Archive for Halloween

The Haunt of Horror

The Haunting

I’ll come right out and say it — in my opinion, this is the best and most frightening horror movie ever made. I don’t know why it isn’t better known….

Anyway, this one was released in 1963 (There was a remake in 1999. Don’t watch it. It’s not good.), produced and directed by Robert Wise. The script was written by Nelson Gidding, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. The stars included Julie Harris as the frightfully nervous Eleanor Lance, Claire Bloom as hip lesbian Theodora, Richard Johnson as level-headed parapsychologist Dr. John Markway, and Russ Tamblyn as skeptical rich kid Luke Sanderson.

The plot involves Dr. Markway inviting a small group of people to Hill House, a notorious haunted house, in an attempt to prove the existence of ghosts. Hill House is not the sort of haunted house that brings headless spirits, levitating candelabra, or ladies in white — it’s a malevolent house, seemingly alive and capable of its own devious thoughts. It manifests itself as cold spots, unpleasant smells, and doors that are hinged just barely off-center, so they never stay open or closed for very long.

In the daylight, Hill House seems almost sane, but in the night, in the dark, it conspires to separate people, slams invisible cannonballs down the hallways, and giggles, moans, screams, weeps. Whatever walks there may walk alone, but it doesn’t want to be alone — it wants company in its madness, and it ruthlessly exploits every weakness to get what it wants.

Eleanor soon finds herself as the focus of the house’s obsessions — but we can’t tell if she’s really that upset by the attention. She’s emotionally unstable, desperate for friends and acceptance, but wracked by guilt because she thinks she may have let her elderly, overbearing mother die. And Hill House offers her a place where she’ll be loved and accepted forever — granted, she’d be surrounded by the mad cackling and shrieks of the dead, but maybe she really wants to be the center of all that attention.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Like I said, my very favorite horror movie. It doesn’t look like much — it’s in black and white, it doesn’t have a lot of big-name stars, and incredibly, it has almost no special visual effects. It accomplishes almost all of this wonderful terror with great cinematography and amazing sound effects. The mood, the creepiness, the genuine fear are all there in spades.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have monsters crawling through the walls, it doesn’t have chainsaws, it doesn’t have pea-soup vomit, it doesn’t have buckets of gore, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that everyone expects from horror films. It’s quiet, it’s subtle, it gets under your skin, it grabs that part of your brain that wakes up after nightmares and wants to cower underneath the blanket because this time it really might be real.

If you love horror movies and you haven’t yet seen this one, you owe it to yourself to watch it. Go find it, pop it into the DVD player, and find out what it’s all about. It’s almost Halloween, and you deserve some truly excellent scares.

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13 O’Clock

The 13th Hour by the Midnight Syndicate

When you love Halloween the way I do, you end up collecting just about anything you can that’s horror-related. Books, comics, art (well, not much art — that’s expensive), movies, and even music — I’ve got a pretty phenomenally great collection of spooky-themed music, everything from movie soundtracks, old country songs, and experimental classical music to Rob Zombie, Oingo Boingo, and the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets to Tom Waits, Roky Erickson, and Jonathan Coulton. But I think I’ve got the most complete albums by a group called the Midnight Syndicate.

The Syndicate specializes in horror movie soundtracks, usually for movies that don’t actually exist. They’re classified as goth instrumental, or dark ambient, or ethereal wave — it all breaks down to horror movies soundtracks, usually for movies that don’t actually exist. How’s that work? They basically pick a theme — vampires, insane asylums, evil carnivals, what have you — and then they put together some symphonic music scores, combined with a nice dose of sound effects, to come up with something plenty creepy.

They tend to get the most play right around Halloween. Partly because of the horror movie soundtrack stuff — partly because they let haunted attractions use their music without licensing fees. So if you’ve got a haunted house, haunted hayride, or haunted theme park in your area, there’s a decent chance that they’re playing Midnight Syndicate’s music while they’re scaring the pants off you.

My personal favorite of their albums is “The 13th Hour” which is about a trip through the haunted mansion of the evil Haverghast family. You start out with a short walk in the woods in the middle of the night when you come upon the old deserted house, open the door, and walk inside. From there, you get a musical tour through the mansion’s glories and horrors, through the lushly outfitted drawing room to the grimy basement to the family mausoleum. The ghosts you meet range from unnerving heavy breathers and moaners to more traditional ghosts all the way up to something that tries to tear the house down around your ears. Are you going to be able to escape? Or will you be spending the rest of eternity wandering these dark hallways?

Samples? I’m not giving you many — but “Fallen Grandeur” is a really good one. “Living Walls” is wonderfully creepy. “Grisly Reminder” is quiet and spooky. And “Hand in Hand Again” does great things with just an old record player and a few rumbling sound effects.

Verdict: A very enthusiastic thumbs up. This is almost perfect Halloween mood music. Pop this in the player while you’re doing housework, reading a book, surfing the web, driving to work, writing scary stories, waiting for trick-or-treaters, or anything else, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to start feeling the Halloween spirit.

It’s a wonderful, dark, ominous, ghost-filled album. I like almost all of Midnight Syndicate’s stuff, but this is definitely my fave. Go pick it up.

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Ghost World

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James

This is probably the oldest book I’m ever going to review, but I’m gonna do it partly because this is one of my favorite books of scary stories ever and partly because not nearly enough people know and love this book.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” was published back in 1904 and was the first collection of British writer and scholar M.R. James’ classic ghost stories, which included:

  • “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”
  • “Lost Hearts”
  • “The Mezzotint”
  • “The Ash-Tree”
  • “Number 13”
  • “Count Magnus”
  • “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'”
  • “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”

James’ stories, though sometimes spectacularly wordy to modern readers, were generally meant to be read aloud during Christmas celebrations — an old Victorian tradition had party-goers telling each other ghost stories at Christmas.

James’ protagonists all seem to share common traits — unassuming scholars with a high level of interest in antiquarianism — in other words, looking at old stuff. Heck, James pretty much invented the concept of the “antiquarian ghost story” — anyone who’s written anything similar in the decades since owes James a debt of gratitude.

The stereotypical beginning of the story would involve the main character having a fortnight or month-long holiday and traveling to some out-of-the-way, rural location to look at old churches. Either he’d be staying at a local inn or with an acquaintance — often someone who had a fantastically awesome library. After a few days of traipsing over the countryside, the protagonist finds himself exposed to supernatural forces — what kind of forces are rarely made explicit.

The previous paragraph probably sounds like I don’t like James’ stories, but I do, enormously. They’re predictable in some ways, but it’s a very enjoyable, comfortable kind of predictability. It’s enjoyably nostalgic to remember that people used to write these incredibly long and detailed descriptions of scenery, that amateur scholars used to be able to take long holidays just to go out in the country and look for old stuff, that people used to sit down and write letters so long and detailed that you could bind a few of them and sell them as books.

Even better than the joy of the setting, language, and mood, however, are the scares. James packs some damn good ones in here. His specialty is the off-camera fright — he suggests awful things and lets the reader fill in the blanks. Not that he backs away from more overt terrors — once the quiet stuff has done its work, James knows when to unleash the gory murders and the shrieks on the moors.

The book features a number of James’ best-known tales, including “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (note the extra quotation marks — James was quoting a line from a Robert Burns poem) — a story that actually manages to make the stereotypical bedsheet ghost legitimately scary. There’s also “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” a narrative, believed to be James’ very first ghost story, about an evil piece of artwork; “Lost Hearts,” a tale of experimentation and bloody murder; “The Mezzotint,” about an engraving that tells its own ghost story; “Number 13,” about a very unlucky and very strange hotel room; “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” in which a treasure hunter cracks a code that he thinks will lead to riches; and “The Ash-Tree,” a story about a witch’s curse and something horrible hidden inside an old tree.

This book was followed in 1911 by its sequel, sometimes called “More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” but really just called “More Ghost Stories.” The two books are sometimes combined into a single volume.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I do recommend this book highly, but I’ll warn you that it can be a bit of an uphill slog. Like a lot of older books, the writing can seem very dated and archaic. Part of this is a difference in writing styles, but I think James was also cultivating this, too — he was a dedicated antiquarian and academic himself, writing about other dedicated antiquarians and academics.

James nearly never translates the Latin passages in his stories, because of course, a university don would be fairly fluent in Latin. He overwrites his descriptions, partly because that was the style of the time, partly because he liked to draw readers in and make them comfortable before he started unleashing the spooks and goblins.

In the end, what makes this book really cool is the fact that, not only did James invent and perfect the literary ghost story, but he’s still considered the absolute master of that style — every horror writer from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King and beyond has read and loved — and probably emulated — James’ stories.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” is mostly out of copyright, so is available in many places online, but you should pick up a print copy, ’cause it’s still cool to own books.

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The Killer in Me

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

Is it a horror story? Is it a crime thriller? It’s a little of both, but more than anything else, this is a police procedural.

“Green River Killer” was written by Jeff Jensen and illustrated by Jonathan Case. Jensen is actually writing about his own father, Tom Jensen, a detective in the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state. Detective Jensen spent a good chunk of his career on the hunt for the infamous Green River Killer, and when the murderer was finally unmasked as a schlub named Gary Leon Ridgway, Jensen became part of the team working to identify as many of his victims as possible. To do that, as part of a plea agreement, Ridgway was given temporary housing inside the sheriff’s office in hopes of getting him to lead detectives to more bodies.

What follows is vastly frustrating for the detectives — Ridgway’s career as a serial killer spanned decades, and he simply wasn’t able to remember many details about all the women he’d killed. He said he wanted to help, but Jensen and the other investigators wondered if he was really a low-IQ mook with a bad memory or if he was just playing them for fools in hopes of getting away with his crimes.

We’re essentially dealing with two protagonists in this book. One is, obviously, Detective Jensen, devoting years of his life to hunting down and trying to understand one of history’s worst serial killers. But the other is Gary Ridgway himself, though few people would want to identify with him. Yeah, he’s a killer and necrophiliac who confessed to over 70 murders, he’s a complete sad-sack loser, dull-witted, pointlessly angry, a moral hypocrite on multiple levels — but you still identify with him to some degree, because he doesn’t know why he killed all those people either.

Granted, Ridgway isn’t a very likeable protagonist, but our natural empathy leads us to sympathize with him on a human level — and that leads to a few minor scares on its own — every time you feel a twinge of sympathy for Ridgway, for his fears and sorrows and stupid motivations, you wonder why on earth you’re identifying with this monster. Detective Jensen, thankfully, is a much more enjoyable character — smarter, funnier, more personable, more emotionally involved in the mysteries he’s charged with solving.

It’s not all murder and cop talk, though — there are lots of great human moments with the Jensen family or with the other officers. One of my favorite moments is when Jensen has to pass a physical exam to remain on the force — he has to subdue a fellow officer posing as a bank robber — a serious task for a middle-aged, out-of-shape detective. So Detective Jensen asks the officer to pretend he’s one of those nice bank robbers who won’t hurt him too badly. A great, funny moment — and it’s one of many that Jensen and Case use to break up the seriousness of the story.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a wonderfully-told cop story — really, a wonderfully-told human story, with massive amounts of empathy and understanding for the police, the victims, and even the killer himself. Beautifully written by Jeff Jensen, with great dialogue, and the art by Jonathan Case is precise, emotional, and charismatic.

Don’t think it’s all cop talk and quiet moments — there are some very chilling moments. The discoveries of bodies in various states of decay are often presented shockingly and frighteningly, Ridgway’s accounts of how he killed his victims and what he did to them afterwards will make your skin crawl, and the prologue, featuring Ridgway’s first murder attempt, is a masterpiece of suspense and fear.

This is a winner if you like serial killer stories, if you like crime thrillers, if you like police procedurals, if you like slice-of-life memoirs. Go pick it up.

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Madness Takes its Toll

It’s a week and a half ’til Halloween, the best holiday of the year, and I’m tired of reviewing regular comics. So let’s spend the rest of the month focusing on stuff that’s scary — whether it be comics, movies, or anything else. And heck, today, let’s start with a movie.

Session 9

This movie was directed by Brad Anderson, written by Anderson and Stephen Gevedon, and released back in 2001.

The movie’s characters include Gordon (Peter Mullan) who runs a small asbestos removal company and is under a great deal of pressure by a new baby and lower profits from his business. He employs Phil (David Caruso), his rock-steady partner who hates fellow employee Hank (Josh Lucas) for stealing his girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, one of the writers) is a former law school student who everyone agrees is too smart to be working such a lousy job, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon’s nephew, grateful to be working for his uncle.

They all get introduced to the Danvers State Mental Hospital, where they have just one week to clean up the asbestos at the site — an almost impossible task. Gordon hears voices calling his name. Everyone gets their heads filled with stories about lobotomies and murders and madness. Hank discovers a cache of money and valuables. And Mike starts skipping out on his duties so he can listen to old reel-to-reel tapes of a psychiatrist interviewing a patient named Mary who suffers from multiple personalities, some innocent, one very, very malign. There are nine tapes, each covering a single psychiatric session with Mary and the voices in her head.

Hank disappears. And everything goes to hell.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I like this movie a lot. It seems like it’s been specifically designed to appeal to my personal sense of what makes the scariest movies — not a lot of gory violence, no monsters jumping out of closets, just a lot of quiet, creepy stuff.

The introductory premise alone is enough to get many viewers squirming — asbestos can cause cancer and other serious conditions with the right exposures, but in popular culture, the risk is even higher and more dire. Just imagining working around such a dangerous mineral, always looking for a way to worm its way into your lungs to wreak havoc, can be enough to make many audience members nervous.

All the actors do a great job — nothing really spectacular, just good work by good actors. Even Caruso does a fine job — his eccentric performances in “CSI: Miami” are nowhere in evidence.

But the star of the film is, without a doubt, the Danvers Hospital itself.

It used to be a real mental hospital that operated from 1878 to 1992. It was said to be the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium, and thus for the Arkham Asylum from the Batman comics.

In the years since its closure, the facility has remained beautiful and stately (but also ominously threatening) on the outside — but on the inside, it became almost unspeakably decayed and claustrophobic — as pure a metaphor for madness as can be described. The building is a maze of peeling paint, cracked windows, and dark, shadowy corridors. Little work was needed to make the sets scarier — real-life age, neglect, decay, and dust had done the hard work for the set designers. The building looks genuinely terrifying, inside and out.

There are shocks and scares here, but they’re not the ones that come screaming down the hallways, scraping talons on the walls and slinging viscera over the landscape. These are quiet, whispering, intimate fears. They hide just on the other side of your own worries and quirks and distrusts and paranoias. Gordon, Phil, Mike, Hank, and Jeff have the same weaknesses we have, and any of us could share their fates.

It’s a wonderfully scary movie. Go pick it up.

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God Hates Everyone

Punk Rock Jesus #4

Gwen has been banned from the J2 compound and gone public in a big way, telling TV shows a lot of the dirty goings-on that the dastardly Rick Slate has engineered. The New American Christians invade the compound, with Gwen along for the ride so she can help rescue Chris. Unfortunately, Slate uses this as an excuse to murder Gwen, and when Thomas attacks Slate, he has the security chief fired. And the result on Chris is that he starts looking for how he can rebel — vast amounts of exercise, reading books on politics, religion, and science that Slate doesn’t approve of, listening to as much punk rock as he can. And when Chris volunteers to host the Grammys, what they get instead of a docile, telegenic, Jesus clone is a furious, foul-mouthed, mohawked, politically aware Jesus clone who’s looking to raise a punk rock army to blow America apart.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This just keeps getting better and better. Offensive? Bless its black little heart, you bet it is. Although, ya gotta say, a cloned, mohawked Jesus who bellows “Go f**k yourself! Jesus hates you!” is probably a lot less offensive when you consider all the mountains of awfulness he’s been put through so far. And Sean Murphy is doing such a great job with this story, I think I’ve got faith that it’s going to get better in the last two issues…

Halloween Eve

This Kickstarter-funded comic comes to us from writer Brandon Montclare and artist Amy Reeder. It focuses on Eve, a Halloween-hating wage slave who has the misfortune of working in a Halloween store. She’s rude to her coworkers, barely civil to customers, and is very angry that she’ll be required to dress in a costume on Halloween night. But when Eve has to stay late cleaning the store before Halloween, she soon finds the costumes around her coming to life and is thrown into a world full of monsters and ghosts. Will she be able to get into the Halloween spirit before time runs out?

Verdict: I hate to say it, but thumbs down. The art is entirely gorgeous, just like you’d expect from something Amy Reeder is working on. But I couldn’t get into the story at all, and I especially disliked the ending, which was far too abrupt and tidy, and Eve’s personality transfer, from angry and prickly to sweet and sentimental, doesn’t really make sense.

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All Hail Halloween!

Ladies and gentlemen, boils and ghouls, it’s the Happiest Day of the Year again. Whether you’re dressing up, handing out candy, going out to party, enjoying some horror movies, or just feasting upon the blood of the innocent, I hope you have a wonderful, spooky day.

And now, that great Halloween tradition: A whole bunch of thematically linked comics covers!

Everyone have a safe and fun holiday.

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Friday Night Fights: All-Wrasslin’ Monster Action!

Hey, it’s the last Friday before Halloween, and that means it’s time to check in with some extra-monstery violence! So let’s get right to it — from May 2010’s brilliant Hellboy in Mexico by Mike Mignola and Richard Corben, here’s Hellboy facing off with the masked vampire luchador Camazotz!

If there’s one thing I love about Halloween, it’s the way it brings together demonic monster-fighters and vampire luchadors.

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Your Halloween Reading List

Novelist and former comics writer Neil Gaiman had a great idea about a week ago — a new Halloween tradition, where people give each other scary books to celebrate the holiday.

I like scary books a lot. I like this idea a lot.

The problem with it is that Gaiman didn’t think it up sooner — I sure didn’t have time to buy books (or send some of my own? You mean give up any books? Man, that’s crazy.), and I definitely didn’t have enough money to buy books for all my friends. Or even all my friends who like scary books.

So though I wasn’t able to buy you a book — and make no mistake, I was going to buy you, yes you, personally, a book — maybe I can recommend a few books you could go read.

So here are some of my favorite scary books and authors, in no particular order. There’s still plenty of time to make it to a bookstore, to the library, or to order them from an online seller.

  1. Edgar Allan Poe. He has a ridiculous number of awesome stories and poems, and it’s surprising how many people have never read any of them. Collections of his complete stories are pretty common out there and not too expensive.
  2. H.P. Lovecraft. I know, I go on and on about Lovecraft, but he’s the second most influential horror writer out there, after Poe, so he’s definitely worth reading. The best intro to Lovecraft is a book called “The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre” — it’s got all of his best stories all in one place.
  3. Ray Bradbury. I can’t pick just one. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is the very best dark fantasy novel ever. “The Halloween Tree” is part fantasy, part meditation on the origins of Halloween from around the world. Both are extremely worth reading.
  4. Stephen King. I prefer King’s short stories to his novels, and my favorites of his short story collections are “Night Shift” and “Skeleton Crew.” If you love horror and have never read his nonfiction “Danse Macabre,” you really should do so.
  5. Clive Barker. Like King, I prefer Barker’s short stories. If you can find his “Books of Blood,” get them. “The Hellbound Heart” and “Cabal” are also good.
  6. M.R. James. “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.” The guy wrote some of the best ghost stories ever. They might have some dated language and style you’d have to dig through, but they’re absolutely worth digging through.
  7. “The House with a Clock in its Walls” by John Bellairs. All of his books are fun and creepy for young readers, but this one is particularly good. It’s midway between a young adult novel and a gothic horror story — all about a spooky old house, owned by not-so-spooky wizards, and the magical clock hidden inside that’s ticking down the seconds to the end of the world.
  8. “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. Of all the old gothic horror novels out there, this one holds up the best. It’s still spooky, still scary, still fun to read.
  9. “The King in Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers. This book was a big influence on Lovecraft. It’s full of weird, surreal, unearthly, psychological horror.
  10. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz, with extremely scary illustrations by Stephen Gammell. If you know much about urban legends or campfire stories, a lot of these will be familiar to you. The illustrations, however, will absolutely scare you out of a year’s growth.
  11. “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski. The primary story involves a normal suburban house that is slightly larger on the inside than it is on the outside — and it’s gradually growing even larger. I almost hesitate to recommend this one — I loved reading it, but it may not be for everyone. It has multiple stories running at once, characters that may or may not be real even within the narrative itself, and a vast number of wild typographical stunts — sometimes the text is upside down, diagonal, backwards, running in a spiral. It takes a lot of patience to read, but it’s very rewarding and fun.
  12. “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. The single best haunted house story ever, and one of the most frightening horror books around.

And one more for a solid Unlucky Thirteen. This is “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold. I think it’s my favorite horror story ever. It’s about 84 years old, and I’ve always thought of it as the Official Horror Story for Newspaper Reporters.

That’s what I got, folks. Go hit up the bookstores and treat yourself to some terror this Halloween.

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Friday Night Fights: Monster Mash!

It’s the beginning of a wonderful Halloween weekend, and that means we’re going to have to make sure tonight’s Friday Night Fights is thematically appropriate.

So we’re going with something from Mike Mignola — specifically “The Wolves of Saint August,” originally published in 1994 and reprinted in Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others. Without further ado, here’s Hellboy fighting a werewolf.

Hope y’all all have a great Halloween, with lots of candy and fun and costumes and bloody human sacrifices to dark eldritch gods. Ahh, those old Halloween traditions are always the best…

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