The Troop by Nick Cutter

Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

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 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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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Read: 13 December, 2012

When the widow Mrs Alice Drablow dies, Arthur Kipps is sent to her home – Eel Marsh House – to sort through her papers for anything of legal relevance. But before he even reaches the house, he encounters the woman in black, and everything is changed.

I watched the 1989 film with Adrian Rawlins a few years ago and very much enjoyed it. It’s a psychological horror that focuses more on the creepy atmosphere than showing gross stuff or having things that go “boo!” So when I found out recently that there was a book, I decided that I just had to give it a read!

And I am so glad I did!

The book is everything I loved about the movie, dialed up. Right from the start, the atmosphere is so creepy that I had several moments in my reading when I was too scared to put the book down and get out of bed. Hill uses very subtle things (a noise, a woman just standing at a window, a thick fog, an open door), but weaves them together in a terrifying (and relentless) way.

My main complaint with a lot of horror is that it seems to confused “frightening” with “gross.” This is never more clear than in most of the torture porn/horror flicks that Hollywood keeps churning out. I like to be frightened, I find it thrilling! But I do not like to be grossed out. The Woman in Black is the first horror I’ve seen in a long while – in any medium – that sets grossness aside completely. And that makes me so very very happy.

As all my Facebook and book club friends will attest, I have been absolutely raving about this book. It’s super short – just 150 page in my copy – and a very easy read, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go.

P.S.: The final line (“They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”) is so absolutely perfect that it deserves it’s own separate mention.

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Read: 7 February, 2010

I took a course during my university career on Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by a heavily accented Ukrainian woman with very little qualification in the subject other than personal interest. The class structure was very informal. We had a reading list, but the syllabus included notes for each book where watching the movie would be a suitable alternative. Dracula was one such book, although the syllabus stipulated that only one version would be acceptable.

This was the same year that I was taking Victorian Literature and Colonial Literature, both courses assigning full length novels on a bi-weekly basis. I read so much that I got eye-fatigue and had to wear glasses for the rest of the year. I read so much that one of the professors (the Victorian Lit one) apologized to my mother at graduation. If I could lessen me reading load by one book, all the better.

I’m glad that I took advantage of the movie option because  I was so harried by schoolwork at the time that I was reading far too superficially – skimming to intake just enough for the tests but not enough for enjoyment. So I was able to approach the book a few years later with a clean impression and all the time chance and nature give us.

I didn’t realize from the movie or pop culture that the book is written entirely in letter, news articles, and diary entries. In the story, this style is explained when one of the main characters collects all the story’s fragments from the other characters and compiles them chronologically (so that they can examine and compare what they know so far about the story’s baddy). It’s done wonderfully, adding a sense of realism to the story.

The epistolary style is rarely done well. With the more usual narrative style, characterization is easier to fudge. But when characters are given their own voices, it suddenly becomes much more obvious if the author fails to give them unique personalities – or, just as bad, tries to differentiate them with the use of cheap gimmicks. But Bram Stoker pulls it off perfectly, making Dracula the single best example of the multiple narrator style that I’ve ever seen.

I really can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this book. It’s brilliantly written, the plot is interesting, the characters have depth, the suspense is maintained, and there’s an actual ending (something of a rarity among those easily-distracted Victorians). Other than a few points of plot, it’s really nothing like any of the pop culture we’re all familiar with.

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Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 17 November, 2009

The thing that struck me the most about this collection of stories is that it could have been classed as travel narratives just as easily as horror. I found it so interesting to read about exotic locations while at the same time getting a wonderfully-crafted suspense story!

Don’t Look Now

I wanted to read this story after seeing the excellent movie with Donald Sutherland, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! The pacing is delightfully slow with great suspense-building, and the story has one of the most fabulous final lines I’ve ever read.

Not After Midnight

A schoolmaster holidays in Crete, hoping to work on his painting. But while there, he notices strange things starting to happen… An interesting story about madness and paranoia as the schoolmaster becomes obsessed with fellow vacationers.

A Border-Line Case

Shelagh’s father dies, his final words some kind of plea, or perhaps an accusation. Confused and racked by guilt, she decides to find Nick, the estranged best man at her parents’ wedding, to learn more about her father’s past. This story was excellent, a crazy psychological “mindfuck” with a great twist ending.

The Way of the Cross

A group of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem meet with disaster. This is possibly the most character-focused story in the collection, but also the least interesting.

The Breakthrough

This is a story of science gone awry. The main character gets a new job with a team of scientists trying to find a new energy source. He quickly realizes that something far more sinister is going on. An interesting story with some really great lines, though not the best treatment of scientific ethics.

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Spirit by J.P. Hightman

Read: 15 January, 2010

Tess and Tobias Goodraven haven’t been normal since being orphaned in a fire as children. Since then, they have sought to contact the ‘Other Side.’ When they heard that a notoriously haunted ghost town close to Salem was being re-opened to the public for a winter festival, they couldn’t resist exploring the power of the three witches who never truly died. But what they find is far more dangerous than any hauntings they’ve encountered before.

The dust jacket of my edition says that Hightman is a screenwriter – and it shows. The novel is completely visual, as though no other sense mattered. There is little consideration for style and the timing of scares, which would work just fine in Hollywood but falls flat in print. Characters are one-dimensional. What little personality exists is told to the reader – their actions and speech rarely matching the image the narrator tries to impose. In the end, the twist was utterly predictable, made all the worse for Hightman’s lack of trust in his readers as he repeats it, over and over again, in every conceivable way lest we should fail to catch his cleverness.

To say one positive thing about Spirit, the mechanics of the writing are all correct – making the book bearable if not enjoyable.

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Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Read: 3 December, 2008

I was recommended this book by a German foreign-exchange student during my fourth year at University. We were taking a class together on First Nations Literature and I mentioned to her that I wanted to read more continental European books but that I had a hard time finding out which ones would be good. She suggested this one.

I must admit that my immediate curiosity led me to watch the movie before I had the chance to buy the book. The movie was amazing and confirmed the recommendation. In comparison with the book, the movie stands alone. That being said, it isn’t as good as the book overall. There was only one part where I felt that it surpassed the book – the scene where Grenouille murders the first girl. In the book version, he just kills her, smells her, and leaves. There’s no emotional whatsoever. In the movie version, on the other hand, he kills her, smells her, and then freaks out when her scent starts to dissipate. I found that to be a more likely reaction for a character like Grenouille, and I’m really not sure why he was so calm about the scent leaving the world forever in the book.

Actually, now that I think about it, I think I liked the part where he kills the final girl a bit better in the movie as well. Because it’s from Richis’s point of view, that scene is played out like a horror movie and really serves to build up the tension. In the book, on the other hand, it’s all from Grenouille’s point of view, so we just get his cold and methodical thinking. He even tells us over and over again that he can smell the rest of the household sleeping, so there’s no suspense.

But these are just small complaints. The book was amazing and absolutely disgusting. I loved the way the world was captured in smells. It was clearly difficult since our language is so visually based. But Suskind managed to avoid simply writing “the room smelled like there was a fire in the corner, and an old woman sitting in a rocking chair.” Rather, each of these individual smells would be broken down into their smelling components, like the type of wood being burned, or the old cheesy smell of the woman. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how disgusting the book was, but it was a great fun reading!

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