BOOK REVIEW: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist

The Exorcist starts in Iraq, where an old priest on an archeological dig discovers a small amulet of the Assyrian demon, Pazuzu. He returns to America in a hurry, convinced he’s about to meet an old adversary very soon.  It then switches to Georgetown University where Hollywood actress, Chris MacNeil, is shooting a movie. She and her eleven year old daughter, Regan, are living in a rented house near the school while the film is in production. Regan is a sweet kid who also plays with a Ouija board and has a mysterious playmate she calls “Captain Howdy”. Soon strange poltergeist-like things start happening to Regan, and the situation gets very bad, very quickly. When the best doctors around can’t pin down the cause of Regan’s problems, they recommend she get in touch with an exorcist. Her mother, an atheist, gets in touch with the resident psychiatrist priest at Georgetown, Damien Karras, because there is literally nothing else to do.

Karras, a poor boy from Brooklyn whom the Church took in and educated, recently lost his mother. He is suffering heavy-duty guilt and has lost his faith. He reluctantly agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist, but her mother keeps pushing for an exorcism.  Chris knows there’s something horribly wrong with her child, which she’s been told is not medical, while Karras is blinded by his scientific skepticism and lack of faith in God, or Devil.

I loved this book when it came out, along with the movie which came out two years later. (Yes, people really did faint and vomit during the movie. And run out of the theater.) Even though there is a lot of dissension when it comes to comparing movies to the books that they are based on, and vice versa, The Exorcist wins either way. Because the book’s author was also the screenplay writer, it is nearly impossible to discuss the book without also discussing the movie — The characters in the book are brought to perfect life in the movie, which made everyone — writer, readers, audience and producers — very happy.

Just like all the other “true account” stories we’ve read this semester, The Exorcist is based on a true story, but unlike all those other books this one really stands the test of time.  A big reason is that Blatty created some great characters in The Exorcist – Damien Karras is my favorite tortured priest. His adorable colleague, Father Joe Dyer, is adorable. Detective Kinderman is my favorite Columbo-impersonator, and Burke Dennings, the movie director, is an artistic genius in the field of profanity. Chris MacNeil and Regan are also well-drawn characters, just scaled down to more normal “human” proportions than the others. The Exorcist is also much more than a hair-raising story of demonic possession, and Hollywood shenanigans.  It is a deeply felt story of faith and redemption, and one of the few books to address the question of evil in the world in a sincere and thoughtful manner. Pretty heavy tunes for a “horror story”.

Incidentally, The Exorcist is loosely based on an actual exorcism performed on a boy in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri by a Jesuit priest. Blatty heard the story while he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Honestly, this book practically wrote itself.

We should all be so lucky.

Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. 1971. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1994. Print.

MOVIE REVIEW: Paranormal Activity, directed by Oren Peli

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Paranormal Activity is one of those “found footage” horror films that surfaces every few years to scare the latest crop of high school and college students. These horror fans generally love them because there’s always that slight possibility that they might be real. Movie studios love them unconditionally because they are always so damned profitable.

Paranormal Activity is the story of a woman, Katie, living with her boyfriend, Micah, in his house in San Diego, California. Micah is a day trader, and Katie is a student. Katie has already revealed to Micah that she’s been bothered by some kind of ghost ever since she was a kid before the movie starts. Also, early in the movie, Katie brings in a psychic who tells them she is haunted by a demon that feeds off negative energy, and that she should not communicate with it. Naturally, Micah has the idea to put a video camera in their bedroom so it can record what, if anything, happens while they’re asleep. Oh, and he also sets about looking for ways to communicate with it.

That this couple is in trouble is apparent early on.

Despite Katie’s insistence that she hates Ouija boards and doesn’t want Micah to bring one into the house, Micah does just that.  And what do we see one night when they both leave the house with the camera running in the living room? The planchette moves around the board spelling out some mysterious message and then the board bursts into flames. Take that, asshole boyfriend who never listens and refuses to acknowledge my feelings!

To be fair, though, the camera captures a lot of odd, but minor, events for the next several nights – noises, lights, doors closing, creaks, more flickering lights and eventually, a demon screeching.  During the day, Micah often picks up the camera and follows Katie around while he’s talking to her about her ghost experiences, including into the bathroom. One night Micah decides to sprinkle baby powder all over the floor in their bedroom, and the camera records strange footprints being made in the powder. The weird footprints lead to the attic and up in the attic is a burned photo of Katie when she was a girl.  When Katie becomes upset and wants to talk to a demonologist, Micah hates the idea, which is odd, given that he’s been so into “investigating” this whole haunting thing up until that point. However, when the demonologist is unavailable (how busy can those guys be?) she begs the original psychic to come back. Again, against Micah’s wishes.  When the psychic does show up again, he is such a useless weenie – refusing to do anything to help them because it would only make the demon angrier – that he’s an embarrassment to psychics everywhere.

Despite the obvious low-budget clunking (bad dialogue, bad acting, and implausible plot points) this film did have its moments – I thought the scene where something pulled the covers off one of them was good and creepy. Ditto for the scene where Katie gets out of bed in the middle of the night and just stands there, looking at her sleeping boyfriend – for two hours!

In general, this film was a disappointment, but not because it didn’t have a lot of cool special effects, or that it was slow in places. It failed, for me, mainly because Katie and Micah – the people we should be rooting for — quickly reveal themselves to be dim-witted and unlikeable. Since there was no real script (the actors were given a general outline of the scene before shooting and told to improvise), we are left to blame the actors in this situation and not, for once, the writers.

BOOK REVIEW: Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story, by Elaine Mercado, R.N.

GravesEnd coverGrave’s End is another “true account” ghost story. Only unlike The Amityville Horror, this story was not handed over to a professional writer for “touching up”. It is written in a straight-forward, journalistic style – this is what happened, this is who it happened to, this is how we all felt about it, and this is how it stands right now. Dull stuff compared to the sensationalized, and sensationalistic, Amityville Horror we just read! However, it can be claimed, too, that unlike The Amityville Horror, this ghost story might actually have happened.

When we compare the two incidents we see many differences:

  • Intense cold, devil pigs, green goo and ghostly marching bands in Amityville Horror
  • Feelings of paralysis, suffocating dreams, fleeting shadows and ghostly orbs in Grave’s End
  • Amityville Horror was a vacant, murder house on the market at a bargain price
  • Grave’s End was partially occupied and remained so for over 18 months after Elaine and her husband bought it
  • George and Kathy Lutz abandoned their haunted house in less than a month’s time
  • Elaine and her family are still living in their haunted house as of the book’s publication (2001)
  • The Amityville Horror was a hugely successful book and was adapted into several movies over the years
  • Grave’s End went unnoticed by nearly everyone, even people with a strong interest in the subject (like me!)
  • George and Kathy turned to a priest for help when things got really scary, but never felt like they could confide in any close family
  • Elaine had a strong ally in her brother, Ron, and turned to a famous parapsychologist, Dr. Hans Holzer for help
  • The whole Lutz family was terrorized by what went on and they all wanted to escape
  • Elaine and her daughters all felt the effects of their haunting, but Elaine was the only one terrified by it – the girls just thought it was interesting, and they were upset when the house was finally “cleansed” and most of the hauntings stopped

The extremely low-key handling of the events that happened in Grave’s End may have been due to a fear of a media backlash, such as occurred after The Amityville Horror was published. It may also have been the result of having an R.N. for an author, and not a Hollywood writer. And it may be so non-sensationalized because it was all true, and that’s how real hauntings look.

It certainly feels that way, in large part because there were no invisible pigs with red eyes, or cold, winter rooms full of flies. If my own ordinary experiences (and those of countless TV ghost-hunting shows) are any indication, that’s about the most anyone can expect from a real-live haunting – a few orbs, some funky shadows seen out of the corner of one’s eyes, and some weird, unpleasant nightmares.

One thing that Grave’s End showed me is that truth is just as strange as fiction – despite all the crazy crap that went on, and despite how thoroughly miserable Elaine felt for years – people have to be just about thrown out of a house they own, no matter how haunted it is, because they just refuse to leave!

Mercado, Elaine, R.N. Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story. 2001. Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2006, Print.

The 100 Scariest Horror Novels of All Time

A list of the Best Horror Books ever? Awesome. Let the arguing begin!

Horror Novel Reviews

Compiling a Top 100 list isn’t easy. I’m bound to offend some and win over others. That’s the nature of the beast, I suppose. Whether you agree with this list or not, you should be able to track down a few new treasures you’ve been missing out on, and you’ve got time to line up some reading material for Halloween. Anticipate loads of familiar names to fill this one up (a few are featured multiple times), but don’t be shocked if you stumble upon some fresh names as well. Check it out, from vintage classic to modern masterpiece, novella to full-length novel, these are the greatest 100 horror books on the market!

100. A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood

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Alison’s Littlewood’s A Cold Season didn’t win over hearts unanimously, but I found it extremely creepy, fully engaging and chilling to the marrow. There’s a slick Wicker Man vibe to this…

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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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BOOK REVIEW: GHOST STORY, by Peter Straub

GhostStory StraubGhost Story, by Peter Straub kicks off with a promising start. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Asks the very first line (Straub 3). The prologue concerns a writer, Don Wanderley, who is driving south, patiently avoiding cities and large towns, because he has a kidnapped young girl in his car. As he drives, day and night, it soon becomes apparent that this is not the horrible child-murderer-with-an-innocent-victim-in-his-car story you originally thought. Instead, the “scary adult” is soon revealed to be a scared adult. The little girl is in charge and Don fears for his sanity and his life.

The story wanders back and forth through time and place, dipping in and out of several characters’ lives, at a leisurely pace. One by one, we meet four very old men who call themselves The Chowder Society – Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne; Ricky’s law partner, Sears James; aging lady killer, Lewis Benedict, and Dr. John Jaffrey. Following the mysterious death of their fifth member, Edward Wanderley, a year earlier, they began spending their evenings in Milburn, NY telling each other ghost stories. Gradually, reluctantly, they realize that they have all been having nightmares, the same nightmares. They decide to invite Edward’s nephew, Don, a successful writer of supernatural tales to come to town. They hope he can debunk the irrational, but growing conviction they all have, that something terrible is stalking them.

Straub, being more of a literary horror writer than his contemporary, Stephen King, is interested in the really slow burn approach to horror, so he spends countless pages weaving together a rather unique ghost story that actually has no ghosts. In this tale, the thing that haunts the members of the Chowder Society is regret. Regret over an accident that occurred while they were all together with a woman called Eva Galli. The secret behind that event is what now stalks these men, intent on destroying not just them, but the entire town.

This is the second time I have read Ghost Story, and I have to say, the experience was slightly less painful than the first time I dove in, all eager and heedless of the cost to my sanity. This time I began to see what some reviewers have been raving about all along – the complex structure, the interesting story alleyways the reader is lead down, the scope of the novel. I also enjoyed the creepy and mysterious “A. M.” who kept popping up, bewitching and then destroying the men she met. However, despite this tiny, grudging admiration for Straub’s skills and techniques, I still found myself sighing in exasperation at every turn, wondering where was the story going now? And that’s the fundamental flaw with this novel, I believe. No matter how well done the total effect is, when the reader is constantly checking to see how many pages are still left in a chapter before they can turn out the light, then the suspense and tension usually associated with horror never gets a chance to build.

 

 

Straub, Peter, Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, 1979. Print.