The horror! The horror!

The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead ★★
Adam Rockoff
Scribner, May 2015

This is an advanced review. Reader copy provided by NetGalley.

horrorofitallI always feel guilty when I snag a book from NetGalley and don’t love it. But hey — impartial reviewing and honest reader response is what we all crave, right? So I get over that guilt pretty quickly.

Adam Rockoff has a great idea here. While my real passion is to watch horror movies (not read about them) every once in a while a book like this sneaks past my defenses with a come hither look I can’t resist. That’s what this book did with its great cover and catchy (if wordy) title.

Essentially what Rockoff is attempting to do here (and largely fails) is what Stephen King accomplished decades ago with flair and brilliance in his nonfiction study of the horror genre Danse Macabre. What did I want this Christmas season? What do I keenly long for every year that passes? A goddamn, updated sequel! Get on that Uncle Stevie, before it’s too late!

dansemacabre

Danse Macabre ©1981

King’s masterpiece covers horror in all its manifestations in print, and on the big and small screens. Rockoff narrows his focus to just the movies, and that would be enough if it had been a wide view of horror on the big screen, but Rockoff’s kink is the slasher / exploitation films (the subtitle for this book should have been my first clue).

Rockoff has already written a book about the rise of the slasher film called Going to Pieces — heh, cute title — and without having read it, I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that this follow-up book treads a lot of the same ground. In The Horror of it All Rockoff has a major rant against Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for a special edition episode of their show Sneak Previews aired in 1980 in which the film critics lambast these “slasher” flicks as a dangerous and despicable trend in film both demeaning and dangerous to women (these men are so high up on their high horse here I can’t imagine they can still see the ground). Don’t get me wrong — I love Roger Ebert, he remains one of my favorite film critics — but boy, was he mostly a fuss bucket when it came to horror movies in general. It wasn’t his genre of choice and it showed in many of his prejudicial (and often undeserved) negative reviews of some great movies.

Rockoff is justified in tearing a strip off these two men in an instance where they show complete ignorance about a genre and its fans. Neither Siskel or Ebert appear to have actually sat through any of these movies they are so quick to dismiss as sleazy and misogynist. They show no awareness of “the Final Girl” who often survives to slay the “monster” herself, as well as suffering from the common misconception that it’s only women killed in slasher films. Quite the contrary; studies show men are just as likely to die violent deaths on screen in horror movies as their female counterparts.

But I get it. As a fan of the genre since before I could tie my own shoes, I’ve come up against that kind of prejudice many, many times. Horror is a genre where the consumer is attacked as often as the content itself. Understanding the appeal factor of horror is difficult for some people to accept, people who will look at you with a wary expression as they ask “how can you read/watch that stuff”? As if we should be ashamed, as if we are somehow mentally warped or our moral compass dangerously askew. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Horror appeals to many of us for very solid, rational, non-psychopathic reasons, I swear. And it appeals just as equally to men as it does women. And that doesn’t make the men misogynists, or the women failed feminists.

But I digress. Back to Rockoff. His goal here is to really champion for the slasher films and the deranged and disturbing pushing all the boundaries it can possibly think of exploitation films. And I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. But it gets a bit repetitive and tiresome and a lot of the movies he winds up talking about are pretty obscure if you’re not a complete and utter fanatic for everything underground and out of print (I’m not).

Adam Rockoff

Adam Rockoff

In his introduction, Rockoff promises to approach horror in a very personal essay, knitting together his experiences of the genre using memoir as a lens. I love that idea. I love hearing about people’s personal reactions to movies or what was going on in their lives when. One of my favorites of these sorts of anecdotes came from my own mother. She was dating my father at the time of the theatrical release of The Exorcist.

It was a date movie for them (these are my genes). They had to park the car at the very back of the mall parking lot. When the movie let out after 11pm the mall was closed and the parking lot was almost empty. They walked to the dark, abandoned hinterland of the lot to their car. When my mother went to open the passenger door (this was 1970’s Newfoundland – people rarely locked their car doors) a giant looming shadow of a man sat up in the back seat and groaned. My mother screamed. My father cursed (and probably shit himself). Turns out that while they were watching the movie, this guy stumbled out of the bar drunk and crawled into my parents car to pass out mistaking the car as belonging to his friend.

Rockoff has a few personal stories like this, humorous and charming, but not nearly enough of them. He can’t help but slip into the film school analysis voice, reviewing and critiquing. Too much of the book’s contents feel like grad school essays, a little pompous and righteous. In an effort to “legitimize” horror and testify to its importance and validity, Rockoff comes off sounding like a bit of a haughty dick.

Then there’s some sections that just don’t work at all, and their inclusion confounds me. Case in point — in Chapter 5 “Sounds of the Devil” Rockoff talks about the (un)natural marriage of heavy metal music to horror movies. The two go together like PB&J in some ways, in other ways it’s a misfit experiment gone awry.

Tipper Gore 1985

Tipper Gore, 1985

He raises a few interesting points and then inexplicably goes right off the reservation with a blow-by-blow account of the time in 1985 Tipper Gore helped found the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and brought the fight to Washington in the hopes of compelling the music industry to adopt a voluntary rating system warning of the explicit lyrics destined to corrupt and warp innocent children.

Halfway through this chapter I felt like I was reading a completely different book that didn’t have anything to do with horror movies at all. It just seemed really out of context and ultimately onerous. I remember when this bullshit was going on at the time — even at 11 years old I scoffed then, I scoff now. Plus, it’s not nearly as interesting a story as the Comics Code Authority and the war against horror comics of the 1950’s (check out The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America and Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America). And I’m really looking forward to seeing this 2014 documentary Diagram for Delinquents.

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy, rambling review I thank you. You are a good sport and too kind. I didn’t hate this book but it failed to really engage me or entertain. I don’t recommend it; instead, pop some popcorn, turn out the lights and cue up your favorite scary movie.

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Not this deserted island, please.

NIL ★★
Lynne Matson
Henry Holt
Expected publication: March 4th, 2014

***

nilA free copy was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for an honest review.

I really want to tear this book a new one, but it would be the equivalent of beating the shit out of the 80 pound asthmatic kid at school who wears glasses and stealing his lunch money.

See, here’s the problem: I picked up this book with entirely different expectations of what it’s actually about. The blurb caught my eye immediately:

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have exactly 365 days to escape—or you die.

My mind immediately began racing with awesome possibilities and potential — Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Long Walk — yeah, no. NIL is not any of these, not even close. What I should have done was keep reading the plot summary after that initial sexy blurb, which states:

Lost and alone, Charley finds no sign of other people until she meets Thad, the gorgeous leader of a clan of teenage refugees. Soon Charley learns that leaving the island is harder than she thought . . . and so is falling in love.

BUT I DON’T WANT A TEENAGE LOVE STORY ON A DESERTED ISLAND!!!

I want death games, and blood and danger and action and running and characters I can root for and scream in agony when they meet horrible, unpredictable ends.

Yeah, that is so not this book. There’s a little bit of that — about 13.36% (the rest is all lurve and angst of the teenage variety, my favorite kind). If the author really wants to have a love story (and let’s face it, these days it’s almost impossible to publish a YA novel without one), then it should have been more balanced. There are some great ideas and plot devices introduced here, but none of them ever get the attention they deserve, or are they ever fully fleshed out.

Young teens put off by violence seeking a more tepid adventure on a desert island may find some appeal here. I found it mostly pedestrian, safe and largely unsatisfying. The only positive I can think to throw out right now is that at least there was no love triangle. At least there was that.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

Funland – not as much fun as it could be

funlandFunland ★★
Richard Laymon
Leisure Books, 2010 (1989)
Available Now

No, no, no, no…bad Laymon. Baaaaaad. Okay, this isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but for a Laymon book, it’s distinctly horrible, in extremely bad taste, and too dull in too many sections to give it that zap! and zing! I’ve come to expect from him.

The late Richard Laymon is always my go-to guy for a pulpy, sometimes sleazy, never politically correct but always satisfying horror romp. There’s just something so delightfully wicked and deranged about his straightforward, shoot from the hip, slice like a razor blade prose that puts you right into the action and hardly ever relents until the last page is turned.

Once upon a time, Stephen King referred to his own work as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. Not a chance Mr. King; even on your worst day you offer up something rich and tasty with complex flavor profiles that linger long in the memory luring readers back over and over again for repeated tastings. Laymon’s books, however (and I love them for this) are a cheeseburger and fries that you wolf down and perhaps groan in pleasure while doing so, then lie back for a satiated moment of stoned out bliss. You’d never want to subsist entirely on a diet of Laymon books, but Jesus, who doesn’t get a craving every now and then for an injection of grease and carbs?

But god help you if you get a bad burger and spend the night in the john or grasping that bottle of Pepto Bismol in your weak and shaky hands (I’m definitely taking this metaphor too far, but seriously, I feel like I just ate a bad burger, and I’m not happy about it). The indigestion is leaving me a little pissy and put out.

This book has its moments that salvage it from the garbage heap completely — the last section in the Funhouse is pretty messed up and unfolds nicely with Laymon’s characteristic cinematic style. Why more of his books have not been made into movies is beyond me. They are the perfect fodder for the slasher crowd. But for the most part, this book is too slow to really get started. The characters are mostly terrible and so dislikable it kept making me curl my lip in distaste.

I’ve pretty much gotten used to Laymon’s standard sex-obsessed male adolescent who ogles all the female characters and thinks nasty, inappropriate things about them in his mind. Doesn’t matter if death is breathing down your neck or some monster is crawling up out of the floor, if there’s any chance of getting laid, these male characters will never pass up an opportunity to cop a feel or make out. This time the level of inappropriate hormone-driven angst is ridiculous, and insulting. The comments made about the girls drove me bananas! Maybe I’m just getting too old for this shit. All I know is my tolerance for blatant male chauvinism bordering on misogyny has whittled down to zero. Laymon tries to balance this with “strong” female leads who are the heroes of the story, but it wasn’t enough to tip the scales for me.

Furthermore, there are huge, long, meandering sections supposedly reserved for “character development” but do much more to bog the story down than enrich it in any way.

Sorry Laymon my man. Rest in peace and all, but this one is a real miss.

Ambiguity is not my friend

The Uninvited ★★
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury USA, 2013
Available Now

I’m going to tell you two things that made me want to read this book:

1) The cover – I mean, c’mon…how kick-ass creepy is this?

uninvited

2) The first sentence of the book jacket description: “A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires.”

Creepy, evil kids doing creepy evil things is usually a win for me. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would dive into this book with abandon.

First of all — it isn’t horror, despite the cover and the book jacket description. It’s more a mash-up of mystery sci-fi with a philosophical bent to it. There are creepy parts, but those are almost incidental to the book’s defined purpose. And what is that purpose?

The writing is great. Liz Jensen knows what to do with words. Hesketh Lock is a remarkable character study of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m no expert by any means (and maybe it’s a terribly erroneous portrait), nevertheless I appreciated the attention to detail. I found Hesketh’s way of looking at the world and interacting with it endlessly fascinating.

The book opens with Hesketh being sent to different countries on various continents to investigate cases of industrial sabotage. It’s not entirely clear how these financially devastating actions by valued employees are even related to the other disturbing cases occurring at the same time of children murdering their caregivers. Hence the mystery. But Hesketh is on the case and with his very unusual brain and the aid of Venn diagrams moves closer to the truth with each passing day.

Even up to the three-quarter mark I was still chomping at the bit to uncover what the hell was really going on. I needed to know. Things were going from bad to worse. What could be behind it all? Demons? Aliens? Time-traveling scientists? So many cryptic clues, hinting at something universally “big” in a space-time-evolutionary way.

I was ready for it. I believed in the author. It felt like she had a plan. I trusted her. Even with a mere 10 pages left and no definitive climax or resolution in sight, I was only slightly worried and concerned.

Ever watch an overwrought, existential and confused piece of French cinema replete with embedded themes and imagery and allegory that you were supposed to “get” but didn’t, and then the end title comes up and looks like this:

fin1

And then you shout at the screen and shake your fist: What the bleep?! You fume and even cry real tears. Because you realize no one’s going to tell you the answer. Oh no. You will have to guess, extrapolate, surmise and theorize, with your friends, or worse still, with the obnoxious douche you have to work with every day.

Well piss on that. If that’s what I wanted to spend my time doing I would have gotten my PhD in goddam philosophy. I can tolerate some ambiguity, but by and large I don’t like it. It aggravates me. I’m reading for answers and resolution, not for more questions and uncertainty. Ambiguity stinks. Ambiguity is not my friend. Which is also probably why David Lynch movies make me want to stab somebody, him mostly.

So for a horror novel, that turned out to be a mysterious sci-fi piece that turned out to be an exercise in pointless philosophy showcasing an excruciatingly ambiguous ending — two stars.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

The importance of being earnest (about zombies)

Autumn: The City ★★ (Autumn series Book 2)

by David Moody

autumn the cityI expect a lot from my zombie fiction – terror, suspense, action, snappy dialogue, characters I can care about – and if it’s a novel really firing on all cylinders, originality. In other words, authors don’t get a free pass to slack off just because they’ve gone the zombie route. It’s true that part of the genre’s enduring appeal comes from its familiar tropes – I read the books (and watch the movies) because the stuff I’m pretty certain will happen is all good, reliable fun. So while the overall story always feels familiar, the devil is in the details. If an author / filmmaker can take what’s so awesome about the genre but add a twist or two that’s totally new and unexpected, well then, you have not just a winner, ladies and gentlemen, but a champion.

David Moody has come dangerously close to outright failure on all these counts with this second installment of his multi-book Autumn series (read about the series here). Words cannot express how supremely disappointed I am in this installment but I’m gonna try.

First off, this is a “companion” book, not a sequel, because it really doesn’t move the story along at all, but rather re-tells the plot of Book 1, just from the perspective of a different group of survivors. Two characters from Book 1 show up again and briefly add to the action. One online review points out: “Had you not read the 1st book in the series you could still pick this one up and start without being lost.” Yeah you could, because it’s essentially the same goddamn book! The only thing that prevents it from being identical is that Moody moves the story a smidge forward in the last few pages to set up Book 3. What could have improved things tremendously is if the first two books and 600+ pages had been edited down to one exciting book and 350 pages. So, strike one.

Strike two: this book is DULL. How the hell can a zombie apocalypse ever be dull? I didn’t think it was possible, but there’s just no fierce tension or heart-pounding action. There are some scenes running from zombies that should get the adrenaline going, but just fall flat. And for this I’m really pissed because I know Moody can write awesome action sequences like nobody’s business (check out Hater), and draw out the suspense until you scream Uncle. This effort is underwhelming to say the least. I love zombies, and I think Moody is pretty cool, but I refuse to let this one slide, regardless of the book blurbs waxing poetic on its awesomeness and even the gushing reviews popping up elsewhere on the Web. What the hell people? Have your standards dropped so low, or is that all you expect from zombie fiction these days?

Strike three: I know I mentioned that “different” or original is good, but zombies that don’t bite (and continue to decay) kinda suck ass. The premise sort of intrigued me in Book 1. Moody almost had me convinced that zombies don’t have to rip you up to be frightening – get enough of them and you’re either smothered or crushed. But after reading another 320 pages of this kind of lurching zombie behavior, with no gore, no ripping, no biting, I’m suddenly not so enamored anymore.

So three strikes you’re out, right? ::sigh:: I am going to read on in this series though, because I have to believe it will get better. I’m also curious to see just how far Moody will take the story. So far, he’s only tackled the first weeks of the apocalypse. That’s the easy part to tell. The tough part is what happens next. Will he go there, and what will his post-apocalyptic world look like populated by desiccated reanimated corpses?

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David Moody and zombies

My Name is Memory — Quite the forgettable read

My Name is Memory (2010) ★ ★
by Ann Brashares

Daniel has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after life, crossing continents and dynasties, he and Sophia (despite her changing name and form) have been drawn together, and he remembers it all. Daniel has “the memory”, the ability to recall past lives and recognize souls of those he’s previously known. It is a gift and a curse. For all the times that he and Sophia have been drawn together throughout history, they have also been torn painfully, fatally, apart. A love always too short (Product Description).

memoryOh my, where to begin. Brashares has taken an amazing idea and just doesn’t deliver. My Name is Memory is supposed to be a grand, sweeping, epic love story that reaches across a thousand years, but I didn’t ever find myself relating to the lovers in any meaningful way, nor did I consider their “soulful” bond convincing. Because it really isn’t. They don’t know each other, so how can they truly love each other?

Lucy doesn’t ever remember anything and Daniel is just plain nutty. He is  consumed by a lustful infatuation that because it’s gone unrequited century after century, grows exponentially in severity (and ludicrousness). He’s a stalker essentially, having built up a centuries-old romance based solely upon a few modest interactions. Lucy/Sophia is all his soul can think about, to the point where Daniel never really lives any of his numerous lives. I just wanted to shake him!

I know sometimes in romances, it’s important to set up “an obstacle” to the lovers — a good, solid reason keeping them apart. The obstacles here are torturous!! You think it’s tough getting “the timing” right in a regular relationship? Also, Daniel’s reluctance to go to Lucy when he has the chance is maddening. His hesitation doesn’t make any sense!!! Nor does his fear and awkwardness — he’d rather watch (stalk!) her from afar than do anything sensible about it. As long as she’s on “his grid” he can breathe easily. You would think after a thousand years to get ready for this, he’d have a plan in place, something to try, rather than sitting back and trying nothing. Argh!! When he finally does make his move, it all happens so fast, and is over so suddenly, I was just left shaking my head in disbelief.

I’m giving the book two stars because while I was immensely disappointed, I did not hate it, and I can see where others who believe in soul mates might find the story enchanting. I was also taken with the idea of souls coming back over and over, and that your mother in one life could come back as your best friend in the next life. I did enjoy Brashares’ exploration of reincarnation, how some souls come back repeatedly, while others burn so bright they live just one life never to return.

Daniel’s burden is a heavy one –- it would be very difficult to live each life anew, if you could remember all the others that came before, and you’re fairly certain there will be more lives to follow. What makes this life so precious is that most of us feel it’s the only one we get, so we better make it count. In many ways, Daniel’s plight is reminiscent of vampires, who live to see centuries pass and are never really a part of the current times. They are “other”–monsters to some–and must live apart and without the connections that make us human. In essence, Daniel is living his life this way; he may die many, many times, but he lives his lives like an immortal – above and apart from the rest of us.

I have a feeling this book will be compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Let me tell you that it is nothing like it, and if you pick up My Name is Memory hoping for that, you will be painfully disappointed. Especially if you hate ambiguous / cliffhanger endings.  Rating: ★★

Just plain weird (and not all that good)

John Dies at the End ★ ★
David Wong

Plot Summary: It’s a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce, and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly a silent otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can’t.

johndiesI couldn’t wait to get my hands on this; word-of-mouth promised a heady, hilarious horror romp. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype for me. Think Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure meets Ghostbusters (or depending on your frame of reference, maybe Ghostfacers a la Supernatural), with Lovecraftian-style monsters, a twist of Rod Serling and a dash of psychotropic drugs to really mess you up. Sounds promising, no? Brilliantly mad? Genius even? The only problem is John Dies at the End falls way short of sustaining the insanity in any meaningful or satisfying way.

This book is moderately amusing in places (I smiled but did not laugh out loud). Our heroes are basically doofuses (and that’s the point) but I wasn’t given the opportunity to really invest in them. The plot is outrageous and just too ambitious. It was like “enough already!!! C’mon!!!” Because the entire novel reads like one long, really whacked acid trip, you never know what’s going to happen next. Normal rules just don’t apply. Everything has a dreamlike (nightmarish) quality. That should be a good thing, but in this case I eventually just got terribly bored – oh look, another creature with eyes on stalks and baby arms for legs. Oh jeez, see that jellyfish hanging from the ceiling? Watch out for the wormhole!!!!

This book shows a lot of potential but in the end cannot deliver on what it promises. Wong (whose real name is Jason Pargin, online humorist, National Lampoon contributor, and editor in chief of Cracked.com) is without question a talented guy and certainly has a vivid imagination.  In the end, however, John Dies at the End boils down to a much ado about not a whole helluva lot.  Rating: ★★

About the Book: John Dies at the End started its life as a webserial in 2001 and an estimated 70 000 people read the free online versions before they were removed in September 2008. The story of how this book found its way to publication is actually better than the book itself and told quite well by Wong a.k.a Pargin in an epilogue. Of course it’s been optioned for a movie but when we’ll see it is anyone’s guess. I actually think what didn’t work for me in the book might actually work amazingly well on film, and I look forward to seeing what director Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-tep) does with it. Check out the John Dies at the End website.

Watch the original book trailer!

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