The Exorcist

I have an Exorcist story, but you have to read my review first!

We’ve read a bunch of good books this semester, and The Exorcist is one of the best of the bunch. I’d rank it neck-in-neck with The Shining, probably my all-time favorite horror novel. In fact, I enjoyed all the books we read with the exception of two; I must confess to liking The Amityville Horror,which is craptastic but still fun to read in an awful sort of way.

If you have even a passing interest in horror movies, you know the plot of The Exorcist. The movie is faithful to its source material, even using a number of the book’s best lines. I believe Mr. Blatty wrote the screenplay. But hey, we’re not here to talk about the movie!

I have read The Exorcist a number of times. I’d say that number is less than ten, because that book never triggered my OCD, thus making it a must-read. So I know it pretty well. There is a sequel to The Exorcist, Legion, which is well-worth reading also. The main characters of Legion are Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer, believe it or not.

Here are a few impressions, gleaned from reading the book again.

The biggest thing that struck me is how funny the demon is when it talks. Most of the things it says are blasphemous, but they are still funny. The demon has a sense of humor, something God seems to totally lack. This is an interesting decision on Blatty’s part.

Why? Well, there are theological implications. A sense of humor is a very human trait, especially considering I believe that one of the prerequisites for a sense of humor is suffering. That would mean that humans have more in common with demons than with god. Ah, you say, maybe the demon was a good mimic or channeling Burke Dennings, although Father Merrin states that there is only ONE entity possessing Regan. Possible, but unlikely. The demon has a PERSONALITY that comes through when reading the book, and that’s hard to fake.

One of the understated questions raised by The Exorcist is why do people suffer? It’s a good question (which the book doesn’t answer), explored in greater depth in Legion. People should read Legion, because Kinderman’s fabled carp in the bathtub makes an appearance.

Speaking of Kinderman…he’s based on Porfiry Petrovitch, the inspector in Crime and Punishment. The TV character Columbo is also based on Porfiry. Don’t be fooled by Kinderman; he’s a devious bastard. Denning’s death and the church desecrations are the book’s subplot, which hums along nicely beside Regan’s decline.

Here’s an interesting question: who is the main character of The Exorcist? The title refers to Father Merrin, who bookends the book but isn’t around enough to qualify. Father Karras is the demon’s intended target and a solid choice; Regan’s character has no drive of her own; Kinderman is a strong character, but in the same boat as Father Merrin. My personal choice would be Chris MacNeil, even though after a certain point she becomes little more than a spectator. One of The Exorcist’s strengths is the number of interesting characters; even the minor characters are fleshed out.

Anyway, here’s my Exorcist story. When they released the extended theatrical version, I went to see it in the movies. I was too young to see the original version back in 1973! Anyway, the theater was full of kids, and those kids laughed their asses off from start to finish. That’s the first time I realized I WAS GROWING OLD.

 

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

My new hobby is watching scary YouTube videos before bedtime. My personal favorite is the creepy clown subgenre. There are few things better in life than watching drone footage of a guy dressed up as a clown running through a Nebraska cornfield.  Anyway, most of these videos are goofy. Some are obvious fakes. A few are genuinely disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.

Like YouTube videos, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is very loosely based on EVENTS THAT REALLY HAPPENED. Hollywood is way too free with the phrase ‘based on true events,’ btw. You could say Godzilla is based on true events – the fire-bombing of Tokyo really happened. There was no enormous radioactive lizard, which is a pretty big omission, but whatever.

From my point-of-view, what really happened in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is that a mentally ill woman died while undergoing an exorcism. Other people think differently, of course, which is fine, because it’s supposed to be a free country and all that, but when the person in question might have died because of medical neglect then it becomes a different story.

There was a court case. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on that court case. It’s totally fictional, obviously, because the filmmakers want us to believe that Ms. Rose is possessed by a devil(s). Of course, maybe I believe Emily is mentally ill because I’m biased. The Catholic Church has devils of its own. A good example of that is here.

Anyway, the movie wants us to believe Emily was possessed. So she was possessed. Emily is a farm girl who goes off to medical school on a scholarship. Her family is religious – the house is full of cats (11 of them!) and religious memorabilia. The actress who plays Emily is great. She shrieks and grimaces and contorts. I was impressed by the contorting –did you ever notice how people possessed by Satan or whatever are great at yoga? Because that’s what they’re doing. Full wheel seems to be the pose of choice. I find this to be irritating, because I did yoga for years, and there’s nothing demonic about it, so maybe movie directors and artists should stop picking on other cultures!

Since The Possession of Emily Rose takes place in the 20thcentury, there are medical explanations for Emily’s issues that don’t include demonic possession. Epilepsy, mental illness, malnutrition, starvation, dehydration. There’s even the possibility that Emily’s meds are making her hallucinations worse, and also hindering the exorcism, which leads to her stopping those meds. I can buy the first explanation, but the second is bogus.

From what I know about exorcism – mostly gleaned from reading Malachi Martin’s execrable Hostage to the Devil – the host is not responsible for any actions committed while possessed. The host is totally powerless and thus does not dictate the outcome. The fight is a mano-to-mano clash between priest and demon; being powerless, the victim is also extraneous and may not even be aware of what’s happening. What’s the difference if they are medicated? BTW, Mr. Martin was a Catholic priest who supposedly performed a number of exorcisms. Later in life he left the church, so take what you will from that.

The prosecution’s argument is that the priest a. caused Ms. Rose to stop taking her meds and b. didn’t provide adequate medical treatment while she was under his care, making him responsible for her death. I think this is a great argument, but the movie never takes it seriously. Ironically, Ms. Linney (the defendant’s lawyer) is agnostic while the prosecutor is deeply religious. He’s not Catholic, obviously.

The Possession of Emily Rose is effective at what it does. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Exorcist, the granddaddy of exorcism movies, but what does? It scared the crap out of me, even though I thought a few of the plot points were melodramatic and silly. Ms. Linney’s character is troubled by things that go bump in the night, as is the priest who performed the exorcism. At one point Say-tan even kills an important witness in a car crash. I didn’t know his Satanic Majesty cared about court cases, but I guess I was wrong.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose has believability issues. I don’t mean the exorcism. Plenty of people believe in demons and exorcisms. No, there were other things in the movie that drove me nuts. Ms. Linney is supposed to be a hotshot attorney, yet she’s woefully unprepared. She’s surprised about witnesses and doesn’t even know her client’s full story. Other believability issues: the movie is set in America in a religious community and it’s the Catholic church. The good Father wouldn’t be spending his evenings in the klink, and they’d have to move the case somewhere else because of possible bias. Are these nitpicks? Sure. Did they hinder my enjoyment of this movie? No, not really.

However, The Possession of Emily Rose’s biggest flaw is that it treats Emily’s pain and suffering as some sort of half-assed plot device, a flaw mirrored by many, many exorcism books and movies. This is exploitation, especially since many of the victims of demonic possession seem to be women. As Paul Tremblay correctly pointed out in his excellent novel A Head Full of Ghosts, many depictions of exorcisms seem to boil down to a creepy old guy tying a younger woman to her bed. Like I said, earlier – disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.

 

The Shining

I’d like to use the space allotted to me this week to talk about Jack Torrance, because after at least twenty rereads of The Shining (I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old) facets of his character still hold a certain fascination for me. I don’t find The Shining frightening anymore – I admire the book’s claustrophobic vibe, but at fifty years old the bathtub scene doesn’t scare me the way it did when I was twelve and I wouldn’t go into the bathroom.

What interests me now is Jack. Wendy and Danny are straightforward characters, in that we know what makes them tick. Jack is interesting in that his desire line isn’t so clear. What makes Jack tick? Let’s talk about him, shall we?

The thing that struck me upon this reread of The Shining is the fact that Jack Torrance goes through the pages of this book in a constant state of piss-off. If Danny is always getting hurt, Jack is always getting pissed off. Big things, little things, it doesn’t matter. Jack starts the book angry, and goes downhill from there. Rage is the key to Jack’s character. The first three words of the book – officious little prick– tell us everything we need to know about Jack.

I guess that’s why my view of Jack has changed over the years. I used to view him as a man in turmoil, but now I can honestly say that I just don’t like him. The description of Jack breaking his son’s arm comes early in the book, and it’s brutal. Looking back, I’m not sure why I kept reading. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre’s fascination with domestic violence.

So why did I keep reading? If I’m being honest, I guess it’s because King makes it obvious that Jack views breaking his son’s arm as the worst mistake of his life. He feels great shame and views himself with pure self-loathing. Yet he doesn’t stop drinking. That is a brilliant character moment. Even after breaking his son’s arm, Jack doesn’t stop. It’s not like Jack can’t stop. He doesn’t stop. All it takes to make him stop is a broken bike.

Yes, this tells us something about the nature of addiction, sure, but maybe it’s also a hint about how Jack really feels about his son. Don’t believe me? The plot of Jack’s puerile play is all about an older man beating an insolent youngster to death. The play is another brilliant character moment, because King doesn’t dwell on it. It’s just another view into Jack’s subconscious. Here’s another: Jack putting a wasp’s nest in his son’s bedroom. This is a man who has conflicted feelings about fatherhood, to put it mildly.

However, the true key to Jack’s character is that he’s in denial about being an asshole. Jack is a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. Jack isn’t a good guy. Jack is a self-destructive asshole. The Overlook didn’t make Jack beat the shit out of his student. The Overlook didn’t make Jack break his son’s arm. The Overlook didn’t make Jack an alcoholic. Jack did all those things to himself.

Jack tries to quit drinking using sheer willpower, which is lunacy. Let me explain my statement, lest people get the wrong idea: people can and do quit drinking all the time. However, the magnitude of Jack’s drinking problem isn’t something he can just walk away from without repercussions.

To expound upon my point: there’s a reason people go to AA meetings for years after they’ve had their last drink. Jack has no support system. Jack doesn’t seek treatment. Jack decides to hole up in an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere in the hopes that the experience will somehow solve all his problems and heal his fractured marriage.

It doesn’t work. Why on earth would it work? Jack is broken from the first page on. The book’s big question is whether Jack will also break his son. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the biggest trick The Shining pulls off is making Jack seem interesting enough so that the reader doesn’t throw the book at the wall.

King’s obvious fascination with Jack is a big part of that. King starts the book with Jack. Danny Torrance is the main character of The Shining, but by starting the book from Jack’s point-of-view we get the impression that Jack is our main character. He isn’t. We see more of Jack than Wendy, even though Wendy is a stronger character. Wendy really loves her son and doesn’t harbor subconscious fantasies about murdering him. When the shit hits the fan Wendy kicks Jack’s ass. Jack needs the hotel to bail his ass out, just like he needs Al to bail him out. At the book’s end, Jack even screws up killing his son. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

To conclude, Jack is an utter failure at everything.

Loser.

 

 

Poltergeist (1982)

I saw Poltergeist for the first time at a drive-in movie theatre in Matamoras, PA. It was summertime. Everyone should see a movie at a drive-in during the summer. Anyway, Poltergeist scared the shit out of me. I’ve seen it about a million times since then, so now it’s about as scary as a rerun of Cheers.

Die Handlung: The Freelings are a typical American family. Mrs. Freeling wears mom jeans. Mr. Freeling reads biographies of Ronald Reagan. Their kids have a shit-ton of Star Wars toys scattered all over their bedroom. They even have a dog, a scene-stealing golden retriever. They live in a nice development. All the houses look the same, but that’s fine because it was the 80’s and now it’s a rule that people should have all the uniqueness bled out of them.

However, all is not as it seems. At night Mom and Dad smoke dope. We witness brief glimpses of Dad’s DONALD DUCK FETISH. Thankfully, we don’t get to witness their depraved sex lives, but that combined with the fact that they walk around their own house half-naked and don’t wear suits and dresses at the dinner table leads me to suspect that they’re COMMIE DEGENERATES.

Just kidding. Since it was the 80’s, they’re obviously SATAN WORSHIPPERS.

The weirdness commences at 2:37 a.m. when the TV signs off. That’s right, kids, TV stations used to sign off for the night. This was when we had seven channels on our TVs. And you know what? WE LIKED IT. Just kidding. It sucked.

The weird shit bursts into the Freelings’ lives like a bomb. Moving furniture. Man-eating trees. Creepy clowns. I will give our suburb dwellers this. The ghosts strike fast, before the Freelings have time to react. Before you know it, their youngest daughter is trapped inside the TV.

A bunch of science types come from the local university to help get Carol Anne (their daughter) out of the aforementioned TV. Actually, she isn’t in the television. It’s sort of complicated and the movie doesn’t really explain it. I refer you to the novelization of Poltergeist, which fills in a bunch of plot holes. I don’t recall any of what I read, mind you, but I’m pretty sure the novelization does fill in the backstory.

That’s about as much of the plot as I want to give away. Poltergeist is a great movie. It made me vaguely proud to be an American, because the filmmakers definitely aren’t satirizing Reagan-era America. There’s no way they’d do that. Why are we talking subtext shit anyway? This is a great horror movie! Tobe Hooper didn’t make many movies, but the ones he made were insanely influential.

Wait a second! Did I say Tobe Hooper and not Steve Spielberg? Yes, that’s right. Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. I can see why people would think this is a Stephen Spielberg movie, though. The scene where the guy decides to cook a steak is Tobe Hooper, but the scene afterward, which shows us the EXPRESSIONS OF PURE WONDER on everyone’s faces as the ghosts parade down the stairs, is pure Spielberg. To me, those expressions sort of make them look like cows at the slaughterhouse, but YMMV. Maybe Spielberg directed that scene. Or maybe he told Tobe Hooper: Tobe, what this movie needs is MORE PURE WONDER. I dunno.

Anyway, go see Poltergeist. Ideally, you should be fourteen years old and watch it in a drive-in, but nothing in life is perfect. If you can’t do that, you should see it anyway!

 

 

The Amityville Horror

I read The Amityville Horror when it first came out, back in the wild and wooly days of the early 1980’s. Even as an impressionable youth (12 years old!), I knew this supposedly true book was full of shit. More on that later. I wish I had some enjoyable anecdote to share about the reading of The Amityville Horror as a young man, but nothing comes to mind. Honestly, I was nervous rereading this book. Was it as bad as I remembered? Would it be worth my entertainment dollar?

Reader, I needn’t have worried. I haven’t laughed so much reading a book in years. One of the joys of The Amityville Horror lies in its plethora of bizarre details. Where else can I learn about George Lutz’s diarrhea, or the particulars of the Lutz’s sex life (nightly, until their stay at 112 Ocean Avenue!), or how George and Kathy practiced TM? These are things that I – the reader – want to know. No, I’m going to go a step further: these are things that I DESERVE to know.

A short synopsis: The Amityville Horror is the supposed true story of one family’s experience in a haunted house. Ronald DeFeo murdered his family in this house (located in Amityville, NY) in 1974. George and Kathleen Lutz and her three children moved into the selfsame house a year afterwards and fled twenty-eight days later, claiming their former abode was full of poltergeists and demons, including a devil pig with laser beam eyes.

The Amityville Horror purports to tell the tale of what happened in those twenty-eight days. Here are some fun facts. The house was frigid. There were flies in the sewing room and black smelly goop in the toilets. A four-foot ceramic lion menaced the family. An invisible demon wearing cheap perfume hugged Kathy Lutz in the kitchen. George Lutz spent most of his time in a stupor, only rousing himself to throw logs into the fire and beat his stepchildren. More on this last point later.

Author Jay Anson is a hopeless exclamation point (!!!) addict. I can just imagine his editors, egging him on – ‘Jay, we’ve decided that this book needs more exclamation points. Oh, also more devil pig with laser beam eyes.’ I will give Mr. Anson credit for this. After finishing The Amityville Horror, it became clear to me that something was wrong with George Lutz. That something has nothing to do with literal demons, though.

The Amityville Horror is written like true crime, but it is clearly fiction. The influence of The Exorcist and The Shining shine over this book like twin moons; Jodie the laser beam devil pig is The Exorcist’s Captain Howdy while the ceramic dog mirrors the hedge animal scene in The Shining.

The attention to details is what’s supposed to make The Amityville Horror realistic. In better written books this can work; in this case, not so much. That doesn’t stop Mr. Anson from flooding the book with trivia, though. George Lutz wakes up at 3:15 a.m. every night; the coroner determined that the Defoe Familly died at 3:15 a.m. (wow, they’re good!). The DeFoes slept on their bellies; now, the Lutzes sleep on their bellies! Missy’s (Kathy Lutz’s daughter) pig friend’s name is Jodie and he’s male. Father Mancuso – the priest who blessed the Lutz’s house – was stricken with the flu by Devil Laser Eye Pig, and his temperature was 103 on such-and-such a night! Unfortunately, we never learn whether the good father had diarrhea.

Sometimes this attention to detail works against the author. In one of his nightly jaunts to the boathouse at 3:15 a.m., George Lutz sees his stepdaughter Missy standing in the window by the light of the full moon. LaserPig is standing behind her. This event happened on December 25th. Too bad the full moon was on December 18th; the 25this the date of the moon’s last quarter. Abraham Lincoln supposedly won a court trial by consulting an almanac about the phase of the moon, and what’s good enough for Honest Abe is good enough for me! Props to Mr. Anson for getting the day of the week correct (Christmas 1975 was on a Thursday), though.

Here is the source I used to look up the phase of the moon:  https://www.calendar-12.com/moon_phases/1975

I could go on and on about this book, but I won’t because I want to say a few words about the movie. The original Amityville Horror is a movie everyone should see, if only to witness the MOST AWKWARD LOVE SCENE IN THE UNIVERSE, courtesy of Margot Kidder and James Brolin. I don’t know what happened between these actors, but it sure wasn’t love, and their total lack of chemistry isn’t an act.

A final word: what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue was not demonic in nature. It was child abuse. Danny Lutz gives a detailed account of his ordeal in the documentary My Amityville Horror, released in 2012. While I am not sure whether Mr. Lutz believes in demons –the filmmakers clearly do, so he gives it lip service – he makes his point about his relationship with his stepfather crystal clear. When asked why he’s smiling, Mr. Lutz says – because  George (his stepfather) is dead and I’m a free man.

Truth.

Postscript: here’s a snippet of an interview with Margot Kidder (in Rolling Stone) regarding that love scene. I knew something was up!

“You should have been here earlier,” she said. “You missed some sizzling love scenes. Bright lights on me, Jim Brolin on me, and fourteen men standing around watching. In twelve movies, I’ve never had to do a love scene, and I started getting some funny thoughts, like, ‘How do you act like you’re a good lay?’ I don’t want to look like some fat New Jersey housewife. Last night I was pretty nervous about how I was going to look, so I ate an entire box of chocolate Ex-Lax, thinking I’d lose a lot of weight real fast. Well, I lost about six pounds, but it was all water weight and diarrhea. Boy, I feel terrible!”

Source: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/the-education-of-margot-kidder-630259/

 

 

 

The Others

It’s hard to write a review of The Others without spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil this movie for anyone. To make matters worse, I’m not sure what to say about The Others. I figured out what was going on about halfway through but I still liked it. Objectively, not a lot happens but the movie still kept me interested.

La parcalle: Nicole Kidman plays Grace, an overwhelmed British woman with a pair of kids. It’s 1945, and her husband is M.I.A. in Europe; for all intents and purposes she’s a war widow. Grace lives in a creepy old house, and her kids are a handful. She needs help.

The servants come later that morning (the old servants left). Grace takes them through the house, explaining that her children are allergic to light, so the house must be dark at all times. Trouble starts when Anna, one of the aforementioned children, starts seeing intruders in the house. Grace doesn’t believe her, but it soon becomes clear that it’s more like Grace doesn’t want to believe her. And that’s as much of the plot as I want to give away.

The Others relies on atmosphere and pacing. The conflicts in this movie are mostly interpersonal. There are lots of creepy/scary scenes that made me jump, which is not a high hurdle to clear. Grace’s kids act like real kids, not like pint-sized adults. The servants know more than they’re saying. If you like atmospheric ghost stories, you will adore The Others. If you like lots of action in your movies, not so much.

***

I mentioned that the acting is good, right?

***

One of the things that happens when you read a lot of these kinds of books and watch these types of movies is that you realize that, plot-wise, there are only a limited number of scenarios. You know that character who seems to serve no purpose? If it’s a mystery novel, she might be a red herring; if it’s a movie, she’s probably the key to the plot. People aren’t stupid and pick up on these things, although perhaps not consciously.

I think about these things all the time. That might be why I don’t enjoy reading or watching movies as much anymore. I tend to dissect what’s happening, and since that uses another part of the brain, it feels too much like work. I used to read and watch movies to relax.

***

One of the plot threads of this movie involves a mute servant named Lydia. Grace is curious and asks Mrs. Mills – another servant and the brains of the outfit – about the cause of her muteness several times, and every time Mrs. Mills is evasive. Later we learn why Lydia is mute, and the reason why Mrs. Mills couldn’t tell Grace. I wondered why Mrs. Mills didn’t lie, and then it struck me that Mrs. Mills doesn’t want to lie to Grace, which is kind of sweet. It’s also a nice character moment.

***

Mr. Tuttle (the gardener), on the other hand, is a shady character who looks like he pinches snuff at every possible opportunity. Check the liquor cabinet!

Nightmare House

Capsule review of Nightmare House: if you like ghost stories, give this a try. It’s short and the author quotes Tennyson. I will admit that this book was not my cup of tea, but maybe you will like it. And if you do enjoy Nightmare House, there are a number of sequels and prequels available.

Okay, that’s the short version. The longer review is below. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read any further.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

You know, one of the things that always cracks me up is when assorted writer folk/agents/the peanut gallery say that Stephen King can’t write endings. I recall one instance at a now-defunct convention in Westchester, New York, where an agent informed a panel full of enthralled listeners of this very fact. He then told us that if Mr. King worked with him, he’d straighten him out! The thing that makes this memory so beloved is that the agent gave out pens inscribed with his agency’s name, and when I put said pen into my pocket it burst and ruined a perfectly decent pair of khaki trousers.

((Side-note: Mr. King’s endings can be summarized thusly, people live, people die and the world keeps on turning.))

Whilst wiping blue ink from my leg, I starting thinking about Mr. King’s plots, the best of which spring from his characters. This is a long-winded way of saying that if I hadn’t been reading Nightmare House for an assignment, I would have put the book down after the first twenty-five pages.

Why? Because the book’s main character, Ethan/Esteban, has no desire line at all. He inherits a house from his wackadoodle grandpa in the late 1920’s, and travels to a small town in upstate New York to check it out. That isn’t a plot, it’s a situation.

That’s fine, because plots can spring from situations. Unfortunately Ethan isn’t a character, he’s a puppet of the plot. None of his actions even advance the plot. Ah, you say, what about unveiling the hidden room? Yeah, that did nothing, because the spirit of Aunt/Mommy/Crazy Matilde was already roaming the house freely.

The characters in Nightmare House are so paper thin I didn’t care if they lived or died. The garrulous housekeeper vanishes early in the book, never to return. Grandpa’s a loon, pure and simple. Ethan falls madly in love with a woman at first sight, because – well, I don’t know why. Because she’s pretty and makes him clean the bathroom? Pockets, the garrulous constable, only exists to unveil the backstory and give out cigars, which he does with great vigor.

There are a number of plot twists that don’t mean anything because they aren’t properly foreshadowed. The house’s history is hinted at, but not gone into in any detail. The ghosts say all sorts of stuff I didn’t understand, and I got the sneaking feeling I didn’t get it because I hadn’t read any of the other books.

In fact, Nightmare House reads more like a treatment that hasn’t fully been converted into a novel. It needs to have at least 50 more pages to be interesting. If Nightmare House reminded me of anything, it would be H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Wall.” Both have that vibe of family rot/predestination, but Lovecraft’s narrator was batshit crazy, and Ethan/Esteban isn’t crazy. If the author really wanted me to believe Ethaneban was crazy, he shouldn’t have written four more books in the series.

 

 

Ghost Story

Hey, time for another story from my far-flung youth! Ghost Story is one of the first R-rated movies I ever saw. It scared me enough so that I made sure to finish my paper route before dark. I had to deliver a paper to this house atop a small hill, and for a few weeks the trek up that hill freaked me out. Thinking about that now – the fact that I had a paper route, and the fact that a movie could scare me – fills me full of sad nostalgia.

Anyway, back to the review. Ghost Story isn’t an original novel, but it’s told in an interesting way. The book is long and dense and full of bizarre imagery, much of it sexual. Ghost Story meanders into strange places. Characters do weird things for inexplicable reasons. The person I’m assuming is our protagonist appears in the first chapter and then doesn’t reappear again for many chapters.

I think part of Ghost Story’s appeal lies in its unpredictability. I am not sure what to make of this book, but feel sure that the author was in control every step of the way. I’ve read better horror novels, but I’ve never read a horror novel with as much style as Ghost Story.

The plot: The Chowder Society is a group of five old men (four when the story starts) bound together by the fact that they killed a woman when they were in their twenties, except that the woman wasn’t really a woman and they didn’t really kill her. Despite these facts, the not-woman and her creepy friends have returned, decades later, to murder The Chowder Society and anyone with even a tangential relationship to the aforementioned not-killing. We’re talking about sons, daughters, neighbors, paperboys, even nephews of the original players!

The Chowder Society is important to the plot of Ghost Story, but the actual members don’t appear much in the book. Ricky Hawthorne has a cold that seems to last a few months. I am sure that Sears James, Hawthorne’s law partner, is based on Orson Welles. Their last names are puns – (Nathaniel) Hawthorne and (Henry) James. Dr. John Jaffrey is a dope addict who takes a header off a bridge in the opening chapters. Lewis Benedikt lives alone in a big house in the woods and is attempting to have sex with every housewife of Millburn, NY.

The actual plot is driven by others. Exhibit A is Jim Hardie, teenage lunatic, lover, hotel clerk, rebel without a cause, town peeper. For awhile Jim is the little engine that could, single-handedly placing the plot on his brawny shoulders and running with it. I liked Jim. Collective IQs drop by fifty points whenever he enters a room, but you can’t have everything. When the shit goes down, Jim is the first to die, leaving his sidekick Peter Barnes to face the weirdlings alone.

Peter’s mother is having an affair with Lewis Benedikt, one of the members of the Chowder Society, and that’s enough to mark him and his mom for death. We also have Freddy Robinson, who sells insurance and lusts after high school girls. Don Wanderley is a youthful horror writer who I’m sure isn’t based on the author at all; he tells the story of his relationship with the strange woman who later kills his brother, seemingly unaware that he comes off as a neurotic asshole. What I like about Ghost Story is that although Wanderley doesn’t know that he comes off as a neurotic asshole, the author does.

Stuff happens, but not in the way you’d expect. The not-woman has style. There is a choreography to what she does, a strange dance. She’s like a movie director – or even a writer. It helps that most of the members of the Chowder Society are done. At times it seems like the not-woman is doing them a favor by putting them out of their misery.

Anyway: I loved Ghost Story even though I see how it could drive people crazy. Book tally so far – two thumb’s up, one thumb’s down.

 

Paranormal Activity

Chris Rock made a joke about The Blair Witch Project that goes something like this – ‘they say The Blair Witch Project cost $50,000 to make. What I want to know is, what did they do with the other $49,000?’

I mention this joke because Paranormal Activity cost $15,000 to make, and also because it reminded me a little of The Blair Witch Project. Oh, there are superficial differences. Instead of three people arguing over a map, we have a couple arguing over a video camera and later a Ouija Board. But both movies are cheap, and nothing happens.

I don’t mean this in a bad way. Found footage flicks are a guilty pleasure of mine – I adore the goat vomit green lighting, the shaky camera work, the horrid acting, all of it. One of my favorite found footage movies stars a middle-aged guy with a habit of filming himself in his boxer shorts. He bought a haunted house at auction and can’t resell it at a profit because, well, it’s haunted. The director (who also starred) made the movie on his iPhone.

Paranormal Activity takes place inside a house. There are four different characters. Micah is an asshole who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. His girlfriend, Katie, has bad taste in men. Katie’s sister doesn’t appear much, the subtext being that she doesn’t much like Micah. The psychic character appears twice, and has one of the more memorable scenes in found-footage history, on par with The Ghost Detector in Archivo 253.

The plot: Micah buys a video camera to get to the bottom of the weird shit that’s been plaguing his girlfriend Katie for years. He films them when they’re sleeping, and doesn’t seem to realize or care that filming your, er, Nocturnal Activities is some Grade A Weird Shit. Katie calls in a Psychic, who tells them they need a Demonologist. Meanwhile, the stuff that happens at bedtime gets weirder and weirder and Micah grows ever more fascinated. I missed this on the first viewing of the movie, but it’s the camera that escalates the situation. Wittingly or unwittingly, Micah invites the entity in.

By the time Micah realizes he has no control over the situation it’s way too late and the damage is done. Perhaps I’m being harsh here, but I’m sure Micah was a dudebro in college, drinking beer bongs and picking up sorority chicks with his awesome pecs. Katie’s big sin is that she’s too passive and lets Micah browbeat her. Part of the reason for that might be because Katie’s an English major and Micah’s a day trader, which means she has no money and he owns the house. The power dynamics of their relationship are one of the more interesting things about this movie.

Overall, I thought this movie was okay. The effects are non-existent and the demonic stuff is uneven, but there are still a few jump scares. My main impression of Paranormal Activity is that I found Micah to be super annoying. If I might stand upon my soapbox for a moment, I believe that wannabe alpha dudes cause a lot of the problems we face in our world today. It’s Micah’s refusal to admit that he’s in over his head that dooms them both.

 

Hell House

Please note that this review contains plot spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, skip this review!

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There’s a scene in Hell House where Dr. Lionel Barrett, who has built a machine called The Reversor that also serves as his surrogate penis, debates where to put the body of his deceased colleague, Florence Tanner, on the ride home. Dr. Barrett has supposedly exorcised Hell House with his Reversor, and he is feeling smug about the fact that he was right and Ms. Tanner was wrong. A little background, here: Ms. Tanner has just been sexually brutalized and murdered by a ghost, and Barrett spends most of the book telling her she’s making it all up to get attention.

Barrett doesn’t know where to put Florence’s body. Their third companion – a man named Fisher – would object to putting her in the trunk, and Barrett’s wife Edith would find it painful to ride in the back seat with a corpse. I am happy to report that Barrett meets his demise soon afterwards, and that Fisher stuffs his corpse into the trunk of the car without a hint of hesitation. Normally you don’t root for anyone’s corpse to get stuffed into the trunk of a car, but Barrett is such an asshole I’ll make an exception.

The plot of Hell House is threadbare, and I mean that in a good way. Four ghost-hunters come to the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” to – well, they all have different desire lines. Doc Barrett is a stone-cold atheist who believes in spiritual phenomena but not spirits, Edith Barrett is his loving wife, Benjamin Fisher is a physical medium who escaped Hell House thirty years ago and Florence Tanner is a spiritual medium who believes in the power of love.

Hell House is dominated by Doc Barrett. Think of him as an iron sphincter, unable to bend or yield, totally full of shit. His antagonist Florence Tanner believes that the patriarch ghost of Hell House, Emeric Belasco, had a bastard son who died there. Ghost and spiritual medium have a bizarre courtship of sorts, which leads to such passages as – she felt a stir of sensual awareness in her body.

Holy mackerel, turn up the air, it’s gettin’ hot in here!!!

Benjamin Fisher is the book’s wild card; keep an eye on that guy. Dr. Barrett brings his wife, Edith, to Hell House, despite the fact that she is a prime candidate for a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, Edith begins having naughty thoughts and starts doing things like trying to throw herself into tarns and taking her clothes off. Doc Lionel no doubt thinks she’s acting out for attention.

Hell House reads quickly. If you’ve read this book before, as I have, reading it again quickly becomes a slog. Matheson excels at writing toxic men but can’t write women. The female characters of Hell House are all a combination of weak, stupid and irrational. There is also an offensive passage about gay people. I understand that this book was a product of its time, but maybe this is something you might want to edit out of future editions?

I possess a copy of Hell House with an introduction wherein Matheson explains how he wrote this book in reaction to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I don’t get why he just couldn’t leave it alone. This is the sort of thing you do in an undergrad Creative Writing Class and end up wanting to burn the manuscript when you find it thirty years later. In a way, Matheson’s actions mirror the actions of the characters of Hell House, who should have left it alone and never entered that house.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. It’s obvious that the characters of Hell House are loosely based on the characters in Jackson’s novel. Since The Haunting of Hill House– warts and all – blows Hell House out of the water, I almost felt embarrassed for Matheson. Today The Haunting of Hill House is viewed as a classic and nobody but hardcore horror fans read Hell House, but that’s all right. We’ll always have that magical scene where Barrett debates where to put Florence’s corpse.

Here’s the tally of Liked/Disliked books so far. 1/1.