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.

Buy The Woman in Black from Amazon to completely terrify yourself… and also support this blog!

Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales by Vernon Lee

Read: 4 July, 2012

Hauntings is a collection of short fiction by a somewhat little known late 19th/early 20th century writer. Most of the stories don’t deal with actual hauntings, per se, but rather with weird, possibly supernatural events.

Some of the stories, like “Amour Dure,” pulled off the suspense quite well. Others, like “Dionea,” were weaker. Regardless, they all had interesting ideas behind them.

“Oke of Okehurst” and “A Wicked Voice” worked well as a pair (and kudos to the editor for putting them together) – one centring the story around art and the other around music.

All of the stories showed an impressive depth of knowledge and a brilliant mind, but they lacked “tightness” and narrative skill. It was truly a shame because I found the stories so interesting, but had to struggle through their dryness.

If you’re interested in the time period and want to read something from a more off-the-beaten-track author, I do recommend giving Hauntings a try.

Buy Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales from Amazon and support this blog!

Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell

Read: 26 February, 2010

I’ve always loved horror stories, and I fell in love with Elizabeth Gaskell in University. So when I saw that Penguin had a collection of Gaskell’s Gothic short stories, I knew I had to buy it immediately.

And it did not disappoint!

Gothic Tales is a collection of stories ranging from “wonder stories” to horror. While not of the same calibre as her novels, these are none-the-less the products of a master storyteller.

I’d say that this collection is definitely a ‘must have’ for fans of Gaskell, Victorian literature, or the Gothic genre.

Buy Gothic Tales from Amazon to support this blog!

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.

Buy Dracula from Amazon to support this blog while you get your vampire fix!

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Read: 20 December, 2009

Will Graham is tracking down the Red Dragon killer, but he needs a little help to get into the mind of the beast. It is Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer, who provides Graham with the dues he needs to solve the case. But Lecter has his own motivations, and Graham must outwit him if he’s ever to catch the Red Dragon.

This was an interesting story with some pretty good suspense. However, after having seen the movie, I found the character of Hannibal Lecter to be somewhat lacking. Anthony Hopkins was able to give Lecter an almost god-like presence, and to appear simultaneously enticing and frightening. His dialogue, his expression, everything about movie-Lecter made him the perfect monster. By comparison, book-Lecter seemed only half-developed. It was really quite disappointing, especially since the book format offers so much more opportunity for character development.

But the book was quite good, and it’s certainly an easy read. Certainly, a great choice for beach reading now that the summer is here.

Don’t eat people! Buy Red Dragon from Amazon to support this blog instead! Continue reading

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.

Buy Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier from Amazon to support this blog!

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!

Buy Perfume: The Story of a Murderer from Amazon to support this blog!

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Read: 5 May, 2008

After reading The Monk, I thought that the Gothic genre was pretty neat-o. So I looked up for some other books in the genre and The Mysteries of Udolpho kept coming up, so I took a chance and bought it. It took me eons to read. In fact, I did give up at one point and read Tom Sawyer and Hearts in Atlantis before picking it up again. But I have an obsession with finishing every book that I start, so I was determined. I took notes while I was reading of everything I didn’t like, so I will go through negatives first:

The biggest negative is the pacing. A full two hundred and change pages pass before anything happens. That’s right, the first third of the novel is essentially a travel narrative with some old dying guy and his personality-less daughter as the travellers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a novel that toys with crossing genres and becoming a travel narrative (I did like Black Mountain, after all), but the descriptions of the scenery were altogether too Romantic for my tastes. Romantics are as stuck up, pompous, and self-absorbed as the Victorians, but a trait I find endearing in the latter is made annoying in the former by being caste under the pretence of artistic genius (those of you who know me know that I make a distinction between “artists” and “artistes” – I am incapable of being in the same room as the latter without wanting to hit something, whereas I find artists to be, on the whole, quite nice people).

On the whole, only about a third of the novel takes place in the titular location. But there was more to it than just a slow-moving novel (which, again, in and of itself is not a terrible thing). What made it infuriating was that the main character seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. A new plot line, or short-term goal, would be introduced and she would resolve to take care of it. It would then be dropped entirely as though it had never happened until dozens of pages later where she suddenly remembers and takes care of it. A good example of this occurs near the beginning where Emily’s father instructs her to burn some secret letters. She gives him a solemn promise, goes to where the letters are, and then spends pages and pages moaning about how sad life is before she finally gets to the letters. At this point, my next complaint is made into example. Emily reads a bit of the letter, doesn’t tell the reader what it says, alludes to how “shocking!” the content of the letters is several times, but does not actually explain what she read until a full 450 pages later!

That’s right, dear Ms. Radcliffe seemed to have lived under the mistaken impression that frustration = suspense. Several times, Emily makes shocking discoveries that horrify her, but she refuses to tell the reader what those discoveries are. Worse yet, Emily will seem to forget all about them as soon as she is done being shocked – at least until another shocking discovery prompts her memory.

In fact, Emily’s forgetfulness is a major theme in the novel. It comes up as part of another complaint that I will mention in a minute. For example, when she and her suitor, Valancourt, are forced to part, he makes her promise that she will always look at the setting sun. The idea is that he would do the same and that they would be “together” even when apart by knowing that they are both looking on the same object. Sweet and romantic, right? Well, yes, it is… the first night. Emily whines away while she watches the sun set. This promise is then never mentioned again. Never. By either Emily or Valancourt. This isn’t just a case of sunsets not being mentioned because there are oodles of sunsets in the novel. Emily just doesn’t seem to care that much about the “solemn promise” she makes to the love of her life.

Which is my next complaint: there are two Emilys in the novel. One is the Emily constructed by the narrator, the Emily that we are told about. The other is the Emily we see, through the things she says and the actions she takes (or, in this case, doesn’t take). These two Emilys are rarely in agreement.

Another complaint I had was that objects and characters appear and disappear depending on the plot’s need for them. A major example of this is Emily’s dog. Whenever it is needed to wake Emily up to spot an intruder, or growl when there is a need for absolute silence, it will appear. As soon as it’s done filling out this function, the dog promptly disappears. Relating to the last point I made, the narrator tells us again and again how much Emily loves this dog, feels comforted by this dog, and dotes on this dog. And yet, we never once see her cuddling it, petting it, stroking it, looking to it for comfort when afraid, or anything else of the sort.

There are other continuity errors. For example, Emily escapes Udolpho in the middle of the night, with no warning whatsoever, and from a place that is not her bedroom. And yet she somehow has the presence of mind to carry with her a large box of letters and all the drawings she’s made since going to the castle. Maybe she hides them under her skirts or something?

The final negative that I will mention is that Valancourt is a thoroughly despicable character. Honestly, Jane Eyre‘s Rochester is a sensitive and romantic boyfriend compared to this guy. He bears every mark of the abusive boyfriend. Not only does he accuse Emily of not really loving him whenever she doesn’t want to do something he wants, he will also stalk her (to the point that her gardener shoots him thinking that he’s a burglar) when she refuses to marry him. After all that, he flies into a rage when she (rightfully) wonders if he loves her, trying to physically restrain her! And for all the noble chivalry the narrator keeps telling us he expresses, he allows his girlfriend to be taken into a situation that he knows is dangerous for her and doesn’t even try to save her from it (except, of course, trying to terrify her into marrying him with threats of violence – you know, from other men… that he’d be saving her from… obviously…).

He’s also just so whiny. It’s totally pathetic. He knows that he is distressing her, she’s in tears and begging him to stop and leave her alone, but he just whines and whines and whines at her. He will even admit that he is distressing her and that he should stop, but the very next sentence out of his mouth is more whining!

All in all, I found that he was incredibly similar in his behaviour to the Count Morano – the bad guy, the guy we are supposed to hate, the guy Emily spends a third of the novel terrified of. The way he acts toward Emily is nearly identical. In fact, he even tries to scare Emily into marrying him by telling her that Morano will hurt her – using the same tactic the Count uses, except that he’s passing off the obvious part of the blame to someone else!

There’s plenty more that I could mention, but those are the major points and this post is getting pretty long. In terms of positives, I must admit that I struggle to find any. There were some instances of humour that had me chuckling, but they were too few and too far between to really count them as any kind of saving grace. I did like that every single instance of the supernatural was resolved (even if poorly) and shown to have perfectly natural explanations. And, of course, the novel is a classic and has a lot to offer if looked at as a historical document.

All in all, it’s a book that I hated reading but that I am glad to have read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, though. This is one of the few books that I think might be better enjoyed in a heavily abridged or cliff-note form.

Buy The Mysteries of Udolpho from Amazon to support this blog!

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

A big thank you to Alyson for suggesting and lending me this book.

Read: 17 December, 2007

The small English town of Midwich has had a largely uneventful history until one day, September 26th, when every living creature for a mile around fell asleep. When they awoke a day later, every woman of childbearing age found herself pregnant. The babies (31 boys and 30 girls), when born, seem strange. They have glowing golden eyes and seem to age at about twice the normal rate.

I’d seen both movie adaptations, but I had no idea there was a book. I very much enjoyed reading it. The writing style is absolutely delightful and the pure English-ness of Midwich comes through beautifully. It was interesting, too, that the novel is told from the perspective of someone other than the protagonist.

Anyways, I highly recommend it to any fans of Science Fiction, the English countryside, or just interesting writing styles. It’s a fairly short book, easily read through in an evening, so there’s really no excuse not to pick it up.

Buy The Midwich Cuckoos from Amazon to support this blog!