Book Review: COLD PRINT

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cold print
Ramsey Campbell
Tor Horror
1987

  • What grotesque abomination lurks in the abyss beneath the cold stone flooring of the church on High Street? What is the inhabitant of the lake…that putrid, pulsing monstrosity watching from the ebon depths of the stagnant water? What colossal midnight evil is unleashed from deep within the hillside by the moon lens?

Ramsey Campbell is one of the names in horror fiction that is easily one of the masters of the 20th Century boom, and should come right to mind with the likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch and Peter Straub. Sadly, not to many people I’ve talked to concerning matters of horror fiction have heard of him. Pity. This is an author that was given his own section in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.

As for myself, I’ve read a couple of handfuls of his short stories in the past, usually in collections and anthologies, like with The Monster Book of Zombies and 999 in the Book Review sections of this blog. It was high time that I begin rectifying the lack of Campbell on this blog, and what better way than with a collection of his own short stories based on the Lovecraft mythos from back in the day, entitled Cold Print.

After an introduction where Campbell recollects discovering his first H. P. Lovecraft book at the back of a sweet shop in his youth, which sparked his own interest in writing strange fantasy fiction, as well as his early attempt at imitating Lovecraft’s style (and the resulting criticism by August Derleth), we then go into the collection of short stories that were inspired by that chance discovery. These date from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Let’s go through them, shall we?

“The CHURCH IN HIGH STREET”
After receiving a telegram from a distraught friend, Richard Dodds visits the town of Temphill, where he discovers the terrible, horrible secret behind his friend’s disappearance…

“The ROOM IN THE CASTLE”
A researcher comes across a legend of an ancient demon-thing that resides in the hidden sub-cellar of a long-abandoned castle, and he decides to check it out himself to see if the legend is real…turns out, yeah…

“The HORROR FROM THE BRIDGE”
After a couple of generations, the son of a reclusive guy manages to finish up his late father’s hobby of trying to release the unspeakable horrific monsters that are trapped underneath the town bridge…

“The INSECTS FROM SHAGGAI”
A traveler investigates a bit of lore told to him at a hotel’s bar, about a mysterious large metal cone in the middle of the local forest, and the unfathomable horror that dwells within it…

“The RENDER OF THE VEILS”
A man follows an occultist he met in a taxi home one rainy night, and gets a crash-course in the entity known as Daoloth, the titular “render of the veils”…

“The INHABITANT OF THE LAKE”
An artist takes up residence in a secluded house by a lake that’s purportedly haunted, and is either slowly losing his mind, or there may actually be an other-worldly malicious entity that’s dwelling in the lake…

“The WILL OF STANLEY BROOKE”
Before his death, a miserly old man reworks his will to include his best friend that everyone never knew about before his death, and turns out to be a literal pale imitation of the man himself…

“The MOON-LENS”
Late one night, a medical doctor receives a visit from someone who is requesting euthanasia. He then tells him the tale of the literal life-changing trip that lead to his decision to end his life…

“BEFORE THE STORM”
A gentleman who is clearly suffering from some mind-bending feverish ailment stumbles into a tax building before literally falling apart…

“COLD PRINT”
One cold, wintry afternoon, a bibliophile on a quest to find books at out-of-the-way shops, comes across a special rare tome that the shop owner will let him have, provided he agrees to become his new priest of his mad cult…

“AMONG THE PICTURES ARE THESE:”
Here, Ramsey Campbell describes in detail a bunch of drawings he did in several notebooks back in the day that he once came across while cleaning…it’s interesting, to say the least…

“The TUGGING”
A newspaper reporter has been following reports of a small rogue planet that has entered the solar system, and suspects it might have something to do with the dreams he’s been experiencing, dreams he once had as a child…and shared with by his father…

“The FACES AT PINE DUNES”
In the wooded area near the RV park which a restless teenager calls home, something horrible, as something out of an LSD-fueled nightmare dwells; something that calls his parents out until the wee hours of the morning; something his new girlfriend wants to see…

“BLACKED OUT”
A man on holiday in a small German town discovers that the locals are a bit odd…especially that one knockout blonde that is leading him to the dilapidated church to be discovered by an ancient thing…

“The VOICE OF THE BEACH”
A writer that is dwelling at a bungalow by the beach is visited by a friend, and they both begin to succumb to the horrible, mind-bending secret of the beach itself after happening upon the journals of someone who once lived in a nearby forgotten ghost town…

Overall, I found this collection to be fairly interesting. Rather than just reuse the famous fictional deities that Lovecraft originally came up with, Campbell adeptly created some of his own original nightmare fuel, with the likes of Gla’aki (“The Inhabitant of the Lake”, the multi-volume grimoire Revelations of Glaaki, mentioned in various of the stories, much like H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon), Eihort (“Cold Print”, “Before The Storm”), Daoloth (“The Render of the Veils”), and the particularly nasty-looking Y’golonac (“The Faces at Pine Dunes”). My favorite tales from this collection were “The Insects from Shaggai”, “The Render of the Veils”, “The Moon-Lens” (which has a strong “Shadow Over Innsmouth” feel to it), “Before The Storm” (madness from the point of view of the one going insane intrigues me), and “The Tugging” (the concept of rogue planets also intrigues me, what can I say?). For a bunch of tales rooted firmly in the playground that Lovecraft built, this is one of the better collections. The drawback here is that, as is usual with stories that play in the mythos, some of these follow a rather predictable formula that, if you’re up on your Lovecraft, is familiar enough to follow in your sleep. But, perhaps that’s the point of these kind of stories. Anyway, for someone whose extra-Lovecraft readings have been of this and Brian Lumley, and believe me I’m looking to expand upon the bibliographies of other luminaries in the mythos, I would rank Campbell to be the better writer. That’s no slight to Lumley, either. Recommended for lovers of both Lovecraft and good spooky nightmare fuel.

Movie Review: EXTRAORDINARY TALES

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extraordinary tales
Gkids
2013
NR

“I don’t want my work to be lost forever. My work is eternal. I want that eternity. I want to be sure my words will survive me, that they will never be lost in time.”

  • Five of Edgar Allan Poe’s best-known stories are brought to vivid life in this visually stunning, heart-pounding animated anthology featuring some of the most beloved figures in horror film history.

Edgar Allan Poe. Any aspiring fan of the dark and morbid tales of yore know the name. I’m pretty certain that a collection of his short stories and poems are issued to you the moment you show any interest in the Goth subculture. I know I was. I remember the first time I encountered the stories of E. A. Poe: it was 7th grade Lit.*, and my teacher Mr. Wilberding describing the story of “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Of course, these stories are golden oldies trotted out every Halloween season; I, however, think that–like Halloween itself–these should be celebrated and read year-round.

Which brings us to the anthology movie Extraordinary Tales. This is a movie that takes five well-known Edgar Allan Poe** stories and animates them, each of them with a different animation style, and narrated by a different actor who has ties to the horror community as well. As a long-time horror enthusiast, I felt obligated to give this thing a watch.

There’s a wrap-around story involving a raven (of course) that supposedly represents the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, having a bit of an existential discussion with a graveyard statue, worrying about whether his stories will live on long after he’s dead and gone. We then begin with “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”, which is narrated by the late, great Christopher Lee. The animation is flat, with CGI that looks like the finest a Playstation One game can provide. It’s not bad, just “eh”. The second story is “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is narrated by none other than Bela Lugosi. How did this happen, you may ask? After all, as the song goes, Bela Lugosi’s dead. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. A long time ago, I might add. Well, this sounds like an old recording he did reading the story, and the old lo-fi scratchy sound of the recording actually enhances the animation style employed on this one. “The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar” is a nice creepy and ghoulish tale that is narrated by Julian Sands, who was in the movies Warlock and Arachnophobia. This one’s animated style recalls the classic pulp comics, with the main character animated to look like Vincent Price. Neat. “The Pit And The Pendulum” is narrated by Guillermo del Toro, and if I have to explain who he is, you’re reading the wrong blog. The animation style is standard CGI, and to be forthright, this isn’t my favorite short story of his to begin with. I realize Edgar Allan Poe took liberties with historical accuracy with this story (who doesn’t, really), but the situations still make no sense to me no matter how many times I read this. The visuals here didn’t help things. And finally, we end with perhaps my favorite of all of Edgar Allan Poe stories, “The masque Of The Red Death”. Here, there’s no narration, but does feature the voice work of one Roger Corman as Prince Prospero, in the tale of the rich and prosperous locked inside a castle and partying while a nasty plague ravages the country. Given that I happen to be writing this at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and all the panic that comes with it, this has the added bonus of being a bit close to home.

As adaptations go, they’re pretty standard. I should point out that the stories themselves were truncated, so you don’t really get the full stories. And neither do the adaptations have enough time to let the stories breath, like with Roger Corman’s famous adaptations from the 1960s. But, Extraordinary Tales works as a good perfunctory introduction to the works of one of the more legendary American authors of the Romantic Gothic period. And anything that works as a gateway drug to becoming a reading junkie gets my enthusiastic support.

[*kids, back then, that was short for “Liturature”, and not “exciting”, or “excellent”, although for nerds like myself, you might say Lit. class was actually “lit”]

[**you can’t just say “Poe”; you need to say his full name for full effect]

Movie Review: HELLBOY: The Golden Army

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hellboy the golden army
Universal
2008
PG-13

“It is all the same to me, my heart is filled with dust and sand. But you should know, it is his destiny to bring about the destruction of the Earth. Not now, not tomorrow, but soon enough. Knowing that, you still want him to live?”

  • The mystical world starts a rebellion against humanity in order to rule the Earth, so as Hellboy, Liz and Abe return, they must save the world. Now…as the creatures who inhabit the spiritual realm gear up to unleash the legendary unstoppable Golden Army for an all out attack on the human plane, the only group capable of saving the Earth is a tough-talking hellspawn and his team…plus a new ally by the name of Johann Krauss.

Four years after the first Hellboy movie graced cinemas with a live-action version of Mike Mignola’s comic book creation, writer/director Guillermo del Toro brought us a sequel. It wasn’t supposed to take that long to make the sequel–the sequel itself was green-lit about a month after the first Hellboy was released. But, because of, shall we say, snafus, Columbia dropped the distribution rights, and was finally picked back up by Universal Studios, which, let’s face it, doesn’t always have the best interests in mind when it comes to their horror properties. But, at least it finally got made, and then released in 2008, a bit later than the projected 2006 date. Better late than never.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army, instead of featuring Nazis and mad scientists like the previous film, focuses the story on the dark roots of folklore and fairy tales, featuring some truly nightmarish yet utterly sympathetic enemies drawn from folk tales for the our heroes at the B.P.R.D. to go up against. Here, an elf prince is planning on breaking a Millennia-old truce between the humans and the magical creatures of myth and legend by reassembling the crown that controls the fabled Golden Army, something explained during the opening exposition dump flashback scene. He’s opposed by his twin sister, who escapes and seeks protection within the B.P.R.D. Meanwhile, Hellboy is having troubles of his own, both in his personal and professional life: His relationship with Liz is going through a rocky period, and due to some showboating during a recent incident involving tooth fairies, the Bureau’s brought in a specialist to keep him in check.

Personally, I enjoyed Hellboy II more than the first movie. Instead of just rehashing the plot of the first one, this one delved more into folklore and its horror roots, which I totally dig. The relationships between the main characters has advanced, further deepening the development. There’s a rather hilarious scene where Hellboy and Abe Sapien get drunk and bond over their individual relationship issues while playing cheesy love ballads. The movie also manages to make the antagonist a sympathetic character as well, providing depth and pathos to someone you know is doing something consider evil, but you can’t help but understand things from his perspective. The creature effects–and there are many–are top notch. But the best character of this movie happens to be the atmosphere and tone of the movie, which manages to attain that balance of horrorific yet whimsical that only del Toro seems to manage. Considering the film he made before Hellboy II was Pan’s Labyrinth, this seems the logical step for him to follow up.

Overall: If you’ve seen the first Hellboy, and haven’t seen this sequel yet, I am dumbfounded as to why not. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a better sequel to an already great movie. If anything, rewatching this as much as I have, this just makes the fact that del Toro was never able to make the proper third movie in his Hellboy trilogy all the more tragic. Especially given what we got in its place. Highly recommended, this.

Movie Review: HELLBOY

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hellboy 2004
Columbia
2004
PG-13

“Behind this door, a dark entity. Evil, ancient, and hungry.”
“Oh, well. Let me go in and say hi.”

  • When a Nazi mystical experiment goes awry in 1944, the target of a wizard’s spell, the child of Satan, Hellboy, is wrenched from his home, and adopted by the U.S. agents who intercepted his arrival. Raised as a force of good, Hellboy grows up to be a full-fledged demon in the form of a man, complete with fierce red skin, a tail, a giant armored glove, and two large circles where his horns should be (if they ever grow back, Hellboy is quick to break them off). Now, the adult Hellboy, an investigator of the paranormal, is sent on a mission that brings him back in touch with the evil genius that started it all…that Nazi wizard. Accompanying him along the way are other agents, including Liz, a pyrokinetic woman Hellboy has feelings for, and Abe Sapien, a mysterious amphibian hominid…

Hellboy. Mmmm, Hellboy. Mike Mignola’s incredibly popular independent comic paranormal hero. Debuting in 1993, the various Hellboy comics told the ongoing tales of a half-demon paranormal investigator who was initially summoned from Hell by Nazis during World War II, but then rescued by Allied forces, and raised as a normal human boy by a professor, and now works for the United States Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, defending humanity against dangerous supernatural stuff.

Of course this would be perfect foder for Guillermo del Toro to make into a movie. And so he did, back in 2004.

2004 was a decent enough year for the comic book based movies. It gave us Hellboy, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and in my not-so-humble opinion the best Punisher movie (change my mind). Hellboy was the first movie I went to see after getting back from being on the road for a month. It was much needed. And then I later went to see it again with Nex and Boz-Man. And I’ve been re-watching this ever since.

This 2004 Hellboy movie is near perfect. It effortlessly blends together Gothic atmosphere, horror, fantasy, action, and dark comedy in a way only del Toro can do. The cast is fantastic, giving life and personality to the characters: Ron Perlman, who was born to play the roll of the titular Hell Boy, the late, great John Hurt as his adoptive father and member of both the British Paranormal Society and the U.S. Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Doug Jones as Abe Sapien (with David Hyde Pierce voicing), Selma Blair as Hell Boy’s love interest and fire starter (twisted fire starter), Rupert Evans as Hell Boy’s assigned besty John Myers, and Karel Roden as Rasputin, that pesky Russian monk that is harder to kill than a cockroach. And let’s not forget Jeffrey Tambor as the put-upon director of the BPRD and cigar enthusiast.

The visuals are stunning. One might argue that the CG seems a bit cartoony; personally, I believe that enhances the comic book feel of the story. There’s a strong Lovecraftian element to the overall story that greatly appeals to me as a fan of the dark fantasy horror thing.

Overall: Hell Boy is a rare movie that manages to strike the perfect balance between being genuinely frighteningly horrific, while also being a touching character piece with some witty dialogue. In other words, it’s a Guillermo del Toro movie. I don’t know how he manages to do it, really. Forget that abomination that is the 2019 reboot. This is the only Hell Boy you need. Highly recommended.

Movie Review: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

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1992 dracula
Columbia Pictures
1992
R

“I want you to bring me, before nightfall, a set of post mortem knives.”
“An autopsy? On Lucy?”
“No, no, no. Not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart.”

  • From Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola comes the classic and chilling tale about the devastatingly seductive Transylvanian prince who travels from Eastern Europe to 19th-Century London in search of human love. When the charismatic Dracula meets Mira, a young woman who appears as the reincarnation of his lost love, the two embark on a journey of romantic passion and horror.

I wonder–is Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire novel Dracula the book that’s been adapted for the big screen the most? Seriously, that seems to have been given the celluloid treatment almost as soon as the book was originally published, and movie making was invented. It’s probably not, but I would say that maybe it would be in the Top 10, if not the Top 5. I’m sure there’s a list on some pop culture website out there.

Anyway, Dracula is one of the big Classic Movie Monsters that you don’t even have to have seen any of the movies to know about. Dracula is an icon. But, most only know about Bella Legosi’s iconic take on the vampire prince, with the cape and the tuxedo and the eyes you could get hypnotized with for days…

Um, what were we talking about, again? Oh, right.

When it comes to the movies, what every big screen adaptation of the novel have in common–besides a vampire named Dracula (unless it’s Nosferatu, which is a different kind of adaptation entirely)–is that they all veer away to something different from the source material, despite claims to be faithful to the novel. And in 1992, movie auteur Frances Ford Coppola made his attempt at a “faithful adaptation of the book” a shot.

For those of us familiar with the novel itself, Coppola’s adaptation opens with a scene that’s nowhere in the book: An explanation of the origin of the titular character by tying in lore of the historical inspiration, Vlad Dracula, back in the 1400s, to maybe make some sense as to why the guy lives so long and has a thirst for blood. Eh, it’s a valiant effort. Anyway, from there the movie takes most of its cues from the novel itself, with some liberal helpings of artistic license slathered on to keep things from getting too bogged down from the source material’s literary structure.

So, after Vlad renounces God and desecrates the chapel by drinking blood from an impaled cross because his wife committed suicide (as you do), we flash forward to 1897, where a young British go-getter solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet with his new client, one Count Dracula, to discuss and arrange the Count’s new real estate acquisitions in London. The Count seems a trifle odd, but that may be chalked up to cultural differences and all that. However, after Dracula spots a picture of Jonathan’s betrothed–Mina–he believes her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife, and throws Jonny to his vamperic brides and sets off to England to find the woman of his dreams. Or something. Coincidentally, Mina’s BFF Lucy’s health starts deteriorating, which is determined to be the result of a vampire attack by the socially awkward Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, here looking nothing like Wolverine, and then Nina goes to Romania because she got word that Jonathan managed to escape Dracula’s castle, and the two get married there. Moving back to London, Dr. Van Helsing leads the charge to take down Dracula, but the Count totally evades them, killing off his former servant Renfield, then turning Mina into one of the undead, leading to a showdown between Dracula’s forces and Van Helsing’s Heroes on Dracula’s home turf. Wackiness and gloriously bad acting ensue.

The best thing going about this take on Dracula is the heavy Gothic atmosphere that oozes out of the film. Gary Oldman does an outstanding job as the titular antagonist of the movie, giving his Dracula a pathos and melancholy to the undead embodiment of evil, even when he’s wearing perhaps the goofiest looking hairpiece I’ve ever seen. Also, Coppola made this using old-school practical effects, essentially eschewing any CGI trickery to achieve that authentic old school feel of the movie. It looks great. And Sir Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing is probably the best character in this movie. That said, all the reports of the acting being incredibly wooden and off from the other actors? Yeah, I have to admit that is on display here. Especially with Keanu Reeves, affecting a rather…interesting British accent, let’s just say. The same with Winona Ryder, playing the Mina opposite Reeve’s Harker. But, really, it’s Billy Campbell as the over-the-top Texan Quincey Morris that gets me whenever I watch this. It’s just such a greatly cliche’d performance, it’s like the quintessential version of how British people view Americans, it seems like.

Overall: I absolutely adore this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This isn’t the first time a Dracula movie was made that tied in the Vlad Tepes source for the fictional character–there was a 1973 television version that was done that did just that. I love the style, the Gothic atmosphere, the soundtrack used which goes great with a dark night and candles, there’s much here to like. If you haven’t seen this one yet, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. Even if you end up not liking it that much, there’s going to be something here you will like. Worth a rental some dark, moonless night in winter.

Book Review: GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

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ghosts of christmas past
John Murray Publishing
2018

  • A present contains a monstrous secret. An uninvited guest haunts a Christmas party. A shadow slips across the floor by firelight. A festive entertainment ends in darkness and screams. Who knows what haunts the night at the dark point of the year? This collection of seasonal chillers looks beneath Christmas cheer to a world of ghosts and horrors, mixing terrifying modern fiction with classic stories by masters of the macabre. From Neil Gaiman and M. R. James to Muriel Spark and E. Nesbit, there are stories here to make the hardiest soul quail–so find a comfy chair, lock the door, ignore the cold breath on your neck and get ready to welcome in the real spirits of Christmas.

Now that it’s December, and the whole Thanksgiving season is in our collective rear-view mirrors (if you happen to be living in the United States, that is), we are now firmly ensconced in the Christmas season part of the yearly Holiday Clusterbomb. The lights are up, the trees and houses are decorated, the seasonal music is playing, and if you happen to be dwelling in the northern hemisphere of this planet of ours, the days are getting darker far earlier every night now. It’s a fun fact that this was the traditional season to be telling ghost stories around the fire at Christmas time, and I for one wish to continue this grand tradition started in the Victorian era. It’s a very Gothic time for me, so it’s in that spirit of the season in which I purchased this electronic tome of spooky stories set during Christmas to liven up the nights. Let’s take a gander at the stories carried within Ghosts of Christmas Past, shall we?

  • “The Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance” (M. R. James)

Beginning with one of the masters of literary ghost stories, a man relays, through a series of letters dated December of 1837, his travels to a town to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his clergyman uncle, and having a nightmare involving a Punch and Judy puppet show.

  • “Dinner For One” (Jenn Ashworth)

Narrated from the point of view of the ghost of someone who is still haunting their significant other, kind of disproving the whole “death do us part” bit of a relationship.

  • “The Shadow” (E. Nesbit)

Fun Fact: Ms Nesbit was primarily an author of children’s books, and only messed around with ghost stories and such on the side. Anyway, after a grand Christmas party at an old house, the housekeeper of this story’s narrator’s aunt stops by the room where there are girls telling late-night ghost stories by the firelight, and she’s invited to tell a chilling tale of her own–one that turns out to be all too real.

  • “This Beautiful House (Louis de Bernieres)

The narrator of this story sits outside one picturesque Christmas night, admiring the lights of a Christmas tree inside the old house he grew up in, prompting memories of Christmas past, and why the ghosts of his family keep pestering him.

  • “The Leaf-Sweeper” (Muriel Spark)

A story that answers the question: What happens when you surpress your Christmas spirit for too long?

  • “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk” (Frank Cowper)

A gentleman visiting a friend over the Christmas holidays finds himself stranded on a wreaked and long-abandoned ship while duck hunting, and encounters something foul overnight. No pun intended. As a side note, this story references the 17th Century Gothic novella “The Haunters and the Haunted”, one I was not familiar with and is apparently available for free online. Nifty.

  • “The Step” (E. F. Benton)

An unscrupulous business landowner evicts a poor family from their residence, then begins to get the paranoid feeling of being followed at night. I’m sure the two incidents are unrelated.

  • “The Vanishing House” (Benard Capes)

A drunken banjo (that wasn’t a typo) retells the tale of when his gran’pappy and his mates came across the Devil one snowy night…I think. This was a weird story.

  • “Someone in the Lift” (L. P. Hartley)

A young boy of six keeps seeing a man in an hotel lift (that’s what they call elevators in Britain, gov’nah) that isn’t there, then has a dream on Christmas Eve involving his father dressed as Santa Claus on that very lift.

  • “The Visiting Star” (Robert Nickman)

A famous stage actress arrives in a small town to put on a play, and brings along her two companions who turn out to not be who they appear to be.

  • “Nicholas Was” (Neil Gaiman)

A very, very brief, yet very chilling look at Santa Claus in a whole ‘nother light.

  • “The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” (Jerome K. Jerome)

While visiting family, a man’s uncle tells the tale of the history of the ghost that haunts a room in the house called the Blue Chamber every Christmas Eve, from Midnight to when the cock crows; so obviously the nephew decides to sleep in said room, and discovers the ghost is very much real…and he makes a new friend that night…

  • “The Lady and the Fox” (Kelly Link)

A pretty good dark fantasy involving a girl noticing a strange man standing outside whenever it snows on Christmas Eve, looking in the window of her godmother’s house every year, which results in her growing love of the man and her plans to finally free the man trapped by the magic of a lady. Good way to end the collection of stories, very C. S. Lewis in scope and feel, here.

Overall, I have to say that Ghosts of Christmas Past is a pretty good collection of classic and modern stories. Of course, the two authors that I recognized right off the bat were M. R. James and, of course, Neil Gaiman; the stories each had their own particular tone and style going on, making all of the stories enjoyable; however, I have to say that the standouts for me were “The Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance” (always a sucker for a good M. R. James tale), “Dinner For One” (even though the whole “twist” was rather evident early on in the story), “This Beautiful House” (touching yet unnerving), “The Leaf-Sweeper” (more of humorous than spooky), “Someone in the Lift” (has a dark Robert Bloch feel to the story), “Nicholas Was” (and not just because I’m a Gaiman fanboy, trust), “The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” (again, more humorous than spooky), and the ender “The Lady and the Fox” (for the same reasons I gave in the section, there).

Whether you go all out for the atmosphere and read a hefty copy of this by firelight in a tall-backed Victorian chair on a cold winter night, or–like me–you’re reading this by the light of a Kindle, Ghosts of Christmas Past is indeed a good way to get into the Christmas spirit in the only way people like myself know how: by giving ourselves a jolly good fright. Recommended.

Movie Review: The HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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The House With A Clock In Its Walls movie posterUniversal Pictures
2018
PG

“Be a dear. Fetch a knife and stab me in the ears.”

Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious `tick tock’ noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town’s sleepy facade suddenly springs to life, revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a young adult Gothic mystery that was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. I’ve never read anything by John Bellairs. I even went through his bibliography to make sure I didn’t inadvertently read one of his novels in grade school and just didn’t remember doing so. I was a voracious reader, even back then, and gravitated towards mysteries with a solid spooky supernatural feel to them. Weird as a kid, weird as an adult. But, no, I hadn’t read any of his fiction, which is odd, as they would have been right up my alley.

Anyway, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the first in a series of books staring protagonist character Lewis Barnavelt, and proved to be a hit with the readers. It was adapted once before as one of three segments in the television anthology Once Upon A Midnight Scary, which was hosted by none other than Vincent Price back in 1979. Then, it was adapted into a full-length feature film in 2018 staring Jack Black.

The first thing I want to point out about this adaptation is that, this is directed by Eli Roth. Yes, that same Eli Roth who gave us the movies Cabin Fever and the Hostel series. He also did the cannibal horror film The Green Inferno, helmed the Death Wish remake, and stared in Inglorious Basterds. I’m not criticizing his movie choices; I’m merely pointing out that Eli Roth’s name isn’t exactly in the Top Five of names that pop up when we’re discussing family friendly fantasy films.

Also, I didn’t mean to use alliteration like that. Totally unintentional.

Second, did we really need to use the lettering style in the title to be a rip-off of the Harry Potter film series titles? Derivative, smacks of desperation, shows a lack of confidence on the studio’s part for letting this movie stand on its own. Ultimately, a pointless gripe. Moving on…

As a movie, I believe that Eli Roth has a bright future with young adult family dark fantasy films, if The House With A Clock In Its Walls is any indication. This movie is right up there with personal favorites like the Addams Family movies and the classic Tim Burton flicks. Jack Black is his usual fantastic self here, playing the roll as the eccentric warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt kind of subdued to his normal manic style. He plays off well with Cate Blanchett’s Florence Zimmerman character, the longtime neighbor and friend who is constantly trading barbs with Jonathan. Owen Vaccaro is also rather good as the child character of Lewis Barnavelt, the nephew that is brought into the world of magic, starts to learn magic himself, and then resurrects the dead to impress his friends. As you do.

It’s dark, it’s whimsical, it has some great visuals as well as a good Gothic atmosphere, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a great movie, thumbs up all the way. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. Recommended.

Book Review: SHADOW WITCH: Horror of the Dark Forest

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shadow witchJ. Thorn / Dan Padavona
Amazon Digital Services LLC
2015

Thom Meeks lives with his family in Droman Meadows under the protection of the Kingdom of Mylan. An unusually long winter creates anxiety in the village and some believe it to be the return of an ominous force known as the Shadow. When a pack of dread wolves lays ruin to Droman Meadows, Thom escapes with his wife and four daughters. They set out on the Mylan Road in hopes of finding refuge in the capital, but dark forces emerging from the primeval forest will challenge them for their eternal souls.

Slowly going through the entire list of free-ish titles that I downloaded to my Kindle when I received my very first not very long ago. It came in handy during those daily IV sessions I went through back in the winter of 2018. One of the free books available to me was this one right here: Shadow Witch: Horror of the Dark Forest.

I know nothing of the two authors that collaborated on this novella: J. Thorn and Dan Padavona. Neither do I feel like doing any basic research on their bibliography just to pad things up for this review. But, I do have aplenty to say of Shadow Witch, after slogging through the book.

I do wish to explain, though, that since getting my first Kindle, after years of resisting doing so due to being an old-fashioned bibliophile, that I seem to be able to read faster than I normally do, simply because of the lack of strain and adjustable font size available. It’s rather a nice benefit. That said, it still took me three months to from start to finish to read this 189-page novella. This is mainly due to not being a big fan of the fantasy type stories that are set in Yo Olden Times, or some reasonable facsimile therein. Especially with stories that involve a lot of walking. And there’s a lot of walking in this book.

Oh my sweet Lemmy, I have never been so annoyed with a hero and his family like I was with Thom and his whiny little daughters. This is Thom: “Oh, no’s, I haz a secret that could make my family and friends not like me, boo hoo”. Spoilers: he’s actually a warrior with magic powers, and not a shepherd! And his twin middle daughters, for some reason, are always mocking and bullying their older sister for…reasons. That’s their one personality trait, and it’s just bloody annoying as all get out. Of course, the most interesting character in this story is the innkeeper, but unfortunately he isn’t the focus, which would have made for a much more interesting read. No, we get to see a guy with a bunch of werewolf monsters called “Dread Wolves” (which is a great name for a metal band) who are in the service of the evil Shadow Witch, they lay waste to the town Thom and his family live near, which causes Thom to lead his family to the Norther Kingdom for safety. After a couple of days of walking, the twin sisters manage to get themselves and their older sister lost inside the nearby dark and mystical forest, and then the whole thing becomes The Blair Witch Project by way of Game of Thrones for the second half of the book. There’s a lot of wandering and walking around, a lot of whining from Thom and the daughters (I’m surprised his wife never backhands him at any time), the titular Shadow Witch keeps popping up and demanding to know everyone’s names (so she can steal their life essence, or something), only it always turns out like this:
SHADOW WITCH: “Tell me your name!”
CHARACTER: “No!”
SHADOW WITCH: “You win this round!”
Of course, after enough time wandering around and getting lost and hallucinating stuff, the daughters give out their names, there’s a final showdown between Thom and the Shadow Witch, Thom embraces his dark past to defeat the Witch, and the whole thing ends with the older three daughters dead and the youngest daughter possessed by the Shadow Witch.

I’m sure this sets up a whole series of stories. Only, it took me so long to get through because I found the story dull. There’s a lot. Of. Walking. Even at less than 200 pages, I found myself unable to get past just a couple of chapters before putting this down to read something far more interesting. I do like how the book decided to end on a dower note, though.

Anyway, I haven’t checked to see if there’s any more of these written, nor will I continue on if there are. Pass.

Movie Review: RARE EXPORTS

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rare exportsOscilloscope
2010
R

“The real Santa was totally different. The Coca-Cola Santa is just a hoax.”

Truth be told, I actually have something of a soft spot for Christmas. There is a good underlying Gothic aesthetic to this holiday, a kind of beautiful darkness mixed in with the whimsy and wonder that the season brings. There used to be a grand tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, a tradition that lives on in the plethora of Christmas-themed horror movies to choose from.

Which brings us to Rare Exports. This is a movie that I was told I needed to watch since it was put out in 2010. What kept me from getting around to doing so until now was because this was a foreign subtitled movie. Yeah, yeah, lame excuse, I know. I’m not a big fan of reading along in movies, is all. Unless it’s a silent movie. But, I digress.

Of course, like a lot of the movies I’ve been watching recently, Rare Eports was available on the streaming service I utilize, and since t’was the season and all that, I figured it was time to settle in and give Rare Exports a look-see and find out what the hype is all about.

A young boy named Pietari and his friend Juuso think a secret mountain drilling project near their home in northern Finland has uncovered the tomb of Santa Claus. However, this is a monstrous, evil Santa, much unlike the cheery St. Nick of legend. hen Pietari’s father captures a feral old man in his wolf trap, the an may hold the key to why reindeer are being slaughtered and children are disappearing.

Rare Exports isn’t so much a Christmas horror movie as it is a dark fantasy based on folk tales. Okay scratch that–Rare Exports is really a coming-of-age tale of a young boy that happens to utilize a folk tale setting to tell the story. It’s the interaction between Pietari and his father that drives the story, with Pietari coming to terms with his situation and stepping up into being a man. Or whatever.

Of course, the nutmeg in the eggnog here is the way the story plays off of the concept of an ancient, more malevolent Santa, one that–by description and visual design–sounds more like Krampus. However, we never really see the (literally) big buy–only his horns sticking out of a gigantic block of ice. Which is enough to drive the sense of dread and tension. No, where the filmmakers succeeded in making Rare Exports a dark folk tale was the depiction of Santa’s elves–which looked like feral old men, not at all twisted and scary looking at first…but then the eyes and body language transmit otherwise. It’s subtle yet powerful.

There’s some very good use of shadow and keeping things in the darkness, along with the setting lending to a sense of isolation and palpable cold you can feel yourself while watching this. But, that’s not to say that everything is all grim and dark; there is a sense of humor here, especially when we get to the explosive climax and see what happens with all of Santa’s elves. It’s…not what you would expect, but it makes sense, really.

So, overall, I’m sorry it took me eight years to check out Rare Exports. It’s a well-made and greatly engaging dark Christmas folk tale, something that, if you haven’t seen this yet, you should do yourself a favor and do so. Recommended.

Book Review: WIZARD AND GLASS

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book-review_-dark-tower-ivStephen King
Grant
1997

“Not all is silent in the halls of the dead and the rooms of ruin. Even now some of the stuff the Old Ones left behind still works. And that’s really the horror of it, wouldn’t you say? Yes. The exact horror of it.”

Roland and his band of followers have narrowly escaped one world and slipped into the next. There Roland tells them a tale of long-ago love and adventure involving a beautiful and quixotic woman named Susan Delgado. And there they will be drawn into an ancient mystery of spellbinding magic and supreme menace!

The fourth book in the Dark Tower series pretty much picks up right where the previous novel left off, with Roland and the gang stuck inside a psychotic monorail speeding off West, destination: DEATH BY SMASHY-SMASHY! To kill the time (no pun intended), Blaine (because that’s the name of said Monorail) engages everyone in a game of riddles. This goes on for a few hours, when Eddie decides to go full-on Spock from the episode “I, Mudd” and manages to short-circuit Blaine by telling childish jokes. They get off at Topeka, Kansas, but it’s the one from the 1980s after having been depopulated due to the superbug from the book The Stand (the original 1980 version, not the 1990 recut edition…just, try not to think too hard about that). They camp out next to a tear in reality (because…reasons, I guess), where Roland regales his ka-tet with a lengthy tale of when he first became a Gunslinger and came across another tear in reality, which came in handy when an entire army he was fighting fell into it. I’d go into detail, but let’s just say that things escalated when Roland fell in love with a betrothed maiden (as it does), and came across a pink scrying orb that showed him a rather bleak future. Pretty heavy stuff for a 14-year-old. The next morning in Kansas, Roland and the Ka-Tet (which sounds like a band name), come across Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, and run into The Man in Black from the first novel, aka Marten Broadcloak from Roland’s story, aka Randall Flagg from The Stand/Tears of the Dragon/pretty much every baddie across the King-o-verse.

I’ll just come out and say it: Wizard & Glass is pretty much a filler episode in the overall Dark Tower series. There was a good six year gap between the previous novel and this one, and one gets the sense that King was not really all that enthusiastic about continuing on with the Dark Tower saga. But, that’s just speculation on my part.

As it stands, Wizard & Glass doesn’t really advance the story arc forward, and is mostly made up of a flashback story from Roland’s youth, something that was adapted into the Gunslinger Born comic miniseries. I did geek a bit from the cross-pollination with King’s other books, specifically The Stand and the revelation that the series’ main antagonist has been seen before in previous stories under different guises. Regardless, while not being a bad one, Wizard & Glass stands as my least favorite book in the Dark Tower series.

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