BOOK REVIEW: The Amityville Horror, by Jay Anson

Amityville-HorrorThe Amityville Horror is one of the seminal “true story” horror stories out there. The other is The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty, which we’ll be reading in a few weeks.

The story is, basically, that a family (George and Kathy Lutz and their three children) gets an incredible real estate “steal” in an affluent village on Long Island near New York City. The reason for the low, low price? It was the site of a horrible multiple murder just a year prior. Ronald DeFeo shot and killed six members of his family in their beds, in the middle of the night because he said, “I heard voices” (Anson 9). The unfortunate DeFeo family were all shot, execution-style, face down on their beds, in the back, at 3:15 a.m. No one in the neighborhood heard a thing. DeFeo was convicted of murder and sentenced to six consecutive life sentences.

A little over a year later, the Lutzes moved in just before Christmas. They endured an unbelievable series of strange events for 28 days, and then just abandoned the house and all their belongings.  They claimed they were attacked and tormented by demonic forces, and finally forced to leave, fearing for their lives.

I have to admit, I’ve read this book maybe a dozen times since it first came out. It scared the hell out of me the first few times, and the next few times I’d get a bit of a chill. Then finally I just gave my original copy away, because I’d decided that I had outgrown it. When I started this horror RIG I had to buy a new copy, and I noticed the publishers had updated it a bit for a more modern audience. This actually helped me get into the book again as a new-ish reader, and I have to admit that by the second or third night I was freaked out enough to wish I hadn’t left the book on my nightstand. So close to my head. In the dark.

Despite others’ complaints, I thought The Amityville Horror was pretty well written. The author, Jay Anson, was mostly a documentary film writer. Why someone thought he, of all people, should be the one to write this “true account” of a haunted house is a mystery. Nevertheless, I think he did a bang-up job. This book scared everybody when it came out, and if my experience is anything to go by, it’s still scaring people.

Some of the things I liked about this book:

  • My favorite scare is Jodie the Pig. That thing just freaks me out, and I like pigs. And the name Jodie.
  • George’s constantly waking up at 3:15 in the morning was a little scary too. Any time someone just wakes up at the same time every night makes me uneasy for some reason.
  • The strange siren call of the boathouse. Why was George so fixated on the boathouse? It’s never explained, and as far as I know nothing bad ever happened in there. So, weird.

Some of the things I didn’t like about this book:

  • George and Kathy Lutz. George was never a very sympathetic character, I felt. Anson tried to make out that George wanted this big house for Kathy “…George vowed to himself that if there was a way, this was the place he wanted his wife to have” (Anson 13). But all I saw was a self-centered guy with lots of big, expensive toys that needed housing (like his motorcycles, “a twenty-five foot cabin cruiser and a fifteen foot speed boat”), and low impulse control (Anson 16). Kathy was another classic Seventies Dishrag. When her son, Danny, has his hands weirdly crushed flat by a window frame, Anson writes, “There was as much of a storm raging inside 112 Ocean Avenue as outside, as Kathy chased after her husband asking him to call a doctor for Danny” (Anson 247). Really? Bitch doesn’t know how to use a phone?
  • I didn’t like how the Lutzes (mostly George) always kept Harry the dog outside in all kinds of horrible weather. To be fair, they did let him inside. Occasionally. The bastards.
  • Finally, I didn’t like how the authors of books like this always go out of their way to tell you how freaking religious the victims are. They always just happen to know a priest who’s not doing anything right now, so why don’t you come on over to our house and bless it?

Despite these complaints, I think everyone has to read The Amityville Horror at least once in their lives in order to consider themselves well-read, informed adults.

 

Anson, Jay, The Amityville Horror. 1977. New York: Pocket Star Books, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Shuster, Inc., 2005. Print.

MOVIE REVIEW: THE OTHERS

TheOthersThe Others, is a 2001 film written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar.  It stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, a woman living in a dreary and isolated mansion with her two children just after World War II. The children, Anne and Nicholas, have a rare genetic disorder that makes them dangerously sensitive to the light, so the house is always dark.  The family exists, more or less happily, in the house which is governed by a set of religiously strict rules, designed to protect the children. However when new servants arrive to replace the ones who have mysteriously disappeared, strange things begin to happen. Eventually, despite her staunch Catholicism, Grace becomes convinced that her house is haunted.

The filmmaker wanted to create a ghost story driven by atmosphere and mood, and not by gore, special effects and jump scares. He was also, reportedly, a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and wanted a twist ending. He accomplished all these goals, but in the process, I think, he proved that just by making a different ghost story, he didn’t necessarily make a better one.

By American standards, this film was slow. I say “American standards” because I think it did very well in the rest of the world. It did okay in the U.S., but that may have been mostly the result of the relatively new “twist ending” (The Sixth Sense had been released only two years earlier).

As far as my personal standards go, I found The Others to be slow too. It had great atmosphere, and the dark, depressing mood was effectively maintained throughout. I thought the setting (an isolated mansion somewhere in the U. K.), and the time period (the immediate aftermath of World War II) both combined to reinforce the gloomy feeling. Nicole Kidman was great, as always, and we even got to see a former Dr. Who, Christopher Eccleston, for a few moments.

I saw it when it first came out, and I have to admit, I missed a lot of the clues to the twist ending the first time (although I did get a feeling of something being not quite right after a while). Seeing it a second time it was easier to spot the clues. This was mostly because the film was so slow there was never any sense of being swept away by the action, or the story. And that’s the main problem with slow, atmospheric movies with twist endings – once you’ve seen it, it’s not really possible, or desirable, to see it again. Its whole essence is tied up in the surprise at the end, unfortunately.

Despite that, The Others pretty much single-handedly turned all our usual “haunted house” expectations on their heads. It was fresh and a little chilling to see a haunting from the ghosts’ perspective, even if the ghosts didn’t know they were ghosts until the very end. It also made us aware that behind every “exciting” ghost story there is a tragedy lurking in the background. In this case, Grace, driven mad by despair at the loss of her husband in the war, smothered her two children and then shot herself to death.

BOOK REVIEW: The Shining, By Stephen King

TheShiningStephen King’s The Shining is a dazzling, complex haunted house/ghost story. Maybe even the best ghost story ever written. Unlike previous ghost stories we have read in this course, there really are very compelling reasons for the hapless Torrance family to stay – financial ruin for all of them, and a probable slide back into alcoholism for Jack. So, unlike in The Haunting of Hill House, or Hell House (where the money being offered to stay is more like icing on the cake for those characters), the Torrance family doesn’t enter through the doors of the Overlook Hotel with a lighthearted sense of adventure, or a deep-seated grudge against academia. They are, quite literally, at the cliff’s edge with few options. Because of that, and because a lot of us have likely been at the edge of that very same cliff, we feel for them. We identify with them, and their very human struggles to hang on.

The story starts with a disgraced, former prep-school teacher, Jack Torrance, enduring a humiliating job interview for the position of winter caretaker at a prominent Rocky Mountain hotel. Oh, and did we mention – he just gave up drinking, and his writing career is in free fall. But, he has been given this one, last chance to redeem himself by his old, ex-drinking buddy. His old, rich, ex-drinking buddy – just take care of my famous, expensive hotel for the winter, and when spring comes, ta-da! We’ll get them to give you your old job back. Near-disaster averted. You and your family safe and sound, back in Vermont. It sounds like a great deal (and certainly any deal would sound like a good deal to Jack by this point), but he’s bitter, and resentful, and angry, and dying for a drink.

Jack gets the job and packs his wife, Wendy, and his precocious son, Danny, into the world’s most beat-up VW bug and heads into the mountains. They arrive on Closing Day, the last day of the Summer season, and meet one of my favorite characters – Dick Hallorann. Ex-Army cook, now the head chef for the Overlook Hotel. He has a secret he shares with Danny Torrance – the Shining, which is what he calls precognition, the ability to see events in the future. Before Dick leaves for his winter gig in Florida, he has a little chat with Danny and makes one of the most astonishing promises in all of fiction – If Danny ever needs him, he should just “shout” at him psychically, and Dick will come running. It is to Hallorann’s great credit that he does just that.

Alongside great good, there is also great evil here. The Overlook is a bitter, old whore, full of mean tricks and devious games. All the murders and suicides it’s seen, and maybe even facilitated, have given it a taste for human blood. It starts working on Jack right away, kind of like tenderizing a piece of meat before putting it on the grill. It really wants Danny (all that wonderful psychic power), but he is too strong for the direct approach. Wendy Torrance is barely considered as a possible conduit to Danny, presumably because it knew “Wendy would pour a can of gasoline over herself and strike a match before hurting Danny” (King 244). Jack’s father-son bond is apparently not quite as strong, at least as far as the Overlook is concerned.

Which brings me to my main complaint about this novel. As great as I think The Shining is, it is not perfect by any means. King’s prose would probably have a hard time getting by a conscientious editor nowadays. Like the infamous hedge animals, he could “use a trim”. Jack Torrance, the presumed protagonist, is an asshole trying very hard to imitate a good guy. Wendy Torrance is one of the worst dishrags of the Twentieth Century (and Shelly Duvall’s portrayal of her in the movie made her even more annoying, if that is possible). King’s female characters suffered mightily during the Sexist Seventies, with the low point occurring in ‘Salem’s Lot when grown woman Susan Norton (the protagonist, Ben Mears’, love interest) is reduced to taking orders from Mark Petrie, age 12.

Despite these flaws, I continue to enjoy The Shining. Stephen King’s grasp of premise, setting, pacing and, yes, even characterization, are spot-on. I love Danny, I understand Jack, and I commiserate with Wendy. Besides, which of us flawed neurotics would fare any better than Jack Torrance in the same situation? (Which makes me wonder – does the real-life counterpart of The Overlook Hotel, the Stanley Hotel, also close for the winter? And also hire a caretaker…?) Food for thought.

King, Stephen, The Shining. New York: Signet Books, a division of Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1978. Print.

Structure Part 3–Introducing the Opposition

My story needs a good “antagonist”, you say? Bleh. I need a Big Bad Troublemaker in my story? Awesome! NOW you’re talking.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Welcome to Part III of my Structure Series. If you happened to read Friday’s blog, then you know that it is okay not to know everything. I still don’t. I do want to take a quick segue here, though. I think a lot of people might have seen the title to Friday’s blog The Big Lie—No More Drinking the Publishing Kool-Aid and thought I was going to tear down the establishments of traditional publishing. I will grant, publishing is changing and that’s a topic for another day. There are all kinds of other ways to get published, but here is the deal. If you want to self-publish or indie publish, I would assume most of you want to be successfully published, regardless the format or distributor. To be considered “successfully published” we have to sell a lot of books. To sell a lot of books, we must connect with readers. That…

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Introducing Deep POV—WTH IS It? Can We Buy Some on Amazon?

Kristin Lamb’s SUPER POWER is the ability to take writing advice I’ve heard a thousand times (and *yawned* at) and make it SPARKLE. I suddenly GET “deep POV”.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

If you are a writer who has a goal of selling books it is wise to remember that audiences are not static. They change. Their tastes change with the times and we need to understand what is “trending” if we want to connect and entertain. Many new writers look to the classics for inspiration and there isn’t anything per se wrong with that, but we must reinvent the classics, not regurgitate them.

Even if you look at the fashion trends, sure some styles “come back around” but they are not exact replicas of the past. They are a modernized version. But keep in mind that some fashion styles never come back. They’ve outlived their usefulness and belong in the past. Same with fiction.

Story trends and fashions change along with the audience. For instance, Moby Dick spends an excruciatingly long time…

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