Bedfellow, by Jeremy C. Shipp / *** ½

712brzim776lJeremy C. Shipp’s Bedfellow is such a compelling, intriguing premise, and it hooks you in so effortlessly, that it’s all the more frustrating when the book just sort of…ends. It’s not that Shipp gives us an ambiguous ending, or leaves us with questions; it’s that he sets us up for a third act that never arrives, ending the book without any sense of conclusion or finality, and leaving you deeply unsatisfied. And that’s incredibly frustrating, because for a while, Bedfellow is a truly bizarre, disturbing ride.

As Bedfellow opens, the Lund family is dealing with a most unusual house-breaker – that is, one who’s coming through the window while they’re all sitting there watching TV. But after a bit of confusion, Hendrick, the family patriarch, calms everyone down. After all, this is just Marvin, everybody – you know, Marvin? The one who saved our son Tomas from choking tonight? He’s just needing a place to sleep off his drinking, and we can help with that, right? So of course Hendrick’s wife Imani and his older daughter Kennedy all accede to that. Simple enough, as a start.

But what about the next morning, when everyone is commenting on how they’ve known Marvin ever since he helped Tomas with a hurt leg several years ago? Or when they start talking about how long Marvin and Hendrick have worked together? Because, see, with each new chapter, exactly what the Lund family’s connection is to Marvin keeps changing, getting stronger and stronger, and the only ones who know are the readers. Shipp keeps slowly evolving that relationship, doling out the revelations in passing comments or old memories, and only gradually helping us to understand that whoever – or whatever Marvin is – he seems to be able to rewrite the past to make the present fit. And that means no one around him ever notices.

But Marvin’s harmless, right? Well, apart from his weird fixation on a nightmarish story about a duck with knife blades for a bill. Or the “miracle” he keeps promising. Or the gaps in people’s memories. Well, okay, maybe Marvin isn’t harmless…but what in the hell does he want?

That’s the ongoing question of Bedfellow, along with exactly how Marvin does what he does, and what happens when it all unravels. But all of those things are things that Shipp himself seems uninterested in, building all of the tensions to a head, then letting out one bit of horrific release before abruptly ending the story in a way that doesn’t really resolve anything. And while there’s an argument to be made that leaving the story this open-ended aids in its unease and atmosphere, never answering any of our questions and leaving us baffled as to what Marvin and what he wants, that doesn’t really help Bedfellow feel more complete.

And that’s frustrating, because I loved the slow unraveling of reality that Shipp creates here. Yes, the book takes its time peeling back layer after layer of reality, but given the strange conceit that Shipp’s working with, that can be forgiven. And by the time we hit the second major act, when Marvin unveils his “miracle,” things get even more bizarre and unsettling, sending the story into even more bizarre territory. All of which would be great without the deeply dissatisfying ending – or lack thereof – that ends up making you feel like you only were given two-thirds of a good story. Not that we need answers, but that we need closure and conclusion – that’s the problem with Bedfellow, and it’s a frustrating and big enough issue that it made me put down the book not eager to talk about how weird and mind-bending it was, but warning people not to read it without being prepared for an anticlimax for the ages – which, in the end, tells you what you need to know about the book.

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Wake in Fright / ****

51qxweuvsil-_sl500_ss500_1.jpgIt was probably going to be hard for Wake in Fright to live up to its reputation on a number of levels. Anytime a film is lost for such a long time, it’s easy to build it up as something more than it is, letting the memories of the film and its reputation define it more than the film itself. Add to that the film’s Ozploitation background, which gives it a unique chance for Australia to look itself in the eye, to say nothing of the infamous kangaroo hunting sequence (which uses actual hunting footage, complete with animal killings), and it’s a film with a harrowing, upsetting reputation.

But can Wake in Fright measure up to the expectations I had for it? Not really, despite the fact that I’ll easily concede that the last half hour of the film is undeniably horrifying – not in the sense of a conventional horror film, but in the sense of horror that Joseph Conrad explored in Heart of Darkness (and, of course, that Coppola conjured in Apocalypse Now). Wake in Fright is the story of a school teacher who ends up stranded in a small backwater Australian town, only to find himself drawn more and more into the activities of the inhabitants – small gambling at first, followed by more and more binge drinking, followed by vicious cruelty…and it goes from there, until our schoolteacher is less horrified by the men around him and more by what he himself is capable of being.

Wake in Fright does all of that fairly well, and by all accounts, the cold look it gave at Australian culture wasn’t well-received, even as it was accepted on some level. (According to one source, during an early Australian screening, one man stood up, pointed at the screen and protested “That’s not us!”, to which one of the actors yelled back “Sit down, mate. It is us.”) At the same time, it takes a very long time to get to that point, and even when it does, the film spends so long hanging out with people drinking and socializing or wandering through the life of a small-time gambling parlor that you could be forgiven from wondering, to paraphrase The Simpsons, when you were going to get to the fireworks parlor. Even as things start to go wrong, there are endless sequences of drunken storytelling and stumbling that don’t feel like looks into darkness so much as a story about binge drinking.

But the bigger issue that is – and I’ll concede that this is unfair to Wake in Fright – that we’ve seen this story since then, and done better. Yes, Wake in Fright takes us to some unpleasant places, but so have so many other films since, including numerous ones from the same decade (again, see Apocalypse Now). And while I concede that it’s not exactly fair to think about other films when you should be evaluating a movie on its own terms, you can’t help but do that when you see a premise that has been done better in other movies (and, for that matter, movies that didn’t need to incorporate animal killings for their impact).

Wake in Fright still packs a bunch; it slowly immerses you in this small town, easing you more and more into its rhythms until it seems completely natural that you’re driving in the night looking for animals to kill. And it’s anchored by solid performances throughout, with Donald Pleasence bringing just the right amount of his usual over-the-top-ness to his role. But for all of its unblinking look at what people can do, it says something that we’ve come back to this idea again and again, and if anything, Wake in Fright feels like it doesn’t go far enough towards just how bad we can be – and that’s a disturbing idea on its own.

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Harvest Home, by Thomas Tryon / ***

158817.jpgThomas Tryon is most well-known for his blockbuster horror bestseller The Other, a book whose story I liked a lot but whose overwrought prose often held it back for my taste. Still, Tryon’s success is fascinating, and there’s something to be said for any author who can be said to have ushered in a new wave of horror (Grady Hendrix argued in his fantastic Paperbacks from Hell that The Other, along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, are the holy trinity of late 60s/early 70s horror novels). And so I thought it was worth  checking out Tryon’s follow-up, the folk horror novel Harvest Home, which has a cult following all its own, to see if The Other was a fluke or just the first part of something more.

Harvest Home is a fine enough piece of folk horror, following a family fleeing life in the city for life in rural New England, where the corn crop is everything and the “old ways” still prevail. And, as you’d imagine, those old ways have some creeping unease associated with them, from the passing references to a scorned young woman who disappeared to the disturbing way that the community chooses its ceremonial Harvest Lord. Are we looking at a full on Wicker Man situation here? Well, it certainly doesn’t seem out of line, no matter how kind and wonderful the town members can be, especially the Widow Fortune, who seems to more or less run the town.

Harvest Home is a slow, slow, slow burn, and while the book eventually steps on the gas towards the end, I had a lot of the same issues with it that I did with The Other. For one, Tryon’s prose is still overwrought and deeply dated-feeling. That can help with the old-fashioned feel of the community, but it also slows the book to an absolute crawl for so much of its length, making it feel at times like we’re watching the corn growing in real time. And while that immersion makes the community really work and come to life, helping us understand just why anyone might go along with all of these actions, there are definitely times when it feels like Tryon could work on his pacing.

Because, after all, we know that Harvest Home is a horror novel. It’s unlikely that we’re going to get to the end of the book and find out there’s nothing going on, but Tryon likes to take his time setting up the revelations of the book, delaying them for what should be maximum impact. All of which gives the book a great sense of mood that permeates it all, and there’s no denying that Tryon sustains a mood of unease and discomfort for much of the book. But the longer you delay that payoff, the bigger it needs to be, and the ultimate secret of Harvest Home feels anticlimactic after all of that build up. Indeed, the big secret felt somewhat obvious to me, leading to me wondering if there was another shoe to drop…and there wasn’t, apart from an admittedly nasty little epilogue that I enjoyed.

For all of that, Harvest Home is not really bad as a piece of folk horror. Like the best of the genre, it idealizes the rural lifestyle before slowly contrasting the “old” ways with modern methods, showing both the appeal of the simple life as well as the ways in which ancient beliefs weren’t as noble as we wanted them to be. It’s got a great sense of mood throughout, which I appreciated, and I’ll admit that I stayed up late to see how events would continue to unfold. Add into that the way the book so nicely reflects the 70s conflicted feelings about the changing roles of women in the home and society, and there’s a lot interesting about the book. (Whether you find some of the tropes of the book  – the sexually voracious woman, the mentally handicapped prophet, etc. – dated, offensive, or intriguing as reflections of the time may also reflect how you feel about the book, too.)

But for me, Harvest Home just doesn’t come together enough to satisfy, and it’s made me decide that Tryon just probably isn’t an author for me. I can see why people like him, and there are bits of the book or moments of the story that really work. But on the whole, Harvest Home suffers under the weight of Tryon’s prose and comparison with other folk horror tales that did this same story so much better. It’s fine enough, I guess, but there’s much better horror out there.

Post-script: I do find it satisfying (or ironic, maybe?) that I finished Harvest Home on the same day as I watched Apostle, which is basically the inverse case of what Tryon did; while Tryon made the community completely plausible, he failed to make the horror elements really come together, and left me unsatisfied on that level. Apostle, on the other hand, never quite came together as a plausible religion, but nailed the horror of it all in a way that made the story feel satisfying in a way that Harvest Home never did. Between the two, there are all the elements of a great story; I guess what I’ve learned is that if I can only have one – horror or plausibility – I’ll take the horror every time.

Amazon

Apostle / ****

6v793cnp1cd11As someone who truly loved Gareth Evan’s The Raid (and really, really liked the sequel a lot as well, even if it’s not quite as flawlessly compact and efficient), I’ve been eager to see what else Evans had in his bag of tricks beyond action. So when I first saw the trailer for his Netflix film Apostle, I was fascinated. I might have expected a lot of things from Evans, but giving him a chance to basically take on a Wicker Man-style folk horror film about a religious cult where a young girl disappeared? Color me intrigued.

Apostle undeniably shows a new side of Evans, one focused on style and mood over action. Every frame of Apostle feels immaculately crafted, from the fog-soaked streets of the city to the shadowy tunnels underneath the religious retreat where most of the film takes place. Evans makes it clear early on that there’s more to this story than just a religious cult, tipping his hand towards supernatural events in quiet ways that lead to more questions than answers, and constantly upping the sense of dread with ghostly apparitions and impossible moments.

The story seems simple enough at first, following a twitchy, driven Dan Stevens as he slowly infiltrates this isolated island community to find his sister, who’s being held for ransom by the cult. He attends services led by the charismatic head of the group (played by Michael Sheen, who’s fantastic), strikes up a companionship with a young man who’s having an illicit affair with another cult member, and tries to avoid detection as Sheen’s paranoia builds. All good enough, as long as you don’t worry too much about how everyone has to leave blood in jars outside, or why there are tunnels to that strange house in the woods, or what the references to the “Heathen Stand” are all about.

No, it’s evident from early on that something is wrong here, and that’s really the major flaw of Apostle. While movies like The Wicker Man leaned into ambiguity, giving you something that could easily be ominous or utopian, the cult of Apostle never feels like one that would actually work. It’s too evidently the result of something deeply “wrong,” too clearly an organization protecting its secrets and working on something unwholesome. And while we get the sense that we’re seeing the unraveling of something that’s been falling apart for a while now, none of it makes the cult any more plausible, which is something that good folk horror really needs if it’s going to work entirely.

But, for all of that, Apostle stills gets under the skin, exploring its ideas of religious zealotry and cruelty in unexpected ways, especially as we start learning more about why Stevens’s investigator is so unsettled constantly. And while the film goes in some directions that are more Clive Barker than Wicker Man, Evans steers into the horror of it all beautifully, delivering some genuinely unsettling sequences and a command of mood that’s absolutely relentless in the final act of the film.

And for those who wonder if Evans could bring the same brutality to bear here that he did in The Raid, rest assured, he can. Apostle‘s gore and violence isn’t as omnipresent as I assumed it might be, but it’s used effectively and to maximum impact, emphasizing the ways that people will use religion for power and control, and how violence is so often linked with that desire. Does it once again raise questions of exactly why people would ever join this religion? Oh, undeniably…but as a piece of a horror film, Apostle‘s visceral violence packs a punch and then some.

Apostle is flawed, unmistakably, but it’s also a success in that it shows that Evans is so much more than “the guy who made the best martial arts movie of all time.” (My opinion.) With a command of style, tone, mood, and pacing, Apostle got under my skin, and even if it all is less than the sum of its parts, there are some really good parts in there, and reassures me that Evans will be more than just a one-trick pony. Add to that compelling performances by Stevens and Sheen, to say nothing of a few truly nightmarish moments, and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable, if not great, piece of horror for the Halloween season.

IMDb

Full Throttle, by Joe Hill / *****

joehillI’m a big fan of Joe Hill’s writing – ever since his debut, Heart-Shaped Box, it’s been clear that Hill is a great voice in horror, bringing genuine scares along with a talent for prose that’s undeniable. Long before it came out that he was almost literally the heir to Stephen King’s throne, Hill had already made a claim on that, mixing genres effortlessly, from the moral twistiness of Horns to the endlessly inventive short story collection 20th Century Ghosts – a collection that, for my money, is one of the best things Hill has written to date, and the major work that made me a lifelong fan. Now comes his second short story collection, Full Throttle, and here’s where I make my bold claim: yes, Hill has written some great novels. But he’s even better as a short story writer, and that’s saying quite a bit. But when you’ve got a collection as good as this, there’s no denying Hill’s craft, talent, imagination, and ability.

More than anything else, what Full Throttle gives you a sense of is Hill’s range and command of so many different tones and styles. He’s undeniably capable of horror, as the supernatural revenge tale “Dark Carousel” shows, following a group of teenagers as they decide to taunt and rob a carnival roustabout, only to find forces aligning against them. Or there’s Hill’s collaboration with his father, “In the Tall Grass,” in which a pair of siblings stops by the side of the road in response to the voice of a lost child calling from an overgrown field, but soon discovering that this is no ordinary field at all. Hill’s even willing to see what he can do under clever restrictions, including “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead,” a truly chilling story told entirely through the tweets of a teenage girl on a doomed vacation with her family, or the literal stair-step structure of “The Devil on the Staircase.” And Hill doesn’t even require supernatural elements for his horror, as shown in “Thumbprint,” the relentless story of a soldier who’s returned home after a stint at Abu Ghraib bringing her own trauma and mental scars home with her, along with an inability to escape her past actions.

And if all Hill had was his gift for horror, that would be enough. But Full Throttle constantly shows other sides of his talents. Take, for instance, the hauntingly beautiful “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain,” which tells the story of a little girl as she lets her imagination run wild down by the shores of a lake – or, is what’s happening real? Whichever way it goes (and the end seems to make clear which it is), Hill captures that childish sense of carefree fun effortlessly, reminding us of a time when anything seemed possible. Or take “Late Returns,” a ghost story set mainly on a bookmobile which reminds us of how books can so often be a link to key moments in our own lives. Then there’s “Faun,” which feels like Hill spliced together “A Sound of Thunder” with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, only to add in a wholly unexpected new wrinkle that delighted me by changing the entire story around me.

And none of that even touches on the beautiful and unexpected final story, “You Are Released,” which Hill describes as his effort to write a David Mitchell story. Told, in Mitchell style, through a series of different narrators all on a single flight, Hill first seems to be looking at how our different views in the modern world can lead to us failing to understand each other. But then the story reveals itself to be something else entirely, leading to something both optimistic and painful at the same time, and ending the story on a more hopeful note than the story’s content might have suggested it would.

There’s so much more to this collection – the eerie “The Devil on the Staircase,” whose text layout reflects its subject in compelling ways (except, it must be noted, on the Kindle version, where that layout is lost; luckily, the story retains its unsettling mood), the Duel homage “Throttle” (the other King collaboration), the outwardly sweet science-fiction friendship of “All I Care About Is You,” and more. But it all adds up to an immersive plunge into the wide gamut of Hill’s ability, giving you horrors, suspense, rich characters, perfect moods, and stories that stick with you far beyond their short length. It’s a great collection from a horror writer whose made it clear that his success is all his own, and not just due to his family connection. Read it and enjoy the talent on display on every page.

Amazon

Beloved, by Toni Morrison / *****

9200000032583637_1024x1024It’s important, I think, to know exactly what you are and aren’t getting when you read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I was first introduced to the book in college, it was as part of the curriculum in a class on horror literature, and while the book undeniably fits in that classification (to a point), placing it alongside more lurid and genre-driven fare does Beloved a disservice, because as a true horror novel, Beloved may leave you frustrated.

Simultaneously, for true literary purists who turn up their noses at genre fare, Beloved may frustrate, given that Morrison undeniably uses horror ideas in this book. From a malevolent, spirit-ridden house to a figure that may or may not be the reincarnation of a dead infant, Beloved is without a doubt a ghost story, and not in the ambiguous sense of The Turn of the Screw. No, the house known as 124 is haunted – on that, there can be no doubt. It’s just a question of what it may be haunted by that gets complicated.

Much as Victor LaValle and Matt Ruff would later do in more genre-based works, Morrison uses her supernatural forces as a metaphor for the ghost of slavery, which hangs over the book as a constant reminder of the horrors that the characters suffered and only so recently escaped. Setting the book in the 1870s, Morrison gives us characters who still bear the (both literal and figurative) scars of that institution, and there’s little denying the way that the ghost lingering in 124 is as much the haunting of a past which all of them are struggling to escape.

Of course, it’s also a very literal (and unsettling) ghost – the ghost of an infant killed by its own mother, a crime which the reader only gradually begins to understand as Morrison unspools her plot. Drifting about in time and flashbacks, Morrison tells us not only the story of the haunting, but also of that mother – a woman named Sethe – and her escape from slavery, as well as the events that followed afterward. It’s also the story of the plantation called Sweet Home, and the overseers who worked there, and the horrific acts inflicted on Sethe, her husband Halle, and her new love Paul D, all of whom came away forever changed by that place. And it’s the story of the new generation, personified by Sethe’s daughter Denver, who’s struggling to figure out a place in a new world while also trying to know more about her own history and how it informs her mother and the generation that preceded her.

That Morrison manages to do all of that while also telling the intimate story of this family and the presence of that dead infant (as well as the mysterious arrival of a young woman named Beloved) and grounding that story in the very real emotions and trauma of the characters is remarkable; that she does it with such rich prose even more so; that the book remains accessible and compelling at all times is borderline miraculous. Setting aside a (thankfully) brief sojourn into broken, disjointed speech and stream of consciousness writing that marks the weakest point in the book, Morrison’s prose is fluid, emotionally complex, and narratively compelling, driving her story through empathy for every figure, even the ghost itself – maybe even especially for the ghost itself. And by literalizing that trauma, Morrison grapples with both what it meant and how to move forward – a question that drives so many even today.

If you’re approaching Beloved as a horror novel, you may walk away frustrated by its more literary aspects; if you’re wanting a factual or realistic account of post-war African-American life, you’ll be thwarted by the book’s commitment to its ghost and hauntings. But in mixing the two, Morrison does right by both, all while staying true to the metaphor that lets her explore a mother’s seemingly unimaginable crime and the larger crimes of an institution which never should have been. It’s not an easy book, but it’s a necessary one, and one that finds a way to explore ideas in a way that gives you an impact no “conventional” narrative could.

Amazon

The Dark Crystal / ****

51wb6ad0nclEven after nearly forty years, I’ve still never seen anything quite like The Dark Crystal, and I’m not sure I ever will. An ambitious, imaginative, jaw-dropping piece of craft, The Dark Crystal is also slow, ponderous, laggy, and ultimately feels too long even at its short length. And yet in that contradiction lies everything that makes the movie compelling and fascinating.

By the time The Dark Crystal came out, everyone knew the Muppets, and they knew Sesame Street. People had seen the imagination and anarchy that Jim Henson could unleash, and they fell in love with that sensibility. (You can count me among that following; the Muppets are so inextricably linked with my childhood on both of those fronts that it’s hard for me not to just start humming “The Rainbow Connection” while I type this.) But Henson wanted to do more, and The Dark Crystal was the result: a sprawling piece of epic fantasy set on an alien world, telling a story without a single human character and using Henson’s puppetry skills and imagination to immerse viewers in an utterly alien world.

And my god, what a world it is. From the snarling throne room of the Skeksis to the peaceful village of the Mystics, from the colorful witch Augra to the terrifying insectile Garthim, The Dark Crystal is populated by creatures and places that build a world that’s utterly unlike what I’ve seen on film before. And while there are glimpses of that familiar Muppet movement under some of it (I’m thinking especially of the Dozer-like Podlings), by and large, it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to forget that you’re watching puppets and sets and instead just lose yourself in this world and its history.

That history is inextricably linked to the richness of Henson’s world, as there’s a deep sense of coming in at the end of history here. With rich ancient rivalries, references to historical events, ominous narration, and crumbled buildings, Henson (and his co-director, Frank Oz) create a world that lives and breathes alongside Middle Earth or The Two Rivers or Arrakis, all within the space of an hour and a half or less. It’s a world that spurs your imagination on constantly, leaving you thinking about the gaps and wondering about the implications of the events.

For all of that, actually watching the movie can be incredibly slow and ponderous. Setting aside how long the movie takes to set up its plot, there’s still the effort of using puppets any time an action sequence is called for – for instance, the battle for the Skeksis throne – which takes a thrilling moment and slows it to a bit of a crawl. And like so many fantasy authors before and after him, Henson has a habit of getting lost in his world, following rabbit holes whether or not they matter to the plot in an effort to showcase the world he’s imagined for so long.

And none of that even touches on the darkness of the film, which was controversial at the time – after all, this was the man behind The Muppet Show, giving us a world where characters die frequently, innocents are drained of their souls and enslaved, and so much worse. The Dark Crystal pulls no punches in its world, and any comfort we might get from having non-human characters is rapidly removed as we see that this world is a dangerous, stark place, as reflects the high stakes of the battle to come. Once we’ve watch a Podling strapped down and drained of his life slowly, it’s hard not to be disturbed, even with (or maybe because of) the simplicity of Henson’s staging of the procedure.

The Dark Crystal is undeniably a film that suffers for the weight of its ambition; it feels like a novel’s worth of story and saga crammed into a 90 minute film, and it often feels like the last act of a story that required years of setup. It meanders, and it luxuriates in its setting, and the plot is ultimately the least of its charms. But somehow, none of that really detracts from the experience of watching the film and immersing yourself in the imagination and craft of an utterly unique and fascinating mind, one that created this world and brought it to life in such a way that you know captured all of his details down to the smallest wrinkle. It may not always rocket along, but as a world of craft and creativity, it’s hard to think of much that matches it, and easy to think of all the worlds influenced by its scope.

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