A Mother's Love

The first time I saw The Others I was floored by the experience. It was released in early August of 2001, and it was hot on the heels, at least in my mind, of great horror films like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project so I think it is safe to guess that most moviegoers were expecting some kind of twist ending. I know I was. And I was still shocked by the ending! But even watching the film over a decade later I still get an uneasy feeling in my gut.

So that makes me ask myself, why?

A lot of the reason the film was so successful was all the misdirection. We have the servants who seem to know more about what’s going on than they should. The children claiming that they see people who aren’t there. Strange noises. Doors that seem to unlock themselves. A book of dead people photographed before burial. Even the setting of an old house isolated from the rest of the world points toward a typical haunting setup. In short, every phenomenon is pointed away from the truth, toward the outside. Because that’s where the terror originates in typical haunted stories, from the outside, from forces that use the house as a means to get into the characters.  

I believe this was how writer/director Alejandro Amenábar was able to pull off his unexpected ending. Of course, none of it would have been possible without the tremendous performance of Nicole Kidman. 

The I-don’t-know-I’m-a-ghost theme was pulled straight from The Sixth Sense, but due to the setup and the character development that follows we don’t expect this. From the start, there is clearly something a bit off with Kidman’s character. She is obsessed with her children to the point where the outside world doesn’t seem to matter, doesn’t exist. She constantly puts their safety as the top priority in her life to the point where she even battles sunlight to keep her children safe. Because of this character setup, Amenábar was able to achieve a truly horrific ending. He takes Kidman’s singular goal of keeping her children safe then turns it against her, thereby, according to Robert Bloch, doing what all great horror does, reveal the truth under her mask of motherly love.

In an article in Many Genres One Craft, Mary SanGiovanni argues “that character— I dare say more than plot— is the key element of a horror story.” This movie is a terrific example of that concept. The plot, which as we said teems with misdirection, takes a backseat to Kidman’s character. Events lean one way then the other until we’re not sure what’s going on, but our instincts tell us that it somehow revolves around Kidman. That is why the ending is so satisfying. Instead of a demon or a typical slasher, the terror in this film developed around a primal concept that we all hold sacred: that of a mother and the duty she has to protect her children.

The Shining

I’ll start with a bit of personal history regarding Stephen King’s The Shining. Growing up in the 80’s, the movie was rumored to be one of the scariest things around. It was even taboo in my family. So when my friends and I finally got our hands on the VHS we were ready to be paralyzed with fear. Well… we weren’t. We were used to the hack and slash horror of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, not a psychological drama with fifteen minutes of action. It took me until high school before I could actually appreciate the movie.

Soon after I graduated, I picked up the book because my aunt always told me that the book was way better. I’ll confess, it was one of the first few “serious books” that I’d read for pleasure. By serious I mean thick with lots of words I hadn’t cared to learn yet. When I read it the first time, Jack Nicholson’s face was that of Jack Torrance. And even though the real Wendy is a blond, Shelley Duvall took center stage in my mind. At that time, the book’s ending had a reverse effect on me. I kept expecting Hallorann to die, but instead I got an explosion and a fire monster. The hedge animals were also an added plus.

A decade or so after my first experience with the novel, I picked up Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. It follows Danny, now just Dan Torrance, as he deals with the psychological problems the same way his father did… drinking. The difference between the two is that Dan was smart enough to know he couldn’t handle a family. The sequel is terrific book if you haven’t read it, and the most accurate book I’ve read on the subject of addiction. I’m only bringing this up because it severely altered my second reading of The Shining.

Now, I guess I’m technically an adult. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and drank my share of alcohol. I’m also divorced and can relate to the family dynamics at the Overlook much more than I could during high school. But during this second read something strange happened. I found myself hating Jack Torrance. When I read it as a kid, my perception of him was colored by inexperience and the charm of Jack Nicholson, in the past I actually thought he was a fun, although misunderstood, character. But now when I view his behavior with the knowledge of the lasting effect it will have on Danny I find myself reading him with utter distain.

I know King was trying to create a flawed character that the Overlook could influence, something we see all the time in haunted stories, but during this read Jack Torrance felt over the top right off the bat. No chance for redemption. Granted, this reading is colored by the sequel. But it was interesting to read this story again and get such a different take on it.

But this has me curious. Did anyone read the book before they saw the movie? And if so what was your opinion of Jack Torrance?   

“… everyone in your story is haunted.”

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a brilliant novel that deals with themes of loss and regret. The novel does this so well that it becomes less about supernatural events and more about the need people have to tell such stories.

The Chowder Society, a group of four men at the start of the novel, is what the action is based around. After the death of their friend, Edward Wanderly, the remaining four members, stuck deep in the guilt they feel toward the situation, start to tell one another macabre stories. It is in this way, the novel becomes about the therapeutic aspect of a good ghost story and not the supernatural events themselves. It is interesting to consider that it is not the past crime that brings on this guilt, but the fact that they might all be paying for it in their old age. This suggests that without the looming punishment of nightmares and death the main characters would not think twice about what happened so long ago. It is only the threat of death that pushes them toward atonement.

At one point in the novel Sears James, the unofficial leader of the Chowder Society, remarks that they need to get the nephew of their dead friend to absolve them of the situation they feel responsible for. This is a concept that is laden with Christian ideals; absolution needs to come from the outside, from a higher authority.

Then toward the end of the novel, when the remaining members of the Chowder Society are about to confess their past crime to Don Wanderly, the nephew of their dead friend Edward and an arguable stand in for a priest, they do so in such a way that mimics a Catholic confessional. When Sears James, Ricky Hawthorne, and Don Wanderly sit before the fire, Ricky says, “That fire was a good idea. It’ll give Sears and me something to look at.” This image conjures to mind the Catholic confessional booth, with both Ricky and Sears speaking of their sins while avoiding Don’s gaze. This idea of anonymity is further supported when Don thinks that the two men were “deep in the well of their story, concentrated on it so wholly that Don, seated near them, felt invisible.” In this way Don is thrust into a role of a higher authority or outsider, the only one who can absolve both Sears and Ricky of their sins.

What this concept suggests about the world at large has also stuck in my mind. When viewed through the pages of the novel, forgiveness becomes a thing that is only necessary when sins are known to the group. Secret sins, like those toyed with through the macabre stories of the Chowder Society, are playful things that pepper the truth with lies. But because the members of the group are all guilty of the same crime they push one another’s need for absolution. Their collective self-image is one of upstanding members of the community, and as such they cannot cope with the secrets of the past because it shatters that image. Thus, they build the fire that will burn their psyche down.

I can’t help but wonder if a crime committed alone is easier to bear because you would not have to share and ultimately face the guilt. 

Hell House

Richard Matheson’s Hell House is a striking example of a fantastic haunted house story. Published in 1971, the setup is typical, strangers isolated in a haunted house that systematically breaks them down. But what intrigued me most about this story was how sexuality was handled. Instead of past trauma or sinister motives I think you could argue that Belasco House uses sexuality to destroy each victim.

This idea makes sense if you view it through the lens of the post sexual revolution of the 1960’s. When this novel came out ideas about how our gender roles define our sexual behavior was forefront in a lot of people’s minds. And so the novel explores issues ranging from a-sexualism to necrophilia and everything in between. In fact, if we look at each of the main characters we can see how they can represent a sexual extreme in the society of the early 1970’s.

Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium, insists that love can cure anything. She tries to use love to heal the wounds of the house and bring it some resolution. I think it’s interesting to note that she suffers the most physically at the hands of Belasco House. Her ideas about love and sexuality are open and honest to the point where she even offers her body to cure the house. Needless to say, this doesn’t work and her idea that there a hidden power within love is shattered.

Dr. Lionel Barrett is the opposite of Florence. He doesn’t believe the house is haunted and insists that the phenomena can be explained through scientific reasoning. He rejects anything beyond what his eyes can see to the point where he doesn’t seem to believe in love at all. If Florence is a sexual being then Dr. Barrett exists at the opposite end of the spectrum as a man who will not let himself be influenced by sexuality, something he considers a weakness.

Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith, rests somewhere between Florence and Dr. Barrett; she is neither a-sexual or a person who believes in physical love. In fact, she is haunted by sexual thoughts for both her husband and Florence. Because of a childhood trauma she has suppressed her sexual identity and has existed as a person who identifies herself through her husband. Belasco House works hard to shift her mindset, and she becomes the most interesting character because of this. Part of the reader wants her to explore her repressed desires while at the same time remain untouched by the fate that destroyed Florence.

Benjamin Franklyn Fisher is also a physical medium and the sole survivor of a failed attempt to explore the house. He was a child when the rest of his party was killed, leaving him alone and naked on the front porch. Since both Edith and Florence are victims of the house’s sexual advances, I think it’s safe to say that Fisher was a similar victim when he was younger, making him the victim of sexual assault. It is this victimization he is dealing with throughout the novel.

I might have gone off the deep end with my sexual analysis, but taking everything in through the lens of history offers something more than a simple haunted house story. I believe this is why the story resonates so well with people decades after it was released.

There’s something off about Eleanor. (spoilers)

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House creates a sense of atmosphere so thick that it isn’t hard to get lost in the corridors of its oppressive architecture. From its thick wooden doors, to its off angle structure, the lush imagery cannot help to capture any reader who dares to step across its threshold. The paragraphs sprawl along with the building to the point where the characters in the novel refer to the house using a formal name: Hill House.

This, along with the imagery, makes Hill House a character in the novel. It has goals, to consume, and dreams that come across as nightmares to both the characters and the reader. And why is this happening? So glad you asked.

Every good haunted house story needs a house that serves as an active antagonist for the story. In this one, the house is the one who shoves the plot forward, something I was glad to see since nobody else was doing anything. The characters, except for Eleanor Vance, simply react to its stage directions. Over the coming weeks there will be lots more post about hauntings, and I expect that this will, or should, be a recurring theme.

So what about the protagonist, Eleanor Vance?  

Despite the fact that Eleanor is setup as a victim of circumstance, I find it odd that she’s the one making proactive decisions, especially in the beginning and toward the end. She is surrounded by larger than life personalities, Hill House not included, but her decision to carve out a life for herself in the beginning and her subsequent final decision to stay at Hill House endear her to the reader. We want, no… we need Eleanor to find a home. Jackson knows it. We know it. But Eleanor’s timid nature and an introverted personality that would put any writer to shame are at odds with most stories that often depend on an assertive lead to carry events forward.

Eleanor’s assertive nature is apparent, except during the middle. As soon as she steps across the threshold of Hill House her goal of getting there is met. She has arrived. Done. End of story, right? Not so fast. I think it’s fascinating that the house, for a time, becomes the lead character. It steals the story from Eleanor as she and the others become reactionary to the point that they are simply waiting for something to happen. It can’t get more passive than that folks.

As the novel progresses, Eleanor is turned into an active participant in events again. In the final chapters she’s the one who does the haunting. She pounds on doors, she scares her friends, she fulfills the role of Hill House thereby stealing the lead back. Of course, by the end her sanity, much like Hill House’s, is somewhat suspect. But she does have that clear goal that we all care about. She has found her home at least for a few moments. And even though the story ends with a frantic moment when Eleanor’s sanity comes back thereby making her a victim of the house and not a suicide, it’s safe to say that her trip to the tree can be seen as a victory.

Because in the end, Hill House walks alone. And what’s a haunted house without anyone to scare? What do call an unemployed writer? A writer. A house.

Magdalena Solís

When most of us fall on hard times we turn our heads toward low scale moneymaking ventures such as eBay or Etsy. Thank goodness we live in the technological age where we can have virtual garage sales from the comfort of our living rooms.

But what if we were hard up for cash in the 1960’s? Well… if we lived in Mexico we could found a religion based on ancient Inca beliefs, enslave a local community, and then demand both sexual and monetary tributes. Too much? Not for the Hernandez Brothers and Magdalena Solís. This is exactly what they did in 1963, leaving eight dead, possibly more, and dozens of others with psychological scars.

Magdalena was born into a poor family. Her early years were spent in prostitution with her brother acting as her pimp. While this was happening, the Hernandez Brothers, who also suffered from money problems, set up shop in the rural village of Yerba Buena, a northern Mexican village with about fifty residents. They formed a sect and proclaimed themselves to be exiled Inca gods. The people were told that they would inherit great riches if they followed the Hernandez Brothers and participated in their rituals. The people agreed and thus the cult began. Even though the Inca culture is located in Peru that didn’t stop these Hispanic brothers from taxing their followers: both sexually and monetarily and using heavy narcotics to induce mass orgies. This is unethical in the extreme, but at least nobody was killed.

Enter Magdalena.

As time went on the people grew tired because despite their copious payments they were never reimbursed with riches. So the Hernandez Brothers recruited Magdalena and her brother to help. They agreed and with the help of the Hernandez Brothers she was setup as an Inca goddess. Because the brothers gave her power in the eyes of the public she used that and seized direct control over the sect. From there she directed, and participated in, the killings. The first two victims were a pair of deserters who had grown tired with the cultish ways. They wanted to leave but Magdalena had them hanged instead.

After this the real brutality started. Magdalena became bored with simple orgies so she introduced the idea of the blood ritual, which is actually a practice taken from Aztec culture. Dissenting victims would be beaten, burned, and then killed by the group. This practice quickly evolved into the drinking blood ritual. They did this to gain the power of their enemies. Over the next six weeks, four people were killed this way. Some victims even had their beating hearts removed from their chests while they watched themselves die.

The last two victims were killed in May of 1963. A fourteen-year-old boy saw the ritual while he was exploring the caves around the small town. He ran to the local authorities and told them what he had witnessed. Then the next morning a disbelieving officer escorted him to the caves so the boy could prove what he had seen. Neither was ever heard from again. But at least this got the real attention of the authorities. The government came back with the army. After a shootout, they discovered several dismembered victims lying in the nearby caves, but since none of the sect would testify, Magdalena was only charged with two murders, receiving a fifty-year sentence.

This is an interesting case because without the power of the mob Magdalena would never have had the resources to do this. And without the Hernandez brothers she would never have been put in this position. Does either of these things excuse her actions? Or are her actions simply a reaction to a life of victimization brought on by poverty and a family who treated her as an object? I don’t know. But I think if this would happen with today’s understanding of abuse and torture then the trial would have had a different outcome. 

Se7en to Adventure Time

Over the past few posts you’ve probably noticed a pattern (and no, it’s not bad spelling). I’m talking about my insistence that psychopaths aren’t scary. From Red Dragon to The Church of the Dead Girls, the terror does not come from the time we spend watching the psycho. If anything those scenes where we get to see what’s really happening are a letdown because they always fall short of our imagination. This means the motives of the killer are much less interesting than what they do.

So… the true terror of a psychopath comes from the aftermath of their crimes.

The movie Se7en is a perfect example of this. I won’t get into the gritty details because if you haven’t seen the movie by now then you probably don’t want to. But throughout the movie we only see what the killer has done, and we don’t meet him until the third act where all the characters we care about are now apart of his plan. It is the building of this tension, letting us imagine what kind of person can do these things, that generates the terror. Our minds fill in the gaps. We supply the dread. So many horror films and books make this mistake. When you show the killer you lose the magic. Then the story becomes about catching the killer rather than understanding them.

Another, and perhaps less extreme, example of this is the television show Adventure Time. In episode 19 of Season 2, titled “Mystery Train,” Jake surprises Finn by throwing him into a murder mystery onboard a train. Every time the train enters a tunnel someone dies (there are lots of tunnels). We see all of the aftermath of death, and we are constantly wondering who the killer is. During one scene, when Jake and Finn are trying to put things together they come up with an elaborate motivation structure to find the killer. This reminded me of the focus on classics like Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales in the movie Se7en. We all seem to grasp at a motive but when that motive is denied we provide the tension through this desperate search for meaning.

Another similarity is that in both Finn and Jake along with Mills and Somerset resort to illegal search and seizure in the efforts to find the villain. This reflects our desperation to find a killer in our midst despite the cost to our moral framework. At the end of both stories we get the scoop in terms of motivation. In Adventure Time is was all a fun joke for Finn’s birthday party, nobody really died. In the movie Se7en, John Doe (the killer) says, “Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention. This line has a Looney Tunes feel of Bugs Bunny smacking Elmer Fudd around. This line also shows us that the motives of this extreme killer are laughable, a fun joke because nobody cares about our moral framework anymore.

That’s why Se7en ends with the head in the box and not a diatribe as to why John Doe did these things. The aftermath of insanity is much worse than the reasoning behind it.

Annie Wilkes You're My Hero!

Misery by Stephen King is a book that can only come out of the mind of a successful author. I’m not talking about the talent to write a book like this. I’m talking about the concept. It’s like Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Travelin’ Band.” You can’t articulate the pressures success until you’ve been there. So this novel speaks to the reaction all successful authors, or artists, must have to their fans at one time or another. As a self confessed King devotee, I would nerd-out if I ever got the chance to stand in the shadow of his greatness. And it would be comments like that, which would get me escorted from the premises.

This level of obsession goes both ways though. As an aspiring author, I would love that level of attention (yes I want to be stalked), but I also want my privacy and safety. And this is where we find Paul Sheldon, the fictional author and survivor of this story. He has got the attention cranked up to eleven, but privacy and safety have fallen into a snow bank.

But is Annie Wilkes, Sheldon’s devotee, really to blame? If we look at the big picture her obsession saves his life and gives him fuel for his next best seller, the real best seller that he always wanted to write. All it cost him was his sanity and a bit of pain (I would gladly endure both for that best seller).

From an objective level, Annie Wilkes is the ultimate motivation tool. She manipulates him into writing the book that she wants. If he doesn’t write it he’s dead. Also, when he completes it he’s dead. This dichotomy reflects what all of us who love a particular series of books really want. We want a compelling story, and we don’t want it to end… ever. Annie personifies this desire and since the book, the book she produced, is burned before she can read it this also leads us to something else. It is nearly impossible to end a series and make everyone happy. I’ve read a few that have handled it well, The Wheel of Time, Crown of Stars, The Lord of the Rings. But there are many others, others I will not name, that made me want to track the author down and explain what they did wrong. At the end of Misery, we can infer that when Annie reads Sheldon’s new ending it will enrage her and she’ll kill him. Then the next step would be for Annie to take over and keep writing the novels in his place. I believe this was where the novel would end had Sheldon not acted. I know she says that she’ll kill them both because of her fear of being discovered, but based on her past I don’t see suicide in her character. She’s a survivor… well, almost.

So is Annie guilty of loving a story that her, and people like her, helped create? Is she guilty of being in the right place and time to actually make a change? Under the circumstances, I can empathize with what she did. Sheldon is the one who created the fire. Even if she fanned the flames, he lit the match. 

And this leads us back to Stephen King. I believe it’s safe to assume that this novel of a fan taking control of an artist’s work reflects his own fears of being at the mercy of an audience who actually controls his livelihood. Our obsession makes his life possible. If he looses us then he’s just some broke, unemployed guy who sits at his computer all day.

The Silence of the Lambs (the movie)

After watching The Silence of the Lambs for the countless time, I had to ask myself: “Why is this film still scary?” I know what will happen. I know that the only on screen murder is committed by Hannibal Lecter, a psychopath that I’m actually rooting for. But against all reason it still keeps me on the edge of my seat. So… why?

Clarice Starling is the answer to everything. She is attacked on three fronts in this story: the professional through Jack Crawford, the physical through Jame Gumb, and the psychological through Lecter, a holy trinity of horror.

Crawford, her supervisor at the FBI, represents the first and most important aspect of her struggle. We want her to prove herself so that her identity won’t be shattered. Failure would be worse than death for her. That’s why she goes down into the basement instead of out the back door. She is ready to commit the ultimate sacrifice for her career. If we look at this objectively, it is a reckless decision. But because the other characters have set her up as an underdog we all want her to go into the darkness to prove that she has what it takes to be an FBI agent. Even if she had died we wouldn’t have blamed her. She had to go down there because without career success there wouldn’t be a character.

Gumb, the killer, is the second and briefest aspect. His line of struggle melds with the other two and provides the forward movement of the story. We get all of the fun snippets of crazy, but not much else. That’s not a bad thing though. We don’t need anything else from him. We only need to know that he’s the killer and the lynchpin for Starling’s success.

The last, and the crowd favorite, is of course Lecter. He delves into Starling’s psyche and makes the connection between her success and her past trauma. That’s why he asks her if the lambs are silent at the end. He knows how driven she is, and he knows that she needs to have it all or nothing. It’s strange because Lecter is arguably much more dangerous than Gumb, but we actually want him to escape at the end. Why is this? Lecter’s charm certainly plays a part, but ultimately it’s because his escape isn’t Starling’s fault. It will not affect her career. This proves the point that we care about Starling’s success more than human life. 

This trinity also reflects the three levels of conflict touted by Robert McKee in his book Story, a definite recommend for any aspiring author. In short, he agues that for a satisfying conflict the audience needs struggle from these three sources: world, interpersonal, and psychological. Jame Gumb is the world, Crawford is the interpersonal, and Lecter is the psychological. I think this is why the story still resonates with audiences. And why it has me on the edge of my seat after all these years. 

"Fear... the price of imagination."

The novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris suggests that serial killers are different from us normal folks. There is the us and the them. Them want things that us cannot comprehend. Them will go to incredible lengths to obtain these desires. To capture these killers us normal folks need to understand them, and to understand them we need to become them. At least that what Will Graham does. He puts himself in the killer’s shoes and reenacts the murders in his mind. He does this so well that sometimes it wears off and he has to take a mental sabbatical in an asylum to get his marbles back.

A psychologist in the novel refers to Will Graham’s condition as pure empathy, a trait that seems crucial to any aspiring author. But the intriguing thing here is the issue of psychotic behavior, which is only a subjective term at best, and how the empathetic understanding of a psychopath can taint our own sanity. This novel treats psychosis as a disease, a contagious disease. While this might be true along family lines, this book warns against obsessing over psychopaths. Think about them too much and they’ll get inside you!

Since the story begins after the murders are committed, Will Graham walks us through during his empathetic reconstruction. This has a strange effect and makes him the primary vehicle for the novel’s horror. The actual killer is more of an oddity than horrific, but since Will Graham is the one with his foot in the normal world it is his transformation that we actually care about. We want him to win, but we don’t want it to cost him everything. Standing with him in the murder houses while he steps into the killers mind is terrifying because he has so much to loose.

I think the reason for this terror might be because we all have the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, at least to a degree, and if we have the ability to imagine then how many more steps will it take to push us the rest of the way? Can our minds become tainted like Graham’s? I don’t know. I hope I never find out, but a novel that raises these types of questions is doing something right.

But unfortunately the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of this. About halfway through, the focus shifts from Graham to Francis Dolarhyde, the killer. We are given lots of backstory on Dolarhyde’s past. It is the deformed serial killer with abusive family who tortures small animals routine. I know this is true from a psychological standpoint, but it’s sad and dull to read about. It doesn’t show us anything new. And to be honest I don’t care what drove him to murder two families, and I really don’t want to sympathize with him because of his abuse. I want him to get caught. I want Graham to catch him, and I want to be with Graham as he discovers these details about the killer.

If we were going to plow into a backstory it should have been Graham’s so we cansee his struggle with pure empathy, and how that lead to Hannibal Lecter’s capture, but we don’t. Instead Graham is spinning his wheels for the second half of the novel while we have a dark, romantic comedy between a serial killer and a blind woman. I don’t understand why we went there, but I think it’s interesting to note that inThe Silence of the Lambs, the sequel that outsold this predecessor, we get far less time with the killer. The focus stays with the investigation for the majority of that novel. Thomas Harris must have done the math. In the end, we can relate to Will Graham and Clarice Starling because they create stronger emotional links than the killers they are investigating. 

"There is nothing so infectious as fear..."

Reading The Church of the Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns is like talking to my aunt, a self-confessed town gossip, for hours and hours. You start with the end and most interesting part of the story, “Say, did you hear that some girls died?” And then you move to the middle and finally you get to the beginning that then leads you back to the end. Sound confusing? It isn’t. Despite the chronological leaps this book is utterly fascinating because the focus here is not on murder, which is the bread and butter of so many horror novels, but on the communities reaction to murder.

At first I felt lost in details, long passages where the neighbor’s son, someone who has nothing to do with the central plot, was going to school and what they were studying after they lost their job because they had that DUI a few years back, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could just get their act together so that their grandma could hold her head up at church? I’m oversimplifying here, but this round and about storytelling is a reflection of the entire book. From an intellectual standpoint this would seem exhausting, but it wasn’t. So I had to ask myself, why? I feel it’s because by the end of this book you become a member of the community, and that gossip, which at first felt overwhelming, becomes the nectar that you need to survive. Digging into the sordid details of other people’s private lives is both perverse and delicious in a way that is hard to explain.

And it is this digging that leads us into the central question behind this book: who are we behind closed doors?  We start with an ordinary town full of ordinary people, but as the pressure is amplified by the deaths of the young girls we get to see the honest, hard working people of a community deal with the strain. A severe us-and-them mentality develops so that as we learn more about people through gossip each new sordid revelation becomes a flashing light pointing towards their guilt. That is the genius behind this book, not the death that is described by one character as, “very quiet,” but the reaction to these deaths, which is very loud. The community reaction thus becomes the terror here. People are harassed, beaten, and even killed because they stand out in some way. It is these actions that show us that underneath our tissue of civility we are all just tribal animals ready to kill an outsider to preserve our own sense of safety.

I’m not even sure it’s right to call this a horror novel (at least not in the traditional sense). The grim details of murder, which are laid out in the prologue, are presented with the same crisp imagery as the town square. And when something terrible happens it is given the same attention as the backstory of the mayor’s family. These choices, along with lots of passages dealing with community values, would allow this novel to be assigned to any sociology class dealing with the interpersonal relationships within a community under severe strain. I also think it is interesting to note that this novel was written in 1997, four years before our American community faced a similar us-versus-them breakdown. If anything, our post 9-11 reaction only highlights the timelessness of this book and holds it up as a truly great novel that lifts the veil from our self-proclaimed civility and shows us the animal underneath.  

"No great thing is created suddenly."

So if you’re like me you readThe Shining for the first time ten years ago. And when you got done with that wonderful book full of brilliant story elements that didn't make it into the movie you asked yourself: “Say, what ever happened to that little boy?”

Well… Doctor Sleep to the rescue!

But get ready for a gritty ride through reality. So often in fiction, especially in the fantasy genre, we are given characters that go through horrific events and come out on the other end relatively unscathed. PTSD is rarely, if ever, a factor. So when Stephen King takes the next step in this story and faces these issues of trauma we get a refreshing take on the Urban Fantasy novel. Alcohol is Dan Torrance’s drug of choice. We start at rock bottom and feel every single step towards a better life. Does he beat his alcoholism? Do addicts ever fully recover? To answer this I’ll point you to “Sobriety is a journey… not a destination.”

The interesting thing is that we know precisely what haunts Danny: we read about it, we lived through it with him. And if ever there were a reason to pick up a bottle it would be that horrific childhood full of stories that would give any therapist nightmares. A few points along the way I found myself mentally enabling Danny to take a drink. I would catch myself thinking: “But he needs it! Just one to take that edge off!” And it was these thoughts, along with King’s knack for storytelling, that give us one of greatest novels dealing with the struggle of addiction. Anyone who has ever faced substance abuse issues will see themselves in this book and be drawn into Danny’s struggle.

Read The Shining first of course, but if you want to feel the aftermath in all its gritty details then Doctor Sleep is a must read for any fan of real, honest fiction.

"Let the dead bury the dead."

I was excited to read Psycho because the movie is such a cornerstone of modern horror flicks. I can’t remember the first time I saw it. It’s as though I’ve always known this story somewhere deep in my American bones. And on some level, a level constantly disappointed by book to film adaptations (Ender’s Game anyone?), I expected the book to blow me out of the water by being very different. Except for lots more creepy back and forth dialogue between Norman and his mother it’s basically the exact same story (although, Patton Oswalt would be a more accurate Norman Bates than Anthony Perkins). Why is the movie so similar? Because Alfred Hitchcock knew a good story when he read it. He respected it. He knew he could translate that same tension to the screen and not destroy the story in the process, a lesson lost or ignored by most of today’s directors.

The movie and book essentially follow the same beats to the point that I could almost hear the soundtrack screeching when Mary meets Norma in the shower. If anything, the book does a nice job of slowing things down: showing us that “Mary giggled again, then executed an amateurish bump and grind, tossed her image a kiss and received one in return.” A gesture that might have melted people’s brains in the 50’s if they saw it on the big screen. We also get a nice sense of Norman’s cunning. He takes his time disposing of Mary’s body. He thinks through all the details, and even after he kills Arbogast there isn’t anything the law can pin on him. He’s calm and collected because he’s done this before. He’s aware that he killed his mother’s boyfriend when he was a child, but he has convinced himself that he fooled everyone because his mother is still alive. We get to see all of these wonderful mental gymnastics as the brilliant side of Norman gets blended with the psychotic side that can rationalize anything. That’s the scariest part of the story, not the murders, which are quick and sharp, but the realization that a psychotic person can commit these acts and get away with anything guilt free. Being blamed for your own death, being both the victim and culprit of a trespass that exists only within the mind of the disturbed, that is the terrifying knowledge this story reveals.

It seems predestined that this should be my first blog posting. After all, the story is almost a legend in our collective consciousness, carving out a place for itself in our horror cannon. There are few things scarier than the wolf in sheep’s clothing or the communist not wearing red. On a historical slant, this is one of the best examples of the McCarthyism fear in the early 50’s, and if you haven’t experienced the book or the film then you owe it to yourself to take some time, tap into that fear of the deadly stranger. Who knows, it might even save your life someday. The psycho could be anyone….