After NaNoWriMo, your self-imposed writing retreat;
Is over, whether you win or have to admit defeat
Never fear, Julia Bartz will appear,
it is clear,
in bookstores February of next year.
The Netgalley gods have been smiling upon me a bit lately, including recent bestowal of Julia Bartz’ The Writing Retreat. Slated to be published in February 2023, in case you ignored my poorly crafted poem above, this novel was a treat.
The novel follows protagonist Alex, who is struggling through the sludge that is her life, including a massive case of writer’s block, in the opportunity of a lifetime. Joining 4 other talented young female writers at a month-long retreat in the reclusive home of one of her favorite authors, Alex wonders if she will be able to work through her writer’s block… and then things get weird.
This novel is a thriller encapsulated in an isolated setting (possibly haunted mansion in Northeast America) in February (cue the snow) with writers (meaning everything is open to interpretation and could possibly be hallucination, fictionalization, or enmeshment between the author’s work and the author’s life). The characters are a bit flat, which makes them harder to read in what is most certainly a plot-driven novel. Leave your own writing insecurities at the door, and follow along with Alex and the other lovely lady novelists, who will most likely experience these insecurities for you! I had no idea what was going to happen in this rollercoaster of a novel where extreme highs or lows could be around every curve of the tracks.
Highly recommend! And am now craving more great books featuring writers… so if you have one, please let me know in the comments below, so I can add it to my neverending TBR.
Last post, I looked at a movie that had such a terrible ending, I was angry at myself for watching it when it was all said and done. Today, I will be analyzing a haunted house movie that I thought was, overall, extremely well done. Things Heard & Seen is the haunted house movie that I would recommend, and that I would consider “good” art, despite the things about the movie that I did not much appreciate.
So, what makes Things Heard & Seen “good” art?
Well…. for one thing, I have my own unique experiences and perspective, and I like it. Concepts of “good” and “bad” are entirely subjective, and while I think you’re wrong if you don’t agree with me, I am a technically biased person who thinks her taste in media is pretty damn good. I’m also unflinchingly honest, and will tell you if I personally like something but I don’t think it’s very good and don’t necessarily recommend.
So let’s get to our story – FYI, this post will be replete with spoilers, so if you have not seen the movie yet or are averse to discussion that includes spoilers for some reason, feel free to just “like” my blog post and go live your life.
One thing that Things Heard & Seen does really well is take a seemingly normal situation and make it absolutely horrific. There are some supernatural aspects that make the movie a true “Haunted House” movie (unlike the movie we talked about last week), but the actual horror in the movie is not because of the house. It is because of the evil that can exist within people, and that does exist within one specific character in the movie.
The movie opens with George Claire pulling into the garage to have blood drip onto his car. You know it’s a haunted house movie, so you wonder if ghosts are fucking with him, but don’t really know for certain. He walks into the house, and comes upon his daughter, who is standing and looking out of the window, bathed in ethereal light, which is creepy, because let’s face it – children are terrifying. The scene cuts to George fleeing the house, holding his daughter in his arms.
What a fucking clever beginning.
The beginning immediately pulls the viewer in, and brings up so many questions. What is going on? Is the house haunted? Is the daughter okay? It creates the lens that George is the hero of the story – a man living through the presumable terror of the haunted house, and protecting his daughter when things get out of hand… who doesn’t root for that?
A monster, that’s who.
No, of course not. As it turns out… George Claire is.
The way that the writers subtly bring out truths that slant the story in a completely different light is so well done. What at first seems to be simply a dysfunctional marriage that is likely either going to be resolved or end in a bitter divorce when the family experiences the haunted house turns out to be something else entirely.
After the intriguing beginning, the movie jumps back in time, and we meet the third member of the Claire family – wife and mother Catherine. The compliment on her thin figure, the fact that she barely eats any cake, and then throws it up, initially makes it seem as though Catherine has an eating disorder. We see her working a dream job for someone with an art degree – restoring some beautiful artwork in a church, and talking to her friend about how she needs to support George, who has given up so much for her, by moving out to the country (Saginaw, which I think in this movie is still supposed to be in NY and not the Saginaw I think of in MI). And as the viewer, you’re scared for her and her family, because they’re moving to a haunted house, and you’re thinking, “Man, if you weren’t moving to a terrifying haunted house, this would be the right move for you, because you’re obviously stressed or something and getting away from this negative influence will be good.”
As it turns out, as the viewer, you are so, so wrong.
In a phone conversation midway through the movie, Catherine’s mother mentions that she is “so lucky” that George “did the right thing by her…” It has already been established by this point that Catherine was raised Catholic, so… we know what that means. But it gets worse. George takes one of his classes on a field trip to a museum (he’s teaching art), and one of his previous professors starts asking questions, like “Why are they calling you professor?” and “I was surprised you got this position, given that I refused to write you a letter of recommendation” and something along the lines of “you were blacklisted for inappropriate behavior with a student…”
Suddenly, the fact that Catherine avoids taking food or drink from her husband, when at all possible, takes on a completely different light. It helps that this movie takes place in the past – people would like to think that the ’80s is modern enough that domestic violence and date rape were looked down on… but actually, while people didn’t necessarily advocate for either of these things, most people just ignored it or looked the other way. Cops back then just stayed out of it, even if they were called, because it was a matter for the family to resolve. So a woman being drugged by the man she was dating, ending up pregnant, and marrying the asshole because her strict Catholic upbringing says that is what she is supposed to do if he is willing to “do the right thing” is a lot more terrifying because it is a lot more believable. I’m not saying this situation couldn’t occur today – but an open-minded woman like Catherine is going to have a lot more resources in 2021 as opposed to the 1980s, where a “he-said/she-said” is probably going to favor the “he,” unless this is an episode of 21 Jumpstreet where Harry was erroneously accused of knocking the girl up because she thought he was just some guy her age who had moved out of town and couldn’t be found.
There are all of these tiny details sprinkled throughout the movie that add to the horror that is George Claire, and you really feel for Catherine, particularly when she discovers that the one thing she loved about her husband – his skill as a painter, which included these amazing paintings he has hung up in his office – is actually his gay cousin, who coincidentally committed suicide, because being gay is not always easy and it was even more difficult in the ’80s. So not only is her husband a rapist monster who has taken her away from her friends and family to a secluded community where she’s expected to perform only the womanly duties of cleaning and caring for their daughter; the way he caught any of her attention in the first place was the result of lies and purloined paintings.
His natural inclination to do whatever it takes to get what he wants is strengthened by the malevolent male spirits of other assholes who have lived in the house previously and whose wives “mysteriously died.” There are female spirits of the woman who were murdered, as well, and the inevitable result of living in the house comes to fruition in a brutal scene where Catherine is, again, drugged by her husband, begs the spirits to help her, and they explain to her that she cannot fight her fate, but they will supposedly get justice in the end…
This bullshit didn’t work so well for me – like, what about the women who have already been murdered in the house? The entire town knows they were probably murdered, but no one can prove it, and it seems their terrible husbands just continued to live until their terrible lives came to a fairly normal end. But for some reason, we’re supposed to think George will be caught, because he ran Catherine’s friend and his co-worker off of the road and the dead women of the house awake this friend/co-worker from a coma.
How is that “justice?” Is George going to pay by going to prison? Is that really balancing the scales of justice when he brutally murdered his wife with a fucking ax? Ooh… he doesn’t get to spend time corrupting his daughter with his terrible influence, he gets a roof over his head, and three meals a day, and fucking recess…. Yeah, he’s really going to “learn his lesson.”
Not to mention, the friend/co-worker didn’t really see much, so it is difficult to believe that her testimony is going to put anyone away in prison.
So what’s probably really going to happen is she’s going to be like, “I told George I was keeping an eye on him, and knew he was having an affair, and then I got run off the road. I’m pretty sure it was George.”
And the cops will say, “Oh, did you see George?”
And she will say, “No. But it has to be him.”
And the cops will say, “Oh… could you at least tell it was his car?”
And she will say, “Well… no…. I just saw headlights. But it was, for real, definitely him.”
And the cops will say, “How do you know it was, for real, definitely him? Keep in mind – you have a vagina, and the words you say only hold 32% of the weight of a person with a penis. And that’s high, because you teach in a college, you get a higher % because we kind of think you have some dude-like qualities.”
And she cries, because she’s terrified, and says, “I just do! Are you telling me he’s just going to get away with it after he tried to kill me?”
And the cops will say to her husband, “Ugh, can you take care of this? You’re wife’s getting hysterical!”
So, there was some bullshit in this movie, for sure. But overall, this movie is terrifying, not so much because the house is haunted, but because people can be monsters who trap innocent people in their web of lies and torture and terrify them before eventually ending them. I’m still spooked.
For some reason, I have been watching haunted house movies recently. Specifically, I watched Aftermath and Things Seen and Heard. Aftermath has so many good elements… But it’s about 30 minutes too long, and the ending is so terrible, they should just use this movie as an example in writing class of why you need an appropriate ending for your work. Things Heard and Seen was great – the spirituality stuff and attempt to provide resolution didn’t really work for me, but the unfolding of the full horror of what Seyfried’s character Catherine goes through is so well done. So today I am going to analyze what made one of these movies so terrible I was angry when I was done watching it. Next week, I will analyze what made one movie so great, I was able to ignore the stuff I didn’t like. Because both movies had positive and negative features – so why do I only consider one of them to be a good work of art?
Aftermath is almost good. A young couple is struggling in their marriage, and as a last resort, decide to start over in a new house when they happen upon a good deal (which the husband has discovered through his work, and because something absolutely terrible occurred in the house). There is a loss of trust between the husband and the wife – she has been unfaithful at some point in the past, and he is not sure if he can trust any longer. But she’s Ashley Greene, and even though she probably doesn’t possess her Twilight character’s psychic powers, she is hella pretty, so… you know, he’s trying to figure out if he can keep that ass on tap, so to speak. (Also, they love each other and all that mushy stuff. #cooties)
So they buy a house — because nothing helps a couple bond like entering into an investment they probably can’t afford even though it is a really good deal — and immediately, shit starts happening.
The primary witness to the weird shit is Ashley Greene, a fashion designer who works from home while her husband is out cleaning up murder scenes during the day and taking night classes at the local college. So a good part of this movie hinges on the concept of whether or not the house is actually haunted or Ashley Greene is going crazy, as well as, if she’s not crazy, will her husband eventually believe her, given that they already have trust issues and there is no evidence to support her possible hallucinations.
For those who are not aware, the inspiration for this movie comes from a real terrorization of a couple who purchased a home in San Diego. If you are aware of this real-life story, a lot of the things happening to the couple will seem familiar – though that doesn’t mean that the movie won’t make the source of the crazy shit different. I would say the first 90 minutes of the movie are solid. There’s drama from the couple’s marital tensions, there’s drama and terror from what is happening in the house, and there’s the question of, since I assume something is actually happening because this is a horror movie, is it supernatural or is it man-made?
I was really enjoying this movie, with it’s good actors and solid build-up. And then the last 28 – 30 minutes happened, and I. Got. Pissed.
[Seriously – I’m going to delve into specifics of Aftermath that could adversely impact your viewing if you decide to watch this shitshow, because you will know where it is headed. Read at your peril! #duhduhduhn]
*SPOILERS BEGINNING* So – it turns out that the couple was suffering from more than one tormentor. One was doing more mundane torture, like ordering magazine subscriptions the couple didn’t want and trying to get the wife raped and shit. The other was pulling a creepier-than-Edward-Cullen that included lurking over Ashley Greene to watch her sleep. The first was just some dude with debt who was relying on his wife taking longer to sell the house and allowing him to get out of the hole he had dug himself into with it. The second – a dude named Otto, who is only semi-explained, is completely unnecessary, and is illogical as well as slightly insulting to the viewer.
To explain this shitshow of an ending further, I guess I’ll have to delve into some of the backstory. Because while no one *loves* exposition, it is absolutely necessary to how they decided to end this story, despite the fact that the way they did it doesn’t really make sense.
The house was built by the couple who die at the beginning of the movie. Jay, the husband, built the house based on his wife Erin’s design. Jay and Erin also suffered from infidelity issues – basically, Jay didn’t know how to keep it in his pants, which pissed off Erin, so she ran off and slept with someone else to “get back at him.” This is all explained to Ashley Greene by Jay’s heartbroken sister, the lovely lady who sold them the house, who ends her tale with: “That bitch was up to something.” According to sister, there was something different about Erin’s affair, but she wasn’t sure what it was.
It turns out that what was different about Erin’s affair was that she decided to build a secret room in the bowels of their house where her lover, Otto, would live under her husband’s nose. Which is weird, because, like – if you’re that pissed off, can’t you just get a divorce like a normal person, and not turn this into a weird scenario that makes people question your viability as an actual adult? How did this woman successfully interact with the world?
Especially when you meet Otto – a painfully thin man with skin paler than brand-new white bedsheets and nails that are sharp as claws who towers over other people. If you were going to cheat on your husband, shouldn’t you be going after some young guy with a six-pack? Otto is a very unusual man, who ends up kidnapping Ashley Greene and chaining her to his bed (which supposedly Erin was doing to him, I guess?). He seems to have extremely limited verbal skills – like, worse than my children’s speaking ability at 1-year-old. He is freakishly tall, and also crazy strong. I just don’t understand where the attraction there is – he’s not super hot, you can’t have a conversation with him, and he’s potentially mentally ill if that wasn’t the result of this chick Erin chaining him to a fucking bed to keep him hidden in the walls of her house so she could have sneaky sex with him while her husband is gone?
It’s also really unclear – why did Erin chain him to a bed? The premise seems to be that she needed to do that to keep him in the house, in which case, you have to ask yourself, what part of this affair is consensual? Then again, from the creepy picture collage Otto managed to put together, it also seems he was obsessed with Erin, making it seem he would have stayed in the house without being chained. This idea is corroborated by the fact that he continues to stay in the house after he has killed the married couple there previously (because Erin “chose her husband” over him), presumably pining after his lady love until he found a new pretty lady to obsess over.
So Erin definitely had an inappropriate reaction to not liking her husband sleeping with other people, which ranged somewhere between taking advantage of a mentally ill person to kidnapping and raping that person, who happened to get Stockholm syndrome.
This line of thinking is dumb and convoluted. It makes me think extremely poorly of Erin, whom I would normally presume we are supposed to feel sympathy for since she is brutally killed at the beginning of the movie, but… given this backstory the writers give us, honestly, I have no idea what they’re going for here. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for Erin, who has done horrible things. Basically, Otto defended himself against someone who was torturing him in one way or another. Do you feel sorry for John Wayne Bobbitt? Only if you’re a monster or don’t know the whole story.
Then, there’s the question of what the fuck is going on with Otto? It seems that he’s supposed to be a real person, given that Ashley Greene and her husband kill him in self-defense at the end of the movie. And like, yeah, they had to stop him – he was going to kill them. But also – I still kind of feel bad for him. It’s not his fault that he has limited speaking ability, or that he’s super tall and super thin. He also probably didn’t ask to be tortured by Erin, who seems to have been taking advantage of someone who is mentally ill in a best-case scenario. What is the point of Otto? It feels… insensitive, like the movie goes about systematically destroying a mentally ill person. Maybe all Otto needs are some drugs or some positive attention (because I’m not going to call whatever Erin was doing positive attention). Or maybe he needs to be institutionalized, because he doesn’t get the way the world works. I don’t know. I do know that I don’t think he deserved to get kidnapped, raped, psychologically tormented, and then stabbed with scissors.
My final point, and the reason I think so poorly about this ridiculousness that the writers hurled at us is that it is completely unnecessary. The average running time for a movie is approximately 90 minutes. If you had ended the movie with the husband and wife discovering that something was, indeed, happening, and it was due to the all-too-real broke-dude, that would have been a good movie. Then, you just need to give us some closure about this marriage, even if it’s Ashley Greene going: “Dude, you didn’t trust me, and I don’t think this is going to work. I need to find myself a fresh dick that won’t leave me alone in a house to be tormented and nearly raped.” Just closure – I’m not necessarily asking for an HEA here. You could end the movie like that, and have a complete movie with a solid ending. But no, instead we get this sordid soap opera which basically seems to involve mocking a mentally ill person. *SPOILERS ENDING*