Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

It produced in me, this figure in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was - a few more seconds assured me - as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind.

The ghost of Peter Quint in a scene from The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw.

In other words, she saw a ghost!

I really don't know if anyone reads Henry James anymore. To be sure, he's an acquired taste. Even among students of English Lit in various campuses across the country, he's probably hopelessly ignored now in the 21st century. And, much as I've enjoyed his novels, his prose can be aggravating to wade through. Sentences strewn with multiple commas, and asides, for which the perceptive reader, providing an intense concentration, illuminates, as it were, the depths beyond the surface of the events related to the passage of plot, a deeper understanding of...well, you get my drift here. Henry James is tough to read!

That said, his short novel The Turn of the Screw really is one of the best ghost stories you'll have the pleasure of enjoying once you give into its style. In keeping with the season, I thought it would be fun (whaaa? reading Henry James is fun???) to revisit his most famous ghost story set in an isolated manor deep within the English countryside.

The plot is relatively a simple one. A young governess is hired by the uncle of two small children, Miles and Flora, to oversee their care and education at his isolated country estate. The conditions of the governess's employment is that she, under no circumstances, communicates with, or otherwise disturb him, regarding their care. She is to take full charge over their well-being completely, leaving him free to pursue his bachelor ways alone in London. The job seems to be a delightful one for our young governess, until the ghosts of the prior governess, Miss Jessel,  and Peter Quint, the late groundskeeper, appear. We learn that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel enjoyed a sexual relationship before their untimely deaths. A relationship contaminated with hints of cruelty and violence. Convinced that their spirits have returned to corrupt the innocent children under her care, our young governess steels herself to confront the evil spirits and save her young charges.

There is a lot of psychological meat for the reader, and scholars, to chew on here. Are the ghosts real? Are they figments of the governess's imagination? Has her infatuation with her distant employer influenced her perception of her young charges? Are the children truly innocent, or have they been corrupted already by the late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?

James has a ball with this story. It's steeped in gothic trappings, and a sly reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho (a gothic classic that I'll probably get around to reading at some point) is made. It's been adapted for film several times, and even had a major influence on a Dark Shadows plot-line. I think it's worth reading for anyone who considers themselves a horror fan. A good old fashioned ghost story, no matter how literate, never goes out of style. And this one is one of the best.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It Came from the Drive-In

Betty Jane screamed and struggled to no avail against the brutish SS guards. "You'll pay for this! I'm a cheerleader at Denton High!"  

In a moment Betty Jane was stripped down to her white cone-shaped bra and panty-girdle and beige stockings. Flicking her riding crop, Elsie walked about her, studying Betty Jane closely. She playfully tugged at Betty Jane's blond ponytail.   - "Plan 10 From Inner Space" by Karl Edward Wagner

DAW Books February 1996. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Yikes! Poor Betty Jane! I hope her boyfriend can rescue her in time before those evil Nazi bastards have their way with her!

So being the right time of the year for completely over the top horror fun, It Came from the Drive-In, edited by Norman Partridge and Martin H. Greenberg (what anthology didn't this guy edit?) provides more than a fare share of the stuff your grandmother warned you about! This was one of those perfect anthologies that screamed at you from bookshelves of your favorite bookstore twenty-some years ago. Every story in this collection is a lurid homage to those awesome drive-in movies last seen sometime in the late seventies before video rental stores moved into the strip malls.

With titles like "Die, Baby, Die, Die, Die" and "The Blood on Satan's Harley" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Danged" you're guaranteed to find something you're not supposed to like in this collection. Partridge and Greenberg put together these all original stories in the true spirit of grindhouse glory.

Horror sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously, and my biggest gripe against it these past few years (decades!) is that it's lost its mojo. It's supposed to be like a carnival ride, like candy that rots your teeth. Horror is supposed to be that girl by the lockers who smokes Marlboros while mocking the kids on the football team. And the scruffier, naughtier and sexier, the better as far as I'm concerned. That's the stuff that pulls me in. I know a ton of people will probably disagree with me and that's cool, but I've always looked for the strings dangling that rubber vampire bat and skeleton instead of something that's just there to depress me or gross me out. These stories by Ed Gorman, Nancy A. Collins, Norman Partridge, etc. take that spirit of horror/science fiction and make it fun. It was this kind of spirit that...(shameless plug coming up!) I wrote my first published novel, SIRENS, with. Whether I succeeded or not is up to readers, what few I get, to decide.

I'm glad to see that this terrific anthology hasn't disappeared, as it looks like copies are still available out there. Short stories this fun are getting rare and it's my hope that their spirit keeps rattling those rusty chains in your attic for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Landlady - Constance Rauch

"Ugh. How in the world did we come by this?" Sam's revulsion was as instinctive as Jessica's. The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of a bygone stag magazine some thirty or forty years earlier. Its head was disproportionately larger than its body. Though it may at one time have had some kind of "human hair" wig, all that remained on the scalp was a multitude of pinholes, thus making its encephalitic head look like the work of some mad acupuncturist. The facial features, those of a coy, Kewpie doll, wore the plucked eyebrows and ruby-red cupid's-bow lips of the late twenties and early thirties.

Popular Library, June 1976

Well, it's the right time of year to read creepy novels and there are are few things scarier to me than creepy dolls. I'm also often creeped out by mannequins and ventriloquist dummies for that matter. And clearly I'm not alone since there are plenty of spooky movies and stories that feature creepy dolls. Much scarier than bizarre clowns holding balloons if you ask me.

I consider myself a pretty good horror fan, knowledgeable in all the classics and much of the obscure horror flicks and lit that is out there. I've seen a lot of movies, read a lot of books and have come to the personal opinion that most of contemporary horror fiction and film doesn't do much for me. Somewhere after the end of the 80's, horror took a turn for the formulaic gross-out, featuring serial killers for a long time. Then came the zombie apocalypse which seems to have over-run the horror market, much like elves and dragons took over the sci-fi market back in the seventies. There isn't a lot that I, as a horror fan, can turn to now that satisfies me the same way as staying up until after midnight to watch a scary movie on my old black and white TV did when I was a kid. So, when it comes to nourishing my taste for "horror" now, I mostly end up looking backward into the dusty paperbacks and movies of the past. Admittedly, most of it isn't scary, but there was a sense of spirit and soul to the movies and novels that I find is mostly (I'm not saying all) missing today.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded approach of setting up my thoughts on The Landlady, by Constance Rauch, published way back in June of 1976. I have to thank Will Errickson and his stellar blog Too Much Horror Fiction for re-introducing me to this one. Will is a far better reviewer of vintage 70's and 80's horror fiction than I am, so I encourage everyone to check his blog out. Oh yes, and while you're at it, if you're a fan of vintage horror do not miss Paperbacks From Hell.

I totally enjoyed The Landlady and blasted through most of it in a single day. It's very much a novel of its time (mid-seventies) providing a look into the social fabric of that decade with regard to marriage, class division, and manners. Jessica and Sam Porter and their infant daughter, Patience, move into an apartment in Wimbledon, New York, renting a section of a large house from eccentric old Mrs. Falconer. The setting is an obvious nod to The Stepford Wives and Burnt Offerings. The suburbs have proved a fertile inspiration for many horrific events, and the characters in Wimbledon give sly acknowledgement to such. I was also reminded of the Oxrun Station novels by Charles Grant. Jessica and Sam are clearly in a troubled marriage right from the get-go, and the meddling Mrs. Falconer wastes no time in pouncing on their fragile bond. Their home seems an open door to creepy goings on, including the discovery of a disgusting (and you'll learn just how disgusting) doll described above. Soon enough, Jessica learns that Mrs. Falconer has a long history and reputation of being a terror on her tenants. Locals look at the Falconer residence as a place of bad juju with a sordid past. Sam disappears into the city for long absences, leaving Jessica alone to deal with the paranoia surrounding their apartment. There is also the murder of a well-liked spinster in town that features prominently in the novel. Things get weirder and scarier for Jessica and Patience as events are piled on in thicker slabs of terror.

Readers today will have to re-adjust their expectations in taking on The Landlady. The climax will likely come off as ludicrous and the pacing may be too slow for many. The characters have a tendency to speak in well-mannered monologues that one would likely never hear today. But putting these minor critiques aside, I thought the book was a pretty good time. It's well written and has a way of pulling you into the plot once you give it a chance.