Archive for victorian

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.

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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 (Halloween edition): GHOST STORIES of M.R. JAMES

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

One of the most ancient, and perhaps overdone, horror subgenres is the ghost story. No matter how oversaturated the market becomes, we always look for truly spine-tingling and chilling tales of the supernatural. For the best offerings of this tradition, I argue that it’s best to go back to the roots – those creepy Victorians, and most wonderful of all are the GHOST STORIES OF M.R. JAMES.

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With his first two collections in particular, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories, James explores what happens when innocent explorers stumble on something from the other side. Usually the consequences are a fainting spell and a good shock, but sometimes the ghosts are more dangerous. Set in crumbling cathedrals, dreary manor homes and drafty seaside inns, his stories are full of the best sort of atmosphere. Their protagonists are hardly unique or memorable, but what happens to them in these spooky locales is always hard to forget, especially late at night.

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James is one of those authors who, if you haven’t actually read a story of his, you’ve seen them referenced or redone. If he’s not the inventor, he’s the popularizer of the white-sheeted, object-cursing, revenge-seeking spirit in popular culture. His stories are simple and often tongue-in-cheek, but there’s something about their subtlety and lack of grotesque flair that makes them far too easy to believe. James is blunt about his supernatural occurrences, which makes them all the more frightening.

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By today’s standards his images are basic and silly – but he handles them in a way that makes the horror visceral and undeniable. It’s worth noting as well that James introduced some of our standard ghost tropes, too – evil dolls, man-hungry spiders, and child demons, amongst others. His almost sardonic treatment of these images is strikingly modern. He has a great sense of sadistic humour, torturing his audience with gossipy grotesqueries and blurted horrors. One can imagine him watching the reader from afar, smirking in delight as the goosebumps rise.

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His best stories – such as “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “A Warning to the Curious” – have sustained amazingly, still frightening after all these decades. Their wind-swept climes and shadowy twists are best navigated in the dark of an October night – they were traditionally read by James in pitch-black rooms as an after-dinner form of entertainment. And somehow, across the crawl of time, his autumnal voice still echoes.