Book Review: Tales from the Darkside

In the mood for a spooky read, I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Tales from the Darkside: The Repeater Book of the Occult, edited by Tariq Goddard and Eugene Thacker.

I really like the concept of this book – an anthology of lesser-known stories featuring the supernatural. Each story is selected and introduced by an author published by Repeater Books. Released in February of this year, October is a fitting month to read through it. Unfortunately, the rambling introduction was a harbinger of the let-down to come. Many of the stories in this collection are very well-known, and an avid reader of horror short stories has probably already read them. In addition, the introductions to the stories, if you have not already read the story, is really an essay for why the particular author selected it, and generally includes spoilers.

Here is my review, on a story-by-story basis:

  • Squire Toby’s Will by Sheridan Le Fanu
    • Decent read. Not amazing, but appropriately spooky. Includes a family of some of the worst men ever and demons.
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
    • I’m just going to assume you have read this. Great story, and one I am always up for re-reading.
  • On Ghosts by Mary Shelley
    • An essay by the authoress of Frankenstein, this essay doesn’t necessarily advocate for ghosts so much as lament the lack of magic in a world that insists on rational explanations. I did enjoy reading it, and would recommend.
  • Par Avion by Marlene Dotard
    • Yuck. This story was… not good. The glowing essay talking about how this weird chick was friends with other authors who are well known and how Marlene was so smart, and insisted on trying to draw relationships between science and belief in the supernatural is better than the story itself. Do yourself a favor, skip this story, which has generally not been well-known for a reason.
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
    • Also assuming you’ve read this one. It is well-written, and the essay beforehand includes multiple interpretation, which are interesting to read as well.
  • A Haunted House by Virgina Woolf
    • I guess this one was inspired by a stint Virginia and her husband spent in a haunted house, which… of course it is, because wasn’t Virginia always writing about herself? It’s fine. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.
  • Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu
    • The essay before this one mentions how popular this story is, although I myself hadn’t actually read it. It’s fine. I actually didn’t much like it, but it definitely involves the supernatural.
  • Punch, Brothers, Punch by Mark Twain
    • Short, punchy, funny, and a little spooky. Very good short story, that again – you have probably already read. If you haven’t, ignore the essay and just read the story.
  • Unseen – Unfeared by Francis Stevens
    • A weird detective story that also deals with fear of “other-ness” and indicates that perhaps the monsters are created by us because we are all awful. Not terrible, but don’t know that I would recommend, either.
  • The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
    • Great story that you have probably already read. In my opinion, the best short story in the collection, but also, like… it’s Poe. Like, of course it’s good… in fact, it feels a bit cliche to include it in this collection.
  • The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
    • This story is one of those naturalist things where the author is like isn’t nature amazing and fearsome? I actually don’t much like naturalist things, so I didn’t finish this one.

In summation, 4 good stories you have probably already read, a short essay by Mary Shelley that is enjoyable and that you can probably also find pretty easily on-line. Unless you want these particularly short stories in a collection, I would not particularly recommend.

What about you – have any spooky reads to recommend this Halloween?

What Makes “Good” Art, Part II

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.

#sowrong

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.

Most girls weren’t lucky enough to have an officer Judy Hoffs to help.

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!”

See?! Even Lady Justice is skeptical…

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.

Furies & Furieser

Hallowe’en is right around the corner, and in honor of this upcoming night of mischief, costumes, and sugar, I am going to recap three ARCs that I read this year that I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet, which you may be considering purchasing.

The Furies by Katie Lowe

Release Date: 10/8/2019

This tale is told by Violet, as an older woman, about a time as a girl when she lost her father, enrolled into an elite school, and was befriended by a group of girls who were mistreated and demanded vengeance. Starting with an odd, terrible death that confused the community and remains unsolved, the narrator tells her version of events leading up to and including the mysterious event.

Most of this novel is gritty and real. You can feel for these girls who are confused and not always treated well, retreating into the idea that they can take care of themselves because they have innate supernatural abilities, but then again, not entirely believing that they have innate supernatural abilities. You will be horrified by many of the acts perpetuated in this book. And you will have to figure out for yourself what you think really happened that night, when a beautiful young girl died.

Overall, I liked this book. It is not light and fluffy. Bad shit happens. And it drags slightly in the third fourth of the book. Overall, though, it is spooky and interesting, and I do recommend reading it.

Toil and Trouble by Augusten Burroughs

Release Date: 10/1/19

Augusten Burroughs is a witch.

Or, at the very least, he thinks he is one.

Is this belief based on the questionable words of his mother, who went insane and terribly neglected him, as detailed in Running with Scissors? Well, yes.

Does he provide clear and undeniable proof that he is a witch, with better understanding of, and ability to manipulate, the world around him? Well, no.

Is this book entertaining, regardless of whether or not you believe him? Hell, yes.

Burroughs’ writing style is simple and clear. I’m not sure that I buy that he’s a witch, but I did enjoy every second of this book, which I read in just a couple days (quite fast for me, with two kids frequently hanging on or being held by me). Recommend!

The Babysitters Coven by Kate M. Williams

Release Date: 9/17/19

This books is being marketed as The Babysitter’s Club meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you, similar to me, are thinking “Huh, that sounds interesting. Also, what does that look like, given that TBC is a middle-grade read and Buffy is high-school age age and above?” let me help you. It looks underwhelming.

The storyline has many similarities to both of these identified predecessors; however, this book, intended to be the first of a series, is comprised of exposition that is not even exceedingly interesting to read. Although the protagonist is 17, she reads as pretty young.

So the tagline would probably be more accurate if it read: “What if the babysitters from The Babysitter’s Club were really mundane witches who had watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” Or maybe “Buffy the Vampire Slayer… without the biting wit, with all of the supernatural shit watered down.”

If you’re in the mood for a middle-grade read, it might be fine. Personally, I was hoping for more than what this book is, and did not like it.