The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp / *****

2016-06-29-1467216519-3739835-28765598I am a complete sucker for unreliable narrators in books. There’s something so exciting about realizing that what you’re getting is a subjective account of things, not an objective one; it tells you that not only are you in the hands of a talented author who’s managed to fully create a rich voice that’s drawn you in, it sets you up to engage with the book more, questioning its conclusions and events, which only makes the book more gripping and interesting. And even better is when the unreliable narrator combines with an antihero or a deeply flawed hero; the English teacher part of me finds complex, morally gray (or even dark) characters fascinating, if only for the burst of interest and uncertainty they add to a story.

So it’s really not a surprise that I loved The Last Days of Jack Sparks, which gives us a thoroughly subjective account of its title character’s final days, as written in his posthumously published manuscript Jack Sparks On the Supernatural. Jack Sparks is a larger than life figure – a bit of Richard Dawkins, a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, a bit of Russell Brand – you get the picture. He’s a journalist, but one who thrives on his cult of personality; at their core, every story Jack writes is more about him than the nominal subject. And so, as Jack started writing On the Supernatural, it should be clear: this book was more about Jack bringing his skepticism and doubt to bear, mocking everyone involved in the process.

But given the fact that Jack died while writing the book – and given how…unusual…the second half of the book gets, it’s safe to say that things didn’t go as planned. But, as Jack’s brother Alistair explains in his foreword to the book, publishing the book seems like the best way to deal with all of the questions raised by Jack’s death, and the doubts that people have raised about what happened. Not only that, but Alistair has added in some footnotes that allow him to add some “context” to things that Jack says, as well as a number of interviews with people from Jack’s book that re-tell the stories he told from a very, very different perspective.

In other words, what we’re getting is a book written by an author who’s got a personality to sell and a grudge to work out, edited by a brother who’s protecting his own reputation, and with characters from the book constantly undercutting what we’re being told.

And did I mention that it’s a) often very funny and b) scary as all hell? Because, man, is it ever both of those things and then some, particularly in the book’s wilder, less contained second half.

So much of the joy of The Last Days of Jack Sparks comes from author Jason Arnopp’s conception of Jack’s voice. Admittedly, more than a few people have commented that Jack’s ego and obnoxious attitude can make him hard to take, and that’s undeniably true; on the other hand, Arnopp’s decision to constantly undercut Jack by showing us different perspectives after each chapter gives us a hint early on that not all should be taken as literal truth here, and that Jack is far less cocky – and far more troubled – than he’s letting on in his book. More than that, it forces us to filter everything we’re reading, and question how much of Jack’s running monologue is fact, how much is bias, and how much is willful self-delusion, as Jack constantly tries to wave away things that are clearly terrifying him.

And all of that is before the book takes some seriously wild turns in the back half, as Arnopp starts twisting and turning the narrative in on itself, making connections I had never guessed, hinting at conclusions that he never explicitly draws, and making you realize just how densely plotted this book has been from the get-go, even when you didn’t think it was. Add to that some genuinely nightmarish, disturbing scares – there’s a seance in a recording studio that’s one of the scariest sequences of its type I’ve read in a long time, and that’s nothing compared to a hellish vision granted to Jack near the story’s end – and you’ve got a book that’s wild, unpredictable, hard to categorize, incredibly inventive, and so well-told. In other words, all things that I couldn’t love more if I tried.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks isn’t, as you can probably tell, anything close to a conventional horror novel. It’s postmodern in some ways, telling a version of ghost stories and demonic possession for a modern age, and using some of the tropes of “found fiction” stories in novel form. (In so many ways, it’s a great counterpart to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I read recently, and engages with similar concepts in very, very different ways.) It hinges on an obnoxious, unlikable hero, and forces you to constantly assess how much truth there is in anything you’re reading. And it goes to dark places, but finds something wholly new and odd there to do, telling a ghost story with a ghost that’s very unlike almost any other one that I know. That it does all this while moving like a rocket, being generally funny and light, and creating such a rich character, and scaring the crap out of you? That’s more than enough for any one book, and it makes for an incredible debut novel. I’m sold, Jason Arnopp – bring on whatever else you’ve got.

Amazon
Advertisements

The Croning, by Laird Barron / *****

thecroningFor all of his influence on a generation of horror writers, there may be no writer who’s inspired more lackluster imitations – or whose followers so often miss the point – as H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft specialized in horror on a cosmic, utterly alien scale – a world just beyond ours, where angles didn’t align, where colors we had never seen might exist, and where horrific elder gods slumbered – luckily for us. They were stories more about dread and unease than anything else, which has made it more and more difficult for modern writers to mimic his style – we need our payoffs, we need our plotting, we need our confrontations, and Lovecraft had no interest in any of those.

But one of the rare exceptions to that rule lays in the work of Laird Barron, whose work is undeniably Lovecraftian, yes, but also wholly his own, bringing Lovecraft’s command of tone and unease into the modern world, telling more “conventional” stories without ever compromising on the alien, malevolent force just beyond the range of our vision. But while Barron cut his teeth on short story collections, the question raised by The Croning – his first novel – is whether he could manage that same feat in a longer, full-length story?

Oh, yes he can. Make no mistake, though: The Croning demands your patience. It will keep you uneasy for a long amount of time, even anxious, but it’s going to make you wait for the payoffs – but when they come, there’s no holding back. Mind you, the payoffs don’t only come at the end of the novel; in keeping with his short story roots, Barron writes The Croning almost as a series of eight connected short stories, albeit ones which tell a single, ongoing story.

None of which, however, will prepare you for the opening chapter, which finds Barron retelling the legend of Rumpelstiltskin as something more haunting, something darker, something more nightmarish and primal in its intentions. It’s an odd opening to a book that’s otherwise set in the modern day, telling the story of an academic named Don whose relationship with his wife constantly skirts the edge of darker, more sinister mythologies. For Michelle, his wife, is an anthropologist, and her fascination with some ancient tribes seems to have had an impact on Don’s whole life – something that he is only beginning to understand. And as Barron leaps back and forth throughout several key incidents in Don’s life, we start to understand the wider pattern, but only as we also realize that there won’t be much to be done to prevent any of it from unfolding.

Barron’s pacing here is a thing of beauty. Yes, for some readers, The Croning may feel slow and lethargic, but for those who can appreciate his work, The Croning unfolds like a nightmare – relentless, uncertain, and indescribable. Barron’s patience makes his payoffs and resolutions all the more powerfully effective, giving them an anxiety and a tension they couldn’t otherwise have. But helping that along, in no small way, is Barron’s incredible writing, which is literate and thoughtful in a way that few genre writers bother with:

Neither light nor heat could withstand it; to gaze into that nullity and to comprehend its scope was to have one’s humanity snuffed. Only the inhuman thrived in out there in deep black.

For they were the stuff of nightmares; maggoty abominations possessed of incalculable and vile intellect that donned flesh and spines of men and beasts to shield themselves from the sun and enable themselves to walk upright instead of merely slithering.

Those quotes give you a sense of Barron’s writing, but can’t quite convey what it’s like to lose yourself in his words – and, more importantly, in the nightmarish visions he can convey. More than anything, Barron’s prose builds a world – both a real one and one beyond the veil – that has a way of overwhelming you, suffocating you with horrors until there’s no escape.

In short, it’s horror for horror connoisseurs. It’s not for casual readers, and it’s not for those who can’t handle their horror unflinching, unblinking, and nightmarish. But for those brave enough to handle its pages, you’re in for something unforgettable. Just don’t plan on having easy dreams for a while.

Amazon

mother! / *****

mother-posterNo matter what you think of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal, go-for-broke horror / black comedy / allegory / surrealist exercise / cinematic experience, you certainly can’t say that Aronofsky is phoning anything in. A director who’s almost always plunged into excess and operatic style touches with glee and abandon (the sparse, stripped-down The Wrestler aside), mother! is pure Aronofsky: stylish, mind-bending, impeccably executed, and utterly, 100% unique.

None of which is to say that you’ll necessarily like this movie, to be fair. Really, mother!’s mixed reception is completely understandable, even without taking into account the film’s completely misleading and inaccurate marketing campaign. This is a film that defies easy categorization, and one that starts off as grounded, strange drama before escalating to madness and operatic allegory without ever looking back. It’s a film that’s best appreciated as an experience, taking it all in as one would a poem, and trying to interpret it all, rather than embracing it on anything close to a literal level. And that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with – and that goes double if you’re expecting a conventional horror film here.

But for those who are open to what Aronofsky is doing, mother! is gloriously insane and  gleefully anarchic – a reminder of what cinema and film can do that no other medium can do. Even in the early going, Aronofsky’s control of staging and mood is impeccable, but as the film hits its astonishing, chaotic final act, it becomes something wholly else: wild, careening, ambitious, surreal, terrifying, exciting, and overwhelming. And, most importantly, in Aronofsky’s hands, it becomes something captivating and unforgettable – a surreal nightmare turned real, an escalating portrait of madness, mania, and selfishness.

Much has been made out of the question of what mother! “means,” which is simultaneously a compelling question and a fully inadequate way to describe what makes the film great. Yes, there’s no denying that in many ways, the film is a religious allegory, one concerned with how our relationship with the divine is still eternally selfish and driven by our own needs; that the film deals with climate change and the way we abuse the gifts of nature is all a part of that. And yet, at the same time, couldn’t it all be a scathing look at the life of celebrities and public figures, and the difficulty in drawing a line between private and public? Or couldn’t it be a portrait of codependent relationships and what happens when you invest everything in someone else and have nothing left of your own? To which I’d say: yes, and yes! Or maybe no! So much of the joy of the film comes from the way its meaning, like so much art, is in the eye of the beholder. mother! won’t hold your hand, it won’t give you a guide; it’s up to you to decide what it means to you, and really, I’ve yet to hear a take that didn’t resonate with me.

But even though mother! all but demands you spin time unpacking and understanding it, doing so doesn’t get me any closer to unpacking the experience of watching this movie, and conveying the astonishing impact it has on a viewer. It doesn’t capture Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible performance as she reacts with confusion, bewilderment, unease, and horror at the unfolding insanity around her, nor does it capture the way Javier Bardem can embody both wrath and beneficence perfectly. It doesn’t come close to giving you a sense of the film’s gloriously dark sense of humor, as scenes constantly go in unexpected directions. (The brilliant crew at The Next Picture Show podcast did an amazing episode about the way the film evokes the work of Luis Buñuel, focusing on The Exterminating Angel; I can’t recommend it enough.) It doesn’t give you a sense of the unease as people reveal their darkest sides, as brotherly squabbles turn bloody, or movements of love become all out battles to the death. And most of all, nothing I can write can explain the excitement, uncertainty, and sheer wildness of the film’s final act, which is one of the boldest, gutsiest, and most astonishing sequences I’ve seen in years.

mother! isn’t for all tastes, pure and simple; as my friend Adam said, I bet a lot of CinemaScore people would have gone lower than F if allowed. But I’m so glad it exists; at a point where it feels like almost every movie is a reboot, a sequel, or a franchise, mother! is defiantly unique – a middle finger to easily quantifiable films and a love letter to what cinema can accomplish. No, it’s not for everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Because if it’s for you, trust me, you’re in for an experience you will never forget, and a film that helps remind you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.

IMDb

Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar / ****

34430839From what I’ve been able to gather, Gwendy’s Button Box started life as a Stephen King short story, before the horror maestro ended up getting stuck with the plotting. He reached out to fellow author Richard Chizmar, who worked on the story and sent it back to King, who in turn, did some work and sent it back. After a few swings back and forth, what emerged was Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella set in King’s infamous town of Castle Rock. And while Gwendy’s Button Box still has the feel of a very long short story more than a novella (the plotting here is pretty linear and streamlined), there’s still plenty of enjoyment here for King fans to be had.

The story is simple enough: a young woman on the verge of puberty is out for a morning run (she’s desperate to shed some pounds and take care of some cruel nicknames she’s gotten recently), when she’s stopped by a man in black who wants to “palaver”. (Constant Readers, no doubt, have guessed this man’s initials by now; would it shock you if I said they were “R.F.”?) The man offers her a box covered in buttons, as well as a couple of switches, and explains that the box can take care of her – it will help her with that weight loss, yes, but with so much more…and all it needs in return is a caretaker. Because were those buttons to be pressed – the buttons that seem to line up with each major continent, as well as an ominous black one at the end…well, things would go bad. So why not give it to a responsible, careful caretaker, one who could prevent such things?

This is classic King – there’s a bit of Needful Things here, sure, but also a bit of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” on display as well. But where to take the story that feels fresh? It’s to that end, presumably, that King brought in Chizmar, and together, the pair creates a coming-of-age story that finds our young heroine thriving, succeeding…but always, constantly worrying about that box, and fearing what it might unleash. Yes, Gwendy is losing weight; her grades are great, her life is wonderful…but there’s always that fear, that unease about the button, and that constant sense of pressure as to when she might be called in.

If that sounds like meaty, heavy fare…well, it’s not, really. The biggest issue with Gwendy’s Button Box is that it always feels like a short story stretched to novella, not a short novel. We watch as Gwendy grows up, as she grapples with the responsibility of the box, as things build to a couple of critical moments…but it all ends up feeling like the sort of material King would use for act one of a story, not a story in of itself. And by the time the story ends on a cryptic, uncertain note, there’s a definite sense of “wait, is that all there is?” There’s little closure, little explanation – just a strange, uncertain end for a strange, uncertain story – which is something that works much better in a short story than a novella, where we need a bit more of a climax.

Still, you could do far worse than Gwendy’s Button Box for an afternoon’s entertainment. As always with King, it’s well-written; the patter and rhythms are exceptional, and his gift for choosing the critical moments of adolescence and bringing them to life is, as always, a joy. Even better is the way he constantly gives just enough information about the box to keep us wondering, but never enough to make it all clear. It’s an engaging little tale; just don’t be surprised if it feels slighter than you’d hope, as though it’s not quite capable of sustaining all the pages in its brief time.

Amazon

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay / **** ½

23019294Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has been greeted rapturously by not only horror fans, but by more “mainstream” critics, which isn’t something that normally happens with horror novels. Normally, horror is a bastard stepchild of a genre, something that most reviewers are “above” reviewing. And in the rare cases in which a book manages to overcome that barrier, it normally does so by being so “literary” that it loses the very things that appeal to horror fans. All of which is to say, it’s notable that A Head Full of Ghosts manages to walk a very thin line, giving us something genuinely scary and creepy, but also something inventive and postmodern enough to make it appeal to those with a more literary bent.

It doesn’t take long for Tremblay’s ambition to make itself known. A Head Full of Ghosts opens with Merry Barrett returning to her childhood home, accompanied by a writer who’s helping her tell the “official” version of her story and what happened to her sister Marjorie. See, a lot of people know the story already, because Merry’s childhood ended up being used as a reality television series called The Possession, a huge hit up until…well, you’ll see. So what we get in A Head Full of Ghosts isn’t exactly an “objective” account of what happened to Marjorie and the Barretts; what we’re getting is mostly Merry’s memories, some of which, she admits, may have been influenced by the TV show, or may be things that she’s lied about for so long she’s struggled to remember the truth. And if that’s not enough, Tremblay throws in some blog post analyses of the episodes of The Possession from a horror fan, discussing the story not only as it was presented on television, but picking at all of the tropes Tremblay is tossing out.

Indeed, there’s little way to explain how much fun this book is to horror fans without getting into the way Tremblay picks apart his own influences and inspirations. Just as you’re thinking “this feels like a rip from The Exorcist” or “do you think anyone in this book remembers the story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'”, Tremblay uses the blog posts to make the allusions and references clear, laying out for all to see the DNA of the story, but also turning the book and story into something muddier and less clear. Did all of this happen? Is this all a case of people echoing movies and TV shows that shaped their perception of what “possession” was? Where does the truth come in?

To Tremblay’s credit – and to the irritation of many, I bet – there aren’t a lot of clear answers here. A Head Full of Ghosts leaves a lot open to interpretation, down to the final pages, which are filled with moments that might – or might not – change everything. That could be frustrating for many, but for me, Tremblay’s earned his ambiguity; this is a story about how we perceive things, and how motives aren’t always cut and dry. There’s no arguing about the events of the story – everyone agrees on those. What’s more up for debate is what it all means, and what caused it all – and that’s far more compelling fare.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that A Head Full of Ghosts is genuinely scary, maybe all the more so for our inability to understand why some of this is happening. Is Marjorie mentally ill, or is she possessed? Neither explanation is entirely satisfying, because neither can adequately explain some of the truly unsettling, disturbing events of the story – even our blog posts, doing their best to unpack the tricks of the TV trade, struggle on a few points. But that’s okay; what makes the best horror is a degree of uncertainty, of unease as to what’s really going on. It’s just that few books make that part of the text itself, filtering the story through unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator until we’re not sure who to believe. (It’s no coincidence that Merry shares a nickname with one of horror’s great unreliable narrators, We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s Merrycat.) All we know for sure is the horror that comes out of those primal, uneasy moments – and no explanation is going to help make any more sense out of some of it.

Amazon

Suspiria / **** ½

suspiria-previous-design-2It’s taken me a long time to come around on Suspiria. The first time I saw it, probably 15+ years ago, I saw it knowing only that it was hailed as an essential and classic horror movie. What I got was bewildering to me; stylish and colorful, sure, but also nonsensical, unclear, and just sort of a mess. Then, a few years ago, I decided to give it another shot, seeing it on the big screen, to see if maybe I just had a bad first experience…but this time, a butchered and neutered print left me even colder to it, not really understanding any of the appeal of the film. To me, Suspiria’s popularity was bewildering; the script was a mess, the sequences often incomprehensible, the acting off-kilter…I just couldn’t get it.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve finally started to understand Italian horror – the style, the emphasis of mood and mise-en-scene over story, the focus on surreal and nightmarish imagery more than script or acting. It started for me with Lucio Fulci films, but there have been others along the way, including some more exposure to Argento. And so, I decided it was time to revisit Suspiria one more time, if I could find the right chance. So when the Belcourt theater in Nashville announced that they’d be screening the new 4k, uncut restoration of the film on the big screen, it seemed like the perfect chance.

And, man, am I ever glad I went.

There’s no denying that being more attuned to the rhythms of Italian horror had a huge impact on my viewing this time, as did realizing exactly how much – and how little – story I was going to get with Suspiria. Because, make no mistake, this is a thin, thin movie, in which a ballerina attends a school run by witches, and creepy things happen. That’s about all there is to Suspiria in terms of plotting, and yet, seeing the film in its full, uncut, restored glory, it’s hard not to get swept up in the nightmarish, intense setpieces. From a haunting pursuit that ends with creative use of a stained glass window to a blind man being attacked by his own guide dog, Suspiria shows off Argento’s knack for staging a sequence, and if it doesn’t always stand on the logic of the film or entirely make sense of its own accord, well, you’re certainly not thinking about that while you’re watching it.

But more than that, the colors – my god, the colors. Seeing Suspiria not just in a pristine  restoration, but in a restoration that made every single super-saturated color nearly pop out of the screen…well, it was a jaw-dropping way to see the film, one that frequently left me speechless at the imagery on display. It’s the ideal way to see – and to appreciate – Suspiria, a film that almost entirely relies on its ability to sweep you up in its saturated, hypnotic, strange world. (Mind you, the iconic score by Goblin does no small amount of work here, creating a strange, off-kilter mood that’s impossible to shake. It’s a bizarre, atypical score for a bizarre, atypical movie, but man, do they ever work well together.)

There are always going to be things about Suspiria that just don’t work for me. Even knowing how loose and shaggy the story is, there are big chunks of the movie that just feel silly and nonsensical, stretching the already tolerant boundaries of Italian horror to their breaking points. That’s probably most true in the film’s climax, a truly jumbled set of moments that feel like nothing so much as the film running out of time and hurriedly wrapping itself up so it could beat traffic. And even with the unbelievable style on display, part of me prefers the sleazy, go-for-broke horror of Fulci to Argento’s controlled, beautiful death.

But for the first time, this screening helped me understand what everyone loves about Suspiria.  It left me in awe of the iconic death sequences, unsettled by some of the intense mood setting, and absolutely floored by the beauty of the compositions. And more than that, it finally helped the film fall into focus not just as a niche art thing, but as a unique and fascinating piece of horror unlike most anything else. It’s beautifully, intricately composed, worried entirely about its visuals over its story (and even its scares), and absolutely, carefully controlled in its craft. And as someone who so often loves horror but finds the craft lacking, that’s no small thing.

IMDb

Mario Bava Double Feature

Even with my recent embrace of Italian horror, one of the big holes in my film knowledge has been the works of Mario Bava, who’s held up as one of the Big Three directors of the genre (the others being Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). So when the Belcourt offered up a double feature of Bava films, it seemed like a no-brainer for me to knock out two of his films with one shot.

511qbkdvwelThat being said, despite its fame, Black Sunday may not have been the one to start with. Make no mistake: Black Sunday is beautifully shot, embracing the gothic nature of its story (which involves the resurrection of a medieval witch who wants vengeance on the family that killed her originally) and then some, using its black and white cinematography to incredible effect, and giving out some beautiful framing that I was in awe of. Yes, Black Sunday undeniably showed me the style that Bava brought to bear, and gave me a sense of what he would do once he threw color into his palette of tools. But as a horror film, Black Sunday moves at a snail’s pace, feeling far longer than its 87-minute running time might suggest. There are some incredible moments, and a (somewhat) surprising amount of gore, all done with style to spare and a gloriously gothic mood that you know I’m up for (I am, historically, very pro Gothic films). But from a story point of view, it’s a drag, stretching out every reveal to a point of tedium, and overexplaining every moment (at least in the English dub that I saw; perhaps the original Italian version is stronger there). Still, if you can get past that, there’s little denying the beauty of the film on display, nor the obvious talent behind the camera. It’s just the pacing that drags it down. Rating: ***

blood-and-black-lace-movie-poster-1965-1020436027

Luckily, though, the next film was all I hoped for and then some. Often held to be the origin of the giallo genre, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is a blast from its opening moments (a gloriously stylish set of posed opening credits that finds every actor striking a pulp noir cover pose next to their name), and that holds true through to the end. The film is pure giallo, with its gloved, behatted figure murdering (mostly) beautiful woman in stylish ways, for reasons that only sort of make sense by the film’s end. Not that that really matters; for all of its soap opera plotting, Blood and Black Lace is an exercise in style – and what style it is. Adding color into his toolbox, Bava delivers an incredible experience, with the standout being a thrilling sequence set against the backdrop of blinking green lights that give us only glimpses of the killer stalking his prey. Yes, Blood and Black Lace spends a bit more time on its labyrinthine story than the typical giallo film (complete with some gloriously soapy confrontations), and that definitely results in a few draggy sections along the way; that being said, the horror elements are so good – tense, sure, but also executed with such style and visual craft – that you’ll find yourself forgiving the film for any shortcomings.  Rating: ****

IMDb: Black Sunday | Blood and Black Lace