Halloween

Obligatory Halloween Post!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Let’s talk about books before I dress up like a mouse and get my squeak on.

For the past few years, I’ve started the wonderful tradition of reading a classic horror novel each year leading up to this wickedest of holidays. This is an especially delightful tradition if you follow these simple steps: 1) curl up next to a crackling fireplace with your horror novel, 2) make sure to stock up on your Halloween candy, 3) don’t forget the apple cider.

I started this two years ago, with Stephen King’s The Shining. Doctor Sleep, The Shining‘s sequel, was about to be released. The timing was perfect. This book is an absolute must for horror novel lovers.

the shining

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”

–Stephen King, The Shining

Last year, I went for Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. This was, dare I say it, better than The Shining. It was horribly, dastardly scary. And if you are a cover geek, seriously google image search The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House. Both books have had incredible covers through the years.

the haunting of hill house

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.

― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

And this year, I’m reading Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Stephen King has referred to it as one of the best of the supernatural wave of horror that also carried The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (uhm, why are horror movies always more famous than the novels they are adapted from?). I’m not impressed yet, I’m not even sure what is going on. But I have high hopes.

ghost story

The mind was a trap–it was a cage that slammed down over you.

― Peter Straub, Ghost Story

None of these, I have to say, compare to the scariest book I read this year. That was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about her relationship with serial killer Ted Bundy. Rule, a true crime author who passed away this year, worked long nights at a suicide prevention hotline alone with Bundy in 1971. They stayed in touch after the job, and Rule eventually came to realize Bundy may be a suspect in the killings she was writing about. The coincidence is a writer’s dream and nightmare all bundled into one.

I unfortunately finished this book, which included descriptions of the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University, just before it was announced there was a prowler on the loose who had been breaking into women’s apartments in my complex in Scottsdale. The combo of Ted Bundy in my mind and a prowler on the streets did not make for well-rested nights. Luckily, they caught the prowler and with doors and windows locked, I moved on to my next read.

stranger beside me

Just be careful,” a Seattle homicide detective warned. “Maybe we’d better know where to find your dental records in case we need to identify you.”
I laughed, but the words were jarring; the black humor that would surround Ted Bundy evermore begun.

― Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story

Time for me to put on my whiskers, dear readers. Remember, if it is a part of someone’s culture, it’s not a costume! And save some candy for the kids!

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Halloween Treat Alert! Ghastle and Yule by Josh Malerman

Malerman’s Ghastle and Yule is the sort of calorie-free Halloween treat you can’t miss. It’s less than a dollar, so the price is right.

The Spookiest Novels I’ve Read

Halloween is just around the corner, and inquiring minds around the book-o-sphere are asking, “What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?” Lists of scary stories are being passed out like Halloween candy. LitReactor even has the “5 Scariest Grammar Issues.” Adding to that festively dark spirit, here are a few of my favorite spooky novels.

1. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird boxI reviewed this back in July, and it still stands out as one of the scariest books I’ve read in quite a while. I highly recommend listening to this as an audiobook, as it features a world in which people go mad by catching a glimpse of otherworldly creatures.

In Bird Box land, you hunker down at home, hiding behind windows covered with with mattresses and blankets. You need to protect yourself from seeing whatever thing is outside. When you must go out for supplies, you go out blindfolded, fumbling, and very afraid. This book is agonizing in some places, as it presents characters with countless fears they must face blinded.

2. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

house of leavesThe best kind of spooky novel doesn’t make sense in places, and MZD’s House of Leaves creates a world in which nothing is quite right. There are layers here, and each one of them hangs like a crooked picture on a wall of madness.

First, we meet photojournalist Will Navidson and his family, who have moved into a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He films his ventures into the home’s more bizarre aspects.

In the second layer of the story, Navidson’s film is analyzed by Zampanò, a blind academic who devoted much of his work to studying the documentary “The Navidson Record.”

The third layer is that of Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon Zampanò’s notes, and thus the story of Will Navidson and his home, and begins to assemble those notes into a narrative, often including his own story and thoughts.

Got all that? As Truant falls deeper into the house, you’ll find yourself falling too…

3. The End of Alice and Appendix A by A.M. Homes

the end of alice collageNot all spooky things are creatures or possessed houses, and The End of Alice is more terrifying than any ghost story precisely because it talks about human evils.

A pedophile (nicknamed Chappy, a reference to a childhood love of Chapstick) has been locked away for years, and begins receiving letters from a catty young woman who claims to also be a pedophile. Through this young woman’s questions and her own stories, Chappy walks us through his long and dark hall of memories, each one building up to a more brutal, sad, and sadistic result than the last.

Appendix A, for those of you who really want to get freaked out, is a collection of (obviously fictional) evidence surrounding Chappy’s crime: his confession, some self-portraits he created, evidence bagged from the crime, and photos of his very disturbed family.

A.M. Homes is a beautiful, lyrical writer, so the concept manages to work without being unbearable to read. However, this is the most disturbing book I’ve read, and it definitely doesn’t have a happy ending. If you aren’t looking for something gruesome and grim, choose another from the list.

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThis is my current spooky Halloween read, and thus far it is not disappointing. It is, in fact, totally epic. It is thought to be the best haunted house story ever written, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Montague hopes to investigate the paranormal activity at Hill House, a ghost hunter before his time, and he invites three young guests to stay in the house with him. Shirley Jackson is a master of creating mood, and the suffocating, nauseating mood in Hill House as its first new resident steps in, summoned in a letter by Dr. Montague, is unforgettable.

Those who have seen the movies know it all goes downhill from there.

5. Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez

syndrome eI’m going to be talking about Franck Thilliez’s Syndrome E more in the next coming months as there is a sequel coming out in January, Bred to Kill.

I think this book hasn’t seen its peak in popularity yet, as there’s some buzz about it being made into a movie by writer Mark Heyman, who penned Black Swan. Uhm, amazing.

If there’s something spooky in a book and it isn’t a house, you can bet it is going to be an old film. In Syndrome E, an old film is blinding people who watch it. Two detectives converge on the case from very different directions; they uncover all sorts of dark and twisted stuff all over the world. I’m not going to give it away here.

Go get your read on, you dark and twisted children of the night!

Review – Night Film by Marisha Pessl

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“‘Anyway,’ he added softly, ‘a man’s ghoulish shadow is not the man.'”  –Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a big, bold statement of a book; released at the perfect time, right before Halloween when everyone is craving a scary story told in the dark.  Pessl brings us “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” in Stanislas Cordova, the film producer at the core of the novel.  He’s described as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.”  Cordova’s films are outlawed (an inspired copycat killed a girl in imitation of one film), and bootlegged “black tapes” are passed among obsessive Cordovites.  Renegade underground screenings of Cordova’s films take place, and fans flock to a secret website where they post their darkest secrets as well as the most mundane bits Cordova trivia.  The film producer’s beautiful but haunted daughter Ashley commits suicide, and a ragged journalist past his prime, Scott McGrath, decides to look into the death.  McGrath reluctantly picks up a few delightful sidekicks, and they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding Cordova, his family, and his films.

I was originally listening to Night Film as an audiobook, and I realized I must be missing something as at times the narrator seemed to be reading captions from photos and newspaper articles.  I discovered a used copy of Night Film at Diesel Books for $8 (score!) and was glad I did.  The book features photos of Ashley before her death, articles and pictures from the New York Times on Cordova and his films, and other pieces of evidence displayed as they are discovered.  Until they add a .pdf to the audiobook, I’d recommend grabbing an actual copy of the book to avoid missing out on the full story.  There is additional media built around the book, including an app called the Night Film Decoder and Night Film found footage on the web.  I’m sure cynics will see this as too much hype, but I saw it all as a great addition to the story.

Night Film is reminiscent of the post-modern masterpiece House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the terrifying European hit Syndrome E by Frack Thilliez. All of these books are built around creepy (and nonexistent) films; in House of Leaves, a documentary about a house with shifting boundaries is studied, and in Syndrome E, a terrifying old film is found and blinds a man who watches it.  I’m not sure why reading imagined documentation is so irresistable and terrifying.  In Night Film, Pessl takes care to blend Cordova and his horrors into our current culture, pointing out details of the films in which fans have found meaning.  This careful interweaving of fiction and reality heightens fear by making stories feel real.  All these imagined dark films are made all the more terrifying by people’s reactions to watching them, which in the real world we just don’t see or experience.  A man begins to lose his mind when reading about the documentary in House of Leaves;  Cordova’s films are “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror.”

I haven’t read Pessl’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, even though it was highly praised. It is now at the top of my list of books to get next.  The plot of Night Film is fantastic, but being able to place the looming figure of Cordova believably at the center of our world took some serious writing talent.  Pessl has wit, and displays it Night Film‘s moments of much-needed comic relief.  The Night Film Quotes page on Goodreads is full of memorable gems.  Night Film is the best kind of horror novel, with just the right amount of brains and brawn on board.

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