Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Man in the (Not Quite Whole) Picture

The Man in the Picture is not the first I've ever heard of Susan Hill. That esteemed place will always belong to the 1989 film adaptation of her novel The Woman in Black. It has been many years since I saw that film for the first time, but it is still the most atmospherically frightening film I have ever seen. Even just thinking about it sometimes (as I am now) can have an affect on me-in the shower, in a dark hallway, in my deepest REM cycles. So I approached another of her works, The Man in the Picture, as a big bundle of nerves-excited and scared ones.

I just can't with this woman.

I was not entirely blown away. It had lots of things in its favor-a unique twist on the story within a story trope of traditional British tales (there were more than three layers here), and language that absolutely set the mood. Characterization of the major players was clear and succinct. I was able to draw an accurate picture in my mind, even if environmental descriptions and deeper characterization were slight. I don't think any of the characters experienced growth; they just continued to go about their business as horror befell them.

What Hill spent more of her time describing was the 18th-century painting of the Venetian carnivale that is the central focus of the story. And in that, she was exquisite. The colors, lighting, brushstrokes, and figures are perfectly crystallized in my mind, and its description is so beautifully aligned with my own aesthetic that I shan't be at all surprised to find something of this nature on my walls one day. (I have a habit of that).

I am the proud owner of the last frame  here by M.S. Corley
hung with care in my daughter's bedroom
Hill is perfectly capable of expressing human emotion-how two main characters are mysteriously drawn to the picture over and over again, and are horrified to see its changes, how other characters detest it from the start only to have their worst fears realized, all that is done very neatly. And that's the problem. It's all a little too neat. I've read plenty of stories with this sort of premise before: the haunted/bewitched/alive painting. And because I've read M.R. James's "The Mezzotint," the best of the best, I need to be drawn into a powerful scenario.

The fluidity of the painting as different characters observed it was a good step in that direction, but in such a slender volume, that most intriguing aspect of the plot is not fully fleshed out. I'm not saying I want everything spelled out for me, but the explanation I am given is so slight, and so convenient, that it doesn't even feel organic to the storytelling. It feels much more like she had a certain number of pages in which to execute her story and so she had run out of time. It robbed this tale of the depth it deserved, and undermined the terrible consequences of the ending. It is a true shame to see such real talent come across as rushed and underdeveloped, but there it is. I heartily hope that the other two titles of hers on my shelf: The Woman in Black (of course) and The Mist in the Mirror can live up to my admittedly high expectations.

K Rating: 7/10
**New authors goal: 4** (# 3 was Erik Larson, for Dead Wake - didn't review it b/c I couldn't bear to finish it. 'Nuff said.)

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Howling

The Howling is one of those landmark films that I just never got around to seeing earlier, which is why it ended up on my TV last night.

It certainly didn't become my favorite film of all time, but it's clear why it was so highly acclaimed. The transformation sequences are generous, and utterly horrifying. When I saw the werewolf makeup in full view for the first time, I was awestruck by the enormity of it. And towards the end, there are a
horde of them-so you know they made more than one suit, which shows they had a very nice budget, used very wisely.

The Howling, adapted from Gary Brandner's novel, is an interesting split between traditional werewolf tropes in a more modern setting and a leaning towards what we easily recognize as urban paranormal fantasy. The majority of the movie takes place in an out of the way country retreat for people who require therapy. We follow news broadcaster Karen White there after she meets with a serial killer and witnesses his gruesome death. While at this country complex, there's lots of fog to set the mood. You even got the "Van Helsing" character type, a skeptical Brooklynite running a store chock full of occult books and weapons that made me laugh. There was also the strain of investigation, and questions about lycanthropy/sanity, and the nature of humanity.

What do you do when something this ginormous
comes for you??
Towards the end, there are questions about how an ancient organism might co-exist in 20th-century society, and whether they should adapt or remain in the shadows. That's a very modern concept in the paranormal world. It was smart and enjoyable to see this story straddle the line between the "gothic" and the "paranormal," and showed the continuum on which these tropes rest while still captivating its audience. Kudos.

K Rating: 7/10
*New Author Goal: 6*

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Act of Creation: Inspirational Sources

I read a fascinating post today on So Many Books about the question so often asked by avid readers and aspiring writers alike: "Where do you get your ideas?"

It's a natural question to ask, but it can be just as hard for some authors to answer this as it is to come up with the "elevator speech." My bio page (on the right there) goes into some detail about my inspirations for my current works in progress, but that's no elevator speech. Which got me to thinking what it is about this query that bothers everybody so much.

The simple, semi-redundant answer to "where I get my ideas" is: I get them from my head. Because I'm creative. It's in my nature to be observant, thoughtful, and reflective. I also have a knack for stringing words together, because I've been doing it so long and make it a regular habit. To read the query in an unkind way, asking someone where they get their ideas is another way of saying "I have no ideas of my own, and I don't know why." Some people are creative. Some people are not. It's wiring in the brain that causes this, and is not a personal affront to people who can't imagine or tell stories, the same way it's not an affront to the large majority of people who can't draw beyond a kindergartner's level, or those who become nauseous at the sight of the formulae of an astrophysicist. It takes a certain kind of brain function, coupled with practice, instruction, and discipline.

The same is true of writing. There are multiple skill sets at work here: the ability to research (possibly), deep reading (to understand themes of other authors and engage with them in your own work), understanding narrative (plot, narrative tension, setting, character, etc. etc. etc.) the actual writing (technicalities like grammar and sentence construction, poetic ability, vocabulary, mood), an imagination, an understanding of tropes and how to bend them, just enough to be new but not totally out there...and the list goes on and on.

So again: Where do I get my ideas?
1. From what I read: I see divergent storylines, or ways to fulfill my anticipation if the actual writing did not. I also absorb character types, environmental description, the setting of mood, and dialogue patterns.
It was so thoughtful of someone
to take such a pretty picture of me ;)

2. From what I see and hear: my stories are shot in full trillion-dollar color in my head-then I find the words to describe what I see in my mind's eye. A collection of movie aesthetics, sounds, actor mannerisms, lighting, framing, perspective. Inspiration has come from tense strains in music-like the theatrical accompaniment of a musical movement. It promotes mood production and emotion.

3. From what I've experienced: Places I've been have given me plenty of inspiration- places that speak of the past, or promise the future. Where I've traveled. The activities I participate in. Everyday circumstances and practicalities.

4. From daydreaming: experimenting with my characters, allowing them multiple possibilities to understand behavior, predictability, authenticity.

To summarize: if you're looking for inspiration, some things you can do that might help you: Reading, Writing, Observing, Living, and Dreaming.
There. I've given you the keys to the universe. Use wisely.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Hangman's Daughter-Good Enough

After being sourly disillusioned by The Ludwig Conspiracy, I decided to give Oliver Potzsch's highly acclaimed series The Hangman's Daughter a try. It was better...somewhat. That's not a glowing recommendation, I know, but in truth some of the issues with the writing style I had to begin with are present even in these earlier works.

The foundation of the story is a mystery-there are deaths and disappearances, a local midwife accused of witchcraft, and the plot develops from there as Jakob Kuisl, Schongau's hangman, takes it upon himself to clear the midwife's name, digging deeper into a conspiracy that seems to be affecting every corner of the town. Over the course of his adventure, there are lots of interesting
characters. The local flavor of the villagers-their mean-spirited, simple-minded, superstitious natures-that Potzsch gets exactly right. So in that regard the setting works, the characters work, from the mains to the minors, and lots of interesting things happen along the way, that would make me recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction, or historical thrillers with a touch of the dark and supernatural. Yet there was something in the writing- the pacing, the language, I'm not quite sure what-that didn't allow the events of the narrative to hit me with all of their potential impact. Some indefinable aspect of the writing undermines the narrative tension. One brilliant exception to that is the traversing of a subterranean space at the end of the book (I won't say more b/c I don't want to spoil anything).

Schongau-it's quite Bavarian towns like this one that once upon a time
burned slews of "witches"

Much like my complaint about The Ludwig Conspiracy, the solution to the mystery is made too clear, too many times. It's like Potzsch doesn't give his readers any credit to make the simplest of conclusions. He suggests something, then implies it, then tells it, then recaps it, see? Too much. To top that all off, the resolution I was hit with over and over again was simply too simple. It was too easy, too convenient, and didn't live up to the complexity that the rest of the book had worked so hard to build. That was disappointing. I will most likely pick up the second issue of this series, but not for a long while-as long as it takes to forget that it's not all that the back copy makes it out to be.

K Rating: 7/10

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Up All Night with The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins is one of my favorite authors, hands down. A more perfect mystery than The Moonstone I cannot imagine, and his ideas about writing characters, rather than writing plot, are a strong influence on my own approach to fiction. I finished The Woman in White, over 600 pages, in about half a week. I'll take this opportunity now to sing its praises.

Collins's talent for keeping me up at night derives from the style of his writing- initially published as a serial, he strings you along, and gives you the hint of something dastardly just around the corner. In this way the simplest, most mundane things- the writing and posting of letters, the finalization of legal documents, and the beginning and ending of jobs- keep you on the edge of your seat. He toes the line between the mysterious and the supernatural ever so slightly, setting the mood, and his stories, apart from so many other domestic dramas.

His real strength lies in his ability to create memorable characters with distinctive voices, that adhere so closely to their "types" that the exhibition of perfectly defined habits makes you laugh-- you should expect their behaviors, even if perhaps you don't, and those little ticks and quirks miraculously move the plot forward. In this novel, the narrative is presented as a series of narratives, arranged in chronological order, and told from the various personages who are described as being closest to the crux of the action.

Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, tells all he can of his chance meeting with the mysterious woman in white on his way to Cumberland, shocked to find the woman to be escaped from an Asylum, and intimately familiar with the members of the Limmeridge household, his ultimate destination. The woman in white's connection with Limmeridge, the reason for her commitment, and the dire warning she carries for Laura Fairlie, the engaged heiress to Limmeridge, comprise the mysteries of this story. Laura's sister Marian continues the narrative after Hartright and the solicitor Gilmore take their leave. The tragedy that unfolds is recounted by a variety of characters, and concludes again with Hartright upon his return to Cumberland.

1871 engraving to accompany the theatrical adaptation. What I wouldn't
give to see a Collins play!

The secrets and deceptions that befall the characters are kept just out of reach, and plumb the depths of villainy at the expense of vulnerable women in nineteenth-century British society. Here's where this book falls a bit short of Collins's other works. Mostly all is revealed by the end of the tale, but some of the revelations, if you've been paying attention the whole time, don't feel as deep or complex as they could have been. This is especially the case for the inquiries into the personal history of the woman in white, and the motivations of Count Fosco and his wife, Ms. Fairlie's aunt. The way in which these characters make their exit is extraordinarily tangential in an otherwise very tightly knit narrative, and left me unsatisfied. In addition, some of the smaller voices of this tale did not grab me as closely as the minor characters in The Moonstone, and The Woman in White suffers by comparison to the work I hold in such high esteem.

I wouldn't recommend it as the first Collins work to read, but I would absolutely recommend it.

K Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Medici - NOT The Borgias

The Borgias renewed my interest in historical dramas, especially ones filled with murder and sex. The Medici family played a tangential whole in the grand machinations of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, so when Netflix released the first season of their show Medici: Masters of Florence, starring Richard Madden, I was hoping to continue enjoying a story that was bright and compelling, and visually stunning.

Medici is not any of those things. It had murder and sex. It showcased wonderful acting  on all fronts. But that didn't save the storyline. I'm sure most of it was accurate, but that doesn't mean it was compelling to watch. And the decisions that the characters make, especially Cosimo de Medici, annoyed me to no end. He was not the strong and charismatic leader that I reveled in with Cesare. Cesare was bad-ass, and no matter what that guy did I rooted for him. And believe me, he did it all. But the story was framed in such a way to put you in his corner. Cosimo, on the other hand, is cold and calculating, but not always with success, and is very distant from his family. The many domestic scenes are devoid of passion-either love or hate, so I'm not drawn in by their drama. 

I was surprised by how much I came to appreciate the other characters in the show, in relation to Cosimo's general jackassery. First was his wife Contessina, who was an absolute badass on a horse in the Signoria, Florence's elite council. Their son Piero came into his own, with the help of his wife Lucrezia, who was not as stupid as she looked. The same was true for the manservant Marco Bello, who was a pleasure to watch in every scene, and the brother Lorenzo: a complicated man, but not without interest. That being said, my shrugging indifference to the show doesn't have anything to do with Madden's performance. The actor was top notch. The character, not even close. And I think I have to blame the writing for that, for basically putting him in the center of his family's suffering. Even if that was the case, the person who forms the center of this little universe is the person you end up caring about the least, and that's not good television.

Utterly spoiled by these bastards

Coming off The Borgias, which in terms of production was an absolute work of art, Medici was a poor substitute. Everything was always muted and grey, very much like those Claritin commercials before they peel away the film that represents your allergies, and as a result the impression of wealth and splendor in Florence was entirely lost on me. 

Whether or not I watch the second season depends entirely on what else is available on Netflix when it is released, and the fervor of my husband's bromance with Madden at that time.

K Rating: 6/10

Monday, January 9, 2017

All Bark and No Bite - The White Wolf

The White Wolf  by Franklin Gregory had so much going for it-sharp, witty prose, some original twists and narrative threads that you don't normally see in werewolf fiction that provide a deeper context. Sadly, this work was too short for me to feel satisfied by any of the story's aspects, since they all went underdeveloped.

The original 1941 cover, reproduced by
Valancourt Books
I appreciated that The White Wolf was set in Pennsylvania Dutch country, at the start of World War II. Pennsylvania, indeed most of the original thirteen colonies, are rife with ghost stories and supernatural lore, including the belief in werewolves and rampant wolf-hunting. Being a colonial historian, I relish the darker side of American history that can be found in abundance there. And the modern setting, rather than a strictly gothic one, can add a fresh voice to old trope. Neither of those identifiers were meaningful in this story. There were plenty of times when I had to remind myself what the setting was-it just wasn't pervasive in the storytelling, namely because Gregory was very slight with his descriptions. And without descriptions, the mood got lost.

He attempted to address the mythic, folkloric, religious, and psychological aspects of lycanthropy, and even the gothic trope of a cursed storyline. I would have enjoyed it very much had he pulled it off. But the book is so thin, and the story is pulled in too many directions for Gregory to dig deep. The result was something rather predictable with only the promise of something more.

K Rating: 6.5/10
**New Authors Goal: 2**

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hauntingly Beautiful-The Ghost Bride

Every once in a while, I get a hankering for Asian literature. When I came across the title The Ghost Bride by Yangszee Choo for the first time, my interest was piqued. I know a decent amount about Asian beliefs regarding the supernatural and the ghostly, but those beliefs are so complex and fascinating, that I'm always interested in learning more. The Ghost Bride exceeded my expectations with a richly detailed ghost realm, pulling so close at the edges of reality as Li Lan, a young Malay girl on the brink of being married to a person recently deceased, travels to the world of the dead and back. 

All of the characters, especially Li Lan, are expertly realized, and as Lelan interacts with people on both sides of the divide between the living and the dead, she grows inadvertently stronger and more self-reliant. Normally, I roll my eyes at this sort of character development, especially in females, but the context of Li Lan's world is so fixed: her future is tied to her marriage prospects, her marriage prospects are tied to her father's dwindling fortune. That leaves no room for her interests, romantic or otherwise. Sadly, this was all too real for girls brought up under China's sphere of influence at the start of the twentieth century. I heartily rooted for Li Lan's growth, vicariously proud in the end of her decisions, a far cry from the hopeless girl with little to no resources at the start of her tale. The ghostly realm brings her freedom: of movement, of fraternization with men, women, bull-headed demons, dragons...and especially, freedom of choice. Her journeys imbue a worldliness in her that sheds her cloistered naivete, and is a main thrust of the story that was infinitely fulfilling in its telling.

Image result for chinese ghost paper
Paper horses-for travelling
One of the most wonderful things of all was the description of the ghost realm and its characters. The focal point was paper, the material that funeral offerings are made of, to be subsequently burnt or otherwise offered to ancestors for their use in the underworld. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, think of an Egyptian tomb:a pharaoh takes everything with him, because he's going to need it again, death being the mirror-image of the living world. In Asian beliefs ( roughly a blend of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship), paper stand-ins are used as representations for money, clothing, food, conveyances, etc. etc. etc.

Image result for chinese ghost paper
Seeing unruly Chinese ghosts can be so much fun :
Cool Ass Cinema praising Mr. Vampire (1985)
Choo deals wonderfully with the idea of these funeral offerings as artifice: the food has no taste, the servants are mindless puppets. It's such an intricate, thickly layered world, it's hard not to lose yourself in those delicious details. They apply, too, to the characters. When the bridegroom in question gets angry, for example, the expression on his face is described in so many words as what happens when a piece of paper is scrunched and crinkled. Add to this, that I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author. Her British accent, coupled with perfect pronunciation of every Chinese name and term, resonated well with the colonial context of the story, and was as crisp as all the funeral papers she describes. I heartily recommend the audio version-it was immensely enjoyable.

The kinds of plotting that might be boring to some readers: domestic dramas between first, second, and third wives, obscured feuds, and vengeful ghosts, are as compelling here, if not more so, than in their classic iterations (I'm thinking of The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Tale of Genji). The twists and turns that the story takes are exciting and unpredictable. The same is true of the romantic...square? Yes, square. Four major players in all. How I felt about each of these characters in turn ebbed and flowed. Every twist in the story in this regard (as in all others) made perfect, organic sense. I was immensely satisfied by the resolution of the romantic strain woven throughout this story of a girl on the cusp of marriage, perhaps the most important decision in her life, and one that she has next to no control over. 

A final note: as a reader of the paranormal in general, shifters are par for the course. But a dragon shifter? A Chinese dragon? Now that, I haven't seen before. And I'll be honest, that's gonna stick with me for a while, it was so damn good.

K Rating: 10/10

**New Authors Goal: 1**

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

New Year's Resolution: 30 New Authors

I normally don't wait until the beginning of a new year to make positive changes in my life, but the blog Literary Escapism is hosting their 9th Annual New Authors Reading Challenge, and I've decided to give it a go. Read thirty authors new to me in a year. Thirty books a year is a conservative number for me, but considering I ended 2016 by starting a whole bunch of series that I must see the end of, I think I'll lowball it now and see how I stack up at the end. Having more than thirty books by authors I haven't read before on my shelf and ready to go certainly helps...

Sounds like fun. You choose the number of books and the genre(s), you read, review, and link back to Literary Escapism, and in December 2017 you see how you did. Pretty painless, and we all discover something new, which, I gather, is why people like us read in the first place.

Listing all the new authors I actually own without having read them yet would take too long, so here's a picture of reviews to come. Of course, this doesn't include audiobooks, or things I haven't bought yet, or the ones still enroute in the mail. It's only January....

When warmer months are upon us, I hope something of mine will be included on your lists. Cover art coming soon!

More than 30 already. 2 more in the mail as it is, 3 audiobooks in my car, and these are just the new authors I own. Not all the new titles. Now isn't that ridiculous??

Sunday, January 1, 2017

For Auld Lang Syne- Horror of Days Gone By

I love modern horror cinema,  so much so that I've exercised a good amount of my academic energies studying it. Those efforts might one day see themselves in print, but as we all wax nostalgic at the start of a new year, I can say of horror: they just don't make them like they used to. So many older works have a special feel and charm to them, that I can't readily make tangible with words. Yet, it is palpable to the watching experience. So, for those of us basking in holiday relaxation, here are nine films to watch (or in my case, re-watch), to bring back the good ol' days.

Burnt Offerings (1976): Oliver Reed, drunken sot that he was, is near and dear to my heart, and is especially powerful in this adaptation of a psychological thriller by Robert Marasco, set in a sentient house.

Lets Scare Jessica to Death (1971): Perhaps not the scariest or goriest slasher, but utterly memorable for its strong narrative, skirting a fine line between insanity and the rational mind.

The Wicker Man (1973): Nothing says old-fashioned like a pagan ritual. The one depicted here is older than the influence of Satanism and the like, and is infinitely more interesting for its local, unique flavor. A striking contrast is made between the shock of the witness to the festivities and the utter normalcy attributed to it by its participants. Grand acting by all.

What's paganism without a little nudity? From Film School Rejects

Don't Look Now (1973): This has all the markings of weird, artsy, Italian film-making done right: portentous visual omens, questions about sanity and memory, and just enough of the supernatural to make you question what you're seeing. A thoroughly immersive film experience.

What Have you Done to Solange (1972): A standout among gialli, for its setting, top-knotch visual style, and a compelling narrative and cast that keep you guessing, no matter how many of these films you have seen.

I'm such a sucker for these posters
Hammer Films: I could suggest practically anything produced by Hammer in their golden years, and it would scratch that nostalgic itch. But for true Hammer fans, for true horror fans, there's much more to Hammer than their remakes of Universal classics. They excelled especially in psychological thrillers, like Paranoiac (1963), and mad science films like the franchise begun with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). I only wish they had made more adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, was the best iteration of Britain's premier detective ever, excepting Jeremy Brett. 

Oh, Castle, you and your cute little warnings...
For a real spine-tingler, try William Castle's Strait-Jacket (1964), starring Joan Crawford as a woman recently returned from an asylum for a double-murder, and whose nerves are put to the test in short order.

Looking over my selections here, I see that I'm nostalgic about something very specific in horror. People on the brink of sanity. There's still plenty of that in the industry, I guess, but...not like this. Perhaps because of their age. These filmmakers were not as saturated as we are with this trope, and their twists and turns feel fresh and unpredictable. The originality in these scripts is beyond reproach. Enjoy these movies, as I have, and may they come to be favorites you return to as well.

To All my readers and faithful followers, I wish you a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year, filled with adventures both real and fictional. I look forward to a 2017 robust with groundbreaking gothic, fantasy, horror, and all the weird in between, including TWO publications by me! One of the nonfiction variety, the other a dark fantasy. More details to come!