers that give away the plot. Francesca (Frannie) Monsanto is an archaeologist working at the British Museum, and a chance meeting leads to the possibility of romance with a widower, whose young son, Edward, seems to have unpredictable moods. But the chance meeting seems to be more than pure chance, and “coincidences” seem to keep happening, including unpleasant things happening to Frannie’s friends, until she thinks that there is a common thread linking them all.

I began the book not liking it much. A couple of the scenes seemed unnecessarily gruesome, and there are some plot holes, but in the end I thought it was a good read, and better than Peter James’s detective stories. Not quite Charles Williams, though.

Another interesting, though minor, point about this book is that it was not listed in Good Reads at all, and the ISBN had no matches on any of the linked sites, like Amazon UK, and so I had to enter it from scratch. Yet it has been around for quite a while, having been first published in 1992, and in the current edition in 1999, and reissued in 2006.

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Recent reading: In the dark of the night

In the Dark of the Night In the Dark of the Night by John Saul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was looking for a no-brain-strain novel to read before going to sleep, read the blurb on a few, and picked this one, and brought it home a couple of days ago.

It’s a ghost story, sort of.

Three American high school boys are staying with their families in adjacent lakeside cottages for the summer. One family has rented an old house that has been unoccupied since the previous owner disaappeared a few years previously, in mysterious circumstances, but the reader already knows that he drowned in the lake trying to escape the voices in his head.

The boys discover a hidden room in an outbuilding with a lot of broken or dismantled objects, a table without a leg, a hacksaw without a blade, a doctor’s bag without surgical implements, a lamp without a shade. There’s an old ledger that shows that exorbitant prices were paid for some of these.

Then the boys start having identical nightmares of violence, in which one or all of them are involved. When some of the nightmares start coming true, they get scared, and think they myst keep away from the hidden room, but something keeps drawing them back.

It’s an interesting plot idea, and at times I thought it might be a four star book, but in the end the author chickens out, and it degenerates into an unconvincing slasher story, a bit of an anticlimax after the build-up, and the symbolism of the objects isn’t really made clear.

But still, wasn’t looking for great literature when I bought it, just light bed-time reading.

The author is John Saul, who is apparently not the same as John Ralston Saul, another author whose books I have read.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Having read a great deal about Pan’s Labyrinth on other blogs several months ago (for example Theofantastique), I had to wait impatiently for it to be released in South Africa, and wondered if it ever would be.

I finally got to see it last night, and it lived up to expectations. Even my wife enjoyed it, and she is not normally a fan of horror films, and this one, as those who have seen it will know, is a blend of fantasy, horror, and stark brutal realism.

It probably had a greater impact on me because I’m in the middle of reading George Bizos’s Odyssey to freedom, a memoir of his time as a human rights lawyer in the apartheid era. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where Franco’s fascist forces are mopping up the remaining groups of Republican insurgents hiding out in the woods.

The villain of the film, Captain Vidal, could stand in for just about any of the police witnesses that George Bizos had crossexamined in court, when any evidence of torture of political detainees was denounced by prosecutors, and sometimes by the flagrantly biased judges, as attempts to besmirch the good name of the South African Police.

I wonder if the release of the film in South Africa wasn’t timed to coincide with the release of Bizos’s book. In the torture scenes in the film I kept thinking of the lonely death of Steve Biko, or the defenestration of Phakamile Mabija, a church youth minister who was being interrogated by the Security Police in Kimberley. The day we heard the news of his death, I was with a group of people who were saying Anglican Evening Prayer, and the Psalm set for the day was Psalm 94, which seemed most appropriate, especially verses 20-21:

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condemns the innocent to death.

About 10 years ago I tried to write a children’s fantasy novel set in the apartheid era, with a similar blend of fantasy and reality. It wasn’t very good, and was probably too dark for a children’s novel, so I abandoned it. But one thing different about Pan’s Labyrinth was that the this worldly and other worldly realms appeared to have different agendas, which coincided quite coincidentally, as when the little girl’s ailing mother gets better following the advice of the faun who sets her tasks for the other world. In this there are echoes of Narnia, where the young Digory Kirk is seeking an apple from Eden to heal his sick mother.

But there are also sharp contrasts with Narnia. In Narnia the faun, Tumnus, regrets and repents of his role as a Security Police informer, and ends up being detained himself, but in Pan’s Labyrinth the faun turns out to be not much different from Captain Vidal, demanding unconditional obedience in the same terms and in the same tone of voice.

I go out to see films about once or twice a year, and Pan’s Labyrinth was well worth seeing. Thanks to all my blogging friends who wrote reviews of it and made me want to see it. If it weren’t for that I would probably have missed it.

Christianity and horror

Thanks to Elizaphanian: a Christian perspective on horror for pointing to this very interesting interview: FilmChat: Scott Derrickson — the interview.

Speaking of film, Derrickson says that the horror genre “distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre” and when asked about the fantasy genre, Derrickson said:

The evil within the fantasy genre tends to be threatening to the heroes within the story, but not to the reader — or not to the viewer, in the case of cinema — and that’s why I think it’s more palatable, and something that is more easily embraced for a lot of people. Because it does deal directly with good and evil, but it doesn’t serve to actually render feelings of fear and terror within the reader, in the case of literature, or within the viewer, in the case of cinema.

I’ve enjoyed horror films and horror literature since my youth, a taste perhaps fostered by two English teachers I had when I was about 9-10 years old, Murray Bissett and Wilfred Noriskin, both of whom encouraged creative writing and imagination. Murray Bissett, in particular, read us ghost stories, and the boundary between ghost stories and horror stories is often hard to determine. One of the first stories he read us was The ash tree which sounded considerably more horrific to our ears than the author intended, since we pictured a ghostly undead revenant tree, which had resurrected itself from the ashes in the grate, or a forest fire, and planted itself, grey and ghostly with blackened branches, outside a house to haunt the inhabitants. It was only much later that I learnt that there were living, green and growing trees called “ash”.

When I was in high school I discovered a two-volume collection of short stories in a book case at home, edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, mystery, horror. The detection section went unread, the mystery section I read once, but the horror section I read again and again. Two stories in the collection stood out, The Wendigo and Couching at the door..

Not long after that I discovered Dracula, and The devil rides out, by Dennis Wheatley, both classic horror stories of their time. But after leaving school I read very few horror stories, mainly because they were so difficult to come by. There was a film, The innocents based on Henry James’s ghost story The turn of the screw.

The genre has various names, or perhaps there are overlapping genres — horror, supernatural fiction, ghost stories. “Supernatural fiction” seems to cover most of them. And in that category most of Charles Williams’s novels seem to fall, with All Hallows Eve and Descent into hell being ghost stories, and Many dimensions having elements of classic horror.

But as I got older, perhaps my taste got jaded, and most of the “horror” stories ceased to horrify. There was a sort of “I’ve heard it all before” feel. Horror films were even less effective, with too much reliance on special effects and distracting one from the plot with “I wonder how they did that” thoughts.

Of these authors, Charles Williams was Christian, and so was Sayers, though she was an editor rather than an author when it came to horror, and did not write much herself.

Among more recent authors associated with the horror genre is Stephen King, but many of his books are thinly disguised science fiction, where the source of the horror seems to be something that came from outer space (Desperation, It, The tommyknockers). His Pet sematary, Needful things and Salem’s lot are closer to classic horror in the sense of supernatural stories. But even these seem to be nihilist rather than Christian, as far as the examination of evil is concerned. The supernatural evil is just there, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. The actual struggle between good and evil takes place at a much more mundane and human level, in the lives of the characters. And when one sees it in that way, it can actually throw some light on the Christian understanding of , as discussed in the recent . So, for example, in Pet sematary the family of the protagonist is visited hy evil revenants, but the battle is not fought primarily between the protagonist and these, but within the heart of the protagonist himself. It is the devices and desires of our own hearts that lead us astray.

This can also be seen in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampire, for all his evil powers, cannot enter the house and harm the inhabitants unless one of the inmates invites him in. Or, as St Peter puts it, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

But for all its value in showing the battle between good and evil, horror is limited, because one becomes sated. Myth and fantasy go deeper, despite Derrickson’s reservations. But I would like to issue a challenge to Derrickson: make a film of a novel. That would be a real achievement.

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