BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: John Dies at the End

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: John Dies at the End

14 Oct, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, um, spoilers? John Dies at the End is a very strange book. I mean, really strange. Part horror story, part buddy comedy, it’s got a rolling stream-of-consciousness narrative featuring one of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, coupled with what at times feels like slightly “making it up as we go along” plotting. But it’s hard to tell, given the rambling, shaggy-dog-story nature of the storytelling. So, David Wong (pseudonymous author and narrator) and his buddy John live in “Undisclosed”, a town whose name we will never be given, but somewhere mid-western (probably) and sort of deal with supernatural problems that people pass on to them. This is because of an incident some time back where they ingested a drug called “Soy Sauce”, which opened their minds to such things, got a bunch of people gruesomely killed and possibly allowed agents of darkness loose in the world. It’s hard to tell, in some ways, as the meandering and contradictory nature of David’s narration makes it hard to tell. The thing is this: it works. My big issue with the more blood-spattered horror books I’ve read this year – such as The Damnation Game – is that their desire to use body-horror for shock just makes me want to stop reading because it’s silly, and here the somewhat messy nature of the horror is faintly silly but done around characters I’m engaged with and care about so the threat feels more immediate and had more effect on me. Similarly, the plot is kind of ridiculously over the top, a genre-savvy mix of almost every trope I’ve read so far, that remains rooted in its effects on the main characters at its centre. It’s not a totally flawless parade through – sometimes the contradictions in the story are evidently deliberate...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – Ancient Images

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – Ancient Images

15 Sep, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is its dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, it’s all a little metatextual as a fictional horror movie leads into real-life horror! Ancient Images is an odd sort of horror novel. For a start, whilst it’s certainly creepy in places, it’s not actually that horrific, and furthermore, it’s as much about horror as it is within its confines. In fact, I think I’d have to describe its tone as slightly melancholy, especially its resolution. But it’s definitely a knowledgeable, well crafted book with a lot of affection for its subject matter. I’m struggling a little with how best to sum up the plot here, because written out it feels a little clichéd. The main plot device is a lost 1930s horror movie that seems to have been suppressed by an aristocratic family, who felt that it was blackening their family name, and the number of deaths and secrets that seem to surround its making and the few surviving copies. Our lead character, a TV archivist, is drawn into it when a friend who has hunted for this lost classic for years dies shortly after recovering it, and the print is stolen. The rest of the book, comprising her hunt for it, and investigating its background, takes in wander New Age Pagans, a town that feels like a more industrialised cross between The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, and a broad series of commentaries on the state of horror film-making in the 1980s. Along the way, there are some terrifically creepy set-pieces. The town itself is presented as so “normal” it’s crushingly tense, and the trip up the Tower is one of the sharpest bits of writing I think I’ve read all year – a constant sense of threat even though nothing is actually happening. I’ve found myself criticising a number of authors on...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – The Damnation Game

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – The Damnation Game

27 Aug, 2012

“Hearts of Darkness” is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre: where does it come from, where is it going, and what is its dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, I finally find a book that was pretty much exactly what I was expecting… First off, an apology – when I started out this year, I was planning on getting a review up on a fortnightly basis but this one is pretty late, and the next few are likely to be similar. I’ve just got behind as the books have got longer, and work, parenthood and assorted life stuff has got in the way. So, sorry. But I finally found a book that was the sort of horror novel I expected to be reading all year. Clive Barker was recommended by a few people, with The Damnation Game being the popular choice. And in many ways, this is exactly the sort of novel I was expecting to read when I started out on the genre back in January – the gore, the sex, etc, and I’ve been constantly surprised to be reading books light on both. The Damnation Game follows an ex-con hired as a bodyguard to a mysterious businessman apparently in fear of his life from nebulous forces that helped him to his success. Along the way we have a psychic daughter, the main villain (if that’s the right word), a zombie henchman, and assorted extras, but the big problem I had with the book was I didn’t actually care about any of them. And when some pretty damn nasty things happen, they’re not as effective if you’re not engaged in the fates of the characters that are being battled over. The horror side of the book works fine, although the juxtaposition of sex and gore feels contrived, for all it is successful in making you feel a little queasy from the image-whiplash. Many of the ideas are pretty interesting – the nature of the villain...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Shining

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Shining

29 Jul, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from? where is it going? and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, another filmed classic from one of the most famous authors on the list. I am, of course, familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. It is hard not be, both as a film itself and as a sort of cultural juggernaut, copies, homaged and spoofed as much as The Exorcist, if not more so. The setup is so simple it is brilliant – troubled writer Jack gets a job as an all-winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel, bringing his wife and young son with it. Over the winter, the place works its way into his mind, its dark past reaching out to him, and insanity and horror ensue. Now I enjoyed The Shining a lot but its biggest problem is how much it tries to lay onto that central, brilliantly simple premise. See, Jack’s son Danny is psychic. Jack is a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. The hotel is a malignant presence over and above its isolated, cabin-fever inspiring location. By the end of the first few chapters, the prose is heavy and overwritten with just too much going on – rather than an established normality undercut by emerging horror, this is a blood-soaked train-wreck waiting to happen. It’s like he felt he had to get everything in. So it’s to Kings credit that as the book cuts to the chase the prose settles down, and some genuinely creeping horror seeps into the text. I don’t want to be too critical of Danny’s “shining” because it does, when used well, get pretty creepy, and the malignant presence of the Hotel, starting just as bad history before becoming a character in itself, is effectively done. And Jack, poor Jack, ends up more sympathetic than I ever remember Jack Nicholson’s version being on film....

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Exorcist

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Exorcist

12 Jul, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from? where is it going? and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, the book that inspired one of the most famous (and infamous!) horror movies of all time. I’ve never seen the movie of the The Exorcist. It’s one of those films I feel I should see – that in some way my cinephile self-image is damaged by not seeing it, even though I feel that I know it from all the commentary around it, the spoofs, homages and pastiches in other media, and the general cultural impact that it had at the time, and still seems to exert now. But I haven’t really seen it, and I don’t really know it, which means reading WIlliam Peter Blatty’s novel is a fresh experience, with the capacity to surprise. And surprise me it did. Many of the core story elements – young girl possessed by a demon, priests, obscenities, and so on, are pretty well-known, but the tone of the book weaves horrific imagery and language into a story that feels more like a procedural drama than a work of horror. Starting off with small things, Regan (the little girl) is checked out by local doctors, and then specialists, and mundane, rationalist explanations are offered for her behaviour. As it escalates, the book plays on the readers sense of what is really happening, and covers the unexplained murder that brings first the police, and eventually a guilt and doubt-stricken Jesuit into the story. The contrast, combined with the unpredictable rhythm of the novel’s well written yet reader friendly main text and in-your-face possession scenes, gives a wonderfully edgy atmosphere. You’re really not sure what is going to happen at any given point, and you’re really not sure what sort of book it is going to turn out to be.  Is there an ending where the girl can be saved?...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Haunting of Hill House

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Haunting of Hill House

29 Jun, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, one of the classic (and much copied) Haunted House stories. For the first time in this reading list, I had to put a book down and shudder. Sometimes it’s the simple ideas, perfectly executed, that have the greatest effect; a clarity of vision, that gets through all the defenses you build up and just make you feel the need to look away for a second. Horror, it has been said, really is all in the mind, and in The Haunting of Hill House, its the mind that gets worked on to great effect. The setup feels pretty familiar, not least because it has been so often imitated. Hill House has a dark history and a reputation for being haunted, so a psychologist gets permission to take a few guests to stay there one summer to investigate and write a paper on it. He has a pretty open mind about the house, maybe its haunted, maybe it isn’t – certainly no tennants stay for long, and the locals shun it, but he’s not going to live there, just study the place and even if the house is haunted, its not like ghosts can hurt you, right? Right? There are two big things I think about when I think of The Haunting of Hill House. The first is that the house itself if a character – it has a personality, a temperament, and feels like a player in the story. At the same time its nature is ambiguous, motives unknown and capacities uncertain. It is just there, lurking, malevolent and needy. The second is that perception is a key part of the way the story is presented, and your perception, as a reader, is being manipulated by the story as much as the characters perceptions are being manipulated...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Devil Rides Out

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Devil Rides Out

15 Jun, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we travel to England, and investigate the dark Satanic cults that reside there. If I’ve noticed any pattern to the more effective stories I’ve read so far this year, it’s that they tend to spend a long time establishing a normal, mundane reality, before attempting to undermine or shatter it for great effect. Things can become off-kilter pretty quickly, but by and large you get a slow, atmospheric start and then a steady build to the sanity-testing revelations of the final third of any given story, and writers like James, Lovecraft and Smith all have that broad structure in common. So, when, about a fifth of the way through The Devil Rides Out we have already seen a great satanic manifestation with a Goats Head, and a dark spectral familiar, the only fear you are left with is just how over the top this will get. Right, so Dennis Wheatley has a few problems as a writer. First of all, he’s a writer of his time so casual sexism and racism abound, an issue compounded by the extremely privileged, upper class dilettantes that make up his heroes, investigating evil with their expensive roadsters, country houses and extensive contact books. They don’t really establish a mundane reality to be subverted in the first place and from this vantage point they’re hard to engage with. Secondly he’s pretty heavy handed with his characterisation – everything is very good vs evil, and the satanic cults are pretty much what you’d expect – orgies, child sacrifice, cannibalism, and so on, although the former, particularly, is constantly promised in the text but, being published in the 1930s, of course never happens. In fact, sex is on his brain a lot, and is often alluded to or built up to, before being...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: Clark Ashton Smith

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: Clark Ashton Smith

30 May, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we finish our run of short story writes with someone who seems determined to play eclectically in the themes of his contemporaries. Clark Ashton Smith is a name that I’ve come across several times, mainly in connection to Lovecraft, and often in pretty glowing terms, but until very recently I’d never read anything he’d written. Consequently, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect from his work, which, as it turns out it, it pretty appropriate. Because the thing is, as you turn the pages on his work, you can never be too sure what you are going to get either, except that it will probably be pretty good. It find it hard to sum up Smith’s actual native style. His stories break down into a few core types of story, with discrete settings, but they all seem to be somehow drawing on different inspirations – Burrough’s Mars, Howard’s Hyborean Age, Lovecraft’s modern horrors, or even the gothic heaviness of Poe, but that sounds too dismissive for what is a clever blending of influences into something new. For instance, we get several stories whose main structure could come straight from Lovecraft, as characters are taken from their modern settings into strange worlds and arcane encounters, but whereas Lovecrafts story radiate creeping horror of the “other”, Smiths feel suffused with a sense of wonder, sometimes bordering on the transcendent. It’s still very much in the pulp horror tradition though – ancient terrors and strange, unfathomable things lurk around the corners, and there is some effective and claustrophobic storytelling at work in a piece like “The Return of the Sorcerer” that is feels like an instant classic of unwitting men being dragged into something beyond their understanding. And the chilling story of archaeologists (of Mars!) being doomed...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: H P Lovecraft

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: H P Lovecraft

9 May, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we reach the dark tales of one of the masters of madness and lurking horror at the edge of the rational world. Howard Phillip Lovecraft remained for a long time the only horror writer I had any time for. It’s hard to explain why I became such a fan of his, but resisted the rest of the genre, but after exposure to his work via the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game I quickly owned a now-very-battered set of paperback collections, and when I bought my Kindle a “collected works” was one of the first things I downloaded. For a writer who never considered himself a success, and was never hugely popular within his lifetime, Lovecraft’s influence is now everywhere, in games, books, films and comics; whenever you see some tentacled horror from beyond the known dimensions rear it’s squamous head, thats Lovecraft, right there. In some ways its hard to imagine how these stories got such a hold. Reading them now, with years of ingrained affection, I may not be best qualified to judge, but if “Lovecraftian” is anything it’s a collection of tone, common obsessions and occasionally ponderous writing that at its best touches deeply atavistic fears about sanity, corruption, and man’s place in the world. At its worse, its stodgy, dull, misogynistic and shockingly racist. So Lovecraft is a writer of contradictions, and at times a hard writer to love, but undeniably a great voice when it all comes together. So lets talk about when it all comes together. Lovecraft’s best work can be summed by his biggest recurring theme – man gazes beyond his local worldview in the great abyss of cold, hard reality, and is conquered by it, sucumbing to madness, corruption, death, or all three. This fear for the physical and...

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: M R James

BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: M R James

25 Apr, 2012

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, a collection of chilling tales from one of the great purveyors of ghost stories. Montague Rhodes James seems like an unlikely influence on the Horror Genre. A scholar and antiquarian, his works have the feel of stories told around the fire on dark nights with friends, and by all accounts this is indeed the origin of many of them. He feels, in many ways, like a reply to my criticism of Poe, where for all I enjoyed his writing I felt he was guilty of overwriting, of hammering home his own gothic cleverness, whereas James chills you with understatement, subtlety, and letting your mind insert much of the horror for you. James does not explain himself. His stories recount events, often first hand, that defy rational explanation and rarely attempt to provide one. The reader, like the characters, at left faced with a glimpse into something beyond their rational world, flash of something untoward, and often left unharmed yet unsettled. Personally, I think it’s wonderful – chilling rather than over-the-top “horror”, rational narratives at a loss to explain irrational events, and a clean, authoritative style that always seems to keep the tales to the right length. “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” gave me proper chills, as did “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. The other thing that stands out is that they don’t feel at all dated. Turn of the Screw, for all I liked it, feels like a peice of its time, but there is a modernity to M R James work for all it features academics and writers as lead characters. Spooky goings on in spooky environments are all very well, but James seems to handle the intersection of worlds very well, and builds a lot of his work around it –...