Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Bird Box: "You're mad!"

 Image result for bird box book
Josh Malerman’s short novel Bird Box was published in 2014.  Recently, it’s been adapted as a Netflix film with Sandra Bullock, to be released on December 21.  I was attracted to Bird Box by the premise – a mysterious something which cannot be seen without going mad has arrived on Earth, and the survivors must keep the curtains down or wear blindfolds if they go outside.

Wow, I thought, this must be a sort of cosmic Lovecraftian horror.  What a great idea, taking out the visuals and relying on the horror of scent, sound, and touch.  Imagine protagonists going out in their backyard blindfolded and creeping, terrified, cheek to jowl with Yog-Sothoth.  Imagine the chilling, mysterious descriptions of their other senses interpreting “a congeries of iridescent globes” - but how difficult a concept to execute.

Ay, there’s the rub.  Malerman often fails to live up to the challenge, providing an example of the familiar caveat for beginning writers:  ideas are the easy part, writing is the hard part.  Bird Box shows a distinct lack of imagination in terms of describing a world without sight.  For example, at one point, the protagonist’s dog is driven mad:

“It sounded like Victor had chewed through his own leg.” 

What does this sound like, exactly?  Maybe Victor just found a tasty rawhide chew.

Inadequate description aside, I found Malerman’s writing unenjoyable and sometimes irritating (the “tip” of the boat?).  The language is plain and simple, often delivered in text message-sized bits.  The characters are like the ones in lackluster horror movies who exist only to be picked off, with so little backstory or personality that it’s difficult to separate them into distinct individuals.  There’s Malorie (the protagonist), Tom (Malorie’s love interest, although Malerman tells us this but never shows us), Felix, Don, Jules, Cheryl, Olympia (the pregnant one), Victor (the dog), and, of course, Gary (“You’re mad!”).  Only “The Boy” and “The Girl”, children born since the apocalypse, inspire any feeling whatsoever.

There is something less than a skeleton of a story here – maybe the stapes or coccyx, the merest forepaw to suggest what might have been.  Bird Box focuses more on the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in a house with a bunch of other people than on what’s lurking outside.  Incidentally, it’s convenient that the house in which the characters shelter is provided with working phone lines and electricity for years after society has collapsed, not to mention a well in the backyard.  There is plenty of canned food available, but sadly no boards to nail over the windows (of course, blankets can be dramatically ripped down when drama is needed).

On the positive side, Malerman does resist the temptation to explain or reveal much about the crazy-inducing creatures which are roaming the world, leaving their true nature ambiguous.  The idea that whatever it is might not even have any malign purpose is an appealing one.

I really can’t imagine Bird Box converting to film very well.  After all, the whole point is the lack of sight.  Watching Sandra Bullock stumble around in a blindfold for two hours sounds vaguely amusing, but completely lacking in chills.  Like the novel, it seems unlikely to live up to the premise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

This is the penultimate Aickman-edited volume, and here he contributes an introduction and a story, repeating his theme that “scientific advance and naked horror are rapidly becoming hard to differentiate” and that ghost stories provide a “world elsewhere” in which we can be free.  The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains:

“Levitation”, by Joseph Payne Brennan.  Set in the always unsavory world of the carnival, this very short story is quickly read, enjoyed, and forgotten.

“Dearth’s Farm”, by Gerald Bullett.  The protagonist visits a country cousin whose husband has a close relationship with his horse.  Aickman talks this story up in his introduction, and it is unusual, but pretty flat.

“Esmeralda”, by John Keir Cross.  This story of a middle-aged tobacconist with an unhappy marriage is vividly written and unexpectedly savage.  A highlight of the collection.

“The Dead Valley,” by Ralph Adams Cram.  Cram was known more for architecture than fiction, but this story of, well, a dead valley, is certainly memorable.  Aickman says it “describes the border landscape between the outer vision and the inner.”

“The Visit to the Museum”, by Vladimir Nabokov.  A man’s trip to a provincial museum becomes increasingly surreal, and he may never exit, at least not to a destination he desires.

“Gone Away”, by A.E. Coppard.  Aickman (perhaps not much of a traveler?) claims that anyone crossing the English Channel will have, at times, the feeling expressed in this story of three tourists encountering inexplicable events as they drive through France.  Coppard skillfully portrays a quickly burgeoning panic here.

“Governor Manco and the Soldier,” by Washington Irving.  Irving is far from New York in this enjoyable Spanish tale.

“The Cicerones,” by Robert Aickman.  For me, at least, this is one of Aickman’s more opaque tales (which is saying something).  Trent tours a Flemish cathedral with some unexpected guides.  “The Cicerones” is full of religious allusions and sustained menace.

“Old Mrs. Jones,” by Mrs. Riddell.  In this Victorian novella, a new family rents an old house in London, only to learn that the ghost of Mrs. Jones is said to roam about at night.  The Joneses mysteriously disappeared (“The Kilkenny cats left their tails behind them, but the doctor and his wife took away every bit of their bodies”), hence the availability and affordability of the house.  “Solid literary craftsmanship” here, as Aickman puts it.

“Over an Absinthe Bottle,” by W.C. Morrow.  Down on his luck, Kimberlin plays dice with a stranger in a San Francisco restaurant.

“Where the Woodbine Twineth,” by Davis Grubb.  Grubb, best known for Night of the Hunter, lays on the Southern flavor in this concise tale of New World fairies. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

The 6th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

The 5th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is unreasonably priced on Amazon, but for whatever reason the sixth volume is less valued.  Although the stories in this volume are “selected by Robert Aickman”, he didn’t contribute either an introduction or a story of his own.  His selection includes:

“Clarimonde (La Morte Amoureuse)” by Théophile Gautier.  “My story is a strange and terrible one,” says the elderly priest Romauld as he recounts how at the very moment of his ordination, his eye falls upon an enticing stranger who tempts him to renounce his vows.  It is the titular Clarimonde, a lovely and debauched courtesan.  Summoned to her deathbed (“With her, death seemed but a last coquetry”), he is told that “the tombstone of Clarimonde should be sealed down with a triple seal, for, if report be true, it is not the first time she has died.”  Romauld learns that his love of the flesh may be stronger than his love of God, and the fact that Gautier (in Lafcadio Hearn’s silky translation) is ambiguous about which is the preferred choice makes this excellent story all the better.  “Clarimonde” was published in 1836, and it seems highly likely that the story was a big influence on Bram Stoker.  I hadn’t heard of Gautier before this, but based on “Clarimonde” I will be seeking out his other works.

“The Grey Ones” by J.B. Priestley.  From priests to Priestley.  Mr. Patson consults a psychiatrist about his worry that an “Evil Principle” seeks to “turn us into automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality, soulless machines of flesh and blood… to wipe from the face of this earth all wonder, joy, deep feeling, the desire to create, to praise life.”  Today, don’t we call this the internet?  

“The Door in the Wall” by H.G. Wells.  This is Wells’ well-anthologized poignant tale of the lost things of childhood.  It is miles away from his science fiction stories.

“Priscilla and Emily Lofft” by George Moore.  These two sisters were, at least superficially, “as alike as two casts come out of the same mold”, but now Priscilla has died, and Emily has time to reflect.  “The dead are never really dead, Emily said, until we cease to think of them.”  I must confess I missed the point of this story, or the reason for inclusion in this collection.

“Sorworth Place”, by Russell Kirk.  Former soldier Ralph Bain comes to Scotland and the town of Sorworth, finding that the “dirty and dreary little town” holds “a big ancient house, wraithlike against the heather and gorse and bracken.” Intrigued by the lovely proprietress of Sorworth Place, Bain wrangles an invitation.  As they draw closer, she tells him:
“Don’t you understand? I’m afraid of my husband.”
Bain stared at her. “Your husband? I understood – I thought he’s dead.”
“Quite,” said Ann Lurlin.
“Sorworth Place” is cozily ominous and eminently entertaining.  It was adapted, probably horribly, for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

“Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched”, by May Sinclair.  This is a bleak, sad, and savage tale of adultery and eternity.  Most of Sinclair’s work did not involve the supernatural, but based on this story any of her writings would be worth seeking out.

“Oke of Okehurst”, by Vernon Lee.  This novella is the basis for the cover illustration of the unfortunate Elizabethan gent in the ditch.  It takes up over a quarter of The 6th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, space which might have been used more wisely.  It is the story of an artist hired for a portrait of Mrs. Oke (of Okehurst), who greatly resembles a 16th century ancestor.  Lee (pen name of Violet Paget) takes a long time to get where she is going, and provides only mild enjoyment along the way.

“The Lips”, by Henry S. Whitehead.  Whitehead was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales and other pulps, and a good friend of H.P. Lovecraft.  He was best known for his West Indian-flavored stories.  “The Lips” is the simple story of a slave trader who gets a nasty comeuppance, although the racist language is the most unpleasant part.  It bears a strong resemblance to Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo”, which was published a few years before “The Lips”.

Monday, August 27, 2018

100 Favorite Horror Stories

NPR recently asked listeners to nominate their favorite horror reading.  There is a lot of familiar territory on the list, from Mary Shelley to Shirley Jackson, but there are also a number of intriguing lesser-knowns.  It's worth a look.  Here are some of the most interesting:

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Val Lewton was a master of horror.  Not the gory, gross kind of horror, but a very controlled, haunting, beautiful kind.  The Body Snatcher is an excellent example of his mastery.  Here, Robert Wise directed and Lewton produced, but he also rewrote Philip MacDonald’s script, taking a pseudonymous credit as Carlos Keith. 

The Body Snatcher is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, referencing the Burke and Hare resurrectionist murders.  Boris Karloff is the body snatcher Gray, chief supplier for the arrogant Dr. MacFarlane, played by Henry Daniell.  Daniell, in perhaps his largest role, is adequate but nothing more.  His character, coldly willing to sacrifice morals for the sake of scientific progress, tormented by Gray and by his own self-doubt, is a good one, but his performance is less than masterful.

Karloff, in the first of his three roles with Lewton, gives a memorable performance.  He portrays a man eaten by moral rot yet full of evil vitality; full of strong passions but pitiless.  He shows he can be monstrous without monster makeup, although in this case he is frighteningly human as well, brimming with bitterness and jealousy.  Karloff is very sinister here, but his portrayal is not without humanity and sympathy.  The mutual hatred between Gray and MacFarlane is sometimes muted in Daniell’s performance, but always strongly portrayed by Karloff.  Karloff said Lewton was “the man who rescued me from the living dead and restored my soul”, and here Lewton (and Wise) make him shine.

Also present is Bela Lugosi, but as MacFarlane’s servant Joseph he is underutilized. He is only there for his name on the credits, and in fact the theatrical trailer was designed to suggest that his part would be much larger.  Suffering from stomach ulcers and perhaps already a morphine addict, Lugosi looks quite ill, as if even this small part is an effort for him.  This was the last Karloff/Lugosi teaming.

As usual, Lewton manages to do a lot with a little: the shadowy world of 1830’s Edinburgh is competently evoked through a few simple sets; Gray’s horse and cab clop down narrow, cobbled lanes.  An angelic-voiced street singer lightens the darkness with her voice in many scenes.  This is psychological horror; despite the theme, there aren’t many shots of bodies or their parts.  It suggests rather than shows:  shadows on a wall of a vicious struggle while Gray’s cat watches on, a victim murdered off-screen in a dark tunnel, grave robbing on a dark and stormy night.  The ending sequence is perfect, a horror classic that burns into memory.

Here as in all of his films, Lewton put a great deal of effort into all aspects of the production, elevating it above the horror film standard.  In the wrong hands, The Body Snatcher could have been excruciatingly boring, just another B movie, but with Lewton’s attention to detail and artistry, and Karloff’s great performance, it really shines- a minor classic.