Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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Aliens by Mark Verheiden (art by Mark A. Nelson)

Read: 19 August, 2017

Rendered non-canonical by Aliens3, Aliens takes up the story of Newt and Hicks, several years after their return to earth (due to legal issues, Ripley is inexplicably absent).

Aliens, the movie, struck a chord for people because it wasn’t just about the action – it was about the characters. When shit hit the fan, viewers cared because we had come to know and like the people it was happening to (except for Paul Reiser’s Burke – he was terrible). And in the end, we loved the little family Ripley had made for herself.

That’s what Aliens3 got so very wrong. Ripley’s whole arc, the whole process of building a new community while surrounded by the cold, machine-like xenomorphs, all got tossed out of the airlock when they killed Newt and Hicks in the opening credits. The movie failed on many other levels, too, of course, but destroying the bonds formed in Aliens right off the bat would have doomed it regardless.

Aliens makes the same mistake. Newt and Hicks are alive, of course, but the opening finds Newt in a mental institution and Hicks back in the army, and they don’t talk. They’ve come back to earth and gone their separate ways and that was that. There’s some bit further in where Hicks decides to save Newt because he did it before so why not, but that’s really about it.

These are two traumatised people with experiences that are literally out of this world, and no one can possibly understand what they’ve been through except each other. Why wouldn’t they have stuck close to each other?

Apart from what they’ve done with existing characters, the story itself is fine. It hops around too much, and there’s this whole weird bit where the xenomorphs suddenly have psychic powers for some reason. The bit about the religious cult forming around the aliens was interesting, but the story keeps jumping around too much and I never really got a grasp on who the preacher was or where he got his information from (except for the psychic communication stuff, which just came off as silly).

As much as I loved getting to see Newt again (and her arc was a decent one once it actually got started), I think the comic would have been better served by narrowing its focus. It could have focused on the preacher, or focused on Newt, or focused on Hicks, and any one of those would have made for a much better story. But, instead, the strategy seemed to be to throw as much at the reader as possible and hope that something sticks.

Which is another lesson the comic didn’t learn from Alien and Aliens. Both of those are very simple stories – xenomorph appears, Ripley survives. There are vague bits and bobs about shadowy corporations, but all the other content comes from just spending time with the individual characters – getting to like them, getting a feel for their motivations. Whatever is happening off-location is not part of the story.

The artwork is fine. I found that some of the key characters lack definition, so I had some trouble telling them apart. This wasn’t helped by all the plot-jumping. It’s in a realist style that isn’t really my bag of cats, but it does the job. I did appreciate all the detail put into each panel, which gave it some of that crowded, dark, mechanical atmosphere that the movies do well.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 13 May, 2017

A young and inexperienced girl suddenly finds herself married to a widower twice her age. Right from the start, the relationship is utterly unequal – by age, by class, and by knowledge. While the girl struggles to find her place as mistress of a great house, she finds enemies in every servant, every neighbour.

This is something of a slow burn story, a “psychological horror” that relies far more on building a creepy atmosphere than on any overt sorts of scares. And du Maurier does it so very well.

Not only is the narration itself beautiful and poetic, every word has a place, every nuance and connotation and evoked imagery is used to great effect.

Du Maurier does an amazing job of controlling the tension in every scene. The most memorable example of this is the preparation for the costume ball, where it’s immediately obvious that disaster is coming. It’s even fairly obvious what that disaster will be (at least in its generalities). But du Maurier holds back, building and building the tension by describing how very happy the protagonist, and how very much she is not anticipating what we know is about to happen to her. I could hardly breathe through that entire, rather lengthy scene.

The characters are all – down to the very last speaking part – alternately monstrous and sympathetic. I hated Maxim, I sympathised with Maxim, I hated Maxim. My heart broke for the protagonist, I found her insufferable, my heart broke for her. The same again with Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers, with Favell… And it was all seamless, without any inconsistency in their characters.

This is, quite simply, what a masterfully written novel looks like. It may not appeal to everyone, particularly those who don’t enjoy the slow burn type or who have some sort of weird, quasi-inhuman aversion to gothic trappings, but it is a good novel.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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Experimental Film by Gemma Files

Read: 26 September, 2016

I picked up A Book of Tongues on a whim a few years ago, but I had trouble with the writing style and never really got into it. At that point, I had largely written off Files until a friend gave Experimental Film a good review. Even better? He mentioned that she’s Canadian! Well, it seemed rather clear that I would have to give her another shot.

Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, a former film history teacher and current nothing. Out of work, and with her only experience in a field she isn’t qualified to work in, she finds herself stuck caring for her autistic son, and desperate to create an identity for herself.

The novel is a ghost story, but it’s also about the frustration of needing to mean something – particularly as a stay-at-home parent and the parent of a child who needs more than the average amount of attention.

It follows the standard psychological thriller of never being quite clear whether the supernatural enemy is really real, or whether the protagonist is simply losing her mind. I liked that, in this story, the protagonist is at the very centre of everything. There are characters who believe in the supernatural enemy and there are characters who don’t, but they all circle around the protagonist – they are all convinced, or not, by her (as opposed to the version of the story where the protagonist goes to the small town where everyone believes in the enemy but only she actually sees it, for example – such a town does exist in Experimental Film, but only historically).

Where Files adds to that standard horror trope is in having an enemy of a perfectly mundane sort – an obsessive and unpredictable stalker who is seemingly unstoppable. And while I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mrs Whitcomb/Lady Midday, Lois’s human enemy had my stomach in knots.

Which is as good a segue way as any to my thoughts on Lady Midday. In short, meh. There was some very creepy imagery, and I certainly felt primed to be scared several times throughout the novel, but there was never any “but whose hand was I holding?” moment. When I read The Woman In Black, I was forced to plough through a large portion of the book in a single sitting because I was too afraid to get out of bed, but Experimental Film never brought me anywhere close to that point. And at the end, when Lady Midday is finally confronted, she just didn’t live up to the hype. Files made the mistake of showing us the shark, and Lady Midday lost her creepiness.

I did really enjoy Experimental Film, even if it didn’t quite work for me as horror. The discussions of film were fantastic, and Lois’s descriptions of the Canadian film scene, in particular, were especially interesting. I have a friend who is a film-maker here, who participates in the festivals and such, and so I’ve gotten to see glimpses of that world through her. Getting to live it – albeit vicariously – here was a real treat.

I liked the writing style a lot better than A Book of Tongues. Lois is something of a meandering narrator, but it fit her character. In this case, the narrative style actually added something to the character development. It helped that her asides were often very interesting. This was one of those books that I fell into and read very quickly without needing to get myself another cuppa every few minutes.

The characterisations were, on the whole, excellently done. Most of the characters felt real – in that it was very easy to see myself in Lois (as a woman who was tricked into being a stay-at-home parent by economics and who is currently trying to re-enter the workforce and finding my self-confidence to be a little lacking), I’ve known Wrobs and Safies and Lees and Simons. They all felt like real people. Mostly. Doctors and cops felt a little removed, a little absurd. Dr. Harrison, in particular, didn’t act like any doctor I’ve ever met – he behaved so unprofessionally. But these are very minor characters that are only encountered briefly, and they are almost lost in the sea of excellent, rounded people.

The discussion of autism in the book was a little difficult for me. A large part of Lois’s character arc is in her coming to love (and be loved by) her autistic son, Clark. That acceptance of who he is is hard won, which means seeing a number of scenes in which she is demanding that he make eye contact, complaining about him, and even saying rather horrendous things about him while he’s right there on the assumption that he just won’t understand. This is an accurate representation of how many parents treat their autistic children, but it’s a painful one to watch. I can’t exactly fault a horror book for giving me the heebies, but this way of treating autistic children is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to tell if Files is refuting or simply parroting it. And, at some point, even unflattering portrayals are only adding to the noise. So even though Lois has her epiphany at the end, I still found the scenes discussing Clark to be very uncomfortable.

Experimental Film is a fun little horror, with an emphasis on the mystery rather than on the scares. It’s a psychological horror, too, with plenty to doubt about our narrator’s reliability. It’s a fast read, and it’s an interesting one. That it deals so authentically with Ontario and the Canadian film scene is an added bonus.

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Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

Read: 2 November, 2015

Shock Value tells the story of New Horror, the mostly independent movement in the 1970s to revitalize the genre, breaking from what had become the standard in horror: formulaic monster movies with the occasional gimmick (theatre seats with buzzers!) thrown in. The book tracks a few of the major players, like Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, George Romero, and Dan O’Bannon.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the horror genre – so much so that I rarely watch anything else. So much so that Netflix can’t keep up with my consumption habits, even when I’ll happily watch their 1-2 star selections. But I tend to stick to my role of consumer, and I often don’t know the histories or the names of the directors (the catalogue enthusiast part of my brain is already sufficiently occupied by other topics). So it was interesting to me to get a little of the backstory.

Unfortunately, Shock Value felt a bit flat. The author hops around from figure to figure, and I think that I would have found it very confusing if I didn’t already know many of the names. Chapters just sort of meandered until they reached their page length, and I didn’t get the sense that they had focus or purpose.

Generally, I guess my complaint is just that the book “lacks soul.” It throws out the information, but it doesn’t dig deep, it doesn’t tell a story. The closest it got was in the discussions with Dan O’Bannon, who seems like he could have justified a whole book himself. That’s where Zinoman’s passion peeked through, and I was intrigued enough to look up more information. But for the rest, the writing just felt very flat, telling anecdotes in a detached and almost haphazard way.

For fans of horror, the book might still be worthwhile, and there were certainly bits and pieces of interesting information. But it could have been presented in a better way. It’s clear from O’Bannon’s sections that Zinoman does have passion, and I hope he let’s himself show it a little more in future works.

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John Dies At The End by David Wong

Read: 26 August, 2014

After taking a hit of Soy Sauce, John and David start to see things, scary things, horrible things. Next thing they know, they’re trying to save the world.

John Dies is rather haphazard. It’s very funny (you know, penis and poop jokes funny) and reasonably scary (i had one night where I briefly considered leaving the hall light on), but it’s all over the place.

It was a fun read, and the titular John was absolutely hilarious (gotta love the puns), but it just never seemed to go anywhere. the final portion of the book, where the author tries to give an explanation for all the weird stuff, feels very forced. It’s rather clear that he hadn’t really thought through where the story was going until he got there, and no amount of world-destroying dog diarrhea can cover that up.

It’s brain candy – no nutrition, but enjoyable enough in moderation.

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The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels by Henry James

Read: 1 May, 2014
An International Episode
Quite an interesting story about national stereotypes, complete with an interesting twist. I rather liked Bessie Alden – who is independent, interesting, and quite a bit smarter than the condescending male characters. I was quite impressed with the way so many stereotypes were tackled.

Daisy Miller: A Study
Daisy is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl!

I quite enjoyed the story for the same reasons that I liked An International Episode – over and over again, Daisy Miller is defined by others based on her nationality, social status, and gender, and over and over again she shows herself to be far more complex than the simplistic ways in which she is viewed. It helped, of course, that the first part of the story is set in the area where I grew up and that the characters visit my very favourite castle.

The twist ending was unfortunate. It fit too neatly into the idea that women cannot survive social disgrace, even if we are meant to sympathize with them (as we’ve seen in Gaskell’s Ruth or Dickens’s Oliver Twist).

The Aspern Papers
A scathing look at the rights/morality of biographers. The main character is a huge fan of the deceased poet Aspern, and he infiltrates the home of an ageing former-lover of Aspern’s in order to find the titular papers – presumably letters that the woman may have kept from the poet. The story focuses on the invasion of privacy, and what rights public figures may have to their privacy – particularly after death.

The story is interesting and the descriptions of Venice are quite wonderful, but it felt personal and very bitter. All in all, a disturbing story.

The Altar of the Dead
I guess the theme of this story was forgiveness? I don’t know. It felt like an attempt at a Gothic tale, what with the creepiness of the guy who is so obsessed with death that he only seems to like people once they are deceased. But the story was odd, in a bad way. I felt bored reading it, as it lacked the intrigue and variation of the earlier stories. By the end, I just felt unsatisfied.

Turn of the Screw
Unfortunately, I accidentally watched a movie adaptation of this story fairly recently, and I think that my perception was much worsened by knowing when and how the next scare would be occurring. Despite this, I found the atmosphere creepy and the story compelling, even if the ending did feel rather rushed.

The story’s introduction was a nice touch, particularly where the teller, upon hearing a creepy story about a kid, introduces his own story by saying “you think that was creepy? Well, my story has two kids!!” (paraphrase, obviously.)

Beast in the Jungle
As with Altar of the Dead, I could never really grasp what I was reading. The story just went on and on with no real payoff.

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Read: 5 January, 2014

Having seen various versions of this story, including the 1999 movie with Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp, I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from Irving’s story. I mean, of course there would have been some fudging of the details, but the basic plot would surely remain the same.

Nope.

In fact, the headless horseman barely gets a mention. Most of the story follows Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster from Connecticut with a rapacious appetite for food, as he tries to court a young heiress. Of course, he is primarily attracted to this beautiful and wealthy heiress because her lands include all sorts of food – pigs for meat, apples for pies and ciders, etc.

Only at the beginning, when the setting is described, and at the very end, is the headless horseman even mentioned.

It’s a funny story, with a lot of humorous imagery that would make it a great children’s tale. It also isn’t scary in the least.

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The Fog by Scott Allie, illustrated by Todd Herman, Andy Owens, & Dave Stewart

Read: 30 October, 2013

This is a graphic novel tie in with the release of the really-not-so recent remake of The Fog (2005). It takes place before the events in the film, explaining how the cursed leper colony came to be on the ship that haunts the fog.

Much like the film itself (I haven’t seen the original, so no comments on that), I found it utterly unmemorable. There are several interweaving plots, but none are explored in any depth. The narrative just skips around, ensuring that no creepy atmosphere can be cultivated and that I cannot form any sort of sympathetic bond with any character. It’s a classic racial revenge plot that relies completely on the reader having compassion for ethnic stereotypes, in lieu of showing us actual people to root for. The result is that we root for the Chinese miners because they are Chinese, not because we like (or even know) them as individuals.

The art work matches perfectly. It’s competent, perfectly decent, but completely unmemorable.

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