Book Review: The HOUSE NEXT DOOR

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house next door
Darcy Coats
Black Owl Books PTY LTD
2017

  • I live next to a haunted house. I began to suspect something was wrong with the gothic building when its family fled in the middle of the night, the children screaming, the mother crying. They never came back to pack up their furniture. No family stays long. Animals avoid the place. Once, I thought I saw a woman’s silhouette pacing through the upstairs room… but that seems impossible; no one was living there at the time. A new occupant, Anna, has just moved in. I paid her a visit to warn her about the building. I didn’t expect us to become friends, but we did. And now that Marwick House is waking up, she’s asked me to stay with her. I never intended to become involved with the building or its vengeful, dead inhabitant. But now I have to save Anna… before it’s too late for the both of us.

Okay, so, here’s what happened: I had the majority of this damned review all typed out and put together and saved as a draft on this here blog of mine, so I can access it on pretty much anything that I can get access to the internet on (especially when I’m editing and writing during the down-time at work, when I do a lot of my non-journal specific writing). I had a pretty good opening paragraph on how I came across this particular book during my initial book purchasing frenzy on my then newly-acquired Kindle for only $99, and gave it a shot despite having never heard of the author before. I even did the whole research thing and included stuff from her website and her publishing history.

But then, for whatever reason, WordPress decided to wipe out my entire draft of the post, leaving an empty void where once was brilliant (in my mind) brain droppings on a thing. I was livid. I was fuming. I put on The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails and screamed in the darkness. Then my boss asked me to stop freaking out my co-workers and get over myself. So I did, and this is now what you’re getting in this review of The House Next Door by Darcy Coats.

What we got with The House Next Door is a nice, darkly atmospheric Gothic ghost story, involving a haunted house with a ghost that is definitely not very happy when warm bodies try to occupy and share the place. Living next door to the house is longtime resident Jo, who has, through the years, witnessed many families movie into the house, only to move out almost immediately, sometimes without even packing their things up, and in the dead of night. She has witnessed and heard things going on at the house when it stands empty: Lights turn on and off, doors open and bang shut, birds tend to fly into the outside walls of the house and kill themselves. Standard haunted house stuff. Then, one day, a woman named Anna moves in, someone Jo feels is a bit delicate to be moving into a house with an angry spirit, and so she bakes a cake and goes over to meet the new neighbor. They bond, and it turns out that, not only does Anna know about the ghost of the house, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She has a small home business restoring old dolls and selling them. Oh, and also she’s on the run and hiding from her very violently abusive ex, so there’s that. Things start coming to a head, though, and soon Jo needs to decide whether she cares about Anna enough to get her out and to safety from everything, or to mind her own business and not get involved like with the other former residents. The ghost of the house would prefer the later.

Overall, The House Next Door was a pretty decent and straight-forward Gothic-style ghost story, something that really does pack a lot of atmosphere and tension in its short 282-page run time (give or take the usual Kindle end promotional stuff to scroll through). This is definitely has tones of Shirley Jackson and M. R. James in the mix. I’m not disappointed by checking this one out, and at the price it was about right. I’m told that The House Next Door isn’t her best novel, but from what I read, this was a pretty good introduction to Darcy Coats’ work. Recommended.

Movie Review: SWEENEY TODD The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

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sweeney todd
Paramount Pictures
2008
R

“There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful. A foolish barber and his wife. She was his reason and his life. And she was beautiful. And she was virtuous. And he was…naive.”

  • In the Victorian London, the barber Benjamin Barker is married to the gorgeous Lucy and they have a lovely child, Johanna. The beauty of Lucy attracts the attention of the corrupt Judge Turpin, who falsely accuses the barber of a crime that he did not commit and abuses Lucy later after gaining custody of her. After fifteen years in exile, Benjamin returns to London under the new identity of Sweeney Todd, seeking revenge against Turpin. He meets the widow Mrs. Lovett who is the owner of a meat pie shop who tells him that Lucy swallowed arsenic many years ago, and Turpin assigned himself tutor of Johanna. He opens a barber shop above her store, initiating a crime rampage against those who made him suffer and lose his beloved family.

New Years Eve, 2017. Five hours to Midnight and the start of the New Year. I had a big plate of BBQ’ed wings and a mess of chips n’ cheesy-dip ready, and I readied myself for my annual New Years Eve Movie Marathon. This year, I began my lone festivities by popping in the Tim Burton-helmed macabre musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

This was the movie that seemed to have divided fans of Tim Burton upon its release in 2007. Mostly, the negative responses had to do with the fact that this was a musical, and they weren’t expecting a musical…even though it was well known that Burton stated he was adapting the 1979 stage musical adaptation of the penny dreadful that originated the character to begin with. Personally, I knew it was going to be a musical; it just took a while for me to pick the perfect time to take in the movie itself. And ringing in a new year in the cold and darkness of a Midwest winter seemed the right time to me. Ten years after the fact, notwithstanding.

It’s a tale as old as time: Fifteen years after being falsely convicted of a bogus crime and exiled just so a corrupt Judge could get freaky with the man’s wife, barber Benjamin Barker (alliteration!) returned to London with something of a chip on his shoulder. He takes up the identity of Sweeney Todd, gets his old barber shop back (which is located above the shop of the “worst pies in London”), and vows vengeance on the man who took his life, his wife and daughter. But first, gotta makes some money, so he manages to settle on a mutually beneficial business relationship with the owner of the pie shop: he kills anyone foolish enough to come into his shop alone for a shave, and she uses that body to be the main ingredient in her meat pies. Next thing you know, business is thriving for both of them, and Todd is getting closer to realizing his revenge against the Judge. But then, there’s the issue of his young sailor friend falling in love with the daughter of the Judge that might throw his plans into disarray. Oh, that and the Judge’s daughter is really his daughter, and his long-thought dead wife might not be entirely dead as well. And the meat pie lady has a massive crush on Todd. Musical wackiness ensues.

Oh, Sweeney Todd was such a delightfully whimsically morbid romp. Musicals always held a certain charm for me, and when you add to that the dark and gritty Gothic setting of Victorian London and Tim Burton’s signature unflinching gleeful morbid style saturating the entire picture, and I now have another annual tradition to add to my movie list. I absolutely love this movie. There are a couple of points where things get a bit long in the tooth, yes, but overall, Sweeney Todd was a satisfying morbid musical tragedy that is 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.

Movie Review: The HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE

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house that would not die, theAaron Spelling Productions / ABC
1970
NR

A few years back, I bought one of these 20 Horror Movies for $5 packs from Wal-Mart. Among the list of titles included was this old gem, The House That Would Not Die.

Originally broadcast as an ABC Movie Of The Week in 1970, The House That Would Not Die is one of those made for TV horror movies that really are a different beast all together. I have a soft spot for these kind of horror movies, as it is a bit of a challenge to produce an effectively made horror flick within the confines of the acceptable broadcast television rules. Meaning, drafting something with talent rather than relying on cheep shock value. Some rather good Gothic ghost stories have come from these Movie Of The Week formats. So, how does The House That Would Not Die fare?

The story revolves around a house (duh) that was built during the Revolutionary War in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that is said to be haunted by the spirits of the original inhabitants. The house is inherited by one Ruth Bennett, who moves in with her niece Sara. The aforementioned spirits don’t take too kindly to this invasion of their personal space, and so the wackiness does ensue, thus leading to the two living beings and a local professor to delves into the history behind the house and deal with the scandal that lead to the haunting. Oh, and Sara and the professor get possessed by the spirits as well at one point.

The House That Wouldn’t Die, despite the cheeseball title, is actually a pretty decent old fashioned ghost story that works more on the atmospheric level than the visceral scare level. I’m not saying The House That Wouldn’t Die is a great movie. It’s really just okay, having that early 1970s broadcast television quality to it. No effects beyond superimposing film image for that “ghost possession” look, the film quality grainy, and the acting reminding me of an episode of Little House On The Prairie. It’s worth a rental, at the very least.

Movie Review: The AWAKENING

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the awakeningCohen Media Group
2011
R

“It’s never darker than when we close our eyes, and yet we keep them shut. Why is that?”

The year is 1921, and author Florence Cathcart is a famous debunker of supernatural tomfoolery and the bane of charlatans in England. She’s contacted by a teacher from a boys’ boarding school, where there have been sightings of a ghost of a young boy at the school, which may have contributed to the death of one of the living boys. He wants her to investigate, to which she initially refuses…but, then she gets all soft-hearted because she, too, was an orphan once, and all that. So, she arrives at the school, and sets up her various equipment she uses to prove whether or not there’s a haunting. Doing her best detective work, she deduces the real culprit in the death of the young boy…and it’s not a ghost. Surprise, surprise. But, even though her job is done and she’s about to leave, something happens that causes Florence to question her sanity and remain at the school a bit longer during the holiday break. She’s beginning to see things, things that may tie back to her past. And also question whether or not there really is a ghost that wanders the halls of the school.

Overall, I found The Awakening to be an interesting old school style Gothic ghost story that has the same slow-burning feel of The Others and The Woman In Black, has a very creepy atmosphere and heavy bit of tension, and unravels as a pretty good supernatural mystery. Rebecca Hall is mesmerizing as the skeptic with a sad past, and I may have developed a bit of a fanboy crush. It tends to happen. I do admit that the way the story unraveled was a bit on the predictable side, adhering to the early 20th Century ghost story formula, but that’s kind of par for the course. The Awakening was a good movie, a decent way to kill a rainy Autumn afternoon (for effect).

Movie Review: Edgar Allan Poe’s The LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER

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eap the lighthouse keeperThunderhead Entertainment
2017
NR

A young man awakens alone on a remote beach, marooned there by a violent storm. Above the rocky crags, a lighthouse stands like a sentinel. The man seeks the help of Walsh, the enigmatic lighthouse keeper. Walsh insists they are the sole inhabitants of the peninsula. But the man is haunted by fleeting glimpses of a beautiful young woman, and plagued by visions of hideous phantoms reaching out from the depths. As this horror tale races toward a mind bending finale, the man must confront the grotesque denizens of the night, or heed the lighthouse keeper’s cryptic warning to “Always keep a light burning.”

In the pantheon of Edgar Allan Poe stories, The Light-House is a rather controversial one, mainly because it’s been disputed as a genuine Edgar Allan Poe story. It being an unfinished fragment (two pages) that was written in the final months of his life, “The Light-House” has the same themes that Poe was famous for, but it’s been pointed out that the writing style wasn’t consistent with his previous work.

So, logically, this was used as the basis for a full-length feature movie. It happens all the time, really. The question remains, though: Can it be pulled off?

Kind of. Sorta.

The movie starts off with a young man washing up on the shore of an island after a storm, unable to remember his name or where he came from. After seeing a lady run off into a nearby cave, he gets knocked out from a fall and wakes up in the bed of the lighthouse on top of the cliff on the beach. This remote lighthouse is curated by a cantankerous old salty man who’se none too happy to have surprise visitors, and tell the young man that the only ferry off of the island arrives in two weeks. While he waits, the young man helps out with the general upkeep and maintenance of the lighthouse, as he also puzzles out the mysterious past of the old man. Soon, though, he runs into the lady he first saw on the beach (despite the old man claims to him being the only one dwelling on the rock) and soon they hit up a bit of a romance. The young man is smitten, and vows to take this lovely young lady with him when the ferry comes. But then zombie ghosts of dead sailors start appearing at night coming after them, and before you can say “overACTING!”, the dark secret past of the old man is reveled, along with his ties to the young man, with the zombie ghosts overtaking the lighthouse and the young man managing to escape in a rowboat, only to be caught up in a twist ending. The end.

On the one hand, The Lighthouse Keeper works on a certain level as a slow-burning, Gothic style tale, full of atmosphere textured with heavy dollops of dread and madness-inducing claustrophobia. Think of it as an ultra-low budget The Others-style ghost story.

And unfortunately, it’s that lack of a budget that works against it where it counts. It’s shot on video, which gives it a PBS show quality, and features effects right out of the Spirit Of Halloween stock. It’s not for lack of trying, but the zombie masks do take me out of the movie, there. The acting is…wooden. I don’t know if it was chosen deliberately for that Victorian overacting style for the period, or if they were just local theater production actors who’ve never acted in a movie before.

Overall, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Lighthouse Keeper isn’t really all that bad. If you can get past the cheep effects and the acting, the movie is a pretty good ghost story with a decent twist at the end. It’s worth a rental for a look-see.

Book Review: HELL HOUSE

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Book Review HELL HOUSERichard Matheson
Tor
1971

For over twenty years, Belasco House has stood empty. Regarded as the Mount Everest of haunted houses, it is a venerable mansion whose shadowed walls have witnessed scenes of almost unimaginable horror and depravity. Two previous expeditions to investigate its secrets met with disaster, the participants destroyed by murder, suicide, or insanity. Now a new investigation has been mounted, bringing four strangers to the forbidding mansion, determined to probe Belasco House for the ultimate secrets of life and death. Each has his or her own reason for daring the unknown torments and temptations of the mansion, but can any soul survive what lurks within the most haunted house on Earth?

One of the books that seems to be on everybody’s list of Top (ENTER NUMBER HERE) List of Horror Novels, not only from regular horror literary geeks, but from some of the bigger names in horror fiction. Notably, I read Stephen King refer to it as “one of the most brain-freezingly frightening haunted house novels of the 20th Century…”. That carries a bit of weight for me, as far as recommendations on what to snuggle up with on a dark and chilly night, to tantalize my imagination. Which also had the adverse effect of being a bit daunting to actually pick up and read. Not because it would be “too scary”, but like every other thing I’m hesitant to read, what if it turns out to be not as good as my brain hyped it up to be?

Fortunately, that didn’t stop me from picking up a copy of Hell House and reading it. My copy, with the cover art itself in the upper part of this review, is one of the many reprints that have been made of this, in case you’re some how curious about things like what was on the cover printing. I wouldn’t know why, but I’m sure there are people like that out there. Anyway…

As far as haunted house stories go, I have to admit that I agree that Hell House is one of the better ones written. If you’re familiar with Richard Matheson’s style of writing, then you know that he doesn’t necessarily write straight horror stories. He has said as much himself. They are horror, yes, but there’s also a heavy dose of science fiction that ties it down a bit more to earth rather than the supernatural. That isn’t to say there wasn’t a lot to cause my skin to crawl and want to turn on more than just one lamp while reading this, mind you. Such is Matheson’s style.

The story of Hell House involves a very old, very rich man hiring four people in different specified areas of research to investigate an old mansion that is rumored to be the site of many depraved orgies and debaucheries and death, and is now considered one of the most famous of haunted houses in the world. The old man wants to find out, once and for all, whether the nicknamed Hell House really is haunted, and if so by what, or if there’s actually a rational scientific reason behind the failed investigations done decades prior. To this end, he has hired a scientist and his wife to assist, a spiritualist, and a survivor of a previous investigation into the house that ended in a deadly disaster, who is tormented by his psychic abilities. Together they will stay inside the house for several days, attempting to determine if there really is something sinister behind the building’s facade, or if it’s something else with foundationally speaking. See what I did, there? I made architectural jokes. Yeah, whatever. Anyway, things start going wacky pretty much on the first day they arrive at the house, and everyone struggles to keep from going mad while sorting out the mystery behind the house itself. Or, you know, try not to die doing so.

This being written in the very early 1970s, there’s a bit more of, shall we say, an adult orientation to the story. And by that, I mean there’s a rather violent scene featuring necrophilia at one point, as well as some squeamish descriptions of possession and poltergeist manifestations going on. Add in some rather effective dark Gothic imagery with the house, and you really do have a spine-chilling supernaturally-tinged Gothic ghost story mystery that doesn’t end on a very up note.

I understand that there’s a movie adaptation made of this. I haven’t seen the movie, or even sought it out. But, I am glad I got around to reading Hell House, and seeing why everyone seems to hold it in high esteem. Recommended reading, my fellow horror hounds.

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