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Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead: A Review

Sweden based novelist, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s breakthrough book Let the Right One In, the most original vampire tale in a few decades, (no, you’re not excluded Mrs. Meyers) spawned two movie adaptations and received much attention here in the states. To paraphrase, Lindqvist proclaimed Let the Right One In as a speculative examination of a vampire’s life that would transcend the usual romantic presentation of the kindred and replace it with a more realistic, lonely approach. Lindqvist has now written a zombie book, Handling the Undead, that attempts to do the same for the undead. With it finally lurching its way across the seas to American translation this past October, I was able to get my hands on it these past few days to see if Lindqvist struck gold twice and successfully created a second convention breaking tale in a very saturated genre.

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Will the typical hardcore fan of “High Adventures in Zombie Apocalypse land” enjoy it? Probably not, no. Maybe I’m being unfair, but anyone that picks up this book with expectations of a Romerian holocaust full of Woody Harrelsons making wise cracks and finding creative ways to spill zombie gore is going to spend most this book yawning and turning pages. Any type of payoff in that department occurs about four pages before the book ends and it is very sparse at that. This is NOT that type of book.

So, how does Lindqvist do zombie apocalypse? Well, mostly with a character study that explores society’s perceptions of life and death when faced with metaphysical mysteries. Sound like a snoozer? Well, the narrative is much more intriguing than all that.  Lindqvist stirs up the calm before the storm with a series of unnerving events that provide a communal experience of cold war between the reality and supernatural: plagues of migraines flair up around Stockholm, electronic devices spring to life everywhere and refuse to be turned off even after unplugged, and a strange caterpillar is seen tunneling into the solid marble of a headstone.

Shortly after these disturbances, Lindqvist’s zombies, “The Reliving”, take center stage, and the book slows its pace as we begin the character study, taking the perspective of  three “teams” of characters and how they must struggle through the suffering of dealing with their dearly departed, newly returned loved ones. The characters are an interesting blend but nothing all that intriguing either: David’s wife Eva was killed in auto collision and he must explain to his young son, Magnus, “what” she is, Flora, an angst-ridden suicidal teen and her near fanatically religious grandmother must deal with the reanimation of their grandfather/husband, and Mahler,an aging investigative journalist whose coverage of the event makes him realize that he must dig up his newly buried grandson and deal with how his daughter’s reaction to the half rotted creature that used to be her son. Their struggles are far separated from the standard dodging cannibalistic ghouls. Instead, the docile re-living pose a host a of problems from ethical treatment to practical storage that Lindqvisit examines through his varied cast of characters and several faux snippets from news broadcasts, interviews, and television shows.

While all the makings for an intriguing psychological horror novel seem to be in place, Lindqvisit takes a much subdued approach to many potentially creepy scenes and instead pours on the mental anguish in only carefully selected doses. The perception of horror through fear and fiction, itself, seems to be on trial throughout as the Re-Living are often compared to pop-culture icons: Flora playing Resident Evil on Gamecube and her brother watching Day of the Dead both serve as foils to the Re-living. The theme of man creating his own monsters through fear, assumption, and ignorance is interesting but seems heavy handed by the book’s conclusion, as it ends up being handled in a Peter Pan sort of way. If we all clap our hands and believe in fairies, and think good thoughts, Tinker Bell will come back to life and there won’t be a zombie apocalypse. However, man is hopeless so Tink rots and the dead run-amuck, and while the build up to this is executed in a novel manner the overall concept has been the cornerstone to every cynical zombie opera since Night of the Living Dead.

Even though the book seems to bow to conventions that it spends the entire novel avoiding, I think the irony is deliberate, but the slick control of narrative and ascent to the climax is noticeably lacking in comparison to the lofty expectations set by Let the Right One In. Instead, the reader is given an abruptly introduced spiritual explanation that will only appeal to those who held on to Sunday school style faith, but most disappointing are the mundane characters that are nowhere near compelling as Eli and Oscar (from Let the Right One In). However, a few character trials are skillful written as they face tragedy like trying to explain to your son that his mother is one of those “orcs” all his classmates are talking about or digging up your grandson and being afraid what he’s going to look like or just wondering where the soul lives or what face death really wears.

Linqvist tackles a horde of interesting issues with a sparing amount of zombies, but overall the books lacks the flawless control of narrative and deep emotional attachment to well developed characters that Let the Right One In delivered. Regardless, the book delivers a very readable and thought provoking experience that fans of his previous work should check out before two movie adaptations rot it away to bare bones spoon fed concepts.

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The Dark Tower: A Ron Howard Film? Color Me Skeptical.

darktower1News is hitting the blogosphere this morning that Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer and writer/producer Akiva Goldsman have purchased the film rights to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower - easily my favorite books he’s written.  Previously, J.J. Abrams had purchased the rights from King for $19 (you’ll know the significance if you’ve read the books) but returned them to the author after realizing he wouldn’t be able to do the series justice.  It is being reported that Howard intends to shoot a movie that will lay the foundation for a TV series.

While I think The Dark Tower deserves some kind of film adaptation, this news makes me nervous for a couple of reasons.  In my ideal world, each book from The Dark Tower series would be made into a series of HBO or Showtime episodes ala True Blood (well, minus all the vampire sex).  I really don’t see any other way to do the books justice because of their intricate plot layers, flashbacks, and character depth.  Inevitably, any kind of adaptation will inspire ire from fans for one reason or another but I think an HBO approach would significantly reduce complaints.  Howard seems to be talking regular cable, which really sucks.  The Dark Tower books are often gritty, violent, and sexual.  Obviously they’re going to lose most of that by airing on NBC or something.

Also, is Howard really the right director?  He’s brilliant and responsible for some great films but how will the director of The Da Vinci Code treat our epic hero, Roland?  I felt more comfortable with Abrams owning the rights as he is a more experienced sci-fi/horror genre director and writer.  Then again, he did write Armageddon and Mission Impossible III.  Bah.  I guess I’m one of those ire-filled fans I was just writing about.  I’ll never be completely satisfied with the end product, I’m sure.  Let’s just hope this doesn’t go the route of IT – a great and very violent/graphic book dulled down by network television.  Do our boy Roland some justice, will ya?

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Stephen King Planning Sequel To The Shining?

ShiningJust read an interesting post on The Playlist about Stephen King’s interest in writing a sequel to The Shining called Doctor Sleep.  Apparently, while on tour recently promoting his new book Under The Dome, King let on that he’s been kicking around the idea in his head – seriously enough that he’s already figured out the premise:

Danny is now 40-years-old and living in upstate New York, where he works as the equivalent of an orderly at a hospice for the terminally ill. Danny’s real job is to visit with patients who are just about to pass on to the other side, and to help them make that journey with the aid of his mysterious powers. Danny also has a sideline in betting on the horses, a trick he learned from his buddy Dick Hallorann.

King also revealed he’s working on a new Dark Tower novel and words cannot convey how excited I am for that.  If you’ve never read The Gunslinger, you can’t consider yourself a real Stephen King fan.  Stop reading this and buy it now.  But back to the topic at hand.  While it’s being called a sequel by The Playlist and other bloggers, I’m not sure (based on the little information we have now) that it can be classified as one.  King is notorious for integrating characters from older books into new ones.  For instance, in the Dark Tower series, both Randall Flag from The Stand and Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot make an appearance.  It sounds to me that this could be less of a Shining 2 than a new novel using older characters/references.  But we’re talking semantics now.

The premise doesn’t sound too thrilling as it stands now but knowing King, he’s got some supernatural/demonic/other-wordly tricks floating around in his brain too.  Having just reread The Shining this past summer and finally appreciating its excellent character depth, pacing, and suspense, I’m down to learn more about what became of Danny, Wendy, and Dick Halloran.  Would you read it?

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New Moon’s “Darker Edge” Tries to Tap New Markets

new_moon2110Last month’s Fangoria’s cover sported the Twilight Saga’s dreadlocked pseudo-villain, Laurent. His menacing expression and a headline “A Darker Twilight” were accompanied by an article quoting screen writer Melissa Rosenberg telling fans to expect “something for everyone this time around.” New Moon (2009) is the second film adaptation in Stephanie Meyers’s four part series of novels about a young girl’s love for an eternally teenage heart throb, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).

Twilight (2008) introduced the saga to the big screen with a typical human/non-human romance plot that builds in clichéd fashion until it brings a trio of villains on screen.  The movie asserts one of these antagonist vampires is the toughest bad-ass to grace the silver screen since Darth Vader and then he goes out like bitch in under two seconds with dismemberment scene that occurs off screen. WTF?

New Moon shows the result of a similar vampire death on screen with-in its first twenty minutes at the hands of the Volturi, the darkest, oldest and most powerful; the royalty of vampires in  Meyer’s universe. Unfortunately, this is merely a carrot to be dangled for the better part of two hours in which you will wait to see them again.

The purpose of New Moon is to essentially build the back story of Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) best friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his abilities as a Lycan, “Werewolf,” Kate Beckensale would specify. If the Underworld saga has not gotten you sick of high flying werewolf antics then New Moon’s dog boys do create some appealing visual effects and generally make themselves more likable and interesting than the bloodsuckers. This conflict essentially fuels the narrative as Bella, Jacob, and Edward find themselves in a growing love triangle while Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre)—the mate of the “ultimate” vampire that got owned in Twilight—appears once or twice; and may as well wave at audiences with a T-shirt that says, “Don’t forgot about my subplot, it’ll matter next movie.”  Eventually, all this clutter triggers a series of events that has Bella running through the streets of Italy trying to prevent another clichéd tragedy re-write of when Bill Shakespeare “laid his scene” there in Verona.

Once that silliness is over, we finally get back to the Volturi who are creepy, amusing, and interesting but by no means groundbreakingly original. Most compelling is seeing a maturing Dakota Fanning portray one of these darkest of blood suckers with an ability to crush even her own kind with a thought and squint of her crimson eyes. However, this scene only actually provides a Matrix-style fight sequence and the revelation of another plot point that might matter later (see Victoria’s T-Shirt). The only chilling image involves groups of families being lead on tour of the building, basically lambs; the doors slam behind them and the screaming begins, but the audience only the hears their terrified screams. Remember folks, the PG-13 rating is the tug on this cash cow’s utters.

To answer Fangoria’s question, “Is it darker?” yes, it is darker, but lavender is also darker than pink, and that does not make this film easily accessible for wider audiences or horror fans. If anything, this film is more complex, harder to soak up than its predecessor, and more of just a visual representation for book readers. After the film, I had to ask to my girlfriend—who has read all four novels—dozens of questions to just get up to speed on what the characters’ motivations actually were.

New Moon is entertaining, visually stimulating, and a lot of fun, but don’t allow any magazine to convince you that’s it blacker than blacker the blackest black and brutal, to paraphrase Nathan Explosion, because it’s just not. At the end of the day, it’s there so Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner can walk around with their shirts off and a crowded theater of teenage girls can scream like it’s 1965 again and the Beatles have just taken the stage at Shea.

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Let’s Go Play At The Adams Review

Bound barSince we’ve already disturbed the ghost of Sylvia Likens, I would like to take a moment to review a book that will always have her spirit haunting me. Let’s Go Play at The Adams is a 1974 novel by Mendal W. Johnson inspired by the same subject matter. Unlike Ketchum’s book though, Johnson weaves his narrative around a more fictionalized account of a 20-year-old Babysitter named Barbara who is watching over a brother and sister, Cindy and Bobby Adams, while their parents are on a two week holiday.

Barbabra starts the novel wearing a white dress playing the white keys of a piano with white gloves, but the novel darkens and loses its innocence from here. Cindy and Bobby have plotted to chloroform Barbabra as she sleeps, and Barbara awakens from what she believed was a bad dream into a real nightmare, tied the bed, her mouth filled with medical gauze and taped shut, reduced to a new play thing for the children.

The children invite three neighborhood friends over and Johnson takes you into each of their eyes as they play with their new toy to the fullest extent of their desires. Day by day, the narrative is separated into two segments: the daily events where Barbara is dragged to the bathroom and made to use the toilet with a noose around her neck then prepared for a full day of torture followed by her silent evenings where she has to speak in her mind to imagery friends–since her mouth is taped shut–to hold onto any state of sanity. Her imaginary friend takes the shape of her college roommate who often blames the kidnapping on Barbara for not being able to see the evil in people.

While Johnson wields the claustrophobic horror well–in the vein of King’s Misery or Gerald’s Game–the story is a bit flawed and preachy. His approach to saying that five children under seventeen are capable of this because a violent society breeds violence is spoon feed to readers like a punch bowl full of sugar. Subtle is not Mendal W’s strong point. He goes off on rants throughout, especially when going into deep and lengthy description of rope play techniques and fetishy positions used to restrain Barbabra. This tone often speaks more to the bondage community, which is fine, but seems appealing to the wrong passion when your trying to stir thoughtfulness and emotion in your audience about a serious message.

So, the novel thumps along with this repetitive and often questionable tone – sometimes making me wonder if Mendal had a babysitter as a kid that he had in mind for this treatment – as Barbara starts to lose hope and faith in human decency and begins to realize the danger she is in a bit too late. Some gaps in logic and shoddy police work later we get an ending that takes us into a strange metaphysical final chapter where Barbara is floating above the world with no mouth or something.

While the novel is flawed, Johnson unleashes some brutal images that have stuck for the past nine years even though I only read this book once. Most disappointing is that Johnson never wrote another book, and I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not, but his ability to create uncomfortable tension and overall helplessness in the face of human cruelty and indifference showed great potential.  However, I am not sure if this book raises awareness or just serves as another fetishy entry for fans of torture horror. One thing I can say is that the book does provide a unique voice and style. Fans of this type of horror should give it a shot, but the journey may be long as its rare, and most definitely out of print.

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The Girl Next Door – Not So Much A Review As A Mental Cleansing

GirlNextDoorFile this one under movies I’ll never watch again.  If you don’t know anything about it, The Girl Next Door (2007) is a film based on Jack Ketchum’s novel about the torture, mutilation, rape, and abuse of a young girl by her aunt and a group of neighborhood boys in 1950′s New Jersey.  I’m somewhat proud to say that I have one of the strongest stomachs for any type of depravity put to film but this one crossed some lines for me.

After their parents are killed in a car crash, 16-year-old Meg and 10-year-old Susan Laughlin (Blythe Auffarth and Madeline Taylor) are sent to live with their aunt, Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) and her children in New Jersey.  The film is set in the 1950′s and director Gregory Wilson perfectly sets the scene using the things my generation has come to view as that era’s nostalgia – Ford Mustangs, ice cream trucks, shorts above the knee on boys, and cans of Yuengling beer.  David Moran (Daniel Manche), the film’s main character, meets Meg as he’s collecting crayfish down by a local river.  The two instantly form a bond and it seems as though David may become a stable friend for Meg in her fragile state.

Picture 4However, it’s instantly established that Ruth is a severely disturbed woman who acts as the “cool parent” in the neighborhood, giving her children and their friends cigarettes and beer, and lessons on how women are innately whores.  She is verbally abusive to Meg and Susan (who has to wear leg braces due to the car accident), at one point calling the latter “a stupid little shit” because she isn’t an efficient helper around the house.  One look at this woman and you know she’s not right in the head but all of the neighborhood boys love her because of her whimsical parenting.  Perhaps what is most disturbing (initially, at least – it gets a hell of a lot worse) is Ruth’s open display/talk of sexuality in front of her own children.  Early on, the movie has this incestuous/sexual vibe that is so creepy because it’s involving children.

The neighborhood boys jump on Ruth’s abusive bandwagon and begin tormenting the two girls physically and verbally.  David, who is fond of Meg, feels powerless to do anything about it because of peer pressure and fear of Ruth’s authority.  Things take a significant turn for the worse after the boys try to tickle Meg and she scratches Ruth’s youngest son on the face.  She runs out of the house so Ruth decides to make Susan suffer for her sister’s actions.  In the film’s first truly uncomfortable scene, Ruth bends the 10-year old (clad in her leg braces) over the bed, pulls down her underwear and strikes her 15 times with a toilet brush as the group of boys watch.  Meg rushes in to save her sister but is violently held back by the boys.  It was during this scene that I first got that sinking feeling in my chest.  I don’t think that feeling left until the movie was over.

Picture 1The next day, Meg tells this story to a police officer who pays Ruth a visit off camera.  Ruth is clearly able to assure police that Meg was exaggerating and she escapes justice.  This incident enrages Ruth and she multiplies her brutality by 1,000.  With the help of the boys, she ties up Meg in the basement naked, blindfolded and gagged her under the guise of getting her to confess her whore-like behavior.  I won’t go much further into the plot than to say that over the course of a few days, Ruth and the boys enact the most heinous of torture upon Meg, burning her with cigarettes, and just beating her senseless.  Stop reading here if you don’t want any more torture spoilers or are squeamish.

By far the most disturbing scene involves Ruth’s older son raping Meg in front of her younger sister and a crowd of neighborhood children.  Her younger son (about 11-years-old) pleads to “let me fuck her, mom” but Ruth draws the line there saying that would be incesteous.  Following the rape, Ruth carves “I am a whore” into her abdomen with a knife while receiving enthusiastic encouragement from the other kids.  After a moment’s thought, Ruth realizes that even though men will not want a woman with this message carved in her stomach, Meg may still feel the desire to be with men.  The solution to that?  Burn off her clitoris with a blow torch.  Yeah, I actually just typed that.  This type of stuff goes on until the film’s close.

Picture 3Good thing we can just sit back after viewing this abhorrent imagery and say “thank God it’s only a movie,” right?  Wrong.  What’s profoundly disturbing about this movie is that it is based on actual events that occurred in Indiana during the mid-60′s.  Gertrude Baniszewski, a once-abused wife and mother of six, took in 16-year-old Sylvia and 15-year-old Jenny Likens as boarders while their parents traveled around the state with a carnival.  Once her parents stopped sending their payment of $20/week, Sylvia Likens began being abused and tortured by Baniszewski and neighborhood kids.  She was chained up in the basement and much of the torture depicted in The Girl Next Door actually happened.  You can read the whole sickening story here.

This film really touched a nerve with me because of its unrelenting sexual violence toward children.  It’s profoundly disturbing to watch – far worse than something like Martyrs, which focused more on physical violence and gore.  The violence in The Girl Next Door, while physical, is also strongly emotional.  Just watching how a group of people can be complicit while atrocities are being committed in front of them is more unnerving than any blood-splattered Jason kill because it has a basis in reality.  The most obvious example is of course, the Holocaust but this kind of stuff happens regularly.  Look no further than the recent California gang rape where more than 10 people watched without doing anything.

On a critical level, The Girl Next Door is a fantastic film.  The performances by the child actors and Baker are top-notch.  Coupled with Wilson’s excellent pacing and Daniel Farrands/Philip Nutman’s screenplay, it’s hard to find a more harrowing tale in recent years.  That said, I’ll never watch this again but I’m glad I did once.

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Book Review – Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone

MisterbA demon stares up at you from behind a veil of paper and ink, pleading you to burn the book in your hands.  He’s a spiteful, murderous bastard who threatens bloody violence if you don’t comply with his wishes.  But you don’t – you just keep turning the pages toward (as he says) your inevitable death at his hands.

Such is the conceit for Clive Barker’s 2007 novel, Mister B. Gone.  This piece of metafiction follows the book’s narrator, Jackabok Botch (“Mister B”), a lesser runt-of-the- litter demon, as he travels from the fires of Hell to the world of the living in search of meaning.  After years of physical abuse at the hands of his father, including being burned from head to toe, Botch decides to flee his home.  While being chased by his father, Botch comes across a steak and a beer that appear to be floating in midair.  Just as his father closes in on him, Botch grabs the steak and triggers a trap set by some unknown force above, hurling the two demons upward in a net.  As the two travel through the circles of Hell, Botch’s father (in a fit of fear) pleads for his son’s forgiveness.  Botch turns a deaf ear to his father, cuts the net and sends his father to fall to his death.

We learn that Botch has been literally fished out of Hell by a corrupt priest and his two lackeys who are in the business of selling demon parts during the 14th century in Europe.  After escaping, Botch finds himself struggling to be the wicked demon he wants to be and eventually befriends Quitoon, a powerful demon who is on a quest to investigate rumors of a world-changing machine being developed in Mainz, Germany.

The book follows a pretty rigid formula, with Botch berating you to burn the book for your own good and then obliging you by telling more of his tale.  This idea seemed interesting at first, as I’ve never read anything quite like it, but after a while it gets stale.  Barker is obviously a gifted author with the ability to conjure up spectacularly gruesome and demonic images, but even he can’t write himself out of the predictable pace he establishes in this novel.

clive_barkerBotch’s tale, which comprises the bulk of Mister B. Gone‘s 248 pages, offers a unique premise that fails to go anywhere intriguing.  I was drawn into the novel immediately as I’m innately fascinated by the architecture of Hell, its various Circles and classes of demons.  However, once Botch enters the world of the living, Barker lost my attention.  I will say that Botch is a well-developed character.  He’s adverse to what you think when you hear the word “demon” – diminutive, insecure, confused, and possibly homosexual.  Beyond this development, the story isn’t the least bit scary, suspenseful, or exciting.  All the way up to the book’s underwhelming climax, I kept hoping Pinhead or Nix would step in and unleash some classic Barker carnage.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  There are some terrific passages throughout Mister B. Gone and I can appreciate it for that.  There’s probably even a good short story in there too.  I just wish Barker’s editors had felt the same way.  It took me an inordinate amount of time to finish this book (8 weeks) and I’m normally a very fast reader.  It just felt like a chore to pick this up because I had the suspicion it wasn’t going to pay off.

Still, I’m far beyond giving up on Barker.  I’m a big fan of his work, especially The Hellbound Heart, The Inhuman Condition, and In the Flesh.  He’s a less “accessible” writer than say, Steven King, but his material tends to provide depth that isn’t present in contemporary horror fiction.  Mister B. Gone must have been a misstep.

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