Archive for the Forbidden Tomes Category

Forbidden Tomes: TO WALK THE NIGHT by WILLIAM SLOANE

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

It’s been quite some time since I published a Forbidden Tomes review, and I can think of no better way to revive the tradition than to discuss my latest cosmic read. This story is one of many that found new life last year, finding a place amongst authors like Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell and Thomas Ligotti. Yet it sets itself apart from those by creating a style that I find wholly unique. Our tome today is William Sloane’s quiet tale of monstrosity called TO WALK THE NIGHT. 

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The plot is straight out of Lovecraft – after finding their old professor burning to death under impossible circumstances, two college friends become involved in the professor’s enigmatic wife. When one falls in love with her, the other succumbs to unnamable fear, and unravels a truth too horrible to mention.

Lovecraft might have written this, but his version would have been drastically different from Sloane’s. The story is set when the narrator returns to his friend’s home to tell the man’s father the truth of his death. From the first sentences, we are instilled with a sense of tragedy, but also dread. Lovecraft’s stories have always been fairly emotionless, evoking nothing but fear. Sloane sets himself apart by infusing his terror with human sadness. It managed to draw me in from the first page, and when the fear came into play, I was already vulnerable.

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Sloane moves his plot along at a quiet, patient motion – most of the scenes are utterly mundane, but with this mystery dangling over us, they become uncomfortable. Those who want instantaneous monsters and tentacles need not look here. Our characters are the centerpiece of the story. But through masterful descriptions of landscape and memory, Sloane creates a sense of smallness that haunts them – and us – throughout the everyday interactions. He creates fear out of almost nothing, a lesson today’s writers have not yet learned.

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By the time we are ready for the revelation, set brilliantly in the vast desert of the Southwest, we already have guessed at most of the elements. Sloane still manages to surprise us by bringing back that tragedy. At its core, this becomes a story of loss, loneliness, and the inability to accept the ‘other.’ Like the best of horror, it is about outcasts. The cosmic notion of a vast, impenetrable universe only amplifies this sense of sadness. I was chilled by his story, but also felt heartache, and when horror can do that to me, I can’t help but love it. Sloane chooses small details to frighten the reader, but also to bring across that tragedy, and make it visceral.

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Due to its slow pace, it will not please everyone. But for those who can be patient and are willing to accept the human elements, there is a majorly entertaining read waiting for them. We must thank NYRB for re-releasing Sloane’s novels. This is a lost gift to horror fans, and a reminder of how much power the genre can hold.

Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

Forbidden Tomes: THE GREAT GOD PAN by ARTHUR MACHEN

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2016 by smuckyproductions

We all know and bow down to Lovecraft and his pal Cthulhu. But where did that horror master find his inspiration? This early tale of cosmic terror is hard to find in print, which is a dreadful shame, because its evocation of what would become Lovecraft’s themes is soul-shaking. I’m talking about it today, though, because Valentine’s Day is coming up – and this is possibly one of the least romantic stories I’ve ever read. This cosmic warning is called THE GREAT GOD PAN.

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Now, by today’s standards, this story is pretty sexist in its setup and conclusion. This must be taken into account when analyzing it by the standards of its time. It begins with two doctors preparing a woman (willingly, sort of) for a strange procedure: they will open a part of her brain that will allow her to see the massive truth of the universe, the Great God Pan. Naturally it goes about as badly as it could. But it doesn’t end there – years later, one of the doctors hears uncanny tales of a woman who has the power to ruin the lives of those she touches by driving them insane. And the test subject happened to get pregnant after seeing the Great God himself. Is the child of Pan roaming the earth, and if so, what does that mean for humanity?

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Arthur Machen poses this story as just that, a series of stories told by secondary sources. Our main character witnesses nothing but the procedure – everything else comes to him through rumors and tales. This is confusing for the reader at first, but as the pieces fit into place, it creates an atmosphere of deadly mystery and paranoia. We can’t see the Great God or the evil woman, but we know she’s out there. And her intentions could not be more evil. As we hear of her deeds – ruining men with her sexual power, holding dark rituals, driving children insane with fear – we come to fear her, too.

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The cosmic elements elevate the story from mildly intriguing to terrifying, a terror that lingers. Machen’s opening idea, of this entity that exists in a nether region of space, is eerie – but giving this entity agency is nightmarish. And because of the format, we never get close enough to reconcile this force, put a face or size to it. That is the genius of this story, and the reason it still holds power. If we saw the Great God, we would know its limitations; instead, we are left with only second-hand accounts, all of which are too rattled to give a full image. As Lovecraft said, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.

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I love this type of story for its atmosphere and implications, the sense of overwhelming dread inherent in the events. Forcing characters to face an irreconcilable monster, when done right, makes for fascinating insights. And it also happens to be a perfect anti-Valentine’s Day statement. We witness marriages imploding, demonic births, and sexual manipulation, all under the sway of a massive evil force from beyond the veil. What a better way to comfort oneself about a lack of significant other? I’d much rather be single forever than date the Great God. So stick it, Hallmark.

That, of course, is a secondary concern – manufactured holidays aside, THE GREAT GOD PAN is an astoundingly influential work. Like “The King in Yellow” and “The Willows,” it set the stage for Lovecraft, Ligotti, Barker, and so many others. Read it and tremble in the face of Pan himself.

Forbidden Tomes: SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER by THOMAS LIGOTTI

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2016 by smuckyproductions

It’s a terrible shame that so many great genre authors active in the 70s and 80s – Ted Klein, Karl Edward Wagner, and Kathe Koja, to name a few – have gone out of print and are so difficult to find. This past year, Penguin rereleased a collection of cosmic horror stories that had beforehand been flying under the radar. These stories come from the warped, wicked, and brilliant mind of Thomas Ligotti – the first of which is called SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER.

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I couldn’t think of a more appropriate title. These stories range in setting – from mundane suburbs to decaying side streets, and even surreal dreamscapes – but all touch on a deep nihilistic brand of horror that even Lovecraft doesn’t touch. Most of Ligotti’s characters are hyper-intelligent outcasts who long for a different existence, perhaps in another dimension. Their searches bring them to horrible truths that grant them their wish in the worst possible way.

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Placed in dark Expressionistic streets and warped buildings (perhaps echoing the decay of Ligotti’s hometown Detroit), populated by grotesque humans and not-unconscious puppets, Ligotti’s stories are uncanny from the first sentence. It is hard to recognize anything within them as worldly, though many of them feature elements that must have come from our present time. This removed reality is like a Tim Burton set left to its own rot-filled devices. It is the perfect environment for the transgressive horror that presents itself: horrors of the mind that force us to question our own perceptions.

Ligotti’s writing is dense and philosophical, much more so than your average horror story. At times this style can become hard to decipher; but for the most part, it elevates the terror to a mental level that makes it impossible to shake. The nightmares within these stories stem from world-bending theories – of alternate lives, killers who absorb their victims, and madness that takes physical form. And the protagonist never escapes the evil they encounter.

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There is a true sense of madness as well, embedded in the hyper-intelligent prose – a sense that Ligotti himself has witnessed these horrors himself. He transcends the influence of Lovecraft in this way. The protagonists are not only fighting a cosmic terror from another reality; they are battling their own deteriorating minds, which become the most fearsome villain. With corporeal traits – alcoholism and insomnia being the main two – to offset their intangible mental decline, these characters become close to home. It’s easy to imagine their breakdowns as our own.

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With this unique brand of cosmic horror, Ligotti’s stories present a devastating and terrifying panorama of monsters. His imagery shocks and his ideas rattle. It is unlike any horror prose I’ve encountered before, and I am thrilled that I can recognize him now; and now that I know him, I cannot forget him. Like his protagonists, Ligotti opens mental doors into ideas that may be better left unseen. But to see them is incredible.

Forbidden Tomes: THE WOMAN IN BLACK by SUSAN HILL

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Around this time of year, everyone loves a good ghost story. Most of them are suitable for some momentary shivers, perhaps a glance over the shoulder, and a hearty (albeit nervous) laughter at the supernatural. But there are some ghost stories that leave a lingering chill. Their fears extend past the fun of fiction into something darker, more clinging. One such ghost story is Susan Hill’s classic, THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

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Many people have seen this story done on screen, either in 1989 or recently in 2012. The lucky ones have witnessed it on stage. For those who haven’t, the tale goes forward as such: an ambitious young solicitor travels to the distant, foggy climes of Eel Marsh House in order to sort the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. But something else lingers in Eel Marsh, and the neighboring town. When the young man sees a mysterious woman dressed in black standing in the local graveyard, and meets undue paranoia from the townspeople, he begins to unearth a horrible secret.

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Susan Hill sets herself up with delightful Gothic elements from the get-go. Recounted by the young man several decades later, the story feels like one told by a campfire, but his reluctance to tell it gives a feeling of unknown dread. The landscapes are wonderfully mist-shrouded and dreary, the house itself is gloomy as one could want, and the mystery surrounding it all has an air of danger: you don’t really want to know the truth. The image of the titular woman, wrapped in black and almost skeletal, is chilling. Then the real horror begins.

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Even in the films (preferring the 1989 version over the recent adaptation, though that one is decent too), the story conveys several layers of fear. There is the spooky apparition, the somber house; but then there is the terror of the townspeople, who refuse to discuss the woman in black. We get the sense that something awful lingers beneath the creepy trappings. Hill delivers on this, too. The revelation of the woman in black is the stuff of nightmares. It goes beyond a simple chilly encounter, branching into almost existential horror, because there is no escaping it.

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It’s difficult to discuss this darkness without ruining the surprise, so I’ll leave it at this: for those who like their horror with a dose of gravity, “The Woman in Black” is ideal. It will have you looking in the distance a bit too hard, searching for the form of a specter with a terrible prophecy.

Forbidden Tomes: HAUNTED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Short stories were arguably the first great American literary tradition, with Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne contributing groundbreaking tales that still resonate. It is no question that many of these stories at least dabbled in the Gothic. This tradition has lessened over the years, but there are some contemporary authors who have not forgotten. Joyce Carol Oates is one of them, and she contributes to this tradition brilliantly with her collection HAUNTED.

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I talk about Oates a lot. That’s because I think she’s a genius. These stories showcase her ability to render a typical American scene – dollhouses, Christmas dinner, and Thanksgiving shopping, to name a few – in visceral prose that makes them disturbingly wrong. Her detailed and ruthless eye skewers the everyday with macabre observations, warping things until they are almost beyond recognition. Almost. Her stories are all the more chilling because they rarely stray into the supernatural, drawing all of their horror from things that could – and have – happened.

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With these details Oates explores a number of themes that may, in another author’s hands, be commonplace – but not here. There are four sections of stories, and each deals with a broader, recognizable topic: aging, birth, sex, and finally, death. Oates handles these with just the right touch of grotesque, avoiding the garish, and brings them to light in a way that feels revelatory. In the title story, a girl’s childhood ends abruptly with a nebulous trauma and her friend’s death; “Extenuating Circumstances” and “Don’t You Trust Me” both display the horror to which mothers are subjected; and “Martyrdom” makes us question the nature of humanity in the most horrific way.

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In Oates’s beautiful but glaring prose, the above topics become magnified. Her vivid rendering is what makes her ‘normal’ environments so disturbing. Because Oates is also the master of the unreliable narrator, these worlds become even more unreliable. But, like the best horror fiction, their extremes bring out truths that would otherwise be lost.

On a very specific note, the penultimate story – “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” – presents a delight for horror fans in its reimagining of “Turn of the Screw.” Seen from the perspective of the ghosts themselves, who cannot reconcile their place between life and death, and instead taunt the children whom they loved. This story alone is reason to explore Oates’s collection.

Take these grotesque visions of a world we all know and plunge into them. On cold evenings, the rotted truths that Oates presents will make a particular mark.

Forbidden Tomes: BELOVED by TONI MORRISON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

America’s past is full of horrors. Red stains that we have tried to expunge. But while scrubbing away the colors may dull them, it only embeds them deeper into the fibers, where they fester. It is rare to find a book or a film that honestly and completely explores these stains; and it’s no surprise that one of the greatest examples comes from Toni Morrison, in her powerhouse novel BELOVED.

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Set in the years just after the Civil War, this novel acts as two things: a historical thriller and a ghost story. It occupies two times, weaving the narrative of a woman who escaped slavery, and the aftermath of her family some years later. They live in a house haunted by the ghost of the woman’s baby. When a man whom the woman knew before she escaped comes to visit her, along with a mysterious young girl who may not be human, the woman is forced to confront the horrific past that she may not be able to reconcile.

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Morrison is an undersung genius in the art of the metaphorical Gothic. Her novels are populated by strange, but deeply human, characters – people like Milkman and Pilate in “Song of Solomon,” Sethe and her haunted family in this story. These slightly surreal elements are intriguing from an entertainment perspective, but by the time the reader has become interested, Morrison has already unleashed the full blow of her disguise. Her fantastical elements always stand for something else. She never undercuts them by retracting from their reality, though – in the world of the story, they exist, but they also represent something in our physical world.

The ghosts in this novel, amongst things both literal and nebulous, stand for past trauma. Sethe and her living daughter, along with the supporting characters, are haunted by the horror that their mind cannot escape: the nightmares of slavery. Morrison doesn’t spoon-feed these metaphors to the reader, though. She embeds them in the terror, making the reader feel every wrong done until they can’t deny it. Her vivid details serve a more horrifying purpose because, to many people, they were reality.

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This is a deeply important novel. Morrison’s ghosts are those of our own history – and they are not at rest. ‘Beloved’ is far from a traditional scary story, but it embodies the truth of horror so completely, and digs up terrifying graves that were never really buried. The aura of doom that pervades the characters’ lives is a doom that exists. For that reason, it is impossible to look away, or to forget. This book’s truths are more haunting than any phantom.